Saturday 31 May 2014

May Edition of Books are Amazing featuring Jenni

Welcome to this month's edition of Books Are Amazing! I haven't been reading too much lately, so it's good to get the chance to chat books - it reminds me that I need to get back into the habit of turning those pages! This month's contributor is Jenni from Bows, Bangles and Bakes with a literary journey that I loved, from childhood to adulthood. Take it away, Jenni...

When Sarah was looking for contributors for her Books are Amazing series, I jumped at the chance! After all, any excuse to chat books makes me happy, but cue my slot deadline and I had no idea where to start! There have been so many great contributors, so many great book choices, and so many great books I’ve read myself, that I was a little stuck.

So I decided to take you on a little bit of a literary journey through my life, through the books or series that stand out for me, or ones that show how my reading tastes have altered or matured through my reading career! Most of them you will have heard of and know something about so I’ve not talked so much about the book itself, more about why I selected it for this list.

The Secret Seven Series – Enid Blyton
This is probably the first series of books I can remembered devouring on my own. I suspect a fair few avid readers of around my age probably started with Enid Blyton in some shape or form. The Secret Seven was the younger version of the Famous Five. The mysteries were slightly tamer and focused more on the group being part of a ‘club’, although with similar themes of being very middle class and doing as Mummy and the Policeman said. I even remember setting up various secret clubs with my friends with our own badges and passwords, just like The Secret Seven. As I grew slightly older I moved on to reading The Famous Five and various other mystery/adventure books by Blyton, as well as her many school stories. The first Famous Five book I ever read had actually been my grandad’s as a child, which had been passed to my mum, so this probably goes a long way to explaining my ongoing love for a good mystery story!

The Babysitters Club – Ann M Martin
During my pre-teens I moved away from the safe world of Enid Blyton and moved into what (at the time) seemed a slightly more ‘maturer’ series of books. I think I read nearly every single book that Ann M Martin wrote (at least I read all the ‘main’ ones, maybe not all the spin offs) and the series as a whole has a certain nostalgia associated to it for me. Although babysitting in the UK at the time, didn’t happen in such a business-like manner as it did in these books, I think it paved the way a little bit for me and my friends to get small paid babysitting jobs. Shame we didn’t have a phone in our room like the girls in these books did though!

Sweet Valley High – Francine Pascal and Nancy Drew – Carolyn Keene
Reaching 13-14 years old, reading wasn’t particularly ‘cool’, so I probably spent a large amount of time reading various teen magazines, but it was also around now that I started reading (and watching) The Sweet Valley High series. Again there were hundreds of these, which, a bit like The Babysitters Club, got darker, as the series went on, and the characters, along with its readers, aged. Sweet Valley High’s were perhaps seen as more acceptable as their focus was on boys and relationships, which was typical of the ‘life stage’ most of us go through at the age I was.

Around a similar time I re-discovered my love of mysteries in the shape of The Nancy Drew files. Again, these were aimed at a slightly older audience than the original Nancy Drew books, but featured most of the same characters. The mysteries were slightly more complex, and a little bit more violent, and there was additional focus on the character relationships.

The Night She Died by Dorothy Simpson
I recall that around 14-15 I felt as though I wanted to read something a little bit more grown up. My Mum is a big mystery lover like myself and she suggested that I try an Inspector Thanet novel. Although it was grizzly in comparison to what I had previously read, it wasn’t particularly graphic in its descriptions and the mystery and storyline was reasonably easy to follow. I then started to move on to reading things such as Morse, Wexford, Wycliffe and Agatha Christie novels.

The Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling
I’m pretty sure someone in the history of this post series will have mentioned a Harry Potter book at some point, and I know Sarah suggests trying not to repeat books, but this book came at me almost out of nowhere and sparked an ongoing obsession.

I hadn’t actually heard of Harry Potter at all, and I had been staying with my Auntie just outside London for a few days when I was about 16. I was due to go home on the coach and needed something to read on the four hour journey. My uncle pointed The Chamber of Secrets out in the bookshop, as he had heard something about it on the radio, and that it was supposed to be quite good. The blurb about a young boy wizard going to a wizarding school sounded interesting, and reminded me of a previous love for school stories, so I gave it a go. I think I read the entire book during that journey and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the first novel (once I realised there was one) and from then on I eagerly anticipated every film and every book release since. J K Rowling and Harry, have gone on quite a journey with me over the years!

Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging – Louise Rennison
There are very few books that have made me physically laugh out loud whilst reading them to the point of almost embarrassment. Louise Rennison has managed to achieve that with every book of hers that I have read. I absolutely love the Georgia Nicholson series, even though I probably got into it when I was slightly too old for the target audience. I’d never really enjoyed reading ‘diary’ novels before this one, but I think I just enjoyed how funny and slightly cringe-worthy, this was. (I think some of the cringing came from thinking about some of the daft things I did in pursuit of boys in the past, although maybe not the extent Georgia does!)

The Unseen – Katherine Webb
This is actually a massive jump forwards, as between about 20-27 I more or less stuck with the same things. Slowly working my way through the two series above, and trying out various crime and mysteries writers such as James Patterson, Kathy Reichs and Lynda La Plante among some of my most read, with the occasional chick lit thrown in for some light heartedness.

The next significant change within my chosen reading genres came when I signed up for a book swap being organised by Jenny (Sunny Sweet Pea) and my ‘swapee’ sent me The Unseen. Although it had a slight mystery element to it, it was not my usual grizzly murder-type mystery, and was more of family saga mystery. What really hooked me, was the regular timeline changes throughout the novel, which wasn’t something I had ever come across in anything I had previously read. I loved it far more than I had expected I would, and I now spend many an hour on Goodreads to find similar authors and story styles. Kate Morton has since become another one of my favourite authors now as a result.

So that’s a bit of a ramble through my life in books really. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading through my choices and that you’ve maybe even felt a little nostalgic, or inspired to re-discovered some of you misread youth!

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Chocolate Chip Pancakes

I’m going through a major breakfast food obsession at the moment. To be honest, I think I was always obsessed with breakfast food, but it’s way more fun to experiment with it when you have someone to share it with. If you look at my Instagram, it’s basically all burgers and breakfasts lately (you know you’ve picked a good ‘un when he comes with his own waffle iron), but one of my favourite things we’ve made is chocolate chip pancakes.

I’ve actually never made pancakes before – on pancake day I’ve always used the premade stuff, and it’s never really occurred to me to make American style ones. But Matt challenged me, and I accepted (plus, I had to top his French toast from the weekend before). These were super simple to make, but bear in mind that if you’re making them for two, this recipe makes a lot. We decided to scoff at the ‘Serves 6’ suggestion, but… yeah. Next time, I’d definitely half it.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Exotic yogurt toppings with Alpro

I've spotted a few bloggers doing the #AlproTops challenge on Instagram recently with Alpro Yogurt. It looked fun - an excuse to eat a bunch of yogurt and experiment with different toppings, so when they emailed me to ask if I wanted to join in, I said heck yeah and did just that.

Alpro sent me a selection of their yogurts and a variety of different toppings, and set me the simple challenge to try a different combination every day for five days. I've always assumed that yogurt wouldn't really fill me up for breakfast - I'm more likely to have porridge or cereal - but this taught me otherwise. Every day that I had Alpro, I was absolutely fine until lunchtime, and trying out the different toppings meant I never got bored.

Day 1 - Vanilla yogurt with pecans, dried cranberries and dried mango
I think this was my favourite combination. The vanilla yogurt went so well with the pecans, and I loved the little pockets of intense sweetness that came from the dried fruit.

Day 2 - Vanilla yogurt with dried cranberries, dried mango, dried mulberries and flax seeds
This was a really tasty combination. Adding the flax seeds didn't change the flavour much, but it did add lots of health benefits. Hooray for health benefits!

Day 3 - Plain yogurt with coconut, chocolate and a smidge of dried mint
This was my attempt at a Bounty style yogurt, with a bit of a twist. I only added a tiny bit of mint, but it was enough to add a really interesting extra flavour to the dish. Plus, bonus chocolate!

Day 4 - Strawberry & rhubarb yogurt with fresh nectarines, coconut and chocolate
I must confess that I got over excited with this combination. But the funny thing is that the part I thought would really, really go - the nectarines and the fruity yogurt - kind of didn't. The nectarines were quite tart, and contrasted a little weirdly with the sweet yogurt. The chocolate and the coconut was nice, but kind of unecessary in the end, too. I actually think in hindsight this would have been great with granola or muesli, and maybe some fresh strawbs.

Day 5 - Lemon & lime yogurt with coconut, pistachios, dried mint and goji berries
I was trying to go for a bit of a cocktail vibe here, and it was actually really tasty. The lemon & lime yogurt is really nice by itself anyway, but it went really well with the pistachios. I was trying to be pretty creative by this point, but if I had it again, I think I'd probably just add the nuts and stop there. The goji berries were really good though, and again, tons of health benefits!

Although my week doing the challenge has now ended, there's still Alpro left in the fridge at work, so come Tuesday I'll be happily polishing that off and the rest of the toppings that Alpro sent me.

What do you have for breakfast?

Friday 23 May 2014

The perfect getaway.

I left university quite a long time ago now, but every now and then, I still miss it. Especially when the sun shines - I studied in Exmouth, on the Devon coast, so on a weekend like we've just had, I'd be on the beach like a shot, or basking in the sun by Exeter Cathedral.

I was long overdue a trip back that way, and so when I was asked to review a Mercure Hotel somewhere in the UK, it wasn't hard to pick the location. So off to Exeter we went for the weekend, and the weather gods were smiling on us too as it was absolutely beautiful weather! Exeter is one of those towns that's great for shopping, but also just nice to potter around, with beautiful architecture from Tudor and Medieval times and the lovely Quay just a few minutes walk from the centre.

When we got to Exeter on Saturday, we found a street food market by the Guildhall and enjoyed cider and paella (chicken and chorizo for the seafood hater over here) in the sunshine, then wandered down to the Quay for a spot of Pimms. It was pretty much the perfect day - doesn't sunshine make everything better?

Back at the hotel, I seized the chance to explore which meant a quick swim and sauna in the spa downstairs. The pool was lovely, a decent size, although my measly 10 lengths made me realise how out of shape I am... so I spent the next couple of hours exploring my hotel room. It might have looked like I was slumped on the king size bed watching Enchanted, but no, it was definitely exploring. Honest.

We were in a Privilege room, which included a fancypants coffee maker, a minibar (the contents of which were included in the cost of the room - even though it was only soft drinks, I was pretty impressed - and I really enjoyed my Diet Coke on Sunday!), a huge bed, lush en suite bathroom and complimentary toiletries. I LOVE complimentary toiletries!

We went to the hotel's restaurant in the evening for dinner and I have to say, the food was the only thing I was a little disappointed with. Our starter was great - we just got nibbles, so we shared a bread basket (sounds dull - actually really great, especially the super fresh rosemary bread) and handmade crisps and fondue (I'm all about dipping stuff in cheese). But we both felt a little let down by the steaks we both ordered for mains - they were underseasoned and overdone. My rare steak was more medium, and Matt's medium steak was definitely well done. The chunky chips on the other hand were a little bit undercooked, too. It was a shame, as everything else about the hotel was so great, I think it actually made us more critical of the food.

I'd like to say we went out and painted the town red, but we were lame and tired and ended up going to bed early! But not before filling in the room service card and leaving it on our door for the morning - as someone who stays in a lot of cheaper chain hotel, getting breakfast delivered to my room is a rare treat! I slept really well, and I'm a really light sleeper who is reknowned for never sleeping well in hotels, but the bed was so comfy and it was really quiet, too.

Breakfast was awesome. We totally over-ordered, but they were fine with that (kind of wish I'd ticked all the boxes now...) and I'm never going to complain about breakfast in bed. We had to pay £5 for the room service but breakfast was included - I really don't think that's much to pay for getting breakfast delivered to our room.

Even though our stay was paid for by Mercure in return for posting a review, I had a look on the website to see the cost and was pretty shocked. You can get a room at the Mercure in Exeter for under £100 a night (obviously the prices dip and rise depending on day, season, extras etc) but for a hotel this nice - and it really was - that's really reasonable. Maybe I'm jaded by living in the Home Counties, but I've paid that for a shabby B&B in the past. And as the weekend reminded me how much I miss Exeter, I'm already thinking about a return trip. I'd definitely stay there again - it felt like a real treat being in such a plush hotel, but also I now know it wouldn't break the bank.

Thank you so much for an amazing stay to everyone at the Mercure Southgate Hotel in Exeter - can we come back and live there please?


Thursday 22 May 2014

29 Again.

Image source

It's my birthday in a little over two months, and I'm already thinking about what I'd like to do. There's something about being a summer baby that always makes me want to do SOMETHING - don't you find that nice weather makes you want to do so much more than sitting in the pub? Last year I had a great time - I went to Vinopolis and then for food and drinks in the Mulberry Bush Pub on the South Bank, but this year? Well, I'm still deciding at the moment, but I thought I'd share some of my options with you. Maybe you'll find something in here that you'd like to do this summer...

Visit the gin museum!
You guys, the world has answered our prayers and is opening a MUSEUM ABOUT GIN. You also get a free G&T thrown in with your ticket, which seems fair. Could you imagine finding all about gin and then not getting some at the end? I would probably just take a hipflask.

Take in a show
Sometimes I think it would be cool to do something you've always been curious about, like see a long standing show such as Les Miserables or even Cirque du Soleil (which is on at the o2 right now). The more I think about it, the more shows I can think of that I'd like to experience - there's a giant West End list!

Stuff my face
I'll be honest, this is kind of a given for my birthday, but I'd like to use it as an excuse to try something different. Maybe just an epic burger or two - I'm still dying to try Patty & Bun, Honest Burger and Bleecker Street - but there's also Hawksmoor, Bubble Dogs (which always makes me think of Hamm & Buble) and the Big Easy. And probably some less carnivorous options, too.

Dance the night away
I hate saying that I go clubbing, because clubbing suggests thumping bass and house music and I'm far more a grubby indie club or tacky cheesefest kind of girl. At the moment I can't decide between Ultimate Power and Guilty Pleasures, though - I've gone to both of these and they're amazing. Ultimate Power is a whole night of power ballads, such a feelgood evening, and Guilty Pleasures have done nights at Glastonbury before and is basically filled with awesome cheese. I must confess I didn't feel too guilty about most of the songs though - I mean, 'We Are Never Getting Back Together' by Taylor Swift is just GOOD.

Party like it's 1929
I went to the Blitz Party a couple of years ago, and really enjoyed getting dressed up in 40s garb (I was especially proud of my victory rolls), but next I'd really like to try the Prohibition Party. I hear they serve cocktails in teacups! The only thing that gives me pause is 20s garb - I'm much better shaped for 50s style than flapper dresses...

Scream my lungs out
I bloody love rollercoasters. I bloody do. I'm really hoping for an Alton Towers trip this year, although as my birthday is the first week of the summer holidays, it's probably not an option. Maybe something to book in for when those little pests go back to school, though.

What do you think? Any other suggestions - or have you done anything on this list before


Tuesday 20 May 2014

Where I've Eaten Lately

Instagram roundup posts are kind of a dime a dozen these days, and I usually shy away from them as I figure everyone who follows me on here probably follows me over there. Lately though, I've been instagramming a lot of amazing food and I wanted to go into a bit more detail so you can seek out similarly amazing food. Everyone loves amazing food, right?

The Baconator and the Will Robinson burger - Atomic Pizza, Oxford
Atomic Pizza is based in Oxford, and there is also Atomic Burger which is run by the same people, based in Bristol and Oxford, again. The difference is that Atomic Pizza sells pizzas AND burgers, but word on the street is that the pizzas are nowhere near as special as the burgers. The burgers are pretty damn special, to be fair. Matt and I shared the Big Tone and the Will Robinson. The Big Tone was a little disappointing - we expected it to be saucier, and reading the menu again, I suspect they missed out the pizza sauce. But the Will Robinson was amazing, topped with breaded garlic mushrooms and super strong garlic mayo (damn, that mayo is good).

Also pictured - yeah, that's a bacon milkshake. I couldn't quite get my head round it, if I'm honest. It was too smokey to be a milkshake! Matt drank the entire thing though, because he is an animal. And I was content with my peanut butter and bourbon milkshake instead. *happy face*

The Warrior Burger - Blue Anchor, St Albans
This burger is simultaneously incredible and terrifying. You know how sometimes burgers need a skewer to keep them together? This had five. FIVE. Just in case you're ever wondering, 1lb of burger is too much burger. I managed about half of it, and it was seriously amazing - really good quality meat, smothered in cheese, bacon and pulled pork with a side of crunchy crackling. In the end though, it defeated me. I wouldn't order it again (seriously, it was indecently large) but I would definitely try one of the other burgers on the menu.

Vegetarian Breakfast, Steak & Fries, Macaroni Cheese, Cinnamon Donuts - Bill's Restaurant
As is pretty evident by the other pictures in this post, I am not a vegetarian. However, I've been curious about the veggie breakfast for a while because it sounds amazing, and it didn't disappoint. On that plate is two slices of sourdough bread - one topped with mashed avocado, one with houmous - mushrooms, tomatoes, poached eggs, basil and crispy fried potatoes (basically hash browns). It's all drizzled with sweet chilli sauce, and let me tell you, it WORKS. I'm dying to have it again, I'd choose it over a full English any day.

Also pictured are the steak and the mac'n'cheese - both fairly basic staples, but both really really really good... absolutely perfectly seasoned, full of flavour. I don't know what Bill's do to their sweet potato fries but they're so very tasty. I might have ordered them as a side to the mac'n'cheese. The Donuts are technically a sharing dessert, but if you're really determined, you could polish them off single handedly. I may have. They taste like the donuts you can buy at fairs and on piers, but with a dusting of cinnamon and a pot of molten chocolate to dip into. Mmmm. As is clear from all the Bill's photos in this post, I'm there kind of a lot.

The Shake Stack - Shake Shack, Covent Garden, London
A veggie burger wouldn't normally get me too excited, but the 'Shroom burger isn't any veggie burger. It's a portobello mushroom filled with cheese and deep fried, and if you ask very nicely you can get the Shake Stack which includes a cheeseburger in your bun too. Obviously this is what I did, and obviously it was amazing because what could go wrong with that combination? The crinkle cut fries are amazing - I don't know why they're so much better than regular fries but they really are. I had some recently at Byron and they were just as good. We also had a concrete each, which is super thick ice cream - this was a blend of chocolate custard, brownie, fudge sauce, chocolate chunks and salt. Oh yeah.

Papera Pizza - Olivo's Restaurant, Ryde, Isle of Wight
I sometimes go to the Isle of Wight for work, and on my last visit we ate at Olivo's. I've been there a few times before and it's always yummy (I also recommend the Tagliatelle Pollo, always crazy tasty) but this time I tried the pizza because I couldn't really turn down a white pizza (mascarpone base) topped with Duck Confit, chorizo and honeyed onions now, could I? It was super rich but so good, a really luxurious pizza. Also, it was £11, which I think was super good value.

Pulled Pork Hot Dog - Wetherspoons
You heard me right! We've recently moved offices and there's a Wetherspoons about 2 minutes walk away, so we've been having a lot of team lunches there. Wetherspoons is one of those places where you know what you're going to get - burgers and sandwiches are pretty good, anything else is a risk. But lately they've really improved their menu! The burgers are really pretty decent, and they've discovered the wonderful world of pulled pork. This hot dog is HUGE but it's also not at all bad. I would totally have it again.

The All American - The Breakfast Club, St Albans
This is not the same chain as the London-based one, but it's just as good. This was two American pancakes, bacon, sausage, egg, muffin and maple syrup and it was pretty gosh darn epic. I'm a huge fan of sweet/salt combinations anyway, but I was still surprised how well the sausage and the pancakes went together. We're dying to go back there - there's a huge menu, and I want to try everything! I think the crazy crunchy nut French toast is next on my list...

Have you eaten anywhere amazing lately?

Sunday 18 May 2014

Byron Burger Club

You know those people who eat their burgers with a knife and fork? I am not one of those people. I am a both hands, jaw unhinged, ketchup dripping down my chin person, and I'm not about to change now. Well. Until I went to the latest meeting of the Byron Burger Club and tried the Juicy Lucy.

The Byron Burger Club isn't a blogger perk (although I'll never turn down a free burger, FYI), it's something that anyone can go to. You can join here and you'll get regular emails about their new products and special events. Sometimes you can even get free food! Those book up pretty fast though, FYI. The Juicy Lucy event cost £20 and included a burger, bacon cheese fries, a beer and a banana cream pie which isn't a bad deal, so we bought our tickets and headed along.

The Juicy Lucy is a recreation of a burger launched in Minneapolis in the 50s by two rival restaurants that claim to have invented the same burger, with a hot cheese injection right in the middle of the burger patty. One used the strapline "Fear the Cheese", and one used "Free the Cheese" - I'll let you know in a minute which one I'd go with!

I was super impressed with the evening. It was really well organised - because everyone had booked in advance, they were able to assign tables and also cater for your original requirements. I'd requested an alternative to the banana cream pie, and as soon as I mentioned it I was told they knew all about me, and I got a lovely chunk of cheesecake instead. And because everyone was ordering the same thing, the service was very quick too.

We didn't exactly allow time to photograph our desserts...

But you want to know about the food, right? Well. When they say juicy, they sure as heck mean it. Matt and I each took a huge bite of our burgers and found out what freeing the cheese meant. The cheese in Matt's burger spilled everywhere, all over his plate... and then he looked up and saw where mine had gone. Have you ever bitten into the jammiest part of a donut and got the jam everywhere? It was a little like that... except more so. When I bit into my burger, the cheese squirted out and up - all over my hands, my face - even in my hair. It was simultaneously mortifying and hilarious, but very much put me in the "Fear the Cheese" camp. That stuff is lethal.

Actually though, putting the cheese in the patty made the burger crazy moist and super tasty. I would have liked some cheese on top too, but that might just be because half of the cheese ended up uneaten in my hair. Byron supplied bibs, and I thought this was hilarious and silly but I was so glad I wore mine, as I would have ended up with cheese all over my clothes too. Sadly the Juicy Lucy is only available for the nights the burger club was running, but they've added an extra night so go if you can! I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for more special burger editions at Byron in the future, although this time, I'll go in with my knife and fork first, like some kind of sensible, reserved, burger eating weirdo.

A completely necessary bib!
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