Friday, September 28, 2012

Ode To My Flat

It's the last night in my flat. I'm melancholy and sentimental.

After a year and a half here, I'm kissing flatsharing goodbye. An important milestone for ex-pats in London. I'm saying no to randomness and compromise.

To ease my sadness I'll reflect on things I won't miss about my flatmates.

Firstly I won't miss the dread of hearing the entrance door slam, the march up four flights of stairs and the wall shattering door slam once they're home. I recognise which of my flatmates are coming up the stairs. Like my tall lanky flatmate, who scrambles like an puppy dog with legs too big for his body.

I won't miss flatmates from hell. Like the one who blowdries her hair at 1.30am, has guests visit almost everyday, has a rumbling loud voice and calls Brazil at 3 in the morning. She smokes in her room and leaves a Barbie doll's head of hair in the drain after a shower.

Or the other flatmate from hell who rarely showers and I've only seen him do 1 load of laundry in six months. He needs to walk through a car wash. He was using our towels to dry himself. When he finally bought his own, it was blue but turned brown by the end. He wears sneakers on the bathmat and thinks that's normal. And he never pays the bills on time, once he did'nt pay rent for 2 months. He's never done the housework.

I won't miss the paper thin walls. I can practically hear my flatmate's pants drop on the floor which does'nt bode well when he's singing the Greatest Love Song Of All Time. Two of his boyfriends I remember fondly.

One was shrieker. He shrieks when he laughs. Actually you can't tell the difference from when he's laughing or crying.

The other got up in the middle of the night and crept into my bed! I woke up to him lying across the foot of my bed and I kicked him out. He did'nt say anything but fled like crazy. I think he was sleepwalking.

Aside from flatmates, I won't miss the things that go wrong. Like how the disintegrating sash windows which are air vents in winter. Or how easily the drains block, the lack of water pressure and when my radiator burst and someone came to fix it, the flat did'nt have hot water or heating (in the dead of winter) for five days.

On that note, I'll conclude by reminiscing on how lovely my room is, especially when the sun is shining through. Or when no one else is home and the place is blissfully silent. It's my last night and even though it's emptied out, I love being here.

I've been packing and carrying stuff downstairs to my new flat for four nights. I'm knackered and off to Paris in the morning for a race on Sunday. Lots going on.

Moving out tomorrow and it's the end of another chapter of London.

Edited to add that after I moved out, I was told by my other flatmates that "greasy" handprints were left on the walls surrounded the bed. Ewwww.....

Sunday, September 23, 2012

10 Rules To Follow When Baking Macaroons

Macaroons are difficult to perfect at first but with practice they're easy to make at home. 

I took a beginner's class and here are some fundamental rules I learned to get them right.

1) Measure your ingredients precisely. If the recipe calls for 140 grams of egg whites, don't estimate. You must measure them out. Any variation will be reflected in the structure of the meringue.  
2) You must follow the recipe exactly. An oven thermometer is essential because the majority of home ovens are inaccurate and will have hot spots. 
3) Use your eyes to determine when to stop beating the egg whites. As soon as they form stiff peaks (and create "waves" across the sides of the bowl), stop as you'll overbeat the egg whites and the macaroon will be dry.
4) Separate eggs three days ahead. That way the white hold air better and will be more voluminous.
5) Folding in the meringue (beaten egg whites with caster sugar) with the ground almond and icing sugar is key. You need to do it swiftly and in a consistent movement until it passes the drop test. When a third of the mixture falls fluidly and has a shiny surface, it's ready to be piped. Pour the mixture, don't scoop it in the piping bag.
6) Don't use liquid food colouring. Any water based ingredients will interfere with the structure of the macaroon. For beginners, stick with warm colours (we used yellow or pink gel colouring) as they are more stable through baking rather than greens, blues, and purples.
7) Piping technique is important. Lower the nozzle at a 90 degree angle 1/2 cm away from the tray. Squeeze gently in the one spot (don't swirl around in a circle) with the hand holding the piping bag at the end. The other hand is for holding the nozzle in place. Stop squeezing when the macaroon template is filled and flick away to the nozzle horizontally to round off.
8) Allow the macaroons to form a skin before baking. Let them sit for 10-15 mins until they can be lightly touched without stickiness.
9) Use the right tools. We piped on silicon matts over macaroon templates. The matts are good for heat dispersion and macaroons are easier to remove after baking. Also we filled the macaroons with chocolate ganache with palette knives because they are fragile.
10) Practice practice practice. The more you do it, the more you will learn to get them perfect. 

My first batch of macaroons. They had a uneven surface and looked like nipples because I did'nt flick off when piping and my mixture needed to be folded for longer.

Here's what they're supposed to look like.

Our macaroons fresh out of the oven. 

Not sure what happened to the one in the center. Atleast they had good "feet".

 Chocolate ganache filling. It's hot whipping cream mixed with dark chocolate chips (50% cocoa) and cooled under cling film.

My first batch was described as rustic by the instructor. They look like spinning tops but atleast they were delicious.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Malta - The Last Day and Night

On this day I wanted to spent as much time on Gozo as possible. The island was serene, picturesque and I loved my hotel room.

I sadly checked out of the hotel and took a rooftop bus tour of the island. It was good for getting around and sightseeing because Gozo is hilly and the villages are far apart.

For two hours I stayed on the bus except to take a pic of the Azure window.

I saw rustic and arid countryside between the villages. The island "capital" Victoria was decorated with a Roman Catholic theme.

The double decker bus somehow got through perilous narrow single lane streets. At times I could have stuck my arm through someone's window from my seat!

A few villages were still developing, seemingly abandoned (although it was Sunday).

By the end I had slathered on too much sunscreen and used my tour map to shield from the relentless UV rays. It was time to go back to the main island and find where I was staying the night.

The bus ride to Sliema was crowded and it took almost an hour. As we headed south, my heart sank as I watched small towns turn into prolific highrises and fast food shops. From St Julian's to Sliema and beyond, it was like The Gold Coast on steroids. Where did this new money come from? There was'nt an original building in sight.

Although it was all new, there were shit box cars kahooning down the streets and people hanging out with nothing to do.

I found my accommodation for the night which was a very cheap stay from Airbnb. And when I got there, I realised why it was so cheap.

The flat was new and waterfront but the hostess had five other guests staying. I shared a room with a German girl and our room was internal. The window opened to a narrow shaft for ventilation, or lack there of. It was stinking hot as there was no air-con.

To while away my last night, I headed to Valletta to explore. I crossed the harbour via water taxi which felt James Bond-ish. Fort St Elmo can be seen from Sliema and at dusk, Valletta looked mysterious.

I did'nt have a map so I relied on my instincts walking through cobble stone streets to the city center. There did'nt appear to be any signs of life except the distant sounds of TVs and a few stray cats.

It was dark and the streets were deserted. I still felt safe-ish and admittedly I was scared too since I was alone.

Fortunately before I found the centre quickly. The shops were closed but many were still outdoors enjoying the balmy night.

One moment that sticks to my memory was listening to a busker playing accordion in a shadowy street. It was the first time I felt like I was in a magical world.

I got home and took another cold shower. Stood out on the balcony for a while watching the traffic go by. At midnight there were still people hanging out, even young children.

The flats in this area are densely built. I glanced at a neighbour who was bemused watching this strange girl next to his balcony and I took that as a cue to go to bed.

My sheets felt clean but smelled mildewy. The German girl was asleep. (I don't know how in the heat.) I closed my eyes and laid in bed sweating, telling myself it will be over in six hours.

A few hours later I opened my eyes and realised there was a ceiling fan! I turned it on without caring if my roommate minded. She tossed and turned afterwards but atleast air was circulating through the room. I got an hour of unbroken sleep before I had to leave for the airport. Lucky the bus stop was just across the street.

Sunrise on the harbour was beautiful. My host was kind enough to make me a sandwich roll for breakfast. The water was painted in shades of orange and pink. The sky was brightening. I felt like a dog's dinner.

My Maltese getaway was over and on that note, I was glad to be heading home.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Diner-ing in NYC

I'm having breakfast at the counter of Metro Diner at 100 St on Broadway.

I'm greeted by the cashier at the door and once seated, a tall glass of water (with a tonne of ice) is placed in front of me. I'm automatically asked how I am and if I want coffee.

Pastries, slices and muffins are temptingly displayed on the counter.

I order my favorite breakfast, French toast with bacon and the Italian waiter (you know with *that* NY accent) gives me a glass of orange juice on the house. He's a vocal and warming character, calling lady and child customers cute pet names and addressing men with "sir" or "brother".

He tops up my coffee which is on the weak side but that's ok.

By the time I ask for the check, the diner is extremely busy and the guy was kind enough not to charge for coffee. He gushes with syrupy compliments and when I say: "thank you, you're too kind", he's already walked away to serve another customer.

Ippudo - Best Ramen In NYC

I was told last night, the last night of our stay in New York, the wait for a table would be 2-3 hours. That abruptly suspended my mission of trying the "best ramen outside of Japan".

I didn't want to give up completely so we went around to another ramen place in the East Village. Pics included below.

So then it's my last day and I made an effort to beat the ridiculous wait. Even if it meant having dinner at 4.45pm and not feeling hungry.

I still had to wait 25 mins for a table and parties had to wait for "an hour and a bit". The restaurant is noisy and dark like a nightclub. The hosts are young and beautiful, like a nightclub.

Finally my name was called and an attractive Japanese girl took me to my seat.

As we strode in, I realize the yelling I heard earlier was the hostess's shrilly Japanese announcement that a new guest has arrived and a welcome was echoed by other staff. Traditional Japanese etiquette or jubilation that another paying customer has entered?

Nonetheless with all the hub-bub you can't help feeling like a hero.

The food is not cheap (the classic tonkotsu ramen is $15, plus tax and tip it was $20) but with the hype, I'm expecting it to be spectacular.

The girls sitting next to me at the communal table asked strangers to take photos of them with their ramen.

My ramen looked similar to its Sydney counterpart from Ichi Ban Boshi but smaller. Same thick collagen soup and straight noodles. Taste of the soup is rich and deep. The broth has obviously been simmered for a day. The noodles were a tad too soft for my liking but atleast its not heavy as the previous night's sampling. Overall the quality is extremely good and authentic. I emptied the bowl!

Is it better than Ichi Ban Boshi? In my opinion quality-wise they are on par. But you don't need to pay through the nose in Sydney and compete with the circus of hipsters trying to get in.

By the time I left, it was 5.15pm and the reception was rammed with people. I was glad to get out of there and mark the mission as complete.