Reading, lately

It’s been ages since I wrote about what I’ve been reading lately so I figured it was time for a run down. I joined a book club last year and it’s been a really fun way of expanding my reading horizons. Everyone has different interests and tastes and it’s fun seeing how we react to different things.

One of our recent books was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. It’s a love story which begins on the Italian coast in the early sixties and hops across decades and continents until it reaches its end in the US. It’s a perfect plane read (also can we talk about how good the cover is?!) and I particularly like that the ending involved some growth and peace for many of the characters without straying into complete fantasy land; there’s a little bit of mess and darkness.  Having said that, I found parts of the plot ridiculous. Can you imagine being 22 and mistaking pregnancy for stomach cancer? Enough said.

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling – I think Rowling is a very fine storyteller and it’s a bit of a shame that she’s constantly in the shadow of Harry Potter (though, what a shadow). This couldn’t be more different from Harry Potter and I think that’s affected the reviews. Harry Potter is huge in its scope, featuring not only an entirely imagined world but the ultimate battle of good and evil. In contrast, the Casual Vacancy is firmly unextraordinary in its setting and plot. A member of the local council of a small English town dies suddenly, leaving a casual vacancy that villagers fight to fill. Though it’s not full of dragons etc, I loved it for making something so rich out of high schoolers dealing with adolescence, infertility and difficult in-laws.

The Expats by Chris Pavone - I have to say, this isn’t something I would have read without book club spurring me on but I actually quite enjoyed it. It’s light, yes, and somewhat implausible (think the book equivalent of Scandal) but my goodness, I couldn’t wait for the secrets to start tumbling out. The main character is Kate, who gives up her job as a CIA agent to follow her husband and their young sons to Luxembourg for her husband’s work (something to do with computers and banks and security). She befriends a young American couple who aren’t all they seem and things gradually shift from the mundane to thrilling. It’s not a challenging or particularly memorable read but it’s a decent way to pass the commute, which is more than I expected!

Longborn by Jo Baker - Jane Austen is one of my favourite authors, which feels horribly cliche to admit but I suppose they’re classics for a reason. I’ve never read fan fiction before and was pretty sceptical about this one, which loosely follows the plot of Pride and Prejudice but is told from the perspective of the Bennets’ servants.  I enjoyed the beginning of the book – I think Baker highlights how grim life would have been in 1808 (the pressure to produce an heir, a total lack of contraception, horrendous wages and working conditions and the list goes on) but overall, this wasn’t a book I enjoyed. It was both boring and totally overdone. The characters weren’t developed at all and although it’s interesting to think about how the Bennets would have looked to the servants, I hated the way Baker recast some of the characters. Mr Collins, who must be one of the most ridiculous characters in history, is presented as a rather sweet, nervous young man trying to find his way. Ugh, please. And there ends my brief flirtation with fan fiction.

On to something better! Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is delightful. It captures perfectly the horror and joy of being a teenager and falling in love for the first time. It’s well written, tender and so touching. I don’t have anything more to say about it except, go read it!

Next up on my to read list is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and perhaps Tess D’Ubervilles, which I’ve someone never read. What are you reading at the moment? And do you have any recommendations? There’s nothing I love more than book suggestions!

Pear, Oat and Macadamia Muffins

Check it out friends, Sweet Peas has had a little upgrade! I can’t take a single bit of credit for it – it’s all my very talented friend Rosie. While it would have been nice to celebrate this new design with an over the top chocolate cake, I couldn’t quite face such baking up such extravagance for one. Besides, I already have a go to recipe (I wrote about back here). Instead, I have a muffin recipe: pear, oat and macadamia muffins from Whole Grain Mornings by Megan Gordon.

Muffins for Breakfast

I love making (and eating!) muesli so much that I’ve been eating the same breakfast for about six years. Recently, the thought of having yet another bowl of oats has felt so boring, the cornflakes and the cardboard box they come in have looked more appealing. I needed a change and some inspiration (and uh, to stop over analysing my breakfast) and Whole Grain Mornings is just the thing. This is a great book, by one of my favourite bloggers. It’s full of healthy recipes that feel exciting without requiring you to track down dozens of hard to find ingredients. The pages looks so enticing, I’m even considering the occasional savoury breakfast (think zucchini farro cakes, pumpkin breakfast risotto etc), emphasis being on considering. True to form, the first recipe I actually made from the book was for these muffins. They make a great breakfast but I also tend to get hungry angry in the afternoon and these are perfect for getting you through to home time. They’re barely sweet but not so austere you feel like you’ve been cheated out of a satisfying snack. They freeze well too, though they need to be jolted back to life in the oven once they’re defrosted. My one complaint about this recipe is that between grating pears and melting butter, you’ll tear through bowls. I’ve attempted to stream line here but be prepared to do a little washing up (it’ll be worth it, promise).

Pear, Oat and Macadamia Muffins (recipe barely adapted from Whole Grain Mornings by Megan Gordon)

Makes 12

I used macadamias here because I had them in the cupboard but Megan’s recipe originally uses hazelnuts. I think that pecans or walnuts would be good too. I’ve listed the spices below as they appear in the book but next time I’m going to bump them up to 1 tsp.

75 g rolled oats

120 g plain flour

60 g wholemeal plain flour

1/4 tsp baking soda

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

pinch salt

2 firm medium pears

125 g raw sugar

85 g butter

240 ml buttermilk

2 large eggs, at room temperature, beaten

1 tsp vanilla extract

120 g macadamia nuts, toasted (I toast at about 180′C for 5-7 minutes or until a gentle gold and starting to smell toasty)

1. Preheat the oven to 220′C/425′F. Butter a standard 12 cup muffin tin.

2. Peel and core the pears. Grate them using the large holes of a box grater. You need about 1 cup / 215 g shredded pear. I found that 2 medium pears gave me slightly more but depending on size, you might need a third.

3. In a medium mixing bowl, mix together the oats, flours, baking soda, baking powder, spices and salt.

4. In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Remove from the heat and stir through the sugar. Stir in the buttermilk, eggs, vanilla and shredded pear and mix until you have an evenly combined batter.

5. Gently fold the flour mixture through the butter mixture. Don’t overmix.

6. Set half the macadamia nuts aside (for sprinkling on top of the muffins). Stir the other half into the batter.

7. Divide the mixture evenly among the muffin tin. They’ll look quite full but they’ll be ok – they don’t rise too much. Sprinkle with the remaining nuts.

8. Put the muffins straight into the oven and immediately turn down the heat to 375′F / 190′C. Bake until the tops are golden brown and feel firm to touch in the centre, 23 – 27 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the tin for 10 minutes before removing.

Spinach and Sesame Salad

Finally! I’m back with a recipe (though it’s so short I’m not sure that it really counts). My love of salad has been fairly well documented on Sweet Peas and while it’s always fun to try new things, my standard is butter lettuce tossed with a simple vinaigrette. There are usually no tomatoes, no cucumber, just leaves slicked with a simple mixture of olive oil, vinegar and mustard. Every once in a while though, it’s nice to mix things up a bit. Variety is the spice of life etc etc. Also, a french vinaigrette doesn’t sit well next to miso glazed salmon on the dinner table. Enter, spinach and sesame salad.

Dressing, Soon To Be

It’s been said that if you get one keeper dish from a recipe book, it’s worth it’s purchase price. If that’s true, Asian After Work by Adam Liaw has more than earned its place in my cookbook collection. I’ve tried the roasted chicken with coriander and fish sauce, wanton noodles and miso glazed eggplant, all of which were delicious. But my favourite recipe so far, is this salad. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make and it packs an unami punch that’s so satisfying. We eat it with bento pork, fried rice or soba noodles. Adam also recommends pouring it over steamed chicken or grilled pork, something I definitely intend to try.

Salad, Dressed

Spinach and Sesame Salad (from Asian After Work by Adam Liaw)

2 large handfuls (about 100g) of babe spinach leaves, washed and dried

1 Lebanese cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds

Dressing

1 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tsp caster sugar

2 tbsp rice vinegar

1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds

1 tbsp sesame oil

2 small spring onions, white and light green parts (optional)

1. For the dressing, place the soy sauce, caster sugar, rice vinegar, sesame seeds, sesame oil and spring onions (if using) in a jar. Shake well to combine, making sure the sugar has dissolved.

2. Toss the baby spinach and cucumber in a salad bowl. Pour over the dressing and serve immediately.

Notes

  • I just cannot get on board with raw onion so I skip the spring onion here, with no ill effects. Besides, I can’t bear to buy a whole bunch knowing that I’ll use only a couple before they start to liquify in my crisper.
  • Any left over dressing keeps well in the fridge.

Lately

Every working week should be three days long. We might be a little bit poorer, but I think we’d be happier too. I spent the Easter long weekend in Brisbane with J. Brisbane isn’t the prettiest city around but it has everything you need for a relaxing break. We ate brownies at Dello Mano, went to an awesome whisky bar, saw the Grand Budapest Hotel (amazing! It strikes a perfect balance of hilarious and dark, the sets and costuming are gorgeous and somehow it manages to capture that sense of grumbling grandeur that was everywhere when I travelled in Eastern Europe). We wandered aimlessly through GOMA/Queensland Art Gallery and had a surprisingly satisfying Thai meal at a little cafe called Bo Lan. Lest you think that all we did was eat, there was a long run in there too, I made a pretty pathetic attempt at lifting weights and we cycled everywhere. Also, I got the best fortune cookie in the history of fortune cookies. All in all, it was pretty great. Even better, today is a public holiday and I plan on spending the entire long weekend cooking and blogging. Have a good one xo

Fortune cookie

This is such a cool idea.

I wouldn’t go back to high school but sometimes I wish I was young enough to be part of the Tavi Generation.

Celebrities who instagram just like us.

I want to go to San Francisco so bad.

Pyjamas. Enough said.

A new (to me) blog I’m loving.

Anzac biscuits!

March

Hooo boy, March has been a real doozy (how on earth do you spell doozy? doozie?). A few weeks ago my boyfriend and I were driving home to Canberra late on a Friday night and about 75 km from home, we hit a wombat. It was like hitting a block of concrete; they’re such solid creatures! It did so much damage that my car has been written off and my nerves definitely took a beating (just call me Mrs Bennett!) – standing on the side of a highway  in the middle of nowhere with cars going past at 110 km/hour in the pitch dark  is no picnic. To top it off, last week a hot water bottle burst on me, giving me a pretty spectacular burn. It’s finally started to heal and I should be heading back to work next week. Hurrah!!

I haven’t been doing a huge amount of cooking lately (or photography!) but I’m going to try and use my last few days off work to bake something deliciously complicated. In the meantime, here are some lovely links and things I’ve been reading/seeing/exploring lately.

This is our current book club read. I devoured it in less than a week and seriously, it has such a gorgeous cover. I’m on the lookout for something new to read now I’ve finished this. Any recommendations?

This chocolate coconut pound cake is just about the only thing I’ve baked in the past month – it’s so good not even a car accident and a few hospital visits could make me forget it.

Hart of Dixie is my guilty pleasure.

This recipe looks beautiful (and so healthy!).

I had a quick lunch at Lemonia with my dad last week and it totally hit the spot. The coffee was perfection!

Loved Winter’s Bone.

Dying to purchase this entire make up range.

Back soon. Fingers crossed. Xo

Lately

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since getting back from holidays, it’s that I’m one of those sad souls who need a little “work life balance” in order to stay sane. I’m hardworking and ambitious and I always want to do my best so it came as something of a shock to me to realise that I am not able to function and remain happy and calm if I work 70 hour weeks and have no time to see friends, exercise or sleep. As sad as it sounds, this was kind of how I saw my life playing out post uni – I was ready to be chained to my desk. Yet, when my work life actually reached that point lately, I was utterly miserable.

Often I think that there’s a perception that in order to succeed and perform at a really high level, you must love what you do in a totally consuming way. In other words, you probably won’t make it as a commercial lawyer unless you like reading about corporate governance on the weekends. I don’t feel this way (about corporate governance or anything else legal to be honest) and for a long time I wondered if it wasn’t a sign of weakness. I’ve been thinking about this ideal for ages and recently came to the conclusion that for most of us, it’s totally ridiculous. I don’t need or want my boyfriend to be my boyfriend/friend/work husband/parent/therapist. And nor is it realistic to think that my job could satisfy all of my interests in one go. I need books and Fright Night Lights, live music, holidays, baking, going running and manicures with friends. If that means I won’t make partner by the time I’m 30, so be it. Yesterday I made it home from work early enough to slip down to the beach for a swim before dinner. It’s one of the best afternoons I’ve had all year and that feeling is worth way more than numbers on a pay slip.

Breakfast

Phew, those were some random thoughts for a Tuesday evening.  I’d love to hear your views (also, if you know of any corporate governance books worth reading on the weekend, send them my way :P). In the meantime, here are some of the fluffy things I’ve been filling my days with in an attempt to have some work life balance.

Her is one of the best films I’ve seen in ages. It’s gorgeous – lush visually, the music is beautiful and it’s a really interesting story about the subjectivity of love and human relationships.

These chocolate muffins are perfection. As are these brownies. Clearly it’s all about chocolate at the moment.

Tea Cup Tea is a new blog discovery that I’m loving.

Calling it: my favourite Sydney cafe at the moment.

Yay!

Obsessed with this beautiful home wares store, especially this and these (so much green!).

This collection of short stories looks beautiful.

Happy Tuesday friends, thanks for reading. Xo

Breakfast Stone Fruit Crumble

It’s kind of crazy that I’ve been blogging for almost two years and haven’t written about crumble. Crumble is my favourite food. I love most things edible and but when it comes to crumble, I’m happy to play favourites. I seek it out on menus and it’s all I want to eat when I’m sick. I’ve tried dozens of recipes over the years but never really found a forever recipe (there are too many I want to try!).

Breakfast Crumble, Before

 

For a long time I made Stephanie Alexander’s recipe that involves the traditional method of rubbing cold butter into flour. There was a brief moment with this polenta crumble which you make by pouring lots of melted butter over a mixture of flour and egg. This crumble is delicious, with a perfect crispy topping that cracks as you dig in, but one of the best parts of making crumble is eating it cold out of the fridge the next day and I found that the melted butter drips through the fruit and hardens in the fridge. I’m all for a little delusion but even I struggle with a butter soaked breakfast. Thankfully, I found an appropriately austere yet delicious breakfast crumble in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. It involves my favourite crumble method so far – Deb has you melt the butter but rather than pouring it over the flour, you mix it with the dry ingredients to make rough crumbly clumps. It avoids the pools of melted butter and you don’t have to get your hands dirty. A word of warning though: this is not as fancy as crumble gets – I probably wouldn’t serve it at a dinner party – but it’s perfect for quiet weekend dinner or eating with yogurt for breakfast or an afternoon snack.

Breakfast Crumble, Baked

Breakfast Stone Fruit Crumble (adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman)

The recipe below is a starting off point but I switch it up all the time, depending on what’s in season and what I feel like. I aim for about a kilo of fruit – apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums in the summer, pears in the winter with a couple of handfuls of frozen berries whenever they’re lurking in the freezer. I generally toss the fruit with a couple of tablespoons of flour and a pinch of cinnamon but don’t bother with sugar unless the fruit is on the sour side (in which case, throw in a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar). Honestly, it would be difficult to mess this up, so ring the changes however you like.

Fruit mixture

750g – 1 kg stone fruit, roughly sliced into pieces of about 1/2 cm) (I peel apples and pears but don’t bother with peaches and nectarines)

2 tbsp plain flour

1/2 tsp each ground cinnamon and ground ginger

Crumble topping

55 g butter

50 g (1/4 c) raw sugar

40 g (1/2 c) rolled oats

50 g (scant 1/2 c) wholemeal rye flour

15 g almond meal

1/4 c – 1/3 c chopped nuts (macadamias, brazil nuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts are all delicious)

1. Preheat the oven to 200′C/400′F. Place the fruit into a oven proof dish (I used a 24cm Falcon baking dish) and toss with the flour and spices.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the sugar, oats, flour, almond meal and nuts and stir until large clumps form. Sprinkle the mixture over the fruit. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the topping is golden and the fruit has softened. Check it at about the 20 minute mark and cover with foil if it’s browning too fast (I find that some nuts, macadamia nuts especially, brown much faster than others).

Travelling Laos

My boyfriend and I just returned home from a three week holiday to Malaysia, Laos and Thailand. I love reading about other people ‘s trips and I need an incentive to actually edit the hundreds of photos I took so I’m going to write about our travels here. We spent most of our time in Laos (and it was the trickiest to travel in) so I’m going to pop my notes about Malaysia and Thailand in a separate post (to come, soon!).

Wat Sisaket, Vientiane

Laos has been on my travelling wish list for a very long time but it’s difficult to get to. Not many airlines fly there and travelling by road takes a huge amount of time so we’ve bypassed it on previous trips to South East Asia. This time around, the stars aligned! Jason and I were in Kuala Lumpur for NYE and Air Asia flies directly from Kuala Lumpur to Laos’ capital, Vientiane. Huzzah!

We spent only a night in Vientiane, another night in Vang Vieng, four nights in Luang Prabang and two nights in Nong Khiaw. We spent a lot of time mulling over how we would travel Laos. I am an unbelievably nervous flyer and as we were making travel plans a Lao Airlines plane crashed in Pakse, in southern Laos, with no survivors. Lao Airlines is the only carrier flying from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and we’d talked about going that route given that we weren’t particularly keen on the famous backpacker scene in Vang Vieng. After the crash made the headlines I knew that all the valium on earth wouldn’t be enough to get me on a Lao Airlines flight. Instead, we flew into Vientiane with Air Asia and made our way by mini bus to Luang Prabang. It’s only a 230 km trip but it takes about 10 hours and so we broke it up with a night in Vang Vieng. From Luang Prabang we went to Nong Khiaw, a tiny town about 140 km north west. Then it was back to Luang Prabang to get our flight to Bangkok, flying with Bangkok Airlines.

Tuk Tuk, Vientiane

loved travelling in Laos. It’s one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited, Luang Prabang is a very special place and the people we met were delightful. Having said that, I have to confess that parts of our time there put me on edge. It’s isolated, really isolated. Flights are few and far between, medical care is sketchy at best and the roads are terrible. The road from Vang Vieng involves a crawl through gorgeous mountain scenery on a very windy and steep road that’s speckled with pot holes. Tales of buses disappearing over the edge are common.

Clearly, I am not a thrill seeker and I think like a lot of lawyers do – always looking at the flaws in a situation, assessing the worst possible outcomes. (For one tiny moment Jason and I considered renting scooters to zoom around on. We realised that our travel insurance didn’t cover motorcycle accidents and dismissed the idea immediately. Then we looked at each other and laughed about being overly cautious lawyers). Does this make me sound insane? I’m doing a horrible job of selling Laos, which is a remarkable place, but for the sake of my nerves (just call me Mrs Bennett) if I was to plan this trip again, I would fly directly in and out of Luang Prabang and make the trip to Nong Khiaw, skipping Vientiane and Vang Vieng. I enjoyed seeing both but our experiences in Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw totally surpassed them, in food, accommodation, beauty and all the rest. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts about travelling in Laos (or travelling generally!). Does remoteness weigh on you? Anyway, on to happier topics – what we actually did while we were there!

Royal Palace, Luang Prabang

We landed at Vientiane at about 9 am and waited in line for visas. Whether you actually need to have a passport sized photo with you to get a visa is something of a mystery – we were fine without but the signs throughout the airport say that it’s required. After passing through immigration and customs we jumped into a cab and headed for the Mandala Boutique Hotel. I could have used some more hot water (showers should be scorching, people) but we had no complaints – lovely staff, clean, beautiful rooms (with mosquito nets) and a simple but very nice breakfast.

Having been up since 4.30 am and nursing colds, we put no pressure on ourselves to see all the sights of Vientiane in a day. We didn’t see Patouxi (think Arc De Triomphe) or That Luang, an important religious building and the national symbol of Laos. Instead, we picked up some mango shakes at JoMa Bakery, wandered fairly lazily through Wat Sisaket, the morning markets, past the presidential palace and to the Lao National Museum. Housed in a beautiful but dilapidated colonial mansion, the museum is one of the most interesting I’ve been to, and not because of the quality of the exhibits. Instead, it’s an education in Laos’ political climate and history – there are American imperialists, French colonialists and the victorious proletariat, not to mention stories of grandmothers shooting down fighter jets with handguns. It’s ridiculous, fascinating, hilarious and a bit scary all at the same time.

We were pleasantly surprised to find that there was a really nice park stretching a fair way along the edge of the city between Fa Ngum Road and the Mekong River. We spent ages there people watching in the late afternoon (there’s a night market too) before heading to the Spirit House for drinks while we watched the sunset over the river. Then it was on to dinner at Makphet, a restaurant which provides training for street children and young people. It was one of the best meals we had in Laos. There was sticky rice (obligatory), tofu laab, a dish of fried fish and garlic called ‘ancient fish’ and a very spicy steamed eggplant dish.

We left Vientiane at 9 am the following day and travelled about 4 hours to Vang Vieng on a mini bus. Vang Vieng is a famous backpacker party town and though it’s reported that things have calmed down considerably in the past year, it’s still overrun with young people tubing and buying cocktails by the bucket. While that isn’t my scene, it’s a great spot to break up the drive between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. There’s no denying that it’s spectacularly beautiful and we enjoyed our afternoon there cycling and visiting caves. The food options aren’t great but we had a good lunch (including awesome fruit shakes) at The Kitchen, Vang Vieng and a decent dinner at AMB Restaurant. We had an early night the Hotel Villa Vang Vieng Riverside and jumped onto another minibus to Luang Prabang at 8.30 the next morning.

The road to Luang Prabang takes you through some of the most picturesque scenery you’re ever likely to see but the trip was hair raising and I was pretty relieved to finally be in Luang Prabang. We settled into the Apsara for three very chilled  days (and the best breakfasts of our stay in Laos). There are more wats than I could count in Luang Prabang and we spent time in a lot of them. We opted not to see the famous alms procession that takes place at sunrise each morning but we enjoyed wondering through the various wats, especially just before sunset when the monks are at prayer.  It’s peaceful and quiet (mostly because every other tourist in Luang Prabang is watching the sunset from Mount Phousi) and without the moral questions that accompany the alms procession.

Sunset, Luang Prabang

We did a lot of eating in Luang Prabang and most of it was pretty good. Here are some of our recommendations:

  • The Apsara for the best Campari and orange I’ve ever had and baguettes with tuna or crispy pork belly.
  • Rosella Fusion – probably our favourite cafe in Luang Prabang (we ate there more than once) – we tried stir fries, tofu noodles, fish and eggplant soup, black sticky rice with coconut and mango and lots of their shakes and juices.
  • Tamarind – this is one of the most popular places in town (you generally need to book for dinner) and we enjoyed our meals there (pork sausage with coriander pickle, pork wrapped in lemongrass with tamarind sauce, spicy noodles, young zucchini salad, papaya salad and lots of sticky rice) though we preferred the more relaxed vibe of Rosella Fusion. I felt like every tourist in Laos was having dinner with me at Tamarind.
  •  Le Banetton was the best cafe we went to in Luang Prabang. The pastries, salads and sandwiches were great (though I’d skip the smoothies and go for the coffee).
  • Speaking of smoothies, if you’re after a great fruit shake, head to the cafe at the Xieng Thong Palace. It’s a fancy hotel near Wat Xieng Thong and though the meals are expensive, it’s a really nice place to sit and chill out for a while and the smoothies were delicious.
  • The 3 Nagas – cocktails, lao lao (had to try it as least once!), fish steamed in banana leaf and awesome spring rolls.
  • For coffee, we found the best place was a little cafe opposite the Swiss Bakery. You can’t miss it – there’s a counter out the front full of coffee related implements, siphons etc. The iced coffee with sweet (condensed milk) was great.

Banks of the Nam Ou River, Luang Prabang

From Luang Prabang we caught a mini bus (for a measly 80,000 kip – about $11) three hours north east to the tiny town of Nong Khiaw (sometimes called Nong Kiau). Luang Prabang is what everyone goes to Laos to see but having made the effort to get to this land locked country, we thought it would be a shame not to explore a bit more. I searched for options close to Luang Prabang and when I found a few posts describing Nong Khiaw as a great place to lose yourself for a couple of days, it was a done deal. It seems all tourists are dropped at a bus station on the fringes of Nong Khiaw where there are taxis and mini buses waiting to drop you off at your accommodation (for a fee, of course!).

See those tiny bungalows burrowed into the hillside in that photo just below? That’s Nong Khiaw Riverside, where we stayed for two days in a cute bungalow with spectacular views of the Nam Ou River. It’s the most expensive place in town (and still won’t cost more than about $55 a night!) and, according to Trip Advisor the best, but I wouldn’t call it luxury by any stretch. The rooms are large and clean and the staff helpful but breakfast was not great and our room had a sign warning us not to use smart phones or tablets in the dark as the screens are visible from the river, making theft a risk. While I appreciate the warning, I can’t say I felt particularly safe climbing into bed into a flimsy wooden bungalow without a proper lock and a theft warning stuck to the wall.

Our first afternoon we walked to a peak overlooking this tiny town. It took about 3 hours return and cost 20,000 kip to get on to the trail, which was steep, slippery and narrow. It was well worth it though – the view from the top was extraordinary, especially in the late afternoon sun. To get on to the path, head over the bridge, passing Nong Khiaw Riverside on your left. Walk for 5-10 minutes, until you see a sign on your left announcing ‘Mountain View’. From there, the path is pretty well marked.

The following day we did a tour with Green Discovery Tours. Early in the morning we got a slow boat an hour up the Nam Ou River to the tiny village of Muong Ngoi, only accesible by boat (it’s so small it only received electricity a year ago). We wandered for a while before getting back on the boat and heading to an even smaller village from where we walked to a series of waterfalls and had a lazy lunch. We finished off the day by kayaking back to Nong Khiaw. The tour was US$42 and was well worth it. It was well organised, we met some really cool people and got to see far more than we would have if we were exploring alone.

Afternoon, Nong Khiaw

Nong Khiaw is spectacular and relatively few tourists visit, making for a totally different experience to Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng. Having said that, people do not visit for the food. Options are numbered. You can grab a decent breakfast and cakes at Delilah’s Place. We also had a very satisfying Indian meal (such a welcome change after a week of sticky rice and papaya salad) at Deen’s Indian Food on our first night and on our second we went to Alex’s, on a local’s recommendation. Although it gets lots of love online, we were underwhelmed. The food was mediocre and service sweet but slow.

And there ends our time in Laos! Well, almost. A word of warning. We needed to get a morning minibus to Luang Prabang from Nong Khiaw to catch an afternoon flight to Bangkok. We had originally been told that there were mini buses leaving Nong Khiaw at 8.30 and 10 am each day but when we arrived we were told that there was only one bus a day, leaving at 1 pm. We ended up having to get a local bus, which left at about 9.30 am (exact time seems to change – it should be sometime between 8 and 10 am!). We made it back to Luang Prabang with plenty of time to spare but I’d recommend taking the mini bus if you can. The local bus can be a bus or a truck depending on the day and though we were lucky to be in a bus, it was the oldest bus I’ve ever seen and there were more passengers than seats which made for a really fun journey.

Phew, that was epic (writing it out perhaps more so than the actual travelling). I’ll get to writing about Malaysia and Thailand soon but in the meantime there will be something edible (it’s about time, I know!). Happy long weekend friends! Xo

Holiday Season

First off, happy new year my friends! Thanks for sticking around through my total lack of posts in the last six months. I hope that 2014 brings with it a lot more time for blogging. Speaking of which,  I have something different for Sweet Peas today – a post from Laos! I had hoped to post a recipe before leaving Australia but as seems to be the case in all areas of my life lately, time totally escaped me. The last few weeks of work were a frenzy and then I ducked back to Canberra for a measly 48 hours to celebrate Christmas with my family before jumping on a flight to Kuala Lumpur last Friday.

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My boyfriend and I spent a week in Malaysia with his family, doing an insane amount of eating, shopping and going to the spa. It was wonderful! Yesterday we caught a ridiculously early flight to Vientiane and we’ll spend the next week in Laos and then a further week in Thailand. We’re in a lovely bungalow in Vang Vieng right this minute and we’re off to Luang Prabang tomorrow. I’m very excited to be exploring a new country, especially one I’ve been longing to visit for the past few years, but right now we’re fighting off colds and I’m seriously contemplating going to bed before 10pm on a Friday night. Someone please reassure me that this is how holidays are meant to be spent! I want to post some of the photos I’ve taken on my SLR when I get home and write in more detail about our trip (the closest I’ll ever come to a travel diary!) but until then, here are some snaps taken on my iPhone (and edited with either Afterlight or vscocam). Oh, and if you have any travel trips for Luang Prabang, Bangkok or Chiang Mai, I would love to hear them!

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Sweetheart Chocolate Tart

Blink and you miss it seems to be how I feel about 2013 right now. The last time I wrote here it was October. That feels like it was about five minutes ago but since then I’ve spent a weekend down at Jarvis Bay (one of my happy places, it’s so beautiful), worked a lot, a lot, of hours and been admitted as a solicitor (!!?$%^!!). Mostly though, it was work keeping me away. In fact this chocolate tart was intended for a Sunday afternoon book club picnic but I was stuck at work and so I sent it off to the park with my sister and went back to my desk.

That was not what I would call a good day but it was an exciting opportunity and like all things in life, the stress passed eventually. Today when I slipped out the office at 5 for a swim those 14 hour days seemed like a distant memory. At the time though, it was rough. No matter how much you enjoy your job, working long hours means a lack of sleep, not enough vegetables and too much time sitting in front of a computer screen. I try not to rely on caffeine and sugar when I’m working all hours but in all honesty, this chocolate tart goes a long way when it comes to getting through a long day in the office. Nutrients be damned.

Tart, All That's Left

I’m not sure why we started calling this sweetheart chocolate tart. It carries the name Chocolate Truffle Tart over where I discovered it and really, that’s probably a more fitting name. The custard bakes into a quivery chocolate cream that looks deceptively rich – like one big truffle. And while it is rich, when you put it on your tongue it will surprise you with the way it quickly melts away, a sign that it would be perfectly acceptable to eat a few slices at a time.

In any case, no matter what you call it, this recipe is one of my keepers. I’ve been making it for years. It’s so easy, extremely satisfying and perfect for weekend lunches and fancy dinners. Also, I defy you not to smile when someone offers you sweetheart chocolate tart for dessert.

Sweetheart Chocolate Tart

I’ve changed this recipe a lot since I first made it. You can see over at The Traveler’s Lunchbox that Melissa makes it with a biscuit base. I like eating a biscuit base very much but I’m not mad for making them – I never have chocolate biscuits hanging around and squishing them into the pan makes more mess than I can take. I love the crisp, buttery bite of short crust and so that’s what I use now. The recipe I’ve linked to below is genius. It is delicate and so I wouldn’t advise using it for a hearty apple pie but for this, it’s perfect.

1 x 25 cm tart shell, blind baked and cooled (I love this recipe for French Tart Dough but use whatever you prefer)

For the chocolate filling

200 g dark chocolate

90 g unsalted butter

2 eggs, lightly beaten

80 ml (1/3 c) thickened cream

50 g (1/4 c) caster sugar

pinch salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 175′C.

2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and chocolate over low heat, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

3. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, sugar, salt and vanilla. Pour this mixture into the chocolate and butter mixture and stir together with a wooden spoon. Pour this mixture into the tart shell.

3. Bake for 20-30 minutes. The filling will puff but it should be just about set at the edges and still wobbly in the centre. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the pan. When it’s cool, remove the tart from the pan. Serve with as little or as much fuss as you like (berries, whipped cream, ice cream etc).

Notes

  • If you want to go all out with chocolate, I imagine you could replace a couple of tablespoons of flour in the pastry with some cocoa powder.
  • I use a 25cm tart pan with a removable bottom to make this tart. I butter it roughly before patting the pastry in but it’s got so much butter in it, it’s probably unnecessary. If you have something smaller, go ahead and use it. It’ll be fine. The tart may take longer to cook though as the filling will be deeper.