Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Brandenburg Gate



One of Berlin's most famous landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate marks one of the old city gates. Not that you'd ever guess from looking at it: this certainly isn't the sort of gate that would stand up to hoardes of marauding raiders. With its neo-classical columns and imposing statuary, Brandenburger Tor is far more decorative than functional.

It is, however, really very decorative.

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin


Friday, 28 September 2012

Rose & Chocolate Cupcakes



Lakeland (one of my favourite shops, and a constant danger to my wallet) recently introduced a new range of essences and extracts, and for some reason this little bottle of rose water was just calling my name. It took me a while to decide what to bake first, to try it out, but I think these were a good invention: a light textured, rose-flavoured sponge packed with dark chocolate chips. They were just as nice with or without the icing, depending on how sweet a tooth you have.

Rose & chocolate cupcakes

Rose & Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 10

For the cakes:
4oz butter
4oz caster sugar
2 eggs
4oz self-raising flour
1tsp rose water
3½oz dark chocolate chips

For the icing (optional):
6tbsp icing sugar
1tbsp boiling water
pink or red food colouring
  1. Line 10 holes of a small muffin tin with paper (or silicone) cake liners, and preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F)
  2. Cream butter and sugar together with the back of a spoon.
  3. Add the eggs one by one, whisking until combined, then stir in the rose essence.
  4. Beat the mixture until light and bubbly (I use a hand whisk for this).
  5. Gently fold in the flour, until fully combined, then add the chocolate chips.
  6. Divide the cake mix between the cake cases.
  7. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the surface is springy and a knife comes out clean, then remove from the tin to cool on a wire rack.
  8. Once the cakes have cooled to room temperature, make the icing. Dissolve the icing sugar in the boiling water, and add a drop of food colouring - a little goes a very long way, especially if you use red icing. (You may need to dilute it with more water and sugar if the colour is too strong.) Spoon a little icing on top of each cake, spread out with the back of a teaspoon, and leave to set before serving.


Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Samadhi Vegetarian Restaurant



Berlin

I was on my way to the Brandenberg Gate when I saw a sign attached to a lamppost, pointing towards Samadhi vegetarian restaurant. It was going on lunchtime and a vegetarian restaurant is not something I'm likely to turn down, so I abandoned my planned route and followed the signs instead.

The menu at Samadhi is Asian fusion - and long. I'm not accustomed to having ten or more pages to study, and it took me a while to settle on a dish of mixed vegetables in coconut curry sauce, sprinkled with peanuts and served with crispy rice noodles and a huge portion of rice. The vegetables were fresh, and there was a good mixture of flavours and textures, even if it was a bit heavy on the courgette. (I didn't mind; I love courgettes.) The sauce was light but very flavourful, creamy, and plentiful enough to saturate the whole dish of rice. I'd choose something with a little more kick if I ever find myself  here again, but I tend to order mild dishes the first time I eat somewhere, just in case their idea of spicy is way beyond mine.

Overall: a good find in the heart of the city, and well worth a visit if you're in the area. I might well have gone back, but Berlin had so many great veggie options to choose from.

Berlint


Monday, 24 September 2012

Pink Pipes at Potsdamer Platz



I'm not sure what I was expecting to find at the famous Potsdamer Platz - I'd heard of it, but I couldn't say why. However, I certainly wasn't anticipating this most eyecatching feature, which completely dominated the square: bright pink pipes threading their way through the streets. It felt like walking into an art installation, and I couldn't help wondering how often they repaint them - and whether the colours change with the seasons.

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin


Saturday, 22 September 2012

Healthier Snacking - My First Graze Box



Graze box - contents

Several of my friends have been getting Graze boxes for ages, and I kept listening with envy to what they've got each week, but it's taken me a while to catch up with the trend and grab my free trial. I thought anyone else who's been dithering might appreciate a glimpse inside my first box.

Before you even order for the first time, you can rate items you think you'll love, and bin those you never want to receive (anything with bananas, in my case). The site is really nice to use, and has great photos of the products. Everything in the range is vegetarian, and for vegans and coeliacs there's an easy way to ditch all unsuitable foods.


The box itself is slim enough to fit through the letterbox and contains four small, individually-packaged portions, each one ideal for addressing the mid-afternoon slump. Well, it has to beat grabbing a packet of crisps. I got a good mix of sweet and savoury snacks, including two I'd speculatively marked as favourites.


The pack of apple & cinnamon flapjacks was the first that I dived into (I wonder why), and contained three miniature slices of flapjack. Each tiny slice was gone in a couple of mouthfuls, but having three pieces instead of one larger one certainly encouraged me to spread out my snacking. Nice and moist, with plenty of juicy apple and just a delicate hint of cinnamon.

Next I tried the Mississippi barbecue pistachios, which sounded like a great idea - I love both pistachios and smoky BBQ flavours -  but I felt the point was defeated somewhat by the nuts being left in their shells. That meant a lot of the taste was infused into the shell, and some of the nuts themselves managed to avoid picking up any of the flavouring. I think I would have preferred just plain pistachios.

Several of the Graze options are simple mixtures of fruits, nuts, and seeds, sometimes with an extra "treat" ingredient thrown in. Yin & Yang is one such, featuring gigantic dark chocolate buttons, blanched almonds, dried cherries, and jumbo raisins. Simple but effective.

Lastly, Yaki Soba looks a bit like bombay mix, but has a more oriental flavour. Crunchy noodles with dried broad beans, soya beans (edamame), and peanuts, all spiced up with lime and a touch of chilli. Surprisingly filling and very tasty.

Overall, this was a really fun way to get a few unusual snacks. The main advantage of the system is that you can get a lot of variety in small batches - if you tried to make all these mixtures at home, you'd end up with a lot of open packets and probably have things going off before you could use them all up. The individual portions would also be great to take away on trips - I'm always looking out for good snacks to slip in my bag for airports and train journeys.

Want to try Graze for yourself? Get your free box here. Enter the code R3CKQCPA in the special promotions box. You can't really go wrong with free food, after all. (Disclosure: I get a discount against a future order if you use my code to sign up.)

Graze box

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Riga's Coast and Rivers



From the industrial to the pastoral, Riga's waterside views provide some of the city's most spectacular scenery. But then I've always loved the coast. We were lucky to get some great weather in which to enjoy the views.

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Turkish Squash & Chickpea Stew



As part of my Turkish cookery challenge for Ainsley Harriott's SoupSearch competition, I got a butternut squash, a tin of chick peas, some sweet potatoes, and a packet of apricots. Making a spicy stew seemed like the obvious next step, so I invented the following Turkish-inspired dish, along with menemen (Turkish scrambled eggs).

We only had half an hour of cooking time, so I chopped the vegetables into really small pieces, to make sure they cooked through and absorbed the flavour of the spices. But if you don't have a time limit, you could chop them into bigger chunks and cook for longer.

Ainsley Harriott SoupSearch

Squash & Chickpea Stew Recipe

2tbsp olive oil
1/2 butternut squash
1 large sweet potato
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
1 tin chickpeas
100ml vegetable stock
2tbsp tomato puree
½ cup dried apricot pieces
2tsp sumac
1tsp ground cumin
2tbsp sesame seeds
1tbsp fresh thyme
2tbsp fresh mint

  1. Chop the squash and sweet potato into 1cm cubes. Finely chop the onion, and quarter the apricots.
  2. Heat the oil in a deep pan and fry the butternut squash for 5 minutes until soft.
  3. Add the onion, garlic, sesame seeds, and sweet potato, and fry for a further 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add all the remaining ingredients to the pan, and simmer for 10 minutes until the stock has mostly evaporated.
  5. Garnish with an extra sprinkle of sesame seeds and a sprig of mint.


Ainsley Harriott SoupSearch


Sunday, 16 September 2012

Freezing Ahead for Easy Mealtimes



My mother-in-law recently gave us her old freezer, and I've been trying to get more organised by cooking double portions (or more) and freezing the excess for low-effort meals at a later date. I started to make a list of freezer-friendly recipes, and thought I'd share it in case others find it helpful. I'll be adding to this list as I work out the best way to freeze and defrost different dishes.

I've also gradually started to add freezing information to my old recipe posts, and you'll be seeing these info boxes more often in future.

Freezer Instructions
Where you see this symbol on a recipe, you can freeze the dish to serve another day. I'll give you instructions on the best place to "pause" the recipe, and how to defrost or cook from frozen. 

Savoury
Sweet


Friday, 14 September 2012

The Ritter Sport Cafe, Berlin



Berlin

Having finally got past the idea that any product with "sport" in the name isn't designed with me in mind, I'm currently a little bit addicted to Ritter Sport chocolate, especially the dark chocolate varieties. So when I found out that they have a cafe and chocolate shop in Berlin, I had to drop by.

I certainly wasn't the only one with that idea, because the place was heaving. The shop downstairs is a chocolate-lover's paradise, with wall to wall, floor to ceiling shelves of chocolate bars. There's even a cool sculpture inspired by the distinctive Ritter packaging. At the entrance, there's a busy chocolate counter where you can buy drinks and have your own custom flavour of chocolate bar mixed up. (I would surely have done this if the queue hadn't been so far out of the door.)

BerlinBerlin

The cafe upstairs was, thankfully, a bit less manic. I sat by the window with the idea of watching the world go by - but it turned out to be far more fun to watch the multicoloured world of the Ritter cafe than the grey Berlin street below.

Everything on offer was inspired by a specific Ritter bar, from cakes and desserts to flavours of hot chocolate. I ordered a rum-raisin-hazelnut muffin, and the "special" hot chocolate with added espresso and cinnamon.

I opted for the marzipan hot chocolate as that's one of my very favourite bars, and I couldn't quite imagine how it would work as a drink. The short answer is that it doesn't. While the idea sounds good, the drink doesn't really take on the almond taste, but you do end up with a mouthful of gritty marzipan bits in the bottom of the mug. Not really a sensation I'd like to repeat.

The muffin was much better: a light texture, packed with rum-soaked raisins, roasted hazelnuts, and just a drizzle of milk chocolate on top.

Overall, it was a lovely funky environment, which made for a nice spot to rest my weary legs - but it wasn't the exciting culinary experience I was hoping for. If I went back, it would be for the atmosphere more than the food and drink.

Berlin

Berlin


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Movenpick Hotel, Berlin



Berlin

Not that I'd ever choose a hotel because a brand makes nice ice cream, or anything, but when the name Movenpick popped up on the list of reasonably priced Berlin hotels, it certainly caught my attention. Turns out to be a different company to the ice cream, so my half-hopes of an ice cream bar in the lobby (or an ice cream minibar in my room!) were dashed. Nevertheless, it was cheap for a city centre place, and only a stone's throw from the S-Bahn station, which made it a very convenient base.

I was on the fifth (top) floor, in an adorable room with sloping roof and two Velux windows. I really liked the room layout, especially the way the headboard managed to divide the sleeping area from the desk, so it almost felt like having a microscopic suite. Everything was new and clean (apart from a bit of dust on the mirrors), and the bed was comfy with soft sheets and a choice of pillows. Unfortunately, having a comfortable bed wasn't enough to guarantee a good night's sleep: since the bed was directly under two large windows, I didn't get much rest on the two nights we had rainstorms. Since the building is a historic property, there's not much they can do about it.

It was a nice touch to always have fresh apples and mineral water available in the lobby, and the staff were incredibly friendly and always there to help. The gym was appalling, with creaky and broken equipment, but a note on the door said that this was being dealt with, and a new gym should be available by the end of the year. I also managed to get a package including free wifi, which had a good signal and was easily fast enough for my purposes.

The breakfast buffet had an extensive cold selection of fresh fruit, cereals, breads and pastries, cheeses, and salad. The hot buffet was of disappointing quality by comparison (aren't they always?), but a two-ring "live cooking" station meant that it was possible to get fresh eggs or pancakes on request. It was worth getting down to breakfast before seven, because one the day I went at half past, there were huge queues for everything and I ended up being late for my first conference session.

All in all, this is a cute and well-designed hotel and I'd definitely stay here again, but I think I'd prefer to be on a lower floor next time if there's any chance of rain.

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin


Monday, 10 September 2012

Menemen Recipe - Turkish Scrambled Eggs



Menemen is the traditional Turkish method of preparing scrambled eggs, with peppers, tomatoes, and lovely fresh herbs. I only found out about this dish when we visited Turkey last year, and so it was great fun to reconstruct it for myself. This was one of the dishes I cooked with Ainsley Harriott as part of the SoupSearch competition.

Ainsley Harriott SoupSearch

Menemen (Turkish scrambled eggs)
Serves 2

2tbsp olive oil
1/2 red pepper
1/2 green pepper
1 large onion
1 fresh chilli
3 large tomatoes
4 eggs
Flat leaf parsley
Salt & pepper to taste
  1. Chop the onions and peppers into large pieces (approximately 1 inch squares), and finely chop the fresh chilli (removing the seeds)
  2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan, and fry the onions, peppers, and chilli until softened
  3. Chop the tomatoes finely, and add to the pan. Simmer for a few minutes to reduce the liquid from the tomatoes
  4. Break the eggs into a bowl, and break up the yolks with a fork
  5. Add the eggs to the pan, and stir constantly for 4-5 minutes, until the eggs are cooked and scrambled
  6. Add a generous handful of fresh parsley just before serving, and season with salt and pepper to taste

Ainsley Harriott SoupSearch

Ainsley Harriott SoupSearch


Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Berlin Wall



Berlin

I am (just) old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin wall. When I was little I assumed that Berlin coincidentally spanned the line dividing East and West Germany, and that the wall was part of the longer national boundary - so it came as some surprise to see it on a map, some time after the reunification, and learn that West Berlin was actually quite far inside East Germany.

Most of the wall has been torn down, and Berlin today doesn't feel like a divided city. Most of the way, the route of the wall is marked only by a line of cobblestones (bottom photo), but at Bernauer Strasse there's a great memorial area where you can see a stretch of surviving wall. There are also a number of information boards, giving the history of the wall and its development. I'm not ashamed to say that I cried a little, reading so many stories of how people were affected. One of the great strengths of this exhibit is that it gives you named individuals and detailed accounts of escape attempts, not just dry facts and figures. Very sad and sobering to think that this was going on so recently, even in Europe.

Standing with one foot on either side of the boundary, I was glad that I could do so - but it felt very strange to think that such a thin barrier kept a nation divided for so many years.

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Please Help Send Me To Turkey!



Ainsley Harriott SoupSearch


Last Wednesday, I was invited to London along with four other bloggers to take part in a cookery competition. Ainsley Harriott Foods is looking to develop a new flavour of internationally-inspired soup, and they have five possible countries in mind: Argentina, Japan, Spain, Turkey, and Vietnam. Our names were drawn from a hat to match each one of us to a country. There was a box of surprise ingredients from each country, and we were challenged to cook something suitable. In twenty minutes. With Ainsley himself - who is just as cheerful in real life as on TV, and didn't seem to mind at all that I was treating him like my skivvy (um, sorry about that).

I was really thrilled to get Turkey as "my" country, as my dad has just bought a house there, and when we visited last year I really loved the cuisine. It seems to be a great country for vegetarians, with loads of wonderful fresh produce on the markets. My cooking box contained a butternut squash, sweet potatoes, onions, red pepper, a tin of chickpeas, dried apricot pieces, fresh mint, and couscous.

Ainsley Harriott SoupSearch (London)

We also had access to a store cupboard full of basic ingredients, herbs, and spices. Oh, and half an hour of Ainsely's help in the kitchen! After requesting a few extras (such as sumac and flat leaf parsley) I was ready to go with the following dishes I'd planned:

Ainsley Harriott SoupSearch

There's a short video over on the Facebook page - and more importantly, voting! The blogger with the most votes will get an expenses-paid trip to explore the country whose cuisine they cooked, uncovering more tastes and traditions. Back in the UK, the winner will have the chance to develop a new soup for the Ainsley Harriott range, based on the flavours they discover on their trip. I'd so love to do this - not just the trip (though it would be wonderful, of course, to get to visit a different area of Turkey), but getting involved in the whole process of developing a soup for commercial sale. I promise to blog it every step of the way!

So please (pretty please?) help me out by clicking across to Facebook and voting to send me to Turkey!

If you're in the UK, you can also enter to win a weekend in Marrakesh, just by voting.

You might also be interested in checking out the other lovely bloggers in the competition. Regardless of who wins, we had an amazing day together:



Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Freie Universitat Berlin



Berlin

I was in Berlin last month for a sociolinguistics conference, so most of my time was spent in and around the Freie Universitat (Free University) where the sessions were being held. The university is a long train ride from the city centre, so I ended up taking quite a few walks around the neighbourhood to clear my head and get some fresh air in the breaks between talks.

It was a great week, and not just for the academic benefits. One morning I met an old school friend for a catch-up coffee (she's a music historian who happened to be doing some research in Berlin's archives), and one of my favourite university lecturers was also at the conference, so it was great to see him again, too. Plus, of course, Berlin is a wonderful city with a lot of history and great food.

Here are just a few shots from the area around the university.

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin

Berlin


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