18 May 2012

In Which Coffee is Drunk, A Mug Finds a New Home, and Muffins Beg for Attention

Cafe Central, Vienna

Does a cup of strong coffee turn you frothy?  Ebullient?  Stunningly witty?  Or, do you think it does?  Then you’re in good company.  A survey of workers done by Dunkin Donuts has apparently found that the biggest coffee drinkers are, in order: scientists, marketers, PR people, education administrators, and editors and writers.

In other words, people trading on ideas.  Not so foolish, then, to turn to the brown elixir in order to pump up your creative thoughts.  In a famed quotation, the French writer Honoré Balzac eulogised on the state of mind that coffee produced: "Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination’s orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink – for the nightly labour begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.”  (From the essay The Pleasure and Pains of Coffee translated by Robert Onopa.)
In truth, this “cavalry of metaphor” surged very successfully through La Comedie Humaine, all ninety-odd tomes of it.  So what if gallons of the beverage per day sent him to an early grave, his output was of a prodigious quantity that any other free-thinker might think it worth buying a percolator for.  No wonder in Canada and Germany chains of cafés have been set up bearing his name – the author whose oeuvre plus coffee fixation represent a colossus of achievement. 
Me?  I’m usually on decaf, which could explain the dribble of product  compared to Balzac.  But coffee is an essential part of my working day –  to clutch at for warmth and security, to punctuate yawning moments of inaction, and to provide the excuse to get up and go somewhere else altogether. 
For writing has always been a lonely activity.  Peace and quiet are over-rated.  Which is why taking up your scribblings and marching to a suitable café to seek hubbub and gossip has such appeal.  The further afield the café from your own patch the better, so that right under your nose something preposterous is taking place for which you need to messily fill in the blanks.  That the establishment should also have angles and corners you can get your back into, with no passers-by sniggering over your efforts, is a prerequisite.  You’ll need to monitor the number of other writers tapping more adeptly on their laptops or eavesdropping more intently on the same conversations as you.  Which means definitely no J. K. Rowling over by the newspaper rack, already on her third latte and fourteenth manuscript, and much too palsy-walsy with the proprietor. 

Cafe Hawelka, Vienna
Nor do you want the aroma of freshly-baked cakes and pastries to be so tempting that all creativity goes into the girth of your thighs rather than the thickness of your novel.  Here you’ll need to steel yourself against the ice cream confections at the Café Lepanto in Malaga and the Schokozauber at the Café Central in Vienna, but there again in a place such as The Nest in Ripley, Surrey, a new favourite of mine, your conscience could be salved by the beetroot part of the delicious chocolate and beetroot cake.

And so, clutching shitty first drafts  (as the writer Anne Lamott calls them) and hoping to salvage anything from the wreckage, I’m ever on the hunt for the ideal café, a place  to sit smack-bang up against other lives that spill noisily and imperfectly. 

And I was thinking how wonderful it would be to share coffee with you, good reader, in such a place.  As second best and in an act of coffee solidarity, I’ve decided to put the names of the loyal followers of this blog into a hat and pull one out.  He or she is going to receive the very first, inaugural A Woman in Goggles mug. 

And so, the lucky recipient is……..here goes…….wait for it………just juggling the names now…….oops, butterfingers……. the recipient would seem to be…………Diary of an Unfinished Woman.  

Unfinished Woman, I wonder if you might also be interested in the following recipe that I’ve been road testing, worryingly frequently, in my household over the last couple of months.  It’s for healthy muffins – an excellent way to soak up the coffee contents of your new mug.

(I tend to measure in cups – a hangover from my Canadian days.  But don’t get into a flap about exact amounts.  These muffins are robust, and can cope with a shaky hand on the measuring device.  I’ve measured out the amounts in cups, weighed them – and yes, the oatmeal is light so 1 cup did weigh the same as ½ cup of maize flour.)

Oh So Fab Guilt-Free Oatmeal Muffins

¾ cup Greek yoghurt (6 fl oz/ 200 ml/ 340 grams)
1 cup oatmeal   (4 oz/ 100 grams)
½ cup maize flour* (4 oz/ 100 grams)
½ cup polenta or cornmeal* (4 oz/ 100 grams)
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup olive oil (3 fl oz/ 90 ml)
2 large eggs
2 medium-sized mashed bananas
½ cup raisins or sultanas (4 oz/ 100 grams)

  1. Set oven to 350◦F or 180 ◦C.  (This will be 160 ◦C if you have a fan oven.)
  2. Line a muffin tin with 12 muffin cases.
  3. Mix the oatmeal into the yoghurt and allow to sit while you prepare the other ingredients.
  4. In a separate small bowl beat the eggs into the oil then add the mashed banana.
  5. Combine the maize flour, polenta, baking soda and baking powder in a third bowl.
  6. Add the egg/ oil/ banana mixture to the oatmeal mixture.
  7. Then add the dry ingredients also to the oatmeal mixture and mix only just enough so that the batter is moist.
  8. Stir in the raisins.
  9. Spoon into the muffin cases.  They will be quite full.
  10. Bake for 20 minutes.

Best eaten warm, with a modicum of butter.  (Or lashings of butter.)  If you have left them to go cold, they are delicious if heated up individually in a microwave for 20 seconds.


*Instead of maize flour and polenta, I’ve also used a combination of rice flour and wholemeal flour with excellent results.  


  1. Whoo hoo I can't believe it how fabulistic! My very own mug and the recipe is wonderful! I love muffins ~ Jason my divine husband makes them but lately they have not been as yummy as normal so the timing on this is just perfect! Thank you ....so excited! x

  2. And one day, we'll sit down and have coffee together!