Out & About in London – October 2016

My parents visited F and me in London for five days this month. Luckily, their visit coincided with both a chorus concert and Half Term, which meant no teaching duties for me and so the ability to take a few days off work. It was fun to be a bit of a tourist around London for a few days — I hadn’t done that in a while. Here’s what we got up to, including pictures.

Bletchley Park

A co-worker of mine recommended visiting Bletchley Park as a nice day trip outside of London. My parents wanted to get out of the city for a day, and it turned out that Bletchley Park was an easy train ride away from Euston Station. In case you don’t know, Bletchley Park is where the British Government Code and Cipher School (CG&CS) set up their codebreaking endeavors during World War II. CG&CS recruited bright young minds from Oxford and Cambridge to work machines, translate, and cipher/encipher/decipher enemy codes, the most famous of which being the Enigma code. Alan Turing, perhaps made better known recently by the movie The Imitation Game, led a team in developing the Bombe Machine to help crack the Enigma code.

Bletchley Park is centered around a mansion on lovely grounds surrounded by lots of “huts,” where various teams were set up to work on codebreaking projects. It was a lovely day when we went, which made for pleasant wandering in and out of huts and learning about what went on at Bletchley Park. There’s also a very detailed museum, which we didn’t spend much time in, having already become saturated by the information in the mansion and huts. It was a nice and informative day out and I’d recommend it.

Dinner at Ottolenghi Islington

Eating at Ottolenghi has been near the top of my “to eat in London” list for a while. We’ve got one of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks — Plenty, or Genussvoll vegetarisch in our German version — that I’ve enjoyed using at times. A few friends recommended the Islington restaurant, and my parents, who love trying new restaurants, were game!

Ottolenghi Islington has cold salads and desserts in the front window and operates a bustling (upscale) takeaway business. The restaurant consists of two long, communal tables and a handful of small two-person tables. The decor is more modern than I expected, but I quite liked the simplicity with splashes of color. The menu consists of small plates that are conducive to sharing — I love this kind of eating, because I get to try a few bites of a lot of dishes! We ordered eight dishes for the four of us, which was plenty and allowed us to save room for the delicious desserts. Dinner highlights for me were: the beetroot and cumin mash, the cauliflower, the braised artichoke and fennel, the pork belly, and the octopus. The almond financier cake for dessert was incredible.

National Portrait Gallery

Looking for something to do before afternoon tea (see below), I suggested to my parents that we pop into the National Portrait Gallery for an hour or so. I had never been there before, and to be honest was not sure I’d like it — how interesting can it be to look at a bunch of dead people’s painted portraits? Turns out, it’s fascinating! We stuck to the 19th and 20th century displays, and they did not disappoint. It was cool to see painted portraits of famous historical figures, from statesmen to the first woman admitted to the British Medical Association to authors like Dickens and Hardy. There was a small but powerful photograph of Virginia Woolf’s husband (or maybe father? I can’t remember) in the foreground with an out-of-focus but so obviously Virginia Woolf in the background. Wow.

My favorite part of the Portrait Gallery was a temporary exhibition, “Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948.” It was incredibly moving to see such dignified, soulful photographs from the early-ish days of photography. There is something much deeper about photographic portraits from 100+ years ago: carefully composed poses and backdrops, and no cheesy smiles, as people had to hold poses for a long time for the exposure. It is a stunning exhibition and highly recommended.

Afternoon Tea at The Delaunay

My mom suggested that we go out for a proper afternoon tea, like we did a couple of years ago when my parents spent time in London. And who am I to refuse afternoon tea? I had The Delaunay on my list as a well-reviewed (but I can’t remember by whom!) and affordable afternoon tea spot. We each ordered the full Afternoon Tea — my dad and I with scones, and my mom with Gugelhupf (remember that from Bake Off last year?).

Two tea towers (what are they actually called?) arrived, chock full with sweets and savories. The tea also came with brilliant straining devices that had solid bottoms to catch drips when you put them back on the table. It’s the little things! I have a big sweet tooth, but surprisingly I ended up preferring the savories at The Delaunay. The smoked duck sandwich had a great blend of flavors, and I could have eaten five of the cheese puff/choux flatbread-like things sandwiched with cream cheese. The fruit scones were deliciously light and balanced. I found most of the cakes a bit too sweet, although the pistachio financier with poppy seeds and orange cream was really nice. The Delaunay’s afternoon tea selection was very generous, and the three of us agreed that next time we’d only get two full tea menus plus a couple of extra scones.

Wicked

In addition to afternoon tea and a day out of London, my parents wanted to see at least one theatre show. We settled on Wicked, the music of which I knew thanks to my Oberlin housemate Claire, who introduced me to the soundtrack in college. But I didn’t know the story that links the songs together (other than that it’s about the Wicked Witch of the West). 

Well, the musical was brilliant. Along with the hits like “Defying Gravity,” “No Good Deed,” and “For Good,” Wicked actually has a relatively complex plot with a good deal of character development and many messages about trust, friendship, love, and self-regard. The cast was great, with Suzie Mathers and Rachel Tucker more than living up to my expectations as Glinda and Elphaba, respectively. They had personality, depth, and great singing voices — I got chills more than a couple of times.


Singing Brahms at the Barbican: “Ein deutsches Requiem”

It’s October again, which in my world means singing in the first Crouch End Festival Chorus concert of the new season! Last year, we sang Mozart’s Mass in C minor with the London Mozart Players (LMP). This year, we were lucky to be joined by LMP again, back at the Barbican for Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (“A German requiem”). Soprano Erica Eloff sang Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) to open the concert, as well as the soprano solos in the Brahms. Baritone Benjamin Appl took on the male solos in the Brahms. Brahms’s requiem is unique in that it is not set to the traditional Latin mass, but rather Brahms chose selections of German text from the Luther Bible. Even for a non-believer like myself, parts of the libretto are quite moving.

Didn't get any pictures during rehearsal, so here's a City of London shot on my way to the Barbican.

Didn’t get any pictures during rehearsal, so here’s a City of London shot on my way to the Barbican.

Now I’m not sure you you feel about Brahms, but I’ve had mixed feelings about his music ever since first hearing and attempting to learn his clarinet sonatas back in high school. It took me ages to understand what seemed to be a lack of melody and get used to the irregular, dancelike rhythms. A track teammate at Oberlin introduced me to Brahms’s symphonies, numbers 1 and 4 of which grew on me. His piano concertos are great fun to listen to. But I’ve never felt quite the same connection with Brahms as I have with composers like Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach (what can I say? I like the traditional stuff). While I did go through a period of enjoying sweeping, Romantic-era orchestral music, I’ve always come back to my three favorites for their melodiousness and simple complexity (is that a thing?).

All of the above goes to say that I looked forward to singing Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, but it didn’t enrapture me as much as it does some, including our chorus director (DT) and many fellow singers. But the piece grew on me, and I loved singing the rich, dark moments — like those in the second movement — where I could let out my inner mezzo soprano:

I also enjoyed singing in German, and we had a good language coach to help smooth out the choir’s tendency towards English diphthongs. Fellow soprano SG, also a German speaker, and I shared a few chuckles about how selige Toten (“blessed dead”) came out a bit like selige Torten (“blessed cakes”) at times! Overall, our hard work on the German paid off and the choir received many compliments on the clarity of our words — although F pointed out that we still had trouble with the “ch” sound, pronouncing Stachel more like “stackel.”

The performance went well. The LMP were incredible, as usual; Eloff’s singing was lovely (despite not having great German diction); and Appl’s diction was impeccable — it helps that he’s actually German — although he made a few mistakes, which I’m willing to forgive after seeing his busy event schedule. DT was very pleased, given the email he sent around to the choir afterwards, and I enjoyed finally getting a sense of the requiem’s story and drama when we sang it in full with the orchestra and soloists. My parents had come over to London for a week, in part to see the concert, and they loved it. A few current and former choir members in the audience were equally impressed. I’d say we pulled it off!

Next up: Sing Christmas! 2016 at St. Michael’s Highgate. Get your tickets now!


A New Favorite (& possibly the BEST) Pancake Recipe

A few months ago, NYT Cooking started making interactive “how to cook” features on its website. The first one was on pancakes, which as you know hold a special place in my heart. Although I consider myself quite an experienced pancakemaker, it was useful and interesting to read the NYT Cooking feature and delve into the details. I shared the feature with F, who suggested I try my hand at Alison Roman’s base recipe for “perfect buttermilk pancakes.” So I did.

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Then I made them again the next weekend.

And the next weekend.

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That’s right — we have discovered possibly the best pancake recipe ever. And I am not exaggerating. These buttermilk beauties are the perfect blend of crispy edges (don’t shy away from a bit of sugar in the batter, Roman suggests) and fluffy, creamy interior. I usually sub in some cornmeal and have used various combinations of buttermilk, yogurt, and/or whole milk for the liquid — they turn out great every time.

Perfect Buttermilk Pancakes (slightly adapted from Alison Roman at NYT Cooking; makes enough for 3-4 people)

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups plain/all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • 1.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1.25 tsp salt (a bit less if not using kosher salt)
  • 2.5 cups buttermilk OR 1.25 cups plain yogurt + 1.25 cups whole milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • Neutral oil for cooking (I use sunflower oil)

Procedure

  1. Heat a large non-stick skillet (or griddle) over medium heat.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  3. Add the buttermilk and eggs to the dry ingredients, then pour in the melted butter. Gently whisk everything together until all ingredients are combined. Don’t over-mix — it’s okay if there are a few lumps.
  4. Add some oil to the skillet. Ladle 1/3-1/2 cup of batter into the skillet and repeat if your skillet/griddle is large enough for more than one pancake (but don’t overcrowd them).
  5. Cook the pancake(s) on one side until bubbles start rising to the surface (2-4 minutes). Flip the pancake(s) and cook for another minute or 2.
  6. Serve the pancakes hot from the skillet or keep them warm in the oven (300F/150C) until ready to serve.

Enjoy!


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:

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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