Lichens Rule

Not long ago, I spent a glorious sunny day wandering around Cass Field Station while my husband met with some students there. It was nice to take a solo walk and go at my own pace, stopping at whatever plants, bugs or rocks caught my fancy.

Once nice find was this beautiful lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum.

Lichens are strange organisms comprised of an alga living within a fungus. The alga provides food through photosynthesis and the fungus provides protection and nutrients for the alga.

R. geographicum is an alpine/subalpine lichen and, like many lichens, is sensitive to air pollution, thriving only where the air is clean. It is not, however, a fragile organism.

In 2005, R. geographicum was one of two lichens launched into space. The lichens were exposed to 14.6 days of open space—vacuum, wide temperature fluctuations, intense UV light and cosmic radiation. Upon return, R. geographicum showed little harm from the experience.

Not only is R. geographicum tough, some individuals in the Arctic are estimated to be 8,600 years old, making them the oldest living organisms on Earth. Their longevity and predictable growth rate make them useful tools for determining when glaciers retreated from an area.

But I didn’t know all this about R. geographicum when I found it on the rocks at Cass. I simply admired its beautiful mottled colours and soft texture. 

OOOOOh my! Chocolate cookies

I dipped into Ottolenghi’s book, Sweet, again the other day. This time I made Chocolate O Cookies. 

All I can say is  OOOOOOh my!

These could possibly be the best chocolate cookies ever. They’re a lot of work, and the recipe only makes 20 cookies, but those 20 cookies are truly divine.

The cookies themselves are a rich chocolate shortbread—alone, they’re worth making. But the piece de resistance is the water ganache filling.

I’d never made a ganache like this before, and I have to say I was dubious at first—mixing chocolate and water is a no-no, right? To make matters worse, the ganache starts with a sugar syrup, which has always been a bit of an Achilles heel for me.

But somehow it worked, and the infusion of cinnamon, chilli and orange gives the ganache a complex richness that lifts it above any other ganache I’ve made.

I’ll definitely be making these again … and again … and again.

Incidentally, I had extra ganache, which I popped into the fridge and slathered on lemon cupcakes later in the week—an excellent bonus!

Here’s the ganache recipe:

1/2 cinnamon stick
shaved peel of 1/2 orange
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
90 ml boiling water
125 g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), roughly chopped
scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod (I used 1/2 tsp vanilla)
1/4 tsp salt
50 g caster sugar
50 g liquid glucose (I used honey)
50 g butter, cut into 2 cm cubes

Place cinnamon, orange peel and chilli flakes in a small bowl and cover with the boiling water. Set aside for 30 minutes. After the water has been infusing for about 20 minutes, prepare the sugar syrup.

Place the chocolate, vanilla seeds and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Place the sugar and glucose in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted. Increase the heat and boil until the caramel turns a light amber colour (this doesn’t work if you use honey—it will already be amber. I boiled to about the soft ball stage), about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the infused water and aromatics. Return the liquid to a boil and then strain over the chocolate and vanilla. Discard the aromatics. Leave for 2-3 minutes until the chocolate has melted. Stir until smooth.

Add the butter, one piece at a time, stirring constantly until it is incorporated and smooth. Refrigerate 30 minutes to firm up.

Winter Baking

Pumpkin cakeWinter is a great time to try out new things in the kitchen. Weeks of cold, rainy weather always make me want to bake.

Last weekend I tried out two new things.

The first was a recipe for baked donuts. I was keen to try them, because I love donuts, but hardly ever make them because of the hassle of frying them. The idea of making up dough the night before, and then baking up fresh donuts for Sunday breakfast was tempting.

Unfortunately, the recipe didn’t work particularly well for me. I followed it to the letter, since it was new to me, but I did worry about the fact it had you mix the yeast into the flour, rather than proofing it first. The yeast never got off to the start it should have, and the dough didn’t rise as much as I would have liked. The resulting donuts were somewhat leaden. I also think the baking temperature of the donuts was too low—the recipe yielded a fully baked but anaemic-looking donut, barely browned at all. A hotter oven would produce an attractively brown crust with a moist interior. 

With a few tweaks to the recipe, I think there’s potential for a delicious (and dangerously easy) donut recipe there. I have no choice but to try again. 

The second new recipe I made over the weekend was a cream cheese frosting so simple, I had to give it a go. A block of cream cheese and three tablespoons of maple syrup, beaten until fluffy and spreadable.

The result is barely sweet, and beautifully flavoured. It’s denser than a standard cream cheese frosting full of confectioner’s sugar, but the density doesn’t bother me in the least—the texture is smooth and silky—delightful in the mouth. I used it to frost a pumpkin spice cake, and the flavours were perfect complements to one another. It’s definitely a recipe I’ll make again.

Saturday’s weather forecast is for snow. I’m already considering what I’ll experiment with in the kitchen.

Throw Out the Rules and Write

One of the groups of students I work with is a group of advanced year 7/8 writers. All of them are working above their grade level, and so our time together is about providing them opportunities to explore writing in different ways and hone their skills.

This week I started a unit on poetry, which always elicits groans and protests from some students. But to me, poetry is a way for them to develop skills they’re inclined to gloss over in other writing—using rhythm and repetition, using metaphors and descriptive language, thinking about the emotions they want to evoke in their readers.

Anyway, I didn’t want to approach poetry with these students in the same way it had been presented by all their teachers through primary school. I wanted to surprise them with poetry.

So on Monday morning, when I said we were going to start poetry and got the expected grumbles, I launched conversationally into a poem I’d prepared for them. 

When I say you’ll write poetry
You want to write prose.
But it’s not as bad as you think.
For poetry is simply prose
With metre and rhythm to link
The sounds with the words when they’re spoken aloud
Because this is where writing began.
With stories recited ‘round fires at night
Using rhythm and rhyme so we can
Remember our history, whakapapa too,
Remember what’s wrong and what’s right,
Give thanks to our gods,
Record all our deeds,
And remember the info that might
Come in handy someday when we look to the past
And wonder just where we went wrong.

And that music?
You know, that you play on your phone,
And dance to on Saturday night?
It’s nothing but poetry set to a tune.
So while you all grumble and fight,
Saying poetry’s musty, for old troglodytes,
I know poetry’s more, when we stop to look close,
Than a sappy old card for your mum.
It’s our history, our music
Ancestry and more.
Doesn’t have to be silly or dumb.

It took them a few lines, but when they realised I was speaking in verse, the looks on their faces were priceless.

Now, my poem didn’t convince them all—I still had a couple of grumblers. But I played them some videos of modern spoken poetry—edgier and messier than most of what they get exposed to at school—and I saw eyes light up. 

“Do we have to use rhyme?”

“No.”

“Can we use rhyme?”

“If you want to, of course.”

The idea they could write something wild and messy that followed no rules and call it poetry was revolutionary to some of them. They’ve written some excellent poems, too. No boring acrostics, no forced limericks, no pale imitations of famous poems. Instead, they’re focusing on the words, emotions and meanings embedded in their poetry. They’ve used metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration with intent, rather than because they have to. And I think most of them are actually having fun. I know I am.

Looking back, looking forward

On 26 March 2020, New Zealand went into a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, and my family moved into a shed. It wasn’t exactly ideal, being homeless during lockdown …

From the comfort of the new home we finally moved into at the end of June, we’ve been reliving that time as we hit milestone after milestone. 

A year ago today, our month-long nationwide lockdown was extended at least two weeks. We were simultaneously devastated and heartened by the news. Covid cases were dwindling—our efforts were working, but would take a while longer.

That day I posted the following poem on the fence:

The storm rages ‘round us
We’re soaked to the skin
Our ship pitched and tossed in the waves.
The captain barks orders,
Hand firm on the wheel.
She knows the relief her crew craves.

But she cannot allow us
Our petty desires,
As much as she longs for them too.
To weather the storm
We must all pull together
Or the tempest takes many, not few.

I don’t think I really understood how true those words would turn out to be. As the world collectively registered over 3 million Covid-related deaths this week, I reflect once again on how different our experience here in New Zealand has been from the rest of the world. Once again I am grateful for the incredible leadership we have in dealing with this crisis, and the collective commitment New Zealanders have shown to doing what needs to be done to protect everyone here.

Yesterday, we reopened our border to Australia, allowing families and friends to reunite, and tourists to travel. It raises our Covid risk as we expand our national ‘bubble’, but both countries have proven quick to respond to the virus, and I believe we will continue to pull together to keep everyone safe.

Books for gifted kids


As an educator teaching extension literacy and maths, and as parent of two gifted children, I have thought a lot about gifted education. As an author, I naturally write for kids like my own—my middle grade books have a fairly wide vocabulary and are long for middle grade, while still being subject appropriate for the 8-13 year-olds they’re aimed at.

I’m on a social media group for parents of gifted children, and the question of books comes up regularly. What books do you get for the voracious 9-year-old reader who is bored by ‘kids’ books, has read all the Harry Potter and Rick Riordan books, but is not yet ready for the subject matter of young adult books? 

So here’s a list of books my kids loved when they were in that 6-12 year-old range, and others I’ve read or seen recommended since then (my kids are now 17 and 19, so I don’t have their take on the more recent titles).

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. This series of three books, with at least two companion books not directly in the series, is tailor-made for gifted kids. The books’ protagonists are all explicitly gifted children. All of them have different strengths, and all have weaknesses. They are all extraordinary in some way, but they need each other to accomplish their goals. Not only are the characters relatable to gifted kids, but the books are hefty, with riddles and puzzles throughout—they’ll keep even gifted children busy for a long time.

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. Technically, this book is young adult, and there’s a little bit of romance (just crushes, really, nothing major), but at its heart, it’s a rollicking good adventure story about a girl who wants to fly and escape her world. And there’s a sentient space ship with a great personality. It’s a good book to introduce those upper middle grade readers to Brandon Sanderson, who has written lots of fabulous books for older readers.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher. I bought this book on the strength of the title alone, and was not disappointed. For kids with a quirky sense of humour, this is perfect. A girl whose magical abilities are limited to influencing dough must save herself and her city from someone trying to stamp out magicians and take over the city. Lots of creativity and laugh-out-loud moments.

The Warriors series by Erin Hunter. My children devoured these books when they were quite young. The main characters are cats, and there are all sorts of groups and alliances among them—sort of like a feline Game of Thrones (without the adult themes). Each book is short, but there are dozens of them in multiple series.

Wings of Fire by Tui T. Sutherland. This massive series (14 books, I think) is popular among my 8-12 year-old students, though I’ve never read any of the books. In the series, dragons are the main characters, and there’s lots of drama. Tui T. Sutherland is one of the authors who writes under the pen name Erin Hunter, so I imagine there are similarities between the Warriors series and Wings of Fire.

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge. This is a strange sort of book about a society in which facial expressions are taught and strictly controlled, so that no one’s face expresses what they are thinking. The main character was never taught facial expressions, so her natural expressions shock people, and she wears a mask to cover them. She uncovers nefarious doings in the city, and works to free the people from a ruling class that treats them as slaves. Lots of twists and turns in the story to keep gifted minds guessing what’s going to happen next.

Great authors with books too numerous to list are Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Mahy (whose books range from picture books to young adult), and Tessa Duder (with both fiction and non-fiction books to her name).

And don’t dismiss the older ‘classics’—Alice in Wonderland, Heidi, the works of Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Enid Blyton—many of these books are timeless, and because of their age, they introduce lots of interesting words and have a different perspective on life that gifted children can find fascinating.

And finally, I’ll put in a little plug for my Dragon Slayer series—set in a modern day New Zealand where Dragons are real and aren’t the enemy everyone thinks they are. The series follows the adventures of four children who ultimately form the Dragon Defence League to protect dragons and help people learn to live with them. There’s lots of adventure, some environmental themes, and plenty of colourful dragons.

Summer Stocktake

Mid-April, and it’s time to take stock of the summer’s garden. 

Compared with gardens at the old house, this year’s was a disaster—stunted plants that died off early, solanaceous crops decimated by viral disease, and heat and drought that I struggled to combat with irrigation.

But compared with what I expected, the garden was a huge success. I managed to provide the plants enough nutrients and water that they all managed to give us something. We had enough peas, corn and carrots to freeze some. We gorged on strawberries and melons. I gave away heaps of zucchini. The laundry room is piled with pumpkins. We’ve got more garlic and onion than we’ll be able to eat before it starts to sprout. And we’ve had a steady supply of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. 

The stars of them all have been the carrots. Last spring I blogged about how well my carrots germinated this year—better than they ever had before, which was quite a surprise in the new garden. At the time, I reserved judgement—it was too much to hope the carrots would grow well in heavy clay soil studded with rocks.

But all summer we’ve been eating beautiful carrots, and last week I harvested everything remaining in the bed, because the slugs and slaters were taking their toll. The fridge is packed with carrots now, and I blanched and froze several kilograms as well.

In spite of everything, it was one of the better years I’ve had for carrots. To be fair, the roots are small, compared to the old garden. Some are bent where they hit a rock, and many broke off when I tried to lift them—if they penetrated too far into the clay, they were nearly impossible to harvest.

But even the purple carrots grew, which is quite an accomplishment for me—in past years, the purple carrots have done well in early spring, but then have been decimated by aphids, so we only ever eat them as baby carrots. Last week I harvested quite a few nice big purple carrots.

Best of all were the Paris market carrots—little, super sweet round roots perfect for lunch boxes and snacks. Their shape made them easy to pick, so there weren’t any left when I harvested the lot last week, but they’ll definitely be in next year’s lineup as well.

Overall, I consider the summer’s garden to have been a success. It’s looking pretty bare out there now, and I’m hauling cow manure from the neighbour’s place and incorporating it into the soil, so by spring I hope to have a few more nutrients available for the plants. I’m already looking forward to next summer.

Gevulde Speculaas

I recently purchased the book Sweet, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh (because the book was always checked out of our local library when I went for it). Like Ottolenghi’s other cookbooks, Sweet is a celebration of flavours, and unapologetic about excess.

My first foray into making some of the glorious recipes in the book was gevulde speculaas—stuffed speculaas.

Speculaas is a staple cookie in my household—richly spiced, quick to make, and delicious any time of year. Ottolenghi’s gevulde speculaas recipe, however, is speculaas for special occasions.

His spice mix includes cinnamon, aniseed, white pepper, ginger, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves. These are incorporated into a soft dough that is wrapped around an almond paste filling flavoured with lemon and candied citrus peel.

The cookies are baked as a log and cut into slices when cool. Each bite is a spectacular flavour explosion. Unlike traditional crisp speculaas, these stuffed speculaas are soft and moist. They’re the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea, and look amazing too.

They are a lot of work to mix up, but they partly make up for it by being baked as a log, so there’s no individual cutting or shaping of cookies to do. They’re definitely celebration cookies, not everyday ones, but I’m certain I’ll be pulling the recipe out again.

Crazy Cake Season 2021: Cake #3

After my daughter’s octopus cake, the remainder of Crazy Cake Season has been less than crazy. My son’s cake was a bit of a do-it-yourself kit, and consisted of plain cupcakes and a tub of frosting posted to him, since he was back at university for his birthday. 

Cake number three, for my husband, was a small affair, since it’s only the two of us at home now. I don’t think I’ve ever made a cake this small—it seemed hardly worth the effort when I pulled the single 18 cm round out of the oven. 

He had asked for ‘fruity chocolate’ cake this year. So I made a chocolate madeira cake, filled with lemon curd and a lovely whipped cream and yogurt filling. I topped it with chocolate ganache, more whipped cream and yogurt filling, and fresh strawberries.

The cake was a new recipe for me, inspired by a slice of commercial cake I ate at a dinner party a few weeks ago. The commercial cake was delicious, with an intriguing texture—quite different from the usual bland froth of commercial cakes. A little research on the bakery’s website revealed it to be madeira cake, so I’ve set myself a goal to try making madeira cakes. My first try was a bit dry—something to work on—but with the fillings and fruit, the total package was delicious. 

I was particularly taken with the whipped cream filling, which came from CookingLight, and was easy to make:

1/2 cup cream
1/3 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 tsp vanilla (I increased this to 1/2 tsp)

Whip the cream and sugar together until stiff peaks form. Add the yogurt and vanilla and beat until smooth.

I had extra strawberries and was munching on them as I assembled the cake. In the process I discovered that the filling makes an amazing fruit dip. Worth making some extra, just for dipping strawberries into.