Monday, 30 July 2012

Chinese Almond Cookies for the Olympics



Chinese Almond Cookies

One of my friends is running an "inverse sweepstake" for the Olympics. The idea is that you don't have to put in any money to participate, but there are also no prizes - just penalties. Luckily for me, the penalties involve baking, so I was happy to sign up.

Each person is allocated a country (I drew China), and penalty events might occur at any time throughout the Olympics, including:
  • a competitor from your country setting a world record
  • your country taking bronze, silver, and gold in the same event
  • Mayor of London Boris Johnson insulting your country (during the Olympics)
  • a competitor from your country failing a drugs test
There are twenty-odd different penalties in all. And, of course, the most important is the one that has caught me out: a competitor or team achieving a score which is an exact multiple of 100. Yesterday, the Chinese women's archery team scored exactly 200 points in their first round, narrowly beating the Italians (who scored 199!) before going on to take the silver medal. This nice round score means I had to bake for the other sweepstake participants.

Since my country is China, I decided I wanted to make things more interesting (read: harder for myself) and bake Chinese treats. These almond cookies are light and crumbly, and make a nice change from my usual baking.

Chinese Almond Cookies

Chinese Almond Cookie Recipe
Makes 35-40

350g (2 cups) plain flour
½tsp baking powder
½tsp bicarbonate of soda
a pinch of salt
240g (1 cup, 2 US sticks) butter
200g (¾cup) white sugar
1 egg
2½tsp almond essence
40 whole almonds
2-3tbsp milk

  1. Mix the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, and salt in a large bowl (sift if necessary to remove any lumps).
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together in a separate bowl.
  3. Add the egg and almond essence to the butter and sugar, and beat to form a homogeneous mixture.
  4. Combine with the flour to form a soft dough, press it together with your fingers, and refrigerate for at least an hour.
  5. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F) before shaping the cookies.
  6. Form the dough into small balls, about the size of a walnut (in its shell).
  7. Roll each ball between your palms to make a smooth sphere.
  8. Space the balls out on a baking sheet, about ten to a sheet (they will spread to double or three times their original size, so leave plenty of space)
  9. Press an almond into the top of each ball, and flatten (to about 1cm thick) with the palm of your hand.
  10. Brush the top of each cookie with a little milk.
  11. Bake for 15 minutes, then cool on the trays for a couple of minutes before gently transferring to a wire rack.


Saturday, 28 July 2012

NH Doelen Hotel, Amsterdam




Amsterdam


The NH Doelen is a grande dame of a hotel, which looks utterly gorgeous from the outside with its beautiful brickwork and detailed plaster mouldings. Add to this a fantastic canal-side location in central Amsterdam, and it looked like the perfect spot. It should have been a delight to stay here.

If only the inside had lived up to the promise of the facade.

Unfortunately, the facilities were average at best. The public areas were a little tired, but acceptable, and had some nice features like a central light well and a towering grandfather clock in the lobby. But it was the bedroom which really disappointed me, with its shabby furniture, chipped paint, and grimy wallpaper. There's no overhead light (one of my pet peeves in hotel rooms) which means there isn't anywhere near enough light in the rooms, even in daylight. I usually take photos of a hotel room when I arrive, but this one felt so dreary that I just didn't bother. The bathroom was the only space that felt clean and spacious. I found the mattress only tolerable, and the sheets scratchy.

Given its perfect location, and NH Hotels' self-positioning as a quality hotel chain, I really think this place could do with a facelift. The rooms may be tiny, but with clean decor and better bedding, it could still be great. But unless I hear of a serious refurbishment project, I won't be staying here again.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire



IMG_6552

Hailes Abbey (sometimes spelt Hayles) was a Cistercian abbey, once famed for having a relic of the blood of Christ. During the dissolution of the monasteries, the relic was mocked, discredited, and destroyed. Unfortunately, even collaborating with this process couldn't save the abbey from being closed down and looted, so it now stands in majestic ruin.

IMG_6541

IMG_6537

IMG_6535

IMG_6544

IMG_6536



Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Best Waterskier in Luxembourg



I'm part of a project called the Listserve, which gives one person each day (selected at random) the chance to email all the other people on the list. There are currently 20,000 people on the list, and the daily messages range from banal platitudes to personal stories to practical tips... and everything in between.

A couple of weeks back, one email really grabbed my imagination. Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist working on a book about big fish in small ponds, entitled The Best Water Skier in Luxembourg. From the The funding for this project is being handled through Unbound, a crowdsourcing website for the publishing industry. This means that you can help make it happen by pre-ordering a copy of the book (£20 hardback, £10 ebook).

I was sufficiently intrigued to get in touch with Keith, and we met up for coffee at the British Library cafe. And because I thought you might also be interested, I asked him a few questions about his work:

Why waterskiing? And why Luxembourg?

Well why not! The whole point of my project is to prove the point that people are interesting everywhere and if you take even the most random case studies you will find fascinating stories.

But to answer more directly, both Luxembourg and water skiing have a lot in common: everyone's heard of both but few people know much about either. Neither of them are completely obscure - there are thousands of water skiers and nearly half a million Luxembourgers - yet neither of them are big and powerful (as sports and as countries). I'm really drawn to things that are somewhere in the middle, neither the most obscure or the most famous. In fact, obscure, small worlds often have a certain noteriety which things in the middle don't have: so Andorra is probably better known than Latvia.

The actual concept of the best water skier in Luxembourg stems from something I used to say about myself. I'm a biggish fish in a couple of smallish worlds - the sociology of Anglo-Jewry and the sociology of heavy metal - so I used to say I was like the best water skier in Luxembourg. In spring 2011 I decided that I should actually try and meet my namesake - and the book was born!

So, you went to Luxembourg... did you try waterskiing while you were there?

No! Bizarrely enough I went in December when no one actually water skis!

What was the highlight of your visit?

I loved every minute of it. I'm never happier than when I'm discovering a world I know nothing about. But from a tourist point of view, the best thing was the spa I went to in Mondorf-Les-Bains, about 20 minutes east of Luxembourg City. I'm a big fan of saunas and they had a huge variety of them, as well as a gourgeous warm mineral spa pool. It's one of the best (and most reasonably priced) spas I've been to anywhere in the world.

Tell me a bit more about the other chapters you've planned.

At the moment the plan is to write chapters on the following:

– The most powerful politician in Alderney
– The Icelandic special forces
– Malta’s favourite soft drink
– The best-selling novelist in Suriname
– The most popular heavy metal band in Botswana

I've been to Iceland and Malta but not the other three places. I really hope I can raise enough funds to complete all the chapters!

How much travel had you done before embarking on this project? And what was your favourite trip / experience?

I've travelled a fair amount over the years. The absolute highlight for me was travelling round China in 1991. It was a perfect time to go - the country had opened up just enough to make backpacking viable, but it was not yet so developed as to have lost its soul. Outside the big cities foreigners were still a novelty so people were often incredibly friendly. Yangshou, near Guilin, is the most beautiful place I've ever seen and in 1991 it hadn't yet been completely touristified/backpackerified.

Your two academic niches are Judaism and heavy metal - so who's the best Jewish heavy metal group?

That would have to be Orphaned Land. They are an Israeli band who mix traditiona; Jewish/middle eastern music with metal. They are the only jewish-Israeli band to have a big following in the Muslim world. Here's a video:



As well as donating to your Unbound project, what are some of the other ways the travel community could help you succeed?

This is an expensive project to fund so I am looking for tourism authorities or travel companies to 'sponsor' my trips (in whole or in part). Any contacts in this area will be very welcome! Also, if any travel editors are reading this then I'd love to write a travel piece for you. I've already had one published on Luxembourg in the Guardian.

Other than that, if anyone knows any of the people and small worlds I am researching than I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks Keith. And good luck - I'm looking forwards to the finished book!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Asparagus, Potato & Pearl Barley Soup



On the menu of an Italian restaurant where we ate recently, my husband and I both noticed the asparagus, potato, and pearl barley soup. Although we ended up ordering other things on that occasion, the idea wouldn't go away, so I went on to make my own version. Have I mentioned lately how much I love asparagus? The potato makes for a creamy, thick soup base, and the pearl barley gives it a bit of texture.

IMG_6735


Asparagus, Potato, & Pearl Barley Soup
Serves 4

1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
2tbsp olive oil
1.5 litres vegetable stock
500g potatoes
500g fresh asparagus (weigh after removing the woody ends)
50g (½ cup) pearl barley (dried)
pepper to taste

  1. Finely chop the onion and garlic.
  2. Heat the oil in a large pan, and fry the onion and garlic until soft.
  3. Chop the potatoes into small pieces (approx. 1cm cubes).
  4. Add one litre of vegetable stock to the onions, and simmer the potatoes for about 45 minutes, until soft.
  5. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, cook the pearl barley in the remaining 500ml of stock, adding extra water if necessary as the barley absorbs the liquid.
  6. Reserve about half of the asparagus tips for a garnish, and finely chop the remaining asparagus spears into 1cm-long pieces. Add to the soup and simmer until soft.
  7. Puree the potato and asparagus soup base, and add black pepper to taste.
  8. Stir the pearl barley into the soup, and add some extra stock if necessary to get your desired texture.
  9. Steam the reserved asparagus tips until tender (approx. 2 minutes).
  10. In the bowls, top the soup with the asparagus tips and a twist of fresh black pepper. Serve with crusty granary bread.

5:2 Intermittent Fasting button5:2 Diet
Without the bread, this soup has about 240 calories per serving, and because of the potatoes, it's really rather filling.


Friday, 20 July 2012

A Summer Stroll in Riga






Riga, Latvia


It's taken me a very long time to sort through all my photos from last summer's Baltic odyssey, not least because we took thousands of pictures. But I'm starting to get to grips with it, now, and wanted to start by sharing some shots from the beautiful streets of Riga.

Riga, the capital of Latvia, doesn't quite have the chocolate-box charm of its much-fĂȘted neighbour Tallinn - but it's still a gorgeous medieval city with plenty of picturesque streets, broad plazas, and quiet corners to explore. Here are just a few scenes to whet your appetite...

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia


Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Edam



Edam


Edam - like Gouda - is famous only for its cheese (at least in the UK). Mild in flavour and wrapped in bright red or yellow wax, it was a childhood favourite of mine.

When we had chance to visit Edam, however, we found a charming, surprisingly beautiful town full of Dutch charm. I felt like I could happily move into one of the little waterfront cottages. And it seems virtually untouched by tourism - perhaps surprisingly, given that its most famous export is a household name.

Edam

Edam

Edam

Edam

Edam

Edam


Monday, 16 July 2012

On Form: Sculpture at Asthall Manor




If I hadn't stumbled across a blog post about Asthall Manor, I wouldn't have known that there was a sculpture garden on my doorstep. And it was very fortunate indeed that I came across it in the last week, as yesterday was the last day of the exhibition - and the garden will then be closed until the next one, in 2014. So I have to start with thanks to Charlotte @ The Galloping Gardener for drawing this to my attention. (If you enjoy virtual tours of lush and verdant spaces as much as I do, you'll find a lot to love on Charlotte's blog.)

So yesterday, we drove across to Oxfordshire. I have to confess that, as we struggled to find a parking space in the muddy field designated the car park, I was getting a little bit worried about how many people six acres could comfortably accommodate without everyone constantly getting in everyone else's way. After all, it was the last day of the exhibition, and one of very few rain-free days in the past month. Of course it was going to be busy. But once we were past the initial queue for tickets, everyone spread out and it didn't feel anywhere near as crowded as I'd feared.

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

From huge and imposing installations to smaller, more playful pieces, there was a little bit of everything here, and most of it very much suited to my tastes. The charming neighbourhood church also housed a small number of sculptures.

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

The garden at Asthall Manor is classic Cotswold cottage. I loved the juxtaposition of soft-edged foliage with the hard edges of the stone sculptures: the garden was improved by the exhibition, and the pieces certainly worked well in the context of the landscape. Whoever set it up had thought long and hard about lines of sight, with a surprise around every corner. If I had a few thousand pounds spare to spend on art, I'd certainly consider splashing out on a piece or two for my own garden.

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

It was great to see people getting up close and personal with the art...

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

...as well as photographers risking a close encounter with the wet grass, all for the perfect shot:

Asthall Manor "On Form" Exhibition

If you want to see more, check out the rest of my photos on Flickr - and let me know in the comments which piece is your favourite.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Inntel Hotel, Zaandam



Zaandam


When I saw the Zaandam Inntel hotel online, I wasn't quite sure whether I loved or hated the funky, modern, and more than slightly weird exterior design. But it was cheap (by the standards of Amsterdam & environs), fairly new, and had fantastic reviews, so we booked ourselves in for a couple of nights.

Zaandam hotel room


The rooms were spacious and bright, with big windows and distinctive murals - it was slightly disconcerting to have the Verkade biscuit lady looking down on us as we slept! Having a double bed made of two singles pushed together is never ideal if you move around in your sleep (as I do), but the mattresses were comfy and the sheets were good quality. Instead of the €16 buffet breakfast, we headed across the street to Delifrance for decent coffee and cheap croissants. We had a lovely stay and would happily use this hotel again... but I still don't know if I like the outside!

Zaandam itself is a few minutes from Amsterdam Central by train, but we had plans to visit Zaanse Schans which is north of the city, so it was a perfect location for us. The town was in the middle of major rebuilding work, apparently to restore the old canals (long ago filled in), which will be a great improvement to the environment when it's finished - meanwhile, a large part of town feels like a building site.

Zaandam


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