Dash of Vanilla.

A touch of spice in life.
Original photography and home cooking.
First day of Spring, and last of Dash of Vanilla. Thank you everyone.

First day of Spring, and last of Dash of Vanilla. Thank you everyone.

A Christmas Story

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The tree’s been set up - the lights go on when the guests enter - symbolically bringing  light into the world on this special eve. Santa’s clearly miscalculated and deposited the presents designated for an entire school under our tree.

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In the kitchen, it’s been steaming and cooking for days.

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The table’s been set - ever with a silvery sparkle on the frosty freshness of white table cloth. Traditionally, Christmas is never dominated by red and green - a true welcome comes on the luxury of snow-white table cloth and the subtlety of silver decorations not to dim the colours of the dishes.

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Who doesn’t love a bit of IKEA on every occasion (napkins).

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With an innovative snowflake twist (I used IKEA’s snowflake garlands on twistable wires) to brighten up the sky. We decided to keep to the age-long theme - never failing like good wine - white and sparkling.

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All 12 dishes present - as on every previous Dash-of-Vanilla Christmas. Only the main ingredient missing at the table: the family.

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Arguably an overload of citrus, but since there won’t be any rum and cokes going on in this area, you might as well squeeze in as much as you can. 

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A personal favourite when it comes to garnishing salads. Simply cut an apple in 6 wedges, and with a sharp knife cut out a zig-zag ragged edge along the sides. Lastly, pierce the skin on top of each wedge, and peel off a sharp-ended oval shape, as shown below. A poinsettia flower of sorts. 

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And of course - what would a Polish Christmas meal be without fish (arguably, not much, since meat is not eaten tonight).

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So with special wishes from the cat…

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…with all the gleam, glisten, glitter and glow - Merry Christmas, and Let it Snow.

A STROLL BEFORE BREAKFAST (2)

Yet another post from the series “Wake up in the morning feeling like…”

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Down in another direction from the centre, here is the Isis, a part of the Thames above the Iffley lock which cuts through the city. It’s late enough to have missed the high traffic hour for Oxford rowers shuffling out of their college boathouses around 5 in the morning.

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The outdoor pub, The Head of the River (http://www.headoftheriveroxford.co.uk) has to be one of the coolest pubs of all time. Framed in black iron and heavy oakwood, it has the quaint atmosphere, matched by the warm winter cider scent and banter in the air.

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When you’re courage is all up, ready to face yet another beautiful shot of an English breakfast in all of its glory? 

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The sausage does look more crispy and there is unfalsifiable evidence of grilling on the bacon and tomatoes. As ever, baked beans.

A STROLL BEFORE BREAKFAST. (1)

Here’s a morning stroll around the city of Oxford on a crisp late-Autumn morning.

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The Thames footpath, many a stroller can be met making the pointless journey along the river to the end bridge and back. You’d think these are the best and brightest.

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A view from Broad Street, right next to the infamous Hertford college. Sandwiched between the Bodleian Library and the Sheldonian Theatre, it’s a place as cultured as yoghurt.

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In Catte Street (pronounced “cat” which is oh-so-fitting for the venue of the morning strolls of Simpkin, the Hertford college cat, for 9 generations now legend has it). 

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The shot of “St.Helen’s Passage”, despite the great timing, in no way reflects upon the behaviour of people to be found on Oxford’s streets. Right below the “Bridge of Sighs”, this passage leads directly to the Turf Tavern. The “Turf” is a lovely pub in the back of my quad, which used to be a favourite of CS Lewis, Margaret Thatcher and Churchill on nights out. And for a signature fun fact - apparently when out on a Friday night at a pub, Oxford has the world’s highest saturation of IQ points per square meter. 

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And finally - the quad of Herftord college in its full morning glory. The vines retain the multi-colour all year round, and the grass is not to be stepped on.

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Student life doesn’t allow elaborate cooking early in the morning. Alas, Hall food bound,   here is a fine specimen of an English breakfast. It’s on my list of biggest challenges between passing Oxford exams and facing chuck Norris. 

STUDENT ESSENTIALS: RELISH THE PUNS.

One salad with a view, to stay, please. 

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A university life essential as I soon found out - a stock of Sainsbury’s value green leaves and carrot, some tomatoes, white cheese, olive oil and salt. 

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To elevate it to the status of Sainsbury’s special, I always grow a pot of basil in my room. It kills the smell of books (waiting to be read after the deadline) and student laundry (waiting, too). Makes you feel like Jamie Oliver back in the student days - arguably, not a bad thing. If you’re in a pickle when it comes to growing herbs - some other easily stored ingredients include green peppers, red cabbage and marinated olives.

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You may be thinking, that it mustard taste better with some sauce. Keep it nude though, and sprinkle some basil, pepper and minced garlic over the top with a dash of olive oil. It really boils down to a choice between white or parmesan cheese for sprinkling. Can’t decide on the grater of the two toppings? I find white cheese much butter. 

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Though it’s fresh and cold, as the winter mornings here, it keeps you out of hot water when in need of quick meal. Look at that view. Goes well with Ketchup in the Rye.

THE POTATO-DUMPLING TRADE OFF.

What’s the potato-dumping trade off? Do you have to somehow eliminate one to chose the other, so as to avoid a starchy filling bowl of side dishes for dinner? It appears that in Poland, there is no trade off. Here’s a recipe for potato dumplings - “kopytka”

Ingredients: 1kg boiled in brine potatos, a few spoonfuls of flour (this will depend on the type of potato, but roughly, 1/4 of the total mass of the poatoes should be equaled by the flour), 1 egg, salt to taste.

Directions: Start of by mashing the potatoes (it helps if they have cooled down, as they will stick together less) ensuring that no thick parts remain - it’s crucial that the potatoes are smooth as they will serve as the basic foundation for the dumplings!

Some recipes also call for a spoon or two of potato starch, which absorbs water, so in the case of an excessively sticky dough, P.S. is your man.

Add the flour, egg (and a pinch of salt if desired) to the potato bowl, and stir well until a smooth dough forms. Make sure that there are no grits of flour or potato by passing the dough between your fingers. 

Use a little extra flour for the surface you’ll be working on, to disable to dough from sticking to it. Form the dough into a long log shape (about 4cm thick), but don’t worry, the sides don’t have to be perfectly uniform. 

Next, with a sharp knife, slice the log with diagonal cuts, so that dumplings, somewhat like a rhobmus in shape, are formed. 

Heat a large pot of salty water and throw in the dumplings one by one. Make sure they don’t stick to each other while bouncing on the bubbles, and wait for all of them to surface and bob around for a bit on top. 

Remove them with a skimmer, and place on a wooden board to cool. Essentially, bon appetit, they’re ready for consumption. That’s only theory though.

In practise, they’ll be indescribably better tasting once you wait for them to cool down a bit, and fry them up with some butter on a pan. That gives them a crispy outer buttery layer, while keeping the inside compact and warm. 

Goes perfectly with last weeks zrazy!

RAINBOW MEAT ROLLS - “ZRAZY”

A Polish traditional dish, oh yes, another post from that series. Don’t you just love the colours?

All the ingredients are really arbitrary, so if you add a little more of less, it’ll only affect the final quantity of the dish. For basic ratio guidlines, stick to my photos, and feel free to make any fraction of my dish.

Ingredients: a few thin good-quality beef steaks, a small pack of california dried plums, around 100g of smoked bacon, salt/pepper to taste, and…

Cucumbers pickled in brine too, of course! they can be store bought, but if you’re feeling rather fancy and happen to have a few kg of earth-cucumbers and a collection of glass jars - the link to my family recipe is for you.

Onions, to enhance the flavour of the meat- peeled and chopped.

Directions: Start off by placing a fair share of pickles, plum, onion and bacon on each beef cutlet. Make sure you’ll be able to fold each one easily without the contents spilling out. Pepper each piece to taste.

A key tip - DON’T USE SALT AT THIS STAGE! Salt will make the meat rigid while cooking, rather than allowing it to grow tender. Worry not, salt will be added at the end of the process to the sauce. 

Take special care to close each meat roll with a piece of thin string or a toothpick- these are both easy to remove before or while serving later.

Fry the rolls in butter until the outside is nicely browned - this will allow you to seal in all the juices before cooking, ensure that you won’t end up with soup (where all the good stuff is let out into the broth, leaving the meat insipid at times. 

Transfer the meat rolls to a thick cooking pot in which they will be slowly stewed.

Next, fry a batch of chopped onion in butter, and cover the meat with it.

Pour a few cups of water, just enough to cover the onion and meat, and slowly simmer until a brothy-oniony soup forms, and the meat is thoroughly cooked and juicy. 

Best served with bubkwheat porridge or potatoe dumplings to accomodate the already colourful flavours of the meat  - the deep velvety meat, sweet plum, tangy pickle and salty bacon give you an original twist on a beef cutlet. 

PLUM’S THE WORD.

Tis the season for plums again - purple plentifully growing out of the golden Autumn landscape.  I’ve recently been treated to the world’s likely-best plum pie, so without further ado, here’s the spotlight and plum’s the word:

DULCHE DE LECHE & FRUIT TARTALETTES.

Last colours of summer on the horizon, and a beautiful dessert to say goodbye to the greens and pinks of summer, and say hello to the oranges and reds of autumn

The fruity-caramel cups are made of three ingredients, or layers, if you will. First comes the crispy buttery cup - preferably not too sweet, as a neutral base to hold the richer filling. Click here for a recipe for the dough, which can be formed into any shape - ranging from mini tartalettes, largers tarts and huge tartosauruses. 

Next, oh how so predictably, comes the dulche de leche cream. For beginners, dulche de leche is a type of caramel sauce, traditionally home made from condensed or fresh milk boiled with sugar until it thickens. I’ve made this before for the blog, so here’s once again a link to the recipe, and mouthwatering photos for the brave.

You could also be as lazy as Nigela, and simply purchase a pre-made caramel/dulche de leche sauce, and combine it with a few spoons of butter, to thicken the cream and give it a smooth velvet finish. 

Place a generous spoon-full of the gooey golden goodness into each pastry cup, to allow a soft peak, yet not for the dulche de leche to overflow down the sides. Wouldn’t want to force the whole party into a frenzy of plate licking. 

And lastly, go imaginative with the fruit. You can use whichever summer, autumn, winter or spring fruits you find. I’ve opted for strabwerries, blue and black berries, as well as plum slices and mint leaves. Every fruit may be chopped up, placed whole, or even pureed and splashed on top.

You’ll find that a crispy green accent of mint or strawberry stalk adds an unbelievable amount of sophistication to the dish. The magic of the mint lays in its transcience - it’s as fragile and quick-to-collapse-or-bend as one of those paper Zara bags. The whole swag of a dish is how fresh it is, and how specially made and preserved for the occassion. Funny how all that’s embodied by a green blade.

Here’s a last idea if you’re aiming for a colour overload - to decorate the plate on which the dish’s set out, a fruit-flower creation. any round fruit may be nicely sliced into 8 equal pieces, keeping them joined at the bottom. Make sure the leaves/fruits you place inside are smalled than the main fruit structure, and play with the colours!

HIPSTER FRUIT.

It is a sad time of the year when the kitchen starts getting hot, but the colours of food gradually fade out into the raw landscape. This is a comforting closing trip to the local fruit market to witness the richness of the late summer and early autumn goodies, and preserve them over the winter in jars, spice and…jewelry boxes.

There’s fruit punch in season:

Followed by the icons of the season, emblematic in their rich profusion of pink, berries.

Broken up by a tangy twist of citrus, foretelling the autumn season, stepping on our coat tails, as we meander round the market.

And lastly, the vivid palette of devilish spice to sweet bell peppers - the ultimate winter roulette for daredevils, when it comes to popping one into your soup.

Wish you could keep these beauties with you all year round.

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