A subdued love letter to the summer

Summertime - a subdued love letter. More on my blog Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

We’ve been off-school for a month already.

I had been waiting for this time, counting down to it through end-of-term-this and end-of-term-that. Little stars marked the last day of term in my diary. I’ve been itching to play hooky, sneak on those vintage denim shorts, kick off my shoes.

But the start of the summer hit us hard like a hot storm. My smallest child fell unwell, seriously and suddenly. It is not yet something that I’m ready to write about and I doubt that I’ll recount the details anyway. But when we finally came home from hospital, that week of June when the skies were smokey grey and it rained and rained and rained for days, all I wanted to do was escape. (I think I will forever now be a little bit afraid of June, after what happened to us. After what it did to us). All I wanted to do was take us all some place far away and stay there all summer long.

By the time you read this, we will have gone*. It is something we all need. There is much amiss with the world. It is not perfect. But my family is safe. We turn together on our small axis every day. This is all that matters.

This time has not been easy. But I'm learning to go with the flow. After moments that edged on darkness, I am grateful that we even have a flow. I am grateful for the light that falls through the trees. If I could, I would capture this light in a snow globe, only one filled with sunbeams instead of snowflakes. I would shake that globe every day.

I used to dislike summer greatly. I hated those tube journeys into work, hated coming home crumpled and parched. But it's different now. We have spent four weeks resting, recovering (and I’m glad to say it’s likely to be a full recovery). We have stepped in and out of the garden, ventured to the park, to the woods, and visited our friends. Though there was much I may have given up from my life before children, it occurs to me more and more lately that this is not an altogether bad choice to have made. With that, I leave you as we take some time to be us. I am as ever deeply grateful for those of you who stop by and read my words and support Our Story Time.

*While I’m away, I will be resharing some of my favourite pieces from my blog archive that perhaps, if you’re new to Our Story Time, you might have missed. And if you’re a beloved loyal reader, you might enjoy dipping back in.

Did you know you can still buy and download Postcards Home, my summer writing course? It’s available to purchase until the end of August, to print off or upload onto your device and take with you on holiday. For summer writing inspiration, read more about my summer writing course.

Summer baking: three summer baking recipes for crises & hot days

Peach & apple cake / milk & honey cake / lemon and vanilla butter cookies / summer baking three simple sweet and light baking recipes for summer - more on summer baking on my blog Our Story Time

A few days after my father’s funeral I baked a tray of star shaped vanilla cookies. And then another tray and then another after that. I must have baked hundreds of them. People stopped by at my childhood home to offer their condolences and I countered with a cookie on a plate, flour in my hair. I baked for days. They may have come expecting a house full of tears but I suppose the smell of sweet cookie dough hanging in the air did us all good.

Years later I did the same thing after I left my job at the newspaper to go freelance. In the uncertainty of suddenly being self-employed I baked instead of sitting down at my laptop. I spent hours in my tiny horseshoe-shaped kitchen. I baked and baked. I made trays of lavender shortbread and tins of lemon cake and banana bread and those vanilla cookies again. I handed them out to bemused neighbours whose names I did not know, posted them in little boxes tied up with string to my friends, even left a whole plateful at my gym fully aware of the irony of it.

I guess in a crisis or its immediate aftermath, I bake.

***

The start of this summer was marked with a family crisis as my youngest little boy fell sick. I am relieved and thankful to say he is so much better now. And as we come out of this crisis, I find myself baking once again.

Baking feels productive. Feels good. The act of weighing, mixing and pouring and then turning out something sweet from the pan feels like a small but simple triumph. There’s familiarity in the routine, the method, the smell wafting through the house. There’s comfort in the joy of it, the silence as first the children lick the bowl (such show-stopping silence!) and then later take mouthful after mouthful of whatever we may have made that day. Sweet crumbs linger on their lips. I can still taste them come bedtime kisses.

Our baking has been floral, light, fresh. We’ve been decorating our bakes simply, topped with edible flowers. Here’s three recipes we’ve been particularly enjoying this summer:

Lemon and vanilla butter cookies

Peach & apple cake / milk & honey cake / lemon and vanilla butter cookies / summer baking three simple sweet and light baking recipes for summer - more on summer baking on my blog Our Story Time

Lemon and vanilla butter cookies

(Adapted from an original recipe by Jana Zumbaum)

Ingredients

300g flour

200g cold butter cut in cubes

80g sugar

1 egg yolk

20ml cold water

1 pinch of salt

Vanilla and/or lemon zest

Honey & edible flowers to decorate

Method

Put the flour, sugar, salt, vanilla and lemon zest in a bowl or in your food processor together with the butter cubes. If you use a processor, mix using short pulses, if you do it by hand, mix the ingredients quickly with your fingertips until you get a consistency of wet sand.

Add the water and yolk and mix until it all comes together. You may need more than 20mls of water but be careful to add anything extra with caution - you don’t want the dough to be so sticky that it does not roll later. Shape together into a clump of dough and wrap in cling film/ beeswax paper. Let it stand in the fridge for a couple of hours at least.

Heat the oven to 190 degrees and prepare two baking trays with parchment paper. Take the dough and spread it on a lightly floured surface. Cut the cookies into shapes, place them on the trays and bake for 8 minutes. Rotate the trays and bake for a further two minutes but keep a close eye on them - they will be done sooner than you think and only need to turn a golden brown on the edges.

Once cool decorate with the edible flowers, sticking them down with a drop of honey.

Milk & honey cake

Peach & apple cake / milk & honey cake / lemon and vanilla butter cookies / summer baking three simple sweet and light baking recipes for summer - more on summer baking on my blog Our Story Time

Milk & honey cake

(Adapted from an original recipe by Di Bibby)

The original recipe for this is a beautiful and grandly luxurious four-layer cake, filled with plum mousse and topped with white chocolate frosting. My interpretation is nowhere near as spectacular and has neither layers nor filling but it is simple and moist and light and makes for an excellent picnic treat.

Ingredients

4 eggs, at room temperature

180g castor sugar

60ml (1/4 cup) honey

5ml (1 tsp) vanilla extract

300g (2 cups) cake wheat flour (all-purpose)

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

250ml (1 cup) milk

125g (1/2 cup ) butter

Honey & edible flowers to decorate

Method

Preheat the oven to 180º C. Grease and line a 20cm cake tin (although the original recipe says to use four tins, I simply use one).

Place the eggs, castor sugar, honey and vanilla in a bowl and beat (either by hand or with a mixer) until pale. Sift in the flour, baking powder and salt and beat again.

Heat the milk and butter in a saucepan. Once the butter has melted, remove from the heat. Slowly add the hot milk to the batter and beat on low speed until the milk is incorporated. The mix is a little more liquidy than, say, for Victoria Sponge but that’s okay.

If you’re in less haste, then by all means split into two or three or four tins and bake each for 20 minutes. Or, if like me, extra pans just means extra washing up then simply pour all the batter into one pan and bake for 30 minutes and then check with a skewer to see if it’s baked all the way through. If not, give it another five minutes.

Dot with honey and stick on edible flowers. Tastes particularly beautiful the day after.

Peach & apple cake

Peach & apple cake / milk & honey cake / lemon and vanilla butter cookies / summer baking three simple sweet and light baking recipes for summer - more on summer baking on my blog Our Story Time

Peach & apple cake

I couldn’t decide between apples or peaches so through them together in an adaptation of this recipe by the wondrous Erin at Reading My Tea Leaves. Erin’s recipe is delightfully and refreshingly simple but happens to be in American measurements which somehow still throw me. I have no idea if my cup conversions into grams are accurate enough but it turned out lovely even with my estimations.

Ingredients

1 large, chubby ripe peach, roughly chopped

1 apple, peeled and sliced

30g butter

80g golden caster sugar

1 egg

110g self-raising flour

1tsp baking powder

pinch of salt

Method

Grease a baking tin and preheat the oven to 180 C.

Beat the sugar and butter together until thick and creamed. Add the egg.

Next, sift the flour and baking powder on top and then combine. It will be quite thick at this stage, but don’t worry about it.

Mix in the chopped peach with all its ripeness and juice. The batter will still be thicker than a sponge cake mix, but it will soften with the addition of peach.

Spoon the mix into your baking tin and then top with the sliced apple. Bake for around 30 minutes or until golden on top and cooked through.

There you have it. Three bakes. Sweet and simple, just the way I like things.

Did you know you can still buy and download Postcards Home, my summer writing course? It’s available to purchase until the end of August, to print off or upload onto your device and take with you on holiday. For summer writing inspiration, read more about my summer writing course.



Vintage denim shorts

On finding clothes to wear in the summer - vintage denim jeans, capsule wardrobes and modest fashion and trying to figure it all out. More on my blog, Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

I used to dread summer because I never knew what to wear. I never had anything to wear.

My mother was strict about making sure my clothing covered me. She tugged at tees that rode up my back, disapproved of sleeves too short. This stuck with me even when I was grown and lived alone and could, in theory, have worn whatever I wanted to. I have always loved fashion (indeed, my nickname at one time was simply, Fashion) and I have always loved to shop for clothes. But browsing through rails of light camisoles and soft cool dresses every spring, every summer, I felt stung that I could not wear any of these things because of my upbringing, my religion, my culture. I wish I could say it did not matter to me, I wish I could say I was above and beyond it, that I was less materialistic, more spiritual and obedient, but it did matter. It mattered greatly to me. I resented the rules, especially when my brothers got to lounge around in shorts all summer long.

Later I remember envying the lightness of the summer wardrobes of other women I used to see, breezy in sandals and floaty florals and bare legs even in the office. So pretty, I used to think. Not like me. I imagined people were looking at me, laughing at me, still in my sweaty thick jeans with half an exposed forearm the extent of my summer style. I disliked summer for the way it limited me. Summer did not suit me at all.

But it's different now. I don’t need to dress to work in an office anymore and in more recent years I’ve had fun buying clothes I love, curating a simple summer wardrobe of soft fabrics that keep me feeling light at this time of year. Though I don’t necessarily seek it out, the term “modest fashion” has become a keyword, a trend. There are more choices now for women and girls who wish to stay covered yet cool than there ever were when I was younger, when I desperately wanted to fit in.

***

Last summer I bought myself a pair of vintage denim shorts. My first shorts. Sweet in shade, like light forget-me-nots. They are soft, worn-in and slightly frayed.

It felt thrilling to purchase them, as though I was breaking the rules because, I suppose, I sort of was. It sounds absurd for I am a woman - an adult, a mother. I should be able to choose what I want to wear but it is hard to shake the way one is raised, especially when it comes from a place of belief. It is hard not to remember being scolded for wearing this or that. If ever a girl was described in our circle of family friends as “wearing sleeveless” it was meant as a slur. They meant: she was too modern, too independent, not modest or marriageable enough. “She wears sleeveless,” was something I knew I was not supposed to let people say about me.

There is a lot to unpick here, I imagine a therapist might say.

When I was a journalist, I wrote often about various subjects relating to various Muslim women and was often asked to comment by others on the hijab, the jilbab or the burqa because Muslim women were and still are so often reduced to the sum of what they wear by the press. I have written strongly and in national publications about why I don’t think any of these items of clothing should be banned, not because I have ever worn them but because I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell anyone else what they should or should not wear, nor judge them morally for it.

You should wear what you want to wear. It is that simple.

So I wear my shorts on those hot, hot London days when the heat is dry and the sunlight plays patterns through the trees, still only in the privacy of my home and garden. Somedays I feel my heart thump when I imagine what my mother might say (for the record, we get along well), or what those people I grew up with might say if they could see me - because when you grow up as a girl with Pakistani parents in England, it is always about what other people might say.

But that feeling quickly vanishes because I remember that I have choices and then I feel good. I remember that the clothes I wear, just like the clothes anyone else chooses to wear, do not make me immoral alone, no matter what the naysayers may think (the very same naysayers, I might, who forget that it is not their place to judge in anycase). I remember that I feel like me. Also, I don’t feel quite so hot and sticky. It is also that simple.

***

(So I wear my shorts in the garden. It is growing now. We water it together. We watch it grow.

To one side grows the honeysuckle, voluptuous and heavy. I had hoped it would twine along the trestle neatly and I had tried in vain to twist it this way and that into place but it still falls forward, uncomplying. Now I let them trail whichever way they like, their tendrils twisting like messy braids. I have learnt to let them follow their own ways.)

Did you know you can still buy and download Postcards Home, my summer writing course? It’s available to purchase until the end of August, to print off or upload onto your device and take with you on holiday. For summer writing inspiration, read more about my summer writing course.