Saturday, March 30, 2013

Happy Easter, many (chocolate) eggs, sunshine and spring temperatures and plenty of time to chill to all of you! I will be off to Las Vegas on Monday and unlike the well-known saying "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas", I shall definite share some pictures here upon my return, if not earlier.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Random Pics from My SD Card...

Hi! I'm cleaning up my camera's storage card a bit and came across some nice random shots that I had almost forgotten I took. Speaking of forgetting... in (the very likely) case I have early onset Alzheimers and forgot posting some of these here already: sorry. If not: enjoy. Hopefully.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Back in Town and Off Again Soon

Hello, my lovelies.
Not much to report here really, other than I survived the cold in the various Baltic capitals (see my Instaweather screenshots below) and much as I loved the action-packed past week was happy to enjoy a rather chilled weekend at home to recharge my batteries for a conference in LAS VEGAS next week. I've never been there and there will be quite a huge crowd of international colleagues so I'm quite excited. This was the "tropical" weather I experienced last week...
Well, what can I went from bad to worse and there's even fewer signs of spring here. Sigh. All the chairs and tables that cafés had optimistically put out some weeks ago are covered in snow:
My flying visits to the Baltics only involved a bit of duty-free shopping and a visit to my usual haunts in Vilnius, such as the Linen store I always raid (bought 3 scarves fro my "pressie stash" this time). I picked up a nice short-sleeved top in the sale at Marks&Spencer:
...and bought some local chocolate in Estonia. Kalev really makes nice sweets and I couldn't resist getting this cute hand-painted marzipan bear, which I ended up giving to the Gazelle as I know I'd never eat it, probably.
I hope you are enjoying nicer weather were you are...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

And You Thought It Was Cold Were You Live...

Just a little "hi" from Riga, the first stop of my business trips in the Baltics, where pavements are still covered with tick layers of ice and all the bodies of water seem to be frozen still. Here's a shot I took on my phone form the descent to Riga with the frozen Baltic Sea underneath:
Below is the river Daugava in front of my hotel (aptly called the Radisson Blu Daugava) across which I've seen people walk.
I'm guessing Tallinn and Vilnius will great me with equally cold temperatures...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

While I'm Away... week hopping from one Baltic capital to the next (fingers crossed for no delayed flights or other means of public transport!), I'm leaving you with some food porn. After all, I haven't tortured delighted you with any macaron pics for over a week. Gasp. Meet coconut macarons with passionfruit curd filling. They were very favourably received by my test group and according to the Gazelle were the best yet and I was welcome to make them again. Even though I have a weekness for salted caramel and all things matcha, I think I agree as the curd was beyond divine. Don't they look just luscious?
For the actual macs, I slightly adapted my standard recipe. In case you have tried it out and not had great results, persevere, my friends! Practice really does make perfect and mine are getting more "professional" every time. What I did was use half coconut flakes and half almonds, chopping it up in the blender as usual. I reduced the icing sugar to 200g as coconuts are sweeter than almonds already, at least to my taste. I am going to try it with the almonds next time as well in order to make the dough less sweet. It didn't seem to impact the consistency. After my recent success with passionfruit I really wanted to make a filling with them and tried out this super-easy recipe that produced two jam-jars full of extremely delicious curd. Even though the seeds are edible and supposedly good for you, I tried to avoid them for the macaron filling as best as I could as I found it better for such a delicate pastry.
Since my last macaron creation, the piping bag 2.0 thingie I had ordered online arrived and I want to let you know that you can learn from my mistake and should NOT waste your money on it. I ended up scooping the goo out again as I was not happy with its performance at all. So if you see a contraption like this, don't buy:
I had bought it for the stand, not knowing that it's only compatible for this "system". Ah well...

More soon(ish).

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Quantity Time

In my last post, I was quite nostalgic/euphoric about the fact that I got to revisit my old hunting grounds in Ljubljana. Yesterday, I was once more reminded that (business) travel sometimes can be a bit lacking in glamour...I got to spend A LOT of time at Ljubljana's central railway station, or Železniška postaja, if you'd like a little tongue-twister. Now travelling by train (there is no bus service that I know of) from Ljubljana to Klagenfurt is not exactly comfortable and convenient even without delays. If you go by car, it's a little over an hour. By train via Villach, it's about 2.5 hours, depending on your connecting train from Villach.
So when I arrived at a quarter to 3 yesterday and went to buy my ticket for my train at 15:05, the lady at the international ticket counter informed me that the train would be at least two hours late. What? It was coming from Croatia and there were massive delays (perhaps due to snow, who knows). Mysteriously, the old-fashioned announcement board still showed the regular time and track, with no mention of delays. I then went into the information office to inquire and was told to return at 5:30 to ask again as it would probably be 3 hours delayed. Great. With no other train to Austria before that I had to kill a lot of time. I've had delays and cancelled flights at airports before, but - believe me - this is half as painful as airports tend to have way nicer infrastructure.
Whereas the old town of Ljubljana is a true gem and there are several other nice parts of town, the railway station and its vicinity definitely isn't one of them. It's the type of charmless place you'd that could serve as a backdrop for a film set in a remote Siberian village back in the days of the Soviet Union. I'm only slightly exaggerating. The whole place is chilly and drafty, which I'm sure is lovely and welcome on a hot summer day, but not so when it's cold and snowing. There is only so much time you can spend at Mc Donald's (WiFi!) or random cafés in the buiding, so I ended up consuming a cappucino, an orange juice and a fruit tea. Thankfully one of the to things I can say in favour of LJU train station (the other being friendly staff at the info counter, who definitely speak better English than your regular OEBB staff) is free public toilets with(!) toilet paper. After gulping all those liquids I came to know it quite intimately, you know. I splurged on a fat and overpriced issue of American Harpers Bazar and hoped for the best before I'd stab myself with a plastic fork somewhere.
The train finally turned up "210 minutes delayed" as the lady on the intercom put it and a bunch of frozen-stiff foreigners jumped on it. I managed to transfer from track 1 to 7 in Villach in 2 minutes flat and jump on the already departing train and was at my parents' at a quarter past 9.
My pity-party was interrupted after talking to a German man on the same train who missed his connecting train to Salzurg and had to kill time until 2 a.m. in Villach before he could continue his complicated onward journey to Hannover.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Full Circle

So back in the days when I still worked at what is known affectionately at Coma HQ here, my only business trip location was Ljubljana. Even though I had grown up not far from it, I only really got to know the city quite intimately during those 8 days (or was it even more?) I got to spend there. Now with my new-ish job at the Firm I also get to visit Slovenia's capital quite frequently, but have mostly stayed at Plaza Hotel, which is not central. This time, however, I am back at the old "crime scene", i.e. the very same hotel where I stayed back in the year 2000. Back then, it was Holiday Inn and housed the Slovenian Liaison Office of Coma HQ. It has long since been swallowed by its stately next door neighbour, Grand Hotel Union and become "GH Union Business". Unlike Plaza, it is right in the city centre and if you are lucky, you even get a room with AMAZING views. I managed to take a really cool picture on Tuesday night when I arrived:
The rooms are spacious and most have a balcony, but otherwise the hotel isn't that exciting and in fact a bit dated. For me, it mainly has nostalgic value and seeing that round staircase, remembering that the office was in one of the corner rooms takes me back almost 13 years. It's like suddenly smelling a scent that reminds you of your childhood. I almost feel like revisiting my honeymoon destination with my new partner...
One thing I also remembered was that Holiday Inn/GH Union Business has a pool. I'm a super-organised traveller and actually deliberated whether to pack my bikini. I then decided against it, reasoning that I wouldn't have time. As it turned out, today's event doesn't start until lunch-time and last night's dinner with colleagues was early so I did the usual and went to H&M to buy a cheap "emergency bikini"... I am definitely not short in swimwear and therefore wanted to spend as little as possible. I settled for a bottoms from some sale rack for €3 and top from the new line for € 12.90. As you might be able to see in the picture, the pink is not exactly the same shade, but as there will be plenty of pale flesh in between when I wear it, that's fine:
I went for a swim last night to complete the walk/swim down memory lane and happy to report that the two pieces that I couldn't be bothered to try on fit perfectly.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Palma Haul

Before I disappear on several business trips, I want to post the promised Mallorca haul. I only got a few bits and bobs on sale, which, in retrospect, was just as well given my Splurge-with-a-capital-"S" at AKRIS last week. So here goes:
Cartier-esque rose-gold-plated silver ring (for a ridiculously low price). Trust me, my hands actually look very smooth and youthful in real life even though that photo makes you believe I'm 90...
Striped top (from a cheapo brand I did not know before: Sfera) and a scarf from El Corte Inglés.
Cardigan, likewise from Corte Inglés.
Navy silk blouse from Massimo Dutti. Unfortunately the details don't show up on the photo at all, so you'll just have to believe me.
These shoes I really like: they are a more original variation of locally produced (or so they claim) sandals with soles made from recycled car tyres. I love the grass detail and am looking forward to wearing them this summer. I bought them from a little shop run by an old lady in Sóller.
I also bought some edible stuff that is produced locally, such as flaky sea salt.

Coming up next, whenever I find the time is my favourite (and most popular regarding feedback from my guinea-pigs) macarons variation so far: coconut with passionfruit curd filling.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Handbag Splurge Or: Happy Women's Day to Meee

Hello, my beautiful women (and men)! Before I show you my little Mallorca haul here, I have a bit of a confession to make. I bought a handbag. A grown-up one. An expensive one of the category "Lie-to-Mum (who is not reading this blog)-about-Pricetag". Well, thankfully,  there's always the Empress, who has long graduated to LV bags on the other side of the fence of  the "cheap" Speedy and Neverfull lines, to readily assure me that it's actually quite reasonably priced. 
Be that as it may, I once more blame the (un)fortunate location of my office right in the centre of Luxury Items Danger Zone. Before I started working there, the brand AKRIS was actually unknown to me. After years of walking past their Vienna store at least twice a day and admiring their window display, I became intrigued and started to drool over their signature AI bag.
Now we will all mercifully forget that a certain person who writes a certain blog might have said that after a not-so-long-ago purchase of a certain LV bag her lust for luxury bags was sated. Ahem. Enter AI in blue. After dragging the Gazelle and a friend, whom we will call the Banker, to the store today, I settled for the more classic blue (first I had this pretty baby in mind, but then decided it's too "one season" compared with the one I got). I love many things about it, such as the fact that it's so classic and has no logo whatsoever displayed anywhere and that you can wear it in 3 different ways.
So. I ended up buying a little present to celebrate...erm...what was it again...yes!...International Women's Day. I hope you approve.
 Peeking out from the dust bag

With the sides folded inside

And with the sides folded outside to create the AI's signature trapezoid shape

There's also a detachable small "wristlet" inside. The colour is closer to pictures 2-4 in real life.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Macaron Variations: Chocolate-Mint & Coffee

Hello again, it's your Baking Bore.
I'm still experimenting with macarons variations and they get prettier every time. Next, I'm going to attempt using less sugar. Well, a few days ago I shared my "basic recipe" here. Now it's time for some really, really simple variations. First: chocolate-macarons with chocolate-mint filling:
Everybody likes chocolate, right? For the actual macarons, all I did was add 1 heaped teaspoon and 1 heaped tablespoon of cocoa powder (the dark intense kind, not instant for drinks) to the almonds and icing sugar before mixing them. For the filling, I used an extreme shortcut and melted After Eight after dinner mints in a bain-marie, spread on and let harden. Voilà! You don't even need to refrigerate them as they won't go bad unlike maracons with fillings which contain fresh cream. I calculated about 1 mint per macaron, but you won't need that much. It's not the fanciest of fillings, but super-quick.
The second variation, that has a slightly more interesting and work-intensive filling was coffee. Coffee macarons are a classic and they turned out quite well. 
I added 1.5 sachets of instant coffee (about 3 grammes, I guess). I always hoard those sachets at hotels and it doesn't matter if you use decaf coffee, either. I added a sachet with the almonds and sugar as with the cocoa powder, but then decided it wasn't coffee-ey enough and added another half later. This is why there are specks on the surface, as the second installment wasn't mixed/ground properly. It actually looks quite interesting, but if you want it to look more even, blend with the rest:
For the filling, I used about 100 g of white chocolate and a little (about 50 ml.) of cream. All you do is bring the cream to the boil, melt the contents of another sachet of instant coffee (or about 2 g), then remove from the heat and melt the chocolate. Let cool and spread on the macarons. Keep the filled coffee macarons refrigerated.
My next project will be coconut macarons with a citrusy filling. Stay tuned! Practice really makes perfect and the chocolate macarons I made last were indeed the prettiest ones.

Monday, March 04, 2013

My PMI Impressions

Before I torture you with more macaron trivia, some pictures from my mini-trip to Palma di Mallorca. This was my first visit and I have to admit that I used to associate it with beach holidays and hordes of drunk Germans only. Off-season, I didn't even see any beaches and yes, the tourists were mostly German, but predominantly aged 70+ and quite sober. Palma is a very nice town and reminded me of Nice as well as Malta. It has quite a few shopportunities, too (more about that later) and delicious hot chocolate (the dense kind, not the cocoa one) almost everywhere. The weather was quite mild and even though we were glad we had brought our (thin, Uniqlo) down jackets oranges and lemons were ripe everywhere and palm trees were a lush green. Like a good employee I got sick on vacation. and am now fit and at my desk again... I actually was afraid that I would jinx it with my recent know-it-all post and get a cold as soon as I hit "post", but at least it was over quite soon. No doubt due to my genius method, eh? I don't know if this is just an urban legend, but I once heard that flight attendants are not allowed to fly when they have a cold. Well, after experiencing the sensation of your ears almost "exploding" when landing, I can understand why...Other than that I had epic nose-bleeds in the most awkward places, but once back I was healthy enough to go skiing on Sunday and it was a great day with perfect snow and glorious sunshine. So here's a peek into my Mallorca photo-album:

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Recipe You've Been Waiting For: Macarons for Dummies

Hello, fellow lovers of all things sweet and calorific! Those of you who are following me on Instagram (@wastingmytalent) won't have missed the fact that I've been a tad VERY obsessed with baking macarons lately. I won't deny it: I'm pretty pleased that I've finally discovered the secret code to baking decent looking and tasting macs and I'll now let you into the secret: there is no code and no secret. Hah! First of all, take a peek at what I mean when I say "decent looking":
If the above picture makes you think "Wow, I want to make them myself!" then read on and take delight in the fact that you need few ingredients, little time and no advanced baking skills. Yep, really! All you need is a steady hand for piping.
I've read many macaron recipes, tried a few and trust me, my first attempts - while not bad in taste - did not look quite as sophisticated. Ahem. When I produced nice macarons for my recent tea-party, I was still dubious that I would be able to replicate the success and did not want to post about an allegedly foolproof recipe here until I had tried it again. After 3 attempts, one with liquid food colour, one with matcha and one with instant coffee for colour/taste, I am confident to share it with you. Unlike many recipes that tell you to weigh your egg whites or only use a certain size/class of egg, or even how "aged" they should be, I have tried the recipe both with medium and large sized eggs, with no difference in quality. I firmly believe that the secret is in a) achieving the right texture and b) properly preparing the ingredients and kitchen utensils and I will attempt to describe it all as well as I can.
Ingredients-wise, this recipe is largely based on a Marks & Spencer publication called "Biscuits and Macarons" that I bought in London a couple of years ago. This is a long post with many photos, but if you want good results, I urge you to read the instructions to the end before you get baking. Here goes:

Ingredients for basic macaron recipe (makes about 25, i.e. 50 shells)
3 egg whites (at room temperature, so take out of the fridge in time!)
55g caster sugar
240g icing sugar
120g almonds, blanched(!)
Optional: food colouring of your choice, powdered or liquid
First step, combine powdered icing sugar and almonds in a food processor or stand mixer and grind until very fine. If you don't have icing sugar at home, you may just use caster sugar for this as well as it will be finely ground anyway. Sieve. Re-grind any lumps or big pieces of almonds, then set aside in a bowl. If you use any powdered food colour or powder for flavour (i.e. matcha), mix with the almonds and sugar. It should look like in the picture below where I also added a heaped teaspoon of matcha powder:
Now prepare your piping bag so you won't get stressed later when you should pipe the combined foamy mixture straight away. I actually quite dislike working with piping bags, but have found that two things immensely help handling the gooey mess and minimise cleaning up afterwards. A) Use disposable piping bags and b) use a tall and narrow glass or measuring cup to make filling the bag easier. There are professional gadgets for this and in fact I've ordered one, but in the meantime, this works just fine for me:
What I also found to be of no small importance is to use quite a small tube. Many recipes recommend a 2 cm plain tube, but I used a much smaller one:
While you're at it, line two (ideally 3, if you have that many) baking trays with baking parchment. In case you are over-zealous and a lover of kitchen gadgets like me, take note there that those so-called "macaron baking mats" that are quite popular (by their manufacturers at least...) are a waste of money and a clever marketing ploy only. Well, at least the brand I purchased, which didn't work for two reasons: it is sold rolled up and hard to get to even out, making the macaron mix slide to one side of the baking tray and also the macaron shapes are much too close to each other, resulting in ugly misfits both times I tried. Normal baking parchment works just fine.
Now that you have prepared the almond meal and sugar mix and set aside your piping bag and trays, you can devote your full attention to the egg whites. Beat your egg whites until they form soft peaks. I use my kitchen aid and am happy when the stiff egg whites look like so:

Add the caster sugar and if you use liquid food colouring, add a few drops together with it. Continue beating for a few more minutes until the mixture looks shinier, firmer and "stretchier". [edit for Kitchen Aid users: I typically beat the egg whites on a medium setting, i.e. 5 or 6 for about 9 minutes, before the right consistency is reached. Then I add the sugar and continue beating on the same setting for about 3 more minutes]. When your egg whites-and-sugar mix has reached this consistency, fold in the sifted icing sugar and ground almonds mix in two batches. Gently does it and if this is of any help (to Austrians reading this), the finished mix will have shrunk in volume and look a bit like the filling of a good old Schwedenbombe in consistency. Like so:
Now for piping action! Spoon the mixture into a piping bag fitted with your tube and pipe rounds onto your trays, leaving enough space between them as tehy will spread. Try to make them no larger than a 2€ coin as they will spread immediately and you will have macarons the size of Starbucks cookies if you get carried away and pipe larger rounds. Do you even need piping bags? I have tried it with two teaspoons and it works o.k., but the advantage of the piping bag is that not only will it allow you to produce more or less identical-sized shapes, but it also lets you work quicker, before your mix might have become runny or flat. The finished piped shapes should look something like this:
Important! Your little macs need a little rest now to form their pretty even surfaces. After initial spreading, they will set and not become flatter of wider any more, phew! Leave them to sit for 30 minutes, preferably at a place that doesn't smell of your garlicky lunch or a ripe camembert...
In the meantime, preheat your oven to 150° (I use the fan setting).
When they have had their siesta, pop them into the oven. I always put in all 3 trays at the same time. If you have a temperamental oven or one that is not a convection type, you might want to be a little more careful and do it 1 at a time. Bake for 12-15 minutes. The macarons should not turn brown at all and still be soft to the touch when you take them out. Leave to cool on the tray and do NOT attempt to lift from the paper before they are cool, as they will tear apart in your hands.
If you got the consistency right, the macarans should not spread any further at all in the baking process, but only "grow upwards", almost as if you had added some baking powder. Ideally, they should resemble something like that:
These "matcharons" were filled with salted caramel, something I am addicted to and was really proud I managed the first time. I followed this easy recipe and even bought a digital cooking thermometer, which I didn't get to use in the heat of the moment. Unlike macarons, making caramel is definitely more for the advanced cook and certainly not for those with frail nerves. Very importantly, make sure that you lock your kids out of the kitchen and never EVER think of touching or tasting the caramel in the make as it is twice as hot as boiling water. In any case, I was really thrilled that mine turned out so well. A note on the recipe. I used about 180 grams of butter and the ingredients yield A LOT of caramel. Here's a gratuitous picture to boast a bit...
Those among you old enough to remember when 91/2 Weeks hit the cinemas and caused quite a stir: my phantasies would definitely involve salted caramel. But I digress...
This is what the finished matcha macarons with salted caramel filling look like:
I found the combination pretty irresistable. The good thing about macarons is that you can freeze both the unfilled shells (I recomend using a container, rather than just a freezer bag so you don't crush them, see picture below) or the filled macarons. This has the advantage that you have more varieties for your guests and can impress them with macs in all colours of the rainbow rather than just one flavour:
Before this post turns into a novel, I better stop here and save some variations for a later time. Do let me know if you found this recipe useful and how yours turn out if you decided to follow it!

PS: Don't know what to do with those leftover egg yolks? I tried this recipe for "Almond Butter Snickerdoodles", substituting almond butter for peanut butter. Very yummy!
PPS: If you end up with mishapen or crushed macarons - freeze them and use them for Eaton Mess or other dessert that involves meringue. I recently served this Mango and Passion Fruit Australian Mess to my book club ladies and incorporated crushed macarons. They didn't complain...
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