Category Archives: culture

What’s Been Cooking? “First month in Münster” edition

Hello there! Long time no blog, I know. My excuse is that F and I were moving countries. After a wonderful 6.5 years in London, we decided it was time for new adventures in a smaller place with a less hectic pace of life, so we moved to Münster, Germany at the end of May. It was hard to leave our friends and communities in London but we are glad to be in Münster, where we already have a good network thanks to F’s friends from his university days.

Part of moving into a new flat in Germany required buying and installing a kitchen. No, not just the appliances – an entire kitchen. Apparently it’s a thing in Germany. Kitchens are seen as “furniture,” and most flats come unfurnished, so…no kitchens! (Or at least they aren’t a guarantee.) Once a kitchen is installed in a flat or house, if those tenants move out they can either take the kitchen with them (yes, people do that) or they can sell it to the new people moving in.

Anyway, designing and buying a kitchen was a new experience for both of us. They are not cheap, but ideally we’ll be in this flat for the next 5-10 years so it’s a worthy investment and we both enjoy cooking and baking. We ended up at KüchenTreff Münster and had a great experience from designing through installation. I’d recommend them if you’re in the Münster area and in the market for a kitchen.

All that was a long-winded way of getting to the point of this post: what F and I have been cooking (and baking) in our new kitchen over the past month! Here goes, in no particular order:

I made our favorite Käsekuchen (German cheesecake) for F’s birthday in mid-June. He returned the favor for my birthday two weeks later by making our now go-to cherry pie from Stella Parks at Serious Eats.

June was Spargel-Saison in northwestern Germany. Spargel is white asparagus, which I never came across until visiting western Germany and Belgium in May/June. It’s a thing, and for many – like F – it’s something to be enjoyed in multitudes for a short time every year. It tastes completely different from green asparagus – milder and sweeter, to me. Peel it, then wrap it in a foil packet with butter and salt and roast it in a 200C/400F oven for 45-60 minutes. Yum.

Back to baking, the first thing I made in our new oven was a batch of my go-to granola. Needless to say, more batches have followed.

Anita Bean’s lentil-stuffed peppers from her Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook made for a tasty and light dinner on a warm summery evening.

We don’t usually celebrate the Fourth of July (American Independence Day), but F wanted to have friends over for a barbecue and he asked if flag cakes are actually a thing. I wasn’t sure, but I checked smitten kitchen and – lo and behold – she had a recipe for one. A classic yellow cake base (it stayed quite moist, maybe thanks to buttermilk) is slathered with cream cheese frosting and topped with berries in the shape of the American flag. I think it’s one of the most patriotic things I’ve ever done or made… It was a hit with our German friends and I’d definitely make the cake again, with or without the flag design.

What have you been cooking recently?

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At the National Theatre: “Hadestown”

Back in November, my parents flew over to London for the long Thanksgiving weekend. They were keen to go see a show while in town, and Monday night was the most convenient for going out. A musical called Hadestown was on at the National Theatre and it sounded quirky: jazz-folk music, based on two Greek myths, written and directed by women. As both shows F and I have seen at the National Theatre were excellent, I thought we’d give it a go!

“Hadestown” set at the National Theatre

And we were glad we did.

Intertwining the Orpheus/Eurydice and Hades/Persephone myths, Hadestown brings us to the modern-day industrial in what could be a southern railway town / New Orleans piano bar. In addition to the four protagonists, other characters from Greek myth are in attendance: Hermes, messenger god, narrates much of the story; and the Fates ever weave around the characters, cajoling and tempting them.

Speaking of the Fates, I think they get some of the best music in the show, with hints of Bossa Nova and tight, edgy but round harmonies. Check this one out:

In other music, the song “Why We Build The Wall,” set as a kind of call-and-response reminiscent of the Old South, is powerful and chillingly relevant to today’s politics. Eva Noblezada, as Eurydice, has a great voice. I was less impressed by Orpheus’ solos, but I think that’s because the character’s musical style is quite different from the rest of the show. It’s more folksy, and reminds me of the music from Once, contrasting – probably on purpose – with the jazzier ensemble pieces.

Final verdict: Hadestown, while sometimes jumpy in narrative, is a fantastic show. The music is jazzy, bluesy, folksy, and above all, catchy. Some tunes and themes resonate heavily with today’s political environment. It was also great to see such a diverse cast, with plenty of talent to go around. Highly recommended!

Of course, an evening out on the Southbank isn’t complete without taking in the London lights from Waterloo Bridge. London really is a magical place.

 


Year in Review: 2018

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

It’s hard to believe another year has gone by. Time flies. As we enter 2019, here are some reflections on my 2018.

Running and fitness in 2018:

  • Distance run: Strava tells me that in 2018 I ran 1,271.3km =  789.95mi, which is 298.2km/185.29mi more than in 2017 – I’m really pleased with that!
  • Overall, it was a good running year. I refocused on building my endurance base with Sunday long runs, did a lot of Saturday morning parkruns, and even got in a smattering of speedwork in the warmer, lighter months. I also did some run-commuting to or from work.
  • I ran my 50th parkrun in March 2018! This had been a major goal of mine and I was excited to achieve it (the t-shirt is great, too). My parkrun total currently stands at 63, with more to come in 2019.
  • Racing (running):
  • Distance cycled: 2,054.6km = 1,276.67mi of commuting to/from work in London. Fewer than 2017 because my commute is now shorter. More energy for running!

Favorite books read in 2018:

  • In 2018 I read about 22 books. There were quite a few that I didn’t particularly enjoy, but to balance those out there were some gems:
  • Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach. I really liked Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Manhattan Beach was a very different sort of novel but did not disappoint. I loved the 1930s-40s dockside setting as well as the strong female protagonist and a bit of intrigue. Great writing, too.
  • I don’t usually read much non-fiction, but Dave Eggers’ narrative non-fiction book The Monk of Mokha reads like a story, which makes its reality all the more interesting. I learned a lot about coffee and Yemen – apt, given the current situation there.
  • I am a sucker for historical fiction, and Ken Follett is one of my favorites. In 2018, I read A Column of Fire, the third book in Follett’s “Kingsbridge series” that starts with Pillars of the Earth. Just so good.
  • One of my best friends recommended Tamora Pierce‘s Song of the Lioness quartet, which I raced through. Nothing like a good young adult series with a strong female lead and a bit of magic and mystery!
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is brilliant, and I read her first novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, last year. It was not quite what I expected but I couldn’t put it down and her writing is excellent.

Other highlights of 2018, in no particular order:

  • F and I wanted to travel more in 2018, and we certainly achieved that goal. Here’s where we went:
    • A snap weekend in Zürich with my parents. What a nice city!
    • A lovely trip to Provence in early spring (that post has somehow been lost! Sad. If you go, stay at the La Bastide Perchée guest house in Venelles).
    • A few days in the Ardennes at C’s family farmhouse, with both sets of parents.
    • An amazing two-week holiday in California in August, plus a couple of days in NYC (including seeing Emma!).
    • A long weekend with friends in Münster in October, followed closely by a weekend in Düsseldorf with friends and F’s sister.
    • Almost two weeks in Germany over Christmas/New Year, with the in-laws and friends. Good food, good running, great people, and relaxation.
  • Seeing friends regularly over the year for lunches, dinners, drinks, coffees, and board gaming (game highlights: Seven Wonders, Quacksalber von Quedlinburg, Schnapp die Robbe!).
  • Having my parents and five friends with us for our Thanksgiving-in-London celebration.
  • Continuing to enjoy cooking and baking, both new recipes and old favorites. F and I have become more mindful with how much meat we eat and where we get it, plus we’ve been focusing on fuelling ourselves well for our respective cycling and running.

I’m not big on resolutions but my main intention for 2019 is, as usual, to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and other things.

In some blog-related reflecting, here is a listicle of of my top posts via views in 2018:

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2019.

USA Trip 2018: Nevada City & Sacramento Valley

Greetings! This is the fourth and final post in my mini “USA Trip 2018” series, documenting the two-week vacation (holiday, in UK-speak) that F and I took this August. After a weekend in NYCa few days in San Francisco, and time exploring the Point Reyes National Seashore, we journeyed to the foothills of the Sierras then into the Sacramento Valley for the remainder of our trip. Read on to see what we got up to. (NB: none of this is sponsored – all of the following are my personal opinions and I write for fun!)

Day 1: Sunday

Out of the fog and into the heat: that sums up the drive from Point Reyes across the Sacramento Valley and into the Sierra foothills. Not complete without a stop at California institution In-N-Out Burger, of course!

Upon arrival in Nevada City, we strolled through the cute, hippie, old west town center before splashing in the Outside Inn pool and relaxing in the heat with the New York Times. We had a delicious dinner at the New Moon Cafe (recommended by J&E) then called it an early night.

Day 2: Monday

I knew nothing about Nevada City before this trip. Why did we choose it? Well, we had originally considered Lake Tahoe but then realized it would be jammed with tourists and vacationers in August. As an alternative, a number of friends had recommended a stop in Nevada City, one of the first Gold Rush towns in the Sierra foothills.

Monday was a kind of rest day for us. We slept in then had a delicious brunch at Ike’s Quarter Cafe (thanks for the recommendation, Liv!) and lounged around in the 90F+ heat. Later, we roused ourselves enough to drive to Edward’s Crossing and take a dip in the Yuba River (another spot-on recommendation from Liv). The sun was hot, the water was cool, all was well. And luckily we didn’t come across any rattlesnakes. Smoothies and wraps from Fudenjüce (good tip from B) rounded off the day.

Day 3: Tuesday

We spent a leisurely morning writing postcards, then made our way out of the foothills and into the Sacramento Valley. First stop: Folsom, home of the eponymous Folsom Prison made famous by a Johnny Cash song, but also home to family friends (and avid athletes) J&E, who generously hosted us for two nights. After we arrived and admired their fleet of bikes and rowing shells, E took F and me on an easy 8-mile cycle on the paved “Johnny Cash Trail” to stretch our legs before dinner. It was also a test-ride on their “guest fleet” bikes for the next day’s adventure…

Day 4: Wednesday

…a 30-mile cycle from Folsom to Old Sacramento, almost all on paved paths along the American River and including a mini pace line to help the miles pass. It was fantastic to ride so far and not encounter any cars. We enjoyed lunch on the classic Delta King riverboat and then strolled through Old Sac before taking the light rail back to Folsom.

Cycling to Old Sac. Photo by E.

Day 5: Thursday

E took F out for a final cycle – faster this time, since I wasn’t there to hold them back – while I went for a run. We all met at Karen’s Bakery for a post-workout coffee. It was a nice end our stay with J&E – they treated us well and E was an excellent cycle tour guide! In the early afternoon we drove to my grandmother’s house in Roseville, where we caught up on the family news, showed off our holiday photos, and met Uncle K for dinner.

Day 6: Friday

F and I got up early with Grandma; she did her regular 2-mile walk and we went for a short run. After breakfast, we drove back to San Francisco, returned the rental car, and flew back to London and reality. We had an amazing trip. I enjoyed introducing F to the west coast while revisiting some of my favorite places and sharing many new experiences with him. We’ll be back, California!


USA Trip 2018: Point Reyes National Seashore

Greetings! This is the third post in my mini “USA Trip 2018” series, documenting the two-week vacation (holiday, in UK-speak) that F and I took this August. After a weekend in NYC and a few days in San Francisco, we drove across the foggy Golden Gate Bridge to the Point Reyes National Seashore. Read on to see what we got up to. (NB: none of this is sponsored – all of the following are my personal opinions and I write for fun!)

Do you associate smells with places? I have two strong smell-place associations: the damp sea air of Cape Cod, and the dry, earthy, eucalyptus-tinged smell of golden northern California. The latter is what Point Reyes smelled like and it was glorious.

Smells aside, you’ve probably gathered that the next stage of our USA trip was on the Point Reyes National Seashore. We had found a cute-looking AirBnB in Point Reyes Station to set up our base for the next few days and planned to see some big trees, walk/hike, and relax. (The “tiny house” AirBnB was perfect: comfortable bed, great outdoor shower, porch, fridge, and coffee maker. I’d stay there again.)

Day 1: Thursday

After renting a car from SFO, we drove back up through the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge, stopping at the vista point for some great views of the fog rolling over the San Francisco Bay. Another hour or so in the car brought us to the cute little town of Point Reyes Station. We spent part of the afternoon exploring the town and bought two delicious cheeses from the Cowgirl Creamery, which at least four people had recommended to us! I wanted to go for a run, so F suggested we drive 10 minutes to the Bear Valley Trail parking area and get in a short jog before dinner. We ran a 5km out-and-back on a sneakily uphill trail to the Divide Valley. It was beautiful and peaceful.

Day 2: Friday

Muir Woods was a non-negotiable activity on this trip; it’s one of my favorite places from childhood and F loves trees, so I knew he’d enjoy it. Luckily, a few people had tipped us off to the fact that you now have to book tickets and parking in advance, so we reserved the earliest possible parking spot for Friday morning. We rolled out of bed at 6:20am, made coffee and PB&Js in our tiny house, and drove down to Muir Woods via foggy Highway 1. We got there at 8:20am and it was really peaceful in the woods until about 9:45, at which point we were on the way out anyway. It was totally worth going early to beat the crowds and enjoy the redwoods in their natural, peaceful magnificence.

On the way back to Point Reyes Station, we stopped at Stinson Beach; it was still a grayish day but there were plenty of people out. We cooled – more like chilled! – our toes in the Pacific waters and enjoyed a beach walk before grabbing hot dogs for lunch. Back in town, we browsed in Point Reyes Books and then drove up the road to Inverness for a delicious dinner of fish tacos and sweet potato fries at The Tap Room. Fast and fresh!

Day 3: Saturday

Our main activity for this day was to hike the Tomales Point Trail, a 10-mile out-and-back hike to the end of Tomales Point, promising to feature Tule Elk and other wildlife. We made a leisurely start and got to the trailhead around 10am. It was cool and breezy when we set off, but we warmed up fast in the bright sunshine. The hike was 2/3 easy walking on well-trodden dirt trails, and 1/3 on loose sand. It was a beautiful hike, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and Tomales Bay on the other. The Tule Elk were out in force and many California Condors were circling overhead. Stunning.

Day 4: Sunday

Before checking out of our AirBnB, we drove to the Bear Valley Trail area again and did the same out-and-back run that we did the first night. It was good to shake out the legs before we got in the car to drive to our next stop: Nevada City.


USA Trip 2018: San Francisco

Greetings! This is the second post in my mini ‘USA Trip 2018’ series, documenting the two-week vacation (holiday, in UK-speak) that F and I took this August. After a weekend in NYC, we spent the rest of our time in California. San Francisco was our first stop. Read on to see what we got up to. (NB: none of this is sponsored – all of the following are my personal opinions and I write for fun!)

California feels a bit like home to me: my mom grew up in the Sacramento area, so my childhood was punctuated by regular visits to see family on the west coast. My family also lived in Berkeley for a year when I was 9 (ah, the memories of collecting Beanie Babies and seeing Spiceworld in the cinema!). I hadn’t been to San Francisco since 2010, so was excited to get reacquainted with the city and introduce it to F.

Flying over the Sierras

Day 1: Monday evening

We landed at SFO in the late afternoon and made our way into the city via BART. After settling into our hotel near Union Square, we went out in search of dinner. Hungry and thus somewhat indecisive, we eventually settled on Tacorea, a clever Mexican-Korean hybrid featuring burritos in various flavors. F had the kimchi burrito and I had a more classic California-style burrito. It hit the spot! After eating, we went for a long wander up and down the nearby hills until falling jet-lagged into bed.

Day 2: Tuesday

I convinced F to get up early for a run down along the Embarcadero. It was a grayish, foggy morning – typical San Francisco summer – and we got a good calf workout running up and over the ridge to the Embarcadero. Once on flat ground, we settled into a nice pace and stopped for the occasional photo. The best part of our run was the 15-minute break to watch the sea lions at Pier 39! It was shortly after 8am so hardly anyone was out: I told F that if we had tried to see the sea lions during the middle of the day, the area would be packed with tourists. After our run, we found the nearest Blue Bottle Coffee to rehydrate and fuel up for the day. Very nice coffee and delicious oatmeal.

Post-coffee, we spent a great 2.5 hours at SFMOMA, one of my favorite museums. They had a fantastic Magritte exhibition on. We had seen a Magritte exhibition in Brussels a few years ago and the art had not really spoken to me; SFMOMA’s show changed my mind. The exhibition focused on Magritte’s “Fifth Season” – his late works – and displayed how varied his style was: much more than just pipes and hats. After Magritte, we covered most of the rest of the museum. Saturated with art, we stopped for a BLT lunch at The Grove nearby. A spot of Levi’s shopping brought us to dinnertime, when we met my cousins K and A for a Burmese feast at B Star.

Day 3: Wednesday

Another nice day in San Francisco! Breakfast and coffee at Sculleryfancy PB&J and tasty coffee (do you sense a trend? Much coffee was sampled throughout our trip…America does do a good drip (aka filter) coffee).

We then met one of my aunts, a cousin, one of my uncles, and my grandma at the Legion of Honor Museum for lunch and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood exhibition. It was great to catch up with some of my family, who I hadn’t seen since my grandma’s 80th birthday celebration/reunion four years ago.

Dinner was delicious quinoa-lentil and roasted cauliflower tacos with watermelon-feta-mint salad at Liv and Iain’s place! They were wonderful hosts and we had a lovely, relaxing evening with them. They also gave us a lot of suggestions for the next two stops of our trip: Point Reyes and Nevada City. Stay tuned!


USA Trip 2018: New York City

Greetings! This is the first in a mini series of posts about the two-week USA trip that F and I took this August. I’m writing one post for each short ‘stage’ of the trip we had. While we spent the majority of the time in California (stay tuned for these posts!), we started off with a weekend in Manhattan, NYC. Read on to see what we got up to. (NB: none of this is sponsored – all of the following are my personal opinions and I write for fun!)

Although I grew up in New York State, this was only my fourth time ever in New York City (yes – believe it or not, New York State is about a lot more than NYC). I’ve never loved NYC but was open to my opinion changing after 5.5 years living in London.

Day 1: Saturday

The stars aligned and Emma was in NYC this week with her sister! They generously stayed a couple of extra days so that we could have brunch together on Saturday morning. We darted through the summer downpour to Supper (yes, brunch at Supper) on the Lower East Side. The French toast was delicious, and it was wonderful to spend a couple of hours catching up with Emma and meeting her sister. A good start to the trip!

Brief Emma reunion! Photo credit: Dea

Later, we procured some bagels with cream cheese – had to have a bagel in New York! – and took them up to Central Park, where we munched while people-watching in the sunshine. Then we strolled up to the Guggenheim Museum (F had never been) to see an interesting Giacometti exhibition.

Did I mention it was HOT in New York? Ah, the East Coast summers: 90F/32C+ with 90% humidity…I do not miss this.

Day 2: Sunday

After a good sleep, F and I got up early to go for a run in Central Park. It was already hot and humid, but the park was beautiful and we managed 10.4km. I was glad there were so many drinking fountains throughout the park – that is something the US does well that Europe could do a better job with. Afterwards we treated ourselves to a delicious diner brunch at John’s Coffee Shop (2nd Ave). (Diners are a must while in the US! We tried a few over the course of our trip.)

In the afternoon, we took the metro down to the Brooklyn Bridge to see the 9/11 memorial and 1 World Trade Center. The outdoor memorial is quite moving. We then walked up through Chinatown and Little Italy to find Rice to Riches, a brilliant concept cafe that serves rice pudding in various flavors. My manager at work had recommended it, and it was a tasty afternoon pick-me-up.

Dinner was at Raku, a cozy udon noodle spot in the East Village recommended by one of F’s colleagues. It was outstanding. The menu was simple, the service was good, and the udon noodles were so fresh. F was in foodie heaven. It was also one of our most inexpensive dinners of the trip. Highly recommended!

Udon noodles at Raku. Wow. Photo by F.

And that was our weekend in NYC. While I enjoyed exploring Manhattan with F, I was not overwhelmed with love for the city. I much prefer London, and our next stop: San Francisco!


#BecauseESOL

I don’t share a lot on this blog about my job as an ESOL teacher for migrant adults in London. This post, though, hits home in how accurately it encapsulates the ups and downs of what it’s like to be an ESOL professional. It’s not an easy job, but most of the time it’s worth it. I hope Sam’s post gives you some insight into what I do most days at work!

Sam Shepherd

I started using this hashtag on twitter a while ago as a bit of fun. You’d be discussing something with someone from outside ESOL and they’d ask why. And, this being Twitter, you’d have no short explanation, except a virtual shrug and “because ESOL.”

So this is the long explanation, for which I apologise, as I’ve been here before, but it never hurts to remind people.

Because Language

ESOL generally occurs in an English language environment, unlike, say, international EFL which can occur in all sorts of contexts.

This means that ESOL is judged on the same terms as, say, hairdressing, or Access to HE, despite being profoundly different in one crucial regard: the students and the teacher don’t share a common first language. Some of them might, but not all of them. So you can forget your learning outcomes, differentiated according to Bloom’s (entirely language dependent, and balls to…

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A Tale of Two (Afternoon) Teas

I have had the pleasure of experiencing two very different afternoon teas in London this spring (sorry-not-sorry for the cheesy post title). Read on to find out what they were like.

NB: I was not paid or enticed by anyone to write this post – I merely do so for my own and your enjoyment. Who doesn’t love a little afternoon tea?

First up, a classic afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason, the iconic London department store near Piccadilly Circus. R and I hadn’t caught up in a while and decided to spoil ourselves with a slightly touristy afternoon tea experience in F&M’s Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. I didn’t really know what to expect, but actually it was pretty amazing. We had one of the first reservations so it was peaceful when we arrived, sound dampened by the soft carpets and nerves soothed by the pastel colors.

The service was excellent and we were encouraged to try two different afternoon tea menus so that we could share. We went for one classic afternoon tea and one savo(u)ry afternoon tea. Highlights that I can recall were the savory and regular scones, the finger sandwiches and the slices of cake.  I can’t remember which actual teas R and I had, but they were lovely and I even bought a box of loose leaf Earl Grey on our way out, which I’ve been enjoying on a regular basis.

For the price, you get your tower of afternoon tea delicacies that are essentially bottomless: you can ask for seconds (thirds, etc) of anything on your tower. You get as much tea as you want, of course, and also proper slices of cake! We were too full to eat the cake there, but they kindly box it up for you, and our server also threw in extra pots of the jam and lemon curd that came with the scones. So although it’s not the cheapest afternoon tea, you get a lot for the money.

Completely different mood

Afternoon tea number two was a Moroccan afternoon tea at Momo off Regent Street, which I was invited to for a former colleague’s birthday. Tucked away behind the busy shopping thoroughfare, Momo’s terrace offers a leafy entry to the dim, low-tabled lounge.

First, we were poured traditional mint tea from a great height. It was delicious, although quite sweet. I was excited when the date scones arrived, still warm from the oven. They were delicious and, along with the savory goodies, the highlight of the menu.

Delicious date scones

Both afternoon teas were unique experiences that I would recommend if you want to treat yourself!


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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Bits of Bulgaria

My good friend Hannah has been living in Bulgaria this year, teaching English in a secondary school. Since I never got around to visiting Hannah while she was doing Peace Corps in Georgia, I decided it was high time I visit her in Bulgaria. She’s finishing up her first year and will stay on next year to work with the BEST (Bulgarian English Speech and Debate Tournaments) Foundation, which organizes speech and debate tournaments — modeled on the American format that some of you may have taken part in during high school — around Bulgaria. Anyway, I spent a lovely few days with Hannah both in Sofia, the capital, and in Pravets, the town she’s been living in. What follows are a few cultural observations and a number of photos of my trip.

I didn’t know much about Bulgaria before traveling, other than a few tidbits I gleaned from reading the Wikipedia page and that I have a Bulgarian learner at work. My expectations were based mainly on my experiences living in Ukraine; I wondered how Bulgaria would feel in comparison, especially as it has been part of the EU for 10 years (and Ukraine has not).

Firstly, language: Bulgarian, like Ukrainian, is a Slavic language and written in the Cyrillic alphabet. I felt strangely at home wandering the streets of Sofia and being able to read signs both in Cyrillic and Latin script. I picked up a number of Bulgarian phrases in my few days there and could understand some, too, thanks to my background in Ukrainian. Hannah’s Bulgarian sounds really good after only ten months there.

Sofia felt both like a Ukrainian city — corner shops selling a random assortment of snacks and alcohol, a good deal of chunky Soviet-style architecture — and much more western — an Asian noodle restaurant, many signs in English, and most cafe/restaurant staff speaking English. It was a fascinating contrast for me.

In terms of food, there’s a good deal of international cuisine in Sofia. Bulgarian cuisine features banitsa, a tasty cheese-stuffed filo pastry snack; lots of yogurt; ayran (a salty kefir-like drink); and fresh, colorful salads (that are not covered in mayonnaise!).

Pravets, the town Hannah lives in, is about 60km north of Sofia and has a cozy population of 4,500. Hannah teaches at the language high school, which draws students from around the region. There’s also a big hotel and golf course that bring in some tourism. It’s in a valley and is surrounded by beautiful green mountains. A peaceful spot.


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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