Friday, 28 December 2012

2012 Retrospective

It's that time of year again - the end of December just demands a quick round-up of the previous twelve months. I really love putting this post together every year, if only as a chance to remind myself of everything that's happened. And it certainly has been a busy time for me. If you've written a review post of your own, please do link up in the comments.

Here's to even more excitement and adventures in 2013!
In January I took advantage of the cold weather to bake up some warming winter fare, including twice baked potatoes. We've eaten a lot of these this year, especially since I started freezing them part-baked.Twice-baked potatoes
C450IMG_4395A friend got free tickets to the SFX Weekender in February, so we had a rather different weekend away - although I read a lot of sci-fi, I'd never been to any kind of convention before. We particularly enjoyed the themed Just A Minute played by some of my favourite authors.
We had a quick Eurostar weekend break in Paris in March. It was grey and we got quite wet wandering around, but we did find a source of wonderful petits fours. And then we were delayed by several hours on our return journey, so we have another ticket that we can use for free!IMG_4666
IMG_5415One of our favourite days out in April was to the World of Mechanical Music in Northleach. This museum of music boxes is fairly close to where we live, but it took us several years to get around to visiting.
In May we went to Scotland, and had the opportunity to stay at the world-famous Old Course Hotel in St Andrews. We also went to our first Clandestine Cake Club meeting in Gloucester, and I made a Regency-style gown for a ball our friends were hosting. IMG_6233
Farleigh Hungerford CastleWe didn't get much nice weather this summer, but one only-slightly-grey day in June we ventured out to explore Farleigh Hungerford Castle with my monther-in-law. This was only one of the many English Heritage (and Historic Scotland) castles that we visited during the year - I'm still as addicted to ruins as I was as a child.
We watched an inordinate amount of sports in July as the Olympics came to London, and I was inspired to try some international cuisine - these Chinese almond cookies were light and tasty.Chinese Almond Cookies
Lucky Leek, BerlinI had a conference in Berlin in August, but although it was mostly work I managed to fit in a bit of sightseeing, and had a lovely meal out at an amazing vegan restaurant.
In September I was invited to London to cook with Ainsley Harriott, and while I didn't win the popular vote, it was a great day out and I met some other awesome food bloggers.Ainsley Harriott SoupSearch
tedxcheltI spoke at TEDxCheltenham in October, something I've been waiting to blog about until the video is available online. For now, suffice it to say that the experience of getting up on stage under the bright lights was like nothing I've done before.
We spent November in the US, which was an amazing trip for so many reasons. Highlights included the autumnal foliage on Skyline Drive and visiting the Amish communities in Pennsylvania - but best of all, I got to experience my first Thanksgiving in Ohio with Jeanne (of The Raisin Chronicles), who I've "known" since we both started blogging in 2008, but only met when she invited us to stay.IMG_8129
Cranberry & Mushroom Nut LoafDecember was a quiet month (we needed one!). We had a lovely Christmas with my dad, and made a yummy nut roast packed with cranberries and mushrooms for our Christmas lunch.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Festive Cranberry & Mushroom Nut Loaf

Nut loaf gets a bad rap, probably dating back to the point where it was often proffered up as the only vegetarian option by restaurants (or relatives) without much concept of how interesting vegetarian cuisine can be. These days, I think the prize for most-boring-through-ubiquity Christmas lunch option goes to the pasta bake, available at most restaurants throughout December.

Personally, though, I love a good nut roast. We invented this recipe for Christmas lunch this year: made festive by the addition of cranberries, and with fresh herbs picked straight from the garden (even in the depths of winter), it was certainly both tasty and colourful.

The portobello mushrooms look good, but do undermine the structural integrity a little, so you have to slice the finished loaf rather carefully, and into not-too-thin slices - but why would you want a thin slice, anyway?

Cranberry & Mushroom Nut Loaf
Serves 4

150g mixed nuts (I used cashews, hazelnuts, and walnuts)
200g cooked chestnuts
1 onion
1 stick of celery
250g chestnut mushrooms
1tbsp olive oil
100g fresh cranberries 1tbsp sesame seeds
1tbsp fresh sage
1tbsp fresh rosemary
2 slices wholemeal bread (preferably a little stale)
2 eggs
Salt & pepper (to taste)
2 large portobello mushrooms
  1. Grease and line a 1lb loaf tin, and preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C for a fan oven).
  2. Lightly toast the mixed nuts in a large, dry pan. Remove from the heat and allow to cool before chopping.
  3. Finely chop the onion and celery. Roughly chop the chestnut mushrooms and chestnuts.
  4. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan, and fry the onion, celery, chestnut mushrooms, and cranberries with the herbs and sesame seeds until the onion and mushrooms are soft. Most of the cranberries will probably burst, which is fine.
  5. Shred the bread into breadcrumbs (it's quickest to use a  food processor).
  6. Beat the eggs.
  7. In a large bowl, gently combine all the ingredients apart from the portobello mushrooms. In particular, make sure that the egg is evenly distributed throughout the mixture.
  8. Press a half-inch thick layer of the nut mixture into the bottom of the loaf tin.
  9. Arrange the two portobello mushrooms in the tin, and pack nut mixture around them, taking particular care to fill the corners and sides.
  10. Press the remaining mixture in to fill the tin and cover the mushrooms.
  11. Cover the loaf with baking foil, and bake for an hour. Remove the foil half way through baking to allow the top to crisp.
  12. Turn out and slice to serve, straight from the oven.
Cranberry & Mushroom Nut Loaf

Cranberry & Mushroom Nut Loaf

Cranberry & Mushroom Nut Loaf

Cranberry & Mushroom Nut Loaf

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Pumpkin Funnel Cake


It's perhaps not surprising that the fair at Punkin Chunkin, Delaware's premier high-velocity pumpkin event, would feature unusual pumpkin delicacies. Across the field, tucked between burger vans, I spied a little stall that looked like it could help me expand the growing repertoire of pumpkin delights I'd sampled.

"What is a pumpkin funnel cake?" I asked as we got to the front of the queue and handed over our money.

"It's funnel cake, with pumpkin," our server said, looking a little confused that we would ask.

"But what's a funnel cake?" I asked. (We don't have them in England.)

Now she looked at me like I'd stepped off another planet. "It's funnel cake," she repeated, then turned to serve the next customer, apparently unwilling to handle any more challenging questions.

We peered past her to where a man, apparently the funnel cake master, was pouring orange batter from a steel jug into a vat of boiling oil. Whatever we'd signed up for, it wasn't going to be a healthy treat. I watched with a sort of fascinated horror as he plucked the cakes out with tongs and slapped them onto paper plates.

The result - a sort of light, swirly donut drenched in cinnamon sugar - was surprisingly delicious, and didn't taste nearly as greasy as it looked, though we were happy to share one between us! This is certainly something I should learn to make one day.




Thursday, 20 December 2012

Homewood Suites by Hilton, Columbia, MD


When I realised I'd be spending almost six weeks in the US this fall, finding somewhere decent to stay (at an affordable rate) quickly became a priority. The rooms at Homewood Suites have a separate bedroom with ensuite bath/shower, and then an open plan living space with seating, dining, and kitchen areas (see below for more on the kitchen). Shared facilities include a free and well-equipped gym, very reasonably priced laundry room, breakfast every morning, and even some evening meals thrown in. Plus, the rate goes down drastically if you stay over 30 nights.

I was actually really impressed. I'm a picky sleeper, but the beds were really comfortable (no waking up with morning backache), the sheets were soft, and there was a choice of pillows. Having a separate living space made it feel more like an apartment than a hotel room, and we had plenty of space to spread out our stuff. We'd definitely stay here again if we were back in the area, and will look out for this brand in other cities.




Being away from home for more than a week or two, my thoughts immediately turn to food. The kitchen facilities were one of my main considerations when deciding where to stay; so many places think that a microwave and coffee-maker are all the appliances you need. I was pleased to have a full-size fridge/freezer, and a two-ring stove, so that I could make proper meals. Even leaving aside the lack of an oven, there were a few things I really missed. (A mixing bowl and spatula wouldn't be too expensive, would they?) But there was enough kit to throw together a reasonable dinner, which was a lifesaver when my stomach got overwhelmed with the too-rich restaurant options.

There was also some food provided. Breakfast was slightly less-than-exciting for me. For a few days, it would have been fine, but the vegetarian selection was thin when it came to hot food (scrambled eggs every day, with fried potatoes about every 4 days), and everything from the cereal to the bread was loaded with unnecessary sugar. On days when I wanted to make myself a waffle, it was great; on other days, I bought some sourdough toast or bagels to make in the room. Similarly, the evening meal wasn't designed with vegetarians in mind - only on a couple of nights was there a decent veggie option (tacos and pasta, if you were wondering). But it was handy to have it there, because we could often grab something like a jacket potato or some rice to accompany whatever I was cooking.




Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Pretzels: My First Attempt


I first tried a soft pretzel only a few weeks ago, when we visited the historic pretzel bakery in Lititz. Well, the moment I bit into it I realised I'd been missing out on something delicious, and I wanted to try making some of my own.

I like collecting interesting recipe books, so I already had one called Pretzel Baker by Anne Boulley waiting on my Kindle (a fortuitous free download). My dough draws from the basic recipe in that book, although I rolled them more like the way we were shown in Lititz, the result of which is a more solid shape.

I topped half with salt, and half with sesame seeds (one of Boulley's suggestions, and a good idea for anyone trying to cut back on salt). I thought I might prefer the sesame ones, since I found myself having to knock off half the salt in the US, but actually I like the traditional taste best - just with a moderate number of salt crystals, instead of hundreds.

Simple Pretzel Recipe
Makes 6

50g butter
350ml hand-hot water
2tsp dried yeast
3tbsp brown sugar
1tsp salt
650g plain flour
100g baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
1tbsp rock salt (or sesame seeds)
  1. Melt the butter and leave to cool.
  2. Mix a little of the warm water to the yeast, along with the sugar, and leave for a couple of minutes until frothy.
  3. Add the yeast mixture to a large mixing bowl with the rest of the water, the salt, and melted butter.
  4. Fold in the flour, a little at a time, to form a soft dough. You should be able to knead the dough without it sticking - you may need to add a little more flour depending on the humidity.
  5. Knead for a few minutes, then cover the bowl with a tea towel and set in a warm place to rise for 30 minutes.
  6. Divide the dough into six equal-sized pieces.
  7. On a clean surface, roll the dough into a long, thin sausage shape about 18 inches long.
  8. Form the dough into a U shape, bring the two ends together and make a double twist, then fold the ends back down to stick onto the bottom of the U (see images below). I fixed the ends in place with a little cold water.
    IMG_9357   IMG_9358   IMG_9359
  9. Arrange the pretzels on a baking tray and put in the freezer for at least an hour.
  10. Meanwhile, line a baking tray with parchment, spread out the baking soda, and bake for an hour at 150°C.
  11. Dissolve the baked baking soda into 500ml cold water, in a bowl slightly larger than your pretzels. Fill another similar bowl with plain cold water.
  12. Grease or flour a couple of baking sheets.
  13. Take the frozen pretzels one at a time, and submerge in the soda solution for two minutes.
  14. Rinse quickly in the cold water and arrange on the baking sheets.
  15. Sprinkle the tops of the pretzels with salt crystals or sesame seeds.
  16. Bake at 230°C for 10-12 minutes.

Freezer Instructions
You can leave the raw, undipped pretzels in the freezer for as long as you like after step 9. Just pull them out, dip, and bake them when you're ready to eat them.


Sunday, 16 December 2012

Making Pretzels in Lititz


The Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz lays claim to being the first commercial producer of hard pretzels in the US, and possibly in the world. As we were visiting nearby Lancaster, and the surrounding Amish area, I really wanted to make time to drop in here. Though the Sturgis commercial operation has now moved to a larger factory, the original house is open as a small museum of everything pretzel. For just a couple of dollars, the tour not only showed the history of soft and hard pretzels, but gave visitors an opportunity to twist pretzel dough in the traditional way. Our guide was a friendly and knowledgeable young woman who had actually worked in pretzel production, as well as giving an entertaining spiel.

I'd never eaten a soft pretzel before the one I bought in the bakery here, and I was completely won over, and inspired to try baking them myself as soon as we got home. We were also given a small packet of hard pretzels at the end of the tour; not so exciting, we thought, since neither of us much likes the ones we've had in the UK, but these ones were much nicer. (And whoever first thought of chocolate-coating them might just have been a genius.)









Friday, 14 December 2012

The Mango Grove - Vegetarian Indian in Columbia, MD


The Mango Grove, a vegetarian Indian restaurant in Columbia, was recommended to me by a friend who used to live in the area. What with my being veggie, and loving Indian food, it sounded like the perfect place. That they offered a reasonably-priced lunch buffet was just the icing on the cake.

Imagine my surprise, then, to see goat and chicken curries on the buffet! True, they were clearly labelled, and tucked away on a separate table, but still. Goat is the last ingredient I expected to see at a restaurant self-identifying as vegetarian!

Needless to say, I stuck to the vegetarian end, and the food was delicious. They brought masala dosai (pancakes with a potato filling) and naan bread to our table, and I filled my plate several times over with an assortment of dahls and curries, breads and fritters. We'd definitely go back if we're in the area again.

Still, that goat was bothering me. As we settled our bill at the end of the meal, I asked, "When did you stop being vegetarian?" The staff were puzzled, not understanding my question. I pointed towards the meat dishes. "I thought this was a vegetarian restaurant, but you have meat."

They explained: at their old site, recently demolished, there were two restaurants side by side. One vegetarian, one not. When they had to move, they considered splitting their new premises, but on advice from their architect, left the seating as a shared space. Now there are two kitchens, two menus - but only one dining room, and one lunch buffet. Quite a fascinating example of collaboration.



Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Monday, 10 December 2012

Amish Country


I was really conflicted about visiting Lancaster County. On the one hand, I'd never before had the opportunity to visit an Amish area, and I was fascinated and intrigued. On the other hand, I was painfully conscious that what we were going to see was some people's everyday life - and moreso, that they were people who were trying, against the tide of modern civilization, to disconnect. Turning up to gawk at their way of life, as if they were living museum exhibits, felt awkward if not plain wrong.

Needless to say, we went anyway, but I was more shy than usual about getting the camera out. At least with a long lens, perhaps across a field, a photograph felt less like an invasion of privacy.

I'm really glad we had chance to visit. We started out with a museum of Mennonite and Amish history - Mennonites being a branch of Christianity which split from the Amish tradition and embraces more of the modern world, and which is also prevalent in Lancaster. We'd never even heard of their church before.

The signs warned drivers that we were sharing the road with Amish buggies, and they were indeed a common sight, with sturdy horses trotting along the streets. Amish women were often to be seen walking at the side of the road, and boys sometimes raced past on push-along scooters. Road names were bilingual in English and Pennsylvania Dutch (a form of German that I could almost follow in writing, though not in speech). One evening, we stopped for a cheap pizza buffet at a local chain restaurant, and were surprised to see Amish youngsters out for dinner - enjoying all-you-can-eat pizza while dressed in their simple, traditional clothes.







The most impressive sight was the farmland, with its horse-drawn machinery. It was hay-baling season when we visited, and we saw teetering hay-stacked, horse-drawn carriages on fields and roads alike.





But perhaps the most surprising element of the day was seeing a couple of camels, grazing in the middle of Amish farmland:


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