Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Healthy Banana Muffins

I haven't been baking as much recently. It's taken me a while to get back into the routine of school after a solid four months without it and when I'm not doing homework I'm practising music or trying to catch up with Doctor Who/GBBO. Still, I find that I get withdrawal symptoms from baking after a while (is that even possible?) and so the other day I decided to do something about it by creating a few muffins. 

It's partly inspired by Joy's Vegan muffins (here) but also by my desire to taste something cinnamon-y again. As you all know, I can't keep myself away from the stuff! I do love my fruity bakes though; and is there anything more perfect than the banana-cinnamon-nut combo? 

Best of all... these are really healthy! Well, as healthy as muffins can be. There's no artificial sugar - all of the sweetness comes from the honey and banana - and the only fats in the muffin are from coconut oil and pecan nuts. In fact, as Joy says, you could easily have one or two of these for breakfast. Though they do taste excellent at any time of day! 

I've used a proper egg as opposed to chia seeds (so it isn't vegan) and used ordinary wholemeal flour, as well as changing the quantities very slightly. (read: using 'a sprinkle' of spice instead of using teaspoons.) Also, because it's my birthday this week  I only made six of these (surely there'll be birthday cake) - but you can multiply the quantities if you wish. 

Healthy Banana Muffins (makes 6)
 1 banana, mashed
1 egg
1/4 cup honey plus 1 tsp
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
few tsp coconut oil, melted
1 cup wholemeal flour 
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
handful pecan nuts, roughly chopped, plus 6 whole pecans to decorate
ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, ground cloves in ratio 2:1:1 to your personal spice preference 

1. Heat the oven to 175°C. Line a muffin tin. 

2. Mix the bananas, eggs, honey, vanilla and coconut oil. 

3. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients. 

4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix well until all of the flour is combined. 

5. Spoon into cases, top with a pecan nut and bake for 15 - 20 minutes until browned. 

Thanks, Joy, for the inspiration! 

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Game of Thrones

Am I always going to be the last person to 'catch on' to new series?

I'd heard a lot about GoT. The tv series has been filmed right here in Northern Ireland - friends of mine have stumbled upon a set in the hills, a popular beach was recently roped off for filming and there's even whole tour dedicated to it! Not having Sky TV meant that I'd never seen an episode (and with them rated 18 and over here in the UK I wasn't sure if I wanted to) so it hadn't been something that captured my attention.

Still, when Tesco's offer of 'two books for £7' caught my eye, how could I resist? With one book alone retailing at £9, this was a bargain that couldn't be ignored. I picked up 'The Goldfinch' (next on my To Read list) and the first book in the GoT series.

I was unsure of what to expect - one friend warned that I was too 'innocent' for the book! - and so I read the first few pages with some apprehension. Four hundred and eighty-eight pages on and I can say that I have been well and truly sucked in the GoT hole.

For those of you that don't know, 'Game Of Thrones' is a series based in a faraway, icy land. Book One focuses on the Starks of Winterfell - a collection of likeable characters. Ned is a strong, sensible lord who is good friends with King Robert and one of his most trusted advisers. He has lived happily for many years, until now. People have gone missing beyond the Wall (a huge wall guarded by Watchers, to prevent ghostly Others and any wild beasts from entering the kingdom), monstrous direwolves have been seen running close to the castle (looks like the the Wall didn't work well) and there are threatening whispers of what is happening beyond the kingdom.

When the king's right hand man mysteriously dies, King Robert turns to Ned for help. Ned moves to the kingdom's capital to support the King, leaving a broken family behind. As he learns more of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the Hand's death, he begins to fear for his family and for what may happen to them if he does not act. The book is full of action and cliff hangers and I had to be reminded to set it down whilst I was having a meal!

The book jumps between various characters - a great technique for keeping suspense. Just make sure to read the chapter heading to find out which character you're following! Currently my favourite character is Jon (though that's mainly because I want a wolf)... I'm not quite sure how I feel about Daenreys yet. There are a lot of names but despite that I found the story easy to follow (unlike Wolf Hall); it's possibly because each character is so unique and easily distinguishable from the others. 

Of all of the books I've read recently, I found that GoT was the one I was most enamoured with. I've been working my way through a few American classics and whilst I appreciate them as works of literature, I didn't feel as if they captured my attention wholeheartedly. GoT was a book that I couldn't put down for a second - and I didn't want to finish it because I didn't want the spell to end! I can't wait to read the next books and discover what happens. 

Have you ever read Game Of Thrones? Or are you more of a tv person? What did you think of it? 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Plums all day, everyday (plum compote recipe)

As with last year, the plum trees have been working overtime. We've collected at least two large baskets full of misty purple plums and there are still plenty more on the tree. 

It's hard to beat a freshly-picked plum. It fits into the palm of your hand and as you bite into it the skin suddenly breaks apart, releasing a sweet, juicy interior. Mind the stone in the centre! 

Still, there are only so many crumbles a girl can take (or rather, only so many crumbles her stomach can take). We needed to use the plums quickly before they began to rot! Enter... stewed plums with Greek yoghurt and granola!

In a way it's a deconstructed crumble. But I like to think of it as a healthier version of my favourite pudding - as long as you change the ratio of fruit to crumble a bit!

Thick and tangy Greek yoghurt combined with softly stewed, lightly spiced plums...all topped off with a sprinkling of crispy granola. You could make the granola and/or yoghurt yourself if you're really out to impress; but otherwise, shop-bought will do. (My favourite yoghurt is here and favourite granolas here and here).

Stewed plums (serves 4)
8 - 10 plums (400g when de-stoned)
3 dsp light brown muscovado sugar
3 cloves
1/2 tsp ground ginger

granola and greek yoghurt, to serve

1. Halve and de-stone the plums. Place them in a saucepan over a medium heat with the sugar, cloves and the ginger. Cook for 10 minutes or so until soft, turning down the heat if needs be. 

2. Eat hot or leave to cool slightly. Serve with Greek yoghurt and some crunchy granola and enjoy nature's beautiful harvest. 

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Life Lately - August

August has been a funny month. It entered slowly, without much fanfare; yet whizzed past in the blink of an eye!

This month I have...

... taken inspiration from this pin and made my own fruit-themed wrapping paper. Potato printing is addictive!

... eaten some great food in Belfast - bagels at City Picnic and a delicious meal at The Potted Hen (review to come).

... spent precious time at the North Coast with my family after some successful GCSE results.

... been inspired by the Great British Bake Off to bake some spelt and seed bread. 

... won the Matcha Green Tea set from Izzy's give-away. Any recipe suggestions would be appreciated - so far I only have one recipe for a cupcake!

... returned to school to study my four favourite subjects - French, Spanish, English Literature and History. I'm a little overexcited! 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Clean, simple, effortless dressing

Another new type of post for me - a style post. (Oooooh!)

I do love a bit of fashion. Over the years I've gone through various phases - the black phase (I think everyone can identify!), the hoodie-jeans-and-Converse phase, the let's-be-cool-and-buy-Hollister phase. (Maybe that last one was rather short.) Oh, and let's not forget the I-wish-I'd-been-born-in-Victorian-England-so-I'll-buy-floaty-dresses stage.

But now, after some experimentation, I think I'm finally beginning to find my true style. Pinterest has been a great help, of course, and I have a dedicated style board that I flick through when I need a bit of outfit inspiration. 

I think I've finally begun to realise that I'm not really that into current trends. Yes, I like to dip a toe or two into each season, but realistically I don't have the time (nor the money!) to buy a whole new wardrobe every three months. At the moment I've been focusing on buying practical, timeless clothes that will co-ordinate with the rest of my wardrobe. I'm sure I haven't been the only one to buy a top only to find that it doesn't match anything I have!

Here are a few pictures of what currently inspires me. Clean, simple and effortless - with some little details in the form of jewellery and accessories. I don't want to look too fussy, nor too masculine. Just... chic.

It's a pretty grown-up style for a girl my age. Sometimes I wander into TopShop and leave again without having seen anything I like. But it's all part of finding out who I am - and I'm happy to embrace it.

This would be perfect for a lazy morning. That handbag....!

I love, love, love Olivia Palermo. I also love my boyfriend jeans - and this looks like a great outfit for the transition into Autumn.

Stripes and leather loafers? I'm sold.

This is also a great little number for when the cooler weather sets in. The cosy coat and the layered scarf plus an essential pair of loafers and a snazzy black handbag. Understated but gorgeous.

So, what about you? What's your style?

Monday, 1 September 2014

Book Review #1 - The Grapes of Wrath

I had actually intended for my post about books to be my first book review. I had planned it out - a little introduction to me and why I love to read, followed by a nice sentence that linked into this review. However, when I began to type I realised the post would have to be split into two parts because there was simply so much to say.

So, without further ado (you've waited long enough already), let's launch into my new series of book reviews with a gritty one - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. 

If you study GCSE English Literature, you may have had the opportunity to read 'Of Mice and Men' by Mr Steinbeck himself. One of my friends loved the book and recommended it to me - but we didn't have a copy at home. (I refuse to buy Kindle books when I could have the real paper product in front of me. Call me old-fashioned.) 
Still, my urge to read Steinbeck could not be calmed. If we didn't have OMaM, I would have to find something else... and here entered The Grapes of Wrath! 

I read the book without knowing very much about America in the 1930s. Yes, TKAM (To Kill a Mockingbird, keep up!) was set in the same decade, but Harper Lee focused very much on the prejudice of society and so I didn't know that much about America during the Great Depression. 

I've done a little bit of research and found out that Steinbeck 'frequently used his fiction to delve into the lives of society's most downtrodden citizens' (link), and that certainly comes across in this book. He focuses on the Joad family - a farming family, driven away from their dusty, overcultivated land by the threat of large companies and the hope of something better in California. 

Unfortunately the Sunshine State isn't as sunny as they hoped. Everyone else in America has had the same idea and it's difficult to find work amongst all of the orchards. There is nowhere to stay but in camps, where the threat of being burnt out of their tents by the local sheriff is real.The government camps are brilliant, but it's impossible to stay there for long. It seems as if they are unloved and unwanted - the cast-offs of society.  The local people look down on the 'Okies' and seem to treat them like animals; they don't recognise that the travellers are simply trying to make a living. 

It seems as if nothing is going well for the Joads. In that way, the book is quite dismal. Steinbeck doesn't shy away from killing off characters and disaster after disaster occurs. But I kept reading because I wanted to find out what would happen to this family that I had come to know so well - cheerful and organised Ma, optimistic Rose of Sharon, the quickly maturing Al... I felt a real connection with these people and I wished that I could make their situation better. The book is also written in a beautiful style  - descriptions of the hot, dusty journey; conversations between the shifty car dealers, perspectives from a shopkeeper - which piqued my interest and really added to the 'texture' of the book. 

As I got closer and closer to the end of the book I wondered what would happen to the family - would they suddenly be rescued from their poverty? Somehow I didn't think so; that would have been too much of a 'Hollywood' storyline for Steinbeck. The ending is abrupt, which disappointed me slightly because I like everything to be wrapped up neatly, but on reflection I can see why Mr S chose to end the book in such a way. We will never know what happened to the Joad family, nor to the thousands of other families who migrated across America. But it's important that they are remembered not only for their perseverance, but for the kindness they showed to others even when they have nothing to share. It's often said that the less you have, the more generous you are, and that's a phrase that definitely applied to the Joads. 

I enjoyed 'The Grapes of Wrath' a lot more than I thought I would. Once I got into it, it was very easy to read, and I liked learning a little more about the history of America. The book made me think about how I should treat other people, too, and how I should put myself in their shoes more often. It was challenging, thought-provoking, and a book that will linger in my memory for a while. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Sweet Potato Salad with Goats' Cheese

I'm not a big salad person. As a side with pizza or lasagne, yes. But as a meal? What about carbohydrates?!

Still, there's something to be said for the ease at which a salad can be thrown together - and recently most of my lunches have consisted of lettuce, cucumber, beetroot and coleslaw with some ham. It's different from a sandwich (which I eat four or five times a week during term time) and makes a nice change!

I love looking at salad recipes but I rarely make them (as happens with most things pinned on my Pinterest boards). However, when I saw Katy's lovely looking recipe with roasted squash and sweet potato, cheese and courgette, it sounded right up my street. I'm a big fan of roasted vegetables (see roasted vegetable summer pasta and stuffed squash) and what savoury meal can't be made better with a sprinkling of cheese? 

I varied the recipe slightly according to what we had in the house. Chickpeas for extra protein, goats'  cheese instead of feta (come on, it's goats' cheese!), omitting the squash because we didn't buy one during the week... the beauty of savoury cooking as opposed to baking is that it is possible to fiddle around with ingredients  so that you end up with a recipe that is perfect for you - not for anyone else. 

Have you cooked anything 'experimental' recently? I'd love to know!

Warm Sweet Potato Salad (serves 1)
1/2 - 1 sweet potato
handful chickpeas 
goats' cheese, chopped
balsamic vinegar
1/2 courgette
flavourless oil e.g vegetable
salt and pepper

*I added in half a yellow pepper because it needed using up. *

1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C. Cut the sweet potato into chunks, drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for twenty minutes or until soft.

2. Grate the courgette into a bowl. Add in the cooked sweet potato, chickpeas and goats' cheese. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and tuck in!