September 2009


In a change from my usual, knee-jerk reaction to a birthday – bake a cake! – I decided to make something slightly different for my uncle’s 40th birthday last week. Well, not that different. It still involved baking. But I didn’t think I could come anywhere near the standard of the cakes made by the birthday boy’s partner, so I went for a chocolate and raspberry tart from Michel Roux’s Pastry (another one of my birthday presents).

I’m not one to shy away from making pastry anyway, but Michel’s pâte sucrée was the easiest I’ve ever made, in spite of the lack of an available slab of marble to make the dough on; his methods are clearly illustrated and straightforward. Hurray! The only blips were in my own amatueurish handling of the dough, probably rolling it too thickly and trimming the case a bit too short, with hindsight, and not supporting the sides adequately with baking beans (aduki beans don’t really do the job, I’ve discovered). The result was that the sides of the baked case had collapsed somewhat, as you can probably tell in the photos below; I like to think that it made it look more ‘homemade’, rather than just a bit ramshackle, but many more tarts will need to be made in an effort to improve on this front.

The difficult bit done, I finished the tart by filling the cooled pastry case with halved raspberries and chopped mint, then making a ganache with dark chocolate, cream, glucose syrup and butter, to cover the fruit. With a few more raspberries arranged on top, the tart was ready for chilling and dragging over to the other side of London. I hear it went down well, in spite of a hangover’s ability to confuse the palate, rendering it impossible to distinguish between mint and basil…

Prettier than I remembered it!*

Prettier than I remembered it!*

 

Wonky pastry.*

Wonky pastry.*

 

 

*Photographs courtesy of Ian Johnstone – thanks!

One of the perks of knowing cakey people is the wonderful presents, like this one presented to me at my birthday party on Saturday by the lovely Helen from the Poppyseed Bakery (who I’m lucky enough to actually know):

l–r: apricot and almond flapjacks; millionaire's shortbread; personalised birthday cupcakes; brownies with white chocolate and raspberries; and chocolate tiffin

l–r: Apricot and almond flapjacks; millionaire's shortbread; personalised birthday cupcakes; brownies with white chocolate and raspberries; and chocolate tiffin

I got a lot of lovely presents for my birthday, but this really took the biscuit (you’ll have to allow me that one). The brownies, which were apparently inspired by the mention of some similar ones on this very blog, were the best I’ve ever had, and everything else was even more delicious for the unexpectedness of this perfect gift. Thanks, Helen!

I seem to have eaten out an awful lot over the last week, and although this account is sans pictures, due to general disorganisation, communal eating embarrassment and low lighting, there’s definitely been some tasty food about.

St John’s, near Archway Station, has had a mention (below) relatively recently, but due to its all-round loveliness and the difficulty of finding a restaurant open on Bank Holiday Monday, we found ourselves trotting up Holloway Road again last week. The main bar was closed for refurbishment (and may be for a couple of weeks yet), but our table in the dining room was the perfect place to be on a summer’s evening. With very low lighting and doors open on to the patio, the atmosphere was warm and convivial, if not ideal for photographs. My gazpacho was perhaps not up to the standard of that I tasted at Terroirs recently, but was rustic and garlicky. I followed it with several enormous gnocchi served with purple sprouting broccoli, spinach purée and parmesan – delicious, but ultimately too much for me.

Friday lunchtime found me in the champagne bar at St Pancras station, accompanying some delicious eggs florentine and Eton mess with an assortment of champagnes (Bollinger, Taittinger, Dom Perignon… you name it, we drank it). Although it was difficult to get the waiter’s attention at times, it’s a lovely way to while away an afternoon. The bar runs alongside the Eurostar platform, fuelling plans to nip over to Paris in time for a kir royale and dinner, and the light, airy atmosphere of the renovated station is the perfect setting for lunch and an indulgent tipple.

For Saturday lunch, we paid a visit to the recently reopened Canonbury (formerly the Canonbury Tavern). Since the pub is very close to my house indeed and apparently has ‘central London’s largest beer garden’, I was desperate to try the food out and hopefully discover a new local gem. A major downside, which quickly became apparent, is the incredibly slow service; we were waiting for food an hour after we arrived, even allowing for our own prevarications. I’m reliably informed, however, that the chips are well worth waiting for, and everyone was pretty happy with their food. My asparagus and pecorino ravioli was good, but would have been infinitely preferable dressed with a herb butter sauce rather than the cloying landslide of hot, spinachy crème fraîche that threatened to smother it. Nice garden, though, in spite of the persistently yapping dog.

Paying yet another visit to a recently discovered favourite, we were at the Bull & Last on Sunday night for supper and the pub quiz. I opted for a grilled artichoke tarte fine with sheep’s cheese and tomato, with turned out to be tiny but incredibly flavoursome all the same. A side of their triple-cooked chips with garlic mayo was absolutely heavenly – perfectly crisp outside, fluffy and soft inside. A triumph worth burning your mouth for. P tucked into fish and chips with a wonderfully tarragony tartare sauce (amazing with my chips), and who knows? – maybe the delicious grub was the reason we won the quiz. It certainly did the trick, anyway, especially when washed down with the bottle of prosecco bought with our winnings.

And lastly… Busaba Eathai. The Bloomsbury branch of Alan Yau’s Thai chain used to be a fairly regular haunt – I love the low lighting, dark wood, and the aromatic butternut pumpkin curry I can’t help choosing every time. For some reason, a craving for their food hit me yesterday afternoon, and come 8pm P and I were tucking in on Store Street, with pat prik king prawn and a coconut carrot and orange juice (“It’s a bit like pudding”) for him, and the aforementioned curry with a glass of viognier for me. Only one complaint: the curry-sauce-to-rice ratio is all wrong, and you tend to end up with a bowlful of the spicy, fragrant, rich sauce left once the pumpkin and rice have gone. Is it really acceptable to eat this like a soup, I wonder?

Brave man that he is, my boyfriend baked me a birthday cake this year. Sensibly, he attempted to do this in secret to avoid the inevitable attack of control freakery from yours truly, but time and the unmistakeable scent of a baking chocolate cake got the better of him. He chose Rick Stein’s ‘gateau lyonnais’, a flourless chocolate cake made with chestnut purée and laced with rum. I can’t tell you much about how he did it, but I do know that it was utterly delicious and much lighter and softer than it looked. We ate the first slices with whipped cream, but I’ve now resorted to leaving a knife on the cake stand and whittling away at it as the fancy takes me.

Chocolate heaven!

Chocolate heaven!

And in a continuing birthday theme, the joint celebration took place at the Lake Isle in Uppingham. It’s a bit of a favourite local haunt of my parents’ – not only is the food generally refined and tasty, but the kitchen is wonderfully obliging, and happy to rustle up numerous alternatives for those of a fussy (well, vegetarian) persuasion.

On this occasion, with four vegetarians out of our party of five, one of whom is allergic to nuts, the chef had concocted an additional starter and three extra meat-free main course options in advance. You can’t really argue with service like that. Three of us went for the Thai green vegetable curry with noodles, topped with crushed cashews, and two opted for sweet potato and goat’s cheese croquettes with roasted mango.

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The curry was exactly what I needed in my (slightly) hungover and sleep-deprived state, with a perfectly spiced, slightly sweet and well-reduced sauce; the cashew nuts were the perfect addition. The croquettes, too, were tasty and beautifully formed, although the plate could probably have done with a little more of the tomato salad to balance the smooth sweetness of the filling.*

For dessert, my sister and I shared a green tea cheesecake, which came with lime yoghurt sorbet and fresh mango and was no less delicious for resembling guacamole and seemingly having a chunk missing from the slice.

Mmm, that sorbet…

Mmm, that sorbet…

The peach and almond tart with blueberry ice-cream was slightly disappointing, consisting of a disk of puff pastry topped with what may well have been canned peaches, with not much sign of the promised almonds; a tasty summer pudding with clotted cream ice-cream did what it said on the tin.P8300423

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All washed down with a bottle of pinot grigio between three of us, this was altogether a lovely Sunday lunch. Off we waddled to sleep it off (some of us as soon as we made it to the car).

*Having said that, my sister has just reminded me that we were served with platters of steamed beans, carrots and broccoli, if memory serves, and roast potatoes, which helped with the cheese/vegetable balance for her main course. A slightly strange choice to accompany a curry, you might think, but my dad insists that the potatoes were perfect with the residual curry sauce on his plate. Well, it was his birthday…

By happy coincidence, my dad’s birthday falls two days before my own. This has many advantages (which outweigh the struggle for birthday card display space that took place annually when I lived at home), chief among them being the opportunity for an extra-big birthday feast. This year, we ate at the Lake Isle in Uppingham, of which more to follow, but my contribution to the birthday weekend came in the shape of Nigella’s butterscotch layer cake. I’d made it before, but this time decided to follow Nigella’s advice for customisation and add a layer of sliced banana to the filling. My dad, who spent his childhood despising bananas with a passion before becoming slightly obsessed by them in later life, seemed pretty happy with the result: a rich sponge made with equal quantities of light muscovado and golden caster sugar for extra butterscotchiness, layered up with caramel cream cheese icing (not forgetting the banana).

The first step is to make the cream cheese icing, by dissolving caster sugar in water over a low heat, then boiling until darkly golden and whisking in double cream.

 

Boiling up the caramel

Boiling up the sugar syrup

 

The finished caramel, with cream added

The finished caramel, with cream added

Once cool, a cup of the caramel is beaten into an awful lot of cream cheese to make the filling and topping for the finished cake. A note of caution here: when checking to see if your caramel is sufficiently cool, do not, whatever you do, stick the whole of your little finger into the middle of the bowl. I speak from experience.

The sponge mixture, which has double cream beaten in at the end of the mixing process, yields a dense, heavy sponge that I wasn’t completely happy with in the end. Maybe I’ve been spoilt with ultra-light Victoria sponges, but I’m sure this could have turned out better.

Halfway there… the banana and butterscotch combo had a hint of Angel Delight about it – no bad thing!

Halfway there… the banana and butterscotch combo had a hint of Angel Delight about it – no bad thing!

 

The finished cake, drizzled with reserved caramel

Ta-dah! (Drizzled with reserved caramel.)

 

Looking a bit battered… but wouldn't you after being dragged halfway across the country? It tasted pretty good!

Looking a bit battered… but wouldn't you after being dragged halfway across the country?