Flying Solo

I’m oddly unenthusiastic about this trip.

I’m off to Vientiane in Laos to apply for my one year Thai Visa.
The reason I’m going to Laos is that you cannot apply for an education visa inside Thailand. It has to be done a a consulate or embassy on foreign soil and Laos is the most convenient .
No. I don’t know why I have to leave the country either, but I do, so here I am at the airport waiting to board my flight for Udon Thani. Yes I know I said I’m going to Vientiane but it is half the price to get a flight to Udon Thani and cross the ‘ Friendship Bridge’ into Laos from Thailand by bus.

Ah visa runs……

I’ve been to Vientiane before, last year when small one needed her Education Visa. And as much as I was looking forward to it I really didn’t have a good time.

When you first do a visa run there is always an element of confusion and chaos as you are not really sure of the procedures or which lines you need to stand in to get the right forms and such, add to that a very tired and confused 8 year old and it’s a joy I can tell you.

There are a few oddities at the Laos border crossing that its worth being aware of before you go.

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1- while you can pay the visa fee in thai baht the preferred currency, and cheapest option by far, is US dollars. 35 of them to be precise. Unless it’s a weekend when you will be asked to pay an extra dollar for ‘overtime’. ( T he irony of the preferred currency being the US dollar in Laos is not lost on me and if you have even the smallest grasp of Laos/ US history it should not be lost on you either ).

2- the Laos visa on arrival form is available to download online. Don’t bother. The actual form given to you is a very particular and specific size and any other sizes are not accepted. It really doesn’t take long to fill in the correct one.

3- it is advisable to ensure that the bills that you use to pay the visa fee are spotlessly clean and un wrinkled. This may sound silly but, I can assure you after the near fiasco we had last time, border officials will refuse to accept any bills that have even the tiniest smudge or wrinkle. I have been told that ‘some’ will accept blemished bills, but it’s really not worth the risk of either being refused entry or being stuck with a blemished $100 bill that can only be exchanged in one particular branch of one particular bank in the whole of Vientiane.

4- Be warned that once you are across the bridge you will be at the mercy of the local taxi drivers. You will, unless you happen to be with a local, get overcharged. It will cost you a minimum of $15 to get to Vientiane city.
However; Before you leave Thailand as you wait to get your passport stamped you may be offered a taxi into the city for around $10. It could be a wise move to take this offer as the price rises once you are across. If you are very fortunate the driver will accompany you through the crossing process and magically produce all the forms you need so you can fill them in on the way over the bridge ( there is a mandatory 20 baht bus fare for the bus that actually takes you across the actual friendship bridge ) . This only applies if you get a seat. It is usual for the bus to be packed far beyond normal capacity

Once the formalities of the crossing and taxi negotiation have been completed it is a short ride to the city itself. A city which is peculiarly similar to most other northern thai cities, yet in many ways starkly different.

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At first glance Vientiane seems like a vibrant multicultural city, but most of this is an illusion due to the huge numbers of ‘visa-runners’ who are simply passing through.

As little as 5 years ago it was still considered to be somewhat quirky to visit this cheap and cheerful corner of communist south east Asia, but the taxi drivers and street vendors soon got wise to the sheer volume of tourists passing through on visa runs for various other SEA countries and prices have been driven up to such a high that it is comparable cost wise more with western nations than eastern. There is also an unusually high level of aggressive street begging with many reports of people being followed around the city for hours at a time by groups of ragged looking children.

It was not children that spooked small person on our last visit, but a clearly unfortunate man who saw us having lunch in a side street cafe and decided to help himself to small ones bottle of pop from the table. Despite being chased out of the cafe by the owner he waited for us to finish and followed us down the road wailing and begging for money.
Now I’m not heartless and clearly he had suffered much in his life, but when he started tugging on my bag from behind it was more than time to flag down an overpriced taxi and get out of Dodge.
Of course i cannot blame people for trying to exploit the ‘rich white tourist’, but it has gone so far now that many people, myself included, will only come back to this city because they have to rather than because they want to.

Which is a great shame as I’m sure the city has many charms and wonderful sights to see, but to be honest after my last trip here I’m really not that inclined to seek them out.

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It’s now around 5 hours since I started this blog post and I am ensconced in the comfort of my hotel room with a take away dish of delicious smelling mystery food and a couple of cans of beer Lao. The rain is thundering down outside and ensconced I shall stay till the early morning sees me take my place in the first of many lines at the Thai Consulate. Once that is done and dusted I will try to walk around the city with fresh eyes and see the beauty that is here rather than relive the disappointment of the last trip.

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Wish me luck.

Jer Gan Mai

Nutella* Brownie Bars

So many apologies for not posting recently, but I hope you will forgive me when you see what I’ve got for you today🙂

My friend posted a recipe link on Facebook and I just couldn’t resist…

I made them but found they were a little too squidgey for my liking and the modification began🙂

They are so simple to make and ideal for a kids baking project. Small person whipped them up in a matter of minutes.

200g of nutella*
2 medium eggs
200g flour
20cl milk

*nutella is of course a brand name, but most supermarkets will sell this as chocolate hazelnut spread.

Put all the ingredients in a large bowl and mush them all together until well mixed.

This is where you can add a handful of whatever you like to give it a little texture. I halved the mixture and added a handful of crushed peanuts to one half and a handful of sugar balls ( more usual on the top of cakes I know, but they make a really fun multicoloured interior for small people)

Stir any of your extra ingredients into the mixture and it’s ready to be baked.

If, like me, you have two flavours but only one want to do one bake, just line your tin with paper as normal, but make a peak fold in the middle and voila, as they say in these parts, you can fill up each half with a different mixture.

Bake at 200 degrees for around 20 minutes, until you can poke it with a cocktail stick and it comes out with a tiny smudge of mixture on it. You have to make sure you don’t over bake this as it is supposed to be slightly gooey in the centre.

Leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes then transfer onto a cooling rack. As tempting as it is to dive straight in it’s best to try and wait at least 30 minutes so they don’t crumble too much when you cut them.

When cooled, cut into bars or squares and store in an airtight tin.

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**more pictures will be uploaded as soon as small person has stopped hogging the pc🙂

Couscous Stuffed Cabbage Leaves

My Small person announced in the supermarket the other day that she ‘really liked that frilly kind of cabbage’. When I picked myself up off the floor and put the savoy cabbage in my trolley it occurred to me that there are quite a number of leaves a whole cabbage and only 2 people in our house at the moment so I had better come up with some cabbage recipes quick smart.

My big sister has also been asking for some good low fat healthy recipes, not something HillyWillys kitchen is known for, so I thought I should try and come up for something for her as well. Hopefully she’ll like it as much as small person did.

This is a great tasting low fat dish on its own as a starter or served with a green salad and coleslaw as a main. If you happen to have any parcels left over wrap them in foil and keep in the fridge overnight and they can be eaten cold as a snack.

Couscous Stuffed Cabbage Leaves

Ingredients

6 large Savoy Cabbage leaves
500ml Vegetable stock
200g pre-cooked couscous*

*You can put just about anything into couscous to jazz up the flavour, but this is what I used in mine.

150g of dried couscous
25g raisins
Pinch of dried mint
1/2 tsp dried mixed herbs
2tsp dried mixed pepper
(if you wish to use fresh pepper add 20g of finely chopped mixed peppers with the chopped tomato)

Place ingredients into a bowl and cover with boiling water. Cover and leave for 5 minutes. Once the water has absorbed into the grain stir in 1tsp of olive oil, 1tsp lemon juice and 1 finely chopped cherry tomato .

Take the cabbage leaves and cut away the hard white stalk
Image. Drop the leaves into boiling vegetable stock and blanch for 1 minute ( if you are using red or white cabbage you may have to leave for an extra minute) until slightly softened.

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Take each leaf ( bring together the two edges where the stalk was cut away so you have a solid flat leaf ) and place a small amount of couscous in the middle of the leaf.

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Wrap the leaf into a small bundle by bringing the bottom of the leaf up to cover the filling, then fold in the left then right sides and roll the bundle upwards.

Tightly pack the stuffed leaves into an oven proof dish and cover with the stock you used to boil the leaves. Cover and place in a 200 degree oven for 25 minutes. Uncover and cook for a further 10.

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If you wish you can serve with a spoonful of low fat crème fraiche or a sprinkle of grated cheese on top.

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A Bientot.

Chocolate Lime Macaroons

Well hello there. It’s been a while I know, but I just haven’t been feeling the baking mojo of late. A seemingly endless round of family illness and grotty cold weather had left me feeling rather uninspired.

The good news is that this week the sickness has abated and I’m slowly getting back into the kitchen🙂

My first post flu cravings were for comfort and sweetness. What better than a coconut macaroon to cheer me up. But, as it’s me in the kitchen, it’s a coconut macaroon with a twist. Of course I turned to chocolate as a first choice, but i thought this might make it a little sickly and there was a little extra something needed to take the edge off so I dabbled with a little lime. The results were just what I needed.

This is a very simple recipe and quite quick to make too. They are ideal as a biscuit replacement with your afternoon cuppa, but pretty enough to be served at a high tea.

Chocolate Lime Macaroons

2 egg whites
100g caster sugar
160g desiccated coconut
Grated zest of 1 lime
Juice of 1/2 a lime ( reserve the rest in case your mixture isn’t quite wet enough)

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200g dark chocolate

50ml single cream

Place all of the ingredients into a large bowl and mix together. The best way of doing this is with your hands. It will feel very dry to start with but you really need to squeeze the ingredients till they start to come together. If it’s not pressing together add the reserved lime juice 1 tsp at a time.

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Turn out your mixture onto a greaseproof sheet and press it firmly into a square about 1 cm thick.
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Take a small cookie cutter and press firmly into the mixture.
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Very gently transfer to a lined baking sheet. You will need to be quite delicate when easing the shape out onto the tray as this is a VERY crumbly mixture.

Keep cutting and repressing your mixture until it is all used. I had enough to make 24 hearts.
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Place the tray in an oven preheated to 180degrees for 10- 15 minutes, just until the coconut has started to brown.

Remove from the oven and let cool on the tray for 5 minutes to allow them to firm up a little before placing on a wire cooling rack.
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When the macaroons are completely cool melt the chocolate and stir in the cream until it is completely blended.
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Dip the macaroon in the chocolate ganache and place onto greaseproof paper  until the chocolate is set.
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These can now be kept for up to a week, ( if you have a stronger will that I ), in an airtight container.
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A BientĂ´t.

Apple and Ginger Surprise Loaf

What’s the surprise? (I hear you ask)
The surprise is that I made it.
I was actually just in the kitchen making a coffee and bemoaning the lack of biscuits to go with said coffee and my eyes began to wander and before I knew what was happening I had a bowl full of cake mix in front of me.

I was going to knock up a batch of biscuits as cheeky treat, but then I noticed a banana that had seen better days loitering in the fruit bowl trying it’s best to corrupt a lonesome apple and my head decided that the best place for them was inside a cake, rather than have them join forces and ruin what was left of the innocent ginger root. Ah now ginger, that would be nice with apple….

So the mixing began in earnest and i remembered the tin of chrystallised ginger in the cupboard that I’ve been forgetting about for the last 2 months, and when I was rummaging I found a jar if ginger syrup ( left over from the chrystallising ). Then I thought this might actually turn out to be rather awesome and I really should be taking pictures for the blog, but as my camera was in the somewhere, and my iPad was charging in the somewhere else I just decided to crack on before the baking muse decided to join them. It also occurred to me that I should probably be writing this down. And measuring the ingredients rather than just chucking and sloshing.

The following is a recipe of all the things I remember putting in it, in their approximated quantities. And even if I do say so myself it’s rather delicious.

Apple & Ginger loaf.

*75g Butter (softened)
*50g Sugar
1 Egg
*275g Flour
*2 level tsp Baking powder
1 overripe Banana
**75ml Ginger Syrup
**75ml Creme Fraiche
1 Apple (peeled and diced)
**100g Chrystallised Ginger ( finely chopped )

*these ingredients I did measure
**these ingredients I didn’t, but its a good ‘guesstimate’

In a large mixing bowl cream the butter and sugar until pale and smooth.
Beat the egg and stir in gradually, adding a spoonful of flour each time you add some egg to avoid curdling. When all the egg has been stirred in , sift in the rest of the flour and baking powder and stir well.

In a smaller bowl mash the banana and mix with the ginger syrup and creme fraiche, then add this to your large bowl and stir well. The mixture should be slightly ‘gloopy’ in consistency, but not quite pourable. If it is too dry at this point add a little more creme fraiche. Now throw in the chopped apple and chrystallised ginger and mix thoroughly.

Transfer the mixture to a 2lb greased and lined loaf tin, cover the top loosely with greaseproof paper and place in an oven preheated to 170degrees. Bake for 1 hr and 15 minutes then uncover and return to the oven for 15-20 minutes. Poke a skewer or knife into the centre of the cake and if it comes out clean then it’s done. If not return to the oven for a further 10-15 minutes ( you may need to recover the top to stop it getting singed).

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Take out of the oven and leave in the tin for 15 minutes, then remove it, take off the lining paper and leave on a cooling rack for as long as you can. The longer you leave it too cool, the easier it is to slice, but if you are impatient like I am, warm chunks are more than acceptable.

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A BientĂ´t.

Marvellous Moreish Muffins

I haven’t actually been in the kitchen very much of late as my lovely hubby has been cooking up a succession of delicious curries and Thai dishes for us, I’m hoping he’ll guest spot here one day with his fabulous spicy pork salad but up till now he can’t be persuaded.

That said I have been allowed in to make the odd dessert or two and I have found one of the simplest and most reliable muffin recipe I’ve ever used. And this is what I’m going to share today. This is a quick bake too- no more than 30 minutes start to finish.

This is so simple and delicious that it’s great for novice bakers, kids and old hands alike, and the variety of flavours are as limitless as your imagination!

I will start by giving the plain muffin mix recipe and method then go through a few variations after. These ingredients are enough for 6 large muffins. If you happen to have run out of muffin cases then it works just as well in cupcake cases and you will get 10 ( guess how I found that out!)

Marvellous Moreish Muffins.

In a Bowl

150g Plain Flour
1tsp baking powder

In a large Jug

1 egg
60g sugar
2tbsp oil
100ml milk
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
ingredients (Now for the chocoholics amongst us if you want to make chocolate sponge as well, simply replace 25g of your flour with cocoa powder)
Mix the egg,milk, oil and sugar together in the jug.

Pour the egg mixture into the bowl gradually and mix until combined *
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Spoon mixture into cake cases and put the tray in the oven at 160C for 20 until set and cracked at the top if not quite set put back in for a further 5-10 mins
So the plain muffins are delicious, but they are well, plain so let’s have some fun!

*Just before you spoon the mixture into the cups is a great time to start being creative. You can add just about anything here, chunks of fruit, chocolate, nuts or combinations of all 3 of those things. I have found that around 100g of ‘extras’ is about right, but if you are adding things like oats or desiccated coconut you may need a tiny bit more milk as they will absorb some of the moisture in your mix.
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(Now for the chocoholics amongst us if you want to make chocolate sponge as well, simply replace 25g of your flour with cocoa powder)

Here are a few flavours I’ve already tried;
Oatmeal honey and raisin
Apple and cinnamon
Chocolate chunk
Chocolate cranberry and coconut.
Marvellous Moreish Muffins
I’m quite sure I’ll be making more, I’m already tempted for a chocolate and orange, but do let me know what flavours are your favourite.

A BientĂ´t

Speedy Spicy Tomato Carrot & Apple Soup

There’s nothing nicer on a drizzly damp night than some spicy home made soup, and it just so happens that’s exactly what we had for tea tonight.

There’s also nothing nicer than something that only takes 20 minutes to prepare and cook.

So here is a very quick recipe for a very quick meal.

Tomato and Apple Spicy Soup

1 Onion
2 tsp Tomato Puree
200g ( half a tin ) Chopped Tomatoes
1 tsp sugar
1 Potato
4 Carrots
1 Apple
1l Vegetable Stock
1/2 tsp Cayenne Pepper

Roughly chop the onion and put in a pan with a drizzle of olive oil, tomato puree and sugar. Stir well until the onions are coated in the puree then add the chopped tomatoes. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.
cook tomatoes and onion
Roughly chop the carrots, potato and apple and add to the pot, stir well for a couple of minutes and add the vegetable stock and cayenne pepper.

roughly chop veg
Boil for 15 minutes until the veg are tender then blend. Serve up with a splash of cream or a dollop of creme fraiche and some warm crusty bread.
serve with creme fraiche or cream
Simple, quick and delicious.

A Bientot.