Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sugarland

The last two weeks have been all sugar, all the time.

I've been hard at work on my pulled sugar rose, and it's really encouraging since it feels like there's definite improvement the more I work with it. Thankfully, we had ample time to practice before our assessment at the end of the sugar module.

The actual assessment was pretty low key, and we had loads of time to form a rose and three leaves. Most people had enough time to make more than one. I made two, and I hemmed and hawed a bit about which one to present, but I think I chose the right one.

My very first sugar rose (over cooked due to wonky thermometer, hence the yellow colour):


My final rose for the assessment:


I didn't have long to relax as our centrepiece assessment was the following day. Luckily for me, we had another practice session after my first disaster, and I was pretty pleased with what I managed to produce. 


I tweaked a few things in my plan for my piece for the assessment, but of course things didn't go according to plan. My arm caught on my large background piece, and the thing fell over and smashed to bits. I rescued what I could, and I had to rethink how I was going to put all the pieces together. Fortunately, I managed to cobble something together that wasn't horrifying and showed six different techniques of poured sugar.


The small blue piece on the right is the salvaged piece, and I was a bit sad since it was my favourite. It had swirls of blue, violet, and green, with a clear piece on top to mimic a foaming wave. Sad.

In any case, I'm glad that the assessments are done, and now I could play with sugar at home! One of the chefs managed to finagle me an awesome deal on a proper sugar lamp, and now I've got one at home!


I still need a few more things, but I'm really excited to play around with things on my free time at home. Sugar is no joke, most of the kids in my class really, really hated it. It's very difficult and demanding work, and there's always the fear of something shattering beyond repair. However, the nice thing is that it does feel like you're improving the more you work with it and understand how it behaves. 

I'm eager to see if I could improve on my ribbon and blown sugar on my own time. We had some fun sessions where we just made some stuff that weren't going to be on the assessment.

My blown apple (it's hard to tell from the pic, but the thing turned out to be a monster!):


And I think I'll work some more on my ribbon. The one I did in class was just silly looking - word to the wise, it's better for just one person to pull sugar. Especially if the other person hates sugar work.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Back to the Real World

Summer's over, which means it's back to business as usual in London. Everyone's back from their August holidays, and the city feels like its usual self again - busy, hectic, and on-the-go.


Luckily for us, things didn't kick up to high gear straight away, so J and I had time to join a gym to try to undo some of the damage of being fat and happy. The pitfalls of a happy marriage is an ever expanding waistline and a preference for a cuddle on the sofa watching Sherlock over a workout at the gym. But we're working on it and going to the gym together has become our new weekend activity.


We may have undone all of our hard work when we went out to Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental in Kensington to celebrate J's birthday. But we agree, it was worth it! We went there last year, and it has firmly cemented itself as J's favourite restaurant. It's a good thing we go only once a year, as I don't think I would like to have more chins in addition to the one I've got.



I also made a cake to celebrate the occasion. J told me he just wanted something chocolatey, which isn't really much to go on. I ended up making a chocolate cake with chocolate mousse and ganache with a salted caramel glaze and a toasted italian meringue topping. Whew. I dropped it by J's office, and I got a good workout just from carrying that cake around. It was ridiculously heavy, but everyone said it was yum so I guess it was worth having my arms just about fall off.


Autumn also means I'm back in school to finish up my last term at Le Cordon Bleu. I was originally planning on returning in January, but I got a bit anxious to get back and finish the damn thing so I decided to return at the last minute. My old classmates just graduated, so I'm joining a different group.

I'm really lucky as the new group turned out to be lots of fun, and it made the transition a lot easier. Most of them are fast-trackers, which means that they've been doing the same course as us regular folk but on a compressed schedule. Everything we've done in six months, they've done in three! But everyone has to go on the same schedule for the last bit, Superior term, so we're now all in the same boat. This term is a bit different from previous terms in that we no longer have demonstrations followed by practicals. Now, we go straight to the kitchen for a workshop, which consists of a short demo and lots more time with hands-on work.

We started our term with the sugar module, which is focused on creating centrepieces made with pulled/ poured/ blown sugar. It's really, really hot work. You're cooking sugar to really high temperatures and working under a heat lamp most of the time, which means I've been sweating buckets. I'm pretty sure my partner must be grossed out by the puddle of sweat at my feet at the end of every workshop. Oh well, some things just can't be helped.

My hands were really red and raw after the first day of pulling sugar, but things have improved with the addition of a few things - cotton gloves with multiple layers of latex gloves on top, with a set of rubber dishwashing gloves on top for when the sugar is really hot. I'm actually pretty happy with the pulled sugar rose that I've made, but I think there's still some room for improvement.

First attempt.

Second attempt.

Most recent attempt.

The poured sugar centrepiece was a complete fail the first time around. My thermometer was going bonkers, and I ended up overcooking the sugar, which meant it took on a ugly brownish tone. That wasn't so bad, and I managed to rescue it with some food colouring, but then the whole thing kind of slowly keeled over when I wasn't looking. I'm not sure if it was the humidity or if the sugar was too soft from overzealous blowtorching. Sigh. I'm looking forward to next week when we get to have another go at it, and I've got a brand new thermometer all ready to go.  Fingers crossed!

Here's what chef made to give us an idea of all the different techniques we can use in poured sugar.


I got to keep chef's centrepiece, so I took it to J's office so he could use it to decorate his shelves. People do tend to look at you funny when you're carrying a sugar sculpture through the city on the tube, just as a warning. 




A Wedding in Paradise

There was nothing on the schedule for Saturday, other than the wedding later in the afternoon, so J and I had a chance to sleep in and enjoy breakfast before heading out to the city to explore. We got a map from the concierge that outlined a historical walking route, and we started out in the hot and humid weather to see what we could see.

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Cartagena is absolutely beautiful, and most of the colonial architecture is still intact even though some of the buildings are in desperate need of repair. The colours suit the Caribbean climate, and the profusion of flowers growing on the balconies lend a romantic air to the city.

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There are lots of open plazas scattered throughout the city, and we came upon one that was charmingly populated with metal sculptures.

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The city itself is surrounded by a wall, with the ocean just outside the perimeter, and you can see people hanging out on the walkway on the wall.

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The only fly in the ointment is the constant barrage of solicitations. And it really is constant - it gets really tiring to keep turning vendors away, and some of them don't take it well that you're not interested in whatever they're selling.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the hotel to get ready for the wedding! I think we all scrubbed up rather well!

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The wedding ceremony was to take place on the solarium of the hotel, and it was beautifully decorated in white flowers.

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And the view? Amazing!

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We weren't waiting long before the beautiful bride made her entrance. She was just glowing, and my uncle looked so happy to be walking her down the aisle.

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It was a lovely and emotional ceremony, and it ended with the guests throwing white rose petals over the happy couple as they walked back down the aisle as newlyweds.

We all then marched out into the city for a parade! Yup, a parade. We were led by a quartet of musicians and a group of dancers throughout the city as we all cheered and boogied down the streets.

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And we paraded for a while! My feet were killing me from walking in heels on cobblestone, so I held onto J the entire time. We made it all the way to the city walls before turning back to the hotel!

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Then it was time for a well-earned rest poolside where we downed drinks and nibbled on delicious local specialties before the actual reception.

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The reception was great fun, and the food was amazing! We ate until we couldn't budge and had a great time hanging out with our family. We were much too full to participate in the dancing that followed after, and we called it a night after watching the newlyweds cut the cake and dance their first dance.

The next morning, we were all packed and ready to return to the airport to fly back to Bogota, then on to Madrid, then finally to London. Whew!

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It was a lovely trip, and everything I could have hoped for. Colombia is a beautiful and amazing country that has such a great variety of things to offer. I never felt unsafe the entire time I was there. I was glad to have a smattering of Spanish, as I think it would've been much more difficult otherwise. Everyone we came across was so accommodating and patient with our struggles with the language, and I would definitely return in a heartbeat.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cartagena and a Party Boat to Baru Island

We weren't quite ready to leave Pereira, but it was time to head back to the airport and fly to Cartagena for my cousin's wedding!

There were no direct flights to Cartagena, so we had to fly back to Bogota and then on to Cartagena, which meant another full day of traveling. Whew. However, we arrived in Cartagena in one piece, and we were hit with the shock of landing on the tarmac at Cartagena airport. It was so hot and humid that it felt like we just entered a giant gym sock. 

I started sweating right away, and we were beyond relieved to find the driver that our cousin had arranged for us. Our hotel, Casa San Agustin, was just a short distance away, and it was probably the poshest of all of our accommodations so far.

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I started sweating right away again as soon as we got out of the air-conditioned car, but the hotel lobby was a bit cooler. The welcome drink really helped!

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We got upgraded for the night for an incredible room, which was bigger than our flat in London! It was a two bedroom, two bathroom suite with double terraces and a jacuzzi! The place was filled with flowers, fruit, and patisserie. I got a bit worried about how I was ever going to get J to leave the room.

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My older brother and sister-in-law had also arrived in Cartagena that day, and they came over to meet us at the hotel so we could have dinner together. The hotel restaurant was fantastic, and it was the tail-end of their honeymoon so we got to hear all about their visit to St. Lucia. It was really nice catching up with them, especially since J hadn't been able to go to their wedding.

We couldn't stay up too late, as we had to wake up early for the boat cruise that our cousin had arranged for all of the wedding guests. We woke up in plenty of time to have some coffee and slather on some sunblock before we all headed outside to walk outside the city walls to head toward our boat. I probably should've waited to put on the sunblock as I think I sweated it off by the time we got to our boat, along with five pounds of water weight.

I'll admit that I was a bit disappointed that this wasn't our ride for the day. I have a feeling I would've made a good pirate.

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But the actual yacht more than made up for it. We had an hour long cruise to get to our final destination, and we got the chance to hang out with the rest of my cousins who had also come to Cartagena for the wedding.

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Before we knew it, we were pulling up to Baru Island for the day on a dinghy. The change in the water was dramatic and sudden - it went from dark blue to a clear turquoise!

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We were immediately greeted by a barrage of beach vendors pressing necklaces and oysters on us. They were pretty aggressive, but we were forewarned so we did our best to let them know that we weren't interested. It was pretty annoying for the first hour or so we were there as they kept coming by with trinkets and whatnot, and it actually put me off of buying anything even if I did want something. 

Everyone jumped into the water as soon as possible and didn't come out until it was time for lunch.

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Then it was straight back into the water until it was time to set sail back to Cartagena just in time to catch the sunset from the boat. It was pretty epic.

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We were all pretty sunburned and exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel, but we had to wash up so we could head out to rehearsal dinner, which our cousin opened up to all of the wedding guests. We enjoyed posto while watching the local dancers perform for us with lots of costume changes and live music. It was great fun!

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J got off pretty easy as it was our five year wedding anniversary, and he didn't have to plan a thing for us to have an absolutely amazing day! I still can't believe we've been married for that long, but time really does fly when you're having fun! In that time, we've moved to London, bought and sold our first home, seen a lot of things in a lot of different places, and added two furballs to our family. J made partner at his firm, and I'm finishing up pastry school. Life has been so incredibly good to the both of us, and I'm unbelievably thankful for everything.








Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Pereira, The Heart of Coffee

We were ready to leave the city behind to continue our holiday in a less hectic environment, so we flew into Pereira, the capital of the Coffee Zone, which was just a short flight away.


We took a taxi to a hacienda on the outskirts of town, the Hacienda San Jose. The hotel was built in 1888, and the owners have kept it in excellent repair and true to its original design. The place is drop dead gorgeous! It really felt like we dropped into paradise.

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We spent the first afternoon splashing around in the pool and pigging out on local goodies like arepas, which are corn pancakes, and bean casserole. It was pretty excellent.

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We were asleep before 9 pm, which was just as well as we had arranged for a tour of Valle de Cocora and Salento for the next day. Our guide and driver met us early the next morning to drive us to the Valle, which is home to the wax palm tree. It's the second tallest tree in the world, and the only palm that can grow insuch high altitudes. It's the first cloud forest I've seen in person, and the place feels ethereal.

We met with the local environmentalist, and we had the opportunity to plant our very own wax palm, which is currently endangered. Now a little bit of a Colombia belongs to us!

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We were also greeted by the local restaurant owner with a glass of the local speciality, las cabazelas. It's a hot drink made with passion fruit, cinnamon, cloves, orange juice, panela (sugarcane water) and a drop of aguardiente (the local firewater). J was brave and opted to have the aguardiente added to his drink. It was a great way to warm up before we hopped onto our horses.

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We had an hour ride through the valley, and the terrain was quite rocky and rough. I really enjoyed the ride, especially splashing through the streams, but my butt ended up paying for it as it was quite sore for a while from the saddle. I do miss my horse, Crisol.

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We returned to the restaurant where we sat down for lunch, which was a Colombian version of fish and chips, fried rainbow trout and crispy plantain. It was yum! Especially since I had mine doused in garlic butter. J was quite jealous.

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We got to watch a wayward cow as we ate, and it was better entertainment than what's on tv these days!

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Refreshed from lunch, we got back in the car to visit Salento, a nearby town that still retains its old colonial charm. 

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J drank lots of cappuccinos, and we walked around a bit on the high street, buying a few souvenirs and checking out the local architecture.

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Unfortunately, the heavens opened and the rain just came pouring down. We ended up cutting our visit short due to the rain, but J did manage to sneak in a cheeky cappuccino before we left to head back to the hotel.



The spoils of the day!



All in all, a pretty packed day! We were happy to return to our room, wash off the horse smell, eat, and sleep. 

We were meant to visit a coffee plantation the next day, but the hacienda we were staying at was just too tempting. The place is tailor made for sitting around and doing absolutely nothing.

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We decided instead to stay put and enjoy everything the hacienda offered. Not the least of which included Josh! 


I explored the grounds, which is chock full of beautiful birds I've never seen before, along with the familiar hummingbirds. 

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There's also a really chill resident parrot! The front desk warned us that she might not be friendly, but we ended up having a great time with her. She would mimic everything we said, including our laughs, or she would make sounds like "corre corre." She was adorable!

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There's also an absolutely huge saman tree, which was beyond tempting to climb, but I restrained myself. With my luck, I'd probably get stuck up there with a nest of insanely huge and unbelievably hairy spiders.

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Instead of getting treed, I spent lots of time splashing around in the pool, while J barely looked up from his Kindle.

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We were both sunburned and mosquito bitten by the end of the day, but I think this was the kind of holiday J was dreaming about.

I've got to say, he's been quite a good sport of going along with all of my travel suggestions. Although he did shoot down my plan of going to the Amazon, which I'm still a bit bummed out about. But I'll live. Which might not be true if I did go to the Amazon, which is filled with piranha, anacondas, and something called a willy bug. Yeah, I can't figure out why J didn't want to go. Shrug.