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 canapés, 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, canapés, 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 canapés.

   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.



Ingredients
Makes 150g pastry; 10-12 pies
85g unbleached flour
30g butter
30g yogurt
1/2 tbsp cold water
pinch salt
mince pie filling


Method
1. Combine the flour and the butter in a bowl and mix until they form crumbs.

2. Add the yogurt and water slowly, mixing as you add, and combine until it forms a well-incorporated ball of dough.

3. 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.

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

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

6. 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.

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

8. 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.

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


Notes
• 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.


Nutrition
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.

http://www.ablackbirdsepiphany.co.uk/2017/10/fig-chocolate-porridge-autumn-in-bowl.html

   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.

http://www.ablackbirdsepiphany.co.uk/2015/12/ginger-spice-cake-houses.html

   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 canapés, or you could increase the recipe by 4 and make a single full-sized Christmas pudding to serve more traditionally.


Ingredients:
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

Method:
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.

Notes
• I used Pulsin whey powder here, but I used hemp in last year's chestnut bites.
• I used Merchant Gourmet chestnut purée.
• You can always sweeten the purée 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 purée 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 purée will actually be perfect for this recipe.
• I decorated them with a few Wilton holly sprinkles. The purée, 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 purée.

Nutritional
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





Sunday, 26 November 2017

Hotel Chocolat Winter Spice Christmas Porridge

   December is right around the corner. Tomorrow I'm wrapping the chocolates for our advent calendars - a whole bunch of selectors from Hotel Chocolat - I've already been out to Whitehall garden centre and dribbled over all the decorations and met a few reindeer, and I've got plans this week for a historical day out with my lovely Lucy and some mince pies. My Christmas shopping is just about done, and my thoughts are turning at last to the more frivolous side of Christmas. I even have my eye on a gorgeous green dress.

   But I've given myself permission to get festive a little early, and along with making some skinny Christmas favourites, I also couldn't resist using Hotel Chocolat's winter spice hot chocolate I told you all about last week in a porridge. After all, all that really separates a hot chocolate from hot porridge is oats!


   I didn't use a full 35g serving of the chocolate flakes because, y'know, it's breakfast, but the 20g I used turned out to be more than enough. I could have gotten away with less - in fact, if I make it again, I'll just use 15g and that'll re-balance the servings in the tub. Maths. But the spices of the hot chocolate shavings still come through really well, and are more subtle than when made as a beverage.
   The porridge is quite simple, as they always are, and the flavour and sweetness all comes entirely from the chocolate. No need for honey or stevia here! And if you're wondering if it's going to be sickly sweet, it isn't. The tiny chocolate snowflake I added on top was close, but it also served to point out how breakfast-appropriate the sweetness of the porridge itself is.

   I garnished it with 1 snowflake from a Hotel Chocolat tree decoration, which contains 3 at 20 cals a piece, and a sprinkling of Aduna cacao powder and some chocolate shavings. Because Christmas and chocolate.

http://www.ablackbirdsepiphany.co.uk/2017/11/hotel-chocolat-winter-spice-hot.html

Ingredients
30g rolled oats
20g whey protein powder
125ml boiled water
125ml skimmed milk


Method
1. Combine oats and protein in a pan and mix thoroughly. Add the freshly boiled water and the milk and stir over a medium heat.

2. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer for 5 minutes.

3. Stir in the Hotel Chocolat flakes until melted.

4. Remove from heat and serve.


Notes
• I used 20g Pulsin Premium Whey
• 20g of chocolate can be reduced to about 15g - if in doubt, start at 10g and add a little more to your own taste.


Nutrition
Based on 20g Pulsin whey & 20g Hotel Chocolat, minus snowflake
313 cals, 6g fat, 37g carbs (6g natural sugar, 5g in chocolate), 29.5g protein





Saturday, 25 November 2017

Fitness Christmas Gift Guide

   I'm a fitness nut - big secret - and so naturally, fitness-related gifts will always be well-received. But I never get any unless I drop huge hints, and I figure it's because no one knows what to get me. Think about it. Water bottle, towel, trainers. Those are the basics. Then perhaps some sweat bands, which no one actually uses.
   Well, there's a lot more than that, and things many fitness freaks would love, and even need. And if they have it, it could probably do with being replaced. So I put together this fitness gift guide to make your life easier, and the fitness junkie on your Christmas list happy.



1 - Fitty London fitness subscription box
2 - Fabletics rose gold capris (UK sizes 6-30)
3 - S'Well Calcutta Gold water bottle
4 - Hey Holla HIIT Squad gym gift box
5 - Aerial Silks class for beginners
6 - Optiat post-gym shower scrub in mandarin
7 - Yogi-Bare Starry Sky yoga mat
8 - BarreAmped Strengthen & Stretch DVD
9 - My Protein Christmas products
10 - Fitness Mad Foam Roller
11 - Sugar Plum Toesox




Friday, 24 November 2017

Etsy Favourites

Food. It's one of my favourite things about Christmas. I eat well all year round with the promise of Christmas goodies at the end, and while I don't go crazy, I made damned sure that what I do eat is worth every crumb. And when goodies are made by hand in small batches you can guarantee perfection, and lots of bits of chocolate. No more disappointing 'chocolate chip' cookies with 3 little specks! So I gathered some of my favourite UK food sellers on Etsy - and having purchased the cake pops and yule log truffles myself just last year, I can highly recommend them for taste and aesthetics!


https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/472820426/christmas-cake-pops-christmas-gifts?ref=shop_home_active_1 https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/254670180/christmas-chocolate-cake-truffle-festive?ref=shop_home_feat_3
https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/561326763/christmas-spiced-tea-loose-leaf-spiced?ref=shop_home_active_2 https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/570564413/speciality-vintage-blend-hand-roasted?ref=shop_home_active_1
https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/568121581/winter-spice-gourmet-marshmallows https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/555740854/mince-pie-fudge?ref=shop_home_active_4


Popalicious Christmas cake pops   ♥   Mini Christmas Yule Log truffles
Christmas spiced tea   ♥   Steep Street chocolate & caramel coffee
Winter spice marshmallows   ♥   Mince Pie fudge


https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/84697662/book-flower-ring-book-lover-gift-for-her?ref=shop_home_active_15


It may not be edible but cocktail rings are always winners, and this book flower ring will voicelessly express your passion for books, be they classics like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice, or much-loved fantasy like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

Custom requests are always accepted - and I have necklaces and earrings, too!






Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Myth of the Wild Black Friday Sale

    Oooh it's that time again! I love Black Friday, but this year I haven't really held much interest. I usually wait until this time to buy some of the more expensive gifts on my shopping list, but most of those came from overseas this year, and I learned (over the course of a few years) not to wait for Black Friday to make overseas purchases for Christmas because they really could not arrive in time. Those few that weren't were from shops that I've learned don't do Black Friday, so I bought them early. But as far as goodies for me go, there are a few shops I love that do participate, and I can't wait - I'm keeping my eye fixed close!

   As for my Etsy shop, Black Friday can be a challenge. The trouble with Black Friday as a small handmade business is that I, like many other Etsy sellers, can't compete with high street stores, so I could never afford to offer 75% off of my products. In fact, it's pretty measly. This year I can only afford to offer 20% off as I've already dropped my prices in a bid to do better this season than last Christmas, but I am also offering free worldwide shipping, and I always like to give out free gifts with every order over the Black Friday period, so there's 3 reasons to shop with Myth of the Wild this week!

20% off, free worldwide shipping & free gifts!


https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/MythOfTheWild?coupon=ETSYBF17

   I'm using Etsy's sale feature this year, so the 20% off has already been applied to almost everything in the shop. The only things ineligible (complete collection and gift set listings, as they're already discounted) have already been removed from the sale, so there's no confusion at all.
   Free shipping, however, is a coupon, but that makes it more exclusive - only blog readers, facebook fans and twitter followers will see it! Just apply the code ETSYBF17, (or follow that link, which automatically applies it in case you forget) at checkout for free shipping on all orders worldwide and domestic, no exclusions. Valid from November 20th to November 28th.

Happy Christmas Shopping!



Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Hotel Chocolat Winter Spice Hot Chocolate Review

   If you've been with me for even a month, you'll know I'm a huge tea drinker. It's rare that I'll drink anything else - just a glass of kefir milk every morning, and a water bottle with my workout (which I make sure I always polish off). Otherwise, I drink a variety of teas every day, and green is easily my best. But even when it's black tea, I'll never add milk or sugar. I drink my tea black - or green, or white, or red.
   My point is, I never drink my calories.
   Until, of course, there's a distant ringing of sleigh bells.


   Come Christmas, my diet changes, as does my workout (25 minutes of resistance followed by additional 15-20 of kickboxing, 4 days a week, has been my guaranteed Christmas-proof plan for the past 2 years), and that means that I start broadening my beverages. But, as I don't drink alcohol either beyond a little bit of Buck's Fizz through the festive season, there is only one beverage that takes centre-stage as a Christmas treat: hot chocolate.
   My best friend has told me that she's become a hot chocolate snob, and I don't blame her. If you don't have it often, you want to make sure it's worth every slurp when you do. Yes, that means it can be decadent, but all the more reason to take it in moderation, and to enjoy it all the more.
   I have the same relationship with chocolate, and my go-to brand for the past 2 years has been Hotel Chocolat. Why? Because there's nothing artificial, and the cocoa content in their chocolate is very high - which means less sugar, and more of those health- and mood-boosting effects of chocolate. Even their white chocolate is around 40% cocoa (to put that in perspective, most generic milk chocolate contains only about 25% cocoa).
   So, when Hotel Chocolat released their festive hot chocolates, naturally I had to have a bucket mug.


    Hotel Chocolat's Winter Spice hot chocolate boasts over 50% of cocoa per 35g serving - without being dark chocolate - and its gorgeous flavour, riddled with Christmas spices, is both perfectly present and scintillatingly subtle. It's not overpowering in the least, and remains hot chocolate rather than a cup of hot spices.
   Unlike most hot chocolate, Hotel Chocolat's hot chocolates aren't powdered. They're chocolate shavings. But if you'd have bad experiences with those hot chocolate spoons - chunks of chocolate (or literal chocolate spoons) swirled into a mug of hot milk that didn't melt properly or even became gritty - there is no such problem here. The method is simple: heat 200-250ml of your preferred milk in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring gently until it begins to steam. Remove from the heat and add 35g of chocolate (about 6 heaped teaspoons), stir it in and then return to the heat, stirring continuously and gently again until the chocolate has fully (or more or less) melted. Pour into your favourite mug and top however you wish. I just sprinkled a few more shavings (and a touch of cacao powder) on top and it was wonderful. But, of course, you can try to recreate Hotel Chocolat's café hot chocolates with thick double cream and a chocolate snowflake - but I'm saving that indulgence for a little closer to Christmas.


   As far as nutrition goes, Hotel Chocolat's hot chocolate is better than pretty much every other on the market, and I truly mean that. Beyond the taste and texture, there are also no artificial ingredients, flavours, sweeteners etc. It's a guilt-free guilty indulgence.
   At 101 calories per 100ml made up with skimmed milk, the calorie maths is easy (not that calorie counting matters when you're having a little indulgence, especially when you consider the fact that there is a huge difference between 200 calories of cake and 200 calories of fruit smoothie). I've made this with whole milk (64 calories per 100ml) and skimmed milk (35 calories per 100ml - due to the lack of fat, but of course that lack of fat means there's also less nutritional goodness), and while the whole milk hot chocolate was expectedly thicker, the skimmed milk chocolate was still delightful.

   I highly recommend Hotel Chocolat as a Christmas cupboard staple. It's higher quality in taste and texture than any other hot chocolate, and comes without any artificial nasties whatsoever. No compromises - you get what you didn't know you lacked. It's true that, at £9, Hotel Chocolat Winter Spice hot chocolate isn't cheap, but if it was cheap, you'd drink it all the time, right? Then it wouldn't be much of a treat anymore!



Monday, 20 November 2017

Spiced Chestnut Canvas Cake

   Oh yes, that's right, chestnuts again. But how could I leave out a canvas cake? What's good enough for porridge is good enough for a canvas cake. Most of the time. I say that because I have an idea for a porridge that I don't think will translate well into a canvas cake, but I will try!
   For more of my present chestnut obsession, see my nutmeg chestnut porridge and my parsnip chestnut soup!

   I'm buzzing for Christmas, and this canvas cake is my first festive attempt. It's subtle in flavour and sweetness - I usually only use half a sachet of stevia because my favoured honey yogurt is usually sweet enough - but the Christmas element cannot be denied. Unless someone asks if you're eating Christmas for breakfast, in which case you say no, just chestnuts. Just chestnuts...


   I used the basic canvas cake recipe with the addition of 20g Merchant Gourmet chestnut purée and 1/4 teaspoon of mixed spice, topped with half a pot of Yeo Valley fat-free Greek yogurt with honey, 1 roasted chestnut and 1/4 of an apple cut into pieces and baked.

Spiced Chestnut Mug Cake:
238 calories, 6.3g fat, 20.25g carbs, 7g fibre, 26g protein
Break-Down
Cake + chestnut purée: 150 calories, 3.3g fat, 6g carbs, 5.5g fibre, 22g protein
50g Yogurt: 50 calories, 0g fat, 7g carbs, 4g protein
Toppings:
  - 1 roasted chestnut, approximately 8g: 20 calories, 3g carbs, 0.5g fibre
  - 1/4 baked apple pieces: 18 calories, 4.25g carbs, 1g fibre





Sunday, 19 November 2017

FitFlow Max - 2 Weeks Later

   Ohh it burns. I've been using FitFlow Max for two weeks now, and it hurts so good. I've used all five of the videos, and while core & stretch and yoga fitflow are the two easiest, they aren't to be sniffed at at all.
   It is a little strange, though. There's no music. But while I thought that would be a problem, it actually isn't. Briohny and MacKenzie keep your attention with their chatter - but I stress immediately that it isn't irritating or mindless chatter. It's actually immensely friendly, and as odd as it is, I really felt like part of the class. I concentrated more on what I was doing, which was too tough for calm music to be suitable, and too controlled for energetic music. Really, I don't quite think any music would work with it. It's actually turned out to be quite enjoyable.


   My workout set-up has me using the lower body, upper body and total body on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with weights and kickboxing on Saturday.
   The upper/lower/total body workouts consist of circuits repeated three times on each side of your body, and they get faster as you go along. But while I was on the first circuit and thinking to myself "I can't do this for half an hour!", I actually found it easier with every set. Crazy, but true. And oh so wonderful. Especially as someone who is good a yoga, as far as the lowest end of intermediate is considered. I usually use yoga as a means of active recovery, so it's not often that I change up a yoga sequence, unlike my workouts, and neither am I often challenged by it. I had expected to be challenged this time, of course - I wouldn't have chosen it as a workout to dedicate my month to if I didn't - and so far I'm not disappointed.
   That said, though, total body was the biggest challenge, with more balance and grace required than in the others, but it's also highlighted areas I can improve on and it gives me a lot of room to grow. Moving from a half moon into an upright leg extension without that foot brushing the floor...well, it isn't easy at any pace.


   As for the core & stretch and the yoga fitflow videos, I alternated them on Tuesdays.
   I don't usually like to exercise on an empty stomach - if I do, it's simple yoga or, if I'm feeling daring, Pilates, because neither take much energy to do. Or, at least, there's no jumping about involved. But even then it's usually a Friday morning when I have the day off and get up much later. It's never a Tuesday morning at 7am before the sun has even risen. In fact, Tuesday is usually one of my rest days. But I did it, and I loved it. I'm a morning person - I can get up early, before dawn, and sit quite happily at my computer getting my day in order, and generally get on with my exercise at about 9:30. But knowing I had yoga - even if it was a tougher version than my usual yoga, though even then I alternated between the easier two  - I found it easy to do early and empty, and actually quite rewarding, watching the sky slowly brighten as I go. I'm hoping to make a habit of it next month, when it's even darker in the mornings and most definitely when we put the Christmas lights up. Yes, glow-yoga is something that caught my eye long ago, but as a full-time carer, classes aren't possible.

   The HIIT element is present - not as extreme as I'd hoped, but about what I'd expected. You can only do so much with yoga. Most of the HIIT is in the upper, lower and total body workouts, and come from cardio intervals and speeding up the circuits. There is more room and opportunity to raise your heart rate in FitFlow Max than there is in typical yoga workouts.

   So, it's been a pretty good couple of weeks so far, and nice to get up in the morning to an easier, smoother workout than what I usually subject myself to. Of course, that will all change on December 4th, so I'm really making the most of it while I can.



Saturday, 18 November 2017

Gamer Christmas Gift Guide


   I love video games. A writer I may be, but video games are my preferred form of entertainment. A good game is like a book in movie form, with interaction. The stories are long and can take days to play through if you do so religiously, which is the same as dedicating a few days to reading a book cover to cover. But it's visual, audio; you can lose yourself in the world so easily, and yet still really get to know the characters like you would in a book. Movies don't do that, they're too short. Many TV shows leave a lot to be desired, too. But a good fantasy game, with a whole new world, new elements, new creatures and cultures, it can suck you out of your troubles like a book can, with the addition of being able to truly see the intent within the settings. And you avoid narratives, which can drone on sometimes.
   Seeg is an avid gamer, and one of my absolute favourite pass times is actually watching him play games. He will never play through the story if I'm not there, so we experience it together. I've not played on Assassin's Creed game, but I've seen every single one of them played through at least once. I have played Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls Oblivion & Skyrim, as well as part of The Witcher (my favourite game of all time, despite being unfinished by my own hand; I've watched Seeg play it 3 times through).
   So, naturally, game-related and fantasy gifts are at the top of both of our lists, even if we don't know what we want. We always get each other something, be it t-shirts, figurines, replicas or themed household stuff.
   I didn't put this gamer gift guide together to give myself, or him, any ideas. We don't need them. I did it for fun, and hopefully it'll help the uninitiated get some Christmas gift ideas for the gamer on their Christmas list. For him, and for her.




1. Legend of Zelda Sheikah Eye light-up canvas
2. Legend of Zelda Korok terrarium necklace
3. Destiny 2 scented candles & Ghost candle holder
4. Destiny 2 Guardian's Light bathrobe
5. Mass Effect N7 armour & vinyl detail cowl hoodie
6. World of Warcraft Nightmare Whelpling plush
7. The Witcher 3 Geralt of Rivia statuette
8. Fallout, The Board Game
9. Star Wars Droid KeepCups reusable travel cups
10. World of Warcraft & Wild Bangarang Illidan leggings

For a variety of gamer stocking fillers, check out Merchoid!



Friday, 17 November 2017

Etsy Favourites

Decorations are one of my favourite parts of Christmas. I go out just to look at the displays in shops and windows. I'm odd like that.
The trouble with Christmas displays, though, is that they look gorgeous when they're all set up and curated together. They have to. That's how they sell it. But when you buy the pretties and take them home, they never look as good, because you didn't buy everything else along with it. It can be a little disappointing. Fortunately, I figured that out and don't fall for it anymore, instead it's a free day out. Until you count stumbling into chocolate shops. Anyone else noticed they have a higher gravitational pull than other stores?

That said, I've curated a selection of gorgeous Christmas decorations from Etsy, all from UK sellers, that actually look good on their own, without the need to purchase the entire store...


https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/570078417/christmas-wreath-spruce-style-with-white?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=christmas%20greenery&ref=sc_gallery_12&plkey=d7de81bbedcfddaed6f0fb5d97e73411e06a17fa:570078417 https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/489713111/set-of-4-black-and-white-baubles-scandi?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=christmas&ref=sr_gallery_27
https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/569736243/gift-eatting-t-rex-dinosaur-christmas?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=christmas&ref=sr_gallery_22 https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/567786881/wooden-stag-head-garland-christmas?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=christmas%20garland&ref=sr_gallery_12
https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/526262120/penguin-night-light-christmas-jar-gift?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=christmas%20lights&ref=sr_gallery_22 https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/486598659/cinnamon-stick-candle-christmas-candle?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=christmas%20candle&ref=sr_gallery_45


Spruce wreath with fir cones   ♥   Black, white & gold leaf tree ornament
Dino eating gifts   ♥   Winter stag Christmas garland
Penguin glow jar   ♥   Cinnamon Christmas candle


https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/565368239/miniature-winter-wildlife-ornaments?ref=shop_home_active_8
Christmas miniatures, 1.5 to 3.5cm tall
Available as a set or as individual necklaces. Ideal for animal lovers this Christmas ♥



Thursday, 16 November 2017

Parsnip Chestnut Soup

   Soup! I've always loved soup. It's so easy to eat, it stays hot for a while, and it's so easy to tweak to taste. I usually use Weight Watchers cans and thicken it with a little oat flour, add some carrots for body and either a soft boiled egg for added protein and simple, comforting flavour, bursting it open once I've finished the soup, or a hard boiled egg finely chopped and stirred throughout for a little more bite.
   But those are lazy days, and none of it ever actually beats homemade soup! I know a lot of people get quite down in the winter, suffering from SAD, but I relish it for the most part. I put it down to a passion for Christmas and the fact that mine and Seeg's birthdays fall in the same time of the year. There's a lot going on! So I'm actually quite energised by the onset of winter, and spend a lot more time in the kitchen testing recipe ideas or tweaking old favourites. And so it's not all that surprising that soup, a personal and worldwide winter favourite, should be on that list.

   I'm also sure you've noticed that I obsess over ingredients. I made a few things with figs this autumn, and now it seems that chestnuts have fallen into position. I've already made nutmeg chestnut porridge and I have a few other things still to come with chestnuts as a key ingredient. But for now, we'll stick with this thick and hearty, wholesome parsnip & chestnut soup.


   This soup is gorgeous. The earthy nuttiness of the parsnips is complimented by the subtle sweetness of the chestnuts, and the soup as a whole is very earthy and mild. But don't be fooled just because it's easy on the tastebuds - most foods, soups included, that grace our tables are packed full of flavour to the point that a number of the ingredients go unnoticed. Not so, here. It's simple, but refreshingly so, and wonderfully comforting for that simplicity. It's also so easy to make, and 1 serving counts as 1 of your 5 a day.
   It's also versatile, serveable as a soup or a chestnut parsnip stew (see notes).

Ingredients
Serves 2 as soup; 4 as casserole (see notes)
1 brown onion, chopped
200g parsnips, peeled and chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
150g chestnuts or chestnut purée (I used Merchant Gourmet purée) 
1 litre vegetable stock
salt & pepper, to taste
Optional: 10-20g protein powder (I used Pulsin Whey)
Optional: parsnip crisps to garnish


Method
1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, brown the onion for about 5 minutes.

2. Add the parsnips and crushed garlic and sautée for another 5 minutes.

3. Add the chestnuts or chestnut purée and the vegetable stock, stir and increase the heat to a boil. Turn down and simmer for 30 minutes, until the parsnips are soft.

4. Season with salt and pepper, and add the protein, if using, and stir.

5. Remove from the heat and transfer to a blender, or use a hand-held blender. Mix until smooth.

6. Garnish with crisps and serve immediately, or transfer to a 1.5 litre jar, set aside to cool and then store in the fridge for up to a week. I used this for lunch on Tuesday and Thursday, and it was just as good reheated as it was fresh.


Notes
*Alternatively, you can serve this some recipe as a casserole between 4: pour the blended soup into an oven dish, add some chicken breast and dumplings - to make the dumplings mix 100g self raising flour, 50g chestnut flour & pinch salt in a bowl, add 100ml milk, mix until it forms into a dough; split into 8 balls, set in the soup, cover and set in the oven for 30 mins, 190C / 375 F/gas mark 5. The dumplings will look small, but, trust me, they will at least double in size.


Nutrition*
Per serving as soup:
190 cals, 40g carbs, 6g fibre, 3.5g protein, 1 of your 5 a day.
*+10g whey protein: +40 cals, +8.5g protein






Wednesday, 15 November 2017

My Wishlist

   With Christmas and my birthday so close together, it can be a bit of a strain on both purse and imagination. It also sucks, because everything happens within a few weeks of the year, Seeg's birthday included, and then there's pretty much nothing for 12 months. Perhaps that's why I make such a big deal out of the Christmas season - I've waited so long, and so much good stuff happens.
   Anyway, it also sucks again because it means that I have to wait for a while if there are things I want and can't justify getting them for myself. And, though I do truly want them...I end up forgetting what they are.
   Well, I racked my brain and put together this wishlist - both for funsies and for helps - and though I remembered a couple of other things since I finalised it - namely Wild Bangarang's Tribal Unity leggings and this Yogi Bare starry night yoga mat - I'm quite happy with it. And whatever I don't get, I can always get myself when the sales come along.




1. Mathias Duplessy & The 3 Violins of the World 'Marco Polo'
2. Hylian poncho
3. Gaiam foam roller
4. Gossip From The Forest 
5. Urbosa amiibo
6. Sterling silver twig ring
7. Breath of the Wild pull-over
8. Wildlife Photographer of the Year desk diary