Monday, 28 January 2013

Gettysburg National Military Park



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We arrived at the National Military Park at Gettysburg just as the sun was dipping towards the horizon. The park is huge, and we weren't sure if we'd get around it all, but the dusk light was very atmospheric.

As a Brit, the amount I knew about American history was really pitiful (Christopher Columbus to the Declaration of Independence was covered in maybe five minutes) so visiting some civil war sites was great for learning a bit more about something my history teachers didn't really prioritise. I'd had a vague impression that the American civil war was bound up with the abolition of slavery, but the complexities of the politics had completely passed me by. Similarly I was amazed to learn just how far north the Confederate 'south' extended, in the east.

We'd already visited the Civil War Museum at Harrisburg that morning, so we skipped over the exhibits at Gettysburg in favour of seeing the park before darkness fell. A leaflet guided us from monument to monument, and it was fascinating - and sobering - to look out over fields where so many lost their lives. Of course, Gettysburg was the site of just one battle in a lengthy war, but the scale of this particular battle was quite immense, and the park is an impressive memorial.

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Monday, 21 January 2013

Cute Mini Pineapple Upside Down Cakes



Mini Pineapple Upside Down Cakes

Pineapple upside down cake was a staple of my childhood, and it's definitely a recipe to bring out your inner child, because it's just so much fun to flip the cake out of the tin and reveal the hidden pattern.

The traditional style is one large cake with whole rings of pineapple, interspersed with glace cherries. I wanted something a bit more bite-sized, so I made these mini pineapple upside-down cakes in a straight-sided muffin tin.

They're just as nice hot from the oven (with custard), or served cold the next day.

Pineapple upside down cakes

Mini Pineapple Upside Down Cake Recipe
Makes 12

1tbsp butter
2-3tsp granulated sugar
6 glace cherries
12 small chunks of tinned pineapple (or 3 rings, quartered)

For the cake batter:

6oz (170g) butter
6oz (170g) caster sugar
3 eggs
1tsp vanilla essence
6oz (170g) self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
2tbsp juice from the tin of pineapple

  1. Preheat the oven to 160°C.
  2. Grease a 12-hole muffin tin with 1tbsp of butter, and sprinkle a little granulated sugar into each hole.
  3. Cut the cherries in half, and put one in each cake tin along with a couple of pineapple chunks.
  4. Cream the butter & sugar together in a mixing bowl.
  5. Add the eggs & vanilla essence, and beat until smooth.
  6. Fold in the flour & baking powder.
  7. Add the pineapple juice and stir through to thin the batter.
  8. Divide the cake batter evenly between the twelve tins, on top of the cherries & pineapple.
  9. Bake for 20 minutes, until a knife comes out clean.
  10. Slice any pointy tops off the cakes before turning out onto a wire rack.


Friday, 18 January 2013

Cafe One Eight - Great Coffee in Lancaster, PA



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It seems that wherever we visit, it doesn't take long for us to wind up with a new favourite coffee shop. In Lancaster, it was most definitely Cafe 18, a Mennonite-run cafe which we visited a couple of times on our short visit to the area.

Their coffee was excellent, and with unlimited refills I could try all three different blends. And when we returned for breakfast the next day, the breakfast burritos (a new concept for me!) were filled to near-bursting. I tried to recreate these at home but haven't yet figured out how to get enough filling without it actually bursting out of the sides, which is somewhat less attractive - if anyone has any tips, I'd appreciate it.

Meanwhile, if you're visiting Lancaster, I'd definitely suggest dropping in at Cafe One Eight - our only complaint was that it's a very long way from where we live!

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Saturday, 12 January 2013

Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti Recipe




Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti

Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti Recipe
Makes approximately 20

6oz caster sugar
6oz plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp mixed spice
1 large egg
3oz hazelnuts (shelled)
3oz chocolate chips

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C
  2. Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and mixed spice together in a bowl, and stir until thoroughly combined.
  3. Beat the egg, and add to the flour mixture. Combine to form a dough. (If the mixture is too wet to work well, add a little more flour. If it's too dry, you can add part of an additional egg, or just a little milk.)
  4. Chop the hazelnuts.
  5. Knead the hazelnuts and chocolate chips into the dough.
  6. Divide the dough into two halves, and roll each one into a long sausage shape.
  7. Line a baking tray with baking parchment, and arrange the two sausages side by side, leaving space for them to expand while cooking. Slightly squash each one with the palm of your hand.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown.
  9. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
  10. Turn the oven down to 150°C.
  11. Peel the biscotti gently away from the baking parchment once they have cooled, and use a serrated knife to carefully cut slices, approximately ½in thick.
  12. Arrange the slices on a clean sheet of baking parchment, and return to the (cooler) oven for 20 minutes, turning them over half way through baking. The dough should be crisp and golden by the end of this process.
  13. Cool on a wire rack. The biscotti will continue to harden as they cool.

Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Goals for 2013



Following on from my lengthy list of goals to aim at before the age of 30, I've decided to set myself some rather less demanding (and somewhat more practical) targets for this year. Meanwhile, I've also started work on an ever-evolving "life list" to record my longer-term intentions, so by spring I'll unveil that and hopefully get back into the swing of posting regular updates.

Without further ado, these are my plans for 2013:

Complete some stuff. I have two novels half-finished, a book of cookie recipes almost done, and a crochet jacket that I haven't picked up in over a year. I'd quite like to finish off these projects, and will try to avoid starting anything new before I do.

Improve my health. Specifically, keep my asthma under control, learn to run at least 5k, and try out the 5:2 diet for six months to see if it helps lower my cholesterol (which is not ridiculously high, but could afford to be lower). We actually started the 5:2 plan in December, and as it's the first time I've ever attempted any kind of diet plan beyond "eat sensibly," it will be interesting to see how I get on with it over a longer period.

Bake something new every week. This will have to be averaged, of course, because there will be weeks when we're away from home and when I can't cook at all. So more precisely, I'm aiming to cook (and blog) 52 new dishes this year.

I've also set myself some reading goals which include getting around to reading some books that have been on my TBR pile for too long, re-reading some old favourites, and trying to be more disciplined about how many review copies I request from NetGalley.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Spicy Chickpea Pasties



I recently enjoyed a spicy chickpea special at my regular favourite pasty chain (West Cornwall Pasty Company, if anyone was wondering). It was nice enough for me to want to replicate it, so this is a variation on that recipe. Not that I have their recipe, of course, but I had many mouthfuls of pasty goodness through which to analyse the flavours.

The sweet potato cooks down to make a soft-textured base, contrasting nicely with the firmer chickpeas, and the whole thing has a decent chilli kick.

Spicy Chickpea Pasties

Spicy Chickpea Pasties
Makes 12

For the filling:

2tbsp olive oil
500g (18oz) sweet potato
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
1/2 red bell pepper
1 tin chickpeas
1tsp garam masala
1tsp chilli flakes
freshly ground black pepper

For the pastry:

250g (9oz) butter or vegan margarine
500g (18oz) plain flour
Cold water

  1. Make the pastry: grate the butter (straight from the fridge) into the flour, and rub in gently with your fingers. Add cold water, a little at a time, to form a firm dough.
  2. Preheat  the oven to 200°C.
  3. Chop the sweet potato into 1cm cubes, and finely chop the onion, garlic, and pepper.
  4. Heat 1tbsp olive oil in a large saucepan.
  5. Fry the sweet potato, onion, pepper, and garlic until the sweet potato is soft.
  6. Add the chickpeas and spices, and cook for a couple more minutes.
  7. Set aside to cool, and stir through the remaining olive oil.
  8. Divide the pastry into 12 even pieces.
  9. Roll each ball of pastry into a circle, approx. 6in diameter. Add two dessert spoons of filling to one half of the circle (leaving plenty of space around the edge), then fold the circle in half and turn the edges together to seal. Make a hole in the top of each pastie with a sharp knife.
  10. Bake for 25 minutes (or freeze the pasties at this stage, and bake from frozen at a later date)

Freezer Instructions
Arrange uncooked pasties on baking sheets (after step 9), and put in the coldest part of your freezer to quickly freeze them. Once they're fully frozen, you can move them to bags or boxes. To cook from frozen, they'll take about 30-35 minutes at 200°C (or you can thaw them overnight and follow the regular cooking instructions).


Sunday, 6 January 2013

Turning Thirty



Three years ago, I made a list.

It was sweeping and ambitious, and contained far more than three years' worth of stuff. Secretly I kind of knew that. But I also knew that I get easily bored, and that having too many goals to aim for would keep me busy, and mean I was more likely to achieve at least some of them.

Looking back, not everything has turned out exactly as I planned - but when does life ever take the course that you expect? A lot of amazing things have happened in the last three years, including making a start on some things that I had jotted down as ideas for future lists. There are some things I would have really liked to tick off, but haven't yet: they will doubtless reappear on another list at some later date (if nothing else, I've learnt a lot about making lists and setting goals). Other ideas proved unwise for various reasons, or simply stopped being priorities, but I'm okay with that.

I'd like to personally thank everyone who's enquired, goaded, and encouraged me throughout the last three years - and especially those who've given me tips along the way. Every one of you has been a huge help to me when my focus wavers (as it so often does).

Academic Goals

My academic goals were to present at a conference, have a paper published, and complete my PhD. I've succeeded on the publications, but have yet to finish my doctorate. I have, however, recently started writing up my thesis - so at least when I've written up everything I've done so far, I should know roughly where I stand. Of course, changing topic half way through didn't help!

IMG_2760Home Improvements

I wanted to redecorate the house, install a woodburning stove, install solar water heating, and build raised vegetable beds in the garden.

After almost a year of work, the grand redecoration project came to a successful conclusion in mid-2011. Our new woodburning stove was almost our only source of heat last winter, supplemented only occasionally by the boiler.

When we looked into it in more detail, solar water heating was not economical for our house, so that idea was quickly scrapped. I'm still waiting on the vegetable beds, but we've hardly had a dry day this year (or last year, for that matter), so gardening hasn't been at the top of my list.

IMG_5889Travel Plans

My travel wishlist included visiting Greenland (done) and the southern hemisphere (not yet), and to bring my total of countries to a nice round 30 (I got to 29).

Given that this category is less about achievement, and more about just deciding where to go on holiday, it may be surprising that I didn't check every box in this category. However, we try to make sensible travel plans, bringing in a mixture of factors, and we often plan around conferences and other events I need to attend anyway. For example, having the opportunity to take an extended working trip to the US this autumn really prevented us from taking in any extra countries - but we did get to visit half a dozen new states (and many US states are larger than many European countries!)

I'm certainly not unhappy with the amount of travel we've fitted in to the last three years, and I'm confident that my number of countries visited will very soon equal (then exceed) my age!

tedxcheltWriting & Speaking

This was a broad category, spanning everything from blogging to novels, public speaking to radio.

I wanted to average 5,000 hits a month on my blog, which I've rushed passed, now often exceeding 10,000. This was really just a more measurable proxy for keeping blogging and building my audience, something I continue to enjoy. I've also started to make a little unexpected pocket money from occasional advertising and freebies, which I absolutely wasn't expecting.

Regarding fiction, I wanted to finish writing the Charanthe series, get a novel published, and complete a stand-alone novel as well. I've independently published my first two novels (Rebellion & Revolution), and I'm still working on the third. I've got drafts of a couple of other manuscripts that need finishing, and I'm nearly ready to publish my first recipe book (which wasn't on the list at all).

I planned to record and podcast an audiobook, which I still intend to do at some stage - I did a couple of test chapters, but need more work to get to a stage I'm happy with.

I wanted to get travel articles printed in 10 different publications. I've done three, but to be honest, I stopped querying when I realised I could get paid as much via advertising for writing on my own blog as I would get for some magazines! The motivation just evaporated... I might pick this up again some day, but right now, it's not a priority. Similarly, I thought I wanted a slot on the local radio station, and I did enjoy the short course I took on radio production & broadcasting - but I didn't want to have to commit to a live slot every week.

My final goal in this category was to take at least 5 public speaking engagements. Over the last three years I've given three travel talks (this was the kind of thing I was envisioning when I set this goal), presented at a number of conferences, plus speaking at a local TEDx event. I think that totally counts, even if it's not quite how I imagined it.

Nearly there...Crafts & Skills

I wanted to learn embroidery (done), hand-knit a cardigan (done), and sew myself a dress (done - this was a late addition to the list, as I had an occasion in mind). Another success was making all my own Christmas cards in 2010.

Things that fell by the wayside: I had a go at using my camera on manual, but most of the time I don't need to, so my original goal of taking "most" pictures on manual just wasn't worth  pursuing in full. I also wanted to get my Guiding warrant, and had almost completed it when our local village ran out of Brownies - but volunteering further from home proved too much for me at the moment. Making a board game and learning new juggling tricks are both still in progress and not, if I'm honest, a focus of much energy at the moment.

Another subsidiary goal which I added in 2011 was to complete a triathlon. Thanks to persistent knee injuries, I haven't entered one yet, although I would still like to do this eventually. At the moment I'm kept busy trying to keep up with my physio exercises.


Friday, 4 January 2013

Cici's Pizza Buffet



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I seldom write about food chains. Let's face it, all else being equal, who wouldn't prefer to eat in a distinctive, independent restaurant rather than a bland cookie-cutter copy? But everything isn't always equal, and sometimes it's worth eating off plastic plates at Formica tables to get great pizza at a ridiculously low price.

We stumbled across CiCi's on a Pennsylvania strip mall, while we were trying to work out minor details like where to stay for the night... and what to have for dinner. Andy spotted the sign across the parking lot.

"Sure," I agreed. "Let's get pizza."

The queue was almost out of the door, which would normally be enough to put me right off - but by the time we saw the queue, I'd also seen the prices. How could anywhere afford to offer unlimited pizza for $4.99? A soft drink or coffee was only another dollar. No wonder people were queueing to get seated. Hand in hand, we joined the line.

It didn't take us long to get to the front, where we paid our dollars and took our plates. The buffet had salad and garlic bread, pasta with two types of sauce (simple but tasty tomato, versus rather plasticky cheese), and then a bewildering selection of pizza. Even as a vegetarian, I struggled to sample every option, from standard mixed veggies to a spinach white pizza to a flaky-based olive and mushroom slice. Prize for the most calorific carb-crazy dish would have to go to the mac-and-cheese pizza, which featured a regular pizza base topped with pasta spirals, drenched in an indecent amount of cheese sauce. (I didn't actually like it that much, mostly due to the plastic cheese, but it does have the honour of joining the deep fried Mars bar as one of the unhealthiest foods I've ever eaten.) There was even a dessert pizza (topped with custard and icing), along with brownies and (my favourite) cinnamon rolls.

And you know what? Chain restaurants might have a bland, impersonal atmosphere - but it can be a very distinctive local flavour of bland. In the case of Lancaster, this could hardly be demonstrated more clearly  than by the Amish and Mennonite youths patiently queuing for their pizza alongside us. But we went again in Maryland, where the clientele was different, but still distinctively American.

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Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Apple Lattice Pie Recipe



This is a classic, simple dish, made pretty by the simple expedient of weaving a few strips of pastry together. I like to eat mine hot with ice-cream (but it's equally nice cold).

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Apple Pie Recipe
Serves 8

For the pastry:
250g flour
30g caster sugar
125g butter
1 egg yolk
cold water

For the filling:
5 large apples (preferably a cooking variety)
100g sultanas
2tsp cinnamon
50g caster sugar (only necessary for cooking apples)

To finish:
A little milk or water

1tbsp golden granulated sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C, and grease a 9in pie dish.
  2. Make the pastry: Mix the flour and caster sugar together, and cut in the butter to form crumbs. Add the egg yolk and a little cold water, and pull together to form a dough. Keep adding cold water, a little at a time, until the pastry sticks together.
  3. Peel and chop the apples. The chunks don't have to be all the same size, but I tend to use cubes up to about an inch squared.
  4. In a large saucepan, heat the apples over a medium heat with the cinnamon, sugar, and sultanas. (No need to add any fat or liquid.) Cook until the apples have softened, and set aside to cool.
  5. Roll two thirds of the pastry into a circle to line the pie dish.
  6. Fill the pie dish with the apple mixture.
  7. Roll the remaining pastry into a rectangle, and cut strips approximately ½in thick. You'll need strips of different lengths - I used four about the diameter of the pie dish and four shorter ones. Longer strips can always be trimmed after you've interleaved them.
  8. Weave a lattice on top of the pie, and fasten down the edges with a little water (after finishing the lattice pattern).
  9. Brush the top of the pastry with a little milk or water, sprinkle granulated sugar over the top, and bake for 40-50 minutes.


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