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!

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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

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.

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.

Polpetto

The press have been going mad for a tiny restaurant with just 28 seats. Today’s fourth most-viewed restaurant on Time Out London, and arguably this year’s most talked-about new eating place, Polpetto opened in August to an impatient crowd of media bods, foodies and tweeters, all eager to squeeze inside and feast on Venetian tapas.

This is the follow-up to Polpo, which has established itself as a Venetian-style bacaro in Soho, and whose website displays an incredible roll-call of praise, including huge compliments from Jay Rayner and A.A Gill. So far Polpetto looks set to replicate every ounce of its big sister’s success.

Having not yet tried Polpo, perhaps that’s where I should have started, but who could resist the description of Polpetto as ‘a tiny, jewel-box version’? Also lured in by a promising review in Stylist magazine and the clamour coming from Twitter, I wanted to get straight to the treasure.

Situated above The French House on Dean Street, Polpetto is reached by a narrow staircase that leads up into a small space cluttered with wooden furniture. A dark red banquette along the back is shared by four adjacent tables beneath a wall of exposed brickwork and three mock windows, shaped like openings onto the outside world but tiled with mirrors that reflect the inside of the room. With its wood floor, panelled ceiling, worn paintwork and naked pendant bulbs dangling from their wires, the simple, timeless decor might trick you into believing Polpetto has resided here for two centuries, rather than just two months.

The tableware is quirky and classic – miniature wine and water glasses in various shapes and styles; wine that arrives in darling half-carafes, patterned vintage dishes, and wide-format parchment menus printed with an old-fashioned serif type. The menu consists of ‘cicheti, small plates and classic Venetian osteria dishes.’ This basically means small snacks, which you can mix and match as you choose. We matched Duck & porcini meatballs with Chopped chicken liver crostino, Smoked swordfish, lemon and dill ricotta, Stracchino, fennel, salami & fig bruschetta, Cured pork shoulder & pickled pepper pizzetta and Zucchini fries (which were phenomenal; I’d go back just for those). The general approach seems to be just to keep on ordering until you’re full. The young, friendly staff didn’t mind at all when we flagged them down for the sixth time. Plates are small, prices are small, the place itself is small, but taste is big. Desserts (Pannacotta with blackberries and salted hazelnut praline; Tiramisu pot) were just a mouthful, but a delicious one.

This tiny place fills up fast. We were smart enough to stop by at 6.30pm on a weekday; by 8pm there was a snaking queue. Once inside, nobody wants to leave. Believe all the hype and definitely pay Polpetto a visit, but pick your time wisely: on a Friday or Saturday night not even those zucchini fries would convince me to bother.

Gilgamesh: East meets West in North-London

To describe the restaurant Gilgamesh with any hope of accuracy, you must accept that it is neither one thing or another. It is a place of stark contrasts.
Take pairs of adjectives opposite in meaning and in every case you’ll need both: Ancient yet modern. Vast yet intimate. Ostentatious but somehow casual and effortless. These extremes are everywhere: in the decor, cuisine, atmosphere, flavours. The food is bold and brave, but never intimidating; dishes are spicy yet still somehow soothing. A place with so many attributes could easily struggle over its identity. But Gilgamesh knows itself, and its many sides meld nicely together: a place where East and West unite in a North-London market.

 

Gilgamesh Bar

 

 

Sited in the heart of Camden stables, amidst traders’ lean-tos and lurid Chinese food stalls, to reach Gilgamesh you’re forced to leave the grunge-cool high street and step fleetingly onto cobbles. It’s all part of the experience: that hint of ramshackle market simply highlights how distinct the restaurant is from its surroundings. The cobbles quickly become plush black carpet as you approach the suited security men and clipboard-wielding hostess who guard the door. If your name’s on the list – essential on a weekend; they can rarely fit in impromptu visits – you may pass inside, where an escalator transports you upstairs between carved mahogany walls. More staff and imposing glass doors still block the way: you just aren’t getting in if you didn’t book ahead.

When at last you take your seat – a throne-like brocade-upholstered monstrosity – in the cavernous dining room with its soaring glass ceiling, all your senses are bombarded. Feast your eyes on intricately sculpted wood, jewel-coloured fabrics shot with gold and silver, rich velvet flocking and rippling vats of water dotted liberally with floating flowers. Attractive bartenders shake exotic-looking cocktails; glorious smells and glimpses of food tease you from nearby tables. From the off, you can’t but be absorbed, so that it’s unnerving when you look up from your plate for a moment and suddenly recall where you are and how many, many people surround you.

Despite a special offer, the set menu didn’t tempt us. The à la carte is designed to snare. Food arrived fast, and thick; there’s no skimping, though it is still dim sum so don’t expect roast-dinner-sized portions. We chose Scallop and Prawn Dumplings, which sounded delicious but were disappointing, the beautiful scallops masked by a soggy, starchy coating. The Duck Spring Rolls were a better choice, but the real star of the starter show, without doubt, was the Sweet Potato and Avocado Tempura. Generous colourful wedges frosted with delicate pale batter, and three sensations – the potato sweet and textured, the avocado smooth and buttery, the batter light and crisp. All offset with a bowl of zingy Ponzu juice in which to dunk.

Last time I ate here, I came away singing about red duck curry with lychees, but sadly no sign of it on the menu a year later. With that curry in mind, we went straight for the Thai Green and a mound of Jasmine Rice.  I’ll say this for Ian Pengelly: he’s not afraid to whack a load of spices in his broth. Weaker women would have lain down their spoon and hollered for water.

As for dessert, a crème brûlée purist might turn up their nose at a flavoured version. Not I. The best approach to the Chocolate & Lemongrass Crème Brûlée is to treat it as an entirely separate dessert that just happens to replicate the texture of that oh-so-beloved French favourite. Like an incredibly silky milk-chocolate mousse, it slipped down nicely, with a sharp passion-fruit sorbet adding an edge, and the only negative being our difficulty in identifying the lemongrass: frustrating but not crucial.

You can’t do Asian food without the concluding tea ritual, and our Jasmine Pearls came in squat cast-iron teapots, the bulbous metal in heavy contrast to delicate china cups. Finally, a chance to digest: the food, the throng, the bill. Yes, all this glitz must be paid for, but luckily the prices aren’t quite steep enough to pale a colourful evening. (Though I imagine it’s a different story if you’re lured in by the cocktails.)

Verdict? Gilgamesh is a bright, buzzing, vibrant grotto, a glorious feast for the senses. It’s totally Camden – don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll experience the true Orient – but it’s also welcoming enough to make anyone feel cool and current.

 

Double espresso or flat white? My journey in search of good coffee

At university the teapot reigned. Many a nice cup of Yorkshire tea saw me through the tranquil hours of essay composition and private study. Especially during Neighbours. But when those halcyon years were suddenly over, I discovered a time called 7am. And something stronger was called for.

Coffee is my new best friend. While I can always turn to my old buddy Mr Tea Bag for a leisurely afternoon chat, coffee shakes me from my bed on my darkest days, props open my eyes and wrenches the foggy brain into focus; it moves my limbs in the required directions even when I’m in a daze. Watch the army of commuters staggering from house to office and you’ll see the same recurring movements everywhere, a set of well-practised actions which have become second nature by necessity as much as by repetition. Person A (let’s call her Coco [haha]) lurches from the tube station and takes her daily detour via Starbucks/Costa/Nero/Pret. Barely raising her heavy-lidded eyes, she slurs a multi-syllabic string of cocoa-related words at the apathetic barista. ‘Grande-skinny-cappuccino-widanextrashot-and-hot-milk-plus-extra-foam-and-chocolate-sprinkles.’ Coco stands trancelike until the receptacle touches the counter, at which, sudden, wild action is triggered. The cup is lunged for, seized, propelled to mouth, scalding bitter liquid is desperately inhaled. And there! There it is: a reverberating sigh of relief, and her entire being visibly trembles as the dregs of fatigue are sent packing.

She is not alone. This rite of morning passage takes place every day across cities all around the world. Millions of people haul gigantic cardboard cups from desk to mouth, from desk to mouth, from desk to mouth. Tongues are burnt, countless pennies are spent, all for a taste of that precious, gleaming, magical brown liquid with the power to shake us into instant action.

I’m an Americano with milk girl. No sugar. The cheapest option, but also the most unadulterated, gearing me up for stacks of invoices, difficult authors, endless meetings. Eleven o’clock and it’s time for another. Shameful as it is to admit, I depend upon this little luxury. I like my tea, but I need my coffee.

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