There is an emanation from the heart

which cannot be described,

but is immediately felt and puts

the stranger at his ease.

~Washington Irving


Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
It turns what we have into enough...

.........and more.

It turns denial into acceptance,
chaos to order, confusion to clarity.

It can turn a meal into a feast,

a house into a home,

a stranger into a friend.

~Melody Beattie


Don't be satisfied with stories,

how things have gone with others.

Unfold your own myth.
~Rumi

Monday, 29 September 2014

A B&B Morning






In my previous life, before moving to the U.K., I was a registered nurse in a busy hospital, on a very busy ward. My day started at 7am sharp and I never knew from day to day where my nursing skills were going to be used. It could be pediatrics, oncology, medical/surgical, the cardiac unit, or rehab. Every day was different and you hit the ground running.  Now, even though my day starts about 7am, my work and life couldn't be more different.  There's a gentle routine to the day, that's both predictable and comforting.


Now instead of fluorescent hospital lighting,
soft lamps light my mornings.



The last of summer flowers and 
changing leaves fill my view.





No more stethoscopes and scrubs.
Kettles and toasters are now the tools of 
my trade.  Every B&B needs good ones, 
lightning quick and very stylish.


"Have nothing in your house that you do not
know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
~William Morris

My nursing scrubs were given away
and replaced with cheery aprons
and Oxford bicycles.




Instead of life and death decisions, 
my biggest decision of the morning 
might be what beautiful teapot to use.



Now my mornings are filled with lovely smells,
bacon and coffee and toast and tea and eggs.



I pick fresh rosemary and parsley 
before breakfast...............



.......I check on the progress of the fall 
flowers in our new bike basket that  
will grace the front of the house.........


......and I double-check the time 
on the Harris Manchester clock
tower as I snip the herbs.



And then when breakfast is over I can 
stop and catch my breath, something I 
never was able to do much as a nurse, 
so it's something I savor each and 
every morning, my B&B morning.


"We keep moving forward, opening new doors,
and doing new things because we're curious
and curiosity leads us down new paths."
~Walt Disney



Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Indian Summer Continues........

It was so surprising when I first heard the term "Indian Summer" in Britain.  An Indian Summer is what Americans all hope for at the end of summer.  It means summer continues just a little bit longer, the weather is just a little warmer than normal, and winter is put off for a few weeks. The phrase has travelled across the Atlantic, and lately we've been hearing it every day from the BBC weather-folk, but I don't think most people in Britian quite knows where it comes from.


The origins of the phrase are uncertain but it did originate in the United States, and refers to the indigenous Native Americans, or 'Indians'.  The explanation that I like the best, and I think fits the best, is that it refers to a warmer and milder than normal autumn, and was a favorite time for hunting.  It meant the tribe could stay longer in their summer hunting grounds, which meant more hunting and gathering to get them through the winter.

"I cannot endure the waste of anything as precious
as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. 
So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air."
                                       ~Nathaniel Hawthorne



No matter the origins, there is nothing more beautiful than an Indian Summer day, especially in Oxford which is about as far removed from Indian hunting grounds as you can get.  The golden light bouncing off the golden stone never ceases to amaze, and like the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, I don't want to waste of a second of this lingering autumn sunshine.







"Winter is an etching,
Spring a watercolor,
Summer an oil painting,
And autumn a mosaic of them all."
                               ~Stanley Horowitz






Friday, 26 September 2014

More baking updates.......(or why Stuart is a very happy man these days)






The Great British Bake Off has created a groundswell of home baking in Britain--which makes me very happy.  What could be better than a family baking together, sharing cupcakes with neighbors, or children baking to raise money for a charity?  In the age of ISIS, this kind of wholesome niceness can go a long way in making our world just a little bit lovelier place to be.






The Bake Off has also created a host 
of new baking cookbooks and this week I've 
added a few of them to my collection.

Last year's Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh, just published her first baking book, Crumb, and it's already taken pride of place in my kitchen. She's an excellent writer, as well as being a gifted baker, so it's a very good read and is loaded with beautiful recipes and her own flare.  It's also a great place to start if you've never baked before.  Ruby likes to explain why things work, what things mean, and in layman's terms the chemistry behind baking.  She loves baking bread and she especially loves baking old favorites with new and unsual flavors--a lemon and basil tart, stilton cheese and poppy seed crackers, or bay and blackcurrant creme brulee are just a few.



Just posted through our letter box yesterday is a Slice of Britain, by Caroline Taggart.  It's my very favorite kind of cookbook, combining recipes and travel.  A Slice of Britain is a trip through Britain via cake--what could be better!  She starts in Cornwall with Saffron Cake and Cornish Fairings, up through the heart of England with Bath Buns and Lardy Cake, over to Wales and Welsh Cakes, up to Scotland with Dundee Cake, and ends in Derbyshire with Bakewells and Gingerbread.  It's loaded with stories, snippets, anecdotes, and recipes for the very best of British baking--and there's no reading it without a cup of tea and a slice of cake sitting next to you.



I also succumbed to my first cookbook from Mary Berry, the grande doyenne of British baking and one of the judges from the Great British Bake Off.  To me she's like Britain's Nana, baking her way into everyone's hearts.  The reason Mary Berry's Simple Cakes came home with me was because the first page it opened to, as I flipped through it in the book store, was her recipe for Lemon Meringue Roulade.  It combines meringue and lemon curd, so how can you go wrong with those two things combined into delectable "scrumminess" ('scrummy' is one of Mary's favorite descriptions of deliciousness).   All the recipes are step-by-step with clear pictures and directions, along with good general tips on baking.



I tried my hand at the Lemon Meringue Roulade the afternoon I bought the book and it turned out very scrummy (and beautiful) indeed. I'm not sure what I'm baking next, but it will be from one of these great new cookbooks--and Stuart will be first in line to try it.



*My tip for perfect meringue: Wash the mixing bowl and the beaters well and immediately before whipping the egg whites.  This make sure there's absolutely no trace of fat or grease which inhibits the egg whites from forming stiff peaks. Also, as you're separating the whites from the yolk, make sure the yolk stays intact and doesn't break.  Even the smallest bit of yolk can inhibit the egg whites.  Perfect meringue depends on beating until very, very, stiff peaks form, which are glossy white. 



Recipe from Mary Berry's Simple Cakes

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Great British Bake Off



There's a phenomenon going on in Britain called 'The Great British Bake Off.' It's a baking competition that starts out with 12 contestants, doing three different challenges/bakes in the hour show, with one person voted off at the end of each show. It's taken Britain by storm and it's just as popular with men as with women.  Last year's final was on the same night as an England championship football (soccer) match--and more men watched the Bake Off than the football, including Stuart.

The Bake Off (#GBBO for Twitter followers) has added baking terminology to the everyday British lexicon, as well as sparking in-depth discussions about the merits or pitfalls "creme pat" (creme patisserie), soggy bottoms and how to avoid them, or the difference between a short-crust or a hot-water crust.  Five years ago not many people knew how to spell choux pastry much less how to pipe it.  There are even Bake Off scandals discussed on morning television, the most recent being 'freezergate'.  One of the contestants took someone's ice cream out of the refrigerator, on a very hot day, making his show-stopper challenge a complete disaster.  Words flew, hackles were raised, and Tweets raged--just what the producers where hoping for, and it's made for some great TV.  Who knew watching 12 people bake Florentines could be so much fun?!

The producers tried to export the GBBO to the U.S. last year, but it just didn't work. Outside of the context of the English countryside, a marquee decorated like a village fete fell as flat on the American audience as a cake that's fallen in the oven.  On British soil though, the Bake Off has become almost an institution on Wednesday night, especially since it's come of age and moved from BBC2 to BBC1.

Our supplies laid in for tonight's doughnut challenge
Tonight is Episode 8, 'enriched dough' week, including doughnuts, and Stuart and I are already salivating. Being a daughter of the midwest, I love a good doughnut, and I know there's no way I'll be able to sit for an hour and watch people make sweet breads and doughnuts without having a one myself--or at least two, maybe three doughnuts, but definitely no more than four.  You can see we're fully prepared.

The mixing bowl used for my first cake
and my first and only rolling pin.
What I think Stuart loves most about the GBBO, is that the next day I usually try my hand at one of the recipes.  He gets to come home after a day of giving tours to the sweet smells of something baked, fresh out of the oven.  I've always loved baking--cooking not so much, baking is what I do best.  I'd much rather be outdoors, working in my garden, growing beautiful things, than indoors cooking, but baking has always been a pleasure.  I still have the same mixing bowl I used to mix my first cake (from scratch) when I was 8 years old, and my original rolling pin and cake tins from when I first had a kitchen of my own.

If you're not British but you've seen the
movie 'Calender Girls', you'll know just 
what a Victoria Sponge is.
Baking in my adopted country hasn't been without it's pitfalls though, and I've baked a few disasters in the past six years.  I've had to get used to using Celsius rather than Fahrenheit, weighing ingredients with the metric system rather than using 'cups', and a fan-assisted oven. Terminology is different too.  British cake baking usually involves baking a 'sponge', what Americans would just call 'cake'. A sponge to me is like an American chiffon or angel food cake that uses air to give it structure, while a British 'sponge' is a mix of an American 'yellow' cake and a pound cake.  But I've prevailed and I bake a mean sponge now, and there's nothing I like better than baking a Victoria Sponge.

If you'd like to try baking a Victoria Sponge, here's the BBC's own recipe. American's can just use plain sugar rather than the British castor sugar, which is finer and used for baking.  Good luck, enjoy, and I'll let you know how the doughnuts turned out!

AS THEY SAY ON THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF,
"READY, SET, BAKE!"



This is the original recipe for the first cake 
I ever baked, out of the old 
Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook.




It's still a classic cookbook and no self-respecting
housewife in 1950's America would have been without one.


One of my favorite pages in Betty's cookbook
is this helpful Short Cuts page.  You'll see your classic 50's
housewife gaily going about her dawn to dusk routine of 
cooking, cleaning, dish washing and laundry--being told 
to "Harbor pleasant thoughts while working. It will make 
every task lighter and pleasanter."  I wonder if that even 
worked while rinsing and washing loads of baby diapers/nappies.


My very favorite tip is this little gem.
Of course a proper 1950's housewife 
would never actually go sit in a chair or
lie on a bed to rest from her drudgery.  The 
best she can hope for is to lie in the middle 
of the kitchen floor, collapsed in exhaustion
and hope no one walks in on her.  Oh, and no
more than 3 to 5 minutes!


The American version of 'sponge', which
is a type of cake that uses air beat into
it to give it it's structure.

SEPTEMBER 25
GBBO UPDATE: ADVANCED DOUGH

Nancy under the watchful and
highly disapproving steely blue
eyes of Paul Hollywood.
Last night's Great British Bake Off brought doughnuts and drama, as only an episode of 'enriched dough' can.  We were met with the burning questions of will the dough prove (rise), even though it's heavy laden with sugar, butter, fruit, and is the size of a "small labrador"?  Will the controversy of Nancy proving her dough in the microwave be her downfall and will she survive the steely arrows of Paul Hollywood's blue eyes when she told him her plan to do just that?  Will we ever get the memory out of our minds of Mary Berry being slightly sozzled as she sipped Luis' "cocktail doughnuts"?

Luis' "cocktail doughnuts" featured
a shot of Bailey's in each one, and changed the
landscape of the doughnut world forever.

Beside Stuart and I making ourselves thoroughly ill on our own doughnuts, the best part of the episode for me was Richard's 'signature bake', a Swedish Tea Ring.  I've been eating Swedish Tea Rings at Christmas since I was about two, when my mom made them every Christmas by the dozens.  I started baking them myself about thirty-eight years ago, so you might say it's my signature bake as well.

Our original recipe from the 1950's, and yes it is spectacular.

Betty Crocker's Swedish Tea Ring
I fill the center of my tea rings with lots of cinnamon & sugar, and of course butter.  I never followed the margarine craze in baking, when everyone was touting the evils of butter. I've always liked to use good quality butter in my bakes, especially in sweet or enriched dough, and it makes a difference as Paula Dean knows--she starts nearly every recipe with a "stick of buttah."  Richard's tea ring had more dried fruit and nuts in it than the Betty Crocker recipe, and it was a big success, helping him become 'star baker' for the fourth time--a GBBO first.
Our Martha

We were so sad to see 17 year old Martha leave the tent last night--her doughnut dough had over-proved and her technical challenge was raw as Paul Hollywood's 'thumb of doom' proved. An entire nation was rooting for this tender, young baker and we're all sad to see her leave the GBBO tent.  There are only two more episodes to go, so stay tuned, and now if you'll excuse me I think it's time to bake a Swedish Tea Ring of my own.

Our family's classic Swedish Tea Ring


Monday, 22 September 2014

Falling Leaves and Autumnal Days

"PUMPKIN PIE IS JUST
AN EXCUSE TO EAT NUTMEG."
~Garrison Keillor


Every year since we moved to Oxford, I've always taken a pilgrimage back home to the U.S. in the fall, but this year amongst other things, a knee injury has grounded me and I'm going to miss some of my favorite things about autumn--or more specifically, the American Fall.





Back home in the U.S. we call September, October, and November 'fall'.  In my U.K. home it's called 'autumn', and since as with most things in my life I straddle two continents, I call these months both fall and autumn--but this year since I'm not flying back home, I'm really missing fall and everything that symbolizes it.

Americans don't do fall by halves and that's what I'll miss.  Maybe it's because the U.S. has celebrated Halloween in a big way since the 1950's and we celebrate my favorite holiday of all--Thanksgiving. Fall isn't just the three months leading up to Christmas.  It's pumpkins, pumpkin pie, hot, spiced apple cider, Friday night football at the local high school, jack-o-lantern's, Thanksgiving turkeys, more pumpkin pie, trick-or-treating from door to door in vast neighborhoods, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, giving thanks, and even Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Lattes (which I'll admit right here and now and judge me if you will, I love!).
Nothing says fall to an American like pumpkins, which start appearing in grocery stores and front porches sometime in September, and 'Fall Decorating' tips are everywhere.  No self-respecting American front porch would be without at least one pumpkin--although there's more likely to be a veritable bounty of pumpkins in all sizes, ornamental gourds, kale, chrysanthemums, a fall door wreath, and maybe a scarecrow gracing front porches across the land.

A slice of pure Americana in the fall.
'Pumpkin helped the pilgrims during those 
first years of survival and one journal begins with, 
"....so we begin with pumpkin again".  
The pilgrims survived and left Americans 
with a love of all things pumpkin.'


Pumpkins aren't the big deal in the U.K. like they are in the U.S. and they certainly don't symbolize anything.  Pumpkin pie is rare and you usually don't see pumpkin-anything in Britain, other than perhaps at Christmas. Luckily our local Tesco now has an 'American Foods' section which includes the worst of the worst of food from back home like Lucky Charms and Pop Tarts, but they do have cans of Libby's pumpkin, just like I've always used to make pumpkin bread and pies.  The one thing I cannot get here though, and sorely miss, is a Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Last year I had the perfect arrangement.  A friend wanted me to send her a New College Christmas CD and offered to mail me something in return.  She kindly mailed off a full supply of Starbuck's Instant Pumpkin Spice coffee and so I was set for the entire autumn of 2013.  Unfortunately, for me at least, this year she's had no export requests and is busy starting up a new business, so I've had to improvise my pumpkin lattes.  I found a recipe for pumpkin spice creamer and it will have to do until Christmas, when Stuart and I both fly back to the U.S.


In the meantime between now and Christmas, I have the English autumn to enjoy.  It means autumn leaves and conkers filling Brasenose Lane and Jowett Walk, golden light reflecting off the golden stone of Oxford colleges, the Great British Bake Off and Downton Abbey back on the telly, burnished countryside and hedgerows, warm fires in friendly pubs, mince pies appearing on the shelves of Marks and Spencer, turkeys and geese hanging in the covered market, wooley jumpers (sweaters) reappearing, and everything being bathed in a soft autumnal light.  Come to think of it, I may not miss the pumpkin extravaganza back home after all.

"I am struck by the simplicity of the light in the atmosphere in the 
autumn, as if the earth absorbed none, and out of this 
profusion of dazzling light came the autumnal tints."
                                                            ~Henry David Thoreau

Brasenose Lane, Oxford, lined with chestnut trees
that drop their bounty in the Autumn.

"FALLING LEAVES
HIDE THE PATH
SO QUIETLY."
~John Bailey


*PUMPKIN UPDATE:  Something is afoot in Britain, because Pumpkin Spice is starting to finally show up.  Pumpkin Spice Lattes just arrived in Oxford, and today I finally had one.  It was the best Pumpkin Spice Latte I've ever had--maybe because it was the first one for several years.  I even found Pumpkin Spice yogurt this week, so I guess pumpkins are catching on and Thanksgiving away from home might be a little easier to bear now.