Luxury on a Budget: Afternoon Tea

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I’ve said it before and I still mean it: When you’re trying to save money, luxuries have to come first. It’s not just possible to enjoy a little luxury while sticking to your budget; it’s absolutely essential. If life has no space for a bit of pleasure now and then, what on earth are you budgeting for?

There’s good news for your bank account, though. When it comes to enjoying a luxury, the thing itself is only part of the package. The main point is the quality of the experience. And the good thing about that is that it means you can have a whole lot of indulgence without spending very much. One happy little low-cost luxury enjoyed in Australian homes, schools and workplaces is morning and afternoon tea.

Japan understood the importance of teatime very well, changing the brew from hot matcha or oolong in winter to cold green or barley tea in summer, enjoyed with a variety of sweet or salted snacks. China and Hong Kong enjoy formal and informal teatimes, including yum cha, the ultimate tea break. South Americans sip volcanic mate, while India and the U.K. both enjoy their morning and afternoon tiffin with savouries and sweets (hence the Australian and New Zealander taste for the experience). Whenever you enjoy it and whatever you call it, when it comes to luxury on a budget, teatime is right up there with foot massages for pleasure and value for money.

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Being Australian, Kin and I have always enjoyed our morning and afternoon teas, but we only started making an event of it during our first Japanese winter. Maybe being indoors so much caused us to try and make it a richer experience or maybe the frozen landscape so far from home caused us to invoke the spirits of our ancestors with their tin teapots, fruitcake, scones and blessed, blessed heat. Whatever our reason for starting, we kept it going all through that winter and now, two years later, we still haven’t stopped. No matter how busy or wretched the day, we always come together in the afternoon to enjoy a little oasis of peace and pleasant sensations.

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Remember that word, please! PEACE is the point to your afternoon tea. This is an everyday event, so it’s not supposed to cause you any stress or problems. With peace in mind, here are a couple of my simplest, most reliable recipes for teatime treats:

(All measures are Australian and metric. I’ll include a conversion chart on the site soon, but for now, look them up here.)

Banana Bread

The simplest thing to make in the entire universe. I’m not even kidding; I have left entire ingredients out of this recipe before, and it still keeps coming up edible.

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  • 3 tbsp olive oil (or other vegetable oil)                                          – 2 cups self raising flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar                                                                                                          – 3 eggs
  • ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)                                         – ½ tsp salt
  • 4 large or 5-6 small mashed bananas

Preheat oven to 180 C. Grease loaf tin and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat sugar, oil and eggs together until light and fluffy. Beat in bananas (if you’re using an electric mixer, you don’t even have to mash them, just dump them in one at a time and let the mixer squoosh them). Sift dry ingredients into the bowl and mix well. It should still be pretty liquid at this stage.

Pour mixture into tin and place in oven. Bake for about an hour; shorter if you like things heavy and moist, longer if you like them fluffy and light. Simple! Slice and eat hot, cold, toasted with honey or however you prefer.

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Butter cake with passionfruit icing

Up until Japan, I baked my cakes in regular, round cake tin. Nagahama, however, had never heard of such a thing, so I wound up instead having to buy two tiny loaf tins and bake two tiny cakes …. which has turned out to be the best thing ever. I now get one cake to eat and another to freeze for the next time I fancy cake and don’t feel like baking (and sometimes when a woman needs cake, she needs it right away!) Other advantages are that small cakes get eaten quickly, even if you don’t have any visitors for a few days and they also make portion control much easier. Kin could happily eat an entire meal of cake, so he likes the small ones; for some reason, it’s much easier to cut yourself a small slice of a small cake than it is to cut a small slice from a large cake.

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Butter cake (Margaret Fulton):  

  • 125g butter (half a block)                                                                 – 2 cups self raising flour
  • ¾ cup caster sugar                                                                              – 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla                                                                                             – ¾ cup milk
  • Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 180 C. Grease your cake tin/s and set aside.

Cream butter with vanilla and sugar until it looks white and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time until thoroughly combined. Sift flour and salt together three times and fold into mixture alternately with milk, using a spatula or wooden spoon.

(I regularly skip this careful sifting and the cake still turns out pretty good, so if you’re in a hurry, just stir it up and go)

Dollop mixture into tin/s and place in oven. Bake for 30 minutes (twenty-five, if using two pans).

Icing:                    

  • 1 cup icing sugar                                                                                          – 1 tbsp melted butter
  • 2-3 tbsp passionfruit pulp

Makes enough for one of the little loaf-cakes, so if you’ve made a big cake, double up.

Using a spatula or a bread and butter knife, mix the lot together in a bowl, then spread it on top of the cooled cake. Too simple! I also often replace the passionfruit with whatever citrus is handy; use a few tbsp of the juice and grate up a few teaspoonsful of zest to mix through as well.

Sultana scones

Slightly more tricky here: If you want these guys at their best, you actually have to cook them at teatime. Scones are a teatime staple for a reason, though; they’re cheap, quick, pretty easy and bloody awesome. I like plain scones with jam and cream, but Nagahama sometimes had trouble providing these, so sultana ones with butter were a good mainstay.

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  • 60g chilled, chopped butter                                                                 – 2 cups self-raising flour
  • ½ cup sultanas                                                                                        – ½ cup milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 200 C. Grease a baking tray or dust it with plain flour and set aside.

Sift flour into a bowl and then rub in the butter with your fingers until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Give the bowl a thump on your benchtop every now and then, to bring the big lumps to the surface. Stir in the sultanas. Make a well in the centre of your mixture and very slowly pour in the milk, stirring quickly with a butter knife until you have a dough. You may not need all of it, so watch out; if your mixture gets too sticky, you’ll have to dust it with a bit more flour.

This next step is where all recipe book authors turn out to be filthy liars. They will now tell you to turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it until smooth. Do NOT do this, unless you enjoy eating grey, tasteless lumps. Instead, gather the dough gently into a ball, turn it out onto the lightly floured surface and then carefully fold and press it a couple of times until it looks like it’s fairly well combined. You may only need to do this two or three times and remember to be gentle!

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Roll the dough out until it’s about two cm thick. Use a biscuit cutter or the top of a small water glass to cut scones from the dough (probably 16-17 of them). Place on the tray about 1cm apart and brush them with a little milk. Bake them for about ten minutes or until they sound hollow when you tap them on the bottom. Serve hot, with butter!

Even at 1/3 cup, these scones aren’t super sweet; I’ll add more or less sugar depending on how we feel. If they turn out to not be sweet enough for you, these scones are lovely with some honey or stewed blueberries.

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Morning and afternoon tea are small, light meals, with the main focus being your chosen drink, rather than food. On working days, our afternoon tea is as simple as coffee for Kin and a pot of tea for me, with some little treat like a slice of cake or some good fruit or mochi. On non-working days we become a little more elaborate and along with our sweets, we also enjoy things like olives, devilled eggs, little sandwiches and other small, savoury items. The point isn’t the food, it’s the event; a period of stillness, pleasant sensations and happiness in solitude or in good company. Stuffing yourself with half a cake is no luxury at all; but slice of it with afternoon tea is an experience to savour.

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Tea’s up!

Gem

XX

Transition

It’s been a long hard, couple of months since I received that greeting from the ol’ home town. Unfortunately for us, that was only a harbinger of what would next be splashed in our direction. So where have we been, you ask?

Actually, most of you stopped asking about two months ago, but for those of you who still are (a surprising number) we have been suffering a low-level, first-world agony that a lot of people probably don’t relate to, but for us has been terrible. We’ve been homeless!

Not desperate, on-the-streets, sleeping-in-the-car homeless; first world, supportive environment, surfing couches homeless, and most of the past few months have been spent with my long-suffering parents in their tiny, five room miner’s cottage in the country. Neither of them complained, of course, but to suddenly have an adult child, her husband and both of the pair’s possessions stuffed into a space set up for two people must have been a strain. Especially since we couldn’t tell them when the situation was going to end. Luckily, in the country there’s enough room outdoors for even freeloaders to have some space.

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But it wasn’t much fun, either. Home is very important to Kin and I. It’s where we socialise, rest and do a lot of our work. Normally, wherever we go, we manage to haul a bit of home along with us, whether we’re in a campsite, hotel room or a shared bed in a dormitory. While our friends immediately rush out to explore, we first spend an hour or two arranging and provisioning our base. When we left Japan, though, we packed home up and sent it away, cheerfully believing that we would unpack it at the other end in a week or two.

It’s been four months.

Strictly speaking, we moved back in a month ago, but that was the beginning of a three-week period that was just too depressing to blog about. If we weren’t at work, we were scouring dirt, mould and grease off every surface, in a suffocating miasma of hot water, sugar soap and cockroach droppings (a nightmare aromatherapy that is going to take a lot of time to recover from). Our best efforts, however, couldn’t exorcise the smell from the carpet or some of the wall stains, so we’ve been camping on a sheet of plastic on the grubby boards in our bedroom, waiting for the landlord’s magical army of carpeters, builders, painters and other wizards to perform their glorious work. Thus, our possessions have remained in their boxes, awaiting rediscovery.

Kasasan in the dining room

Now, much mending has been done, a new, terrifyingly pale carpet has been laid, and while, there is still a lot of carpentry and painting to be done, we have moved in some furniture and tentatively unpacked a couple of boxes.  Kin has (mostly) set up his computers, I have (mostly) sorted out my kitchen, we have both (mostly) shelved our books and we’re feeling much more at peace.

And, while unsettled, things haven’t actually been bad. It was lovely seeing so much of my parents (and, briefly, my sister!) and we’ve still been working on things that make us happy. Kin, using a desk he made from two upturned cabinets and a wardrobe door, has finished his Maned Wolf motion study.

Maned Wolf

And I, once the worst of the house was scrubbed away, flung myself into the garden and have been happily weeding, planting and consuming copious amounts of dirt and red wine from a teacup. Our first greens are already sandwich-sized!

Little red rainbow chard

Not terribly impressive until you see what I was working from.

See? I’ve been busy!

We’re busy and tired, and the house is still stuffed with builder’s rubble, ripped garbage bags and battered cardboard boxes. But we’ve managed to recapture just one or two little spaces that make the place our home, and the energy and peace that gives us both has to be felt to be believed.

To home and happy spaces!

Gem

XX

June Was….

Apologies for two gallery posts in a row, but it’s that time! We’ve bid farewell to June and are gearing up for a frankly horrible July… so we’re lucky we have such wonderful things to remember!

June was lovely meals, trips to Kyoto and wanders at wonderful Fushimi Inari; this time with Gem’s older sister and family who came to visit early in the month (our last visitors in Japan!) Nagahama has resumed regular warm-weather routines and we received more visits from our friends, the rat snakes. Kin’s school also had a much more exciting visit from sumo champion Hakuhō Shō and several members of his stable. And, of course, June was Gem’s graduation ceremony to a slightly higher grade of tea ceremony practice.

June was warm, family-filled and very, very busy… but was still nothing compared to the madness that will be July. Wish us luck, everyone!

(Gem will add a more complete gallery to our Facebook and Flickr pages later in the week!)

Gem and Kin

 

 

Fuss and Budgets

By Gem

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Enroute is having money worries! Saving for a house has seen us put away a respectable stash, but now we’re soon to leave our jobs, leave the country and start taking some very big chances…… and that means we’re nervously facing the fact that our savings are likely to take a kicking over the rest of 2014. There are tough times ahead, we’re a little anxious, but we know it’s time to make some hard decisions.

So we spent lots of money and bought a camera!

You WHAT?

When we were young, Kin and I both had our own special ways of being terrible with money. In our defence, please note that we’ve always paid our rent and bills and never had our phones cut off. But once these essentials were out of the way, our spending habits were atrocious.

Bad Spending – Gem-Style

My dreadful money method was to meticulously plan where absolutely every dollar should go and to deny myself pretty much anything I wanted, pretty much all of the time. This allowed me to accumulate some savings… which were then decimated at intervals when the rigid discipline became too much and I went temporarily buy-crazy.

Result? Despite the constant threat of nest-egg annihilation, I never seemed to obtain anything I wanted. (Buy-crazy shopping is not well-considered shopping.)

Bad Spending – Kin-Style

Kin, on the other hand, would frantically spend anything he earned or received as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, he never thought very hard about what to spend it on, so his money would just evaporate, leaving him with nothing between pays.

Result?  No savings mean a person has very little money at a time; and that means that Kin never got much that he wanted either! To make things worse, he also ran up some emergency debt (although not very much, thankfully; one of the good things about being in a low income bracket in your twenties is no-one wants to lend you money!)

So. Neither of us had much money (although I had slightly more than Kin) and neither of us were able to have nice things (although Kin had slightly more than me). Day to day, life was okay, but we were both just treading water; neither of us were ever in a position to improve things for ourselves.

Then, one day, we met, we moved in together and we combined our finances. And we combined our opposing ideas on how to manage those finances.  And together, we developed our most important household rule:

Budget Luxuries FIRST

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This isn’t the disaster it sounds like! The key words here are different for each of us, but the rule helps us both.

For me, the keywords are “Luxuries FIRST”. I like a good fait accompli and am happy to simply sit on money I don’t yet have a purpose for, so I will stick to a spending plan, even if it means having to scrape every last coin out of the couch, make scratch meals out of pantry scraps and home-grown vegetables and wash the dishes with soap. Because of that, it’s actually quite easy for me to sacrifice after the fact, especially since I already have my lovely indulgences to make me happy!

For Kin, who could happily get through the lot, the keywords are “Budget FIRST”. This means that before he spends any money in a pay period he has to think about what he actually wants, not just this month, but in the short and long term future. Actually setting aside physical containers to hold money for different purposes can be helpful for this sort of person. For example, you might have one envelope with money for restaurant meals, another with money for a new mattress, and so on. Doing things this way means that there is no large pool of cash for you to draw from to dilute the sacrifice; every time you spend, you will have to decide which area is going to take the hit. Watching your holiday, bicycle or pretty dress dribble away a few dollars at a time is a wonderful way to focus your attention on unnecessary spending.

If you don’t like keeping cash in the house, having separate bank accounts for your different kinds of spending can work (this guy has a lot to say on that topic, if you can avoid the advertising) but you really need to stay on top of fees and taxation.

But please remember: We budget luxuries first out of our household SPENDING money. We do NOT prioritise them over our rent, bills or savings. If you or your partner just flat-out can’t be trusted right now, this would be a terrible idea for you (you need to think about more basic goals, like these or these). There are also a lot of low-cost ways to obtain your pleasures, and I’m looking forward to talking about them later on!

Where do you fit luxury into your life? Where are you prepared to sacrifice and where do you indulge?

Happy (frugal) hedonism!

Gem

XX

Look Who Came to Visit!

Contemplative frog

It’s spring alright! The rice fields are green and full of joy (for frogs) and the nights are dark and full of lurve… also for frogs. As well as having bats to watch, every evening we can also listen to the chorus of croaking from all directions.

Of course, all of this activity means that other creatures are becoming active too, including this fellow:

Snake I, swimming

This is a Japanese rat snake (Elaphe climacophora) that I spotted while watering the beans. It seemed pretty determined to work its way up the canal, so we figured it was heading out to the big rice fields to find frogs like the one above. Being Australian, I immediately yelled for Kin to grab his camera and he raced up the canal in pursuit.

Lurksnake

Unfortunately, his model did NOT feel cooperative. Rat snakes are quite timid (and, apparently, very bitey) so it decided to try and pretend that it wasn’t there and wait for the camera to go away.

Kin was a little disappointed but, as it turns out, he didn’t need to be! When I went for a run along the same canal, I found another friend for him to photograph!

Snake II; full length

Another rat snake! They must be everywhere at the moment! This one seemed a little less timid than the first and allowed Kin and his camera to get quite close. It was proceeding in the same direction as the other fellow, so there must be something attractive (to snakes) in that part of town.

Snake II, head, higher angle

Hello, snake II!

It seems that Japanese people respond to rat snakes much the same way as Australians do to carpet pythons, so our friends should have a safe journey, wherever they’re going. It was lovely to see these beauties and we wish them well on their travels. It’s also fun giving our U.S. friends the screaming heebie-jeebies with these photos!

Is anyone interesting out and about in your area? Have they come to say hello?

We’ve just made a Flickr account, so I’m gradually uploading our photos there (including our Facebook albums). If you want to see more snake pictures or others (soon), please come and visit us!

Gem,

XX