Thursday, 25 June 2009

A Fabulous Foodie Foray

Nice sunny day - check. Parking space outside underground station of choice - check. A whole day to myself with nothing better to do - check! In short, everything I needed for a little trip to the capital to check out a few foodie hotspots and have a general mooch around - my idea of heaven.

After a little walk through the city and a visit to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy on Piccadilly (very little to do with food so I won't bore you, although one of my favourite pictures was of a slice of Battenburg Cake - no joke!) it was time for lunch. As I mentioned in a previous post a visit to my most favourite shop, Books for Cooks, was long overdue and so it was here I headed to first in the hope that they would be able to quell my hunger pangs. Luckily I was not to be disappointed. The menu looked enticing and they were able to squeeze me into one of the few remaining seats. Eating here is not like eating anywhere else. - there is no menu to choose from as such, just a small blackboard giving the name of the one starter and one main course on offer that day.

I began with the starter - Smoked garlic and paprika marinated aubergine with tomato & parsley salad & tahini, which was served with a slice of homemade onion focaccia. The aubergine was meltingly soft with a fabulous flavour and the salad was a lovely accompaniment. Delicious.

I was intending to have just one course but having watched a number of other people tucking in the main course I just couldn't resist. It was a Moroccan-spiced lamb pie with harissa yoghurt that I had succumbed to and I'm glad I did. The spices gave the lamb a lovely warmth and flavour with pine nuts, dried cranberries and the filo pastry topping adding interest and texture. The source for this recipe was Mince! by Mitzie Wilson , a book that I will definitely be adding to my wish list so I can recreate this dish at a later date.

And how much did this all set me back? Well, put your money away, I'll pick up the tab for this one because the total cost for both dishes was......£5! Amazing value I'm sure you'll agree as they could easily have charged double that. Just another reason why I love this place.

The cakes on offer for dessert were so tempting but I had other ideas as to how I would satisfy my sweet tooth so I had to decline with regret. Of course I couldn't just walk away with out making some sort of literary purchase. I could have happily left with at least a dozen different books but after giving a thought to my bank balance and the distance I still had to walk I limited myself to the Books for Cooks compilation book 7 to add to my collection. I have already mentally earmarked a large number of recipes and hope to report back at a later date.

Here are a couple of pictures of the shop...yes these are ALL cookbooks!

Round the corner and someway further down Portobello Road I was very pleased to encounter the Hummingbird Bakery, which I've heard so much about, mostly as a result of their recently published book (which I'm still tempted to buy despite the mixed reviews). My first choice, their infamous Red Velvet cupcake, had unfortunately sold out so I settled instead for a Black Bottomed cupcake.

Well, it was fabulous. A rich, soft chocolate cake with a swirl of cheesecake and chocolate chips running through it. The thick cream cheese icing just added to the finger-licking gooeyness. Sigh.

As I headed south from Notting Hill and onwards to Kensington High Street I managed to find my next port of call, Ottolenghi, without too much trouble, just off Kensington Church Street. This is one of four Ottolenghi branches, all of which focus on producing food using ingredients that are fresh, local and organic wherever possible. Their shops are filled with mounds of fresh salads, plates of sliced beef, tuna and salmon and piles of muffins, cakes and meringues. All of the shops operate as delicatessens but some also have seating areas and offer lunch or dinner in-house. It was all very tempting but I restricted myself to a small sample of their Asparagus, samphire, radicchio and goats cheese salad (see below). I shall return.

My final stop was the weekly food market at Covent Garden and for about the hundredth time that day I found myself wishing for an infinite budget and unlimited calorie allowance. Pictured below are of just two of the many stalls. Others were offering fresh fruit, cupcakes, olives and much more besides. I treated myself to a fruit smoothie and a wedge of Stichelton cheese (Stichelton seems to be the new Stilton so I thought I'd give it a try. I really liked it but still prefer a good creamy stilton to the Stichelton's saltier flavour).

Neals Yard Dairy

The Flour Station Bakery

All in all a lovely day. Hopefully I won't have to wait too long for the next one!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb....

Rhubarb is one my favourite fruits (vegetables??) and now that more and more is appearing in the shops I hope to make the most of it and try out a number of rhubarb-based recipes over the next few weeks. If only I could persuade the sad little rhubarb plant in our garden to pull itself together and give us a decent number of stalks each year I'd be a happy bunny. But instead we have to make do with it half-heartedly sending up a couple of feeble efforts before dissapearing back into the ground until the following spring. I do envy people who are overrun with the stuff!

Anyway, this is without a doubt one of my very favourite rhubarb recipes, Rhubarb Meringue Pie from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson. It tastes fabulous and the sweetness of the meringue sets off the tartness of the rhubarb perfectly.

I won't give you the full recipe, suffice to say you need to make up and blind bake a 24cm shortcrust pastry case, using the juice of half an orange to bind the dough together. The filling is then put together as follows:

Rhubarb Meringue Pie
(adapted from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson)

24cm shortcrust pastry case
800g rhubarb, untrimmed weight
juice of 1/2 orange
2 eggs, separated
150g sugar
2 tablespoons plain flour
30g melted butter

1) Trim the rhubarb and chop it into roughly 1cm slices. Put in a saucepan with the orange juice and heat briefly, just until the rawness is taken off them. Remove and drain (but keep the liquid).

2) In a bowl mix together the sugar, flour and melted butter. Add the eggs and enough of the rhubarb juices to make a smooth runny paste. Add some more orange juice if needed.

3) Put the rhubarb into the blind baked pastry case and pour the sugary, eggy mixture over. Bake in the oven at 200c/gas mark 6 for 20-30 until just set.

4) Use the egg whites, 120g caster sugar and 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar to make a meringue mix. Spread the meringue over the pie, sprinkle with a teaspoon of caster sugar and bake for 15 minutes.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Birthday Cake

Yesterday we had a party for my daughter's 5th birthday and, of course, if there's party then there has to be a cake!  We came to the conclusion that a butterfly cake would be a good option (pink and pretty = happy Emma, not too difficult to make = happy Mummy!).

The basic shape is just a two layer sponge cake (filled with jam) which is cut in half down the middle, turned around and stuck back together to make the wings.  I then covered it with plain butter icing and piped on the decoration with pink butter icing using my trusty Tala icing syringe.  At first I just could not figure out how to recreate the shell pattern I was trying to copy from the picture I had but thankfully my Mum (cake maker extraodinaire) was on hand (via the telephone) to provide me with a bit of a masterclass and I was soon on my way.

I'm pretty pleased with the way it turned (and so was E which was the main thing) and it tasted good too.  I really recommend using a good raspberry jam when filling a layer cake as the slightly sharper flavour really balances out the sugary icing.

P.S. Please excuse the less-than-great photos.  The light in my kitchen was terrible and I couldn't fit the whole cake into my light box!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

A Blue Cheese Tart

It's been a long time since I last paid a visit to one of my very favourite foodie places. Too long. I am, of course, referring to the fabulous, wish-I-lived-in-London, cookbook lovers dream, Books for Cooks in Notting Hill. For those of you who don't know, Books for Cooks is a shop entirely devoted to selling Cook Books. I know....I come over all funny just thinking about it! Aswell as selling books they also have a little test kitchen at the back of the shop where they try out two or three recipes every day, plus a selection of cakes. These are then served up to the lucky few who manage to find a seat at the handful of tables until it's all gone. They also host a variety of worskshops throughout the year. I haven't managed to attend one yet but this year I'm determined to schedule one in somewhere!

Aswell as selling other people's books, Books for Cooks also produce their own books which contain collections of the best-tasting recipes made in the test kitchen over the past year and as you might expect, these are a veritable treasure-trove of varied and wonderful recipes.

It was in one of these books that I found the following recipe. I was in a tart-making sort of mood and this was the one that appealed to me most.

Blue Cheese and Spinach Tart with Caramelised Onions
(adapted from A Taste of Australia - The Bathers Pavilion Cookbook by Victoria Alexander and Genevieve Harris. Brought to me via Books for Cooks Favourite Recipes from Books 1,2 and 3)

4 onions, finely sliced
90g/3oz butter
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp brown sugar
black pepper
125g/40z spinach leaves
175g/6oz blue cheese (Roquefort or Gorgonzola) crumbled
6 tbsp mascarpone
1 organic egg, beaten
24cm (91/2 inch) shortcrust pastry case, baked blind
(175g/6oz flour, pinch of salt, 90g/30z cold butter, 1 organic egg yolk)

1) Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan over a low heat, stir in the onions, salt and sugar and cook gently for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until meltingly soft and deep golden brown. Season to taste.

2) Prepare the spinach by stripping the leaves of their stalks, then rolling up the leaves and slicing them into thin strips.

3) Mix together the mascarpone, blue cheese and egg until fairly smooth.

4) Spread the caramelised onions over the bottom of the pastry case, then press the spinach gently on to the top. Pour over the mascarpone mixture and spread it as evenly over the tart as possible so that the spinach is well covered and does not scorch.

5) Bake the tart at 190c/375f/Gas 5 until the mascarpone topping is puffed and golden (about 30 minutes).

Serves 4-6