Always look on the bright slice of life

Happy 2018! Or, should I say, Happy 20-GREAT-een!

Many people set themselves New Year’s resolutions, wanting to capitalise on the opportunity to try new things, improve on current things, but ultimately hoping the year starts off the best it can.

So, when we set our resolutions with our expectations too high, we can leave ourselves feeling failures. When you suffer with depression, this kind of failure can trigger a spiral of negative thoughts about ourselves, and we feel more deflated than ever.

That’s why this year my resolutions, or more ‘promises to myself for 2018’, are solely based around self-care, and include a few simple bits of guidance to myself, making sure I approach each ‘resolution’ positively and, importantly, without the pressure.

EXERCISE

Mid-way through December 2017 I saw this:

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Now, it’s said that ‘curiosity killed the cat’, and there was a thought of mine that ‘running may kill the Meg’. BUT, my overriding thought was…

‘Hey, I could promote better mental health, influence people to take better care of themselves, spread awareness and understanding of depression and anxiety- AND all the while get myself in a better physical and mental state’.

… So I signed up, and, for over 2 weeks now, I’ve plagued social media platforms with selfies (classic Meg) and videos of my running journey.

And you know what? I’ve loved every bloomin’ minute.

This hasn’t always been my mindset. Gosh, no. Having suffered with depression since age 16, I would be a millionaire- well, out of my overdraft- for all the times a doctor has told me the benefits of physical exercise on your mental health. But that wasn’t me, no. I hated exercise. I was that girl that would go to the gym regularly for a month, lose interest, and pay for 3 extra months without visiting, before finally admitting defeat and cancelling my membership. It’s because of this that I coined the label of ‘exercisephobe’, which I really think should be considered an entry into the English Dictionary at some point.

With that self-assigned title, and knowing how much of a flake I am at sticking to ANYTHING, I did worry I wouldn’t be able to complete #REDJanuary. Was I setting myself  up for a fall? As it turns out, no, I wasn’t. The beauty of #REDJanuary lies in its name: ‘Run EveryDay January‘. Running everyday, and not just 2 or 3 times a week, makes it a commitment you cannot avoid or ‘blow off’ until another day. Its also shown me how quickly your body can adapt to exercise. On Day 1, I couldn’t run 2 minutes without needing a break/walk. Maybe it was the NYE hangover or the- frankly hideous- amount of pigs and blankets I devoured over Christmas, but I felt so unfit. 2 weeks on, I can go for 15-20 minute runs. Yes, I’m knackered afterwards, but more importantly I am so, so proud of myself. That feeling is something that can really escape you when you’re going through dark times, so to feel it again genuinely means the absolute world.

So, here’s to the rest of #REDJanuary, and to the 5k I plan to take part in next week! You really, really can surprise yourself.

 

You can visit my JustGiving page at: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/meg-manganaro2017

 

SLEEP

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Those suffering from a mental illness can have their sleeping patterns affected in different ways. You can experience insomnia, feeling you’re unable to switch-off from your thought processes. When this happens, it is a very dark and lonely place to be. Conversely, you can find yourself more tired than usual, and therefore needing more sleep than your ‘norm’.

Either way, disturbed sleep can have a massive knock-on effect to your mood and functionality. Because of the power a good night’s sleep can have, it is really worthwhile practicing good sleep hygiene.

During my days as a student, I can admit I definitely neglected the importance of sleep. Now, however, I’ve adopted my very own toolkit:

  • Screens away an 30 mins/1 hour before bed. Exposure to light in the late evening tends to delay the phase of our internal clock and lead us to prefer later sleep times. So, pop that laptop, TV or mobile phone away for the last part of your evening- Instagram can wait until tomorrow.
  • Avoid consuming caffeine in the late afternoon or evening. I now swap my normal cuppa tea for a herbal one, or even a hot chocolate when it reaches 4/6 hours before my desired bedtime.
  • Keep to a general bedtime. 
  • Use sleep-inducing fragrances. I use a lavender spray over my bed linen, and ‘Sleepy’ body lotion from Lush, just for that extra bit of snooziness. Zzzzz.
  • Herbal tablets. I occasionally use Kalms Night tablets when I’m experiencing a period of sleep deprivation, just to help me get back on track and sleepy around my desired bedtime.
  • De-stressing activities. Have a bath, read a book. Chill.

 

As with any symptoms you might experience as a result of mental illness, keep your doctor in the loop. I’m lucky enough to have a lovely doctor, who clearly cares a lot about my wellbeing, and now also- in my eyes, at least- she’s a sleep guru.

 

ALCOHOL

A few months ago I wouldn’t want to admit that sometimes I have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. However, I also made a pact to myself not too long ago to be open and honest about as much as I can- because it really is liberating and healing.

I have occasionally used alcohol as a way to self-sabotage. It is something I can abuse, so that I feel more relaxed, or even to ‘numb’ myself. Equally, I have sometimes found that alcohol relaxes me in social situations, and when enjoying myself I can sometimes mistake that more alcohol equates to a better time.

The difficulty is that doing so, hurting myself in this way, feeds into my depression. On nights out, detrimental thoughts I have internalised can emerge, such as feelings that I’m undeserving of friends. This obviously affects the way I’m feeling, and no doubt those whom I am with, who have no idea why all of sudden I may have changed in mood. I think we can all agree, that is no fun for anyone.

As a response to this, I have decided to treat alcohol with a great deal more care in 2018, and beyond. I have limited my drinking to weekends and social occasions, and already feel better for doing so.

It’s far from the end of addressing my drinking behaviour, but it’s most definitely a steady and positive step in the right direction!

 

BASICALLY… BE KIND TO YOURSELF

Before experiencing depression to the severity I have, I never realised it could be such a triumph to just get up in the morning. But, it is.

The most simple of everyday tasks can, and should, be celebrated. Looking after yourself should be celebrated. Fighting for those better days in the future- that WILL come, you cannot lose sight of that- should be celebrated, especially when depression has sapped you of your self-belief.

I know all too well that saying this stuff is far, far easier than believing it, let alone practicing it. If, like me, you struggle to be kind to yourself, here’s a great place to start: An open letter to anyone currently struggling with their mental health. Equally, if you know someone suffering with depression or just simply want to understand more about it, this is a super helpful insight.

Other, frankly soul-warming, resources worth taking a peek at include:

Why we need to celebrate small act of ‘boring self-care’

Why surviving deserves more credit than we give it

How to be a friend to ourselves

Or, if you fancy self-care you can literally get your hands on, I could not praise this book enough. The Blurt Foundation has always spoken to me in the most raw, understanding way- and now they have a book! The reviews speak for themselves.

 

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And if, or when, you’re ready to put that self-care into motion: when you wake up tomorrow, do what I plan to do. Tell yourself just 4 words:

‘You are good enough.’

Because, you really are.

 

From ingredients for my happy and healthy 2018, to ingredients for this week’s bake:  Lemon & Elderflower Marble Cake 

 

 

With a showstopper of a cake comes a lot of work, so I baked over 2 days. On the first I made the lemon curd and the macaroons, and stored them until the following day, but it is completely up to you how you tackle it…

LEMON CURD
Zest and juice of 1 large lemon
1 large egg
90g caster sugar 
55g unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
¾ tsp cornflour 

Lightly whisk the eggs in a medium-sized saucepan, then add the rest of the ingredients and place the saucepan over a medium heat.

Whisk continuously until the mixture thickens – about 7-8 minutes. Next, lower the heat to its minimum setting and let the curd gently simmer for a further minute, continuing to whisk.

After that, remove it from the heat. Now pour the lemon curd into hot, sterilised jar(s)*, and seal while it is still hot. Allow to cool and set before using it later to sandwich your cake.

Any leftover curd will keep for several weeks, but it must be stored in a cool place.

* To sterislise jars, they should be washed in mild soapy water, rinsed and dried and heated in a medium oven for 5 minutes.

 

ROSEWATER & WHITE CHOCOLATE MACAROONS
Makes approx. 50

180g ground almonds 
175g icing Sugar  
4 egg whites 
½ tsp rosewater 
3 Drops pink food colouring 
50ml water 
160g caster sugar 
150g white chocolate 
75g double cream 

Mix the ground almonds in a food processor for 30 seconds and then sift to ensure they’re as fine as possible. Sift the icing sugar into the ground almonds.

Measure 60g of egg whites and stir in to the almonds and icing sugar along with the rose water extract and colouring to make a thick paste.

Place the water and the golden caster sugar into a small saucepan and heat. Bring to the boil and cook until the temperature reaches 118°C. Do not over stir or the syrup will crystallise. Remove from the heat.

Place the remaining egg whites in a bowl. Whisk into soft peaks, gradually adding the sugar syrup. Whisk on high until the mixture has thickened and stands in firm peaks. Fold the mixture into the ground almonds.

Heat oven to 170°C (fan 150°C, gas mark 3). Line three baking sheets with baking parchment and pipe your mixture in rounds roughly the size of a 10p piece (or, for a cleaner finish, I used a silicon macaroon mould). Leave for 30 minutes at room temperature before baking.

 

Bake for 10 minutes then cover with baking parchment and bake for a further 4-5 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Place the cream and white chocolate in a small saucepan and heat until melted and smooth. Leave to cool and then use to sandwich your macaroons together.

Store in an airtight container.

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CAKE
250g butter
300g caster sugar
4 large eggs
zest of 2 lemons
350g (gluten-free) self raising flour
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp elderflower cordial 

DRIZZLE: 
juice of 3 lemons
200 g icing sugar
2 ½ tbsp elderflower cordial

BUTTERCREAM 
100g butter
250g icing sugar
zest of 1 lemon
3 tbsp elderflower cordial 

Preheat your oven to 180C/ gas 4. Grease and line two 20cm cake tins.

Cream together butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one, beating well after each, and then lemon zest, beating again. Sift the flour and the salt together and then fold them into the mixture. Once combined, add the cordial and mix again.

Divide the batter between your tins as evenly as you can, and bake for around 45 minutes, or until the cakes are risen, golden, and firm.

While the cakes are baking, make the drizzle. Put the lemon juice and icing sugar into a small saucepan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Take the pan off the heat and let the mixture cool slightly, and then add the cordial.

Immediately after you take the cakes out of the oven, puncture all over with a skewer or a fork, and pour the syrup over the cakes while they are still warm. It will seem like there is too much liquid, but the cakes will eventually drink it up.

Once the cakes have cooled completely, remove them from the tins. To make the buttercream, beat the butter with an electric whisk until it’s completely soft. Sift the icing sugar over the butter, then add the cordial, and beat. Add the lemon zest and blend again.

Up-end one cake on a plate and spread lemon curd over the surface. Repeat with the buttercream (be careful at this point to leave enough buttercream to cover the cake with a thin layer of icing, known as a crumb coat), then top with the remaining cake. Now the cakes are sandwiched together, cover completely with the remaining buttercream.

 

MARBLE FONDANT  

Assortment of coloured royal icings  

-OR- 

1 pack of white royal icing 

Assortment of food colourings 

If you have bought white royal icing, tear into several chunks. To dye, use a few drops of your desired food colouring and knead.

Press pieces of coloured fondant icing/roll-out icing together. Knead briefly to blur the colours.

Dust your worksurface and rolling pin with icing sugar then roll out the icing.

Carefully transfer to your cake, smooth down the surface starting at the top then trim the base with a small sharp knife.

See how it’s done right here: How to make marble fondant

 

A great way to further decorate your cake while attaching your macaroons is with…

WHITE CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM
100g unsalted butter
¼ tsp vanilla extract
250g/1lb 10oz icing sugar
50g/5½oz white chocolate, melted 

Cream the butter, vanilla and icing sugar together in a bowl until light and fluffy. Stir in the melted chocolate.

 

 

 

Decorate as desired; I used an edible glitter spray to add that little bit of extra sparkle!

 

Until next time,

Meg xoxo

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All you knead is love

Christmas is the perfect opportunity to let the people you love know how much you cherish them- I mean, that’s practically the whole plot of Love Actually right?! That’s why this year I decided to do just that, by sending Christmas cards to all those that have supported me this year. These are the people that listened and comforted me, stayed by my side through the tough times, and loved me unconditionally. It is never a bad thing to let people know you’re grateful for having them in your life for just being them, and them accepting you for you.

Recently I’ve felt angry at depression. I somewhat had a hold on it; I had battled with it long enough to understand it and recognise the warning signs of a dive in my mood. I had even managed to keep some things ‘mine’ in the sense that they weren’t affected too severely by my depression. But slowly and surely it managed to bully its way into those parts of my life too, resulting in breaks from studying, delaying of exams and ending of relationships. It is impossible to express how demoralising it is to feel like you have lost control over your own life in this way. Inside, I am furious. I’m furious that depression swoops in uninvited, this great big dark enigma dragging you down. That it isolates you, makes even the simplest of everyday tasks harder to do, turns you against yourself. That it makes you see yourself as a burden, that you’re not worthy of happiness, and at its worst it can even make you want to hurt yourself. It literally makes you you’re own worst enemy. And why does it think it can have that kind of control over you?

Luckily, there are ways to take back that control. The bully that is depression loses its power in a manner of ways. For instance, the fact that the stigma around mental health has been challenged- it is recognised as an illness that you can be prescribed medication for, just like anyone would for their ailments. Equally, talking to someone about how you are feeling-although initially it can be daunting- can feel like a massive weight off your shoulders, whether you talk to a counsellor, friend, family member, or a charity helpline, like the Infoline provided by Mind.

It is those charities that deserve massive appreciation. Mind dedicates it work to ensuring that everyone struggling with their mental health has the support and respect they need, and deserve. They do this by working towards improving services, raising awareness and promoting a greater understanding of mental health. Their relentless work has supported over 513,000 people across England and Wales, all the while relying on donations. So, in an effort to give back to such an incredible foundation I am doing some fundraising myself! I’m taking on Run Every Day January to start 2018 healthily and positively, and because no one should face a mental health problem alone.

How do I work to take back the control in my life? I’m on medication and meet with a counsellor each week, but most of all I’m lucky enough that I am able to surround myself with friends and family who understand without pointing it out, who treat me normally but recognise that everyday life can be a struggle sometimes. It is that kindness that deserves to be thanked.

So, all I can say is to be kind. Most of all to yourself. After all, a simple act of kindness creates an endless ripple.

Every week after counselling I choose to self-care through baking. This week I decided was bread week- so here is my particularly festive Pesto, Sundried Tomato & Feta Tear and Share Bread. Enjoy!

Pesto bread

Ingredients 

Bread Dough

  • 300 gr strong white flour
  • 180 gr water
  • 30 ml oil – I use rapeseed oil
  • 7 gr of fresh yeast
  • 6 gr of salt
  • Feta
  • Sundried Tomatoes
  • Mixed herbs

You can either use shop-bought pesto, or make your own.

Pesto

  • 50 gr of herbs chopped – I used mostly basil and some parsley
  • 50 gr of pine nuts toasted
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 50 gr grated parmesan cheese
  • 100 gr rapeseed or olive oil (approx)

 

Instructions

  1. First start with the bread dough.
  2. If you have a thermometer, weigh the water. This water should be around 24C. This will feel cooler than you would imagine.
  3. Weigh the flour out into the bowl of your stand mixer or a large bowl if you are making it by hand. Add the salt and yeast keeping them well apart from each other.
  4. Add the oil and water.
  5. If using the stand mixer, mix on the lowest speed for 3 minutes, then increase to medium speed for a further 3 minutes. The dough should detach itself from the sides of the bowl. It will be smooth and elastic.
  6. If mixing by hand, use a dough scraper to mix all the ingredients together and knead until smooth.
  7. Cover the bowl with plastic and set aside for 45 minutes to one hour away from drafts.
  8. Next make the pesto. You can use a food processor to make this or chop everything as finely as possible.
  9. Lightly toast your nuts and set aside to cool.
  10. Roughly chop the nuts, herbs and garlic, grate the parmesan and add to the processor bowl. Add approximately half of the oil and pulse until smooth. It will be very thick. Add more oil until it becomes a spreading consistency. Set aside.
  11. Set your oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.
  12. After 45 minutes to one hour, your dough will have risen and when prodded will be soft and any marks will disappear.
  13. Roll the dough out to about 1/2 cm thick into a long rectangle. You will be rolling up the long edge.
  14. Cut the edges of the dough to make the rectangle equal. Save these pieces to make the sun-dried tomato and feta ‘baubles’.
  15. Spread the pesto all over the dough.
  16. Roll the dough up tightly into a long sausage. Place in the fridge for at least 1/2 hour. This will ensure both the filling and dough are the same temperature and will be easier to cut.
  17. Roll the off cuts of dough and scatter with chopped sun-dried tomatoes, crumbled feta and mixed herbs. Roll into a sausage and place with the pesto dough in the fridge.
  18. With a sharp knife or dough scraper, cut slices that weigh 70 gr. You want them all to be the same weight to create an even tree. Set aside until you have cut all the pieces. Retain any underweight pieces to cut out a pot and star.
  19. Cut the tomato and feta dough into small pieces.
  20. Layout on silicon paper on a baking tin, with one in the first row, two in the second and so on. Leave space for the rolls to expand before baking as shown, then place a small ‘bauble’ between the pesto bread.
  21. Brush the dough with beaten egg and leave for 45 minutes before baking. You’ll note how they have expanded.
  22. Brush the dough a second time with the beaten egg before placing in the oven. Bake for approximately 20 minutes until golden. Check after 15 minutes. Gently remove the bread from the tray and place on a serving platter. These are best served just warm.

 

Recipe from: Savoury Tear and Share Rolls Recipe

Fundraising page:  https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/meg-manganaro2017

 

 

 

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Hap-PIE-ness is a choice

With depression, you naturally go through ups and downs. I’d like to think that over time I’ve grasped how to cope with it, but it’s only over the last year or so that I developed anxiety too- and it’s this combination of the two that really blindsided me. It’s the first time in a long time I’ve felt I’ve struggled to function. It got to a point where I knew, and those close to me recognised, it was time to get some help again.

That first step can be really hard. It’s tough to open up and talk about such sensitive, personal issues. BUT (and it’s a big ‘but’), it can be so very liberating.

Fortunately, I’ve sought help before- from NHS and private counselling to hypnotherapy- so it was less of a hurdle for me to speak up this time. For me, I needed more than medication and self-help to get me by, I needed to talk it through and learn some coping mechanisms so I could feel I was leading a ‘normal’ life again. As I mentioned in my last post, the doctor put me in touch with Time to Talk, who in turn offered me group sessions on ‘Keeping the Balance’ while I was popped on a waiting list for independent treatment.

At first, I was apprehensive. Talking about yourself can be tricky at the best of times, but talking about your struggles with strangers? That’s a whole different board game, and not my typical cup of tea. So, despite admittedly dreading it a little (maybe a lot), I went to the sessions and learnt a lot, not only about depression and anxiety, but about myself in general- the effect my thoughts have on me, what steps I could take to get better, what support I need etc.

What I’ve realised is that the most important thing for me is feeling understood and accepted in my entirety. With mental health you can feel isolated, worthless and ashamed. It makes such a huge difference for someone to be open to your struggles, be a listening ear, talk things through but also continue to see you as YOU. Mental health isn’t a simple or straight-forward thing, but its human- surely we can all relate to that?

What I also realised was what a wonderful support I am fortunate enough to have. The day of my final group session I happened to appreciate the little things for the pretty big difference they made to my day. I woke up to a post-it note from Mum telling me to ‘go sparkle!’. I received a call from my brother during his lunch break, just wanting a catch-up. I had a message left on my phone from my Dad enthusiastically informing me that the cakes I baked him were- I quote- ‘THE BEST CAKES I’VE EVER EATEN’. High praise indeed. And if the best family in the world wasn’t enough (I’m biased, but they are great), I also have some invaluable friends who over the last few months have helped me more than they know with Facetimes, housing me for weekend visits, letters and even flowers- FLOWERS!!!- delivered to my house. I can’t thank them enough.

So, it’s a few weeks on now, and it’s still not the easiest of times, but it is far from the worst. I’ve taken some knocks, but I will work my way through them. After all, I’m not alone. I’ve got my own dream team behind me. As long as I’m looking after my health, I know I will be okay.

And it may have taken a little while but I’m ready. I’m ready to give it my all, give that anxiety the boot, send off those dreaded applications, be more productive with uni work, keep treasuring my truly wonderful friends and family- and importantly learn to treasure myself. Be the Meg I know I am and want to be.

Now, with my waffling it’s probably sur-PIES-ing this is a baking blog (you really thought I would pass up the opportunity to slip a pie pun in there?). To celebrate Pastry Week of the Great British Bake Off- whatever number week that was. Let’s face it, we’ve all forgotten- I wanted to make one of my Dad’s lunchtime favourites: pork pies. Now I’m not a pastry pro, so I went straight to the King of Baking for a recipe, Mr Paul Hollywood of course…

Pork Pies 2

Makes 12
Prep 1 hour
Bake 50 minutes

Ingredients

For the hot water crust pastry:

– 265g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

– 55g strong white bread flour

– 55g unsalted butter, cubed

– 65g lard

– 1 tsp salt

– 135ml boiling water

– 1 egg, lightly beaten for glazing
For the filling: 

– 1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

– 380g pork loin, finely chopped

– 100g unsmoked back bacon, finely chopped

– Small bunch of parsley, leaves only, chopped

– Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

– 1 large or 2 small sheets of leaf gelatine

– ½ chicken stock cube

– 300ml boiling water

 

  1. Heat your oven to 190°C. Have a ready a 12-hole muffin tin.
  2. First make the pork filling. Put the onion, pork, bacon and parsley into a bowl with some salt and pepper and mix well. To check the seasoning of the mix, fry a tiny nugget of the mixture in a frying pan until cooked through. Leave to cool, then taste and adjust your mixture accordingly. Cover and set aside while you make the pastry.
  3. For the hot water crust, put your flours into a bowl. Add the butter and rub in with your fingertips. Heat the lard in a pan until melted. Dissolve the salt in the boiling water, then add to the melted lard. Pour this liquid into the flour. Mix with a spoon then, as soon as it is cool enough, tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and work together into a ball. Be careful that the dough is not too hot when you start to work it. Once the dough ball is formed, leave it to cool slightly. If it’s still lumpy, work it a minute or two longer. Divide the dough in two, making one piece slightly bigger than the other.
  4. Working as quickly as you can, roll out the larger piece of dough to about 3mm thickness; it should be glossy and still warm enough to touch. Using an 11-12cm cutter, cut out 12 rounds to line the muffin moulds. Put them into the moulds, shaping to fit the sides. The pastry should come slightly above the rim of each mould. Roll out the other piece of dough and use a 6-7cm cutter to cut out 12 lids. Lift away the trimmings and re-roll the pastry if you need to cut more, but only once. As it cools, it stiffens and becomes more brittle.
  5. Put a heaped tablespoonful of the filling into each pastry case. Use a chopstick or something similar to make a good-sized hole, about 5mm in diameter, in the middle of each pie lid. Brush the pastry case rims with beaten egg and place the lids on top. Crimp the edges together well to seal. Brush the pastry lids with beaten eggs. Bake the pies for 50 minutes until golden brown.
  6. While the pies are in the oven, soften the gelatine in cold water to cover for 5 minutes or so. In a jug, dissolve the chicken stock cube in the boiling water. Drain the gelatine and squeeze to remove the excess liquid, then add to the stock and stir in completely dissolved.
  7. When the pies come out of the oven, enlarge the holes in the top if necessary, then carefully pour in a little of the gelatine mixture. Leave the pies to cool and settle overnight before serving. Or once cold, chill for a couple hours.

 

Pork Pies 3

Feast your PIES on them!

 

These little lovelies received a great reception not only from my *biased* taste-testers (I.e. the family), but also customers at my Mum’s Deli. The recipe was honestly a godsend to follow, and although perhaps not the prettiest or PIES-winning (sorry for that one) pork pies ever, I felt I achieved a pretty damn tricky bake! So, if you fancy a bit of a challenge, and the opportunity to make A LOT of terrible puns, this is the bake for you.

 

Ciao for now xoxo

Visit my Instagram: megmanganaro

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Sticky Toffee Cupcakes

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My brother invited me over for dinner at his new house this week and I thought… how better to celebrate the occasion but with cake?! So I did what I do best- put my apron on and got baking. He adores a good sticky toffee pudding, so I had a search and came across the perfect little recipe. Cupcakes with a soft, rich sponge and a sweet caramel icing. Just, yum.

The comments I received for them were equally as fab. On the back of these little beauties, my best friend is rooting for me to enter Bake Off 2016, and my toughest critic- the brother- praised them as the best cakes I’ve ever made him. The only negative I had was that I didn’t give him enough!! Not too bad if I say so myself 🙂 If you fancy a good ego boost, I suggest you make a batch!

Makes approx. 16 cupcakes

180g pitted and chopped dates

180ml boiling water

80g unsalted butter, softened

150g soft light brown sugar

2 eggs

180g plain flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1/4 tsp salt

1tsp vanilla extract

Put the chopped dates in a bowl and cover them with the boiling water. Set them aside to soak for about 30 mins while you get on with making the cupcake batter.

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees and line a muffin tin (or two) with cases.

Beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until soft and fluffy.

Break the eggs in one at a time and beat until they’re incorporated well.

Sift the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt) into the butter and sugar mixture in a few batches, beating after each addition until you’re left with a smooth batter.

Finally add the vanilla extract to the date mixture and add the whole lot to the cake batter.

Bake for 18-20 minutes.

Once they’re cooked, leave them to cool before icing.

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80g unsalted butter, softened

250g icing sugar

25ml milk

50g tinned caramel or dulce de leche

Using an electric mixer, mix together the icing sugar and butter until it has the texture of sand.

Gradually add the milk and whack up the speed until you have a light creamy butter icing.

Stir in the caramel.

Top your cupcakes with the icing and decorate as desired.

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Recipe from: Afternoon Tease

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Mini Cheeseburger Cakes

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This was such a fun bake. It was my flatmate’s birthday and, as you can guess, he liked burgers. As students, it was only right that a bottle of vodka was involved in the making of these cakes… But just as a make-shift rolling pin to roll out the fondant icing ‘cheese’! As well as the ‘cheese’, there’s a vanilla sponge ‘bun’, a chocolate brownie ‘burger’ and vanilla buttercream ‘mayo’. The great part about this is that you can make all the different elements up as and when you want. I actually made the brownies the night before and stored them in an airtight container before making the other elements the next day and assembling. They definitely looked the part, and went down a treat too!

Vanilla Sponge Bun

This is just your normal vanilla cupcake, which I then cut in half to make into a bun.

110g/4oz butter or margarine, softened at room temperature
110g/4oz caster sugar
2 free-range eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
110g/4oz self-raising flour, sifted

Preheat oven to180C/350F/Gas 4 and grease a 12-hole cupcake tray. Grease it well so that the cake won’t stick!

Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix until combined.

Spoon the mixture into each of the holes of the tray and bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until golden-brown on top and a skewer inserted into one of the cakes comes out clean. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the tin and cool on a wire rack.

Once cooled, cut each of the cupcakes in half to create the mini buns!

Brownie Burger

For this part of the bake I made a tray bake of brownies and, once cooled, simply used a small cookie cutter to create burgers 🙂

275g (10oz) butter, softened

375g (13oz) caster sugar

4 large eggs

75g (3oz) cocoa powder

100g (4oz) self-raising flour

100g (4oz) plain chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Fan 160°C/gas 4. Cut a rectangle of non-stick baking parchment to fit the base and sides of the tin. Grease the tin and then line it with the paper, pushing it neatly into the corners.

Measure all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix with a hand-held electric mixer until evenly blended.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, scraping the sides of the bowl with a plastic spatula to remove all of it. Spread the mixture gently to the corners of the tin and level the surface with the back of the spatula.

Bake for 40–45 minutes, until the brownies have a crusty top and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.Cover loosely with foil for the last 10 minutes if the mixture is browning too much.

Allow to cool in the tin. Once cooled, turn out the brownies and cut into 12 small rounds (or ‘burgers’!) using a cookie cutter.

Vanilla Buttercream Mayo

175 g butter (at room temperature), cut into pieces
1/2 tbsp vanilla extract
2-3 tbsp milk
350 g icing sugar, sifted

Put the butter, vanilla extract, two tablespoons of the milk, and half the icing sugar in a large bowl and beat until smooth. Beat in the remaining icing sugar, and pour in the rest of the milk if needed to make the icing the right consistency.

Lastly, assembling the burgers…

Spread a small amount of icing on each of the vanilla sponge halves

Place a brownie burger on half of the vanilla sponges

Place a small dot of buttercream on top of the brownie (this will be to hold the fondant ‘cheese’ in place)

Roll out the yellow fondant icing (supermarket bought!) and cut into small squares to resemble slices of cheese. Place one on top of each of the brownies

Place the rest of the sponge halves on top, to create your burger!

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Gluten and Dairy-free Lemon & Poppyseed Traybake

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It’s been a while but I’m back and still baking FODMAP friendly delights… and this is no exception! Such a light, fluffy sponge and an icing to die for (honestly, I could have eaten a whole bowl of it). The original recipe comes from the queen of baking, Mary Berry. I adjusted it so that it was suitable for the FODMAP diet, i.e. so that I could scoff it all 🙂

Makes 16 squares

SPONGE

2 lemons
225 g Vitalite (or another dairy-free substitute)
225 g caster sugar
275 g  gluten-free self-raising flour
2 level tsp gluten-free baking powder
4 eggs
4 tbsp lactose-free milk
25 g poppy seeds

ICING

3 tbsp lemon juice, approximately
225 g icing sugar, sifted

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/160Fan/Gas 4. Grease and line a 30 x 23 x 4cm (12″ x 9″ x 1 1⁄2″) traybake tin or roasting tin with greased parchment paper.

Using a zester remove the zest from one lemon and set aside for garnish. Finely grate the rind from the other lemon. Measure all the ingredients into a large bowl, add the grated lemon rind and beat well by hand or with an electric hand whisk for about 2 minutes until well blended. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and level the top.

Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 35-40 minutes or until the cake is shrinking from the sides of the tin and springs back when pressed in the centre with your fingertips. Leave to cool in the tin. Once cool turn out and remove paper.

For the icing, mix together the lemon juice, sieved icing sugar and mint to give a coating consistency. Spread out evenly over the cake sprinkle with reserved lemon zest and leave to set.

Cut into squares to serve.

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Best Ever Brownies

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This is honestly my ‘go to’ brownie recipe, it always go down a treat. I first made them when I was stuck what to make for my sister-in-law’s birthday- we were holiday on her birthday and needed something that we could stash in the suitcase without being destroyed during flight. You’ll be pleased to know they survived and were DELICIOUS. They are everything you want in a brownie- rich, moist and chocolatey. Since then, I’ve had not so subtle hints to keep making them- it’s safe to say a lot of brownies have been consumed by my family and friends this summer. They love them though. In fact, I went round a friend’s house recently and took a tray of them with me. Next thing I knew, her mum had tracked me down and asked me what my secret was! Gotta say, I was pretty chuffed with that 🙂 The recipe is from BBC Good Food, and is definitely worth the effort!

185g unsalted butter
185g best dark chocolate
85g plain flour
40g cocoa powder
50g white chocolate
50g milk chocolate
3 large eggs
275g golden caster sugar

Cut 185g unsalted butter into smallish cubes and tip into a medium bowl. Break 185g best dark chocolate into small pieces and drop into the bowl. Fill a small saucepan about a quarter full with hot water, then sit the bowl on top so it rests on the rim of the pan, not touching the water. Put over a low heat until the butter and chocolate have melted, stirring occasionally to mix them. Now remove the bowl from the pan. Alternatively, cover the bowl loosely with cling film and put in the microwave for 2 minutes on High. Leave the melted mixture to cool to room temperature.
While you wait for the chocolate to cool, position a shelf in the middle of your oven and turn the oven on to fan 160C/conventional 180C/gas 4 (most ovens take 10-15 minutes to heat up). Using a shallow 20cm square tin, cut out a square of non-stick baking parchment to line the base.

Now tip 85g plain flour and 40g cocoa powder into a sieve held over a medium bowl, and tap and shake the sieve so they run through together and you get rid of any lumps.
With a large sharp knife, chop 50g white chocolate and 50g milk chocolate into chunks on a board. The slabs of chocolate will be quite hard, so the safest way to do this is to hold the knife over the chocolate and press the tip down on the board, then bring the rest of the blade down across the chocolate. Keep on doing this, moving the knife across the chocolate to chop it into pieces, then turn the board round 90 degrees and again work across the chocolate so you end up with rough squares.
Break 3 large eggs into a large bowl and tip in 275g golden caster sugar. With an electric mixer on maximum speed, whisk the eggs and sugar until they look thick and creamy, like a milk shake. This can take 3-8 minutes, depending on how powerful your mixer is, so don’t lose heart. You’ll know it’s ready when the mixture becomes really pale and about double its original volume. Another check is to turn off the mixer, lift out the beaters and wiggle them from side to side. If the mixture that runs off the beaters leaves a trail on the surface of the mixture in the bowl for a second or two, you’re there.
Pour the cooled chocolate mixture over the eggy mousse, then gently fold together with a rubber spatula. Plunge the spatula in at one side, take it underneath and bring it up the opposite side and in again at the middle. Continue going under and over in a figure of eight, moving the bowl round after each folding so you can get at it from all sides, until the two mixtures are one and the colour is a mottled dark brown. The idea is to marry them without knocking out the air, so be as gentle and slow as you like – you don’t want to undo all the work you did in step 4.
Hold the sieve over the bowl of eggy chocolate mixture and resift the cocoa and flour mixture, shaking the sieve from side to side, to cover the top evenly. Gently fold in this powder using the same figure of eight action as before. The mixture will look dry and dusty at first, and a bit unpromising, but if you keep going very gently and patiently, it will end up looking gungy and fudgy. Stop just before you feel you should, as you don’t want to overdo this mixing. Finally, stir in the white and milk chocolate chunks until they’re dotted throughout. Now your mixing is done and the oven can take over.
Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, scraping every bit out of the bowl with the spatula. Gently ease the mixture into the corners of the tin and paddle the spatula from side to side across the top to level it. Put in the oven and set your timer for 25 minutes. When the buzzer goes, open the oven, pull the shelf out a bit and gently shake the tin. If the brownie wobbles in the middle, it’s not quite done, so slide it back in and bake for another 5 minutes until the top has a shiny, papery crust and the sides are just beginning to come away from the tin. Take out of the oven.
Leave the whole thing in the tin until completely cold, then, if you’re using the brownie tin, lift up the protruding rim slightly and slide the uncut brownie out on its base. If you’re using a normal tin, lift out the brownie with the foil. Cut into quarters, then cut each quarter into four squares and finally into triangles. These brownies are so addictive you’ll want to make a second batch before the first is finished, but if you want to make some to hide away for a special occasion, it’s useful to know that they’ll keep in an airtight container for a good two weeks and in the freezer for up to a month.

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