Sunday, November 18, 2012

Baking and running

These are my two new past-times. Baking and running. One might think they are contradictory but to me they are synergetic. The more I run, the more calories I burn and the more cake I am allowed to bake. And eat. Or so I tell myself.


I've always need a goal when it comes to running. I really enjoy running but getting out of bed before 6am to go for a run is made a lot easier when I know that I have a race coming up. With that in mind when I re-started running a couple of months ago I quickly set my sights on the Nairobi Marathon. Or rather, the 10k event as part of the Nairobi Marathon Sunday; there is a full marathon, half marathon 10k and family fun run of 5k run on the same morning.

The brave marathoners line up for their race.
Despite my few weeks of training I was uncharacteristically nervous before the start of the race. Luckily for me, and in spite of the crowds, I managed to bump into my friend Harvey before the race and we lined up at the start line together.

Harvey and I before the race.
After a couple of kilometers we decided to split up (as I was running a wee bit faster than Harvey) and arranged to meet at the finish line. So for the next 8km I was by myself. And it was wonderful. There was a great deal of weaving in and out to avoid the many, many walkers doing both the 10km and half marathon distances but I still managed to finish well under an hour so I was delighted with myself.

Harvey and I after the race (notice the wide shot
in order to hit some of the sweaty, redfaced-ness)

Breakfast of champions

And I celebrated the only way I know how. With food. And lots of it. I have firmly regained the running bug so I have set my sights on the Kilimanjaro Half Marathon next March. Anyone else up for it?

And so to my other new pastime, baking. Here's a little round up of what I've been baking over the past 6 weeks.

Chocolate Biscuit Cake/Rocky Road Cake

Ok, so this was not strictly baking as I did not use the oven to make these but I did melt chocolate. And butter. And golden syrup. See photograph below of the aforementioned 'heart attack over a bain-marie'.

And I crushed biscuits, and chopped almonds and ... opened a packet of marshmallows. It was hard work I am telling you!

Verdict - These were very well received at the variety of occasions I brought them to. I made two huge cakes so they were brought everywhere with me for almost a week - hiking, picnics/music festivals, the office.

Lemon Cheesecake

Lemon cheesecake as it sets in the fridge

Once again this was not strictly baking as I chose a non-bake cheesecake for my first foray into cake making. But it was a good call. Though it's hard to go wrong with a buttery biscuity base and  a topping of cream cheese, condensed milk and shedloads of lemon juice and zest. Unfortunately I have no decent photos of the lemon cheesecake so the above will have to do.

Verdict - Brought this to a BBQ at my friends' Nick and Nicole's place and it was rated very highly. I personally wish it had been a little less liquid-y so I am going to try another variation for my next cheesecake.

Lemon Squares

This isn't a very appetising picture but I
can assure you it tasted really, really good.

I love lemon. I love the smell and I love lemony flavoured goodies so these were an obvious next choice. Using a recipe from my old housemate, Sandy, I made a tray of these for a picnic day at the races. They have a shortbread-y base (butter, sugar, flour) and a gooey lemon-y topping (lemon juice and zest, sugar, eggs and a wee bit of flour). The first time I baked them they were a little over done and not lemon-y enough for my likely. After putting in the zest and juice from two lemons in the second batch and only leaving them in for the bare twenty minutes they were yum.

Verdict - Both batches proved very popular. However by this point I am starting to worry that people are going to start sending their dentist's bills to me.


Another Sandy recipe which once again proved that you can't go wrong with lashings of sugar and butter. This time the magic ingredient was lots of cocoa powder too but the next time I make them I'm going to try following a recipe that uses real chocolate. I'm sure the results will be posted!

Verdict - Whipped these up for another BBQ and they went down well for dessert. I wish I had had walnuts to add to them for some texture but I know for next time.


One of my happiest moments in Kenya so far.

This was without doubt my proudest baking moment so far. Not because it was a particularly difficult or technically challenging recipe. This is because I baked something that I really, really wanted. For those of you unfamiliar with it, brack, or tea brack, or barm brack or báirín braic, is a cake/bread traditionally associated with Hallowe'en in Ireland. Back in the day the brack used to be baked with a number of charms inside it, whoever found a specific charm, that would foretell their upcoming year. These days the only charm that remains inside the brack is the ring. Whoever finds the ring will be married within the year, or so it is believed. I didn't put any rings in my bracks as I didn't have any cheap, gold rings lying around. I'll know for next year.

I have since baked two more bracks - and I am currently soaking the dried fruit for a fourth. I have a problem. But they just taste so good.

Verdict - It turns out that bracks are cross-culturally appreciated. Having been sampled by British, American, Spanish, Sierra Leonian, Somali, Kenyan, French. I am seriously considering how I might be able to mass produce and sell these here in Kenya. Brack Obama, anyone?

Sponge Cake

A couple of weeks ago I spent a lovely lazy Sunday afternoon with my friend Sean who taught me how to make a sponge cake, and more specifically, a pineapple sponge. Using just four ingredients (self raising flour, caster sugar, butter and eggs) and a whole lot of elbow grease we made not one, but two, sponge cakes.

Verdict - One of the sponges turned out to be the tiniest bit under-done, and one was a little over-done but both were delicious. The cake I brought into the office disappeared within seconds.

Online Resources
My new baking buzz has given me an appreciation of good food blogs and recipe websites. My colleague Kim introduced me to - a massive compendium of thousands of internet recipes. I apologise in advance for how much time you may spend looking at beautiful pictures of food on this site.

My absolute favourite food blogger has to be Stuart Heritage. While not strictly a food blogger as his website contains the links to his other work (which mainly involved Live Blogging X Factor in the most hilarious way possible - see here for an example) when he does blog about his exploits in baking I cry laughing. Good examples here and here.

For more serious food blogging/recipes you can't beat Delia Smith. Her website is amazing and her Information Centre has answered many of my rudimentary baking questions. And I'm also a fan of the Irish chef Donal Skehan. Not just because he is cute and looks like he could be in a boyband (actually he was in a boyband) but because his recipes are fairly straight-forward and tend to use fairly accessible ingredients. I recently made these chickpea burgers and they were gorgeous!

Next up on my 'to bake' list is a proper traditional Christmas cake and also a lemon meringue pie. Results and pictures will, no doubt, follow.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Another side of Kenya...

(I drafted this blogpost way back in June and then, for many reasons, put it aside. However I think it's important that I more frequently broadcast all sides of my time in Kenya, so here it is. I am well and truly out of the doldrums now, for the record, and back loving life in Nairobi.)

This blog on the whole has tended to highlight the lighter side of my time here. I've talked about my travels, the animals and characters I've encountered, quirky Kenyan fashions or idiosyncrasies. I have purposefully steered away from some of the more difficult aspects of life here. But in the past few weeks these have been such a huge part of my life that I feel that it is only right that this blog deals with some challenging recent events.

A robbery
It took me a long time to decide whether to broadcast this here or not. In the end I decided that an account of my time here should attempt to show the variety of experiences that I am having, work-related or extra-curricular, Nairobi or 'up-country' based, rough and smooth.

I had my handbag snatched a few weeks ago when on a weekend away on the coast. While walking between pubs in a group a man ran up behind me and yanked my small yellow handbag from me, leaving the strap dangling around me. I remember knowing, for the second or two before it happened, what was going to happen. I could hear someone running behind me and just had some sort of women's intuition about it (or spidey sense, one could say either). My first instinct was to run after the guy, within seconds I realised this was a stupid idea and promptly stopped. But not before I was across the road, with one flip-flop discarded on the road behind me. The pulling on the thin strap of my bag left a mark on my neck, and as I had been holding the bag the guy managed to break a few of my nails in the process. Apart from that I was absolutely fine. Just shaken up. And I remained so for a few days afterwards. I just felt vulnerable, exposed and I didn't like it. I hate being weak and dislike not being in control. And for the past few weeks this is how I have felt.

Water water everywhere
But not a drop to drink. Or to wash clothes with. Or do dishes. Or flush toilets. For 20 days in May we were without water in our Mountain View house. Now many VSO volunteers live in very remote rural placements where they do not have running water so I know that we Mountain View residents are extremely lucky and have been spoiled these past few months with our flowing taps. But when it is there every day (albeit rationed) you take it for granted. And we did. But we are resourceful women. We bought water and rationed it carefully. We showered in other people's houses. We collected rain water to flush the toilets with. We got on with things. But in a month of many other frustrations it added to my general malaise.

The cold
I had been warned about the cold months of June and July but I didn't heed these warnings. How could it really be that cold? I come from Ireland for goodness sake! Nairobi could never be as cold as Ireland. Well that is indeed true. A Nairobi winter is never actually as cold as an Irish one. Temperatures in June and July are about 15 degrees during the day and drop to maybe 10 degrees at night. But it feels colder. I have been wandering the house in a hoodie and two pairs of socks most evenings this week. I have taken to wearing arm warmers in the office which is, admittedly, ridiculous but has definitely helped. My reaction can partly be explained by the fact that 7 months into my time here I have become acclimatised. But that is only part of the story. Buildings here are built so that they keep cool during the hot months of January and February. They don't have the insulation, let alone the heating systems that an Irish house would have. So, when temperatures drop the house almost feel colder than outside.

At a low ebb
I have felt myself a bit worn down of late. I hope it's not too evident on the outside but I do feel a little less than my usual chirpy self. My patience for the everyday hassles of Kenyan life has definitely diminished. To my shame I have shouted, nay screamed at matatu conductors who have tried to swindle me out of 10 shillings (about 10 cent). I have sometimes flatly ignored the 'Hi's and 'How are you's as I change matatus in the morning, unwilling to even feign enthusiasm.

7 months in I am tired. It would be nice to blend in for a few minutes. To not be such an oddity, such a target. I'm sure these feelings have been exacerbated by recent stresses in other parts of my life, and I do feel that they will subside, but right not Kenya is wearing me down a little bit. I think the sub-title says it all. I am at a low ebb here, but my spirits will lift again.

Luckily I have wonderful friends here, and back home, who are an invaluable support. They allow me ample time for 'ventage' over coffees or Skype calls. They cheer me up with their tales. They help me to put my frustrations into perspective. And things are, definitely, starting to look up.

A Year in Food

(This post is dedicated to Laura Gibbons, who rightly thinks that food blogging would be the best job in the world.)

My mother has noted that almost every time I publish a blog it contains pictures of what I ate. So with that in mind I thought I would summarise some of the highlights of this past year in Kenya through that very medium - pictures of food.

Christmas breakfast

Under the tin foil is bacon, eggs, toast, potato farls. Each of the cup contains Irish coffee. The meal took about 3 hours to prepare as we suffered some technical difficulties (power outages) but it was definitely worth the wait. Spending Christmas away from home was hard, but made a great deal easier by good food, drink and great company.

Patriotic risotto

Back in March I unintentionally made this green, white and orange risotto for the first time when my friend Laura was coming over for dinner one evening. It was doubly appropriate as our plan for the evening was to make St Patrick's Day decorations.

Food at Irish ball 

This is a slightly more professional Irish themed meal, thanks to the chefs at the Hilton Hotel.

Fish dinner of joy in Shimoni

The food is arguably the best thing about visiting the Kenyan coastline. You might not always get the weather, and the journey is a long one, but super fresh fish makes it all worthwhile. This was my Easter Sunday meal at Shimoni on Kenya's South coast - lobster, calamari and ... some sort of fish (potentially rabbit fish?). I don't quite remember now what type of fish it was, but it was tasty.

Outdoor breakfast at Il Ngwesi

After a dawn walk around a conservancy, practically bumping into elephants and other wildlife, to turn a corner and see a full breakfast buffet set up was just amazing, and utterly surreal.

Tallapia in Kisumu

Getting to see some of UNICEF's work with health facilities in Western Kenya back in May was an amazing and humbling experience. I learned more in those few days than in many months sitting in the Nairobi office. Having a chance to spend time socially with colleagues, and share hearty fish lunches, was another. This meal, eaten by Lake Victoria in one of the many restaurants lined up on its shore, was some of the best fish, and some of the tastiest ugali, that I have ever had here.

Fish dinner in Lamu/Manda Island

I caught this fish myself! See that one, the one on the right, a slightly different colour than the others, that one right there, he's mine. I caught him. And then watched him flop around a bucket for a while. He was beautiful, multi-coloured and tasty. Below is the 'before' picture. Yum.

Picnic lunch in the Mara

A full day of sitting in a safari van animal spotting does not sound exhausting but it is. Luckily our lodge packed us an amazing, if rather random lunch, to keep Odharnait and I going for the day. There was chicken, a hardboiled egg, an orange, a banana, some pineapple, a cheese sandwich and some juice.

Coffee and cake after the Ngong Hills

Fancy coffee and cake are always a treat but they feel almost deserved,earned, after a morning's hike across the Ngong Hills.

Cheese platter at Brown's Cheese Farm

Last Saturday I went on a group trip to visit Brown's cheese farm. It is not Kenya's only cheese factory these days,but it is probably the oldest, and manufactures the largest variety of cheeses - as the platter above attests to. Needless to say I bought about a kilo of cheese from their factory shop. Expect tales of a cheese induced coma to follow.

Ok, so I agree that it's kind of funny that I tend to take more pictures than I do of people, or animals, or scenery here but there is a method in my madness. All of these meals I ate with people. The pictures remind me of a time, and a place, and a group of people. And a taste. A yummy, yummy taste.

My own culinary skills have improved exponentially since moving to Kenya. The abundance - and importantly the low cost - of fresh fruit and vegetables means that I have really taken to cooking this year. . And soup-making. And most recently baking. Lots of baking. But I think I'll dedicate a separate blog to my recent adventures in baking.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A massive thank you

Today marks exactly a year since I moved to Kenya. A year since I said goodbye to my parents in Terminal 2 of Dublin Airport at 5am, trying desperately to hold back the tears in front of the security staff. It seems like an age ago, and simultaneously like it only happened yesterday.

But this post isn't about me. It's about you. All of you.

I would like to thank all of you for reading my blog. Especially those of you in Russia, whoever you are. Thanks for driving up my page views to make me feel popular.

I would like to thank all of you who sent me cards over the past years, Christmas cards, birthday cards, St Patrick's Day cards... Each one has found a place for itself in my room.

I would like to thank everyone who sent or brought me care packages of Barry's tea, proper Irish chocolate, pop socks, pumps, One Direction diaries - all of the things that are just hard to get here!

Delighted with my silly straw glasses and
classy perfume courtesy of Órla and Úna.

Best present ever!

I would like to thank everyone who wrote me lovely email updates on their lives and kept me up to date with their latest gossip.

I would like to thank everyone who Skyped me and helped me feel that I wasn't so far away after all.

I especially want to thank those of you who came to visit - Odharnait, Lena, Kathrin and Claire. Exploring Kenya over the past year has been wonderful, but it was made even more special by exploring new places with old friends.

Having 'the craic' in the Maasai Mara
Hiking (and biking - out of shot) in Hells Gate
Country girls messing at the
Karen Blixen house

But a final, MASSIVE thank you goes out to the Wickhams - my Mum, Dad, little brother Colin, little sister Lauren and Mary (my granny, except we're not allowed to call her that as it makes her sound old). Over the past year they have sent care packages full of the most wonderful and necessary things. My personal favourite care package was a joint one between my Mum and Dad. Dad included tea, chocolate, make up. Mum packed me vitamins and wipes for dusting/cleaning. I think that sums up my parents pretty well actually!

Care package of joy from Mammy and Daddy Wickham

They have sent cards, they have phoned, emailed, texted, whatsapp-ed. They have patiently listened when I have moaned about work, commuting, my general Nairobi frustrations. They have read my blog and said nice things about it (some of which I actually believe). They have sent money to go towards holidays and towards flights home at Christmas. They have sent me links to music to ensure that I am not horribly out of touch when I go home. They have once again proven that they are the best family that anyone could ask for.
And it is only 40 more sleeps till I get to see them!