Tuesday, 15 January 2013
In December, at the end of a roller coaster year, I made one last decision.
The more I found out about the current state of academia in the UK, the more I realised that if I wanted to follow that path, I'd have to give it 100% of my time and energy to stand a chance. I couldn't do it while giving half - or even a quarter - of myself to food and to this blog.
When I decided to go back to Oxford, I thought I'd be able to balance both, as I had as an undergraduate. But it was far more of a strain than the first time. I struggled to make it work and it became clear that I couldn't keep doing it forever. Uncomfortably familiar essay writing demons came back to haunt me and I spent entire days silently fighting them. Despite the fact I love the subject and enjoyed my tutes and classes, apart from two weeks in the middle of term, I wasn't very happy.
First, I decided that I didn't want to apply for a PhD. Then, a few weeks later, after lots of thinking and talking, I left the masters. I was self-funding and living out of college so it was almost absurdly easy to stop.
It feels like I've made a ridiculous amount of decisions in the last year. I get nervous and a bit embarrassed every time I have to tell people about a change. I guess I think they'll laugh or think less of me. Yet I have no regrets. I had to try postgraduate study to see what it was like - it felt like I couldn't go forward without experiencing it. But in the end, blogging is non-negotiable. I won't give it up.
One of the other reasons I left was that I had an attractive alternative plan.
My mum is a one-on-one private tutor in maths, sciences and various other subjects for an international mix of students. Some come for a handful of hours, some come out of school to be taught solely by her for a term or two. Most are on holiday in Verbier anyway but a few fly out just to see her. She's a gifted teacher. As I've grown up, I've been tutoring too - it's been eight years now, on and off.
The plan is to spend a few months of the year in Switzerland, mainly in the school holidays, working alongside mum. I'm taking on some of her waiting list and adding extras for literature. Between us, we can teach almost any school subject. Family businesses don't seem very fashionable these days but I like being part of a team. It's rewarding work and it means I can stand on my own two feet.
I've just finished two busy weeks of work. The majority of my hours were spent teaching A Level English Literature (in the UK you usually choose three subjects to study in detail in your last year of school, age 18). I hadn't done a huge amount of that level before and I've enjoyed it so much that it's already justified my choice.
Tutoring takes two of my favourite parts of studying - reading and talking about literature - and combines them with teaching, which I've always enjoyed. Watching the confusion fade and the text open up for someone is wonderful and there's nothing better than when they start getting excited by it and begin to trust their ideas and thoughts.
And after all, being paid to talk about Shakespeare and Milton is pretty dreamy.
The best bit is that I'm then free to spend the rest of the year in Oxford working on food projects. The tutoring will take the pressure off the food by paying the bills. I'm looking into more freelance magazine work and I'm mulling over new book proposal ideas. This time I'm going to take things slowly.
Someone once described my life as a pendulum swinging between academic and creative dreams. It
swings hard and high in one direction - sometimes wildly, at speed - yet the moment it peaks it inevitably starts moving back down the curve again and more and more of the other side creeps in. I'm hoping that my plan will take advantage of the momentum and harness the periods of alternating inspiration - and in doing so, give me some peace and control.
This loaf is mum's creation. We had some dried figs and apricots that I'd stewed with vanilla sitting neglected in the fridge. She was making our old favourite Irish Tea Loaf and decided to toss the stewed fruit in. It took me several attempts to recreate that original chucked-together loaf as she isn't the best at writing things down and will happy double or treble things like pecans if she wants more nuts and then promptly forget how many she put in.
It's something to bake on a quiet day at home - a Sunday, perhaps. None of the steps are complicated but it does take a bit of time to simmer, cool and bake. It makes up for this by keeping for ages and being really easy to tuck into a pocket or bag for a satisfying snack. I took some for the plane yesterday (from the loaf before this loaf) and it gave me plenty of energy to get through the journey.
I can't put my finger on why I love this recipe so much. It's a bit odd and doesn't fit. It's not really cake but it's not bread either. It's much better than normal fruit cakes (and I like fruit cake). It's loaded with tea-soaked fruits and toasted pecans. It has this sweet, crunchy outside that's almost shiny - I reckon it's because you make the sugar into a syrup.
We eat it in thin slices with curls of cold salted butter and cups of steaming Earl Grey.
P.S. I had a photography issue which meant I couldn't post until I got back to the UK - apologies for the delay.
Apricot & Fig Tea Loaf
(adapted from the Irish Tea Cake in Delia's Book of Cakes)
125g dried apricots
125g dried figs
100g sultanas (I used golden)
1/2 a vanilla pod
200ml Earl Grey tea
150g pecan halves
100g light brown sugar
pinch of fine sea salt
225g plain flour
1 and 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp milk
Tip the apricots, figs and sultanas into a saucepan. Split and scrape the piece of vanilla pod and add the pod and seeds to the pan. Stew the tea until it's a deep reddish-amber then pour over the fruit. Place over a very low heat, cover and cook for 1 hour until plump and soft - stir occasionally. Leave covered to cool.
Preheat the oven to 170C. Line a 9x5" (or similar size) loaf tin with baking parchment or lightly greased foil. Place the pecan halves on a tray and toast in the oven for about 5 minutes until they smell good and darken slightly. Chop the pecans into small chunks and leave to cool. Drain the fruit, saving the little bit of liquid left - I usually have about 50ml. Top up to 80ml with water and tip back into the pan. Add the sugar and salt and place back over the heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved then pour into a big mixing bowl. Cut the apricots and figs up into small chunks.
Stir the fruit and nuts into the sugar syrup. Beat the egg then add to the bowl and mix in. Sift the flour and baking powder over the top then stir in - it will be pretty stiff. Add the milk and stir until all the milk and flour is combined. Scoop into the loaf tin and smooth out. Place in the oven and bake for an hour until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean. After 40 minutes you may need to cover the loaf with a bit of foil to stop it browning too much. Cool for a minute then remove from the tin and lining and leave to fully cool on a rack. Keeps very well in a tin - at least a week.
(Makes 1 loaf)
A few related posts:
Fig & Hazelnut Crumble Bars
Chocolate Pecan Krantz Cake
Pear and Chocolate Loaf 2.0