Tag Archives: adoption

Banana and date muffins

You know something I hate? The school summer holidays. I used to love them as a child. Unlike today, when we seem to get our best weather in May and June, before schools even break up, in the seventies and eights, summer seemed to really happen in August. It went on and on and was a delight. Thinking about my childhood now, it sounds like something from the thirties or fifties – long games of French cricket, roaming in the water meadows and Downs, chasing round the garden with brother trying to catch stag flying beetles (successfully) and bats (unsuccessfully) with a minnow net attached to our long bamboo laundry prop.

Obviously, my kids are a lot younger, but I can’t imagine them forming any particularly fond memories of this summer just passed. Aside from the summer weather seeming to end the moment school broke up, to be replaced by weeks of grey, the whole experience seemed very unsettling for my three-year-old son, T-rex.

After nearly a year at nursery, he was thriving. He’d made a lot of friends and by and large seemed settled and happy. He was sleeping well, making decent progress with his food fussiness, pretty much out of nappies, and getting excited about the prospect of “Big boys’ Lego” for his fourth birthday later in the year. Then suddenly all the routine disappeared and things regressed, became increasingly unsettled.

It’s hard to create a routine when you may be away for a spell, may be visited by family, may be able to grab a bit of sunshine, but then get wrong-footed by rain. As most organised summer holiday activities are for ages 5-6 plus, I had to try and create my own. But three-year-old boys aren’t the biggest fans of arts and crafts. Mine certainly isn’t. All he wants to do is watch The Lego Batman Movie.

I try to cook with them, and the Raver, now aged two, enjoys that – well, some “mix-mix” and the licking spoons at least. As T-rex has decided he doesn’t like “nana shake” – one of his long-time breakfast favourites – any more, I had to come up with other solutions for over-ripe bananas. Googling didn’t really satisfy, so I reached for my vintage copy of Fresh and Natural, a New Zealand hippy classic, published in 1980 and gifted to me by my old friend Nadia the final time I saw her at her home in the Malborough Sounds in October 2013, a year before her untimely death. It includes a nice flexible recipe for banana muffins, one I remember using when I lived with Nadia in 1994-95 and helped feed her large family in the Yellow House at Old Man Mountain in the Buller Gorge.

I tried to get T-rex interested in this project, but even before making or seeing the finished product he said “I won’t eat those.” It’s a protest and control tactic he’s using quite a lot currently. Refusing tea before I’ve even put it on the table, before I’ve even made it.

We hoped the return to nursery would settle him, but instead we underestimated the shock of how much his class would have changed. Loads of his friends have gone up to reception. I realise now he’s a boy who feels particularly settled when he slots into a social group of older boys, whose more alpha ways give him guidance and stability. The teachers had said the older kids often get into the role of being in charge, being the guides themselves. I hope T-rex does. I hope he likes these muffins.

This isn’t a parenting or adoption blog, so I want to keep things light, but T-rex is, in the technical term my wife taught me, dysregulated. England isn’t like France or Italy where people may take the whole of August off and hang out at the beach with family. Here, primary carers can face a long slog through the summer and sometimes children struggle. And it’s not like we need this Victorian institution of long summer holidays that freed up children to help with the harvest. The most my kids harvest is under-ripe tomatoes. So anyway, I also dearly hope that politicians move to adjust the length of the summer school holidays. Though if those in power are all wealthy, reactionary deadbeats who never even change their own kids’ nappies, I suspect it’s unlikely.

So yes, a slog – hence this blog has been a bit quiet lately. And even now I’m posting, it’s for something very undemanding. Not sure I’ll be able to muster any fancy stuff any time soon…

Here’s the recipe. Converted to new money, with added dates. The original uses nuts. You can use either or both, or neither.

50g butter, softened
50g golden syrup
1 egg (that is, about 50g without shell)
5g vanilla essence
2 mashed bananas (that is, about 200g)
105g milk
4g baking soda
300g plain flour, ideally stoneground or even wholegrain
5g baking powder
50g chopped dates

1. Preheat oven to 200C. Like a muffin tin with cases, or just grease it if you don’t have any.
2. Beat together the butter and golden syrup until creamy.
3. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well.
4. Dissolve the baking soda in the milk.
5. Mash the bananas.
6. Alternately add the milk and banana to the mixture.
7. Sieve together the flour and baking powder and add.
8. Add the dates.
9. Equally divide the batter into the muffin cases (or not).
10. Bake for about 20 minutes, until nicely browned.

Nice for breakfast, with some butter and maybe a drizzle of golden syrup or honey.

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Filed under Baking, Recipes

Many ways to bake

Stone and casserole

If my blog is isn’t getting updated quite so regularly these days, it’s because Fran and I are at a pretty intensive stage of a journey we’ve been on the past decade. It’s a journey that’s much shorter for most people: that of starting a family.

The old-fashioned way failed us, so we tried medical intervention. Quackery also failed us, so the past year or so we’ve been involved in the adoption process.

As anyone who’s had similar experiences will tell you, it’s a roller-coaster. The adoption process in the UK is predicated on extending the protection of children in care who may well have had tragic, sad or painful starts to life. So as the prospective adoptive parent, you’re scrutinised to within an inch of your life, every corner of your life checked, considered, evaluated.

You spend months filling in forms, being interviewed. The sheer weight of bureaucracy can make you buckle with its Kafkaesque convolutions as you struggle to prove you can be a good parent – without ever having had the experience of being a parent, thanks to the fickle vagaries of nature. It’s tough, but the end goal is clear – giving a child a good home.

Baking as palliative
When times are tough, baking is gives me solace. Bread-making especially is unique and special: it’s about making a basic food stuff, but it’s so tactile. Plus it’s all about fertility too, in its modest way. You’re reliant on the life incarnate in microorganisms: yeast, and, for sourdoughs, yeast and lactobacilli (bacteria). You need to nurture them, feed them, encourage them to reproduce. Reproduce as fervently as possibly. Unlike us, they shouldn’t need any intervention.

So I’ve been baking a lot recently. I’ve been baking most of my life, and making bread for at least 20 years, though it’s only been the past eight years or so I’ve made pretty much all the bread we eat at home. Although I’ve got a baking diploma, I’m not a professional. The thing professionals have over home bakers is a mastery of skills acquired through repetition. For long baking shifts, often through the night, professional bakers will make their doughs, prove them, shape the loaves, bake them, perfecting the processes.

So although I have a reasonable knowledge of all these things, I haven’t the mastery: it’s a lot harder to achieve when making one or two loaves a week. Especially if, like me, you have an enquiring mind and want to keep experimenting. There are so many variations on basic techniques, so many kinds of flour, so many permutations. So I keep on playing around.

I was a pretty good artist when I was young, but art, like bread-making, like any skill, is something that needs constant practise. Creativity needs nurturing. I carried a notepad and sketched all the time until my mid-twenties, but then it just tailed off. I don’t really know why. Anyway, my creative urges these days mostly go into food, into baking. Talking to my friend Rachel, who knows all about our trying-to-start-a-family saga,  she suggested the baking obsession is also an expression of my creativity, my nurturing instincts. (I’m not a stereotypical macho male, obviously.)

If fate, and the powers that be, allow us to adopt and, finally, start a family, I don’t intend to stop baking. But I suspect I’ll have less time for free-form experimentation as the focus of the nurturing will be very different.

Bread experiments in the oven
Another thing Rachel’s said to me is: make your blog more personal. But I’ve not really known how to approach this. This attempting-to-start-a-family thing is mine and Fran’s big personal project. Fran’s sort of tried to put me off talking about it, but we process things differently.

The way I see it, with a pregnancy, you get to a point where you can’t not talk about it – it becomes publically obvious. I feel we’ve been involved with the adoption process for long it’s reaching an equivalent to that publically obvious stage. Just without the bump. Without the literal bun in the oven. Instead, there are my bread experiments in the oven.

This is my latest haphazard experiment. I wanted to see how the same dough behaved when baked in two different ways.

Lively sponge

I made a dough using a kilo of flour, a mixture of white wheat flour, wholemeal spelt flour and rivet flour. I combined 400g of this with 650g of water and 15g of yeast to make a sponge pre-ferment.

Full of wheatberries

I let that ferment for a few hours at about 17C, then made up a dough with 15g fine sea salt and about 200g of cooked wheatberries (wheat grains) I had.

Well risen

Then gave all that a prove for about five hours, giving it some turns and folds.

I then managed to break Fran’s camera. We’d had two days of howling winds, 40-50mph (64-80kph), and that frays your nerves somewhat. Clearly it made me clumser than usual. I’d just said to myself, better watch out, the concrete floor would destroy this camera if dropped – then I dropped it while climbing a small stepladder to take an overhead photo. So now my pics are taken with my inferior phone camera. And I need to take a trip to the camera shop.

Divided up

After breaking the camera, both pieces of dough were scaled at the same weight, both were moulded the same way, and both were given their final prove in round bannetons.

Final prove

After the final prove, I put one in a Le Creuset casserole dish, pre-heated in the oven at 220C. Some call this the Dutch oven technique. I used a peel to slide the other onto a baking stone (or, more specifically, my pizza stone). Both were then baked at 220C for 20 minutes, then 30 minutes more at 180C.

Baked

Now, as you’ll see from the photos, despite all these years of baking, I’m still making some errors. Firstly, the two kilos of dough I had was too much for the size of Le Creuset I was using. Oops. Secondly, the one I baked on the stone, not being constrained by a container, did a funny oven spring and opened out sideways. This is frustrating for several reasons as I know the factors full well:
1. I probably didn’t leave it long enough in the final prove.
2. It may have opened up better if I’d give the top some slashes.
3. I quite possibly didn’t get the dough tight enough in the moulding stage.

The latter is one a baking skill I really struggle with. Sometimes I nail it, sometimes I fail miserably. I’ve managed 80% hydration ciabatta, then made a 70% hydration ball that’s turned out a discus.

Cut

Anyway, the real thing I was wondering about with this experiment was whether the crust and the crumb of the bread would be markedly different when baked with the different techniques. I was expecting they would be. They weren’t. Both are lovely loaves, soft, wholesome, good for sandwiches or, when they’ve staled a bit, toast.

For this experiment, I probably should have divided the dough in three, and baked a third on a steel baking sheet. Not sure my oven’s big enough though. Still, it was a fun experiment, a nice distraction from the anxiety and emotional intensity of the adoption. And, heck, one day I hope it’s the sort of bread my kids will like for their school lunches.

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Filed under Baking, Discussion, Misc