Category Archives: Food

Motherlovin’ Croque Monsieurs

I took some bread and toasted it. Then I fried one side of half of it in butter.

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Then, fried side down, I spread it with some bechamel sauce. Then a layer of gruyere, then ham, then more gruyere. Then the other slice of toasted bread, followed by more bechamel and more gruyere.

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Into the oven for ten minutes and boom, motherlovin’ croques.

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To finish it off, a bottle of Smokey And The Band Aid, the second in Buxton’s special reserve series. It’s an imperial smoked rye porter, but considering the hype (and the gorgeous label) I wasn’t terribly impressed. It poured completely flat and despite a fairly powerful nose with lots of peaty malt, the body just wasn’t there to back up the promise. The roasted, slightly nutty flavour went pretty well with the croque though, matching well with the nutty cheese and toasty brown sourdough goodness.

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Seriously though, there is no better combination of bread, cheese and ham on the planet. Crunchy and gooey, salty and nutty and redolent of Paris, even when you’re actually watching old episodes of Doctor Who on the sofa.

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Triple Chocolate Cupcakes

Happy Birthday Caroline!

I made these chocolate cupcakes with chocolate chips and chocolate fudge frosting for you, and then gave them to Mojo and North. They have silver balls and sprinkles, and taste like birthday parties. Next time I’ll let you blow out the candles, it was sad doing it myself.

Love, hugs, and kisses always.

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Paris is always a good idea.

Our summer holidays this year were spent in Paris, because why not? Well, apart from the cost, and the heat, and the fact that I have been promising my husband a holiday in Berlin for years now. I love Paris, so that’s where we went. Everything I love most in life – butter, things made with butter, wine – is so much better in French.

We saw the Robert Crumb exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, the Richter exhibition at the Pompidou, I ate Berthillon ice cream on the banks of the Seine and tried to find a free set of chairs in the shade in the Jardin de Luxembourg. We walked so far every day we all got blisters and I came home a few pounds heavier rather than a few stone. I had a proper buckwheat galette for the first time and I managed to accidentally order raw fish, probably not for the first time. My far more cultured holiday companions took me to galleries and I took them to Fauchon and Angelina’s. We drank in some excellent bars and because there was no-one to judge me I ordered strawberry margaritas and so much Côtes de Provence rosé wine, sometimes accompanied by a midnight snack of nutella crepes.

On our last day I took Mr Cute on a tour of a few of the famous patisseries of the Left Bank, which he later admitted he enjoyed much more than he thought he would. Especially once we got back to the flat and ate all our souvenirs.

First up was Sadaharu Aoki, who blends French techniques with Japanese flavours like matcha, black sesame and ume to great effect. Apparently his pastries, particularly his Napoleon, are among the best in France but the weather was so blindingly hot that we didn’t think they would last the afternoon. After several minutes of deliberation while being observed disapprovingly by an impossibly beautiful sales assistant, we settled on two macarons, one flavoured with wasabi and the other with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit similar to lemon. Both were fantastic, although somewhat crushed by the time we ate them. The wasabi in particular elicited lots of interested faces, although I can’t stand anything wasabi-related so didn’t partake in that one.

On the way to the next stop we passed the Jean-Charles Rochoux chocolate shop. I’m not sure if I mentioned the heat yet, but some of the incredibly intricate chocolate sculptures in the window were actually starting to melt, including a smooshed cat that looked like it had been run over. I didn’t think any chocolate would last until the end of the street, let alone the end of the day, so I didn’t even go in for fear of accidentally buying a box of truffles I would have to eat immediately. I am including this mostly for the picture I took outside, in which you can almost see in the far left my favourite piece in the display, a hand sculpted chocolate male torso. Oh yeah. Apparently this is a funny joke as abs are not called ‘six packs’ in France but rather ‘tablets of chocolate’.  Never say the French don’t have a sense of humour.

On to Le Bon Marché, in which we spent far too long, partly because we got lost in the women’s fashion department (I had to keep reminding Mr Cute not to touch anything, and to stop exclaiming when he saw the prices; he’s terribly uncouth), and partly because it was air conditioned. Sweet sweet air conditioning. The patisserie stand here was good, but completely over shadowed by things like pasta in the shape of the Eiffel Tower and the biggest, best butchers I have ever seen. Feel free to think I’m psychotic after this, but raw meat makes me salivate. We picked up a few gifts for people back home here, including some Angelina chocolate flavoured tea, which I am happy to report is actually really nice. La Grande Epicerie is basically the food hall of my dreams, and the supermarket of choice for when I finally win the lottery.

Next on the map was Poilâne, which is one of the most famous boulangeries in France. They make these incredible sourdoughs, which you can see at the top right of the photo below. They’re bigger than my head, and we neither had time to eat one or space in the suitcase to bring it back. The huge apple tarts looked wonderful too, and interestingly far more rustic than anything else we saw in Paris. We picked up a tiny box of punitions here, which are perfect little rounds of thin, buttery shortbread-like biscuit. I predict, though cannot confirm, that they would make excellent ice cream sandwiches. If anyone has tried that, get back to me!

A little further on was Pierre Hermé, whom I love unreservedly. Last time I got one of his famous Ispahan, a rose, raspberry and lychee flavoured macaron. This time I was very tempted by the Yasamine, with jasmine tea, mango and grapefruit, but in the end I chose a Montebello, a pistachio dacquoise with a creamy pistachio mousse and fresh raspberries. Such a simple combination of flavours (compared to his seasonal specials such as lemon and caramelised fennel), but executed so perfectly. The dacquoise was crisp and crunchy on the outside and soft inside in a way that was both feather-light and also comfortingly squidgy. The mousseline was silky and the raspberries bursting and fresh. Neither pistachios nor raspberries are terribly sweet so the flavours in the end are very delicate, with the dusky bitterness of the pistachios playing well with the slightly tart raspberries. Fundamentally this wouldn’t be too difficult to replicate at home either, maybe in the form of a jacked up pavlova-like affair. I’ll have to wait till next summer for the good fruit, but watch this space.

So much cake and nothing savoury. Next on my list was Eric Kayser, who makes awesome bread. I was a bit out of it when we got here, and all my French suddenly abandoned me, so I can’t tell you much about the shop itself. The man behind the counter was very  patient, and the ‘rustique’ loaf, which is made with buckwheat flour and natural leaven, was fantastic and went very well with lots of butter, some aged comté and a poultry liver terrine with madeira wine we got from Fauchon earlier in the week. Actually, ‘went very well’ is some kind of bullshit understatement. It was one of the best things I have ever eaten in my life. This photo is also proof that I once wore shorts.

Last was one of the true greats, Ladurée. I never made it here on my last trip so I was beyond excited to finally visit, and they didn’t disappoint. The place was full of tourists, predictably, and because I couldn’t choose we ended up with a lime and basil macaron and a raspberry and rose religieuse (though I was tempted by a cassis and violet one in a lurid shade of purple). The macaron was a tiny revelation – basil in sweet things! – but the religieuse was my favourite. It’s basically a big profiterole with a smaller one on top, which is supposed to resemble a nun’s habit. This one was filled with rose crème patissière and fresh raspberries, and topped with rose fondant. My husband wants to point out that the sheer volume of rosy custard made it very difficult to cut into four equal pieces, but I’m not going to mark it down for that. In fact, that’s a plus in my book. I basically inhaled it, so the subtle complexities were probably lost on me but it was awesome. Even now every time I think of it I get lost in a sweet, gooey reverie.

Special mention should also go to Coquelicot next to the Abbesses metro station in Montmartre. This was where we got breakfast most days and judging by the length of the queues we were far from the first to find it. If you’re ever in the area and need lunch they have the best croque monsieurs I have ever tasted. I also had a pain au chocolate that was the size of an A5 notebook and made almost entirely of butter and chocolate, held together by force of will.

Sorry for the lack of any photos of the actual cakes, but I was scraping up the remnants of crème patissière on my plate with a sticky finger before I realised that might have been a good idea. I leave you with a photo of a less organised shopping trip, that resulted in a bottle of Pouilly Fumé, a Côtes du Rhone Villages, a commemorative bottle of Chartreuse, a Paris Carette (almond and hazelnut pastry deliciousness), an Opera and a raspberry thing (both from Dalloyau), a strawberry millefuille and the requisite baguette from Coqueliquot. That was a particularly good night.

Note

I found all of these through David Lebovitz’s Paris Pastry app. It’s a little buggy and had a frustrating tendency to crash at the least opportune moment but I really couldn’t have done without it. All David’s favourite places (over 300) are listed, with maps, opening times and tips. Most certainly worth the money.

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Pancakes for breakfast

I’m not a big fan of religion, but I do really like religious holidays, especially those I grew up with. I like rituals, and I like shared experience. I watch films on TV even though I have the DVD sitting on my shelf because I like knowing that thousands of other people are watching the same thing the same time. I especially like edible traditions. I like knowing that every Boxing Day we will have my Dad’s roast ham, and that at some point in December I’ll make my Mum’s mincemeat cake.

So, I really like Pancake Day. When we were kids it was always proper crêpes with lemon and sugar, but I’ve experimented a little more in recent years. Did you realise that Yorkshire pudding batter is basically pancake batter? And there’s no reason you couldn’t do Chinese crispy duck pancakes or make a crêpe cake either. Pancakes of some form are found in most cultures so there are pretty endless possibilities.

The only meal my husband and I were going to share this year was breakfast, so American style fluffy pancakes it is. They are so much easier to deal with first thing in the morning, and I even found a recipe with porridge oats in it. With blueberries and bananas I almost managed to convince myself that carbs fried in butter then drenched in maple syrup was a healthy balanced breakfast! These were awesome, and not lumpy and earnest like I worried. They were still light and fluffy, they just had a little more flavour to them. If I had been alone I probably would have licked my plate.

Recipe:

Oatmeal Pancakes from Smitten Kitchen

We made a half recipe of these which made a big breakfast for two. Seriously, I didn’t even want my lunch. To make things easier in the morning, the night before I measured and combined all my dry ingredients in one bowl, and my wet ingredients minus the egg in a jug. This mean that all I actually had to do in that desperate time before I have my coffee was mix everything together rather lazily before frying and eating. Easy.

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Perfect Lasagne

Mums always make the best lasagne. It’s such a comfort food, all rich and soft and savoury. My favourite is my Mum’s, obviously, though my mother-in-law’s comes in a close second. I’m sure my husband would rank them the other way round. Of course this means I never make it. If someone else makes a dish better than I can, I’ll leave them to it and look forward to it as a special treat when I visit. Otherwise I’d spend the whole meal thinking about how much better it could be, and that’s no way to spend your time. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

My perfect lasagne is defined as being so good that I use torn off pieces of bread to scrape out every last bit of creamy ragu from the bottom of the baking dish. It is rich and meaty, with plenty of wine in the ragu and enough cheese to turn crispy around the edges, but not so much that you feel like you need a heart bypass before you’ll even be able to move from the table. It’s the kind of dish that grownups make, grownups who can cook balanced family meals and never get so drunk they forget to brush their teeth before they go to bed. I am not that kind of grownup, so I leave it to my mother.

Then a couple of months ago the Guardian ran a ‘perfect lasagne’ recipe, complete with lots of pictures, and I was unable to get the thought out of my head for weeks. Eventually I caved and spent the afternoon simmering ragu, stirring béchamel and layering it all up. The result was disappointingly underwhelming. It tasted like a ready meal, or something you’d get in a pub. Which amounts to the same thing really. It was nice enough, in the way that pasta always is, but not worth the hours or money I’d spent on it. Even with the ‘best’ recipe my lasagne coudn’t even touch my Mum’s. So once again I resolved to leave it to the experts.

And then last week Smitten Kitchen posted a recipe for lasagne bolognese and those cravings, they started up again. I am nothing if not a slave to every whim of a craving that passes through my head (my future pregnancy will be a joy), and Deb at Smitten Kitchen has never, ever disappointed me. So I bought the beef and the wine and got to work on my day off. And this time it was magnificent. I will never need another bolognese or lasagne recipe again because this is perfect. It tastes just like my Mum’s. The carrot, onion and celery that make the mirepoix (or soffritto in Italian) are cooked for longer, almost until you think it will burn, which gives a deep, rich flavour that carries right through the dish. Similarly the beef is cooked until well browned, the wine is added with enthusiasm and plenty of tomato puree rather than chopped tomatoes make it taste like it’s been cooking for much longer than three hours. The garlic is added both with the mirepoix and in the béchamel (which is creamy, not gloopy) at the end, which means you get the mellow flavour of slow cooked garlic and also the fragrant bite of it too. And if a giant pile of grated parmesan doesn’t make you weak at the knees I’m really not sure what you’re doing reading this.

I’m telling you, my flat has rarely smelled more fantastic in it’s short life. The only change I made to the recipe was to use dried lasagne sheets instead of making my own. We made this while spring cleaning the flat, and I spent far too much time trying to convince my husband that cleaning the skirting boards is necessary and I am not in fact insane to worry about whether I had rolled my pasta thin enough. Maybe next time. While the entire dish does take a while (you’ll need to set aside at least five hours) it’s not difficult. If you can chop and stir then you can make this easily. And honestly, with a big salad, bread and a bottle of wine, this is the best meal we’ve shared with friends in a long time. By the end we were all ‘tidying up’ the baking dish with hunks of bread, or in my weird sister’s case with lettuce leaves.

Recipe

Lasagne Bolognese at Smitten Kitchen (you’ll be hearing a lot more about Smitten, if I haven’t already bored the pants of you with my giant crush on Deb)

Note: Don’t worry if you don’t have a food processor, a sharp knife and a little patience work just as well. As does a husband bribed with the promise of lasagne.

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Red Velvet Whoopie Pies

Both whoopie pies and red velvet cake are so cutesy and American I thought I’d never make them. Neither are very exciting, being a cakey sandwich cookie and a chocolate cake filled with red food colouring respectively. Like the ubiquitous sawdust-flavoured cupcakes with elaborately coiffed frosting, they are all about appearance rather than taste.  Both have been doing the rounds on food blogs for years so despite the fact that I’ve never tasted either before, I was already bored of them. I can be such a disdainful hipster sometimes.

But when you need a cutesy handheld and easily portable cake to give away to customers on Valentine’s Day, they come into their own. Marketing around the second week of February is fraught with condescending gender clichés, heteronormativity and tacky unoriginality. I’m damned if I’m going to try and sell beer by telling men “it’s pink!” as though that’s the direct line to every woman’s heart. Or as though all my customers are straight men with needy infantile girlfriends waiting for them at home. I don’t like to be talked down to or excluded like that so I won’t do it to my customers.

However, I have no problem bribing them with cake. My plan was to get them through the door with the promise of sweet treats, then help them find the perfect boozy romantic gift. Whether that was the perfect wine to go with a steak, prosecco that looks and tastes more expensive than it is, or a beer brewed in the town they got married in. Unfortunately I got trapped in the office doing paperwork for the afternoon, and I have a sneaking suspicion that my coworker ate more than his fair share. Unexpectedly, the few customers I did get to chat to seemed positively suspicious of free food, which baffles me completely. Honestly, what kind of sicko turns down surprise cake on an otherwise routine shopping trip?

These were lovely though. What’s not to like about chocolate cake and cream cheese frosting? They’re very sweet but small enough to not feel sickly. The batter was pretty forgiving, so even though I over baked the cookies slightly and they weren’t as light and fluffy as I’d have liked, I doubt anyone else noticed. I think they also benefited from a night in the fridge, allowing the frosting to soften the cookie and the flavours to meld together a little. My piping skills leave a lot to be desired, but I was still pretty pleased with how these turned out (besides, my husband’s coworkers never complain about getting a box full of deformed rejects). They’re a great crowd pleaser and are far less complicated to make than they look, the only problem is that now I have a bowl of leftover cream cheese frosting. Which I will definitely not eat with a spoon. No sir, not me.

Recipe:

Red Velvet Whoopie Pies via Annie’s Eats

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How I almost ruined Valentine’s Day

I had the most fantastic menu planned for Valentine’s Day. Despite finding the whole holiday a bit icky, we were going to do it properly and dine on rare roast beef with a maple juniper rosemary glaze, creamy mashed potatoes with leeks and a rich red wine and chocolate jus.

It was a disaster. Sure, the beef was nice but the juniper in the glaze was distracting and intrusive, the mashed potato wasn’t seasoned correctly and the jus, which sounded so good on paper, was completely disgusting. The chocolate was supposed to give a deep backnote to a wine and stock based sauce, and instead it completely took over, rendering every bit of precious potato it touched grossly inedible. I could have kicked myself, because the whole thing was my own fault.

Firstly, I followed a recipe I had no reason to trust. Do not trust an unknown blogger with an important meal unless there is a slew of positive comments to prove that a dish works. Dammit, I know that. The internet is full of people who think they are terribly informed because they once read an article on the NY Times website and therefore spout off about how your interpretation of Star Wars/the Bible/politics in the Middle East is ignorant and mistaken. Food bloggers are no different. Taste might be very personal, but writing a clear, concise and reliable recipe is a very difficult thing to do. Secondly I ignored my own gut feeling in favour of the recipe. I read the recipe and thought, “that sounds like a lot of chocolate”. Then I got the chocolate out and thought, “this is a lot of chocolate, this can’t possibly balance out”. Then I dumped it in anyway. Stupid. Lastly, I didn’t taste things as I went. The cardinal sin of a cook. If I had added the chocolate slowly, tasting carefully with each addition, the sauce might have been saved. My chocolate might have been very different in flavour or had higher or lower cocoa solids to the one the anonymous blogger used, my wine might have been much lighter or my stock could have been more or less salty than hers. These things could have still gone awry even with a very good recipe. Which this wasn’t.

The two gin martinis and the half bottle of pinot noir I had softened the blow somewhat. As did the île flottante I made for dessert. A perfect icy cold rum-spiked crème anglaise topped with a soft baked meringue, fresh blueberries and a drizzle of dark caramel. This is the kind of classic French dessert I love to order in restaurants but had always shied away from making at home, thinking it would be too complicated, too time consuming or just too difficult. Luckily, considering those martinis, it was very simple and tasted phenomenal. The crème anglaise was smooth and rich, heavily spiked with vanilla and rum we brought home from our honeymoon, while the meringue was as soft and light as cappucino foam and still slightly warm from the oven. The contrasting bright flavour of the berries and the dark, almost crunchy caramel finished it all off brilliantly. Naturally, by the time I got this to the table we were both drunk and starving so there are no pictures of my triumph. I’m a bad blogger.

Of course, like any good Valentine’s Day, the best part of the evening was just spending it together. Pottering about the kitchen with  a cocktail in my hand, listening to the radio and actually talking to each other has always been my favourite way to spend an evening off, manufactured holiday or not. And then we watched Cronos, because why not? Vampires are romantic, everyone says so.

 

Recipes:

Crème Anglaise from David Lebowitz, my favourite American in Paris (I spiked my crème with rum rather than orange zest, because that’s how I roll)

Baked meringue and caramel sauce from Ina Garten (David’s crème anglaise recipe is more detailed and reliable, but this’ll see you through the meringue with no trouble)

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Authentic Japanese Beer, and Very Inauthentic Noodles.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace was one of my favourite beers last year. It was light and fresh and complex and ever so long. And I had one glass of it at a beer dinner then never saw it again.

Sorachi Ace is a Japanese hop that is grown in fairly small quantities, so beers using it don’t come around too often. It characteristically tastes of lemon cream and can either be elegant and interesting or remind you a little too much of curry. The Brooklyn version was the only one I had ever tried so when these little beauties came into the shop I had to bring them home with me. I mean, just look at them. That cute little owl is just begging someone to take him home and play scrabble with him.

Hitochino Nest Nipponia, on the left, is as Japanese-y a beer as you could ask for. Described as an ‘ancient’ beer, it uses a type of barley that was created in Japan about 180 years ago but abandoned in favour of crops with higher yields. Kiuchi Brewery revived it, then made this pale ale using Sorachi Ace. It pours a very bright gold with a light head, and has a characteristic nose of lemongrass and candied citrus. There’s also a bit of peppery, sulphury, raw broccoli in there, and an eggy vanilla note that made me think of clafoutis made with physalis fruit. All of this follows through when you taste it, as well as some hefty bitterness, and the rich, slightly thick mouthfeel brings out the buttery nature of the hops. There’s also something rather musty about this beer, and a strong herbaceous woody flavour too. Reading that back it sounds like a big bag of what-the-fuck, but I promise you I really liked this!

Mr Cute thought it was perfect for exploring a virtual radioactive wasteland from his armchair. My only real problem with this beer is that as it warms up the diacetyl, which is the chemical that causes that buttery taste, becomes a little overbearing. Too much and it can start to taste a little rancid, and no-one wants rancid beer.

To stay vaguely on theme I made a kind of laksa for dinner. Anyone from Malaysia would probably be disgusted by this, but it only took ten minutes and all the ingredients were in my corner shop so its perfect for supper after work.  The soup itself is just Thai green curry paste, coconut cream and stock, with fish sauce and fresh ginger to taste. Add a few cooked prawns and courgette and heat through, then ladle over cooked noodles. Top with coriander and a squeeze of lime, and Robert might well be your mother’s brother. It’s very good for colds, which is perfect as my nose has been taken over by a hagfish of late.

The second (and last, each of these babies cost me nearly £12) beer of the night was the Hitachino Nest White Ale. This is a Belgian style wheat beer brewed with coriander, orange peel and nutmeg. Like the Nipponia it’s a gorgeous colour, a pale creamy gold this time, with very little head. On the nose it’s predominantly the orange peel that comes through. There’s a little nutmeg spice and a little candied sugar too, a lot like pear drops. Unfortunately this combines to make a nose that is disconcertingly like Fanta. This is one of the most comfortable tasting beers I’ve ever had, thanks to the nutmeg which always reminds me of rice pudding and white sauce. There’s a little orange pith in there too, but I’m not sure if I can taste the coriander. My palate is not at full capacity at the moment (did you see the hagfish yet?) so that might be my failing. It’s an incredibly soft beer, with almost no bitterness at all. It’s a lovely witbier, and a great match for my spicy soup, but I wouldn’t pay £12 for it again.

And in case you were wondering, the White Ale also went brilliantly with the Cadburys Mini Egg ‘dessert pot’ I had for pudding.

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