i made fairy cakes

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Challenge: Sugar-Free Seventh Week

I love sugar. But I have come to realize that it does not love me back. It is detrimental to my energy, athleticism, and general health. The annoying thing is, sugar is so beautifully presented: carefully decorated cakes, enticing ice cream sundaes drizzled with chocolate sauce, brightly colored candy shoppe sweets…Not only does it taste delicious, but the treat looks like a treat.

But this week, the seventh week of term, I will resist. I have tried similar experiments, the most recent of which was the “no sugar except on special occasions” rule, which was decided upon in order to allow myself to enjoy halfway hall and baking climbing cookies, but turned into “it’s sunny outside, so that’s a special occasion to have ice cream.” No. There are no such occasions this week, so I shall resist. I will even skip my weekly pub cake on Wednesday and my traditional pre-tutorial affogatos. It’s just one week. A little experiment of my self-control with the added health benefit.

I’m announcing this publicly so that many people can hold me to it, or even help me through it. So don’t go offering me chocolate. That would be mean.

So here we go: Sunday through Saturday, no sugar. The fast will be broken with climbing truffles at the Lakes this weekend.

 

Food Review: Atomic Burger Breakfast

At afternoon tea with Sara the other day she said that she loves Midnight in Paris because it reminds her of why she is her and likes the things she likes. And I was like, yes. That film does that, and that is what draws me to it so much that I’m considering seeing it in cinemas for the third time.

Atomic Burger, one of my favorite local restaurants in Oxford, provides the same feeling of comfort and understanding – dining there feels very Midnight in Paris-worthy me. This morning David and I enjoyed our first Atomic Burger breakfast experience. They have actual American pancakes – a rarity in the UK, and frustratingly so, as “pancakes” often means “crepes” here. Just…no! – so obviously we had to try them.

Atomic Burger is like a more genuine Disney World. It’s like Comic Con in foodie form. (David and I were so consumed by nerd culture that we had to watch The Big Bang Theory afterwards to fulfill the need to act as we ate.).

Since we were the first to arrive, promptly at 10am opening (still a late breakfast for me, but it was so worth the wait), we got our choice of any table. So we chose the one beneath Spider-Man.

The tables are simple but oh so casual comfort food cool.

And the menus is just as fun. All of the dish names refer to pop culture, and I seriously factor these names into my ordering process. David and I both went for Peanuts-inspired dishes: the Charlie Brown Buttermilk Pancakes and the Snoopy & Woodstock Pancakes.

While we waited for the food to arrive, we were entertained by the collection of nerdtastic stuff surrounding us and the TV screen that played clips from iconic films. Including The Jungle Book.

I also ordered a banana milkshake, which arrived with a curly straw and was SO PERFECTLY DELICIOUS. Definitely ordering it again. Look how happy I am.

And then the pancakes arrived. I hadn’t had proper pancakes in MONTHS so this was a momentous occasion.

Mmmm. They certainly served the purpose of fulfilling my long-term craving for pancakes. The portion size is also refreshingly manageable, which surprised me considering the massive burger portions, and the restaurant’s infamous Godzilla Challenge (which I WILL complete, and soon, in the veggie variety). I personally prefer fluffier pancakes, but these were nonetheless Tasty Tuesday-tastic.

Atomic Burger is quiet in the morning, although the staff is friendly and engaging as usual, and the atmosphere still shines through, even without the restaurant’s characteristic evening buzz of overcrowded chatter. The perfect way to start my work week, I’m definitely becoming a regular at the fantastic nostalgic Atomic Burger.

HALLOWEEK: Candy-Eating Confusion

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I haven’t eaten candy in a long time. Removing candy from my diet wasn’t really a conscious decision; I just didn’t have immediate access to it and didn’t go out of my way to get it. As part of Halloweek, however, I decided to eat some candy to celebrate. On Sunday I had a toffee apple (yeah I’m going to count that). On Monday I had some Cadbury buttons. On Tuesday I had a Mars bar.

I thought that since I hadn’t had candy in such a long time my taste buds would thank me immensely. Instead, my teeth screamed at me and my taste buds were under-enthusiastic.  The toffee was so sweet that I was more excited about the apple. The buttons were a bit dry and flavorless. The caramel in the Mars bar was overwhelming.

I guess months of incorporating plain apples and pumpkin seeds into my snacking diet have made candy taste just as unappealing to me as soda does. Believe me, I never thought this would happen.

Especially because I eat my fair share of sugar, in the form of baked goods, ice cream, and hot chocolate. I still like cookies, perhaps a bit too much, but, though it baffles me, maybe it’s time to say goodbye to candy.

Delicious iced cookie I ate today from Nash’s Bakery :)

Food Structures My Day

Sometimes my workspace looks so picturesque I have to take a picture. At Oxfork I suppose it’s difficult to defy the picturesque. Check out those plates.

Joshua from The Minimalists suggests this mantra:

Food is not entertainment, it is nourishment.

As much as I tried to adopt this mantra, I’ve accepted that I can’t. Food is entertainment for me. But that doesn’t mean that health and entertainment cannot complement each other. I read about nutrition for fun. I prefer savoring an elegant appetizer to snacking on a bag of crisps in front of the tv (although I do have a bowl of museli with my morning dose of YouTube…). I love trying new recipes and paring down the butter and cheese to just the amount I need.

When I have a day of studying ahead of me, I must still break for food, so naturally these breaks make the food enjoyable, something to look forward to. I aim to eat exactly what I truly crave and need, not too much or too little. It isn’t always easy, but I try to focus on enjoying food, bite by bite. Delicious.

Soya Isn’t Scary!

Just when I thought being a vegetarian was healthy enough I found out that dairy products can be just as bad as meat. Sigh. And I thought milk and eggs were good for me. And well, they are. They’re much better options than some foods, but they are also not ideal. I didn’t quite get it, so I googled “What’s wrong with dairy?” and found this helpful article, which presents it most simply: human beings are not cows. Food is complicated.

My main health goal at the moment is to transition all of my eating habits to healthier, more ethical ones. I am doing this in small manageable shifts, such as poaching eggs for breakfast instead of frying them, and storing a bar of dark chocolate in my desk drawer rather than milk chocolate. These small steps empower me and make me slightly more healthy every day.

Sometimes a small shift isn’t always possible, and a larger one is required to move to the next level. Years ago I switched from 2% milk to skimmed milk, and from there the next step is…soya. I had never had soya, but it doesn’t have the most enthusiastic following from your average dairy-consumer. After a couple of weeks of thinking of maybe trying it, I decided to buy a carton on my latest Tesco run.

This morning I poured the soy milk into my bowl of muesli, not knowing what to expect. It was like trying a veggie burger for the first time, or my first sip of the spinach-based energy drink The Green Monster. These foods were so foreign to me because a. I had never tried them, and b. they carry unfortunate reputations of being weird, earthy people food.

While I am not in love with soya, it is still good! I can definitely get used to drinking it instead of milk occasionally – perhaps just for breakfast at first – which is great because it is so healthy. I was surprised by how sweet it tastes. A palate familiar skim milk must acclimate to the flavor! Most of all, I’m glad that I tried it, and making that extra effort to take care of my body is worth it physically and mentally.

 

Tea for Two: Reviews of TLSee (Swissôtel the Howard), The Chocolate Bar (Harrods), & St James Restaurant (Fortnum & Mason)

The very first time I came to England, the thing I anticipated most was afternoon tea. I love tea, food, presentation, and atmosphere, all of which adds up to the perfect afternoon of relaxing deliciousness. Over the years I have visited many a tea house, and now consider myself a connoisseur of the concept. In this new segment, tea for two, I will review afternoon tea venues and include comments from my partner in tea-ing.

Last weekend my mom and I tried three tea places in London. Here are our thoughts! [Note: a lot of our opinions cross over even though we didn’t read each other’s reviews before writing our own!]

TLSee at the Mauve Lounge at Swissôtel the Howard

Xandra: This swanky venue offers a Classic Afternoon Tea with champagne options. They call themselves “a new afternoon tea concept,” clearly pushing the edgy modern side of high tea, as evident from the shiny black surroundings, plush armchairs, and clear tea cups. Overall a nice place to celebrate something fancy, but they seem like amateurs in the tea business – the service was friendly enough, but a bit off, with servers appearing to lack confidence in handling teapots and not knowing how to fit plates onto the tables. Nonetheless, the food was very good, and the tea among the best I have tasted – I sampled the chocolate tea and my mom the caramel – both just the right blend of bitter and sweet. Afternoon tea is supposed to be a “light afternoon snack,” and while these days it can be far more filling than that, TLSee pushes this to the limit. We were both quite hungry when we were seated, but still only finished about half of the food provided, and unlike other venues, the staff were very reluctant to let us take leftovers with us. The London-inspired cookies kept nicely, however, and were probably the highlight of the visit. They are offered on the menu a la carte, and I would certainly visit again for some cookies and tea without the excessive albeit delicious sandwiches and treats that came with the Classic Afternoon.

Tea: 4/5
Food: 4/5
Service: 2/5
Ambiance: 4/5
Average: 3/5

Mama: The service did not quite equate the delicious treats, tea, and the beautiful mohair furniture with contemporary flair. The cutout cookies of London were nice for tourists like us – you can order cookies a la carte with tea after dining elsewhere.

Tea: 4/5
Food: 4/5
Service: 1/5
Ambiance: 3/5
Average: 3/5

Cost of Classic Afternoon Tea: £32/person

The Chocolate Bar at Harrods

Xandra: Harrods. Now famous for being a massive department store that sells everything imaginable, it’s sometimes hard to remember that it started out as a tea merchant that expanded to food halls that expanded to…everything else. There are several afternoon teas to experience at Harrods, and on this visit we visited the one I would recommend as a must-visit to chocoholics: The Chocolate Bar. Luxury hot chocolates and afternoon tea sandwiches and pastries (the actual sandwiches are much daintier, but our server was kind enough to accommodate my vegetarianism by substituting in a delicious panini!). Mom and I had enough foresight to request one portion to share, and it was just the right about for the two of us. The pastry dish in particular was delectable – the standout option being the green macaron. I tried the Ecuador hot chocolate, rich with an orange twist, while Mama sampled two different singles. The Chocolate Bar’s dedication to flavor and preciseness is commendable! This lovely establishment treads between casual and fancy – really anything goes, as it is in the middle of a department store, but still takes care to provide the best in the world of chocolate.

Tea [Hot Chocolate]: 5/5
Food: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 3/5
Average: 4/5

Mama: This is the perfect tea outing for all ages and genders since it’s reasonably-priced and there’s a hot chocolate substitute. They were so accommodating to substitute the sandwiches! I would order the creamy white chocolate tea [the Trinidad], but in the small size, then try a lighter one for a second small cup.


Tea [Hot Chocolate]: 5/5
Food: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 3/5
Average: 4/5

Cost of Chocolate Afternoon Tea: £25/person, sharing options

St James Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason

 

Xandra: By far the most immersive of the three, the St James Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason provides the elegance and sophistication that high tea deserves. Impeccably gracious service, some of the the best sandwiches (delicious vegetarian option!) and pastries I’ve ever sampled, and delicate matching china created the tea experience I so crave. With just one catch: the tea. I ordered the Regency blend, which was bland and uninspired despite a promising description. Mama ordered the classic afternoon tea blend, which was fine, but no better than a Twinings tea bag. Quite disappointing considering how perfect the rest of our visit was! Everything else about this venue is about detail – the descriptions and explanations on the menu add a careful touch – and the room itself is a charming treat. Perfect for a special, calming afternoon, I can only hope that there is a much better tea option on that menu.

Tea: 1/5
Food: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 5/5
Average: 4/5

Mama: The right English tea experience with a traditional feel – what we looked for while in London. My first cup of tea was good, but not so good afterwards (perhaps a different type should have been ordered?). The details (matching menus to the wallpaper, silver platter full of desserts, the unique tassels…) were all lovely and just ornate enough. I would still choose the less expensive option, but go there with an appetite because there’s a lot to eat (although the take out box and bag are matching and pretty).

Tea: 2/5
Food: 5/5
Service: 4/5
Ambiance: 5/5
Average: 4/5

Cost of Fortnum’s Classic Afternoon Tea: £34/person, no sharing option

Rating key:

5 = flawless

4 = nearly flawless

3 = recommended

2 = passable

1 = awful

Food Review: Pizza Express Salad & Dessert

Why call such an elegant delicious place Pizza Express, Pizza Express people? It’s one of my favorite chains and pizza places, and to top it off, they generously send out 2 for 1 vouchers and give student discounts. Hoorah!

On my most recent visit to Pizza Express, I tried the new Warm Vegetable and Goats Cheese Salad. Delicious, but deceptively filling for a salad! It’s big enough for two to share.

Then, for dessert, I discovered a new five-star favorite for which I will be returning: The Banoffee Pie. A perfect combination of fruit, toffee, cream, and pie to be succulent, but not too sweet, which is always the danger of banoffee-flavored desserts! Highly recommended.

A very filling and satisfying meal with delightful service and a calm afternoon atmosphere.

Why Starbucks is Okay

This morning I tried the Crème Brûlée Macchiato at the Starbucks on Cornmarket Street. It was delicious.

Now some people – a lot of people – don’t like Starbucks because it’s a chain and it’s Taking Over the World and running personalized local coffee shops out of business. I don’t know how much truth there is in the latter parts, but yes, it is a chain, and yes, to a certain extent, it lacks uniqueness. There’s something weird about going into a Starbucks anywhere in the world and seeing the same menu and the same pastries and coffee cups for sale.

But there’s also comfort in consistency. Whenever I see that green Starbucks logo outside, I am guaranteed pretty much the same experience regardless of location. The first Starbucks that was memorable to me was the one on the Corner in Charlottesville. We stopped there on our weekend trip during SEP (Summer Enrichment Program! I attended 2002-2005) pretty much every year. When I went to Oxford over the summer for the first time, my friends and I would go to the Starbucks (the one I was in today in fact) because it was open early in the morning. When I went to Boston on the weekends I would have a mint mocha chip fappachino at the Starbucks by NEC (New England Conservatory!) or at the Barnes & Noble at the Pru. In both Chicago and San Francisco I remember being starving by breakfast time, and knowing that I would be guaranteed delicious vanilla scones at the Starbucks round the corner made my mornings that much happier.

Whenever I enter a Starbucks, I feel slightly guilty about choosing a chain over a local establishment. The ethics of Starbucks is pretty commendable though – they make an effort to reduce the amount of plastic they use, and sell several kinds of Fair Trade coffees. There is a whole section on their website on Responsibility, and that’s cool. But that’s not why I go. I go to remind me of home when I’m here or to remind me of here when I’m home, for the nostalgia of all the memorable trips, accessible in pretty much any city I’m visiting. Sure, for the most part I’ll be at a local café, because Oxford there are so many charming ones to try. I don’t drink coffee that often, so it’s more a matter of ambiance for me, a place to sit and read a book or chat with people. And sometimes the ambiance I seek is that of Memory Lane. I’ll step inside, since it’s right there, and say hey Starbucks, you’re okay. [not out loud though. Usually.]