family · health and wellbeing · recipes

Quake

Presently based in Mexico City, my daughter endured the terrifying experience of an earthquake. Standing in a queue on nightclub stairwell (where most twenty-somethings living on the other side of the world from home should be) the quake hit. Fearing its likely collapse, she had the presence of mind to push herself and those ahead of her off the stairs and into the club – where they safely waited it out.

Although she was physically unscathed, the experience has remained within her protective recesses. The nights are very hot in Mexico and for maximum sleeping comfort the minimum in sleeping attire is required. Never sure now when the next tremor may strike, she keeps a pair of pants within arm’s reach next to her bed should she need to evacuate to the street in the wee hours. Affectionately termed her ”earthquake pants” they provide the security she currently needs to sleep well through unsettling circumstances.

And today I thought, we all need earthquake pants, something or someone we know we can reach for when life trembles. I am lucky. I have some very sound quake strides that have supported me, so I urge you to think about what are yours. For many the fabric is woven from religion, a parent, a partner or a social network. Whatever guise your pants may be, cherish them and keep them close.

I hope I am the earthquake pants for my children.

Maybe you also have a pair fashioned from the strongest material available, but have not yet discovered them or have forgotten they are there, folded securely within you. These are the pants that you slide into when the fault lines of life shift and separate beneath you. Their warp and weft threads are tightly bound by the inner strength of your human spirit – and nothing, not even a shift in the physical earth will ever separate them.

If you are experiencing or have endured your own personal instability, this is a lovely piece to help restore calm.

 

And here is the recipe for this brownie, with all of its cracks, splits and crevices.

Cranberry and Mixed Nut Brownie

125g dark chocolate
175g butter
3 eggs
275g caster sugar
75g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
small handful of dried cranberries
150g mixed unsalted nuts, chopped

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees (fan-forced).
  2. Grease and line a slice tin with baking paper overhanging the sides.
  3. Place chocolate and butter in a heat proof bowl and melt over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir constantly and cool for a few minutes once melted.
  4. Beat eggs and sugar.
  5. Blend this mixture with the chocolate mixture and fold through all of the dry ingredients.
  6. Pour into lined tin and bake for around 30 minutes.
  7. Once completely cold, slice into portions, which if you have no will power to withstand, like me, share out or place in the freezer for a rough day.

 

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homemaking · recipes

Jars


The calendar flipped over today, and in doing so, I caught a glimpse of Easter on the horizon. The cooler nights and even chillier mornings have also been hinting of its arrival, so I now have the official go ahead to arrange a festive display in the hallway with some treats on offer. This year we have a small wooden tree with pastel coloured eggs dangling from its branches, a bunny bowl filled with chocolate eggs and a favourite jug filled with lemon balm and pink blooms. Of course the next thing thoughts turn to is Easter baking, as there is something quite complementary about cooler weather and warm ovens.

A quick glance in our refrigerator at any time of the year will reveal several opened jars of jam each with various quantities depending on popularity. One of the best ways I know to consolidate this situation is to bake Jam Drops. These are buttery little biscuits with a well made in the centre of the dough to be filled with jam before they are baked. This week the wells were filled with raspberry and plum jam, but at other times apricot and fig jam have been equally delicious. These baking sessions are very rewarding because not only do I end up with a generous batch of biscuits for the week but also some lovely new jars to fill with spices and other dry pantry items.

Clean glass jars look appealing filled with dry goods. I prefer them to plastic containers as their individual sizes mean I always have the right storage capacity available. Using larger jars allows you to buy your food staples in bulk, which is economical and reduces continuous throw away small packaging. Jars are easy to clean, seal well and the contents are clearly visible. I have almost replaced all of my tiny spice jars with larger versions which are so much easier to dispense from. Labeling is important though, as a teaspoon of mixed spice rather than a teaspoon of cumin, makes quite a difference in a recipe!

So if you have butter, sugar, flour and an egg in your kitchen and a refrigerator that needs some space freed up then you have the makings of a wonderful batch of biscuits to kick off your Easter season.

jam drops

125g butter, softened
½  cup sugar
1 egg
1 ½ cups SR flour, sifted
Jam

  1. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees celcius
  2. Line baking trays with baking paper
  3. Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy
  4. Beat the egg in to the mix thoroughly
  5. Fold the flour through the mix with a metal spoon – it will be quite stiff and will form into dough by the time the flour is mixed through
  6. Roll teaspoonfuls of the mixture into balls and place on the baking tray, leaving room for the biscuits to spread
  7. Using your thumb, press a well into the centre of each biscuit fall and fill with a small amount of jam. Don’t over fill or the jam will overflow onto the baking sheet.
  8. Bake for 10-15 minute or until nicely browned.

Makes 24 approximately

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recipes

Bronze

bronze wing

A lovely adjunct to keeping a small peep of chickens is the thriving community of bronzewing pigeons that have joined us.

At first light, they perch expectantly on the fence rail of the chicken enclosure, waiting for the caretaker (me) to raise the hatch of the coop. After five coppery hens surge from within and down the timber plank that serves as the gangway to the new day and fresh pasture, the pigeons surreptitiously make their way inside the coop by reverse process. One or two will remain behind to keep lookout on the rail and raise a signal should one of us come too close, whilst others venture in and feast on the lovely blend of poultry grain kept dry and well supplied in the stainless steel feeder. For reasons known only to those belonging to the avian family, the chickens seem oblivious to their presence in and amongst their enclosure, but should a venturing magpie, kookaburra or heaven forbid, noisy minnah come in to land, these intruders are sent packing in no uncertain terms.

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Word must have gone around as the bronzewing numbers are steadily increasing and some afternoons when I approach a little unexpectedly, the sound of beating wings with rapid take off can be likened to that of Trafalgar Square. I notice also, that the collective girth is expanding and I’m sure that can be attributed to the nutritious feed and the rapid rate at which it is depleted, a rate far quicker than you would anticipate five Isa Browns to consume at. I don’t mind the extra outlay for these birds, the gentle native creatures that they are. Perched amongst branches, casually browsing on the grass or nestled in leaf litter, they imbue a mood of peace and tranquillity throughout the garden. However, on one particularly balmy afternoon when I went out to collect eggs, I opened the door of the chicken house and surprised a snoozing bronzewing. The surprise was mutual and after a mad flapping (bronzewing) and a couple of expletives (me) we both vacated with racing hearts. Sometimes though, I hear them whooo whoooing far up in the eucalypts which is quite reassuring – it is as if we have vigilant sentries keeping watch.

As their name implies, they sport sheeny iridescent autumnal hued feathers in their wings, which when fanned out in the sunlight, are a magnificent sight. This metallic flash is often seen on take-off, or when the resting bird is angled toward the sun, and as our days move into these lovely golden afternoons, the pigeons seem to tone in so beautifully with their surrounds. There is nothing nicer on these days than taking a mug of tea outside to watch them potter about.

img_8525
With all this seasonal burnished, bronze influence my thoughts turned to a very simple biscuit recipe, that speaks of these tones in its delicious caramelised flavour. Burnt Butter Biscuits. So simple is this recipe that the ingredient list is waiting in your kitchen. The richness of flavour comes from gently caramelising the butter before it is added to the mix. A batch of these are a lovely way to celebrate this gentle season and hopefully you have some birdlife to quietly observe whilst enjoying them.

burnt butter biscuits

125g butter
110g caster sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
110g SR flour
75g plain flour
pinch of salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (or 170°C fan-forced)
  2. Line your trays with baking paper
  3. Melt the butter over a low heat and then cook gently until it turns golden
  4. Cool and pour into a mixing bowl
  5. Add the sugar and beat well then stir in the egg and vanilla
  6. Sift the flours and salt then fold these into the mix
  7. Roll mixture into balls and place these on the trays, allowing room for spreading

Makes 22

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Credit must be given to Australian Critters for the opening image on this post.

book reviews · recipes

Sophie

It is with barely contained glee that I can announce, we saw the trailer for Spring 2015 here today!

Yes, all of the highlights – bird twittering, daffodil nodding, lawn mowing, cat sprawling and of course sun drenching – were condensed into the happy daylight hours of this late winter Saturday. And if the coming season is anything close to what this trailer alluded to, it’s going to be a cracker! So, inspired by this exciting preview, I thought it fitting that the opening image to this post about Sophie Hansen be the spring illustration from her book, Local is Lovely.

But before I continue, I just need to take a quick side-step up to a soap box, and restate my passionate belief yet again – we all need to continue to cook. We need to take produce from around us, where possible, in it’s simplest form and slice it, mix it, bake it, steam it, roast it, mash it or whatever needs to be done to it to produce nourishing, appealing food to fuel healthy lives. And most vitally, our children need to see this happening. They need to be exposed to basic raw materials being crafted into meals so that when their time comes to take responsibility for their own nutrition and/or the nurture of others, this will be their default. Because it’s what they saw.

They need not have seen elaborate haute cuisine, but simply, basic combinations of fruit, vegetables, proteins and grains with a measure of fats and oils keeping things balanced and delicious. If that means thick slabs of bread loaded with generous slices of tomato, fresh cheese and garden herbs, topped with some pan-crisped salami, then the job is done. And if it can’t happen this way each day because the pace of life takes precedence, then that’s ok – just so long as there are times when it does.

So this now brings me to Sophie, a food writer and one-woman cheersquad for the local farmers/producers in her neighbourhood, within which, her farm in Orange, four hours west of Sydney is located. She is a strong advocate for sourcing food locally not only for the deliciousness of it but also to support the local growers, whom she believes are the heroes of our land. In her beautifully laid out read, you will be taken through the seasons, inspired by earthy delicious cooking using seasonal produce and intrigued by a sprinkling of profiles of her local farmers.

local is love

As well a being just a pleasurable, inspiring read, Sophie’s message within these pages is clear, to source locally, cook seasonally and enjoy the process.

Now I realise that most of us may not be located bang smack in the centre of a regional food bowl, and the local supermarket may be as close as it gets to sourcing our produce, and that’s fine too. It is amazing though, if you attempt to sniff it out, there are sources of locally grown staples, even in inner urban areas that can be drawn upon. I have a free-range egg farm close by and I imagine that many of you have a monthly farmer’s market in your vicinity. Some of us have neighbours with fruit trees whilst others are making it their business to learn the art of foraging and finding wild delights ripe for the taking. My point is, use what is available to you when you can and become aware. It’s not about making sweeping overnight changes, but gradual shifts toward a healthier and therefore more enriched lifetime.

So while you ponder this, here is a Chocolate Blackberry Loaf, one of Sophie’s Winter Baking recipes (that you can receive in a free ebook that can be downloaded when you visit her and sign up for her newsletter) to enjoy.

1 cup plain flour
5 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarb soda
good pinch salt
1/4 cup espresso coffee (I used one shot from our little machine at home but you could also make a really strong plunger coffee and use 1/4 cup of that)
1/2 cup natural yogurt
1 tsp vanilla paste
150g unsalted butter, softened
1 cup caster sugar
3 eggs
1 cup blackberries (raspberries or blueberries would also be good)

Preheat oven to 180C and grease and line a large loaf tin. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, bicarb and a good pinch of salt and set aside. In another bowl, combine the coffee, yogurt and vanilla and stir well. Now cream the butter and sugar together in an electric mixer, until pale and fluffy.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Add the yogurt mixture and mix in on low speed. Then, by hand, fold in the flour mixture and finally fold through the blackberries.
Spoon batter into the tin and bake for 45 minutes or until the cake is just pulling away from the tin’s sides and it feels firm to touch

Chocolate Blackberry Loaf

Postscript: and apart from the ethical, nutritional, sustainable and economic values Local is Lovely expounds, anyone who creates a cake recipe combining chocolate, coffee, blackberries and greek yogurt ought to be worth paying attention to.

recipes

Patty

patty cakes

In a distant age the pterodactyl flew, the Brachiosaurus trod and (according to my children) I was a child. And it was back in those dawning days that we consumed little cakes. No party table was complete without a stand of these delicate little paper-cased delights, smoothed over with silky icing and decorated in a very understated fashion with silver balls or sprinkles. And to us all, they were affectionately known as patty cakes.

We did know of cupcakes. That was the equivalent term our US cousins used, and we heard it bandied about often enough as we consumed our generous diet of American TV and story-books. Despite this, we continued to refer to ours as patty cakes and not much more was said about the matter until recent days.

In a juggernautish manner, cupcakes have stormed our cake world. In a speed that would have impressed Darwin, this evolutionary process saw the little patty cake forced to extinction as the lavish buttercream topped, supersized baked phenomenon, was naturally selected by our gluttonous appetites and now solely inhabits our bakery counters and benchtops. With all of that colour, whip and magnificence, how could it have been otherwise?

I do think there is something to be said about a nice little cake with a cup of tea. Similarly, in a sea of sugar-laden party treats, a small cake leaves room to be tempted by other celebration table goodies. So I bake patty cakes.

If you’re of similar eon or simply enjoy smaller treats, a batch is not difficult to prepare. For your basic cake mixture, use the one from this blog post. If you like shiny, firm icing purchase pure icing sugar rather than soft icing mixture. Measure out 150 grams and sift it. Add water, one teaspoonful at a time, until a nice spreading consistency it reached – avoid runny. Spread the icing across the cooled cake tops, and give them a token decoration. With the recent cupcake frenzy, there are now masses of decorative items now at your disposal.

patty cake

Postscript: There is  a small clue remaining, that the cupcake was once known to us as a patty – supermarket shelves across our land stock paper cases all clearly labelled – patty pans.

recipes

Honest

autumn leaves

And so it is once again we make our seasonal transition, and as is customary, our greeting from Autumn is one of welcome and warmth. Rich jewel-hued foliage and mellow sunshine provide a glorious backdrop for days spent digging over soil for winter, industrious pegging at washing lines or simply enjoying the treat of coffee-dipped biscuits on a terrace.

The latter is my preference, soaking up sunshine as eagerly as the scotch fingers fill with steaming coffee – I’m grateful to absorb them both! I encourage you to make this practice yours as well, as there are no finer moments in your garden than those spent basking in the warmth of sunshine, coffee and golden thoughts of promising plans. The velvety swish around your legs of a feline who discovers your presence only adds to the affability of the occasion.

There is nothing complex or intricate of Autumn. A season of robust honesty – rich color, decent rain, enduring sunshine and crisp nights. It’s reduced temperatures call for hearty, earthy food. Plain and simple. Plain cake. Gather your faithful core ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, flour and set about this reliable, dense Madeira cake – nothing fluffy or fly-away about this one. Your kitchen will fill with the scent of baked goodness, and should ‘the sun be over the yard arm’ bring out your finest fortified (madeira if you have it), adjourn to the terrace and dip away.

madeira cake

175g softened butter
175g caster sugar
250g plain flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
finely grated lemon zest of 1/2 a lemon
4 eggs

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees celcius and grease and line a loaf tin.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until light and pale.
  3. Sift together the flour and baking powder, then stir through the lemon zest.
  4. Beat the eggs into the butter and sugar mixture, one at a time,beating thoroughly between each one.
  5. Using a metal spoon, swiftly but thoroughly, fold through the flour mix.
  6. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, smooth the top and bake for 55-60 mins or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
  7. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes and then turn out.

 

McWilliam's sherry

I couldn’t help noticing the driver of the bullock cart laden with grapes, decorating the sherry bottle. Maybe he was returning to his rustic verandah. After such a productive day, perhaps to kick off his boots, dunk a big chunk of cake into his sherry and survey the beauty of the harvest vineyard before him- who knows?

madeira display

Postscript: I must give credit to the Liquidambar for supplying such a stunning array of delicious colour to set off the madeira. This tree personifies Autumn in our garden.

recipes

Tim Tam

Tim Tam Brownie

It is better to give than to receive. I know this because I had the opportunity to watch a friend blissfully devour umpteen pieces of brownie I baked her for her birthday. A work colleague actually,  from a neighbouring shore who has developed a passion for Tim Tams – what better birthday gift than to present her with a packet, hidden in a brownie?

There aren’t too many than can pass up a Tim Tam or a chunk of brownie either. Such a perfect match the two have made. Soft chewy brownie with crisp chunks of chocolate biscuit – a devilish treat. Combine this with the recipient’s pleasure and you’ve created yourself one happy day.

tray of Tim Tam brownie

Do you feel like indulging? Thought so. Here is how they are done. Start with the basic brownie recipe I use, and leave out the honeycomb. Once the batter is made, dab about four heaped spoonfuls onto the base of the lined tin and smooth over to form a bed for your Tim Tams. Lay out an entire packet of the biscuits over the base. Now top with the remaining batter and smooth over so the Tim Tams are hidden inside. Bake for 30-35 minutes, and when the brownie has cooled, slice into blocks. Dust with cocoa powder.

brownie mix

Postscript: and then it occurred to me that there are a host of other chocolate biscuits on the shelves ……

recipes

Pound

Cream cheese pound cake

Pound cake. Just how did this traditional bake come to be named so? Here are my four theories:

  1. From the increment of weight gained per slice consumed.
  2. Where your dog winds up when you are too busy scoffing a slice to remember to close the front gate.
  3. The sum your British mates will offer you for a piece.
  4. The manner in which the neighbourhood children will strike your front door when the freshly baked aroma escapes the kitchen window.

Surprisingly, none of my suggestions come even close. The name originates from the fact that early American pound cakes contained one pound each of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. Simple to remember, straightforward to prepare and superb to eat. I guess what typifies a pound cake is its density. With no rising agents such as bicarbonate of soda or baking powder added, the resulting crumb is butter rich and firm – so satisfying when you just want to eat a decent whack of cake, nothing ‘fly-away’ about it.

Here in the sunburnt country, our version is known as madeira cake. Not quite as hefty, but certainly as well-loved. I grew-up knowing it to be ‘plain cake’. A slice wrapped in waxed paper tucked in my lunch-box was such a treat, while across in Germany, the school children were unwrapping Eischwerkuchen, and the French, quatre-quarts. So you see, we were all eating an interpretation of the same recipe – just happy kids eating cake.

Today, a serious pound cake was on the agenda, so it was the American region that I turned to – Cream Cheese Pound Cake. So generous in quantity, this recipe allows you to make two. Wrap your second in clingwrap, and that’s the baking done for next week as well. Strawberries are ripening beautifully in our northern states right now, so a punnet was economically converted into sauce to spoon across each slice.

To sum up, a pound cake represents stability. A pound cake made with cream cheese represents moisture-rich stability. A cream cheese pound cake bathed in strawberry sauce represents gluttony.

Pound cake with strawberry sauce

250g butter, softened
250g cream cheese, room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups plain flour
2 tsp salt

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius. Grease and line two loaf tins.
  2. Beat butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar, beat until light and fluffy.
  3. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in vanilla.
  4. Add flour and salt in two batches, beating until just combined.
  5. Pour batter evenly into both tins. Tap tins on bench to release air bubbles. Bake for approximately 60 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
  6. Cool in tins for 5-10 minutes before turning out onto wire rack.
  7. Slice and serve with strawberry sauce or just as it is!

For the strawberry sauce, hull and slice a punnet of strawberries and place in a small saucepan with two tablespoons of sugar on a low heat. Let them simmer away slowly, keeping a close eye, and shortly you will have softened fruit in a thick juice. Add a splash of water if you need to and maybe whizz with a stick blender if you like your coulis smooth. Serve warm over thick slices of poundy.

a slice of pound cake

Postscript: So robust is this cake, It could easily be dubbed ‘Slab Cake’ and marketed to our tradies…..

family · health and wellbeing · homemaking

Bread

Homemade bread

Man does not live by bread alone. Not a truer word was spake. For a simple gastronomic experience it is a must that it be accompanied by jam, cream, butter or any permutation or combination thereof. And once generously layered with these preserves and toppings it guarantees to satisfy growling bellies whom it has lured by its aromatic welcome at the front door.

As food trends have arrived and departed over the decades (and dare I say centuries) bread in its purest form – flour, yeast, salt and liquid – has stood by unwaveringly witnessing these passages. So basically, the loaves we break today, were broken many times over by our ancestors – with equal pleasure.

To be frank, I don’t grind my millet and bake over coals, but instead harness our kitchen horse – the breadmaker. As pleasing and as therapeutic as it is to knead and prove, I am equally energised by the fact that in the four hours the machine is at work, I can have shopped, cooked, stroked a cat and still have a lovely golden loaf to slice for the afternoon onslaught.

We each have our ‘desert island’ appliances, and the bread machine, although bulky, would be one I would have balanced on the luggage. To be able to have home-baked bread, is truly a pleasure. A loaf of olive bread with pasta, a grainy variety for breakfast toast or a fluffy Vienna with jam and cream in the afternoon are all examples of how our breadmaker adds value to the day.

Before you invest, look around you. Are there family or friends with idle machines that you could press into service? (that was how I was lucky enough to receive mine) The classifieds are another source of pre-loved bakers. However you source your breadmaker, regard it not as a new gadget, but rather a modern tool shoring up the links with your bread-breaking forbears.

Homemade bread, jam and cream

Postscript: and with an ever-expanding supply of jams, marmalades and chutneys on our shelves, what better vehicle is a thick slice of warm bread to transport them?

book reviews · recipes

Fika

Fika Ikea Baking Book

As formalities continue to be shed in an effort to live in a more simplified fashion, so too our food has begun to follow suit. More frequently we are encouraged to eat our meals in a ‘deconstructed’ form. Jamie now scatters his communal dinners across a chopping board, cheesecakes are commonly served up in drinking vessels and salads regularly layered in kilner jars (maybe this is my cue to toss a scoop of Vegemite, a few cheese shavings and some bread in the lunch box for some deconstructed school sandwiches). But I digress. The Scandinavians, or more specifically, Ikea, have had the jump on this mode for years. Their latest contribution to our pared-down existence is their new baking book, Fika, illustrating each recipe as a collection of deconstructed ingredients. Intrigued? So was I.

Fika is the Swedish term for a coffee break, generally shared with others. This book offers a host of recipes perfect for such events. Based on your level of experience and time affordable, you can dip in and out of this baking collection and come up with some delicious treats. The Rustic Biscuits caught my eye, basically because in my ‘deconstructed pantry’ all the elements were present and equally because the bakes could be made in two stages (dough needs to be chilled a while) allowing me to fit swimming lessons in between. And what lovely, crispy little gems they turned out to be:

Rustic Biscuits

Even on a day when baking is not within your reach, this book is a lovely browse, as rarely have I seen a collection of recipes photographed in such a simplistic form. For novice cooks to be able to see baked items broken down this way, leaves very little hiding space for uncertainty or self-doubt to settle. Dismantling kitchen fear and apprehension my friends, can only be a good thing.

100g butter, softened
100g caster sugar
1 tbsp. golden syrup
35g blanched almonds, chopped
225g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate soda
1 tbsp milk (optional)

  1. Cream butter, sugar and syrup.
  2. Combine almonds, flour and bicarb of soda and then add this mix to the creamed mix.
  3. Work into a dough (at this point, you may or may not need to add the milk, depending on how dry your dough is).
  4. Roll the dough into a long sausage, about 3 cm thick and wrap in cling film. Refrigerate for up to an hour or freeze.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees celsius. Remove cling film and cut slices of dough about 1 cm thick. Lay these out on trays lined with baking paper.
  6. Bake for 6-8 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

You will need to be forgiving with some of the text in Fika, as we are crossing a fairly challenging language barrier here. The odd ingredient may be foreign, and occasionally ml is used in place of gram, but remember, we are working on our flexibility.

Rustic biscuits and coffee

Postscript: By the way, Fika is a marvellous word to have in your vocabulary when you burn your hand on the oven tray whilst young family members are present.