Tag Archives: cake

What’s Been Cooking? Pandemic edition

 

Life has certainly changed a bit since my last “What’s Been Cooking?” update. Social distancing is the new norm, so the three of us have been holed up at home (when we’re not out for our daily walk(s)) doing lots of cooking. This won’t be an exhaustive list of everything we’ve cooked since the stay-at-home recommendations started a month ago in Germany; rather, I’ll try to highlight some of our shopping strategies and follow that with cooking/baking highlights and projects. So without further ado…

Shopping & stocking the pantry:

F had good foresight regarding the quick global spread of the Coronavirus, so we started stocking up our pantry early with rice, lentils, dried beans, and canned goods. The only thing we forgot was flour, which sold out of the shops and supermarkets really quickly! Apparently when the going gets tough, the Germans get baking… We finally found some Type 1050 (high gluten) flour, which worked great for pizza dough but probably isn’t great for sweet baking; I finally caved and bought 2.5kg of Type 550 (all-purpose) flour online. It was not cheap but I’m glad to have it now.

We have been planning our meals weekly and doing a big shop once a week for a few years. It was simpler to shop less in London because our commutes were so long, and here in Münster we find it easier to save money when we’re not popping out to the shops every other day and inevitably impulse-buying things we don’t really need. So COVID-19 hasn’t really changed our shopping habits, except for trying to go when it’s least busy: for supermarkets, that has been around 8:30am on a weekday, and before 8am on Wednesdays for our weekly outdoor market.

What’s been cooking:

  • F discovered Serious Eats’ J. Kenji López-Alt’s YouTube channel and we watched his video on pan pizza. Needless to say, we were inspired to try it ourselves! F made a sauce like Kenji’s, and I made NYT’s Roberta’s pizza dough, which is one of the two I usually make. We used our stainless steel pans and topped the pizzas with cheese, basil, and salami. After 10-12 minutes in the oven, we quickly finished browning the bottoms on the stove, and voilà! Super delicious crispy pan pizza; we both agreed they were perhaps the best pizzas we’ve ever made. Richtig geil. We might never go back to the sheet pan style…
  • Our favorite buttermilk pancakes for weekend brunch! Always in the rotation.
  • Michaela’s chewy chocolate brownies – devoured just by the two of us over the course of a few days. It’s not great for the waistline when social distancing prevents you from sharing goodies with friends, but it is delicious.
  • F made a delicious Bärlauch (wild garlic) pesto, and we even had enough to freeze for future meals.
  • Pretty regular batches dal and rice, often from Priya Krishna’s Indian-ish cookbook.
  • One of our main meals for the week is always a big, hearty salad. Sometimes we do a Niçoise-style, sometimes beet(root) and carrot, sometimes just a mass of chopped veggies. At the moment we are loving cooking dried butter beans to add to our salads: soak them overnight, then add a generous pinch of salt and a couple of bay leaves and cook at a strong simmer for 45 minutes.
  • I made my whole wheat sweet potato quick bread, since we had more whole wheat than white flour. Great for breakfast and/or afternoon snacks.
  • For our fourth wedding anniversary this month, I made Melissa Clark’s one bowl cornmeal poundcake; it came together really quickly and made a great snacking cake, toasted and spread with butter and honey. I used lemon zest, half butter and half rapeseed oil, and split the flour between spelt and all purpose/plain.
  • For Easter weekend, hot cross buns from the Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook. They are actually not hard to make, and I doubled the recipe to produce 24 buns so we could gift some (at a distance) to our local friends in lieu of meeting in person. Yum!
  • This crispy potato kugel from NYT Cooking: definitely for potato lovers! It could’ve used another onion and a tad more salt, but overall was quite nice with applesauce and sour cream. It was a bit too much work to make regularly but it was a fun project.

What have you been cooking while sheltering at home?


What’s Been Cooking? Early 2020 edition

I was hoping to publish this earlier and now it’s almost March…where have the first two months of the year gone?! The time is flying scarily fast, especially as Baby E grows and develops just as swiftly. In the kitchen, F and I are focusing on more vegetarian dishes (not that we ate a lot of meat beforehand, but we’re now really only buying meat from the market every other week or so. We do regularly eat canned tuna) and thus have tried some great new recipes this winter to add to our already pretty good arsenal of vegetarian meals. Here’s what’s been cooking:

What have you been cooking so far this year?


Year in Review: 2019

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

I know I’m a bit late with this, but give me a break – I had a baby less than eight weeks ago! As we settle into 2020 and a new decade (!), here are some reflections on my 2019.

Running and fitness in 2019:

  • Distance run: Strava tells me that in 2019 I ran 530.4km =  329.58mi, which is less than half of my 2018 distance, but considering I was pregnant for 9.5 months of 2019, I think that’s not too bad.
  • I had a really good start to the running year, with a solid Fred Hughes 10 Mile time and one of my best XC races in recent years. I snuck in a casual but swift-ish 5-mile intra-club race in March in Finsbury Park. Due to pregnancy, I consciously slowed down and cut out speedwork by April-May, so ran a steady Crouch End 10k with Jo (at around 11 weeks pregnant) in May. That was also a bittersweet final road race in London before moving to Germany.
  • I ran 12 parkruns from January through May, including a course PB at Finsbury parkrun in February.
  • Distance cycled: 1,527.9km = 949.39mi of commuting in London and then Münster, with a few fitness rides thrown in on Cape Cod. I was happy to be able to cycle (in flat Münster on an upright, Dutch-style bike) throughout my entire pregnancy.

Favorite books read in 2019:

  • In 2019 I read 24 books. Here are some I enjoyed the most:
  • Deborah Frances-White, The Guilty Feminist. I discovered DFW’s “The Guilty Feminist” podcast in late 2018 or early 2019. It’s a hilarious comedy podcast with appropriate serious moments covering a range of topics relevant to feminism and broader equality today. The podcast let me to DFW’s book of the same name, which was fun and insightful to read. Highly recommended for anyone who calls themselves a feminist or believes in gender/person equality.
  • Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is a fun bit of fantasy; I read the first two books in this trilogy and then ran out of steam, as the second book got a little repetitive. Some good unrequited love and magic, though!
  • Speaking of magic, F, my parents, and I all read the first trilogy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (first book: The Final Empire). They feature a fascinating and unique magic system as well as a strong female lead and a good amount of political and philosophical musing. Would recommend.
  • Yes, I was an English major. No, I hadn’t read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale until late last year. I was finally motivated to pick it up by the press and awards Atwood got around the publication of its sequel, The Testaments. I read both and they were equal parts fascinating and terrifying. The writing is also much more accessible than I anticipated it would be.
  • Jo recommended I read Mark Sullivan’s Beneath a Scarlet Sky and it was excellent. I love historical fiction, as you may know, and I also learned a lot about World War II in Italy.

Other highlights of 2019, in no particular order:

  • If you know me and/or follow this blog, you’ll know that 2019 was a big year for F and me:
    • We decided to move to Münster, Germany after 6.5 years in London.
    • We got pregnant (March) and had a baby (December)!
    • The above events included a new job for F – working remotely – and me going freelance as an English teacher in Münster. New work arrangements for both of us and so far going well (although I’m currently on a break from work given the second point above).
  • I passed a German exam to gain my B2 Goethe-Zertifikat. Next up: C1!
  • We spent a lovely two weeks with my parents in August on Cape Cod.
  • We celebrated Thanksgiving in Münster by sharing all the best desserts with friends here and making a two-person feast for ourselves.
  • I’ve continued to cook and bake loads, which is fun in our new larger kitchen in Münster. I had 6 weeks (that turned into almost 8 weeks) off before baby E was born, so I filled my time with many projects in the kitchen. F and I are still being mindful of how much meat we eat and where we get it. We’re eating a lot more vegetarian now and have added some new recipes to our rotation from Bon Appétit magazine and Priya Krishna’s Indian-ish cookbook as well as the ever-present NYT Cooking website/app.

I’m not big on resolutions but my main intentions for 2020 are to live as much in the moment as possible, enjoy baby E’s growth and development, get back into decent running shape, and figure out how I want to work as a freelancer going forward.

In some blog-related reflecting, here is a listicle of of my top posts via views in 2019:

  1. Lemon, Ginger, & Turmeric Infusion with Cloves & Honey – still my number-one viewed post! A delicious, warming, healing infusion
  2. A New Favorite (& possibly the BEST) Pancake Recipe – this remains our go-to pancake recipe and we’ve made it for and passed the recipe on to multiple friends in Germany
  3. Baked Scallops in White Wine Cream Sauce – a creamy, slightly fancy scallop bake nice on a cold winter’s day
  4. Issues in Modern Culture – overview of my MA program(me). Already 6-7 years ago!
  5. Smitten Kitchen’s Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies – just the best classic oatmeal-raisin cookies
  6. Kale Sautéed in Olive Oil and Garlic – my favorite way to cook and eat kale. Works well with chard, too
  7. Käsekuchen (German cheesecake) – F’s favorite. Takes a bit of work but is totally worth it
  8. English Grammar Workshop: Prepositions – should I write more English teaching content?Comment if yes!
  9. Roasted Eggplant with Crispy Chickpeas, Lamb Meatballs, & Yogurt-Tahini Sauce – 4 recipes in one! Choose a couple or make them all
  10. Rhabarberkuchen mit Quarkcreme und Streuseln (Rhubarb Cake) – another classic German cake of many layered components. Make it in spring/early summer when the rhubarb is fresh!

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2020.

Thanksgiving 2019: Kaffee und Kuchen + A Feast for Two

 

Given that our tiny human’s arrival is estimated for just a couple of days after Thanksgiving this year, F and I decided it was too risky to plan a massive feast and invite loads of people on the actual holiday. But I wanted to do something to celebrate my favorite holiday and share it with friends in Germany. So, a bit like we did last year, I thought to combine Thanksgiving with the excellent German weekend afternoon tradition of Kaffee und Kuchen (“coffee and cake”), and to celebrate on the Saturday before (slightly less risky in terms of my due date).

Update: As of the day before Thanksgiving, our little turkey was still roasting, so we decided to plan and prepare a a mini Thanksgiving feast for just the two of us to enjoy on the actual day. I’ll outline the menu below the Kaffee und Kuchen details.

Thanksgiving Kaffee und Kuchen – the Saturday before Thanksgiving

I initially planned to make four desserts, and the week before sat down to strategize how to spread the shopping and baking out over a few days – partly to avoid oven clash, but also to avoid doing everything on one day because I don’t have the energy for that at the moment.

But as Saturday approached, my energy was waning and a few people said they couldn’t make it, so I dropped the apple crumble plan and stuck to the following:

  • These maple pecan bars, which this time I made with roughly 2/3 pecans and 1/3 walnuts (pecans are expensive here). These are very rich and sweet – one square at a time is enough – but totally worth it.
    • I made these on Thursday (two days before), put them in the fridge overnight, then cut them on Friday and stored them in a Tupperware container at room temperature.
  • My family’s cranberry upside-down cake, which never fails to surprise and delight people’s taste buds! It’s F’s and my favorite for this time of year.
    • I made this on Friday (the day before) and popped it in the fridge until Saturday morning.
  • My good friend Emma’s recipe for pumpkin pie. I had a bit of a par-baking crust fail on the first attempt (they sunk!), using this pie crust recipe from smitten kitchen. After despairing and then resting, I made a new crust (Emma’s recipe) and risked not par-baking it, which ended up being fine (no soggy bottom!).
    • This all transpired on Friday afternoon (the day before), and I kept the pies in the fridge overnight, getting them out just before people arrived on Saturday (I prefer my pumpkin pie chilled). We served the nice-looking pie on Saturday but I tried the thinner pie (in sunken smitten kitchen crust) on Sunday and almost preferred it due to its higher crust-to-filling ratio.
  • Plenty of freshly whipped cream, made as people were arriving on Saturday.

The Thanksgiving Kaffee und Kuchen afternoon ended up being lovely! Seven people came around 3pm and we feasted on cake for a solid couple of hours. Coffee and tea were abundant, and I was glad I’d picked up some early-season clementines for a fresh, juicy hit after all the sweetness. It was fun to introduce some of my favorite seasonal American treats to German friends. People were intrigued by the pumpkin pie’s unique flavor and spice combination; the cranberry cake was praised; and the pecan-walnut bars all but disappeared. Yum all around!

Thanksgiving Feast for Two – Thanksgiving (Thurs)day

To be fair, the mini feast we prepared probably could have served 3-4 people, but around here we like leftovers. Here’s what F and I prepared and ate on Thanksgiving day:

  • My go-to cranberry sauce. So good.
  • Green beans and crispy shallots, inspired by this recipe. I sautéed thinly sliced shallots in olive oil until they browned and crisped. While that was happening, I blanched the green beans in boiling water for 5-7 minutes, then drained them. To serve, I squeezed some lemon juice and sprinkled a bit of sea salt over the beans, then piled the shallots on top. Delicious!
  • This Bon Appétit bread stuffing/dressing – F requested it after we watched the ba YouTube video about it. It was super delicious: moist underneath, with a lovely crunchy top layer that married well with gravy and/or cranberry sauce. Will add this to the Thanksgiving recipe list for next year!
  • One very large turkey thigh that F dry-brined overnight and then roasted at 180-200C for just over an hour. The meat was tender and moist, but overall it was too salty (especially for me); we couldn’t really see the benefit of the dry brine but it was worth trying out.
  • Gravy!
  • We decided to forego desserts, since we had had enough cake, bars, and pie the weekend before.

Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving weekend and start to the winter holiday season! When in doubt, I highly recommend serving dessert first.


What’s Been Cooking? Maternity leave, weeks 1-2

I love apple season

In Germany, expecting and new mothers have the advantage of a legally protected, essentially “no work allowed” time for 6 weeks before and 8 weeks after their due dates. If I were fully employed I would not legally have been allowed to keep working. As a freelancer, I think I could have continued working into the 6 weeks pre-due date, but I decided not to because by 33-34 weeks it was already tiring to cycle back and forth for my teaching commitments.

So yes – now I am on Mutterschutz (maternity leave) and working my way through some cooking and baking projects to keep me from getting too stir-crazy at home and to try and stock the freezer a bit for easy winter meals once our tiny human arrives. Here’s what I’ve gotten up to in my first two weeks off:

Week 1

On Monday, we ate leftover meatloaf and mashed potatoes for lunch, then I froze the rest of the meatloaf and decided to use the mash for a project that had been on my list for a while: potato varenyky using this smitten kitchen recipe. I have fond memories of eating varenyky in Ukraine, usually with sautéed onions, butter, and sour cream. A great cheap, cold-weather, stick-to-your-ribs, carbs-on-carbs kind of meal!

Varenyky!

The varenyky dough was simple to make and had a nice stretch to it, which made it easier to envelope the mashed potatoes and seal the dumplings. We sampled some for dinner – tasty, although the dough was maybe a tad thick – and I froze the rest of them.

Paratha

On Tuesday, I delved back into my Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook and posted about that here: Baking with Hot Bread Kitchen: Paratha.

Superbly chocolaty cookies

On Friday, I wanted to bake something sweet for the weekend, so went for Melissa Clark’s tiny, salty, chocolaty cookies from NYT Cooking. My goodness were they good! Chewy and with crispy edges, gluten free (in case you care! I don’t), and very rich (thanks to cocoa powder and dark chocolate). G came over for boardgames on Saturday and devoured quite a few of them, and other friends also professed their enjoyment. Will make again!

Week 2

It wasn’t specifically on my cooking project list, but we had leftover vegetables on Tuesday so I threw them into these Korean scallion pancakes from NYT Cooking. It was a great use of the veg and made for a nice, lightish dinner, although I wish the pancakes had turned out a bit crispier.

On Wednesday we were hosting friends for the group’s weekly vegetarian dinner. F made spinach lasagne and I contributed dessert in the form of smitten kitchen’s Versunkener Apfelkuchen (sunken apple (& honey) cake), which was based on a German recipe. Delicious! The honey flavor came through really nicely and the apples were cooked but not mushy. I didn’t include the salted honey glaze because we thought the cake was sweet enough without it. Friends enjoyed it and, when I asked how traditional the recipe was, a couple people said their mothers/grandmothers had made similar cakes. Score for cultural integration through Kuchen!

On Friday (a public holiday in Germany – thanks, Catholics!) we had friends over for brunch: pancakes, of course. Later, I made a big pot of these chickpeas from Bon Appétit. For dinner, I turned some into a spiced chickpea stew with coconut and turmeric, NYT Cooking’s Alison Roman creation that became its own hashtag on social media. I’ve made #thestew three times now and it is so warming and delicious. It’s also quick and easy to throw together, quite forgiving, and flexible: add any greens that you happen to have; enjoy with pita, rice, or sweet potato; add yogurt and garnish, or not.

With the rest of the chickpeas I’ll make some hummus and this creamy chickpea pasta. That should get us through the start of next week!

Stay tuned for my next edition of “What’s Been Cooking” in a couple of weeks…


Thanksgiving in London, 2018

After skipping Thanksgiving last year (and hosting a festive cookie party instead), F and I were keen to put on a Thanksgiving celebration this year. As a bonus, my parents flew over to London for the long weekend! We planned the usual feasting on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, but this time we added a twist: F and I reversed the traditional Thanksgiving order! Around 3pm we enjoyed all the desserts with coffee/tea — German Kaffee und Kuchen style. A few hours later, we devoured the savory feast. Everyone agreed that the reverse order worked really well, because we had time to socialise in between while the turkey roasted, and we weren’t too full after dinner. Here’s what we cooked for 9 people, and what we did with the leftover turkey:

  • Dessert:
    • Our favorite family cranberry upside-down cake.
    • Smitten Kitchen’s pumpkin pie with pecan praline sauce. I made the crust, F made the pie, S made the sauce and it was very nice.
    • J&C brought a lovely apple crumble to complete the trio of desserts.
    • Plenty of freshly whipped cream and custard (do you like yours hot or cold?).
  • Dinner:
    • Turkey! We ordered an 11-pound turkey from our favorite local butcher in Crouch End. F stuffed it with apples and thyme, generously salted, peppered, and buttered the skin, and roasted it for a few hours. It tasted great.
    • Gravy: F made a meaty gravy and a vegetarian gravy, and both were silky smooth and delicious.
    • Stuffing: I made the same stuffing/dressing (what is the difference?) that I have for the past few Thanksgivings: this classic sage and onion bread dressing from The Kitchn. I think it turned out the best this year because I used enough broth to keep it moist.
    • Sweet potato casserolemy 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.
    • C&W brought some very nice garlicky green beans.
    • Don’t forget the cranberry sauce!
  • Leftovers:
    • There weren’t very many! What we made fed the 9 of us comfortably, and could have fed 10 people. We mostly had turkey leftover, so on Sunday I made a turkey version of my chicken and dumplings, minus the dumplings (we had bread).

We had quite an international group this year: four Brits (all hailing from different regions), two Germans (S was down from Liverpool for a few days), and three Americans. It was the first Thanksgiving for a few people, and I always enjoy introducing my favorite holiday to others. It was also so nice to have my parents around and to share our style of Thanksgiving with them – and how many of my mom’s family recipes we use!


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!


Race Recap: Regent’s Park 10k – June 2018

…in which I go out too fast and gradually crash and burn on a sunny morning in Regent’s Park.

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Some Heathsiders post-race.

Background: I ran a strong Crouch End 10k two weeks ago – my fastest 10k since 2015. I haven’t run much since then, due to recovery and travel, and most of that running has been quite easy and slow. I did have a couple of days off work this week so thought my legs might be fresher than usual. However, it has been warm and humid and I felt quite sluggish in the few days before the race. Part of that sluggishness could have been from the sports massage I had on Thursday evening, but generally I felt well-rested, well-hydrated, and well-fueled in the couple of days before the race.

Goal: Given my Crouch End 10k time of 46:18 on a hilly course, I thought I could definitely run under 46:00 in flattish Regent’s Park. I set myself a stretch goal of 45:00.

Race strategy: Try to run 15 minutes per lap on the convenient 3-lap course. Reach 5km in 23:00 or less and then push to the end.

Weather & outfit: Warmish – at least 20C/68F – with strong sun (hello, June!) that made it feel at least 2-4C warmer than it was. I wore shorts, vest, and sunglasses with a good slathering of sunscreen.

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Awkward photo just after finishing. Credit: The Race Organiser Facebook

The race: I positioned myself close to the front of the narrow start and went out quite fast, coming through the first lap in about 15:00 – on target for my goal time of under 46 minutes. My fourth kilometer was a swift 4:34 but then I started to feel the effects of the heat and speed. Seeing runners dropping to a walk and receiving medical attention on the side of the course did not give me a confidence boost and reminded me how warm it was in the sun. Perhaps I got a bit too anxious, but my legs and lungs were working hard and I didn’t have the mental strength to keep pushing as hard as I’d gone out.

Thus started a downward spiral of splits… Andrew passed my between 4 and 5km, looking strong. We kept each other going at the VP5 a couple of months ago, but today was not my day. I let him go and reached 5km in 23:17. For the second half of the race, I tried to stay steady and keep running. I even took a very brief walk break at the water stop after lap two…unusual for me.

Nilesh passed me on the third lap and I just didn’t have the mental grit to try and stay with him. Kilometers 7, 8, and 9 got gradually slower (5:04, 5:09. 5:15). With 1km to go, I gritted my teeth, picked up my knees, and pushed to the finish. Shouts of ‘come on, Heathside’ and ‘go, Tammela’ got me down the last couple hundred meters with a mini-kick.

RP10k Jun18 splits

NOT the way to pace a 10k…

The result: This was one of the poorest race performances I have had in a while. I never really settled into a rhythm – Nilesh said he had the same experience – and mentally I was not up for pushing. I was pleased to run my last kilometer in 4:35, but overall it was not a great race. My net time was 48:04 (4:48/km, 7:45/mi average pace). My pacing was in the “how not to run a 10k” category: Lap 1 – 14:56, lap 2 – 16:16, lap 3 – 16:50. Oops! I was 131st out of 760 finishers and the 19th woman overall out of 388, so in the grand scheme of things, this is not so bad.

This was a tough race and I did not particularly enjoy it. It was hot, I had no rhythm, and I felt a bit off. I have had quite a good past 6 months of racing, so I’m not particularly bothered by my poor race today. I’ve got a few more coming up! What I need to do is get back to the track and in the gym with some heavier weights to build my leg strength, speed, and stamina.

Post-race: Coconut water and the traditional RP10k flapjack. Chatted with fellow Heathsiders and shared around the chocolate raspberry cake that I made from our newly-acquired Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook(The recipe is called “brownies” but it is definitely more cake-like. It’s still tasty, though, and relatively healthy with a protein boost from ground almonds.)

Next up: A different kind of challenge with the Adidas City Run 1 hour in two weeks. It’s a timed 1-hour race on a 1-mile loop. I’m not quite sure how to pace it but it will be fun to do something a little out-of-the-ordinary!


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!


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!


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.

My official time was 39:09 for the 4.85 miles (8:07/mi or 5:01/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.


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!