Sugar Free Almond Milk Chai

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A double batch with loads of tea – a little too much, actually, but it makes a striking photo!

…of sorts, anyway.

There are lots of good reasons to enjoy chai – a spiced, milky tea – but too often you get the Starbucks-type version, which is an ultra-sweet syrup added to hot milk. Making your own is a relaxing ritual, and absolutely worth it, if for no other reason than to find a way to use up some of those bottles of spices bought for other recipes but rapidly losing their freshness and gathering dust in a cupboard or rack somewhere.

Now I’m the first to admit the version below is lacking in authenticity in a big way; not only does it use almond milk, but the mix of spices was more dictated by what I like and happened to have in the house than by attachment to any particular tradition. So please see this as an experiment more than a recipe.

This makes a generous mugful; I have also made double the amount and kept it in a small insulated flask to sip through the afternoon. And please note that sugar free means fructose free – so it’s I Quit Sugar suitable, but does contain an optional sweetener in the form of rice malt syrup.

300ml unsweetened almond milk
1 heaped tablespoon black tea (I favour Darjeeling)
6 cardamom pods
3 whole cloves
1 star anise
3 whole peppercorns
1-2 cinnamon sticks
A dash of ground ginger, or a small knob of fresh, grated
A dash of grated nutmeg (fresh is nice, but not essential)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (powder if you want to be completely fructose free, but it is just a trace)
Up to 1 tsp rice malt syrup, optional (to taste)

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I do like the odd dash of cinnamon over the top, too… (And do you love the Spaceship Earth-reminiscent mug?)

Don’t be tempted to overdo the tea to get a darker colour – it will stew and add bitterness, as I found out when I got a bit too enthusiastic….

1. Warm the milk on the hob to just below simmering point. Bringing it to this point first prevents the tea from stewing later.
2. Add the tea and flavourings, and keep at a very gentle simmer for a couple of minutes. Take off the heat and allow to sit for another minute so it completely brews without boiling.
3. Strain and sip.

In my more experimental phases, I’ve been known to throw in a teaspoon or so of milky ooling tea to add a buttery caramel note, but that’s definitely an unorthodox mix of cultures…

Cooking with Pinterest (oh, and Tom Aikens…)

Baked Scallops with Sauce Vierge. We went a little overboard on the tarragon, but it was still delicious.

Baked Scallops with Sauce Vierge. We went a little overboard on the tarragon, but it was still delicious.

God bless Vikki Morgan‘s busy schedule, and her generosity in sharing her invitations to cool events.

When Pinterest extended an offer to join Tom Aikens (no big deal! *stricken face*) at Atelier des Chefs and learn to cook three beautiful seafood dishes, Tiff Jones and I grabbed the opportunity to go in Vikki’s place, and were warmly welcomed by the lovely Lizzie and the team for a most awesome evening.

With bubbly and Chablis making the rounds, we quickly relaxed and got into groups of five – ours included the wonderful Botanical Baker, Urvashi Roe, whom I’ve been following online for a long while now – dividing our tasks and trying to cook along and follow Tom’s instructions. His reputation for being frenetically active well-earned, he dashed in to save us from ourselves – seasoning and stirring here, tasting and plating there and occasionally indulgently (kindly) shaking his head at our less than perfect skills.

We made three dishes – salmon with pickled beetroots, baked scallops and sea bass with a delightful citrussy, herby pea shoot salad – and sat down to eat and drink as a group afterwards. The setting is great, and I think I’ll be back before long for one of ADC’s courses (especially as I discovered they weren’t nearly as expensive as I thought they would be; I have my eye on sushi, knife skills and vegetarian classes).

A personal highlight of the evening for me was discovering I’m not completely terrible at thinly slicing fish (a skill Casper will be delighted with, if only he can sample the results). But really what we took away from it was exactly – I think – what the team hoped we did; that is, that cooking fish and seafood respectfully with fresh herbs and lovely dressings and sauces can make for beautiful light meals.

If more inspiration is needed, the Pinterest team would undoubtedly want me to remind you (and they’d be right) that Pinterest is absolutely heaving with recipes, food photography and cooking tips – and you can of course search by ingredient and recipe now. I’m certainly going to be revisiting and reinvigorating my own boards, and you should join me. You’ll find other pins there from the night, for a start.

Thanks to Pinterest for a fab evening, which the team has blogged about here, Mr A himself for his precious time and expert advice, Tiff for her awesome company and Vikki for the opportunity to attend.

Disneyland Paris: tips for visiting with guests with disabilities

We were privileged recently to have our second trip to Disneyland Paris within a year, and this time we had family with us that included someone in a wheelchair.

Now, just as all people are different, all disabilities are different – and two wheelchair users will not have the same needs as each other. However, I do now have a few tips for navigating the parks and transport when accounting for a chair.

I’ve written this from the perspective of someone who has attended with a guest with reduced mobility; some of this applies across multiple other needs but there’s definitely more to be discovered, so this really is only intended as a useful starting point.

Five Tips for Guests with Special Needs

Before arriving:

1. Check the online guides for info. Although the DLP website can have its navigation issues, there is a section devoted to guests with additional needs. You can download accessibility guides here, which include a chart of rides and attractions which do / don’t require transfer from a wheelchair (off the top of my head, all shows are non-transfer, and It’s a Small World and Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast both have modified vehicles which don’t require a transfer).

2. Plan for transportation options. If you’re driving to DLP, parking for guests with additional needs is in the parking lot for the Disneyland Hotel (the big pink confection that sits over the Disneyland Park gates). You emerge right by the entrance, and you’ll be given a four-digit code to exit the car park when you’re ready. If you’re at a resort hotel and want to use the buses, there are two options. There are not ‘kneeling’ buses, but if they’re aware that there is a guest boarding in a chair the driver can pull right up to the curb to allow easy transfer (they likely won’t otherwise). Alternatively, there is an adapted minibus, and the concierge staff at the hotel and Guest Services in the park can arrange this for you, though it means a bit more inconvenience. As my family joined us there by car, that’s what the member of the group with restricted mobility used – so I can’t comment on the bus options, but all Cast Members were very keen to advise on services.

3. Be aware of distances. This one is more a warning for those whose role it will be to push anyone in a manual wheelchair. Surfaces are mostly wide and level, and there are few inclines, but distances mean it can be hard work. There are ways to help make things easier (eg, don’t go through the castle each time, but zip around past Bella Notte gelateria / Small World on the right to get to Fantasyland without having to huff uphill), but you will need a certain amount of stamina, particularly if heading back and forth between parks.

On arrival:

4. Pick up your green pass from Guest Services. When you arrive in the Disneyland Park, head straight to Guest Services near the arches under the railway station. Present your proof of disability status (the standard UK blue badge is fine) and you’ll be given a green pass which you’ll need to use any of the accessible entrances / adapted ride vehicles. Additional note: If you stay in a resort hotel, you’ll also get a modified hotel ID (the thing that means you’ll get in for Extra Magic Hours etc). It will have a sticker which indicates your status, and means you don’t have to pick a particular time for breakfast but can go when you’re ready. This also applies to up to another four people in your party. Because our bookings were linked, even though we stayed an extra two days, we had a modified ID for the duration of our visit.

5. Make appointments at non-transfer rides. Rides which have adapted vehicles, such as It’s a Small World need pre-booking to ride. You’ll go to a separate entrance (in fact, for IASW, it’s the exit), and they’ll sign you up for the next available slot, so you can come back there just before your time. A ramp is lowered, and you can wheel your chair straight in, plus there’s room for several additional guests. For Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast you queue at a special side entrance near the shop until the adapted car is ready to come back around (it’s an Omnimover type ride). You then head straight to the boarding area, the conveyor belt is stopped and you can wheel on to the car, with a guest next to you. It is quite a tight fit on BLLB, but should accommodate a variety of chairs.  We didn’t attempt any transfer rides, but I know from past experience that Cast Members will do things like stop conveyor belts, or slightly delay vehicle departure, to allow a smooth and stress-free transition.

Disney Parks in general are set up to accommodate a wide variety of needs, and Cast Members are usually very helpful. Accessible rooms are available in the resort hotels with suitable bathrooms etc, too. The best place you can start with any questions is giving the team a call – most issues can be resolved with enough prior warning.

Happy travelling!

(No disclaimer needed – it was a family holiday, not a free trip.)

Alex’s Arty #100forChildsi

My first sketch for the #100forChildsi challenge. Yes, i did it very quickly.

My first sketch for the challenge. Yes, i did it very quickly.

The short version of this story, without the biographical waffle, is here. It’s the most important bit, and I’d love it if you would read it and consider donating. 

It’s a funny thing, but I didn’t realise until very recently how much I wanted to be an artist.

I have always wanted to be a writer. It’s my favourite part of my job, I go to Urban Writers Retreats, I read lots and I think about writing a lot. But, if I’m really honest, other than professionally – and here on this blog – I don’t do that much of it. I find it hard to write except in specific ways and spaces. It’s not something I find easy to do scribbling down a few ideas by hand; I need a laptop, a lack of diversions, a focus.

Writing will always be my first love. But it’s not really the form of creativity I employ most of the time. What I do – what, I’ve only just recently come to realise, I’ve always done – is draw.

As a child, I doodled incessantly. My rough book and homework diary were covered in sketches and lettering, particularly the recurrent themes of skirts and dresses, shoes and boots and mirror writing. I drew a lot of eyes with dense, spiky eyelashes; bottles were another favourite so I could shade in the curves and give them a little bit of three-dimensional depth. My art teacher – ah, wonderful Mrs Aplin – told me it was a shame I didn’t continue on to GCSE art, and I assumed this was because she was kind and tactful. It occurs to me now she might have meant it, but it’s rather too late to ask. When we could choose a number of subjects for free general study at A Level, I was right back in the art room, making theatre masks (one was unspeakably awful, like some sort of horror movie sex doll) and then hastily changing track to ink and watercolour, where I was merely a bit crap, and sometimes okay. I remember once doing quite an involved pencil copy of the cover of a magazine and realising that – albeit in a lumpen, potato-y kind of way – it was recognisably similar to the source material. (The cover shot in question was of Jan de Bont; that stayed with me because of the infamous scalping story). And this really has been the essence of my life in art: everything’s always looked more or less how it was meant to, kind of – but not exactly.

And so gradually, I began to wish that I was “good at drawing”. That I was some miraculous talent who could seamlessly translate what was in my head onto paper. Who could have a gift for a dash of colour here, a smear of white there, which would just so render the shape, lighting or depth I wanted. I was drawn to deceptively simple, cartoonish sketching – since my favourite artists range from Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon to Mary Blair and Oliver Jeffers, I’ve never been about photorealistic, perfect portraiture, but about colourful, sometimes impressionistic, worlds. I wanted to be able to swish a pencil across a page and instantly create an understanding of the form I was going for in someone else’s mind. But, I wasn’t born with the talent, so…

So, yes, for a relatively smart person, I can be pretty stupid, huh? Of course there are natural talents, but as a very smart lady, Stacey Conway of AXES, once reminded me about her own musical abilities, it takes a shitload of hard work to turn the seedling of talent into the blossom of good art. And I wasn’t really doing that hard work. Or at least, I didn’t think I was, except for maybe that time I doodled – while listening! I always listen – through that meeting, and when I bought acrylics and created Moomin pictures for Ramona, and when for several nights in a row Ash would sit with me and challenge me to draw various animals in minute-long pencil sketches, or every single time I mapped out any project, content calendar or presentation in diagrams and sketches, or all those times I said “I can’t explain this, let me draw it for you”. I’d been practising all along. Just not regularly enough or in a focussed enough way to make it really come together.

Late last year, I decided to carry a notebook and some fineliners around with me all the time. At least once a week or so – alright, maybe once a fortnight – I’d sketch something, and while I was on holiday a week or so ago I spent two days at the V&A, one of them mostly devoted to sketching. I’ve become semi-serious about getting better, thinking of characters to develop, and even planning a stop-motion animation that will involve painting and crocheting some sets. But I’m used to having big ideas and then distracting myself away from completing them.

And then, #100forChildsi happened. I was challenged to get sponsorship to fulfil a life’s wish. And I felt pretty embarrassed, because the kinds of life’s wishes that Child’s i grants – well, God it makes my droning about lack of talent extraordinarily pathetic. These are children who for one reason or another have been abandoned, and found themselves in emergency care. And Child’s i works on the principle that children are better off in homes than institutions, and where possible they’re best off with their families. And so it reunites family members and helps children avoid orphanages. Now that’s what I call fulfilling a life’s wish.

Next to that, my lack of commitment to something I enjoy is pretty ridiculous. So I’ve joined the #100forChildsi team to raise £100 by doing a drawing or sketch or painting every day for 100 days and snapping the results for Instagram (or at least bits of them – I reserve the right to edit down the really rubbish stuff!). And I’m asking family, friends or generous strangers to encourage me by helping the extremely deserving charity, which is pretty tiny and punches well above its weight. Your money will be put to good use. My JustGiving page is here, and you can see what the rest of us have pledged to do on the team page. You can also find out more about it there, and maybe join us. Everyone is welcome, bucket list in hand.

Now, best get moving so that I have enough time to do my next sketch tomorrow…

Five reasons to love Collectif clothing

collectif I’m sure you’re all very smart and knew all these anyway. But it’s rare that I get all that excited about clothes – I like them, but I often struggle to find affordable stuff that fits and that is worth getting excited about. And I will always enjoy days in battered Uniqlo jeans and my 1980s EPCOT hoodie.

But anyway, just in case you didn’t know about this – or perhaps feel the same way – here are my five reasons to love Collectif.

1. It’s vintage-inspired without you having to actually look for vintage stuff. Which, while it’s lovely and addictive and incredibly rewarding, is also time-consuming and frequently disappointing (especially if, like me, you only ever find things you like in teeny, tiny sizes). Plus, vintage looks look awesome with flats. Which this never-wearing-heels-again woman is pretty happy with.

2. The size range is respectable, going from 8 to 22, and using a roughly 1940s ratio for the fit – which means that if you have a relatively broad waist-to-hip ratio, things will fit beautifully. And though I’m quite tall at just short of 5′ 9″, the longer skirt lengths means they still fall just below the knee and look fab. I’m a 14 in M&S but a 16 at Collectif, but I don’t care about going up a size when things fit perfectly (and we all know M&S is a bit of an ego massage anyway).

3. The prices aren’t low, but they are much lower than many similar brands. I ain’t never giving up my love for Vivien of Holloway, but I can’t afford a £100+ dress very often at all. So for everyday looks, Collectif is a much more accessible source. And there are excellent sales – I bought at least one skirt for just £15.

4. The service is a joy. Easy, quick returns (sadly, not everything can look good), stupid questions answered with grace and charm, and unexpected postal problems swifty resolved.

5. There are high street stores too! I haven’t actually visited one yet, but I’m very much going to. As soon as I can risk the dent to my bank account.

My favourite pieces so far have been this sturdy yet elegant navy cotton anchor-patterned cardigan (which, in spite of my shoddy photography, rightfully got much Instagram love), a slinky, high-waisted skirt and, well, another gorgeous high-waisted skirt. A nipped in cardigan, a stretchy VoH belt, some ridiculous earrings and a smear of silly-bright lipstick – it feels like do-anything armour on days when looking confident helps you to feel the same way.

Anything I’m less keen on? Well, cigarette pants look awful on me, but I don’t think I can blame them for that. Oh, and I’d love to see an even bigger accessory collection.

And hey, now it gives me plenty to wear at Bea’s

No sponsorship, just an honest bit of love because I felt like it.

Bea’s Vintage Tea Rooms, Bath

photo 3Back in mid-February, I was lucky enough to have a few days off to go and do Fun Things, like spend an extended period of time with a good friend I usually only get a few hours out and about with. As I had tickets to a signing with one of my favourite authors which also happened to be within striking distance of an old friend who is also a supremely talented author (and to whom, as teens, it turns out I recommended the first author’s books), we squeezed in a fab two night stay in Bath.

I’ll likely blog some other thoughts about why Bath is a must visit another time, but one of the highlights for both of us – teatime obsessives the pair – was fitting in a visit to Bea’s Vintage Tea Rooms. My friend K found the place online, and we were immediately keen, what with it being a lovely theme and by far one of the most reasonably priced teas we’d seen.

We ambled over around 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon, ducking in just as the weather was looking a bit suspicious, and being seated at one of the window tables for two. “Vintage” at Bea’s is wartime – WWII to be specific – and the decor is heavy on the tchotchkes and bric-a-brac, but with particularly themed areas, such as a small arrangement of utility fashion, furniture and crockery placed near the air raid shelter themed loos downstairs. The stairwell is papered with posters; Keep Calm does make an appearance, but feels welcome in this setting, if no other (alright, maybe not the cheesy cupcake one) and the tea sets are charmingly mismatched.

The staff are incredibly helpful and friendly, and we quickly ordered. I couldn’t resist trying the oolong tea – I’m a bit obsessed as my Tumblr suggests – and K had the traditional English Breakfast. All teas are loose leaf and, if the enormous gold canisters behind the counter are any indication, come from JING. I’ve bought gorgeous silver needle from JING before, and tea-loving friends often recommend it, so this, I felt was a good sign. My tea arrived with a little hourglass for accurate brewing.

The standard afternoon tea includes a round of finger sandwiches (salmon, egg and cucumber if I remember rightly – two of each), a scone with cream and jam and two generous slabs of freshly homemade cake in two flavours. The assortment changes daily, and we got chocolate cherry and lemon drizzle. There is always one option available with no gluten based ingredients, though I don’t know if the kitchen can be classed gluten-free, and there are some savoury options that can be modified or swapped out, but if you need a totally GF menu it’s best to call at least a day in advance and they can make appropriate arrangements – though they don’t generally take reservations except for private parties of 10-20 guests.

The sandwiches were made up at the counter after we ordered, so were fresh, soft and buttery; the scones were lovely and light. The chocolate cake was lovely and crumbly, but the lemon was the absolute winner for me – a gorgeous balance of sweet and tart with a dusting of cute sugar shapes and a particularly good texture.

There is a function room downstairs for parties, and a trip to the loo – while disquieting for anyone verging on the claustrophobic – is worthwhile if for no other reason than to poke (figuratively) around the little displays.

Afternoon tea is £9.95 for one or £19.95 for two – not including the price of the tea, if I remember rightly – but to stop in for a cup of tea and a cake will cost from around £6 per person if that’s all you fancy. The menu is also heaving with delicious sounding breakfast and lunch dishes, which I will definitely try on any future occasion that I’m lucky enough to be in the area.

And though I did wear a tea themed cardigan and a slick of 40s pillarbox red lipstick, next time I might even fully dress for the occasion just for the fun of it!

Note: This was an entirely personal trip, paid for by us, and is not a sponsored or requested review. I just think you should go there, because I liked it.

On raising an inter-faith kid

I haven’t written much about the religious element of our household because frankly I think of blogging as a little bit like having a private conversation in the middle of a crowded pub; yes, I’ll reveal quite a lot about my life, but on the understanding that a bunch of randoms are listening in. And frankly, the very last thing I want to talk about with the randoms of the Internet is religion. And yet, I find myself writing this. We’ve navigated Christmas and Hannukah, Pesach and Easter are around the corner – it just seems like the time to get a few thoughts down. I can’t promise they’ll make much sense.

I spend most of my time online surrounded by lefty, feminist, yogurt-crocheting types like me, and of course they’re largely atheist or agnostic; those that aren’t, like the awesome Hannah Mudge, are excellent, but actually I don’t want to immerse myself too much in that part of the Twitterverse either. This is partly because I feel like faith is a fiercely private thing (one of the many reasons I object to state-funded religious education despite being a signed-up member of a particular faith), but also because a lot of what I come across is very much about a particular faith – so often evangelical Christianity, which to this Greek Orthodox-raised kid is as foreign as any non-Christian denomination could be.

If my adopted surname isn’t too much of a giveaway, we also ain’t a one-faith household.

I’ve thought about blogging what we do to try and tread that line between faiths and opening our daughter up to the idea of faith in general, but really, we’re stabbing in the dark as much as anyone. Had I married someone ‘like me’, I’d have done the default Christening and never thought about it twice; now, confronted with being unable to make that choice for her, I wonder why I thought it would even be okay to do so. I mean, I spend so much time hanging out in spaces where all we talk about is broadening girls’ horizons and choice, choice, choice, and here I’d be trying to sign her up from birth to a club she can’t even understand.

Equally, I know that she might find herself partially excluded from part of her identity. Many reform and liberal Jewish groups will be glad to welcome her with open arms; should she ever want to become more conservatively Jewish, however, she’ll find she has to convert, despite her father’s blood. Judaism is matrilineal; this is considered to be for spiritual as well as practical reasons. There is certainly quite a lot of hand-wringing over intermarriage – or, to use a phrase that literally has me squirming in my chair with irritation, “marrying out” – in the Jewish community if letters from Disgruntled of Golders Green to the JC are to be believed. (I think my favourite was the one from the woman who said gentile women having children with Jewish men were “finishing Hitler’s work”).

I kind of feel it leaves her on even footing, though. Should she choose to identify more closely with either tradition, she’ll have to go through the process of becoming a member of the group from scratch, more or less – though at least the traditions of both will be familiar to her. No matter what, she’ll observe apple dipping, candle lighting, fasting and chometz avoidance in addition to temporary veganism, icon kissing, wine sipping and egg smashing. She’ll witness both, at different times of year and in different households; on a more frivolous note, she’ll also get way too many presents. She’s started to refer to herself as ‘half-Greek, half-Jewish'; although the latter is not a nationality and the former is not a religion, it’s only the beginning of a process through which she’ll come to understand her place in the world from a cultural and religious perspective.

And you know what? No, I don’t worry about her getting confused. I feel I should be somehow apologetic about this, but I’m just not. I can’t see how being descended from two such rich and beautiful traditions can be anything but wonderful – even were she to end up never being fully part of either. Before the theology even comes in to play, there are different, yet often complementary, languages and music and art and literature and thought and spirituality and ethics and history. I feel she’s incredibly lucky to have all that to draw on from such a close perspective, especially as with a writer mum and artist dad she’s likely to be creative in some way or other (and really, isn’t everyone, somehow? I reckon there’s creativity in practically any path, if you’re open to it).

So there are my thoughts. Garbled and emotional, for sure, but show me a parent who’s totally sorted and I’ll… probably feel guilty about it.