Liebster Blog Love!

Diposkan oleh faid on Kamis, 05 April 2012

Well folks, I can't believe Easter is almost here. I had so many Easter-themed post ideas to share and somehow I've completely run out of time! I probably won't be blogging between now and Easter (Matt and I have family to see, including our brand new niece, Adair - so excited!) but before we disappear, I have some very important, very exciting blog business to take care of.

Yep, that's right, this blog has once again been nominated for the Liebster Blog Award (the last time was only a week or so ago!). This time, the award comes from the lovely Diane of Simple Living with Diane Balch and I'm so very grateful! I haven't got my list of 5 more blogs yet (I just did this last week, after all - and you can check out my awesome nominees here!) but I wanted to be sure to thank Diane properly. It's always great to know there are people out there reading my posts and enjoying my recipes. Thanks so much, Diane!

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Easter Lamb Cake Pan (or How to Season Cast Iron)

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A couple of days ago, I mentioned one of my favorite Easter traditions - the Easter Lamb Cake. This festive confection usually consists of some sort of pound cake, baked in a lamb-shaped pan, frosted with buttercream, and covered in coconut 'fleece.'

Photo of a photo - sorry for the poor resolution!

It's a tradition from Eastern Europe and Germany that's been in our family for generations (and one that's especially common in the ethnic bakeries of Chicago, where my Mum's side of the family lives). Sadly, I don't have a lamb cake to share with you today - instead, this post is all about my cast iron lamb cake pan, which I rescued from rusty ignominy.

Pre-treatment: sad and rusty

My mum has one of the old-fashioned cast-aluminum pans (the top photo shows a cake baked in her pan, years ago!), but these days, most lamb cakes are baked in modern, lightweight pans. I've come across dozens of these, but never purchased one - always holding out for the 'real' you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover this rusty little beauty languishing in our local thrift store.

Even in its rusted, dirt-encrusted state, I just couldn't pass it up (could you say 'no' to that cute little face?) - especially since I know these pans garner lots of attention on eBay and this one was only about $12! It may surprise you to learn that I've never owned any cast iron (I really want some, though), so I was unsure about whether this pan could be salvaged. After a few hours of internet research, I decided it was worth a try and got to scrubbing.

Most sites suggested that 10-15 minutes of scrubbing should so the trick, but I soon learned that you don't have to worry about scrubbing behind the ears with a cast iron skillet; this task ended up taking me the better part of an afternoon. Once the rust was gone, I dried the pan in a 250°F oven for an hour or two and then cooled it on a wire rack.


At this point, I brushed the cooled pan with vegetable oil, taking care to grease every nook and cranny, and wiping out the excess with a paper towel. The pan went back into the oven ( 250°F to 300°F) for another couple of hours. I should note, here, that bacon fat or lard is actually recommended for seasoning, since vegetable oil may leave a slightly sticky finish. Unfortunately, I didn't have either of these to hand so I'll just have to keep my pans covered to prevent them accumulating dust or dirt.

I repeated the seasoning process again and plan to do it once more before I use the pan for baking (especially if I can get my hands on some lard). After that, it's just hot water and a soft rag for this pan to preserve the seasoning. I'm hoping that's the end of the rust, but it if comes back, I'll have to repeat the whole scrubbing-seasoning process again!  This slightly-gray pan should turn a classic cast-iron black with increased usage - guess I'd better get started on my Easter baking!

Edit: Apparently lamb cakes are more widely popular than I'd first thought - here's an Italian version, complete with recipe!

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Easter Brunch: Breakfast Sausage Casserole

Diposkan oleh faid on Selasa, 03 April 2012

When it comes to brunch, this recipe is it for me. I've come across dozens of breakfast casseroles, but none that make me as bright and sunshiny as this one. Our version has been in the family for as long as I can remember - longer, even - and it's marked almost every important family occasion.

Breakfast sausage casserole was the popular choice for childhood breakfasts-in-bed, and it still turns up every Christmas morning. I've carried it to countless potlucks and even ate a small piece on the morning of my wedding! It's also a feature of Easter brunch, not least because it can be prepared and refrigerated ahead of time (this actually improves the flavor) and then just popped straight into the oven for a no-fuss family breakfast.

A wonderful marriage of bread, egg, sausage and cheese, this is real stick to your ribs food. As with most family recipes, I tend to just throw this meal together with little regard for measurements. I also tend to make it a little differently each time - which is why you'll see ranges of some of the ingredients below. In each case, I recommend that you cater to your own tastes - you can adjust the amounts sausage, worcestershire sauce and cheese without materially changing the recipe. In fact, I've shared a more authentic, 'family' version of our recipe, but I typically use a bit less cheese and sausage when making it for just Matt and me. Regardless of whether you're feeding two or two dozen this Easter, this endlessly adaptable casserole is sure to please.

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The Wakhan Corridor

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The Wakhan Corridor is a slender area in the far north-eastern Afghanistan which forms a land link between Afghanistan and China. The corridor was a political creation of the Great Game, and a result of agreements between Britain and Russia in 1873 and between Britain and Afghanistan in 1893. It currently has 12,000 inhabitants, who live very much the same as their ancestors did centuries ago.

In 2011, inspired by an article published by the New York Times, Fabrice Nadjari and Varial, two 33 year-old authors, photographers and childhood friends, decided to embark on a journey in the Wakhan region. It is here that they decided to take photographs of the inhabitants of the Wakhan villages. The portraits made with their Polaroid cameras developed odd hues, and their quality deteriorated quite rapidly due to the altitude.

The photographers also produced the Traces of Time book project (to be published in May 2012) which they claim "presents a vision between a current and tangible printed reality that already ceases to exist and an uncertain present resembling the past. This is the perspective of travellers who steal a snapshot of life and leave behind a trace that could change the lives of those they've passed."

As is seen in the trailer (listen to the haunting soundtrack!!) above, the photographers convinced Ismaili children, young women, and housewives, opium smokers, village chiefs and simple peasants to pose for their Polaroid cameras.

The show Wakhan, An Other Afghanistan will be featured at the MILK Gallery, 450 West 15th Street in New York (May 18-23, 2012).

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Hot Cross Buns (the real English way!)

Diposkan oleh faid on Senin, 02 April 2012

There are some things that are just quintessentially Easter. Of course, you've got your chocolate bunnies and a plethora of egg-shaped treats, but for me the holiday isn't complete without an Easter Lamb Cake (a German/Eastern European tradition) or a batch of hot cross buns.

I suppose that's because these treats emphasize the Christian aspect of the holiday (although it's been hotly debated that they have their pagan roots, too) while still allowing me to get my hands dirty in the kitchen and fill my belly with delicious foods.

Hot cross buns hold another special place in my heart - right up there with bangers-and-mash, Cadbury's chocolate, and golden syrup-rich flapjacks - in my treasured food memories of childhood in England. Each spring, I'd look forward to the appearance of the soft, spiced, currant-studded buns, and spend the few weeks of their short season trying to enjoy as many of them as possible.

These days, the buns are sold practically year round, but they weren't always so ubiquitous. In fact, these doughy delights were actually banned by Oliver Cromwell during the Protectorate, when their religious/Catholic associations were considered a threat. I guess that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'dangerously good' (and I'll bet you didn't know you'd get a history lesson today)!

In all seriousness, though, the hot cross bun does have a fascinating history (you can read about it in greater detail here), and is surrounded by a whole host of interesting legends (you can read about them in greater detail here). Traditionally, the buns are prepared and eaten on Good Friday, as a celebration of the end of the Lenten season (i.e. "yay we can eat butter and sugar again - lets have some sticky-sweet buns to celebrate") and in preparation for the celebration of Easter (hence the cross). It's said that buns prepared and eaten on Good Friday will never mold, and that such buns, if kept, have all sorts of powers in the home. I'm not sure I'm willing to put these tales to the test, but I am willing to go out on a limb and say that you absolutely must make these buns this Easter.

I haven't been this pleased with a recipe in quite a while - to the extent that I didn't make even a single alteration. Of course, that's also because I spent hours (and I mean hours) searching for the perfect recipe beforehand. There seems to have been a surge in popularity of these treats Stateside in recent years, and while I'm sure that's a good thing, I wanted a version that would replicate, as exactly as possible, the hot cross buns of my British youth.

I pored over dozens of recipes before rejecting them on some grounds or other. Some had no currants, some had no sugar (everyone knows that hot cross buns are sweet, Nigella), and some were just tarted up cinnamon rolls (I'm looking at you, Pioneer Woman).

Let me just clear this up before we proceed: real hot cross buns don't have icing crosses. Ever. I'm not usually one to object to icing, but somehow it seems to go against the wholesome, traditional, and somewhat ascetic nature of these 'treats'. The real method is to use a paste of flour and water, with maybe a bit of sugar added in. That's all. Got it? (Sorry to be so dogmatic, but you don't mess with my hot cross buns - you just don't!).

Proper flour crosses before being baked into goldeny goodness

As you can see, I have high standards when it comes to hot cross buns. The more recipes I perused, the more I despaired of ever finding The One (apparently, I'm not the only one who's had this dilemma) - and then, suddenly, there it was. The perfect recipe for hot cross buns comes courtesy of a Sydney-based food blog called Citrus and Candy. The recipe is given in metric/by weight measurements, which is good news for authenticity and deliciousness, but bad news for the average American cook. I certainly hope you can find a scale and follow along - otherwise, here's a decent-looking recipe in imperial measurements (but be warned: I can't vouch for it's authenticity or deliciousness!).

If you're still reading, I'll assume you've decided to try the metric recipe. Congratulations, your world-of-hot-cross-buns is about to be rocked! This recipe turns out a dozen of the most perfectly spiced, perfectly moist buns, each of them generously studded with soft raisins and topped with a thin, perfectly shaped flour cross.

For those of you inexperienced in baking bread at home, this recipe also serves as a great initiation. There were several points at which I thought things might go wrong (my dough was very moist at first, my cross paste was a little thin, and I had to substitute strawberry-rhubarb jam for the more traditional apricot glaze), but yet the buns turned out absolutely perfect. Perhaps the rumors of divine protection are true, or perhaps it's just a really good recipe. Either way, I hope I've convinced you that you absolutely must make them: these buns really are dangerously good!
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The Ultimate Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies (with Coconut Oil)

Diposkan oleh faid on Minggu, 01 April 2012

I first shared these cookies last year, after my introduction to coconut oil, but they're such a festive favorite that I thought I'd share them again! Coconut oil is a healthier substitute for shortening and butter, so you can bake these for your Easter baskets without any guilt!

I know I've shared a few different Chocolate Chip Cookies on the blog (dark ones, light ones, fat ones, skinny ones - even famous ones) but I really can't rave about this recipe enough. If you love chewy cookies, you really can't do better than these - and the coconut oil will make your kitchen smell divine during baking (who needs a trip to Hawaii, right about now?).

While you can taste a hint of coconut in the dough, the flavor practically disappears as the baked cookies cool, which means the greatest difference is in the texture. I have yet to find a recipe that turns out such consistently soft cookies, even if you over bake them slightly as I did - in my opinion, that's high praise.

You can use ordinary chocolate chips for these cookies (I also think a White Chocolate-Macadamia Nut version would be out of this world!), but it's worth springing for the Easter M&Ms if you can get them - they're so pretty! Also, I'm fairly sure that pastel-colored calories don't count...but don't quote me on that, okay?

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Verdict: The Oracles of Kerala Photo Expedition-Workshop

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Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

"...the uniqueness of this photo expedition-workshop..."

That's how one of the group members started to express his satisfaction in having attended The Oracles Of Kerala Photo-Expedition-Workshop while bidding goodbye to me and the rest of the group.

Uniqueness! It's precisely what I strive for when I structure my itineraries and programs for my photo expeditions/workshops. Are all of those based on unique itineraries? Of course not...but most of them are. The Oracles Of Kerala Photo-Expedition-Workshop was based on two main Hindu religious festivals: Thirunakkara Arattu Utsavam, a 10-day temple festival, and the Kodungallur Bharani, a wild and unusual localized religious festival near Kochi. The former is a Hindu religious extravaganza with elephants, while the latter surpasses the famed Kumbh Mela in intensity. To my knowledge, no travel photographer has ever dared to conduct a photo trip/workshop covering these two festivals. 

This uniqueness of this photo expedition-workshop, as well as the positive group dynamics among its group members, certainly places it amongst the top three I have ever organized and led so far.

Spice Godown-Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Now cutting to the chase, here are the planned photo shoots that worked well:

1. The Fishermen of Punnapra. 
2. The Vedic School in Thrissur.
3. The Thirunakkara Arattu Utsavam Festival. (Drummers & elephants galore)
4. The Shadow Puppets near Cheruthuruthy. (Excellent!)
5. The Kathakali performance at the Kerala Kalamandalam. (Superb!)
6. The Kodungallur Bharani aka The Festival of Oracles. (Incredibly Intense).

Vedic Gurukul-Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Although the group members liked the photo shoot at the Mattencherry spice godowns, it was rather mundane, at least from my perspective. The photo shoot at the Kochi Chinese nets was passable. The photo shoot planned at the oldest mosque in India known as the Cheraman Juma Masjid was a total failure from a visual standpoint. Nothing of its original structure remains, and its artefacts are copies of the originals (lost or pilfered). I can add to this that no one can make non Muslim visitors feel more unwelcome to mosques as blinkered Islamic clerics. The short visit to the adjacent Islamic school was, in contrast, a pleasant experience with delightful young students.

I fault myself for not having double checked the information provided by our guide which resulted in our being late in attending the last day of the Thirunakkara Arattu Utsavam Festival. The local policemen saved the day by getting some of us through the throngs of people. They were very helpful, and wanted us to get to the best vantage points, and as close to the elephants as possible.

Logistically, the photo expedition worked well. All the hotels were of high standard (mostly in the 4-star category), and their staff were very helpful. I must mention here Mr Bijou, the restaurant manager at the ABAD Whispering Palms Resort, who is an encyclopedic source for Keralite religious festivals. I wished he had joined us on the trip. 

Temple Lighting-Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

It was a little disappointing that the ABAD Whispering Palms Resort in Kumarakom didn't have an alcohol license, but we nevertheless managed to procure the bottles of beer so necessary for our well-being after long photo shoots. That said, the hotel provided us with a conference room where we met daily to work on our slideshows, and edit our it more than made up for its lack of alcohol license!

The vehicle used to transport us was more than adequate, and was driven with skill by Haris Aziz, a delightful and reliable young man with a good sense of humor. He quickly became our group's go-to-man for whatever we needed. In contrast, the guide allocated to us by the local travel agent was ineffectual, and was out of depth. He was more suitable for elderly tourist groups interested in museums and history, not for a bunch of gung-ho travel photographers. I couldn't find it in me to fire him, but I should have. 

Lastly, it was immensely gratifying to witness how seriously all of the group members worked at their multimedia projects; often while exhausted. Two of the 7 photographers in the group had already attended my previous Kolkata workshop, so had a substantial head start but worked as diligently as the rest. One of us had an extremely uncooperative laptop that crashed frequently, but who never lost his sense of humor nor his interest in learning multimedia. 

To be assured that the 7 group members were fully familiar with SoundSlides and Audacity, I suggested they completed a 2-3 minutes multimedia project in less than 3 hours.

They did.
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