Tuesday, March 31, 2009

April tomorrow?! Better get on that knitting.

Say hello to Ludovictus.

Well, it's official: I'm absolutely ready for the baby to come out. A woman can only go have coffee or lunch or whatever with other pregnant women so many times before she starts to have a desperate feeling that the term "lady of leisure" has taken on a whole new and not-so-flattering meaning. That, coupled with an uncontrollable urge to gnaw her own arm off out of boredom, can really make anyone reconsider any impending fear of sleepless nights or painful deliveries.

Luckily, I still have my knitting to cling to. My mom calls me a spider an
d I think maybe my friends are starting to think the same thing because when I'm not fiendishly crawling around my cave plotting what to eat next, I'm weaving a veritable web of baby clothes.

Here are the most recent additions to the previous collection of 1 (aka the green cardigan):

1. After making my green cardigan, I decided to dig through the proverbial stash and pick something suitable out for a baby boy's scarfling. I then also took the project one step further (I am hardcore) and decided to make the scarf a two-toned ditty (big deal for a beginner knitter) b
y using up some of the pea green cashmerino I had left over from the cardigan. Here is the finished set:

Don't hate them because they're beautiful.

As mentioned in my Childlike Glee post my next project was the Debbie Bliss Shawl-collared jacket. I made this little thing in record time (pregnancy-driven mania will do that to you) and just when I was ready to put on the finishing touches, I realized I had accidentally thrown away the pretty little buttons I bought for it at Peter Jones. I still haven't gone back to get more, so here it is sans buttons. Still pretty darn cute if you ask me.

3. In a last-ditch effort to quell my obsessive contemplation of every movement in my belly, I knitted this number a week ago or so with some Debbie Bliss Cathay yarn I found on sale at Peter Jones. Lovely. And I even had enough left over to start on a pair of socks to match. I'm about 3/4 through the first one and now that I've officially put my gym membership on hold, I think I'll probably finish that and the second off in the next couple of days. :)

L's Dr. Seuss-y hat and soon-to-be matching socks.

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On a somewhat tangentially related note: Matt and I made my top secret chocolate chip cookies with nuts this weekend (which we devoured in record time) and he suggested something I'd dared only contemplate: after making a dozen or so to last us for a couple of days, we froze the remaining cookie dough in pre-portioned balls and plan on Matt throwing them into the oven to bake right before we head to the Birth Center to have the baby.

How happy of a laboring woman am I going to be with warm-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies with nuts in my hands and tummy and there for me to nibble on intermittently during the subsequent madness? Bravo Matteo. :)

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Monday, March 30, 2009

London Restaurant Week #2: O-M-G: 1 Lombard Street - The Restaurant

The stately City entrance to 1 Lombard Street, directly across the street from the Bank Tube Station;
fitting since it was once a banking hall.

I've reached a new low (or three).

1. This past Friday I actually considered skipping dinner at a Michelin-star
red restaurant to take a nap. And if you know me, you know: I don't nap.

2. Once Matt
had (knowing me better than myself) badgered me into going to the aforementioned restaurant (despite me fighting him the whole way bratty-infant-style), I unabashedly wore black stretch pants (albeit with a nice top). And I didn't feel guilty.

3. I ate a steak. And it was Friday (though not the goodly one - that's L's due date!). But it was a goodly steak.

* * *

On those three
inspiring notes: we made it to Restaurant Week 2. And it all ended with a bang. Allow me to explain...

*scooby-dooing flashback noises*

O-M-G: 1 Lombard Street - The Restaurant
or, how I became a quasi-philistine one Friday night during London Restaurant Week

The Epic Journey
On Thursday night I was struck with a sudden and harsh attack of Pregnancy Insomnia. I woke up at 3:30am and couldn't get back to sleep until close to 7, at which point I was
half an hour away from getting up for breakfast with Matt anyhow. In those wee-hours I treated myself to the slow and excruciating torture of considering every possible aspect of what awaits me in the next few weeks: labor, delivery, child-rearing and every scary permutation of those things separately and together. Among the more disturbing issues was the then-real fear that I would, once he was born, forget I had a child and leave him at the birth center, grocery store, or a random Chinese restaurant (don't ask).

All this, as you can imagine, made for a relatively cranky Brenda on Friday. And also explains why at 6:00pm when Matt called and asked if I was on my way to his office to head to dinner, he found me sitting on the couch knitting socks and watching re-runs of Cold Case Files. I suddenly, despite hating naps, felt it was my right to go to sleep immediately and threw a sma
ll tantrum on the phone. Luckily, Matt was having none of it and made me get up and get to town (Thanks Matt :)).

Two bus-rides, numerous unmerited glares and holier-than-thou shakes of the head later, I arrived in front of his office ready to yell at anyone who gave me the chance. Lucky for Matt he came out with a co-worker (he later told me he did this on purpose knowing I was in a foul mood) and my situationally-forced-manners actually cheered me up to the prospect of some delicious food.

The cab driver was a decent chap and I always love riding into The City because of its pretty neo-classical / Dickensian style. When we pulled up to 1 Lombard Street, I was pretty much giddy
(as I usually am at the prospect of good food) and ready to feast. Ah, what can I say? La donna e (seriously) mobile!

The Not-so-Epic Ambiance
1 Lombard Street is one of London's Michelin-starred restaurants, so expectations were high. I saved it for the second weekend of London Restaurant week for this reason, and knowing also that it would be one of the last super-posh romantic dates Matt and I would have for a while, and possibly the very last without a child in our lives (very, very weird to think of the end of that era, but generally something I am more happy than upset by).

Luckily, I would say that, in general, we made a good choice for our adult-centric-swan-song-date.

The welcome to the restaurant was pleasant though a little confusing. After our reservation
was confirmed and our coats were taken, we were shown to the restaurant (not the Brasserie) by a nice (French) host. We walked through an incredibly beautiful open-plan room full of neo-classical domes and skylights. A live piano player was belting out jazz tunes and the clinking of glasses and silver-ware gave the air a general excitement that brought a familiar nice-restaurant-induced smile to my face.

The beautiful bar and brasserie at 1 Lombard Street.

You can imagine my disappointment when we were shown to the back room - The "Exclusive" Restaurant area - which resembled a catering banquet hall at the Hilton in College Station Texas. No music, no clinking, no circular bar with mirrored-shelves. Just reddish walls (that I couldn't help but remember as taupe) with neo-classical / Titianesque paintings and cheap looking centerpieces. Our table was fine - in the corner with a full-view of the room, but we couldn't hear the music from the Brasserie and, in the end, agreed we felt more "excluded" than "exclusive" by the other-ness of "The Restaurant." Even after a thoroughly fulfilling meal with decent service, I wanted to be in the Brasserie. M
ental note made.

The "Excluded" Restaurant at 1 Lombard street; I'd rather be in the Brasserie.

My Catty but nevertheless Amusing General Observations

The Maitre D' was a small and relatively efficient (though, at times, feckless) man with the widest pale-pink tie this side of the Atlantic. (I guess that must be a prerequisite for becoming a Maitre D' at a fine French restaurant: a never ending wardrobe of wide pastel ties and tapered suit pants.) Sadly, his French charm was ruined somewhat by his slight inability to understand English properly. I witnessed him screw up orders at, at least, two tables (mostly regarding how people wanted their steaks cooked but in one case bringing four non-vegetarian starters to a table of four vegetarians).

When he asked me how I wanted my steak cooked, I had to repeat my answer twice before he understood I was saying "medium." When one customer complained his steak was overcooked and that he had requested it "rare" the Maitre D' snapped "Well did you request it BLEU?" in that specifically culinarily-condascending-French way we all know and hate. The man took the high road and just nodded, but come on, I'd expect a little better than that for London's restaurant scene's upper-crust.

The waiters were fine. Not great, but fine. Matt said they must have put the second-string on for Restaurant Week and I am a little bit tempted to agree. Our water was spilled twice while being re-filled (though at least no visible fuss was made over our not ordering bottled water). Matt's glass of wine was knocked over (thank God it was empty) while the table was being mediocrely cleaned of crumbs with the crumb scraper. And only one of the waitstaff ever bothered to ask how the meal was going, whether we needed anything else or even liked our food. I always hate it when there's no dialogue between the staff and the patrons: it makes you feel like a snooty imposter. I love talking to waiters and waitresses - it makes the meal familiar and memorable.

I don't know about you, but if I'm seated next to the wrong people at a restaurant, it really affects my meal. I can't help but take notice of particularly annoying, loud, or train-wreckish dinners and Matt always complains that I'm not listening when this happens. Well, aside from the actual restaurant and staff at 1 Lombard Street, some of the patrons were a little bit hard to watch.

The people next to us were under dressed (listen to me with my stretch pants on!) and seemed pretty out
of their element. Excuse the snobbery but most of them had never heard of risotto before - leaving the only "knowledgeable one" to compare it to "sticky rice pudding" at which they all made disgusted faces and corresponding noises (I was more than flabbergasted as the risotto was actually, IMHO, the best course of the meal!). At least two out of the four people at that table also ordered their steaks well-done (I couldn't help but cringe - why the hell come to 1 Lombard Street for a well-done steak?!) and one guy in particular had a gnarly (yes, GNARLY) habit of chewing loudly with his mouth open and stabbing his food as if he were stuck in prehistoric times eating a nice juicy saber-toothed-lionsteak. Is it completely snooty of me to say that being next to them kind of brought the experience down a notch? Well, some might say: that's what I get for going during restaurant week.

On the other hand, bread was plentiful and promptly provided throughout the meal. Our water glasses were always full (if a little wet) and our drink order came quickly despite the wine recommendation being given somewhat grudgingly. The staff were smiley despite
their silence and all the courses were timed perfectly, giving you a minute to recover in between. The portions were small but exactly right for what was actually a five-course dinner rather than three. And they always served ladies first, which definitely gets them bonus points in my book. :)

The Exceptionally Goodly Food
Now to the O-M-G part of the experience. The Food. It was, without exception, absolutely delicious and immaculately prepared. The quality of the ingredients, the presentation, the seasoning was all it should have been for a Michelin-starred establishment and I find pretty much nothing to fault. Maybe except myself and my shady eating of a steak on a Friday during Lent. (I guess we all have our ways of rebelling.) I felt we got an amazing deal for what we paid and even today, three days later, I am still dreaming about that damned delicious risotto. For the food alone, I would definitely go back.

Here's what we had:

Turnip and Foie Gras Veloute

Served daintily in an espresso cup, this frothy hot cup of deliciousness was so good I couldn't resist the forbidden fruit of goose-liver, even in my pregnant state.

Starter: Smoked Halibut Risotto with Quail Eggs and English Mustard and Lemon Veloute Garnished with a diminutive sprig of dill and a solitary but perfectly cooked cherry tomato
This was by far the star dish of the night. I'm not a huge fan of smoked things and much less smoked halibut, as the flavor is usually too strong, but this was unbelievable. I could eat a giant bowl of it for breakfast every day. The fish was so tender and flakey, the quail eggs were runny, and this is the only dish I've ever liked English mustard in, period. The people at the table next to us really missed out.

Main: Pave of Beef (sirloin) with morels, vin jaune sauce and vegetable fondant
We weren't sure what to expect but what we got was a tiny, square portion of extremely tasty and well-seasoned steak with similarly geometric vegetables (parsnip, carrot, potato and turnip) cooked to perfection. They were generous with the morels, and the sauce - with just a splash of cream - literally made me want to pick up my plate and lick it. Every bit as sinful as I had hoped.

The Drinks:
Glass of Cabernet Merlot, Glass of Sauvignon Blanc

We each ordered a glass of wine to go with the meal. Matt ordered white on a whim and ended up with a deliciously fruity but not sweet Sauvignon Blanc that smelled strongly of pomegranate. I wanted to steal his glass and guzzle it after I tasted it. My Cabernet Merlo, recommended by the French guy, was medium-bodied and went really well with the steak.


We asked two separate servers what kind of granita this was and got the same answer twice: pear. But we still don't believe it. The granita smelled and tasted like Pomegranate - plus it had a pink hue to it. Whatever it was, it was delicious and tasted a little like a yummy frozen Campari and soda, an Italian indulgence I never get sick of.

Dark Chocolate Pudding with Pears and Dark Chocolate Tuiles

This is the only course I couldn't remember the exact description of (I just refuse to take pictures with my cell phone). Suffice it to say that we were given a plate with a giant dollop of chocolate pudding-looking-stuff surrounded by sliced pears, a cream sauce and some crispy dark-chocolate tuiles. It was all delicious (and I don't even like the pear-chocolate combo that much) and a great way to end the night.

* * *

1 Lombard Street - The Restaurant
London EC3 9AA

Tel: 020 7929 6611

*All photos taken from the 1 Lombard Street Website, unless otherwise noted.
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Friday, March 27, 2009

My Favorite British Commercials - Part II

Happy 38 weeks! Officially two to four weeks away from the boy's big entrance and trying desperately not to go insane with the excitement and impatience of it all.

If I drop off the face of the earth (read: stop posting for an extended period of time), you know why. :)

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As promised, here are my second five favorite British Commercials.

Today's five are slightly more random than yesterday's selection, mostly because most of them involve some kind of annoyance or bone-to-pick that I have with the way certain things are portrayed on British television. That said, life is too short to spend it on a soap-box, so I do have to admit that no matter how annoying or bizarre I find some of these commercials, in a twisted kind of way, I really do kind of enjoy watching them. :)

* * *

Brenda's Second Five Favorite British Commercials
again, in no particular order;
and yes, still my current poison of choice for killing perfectly good brain cells

1. The Nauseating "Sexy Drive" Peugeot Commercial
Is this what Americans sound like to British people? If so, I might consider faking an accent for a little while, because even I found myself nauseated by the way this guy talks. If you take a look at the comments on Youtube, apparently I am not the only one either. Oh, and the French Peugeot lips at the end...yeah, highly unnecessary.

This commercial does get bonus points because the sleazy American car salesman is pretty hot, but his hotness also definitely goes down on the scale because of the way he says "yadda yadda." "Noire" (with an extra syllable) and "Air Con" (which, incidentally, I've always found is more commonly called "AC" than "Air Con" in the US), serious-like, as if that's how we Americans have normal conversations. This Bucket-o-Sleaze is in serious overflow.

Oh and the smiotch doesn't get off either: who the hell says "fact me"?!?!?!

2. The Bizarre Absolute Radio Midget Commercial
How can I not love this commercial?

Midget? Check. Angry assertive midget? Check check! Random self-deprecating British person? Check. Unabashed midgety dancing? Yes my friends - check again.

Here's more of Doug dancing if you're a fan too; nothing but respect for all the LPs out there. :)

3. The "Thomas the Random Asian Suit-Wearing Surfer" Halifax Commercial
He can sing! He can dance! He's the bizarre little Asian man from the Halifax commercial!
Someone actually thought this would get Halifax more customers, right? I mean, that's the ONLY reason that this would actually make it past the "brainstorm" stage of the creative process in the Ad room, RIGHT?

Can't help but feel really sorry for the supposedly British, slightly effeminate, Asian guy wearing a suit that looks like it would fit a 10-year-old. If this commercial doesn't scream "stereotype" (a black surfer named "Brown?" Really!?), then I don't know what does. And yet, "Thomas from Leeds" was probably really psyched when he landed this part. I guess with all that crazy auditioning and the singing lessons he probably didn't realize that the Elvis-esque surfer party is NOT (contrary to British television's opinion) back.

Oh and for those of you not lucky enough to live here in the UK: the faux-hawk is, sadly, still alive and kicking.

4. The Ford Ka Commercial(s)
It was a real relief to me to find a car with a truly simple and fitting name. Not sure why, but Ford Ka just really appeals to me, and this first commercial of theirs seems to encapsulate simple, cool, and kinda hip. Don't you just love that song?

But it was the commercial below that really won me over to the Ford (Sport) Ka. Shout out to my sister, who I call Caaa - she's my younger, evil twin. :)

5. The Amp'd Busted Commercial
I don't know that this is even a British commercial, but it gets included anyway.

You'd think people would get sick of watching funny unassuming people singing music that appears out of character for them to like (think Michael Bolton on Office Space, or that fat kid who did the infamous "Numa Numa" Youtube video), but no. I still laugh pretty hard whenever I see this.

Today's Honorable Mentions:
Once again, a couple of noteworthy stragglers that I felt I should honor before signing off:

1. Vauxhall "Grown Up Kids" Commercial
I love this commercial because it took me almost 10 times watching it to figure out what these kids were saying. And once I did, I not only learned some cool British slang, I also thought it was pretty freakin' hilarious.

2. Tropicana Chef Breakfast Commercial
I often ask Matt in reference to this commercial: do you think this is what Marcus' (his chef brother) mornings are like? If so, sign me up because that OJ and whatever else looks damn good and maybe even almost worth living through the horrid hours of the food industry. :)

And if not, then at least that song should be everyone's soundtrack in the morning.

3. The Time-Life "Midnight Soul" Infomercial

But if you're not a Tropicana-soundtrack type of person, then perhaps this will suit you a little bit better. In the words of R. Kelly: "I don't see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind."

If anyone is ever desperate to buy me a gift, the entire Midnight Soul Collection currently sits on my "top 5 gifts I wish people would get me" list. Admit it - you could sing along to half of this infomercial too. (Thanks junior high school dances for that ability.)

Happy weekend to you all!
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Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Favorite British Commercials - Part I

These last few weeks, despite Ludovictus' being as active as ever, I've been spending a fair amount of time in front of the old tube. Luckily, there are lots of really amusing - and some amusingly cringe-worthy - commercials to keep my spirits up about my swelling hands and the rainy week. A lot of them are food-related, but some have, I think, um, deeper, err, "cultural" messages to impart.

Here are a few of my favorites (some of them truly love-hate) in the form of a two-part top ten. To me, if they were a cologne, they'd be called essence d'UK; that is, they combine all those intangibly British products and points of view that make the humor, their aesthetic presentation, and the subject matter particular to this part of the world, and therefore, of ex-pat-y interest to me.

Stay tuned for the other 5 tomorrow.
* * *

Brenda's First Five Favorite British Commercials
in no particular order;
my current poison of choice for killing perfectly good brain cells

The Bird's Eye Salmon Fish Finger Commercial
If the prude inside you is not shocked by this, then - in the words of my dear Balki Bartokomous - "slap my knee and call me Gumby!" Even Matt yelled in shock at the television when he saw this for the first time last night. I can't help but enjoy the typically British crassness of it all, and yet, I don't think I'll ever eat a fish finger again.

The Mini Babybel Factory Commercial
I have a love-hate relationship with this commercial. While I am a devoted lover of the diminutive, my type-A personality can't help but be authentically annoyed (and I actually yell at the tv every time) when they show up with that ridiculously small bucket to milk the cow. I know, sad.

3. The HSBC Polish - Washing Machine - Mango Lassi Commercial
My mother and I had this song stuck in our heads for two weeks straight when she came to visit in October and even went around singing it in our own vaguely-Hindi-sounding mumbo-jumbo. At one point I think we even started calling Matt "Makaweeko." But apart from the catchy tune, I love the bewildered Polish man, I love that lassi is being made in washing machines, and I love that I feel like jumping up and indulging in lots of Bollywood-esque dance moves every time I see this commercial.

The Barclays Card Waterslide Commercial
I have become entirely obsessed with whether this is a feasible reality, because if it is in ANY way, I would absolutely demand that when I'm a millionaire this become my official way of getting home from work. How much would that rock?!

5. The Muller "Lick the Lid of Life" Rice Commercial
I love Muller rice. I order it every single week in my Tesco delivery. But it's not just good rice pudding that made me include this in my first five favorite British commercials: it is the absolute and total embodiment of joie de vivre that this commercial represents. Plus they're playing one of my all-time-favorite songs ever "I Got Life" by Nina Simone. If you don't feel compelled to dance or sing along, or both - there's really something wrong with you. And you might need a life coach.

* * *

Today's Honorable mentions:
This particularly meaningless and yet exciting honor goes to two commercials that are extremes for me.

The Sainsbury's "Staff" Commercial
The first is a Sainsbury's ad that nauseates me to the point of exhaustion. Maybe because they played it pretty much every two-seconds for about 6 months straight, but particularly because it uses the term "fridge-hoover" (remind me to tell Ludovictus to kill me if I ever call him that) and has the most annoying-looking woman as its main character. She's just way too happy about being 42 and working at Sainsbury's. And this from someone who worked at Kroger one summer in college. Sorry, but it's true.

2. The Feel Good McDonald's "Farm Made of Flowers" Commercial
I love McDonald's. I don't care what you think of me for it. For my money it doesn't get any better than one of those flat little hamburgers with the funny onions and pickles and lots of American mustard. Matt and I make it a point to indulge in one of those every month or so, and nothing seems to ruin the "I'm a kid again" factor - not even being here in London where French's mustard is a luxury.
If you don't feel the same way, do me a favor and keep it to yourself. This commercial just makes me smile, unlike the stupid Sainsbury's one. Follow Me on Pinterest

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Life Coaching and Mindless Eating.

Thanks to my dear friend and bride-to-be (not mine!) Krista at Bohemian Ghoulash for the inspiration for today's post. While strolling the streets of Chicago she was kind enough to spare a thought for me and take this picture, which she then sent via cyberspace in order to encourage my random but apparently obvious-enough preoccupation with Life Coaches and their sheer hilarity. (Yes, someone is bound to be offended by that - whattayagonnado?)

Anyway, here's the picture:

For only $10.00 you too can learn your future, be healed AND get a coach for all things life-related!

Thanks for that Dori.

Am I officially a jerk? :)

* * *

The other thing Krista threw my way was a cool little quiz in the New York Times.

Go here to take the quiz (just write your answers on a piece of paper) and then read the follow-up article that explains your cooking personality here. (What else do you really have to do on a
Wednesday afternoon?)

Krista seems to be particularly apt at finding interesting quizzes on one's kitchen-personality. I'm all about this kind of quiz for a couple of reasons:

Why I'm "All About" Random Food Personality Food Quizzes
and taking quizzes in magazines in general

3. Seventeen (or approximately so) Again
These quizzes take me back to the days of "What is your dating style?" or "What chocolate truffle best describes your love language?" in Seventeeen magazine. As adolescents my friends and I poured over those silly quizzes, swearing they held the answer to our future love-lifes in their clutches. That and M.A.S.H. (and I don't mean the Vietnam war show for all you old fogies). Yes,
there is an electronic version of it now. Where was that 15 years ago?!

Super-fancy Nutritional Jargon
These types of quizzes arm us kitchen-pro-wannabes with just enough legitimate sounding but fun
kitchen terms to make us (or at least me) feel highly scientific discussing our place in the family as kitchen-wench. I plan entirely to enthrall Matt and my chef brother-in-law with terms like "Nutritional Gate-keeper" and "Innovative Cook" vs. "Giving Cook." Both Krista and I were "Innovative," in case you're curious. *enthusiastic high five to self*

1. Food for Thought. Or Thought for Food. Whatever.
Plus, this quiz reminded me of a really cool discussion regarding food and the sociological / gender-related place it has in our lives that my friend over at Tangled Noodle recently did a three-part feature on. Interestingly, both the quiz and her discussion come from the book Mindless Eating by Dr. Brian Wansink (apparently quite the hot ticket!). They are sure to give you some super-food for thought if you're a nerd like me in this regard. :) Check it out.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pseudo-Moroccan Orange & Almond Cake

an aesthetically pleasing moment of Moroccan beauty

Inspired by this weekend's jaunt to Daphne's where I spotted a similar cake on their menu which they call their Blood Orange & Polenta Cake I thought I'd share a recipe I made a couple of months ago and absolutely loved. It reminds me of Italy because of the oranges and almonds, but, really, it most takes me back to my short but exciting time in Morocco last year. For this reason I call it my Pseudo-Moroccan Orange & Almond cake.

When I eat this cake I am reminded of Matt slurping down 3-Dirham orange juice at the stands in the insanely hectic Jemaa El Fna, and of fig, apricot, almond and dried good vendors selling kilos of deliciousness for next to nothing. In short, the Orange & Almond Cake I made (based on a recipe from my wonderous Olive Magazine) is unique and delicious for many reasons - some food-related and some slightly more intangible, but nevertheless aesthetically pleasing and dear to me.

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My Varied Inspiration for Making Orange & Almond Cake
tangible or not

4. Any excuse to make Homemade Whipped Cream
Once I'd actually made the cake, I had a lot of fun deciding what to serve it with. I didn't have anymore fresh oranges at hand, which is probably a good thing given the really orange-y punch the syrup packs, but I did have some lovely, hard green pears. I sliced those beauts up and then noticed Olive suggested serving it with Creme Fraiche. I decided instead to serve it with homemade, chilled almond whipped cream.

I love making whipped cream by hand. It gives me a funny satisfaction that little else can. I don't use a beater. I just grab my favorite mixing bowl and a whisk and set to it. It's like a little emotional odyssey, making whipped cream. At first you're excited, then you start to get tired and annoyed, then you start to wonder if you're doing something wrong because your arm is about to fall off, and then finally you spy some semi-stiff peaks and get your second wind. After that it's a delicate dance in finding the perfect point at which to stop beating so your cream is still creamy but not runny.

Everyone who likes whipped cream should be required to try this process at least once. You get a thrilling satisfaction at the end that makes the cream twice as exquisite. Not to mention, you gain an appreciation for what making things from scratch really means. Not a bad thing.

3. Syrup Soaked Cakes - a snobbery-induced dilemma?
After having worked in a bakery, with professional bakers, I was always given the impression that when a professional (or amateur) soaked a cake in copious amounts of flavored syrup, it was a way of hiding stale, old cake and introducing a false sense of freshness and moisture. I became a purist snob on the issue and vowed never to soak MY precious little sponges in those bastardized-sugary-conconctions.

This cake changed my mind. Because it is made with semolina, the cake is crumblier and maybe drier (though it isn't dry!) than normal sponges. The orange syrup does not make it spongey and moist - it simply becomes the final, necessary touch to complete what is a subtley flavored cake enhanced by essence and sweetness of orange. Part of me loves this because it means that you can vary the flavor sensation of this treat by making countless numbers of syrups - passion fruit, strawberry, lemon, lime...the list goes on! I also found that I loved the cake on its own without the syrup, because it almost tasted more like an intangibly sweet bread, which could be eaten with savory foods too.

Maybe syrups are a dilemma no more - as long as they are not used for shady purposes in the kitchen!

2. A Little Slice of Morocco
In case you haven't gathered from other posts of mine, I love Morocco and Moroccan things. Last year right around this month, Matt and I made an extended weekend trip to Morocco, during which time I was dazzled by many foods and cultural practices, many of which left me enchanted, some of which left me bewildered.

This cake, for me, is like a little slice of Moroccco. The moment I took a bite I was taken back to breakfast on the rooftop of our Riad. Besides the delicious bread, cheese and eggs we were served, we were also given a soft cake-like slice that had the same texture as this cake, but which smelled and tasted of rose water and strawberry jelly. I tried, in vain, to get the recipe from staff, but their English was as good as my Arabic (read: non-existent) and so I surrendered to the tragic idea that I'd have to live on memory alone for the rest of my life. Photo captions: breakfast at our riad in Morocco & the Jemaa El Fna.

Luckily, this recipe came around. I was immediately transported back to the Jemaa El Fna, the Hammam, the Riad Courtyard and the unofficial two-person chess tournament that Matt and I indulged in while sipping delicious and copious amounts of Mint tea...substitute a sprinkle of rose water and a smear of strawberry jam for the orange syrup (or combine the two!) and you'll be there right next to me in a rose-water induced pleasure-coma.

1. Nutty & Corny, in a Good Way
What made this cake different from any other I'd ever made is the fact that the batter is made almost entirely of ground almonds and semolina - only including a miniscule amount of flour and substituting Greek Yogurt for milk or any other liquidy substance. Odd, I thought. Maybe even a bit nutty. But I was wrong. It works perfectly. The cake is moist but crumbly. It's delicate and anything but spongey. It falls apart while you eat it, forcing you to use the tip of your finger to pick up crumbs on your plate - a simple pleasure that, I think, should be indulged in now and again.

I loved making a cake out of ground almonds and semolina, two ingredients I enjoy immensely on their own. Plus, those ingredients make me think of Italy and Morocco as well, adding to the aesthetically pleasing aspects of this cake once again. A nutty and corny cake? Indeedy-do. But in a good way.

* * *

Pseudo-Moroccan Orange & Almond Cake
(adapted from a recipe in Olive Magazine)

Serves 8-10

sadly, I did not capture the whipped cream :(

I made this cake for a two-person tea party I had with a friend of mine a couple of months ago. It was a sunny winter day, and this fresh and bright cake was just what we needed to warm up to the idea that we still had another couple of months to go before Spring hit.

I served it, as mentioned above, with chilled almond whipped cream (though you can stick to Olive's suggeston of creme fraiche) and sliced pears. But, as Daphne's suggests, sliced blood oranges would have been delicious with it. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


250g butter
200g golden caster sugar
4 eggs
50g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
250g semolina
200g ground almonds
120g Greek Yogurt

Orange Syrup
2 Oranges, zest and juice
2 cinnamon sticks
272g sugar (caster or granulated)

Almond Whipped Cream
1 tsp almond extract
1 tbsp caster or icing sugar
250g Double or Heavy Whipping Cream


Heat the oven to 160C or 325F. Butter a 20cm or 8in springform cake pan.

Make the syrup by combining all the ingredients in a small pot with 500ml of water and bringing the contents slowly toa simmer. Stir the mixture until the sugar has completely disolved, then reduce the heat and simmer until syrupy (about 10 minutes). Set aside but keep warm.

3. Beat the butter, sugar and orange zest until pale and fluffy. Beat the eggs in a small bowl, then whisk into the butter mixture one at a time.

4. Sift the dry ingredients (flour and baking powder) into the mixture and fold through along with the orange zest, semolina and almonsd. Add the orange juice and yogurt and stir gently, until combined.

5. Pour intot he prepared cake pan and cook for about 1 hour or until firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the center.

6. While still hot, pierce the cake 20-30 times with a skewer all over the top. Pour half the hot syrup over the warm cake and leave to cool completely. When serving, spoon over extra syrup to taste.

7. For the whipped cream: in a metal bowl whip the cream (by hand with a whisk or with an electric mixer if you're a wuss :) ) until you get stiff-ish peaks. Do not over whip or it will become too think and unpleasant. Add the sugar and almond extract and fold in gently with a spatula. Chill in the refrigerator for half an hour before serving with sliced pears.

NOTE: Apologies for not converting the recipe to American-friendly non-gram quantities. On that topic, I'd actually highly recommend everyone have a small kitchen scale anyway. I had to buy one for the first time on moving here to the land of kilos and liters and it's actually been very handy. :)
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Monday, March 23, 2009

London Restaurant Week #1: A Night at Daphne's

Daphne's Restaurant
photo credit

Memories of the "tenderliest" of boeuf bourguignons and a painfully delicious cheese course at Artisanal along with a night full of swanky-sushi-decadence at the infamous Brazilian-Japanese fusion house of cool Sushi Samba, both in New York, were only the final impetus in convincing me I needed reservations for a couple of places here in London during this year's Restaurant Week. My own food-obsessed nature had already done most of the work a long time before that. Thank God for Spring- and thank God for Restaurant Week - a much needed and delicious distraction in these last weeks of pregnancy!

A Little History and Thought on Restaurant Weeks
why NYC is still better, but London is climbing the ranks

Piggy-backing off of the big apple's much-lauded week of affordable feasting which dates back to 1992 and was intended originally for visitors and officials storming New York for the Democratic National Convention, London's version is comparatively paired down.

For one thing, it has only been around for three years, is twice as long (which provides more meal times, but less prestige,
if that's your bag), and cannot boast (IMHO) anything near to the list of glitterati-fine-dining to be found in Manhattan. Despite this and in conjunction with the sheisty economy, it does actually offer a few very compelling reasons to search out the hidden but nevertheless present foody gems here in London town, and, for once, prices those meals right where they should be.

London may be dangling a praise-worthy number of Michelin-stars before the pirana-esque jaws of the ever-growing yet cost-conscious foody community, but no matter what they do, they just can't offer the same ambiance and New-Yorkness that places like Cafe des Artistes, L'Impero, Tabla, or Nobu NY have running through their veins.

Ignoring the usual claims of limited choice, paired-down entrees, hostile servers and hob-knobbing with riff-raff, I made two reservations this year - the first of which was for a Sunday dinner, last night. The second was more of a wishful-thinking outing in the sense that I really don't know whether I'll even be up for going out to dinner in a week's time, especially on a crowded Friday night, given Ludovictus' growing size. But it is at a Michelin-starred restaurant (a rare treat in these shady economic times!), so maybe I'll suck it up and carry my swollen-footed-self over there just to say I've been.

Besides, Matt and I have kind of an unspoken agreement that it is a good thing to try to cram in as many romantic dates as we can between now and mid April. :)

* * *

A Night at Daphne's Restaurant

tucked away on Chelsea's beautiful Draycott Avenue - tasteful and tasty Daphne's
photo credit

I had originally booked a table at Boisdale of Belgravia, but having read it was a disappointment I switched to what promised to be a treat: Daphne's Restaurant in Chelsea / South Kensington.

I was first swayed over to Daphne's because they mentioned grilled rabbit on their menu. To me, if a place serves something as simple and delicious as grilled rabbit, it is either very good or someone is in over his head in the kitchen. With a 3-course dinner offering for only GBP25.00 per person, everything about this dinner already screamed "great," but much to my surprise, Daphne's upped the anty and even went so far as to offer a complimentary glass of wine with the restaur
ant week offer, something that no other establishment I'd looked at did.

Daphne's is a "modern Italian restaurant" which means very little these days. It seems like there are
modern Italian restaurants on every corner, all specializing in this pasta or that risotto and offering up copious amounts of less-than-pleasant things like olive oil gelato and all decorating with bad frescoes and rosemary topiaries. Despite the restaurant's stucco walls, the cliche did not stick: Daphne's is the first restaurant I've walked into in London that felt sophisticated and exciting without being pretentious or trendy. A holding of the Caprice Restaurant Group, its sister restaurants are some of the most well-known and celebrated in London (think The Ivy and Scott's), and yet, this newest Caprice acquisition manages to maintain an understated luxury and warm efficiency in service that some of the more (more being a key word here, because Daphne's is frequented by that crowd) celebrity-ridden eating establishments are happy to lose.

After taking our coats and showing us to our table, the maitre d', having noticed Ludovictus, offered me an extra cushion for my back, which I was both taken aback by (Customer service!? Am I dreaming?!
) and delighted with. The entire restaurant smelled of fresh lillies (a giant bouquet of which was situated next to our table), and the tables, though small, were not overcrowded by useless centerpieces.

The waiters were fast, friendly, knowledgeable and - all Italian. There was no snickering when we ordered tap water, as we always do. No condescension when they noticed our American accents or that of the other couple we were with. Ladies were always served first, coffees were good (despite not coming with dessert as promised), water plentiful, and we were not rushed through
the meal by any means. The atmosphere was calm, quiet, and relaxed. We felt at home to joke and chat, but didn't have to scream over the (many) families with children around us celebrating mother's day. Amazing. And all that for 50quid a couple.

I don't think I'd dare hope for more, even in New York.

What we had:

Nibbles: Complimentary, home-baked breads including a delicious rosemary foccacia which I greedily devoured.

First Course: Antipasti
I started with Calamaretti Fritti con Aioli (baby fried calamari with aioli). Ridiculously tender, freshly and lightly fried, and I don't even like Aioli (mayo isn't my thing) but I ate almost the entire generous blob on my plate. Matt had the Zuppa di Fagioli, which he finished so quickly and liked so much I
didn't even get to try it!
One of our friends had the calamari like me and the other had a simple Arugula and parmigiano salad, which she seemed pleased with.

Second Course: Secondi Piatti
Sadly, they were not offering the grilled rabbit on their restaurant week menu. Matt and I both opte
d for the pan-fried Plaice with mushrooms and aubergines. The fish was perfectly cooked, but I thought in general the dish was just ok. I wish I'd gotten the chicken because it looked amazingly cooked and the spinach that accompanied it was quite a hit.

Our friends had Pollo alla Griglia con Spinaci e Pepperoncino (Grilled Chicken with Spinach and pepperoncino) and Ravioli di Zucca con Amaretti e Salvia (squash ravioli with amaretti and sage). Both seemed more than happy to clean their plates.

Third Course: Dolci
When it came to dessert I was slightly disappointed that they were not offering the Polenta Blood Orange Cake their online menu boasted. I happen to love cakes made with semolina, as you will see in tomorrow's post. But nevermind, we pressed on.

Three out of four of us were tempted by the Frittele al Cioccolato con gelato all'Arancia (Venetian Frittele with orange ice cream), despite not being sure what they were other than something "fried." The last, got a lonely but rather amazing tiramisu.

The Frittele were, much to our surprise, little Italian doughnut holes. At first I was a little
disappointed when I saw my plate (I didn't want doughnuts!) but then I took the first bite. These were the softest, doughiest, yummiest chocolatey-filled doughnut holes in the world! And they were warm. And the blood-orange ice cream worked perfectly with them. I think it was my favorite course of the entire meal!

tiramisu & selection of gelati

* * *

Daphne's Restaurant
112 Draycott Avenue
London SW3 3AE

Tel: 020 7589 4257

All photos from the Daphne's website, unless otherwise noted.
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Story of Igor the Feisty Female Hunchback Guppy & her Tragic and Inevitable Demise

Cicciatello and the Guppy Gang, at the wake

The saga of my goldfish "habit" started a long, long time ago. As a child unlucky enough to be allergic to every conceivable pet-like animal except for goldfish (and rodents, which I hate), my parents (who were also neat freaks) were happy to by-pass the whole "family dog" thing.

Instead, my dad kept and managed an amazingly large tank of fish. Most commonly we had sword tails, mollies, neons and, of course, guppies. I grew to appreciate the delicate balance that is the
aquatic world of fish: cannibalistic mothers, inter-family fights, agressors, runts - they've got it all.

For various reasons, after I first moved out of the parental home to go to school abroad at the age of 17, I stopped having pets - until our first year in London, a little over two years ago, when I decided in a fit of ecstatic and probably hormone-driven maternal instinct to buy Matt a giant fish bowl and two beautiful Pearlscales for Valentine's Day. We named them Timo and Tima and those two fish, believe it or not, brought us (or at least me) as much joy as any dog could have.

Timo & Tima: a love story akin only to
Old Dan and Little Ann of
Where the Red Fern Grows

Pearlscales and goldfish in general can live a very long time - 20+ years if the conditions are right. They interact with people in basic ways, dancing around when they see you near, or if it's feeding time, sucking at your finger and even allowing you to "pet" them sometimes (I know, you're not supposed to, but who could resist!). It was these lovely little fish who taught me exactly how intelligent fish can be.

They were also the reason that even after their unfortunate and debatebly shady deaths (the pet shop had a break out of Ick in their tanks the week after I bought some Black Moors and put them in my tanks; Timo died a slow painful death from Ick and Tima soon followed, dying of heartbreak; the pet shop owner pretended she didn't know what I was talking about), I continued to buy more fish and eventually encountered Igor, the hunchbacked female fish, who, sadly, passed today.

The Story of Igor the Feisty Female Hunchback Guppy
and her eventual and tragic demise

a likeness of Igor; photo credit.

I bought Igor, who was really not named Igor until she became a hunchback (something Matt throws in my face as proof of my cruel and callaced nature in dealing with the fish), along with four other female guppies and two male guppies about a year ago. I had been burnt pretty badly with the pearlscales so I figured guppies would be easier to deal with - there's more of them, they are smaller, and they don't generally dance for you when you are about to feed them the way Timo and Tima did.

Plus, I remembered my dad breeding the guppies as a kid and thought that might be fun.

After months and months of "trying," one day I woke to find a swarm of midget fish in my fish bowl. Luckily I had supplied them with ample hiding places by adding lots of plants to the bowl. They successfully avoided the cannibalistic, ravenous mothers and grew. After about two months we had gone from having six guppies to having about 40-50, plus a morbidly obese pearlscale who I couldn't resisit buying at the pet shop named Cicciatello ("Ciccia" in Italian can be slang for "chub," btw).

Basically the quality of life for all the fish deteriorated from there. There were too many of them and despite my attempts at keeping the bowl clean (both literally and figuratively), the mating did not stop and the males, in fact, seemed to become more determined to harass the females now that they had about a million to choose from.

The natural habitat could only sustain this for so long, and after Christmas break I noticed the population had regulated itself. All but two of the original females survived, and one of those died
soon thereafter, leaving only Igor. Over the course of January and February, Igor, Cicciatello and only about 10 other baby guppies survived. Three of the mature babies were males who seemed to find joy only in bothering Igor. After a few weeks, she became a deformed hunchback, able only to swim sideways and spending most of her time floating at the top of the tank on her back or hiding in the plants, earning her the infamous moniker.

Admittedly I wanted her to die. I hoped she would perish quickly on her own and so it took me a lot longer than usual to administer fish medicine. It was around this time that she started to actually HOBBLE as she swam (maybe calling her Igor was cruel?). But despite the many handicaps, she could still hold her own in fighting the other fish off and was often the first to get at the food and nip at Cicciatello for being a pig. Every morning at feeding time I would yell out "Igor is still alive!" and Matt would yell back "You are such a jerk! Put her out of her misery!"

This morning, after a long sad battle with what was either a severe swim bladder problem or a case of old age combined with pitiless sexual harassment, Igor gilled her last oxygen.

This post is in memoriam of Igor the feisty hunchback and all the other undeserving casualties (past and future) of my little fish world.

* * *

Things I've learned from Igor's Sad Demise
or, why fish are people too, dammit

3. Amateur Guppy Breeding - not exactly child's play.
One thing you may or may not have know about me, even if you know me pretty well, is that I dabble in amateur guppy breeding. And by that I mean that I allow my guppies to indulge in copious amounts of unprotected sex (as is their wont by nature) and procreate in my fishbowl. As I mentioned, I even bought a maternity tank for the purpose and had some success with it, fighting bouts of cannibalism among the mothers and sexual harassment among the males. I'm hardcore, what can I say?

It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Among the less known facts of guppy life is that they are essentially the nymphomaniacs of the fish world. The males will relentlessly harass the females to mate, even unto death, if you let them. Which is why your fish supplier (pet shop guy) should really advise you to have at least 3 females to 1 male guppy in your tank.

When my older guppies started dying off, the "torrid and tangled" part of the guppy sex life came out. The ratio was thrown off, and I'm convinced that Igor, once a happy middle-aged female, was actually hounded-about-sex-to-death by the younger male bucks. Pretty awful.

Lesson learned. Fish are people too. So if you're gonna breed them, keep an eye on the ratios and living conditions or you just may end up with an Igor on your hands.

2. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as fish euthanasia.
I did read up on the possibility of euthanizing Igor. I wanted to be humane (despite what Matt may tell you), but in the end the idea of actually killing Igor seemed worse to me than just letting him fight it out to the end himself.

I mean, oddly and morbidly enough, I spent yesterday afternoon considering issues such as the need for a last will and testament, and even after a few minutes of that felt irrepressibly wronged by the universe despite not being dead. I had this intense sensation that all I wanted to do was keep-on-keepin-on and that nobody and nothing should ever be able to take that away from me. I guess maybe I thought Igor might feel the same.

1. I need a dog. Or a child. Preferably both.
It might be time for me and me Elmyra-esque fish obsession to take a chill pill.

I think the best cure for that would be a more vocal "pet." :D

Elmyra on pets: "I just wanna hug them and love them and squeeze them to pieces!"

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In Hopes of Spring Day 7: Bircher Muesli

If I was a flower growing wild and free...

I woke up this sunny morning with the most wonderfully Spring-ish, addictive song in my head.

It is now my duty to pass that on to you. In case you don't immediately recognize it, it's the song from the movie Juno. If that isn't enough reason for you to like it, then reading the actual lyrics and listening to the song just might be. It's pretty much guaranteed to make you want to grab a banjo and do a jig. The first line adequately sums up my Spring-induced happiness this London morning.

* * *

All I Want is You
Lyrics by Barry Louis Polisar

If I was a flower growing wild and free
All I'd want is you to be my sweet honey bee.
And if I was a tree growing tall and green

All I'd want is you to shade me and be my leaves

All I want is you, will you be my bride

Take me by the hand and stand by my side

All I want is you, will you stay with me?

Hold me in your arms and sway me like the sea.

If you were a river in the mountains tall,
The rumble of your water would be my call.

If you were the winter, I know I'd be the snow
Just as long as you were with me, when the cold winds blow.

All I want is you, will you be my bride

Take me by the hand and stand by my side

All I want is you, will you stay with me?
Hold me in your arms and sway me like the sea.

If you were a wink, I'd be a nod
If you were a seed, well I'd be a pod.
If you were the floor, I'd wanna be the rug
And if you were a kiss, I know I'd be a hug

All I want is you, will you be my bride

Take me by the hand and stand by my side

All I want is you, will you stay with me?

Hold me in your arms and sway me like the sea.

If you were the wood, I'd be the fire.
If you were the love, I'd be the desire.
If you were a castle, I'd be your moat,

And if you were an ocean, I'd learn to float.

All I want is you, will you be my bride

Take me
by the hand and stand by my side
All I want is you, will you stay with me?

Hold me in your arms and sway me like the sea.

* * *

So in the name of all fine Spring weather and banjo-jigs, today's topic is Bircher Muesli.

Muesli is a decidedly non-Mexican dish (apparently it is originally Swiss) which I was therefore not introduced to until a rather ripe age of 16 (yes, during that fabulous trip to Denmark).

Matt is a fiend for Muesli and since the entrance of good weather into our lives once again, has started making it in the morning. A couple of months ago he had Bircher Muesli on a morning flight and harassed me to buy the appropriate ingredients to recreate it for two weeks straight. I finally gave in and the end product was ok but not great. After a couple more attempts at it, I think we've finally co
me up with a decent combination of ingredients.

The two ingredients I would venture to say are the most important are:

1. The Yogurt
You reall
y need good quality plain "Greek," or technically "strained," yogurt for this recipe. What makes strained yogurt different from the other stuff you get in the supermarket is that traditionally it was actually strained using muslin to remove extra water and whey, giving it a thicker consistency (think sour cream). It usually has a higher fat content too and is therefore less likely to curdle than normal plain yogurt - so you can use it in hot, cold, savory or sweet dishes as well (mmmm, ever had grilled Greek yogurt-marinated lamb? Crazy delicious.). In Bircher Muesli it is the glue that holds the entire dish together. I highly recommend it over the runny stuff for pretty much any yogurt-involving-recipe you have. Photo credit.

2. The Oats
I've been an oatmeal consumer since the very, very early days. I love that the British call it
Porridge (and they insist it is different from American Oatmeal, but I've yet to notice any difference) - it really takes me back to that delightful "Please sir, can I have some more?" moment in the old movie version of Oliver Twist, which I watched in 2nd grade. The oats for this recipe don't have to be expensive, but they should be in good condition. In other words, they should not be powdered - get some nice medium to large size oats. It'll make a textural difference, I promise.

For Bircher Muesli you can also use flavored oatmeals, though we generally use plain. I would highly recommend the delightfully British Dorset Cereals brand, which I
believe has actually spread to the US by now. Not only is their packaging really pretty, their oatmeal and muesli are both absolutely DELICIOUS. My favorite so far is the cranberry raspberry flavor. Photo credit.

Bircher Muesli should be made ahead of time and served cold, so it's perfect for someone in a rush in the morning. But if you're really a professed dally-er and lover of beauty, this dish is enough
reason to get up half an hour earlier to watch the morning sunshine in your sunroom with the proverbial better-half, "All I Want is You" playing incessantly inside your head. :)

Happy Wednesday!

* * *

Matt's Apple Bircher Muesli

Serves 2

Bircher Muesli these days is a loose term which refers to a breakfast dish based on uncooked oatmeal (or porridge oats if you're British) with any combination of fresh or dried fruit and nuts. This is our favorite version because we love tart things and the Granny Smiths combined with the cranberries really give it that irresistible pucker, but feel free to substitute and change quantities where you deem necessary.
After all, Bircher Muesli, like Spring, is nothing if not serendipitous.


2 Granny Smith Apples, grated
1 1/2 cups uncooked plain rolled oats (you could also dabble with flavored ones)

1/4 cup raisins and dried cranberries mixed
1 cup Plain Greek Yogurt (the really thick stuff)
4-6 tbsps honey (to taste, really)
1 tsp grated lemon zest
2-3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup flaked almonds (or any nuts / seeds of your choice)


1. Stir all the prepared ingredients together in a bowl until well-combined.

2. Ideally, allow to rest in the refrigerator overnight; otherwise, can be eaten immediately

3. Serve with some fresh slices of Granny Smith Apple and perhaps some extra almonds sprinkled on top.
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