Thursday, 30 August 2012

Vilnius Cathedral



Vilnius, Lithuania

The cathedral in Vilnius is one seriously big structure. To say it's an imposing building which dominates the square is to significantly understate the effect. People look like ants against the chunky columns. I don't think I've ever felt so tiny.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania


Even the beautiful, "delicate" ceiling decorations are actually huge - though it's hard to get a feel for the scale, since they're also an awfully long way up.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania


And just in case you were in any doubt about the scale of those columns, here's a Rachel for reference. See what I mean?

Vilnius, Lithuania


Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Easy Veggie Pasta Bake



Pasta is my go-to dish for a quick and easy supper, but sometimes I fancy a change. Somehow, just sprinkling some cheese on top and popping it into the oven for a few minutes can transform the feel of a dish... without really being any more work.

Pasta bake

Pasta bake

Easy Vegetable Pasta Bake
Serves 4

2tbsp olive oil
1 large onion
mushrooms
1 courgette
1 red pepper
1/2 tin (130g) sweetcorn
300g pasta
200g mature cheddar cheese, grated
75g cream cheese
4 cherry tomatoes
tomato passata
basil & oregano (fresh if you have it)

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole dish in the oven.
  3. Finely chop the vegetables, add to the hot oil (except for the sweetcorn), and return to the oven for 15 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet.
  5. Toss the pasta, vegetables, sweetcorn, passata, and herbs in the casserole dish with the cream cheese and half the cheddar.
  6. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top, and arrange cherry tomatoes (halved) on the top.
  7. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the cheese has started to bubble and brown.


Sunday, 26 August 2012

Mezaparks, Riga's Grandest District





Riga, Latvia


Set amid thick pine forests, the Mezaparks (translated as Forest Park) district of Riga is full of huge mansions and grand designs. There are several embassies, alongside houses belonging to local business leaders, and the combination of stunning architecture and leafy streets makes it a wonderful place for a walk.


Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Some of the buildings were still under construction...

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia


...while others were sadly dilapidated and falling into ruin.

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia


Friday, 24 August 2012

Charity Dessert Night in Cheltenham



"We Love Desserts" Charity Night

It was my husband's birthday last week, so as a surprise (and knowing what a sweet tooth he has), I arranged to take him along to a dessert tasting evening with friends. Organised by We Love Desserts, and held at The Beehive in Cheltenham, the proceeds from the evening were split between Sue Ryder and The Eve Appeal, so we could all feel virtuous while completely wrecking our diets...

We were welcomed with a complimentary glass of wine, and a little strawberry chocolate cup served with fresh strawberries (above), to nibble on while everyone arrived and took their places.

As most of the desserts are usually prepared with gelatine, I had to put in a special request in advance to make sure there was a vegetarian option available. I did wonder whether this would mean my experience was completely different to that of my friends, as my desserts were being developed especially for me, but as it happens each course was faithfully converted to veggie form. In fact, the only difference I spotted on the first plate of puds was that the colours on mine were more vibrant (click to enlarge images).

"We Love Desserts" Charity Night"We Love Desserts" Charity Night
VeggieNon-veggie

Each of the six bite-size portions had its own distinctive flavour, and there was a nice balance of textures: the taller towers were thick and creamy, the smaller ones more like a soft jelly, and of course the chunks of fresh fruit added another dimension.

"We Love Desserts" Charity NightAfter we'd all cleared our plates, a little bit of fun was added in the form of dry ice shots. White wine was poured over lumps of dry ice, for a show of bubbles followed by a very chilly drink. Matching centrepieces gave an even more impressive display, with clouds of gas flooding across the table. I do love dry ice - so pretty.

"We Love Desserts" Charity Night

After that brief interlude, it was back to hard-core dessert eating, in the form of the chocolate course. Again, the vegetarian version matched up well against the original. A rich chocolate mousse, topped with a dark chocolate glaze and a mini eclair, was served with fresh raspberries, a tiny Kilner jar of cream, and yet more chocolate drizzled over the top. Absolutely indulgent.

"We Love Desserts" Charity Night"We Love Desserts" Charity Night
VeggieNon-veggie

Next up we had chocolate cocktails. I'm not sure if these were actually alcoholic, they didn't really taste as if they were, but perhaps by that stage I'd had too much wine to judge. But they certainly were very moreish, and the tangy fruit puree helped to balance out the sweeter chocolate layer.

"We Love Desserts" Charity Night

The final course of the evening was a white chocolate mouse with black cherry filling, served with fresh fruit and - in a fun twist - a dish which gushed dry ice when a little warm water was squirted through a gap in the plate. By this stage, if I'm honest, I was feeling a little overwhelmed by the richness of it all. Fortunately Andy didn't have the same problem, so I ended up giving him about a third of my mousse to finish off. It's not that I didn't enjoy it, but you can have too much of a good thing, when the good thing is made of pure sugar.

"We Love Desserts" Charity Night"We Love Desserts" Charity Night
VeggieNon-veggie

As you can probably tell, we had a fantastic time sampling all these various treats. And then we were each given a "party bag" with another, boxed dessert to take home. There was a little mix-up at this stage, because the veggie and non-veggie puds look so similar that the bags got confused - but Andy was happy to eat two helpings of strawberry mallow, and I've been promised a veggie replacement at a future date - which is just fine by me as I won't need any more sugar for a while!

While they're obviously aiming at different markets, the closest competition in the Cotswolds is probably the longer-established-and-more-famous Pudding Club. The Pudding Club focuses on traditional, custard-laden British dishes - a very different feel to these chilled, more sophisticated desserts - but I'd also say that the quality here was much higher. The balance of flavours and textures had clearly been thought out carefully, with a lot of attention to detail in the presentation and serving.

Tickets for future events (currently planned for Cheltenham and Manchester) are available via the We Love Desserts website. I'll certainly consider going again in future, especially if the menu changes with the seasons.


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Riga's Freedom Monument




Riga, Latvia

Towering over the city, Riga's very own Lady Liberty often comes into view as you turn a corner or cross a street. Erected in the '30s as a war memorial for those killed during the Latvian War of Independence, it's pretty amazing that she survived the later Soviet occupation. In fact, until I read up about it, I'd assumed the freedom being celebrated was freedom from the USSR - to which she now also stands testament.

A beautiful, proud, but sorrowful reminder that the Baltic states have had to fight long and hard for independence, throughout the course of modern history.

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia



Monday, 20 August 2012

Edinburgh Out Of Festival Season



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At this time of year, I'm always given to thinking about the Edinburgh Festival, particularly as my Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of people lucky enough to be there right now. I've been to the Fringe a few times, always attached to a show (or several), and loved every second of it. But for some reason I've resisted going back without a theatre company to call my own.

On our way to St Andrews in May this year, we stopped off in Edinburgh overnight. May. No festivals. It was weird.

My previous memories of the city were entirely filled with festival moments: hours spent searching for budget train tickets and cheap accommodation; arriving at Waverley Station with a tent and only the vaguest notion of where we might find the campsite (clue: it's not in the city centre); stumbling across rainy cobblestones to get to the next performance just in time. Late nights and the kind of party atmosphere that only comes from every other person being an actor, comedian, or stage hand. (Me? I was usually producing or marketing, you won't get me on stage.)

Edinburgh, outside of the festival season, is a very different place. It's too quiet, for a start. The gothic architecture looks stark when it isn't draped in technicolor Festival banners. And I struggled to find my way around without the familiar theatrical landmarks.

It was only a flying visit, but I was struck by how easy it is for the character of a place to transform overnight. I live near to Cheltenham, these days, which is another famous "festival city," but I've never felt that the mood of the town really changes with the comings and goings of its arts festivals. So I was taken aback by just how different Edinburgh felt without its street performers, temporary theatres, and heaving crowds.

Normally I prefer quiet environments, but my memories of Edinburgh are so wrapped up with theatre that it just felt strange. There's only one thing for it: I need to go back to the Fringe.

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IMG_5705


Saturday, 18 August 2012

Win a Box of Handmade Chocolates {UK Only}




How would you like to win a box of gorgeous handmade chocolates? Chocolate by Genevie is a new company specialising in unique, hand-crafted chocolates, beautifully presented. I'm always delighted to support small businesses, so I'm really pleased to be able to offer you this chance to win a presentation box of 24 assorted chocolates.

Why not consider keeping in touch with Genevie on Twitter or Facebook? You never know when you might need a box of chocolates, and handmade is so much more special than the usual huge brands.




Chocolates by Genevie

Genevie was kind enough to send me a sample of her chocs to try, which arrived in a beautiful little gold box. Of course, I had to share them with my husband - cue the challenge of trying to slice through hard chocolate shells with a small kitchen knife. Messy, but ultimately effective.

The flavours were surprisingly subtle, so certainly a treat to pay attention to, rather than to be wolfed down. My personal favourite was the coffee praline, which had a dark chocolate, nutty praline, with just a hint of coffee. A perfect after-dinner treat.

Chocolates by Genevie

Want to win? You can enter using the Rafflecopter form, below. Unfortunately, this prize is only available for delivery within the UK (but international entrants are welcome to use the prize to treat a British friend!).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Chocolates by Genevie


Thursday, 16 August 2012

Chocolate & Pear Muffins



Juicy, fresh pears, with dark chocolate, is one of my all-time favourite flavour combinations. With crunchy chocolate chips and soft pear pieces, these little muffins fill a perfect hole in my lunchbox. I think the smaller size is more convenient (and about right for my appetite), but for larger, more conventional sized muffins you can use the same recipe but just make half as many muffins.

Chocolate & Pear Muffins


Chocolate & Pear Muffins
Makes 24 small or 12 large muffins

Wet ingredients:
180g (1½sticks) butter
2 eggs
1tsp vanilla essence
450ml (2 cups) milk

Dry ingredients:
500g (3 cups) plain flour
280g (1¼cups) sugar
90g (¾ cup) cacao
2tsp baking powder
¾tsp sodium bicarbonate
½ salt

Extras:
100g (½ cup) chocolate chips (I used a mixture of dark and milk choc chips)
170g (1 cup) chopped conference pear

  1. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).
  2. Melt the butter and leave to cool to room temperature.
  3. Beat the eggs.
  4. Sift the dry ingredients together, sieving out any lumps.
  5. Stir the beaten eggs, milk, and vanilla essence into the (cooled) melted butter.
  6. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and fold together with a spatula until combined into a uniform batter.
  7. Add the chocolate chips and pear chunks.
  8. Spoon the mixture into muffin tins (greased or non-stick).
  9. Bake for 18-20 minutes (25-30 mins for larger muffins), until a knife comes out clean.
  10. Leave to cool in the tin for a couple of minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack.
Freezer Instructions
Want to freeze some of your muffins? Allow them to cool thoroughly, then freeze on the day of baking. Simply defrost overnight when you want to eat them.


Sunday, 12 August 2012

Bastejkalns, Riga's Canalside Park



Riga, Latvia

A beautiful spot for a walk or a picnic, right in the centre of Riga. We really enjoyed exploring Bastejkalns Park, which runs along both sides of the canal and features a number of statues and sculptures, amid beautiful flowers and trees. On hot days, the shaded benches were perfect for getting out of the sun, and there were several ice-cream carts if refreshments were needed.

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia


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