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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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!


Recipe: Herbed Israeli Couscous Salad with Dried Apricots & Preserved Lemon

F was away for work this week and I don’t usually feel like cooking when he’s not around, tending to gravitate towards salads, grains, and other quick-prep dishes. Melissa Clark’s recipe for couscous salad with dried apricots and preserved lemon had caught my eye recently and sounded like the perfect thing for a healthy weeknight dinner. I read the recipe to get a general idea of flavors and then improvised from there, using lemon juice rather than white wine vinegar, parsley instead of dill, and adding almonds for protein and crunch.

Health in a bowl

The salad turned out really well: I’ve fallen in love with the combination of sour-salty preserved lemon and sweet, chewy dried apricots. Finely chopped herbs make a great green base for salads and a nice alternative to lettuce.

This dish is light, fresh, and healthy. I enjoyed it so much that I made it again when F got home, adding some grated carrot and diced cucumber for extra veggie points. Feel free to add or subtract ingredients as you’d like — it would work equally well with small couscous or a grain like barley, buckwheat, bulgur, or quinoa.

Herbed Israeli Couscous Salad with Dried Apricots & Preserved Lemon (inspired by Melissa Clark at NYT Cooking)

Ingredients

  • 1 dry cup Israeli couscous
  • olive oil, to taste
  • Juice of 1-2 lemons (to taste)
  • 2-3 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch fresh mint, finely chopped
  • 3 preserved lemons, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup dried apricots, diced small
  • 1/2 cup almonds (roasted & salted are best), roughly chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Optional additions: 1-2 carrots (grated), 1/2 cucumber (diced)

Procedure

  • Cook the couscous by bringing salted water to boil, adding the couscous, and letting it simmer for 8-10 minutes. Drain.
  • While the couscous is cooking, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, and cumin in the bottom of a large bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • Chop/dice the parsley, mint, preserved lemons, apricots, and almonds. Grate the carrot and dice the cucumber, if using. Add everything to the bowl with the dressing and mix well.
  • Add the couscous to the bowl and mix until everything is combined. Enjoy warm or cold!

Recipe: Beetroot & Carrot Salad with Raisins, Walnuts, & Goat Cheese

Hello again! It has been ages since I posted a recipe. Despite this salad being a staple in F’s and my dinner rotation, I realized when we had it last week that I’ve never actually posted the recipe for it. Allow me to make up for that below.

Colorful and delicious

Colorful and delicious

F introduced me to this juicy combination of grated beet(root) and carrot with raisins and walnuts, all doused in a generous glug of vinegar — sometimes balsamic, sometimes white wine — and olive oil. Goat cheese was my addition, for creaminess and extra protein. Add a bit of nice bread and butter and you have yourself a meal.

This salad is the picture of health and is quick and easy to put together on a weeknight. We usually use pre-cooked beet(root)s — lazy, I know — but you are welcome to roast or boil fresh beet(root)s for this salad. We never measure the ingredients: sometimes we use more carrots, sometimes more beet(root)s. Go for whatever you prefer and whatever you have around. Goat cheese is optional but highly recommended. Feta would work well, too.

Also, do take the time to finely grate the vegetables — it’s worth it for the juiciness and denseness that you get. We’ve taken a shortcut by using the larger/standard grater size, but it’s not quite as good.

Beetroot & Carrot Salad with Raisins, Walnuts, & Goat Cheese (original recipe from the wonderful F)

Ingredients

  • 4 small or 2 large beet(root)s (pre-cooked, roasted, or boiled), finely grated
  • 3-4 medium carrots, finely grated
  • ~1/4 cup raisins
  • ~1/4 cup walnut pieces
  • optional: 100-200g goat cheese
  • to taste: balsamic or white wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, & pepper

Procedure

  • Wash and finely grate the beet(root) and carrots into a large salad bowl.
  • Add the raisins and walnuts to the bowl.
  • Dress the salad with olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Toss thoroughly.
  • Serve and add the goat cheese to individual portions.

Enjoy!


Race Recap: Perivale 5, for the fourth time

It’s the first weekend of December, and you know what that means? Time for the annual Perivale 5 — a flat, suburban race that is always well-organized by Ealing Southall and Middlesex AC (water, banana, a t-shirt, and a Twix bar after the race? Yes, please!).

It was a glorious day for a road race: a chilly 3-4 degrees C, but bright and sunny with little wind. Some of us were hemming and hawing about what to wear given the cold, but once we warmed up I was glad of my wardrobe choice: thicker capris, a t-shirt under my vest, and gloves (which I even pulled off in the last mile). I hadn’t really run since the previous weekend, as I had a bit of a stomach virus during the week. It didn’t keep me from work but definitely kept me from doing any extra physical activity. I thought I still might be able to manage finishing in 38 minutes but felt quite nervous so decided to see how it went and listen to my body.

The start was slowish, with lots of runners bunched up on a narrow sidewalk, but I managed a 4:54 first kilometer and once it thinned out was able to settle into a pace of just under 5:00/km. I knew I wasn’t on pace for 38 minutes so readjusted my goal to aim for under 39.

My second and third kilometers were 4:49 and 4:51 and I was starting to warm up and get into a good rhythm while steadily passing a runner here and there. I faded a little in the fourth kilometer — my slowest, as you can see from my Strava race analysis below — but was buoyed by making it to the halfway point. You can do it. Just 2 miles to go, I thought as I passed the 3-mile marker.

It helped to pass another Heathsider just after 3 miles — he told me that Gabi was just up ahead, so I made it my goal to try and catch up with her before the end of the race (thanks/sorry, Gabi!). That was enough motivation to make my sixth kilometer my fastest, at 4:37, as I caught up to Gabi near the 4-mile marker and pushed on towards the finish. Once on the track for the last 350 meters, I tried to quicken my pace as much as my legs would let me, and had a good last lap to finish in 38:37 (7:43/mi, 4:49/km pace) — not brilliant (and nowhere close to my PB from three years ago), but a bit faster than I’ve run Perivale for the past two years, and a negative split! I’ll take that as an achievement. I was knackered at the end and glad to share these cookies and H&S’s delicious banana cake with the rest of the Heathside contingent.

In case any nerds are interested in my race analysis, courtesy of Strava.

In case any nerds are interested in my race analysis, courtesy of Strava.


Thanksgiving (in London) 2016 – what we cooked

F and I hosted our second (or third? I can’t remember) Thanksgiving celebration in London on the Saturday following the real holiday (a bit hard to take a random Thursday off when it’s not a public holiday where you live). F’s parents were visiting, too, so they got to experience their first Thanksgiving, and a few friends joined us as well. Here’s what we cooked for 8 people (plus a 10-month-old) — recipe links below the pictures:

  • Turkey! We ordered a 5.2kg bird from one of the local butchers in Crouch End. F stuffed it with apples and thyme, generously salted, peppered, and buttered the skin, and roasted it for 3.5 hours. It came out super moist and delicious.
  • Gravy: F made this one from Serious Eats, using the neck and innards from the turkey but not using soy sauce.
  • Stuffing: I made this classic sage and onion bread dressing from The Kitchn; same as last year. It turned out well and got a number of compliments
  • Sweet potato casserole: my mom’s/grandma’s recipe that’s been a staple at our family Thanksgivings since I can remember.
  • Brussels sprout and tomato salad: another family recipe
  • Cranberry sauce: this is my favorite recipe. It’s super easy and always turns out well.
  • My (American) friend S brought a lovely green bean dish and a pumpkin pie.
  • Our friends H&S brought a nice apple crumble.
  • Cranberry cake: in my mind, it’s not Thanksgiving without this cranberry upside-down cake, another one that my mom/grandma always make. It’s one of my top 3 favorite cakes ever.
  • Freshly whipped cream. Need I say more?

It was a lovely and relaxing evening all around, with plenty of entertainment provided by 10-month-old H. And despite the horrific political year it’s been, there is still plenty to be thankful for.

Race Recap: XC Met League – Stevenage 2016

Last time I ran a cross country race was almost exactly a year ago, at the Start Fitness Met League Stevenage race — same time, same place. I looked forward to lacing up my spikes again for this season, having missed last month’s Met League race due to illness. The weather report for Saturday looked grim all week, and it didn’t disappoint: cool, grey, and raining. Now that’s proper cross country weather! Fortunately, the morning’s downpour had slowed to a steady, misty drizzle by the time J, C, L, and I arrived at the Stevenage field for the 1:55pm race.

Uphill. Photo credit: Noëlle O'R.

Uphill. Photo credit: Noëlle O’R.

The course was similar to last year’s, without the woods we used to enjoy but with one mini-lap added before the two larger laps. I like half of the Stevenage course: the undulating, curvy first part is enjoyable, but the flat backside of the route is long, straight, and dull. I didn’t have many expectations for my own race, it being my first XC outing of the year and my not having done much speedwork recently. My goal was to enjoy it and embrace the wet weather and possibility of mud.

The mud ended up being less prevalent than we thought, which meant the grassy terrain was actually quite grippy and nice to run on. The start was quick, and I got swept up in it to tick off my first two kilometers in 4:34 and 4:31, respectively. Slow down a bit and stay steady — you still have almost 2 laps to go, I reminded myself. You can pick people off in the second lap if you feel good.

I felt really strong down and up the hills; I don’t chalk that up to my running mileage, but rather to the 20-minute core class that F and I have been doing at the gym twice a week for the past month or so. I felt like I had a lot more body control and could hold my form better on the hills.

Around the final bend. Photo credit: Noëlle O'R.

Around the final bend. Arms out for balance! Photo credit: Noëlle O’R.

As I settled into my rhythm and warmed up a bit, I occasionally overtook other runners as I made my way towards the finish. I couldn’t quite catch two women in front of me on the final straight, but I finished with a much quicker average pace than any recent race I’ve run, so was quite pleased about that. The fitness is somewhere inside me! To compare, my pace was 4:48/km for last month’s Regent’s Park 10k, and I finished this 6.25km race with an average pace of 4:39/km. Not bad! My final time was 29:12 (7:32/mi pace), good for 120th of 182 in the women’s race and 22nd Heathsider of 29 ladies running — just outside of scoring. No matter! I like to think I helped our faster runners to better finishes by beating people from other clubs.

We capped off a damp afternoon of XC the only proper way: with tea and banana bread at the car:

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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.


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!


Race Recap: Middlesex 10k 2016

It’s September and the transition from summer training to autumn racing has begun (can’t you hear the call of the cross country cowbell?). It kicked off this weekend with one of my favorite London road races, the Middlesex 10k, in one of my favorite locations, Victoria Park. Conditions were almost ideal for a road race: around 68F/20C and cloudy with a breeze.

As usual, droves of Heathsiders and other club runners turned out for this flat, fast, competitive race. I am just starting to get back into speed/interval training and longer runs after a fallow period (can “fallow” be applied to running?), so I had modest goals for this race: finish in around 50:00 and run at a comfortably hard pace that I could maintain for the whole 10 kilometers without completely bonking at the end. I’ve got a couple more 10k races coming up in the next month, so this race was a good way to see where my fitness currently stands.

Victoria Park (not on race day).

Victoria Park (in May or June, not on race day)

At 10:28am, runners crowded into the start area, someone gave a few inaudible announcements over a megaphone, we clapped, the starting gun went off abruptly, and about 250 somewhat surprised runners broke into a run.

After letting plenty of runners stream past me, including J and C, I settled into a comfortable pace and greeted fellow Heathsider A as he ran up alongside me. We spent the first kilometer or so catching up on race goals and recent training, and I was pleasantly surprised to go through 1km in 4:42. I told A not to hang back for me and he pulled ahead, leaving me more or less on my own for the rest of the first lap. I told myself to keep running steadily and not get carried away chasing people in the first third of the race. My second kilometer was 5:07 but I was still on track to run around 50:00.

I caught up with A again around the 4km marker and we ran together for the second lap of the race, keeping each other going and marveling at the fast lads lapping us on their way to the finish. We hit 5km in about 25:30, a bit off our goal pace, but I had planned to run primarily by feel rather than time so wasn’t too bothered. A was chomping at the bit, so he pulled away at the beginning of the last lap. My pacing was a bit up and down — I blame it on the head/crosswind down the outside of the loop! — but I managed to pick it up for the last 1.5km or so and dip under 5:00 for the last kilometer.

Some (not all!) Heathsiders post-race. Photo credit: Jess W./Satu H.

Some (not all!) Heathsiders post race. Photo credit: Jess W./Satu H.

My official time was 50:49 (average 8:11/mile, 5:05/km) and I am pleased. Now I know that I can maintain almost 5:00 kilometers for 10k, despite not having done much speedwork in recent months. I feel ready to get back to the track as well as ramp up my long run distance; doing both of those should help get me back under 50:00 for a 10k and should whip me into shape for cross country season. Lots of Heathsiders ran good times — some PRs/PBs, too — and I shared around my banana bread as a well-deserved post-race treat.


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.