Summer Singing: “Reflections” in St. James’s Church, Piccadilly

IMG_3038And just like that, another year singing with the Crouch End Festival Chorus has gone by. We wrapped up the regular concert season this weekend with a varied a cappella programme in St. James’s Church, Piccadilly. St. James’s Church was a new venue for us and, though it doesn’t look like much from the outside (despite being designed by Sir Christopher Wren, best known for St. Paul’s Cathedral), it offers a lovely open space inside with a great acoustic. The theme for this summer’s concert was “reflections”: each piece we sang had some sort of reflective element (water, mirrors, a double choir, or simply a sense of internal reflection).

We started off the evening with Eric Whitacre’s Water Night. I’ve been a Whitacre fan for a while, but this was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of singing one of his pieces. It is magical, the way the dense chord clusters and harmonies melt together and shimmer. After a brief piano interlude (see below), we sang Mirror Suite, a contemporary piece written by composer Alan Charlton and set to poems by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. This was a quirky, four-movement piece with various elements of reflection embedded within it: double (and triple) choirs, canons, inverted figures, birdsong, and fugues. I didn’t fall in love with the piece, but I did enjoy singing in Spanish and experiencing the different effects of the reflective elements. F liked the imitation of birdsong (a small group of soloists) in the second movement, Réplica.

Photo courtesy of FZ

Photo courtesy of FZ

The longest piece in the concert was Josef Rheinberger’s Mass in Eb Major. Have you ever heard of Rheinberger? Neither had I, until we started rehearsing his mass. Rheinberger lived right through the middle and end of the 19th century, and elements of his mass conjure composers as diverse as Mozart, Bruckner, Mendelssohn and Bach. It was an enjoyable mass to sing, and I think we gave it a good performance. My friend A, who attended the concert, said the church’s acoustics worked especially well for the piece’s double choir and rich harmonics.

We ended the concert with two short pieces: Stanford’s pure and beautiful The Blue Bird and a fun arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. Here is the Stellenbosch University Choir singing it:

A unique part of this summer’s concert was that we were treated to instrumental interludes for piano and cello. Our very own accompanist, Peter Jaekel, played some lovely solo Debussy, and he was joined by cellist Joely Koos for Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel and Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. The Pärt performance was a highlight for me and other audience members, being at once contemplative, reflective, and sorrowful yet healing and uplifting.

I always enjoy our summer programs, as we get to sing a variety of shorter, unaccompanied pieces in beautiful churches and chapels: Southwark Cathedral; St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge; Waltham Abbey. Rather than having our usual summer break now, the choir is singing in a BBC Prom at the end of July and recording Bach’s St. John Passion in September. I’m not doing all of it but am looking forward to Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem in October. We hope you’ll join us in the audience.


Birthday Wisdom 2016

Another year older, another birthday reflection post! I turned 28 this week and F baked me the best cake anyone has ever made me:

IMG_2976

Last year I wrote about completing an MA and DELTA and starting a new full-time job. I offered a word of wisdom on prioritizing and finding balance. This past year has tested those words of wisdom on more than one occasion, but I like to think I tried my best to stick to them.

Looking back on this year, I’m coming up on two years as an ESOL and Functional Skills English teacher to migrant women in a deprived area of east London. I’ve taken on responsibility as a line manager and am completing a leadership and management course through work to help me develop in those areas. Teaching continues to bring its joys and challenges; switching to a new exam board for our ESOL courses has helped our students’ achievement rates, but there are still kinks to work out. I have an incredible set of colleagues, inspirational women all.

Ready to get married! 8 April 2016. Photo credit: Fotomanufaktur Wessel (www.fotomanufaktur-wessel.de)

Ready to get married! 8 April 2016. Photo credit: Fotomanufaktur Wessel (www.fotomanufaktur-wessel.de)

This year was big because F and I got married! It felt like the right time. He proposed last summer on Cape Cod, a memorable and meaningful spot for my family and for us, with fond memories of cycling, swimming, running, pastry eating, and relaxing. We got married in Germany this April, in a small civil ceremony with parents by our sides.

This past year has also seen a good deal of choral singing, with highlights being Rachmaninov’s Vespers at St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge; Mozart’s Mass in C minor; Bach’s Mass in B minor; and even recording a Christmas CD. F and I saw Steven Isserlis in a solo recital and we attended a few other concerts, theatre and musical theatre productions. We must take advantage of London cultural life while we can!

Running and sport(s) have been up and down. I did run a 5k PR/PB last September  but slowed down after that, due to busyness and stress in other aspects of life. I’m currently focusing on rebuilding my running fitness base and starting to incorporate speedwork again. I also did my first multisport event this past year: a team duathlon! It was a blast and I could see myself doing more run-bike-run events in the future.

Recent political events in the UK/EU and the USA made me gravitate towards the following quote as my word of wisdom for this year:

We all have a responsibility to now seek to heal the divisions that have emerged throughout this campaign – and to focus on what unites us, rather than that which divides us.

-Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, after the ‘Brexit’ vote

With that, I wish you all a tolerant year of unity.

Recipe: Lemon Cornmeal Cake with Lemon Glaze

At some point last year, I slowed down on the recipe blogging because I felt like I was just trying someone else’s recipe once and then posting it (with a few small tweaks of my own) for the sake of posting it. But there have been some recipes that I’ve made over and over again and decided are worth sharing — if for no other reason then so I can access them again!

This lemon cornmeal cake is one of those. It comes from  Bon Appétit and I’ve made it 3-4 times in the past year or so; I recall it getting high praise from T and C during last year’s Game of Thrones season premiere. F loves lemon desserts and for his birthday this year he requested a lemon cake. I immediately thought of this one and also decided it was high time to share it with all of you. It’s quick to whip up and turns out light, moist, lemony, and delicious. Not a showstopper by its looks but just a really delicious cake. I hope you’ll come back to it as often as I have.

Lemon Cornmeal Cake with Lemon Glaze (adapted from Bon Appétit; makes 1 cake)

Ingredients

  • Cake:
    • 1.5 cups plain/AP flour
    • 1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
    • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
    • 3.5 tsp baking powder
    • 1/2 tsp salt
    • 1 cup buttermilk
    • 2 eggs
    • Zest of 2 lemons
    • 3/4 tsp vanilla extract
    • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • Glaze:
    • 1.5 cups powdered sugar
    • Juice of 2 lemons

Procedure

  • Preheat the oven to 350F/175C (top-bottom heat is best for cakes). Butter a 9″ cake pan and place a piece of parchment paper in the bottom of the pan.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, lemon zest, and vanilla extract.
  • Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and pour in the melted butter. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold the wet ingredients into the dry until just blended.
  • Scrape the batter into the cake pan, spread evenly, and bake 35-40 minutes, until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.
  • While the cake is baking, make the glaze: stir together the powdered sugar and lemon juice to make a thick but spreadable glaze. Set aside.
  • As soon as the cake is done baking, run a butter knife around the edges. Invert it onto a large plate and remove the pan. Peel the parchment paper off the bottom of the cake. Invert the cake again onto a rack. Stir the glaze and pour it onto the cake, letting it run across the top and down the sides. Let cool before serving.

Enjoy!

———

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Pita

Welcome back to my casual series, “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.” Just over a week ago we had a first go at making New Yorker Rye. This time, we’re off to the Middle East to make some homemade pita to go along with this deconstructed baba ganouj

IMG_2910

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #6: Pita

This recipe comes from The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook‘s section titled “Slightly Elevated: Leavened Flatbreads”. The breads in this section still count as flatbreads — think naan, injera, focaccia — but use some sort of fermentation (time, yeast, yogurt) to create a bit of rise. Since I wanted to make this deconstructed baba ganouj, it seemed like the right time to try my hand at homemade pita, called khubz (“bread”) in Arabic, according to the recipe’s introduction. 

Pita stack! Some puffed, some didn't.

Pita stack! Some puffed, some didn’t.

Pita requires the basic bread-making ingredients of yeast, white and whole wheat water, flour, salt, and olive oil. I dutifully followed the instructions to combine ingredients and mix them for a while, but even after I mixed the dough for 10 minutes until my hands started cramping up (a stand mixer is on my wish list!), the pita dough was still very wet and sticky. I wasn’t sure if the gluten was fully developed, by my hands were tired so I started the rise. And wow, does this pita dough rise! After just an hour, the dough almost reached the top of the bowl it was rising in.

After rising, I had to pull the dough out of the bowl and divide it into 16 pieces, rolling each into a ball. The dough was still very sticky at this point, so I used my bench knife to cut it and generously floured my hands to roll the dough into balls. After a ten-minute rest, it was time to bake. Baking pita is definitely a two-person job: I was glad F could help take the baking tray in and out of the oven and flip the baking pitas while I rolled/flattened each dough ball into a flat, oblong.

From what I’ve read previously and from what this recipe says, pitas should puff in the oven to form that classic pocket you can stuff fillings into. Suffice it to say the minority of our pitas puffed in the oven. I’m not sure if that was because I flattened them too vigorously or what, but some ended up with pockets and some didn’t. The pitas tasted great: soft and tender, and delicious with the baba ganouj I made. However, I can’t say that homemade pita will enter my regular bread-making rotation, due to the stickiness of the dough and requirement of two people during the baking portion of the process (I could’ve done it on my own, but it would’ve taken twice as long). It was a fun and tasty adventure, nonetheless!

Have you ever made your own pita before? How did it go? Leave a comment below!

———

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: New Yorker Rye

Welcome back to my casual series, “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.” Last time we had some fun pressing tortillas and making refried beans from the cookbook. This time, we’re headed to New York City to make some classic New Yorker Rye bread. Here’s how it went.

IMG_2877

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #5: New Yorker Rye

This recipe comes from The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook‘s section titled “The Dark, Crusty Loaf: Lean Breads and Rolls”. These include some classic breads made using pâte fermentée, a pre-fermented dough that, according to the book, “provides a simple way to use less yeast, give fermentation more time, and achieve consistent and delicious results” (119). All you have to do is remember to mix up the pâte fermentée the night before you want to bake. Oh, and also make the right amount of it, which I failed to do since the New Yorker Rye recipe called for doubling it…

Pate fermente & beginnings of dough

Pâte fermentée & beginnings of dough

My pâte fermentée mistake meant I had to settle for making one loaf and halve the amounts in the recipe, which ideally should work but is not always as reliable as people think. I crossed my fingers. The recipe called for baking the rye loaf free-form on a pizza stone (don’t have one) with a pan of water in the oven to create steam. But since F and I started making sourdough bread in January, we’ve been using our Römertopf (clay pot with a lid) to steam the bread for half the oven time and then uncover it so it can develop a crust. I decided I’d try that technique with Hot Bread Kitchen’s rye, knowing I might be taking a gamble.

Overall, making the New Yorker Rye went pretty well. My left forearm and wrist got a good workout mixing the dough in a bowl, since I don’t have a stand mixer to do the work for me. The dough didn’t rise a huge amount, even after I gave it an extra half hour, but I decided to press on with the shaping. Rye flour is much denser than white flour, so I figured the rise would not be as dramatic as breads with a majority of white flour (this bread is about 50-50 bread flour and rye flour). Folding the dough into a boule shape was my favorite part. After forming the boule into a batard shape (aka a log), I tipped it into our proving basket for the final rise.

The loaf might have been a bit too long, as it smushed up a bit in the Römertopf, which may have led to the cracking you can see in the picture. I baked the bread for 15 minutes with the lid on and then 23 minutes with the lid off — it came out a nice color with a nice crust, but too salty. F and I both loved the taste, but next time I’ll use less salt and remember to double the pâte fermentée so we can have two loaves! I’ll also try baking it freeform as the book suggests, since the rye flour is dense enough that the dough holds its shape quite well.

What’s your preferred bread-making technique? Closed pot? Baking dish with water to make steam in the oven? SOURDOUGh? Leave a comment below!

———

Race Recap: 2016 YMCA North London / Crouch End 10k

My running has not been spectacular for the past 6-8 months. After a 5k PR/PB in September, life got busy and stressful. Rather than enjoying running as a stress reliever, as I always have, running became a struggle. Burnout? I don’t think so. Doing too much in all aspects of my life? Possibly. Anyway, I backed off the running for a while. Only in the past few months have I become consistent again, trying to get out for three runs a week without the pressure of track workouts or races. I wanted to start enjoying running again — and I am getting there! It helps to have supportive and understanding running friends. Here’s a recap of my first race since December.

Post race. Photo credit: Tom Hosking Photography (https://www.facebook.com/TomHoskingPhotography/)

Post race group of friendly Heathsiders. Photo credit: Tom Hosking Photography (https://www.facebook.com/TomHoskingPhotography/)

I last ran the YMCA North London / Crouch End 10k two years ago, on a miserably hot day, and marshaled last year on another hot day. Today’s weather was sunny but not too warm (~50F/10C) — much more pleasant for tackling the infamous hills around Ally Pally that make up part of the 2-lap course. Since I have not been doing any speedwork or long runs, my approach to today’s race was very much about using it as a training run and getting back into slightly longer distances. I set myself an achievable goal of finishing this year’s race under 1 hour. And it would’ve been silly not to take up the opportunity of running an organized race that starts less than a mile from home!

As always, the Crouch End 10k has a fantastic atmosphere. I loved arriving to see the crowd being led in the traditional aerobics warm up by an enthusiastic instructor. I found some fellow Heathsiders, congratulated them on recent marathon and half marathon times, and lined up for the start. In a way this is Heathside’s home race, so lots of club members were out running, marshaling, and supporting.

Aerobics warm up for the Crouch End 10k

Aerobics warm up for the Crouch End 10k

I’ll spare you the details of each kilometer, but it was fun to navigate the twists and turns of Crouch End neighborhoods with over 1,000 other runners. There is always so much support along the course, and this year was no different. I loved seeing lots of young people and families outside to cheer on the runners. It was great to be recognized by many of the marshals (most of them being fellow Heathside runners) and being egged on by shouts of, “Come on, Heathside!”, thanks to my club vest (“vest” is UK-speak for singlet or sleeveless top). The highlights for me were running across Ally Pally park — although there’s that sneaky gradual uphill section partway along — and running past the house blaring “YMCA” just before the 5k mark.

I went through 5k in a comfortable 27:33, so knew I could finish under an hour. My pace wasn’t fast but it was maintainable, so I kept chugging along and reminding myself that this was a training run and there was no pressure to race. It can be hard to hold back in a race situation, as the atmosphere and other runners can have you chomping at the bit, but I was happy to run along at my own pace and smile at the crowds, other runners, and beautiful weather. It was just great to be out celebrating fitness and life in the springtime!

I finished in 56:06, probably my slowest recorded 10k race, but I am okay with that. I am glad to have done it and gained the confidence that I can still run longer distances (I know, a 10k is no marathon, but distance is relative to the runner and his/her baseline). Now I can focus on getting some speed back and building up my long runs. Great job to all runners and especially Heathsiders! The race organisation was great and the marshaling was top notch.


Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Tortillas

Welcome back to my ever-more-infrequent series, “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.” So far, we’ve been to Albania, South Asia, and Morocco to make some of their traditional breads. This installment takes us to Mexico and Central America to make tortillas from scratch. A couple of years ago, Janira and I spent an evening getting in touch with her Guatemalan roots and trying to make tortillas. However, I think we used standard cornmeal rather than masa harina, which meant that our tortilla dough was really sticky and didn’t hold together well. We got there in the end, but it wasn’t easy… Here’s how it went when I made tortillas from The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook.

IMG_2797

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #4: Tortillas

This recipe comes from the “Masa y Mas (Tortillas and more)” section of The Hot Bread Kitchen CookbookSure, you can buy tortillas in the store, but let me tell you that fresh ones taste way better. In order for tortillas to work, you need masa harina, which has “slaked lime” in it; this helps the dough hold together (look it up — it’s science!). All you need in addition to the masa harina is water. Combine, mix, let sit for half an hour, then roll out the tortillas — simple as that.

Rolling the balls of dough into tortillas takes some practice; you need two pieces of plastic wrap and ideally a tortilla press. Since I am new to the art of tortilla-making, I obviously don’t have a tortilla press; the book recommends using a heavy pot or pan to flatten the balls of dough. My pan wasn’t quite heavy enough so F suggested I use a rolling pin — with lots of pressure — to get the tortillas as thin as possible. That worked well. I rolled and cooked the tortillas one at a time — each tortilla only needs a couple of minutes in a hot skillet before it’s done and ready to eat! My tortillas turned out a little crispier than anticipated, but they were soft on the inside and tasted fantastic.

It’s hard to make tortillas without going all the way and enjoying them as tacos. The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook includes a number of recipes for taco, tostada, and carnitas fixings. I decided to make their refried beans to act as a protein base for our tacos. It was a really easy recipe and it came together quickly: dice some onion, sauté it with oregano and garlic, puree some black beans (I used canned ones), add the beans to the onion, simmer until thick. No need to go back to canned refried beans — like the tortillas, these tasted much better when freshly made.

Have you ever made tortillas from scratch? What do you like to use TORTILLAS for?

———

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Albanian Cheese Triangles

I know I’m behind on my goal of two Hot Bread Kitchen recipes per month. I tried making their monkey bread last weekend but something went wrong with the rising (or lack thereof), as I couldn’t find active dry yeast in the shops here in London — only quick/instant yeast is sold. Anyway, after that failure I ordered some active dry yeast from Amazon and decided to try a non-yeasted recipe this weekend: Albanian Cheese Triangles.

IMG_2419

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #3: Albanian Cheese Triangles

This recipe comes from the “Filled Doughs” section of The Hot Bread Kitchen CookbookWho doesn’t love a good filled dough? I’d always thought filled doughs take ages to make: you have to make the dough, then the filling, then get the filling into the dough before cooking. Albanian cheese triangles (called byrek according to the book), however, sounded delicious and not too complicated to whip up for an easy Sunday dinner. The ingredient list was short and didn’t require and hard-to-find ingredients, plus the filling was cold, which would save on prep time.

It took 40 minutes to make and roll up these savory pockets of goodness. The dough is thin and stretchy and it takes some practice to roll it into triangles around the filling, but I mostly got there in the end. The 45 minutes that the triangles spend in the oven gave me time to prepare a nice salad to enjoy with the byrek.

I popped my triangles in the fridge for the day and baked them just before dinnertime. They turned out golden and flaky, with a light crunch to contrast the creamy filling. No soggy bottoms here! Albanian cheese triangles were surprisingly simple to make and would make great appetizers or nibbles at a brunch or dinner party. It would be adjust the size of the triangles depending on the occasion, and F pointed out that you could use any number of different fillings to complement the neutral crust. I’ll definitely make them again.

Have you ever heard of byrek? Does your culture have a similar filled dough recipe?

———

At the National Theatre: Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”

On a recent Wednesday evening, F and I took a weeknight out to see Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre (NT). I had never been to the National Theatre but when I found out that they have £15 tickets to most shows — practically a steal in London — I jumped at the opportunity.

Aside from knowing the NT’s As You Like It production had gotten good reviews, I didn’t know what to expect of their production (would it be modern? Period?). I read As You Like It years ago so briefly refreshed my memory of the plot before the play started: essentially, the Duke gets overthrown and exiled, then his daughter Rosalind gets banished and so does young Orlando. Everyone ends up in a forest, there is some crossdressing and foolery, and all turns out well in the end.

The National Theatre’s production included an open office with computers, modern-leaning-corporate dress, and a brilliant set design to create the forest for the second half: the tables and chairs were attached in groups and lifted up into the rafters on cables to create obstacles and hiding places in the forest. Real people sat in high up in swings and the wings to create “live” forest sounds: hoots, howls, wind blowing, and more. There were also some great sheep.

As You Like It was such fun to experience. Seeing Shakespeare live brings so much more life to his words than just reading them on the page, and the actors did a wonderful job emphasizing the precision of Shakespeare’s language and turns of phrase. Rosalie Craig made feisty and fun Rosalind and was balanced by Patsy Ferran‘s Celia.

Although Rosalind and Celia shoulder much of the play’s plot, As You Like It is really an ensemble piece. There are plenty of laughs to be had thanks to Touchstone and Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe. There’s a bit of melancholy from Jacques. And there’s music! I had forgotten how much music is incorporated into Shakespeare’s comedies. The NT’s production of As You Like It did a wonderful job with the forest ballads, sung by an actor with a lovely, lilting tenor voice. The final scene was also largely sung and made for an enjoyable and happy end to a thought-provoking comedy.

I would highly recommend the National Theatre’s production of As You Like It. There is nothing like seeing Shakespeare performed live, and the comedies are accessible and fun for all. There is not a bad seat in the NT’s Olivier Theatre — our seats were in the very last row but because the theatre is sloped so steeply, we could see the entire stage without any heads blocking the view.

———

Concert Review: Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall

F and I got £5 tickets — if you’re under 35, check out the scheme — to see cellist Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall in London last week. I had seen Isserlis, a fellow Oberlin graduate, perform in the Oberlin Artist Recital Series back in 2008 or so. It remains one of the most memorable concerts I attended during my four years at Oberlin — and I went to a lot of concerts — so I jumped at the chance to see Isserlis perform again. Here is my review of his concert at Wigmore Hall.

Isserlis’ program at Wigmore Hall included three of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites — No. 1 in G major (BWV1007), No. 5 in C minor (BWV1011), and No. 4 in Eb major (BWV1010) — interspersed with Signs, Games and Messages — short, fragmentary pieces by 90-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is probably the best-known of the cello suites, especially its characteristic Prelude. Isserlis opened the concert with this suite, although he played it a bit fast for my taste and it felt rushed. He followed this with two movements from Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages before flowing directly into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. The Kurtág pieces were short, fun, and playful; they reminded me of Penderecki solo string pieces, such as the Divertimento for cello. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 is one of my favorites — I’m a sucker for C minor — and Isserlis gave a gorgeous and moving performance of it, drawing a rich tone from his cello’s gut strings and letting the music dance in the faster movements.

After the interval, Isserlis played three more short Kurtág pieces — one of which drew a laugh from the audience as Isserlis glanced up with his characteristic impish look — before transitioning immediately into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4. The audience was rapt by the time Isserlis got to the slow Sarabande, which he played with such feeling and emotional depth that even he seemed to tear up. The Sarabande’s gravity contrasted well with the playful last movement (Gigue).

Isserlis took three or four bows before settling down for an encore with another joyful movement from another Bach Cello Suites. Isserlis is a great performer to watch, as he so clearly feels the music and adapts his character to it without being distracting. He played all three Bach Cello Suites from memory and with such poise that the music seemed to flow out of him. He periodically glances at the audience with a half-smile, as if letting us in on a private joke.

It was a stunning concert. If you ever get the chance to see Isserlis play, do it. F said it’s the best classical music concert he has ever been to; his mind was sufficiently boggled. We talked about Bach’s genius: his music sounds so simple but is actually very difficult to play or sing (as I know well from recently tackling the Mass in B minor) and requires flawless technique and command.

———

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Chapati

Welcome to the second installment of my new series, “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen!” You can read about my first bread adventure here.

IMG_2182

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #2: Whole Wheat Chapati

I returned to the kitchen last weekend for my second “multi-ethnic” bread-making adventure from The Hot Bread Kitchen CookbookI’d been planning to make rich and complex paratha, but my time and energy were in short supply, so I settled on the simpler chapati, a classic South Asian flatbread. I’d helped make chapati while facilitating a cooking class at work last fall; also, many of my Bengali and Indian students and co-workers make it regularly.

Chapati requires just three ingredients: whole wheat flour, boiled water, and salt. What could be easier than that? As the cookbook mentions, mixing flour with hot water cooks the flour so that the flatbreads stay tender and pliable, even the next day. I recalled that you can actually buy special “chapati flour,” which is very finely ground. I used regular whole wheat flour for mine and it worked fine, although I may try using chapati flour next time to see if it changes the bread’s texture at all.

My chapati turned out well. The recipe was so simple and the whole process took just under an hour, from initial mixing to 12 cooked flatbreads. I made them in parallel with F making chicken curry from Simply Delicious. The chapati were (was?) tender, soft, and great for scooping up chicken pieces in the curry.

I took some leftover chapati to work the next day for my Bengali co-workers to sample — they were generous in their praise and told me it tasted like the “real thing.” An Indian co-worker recommended using a little less salt next time and drizzling leftover chapati with olive oil before packing and reheating them for lunch. I’ll try that next time — and yes, there will definitely be a next time for these quick and delicious flatbreads.

Have you ever made chapati? Post your tips and tricks in the comments.

———

Singing Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”

Design: John Featherstone. Copy: Rachel Yarham

Design: John Featherstone. Copy: Rachel Yarham

It was a long, hard slog to the Barbican Hall to perform J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor (BWV 232) as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus. The Mass in B minor (completed in 1749) is a piece of epic proportions — it’s almost two hours long and requires the utmost concentration to keep up with the tricky rhythms, runs, and fugues.

Although I had never sung Bach’s Mass in B minor before, I was familiar with bits of it from listening to recordings over the years. It is a glorious piece. When you listen, it doesn’t sound all that complex because the melodies and harmonies are so pleasing and hummable; however, singing it is another matter! I was forewarned, as my good friend Emma sang the piece with her choir in Boston last year and told me how difficult it was. What I wasn’t prepared for was the non-logical placement of words and syllables on unexpected beats. Learning Bach, I soon figured out, requires the ability to quickly recognize patterns and repeat them at different pitches. Once I understood that, it made many bits of the music easier to learn (multiple sectional rehearsals to “note bash” were also helpful).

To add another degree of complexity (particularly for those singers with perfect pitch), we sang our Mass in B minor in Baroque pitch, which is half a step lower than today’s standard pitch used by most orchestras. Our orchestra for the Mass in B minor, though, was the Bach Camerata, a period instrument ensemble complete with strings, old-school oboes, wooden flutes (they sound beautiful — sort of a cross between a modern flute and a recorder), and horns with no keys (amazing that the musicians can control all the pitches with their embouchures).

Concert day brought the usual marathon afternoon rehearsal, which is always brightened by the fact that it’s the first time we (the chorus) get to see the orchestra and soloists. They did not disappoint. I was captivated from the first duet, “Christe eleison,” between soprano Mary Bevan (whom F and I saw in the ENO’s Mikado last fall) and mezzo-soprano Diana Moore. Moore’s “Agnus Dei” at the end of the piece was also breathtaking. Callum Thorpe delivered resonant bass solos and Ben Johnson‘s tenor was in good form. The Bach Camerata was a joy to listen to and sing with; I was particularly impressed by the two flute players and the accuracy and articulation of the entire ensemble.

By many audience accounts, we pulled off a great performance. The Mass in B minor is exhausting to perform — and probably to listen to — but early reviews and comments point to a success. Our director, DT, certainly seemed really pleased after the first half. It a great experience to learn Bach’s Mass in B minor; I’m glad to have done it, but as a fellow singer pointed out, also glad to move onto the next challenge.

———

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: M’smen

Hello and Happy New Year! Long time no blog… I lost a bit of energy and motivation for it last fall, but now it’s a new year and I have a new project that I hope to blog about regularly. Read on to find out more…

IMG_1995

As the holiday season approached last year, I stumbled upon a review of some new cookbooks, one of which caught my eye: The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook. The review explained that Hot Bread Kitchen is a social enterprise in New York City, helping migrant women share bread-making skills from their cultures while providing them with training and jobs. As some of you may know, working with migrant women is a passion of mine (as well as my job!). The fact that the cookbook included bread recipes from around the world had me sold. I sent the link to F, hinting that I might like the book for Christmas. He willingly obliged.

So, armed with a beautiful cookbook made up of a plethora of “multi-ethnic” (their words) bread recipes as well as extensive tips and techniques, I have made a 2016 intention to try two new bread recipes per month from the book. That’s roughly every other weekend, so it should be manageable. As I make my way through breads of the world, I will write short posts about my experience with the recipes (I will not post the recipes themselves). I hope you’ll join me on my bread-making adventures: “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.”

IMG_1997

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #1: M’smen

The first section of The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook is titled “Primordial Bread: Unleavened Flatbreads.” I have tried my hand at flatbreads before and make naan pretty often. I like the general simplicity of flatbreads — they don’t usually need much resting time and cook quickly in a hot pan on the stovetop. For my maiden foray into The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook, I decided to cook the very first recipe in the book: m’smen, a Moroccan flatbread.

The only ingredient for m’smen that I didn’t already have at home was semolina, which was easy to find at our local greengrocer or big Tesco. The other ingredients were plain (all-purpose) flour, salt, water, neutral oil, and salted butter.

Making m‘smen required a few stages of dough shaping and resting before cooking, so the whole process took me almost two hours. I started around 11am with a vigorous 6-minute arm workout of mixing the dough by hand (must get a stand mixer one of these days!), before dividing the dough into 12 balls and setting them on oiled baking sheets to rest for half an hour. I left to do some errands and ended up out longer than expected, so the dough actually rested for almost an hour.

Next, the recipe called for more oiled workspace (I guess my hands were well-hydrated by the end of the process?) to stretch each dough ball out, sprinkle it with butter/oil and semolina, then fold it over onto itself to create a neat little pocket:

post-stretching & folding

post-stretching & folding

Finally, each pocket must be stretched and cooked in a hot skillet for a couple of minutes on each side. The author of the recipe recommends drizzling hot m’smen with honey and having alongside mint tea. F and I did share the first bread with honey — yum — and reheated the rest in the evening to serve alongside falafel and yogurt sauce and Moroccan carrot salad. Once the m’smen cooled down, they were a combination of crunchy and chewy, with a pleasant flavor and a hint of sweetness.

cooking the m'smen

cooking the m’smen

I enjoyed the process of making m’smen. It was a relatively involved recipe with a lot of hands-on time, but the flatbreads turned out delicate and delicious — worth the time investment. The dough was quite sticky and very stretchy; it helped to keep my hands oiled. I’ll definitely make m’smen again and may freeze some to use as an alternative to sandwich bread.

Have you ever heard of “m’smen”? Have you every made it yourself?

———