My 10th USAnniversary!

bilbo quote

August marked 10 years since my arrival in the USA and I have found myself reflecting and reminiscing a lot lately. As a result, today’s post is very different than normal as I set the scene for a week of some of my favourite eateries from our summer vacation.

It is still strange to me sometimes when I think about how this little wandering Greek- Cypriot Londoner finally found her home with a tall southern gentleman at the foot of the Smokey Mountains, in a little town just north of Chattanooga, TN. And, little did I know that I would have to leave that majestic view to graze in the flat lands of Texas, just a few years later, while my husband finishes his doctoral work. That is life my friends. You never know how it is going to unravel as each foot is placed in front of the other.  You just move, hoping, trusting, squinting into the distance and believing somehow that you will look back at the end of your life and feel peace with all you have learned and experienced. Even those who meticulously plan 10 years at a time can never truly know what is ahead. I think somewhere deep down that is my favourite thing about life; the mystery. It’s the peace we find when things aren’t as we imagined. The hope, and knowledge, that things can change means we can focus on present moments that are still positive and draw strength for the patience required as we wait for the up and coming. It is also the hope of all the adventure that is yet to come.

 

Ski Lift

In the summer of 2003, when I was still living in London and a month away from moving to the States, I had the pleasure of attending a conference at the ski resort of Pamporovo in Bulgaria. Being July, we were not there to ski but an afternoon outing had been arranged to ride the ski lifts across the beautiful mountains. I learnt something monumental that day as our journey unfolded. The first ski lift at which we arrived was pretty modern with large cushioned seats, a thick strong safety bar that locked into place, and a short little ride to the first mountain. Being slightly afraid of heights, I felt as safe as possible under the circumstances and decided to move with the flow of people making their way to the lift. It was rather quite pleasant as we smoothly sailed up to the tops of the trees, enjoying the crisp summer air, and landed safely on the other side of the valley.  

However, the next ski lift was not as sturdy-looking and a little older than the first. The view from the mountains was stunning and, despite my trembling knees and the strong desire to go back alone, I decided to hop on this next set of ski lifts and just grip the flimsy bar with all my might. As we bobbed along the line, I could not get enough of the natural beauty around me. I have always loved the mountains and these were stunning.

Once we reached the final ski lift, at the very height of the resort, I was pretty mortified at the sight of the contraption that would be carrying us down. The safety bar was a thin rope of metal that came half way across the body, the entire chair was paint pealed and somewhat rusty, and as each empty seat rolled around the top of that highest mountain, it swung wildly, squeaking and taunting its next victim. Even though I could hear my heart pounding in my head, I somehow managed to muster the courage and rode this lift of death to the bottom of the mountain. The view was silently breathtaking and completely distracting from the fear I had initially experienced. It is an experience I will never forget.

Every moment of the journey that day was only visible as I approached each leg and for that, I am so very thankful. If I had seen that final terrifying lift from the beginning, I would have turned around and mulled on back to the hotel with the few others who did not want to go into the mountains. Instead, each stage was revealed gradually and I managed to find just enough courage and strength to get to the next point and experience some of the most incredible scenery. One month later, I arrived in the States for what was to be two short years and here I am ten years later, with so many hill top moments behind me, and still enjoying the ride!

Why do I tell you all this? Because it seems fitting to celebrate my USAnniversary by highlighting the food in a city that became a very significant mountain top for me during the early years of my life in this country. I will be spending this week focusing on the wonderful eateries we love so much in Chattanooga and I truly hope to inspire you to visit this beloved city. Who knows, maybe one of life’s ski lifts will take you there someday too.

chattanooga

The Best Moment Award

best-moment-award

Here are the rules:

1. Display the award logo

2. Link back to the person who nominated you

I was so chuffed to be nominated for the Best Moment Award by Mimi’s Getting Fit. She is truly an inspirational woman who has lost almost 70 lbs in the past year and a half, and has become a tower of physical strength. Her honest look at life, weight loss, food and body image has been such a joy to follow. I highly recommend checking out her story.

3. State 7 things about yourself

1- Although I am not a big Christmas movie person, every year I have to watch Love Actually, and The Muppet’s Christmas Carol!

2- I am in the process of starting up my own baking side business. Lots to still do but I am excited about the journey ahead.

3-I think of London every day. Even though I love my life here in the States and would probably never want to move back permanently, I will always be a Londoner at heart.

4- I am just under 5ft and my husband is 6ft 5! Yes, it’s a big difference but it means I get the best bear hugs! Also people remember us wherever we go and this has lead to all kinds of special regular-customer treatment at various eateries.

5- I have now visited more States than I have countries in Europe.

6- I love Zumba! In fact, I just love dancing in general. Wish I could find a fun night club where people actually go for the music and dancing instead of all the other stuff.

7- I still love McVities Jaffa Cakes after all these years! Despite the fact that I turn my nose up at Little Debbie and Hostess Cakes (sorry US friends!) there is just something so familiar and sentimental attached to those little round chocolate-covered-spongecake buggers! All my baking snobbery melts into a shameful entire-pack-eating binge!

4. Nominate 15 (or however many you can) other bloggers for this award. I have been so blessed to share in the lives of these people as I read about their food, or their stories, creativity, musing, ponderings etc. I hope you will click on the links below and be inspired.

Dreamstate Reality

Mitts and Measures

The Foodies

The Paddington Foodie

Penny’s Food Blog

Life in Golden Light

Pliable

The Payton Periodicals

Ninja Munchies

Boomtown Sisters

Bees C’s and D’s

Tips on Purchasing a Stand Mixer

Purchasing a stand mixer

Earlier this summer, something I have been hoping to happen for a long time finally became a reality. I got a Kitchen Aid stand mixer! For the past 6 years I have been making all my cakes (including wedding cakes!) with my little $15 Black & Decker hand mixer and a variety of large bowls!

Old Faithful

Although this mixer served me well, when it came to large orders, I would inevitable suffer upper arm and neck cramps for several days, and almost always find a spot of frosting splattered up under cabinets or off in the far corners of the kitchen even after extensive cleaning!

Choosing a stand mixer was actually a lot more stressful than I was expecting mostly because I approached this like a lifetime purchase. It has taken me a long time to be able to save up/afford/justify spending the money on a stand mixer and I didn’t want to buy the ‘wrong’ one. So,  I did a lot of research and thought it might be helpful to share what I have discovered for those of you thinking of making such a purchase. Here are the main things you need to decide before you begin:

What do I need it for? yes I know mixing, but mixing what? cakes/cupcakes, cookies, bread, mashed veg? everything? And how much do you want to mix at a time? 1 loaf of bread, 5 batches of cookies, batter for 20 inch cakes? It really makes a difference for the kind of machine you need to focus on. 

How much am I willing/able to spend? yes we would all like to buy the most super-duper machine like the ones in industrial bakeries but how much can you realistically spend for the size of your kitchen in relation to your needs.

On what am I willing to compromise? Just like anything, there is no perfect machine out there so decide what your absolutes are and what you are willing to live without. Have realistic expectations. If you are wishing to start a bread making company, there may not realistically be a home kitchen style mixer that exists to meet your needs.

thinking

These seem like obvious questions but there is so much information out there on mixers that it’s important to be firm on your answers before you begin the process. It can be quite confusing if you don’t have some safe fixed perimeters

Brand names: There are other mixers not just Kitchen Aid and some of them even have slightly cooler features but if you know WHAT you need it for, then you can eliminate some of these options right off the bat. I found some really helpful Youtube video reviews were people did a side by side comparison with kitchen aids and other brands.  This also shed light on some of the  lofty product descriptions that don’t seem to really live up to their promises. Again, those answers will help you get to the right conclusion about which brand- i.e. if your budget is more limited and you just want a mixer for the occasional box cake packet, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t consider a less expensive smaller machine as long as it is good quality.

Which size: There is not a great deal of size variety of other brands so this section really only applies to those who are trying to chose a Kitchen Aid. (Cuisinart have two sizes – big and super large!- so some of this might apply but it’s a much easier choice than the Kitchen Aid machines). So how do you pick between the Classic, Artisan and the  Pro? There are some great YouTube videos and online reviews that helped me figure out which would best suit my needs. (I just searched for Kitchen Aid Mixer comparisons.) For me it came down to the Artisan and the Pro. Again, this goes back to the original questions I had established before researching. For the most part my little hand mixer has been fine for a small mix but what I needed most from a new mixer was the ability to knock out an order of 175 cupcakes for a wedding, or a large batch of royal icing or buttercream. Here are the major features outlined for each kitchen aid mixer size according to what I found:

Classic: Smallest bowl (4.5 qt), no handle on the bowl and doesn’t come with a pouring shield. However, it’s the cheapest at around $230-250 and again if you are only looking for basic mixing capability for single batch recipes, this is a great option. (I actually borrowed my friends Classic for making a large amount of royal icing a few months ago and was really happy with the results- it just wasn’t big enough for my ongoing needs)

Artsian: 5 qt bowl with handle and a pouring shield. Comes in a larger range of colours but is around $100 more than the classic. This seems to be the best kitchen aid deal between the two extremes of the Classic and the Pro. As it’s the most popular, many companies offer special deals at certain times of year.

Pro: 6 qt bowl with much more powerful motor. As a result it does not have a tilting head but a crank shaft handle to lift and lower the bowl itself. This also means it is quite a bit taller than the other two machines and does not fit under all kitchen cabinets. However, if you are into making several bathes of a recipe at one time, or larger tiered cakes, this does seems to be the most ideal machine. The colour options are constantly getting better but can drastically change the price so depending on which one you chose, there may not be as big of a difference with the Artisan. There is a lot of discussion however about how the flat beater doesn’t really scrape the bowl well. There is an additional flat beater you can purchase with little ‘wings’ that seems to solve this problem but it is extra and the reviews were very mixed.

ColoursColour: one of the key appeals for the kitchen aid mixers is the variety of colours and decorative options. Of course, which colour to purchase is entirely up to taste etc but I do have some words of advice- 1: Make sure you see a real life sample of the colour because they don’t all look exactly as they appear on-line. 2: The less obscure, the cheaper. My white pro was $50 cheaper than even the chrome and $100 less than some of the really snazzy ones. (Again this is where those key questions I mentioned at the beginning will be a great help.) 3: If money is an issue, think longevity- yes bright purpley-orange is lovely right now but will you love it for the next 10-15 years, and will it look good in another kitchen if you move?

Refurbished or New?: Refurbished Kitchen Aids are available everywhere and are typically a much cheaper option (up to $100 less) than a new one (although sometimes, you can catch a really good sale that can dramatically reduce the difference). There are a lot of mixed experiences and reviews of refurbished machines so it’s hard to say if this is a better option. Many people seem to have had great success with their’s whereas others have received a machine that is practically broken or unusable. Here is my one piece of advice on choosing to go the refurbished route- go with a reputable seller so if there are any problems you can get a refund easily. It seems that almost unanimously when people followed this guideline, even if their machine was no good, they raved about the customer service. How do you pick a reputable seller?-read lots of reviews!

MoneyWhere to Purchase? This will largely depend on the size, brand etc, there are so many options. Target, Bed Bath & Beyond seem to offer sales, coupons and rebates on Kitchen Aids at certain times of the year but nothing too amazing. (but still a sale is a sale!) Also, these offers tend to be tied mainly to the classic and the artisan. I couldn’t not find anything better than Amazon’s prices for the Pro, plus the seller offered a rebate for a free pasta roller and cutter at that particular time of year. However, with on-line offers, be sure to read exactly what the machine comes with and be careful to notice if the machine is new or refurbished. Sometimes, a particular colour does not come with a specific attachment or pouring shield. Bottom line- it’s not going to be cheap so do a little research but don’t expect to find massive differences between sellers especially with the higher end machines. If you are looking to get this as cheap as possible, be open about the colour- it is the one aspect that makes the biggest difference in price that I could see.

Bread: it seems that almost all the negative reviews I read for every machine was connected to their inability to mix bread either well or without burning out the motor. If you are looking for a machine to make multiple batches of bread, you may have to accept that without an industrial strength machine, this might not be possible. The occasional loaf seems to be fine as long as it’s kept at a lower speed and you are willing to be patient with stopping to scrape the bottom of the bowl.

Take Time and Plan Ahead. I first decided I wanted a mixer over a year ago and was finally willing to take the plunge. I excitedly searched kitchen aid mixer in my browser expecting to click ‘purchase’ within an hour. I was wrong! Like I said, there are so many machines to chose from you need to allow time to research properly and look for the best option and deal. I don’t recommend deciding on a whim or taking on a specific project with the view to have your machine beforehand unless there is plenty of time ahead. I abandoned my first attempts because we found out we were moving to Texas and needed all the extra cash we could find but I began again in April. It took me about a month of casually browsing, researching and window shopping before finally making a purchase and I could not be happier about my machine. It was completely the right one for me and my baking life has become so much easier (and cleaner!).  I mean… just look at how lovely it is sitting there all pretty on my kitchen counter!

My Beautiful Mixer

Good luck and please feel free to ask me any questions or share your stand mixer love below!

Chopped Date Night

At the beginning of the year, John and I made a date-night bucket-list and have slowly been working our way through it- particularly over the summer. We have been visiting nearby towns, eateries, shops, playing Skipbo at Cafes, cooking together and all sorts of other things.

During his Master’s degree, and when I was a Hall Director, we would often finish our work around 10 pm in the evenings and would unwind by watching an episode of Chopped on Food Network. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a competition where the contestants have to make a stunning dish in a short period of time with 5 mystery ingredients they are given from a basket. The winner gets $10,000!) My sweet husband had the brilliant idea to add ‘Chopped Dinner Night’ to our date-night bucket list. Of course it did not involve the cash prize but it sounded like a fun idea nonetheless. A few weeks ago we finally got round to checking this one off the list and I just had to share it with you all.

The Brief:

John was in charge of dinner and I had to provide dessert. We each had 20 minutes in our local grocery store to pick 4 ‘mystery-basket’ ingredients for the other person. Then, we met in the middle of the store to reveal what we had picked. With basket ingredients in hand, and ideas churning, we had an additional 10 minutes to pick up any pantry items we needed to create our dish before returning home to cook.

The items I chose for John:

John's Ingredients

Capers, ground veal, fig preserves, and smoked Gouda

The items John chose for me:

My Ingredients

Raspberries, mascarpone, black pepper bacon, and Hot Tamales (hot cinnamon candy)

John had an extremely successful final dish. He used the capers and paired them with olives, artichoke hearts, basil and rosemary to make a delicious dressing over an arugula salad. The fig preserve was cooked down with some fresh mint and Serrano chilies, and then used as a glaze for small tender veal meatballs. Finally John shredded the smoked Gouda into seasoned smashed potatoes. All in all, it was outstanding! I was so impressed with my clever hubby’s mad Chopped skills!

John's Dish

I unfortunately had a bit of a disaster that changed the original direction of my dish but I was pretty pleased with some of the elements and the creativity! My idea was to boil down the candy to make a sugar cinnamon syrup to flavour whipped egg whites for meringue nests. I was then going to whip heavy cream with the mascarpone and raspberries to create a cream filling for the nests and top them off with cinnamon candied pepper bacon and melted dark chocolate swirls.

My Dish

Almost all of this went well and actually tasted pretty good except for the cream! I just bought a new Kitchen Aid mixer and was so excited to use it for whipping my cream.Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how quickly my mixer can beat cream so when I went back to the machine, it had gone too far and curdled it! I tried making a chocolate cream to cover the clotted mess underneath and it ended up not looking as bad but it wasn’t what I had imagined in my head! Oh well! It tasted pretty good (esp the bacon) but John’s dish was definitely the winner! I can’t wait for our rematch!

An Afternoon Tea Party with English Scones

What better way to celebrate the upcoming arrival of your friend’s baby girl than to throw an afternoon tea party shower. Pretty flowers, little cups and saucers, small sandwiches and scones, great friends sitting around the table together laughing, and sharing in the wonder of new life. Some friends and I had the pleasure of arranging this intimate little gathering full of tiny pink frilly outfits and baby bows with bling. It was such great fun.

tea party

I absolutely love the collaborative efforts that go into this wonderful American tradition of helping to provide and prepare for a baby’s arrival. I am especially honoured to be surrounded by friends who go to such great lengths to take care of each other. This shower was just another example of how blessed John and I are to be here at Baylor.

Our tea party consisted of delicious fruit salad, classic cucumber sandwiches with the edges cut off

Cucumber Sandwiches

and English tea scones.

scones above

served with jam and lemon curd of course!

scones above with jam

(sadly I could not find any clotted cream but I have since found a recipe for homemade clotted cream that I will be trying very soon). This tea party made me rather homesick and triggered hours of nostalgically seeking out recipes for all the other British classic desserts like cherry bakewell tarts, hot cross buns, fondant fancies, and Eccles cakes. I am sure some of these will be turning up on The Grumbling Belly in the coming weeks and months!

English scones are not like the American ones you find at coffee shops. They lean slightly towards breakfast biscuits with some added sweetness.  Typically, scones are either plain or with raisins/currants. The ones I made for this shower are sort of an American-British marriage as I added dried cranberries with the raisins as well as a few other small modifications! If you want to make a classic recipe just omit the cranberries, zest and vanilla.

Tea Scones

English tea scones

1/2 cup of raisins

1/2 cup of dried cranberries

1 tsp orange zest

2 tbsp of sugar

4 cups of self-raising flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 stick of butter (1/2 cup)

2 eggs

dash of vanilla extract (optional)

1/2 cup of milk (plus a little extra for brushing)

Preheat oven to 375 F. Sift flower, baking powder, salt and sugar together in a large bowl. Cut butter into cubes and the rub into the flour mix until you have a breadcrumb texture. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the milk, then add orange zest, vanilla if using, raisins and cranberries. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the milk-egg mix. Gently work the wet mixture into the dry ingredients until just incorporated into a dough consistency. Roll out onto a floured surface and cut out scones circles. It is really important when cutting into the dough that you do not move the cutter around as this will prevent the scones from rising. Simply press straight down and release. Brush the top of the scones with milk and place on baking sheet with a little space between them. Bake for about 15-20 minutes until they are golden brown. You can freeze the scones as soon as they are cool in a ziplock bag to preserve their freshness. Or, serve them as soon as possible with jam, clotted cream or lemon curd.

scones close

(Thanks to Hannah King and Mike Trozzo for taking beautiful pictures)

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Coming soon!

Sorry for such a long absence everyone! I have been so unbelievably busy at work and at home for the past couple of weeks that I just had to be OK with stepping away from The Grumbling Belly until everything settled back down. However, I do have a plethora of treats built up and coming this way very soon. Here are some of the highlights to get us all excited! Lime Cilantro Chicken, A Cupcake Wedding Tower, Buffalo Blue Mac n’ Cheese, White Chocolate Mojito Truffles, All-Out Canelloni, and Garlic Spinach Pasta.

coming soon

Hotel Chocolat- trying to do the right thing

Chocolate

Chocolate…could we imagine life without it? We’ve all wanted to drink from the Wonka River at some point. But this dark delight also has a darker side hidden at the cocoa farms in places like Cote d’Ivore (The Ivory Coast). One of the things that impressed me most about England during my return over Christmas was the amount of ethically sourced chocolate easily available. Here in the States, most people I meet have never heard of the human right’s issues surrounding the cocoa industry. To be honest I am not surprised when you consider that the major chocolate companies in this country are the ones continuing to fuel the problem. It’s hard for us to accept in our modern society that chocolate is a luxury item when we consume such massive amounts. Even more so, in this difficult economy, we aren’t interested in paying more money for something that you can find everywhere for much cheaper prices. But the truth is, that chocolate is a luxury item and the only reason it has become such a predominant part of our lives is because cocoa is being harvested in harsh conditions and mostly on the backs of child workers, a lot of whom are slaves, so it can be a cheaper commodity.

chocolate

Just for a moment think about all the ease with which we find chocolate and use it in daily life…..desserts at restaurants, in healthy snacks as well as indulgent ones, baked goods, in coffee drinks, chocolate milk, and breakfast cereals not to mention all the holidays that focus on candy and chocolate….Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Christmas and Easter. You then start to realize why this issue is not being brought to the forefront as much as other human rights issues. Can you imagine the impact on the cocoa industry?….No but seriously, can you imagine the impact on the cocoa industry? Our choices make all the difference for other people around the world. I think as consumers we feel so powerless against these corporate giants. It almost reminds me of the Disney-Pixar movie A Bug’s Life where all the ants think that the grasshoppers have this terrifying  control over them. But, there’s the great moment when the ants suddenly get it…..there are more of them, they are the ones who provide food and they have the real power after all. We are the ants….there are more of us than there are greedy corporations and our money and purchase power are what they depend on. If a company starts losing profits, and their shareholders are not happy, you can guarantee that they will change tactics to get their ‘piece of the pie’. Just look at the ‘organic’ industry and all that has changed in the last 10 years. Once sales for non-organic items began to drop, smart companies realized they needed to start producing more organic items to recoup their profits. Already, we are beginning to see the pressure in some parts of the country and in the UK and it’s forcing companies not to turn a blind eye anymore but to take responsibility for their cocoa farmers/suppliers practices. And, although not enough change has happened yet, there are several cocoa companies, such as Divine (on-line and specialty stored) and Green & Blacks (only one available at major grocery chains), specializing in producing chocolate in ethical ways.

Slave Free Chocolate

While in England my brother introduced us to the masterful world of Hotel Chocolat and you can imagine my delight when I discovered that they are making it part of their mission to treat and pay their farmers as valued employees and investing in their well being and success.  I then felt totally free to wander round their little Cambridge boutique and admire the ingenious chocolate creations. Here are the ones my generous brother purchased for us to sample. Needless to say they were amazing!

Hotel Chocolat

Some of you may not have heard about the issue of child labour and slavery in the cocoa industry, and probably have lots of questions There are obviously many factors contributing to these problems and I have only touched the surface so here are some helpful links to aid you in your own research. 

Hotel Chocolat

Crossing Borders Fair Trade

CNN Freedom Project

Food is Power

Finally, I understand that it can be quite overwhelming when you begin to learn about this issue and might be uncertain about what to do next. Even if it is informing others, trading out just one of your usual candy bar choices for a slave-free one, or going all out and only purchasing/consuming slave-free options, everything is beneficial in sending the message that these kinds of practices are not acceptable. It is a long road ahead to make the world slave-free but the worst thing we can do is remain ignorant and not do anything.