food · recipes · Seasonal

How To Make Elderberry Cordial – Foraging Recipe

Advertisements

Last year, while I was on maternity leave, I really enjoyed going foraging in the late summer and autumn, and making some fun new recipes. I thought I should share this recipe for elderberry cordial, which I made around this time last year, and which proved a real hit in our household over the winter! It’s just the right time of year to start foraging for lovely ripe elderberries in the UK, and with this super-easy recipe, you can turn them into a delicious elderberry cordial which is a perfect soothing winter drink for colds and flu season.

How To Make Elderberry Cordial – Recipe

First, catch your elderberries

Elderberries are freaking everywhere at this time of year! You may even discover that they grow in your own garden. Wherever you live in the UK, you’re likely to have an elder tree not far away, and each tree is usually laden with loads of lovely black berries in season. Check out this great guide on foraging for elderberries, which will help you identify the berries if you’re not confident you can correctly identify them. Then go out and pick your berries!

I pick elderberries by the bunch, and then use a fork to push the berries off the stems and into a bowl. You only want the ripe berries – the black ones. Alternatively, you can freeze the berries, which makes them easier to remove. It’s important to get rid of all the big stems because they are poisonous. Then, rinse the berries in water.

Get your ingredients together

You’ll need the following ingredients and kitchen tools to make your elderberry cordial!

  • 500g elderberries
  • 500ml water
  • 350g sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • Cinammon stick

And on the kitchen equipment front…

  • Saucepan
  • Spoon
  • Muslin cloth
  • Colander
  • Jug or large bowl
  • Bottle for storage (sterilised)

Get cooking

1. In a saucepan, add your elderberries, water, cinnamon stick and the rind of the lemon (save the juice for later!). Simmer over a low heat for half an hour.

2. Now comes the fun part! Line the colander with the muslin cloth, and place it over your jug or bowl. Pour the contents of the saucepan into the muslin – carefully because the juice will stain (and it’s hot). Squash down the berries with a spoon to get as much juice as possible out of them.

3. You’re not finished yet with your muslin! Roll the top of the muslin together (see picture, below) and continue squeezing to wring every last drop of juice out of your elderberries.

Make sure you don’t do this until the berries are cool enough to touch, and you may want to wear gloves because it does get messy!

4. Pour the strained elderberry juice back into the saucepan and add the sugar and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.

5. Heat over a low heat, stirring regularly, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has thickened slightly. As a rough guide, it should be thick enough to briefly coat the back of a metal spoon. At this point you can also check the flavour (carefully – it’s hot!) and add more sugar if you want.

6. Pour your cordial into a sterilised bottle (here’s a quick guide to sterilising bottles) and seal. Let it cool, then store in the fridge.

How to serve elderberry cordial

You can serve elderberry cordial in so many different ways! The basic recipe is to serve it diluted in water, about one part cordial to six parts water. I recommend making a hot elderberry cordial for colds, sore throats, and whatever else ails you!

If you feel like getting a bit more fancy, you can make elderberry fizz cocktails by adding the cordial to prosecco or champagne. Or you could spice up a gin and tonic with a dash of elderberry.

Elderberry Cordial Facts

What does elderberry cordial taste like?

Okay, if you’ve never tasted it before, then to be honest it’s hard to know whether it’s worth bothering making it at all! I have loved having this in the fridge over the winter, I think it’s delicious and definitely worth the effort. First things first, though: elderberry cordial tastes nothing like elderflower cordial. They’re completely different flavours.

I would say elderberry cordial tastes like a slightly more herbal/medicinal Ribena. If you’ve never had Ribena? Then I don’t know how to describe it. But it’s really warming and lovely on a sore throat, or if you have a head cold.

Is elderberry cordial good for you?

Is elderberry cordial good for you? Well, it’s a traditional remedy for colds and coughs. Elderberries are high in vitamin C and antioxidants – you can even buy elderberry supplements that promise to boost your immune system.

But is there any actual evidence that elderberry cordial is good for colds and flu? Well, a few small-scale studies have shown that people taking elderberry products experienced a reduction in cold and flu symptoms compared to placebo. But they’re only small studies and the effects of elderberry have not been tested against pharmaceuticals. So it’s probably best to just enjoy the yummy soothing nature of a glass of hot elderberry cordial when you have a cold or flu, but don’t assume it’s an actual treatment.

Can you buy elderberry cordial?

The lazy option is clearly to buy elderberry cordial – but unlike elderflower cordial, which is popular and widely available, elderberry cordial is a bit trickier to get hold of. There are products available, often labelled as elderberry syrup or elderberry liquid. But the ones I’ve found are super expensive! We’re talking £9.99 for 100ml. Considering you can make four times that at home for the price of half a bag of sugar, it did seem a little pricey.

Other foraging recipes

If you’ve enjoyed this foraging recipe, or you’re looking for something a little more boozy, why not check out my recipe for hawthorn berry gin?

health · mental health · top tips

How To Manage Blood Test Anxiety

Advertisements

I’ve never been a massive fan of blood tests, and my opinion of them hasn’t exactly improved with much closer acquaintance. And trust me, diagnosing a TSH-secreting pituitary adenoma involves a very close acquaintance with the phlebotomists (a.k.a. vampires, a.k.a. people who draw blood for testing) of your local hospital. People are weird, so there’s probably at least a couple of oddballs out there who positively enjoy having their blood drawn, but I am not one of them. In fact, needle phobia is really common – affecting perhaps one in ten people. So how do you manage blood test anxiety if you have a condition that requires lots of blood tests?

How To Manage Blood Test Anxiety

Try to understand your anxiety and symptoms

It may be helpful to consider if there is any particular source of your blood test anxiety or needle phobia – for instance, an upsetting experience as a child, or a fear of fainting, feeling sick, or the pain of the needle. Or it could be associated with the sight of blood, which many people can find to be a trigger for anxiety, a more general fear of medical procedures or hospitals – or even having a parent or caregiver as a child who exhibited anxiety about any of these things. Understanding the triggers for your anxiety doesn’t necessarily solve anything, but it can help you work out what parts of the blood test situation are a problem for you.

In terms of symptoms, anxiety tends to be linked to one of two things:

  • Often needle phobia or anxiety around blood tests is linked to feeling faint, or a fear of feeling faint. Fainting can occur as a result of a drop in blood pressure.
  • Otherwise, it may be linked to physical symptoms of stress or panic, such as a racing heart, sweating and/or feeling nauseous.

Understand what to expect

It’s helpful to understand what to expect in your blood test appointment, and prepare yourself for it. The unknown is always scary. Probably the most important thing to keep reminding yourself is that blood tests usually don’t take more than a couple of minutes! So hopefully you shouldn’t have to manage your blood test anxiety for too long.

Usually, at the start of your appointment you will be asked to confirm some details about yourself. Then the phlebotomist will disinfect the skin where the needle will go (you usually get to pick which arm they’ll target!) and wrap a tourniquet around your upper arm, to make the veins stand out more. They may ask you to make a fist or pump your hand – again, to make the veins stand out. Then they’ll put the needle in – usually they’ll warn you just before it happens, and ideally you want to keep your arm relaxed. They may need to keep the needle in while swapping over blood collection tubes, if they need to do a number of tests.

When your phlebotomist removes the needle, they may ask you to press on the vein, to reduce bleeding, and they’ll probably offer a plaster or cotton wool and tape to cover the cut.

Follow some key steps before your appointment

Eat and drink beforehand (if allowed)

Some blood tests require fasting, so if that’s the case, make sure you follow the rules – but fast for the minimum time allowed. It’s really important to stay hydrated, because dehydration lowers your blood pressure, which makes drawing blood more difficult and makes it more likely that you may feel faint after your blood test.

If, like me, you’re also a bit inclined to end up with low blood sugar, then making sure you’ve had enough to eat or a sugary drink beforehand (if allowed) may also help, as low blood sugar can also make you feel faint.

Wrap up warm

It’s helpful to make sure you stay warm. When your body is cold, it causes the veins near the surface of your skin to shrink down, making it harder to draw your blood.

Plan something nice for afterwards

Try to give yourself something to look forward to after your appointment; something that you can focus on as a pleasant experience. It can be something small, like a nice coffee from the hospital canteen, or something bigger like a trip out or exciting dinner plans. Try to focus on this as something positive to look forward to, rather than focusing on the blood test appointment.

Key steps to manage blood test anxiety during your appointment

Talk to your phlebotomist about your blood test anxiety

Make sure you tell whoever’s taking your blood that you’re anxious about blood tests. There’s no need to be embarrassed; they will have seen hundreds of people with needle phobia before. They can help ensure that you feel as comfortable as possible, and distract you from what’s going on. They may also be able to make other accommodations, such as allowing you to lie down if you’re concerned about fainting, or allowing you to bring a friend or family member with you for moral support.

Similarly, if you have veins that are difficult to find, make sure you warn your phlebotomist.

Remember to breathe

So far, so obvious. If you’re anxious, you may find yourself unintentionally holding your breath while you wait for the needle to pinch you. But that won’t help – in fact, holding your breath interrupts the oxygenation of your blood and may make you more likely to faint.

Instead, try using relaxation breathing techniques to help you get through your blood test appointment. Slow, controlled breathing has been proven to affect the nervous system and brain activity, and to increase sensations of comfort and relaxation. So it’s definitely worth a try!

The NHS provides basic online guidance on breathing techniques for stress that are simple and easy to do. You can also easily find guidance and videos online via a quick search. Breathing exercises usually involve counting patterns of breath, which also works to distract your brain from what’s going on.

Don’t look!

Try not to look at the needle. These days, I’ve had so many blood tests that they don’t really bother me any more, but when I did find them more stressful, I always found that it was best not to look at my arm or what the phlebotomist was doing. In fact, the sight of the needle or of blood may actually set off the anxiety reaction (vasovagal syncope) that can cause you to faint – so it’s best avoided.

Instead, I would pick something else to look at – there are often posters or notices on hospital walls, so pick one and focus on that instead.

Distract yourself

Anxiety can increase when you focus on the source of your anxiety, so distracting yourself is a helpful way to manage blood test anxiety. You can try counting in your head, trying to remember or run through song lyrics, or chatting with the person who’s drawing your blood. You could even watch a video or listen to music on your phone during the blood test, to keep your mind off what’s going on.

Use the Applied Tension technique

If you tend to faint during blood tests, you can use something called the ‘Applied Tension Technique’ to help. This aims to help maintain blood pressure and prevent the sudden drop in blood pressure that can lead to fainting (or just feeling faint), through undertaking some physical exercises. It’s a straightforward technique, which simply involves tensing the muscles in your body to increase your blood pressure. You can read more about this technique and how to use it here.

Consider professional help

If your blood test anxiety or needle phobia is very severe, it can interfere with your medical treatment if it results in you avoiding blood tests. If the steps outlined above don’t help you manage your blood test anxiety, consider whether it could be helpful to seek professional help. You should be able to find a therapist who can help you address your anxiety over time.

Your suggestions to manage blood test anxiety

Have you suffered from needle phobia or blood test anxiety? How did you learn to manage your fears and get through blood tests? Please share your experiences and suggestions in the comments!

health · mental health · tea

Tea For Mental Health And Wellbeing

Advertisements

It’s no secret that I love tea. I have a regular tea review feature on my instagram page, and occasionally tea reviews make their way onto this blog as well. I probably drink too many cups of tea a day, and that only escalated while I was on maternity leave – probably partly due to a need for caffeine thanks to being up all night with Little Man, and partly as a reaction to being forced onto the decaff stuff while I was pregnant. I’ve always found tea drinking to be soothing, and I have a range of different teas at home. But can drinking tea actually be good for your mental health?

Tea For Mental Health

In the UK, at least, we tend to brew up a cuppa as an automatic response to any stressful situation. It’s a stereotype that’s also kind of true – we drink 50 billion cups of tea a year, and one in ten of us drinks six or more cups per day. That’s a lot of tea. So is all that tea working to help us deal with stress – or are we just drinking for the flavour?

What does the science say?

Before we look at the science around tea and mental health, we need to first consider: what is tea? Technically, “tea” is a beverage prepared using the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant – this includes teas such as black tea, green tea, and matcha. If your tea isn’t made from camellia sinensis leaves, then it’s really a herbal tea a.k.a. a tisane or infusion. Different types of tea will have different chemical properties, making that their effect on mental health will not be directly comparable. So in looking at research on tea and mental health, we first have to understand what “tea” the researchers were actually using for their work…

Studies on the effects of drinking tea on mental health

Researchers have found that drinking camellia sinensis tea lowers the stress hormone cortisol. And that’s not all: drinking half a cup of green tea a day also seems to lower the risk of depression and dementia – one study in Korea found that people who habitually drank green tea were 21% less likely to develop depression over their lifetime, compared to non-drinkers. That is a protective effect equivalent to undertaking 2.5 hours of exercise a week – not bad for a cuppa you can enjoy while sat on your sofa.

Similarly, studies in Japan and China also found green tea drinking to be associated with a lower risk of depression. And it’s not just green tea – other studies have shown that camomile tea (a herbal tea or tisane) may also have an antidepressent effect.

The small print

However, it should be noted that, while there is evidence that regularly drinking some teas can help improve mood in healthy populations, there’s not yet any evidence that it can help people who are already suffering from mental illness. And, of course, the studies discussed above only look at two types of tea – green tea and camomile – out of the huge variety of different teas and tisanes that you can buy. So it’s a little premature to reach a conclusion about the benefits of tea drinking…

Additionally, the studies that have been done don’t necessarily tell us where this protective effect is coming from. Is there a chemical (or chemicals) in tea which reduces our risk of depression – or could it actually be more complicated than that?

Tea Drinking and Mindfulness

Some researchers have suggested that some of the physical and mental health benefits from tea could actually be related to the act of preparing tea, rather than the ingredients within the drink itself.

Tea preparation as a form of mindfulness

The rituals of making and drinking tea can act as a form of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment, to your body, your sensations and what’s happening around you. It is recommended by the NHS and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as a recognised way to treat depression. You can read more about mindfulness here. Preparing and drinking tea can act as a form of mindfulness, because it involves taking time out of your day, stopping whatever you’re doing to focus on preparing your tea, engaging your body in making the tea and enjoying the smells and flavours that go with it.

Tea preparation rituals around the world

In fact, all around the globe, many cultures have developed formal practices around the making and drinking of tea, which reflect this meditative and ritualistic aspect to tea preparation.

In parts of East Asia, the ritual of making tea has been elevated into the tea ceremony, a ceremonial way of preparing and presenting tea – perhaps the most famous form of tea preparation ritual. In Morocco, mint tea is traditionally prepared for visitors to the home and three glasses are served, each representing a different aspect of life (check out my recipe for fresh mint tea here). Russia has its zavarka tradition; Argentina its mate culture; and of course here in the UK we have the traditional afternoon tea, where the cakes and sandwiches are arguably as important (or even more important?) than the tea itself. It’s interesting that so many different cultures across the world have all developed these distinct rituals around preparing and serving tea.

How to create your own tea ritual for mindfulness

The simple process of taking time out of your day to prepare and enjoy a cup of tea is really a ritual in itself. But if you’re specifically looking to practice mindfulness for your mental health, you can consider creating your own tea ritual for mindfulness and wellbeing. It can be easier to bring elements of mindfulness to an every day activity like making tea, compared to finding the time to meditate or undertake other more formal mindfulness rituals.

The key element of any mindfulness practice is to really pay attention to what you’re doing and the physical experience you’re undergoing. So as you’re preparing your tea, consider:

  • What sounds are you hearing? For instance – a boiling kettle, the clink of a teaspoon, the gurgling as you pour hot water into a cup.
  • What do you see? How does the liquid change colour as the hot water and/or milk is added to the cup?
  • What else can you sense? The warmth of the cup in your hands, the smell of the tea as it’s brewing, the taste of the tea when you start to drink.
  • How do you feel? As you sip your tea, can you take a few moments to consciously relax your body, take some deep breaths, and enjoy this time?

Top tips on creating your own tea drinking mindfulness ritual

If you’re looking for some more detailed guidance on how to create a mindfulness practice based around tea drinking, there are lots of great resources out there. I like this guide about how to be mindful with a cup of tea, and this guide to creating a slightly longer tea ritual, for when you have more time to spare.

Tea for Mental Health: A Summary

So, in summary – yes, tea drinking can indeed be good for your mental health. And frankly, that’s enough of an excuse to justify my next cuppa! But it’s not a magic cure that will leave you feeling better overnight… Things are rarely that simple. By incorporating mindfulness practice into the simple enjoyment of making a cup of tea, you may be able to take best advantage of the mental health benefits of drinking tea.

Your thoughts on tea and mental health

Do you practice mindfulness when drinking your morning cuppa? Do you feel that tea drinking has had mental health benefits for you? Or have you enjoyed experiencing tea culture around the globe? Please share your experiences in the comments, below!

afternoon tea · food · lifestyle · reviews · tea

Review: Peacocks Tea Room, Ely

Advertisements

Any frequent readers of this blog will know that I am a bit of a fanatic for all things tea-based. As well as reviewing actual tea blends, I’ve decided to also start writing the odd review of tea rooms, cafes and afternoon teas. And to that end, I’m starting with this review of Peacocks Tea Room, Ely – a traditional, family-run tearoom that was named as Country Living magazine’s favourite tearoom, and as one of The Times newspaper’s Top 5 Places To Have Tea. But does it live up to the tea-based hype? Read on to find out…

Review: Peacock’s Tea Room, Ely

Commitment to Tea Roomery

Peacocks is seriously committed to the serious business of being a tea room. Sure, there are plenty of tea rooms out there that serve a nice scone and a cuppa – maybe even a selection of herbal teas on the side, for the more adventurous types that have perhaps once been to Asia and do yoga on the weekends. But Peacocks would sneer at those types of tea rooms, and probably make disparaging comments about them on the tea room equivalent of WhatsApp. For it has a menu of over 70 different kinds of tea, from black teas and oolongs to green teas, white teas, and the enigmatically-named ‘world teas’ – in fact, they claim on their website to be the only tearoom in the world which offers tea from every continent (except Antarctica – fair enough, it’s not known for its tea-friendly climate).

I’ve no idea how you would verify such a claim, but it’s safe to say – Peacocks take their tea seriously, and offer four different kinds of afternoon tea to boot (Devonshire Cream Tea; Chocolate Dream Cream Tea; Special Afternoon Tea; and Peacock’s Pink Perfection, in case you were wondering).

If you’re still in any doubt about their commitment to tea, just step into the toilet, which – like the rest of the building – is decorated with tea memorabilia up to and including a full tea set, and where even the soap and hand lotion is tea-themed (white tea and neroli… it smelled great, just don’t ask me what a neroli is). Now that’s what I call a tea room bathroom.

Yes, there really is a tea set in the toilet

Peacocks Tea & Cake: The Verdict

As a lover of all things scone-shaped (mostly scones, some small rocks), of course I had to try one of their homemade scones with clotted Cornish cream and jam (blackcurrant, I felt rebellious that day). And to accompany it? A pot of Peacocks’ Good Plain Tea. Boring? Yes. But if you’re having any other kind of tea with your scones and cream, then frankly – you’re doing it wrong. And I say that as a die-hard fan of all kinds of herbal teas and tisanes (and also of Die Hard the film, incidentally). It’s classic English breakfast tea or bust, and god help anyone I see slurping on Earl Grey while eating a scone. Yes, even Earl Grey.

Anyway.

The tea was fabulous, the scone was delicious – and there was an adequate amount of clotted cream served alongside it, which is not always a guarantee. When my pot of tea ran out, a smiley lady offered to top it up with hot water; always a win in my book.

Channelling my inner Miss Marple

The tea set itself was cute and oldy-worldy enough to almost trick me into thinking I was in a Miss Marple mystery (well, okay – there was no mystery, but I was reading an Agatha Christie at the time and the setting was perfect). The Peacocks tea room building is similarly old-fashioned, draped in beautiful purple wisteria at the time of my visit, with charming antique furniture and decor that transports you to another time – and cries out for an unsolved poisoning or locked-room murder mystery. Unfortunately, when the waitress next appeared at my table, it was not with the news that the police needed assistance in investigating the inexplicable death of the cook, but to check that everything was okay with my tea. Very boring – although I imagine the cook was relieved.

The service was great, chilled and friendly, and they were clearly on top of the coronavirus rules, with well-spaced tables, face masks and a polite reminder to check in at the venue when you arrived. I was perched in a comfortable window seat, with views of what looks like a beautiful garden seating area as well; unfortunately, given the weather, I didn’t get the chance to explore their outdoor area.

Disability Access & Special Requirements

I was pleased to note that the tearoom’s website does include a disability access statement, and notes that the majority of the tearoom’s ground floor is accessible for wheelchair users and mobility scooters, and there is a toilet equipped for wheelchair users, which is always worth noting. However, it’s worth noting that there is no on-site parking, although there is a free car park perhaps a five minute walk away.

I normally include review notes on gluten-free options, thanks to my charming and gluten-intolerant husband but he didn’t accompany me on this visit to Peacocks so – I can’t! I did however note that gluten-free scones and sandwiches were on offer, and the chocolate fudge brownies were also gluten-free. Hopefully we will visit again soon and I can update this review with some more information on the gluten-free options available.

The Flip Side

I visited Peacocks on a random, rainy Friday in May. I had the day off work, Little Man was in nursery and my husband was working, so I decided to treat myself – and I was reasonably confident of getting a table, for once. Because Peacocks tea room is (unsurprisingly) really popular – it’s not uncommon to see queues snaking out of the quaint little gate into their courtyard and out onto the main road.

No queue in sight

So my main critique of the tea room, in fact, is simply this: they don’t take bookings. It seems surprising for such a popular tea room that there’s no ability to book at least some of the tables in advance. It’s the kind of place that I would pick for a birthday celebration – but frankly it’s so popular that, in peak season, unless it’s hammering it down with rain it really doesn’t seem worth travelling to the tea room to see if they might have space. Prior to my Friday treat, I hadn’t been there in almost two years, just because it doesn’t even occur to me to bother making the trip. The ability to book – even if it’s only for one or two tables – would really make a difference, especially for those of us who need to plan ahead if we don’t want to be wrangling a feisty toddler while trying to sip Darjeeling.

baking · food · gluten free · recipes

Gluten Free Cinnamon Fruit Loaf Recipe

Advertisements

Since I was a teenager, I’ve been slightly obsessed with Warburton’s cinnamon fruit loaf. It’s a great breakfast treat when toasted up and dripping with hot melted butter. I’ve even introduced Little Man to it, and he loves it! But the trouble is, my lovely husband is gluten-intolerant, so he can’t enjoy it with us. So I set off to create my own recipe for a delicious gluten free cinnamon fruit loaf…

Gluten-free Cinnamon Fruit Loaf Recipe

Ingredients For Your Gluten Free Cinnamon Fruit Loaf:

You’ll want to gather the following ingredients for this yummy fruit loaf recipe:

  • 50g sultanas
  • 50g mixed peel
  • 300g gluten free plain flour
  • 1 tsp xanthan gum
  • 7g instant yeast
  • 50g sugar
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 egg
  • 75g warm (not hot) milk
  • 25g melted butter

You’ll also need a 2lb loaf tin, mixing bowls, and a tea towel or piece of fabric. Plus, you’ll need somewhere warm and out of the way where you can leave the dough to prove.

Cinnamon Fruit Loaf: The Recipe

1. Start by adding the gluten-free flour, xanthan gum, yeast, sugar, cinnamon, ginger and mixed spice into a mixing bowl.

2. Start mixing in the egg, followed by the warm milk and butter. If you’re not using salted butter, add a pinch of salt at this stage. I recommend mixing it all together using a balloon whisk if you have one.

3. Once it’s smooth and combined, add in the mixed peel and sultanas (or other dried fruit of your choice!). For best results, you can pre-soak the dried fruit in about 50ml orange juice (or water with a tablespoon of sugar added) for about half an hour, but it’s not crucial. Then knead the fruit into the dough with your hands.

4. At this point I usually turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for a minute or two. But as we’re not working with gluten, and so there are no gluten strands to form through kneading, it’s not really a crucial step!

5. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave somewhere warmish to prove, until it’s doubled in size. If it’s cold, I like to put it in the microwave next to a mug of hot water, to create a nice warm proving environment. This should normally take about an hour, but if it’s cold it will take longer. In the meantime, grease your baking tin.

6. Turn the dough back out onto a floured surface and knead briefly, then form into the shape of your baking tin. Place the dough into the tin and cover it, and leave it to prove in the same place as before, for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees C (gas mark 4).

7. It’s time to bake! Pop your cinnamon fruit loaf into the oven for 20 minutes. Once it’s done, leave the bread to cool in the tin, and then simply tip it out! It’s delicious sliced and lightly toasted, with lashings of butter. Om nom nom.

Tips and tricks for the perfect loaf:

As it’s a gluten-free fruit bread, you will probably find that your gluten free cinnamon fruit loaf doesn’t brown up as much in the oven as you might expect, if you have experience of baking with regular flour. Don’t leave the loaf in longer to get it to brown up more, as this can result in a really dry and crumbly loaf! Instead, if you value a nice golden brown bread crust, I recommend brushing the top of the dough with whisked egg before you put it in the oven.

More recipes for gluten-free treats!

If you’ve enjoyed this recipe and you’re on the hunt for more gluten-free treats, why not try my gluten-free pumpkin muffins recipe, or my absolute favourite cookie recipe – gluten free oatmeal raisin cookies!

fatigue · health · lifestyle · sport

How To Get Exercising With Chronic Illness

Advertisements

Getting regular exercise is important for everyone, but when you have a chronic illness, or if you’re recovering from an illness or surgery, it can feel like a potential minefield – there’s the risk of hurting yourself, impacting your recovery… and to be perfectly honest, it might just feel like too much hard work. But appropriate exercise can help with a lot of health conditions, by managing symptoms, improving sleep, and increasing strength. So how can you get into exercising with chronic illness? I’ve pulled together my thoughts and top tips based on my own experience (which has included recovering from brain surgery twice, post-viral fatigue syndrome, exercise-induced asthma, hypermobility spectrum disorder, and more!).

Exercising With Chronic Illness

Recognise what you’re already doing

First things first. It’s important to acknowledge the exercise you’re already doing. Whether that’s walking to town to buy shopping, or cleaning the bathroom, or just getting up and having a shower, chances are you’re already doing some exercise. Understand what you’re already doing on a regular basis, how difficult you find it and the impact on your body. That should give you an idea of your current ‘baseline’ level of fitness and exercise, and how variable it is. Then you can use that as a starting point to build up from.

Do your research

Next, you need to ensure you understand your health condition(s) and the kinds of limitations they may place on your ability to exercise or the type of exercise you can do. For instance, because of my hypermobility spectrum disorder I should try to avoid high-impact exercise and instead focus on low-impact exercises such as swimming. I also need to be extra careful about ensuring I have good form and don’t over-extend my joints when I’m doing yoga.

Try talking to your doctor, and make sure they approve of the exercise you’re planning on doing. You could also be asked to be referred to a physiotherapist, who may be able to recommend specific exercises that will help your condition.

But also – have a research online for advice on exercising with your specific health condition or chronic illness. Often you can find very detailed information online (for instance, this article on exercising with hypermobility) which your doctor may not be familiar with. Of course, it’s important to be careful to use reputable sites and look for advice which is backed up by peer-reviewed scientific research (quick rule of thumb: if the site you’re looking at is trying to get you to buy something, be a bit more sceptical of its health advice…). And, of course, check any proposed new exercise regimen with your doctor.

Set realistic targets for exercising with chronic illness

If you’re currently struggling to get into the shower in the mornings, it’s probably not realistic to set yourself the target of running a marathon – and it probably won’t do your body much good to try. Set yourself realistic targets, which are in line with the advice for your condition and which permit time off for rest. For instance, rather than saying you want to do a certain type of exercise once a day, you could set yourself a target to do a certain number of minutes of exercise (or steps, miles etc.) in a week. That way, you can do more on days when you feel good, and take a break on bad days. Start small, and aim to build up over time, so that it’s not too much of a shock to your body.

If your health condition tends to be quite variable, you could also think about giving yourself workout options which you can select from depending on how you’re feeling each day. For example, aiming for ten minutes of gentle stretching on a bad day, twenty minutes of yoga on an okay day, and a short run on a good day (or whatever works for you!), will mean that you’re flexing your workouts around your chronic illness.

Work with your body, not against it

Following on from the above, the most important thing when you’re exercising with chronic illness (or when recovering from surgery or illness) is to listen to your body and work with it, not against it.

There’s a culture in some fitness circles to “push yourself to your limits”, that “pain is temporary” or something to push through. That kind of attitude is not going to help you develop a good relationship with exercise in the long run (no pun intended…), if you’re suffering from chronic illness. If your body tells you to stop – stop! You can always do more exercise when you’re feeling better.

Over time you’ll probably get the feel for when your body is saying no as a result of your health condition, and when it’s just saying no because you’re giving it a good workout. But it can take a while to get to know what you can handle, how to recognise when your body’s had enough, and how a workout will impact you the next day. You may also start to notice other patterns that you hadn’t picked up on previously, in terms of how activity affects your condition.

Measure progress against yourself – not other people

As the old saying goes: comparison is the thief of joy. If your friends are comparing notes on the 5k they ran at the weekend, don’t let that make you feel bad about the fact that you can only run 1k, or that you were proud of managing a five minute walk the other day. Even comparing yourself to others with the same health condition is not helpful. Remember that your body is unique, and everyone responds differently to illness (and to exercising with chronic illness!). Focus on your progress by comparing yourself to your previous achievements and your baseline ability to exercise. That way, it’s a fair comparison and you can celebrate your progress, instead of feeling like you’re not doing enough.

Cut yourself some slack

This is probably the most important point on the list. You need to cut yourself some slack. Things won’t just go smoothly. There will be times when your health condition probably means that your progress goes backwards for a while. You may feel frustrated that you’re ‘back where you started’ (or even further back), as a result of a flare up in your illness.

That’s okay. It’s okay to go backwards, and it’s okay to be frustrated by it. But try to be kind to yourself. If you need a break, have a break. If you need the day off, take the day off. If you need the week off – likewise. Remember that it’s okay to find things difficult, or need to rest. The whole point of exercise is to look after your health and wellbeing.

Don’t be afraid to give up and do something different

With exercise, there can be a culture that it’s bad to be a “quitter”. Well, that’s true – if you stop exercising completely. But if you’re just not getting on with a specific type of exercise, then there’s nothing wrong with quitting it in order to try something else. For instance, if you’re finding running too difficult, you could try swimming or yoga instead. The point is to find something that you actually enjoy doing, and build it into your routine, so that it’s sustainable for the long term.

Build a habit again… And again… And again.

One of the most important things when you’re trying to improve your fitness is to get into a routine with your exercise. Then, it just becomes part of your day to day life. And the tricky thing when you’re trying to exercise with chronic illness, is that the routine tends to get broken. For instance, I remember a couple of years ago when I’d got into a really good routine with dance classes and rock climbing, and had gained a lot of strength and fitness… And then randomly had a really bad asthma flare up that meant I struggled just walking around for weeks and weeks. I lost the habit of going to class, I lost a lot of muscle mass. It was totally disheartening.

It can be hard to force yourself to get back into a routine one it’s been broken, but the only advice I can give is to persevere and be patient. Chances are, you’ll have to keep re-starting your routine as time goes by. But I think it helps to focus on the positives. For instance, even though I had lost a lot of strength and fitness, when I restarted dance and climbing, I hadn’t forgotten the theory and skills I’d learned. Although I felt like I was back to square one, in fact I was still a couple of squares further along the board, compared to when I originally started. And the second time around, it didn’t take quite so long to get back up to speed.

How to get into exercising with chronic illness… Your tips!

Have you managed to develop a good exercise routine with chronic illness – or while recovering from surgery or illness? What are your top tips? Let me know in the comments below!

child development · Just for fun · lifestyle · parenting · play

Free & Cheap Ideas For Fun Outdoors With A 12 – 18 Month Old Toddler

Advertisements

I’ve previously written about Little Man’s first discoveries of the great outdoors as a newly-walking toddler. I thought it would be fun to follow up with some ideas for fun ways to play and explore the great outdoors when you have a young toddler – in the one year old to eighteen months sort of timeframe. I’m focusing on cheap and easy activities that involve household items you probably already have, or at least that don’t require purchasing anything worth more than about £1… Because fun shouldn’t be mega expensive!

Free & Cheap Ideas For Fun Outdoors With A 12 – 18 Month Old Toddler

Pebbles in a Pot

This idea came from my own lovely mum! When I was a kid we had a gravel area outside our kitchen door, and mum said I used to spend ages sat on the step happily putting little pebbles from the gravel into empty milk bottles.

We have a small amount of gravel in our back garden, so I thought I would try the same with Little Man, showing him how to put pebbles into an empty plastic bottle… And he loves it! (To be fair, it could be genetic – so I guess there’s no guarantee your kids will like it, buuut let’s just skate past that). He needs reasonably close supervision to ensure he doesn’t try to eat any of the pebbles, but as time has gone by, the frequency of attempted pebble-munching has greatly diminished.

Pebbles in a pot!

The pebbles in a pot game is great for fine motor skills as well as concepts like big and small, empty and full. And honestly, it requires so little parental input that it’s perfect for those mornings when you find yourself in your back garden with an energetic toddler much, much earlier than planned…

Interactive Plants

Okay, bear with me, because I didn’t really have a title for this one! While on our way to nursery one morning a couple of months ago, I introduced Little Man to the concept of dandelion clocks. He loved watching me blow away the seeds and having a try himself (mainly just aggressively blowing raspberries in the complete wrong direction, but he had a go!). Now he loves dandelions and asks for them whenever we go out – he calls them “bubbles” which actually kind of makes sense when you think about it.

But dandelions aren’t the only interactive plant out there! We’ve played with snapdragons (antirrhinums), squeezing the sides of the flower to make them snap, and Little Man really likes picking daisies and singing the Upsy Daisy song from In The Night Garden – and watching mama make daisy chains. There’s such fun to be had in simply exploring new flowers and plant textures like tulips, daffodils, poppies and strands of grass.

When we go out, Little Man also enjoys looking for daisies, dandelions, leaves and sticks, and later on in the summer I can’t wait to go foraging for blackberries and other fruit, and playing with popping the seedpods of bizzy lizzies (impatiens). There’s really so many fun and interesting plants that little ones can explore, it’s probably worth a blog post on its own!

Upsy Daisy, here I come!

Treasure Hunt

I thought this would be a bit too complicated for Little Man at just 14 months old, but actually thanks to Easter I discovered that you really can do a fun treasure hunt in the garden, even for really young toddlers.

First, pick something they’ll be really interested in finding (like, say, shiny chocolate eggs… Or toys wrapped in silver foil). Let them watch you “hide” them (pretty much in plain sight), and then set them loose! With a fair bit of help and prompting, it’s a really fun way to spend some time together. Little Man though did not trust us to look after the eggs he had found while he looked for others, which created a slight issue when he ran out of hands…

Easter Egg Hunt Champion 2021

Fun with Water

You don’t need to buy a paddling pool to have fun in the sunshine (when the sunshine actually turns up, of course). We have now invested in a pool, but before we did, we had loads of fun with a washing up bowl and a bucket of water in the garden! Little Man actually still managed to fit in a normal kitchen bucket at almost 18 months old, and really enjoyed watching the water spilling over the rim as he sat down, and stood up… And sat down, and stood up… Safe to say, the lawn got a good watering.

Setting up a few buckets of water and some cups and things to play with is super easy and a great way to keep cool on a hot day. Just make sure you don’t forget the sun cream!

Making Marks With Chalk

This is my last suggestion and unless you live near some natural chalk hills and can collect a pocketful of rock chalk while out for a walk, you’ll need to buy some chalks – I got a big packet for £1 from our local cheap and cheerful store (it’s not technically a pound shop so I don’t know what else to call it…)

Chalk is great because of course it washes away in the rain, so you can make a huge mess of a driveway, path, fence, some rocks or a wheelie bin… And not worry too much about the cleanup (if you live in the UK, anyway). Little Man is loving playing with chalk at the moment and it’s great for starting to learn the alphabet and numbers as well.

Your top tips for free and cheap outdoor play ideas

What are your top tips and ideas for fun outdoors with a toddler? I’d love to get more ideas and tips for me and Little Man this summer!

health · Just for fun

Why You Should Always Find Out Your Surgeon’s Birthday

Advertisements

Today is my birthday! How old am I? Fortunately that’s not relevant to this blog post. Because today, we’re going to be talking about the most important birthday you need to add to your calendar. And, hard though it is to believe – it’s not my birthday… It’s your surgeon’s. Because a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has found that patients who underwent surgery on the surgeon’s birthday exhibited higher mortality than patients who underwent surgery on other days.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s correct. Your surgeon is more likely to kill you if they’re operating on you on their birthday. How’s that for a crazy fact – and a completely inappropriate topic for a light-hearted celebratory birthday blog post? In my defense, the study was published as part of the British Medical Journal’s fun and festive Christmas edition, so I’m not the only one completely misjudging the suitability of the topic for light entertainment.

It’s my surgeon’s birthday. How worried should I be?

The study looked at almost a million surgical procedures performed by 47,489 surgeons, and found that mortality rates were 6.9% on surgeon’s birthdays, compared to 5.6% on other days. That’s a pretty noticeable difference – but there are, of course, a few “buts”…

The study looked at 17 common emergency surgical procedures, performed on patients aged 65 – 99, at US hospitals from 2011 – 2014. The fact that these were emergency procedures performed on older people means the expected mortality rate for the first 30 days after surgery was already quite high. Unless you’re a 65+ year old undergoing a common medical emergency, even if it is your surgeon’s birthday, you’ve probably not got a 6.9% chance of dying. Good news for anyone getting an ingrowing toenail removed (or having pituitary surgery).

Additionally, apparently it’s actually comparable to the kind of increase in death rates that is seen at other times – including Christmas, New Year and weekends. So that’s… not at all reassuring, actually, now I think of it.

Why does it happen?

Well, the study was observational, meaning that the authors couldn’t establish the reasons behind the ‘birthday effect’ they observed, or exclude the impact of other, unmeasured factors. But they suggested a number of factors that could be at play:

  • Surgeons rushing to complete procedures on their birthday if they have plans to celebrate later on.
  • More distractions from birthday phone messages or conversations with team members, which could lead to more errors.
  • Surgeons being less likely to check up on patients following surgery, if they are busy with birthday plans.

They all sound totally plausible, although I’ve also thought of a few of my own that the researchers somehow missed:

  • Surgical staff suffering from a sugar rush and subsequent drop in blood sugars after eating birthday cake, impairing surgical performance.
  • One or two evil surgeons intentionally killing patients as part of some kind of sick annual birthday ritual. It’s probably a whole conspiracy, guys. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out Bill Gates was involved.

How reliable is the study?

I’m not a statistician, so I’ll leave that question to more experienced maths jockeys. I will say, however, that the letters section of the British Medical Journal website contains a number of letters on the topic from some very disgruntled surgeons, and is well worth a read. To quote one letter from neurosurgeon Steven A. Reid: “One wonders about the intrusion of errors on the part of statisticians on their birthdays — I’m certain the outcome isn’t as dramatic. More speeding tickets perhaps?”

And in conclusion…

Well, I’m not a surgeon, but you’ll be glad to hear I’ve booked my birthday off work anyway. You can’t be too careful, right? And if you’re reading this while in the office, well… play it safe and go read about my experience of transsphenoidal pituitary surgery rather than doing any more of that dangerous work stuff…

health · pituitary · top tips

Top Tips For Having Transsphenoidal Pituitary Surgery

Advertisements

Now, I fully recognise that this is a bit of a niche blog post, one which is principally going to be of interest to anyone about to have pituitary surgery. But hey! Pituitary tumors are actually surprisingly common, so there’s a lot of people out there who might be awaiting surgery. Maybe one of them is your, dear reader.

And before going into hospital for your transsphenoidal pituitary surgery, you will be anxious. You will have questions. However, I should note that many of your questions will already have been answered on legitimate medical sites elsewhere on the internet. So instead of regurgitating the same old advice (“Don’t sneeze after surgery or your brain will shoot out of your nose”, “Warning: after they’ve drilled through your head, it may be a little sore”), I have decided I will go down a different route, and write down the more obscure things that I wish I’d known before heading into hospital for transsphenoidal pituitary surgery…

Top Tips For Having Pituitary Surgery

Let me present my top tips for people about to have pituitary surgery:

1. Shave your inside elbows.

“She’s gone mad,” I hear you cry. “She’s raving. It was probably the brain surgery that did it.” In fact, this is an entirely logical step, because of all the blood tests you’ll undergo after your pituitary surgery; you’re basically going to be a human pincushion for a couple of days as the doctors seek to keep a very close watch on various hormone levels. And I mean VERY ClOSE. Both times I’ve had pituitary surgery, I’ve had blood tests every two hours for the first twelve hours after waking up, and then they gradually reduce in frequency… But not fast enough. You will literally be woken up through the night for blood tests in hospital.

This means that the post-blood-test strip of tape and cotton wool that the phlebotomist sticks over your inside elbow is going to get ripped off repeatedly, and then stuck back on. And then ripped off again, along with much of your arm hair. After the sixth time this happens in one day, you’ll be wishing you had taken my advice and shaved your inside elbows. I did this for my second surgery (having learned this lesson the hard way after my first pituitary surgery) and it made all those bloody blood tests just a little bit easier.

2. Drink enough.

If this seems obvious to you, then presumably you’re a normal person who gets thirsty when you haven’t drunk sufficient amounts of water to keep yourself hydrated. However, I am an odd sort of person and I only really notice I’m thirsty when it’s hot or I’ve done exercise (or, for some reason, when I’m pregnant!). Otherwise, I can go for hours and hours without drinking and not even notice; even back when I was a teeny child, my mum would tell me off for not drinking enough.

This was slightly problematic in hospital. Because of the risk of surgery damaging your pituitary gland and causing a condition called diabetes insipidus, your fluid balance is monitored carefully. If they believe you’re becoming dehydrated, they will put you on a drip. This is rubbish. Therefore, drink lots of water. And if you don’t like water, keep a supply of tastier drinks at hand. And by “tastier drinks”, I mean Ribena.

3. Always eat the custard first.

Hospital food gets a bad rep. The food at my hospital was pretty tasty really, and there was a good selection. But for some obscure reason, the dessert was often served before the main. If you waited for your main meal to rock up before eating dessert (like any normal person would), your custard would congeal disconcertingly by the time you got to it.
So remember: you’ve just had brain surgery. Screw societal norms regarding the “correct” order in which to eat sweet or savory comestibles. Don’t let that custard go to waste!

4. Make your visitors play musical chairs.

Again, this may initially seem nonsensical. But I was fortunate enough to have a fair few visitors in hospital after each pituitary surgery (thank you guys!), which was lovely. However, for the most part they sat in the same chair on the left-hand side of my bed. Consequently, by the end of my stay in hospital I had done my neck in, from continually turning my head to the left. It was pretty painful and entirely my own fault. Make them alternate sides. I did for my second surgery and it was much easier on the neck.

5. Get wheeled out in a wheelchair.

Because a) you’ll be feeling rubbish and won’t want to walk, and b) it’s fun!

6. Steroids + morphine = surprisingly fun.

After waking up from my first surgery, initially I felt rubbish. It was very, very painful. Fortunately, the nurse at hand quickly gave me some morphine. By the time I was properly awake, I was pain-free, wired, and weirdly delighted that the nurse had the same first name as my mum. They took me out of the post-surgical care room and up to the main neurosurgical ward, and about half an hour after I woke up I was already texting various members of my friends and family and talking nineteen to the dozen about how unusually chirpy I felt.

7. Play your “brain surgery” card.

I regret not doing this more, in retrospect. When you’ve had brain surgery, you should be able to really milk that fact for all it’s worth. I have no doubt that there are hours of fun to be had in pretending not to recognise household objects, friends, family, political systems and/or branches of philosophy.

I remember speaking to one friend a few weeks after my first brain surgery, and I mentioned that I was always forgetting where I’d left my books. She gave me a sorrowful look and whispered, “Is that because of the surgery?”It was disappointing to have to confess to her that no, I have in fact always been that stupid.

8. Get a free pill slicer. They are awesome.

After pituitary surgery, you’ll be put on steroid replacement medication in case the neurosurgeon accidentally removed your body’s ability to make its own steroid hormone when required. Said pills can be broken into different-sized chunks so you can take, for example, a whole dose in the morning, half a pill at lunch, and the other half in the early afternoon. When I left hospital, I obviously looked too pathetic even to break a tiny pill in two, because they provided me with a pill slicer. You put the pill in, shut the lid, and SHAZAM! A razorblade hidden inside will slice that bad boy in twain.

I managed to lose my pill slicer after a couple of months, and I was pretty cut up about it. …Geddit? Cut up?

Your top tips for having pituitary surgery

Have you had transsphenoidal pituitary surgery? Do you have any top tips you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

baking · food · gluten free · recipes

Gluten-Free Portuguese Custard Tarts (Pasteis De Nata) Recipe

Advertisements

A few years ago, my husband and I went on holiday to Lisbon in Portugal, and we fell in love with pasteis de nata, the amazing Portuguese custard tarts. Made with a buttery puff pastry and Portuguese custard, they are just delicious. When we got back home, we even found a bakery in our home town that specialised in making pasteis de nata – and we were so happy to be able to continue enjoying them.

But when my husband was diagnosed with gluten intolerance, they just became yet another yummy treat that he couldn’t have. Until now! Using shop-bought gluten free puff pastry, I have succeeded in making gluten-free pasteis de nata that are delicious and taste really authentic. Read on to find out how!

Gluten-free Portuguese Custard Tarts Recipe

Ingredients for gluten-free Portuguese custard tarts:

To make these Portuguese custard tarts, you will need:

  • 1 packet pre-made gluten free puff pastry (you could use shortcrust, but puff pastry is more authentic)
  • 125g golden caster sugar
  • 80ml water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • Lemon rind (a few pieces is fine, you don’t need the whole lemon!)
  • 2 egg yolks and one whole egg
  • 25g cornflour
  • 150ml milk

How to make your gluten-free pasteis de nata:

1. First prep that pastry! Unroll your puff pastry to remove the baking paper from the roll. Then re-roll it so you end up with a sausage of pastry (yep! I know it seems counter-intuitive, but this is most similar to how real pasteis de nata are made in Portugal). Cut the sausage into sections about 1cm – 1.5cm thick. You should end up with about 12 of these.

2. For each of the pastry pieces, turn them sideways, and place them between two pieces of baking paper. Then roll them out with a rolling pin until you end up with thin discs of pastry about the size of your cupcake tray holes. Pop them into the cupcake tray.

3. Pre-heat the oven to 220 degrees C.

4. Next, make your custard! Proper Portuguese custard is made with a sugar syrup infused with cinammon and lemon rind. To do this, heat the water, sugar, lemon rind and cinnamon stick in a pan. You want to dissolve the sugar into the water and get the mixture hot, but not boiling.

5. Meanwhile, whisk the cornflour into the eggs. Heat the milk until it is warm but not boiling, and slowly pour over the egg and flour mixture, whisking as you go. Add the vanilla essence.

6. Remove the cinnamon stick and lemon rind from your sugar syrup (carefully!). Pour the sugar syrup slowly over your eggs, milk and flour mixture, whisking constantly to form a runny custard.

6. Pour the custard into your pastry cases until they’re about three quarters full (see picture below).

7. Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 15 minutes, until golden on top.

8. Cool on a wire cooling rack. While the tarts are cooling, you can optionally sprinkle them with a mix of sugar and ground cinnamon, to really bring out the flavour. And voila! Your tarts are ready.

Tips and tricks for your gluten free pasteis de nata:

The instructions at step 2 might sound like a peculiar way to treat puff pastry! But they’re actually a reasonably close approximation of the way that pastel de nata pastry cases are made in Portugal. So don’t worry that your pastry will be ruined!

These gluten-free Portuguese custard tarts are definitely best on the day they’re made. They’ll keep overnight in the fridge, but much longer and you risk the pastry becoming very sad and soggy, which no one wants. In my household though, they rarely last that long!

More gluten-free recipes…

Looking for more recipes for tasty gluten-free treats? Why not check out our recipes page, or try baking these delicious gluten free pumpkin muffins?