August 2009


Much as I still want to be able to get a table – or a share in one – at Tina, We Salute You of a Sunday morning, I must unselfishly tell you how great it is. Islington’s packed with fancy breakfast joints, so it’s well worth venturing over to Dalston (or Newington Green – it’s moot) for somewhere a bit different that serves tasty food in a more interesting setting.

A confession, although possibly an unsurprising one: I’m a butter fan. So the mysterious Tina got off on the right foot on my latest visit when I was greeted by this joyous sight on the communal table:

That's my breakfast sorted.

That's my breakfast sorted…

Happy as I would have been with that, I opted instead for the ‘weekend treat’: pancakes, berries, banana, maple syrup and vanilla cream. And what pancakes! Fluffy, light, perfectly golden, and soaked with syrup and the fragrant cream.

Fruit makes it healthy, OK?

Fruit makes it healthy, OK?

I LOVE this place. The staff are super-friendly, the food reasonably priced and delicious, and I’m reliably informed that the coffee is excellent. All in all it’s a wonderful place to while away your Sunday morning with the papers – just don’t nick my seat.

See how thoughtful they are here? They don't even want you to burn your fingers off.

See how thoughtful they are here? Finger-protectors included!

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At last! An excuse to make a proper pudding. They don’t come along often. It seems just a bit too piggy and extravagant to spend the time making an enormous confection in the absence of a proper occasion and a big audience (well, bigger than just the two of us) – although frankly I can think of few things I’d rather do with my time. These opportunities must be grabbed with both (oven-gloved) hands whenever they appear, which is how, with an extra mouth to feed on Friday night, I ended up making a Queen of Puddings.

When it comes to desserts at least, I’m a traditional sort of woman. I like a hot pudding, involving some combination of sponge, jam, and custard (preferably all three). St John Bread and Wine does a fantastic line in these. With this in mind, I treated myself to a copy of Good Old-Fashioned Puddings earlier this year, and was desperate to try it out. Having tried a delicious Queen of Puddings on the dessert board at The Olive Branch in Clipsham, Rutland last year, I set about creating my own. No sponge involved, sadly, but a bottom layer of a breadcrumb-thickened custard (sounds unappetising, but it really is lovely), baked in a bain-marie and then topped with a layer of jam. I was lucky enough to have a jar of homemade apple and plum jam at my disposal, with which I replaced the traditional raspberry; lemon curd could also be used, I imagine. On top of the jam, I piled soft meringue, ready to be baked until golden. (As you’ll see in the photo, mine went a little too far the other side of ‘golden’. Still yummy though, I think.)

 

Slightly overdone? It didn't last long, anyway.

Slightly overdone? It didn't last long, anyway, so it can't have been that bad.

Since we were too greedy to wait for it to cool down, the layers didn’t stay as separate as one might have hoped, for our first helping at least. Those ye olde types certainly knew how to design a pudding though, didn’t they? The sweet jam works a treat against the blander background of the custard, finished off with that light, sugary meringue topping.

But I wouldn’t want you to think that I invite people round just for dessert… there was preamble! (Almost entirely courtesy of my boyfriend, I must admit.) Paul, Claire and I being greedy types, we decided to make the various other courses one at a time, so that we didn’t have to starve for hours waiting to be fed. We started with sherry, Paul’s homemade sourdough, and a selection of cheeses: Lincolnshire Poacher; Moody’s Rosary Ash goat’s cheese; and some lovely manchego with the obligatory membrillo.

NOT a Waitrose advert.

NOT a Waitrose advert.

There followed Valentine Warner’s fruitalia – a deep Turkish frittata-style eggy cake, filled with broad beans, feta and mint – a potato salad (with an oily dressing rather than a mayonnaise one, due to the high egg content of the rest of the meal), and a downsized take on Jamie Oliver’s pea crostini. Using yet more homemade sourdough, Paul rubbed toasted slices with garlic, drizzled them with oil, then topped them with a mixture of bashed up raw peas (straight from the pod), feta and olive oil, before finishing with mozzarella and pea shoots.

 

I don't want pea season to end!

I don't want pea season to end!

How anyone had room for pudding, I know not. It must have been yet another case of the ‘pudding-tummy’ phenomenon.

As much as I’d like to pretend that I have to be bullied and cajoled into baking cakes, it is pretty much my favourite pastime. The more I do it, the more addictive it gets, and the more confident I’m becoming, at least when it comes to my favourite tried-and-tested recipes.

It’s been a weekend of celebrations, with a wedding on Saturday and an engagement party on Sunday. The wedding cake was the best ever: a three-tiered Sachertorte (for an Austro-English wedding) covered in white chocolate curls. I’m most definitely not up to the challenge of making a wedding cake, especially since I’m somewhat cack-handed with decorations, but I did agree to bake a contribution for Adam and Regine’s engagement party on Sunday. I say ‘agree’, but in reality they would have had a hard time stopping me. But baking for such a discerning foodie couple, the pressure was on…

I wanted to make something with a bit of a summery feel to it, so I turned to my all-time favourite cookery book, Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries, for inspiration, and chose his lemon-frosted pistachio cake. The main bulk is made up with equal quantities of ground pistachios and ground almonds, with only 60g of plain flour, so it’s a dense, nutty cake. The requisite 250g of butter keep it moist and melt-in-the-mouth, and there’s a floral touch with a hint of rosewater. To decorate, the lovely Mr Slater recommends a topping of icing sugar made up with lemon juice rather than water, scattered with crystallised rose petals and shelled pistachios. All was going well until I realised that the rose petals I had looked like tiny shards of pink shrapnel – the right colour, but not particularly refined or rose-like. Everyone at the party was too polite to ask me what they were, anyway. I’m sure I should be outside collecting my own roses (or stealing them from my neighbours under cover of darkness) and crystallising their petals, but that’s a task for another time.

If I had any doubts about my choice of cake, I spotted Nigel Slater himself at my local farmers’ market on Sunday morning, which I took to be a good omen. I suppose I should have invited him round for tea, but my baking’s certainly not up to that challenge just yet…

It tasted OK, but what are those pink bits?

All very nice, but what are those pink bits?

Ah, Fridays: pretty much half-day closing for my work-brain over the summer. And what better way to spend the afternoon than indulging in a spot of tipsy baking? Two cake-obsessed women + one bottle of rosé prosecco = a bake-fest of extreme (and very gooey) proportions.

Armed with a copy of Leila Lindholm’s A Piece of Cake, we set to with gusto. We quickly settled on a plan: one batch of Leila’s classic cupcakes and one batch of raspberry ones, so we started off by making a double helping of her basic cupcake batter. In spite of the slightly unusual recipe – which called for melted butter to be mixed into the beaten eggs and sugar rather than creaming the butter and sugar together first – and several aching arms between us, we soon ended up with a successfully uncurdled batter. This was no thanks at all to the typo in the first line of the recipe, where the word ‘butter’ was substituted for ‘sugar’…

The next stage was to add fresh raspberries to half of the mixture, and bake both batches.

A lesson in why you shouldn't bake when you're tipsy

A lesson in why you shouldn't bake when you're tipsy

After a lot of messing around with temperatures, swapping the trays around in the oven, and generally being impatient (in our defence, they did take a lot longer than the specified 15 minutes), the cakes were ready.

Are they cool yet?

Are they cool yet?

We’d been horribly frustrated in our attempts to get cream cheese for the two icings – white chocolate and cream cheese for the plain cupcakes, and raspberry and cream cheese for the fruity ones – and ended up having to settle for the extra-light version. Not ideal, but they weren’t likely to last that long in any case.

Beautiful!

Beautiful!

 

They were pretty while they lasted…

They were pretty while they lasted…

 

An excellent afternoon's work

An excellent afternoon's work

 

Our willing tester prepares to take the first bite… impatience and a searingly hot kitchen made for runny icing.

Our willing tester prepares to take the first bite… Impatience and a searingly hot kitchen made for runny icing.

I love birthdays. Particularly other people’s. The opportunity to gorge oneself, guilt-free, safe in the knowledge that such celebratory gluttony is simply to be expected, is a very welcome one. In celebration of the lovely Sarah’s birthday (happy birthday, Sarah!), we did ourselves proud: Sunday breakfast at Ottolenghi on Upper Street (I’m not on commission, promise); Sunday lunch at the Bull and Last; and Monday lunch at Terroirs. As bitter as it makes me feel to realise that everyday life will not always be like this, it was the most amazing extended foodie weekend.

On Sunday morning, we started bright and early in Islington. Eyes proved bigger than bellies for some of the party (well, me), but we troughed valiantly through the assorted treats on offer. I went for the bread board with an almond croissant, mostly thanks to the tempting array of jams and spreads on the table.

Carby goodness

Carby goodness

Jam jam jam…

Jam jam jam…

Having scoffed down the amazing pastry, I had to admit defeat when faced with two slices of flavoursome sourdough and a piece of fantastic grape focaccia topped with fennel seeds. One slice, smothered with fantastically thick, nutty chocolate spread, was quite enough. My boyfriend’s choice almost tempted me from the straight and narrow path of vegetarianism for a moment: a beany, bacony, sausagey stew on toasted sourdough with a fried egg on the side. I was content to merely sniff at it in the end.

Incredibly, I was absolutely famished by lunchtime. The Bull and Last in Parliament Hill/Kentish Town/Gospel Oak (delete as applicable) was our destination, and came through with one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Starting with a salad of grilled artichokes with almonds, juicy grapes and shavings of pungent sheep’s cheese, I had high hopes for the rest of the afternoon.

P8020176

I was not to be disappointed. My main course of pea fritters with pea shoots, Jersey Royals, shallots, broad beans and cow’s curd was one of the tastiest, most moreish and best balanced dishes I have ever had the pleasure to eat. The fritters themselves were something I’d be happy to eat every day for the rest of my life: light, crisp batter surrounding soft nuggets of partly-mushed peas… heavenly. The proportions were perfect: the creamy cow’s curd sitting alongside the crisp salad leaves and the more pungent raw shallots, with a welcome bit of ballast from the potatoes. I might have even stopped talking for a moment while I ate.

Phwoar. More please.

Phwoar. More please.

After such wondrousness, I would have ordered dessert even if that meant being carried from the room afterwards. I wavered for a while over the chocolate fondant with caramel ice-cream, but eventually settled on the English raspberries with shortbread and homemade lavender ice-cream. And a more fitting end to the eat-fest there could not have been. The ice-cream was gorgeously floral and creamy, the shortbread sweet and buttery, and the raspberries deliciously sharp. Slumped tipsily in the pub proper afterwards, I struggled to think of a time when I’d had a better, more enjoyable and more delicious meal. I may have to move into their kitchen.

Pudding perfection

Pudding perfection