Category Archives: crafty

A Very English Adventure

I was back in the Brighton area this weekend, for the arts festival that I’ve now visited three times. The first year I went, I saw jazz and sculpture. Last year it was modern music and AfroBeat. This year it was classical chamber music. All fun. As a former serious musician, I love to see live music, and I don’t do it often enough in my own town. So the now-annual Brighton trip is an excuse to spend a few days immersing myself in concerts and related things, to re-visit a town I really quite like (and now know my way around) and to tour around a bit of the English Countryside, which I–as a non-driving (when in England) person–don’t get to do much. I always be sure to convince at least one friend to join me for the weekend, and said person has to either have a car or rent a car in order for the trip to work.

The first big adventure this year was a piano concert at Glyndebourne. I have to admit, when I booked the tickets I did not even notice it was NOT in Brighton, as it was part of the festival and I was going gaga over the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, who is one of (IMHO) the best pianists in the world right now. He is also Norwegian, which triggers my geeky “I’m Norwegian too” side. And the first time I saw him play, it was the Grieg piano concerto, which was my high school graduation piano lessons piece. So I had to go see him, even if I had no idea what a Glyndebourne was. Well, I was schooled. It turns out that Glyndebourne is a full-scale professional opera house that is entirely on private property–it was built by the wealthy-and-eccentric owners of a country estate in the 1930s. The current incarnation is world-class and holds well over a thousand, and it just sits in the middle of the house along with restaurants, gardens, sculptures of world-quality art, and other oddities. The tickets said “opens at noon for picnicking” but I did not know where to even begin with that, so had lunch in town and then went out with my friends in their hatchback vehicle, they parked in the grass space in the parking lot, and we wandered around. So apparently because this is private property, it’s only on concert days that you can just tour around and look at the gardens and the sculptures and the like. And the place was jam-packed with picnickers of an elaborate sort that I had never seen before. Almost no one was sitting on blankets on the ground eating chips out of a packet. No. Not only did they have lawn chairs, but tables with table cloths, wine and glass goblets, elaborate picnic baskets that held proper plates and real silverware (not plastic) and really exotic picnic food. Note to self: must up the level of picnickery when in England. Whew.

The concert was, as I had hoped, amazing even though I was suffering from elaborate-picnic-envy. Somehow, again without realizing it, I had tickets in the third row on the “good side” for a piano player, so the views were amazing (as was the music). So a good day. Back to Brighton, right? We went out to the car, and realized much to our chagrin that because it was parked on grass on a slight down-hill gradient, and the grass was a bit damp, the thing would not back up and the wheels were just spinning on the grass. There was an enormous SUV parked directly in front of us, else we could have just pulled through the slot and drove off. After about 15 minutes of waiting, no SUV owner had yet arrived to save us, and the driver was getting pretty antsy. I was very much against the “just get out and push the car” idea, especially when it was floated that I as the smallest should drive and the larger driver should get out and push. I could just see myself getting disoriented and doing something wrong so as to pin my friend against the SUV and require emergency medical care in the middle of nowhere, when the car park was flooded with cars trying to LEAVE the estate. So we left the driver in the car and I and another small female got out to push. This was immediately noticed by a middle-aged British man getting into a car in the next row, and he came running over to help, along with his gray-haired wife in her floral dress.

We did it. We managed to free the car, and I with my American accent thanked the nice couple profusely for helping us out of a bind. They made some hilarious comments about how useless that (German) car brand was and how they would never have travelled anywhere in such a heap. I kept my composure long enough to get into the car, but once we drove off I couldn’t stop laughing; the entire situation was so ridiculous as to be almost unbelievable. American girl with a few nice Brits, pushing a German car uphill through wet grass after a Norwegian pianist played a concert at a world-class opera house on a private English countryside estate. Seriously, you cannot make this sh*t up.

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Random wrap-up from Philly

Well, NFAH, you might ask, where have you been for the last two weeks, and what are you now doing in Philadelphia international airport? Good question. The last two weeks have been insanely busy. I have been in the US, which is normally somewhat relaxing for me but this trip has been about work more than play. I have been doing the sorts of meetings that involve three meals in restaurants a day with colleagues, which means that the day starts early and finishes late and has basically no free time at any point in between in which to write on my blog or do anything more complicated than update my facebook status or perhaps send out a tweet. You can tell how busy I have been when you hear that I had been here for 9 days before I managed to make it to Target. Entirely my own fault, as ever–no one is holding a gun to my head and telling me I have to do all of this, but I still have the young person’s attitude towards taking career-building opportunities that means that I subject myself to stupid things. My bad.

Week one I was on the Michigan upper peninsula, someplace I had never visited even though I lived in Michigan for 5 years when at University. (And we interrupt this narrative to yell GO SPARTANS! since my alma matter just made it into the final 4 in the basketball tourney.) I was quite startled to realize that I had known my friend there for 17 years, which makes me old. Since we met in college. Sigh. But the UP was gorgeous, the weather was unseasonably warm and there was approximately no snow.

Spring was definitely springing during this entire trip. The weather was volatile, as it can be near the equinox, and there were many buds on trees and signs of interesting wildlife.

I also had a fun time on the weekend last weekend, between my two main work trips, to go to Toys ‘R’ Us and browse. Anyone who has been to my apartment knows that I have a weakness for Lego models of cars, but this time I found something even more cool: an entire display of classic Meccano toys/building sets. Meccano was a British invention as of 1901, and although the company has changed hands a few times (and is now allied with the US Erector set brand) not much has changed about these toys. They require real tools to put together, and this set had no plastic parts at all. It had such a vintage engineering feel about it–I was in heaven. This little guy is making his way back to the UK in my suitcase, and I have grand plans for my more leisurely beach trip planned for the US in August: I’m going to get one of the bigger sets and spend time doing lots of Meccano building. Hooray!

But back to the randomly in Philly thing. I held my nerve with the BA strike. I kept my flight on BA from the Baltimore-Washington area to Heathrow even though I knew it could be strike affected. I checked regularly when the updates were being posted on BA’s website. I checked in online last night at 6:45 pm for a flight due to leave at 6:40 tonight. And…. I awoke this morning to a text message from BA that my flight was cancelled and I should call to rebook. I had slept in, thinking all was well with the world, and so it was now mid-morning and there was not another flight out of either international airport in the area until tomorrow. And I, as you might recall, only have 48 hours or so in the UK before I must fly out to China (assuming that BA flight actually goes… watch this space!) So I agreed to the rebooking out of Philadelphia, which is about 2.5 hours from DC, and found a kind-hearted friend willing to bring me up here. I thus had a whirlwind tour of the I-95 corridor this afternoon, and arrived in Philly many, many hours before my flight so as not to inconvenience my kind friend with the car too much.

So here I sit in the BA lounge with free Wi-fi and my last glass of California Chardonnay for a while, finally having the time to update my blog. So apologies for my absence, but I fear this will be the continuing trend for the next few weeks as the Great Firewall of China is unlikely to allow me through. I might try to post by email which may or may not work. But I swear come the 12th of April I will be back in communication patterns that are far more normal for me. And I will have a heck of a lot of photos and stories from that grand adventure, due to start with my departure (BA-willing) on Wednesday mid-day. Fingers crossed…

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My sister has been visiting, which means we have been in the kitchen quite a bit. We have oddly both turned into wannabe-foodies, which is pretty odd given our midwestern upbringing and its decidedly unsophisticated culinary leanings. I don’t think I’ll risk offending anyone with that statement. As much as I love me some midwestern classics, when one of my friends has joked that I could win “Iron Chef: Battle Velveeta” or “Iron Chef: Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup Battle” he’s got a good point.

I suspect a few things are true. Both my sister and I live abroad and travel widely. We also both have jobs of a similar sort that are associated with job-subsidized housing, leaving us a bit more disposable income for dining of the sort finer than “TGI Friday’s” (again, not that there’s anything wrong with Friday’s). But we do have some good reasons for avoiding your classic multi-Michelin-starred French cuisine, in that neither of us eat meat and my sister has developed a dairy allergy. Thus, on this trip we’ve been cooking mostly-vegan plus fish, which is actually proving to be a remarkably healthy combination as far as I can tell.

And oh, I got a new camera. Oops. Anyone interested in a DSLR but needing something quite portable at times (as I do when traveling for work) should check out the new micro four thirds format. See if you can spot which photos were taken with my old Nikon Coolpix versus my new Olympus PEN.
Veggie dumplings of the Chinese sort, since Sunday was Chinese New Year:

Mushroom gravy, the recipe for which was on this site previously:

Today, if you’re American, it’s Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. If your British, it’s Pancake Tuesday. The Guardian is running a feature on “must have” tools for pancake wizardry, which includes many items that Alton Brown would scoff at as being useless unitaskers in a mulitasking world. I have to agree with him, whether American style or French style, there is almost nothing easier to cook with only the things that are normally in a well-equipped kitchen. But hey, it advertising special pancake pans attracts customers into the stores, far be it from the Brits to be any different from the Americans in promoting a holiday!!!

Baking, part 2

There is nothing easier to bake on the weekend than bread. It only takes a few basic ingredients (flour, water, yeast, salt, maybe some butter or margarine but you can live without them) and it’s both cathartic and smells really good. You have to be home to do the “work” of the bread at several points throughout the day, but it actually is not that much active work overall. The secret is to make a sponge before you want to make the bread, so combine a cup of water and a cup of flour with a packet of yeast the night before you wish to spring the bread activity into action. (Cover with foil for the fermentation.) In a pinch, 3 hours of fermenting will make for better bread than if you did a “modern” recipe without a fermentation period. In a lull, up to 72 hours will do. But 12 is my normal overnight thing and that is what I did this time. After the sponge has had time to do its thing, you add another packet of yeast and another cup of warm water and as much flour as is required to form a dough. This is admittedly the tricky bit. Only practice allows for a good judgement on when there is enough flour, no measurements can help. I knead mine in my Kitchenaid mixer with a dough hook, and the speed of the mixer is related to the amount of flour needed. It’s easy to add too much flour and to knead too little. A nob (1-2 T) of softened butter added after the dough is in place and kneading will aid in the longevity of the bread, so I typically do add this. (French baguettes ignore this step but they are set up to be purchased daily.) I leave it in a buttered large bowl for a first rising, with no particular judgements about when I’ll call time and go to the next phase. Here is today’s rising dough:

Once it’s about to take over the kitchen, I form it into loaves or rolls or whatever and leave it to raise again. During the entire rising process I tend to have the oven on even though I am not baking yet–the local warmth increase in the kitchen is significant in the winter months (it was 66 F in my living room this morning but 75 F in my kitchen with the oven on 200 C, as per my trusty probe thermometer). Eventually I toss the loaves or rolls or whatever into the oven and take them out when golden brown.

The image shows two loaves, one made with an American loaf pan (imported) and one with a British version. In both cases, I use an ingenious parchment paper wrapper (like a muffin cup) purchased here: it fits the Brit loaf pan perfectly and the American loaf pan imperfectly but is the single greatest innovation in bread making that I have seen in the last few years. The final results are here:

Taller but squatter British loaf on the left. And I don’t care. I have no interest in the loaf geometry, just in the quality of the bread and it is excellent. With a little bit of time, home-made bread is easy to do and easy to optimize. And it provides me the ideal displacement activity when I really don’t want to be working all weekend yet again.

Baking, part 1

The fantastic ladies who work in my office laid down the gauntlet last week: “bring in cake because it’s your birthday.” One of them follows this blog and knows that I am almost always baking on the weekend, and apparently it’s been noticed that I have not been sharing the goodies with the work peeps. I decided I had to comply with this request, and that it would be fun.

I wanted to make a “Tunnel of FudgeBundt cake, because I figured nothing was both more American and more Minnesotan than that. But my local grocery store did not have cocoa powder in any way, shape or form. (?) I decided to stick with my imported Bundt (Nordicware) cake pans and compromise on the rest. And what they did have was a previously-unnoticed explosion of Betty Crocker goods:

So I made the Betty Crocker Devil’s Food Cake Mix as per the instructions. And I baked it in my mini-Bundt pans:

Given the lack of cocoa powder, I could not make a typical frosting with powdered (icing) sugar, so instead I made a chocolate ganache:

It filled the mim-Bundt centres in a way that was not quite authentic, but tasted good.

And the American-style pancakes were excellent too:

The frosting is being saved for a future blog/baking weekend.

Thank you Betty Crocker, for all of your help, but now I need cocoa powder in a bad way. Because I have both the mini- and the maxi-Bundt pans here in the UK and I need to keep making some Minnesota classics, including Tunnel of Fudge.

Saucy!

Christmas always brings a bit of a conundrum for those of us non-meat eaters. At least according to the American traditions with which I was raised, Turkey and mashed potatoes is Thanksgiving fare only, while Christmas Eve was meatballs and gravy with mashed potatoes and Christmas Day was baked ham with mashed potatoes and gravy. (My maternal grandmother, it has to be said, had a particular skill in that she could make ham gravy: not a trivial thing. Required an uncooked ham with a ham bone and probably some secrets and a lot of practice. And it tasted fantastic, almost a little sweet thanks to the pineapple rings on the ham.) Sense a theme here? Mashed potatoes and gravy. As both of my grandmothers know/knew, my absolute favorite food. And a bit tricky when the non-meat-eating thing came up with me, almost 15 years ago. These days, there are options: you can get Tofurky gravy, you can get other sorts of vegetarian gravies in packets. But they’re not truly great. Fortunately there is a secret: onions or shallots, mushrooms, and fortified wine, such as tawny port or Marsala wine. With this killer combination you can make not only gravy but also things like stroganoff, another old family favorite. I have been trying to perfect some of these recipes with all of the holiday events, and I’m happy to say that I’ve got it about down. The stroganoff is trickier due to the delicate nature of milk based sauces, so I’m not quite ready with that one yet, but should you ever have a vegetarian around for a mashed potato themed meal, I can just about guarantee this one.

Cook an onion and a few shallots in olive oil plus a tablespoon or two of butter over medium heat until golden. Add salt and pepper generously at this stage. Add a few handfuls of mushrooms, roughly chopped, I like criminis but sometimes do a mix. Cook until the mushrooms have rendered down in size and are starting to stick to the pan. Deglaze with 1/2-1 cup of fortified wine and cook that down. Add a few tablespoons of flour and mix well, cook the roux-like paste for a few more minutes before adding any liquid. Add 1.5-2 cups of vegetable broth or stock, and a few squirts of either veggie Worcestershire sauce (made without anchovies) or soy sauce to taste. Cook over medium-low heat stirring constantly until thickened.

If my instructions are too hand-waving, find a copy of this book “New Vegetarian,” which is the best veggie cookbook I’ve ever seen and which has a gravy recipe in it (although I dispute her method, the ingredients are similar and the quantities should help for those who like to measure things).

It is because of recipes like this that I will continue to be furious at the French chef who caters dinners that I attend regularly, and who thinks (like many non-vegetarians) that meat should be replaced by starch and tomato sauce should go on anything. I’ve made this gravy twice in the last two weeks, first served with vegetarian Quorn meatballs (Quorn is the only common brand of veggie meat-substitute products easily available in the UK; there is no Boca or Morningstar, sadly!) and mashed potatoes, and the second time with whole portobello mushroom caps with polenta and blue cheese crumbles. Excellent both times, so something for everyone–those who love and loathe the meat substitute products. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve really got to master that Stroganoff recipe.

Second time is the charm…

Twice in the last two weeks I’ve had a recipe disaster convert to a recipe result by trying it a second time. The first was crab cakes; the first time I tried to make them I followed the recipe advice to fry them, but the second time I baked them and they were awesome instead of a disaster. I highly recommend baked crab cakes, the ingredients stood out well and the method was much simpler.

The second time I needed a re-do was more critical, I have long been obsessed with potato gnocchi. I had some in San Francisco when I was at a conference many years ago; they were so good they ruined me from appreciating other attempts. The risk is that one is too “noodle-y” and the gnocchi are tough and thick noodle-like morsels instead of soft, spongey pillows of goodness. I have tried many times over the years since 2002 when I sampled potato gnocchi brilliance in San Francisco. I have always erred on the side of being too noodle-y and have made a “dough” that looked like a home-made noodle dough; I have a pasta attachment on my Kitchenaid and have used it. But it did not result in good gnocchi.

So today I did the most amazing thing, I actually followed a recipe. I’m convinced now that any time that flour is involved, the quantities are crucial. My early attempts at home-made bread definitely involved too much flour and resulted in dense bread that was not like the modern ciabatta or any other modern bread. I’ve learned my lesson there. Similarly, the proportions associated with potato gnocchi are critical. A pound of mashed up potatoes (I used riced) to a single egg and a single cup of flour does it. The dough is like pie crust, it does not seem to be a dough proper but it works. Letting the dough rest is crucial. The results were delicious and totally worth the effort.

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The sauce is a combination of a store-bought pesto with some cream and a bit of parmesan cheese.

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