Sunday, 9 September 2012

Christian country? Litmus test

Ancient Israel was called to be different, an example of God's priorities, indeed God's character.
In the past few thousand years, have we learned the message of the Old Testament prophets?  There are two litmus tests for a godly nation.  One is commitment to God, not idols.  The second is social justice.  How does the UK stand up to litmus test two according to this week's news?
1.  Are we looking after the poor?  Save the Children this week starts a new campaign for children, not in Africa or South-East Asia, but in our own towns and cities.  This, in what's still one of the world's richest nations.  So yes, a charitable organization is looking after poor children here.  But how can there be poor children in a 'developed' country?  (Even if we object to the use of the word poor, as some have, it's certainly inequality.)
2.  Are we caring for the most vulnerable in society, e.g. the sick?  The sick are being told we can no longer afford to keep them.  A private company, ATOS, has the government contract to make the decision previously taken by family GPs - whether or not someone is too sick or infirm to work.  Increasingly, the weakest and most vulnerable in society are being told to earn their keep.  The mentally ill in particular are having their benefits taken off them, with ATOS assessors by their own admission under-trained in mental health.  They ask a seemingly innocuous question: Do you watch Coronation Street?  If you say you do, they conclude that your mind is clear and your concentration is good enough for a desk job.  If you're having cancer treatment and your appointment happens to be between cycles of therapy, you might just look well enough on that particular day to be told there's nothing stopping you from getting a job.  On appeal, a majority of decisions are overturned.  It seems ATOS, in order to reach targets, is hoping some won't have the fight in them to challenge their wrong decisions.

3.  Are we looking after immigrants?  No country can take in everyone who'd like to live there, or have completely open borders.  But nobody's asking the UK to.  Yet, desperate for votes and popular support, the UK coalition government has allowed the Border Agency to change and apply rules retroactively.  They don't answer questions, they make instructions deliberately ambiguous, and the government admit the agency is not fit for purpose.  Yet they are allowed to jeopardize the futures of overseas students who have paid tens of thousands of pounds in fees and poured their family's savings into the UK economy in living expenses.  Students just months away from graduating have been told, because their university London Met made mistakes (allegedly, although it's impossible not to since the Border Agency changes goalposts so often) they can't continue their studies, with immediate effect.  This is punitive, and directed at innocent victims.  Why not decide London Met can't take any more overseas students from now on, but allow current students to continue?  Because Cameron wants easy figures to wave at voters. 
We are told we can no longer afford our welfare system, yet there are more of us are paying into the system than in post-war Britain when the ravaged economy was struggling to get off the ground again.  For some, sadly, news of recession has been a great opportunity to forge more of a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest society.
When I came back from Latin America in late 2009, and news of a credit crunch was everywhere, the conclusion was that greed and unregulated capitalism were the causes of the mess, not generosity and equality.  It took very little time for the powers that be to turn that message on its head, and convince us that we can't afford to care for the poor, the sick and the immigrants among us.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Great Birthday Bake-Off

It was Sarah's birthday last month, and we had a few friends around for afternoon tea (actually more like evening time, so it was pretty much cake for dinner!)

My birthday present to Sarah was to make a plurality of cake for her party, and since some people asked for the recipes, here they are ...

Blueberry and lime cheesecake gateau

1.  Blueberry and Lime Cheesecake Gateau

- 225g self-raising flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 200g caster sugar
- 200g butter (room temp or softened)
- 4 large eggs
- 2tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tbsp milk

For the frosting and decoration:
- 400g medium-fat ricotta
- 100g icing sugar
- 200g blueberries
- grated zest of 2 limes and juice of 1

1. Pre-heat oven to 180C.
2. Beat together flour, baking powder, sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla.
3. Whisk hard while adding ilk.
4. Bake in two deep 18cm round cake tins for 40 mins.
5. Cool, then split one or both sponges in two.
6. Beat the ricotta until soft, then beat in the lime zest and juice, and the icing sugar.
7. Sandwich the sponge layers together, spread remaining frosting on the top, and decorate with blueberries.

2.  Raspberry Scones

- 225g self-raising flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 heaped tsp caster sugar
- 50g butter, diced
- 200 ml buttermilk
- 100g raspberries
- clotted cream, to serve

1. Heat oven to 220C.
2. Sift flour and baking powder into a bowl, and stir in the sugar.
3. Rub in the butter to resemble breadcrumbs.
4. Make a well, add buttermilk gradually until it forms a soft but not too sticky dough.
5. Push raspberries through the dough with your hands.  They'll break up, but that's OK.
6. Tear the dough into six clumps and shape roughly.
7. Bake on a floured tray for 12-14 mins.
8. Cool on a wire rack.

From left to right:  millionnaire's shortbread, chocolate toffee brownies,
cheesecake buns, raspberry scones, and almond lemon shortbread

3.  Almond Lemon Shortbread

- 250g butter, softened
- 140g golden caster sugar (plus extra for sprinkling)
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- zest of 2 lemons
- 300g plain flour
- 100g ground almonds
- a little milk to brush and seal
- 3 tbsp lemon curd
- flaked almonds

1. Heat oven to 190C.
2. Beat together butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, zest and a pinch of salt.
3. Fold in flour and ground almonds.
4. Roll out on a flat surface to the thickness of a £1 coin(on a warm day, chill in the fridge first). 
5. Cut out rounds with a 7cm cutter, and brush with milk.
6. Spoon blobs of lemon curd on half; the remaining disks are the tops.  Gently press to seal.
7. Sprinkle with caster sugar and flaked almonds.
8. Bake for 15 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack.

4.  Millionnaire's Shortbread


For the biscuit base
- 140g butter, cold and diced
- 175g plain flour
- 25g cornflour
- 50g golden caster sugar
- 85g blanched almonds, toasted and chopped
- seeds from 1 vanilla pod

For the caramel
- 200g golden caster sugar
- 140 ml single cream
- 50g btter, diced

For the topping
- 200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
- 85g butter

1. Heat oven to 160C and butter a shallow 20 x 23 cm baking tin.
2. Sift flours into a bowl, and add sugar, almonds, and a pinch of salt.
3. Run in butter and vanilla seeds.
4. Press firmly into the tin.  Freeze for 5 mins, then bake for 35 mins.
5. For the caramel, put sugar and 100ml water in a heavy based pan.
6. Heat gently until the sugar dissolves, then turn up the heat and boil until it goes dark amber.
7. Add the cream a little at a time, stirring all the while.  Take care, it will hiss and fizz!
8. Add the butter and half a tsp salt.
9. Pour over biscuit base and let cool.
10. For the topping, melt chocolate and butter together and smooth with the back of a spoon.
11. Cool and cut into slices.

5.  Chocolate Toffee Brownies

- 350g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
- 250g butter
- 3 large eggs
- 250g dark muscovado sugar
- 85g plain flour
- 1 tsp baking powder

1. Heat the oven to 160C.
2. Butter a shallow 23cm tin.
3. Melt chocolate and butter. Allow to cool slightly.
4. Whisk eggs until pale, combine sugar.
5. Fold chocolate mixture into the egg and sugar mixture.
6. Sift in flour and baking powder, and combine.
7. Bake for 30 minutes.  Mixture will be gooey but will solid up when cool.
8. Cool in the tin on a wire rack for at least one hour.

6.  Individual Cheesecake Buns

- 100g butter, room temperature (or softened)
- 100g golden caster sugar
- 2 large eggs
- zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 140g elf-raising flour
- 50g blueberries

For the topping
- 250ml soured cream
- 30g icin sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Butter a 12-hole muffin tin.
2. Cross 1.5cm strips of baking parchment in each hole.  Make sure ends stick up, so you can lift the cakes out after baking.
3. Heat the oven to 180C.
4. Beat butter and sugar together until pale and creamy. 
5. Gradually beat in the eggs, then lemon zest and juice.
6. Fold in the flour.
7. Divide among muffin holes, smoothing over the tops.  Sprinkle 3 blueberries on each.
8. Bake for 12 mins.
9. Meanwhile, whisk topping ingredients together.
10. Remove muffin tray from the oven, and press down the risen sponge with the back of a spoon.
11. Spoon topping on each sponge base and scatter with remaining blueberries.
12. Bake for a further 5-7 mins.

Running Mate

I think about a lot of things when I run.  I often plan essays, make decisions, organize my workday, ...  Whereas I used to think I didn't have enough time to exercise, now I wonder how I ever got anything done without it!

Since I started in February, I have only run once with other people, and that was a Parkrun event in London with lots of strangers.  I already felt pretty anonymous, but I made sure my earphones were visibly in, just in case.

It was mainly Sarah's encouragement that led to my run with Rachid last week.  Would I be able to talk, or would I be embarrassingly breathless?  What if I had to ask him to slow down or stop?  What if he sprinted off ahead of me?  What if he thought, 'didn't Chris say he's been training for months?!'  Running for me has always been a private, solitary affair. 

We met by the old Foyle Railway train tracks, at one end of the Craigavon Bridge, to run towards the border and Carrigans, a route I love.  You can see counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone all converge on the River Foyle.  I put one earphone in, and tucked the other into the neck of my T-shirt.  And we set off ...

Before long, we were in nature, sometimes making small talk, sometimes in silence.  At times one of us would edge ahead and make the other pick up pace, and at other times we ran shoulder to shoulder.  I should say, this was Rachid's first run since fasting over Ramadan, which was very, very impressive.  There probably was a smidgeon of healthy competition, something I normally shun, but I must admit, it made me less much likely to slack off!

'Twas a big step for me, making myself vulnerable by running with Rachid.  And I'm very glad I did. 

In his book, John Donohue popularized the idea of 'anam cara', or soul friend, in Celtic spirituality.    The anam cara is someone with whom we can be vulnerable and let into the solitary, doubful, private parts of us.  As so often the case, spirituality plays out in everyday life, like running along the old Foyle train tracks last Saturday.

So, thank you to my 'rith cara' (running mate) Rachid!  See you at the start line in a week for the Derry Waterside Half Marathon!