A postcard from Oxford

Oxford City Radcliffe Camera

Dear Claire,

 

Just a quick post today because I am on my way to see you in person! I cannot wait to be back in Oxford – looking forward to pubs and meadows and window boxes and reunions – and most of all, sharing some wonderful time with you!

Let’s hope both our trains are on time and I will see you shortly at the station….

train-3010877_1920.jpgMuch love,
Sam

Banana bread – an easy recipe to try at home

Dear Sam,

 

Hearing about your day in the fresh air and your trip to the farmers’ market inspired me to get out to our local market this week, too. Amongst the various stalls is one which sells fruit and veg; I’m always intrigued by a selection they have of produce which is a bit wonky or slightly past its best. Rather than letting all this good food go to waste, it’s sold off at bargain prices and is perfect for cooking up soups, pasta sauces or fruit puddings. I often pick up some battered bananas to make a breakfast favourite of ours, banana bread, and I thought I’d share the recipe with you this time. In fact, I always think about you when I make it, as the recipe is adapted from a National Trust cookbook you gave me about 30 years ago! Here it is:

Banana bread – delicious and simple to make

Ingredients

UK

125g butter or soft margarine

125g caster sugar

225g mashed bananas – perfect if they have gone spotty

1 egg, beaten lightly

200 g plain flour

Quarter teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 heaped teaspoon baking powder

Quarter teaspoon vanilla essence

US

4oz or 1 stick butter 

1/2 cup superfine sugar

8oz overripe bananas, mashed 

1 large egg, beaten lightly

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon vanilla essence

spotty bananas
Overripe bananas are particularly good for this recipe

Preheat oven 180 C, 350 F, gas mark 4

Grease and line a 450g/1lb loaf tin.

Cream together the sugar and butter until they are pale and light and fluffy in texture. 

Stir the mashed bananas into the creamed mixture and add the beaten egg. It’s likely to look curdled at this point, but don’t worry, that’s fine.

Fold in the dry, sieved ingredients little by little, then add the vanilla essence. Spoon the mixture into your lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for 45 to 50 minutes. When the banana bread is ready it will spring back when you press it in the centre with your finger.

Let it cool in the tin for around 10 – 15 minutes, then turn it out and put it on a wire rack to become completely cool. Store in an airtight container and it will be fine for 4 – 5 days.

morning coffee
Perfect with a cup of coffee

I love to eat this cut into thick slices spread with a little butter. If you find you like it, it’s worth making two loaves at a time as it freezes very well.

I’ve just checked online and, according to Zero Waste Week an incredible 1.6 million bananas are thrown away in the UK every day! This recipe goes to prove that with a bit of effort, you can turn even the least appealing food into something good. As the saying goes, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade* and I think you could add, if life bruises your bananas, bake banana bread.

Until next time, I will leave you with that profound thought!

Much love,

Claire

* or a gin and tonic.

 

 

Spring planting!

Dear Claire,

 

I hope you had a wonderful trip to Florence – full of good food and wine and sunshine!

I’m happy to say the sun is out here now, and spring has finally sprung. It’s lovely to be able to get outside, walk in the park and breathe in the fresh air – the perfect thing to add a little happiness to the day.

It’s the season for planting, too. I’m not much of a gardener myself, but I know that people who love to garden often say that their garden is their happy place. Little did I realize, until I came across this article recently, that there’s evidence for the garden really being a place that increases happiness, because certain microbes in the soil have an anti-depressant effect!

Since my last post, I had a great experience working with a group of families from J’s school on a service project for a local urban farm run by Journey’s End Refugee Services. The farm provides a place for refugees to learn about agriculture and the business of farming, and grow produce to sell or to bring home for their families. I think there were thirty of us, adults and children. Between us we cleaned up debris, built three large raised beds for vegetables, put together a wheelbarrow, and sanded and painted picnic tables. All in three hours one crisp Saturday morning. We got fresh air and exercise, got creative and had fun, and met parents and children we hadn’t necessarily met before. There’s no doubt we all left as happier people that day – and hopefully we’d done a little to help some of our refugee neighbors as well.

img_3654_39813762620_o.jpegimg_3515_39813765740_oimg_3599_41621082851_o.jpegimg_3802_41581093192_o.jpeg

Nothing like planting to work up an appetite – so I’m happy to report that tomorrow marks the opening of our local farmer’s market. Fresh flowers and produce, home baked bread, locally brewed coffee – or beer! – and music and friends on a Saturday morning. Happy spring!

Much love,
Sam xx

A postcard from Florence

Car on road among trees in Italy

Dear Sam,

 

Ciao from Florence!

We’re here for a few days to explore and enjoy some sunshine, good food and gelato.  I’ll take your advice and avoid plastic by choosing a cornet in place of a tub!

When I go on holiday, I like to take a book that suits the destination, so before we left home I downloaded the audiobook of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View from Librivox and it’s proving to be the perfect soundtrack to our trip.

Florence, Italy skyline
A view of the river Arno in Florence, as requested in ‘A Room with a View’.

A presto!

Much love,

Claire

 

 

Treat the Earth Well

Dear Claire,

 

Gosh. It’s quite sobering to think that even the humble tea bag can contribute to the plastic in our oceans. Blue Planet is also popular in the US and the prevalence of plastic in our world has become quite a topic of conversation here, too. It’s all very timely, because this weekend marks Earth Day, and the focus of their campaign this year is ending plastic pollution.

I was  heartened to read recently that since all stores in the UK introduced a 5p charge for plastic bags back in 2015, there has been an 85% drop in the number of single-use plastic bags given out by major retailers – and a 30% drop in the number of plastic bags on the seabed. So such initiatives really can make a difference.

It’s not just Earth Day this weekend, but also the first World Creativity and Innovation Day. So with that in mind I’ve been on the lookout for creative ideas for ways we can limit our purchase of plastics or re-use the plastics we do end up with in our homes. Here are three of my favorites:

  • Turn K-cups into seedling starters – perfect because they already have a hole in the bottom.
  • Switch from plastic straws to paper ones, or better still, go straw-free. Did you know that 500 million straws are used every day in the US? Enough to circle the earth twice!
  • And my favorite: Instead of buying that plastic container for your freezer, go out and treat yourself to an ice cream cone!

ice-cream-2202605_1920.jpg

I particularly like this one because in the middle of April, it’s still snowing in Buffalo!

Love,
Sam

“Treat the Earth well. It was not given to you by your parents,
it was loaned to you by your children.”
Kenyan proverb

 

The cup that cheers…

Dear Sam,

 

I trust you had a  happy Day of Happiness, too? And, speaking of things that make me happy, I want to talk to you today about something very simple that certainly cheers me up – a refreshing cup of tea.

Blue Planet 2 was mesmerising

Earlier this year, it seemed like the whole of the population of the UK was glued to our television screens watching Blue Planet 2, the latest wildlife programme presented by Sir David Attenborough. Has it been broadcast in the US yet? As well as marvelling at the wonders the series depicted and the talent of the team involved in producing it, we were appalled at the story it told of the damage that plastic pollution is doing to the seas. Like a lot of people, I found that watching it made me rethink the way that I shop, in a bid to cut down on how much plastic I’m buying.  Although our local council has a good recycling programme, it’s clear that the less plastic we consume, the better it will be for the planet.

No more plastic in my tea

That may sound like a digression from the subject of tea, but I was even more shocked to learn that the teabags I’d been blithely putting in the compost bin also contained plastic (as part of the seal around the seams, apparently). So, in a bid to cut this out, I decided to try using loose leaf tea again.  Although tea bags are very convenient, I’ve discovered that I quite enjoy the ritual of making a cup of tea with a bit more effort.  It was also an excuse to go for a browse in a kitchen shop to choose a tea diffuser, which makes dealing with the used leaves a bit easier.

 

Tea leaf diffuser
Tea diffusers come in all shapes and sizes

 

Since I’ve started this, I’ve read that several tea companies over here have announced that they are bowing to public pressure to remove the plastic from their manufacturing process; there are also companies that produce biodegradable bags – this is usually listed on the box.

As I also take milk in my tea, I’m lucky that I don’t need to buy lots more plastic thanks to our doorstep delivery. I think that the milk round has been seeing a bit of a resurgence in popularity recently – as it brings the milk to you in reusable glass bottles delivered (even in the snow!) on an electric milk float, it’s a pretty green option.

So, I think thanks are due to Sir David and the wonderful creatures we all discovered in his programme for doing more to change people’s behaviour by entertaining and educating us than any information campaign could have done.

That’s it for today – time to put the kettle on.

Much love,

Claire

Happy Day of Happiness!

International Day of Happiness

Dear Claire,

 

I’m posting this a little earlier than usual this week, because today is the International Day of Happiness. And I wanted to share these ideas from Action for Happiness for some simple acts of kindness to make a difference to someone today:

  • Offer to help
  • Give away your change
  • Pay a compliment
  • Make someone smile

Here’s something that I hope will make you smile – a memory of that British childhood favorite, Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Happy, narrated by Arthur Lowe.

I hope you have a happy Happy Day – and happy spring!

Much love,
Sam

 

 

What to do with clutter after you’ve cleared it?

Paintbrushes in a jar

Dear Sam,

I’m glad to hear the gingerbread went down well. I’ll look for some more recipes for us to try before long. Perhaps something savoury next time.

How are you getting along with cutting down on using your phone? I’ve just had an unplanned Digital Detox as we’ve been to see G’s Mum who doesn’t have Wi-Fi. I must admit, I enjoyed being away from the internet and using the time to read more, though I do seem to have slipped back into old habits now we’re home again. Perhaps the trick for me is to pretend I’m in north Wales.

Finding a new home for old furniture

Like you, I’ve been thinking lately about clearing some clutter. We’ve recently redecorated our bedroom and have had to part with some wardrobes and other furniture that was surplus to requirement. Although our local council will collect large items, I didn’t want them to go to landfill. They were serviceable but I didn’t feel confident in trying to sell them ourselves, so what to do with them? Fortunately, after searching online, I realised that the British Heart Foundation have a furniture shop nearby. They were really helpful; after sending them an email, they called me back to arrange for their staff to collect the furniture. They arrived right on time and were very professional. A couple of weeks later, we received a letter to let us know how much money the furniture had raised. Certainly better than sending it to the skip!

Your unwanted item might be perfect for someone

When something hasn’t been suitable for donation to a charity shop, the other option I’ve used in the past is Freecycle. I’m not sure if you have this in the US, but it’s a website where people can list things they no longer want or post requests for items they need, so you can also match your item to someone who is looking for that very thing. It can be really rewarding to pass possessions on to new owners; when my parents moved house we used Freecycle to rehome some large garden planters full of spring bulbs. They went to a gardening-mad couple who were thrilled with them, as the stone had aged beautifully in the time my parents had enjoyed owning them.

Window panes with snow
Snow is much more enjoyable when it stays outside the house.

I’ll be using Freecycle again soon, as during the recent wintry weather, two inches of snow ended up in our attic. Fortunately, we managed to clear it out before it melted, but it reminded us that we have far too much stored up there and now’s the time to sort it out!

Much love,

Claire

P.S I should also tell you about two acts of kindness during our renovations. We used a local carpenter and decorator and, accidentally, the decorator damaged one of our new wardrobes. Not only did the carpenter sort it out for us at no cost, but the decorator bought wine and flowers to thank us for our patience, and beer to thank the carpenter. Top customer service and all-round kind behaviour – big firms take note!

 

Digital Detox

Give up cell phone

Dear Claire,

Thanks so much for the gingerbread recipe! Not only were the biscuits a hit at home, I made a batch for a church bake sale a couple of weekends ago, in support of a group of students going on a service trip to Philadelphia next month. There were rather a lot of chocolate brownies at that bake sale, too. A good thing it happened before the beginning of Lent!

A different kind of fasting

You might remember that last year I decided to give up clutter for Lent, and I’m doing the same again. I’ve also taken a deep breath and given up something else – having my mobile phone by my bedside at night. I’ve been using my phone as an alarm clock, but have got into the habit as well of checking news and texts and emails immediately before switching the light out, and then again as soon as I wake up. I know it means I’m not transitioning restfully in and out of the day, but there’s something about that mobile phone that is a terrible draw. I’m hearing more and more people say the same, and seeing more and more studies coming out about the potentially addictive nature of all our digital devices. We are the last generation not actually to have grown up with them, and we are only just beginning to understand the impact on our children’s development.

Good tech, bad tech

I don’t want to suggest that I think cell phones are a bad thing – on the contrary, they are a wonderful way to keep in touch with each other, and a platform for some of the brilliant ideas we’ve written about this past year, like Free Rice and Charity Miles. But I’m a believer in all things in moderation, so I decided that this Lent, in the spirit of being more intentional and mindful, I would switch my cell phone back to an old-fashioned alarm clock. It’s not a full-blown ‘digital detox’ (at least one enterprising company here has actually launched a summer camp for adults where technology is completely forbidden) but I do actually feel a difference.

Now, if only I could get my alarm clock to play the lovely wake-up harp sound I have on my phone.

Much love,
Sam

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Dalai Lama

Dear Sam,

I’m certainly looking forward to Spring, too. Although it hasn’t been anywhere near as cold here in Wales as it has your part of the US, we’ve had plenty of dark, miserable days. It was fascinating to read about all the different things that daffodils can symbolise; I hadn’t heard of the Welsh legend that being the quickest to spot one in flower brings a year of gold, but it certainly cheers me up when I see the first ones blooming. As you can imagine, we go all out for planting them in Wales and I agree with Wordsworth  that en-masse they are quite a sight, although he put it rather better than that!

I wanted to talk to you today about something else that can bring light into a gloomy day – someone being kind.  I think it’s great timing that Random Acts of Kindness Week is in February, starting on Sunday 11th, to be exact.  The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has lots of great ideas for things to do, including some ways to be kind to oneself, which is also important in the depths of winter.

One of the nicest things I think someone can do for another is to cook something, so I thought I’d share a really quick and easy recipe for some gingerbread biscuits (cookies).  These are also foolproof and popular if you have to contribute to a bake sale or cake stall.

Gingerbread Biscuits

Ingredients

UK

125g unsalted butter

100g caster sugar

3 tablespoons golden syrup

1 medium egg, beaten

300g plain flour

5 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

US

4oz or 1 stick unsalted butter

1/2 cup caster (superfine) sugar 

3 tablespoons golden syrup

1 medium egg, beaten

2 1/4 cups plain flour 

5 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon baking soda

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 C/350 F/Gas mark 4.

Grease a baking tray or line with baking paper.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon until they are fluffy and light in colour.  Beat in the egg and the syrup. Mix together thoroughly.

Sift the ground ginger, bicarbonate/baking soda and flour into the bowl. Mix into a smooth dough, adding  little more flour if very sticky.  Wrap in cling film/plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour.

Roll the dough out to a thickness of 1cm/ 1/2inch and cut out with a pastry cutter. (It’s fun to theme the cutter to the person or occasion. I have one in the shape of Jane Austen’s silhouette, which is great for book clubs or well-read friends!)

Transfer the biscuits to the baking tray, with some space in between as they will spread in the oven.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes until they are golden brown in colour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly on the tray before transferring to a cooling rack. 

If required, you can decorate the biscuits with fondant or writing icing. Present them in an airtight box or bag to keep them fresh.

gingerbread for bake sale

 Inspired by your sunny daffodils, I looked into the meanings of flowers and discovered that, in Japan, cherry blossom symbolises kindness. No other excuse needed to top this post with a picture that I hope will help brighten your day.

Much love,

Claire