The Algarve, Portugal

My holiday decisions always seem to be a bit hit or miss, from the disappointment that was Naples, to the utter joyful seclusion of the Sardinian beaches.

The Algarve was in many ways pleasant but nothing to write home about. The nicest beaches were packed to overcrowding, and the quieter ones had seas that were too choppy for a relaxing swim, or a scarily strong undertow that made me a little nervous about stepping in.

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There wasn’t a lot in the way of cultural sights to see. Here is a destination where the predominant attractions really are sun, sea and sand. Maybe storks too 🙂

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There were storks everywhere, nesting on the most unlikely of tall structures. From random stumps in the middle of derelict construction work, to electricity pylons, to the roofs of petrol stations, these birds certainly weren’t afraid of heights.

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Quaint cobbled streets with brightly painted whitewashed houses were actually rather a rarity. Look a little closer and they have names like Gingerbread Cottage – housing retired British expats of course. 

I guess that’s one of the reasons I didn’t feel drawn to the Algarve. It was hot, sunny and there were beaches galore, but I never got the feeling of really getting away from the UK. It surrounded me everywhere – from the tourists en masse, to the road signs and hotel signs, shops…it was almost surreal, and not in a very good way.

Escaping to the West provided some respite from the commercialism and built-up surroundings. Less child-friendly, fewer nightclubs…here the simpler, plainer beauty of the coastline is allowed to shine, and the tourist vibe a casual, relaxed surfer-based one. There are already signs of development creeping into the western coastline too, so perhaps this won’t last for long.

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I don’t tend to think too much about the way tourism affects the local character of a holiday destination. Usually, both find a way to work pretty harmoniously. In some ways, tourism helps preserve some local customs, cultures and traditions, albeit in a somewhat sanitised, showy way.

Sadly, in the Algarve, tourism seems to be the monster that ate and ate and ate. It feels like the coastline is no more than an endless chain of purpose-built resorts, imported-sand beaches, cheap drinks and night-life. For sure it generates jobs, and provides economic growth for a previously poor area, but what a shame it has to be at the expense of what was once a very beautiful coastline.

Pierre Hermé Lemon Tart

This was going to be the year I finally tried baking pumpkin pie. Only when I got into Waitrose, they were point blank sold out of tinned pumpkin purée and I felt too lazy to roast and sieve out my own.

I always get this urge to bake all sorts of American-esque treats, graveyeard cakes and ghoulish fake fingers at Halloween but I usually never bother. Then Bonfire Night rolls around in quick succession, and before you know it, time for Christmas festivities and all that jazz.

But this year the weather has been playing funny. Although its November, the blue skies and warm temperatures are confusing me. What season is it supposed to be? My bake this weekend was more redolent of Summer, though I didn’t quite finish it time before the skies darkened, so there was a reminder that it is indeed the more wintry part of the year.

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When I tried the Dorie Greenspan Whole Lemon Tart recipe I published a few weeks ago, I felt it had a nice lemony flavour, but I was looking for a smoother, more creamy filling. This Pierre Hermé recipe looked just the ticket. I found the recipe on The Boy Who Bakes.

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For such a simple-looking tart, it turned out to be quite difficult. I can’t remember ever having had so many problems with my pâte sucrée before. I remade my tart case four times because it either splintered apart, or the sides slid down and deformed. On the penultimate attempt, I lined the tart with foil, only for it to stick fast, and then had an accident where it fell onto the floor and went splat.

Before you start thinking it’s all doom and gloom, let me get onto the best part of this tart, which is the curd filling. It is tangy, beautifully lemon, yet not too sweet, and tastes like a dream. Unlike the pastry, I didn’t have any problems at all. Although the recipe stated to heat it to 82˚C, it only ever reached 70˚C, but this didn’t affect the thickening process in the slightest.

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What looks like an innocent lemon curd contains an alarming quantity of butter. 300g to be precise. It makes me a little uncomfortable thinking about it! Next time, I will most definitely experiment with reducing this, as it seems a little excessive having more than one pat of butter in a single dessert. In fact, if you include the pastry, there’s probably more than two! Ergh!*

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I feel that the blogging baking craze has really quieted down from three years ago. Is this just me, or have others noticed this too? I know interest levels wax and wane, but it’s really sad to see a lot of my favourite bloggers stop posting! I miss all the weird and wacky ideas that used to constantly engage and excite me. I notice that when more successful bloggers write and publish a cookbook, that’s when the blog starts to fall by the wayside. I imagine the cookbook writing process is so intensive that you’re desperate to do something different after it’s finished, and then by that means, drift away from the blogging world. It’s such a shame, though I imagine it’s also hard always coming up with new material.

*I’ve halved the butter content since, and  although it’s not quite as thick, it does taste more or less the same. Hoorah! Still rich and lemony, but less likely to give you heart disease!

French Yoghurt Cake

It’s pretty challenging figuring out how to work a new oven. Over time, I’ve baked in horrible studenty ovens that have either fried the cake from above or below, and set it on the grill by accident, or simply just turned the oven light, and nothing else on.

After a recent liquidy/crusty cake disaster at A’s house (they still ate the results with gusto?!) I decided to go back to a simple recipe, and bake a classic French yoghurt cake. Even French toddlers apparently make this with their eyes shut, so how could I get this wrong?

Armed with two pots of yoghurt, and some lovely new magic non-stick liner, I set to work. Here is the result!

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The recipe can be found at my fave Frenchie blog, Chocolate and Zucchini. It took longer to bake in my oven – around 45 minutes in total, but I covered the top with foil 30 minutes into baking to prevent the top from scorching. I also used two pots of strawberry yoghurts so it has an even better flavour!

Pushing Baking Boundaries

My job exhausts, drains and makes me feel like a semi-human being most of the time. However, it’s also true that without it, I couldn’t splurge on cookbooks and baking ingredients the way I have been lately. My latest acquisition is Christophe Felder’s Patisserie, now translated into English. Behind the floridly pink cover, it is full of pictures, techniques, instructions, and I can’t wait to get baking from it. Being written in English, my mind reads the recipes with far more ease than the heavy dictionary-usage required with Herme’s Larousse des desserts.

I feel like I’ve really made progress from my beginnings with The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, which is veritably dog-eared by now, as is Ottolenghi. This year, I want to push myself further, and get out of my baking comfort zone. I’ve started with the Gateau L’Opera, but I’ve set myself some other goals too.

I want to make:

  • crème pâtissière (yup, still never made it before!)
  • eclairs
  • laminated croissant dough
  • brioche
  • daquoise
  • crème brûlée (because A likes it, and I need an opportunity to try out my new blow torch)

Maybe some things that aren’t so French-orientated will spring to mind later, but at the moment you can see where my thoughts lie!

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Meanwhile, I also need to figure out how to use up my accumulated random ingredients! Any thoughts of uses for: frozen whipping cream, double cream, puff pastry, pate sucrée pastry, a tiny ball of sweet shortcrust pastry, lime juice, and leftover coffee syrup?

Is Butter Always Better?

In the baking world, butter has a far better reputation than its greyer industrial cousin – margarine. Butter is pretty fabulous, but Stork baking margarine is the magic producing some of the best cakes I’ve ever made – light, fluffy, well-risen and delicious.

But still…it’s margarine. No self-respecting foodie uses margarine surely??

Thus torn betweeen my desire to make wonderful cakes, and my ethos of only using natural ingredients, I thought it was about time I did a direct comparison betwen the two, to see if the difference was really that marked.

I made up two single-egg-victoria sponge batters: one using Stork baking spread, and the other using Président Unsalted butter.  They turned out surprisingly different.

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In the image above, you can see that the cake on the left is darker in colour. Texturally, it made for a crisper crunchier top. The sponge on the right is not only paler, but also rose better, with a softer, more open crumb.

But which cake used which baking fat?

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The darker cake is made from butter. The lighter one  – Stork. Did you guess correctly?

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Both cakes had a pleasingly aerated texture, but the Stork cakes definitely won on the fluffiness factor, with an almost-cloud-like crumb. The butter cakes were firmer, and had a richer, fuller flavour, whereas the Stork cakes stood on more neutral ground, and required more additional flavouring as a result.
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I reckon butter is great in baking, especially when its flavours are allowed to really shine. I still choose it over anything else in cakes, pastry, biscuits and butter-rich bakes. However, I can also visibly see that Stork manages to consistently make better cakes, especially these classic English teatime favourites.
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This experiment isn’t totally complete, as I’d still like to pit Stork against spreadable forms of butter containing vegetable oil and a higher water content next. Let’s see what results emerge!

Back to (Running) Basics

As I said in a recent post, I have been finding it difficult getting out and running regularly. In the last week, there have been budding signs of improvement…I have managed to go out for a run for five consecutive days!

Anyway, nothing spectacular in terms of distances yet, but I’m just glad I’m throwing myself out there. What’s changed? Well, I did take quite a long break from my old running routine, and I’m not back into it yet. I’ve tried to take everything back to the way it was when I first started.

  1. Not caring about distances covered. 
  2. Slowing down, or walking for a bit up some steep inclines
  3. Going out when I felt most energetic and motivated – which isn’t necessarily first thing in the morning
  4. Not forcing myself to run in a tempest, or snowstorm, or pelting rain.
  5. Changing my music
  6. Not even wearing my normal running kit…just going out there in whatever old comfy clothes I happen to be wearing that day
  7. Mixing up my fitness routine – be it walking or cycling or dancing

I hope it’s working. I definitely feel refreshed, and the mental exhaustion that was plaguing me before seems to be slowly clearing. No marathons for a while though, that’s for sure.

Where’s my running mojo gone?

I’ve stopped running.

I’ve noticed this as a slow decline in mileage over the last couple of months, to the point where I am managing to complete a short run about once a week now. I feel awful about it.

It’s never a pleasant feeling going through a running low. This has been one of the longest dry spells I have ever experienced, and it’s literally like my brain is telling me I do not want to go out and run. 

Walking, that’s ok. Just about.

Running? Nahhhh.

I miss my trainers, but at the same time, actually, I don’t. My mind and body are torn.

I wonder if it is route exhaustion that I am experiencing, or whether I have to jazz up my fitness routine with something new instead. Is it because the weather hasn’t been that great? Is it because there is something wrong health-wise? I just don’t know.

I wish I could regain my enthusiasm for pounding the pavements.

I really do.

As for the marathon I was preparing for – well the decision has been pretty much taken out of my hands now. I haven’t trained for it at all. Disappointing, but at the same time, somewhat of a relief.

Don’t stop, keep going…

I’m absolutely exhausted. This was one of those weekends that felt like a massive test of my endurance. I’ve been working without a holiday for what feels like a very long time, and I really need a break over Christmas to recharge my batteries!

The tiredness has been affecting my running, which hasn’t been going to plan at all. I’ve managed a couple of short runs here and there, but not much beyond that, which aggravates me like mad. It’s also been impacting of my most recent bakes as well. For instance, last week I decided to bake some fork biscuits, but completely forgot about them when they’d gone into the oven, resulting in the lingering smell of burnt baking wafting through the flat, and potentially most of the building.

So it was with trepidation that I approached the making of my friend’s birthday cake. I decided to go straightforward and simple – make a chocolate sponge in advance, and smother in chocolate icing closer to the date. Easy peasy.

Well, not quite. The sponge went fine – it didn’t rise as well as it could have, but I think that was due to the use of almond milk instead of cow’s milk, as that was all that I had. I tried to make a fancy hazelnut praline to sprinkle on top, but I didn’t have enough sugar, and ended up playing around with it and it somehow ended up as a crunchy chocolatey mixture that didn’t seem much good for anything. Loath to waste it, I spread it into the middle of the cake as a crunchy nutty icing. Dubious about the success of that – but the remaining stages are yet to be finalised when I drape the whole confection in a layer of ganache, and hopefully decorate the top in a suitably celebratory manner. We’ll see.

 

A change in the air….

There have been changes in the air, and I feel like I’ve been blown along like a rather large, ungainly tumbleweed.

Most of my latest posts have been cooking ones, but there hasn’t been a lot of activity in the kitchen, nor the running or fashion front.

Yesterday I went on an outing to Oxford. It was lovely. I wandered around the cobbled streets. Every now and again my feet would find a crack between two cobblestones, and I would tip to one side, my equilibrium temporarily unbalanced. My feet walked me to the Ashmolean Museum. I was disappointed that all the pre-Rhapaelites had been shipped off to the Tate Britain, but there was still plenty to admire.

I walked past hundreds of Oxford students, and felt sad. I wanted to stay here, and bury myself into the very substance of the city.  Perhaps it was slip of my subconscious, but I bought a return ticket from Oxford to London, instead of a single. So there will be a time later this year when I’ll be back again….

Mileage Freakout

I am one of those runners that gets worked up about managing to fit enough mileage into each week. I don’t set myself a particularly high bar – trying to total up 40km/week, but when you have hours like mine, it can make fitting them in quuuuite tricky.

Not being the most motivated of individuals after a hard day’s graft, I prefer getting my runs done and dusted first thing in the morning. However, when you’re getting up at 6am anyway, a 5am start seems a little too sadistic for my liking. So with the shortening evenings, I’m finding myself trying to fit the runs in the dark hours.

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Anyway, it’s terribly ironic that I took up running to deal with my stress, and now I’m getting stressed out by my running! I am obsessed by mileage, speed and my competitive nature getting the better of me. That unfortunately means getting into a tizzy when I see other people running longer, faster and further.

Anyway, it’s around 6 months until my marathon, and I’m having a mini freakout. That’s because the longest distance I’ve ever managed to run is 13.1 miles, i.e. half that distance. And I can’t even imagine the possibility of covering 20 miles, let alone the killer 26.2.

Eeeeeek!