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Sometimes, I feel driven to put words on paper (or the digital equivalent thereof), but I can’t get them out in the right way. When that happens, a piece of writing can stew in my consciousness for quite a long time, waiting for my brain to disentangle it enough so that it reflects what I truly want to say. This is one of those posts.

There’s been a lot of discussion over recent years about the concept of “paying it forward” – where someone performs an unsolicited act of kindness for a person, who then reciprocates by doing the same for another stranger. That’s a noble concept – there can never be enough kindness in the world. My personal take on it though is slightly different.

Eighteen years ago next week, our Small Man was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma Stage 4S cancer. He was three months old with a golf ball sized aggressive primary tumour on his adrenal gland that had spread all through his liver, which had in turn grown to three times its normal size. By the time his cancer was finally gone and we’d endured a brutal but necessary treatment protocol, I’d come to some conclusions about life.

Firstly, life is short and unpredictable and finite, and you can blink and your world can be turned upside down in a heartbeat. We try to be as ready as we can for the unexpected – we provision funds, put our affairs in order, manage our health – yet nothing prepares us for the really big stuff. All we can hope to do is cushion the impact a little.

Secondly, our Small Man is still with us. We were given an enormous gift from God all those years ago which we can never repay, so I try to pay it forward. In my own way. I give, I share – not randomly or just for the sake of it, but with friends, loved ones, my community, the boys’ school, those in need, and those of you kind enough to read my ramblings. I’m smart enough not to let people take advantage of me, but by the same token, I don’t keep track – there’s no ledger of checks and balances in my head. I’ve baked an oven full of bread, would you like a loaf? I know I give you one every week, but I like doing that, and I hope you enjoy it. I absolutely don’t expect anything in return from you. Life is short and unpredictable and finite, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to break bread with you, both physically and metaphorically.

Thirdly, I’ve learnt to be grateful. If I ever had any preconceived notions that I was entitled to certain things in life, four years of watching our son tied down and screaming inside nuclear imaging machines took those away. Instead I found myself incredibly grateful for the kindness that the technicians showed him, their distress and empathy for his distress, their competence, efficiency and gentleness, and their attempts to minimise his discomfort as much as possible.

And I’ve since become acutely aware of small kindnesses – the smile when I’m handed a takeaway coffee, the extra effort the delivery man will make to ensure my wine doesn’t sit in the sun, the friend who remembers a birthday, a husband who greets the new morning with a loving kiss. I no longer take the little things for granted, and when life doesn’t turn out the way I’d planned or hoped, I don’t rail against the universe in anger. Because hoping and planning is one thing, but believing we’re entitled to a certain outcome is something completely different again.

I’ve learnt to seek contentment rather than stuff, and to find excitement in the minutiae of life. A visiting heron in the backyard is hugely exciting, especially when the photos show up the intricate details of his plumage, and we get the opportunity to watch him hunt. I’ve experienced the joy of making things with my hands and the satisfaction of finding clever solutions to everyday problems. I give thanks daily for our loving, fascinating sons who never put their breakfast bowls in the dishwasher, especially when I realised that that’s the only complaint I ever make about them.

Today is Thanksgiving in the US. We don’t celebrate it here in Australia, but it seemed an appropriate time to reflect. After all, we have so very much to be thankful for.

Last weekend, we had a magnificent visitor to our garden.

This stunning white-faced heron had flown in to hunt for lizards. We watched as he hopped down from Mark’s garage roof – I suspect our messy beds offer more reptile hiding spots than our neighbour’s neat and tidy garden. He might also have been attracted to our garden pond…

Standing at over half a metre tall, he happily posed for photos…

We were intrigued to observe the heron’s hunting technique, which involved rhythmically vibrating his neck from side to side…

We watched him catch and eat several small lizards during his short stay…

For any fellow birdlovers, there’s information on wiki about the white-faced heron, and here’s the page from the Michael Morcombe & David Stewart eGuide to Australian Birds…

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We were very excited – it’s not a bird we’ve had in our backyard before!

A random assortment of bits and pieces from the past few weeks…

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Making “Persian” Fetta for Christmas

I’ve found a great brand of Bulgarian sheep’s milk cheese. It makes deliciously creamy marinated fetta, and it’s available at Costco and Harkola for $10 per 900g…

Each box has enough cheese to fill three gift jars. I’ve added garden rosemary, halved pequin dried chillies, black peppercorns and new season garlic (which I fry very gently before popping it in the jar). It’s an easy and economical Christmas gift, providing you don’t eat it all first. Our original recipe can be found here.

I gave a jar each to Tania and Charlie when we had our girls’ lunch, accompanied by loaves of my nutty sourdough…

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Things I’ve Learnt about Dishwashers

1. Dishwashers use less energy and less water than handwashing. Sorry Maus! Here’s the study by the University of Bonn and the follow-up analysis by the folks over at Treehugger.

2. Don’t use dishwasher pellets – I’ve now had two Miele techs tell me that they cause problems in the machine. They’ve both advised sticking to powder and rinse aid.

3. Don’t use green cleaning products – Andy the dishwasher guy suspects that they shorten the life of the machine. Sadly, the environmental impact of having to buy a new machine years earlier than necessary far outweighs that of the detergent.

4. If your machine isn’t draining properly, check the non-return valve. In the Mieles, that’s the part with a rubber ball that stops the water flowing back into the machine – it needs regular cleaning and can be replaced easily (check Google) if necessary. Lovely Mo gave me this tip, and it saved us a $160 call out fee.

5. Our Miele wouldn’t stop draining after the water was cut-off (and turned back on again) mid-cycle. We fixed it by unplugging the machine and then carefully tipping it to one side slightly and letting the excess water drain out. I’m not sure whether that’s a recommended practice, so attempt it at your own discretion. (All care, but no responsibility taken on that one!)

6. Keep cockroaches out of your machine at all costs. They’ll eat the electronics and cost you a fortune in repair costs.

7. White vinegar is a much cheaper alternative to rinse aid and works just as well.

 8. If you’re in Sydney and you need your Miele fixed, call Andy at A.D. Power Repairs. Apart from being a really nice guy, he’ll be absolutely honest with you – his focus is on fixing the appliance rather than selling you a new one!

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Easy Nibblies

Inspired by Man Finds Food (Adam Richman’s latest tv series), I dug out a box of frozen shredded pulled pork (it freezes and defrosts brilliantly) and paired it with a packet of wonton wrappers…

Each wrapper was filled with a spoonful of pork and folded into a tiny spring roll. A little cornflour in water helped to stick the edges down…

They only took minutes to deep fry and even less time for the boys to demolish them…

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Filled Focaccias

I’ve written about these so often that it seems redundant to post another recipe, but they do change every time, depending on what fillings I have to throw in. Last week my friend Johnny gave me a small pack of Jamón ibérico offcuts (regarded by many as the finest ham in the world). There was just enough to fill two slabs of focaccia, one for John and one for us…

Here’s our basic filled focaccia recipe – it’s a very easy way to whip up something quick for holiday entertaining!

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It’s only the end of November, but it’s already beginning to feel very festive! How are things going in your part of the world?

I’ve been making myself very, very sick.

You see, this year I decided that for Christmas, I’d revisit our old recipe for homemade Irish cream. It’s an absolute doddle to make, tastes much better than the bought stuff, and should keep in the fridge for a month or so (although it never lasts that long here). When the boys were young, I used to sneak tiny bottles of it into the school pool and my darling friend Cate and I would surreptitiously sip at them while our sons were doing their laps.

Sadly, over the past decade, I’ve lost my ability to consume cream and other rich dairy products, but I’m taking one for the team – after all, you can’t make a gift without quality checking it first. I make this with whatever whisky I’ve been given – in years past that was my annual bottle of Chivas Regal from PeteV, but this year it’s a bottle of Johnny Walker Red from my neighbour June.

Don’t be put off by the tins of condensed and evaporated milk (neither of which I use for any other purpose) – the finished booze is smooth, silky and ridiculously moreish, even for the dairy challenged. The specified quantities made all you can see in the photo below – note that the JW bottle was full last night, but Big Boy found it after I went to bed…

  • 700ml bottle of whisky
  • 250g good quality milk chocolate (I used Callebaut 823 callets)
  • 2 x 395g cans of sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 x 375g cans evaporated milk
  • 600ml pure cream (35% fat, no thickeners added)
  • ½ teaspoon instant coffee granules
  • 1 tablespoon boiling water

1. In a small pyrex or ceramic bowl, heat the chocolate in the microwave in 30 second bursts on high until melted, stirring between each round. Stir until smooth. Alternatively, melt the chocolate in a bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water. Make sure to use the best quality chocolate you can find, as the taste comes through in the finished drink.

2. Pour a small quantity of the whisky into a large bowl, then gradually whisk in some of the melted chocolate, then a little each of the evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream. Continue adding the whisky, milks and cream, whisking constantly, until all the ingredients except the coffee and water have been added.

3. Stir the coffee granules in the boiling water until dissolved, then whisk into the Irish cream.

4. Pour the Irish cream into sterilised bottles, seal tightly and store in the fridge. The original recipe suggests maturing the mix for a month in the fridge before drinking, but it’s never lasted that long here, and we think it tastes pretty good straight away!

Oops, sorry, comments were turned off!
Thanks for letting me know Celi, I’ve fixed it now!

Oh how I love my Römertopf!

Ha! Have I said that before? Pete told me a while back to lay off the “Römertopf evangelism”, but it would be remiss of me not to mention how much easier it makes my life at this busy time of year.

Case in point – last night I was desperate to do some exercise (I’ve been very slack of late!), but I hadn’t made any preparation for dinner other than to defrost six chicken drums. So…I dragged out the clay baker and stuck it in the sink to soak…

A rummage through the fridge and pantry produced the following ingredients:

  • 6 free range chicken drumsticks
  • two pink potatoes
  • one large carrot
  • a frozen box of cooked chick peas
  • a frozen box of homemade chicken stock
  • two medium sized onions
  • two quarter slices of homemade preserved lemon
  • Herbie’s Chermoula Spice Mix
  • basil from the garden to garnish

The Herbie’s mix is our default house blend and it’s a great seasoning to keep on hand. I sprinkled a generous amount over the drumsticks and rubbed it in.

Pulling the wet clay base out of the sink, I threw in peeled and chopped potatoes, carrot and onions, then lay over the drumsticks (scraping in all the seasoning leftover in the bowl). The preserved lemon was sliced and scattered over the top, then the defrosted stock was added. All up, this took about ten minutes.

I put the lid on the pot and placed it into the cold oven. The heat was turned up to 200C with fan and I jumped onto the rowing machine for half an hour. Then I watched a bit of television. Then I had a shower.

By that stage the chicken had been in the oven for an hour, and I suddenly remembered that I’d forgotten the chick peas. I pulled the pot out and added them in, squidging them into the cooking liquid as much as I could. (Remember to never put the hot pot on a cold surface, or it could crack.)

All up the Romy had about an hour and a half in the oven – Pete took the lid off for the last ten minutes or so to let the drumsticks brown up a bit. The new season basil added a nice finishing touch…

Dinner was delicious and ludicrously easy…

Best of all, the dirty Römertopf went straight into our newly repaired dishwasher and came out spanking clean!

I’ve just looked through my archives and realised that I’ve written more than two dozen Römertopf posts. I’ve collated all the links onto the one page, which can also be accessed via the Savoury tab at the top of the homepage.

Fig Jam and Lime Cordial Römertopf Posts

Do you own a Römertopf? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences with it!

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