Eastern Europe’s Best Bars

Recently, my boyfriend and I decided to go inter-railing around Europe as a budget (but brilliant) impromptu holiday. After visiting Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Zagreb and Zadar I can confirm that each location boasts culture in droves, must see landmarks and unique entertainment available on a shoestring.

Despite going on countless tours and cultural visits (which we enjoyed immensely) I am going to share with you my top 3 places to drink instead of listing tourist attractions you can find at the click of a button; finding bars and restaurants with the right atmosphere away from the crowds of tourists can be difficult so I want to make your job a little easier…

1) Let’s start with Berlin, and a bar. Barbie Deinhoffs to be precise. Everyone is welcome at this place. Vibrant, fun and full of quirky locals, this bar carries an extensive cocktail menu ( all very generously measured!) and has bags of character. We shared some hilarious conversations with the bar tenders who speak English as well as German, Italian and more. The bar itself is small and teaming with strip lighting, strange lampshades, plane seats and hotch-potch furniture. So if you are after a relaxed and brilliantly camp place to have a drink, head to Kreuzburg- you will not be disappointed!

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2) After Berlin, we moved on to Prague which is where we discovered Blue Light, a cocktail bar with a difference. Situated in the old town away from the hen parties and lads of the main square side, this bar is tucked away down a side street in a cave-like structure. Locals flock to this place in their dozens and there is a lively atmosphere, particularly when customers start playing the piano which is left open in the corner. The distressed walls covered in music posters and black and white photographs are dimly lit by strings of old bulbs and candles in the nooks and crannies of the building, making the vibe relaxed and comfortable. Most importantly though, the cocktails are delicious, varied and cheap… so very cheap. This is definitely your place if you like a local spot and a bargain (and lets face it, who doesn’t!).

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3) Despite both Krakow and Croatia boasting great bars and restaurants, none stuck out as much as Szimpla Kert in Budapest… this is a bar like no other. No words can do this place justice as it is not just a single collection of drinks with some trendy seats, but a collection of Wineries, Cocktail artists, Breweries and snack bars thrown together in the ruins of several different buildings. Every room in this colossal watering hole is smothered in strings of lights, old car tyres, TVs, exposed pipes, toys, robots, wires, fairground rides, sofas, hoovers, wheels and anything else you can possibly think of. It is impossible to describe this place and do it justice, so you are just going to have to pay it a visit and thank me later!

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From One Extreme To Another

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My family, like any, have contrasting dietary views and phases which makes baking a single item to please opposing teams (healthy vs. all chocolate everything) near on impossible. At the moment my Dad happens to be on a ‘health kick’ whereas my brothers are in a classic eat-everything-in-sight-the-unhealthier-the-better  phase. As I am sure you can imagine, these food ideals don’t really correlate, so today I made a bake geared towards each ‘requirement’. Pictured above are some rocky road cupcakes I concocted with some store cupboard items; they are made up of a moist chocolate hazelnut sponge topped with chocolate butter cream and wedges of homemade rocky road… four have disappeared since my brother’s return from college… I can’t imagine where they’ve got to.

Below are my healthy nut granola bars. With some simple substitutions, I have taken a basic flapjack recipe and rejected the bad stuff. These contain flaxseed, chia seeds (SUPERfoods), almonds, cranberries, raisins, peanut butter, honey and rolled oats- in other words, they are packed with protein, healthy fats and vitamins.

So, on with the recipes!

For the Rocky Road cupcakes

1) Combine 80g unsalted butter with 280g caster sugar, 200g plain flour, 1 tbsp baking powder and 40g cocoa powder until they resemble bread crumbs.

2) Mix 2 eggs, 240ml milk, salt and pour into the dry mixture. Fold in 80g chopped hazelnuts and divide mix between cupcake cases.

3) Bake for 25 minutes at 180 (Fan). Leave to cool and make the butter cream by mixing 400g icing sugar with 100g cocoa powder and 140g butter together. Add some milk to create a smooth texture then pipe onto the sponges.

4) To make the rocky road topping, melt some chocolate (dark or milk will do) and throw in dried fruits, nuts and marshmallows. Set in the fridge and chop up into rustic shapes to create chocolate heaven!

And for the Granola Bars…

1) This is a throw in a bowl and mix like mad recipe- easy as pie! Just melt 5 tablespoons of peanut butter with a glug of milk, 3 tablespoons of apple sauce and some honey- be conservative with the honey, you can always add more later.

2) Pour that liquid mix into a big bowl and add 200g rolled oats, a handful of almonds, sunflower seeds, walnuts and hazelnuts, 2 table spoons of chia seeds and 80g cranberries and raisins. Combine the dry with the wet and press into a square baking tray. Sprinkle with flaxseeds and set in the freezer. Chop up and enjoy your guilt free snack!

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The Tea Cake Challenge

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Recently I’ve been stuck for baking challenges (what a difficult life I lead), but today I remembered a certain Great British Bake Off technical which left even the best bakers unstuck when, on a hot summer’s day, they were faced with melting and setting chocolate around handmade digestive biscuits and lightly whipped marshmallow; on remembering their struggle, I had my challenge for my day off work sorted.

Starting with the tempered chocolate, I feverishly begun the tea cake task, measuring the temperature exactly then leaving it to cool before lining silicone molds with two layers. Having left the chocolate to set, the digestives were the next element to tend to- as easy as they are to make, they are equally easy to overcook (luckily most of mine survived un-charred) which was an unexpected hurdle in the process . After coating the cooled biscuits in chocolate, I started on the marshmallow which is actually quite straight forward. Just throw syrup, egg whites, sugar and salt into a bowl and whisk for 10 minutes over a high heat and voila! After each section of the bake had been completed it was just a case of piecing the puzzle together. The marshmallow was piped into the chocolate shells and the biscuits sealed onto the bottoms with remaining chocolate.

I have to say, I am quite proud of my attempts… that said, I didn’t have a time limit, a heat wave and a great deal of pressure to contend with… just a hungry teenage brother urging me to finish.

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If you would like to try these challenging treats, here is the recipe!

For the biscuits

You will need: 50g wholemeal flour, 50g plain flour, pinch salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 25g caster sugar and a splash of milk.

Just combine these ingredients with your hands and push into a dough. Roll to about 6mm thick and cut into circles. Bake for 10 minutes at 190 (Fan).

For the chocolate shells

Just melt 400g dark chocolate and leave to thicken slightly. Coat the molds several times and leave to set, building up a hard outer layer for the tea cakes. Cover the biscuits in the chocolate too when they are cool.

Finally, for the marshmallow…

Put 3 egg whites, 150g caster sugar, 6tbsp golden syrup, pinch salt and a few drops of vanilla essence in a heat proof bowl.

Place over a pan of simmering water and whip with an electric whisk for 8 minutes until thick and glossy. Leave to cool and pipe into the set chocolate shells. Place the biscuits over the marshmallow and pipe a line of the remaining melted chocolate around the seam to seal any gaps.

Set for a final time (about 20 minutes) and hold your breath as you pop them out of the molds. Enjoy!

Do you remember the Shire, Mr Frodo?

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My boyfriend and I share an unhealthy obsession with Lord of the Rings, so it seemed the perfect theme to apply to his 20th birthday cake. I opted for a Hobbit Hole design and whilst I had plenty of ambitious ideas, I couldn’t help thinking (ever the optimist) that the end result was likely to resemble Mordor or, worse, a demolition site as opposed to a rolling grass mound complete with plant pots and carved wooden doors…

This said, I surprised myself with the result and the reception it received wasn’t too bad either (lets just say had this been Bilbo’s house, he would’ve been made homeless within an hour of its reveal). In other words, if you want guaranteed compliments, provide people with ganache, chocolate cake, buttercream, sugarpaste and nerdy cake aesthetics- it’s a winning combination.

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Top 5 Decorating Tips from Amateur to Amateur…

- Practice really does make perfect. I am improving every time I create a new cake. Have patience and persevere and you will see results eventually!

- Don’t limit yourself to using only sugarpaste icing. Whilst it works brilliantly for some details, it’s not always necessary ( I have used buttercream for the grass here and it’s very effective!).

- Have enough tools and ingredients at your disposal. There is nothing worse than getting half way through a bake and only having half the icing needed to cover a shape- the result usually resembles a patchwork quilt!

- Choose rustic designs before you attempt the seamless white wedding cake! There is more leeway with a design like this- any mistakes can be covered up if need be.

-Roll icing out between sheets of greaseproof paper. I have only just realised this is the best way! Icing sugar discolours the icing and your hands make it hot and sticky. The paper keeps it fresh and smooth.

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Posh Carrot Cake

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Yesterday was my Grandads Birthday so I decided to make a decidedly ‘grown up’ version of his favourite- carrot cake. Creating such an elaborate design doesn’t have to take hours and cost a small fortune though; for this creation I simply used a few store cupboard staples and transformed them! The sponge itself is my own carrot and walnut cake recipe to which I’ve added ginger and lemon to give it a kick. The icing is my usual cream cheese concoction- on top of this is where I’ve got a bit creative. After covering the entire cake with the cream cheese mixture, I finely chopped some walnuts and pressed them into the sides then formed some lines in the remaining icing with a palette knife.

Caster sugar was my weapon of choice for the top decoration. After melting it into spun sugar, I quickly whipped the liquid around the end of a pastry brush, waited for it to solidify and was left with sugary spirals which I think look quite effective. The central decorations are caramel dipped hazelnuts. Why don’t you experiment with sugar and jazz up one of  your favourite bakes!

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Chocolate Eclairs

 

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Having built up a wide cake baking repotoire over the past couple of years, today I decided it was time I challenged myself to something I am a little less familiar with- patisserie. As a chocolate-obsessed kind of eater, eclairs seemed like the perfect place to start. Eclairs are made up of a complicated crisp choux pastry filled with sweet vanilla cream and topped with milk chocolate; the difficulty in making these treats comes with forming a perfect pastry (but not over cooked) shell to hold the filling. Having said that, for a first attempt these look pretty close to what I envisaged, and taste wise… well, you can’t go far wrong with chocolate, pastry and cream!

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Blueberry and Banana Muffins

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I combined a few muffin recipes to create these delicious treats! Packed full of blueberries and mashed banana, these muffins are ideal for a healthy pudding or even a satisfying breakfast. I’ve topped them with a cinnamon streusel crumble for extra crunch and grated the zest of a lemon into the mix to add even more flavour. The key to any muffin recipe is not to over mix- you want to bring the dry and wet together until it is only just combined. I usually allow it to sit for about half an hour so bubbles form before baking too to make them extra light and fluffy. Why don’t you create your own recipes today, don’t be afraid of experimenting!

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50th Birthday Cake

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When I embarked on making this cake I was skeptical about whether or not my ambitious idea of two different cakes baked with varied frostings, flavourings and colours adorned with hand made chocolate roses would materialise… I had images of wilting roses, mutant shapes and dry sponges on my (forever anxious) mind during baking, so I am relieved with the actual result.

The ‘5’ shaped cake is a rich chocolate sponge filled with milk chocolate ganache and iced with dark chocolate ganache. The ‘0’ is made up of a nutty carrot cake which is filled and covered with cream cheese frosting. Both cakes are decorated with hand made roses- on the ‘5’ with white chocolate roses and on the ‘0’ with milk chocolate. Having never used molding chocolate before I would certainly recommend it- I prefer it to sugar paste as I find the results a bit more modern and less ‘old-fashioned-wedding-cake’.

Now comes the challenge of transportation… my least favourite part of baking for parties! A heart-in-mouth journey awaits…

 

Basket Weave Picnic Pie

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Crispy shortcrust pastry bursting with fresh flavour- this pie is the perfect partner to a sunny picnic or lunch el fresco. With layers of roasted peppers, courgettes, red onions, sweetcorn, spinach and crumbled feta, anyone would love a slice of this with some fresh strawberries and Pimms. To make this, whip up some pastry and fill a loaf tin with whatever ingredients you fancy, you can’t go too far wrong so give improvisation a go! Finish it off with a rustic lid or create an attractive basket effect by weaving strips of shortcrust into a pattern as I have here.

I’ll Roll With That

A strange and fairly new to the scene phrase that bounced about between the fashion weeks this season, ‘Normcore’ is the label that’s been bestowed upon many who’ve dared to… well, dress in a very nondescript and distinctly muted fashion. Yes, at last sporting trendless and simple clothes has been identified as an intentionally styled look. I for one am pleased about this deviation away from those competitive trend-worshippers who appear to spend their lives forcing an image more extreme than the next person in a bid to look different- surely a dependence on multiple clashing prints, overpriced branded basics and attention grabbing accessories is a tiresome one which points towards a certain insecurity in personal style as opposed to anything else?

Whether you agree with that or not, the ‘Normcore’ look is undeniably more wearable than others and its trademark of t shirts, jeans, singular colours and general air of nonchalance is one I would quite happily sport.

It has to be said, this ‘look’ is nothing new, but its recognition as just that (a look) is. Adopted mostly by off duty models, I think it’s an image that says ‘I’m comfortable, I like what I’m wearing’ and ‘I don’t need to look as though I’ve swallowed a Henry Holland print collection to feel at ease among the fashion week regulars’.

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‘Normcore’ looks as though it’s going to stick around for a while and quite frankly I am pleased that my everyday laziness and affinity with black could now be (quite wrongly) identified as style. I can see a surge in Alexander Wang sales on the horizon in response to this new non-trend, and that can’t be a bad thing.

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(No you’re mistaken, that’s not an off duty supermodel above (HA!), but a candid snap of myself; perhaps this can illustrate my enthusiasm for one-palette-no-effort dressing ie. my appreciation of ‘Normcore’).