31 March 2010

Red velvet cake (and cupcakes)

This is a post full of colors in celebration of spring.

Some blogs that I read have recently featured red velvet cake and although I have never made it before, the idea of making this cake seemed to grab me. I think it was something about the great contrast of the red cake with the white icing that looked so appealing. And it is soooo red!

I told some people at work that I was thinking of making this cake and no one had ever heard of it, which is not unusual in my world, but probably just means it's an American thing. I think the final consensus at work was that the cake lives up to its name and this cake should feature more regularly as a dessert. Now that I think of it, the cakes in the UK (that I have tried at least) are not usually as smooth or light as this cake and the icing is usually not a buttercream or cream cheese icing either. It makes a lovely spring cake and is a luscious dessert.

Here is what is needed for the cake part:

Mix the dry ingredients of flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and cocoa together.

In another bowl, mix the wet ingredients together, starting with the eggs and oil, which makes a funny, creamy mixture.

For the really red color, add a whole bottle of red food coloring (!). You can marble along the way for amusement.

You would almost expect the redness to go away when mixing with the dry ingredients. Nope.
When everything is mixed together, pour the batter into a greased and floured cake tin or two, or cupcake liners if you would like.

The cake turned out a little brown on top, though the cupcakes were nice and red all the way through.

Now onto the icing- cream cheese, icing sugar, butter and vanilla all mixed together until smooth. Beautiful stuff.

Once the icing is all made (one hour and a very tired arm later when mixing by hand), time for the fun part!

A lovely spring birthday cake!


While out on my day off, my fiance and I happened upon an amazing shoe store in Carnaby street. We are never usually in this area of London but I may start to frequent it more often. The store features really cute and whimsical shoes in bold colors that invokes the Carnaby street of the 1960's. Though I am still learning to walk in heels, my fiance convinced me to get one pair of shoes in particular.

The bold colors, the heels, the funky flap in the front- I would never pick these out on my own. If there is one thing I have learned about London fashion though it is that you can wear anything and try anything. So I am trying these and embracing London fashion, and I think slowly over time my wardrobe is adjusting to living here. Much like my food repertoire, my clothing will become an amalgamation of London and US fashion.

22 March 2010

Green stuff

This is a dish commonly referred to as 'green stuff' in my house. The real name is Watergate salad, but I didn't know this until I was about 12, so to me it will always be green stuff. Why? It's green. Much like 'red stuff' in our house was marinara sauce for spaghetti, but we called it red stuff because it is red. We go for obvious nicknames and shorthand.

I first introduced green stuff to my fiancee at my dad's birthday party as it was served with the other savoury dishes and more typical salads. This mixture of sweet and savoury, plus the confusing name with salad in the title despite being green, went against his very nature of eating and meals and taste combinations. Mixing sweet and savoury is not done in the UK. Ah, but what they miss!

I made this for Thanksgiving this year and it was the surprise hit of the dinner. I was finally able to serve it as I have found a suitable substitute for Cool Whip, which, as in all American delicacies, is a highly processed fake version of whipped cream that usually comes in a frozen tub. Then I found Dream Topping.

This is equally processed and fake whipped cream, but it comes in a powder that you have to whisk together. It gives a semblance of work and making something, putting effort into that makes it homemade. It's a passable substitute that I can live with.

The only other ingredients in this dish- ok, it's dessert, even if I always associate it with the main meal-are crushed pineapple, mini marshmallows and Jello pistachio pudding mix (powder that vaguely tastes like pistachio and will make a custard-like consistency dessert that Americans call pudding).

To make the Dream Topping, you mix the powder with milk.

Then whisk for a while. And a bit more. And a little more.

When it starts to get thicker and tastes like whipped cream, then it is done. Now add the Jello pudding powder.

It magically turns green!

Ok, you can't really tell in the photos. But it does- hence the name.

Add equal parts marshmallows and drained pineapple and stir together. Refrigerate this for half an hour and it will all come together nicely.

This isn't exactly a difficult dessert to make, but I only have it on special occasions, especially Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any time we went to Grandma's house, who is the one that introduced it to the family. When you only eat something on specific occasions, it makes the food itself special and take on a bit of the importance of the day. You don't often find foods anymore that are so linked with a season or day such as you would have in past years. We can have asparagus anytime of the year, not just spring; hardly anyone fasts anymore during Lent so eggs no longer have such significance on Easter. Green stuff has this rare quality for me that even if I could, I wouldn't make it everyday. It would spoil the taste.

18 March 2010

Macaroni tou Fournou

Translation: baked macaroni or macaroni of the oven

This dish was one of the first dishes I remember having at my fiance's house. It is a little bit like lasagne in that it is a layered dish with pasta and a meat sauce, but not quite. The meat is spiced with mint and cinnamon and it is all topped with a creamy, cheesy, egg mixture. I think this dish is much more of a Cypriot dish than a standard Greek dish and really quite unlike anything I have ever had. It's wonderful and really tasty and you should probably try some soon.

The recipe I used was originally from the Greek Cypriot cookbook I have, but after reviewing the recipe, I realised it really didn't follow what I know it should taste like. So what is below is a hybrid recipe of the cookbook and my fiance's mother's recipe for macaroni tou fournou.

I halved my hybrid recipe because I have a deep oval dish instead of a large, deep, square dish. If you have a normal lasagne dish, then double this recipe.

Take one pound or 500 grams of mince meat and add it to a pot with a little bit of oil until browned.

Mmmm, block o'meat.

Then dice half an onion and add it to the meat.

Add 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 teaspoons mint to the meat mixture. It's a little odd for me to add these two, traditionally associated with sweet food, spices to meat but they somehow make the meat seem less heavy and gives it a refreshing taste.

Action shot!

Add 3/4 of a can of chopped tomatoes. The tomatoes should add a little bit to the meat but not enough to overpower the flavor.

Let the meat mixture cook together for about 15 minutes. You might need to add a touch of water so it doesn't stick.

While this is cooking, boil some water for the noodles. The pasta that is traditionally used for this dish are long hollow tubes which can be bought at a Greek food store. If one of those isn't handy, then penne or other hollow pasta will work.

Look, there's even a picture of macaroni tou fournou on the front!

After everything is cooked, then it is time to layer. This dish is supposed to have a layer of pasta, then the meat mixture, then the rest of the noodles.

I had to curve mine on account of the oval dish.

For the topping, it is basically a white sauce with some cheese and eggs. Melt 1/3 cup butter then add 3/4 cup of flour.

Gradually pour in 2 pints of milk, stirring constantly. (fuzzy pictures here) When the sauce has thickened, add 2 beaten eggs, stirring constantly. Finally, add 4 oz grated cheddar cheese.

This is the main bit that holds it all together and should end up being about half an inch thick. I really didn't make enough for this batch though it still had the right taste.

Pour this cream mixture over the top of the layered pasta, making sure to cover everything.

I sprinkled some mint on top for added ... design. And taste. Yeah.

Cook in a 200 degree C/400 degree F oven for about 30 minutes or until golden brown on top.

You should let this dish cool considerably before cutting as it will congeal together better after cooled and make nice neat squares. However, I was hungry and so I cut into it immediately and this is what I got instead.

Oh well. It still tasted as it should, even if it didn't look too good.

14 March 2010

Cabbage and Macarons (NOT together)

I've wanted to talk about this for a while now: cabbage.

My flatmates and I have gone in together on a box delivery scheme. It's wonderful. Every week, a box of organic fruit and veg is delivered to our flat which we then divy up and enjoy all week-and then the next one arrives! There is almost always something to eat at home and fresh fruit for lunches, all for a small price considering the quality we receive. (By the way, I think this is an ingenious idea and would love to see it take off in other cities, specifically in the US.)

But as it is winter and most of our veggies come from the UK whenever possible, it mean a lot of cabbage. Actually every week a whole cabbage. At one point, we had four cabbage heads in our refrigerator, which is more than one per person- a cabbage surplus.

Don't get me wrong, cabbage is a remarkable vegetable. It grows in the winter, keeps well, feeds many, is nutritional and generally is pretty hardy stuff. It is truly marvelous if you live on a small, cold island in the north that anything grows at all in the winter.

Maybe it is because I was raised in the south (not on a small, cold island in the north), or maybe it's because i was raised in the US, or maybe it's just me, but I don't have a clue what to do with cabbage. Nothing immediately comes to mind ... or even after a while. So after trolling the internet for recipes and asking British colleagues and friends what to do with the three-four menacing green (and sometimes purple, just for a change) leafy things, there seem to be a few, though not many, options:

1. cabbage soup-great for dieting but makes the house smell
2.Russian borscht- good for purple cabbage
3. cabbage stir fry- nice with mushrooms and noodles; I wonder if Bak Choi is technically the correct cabbage to use in this case though
4. stuffed cabbage- Greek staple, which can be either cabbage or vine leaves (otherwise known as dolmaides)
5. coleslaw- great with a traditional pulled pork barbecue
6. sauteed cabbage/brussel sprouts

Number 6 is what I ended up making frequently over the past couple of months. Good thing it turns out I like cabbage.

Essentially, you throw a large spoonful of butter into a wok or large pan, add strips of cabbage and maybe some diced onions and pancetta and stir it around on a high heat for . . . about 10 minutes or so or until you think the cabbage is done. I don't mind it being a little crunchy or bitter, but definitely cook to taste. The number of stories I hear of how people grew up eating horribly overcooked cabbage almost put me off the vegetable! You can also steam or blanch the cabbage for a few minutes before throwing it in to be sauteed.

This dish is great with pork (with or without the pancetta included) and can be used to instantly British-ise any meal. Try it- you might even like cabbage in the end!

I mentioned last week (sorry about the delay in posts) that I spent last weekend in Paris with a friend. It was great! We found a wonderful,possibly the best, baguette shop in Paris, a cute and cozy brasserie for dinner, and a delicious chocolate shop where we bought amazing macarons. I think I was so engrossed in the medieval churches and sites and staying warm that I didn't manage a single picture of food whilst I was there. I may even be demoted from amateur food photography and blogging if it happens again. Still, I managed to document the macarons I brought back to try.

I have never tried macarons before, though they are strangely hugely popular right now. I didn't even have any expectations on how they should taste when I tried them. So with a variety of 6 to try, my fiancee and I sat down to encounter a whole new culinary (or maybe more accurately, dessert) experience.

They were light as air, melted in your mouth and had a delicate and not too sweet flavor. In other words, they were fantastic. I am definitely a fan and they even came in a cute box!

If I am feeling really adventurous, I may even try to make them one day. Maybe.

5 March 2010

quick dinner

On the nights that I come home and don't know what to make, or am really hungry and don't want to put too much effort into what I am making but still want it to be marginally nutritional, I make sauteed vegetables over pasta. It doesn't really matter what vegetables you have as long as they are vaguely Italianish and taste nicely together and over noodles. In this particular concoction, I had leeks, mushrooms, red pepper and courgettes (lots of garlic and oregano too), but will often use tomatoes, broccoli, or throw in a bit of meat like bacon or sausage. Sauteed vegetables + egg tagliatelle noodles + sprinkle (or handful) of parmesan cheese = good dinner almost any night of the week.

This is what my dinner looks like on most nights. One dish, maybe two for the meal and a glass of milk. Always a glass of milk. It's a habit that I got into as a child when we did not have a choice about what to drink- milk or nothing. Now, dinner doesn't feel right without a glass of milk. You should see the strange looks I get in restaurants when I occasionally ask for milk with a meal.

I say this dish is vaguely Italian, but I suppose that is only really because it has noodles traditionally used for Italian dishes. This dish has never come from any specifically Italian cookbook or recipe, it just reminds me of the flavours and idea of Italian food. I wonder how many other dishes are like this- passed along under the guise of being one national food dish but maybe originated in that same area. I imagine people moving through countries in the past, whether by force, choice, trade, religion or otherwise and recreating the food of their home area, or people reminiscing about a place they visited and creating dishes to remind them of the tastes and memories. Food is often like language, or at least English, in that bits of it are picked up from lots of places and incorporated into the social food repertoire so that in the passage of time, it is no longer clear what is one nation or ethnic group or area's quintessential food really is. So even though I talk about Greek food being something that I am having to adapt to, I know that all food has come down through time in many forms, and what we now call a Greek dish could have been an Italian or Lebanese or French one originally. Food in all forms under whatever name is a reminder of the vast changes in human history and is the outcome of timeless encounters between cultures. In this sense, food and history are interlinked in more ways than anyone knows and probably can tell the story of human history as well as anything else. Pretty amazing.

Speaking of history, I am off to encounter another culture and its history (lots of medieval churches) of my own this weekend- Paris. I hope to share lots of great pictures of the food and sites next week!

1 March 2010


I have to admit something.

I don't like water and I LOVE Mountain Dew.

(For those of you that do not know what Mountain Dew is, it is a lemon-lime flavoured soda made by Pepsi.)

I used to drink Mountain Dew quite a lot- 3-4 cans a day-not necessarily for the caffeine in the highly-sugared and caffeinated drink, but because I liked it and I drank it. Milk, my other drink of choice, if difficult to take with you to class and does not have the refreshing effect of Mountain Dew.

When I first came to London for a study abroad semester, it was a shock to the system to come off of my drink of choice and find something else to hydrate me. Enter tea. (Maybe I do have a caffeine need in my life.) Tea has been wonderful and probably better for me, but on a warm spring or summer day, I do not want a steaming cup of tea. I want Mountain Dew.

So imagine my surprise when, on a weekend trip to Camberwell to wander and explore, I found Mountain Dew in the Chinese supermarket! Ok, it's not the original American stuff made with high-fructose corn syrup (something about it not really being allowed so much in the EU?) so it has a slightly different taste and it's imported from the Philippines, but as I sit here and sip this particular can of Mountain Dew in the beginning of spring sunshine, it's close enough for me.

I probably won't go crazy and start making deals with the Chinese supermarket to buy in bulk, but every once in a while, on a spring or summer day(... or another day), I may treat myself to a 79p drink. Sounds silly, but Mountain Dew reminds me of North Carolina sunshine, driving in my car, high school, being silly and young, and, sad as it may be, puts a smile on my face.

To whatever you may be drinking today, be it tea, coffee, water or Mountain Dew, I hope you are having a sunshine-filled day. Cheers and Chomps!