Cupcakes

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99% of the time, living with a compulsive tidier is a wonderful thing. Bins are emptied at regular intervals, yoghurt cartons are washed and recycled, the tupperware is stacked in size order, dishes never pile up in the sink and everything is put away in its place (this does often lead to confusion as ‘its place’ is usually the last place I look for something).

It is fascinating to watch Mr Oh function and I am perpetually amazed by his constant zeal for order. I, on the other hand, try really hard to be tidy but, for the life of me, cannot seem to bring myself to put clothes on hangars when there’s a perfectly good floor right beneath my feet. Things remain where I drop them regardless of whether this is a suitable location or not. My headphones often seem to be in the fruitbowl, snaked around a satsuma. My earrings are in the pen drawer. My hairbrush is on the bookshelf. My socks are under a cushion (or at least one of them is). Once every few months, I will ‘deep clean’ my life, put everything back in a logical place, feel redeemed, washed, spiritually at ease and wait until - one by one - my headphones creep back to the fruitbowl, my tweezers into the hall, my teacup into the bathroom.

Mr Oh knows where everything is. His clothes are folded neatly. Actually, mine are folded neatly too because he takes them all off the clothes rack when they’re dry, and folds them into impossibly symmetrical shapes. He knows that I would leave them on the clothes rack for weeks and take each piece off as I needed to wear it, leaving behind random and progressively larger voids until the clothes rack was sufficiently empty to justify another batch of washing. He never gets cross about my lack of tidiness and he never gripes. Occasionally he looks shocked (and perhaps slightly traumatised) by the randomness and completeness of my clutter but he never says anything. He just tidies around me. This morning I watched as he shuffled my haphazard tower of bridal magazines into a neat, size-ordered stack. I would never have bothered doing it, but feel much happier now that it’s done.

When we were travelling in China, I would ask Mr Oh every few days to ‘OCD my life’, which meant he would take everything out of my backpack, organise it and replace it in such a way that I could find things again. It brought me immense joy.

This is not to say that I’m a terribly unclean person. I colour code everything. I put seeds, herbs, nuts and things into tupperware and write the contents on the side with CD-pen. I enjoy removing all the bobbles off my clothes with the little de-fuzzing machine. I have a fundamental appreciation of order - I just have no discipline. I get tired and overwhelmed. I put the headphones in the fruit bowl because I can’t remember where ‘its place’ is. When I fold clothes, they look lopsided.

In general, as I said, it is a wonderful thing to live with someone who enjoys tidying and organising and tilting things slightly to the left to make them look symmetrical. There is only one time, as far as I can tell, when living with a compulsive tidier is bad, and this is when one is baking.

I decided that we were going to make cupcakes for mother’s day. I have never been much into baking but thought that - as an impending mother and wife - it might be something in which I should obtain some degree of competence. (Ok, mostly I just had a craving for cake smothered in buttercream).

I had never made cupcakes before so I really wanted to get this right. I spent a week researching recipes on the internet until I found one the right one. I went to Kitchen Complements and invested in a cupcake tin, cupcake cases, cupcake glitter and little sugar bumblebees and ladybirds. I dragged Mr Oh around Superquinn painstakingly assessing different types of flour, the consistency of yoghurts and the saltiness of butter. I enlisted him as a sous-chef (more successfully this time), made sure he was in bed early the night before and woke him up at the crack of dawn on Mother’s Day to embark upon our inaugural foray into the world of baked goods.

In the style of a true television chef, I decided to make sure that all my required ingredients were prepared in advance in the correct amounts. I put on an apron. I cut things and weighed them and put them into tiny glass bowls. When everything was set out and I had welcomed my imaginary audience to my Sunday morning baking show, I began - with the help of my sous-chef - to make cupcakes. This went very well and within minutes, the cupcakes were goldening nicely in the oven.

I turned my attention to the white chocolate buttercream icing. I had chocolate. I had icing sugar. I had soft room-temperature butter...except that I didn’t because in a compulsive tidying fit, my sous-chef had put the butter back in the fridge. I took it out again and turned my attention to melting the chocolate. When this was finished I looked around to find the butter once again missing. He had put it back it the fridge again! He had to be distracted with chocolate and tea long enough for the butter to reach room temperature - luckily he is also easily distracted.

Ta da!

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Nom, nom, nom….doh!

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Pregnancy is a constant battle between trying to do the right thing and retaining a modicum of common sense and perspective. It is a condition that panders to the fears and small dramatics of those pre-disposed to hysteria, hypochondria, paranoia and low-level insanity. As I have been periodically guilty of all these things to a greater or lesser degree (usually greater) I am at greater risk than most of losing the plot entirely. Luckily, I seem to be hanging on in there, possibly because when I’m about to careen over the edge of crazy Mr Oh slaps me across the face (metaphorically) and puts me on the naughty chair until I regain composure (only kind of metaphorically).

Mr Oh has had to ban me from Googling every single thing I eat, drink and do in advance to see if it’s safe for the baby. It surprises me though how the most bizarre stuff seems to have reams of information already available. You can Google everything from ‘Will eating fish make my baby a better swimmer?’ to ‘Does wearing the colour pink during pregnancy lead to birth defects’ and be guaranteed that someone has both asked and answered the question before.

Where there is a risk that something might not be good for an unborn child, the general approach of the internet is not to say ‘that’s ridiculous’ or even ‘while there’s absolutely no evidence to prove that eating Percy Pigs when pregnant will make your baby ugly, if you’re concerned about it, you may wish to abstain from the delicious treats until after the birth’. Rather they say ‘Yes, it is absolutely possibly that eating Percy Pigs in pregnancy may indeed be linked to an increased incidence of ugliness in babies. While there is not yet any scientific evidence - or any evidence at all - supporting this admittedly random hypothesis you should not eat any Percy Pigs when pregnant...just in case. If you ignore this warning and your baby does indeed turn out ugly, it will be your fault and the child should be taken away from you”.

There are some things that you probably shouldn’t eat/do when pregnant. Take class A drugs for example. Nobody wants their baby to be born addicted to crack-cocaine. Smoking is another thing that is probably not a great pastime to be at when pregnant and it makes me very uncomfortable seeing heavily pregnant women standing outside the maternity hospital puffing away. This said, I think people generally need to lighten up a bit - for some women who would have smoked heavily before pregnancy, giving up entirely may be practically impossible. They may occasionally cave and have one or two cigarettes. It’s not great but there are far worse things that women do during pregnancy that are judged much less harshly by society. Stress, for example.

One of the worst things you can do to your baby is be stressed. The stress hormone is passed to your baby through the umbilical cord and no one really knows the harmful effects that consistently increased stress levels have on a baby in the womb. I don’t imagine it’s good, though, considering the hugely destructive effect stress has on fully grown adults. If having a cigarette occasionally or a glass of wine reduces stress in the mother, there is a good chance that there is a net benefit to the unborn of this action. Also, overwork and lack of sleep. There were a few weeks last month where I was doing 10-12 hour days most nights in work. It really wasn’t good for me and I was exhausted and drained which can’t be an optimal pro-creating environment but because it wasn’t stigmatized as ‘something bad mothers do’, no one really said anything to me except in a kind of congratulatory way e.g. ‘look at you working so hard even though you’re pregnant, aren’t you great’....when all I could think was ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, I need to go home, lie down and eat Percy Pigs’.

Alcohol is probably the most cointreauversial pregnancy related issue around and one that very few people (apart from the French) are capable of having a sensible approach to. My doctor warned me about the dangers of getting wasted but seemed unconcerned by everything else. American websites are positively militant in their approach ‘No alcohol...no way...not even a cherry liqueur bon-bon...BAD MOTHER!!...the shame’. I imagine that having a glass of wine while obviously pregnant in an American restaurant may well carry with it the risk of public stoning. Even in Ireland, I hate to say, I’m at the stage where I’m reluctant to have a glass of wine in case people give me dirty looks, or worse...say something! God forbid - I’d be mortified. Luckily though, Irish people are so terrified of mistakenly assuming that someone is pregnant when they may just be a bit pudgy that I reckon you’d have to be crowning in the pub before they’d suggest that you might want to put down the pint.

The French apparently drink wine in moderation all throughout pregnancy without any negative effects (other than being born French). My approach is that I will drink a glass of wine or two when I feel like it and when the wine is suitably expensive. I don’t risk public humiliation for plonk.

The list of things you shouldn’t consume doesn’t stop there. Soft mould-ripened unpasteurized cheeses are apparently out because of risk of listeria but there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about this. I heard from the people in the cheesemonger (experts surely?) that pasteurised or unpasteurised is irrelevant and what is important is the age of the cheese. Anything under 9 months could carry listeria. Anything over that will be safe. This means that most soft cheese are risky but that stilton is back in the running (hooray!). Also anything you buy in Tesco is safe because it’s generally been whipped to within an inch of its life by a processing machine and listeria couldn’t survive near it. But the key thing about cheese is that, if it’s hot, listeria is killed so bring on the deep-fried brie!

Salami is another baddie, and actually any cold deli meats because they are uncooked and could also carry listeria and other things. The listeria thing would also apply to all salads, fruit, raw veg, deli items that you hadn’t washed yourself or that weren’t served hot. By this rationale, pregnant women should not eat any store bought or restaurant/deli-made sandwiches or salads. You could risk it....but you’d be a bad mother for putting your baby in danger.

You’re also a bad mother if you drink herbal tea which hasn’t been clinically proven as safe. Even camomile may have a negative effect on baby. All regular tea or coffee and soft drinks are very bad because of the caffeine. Raw fruit juice also may harbour listeria.

Salmon, tuna and swordfish contain mercury. Liver is totally out in all its forms because of harmful levels of vitamin A which can cause birth defects. All forms of paté, whether made with liver or not, also on the listeria risk-list (unless hot). Shellfish - bad. Any raw meat/fish - bad. Homemade mayonaise or mousses made with raw egg - bad. Soft-serve or homemade ice-cream - bad. Eggs that aren’t hardboiled - bad. All salad - bad. Anything with processed sugar - bad. All meat that’s not welldone - bad.

This basically reduces the pregnant woman diet to boiled rice, steamed broccoli and hot water. It’s unpleasant and also, I think unnecessary.

I had a craving for sushi on Friday (actually my craving was for raw salmon smothered in soft blue cheese). We went to Yamamori Japanese restaurant and I explained to the waiter that I couldn’t eat raw fish but still wanted sushi so could he recommend anything. He said I could have a California roll (cooked crab and avocado) sushi. Although this was ‘technically’ still on the no-go list because the ingredients were cold I decided to order one. He then told me - somewhat hesitantly in case I freaked out - that all the pregnant Japanese women in the restaurant had no problem eating raw fish sushi. I sighed.

I know this to be the case. In the same way that French women drink lots of wine while eating cold brie and American women eat salad in restaurants but would rather be consumed alive by ants than touch wine....Japanese women eat raw fish. None of this illicit activity effects their babies in any measurable or quantifiable way. Listeria is incredibly rare and I’m convinced that the stress of being obsessed with everything you eat is more likely to make your baby neurotic in later life...but once I know that eating raw fish could be dangerous, I can’t risk it because then I’d be a bad mother and it would be my fault if anything happened. I should never have Googled any of this in the first place.

There are other things that bad mothers do. They sleep on their backs. Apparently this squishes some artery which deprives your baby of nutrients. Most mornings I wake up on my back and silently panic for ten minutes until the baby kicks and tells me that despite my evil unconscious back-sleeping habit, he’s still ok in there. Bad mothers also use mobile phones which can cause ADHD in babies. I reckon that my baby already has ADHD (inherited from Mr Oh who is incapable of sitting still) but have moved the phone its usual position (under my pillow - oops!) to a drawer. Bad mothers have hot baths and showers (overheating can cause birth defects). Bad mothers have contact with reptiles (I’ve had our pet cobra put down). Bad mothers eat junk food. Find me a woman who did not eat an unusual number of Big Macs/chicken nuggets/cheese nachos during the first three months of morning sickness when nothing else would stay down and I’ll show you a woman with selective memory - or one who didn’t really have morning sickness at all. Bad mothers drink tap water (we’re a San Pellegrino household).

So I’ve decided to get a grip and take a less stringent approach to what I eat. No liver. No smoking. No getting drunk. No raw shellfish, fish or meat. No raw egg. No cold, young, mold-ripened cheese (doesn’t sound particularly appealing when you put it like that anyway). I’m undecided about crack-cocaine.

On the pro-active side I will endeavor to go to yoga twice a week, drink lots of sparkling mineral water, work normal hours, not get stressed, get lots of sleep, try to eat in quality establishments where the food is unlikely to be coated in e-coli, and drink at least two glasses of wine a week....in public.

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Dinner for Eight

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I have learned that when hosting a dinner party for eight people while five months pregnant, there are a number of factors critical for making sure that you are the very best hostess that you can possibly be. Allow me to share some of these with you.

Prepare your menu a few days beforehand and work out exactly what ingredients and equipment you will need.
Choose a one-pot dish that will easily feed your mountains of hungry guests and can be prepared a few hours in advance so as to avoid last minute panics.
Ask for help from friends in bringing other courses. Note: when your lovely friend Eimear jokingly offers to make a giant swan-shaped meringue, best to laugh and thank her for the kind offer and suggest something a bit more low maintenance. Do not dare her to do it.
Go shopping the day before the party and stock up on everything you’ll need.
Make sure you have enough wine. A good tip is to estimate the number of bottles you think your friends will drink....then triple it.
Enlist a sous-chef to help you on the day. Perhaps someone you live with or to whom you are engaged.
Ensure that your sous-chef does not go on an all night bender the night before the dinner party with the result that he (or she, because this could happen to anyone) is hungover, unconscious and useless the next day when the cooking is taking place.
Ensure that your sous-chef does not continue drinking on the night of the dinner party with the result that he or she is hungover, unconscious and useless the day after that when the cleaning up is taking place.

I totally rocked the first six points but sadly fell down on points 6 & 7. In my sous-chef’s defence, it was not his intention to be in an alcohol induced mini-coma when all the serious work was taking place. He didn’t even go out until after I was safely tucked up in bed at 10pm. The next thing I knew, it was 3am and a homicidal maniac with one arm had broken into the house and was trying to kill me with a kitchen knife, or at least this is what I thought when I woke up in terror before realising it was just one of those incredibly vivid dreams that you’re supposed to get during pregnancy. The last crazy pregnancy dream I had was about skiing down a mountain made of soft-whip ice-cream with rainbow sprinkles which was infinitely more appealing (although slightly stickier).

I decided not to risk going back to sleep in case the next dream finished me off so I rang my absentee sous-chef and pretended not to sound like the insane, terrified, emotional wreck I was and calmly asked him when I might expect his return. He indicated that this might be shortly but it ended up being 5.15 am. I know this because I was propped up awake peering through the back window every two minutes for signs of homicidal maniacs.

On his return, the sous-chef was both profound, profoundly uncoordinated and within a very short space of time, profoundly dead to the world. Relieved that I was now safe to continue sleeping, I drifted gratefully back into slumber but, alas, it was not to be. It seems that people who have been drinking until 5.15 tend to snore and don’t wake up when you poke them (or when you kick them, pull their hair or pull back their eyelids and touch their eyeballs). I tossed and turned until 7 when I finally succumbed to sleep. At 7.30am the slumbering sous-chef’s phone alarm went off and he did not wake up to turn it off. I let it go to see how long it would take him to turn it off but after five minutes I gave up and turned it off myself. There was no more sleep and at 9am I hauled myself out of bed to begin the process of preparing a dinner party for eight people, sans sous chef.

Five hours later, a lovely boeuf bourguignon and two types of salad were prepared and my sous chef appeared in time to make me sandwiches and send me babbling and semi-hysterical back to bed for a few hours of rest before the dinner party which went splendidly in the end even though the sous-chef was incredibly hungover and the beautiful meringue swan was decapitated at some point on its journey from Eimear’s house to ours. Giant meringue swans do not travel well (but they taste just as good headless).

I could not stay cross with the sous-chef-who-wasn’t. The pain and misery of his three day hangover was enough punishment (plus I also told his mother on him).

PS - the photo above is what a swan meringue look like when it has not been decapitated. We didn’t take photos of our poor headless swan as it would have been in bad taste.

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