Friday, 31 May 2013

The kindness of strangers

It's been a(nother busy week) - a good week, but a busy one nonetheless. I was really glad that our CEO sent everybody home at 3 pm today so we can get an early start on the long weekend. I had a bit of time to kill before my ride home so took a leisurely wander up Lambton Quay, eyed up a people watching spot at Midland Park and contemplated a mid-afternoon coffee.

A woman in her 50s approached me and asked, "are you a coffee drinker?" Am I?! "I certainly am," I informed her. "Well, would you like a free coffee? It's fresh from the cafe upstairs. I can't remember if it is a latte or a mocha, but I am so full that I just can't drink it and I don't want to throw it away. Please - you would be doing me a big favour." Stunned, I told her I was just about to buy a coffee anyway. She pressed the cup into my hand while I thanked her profusely, accepted her gift ... and then she was gone, caught up in the Friday afternoon crowd.

As it turns out, the coffee was a perfect latte, not too hot and ready to drink. Who was this woman: a mind reader? A coffee angel??

I simply couldn't leave this good deed undone. I donated the cash I would have spent on coffee to the Life Flight, one of my favourite charities whose street appeal is on today. I know it's just a drop in the bucket, but hopefully this random act of kindness along with my donation this morning can go a tiny way towards saving someone's life one day.

Pay it forward, people - and don't think you have to wait for a special day to do it. Sure, I buy coffee for the next person on Random Acts of Kindness Day, but think how awesome it would be if I did it before then. (Note to self: find out if suspended coffee has taken off in town. I hope it has!) The tiniest gesture can TOTALLY make someone's day. This anonymous donor will never know what an impact she has made. Wellington, you are beautiful!

Monday, 27 May 2013

Crème fraîche

This post is as much for my own reference as it is to share a recipe. A colleague was telling me about how she always has crème fraîche in the fridge and uses it as a replacement for whipped cream or in baking. In fact, she commented, it was time for her to make some more as she had nearly run out of her last batch. Make some more? Yes, it's incredibly simple. Who knew?

I excitedly emailed her recipe to a couple of friends, both of whom informed me that every baker in the world knows how to make their own crème fraîche and they are surprised that I didn't already do this myself. Well, just in case there is anyone else out there who doesn't know this incredibly simple method for making crème fraîche, now you can know the secret!

Crème fraîche

  • ~500 ml cream
  • 3 T buttermilk
  1. Take the 'chill' off the cream. (10-20 seconds in the microwave or briefly running it under hot water should do it.)
  2. Add the buttermilk to the cream and shake it gently. (It's best to use a wide-topped container or jar as this will make it easier to get the crème fraîche out afterwards.) Leave on the kitchen bench overnight.
  3. Shake the mixture vigorously, then refrigerate for 6-12 hours or until it is thick enough to use. 
In case you're wondering, crème fraîche is pretty versatile and will keep for 1-2 weeks in the fridge. It's great in a chocolate tart that I make or served alongside this sour cream lemon tart. It just requires you to plan ahead a little as it needs to sit for a day or two while you make it.

Image source:
Used without permission

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Food Show 2013

Yesterday, a friend and I spent a few hours in foodie heaven at The Food Show. Being veterans from the past couple of years, I knew to arrive as close to opening time as possible, to wear comfy shoes and bring a backpack. Take my advice!

The Food Show is an event where it's best for diets to be left at the door. Where else can you legitimately have Donovans Chocolate and Epic Mosaic beer for breakfast? (Yes, I did. Don't judge me.) I also had Allpress Espresso coffee, delicious bacon from Premier Beehive NZ and gourmet cereal from Cec's Museli, so that was breakfast sorted. However, my biggest surprise discovery came in the form of smoked eggs from The NZ Manuka Egg Company. Smoked slowly at a temperature of less than 15°C, these eggs are apparently best scrambled or poached to allow the smoky bacon flavour to emerge. The aroma reminded me of Mata Hangi beer, otherwise known as bacon in a glass. It sounds strange but it actually works. Intriguing!
Manuka smoked eggs. These are actually raw.
Heavenly Fudge did indeed make heavenly fudge. I liked the chocolate caramel swirl fudge and was impressed by their display of fudge mini cupcakes. What a cute idea!
Fudge cupcakes - so cute!
I enjoyed trying some of Zelati's gelato and sorbet flavours, although I couldn't help thinking that Kaffee Eis would have made a killing there. I also discovered Sovrano Limoncello - not to be confused with Soprano Limoncello. Very similar names selling what is technically the same product but poles apart in quality, with Sovrano limoncello creme a clear winner. I always look forward to the Hellers stand and the smell of their meat cooking had us drooling even before we reached them. The same went for the lamb and venison steaks from Silver Fern Farms. Yum!

We even invented a new drinking game. Every time we saw a man with a microphone headsest demonstrating how to use a product that I doubt he'd ever encountered outside of a showroom, we'd down a shot of the closest beverage. (It wasn't always alcoholic!) Funnily enough, we gave the shammy cloths, steam mops and other cleaning and packaging products a very wide berth. This is meant to be a foodie's heaven, after all.

There were a few exhibitors I missed this year, most notably Heilala Vanilla and Caffe L'Affare. I would also liked to see small plates or light lunch options availablee. There also seemed to be a lot more wineries this year, which is fine but I wonder where the line is between a food show and a wine and food event.

I came away with a heaving backpack full of Pic's Really Good Peanut Butter, a Shott gift pack of coffee syrups that I have decided to keep instead of giving away and plenty of leaflets and photos of products I'm keen to seek out. In fact, I was impressed at my level of restraint!

Have you been to The Food Show in Wellington this weekend? What were your favourite food discoveries?

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Nutcracker

I adore The Nutcracker. It's my absolute favourite ballet and the score puts me in a childlike happy place each year in the crazy lead-up to Christmas.

Last night, I ticked off one of the things on my Well, I never list when I saw Moscow Ballet perform The Nutcracker in Wellington. (I kicked myself after missing out on the Royal New Zealand Ballet production of The Nutcracker a few years ago so resolved to put it right next time the show came to town.)

This was a highly technical production with the danseur playing the Nutcracker Prince deserving the highest accolades. His dancing was simply superb! The Arabian coffee soloists with their acrobatic infused routine also stole the limelight during the Land of the Sweets solos. I don't remember the mice being so sinister in the televised versions I've seen and was surprised at how ominous the model nutcracker looked before coming to life. I also expected the Sugar Plum Fairy to be pinky-purple but she was instead resplendent in white with a silver trim.

There is a good synopsis here if you're not familiar with all the characters and how they come to life throughout the ballet. Even if you don't know all of the Nutcracker Suite, you are probably aware of the muzak versions of the beautiful Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy Waltz of the Flowers and Dance of the Toy Trumpets; thanks to repetitive advertising from cleaning product manufacturers. I implore you to see and hear each piece in its intended glory on a beautiful stage. I grinned for nearly two hours!

A totally magical evening and a childhood dream. Next time, I'd love to see The Nutcracker accompanied by a live orchestra.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Last night, we went to a preview screening of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), a film based on the novel of the same name by Moshin Hamid. Billed as a hostage thriller with political undertones, we weren't entirely sure what to expect.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a real 'thinking' movie and one that is bound to start conversations that progress beyond the proverbial water cooler. Set in various international locations, we meet Changez, a young Pakistani man who moves to New York to take up a scholarship at Princeton, then pursue a stellar career on Wall Street. We follow his story for about 15 years, leading up to the present day. The clash of cultures that emerges is not necessarily as you'd expect.

A long time ago, someone told me that "the opposite of love is fear" - not hate, like most assume. I have thought about this a lot over the years and it was my recurring thought during the movie last night. Fear has a lot to answer for. We see how it drives discrimination, misinformation and irrational actions, bringing out primal instincts and prejudices that we may never have known we possess. We are shown how a terrorist can be made and the dreadful consequences than can result.

There are some twists that threaten to turn the tables. They show that success means different things to different people. More than anything, success is fleeting and only ever reflects circumstances in a current point in time. It can be snatched away in an instant. Also, not everyone gets to choose their sides in moral issues; sometimes their side is chosen for them. There are hints about the dangers of focusing exclusively on the fundamentals and losing sight of the bigger picture.

I was surprised to see that The Reluctant Fundamentalist didn't rate particularly well on either Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB. Media reviews are also lukewarm. Sure, it covers some very ambitious content that I'd imagine is more fully explored in the novel (which I haven't read but have now added to my TBR list). It seems like the biggest criticism is that it has become a 'thinking' movie, rather than necessarily plot driven, which is precisely what I loved about it.

View the trailer or, better still, watch the movie and decide for yourself. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Fondant flowers at Stiletto Studio

Last year, we met the lovely Becs from Stiletto Studio when she was teaching an introductory cake basics decorating class. Becs got us excited enough to feed our baking addictions and set us on a path of more adventurous cake decorating - one with a steadily increasing incline in skill level. We get together every so often to have fondant flower making sessions and practise however much we can remember from her classes, all the while accumulating far too much baking and decorating equipment. Well, everybody needs one vice, right? ;-)

We have just finished a four week course in advanced flower making, which followed on from where our introduction to fondant flower making left off. The great thing about fondant flower making is that most of the flowers we make come in a huge range of variations, so there is no 'one' way of doing things. (Well, that's what Becs tells us and it makes us feel better about the creations that don't quite look right.) And so we took a big breath and started experimenting with making bigger flowers this year.

We began with a dahlia built up around a little polystyrene ball in the centre. Several layers were cut out and glued around the ball, then the outer detail was added with individually attached rolled up horn shapes, gradually building out into a wide, flatter flower. I'll be honest in saying that I found this one quite fiddly; we didn't bond. The dahlia is probably not one I'd make again but it was good to practise adding layers to make a bigger flower.
(We haven't bonded.)
Next up was the ranunculus. Again, this flower comes in many variations and I like the warm, bright colours. The technique was similar to that of the dahlia, building layers around a small, fondant centre and gradually opening the flower up and out. I'd definitely make the ranunculus again. This one actually made it onto a cake!

Extreme chocolate raspberry cake with fondant ranunculus decoration
The next two flowers were made progressively over two sessions to allow time for drying and hardening during the process. The peony is another flower layered around a polystyrene centre. I made mine progressively get lighter by adding more white fondant to the fondant I'd already coloured and I like the way it adds some texture to the final product. Like the dahlia, the peony is a little bit too fussy looking for me but others have made all the right oohs and ahhs when they've seen the photos ... or they're probably just humouring me. Oh well! ;-)

Delicate pink peony
Finally, it was a starburst lily. These are deceptively simple, with each petal threaded with flower wire and left to set over a glass before painting on the detail. Then, the lily was tied together with floral tape, something that is surprisingly a lot easier than it looked.

Stunning starburst lily
Check out the Stiletto Studio class timetable and information as well as some of Becs's amazing cake creations. The classes are highly social, practical and lots of fun for wannabe cake decorators of all skill levels.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Elevator roulette

We have a slightly dodgy elevator in our building. It's not particularly dangerous, but it plays a type of harmless roulette that keeps occupants guessing what it will do next. As far as I am aware, no-one has been trapped inside and it hasn't randomly stopped between floors, but once inside you face a wait of anywhere between a comfortable second or two and an awkward 20-30 seconds (or more). Everyone looks at each other with the same questions in their eyes: Is someone standing in the way of the door sensors? Should you push the button again? Is it stuck? Should someone press the 'close door' button? What if they push it and we end up stuck inside? Does this phone actually work??

This week, the lift has started talking to us. An American woman trapped somewhere inside the control panel asks the lift's occupants to "please stand clear of the doors", even if everyone is hunched together towards the back and nowhere near the entrance. Rumour has it that a manager on 'some' floor had the timer deliberately slowed down so that the doors don't close too quickly on anyone running to catch it. That's all good and fine, but we can't help wondering if we're on borrowed time with our lift. Randomly freaky and freakily random!

A colleague was telling us about the elevators at her last workplace. There was a bank of four lifts that opened into the reception area. *Somehow* the general manager's dog got into one of the lifts (I didn't catch how on earth that happened) and was off ... the elevator was called from floor to floor, and they had no idea if it picked up more passengers on the way, but there was no sign of said canine. Stunned staff members pressed the up and down buttons, trying to call the right elevator car back to their floor to release the poor doggy, all the while hoping that he didn't decide to disembark on a different floor. Apparently it took 20 minutes of riding the elevators up and down for the dog to reappear on their floor - happily tucked up in the corner and oblivious to the whole experience. Whew!

I think I might start carrying my swipe card take the stairs from now on.

Monday, 13 May 2013


I am really enjoying the pizza dough setting on my breadmaker. I have made focaccia quite a few times and last weekend tried my hand at ciabatta. It took a bit of experimenting to find a suitable recipe, as there isn't one in my breadmaker's recipe book. I managed to adapt this ciabatta recipe from All Recipes Australia for New Zealand Surebake yeast and it works brilliantly. Also, using my breadmaker makes the process more manageable than Jason's famous ciabatta recipe, which I've tried a few times.

The secret to a crispy crust is to spritz the bread with water a couple of times while it is cooking. I've found the easiest way to do this is to use a small spray bottle. Admittedly, the cat looks very nervous every time I take her water spritzer out of the cupboard - she's not convinced that I'm just going to spray the bread as it cooks and not her!

The recipe makes two decent sized loaves.


  • 3 teaspoons Surebake yeast
  • 450 grams high-grade flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 375 ml water
  1. Place ingredients in the pan of the breadmaker in the above order. Select the pizza cycle (for Panasonic machines) and start. This is a 45 minute cycle.
  2. The dough will be quite sticky and wet once the cycle is completed - resist the temptation to add more flour. Place dough on a lightly floured board or bench. Cover with a large bowl and let it rest for 15 minutes.
  3. Lightly flour or use a baking paper lined oven tray. Divide into two pieces and form each into a 10 x 35 cm oval. Place loaves on prepared trays, dimple the surface and lightly flour. Cover with a paper towel or plastic bag and let rise in a draft-free place for 45-60 minutes or until the loaves have doubled in size. (I use the proof dough setting on my oven, which keeps the temperature at a consistent 30°C.)
  4. Preheat oven to 220°C.
  5. Dimple dough for a second time and then place loaves in the oven, positioned on the middle shelf. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown. Spritz loaves with water every 5-10 minutes while baking for a crispier crust.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Madame Butterfly

According to my sixth form English teacher, the definition of a tragedy is one where "you know something (bad) is going to happen but there is no way it can be stopped". Other events or disasters might be tragic, but a true artistic or literary tragedy is one that fits this definition. And so it is for Madame Butterfly, Puccini's operatic masterpiece: a classic tragedy.

Madame Butterfly flutters into town this week after a successful run in Auckland. If you managed to get tickets to this sold out season, you are in for a treat.

New Zealand Opera is in fine form and this production is stunning. Set in 1904 Nagasaki, Japan, this story of undying, yet unrequited, love is truly heartrending. Antoinette Halloran convincingly plays the lovestruck Cio-Cio San, who devotedly waits for three long years for the return of her American husband, Benjamin Pinkerton, but finds that his homecoming is not as she hoped for. Lucy Schaufer stood out as Suzuki, Cio-Cio's devoted maid. There was not much chemistry between Halloran and Piero Pretti, who played Pinkerton, but it was a pleasure to hear his tenor in this role.

The set features rice paper screens that are moved and adjusted throughout the show, using lighting to set the mood. This visual simplicity means you are able to admire the detailed beauty of the costumes and props throughout the show without being distracted by the scenery.

I loved this sign outside the theatre doors promising a loud explosion during the second act. Action! Excitement! What's not to love about this opera? We were warned about the impending explosion several times during the break, with the libretto hinting that a ship would dock and we would know about it because its arrival would be announced by an exploding cannon. It turned out to be quite a non-event, but did the job of building anticipation for Pinkerton's return from America. It also kept the man next to me awake and paying attention, instead of gently snoring in his seat like he did during the first act. Yes, really!

No need for alarm ...
Tragic. Painful. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. Madame Butterfly is an absolute must-see.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Wellington, a dying capital?

We kiwis are a pretty patriotic bunch. It seems that Wellingtonions are even more so - just look at what happens to anyone who tries to take a swipe at our beloved city. What?! I'm not sure I live in the same city that John Key is talking about. Key has since conceded that he should have chosen "better terminology" rather than stating, "The reality is even Wellington is dying and we don't know how to turn it around. All you have there is government, Victoria University and Weta Workshop." Really??! His comments set Twitter and local media a-flutter today.

No doubt there has been at least a little bit of poetic license taken with Key's original quote. I'm fairly certain (or at least hopeful) that it was a throwaway comment taken out of context, as this seems to be happening a lot lately. He probably "won't recall" saying it tomorrow. But I have to wonder where it came from in the first place.

It's true that I'm 100% biased towards Wellington, where I was born and bred. But what's not to love? Think about it: in any given week, Wellington's social calendar is positively buzzing. Right now, we're in the middle of the International Comedy Festival and the opera Madame Butterfly flies into town later this week. We build up to a couple of creative weeks during WOW each year (sorry, Nelson) and throw the party of the year at the sevens each February. There's also a whole stack of cheap (or even free) stuff happening all the time, but you simply can't beat a stroll along our waterfront on a gorgeous, sunny day - something that is both free and priceless all at the same time. If you're still not convinced, check out the Wellington open day on 26 May. I just hope that Wellington doesn't die before Swan Lake in July, as I'd bought my tickets for the ballet before learning the city had been pronounced dead.

Think about it. We've just had the best summer in living memory. Our waterfront is so awesome that even orcas came to visit this summer - twice! We love coffee, restaurants and bars and can proudly state we're the craft beer capital. Not only that, but we're pretty nice people. We've even started sharing our love of caffeine with suspended coffee.

This super-cool video of little wellington sums us up perfectly.

little wellington from Michael Jo on Vimeo.

Sure, we could do with a proper international airport and a better roading system in and out of the city. We also like to wear a lot of black. Our weather has made the news this week, probably because we Wellingtonions are no longer used to rough conditions after such a glorious summer. I'm reminded of a friend's comment comparing Wellington weather to a small child: wild and tempestuous one day, then sweet and charming the next. Yes, the weather reminds us that we are alive.

I'd like to make a Tui billboard out of it:
Wellington's a dying city.
Yeah right.
What do you think? Is Wellington a dying city? Or perhaps it is dead already and we just haven't noticed because we're having too much fun?

Monday, 6 May 2013

Suspended coffee

We've all read the Facebook post about buying a suspended coffee for a person in need. Whether or not it is legitimate is not the point; the do-good intentions of the act make us feel all warm and fuzzy as we imagine a 'free' coffee making someone's day. As a coffee lover, I know that a bad day can turn into a good one (or at least a tolerable one) with the help of a single good cup of coffee to savour and enjoy. Who wouldn't want to spread those joy germs around?

Apparently caffè sospeso originated in Naples, where you are guaranteed to find a plethora of characters begging on the streets in the cafe and restaurant quarters. One night in Napoli, I watched a man work his craft. His handmade sign said "Ho fame" ("I'm hungry") and he was kneeling on a strip of cardboard. During the course of my meal, people continually stopped to give him money - so much so that he was quickly sorting coins into different pockets as soon as the donor had walked away; euros on one side, cents on the other. People also gave him food: burgers and panini ... even restaurateurs came out from several different places with bags of leftovers. These were quickly hidden out of sight behind him and the kneeling resumed. Now, I had/have absolutely no idea of his circumstances, and he was in no way the only one out on the street that night, but I certainly noted the generosity of the Napolitani people during one short hour.

I read this morning that Wellington, the coffee capital, is now warming to suspended coffee. I'm not surprised to see that People's Coffee in Newtown has got the ball rolling and that Flight Coffee are also interested. I expect Caffe L'Affare won't be too far behind, either. Their anti-surcharge on public holidays is a great show of charity support.

Would you buy a suspended coffee for someone? I've done it a couple of times for Random Acts of Kindness Day on 1 September. I have no idea who the recipients were (and sincerely hope that it made someone's day) but, admittedly, this is just once a year. If suspended coffees do become part of our coffee culture, I hope there will still be momentum for it in a few months' time after the initial novelty has worn off.