We live for our long weekends. This is because under the labour laws in Mexico, YM only gets 6 days holiday a year. Luckily, due to Mexico’s penchant for coups, riots and general battling, there are plenty of long weekends in the year (viva la revolucion!) The long weekends give us an opportunity to explore parts of the country that are really too far away to manage on a normal weekend. It also gives me an opportunity to stick a drawing pin into a huge map of Mexico I bought for a fiver whilst stopped at a roundabout.
For this ‘Puente’ we decided to head down the Pacific coast of Oaxaca, specifically to Bahías de Huatulco. Imagine a 10km stretch of coastline with 9 bays backed by steep rugged mountains and 32 different white sand beaches, some only accessible by boat. Heaven after a grey gloomy Christmas in the UK and cold, rainy weather back in Mexico City (when I say cold – I mean I’ve had to wear a jumper with a T-shirt underneath – scandalous!)
Preparations for the Puente began the Saturday before we left. In a rush of organization we managed to find an overnight bus that would leave Mexico City on the Friday night and arrive early Saturday morning. Our plan was to fly back on Monday afternoon thereby getting the financial savings of using the bus and the speed of using a flight. Canny or what?
After finding an appropriate flight back we decided to go to the bus station and book our tickets out. This journey meant we left the flat for approximately an hour. Imagine our surprise when we returned, smug in our productiveness, to find there were no flights left. Obviously all 23 million people in Mexico City tried to book return flights from Huatulco all within the same hour. Perfect. So we were left with 2 bus tickets for a 14 hour journey to Huatulco. And no way of returning.
Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. We could easily get the bus back. However, this meant that we would spend all Friday night on a bus and get there Saturday morning. We would have Saturday and half of Sunday before getting back on the overnight bus to return to Mexico City on Monday. So…30 hours on the bus for about 26 hours in Huatulco. Sounds awesome. Actually, we didn’t have a choice having just dished out MS$2000 for our tickets (100 quid) so that’s what we did. Back in the car, back to the bus station and back to negotiating with the rather bemused counter assistant. Bless her manners. She obviously wanted to ask why we waved away the idea of a return ticket when we were there half an hour ago. Hopefully she just though we were eccentric foreigners…
Anyway, Friday rolled around and I managed to make a hasty exit from school. This involved some intense cycling through heavy traffic and a fun fair that had been thoughtfully set up on the main road back to my flat (ever tried dodging travelling fair rides on a bike? – it should be a ride itself). Being home on time to pack everything in time for YM’s return was of paramount importance to making the bus on time.
Of course, it would also mean it was the same day that I managed to lock myself out of the flat. With no mobile either. This meant another adrenalin-fueled ride back to school and using Google Chat to instigate some kind of triangular communication between YM and our Mexican flatmate (MF). Luckily we tracked him down fairly close by (although that is a pretty relative statement in a city this size) and YM successfully managed to prise him away from whatever unfortunate girl he was wooing that day.
Packing complete, YM arrived and we marched to the bus station. Literally, because the traffic was still grid-locked (thanks fun fair). Not the easiest thing to do in pumps, in the dark, whilst carrying a boogie board and a suitcase. Soon we reached the bus station and managed to get boarded and settled into our seats. All was going well until about 3 hours into the trip when YM began to experience all the hallmarks of serious food poisoning. Awful at any time but doubly horrendous when stuck on a bus (which was already running 3 hours behind schedule). As the night progressed YM got paler and paler and by the time we reached Huatulco he was transparent.
We staggered off the bus, blinking in the unaccustomed daylight and taken by surprise by the burning sun and relentless humidity. One quick cab ride and we reached our hotel. The receptionist started giving out some line about the room not being ready but one look at my darkening face and YM’s see-through one she upgraded us to a lovely suite, no questions asked. Sometimes, you just need to read the warning signs and take the path of least resistance! A quick shower and change and we were in a taxi and on our way to a beach known for its tranquil black volcanic sands with easy surfable waves.
However, this innocent endeavour was also a total washout. YM managed to pull off a massive scab (the result of an argument between his bike and a car bumper) which left a raw bleeding wound like a small mouth on his leg. No more surfing. The day was saved with an exemplary dinner in the hotel restaurant (my steak literally melted in the mouth) and enough girlie cocktails to chase away any remnants of food poisoning.
The next (and last) day in Huatulco was full of promise. Blue skies, shining sun and our own private lancha to explore some of the hidden bays and beaches. We snorkeled (YM got bitten by a fish), swam and lazed on the boat deck whilst watching the massive craggy cliffs meander by. This idyllic afternoon was quickly ruined when we stopped at Playa El Maguey for lunch. The first restaurant only managed to bring out half our order in the hour we were sitting there. The second restaurant tried to cheat us on our change and when challenge simply replied that they didn’t have the correct change to hand and hoped that we wouldn’t notice (we did!).
Anyway, these shenanigans managed to make us slightly late. We persuaded our lancha captain to open the throttle and push on back to Santa Cruz. He was a bit of a character and had spent the afternoon regaling us with stories of people he knew, including himself, that had sexual relations with open wounds on their legs. Turns out all these people, including himself, ended up with very nasty infections – not sure what to make of this??!) Anyway, full speed ahead meant moving from walking pace to a bit faster than walking pace, akin to a horrendously obese granny jogging perhaps.
Eventually, we ended back up on the bus to Mexico City (that smelt rather dubiously of chemical toilet) and left the bus station only 20 min behind schedule. A Mexican miracle! This miracle lasted all the way out the bus station and onto the main road. Then the bus stopped in the middle of the main road and the bus driver and his mate jumped out whilst leaving the bus running. And we waited…5 min, 10 min, 15 min…after 20 min YM had enough and decided to go look for them. It was a full bus and we had a long way to go. Lo and behold he discovered both drivers polishing off a taco in the taqueria next to the bus. Obviously the idea of take away tacos would be an insult to the mighty taco – passengers and timetables be hanged! The drivers knew where their priorities lay and no one could say anything different.
The next few hours passed without any drama. Most of us were asleep after being audibly assaulted by terrible PG-13 films dubbed into Spanish played on full volume (Marmaduke is a sh*t film and Adam Sandler is still an unfunny dick even in Spanish). However, this bus utopia all came to an end at 1am. We received a rude awakening as the bus swerved rather excitingly onto the hard shoulder in the middle of nowhere. It screeched to a stop and the driver put on all the lights. The bus had broken down (as a result of dodgy driving perhaps?) and we were stuck in a place that the driver assured us as only a little bit dangerous.
Of course this meant everyone had to get off the bus and mill around on the dark highway for an hour whilst the driver decided what to do. His idea was to wait until the bus that left after ours had caught up and then hitch a ride to the nearest town 3 hours away. However, our driver had neglected to realize that the other bus wouldn’t have enough spare seats for everyone from our bus. This meant two hours of standing in the aisle at 2am whilst being jolted side to side. It took every ounce of energy and strength to stay upright as the New Driver blithely attacked every speed bump as if he was piloting a BMX instead of a giant bus. As a result, YM’s knee gave way, his wound started weeping and I still have a bruised, blue palm as a result of hanging onto the luggage racks.
Eventually we reached the San Marcos petrol station (our rendezvous for the new bus) and gratefully collapsed against a handy petrol pump. We then witnessed one of the most awesome sights I have ever had the priviledge to experience and humbly offer it up as the essence of Mexico in an hour….As our coach was parked up at the bus station, fellow bus drivers from the same coach company were zooming the other way towards Huatulco. After catching sight of our stricken bodies strewn around the gas station and our parked up bus they obviously felt there was a wonderful situation going on that was simply to good to miss
One thing that defines a Mexican is an overwhelming need for a community get-together. They are amazingly social people and love nothing better than a good chat and if you throw in a Drama, even better!!. So, other bus drivers, catching sight of a potential Drama and the opportunity to have a bit of a natter, started pulling up in the middle of the highway and jumping out to join the New Driver. Soon there were no less than six huge luxury coaches stopped in the middle of the highway at 4am in the morning.
The drivers were on seriously good form. A driver from a rival bus company stopped and tried to muscle in on the Drama (fool!) but he was hurriedly sent on his way. Even better, a little old lady popped out of nowhere with the ever-present plastic bucket of tacos sudados (sweaty tacos). These women are amazing. They have special radars that can sense a gathering of four or more people and naturally, you can’t have a social occasion in Mexico without catering. So, with bent back, and gnarled fingers she set up her little taco stall and as soon as everyone was fed, she melted quietly back into the darkness.
After a good hour of taco eating, catching up and heated consultation about the Drama, the New Driver seemed to remember he had not one, but two bus-loads of passengers patiently waiting to get moving. He then remarked that the bus was further away than he thought so he had no choice but to rendezvous with it at another town an hour further along the road. Moaning pitifully at the idea of standing for another hour we shambled back onto the bus and assumed our positions.
Fortunately, the replacement bus only took 45 min to arrive after we got to the rendezvous. Unfortunately, it was not the luxury coach we had all paid for. It was a bus that had obviously been dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement. The seats were more broken spring than cushion, the suspension creaked, groaned and seemed to amplify every bump in the road and there was a pervasive smell of must, damp and eau de chemical toilet.
We limped into Mexico City, very late, very tired with broken bodies and broken spirits. But safe in the knowledge that should there ever be a future Drama, there will always be tacos nearby. And tacos make everything better.
As this is a food blog, I suppose I better stick in a recipe. As the only truly successful part of the Puente was my steak dinner, I shall pay tribute to it with my recipe for chimichurri sauce. The ultimate Argentinean condiment to all things meaty. I love it because you can
a) get away of eating loads of raw garlic
b) make anything taste better with it (Cheese toastie? Pasta? Pizza? Anything.)
To whip up some of this garlicky goodness you will need the following:
- a BIG ASS bunch of parsley (flat leaf works best)
- red wine vinegar
- 1 litre of extra virgin olive oil (cheap stuff is fine)
- red chilli flakes
- a lemon
- loads of garlic
- half an onion
Roughly chop your onion and throw that in as well.
Squeeze about 4 cloves of garlic into your mixture
Follow with the juice of one lemon (check out my cool lemon squeezing thingy – it’s cool)
I threw in a tablespoon of dried oregano. Mostly because it was the last spoonful in the jar and I wanted to use the jar for something else.
Follow with a teaspoon full of chilli flakes.
A teaspoon of salt and a good shake of pepper.
Finish off by pouring in about 150ml of red wine vinegar and all of your olive oil.
Now blend. And taste. And blend. And taste. This is your sauce so make it taste the way YOU want. More garlic (I ended up adding about 8 cloves!!) why not? More vinegar – go ahead! There aren’t any rules when it comes to making condiments because at the end of the day, you’re the one eating them. So it make it taste of what you like!
Once everything is blended (but don’t over blend – you still want the parsley to be a bit chunky) bottle it up into a sterilised jar. And enjoy it. On EVERYTHING!
I realize I have been awful at updating my blog over the last month and a half. This is because:
a) school became mental – the combination of Christmas parties and a rush to get everything finished before the end of term
b) YM and I returned to the Motherland for the Christmas holidays after a year and a half in Mexico
I realize that Scotland has the internet now and that going home is not an excuse for not cooking. However, my primary reason for returning home was to stuff myself with curry for three weeks and you should be pleased to know that I accomplished my mission with half-a-stone bells on!
Flying back to the UK was a bit of a culture shock after being in Mexico for so long. It started off pretty poorly with BA messing us about (surprise!). As a result, poor YM had to put up with my filthy mood on a long haul flight to Madrid on the vastly inferior Iberia airlines. However, this was all turned around when we eventually reached Heathrow. A couple of rather lovely Italians (whom also happen to be a couple – how meta!) picked us up and whizzed us back to their flat in Richmond. They will now been known as the Lovely Italian Couple or LIC.
The LIC then proceeded to give us one of the most wonderful ways of recovering after a long haul flight. Imagine a laid-back, relaxed Christmas lunch that stretches languidly into dinner consisting of all your friends you haven’t seen in ages. Friends that cook up a weird and wonderful storm with much laughter and banter (cannelloni, followed by cheesecake…and then machboos??!!). Wine and conversation flowed, bad films were watched and chocolates munched by the handful…..this is the only way to travel and I only hope the LIC realize that they have set the bar for every time we return home!!!
The next day we returned to YM’s ancestral home by way of King’s Cross, breaking into Spanish without realising to the confusion of the train conductor and me professing my horror at paying a pound to use the toilets – that’s more than 20 pesos!!! I then spent a lovely few days eating, drinking and catching up on Come Dine With Me. Special thanks to YM’s parents for putting up with my constant hogging of the stove. I’m really sorry, but I’m a total wimp when it comes to the cold and I have a feeling that it’s just going to get worse…The last leg of the journey home was courtesy of my lovely brother and his snazzy black Audi – travelling in style!
Coming home for Christmas is always a slightly odd sensation. Firstly, this was our first Christmas as a family in Scotland, usually we hotfoot it back to Bahrain to escape the dreary greyness that is Scotland in December. The first few days with all four of us are always wonderful as we aren’t all used to being together. However, the fact that we aren’t all used to being together starts to make itself known and by the end of the holiday the grating of nerves is audible. I suppose when you are used to having your own space and your own routine, it is hard to fit into someone else’s and I’m sure this is a pretty universal feeling. As always, it was awesome to catch up with friends, family and the Dr Who Christmas special but I am still amazed that no matter how old I get, my parents have the ability to reduce me to a whiny, sulking, spoilt little brat. So, here is a public apology parents, I know I’m doing it – I just can’t stop myself!
Anyway, I’m back now and full of resolutions for 2012. I have decided to give myself realistic goals for this year that I might have a hope of carrying on after the first flush of enthusiasm has waned (usually around the 2nd of January). So here are my goals for 2012, set out in black and white so I can’t turn back…
1. Try and update my blog at least once a month
2. Take a proper cooking course to start building up my technical skills
3. Turn the iron cage on the roof (formerly for hanging laundry) into a mini greenhouse for tomatoes and chilies.
So what do you reckon? Potentially doable and this blog will be a great way of keeping tabs on myself and my progress.
I’ve decided to kick off this year with some delicious and decadent little chocolate cupcakes (mostly as an excuse for trying out my new pot of edible glitter).
You will need the following ingredients for the cupcakes:
- 100g of plain flour
- 20g of good quality cocoa powder
- 140g caster sugar
- 1 and a half teaspoons of baking powder
- 40g butter
- 120ml milk
- 1 medium egg
- Vanilla extract
Follow with the sugar.
Finish off by adding the butter. It will help you out a lot if your butter is at room temperature – unless you have an electric beater or arms of steel. Once you have added the butter mix everything together until you have a bowl that looks like it is full of little brown grains of sand.
Now in another jug, whisk together your egg, milk and vanilla extract.
Now add half your milk mixture to the flour mixture and beat until just combined. Slowly keep beating and adding the rest of the milk mixture, bit by bit. Make sure you don’t overbeat – all the ingredients should be just combined. The resulting mixture will be quite loose, don’t worry about this.
The cupcakes go into a preheated oven at 170C for at least half an hour. Take them out when an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
After pulling your cupcakes out (and forgetting to use oven gloves, thereby burning yourself) put them somewhere to cool and crack on with the frosting.
You will need
- 150g icing sugar
- 50g butter at room temperature
- 20g cocoa powder
- 20ml milk
Sift the icing sugar and cocoa powder into a bowl.
Follow with the butter.
Beat the butter into the flour mixture, again going for the chocolatey grains of sand appearance.
Add half the milk and keep beating until the mixture starts to come together.
Once you have a bog brown lump, add the rest of the milk and keep beating. The longer you beat it, the lighter and fluffier the frosting will become.
Spoon or pipe onto your cupcakes and finish off with edible glitter.
Hummingbird Bakery eat your heart out. These little cupcakes are lighter than air with a rich ganache-like frosting that lifts them into pure chocolate decadence. A pretty good start to my 2012 (and YM agrees too!)
Happy New Year everyone!
I didn’t do anything for Bonfire Night. This is because:
a) every freaking night in Mexico City is Bonfire Night
b) I was in Cancun for a week
One of the joys of working as a teacher is October half term. It’s like a bonus holiday to make sure you make it to December without losing your mind. For me, it’s a great opportunity to leave everything I know behind for a week and indulge myself. The key word here is myself – no YM, no friends, nobody at all. When you work in a profession that is all about talking the last thing you want to do on your holidays is talk. Sounds weird? Well, try speaking to 20 people an hour, every hour for 8 hours a day 5 days a week. I bet this little experiment is enough to turn you mental. So, the conclusion is I really need a break from being around people. And I need to get out of this crazy city.
I do have a certain bit of guilt when I go off by myself. Poor YM gets the mandatory 6 days a year and nothing more. But I don’t feel guilty enough to wait around for him so I make sure that I appease my guilty conscience in other ways. The fridge has been stocked with his favourite foods, the burrito takeout menu is close to hand and I always go during the week when he’s working. This year I booked an all inclusive week in Cancun. I got a good price and it’s not somewhere I would necessarily ever go with YM so he wouldn’t feel too left out. Unfortunately I managed to time my holiday to coincide with the back-end of a hurricane. The first couple of days of my Caribbean getaway were spent shivering in inappropriate beachwear whilst looking glumly at the pool through a curtain of torrential rain.
However, by the middle of the week the weather had settled down and my blissfully solitary routine of eat a lot, sleep a lot and swim a lot was beginning to take effect on my stress levels. In fact, I read 8 novels, had 3 course meals 3 times a day and watched wonderfully girlie movies sans the usual male whining every night! How awesome (and totally boring to read about unless it’s about happens to you -hah!). Cancun itself isn’t really my cup of tea. Mexicans are outnumbered by Americans, all the prices are in US dollars (and if you earn in pesos – you can’t really afford anything anyway) and the Zona Hotelera is a sterile, soulless strip of high rise hotels and adverts for crappy nightclubs and Vegas-type shows. A great excuse to go no further than the beach! Not that you need to – the beach is awesome and the colour of the ocean? Well, I assure you – it’s NOT photoshopped!
Coming back from holiday is always depressing. Especially when you know that the return to work is imminent and you have to start being sociable again. I wasn’t really ready for it and this resulted in a few harsh words to poor YM. He just wanted someone to talk to after being left alone for a week so I decided to kill two birds with one stone. I would show my affection for him by making him some chilli sauce and I would remind myself of the white sands and pina coladas by the pool I had just left behind by making it West Indian style. This also meant that I got to spend Sunday afternoon in the kitchen….close enough to make affirmative noises and far enough away that I wasn’t inundated by the mundane witterings of a man that has only had other techie folk and the burrito guy to talk to all week.
To say that YM has a chilli addiction would be an understatement. A more accurate portrayal would be saying that YM and chillies have formed some unnatural symbiotic relationship and if he doesn’t consume a certain amount of chilli heat per day he will explode (or turn into a girl). His ability to eat chillies is so impressive that even the chilli-loving Mexicans have expressed their astonishment. As a result, he is always goaded him into trying progressively hotter and hotter types of chill, and he never fails to impress. I like being associated with him when we go out for dinner. It’s like being out with a rockstar. A chilli-eating rockstar that everyone wants to get a picture with.
So YM, here is my tribute to your acceptance of my constant vacationing and memories of the Caribbean:
Roast Chilli Island Sauce (I made up the name – I know it’s a bit rubbish)
You will need:
- 400g of chillies (Scotch Bonnet chilies are the best – I just used whatever was mouldering at the bottom of the vegetable drawer)
- 100g of brown sugar
- 50g of salt
- A bulb of garlic
- A tablespoon of mustard powder
- 2 teaspoons of mustard powder
- 2 teaspoons of cumin powder
- 500ml of white vinegar
Pop the chilli tray into the oven and wait until the chillies turn black and the garlic goes soft and squishy.
Depending on how good your oven is this could take anywhere from 40min – 1 hour. Don’t worry if the chillies look like paper and you can shatter them when you take them out – this is normal!
In a separate bowl, weigh out 100g of brown sugar.
Add 50g of salt and 2 teaspoons of cumin powder. Follow with 2 teaspoons of mustard powder.
Add 2 teaspoons of ground turmeric.
Whack your chillies into a pan. Make sure it’s not a non-stick pan.
Now, squeeze out the roasted garlic from the cloves and into the pan. It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste and oddly satisfying (a bit like squeezing pus out of a spot).
Add your brown sugar mix to the pan. Now, at this point, my camera died and I had no spare batteries in the flat to replace them. So you will just have to try follow my written instructions!
Finally, add 500ml of vingear to the pan and give everything a really good stir.
Bring the mixture to the boil and boil vigorously for at least 10 min.
After boiling, transfer your mixture into a blender and give everything a really good whizzing until all the chillies are no longer visible and the mixture is totally smooth.
Pour into a sterilised bottle and refrigerate when cool. This sauce will last unpoened for up to 3 months and its sweet smoky salty flavour really does mellow with age.
Use your Roast Chilli Island Sauce to bring some sunshine (and fire!) to your meals.
Eat whilst looking at this picture…
Sometimes a girl just needs chocolate. And when I mean ”needs”, I mean fishing under sofa cushions for spare change and then running down to the local shop in your pyjamas kinda “need”. And today, I really, really needed a chocolate fix. Was this due to the civilized meal with friends that turned into a raucous Make You Own Margarita night back in Casa Biriyani? Or maybe the fact that it’s Sunday and I know I have 5 more days of tired, fractious and stressed out pupils to deal with before heading off to Caribbean bliss in Cancun? Either way I knew I “needed” chocolate from the moment I woke up and I needed it fast.
Luckily, because I am super organized I always have good cooking chocolate in my baking cupboard. Unfortunately, both YM and I had been nibbling at it in secret (without letting on to each other). I opened my cupboard to discover that my good cooking chocolate had quietly disappeared as a result of two-pronged, silent attacks all through the week. So, another Sunday was spent traipsing around the supermarket and all because I had my heart set on fulfilling my chocolate craving with homemade chocolate brownies.
Brownies are one of the first things I actually managed to bake successfully. When I was growing up in Bahrain there was only one bookshop on the island that carried books in English. As we were a very bookish family we were rarely satiated with the meager fare on display at the Family Bookshop (a total misnomer –unless your family wanted a library that consisted of coffee table books of Bahraini oil rigs and ‘practise at home’ maths books). Luckily, my dad used to receive a book catalogue from England once a year. We were each allowed to choose 5 books and the day that Dad came home at lunch time with that shiny paper catalogue was probably one of my favourite days of the year!
I absolutely adore reading. I love the total escapism and the power that words have to create a picture. I love that no matter how tedious my day has been, as soon as I open a book I can be falling madly in love with the handsome lord of the manor, running for my life from the Mafia across eastern Europe or sipping champagne in a New York cocktail bar. As a total fantasist, I need this opportunity to get carried away so I can stay focused and practical in my day job. I know what happens if I don’t read a book for a while. My daydreaming permeates my school work and drifting off into a well constructed daydream involving sexy American spies with a life or death mission to complete when trying to teach twenty 15 year olds about the wonders of diffusion can be pretty humiliating (trust me).
This love of reading was nurtured by my parents and has been carried through to my adulthood. My book collection easily climbs above 500 and is one of my mother’s daily complaints. She doesn’t understand why I need to hold onto my books after I have read them. I don’t really either. It probably sounds insane but when I read a book I always emotionally involve myself with the story and the characters. So much so that giving a book away after reading it feels like I am giving away a part of myself (because I have invested so much of myself when reading it in the first place).
However, these airy-fairy justifications don’t really work when your 3 for a tenner Waterstones specials are cluttering up your parent’s attic space. And it especially doesn’t work when your parents move back from living abroad for 25 years and have 25 years worth of tat to store urgently. Last year I bought YM a Kindle for Christmas. I say ‘bought’ but I used his credit card by mistake (honestly!) and to date it has 40 of my books and 2 of his. I also have managed to fill two of the living room bookshelves even though we have only been in Mexico a year and a half. The conclusion to this story then…. I’m probably a bit mental. And Amazon one-click is enabling my behaviour. I’m sure there is potential for a law suit somewhere here.
Anyway, one of the books I ordered from my dad’s catalogue when I was 9 was a children’s cookbook, “Jane Asher’s Eats for Treats’. I have no idea what prompted this rather random choice. Up until this point I had never actually thought about making food. Just eating it as quickly as possible so I could go back to whatever mysterious 9-year old fantasy I was in the midst of that particular day. However when the book arrived I was instantly smitten. It was a hard-backed book with simple recipes to cook with your mum at home. Each glossy page had children representing pretty much every British ethnic minority joyfully stirring things. They looked like they were having the time of their lives and I really wanted to join that party.
My first experiment from this book was a total disaster. My friend and I decided to kickstart our future careers as chefs by attempting to make peppermint creams. These ordinarily are one of the simplest sweets to put together with very little actual cooking involved. However, plain white sweets are a bit too boring for a couple of 9 year old girls. Especially when my mum had bottles of food colouring in various garish shades hiding behind the mayonnaise in the fridge. So we decided to colour them blue, orange and red. However, having never done anything like this before we decided to add about half a bottle of each colour to the mixture (against all warnings).
The result mixture tasted rancid and bitter. Half a kilo of icing sugar had to be thrown out and the colour stains never really faded from the table. My friend gave up after this but I was even more determined to succeed. Especially when my mum made cooking and baking look so easy. So I kept trying (and failing miserably). Fortune cookies that were too brittle to be folded, muffins that were distinctly chewy, a sponge cake that had the texture of sawdust. In my young eyes Jane Asher (and not my total lack of experience) was consistently letting me down.
Until I tried her chocolate brownie recipe. It was an incredibly simple all in one recipe with actual chocolate being substituted for cocoa powder and drinking chocolate. The result was rather anaemic looking brownies that were really brown cakes more than the dense, fudgey, chocolatey goodness that is a decent brownie. However, I actually made something edible! Something that my mum and dad didn’t politely take a bite of, pronounce delicious and then chuck in the bin when I wasn’t looking! Hurrah! My future as a cook was set!
Since I have gotten older I realized that as brownie recipes go, there is really no substitute for butter and chocolate if you want a decent brownie. I’ve tried a lot of different recipes for brownies but the best one I have found is Suelle’s from her superb blog Mainly Baking. In fact, I have tried a few recipes off this blog and they have been total winners every time!
So, here is my stolen recipe for the ultimate chocolate brownie, guaranteed to fulfill ANY chocolate craving and ridiculously easy to put together. Thanks again Suelle, you have made all the occupants of Casa Biriyani very very happy!
You will need the following:
- 600g of sugar (yes – that is the correct amount- its what makes them gooey I promise)
- 250 g plain flour
- Vanilla extract (I didn’t have any but I have proper vanilla sugar as a damn good substitute!)
- 200g butter
- 250 good dark chocolate (60% cocoa plus)
- 4 tablespoons cocoa powder (NOT drinking chocolate)
- 4 large eggs ( or 4 medium ones and a tiny one in my case!)
Good brownies are all about good ingredients. Don’t try and substitute proper butter or decent chocolate for margarine and Cadburys Dairy Milk – you will be sorely disappointed. This is ironic coming from me I know, but this is one of the rare cases where substituting ingredients will not work.
Begin by pre-heating your oven to 175 degrees C. Line a baking tin with baking parchment and oil the sides as well.
Now break up your chocolate into a heatproof bowl. Ideally, try and use a big bowl you can eventually mix everything else into. This fab recipe is an all-in-one job so it saves on washing up if you pick your bowl carefully!
Now add your chopped up butter.
Place your bowl on top of a pan of boiling water and gently stir until both the butter and chocolate melt into a rich silky chocolate sauce.
Once the chocolate mixture has cooled (it needs to be warm but comfortable when you stick a finger in – if you need to remove your finger – it’s too hot!), add your sugar. Stir it in until everything is well combined.
Now add your eggs one at time. Make sure you combine your egg really well before cracking in your next one. The mixture should start to look glossy again.
Sift in the flour and then the cocoa powder.
Stick it into your baking tin. Ideally the mixture shouldn’t be more than 3cm deep.
Pop the baking tin in the oven. It will take over an hour for these brownies to bake. It really depends on how gooey you like them. I tend to cook them for an hour and then test them every 10-15 min after that. When the toothpick comes out almost clean that’s when I tend to take them out of the oven.
When they are ready to come out, you must resist temptation and leave them to cool in the tine for at least 5 minutes. Then cut them into squares using a really thin, really sharp knife. Needless to say, with two hungry boys living in Casa Biriyani, no way was waiting ever going to happen. I also don’t have a sharp thin knife. So my brownies have fuzzy edges and look like they are falling to pieces. But they are the epitome of dark, fudgey chocolatey more-ishness which thankfully means I won’t be running down to the shop in my pyjamas tonight!
Why Drum N Bass? Because this afternoons bake-a-thon is sponsored by my good friend Richie’s superlative new album. Don’t believe me? Get over to itunes and download Captain Slackship’s Mezzanine Allstars right now . Best 7.50 you will ever spend. I dare you not to groove around….
Why a cake? Because I absolutely love and adore making cakes. It’s a science, an art form and there is nothing better for de-stressing after a hard day than creaming butter and sugar by hand (no kitchen gadgets here – took us 6 months to work up the courage to buy a blender!) I also love the preciseness of the process. Baking is totally different from cooking. To be successful you need to be exacting with your measurements, temperatures, ingredients etc. This resonates very strongly for me as a trained scientist. It is the scientific method in my kitchen and I am the lead scientist.
There is also the satisfaction of producing something beautiful and edible from a few, rather bland, everyday ingredients. The irony is that I am not mad about eating cakes in particular. Luckily YM comes into his own here. Blessed with a really sweet tooth and having been brought up on good, traditional Yorkshire baking (his Mum can make magic with her trusty Aga) he is a more than willing tester of all things flour-based.
So today’s adventures in baking will be a frosted carrot cake. Again, this is one of mum’s tried and tested recipes and, for me, one that has a strong association with Eid celebrations when I was growing up. Eid-al-Fitr is a Muslim holiday that is celebrated after Ramadan. It is known as ‘Big Eid’ (there is another but it’s not as much of a big deal) and lasts for three days. Three days of eating. Eating. Eating, eating and more eating whilst dressed in your best party salwar kameez. And like any family at Christmas, ours too had its traditions.
The first thing you need to do is actually ascertain when Eid is. Since Muslims work on a lunar calendar, the last night of Ramadan would be spent driving around our little village squinting up at the sky. If there was a new moon that meant it would be Eid the next day, if it was still an old moon that meant we had one more day of fasting. Of course, this was officially decided by the Big Beards in Mecca but being allowed to stay up late and then go for a night time drive when the whole village is sleeping is always a thrill for a young kid (that hasn’t become immune to these innocent joys by exposure to Xboxes and Facebook). Anyway, once we received confirmation by the radio we would all spring into frantic, hasty action.
It is traditional at Eid to have an ‘open house’. This basically means you prepare a buffet type feast and invite everyone you know to drop in. The whole day is spent with visitors flooding in and out, lots of eating and of course, everyone dressed to impress. As a kid, this meant all your friends would come over for an extended play session. Whilst all the parents sat in the living room with plates of kebabs and gulab jamans perched precariously on their knees, we had a free for all out in the garden. Imagine a day when your parents are too busy to nag you for climbing trees in your best clothes, you can eat as much cake as you like without anyone telling you off and people bring you presents. It’s like a birthday party! Many memorable stories have come about because of our Eid open house. One year I ate so many Fox’s Glacier Mints I was sick behind the shed (and to this day I still turn green when I see them). Another year we managed to crack open someone’s head on our tyre swing. And the best part – our folks were happily oblivious to it all.
My family traditionally holds its open house on the first day of Eid. When you don’t actually get confirmation until about 9pm the night before this can always cause a certain amount of stress. Supermarkets and bakeries stay open late to allow for folk to get their last minute shopping in. My maw, because she is such a star, had the reputation of putting on one of the best spreads in the village, even though this meant cooking all night without any sleep (which begs the question – why didn’t we ever just do it on the second day?). Lamb shami kebabs, chicken tikka pieces, samosas with various fillings, homemade coriander and tamarind chutney, pulao rice, lentil curry, meat curry and for pudding, kheer and carrot cake. All homemade by my maw and every scrap devoured by the time we shut the house around midnight the next night.
Mum’s carrot cake was a recipe she found in the Australian Woman’s Weekly (an amazing resource for cooks) that has been tweaked and perfected over the many years she has been making it. This cake has been the showstopper at every Eid, charity bake sale, dinner party etc. I can think of. It is a moist, fruity, creamy delight that makes the tastebuds weep for joy. There have been physical altercations in my family over who gets to lick the bowl after the batter has been made (and until my brother reached puberty and very quickly got bigger than me – I usually won.) So today, in recognition of my mother’s efforts for the family open house every year, I am going to try and re-create her famous Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese frosting.
You will need the following ingredients:
For the cake:
- 325ml of vegetable oil
- 300g granulated sugar (yup – still using vanilla sugar)
- 3 medium eggs
- 385g plain flour
- 2 tsp baking soda (I can’t get this in Mexico unless I go to a pharmacy so I am going to use baking powder)
- 210g grated carrot
- Half a tsp salt
- 3 tsps cinnamon powder
- 120g chopped walnuts (I don’t have any so I am going to use chopped pecans)
- 250g (1 tin) of crushed pineapple in juice
For the frosting:
- 1 packet of soft cream cheese (250g) – get a packet of Philadelphia
- 120g icing sugar
- vanilla extract
Let’s face it – we all need more time. I wish I could add more hours to the clock just so I could get everything I need to, done. I don’t really understand why I am always so busy – I don’t have children and technically I finish work at 3pm…and get awesome holidays. So why the hell am I spending my Sunday playing dodgems with my trolley in the supermarket, trying to find the right size pot for a stubborn cactus at the garden centre and guiltily double parking at the ATM to get cash out for the week?
During the week I need to be in work at 7am and teach till 3pm. Afterwards I spend hours at my computer thinking of ways to make topics like ‘Movement of water through plants’ exciting whilst simultaneously trying to persuade Microsoft Word that it is okay to have numbers down the side of a page without automatically creating a list. I usually get home about half five – 6pm and have time to change into my comfies (admit it – we all have a pair of clothes that are old, stretched and should have been thrown out years ago) and start preparing YM’s dinner. (Don’t worry – I ‘m not living with a chauvinist with 1950s ideas of a perfect housewife – it’s just that I’m usually in the door first!). By the time we have eaten, washed up and I’ve indulged in some truly awful telly it’s time for bed.
Occasionally we make half-hearted noises about attempting to have some semblance of a social life during the week. This never gets further than walking to a friend’s flat who happens to live down the road. We then sit around and moan about how crap our lives during the week are. If we are feeling really devilish we might even have a beer or two. At about 10pm muttering noises about leaving begin to surface with the old adage ‘we all have to work the next day’. It’s a lame attempt to hide the fact that we just aren’t able to kick it like we used to in the good old days anymore. Let’s be honest – it’s hardly 24 hour party people. More like 12 hours in front of a PC people which doesn’t really have the same ring to it.
Anyway, I’m typing this at half past nine at night waiting for my newest experiment to finish cooking. As a result of running about all day dinner was started later than usual. On any other Sunday night we would have just called a pizza but unfortunately, tonight was the night I designated to trying out my new beef curry recipe. The reason being is that I have to prepare a curry for 20 people for this Friday. My boss has an annual curry fiesta and this year I have been roped into making a curry. (This is probably because I am the only one in the school that actually knows how to make a proper curry).
Due to my work commitments (read – worksheet making and mindless photocopying) during the week I needed to practice tonight. I needed to figure out how on earth I was going to make a curry big enough to feed 20 people in my limited kitchen AND convince the wonderful Mexican teachers I work with that curry is more than just an oddly coloured yellow powder found languishing on the back of the supermarket shelf. So I decided to go with a good beef curry that could be quickly prepared and didn’t use too many fancy ingredients. I present to you my Lazy Beef Curry (for the time-starved hoi-polloi).
You will need:
- beef stock (I cheat and use ready made from a packet)
- white vinegar (I had to use apple as I used my last batch of white making volcanoes with my first years!)
- a medium onion
- tomato puree
- curry leaves (not available as far as I know in Mexico so I made do with bay leaves)
- cumin powder
- coriander seed powder
- chilli powder
- mustard seeds
- stewing/braising beef (I used rib-eye because I am posh and good beef is really cheap here!)
First thing you do is cut up your beef into chunks. I am over trying to hack through meat with blunt kitchen knives so I bought a pair of scissors that have had their scissorly life dedicated to chopping up meat and chicken into chunks. I really recommend it – it makes life a lot easier! Also, pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees C.
I’ve kept a lot of the fat on because fat is what makes this dish taste really special. Throw in 2 teaspoons of cumin.
Follow with 2 teaspoons of coriander powder. I don’t have coriander seed powder – I only have whole. I also don’t have anything as fancy as a spice grinder or a pestle and mortar. So let me show you how to blend spices MacGyver style.
Put your coriander seeds into a Ziploc bag and bash them really hard. Ideally with a hammer but since I have misplaced mine, I made do with a bottle of balsamic vinegar. You reckon I could market this as an alternative to Jamie Oliver’s Flavour Shaker? I know for a fact that mine is a hell of a lot more effective (it actually works for a start!).
Anyway, add your crushed/powdered coriander seeds to the bowl.
Follow with a teaspoon of chilli powder. Or if you are like YM and your tastebuds are only activated by exposing them to a minimum of 50,000 on the Scoville scale then add some more, or be a creative like me and add some crushed chilli flakes.
Finish off with 3-4 tablespoons of vinegar.
Now give everything a good stir and leave it to marinade (e.g. in the fridge during the day while you are at work. The longer you can give it the better).
When you get home from work heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil in a pan. While you are waiting for the oil to get really hot, finely chop your ginger, garlic and onion. I actually have a garlic press which means I don’t have to fiddle around trying to chop bits of garlic smaller than my fingers. I also keep my ginger in the freezer. This might sound odd but whole ginger actually freezes really well. When you need some, just pull it out, grate as much as required and then put it back in. Means you never have random bits of ginger going mouldy in the egg tray again.
When you oil is really hot add a teaspoon of mustard seeds and fry them off until they start to spit and jump out of the pan.
Once the mustard seeds start attacking you – add your curry leaves. I used three.
Stir them around for about 30 seconds, then add your onion, ginger and garlic.
Finally add a teaspoon of salt. Now fry everything until your onions turn golden.
Once your onions turn golden, add your nicely marinated meat to the pan and start stirring it around. All you want to do is brown the meat – don’t cook it all the way through. You will notice that my onions are more on the whiter shade of golden. That’s because the flame on my stove kept blowing out. Obviously having both the stove top and the oven on at the same time is too much multi-taking for the poor thing.
Once the meat has browned, add about 5 tablespoons of tomato puree and stir in.
Now transfer everything to a casserole. All of these steps should not have taken more than 15-20 min. Unless your oven has a multi-tasking disorder too.
Finish off by adding half a cup of beef stock and enough water to almost cover the meat. It all really depends on how thick/thin you like your curry to be.
Give everything a really good stir.
Chuck it in the oven and forget about it for at least an hour. Use this to change into your comfies and either watch trash TV (hurrah – new series of Project Runway!) or something useful (new series of Project Runway whilst repotting stubborn cactus – take notes oven!).
At this point YM wandered up and asked for some garlic naans to accompany the curry. I confirmed that this was indeed a splendid idea but unfortunately I had to do the laundry and therefore it would be a naan-free curry. Luckily I have a very modern, noughties-type YM so he agreed to do laundry if I rustled up some naan. So I did. And some pulao rice too.
So at 10 pm on a Sunday night when most folk are in their beds because ‘they have to work tomorrow’, we sat down to beef curry, pulao rice and homemade garlic naans. The curry was delicious. The meat was meltingly tender and the long, slow cooking meant the flavours had the effect of gently warming your tastebuds to the subtlety of the spices instead of slamming into them head on. So this recipe will definitely be on the menu at Curry Fiesta 2011 this Friday and hopefully will be a great introduction to the joys of eating spicy, rich meat stews (for what else is a curry?) for my Mexican colleagues! Now it is almost midnight and I have to work tomorrow so I better go to bed. I guess, we might not kick it old school anymore but if it means I can have a massive curry meal at 10pm at night without getting indigestion, getting older has it perks too!
I started back to school on Thursday after a wonderful summer of travelling, cooking and generally laying about. As with all schools the first couple days are spent in meetings. When I say meetings the reality consists of listening to a member of SMT trying to rouse an interest in time tables and break duty whilst you are mentally planning how you are going to make sure you reach the bourbon creams before anyone else at coffee time.
Another very typical part of a teacher’s life is to wake up on Sunday with a runny nose, streaming eyes and a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. A fecking cold??? Right at the beginning of term?? And it’s not even bad enough to wrangle a few days off work or garner sympathetic noises from a heartless YM. But it is bad enough to make me grumpy and wanting my mum.
Is this a feeling that crosses all international and cultural divides? Hands up who’s mum is the awesomest when you have a sniffle! Nobody else is prepared to put up with the need for constant sympathy, the moaning and the endless cups of Lemsip like a mum is. I learnt this firsthand when I managed to contracted a particularly nasty strain of Streptococcus when I was 6 years old. It was the summer holidays (typical) and I spent the whole summer in bed with rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever really is the pits, especially when you are a 6 year old kid who’s summer was going to revolve around making ramps for my pink BMX and jumping off the swimming pool roof into the water below. I was bedridden, unable to use any part of my body from below the waist and had horrendous fevers.
At first, I was left in bed for most of the day with a small handheld tape player to keep me company. I was too ill to concentrate on a book or watch TV but to this day I can still remember the old Bollywood movie songs that kept me company. Occasionally my dad would pop in with a new toy and a cheery smile. He even tried to put in a state of the art lighting system into my doll’s house. It was a pity I wasn’t able to walk over and play with it but he seemed pretty chuffed with it. My mum was a saint as ever, massaging my aching limbs, bringing me freshly squeezed juice or just babbling away about what had happened in the last hour since I had last seen her. My brother was confused by the whole thing (he was only 4) so he just tended to ignore me.
After a while, my own bedroom became horrendously boring so my parents hit upon the happy idea of carting me around the various rooms of the house on a decrepit sun lounger so I wouldn’t feel left out. It was much better except my brother learnt that if he launched himself at the bottom of the sun lounger than then he could catapult me off towards the other side of the room. Unfortunately, I could neither pick myself up or beat him to a pulp so this game was pretty safe from his point of view although seriously humiliating for me.
And of course, I had the chance to eat a lot of kichiri (not kedgeree which is some bastardised colonial British dish involving fish). Kichiri is the asian mum’s equivalent of chicken soup. It is soft, comforting and easily digestible – the perfect food for invalids. I honestly feel that my various colds over the years have been cured by a plateful of kichiri, as opposed to Lemsip and Covonia. So what is this magical wonder of modern medicine you ask? Simply put, it is rice and lentils gently cooked together. It is the colour of sunshine and when the delicate smell and flavours wrap themselves around your digestive tract like a fleecy blanket you cannot help but smile.
After waking up this morning with sinuses that felt like the M25 at rush hour, I needed a plate of kichiri. Yet again, a tersely worded email to my mum for the recipe (no time for chit chat – I’m dying here!) resulted in a recipe that looked simple and foolproof. And even better, I wouldn’t have to buy anything special for it! After our weekly trip to the market and YM ensconced on the sofa (and out of my way!) with a glass of milk and the BBC series State of Play I was ready to begin my road to recovery.
The ingredients list is ridiculously simple:
- a cup of basmati rice
- half a cup of lentils – you are supposed to use red but I only had green
- vegetable oil
- white cumin seeds
- a chilli
- a small onion (or half a big one!) finely chopped
- black peppercorns