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The day despair turned to hope

How a simple turn of events helped me change my mindset

“Hope” is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.


Emily Dickinson

Following a very busy December filled with baking numerous christmas cakes and puddings for family and friends, plus the flurry of excitement at being interviewed twice on BBC Radio Bristol about my book on my journey to recovery from ME, I took a little time getting back into the swing of things this January. 2017 started with me deciding to spend the first week of January preparing for the year ahead, a year which is going to be filled with great excitement at the publishing of my book, building my coaching business and the creation of my therapeutic cookery class schedules.

Looking back to December and the build up to Christmas got me thinking about the end of my first year with ME. I had started my treatment with my psychiatrist the month before and he had managed to get me out walking again on my own, which, after 7 months of being housebound, was a huge achievement. Something magical happened at that time though, quite subtly but strongly enough to leave a mark and to remember it well today. I made a cake. Now I know that sounds simple enough but this was an unusual cake. I first learned about it in the November of that year. I had been watching a programme on Channel 4 about the River Café restaurant in London. This is the restaurant famed for producing chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingshall and Theo Randall to name but a few. The programme showed a recipe for a very unusual christmas cake which was a mix of a traditional English christmas cake and Italian Pannetone and Panforte. Something about this cake stirred some excitement in me; may be I knew by baking this, something was about to change.

I realise now that what I was feeling at that time was hope. A hope for the future which I hadn't felt for a long time. In fact, in the early days of the condition I actually felt the opposite of hope, I felt despair, which could also be translated into another word for fear. Fear about the future, because I had no idea what it looked like. Now I know none of us know what our futures look like, but somehow when suffering with a long term illness, a future with health is what we crave. In fact, when I was in the darkest moments of my ME, a future at all seemed like a distant thing for me. Once I got my diagnosis in the October of that year, things did start to change for me, because I now felt that somebody believed me and in me. My psychiatrist did say to me that he knew I would recover because I had the right attitude and wanted to get better. May be that opened the door for me to start my life again, to find the real me and by sourcing the ingredients and baking this cake it became a metaphor for a brighter future. A future where baking would play a large part. It would become my escape, my passion and a way for me to connect with people, something I also hadn't done for so long.

On the official baking day, some close friends had called in unexpectedly to see me. They couldn't believe their eyes when they saw what was in my kitchen. The recipe had actually made 5 cakes, of all different sizes. They fell so in love with the smells and the tastes that they each bought one that afternoon. It has been such a success for me, that I continue to bake it today and have many recipients happy to sample its delights! I think one of the selling points is the taste of the copious amounts of dark rum and dark chocolate - a heady mix which is truly Italian in flavour.

Part of this feeling of hope also helped me with my psychotherapy which I started in the January of the following year. I started to trust people again and slowly began to get more excited about my life. I felt I had a purpose again and part of that process was to learn about me. I don't think I had ever given time to myself before to get to know me and who I was on the inside. What was important to me? Who was I at my core? In writing this I think I was afraid to find out before, and that is why I was always running around, constantly moving from one place to the next, never allowing time with the one person who needed my time - me. I am learning this now as part of the process of writing my book on my recovery. My ME has taught me so much, it has been a very powerful teacher and one of the most important lessons I have learned is patience. Being patient enough to be still and to wait, allowing myself time to say what needs to be said. A little like baking really, because it takes time to make a delicious cake, particularly at Christmas with the rich ingredients and all the alcohol mixed in!

As I write, memories of my illness come back to me and remind me of how I had been feeling on a particular day. This is a positive thing, because with each memory comes a lesson of something I needed to learn and that is why I also know this year is the right time to be publishing my book, because I am now ready to share my story to help others who may be experiencing the same symptoms that I did at that time. This all started because of that glimmer of hope which came from a cookery show on Channel 4 in November 2004 with the delicious taste of English/Italian baking at its very best.

I will be forever grateful!

Dada’s Christmas Cake

Now I know Christmas is but a distant memory, but I felt I needed to share this recipe - in fact this recipe would be adaptable enough to make outside of the Christmas period. It makes a large amount of cake batter - I usually make one 12” cake and about four 8’ cakes with the mix. Friends and family are always grateful for it too and it keeps particularly well.

The recipe is based on the one from the River Cafe Italian Kitchen book


250 g unsalted butter, softened plus a little for the tins

100 g natural coloured glacé cherries

50 g angelica

350 g candied mixed peel

750 ml dark rum

200 g shelled hazelnuts (whole)

150 g blanched whole almonds

150 g unblanched whole almonds

350 g ground almonds (I grind my own with blanched almonds)

100 g caster sugar

220 g plain flour

5 eggs

3 unwaxed lemons

500 g runny honey

250 g apricot jam

150 g raisins

650 g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids) broken into rough pieces

Preheat oven to 140℃

Butter the tins and line the bottom with parchment paper.  Chop the cherries, angelica and candied peel and marinate for an hour in 350 ml of the dark rum.

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Roast the hazelnuts and blanched almonds until brown.  Peel and chop half of the hazelnuts (you can peel them easily when cool by taking a handful and rubbing them between your hands, the peel naturally falls off) and chop all of the roasted blanched almonds roughly.  Roughly chop half of the unblanched almonds.  Mix together all of the nuts apart from the ground almonds.

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale.  Sift in the flour then add the eggs one at a time, then add 100 g of the ground almonds.

Zest the lemons. Drain the marinated fruit, reserving the rum, and add in the lemon zest, honey apricot jam and raisins.

In a large bowl combine the butter and sugar mixture with all the fruit and nuts, as well as the remaining ground almonds and the chocolate. Add the rest of the rum and that from the fruit. Mix well (this is where it can get a little messy unless you have a large bowl) and bearing in mind that my mixer is a large Kitchen Aid, you can see how full it got!

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Bake the cake (8” size) for about 1 hour, checking at regular intervals. If you are baking the larger cake, you will need to leave it in for about 1.5 hours, checking at regular intervals again. You are looking for a cake that is firm to the touch with a slight give in the centre when pressed. Leave it in the oven until it is at this consistency.

Leave to cool in the tins then remove. Ideal served on its own with coffee or with crème fraiche or ice cream as a dessert. The photo below is the 12" cake when baked.


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