Eco-tip, skip the baking paper, if you dare!

I don’t bake often, but it seems that every recipe I try out says to line the tin with baking paper. Some recipes even tell you to grease the tin, and then line it with baking paper. This is redundant, but i guess it’s what you do when you really want to make sure that your cake isn’t going to stick. I live more dangerously than that (that’s a joke), and just grease the tin and hope for the best.

To grease the tin, I often use a butter wrapper that i’ve saved in the fridge. My husband thought it was a bit odd at first, leaving spent butter wrappers in the fridge, but then i showed him how they still serve a purpose for greasing things up.

butterwrapper
one wrapper still holding butter, an older one for greasing the tin

If you don’t have a butter wrapper lurking around, you can tear off a smallish square of baking paper for the same use.

For a lot of cakes, especially those with a good deal of butter/oil in them, this will be sufficient for preventing them from sticking. Of course you might want to wait for the cake to cool a little before trying to get it out of the tin otherwise this might happen:

stuck bottom
stuck bottom, doh.

Although, that meant that on this occasion i had to resort to eating the stuck bits with a spoon while it was still warm…

this is a pretty good afternoon snack, actually
this is a pretty good afternoon snack, actually

Regardless, once this pecan, date and carrot loaf was flipped over onto a plate it looked perfectly presentable, and we’re getting through it OK 🙂 I think the moral of the story is that if you need your cake to be pretty, perhaps put a little more butter on your butter wrapper!

nut loaf

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Todays harvest

Just a quick post today!

As i’ve mentioned before, I love being able to grow edibles, especially when you can harvest exactly how much you need and use it straight away. That’s easy to do with lettuces and herbs. Thanks to the Southern Hemisphere spring, I can also begin the broad bean harvest:
harvestBroad beans are one of those things that are harder to find in the shops due to their short growing season, so I’m going to take full advantage of these beauties while I can. I picked this bunch early though, as I heard you can use the whole bean when they’re young. This little handful was chopped up, pods and all and was just enough for a quick and delicious pasta lunch.

a lot of the goodies are hiding under the pasta, red onion, carrot, mint, dill and a whole bunch of parmesan included
a lot of the goodies are hiding under the pasta, red onion, carrot, mint, dill and a generous amount of parmesan included

How many eggs do you have? Or why i don’t worry about ovarian reserve.

Months ago, I set up a Google Scholar alert (it’s easy!) to keep on top of any science mentioning ‘Anti-Mullerian hormone’. This means that I regularly get an email alert of newly published studies/articles. It’s a broad search term, there are dozens of new articles each month, and a lot of them are not relevant/interesting, but I’ll aim to discuss any interesting findings about ovarian failure/insufficiency here.

Here is an article (1) that caught my eye recently. The article raises the problem of defining the term ‘Diminished Ovarian Reserve’ (DOR). I actually found this funny, because I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that whatever is going on with my ovaries, it’s hard to know what to call it. And funny that they chose this term to try and define, because it’s not one that I like to use, for what I think are pretty good reasons. The unfortunate thing is that the authors seem unaware of the term ‘ovarian insufficiency’ (although I haven’t read the full article, just the abstract), because this is my favourite word to describe my ovaries. The terms I could chose from are: primary/premature ovarian failure, ovarian insufficiency, DOR and also LFOR (low functional ovarian reserve). Some articles also discuss ‘poor responders’ for women like me, although I’d prefer to take that term at face value, and use it for women who have had a chance to respond to something! The term is used when women have had a failed response to a stimulated cycle, whereas I’ve never tried assisted reproduction (I’m not a good candidate and I’m not really into gambling, at least not with these odds).

The authors (Cohen et al.) also state that the term POF is clearly defined. This is not the case, as I’ve mentioned above it even stands for two slightly different terms: Primary Ovarian Failure or Premature Ovarian Failure. More importantly though, POF is not a single disease. I’ve cited a great article by Lawrence M. Nelson before, and I’ll do that again here (2), where he states that POF/POI is “a rare disease consisting of multiple ultra-rare diseases”. What that means is that although the outcome is the same in these cases (non-functioning ovaries, in that ovulation is not occurring), the underlying causes are many and varied. As far as I know, it was Dr. Nelson who came up with the newer term of ‘ovarian insufficiency’, prompted by the adverse emotional aspects of patients being told that their ‘ovaries had failed’, especially when total ‘failure’ is not always the outcome.

So I prefer ‘insufficiency’ to ‘failure’ but I also prefer it to any mention of my ovarian reserve. Why is that? Because I have no idea what my reserve is! This is a good explanation of ‘ovarian reserve’:
“When clinicians and zootechnicians talk about ovarian reserve, they usually refer to this dynamic reserve of small antral follicles. However, the wording ‘‘ovarian reserve’’ can be confusing, since the growing follicles themselves develop from a first reserve of primordial follicles, which is constituted early in life”; from here (3). Basically, when some mention ‘ovarian reserve’ they are talking about growing follicles, the ones you can see with a vaginal ultrasound, but these arise from smaller (less than a millimeter) follicles, which are your true ‘reserve’.

The problem is, as stated here “There is a good reason for the paucity of knowledge of human ovarian reserve throughout life: direct longitudinal assessment is currently impossible, and is likely to remain impossible for the foreseeable future. No in vivo technique for counting NGFs [non-growing follicles] exists. All studies involving the estimation of NGF populations for ovaries at various chronological ages have analysed tissue post-mortem or post-oophorectomy” (4). In other words, the only way you can count your actual ovarian reserve is take out an ovary; cut it up; and measure the very very small follicles under a microscope.

The article quoted from above (Kelsey et al. 2012) then goes on to give evidence that measuring the ‘dynamic pool’ is still a good approximation. The authors assert that measuring the follicles that we can see, or anti-mullerian hormone (AMH) in a blood sample, should still tell us what the actual ovarian reserve of a woman might be. Therefore, doctors make these measurements and might talk about ‘ovarian reserve’ and might even make all sort of simplifications such as ‘you don’t have many eggs left’. By the way, there is also the controversial idea of ‘ovarian stem cells’, which might yet overturn the idea of ‘a woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have’, which is worth a passing mention even if it hasn’t been proven in human subjects yet.

When I first started looking into all this, I was surprised by how little was known about how ovaries functioned. I really shouldn’t have been. I’ve worked as a scientist myself, and in all areas of biology the fundamental processes at play are usually only sketched out. We’d like to think that we have a lot of it worked out (whether it is human biology, or agricultural science or anything else we’ve been researching for a while) but the truth is that science is really expensive, and we often don’t have the right equipment/techniques to shine a light.

Essentially, the technology that we have at the moment has shown us that over a population we see lower numbers of growing follicles and smaller amounts of AMH as women age, and that this correlates with their declining numbers of non-growing follicles, their ovarian reserve. And once again, I’m aware of my bias. I am not growing many follicles, I have very very low AMH (and high FSH). So I’d like to think that there is more to it than this correlation.

And maybe there is…
Another article (5) that caught my eye this month looked into follicle dynamics (how many were growing over the course of a month) of two groups of women; women of mid-reproductive age (MRA, 18-35) or advanced reproductive age (ARA, 45-55). None of the women were menopausal (even though the average age of menopause is around 50), they all had fairly regular cycles and were ovulating. The thing that really stood out to me was that all of the older women had low AMH (<1 ug/L) and 50% of this group had undetectable AMH. This is to be expected, in this age range. BUT these women were ovulating and were seen to be growing plenty of small follicles as well (each time you ovulate there is more than one follicle growing).

Maybe it doesn’t mean much, it was only a small study. Also, they only followed women with regular cycles, so women like me are still in the dark as to what our ovary dynamics might look like. Certain women were not included in the study because they ‘developed a lag phase of follicle development’, defined as no follicles larger than 6mm growing 20 days after either menstruation or ovulation*. This to me sounds a lot like intermittent ovulation/recruitment of follicles, which is not supposed to happen! But which could be what is going on in my case? We’ll only ever know with more research, I guess.

So my lack of growing follicles means I’m not likely to fall pregnant, and my low AMH probably does signal that something is not quite as it should be. I’m not convinced that this means that I’ve used up my egg supply early though. For all I know there could be thousands still there yet they are stubbornly refusing to grow. So while ‘insufficient’ might mean ‘insufficient eggs’ to some people, to me it means that the functioning of my ovaries is insufficient, but there are plenty of things that can go wrong to cause that unlucky state.

*we now know that follicles don’t just grow in the ‘follicular’ phase after menstruation. This article in fact was looking at follicles that start growing in the luteal phase.

  1. Cohen et al. 2015 ‘Diminished ovarian reserve, premature ovarian failure, poor ovarian responder – a plea for universal definitions’. Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, pg. 1-4; DOI 10.1007/s10815-015-0595-y
  2. Nelson, L. M.,  2011 ‘One world, one woman: a transformational leader’s approach to primary ovarian insufficiency’. Menopause. 18(5): 480-487; DOI 10.1097/GME.0b013e318213f250
  3. Monniaux, D., et al. 2014 ‘The ovarian reserve of primordial follicles and the dynamic reserve of antral growing follicles: what is the link?’. Biology of Reproduction. 90(4): 1-11; DOI 10.1095/biolreprod.113.117077
  4. Kelsey, T.W., et al. 2012 ‘Data-driven assessment of the human ovarian reserve’. Molecular Human Reproduction. 18(2): 79-87; DOI 10.1093/molehr/gar059
  5. Vanden Brink, H., et al. 2015 ‘Associations between antral ovarian follicle dynamics and hormone production throughout the menstrual cycle as women age’ Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. in press; DOI 10.1210/jc.2015-2643
these are for baking, not growing
these are for baking, not growing

Not pregnant but still ‘nuturing life’ (aka gardening)

I started this blog to write about my infertility, at a time that i was still figuring out how i felt about my ‘infertile status’. I haven’t written much on that subject lately because i’ve mostly made peace with the idea that I won’t have children. That’s not to say that i don’t want to have a child. If i am one of the lucky ones with ovarian insufficiency who manages to spontaneously fall pregnant then it will be a lovely surprise. Lately i’ve been stuck in a cycle of:

  1. menstruating, which brings relief, perhaps my ovaries are up to something after all?
  2. then, not menstruating, jokes about ‘maybe i’m pregnant’ between hubby and I, peeing on a few pregnancy tests (always negative)
  3. still not menstruating, the weeks go by, a little worried thought in the back of my head wonders if it’s all ‘broken’ for good
  4. eventually return to step 1

My rational mind knows that unless my cycles somehow become a little more regular then i shouldn’t put much hope in falling pregnant (based on statistics). My emotional mind is usually more optimistic than this though, and keeps expecting a lucky little egg to be ovulated,fertilised and then implanted.

Edit: I actually just typed ‘until my cycles’ above (instead of ‘unless my cycles’)!! This shows how much hope i have bubbling away beneath the surface, i guess.

And so, we buy multi-packs of pregnancy tests and have used them so often it’s become a little boring.

Here's one from this morning, i tried to make it more interesting by photographing on top of some home-made wrapping paper
Here’s one from this morning, i tried to make it more interesting by photographing it on top of some home-made wrapping paper

I instituted a rule, back when peeing on these sticks was a little emotionally draining*, so that we wouldn’t go crazy using too many, too often. I told a friend about this rule, saying we’re only allowed to use one every.. she cut me off and guessed “oh right, every month”. When i corrected her and said the rule was actually ‘no more frequent than every 2 weeks’ she looked a little shocked and concerned for my wellbeing 🙂

This is the rationale; ‘normal’ cycles are about 28 days, so if more than 4 weeks have passed since my last menstruation then i’m allowed to take a test. After that (negative result) i’m allowed to take another two weeks later, and so on. It makes sense under the assumption of intermittent menstruation possibly meaning intermittent ovulation. It’s possible (unlikely) that I may be ovulating at any time but then implantation takes 7-10 days and you can’t get a positive pregnancy test before this occurs, hence the 2 week wait (which ladies undergoing IVF or other assisted reproduction know all about!). I’m glad to say that we don’t actually use a test every two weeks that i’m in not menstruating though. After 5 or 6 weeks I now figure that it could be a long wait (my record is 4 months) and that my system is too screwy to be producing any eggs. This morning i went ahead and used one (after waiting 5 weeks) because i’ve been noticing more cervical mucus (of the egg-white consistency! hooray, this should be a signal of oestrogen production).

Long story short, i’m not pregnant, but that’s OK.
I’ve never felt a burning need (just a desire of varying strength) to have kids. I know that the desire to have children is of course a complex and highly personal thing and although i don’t know exactly what i’m missing, i can see plenty of the benefits of having children. One of those has got to be the satisfaction gained from the responsibility of taking care of a growing little life, nurturing that life and seeing it grow. Call me crazy, but I get a small taste of that with my gardening. All without the dread fear of doing anything wrong.

my newest charges
my newest charges

This weekend we went to a plant sale organised by a not-for profit, volunteer-run group that encourages the appreciation of Australian native plants (the Australian Native Plants Society) and we purchased a great selection of carefully propagated and raised seedlings, to get some interesting plants to fill in a few gaps in the garden. I’m still a novice gardener but i’m keen to learn all that i can about these little beauties (where are they best placed? do i need to amend the soil? how much watering will they need? etc etc) so that they receive the tender loving care that they deserve, and then hopefully none of them will die! Ok, so maybe it’s nothing like raising children, haha. Also, i’m not expecting to receive any love back from these guys. Maybe we’ll get a dog (as long as it doesn’t trash the garden!). Regardless, i’m not dwelling on the disappointment of that pee-stick, but embracing our child-free life.

*it’s not just disappointment about not having a kid, there have also been feelings tied up in wanting to know where my life was headed, but that’s a post for another day

Meat-free most days, and eating local (as in.. native)

My husband is vegetarian, and this has contributed to my diet slowly containing less and less meat as well. It’s been easy to adapt because I was used to eating lots of beans, rice and vegies (Australian for vegetables, although i know some foreigners use this to mean vegetarians!) when i was a poor student. Hmm.. now that i stop and think about what i used to cook i guess i do miss things like chicken drumstick and spinach curry, and roast lamb, delicious! But one thing i don’t miss is cleaning up after the greasy animal fats, so when i get a craving for meat (once a month?) i’ll get a big juicy beef burger out somewhere. Therefore, at home i’ll supplement the vegies with just a small amount of sandwich meat or some fish. So, without really thinking about it, i’ve managed to increase both the healthiness and sustainability of my diet 🙂 (by eating less animal proteins).

I know this is why many people are endorsing ‘meat-free Mondays’ or some similar reduction in meat-eating. It’s an easy way to adjust your thinking from ‘every meal should have some animal protein’ to ‘actually, there are so many wonderful vegetarian dishes that aren’t even tricky to prepare’. An added incentive is that it’s also generally cheaper (although my husband eats plenty of pre-packaged meat substitutes, which are not cheaper than the cheap cuts of meat/poultry).

Nowadays, one of my regular little treats, when i want a small amount of red meat is smoked kangaroo, prepared right here in Canberra.

smkdkangapacket

Sold in small chunks, it has plenty of flavour, so i just slice it thinly and pop it in a sandwich/wrap or for something even tastier it is excellent on pizza with mozzarella.

smkdkangasliced

I like it so much that the woman who works the register at my local store (who keep some in stock, so i don’t have to go across town to the actual butcher’s shop) now knows it is my favourite. Each and every time she rings it up for me she says the same thing: “ooh, kangaroo, i couldn’t eat that!”. Last time I bought some i replied to her “it’s my favourite now”, to which she replied “oh yes, i know”. For some reason i found this really funny, she keeps saying the same thing each time. She obviously has a strong emotional reaction to eating kangaroo, as i know plenty of people still do. And I can understand that, they are cute, especially young ones like this one I snapped while out walking in my own suburb:

IMG_20150920_154759

But there are also plenty of good reasons to eat them. For me, it’s the sustainability aspect that makes it a good choice over other red meat I might buy. That said, if the store is out of smoked kangaroo then i’m also happy with the smoked venison 🙂

While i’m thinking about meat, I’ll add a little postscript about my infertile status. I can’t help but be a little superstitious about eating meat/my lack of menstruation/iron levels. The last time i actually had my iron levels checked they were low but otherwise fine (within the normal range, just on the lower end). Also, my female vegetarian friends are turning out to be better at producing offspring than i am. So i know these feelings are not grounded in fact, but i still feel like i should eat a little animal protein every now and then for ‘fertility health’. For a while i supplemented my diet with iron pills, but i know iron is absorbed much better from food, plus it’s tastier, plus there may be other nutrients in meat/fish that are good for me and a bit harder to come by in vegetables/grains. Also, i’m very well aware of the psychology at play here. Nobody can suggest a good reason for why i’m not ovulating but wouldn’t it be great if i could fix it by just eating a little more fish/kangaroo/roast lamb? I know deep down that there are more complex reasons for my infertility. At least, in the meantime I can take care of my goals for general health/sustainability/household budget by eating a small amount of meat fairly regularly. And that’s enough to take care of the superstition also, thankfully.

Eating my greens while trying to be water-wise

Canberra, where I live, and like a lot of Australia is very dry. Over the last 12 months we’ve had between 600-900 mm of rain. For a comparison I just looked up the town where we used to live in New England, USA. Basically, Canberra gets 10 times less rain, and ours is spread over the entire year (rather than New England where for part of the year it will be snowing rather than raining. It very very rarely snows in Canberra). We experience drought here (in Canberra and other parts of Australia) and are all encouraged to conserve water. That’s why I took notice of this article, by Keira Butler, that explains why bagged lettuce mixes are not the most ecological choice. I certainly love those plastic wrapped greens, not just for the convenience but also because when I buy a whole lettuce it usually leads to some food wastage (although taco night helps 🙂 )

One solution is to grow your own and I’m happy to report that this is working really well for me right now. We tried growing lettuce last summer, using only rainwater (we have tanks that collect from our roof). The timing wasn’t right, they freaked out, bolted and went to flower/seed. However, the next generation have come up, so now we have a bunch of tender young lettuces.

baby greens! (and reds)
baby greens! (and reds)

I can currently pick a handful of these tasty leaves to put in a sandwich or a small salad. It hasn’t rained in a while though, and the water tanks are getting emptied. Hopefully with constant grazing I can keep the lettuces small and not too thirsty. I may still have to resort to some bagged greens when i want a larger salad. Oh and my favourite choice for those is rocket/arugula, because if you get too much the leftovers make a lovely pesto.

just enough for a sandwich
just enough for a sandwich

sandwich

Road trip! (yet still trying to minimise plastic and waste)

Last weekend was a long weekend in Canberra so we skipped town and drove to Melbourne (to see family and friends and generally enjoy a proper city).

cheesenpesto
maximum flavour
cheesenpestowrapped
all wrapped, ready to go

Over the past couple of years i’ve become much more organised with road trips. Rather than an inspired choice by me it became a requirement owing to having a vegetarian husband. Food choices during the 7 hr drive consist of burger chains, that fried chicken place, and some slightly better fare off the highway in country towns. Until fairly recently you couldn’t really find vegetarian options in Australian country towns at all and it’s still a bit of a challenge. Therefore it’s better just to pack something yourself. As with all of my sustainability tips, this is not a revolutionary idea and something that older generations/more organised people have done and still do.

Cheese and pesto sandwiches are now the favourite option for our road trips. I often make pesto at home, to use up excess coriander, basil or rocket (arugula). You don’t even need a blender/food processor, you can use a large kitchen knife to chop the greens as fine as you can (it’s therapeutic!), and then finish off in a large mortar and pestle to blend in the nuts (pine/walnut/cashew), parmesan, olive oil and salt and pepper (all to taste, but don’t be stingy with the oil).

The addition of cheese and good quality bread makes this a tasty and satisfying snack, just as good in my book as any junk food. A small step to minimise plastic is avoiding the use of plastic wrap (cling film, saran wrap). To wrap the sandwiches (in this case one large baguette cut into thirds) i just carefully put them back into the paper bag the bread came in, and then wrap the whole thing in a kitchen towel (to prevent drying). It also helps to put the wrapped sandwiches into an esky (Aussie slang for ‘cooler’) although this isn’t totally necessary if you’re eating them in the next 12 hours. I’m sure there are lots of other fillings that would be just as tasty with the trick being to pick something that is not messy when eating with one hand.

Oh, and i don’t use plastic wrap on opened blocks of cheese either. I just fold over the plastic packaging and then put the whole thing in an airtight container (in this case a re-used take-away/take-out container (they fit perfectly!).

tasted better than it looks
tasted better than it looks

applesoda
Also on hand was homemade muesli slice (granola bar), which ended up in rustic looking wedges after I tried the tipping the whole thing off the tray while it was still warm… but with dried mango and choc chips it was an energy packed, delicious treat.

I even brought along homemade soda! We have a sodastream (kind of amazing that these have only recently been sold in USA), so i added apple cordial to soda water and put the delicious mix into a re-used juice bottle.

The drive home is always harder to organise for, so this was not as ecologically minded but we still managed to have a healthy picnic thanks to supplies we found at Euroa IGA (that place has everything, even vegetarian fake bacon). Bread, cheese, sugar snap peas and carrots to dip into hummus, what more could you want? (fake bacon for him, and hot salami for me, apparently). Good times!


picnic

P.S. I should have refused that plastic bag, that was a bit of a brain fart after a busy weekend.

P.P.S. Large packets of potato chips and cans of energy drink are also always on hand on such a long car ride.