I haven't given up anything for Lent since I was a kid - I occasionally had good intentions, but it all seemed a bit too hard. For it to be meaningful, you have to give up something that you would really miss, but that makes it quite hard work, and as I've always said, I can resist anything but temptation...
This year though, I decided I was going to give it a go - I just hadn't decided what delicious edible items I would give up. Fortunately I was rather forced into a snap decision by the realisation on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in early March that it was Shrove Tuesday, and hence whatever I was giving up it had to start tomorrow. I toyed with the idea of giving up alcohol, but not having the option of a comforting glass of wine after a hard week/day/hour at work seemed a bit too harsh. Cake was considered, but discounted - I mean, if I didn't do any baking, the usual recipients of my cakes would suffer right? Chocolate flitted through my mind, but I quickly banished that thought (which probably means that I should actually try giving it up). I had thought about trying a vegan diet for a while, or at least reducing the amount of dairy products I ate, so I figured that perhaps this was the way to go - a test to see how much I missed cheese!
The Rules were set: for six and a half weeks I would have no milk, cream, butter, yogurt or cheese. I decided eggs were allowed. How hard could it be...
I figured the first few weeks would be easy - I mean it couldn't be that difficult right? Little did I realise how many food items include elements of milk or butter. On Ash Wednesday I went for my usual session at the climbing wall. Starving, after a couple of intensive hours of exercise, I stopped off at the supermarket to grab a cereal bar to munch on the train home. I picked up a box of my favourite brand and scanned the ingredients list. There it was - right at the top - skimmed milk powder. Bummer.
Needless to say, that set a pattern. I had thought it would be yogurt and cheese I would miss most, but it turned out that it was butter and milk - not milk to drink but the presence of milk and butter in things that meant I couldn't eat them! Like cereal bars. And milk chocolate. And cake. And lemon curd...
Possibly the hardest weekend was a friend's hen do; surrounded by amazing looking (and smelling) cakes, chocolate and cheese, it required a lot of willpower not to cave in. Particularly not to sample the rather scrummy looking chocolate mud cake which was my contribution to the festivities...
One of the reasons I chose to give up dairy, was to force myself to be a bit more creative with my cooking - and with my baking. A quick internet search showed up a huge range of dairy-free blogs, websites and recipes dedicated to making yummy things without butter, milk or cream. In particular, I discovered that oil was a great substitute for the butter or margarine usually used for cakes; the bakes turned out super moist and didn't dry out as quick as normal cake recipes. Some of my favourites were this recipe for courgette and lemon cake (I used part wholemeal flour and cut out half the sugar to make it healthier) and this fantastic vegan recipe for chocolate cupcakes - I swear they were as good, if not better, than the dairy-laden recipe I usually follow!
The times I did miss cheese were when cooking dinner - I used to routinely add a healthy shaving of Parmesan to the top of my pasta sauces, bean stews or soups. I missed that extra bit of richness - of fat, to put it bluntly. But I managed. The test came when my other half sent me a photo of the amazing, rich, cheesy lasagne he had just made. That was it - I had to have lasagne. A quick google turned up lots of dairy-free lasagne recipes, but they all involved tofu, which I didn't have any of.
A bit of imagination was required, and whilst my veggie and bean lasagne filling was cooking, I whisked up a kind-of-white sauce, with olive oil (instead of butter), flour, soya milk
and a grating of nutmeg. There was never going to be a replacement for cheese, but a breadcrumb and mixed-nut topping did just fine, adding a nice bit of crunchy texture to the top of the lasagne. It was so good, I may even make it again, as a healthier alternative to traditional lasagne.
Finally after 40 long days, the end was in sight. But I still had one final challenge to get through - my orienteering club's annual tea party. An array of light, dairy-laden sponge cakes, rich and indulgent cream cakes and traditional scones (with jam and cream, obviously). It was tempting, but with less than twenty-four hours to go, I managed to resist.
Easter Sunday dawned grey and misty. I got up, ate my museli with soya milk (all I had in) and ran for an hour and a half over a wet, Welsh moorland. As I walked into the marquee to say hello to my club-mates, I was handed a huge, fondant-iced, cream cake. It tasted delicious and I scoffed it down in a completely gluttonous, unladylike fashion.
I had made it through Lent without milk, cheese or butter, but there was no chance of me turning vegan any time soon. My diet had probably been a lot healthier without the dairy - less fat, more pulses and grains - and whilst cooking at home, it wasn't really an issue. The difficulty came when visiting friends (being the awkward guest), eating out and finding 'convenience' food. My admiration for my vegan friends has certainly gone up a notch, and I've certainly expanded my knowledge of dairy-free cooking, but a big part of me is very glad that I can go back to my butter, cream and Parmesan cheese.