Race Recap: Sunday League XC – Trent Park

In cross country, sometimes the biggest hazard is other runners.

That’s the thought that went through my mind in the second kilometer of today’s Sunday League XC race at Trent Park, as I weaved through a number of runners slip-sliding down a muddy descent. Stay in your own space and don’t run too close to anyone else, I reminded myself.

Just two weeks after an undulating run at Cheshunt, the Sunday League XC was back in action, this time at Trent Park, a massive park and woodlands in north London. While Heathside has a regular Saturday hill/trail workout at Trent Park, it’s far enough from where we live that I ran there for the first time this past summer, at the Triffic Trail 10k.

Autumnal Trent Park. Beautiful.

As do many XC races, this Sunday League course covered varying terrain: muddy grass (“grud?” “murass?”), firm and a little bit gravelly trails through the woods, and an extra muddy uphill at the end, for good measure.

The weather, while sunny, was brisk (around 6C/43F) and windy, especially in the open field where we started. I was glad to have opted for capris, and ended up wearing arm warmers and gloves with my Heathside vest. I know this violates all of the cross country purist rules, but I’d rather be a comfortable temperature than freezing! I did take my gloves off around 5km but was very glad to have my arm warmers and my new trail shoes, which were brilliantly grippy on the sticky, slippery course.

Heathsiders pre-race. Photo credit: Steve Woolf.

As with the last Sunday League, I didn’t have any particular expectations or goals so decided to run by feel and see how it went. I also had no idea what the course would be like. After a couple of kilometers weaving around a muddy field, we entered the woods, where we climbed gradually until the terrain leveled off. There were even a few gentle descents in the woods that helped make up time lost on the uphills. I was pulled through kilometers 2-4 or so by fellow Heathsider E. I passed her on a descent but knew she wasn’t far behind me. She flew by me at 5km and I tried my best to keep her within reach. It’s always helpful to have a teammate to flip-flop with on a tough course.

Early on, tucked behind Caroline. Photo credit: Marco M.

We ended up running the woods loop twice. After a quick fifth kilometer, I slowed a bit for the sixth but then dug in to try and keep E in my sights and push towards the finish, which I knew should be around 8km. I used the downhill out of the woods and tried to lift my knees and just keep running. One steep, muddy descent later, and we were in the home straight with a headwind, trying to kick on an uneven, grassy surface. It worked well for Alun, who sped by me towards the finish, but all I could do was hold on and try not get passed. Luckily, the course was short at 7.8km (4.85 miles). Not sure I could’ve held on for much longer!

Not a flattering shot at all, but this is what (XC) running really looks like! Photo credit: Steve Woolf.

I don’t have the official time yet, but my Garmin has me at 38:55 for the 4.85 miles (8:01/mi or  4:59/km average pace). Not particularly fast, but I’m happy with it, given the challenging course (one of our coaches rates it as a 6/10 on his XC difficulty scale, with Parliament Hill being a 9/10). Trent Park is beautiful, and when the race got tough, I kept reminding myself to look around at what a glorious piece of nature we were running in.


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Race Recap: Sunday League Cross Country – Cheshunt

It’s autumn, which to many a runner might be synonymous with cross country season! It has certainly become so for me over the past few years. I’ve traditionally taken part in the competitive Met League Cross Country (XC) series with my club: men and women run separately (and the men’s race is longer than the women’s – grr), runners score points so the faster you are the better, and there’s an enthusiastic rabbling atmosphere.

Heathsiders getting ready to run XC at Chestnut. Bobble hats at the ready!

Today I ran in another XC league that my club participates in: the slightly lower-key Sunday League. Here, men and women run a 5-mile course together (gasp!), there’s significantly less rabbling, and you don’t even need a race number.

This was my first Sunday League XC race and I loved it. While I do enjoy the raucous, hyped-up Met League, the Sunday League – at least this particular race around some fields in Cheshunt (don’t ask me where that is) – felt much more like a “regular” trail race. Everyone runs together, and there’s good marshaling but not so much spectator action on the course, making some sections quite peaceful.

Pre-race Heathside contingent. Photo credit: Marco M.

I’ve always heard that the Sunday League is more inclusive than the Met League, and now that I can compare the two, I’d tend to agree. That said, I’ve never felt too slow for the Met League, just a bit more pressure to really race.

I had no such expectations today and decided to run by feel and enjoy myself. J and I set off together and used the first kilometer to warm up and try to settle into a rhythm on the crowded trails. Once the pack of runners thinned out, we were able to pick up the pace and run the next couple of kilometers under 5:00/km pace. I was surprised how comfortable the faster pace felt – I think the long runs and semi-regular hill workouts have helped my fitness – but reminded myself that we still had a ways to go.

The course was three undulating laps on grassy trails. Luckily, it was dry so I was fine running in my regular trainers (I ordered trail shoes to arrive on the Friday before, but they never came!). There were a couple of spots where we had to run over rounded furrows – we dubbed them “moguls,” and they were quite tricky to navigate while maintaining a rhythm.

J and I caught up with C towards the end of the second lap and C and I ran together for a few kilometers. I was pleased to go through 5km in under 25:00, although C passed me and stayed ahead for the rest of the race (no hard feelings! She’s an incredible runner). I started to feel my legs and concentration waning in the past couple of kilometers, but tried to stay steady and push to the finish. As the finish line came into view, I dug in and was able to sprint past two or three runners to finish just two spots behind C, who had a great race. I don’t have the official time yet, but my watch read 40:14 for the 5.08 miles (7:55/mi or 4:55/km average pace). Very pleased with that.

There was plenty of cake to go around after the race, and I contributed these salted chocolate chunk cookies (thanks, smitten kitchen!), which another runner joked were good for refueling because the salt would help replenish electrolytes. But of course!

I thoroughly enjoyed my first Sunday XC League outing and am already looking forward to the next one at Trent Park in a couple of weeks. Maybe my trail shoes will have arrived by then… I’ve really enjoyed doing more trail races in the past few months, at Trent Park and on the Ridgeway trails. It’s remarkable how much opportunity there is for trail racing in and around such a metropolis as London. We are fortunate to live in north London, with Hampstead Heath just a couple of miles away.


Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Tortillas de Tiesto

Welcome back to my casual series, “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.” It has been a while and I have no good excuses other than “life”. Last time, it was Easter and we made cardamom-laced hot cross buns.. Today I ventured back into the flatbreads of Latin America and made tortillas de tiesto. Read on for the experience…

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #8: Tortillas de Tiesto

This recipe comes from The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook‘s section titled “Filled Doughs from Around the World”. The last time we were in this territory, I made baked Albanian cheese triangles (those were good!). There are many mouth-watering recipes in this section: knishes, empanadas, Tibetan momos, and more (but no Cornish pasties! Too bad). Honestly, who doesn’t love filled dough? It’s basically dumplings on steroids, and I love how most cultures seem to have their own version(s) of filled dough or dumpling-like creations. Anyway, we are told that tortillas de tiesto are an Ecuadorean street food, traditionally cooked in a tiesto, “a flat clay put traditionally used in Ecuadorean cooking” (225). Well, I don’t have one of those but a heavy-bottomed skillet seemed to do the trick for my feta-stuffed tortillas.

The tortillas de tiesto recipe looked quick and straightforward: it uses an enriched dough with egg, milk, and butter and a 2:1 whole wheat to white flour ratio. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough whole wheat flour so my ratio ended up being reversed…oops! The traditional recipe would probably use queso fresco, but that’s hard to find in London so I stuck with feta cheese, which the book said would work well.

As you may know, I am a fan of making flatbreads (see naanchapati, etc.), as they’re generally not too time consuming and don’t require any crazy tools. They do, however, require a close eye and some patience while cooking them in a hot skillet.

The tortillas de tiesto dough, once mixed and rested, is soft and pliable yet strong. It was not difficult to flatten them (I used my newly-acquired mini rolling pin – such fun!), add feta, pinch into a ball, then flatten and roll out again. It took a few tries to get the skillet’s heat right so the tortillas would cook through without charring too much, but they turned out well, if a bit darker than the picture in the book. The salty feta complements the slightly sweet dough well, and the tortillas de tiesto make for a hearty snack.

Have you ever made a stuffed flatbread like this? what’s your favorite hand-held street food nibble?

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Race Recap: Ridgeway Run (15k trail race)

Not bad for a Sunday run

I was on my club‘s 10am Sunday long run a month or so ago, chatting to a fellow runner about our training and upcoming races (as one does on long group runs). She mentioned that she was signed up for the Ridgeway Run, a 15km trail race, in October. She raved about the scenery enough that I went home and registered for it. Having done a 15km long run the week before, I was feeling confident about the distance.

As the Ridgeway Run approached, I did one or two more 12-15km long runs but nothing crazy; plus, my knees started acting up. I decided to treat Ridgeway as a training run and extra-long preparation for cross country season. Given recent niggles and being two weeks into a new job, my goals were to enjoy the run and finish without too much knee or foot pain.

The course near Tring consisted of one big loop with a little out-and-back tail at the beginning and end. I knew it would be hilly and was warned that the last couple of kilometers on the road felt endless.

Single-file at the beginning

Ten o’clock came and we were off onto the trails! As you can see from the photo above, the early stages were on narrow trails, where we had to go single file. The line of runners moved along well, though. I was pleased to go through the first kilometer in 5:10, but I told myself to take it easy, as there were still many kilometers to go. Soon, we came out and paralleled a golf course for a while (see photo at the top) before re-entering the trees and starting a gradual but longish climb. I did keep running, but not particularly fast (see kilometer 5 – 6:52 and my slowest of the race).

Through 5km in around 29:00, I decided to keep enjoying the run but to try to finish under 1.5 hours. Kilometers 6 to 8 went through a lovely wooded section, and just around 9km we emerged onto the race’s namesake: the ridge (see above). The view was absolutely stunning. Sky for miles, autumnal trees, green grass…oh, to live in the countryside!

A gradual descent led us to a photographer, a water stop, and a short, steep uphill. I walked up the hill while sipping my water and having a bit of gel. No shame — I was running for enjoyment and fitness, not time.

After the steep ascent, it was pretty much downhill for the last 4-5 kilometers. I enjoyed the quick descent through the woods and emerged back onto the paved road with some spring in my step. My knees hurt but I gritted my teeth and pushed through for a few quick kilometers — they did feel endless! — to finish in 1:25:07 (5:40/km, 9:22/mi). Not my fastest, but highly enjoyable and a good pace for a longer training run. I was 246th out of 536 finishers, and the 46th of 215 women who finished. Post-race, I shared around my lemon cornmeal cake, which was well-received by the Heathside contingent.

Heathsiders post-race.

In sum, the Ridgeway Run was a well-organized event with a low entry fee, lots of marshals and support along the course, technical t-shirts (they even had size XS), on-demand chip times, and free race photos. I would highly recommend it!

Race Recap: Middlesex 10k, 2017 edition

Photo credit: Noelle O’R.

I can hardly believe this was my fifth year in a row running the Middlesex 10k in Victoria Park. Always a big draw for competitive club runners, this year’s event was no different, and loads of Heathsiders turned up for it. This race always feels like a harbinger of autumn, and it’s a great way to test the road legs before diving into cross country season. For variety’s sake, I’m changing up my usual race recap narrative format in favor of a snappy bullet-point version:

  • Background: I did a month or two of track workouts back in the early summer, but unfortunately got a bit too eager in early July and developed some plantar fasciitis. I had to stop doing speed work and start doing lots of calf stretching, foot rolling, and toe raising. Not being allowed to do track workouts meant I decided to refocus my efforts on building up my endurance base, and I’m pleased to have put in a few 13-15km long runs (“long” is relative, marathoners!) over the past month and a half. All of that is a long-winded way of saying I felt like I could run a pretty good Middlesex 10k but not a PR/PB. Which brings us to the next bullet point…
  • Goal: I decided on a goal time of 48:00. In the past year I’ve run a couple of 10k races in just over that time, and recent parkrun times have indicated that I could probably manage that in this race. I aimed to try and average 4:45/km to give myself a bit of wiggle room if I slowed down in the second half.
  • Weather: coolish (~60F/15C) and overcast (good) but very humid (not so good). A nice breeze while running (good).
  • The race: It went by in a bit of a blur and was relatively uneventful. I ran alongside Caroline for the first couple of kilometers, trailing Nilesh and Tom. I caught up with the latter two around 5km, which I went through in a pleasingly quick 23:38. Tom and I then stuck together for the entire second half of the race, alternating between running side-by-side and swapping small leads (he claims I pulled him along, but I think it was mutual). With a couple of kilometers to go, I knew we could make it under 48:00. At 9km and onto the final straight, we picked up the pace. I dug deep to push past another runner and even managed a bit of a kick to finish in 46:46 (7:32/mile, 4:40/km) – my fastest 10k since 2015!

Photo credit: Noelle O’R.

  • Fun facts:
    • I hadn’t run a 10k under 48:00 since 2015 (at this very race). I think the long runs have helped my endurance a lot, as I didn’t feel like I was struggling to complete the distance.
    • This was probably one of the most evenly-paced 10k races I’ve ever run. It helped massively to run with Tom for the second half. Thanks for the pacing, Tom!
    • As per tradition, I baked in exchange for a lift to the race. I made this Scandinavian almond cake, which got rave reviews and which has become part of my regular baking rotation (if my erratic baking can be called a “regular rotation” at all).

For me, this is remarkably even pacing.

And that concludes my recap of this year’s Middlesex 10k. A quick and efficient race, as usual, in one of my favourite London parks. Next up, hitting the trails and XC courses!


Race Recap: Golden Stag Mile (#MyMile)

I ran a mile this week. So what? you say. A mile is no big deal.

What I mean to say is I raced a mile this week — on the track. Now that’s serious stuff!

The stars aligned this month as Strava (the social network for athletes) put on a 1 mile initiative, encouraging people to run a mile hard, record it, then tag it and share it with a #MyMile hashtag. Coincidentally, a north London running club was putting on the Golden Stag Mile event at Finsbury Park track, which is home base for my club‘s training sessions. A short jog from home and only £4 to enter and test my fitness with a mile on the track? Yes, please!

I have started getting back to speedwork in the past couple of months but have only managed to get to the track about once every two weeks. Not being in top speed form, I put my estimated finish time down as 6:30 and hoped to finish under that.

Luckily, I was put in a race with a few other Heathsiders whose speeds I’m somewhat familiar with. I knew if I could keep Esti and Hannah in my sights, I could run a good time. I talked strategy with a few other Heathsiders while warming up — turns out, there are conflicting views on how to pace a 1-mile race. Do you go all out and just try to finish? Do you save some for a final kick? Pace it like a 400m or 800m race (go out hard, steady, push, finish)? One guy said he breaks the mile up into 1000m, 400m, and 200m and recommended trying to stay with anyone near me, letting other runners pull me along. I liked that suggestion and decided to try and stay with people as long as I could.

Well, that worked for the first two laps of my race. I got out fast and Esti soon pulled up alongside me. We stayed more or less together for the first lap and were in a nice pack with Hannah and a couple others. They pulled away and I set my sights on staying near the man in the yellow shirt; I passed him towards the end of the second lap.

That’s when things got tough: I was in no-man’s-land with no one near me for the last 800m of the race. Not ideal. There was a guy 5 seconds ahead of me and someone 5 seconds behind me. There was no time to look at my watch — I just had to run by feel and try to keep going. My mouth was dry and my legs were tired, but I pushed as much as I could, had a little bit left to kick, and finished in an official time of 6:20.1 — an automatic PR/PB, since I’d never raced a mile before, and under my goal time! It was very hard but I felt accomplished afterwards. Heathside had a great showing and the event was really well-organized by Barnet and District AC. Looking forward to next year!


YMCA North London / Crouch End 10k – 2017 edition

Another May is here: time for the annual (26th, to be exact) YMCA North London Fun Run & Festival, featuring the Crouch End 10k road race. I’ve taken part in this great local event for the past few years: I’ve run (2014 — it was so hot), marshaled (2015), run (last year — slowly), and run again this year. Here’s my recap of the 2017 race:

I arrived in Priory Park — a very short jog from home — as the traditional aerobics warmup was beginning. I didn’t join in, but wandered around finding fellow Heathsiders to chat with, while swinging my arms and shaking my legs out to loosen things up. This year was warmer than last year but not as hot as 2014. The weather was partly sunny — I’m glad I wore my sunglasses, as the sun got strong on the second lap — and about 59F/15C with a light breeze. Not quite perfect running conditions, but not too bad considering what it could have been like.

Traditional photo of the aerobics warmup. Pretty sure I got almost the exact same shot last year.

I have finally started to feel properly fit again after my longish layoff over the Christmas holidays: I’ve done a number of “long” (it’s all relative) 11-12km runs in the past month or two, though speedwork has been lacking. I did return to the track the other week for the first time in a while and hope to make it a more regular occurrence throughout the rest of the spring and summer. All of that is a long-winded way of saying I’m in pretty-good-but-not-PB-shape. My goal for this year’s Crouch End 10k was to run under 50 minutes, with an ideal time of around 48 minutes.

My rough plan for the race was to run the first 5km steady, between 24 and 25 minutes, then negative split (run a faster second half) with whatever I had left. I knew the first kilometer might be quick with the excitement of the start and getting swept along in the flow of runners, so I allowed for that and decided to settle into a steadier pace once the pack thinned out. I’ve been throwing kilometer surges into my longer runs, so I also knew that I could finish strong with a fast final kilometer.

The race went more or less to plan. I ran alongside a fellow Heathsider for part of the first kilometer, and was pleased to go through 1km in 4:42. I was surprised that my second kilometer was even quicker, at 4:36, although looking at the elevation profile it was slightly net downhill. Alun caught me up around then; we had a brief chat about goal times and then he sped ahead.

Photo credit: Maz St H.

After the slog uphill, we descended into Ally Pally park and along the newly paved section that was lined with cheering families. This bit is sneakily uphill — I’m glad I re-read my previous race recaps before running this year, as they reminded me of that fact. We wheeled down and around onto Priory Road, where I gave a wave to Chris, a fellow CEFC singer who was spectating (there were a few other singers running — or is it “running singers”?).

Marc Gardner photography: Adult 10K &emdash; IMG_6576

Photo credit: Marc Gardner Photography.

Passing my favorite part of the course — the group blasting “YMCA” — around halfway gave me a boost: I went through 5km in 24:15, right around my target. My 6th kilometer was also quick (4:40), which allowed me to ease off a bit going up the big hill for the second time. When I entered Ally Pally park again with 2km to go, I spotted Caroline up ahead and made it my goal to catch her (sorry, Caroline, I can’t help it!). I was definitely struggling by this point but dug in and repeated my mantra: I’m strong, I’m healthy, and I’m fit. If I could get to 9km, I could pick it up for one more kilometer.

Marc Gardner photography: Adult 10K &emdash; IMG_7187

Believe it or not, I am actually running in this photo! Photo credit: Marc Gardner Photography.

So that’s what I did. As soon as I got onto Priory Road for the final straight before curving back into the park, I lifted my knees, pumped my arms, and turned it up a notch. Perhaps it was a bit early, but I stayed strong and even had a bit left for a brief kick to the finish, pipping a couple of guys right before the line. I finished in a gun time of 48:08 and chip time of 48:02 (I’m going with the chip time — that’s 4:49/km or 7:45/mile pace). I was the 32nd woman out of 472 and finished 243rd out of 1,100 runners. I’m really pleased with my time — it’s just about what I expected I could do based on my current fitness levels, and it’s my quickest time on this course. Can’t complain about that!

For you stat nerds out there interested in my splits. It’s not the best course for even pacing. Click to enlarge.

The 3rd and 7th kilometers (6.5-7.5km, to be exact) are the hardest in this race, heading uphill parallel to the train tracks and past Alexandra Palace Station. Those were my slowest splits of the race — hard on the second lap, when my energy levels naturally dip around 7km. It helped to have a woman in a Trent Park vest in my sights for a large part of the race, and we flip flopped a couple of times. It’s always nice to have another runner to keep an eye on, and there were plenty of other Heathsiders around to encourage as they passed me or as I passed them.

The Crouch End 10k course is notorious for its difficulty. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single runner say they actually enjoy the twists, turns, and hills. At least it gives us something to bond over! And the odd bollard, sharp turn, and cutting on and off the pavement certainly keep you on your toes. The support around the course can’t be beat, and it’s always great to have loads of Heathsiders marshaling, too, for that extra special personalized support of “Come on, Heathside” and “Go, Tammela”!


Spas & Skylines: Exploring Bath

It was the week after Easter, and in addition to enjoying the 4-day weekend (thanks to two Bank Holidays), F and I took a couple of extra days off so that we could get out of London for a short refresher. We chose to visit Bath, as it’s not too far away and had been on my list of places to see, perhaps due to my fond memories of reading/studying Jane Austen in university. Also, one of my colleagues comes from Bath and gave us some recommendations for what to see/do/eat.

Bath didn’t disappoint. It’s a lovely small city with the prettiest Georgian architecture in Bath Stone (a type of limestone) — simple and grand, yet elegant:

Bath is very walkable and lovely to stroll around. The weather was glorious, so we did a lot of walking — and some cafe sitting/tea and coffee drinking/scone and cake sampling to rest our legs, of course. We also spent a lovely couple of hours relaxing in the Thermae Bath Spa, which takes advantage of the city’s natural hot springs and apparently is Britain’s only natural thermal spa. It felt wonderful to relax in the warm pools, steam rooms, and sauna… Our skin was so soft afterwards!

However nice the spa was, the highlight for F and me was doing the Bath Skyline walk after a good night’s sleep at Abbey Rise B&B (lovely proprietress, comfortable bed, and good food). The National Trust-curated Bath Skyline walk is a 6-mile (9.6-kilometer) loop around the river basin that Bath lies in. After about a mile of exposed uphill clamber, the terrain flattens out and the trail travels across meadows and through woods, parallel to old stone fences, and alongside cows and sheep in their pastures. You also get some great glimpses of the walk’s namesake, the Bath skyline.

The Bath Skyline walk was reminiscent of the walking trip we did with my parents in the Cotswolds two years ago (not surprising, as Bath is actually at the very end of the Cotswold Way). We got nerdy and recorded the walk on Strava, in case you’re interested in having a look. I’d highly recommend doing the Bath Skyline walk if you find yourself in the city for a day or two. It was so nice to get away from civilization and into nature for a few hours. We both came back to London refreshed and ready for the rest of the spring — but also ready for the next opportunity to escape the city!


Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Hot Cross Buns

Welcome back to my casual series, “Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen.” Last time we got sticky making pita bread. Today, we’re making cardamom-laced hot cross buns in celebration of springtime and a four-day weekend over Easter. 

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #7: Hot Cross Buns

This recipe comes from The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook‘s section titled “Short and Sweet: Quick Breads and Holiday Breads”. This includes classics like banana bread but also special occasion breads like Stollen, a bread for Día de los Muertos, and these hot cross buns. The chapter’s introduction notes that the holiday breads are “recipes passed from generation to generation, often scribbled on note cards…rooted in old traditions and sure to inspire new ones)” (232). Well, I didn’t grow up eating hot cross buns, but they are abundant in UK shops around Easter-time and F and I both enjoy them as an afternoon treat with coffee or tea, so I decided to try my hand at homemade ones.

Hello, my beauties!

The hot cross bun recipe looked pretty straightforward: it uses an enriched dough with egg and milk, as well as some sugar and both raisins and currants. The bonus ingredient is cardamom, which adds a lovely scent and flavor to the buns. You could leave the cardamom out if you’re not a fan, but I would recommend keeping it in.

You don’t need to know much about bread-making to create these hot cross buns. The dough gets mixed until the gluten is developed — this always gives me a good arm workout, as we don’t have a stand mixer — and then rested for an hour. To form the little round buns, you’ll need to practice your boule-making technique of folding, pinching, and tension-building. I found this less fussy than making sourdough bread: the dense hot cross bun dough is easier to work with than looser sourdough bread dough.

After lining up the little buns on a baking tray, you rest them for another hour before you brush them with egg wash (I could’ve been more generous with my egg washing) and bake them for 30 minutes. (Use the non-convection setting on your oven.) Unfortunately, I thought I’d started my timer when the buns went in the oven, but realized after perhaps 10-15 minutes that my timer had been inadvertently paused! I therefore had to estimate how long the buns had been in and may have overdone them by a few minutes. Despite that, the hot cross buns turned out really well, sweetened just a bit by the icing crosses (I left out the cardamom — pure laziness) and delicious with salted butter. The whole process took about four hours (not including cooling time). F approved and we were both happy!

How do you like your hot cross buns – with butter? Jam? Marmalade?Have you ever made them yourself?

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Dim Sum Class at London Cookery School

Early this year, I came across a Time Out London discount for two people to attend a dim sum cooking class at London Cookery School*. Excited (who doesn’t love dim sum?), F and I jumped at the opportunity. Neither one of us had ever done a cooking class before, despite (or maybe because of) how much we both enjoy cooking. But dim sum is not something either of us would have attempted to make at home without some prior knowledge, so the class was the perfect opportunity for us to learn some new cooking techniques. By chance, we ended up booking the class on our first wedding anniversary — what better way to celebrate than that? (And how have we already been married a year?!)

Our dim sum class taught us how to make three of the most popular steamed dumplings that might grace a dim sum table:

  • Har Gow  蝦餃 (crystal prawn dumplings)
  • Chiu Chow Fun Gwor  潮州粉果 (chiu chow steamed dumplings)
  • Sui Mai  燒賣 (open top steamed pork and prawn dumplings)

I won’t share the recipes, as you should probably do the class to learn how to make the dumplings, but I’ll provide some pictures and commentary/observations on the class and techniques that we learned.

First up, tea (yum cha): the instructor Will explained that tea is an integral part of the dim sum experience. In Hong Kong and southern China, people will often say, “Do you want to go for some yum cha?”, meaning “Let’s go have dim sum (but of course there will also be tea).” The first page of our class booklet included explanations of some common teas (wulong/oolong was served during our class) as well as some key dim sum etiquette:

Once everyone had washed hands and poured tea, the class got going. We started by making three different fillings for our dumplings: a prawn-based mix for the har gow; a pork-based combination for the chiu chow fun gwor; and a pork-and-prawn mixture for the sui mai. Here are some things we learned while making the fillings:

  • Corn flour (cornstarch, to any Americans reading this) is used as a binding agent.
  • It’s best to use fattier minced pork (~20%) for dumplings.
  • Baking powder is often added to Chinese meat dishes as it gives the meat a lighter, springier feel and helps tenderize the meat, too.
  • Salted radish adds a depth of flavor (umami, if you will).

Fillings at the ready!

Next, we prepared the dough for the har gow and chiu chow fun gwor. This was quite fun and similar to making chapati dough: add hot water to starchy mixture, bring it loosely together, then let it sit and hydrate for a few minutes before the final kneading and rolling. The dumpling dough did require a couple of specialty ingredients like wheat starch (regular flour won’t cut it) and tapioca flour, but overall the technique wasn’t too difficult and the dough turned out a beautiful alabaster white with a smooth, silky feel.

Will demonstrated how to roll, cut, stuff, and fold the dough into dumplings. The har gow were difficult, as it took some dexterity to make the neat pleats for the classic shape. You can see that my first couple of attempts (top of the picture below) were not successful, but it got easier with practice. The chiu chow fun gwor were easier to form into a simple crescent shape.

The first batch of dumplings then went into the steamer while we formed the sui mai (with pre-made dough, as it’s a trickier dough to make and get thin enough). Those went into the steamer, too, and we were ready to eat!

The class lasted about three hours, and it was a great experience to learn how to make an entirely new sort of cuisine. If you’ve never done a cooking class before, I’d recommend it. Take a friend/partner along and get cooking!

*All opinions are my own and I was not compensated in any way for this post. It was just so enjoyable that I couldn’t help sharing with you, dear readers!


Singing Bach’s “St. John Passion” in English

This weekend saw a culmination of an exciting project taken on by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, of which I am a member. Last August, the chorus recorded Bach’s St. John Passion (SJP) in English for the first time in 45 years. Alas, I wasn’t part of the recording, but I had the privilege of performing the piece with the choir this weekend in St. John’s Smith Square, a concert that coincided with Chandos’ release of the CD.

First, some background and thoughts on language: as you may know, Bach’s St. John Passion was originally written in German. It’s a magnificent oratorio, musically and dramatically. So why bother translating it into English?

As our music director David tells it, he saw a performance of SJP in English a few years ago and was at first scornful, being someone (like myself) who prefers pieces to be sung in their original language. But David said that hearing SJP being sung in English brought him much closer to the story and moved him in ways that the German version didn’t…because he could understand the words!

Sunlight streams over music. Yes, we were told to write “turbo charge” in our scores. I had to cross out some of the German so I wouldn’t sing in the wrong language.

In last night’s pre-concert chat, translator Neil Jenkins argued that the Bach Passions are acts of worship: they are, after all, oratorios set to Biblical texts about the Passion of Christ and thus often performed in the run-up to Easter. Jenkins made a similar remark to David’s revelation, in that hearing SJP in English brings the audience closer to the text and thus allows the audience to better perform the act of worship. The Bach Camerata’s lead cellist, also on the pre-concert chat panel, noted that for her and the other instrumentalists, hearing the choir sing in English allows the orchestra to add extra feeling in the right places — again, because they can understand the words. Jenkins talked about earlier English translations of SJP and how they tried to stick to literal translations from the German and the Bible’s actual words; but this meant that some words and phrases felt and sounded awkward to sing. In his translation, Jenkins made a point of retaining the meaning but also choosing words with comfortable vowels for the singers (thank you!).

Pre-Concert chat with Neil Jenkins (translator), David, and the Bach Camerata’s lead cellist/founder.

While I was initially skeptical of singing SJP in English, being a proponent of singing in the original language, I must admit that I got a lot out of the piece. Although I do speak German, it was exciting to experience the SJP’s story unfold in my native language and feel the immediate effects of the drama. It was also brilliant to sing with the Bach Camerata again; they are a fantastic period-instrument ensemble, complete with funny-looking wind instruments and a beautiful viola da gamba.

In rehearsals for this concert, the texts of the choruses sounded a bit random on their own. When we got to the dress rehearsal and concert at St. John’s Smith Square, though, everything came together with the addition of the soloists, led by Robert Murray as the Evangelist, or narrator, of the drama. The choir, I realized, acts many parts throughout the oratorio: the crowds of Jews, the priests, and the contemporary (in Bach’s time or ours) congregation commenting on the action. Despite not being a believer, I found some parts of the SJP quite moving.

Overall, the concert went well and the audience was enthusiastic; choir members in the audience gave us good marks for our diction. We had brilliant soloists in Murray along with Andrew Ashwin as Christ, Grace Davidson (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), and Ben Davies (bass). Some of the soloists, along with the Bach Camerata, are also on the recording that just came out.

I could go on, but I’ll let you read David’s blog post for more and send you to buy the CD here or here if you are interested. Thanks for reading!

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International Women’s Day 2017: Be Bold For Change

Today is one of my favorite holidays: International Women’s Day (IWD)! On this day, people celebrate the achievements of women past, present, and future, and also raise awareness about gender inequality that still exists today.

IWD holds a special place in my heart because I first learned about it during my time as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. The 8th of March is celebrated in fine style in Ukraine, with women receiving flowers, chocolates, gifts, and many well-wishes from others (mostly men but also pupils/students, if you happen to be a teacher).

Every year IWD has a theme, and this year it is “Be Bold For Change,” focusing on how people — women and men and everyone in between — can help forge “a more inclusive, gender equal world” (IWD website). I can’t complain about that theme! Teaching English to all women, with all women means we talk a lot about empowering women. This term, my ESOL Entry 3 class has had a number of lessons about volunteering, work, and employment and we’ve had a few discussions about gender (in)equality in the workplace. My Functional Skills English Level 1 learners spent part of a lesson reading about the suffragettes and discussing women’s rights historically and now.

Today, we had a lunchtime IWD event at work for our learners to come and celebrate with us. We encouraged staff and learners to wear traditional dress from their or another country. Many of my colleagues wore beautiful saris, and I rocked up in my Ukrainian vyshyvanka (embroidered blouse), recalling fondly the two Women’s Days I spend in Sniatyn:

Wearing my Ukrainian vyshyvanka on IWD

Tutors designed a number of activities for our learners to engage in. These included “find someone who” with positive and empowering elements: Find someone who has run a marathon, who has made someone smile today, who has fixed something at home, who has give someone advice, etc. There was also a gap fill quiz with facts about women’s rights around the world, a map to identify where you are from and write what you like about your country or another one, and places to record a dream job and personal strengths.

Over 60 of our learners attended the event and had a great time chatting, snacking, doing activities, and watching speeches by inspirational women like Malala Yousafzai. I wish I could post pictures of our learners all dressed up and mingling, but many of them are vulnerable and so you must imagine instead!

I like to take International Women’s Day as a day to celebrate all the incredible women in my life, from family to friends to colleagues to students and more. You inspire me to be stronger, fitter, kinder, and more thoughtful. You inspire me to push myself and to encourage others. You inspire me to keep life in perspective and move through it with joy. You inspire me to persevere. Thank you, and keep fighting for equal rights for all humans.


Race Recap: XC Met League – Ally Pally

Yesterday was the final fixture of the Met League Cross Country League season. A nasty virus kept me out of commission for almost a month over the holidays, so I missed the January XC race and was eager to lace up my spikes and put on my Heathside vest again this month. Even better, this fixture was at Alexandra Palace — Ally Pally, to us locals — which is a 12-minute jog from my flat. Can’t beat that!

The weather was cold — about 2C/36F — and a bit windy. A few snowflakes flurried around in the air. I debated all morning about what to wear and settled on capris, gloves, and a long sleeve top under my vest. I had memories of running the Ally Pally Met League a few years ago, when the bottom part of the course was so waterlogged it was lake-like. This year, there was lots of thick, sticky mud and many squidgy puddles of ice cold water.

My goal for the race was to run steadily, not walk, not fall, and just finish. Having been off for so long in December/January meant that I lost a lot of cardiovascular fitness, and it has been slow to come back as I have deliberately taken a gradual approach to running again.

After all of us women jogged down to the swampy start, we huddled together for warmth and then the gun went off. Gabi and I ran together for the first lap, letting our ankles get used to running in spikes and stabilizing on the uneven terrain. By the second lap, I had lost Gabi but kept thinking she’d catch me, as our amazing Heathside rabblers would cheer me on and then immediately cheer her on! Going down the big hill for the second time, I gritted my teeth and wished I had gotten some longer spikes for this race — my 9mm ones weren’t cutting it, as I worked hard to keep my footing.

Everyone always dreads having to run up the long, steep Ally Pally hill. While it was hard, I actually felt strong running uphill. I think it’s largely thanks to the core class that F and I have been attending once or twice a week at the gym. I was able to keep my body upright, lift my knees, and keep my arms pumping to propel me up the hill little by little. I wasn’t fast, but I must’ve been relatively efficient, as I did pass a number of runners on the uphills. That said, I then needed the flat “backstretch” of the course to recover from all the ups, downs, and ditch hurdling!

I was knackered by the end of the race and was glad it didn’t end up being a full 6km — it was only 5.3km. I didn’t have anything left for a kick, so a couple of runners sprinted past me to the finish, but I did hold one off at the last second (sorry, Laura, I think that was you! Love your blog). My official time was 29:58 (a sedate 9:03/mile, 5:38/km pace), putting me 126th of 170 women finishing. Pretty far back in the pack, but I’ll get my fitness back eventually.

As usual, the Heathside support was incredible. Lots of our runners were marshaling, as it was our home turf, so it was motivating to be cheered on all the way around. The cowbell-ringing and yelling crowd at the bottom of the hill was amazing. Well done to everyone on a great cross country season!