Sunday 24 November 2013

Incense in the air

As I stepped out of my parents home this morning, ready to make the journey to morning Mass, I sniffed the air. At this time of year I am used to smelling the sweet smell of woodsmoke in the cold winter air, but this morning there was a sweeter tinge yet still. Frankincense? Could it be? Burning on a wood fire? Unlikely, I thought, but appropriate. Perhaps it was my imagination.

Today is one of my all time favourite feasts. I have written about it before. The Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. The Gospel today (Year C) surprised me. I have stuck in my head that on the Feast of Christ the King the Gospel will be taken from Matthew, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Perhaps that is a history of too many youth Sunday 'performances'. Today though, the Gospel was taken from Luke's account of the Passion. It sounds at first as though it should have been read on Good Friday, as though the priest has turned to the wrong page in the lectionary. But, no. This is Christ, on the verge of death, heralding new life in a new kingdom. Yes, he is a king, but his kingdom is not of this world. But, to the repentant thief, 'today, you will be with me in paradise'. Christ is dying, but he is on the verge of resurrection. He is judged by those around him, 'If you really are the Son of God, save yourself and us as well!', but is about to become the judge of all peoples. He is mocked as the 'King of the Jews', but is the King of the Universe. The one with, to quote Graham Kendrick (*unusual*), 'hands that struck stars into space to cruel nails surrendered'. The servant king.

After a few moments thought I fell in love with this reading. How reflective is it of the time of year we are now in? The trees are ablaze with colour: red, yellow, auburn, purple, orange. The sun sets low in the sky each afternoon, turning the horizon a dramatic range of warm reds and oranges. Nature is dying. Soon, as we move into Advent, the trees will turn barer still, the ground will freeze. Everything will gain that quality of stillness only ice cold temperatures can bring. It will seem as if everything is dead. As the weeks go by, and days get shorter still, we will begin to decorate our houses with signs of hope that life will come again: evergreen holly with deep red berries, fir cones, lights, poinsettias, mistletoe. Then, finally, at Christmas, we will welcome the eternally youthful king incarnate, and behold, he will make all things new. Meanwhile, in the frozen earth nature will be doing her thing, slowly preparing for her resurrection, her time to make all things new too. It will not appear that way though. For months we will be deceived into wondering if spring will ever arrive, and not even the best gardner will be able to tell you the day or the hour. 

And so continued my thoughts about the feast of Christ the Universal King, the one who was, and is, and is to come. The one seen and unseen: 'the image of the unseen God, and the first-born of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible' (Colossians 1: 12 - 20). 

After Mass I came home and made the most almighty fry up. I toasted some fluffy bottom of the oven barm buns, and covered them with lashings of butter. Then I served bacon, sausages and fried eggs on top. I made a big pot of tea, and we all sat round and chatted the morning away.

Friday 22 November 2013

How does a wordle change?

Periodically I make a wordle of my blog. Not regularly. I do not blog regularly. But, periodically, when I feel that something has shifted, changed.

When this blog started in 2007 I was a teacher. From 2008 until 2011 I studied in Oxford, and now I am a teacher again. I wondered in an idle moment if this had any effect on my thoughts and writing, so I did a wordle. As you can see, children are 'completely everything', teachers are the 'best community', but 'students support children'. We 'teach saints' but are 'true nuts'; the 'journey is never done', but for the most part, deep down, I am 'delighted', full of 'joy' and 'love'. Also bananas.

So, returning to teaching has had no effect at all!

Wednesday 13 November 2013

A fist full of everything makes a nice cake....

'A fist full of everything makes a nice cake' is a saying I primarily associate with my Ma. It comes from a story we read together as children, 'Little Grey Rabbit's Birthday', which I am glad to see is still in publication. My Ma always used to say it when she was cooking up a boiled fruit cake. I was reminded of this phrase recently when, in half term, I went home for a few days with the chief intention of cooking the Christmas puddings. With my Da sitting at the table as guide and supervisor I began the process of weighing and measuring a range of ingredients, sultanas, raisins, mixed peel, cherries, grated carrots, grated apples, bread crumbs, brandy, etc. The list went on forever, but there was no definitive recipe, or none that I could share with you. Our family Christmas pudding recipe is a combination of recipes from my Nana in Ireland, Delia, an old Irish cookbook and what my Da remembers goes in. So far as I can work out, you read / remember all the recipes, add everything and take out nothing. A fist full of everything makes a good Christmas.

Alongside my Ma's other best sayings: 'A little bit of what you fancy does you good' (food and health); 'never date a man you don't fancy' (romance); 'never make a promise you can't keep' (teaching); 'praise the Lord and pass the contribution' (ecclesiology); 'God helps those who help themselves' (theology), the saying 'a fist full of everything makes a nice cake' contains an awful lot of truth. I am the youngest of six children, all of whom used to come home from school ravenous, pass through the back door into the kitchen and miraculously arrive in the front room with a fairy cake in each pocket and one in each hand. My Ma could make a bag of flour feed us for an age.

This evening I came home to my flat to discover a few things. Firstly, Abel and Cole had delivered the organic fruit and vegetables. Secondly, I hand a glut of extremely ripe bananas, including ones I had stored in the freezer and defrosted* especially for today's recipe adventure. And, thirdly I had loads of eating apples. Wasted food is a crime in my book, so something had to be done. Only one thing for it, banana and apple cake bread.

* a little known fact: if you have bananas that are going over, put them in the freezer skin and all. They will blacken, but the insides stay fresh. When you are ready you can defrost them and put them in smoothies or cakes.

200g self raising flour
2 eggs
150g Demerara sugar
85g butter 
4 over ripe bananas
2 apples
a handful of raisins (optional)
grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
vanilla essence
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven at 180C and butter a bread loaf tin. Cream together the butter, sugar and eggs. Peel and slice the apples, and add them to a saucepan with a little water from the tap. Heat until softened. Leave aside to cool. Add the mashed, ripened bananas to the cake mix and whisk well. Then add the apples, using the whisk to break them up further. Carefully sieve in the self raising flour. Add the vanilla essence, cinnamon, salt and grated nutmeg. If you have them, throw in a handful of raisins or sultanas. Spoon the mixture into your loaf tin. Place in the oven for 30 - 40 minutes. Take out and cool for the same period of time. Serve in thin slices once completely cool.

So you see, it is true, a fist full of everything does make a nice cake.

Friday 1 November 2013

Seven Rays of Hope

The feast of All Saints really is one of my favourites. It is something about the time of year, as well as the significance of the feast. The smell of a damp, late Autumn - leaves scattered wet over the wet ground, wood smoke in the air, darkened evenings. Everything about this time of year breathes life into me, which is kind of ironic considering many things in nature are dying off, and the feasts of the Church are turning our attention to the life hereafter. 

Last weekend I was in Yorkshire. Weather wise it was a typical few days: dark, damp and windy. But, the sunshine was also battling through. Over the course of my stay I glimpsed seven rainbows arcing through the sky. Seven! A personal record! I was delighted.

Rainbows, of course, always fill me with joy and hope. They have even been known to make me grin from ear to ear and giggle. Rainbows are full of promise for the future, the reassurance that 'all shall be well', the symbol of God's protective and caring presence 'in all things'. Julian of Norwich and Ignatius of Loyola aside, rainbows remind me of the joy to be found in the pilgrim journey. In parts of France a rainbow is named Porte de Sant Jacques, whilst the Milky Way is named chemin de Sant Jacques. Legend has it that the rainbow is the arc of heavenly light that shines down on earth when Peter opens heavens' gate to a new saint. Those who follow in the footsteps of the saints, The Way, find themselves welcomed into heaven at the end of the journey. Perhaps this legend is also responsible for identifying rainbows with bridges, paths the saints followed: bridge of St. Bernard, St. Martin or St. Peter are common, the idea being that the saints are company on the way to heavens' gate. Basque Pilgrims have named rainbows the puenta de Roma; I've also heard them called the pont du St. Espirit and croix de St. Denis. In Italy the name arcu de Santa Marina is relatively familiar. All these colloquial names are just little reminders that God promises to be present on the journey, but he does not promise everything will be easy, the lives of the saints are testament to that.

Now, based on my assumption that seven very good and holy people did not pass from this life to the next in close proximity to South Yorkshire last weekend, I am pretty certain the rainbows I saw were the complicated outcome of a combination of rain and sunshine. That does not stop me thinking more romantically about them. I was delighted to see them. They filled me with hope and happiness for the future. Today, All Saints, reminds me that we never have to do anything alone. We not do even have to learn to be good alone, or live a life of faith alone, or pray alone. We do all these things with those we love, with friends, family, loved ones. Hurrah for that! Seeing all those rainbows in the sky over such a short period reminded me of all the very special people I share my life with and the journey we make together. That made me smile. What made me smile more was that there needed to be even more rainbows. I'm putting in an order for more.

A recipe for All Saints? How about some soul sustaining bread to share with a simple supper, tucked up next to the fire.

Any Apple Bread
This is a cakey, soda like wholemeal loaf. Good with lashings of butter and honey. Excellent with lashings of butter and jam. Did I mention lashings of butter and soup? Very good with lashings of butter and cheese. Serves 6 - 8.

150g plain flour
200g wholemeal flour
1/2 tsp salt
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 large or two small apples, grated coarsely
50g of butter melted, plus butter for greasing
2 tbsp honey
1 egg whisked
250ml apple juice
a few handfuls of chopped nuts or dried fruit (optional)

Preheat the oven to 180C

Brush a 1ltr non stick loaf tin (approx 20x10) with butter. Coat with a dusting of flour - the old fashioned way to prevent it from sticking.

Combine the dry ingredients. Fold in the grated apples (leave the skin on). Top with wet ingredients and nuts and/or dried fruit. Save some nuts to scatter on the top.

Gently fold all the ingredients together (remember to whisk your egg first). Be careful not to over mix.

Spoon the mixture into the tin. Sprinkle the reserved nuts over the top.

Bake for 30 mins, or until a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let it cool for 10 - 15 mins before removing from the tin and serving.