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danish pastries: apple, blackberry and bay pastry with maple glaze

The Third series of The Killing has started and that can only mean one thing: I am back in the grip of my obsession with all things Scandinavian. I would love to go to Copenhagen, but that is not likely to happen any time soon, so instead I am swooshing my decidedly Scandinavian hair around (seriously I’ve been told on three separate occasions this week that I have Scandinavian hair?!) and eating all things Danish.

First up, Danish pastries. As per my general aversion to baking, these barely qualify as patisserie as I didn’t make my own pastry or my own jam. Jam making is one of those things that I yearn to do and one of the many things spurring me on to complete my saving mission. For where would I store a jam cauldron and half a dozen jam jars in my flat, not to mention the finished product? I already have a strict one in one out policy with tinned tomatoes. Still, if I did make jam, I would make blackberry and bay – for a start blackberries are free; easily plucked from plentiful brambles even in the city and a gentle flavouring of bay leaf cuts through the sharp-sweetness beautifully for extra warmth and depth.

At any rate, this is a deliciously simple recipe that can be knocked up in 20 minutes – perfect for last minute guests as there’s next to no mess involved, so you can whip these up without messing up the kitchen and, as long as you have a couple of apples knocking around, some jam in the cupboard and a roll of pastry in the freezer, you won’t even have to nip to the shops. They also fill the house with the scent of hot jam as they bake. If that’s not a welcome, I don’t know what is.

Serves: 5 (2 each)
One roll of puff pastry (I keep a stash in the freezer. It defrosts at room temperature in less than half an hour)

2 apples

Half a pot blackberry and bay jam

Maple syrup for glazing

Icing sugar for dusting
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Grease a couple of baking trays and set aside. Roll out your pastry and cut into 10 squares. Dollop a globule of jam into the centre of each square, making sure to leave the edges clear.

Fill a large bowl with cold water, then core and finely slice the apples – try to keep the slices as thin as you can get them. Pop each slice into the water as you go to stop them from turning brown (if you have a lemon, squeeze a little juice in the water for good measure).

When you are ready to assemble, scoop up four or five apple slices, dab dry and arrange into a fan, then pop them on top of the jam.

Bake in the oven for approx 15 minutes until the pastry has risen and turned golden brown. With a pastry brush, slap some maple syrup over each pastry so they gleam and glisten in the light. Finally, dust with icing sugar and serve lukewarm.

fall table - autumn decorations for harvest festival or halloween

I dearly love, and seize upon, any excuse to celebrate. Especially if it involves decorating. Or eating. Or both.

But it seems positively ages until Halloween. Eons. Too long, in fact, for this impatient soul. But we had eight guests due to join us for the inaugural roast of the year at the weekend and I wanted to get into the autumnal spirit. And so to Clissold Park to gather a satisfyingly crisp pile of dip-dyed fallen leaves, the shiniest of conkers and their spiky shells. A pumpkin and a squash, who have been spared the pot temporarily while I rejoice in my fall fantasy, complete the picture along with two splendid heathers, displaying every graduation of orange from ochre to burnt umber. Like Christmas, autumn deserves a riot of fabulous jewel-rich shades. It is not a time for pretty pastels and cool whites.

But the star of the show has to be the rescued runner. This is my precious chiffon of many colours. The self-same chiffon that was irredeemably paint splattered and ripped during the works and can no longer serve as a net curtain, but is too pretty to throw away.

And how much did it cost for total autumn immersion? £2.50 for the heathers, £3 for a pair of Halloween candle-holders that gripped me with their promise of better days to come while I was feeling in need of good cheer in Waitrose and £2.50 for the pumpkin and squash. £8 in all, which I will justify thus: it is less than a really nice bunch of autumn flowers and will last a lot longer. Plus, I will be eating the pumpkin and squash, the Halloween candle-holders will last forevermore and the heathers will sit nicely in my rather sad and defeated-looking borders. And it has made this rather tired, rather emotional and almost defeated blogger keep the smile on her face for another day. Bring on Halloween!

fall table - autumn decorations for harvest festival or halloween

conkers, horse chestnut

I hereby declare that it is officially autumn. For the first time in months this morning, I didn’t want to leave the warmth of my bed. There was a real bite in the air, I shivered as I pulled on my dressing gown and cast a sideways glance at the heating dial as I passed on by. (Okay, it was actually the husband’s dressing gown – why is it that other people’s cosy clothes are so much better than your own? I always nick my mum’s jumpers too!)

Jogging was too much of a shock to the system. I made Jo walk instead. All the better to take in the fallen leaves, the conkers already spilling from their prickly cases. Their shiny, smooth chestnut shells too enticing to ignore. When did this happen? I’ve been in London too long.

Next, the virginia creeper that engulfs our garden wall will turn a bright, intense red. The prunus leaves will fade to burnt umber, then the leaves will wither and fall, carpeting our little garden as the blossom did in spring.

There’s a wind that whispers new boots, sparklers, woollen gloves and pumpkins. Candlelight, catherine wheels and cosy blankets. Red cheeks and noses but no more roses, autumn’s here. Autumn’s here.

But I shan’t be bowed. I’m with Keats on autumn: it’s the king of seasons. And for the record, the heating’s staying off until October.

To autumn
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Parklife: relaxing in Clissold Park, Stoke Newington, London

Parklife: relaxing in Clissold Park, Stoke Newington, London

Friday

Wake up with: £50

Go to bed with: £50

As predicted, the ‘team meeting’ is less about ‘team’ and more about the dissolution thereof. I am one of the lucky ones for now, and I leave work on Friday still in gainful employment, although the survivor’s-guilt sets in as I cycle home.

I’m almost glad for the opportunity to throw myself into some manual labour to take my mind off the whole thing: the new carpet has been fitted in two rooms, so we can start to put them back together. Cue much hoovering, dusting and heavy lifting. By ten, the husband and I are sat on the sofa, enjoying our tea (spaghetti carbonara cooked by yours truly), watching the TV in a sparkling-clean sitting room. With the door closed, we can almost forget about the rest of the flat.

Saturday

Wake up with: £50

Go to bed with: £20.70

We’re due at a friend’s wedding in Finchingfield today. The day dawns bright and promising: welcome back summer. We’re both up early to continue the endless shuffle of possessions through the flat. The husband does a run to the tip while I continue to wipe and clear and by 10am we’re walking to the station primped and preened in our glad rags (this is something of a miracle given the state of our flat). The train ticket is £19.30 return.

The venue is stunning, the bride looks beautiful and it’s simply bliss to sip champagne in the sunshine and catch up with old friends. The husband and I get a taxi back to the station (£20) in time to catch the last train back to London: I’m stupidly grateful to fall into bed.

Sunday

Wake up with: £20.70

Go to bed with: £16.56

It’s a scorcher. It’s hard to laze in bed with the sun streaming through the curtains, so eventually we capitulate and make a half hearted attempt to do a little more work, before we decide that the DIY will have to play second fiddle to the sunshine today. The husband is dispatched to pick up picnic supplies and we hop on our bikes and head for the park.

After a magnificent open-air lunch, I fall asleep in the sunshine and consequently get ludicrously sunburnt. Oh well, it’s not as if sun damage has been a prevailing feature of summer 2012. We spend the evening ferrying the husband’s record collection between rooms and hoovering up the debris from stage one of renovations. I cook up a vat of ragu to keep us going through the week ahead; it’s going to be another long one. We eat on the balcony and then collapse on the sofa for a Wallander before bed.

Monday

Wake up with: £16.56

Go to bed with: £16.56

Supper Club has been cancelled because the husband is going to see the new Batman film and I have resolved to spend the rest of this week’s money on food for my local foodbank, but when I go to the website, there’s no information on where or when to drop off supplies. I email the director enquiring about volunteering and/or donations, but get no response. Curious. My do-gooding will have to wait until next week.

I have earmarked the entire evening to pack up my clothes and dressing table, but it turns out all my clothes fit into a single suitcase and an hour and six minutes after I first started, the bedroom is completely devoid of my possessions. I’m not sure why I’m surprised: in the last 12 months, I have bought two new dresses (both for weddings), two pairs of leggings from H&M and nothing else.

Tuesday

Wake up with: £16.56

Go to bed with: £8.56

A friend offers us two tickets for Daniel Kitson’s pre-Edinburgh rehearsal at the bargain price of £3 and we practically bite his hand off in our eagerness to get out of the house (and see Daniel Kitson’s new show, of course!). We meet at nine and have time for a glass of wine in the sunshine before the show begins. It’s hilarious and we pour out into the summer night giggling and grateful for the opportunity to leave the DIY behind for a night. Tonight we will have to sleep on the floor, our bed has been dismantled so the bedroom can be decorated this week, ready for the final carpet fitting on Friday.

Wednesday

Wake up with: £8.56

Go to bed with: £8.56

Whether it’s sleeping on the floor, the sudden onset of summer or simply that I’ve caught the cold that’s been doing the rounds, I wake feeling anything but rested, it’s going to be a long day.

The husband offers to gather supplies for the re-scheduled supper club. When he gets home, he is incredulous: “When did food get so expensive?” He splutters. “I just can’t believe how much prices have risen since I last did a proper supermarket shop.” He resolves to adjust the standing order between our bank accounts to reflect the price rise (I am Chief in Charge of Household Expenses and we don’t have a joint account). I can’t really see the point as it’s all going in the same pot anyway, but then I remember my poor, undernourished wardrobe. Maybe an extra tenner wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

The boys pile over for a dinner of lamb kefte, flatbread, tzatziki and Greek salad. The adrenalin that’s been keeping me going for the last two weeks must have finally run out as I can’t keep my eyes open over dinner and fall asleep on the sofa before the clock strikes 10.

Thursday

Wake up with: £8.56

Go to bed with: £5.12

Despite my exhaustion, once I actually get into bed, I cannot sleep. After a night tossing and turning, I get up at 5am, sweating all over with a splitting headache, and what feels like the beginnings of a cold. Great. I climb back into bed with a wet towel draped over my head and shoulders to cool me down but to no avail. By the time the alarm sounds, I am so exhausted that I feel like crying. I spend the day on the sofa feeling sorry for myself, but after a couple of naps and a good 12 hours doing absolutely nothing, I start to feel like myself again and decide it would be criminal to waste what is billed to be the last night of summer sitting on the sofa, when I could sit outside instead. At half seven I decamp to the park and lie on the grass, eating twiglets with my running partner-in-crime. We were supposed to be running this very eve, but luckily for me, she is similarly run down and exhausted so we just gossip and relax in the last dregs of sunshine instead. By the time the husband tucks me in to our make-shift bed, I feel more like myself again. Onwards and upwards.

eating outside al fresco dining

Apologies for the radio silence: every spare minute (and I don’t get many) has been devoted to either DIY or the sunshine this week and the camera has been trapped in a drawer behind the bedframe. Normal service will resume very shortly.

eating outside

Still, I have braved a potential avalanche to share this with you… we’re eating outside tonight and I have even laid the table like a civilised person with flowers from the garden. Admittedly I haven’t ironed the tablecloth but hey – no one’s perfect!

eating outside al fresco dining

 

London 2012, Polskie Delikatesy, Roman Road, Bethnal Green

Friday

Wake up with: £50

Go to bed with: £40.50

It’s my beautiful older sister’s birthday this week, so the budget is accordingly reduced; it’s also time to start scaling down in anticipation of a couple of events later in the month.

The latter half of the afternoon at work is torture; Murray’s playing in the Wimbledon semi-final and I am itching to watch it. When the clock strikes 5.30, I leap on my bike and pedal home as quickly as my legs will take me. The husband’s return signals the start of the Great Clear Out: this weekend we’re going to dismantle his beloved playroom study and turn it into a spare bedroom. Poor boy! To cheer him up (and to satisfy my craving once and for all) I offer to nip out and get us a curry goat from the local Caribbean. Two curry goat with rice and peas and a side of plantain = £9.50. Yum.

Saturday

Wake up with: £40.50

Go to bed with: £30.08

The husband goes to work and I seize the opportunity to escape the DIY for the day: I cycle over to Roman Road to meet the girls for some marvellous market action. We fill our bags with bounty from the fruit and veg stall and the Polish delicatessen, then nip into a salon to have our eyebrows threaded for the bargain price of £3, before retiring to the sporty one’s house around the corner for a lunch of halal rotisserie chicken, salad and olives, followed by lebkuchen all from the market. Heaven.

Meanwhile, the husband has been hard at work ripping out his desk unit and the old boiler cupboard. We spend the rest of the afternoon daubing polyfilla about indiscriminately until we declare it time for tea. The husband declares he wants a fish and chip supper and I’m not about to stop him (as long as he pays). There’s something about spending Friday and Saturday night doing DIY that makes us crave junk food: perhaps it harks back to the early days when we didn’t have any furniture and we just ate pizza (not even the good pizza) off a cardboard box, while staring dismally at the nicotine-stained wood-chip waiting to be stripped off by our own fair hands…

Sunday

Wake up with: £30.08

Go to bed with: £15.73

It’s Wimbledon final day, the fridge is full with yesterday’s haul and the husband is going out. I spend a glorious day pottering about, with every TV and radio in the house tuned in to the tennis. The husband gets home in time for a tea of homemade gnocchi and pesto.

Monday

Wake up with: £15.73

Go to bed with: £5.06

Home via Sainsbury’s to cook this evening’s supper club meal: braised pork belly and stuffed marrow. I decide to use a few of my loyalty points to bulk up the store cupboard: I’m going to require a lot of pasta to get through the rest of the month. The boys aren’t interested in my gooseberry and elderflower sorbet, which I’m thrilled about: all the more for me!

Tuesday

Wake up with: £5.06

Go to bed with: £0.06

Woohoo! I have the day off today. I also have ten million errands to run, so it’s up at 9.30 (that is VERY early in my book), and straight into town to work through the to-do list. Unfortunately, I do not have any credit on my Oyster card, so my last fiver for the week is sacrificed at the Transport for London altar. Still, cycling is not feasible: it has not stopped raining for about three months and I have emergency supplies to buy for my stepmother, a bridesmaid’s dress to find and purchase, essential wedding accoutrements to track down as part of my matron-of-honour-ly duties, a carpet to choose and two wedding presents to buy. The former three do not involve my own money, so I will be paying by card for those but I will have to be extremely careful not to get carried away as per the last time the magic plastic came out.

In fact, one of the reasons I am buying wedding presents in an actual shop rather than on a computer is because I am trying to stick to my no-card rule. Human interaction it is. It feels ridiculously old-fashioned and I get some really funny looks from the customer services desk when I ask if I can look up the relevant wedding lists and pay in cash. I haven’t yet accounted for these in the budget so technically it is cheating but it would be foolish to pay the tube fare twice; as my Gran always says “never waste a journey”.

By the end of the day, I can’t bloody wait to get back to work. This day-off lark is exhausting!

Wednesday

Wake up with: £0.06

Go to bed with: £0.06

The day does not start well. The builder of kitchen-fame is due to pop round and give us a quote for fixing the hole in our bathroom wall (a product of the exploding shower debacle), and to fix the hallway ceiling following the water-tank leak. My hackles are up from the off: I am not a morning person and can’t really stomach any interaction before 10am or three coffees, whichever comes first. When I try to pin him down on a start date and his reply is ‘maybe sometime next week’, I have to leave the house before I say something I regret. I just cannot live on a building site any longer. I cycle to work furiously but, by the time I get there, I’m beginning to feel guilty and sheepish for snapping at the husband and being rude to the builder. Luckily, the husband emails to say he has found someone else who is available to start on Friday. Thank the lord and bless the husband!

My guilt over my brat-like behaviour only increases when the husband gets home and announces that he has cashed in his collection of coppers and is taking me out to dinner with the proceeds. Is he trying for some sort of award or what?

This coin collection has been building for 10 years: every single night he empties his pockets when he gets home from work. And every night, I pick up the pile of screwed-up receipts, change, cufflinks and other man detritus from wherever he has left it and dump it on his desk. Well, sometimes I keep the change, but most the time it filters through to one of the carrier bags that he’s been filling with coppers ever since I’ve known him. Why? I do not know. But I am very glad to see the back of it and even more glad to go on a date with the love of my life. It’s been five long weeks since we went out for dinner together. We share two starters and a main, and buy a Magnum on the way home for pudding.

Thursday

Wake up with: £0.06

Go to bed with: £1.52

The builder is due tomorrow, and the husband has resolved to repaint the house this weekend, so every last thing must be cleared from the study, hallway and sitting room and into the kitchen. I pick up a box and find yet another pile of change underneath. Finders, keepers!

Minimum income calculator

Minimum annual wage for a couple with one child aged under 1, (adjusted to account for our actual mortgage and energy costs) according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard

Ever since I started this blog, I have been plagued by the thought that potential readers would be perfectly justified in dismissing my money-saving efforts as ridiculous. At the outset, I set myself a budget of £80 a week, after mortgage and household bills. To me, it sounded high; after all, unemployment benefit in the UK is currently set at £71 a week and that’s for everything. What’s more, I’ve been regularly relying on store-cupboard ingredients, falling back on store-card loyalty points, foreign currency or vouchers that I had in reserve. I’ve even gone over budget a couple of times. In short, I have felt like a bit of a fraud, albeit one that ’fesses up to her failings.

Today, however, the Centre for Research in Social Policy, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published a report entitled A Minimum Income Standard for the UK. It’s a fascinating read. According to the report: “A minimum standard of living today includes, but is more than just food, clothes and shelter. It is about having what you need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society.” You can read the report and discover more about the Centre’s approach here.

Minimum income calculator

Weekly outgoings for a couple with no children, (adjusted to account for our actual mortgage and energy costs) according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard

What I found particularly heartening is that, using the website’s Minimum Income Calculator, I have discovered that my weekly budget falls well below the ‘minimum’: in fact, as a couple with no children, my husband and I would need £557.28 per week to conform to the standard of living defined in this report. To make a direct comparison (i.e. stripping out mortgage costs and household bills), my weekly budget should be £128.30. It appears I am £48.30 short of attaining this meagre standard each week. Now clearly, I actually have more money than this: I am choosing to save it rather than spend it and I am lucky to be in a position to choose at all.

However, it’s not as if we’re saving to buy a pair of designer shoes. We’re saving for the next stage of our lives and that has been bought into sharp perspective by a further turn on the Minimum Income Calculator.

Reader, I would like to have a baby. There I’ve said it. I’m not saying that I want to have a baby right this second, but I would like one in the next few years. I am 30, I am married and I own a tiny proportion of my own home. To the casual observer, there is no reason on this earth that I shouldn’t have one.

My employment contract entitles me to statutory maternity pay (SMP). Nothing more, nothing less. For those not familiar with SMP: for the first six weeks, you get 90% of your average gross weekly earnings. For the remaining 33 weeks, you get £135.45 per week.

Minimum income calculator

Weekly outgoings for a couple with one child aged under 1, (adjusted to account for our actual mortgage and energy costs) according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard

Back to the minimum income calculator. If my husband and I had a child aged 0-1, we would need £619.24 a week, assuming we continued to live in our five-room flat (kitchen-diner, sitting room, 2 bedrooms, bathroom), to achieve this basic standard. My share of that is £309.62. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that my maternity pay would leave me £174.17 short every week, or £5,747.61 over those 33 weeks.

And it doesn’t stop there; it’s not as if I can just go back to my job after nine months and leave the child at home. When/if I go back to work, I will then have to pay for childcare. As you all know, my disposable income is currently £820 per month (and it’s not looking likely that that will change for the better any time soon). According to the calculator, I would need disposable income of £696.17 per month, before childcare to maintain a minimum standard of living. That would leave me £123.83 to spend on child care per month. My official working hours are 9am to 5.30pm. Let’s assume that I never work late (I wish), I make that 40 hours per week. According to the daycare trust’s 2010 report, the average cost for 25-hours of care for children aged under 2 in London was £109. For my 40-hour week, not including travel time, that is £174.40. Errrrrr…..

In other words, with my ‘spare’ £123.83, I could afford just over 28 hours of childcare. Per month. At 2010’s prices. Let’s say the husband chips in: we can afford 56 hours of childcare per month. Woop di woop di woo.

This morning, as per my daily routine, I watched BBC news as I put on my make-up. Today’s discussion was the age at which women are ‘choosing’ to have children. It was the usual discussion: we’re having children later, blah di blah di blah. Women who wait to have children are risking infertility, miscarriages and complications. So far, so predictable—although this was the BBC, so it was less scare-mongering than usual. One aspect that was missing, however, from the segment I watched at least—I had to leave for work half-way through— was the issue of money. Has it not occurred to anyone that even if we’ve miraculously found someone to have children with during our child-bearing years (NOT a given, and something I am thankful for every single day), we can’t actually afford to have them?

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