Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Diary of an Online Sugarcraft Student

I have always had a real interest in sugarcraft as well as baking and, last year, completed a City and Guilds Level 1 online course in Sugarpaste (Confectionery). This particular course appealed to me as there were no deadlines involved so I was free to complete the modules as I wished and as time allowed. I was assigned a tutor(based in the UK) and she was incredibly helpful and encouraging throughout (as well as very patient when I let weeks go by without submitting anything!)

The course was assessed via a series of photos(up to six were required for each step such as making buttercream, marzipanning etc). However, I did find it a little difficult to remember to record every step when in the middle of something and 'caught up in the moment' as I tend to be in a warm kitchen!. A Q & A test page was also completed for each unit.

The first part of the course was all about gaining an understanding the basic principles of colour, line and texture and below are a couple of the images I submitted as part of that.

A collage of Blue shades with a suitable accent colour

Whilst I really enjoyed the course overall, some of the exercises did seem a little bit tedious. I definitely yearned to get stuck into the sugarpaste when drawing these lines with different materials.

But this study in texture was more fun

Hygiene was also prioritised in the course and knowledge of this was examined fairly extensively. Vearsed well enough in the three principles of design, I was unleashed on the icing!This is a 6 inch round cake that has been marzipanned ready for the sugarpaste.

We were permitted to use shop-bought cakes for decoration but I decided to make my own (not least because it was harder to find an uniced round fruit cake in Dublin than you might think!)

Sugarpaste on

And pre chosen design traced out(I used a mini cookie cutter here)

Throughout each stage of the course, we were encouraged to go back to the first module on design, keeping in mind the principles of colour, texture and line. I did get some (justified!) criticism here for my too-thick sugarpaste)

I wasn't so happy with my marzipanned square cake but the tutor assured me it was fine (as it would be covered with royal icing!)

And so it was (though you will agree I lost it a little on the piping at the bottom!)

I also found it really useful to learn how to make secure icing bags from baking parchment

Then, it was onto Gateaux, where we learned about masking

And feathering

before moving onto little tea fancies

Our final test was to decorate a cake that showed off our newly acquired skills

This was my effort

I really enjoyed the course but I have to say I did underestimate the amount of work that went into it by quite a bit!I was required to have the kitchen super sparkling (and rightly so but still....!) and to bake cakes in a range of specific sizes (yes, the option was there to buy them but that wasn't always possible or cost effective).

But I did learn how to do a whole series of wierd and wonderful things like colour desiccated coconut and got a tremendous sense of satisfaction from it all, so, all in all, it was well worth doing.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Chocolate Orange Ganache Tart

The pleasure I get from using up unwanted or 'on the way out' food is disproportionate - in that, when I do, it usually involves me purchasing a whole host of other ingredients for the recipe I have in mind. A remembered cooked chicken breast lying at the back of the fridge, for example, will 'have to' be made into a risotto with asparagus, cream and handfuls of parmesan. I think it's almost that I want to overcompensate for nearly throwing something away.

So it was with a large Dark Chocolate Toblerone I foolishly bought when passing through Heathrow recently. At three for ten pounds, they seemed reasonable compensation for waiting around for hours so I picked up one regular, one fruit and nut and this dark one.   Whilst the two milk chocolate ones were demolished fairly quickly, I found the dark one to be fairly pleasant tastewise but incredibly hard and difficult to eat, given the higher cocoa count.

The driving rain outside convinced me yesterday that something 'hardcore' was required and so, a good proportion of it was chopped and added to some 70% I had purchased for good measure. (I had also purchased cream, butter, oranges, and icing sugar but who's counting. My unwanted Toblerone got the finale it deserved.)

Chocolate Orange Ganache Tart

180g Plain Flour
heaped Tbs Icing Sugar
80g Fridge-Cold Butter, cubed
2Tbs Cold Water
1 Egg Yolk

200g Dark Chocolate Toblerone
100g 70% Chocolate
300ml Cream
knob Butter
Grated Zest of 1 Orange
Few Drops Orange Oil


1) Add all pastry ingredients  except the egg and water to a food processor and pulse until all butter is combined. Add the egg yolk, then enough water for the pastry to bind together.

2) Roll out and bake pastry blind in a 10 inch loose bottomed tart-case at 170 degrees (c) for 25 minutes, removing the baking parchment and beans for the final 5-7 minutes of cooking time.Allow to cool.

3) Chop both chocolates finely in food processor. Heat cream to boiling point and add to chocolate. Mix until combined. add butter, zest and orange oil. Add mixture to cooled pastry case. Chill until set (approx 2.5 hours)

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Eating on the Oasis of the Seas

Cruising - seriously don't knock it till you've tried it. I have(some may say prematurely) been totally hooked since my aunt brought me along to avail of a buy one get one free offer a few years ago. I really love the sea, the variety of visiting different ports and, ever increasingly, the great value on offer. Above all else, I love the unlimited availability of so many types of  food. In August 2012, I was lucky enough to sail for seven days around the Western Caribbean on Royal Caribbean's monstrous Oasis of the Seas.

The Oasis docked in beautiful Labadee

The Oasis and its twin sister, The Allure, are the biggest cruise ships in the world, boasting a huge range of facilities including an ice-rink, four pools, a zip-line, and much more. And, yes, I was looking forward to seeing it all, but, lets be honest, with 24 different dining options, there was no doubt where my priorities lay!

Roast Veg Tartlet

The Main Dining Room(also known as The Opus) was the first place we ate. This vast restaurant spans three levels and, unlike many of the eating options on the Oasis, does not involve a surcharge. It would be fair to say that our first dinner there was fairly underwhelming. The (very poor quality) photo above shows the pretty bland Roast Vegetable tartlet starter(I forget what the green stuff was but I do know that I ate it!Spinach?). 

Things went from mediocre to worse that first night with the arrival of the main course, a super rare pork chop which really freaked me out!  Being Irish and raised on cremated meat, I have a particular aversion to pork that is not cooked through(though I do now enjoy beef and lamb cooked medium). However, the American lady near us also expressed her concern to the waiter about its safety. Little wonder....
Rare Pork -Not Good

I just left it. Rightly or wrongly, that's the thing when you're surrounded by such an abundance of food. You can always just get something else! We did return to the Opal on two more occasions for dinner and am glad to say that the food was much better. We enjoyed in particular

Some really good Lamb Chops on a bed of yummy Mash

                                                     This tangy Chocolate-Orange Parfait

There are several other 'free' dining options on-board the Oasis. Sorrento's Pizzeria is open until 3am and serves pretty standard pizza by the slice (usually margherita and pepperoni if I remember correctly). They also make individual pizzas to order if you care to wait. This was always busy and was a good place to get a quick snack.


Margherita Pizza (with a big bite taken before I remembered the pic!)

The Boardwalk Doughnut Shop was another charge-free option. The doughnuts here were just ok, quite bready. This was a praline one. I didn't return for a second.

Cafe Promenade is located on, you guessed it, the main Promenade!They serve terrible coffee and a variety of little croissant sandwiches and mini pastries free of charge. 'Proper' coffee was available there at about 2 dollars a cup. There is also a Starbucks stall with regular mainland pricing further up the Promenade where I got this bad boy.

The Solarium Bistro aims to offer tasty but healthy breakfast lunch and dinner and was very busy. I say 'aims to' as my first and last meal there consisted of some truly revolting mushrooms on toast and a plastic mug of grey coffee. I never knew such a simple dish could taste so bad and I, perhaps unfairly, didn't return for the rest of the week. The breakfast in the main dining room was far superior and served in much less hectic surroundings.

The Park Cafe, is the only free option located in the 'nicer part of town' that is Central Park.

                                                                  Park Cafe Interior

This is open all day, serving breakfast baps, sandwiches and salads. It is famous, in particular, for a Roast Beef Sandwich which comes on a lovely crusted roll with a salty seeded topping. The first one I had was spectacular but I found the beef to be quite fatty later in the week.

                                                                Roast Beef Sandwich

On the whole, and perhaps unsurprisingly for a ship of its size, the food on the Oasis spanned the whole spectrum from 'terrible' to 'excellent' and everything in between, just as it probably would in a town catering for the 6,000 people she carries! The best meal we had all week and also throughout our entire 2 week trip to the US was in Chops Grill. Chops carries a surcharge of $30 per person and is worth every cent.

 I had the most gorgeous crab-cake with a beautiful lemony sauce.

 Shared a fillet and a ribeye with my other half

And added some great sides of asparagus and mashed potato which was probably 60% butter but worth every calorie.

We also shared a super rich chocolate mud pie which I forgot to photograph (which I blame on my food coma!) Chops was far superior to the famous Keen's Steakhouse in New York where I had dropped almost $250 the previous week. It really is world-class food at sea.

I had been most looking forward to trying 150 Central Park which, at $40 per person, is the most expensive eatery on the Oasis and is headed up by the well-established Chef Michael Schwartz. 150 offers just one option of a set tasting menu which changes from season to season. We were offered the Palmetto menu.

I had read about the different salts designed to complement the bread and unsalted butter and they were great fun.

                    There was a smoked salt, a spicy one and even one that tasted like hard boiled eggs!

                    They came with some lovely bread - a plain white sourdough and another with olives.

A series of six wines was recommended to complement each of the courses at an extra cost of $75 per person. We decided to share this and were poured a reasonable quantity of each - more than enough really. I am a seasoned wine drinker and felt quite tipsy when the meal was over so I imagine six full glasses would be far too much for most people.

                                                                Roast Vegetable Salad

The first course at 150 Central Park was a Roast Autumn Vegetable Salad with 'Midnight Moon' Goats Cheese Shavings. Some sultanas and raisins enhanced the sweetness of the little vegetables and I really enjoyed it.

                                                               Butternut Squash Soup

I wasn't so impressed by the Butternut Squash Soup which followed but that's mainly because it's just not one of my favourite things to eat. Still, I did eat it and it was fine, all four spoonfuls.
                                                                     Fillet of Salmon

Fillet of Salmon was up next. It came with a spicy chickpea mix and a yogurt sauce and was pleasant enough, if somewhat bland.


'Palmetto Creek' Pork Loin was the fourth course. It was served with a quite acrid parsley puree and some cheesy grits. I hadn't tried grits before and found the texture quite off-putting. The pork itself was quite dry.

                                                                  Lamb Two Ways

Lamb Two Ways was a highlight. The loin was served on a pistachio cream with pomegranate seeds and a little onion was stuffed with some tasty mince and apricots. Really good.

                                                                  Bitter Chocolate Tart

Food fatigue was setting in but we soldiered on and managed to finish this gorgeous Bitter Chocolate Tart with Roasted Pear. It was rich and dark and lovely and another highlight of the meal.

Whilst I enjoyed 150 Park very much, it was less to do with the food and more to do with the whole experience, the fun of the different wines and salts and the novelty factor. The food at Chops is much better so, If your budget stretched to just one, I would definitely go there instead.

Another eatery which involves a fee is Giovanni's Table, a casual Italian also located in the leafy Central Park neighbourhood.

The food here was just ok but that was compensated for by the really nice casual atmosphere and the friendliest waiting staff on the ship.During our lunch there we shared

               Some decent tempura vegetables and seafood with a somewhat cloying tartar-type sauce.

                                                        Gnocchi with Blue Cheese Sauce

                                                           Shrimp with Baby Vegetables

                                                                     Lemon Sole

                               Giovanni's was a lovely little place from which to watch the world go by.

One place I would definitely not recommend on the Oasis is The Seafood Shack located on the Boardwalk. It was nearly always empty and I should have trusted my gut and avoided it but I was keen to try as many places I could after travelling thousands of miles. We ate

                         Some Crab Claws that were as dry as a bone (that's melted butter on the side)

                                      A tasty Chowder which was the best thing we tried here

                                                              Some flabby calamari

We also tried Johnny Rockets which is also located on the Boardwalk.

                              The staff regularly pour out onto the Boardwalk to do a little dance.

We ordered some decent burgers and chips with squeezy cheese one night but it was very late so I have no photographic evidence I'm afraid. It was, if I remember correctly, indistinguishable from Eddie Rockets here in Ireland. The red 50's style decor and the whole concept were identical. Who copied who I'm wondering....?!Johnny's charges $5 per person and you can order what you like including dessert and drinks. A good option for a casual lunch or late snack.

Regular Royal Caribbean cruisers will know that The Windjammer is their standard 'buffet' option across much of their fleet.The Windjammer on the Oasis was always packed so we generally avoided it except to test these little cakes one afternoon.

                                  There was a chocolate mousse, a cheesecake and a little bakewell.

Vintages was the final place we ate. It has a fairly extensive tapas menu designed to complement their vast wine list.The tapas were pretty underwhelming but we enjoyed our time there nonetheless. The waiters were particularly charming and attentive.

                      Clockwise from the left is some mixed salami, two giant but rather tasteless rice filled
                                       croquettes, garlic sourdough, and stuffed tomatos and peppers.

True to style, I had absorbed every food review of the Oasis before we set sail. In fact, when I got on board, it was almost an anti-climax so familiar was it all to me! Some of the food was great, some terrible and some just ok but I really enjoyed trying it all and the sheer wealth of options there was to choose from.

What I have just written was the kind of thing I was seeking out to read before we sailed so I hope some of you, particularly potential Oasis passengers, will in turn get some benefit from this review.

It is, after all, all about the food!