My 26th Birthday (or, Why I Have The Best Boyfriend In The World, Ever)

Okay so, I know I’ve been painfully slack on the blogging front recently. I’m not going to sit here and make excuses, I’d only be lying to myself *sob*

But, actually I do have a really good reason. You see folks, in just under TWO WEEKS, myself and the boy are off on our 2nd Once In A Lifetime trip to Florida, for three WHOLE weeks!!! That is a long time. And do you know what was an even longer time? The time that elapsed from when we made the actual booking waaaaay back in May 2012 (you may remember a blog post from around this time describing said booking) to this very moment. It was like 528 days. But now it’s really, really close, REALLY close actually, and to be perfectly honest I’m struggling to get excited for posting about food when there are park hours to be checked, itineraries to finalise and Halloween costumes to complete. Oh yes, we’ll be there for Halloween 😀 We’re attending Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party on actual All Hallows Eve which is pretty exciting and whats even more exciting, is the fact that we’re dressing up as Ariel and Eric to commemorate the occasion. Don’t worry, everyone dresses up at the party, we won’t be the only weirdo’s. We’ll actually be tiny fish in a vast sea of weirdo’s, yay!!

Anyway. So all my time has been taken up in planning and getting ridiculously excited for our holiday 🙂 But here I am with an extra special post, possibly the most important post Polka Dot Kitchen has ever or will ever see, all thanks to my very lovely boy Ben.

A few weeks ago with my 26th birthday looming, Benj started teasing me. He kept saying he was getting all these exciting emails and he was getting sooooo excited but oh no, what a shame, he couldn’t share them with me. This went on and on for 2 very long weeks and then he stopped mentioning it. Aaaaand relax!

So it was my birthday yesterday and I was absolutely spoiled rotten by all my lovely friends and family 🙂

First of all, my adorable parents absolutely blew it out of the water with this super cute personalised phone case:

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My whole life, summed up on the back of a phone. Slightly depressing but scarily accurate.

My best friend and Florida holiday planning partner in crime Victoria outdid herself with this trio of awesome gifts; all for my upcoming holiday 🙂 So cute. Carousel of Progress absolutely is the best attraction in all of Walt Disney World, I can’t wait to go on it whilst wearing my shirt!!

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I also got a plethora of dollars from my amazing work colleagues, grandparents and brother 🙂 My spending money is looking pretty healthy now, lots of Haunted Mansion merchandise and Dole Whips on my horizon!

And then it was time for Benji’s gifts. First, I was treated to a looovely gift pack of Yankee Candles, my absolute faves 🙂 Such a pretty burner!

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Next up was a pretty mind-blowing leopard print knife. We had his ‘n’ hers blue and pink knives but my pink one unfortunately got thrown out at some point and I’ve been using theblue one ever since. So happy to have my own!!

Then came this beauty. My very own pasta maker!! As an unashamed Italian food obsessive, I’ve wanted a pasta maker for a very long time now. I can’t wait to make egg yolk ravioli, spinach and ricotta tortellini, five cheese ravioli with browned butter and fried sage….ooooh the possibilities are endless! Such a good gift!! Also shown are aforementioned Yankee Candles and, ooh, a random bottle of wine! Gotta be done!

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But, this was not my main present. After the excitement of the pasta maker and my excited speech about all the different kinds of filled pasta I’m going to make (not unlike the above sentence) Ben produced six pink envelopes and handed them to me, saying, ‘these might be something to do with the emails.’ Exciting times indeed.

With baited breath, I opened the first envelope (they were numbered 1-6). The card read, To Libby, from Cynthia. A small postcard sized piece of paper fell out, which Ben quickly grabbed out of my hand. I looked at him quizzically.

“Do you know who Cynthia is?”

“Ummm, no I don’t think so…”

But as he handed the postcard back to me and I saw what was written at the bottom, I knew who Cynthia was! OF COURSE I KNOW WHO CYNTHIA IS!!

TFP, aka The Food Pornographer, probably the first food blog I ever read and certainly the one I have been reading the longest. The postcard was handwritten, from her to me, with a cute little message and some lovely birthday well wishes.

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Well, I was gobsmacked. I did NOT see that coming. He then handed me envelope 2 and I ripped it open with the over-the-top enthusiasm of a long-term Atkins dieter tucking into a baked potato.

When I saw the names written at the bottom I did a little squeal of excitement. Tina, Mal and Murphy!

And this adorable photo!

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I was getting a bit emotional now. I was struggling to comprehend the enormity of what he’d done and how much work had gone into this. I was also overcome with the fact that my favourite food bloggers had actually written my name. Having read these ladies’ blogs for like 5 years, I was slightly starstruck!!

And it was only going to get better!! Envelope 3 was from the totally cool and DOWNRIGHT HILARIOUS McKenzie from Grilled Cheese Social who had written me an adorable little note and told me she loved my blog!! This was almost too much. I had the food-blogger-birthday-messages sweats.

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How damn cute is that?

Next up is one of the superstars of the Disney blogging world, author of Disney Food Blog ( my number 1 source of all things Disney food-based and a site I check multiple times a day…yes, I’m too cool for school) AJ!!

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THEN things got insane. I had my fingers crossed about who could maybe, possibly be in the next 2 envelopes and they DID NOT DISAPPOINT. Envelope 5 was a lovely note with beautifully neat, teeny tiny writing and I almost knew who it was before I read the name at the bottom but surely he hadn’t managed to get her??

He had!! The sweetest, most thoughtful note ever from the amazing Angela at Oh She Glows 🙂 Highlights include Angela saying she’s read my blog and thinks I’m hilarious (!!!) saying that she’s found a kindred spirit in me as she also thinks about lunch whilst eating breakfast AND the fact that she signed off with peace, love and plants. I actually love her. I was full on sniffling like a little girl at this point and Ben was pretty close himself!

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Finally, envelope 6! Could it be!? The queen mother of food blogs!?

Yep, it was! Kath Younger herself!! This card contained TWO postcards; a handwritten note and a photo of Kath with the note! I was actually besides myself with excitement. I read Kath’s blog every day when she used to post aaallll the time and now I look forward to my Saturday morning catch-up session when I read all her latest posts with my tea and toast 🙂 She wrote such a sweet note and she even said at the end she hopes I get my polka dot kitchen one day soon. How nice is that.

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So after I’d re-read all the cards a million times and pounced on Ben with kisses and hugs, I asked him how he’d managed it! He said he’d just kind of had the idea, stalked the blogs from the blogroll and emailed all the ladies! Just like that haha! He was so pleased that everyone he emailed, replied back and went out of their way to help him. The blogging community really is the best.

Soooo I wish I hadn’t been so slack with my own blog lately, if I’d known all these heavy hitters were checking it out I would have made more effort!!

Oh well. One of the best presents I’ve ever had (apart from when Ben booked a surprise trip to Disneyland Paris naturally, but it would take a lot to beat that little gem!) and thank you so much Ben for organising it and all the lovely bloggers for taking the time to respond. You’ve made one beginner blogger very, very happy 🙂

Thank you so much!

New Years Eve 2012

As mentioned last year, I’m just not a fan of New Years Eve. It annoys me. Christmas, however…now you’re talking! I love every little thing about the festive season and it always begins, for me, November 1st, not a moment later. It would begin slightly earlier but alas, Halloween is also a very big part of my life and I just can’t encroach on those fun, spooky and ghoul-filled happenings.

Ahhhh, Christmas. Decorations, fairy lights, Christmas music that I start listening to in November and get sick of by November the 12th but continue to blare out in my car nonetheless, lie-ins, family time, the Christmas Radio Times, TV specials, parties, special sparkly outfits, cinnamon candles, bucks fizz, red nail polish, gift-wrapping, the smells of mince pies baking in the oven, The Snowman, and most importantly, the endless amounts of delicious party food, cheeseboards, crisps and general nibbly bits that are happily available at every house you visit for two glorious weeks.

Christmas Eve was always my favourite day as a child, I preferred it to Christmas Day! Something about the dizzying levels of anticipation that built up throughout the day until I felt I would burst just made it the best day for me.

We had a lovely Christmas this year. Myself and Ben were lucky enough to have a good two weeks off together and then I had a few more days on my own once he went back to work. I felt seriously relaxed by the end of the break and happy that we’d seen so many of our friends and family. I was spoilt rotten this year with prezzies and we also both got so many lovely presents for our flat from our thoughtful families 🙂 I’m sure many of the kitchen gadgets will be appearing on the blog over the next few months!

The only thing I don’t like about Christmas is that it seems to get shorter every year 😦 This year, by the end of Boxing Day I was seeing people’s Facebook status’s expressing their desire to take their tree’s down and ‘get the house back to normal’!! I was shocked!! Our decs stayed up til January the 6th, the day before I went back to work, and let me tell you it was a very emotional day. I think our flat looks so bare without our trees (yes, we had two trees!!) and I’ve found I’m severely lacking in ornaments now I’ve boxed all the Christmas ones! I definitely need to get some new ones. Me and Ben are also at war over our Yankee Candles; I feel cinnamon is a year-round smell as I absolutely love it, whereas Benj feels it is now time to put away the cinnamon scents and bring out the lemon/linen/general Spring like fragrances. We’ve yet to come to a compromise…

We spent New Years Eve in our lovely flat, just the two of us. I was very, very pleased we’d made this decision once the day arrived, as it was freezing cold and watching the rain fall through our windows was a lot more enjoyable than being out in it 🙂

So, what was on the menu? Obviously, I wanted to cook something special, something we don’t have very often. For me, this is steak. I only ever have steak if we go out to eat and it is a bit of a treat for me. We also decided on potato dauphinoise, our absolute favourite side-dish in the history of side-dishes. Ben asked for mushroom wellington and we added tenderstem broccoli to finish off our main course. I really wanted scallops for my starter and I had the genius idea to use Linda McCartney fish-free prawns in Ben’s starter, so we could have the same thing! We opted to use a chocolate fondue kit that we’d received for Christmas as our dessert, although we silently resigned ourselves to the fact that we almost definitely wouldn’t be able to manage it, we never can!

I used my new Canon EOS 1100D to take the photos this evening and I was extremely pleased by how they came out even with my minimal photography knowledge, what a fantastic camera! Thank you Santa 🙂

The makings of a perfect evening 🙂

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No New Years Eve would be complete without a shot!

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And carrying on with the Disney theme, Ben used our beautiful Mickey bottle opener to crack open some cider as we began cooking.

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We had made the dauph earlier on in the day and as is my style, used a completely new recipe/technique in an ongoing attempt to make the perfect dauphinoise potatoes. If my memory serves me correctly, this time we:

1. Sliced the potatoes really thin (using the RocketChef…see below)

2. Boiled the cream/milk mixture til it was hot, with about 4 garlic gloves crushed in there (I’m not even joking.)

3. Started to then boil the sliced potatoes in the hot cream mixture to start them off but got impatient at the tiny amounts of potato we could boil at any one time due to the size of our saucepan, gave up and just chucked the potatoes back into the dish. So technically, 1/5 of the potatoes had been boiled for a bit in cream but the rest went in the oven raw. I also HEAVILY seasoned each layer of potato, mixed them around a bit with a wooden spoon and then heavily seasoned again. We do not like bland dauph!

I then cooked them extremely low, like 120, for 2 hours. One hour covered in foil, one without. While they were cooking, we cracked on with the rest of the dinner!

I made Ben’s mushroom wellington first of all. I panfried a washed, dried portobello mushroom with a garlic clove just to give it some flavour. I then laid the portobello mushroom on a square of ready-made puff pastry and this formed the base of the wellington. I topped it with a mixture of spinach, chopped onions and chopped mushrooms which was all sauteed together for about 20 minutes with garlic and lots of salt and pepper. Finally, I added a big spoonful of cream cheese to the top of the mushroom mixture and covered the whole thing with another square of puff pastry. It was very easy to make and I hoped that the addition of cream cheese would elevate it to something quite special. Ben loves mushrooms and he REALLY loves pastry, so he was pretty psyched.

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Next up were our starters. Scallops in a garlic butter gratin for me, prawn-free prawns in a garlic butter for Benj! I mixed together butter, lots of crushed garlic, parsley and chilli flakes.

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We then realised we needed bread crumbs and we didn’t have a food processor. Enter – RocketChef!! I don’t know if anyone else has come across this little beauty but it’s a kitchen gadget from the 80’s we were kindly gifted by my Aunt, alongside a number of other exciting and very niche appliances. We’re going to have to really think about which appliances we’ll use going forward; at the moment we’ve got a whole two cupboards devoted to gadgets that I’m really not convinced we’ll ever need! But we shall see. The RocketChef, however, is a definite keeper. It’s amazing. Ben played around with the different blade options and in no time at all, we had fine breadcrumbs. We also used it later on with a different attachment to slice our potatoes!! Plus I love how catchy and just obviously 80’s the name RocketChef is. I like to pretend it was the star prize on The Price Is Right or something and we were lucky enough to win it 😀

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I mixed the breadcrumbs in with the butter and saved a bit to top the ramekin dishes before we baked them. I then layered flash-fried scallops in one ramekin and the veggie prawns in another, dotted the butter mixture around them and the starters were done! Super easy.

With most of our prep work done, we settled down to play the Big Fat Quiz Of The Year via 4OD, pens and paper in hand.

Not before we had a bit of this:

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(I was dancing to Single Ladies, can you tell?)

And a bit of this:

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At about 9.30 after the Quiz finished (neither of us can remember who won…but I do know I did better than I have ever done!!) we wandered back into the kitchen to start final proceedings on dinner.

We roasted the broccoli and I cooked my steak, on a frying pan, 2.5 minutes on each side for medium rare. It was perfect! I used St Agur for my blue cheese sauce and at 10pm we were ready to eat. We’d eaten late on purpose as I often get really tired after a big meal and just want to sleep so if we’d have eaten at 6 I wouldn’t have seen midnight!!

We ate at our dining table with some of Ben’s favourite folk music playing and lots of lovely scented candles burning. Perfect 🙂

The starter was, quite frankly, phenomenal. That much butter in a single starter should possibly be illegal but oh my god, was it amazing. The scallops had almost been poached in the butter and as a result were silky and soft. I also loved the fact that we were both eating nearly the same thing – that almost never happens!

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Then, the main event…mushroom wellington, dauphinoise potatoes and tenderstem broccoli for Benjamin.

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The pastry was flaky and buttery, the mushroom firm and garlicy and the mushroom mixture and cream cheese helped keep it all moist and flavourful on the inside. I was ridiculously pleased with how this turned out and I’ll be whipping this bad boy out if we ever have a posh dinner party as I think it really looks the part!

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And, my steak. Sainsburys Taste the Difference sirloin, medium rare. With only salt and pepper as seasonings, the flavour of the beef shone through. I’ve waxed lyrical about my love affair with steak and blue cheese sauce but the combination really is divine! And the dauph? The best yet!! Cooking the potato soooo slooowwlllyyy meant we were rewarded for our patience with rich, soft, creamy potatoes and a silky smooth sauce that did not curdle, I repeat, DID NOT CURDLE! It was a miracle. And they were also lovely the following day!

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Perfectly cooked. I can’t remember which chef told me 2.5 minutes on each side for medium rare, I think it may have been Mr Ramsey, but it is the best advice. A searing hot pan too! Things got a little smokey but we are blessed with an extractor fan, a window and a large kitchen so it really wasn’t an issue.

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As predicted, we were way too full for dessert, I could barely manage to drag myself out of my chair and move the 3 foot to the sofa. We finished eating and clearing away at about 11.15, so there was just enough time to write out our resolutions for the coming year, reflect on the highs and lows of 2012 and grab a glass of bubbly before the countdown started. We welcomed in the New Year in our beautiful new flat, congratulating ourselves on a fantastic end to 2012 and cheer’sing to 2013.

I feel so lucky to finally be living with my boy after nearly 9 years as a couple and every day I wake up and can’t believe we’re actually in here. I’m also thrilled to have such an incredible new job that has already exceeded my expectations by sending me to Bali for a week last November (still can’t believe that!!). I’m looking forward to a lot of things in 2013; first and foremost our 3 week trip to Florida in October which I just know is going to be spectacular. It’s the Happiest Place On Earth!! I’ve already started the planning spreadsheet so I’ll be spending a lot of my 2013 evenings tucked up on the sofa, Orlando guidebooks surrounding me and The Dibb on my laptop. I can’t even wait!! I’m also excited about the possibility that we may be getting a furry friend to join us in our new flat this year…I’ve wanted a kitten for so long and we are lucky enough to have found a flat that allows pets (SCORE!!) so we’ll be doing lots of research and I’ll be trying to persuade Benj that these beautiful babies make the perfect pets 😉 We’ll probably wait til after Florida though as I wouldn’t want t0 leave her all on her lonesome for so long!

Happy New Year everyone! Here’s to a fantastic 2013 🙂

The Orange Tree – Torquay

We just got back from a delightful weekend away to celebrate our anniversary. Eight years! Goodness me. We visited the English Riviera and stayed in the adorable town of Paignton; partly because we love a good seaside visit and partly because I got some bargain hotel prices during the Christmas Travelodge sale. £12 a room cannot be scoffed at. The hotel was more than adequate and after a slightly tense arrival where we discovered the carpark was full and we’d have to park my beautiful red Nissan Micra Marilyn a few roads away in a decidedly dodgy spot, we had a wonderful stay there.

But obviously the most important part of this trip, as with all trips, was the food! We ate at some lovely places and I’ll be sharing all the details in good time but I have to start with the highlight of the weekend – our meal at The Orange Tree restaurant in Torquay.

I booked a table online a couple of weeks ago after being warned that it gets very busy on Friday and Saturday evenings. Our table was booked for 7.30pm and we arrived promptly after getting absolutely soaked from the rain beating down outside.

We were greeted warmly, relieved of our coats and led inside the cosy eatery to a lovely table for two. We noted that the tables were nicely spaced apart which we were very pleased about; nothing worse than feeling like you are essentially dining with the couple next to you! We ordered our drinks and perused the menu which was looking amazing. After ordering our starters we were bought out warm parmesan and olive bread with butter. This warranted a photo although I am apologising in advance for the photographs of this meal – the restaurant was very dark and intimate and I really didn’t want to blind our fellow diners with the flash. I promise my other photos from this trip are better! A bit better.

After a pleasant wait, our starters were bought out. I chose the ‘Gevrik’ Goats Cheese with Red Currant and Fig Chutney – Cornish Goats Cheese Parcel baked in crisp Filo Pastry accompanied by Red Currant and Fig Chutney.

Oh, it was pretty! The goats cheese was incased in the crunchy, buttery filo pastry and it was perfectly melty and gooey inside. The chutney was sweet and fragrant and provided the perfect accompaniment to the cheese. Pretty much my perfect starter!

Ben chose the Tian of English Asparagus – Tian of Asparagus Mousse with Tomato Chutney and Parmesan Crisp, served with Tempura baked Asparagus Spears. He was wary of ordering this as he’d spotted that the veggie main course was asparagus based and quite frankly he wasn’t sure if he wanted that much asparagus in his life. I thought he’d choose the goats cheese but as the waitress asked what he’d like he changed his mind and plumped for the asparagus. He was really pleased he did as his starter was delightful.

The mousse was creamy and fluffy with a delicate asparagus flavour and the tempura was light and crispy. There was no denying this was a lot of asparagus but he really enjoyed all the different textures and flavours. As the waitress told us, you have to make the most of them while they’re in season! The parmesan crisp was gone in a matter of seconds as anything cheese-based generally is on borrowed time when it’s around Ben, but I am assured it was divine.

We had a nice 10/15 minute break between our starters and main courses which I have to say we really appreciated. You don’t often get this at restaurants but I love the opportunity to relax in between eating and savour the experience of actually being in the restaurant.

Our main courses were presented to us and I was instantly a very happy girl! These photographs really are getting better and better, don’t you just love the increasingly jaundice tint!?

I, of course, ordered the Grilled Prime ‘South Devon’ Fillet Steak with a Devon Blue Cheese Sauce. I have mentioned numerous times (possibly too many?) that steak and blue cheese sauce is my idea of heaven and I find myself going to restaurants specifically to have this dish. Very sad and repetitive and not very food blog friendly but I just can’t seem to stop.

(In fact, I talk about steak and blue cheese sauce so much and eat it so often that there may be a post coming up discussing my deep and unflinching love for this seriously underrated food combination.)

Anyway, The Orange Tree’s version was right up there with the best. A thick, generous fillet with an impressive girth, perfectly cooked medium rare. I am aware that a good steak should not require a sauce but what food is not enhanced by a sauce comprised entirely of blue cheese and cream? This blue cheese sauce was thick, creamy and most importantly, salty!

You can see how perfectly the steak was cooked and even though I had to sacrifice all some of the vegetables in order to finish it, I did. What bravery!

This was Ben’s vegetarian main course – Vine Tomato and Asparagus Tart – Puff Pastry Tart of roasted Vine Tomatoes and char-grilled Asparagus finished with Roquette, Parmesan Shavings and Rosemary Oil. I didn’t get to try the tart (and quite frankly I had enough food to contend with on my own plate) but he cleared his plate and I think I actually saw a hint of saliva fall from his mouth when I showed him the photo a couple of days later.

We were bought out accompaniments of garlic roasted new potatoes, spring onion mash and carrot and green bean batons to go with our chosen dishes which we found complimented them perfectly. We felt the portion sizes overall were very generous, especially for the prices!

Once we’d finished eating our lovely waitress came over and removed our plates and said she would give us a few moments for our food to settle before we looked at the dessert menu. We knew there was absolutely no way we could manage dessert though so we just sat back and enjoyed the last few minutes of our special dinner. When she came back with the menus we told her unfortunately we were stuffed and she looked very disappointed! Not as disappointed as we were, believe me. I’d seen photos of the desserts online and they looked incredible!

We were then getting ready to ask for the bill when our waitress bought us out a little surprise!

How amazing is that!! We were so surprised and so pleased, we thanked our waitress profusely and she thanked us for choosing to celebrate our anniversary with them! Obviously my special occasion dessert stomach came into action and we were able to force down the beautifully prepared bites of chocolate fudge and almond cake with minimal effort. What a lovely, thoughtful gesture.

We were even more pleased when we received the bill! Our meal came to £57 which included drinks and 2 courses each which we thought was extremely reasonable for the quality of food, atmosphere and ambience in the restaurant and the great service we received.

I would recommend The Orange Tree to anyone who is celebrating a special occasion or even just wanting a nice dinner out, there is a reason it is the number 1 restaurant in Torquay on TripAdvisor!

Thank you for making our anniversary celebration so special, we hope to come back and visit one day!