Making a decision about careers – a job in itself!

When I started this blog, I said I would write about my experiences as a graduate – when you hear graduate, you immediately think of the dire unemployment statistics (at least in the UK, anyway). The latest unemployment figures show that graduate employment is at a record high, with a quarter of the most-recent graduates still not employed in any kind of work after graduating nine months ago (which is on par with those who didn’t attend college or university). Although I would say I am lucky in that finding paid work hasn’t necessarily been a struggle for me so far (more on that later) I, myself, have spent a fair bit of time stood in the dole queue whilst waiting for my job to start, quite possibly the most depressing place on earth. The people there range from those that have been made redundant in the recession (as some of my family were) who are trying to raise children and desperately put food on the table, to university leavers like myself, to those who blatantly have no intention of finding any sort of paid work, and are more than happy to live off the state while slobbing around on the sofa, beer in hand, watching, or even appearing on, Jeremy Kyle (I’m not knocking this, I love a bit of Jezza). If you think I’m generalising, I don’t mean to, this is my direct experience, and I found that the latter actually received preferential treatment from the jobcentre – I think the poor staff just wanted them to stop shouting at them and make them go away as quickly as possible.

The past few years have quite possibly been the worst time ever to attend university. Course fees are getting higher and higher (thanks, Nick Clegg, for conning students into voting for you, then reward them by being too weak-willed to oppose the fee rises) whilst employment prospects are getting lower and lower. Yet, as part of the baby boom generation, we were brought up to believe that we could achieve whatever we wanted to, and thanks to the feminist push for equality, this included women also. Do the statistics now mean we should turn our back on our dreams and aspirations and settle for second best?

I still don’t think so. Although I am the first to admit I am afraid of things falling apart, the fear of failing isn’t as awful as the fear of getting to your deathbed, and regretting all the things you haven’t done – the fear of ‘what if’ is terrifying. I’ve found, if you work hard enough, someone, somewhere, will notice you. After graduating, I sent out hundreds of application letters to all sorts of different jobs – at that point, after a psychology degree, I felt I should pursue a career relating to this, but I wasn’t choosy about what I went for. I applied for everything from care assistant jobs to assistant psychologist posts (incredibly optimistic)…however, despite the current economic climate, I was choosy about what job I actually took. After spending half a day at one care home witnessing the horrific way the residents were treated, I walked out and never returned.

I was finally offered an interview at a psychiatric hospital (the very one where the word ‘bedlam’ originated from…I would soon find out why after I took up the post!) and was one of the lucky 8 who were offered a job out of 30 after a day of group tasks, improvisation, answering questions we hadn’t prepared for, and individual interviews. I later found out that over 300 people had applied for job.

I’m making this point because I am no more special that anyone else, I just spent a lot of time and effort on my applications, worked hard at the interview and had a genuine desire to get the job. I believe it was a case of being in the right place at the right time – the other hundreds of employers clearly looked at my CV and application and threw it straight in the bin, while this one thought I might be good enough for the job. I strongly believe that, particularly in today’s market, persistence is the most important quality to have.

As it turned out, the job didn’t work out. It was literally bedlam. I’m now working as a special needs teaching assistant which, don’t get me wrong, is extremely challenging, but I adore all of the children, and love seeing them each day.

Now, despite how confident I may seem about going for your dream, I have another side of me which craves the security of a stable job and good money, as it’s one less thing to worry about and, yes, although money isn’t everything, being able to afford a nice house, car and lifestyle certainly helps! I strongly want to be able to stand on my own two feet. So I have found myself at a crossroads about what I want to do next year. I feel that it’s time to move on from this job, and have been offered a place on a teacher training course which, although it is a great opportunity, I am now having doubts about. From this, I’d hope to go on to train as an educational psychologist in the future. On the other hand, I have always wanted to be a journalist. I suppose you would describe it as my dream. Both are equally as competitive, and yet somehow, becoming a journalist feels like the more risky option. Possibly because I want it more, it means the fear of failing is even greater? Or perhaps it’s the feeling of not being good enough? Either way, it is a genuine dilemma, and I have no idea what to do. Maybe I should settle for the safe option – after all, there is no dispute that these are difficult times with no sign of light on the horizon. Or, maybe I should join my friends, the majority of whom are feeling despondent after facing rejections on a daily basis, and are living hand-to-mouth, but are staying true to themselves and chasing after what they really want to do. After all, there’s always the lottery to fall back on. Perhaps I need to put myself in the slippers of my future grey-haired, wrinkly self, lying on that bed, wishing she could give a naive 22 year-old the kick up the arse she needs to chase after what she really wants…

Advertisements

Get stuffed! (for beginners): Stuffed chicken wrapped in parma ham with cheesy potatoes and veg

So this is the first time I have cooked a proper homemade, keep-an-eye-on-the timings, no-microwave-involved (well, maybe a little) meal for a family. Ever. And the fact it is my family that will be on the receiving end of my culinary blood, sweat and tears makes this even more nerve-racking.

To explain, my stepfather is the undisputed master of blunt, obscure criticism (‘are you going to get changed before we go out?’), usually cuttingly delivered as he lounges on the sofa, one eye on the tv, beer can in hand, completely oblivious to the effect his unwitting remarks have. I have observed many a fiery argument between him and his daughter with this issue as the root cause. At least, being her only child, I can rely on my mother to say nice things regardless of how foul tasting, or burnt my well-intentioned meal turns out to be. Hopefully.

 

Ingredients (for 4 people)

200g low-fat cream cheese

Spinich

Chives, chopped finely

Cherry tomatoes

4 chicken breasts

4 medium jacket potatoes

8 slices of parma ham

Cheese (the amount depends on how cheesy you like your potatoes!)

Vegetables of your choice (I used broccoli, carrots and asparagus)

I largely made this recipe up from a few different ones I found courtesy of a google search and adapted it as I went along, so if you do attempt this, you may find you need to do the same! I’ll post the recipe then post details of how I found each step underneath.

1. Put jacket potatoes in oven (200˚c) for 50 minutes

(I found the potatoes still weren’t cooked after this amount of time, so I slung them in the microwave – shh… – for another couple of minutes afterwards, which did the trick)

2. Split chicken breasts down the middle, making a pocket, and spoon 120g of the cream cheese, mixed with chives, into it.

(This was bloody difficult. Far harder than I expected, especially actually cutting the chicken breasts. It was like cutting into rubber! Use a good, sharp knife, try not the puncture through the bottom, or opposite side of the chicken – like I did – and ‘spoon’ the cream cheese in with a knife…not a spoon. Thankfully, if you do go wrong, you can still be saved by the next step. I also thought putting some cherry tomatoes in the chicken would be good, but I couldn’t find any room to stuff mine in!)

3. Wrap each chicken breast in a slice of parma ham

(Now this is what the recipe officially recommends…but, especially if you’re a beginner, use 2 slices. This means you can trap the cream cheese more easily if it’s oozing everywhere! Also, be aware that parma ham is ridiculously thin, and mine broke apart continuously. In fact, it was at this point I exclaimed to my despairing mother ‘who the hell would find cooking relaxing?! I’m never doing it again!’)

4. Put chicken breasts in the oven for 35-40 minutes (make sure juices run clear)

(Relief. Now I just needed to make sure I didn’t poison the family)

5. Prepare the vegetables

(By this point I realised I had tons of vegetables and had to think of creative ways to include them on the plate. I ended up boiling the carrots and broccoli for around 8 minutes, and the asparagus for 4. Do this step just before you get the chicken out so the vegetables don’t get cold)

6. Take out chicken breasts and jacket potatoes

(Make sure everything’s cooked – my chicken was possibly a little dry because I’d been overcautious to ensure any risk of salmonella had been zapped – and my potatoes were quite undercooked. Hello microwave!)

7. Take out pulp of potato and mix with butter, cream cheese, chives, spinich and finely chopped cherry tomatoes. Grate some cheese on top, and return to oven for 5-10 minutes

(Literally, at this point, everything went wrong. The vegetables were cooking at different rates, some potatoes were still in the microwave, and I was desperately attempting to get everything mixed into the potato pulp whilst scorching my fingers and cursing under my breath. Eventually, and I hate to admit this, I had to call for assistance from my on-standby mother. However, this is the woman who purchases ready-made mashed potato from the supermarket so, even with the combined force of the two of us, I wasn’t expecting miracles)

8. Serve

(Thank God! It was over! I wanted to serve the chicken in a slightly more fancy way, so I placed the chicken on a bed of spinach, and arranged some cherry tomatoes around this. Then plonked the potatoes and vegetables on as fast as I could as I was starving).

So the final verdict – I’d say not a bad attempt, but certainly not a resounding success (I had to call in my mum for a start – shameful!) I found some of the filling had escaped from the chicken when in the oven (due to idiotic wrapping with the parma ham) so the chicken was slightly dry. I loved the potato concoction, this was my favourite part, although again it could have done with a bit more moisture, so possibly add some milk to the pulp when mixing (adding milk seems increasingly to be common guesswork in my recipes!) Overall, it was a nice meal, though I should point out the portion size was HUGE (not a problem in our family, we are human dustbins). But the biggest success – not one word of criticism from the notoriously critical stepfather. Not one! Unfortunately this didn’t last and, later that night my new haircut got a rather severe, classically oblivious bashing as we ate our pudding….

The trials and tribulations of relationships…and banoffee pie.

I once made this with an ex-boyfriend of mine – the cake turned out to be far more successful than the relationship so, as a now-singleton, I thought I’d have another solo attempt at it. It is actually my favourite desert, and is particularly well-known in Britain…however, before I begin, I should add a disclaimer – this desert is in no way healthy and it WILL make you fat. But it’s amazing.

  • 250g/9oz digestive biscuits
  • 100g/4oz butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 400g/14oz caramel (you can buy a tin of this) *
  • 2 bananas, peeled and sliced
  • 300ml/½ pint whipping cream, whipped until soft peaks form (or just buy some whipped cream if you want to simplify this further)

* (You can used condensed milk – sometimes called ‘dulce de leche’ – in a tin instead of buying caramel, but you have to submerge it in water for 3 hours – if you don’t immerse it fully in the water apparently the tin will explode…seriously, who has the time or stress capacity to put themselves through that? If you’re not a banoffee pie purist, a tin of caramel will be fine).

  1. Put biscuits into a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. (This is the way the recipe recommends…however, I find it more fun and far more satisfying to put the biscuits in a plastic bag and mash and bash – those are obviously the official cooking terms – the biscuits into breadcrumbs with a rolling pin. You could even imagine said ex-boyfriends face whilst doing this…not that I advocate that, of course).
  2. Transfer to a mixing bowl and rub the butter into the biscuits (this takes a while, but an added bonus is that your hands feel amazingly soft afterwards!)
  3. Place the mixture into a lightly greased, loose-bottomed cake tin and press down into the base and up along the sides. Chill for 30 minutes.
  4. Spoon the caramel over the biscuit base, and then cover with a layer of sliced bananas.
  5. Put whipping cream into a bowl and whip with a blender (this part was a bit trial-and-error for me – I did this with a hand-held one and stopped when the cream became thicker and, well, creamier – took about 5 minutes of blending). Spoon the whipped cream on top of the cake.
  6. Slice into wedges and serve.

The beauty of this type of desert is, even if you go horrifically wrong and it looks like a mess, it will still taste fantastic. This was a very simple recipe to make (it involved no actual cooking for a start!) but gets you used to techniques such as ‘rubbing in’ and allows you to use your own judgement as to when ‘the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs’ or what ‘whipped’ cream actually looks like, so it is a perfect starter recipe.

Overall, and I may be biased here, but I found that the cake I made by myself was nicer and significantly more satisfying than the one I made with my ex (I didn’t cry into my cake once)…much like the relationship I have with myself now if you want to get all Freudian about it! But this is just a cake. A delicious one.  And one which I recommend EVERYONE should try at least once!

Next week, I’ll post how my attempt at making a main meal for the whole family goes – surely a recipe for disaster?! Put it this way, I have the takeaway menus on standby…

Taking a risk – Roaccutane (week 1)

Bad skin. Acne. For those of you afflicted with the same curse as myself, you’ll know how debilitating and horrible this condition is. For girls, it makes you cake on make-up you wouldn’t do normally, grow your hair long to hide behind it (which, ironically, probably makes the problem worse) and, on a particularly bad day, makes you want to just hide away in a dark cave somewhere. I even feel uncomfortable writing this post, and I’m basically anonymous! And for guys, I can’t even begin to imagine how you deal with it without the luxury of foundation – I think girls possibly have this one a little easier.

The problem is, if you haven’t suffered it yourself, it’s difficult to contemplate how hard it is for people with the condition. Especially if a person is able to cover it well, often people tell you that it’s not that bad and can’t understand why you’re so self-conscious about it. Or there are those that assume that you need to keep yourself clean and wash more often – again, ironically, acne sufferers probably keep their faces and bodies cleaner than the majority of the population in order to combat their bad skin. The fact is, it’s a horrible, horrible condition that really does have a negative impact of the sufferers’ confidence.

So, after attempting to deal with this for around 10 years, using various over-the-counter remedies (didn’t work) and prescriptions from the doctor (didn’t work), I was finally referred to a dermatologist, and have been put on Accutane (Roaccutane in Britian).

If you saw me on a good day, you wouldn’t necessarily think I had bad skin (god bless make-up). This made me question whether I was making the right decision going on Roaccutane. I was terrified of taking these pills beforehand, and actually still am. It only takes a quick search of Accutane to bring up thousands of posts from people saying ‘it’s ruined my life’, ‘I wish I’d never taken it’ and listing side effects I never knew was possible. However, people have to remember that, for every horror story, there are plenty of positive ones from people who say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, and they wished they’d done it sooner. People tend to report the bad stuff, right?

With this in mind, and I think a pretty realistic view of the possible side effects, I am now 1 week into a  4 month course of Roaccutane (30mg day – my skin condition would probably be described as moderate).  So far – to be honest, there have been very few noticeable effects of any kind. My skin hasn’t really had any new breakouts this week, but occasionally I do have weeks like that. As for side effects, not many yet (famous last words, I’m sure). My lips feel like they may be starting to get a little dryer, and I’ve had quite a few stomach aches (but I suffer from these anyway – what good genes I’ve been blessed with!). I am aware it’s very early days, and am fully expecting the side effects to start hitting soon (I am armed and ready with Vaseline, lip balm and aquaphor!) so I’ll report back next week and see if anything’s changed. For those of you on it, I’m interested to hear how your experiences are. I’ll post soon too with products and make-up I’ve tried that have somewhat helped. I’d like to end this post by saying something along the lines of we’re beautiful inside and out, stay strong – but, I’m a typical reserved Brit, so to anyone struggling with acne or battling Roaccutane, chin up and keep positive, fingers crossed it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Basic skills in cooking – very basic skills…

So, as promised, I attempted my first culinary masterpiece today – a banana cake.  Okay okay, so this is not Gordan Ramsey-standard cooking, but everyone has to start somewhere! And let’s face it – it’s a skill level or two above mastering gauging the correct useage of water so as not to spoil a pot noodle…

Here’s the recipe I found for it in case some of you budding chefs (/some of my fellow catastrophic novices) out there want to try it:

125g butter

150g caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 egg

3 ripe bananas

190g self-raising flour

60 ml milk

1. Mash bananas (I’d advise investing in a masher rather than a fork like me…took bloody ages…)

2. Grease and line a cake tine

3. Melt butter, sugar and vanilla in a saucepan over medium heat

4. Remove from heat, add bananas and mix well

5. Add egg, mix well

6. Stir in flour and milk

7. Bake at 150˚c (fan oven) for 35 mins (use oven gloves when removing cake from oven…just kidding, even I knew that one!)

I have to say, aside from getting caked in flour and banana juice, (and having my mum keep a watchful eye over me – i think she was scared about me demolishing her kitchen) I actually found this surprisingly easy – I think baking is definitely the way to go if you’re fairly new to cooking! I did enjoy the cake, but thought it was maybe a tiny bit bland and a little on the dry side, so maybe add a some more milk (that’s a bit of a guess). For the majority of the population who are more experienced than me, I’d suggest adding a topping of some sort for a bit more flavour.

Overall – possibly not a resounding success but, amazingly, not a bad start to my cooking foray!