Friday, 19 June 2015

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine

One of the best things about academia is the options it can offer for travel, to conferences and to collaborate. I've been particularly lucky in this respect: this month, it was a visit to Krakow for a project meeting. I took Andy with me and we decided to make a week of it, and see the city properly.

Around the same time, the lovely folks at Tinggly reached out to introduce me to their collection of gift experiences. And what a collection, seriously: there's everything here from motorbiking to Cambodian temples and underwater scooter rides in Mauritius, to whisky tasting in Scotland and Japanese cookery lessons in Tokyo. The beauty of the system is its simplicity: as the giver, you just buy a voucher (currently £45), and then the recipient can choose when and where in the world they want to cash it in. (As an aside, I think this might just be the world's most perfect wedding present: wherever the bride and groom are going on honeymoon, they can probably find something nearby to indulge in.)

Would I like to try out an experience from their range, they asked? Obviously I wasn't going to turn down a chance like that. I glanced at the interactive map, wondering vaguely if there was likely to be anything in Poland, or whether I'd just pick an English destination.

Wieliczka Salt Mine jumped out at me straight away: a tour for two, with minibus collection from my hotel in Krakow? Perfect.

I love visiting historical sites and learning more about how things were in days gone by... and aside from pure interest, it's also really great research for my books. I hadn't even really realised that salt was mined from rock, so I had a lot to learn on this trip.

The mines only fell out of use quite recently, when tourism proved to be more profitable than salt. Now they're set up as a walk-through exhibition, with life-size models illustrating some of the operation of the mines. You can even have a go at lifting a bucket of water using one of the original human-powered winches.

But the real shock comes when you emerge at the other end of your long walk through the tunnels, and discover you've covered only about 1% of the network. An utterly amazing day out, highly recommended to anyone visiting the Krakow area.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
An abandoned mine shaft

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Demonstration of floodwater being pumped from the mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine
More demonstrative reconstructions

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Excavation marks along one of the shafts

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Ropes and pulleys were used to lift salt from the mines

The Wieliczka mine, however, is not only (or even primarily) famous for its mining history. The true stars of the show here are the carvings made by the miners.

Since mining is a dangerous trade, the miners were traditionally a very religious bunch, and this fact is amply demonstrated in their underground churches and chapels. Not only are the chambers themselves hewn from the rock, but they're decorated with intricate rock-salt carvings.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that the miners did all this in their own time, after a long day at work, just to show their dedication to their faith. Impressive stuff.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Looking down into the cavernous main church

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Christ on the cross, carved in salt

Wieliczka Salt Mine
The altar and lectern are also carved from salt

Wieliczka Salt Mine
A carving of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus

There's also a shop, right in the depths of the mines, where you can buy your own salt carvings, candlesticks, and of course, cooking and bath salts. I picked up a couple of flavours of seasoning: one with celery, and one with lovage. The prices are really reasonable, too, not hiked up for the captive market.

We took hundreds of photos; here are just a few more shots to give you a flavour of the mines.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Looking up into the galleries

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Salt-encrusted wood is well preserved against the ravages of time

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Even the crystals of the chandelier are made of salt

Wieliczka Salt Mine
One of the underground lakes

Wieliczka Salt Mine
It used to be easier to tick off all the Unesco World Heritage sites: Wieliczka and Krakow city centre both made the first list

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Coloured salt crystals in the museum display

Monday, 1 June 2015

Pizza Review and a Chocolate Salami Recipe from Dr Oetker #freshnessfrozen

Chocolate salami

Even though I'm a regular customer of their various ranges, I've always been slightly puzzled by the brand identity of Dr Oetker. What other company specialises primarily in baking ingredients and accessories and cake decorating supplies... but also a line of frozen pizzas?

Then I was asked if I'd like to do a review of the Dr Oetker Ristorante pizzas, along with trying out some of their Italian dessert and cocktail recipes. And suddenly, having an easy pizza fresh from the oven, accompanied by something gorgeous that you've made yourself for afters, it all made a bit more sense.

My favourite is the Spinaci, which is simplicity itself with garlicky spinach and cheese, closely followed by the Funghi. Actually, as long as there's someone around to share with, I'll usually cook one of each for a bit of variety.

Dr Oetker pizza review

Dr Oetker pizza review

This chocolate salami recipe results in something rather like chocolate tiffin in texture and philosophy. It's probably the best tiffin I've ever eaten, though: with amaretto liqueur, and amaretti biscuits. Yes, please! I love amaretto.

(Speaking of which, there's an extremely dangerous recipe in the accompanying cocktail booklet: two parts whisky to one part amaretto, with nothing else but ice. Which sounds lush and lethal.)

I made a few minor tweaks to the Dr Oetker recipe, using glace cherries instead of cocktail cherries, and only hazelnuts & pistachios (the original recipe included pecans, but I didn't happen to have those in the cupboard).

Chocolate salami

Chocolate Salami
Makes 2 large logs

200g (8 oz) amaretti biscuits (crunchy, not soft)
200g (7oz) glace cherries
100g (4oz) hazelnuts (chopped)
100g (4oz) unsalted pistachios (shelled and roughly chopped)
250g (10oz) Dr. Oetker Dark Chocolate, roughly chopped
50g (2oz) butter
30g (2 tbsp) golden syrup
100g (4oz) soft unsalted butter
150g (5oz) caster sugar
30ml (2 tbsp) amaretto liqueur
30ml (2 tbsp) Dr. Oetker Cocoa Powder
  1. Crush the amaretti biscuits into small pieces. Cut the cherries into quarters, and chop the nuts.
  2. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl suspended over a saucepan of simmering water until smooth and cool.
  3. Melt 50g of butter and the syrup into the chocolate, stirring until smooth.
  4. Set the chocolate mixture aside to cool.
  5. Cream the remaining 100g of the butter with the caster sugar until pale and fluffy and beat in the amaretto liqueur.
  6. Add the cocoa powder to the cooled chocolate, stir well then add this to the rest of the mixture.
  7. Tip in the cherries, chopped nuts and crushed biscuits and mix well.
  8. Place in the fridge for 10 -15 minutes to firm up a bit.
  9. Place 2 large pieces of cling film, one on top of the other, onto the work surface to roll the chocolate salami out on.
  10. Tip half the chocolate mixture out onto the cling film and mould the mixture into a fat salami- like log.
  11. Roll the cling film tightly around the log, and twist the ends.
  12. Repeat with fresh cling film and the remaining mixture.
  13. Keep the logs in the fridge for at least a couple of hours, until fully solidified.
  14. Cut into slices to serve, and serve chilled.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Islamic Art & Architecture in Egypt

Outside Sultan Hassan mosque

As well as seeing the pyramids and other ancient Egyptian sites, while we were in Egypt we also enjoyed visiting some more recent (but still historic) buildings.

One such was the mosque and madrasa of Sultan Hassan, dating back to the Mamluk period. I particularly loved the carved calligraphy, and the black-white-and-red patterns of the door frames and floor tiles. The open air, courtyard structure was also new to me, and not something that would really work in a rainy country like England! In Egypt, though, it makes a lot of sense.

Inside Sultan Hassan mosque-madrasa

Inside Sultan Hassan mosque-madrasa

Inside Sultan Hassan mosque-madrasa

Inside Sultan Hassan mosque-madrasa

Inside Sultan Hassan mosque-madrasa

Inside Sultan Hassan mosque-madrasa


Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Sweet Potato & Jalapeño Enchiladas

Sweet potato enchiladas

The lovely folks at Old El Paso asked me if I'd be up for trying out one of their recipes to celebrate their range of "separates". When I learnt that the recipe in question contained so many of my favourite things (sweet potato, refried beans, jalapeños) my mouth was already watering.

I adapted the recipe slightly to make it vegan, basically by removing the cheese; I then served the baked enchiladas with a large spoonful of cooling guacamole which worked really well to offset the heat of the chilli.

I did find the eventual texture a bit samey, as the filling was all very smooth. Next time I might chop the onions a bit less finely, and maybe include a few peppers or extra beans for some contrast. But I really loved the smokey flavour of the seasoning, and it worked so well with the sweet potato and the beans. I actually could have eaten the filling just by the spoonful.

Below you can see the original recipe card, as well as my write-up. There are loads more inspiring recipes over on the Old El Paso site, too, if you're now craving a tex-mex evening.

Sweet potato enchiladas

Sweet Potato and Jalapeño Enchiladas
Serves 4

1 large sweet potato
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
2tbsp jalapeño peppers
1tbsp olive oil
½tsp cayenne pepper
1 tin refried beans
2½tsp Old El Paso smoky bbq fajita seasoning
8 flour tortillas
1 jar Old El Paso smoky bbq fajita sauce*

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Peel and chop the sweet potato.
  3. Boil or steam the sweet potato for 10 minutes, until soft.
  4. Mash the sweet potato and set aside.
  5. Dice the onion, garlic, and jalapeños.
  6. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and sautee the onion and garlic for a couple of minutes, until the onion softens.
  7. Add the jalapeños and cayenne pepper, and sautee for a further 2-3 minutes.
  8. Combine the onion mixture with the sweet potato mash, refried beans, and fajita seasoning.
  9. Divide the filling between the eight tortillas, folding each one into a small parcel.
  10. Grease a large baking pan, and arrange the tortilla parcels (folded side down) in the pan.
  11. Cover evenly with the fajita sauce, and bake for 15-20 minutes.
  12. Serve with homemade guacamole.
* The recipe suggests using the Chilli Con Carne sauce (which is also veggie, despite the name), but the Fajita sauce is what they actually sent me to try out

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Brownie & Blondie Layer Bake

What could be better than brownies? Or blondies?

It occurred to me that the answer might be "both". Together. They're similar enough recipes that I figured it should be fine to just chuck both mixtures into the same pan and bake them together.

I made up two-thirds of a batch of chocolate brownie mix and half a batch of cranberry blondies (but with cherries), and this was the result. It's a little bit more work than making just one or the other, but I think it's well worth it.

Brownie & Blondie Layer Bake

Brownie & Blondie Layer Bake
Makes 30

For the brownie mix:
120g dark chocolate
120g butter
240g soft brown sugar
3 eggs
½tsp vanilla extract
90g plain flour
30g cocoa powder
90g walnut pieces

For the blondie mix:
125g butter
125g soft brown sugar
70g white sugar
1 egg
½tsp vanilla essence
165g plain flour
¾tsp baking powder
100g dark chocolate chips
100g glace cherries (chopped)

  1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F).
  2. Grease and line a large, deep baking pan (23x33cm, 9x13in).
  3. To make the brownie mix, first melt the chocolate over a bain marie, and set aside to cool.
  4. Cream together the butter and sugar, and add the eggs and vanilla. Beat together.
  5. Add the chocolate to the beaten mixture, and stir until combined
  6. Fold in the flour and cocoa powder, and stir in the walnuts.
  7. Pour the brownie mix into the baking pan, and spread out with a spatula or the back of a spoon.
  8. Make the blondie mix, beginning by creaming together the butter and the sugars.
  9. Beat in the egg and vanilla.
  10. Fold in the flour and baking powder.
  11. Stir through the cherries and chocolate chips.
  12. Arrange dollops of blondie mixture on top of the brownie mix, and smooth down as far as possible (the blondie mixture is thicker than that of the brownie, so this won't be neat, but it will all level out in the oven).
  13. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a knife comes out clean.
  14. Allow to cool for a few minutes in the tin, before cutting into pieces and removing to a wire cooling rack.

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