Postcard from Melbourne: Part I

Despite an early morning arrival into Melbourne, we were able to get into our rental apartment, unpack and head out for breakfast nearby. We are staying in the same apartment in Prahran that we stayed in earlier in the year, only for longer. We enjoyed the area so much and it reminds me of where we used to live in London: lots of small independent shops, great restaurants, a buzzy and lively vibe. Of course, we stick out like two sore thumbs among the tattooed, shorts and singlet wearing local population.

Part of the area’s charm is that we know where to find most things but there’s still areas and side-streets to be explored. The spacious one-bedroomed flat has everything you need: great WiFi, dishwasher, washer/dryer, free car parking, a large balcony, great security, and more. In addition, we got quite friendly with the owner, a charming lady from Vietnam, who kindly stored our bulky bike boxes for the entire duration of our trip. She’s obliging again this time.

Having downed breakfast, we went shopping at the local market – my idea of heaven – snatched a power nap and then headed into Melbourne for the first of what was going to be many sporting events, a Twenty20 Big Bash match. Just a hop, skip and a jump on the train from where we were staying, once armed with our Myki tickets (Aussie version of Oyster cards).

I have fallen in love with The Big Bash League, the Australian professional Twenty20, eight-team cricket league  sponsored by none other than Kentucky Fried Chicken. Who knew the Colonel was a cricket fan? Generally I’m not, though I can appreciate the strategy and love the stats. My Dad played cricket and taught me to catch and bowl at an early age. As a result, I played cricket for school and was a demon batsman and bowler. Last year I thrilled to the exploits of Messrs Gayle and Khawaja, neither of whom is playing this year and, aside from seeing a live match in Adelaide, watched the last series on the television.

I find five-day test matches a long slow smoulder, while Big Bash games are incendiary devices. Judicious use of players and tactics still apply but there’s so much less time to achieve one’s goals. Only 20 overs (240 balls), around 80-90 minutes aggressive play for each team, and it’s game over. Teams, which have a salary cap, can have a maximum of 18 contracted players with a minimum of two rookies and a maximum of two overseas’ players, plus their understudies. For example, the Melbourne Renegades have Dwayne Bravo and Sunil Narine, both from the West Indies.

Twenty20 is very much family based entertainment and at least half of Thursday’s 23,000 audience were kids. Audience participation is greatly encouraged with prizes for those caught on camera performing the best air guitar routine, watering (one of the team’s sponsors makes hoses), victory celebration etc etc. You get the idea. In addition, there’s plenty of competitions at half-time with prizes for spectators and the dozens of pint-sized mascots. 23,000 might not sound like much of a crowd but, don’t forget, there’s two teams in Melbourne, the Renegades and the Stars.

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Dressed appropriately in red and black, we were supporting the Renegades who were up against last year’s league winners, Sydney Thunder. The latter won the toss and elected to field. The Renegades quickly built an impressive strike rate largely off the back of the exploits of their captain and firm crowd favourite, Aaron Finch. Having scored 7-179 runs, the Renegades managed to stifle and then snuff out any threat from the Stars using the full-range of their bowlers’ skills. It was an impressive shutdown.  Our next game is on New Year’s Day and it’s the Melbourne derby. But don’t expect any shots of either of us wearing KFC buckets, minus the chicken, on our heads!

The Musette: Probably the best chocolate chip cookies ever

I know some of you put the brakes on right after the Festive Season, but I like to keep the treats flowing at least until Epiphany. My bunch of taste-testers voted these quite unequivocably the “best cookies ever”. I feel I should qualify this with the word “probably”. If I put out a plate of these, they disappear in seconds and they’re always a welcome gift, particularly during the holiday season.

The recipe comes from the Momofuku: Milkbar cookbook by Christina Tosi, from the New York joint of the same name. I have to confess that none of their recipes disappoints. What’s more, the book is full of useful nuggets of information to help you become an even better baker. How good is that? However, just reading the recipes is likely to lead to a furring of your arteries. This recipe is not low in calories and is quite time-consuming (typical British understatement) and so should be saved for celebrating special occasions, such as Christmas, a landmark birthday or winning a grand tour.

Ingredients (makes approx. 48 cookies)

Cornflake crunch

  • 170g (5 cups) cornflakes
  • 40g (½ cup) dried milk powder
  • 3 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 130g (9 tbsp) unsalted butter, melted

Cookie dough

  • 225g (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 240g (2 cups) caster sugar
  • 150 g (1 cup) soft, light brown sugar
  • 2 organic eggs, each weighing approx 45g (1⅔oz) without their shells
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • 240g (2 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
  • 1½ tsp fine sea salt
  • ¾ recipe (3 cups) cornflake crunch
  • 125g (⅔ cup) 70% minimum dark chocolate chips
  • 65g (1¼ cups) white mini marshmallows

Method

1. First make the cornflake crunch. Preheat oven to 140°C/120°C fan/gas mark 1 (275°F/225°F fan).

2. Pour the cornflakes into a medium-sized mixing bowl and crush them with your clean hands to one-quarter of their original size. Add the milk powder, sugar and salt, then stir to mix thoroughly. Add the butter and mix, ensuring all the flakes are coated. The butter will bind the dry ingredients creating small clusters of cereal.

3. Spread the clusters onto a greaseproof (parchment) paper lined sheet pan and bake for 20 minutes, at which point they should look toasted, smell buttery and crunch gently when cooled slightly and chewed. Don’t chew too many or you won’t have enough for the cookies.

4. Cool the cornflake crunch completely before storing or using in the recipe. It will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a week or a couple of months in the freezer.

5. Now you can make the cookie dough. Combine the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or beat with a hand mixer) and cream together on medium-high for 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the eggs and vanilla, and beat for 7-8 minutes. This is a crucial step – less is most definitely not more. You need to get as much air into the dough as possible otherwise you won’t be able to incorporate all the other ingredients. It should be light, fluffy and have quadrupled in size.

6. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the sifted flour, baking powder, bicarbonate (baking) soda and salt. Mix just until the dough comes together, no more than a minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.

7. Still on low speed, gently mix in the cornflake crunch, chocolate chips and mini marshmallows – no more than 30-45 seconds maximum. It’s important you don’t overwork the dough.

8. Use a large ice cream scoop (or ¼ cup measure) to portion out the dough onto a greaseproof (parchment) paper lined sheet pan. Put no more than nine on a sheet, spread well apart. Pat the tops of the cookie dough domes flat. Wrap the sheet pan tightly in clingfilm (plastic wrap) and refrigerate for at least one hour, or even up to a week. Do NOT bake your cookies from room temperature – they will not hold their shape. At this point, I usually portion the cookies into 4 x 12 portions and freeze three-quarters of the cookies for baking at a later date.

9. When the cookie dough has chilled for at least an hour, heat oven to 190°C/170°C fan/gas mark 5 (375°F/325°F fan).

10. Remove the clingfilm (plastic wrap), place in the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes. The cookies will puff, crackle, and spread. They’re ready when they are browned on the edges and just beginning to brown toward the centre. Leave them in the oven for an additional minute or so if they still look pale and doughy on the surface.

11. Cool the cookies completely on the baking sheets before transferring to a plate or to an airtight container for storage. In theory the cookies will keep for five days, in practice they disappear in nanoseconds. The unbaked dough will keep in the freezer for a month.

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Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the cookies in the oven, put the timer on for 2-3 minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. The cookies can be cooked from frozen and I find they only take a few minutes more to cook.

4. Do not substitute dark chocolate chips for milk chocolate ones as you’ll upset the overall balance of the sweet, salty, bitter cookies.

5. If you can’t find mini marshmallows, cut larger ones into four but roll the pieces in a mix of equal amounts of sifted icing (confectioners) sugar and cornflour so that they don’t stick together.

6. Freeze the unused 1/4 portion cornflake crunch. When you’ve made 3 batches of cookies, you’ll have enough cornflake crunch stored for your fourth!

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7. Enjoy!

Postcard from Dubai: Part I

We eased ourselves into our trip to Australia with a stopover in Dubai. Not our maiden visit by any means, though many of our previous trips there have involved a mixture of business and pleasure. That said, we did spend a wonderfully relaxing Christmas and New Year there in 2003, staying at The One and Only. This time we were only there for four days and, of course, my beloved scheduled a day long business meeting.

Still, that left three days R&R which was just long enough to check on Dubai’s ever-changing skyline, mooch around one of its many malls and indulge in a spot of sunbathing around the pool and down at the beach. It’s no exaggeration to say we’ve already done Dubai. We’ve had many trips into the desert, sailed around Dubai Creek, visited the old town, gold and spice souks, the Palm, and watched the tennis, golf and horseracing. We’ve visited various areas of the city, spent way too much time in the exhibition centre, plus stayed and eaten at lots of hotels and restaurants.

My sisters “discovered” Dubai over 20 years’ ago and they still regard it as the perfect holiday destination, providing that beguiling mix of sunshine and shopping in a safe, 5* environment. It’s true that Dubai has lots of positives including great weather, fantastic hotels, a very safe environment for women on their own and families. Plus, there’s plenty to see and do for the whole family.

Now let’s head back to the start of out trip. As regular travellers, we know the drill at Nice airport but they seemed to have stepped up security since our last visit a week or so ago. Customs deemed my sealed plastic bag of liquid samples to be too large and insisted the contents had to be decanted into a smaller one. Our iPads had to go through Security open and my beloved had to dismantle his camera and lenses. I was tested for traces of explosives. But it’s hard to feel aggrieved when you know it’s for your protection. As anticipated, the Emirates flight passed smoothly and I caught up on all the latest cartoons: Finding Dory, Secret Life of Pets and Kung Fu Panda 3.

In Dubai our upgrade fairy godmother smiled on us again and we lucked out with a junior suite on the Executive floor of the hotel which gave us access to the Executive Lounge where we ate breakfast, afternoon tea, cocktails and canapes for free!  That’s right, we didn’t spend a single dirham outside of the cost of our room!

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The hotel had a shuttle bus to the Dubai Mall where we marveled at the many opportunities to melt one’s credit card. We both quickly tired of the razzle, dazzle shops and, after marvelling at the aquarium, gravitated to the top floor which houses an amazing bookstore with quite possibly the largest collection of cookery books I’ve ever seen, and that’s going some. It leapfrogs over Dymocks in Sydney, Barnes & Noble Union Sq NYC and Waterstones in Picadilly London right into my top spot.

Of course, no trip to the Dubai Mall would be complete without heading outside to watch the fabulous orchestrated fountain display. I now have a confession to make. We’ve never been up the Burj Khalifa largely because I don’t like heights, at all. I spend most of my time in Dubai avoiding those omnipresent glass  lifts and steering clear of floor to ceiling windows.

I lazed around the pool on Sunday while my beloved was at his business meeting. Yes, It’s a working day in Dubai. The lazing about continued over the next two days albeit down at Jumeirah Beach where I paddled along the shoreline and read a few books in the shade. So there you have it, idleness aplenty! All too soon our break was over and  we were on our way to Melbourne.

Unlike last year, we didn’t score an upgrade on the flight to Melbourne, I hope my fairy godmother is saving that for the overnight trip home. This time, having already exhausted the cartoons, I plundered Emirates’ excellent music selection and dozed. I can sleep pretty much anywhere, anytime.

12 days of Christmas – day 12

What to choose for the 12th photo? Should it be one from our current location in Melbourne, Australia? Quite possibly! But it isn’t. Instead it’s of a massive Christmas tree built entirely from green bottles – that had to be one hell of a party. In fact, it’s so large, I didn’t quite capture it all in the photo. Oh, and in case you’re interested, there’s no star or fairy on the top.

Where is it? It’s on the quay, in the old town of Gijon, Asturias. 

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Wishing you, your nearest and dearest, a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and successful New Year

12 Days of Christmas – day 11

There’s nothing I love better than a good sunrise or sunset. Generally, the view from our apartment provides spectacular photographs at any time of the day but when I looked back over the ones we’d taken, this one from the Yarra Valley stood out.

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We spent the last 10 days or so of our Australian adventure in the very relaxing wine-producing Yarra Valley  from where we fully explored the area and watched the Herald Sun Tour. We’ll be doing the same again in 2017 but this time from the Mornington Peninsula where I’m sure the sunrises and sunsets will be equally spectacular.

12 Days of Christmas – day 10

This is the view from the finish of stage 3 of the Vuelta a Espana, 176.4km from Marin to Dumbria, Mirador Ezaro which was won by Alexander Geniez (FDJ).

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It was a long, hot wait at the summit finish for the peloton, particularly as supplies of cold drinks ran out early on – we were somewhat ill-prepared. But the view back down to the Atlantic coast was worth it.

I’ve just realised that three photos of the Atlantic coast have made it into my 12 favourite photographs from 2016: San Sebastin’s La Concha beach on Day 2 along with one of Vigo’s many beaches on Day 8. But then I do love looking at water, it’s very calming. In our current home we have a beautiful sea view which stretches, on a clear day, from Cap d’Antibes to Cap Ferret and I never tire of looking at it.

 

12 days of Christmas – day 9

This is photo of the Tour de France peloton as it passed by Coutances on stage 2, a 183km largely flat coastal route from Saint-Lo to Cherbourg won by Peter Sagan, which gave him his first-ever yellow leader’s jersey.  He went on to take his fifth consecutive green jersey. I wonder how many he’ll rack up during his career?

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I love watching a peloton snake past in full flight. It’s an amazing kaleidoscope of colour and I’m always surprised at how fast they’re travelling, even early on in a stage. You can see the teams protecting their lead riders from the wind and the main protagonists endeavouring to stay near the front so as not to get caught by any splits in the peloton, particularly important when there may be cross winds.

How many riders can you name? Look carefully and you’ll see two former race winners (Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali) and a former world champion (Rui Costa).

 

12 days of Christmas – day 8

My beloved was keen to visit Vigo while we were following the Vuelta a Espana around Galicia. Aside from its beautiful Atlantic beaches, alleged to be among some of the best in Europe, the town has a magnificent Old Quarter which, while not extensive, covers an interesting area on the slopes above the marina with a number of beautiful plazas along with buildings and streets that have survived from the medieval period.

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Vigo’s history and heritage though is not only confined to the old quarter. The greater city has many stunning examples of civic architecture dotted  around its centre and there are a number of squares and parks and plenty of great bars and restaurants serving fish, including my favourite octopus, from the bountiful seas. Galicia seems to enjoy a warmer and less wet climate than the rest of northern Spain and fewer tourists.

 

 

12 Days of Christmas – day 7

Chenonceau Chateau is the second most visited building in France after the Palais de Versailles. However, on a hot summer’s day in July, we were entranced more by its magnificent gardens and spectacular setting.

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It was built in 1513 by Katherine Briconnet and successively embellished by Diane de Poitiers then Catherine de Medici. It has an exceptional collection of  Old Masters’ paintings, as well as an extremely rare selection of Flanders Tapestries. But we loved the gardens created by its two leading ladies, the original layouts of which have been preserved.

When Diane de Poitiers was gifted Chenonceau in 1547, it only had a modest garden. Over the next five years she created sumptuous flower beds and a fountain situated upstream, on the right bank of the River Cher, protected from river floods by raised terraces. Catherine de Medici then sought to outdo her predecessor with subsequent works in the gardens which included a maze, an aviary, a menagerie, a sheep barn, a man-made cave and a rock fountain.

 

12 Days of Christmas – day 6

Racing in old kit and on old bikes is seemingly very popular in Italy. This group of cyclists were crossing posing at the finish line at this year’s Milan-San Remo which concludes just up the road from us. It’s the first Monument of the year and we really enjoy our day out in Italy, particularly if the weather’s fine. We generally head over for breakfast and a read of La Gazzetta, a stroll around town before lunch, then we settle down to watch the race unfold on the big screen on the via Roma. I’m not sure if any of these riders had actually ridden the entire route, I suspect they’d just rolled along the coast and into town to soak up the atmosphere.

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At almost 300km long and with all the hills coming in the latter part of the parcours, Milan San Remo is not a race for the faint-hearted and the outcome is notoriously difficult to predict. Having survived the climbs, it’s generally a limited bunch sprint to the finish on the via Roma. 2016’s edition was won by Frenchman Arnaud Demare (FDJ).