Sunday, 10 December 2017

FitFlow Max Review

Price: £35/$50
Length: 5x 30-40 minute yoga routines
Workouts: Upper, Lower, Core, Total, Yoga, Stretch
Suitable for: Intermediate - Advanced
Overall Rating:   ★★★★★
Enjoyment:  ★★★★☆   Difficulty:  ★★★★☆   Results:  ★★★★☆
Based on 4 weeks of use.

   I do yoga often but I admit that, while I change up my workout every month, I rarely vary my yoga. I use it more as a means of unwinding after lots of resistance workouts rather than something I practice or try to get better at - though I  have definitely seen improvements stemming from frequent use and the strength and flexibility gained from other workouts. I have few DVDs and sequences, and while they're relatively intermediate, none of them feature anything outlandish like the yogis you see on Instagram.
   That said, as someone at the low end of intermediate, this yoga program was something I found myself able to do, but was still physically challenged by. And while I may look for a simpler routine where yoga is used as a recovery, if a yoga routine is taking its place as my month's workout, such as this HIIT-yoga fusion, 'challenging' is a detail I hunger for.

   This program features 5 yoga workouts varying from 30-40 minutes long; three are HIIT-structured with a focus on the upper body, lower body and total body, and the rest are more recovery-based, with one focusing on core and stretching, and the other a fluid yoga sequence to counter the resistance and cardio of the week. It's a 6-day-a-week, 4-week program wherein each week one of the workouts will be repeated.
   There is no music, which I thought would be an issue, but surprisingly it isn't, and I put that down to the way Briohny and MacKenzie chatter. Rather than distracting or all-business, it actually feels like you're a part of the class. I've used programs with chatty instructors before, but I've never felt so involved. But if it bothers you, you can easily play your own music beneath it.

   A yoga mat for grip and comfort is essential, and they do use yoga blocks. I didn't have any when I started so I made do with the floor, and while I managed, I did end up buying a yoga block. Not so much because I couldn't reach, but rather I was over-extending and couldn't keep a flat back where it mattered. But these can be picked up on the cheap from most sports stores.

Difficulty & Guidance
   As I said above, as someone who usually practises yoga at the lower end of intermediate, this workout was something I could do, but was still challenged by. Most of the movements were familiar, but those I'd never seen before - basic or variations - were all well-demonstrated, well-explained and well-cued, so you always know where you are. I never got lost once.
   The HIIT element isn't that bad, it's made mostly from repping in and out of the poses with a few more obvious cardio sequences, but those reps and cardio sequences are necessary to building heat and raising the heart rate, and what's HIIT without a thumping heart?
   Variations for beginners and advanced are offered throughout, and being intermediate (I'm relatively advanced in most workouts) I was given something to strive for in almost every movement. And I was so impressed with myself when I succeeded.

Warm Up
   I wouldn't usually write about the warm up section, but I'm mentioning it for the simple fact that there isn't one. If this was ordinary yoga it might not be an issue, but repping in and out of movements and really engaging your muscles...well, on cold winter mornings, you really, really do want to warm up first. I generally spent 5 minutes jogging on the spot, doing arm windmills, jumping jacks, standing toetap kicks and so on. When chaturangas and crescent lunges are involved, you really do want warm arms and legs. I quite successfully pulled my hamstrings on my first day following the lower body workout because I trusted too foolishly.
   There is also no cool down, and while that's not a problem on all of them, you definitely want to make sure you stretch your arms out after upper body and legs after lower.

Lower Body - 35 minutes consisting of 2 circuits, repeated three times on each side, alternating. The first set of each circuit on each side is slow and painful (in a good way), but the second and third rounds are faster, both in movement and in duration. And it may sound strange - it was strange when they said it - but while adding a hop to crescent lunge reps is a challenge in the first round, it's actually doable in the second, and nearly easy in the third. Rather than tire yourself out, you seem to just heat yourself up and get better with every rep. It's a wonderful and powerful feeling.
Upper Body - 30 minutes of one long and dynamic circuit, repeated three times on each side, alternating. You spend a lot of time in plank and downward dog, but don't be fooled, your legs get involved and your heartrate rises. And, as with the lower body workout, each set gets easier as you go along. I struggled with this one and was quite clumsy at first, but I soon found my rhythm. But you will seriously feel it in your arms, chest and shoulders by the end.
Total Body - 30 minutes of two circuits, but definitely the most complicated. A lot more balance is involved in the total body section, and it's tempting to try to keep up with them as the sets get shorter and more fluid, but the fact is, by rushing along, you don't get the depth and you will end up falling over. It was only on the very last set on the right side that I realised my mistake, and noticed an immediate difference when I slowed down a little, catching up in the vinyasa. It doesn't feel like the whole body is getting a workout, and while it's true you don't feel the burn as intensely as in Upper or Lower, you will notice it the next day, and you will raise your heart rate. There are also a few brief cardio intervals to raise the heart rate, too.
Core & Stretch - This 40-minute workout isn't made with the same circuit set up as the others. Instead you roll through the movements and generally progress from start to finish, repeating movements only when individual sides are concerned, and there are few in this case. The core hurts, and not just your abs. Your legs and hips get involved a fair bit, which is nice for a little extra work, but it's certainly lower impact than the others, with the hard work mostly focused in the first 20 minutes and more stretching and static poses in the last.
Yoga FitFlow - This 40-minute yoga sequence features intermediate moves and a fluid flow from one position to the next, with no circuits involved beyond balancing out the sides as in Core & Stretch. There's little repping in and out of the poses so the cardio element is low, but  there is a little more leg strength involved than expected for a routine designed to counter and stretch after the other workouts. But while the power in the legs isn't too demanding, the sequence itself is a challenge for someone of my abilities and the instruction isn't as clear as in the others. I muddled through the first usage, however, and improved with every subsequent use, as is often the case with all workouts.

   It's true that a HIIT-yoga fusion was never going to be as powerful or fat-burning as a more typical HIIT workout, nor as calming as a typical yoga workout, but it was a very well-balanced fusion nonetheless and provided, where promised, HIIT intervals that did make me sweat and did get my heart pounding. But the resistance was also brilliant, and even repping in and out of a crescent lunge, you are going to feel it.
   Not for the beginner, the movements in this program, especially when flowing from one to another, is more suited to the intermediate user while still providing plenty of room to grow, and advanced yogis can get their fill, too.
   Highly recommended if you're looking for more than just yoga, but not if you're after something traditional or something high-impact.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Lean Greens & Beating Christmas Bloat

   When Christmas comes along, I like to do anything I can to give my health a little boost knowing that it's my most unhealthy month. Though, as you can see from my 'how to beat Christmas weight gain' post last week, I already do a lot by eating healthily, saying 'no' to treats that I know aren't really worth it and exercising more efficiently. But I also use supplements.
   Now, in a bid to lose weight, up until half way through this year I used to take all kinds of supplements from silly things like raspberry ketones to more elaborate thermo fat-burners. Not one of them worked. I have a whole post to go up about that soon.
   But what I have learned is that, while 'supplement' now fills me with a sense of dread, not all of them out there are bad. In fact, some of them I sill use, and it's easy to tell which are good because they're the ones that don't make outlandish claims. If something that isn't a piece of gym kit claims to help you lose weight, it's nonsense.
   So aside from protein shakes (85% protein minimum) after almost every workout and multivitamins and an extra vitamin D (England!) and magnesium (prone to migraines) every morning for the past year or so, when I know things are going to get a little...well not quite so 80/20 anymore, I like to turn it up a notch with more efficient exercise, ensuring resistance and cardio in every session, and implementing a little more natural goodness. And greens are the easiest way to do it.

   'Greens' in this case refers to those funky green powders you see people mixing into juice or smoothies, and generally consist of greeeeen things like spirulina, barley grass, chlorella and so on for a multitude of benefits in a concentrated daily dose.
   There are loads of green powders on the market. I've tried a few, and it's true that they're not the most enjoyable thing to drink, but they're really good for you when not packed with extra rubbish. And anyway, not everything that is good for you is pleasant. Looking at you, burpees.
   This Christmas I'm turning to Lean Greens since they have a great profile and aren't filled with extra cayenne (how is that even green?!) or caffine, and I'm still looking for one I can stomach a little easier. But aside from the taste - which Lean Greens themselves say 'if you sip it, sniff it, linger over the colour, the harder it gets' - I'm expecting the same boost I always get from these kinds of products. My skin always looks a little better - who doesn't want that at Christmas? - and my energy levels are a little higher with all the circulating nutrients.

   If taste turns out to be the same as the rest - and given the lack of artificial flavourings and the like, I'd be surprised if it didn't - I'll mix it with kefir, which I started making myself in the summer, or some lovely festive and highly anti-oxidising cranberry juice. Either way, my Christmas workout began on Monday, I have a lovely delivery of Graze multipacks including the return of the mince pie flapjack YAY! And I've also nabbed some gorgeous new fit bits over Black Friday.
   I am so ready for Christmas. Where are the mince pies?!

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Winter Wonderland Canvas Cake

   I've been so busy lately that this post - as well as many others - is a little late to go up, but I've managed to scrape some minutes together from filling Myth of the Wild orders to do it.
   We actually had snow the other day. Snow. It didn't settle at all, but it was falling from the sky and it was so exciting! As I said in Beating Christmas Stress (The Myth of the Perfect Christmas), we're more likely to see floods than any snow, settling or otherwise, so that was a surprise. And as we're not likely to see any more, I jumped onto a winter wonderland canvas cake for breakfast the next day.
   The wonderful thing about canvas cakes is that they're colourless and pretty flavourless and topped with white yoghurt - it's a canvas. So any flavour or colour you do add comes through wonderfully. In this case, though, I flavoured it with vanilla bean which preserved the whiteness while adding a wonderful taste and aroma, while Stevia did its usual job of sweetening perfectly.

   I used the basic canvas cake recipe with the seeds of half a vanilla bean, topped with Yeo Valley honey Greek yoghurt, some mini white marshmallows, silver sprinkles, and 10g of Green & Black's white chocolate melted into a mini snowflake.

Winter Wonderland Mug Cake:
280 calories, 6.8g fat, 24.5g carbs, 5.5g fibre, 22.5g protein
Cake + vanilla seeds: 135 calories, 2.8g fat, 2.5g carbs, 5.5g fibre, 21.5g protein
50g Yoghurt: 50 calories, 0g fat, 7g carbs, 4g protein
  - mini marshmallows: 20 calories, 5.5g carbs
  - 10g Green & Black's white chocolate: 60 calories, 4g fat, 5g carbs, 1g protein
  - Silver sprinkles: 15 calories, 4.5g carbs

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Sinterklaas Horse Cake

   I mentioned yesterday morning with my Sinterklaas canvas cake that I was making little speculaas cakes for Sinterklaas dessert, and here they are! Sinterklaas doesn't have reindeer or a sleigh like Father Christmas, he has but one white horse. So I decided, after seeing a few cute reindeer cakes, that I would try to make a little horse instead.
   These two cakes are a simple speculaas Sinterklaas cake, which is deliciously spiced, covered in whipped double cream with a squirt of aerosol cream on top, strawberry and blackcurrant BEAR yoyo cut with a circular cookie cutter for the detail - any fruit roll up will do, or you could just pipe it - and some last-minute paper & toothpick ears. They're also tiny. I used two 3x3 inch cake tins for this, which is absolutely perfect to serve 4. I used them at Easter a couple of years ago and made one cake each because they were so small, and it turned out to be, quite simply, too much.

Makes 2 3x3 inch cakes, perfect to serve 4
Speculaas Cake
100g butter, room temperature
75g sugar
1 tsp speculaas spice
100g self raising flour
2 eggs 
Optional 6 pepernoten biscuits, broken

To Decorate
100ml heavy cream
1 blackcurrant BEAR yoyo/fruit roll
1 strawberry BEAR yoyo/fruit roll
Whipped cream

1. Preheat the oven to 180 C/350 F/gas mark 4 and line or grease two 3x3 inch cake tins.

2. Cream together the butter, sugar and speculaas spice until thoroughly combined.

3. Add 1 egg and half of the flour, mix to combine, then add the remaining egg and flour.

4. Add the broken biscuits to the batter, if using, combining well, then divide between the two cake tins.

5. Bake in the centre of the oven for 25 minutes, then let cool.

6. Once the cakes have cooled, begin to beat the heavy cream in a bowl until thick.

7. Using a palette knife or the smooth edge of a butter/table knife, spread the cream around the sides of the cake. Be patient!

8. Take your yoyos or fruit rolls and, using a circular (or the rounded edge of a heart) cookie cutter, cut two eyes and two nostrils for each horse and arrange on the cream. Cut the remaining lengths into strips 5mm thick and arrange as a bridle - one over the nose, one above the eyes, and two down the sides.

9. When ready to serve, cover the top in whipped cream and poke in some paper ears. I taped ear shapes to toothpicks.

• I used Stork cakes vegetable spread in place of butter.
• You can put pepernoten, kruidnoten or even just gingerbread biscuits into a bag and break them up with a rolling pin and add them to the mix.

Per 1/2 cake, without cream
346 cals, 20g fat (5g sat), 35g carbs, 5.5g protein
Per 1/2 cake with cream
488 cals, 35g fat (14g sat), 149.5g carbs, 6g protein

Hotel Chocolate Winter Spice Freak Shake - Healthy Christmas

   Christmas always seems to get me in the kitchen more than any other time of the year. I always find myself trying to come up with new recipes, and lately I'm just obsessed with breakfast - yes, this is a breakfast post.
   A freak shake for breakfast? Really? You've asked me that before. But regardless of the fact that this freak shake is actually good for you, it's also Christmas. And what's better than festive decadence at breakfast?

   But, while my salted caramel freak shake was quite healthy, this one is not sugar-free. Rather than a chocolate protein base, I used Hotel Chocolat's Winter Spice hot chocolate shavings along with some plain whey protein. And it's amazing. But, of course, it is Hotel Chocolat, and that means more cocoa, less sugar, and no artificial nonsense, which means a cleaner shake all round!

   Perfect for a Christmas workout or breakfast, this healthy freak shake is high in protein, low in fat and sugar, and contains lots of probiotics thanks to the yoghurt! Hotel Chocolat have always been high-cocoa and low-sugar, and yet aren't dark unless they say so. And even at 50% cocoa, this hot chocolate isn't dark. It's sweet enough to provide all the sweetness and flavour by itself. It's deliciously thick, decadently chocolate and sensually spiced.
   Stored in the fridge for 2 days, it can be made ahead of time for Christmas gatherings, last-minute workouts - there's only so much time in the day - or breakfast on the go. It's a truly guiltless Christmas treat!

Serves 1
Shake Base
20-35g Hotel Chocolate winter spiced hot chocolate
50ml skimmed milk
20g whey protein powder (I used Pulsin Simply Whey)
250ml water
150g fat-free greek yoghurt (Yeo Valley bio-live)
Optional 1-2 tbsp (10g) cacao
Low-fat whipped cream
1 skinny mini mince pie
1 Hotel Chocolat  mini chocolate snowflake

1. Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium-low until it starts to steam. Remove from the heat and add the hot chocolate shavings, stirring until melted. Set aside to cool.

2. Combine the cold water, cooled chocolate milk, protein powder, yoghurt and optional cacao into either a shaker bottle or blender and mix.

3. Transfer the shake into a tall glass or mason jar (while they're still popular).

4. Squirt cream on top, add the snowflake and mini mince pie, and a small sprinkling of crushed candy cane or more chocolate shavings. Serve and enjoy!

I used Pulsin whey protein powder, Yeo Valley fat free Greek yogurt & Aduna cacao
The mini snowflakes come as a pack of 3 inside a tree decoration. They are perfect for adding to desserts, hot chocolates, or even a festive chocolate porridge.
I used 12g of low-fat whipped cream, a single serving.

For just the shake base (20g chocolate, 10g cacao)
290 cals, 6.5g fat (3.5g sat), 22g carbs (18g sugar [10g from milk]), 25g protein
Based on 20g chocolate, 10g cacao, 12.5g whipped cream, 1 mini mince pie & 1 snowflake
445 cals, 11.5g fat (6.5g sat), 41.5g carbs (29g sugar [10g from milk, 10g from fruit]), 26.5g protein

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Sinterklaas Canvas Cake

   Lately, I have been working my socks off. Seriously. Every single day for the past two weeks I've been working on filling Myth of the Wild orders from noon until 10pm, and doing chores all morning. I had a brief break on Thursday when Seeg, Lucy and I went out to Lacock to wander around the Abbey and old village, ate the best sausage roll on the face of the planet, and stopped in the local bakery and chocolate shop - hello peanut and caramel chocolate salami! But as soon as we got back I slipped back into my routine. Though I admit that it's nice to be keeping so busy, it's also meant that I haven't had the chance to write anything of my book since the middle of last month.
   The only time I've had to get back to myself are for half-hour workouts, and this morning seems to be the first chance I've truly had to breathe and slow down, which has set me up for a better day.

   And so I can say, with a smile, happy Sinterklaas!
   Yeah, yeah, I know it's for the kids, and I know I'm not Dutch, but a Dutch boyfriend gives me the right to celebrate such things and use them as an excuse to celebrate. And despite being 26 years old, when we went to visit his parents a few years ago and were there for December 5th, they revived the holiday so I got to experience Sinterklaas - hessian bags on the doorstep in the evening, pepernoten through the letterbox and gifts wrapped in disguise. The only thing I didn't get were the poems to help you guess each gift, because writing a poem in your second language isn't an easy thing.
   I'm making a venison stew with Dick Soek's practise of adding kruidnoten in place of flour to thicken the broth, I've made some small cakes of Sinterklaas's horse, Amerigo, for dessert, and we're watching a movie with some giant chocolate letters to pig out on.

   But for now, it's a Sinterklaas canvas cake for breakfast! Spiced with speculaas and topped with honey yoghurt, mini kruidnoten (spiced Dutch biscuits) I made myself, some tiny chocolate letters - chocolate letters are part of the Sinterklaas tradtion - and a last-minute sprinkling of a broken candy cane, it's pretty yummy and suitably sweet for a festive occasion.

   I used the basic canvas cake recipe with 1 tsp speculaas spice mix from Vandotsch, topped with 50g of Yeo Valley Greek yoghurt with honey, some mini kruidnoten I made myself - equivalent to about 3 full-sized pepernoten/kruidnoten biscuits - 'Sinterklaas' spelled out with the melted chocolate of 1 Hotel Chocolat gingerbread man (I put him in a piping bag and melted in him in that over a double-boiler) and a sprinkling of candy cane pieces from a broken mini cane by Mr Stanley, which I didn't photograph as it was a last-minute addition!

Spiced Sinterklaas Mug Cake:
320 calories, 9g fat, 27g carbs, 5.5g fibre, 22.5g protein
Cake + speculaas spice: 135 calories, 2.8g fat, 2.5g carbs, 5.5g fibre, 21.5g protein
50g Yoghurt: 50 calories, 0g fat, 7g carbs, 4g protein
  - mini pepernoten (about 3 full-sized biscuits): 60 calories, 2g fat, 7g carbs
  - 1 Hotel Chocolat gingerbread man chocolate: 60 calories, 4g fat, 4.5g carbs, 1g protein
  - Sprinkling of broken candy cane: 15 calories, 6g carbs

Monday, 4 December 2017

December - Killer Body

   In December 2015, I used Jillian Michaels' Killer Body. I was looking for a tougher workout in anticipation of Christmas indulgence, and I figured Jillian Michaels was the best person to turn to.
   Killer Body, supplemented with a little cardio every now and then, proved to be immensely effective in keeping off the Christmas weight. In fact, I even lost a little, all without sacrificing mince pies.
   In 2016, I decided to go down the same road, but rather than use Killer Body's three 30-minute workouts again, I opted for her Killer Buns & Thighs and her Killer Arms & Back DVDs, each with three 30-minute workouts of varying levels. I used them for 6 weeks, 2 weeks on each level, and supplemented them with cardio again. Once again, I didn't gain a thing, I didn't miss out, and I even lost a little.
   This year, I've decided to use Killer Body again. I used the two DVDs not that long ago - too recently, at any rate, to want to use them again just yet - and while I'm aware this means I'll be using the same 3 workouts for 6 weeks rather than 2 workouts for 2 weeks at a time, I'm also willing to swap them out if I really start to lose enthusiasm.

   But, as I always do at this time of the year, I've got a few things on the side to boost that enthusiasm:

Post-Workout - I do prefer to use things like My Protein since they have much more protein per serving than brands like PhD, but at the same time, PhD tastes a lot better and has a wonderful thickness. It's nice to have a treat, and if I'm happy to consider a protein shake as a treat, then I'm easily pleased. So I bought PhD salted caramel diet whey - the same protein I used in my salted caramel golden freak shake - for the duration.

Kit - there is one sale in particular that I look out for on Black Friday, and that is Fabletics. They are expensive, but their quality is the best I have ever had, so you truly do get what you pay for. I can guarantee amazing compression, stretch, the most perfect fit in the whole wide world, the most flattering shape and, most importantly, security. The leggings don't pull down nor ride up whether you're flexing into a flying pigeon or going for your PB on burpees. But when Black Friday rolls along, they do 2 for 1 on most products, so I can bag 2 pairs of leggings for the price of one. Unfortunately their designs sell out fast, so if there's something I want, it's a big risk to wait. But I do, and it paid off. I got Brogan II in black and rose gold, and Salar in fossil (no, the name didn't sell me, instead it was the blizzard flurry design).

Healthy Snacks & Feel-Good Products - so I can get my fill of Christmas without hurting the waistline. These include Christmas pudding Nakd bars, Graze's speculoos dipper and mince pie flapjacks, and homemade goodies like my skinny mini mince pies and my mini 4-ingredient Christmas puddings. Then there's also the boosters to compensate for the slightly less healthy choices I will inevitably - and guiltlessly - make this month, like Lean Greens and larger glasses of kefir.

   These kinds of things, when done one at a time, tend to help me stick to the tougher workouts that I sometimes dread when I wake up, which I know I will this month despite how much I enjoy it while doing it. But with a tough 6-week workout right at the most indulgent time of the year (Christmas and 2 birthdays within 2 weeks), I could do with a little extra help, so I combine them all. New leggings, tastier shakes, healthy snacks and feel-good boosters.

   I'll update in two weeks, mostly to see if it's working out as I expect it to.
   Wish me luck! I'll need it...

Sunday, 3 December 2017

FitFlow Max - 4 Weeks Later

   FitFlow Max has actually been really good. Perhaps one of my more memorable workouts. I've thoroughly enjoyed it, it's been a challenge and gotten my heartrate up without once being something I've dreaded. It's also been very refreshing to have a yoga sequence challenge me - as I said two weeks ago, I tend to use yoga as an active recovery rather than something to get better at, so having to really brace my core and find more strength in my body for movement and balance through less familiar poses has been really very enjoyable.

   And it really has been a challenge. I consider myself to be a lower-end-intermediate yoga...practitioner, and so I felt that this intermediate yoga program would be relatively doable with a little bit of trouble. Most of the poses were actually familiar, with warriors, half-moons and standard vinyasas, but the depth of holding the poses, the transitions and the variations were where I struggled. I can do a side plank, but an elevated side plank with an extended top arm and elevated top leg that lifts and lowers is tough, then sweeping fluidly into a forearm side plank on the other side to repeat the motion is even tougher. But the satisfaction that comes with the success of that balance in motion (in the third week) is immense. Especially when the circuit is repeated 3 times on each side, giving me five more chances to prove that the first wasn't a fluke.

   I also enjoyed doing yoga in the dark at 6:30 am, which isn't something I ever did before, but as I wanted to use the two 'easier' videos but didn't want to lose out on my two long rest day mornings in the week, I made the compromise of yoga first thing when I get up to look after mum, and then continuing as a normal rest day. And I rather enjoyed facing the window and watching the sun rise as I moved. It sounds cheesy, but it was really very pleasant.

   I've felt my strength increase with most workouts I use, but this is the first occasion in a long time that I've felt as though I've actually grown. My confidence in motion, my balance, and my strength have all improved, and I suddenly feel like I can and should take on more challenging yoga practise.
   The two instructors were also fabulous, and they have more FitFlow routines, so I find it quite likely that I'll be giving them another go - and FitFlow Max will become a frequent use. I'm already looking at some of their other collaborations, and I'm also looking at Briohny's own Vinyasa FitFlow.

   But, after this chill-out workout and easy-going month, tomorrow I begin my Christmas burn. High-impact, compound resistance followed by cardio of one kind or another 3 days a week. It's going to last 6 weeks, too, so that it covers Christmas and my birthday, but having followed this method for two Christmasses past and gained no weight during despite indulging in festivities, it's worth it...

   My full and comprehensive FitFlow Max review will be up a week today ♥

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Luxe Christmas Gift Guide

   I've done all the themed gift guides I could think of this year, so it's time for the generic, but better. Indulgent chocolates, luxurious skin care, flower subscriptions and so much more. It's the perfect way of disguising the fact that you didn't know what to get them!

Friday, 1 December 2017

Etsy Favourites

Happy Freaking December!!
Did you all crack open your advent calendars with zeal today? I certainly did. Only one of them, though. Naked Marshmallow in the morning, and then my own which I filled with Hotel Chocolat goodies this evening. I even accompanied my apple spice porridge with a cup of teapigs' glĂŒhwein tea. It's basically mulled wine in tea form.
I am so ready for Christmas.
And because I'm so ridiculously ready to be festive (I've been holding it in for so long), today's Etsy feature is full of brazen Christmas accessories - jewellery, crowns, nails - so that you can unleash your inner tinsel monster just as loudly!

Laser cut Ho Ho Ho earrings   ♥   Winter floral crown
Reindeer antler hair clips   ♥   Christmas pudding ring
Mince pie brooch   ♥   Christmas press-on nails

As for a necklace, I was cheeky and reserved that slot for one of my own. This tiny snowman necklace measures just 2.5cm tall and contains a never-melting 1cm snowman in a hat and scarf on a bed of snow. What more could you want?

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Myth of the Perfect Christmas

   Oh how I wish it would snow.
   White Christmasses are becoming a thing of the past. It's our own fault, of course, but the thought that my 7 and 3 year old nephews will never know a white Christmas is kind of sad. I haven't seen one since I was a kid. See, in the UK, rain is the weather of every season, and here in the South West, the danger of flooding is real. It's just too mild for snow, and while it's true that January and February are the coldest months of the year, we're still seeing temperatures of 13 degrees Celcius in late November. How did we ever see snow at Christmas?! And yet even on UK Christmas TV and films, there is always snow at Christmas. Because that's the Christmas ideal - which is incidentally hilarious because the fall of a single snowflake sends the country mad with weather warnings. In the US things don't seem to get bad until the snow reaches half a foot. Over here, the snow doesn't even settle. Frost is the closest thing we get to a white Christmas. Exhibit A:

Perfect Month Syndrome
   I was reading this month's Women's Health magazine (50) - I find the magazine disappointing so I rarely ever buy it, and yet my 3-year subscription to Women's Fitness has proven to be immensely valuable - and there was an article in there about Christmas stress. Now, it wasn't so much the 'How to Christmas-Proof Your Brain' title that drew me in, because I love Christmas and don't want to Christmas-proof anything. Instead, it was the image of tinsel, the flash of red, and the ribbon on the following page. And so I read.
   PMS - but not that kind of PMS - is a fresh term meaning 'perfect month syndrome', and it's safe to say that many of us suffer from it, brought about by wonderful Christmas memories. Others suffer from a contrasting condition brought about by bad Christmas memories, but it works the same way: we're clinging on to the past rather than trying to make fresh Christmas memories and letting things go as they will. Instead it's an attempt to recreate those perfect Christmasses (or hiding from Christmas and shunning every hint of it because you're lingering on the past).

   Sally Brown of Therapy That Works states that we 'look back on the Christmasses of our childhood through rose-tinted glasses, so when you grow up, you go into a frenzy of organisation and spending in a bid to recreate that 'special time'. But you're trying to recreate something that never really existed; it was never perfect - in reality, there were tantrums, tears and disappointments.' And when I stop to think about it, she's not wrong.
   I'm lucky, though - all I remember are the good things. In fact I had a damned good childhood, even though it turned out we never had any money, always went on holiday to Devon or Wales and stayed in my grandparents' caravan, and my parents argued a lot (which will happen when one of them is diagnosed with a debilitating disease and neither know how to handle it). I only have good memories, and I regret only one thing.
   We also had great Christmasses with loads of presents.

   The trouble with that last thought is that, alongside trying to recreate those 'perfect Christmasses', I can't stop at buying just one good gift for everyone. And my younger sister, who has very little money and two kids, is trying to give them the same kind of Christmasses we had, and she can't afford it. So she cuts immense corners in order to do so, rather than create her own Christmasses.

Is It So Bad?
   No. It isn't - as long as you don't let that obsession get in the way. I still try to make plans with everyone in my address book, but I'm lucky that I have such a small family and friends I can count on one hand because I have few gifts to buy and few plans to make. But I still make those plans because I want to soak up every ounce of Christmas, and because I need the escape from the stress of my business. As much as I love the work and love the thought that most of what I make through November and December will be given as gifts, it can quickly get on top of me. I'm not used to large volumes of orders, so I kind of fall apart come mid-November.
   But trying desperately to fit those plans in around other matters - especially a few things Seeg and I are going through this year thanks to Brexit that are more than simply 'getting in the way' - isn't the way to go. And neither is obsessing over not having 'enough' gifts for each individual person.

Take The Pressure Off
   For a lot of people, family is non-negotiable. They have to gather, and should someone decide to give it a miss one year, a few relatives may well take it as an offence. Well, if you need a small Christmas, take it, don't worry about causing people imagined insults, but if you do all get together and you're the host, rather than trying to plan games and events, take it one step at a time. Everyone visiting is just as stressed as you, and sometimes all they all really want is to sit down with some hot chocolate or mulled wine and have a catch-up. No fancy canapĂ©s, no copious amounts of booze or Christmas music - try to keep it simple. Make sure it's about the company.
   Christmas shopping fills so many with dread. My advice is to make use of the internet. If you're venturing out of the house, make an event of it, don't make it all about gifts, and if there's something in particular you want to get someone, buy it online and use click and collect - you're guaranteed to find it, beat the crowds and avoid delivery fees, but you can still browse for funsies while you're there. Alternatively, you could skip the shopping centres altogether and go online. I only head out to shopping centres once and that's just to look at decorations and soak up some festive feels. And, I won't lie, for the free chocolates in Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat while I'm there picking up things for our advent calendars.
   Christmas food - keep it simple, and make what you can in advance. Look to spices and seasonal produce rather than fancy meats - a lot of the time, it tastes the same. But yo can seriously dress up the same turkey you have every year with a new sauce, stuffing or spice rub. Cooking can even be theraputic, and even more so when you're not cooking to a deadline laid down by grumbling bellies. Make sauces, canapĂ©s, sides and desserts early and, for goodness sake, make use of your freezer.
   Christmas traditions and rituals - Christmas will still be Christmas without them. Even just skipping one can take the weight off your shoulders and make the whole holiday seem smoother and easier because you'll have broken the stressful cycle. You'll realise Christmas can still be 'perfect' without it.
   Christmas may be a time to gather and be social and you're reminded more often to think of others, but don't forget to take time for yourself. Try to pencil in some workouts, be it HIIT, yoga or even just a walk. The endorphins released during any kind of exercise are faster-acting and longer-lasting than food or alcohol. Or perhaps try a lovely festive bath with some fancy Lush products. I always take one after my last post-run of the season to celebrate the end of my work year.

   But most importantly this festive season: enjoy yourself. Don't let the magical time of year, with all the lights, tinsel and marvellous spices on the air, become tainted by papercuts, an over-flowing to-do list and debt. Because, in the end, it's just one day, a few weeks, a month, depending on how you want to look at it, and the more work you put into it, the higher the expectations of Christmas and the greater the opportunity for disappointment.
   Make each Christmas new - don't try to recreate what never existed. Make new memories and enjoy the run-up as much as the event itself.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Mini Skinny Mince Pies

  Oooh it's December in two days!! Much excite! I mean, I know my blog has been getting kind of festive already, with winter spice chocolate porridge and lots of gift guides, but I've been kind of restraining myself. Christmas music doesn't happen until my advent calendar opens, movies and decorations don't happen until around the 7th, and Christmas wrapping under the Christmas lights with Christmas movies and a box of chocolates until the Monday before. Wrapping day is one of my favourites...
   Of course, I'm kind of lucky. With Seeg being Dutch, I have Sinterklaas on December 5th. Yes, it's 'for the kids', but I am a kid at this time of the year so I'll take it. I get one present, we watch a movie, eat kruidnoten and perhaps a chocolate letter. I love it.

   But while it may still be November, I'm sharing another Christmas recipe, and after my mini & healthy Christmas puddings on Monday, made with only 4 ingredients, you must have guessed that mini mince pies would be next! I love mince pies so very much more than Christmas puds, but while I am happy to eat them from the store, it certainly doesn't hurt to make some of them yourself, and make them both cleaner and smaller. It's kinder to the waistline. Also, they're freaking cute.

   Truly, you could make any mince pie recipe 'mini' - I've been using a petit four tin rather than pastry cases or a cupcake/muffin tin - but making them 'skinny' is just as important here. And 'skinny' refers to lower fat and lower sugar. The pastry contains no added sugar, uses half-yogurt half-butter rather than full butter, and while I opted to use pre-made mince pie filling (Meridian - organic and no added sugar), it's easy peasy squeeze the lemons to make your own at home without adding any nasties.
   There's also no need to worry about making more than you need - mince pie filling can be stored in the fridge for a few weeks and used in other dishes, and the pastry can be frozen for up to 1 month. There's no need to use everything up, which means less over-eating and less waste.
   And these, like my mini Christmas puds, also make great healthy Christmas canapĂ©s.

   This recipe makes about 150g of pastry dough, which in turn makes 12-15 mince pies. I only made 6 (guess where the 6th went) and was left with a little over half of the dough, which I froze.

Makes 150g pastry; 12-15 pies
85g unbleached flour
40g butter
40g yogurt
1/2 tbsp cold water
pinch salt
mince pie filling

1. Set the flour and the butter in separate ceramic dishes and put in the freezer for 20 minutes.

2. Mix the water, yogurt and salt together and set in the fridge for 20 minutes

3. Combine the cold butter and flour in a bowl and rub together to make crumbs.

4. Using a spatula, pour the yogurt mix into the crumbs, mixing as you pour, until it all comes together into a well-incorporated ball of dough.

5. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight. At this point, you can also freeze the dough, and it will keep for a month.

6. Preheat the oven to 190 C/375 F/gas mark 5.

7. Take a petit fours tray and dust the cavities with flour.

8. Dust a work surface with flour and roll the chilled dough to about 3mm thick. Using a 7cm scalloped scone cutter, cut circles from the dough and set them in the tray. I've made these countless times and they all average at 13g a piece.

9. Spoon your mince pie filling in until satisfied. I went a teensy bit overboard and it came to 20g of filling per pie.

10. Cut a small 2.5cm star for the top piece, which weighs about 2g, and put it on top. I also used a snowflake texture from a cookie stamp on mine.

11. Set on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until browning.

• For the pastry, I used: Doves Farm organic white bread flour, Stork 70% vegetable spread & Yeo Valley natural yogurt.
• For the filling, I used: Meridian's organic mince pie filling.
• You can make your own mince pie filling or use a store bought version. I chose Meridian because it was cheaper than buying in all the individual ingredients, but it also has nothing artificial and no added sugar, sweetened instead with apple and molasses.
• I used a Wilton petit fours tin.

Per 35g pie: 110 cals, 3.5g fat, 17.25g carbs, 0.4g fibre, 1.6g protein
15g Pastry (13g base, 2g top): 57 cals, 3g fat, 6g carbs, 0.4g fibre, 1.3g protein
20g Meridian Filling: 53 cals, 0.5g fat, 11.25g carbs, 0.3g protein

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

How To Beat Winter Weight Gain

   With the season of mince pies, hot chocolates, biscuit tins and 'I'll just have one' almost upon us, it's inevitable that we're going to gain a few pounds. That's just part of Christmas, right? Food is a part of every culture, and we're lucky enough to live in a part of the world where it's abundant enough that temptation can become a problem.
   Christmas is my very favourite time of the year, and food is part of that. And with Seeg's birthday in December and my own in early January, it's an even greater season of celebration. And, of course, food comes into that, too.
   So you'd think I'd gain a fair bit of weight through December-January. But I don't. And no, it's not because I exercise like crazy or starve myself or turn down every indulgence that turns my way. In fact I eat a little more freely and exercise no more than usual. Instead, I follow a few simple rules and manage to indulge, enjoy the season, and gain absolutely nothing. In fact, I've been known to lose weight over Christmas. And there's no voodoo, magic or 'fat loss' supplements involved.

Rule 1: Exercise Smart.

   I said that I exercise no more than usual over Christmas than any other time of the year, and that's true. I may spend an extra 10 minutes on it by throwing a little more cardio onto the end, but I'm still only at it for about half an hour a day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and about 45 minutes on a Saturday. My secret is simple: compound resistance training. Why? Because the work your muscles go through in such a workout burn many calories, but those calories keep burning after your workout because they need to repair and your body to recover, whereas with cardio, you only burn calories while actually doing it.
   I usually opt for a Jillian Michaels DVD because she's brutal and effective, but it's never just any DVD. In December 2015 I used Killer Body, which consisted of 3 30-minute workouts, all of which utilised the whole body with compound moves - using mutliple muscle groups at once, like a squat and shoulder press at the same time, to burn more calories - while putting the emphasis on a particular area of the body. As such, one workout prioritised the lower body, another the upper, and another the core. It was intense, but it was amazing, and by prioritising different areas of the body on certain days, recovery came easily and I didn't suffer from weak or semi-healed muscles on the next workout, which meant I wasn't held back.
   I didn't gain a thing that Christmas - in fact I lost weight - and it was so effective that I used the same set-up in 2016, but rather than use Killer Body, I used two separate DVDs - Killer Buns & Thighs and Killer Arms & Back - in the same system as the year before. This meant, however, that I had 3 lower body and 3 upper body focused workouts to choose from that, true to any Jillian Michaels workout, still used compound moves. It really shook it up and kept it from getting stale.
   And with 30 minutes of resistance work, it's easy to add 10-15 minutes of bonus cardio onto the end of the workout as a finisher. It takes about 20 minutes for a body to use all the energy stored in the muscles (glycogen) before it begins burning fat for fuel instead, and if you spent those 20 minutes doing resistance, you won't be exhausted at all. So if you start doing cardio at the 20 or 30 minute mark, you'll get greater fat burn than if you'd only done cardio for the same total amount of time.
   I'll be doing this again this December, returning to Jillian Michaels' Killer Body as in 2015 (and I'll remember to write a DVD review this time around!).

Rule 2: Ask Yourself: 'Is It Worth It?'

   Yes, I'm talking about sweet treats here, and no I'm not talking about 'look at all that sugar'. I'm talking primarily about taste, then all the bad stuff.
   I can't resist a mince pie, and will often take one - one - when offered, eat it slowly and really savour it. But when I'm offered something else, something I'm unsure about or something from a brand I'm not keen on - or perhaps something I don't really like at all, like a cherry bakewell - rather than say 'go on, it's Christmas', I'll ask myself if it will be worth it. As an example, I don't like typical cheese cakes. If I'm offered even a small slice at Christmas, I decline. Because it isn't worth it - it doesn't taste good enough to be worth the all the sugar. Or perhaps a small pork pie - I like pork pies, but if it's a plain one, as nice as they are, I turn it down. If, however, it's pork and pickle, I say yes in a heartbeat. Because they're better, and it's only one. Taking a moment to consider the offering rather than take it without a thought means that I can still enjoy the things I love, the foods that make Christmas, without the guilt. Because every time I say 'no', I feel better in myself for not giving in, for not eating something I didn't really want - and it means that when something really good comes along, I absolutely can have it because I declined everything else.
   I do this outside of Christmas, and while it does mean that I don't necessarily have dessert with everyone else (though my portion never goes to waste), it also means that the chocolate and dessert I do have is oh so delicious and undeniably worth it. Did I tell you I have a running subscription to Hotel Chocolat's Tasting Club, delivered every 2 months?

Rule 3: Don't Skip Meals.

   In short: eat your breakfast, lunch and dinner as you usually would. Don't cut them out so you can have more junk food later on, instead try to make them more festive - apple spiced porridge for breakfast, a parsnip and chestnut soup for lunch, a lovely Christmassy quiche for dinner. It can be something to look forward to. I myself am a breakfast enthusiast!
   I like to collect up Christmas recipes for wonderful dinners and experiment with seasonal variations of my favourite breakfasts.
   Otherwise, my point is this: skipping meals does not help you to lose weight. It's a simple science: food is fuel, and you need fuel to function. If you skip meals, your body will be declined top quality fuel and its need will keep climbing, until you reach for something unhealthy - perhaps something you don't really want or like - because you're so hungry. This also generally leads to over-eating and thoughtless eating. Instead, make sure you get a good breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also, it takes little for your body to go into starvation mode - just skipping one meal, a point of the day when your body has come to expect fuel, can cause your metabolism to drop, and that actually leads your body to cling on to the fat and ration the energy it does have. Because your body isn't your brain; it doesn't know why you haven't eaten, and so, to keep you alive and functioning through what could be, as far as it's concerned, the beginning of a famine, it slows down what it can, including your brain power and concentration, to keep the necessary things running smoothly. And those rations will become tighter and your body and mind more fatigued the longer it goes on.

Rule 4: Snack Smart.

   Just like breakfast, lunch and dinner can be made festive, seasonal and enjoyable, so can healthy snacks. Take a look at Graze, with their mince pie flapjacks and speculoos dippers (speculoos/speculaas is a spice mix usually used around Christmas and Sinterklaas in Belgium and The Netherlands), or at Nakd's Christmas pudding fruit bars, or any number of homemade seasonal recipes that are healthier than you think, like my Christmas chestnut bites, Speculaas Christmas smoothie, 4-ingredient mini Christmas puddings or mini skinny mince pies. Looking out for and stocking up on healthy snacks with a Christmas twist can keep you away from the bad things without denying the Christmas flavours, and also means that, if you turned down a mince pie because the brand you were offered always had bad pastry or used too much or too little spice, then you can have a mince pie flapjack without having to bargain for it.
   I always make a big purchase from the Graze store late November to make sure I'm stocked up on healthy but delicious goodies throughout the coming month, and as punnets come in multipacks of six, just five or six different snacks will see me right through, as well as a single box of Christmas pudding Nakd bars and a few packets of anything else I might happen upon. I never go hungry, and I never miss out on the Christmas flavours even while eating healthily. No junk, and yet no compromise!
   That said, I always pencil in a few rather severe indulgences, and my favourite is a whole 8-piece box of Hotel Chocolat chocolates on the day I do all my Christmas wrapping. Because I love wrapping presents, and I always make an event of it, with lights, hot chocolate or mulled wine (or my preferred Belvoir non-alcoholic winter punch) and Christmas movies on in the background, and knock it all out in one afternoon. A whole box of chocolates is part of that. But, while Hotel Chocolat is decadent, their ingredients are also top-quality and there's low sugar in their chocolate, so it's not actually as bad as it could be. That's what I tell myself, anyway...

Rule 5: Drink Water.

   Your body has a hard time telling the difference between thirst and hunger, so they manifest in the same empty gurgling. It's a sound rule regardless of the time of year: if you feel hungry, drink a glass of water. If, after 20-30 minues, you're still hungry, then eat something. If you're not, don't - and if this is the case, you won't even notice because the water will have done its job. It will keep you full, prevent food cravings and phantom hunger.
   But water also helps to metabolise your food - it's needed in every chemical reaction in your body, so keeping hydrated, especially if you're eating more, will help to digest as well as flush out the toxins from junk food and alcohol. And dehydration is also likely to be the cause of bloating and retaining water. Just as how under-eating encourages your body to cling on to fat, if you don't drink enough, your body holds on to all the water it can so it can make the necessary chemical reactions. So be sure to drink 2 litres a day - about one glass every 1.5 to 2 hours.

Rule 6: Remember That It's Christmas.

   Which basically means don't beat yourself up if you do say 'yes' a few too many times, if you miss a workout because you had plans with friends or family, if you do miss a meal because you've been rushed off your feet. It happens. And in many cases it's good - except the last one, but if you do end up devouring a chocolate bar or a few biscuits on the go instead of a sandwich or hearty bowl of soup, so be it. It's Christmas.

   These rules have seen me through two incredible Christmasses, where I've never missed out, never over-exercised, and yet never gained a thing. And they're such easy rules that anyone can follow them! And any compound resistance workout will do, be it HIIT, body weight resistance, kettlebells or Jillian Michaels - and you can find loads of these workouts for free online and on youtube. No excuses!

   Oh, but, as far as Christmas day goes, I break every one of these rules. Because it's my favourite day of the year, and mindless indulgence on chocolate and mince pies for just one day hasn't done me any harm yet. It's part of our culture, and I work hard and eat well every other day of the year. Even on my birthday I dress up healthy meals to give them a birthday twist. Christmas Day is my day off. I earned it, and I love it.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Clean & Healthy 4-Ingredient Mini Christmas Puds

   Christmas isn't really a time to eat healthily. And, let's be honest, who wants to? But all the mince pies and chocolate will catch up to you eventually, which is why I always amp up my workouts over December and January, which I'll go into in greater detail in tomorrow's 'How To Beat Winter Weight Gain' post without having to sacrifice festivities.
   But one way to offset the goodies is with a few healthier alternatives.
   Don't roll your eyes. Think about it. Why do we eat these delicous things at Christmas? Is it because we want to eat full fat food? Or because we want to eat more sugar? Or less protein? No, it's because we want the taste! And it's possible to get those tastes without making your waistline suffer.

   So, the first of my healthy Christmas snacks: 4-ingredient healthy Christmas puddings which are gluten-free, to boot!

   With a foundation of dates (think caramel and sticky toffee), chestnut flour for added sweetness without moisture, protein powder and mixed spice, you can have your Christmas cake and eat it, too!

   Like a bite of sticky toffee pudding with a festive spice & chestnut twist, gentle baking dries out the surfaces, making them easy to handle and giving them a slight crunch on the outside while still soft, chewy and slightly doughy inside. If, however, you'd prefer raw Christmas puddings, just omit the water from the recipe and don't put them in the oven. They're stickier and the spices don't come out quite as well, but they're still very good.

   The recipe is easy to increase for making healthy Christmas canapĂ©s, or you could increase the recipe by 4 and make a single full-sized Christmas pudding to serve more traditionally.

Makes 4 mini Christmas puds
15 pitted dates (about 45g)
20g protein powder*
25g chestnut flour
1/2 tsp mixed spice
Optional: 1-2 tbsp water
Optional: chestnut puree*
*See notes

1. Put the dates in a blender or food processor and blitz for about 30 seconds.

2. Add the protein powder, chestnut flour and spices and blend until combined. It will take a while and look very, very dry - so much so that the flour just isn't mixing. Give it time, and stop every 30-60 seconds to scrap down the sides of the machine. Eventually it'll turn into combined crumbs.

3. Remove the crumbs and transfer into a bowl with 1 tbsp of water and mix with a spoon. Add more water if necessary until you get a paste/dough.

4. Heat the oven to 180 C/350 F/gas mark 4.

5. Remove the paste and transfer onto a sheet of clingfilm, cover and begin to shape into a bar.

6. Transfer the bar onto a sheet of parchment on a baking tray and cook for 5 minutes.

7. Remove the bar from the oven and turn it over - roll it over on the parchment and carefully peel it away from the base so its underside is facing up. Heat for another 5 minutes.

8. Remove and cut into 4 pieces. Reshape into cubes if necessary. Set them on the parchment and put back in the oven for 5 minutes.

9. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

10. Transfer some chestnut purée into a piping bag with an icing nozzle and squeeze a little on top of each. Add any additional decorations and serve.

• I used Pulsin whey powder here, but I used hemp in last year's chestnut bites.
• I used Merchant Gourmet chestnut purĂ©e.
• You can always sweeten the purĂ©e with a little bit of sugar, mixing to combine then transferring to a piping bag rather than using it straight from the packet.
• I put the puds on a set of electronic scales, set it to 0 and piped the purĂ©e with zeal and disregard.
• Checking once I'd finished, across all 4 of the puds, the weight increased by only 11g. So it's safe to assume that the below nutritional info for 10g of chestnut purĂ©e will actually be perfect for this recipe.
• I decorated them with a few Wilton holly sprinkles. The purĂ©e, at least without sugar, isn't sticky, so the decorations need a little more care when applying. You could also use powdered sugar for 'snow', or chestnut flour, as the flour is sweeter than the purĂ©e.

Per 1 piece without purée:
75 cals, 0.75g fat (0.2g sat), 11.5g carbs (8.5g sugar*), 1g fibre, 5g protein
*naturally occurring sugars
Chestnut purée per 10g (over all 4 puds)
10 cals, 0.2g fat, 1.7g carbs (0.4g sugar), 0.2g fibre, 0.3g protein