What if it is all gift?

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I love gifts. I love giving them and I love receiving them. ‘Gifts’ are one of my top ‘love languages’. Unnecessary, they are given in love to bring delight, to show favour. They are usually above and beyond what we need or deserve, given ‘just because’.

Just recently I have been thinking about the idea that God chose to create, not because He had to, but because He wanted to. He made a beautiful world, affirming its goodness over and over again. Then He made us, and gave it to us to live in, to enjoy with Him. While I do not want to overlook the pain and brokenness that entered our human existence through our collective turning from God, I think that, this side of the cross, we are perhaps even in a better position to understand our lives as gift.

The story began as gift and ends as gift, John tells us that “Out of His fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given” (John 1:16). God chose to create, He chose to call Abraham, He chose rescue Israel, He chose to send Jesus. And He chooses to work in us, inviting us into fullness of life (John 10:10). What if we lived into this? What if our lives were a place where we received “Every good and perfect gift [as] from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 ‘is’ to ‘as’ – my editorial change)?

Sometimes there will be a painful tension here, I realise that. The brokenness of life ‘under the sun’ (a la Ecclesiastes) is real, so real in fact that God dealt with it fully and finally in Jesus. He knows and deeply feels our hurts, showing us by giving us Himself.

The problem of pain aside (while still wanting to acknowledge its weight), receiving a gift well actually forces our focus to shift. It involves humility, gratitude and it usually results in joy. Hands out, we open ourselves to the giver. Thanks on our lips, we slow down, stilling ourself to appreciate the moment. Delight bubbles up, not just in the gift, lovely as it maybe, but in the way it points us to the one who has given it. In recognition of their kindness toward us, their care for us.

If we received our times and our days like this, if I received my times and my days like this, I think, perhaps I might be on the right track. Because He is my Father and He does indeed give good gifts (Matthew 7:11). I think that there is a lightness to be found here, a joy God is calling us into. Grace upon grace, gift upon gift. Like a child eager for Christmas morning or their birthday, I want to try and live in anticipation of His readiness to gift – I do love presents, after all! What if our everyday-walking-around-lives were shaped by the joy of Love demonstrated in gifts given and received?

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Gifts given

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“… What do you have that you did not receive? … ” (1 Corinthians 4:7b)

Not much really! I have been musing about the idea of sacrament, ceremony and celebration recently. Thinking about the way that God made a good world, full of good things that should remind us to turn our gaze to Him in gratitude. About formalising our thanks in ceremony. About expressing and sharing our thanks in celebration.

I have been thinking about creation and Eucharist, about feasting and joy, about thankfulness. About a good world, about bread. About cake and friends to share it with. About delight and welcome. These are the threads I am beginning to trace as I learn God’s word. I am beginning to see the story about a world made in love, about good gifts given. About a King and a feast, about coming home to dinner. About fullness of life, about joy, not fear. Oh, I want to be able to tell that story. I want to tell it with loaves of bread baked in precious new pots. I want to tell it with Funfetti cake topped with butter cream frosting and sprinkles.  I want to tell it slowly and carefully and with great joy.

The psalmist tells us that “He withholds no good thing …” Psalm 84:11 and I know it to be true. Sometimes the gifts are extra special though. This last week I was given a beautiful blue le Creuset pot, heavy with the hope of bread to break and dinners to share. Newly arrived in Vancouver, only few months ago, I had also been given an preloved Kitchenaid mixer and then, last week, the bowl finally arrived. Talk about stuff being sacred – my heart and my kitchen are full! So I baked in thanks. I baked basic-bread and a party-cake. The stuff of life and the stuff of celebration. I think we need both. We need the reminder that our earthy bodies are nourished both by the earth, and by the One who offers us Himself, the true Bread of Life. And once we have remembered, we need to gather and celebrate His Goodness and His abundant welcome.

Piece of cake, anyone?!

Cake, because …

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I believe in cake.

As someone who cares about food I do try to eat healthily, to make wise choices. I know that cake is rich in sugar and fats. I know that it is a treat, a ‘special occasion’ only food.

But it is for these reasons that I believe in it. It is rich, it is a treat and a moment marked with cake becomes a special occasion. If sharing bread makes us companions, then sharing cake allows companions to celebrate!

My lovely sister-in-law recently announced her engagement. I made her a cake. A sweet, rich, special cake because we wanted to recognise the sweetness of love and new beginnings, as well as the richness of love and commitment.

Last year I wrote an essay on cake*. After examining its British-European history I reflected on the nature of contemporary cake culture in Australia. I found the whole enterprise completely fascinating. As I reflected on the way cake is bought, baked and shared – I began to reflect on the deeper meanings of this unique social phenomenon.

We share cake at special occasions, employ it to make a little moment in our everyday sweeter, offer it to extend friendship and hospitality. The type of cake and the context within which it is served can invoke both cultural and gender identities. There is just so much that some sugar, butter, egg and flour can say, can invoke, can express.

This link will connect you to the recipe that I reinterpreted for this sweet little morsel. I used a smaller tin; three 9cm tins worked instead of two 15cm ones, I changed the chocolate cake to an almond and rosewater Torte and completely muffed the swiss meringue buttercream recipe! In the end this was reinterpreted into a more regular buttercream icing instead. My embellishment was much more understated (I didn’t have the time or the patience for the original!) – the cake was topped with almonds and rose petals. I think I’ll keep tweaking the recipe for now, maybe one day I’ll share my better-documented-and-repeat-trialed version.

Despite the changes, it was an absolute hit and my thanks goes to Linda Lomelino at Call me Cupcake for sharing. My mum is not a ‘cake person’, my husband and his father prefer savoury treats to sweet … and they all liked this cake!!! The actual recipient now wants it for her wedding cake, I think my family will be returning to this recipe for many future celebrations, big and small!

*Here is a pdf version, if you are interested! CakeResearchProjectMorrisona1641657

The romance of cold pork pies

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Sometimes it takes a long time to learn something. I am a baker. You could woo me with the pretty pastels of a patisserie window any day. My husband is a savoury person. He will try anything I made (especially warm out of the oven) and loves a good chocolate chip cookie – but in his heart of hearts, it is the cheese and olives, crackers and dips that win him over every time. I may be a slow learner but I am getting there. This year, his birthday treat was my attempt at recreating Donna Hay’s cold pork pies from her Autumn Issue 8 magazine. With the help of a kind and knowledgable butcher, they worked! Here is a little taste!

The Flour Chronicles : 1

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There is a delightful scene in the movie Stranger than Fiction where Will Ferrell’s character, Harold Crick, woos the lovely cook Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) by bringing her flowers, flours that is. Flowers, flour, baking, sharing, giving – love in brown paper packages. This my friends, is the way to a baker’s heart, or perhaps at least this hopelessly romantic baker’s heart! Asher took the cue, my gushing over this particular moment in the movie, and gave me basket of flours this year on the 14th of February. Now it appears imperative that I run a series of baking experiments to try out all the different flours! The flour kitty includes;
– besan (chickpea)
– rye
– gluten
– coconut
– barley and
– millet flour.

To start with I thought I would use the rye flour to resume my long neglected attempts at making sourdough. About a year ago Asher and I visited a very out of the way second-hand bookshop with a surprisingly extensive cookbook range. I found and bought Jamie Oliver’s Happy Days with the Naked Chef particularly for its bread recipes. The sourdough recipe looked straightforward enough and I was keen to graduate from yeasted breads. In the end, after baking a loaf that could have substituted for a doorstop and throwing away the rest of the mouldy starter, I gave up and returned to the Basic Bread Recipe a few pages earlier. Simple and more predictable than sourdough, I baked nearly all our toast-and-sandwich-bread for the rest of the year with this recipe as my guide. The consistent warmth that had upset the finely tuned balance of sourdough starter microorganisms made proving the yeasted dough a dream. It seemed our hot little shed in Geraldton was just not the place to raise a sourdough starter. Now we are living somewhere cooler and more effectively insulated I thought I would try again!

Yesterday was Monday and so, following Jamie’s Sourdough Bread recipe (p256), I began my week long experiment by mixing 500g of rye flour with enough water to make a soft dough. You then let it sit outside for about an hour – presumably to pick up some interesting yeast spores – before coving it with cling wrap and bringing it back inside.

So far, so good. Stay tuned; maybe this time we’ll be lucky!

Suprise (of sorts)!

The punchline goes like this; “… and so her very-lovely-and-thoughtful husband bought her set of Propert Swift-Whip egg beaters for her birthday”. The story is; however, somewhat more complex than that phrase alone suggests!

It starts a long time ago when, on the occasion of his father’s early death, a young man, the third son, inherited his father’s repetition engineering workshop in Chatswood. While his employees trained him to be their manager – it was his humility and care for them that won their respect and loyalty. One of the regular orders they filled was for the Propert company, small components of their Swiftwhip egg beaters were formed by the metal working machinery in this factory.

The manager was my grandfather, my grandfather who would come home to his big, busy family, his hugs sprinkled with brass splinters as he helped with homework, dinner and bath time. The Swiftwhip egg beaters in our kitchen at home are not only good quality, but they stir up my mum’s memories of a happy childhood, her family and a dad who came home smelling of engine oil. When we cook together, using the beaters, she often shares these stories from her past with me. Especially now that my grandfather is no longer with us, I had begun to think that I would like a set of beaters for my kitchen, to share in this aspect of my family history. I didn’t think I had verbalised this wish until a weekly uni writing task required reflection on a food or drink related artefact and I based my work on the beaters. I shared the task with my husband and my mum, who read it to her mother. Mum and Min were especially enthusiastic, helping me to get the details right – it was special that I had the opportunity to write about something (and someone) so dear to them.

Whether or not I had voiced my interest in finding a Swiftwhip beater set before, at this point, everyone (it turns out), including me, had tuned into my interest. You can imagine my delight then, when I then discovered a set in a Pop-up antique shop in Geralton just before Christmas. I was thrilled with my purchase but a little hurt that my mum was somewhat reserved in her response – I was hoping for a little mutual celebration. My grandma was much more encouraging, texting me back quickly and asking me a few questions. When I excitedly told my husband, he almost looked disappointed and when pressed, pointed out my mistake. I had, inadvertently, broken the un-written rule of family-Christmas-and-Birthday-gift-buying-and-giving spectacularly! The rule in our family is that you can’t buy something for yourself just before either event because this is the time when when everyone else is trying to find you gifts and you may use up their ideas, or worse, ruin their surprise. Which I did.

What made it worse was that my grandmother had tried to buy a set of beaters for me too, but when Asher also bought some and told my mum, she managed to avert the first disaster by organising Min to give her set to someone else. Either way I would have spoiled the surprise with my spontaneous purchase!

What made it funny was that one of Asher’s student’s had given him something very similar to what I had for him for Christmas (a gift I knew he would love) – so we were both in the position of being a little disappointed that our lovely surprise gifts were both spoiled ahead of time!

In the end, really, the rigmarole has only made my two sets of Propert Swiftwhip beaters more precious. People precious to me had heard my wish for beaters that were precious to my family and now we have some in our kitchen, plus an extra set! I imagine that this story will be told again, over a bowl of eggs beaten for custard or egg-and-bacon-pasta, to our kids in the kitchen. I hope I will be able to hand on a heritage of happy family memories and shared time in the kitchen to our kids too, maybe even some decent beaters as well.

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Holiday Baking Revisited 1/3 – Light fruit Cake (in its Christmas incarnation!)

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… and we are back! Despite the impression that my long, long blogging holiday break may have given, I do want to keep writing and sharing some of the things I’ve been making and thinking. I’ve decided that now, in late January, I needed to share some of my holiday baking adventures before it is absolutely too late! So to begin, this is my grandmother’s recipe for light fruit cake. It is very versatile and has been used over the years to celebrate birthdays, weddings, Christenings and Christmases alike. Rich with fruit, nuts and sherry, it is a recipe worthy of celebration! It would be fair to say that my appreciation for it has grown significantly in the last few years. Although it has taken a long (long) time, I have almost become one of those grown-up people who might sometimes enjoy cooked fruit or even baked goodies laced with dried fruit. And, for me, sometimes it is really more about the preparation and process of creating something edible and attractive anyhow, especially if I know that there are others around to enjoy it for me! So, with an essay on the evolution of cake (more on this to come!) behind me and Christmas on the horizon, I turned again to my recipe books and oven to make some homebred gifts. I chose to divide the mixture evenly between three ceramic ramekins (couldn’t find small cake tins the right size … and I didn’t have to line these with lots of newspaper which you need to when using a cake tin, a bonus for me!) so I could make a few gifts in one go. Two small cakes works well too, as does one lovely big generous one! I hope you might be able to celebrate something special by sharing this cake with friends and family one day too!

Ingredients
250g caster sugar
250g butter
5 eggs
200g sultanas
150g currents
150g fruit medley
100g glace cherries
150g chopped, blanched almonds
375g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
250ml sherry (in Australia it’s now labeled Apera, true ’sherry’ is made in Spain)
extra blanched almonds to decorate

Method
1. Preheat oven to 150o.
2. Soak the dried fruit in the sherry.
3. Double line the baking tins with butter and baking paper (to protect the cake from browning too much).
4. Wrap the outside of the tin with newspaper and tie it on with twine (again, to prevent burning the sides and base before the middle is cooked, only necessary if using traditional cake tins, this step is not necessary if you use ceramic ramekins as in the pictures).
5. Cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy using electric beaters.
6. Add eggs one at a time, beat well till combine the mixture as each egg is added.
7. Add flour and baking powder and beat gently till combined.
8. Finally, add the sherry, fruit and almonds, mixing till combined.
9. Place mixture into the tins, dividing mixture evenly between the desired number of tins. Decorate with blanched almonds.
10. If baking one large cake*, bake at 150oC for 1 hour, then reduce the temperature to 100oC and continue to bake for another, about 2 hours.
11. Remove from oven. Pour over another cup or so of sherry (share this amount between all cakes if more than one has been baked) then wrap the whole cake and tin in clean tea towel and let cool slowly.

*If baking two small cakes bake at 150oC for 45mins, then reduce temperature to 100oC and cook till done, about 1 ½ to 2 hours.
If baking three small cakes bake at 150oC for 25mins, then reduce temperature to 100oC and cook till done, about 1-1 ½ hours.
These are just a guide and its worth just keeping an eye on your particular cake depending on the vigour of your oven!