Category Archives: food

Race Recap: Victoria Park Open 5 – an unexpected PB

Sunshine in Victoria Park. Photo credit: Neil Cook

Background: I hadn’t run the Victoria Park Open 5 (VP5), a flat and fast 5-mile race in east London, since 2014. I think the race was cancelled in 2015 and I’m not sure why I missed the 2016 and 2017 editions of the race. Maybe it was the weekend of my wedding in 2016, and maybe F and I were away in Bath last year. Anyway, I didn’t want to miss this year’s cheap-to-enter, quick race with a slightly random 2:30pm start time, and luckily Gabi was going, too.

Goal: Last week I pushed myself at parkrun and ran 22:29 for 5km at Ally Pally, a relatively hilly course. Given that average pace of 7:15/mile, I thought I was in shape to run VP5 in 7:30/mi pace, which would bring me in at 37:30 for 5 miles. Looking back at this race in 2014, I finished in 37:00, which I thought I might be able to manage this year, but I didn’t think I’d be close to my 5-mile PB of 35:41 from this past December’s Perivale 5.

Race strategy: 5 miles is quite a bit longer than 5k, so my main strategy was not to go out too fast and keep my kilometer splits under 4:39 – but also not panic if I found myself running faster. (It’s surprisingly easy to freak out a bit if you find yourself running faster than planned and it takes practice to be comfortable with that.) On race day, club-mate Andrew said he was aiming to run 37:00 or faster, so I decided to try and stick with him while still running my own race and saving some energy for the last mile.

Weather & outfit: Warm – around 20C (68F) – and partly sunny, partly hazy. It was the warmest day we’ve had this spring after a long, cold, grey London winter. The afternoon start time meant the sun and temperature would be at their highest – no morning chill to keep things cool. This was definitely shorts and vest weather, and I’m glad I wore my sunglasses, too.

Heathsiders post-race. Photo from Sue.

The race: Gabi and I arrived nice and early, with time for a banana, a chat with fellow Heathsiders, and a 10-minute warmup to acclimate. After a few leg swings, we were ushered into a rather narrow starting chute and the race started bang-on at 2:30pm. Andrew and I set out together and ran side by side for the first mile, which was of course a bit too fast at 6:53. I let Andrew surge ahead for the second mile as I tried to settle into a comfortably fast pace. There were four more miles, after all! I wanted to stay steady through 5km and then push if I had anything left. I was pleased to see my first two kilometer splits under 4:30/km and reminded myself not to panic – I felt pretty good.

Around 2.5km, we swung around to the far side of the two-lap figure-eight course, and I glanced at my watch to see that my pace had slowed to 4:50/km. Oops! Come on, pick it up, I said to myself after this mental blip. (There was a sneaky little uphill on that far side of the course – I blame the blip on that.) Two miles went by in 14:08 or so; I did some mental math to calculate that if I could keep that pace up, I’d run well under 37:00. Keep pushing. Stay steady. Still three miles to go.

We came back towards the start for our second lap of the figure-eight. At this point I wished there was a proper water station – my lips were dry and I was parched! You’ll be fine, it’s only 5 miles, just keep running, I told myself. I can’t remember where Andrew was at this point – we traded the lead a few times throughout the race, and having him around really helped me keep going as I knew he was keeping up a good pace.

My watched buzzed at 5km around 22:17 – my fastest 5k since November – and my kilometer splits had been pretty consistently under 4:30. I did some more mental math and thought that by this point I could even aim for sub-36:00. Should I try for a PB? There are still two miles to go, but I could be close. Just keep running.

My tank felt almost empty as we turned left into the uphill bit on the final loop of the figure-eight. The 4-mile marker came up: 28:53 on my watch. The rest of the race took a lot of mental strength. My feet hurt, my legs were tingling, my face was boiling in the sunshine. Can I run the last mile in under 7 minutes? I’m not sure. This feels really hard. What if I just stopped pushing right now? I could just stop. Okay, but I probably wouldn’t be happy with myself if I did that. Come on, dig deep! Remember Marie’s piece on mental toughness and the marathon that you read this morning. You can do it. 

Those thoughts and more went through my mind in the last mile. I set myself mini goals to keep chipping away: Stay steady until that final turn, then push with all you have. You will be really close to a PB. Come on! Having to weave in and out of pedestrian traffic – all of London comes out when the sun shines – helped keep my mind from dwelling on the exhaustion.

I didn’t have much of kick but gave it my all and managed a swifter last kilometer at 4:13. A lovely club-mate was there at the finish to hand me a much-needed cup of water (thanks, Leigh!).

Nice coaster as race swag!

The result: Chip net time of 35:33 (4:25/km, 7:07/mi average pace): this is a new 5-mile PB by 8 seconds! I was 66th out of 133 finishers and the 9th woman. I surprised myself with my performance – guess I am in pretty good shape, after all, and my mental toughness is improving. I was pleased to run remarkably even splits and have just enough left to pick it up for the last kilometer.

A good number of Heathsiders raced VP5, with some good results including a win from Tom. Well done to all!

Post-race: Heathsiders swapped race experiences, I passed around this banana bread, and some people bought generous slices of cake from the post-race spread. We got a “Team Heathside” photo and that was that!


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A few days in Provence

Tired of the long, grey London winter, F and I decided to go somewhere sunnier and warmer for a few days over Easter. We first considered an island like Mallorca but quickly became overwhelmed with how to find somewhere accessible but non-touristy. F then suggested going to Provence and I agreed!

While searching for a place to stay, I stumbled upon La Bastide Perchée, a B&B (“guest house “) in a small town a 30-minute drive from Marseille Airport and not far from Aix-en-Provence (in Provence you will want a car, rental or otherwise). La Bastide Perchée is a family home with four uniquely designed guest rooms and it seemed like a good choice for a peaceful getaway. Fanny and Ronan were wonderful hosts, providing recommendations for places to go and food to eat – even offering to make restaurant reservations for us. We enjoyed all of the restaurants that they recommended in Venelles and Aix-en-Provence. La Bastide Perchée’s breakfast timing was flexible and the food was good – a highlight was Fanny’s homemade yogurt. I couldn’t recommend more La Bastide Perchée for a few nights of peaceful relaxation.

Did I mention the view we had from our room? Nestled into the hillside above Venelles, La Bastide Perchée provides a glorious view of the Montagne Sainte Victoire across the valley. We could even see the snow-capped Alps on a clear morning. But lest you think we just gazed out the window for four days – and we did do a lot of that – let me tell you about what else we got up to in Provence…

Bibémus Plateau & Barrage Zola

Our first full day was bright and sunny; our hosts recommended walking near the Montagne St Victoire and pointed us in the right direction. We drove for about 25 minutes to a free parking area and walked up until we reached the Bibémus Plateau. (Apparently this is an area where Cézanne loved to paint.) We walked a little loop at the top and enjoyed the view while snacking on baguette and Camembert (when in France…).

Montagne St Victoire from Bibémus Plateau

F suggested we return to the plateau the next morning for a pre-breakfast trail run, so we arose with the sun and got into the car – pre-coffee! We decided to do a 5km loop to the Barrage Zola, a big dam/lake in a valley that we had seen from above the day before. Off we went, running to keep warm but pausing a number of times to take in the magnificent views. Down we descended into the valley, and up we climbed back to the top (we had to walk part, as it was quite steep and rocky – see the elevation profile below). The morning light and fog were amazing, and breakfast tasted extra good when we got back.

Lourmarin

We spent a pleasant afternoon in the ancient village of Lourmarin, which our hosts had again recommended (are you sensing a trend here?). The chateau/castle was closed when we got there in the early afternoon (apparently people in Provence take a long break from about 12:30-2:30pm – most shops close and not much happens), but we wandered the narrow streets, admired the pretty buildings, and had a nice outdoor lunch on a little plaza.

Aix-en-Provence

We went into Aix-en-Provence twice: once for dinner and again on our last day before driving to the airport. It’s a lovely little city, with picturesque winding streets and pretty buildings. We didn’t take much time to dive into the city’s history or culture, as we so much enjoyed not being in a city on this trip! Living in London means we prefer to escape to quieter places these days. But here are a few shots of Aix:

Our trip to Provence was wonderful and we would definitely go back, as there is a lot in the region that we did not explore.

 

Race Recap: Regent’s Park 10k, Feb 2018

I’m trying a new race recap format below – let me know what you think!

Post-race Heathsiders

Background: Jo, Gabi and I were supposed to run last month’s Regent’s Park 10k but illness & other things struck so we all deferred our entries to the February edition of the monthly race series. I had a cold/cough over Christmas, which meant two to three weeks of much less exercise and thus a decline in fitness, so I’m not anywhere near PB shape. I have, however, started going back to Heathside’s Tuesday track workouts (“started going back” translates to having done two workouts in January) to regain some speed and fitness.

Goal: Given my current fitness (and not having run over about 9km in a month or more), I set a modest goal of running under 50:00 and an ambitious goal of around 48:00. That meant averaging 5:00/km or faster. As the race is 3 laps, I needed to run between 16 and 17 minutes for each lap to be on target.

Race strategy: Run a conservative first 5k and then try to negative split. Get to 8 or 9km and then push.

Weather & outfit: Overcast and quite cold at about 3C (37F), with light wind. As usual, I hemmed and hawed about what to wear but decided on long tights and a thinnish long-sleeved merino base layer under my Heathside vest. I was on the fence about gloves and ended up starting with them but took them off halfway around. Post-race note: I didn’t need the gloves but the rest of the outfit was spot-on.

Post-race with J

The race: Jo and I didn’t really warm up, as we were staying cozy inside (and queuing for the loo). We dropped our bags at 8:55am and then walk-jogged to the start, where we huddled together with Gabi and Emilia before the gun went off. As the start is always congested at this race – those narrow Regent’s Park paths – we positioned ourselves relatively close to the front. Gabi and I set off more or less together and I went through the first kilometer in 4:39; we traded off pulling each other along for the next kilometer or two.

I was pleased to go through the first lap in just under 16:00, so knew if I could hold that pace I’d be able to run 48 minutes. However, I told myself not to get too eager as we still had more than half the race left. There was a woman in a grey jacket who flip-flopped with me for a good chunk of the race; it was helpful to know she was of a similar pace and, whether or not she knows it, she helped keep me going.

My fifth kilometer was the slowest – be patient, I told myself – but I went through 5k in 24:13. I can still negative split, I thought, but wait until the last lap to start pushing. I always enjoy running by part of the Regent’s Park Zoo, and the dromedaries were out munching their breakfast, so I sent them a mental “hello” to distract myself.

My second lap was about 30 seconds slower than the first – 16:19 – so I wasn’t sure I could hold on for 48 minutes but just kept running to see what I had left. As I went towards the little switchback loop around 8.5km, Emilia was running back the other way and shouted encouragement to me. That helped a lot, and I picked the pace up. At 9km I dug in and pushed to the finish, squeezing out a little kick and even pipping someone at the line!

The result: Official time of 47:43 (4:46/km, 7:42/mi average pace)! Really pleased to be under 48:00 and wasn’t sure I had it in me. I was 112th of 331 finishers and 18th of 147 women. I think my fitness is in a good place and I am signed up for about a race a month going into spring, so it will be nice to have regular fitness markers as I continue getting back into track workouts and hopefully doing some longer runs.

Post-race: Tea in the Hub cafe with Karina, Gabi, Jo and a tri clubber. I’d made this chocolate beetroot cake – F’s self-professed “favorite chocolate cake” – and shared it around for refueling purposes. Yum!


Festive Cookie Party!

This year, Thanksgiving crept up on us before we were able to organize a friendly get-together, as we have done for the past couple of years. So instead, partly inspired by this NY Times feature and partly by remembering that my mom has hosted cookie decorating parties, F and I decided to host a festive afternoon Plätzchenbackparty (“cookie-bake-party”) in early December.

A bit of festive decor

So we chose a date, sent out WhatsApp invites to friends, searched for cookie recipes, and calculated how much mulled wine to make. I got my upper body strength training by using our handheld mixer to make loads of cookie dough the night before, and we stocked up on icing (powdered) sugar and food coloring.

On Saturday, friends came and went throughout the afternoon. Many cookies were baked: I made basic sugar cookies and chocolate cookies, and others contributed Scottish caraway biscuits, Lebkuchen, and shortbread. Once the icings were made – simple powdered sugar + milk, and F made this royal icing – people got down to some serious decorating business. There were plenty of drinks to go around, holiday tunes played in the background, and the atmosphere was warm, cozy, and festive. Highlights included Shana’s Shakespeare cookie cutter (and the creativity that those cookies engendered) and the ever-elusive Christmas jellyfish…photos below!

Race Recap: Sunday League XC – Trent Park

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

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

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

Autumnal Trent Park. Beautiful.

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

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

Heathsiders pre-race. Photo credit: Steve Woolf.

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

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

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

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

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


Race Recap: Sunday League Cross Country – Cheshunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Tortillas de Tiesto

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

Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen #8: Tortillas de Tiesto

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

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

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

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

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

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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!