Apple and muscovado muffins

On a Friday afternoon baking whim, I figured I’d get some lazy weekend breakfasts ready and waiting. These began as a Rachel Allen recipe for rhubarb muffins (from her Home Cooking book), but I was rhubarb-less, couldn’t be bothered to pop to the shops and it’s not in season anyway. My eyes landed on the one measly, just-about-to-go-soft apple in my fruit bowl. Hmmm….

I also swapped the type of sugar, whacked in some nuts, replaced the buttermilk with bog-standard semi-skimmed, and went a bit mental with the cinnamon. They’ve emerged from the oven glorious, golden and autumnal! I’m very pleased with their open texture, the moistness of the apple and the subtle caramel sweetness from the muscovado. A few improvements could be made (see end of recipe) but I won’t be dwelling on those when I tuck into these on the morrow.

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Cheddar and English mustard soufflés

So there I was, editing a whole clutch of lovely recipes for The Egg Book (due to be published March 2012), when I found myself compelled to whisk up a soufflé.

I’ve only ever made a ‘double-baked’ soufflé before – with success, I might add – but single-baked ones are notorious for flopping. Armed with ten tips for superb soufflés (thanks to wonderful cookery author Katie Bishop), I was feeling really rather cocky (!). How would mine turn out?

Gloriously tall and puffy, is the answer. Light and fluffy, and delicious, if a little rough around the edges. And the second one held up for a good ten minutes while I devoured the first.

I’d better not post the recipe yet, since it’s not even been published, but I challenge you to make a more resilient soufflé than this!

Caramelised red onion chutney

The recipes catching my eye lately have been sauces, chutneys, reductions and preserves. These are the extra bits I never get round to. I can make a roux, of course, and I’ve whizzed up a pesto or two, but when it comes to sauces and condiments, I’m usually tempted way more by a luxury jar from a fancy deli (or even Tesco extra-special!) than by the idea of attempting a recipe with a risk of splitting, that requires me to chop 800 onions or where I have to wait a month for the flavours to ‘mature’. And I’m rather partial to a bottle of squeezy Hellman’s.

So perhaps it’s setting up home that has made me suddenly crave cupboards full of hand-labelled jars and fancy self-made sauces with my dinner. As the crunchy wholesomeness of autumn descended last week, I gave in to the urge and made this chutney.

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Gypsy cuisine at a Buenos Aires supper club

(c) Helen Musselwhite

The supper club craze that has taken London and various other cities by storm also has a huge presence in BA, where they are known as puertas cerradas – closed door restaurants. A little info for the uninitiated: it’s a restaurant in somebody’s house. They sit you at their table and cook you food from their kitchen. Really great food. Inspired by interesting things or a clever theme. There are usually lots of courses and sometimes wine to match, for a (normally bargainous) set price. You share table and talk with strangers; interesting folks from all kinds of backgrounds. These dinners tend to be advertised by blog, or via social networking and word of mouth. They aren´t signposted — the only way to discover the address is to book yourself a place. But despite seeming low key, these supper clubs are no secret — in fact the BA puertas cerradas have their own boxed text in my Lonely Planet. And when I logged on, weeks in advance, to make a reservation for Casa Saltshaker, perhaps the best-known puerta cerrada in BA, there was just a single seat remaining for my chosen date.

On the night, having navigated the BA subway alone, I arrived in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Recoleta, armed with a dog-eared printout of my booking confirmation and mild apprehensions. But the initial awkwardness of sitting down to eat with complete strangers was quickly diffused by the novelty of the food, which was at once fascinating, beautiful and delicious. The five matching wines helped too!

It was the international day of the Romany, so our menu was themed around traditional gypsy dishes and hearty peasant food. Continue reading

Sweet Argentina

Argentinians have a very sweet tooth. Correction: a whole mouthful of them. Never have I known a nation more in love with sugar, caramel, chocolate, cake, pastries, icing and anything syrupy, sticky or sickly sweet. Their famous Dulce de Leche caramel sauce can be found in the UK only in the premium aisle at Waitrose, high-end delicatessens and Borough market. But here in Argentina, super-size tubs of it are sold in every supermarket.

If you like sweet things, you needn´t go far here to find them. There´s a confituria on every corner, every third shop is a kiosco brimming with bars of sweetened chocolate and candy, street vendors offer sugar-roasted peanuts, salesmen pace up and down the markets with baskets of churros, and on every long-distance bus ride you´re given complimentary sweets, biscuits and cakes. And meet the Alfajor, a snack consisting of two big fat sweet crumbly biscuits, sandwiched together with gooey Dulce de Leche, before being dipped in chocolate, allowed to harden and then sometimes decorated or dipped again. It´s a beast alright.

The trouble comes when you’ve had enough sugar and you´re craving something — anything — savoury or plain. Bad news, the sweet stuff just cannot be avoided. Order a black coffee and a hefty sugar lump gets dropped in as standard. The French would be horrified by the way their croissants are doused in thick gloopy syrup. A loaf of bread tastes suspiciously saccharine. I was served chicken and tuna empanadas with a bizarre frosting of what could only be icing sugar.

So it´s a sweet way of life here (especially for dentists, I imagine). If you want to rid yourself of the sticky residue of Argentinian cuisine, wetwipes and a toothbrush are essential.

A rather modest alfajor…they get far crazier

Here’s what I baked earlier…

I think, to live up to its name, this blog needs a few more crumbs. Over the past year, I’ve kept myself plenty busy in my little kitchen here in Shepherds Bush. I’ll soon be moving out, so what better time to time to look back over the goodies I’ve rustled up? (Forgive me: food photography isn’t one of my skills.)

Sunflower and Honey Rolls

I found the recipe for these in Delicious Magazine.  They were so tasty I made them again. The rolls only stayed fresh for a day, but they did freeze well.

 


Pecan Pie

The recipe I followed here is from the fabulous upcoming book Supper Club by the indomitable Kerstin Rodgers of Underground Restaurant fame. I’m afraid I can’t post her recipe (buy the book – it’s out in April and is a quirky little collection of really clever, think-outside-the-box, impress-your-guests recipes!) but as an alternative in the meantime, Google throws up lots of great recipes, most of them from the US (it’s an American classic after all!). If you can’t make head or tail of US cup measurements, here’s a fallback from the trusty Beeb. I made the pastry from scratch and it was all the better for doing so.

Grasshopper Pie

At some point over the last few years, I made myself personally responsible for Christmas Day dessert in our household. This was my 2010 Christmas offering and it was a GREAT SUCCESS. The photos don’t do it justice: the filling was a gorgeous pale-green colour and I made the base from crushed-up double-choc-chip Maryland cookies – similar to a cheesecake base but even more indulgent. Peppermint essence gave it a subtle mintyness that took the edge off the creamy marshmallow, so it wasn’t sickly in the slightest. The pie was a breeze to make, and it looked really impressive. I highly recommend it, particularly if you want to serve up something unusual that many people may never have tried before.

I was inspired to try this after seeing Nigella whip it up on her latest series,
but the recipe I followed was a Hummingbird one, available in their new book, Cake Days, published in March. If you want to have a bash in the meantime, I’ve tracked down the Nigella recipe on this lovely food blog.


Banoffee Pie

Definitely the easiest recipe on this list; also probably the yummiest. I have
the wonderful Donal Skehan to thank for this one. I’m linking to the recipe
on his blog because it’s accompanied by lots of gorgeous photos (his pics are so much nicer than mine!), but do visit his new website, too, a constant source of inspiration to me and many others. And watch out for his new book, Kitchen Hero, published at the end of March (you can pre-order it!!!)

If you’re feeling uber-lazy, just skip the boiling of the condensed milk and buy tinned Carnation caramel. But if you have time and enthusiasm, do it properly,
if only to experience the novelty of the milk-to-caramel transformation.

Macaroons

I’ve now made macaroons twice. The first time was a disaster. They were supposed to be election macaroons – yellow, blue and red – but it proved way over-ambitious for this macaroon first-timer. What didn’t go wrong? The red ones came out pink. The blue ones had a metallic taste from too much food colouring. All of them cracked across the top and stuck hideously to the greaseproof paper (a fool’s error – always use baking parchment!!!). Bah!

So last week  I tried again. This time, half vanilla and half orange. The vanilla ones (in the photo) were a fraction closer to success, though by no means perfect. Only two emerged from the oven crack-free with smooth unblemished tops. And they weren’t light enough; the texture was too biscuity. (The Kahlua-flavoured cream was yummy however!) As for the orange ones: awful. I somehow knocked all the air out of them whilst stirring in the food colouring.
I didn’t even bother to take a photo.

I’m hoping for a Third Time Lucky, that is – when I can muster up the energy and spirit to try them again. Watch this space.

Both my attempts have followed this recipe from Delicious Magazine. I don’t blame the recipe for my failed attempts, but next time, I think I’ll try a new one. Some recommend leaving the piped mixture to stand for up to an hour to properly dry out and form a skin (I left it for just 15 minutes). I’m wondering if this is the answer to achieving crack-free macaroons.


Miniature Lemon Scones

Back in October it was National Baking Week, and Becky over at Munchmun.ch challenged me to a ‘scone-off’. These cuties were my offering.

We never properly judged the competition, but since we both ended up with a mountain of scones to gobble to our hearts’ contents, I think we were both winners.

Recipe below …

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Sarnies in Spain

I suspect any Spaniards reading this are laughing. Why, they ask, would someone bother to write a review of Cervecería 100 Montaditos? It’s the type of laugh I’d give on discovering a foreign blogger had wasted 700 words describing Subway or GBK. But let them laugh; for its novelty value if nothing else, this place gets a write-up.

Now, who doesn’t like a good sandwich? The benefits of this simple snack are endless. It’s versatile enough to suit every appetite, from a dieter nibbling on a wholemeal tuna-and-low-fat mayo to a ravenous lad feasting on a triple club. The sandwich can cater for any occasion, posing one minute as a sophisticated cucumber-filled triangle, the next as a rough-and-ready doorstop with hunks of Cheddar cheese. It can sum up an entire meal in a single bready package – the egg-and-bacon breakfast sarnie for example, or the annual Christmas special, crammed with turkey and all the trimmings. There’s no better snack for munching on the hoof but it is just as often ordered sit-down with a side of chips.

And it is constantly reinvented, morphing into all manner of shapes and forms: rolls, wraps, baguettes, toasted sandwiches, open sandwiches, and even – for those who can’t (or won’t) eat wheat, breadless sandwiches, courtesy of Pret. Famous enough to be known by acronym alone (I refer of course to the BLT), the humble sandwich could perhaps be credited with bringing back M&S from the brink of insolvency. Finally, what higher culinary praise than this: the French – food snobs that they are – have adopted the noun le sandwich as a certified member of their very own language. Earl Sandwich would be proud. Continue reading

The best croquettas in Madrid?

Dinnertime was fast approaching in Madrid. Never mind that we were still sat in 100 Montaditos after a novelty-but-actually-pretty-edible afternoon snack, it was already time to consider restaurant options for the evening ahead. Running my finger down the entries in Lonely Planet, I found a wealth of cuisine types at our disposal, with no shortage of local food: Tapas…Tapas…More Tapas…Thai (“No, we’re in Spain”)…Tapas…Tapas…Italian (“Ditto”)…Modern Spanish…Croquettas…Tapas…Tap—WOAH THERE!!!
A whole restaurant devoted to croquettas? This I had to visit.

So now, to satisfy my croquetta obsession, we were venturing into new territory, heading along Gran Via towards Malasaňa, a barrio (neighbourhood) that the book describes as “the stuff of Madrid legend … pushing hedonism to new limits.” Perhaps we were asking a bit much from a Tuesday night at the tail-end of December, but after reading such praise we had expected Calle Madera to be more than the dark and isolated alley on which we found ourselves. After some fruitless wandering, I was all for giving up. No way could there be good croquettas here. Muggings, more like. Or dead cats. Perhaps we would become croquettas? But The Warren had faith. “Let’s go a little further” turned out to be the wisest remark of the night (closely followed by “Dos mas, por favour”, a phrase that would be repeated a good few times). Suddenly, out of the darkness there was light, glowing softly through narrow, red, partially graffitied double-doors. Casa Julio. You could easily miss it or dismiss it, destined never to join the throng of happy Spaniards just visible behind the steamed-up glass.

Casa Julio's far-from-glamorous entrance

Casa Julio is a sweet and simple little bar, a family business, passed down the generations since 1921. We squeezed into the warm, crowded room, quite noticeably the only English in a sea of jabbering locals: a little bit daunting, but an obvious sign that the food must be good. Also very promising were the framed press-clippings on the wall and the photos of celebs who had deigned to rub shoulders with commoners in pursuit of the perfect croquetta. (Presumably these ‘celebs’ were all Spanish, as the only ones we recognised were U2; I guess Bono and I share a passion.)

Getting a spot at the bar was like an Olympic sport. The Warren proved very skilful at it (as one of five siblings, his mealtime reflexes have had a lot of practice) and after just one cerveza we gained an advantageous corner position. We were ready to do serious damage to the menu. And damage we did. Croqetta frenzy. Queso and jamón as standard. Then a couple of wildcards: atun con huevo (tuna with egg) and espinacas, pasas y gorgonzola (spinach with raisins and gorgonzola). The spinach ones took surprise gold. We also polished off a portion of albóndigas: chubby meatballs and hefts of potato in a delicious sauce, a basket of pane, and patatas bravas muy, MUY picante. I lifted that first chunk of potato in trepidation. Hmmm – one can only assume the Spanish are cowardly when it comes to spice, as I barely batted an eyelid, let alone broke a sweat. All of the above was washed down with the local cerveza – Mahou – and then, for just €9, a bottle of Spanish Cava (The Warren loves his Cava).

Croquettas a-go-go

We are definitely Casa Julio fans. The staff were friendly, the clientele was an interesting cross-section of ages and types, the place was cosy and welcoming. And the croquettas didn’t let me down. In true Walder-Warren fashion, we stayed on until closing time.

Afternoon tea at the Landmark

A tiny bit of me wonders why afternoon tea is considered so cool. Despite the fact that London is caught up in patisserie frenzy – artisan bakeries all over the place, cupcakes the new Prozac, macaroons sacrosanct as diamonds – there’s something depressingly old-fashioned about the image that afternoon tea conjures up: tablecloths and chintz, china teapots, piddly little sandwiches, pastel-coloured sponge and sickly marzipan. Some of London’s tea-rooms are a hundred years old or more, salons where Victorian ladies whiled away afternoons with cross-stitch and idle tittle-tattle. Their fad for ‘low tea’ was a fresh and exciting culinary experience back then. But compared with today’s exhilarating foodie scene – liquid nitrogen, Mexican market food, hefty slabs of meat with a view of St Paul’s, red-velvet whoopie pies the size of your head – the classic afternoon tea should seem faded, demure and terribly clichéd. Yet, here we are in 2010 and most of London’s iconic tea-rooms have three-month waiting lists. Afternoon tea still oozes cool. (And yes, I’m shaking my head in wonder, but also I’m jumping up and down with glee.)

So why, in a recession, are so many of us queuing up to blow £40 on tea and cake, when we could get a steaming mug of Tetley and a Mr Kipling for a matter of pence? Equipped with two girlfriends, I went to find out.

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The Larder, Clerkenwell

It’s rare I eat East, so it was a novelty when a friend’s birthday took me to that neck of the woods, past grand Smithfield market and the famed St John’s dining rooms for the very first time. First impressions of St John’s Lane were as an odd and eerie place. Connecting Farringdon to buzzing Angel, the road is lined with smart-looking eateries and spick office space, but during my visit the pavements (and Waitrose) were pretty much deserted. Where were the people?

(c) Fluid London

The Larder doesn’t yell. I walked the length of the road twice before finally locating it at the Farringdon end, its frontage obscured by scaffolding and its name in discreet lettering above the door. From outside it looks pricey (even the scaffolding suggests investment) but not uninviting. Despite the fact we booked through Top Table and would be enjoying a decent little discount, the girl on the door welcomed us warmly. No credit-crunch resentment here. We were led to a table in the window (as Simon observed, ‘probably to make the place look busy’, since it transpired that the deserted pavements weren’t down to Larder having poached all the pedestrians) and then given plenty of time and space to wait for the final member of our party to arrive.

Talking of space, there’s probably nowhere in Soho with the luxury of such space. If this ample dining room was a Pizza Express, it would contain eight times as many seats. Instead, Larder puts enough distance between you and the next table of strangers that you can remark quite openly on them without fear of being overheard (and remark we did – not just because they were a rather fruity-looking couple, but also because the plates arriving on their table were definitely worth comment). But though the privacy is nice – and indeed quite a novelty in London – it also makes the place feel a little uninhabited and thwarts that ‘buzz’ that makes a good restaurant really great. And, as mentioned, on the Wednesday night in question, the place also suffered from not being full. The only interruptions to our seclusion were the gawping waiters: the wide gangways prevent them from sidling past to sneak a look at your plate, so, discreet as they try to be, they have no choice but to march right up to the table to assess your progress. Meanwhile, reaching the toilets is like crossing the savannah, leading you past a surprisingly exposed chef’s table (I thought they were normally tucked away in expensive back-rooms) and an open kitchen that is less a spectacle and more a chance for the chefs to size up their diners.

(c) Fluid London

Despite the sparse atmosphere, however, Larder really isn’t bad. The staff are pleasant (gawping aside; it’s not their fault), and the food is of a nice standard. The Top Table menu barely differs from the regular à la carte, and affords you a 50% discount if you order starter and main. So we did. Bread, refreshingly, was free, evidently homemade, and came with a shot-glass of olive-oily hummus. My chicken liver parfait was smooth, dense, rich, its chutney tangy. Its butter coating was a little odd, though: not exactly clarified, but also not quite regular, as if somebody had got halfway through clarifying it and then given up. Simon’s Salt and Sichuan Pepper Squid was generous and cleverly presented. The Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli looked fresh and hand-made, topped with attractive micro-salad, while the Duck Spring Rolls were, pleasantly, closer to fresh spring rolls than to the artery-busting deep-fried variety, and chock-a-block with meat.

There is everything to choose from when it comes to The Larder’s main courses: the whole spectrum of meats, a variety of fish types, inventive salads and interesting veggie options. Every dish sounds hearty in some way, whether due to the cooking process (braising/roasting), the homely connotations of the dish (steak pudding/classic fish and chips) or because it is ‘heartied’ up with accompaniments like bubble and squeak or Parmesan croquettes. Somehow, even the salads project heartiness, by promising a whole wealth of ingredients, particularly earthy ones like squash and root veg. My roast salmon came with a satisfyingly salty side of puy lentils, pancetta and Charlotte potatoes. A pie boasted a stodgy but delicious suet-pastry crust. Delicate grilled plaice fillets were roughened up with some breaded scampi. The confit of duck was given the opposite treatment, its audacious richness offset with delicate scallops and bok choy. All hearty but not heavy. Plates were duly emptied.

Verdict? Satisfying and attractive food trying to hold its own against a slightly meagre atmosphere. I rarely wish for a rabble, but to get the best experience of Larder, I recommend going at a typically busy time – a Thursday or Friday evening, when the place is full enough that people’s voices might drown out the awkward clink of your knife and fork.