The Tragedy and the Triumph of Baking in Britain

It seems simple enough: my supervisor’s birthday is coming up. I enjoy baking. (Mostly, I enjoy the cake batter/cookie dough/etc.) And so: cupcakes!

I decide to make them from a box (GASP!!!) since I was a little swamped that day. But to jazz ’em up a little, I whip up some chocolate ganache for the middle (essentially chocolate sauce: I enjoy putting it on almost everything). Naturally, I am left with oodles of ganache. Naturally, I need to use it up.

And so: sugar cookies stuffed with ganache, and then s’more cupcakes with ganache icing. From scratch.

And then the trouble starts…


Challenge 1: Shopping

Welcome to my thought process in the grocery store:

Where in this blasted store are the baking powder and baking soda? I see the flour, and the sugar… the baking powder and baking soda must be around here somewhere.

Oh. I get it. “Bicarbonate of soda.” Those Brits. Funny shaped canisters, too. This is why they lost the empire.


BUT WHY IS THE COCOA POWDER NOT IN THE BAKING SECTION? Oh, of course, there is an entire SECTION dedicated to chocolate in its various forms. Empire won again.

Challenge 2: Translating

I gather all my materials, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and get ready to make a miracle.

Of course, I lack mixing bowls – but why should that stop me?! I have a casserole dish. It’s essentially the same thing.

The real problem: blasted British measurements. See, I’m stubborn and kooky and insist on using recipes I’m used to… aka American recipes (U-S-A! U-S-A). But in the Land of Liz, they have entirely different methods of measuring.

For example: Pyrex measuring cup marked for ounces, pints, and liters: no 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup, anything.

(Should it be called a measuring PINT then? Hmmm.)

The stick of butter? More like a brick of butter, differentiated by lines measuring 50 grams. No such thing as 1/4c of butter marked on the wrapper in the United Kingdom, lad.

But I am a tough Scandinavian woman and I persevere! More accurately, I have a little post-it cheat sheet stuck on my cabinet to translate cups into ounces and a handy website that is literally a butter converter. What fun!

Challenge 3: The physical act of baking

All right guys and girls, it may have taken a precise measurement of 56.7 grams of butter, but we finally got to the glory moment: baking in the oven!

Of course, as you may remember, this is the kitchen that Zenon, girl of the 21st century, uses. I finally scrounged up the user’s manuel, but got a headache when trying to translate British to American and finally just set it on the little bold bar at the top with the fan going and figured I would call it a day.

Challenge 4: Getting everything eaten and not STUFFING YOUR FACE

Of course, after overcoming the horrific challenges of purchasing baking soda and turning the dials on the oven, I face the largest challenge of all: I don’t have a roommate (or people who come to my flat on a daily basis)… I don’t have anything that can easily transport baked goods… and I just made 15 cupcakes.

Damnit.

But fear not, because in addition to being a Swede/Irish gal with a sparkling personality, I also am a Girl Scout with a box of tinfoil. Et viola, cupcake carrying cases constructed entirely out of tinfoil! Thank you, thank you.

I’m proud to say those puppies were consumed in one day. I’m less proud to say that I kept six in my house for future usage and they are all gone. I may or may not have made them less than five days ago.

The good news is? THAT CHOCOLATE GANACHE IS FINALLY GONE!

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Seven Years

Seven years ago… I came to Europe for the first time, in the best way possible: with my best friends (then and now).

In the summer of 2005, 17-year-old Kristen was on the edge of all that was to happen Next: graduation from high school, off to the Brave New World, and of course the current utter unknown. 
But back then, I just enjoyed my whirlwind tour of Europe that culminated in the most wonderful August days in England you could imagine, marking my first official steps into the country that would become my home twice in the next seven years. 

One year ago, I returned to the same locations for the first time since 2005: Bath and Stonehenge. 
I delighted in realizing that I recognized many of the places from before, including the “wishing well” in the Roman Baths where 17-year-old Kristen threw in a coin after taking a picture just like this, wishing for God knows what. Naturally I had to recreate (expression and all). You’re just gonna have to trust it’s like the old picture, which was taken in the olden days before Facebook was around to immortalize everything forever. 
This time around, 23-year-old Kristen had a lot of experiences under her belt. By this point, I’d been back to England twice more (once as a tourist and once to live for the semester as a student), so of course they basically made me Queen. I’d done the college thing (with a few bumps along the way) and was a year into grad school. I was edging into my major life changes but not quite yet. There was still time for wishing. 
One week ago, I was back at Bath and Stonehenge. 

Once a student, now the teacher (really… I even had the “Educational Tour Leader” sticker to prove it at Stonehenge! Of course, I got scolded by the guard for not being with my students but once I explained they are 18 and not requiring supervision by Stonehenge Laws he relented. Take that, Stonehenge man!). I’ve been introducing others to the places I first saw when I was their age, delighting in their general 18-year-old-ness. 
Even though I am a Grown Up and Educational Tour Leader (naturally), there’s still time for wishing. 
Most importantly, I’ve found comfort in visiting these historic landmarks that have literally withstood the test of time, that have been there for millennia, that have been viewed and worshipped and adored and drawn and photographed by others long before me and long after me. I drank the water that Seneca drank, for pete’s sake! 
For me, they have been the witnesses to my personal life changes for the past seven years. For as much as I have changed, you know what hasn’t changed? 
From August 2005, to July 2011, to September 2012…

 Steady as a rock. (Stop it, Kristen, you’re too funny!)

Also hasn’t changed:

And Then I Joined a London Orchestra

I have no memory of how it started.

Somehow, in 5th grade I started to play the violin.

I know. You’re jealous of my awesome dress.

Thus started what is (so far, at least) a lifelong love affair. I played all throughout middle school and high school, and joined the University Symphony Orchestra my freshman year at GW, completely accidentally. I hadn’t even been planning to bring my violin to college, but my mother persuaded me to do so, and in that first week when I was extremely homesick I decided that joining an orchestra would be a good distraction from my misery.

Unfortunately, due to increasing academic and professional responsibilities, I wasn’t able to continue with the GWUSO. I continued to practice on my own, but a little half-heartedly; it’s frankly just more fun for me to play in a group.

Then I get to do things like this! 

And so I decided once I became a grown-up I would join a community orchestra, wherever I was living, with fellow amateur musicians with day jobs who just like playing. I even researched orchestras in Boston, assuming that was where I would end up.

But you know how the story goes… I moved to London instead. And then decided to travel for a bit afterwards. And so I figured I would have to shelve my community orchestra plans for a year.

Life has a funny way of changing your plans, doesn’t it? Just two days after arrival in London, I was enjoying the sun with some of our UK co-workers when one asked the other how “the orchestra preparation” was going. My ears perked up and I immediately butted in: “Wait, are you in an orchestra?!”

Imagine my delight when I discovered that YES, my new co-worker is the CONDUCTOR of a community orchestra that recruits students, professionals, and neighbors to join! Joining was as easy as me saying, “So can I join? And where can I rent a violin?” Seriously, this dude didn’t even want to know how long I have been playing, my skill level, anything. The fact that I can pull the bow across the strings in a semi-straight fashion is good enough.

Unfortunately my Ole Faithful violin is still Stateside. Don’t tell him I’ve hired out another violin to fill the void.

It may sound cheesy, but I’ve learned since then to always be open to new opportunities. In the middle of the craziness that is moving to a new city, starting a new job, and building a support system, having the opportunity to slip back into something that is so me is invaluable. The first time I held my rented violin (the hiring of which was itself a fiasco) I was just so happy, playing those scales. With a violin in hand, Kristen in London is the same as Kristen in Chesapeake.

The concert is tonight. I’m excited! (Also, I am REALLY out of violin-playing shape. Ouch!)

The Value of GETTING OUT!

After working every single day for about a month straight, I knew I needed to take some time and do something for me, preferably in a “safe zone” where I didn’t have to worry about running into any of those pesky students. And so, I decided to tick something off of my “London Bucket List” – visiting Kew Gardens!

I went there having done so little research, it was almost comical. I knew it was a really pretty Royal Botanical Park area, but thaaaat was about it. I picked a beautiful September day, figured out the directions, and prepared to let myself be wowed .

And was I wowed…! I can honestly say this is probably one of my favorite things I have ever seen in London. As soon as I got there, I almost immediately plopped on the grass next to a lake, some gorgeous flowerbeds, and a P&P style house, just soaking up the rays:

Eventually, and reluctantly, I thought, ‘Huh. I should probably actually look at the map and figure out where there is to do here.’
 
 
GULP. Yeaaaah…. this is gonna take a while. Apparently there are 300 acres of Kew Garden goodness, which means almost nothing to me but from the red square in the middle right side to the red square on the lower left corner is about a mile – so pretty much miles and miles of park! Time to get a move on.
I started a leisurely stroll around the Garden, taking in some expected sites, like a Tropical Greenhouse, waterfalls, and a Sound of Music-esque covered walkway…
And some unexpected sites, like a delightful aquarium with the funniest looking fish I’ve ever seen – this guy is about six inches tall and honestly the width of a piece of paper!
I also found the benefit of not doing research was that I could be pleasantly surprised; I spent five minutes walking around outside of a mystery greenhouse, taking pictures of the foliage around, and had my socks knocked off when I walked in and found a giant lily pond!
Just about when I was starting to get a little tired, I was able to tuck in to that quintessential British tradition: a cream tea.
This also gave me the opportunity to sort out what I still needed to do, as I had been here an hour and covered a lot of ground… or so I thought.
Turns out I had JUST done that teeny corner of the map and still had approximately 3/4 of the park to cover. Oh my giddy god.
Of course, by that time the mid-afternoon sun and park frolicking was starting to hit me: just in time for a reading break! And just in time to find one of the most secluded and peaceful spots I have ever encountered:
Well, secluded except for my little buddy who came up to join me. Anyone have any idea what kind of bird that is? My only hope was that it wouldn’t be a dangerous one!
I wasn’t the only one with an interesting bird visitor by my next reading spot:
After about two hours of wandering around, I reluctantly realized I should probably head to the other half of the park and take that in before closing time. Little did I know just how wonderfully… quiet such a popular attraction could be! There was literally no one on this lane that I wandered down – it got to the point where I actually got a little nervous I had somehow wandered out of the park/would be lost there forever!
I finally got to round out my visit with my first time (to my knowledge) seeing an American Redwood Tree (as they are called here)!
And I concluded by taking a birds-eye view at the top of the trees:
Happy Kristen.
So, even though the entrance was fairly astronomical (£16), would I recommend it? Yes, yes, yes! Particularly as so many other things in London are free. This was just such a wonderful experience, especially on a beautifully warm September day. I would even suggest planning the whole day there, taking a picnic lunch and a book, and spreading out your exploration with plenty of relaxation and food time.
Flowers!

Snapshots: London Under Blue Skies

Yes, I know: it rains a lot in London.

But when it’s nice outside, you’ve got it made, because London is absolutely gorgeous!

At the beginning of my stay in August, it was positively steaming outside, with temperatures in the 80s and very few cloudy days. According to the forecast, it’s meant to soon dip into the 60s and start its infamous spitting of rain, but in the meantime I’m just enjoying the Vitamin D.

The iconic shot of London, made a little more exciting with the Olympic Rings! 

Daytrip out to Greenwich. No fewer than three people told me, “Hey, Kristen. There’s a Nandos over there.” (just out of the shot). Thanks, guys! To be fair, EVERY SINGLE TIME I speak with a student about a particular site in London I inevitably follow it up with “…and there’s a great Nandos close by.” No shame.

Lovely morning in Kensington Gardens 


The street where my students are staying – too posh to believe, eh?


Celebrating London 2012

Londonians (Londoners?) like to brag that 2012 is their best year yet. But really… it’s kind of true. Their Royal Family is as popular as ever, with Good Queen Bess punching in another year on the clock. They successfully hosted the Olympics and Paraolympics. One Direction is set to release another album soon. Really, it’s a good year to be alive in London.

Luckily for ME, I got to experience some of the London Thrill with thousands of my closest friends in the past few weeks at the Notting Hill Carnival and the Piccadilly Circus Circus (which is probably my favorite name ever).

The Notting Hill Carnival is infamous for its HUGE crowds, and the occasional stabbing, in the world’s BIGGEST Carnaval after Rio. What started as a celebration of the neighborhood’s Afro-Caribbean community has become giNORmous.

I enjoyed it with a few friends, and I am proud to say that there was only one point where I thought, “Yup. This is where I die. This spot.” But I figured a gal who can make it through a New Year’s Eve in  Times Square can get through anything.

I was too distracted by my impeding death, and more importantly by eating delicious food with my friends, to take many pictures. But here’s just a taste of the huge crowds:

And the coolest guy on the planet, who made Jello Shots in portable plastic pouches and threw them out the window of his flat to the revelers on the street!

Right before I started to fear for my life – one of the bits of the giant parade that I caught.

The weekend following, I thanked my lucky stars that I subscribe to the Londonist blog because I found out about the Piccadilly Circus Circus! Not a typo – they closed down the streets in the neighborhood to host various acts of circus fun.

When I first got there, I thought it was going to be another failed attempt like my Peter Pan tour; nothing seemed to be happening! Luckily I just got there during the short break, because after a few minutes I was able to slowly wander down the street and enjoy scenes of acrobatic amazement.

First up: super hunky dude.

 Next, one of the coolest chicks I have ever seen. Just chilling in her street clothes (and super awesome shoes. I gotta ask girlfriend where she got them.), climbing up a pole and swinging off it like it’s no big thang.

I shot a video so you could see how cool she is:

This next girl was about five years old, in my approximation. My question is, how does one get into doing this? Do you start with gymnastics and decide you want something more? DO you run away with the circus?

Next group: Yes, they may be just doing a plain ol’ cheerleader’s pyramid, but according to my intense research they are basically a modern-day Moroccan Von Trapp family, so you gotta give them props for that.

One final thing that is making London proud this 2012 – Larry, the 10 Downing Street resident cat (the Prime Minister’s own mouser) has FINALLY caught a mouse! It’s been in all the papers here, as I gather there has been a lot of smack talk that this cat was a little soft prior to his kill. Downing Street issued a statement and everything. My absolute favorite article had this picture of Larry with the caption reading something like, “Larry striding down the stairs after his first confirmed kill.” I LOVE IT. Thank you, London.

Image via metro.co.uk

Completely Failing The Peter Pan Tour of London

I have what I like to call are my “automatic tearjerkers.” No matter how many times I have watched these movies, I pop them in and reach for the tissues, secure in the knowledge that the tears will be a-rolling. Steel Magnolias is one of these movies, and Finding Neverland is the other.

Personally, I feel no shame in the fact that I love Finding Neverland so. It’s an incredibly beautiful, and incredibly sad, movie. If you haven’t seen it and fancy a good cry, give it a go.

Image via http://twofistedfilmgazer.blogspot.co.uk

On one of my first days since arriving that I didn’t have actual work to do, I decided to loll about for the morning watching a movie. Since I am in London (WHAT?!), only a British movie would do. And I was thumbing through the movies, I realized that Finding Neverland was in fact filmed in Kensington Gardens and J.M. Barrie lived in the hood! HEEEEEY!

So I put it in, and two hours later I wearily arose from the couch, with an actual tear stain on my shirt (not my guitar). Through the misery, I had a thought buzzing… I should go FIND Peter Pan themed things here in London and write a blog post about it! How lovely! 

And so I marched outside and headed the half mile north to Kensington Gardens, ready to get my blogger on. Of course, there were other things in store for me… namely THE WEATHER. I smugly distrust the weather predictions in London, since it pretty much SAYS rain every day but rarely is bad enough to warrant an umbrella. I was carrying one anyway, but I should be fine. I could see people out picnicing! Look at this sky! Interesting clouds, sure, but nothing to be concerned about.

So I arrive to the Gardens and say HEY!!! to the home of my future in-laws:

In my very very intense research for this tour, I had found out that the Peter Pan statue was by the Long Lake. Now I could have done the simple thing and looked up where that lake was, but how hard could it be? It’s a lake! I’d head for the body of water! In fact, there’s a body of water right over there, and I can see a statue on the other side! Let’s go.

As I start the walk around the lake, the heavens POUR open. My just-gotten-dry feet are quivering just remembering it. Then I get to the statue and it’s not even Peter – it’s literally “Pure Energy” or some stupid thing like that. COME ON!

I doggedly decide to continue heading north to the old home of Barrie, which I know to be at 100 Bayswater. While it’s still raining, I find a bit of romantic wonderment in walking the empty paths and imagining what it was like 100 years ago – and doesn’t this look like the picture above?!

Finally reaching the street, I randomly turn to one side reasoning I can always backtrack. Naturally this utterly fails me – by the time I can see house numbers, I’m in the 60s and there’s no going back. Number 100 will have to wait.

Luckily I was able to enjoy some beautiful things from the day as the sun peeked its head out, including the Italian Gardens:

Of course, the sun shining was only a tease, for the heavens opened again. And thus my wonderful Peter Pan tour, which would also include me sitting in the park reading my just-downloaded copy, completely failed.

Completely coincidentally, as I trudged home I actually found the statue! So here’s your damn picture:

Final bit of SQUEE from the day – not cats but Mama Duck protecting Baby Ducks from the rain!