Banana and Carrot Cake

"Can I come over to use your oven?"

Ju Vern spends her first crutch-less afternoon in our kitchen, determined to turn out a birthday-worthy banana-carrot cake after having hobbled her way through half of London with a backpack full of ingredients. I, unsurprisingly, couldn't think of a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

As a child, I never liked carrot cakes, often wondering why anyone would want to make a cake out of vegetables and not chocolate. I think it's one of those things that has grown on me, the same way fruitcake has - nowadays, I'd rarely say no to a slice of carrot cake, especially if it's topped with some of that delicious cream cheese frosting.

The chosen recipe that afternoon was one from the Waitrose website, the Banana and Carrot Cake Recipe, an incredibly simple recipe that gives you a beautifully moist cake and a cream cheese frosting that's so good you'd want to eat it with a spoon. The bananas give the cake a natural sweetness that complements the subtle flavour of the carrots wonderfully. We followed the recipe through and through, only swapping the walnut pieces for almond flakes as the supermarket had run out of walnut pieces. Definitely birthday-worthy - in fact, we couldn't help but shortchange the birthday boy a little by nicking a portion of the cake for ourselves.

I always love baking with company - there's nothing like the shared triumph of a successful venture.

Vanilla, Lemons, Apples and Spring.

It's officially spring, or at least on some days it feels like it is and with the days getting warmer and sunshine becoming more evident, I'm all for embracing the lighter, fruitier cakes. I seem to have fallen into a sort of rhythm of late, needing to break the mid-week monotony with some after-dinner baking.

I think, much to the chagrin of my housemates, I spend far too much time trying to decide on what to bake - often going through page after page of recipes online before settling on something. I did, however, find a simple, basic vanilla cake recipe which is brilliant as a starting point for a fruit-fueled cake.

Taken from Anela's Lemon Cake with Lemon Filling and Lemon Butter Frosting recipe


2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cups white sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celcius and grease one 8 inch pan.
Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy before beating in the eggs one at a time and stiring in the vanilla.
Add flour mixture in alternately with milk, mixing until incorporated.
Pour batter into the prepared pans and bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out completely clean.

I love fiddling around with the recipes I stumble upon - a little modification here and there and wait to see what happens.

Adding the juice and finely grated zest of one lemon gives you a bright, zesty dessert while the addition of one apple, chopped finely, and a dash of mixed spice gives you a warm, moist apple cake that goes perfectly with some cool custard. It's important to keep in mind however, that adding ingredients to the basic recipe does change its cooking time a little. For example, the denser apple cake would need about 50 minutes in the oven. Relying on the 'skewer test' (rather than just the timer) always works for me and if you're afraid that the top of the cake would brown just a tad too much, cover the top of the pan with some foil once you've achieve the desired shade of brown.

Happy experimenting!

Chicago Rib Shack

An hour and a half before dinner and I am sitting at the Slug & Lettuce, nursing a mug of hot, fruity, ginseng tea, trying to resist the urge to dig into the oversized sharing platter in front of me. I try to focus on the conversation at hand as my friend wolfs down his dinner Willpower, I tell myself - it would all be worth the wait.

Chicago Rib Shack
145 Knightsbridge,

I am beyond hungry by the time I arrive at the Rib Shack and every minute spent waiting for the rest of the party to arrive feels like an eternity. A bright, neon pink "Exhipigtion" featuring a full-length display of minature pigs greets me as I walk in and I immediately feel as if I have been transported to the television stereotype of an American joint.

Milkshakes and smoothies to keep us happy while they work their magic on those ribs. Choices range from the malty, chocolatey classics like the Oreo milkshake to lighter, fruitier alternatives like this banana-based smoothie that Sapna is enjoying.

The Rib Shack Sampler - a combination of baby back, St. Louis and beef ribs, perfect for when you absolutely cannot decide on which type to order. I settled on a half rack of baby back ribs - served with corn on the cob and coleslaw, the ribs were the type you'd want to savour slowly, taking time to lick the juices off your fingers.

The Big 'C' - tender pulled pork wrapped in smoked bacon on mashed sweet potato with a spicy BBQ sauce. This came highly recommended and it did not disappoint. The generous portion of creamy mashed sweet potato was the perfect complement to the tender, (sinfully indulgent) flavourful pulled pork and smoked bacon.

Organic Buffalo Chicken Wings - chicken wings marinated and coated with spicy hot sauce (there is also a choice of sweet BBQ sauce) and served with blue cheese sauce and celery.

The Onion Loaf - deep fried battered onion rings. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, both in terms of size and flavour. The loaf was more than enough for our hungry party of 7 and the battered onion bits tasted a lot less like your conventional Burger King onion rings and more like the Malaysian version of deep fried onions.

We ordered a host of sides, far far too much in fact. We definitely underestimated the portion sizes. Some noteworthy sides include the sweet potato wedges and smoked butter mash. I would recommend that you stay away from the cream spinach which was disappointingly bland and had a less than pleasant texture. We were told that it's worth keeping a little section of your stomach empty for dessert but this time around, despite being very, very tempted by the thought of something warm and chocolatey to end the meal, we were absolutely stuffed. You know how they say that there's always room for dessert? They lied.

Ribs - good. Portions - huge. The 50% off offer on Mondays? - now, that's the best part. You can take advantage of some pretty good offers if you book ahead: 50% off on Mondays, 33% off on Tuesdays and 25% off on Wednesdays. I'd say that you'd definitely get your money's worth with the special offers but perhaps not too much without them.

Bone Appetite! Kuhan, all bibbed up and ready to go.

Holiday Foodsteps: Crusing Through

They say that when you go on a cruise, you get fed all day, everyday and they weren't kidding. It starts early with breakfast - brought to your cabin, served at a restaurant, self-served at the buffet line or if you're feeling particularly hungry, all of the above.

Lunch often means food that reflects cuisine from the nearest docking country or if at sea, some rather quirky themes.

Oktoberfest in January.

Ah, but it's dinnertime that really lets you indulge - 7 course meals at one of the ships fine dining restaurants for 11 nights, definitely something that's hard to beat.

We walk into the restaurant on our very first night and get shown to our table, a lovely booth in a rather private corner. With a huge smile, our head waiter, Jose, welcomes us and places a large menu in front of each of us - we are bewildered at the thought of 7 courses and think that there must be something about that menu that we have failed to fully understand.

Two nights in and we finally accept the concept of it all (yes, you can actually have every single course of the menu) and a comfortable routine begins - the friendly conversation with the waiters, the anticipation of the night's choices and dipping delicious bits of bread in a balsamic vinegar-olive oil concoction while waiting for appetisers to be served.

Clockwise from top left: tuna carpaccio; shrimp salad; prosciutto with melon pearls; moorhen on a puff pastry wafer

Clockwise from top left: a savoury flan; gratinated escargot bourguignon; gratinated shrimp and scallops; crispy swordfish

If we've had a full day out and are in need of some serious refueling or if there's simply something that looks too interesting to pass up, the appetisers would be followed by soup and pasta to share.

Clam linguini; tomato-based tortellini

It's all about pacing yourself because ultimately, you wouldn't want to spoil your appetite before your main course arrives.

Clockwise from top left: scorpion fish with creamy lettuce; fish topped with fried fennel, roasted whole seabream, steak

Duck a l'orange; roast pheasant

One of the mains that really stood out for me, roast lamb shank - flavourful, meltingly tender and deliciously comforting.

When I think about dinnertime on the ship, my memories of well-cooked dishes and beautiful presentation are peppered with little moments like dancing around the restaurant with our head waiter and cheering on the waiters as they bust a groove to "Volare" in between courses - dinner was not just about about food, it was a complete experience.

The customary cheese course before we went on to our favourite part of the meal - dessert.

With a desserts that would tickle anyones fancy available each evening, this is when the tough choices have to be made.

Clockwise from top left: rum baba, millefuille with mascarpone cream; strawberry mouse cake; frangipani flan with pistachio sauce

Italian cream cake to put everyone in the celebratory mood.

Lemon delice - perhaps my favourite dessert of all. On our very last night on the ship, I decided to leave the dessert-picking to Jose who very cleverly chose this delightful pairing of shortcrust pastry and that refreshingly tart lemon cream.

You know you're spoilt when you expect a round of ice cream after dessert. What started out as a lovely surprise at the end of one meal quickly became part of the routine and oh, how we looked forward to our ice cream! Creamy, smooth and with delicious flavours, this was the life.

It's a great way to travel - knowing that after a day out, you'd come back to some familiarity, great service and of course, good food. Now that's what I call a holiday.

A Seafood-y New Year

"You know, this might be the last year we'd all be together, trying to do something crazy to feel festive"

It's true, that, and while it means that we'd all be home with our families, the thought still leaves me just a little bit sad. We've had our share of kitchen triumphs and misadventures (the crab shower of 2010!) and in a way, it's been the 'I'm going to try to do the way my mum does it' moments that have been the greatest source of entertainment.

This year, after taking the easy way out with dinner at a restaurant on the eve of the Rabbit Year, we went down the relatively easy path of making everyone cook their own meal for the customary Festive Cookout at No. 42. With the difficult bits out of the way pretty quickly (it does help that the boys have oyster shucking down to a science by now), all that was left to do was to gather around our pots of bubbling soup to have round after round of sweet, fresh seafood.

"Nian Nian You Yu" (May there be abundance year after year)

You probably would have guessed from the pictures that we took another trip to Billingsgate Market to stock up for the occasion so it would come as no surprise that we did in fact have lots and lots of fish to go around.

We attempted two types of soup; one a simple broth of chicken, prawn shells and Chinese cabbage, left to simmer over the stove for the most part of the evening and the other a Korean-hotpot inspired kimchi, chicken and prawn broth. The best thing about a steamboat meal is how the flavours of the ingredients slowly get infused into the broth as the meal goes on, leaving you with just the most amazing soup at the end of it all.

Little tidbits from the Chinese New Year care package - those addictive sugar-coated twisty biscuits and peanut brittle.

In that slightly cheesy, cliched sort of way, the Forever Friends Madeira sponge summed it all up for us. I hope that wherever you may have been over the festive season, you had wonderful people to share the festivities with.

I know I did.

Chinese New Year On a Boat

We've spent a whole week indulging in the name of Chinese New Year - yes, I love how festivals give you the excuse to (over) indulge. This would mark my third Chinese New Year away from home and while it definitely doesn't get any easier in terms of feeling like you're missing out on everything that's going on back home, the advent of technology (those wonderful camera-equipped Blackberry phones) has really helped made me feel as if I was part of it all somehow.

So while my family gathered in Kemaman for Reunion Lunch, we decided that we'd have our version of the Reunion Dinner at our favourite floating restaurant this year.

The Lotus Chinese Floating Restaurant
5 Baltimore Walk,
London, E14 9FB
Tel: 020 7515 6445,020 7515 6445
Fax: 020 7515 6446

Roast Duck

Kangkung Belacan. Water spinach fried with spicy shrimp paste - a little on the mild side but definitely something to satisfy the Malaysian tastebuds.

We had never had anything other than dim sum on previous visits to Lotus and while I would still pick dim sum over anything else at the restaurant given the choice, we came away from the meal content and satisfied. Like with the dim sum, copious amounts of water is was not needed after the meal, a side-effect of many Chinese restaurants, and portions were a good size. Other note-worthy dishes include the salt-baked chicken, steamed eel and braised mushrooms.

Complementary "Nian Gao", taken literally to mean "a higher year", the cherry on top of the cake. Nothing like some fried sticky, sweet rice cakes to welcome the new year.

Us, all decked out in red.

If there's an occasion that warrants two visits to Lotus in a week, it's Chinese New Year. The best way to catch up with your singing buddies over the festive season? Story-swapping over delicious dim sum on a Sunday afternoon.

Clockwise from top left: Egg tarts, steamed custard buns, fried prawn dumplings, glutinous rice in lotus leaves.

The restaurant does some lovely renditions of dim sum classics like pork and prawn dumplings as well as porridge and custard buns. What I really look forward to on each visit, however, are the less conventional dishes like their cheung fun-wrapped fried dough-wrapped prawns and mushroom-filled fried bean curd rolls.

Nicole, sinking her teeth into one of those crispy beancurd rolls that I love so much.

I've always thought of dim sum as the perfect social meal - food comes in bite-sized portions and there's plenty of sharing to do. With food that has never let us down, a good selection of dishes, lovely views and the novelty of eating on a boat, I daresay that this would be my go-to for dim sum in London.

I hope that you've been enjoying welcoming the Year of the Rabbit as much as I have. Here's to a happy, prosperous year ahead!

Holiday Foodsteps: St. Cruz de Tenerife

St. Cruz de Tenerife is like a dream - gorgeous mountains, palm trees, sidewalk cafes and winter temperatures of 27 degrees celcius. Yes, extremely difficult to beat. We spend our time wandering around the small town centre, just a short (well marked) way from the marina. The town is a mix of new and old - on one hand, a market square that offers a lovely selection of fresh produce and on the other, a chic shopping area where we happily indulge in some retail therapy.

The market square is a celebration of colours, with impressive displays of fresh fruit and vegetables. Papayas larger than rugby balls - it took all of my reserve not to bring one back onto the ship with me.

Racks of spices that range from exotic to medicinal.

Of course, Spain would not be Spain without the ham.

At some point during our time at the market, faced with the many freshly baked pastries on display, Sapna and I rather foolishly think that we had found torrijas, those remarkable doughnuts that we had in Madrid. Alas, it was wishful thinking on our part as we discovered that we had really just purchased a custard-filled doughnut.

We wanted to move away from the usual Spanish tapas to see what else the island could offer - perhaps not exactly the best decision. We ended up in what (after settling down and placing our orders) appeared to be a fast food outlet of some sort that probably didn't quite provide a good representation of Tenerifian cuisine.

My starter - you guessed it, mushroom and scrambled eggs on toast. We had a good laugh about this as this would really be a typical lunchtime dish for me back in London.

Cuban Rice - rice with a fried banana, chips, tomato sauce and two runny eggs.

Crispy calamari with an interesting coleslaw-mash potato side.

Swordfish for the pescatarian.

So, another one of those life lessons:
Do not accidentally walk into a fast food outlet, even if rather cleverly disguised, just because "it was there".

Less than great choices aside, I have nothing but happy, sun-filled memories of St. Cruz de Tenerife.