Zora

A few months after moving in together in 2008, in our derelict one-bedroom on Spring Garden above our basement-dwelling neighbor who yelled sporadically throughout the day and night, John and I decided to get a cat. She favored men (and therefore John), but was snuggly enough with me too, and instantly made our apartment feel more like a home.

I didn’t want to write about this, but I’m weak when it comes to dealing with death, and getting it all out in a poorly-edited blog post is better than mentioning it in passing to friends and family. Maybe this way, I can warn you what not to say (“I’m sorry” – honestly, does this ever make anyone feel better? And what do I even say in response…”it’s okay?”) Maybe this way, I can be a little more eloquent in sharing what she meant to me, because in person, I’ll just grumble about cars speeding on our road and say I knew it was coming, eventually. I did know, but knowing doesn’t do anything to prepare you for the inevitable.

John and I had just finished breakfast on Monday, the day after I got back from a week in Nurnberg and dropped my grandmother and mom off at the guest house. I was drinking Wawa’s Pumpkin Spice coffee and thinking back to when John and I would get in our car and drive the half-mile to the gas station for our daily fall fix. Then, our neighbor knocked at the door.

“Is this your cat?”

I’d sort of written her off as a crazy cat lady, as her backyard (visible from our house) is always a mess, and she always has strays roaming around. But when I saw how upset she was, holding a limp and lifeless Zora in her hands, I realized that I’m a crazy cat lady too, and in no place to judge. Zora was always running into the street, with her no-fear attitude and penchant for rolling around on the curb and getting dirty in the sunshine. I don’t know how many times I heard cars honking, thinking “shit, Zora,” and shaking my head in disapproval at her careless behavior. But, she’s a cat, and she was never happy cooped up in our tiny flat. We knew we were taking a risk letting her roam outside, but her palpable happiness as she pranced around in the garden, and on that busy street, somehow made it worth it. At least that’s what I’m telling myself, to avoid playing “What if?” over and over in my head and wishing we kept her confined to our small quarters.

I want to fast forward a few months, hoping to lighten this burden, this loss. There’s nothing I can do to feel better right now, and it’s hard, and it sucks. That’s about as eloquent as I can be. I’ve lost pets before, and I know others who have shared this experience can relate (what a weird concept, by the way- losing a person or animal. I didn’t misplace them; they died).

Maybe I can just take comfort in knowing that everything dies eventually, or breaks, and that fact doesn’t take away the good memories that were created along the way. Zora was family, and I’ll always miss her, but I’m glad we had 6 years together. They were good ones.

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1 Month of Unemployment

It’s been one month since I stopped getting a paycheck and started getting my life back (slight exaggeration). I thought I might have a job again by now, but that would have required a little more enthusiasm (and lying) during my many rounds of interviews. I also thought I might be bored by now. It’s actually nice to be wrong on both counts.

Sure, I didn’t get the job I actually wanted, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still slightly bitter about it. But I don’t believe in fate, or even one right path, so I trust that something good will come along eventually. Or at least something tolerable. I feel very different from my friends (at least the rose-tinted view I gain through Facebook), most of whom are climbing up the career ladder and/or working in a field that actually interests them. Occasionally, I do feel like I’m just aimlessly floating around, as I still have no clue what I actually want to be when I “grow up.” When I start feeling sorry for myself, though, I remember that I’m pretty damn lucky to be here in Oxford, having adventures with John and meeting some wonderful people along the way. Life, to me, has always been about more than a good career. Life is what happens beyond the 9-5 (or 9-8 — I still don’t understand why people stay at work later than they are obligated to, without extra pay. But that’s another story).

Where was I going with this? Oh, right. I thought I might be bored by now. John thought I’d be bored by now, too. Yet every day still feels different, special, full of opportunity. It’s not all glamour – some days I don’t brush my teeth ’til after dinner, and stay in my pajamas all day (lovely, I know). Luckily, those days are rare. I try to get outside as much as I can, exploring the familiar and unfamiliar corners of my neighborhood and the city. I move a little slower, soaking it in. I read, cook, play with my cats, do yoga, half-heartedly apply for jobs, meditate, write a bit. There’s a routine to it, I guess, but it feels different from the “work” routine.

Soon, I’ll get back to that, and I’ll appreciate getting paid, and hopefully doing some good work that contributes to mankind (or at least a friendly, smart team of people). In the meantime, I’m enjoying this time for what it is- a chance to step back, reflect, and grow in small, personal ways. When I look back in a few years, or even months, I’ll be glad that I had this room and space between jobs. I’m lucky that my cheapskate ways have let me save up a bit of cash and I’m not desperate for whatever comes next. Very lucky.

Next week, it’s off to Germany, and then my mom and Oma are coming to Oxford. Can’t wait to show them our little (and I do mean little) abode, and the stunning city I currently call home.

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.

The solution to writer’s block

…(or maybe I should call it haphazard blogger’s block) is to stick to what you know.

And what I know is pancakes.

I found this recipe ages ago, but sort of dismissed it for a variety of reasons. Who has that many flours lying around? Who takes a recipe posted on blogspot in 2011 seriously? (Kidding!) Plus, I found the prose incredibly irritating. But, everyone is entitled to their own style, and clearly I was in the wrong here, because those pancakes turned out to be amazing.

I made a few tweaks based on laziness (not wanting to buy even MORE flours) and pure experimentation, and the resulting recipe is mainly a reminder to myself to stop looking for the perfect gluten-free pancakes, because these are it.

But before I get to the recipe, a few other life updates:

Barcelona

1. We finally edited Barcelona pictures, and they are available here. Enjoy!

2. The sun decided to shine this weekend. That was a nice surprise. I spent most of the day inside today, but did crush it on a run with John (8:12! for 3 miles of intervals) and enjoyed having the windows open.

3. I’m finally getting into the whole Oxford obsession with Alice in Wonderland, and we saw a play involving puppetry at the Pegasus Theatre on Saturday, called “Alice.” It was about the original girl, now an old woman hiding out in a bomb shelter during WWI. It was really well done. During the show, my mind wandered as it always does, but this time I thought about how this mathematician (Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll) invented stories to entertain a child, but those stories have such complex allegorical meaning and wisdom that really take Alice above a mere bedtime story. Although maybe the point of children’s stories is to encourage kids to think about the world around them in a more symbolic, less black-and-white way. I don’t know what the point of my meandering ramble is, other than to say that I really like stories and am fascinated by the many ways in which we interpret our world – who we are, what we do, why we do it, and how we relate to everything around us. Yes, all that from a 45-minute puppet show.

 

This-might-be-it Pancakes (the end to the endless search for the one recipe to rule them all)

Dry ingredients:
2 cups sorghum flour (find it in an Indian grocer)
1/4 cup almond flour (I got some for super-cheap in Barcelona!)
1/4 cup tapioca starch
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum

Wet ingredients:
1 cup whole milk
1 cup club soda (sparkling mineral water or whatever the Brits call it here)
2 eggs
4 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
1 tablespoon sugar (I used xylitol)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat a non-stick skillet on medium-high heat. Add some butter and let it melt, then swirl it around.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center and add in the wet ingredients, except for the water. (Little trick: I added all the wet ingredients to a jar and shook it up, then poured it in). Fold batter together with a spoon, stirring until the dry ingredients are incorporated. Add the water, watching the batter fizz and bubble like magic. Stir again. The batter should be thick, but pourable, with few lumps. Test the skillet by flicking a few drops of water on it – when it sizzles, it’s good to go.

Lower heat to medium. Pour a scoop of pancake batter on to the heated skillet (about 1/3 cup’s worth). Repeat once or twice (I can fit 3 into one pan). When bubbles form around the edges, after about 2-3 minutes, carefully flip the pancakes. Cook for another 2 minutes on each side, then transfer to a plate and repeat until all of the batter has been transformed into delicious ‘cakes.

 

about assorted adventures

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