06 June, 2010

the hidden beauty of exams












It's a good news/bad news scenario, and since I'm Scandinavian I always want the bad news first: Avery's long-dreaded end-of-year school exams begin tomorrow morning. Five days, 11 exams, nothing else. Just exams.

The good news? She was home all day, every day last week and I simply LOVED it. I try not to think, most of the time, about how much time she spends away from me these days, because I know it's the wave of the future, it's healthy, and in the hideous modern expression, "it's all good." I hate that phrase because it's NOT all good. I miss her, and I find myself longing stupidly for the days when she was far more dependent on me, and therefore within my sight much more than she is now. I realize that to have a young lady on the doorstep of being adult, so capable and elegant and knowledgeable, is "all good." It's wonderful to drop her off at her acting class and see that she no longer has any need of anyone accompanying her, and her teachers have inside jokes with her, and she can be counted on to be a funny, hardworking member of the group.

And even her riding lessons, where I used to take her, settle myself down with a magazine and sort of sigh at having to watch her go round and round, being led by one of the big girls... these days SHE'S the big girl at the stables at the weekends, the one the adults rely on to help the little ones. There's no more watching: she's off in Hyde Park leading the little ones. I love it that people have grown to depend on my child, that she's responsible and resourceful. It's all you wish for, really, as a parent.

Except for more time with her! I wish for that.

So this week, as onerous as it was for her, was a delight for me. I provided her with "frequent little meals," as my friend Shelley so lovingly once said about feeding a kitten! Bowls of juicy, blood-red American cherries to be gnawed around the pits, bits of toasted baguette spread with salty Normandy butter, Danish salami of such a pinkish hue that we find ourselves wondering if Denmark feeds its pigs food coloring! And fresh fried haddock, battered in homemade breadcrumbs, four-cheese lasagne with a sneaky layer of spinach, chicken in sour cream sauce with brandy and a special paprika provided by my chum Rosie... not to mention countless asparagus spears, broccoli florets, sugar snap peas, and, best of all...

Avery's Exam-Week Blueberry Muffins
(makes six medium-sized muffins)


5 oz/150g plain flour
pinch salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 large egg
1 1/2 oz/40g white sugar
1/2 vanilla pod, scraped
zest of 1/2 lemon
2 oz/50g butter, melted
1 cup blueberries

Heat oven to 350F/180C. Line the muffin tin with paper liners, or butter and flour each muffin space.

Sift (or simply shake through a sieve, as I do since I don't own a sifter) the flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl just large enough to hold them. In a larger bowl, stir together the egg, sugar, vanilla pod scrapings, lemon zest and butter.

Fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture just gently, mixing until all is JUST wet but leaving behind plenty of lumps. Carefully stir in blueberries and divide among muffin cups.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until just browned and firm. The blueberry juice will have bubbled up and may look a bit messy around the edges, but that's what keeps them juicy and lovely. If you used paper cups, remove the muffins (in their paper cups) from the muffin tin right away.

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Can you believe how little sugar is in this recipe? I was absolutely shocked, but I shouldn't be surprised, because the basic measurements of flour and baking powder and sugar were taken from Delia Smith, and she is so very sensible.

If you have a hungry child around the house, split one of these open while still warm, tuck a nice piece of butter inside, put it back together and deliver it, with a good napkin to wipe those buttery fingers, and watch the appreciation steal over the little face. Or not so little, in Avery's case.

I hate to think that I equate love COMPLETELY with food, but I know I come close. Tonight I offered Avery a sort of junk-food chocolate pudding with a hot sauce, one of her favorites, and she accepted, saying, "First, can I have a huge hug?" Once hugged, she smiled and said, "That's better than chocolate. I can save the pudding for tomorrow."

Other than exam hell, we've been fairly dull and quiet, accomplishing things like weeding the oxygen-rich planted roof of our guest room (I hated to tell John after, but it didn't look much different... he did discover some wild strawberries out there, however, a total mystery). And I ruthlessly cleared out all my kitchen cupboards, discovering uncharming things like six different opened packets of couscous (guess what we had for dinner tonight), at least five opened packets of pinenuts, countless partly-used packets of mismatching pasta and no fewer than seven different types of miso soup paste! What on earth? So everything has been wiped down, thrown away when absolutely necessary, consolidated and counted up. Remind me not to buy any dried chicken soup for about another century. The same goes for tinned tuna! I foresee some odd meals coming up. Just wait till I hit the freezer. Fancy some thawed smoked salmon with homemade breadcrumbs and limoncello?

And we've been entertained by our neighbors, both literally (a lovely drinks party last night in the garden with the first Pimms of the year!) and more accidentally, when Selva appeared outside in front with a giant electrical saw and enough energy to cut our side of the hedge while he cut theirs. Other neighbors walked by, weighted down festively with boxes of wine bottles, and we all ribbed Selva about his hedge-cutting skills. "I want a topiary chicken, sitting on an egg, like that one a couple of streets over," John said, and I chimed in, "Or a pony, or a kitten, please." Selva didn't skip a beat. "Actually, it was already in the shape of a chicken, so I have refashioned it into a topiary hedge-shaped hedge."

Lots of parties being bandied about: Annie and Keith's always splendid drinks with the most tempting and gorgeous small eats you can imagine, including my favorite of smoked salmon mixed with creme fraiche on little blinis... can't wait for that. And Avery's giving a party! "Mocktails" and vintage prom dresses, which should be a hoot. I brought home from Indianapolis a peerless pink dress made for my MOTHER by my GRANDMOTHER, a satin top, with layers of tulle skirt and a hugely long sash, and it fits Avery like the proverbial glove, so that inspired her to ask her friends to look round the charity shops and flea markets. They will all simply pile into the sitting room with sleeping bags afterward, to watch something involving Grace Kelly, and fall into chocolate sundaes. I timidly mentioned the notion of "real food" and pizza was mentioned, so that should take care of all the basic food groups.

Well, tomorrow Lost Property beckons, which always requires the utmost in my energy. And sometimes a face mask, if the lacrosse boots are particularly pungent. But you know the best bit? Avery will come to visit while I'm there, I will be able to hear how the morning's exams went and offer comfort for the afternoon's efforts, and for sure, there will be a hug available.

4 comments:

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Oh, Kristen, your daughter sounds so lovely.

I miss those little girl days too. Every now and then I see my sweet baby peeking back at me out of more worldly teenager eyes. My heart squeezes in reply.

I am going to try these muffins this week, maybe substituting apple for the blueberry since that is what I have on hand. Exams start on Thursday for us. Thank goodness Roxi doesn't have 11 exams!! Is Avery taking 11 courses?!

Kristen In London said...

JaPRA, I edited my recipe: I meant that if you used paper cups, take the muffins IN their cups out of the tin. Not the muffins out of the paper cups! I think apple would be lovely. And thank you for understanding about not-so-little girls. :)

Bee said...

I felt total identification when I read this: growing-up girls, food-as-love, exam snacks and all. My daughter is taking her GCSE's and there is an entire month of exams! Every day we mark off the calendar with a sigh of relief. Usually I am quite slack about breakfast, and allow my teenager to get/or not get her own . . . but during exams I have been making special things to make sure she fills her stomach. The muffins sound delicious.

Kristen In London said...

Lovely, Bee. Yep, I provide breakfast from afar, as in from sort of midnight the night before! I make stuff, put it aside, she and her dad know where to find it. Nobody is happy for long if I turn up for breakfast!

Here's wishing for happy GCSEs for your dear one... :)