Apple Therapie

Do you remember that scene in Bruce Almighty where everything gets really out of control, so Bruce goes and mops a load of floors? I think about that a lot. I realise that an old Jim Carrey movie might be a slightly odd place to look for life lessons but inspiration comes in many forms.

Sometimes I feel really overwhelmed, often for no reason at all. One of the worst things about having a powerful imagination is that you spend a lot of time powerfully imagining that everything is going wrong. Some days, out of nowhere, I’ll feel as though someone has yanked the rug out from underneath me and I’m struggling, teetering, trying not to fall. When that happens, all I can do is press reset. And pressing reset usually involves doing something simple, something methodical, something that forces you to slow down and take your time. For some people, it might involve mopping a whole lot of floors. It might be alphabetising your bookshelf or colouring in or writing a letter. For me, it’s baking a pie.

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I measure out 260g of plain flour. I use a cup to measure, so I’m never sure how close to 260g I actually am. It doesn’t matter. This doesn’t have to be precise. I add 150g of hard butter, cut into cubes. Using my fingertips, I gently rub the flour into the butter cubes until I’m left with a mixture that looks like fine breadcrumbs. Don’t squash your mixture. Take your time, I tell myself. There’s no rush. I close my eyes and take a deep breath and I feel the soft flour and the cold butter in my hands. I feel the puffs of powder that escape from my bowl and coat the kitchen worktop. Inevitably, I end up with a smudge of flour on my nose. That is fine.

I add cold water, tiny bit by tiny bit, mixing with a knife until a dough starts to form. Every time, I’m sure my mix isn’t going to come together. Every time, it does. I think about that a lot. I get my hands in and knead it a little until it forms a smooth ball. I wrap the ball in clingfilm and put it in my fridge while I prepare my apples.

I use between 3 and 5 green apples, depending on how big they are. Bramley apples are best, but any tart green apple will work. I promise, it’ll still be delicious. I peel each apple in one huge, snaking twist and drop the rind on the counter like my Auntie Kathleen taught me, to see the initial of the person I’m going to marry. I wonder if I know anyone whose name begins with an “O”. I chop my apples. If you like a chunky pie, chop large pieces. If you like it smoother, chop little ones. Both are delicious.

I put my apples in a big pot with a splash of water and I sprinkle over a few tablespoons of soft brown sugar. I turn the heat on very, very low and put on the lid. Every so often, I take off the lid to stir and watch the sugar turn to caramel and let the drunken smell of sharp stewing apples fill my tiny kitchen. You can add cinnamon if you want to. I don’t. After about 15/20 minutes, I turn off the heat and let my apples cool down a little.

I push everything to the side, because our kitchen is so little that there’s only really one surface. I dust the worktop with flour. I usually dust everything else in the kitchen with flour at the same time. I have a rolling pin now, like a proper grown up, but until recently, I just used a litre bottle filled with cold water. This works just the same and helps keep your pastry nice and cold. I don’t have a pie dish, so I grease a round cake tin. The best thing about making pie is that you can almost always make do with what you have. It always works out fine.

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I take my pastry out of the fridge and chop a third of it off. This will be the lid of the pie. I drop the bigger piece onto my floury surface and knead it into a big circle. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it sticks to the surface. This is okay. It can be fixed with a dab of water or a smattering of flour. I carefully place my dough circle into my cake tin and use a little blob of dough to push it into the base. I trim off the untidy outside with a sharp knife. I pour in my apple mix. It’s almost always too hot. It always, always smells divine. I roll out my pie top and press it over the apples, using a fork to crimp the edges. This makes it look like a cartoon pie. This makes me smile. I roll out my trimmed edges and slice and press them into beautiful patterns. I make enormous flowers and pretty, lined leaves. I place my decorations on top of the pie and brush the whole thing with a beaten egg. If you have a pastry brush, use that. I dab it on with kitchen roll.

I realise I’ve forgotten to preheat my oven. I roll my eyes, but I don’t beat myself up. I’m feeling gentle. I’m feeling like being kind to myself. I set the oven to 200C and put the pie in straight away. I’m dimly aware that this probably isn’t the right thing to do but it doesn’t seem to matter. I leave the pie in the oven for half an hour while I clean the flour from every nook of the tiny kitchen.

After half an hour, the pie is golden and crisp. If it isn’t, I stick it back in the oven and put the kettle on. Once it’s ready, I pop it out of the cake tin and put it on a plate. I take a photo. I give myself a second to congratulate myself on making something so pretty. I put a little icing sugar in a sieve and sprinkle it over the top of the pie. I feel like a fancy chef when I do this. I cut a slice straight away, even though it hasn’t cooled and the hot apple oozes out. I pour double cream on mine, much more than is really reasonable. You can put ice cream or custard on yours if you like. I make myself a cup of tea. I sit in my comfiest seat, take a deep breath and eat an enormous forkful.

It’s never perfect. It’s usually messy. It tastes wonderful. Always.

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Being Brave, Being Vain, Being Fiona

I have a complicated relationship with beautiful. I’ve always been more likely to be called “striking” or “interesting” than “beautiful”, and always more likely to be called “funny” or “smart” than either of those. In my heart, I know that is an absolute strength. If I had to choose between funny and beautiful, I’d pick funny every single time, no questions asked. I know that I’m so much more than beautiful, that a beautiful face pales in comparison with a kind heart, a strong mind, a creative soul. And yet. And yet.

Like many girls, my “interesting” beauty became a battleground when I was a teenager. The frizzy hair, the generous nose, the chest so flat you could build an airport on it, they all became markers for how different I was. And I spent an unholy amount of my teenagedom wishing that I could just be the same.

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It’s exhausting being at war with your own face, you guys. Eventually, there came a point where I was too tired to keep hating myself, so I decided I was going have to love myself instead. I spent time getting to know my body, because it’s impossible to love something that’s a stranger to you. I started to notice my details. The smattering of chocolate drop freckles. The cupid’s bow you could cut yourself on. The stretch marks curving around my hips like silver lightning strikes. I dyed my hair red. I started to wear the brightest lipstick I could get my hands on. I started to upload selfies with gay abandon. When I felt ugly, I wanted to make myself smaller. After so many years of that, feeling beautiful feels like a brave, tiny rebellion.

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It’s also terrifying. See, women are supposed to be pretty but we’re absolutely not supposed to notice that we’re pretty. And we’re certainly not supposed to take any pleasure from it. We’re not to know we’re beautiful. That’s what makes us beautiful.

*One Direction dance break, because even though the message of that song is trash, it’s still an absolute tune*

There’s a photographer called Alex Cameron, who takes the most wonderful photographs. The first time I saw her photos, I thought “I want pictures of me that are that beautiful”. I was immediately ashamed that I wanted that. How trivial. How frivolous. How vain. For two years, I watched her photos pop up on my Twitter timeline and every time I saw them, I turned the idea over in my head. I’d justify and argue with myself and agonise because I was still embarrassed to admit that I wanted to look at myself and love how I looked.

F5Last week, I got on a train with a backpack full of my most favourite dresses and I asked Alex to make me gorgeous. I twirled and giggled and wrapped myself in leaves and flowers. I gleefully agreed when Alex complimented my bright hair, my green eyes. I loudly exclaimed “I FEEL LIKE A FAIRY PRINCESS” about seventeen times.

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When she started to send me the photographs, my mouth fell open. She hadn’t changed me or airbrushed me. She hadn’t smoothed my personality over. My flyaway hair, my crooked nose, my goofy smile spilled from every single picture. All of my details, my gorgeous imperfections laid bare. I looked undoubtedly, unabashedly like me. Like no one else. I looked striking. I looked interesting. And I looked so, so beautiful.

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