Butternut squash fusilli and cheese

It seems appropriate to resurrect this blog right after Halloween. Actually, I refuse to believe that November is here and I’m smothering my denial under lots and lots of crappy Netflix horror movies. 2015 went by too quickly, so let’s let fall sleep in and drink too much coffee in bed before it turns into winter.

We had our third annual (not much of a record yet, but I’m not planning to stop it anytime soon) Halloween party last weekend, and lots of friends raved over this bastardized, butternut riff on mac and cheese, enough to make me get over my laziness and post it here for the world (or just handful of people) to see. I might even make this for Thanksgiving again because it was that good. Enjoy!

(P.S. my recipe makes 8ish servings, so feel free to halve…although leftovers are killer).

(P.P.S. adapted from Pinch of Yum, whose recipes never work for me, but this one kept me from unsubscribing!, and Blue Apron)


1 large butternut squash

2 large yellow onions

500g fusilli pasta (I used this bronze stuff to which sauce is supposed to..adhere better. Let’s ignore the grammar of that phrase and get to the recipe already)

4 tablespoons salted butter (Kerrygold fo’ life!)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (plus more, for drizzling over the squash)

1 tablespoon light brown muscovado sugar

2 tablespoons plain white flour

2 cups whole milk

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

paprika-salt (or paprika and sea salt)

salt and pepper

2 cups extra mature cheddar, shredded (shred your own, don’t buy the pre-shredded stuff, which is good for nachos but not much else)


Preheat oven to 400F.

  1. Cook the noodles a few minutes less than package directions (which for me was 9 minutes rather than the recommended 12). Drain and set aside.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of butter and the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Peel and cut the onions in half, and then slice each half into thin slices. Add them, along with the brown sugar and a pinch of salt, to the pan, sautéing over low heat until fragrant and golden, about 20-30 minutes. If the onions stick, add a splash of water.
  3. Meanwhile, peel the squash and remove the guts. Curse a little, because preparing butternut squash is the worst. Remind yourself of the end goal. Continue.
  4. Cut the squash into small 1-inch cubes. Place squash on parchment-lined baking sheet and coat with olive oil. Sprinkle with paprika salt (or, paprika and salt, if you don’t have 500 salt mixes like I do). Roast until soft and a bit caramelized, about 40 minutes.
  5. Just before the squash is done roasting (lots of multi-tasking!), heat the remaining butter in the saucepan. Add flour and stir until the flour dissolved and it smells toasty (about a minute). Whisk in the milk until lump-free. Stir in a cup of cheese and about half of the squash, and blend with an immersion blender. If you don’t have one of those, buy one. Or use a food processor, at your own risk, and preferably after the sauce has cooled a little.
  6. In a 9 x 13-inch pan lined with aluminum foil, throw in your pasta and remaining squash cubes together. Add the caramelized onions. Add the sauce, spreading it around to cover the top of your creation.
  7. Sprinkle with remaining cup of cheddar cheese and cover the thing in aluminum foil. Bake for 15 minutes, uncover, and bake 5 more minutes to get the top nice and crispy.

Marrakech: Day 3

By Monday, I’d recovered enough to make a more adventurous trek around the city. Scouring travel websites and blogs while bedridden the day before, I found myself interested in hiring a tour guide for a few hours to gain an insider’s perspective of the city (and honestly, to help navigate the maze of the souks). I came across this post and was intrigued by the custom experiences that Khadija offers, so I sent her an email on Sunday night with a plea to show us Marrakech from a local woman’s view.

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I woke up far too early (for a vacation schedule – 8 am) on Monday morning, and as luck would have it, Khadija had written back to me with a few ideas (and links to blog posts) on what she could offer. My wish list included a trip to the Jardin Majorelle, the Medersa Ben Youssef, and of course, some shopping. I added that this would probably be too ambitious for an afternoon tour, and wrote that I’d appreciate anything and everything she could show us.

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(Photo courtesy of Khadija – she has a great eye!)

We started off in the Jardin Majorelle, and I immediately felt like an impoverished student in my jeans and sneakers and gigantic Trader Joe’s tote, next to the glamorous guide. It turns out she often shows diplomats around, speaks at worldwide events (on what it’s like to be a Moroccan woman in a sort-of-Arab, sort-of-not culture – far more complicated than I can explain, I’m sure), and has given tours to the likes of Gorbachev and his daughter, and Tom Cruise’s family (and now us).

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(Khadija gave the designer Fendi a tour, and he was apparently inspired to use the above color combination in one of his handbags. Fancy!)

Our guide gave us wonderful insight on things we wouldn’t have learned on our own (or, at least without hours of research) such as why everything in the gardens was this vibrant shade of blue (I don’t remember), why Berber is sort of a derogatory term for the indigenous people of the country (hint: the fact that it’s so similar to “Barbarian” is not a coincidence), and why you should always bargain for at least 1/3 off of the asking price of anything (probably because they mark it up 1/3 for tourists, in hindsight).

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The next stop was the Medersa Ben Youssef, the largest Islamic college in Morocco (thanks Wikipedia) and now a historic site. The architecture was stunning and the quiet, shaded courtyard provided a welcome relief from the afternoon shopping crowds.

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Somehow, we managed to check off everything on my list, and more – we met wonderful shop owners, stopped by a diasbled women’s collective that sold handmade bags and other cloth items (I picked up a bracelet and tea cozy shaped like a chicken – you know, something every Moroccan tea pot needs around its handle).

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(This was an unexpected detour between shops – we got to see the communal oven where families bring their dough to be baked into bread. What a nice idea).

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John talked me into buying a rug — sorry, not a mere “carpet,” as our salesman stated, but a “piece of art.” To his credit, all of the rugs were beautiful and unique, and once we take ours out of its carefully protected package, I’m sure we will treasure it for the rest of our lives. Or at least until the cat destroys it.

Khadija dropped us off at the “Big Square,” the place you read about in every other article about Marrakech. This is the famous marketplace with its snake charmers, monkeys for sale, vendors hawking freshly squeeze orange juice side by side in neat little rows. Her parting words were something about not taking our health for granted, and wishing us luck three times in a row. Honestly, I don’t remember what she said because the whole day had been a little overwhelming in terms of its sheer beauty, sights and sounds (and flavors at the terrific Terasse des Epices in the spice market). The luck stayed with us, though, particularly as my bike was stolen (and recovered by my neighbor) the following day at home. And when we somehow got a free checked bag on the way back to London. But another instance of luck, not to be overlooked by the more dramatic examples, was simply the experience we’d been given that day and the memories we’ll carry with us far beyond those five days in Morocco.

Coming up: a day in Essaouria, the white city, the fishing port, and the backdrop to Game of Thrones Season 3!

Marrakech: Days 0.5, 1, and 2

After too many months of not enough sun, John and I decided it was time to travel to a warm locale where we could soak up some vitamin D and broaden our cultural horizons (what a cliche) by not just sitting on a beach in the Canary Islands like we did last year, but by taking my aunt & uncle’s advice and heading to Marrakech for a few days. I’d been interested in Morocco since college, when I took a French class on North African literature (or something to that effect). Plus, I really like tagine, dates, and Moroccan mint tea, and the fact that Marrakech was just a 3 hour plane ride from Gatwick was icing on the cake (the very same moist, delicious cake our Riad served us for breakfast every morning).

Continue reading Marrakech: Days 0.5, 1, and 2

Toasted walnut white chocolate chunk cinnamon-sugar dipped cookies

“Mmm. You could sell these.” Those were the winning words of praise that John gave me as he took a bite of my greatly-improvised cookie concoction on Saturday night. Then he made me write the recipe down. And because I’m in a generous mood, I’m sharing it with you.

You’ll probably do just fine if you follow the recipe I blatantly ripped off (I mean, adapted. That’s the legal, slightly-respectful form of stealing, right?) But I’m incapable of following a recipe. Even when it comes to baking, which is less forgiving on random additions/substitutions and half-assed measurements. I tend to think, “this would be better with cinnamon,” or “what can I use instead of half an egg? Uh, yogurt is similar, right?”

Anyway, this time it worked out and here is an approximation of how it went down.

P.S. Apparently I can’t call these snickerdoodles because they don’t feature cream of tartar, so you’re stuck with an even longer title.

Cookies with the long title

1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped

14 cup unsalted butter

1/4 cup white sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar (or do what I do: white sugar + 1/2 teaspoon molasses)

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 tsp almond extract (optional but adds a lovely buttery/marzipan-y flavor)

2 tbsp thick yogurt (vanilla works)

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp baking soda

3/4 cup white flour

1/4 cup oat flour (finely grind some oats – oat flour adds a lightness to the texture)

1/4 cup unsweetened desiccated coconut (also adds a good texture)

100 g bar white chocolate, chopped in small chunks

topping: 1 tsp cinnamon and 1/4 cup white sugar

1.. Toast walnuts in a dry skilled over medium heat, until light brown and toasty-smelling. Remove from heat.

2. Microwave butter in a medium-sized bowel. Add sugars, salt, extracts, and yogurt. Mix well for a minute or so – this helps the butter and sugar get those caramelized notes.

3. Add white flour, baking powder and salt. Stir until incorporated. Add oat flour and coconut, stirring well. Fold in walnuts and chocolate chunks (warning: don’t eat half of these two things because they’re too delicious on their own to make it into the batter).

4. Place dough in plastic wrap or a plastic bag and place in freezer for 30 minutes (if impatient) or refrigerate overnight.

5. Preheat oven to 350F/180C and line baking sheet with baking paper. At this point, dough should be thick but workable, meaning you don’t have to take a hammer to it to break off balls of dough.

6. Mix cinnamon and sugar in a small bowl. Break off tablespoon-sized pieces of dough and roll into balls (or use a cookie scoop. Yes, you need one. I burned through mine – don’t ask – and am now coveting another for Christmas. Hint hint to my readership, which is 90% my parents).

7. Where were we? Roll those balls into the cinnamon sugar, place 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet, press down a bit if you like them fatter (I prefer to leave them ball-shaped so the centers stay softer). I got about 15-16 because I ate a bunch of dough (oops!)

8. Bake 8-10 minutes, until golden at the edges and almost-golden on top (basically, you don’t want to press down on one and have it completely deflate right away). Let cool on baking sheet. Eat.

The Halloween costume I almost didn’t wear

We skipped celebrating Halloween last year. No, really- we were those people who hid in the bedroom with the lights out, and whenever the doorbell rang, I held my breath until I heard the footsteps fade away. I knew the kids couldn’t hear me breathing anyway, but somehow that abated my guilt.

This year, we resurrected the Halloween party we had two years ago, down to the same costumes. We also invited friends from different social circles (e.g. John’s entire department and my ex-colleagues) who ended up chatting and, I think, enjoying each other’s company. I still remember my friend Robyn praising our 2012 bash, saying she loved how we invited people from various parts of our lives who didn’t know each other, but who all got along. It’s damn hard to make friends when you’re an adult (or maybe it’s just me?) so I like opportunities to throw strangers into a room and see what happens.

We had a really great time, which always surprises me about parties. I don’t really like large gatherings and feel the need to take a nap after talking for more than 10 minutes, but good company and good food put me at ease. Seriously, friends went out of their way, bringing gorgeous caramel apples and chocolate cake and pizza and…the list goes on. I tried to refrain from turning into my alter ego, DJ ADD (if we were at a party together in college, you’ll remember my tendency to change songs after 30 seconds), and let Spotify do the work with a cheesy Halloween playlist. Not even mine. I’ve become lazier about parties, abandoning the obsessive cleaning beforehand (well, to an extent), and even buying a dessert instead of making one from scratch. No one complained.

I was also dreading the party a bit because of the costume factor, even though I love dressing up and putting on layers upon layers of eyeshadow. John and I were zombie Germans two years ago, and again laziness drove the decision to recycle those costumes. But my dirndl is now at least two sizes too small, a result of loosening my iron grip over food intake, not setting foot in a gym for 3 months, and, well, an affinity for dipping chocolate in peanut butter. When you have to pay outrageous prices for Reese’s in this country, you go to extreme measures for your fix.

I try not to let it get to me, because I hate the pressure on women to look and act a certain way and I try not to buy into all of that (anymore). But squeezed into that dirndl, I couldn’t help compare myself to those cumberland sausages I was serving. I was paranoid that buttons were going to pop off. I thought, how was I ever that small? Oddly enough, I didn’t feel small, then. That’s body dysmorphia for you.

Anyway, I put my faith in German craftsmanship and trusted that my top would stay buttoned, and luckily it did. I let insecurities slip into the background as I gave John some smokey eyes and teased my hair into oblivion, and welcomed friends into our teeny tiny apartment (seriously, it was a little like a clown car, but doable). As for next year, I think it’s time to retire the Gretel get-up and wear something that fits, and not feel bad about it.

A Week in the Life of a Temp

This is the first Friday afternoon I’ve had to myself in over a week, and I never thought I’d miss it so much. That’s right– I’m finally bringing home the bacon again. Or rather, enough bacon (money) to cover my ridiculous (dry-cured, unsmoked, streaky) bacon purchasing habit.

I did a bit of freelance stuff earlier, but love getting to call it a day at 4:30. And taking too many breaks to do important things, like re-hang laundry that blew away in the wind, listen to RIlo Kiley, eat waffles, and not eat the vegetables I bought at the Headington farmers’ market.

I’ve been temping at a field marketing agency for a little over a week now, with a contract that’s very much up in the air (originally stated as 1-2 weeks). My first day, I was thrown to the wolves (that’s a saying, right?) and hit the phones with little idea of what I was doing. But working alongside a very friendly and supportive team, I picked up quite a bit of knowledge very quickly. Probably more quickly than at any other job. It’s a recruiting gig, so we are screening CV’s with quickie phone interviews to find suitable candidates for face-to-face interviews. The roles I’m recruiting for are not at all glamorous (or maybe they are, depending on your interests): cigarette salespeople and holiday-season alcohol merchandising. A friend asked if I have a moral objection to this, and I almost felt bad saying no. It’s a job to be filled, and someone will do it, and it’s not really up to me to judge.

The most surprising (and difficult) thing I’ve learned: people lie. Although I’m pretty sarcastic and at times pessimistic, I still hold out great hope for people and don’t understand when they do something wrong. Let’s not mention that I do things wrong all the time, but I do try to be honest. Anyway, one guy told me he’s had a passion for [cigarette brand] since age 17, and has wanted to work for this company forever, etc. And I thought, “sure, why not?” The next day, my boss helped me see why this guy was clearly bullshitting me.

Also, people like to ramble. I don’t mind listening to people talk, but have really had to take control of the conversation on too many occasions, which I find challenging. “Okay, when exactly was that?” “Sorry, let me rephrase the question.” I’ve also learned the difference between great answers, okay answers, and just plain terrible answers. It’s a good skill that I’ll use in my future interviews (e.g. the one coming up on Monday, for a 3-month admin job), but it’s difficult not being able to get back to the applicants and tell them how they could improve next time. I think most of them probably could, if they stopped trying so hard to answer with what they think we want to hear, and just think about the questions logically.

And sure, I do find it a little ironic that I’m screening job applications while I’ve been unable to find a steady job myself for a few months. There are a few differences, though: 1.) I don’t have children or a house, and therefore am not desperate for cash, 2.) I want to be a little more selective in whatever I do next, because we spend a lot of our time at work and…well, I’m idealistic and really want to do something I feel good about. I know this is a pretty high expectation and I’ll probably have to compromise a bit, eventually. 3.) I actually read the job descriptions. Final lesson learned in the past week: some people honestly just hit the “apply” button hundreds of times in a day, and then have no idea why you’re calling them regarding their interest in the role.

There are lots of other temps at this company. I guess it makes sense, since the work is fairly easy and doesn’t require much training, or long-term commitment. It’s been really great to interact with new people, and I love finding out more about where they come from, why they’re here, and what drives them. One guy owns his own business, which he’s building up on the side, and another woman was a former marketing manager, who’s having trouble finding work after taking a break to raise her child. And even my “boss” has faced the same post-interview rejections as I have– “we think you’d be bored at this job and need more responsibility.” Many employers talk about work-life balance, but I’m not convinced they know what it actually means.

Enough rants– the sun is still shining, and because I’m actually home instead of being stuck on the bus for another hour, I think I’ll go for a run.

P.S. I scribbled down some notes on the aforementioned bus that I wanted to share:

1. I always thought the “Martin’s” down the street from me, a newsagent, was owned by a guy named Martin. But there’s a Martin’s in Thame, so I suppose it’s a chain. I feel deceived by the mom-and-pop feel, and am glad I never called the owner Martin.

2. There’s a barbershop called Sherlock Combs in Thame. I don’t think I need to say anything else here, but I am thinking of sending them some fanmail.

3. Riding the bus makes me feel sick (probably because I read every.single.time, throwing motion-sickness caution to the wind), but I do love looking out the window at the beautiful countryside. Sometimes, I pretend I live out there, with a few chickens and a garden. Then I remember that I have a black thumb and would have to clean chicken poop, and come back to reality.

Recent Musings

I’m still fighting off the last lovely symptoms of my lingering cold, which has been going strong now for over a week. I can’t decide if it’s the sickness that makes me more prone to melancholy and general laziness, or the fact that I just came back from a really nice 2+ week vacation (Germany solo, and then Oxford/Bath/Windsor with my mom and grandmother). Both of those scenarios (being sick, and post-vacation blues) are probably compounding to set the stage for a really whiny blog post. Enjoy!

As much as I pretend my job rejections aren’t getting to me, and as much as I tell myself that I didn’t want those entry-level admin positions anyway, well…that’s a lie. It’s difficult to swallow constructive criticism like, “Clea interviewed very well and is personable and wonderful and blah blah blah BUT her confidence wavered on this meaningless Excel-wizardry task and sales presentation and she did not do as well as expected.” It’s the “as expected” that really gets to me, because I don’t like disappointing people. It tells me that I didn’t live up to some inflated expectation that my CV seems to imply.

It also comes at a sharp contrast to my rejection from this morning, “Clea did well…so much so, that we think this entry-level job would not be the right role…she would be suited to a role with more responsibility.” Maybe I’m alone in this, but what if I don’t want more responsibility? “Responsibility” promises creativity, independence, and productivity, but too often ends up delivering headaches, blame, and unnecessary burdens. Why won’t you just let me do meaningless paperwork and leave at 5 o’clock? Okay, I’m starting to annoy myself, so enough of that.

I think my general dissatisfaction with the job market is starting to bleed over into the kitchen, too. I’ve made some pretty terrible creations recently: applesauce that tastes 100% like cloves and nothing else, bread that somehow remained gummy and moist and not in a good way, a pucker-y apple crisp that overdosed on lemon juice, and forgotten caramelized onions that burnt the bottom of my pot to a nice, charred crisp.

On that note, we’re going out to dinner– I’m handing over the responsibility of a good meal to hands more capable than mine. But before that, I’m going to get out of my pajamas, out of the house, and out of this self-imposed rut.

about assorted adventures

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