Zenning Out

 

I am on a bit of a yoga and relaxation kick at the moment. I used to think that I was just too fidgety and impatient to get any of the benefits of those activities that are supposed to relax you; yoga classes, meditation, even soaking in a long, hot bath – I couldn’t switch my mind off for long enough to enjoy it. I always had a sneaking suspicion that I could be better using all that time doing something more useful and productive than ‘just’ relaxing.

Gradually, the lack of time for myself crept up on me. I was getting stressed out by things that I would usually take in my stride and at the end of one long, hard week when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, I realised that I had been overloaded and exhausted for months. I was burning out, living for my days off (which I then spent pretty much comatose because I was too exhausted to do much else) and spending a lot of time fantasising about spa days and long, lazy holidays.

It was actually while I was taking a not-very-long-but-extremely-lazy holiday that I had time to think about this properly. In the run up to the holiday I was seized by fear of missing out and spent hours on Tripadvisor researching the best activities and must-see destinations, but after spending the first couple of days doing nothing more strenuous moving between my sun lounger by the pool to my sun lounger on the beach, I realised that my normal attitude to relaxation is extremely stupid. I don’t need to wait until I’m completely knackered to have a rest, or until I’m injured to enjoy a yoga class – time spent relaxing has an intrinsic value, it’s not all about putting up with a boring activity so I can do something more energetic in the near future and it is definitely not a waste of time.

I also realised that I don’t need to spend a lot of money on a spa break or expensive treatments to relax – it is surely be much more effective to build this time into my normal routine, making relaxation a simple and sustainable habit rather than a big production every few months. With this in mind, I am consciously building time for myself into my schedule every week. I have been attending restorative yoga classes twice a week and although the first class felt more like being guided through an hour long nap than any kind of exercise, I was feeling the positive effects for days afterwards. I’m also trying really hard not to follow my normal pattern of behaviour, which would be to rush headlong into a time specific challenge with a physical goal at the end (like 30 Days To Advanced Wheel Pose! or something similar) and start feeling stressed about achieving it. Of course there is nothing wrong with having a target in mind and following a structured plan in order to reach it, but I have so much of that in other areas of my life that I want to keep my yoga practice as free and easy as possible. I’m also looking for other smaller ways to bring the chilled out holiday vibe into my daily life, perhaps doing a DIY digital detox or at least unplugging for a couple of hours every day.

What part does rest play in your work/life balance? What do you do to relax and do you find it easy to switch off?

Cook With Neff and the Great Office Bake Office

Along with a few million other people in the UK, I am obsessed with the Great British Bake Off. I love nothing more than curling up on the sofa on Wednesday nights to watch the action and tuning in again on Friday nights for An Extra Slice. There is a small but hard core Bake Off fandom at work and we get together on Thursday mornings to discuss the latest dramas over a cup of tea. I have never made a genoise sponge in my life and I didn’t know that flaounes existed until a couple of weeks ago but that doesn’t stop me critiquing the bakes every week and wishing that I had a dedicated baking work station, fancy sliding door oven and proving drawer in which to construct my own masterpieces.

So of course I said YES! when I was offered the opportunity to visit the Neff showroom in Milton Keynes and try out those famous sliding door ovens for myself. I spent the week before the event in a state of near frenzied excitement, something that was lost on my colleague when I tried to explain why I was taking a day off work. “So it’s just … an oven showroom? Well, I’ll think of you opening and closing oven doors while I’m hard at work on Friday.” However, opening and closing the oven doors was only part of the attraction. I was also hoping to pick up some insider baking knowledge to put into practice at my Office Bake Off the following month. As far as I was concerned, there was a Star Baker wooden spoon with my name on it and Neff were going to help me win it.

#CookWithNeff

Bright and early on the morning of the trip, I headed over to the rendezvous point at Marble Arch to meet up with my fellow London-based bloggers and take the coach out to Milton Keynes. We were all bright eyed and bushy tailed (or, at least in my case, heavily caffeinated) and hugely excited about “having a go with the baking show ovens” and the journey flew by in a blur of blogger chat and Bake Off predictions (as it turns out my early favourite contestant, Tamal, didn’t win but he did get to the final, so I wasn’t too far off!).

We were greeted at the Neff showroom with coffee and freshly baked cookies (seriously, they were still warm from the oven!) and then settled down to hear about our itinerary for the day (cooking and eating) and to learn about Neff’s current social media campaign – the Cookaholics – six ordinary people who love to cook, and their online community Bake It Yourself which features recipes, how-to guides, tips and cooking inspiration across Youtube, Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook.

We were given a demonstration of the ovens in Neff’s current range and talked through all their technical features. I have to admit that I wasn’t paying quite as much attention as I should have been because my fingers were itching to have a go with the slide and hide oven doors, however, we were then handed over to Lyn – Neff’s Senior Home Economist – for a hands on cooking demonstration which showcased some of the cleverer points of the Neff range.

Under Lyn’s tuition, we split into several small groups and each prepared one dish for lunch: Wild Boar & Pork Patties; Flatbreads; Smoked Salmon & Asparagus Tartlets; Goats Cheese & Caramelised Onion Tartlets; Vegetarian Tart; Grilled Vegetables and Giant Cous Cous Salad; with Chocolate Dipped Strawberries & Marshmallows for dessert and as though that wasn’t enough – scones for our afternoon tea!

Wild Boar and Pork Patties

Flatbreads

Giant CousCous Salad

Griddled Vegetables

Salmon Tartlets and Veggie Tart

Chocolate Strawberries

 

As well as being delicious, mostly healthy and very easy to cook, these dishes had the added bonus of showcasing some of the cleverer technical points of the Neff range, and I think that getting stuck in and actually using the ovens while preparing a meal was probably the best way to learn about them. In my opinion, the best features of the ovens (obviously apart from the amazing doors) are :

1. Circotherm Technology (basically, the way the air circulates around the oven). Not only does this mean that the oven needs little pre-heating, which lets face it is a bonus for a bunch of bloggers because we were far too busy taking photos of everything to bother with fiddly little things like preheating the oven, but also that there is no transference of flavours so that you can cook a variety of dishes at the same time. This was put to the test as we cooked salmon and asparagus tartlets at the same time as scones and there was absolutely no cross over of fishy taste. Another great point about Circotherm is that you can grill without needing to use a grill setting – Helen and I were in charge of making Wild Boar & Pork Patties and we ‘grilled’ these with the oven door closed which was a lot tidier (no spitting meat to deal with) and also kept the smells contained.

2. VarioSteam – (think the water tank on your iron, but for an oven) this adds moisture to optimise the baking process. If you remember the Technical Challenge in Week 6 of the Bake Off, Paul told the bakers that this is essential for baking proper baguettes – how much easier is this drawer than faffing around with trays of water?

3. Induction Hobs – these use electromagnetism to create a magnetic field between the hob and the pan, only the bottom of the pan heats up so they are more energy efficient and also safer because they won’t heat unless they have a pan on them. The hob keeps the pan at a constant temperature and this was demonstrated by melting chocolate for dipping strawberries and marshmallows directly in the pan rather than using a bain marie (check out Sophie’s blog about the event – she was in charge of the delicious desserts). However, a drawback to induction hobs is that you do need special pans to work with them, so do take this into account if you are thinking of buying one.

4.Pyrolytic cleaning (self-cleaning system for ovens). I didn’t test this feature personally because the fantastic Neff team cleaned up after us, however, I am fully in support of appliances that clean themselves. I can imagine that my mum is reading this and shaking her head in disbelief, so in the interests of full disclosure, I better admit that I have never cleaned an oven in my life – I’m perfectly happy to sacrifice in other areas to save money so that I can pay someone to do it for me. Life is too short to be scrubbing ovens!

Our day finished up with a Tear & Share Bread baking demonstration from Lyn, followed by another round of munching – this time Afternoon Tea. I rolled myself back on to the coach and spent the journey back to London dreaming about the amazing things I was going to make for my Office Bake Off a few weeks later.

The Great Office Bake Off

My office has been planning a charity bake sale for months and it turned out to be very simple to organise. Three weeks ahead of time, we sent an email out asking for volunteers to bake and gathered a list of 10 people who were willing to all make different things. We publicised the event by email every week, to get people excited about it and also to jog their memories that they would need to bring in cash on Bake Off day (and perhaps not plan a big lunch).

We set up a table in our canteen with all the cakes from 11.30 – 3.30 and asked everyone who was tasting to make a cash donation, try the bakes and vote for their favourite. We didn’t set a minimum donation amount but most people gave around £5 (although I did notice a few £20s and even a £50 when we did the cashing up – someone really likes cake!) and we ended up raising just under £400.

Office Bake Off

As it turned out, I didn’t use one of the Neff recipes for my entry into The Great Office Bake Off because I didn’t plan very well and ended up not having enough time to practice ahead of time. Instead, I used a tried and tested favourite of mine – Ancho Chilli and Chocolate Brownies. Sadly, I didn’t win the much-coveted Star Baker Wooden Spoon but I had a great time baking and tasting and am already plotting my entry for the next event!

Ancho Chilli and Dark Chocolate Brownies

Did you go to the #CookWithNeff event? Add your blog post to the link up below!