Thursday, 27 February 2014

An evening at the zoo

We attended a business After Five function at Wellington Zoo tonight. Drinks and nibbles were served at Kamala's, the old elephant house which has now been converted into an indoor/outdoor function room. To be honest, schmoozing isn't one of my strengths. Sure, I know all about elevator pitches and making small talk to potential clients, but I don't find it easy to wander up to some random people and start selling myself.

That's where it was great to have special visitors arrive in the form of a sulphur-crested cockatoo and a tuatara to stroke. I've handled cockatoos (and countless other birds) before, but the young tuatara was a new experience for me; his skin was much softer than I expected (and I don't entirely know what I expected!). They both helped us break the ice.

It's almost exactly three years since we last visited the zoo. So much has changed and developed since then. It was fantastic to hear about and see so many improvements as a result of the Zoo Capital Programme, as well as learning about some of the breeding programmes and developments at the animal hospital, The Nest Te Kōhanga. After the presentation, we were invited to join two zookeepers on a guided tour of the zoo. Awesome! It was really interesting hearing the zookeepers talk about various exhibits and the animals in them. Whoever would have thought the baboons all have names and individual personalities? Or that Malayan sun bears get lots of nutrients from eating dog kibble? The most exciting part for me was getting to feed one of the giraffes again!

My iPhone 5 camera isn't spectacular at dusk and even worse when it zooms, so these photos aren't as clear as my lovely camera would take. Still, I couldn't resist snapping a few souvenirs of our private after hours visit to Wellington Zoo.

Kangaroos roaming freely around their enclosure
A pretty giraffe enjoys a snack
A (blurry) Malayan sun bear in his new enclosure

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Round the Bays 2014

One of the highlights of Wellington's events calendar is Round the Bays. After last year's effort, I was keen to step things up a notch and decided to enter the new 10 km event this year. (Yes, I know it's only walking. Yes, I know walking is not exercise. Yes, I know even 10 month old babies can walk. Just indulge me for a moment, ok?)

My goal was to walk 10 km in 1.5 hours but I thought my time might realistically go up to 1:40:00. MapMyWalk informed me that I actually walked 10.5 km in ... exactly 1:30:00! I'm not sure whether the extra distance was a result of my over-earnest zigzagging along the course (why go around bends when you can go through them?) or GPS not being accurate when you're moving so slowly, but I am pretty pleased with this unofficial result. :-)

I've not usually excited to see someone holding out a banana and a bottle of water but can assure you that this is a very welcome offering when you've been on the move for a while. I didn't hang around at Kilbirnie Park afterwards, instead opting to jump on an early bus back to town while there were no queues. I discovered that my final 1 km walk back to the office from the bus stop at Courtenay Place was almost harder than the 10 km I'd done before it, now that I'd had a few minutes of sitting down on the bus! (Confession time: I was so hungry when I got back to the office that I also sneaked a stale muesli bar out of my emergency kit and ate it on the spot. Oh well! Back on the wagon again this afternoon.)

Wellington is renown for miraculously putting on a good day for Round the Bays. I had serious doubts as I listened to the strong winds during the night and still hadn't decided whether to walk in a windbreaker even 15 minutes before the race began. Then, things calmed down as the race begun and we enjoyed an overcast morning with a welcome northerly at our backs. Whew!

Thinking about it, I've decided that I prefer the 10 km event to the main 6.5 walk or run. There were fewer baby buggies and scooters presenting obstacles to avoid and there is a better general understanding about the pecking order (black bib = half-marathon so let them pass first), so it was easier to get through the crowds. Once again, this is a fantastic event to be part of and I'm already thinking about entering again next year.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

How to High Tea with Ruth Pretty

Last weekend, we spent a delightful day at the Ruth Pretty Cooking School in Te Horo. The weather came to the party and so we played at being ladies by wearing pretty summer dresses for the occasion. How to High Tea is a day of food delights in a stunning garden setting, hosted by Ruth Pretty and her team. We were in good hands!

We were greeted with coffee and morning tea on arrival. These savoury and sweet scones were freshly baked and served alongside a berry salad of strawberries, raspberries, tart cape gooseberries and lightly whipped cream. We had our 'breakfast' at a picnic table outside by the herb garden. Even by mid-morning, the day was shaping up to be a hot one.

Scones for morning tea
The herb garden outside is immaculately kept and puts my few planter boxes to shame. I enjoyed wandering around smelling the different herbs, trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to identify some of the variations and thinking about how they might be used in cooking.

An immaculate herb garden
At 11 am, we were called into the cooking school/catering kitchen for class. During the next 2 1/2 hours, Ruth and two of her amazing chefs worked with incredible precision and skill to prepare a three course high tea, demonstrating their recipes and teaching us some very valuable tricks of the trade.

Cooking school
We learned how to create three dishes for each of the three high tea 'layers': sandwiches, savouries and desserts. With only one or two chances to impress, Ruth stresses that it's especially important for each high tea dish to taste as good as it looks. This certainly applied to food as tiny and delicate as the cocktail sandwiches made that day.

Ruth Pretty explains
My sandwiches are positively boring compared to the exotic range of flavours we learned how to make, each using different techniques: Bloody Mary prawn rolls, chicken and tarragon sandwiches and refreshing lemon and basil club sandwiches.

Elegant sandwiches and rolls
Savouries have come a long way from the days of preheated sausage rolls and frozen potato top pies from the supermarket. We learned how to make three varieties of base (puff pastry, vol-au-vent cases and a bread base) and a whole range of fillings. We ended up with tiny Parmesan and potato top beef pies made in mini muffin tins, vol-au-vent with salmon and chive salad (with vol-au-vent cases made by hand from buttery puff pastry) and snapper pies with macadamia crumble.

And then came dessert, even though this course was demonstrated first. Apparently éclairs are the new macarons which were the new cupcakes. Although I still have a soft spot for cupcakes, I'm not fussed about having missed the macaron craze but am glad to hear that we're onto éclairs now as choux pastry is something that I can make reasonably well! I'm really keen to try making strawberry cream to fill the chocolate éclairs like these ones. We also learned how to make layered champagne jelly and raspberry bavarois and baked vanilla cheesecakes with blueberries. (It's official: I still don't like cheesecake but wanted to give it one last try to confirm what I already knew.)

Sweet treats
With our heads full of good advice and an armful of recipes, we headed back into the garden room to beautifully laid tables for high tea. We found our places by looking for our names individually written on a leaf, then the bubbly was poured and we worked our way through each course.

Table setting for high tea
I learned so much from this session. Even though I can't realistically see myself whipping up a full high tea like this at home, I quite like the idea of attempting a 'progressive' high tea of sorts, where I try experimenting with the recipes and methods one or two at a time. We thoroughly enjoyed being ladies for the day. I even came away with a few more items for my baking arsenal (of course).

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Busy people's bread

A colleague passed on this recipe by Annabel Langbein for busy people's bread. It is quick and easy to make (just 15 minutes to prepare - 10 of those minutes are 'standing' time!) and the yeast mixture smells amazing when set aside to ferment. You don't need to leave it to proof as it rises in the oven during the first stage of cooking and there is no kneading. It really couldn't be simpler to make, especially on a weeknight.

Busy people's bread has a delicious nutty flavour and a slightly crunchy texture that you could vary by experimenting with different seeds or by substituting some of the wholemeal flour for cornmeal. It is fast becoming my new favourite everyday bread.

This recipe makes a decent sized loaf of bread that stays fresh for several days and toasts well. It can also be frozen. I've rewritten the recipe here because I prefer to weigh rather than measure ingredients. Also, I usually halve the original recipe to make just one loaf so this saves recalculating each time. You can find the full twin-loaf recipe here.

Busy people's bread

  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 15 g honey
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons dry yeast granules
  • 205 g high grade white flour
  • 205 g wholemeal flour
  • 8 g salt
  • 150 g sunflower seeds
  • 25 g pumpkin seeds
  1. Preheat oven to 80ºC. Grease and line a ~25 x 10 cm loaf tin.
  2. In a large bowl, dissolve the honey in the boiling water. Add the cold water and yeast and set aside for 10 minutes. 
  3. Whisk the yeast mixture then add in the white and wholemeal flours, salt and sunflower seeds. Mix with a large spoon until evenly combined. It will be a loose, wet batter.
  4. Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared loaf tin. Sprinkle the pumpkin seeds over the top and gently press them in to the mixture. Run a sharp knife diagonally through the top of the loaf in 4-5 places so that it rises evenly without splitting.
  5. Bake for 20 minutes at 80ºC, then turn the oven up to 210ºC and bake for a further 30-40 minutes. (Leave the loaf in the oven as it heats up to the second temperature.) The cooked loaf will sound hollow when tapped. Turn out of the tin while still hot and leave to cool on a wire rack. Makes 12 slices.
Busy people's bread

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Flying With Cuckoos - Michael Patrick Clark

Flying With Cuckoos (2012) is a coming of age memoir written by author and former RAF comms man Michael Patrick Clark. It tells the story of a boy who was supposedly good at nothing as he tries to find his way in a hostile world, feeling as though he doesn't fit in anywhere and desperately trying to find his place. It is with collective relief and a touch of disbelief that he is accepted into a RAF training programme, where he begins his journey into adulthood completely alone - and that's where his adventures begin.

Clark shares lessons he learned the hard way with humour and humility, transforming from a boy unsure of himself to a young man who is only sometimes sure of himself (and not always doing the right thing). He describes spectacular mistakes and downplays his successes as moments of befuddlement that somehow worked out for the best. His honesty is endearing and, although he would argue otherwise, Clark is likable, if naive.

I really enjoyed this memoir. It is, for the most part, well written and highly entertaining. I wasn't sure about the first chapter. It painted a dire woe-is-me tale of an boy whose adoptive parents never really loved him and could find nothing but fault in his actions. The hyperbole was golden but, thankfully, the narrative moves on and keeps the opening chapter as background fodder for the setting. A great read.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The New Zealand Bread Book - Simon & Alison Holst

I have been baking lots of bread lately. My goal for this year is to reduce the amount of 'everyday' bread I buy and make as much as possible myself. Not only is it (arguably) healthier and cheaper, but I find it very satisfying to make something from scratch these days.

I recently bought The New Zealand Bread Book by Simon and Alison Holst. This book has almost instantly become one of my favourite things. What I love about the recipes is that they are not only simple to follow, but most can be made either using a breadmaker or by hand. They are specially designed for New Zealand conditions and ingredients. (I understand we have different yeast and flour to overseas, even Australia, meaning that many international recipes don't work so well here.) Some are labelled as good 'timer' breads, meaning they go well in the breadmaker on a delayed timed setting. These are the recipes that I might make during the week, especially in winter so I can look forward to coming home to a the smell of freshly baked bread. Mmmm.

There are tips and photo guides on shaping bread in various ways. I'm planning on baking these recipes during weekends and holidays when I have more time to wait for the whole rising process and can experiment with shaping at a more leisurely pace. The proof dough setting on my oven will be busy this year! There are also 'no knead' recipes and ones that use baking powder (or baking soda) as the rising ingredient - good for weeknights as they require less proofing time, such as Irish soda bread.

These cinnamon swirls were my first attempt at baking from the book. They were delicious and so easy to make. I have since followed them up with a cheesy beer loaf, yoghurt rolls and I have the makings of a beer braid dough whirring in the breadmaker right now. Hopefully it will be ready in time (after I have shaped and proofed it) for a late lunch.

Cinnamon swirls