The thrilling conclusion to Birthday (Cake) Week

Despite the Great Flapjack Failure of 2014, I gave browned butter another try. I’m glad I did, because this is probably the best muffin I’ve made so far. It required grinding oats and buckwheat (separately) in my gigantic, 80s-era food processor, definitely a more labor-intensive process than I’m used to. And of course, I burnt the butter, but luckily it still all worked out. The chocolate chips and streusel topping take it over the top, and the banana and healthy flours make it acceptable for breakfast (or lunch, or pre-lunch…in my case a few minutes ago).

The extravagance of the week though was these red velvet brownies. Next time (if I trust myself enough for there to be a next time), I’ll stick to the recipe as is and maybe make the annoying buttercream frosting. Buttercream is my nemesis, mainly because I don’t have the right tools (and by extension, the right kitchen) to tackle it. This time, I tried to make a cream cheese topping from a recipe via the Food Network, which I won’t link to because it was a complete disaster. My “swirl” was a runny mess, probably because I used store-brand cream cheese, which just didn’t have the thickness required here. Also, it tasted kind of bland, so I dumped in a bunch of extra sugar. After trying to “swirl” it into the brownies, I ended up with a hilarious, runny mess. So, I attempted to salvage it by pouring the topping back into a bowl…which I mixed with powdered sugar, and which we’ve been pouring over yogurt and granola as a consolation prize.

Luckily, the brownies still turned out, probably more fudgy (fudgey?) than intended, but that’s never a bad thing. The birthday boy and guests at last night’s dinner seemed to like them. I did too, although too many bowl-licks and “cutting off just this one piece to make a perfect square” tastes left me feeling terrible. Seriously, baked goods are my kryptonite. So I’m calling a moratorium on the sweets for a while. Well, making them myself, anyway. Ice cream will find its way into my mouth sooner or later, mainly as an act of desperation to hang on to this rapidly disappearing summer.

Embracing Failure

For the second contribution to Birthday (Cake) week, I attempted to make brown butter flapjacks. I figured it would be a good reason to bake these and up the ante to my earlier (and delicious) microwave version, but learned that sometimes, simplicity is best.

After baking the flapjacks (using organic oats rather than the porridge version, and carefully browned butter), I sort of thought this wouldn’t work out- the batter was still bubbling and sizzling as I pulled the pan out of the oven. And after patiently waiting for the ‘jacks to cool, I ended up doing a quick strength training workout while trying to chisel the hard-as-diamonds batter into edible pieces. 

The end result was still edible, if you like toasty bits of burntness in your desserts, but it did make a decent topping crumbled over Greek yogurt. Lesson learned, though: stick to the an-eight-year-old-can-make-this microwave recipe.

In another life (or a few months ago), this disaster would have ended with me cursing my crappy oven and telling myself I must be joking if I consider myself a good baker. But this time, I let the pieces fall where they may (some on the floor, during the cutting stage), and filed it away as a lesson learned in not overcomplicating things. Even, perhaps, a lesson in sticking to what works, rather than searching for something better, more gourmet. 

Coincidentally, this morning I also woke up to an email telling me I wouldn’t be invited back for a second interview for an admin job. Although I “interviewed extremely well” and would be “clearly competent,” I didn’t perform as well as other candidates on a 45-minute prioritization exercise. Even though I didn’t really want this job, I was still a little upset that I failed. I immediately searched for online prioritization exercises, hoping to better myself somehow.

Then I stopped, realizing my automatic tendency to perseverate on bad news, to judge myself more harshly than anyone else would. I reminded myself that this just wasn’t the job for me, and there probably was someone more suited to doing it than I was. And that’s actually okay.

So to balance out the day, I’m heading out into the sunshine (a rarity this past week) to enjoy a cup of afternoon coffee with some friends, and I’ll leave my fear of failure behind. After all, I failed not once, but twice today, and it’s still turning out to be a nice Sunday.


Birthday (Cake) Week

It’s the husband’s birthday on Thursday, and what better way to kick off a week of celebrating (because one day isn’t enough) with cake? Cakes, actually. This week I’ll be posting 4 recipes, because we both have 4 letters in our first names and John is turning something-4. 

First up is Smitten Kitchen’s blueberry crumb cake, which is currently in the oven. I’m a little nervous, because I don’t have a fancy stand mixer, nor the patience to mix with my adorably old-fashioned  egg beater device that you crank by hand. So, I mixed all the liquid ingredients at once with my trusty stick blender, and hoped for the best. Also, my oven temperatures are kind of a joke. There’s a dot for 175 C, and then again for 200 C, so I had to guess where 190 was. And finally, of course I don’t have a 9-inch cake pan, so I used a small round (5-inch, maybe) souffle dish and a 4 x 8-inch glass baking dish. 

Everything I’ve read about baking warns you to be precise (in ingredients, tools, temperatures and times) but I usually have good luck just winging it. Except for those failed lemon-rosemary cookies that turned into one big puddle. 

Oh, I found another stranger’s shopping list today. This one is less interesting but also more confusing than last week’s edition, so I figured I’d share: 

– Method wood polish (I’m a shameless Method fan, too).

– milk

– milk for children (they need different milk than adults?)

– Peper Shop (no idea)

– black chorizo (I’m pretty sure this doesn’t exist)

– Gaugin Guitars or Picasso instruments (they definitely don’t sell these at Waitrose)

My prediction is that the owner of this list is a housewife who can’t spell, and who believes your age should determine the kind of milk you drink. I hope she finds her black chorizo someday.

P.S. The cake looks good!

Unemployment: Week 1

For anyone who doesn’t follow my inflated sense of self-importance status updates on Facebook, allow my to clarify the title of this post:

1. I wasn’t fired.

2. It shouldn’t invoke empathy or condolences.

Essentially, what began as a 6-month contract position at OUP just remained that, and my 180 days (give or take) were up. I learned how to survive in a busy, change management-y environment, and for that I am grateful. I also learned that project management is not something I want to pursue, and that I might not be as detail-oriented as I thought (which, for me, is a good thing). Most importantly, I learned the value sharing homemade treats with your co-workers. Seriously, don’t underestimate the benefit of white chocolate coconut flapjacks on a Monday morning.

I don’t think my time without a paycheck will be too indulgent, as I have a few more interviews next week. In particular, I’m holding out hope for one job (still within OUP) that gets me giddy just thinking about it, but am trying not to get too excited about it, to avoid disappointment if I’m not the chosen one.

Having a week off to lie around the house and contemplate my existence brought me back to my first few weeks in Oxford, when I thrived on experiencing this new environment where everyone was so surprisingly polite (save for the blatant racism against Eastern Europeans) and biking on the left side of the road was still terrifying. I’ve gotten used to those things now, so this week I consciously looked for “new” things to appreciate and absorb – what I might overlook in the weekly routine of work, eat, sleep. Here’s what I found, did, and didn’t do in my Monday-Friday of freedom.

1. I went shopping far too often. A trip (or 3) to Waitrose for milk became an exercise in impulse-buying exotic ingredients like quail’s eggs (overrated) and chipotle paste (underrated, and I put it in everything now). But the best find, perhaps, was this stranger’s grocery list in my shopping basket:

– Flowers/yoghurt (aww. Also, yogurt with an h just looks wrong).

-Croissants (maybe you’re French?)

-Lime/lemon, fish (I assume you are doing something with both of these since they were written next to each other. Ceviche, perhaps?)

– Noilly Prat (huh?) / Vodka x 3, Tonic (that’s a lot of vodka! Maybe the croissants are there to soak up the booze?)

– Crisps (okay, they’re definitely English. Did not specify flavor, but likely something bizarre like Roast Chicken & Thyme or Goat Cheese & Caramelized Onion, my personal favorite).

-Sm Tatties (British friends, does this mean potatoes? My mind is in the gutter…)

-Phone card / Tom Katanop (utterly confused by this, because who still buys those pre-paid phone cards, and why do you need it to call someone named Tom Katano?)

After finding this gem, I tried really hard to identify the list-less shopper, because they clearly needed a reminder to buy those flowers and tatties. But it could have been anyone, from a single dad to a mom with 3 kids to an elderly lady who loves her vodka, so I gave up the search.

2. A corollary to the above: I made recipes. Yes, this is actually a big departure from my usual weekday affair of throwing some meat and vegetables into a pan and crossing my fingers that things will work out. I made some really tasty ginger-garlic chicken in tomato sauce, ghetto sushi (canned tuna with spicy mayo…), salted chocolate peanut brittle that I can still feel stuck in my teeth, and hash browns that involved mixing chorizo into the potatoes. Sorry, tatties (I think). They were all good, but I think I’m going to stick to mainly making things up as I go along. One of the best things I made was an impromptu dessert that I came up with on the fly:

Butter + Sugar + Fruit = Yum (I need to work on the title)

– Heat up a small non-stick pan to high heat. Throw in a tablespoon or so of butter, and let it melt.

– Just as the butter begins to brown, add some apricots (sliced in half and pitted) and sugar. Mix around, then cover with a lid, lower heat to medium, and let cook for a few minutes.

– Add some sliced bananas and cinnamon to the pan, mix it all around, and let cook some more until everything is melty and smells really good. The apricots will have softened considerably.

– Mix in with some yogurt (or yoghurt, if you insist).

The inspiration for this probably came from my dad, because I vaguely remember making baked bananas like this before, and I am pretty sure there was butter involved, as there should be in all desserts.

3. I started to read a book again (gasp!) Half of a Yellow Sun, and it’s really good so far. A co-worker gave it to me as a parting gift, so not only do I enjoy it for the sentimental value, but it’s just a great read so far.

I’ll end on that note for now, because we seem to have a break from the unexpected rain and John and I are going for our weekly run.

P.S. I forgot to add what I didn’t do. I didn’t have insomnia, I didn’t spend hours scheduling meetings, and I didn’t feel like every day was Groundhog Day. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but it’s been pretty wonderful.