Colombia

A year ago last Sunday, I sat in the car of my then boyfriend, crying my eyes out over our imminent break up. Only we weren’t actually breaking up for another fortnight / until he had made up his mind. He just had the courtesy to give me a heads up on that particular day.

This past Sunday was a total contrast – I was on a plane home from the most magical holiday in Colombia. I feel relaxed, happy and most importantly, completely healthy.

I’ll write more about this beautiful country over the next couple weeks, but for now here are a few photos:

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Thank you Colombia and my two wonderful travel buddies for a pretty spectacular 10-days!

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Croissants

I did it. I took the challenge. I finally crossed this off my ‘To Bake’ list. Flaky, buttery, downright delicious croissants.

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A few weeks ago I had a week off work. The plan was to go somewhere hot and sunny, and get plenty of rest and relaxation before silly season hit at work.

Instead, the week was taken up with a falling-apart flat, a funeral, and an errant boyfriend. The perfect time to make croissants, really.

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I used Paul Hollywood’s recipe and as this was my first attempt at making croissants, I didn’t even try to mess with the recipe. When it comes to more complex and precise techniques such as this, I’m all for leaving them in the hands of the experts until I can call myself an expert.

Ok fine, my only tweak was to roll a few chocolate chunks into some of them. I had to try my hand at pain au chocolat too…

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Making croissants is a bit of a process, but it’s a simple one. They’re absolutely perfect to make during a day of pottering about at home and running errands, and the reward the next morning is pretty special. Your home will smell amazing, and you’ll probably eat at least five. I know I did!

Lago d’Iseo, Italy

So here we are almost half way through the year already, and here I am at yet another fresh start with this writing thing. This time I was just prevented from my online scribblings by an unbelievably old and decrepit laptop. But now I have a beautiful shiny new laptop with nothing to slow it down. A little while back, a bunch of us went out to Lago d’Iseo in Lombardia, Italy for a 21st birthday (I know right!?!?)
It had been a little while since all of us school lot had been together, what with everyone on placement years and at various universities across the UK. It was the perfect long weekend of laughter, wine and (far too much) food. These are some of my favourite pictures from the trip, and quite simply make me want to get my travel on again!

 

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You see that hill in front of the mountain? (mini mountain, I should say) That’s Monte Isola. There’s a chapel at the top. Our friend suggested a little jaunt up to the top of the hill to see what this chapel was all about, and to admire the (admittedly stunning) views. However she did not mention a two hour, 600m above sea level, sheer shingly path of a climb. I was wearing a dress and strappy sandals. One of the guys was wearing a suit (!) and leather soled shoes. The girl who suggested the climb was wearing cloth moccasins. So you could definitely say none of us were all that prepared. And it was one of the best, and easily the funniest, things we did that weekend.

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We made it half way!

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Bear in mind here that it’s March, and this lake is fed with the snow melt from the Alps. It was warm enough to be in short sleeves and sandals on the shore, but definitely not warm enough to be as brave as these guys. I learned my lesson in Poland a few years ago.

Where have you travelled to most recently? Where will your feet take you next?

Rose Macarons

Well I suppose I should do a Valentine’s themed food post. I am hopeless when it comes to holiday posts. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s, Easter? Forget it. One of the main occupational hazards as a chef is thinking of holidays purely in terms of prep, turnover and usually increased (hooray!) wages, and writing tends to go out the window.

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As soon as we’ve toiled through one holiday, the next quickly looms and becomes the next project. I did originally start writing this on Thursday night, but the idea of a 16-hour day on Friday had me passed out within seconds.

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Through all the planning for our Valentine’s Day menu at work, I still somehow found time to make these cute little macarons at home. There’s a million different methods and rules for macaron making, but when you get the hang of them, they’re actually quite simple. The key is in processing or sieving your ‘tant pour tant’ – the icing sugar and almond flour mixture – until it’s very fine, and in mixing the batter as little as possible. You just want a shiny, smooth batter that holds it’s shape when piped.

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These are your simple almond macarons – I’ve become quite well acquainted with the Laduree recipe, but use whichever works best for you – tinted with a little pink food colouring paste and flavoured with just enough rose water to give a subtle floral fragrance to your batter. Always be careful when adding liquid colourings & flavourings to your mixture as it can render it watery and useless (though still very tasty when baked!)

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These can be a right pain in the backside to get spot on, but even if they’re a little cracked on the top and the little feet aren’t quite developed they’re still chewy and sweet and delicious. Therefore they’re perfect for Valentine’s day, or any other day.

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Speculoos Blondies

I love these things. The first time I made just plain old blondies at work, the response I got from my work dad was ‘You bitch. I just ate half a tray.’ I take that as a complement.

These, however, are even better than your regular blondies. These ones taste like Christmas. Perhaps this recipe is a few weeks late, but it’s still winter so it works. My recipe is a cross between those of ‘Smitten Kitchen’ and ‘Two Peas and Their Pod’. The proportions in the ‘Smitten Kitchen’ recipe are dead-on perfect, but I also wanted to go with the ‘Two Peas’ for the speculoos factor.

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I’m in the over-the-top gooey and chewy camp when it comes to cookies, brownies and blondies, so I added a little extra speculoos. These are perfect for me, but if you find them a little too gooey, I’d suggest adding another 1/4 cup flour, as in the ‘Two Peas’ recipe.

Now for the tough bit. Once baked, you have to let them cool completely and set (stick them in the fridge to speed up the cooling process!) or they’re a bit of a sticky mess to cut up. But quite frankly I’m too impatient too wait that long, and it’s a delicious sticky mess so I really couldn’t care less about waiting. As many of you will have noticed, patience isn’t a virtue I currently possess much of.

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Preheat the oven to 180C, line a 8×8 pan with baking parchment.

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp speculoos spread

1 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1 cup flour

1/4 tsp cinammon

teeny tiny pinch (yes, that’s a technical term) of ground nutmeg

teeny tiny pinch of ground cloves

1/2 tsp (spiced) rum

3/4 cup dark chocolate chips

Melt the butter & speculoos together, then stir in the sugar and rum.

Mix in the egg, then gently fold in the flour, spices and chocolate chips. Mix until just combined, and press into the pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, transfer to a cooling rack when done and distract yourself for a couple hours until they’ve cooled enough to cut into 9 even pieces.

Or just dollop some vanilla ice cream on top of the whole tray & dive straight in with a spoon.

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Cakey Lacey Things with Karolina Laskowska

IMG_2344 IMG_2352Last weekend was so much fun. It was taken up completely by two of the best things in life: cake and lingerie.  As I briefly mentioned in my croquembouche post the other day, I got to cook for the super-awesome student lingerie designer Karolina Laskowska for the photoshoot for her new collection.

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My brief was to create something that would complement the lingerie, obviously, as well as the ‘Ellen von Unwerth feel’ that she wanted to capture in the shoot. Until then I didn’t really know anything about EvU, other than that she is celebrated for the ways in which she works with themes of femininity and eroticism. Cue a notebook of research, references, doodle of motifs from the fabrics Karolina uses, shopping lists, plans and diagrams to somehow make sure all my ideas linked back seamlessly to Karolina AND Ellen von Unwerth.

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Somewhere along the line I shot Karolina an email begging for a limit. The more shots of new samples she posted on instagram, the more ideas I got, and the more I wanted to do.

Her response? ‘Oh dear, I’m not very good with limits!! I tend to think getting carried away is a good thing!’

And she’s absolutely right. Surely it can only ever a good thing to get carried away with cake and lingerie!?

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At first I gave myself far too much to do. Layered fruity entremets, three flavours of macarons, three different fillings for said macarons, the croquembouche, baby meringues, a totally chocolatey tart, chocolate work, and possibly a few other things.

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There were a few minor ‘how am I going to get this all done!?’ moments when trying to balance an unpredictable work schedule with prep planning for Sunday. This wasn’t really helped by a decision to go to the pub on Saturday night. So in the end I just stuck with two macaron flavours, two fillings, the croquembouche, chocolate tart and baby meringues, and some white chocolate butterflies.  So not much at all, really.

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Considering the croquembouche was built free-hand at 2am while simultaneously finishing the chocolate tart, I reckon it all turned out amazingly well.

Note to self, perhaps I should be slightly tipsy and over-exhausted all the time when cooking?

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I can’t say I ever imagined a pièce montée ending up in the positions that it did (sorry folks, I can’t be too specific here). It was a hilarious experience and a very interesting/entertaining way of food styling.

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I’d love to share all the images from the shoot with you, but don’t want to go ruining any surprises. So instead here’s some of the food ones that I took. I’m really proud of these images, especially considering they’re unedited. My food styling still leaves a lot to be desired in most cases, and I’m only just getting the hang of the manual settings on my camera, but I’m really happy with these!

And hopefully I’ll manage to get my hands on a few of the images taken by our lovely photographer for the day, Simon Crinks.

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Thank you so much to Karolina for last weekend, it was awesome to finally collaborate.  It was wonderful to get to work with Simon, Emma, Yassmin & Violet too! Lastly, thanks Mom for helping me schlep everything for the shoot to the opposite side of London at a horrible hour of the morning!

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Macaron Meringue Mayhem
Macaron Meringue Mayhem

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Croquembouche

I think it’s only appropriate that I start a new year / a new crack at writing  with something as extravagant as this. I had lots to celebrate last year, and a whole lot more to look forward to this year. But let’s start with a close friend’s 21st a couple weeks ago, and a lingerie shoot over the weekend!

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The 21st was the first time I’ve ever attempted something of this scale and technique – I’m all about challenging myself ya know.

But next time I try this, someone remind me to never again make something with this many processes in one day and for the first time.

Everything went swimmingly to start with. My creme pat turned out very nicely, as did the almond praline base. Then came the choux pastry. I had forgotten how much it puffs up in the oven, so piped what I thought was a relatively small amount, and ended up with a load of massive nobbly blobs. It took a few batches to really get the hang of it, but I did eventually end up with about 70 beautifully uniform, crisp choux pastries.

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But then came an epic battle with caramel. Normally I can make a caramel with no problem whatsoever (see almond praline photo), but this time it took 4 batches, 2 1/2 kg of sugar and every single pan I had in the house to get it right. Normally I can make a caramel with no problem, but that was just a no go. There were caramel strands scattered all over the kitchen, my hair, and even melted into my scarf and the furry hood of my coat as it melted a bit in the car..

Despite all my frustrations, this was one of the most fun things I’ve made in a long time, and it came together brilliantly. Most importantly the birthday boy was very happy!

That and no one broke a tooth on the caramel.

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The second time around, I had no such problems. A very good thing as I put enough pressure on myself as it is and I really didn’t want to cock up such an exciting project.

This croquembouche was for one Miss Karolina Laskowska. My brief was quite simply to come up with something exciting, that fits with her brand, for the shoot for her stunning new lingerie collection. And a cry for help limiting myself with ideas was met with ‘I’m not going to be much help as I tend to think that getting carried away is a good thing.’ Hmm.

But I shall write more on this later.

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As I don’t yet have my own recipes developed, I just used the sbs.com.au recipe for the creme pat and Eric Lanlard’s choux pastry recipe. Having said that, I did change up the creme patissiere recipe a little, so here’s my version.

Creme Patissiere:

1 litre milk

250g caster sugar

50g unsalted butter

2 eggs, plus 4 egg yolks

130-140g plain flour

3 tbsp amaretto liqueur

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Warm the milk, butter and a quarter of the sugar (exactly 62.5g, but we’ll go with 65g to make things easier) in a pan.

Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, egg yolks and the remaining sugar until the sugar has dissolved and the eggs are very pale. Next whisk in the flour (you may not need all of it!) and a little of the hot milk mixture.

Slowly pour the egg mixture back into the hot milk and allow to cook for 3-4 minutes, or until thick and glossy. If you’re using plain flour, you might need to allow it to cook for a little longer to get rid of the floury taste.

When it’s ready, stir in the amaretto. Strain the custard into a bowl and place cling film over the surface of the custard. This prevents a skin from forming. Place in the fridge to cool and set a little more. I found that I didn’t get quite enough custard for all the profiterols, so I would make at least another half recipe next time.

The Depressed Cake Shop

I’m so excited about this, I cannot even begin to tell you.

The wonderful Emmy aka Miss Cakehead is organising this project, ‘The Depressed Cake Shop.’

1 in 4 people will at some point during their lives suffer from mental illness.

Our premise is at the Depressed Cake Shop is to provide, in the words of Cakehead herself, a ‘unique (& delicious cake) platform on which to raise awareness of and discuss mental health issues. As the name suggests, we will be focusing specifically on depression.

Crucially, all of our products will be grey. Depression can make you feel hopeless, disinterested in things you used to love, and it can (seemingly) suck all of the colour out of the world.  This will be reflected in all of our cakes.

Some people may find eating a grey cake a challenge.

It’s not ‘right’, it’s ugly, it’s weird.

That’s the attitude of many towards mental health issues as well.

These are exactly some of the attitudes towards mental illness that we will be challenging. I hope that as many of you as possible who live in London, Derby, Glasgow & north Yorkshire (forgive me fellow Depressed Cake Shop-ers if I’ve forgotten anywhere) will come see us and join us in openly discussing what it means to suffer from mental illness, and help us to make more people aware of the issues.

This can be one step towards eradicating the stigmas that still surround this subject.

Many of those involved in this project (interestingly, almost all women) have at some stage suffered from depression or some other form of mental illness.

We will be raising funds for Campaign Against Living Miserably, The Calm Zone. It’s a charity that ‘exists to prevent male suicide in the UK’, working tirelessly to challenge the idea that suffering from a mental health issue is emasculating and challenge ‘a culture that prevents men from seeking help when they need it.’ There’s a brilliant chart in the link provided above, that details exactly how our money will help them continue their brilliant work.

Here’s a few photos of what you can expect to see on sale. As you’ll be able to see, the 1 in 4 really hit home for most of us.

Raspberry & white chocolate, and orange cupcakes by Laura Fortune
Raspberry & white chocolate, and orange cupcakes by Laura Fortune
'Misfortunate Cookies' by Mi Tulip
‘Misfortunate Cookies’ by Mi Tulip
Mini Lemon Depression Meringue Pies by Mi Tulip
Mini Lemon Depression Meringue Pies by Mi Tulip
'Riding the Storm' cupcakes by Pippa Eames
‘Riding the Storm’ cupcakes by Pippa Eames
'One in Four Macarons' by Saff Miriam Kelly
‘One in Four Macarons’ by Saff Miriam Kelly
Teacakes by Kate Dorelia Haigh
Teacakes by Kate Dorelia Haigh
Depressed Cupcakes by Jenni Powell
Depressed Cupcakes by Jenni Powell
Depressed Fondant Fancies by Kate Shirazi
Depressed Fondant Fancies by Kate Shirazi

My contribution - mini 4 layer cakes. Red velvet sponge with orange cream cheese frosting.

My contribution – mini 4 layer cakes. Red velvet sponge with orange cream cheese frosting.
The inside.
The inside.

Thank you for supporting us!

A Little Help From [Our] Friends

See what I did there?

I don’t usually write about things like this. But I will make exceptions for some very special people.

These two awesome ladies have two very big goals. One makes utterly stunning lingerie, the other could be the next Miss USA! And both need a little help from anyone willing to help donate to achieve these dreams.

Firstly, we have Miss Karolina Laskowska. We were in the same circle of friends for a little while a few years ago, so I’ve always known about her obsession for lacy, pretty things. She’s just completed her second year at DeMonfort University in Leicester, and has only been making lingerie for a couple of years. Hard to believe, I know (see photos below). Her brand has expanded unbelievably quickly, with stockists in Sweden and customers from lord knows how many different countries.

Karolina Indiegogo
Image courtesy of Karolina Laskowska

Karolina makes all lingerie by hand with gorgeous, high quality materials. She’s known for her signature frame bras, and experimentations with lace and straps to give a beautiful piece of lingerie with a kinky (? – no idea what she thinks of that word) twist. But unlike many designers, she’s not at all afraid to go outside of the box when it comes to experimenting with and contrasting different materials and designs, that are still, somehow, unmistakably ‘Karolina Laskowska’. I have no idea if I’m doing her work justice with these descriptions – I’ve never really talked about a lingerie brand before!

Instead, take a look at these stunning photographs from various shoots and editorials, then click on this link and take a look at the video. In it she explains exactly what all this means to her and in what ways the money raised will help her expand her brand further. Oh, and she has some UH-MAZING one off and limited edition pieces up for grabs as part of her crowdfunding campaign.

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Photographer: Steve Kraitt Model: Nathalie Hers
Image courtesy of Karolina Laskowska
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Photographer: Nadia King Model: Alivya Free
Image courtesy of Karolina Laskowska

The second, is the lovely Hilary Billings of ‘The Nomad Grad’.

Hilary Miss Nevada
Image courtesy of Hilary Billings

I met Hilary about this time last year in Sydney. I had happened to stumble across her blog, and left a random comment (as you do in bloggersphere) saying to get in touch if she needs somewhere to couchsurf for a few nights. It turned out she was actually going to be in Sydney a few weeks later, and we had a brilliant day out with a group of fellow adventurers from Canada (sadly their ‘Adventures with Twins’ blog is no more). Since then she has lived on a remote Fijian island with the Fire Dancer tribe, been a finalist for the job of Park Ranger in Tourism Australia’s ‘Best Jobs in the World’ contest, AND is now Miss Nevada 2013. And between all that she’s still had time to write,  help out Cee-Lo Green and The Muppets on a video shoot, and help out loads at the ranch that takes care of the lions that used to call the MGM Grand home. Phew. Talk about being versatile!

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Image from nomadgrad.com , courtesy of Hilary Billings
Hilary and Miss Piggy
Image from nomadgrad.com , courtesy of Hilary Billings

She just needs a little help to get to Washington DC in July for the Miss USA finals!  Once again, you can find the story from her side here, and here. This lady has completely changed the minds of many  (myself included) who thought pageants were just for vapid bimbos who ‘just want world peace!’

Both Karolina and Hilary work ridiculously hard to achieve their dreams. You have to be smart – when someone is as dedicated  to their work and to reaching their goals as these guys are, it’s 110% worth investing in them. I know I speak for both of them when I say that even £1 or $1 helps. Or, even if you can’t personally afford to donate, but know someone who might, please pass the message along.

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And then, to bug you all one more time (things do come in threes, after all) I am running a half marathon in October, as part of the ‘Mind’ team. ‘Mind’ is an amazing charity that provides endless support to those struggling with their mental health, as well as their family an friends, and also works really hard to eradicate the many stigmas associated with mental illness. Given the number of friends, family members and colleagues that I know have dealt with mental health issues, namely depression, this cause is incredibly close to my heart, and I’m working my ass off (quite literally) to complete the 22km course. I’m really excited about this, and I hope you’ll help me and Mind in our mission (quoted from the Mind website) to provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem, [as well as] campaign[ing] to improve services, raise awareness and promote understandingIf you would like to support this wonderful cause, and have a laugh at my red & sweaty face along the way, then please go to my Virgin Money Giving page. But frankly I’d rather you go sponsor the other two. I’ll be doing other fundraising things for my half-marathon in the near future. Most likely involving food.

To help Karolina expand her stunning lingerie brand:

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-fund-my-new-lingerie-collection?browse_v=old_no_dropdown

To send Hilary, aka Miss Nevada, to the Miss USA nationals:

http://www.gofundme.com/34c42k

To sponsor my half marathon, & contribute to Mind, a brilliantly empowering charity:

http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=ZoeAnderson

Thank you a million times!

A Short Tour of Ben Thanh Market, Saigon

Before I wax lyrical about the joys of Vietnamese cooking and the brilliant day I had at the Saigon Culinary Arts Centre, I was to take you on a short picture tour of the Ben Thanh market. If you’ve followed the adventures of here for a while (hi Mom, hi Figgy) you’ll remember the incredible market we found in Sarajevo.

I’m almost sad to say though, that Ben Thanh blows it out of the water. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much beautiful produce in one area in my life.

The market was a whirlwind of noise, sights, and smells. A total assault on the senses. Market vendors sat on small stools, stripping the skins off frogs in one swift movement (weirdly cool to watch. Um, I mean fascinating), others bargained hard with customers, others yelled out to the few westerners to give their products a try. And still another crouched on a counter, using a giant set of scales as a makeshift table from which to scoff a giant bowl of noodles. AS IF any chef on this side of the planet would be able to pull that stunt at work.

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Anyway, enough words. Enjoy these endless mountains of every possible ingredient under the sun (and then some).

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How beautiful do these look!? I wanted to buy the whole basket!

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