Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Definitely cream first

I eat my scones the Devon way: the cream makes a perfect smooth spreading surface for the jam. If you do it the other way round then the jam all sticks to the cream and gets lifted off the scone surface and uneven.... it's also, it has to be said, more aesthetically pleasing to have a lovely red blob of jam in the middle of a cloud of cream rather than a big white blob obscuring the glistening jammy fruit.

Although having said that, it doesn't really matter so much just so long as it's clotted cream that's used!! I've had disappointing experiences in Sussex where a cream tea is served with a slightly lighter, more airy cream (is this a Sussex thing?) is used. It wasn't as sacreligious as squirty cream (OK for the tops of ice-cream sundaes and perhaps American-style pies) but any kind of light cream just doesn't have the oozing yet fairly rigid consistency that you want for a scone/cream/jam combo. The only air in a cream tea should be in the scones themselves... the topping should be a heavy indulgent delight .

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

I recently discovered the Fuck Yeah Condiments blog which celebrates the various bottled, canned, tubed and jarred accoutrements which can enhance and add spark on the side of a meal. I love it. All manner of freaky and wonderful sauces and potions are here, some bordering on the disturbing such as the pictured 'Marvin Mustard Spread Head'. Yikes.

But even this rather unappetising image won't temper my love affair with condiments. I'll always be the one in the cafe or pub stock-piling millions of sachets of ketchup, mayonnaise, salad cream and brown sauce to go with my burger and chips. I'll be the reason that waiter looks tired out running to and from the kitchen bearing various requested ramekins of mayonnaise, mustard, tartare or cranberry sauce.

The eternal problem with being a condiment fan is that a little goes a long way - eg. you may only need a small spoonful of a particular condiment once a week, meaning your fridge is perpetually packed with monolithic jars and tubs which just refuse to empty. This is compounded by the fact that the sheer VARIETY of condiments is pretty much endless - think of all the varieties of chutneys that are possible, and the infinite combinations, let alone moving onto relishes, jams, jellies, mustards or sauces. The other problem is that the sheer variety of condiments makes them even more tempting and addictive, leading to an often unwitting accumulation building up in your cupboards, fridges and tables.

Still, I can't stand it when you go to someone's house for dinner and there's nothing provided to enchant and enhance the meal on the side, whether it's chutney with curries, or ketchup with pies, or horseradish or garlic mayonnaise or redcurrant jelly or mint sauce (you get the idea)...with roast meat or sausages. People too often don't appreciate quite how much a condiment can help lubricate the tastebuds and tickle the senses in many combinations both classic and unique: lamb and mint, hot dogs and mustard, fish with lemon, prawns with sweet chilli sauce, goats cheese and onion marmalade, or more strange favourites of mine like horseradish with parsnips and apple sauce dollopped on cabbage. And as for those who aren't scrupulously efficient about making sure they serve gravy or sauce with any meal involving a pie, sausages or roast meat well, don't get me started...

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Greed is Good

Sometimes your prayers are (kind of) answered. My friend Jane was down from London to visit and we were thinking of somewhere to eat. We felt like a buffet (my love affair with the buffet restaurant has already been well documented) but couldn't decide which one to go for as most are narrowed down to one type of cuisine. What we were hungry for was the Las Vegas-style buffet where you can eat a little bit of every type of food - from pizzas to prawns to pastries. And then suddenly we came upon this sign, pointing us in the direction of the very thing: a new buffet called 'Gekko' which has replaced the rather awful Wokmania (large oriental buffet with lots of choice but tasting very over-processed). The sign promised 'Fresh Pizzas, Pastas, Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Sushi, Mexican, Crepes and Desserts' for the recession-friendly £6.99. However, the despondency of the guy holding the sign was perhaps a portent of our experience, which ended up being fairly average.

We were greeted by a rather cavernous, uncosy dining hall with huge counters of various vats of dishes which all looked pretty impressive. Also A LOT of fat people in there, whom we were about to join! Pretty much exactly the same as Wokmania in design, probably run by the same people just under a different name. As such, while the sheer amount looks exciting - there are areas where fresh pasta, crepes and pizzas are prepared to order as well as all the other stuff - the eating of the food was a rather more patchy experience in terms of taste sensations.

The sushi consisted of a couple of different 'california roll'-style items which were alright but a little warm. Disappointingly the Mexican selection consisted of chilli (quite nice) and items for making nachos (I like nachos but wanted enchiladas, burritos, etc!), the Chinese, Malaysian and Indian sections, despite having loads and loads of different dishes all had a suspiciously similar taste in many cases. However, chilli squid in the Chinese section was pretty good, as were some of the vegetarian dishes - the meat, especially chicken, was fairly crappy in quality and had that pumped up with water taste. My greediness meant that even though the food was pretty average, I still ate quite a lot of the bits that were quite good, and I thought I'd give the fresh pasta a go and ordered ham and cheese. Already prepared for it to taste not exactly authentic Italian, I really didn't expect it to be just as plain weird as it was. I thought it would be simply cheesy in a macaroni cheese kind of way, but having been lovingly prepared for 5-10 minutes my dish arrived looking impressive and steaming, but with a creamy sauce which when tasted was overwhelmingly and strangely sweet. Didn't try the pizzas but saw a few girls at another table excitedly ordering quite a few, so maybe they were acceptable.

Speaking of sweet, the dessert cases which looked extensive, actually contained rather strange choices of desserts that probably came from Iceland - strawberry cheesecake was nice, shame it was still frozen in the middle but the various cakes on offer kind of looked a bit like they'd just come out of a Mr Kipling box. The 'Mr Whippy'-style ice cream machine was appreciated, but could have done with some more sundae decorations like sprinkles, flakes, cherries etc!

So our excitement that Gekko provoked was somewhat disappointed by the experience of the eating. For £6.99 it was pretty good value for a lunch - the prices go up to £13.99 for dinner, although this might include even more dishes and also a grill which presumably cooks fresh steaks and other meats. Still, from the worrying quality of the meat on offer at the buffet I wouldn't say you'd be getting much that would be worth the extra. Overall I guess it was wishful thinking that when it comes to eateries you can't always have quality as well as quantity.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A tribute to the thali

During Easter I spent over two weeks in India exploring Mumbai and Goa. And of course a major part of that trip was sampling all the culinary delights that area of India has to offer. While the boiling-point temperatures and humidity normally meant that my appetite took a bit of a dent, my general love of Indian food and the sheer diversity of Indian cuisine meant that food was often on my mind! I was determined to seek out as many diverse tastes as I could, and staying with a friend meant that she could suggest options and places which otherwise the general tourist might not be aware of.

That being said, one of my favourite meals was at a particular place often mentioned in the guide books, and for good reason. Rajdhani Thali is a highly successful chain in Mumbai and South India (and a little beyond) focusing on the 'thali' meal. A thali is basically an assortment of lots of small different dishes, normally served with breads and rice. If you order a thali from a UK Indian restaurant or takeaway you normally get 3 dishes and a rice/poppadom. The items included are set and normally not that diverse, and it's normally one of the more expensive items on the menu, presumably because of the priviledge of having all the different stuff.

But a thali in India is different! Presented on a large steel tray, it is a colourful formation of usually more than 5 small steel bowls filled with various dishes, with rice and/or bread and chutneys served on the tray itself. And a thali at Rajdhani is even more amazing. Cheap, delicious and all vegetarian but I'll wager it would convert any committed carnivore. You arrive to a table set up with the requisite metal tray and 10 empty (for now...) small bowls on a large steel tray. Men stride up and down between the tables holding serving bowls (larger versions of the ones you see often with relishes or dips, a handle down the middle with multiple bowls attached around it), who instantly fill your bowls with a flourish. And suddenly you have 9-10 mouthwatering things to dip your bread into - sorry, breadS into - they give you three or four different types. And did I also mention it's 'bottomless'? Meaning that the waiters will keep refilling your little bowls until you tell them to stop. You also have a man that comes up with a jug and bowl before and after the meal so you can wash your hands. And how much is the whole experience? 299 rupees per person, under £5!

So....what was on the plate. Not an exhaustive list but here goes. Snacks and accompaniments were potato bhajis, sweet and sour tamarind chutney, green (coriander and mint) chutney, coconut chutney, chopped cucumber and onion salad and dhokla, a steamed white airy square made of gram flour (texture almost like a cake or fluffy American pancake - very absorbent for dipping!). Breads were wedges of lovely floppy chappatis and an unusual hard, almost-pastry like bread shaped with ridges. There was rice and also khichdi which is a yellow mound of stodgy creamy rice and dal (lentils) cooked together topped with ghee. Things to dip in or scoop up was a mixture of sweet and savoury dishes - this is a restaurant favoured by Gujuratis who apparently have a very sweet tooth and love combinations of sweet and savoury flavours in their food. So the small dishes were filled with: spicy dals; potato curry; a strange tangy sour-sweet dish called mango kadhi made with yoghurt or buttermilk, mango and spices; chickpea and black eyed beans curry; paneer and peas (one of my faves, very rich and buttery!); dry fried okra; bhindi (aubergines) masala. For dessert malpuas (small round deep fried flour discs soaked in sugar syrup) for dipping into aam ras (mango pulp) and my newly discovered favourite 'shrikhand' - yoghurt that has been strained and flavoured with sugar and cardomom. A sweet-sour flavour and texture sort of akin to lemon curd (without the lemon, and more creamy), it's totally moreish and refreshing.

Bearing in mind the heat and humidity outside, and the fact that we were next due to wander around some street markets, my friend and I thought it prudent to not totally eat ourselves into too much of a stupor. However, I think I amused the staff by my repeated requests for more shrikhand, and also managed a good few bowls of other favourite things. I left wishing I could eat it all again, and feeling that I'd experienced something really special despite the fact that in the context of Mumbai Rajdhani isn't really a fancy restaurant. It's an everyday sort of place that is deservedly well attended by people simply looking for a reasonably priced, interesting and pretty wholesome meal. They even offer to deliver set meal boxes to your home: though of course sadly this doesn't include the tantalising bottomless aspect, which from my greedy perspective was the icing on the cake of this delightful eating adventure.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

If you can't sleep, make cookies

The other weekend I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep. So I thought making cookies would be a profitable use of that extra time. As a massive peanut butter fan, I made peanut butter cookies from the Magnolia Bakery cookbook.

The mixture is a gorgeous, shiny sweet gloopy mess. I was so distracted by it that it wasn't until I'd dolloped out my first batch that I realised I'd forgotten to add the Reece's Pieces which I was adding instead of the stated 'peanut butter chips' (just because I randomly had the Reece's Pieces in my cupboard and have no idea what peanut butter chips are anyway). So I just stuck them into the top and then threw the rest into the remaining mixture.

It worked really well, the cookies get more firm as they cool and are a slightly chewy texture, which turns to satisfying slightly sticky peanut-butterness in your mouth as you chew. Highly moreish and perfect with a cup of tea to wash them down, from preparation to eating took about 20 mins and they made a yummy breakfast!

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Amazing cakes!

What's better than a cupcake? A GIANT cupcake of course!

These were made some February birthdays in my family by my sister, Jackie - I know a day (or two) of hard graft went into making these with incredible results:

My grandad's (the yellow one) was vanilla topped with marsala wine icing, crystallised violets and chocolate covered blueberries (!); mine was strawberry flavour and Chloe's was vanilla flavour - we both had gorgeous chocolate covered strawberries on ours. Truly outstanding.

For more spectacular cakes - though not necessarily in a good way like these - amuse yourself at the Cake Wrecks: 'When professional cakes go horribly, hilariously wrong'....

Monday, 1 March 2010

Sparkly Sherry Trifle

A traditional British dessert, like my nan used to make (well, almost)... with a space-age twist.

What food stuff can't be improved without a little spinkle of edible glitter?

Trifle-making tips: don't skimp on the sherry, the sponge cake absorbs it, well, like a sponge and the bottom of a trifle is disappointing if it's not sweetly infused and mushy enough. Also panic arose as I poured the jelly in on top of the sponge layer, as the increasing liquid displaced the sponge from their rightful place at the bottom of the bowl and they started floating upwards. Doesn't affect taste, granted, but sort of ruins the pretty layered effect. A tip from the internet suggests letting the jelly begin to thicken and set on its own slightly before you tip it into the trifle. Custard tip: for a truly thick set custard don't mess around with the homemade stuff, make up some classic Bird's custard with a couple of extra tablespoons of powder!

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Ice Cream

I've been very prolific with posts recently, but as it's been my birthday I've been eating lots of lovely food!

After visiting the wonderful Foodilic last Sunday, it's hard to believe but after waddling around for an hour me and my friend fancied something sweet. So we headed to Scoop and Crumb, which I have been meaning to try for ages... and what better treat on a rainy day than an ice cream sundae? All the ice cream is made with local organic milk, and it's not a chain - infinitely better than your run of the mill Ben and Jerry's or Haagen Daz. At least on a grim day like that we didn't have to queue, apparently this place gets super popular with people queuing out the door, being as it is just a stone's throw from the seafront.

They've managed to create a refreshing, light tasting ice-cream, yet with a satisfying creaminess - a bit like Italian ice cream. We both had two scoops: I had strawberry cheesecake and cherry with chocolate; Karen had lemon and chocolate crunch. They didn't last long.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Happy Bitday

What happens when your friends can't spell (or when the letter-shaped candles snap as they're being hurriedly applied to a cake before you re-enter the room):

Now, I love Nutella and I love cinnamon, but I'd never dreamed some genius would put them together in a cake recipe! And finely executed this cake was too, moist, crumbly with lots of surprise chunks of yummy Nutella. Mmmmmm.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010


Back in the 80s or 90s there was an advert for the knobbly artifically flavoured and deadly moreish corn-snack Nik Naks. Two men in a cartoon discuss their virtues, making reference to their rather weird and grotesque appearance, and contrasts this with their 'explosive' flavour: "Nik Naks they look BLEEEUUUUUR! but they taste BANG!" (watch the video, you'll see what a mean)

This motto was brought to mind the other day when I did one of my favourite things: coming home to what is at first glance fairly basic food stocks but at which point the imagination starts whirring to produce a quick yet wholesome and tasty meal based on working with what we've got. Surveying the fridge I had some leftover mashed potato and some sweetcorn. Investigating the freezer for some cooked prawns and smoked mackerel I had in storage, I set about creating this fish pie.

I loosely based the fish filling on a chowder recipe I've made before and gently simmered the fish and prawns in milk until defrosted (probably not necessarily the height of food safety, but it was all cooked already and I'm still alive as I write this). I fried off an onion, added half a tin of tomatoes and a pinch of chilli flakes, then added in the milk, fish and sweetcorn and simmered together a little. A little cornflower to thicken and a touch of salt and pepper, and into the oven it went with the leftover mash on top and some grated parmesan. Hey presto, comfort food for one in only about an hour, all made from pretty much leftovers and store cupboard ingredients. Shame about the rather bizarre pink and vomity colour scheme but, like Nik Naks, it looks weird but tasted GREAT.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Cocktails and canapes

The other weekend it was Valentines' Day and some friends and I thought the perfect way to treat ourselves was to have some cocktails and canapes. By the amount we produced you'd think we were catering for more than an intimate party of 4, but who'd want to share all of these delights with too many people? With less munchers to steal all the best bits it ended up being a joyful feast rather than just a nibble with drinks.

We consulted a few online sources for inspiration, looking at vintage recipes and also the lovely recipe book born of the Chocolate and Zucchini blog. The menu was I suppose a bit of a homage to our idea of cocktail parties of the past, with prawn cocktail, salmon and cream cheese vol-au-vents (heart-shaped of course) and Ritz crackers, smoked mackerel pate on circles of brown bread, spanish omelette, prawn cocktail, cheese and cumin gougeres (unbelievably moreish) and Black Forest gateau (not homemade, I admit).

One thing I don't think we banked on was how long it took to make all this stuff. It's all just so damn finicky. That's one thing I've noticed about the evolution of food for entertaining over the years. While you might find vol-au-vents and dainty sandwiches at parties these days, the vol-au-vent cases are probably bought in frozen-ready, and it doesn't take too much to throw together a few rounds of sandwiches. Even less labour-intensive are the ever popular mediterranean-style spreads of pots of houmous, cold sliced meats and salamis, bowls of olives, casually torn chunks of bread etc, all of which can be bought pre-prepared and laid out in 10 minutes.

But looking at recipe books from the 50s to the 70s, if a food stuff could be fussed with in some way, it was worth doing. Decoration and bite-sized daintiness was encouraged - why would you serve a bowl of egg mayonnaise when you can halve boiled eggs, scoop out the yolk, mash it up with mayonnaise and pipe it back in (a la 'devilled eggs' - you can even dye them blue and pink for an extra flourish)? Takes 10 times longer but hey, what else were you going to do today? And it would be the height of bad manners to expect your guests to have to help themselves to pate and bread, what they want is it pre-cut into neat circles and topped with the pate and perhaps a garnish. The thing is that it's all very repetitive - you might enjoy filling the first one or two vol-au-vent cases prettily with filling, but those things are small and deceptively moreish, so if you've got a proper party going on you're going to have to do that maybe 20-30 times.

Drinks-wise, we made some classic cocktails, including old-fashioneds (sugar cube soaked in bitters; add ice and a touch of soda; then top with bourbon and an orange twists) and martinis (vodka poured over ice cubes tainted with vermouth, strained into a glass with a green olive) and basically concluded that a lot of original cocktails were devised as a way of drinking pure undiluted spirits while still looking refined and not-at-all like an alcoholic. The rather soupy green stuff to the left in a 'kiwi-tini' which we enthusiastically concocted, thinking that after all the pastry, eggs, cream cake, pate and pure alcohol we should probably get some vitamin C.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

6 hours and a dozen eggs later...

When, inspired by another department's efforts, I suggested having a cake sale at work in aid of the Haiti disaster fund, I didn't realise I'd get so into the idea that I'd spend my day off on my feet in the kitchen, slaving over eggs, sugar, flour and icing to produce 4 different cakes (3 for Haiti, 1 for me).

I awoke to a clear, cold morning, the first bit of clear blue sky we've seen in a while and then this happened:

A sudden, ridiculously heavy and blustery hail storm which blew in enough for there to be a smattering of icy deposits to collected on windowsill and bushes. Followed by more sun, and then some snow... all in all outside looked far too unpredictable, so I settled in to a day of working up a steam in the kitchen. And with radio for company and a good amount of bowl and finger licking to keep me sustained throughout my travails, I rather enjoyed it.

Preparing my tools in a (not for long) clean kitchen:

Cake(s) number 1: Vanilla Cupcakes

I'm never sure when these are done as they're quite dense and can be a little heavy... not sure if I slightly overcooked them, but always still delicious especially with beautiful creamy frosting on the top. I think I was a little over-zealous with the food colouring though, I got a bit over-excited and they ended up maybe a little childishly bright rather than the sophisticated pastel shades I was intending:

Cake number 2: Carrot cake with lime cream cheese frosting

This cake mix was REALLY tasty with the cinnamon spiciness! This is a recipe that always works out, lovely moist cake with dreamy, fluffy frosting:

Cake number 3: Spiced date, apple and walnut loaf

A little bit Delia Smith, a little bit Marguerite Patten this recipe. I used Delia's recipe for date, apple and walnut loaf which combined more ingredients than Marguerite's 'spiced date loaf' (plus I had apples to use up). But Delia omitted to use any spice, so I co-opted the 2 teaspoons of mixed spice from Marguerite's recipe, and I think the two combined was perfect - rich moist fruit with a lovely spicy aroma.

Cake number 4: Ginger Cake (from Levi Roots Caribbean Food Made Easy, my latest acquisition)

At this point I admit my domestic goddess facade was beginning to slip, and I certainly wasn't in the mood for weighing out treacle - a bit of an annoying recipe direction as treacle is thick and sticky and rather tricky to transport from tin to scales to saucepan. Tablespoon measurements would have been better...

Melting together treacle, sugar, butter:

Mixing in the flour, powdered ginger and chopped stem ginger (resisting the urge to eat chunks of it straight from the jar):

Looking very brown and treacly....

With lime icing:

And the cake sale....