A very vintage Christmas

Like me, you may enjoy coming together with family or friends after Christmas dinner to watch a beloved holiday classic. A Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Child’s Christmas in Wales… there are so many good ones. But what if Christmas seems to be coming around oftener and oftener, and you’ve seen all of these just a few too many times?

In recent years, I’ve discovered a few “new” (to me) vintage Christmas gems. Nobody seems to ever talk about these, but they’re just as good as the more popular classics. At the very least, they offer something a bit different and prolong the black & white charm. I now present them to you, personally tested and approved, in order of release date.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The_Shop_Around_the_Corner_-_1940-_PosterThose of you who love It’s a Wonderful Life won’t want to miss Ernst Lubitsch’s very cute romantic comedy starring a younger Jimmy Stewart.

An aspiring salesman in a Budapest leathergoods shop, Alfred Kralik (Stewart) must contend with the arrival of a maddeningly headstrong new shop assistant, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). But at the same time, his love life is looking rosy as he begins exchanging anonymous letters with an intriguing woman encountered through a personal ad in the newspaper. As the story progresses, we learn that Miss Novak, who has taken a strong dislike to Mr. Kralik, is also writing to a secret anonymous correspondent of her own… Can you guess where this is going? Also, if this sounds a bit familiar, you may be thinking of Nora Ephron’s 1998 You’ve Got Mail, an adaptation of the same story with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the lead roles writing to each other anonymously via some primitive form of email.

Although I liked You’ve Got Mail well enough when it first came out (unaware at the time of this earlier version), perhaps impressed by their use of that newfangled technology, “electronic mail” (!), I now much prefer The Shop Around the Corner. The tight focus on the shop interactions allows us to closely follow the character development and evolving relationships among the staff. Stewart’s endearingly awkward character and the fiery arguments he has with his nemesis/love interest Klara are endlessly fun. I also love that the screenwriters kept the story’s original Budapest setting, including the characters’ Hungarian names, references to the local currency and Hungarian-language text in the shop’s signage. Why must everything always be transposed to an American setting? The world is full of other countries.

Much like in It’s a Wonderful Life, the Christmas season doesn’t make an appearance until a later part of the story. But any inclusion of Christmas during a film is enough to make it officially a Christmas one, I say. 😉

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Christmasinconnecticut.jpgDecades before smartphones were even imagined, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) has created an Instagram-perfect fake image of her life in the housekeeping column she wrote for a women’s magazine.

Unmarried, childless, living in a city apartment and unable to cook, she writes about the sprawling Connecticut farm she shares with her husband and their baby and the lavish meals she cooks there. Readers of the magazine eat it up and demand more and more. Things are going pretty well for Elizabeth, who is even making enough money to buy a mink coat (which EVERY woman from the 1940s to the 60s seems unfailingly to want).

Until the day when an imbroglio involving her boss, an unrefusable Christmas request, her longtime suitor and a dashing war veteran forces her to confront the falseness of the story she has woven and she must find a way to make the fiction become real…

Christmas in Connecticut is much more of a madcap, implausible story than The Shop Around the Corner, but still delivers on nostalgia and a certain kind of old-fashioned humor.

The Apartment (1960)

7de6e62fe936603612691a5a77f7d3e3The most modern of the black and white films I’m presenting here, both in its year of production and the content it presents, The Apartment is a cute and rather sweet story that happens to take place around Christmastime.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) plays a put-upon insurance company employee who has begun lending his apartment to his bosses for their dalliances with mistresses and doesn’t know how to get out of the situation. Dangling the prospect of a promotion in front of his eyes, they occupy his home every evening, leaving him to stand outside in the cold or work extra (unpaid) hours after everyone else has left. Meanwhile, his neighbors grow increasingly impatient with the constant parties and nonstop parade of different young women through the building. Baxter can only sigh and promise them to be more quiet as he frets over how to extricate himself from the mess, which could also spell the end of his job if the big boss ever finds out.

At work, Baxter has grown fond of a sarcastic but cute elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who also has a melancholy side. One married executive after another tries to pick her up without success, and Baxter wonders what his chances with her might be. Perhaps when he finally gets that promotion he’ll be in a position to try. Meanwhile, Miss Kubelik has a secret of her own…

I loved this film’s aesthetic, with the worker-bee office setting (and company Christmas party that must have served as inspiration for Mad Men) and the very cozy looking apartment that made me want to move right in – if the executives would stop coming around with their girlfriends, that is. And I was especially fond of Baxter’s frustrated neighbors, one of whom calls him a “beatnik” upon discovering he has no napkins in the house.

A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

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And finally, one that isn’t black and white but will charm you all the same! This shortish (47 min.) and often overlooked television special manages to bring together characters from ALL of the shows starring the world’s favorite felt puppets: The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Muppet Babies and even Fraggle Rock. It’s a heart-warming celebration of togetherness, family, friends and sharing.

You may already be familiar with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), another favorite of mine but not covered here because this post is about the lesser known things. A Muppet Family Christmas precedes it by five years, but because it was designed for television only, it could not be widely released elsewhere due to copyright on the songs. It can therefore be hard to find, but if you take a look here you may just luck out.

The special begins with Fozzie Bear driving his friends from The Muppet Show to his mother’s house in the country for a surprise Christmas visit. Little does he realize that she’s about to leave for a Malibu vacation and has rented the house to the man from Fraggle Rock and his dog Sprocket, who have already arrived and are relishing the prospect of a quiet Christmas surrounded by nature. But when the gang arrives, they decide to stay with the uninvited guests, whose numbers seem never to stop growing as the program continues. The main Sesame Street cast is soon knocking at her door, followed by random groups of other Muppets, some known (Dr. Bunsen Honeydew) and some that may have been new (the snowman and turkey).

The Muppets meet, sing, negotiate space in the house and worry about Miss Piggy’s perilous journey through a snowstorm to join them. Meanwhile, the Swedish chef, who has arrived with a very large stockpot, sets his sights first on the turkey and then on Big Bird (!!!). The choice he makes next, disarmed by Big Bird’s naive benevolence, is rare both on the screen and in real life.

My favorite moments in this special are when we see a decidedly 1980s Miss Piggy chatting to Kermit over the phone from her photo shoot and shopping session, and when Kermit and Robin discover a spooky portal in the basement.

Be sure to watch to the end for the cameo by a VERY special someone!

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Perhaps some of these will become favorites for you, too! What holiday films do you like to watch again and again? Do you have any other obscure ones to add to this list?

And here’s my recipe for the perfect Christmastime evening:

  1. Make this Scandinavian juleboller dish for dinner
  2. Brew a pot of your favorite tea
  3. Settle yourself cozily on the couch with your favorite person or furry companion
  4. Watch one of the above Christmas movies while sipping your tea and enjoying some scrumptious dark chocolate mendiants (or the white chocolate version)

Merry Christmas to you! See you again in the new year.

Chocolate-dipped orange segments

As the holiday season gears into full swing, you may find yourself invited to multiple parties and potlucks. What dish will you bring? This question is a source of stress for many, and understandably so – it’s no easy task to choose something that stands out from the rest and isn’t a duplicate of someone else’s contribution. If it’s a dessert you’re after, look no further than this very easy and unique idea.

What’s nice about it is that it’s light and provides a burst of freshness, an ideal contrast after typically substantial holiday dishes like mashed potatoes and cornbread. And at the same time, it’s fancy and looks pretty on a tray. But best of all, for you, it’s super simple to make!

You really need just three things: oranges, a bar of dark chocolate and some dried coconut. I make mine using mandarin oranges because of their tangier flavor, but any orange (or even Meyer lemon or grapefruit, if you’re adventurous!) will do. You could also opt to sprinkle the chocolate with chopped nuts (pistachio for a nice green color) or jimmies in holiday or birthday colors, depending on the season.

Chocolate-dipped orange segments

For about 50 segments (serves about 6 people)

  • 4-5 mandarin oranges
  • 3.5 oz (100 g) dark chocolate
  • 1/2 cup dried grated coconut

Equipment needed: a double boiler or saucepan plus round-bottomed metal bowl to put on top for a bain marie set-up, heat-resistant spatula, trays for placing the chocolate-dipped segments on (small enough to put in the refrigerator), waxed or parchment paper.

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Begin by gathering your ingredients. As you can probably guess, I had more oranges on hand than I really needed. That’s one of the nice things about this recipe, though – if you decide halfway through to make a larger quantity, it’s easy to just peel some more oranges and melt more chocolate.

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Peel your oranges and separate the segments before anything else. Try to pick as much of the stringy white stuff off as you can. Make sure the segments are dry as the chocolate won’t stick to them otherwise (pat dry with a paper towel if any of them are covered in juice).

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Roughly chop the chocolate.

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Place it in the top part of your double-boiler or in the metal bowl. Heat the water on high until it boils, then reduce to low, ensuring that the water continues to simmer. During this time, you can prepare the trays that will be placed in the refrigerator. Line them with pieces of waxed or parchment paper.

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Melt the chocolate, stirring with your heat-resistant spatula to ensure even melting.

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Once the chocolate is completely melted, you’re ready to dip the orange segments!

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I prefer to dip the segments and sprinkle the coconut on just the top so the segments remain flat on one side and sit on the presentation plate better. But if you’re so inclined you can dip the segment into the bowl of coconut so it’s coated on both sides.

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I usually sprinkle all the segments with coconut at the same time as soon as the tray is full. Next, put the tray in the fridge so the chocolate can set. It will be ready in about an hour. Keep refrigerated until the time you serve them so the orange segments don’t go bad.

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I brought this most recent batch to a party and they went over quite well! To transport it, I laid the segments in layers separated by waxed paper in a flat-bottomed bowl with a Tupperware-type cover. They stayed in good shape despite a fair amount of bumping and jostling from strangers during a 45-minute trip on the metro.

Bonus recipe: if a bit of chocolate remains in the bowl after you’ve finished dipping your orange segments, just add some milk, heat the bottom pan again and whisk to make yourself a mug of artisanal hot chocolate!

If you make these chocolate-dipped orange segments, please let us know in the comments how they turned out and if you tried any variations. Enjoy!

 

29 hours in Clermont-Ferrand

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Vercingetorix (82-46 BC)

Three and a half hours south of Paris by train, almost in the center of the country, is one of France’s oldest cities. Before the Romans arrived around 50 BC, it was Nemossos, the home of the Gaulish Arverni tribe led by the famous chieftain Vercingetorix. The invaders renamed it Augusta Nemetum, and then in the 9th century it became known as Clairmont after the castle Clarus Mons. Over the centuries, it was attacked by Vikings, Normans and Visigoths and also served as the starting point for the First Crusade (1095-1099). In the 18th century, it merged with the neighboring city of Montferrand and took on the name we know it by today.

How about now? What draws visitors not interested in invading or waging a religious war? Clermont-Ferrand is famous today for being the home of multinational tire manufacturer Michelin and hosting the world’s biggest international film festival dedicated to short films. It’s also surrounded by a chain of dormant volcanoes whose highest point is the lava cone Puy de Dôme, which can be seen from many parts of the city. And of course, street art—the main reason for my quick trip to Clermont-Ferrand the other weekend.

I arrived just after noon on a beautiful sunny day and left the next day around 5, so was there for only about 29 hours. But that was long enough to form an idea of the city, supplemented by vague memories of an even briefer trip there back in 2006. I can therefore share only a few things about Clermont-Ferrand, and this article will be more of an introduction to the city than anything else.

Day 1: vegan lunch, space invaders and dinner from a grocery store next to the freeway

As always when arriving somewhere, anywhere, directly from Paris, I immediately noticed how much cleaner the air and streets were. I then became enamored with the city’s splendid colorful houses and the deliciously ancient feeling that reigns in the area around the spooky Gothic cathedral made entirely of black lava stone. After navigating a few narrow medieval streets, I arrived at Myrtille, a beautiful little eatery where almost everything is vegan.

I had the beet and orange soup garnished with soy cream, chives and toasted hazelnuts for a starter and then a quinoa and azuki bean salad with arugula, potato and sweet potato, green beans, carrot and squash seeds. Both very nice, especially as I was famished after the longish train ride.

Clermont-Ferrand has a total of three vegetarian restaurants (no fully vegan places), which is not bad for a French city of 142,000 souls, and only Myrtille and another one called La BerGamoThée were open this particular day. As I wanted to try both, I headed to the second one for coffee. Although the owner of La BerGamoThée was washing dishes after the lunch service when I arrived and was starting to think about closing, she gave me a very warm welcome. I ordered coffee and a scoop of sorbet, and as the caffeine revived me from my sleep-deprived state (it had been a very early morning), I began to feel more like my usual self. The owner was curious to hear my story (what was a foreigner doing in those parts?) and we chatted a bit about our lives. She wasn’t a native of Clermont-Ferrand but had been there for some years after trying various other cities including Paris. One of the nice things about Clermont-Ferrand, she said, is that it’s almost always sunny, even in the winter. As someone who starts having an existential crisis every November, when the gray season in Paris begins, I made a mental note of this key detail.

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Invader’s CLR_09 from the 2016 wave greeted me at the station as I exited my train from Paris.

Back to our history lesson. Some 2,050 years after the Romans, Clermont-Ferrand was invaded yet again… but this time the intruders were a whole lot cuter. French street artist Invader placed his first mosaic on a city wall in 2001, then returned a few times to add more, culminating in 2016 with an impressive wave of 31 more creative and ambitious pieces paying homage to the things the city is famous for. As you stroll around town you may notice 8-bit aliens wearing 3D glasses, holding popcorn, featuring in film frames or fleeing volcanoes. A few pixelated bats, most likely escaped from the belfries of the ominous Gothic cathedral, can also be seen lurking about.

Those of you who follow my Instagram already know about Flashinvaders, the GPS game the artist created so his fans could “collect” his works around the world and score points for their finds. For every new city, you get 100 bonus points. Clermont-Ferrand is a particularly good city for this game as a lot of the works have high values and most of them are pretty close to each other.

After a long afternoon of exploring the city and finding mosaics, I headed to my hotel, which turned out to be a farther hike from the downtown than I’d thought when planning my trip. Moreover, it was right next to a busy freeway interchange surrounded by desolation. Once there, I scrapped the idea I’d had of returning to the city center for dinner and began looking for something nearby.

It turned out there was nothing much, and definitely nothing likely to have vegan options other than fries and iceberg lettuce, so it was time for Plan B: the large Intermarché grocery store on the other side of the freeway. Rain clouds were beginning to gather in a suitably dramatic sky, but I just thanked my lucky stars there was a store in that area at all and set out, umbrella in hand.

IMG_3374At the store, I had some trouble finding the hummus (every vegan’s lifesaver) and began to worry there wouldn’t be any, but in the end emerged with enough provisions for an evening meal and breakfast the next morning.

I spent a cozy evening at the remote but otherwise nice hotel eating hummus, resting my feet (12.5 km covered that day), editing photos and watching vintage episodes of The Simpsons in French. The French version is pretty good, although some jokes are untranslatable and the voices always seem a little wrong. Fun fact: they blur the Duff Beer brand name when it appears on-screen because it has become a real beer in Europe and France has strict laws on alcohol product placement on television.

Day 2: a museum of tires, a ghost town and more street art

The next morning, after breakfasting on the remaining hummus plus some hotel coffee, it was time to learn about tires at L’Aventure Michelin! Back in 1889, brothers Édouard and André Michelin were running a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand when they developed a removable pneumatic bicycle tire. Two years later, these tires, which they patented that same year, were used by the man who won the world’s first long-distance cycle race, the Paris-Brest-Paris (an ancestor of today’s Tour de France). The Michelins then shifted their focus to rubber tires for those newfangled horseless carriages, and the rest is history.

This museum is quite interesting, especially if you’re like me and have never thought much about tires and what went into developing them. For example, at a certain point different types of coverings to protect the tires from puncture were tested—the materials included leather, fabric, cork and steel rivets, each of them presenting some kind of major disadvantage. Michelin eventually developed innovations making these additions unnecessary. Later, in a bid to promote their brand, they added an “M” tread to the tires to leave distinctive tracks everywhere the cars went, and accidentally discovered that it improved safety too.

It so happened that this year marks the 120th anniversary (birthday?) of the Michelin Man, who over the years has become a familiar character around the world and was even named “best logo of all time” by an international panel of experts in 2000. To mark this anniversary, L’Aventure Michelin had put together a special exhibition about the man made of tires. Like many cartoon characters, his appearance has changed over time, going from a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike to his current incarnation. Presumably, his designers wanted to make him seem more friendly and approachable, and less likely to encourage smoking (!), but I will always prefer the original look.

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Of course, there’s also a Michelin Man invader! (CLR_37 from 2016)

After the museum, I set about hunting down the last few invaders on my list. Incidentally, it was lucky I’d bought so much bread the night before, as it turned out that Clermont-Ferrand is almost a complete ghost town on Sundays. Even if I were a meat-eater, it would have been difficult or impossible to find anything to eat. To get a much-needed coffee in the afternoon, I had to duck into a hotel and bother the front-desk guy. The streets around the cathedral, bustling and packed with people on Saturday, were eerily empty on Sunday. The cathedral itself even seemed to be closed (!), so I sadly can’t report on the inside of it this time.

The most challenging invader to add to my score on this trip was CLR_35, located on the wall of a freeway right where it forms a bridge (making the mosaic invisible from the street level below). With coaching from an expert invader-hunter friend, I discovered there were nevertheless two ways to “flash” it with the app: 1. entering the freeway on foot from the nearest entrance ramp or 2. scaling a small but steep slope next to the bridge. Preferring to avoid activities that could lead to arrest and deportation, I chose the more discreet option 2.

Clinging precariously to the fence, the thorns in the poisonberry bush next to it digging into my skin as rain clouds menaced overhead, I still couldn’t see more than the tips of the invader’s ears. But I held my phone up above my head and hoped for the best. This, by the way, was one of the “What am I doing?” moments that everyone with an obsessive hobby reaches at some point. Happily, it worked after just a few tries—the left-hand flash capture above shows how little of a piece needs to be visible sometimes. And best of all, I didn’t get arrested. On the right is the official photo of the invader in all his glory as he races down the road.

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Another fun one was this large 100-point piece of a certain French singer on Rue Serge Gainsbourg…

But Clermont-Ferrand also features creative works by other street artists, such as Lyon-based Lasco, who—true to his name—paints animals inspired by the prehistoric paintings in Lascaux Cave in southwestern France. Made around 17,000 years ago, the paintings were discovered by chance in 1940 by a group of teenage boys and are now among the first things mentioned in timelines of the country’s history. I, in turn, discovered the street art paying homage to them completely by chance and was delighted!

Several trees and posts in Clermont-Ferrand had been yarn-bombed when I visited. In French, this is known as tricot urbain or “urban knitting”—love that term! These pieces are by a group calling themselves Les Peloteuses du Kfé Tricot.

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A collaboration in Rue Savaron by Apogé (left) and Repy One (right).

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If you love art too and are planning a trip to Clermont-Ferrand, you’ll want to pick up the free Such’art map of art galleries and street art from the tourist center in Place de la Victoire for a self-guided tour of works by Invader, Lasco and others. On Instagram, you can follow the latest street art developments in Clermont-Ferrand at @such_art_63.

At 5 pm it was time to board my train, and a good thing too because after 22.2 km of walking that day (!) and 34.7 km for the weekend as a whole, I was ready for a bit of a rest! The skies continued to offer dramatic clouds as the train sped northwards and the sun began to set.

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The places mentioned in this post:

  • Myrtille restaurant: 4 Petite Rue Saint-Pierre, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • La BerGamoThée restaurant: 1 Place du Mazet, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • L’Aventure Michelin: 32 Rue du Clos Four, 63100 Clermont-Ferrand
  • Maison du Tourisme (tourist office with street art map): Place de la Victoire, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand

Cookbook challenge

Those of you who know me from my Facebook days may remember my cookbook challenge.

I started it a few years ago, inspired by a friend who did the first one I’d ever heard of. At her New Year’s Eve party one year, chatting with some guests who were admiring her cookbook collection, she realized she wasn’t using them as often as she would like. To remedy the situation, she set herself a resolution to be completed over the next 365 days, and that was to make one recipe from each of her 100 cookbooks. The challenge included posting a photo and description of each dish on Facebook. In spite of obstacles including limited daylight hours (important for a good photo) at the beginning and end of her challenge, she made it, posting the last few recipes in mid-December.

And what began as a simple can-I-do-it personal dare turned out to be a great way to be an ambassador for veganism. A frequent question vegans get from meat-eating folk is “But what do you eat?” and with this challenge, all her Facebook friends got to see real-life examples of what she actually eats. It turned out my friend had a talent for food photo styling too, so the dishes in her photos looked especially beautiful and scrumptious.

As her challenge got into full swing I realized there were several cookbooks in my own growing collection that I still hadn’t tried, and decided to do a challenge of my own. Since I had fewer books (around 40 at the time) I resolved to make five recipes from each one, but over a longer period of time, with no end date. I was ambitious as I started, even making a bold promise not to buy any new cookbooks until the challenge was done—I failed at this part, seduced embarrassingly soon afterwards by a new superfoods book.

My collection was made up mostly of vegan cookbooks—no surprise there since going vegan is what made me get into cooking in the first place—but I also had some vegetarian ones and even an omni one that came with a set of pastry circles I’d ordered online. But they were all to be included in the challenge, with vegan adaptations as necessary. Most of my books were in English but several were in French, one in Catalan and one in Icelandic (!), which of course adds a fun extra dimension (remember, I’m a translator!).

I focused on one book at a time, posting the cover image first and then adding the photos of the recipes as I made them. In some cases I skipped ahead and made a recipe from another book, but then would save that photo until later when covering the book in question.

In the process of this challenge, which is still technically underway, I’ve discovered recipes that have since become some of my very favorites and have gained a firm place in my day-to-day repertoire (the cheese sauce from Vegan Yum Yum, for example, and the Scandinavian tofu balls from Boulettes et galettes végétales, which I later translated and posted here). The challenge has also obliged me to try recipes that I might not have made otherwise, for example if there was no photo for them in the book, and some of these turned out to be excellent.

For one of the books, Vegana i catalana, I found myself translating from Catalan, which I loved. I wouldn’t do that professionally, but for a handful of recipes for personal use, it was a fun challenge and not too hard since I know French and some Spanish. I posted one of them here on the blog too.

Here are some highlights from the books I’ve done so far…

Lentil crêpes with a garlic-parsley yogurt sauce from Curcuma en cuisine and date bars from Délices déshydratés.

Black rice with soybeans from Kansha and Thai seitan curry from Coco.

Crêpes with dulce de leche and sweet plantains from Viva Vegan! and cashew-stuffed capsicums in a coconut-curry leaf sauce from World Food Café 2.

Fideuada from Vegana i catalana (see my version of the recipe here) and crispy millet and peanut butter buckeyes from Thug Kitchen.

Chocolate-banana crêpes with coconut cream and berries from Rawsome Vegan Baking and potato latkes from Mayim’s Vegan Table.

Fiery fruit and quinoa salad from Salad Samurai and chocolate-orange curd tarts from Pies and Tarts with Heart.

Plum knödels from Mes festins végétaliens and spiced carrot and almond soup from The French Market Cookbook.

Millet balls with orange-arugula sauce from Boulettes et galettes végétales and raw apple turnover from Le Bon cru.

And as I mentioned, this challenge is still not finished! When I began this blog in October 2016 and started working on recipes for it, I had less time and energy for other recipes and sort of put this on hold. But I plan to continue it, especially since I got only about half-way through it (24 out of 40-some books). I will post the results on my Instagram and maybe also on the Red Violet Facebook page if people there are interested. In the interest of completeness, I’ll be posting all the photos from the cookbooks previously covered too. To see them on Instagram, just do a search for #redvioletcookbookchallenge which I’ll include among the hashtags for each of them.

When I’m finally done with the books I already have (there are maybe around 50 now), I’ll have made 250 recipes! So one of the benefits is learning a thing or two: techniques, new flavor combinations, shortcuts and so on.

Another of the eventual outcomes of this challenge will be a binder of my favorite recipes from the challenge (and other favorites from before it) that I’ll create to keep in my kitchen for easy access.

The biggest challenge in this challenge, translating and making ICELANDIC recipes, still lies ahead! Will I be able to pull it off? Stay tuned!

In the meantime, why not try a cookbook challenge of your own? You never know what gems you may unearth from your dusty collection!

Chunky Monkey un-granola

As a freelance translator with most of my clients based in France, I normally have very quiet Augusts due to the fact that every French person leaves on vacation for the entire month, reducing Paris to a ghost town of sorts populated largely by tourists and a skeleton crew of hoteliers and restaurateurs. But this year, just before leaving, a few of my clients decided to send me huge files to translate by the end of the month. That suited me as I’d already done a bit of traveling in July (to the Netherlands and England) and wanted to make some money.

When accepting these large files, I assumed that I wouldn’t be getting much of the usual work (smaller files with shorter deadlines), but it turned out that several of my regular clients had not completely closed up shop for August and still needed some things translated, and specifically by me. So I ended up having a very busy August indeed. At times such as these, my energy and patience for making elaborate recipes just isn’t there, and I find myself eating bowl after bowl of the same basic pasta with random vegetables thrown in.

One morning, fairly short on groceries and wondering what to have for breakfast, I noticed a box of rolled oats I’d bought to make muffins with and decided to put some of that in a bowl with some soy milk. Rooting around my kitchen a bit more, I found some walnuts and added them too. It turned out I also had a banana. After then, wanting to have an interesting photo for Instagram, I put some of the chocolate sprinkles I’d bought in Rotterdam on top.

I realized that what I’d made was basically un-granola.

Although it may sound strange, dry uncooked rolled oats with soy milk is actually not bad. If you give it a minute or two, the soy milk absorbs into the oats a bit, softening them, so there isn’t strictly any need to cook them. Oats in this form are also healthier than granola—if you’ve ever tried making your own granola at home, you know how much sugar and oil goes into getting the oats and things to stick together and be crunchy. And of course, plain rolled oats are much less expensive than granola of any kind, store-bought or homemade.

This particular un-granola also reminded me of something. Walnuts, banana, chocolate… where had I seen that combination before? Of course, in Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream! Which to my great delight had recently come to Paris in the new dairy-free version. It’s a great combination of flavors, and what could be better than eating Chunky Monkey (of sorts) for breakfast?

I also put some chia seeds into this un-granola, not for their gelling property—although you could easily make this into overnight oats if you, unlike me, have the presence of mind to get started the night before—but for their amazing health benefits. Walnuts too are bursting with good things. Even the chocolate provides magnesium and protein, so this is a breakfast nobody can argue with.

Of all the recipes I’ve posted on this blog, this is by far the easiest. It’s not really even a recipe at all but a suggestion for things to put into a bowl and eat. I’ve provided approximate amounts below, but you can really just combine these things without measuring. Just use whatever amount of each thing that seems good to you.

Chunky Monkey un-granola

Feeds one hungry translator (or other type of person).

  • 3/4 cup (75 g) dry uncooked rolled oats (small oats if possible)
  • 1 tablespoon dry chia seeds (optional)
  • 1 cup (236 ml) soy milk (or other milk of choice)
  • handful (approx. 1/3 cup) walnuts
  • half of a banana
  • 1-2 teaspoons dark chocolate sprinkles/mini-chips

 

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Let’s get started!

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Combine the oats and chia seeds in your cereal bowl.

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Add the milk and give everything a good stir. You’ll see that the milk gets absorbed into the oats after a few minutes, so you may want to add a bit more milk later.

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Break the walnut halves with your hands (or roughly chop them with a knife if you want to be fancy) and slice some banana over the top.

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Finally, add your chocolate sprinkles. If you don’t have or can’t find sprinkles, mini-chocolate chips will do, or you can even roughly chop up some squares from a bar of dark chocolate.

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You’re all set! After enjoying this hearty, healthful and delicious un-granola, you’ll be ready to seize the day.

Variations: If you’re not as exhausted or busy as I was when I came up with this recipe, you may want to take the time to actually cook the oats and make this into a warm oatmeal. Alternatively, as suggested above, you can stir the oats, chia seeds (not optional in this case) and soy milk together and put them in the fridge overnight to make overnight oats. And you can always experiment with different nuts, different fruit, or different milks (vanilla-flavored rice milk for example, which is naturally sweet) for different results.

Aquae Sulis and Mr. Darcy

My most recent travels saw me arriving in a beautiful little English town once known as Aquae Sulis. Doesn’t ring a bell? Today, it’s called Bath and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich past. If you’re into history, either of the Roman era or the Georgian period (or both!), this is a destination for you. It’s an easy trip from London, just 97 miles (1.5 hour by train) west of London. You’ll love it even more if you happen to also be a fan of Jane Austen, who lived here at several points in her life.

As you may have guessed, all these things fascinate me. Well, it was much more the Georgian era that drew me to Bath, but I was pleasantly surprised, upon visiting the Roman Baths center, by how the site managed to captivate me. In the interest of sticking to chronological order, let’s talk about that first.

When the Romans arrived in Britain around AD 43, they found a settlement of Celtic Britons around a site with a large natural hot spring and a shrine dedicated to a goddess named Sulis. The invaders duly named the town Aquae Sulis – Latin for “the waters of Sulis” – and built a major bath complex and temple around it (as shown above; click to enlarge photos). They encouraged the natives to continue worshipping Sulis, with whom they identified their goddess Minerva, a factor that helped the Britons to accept the invasion.

In the Roman days, the large bath shown above was covered with a vault roof. After the baths were rediscovered and restored in the 18th century, they were left without a roof and the sunlight stimulated the growth of algae, which is what’s responsible for this green color. There were other baths (hotter and colder ones), as well as various other rooms (saunas, massage rooms) similar to what you find in modern spas today. This center is really well done – in addition to seeing the baths themselves, visitors are taken through the site’s history with interactive museum exhibits and a high-quality audio guide available in some 15 languages.

In 1979, some archaeologists poking around in the Sacred Spring, the innermost pool of the bath complex (shown in the cover image of this post), found a number of “curse tablets” that had been thrown into it during the Roman days. Unhappy individuals would carve requests for vengeance upon those who had wronged them onto bits of flattened lead, roll them up and toss them into the waters for direct delivery to the goddess Sulis/Minerva who, they hoped, would proceed to take action.

The most common complaint was of theft, and the punishments sought tended to be rather harsh, along lines such as “may whoever nabbed my cloak while I was bathing lose his eyesight and his mind and never recover either until such day as he has returned my belongings to me”. Sometimes the accuser would make things easier for the goddess by listing the names of suspects. Did the curses work? We’ll never know, but a simple locker room could have prevented a lot of trouble!

(Don’t miss this great tutorial for making your very own curse tablet! And see if you can figure out what the author’s curse was.)

Also discovered in the baths were beautiful engraved semi-precious stones and colored glass that probably fell out of bathers’ jewelry, loosened from their settings by the heat.

The site does an excellent job of helping you travel back in time to the Roman days. Alongside some of the ruins, reproduction walls have been set up, but with a space between them and the floor to remind you which parts are real. In the various dark spaces of the labyrinthine baths, hologram-like projections of Roman bathers, complete with the sounds of their murmurs and dripping water, spookily recreate the mood of the distant past. These translucent beings were rather like ghosts… I wondered with a kind of delicious frisson whether one of them might turn and look at me.

Today, it isn’t possible to actually bathe in these baths, which are still lined with lead, but you can head to the Thermae Bath Spa for a steamy rooftop swim. Imagine how nice that would be in winter!

Fast-forward about 1,800 years and you’ll have arrived in Georgian Bath, the age of an author so loved by the people of England that they put her on the 10-pound note. I agree with this honor as she’s one of my favorites too. In Bath, you can visit the Jane Austen Centre, located on one of the same streets she lived on. Although it isn’t her former house, the center offers information about her life as well as artifacts from Georgian households and a short film hosted by the guy who played evil Mr. Wickham in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. At this point I should confess that Mr. Darcy himself doesn’t really have any connection with Bath; I’ve just shamelessly used him as shorthand for all things Jane Austen, and also because I liked the idea of contrasting him (in the Colin Firth incarnation) with Emperor Claudius above. The city features prominently in some of her other books though, in particular Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

If you’re already very well versed on Jane Austen’s life, touring the Jane Austen Centre probably won’t teach you anything new, but there are nicely done wax statues of her and Mr. Darcy, and you can dress up in Georgian clothing and have your photo taken. You may also like to browse in the gift shop (Darcy and Lizzie Christmas tree ornaments!) or (unlike me) have tea and fancy cakes in their upstairs Regency Tea Room. A brochure for the tea room even mentions vegan options, though I suspect you would want to call well ahead and check on that.

Every year in September, the city also hosts a Jane Austen festival.

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The Jane Austen points of interest continue at the Pump Room, located right next to the Roman Baths, where people used to go to drink medicinal waters in the hope of curing their various ailments. It was also just a fashionable place to be, to see and be seen. It is here that Catherine, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, first meets a special someone. The Pump Room is now a restaurant but still serves water from the spring that supplies the Roman Baths. The illustration above, by Thomas Rowlandson, shows how the Pump Room appeared in 1798. At left in the foreground, we see someone in a Bath chair, an early wheelchair invented in the city for the many invalids who flocked there.

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Another highlight of my visit was a tour through the beautiful Georgian home at No. 1 Royal Crescent, decorated as it might have looked between 1776 and 1796. Those of you who enjoyed my last post can imagine it as George Warleggan’s house (keep that in mind in a moment when you see what’s kept right next to his bed!).

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A cheerful table laid for breakfast. While you ate your toast and sipped your morning beverage (hot chocolate? coffee?), you could catch up on the latest gossip in the local newspaper. Who has lately arrived to take the waters in Bath? Who has just promised their innocent daughter to that gouty old man living on Cheap Street?

A gentleman doing well enough to live in this home would also have had the latest scientific gadgets, including an updated globe (this one appears to be Italian), and a device you can use to cure your own ailments at home using electric sparks (I didn’t get a photo of that).

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All ready for tea in the sitting room. Notice the cups have no handles, in the style of the cups used in China. For this reason, this type of cup is often called “tea bowl”.

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The elegant dining room set for dessert. The curators of this house did an excellent job of recreating the intricate molded blancmanges and other fancy desserts of the day out of silicone. The plates used here each illustrate a different scene from Aesop’s Fables. There’s more I could say about this room, but I should leave some things for you to discover on your own when you visit (don’t forget to ask about the pineapple and what used to happen behind that folding screen in the corner!).

Below stairs, in the kitchen, chunks of sugar were cut off of loafs and then ground up in a mortar. For any food historians reading this: the cookbook on the table is Food and Cooking in 18th-Century Britain by Jennifer Stead. Meat was sometimes cooked on a turning spit powered by a dog in a sort of dismal hamster wheel. The breed normally used for this purpose has since become extinct. Thankfully, this practice was already on its way out by the advent of the Georgian era.

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The gentleman’s bedroom, across the hall from his wife’s. Its furnishings include a washstand chest with a… chamber pot (?!) in its bottom drawer. Or perhaps it’s designed for footbaths. But if it IS a chamber pot, it’s hard to imagine how they could have kept that from smelling terrible even when closed. But then perhaps no one would have noticed, as personal hygiene was shockingly basic in this period. Ironically, given the name of the city and what should have been easy access to healthful spring waters, people bathed and washed their hair just once a year. Women wore their wigs day and night and kept their faces spackled with various substances including lead, followed by an egg-white wash and beauty patches to cover their smallpox scars. They also made liberal use of lavender, orange-blossom and rose essences, but really, how much difference can that have made? The Romans, who not only washed but also exfoliated on a regular basis, would rightly have been appalled if they could have glimpsed into the future.

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Apart from its museums (and there were many more I didn’t have time to visit), Bath is also just a very pretty town. Here, the Avon River is spanned by Pulteney Bridge, famous for being one of the world’s last bridges to still have shops along its full length on both sides. It was used in the 2012 film Les Misérables to recreate the look of Revolutionary-era Paris – Russell Crowe as Javert jumps off it to his (Javert’s!) death.

You can always stroll through Bath on your own, but a nice way to get a broader view of the city is to go on a walking tour. I went on this one with the charismatic and knowledgeable Mr. Elliott and definitely recommend it.

“What about food?” you may be wondering. “Are vegan options hard to find?” you may or may not be about to ask. The answer is no, they’re blissfully easy to find, as they generally are in the UK.

As much as Bath is steeped in ancient and less-ancient history, it also has one foot resolutely in the 21st century, so plant-based food is a thing there. I went to and recommend Chapel Arts Café (all vegan), where I had garlicky mushroom flatbreads with cashew crème fraîche, followed by carrot cake, The Green Rocket (mostly vegan), which offers a seitan and leek dish with puff pastry, a salad platter with hummus and tatziki sauce and onion rings, and Zizzi (a UK-wide omni chain with lots of vegan options – ask for their separate vegan menu), where I had “beetballs” and pizza with housemade vegan mozzarella. All really good! There were more veg restaurants than this, but sadly not enough time to try them all.

So there you have the lovely city of Bath, in a very brief and non-exhaustive nutshell. Definitely worth the detour for a weekend if you’re going to be in London. In the meantime, for a closer look at the city, check out the many mini-documentaries on YouTube (like this one about the Roman Baths, or this one about houses in Jane Austen’s day).

Cornish seitan pie

R&D.jpgIf you’ve been watching the hit BBC television series Poldark, a new adaptation of the book series by Winston Graham set in breathtakingly beautiful Cornwall, you may have noticed many meals consisting of savory pies. You’ll have seen them at Ross Poldark’s home Nampara at least, where the fare is simpler and more homespun than at Trenwith House and other wealthier residences. Demelza and Prudie can often be seen pounding dough on the countertop for this very purpose.

Cornish savory pies are traditionally filled with potato, turnip and beef (we’ll use seitan), and are basically a larger version of the well known Cornish pasty, which is a single-serving savory turnover filled with the same ingredients. Miners found them handy to take down into the mine with them for their lunch break. Some say that the edge served as a handle of sorts, so people could eat it with dirty mining hands and throw the edge away at the end.

A savory pie even played a role in the budding romance between Demelza and Ross in season 1 episode 3, as her newly acquired baking skills impress him and she begins to find her way to his heart through his stomach. Or at least in part – he likes other things about her too.

Now you can make a similar pie yourself and impress the dashing redcoat in your own life. But wait, this is the 21st century! So maybe he can make his own pie, but if he needs help getting started, you can share this recipe. 😀

Cornish seitan pie

Makes one 9 in. (23 cm) pie.

2 cups (250 g) seitan, finely sliced
1½ cup (150 g) yellow onion, diced
1½ cup (175 g) firm-fleshed potato, diced
1¼ cup (125 g) turnip, diced
1 tablespoon soy sauce, or more to taste
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence or Italian herb blend
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 teaspoon white pepper
1/3 cup (40 g) flour
2 cups (500 ml) vegetable broth
2/3 cup (160 ml) unsweetened non-dairy milk (not rice milk)
2 pie crusts (non-flaky)

Begin by assembling your ingredients. Peel and dice the potato and onion, and dice the turnip (no peeling needed). Set aside.

Slice the seitan into thin, bite-sized pieces, about 2 in. (5 cm) long and 1/4 in. (0.5 cm) thick.

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Heat a bit of olive oil in a frying pan and sauté the seitan a few minutes until the sides are a bit browned. Add the soy sauce, taking care to distribute it evenly, and stir well to coat all the pieces. Set aside to cool.

In a large stockpot, heat a bit of olive oil over medium. Add the onion and sauté for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until the onion is slightly browned and translucent. Add the potato and turnip and cook for five minutes, stirring frequently. Now add the flour and stir to distribute evenly. Allow the flour to “toast” several minutes, again stirring often, and then add soy sauce, herbs and other seasonings as well as the vegetable broth and non-dairy milk. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes and turnips are tender (about 15 minutes). Watch over the progress and add a bit more water or milk if the mixture seems to become too dry.

Taste and adjust seasonings to your taste. If it needs more salt, add more soy sauce in small amounts, tasting as you go along. Keep in mind that the seitan will be salty due to the soy sauce it was sautéed in, so you won’t want the vegetable mixture to be overly salty. Remove from heat and allow to cool a few minutes before going on to the next step.

Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C). Line your pie plate with one of the pie crusts, making sure to press the dough into the bottom edge. Place the seitan into the crust, distributing it evenly across the bottom. Cover with the vegetable mixture. If the bottom crust hangs over the edges of your pie plate, as mine does (see above), measure the diameter and cut a circle of dough to form a top crust that will just cover the filling and then fold the overhanging dough of the bottom crust over the top and crimp the edges with your thumbs. With the remaining dough, you can cut leaf shapes (or whatever other shape that strikes your fancy). To make sure my leaves were all the same size, I cut a template from a piece of scrap paper.

Arrange the leaves symmetrically on the top crust and poke a hole in the center of the crust for hot air to escape. To give the crust a bit of shine, brush unsweetened soy milk over it evenly. Bake the pie on a center rack for about 35 minutes until it’s golden brown and smells scrumptious. 🙂

Remove from oven and allow to cool at least 30 minutes before cutting into it. If it’s still too hot, the filling will spill out from the sides onto the plate and you won’t have a nice solid slice. For this reason, it can be useful to make this dish ahead of time and then just heat it up briefly in the oven before serving.

Ideally, or perhaps depending how much of a Poldark fan you are, you’ll present this pie on a table spread with an old-timey delicate tablecloth like this one that I happened to find at a rummage sale just the other day, and you’ll use vintagey plates and cut it with a rustic-looking knife. A flagon of ale or glass of red wine will be the perfect accompaniment.

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At the end of dinner, bring out a dish filled with fruit native to Europe (I often notice grapes on the characters’ tables on the show). By the way, check out the monogram on my rummage-sale tablecloth! There’s an R for Ross, and an A for…? Hmm, that part doesn’t fit as well.

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After your meal, take a stroll to the nearest clifftop and gaze out at the sea dreamily as the wind blows through your hair.

Variations: Use the same filling to make individual pasties, cutting each pie dough in half and folding each half over once to make a turnover shape. Use other firm vegetables such as carrot or broccoli instead of potato and turnip. Just make sure they’re fairly tender before they go into the pie.

Bricks, doughnuts and sunshine

A few weeks ago I had the extremely good fortune to get invited to stay a week in London completely for free (well, after train fare). That’s an offer you just can’t refuse. So I packed up my laptop, arranged cat-sitters for Sésame and was off!

I love London and try to visit once a year. As a native English speaker living in France, it’s always somewhat refreshing to step on a train and in a couple of hours arrive at a place where I can just open my mouth and start talking with zero thinking-ahead time. Or rather, knowing that whatever I say will be completely normal. Or as normal as American talk can sound to English ears, I guess. 🙂

But more than that, when I arrive in London I always feel a general sense of comfort that I don’t get at “home” in Paris. It’s less densely populated, for one thing, and sidewalks are wider. People are much friendlier, something that even my introverted self values highly, as loyal readers will recall from this episode. And it’s also one of the vegan capitals of the world. So even though I like many aspects of living in France, a trip to London always feels like a visit almost-home.

Since I visit fairly often, I have the luxury of exploring the city at a leisurely pace and visiting just a few sites in each trip. This time, I mainly hung out with the friend who invited me, worked (as I couldn’t take the time completely off without longer advance notice) and enjoyed the city’s street art.

Allow me to take you on a little guided tour of my week.

First, the bricks! One of the first things I always notice when I get to London are the many brick buildings – bricks being rather few and far between in Paris. There’s something very grand and majestic about them, and something warm and inviting too, don’t you think? The university I went to in Milwaukee had several old brick buildings with ornate decorations (a bit like the one with the green door above), so bricks often bring me comforting memories of strolling about the campus, my mind filled with some fascinating thing I’d just learned, and of breathing in the vanilla scent of an old book I’d just cracked open at the campus library. I miss those days.

And the doughnuts! Somehow I’d never noticed before that doughnuts are largely absent from the pastry landscape of Paris. Logical enough, right? Since they’re not a traditional French thing. But neither are cupcakes or chocolate-chip cookies, and those are all over the place. So I think some room could be made for doughnuts. When I was still living in the States I wasn’t particularly a doughnut-eater, past childhood at least, but I was fascinated by the doughnuts London seems to suddenly have in abundance, and with very original flavors/themes. The nice thing is that most mainstream doughnut purveyors now offer not zero but several vegan options! The same is true for cupcakes (see photos). This was not the case just a few years ago, so things are really starting to move.

From this excited description you’ll probably assume I spent my time in London eating doughnuts. But I was actually more interested in their existence, and in taking photos of them. I ate just one during this visit: a massive caramel buttercream and speculoos-encrusted affair with coffee glaze called Houston, We Have Biscoff from Doughnut Time.

It also happened to be unseasonably warm and sunny the week I was there, especially for a city known for being overcast and foggy. The first day was as chilly as can be expected for mid-April, justifying tights and a light jacket, but after that it was positively summery. The sun shone brightly the whole rest of the week, and fruit trees were in full blossom. At the end of my stay, a local joked that I’d just experienced all the sunny days London would have in 2018. That could very well be true! In any case, I felt lucky to be able to soak up the sunshine and synthesize some vitamin D after the long, gray and depressing winter we had.

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I really appreciated the nice weather as I walked around the city in search of street art! The piece above is by Steve Powers. Incidentally, when making this piece he commented, “I love working in public and I love painting brick walls. London has some of the finest brick walls in the world.” You see what I mean about those bricks!

Two works by the world’s most famous street artist, Banksy. The one on the left appeared last year on a wall of the Barbican when a retrospective show dedicated to Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat opened there. In it, we see how Banksy imagined the late artist (depicted in Basquiat’s signature style) being received by the British police when arriving for his own exhibition. Surprisingly enough, the Barbican did not repaint the wall and even put up some Plexiglas to protect the street art.

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A piece on Old Street by Ben Eine.

Left: Queen Elizabeth II as the guy from A Street Cat Named Bob, down on her luck and trying to sell copies of The Big Issue (Loretto). Right: giant stick people look down benevolently upon Shoreditch (Stik).

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I also did some hunting for mosaics by French street artist Invader to up my Flashinvaders score. At the time of my visit, London had 84, so this became a rather big undertaking. With the help of a local space invader hunter, I was able to find 77 of them by the week’s end. Below is a selection of my favorites.

My space invader hunt took me to a place I somehow hadn’t been aware of but that’s now my new favorite London museum! So I’d like to take a moment to share some glimpses of it with you…

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If, like me, you love the city of London and also enjoy seeing how people of the past lived, this museum is for you. It takes you through the city’s history from Roman times to the present, giving you a sense of how things once were in the form of artifacts and models. Included are souvenir mugs commemorating Charles II’s coronation, amulets for warding off the plague, very old false teeth, the actual wooden walls from a 1750s prison cells complete with graffiti by prisoners, a series of streets and shops from the Victorian days, fashions of the 20th century, models of row houses, Elizabeth II’s coronation memorabilia and finally books printed in other languages for immigrants to England (including a book designed to teach children of Polish immigrants to read and write their parents’ language – Polish now being the second-most spoken language in the UK).

By now you may well be wondering what there is to eat in London besides doughnuts! We did of course visit some of the city’s many fine veg*n eateries, such as Mildreds, By Chloé and Temple of Seitan.

My very favorite this time was a new 100% vegan pub called The Spread Eagle near Hackney. It opened in January and right from the start, a waitress explained to us, the owners made sure that everything used there was vegan, from the alcohols and other beverages (free from animal-derived filtering agents) down to the cleaning supplies and hand soap in the restrooms (from brands that don’t test on animals) and the upholstery on the bar seats (something other than leather/wool).

From Wednesday through Sunday every week, they serve super-delicious vegan Latin dishes by Club Mexicana. We had the chick’n “wings” with hot sauce and salsa verde, beer-battered tofish tacos, jackfruit and garlic tacos, a giant salad with popcorn chick’n and finally deep-fried ice cream with Mexican chili-chocolate sauce and cinnamon. It was so good that before we even finished eating, I started feeling sad that I couldn’t have it more often. If you’re in London but can’t make it as far as this pub, or the days don’t work out, you can find Club Mexicana fare at Camden Market seven days a week.

Another pleasant surprise in the good-vegan-options-at-mainstream-places category was Leon, a chain with locations all over the city. One evening when I was tired from walking too much (see “street art” above), not wanting to go anywhere far from the place I was staying, I wandered in to see what they might have.

I tried their meatless meatballs – made with eggplant/aubergine, black olives and rosemary and served over rice with some kind of magical tomato sauce and garlic aioli – and was blown away! I’m hoping and praying they come to Paris! Incidentally, I found their recipe for the meatballs, but they don’t say how to make the sauce… I think it’s too top secret to share. 😉 Another time I stopped in, I found that they also offer several vegan dessert/pastry items, like this baked pistachio & rosewater doughnut. So I guess I did have more than one doughnut on this trip after all! But this one was normal-sized.

So there you have a few ideas for things to do and places to eat next time you’re in beautiful London.

Waldorf salad

“What is a waldorf, anyway? A walnut that’s gone off?”

For many people, it’s impossible to think of Waldorf salad without remembering the Fawlty Towers episode of the same name, which sees neurotic English hotelier Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) confronted with an impatient and shouty American guest who demands a salad he has never heard of.

After Basil’s first attempt to dodge the request, claiming the kitchen is fresh out of waldorfs, the guest and his wife inform him of the recipe, shouting “celery, apple, walnuts, grapes—in a mayonnaise sauce!” in his direction several times when he is slow to produce the salad. When Basil fails to find all the ingredients and goes to unreasonable lengths to put the blame on his (absent) chef, the guest becomes more and more enraged and, as often happens when Basil is involved, the situation degenerates into a public shouting match. Try to find the episode if you haven’t seen it, and discover how it happens that Basil himself orders the elusive salad by the end.

As Basil’s wife informs him during the episode, the salad is named for a hotel—more specifically, the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, where maître d’hôtel Oscar Tschirky invented the dish in 1896 for a charity ball.

Now you can join in on the fun and make a Waldorf salad of your own! It’s a salad that everyone always likes and also the perfect dish to bring to a picnic or potluck Easter brunch, as I confirmed a few weeks ago. And the shouting match is optional.

Waldorf salad

Serves 4 to 6 people

  • 3 red-skinned apples, cored and chopped
  • 2 cups red seedless grapes, sliced in half
  • 2 cups celery, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups chopped, slightly toasted walnuts
  • Lettuce, for serving (optional)
  • 3/4 cup vegan mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

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Begin by cutting the apple, celery and grapes into bite-sized pieces. Combine together in a large salad bowl.

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Next, toast your walnuts, allow to cool, and then roughly chop.

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Now prepare the sauce by mixing the mayonnaise with the lemon juice and salt.

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Add the walnuts to the salad bowl, spoon the sauce over the top and stir until evenly coated.

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Serve individual portions on fresh lettuce leaves, if you like.

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And there you have it! A Waldorf salad that will satisfy even the most demanding American that visits your hotel. 🙂

Variations: substitute raisins for the grapes (or use in addition), experiment with different types of nuts, use plain yogurt in place of the mayonnaise.

Almond cake with chocolate glaze

A few weeks ago, I was invited to dinner at a friend’s place in my neighborhood, and I’d volunteered to bring the dessert. As the day drew near, I still hadn’t decided what I was going to make but felt I would surely be able to come up with something considering all the ingredients I had in my kitchen. And then, predictably enough, on the day itself I received some unexpected work that left me without much time to prepare the dessert. So I began making my basic cake recipe and was wondering what to flavor it with when my eye landed upon the huge jar of white almond butter I’d recently bought. Almond cake it would be!

The cake was a big hit with my friends, but was super simple to make. The almond butter makes the cake super moist, and a bit of almond extract boosts the almondy fragrance while the dark chocolate glaze adds some contrast and an extra bit of sweetness.

And today, in response to the many requests I’ve received for the recipe, I bring you the instructions to make it! The cake shown in these photos is a bit darker than my prototype because I used unrefined raw sugar rather than white sugar, but either would work. Note that this recipe uses less sugar than for the average cake you would find at a bakery or restaurant, but the maple syrup in the chocolate glaze makes it sweeter. If you want the cake itself to be sweeter, add an extra ¼ cup sugar to the batter.

Almond cake

Dry ingredients:

1½ cups (188 g) all-purpose flour
½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar (raw or white), add an extra ¼ cup for a sweeter cake
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

Liquid ingredients:

1 cup (236 ml) cold water
¼ cup (50 g) white almond butter or cashew butter
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil or other neutral-tasting oil
1 tablespoon white vinegar or apple-cider vinegar
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Chocolate glaze topping:

¼ cup (60 ml) maple syrup or other liquid sweetener
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
tiny pinch salt (optional)
handful of almond slivers, toasted

Equipment needed: whisk, cake pan(s).

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Begin by preheating your oven to 350°F (180°C) and preparing your cake pan. Line it with baking paper or apply a coat of oil to the bottom and sides.

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Combine your dry ingredients (flour, sugar, salt and baking soda). I used unrefined raw sugar (the dark powder), which accounts for the dark golden brown color of the cake, but you can use white sugar if you would like a lighter colored cake.

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Mix the dry ingredients together with a whisk until completely combined.

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Use a smaller bowl for the liquid ingredients. Shown above is the white almond butter. If you can’t find this product where you live, substitute cashew butter (for the same color) or regular brown almond butter, but note that the cake will be a darker color if regular almond butter is used, even if you use white sugar. If your nut butter is dry and stiff, mix a small amount of hot water into it until it has a pourable texture.

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Add the rest of the liquid ingredients (vinegar, almond and vanilla extracts and water) and stir thoroughly with a whisk to incorporate it into the nut butter. Pour the liquid mixture into the dry mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until just combined. Be careful not to stir any more than absolutely necessary as too much stirring of flour can make the cake turn out tough.

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Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and tap the sides gently to remove any air pockets. Place it in the preheated oven and bake for 25 to 28 minutes. Check your cake after about 23 to 25 minutes – my cake needed 28 minutes, but you never know!

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Once the cake is done baking, place it on a wire rack and allow to cool for about a half hour. In the meantime, you can make the chocolate glaze. Put the cocoa powder, maple syrup and salt together in a small bowl and stir with a spoon or small whisk. At first it will seem like the powder will never incorporate, but keep going and it will! If you need to thin it out after that point, you can add more syrup. You may also find that it needs to be thinned a bit after it’s been sitting for a little while.

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You can also toast your slivered almonds at this point. Put them in a non-stick frying pan without any oil, and heat over medium, shaking occasionally and keeping an eye on it to be sure they don’t burn. Once they’re done toasting, remove the pan from the heat and transfer the almonds immediately to a plate or bowl so they don’t continue to toast.

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Apply the chocolate glaze to the top of your cake using a spoon or spatula, and then sprinkle with the toasted almonds.

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And there you have it!

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Enjoy with a nice cup of vanilla and almond scented rooibos (I love roobios des vahinés from Palais des Thés).

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Variations: Try a different nut butter (hazelnut, peanut?), sprinkle with different toasted nuts, dried coconut, and/or fleur de sel.