Monday, October 28, 2013

Baking happies

I spent Sunday morning baking chocolate cake, Sunday afternoon making a raspberrry Swiss-meringue buttercream (it's easy, just follow this video), then filling said cake and covering it in fondant. This morning was spent painting, followed by making raspberry-filled muffins, icing them and figuring out what to do with the leftover meringue buttercream. I had been eating it by the spoon, and I am sure the boy would have been happy to continue, but I remembered ever-creative Marcela once made cupcakes out of a failed swiss-meringue buttercream and I decided to make some. It must be healthier than directly eating the frosting right?

All of this reminded me how much I enjoy baking. It's just too sad that it would be unhealthy to bake and eat all-the-baked-goods on a daily basis. Let me take a moment to say how much I love my KitchenAid. Oh yes. You see, I made the buttercream yesterday and it turned out all silky, beautiful, smooth and perfect. I put it in the fridge for the night, planning to use it today and frost the muffins. I took it out,  let it gradually come to room temperature. All good. Except, when I started beating it, disaster, I watched it curdle before my eyes. I found a few tutorials, all saying to: "take about 1/4 of the frosting out of the bowl and transfer it to a microwave safe bowl. Pop it in the microwave for 10-15 seconds and then stream it back into the bowl while the mixer is running on low. Increase the speed and whip it into a big bowl of fluffy magicalness". Well, I don't have a microwave and I did not want to risk melting the buttercream on the stove, even au-bain-marie. So what did I do? I beat the heck out of it. I patiently waited, and after a while my dear stand mixer did its magic and it all came back together again. It did take a few minutes, but I trusted it was going to happen, as with Swiss Meringue Buttercream the trick is to beat and beat and beat until getting it together. (Maybe play this classic while you're at it).

On a related random note, on Saturday we went to the local market and we got some fresh biological eggs. Well, out of a box of 10, I have opened 4 and they ALL have been double-yolks.

Normally, an "egg is 'assembled' in the hen's oviduct, a process in which the ovum, which consists of the hen's genes plus the yolk, is surrounded by the egg white and the shell.  The process is controlled by a series of hormones that tell the hen's body when to make the parts of the egg and in which order.
Double-yolk eggs result from an error in this process, caused by yolk production becoming unsynchronised with that of the rest of the egg.  Double-yolked eggs are often laid by young hens, whose hormones are not yet fully 'in tune'.  A double-yolked egg results when two ova are released at the same time." (source).

There are all kinds of superstitions surrounding double-yolk eggs, our ancestors thought they were an omen that could predict pregnancies, specially twin pregnancies, marriages and lots of good fortune. Anyhow, as in a given flock, hens are normally of the same age, and since this seems to be an age-related phenomenon, and knowing that eggs are classified per size, I guess it is not that weird of a finding. And still, I am in a bit of a shock. I have tried to figure out if genetic selection and breeding has resulted in producing a particular line of hens that lay only two-yolked eggs, but I haven't found a consistent answer to that, and even if twins do run in families, I am not sure it is a trait that could easily be selected for. Or were these hens, supposedly biologically-bred, on hormones? I don't think so, as it wouldn't be legal, specially for organic products, but I could not help but think of Gonal-F (welcome to my brain, this is just a sample of what fertility struggles and a veterinary degree can do to your grey matter). 

How were your weekends? What have you been up to?

The cupcakes I made with leftover Swiss-meringue buttercream. .

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Eat & Snap Paris

Last December, as a Christmas present to ourselves, the boy and I finally got a DSLR camera. We had been interested in photography for a while and we were both very eager to learn. I promised myself that I would read the whole manual (haven't done it yet) and that I would play around with those settings and try to understand light. Well... shame on me, 10 months later I was still shooting everything on automatic (regardless of the tutorials and theory I had read here and there, never mind the tips of my dad or the fact that the boy continuously encouraged me to just turn the knob to M already and start experimenting).

So when Michelle (from the lovely blog MY Creative) announced that she was bringing her Eat & Snap Photo walks from London to Paris (if only for once), I totally wanted in. I have been reading her blog for a while now and I find her very inspiring, and her photography beautiful. And a weekend in Paris is something I am always up for. So, on Saturday morning we left home at 5:30 in the morning and by 10:00 we were strolling around, people watching and eating an éclaire.

I met Michelle (and the other participants) at Gare du Nord at 11:15 and we took it from there. Over hot chocolate and lattes Michelle explained us the basics of ISO, aperture, shutter speed as well as a few tips on composition, white-balance... It was really nice to meet other girls who are in similar places, that is, wanting to learn but not really knowing where to start and feeling kind of lost and clueless with all the technical terms. After patiently answering to our questions we headed to the streets and wandered around, walking through cafés and markets trying to capture the little details that make every city special.

The day went by very fast, and I left feeling happy, inspired and proud of myself that I was finally able to lose the fear of the M button and just play. Michelle is about to fulfill her dream of moving to Italy, so hopefully she will be organizing some workshops over there as well.

I love the French expression: "N'importe quoi"

Friday, October 18, 2013

20 weeks and 4 days

Don't mind the crazy face

As of last Monday, I am officially halfway through pregnancy. Isn't that amazing? It feels like time is going so fast, and is going to catch up soon, and make us run like crazy. We have, umm, well, done lots of research but haven't really prepared all those things that need preparation. Except for getting a stroller / travel system. For some reason we got really into comparing the options and then found a really good deal.

I have been feeling well, mostly normal, except those days when I am extremely hungry. I don't feel the need to take naps in the middle of the day like I used to. It's nice feeling energetic again. Oh, and I think I feel little baby move. It all started in Switzerland, at around 17 weeks, but I wasn't sure because what I felt was my tummy grumbling, similar to that feeling that tells you that you are hungry, except it would happen after dinner or meals, mostly when I was sitting down and I knew I was not hungry. Lately, I feel waves inside me that most definitely are the baby, and sometimes I feel a soft punch. It's so exciting. My body is slowly changing, and just these last 2 weeks I am kind of *really* starting to show. It mostly seems like I have a beer belly or like I ate all the cookies, but hopefully the bump will become more round and baby-like soon. Some days I feel like a thicker version of me which is weird.

We had the anatomy scan yesterday. I wanted to write about it directly afterwards, but I had been so nervous the day and morning before that after it I just felt so drained. I did make a flan just to distract myself. Little hummus is growing perfectly well, fitting in all the graphs, and all the organs are well formed. It was so exciting to see the tiny one again, to watch it move, and turn, and hide its heart from the doctor because it wouldn't stay still. It all went really fast, the gynaecologist was really down to business and she did not speak proper Dutch and had a funny accent in English so it was difficult to understand, so she mostly did her thing without explaining much except saying it's all fine. We are so happy.

And, we are having a little baby girl !!! I really had no idea or feeling about it, the night before I had a dream where I saw it was a girl, then 2 hours later I dreamt it was a boy. It is so exciting, we can finally choose a name and start really looking at baby clothes. Why is it so hard to find neutral clothes that are exciting? I love all the colors, I love stripes, and stars, and dots and patterns. And yet, either you buy everything beige (bo-ring) or you are overwhelmed by the pink or by the blue, by the hearts or little trucks. Where is the green? And the yellow? And the teal?

We are starting a childbirth class in November and we are taking a hospital tour sometime next week. I am still not sure whether or not I should take a breastfeeding class, since some of the subjects seem to overlap. Oh, and this week I finally got a pregnancy book that convinced me. Up until now I had been reading the weekly growth updates online, but I wanted to know more, from a reliable source. I did not want to get "What to expect when you're expecting" and I had not found anything that seemed scientific and neutral, and not fear-mongering or biased or had a 'you-are-the-mother-earth-mama-bear' vibe. This book is written by the head of the department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at St. Mary's Hospital in London. I like her non-judgemental, informative approach. I like the fact that there are lots of photos, diagrams and illustrations. And that it is properly researched and not based on opinions or wishy-washy bullshit. Also she had me at:

 "the women I care for keep telling me they would like a book without any prescriptive or personal agenda. When I was expecting, I remember feeling both astonished and intimidated by books that seem to suggest that there are right and wrong approaches to pregnancy and childbirth. I have no argument with the many different childbirth philosophies, but I do have a problem when they result in pregnant women feeling that they have failed in some way if they do not follow the advice to the last letter, or their pregnancy does not follow a textbook pattern. So the agenda here is very simple: knowledge is key". 

Oh and I gave in and got a pair of maternity jeans. My clothes still kind of fit, but they are also getting kind of tight and that resulted in me wearing sweatpants almost all of the time. And wow, what a change. This jeans look good, I feel put together but I am enrobed by softness all over. I think I might just wear them forever.  So that's what's been going on over here, I hope I did not bore you with the randomness of all of this.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A day in Maastricht

A couple of weeks ago we had some lovely visits (thanks for the company and the delicious truffles!) We did not have a lot of time, but we decided to take some day trips, fitting Den Haag, Delft and Rotterdam in one day, and visiting Maastricht on the second day. We had been in Maastricht before, but for some reason we had not really stayed long enough to see all of it (even if it is quite small). I think it was back in the time where I used to babysit cows giving birth at the farm and we must have gotten the call from the farmers and rushed back.

 One of the main reasons we were all curious about Maastricht was the bookshop-inside-a-used-to-be-cathedral (Dominikanerkerkstraat 1). It was quite impressive, as some of the frescoes and paintings in the ceiling were still very well preserved, which is rare to see. I was only slightly disappointed that the foreign-languages section of the book shop was rather limited, but we still spent quite a while browsing around.

 Maastricht is the capital of the Dutch province Limburg, one of the few regions that remained Catholic after the Reformation. It has its own feel and personality, in ways more similar to Belgium/Flanders than to other more northern cities in the Netherlands. It is funny how just by travelling a few kilometers you can already notice dramatic changes in style and architecture (and in traditions as well).

There is a remarkable red tower, pertaining to Sint Janskerk, a Gothic church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, just across the basilica of Sint-Servaas (Saint Servatius). Curious fact, the street that runs between these two places of worship, one being protestant and the other catholic, is called "Vagevuur Straat" or purgatory street.

Every time we passed the main square, we were intrigued by the constant long line at Restaurant Reitz-Frituur (Markt 75) at all times of the day. We were tempted to try their french fries but we weren't really in the mood for standing in the queue or for eating fries. However, judging by the amount of locals that were waiting for their pataat I would bet they are quite good.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Homemade corn tortillas

This recipe goes for Sadie, who the other day asked for a recipe for corn -tortillas. I thought it would be fun to show pictures of the (rather simple) process. This, of course will be a shortcut, meaning it's based on ready-made corn flour like Maseca or harina P.A.N (which is the only one I was able to find at the local supermarket). Traditionally though, the corn kernels are nixtamalized,  that is, soaked in a solution of lime (calcium hydroxide) and water to remove their skins; increasing the bioavailability of nutrients like niacin. The grains are then ground into maize dough (masa).The ready-to-use flours have already undergone this process.

Detail of the Codex Mendoza's folio 60rshowing a mexica mother teaching her 13-year-old daughter to make tortillas

Anyhow, to make the dough, simply follow the instructions in the package which can vary per brand: usually 2 1/2 cups of lukewarm water + 2 cups flour + a bit of salt. You should mix everything and knead the dough just a bit. Voilà. You are ready to work with it.

A cast-iron tortilla press can be very useful  but it is not 100% necessary. We have been wanting to bring one from Mexico for at least 4 years, but every time our baggage is overweight so we haven't had the chance. In short, you don't need one.

What you need is: a large, plastic bag which you will cut into 2 large circles, something like a wooden cutting board with a handle (to press your tortillas) and a skillet (or, ideally a traditional comal, which you probably don't have if you are not in Mexico).

The process is quite simple really: make little balls of dough, put them in the middle of the two plastic circles (otherwise the dough will stick everywhere), press evenly with your cutting board (or alternative heavy surface), and carefully put them on a hot skillet. You should cook them on both sides, turning them every now and then. Normally you know they are ready when they start making a bubble in the middle, but you will see.

As for the dough, you know it is good when while pressing the masa balls you get almost perfectly round tortillas, instead of getting uneven, crooked edges that tend to rip apart. If such is the case, just add a little bit more water to the dough (or to the ball itself) until you can form your tortillas. You can also make gorditas, which are thicker and smaller in diameter and are meant to be open through the middle and filled (with beans, cheese, meat, lettuce, sauce, sour cream, cheese) or sopes, which are similar except the toppings go on top.

*If you are in the Netherlands, you can find Maseca at Tjin's Toko in Amsterdam (Eerste van der Helststraat 64) or at Kelly's Expat shop in The Hague (Zoutmanstraat 22A), or P.A.N at pretty much any supermarket.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Londoners (and Peace camp at Parliament Square)

 I just very recently finished reading: "Londoners: The days and Nights of London Now -as told by those who love it, hate it, live it, left it and long for it" by Craig Taylor. It is written as a set of stories of all kinds of people, rich and poor, native and immigrant, women and men, talking about London. People who work at pubs, or in the stock market; a young man who started living in the city amongst the homeless and had to sleep at a park. The girl whose voice you hear announcing your next stop at the underground station. Those who came to the city from far and close... As with people, I guess, some stories were very easy to read and relate to, and I found others more difficult. But it really gives a perspective of the life of the city. One of my favorite stories was that of Barbara Tucker, protester at Parliament Square. Brian Haw started a peace camp at the famous square, just outside Westminster Abbey in 2001, exposing the consequences of the UK and US foreign policy. He became a symbol of the anti-war movement, and the camp lasted for 12 years of peaceful protest. "Protesters had planted crops in the square, including lettuce and carrots. There was a kitchen with drinking water in the Peace Camp". I just learnt that, sadly,  the last tents were removed this May, so I consider myself lucky that we actually saw the camp on its last months this January. Here's an excerpt of her story, from the book:
Barbara Tucker / Protester.

"I always say, every single building around here should be covered with the truth. It should be all over the place, you know? Then they'd soon stop, wouldn't they? Because what I've noticed is, they don't mind doing what they're doing, but they really don't do shame. What they're doing is really shameful. It beggars belief. You have to share that truth. The dynamic is brilliant here, because the global community of people come past, and we're giving them the opportunity to learn as much as they want. Not only to give you information , but to show you that yes, you can challenge your government. Yes, you can say no. The people who are suffering and dying will never be forgotten. while we're here. You know? And if that was happening to your family member, you'd want somebody to speak out about wouldn't you, really? 

I say to people, 'Welcome to Westminster Village. The only thing we do well is making a killing out of the suffering of others'. I've been arrested thirty-nine times in five years. I've learnt that if you cannot stand your ground in a public space to tell the truth without violence, you shouldn't be doing what you're doing. It's those in the government who duck and dive, and run and hide behind their gate, the weapons, the cheap sound bites in the TV studios and the corrupt courts. Some nights when they have a late night getting out I stand here with the loudspeaker and I say to them, as my little bedtime story: you are going to spend the rest of your miserable lives looking over your shoulders, checking your holiday itineraries, cos' whether it's ten years, twenty years or thirty years from now, you know, people will hunt you down, bring you to justice- we're not saying we're going to murder you or slaughter you, but we'll bring you to justice and change the systems that have allowed this to happen where human life is not protected. It's my little bedtime story. It's like, go to sleep with that one.

I've got 'Arrest war criminals' or 'Stop killing children' or other banners. They've got big tough machine guns. Protecting what? It just wakes up people. (...) We are in the belly of the beast, really. We're surrounded. I say to people who pass by, I say on the loudspeaker, as long as this country will want to occupy other countries, then we're occupying Westminster Village. We will occupy your minds, your time, your money, to remind the thousands of people that work in Westminster, that all you do is perpetuate the lies of this government that lead to the suffering of innocent civilians. And that when 90 per cent of the casualties of these legal wars are affecting civilians, it can't be war.


If we're going to have a normal world, let's bring people together. Because they try and portray it, 'Maad people over there', because that's the game, isn't it really. 'They're mad over there'. Let's make it as hard for you to go over there and discover that actually it's quite interesting, you know, who's doing what. I'd love to see this open, you know, as a sort of people's square. It's got to be kept open for everyone. What's the point of having a square if there's no access to it? It's got to be the people's square you know. It should remain with the people for ever. "
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