Determination and deprivation

(A post which deals with food and writing at the same time, in which I make two scary resolutions, but both for good reason.)


So, it’s been November for a week already. This brings me to the first of my resolutions:


Thousands of crazy writers, professional and otherwise, wow to try writing a 50 000 word novel in 30 days. It might not be for every writer, but I think it’s worth giving it a shot. This is how I discovered I could actually finish something. Some people use it as an opportunity to hammer out a first draft of something they need to write anyway, others will see it as an ‘holiday’ from their normal, ‘serious’ writing – a month where you give yourself the license to write something without thinking too much about it, while others (most of the participants, I suspect), do it for the sheer fun of it, just to create something, even if no one will ever read it.

I’ve done NaNo twice before, but this year it will be a quite different challenge for me. Cause this year, I’m also doing rewriting/ revisions on a manuscript that my editor is waiting for. Yes, proper, ‘serious’ writing that I’m getting paid for and stuff. (A first for me.) I’ve decided to try doing NaNo as well as working on my MS. For NaNo, I’ll be trying to finish another novel that is half-finished, and has been sitting around in a drawer for ages waiting for me to rekindle my enthusiasm for it. I’m hoping NaNoWriMo will help with that. It’s been a week already, and although I’m way behind on the word count, I’m optimistic and starting to care about those old characters again (while not losing interest in my other MS either, so I’d call the experiment a success for far).

To any writers who has never tried the wonderful November madness; I highly recommend it. It’s wonderful what deadlines and optimistic pressure will do for productivity. Also, they run @NaNoWordSprints on twitter, and sprinting is fun, and awesome! Also, the NaNoWriMo community is fun and supportive. Check out the website.

Now, anyone would think that this would be enough of a challenge for one month, but I figured I might as well use the November momentum for a food-related challenge as well. Which brings us to my next scary resolution:


Wheat-and-dairy-free Month

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and it seemed the right time for it. One challenge can propel the other along, so to speak. The (rather uninteresting) background for this, is that I’ve had some pain in my joints for over a year now, and so far the doctors have been unable to tell me what it is (except that it’s NOT arthritis). After some googling, I’ve seen that many people experience relief from similar symptoms after cutting wheat and dairy, so I’ve decided to try it for at least a month to see if there’s any difference. (I tried just going dairy-free for a month, and while there wasn’t much difference to my joints, my skin was noticeably clearer and healthier.)


So far, so good. I’ve been doing this for almost two weeks now, and so far, no big difference to my joints, but a huge one to my skin (and also some improvement in digestion).

I’d like to think that I don’t really see this as something scary and restricting, but rather as an exciting opportunity to try something new, and cook in ways I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. But the big challenge here is of course, TREATS. (Hey, if you’re going to write a novel in 30 days, you’re going to need a LOT of treats. You know, stuff you can nibble while typing, that will fuel you through sleepless nights when your characters won’t let you go to bed (ok, maybe not, after all, I have another MS to work on, and a normal day job every other day)). So because the job that really pays the bills (for now, anyway), is only every second day, so I’ll have time for writing in between, this means I’m not exactly rich. I’m on a rather tight budget, so there’s no money for lots of expensive gluten-free baked goods (3 times the normal price for a packet of Jaffa Cakes that taste less than the normal ones? Are you kidding me?). This means I had a big baking day, where I tried to make my own treats and breakfast foods (but mainly treats, to be honest), without dairy or wheat.

No real butter? No cream, milk, cheese, yoghurt, or white flour? How can you bake anything yummy with these restrictions challenges?

Very soon, there will be a big, bold Baking Bonanza Blog post, in which you will find out whether I succeeded in making anything edible.



PS. Bedtime reading!

I’ve finished The Book of Negroes (which, I’ve discovered, is called Someone Knows My Name in the US, because the word Negro just wouldn’t fly there, even though the title is lifted from a historical document which is vital to the story). The last time I mentions it, I said it was a bit of an anitclimax after The Book of Night Women (written by the extremely talented Marlon James), and I know why -the latter is written in such a rich, evocative, almost hypnotic language, that it makes other books seem almost simplistically written in comparison. However, that is not the case with The Book of Negroes, which is actually written in a straighforward, et sometimes lyrical style. It just took some ‘acclimatizing’ to normal English again after the ‘vernacular’ of The Book of Night Women. (I think the language and writing style might merit its own blog post at some point, because it made me think a lot about writing voive.) And I highly recommend both books – the suck you into their worlds and make you care about their (very different) protagonists.

Now, I’m going to start The Long Song by Andrea Levy, and hope it lives up to these two! Also, I’d love reading recommendations! (Not just about slavery! Although it might seem like I read about nothing else at the moment. I’m open to anything, although I have a fondness for well told historicals, magical realism, and realistic/urban/historical fantasy.)



Time yourself – a quickie

(In which I try to conquer procrastination and lazyness. Ambitious, isn’t it?)

First of all, mind out of the gutter. Not that kind of quickie, you dodgy person. This is just going to be a quick post about quick stuff.

Second: Yes, time yourself. No, don’t time yourself doing any old activity. In fact, I can think of a number of activities which are vastly improved if you manage to forget time completely. I’m talking about writing (or any work which can be divided into chunks and, well, timed).

If you’re anything like me, then you’ll have the occasional problem with procrastinating. (If not, you’re either inhumanly structured, or lying. Most likely the latter.) Working at home there’s no one to see if you’re actually working, which can be a blessing and a curse. Suddenly the dishes need washing, and I’ll just check Facebook before I start, and shouldn’t I colour-coordinate my sock drawer? Wouldn’t my mind be clearer and thus more prepared for writing if my flat was all organised, feng shui-style?

The thing is, I love writing. I love when everything is just flowing, the words keep coming I forget time, and it doesn’t seem like work at all. I just have problems starting. It sometimes seems like there’s a huge step up to the plateau of flow, and my legs are too short. I need a good kick up the bum. If only there was an escalator.

Actually, there is. 15 minute magic. I’ve found it helps a lot to trick myself, saying ‘I’ll only work for 15 minutes’. 15 minutes is nothing. It doesn’t seem like a big commitment. I set my timer for 15 minutes and see how much I can get done in that short space of time. (If it helps, you can imagine you only have 15 minutes to save the world, and everyone is depending on you writing down something. Picture yourself as Jack Bauer, Doctor Who, or Flash Gordon if you will. Whatever floats your boat. It certainly lends a hint of excitement to the proceedings.)

Can’t get anything done in 15 minutes, you say? Go on, I dare you. Try it. You might find that you’re quicker than you think (or that 15 minutes is longer than you think. Maybe times moves differently when you’ve got an egg timer on. Who knows?). Also, when my time is up, I usually find that I’ve tricked myself into becoming sucked into the work, and I’ll be in the middle of something and don’t want to stop. So the 15 minutes can turn into hours if you’re lucky.

Sometimes you only have a few minutes, and it can be great to cram some work into those pockets of time that you wouldn’t have used for anything useful anyway. Grab your pen and notebook (or your preferred instruments) while waiting for the laundry or when you’ve got a dinner in the oven. You’ll be forced to stop when that dinner is ready, of course, but hopefully it will leave you in a good place, hungry for more (your chunk of work, not your dinner). So the next time you’re sitting down with your work, you’ve been interrupted in the middle of something, and you’re eager to continue.

The frantic, timed writing is great when you’ve got a first draft to get out, but getting yourself started by timing small chunks works for other stuff as well. It worked great for me today with some rewrites of a manuscript that my editor is waiting patiently for. I started my 15 minutes with reading through a scene which needs to be amped up a bit, tension-wise, and when the time was up, I had discovered new angles to the scene and started jotting down quick suggestions for improvement. By this time, my interest in the scene (which I thought I had re-written and re-read so many times I couldn’t possibly see it a new way) was re-ignited, and there was no stopping me. This provided a great starting point for more than an hours work, and some new love for a scene that I thought sucked. 


I would never have discovered the wonders of timing if it wasn’t for NaNoWriMo. It stands for National Novel Writing Month, and though there’s nothing national about this crazy venture, it’s certainly novel, and if you write, or have ever wanted to, you should check it out.


Well, that’s just one of my strategies for kicking myself up the bum! Do you have any good ones?


Bedtime reading: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. I’ve just started it, and so far, it’s ok, but a bit of an anticlimax after reading the marvellous, hypnotic and harrowing Book of Night Women  by Marlon James, which deals with similar themes. But I’m giving it a fair chance – I’ve read some really glowing reviews of this book.




Taste of autumn – Apples

(A not-so-thorough post about apples, in which I make an unexpected dicovery, prepare some apples for freezing, and make my first ever store-bought-pastry pie.)

Despite sitting outside in shorts and T-shirt for the past 2 days, I finally have to admit defeat and realise that autumn is well and truly here.

The thing about autumn though – it’s a gracious winner. Once you surrender, you realise autumn is actually pretty great; a treasure-chest of all things cosy and comforting.

This would have been even prettier if I'd taken it yesterday, when it was all sunny and golden.

There’s pretty colours on the trees, you can stay inside with tea and a good book, without feeling that you HAVE to go outside because it’s sunny, lots of great TV shows start up again after summer hiatus, and there’s plenty of new seasonal produce around. If you’re lucky, you might find some just outside your door.
World's smallest orchard

'My' apple trees

After living in this flat for almost 3 years, I suddenly discovered, not only one, but two apple trees outside my window. To be fair, I’ve always sort of known the trees were there (I may live in my own little world, but not to that extent!), but I’ve never noticed the apples. I must mention that I live in a block of flats with a shared garden, so I spend very little time there.

Needless to say, this was a very exciting discovery (maybe not Colombus-coming-to- America-exciting, but at least spare-fiver-down-the-back-of-the-sofa-exciting). It’s almost getting a bit too cold for apples now, but there were some left, and after a good rummage on the ground, I found a few that I could use (and also made the slighty less thrilling discovery of a dead mouse in the process).

There’s just something about apples that says ‘autumn’ in a way that recalls golden childhood evenings spent nicking apples from unsuspecting neighbours’ gardens under a canopy of flaming leaves (not that I’ve ever done this, of course. Stealing apples is bad, kids. Also, the owner of the tree is usually all too happy to get rid of a few apples if you ask first. Although that isn’t nearly as thrilling).

Apples aren’t exactly expensive in the shops right now, but there’s a special feeling about cooking with apples that you’ve picked yourself (and that probably aren’t full of pesticides and stuff).

Flawed, but beautiful

They’re not as pretty as the apples in the shops, but beneath those lumps and discolourings lurks a wealth of flavours. I have no idea what variety they are, but there were 2 different kinds, which were both crispy and juicy with a tangy flavour.

There’s obviously a huge amount of things you can do with apples, but one of my absolute favourites is apple pie. There’s not going to be a proper, thorough recipe this time, but maybe later. The reason is that I decided to try some ready-made puff pastry I had in my freezer, and see how it turned out. Yes, this was my first time making pie without making the pastry first, and I was rather sceptical. (No less so because my ready-made puff pastry didn’t acually contain any butter! That’s right, pastry without butter. It just doesn’t sound natural. I think they put in some vegetable margarine and oils instead. The reason I wanted to try this, is that I might go back on a dairy-free diet I tried a while ago (more about that later, most likely). And since I can’t live without pie, and dairy-free butter is quite expensive and hard to find around here, while this puff pastry was relatively cheap and available in a shop near me, this might work out cheaper and easier than making my own.)

Wow, that was a long parenthesis – and parenthesis within parenthesis! The proof-reader part of me would have something to say about that.

Anyway. I started with peeling and slicing the apples, leaving some for freezing (put some lemon or lime juice in the freezer bag with the apples, so they don’t turn brown, and freeze them as flat as possible for quicker defrosting).

Sliced apples. In case you didn't know what that looks like.

I froze 3 medium apples, about the right amount to fill my pie tin.

I then filled my pie tin with the defrosted pastry sheets and a layer of the apple slices that I didn’t freeze. On top of that went a liberal sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a few dollops of jam. Whenever I don’t pre-cook the apples with some water and sugar, I usually put in some jam, fruit compote, of whatever I’ve got around to keep things from becoming too dry. This time, I used some cheap and horrible strawberry jam, and a bit of fancier apricot jam. (At this stage I would normally sprinkle sugar over the apples as well, but I forgot, to be honest. Luckily it didn’t matter, as my jam and apples were sweet enough, and I prefer to keep some of the tang from the apples anyway, not make it sickly sweet).
Sticky goodness

First layer of apples with spices and jam.

Yep, the edges are pretty uneven and ugly. I just couldn’t be bothered, and besides: round pie dish+rectangular pastry sheets. you do the math.
Then one more layer, with more spices, but no jam. This time, I laid the apple slices out a little bit prettier, to compensate for my lazy pastry-shaping.

Just before going into the oven.

 While the pie is in the oven, there’s time for a large cup of tea, two You-Tube-videos, three medium-sized magazine articles, or a short episode of a TV show (Friends, for instance). Which means I baked it for about 20-25 minutes at 200 degrees Celcius.

If you put your head really close to the computer, and believe, you can detect a faint aroma of apples and cinnamon. Or so the legend goes.

I don’t know if you can see it in this photo (well, now that I’ve told you, you will see it), but it sort of puffs up weirdly to the right. Because I used puff pastry. (Shouldn’t have told you.) Unsurprisingly, the deformed puffed bit was the best part.
Verdict:  Store-bought puff pastry is puffier than homemade (maybe because I’m no pastry expert yet, I tend to make shortcrust more often), and not having to actually make it is a bonus. But it’s also less flavourful, which could be due to the no-dairy thing. If I’m short on time, or can’t be bothered with flour all over my kitchen, or decide to do the no-dairy thing and can’t find dairy-free butter (or it’s really expensive), then this is a great alternative. Especially if the other option is no pie at all. Dreadful thought.

Something's missing here... Oh, yes, ice cream.

How can you have apple pie without ice cream? I hear you ask in dismay as you look at my photo. I’ll tell you how: not have any in your freezer because you decided to go dairyfree a while back, and haven’t bought any since, not even that dodgy soy stuff, because you’ve overcompensated for having no dairy by making lots of homecooked comfort food, and the freezer is now too stuffed with these things to accommodate a tub of ice cream as well.
But a cup of chai almost makes up for the lack of it. (Just don’t use rice milk in tea! Ever. Seriously. It doesn’t give any milky flavour to the tea at all, but instead makes it more watery and grey. Not good.)
I ate this while watching the excellent True Blood finale. Nothing like pie to enhance the southern atmosphere. (Well, it was either that, or have blackcurrant squash and pretend to be a vampire.)
Bedtime reading:  Neil Gaiman’s short story collection Smoke and Mirrors. You should read it too! (Just don’t read the story called ‘The Price’ when you’re alone and it’s dark.)