Saturday, 13 December 2014

Vicar's Kitchen - The Ultimate Christmas Cake

There seems to be something in my personality that isn't satisfied to just make a nice version of something but rather I frequently embark on quests to make the 'Ultimate'. This can result in quite long winded and length journeys of experimentation. First it was fluffy béchamel for moussaka (result: outside Greece you can't get the right cheese, two eggs mixed in is the best 'fluff' level this side of Europe), the perfect courgette fritter (result: you need halloumi) and now the ultimate Christmas fruit cake.

If you are a purist this might not be the cake for you but I love it and I put that down to a few things: prunes, cocoa, orange and a big slug of booze. The prunes, along with some dark muscovado sugar and honey, make the cake really dark and moist. The little bit of cocoa and the oranges laced with brandy, or any other liqueur really, make the cake taste like a big boozy chocolate orange in fruit cake form. How good does that sound?!

The recipe is based on one from Nigella's Christmas book but adjusted slightly because she goes for a coffee flavour by used coffee liqueur and has a slightly different fruit and spice mix.  
The Ultimate Christmas Fruit Cake
250g ready to eat prunes, chopped
350g mixed fruit (if there is some orange in there then bonus!)
175g butter cut into cubes
175g dark muscovado sugar
200g honey
60ml brandy (or other liqueur of choice, I've used cherry brandy and orange brandy before)
1/2 tsp of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger (so 1 and a half tsps. in total)
Juice and zest of two oranges
3 eggs, beaten.
150g plain flour
75g ground almonds
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- Line a 20cm cake tin with baking paper. Two layers works well.
- Melt together the butter, fruit, sugar, honey, orange juice and zest, spices and brandy in a big saucepan.
- Heat to boiling and simmer for ten minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the mix to cool. I leave it for about an hour.
- Preheat the oven to about 150 degrees C or Gas Mark 2.
- Mix into the fruit mix the eggs, flour, almonds, baking power and bicarb.
- Pour into the tin and bake for 1 hour and three quarters to two hours. The cake should still be a bit gooey in the middle.
- Leave to cool in the tin and deal with your kitchen which probably now looks like this...
- Eat and enjoy!
The cake also keeps for a good while so it is the perfect thing to have about the house should anyone pop by or if you just want to eat fruit cake every day because, well, you can!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Vicar's Sofa – Waiting

On the whole I'm not very good at waiting. I'm a product of my generation and I am thoroughly used to doing it now, having it now and working my behind off to get where I need to be. Being driven has its uses but, quite frankly, it is also pretty exhausting. I find myself, particularly at this time of the year, limping towards Christmas with my tank on empty.

It was a pleasant change of pace this week, then, when I found myself with a spare hour. Rather than stuff in yet another hour of seemingly unending Christmas shopping I wandered into a church in the centre of Oxford and just sat for a while. Being Oxford there were loads of tourists and I must have cut quite a strange figure sat up in the middle of the balcony all alone with my eyes shut and no apparent purpose. There will likely be a number of tourists puzzling at that random person who ruined their snap of that stained glass window but as it is Advent, a time of waiting and wondering, that was exactly what I was doing. Waiting, thinking, mulling things over.

This week marks a special anniversary for me. It is ten years since I became a Christian one chilly night as a student in Bristol. The story sounds more than a little strange in the retelling. There I was, an outspoken atheist when I went into the pub and a couple of hours and half a bottle of red wine later I emerged into that frosty night well and truly on the way to becoming a committed Christian. Out of nowhere I had a faith and a hope and a brand new future that I could never, in a million years, have predicted.

What I realised as I sat in that church this week was that this life changing night ten years ago came to me on the basis of me doing absolutely nothing at all. It remains the best day of my entire life and the point from which my whole adult life has emerged. It has been the source of my joy, my coming into myself, my everything. And I did nothing to bring that about. I didn't work for it. I didn't strive. I had no idea it was coming. It was pure gift. Now as I stare down many challenges, when I have so many prayers and petitions floating before the throne of God that I can hardly count them, I am glad to be reminded of that.

So this season of Advent, I am waiting. Waiting for the heart and strength to let some things go, waiting for the confidence to pick some things up, waiting for a taste of something that I know only God can give like he did that night ten years ago. And though, being the controlling menace that I am, waiting isn't the most comfortable thing in the world, it still feels refreshing and freeing. To not have to be the answer to my own questions, to remember that in a single magical moment God can do everything for you that you could never even dream up for yourself.

That is what Christmas is about, waiting for the miraculous. For all the things you never even knew you needed. Just waiting, with wide open hands and no idea what you will receive.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Vicar's Craft Corner: the Festive Crafting Begins!

Advent is finally here! It is therefore, to my mind, the perfect time to crack out the Christmas crafts and get ready for what is my favourite time of year. When else can you legitimately put up a four foot sparkly pink reindeer in your living room? When else is eating a cake a day practically mandatory? When else is crafting more fun than when it involves gold and glitter? Ah, it really is the most wonderful time of the year!

This year I have started off the preparations with some card making. This was greatly enhanced by the purchase of a craft knife and cutting board. It turns out that using a knife is a whole lot easier to manage than trying to wield scissors to useful effect when making, well, basically anything. It only cost me a tenner which is making me wonder why I spent quite so much time last year messing about with the kitchen scissors....Live and learn....!

I have also recently purchased a set of alphabet printing blocks to go with the red, brown and black inks that I picked up for a reason I can't really remember a few years ago. Combined with some trusty PVA and some old scraps of paper and we have the recipe for card making success for very little money at all.

If you are on my Christmas list then I am afraid you are going to get a bit of a spoiler in this post. The design took me all of five minutes to sketch out but I quite like it. I wanted something that was detailed enough to make full use of the craft knife but not so that I was there sculpting the front of each card into the small hours. I do have a life you know.

I also wanted something that celebrates 'the reason for the season' and captures something of why Christmas is my favourite time of year. Something of the magic of God coming down to us, tiny and vulnerable, as a little baby and of the joy brought to the world in a setting that is so humble and ordinary.

I made the stable by making a template on a piece of card which I cut out with the craft knife. I used the template to draw the stable image onto the inside of the Christmas card. I then cut out the template and pushed out the shapes. I then cut a tiny piece of gold paper for the star which I stuck onto the inside of the card and then covered the whole cut out area with a square of black sparkly card.

So there we have it. Some very simple little Christmas cards that will hopefully bring some Christmas joy and have been great fun to make.

What are you crafting this Advent?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Vicar's Study: Presence by Patsy Rodenburg

My latest church placement has me in the centre of Oxford, a place where people treat having a PhD how the rest of the country treats having a smattering of GCSEs. It's pretty standard to find yourself sitting next to a Professor of Philosophy or, in my case, someone who just a couple of months ago was lecturing me as part of my Theology degree. To add to these esteemed clientele there is also the small matter of the church being impossibly grand with every role done to absolute perfection. It is completely intimidating.

A few weeks ago I went to visit our Voice Coach at college to get a few tips for holding my own in this new world in which I have found myself. I felt so nervous leading services in that setting that I found it hard to connect to the words on the page in front of me. Quite frankly I just wanted to get to the end of the page unscathed! She asked me how I was approaching it so far and I said 'Well, I just fake confidence and no one seems to really notice.' She smiled at me knowingly and sent me off with some homework to look up the work of Patsy Rodenburg on Presence and to come back to her.
Patsy trains actors for a living and, as you can see in this clip, first came up with her theory of Presence on the basis of mulling over what people mean when they say that some actors have 'it' and other simply do not. Call it what you like, presence or the X factor(!), on some level we all know it when we see it. Whether that is at a play or watching a film where the actor just connects in an extraordinary way or whether it is the flip-side and experiencing a disconnection in our interaction with someone. You know how it goes, the lights are on but no one is home! We know when we are experiencing real human connection and it is that connection, that the person is bringing who they are to the table, that makes the interaction real and influential.
Patsy's theory is based around three circles. The First Circle is someone who is withdrawn, hiding from the world as a form of protection. Their body language is hunched, their voice is soft and quiet, they are drawn into themselves. On the other hand a Third Circle person is completely out there. People in Third Circle take up lots of space, speak really loudly and have a presence that can come across as overbearing. Third circle can be controlling. It keeps people in their place but it doesn't deep down connect to the other. And lastly there is a Second Circle. The Second Circle person connects. They have 'it' because you are seeing the real deal. They have the confidence to let you see the truth about who they are. Patsy argues that for a number of careers, including being a Religious Leader, you must operate predominantly in Second Circle.

This all makes an awful lot of sense to me because I have seen it over and over again. Whether it is one on one or from the pulpit people need to see the real you to get anything from the message that you are bringing. Too often sermons land way over people's heads because they don't come from a real and vulnerable place in the person who is speaking. Connecting with people means being willing to take the walls down. It means growing in real confidence and it means not being afraid to show people who you really are.

So there we have it, I've talked myself into quite a corner, haven't I? This book has made me realise that I need to continue on the road to genuine confidence in this setting because it is the only way I will really be able to do my job well. It has made me reassess what it is about this environment that makes me doubt myself. It is one of my core values that everyone is equal and should be treated as such. As great as it is to be intelligent, it is just as great to be creative. As wonderful as it is to have eloquence, it is just as wonderful to be able to speak from the heart in whatever words you have. Flare can be learned but integrity runs much deeper.

Being present means offering to others the most precious thing you have, yourself. Only then will people really trust you, really know you and really connect to what it is that you bring. That is no small task but, I'm convinced, it is a worthwhile one.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Vicar's Sofa – What is Beauty?

When I was studying for my Masters in Marine Biology up in Aberdeen we were asked as a class to fill out a personality test as part of our careers guidance. We were tested on our values leading to three ultimate values being identified and, presumably, our ideal career would emerge. Most people came out with things that you would expect from a bunch of science graduates around measuring the world, attention to detail and so on. My number one passion came up as 'ascetic beauty'. I got a few weird looks.

But beauty has always been really important to me. Not really in the sense of perusing physical beauty (though to me make up has always been art and where better to make art that on your own face?!) but in that the experience of perceiving beauty has always been one that has drawn me to consider a deeper reality than what is right in front of me. Beauty for me has always been a sign post, an emotional guide mark, towards this deeper reality. What makes us find something compelling and wonderful? What makes us feel grateful in front of a gorgeous sunset or a best friend's smile? What is it in us that renders us speechless before nature or makes us consider something beautiful at all?

I am attending a church at the moment that has me utterly spellbound by the beauty of the services. There are many aspects of it that I can point to for the root of this. The music is spectacular with a full and hugely talented choir. There is definitely something in that, the beauty of human voices combining in a way that transcends anything a single voice could do. Or perhaps it is that the services are beautifully crafted, the words deep and rich, drawn from the prayers and praises of people down the ages. Or perhaps it is the sermons, their passion and integrity.

But none of those elements really sum up the beauty of it. Like any experience of beauty it is hard to put your finger on what is drawing you in. I just know that I love it and that it transports me somewhere new and wonderful. That it grips me somewhere that my head can't really understand. Perhaps that is what beauty is, then. An experience that hints at and reminds us of our depth and complexity as human beings. Bringing us back to the deep tug in our human nature towards everything that is good and pure and right. That, I guess, is why beauty means so much to me and why noticing it and celebrating it is an important part of who I am.

How about you? What do you think? What is beauty?

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Vicar's Craft Corner: Tackling the Craft Mountain

My love of all crafts seems to have no bounds. The obsession definitely worsened when my craft equipment was given its own corner of our spare bedroom and I was given a rolling cabinet for all my fabric and sewing bits. Now the piles of 'oh I'll just buy that because it is bound to come in handy' fabric and 'that's a striking colour' balls of wool seem to be breeding. As our move to a new, slightly smaller abode looms my craft mountain is looking all the more menacing. It needs to be tamed.

And so I have decided to start some new projects that I have had on the back burner for, oh, about a thousand years. The first of which is to crack making more beaded jewellery in time for Christmas and lots of birthdays coming up.

The next task on the list is to make a top I have had the fabric and trimmings for since the first season of Great British Sewing Bee. I don't even want to think about how long ago that was. Best just to look to the future eh? Which will hopeful feature a rather sweet little navy anchor top!
My next challenge is to do something with this fabric that I absolutely love but have absolutely no idea what to do with. I have about two metres of it that I picked up for a song at a charity shop near us. It is a great retro pattern that needs a large item to really do it justice but otherwise I'm stumped. Answers on a postcard?!

So, what are you secretly hoarding and what stash are you tackling? I'll be sure to share pics if I manage to make a dent in mine!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Vicar's Study - Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward

I first spotted this book at the book stall at my local church. It seemed like a funny thing for a church to be selling and reading it around theological college has certainly raised a few eyebrows this week. But the title immediately grabbed me because it is such a common view that religion is dangerous and the root of many of the problems in world. Even as a religious person I partly believed it. How can you not in the face of current world events? I only need to delve a mere fraction into the history of my own faith to be full of horror and dismay at what people have used the Christian faith to justify. Every religious person ought to take this seriously.

The book tackles its question in four sections, Religion and violence, Are religious beliefs irrational? Are religious believe immoral? and Does religion do more harm than good? Ward, a philosopher and former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, challenges as inaccurate the notion that most violent conflicts in history have religion as their cause. Indeed many of the conflicts of the 20th century had no direct relationship to religion but rather emerged from tribal or political issues. Ward suggests that the problem, at root, is humanity rather than religion and religion itself attests to this brokenness in the human state. Just as no one would suggest doing away with democracy because it lead to Hitler, likewise doing away with religion because of the corruption of its values by some individuals is unreasonable. Likewise religion has been a powerful force for reconciliation as seen so powerfully in the work of Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Council in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

Still, the content of religious values is rightly questioned by many when such views are used to excuse the killing of innocent people or hatred and intolerance in our society. How can anything which generates these kind of views be beneficial to society? Here Ward highlights the danger in judging a whole system of thought and practice on the basis of extremes or perversions of that system. Islamic State need to be held in contrast with the work of Islamic relief organizations around the world and the peaceful and humane practice of the vast majority of Muslims. Conflict between religious groups needs to be held in contrast with the many communities working in peace, harmony and respect with each other.

I have been struck in the last few years, as I have got more involved in inter-faith work in the UK, how little the remarkable friendship and co-operation between faith groups here goes completely uncommented on in society and media. One of my most touching experiences in my faith of recent months was discussing my experience of God with a Muslim woman while attending Muslim Friday prayers. Neither of us expected the other to reject our own beliefs or abandon our differences. I believe that Jesus is the saviour of the world, Muslims don't. It is pretty hard to get around that. As Ward notes, describing the major world faiths as 'a search for supreme goodness', both our faiths teach respect for the other, a love of humanity and a valuing of human life. This, to me, has a huge amount to say to a society where difference is often managed poorly and where the individual is often valued for their status or usefulness rather than on the basis of their human dignity.

Ward also tackles a huge range of issues around the nature of religious belief and how this affects human behaviour. Is faith damagingly irrational? Does a belief in life after death lead to a devaluing of human life in the here and now? Are religions with holy books always susceptible to the dangers of taking old outdated laws literally? Is faith a delusional behaviour? Is faith damaging or enriching to our physical and mental wellbeing? You'll have to grab a copy to explore these questions more. I found it hugely enriching and, for what its worth, would definitively recommend it. Perhaps it is best, though, to end on some of Keith Ward's own words.

'So is religion dangerous? Sometimes it is. But it is also one of the most powerful forces in the world for good...At best religion, the search for supreme goodness, a life lived for the sake of good alone, will help promote the welfare of all sentient beings. Some danger is unavoidable in any human enterprise. But religion is a main driving force for wisdom and compassion in a world that would be bleak and cruel without it.'

Monday, 20 October 2014

Vicar's Kitchen: My Love Affair with a Slow Cooker

I've fallen in love. It started as a mere flirtation. I perused the Argos catalogue (or the Laminated Book of Dreams for Bill Bailey fans..) and wondered. A Slow intriguing...could this be the compromise I am looking for between two of my strongest yet competing personality traits – sheer laziness and a great love of food? Before I knew it I was online browsing forums about Slow Cooker capacity and by the afternoon I was in town cradling my shiny white beauty in my arms.

To begin with, as in all relationships, we needed to build up some trust. I couldn’t believe that my slow cooker would lovingly cook my dinner for ten hours without it being burnt to a crisp on the bottom. I entrusted it with the ingredients for a mountain of sweet and sour chicken and waited managing to only occasionally rattle the lit to see what on earth was going on in there.

A few hours later some wonderful smells began to emerge. My infatuation deepened. It only became full blown when, at seven o'clock that evening, I lifted the lid to be greeted with tender, juicy sweet and sour chicken ready to eat right there and then without me lifting a single pan onto the stove. There were no burned bits. No sad uncooked bits. It was piping hot chicken-y goodness. My, oh my.

Since then our relationship has been going from strength to strength. This weekend my trusted Slow Cooker, my faithful partner in life, made me a beef bourginon while I spent the day playing with my one year old niece. It has braised me red cabbage. It has spiced up my life with a glorious tagine. Reader, it has made me glad.

It might be retro, it might be so unbelievable effective that it almost makes you believe in magic but trust me this is your new best friend. If I've convinced you then here are the top slow cooker tips from the Vicarage Kitchen.

  • Trying to decide what capacity to go for leads you into a world of confusion. We got a 3.5 litre and it makes four portions and we are pretty piggy individuals.
  • Slow Cookers release very little moisture so you will need to adapt recipes so they have the right amount of liquid to cook but so they aren't too liquidy when you eat them.
  • If in doubt I got this awesome Slow Cooker cookbook. Well worth it.
  • Always put hot liquid into the Slow Cooker and if preparing ingredients ahead don't put the ceramic basin of the Slow Cooker into the fridge with the ingredients in it. When it hits the heat of the cooker chaos will ensue (or the basin will crack if you want to be less dramatic!)
  • Cooking any meat in the Slow Cooker makes it stupendously tender and yummy. Think stews, tagines etc. Wintery goodness, my friends.
  • If you do buy a Slow Cooker you might need an appropriate outlet for you evangelical enthusiasm on its wonders and benefits. I suggest started a blog and sharing your enthusiasm with the world at large. 'Slow Cooker and Me', 'Desperately Seeking Slow Cooker', 'P.S I Love You (Slow Cooker)'?!
I may have just transformed your life. You're welcome.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Vicar's Sofa: If you only had one hour left to live, how would you spend it?

'Since time is the one immaterial object which we cannot influence, neither speed up nor slow down, add to nor diminish, it is an imponderably valuable gift' - Maya Angelou*

As I've entered my thirties I have become more conscious of time. Perhaps this is because I have reached the age where my teenage self thought I would have 'made it'. I was convinced that for sure I would have the career thing all sown up, I'd definitely be married and probably have at least one mischievous yet quietly intelligent little rug rat crawling around in a house that I, of course, owned. Fast forward to actually being thirty and besides a wedding ring on my finger I have none of those things and now, it turns out, I'm not even sure I want them at all.

As I child I remember always wanting to be older than I was. Excited to be ten, to finally hit double figures. Excited to be a teenager and get my ears pierced. Excited to be old enough to get into pubs, legally at last! Excited to leave home, to rent my own flat, to do all those grown up things that I'd watched everyone else do, that I'd played make-believe at and impatiently wanted for myself. Time never seemed to go fast enough. Each birthday crept around at the speed of a limping tortoise. The question of precious time never popped up, it was never an issue when I was galloping off into the future as fast as my legs would take me!

But now, not so much. Now I am very much aware that I am making choices in my life that I cannot go back on. That time is moving on and that it is more hare than tortoise. How would I spend my last hour? It's almost impossible to fathom. I already struggle to think how I will fit everything I want to do into this one lifetime I have and that is on the assumption that I will live to be very, very old indeed. Nothing exemplifies this more that my 'To Read' pile which, thanks to many hours browsing in second hand bookshops and a time spent working in one, is bordering on the absurd. If I can't even get through all the books I want to read how can I possibly decide the best way to spend these precious hours of my days?

And yet there are some things that come to mind for that last hour and that remind me how I want to live life now. Things that I do that make my insides do a little dance with how perfect the moment is, how valuable beyond anything I can measure or put into words. Like laying on the living room floor and pulling funny faces at my laughing niece, like sinking down onto my knees to pray and feeling an indescribable peace, like eating a huge piece of cake or hearing the first glug of wine into the glass and raising a toast to my best friends.

I'd probably spend the hour hugging this one, it's the little things!
So I guess I'd like to do something like that with my last hour. To remind myself that though I may never 'make it' in the way my teenage self expected that life is full of such wonder, such unexpected joy, such love. I'd want to remember that and to celebrate my part in it. To celebrate and give thanks for this 'imponderably valuable gift' that is each hour of this crazy little life.

So that's me. How about you? If you had one hour left to live, how would you spend it?

*Quote and question from the book Soul Pancake - Chew on Life's Big Questions by Rainn Wilson. A fantastic book, hugely recommended!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Welcome to Vicar's Tea Party!

I first had the idea for Vicar's Tea Party when I was sitting in a café in Oxford confronted with a truly monumental stack of cakes and the world's most enormous pot of tea. I was in good company and we talked about all sorts of things. How life was going, funny things that has happened that week, significant things that had happened and all manner of things that had made us think. As I munched through my fifth, albeit relatively bite size, cakey morsel I thought, 'what a great way to reflect on life. Cake, tea, conversation. Bliss.'

Being a self confessed blog-a-holic my thoughts immediately turned to how this might work in an online format. Because it is true, I believe, that we are spiritual beings who need time out to think and reflect and wonder about things but it is also true that we are physical beings who love a good slice of cake and to go shopping for vintage shizzle for our houses. Both of these things, the spiritual and the physical, make us who we are and need a little indulging in the company of a good cuppa and good friends.

And so the Vicar's Tea Party was born. I think of it a little like this. My experience of Vicarages are usually that you wander in, sink down onto a slightly battered sofa and get brought cup of tea after cup of tea after cup of tea. It's not 'More Tea Vicar?' for nothing. Interesting people often pop round. In the best cases there is a relaxed vibe. An open house. A place to sit and be and discuss questions that you would rarely raise in any other company. The Vicar is pretty hard to shock, they have pretty much heard it all before. They are professional thinkers and ponderers who face life and death and everything in between on a near daily basis.
And so that is what I want this little online space to be. A place to meet. A place to think. A place to get ideas for revamping that old bedside table your Granny left you – because that is important to. A place to be fed and a place to meet new friends (yes, online ones count too!). I don't claim to have all the answers (I'm a trainee Vicar for one!) but I do have a comfy virtual couch, a lot of chat, an eye for a bargain and a big ol' listening ear.

So welcome, pop by any time. I hope you like it here.