Wednesday, April 2, 2014

London, week 1: settling in

Jubilee walkway sign

So, it has started. I live in London.

It's huge. It's loud. It's busy. It has a whole magazine dedicated to the events happening here (I LOVE TimeOut). It's just what I wanted.

It's so much different than being here as a tourist, though. I'm exhausted all the time. Normally, I would return home after a week of this kind of life and get some well-needed rest. But this time around, I just have to keep on going. One of the reasons why I'm so tired is because I'm too cheap to pay for the tube, so I take the bus to the university and back every day, eagerly awaiting the day when my student tube card comes in the mail. Don't judge me. It's so much cheaper to take the bus and the station is a two minute walk away from home, as opposed to five minutes from the tube station. Plus, money not spent means more money for trips, food... and more food.

Everywhere else, though, I have to walk. I think I have walked more in the past week than in the past three months altogether. No kidding. This is how I find beautiful houses and parks that I never would have seen if I took the tube.

I see interesting fauna too. Yesterday, I saw a squirrel crossing the street, and a goat munching on a tree branch. All that on my way to ''work''.

What am I here for? I'm doing research for my master's thesis at the UCL School of Pharmacy and using the rest of my time here the best I can. Which, on most days, consists of coming home around 7.30pm and staying in because I'm so tired. But, fear not! I have bought tickets for more than 10 shows - gigs, ballets and musicals that I'm going to in the next few months. That's a good thing, because right now I have absolutely no time - or desire - to search for cheap tickets. Which is exactly what I had anticipated.

Blue door

So far I've only been to places that I was either required to go to (the UCL Portico, for example), or had to go to in order to put myself in a good mood (yes, I'm talking about Oxford Street). Other destinations will have to wait until I get the discounted tube card. Sorry, London. You're too expensive.

I stumbled upon King's Cross yesterday while walking to a McDonald's to have a really quick lunch. I just looked at it and thought: I have no time to deal with this right now. I need to eat.
My priorities have, understandably, changed. It's really cool to have King's Cross a five minute walk away from where I work, but it's not like that means I'll visit it any more often.

If there's any readers out there who would like to meet for a, say, cupcake, let me know! I literally don't know anyone here. Well, except my roommates now, but we live together, so what are the chances we'll ever go out together as well?

Cheerio, until next time!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Coconut Cake

coconut cake side

Whenever I'm in a baking rut, I like to buy an ingredient and start searching for a recipe that uses it. That beats doing it the other way around, because what are the odds that you'll ever find the perfect recipe for that expensive ingredient and then make a detour from your normal daily routine just to go buy it? Exactly. (That's how I ended up buying those edible snowflakes, too.)

I'd been looking for an excuse to make a coconut cake for such a long time. Then, I found shredded coconut in a store. What is this perfect and amazing-looking food, I thought. Soon I settled on a recipe that looked adorable enough, while using a very large amount of flaked and grated coconut, which I was looking for in the first place.

After that my cousin conveniently had a baby and this was the most perfect baby-welcoming cake I'd ever seen. So I had another excuse to bake it once more. Success.

It's very sweet cake, but it keeps a long time when refrigerated. If you're on a ''diet'' (but still baking cakes - why would you do that to yourself?), you can eat small servings every day for about a week and not feel guilty about it. I guess.

Lesson learned: any cake will look a lot better after you throw flaked coconut at it from different angles for about five minutes.

coconut cake front

Coconut Cake (adapted from Taste of Home) - makes one 8-inch cake

3 eggs, separated
1 cup plus 2 tbsp sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup butter
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/3 cup cake flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
a pinch of salt
2/3 cup buttermilk
1 cup grated coconut

8 ounces cream cheese
1/3 cup butter, softened
1-2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 cup flaked coconut

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F (160°C). Let the egg whites stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Butter two 8-inch round baking pans.
  2. In a bowl, beat sugar, butter and oil until well blended. Add egg yolks, one at a time, and beat in the vanilla extract.
  3. In another bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
  4. Add the flour mixture to the first bowl, alternating with buttermilk. Stir in grated coconut.
  5. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks. 
  6. Fold one fourth of the egg whites into the batter, then fold in the rest.
  7. Transfer to two 8-inch round baking pans and bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.
  8. Frosting: beat the cream cheese and butter until fluffy. Add confectioners' sugar to taste (I added approximately one cup). Beat until smooth.
  9. Use 1/3 of the frosting to cover the bottom layer of the cake and sprinkle with flaked coconut. Cover with the top layer and frost the whole cake with the remaining frosting. Sprinkle (generously!) with remaining flaked coconut. 
  10. Refrigerate for at least two hours.
coconut cake top

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I'm moving to London!

Yes, it's true. London! In just two weeks!

I've always wanted to study in London full time, but there is no way I could ever handle it financially. It's one of the most expensive cities in the world! The Erasmus exchange is another story, though. It's a European Union student exchange programme, where you can study for a semester or two in a different European country, without having to pay any fees. You even get a scholarship to cover part of your expenses; a very small part, when you're moving to one of the more expensive countries.

I applied last year, because the university in London only accepts fifth-year students. There are many places available in Spain, Germany, France, Italy... but only two in London. I, however, didn't want to go anywhere else, so the choice was obvious. And then my dream came true!

I was accepted into the programme in early 2013, but the weird thing was knowing I had to wait more than one year before anything happened. It felt like the day would never come. I applied in January, got accepted in February, applied to the school in August, received confirmation in January and I'm leaving in two weeks. Which is almost April. 2014!

For the curious among you, I will spend four and a half months studying at the University College London, which is, gasp, the fourth best university in the world (right after MIT, Harvard and Cambridge), according to QS rankings. Its most famous alumni include Ricky Gervais, Christopher Nolan, everyone from Coldplay and Alexander Graham Bell (he invented the telephone!). Movies have been shot there. The more I read about this university, the more I can't believe this is really happening to me.

What is it that I'll be doing there, you ask? Research for my master's thesis, which will probably have something to do with cancer. Or Alzheimer's disease. I'm not sure yet, but I will find out on my first day, which is 26 March.

Of course, this is not a permanent move, so I didn't have to sell my car (I don't own one) or house (don't own that either). The whole process was easy because I'm a resident of the EU and I don't need a visa to study in the UK. All I had to do was apply for the scholarship and find a place to live. That turned out to be a very hard task. I had to change my perception of the words ''cheap'' and ''expensive'' a few times. I ultimately found a student residence that's cheaper than the rest of them (and looks nicer, too).

I'm now wrapping up the last few things at school and home. Cleaning, selling and donating things I don't need any more, that sort of thing. I don't want to leave a mess behind when I leave. It's a weird feeling to know that I'll be gone for almost five months, but it won't be the first time. I have yet to tackle the most intimidating task of them all: packing. The last time I left for four months, it was for the US where I was packing for one season only: summer. To work on a farm. Now I have to pack for three different seasons, and the real world. Well, at least this time I have a bigger suitcase. (And a mother who has already agreed to send me everything that won't fit into it, by post.)

Photo sources: 
London Skyline by Tom Soper, CC BY
University College London Edit, by Happy Chef, CC BY-ND