Dairy Free Chocolate Raspberry Trifle

Trifle is what happens when you let your cake stay out late and run with a bad crowd.I salute the brilliant mind that invented the combination of cake, alcohol and pudding. Trifle is probably the best cold dessert on the planet, a gooey concoction that you can further enhance with jello (“jelly”) – and, best of all, it can be adapted to be soy free, dairy free, vegan, gluten free – epically allergy safe, and, forgoing the booze, kid friendly if you swing that way.

My go-to recipe has made an appearance two Christmases in a row, so like NYE takeout and Cantonese films, it’s now a tradition. My preferred trifle is free from butter, milk and soy, and can be made egg-safe by doing a cornstarch pudding and gluten free by… well, whatever voodoo you have to do to make a cake happen.

Dairy Free Chocolate Raspberry Trifle

Make or buy a chocolate cake. I like the Chocolate Amazon Cake from my NY Times Cookbook. It’s ridiculously easy, cheap, vegan and tastes like the awesome chocolate cake you’d get at your grandmother’s house. It’s a very forgiving cake, and I tend to overbake it to make it a little less moist. Leave out until completely cool so it can absorb all the stuff you’re going to throw on top of it.

Make a vanilla pudding, adapting the recipe as needed. I prefer to use almond milk for vanilla pudding as coconut can be too aggressive. If you really need to use a box mix (and, come on, it’s sugar and cornstarch – you don’t), I like the Dr Oetker organic mixes. As always, read the ingredients as most of them have soy lecithin, the butterscotch and chocolate are the only ones without. Leave until completely cool in the fridge.

Raspberries. I usually use fresh but I tried frozen ones this Christmas and was pleasantly surprised. The taste was much better and they held their shape pretty well after defrosting. They’re going to be layered in the dish and, if you’re like me and could care less about aesthetics, are a great option.

Booze! All important. I use a generous 1/4 cup of Tia Maria, but Kahlua also works. It just depends on what’s in the house.

Assembly: Crumble the cake into bite sized pieces and put just over a third into the base of your dish. Splash all of the alcohol over the cake, trying to evenly cover it. Add a layer of pudding, about a third of the dish, and then half the raspberries. Add another layer of cake, the rest of the raspberries, another layer of pudding, then the last of the cake and the last of the pudding. If there’s small cake crumbs left, you can sprinkle them on top, along with any stray cake decorations hiding in your cupboard. Stick it in the fridge until ready to serve.

I recommend making it a few hours ahead so it all has time to glob together into a giant primordial pudding ooze of engorged, drunken cake that quivers with your reflected gluttony and desire as you open the fridge at one AM on Boxing Day, tablespoon in hand.

Centerpiece dessert, this is not.

(Image via Vintage Ads)
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How to be an ex-pat: Pimms

Weather is a guaranteed conversation here. It’s cliched, but socially useful, and in the case of the past few days, an expression of national celebration. It’s probably because this will be all for the English summer of 2012, but nonetheless, the sunshine is so welcome that it makes total sense for it to be front page news.

A little less welcome is the crowds of shirtless older men who really should know better than to walk about the center of town or the supermarket like that. Or the trend for high-waisted denim underwear. You can’t really call them shorts when there’s a large and rippling expanse of pale cheek half-mooning out on either leg. I’m no saint I suppose, having spent this entire weekend in a bikini top and (proper) short-shorts, but at least I put a top on to do my shopping.

Remaining positive though, one of the best things about living over here is that you truly miss the sun and when it comes back, you do your best like everyone else to make the most of it. In California the sun can be almost oppressive in its ubiquity. Some Saturdays you just want to curl up under the covers and watch movies all day; bright sunshine and clear skies and mild weather make you feel guilty about lazing around.

Now that I’ve gained a few shades of brown to normalize my skin tone (and lost a few pounds of winter insulation), I’m in the mood for the ultimate summer drink: Pimms & Lemonade.

Probably my favorite place in England.

I baby-ducked onto this as my summer drink during a study abroad at Durham University in college. I don’t like cider or beer (unless it’s sipping the foam off of someone else’s Guinness), and as I wasn’t too keen on flaming sambucas, this became my go-to tipple.

It’s a gin-based cocktail liquor that you mix with carbonated lemonade/lemon soda and add in anything up to an entire fruit salad. If I can’t get the fancy French lemonade (although it’s a staple of my Trader Joes runs) it’s possible to use 7-Up, though I cut it with a bit of carbonated water as I find it too sweet.

This weekend my mix-ins are raspberry lemonade, English strawberries and fresh mint. If I ever do a pitcher, I’ll add in slices of orange and lemon and cucumber, and put raspberries in the glasses to serve as otherwise they get soggy and gross.

For my going away party several years back I mixed my own Pimms cocktails. Unfortunately, the recipe from the Times seems to have gone behind a paywall. There are some decent recipes around, but they require an element of forward planning beyond me.

My mix was something like: 1 part each gin and red vermouth with 1/2 part Cointreau, leave to sit with orange and lemon slices and mint in the fridge for about half an hour before adding in the lemonade and serving.

Obviously, there’s an element of quality control involved as you may have to fix yourself several taste tests to ensure that you’ve gotten a properly balanced mix. Not that it’s anything but a pleasant task when the sun is shining and the weather is nice.

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Liverpool World Museum review

It’s taken me six months of burn-out/therapeutic collections-management volunteerism, but I finally got back on the visit-a-museum horse. So to ease back in, we picked my favourite type: natural history/discovery centre. We decided to check out the Liverpool World Museum; making the decision mostly on the proximity to the rail station (Dog Wonder is fine by himself, but I worry) and that mixed (child free!) company wasn’t in the mood to visit an art gallery.  I was also under the impression the museum opened recently, but according to their website the refurbishment and re-opening happened back in 2005. Unfortunately, the fact it’s over six years old makes my retrospective slightly harsher.

The museum building is very impressive, though there’s work being done on the facade. The actual entrance, less so. It was a rain-free day and just after Christmas, so we were worried that it wasn’t actually open. The entry hall is huge though, and I felt a little swamped. I liked the modern structure of steel and glass built within an old stone building though, it seems to be a very British way of re imagining old Georgian+ spaces, that you don’t get anywhere in the States. They didn’t have English maps, but the interpreter at the desk was very helpful. I grabbed one en français anyways (four years of  university French is at least good for enabling my dead tree fetish).

The open entry hall had few objects, but I loved the hanging cast (?) of the pterosaur and the interpretation of the totem pole. I spent a summer interning at the National Museum of American History during graduate school and was lucky enough to get an understanding of collections justification, handling and display at the National Museum of the American Indian as part of the internship program which educated me so much about the wealth of issues behind Native American culture in museums; last year I had several opportunities to see archetype and symbol appropriation/interpretation done wrong, so it is nice to see it done right in other cultural spaces.

We went floor by floor. The aquarium was small, with an emphasis on native sea life and a strange video that appeared to be some sort of scare-fiction about the effects of warming on the world seas. Unfortunately, England’s rocky underwater coast line didn’t make for the most charismatic display, but I did really enjoy seeing the dog fish spy-hopping behaviours. The small amount of sea life paradoxically made me spend more time observing, and it was quite enjoyable actually taking the time to identify each type of fish. Not something I would do at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example!

The Bug House was unfortunately more targeted towards a “family audience” and became more of a browse and recoil expedition through a strangely unfurnished space. I would have appreciated more adult interpretation, especially with the leaf cutter ant display. I wasn’t sure what type of ants I was supposed to be seeing (ants which prey on the leaf cutter workers were listed). I also really wanted to know more about the use of copper. The rope the ants traversed between food source and colony had copper posts at intervals, and the food source was in a copper box. Obviously, it was a deterrent, but why? And more to the point, would it work in my house? Kidding aside, it is a missed opportunity for the most charismatic exhibit in the Bug House.

Leafcutter ant display

Leafcutter ant display

The museum had a large collection of specimens on display in what appeared to be a community learning space, which I appreciated. They were also in the Discovery Centres (more to follow). We really enjoyed browsing them, however they were all set at kid-level, so by the end of the day my back made me painfully aware that I am An Old and that I probably ruined my spine with all of the pre-Kindle abuse it’s endured. I guess we’re probably a strange set of adults who find pressed insect specimens really interesting though, so I can’t think of a better alternative in terms of best serving the appropriate audience. At least they’re out to look at!

I loved the Discovery Centres. There were two: one for natural history and another for world cultures. Unlike the under-utilised gallery spaces, these were chock-a-block with objects to observe and explore, giving it very much a wunderkammer feeling. The interpreter in Natural History was incredibly friendly and enthusiastic; I had an enjoyable conversation with him about the size of the Emperor Penguin taxidermy (which comes up past my waist!). World Cultures had a fun activity with writing your name in Icelandic ruins; unfortunately there weren’t enough of the repetitive letters to spell my sister’s name or my own. The World Cultures centre was also a good hide-out from the horrific World Cultures Gallery welcome video.

Touch Box

Please touch? Yes please.

The Anglo-Saxon/Greek/Roman gallery was sparse (sensing a theme?), which was fine as there was more than enough in the Egyptian gallery to interest. Several mummies in various stages of unwrap and display, with interesting interpretation and justification. It was so nice to browse in leisure, considering my last big mummy experience was in the heaving, conveyer-belt gallery experience at the British Museum. It was also nice to actually see the mummies and the science. The last time I visited the Manchester Museum, there was a whole big to-do with signs and gallery traffic shaping informing visitors that if they were “sensitive to the display of human remains” they should turn back and other nonsense. For a time, I believe they actually put the mummies behind a screen so it wasn’t possible to see the wrapped remains, which seems to defeat the purpose. I think it was tied into a separate display of a Bog Man and some fuss with a group of British pagans called Honouring the Ancient Dead, which is an entirely different post about valuing science, cultural (mis)appropriation, and how casual colonialism remains alive and well. I usually don’t like museum videos, but the ones in this gallery were actually both delightful and informative. I only wish they had a faster replay rate, I missed several because I couldn’t be bothered standing around for the five minutes waiting for it to boot up. Also of note, the translated hieroglyphics wall, which was hysterical, not the least for the Northern accents reading out complaints about some fairly quotidian issues!

We had high hopes for the Dinosaur gallery, but it was a huge disappointment. I’m supposed to make a special mention of the “depressing dinosaur diarrhea diorama,” which sums up pretty much all of the dioramas and models on the floor. It wasn’t even that they were out-dated, just sparse and honestly embarrassing.

Disappointing Dinosaur Diarrhea Diorama

Sad dinosaur.

I guess they didn’t have enough dinosaur-related materials to fill up even part of the gallery, so it transitioned into another sad series of natural history/climate change warning dioramas. I think. There was a big global warming wall, but it was also dark, because that’s how it is in the rain forest (?). The taxidermy wolf pack was the high point, I guess because I always am amazed at how big wolves are (especially since I now see my achondroplastic dog as standard). There was a child who needed a diaper change wafting through with its grownups, which was apt. Dishonourable mention also goes to the “Time Tunnel” dioramas.

There was an animatronic dinosaur display on loan from London, but it had a charge, so we didn’t do it. YMMV.

We thought World Cultures was the last floor, but Sissy and I had a bad case of museum face* at that point and breezed through as there was little of interest in my historical emphasis. It was a standard collection of artefacts, next-to-nothing on India, heavy on Africa and Japan. I really expected more from English museums with regards to Indian objects; how many years of colonialist plunder and you’ve only got enough collected to stick in the museum of decorative arts?** Really? However, I should point out I enjoyed the Tibetan Buddhism room, and the contextual displays. It was different from the standard ethnography.

Of special note is the aforementioned horrible welcome video. You can’t escape it in the gallery. It’s delivered in some kind of strange rhyming meter which I think was supposed to compliment and highlight with poet/performance artist Levi Tafari’s accent and delivery. I say it was iambic pentameter because that’s the only one I can remember from AP English Lit. It was painful. Some words are not meant to rhyme with each other. Must be experienced to be believed (no embed—lame!).

Just when we thought we were done, there was another floor with the Planetarium and exhibits about time and space. Time was clocks. Space was about space, admittedly, but there was little to interest me as it was Eurocentric to a fault, and it wouldn’t be fair to make anything other than neutral observations, with the recommendations of visiting Air & Space and Kennedy if you ever have the opportunity. The Blue Marble picture was also randomly hanging up at the top of a wall in the dark with no credit or label.

All in all: Enjoyable day out, especially because admission is free. I would not want to be here during school holidays as some parts would be unbearable with too many kids. I would not consider it worthwhile to make a trip into Liverpool specifically to visit this museum.

We’ll be doing IWM: North in the next few days as I really want to see the War Correspondents exhibition before it closes on the 2nd. MOSI may also be on the agenda too.

*That face you make when you’ve been at a museum for too long and your brain hurts, usually exasperated by the one slow reader in your group who has to read every. single. display. slowly.
**Don’t get me wrong, I friggin’ love the V&A.

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No one said there would be spiders

Last week was supposed to be the week we started introducing the Dog Wonder to vegetables and other table scraps. Celery was a safe choice, I thought, and gave him some along with some delicious unidentifiable organs from the carcass of a roast chicken (though not the liver–that was all mine). Cue two days of vomiting. Of special note was the damp patch I found on my orange rug after leaving him alone during a shower, and the subsequent re-reappearance in several spots on the couch. Grand delusions of raw feeding? Gone.

Taking in the view.

This is not a picture of spiders.

While the dog seems to be content to live on processed food, there is another, better digested, addition to his diet. Giant British house spiders. It’s barely September, but it seems we’re declaring it officially autumn as I’ve reverted to living in fear of going downstairs at night with bare feet. The Guardian even says so. So far, the dog has caught at least two, that I know of. TMM was there when he found the first one, and pried the dog’s mouth open so he could pull the spider out, put it in a glass and show it to me before releasing it outside. Horrifying. At least I now have a definitive answer to “Guess How Much I Love You?” I also found a brown leg (about as long as the top two segments of my index finger) in front of my fridge. The fridge! The horror!

Spiders here are so worse than anything else I’ve ever dealt with. Dog vomit all over my bed? Fine. Scary drain in my dorm? A breeze. The rat that lived in the kitchen garbage can for weeks in the house that had frames but no windows? We had a détente by the end. But spiders? No. I hate spiders so much, that if Dog Wonder hadn’t proved himself more than capable of handling them, I would consider getting a cat. And I hate cats almost as much as spiders.

I’m in the process of shaking out all my winter boots that have been stored in closets. I pick the boot up, throw it against the radiator and run to the other side of the room. So far, it’s working, but if I find something with too many legs in any of them I will burn those suckers in situ. We have a neighbor with a blow torch. Just saying.

Just for this, I’m seeing the bright side of leaving the country in two weeks for the business of having to acquire my new visa from the States. In addition to having Halloween and Thanksgiving at home, I also get a spider-free existence. In the Bay Area (or, as I like to call it in these situations, the civilized world) spiders do not get that big and then come into the house. Yes, I’ve heard about tarantulas at Mt. Diablo–but we don’t visit each other. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

I’m going to go have a very long scratch now.

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The dog does not eat better than you… yet.

Some people fantasize about weddings, careers and babies. I don’t buy into any of that nonsense.* I dream about dogs. And late last month, with perfect timing to be the best adult birthday present ever, we brought home the first of (hopefully) many, many doggies.

The Dog Wonder

King of the lounge.

In almost every aspect of preparation, I was a confident decision maker arranging his trousseau. Except, that is, for food. Unfortunately in the UK there doesn’t seem to be the same breadth of high-quality kibble options as compared to the States. PetsAtHome is the local superstore. There’s quite a variety of food, but it’s all what I would relatively quickly discard as the mainstay kibble feed. I look for a couple things:

  • A short list of ingredients which are recognizable as food, my immediate heuristic to weed out additives and preservatives.
  • The first ingredients to be a named meat meal and/or a meat. As ingredients are listed by weight, meat meal is going to have more protein than the wet meat, which includes water. I’m also looking for “chicken meal” vs. “poultry meal.”
  • The protein percentage. If I’m comparing two otherwise indistinguishable supermarket dog foods, I’ll more than likely go for the one with the most protein.
  • Soy meal and flour. There are higher quality nutritional options out there, so I view it as a filler more than anything else and will reject the brand swiftly.

I found The Dog Food Project to be very helpful with providing ingredients lists and breakdowns of things to avoid.

Something like Blue Buffalo is probably not going to be found in the local shop, so we’re making do with what we have. We needed to buy a supermarket kibble to provide continuity between Dog Wonder’s kennel and home feed. I chose Iams, because it was relatively unobjectionable and one of the brands they were feeding him at the shelter. Luckily, there’s an independent pet store near where I volunteer, which stocks Arden Grange, the highest quality kibble I have found available in the UK, and we’ll be feeding that too.

On the next dog food run, when we’re finished with the Iams and ready to switch off of it altogether, I will probably also buy a bag of the high protein (approx. 30%) Prestige range.

I had heard good things about Wellbeloved. Their twee website and marketing about the quality of ingredients aside, I wasn’t impressed by it when I actually looked at the nutrition. All of the readily available options had average protein content. The parent company also manufactures Royal Canin (one of the many hit in the 2007 melamine-tainted food recall), which gives me pause. It is manufactured in the UK, although it’s not clear to me how much that really means in terms of the supply chain and the quality of ingredients.

Obviously kibble isn’t my favourite option. I’d like to be introducing more vegetables and raw food into his diet through treats and supplementary feeding, though I don’t think it’s feasible for us to move completely over to raw feeding. But, in the two weeks Dog Wonder’s been here so far, he’s perked up, put on some muscle tone and his coat has gotten really soft and silky. It seems like we’re doing something right.

Dog Wonder at the Park

Unfortunately, good food doesn't seem to be helping with his strange way of sitting.

*Weddings: Did it, enjoyed it no desire to ever repeat it.
**Careers: In recession-years, 20s are the new teens. Right?
***Babies: Just terrifying.

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Eggplant Caponata with Peppadews

We’re economizing this month due to a new addition to the household. More on his kennel coughing ways due imminently, perhaps after the weekly vet visits cease. I’m not great at sticking to a strict budget for food, but I’m making an effort. Hence, the kilo of sale eggplants that came home with us this week.


Aubergines are definitely one of the more reubenesque vegetables.

Due to my extensive list of allergies, there is really very little I won’t eat. For a long time eggplant was up in the top three, along with cetaceans and dog. I’m not sure what ur-memory turned me off, but it’s one of the few non-poisonous things I consistently balk at. Milk and dal-laden sambar taste disgusting and leave me in agony. Eggplant was just… yucky. I made a few stabs at it at in California, as it’s a favourite vegetable for the grill-a-thon we celebrate 10 months out of 12. But no matter how well salted and soaked and prepared, I was always put off by the bitter, used-sock taste and wet paper texture.

All that changed has changed. I’ve been making small stabs at defeating the dread aubergine. I discovered roasting and pureeing. I cooked baingan bharta, as almost every vegetable tastes good drowned in a gingery, garlicky curry. I couldn’t bear the thought of rice again tonight though, and there were the dredges of a jar of capers in the fridge begging to be used.

Eggplant (Aubergine) Caponata with Peppadews
3 medium eggplants, roasted and peeled
1 onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced (I used green–another bulk bag buy. Would recommend sweeter reds if available)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tomato, chopped
1-2 tbsp capers
6-8 hot Peppadew peppers (do not dry!)
2 tbsp tomato paste
Green olives
Red chili, chopped, to taste
Fresh basil for serving

Using a foil-lined baking sheet, roast eggplant at 200c, turning once, until it has collapsed in on itself, approximately 45 mins. Be sure to puncture them with a fork! Cool, remove skin and chop. Puree the eggplant, tomato, and a handful of olives (10 – 12, depending on taste) and set aside. Mince the capers and Peppadews together and set aside, keeping some of the vinegar from the Peppadews. Saute the onions in olive oil until softened. Add garlic and chili, cook for one minute, followed by bell pepper and more oil if needed. Cook until bell pepper has softened, but not lost its bite. Add eggplant and caper mixtures, combine. Mix in tomato paste. Add in Peppadew vinegar to taste. Let simmer on low to let flavours marry. Garnish with torn fresh basil to serve.

Eggplant Caponata

Eggplant Caponata over pasta with fresh basil.

I find the combination of briny condiments was more than adequate to provide salt for the dish, and I used red chili for heat. The Peppadews brought a lovely sweetness, but could be swapped out if using a sweeter bell pepper and vinegar. TMM, who is usually not a fan of my vinegary snacks (he’ll readily avoid being between me and a jar of gherkins) really enjoyed the caponata over pasta. I think I also scored a few points for the Peppadews.

In other news, the basil plant has survived for over a month due to the careful ministrations of TMM. I’ve found the best way to keep plants alive is to tell him when they look “wilty.” I’m in charge of feeding the dog and husband who are both doing just fine, but  obviously that doesn’t translate well into the care and feeding of thing with leaves.

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Bacon Avocado Pizza

AKA the best pizza in the universe. I’m not kidding when I say I can live on bacon and avocado pizza. In fact, in South Africa I do. It’s the single greatest combinations of flavours on a cheese-less pizza. Fat, creamy avo and bacon-y savoury saltiness and makes you forget you’re missing out on molten mozzarella.

That said, I couldn’t limit myself to yearly binges on pizza in Pretoria. Supermarket avocados are actually reasonably affordable right now, and I’ve dug quite a few out of the discount bin, which means pizza nights!

Obviously, it tastes different from pigging out on my no-cheese half from Roman’s, but making it at home definitely reduces the shame factor you get on your third day in a row in the pizzeria ordering the same thing and getting the same, puzzled “you don’t want cheese?” from the same clerk behind the counter. I’m a shameless American, but I have to say, the things my hubby puts up with because he loves me.

Never enough avocado...

I haven't mastered the art of the pizza stone, so my pizzas are square.

Bacon avocado pizza
(who am I kidding… serves 2)

Pizza dough: I used The Essential New York Times Cookbook’s Mark Bittman recipe. Bread flour, a long rise and actually followed the instructions to activate the yeast. Very tasty.

Pizza sauce: An ever-changing combination of finely diced onion, dried chili flakes and lots of garlic, red wine, tomato paste, diced tomatoes and oregano. Optional is bell pepper and smokey Spanish paprika.

Bacon: Use good bacon. None of the streaky American crap. We didn’t eat bacon growing up, so all I knew of it was it was straight, crunchy and fatty. This is not the case! Bacon should be actual meat, with a chewy piece of fat at the end. You should not be able to snap it in half and it shouldn’t just taste like salt. Cook the bacon and then slice it into small pieces.

Avocado: Ripe Hass avocados. Use at least one. Slice over the finished pizza, do not mash.

Assemble pizza. Dough, sauce, bacon. Optional cheese. Cook in oven at the highest temperature you can set. Remove and top with avocado before serving.

Not shown: pizza-anticipating crazy eyes.

Really, they weren't all for me.

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