Monday, 25 July 2011

Off to India

I haven't posted at all in the last week, and won't be for the next fortnight either, as we're off to India.  We're flying to Delhi, and then doing a tour of Rajasthan.

I'm excited, but a little nervous too.  I have never been to India, but have visions of it being crazy and bustling (quite a change from sleepy Brunei!), and of course very hot - it's monsoon season.  Probably why the flights were so cheap...

Anyway, we're packing right now.  Plenty of medicines for the hopefully-not-inevitable tummy bug.  After my illness in Chiang Mai earlier this year I'm anxious to avoid Delhi-Belly.

I'm sure there will be millions of photo-opportunities (camera batteries charged, spare memory cards packed!) and of course I'm eagerly anticipating the food...

See you soon!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Lemon Macarons

Like all teachers, I've been looking forward to this long Summer break for months.  Time seems elastic at this time of year, stretching out for far longer than it should over the last bittersweet few weeks of the school year, but then racing away at top speed as soon as the holiday starts.  Consequently my long to-do-list for the Summer holidays is still... long.

One thing that I have managed to achieve though is making macarons.  I've been planning to make these again ever since being inspired by Ben, but it's the kind of thing that takes some planning - aging the egg whites for a few days, leaving the macarons to dry out slightly before cooking, etc.  It definitely helps to be around all day when you're making them.

The recipe I used is the one I've used before, and can be found here.  As I'm still on my lemon-kick I decided to go with that flavour for the macarons.

My Meri White is a little (*cough* 2 years...) out of date, but it smelled and tasted OK so I used it anyway...  'Best Before, not Poisonous After' is my motto!   I wanted to flavour the macarons themselves as well as the filling, so added half a tsp of Boyajian Lemon Oil to the batter, as well as some yellow colouring.

I might have gone a little over the top with the yellow colouring actually, it's certainly very 'sunny'.  But I like it.

I did use the food processor to get rid of the lumps in my icing sugar and ground almonds, but even so my macaron shells still weren't perfectly smooth.  I very lazily didn't pipe them either, but just used a teaspoon.  Pierre Herme would not be impressed.

They cooked beautifully at 120 degrees C, for 15 minutes.  They didn't brown at all, and did develop the macaron 'foot' as they rose.

I filled them with a white chocolate ganache (simply melted white chocolate with a spoonful of mascarpone stirred in to loosen it) and my home-made lemon curd.  I put a ring of the ganache onto the shell, and then a blob of the curd in the centre.  The tartness of the lemon curd is a lovely contrast with the sweetness of the chocolate.

As you can see, they don't look nearly as professional as Ben's macarons, they're distinctly lumpy and rather more rustic-looking (they're also about twice the size due to my inept teaspooning).  However, when they're just for home consumption it's the taste that counts, and these taste great.  A crispy outer encloses a chewy inner, and they just seem to get better, chewier, the longer you keep them in the fridge. 

I know Ben will want to know this - yes, a few of the macaron shells were almost hollow, while others weren't.  I wonder why this happens?

At least that's one holiday project successfully accomplished!

Monday, 18 July 2011

The White Ball

After the excitement of the Sultan's Birthday Parade that I blogged about on Friday, last night we had the 'White Ball' at the Palace.  This is somewhat of a misnomer because it is not really a ball; there's no ballgowns and no dancing - not even any music - but what it is is a huge sit-down dinner for thousands of uniformed people (mainly military and police) in celebration of the Sultan's birthday.  It's called the White Ball because everyone wears white.  Those in uniform wear their smart white jackets (or 'ice-cream suits' as we cheekily call them!) and the 'other halves' wear anything that's a) white and b) appropriately modest.

The Istana Nurul Iman is the Sultan's huge palace overlooking the river in central Bandar.  We have visited once before, last year for Hari Raya, when the palace is opened to the public for 3 days, but this was an altogether smarter and more exciting affair.  Unfortunately not all of the Loan Service got their invitations to the Ball, but we were lucky enough to do so, and excited to spend an evening at the Istana.

As we drove through town towards the palace we were wowed by all the fairy-lights that were strung up everywhere, on lamp-posts, roundabouts, in trees, etc.  It gave the place a really festive feel.  This theme continued as we entered the palace gates, and went into the palace itself.

We proceded through the entrance hall where we went through airport-style security scanners, and then - very amusingly - were stickered with little labels that said 'Normal Body Temperature'!!  The White Ball was cancelled 2 years ago due to the H1N1 outbreak, so I suppose they were just being super-cautious.

There were no allocated seats so we found some more Loan Service friends and sat with them.  I just loved all the royal crockery and cutlery, and the huge silver dishes in which the food was being kept warm.

Having come through a metal-detector on the way in, there was definitely not going to be any cutlery-pinching this evening (as if we would!) but I did keep the menu as a souvenir.

Chatting with LS friends who had been to this event last year, we realised that it was going to be a long evening, so we took the opportunity to wander around and take some photos.  We were rather tickled when we followed the red carpet back through the palace along the route that the Royal party would no doubt be taking, and came upon this little escalator!  

We made sure of course to get plenty of photos of the two of us on the red carpet too.

We sneaked a peek into the Sultan's dining room which was incredibly lavishly decorated.  We had queued through this room at Hari Raya, but it was lovely to see it all set out for dinner, complete with gold chairs.   The main attraction however was the air-conditioning!  We spent a few minutes standing outside the open doors, just enjoying the cool breeze.  Unfortunately we didn't qualify as VIP-enough to warrant a seat in here...  never mind!

At about 9pm there was a definite buzz in the air and we all stood up as the Sultan and his family entered.  As soon as they were seated it was time for macan - food!

The burners underneath the food dish had obviously stayed alight as the food was nicely hot, and really tasty.  There was a lamb dish, a beef dish with cashew nute, a chicken curry, a prawn Thai curry, chili fish and mixed vegetables, along with 2 types of rice.  We all got stuck in.  The amazing multi-coloured dessert was layered pistachio, raspberry and passion-fruit, and was delicious.

An intimate meal for thousands...!

Just as we were finishing dessert we all had to leap to our feet as the Sultan and his entourage were starting their rounds.  They shook hands with every single one of the guests, literally thousands of people.  It took over 2 hours.  I can only imagine the potential for repetitive-strain-injury for the poor man!  

Not surprisingly they worked their way along the lines at quite a pace, so the opportunity for photos was limited.  They were also surrounded by official photographers and cameramen, so we weren't able to get our own photos of us shaking the Royal hand.  I did catch them on their approach though:

His Majesty the Sultan, followed by the Crown Prince.
One of our party shook the Sultan's hand and then, desperate for a better photo opportunity, ducked into the next line, and managed to do the same again (while another friend with a great camera managed to get the most fabulous picture of him shaking hands with His Majesty).  The Sultan, to his credit, did a subtle but noticeable double-take at shaking the same hand twice - he was obviously paying attention!

The Loan Service working the white theme!
Excitement over, we then had to wait for the Sultan to work his way through our dining area, and then on to the other one.  We finally left at nearly midnight, tired but happy to have had such a fun evening - what a great experience!

Friday, 15 July 2011

Happy Birthday to the Sultan of Brunei!

Today is the Sultan of Brunei's 65th birthday.  It would be tricky to forget this date as there are signs and banners all over the country to remind us - plus it's a public holiday in celebration!

I have to say, I'm a big fan of the Sultan.  He seems like a genuinely nice chap - and I say that having met him a couple of times over the last year.  Brunei is a small country, and he's often 'out and about' meeting and greeting the locals (who adore him).  And of course, he often attends military events, such as the Hari Raya Open House at the Officers' Mess.

I also like the way that there are so many photos of him smiling, as well as more formal ones.  I think he's a very handsome man.

This morning we were up super-early as Rob had had an invitation to the birthday parade in the centre of Bandar.  Unfortunately it was only an invitation for him, so he dressed up smartly in his uniform and got a comfortable and shaded seat in the stands, while I was looking distinctly scruffy and had to watch the parade over the fence.  However, I still had a great time and really enjoyed wandering around taking photos of the spectacle.

Local TV cameras out in force.

So many important-looking people in their finery.  I think this headgear is wonderful.

The mosque was a stunning backdrop to the proceedings.

The Crown Prince arrives.

Huge motorcade, lots of cheering and flag-waving...

It's the Sultan!

What could these be for?
BOOM!!!!  Oh yes, the 21-gun salute!  Wow, that was LOUD.

The Sultan walks out to inspect the troops.

And returns in his fabulous gold landrover!

 The flypast, which included 2 of my neighbours (1 in a helicopter, the other in a plane).

The Sultan gives me a wave as he leaves..!

The Sultan's brother leaves in an amazing purple Rolls Royce.

Who doesn't love a man in uniform?  Rob looking very dashing.

I really enjoy events such as this in Brunei; after all it's what living here is all about in my mind, appreciating the history and culture of a different country.  I'll never get this experience again, so am trying so hard to make the most of it.  Next excitement - the Sultan's birthday 'White Ball' at the Istana (Palace) on Sunday night!

But until then, Happy Birthday Your Majesty!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Red Dragonfruit Ice Cream

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I have been obsessing about Maya's Red Dragonfruit ice-cream for a few days now...  It's not just the colour - but what an incredible colour it is - it's the ice-cream recipe itself.  We used to make ice-cream a lot in the UK, but ironically now we live in the tropics, we've hardly made it at all here in Brunei.  We have our ice-cream maker here, but just couldn't manage to recreate the recipe without 'proper' British double cream.  We've tried a few variations - using condensed milk (OK if you like condensed-milk-flavour ice-cream), making a custard base (OK, but took an age to make and resulted in rock-solid ice-cream), using tinned cream (yuk!) and thickening milk with cornstarch (foul).  So we'd just about given up.

So when I read Maya's recipe that used mascarpone and coconut cream, I decided this was a combination that just had to be attempted.

And I am SO glad that I did!  Mascarpone is relatively easy to find here, and coconut cream?  Well, we always have coconut milk in the larder, as well as sachets of coconut cream powder, so that was a simple ingredient.  I see that Maya has used this same base with other ice-cream flavours - must try the black sesame some time - so I too will experiment further with it.

 Red dragonfruit is in season right now so is cheap and plentiful.  Visually this dragonfruit is definitely an extrovert with its showy skin and vibrant hot-pink flesh, but its taste is definitely more introverted - quiet and subtle. 

 Although its flavour definitely comes through in this ice-cream, it needed the coconut taste to complement it, and I followed Maya's suggestion of adding some basil leaves to give it an extra lift.  We had some growing so it was a simple (and very tasty) addition.

It was so simple, and so satisfying to make.  I followed Maya's recipe to the letter and it was perfect.  It took mere minutes to transform this:

into this: 

I have yet to attempt making mochi in which to wrap this ice-cream.  Hey, before I read Maya's post I had never even heard of mochi!  It looks exciting and I'd like to try it.  But for now I'm enjoying this ice-cream as it is.  Beautiful and delicious!