Friday, 31 August 2012

Change / Five Minute Friday

Last week I read about Lisa-Jo's Five Minute Friday over on The Tiny Twig's blog. It's a simple, wonderful idea: Each week on a Friday, Lisa-Jo gives a word prompt (this week - Change) and you write for 5 minutes on the theme of that word. Then you link to your blog post on Lisa-Jo's blog, and leave some encouragement for the previous person who linked to their post on the same theme. I love the creativity in this simple idea that connects people from all over the blogging world for a few minutes each Friday.

Change. What does it look like? Change takes a thousand different faces and guises. I see it in the children I teach and change makes me smile as I think about how far they have come. I hear it in the voice of my brother who has lived in Spain for a number of years now - Spanish has changed his intonation and sentence structure.
I feel the change in the seasons approaching - the coolness of the air that signals that Autumn is on its way in. Change keeps us on our toes, presenting us with new decisions and opportunities, new circumstances that can feel beyond our control.
The jingle and rattle of loose change in a purse jogs a childhood memory of counting my carefully saved pennies, one by one, mentally noting and noticing the different sound that each coin made.
Change can be seen, felt and heard, presenting itself in a variety of ways that appeal to our senses, causing us to occasionally stop and marvel that change cannot be ignored.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Photo Walk / Growth

It's been a little while since my last photo walk, mostly due to being away in America and having so many new and beautiful things to capture that I rarely had my camera away from my eye, so didn't feel the need to do a specific photo walk.

I have just a few more days left of the Summer Holidays before the new school year starts and spent some of today organising my classroom, ready for the new children. There has been a lot of wonderful growth in our outdoor environment over the last six weeks while I have been away, so I snapped a few shots today as I happened to have my camera with me.
runner beans, plump for the picking
sprawling pumpkins, making their escape from the planter
 The sunflowers are now about 3metres tall - I don't think I've ever managed to get them so tall. I suppose the English Summer rain is partly to thank...
Signs of more runner beans to come. 

{All photos taken with a Canon 24-105mm lens}

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Snickers Brownie Bites

I mentioned the other day that one of my brothers had introduced me to a wonderful baking blog - My Baking Addicton. This is one seriously inspiring baking blog that will have you salivating within seconds of reading. I would happily bake my way through all of the recipes on offer, and so I started with Snicker brownie bites.

I won't re-write the whole method for this recipe as it'd just be a repetition of the original, but I have converted the quantities from American cup sizes to metric to suit those of us who are more accustomed to these measurements:

100g dark chocolate
170g unsalted butter
250g caster sugar
150g plain flour
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
3 full sized Snickers bars, frozen for an hour and chopped (the original recipe uses miniature Snickers, but as you can't buy them small enough in England, I decided to just cut down full sized ones.)

Baking Notes:
These ended up being a little drier than expected for brownies, and I am pretty sure I didn't overcook them. Next time, I'd reduce the amount of plain flour to maybe 100g and add 20g cocoa. I didn't have any cocktail sticks to hand to help get the brownies out of the mini-muffin tins, but the narrow end of a teaspoon worked perfectly. I loved the tiny, bitesized nature of these little treats, and feel inspired to make more miniature food!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

731 days of marriage

Today is our 2nd Wedding Anniversary. The brilliant man I married planned a surprise adventure to Thorpe Park. I was equal parts excited and terrified when I realised that we were going to spend our anniversary at a theme park. Aside from Universal Studios, I cannot remember the last time I went to a theme park. Suffice to say, I am not exactly accustomed to being swooshed around, shot up in the air and accelerated at great speed, and every ride had me screaming at the top of my lungs. My initial coping mechanism was to shut my eyes so that I couldn't see what I was about to experience on the first ride - The Saw:
Gosh it makes my head feel funny just looking at that photo! On each ride that followed I got a little better at opening my eyes, but I was quite happy with not seeing anything. After lunch, I was even more daunted by the rides than before lunch, and it took a lot of convincing from John to get me to go on Stealth. This ride is very short and ridiculously fast, accelerating from 0 to 80 miles an hour in less than 2.3 seconds, taking you up an enormous loop over 200ft in the air. Even though you know that as soon as the starting light goes from red to green, you will be going very, very fast, it is just impossible. See?
Not quite the happy expressions we were making on our wedding day, but expressions that express exhilaration, excitement, trust, fear and adrenaline, all in one go. When I told a good friend that we were spending our anniversary in Thorpe Park, she commented, '...Maybe an illustration of marriage!' I couldn't have put it better myself.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

This morning I awoke with the threads of the night's dreaming still very much intact. I dreamt I discovered a house that was very much a home, but with an amazing space where the utility room might once have been that was a giant pantry and baking space. I watched for a while as the owner of this home & baking space pottered about with the familiarity that comes with working in a space you have created and an enjoyment of doing what you do. I watched this girl for a long time, taking in all that she was doing and wondering if and how I might be able to re-create a space of my own like this. Then I realised the girl was me. On waking, I willed this dream to stay in my memories and felt the increasing urge to get into the kitchen and bake (as well as go and find that home with the great baking space and move in asap).

This dream comes off the back of a few days spent with my family in Kent where many hours were spent with each of us engrossed in an endeavour of some kind - sewing, baking, website designing, tasting Ben's home brewed ginger beer, sampling Ben's sourdough bread smothered with Mum's homemade blackcurrant jam, and being introduced to new-to-me food websites and blogs. Oh, the internet is a wonderful and dangerous place to venture, because now all I can think about is baking dozens of recipes from My Baking Addiction's blog. Be still my baking heart.
{View from the train on my way to London through the Kent countryside.}

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

{Enjoying a leisurely breakfast in Starbucks before catching my train}

The gift of the Summer Holidays just keeps on giving, with another little trip for me. This time, I'm off to see my family. Quite incredibly, all of my siblings are at home with my parents. This is now a rare occurrence for us all to be in the same place at the same time.

I'm looking forward to the train journey - four hours of time to read and sleep - although I have a great history of highly unglamorous sleeping next to unsuspecting train passangers - it's very hard to control the snoring and drooling when sleeping upright but I will do my best to keep it at a minimum.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Raspberry and Elderflower Cupcakes

At our wedding, we decided to serve the cake after the wedding ceremony, rather than waiting until the evening reception. As well as the main cake, some very helpful and wonderful friends baked up a couple of delicious treats for the guests to enjoy. One of these treats was from the same recipe book where I found the inspiration for our wedding cake: Red velvet and chocolate heartache. Can you think of a more wonderful name for a book? I love it. The quirky, wonderful thing about this book is that all of the recipes are gluten free, contain at least one vegetable, and rarely use butter. Healthy cake? Absolutely. Delicious? Most definitely. My kind friend Fiona willingly baked dozens of miniature raspberry and elderflower cupcakes for our wedding, perfectly bitesized, and so delicious that the photographers didn't manage to get a photo of them before the guests ate them all. 

I walked past a greengrocers on Friday and saw some raspberries on offer for £0.55 per punnet / 2 for £1. I knew I needed to buy them and bake up some of these delicious summertime cupcakes to share with friends that evening. The elderflower gives these cakes quite a distinctive flavour - if you are not sure how much you love this delicate yet distinctive flavour, I would recommend using less cordial in the icing - perhaps 1 teaspoon instead of 1 tablespoon. 

Raspberry and Elderflower Cordial Cupcakes (recipe adapted from Harry Eastwood)
ingredients (makes 6)
1 free range egg
70g caster sugar
100g courgette, peeled, topped & tailed (1 medium-sized)
1.5 tbsp elderflower cordial
1 tsp baking powder
60g ground almonds
60g raspberries (fresh or frozen ones that have been defrosted)

200g icing (confectioner's) sugar
1.5 tbsp elderflower cordial
40g unsalted butter at room temperature
2 raspberries (to give pink colour)

1) Preheat oven to 180C / gas mark 4 / 350F and line a cupcake tray with 6 cases
2) Whisk together egg and sugar for 5 mins until quadrupled in size
3) Grate the courgette and add, along with the elderflower cordial, whisking until combined
4) Mix in the flour, ground almonds and baking powder
5) Gently fold in the raspberries, being careful not to crush them too much
6) Spoon mixture into cupcake cases, filling until two thirds full. Don't worry about the mixture being runny - this is normal. If it seems easier, put mixture into a measuring jug and pour into cases rather than spooning.
7) Bake in pre-heated oven for 25mins, or until baked.
8) To make the icing, sieve the icing sugar into a mixing bowl, along with the rest of the ingredients and beat until smooth.
9) Pipe or smooth icing onto cakes and enjoy!

Friday, 17 August 2012

Foodie Friday / Som Tam

One thing that was rather lacking from our diet in America was plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. By the time we came home I felt in great need of regular daily amounts of some good healthy food, and this meal I'm going to share with you perfectly matched what my tastebuds were looking for...except that I added just a little too much fresh chilli. 

Our delicious meals at Pato Thai in Flagstaff inspired us, and so on our weekly shop this week we bought a papaya. When using papaya in salads it's ideal if they are a little bit hard / unripe. Ours was just a touch too soft when I came to use it, which meant it was tricky to grate, but the flavour still worked as part of the salad. I based this meal on a recipe for Som Tam that I found hereIn all honesty, I was a little bit grossed out by the inside of the papaya - lots of squishy seeds and flesh, but I can think of plenty more revolting foods, so I'll just be thankful that I didn't need to eat the seeds.

Som Tam
ingredients (serves 2 hungry people as a main meal)

1/2 large papaya
handful of sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds
1 to 2 tomatoes, cut into thin wedges or long strips
1/2 white onion, diced
1/2 cup fresh basil, leaves left whole or chopped
handful of fresh coriander
1 red chili, sliced, seeds removed (reduce or omit, to taste)
1 cup blanched green beans

2 tbsp soy sauce or 1 tsp worcestershire sauce mixed with 1 tsp water
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. fish sauce or soy sauce for vegetarians
3 Tbsp. lime juice
1/2 Tbsp. liquid honey, to taste
1/8 to 1/4 tsp. chili flakes or cayenne pepper, to taste

1) In a small bowl, mix together all ingredients for dressing and set aside until needed.
2)Use a sharp knife to peel the green papaya, then slice it in half and use a spoon to scrape out the seeds. 
3) Using a coarse grater, grate the papaya, or use a potato peeler to create thin, ribbon-like strips. Place in a large bowl.
4) Add sliced tomato, spring onion, chili/cayenne,  green beans and most of the basil. Pour over the dressing, tossing well to combine.
5) Add nuts and toss again. Taste-test the salad. If not sweet enough, add a little more honey. If it's too sweet or salty, add more lime juice. Add more chili to taste, depending on your tolerance level!
6) Top with remaining basil leaves plus fresh coriander and a sprinkling of more nuts.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

road trip round up

We are now home from our road trip, still recovering from the jet lag. My poor head and body are thoroughly confused about what time of day it is, when meal times should be, and where on earth the sun is. (We seem to have left it in California.) Who knew that in England it would still be mild enough to wear slippers in the Summer?

Just to round up the last few days of our trip, here's a little list of memorable moments from our last few days of fun in the sun.

Our journey continued from Bryce Canyon to Flagstaff for the night. We found an amazing restaurant called Pato Thai. The food was beautiful and flavourful and insanely filling. I had a salad starter filled with apple and cashew nuts, doused in a mild chilli dressing, followed by Tom Ka - yet more deliciousness that I just couldn't manage to finish.

Right next door to Pato Thai was a kitchen shop called Seasoned Kitchen. The window display wowed us and we vowed to go back there the next morning before driving to Palm Springs. We stayed true to our intentions and went back into downtown Flagstaff in the morning to peruse the local shops. Seasoned Kitchen is a haven for anyone who likes to cook and eat. The shop has a kitchen / cafe at one end, which they use for cooking food for their cafe and to run cookery classes from - such a brilliant concept which I would love to replicate someday.

On our way out of Flagstaff we stopped by an incredible antiques shop where we could happily have spent a small fortune. Thankfully John had only given me $20, so that small fortune did not get spent. Our drive to Palm Springs was going to take all day, so we broke up the journey ever so slightly with a brief visit to Scottsdale in Phoenix. which was like stepping back in time. We finally got to see some giant cacti that we had been sure we would see more of on our journeys through the desert.

{Can you tell I was a little bit enamoured by the greatness of the cacti? They were enormous!}
Scottsdale was scorching hot 50C / 120F so we didn't stay out of the car for too long. After a full day of driving we arrived in Palm Springs, ready for an evening swim - it was like stepping into a hot bath - blissful! We went to Ace Hotel for dinner - another recommendation of Elise's.

On Thursday we drove back to LA for the last two days of our trip. Becky and I went shopping at The Grove outdoor mall, where we discovered the delights of Crate & Barrel and Anthropologie. We spent at least an hour in Anthropologie. I don't think I have ever found a shop that I enjoyed as much as this one. I loved the styling, the grouping and co-ordinating of complimentary colours, the endless varieties of beautifully scented candles, and my conversation with another customer who asked my advice on which scented candle to buy for her neighbour - my favourite kind of game to play. 
{Shooting from the hip, quite literally, in Anthropologie to try and capture a tiny bit of the shop without looking like a complete nutter}

We ate lunch at a little pizza place in the Farmer's market (another treasure trove) before continuing with our shopping. Another amazing aspect to this outdoor mall was that they filled the air with a fragrance - I have no idea how they do this but would love to find out how on earth they made the air outside smell so wonderful!
We returned to the Biltmore for some spa time while the boys screamed their guts out at 6 Flags theme park, then had a rather unsuccessful trip out to find dinner. 

Friday was our last day, and we spent it at Universal Studios. I had no idea simulator rides could be so fun and would cause me to laugh so uncontrollably. We didn't take cameras in with us, as we knew we'd be getting wet on the Jurassic Park ride and at the Water World show. It was a good call in effectively protecting my camera, but I'm a little sad that I didn't get any photos of the day. For our last meal of the road trip we went to Evo Kitchen which was amazing for gluten free pizza and beer, as well as regular delicious pizzas and cocktails. 
We went back to the beautiful Biltmore hotel with very happy tummies, ready for our last sleep in America before heading home to England. 

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Tuesday / Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon was the last National Park we visited. It was by far the busiest of all the National Parks we went to, and I'd imagine that part of this is today with just how very big it is. We only had half a day there, which is really only enough time to just barely scratch the surface of all there is to explore in the canyon. It was another extremely hot day, and going into the anyon below the rim would mean an increase in temperature by 11 degrees (C), which would have been about 50C. As time wasn;t on our side, we decided to walk for a couple of hours on the Kaibab trail that went just below the South rim.

We entered the park from the East stopped at the first view point called Watchtower before driving to the main visitor's centre.
The scale of the Grand Canyon was so vast and immense – again words fail me to begin to try and describe it. When writing about Bryce Canyon I mentioned how every guide book I’ve read about the great National Parks here have readily acknowledged the difficulty we have in describing their beauty in a way that is fitting. As I looked out at the Grand Canyon and tried to get a grasp on the scale of it all, I was reminded of the verse in the Bible Where Paul prays,

‘that you may have strength to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with the fullness of God.’ Ephesians 3 v 18 – 19

The Grand Canyon is vast and even when I stood there looking at it with my own eyes, I struggled to comprehend its actual size. All I knew from the information we’d read was that the distance from the North rim to the South rim is 10 miles. Aside from this, I couldn’t even begin to hazard a guess at the height, length and depth of each of the ridges of Canyon that I was looking at. It brought to light Paul’s prayer – that to know the breadth, length and height of the love of God requires strength because it is so very great.
Later on in the day as I was reflecting on the beauty I had seen in the Grand Canyon, a memory came to mind of a card my Dad sent me a good number of years ago. It had a beautiful watercolour painting on it of trees in Autumnal colours, along with the Bible verse, ‘the Earth is the Lord’s and all that dwells within it, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.  (Psalm 24 v 1)’ In the Bible, Jesus tells the Pharisees that even if we did not praise God, the very rocks he created would cry out in praise – because creation itself is a reflection of His great glory.
I thought back to how I, along with many, many other people have struggled to put into words the great natural beauty we see in the world, and how God’s creation evokes such awe in us that its beauty is beyond our words. And this is something that none of the guide books talk about. That the beauty and awesomeness of creation gives glory to God. I would love to have the words to share with you something of the natural wonders I have seen, so that you might also share in my joy and awe of creation. But I really don’t have the adjectives and superlatives to articulate what I have seen. All I can say is that the beauty I see in creation causes me to praise God for His great glory, and deeply marvel in the knowledge that while I am struggling to describe just a few places of great beauty, that are really very small places when you consider the size of the universe, God, in His greatness, knows every minute aspect of this wonderful world, and delights in the joy we find in His creation. 

Monday / Bryce Canyon

We were excited to get out and explore Bryce Canyon on Monday, following our initial sightings of the Hoodoos on Sunday night, and after a leisurely breakfast, we caught the free shuttle to the start of the FairyLand Loop Trail. Our South West America Lonely Planet guide mentioned that this trail tended to be quieter than some of the other options, and this proved to be true. In four hours of walking we saw about ten other people. The FairyLand Loop trail provided serenity and scenes of grandeur. 
Time and again in our visits to the National Parks here, every piece of literature I have read grapples to articulate the beauty and immensity of the sights there are to behold. No photo seems to quite capture the splendour either – essentially there is no substitute for seeing these places with your own eyes.
The trail consisted of 8 miles of undulating red dirt paths, often narrow in places, providing a gentle reminder of our vulnerability in the home of the Hoodoos.
I loved our time in Bryce in a very different way to the way I loved Yosemite. John described it well when he said, ‘Yosemite is like a haven, Bryce is immense and vast’. The guide book had described the FairyLand trail as strenuous, which is quite fitting. The heat was intense and there was nothing we could do to avoid sweating profusely. Although the walk was not exactly a gentle stroll, I loved that it made me highly conscious of my body working continually -  breathing harder to supply my muscles with oxygen at a reasonably high altitude (7500m above sea level), sweat to cool myself down, feeling thirst as my body signals it’s in need of water (I consumed about 4 litres of water by bedtime), - and marvelling at the way God created our bodies to work so efficiently in different conditions.
On the ascent back up the end of the trail, we were grateful for the temporary spots of rain and shade that the changing weather provided. Having run out of our ample water supply, the shade was even more important in protecting us from heat stroke, dehydration, and all of the horrible things that come with heat and lack of water.
By the time we arrived in Page, Utah that evening, we were all shattered after a wonderful day of walking, and very grateful for a bed to rest our weary bones, even if the motel was not the greatest of them all in the slightly curious town of Page.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Sunday / Zion National Park

Our journey to Zion took us through the wonderful Utah landscape, characterised by red, red rock. It was simply stunning. Sadly I took my camera to Zion without a memory card so I only managed to capture a few photos on our way out.
 We looked at the trails and decided on the one that looked most likely to provide us with an opportunity for some more swimming in the wild – Emerald Falls. Sadly, the National Park official advice stated we weren’t allowed to swim. The Lower, Middle and Upper Emerald falls proved to be rather underwhelming anyway, rather lacking in water due to the summer heat. We had a wonderful time spotting lots of interesting wildlife – tiny toads, little lizards and a very bold deer that took us by surprise.
 {photo by Tim}
We left Zion, ready to head to our next destination, but didn’t get very far along the mountain roads before being stopped by a small queue of cars. It soon became apparent that the car at the front of the queue had stopped to look at something on the mountain side, and everyone else had followed suit. So we did just that. Tim and I hopped out of the car, cameras at the ready to see what was capturing so much interest, all the while marvelling at the combination of audacity and acceptance of those stopping in the middle of the road, and those unsuspecting drivers being stopped abruptly on the mountain road. 

These two big horned mountain sheep were the cause of all the interest. Apparently it’s very unusual to see them in action. No-one seemed to be an expert on interpreting the behaviour of mountain sheep, but the assumption was that these were two males engaged in a mating ritual, vying for the female mountain sheep. For the most part, they nuzzled each other, rubbed horns, and stopped to stare at their growing audience. 
Then they simultaneously stepped back, reared up and charged at each other, the clashing of their horns reverberating around the mountain pass. What great entertainment! Shortly after leaving the small crowd of onlookers, we came across the female mountain sheep who had captured the attention of the two males – she didn’t seem at all phased by the antics taking place just around the corner in honour of her. 
Our next destination was Bryce Canyon and we hoped to arrive in time for sunset. We got there just in time to be greeted with seriously spectacular views and our first sightings of the Hoodoos that characterise Bryce Canyon at Sunset Point. Breathtaking beauty.