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Saturday, 23 April 2011

on my plate: hot cross buns

It seems a crime that I've not had a single hot cross bun in the run up to Easter. How has this happened?! I'm baffled. But somehow this disastrous slip-up has occurred, and I am adamant that I should remedy it in style.

By 'style', I mean homemade. And by homemade, I mean by me. Risky business. I could end up with a stodgy ball of dough crammed with shrivelled fruit, a burnt 'glaze' adorning the carefully placed cross on top.

But in my mind I am picturing a deliciously springy bun, jam-packed with an aromatic fusion of dried fruit and spices, and a glorious white cross as its crowning glory.

Hmmm. It appears that the result was an amalgamation of the two. Though possibly leaning more towards the former proposed outcome than to the latter.

I followed Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall's recipe, though pinched an idea from Felicity Cloake to infuse the milk with spices before using. Unfortunately I can’t say that this oomphed up the flavour by much. I also found my hot cross buns lacking in sweetness. Their texture was nice enough, though I would have preferred a slightly squidgy-er exterior. Lets just say they were not quite the indulgent treat I was hoping for.

This is not to say I wouldn’t attempt to make a hot cross bun again. I am determined to achieve the glorious wonder of a homemade version that had been promised to me by all who had made them in the past. But in the future I will follow Felicity’s ‘Perfect Hot Cross Bun’ recipe.

I am kicking myself for not simply doing so from the start, she had after all tried and tested many different approaches before settling on her proposed method. And on comparison now of the two different recipes, I can see that Felicity combines a much richer mix of ingredients than Hugh, which I am certain would have yielded a more luxurious batch of hot cross buns. Silly me. Hindsight's a bugger.

But, all is not lost! I still have a tasty bun of sorts on my table. And I will be spreading these Easter treats as gifts amongst loved ones… Lucky them!

NB. Upon a second tasting I now retract that last paragraph. I will be hanging my head in shame at these poor specimens of a hot cross bun, which I will now have to distribute as Easter gifts due to lack of time and funds in order to find suitable replacements. Hmph.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

on my horizon : pretty much nothing (hurrah!)

THE other week I was seeking a void: I wished to absorb my eyes in the vision of a vast expanse of 'nothing'. I was attempting to self-medicate. Do some long-distance exercise with my eyesight.

What I didn't realise was how much I was in fact in need of this physical space to awaken my senses, to put back into perspective how easy it is to derive pleasure from the simplest of things: nature. 

Returning from work to the shoreline of Whitstable not only gave my eyes a refreshing break  from my aforementioned daily cityscape, it also renewed in me a real appreciation for the subtle yet breathtaking visuals that the natural world around us can create. In the built environment it can often be hard to find these little joys, they are overlooked  both mentally and physically. When rushing to catch the train who would ever think to pause for a moment, glace up from the street, and perhaps chance upon seeing that beam of setting sunshine reflecting off a top floor window. 

But in Whitstable there was no rushing. No cramming through crowds. No dipping underground. There was simply a two minute walk to the end of the road, and then a beach. Here I encountered a unerring calm. And a placid sea, as smooth as a lake. 

My feeble attempts to capture this scene in photographs will never do the atmospheric landscape justice. And as I already feel a bit self-conscious about the whole 'back-to-mother-nature' vibe of this post I am not even going to begin to try to express the way I felt in response to my new surroundings.

But what I will say is this. As the world is awakening to the fresh air of spring, and summer feels as though it is just within reach, make sure to take a moment to observe wonders unfurling around you. Once you start looking you will be surprised at how many little marvels pop up around you.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

on my plate: parsley cheese scones / aubergine & goat's cheese frittata

THIS week's on my plate is a two fold post. Firstly, I wanted to rave about some dangerously tasty and ridiculously easy to make parsely cheese scones (recipe curtesy of Dan Lepard). And secondly, I wanted to demonstrate how dinner for one can be a delight not a chore.

aubergine and goat's cheese frittata

Too often I've had conversations with friends about how their desire to make a delicious supper goes down the pan if they are going to be the only recipient.  This may be slightly alleviated if they have a companion in the kitchen - say a housemate cooking their own dinner alongside them - but on the whole it seems that the enjoyment of creating and devouring a dish is intrinsically linked with a desire to share the experience.

I completely get this. There was a time when I would never dream of eating by myself at the dinner table. If left with no choice, then it would be a TV dinner all the way. And if I was - by some unforseen TV malfunction or complete lack of even the most vaguely interesting thing on it - resigned to be without said accompaniment, then I would find any sort of magazine / book / newspaper to distract me from my eating isolation. And whatever I would be absent-mindedly munching on was inevitably a mish mash of whatever I had to hand.

Slowly but surely however, (perhaps in line with my growing interest in food as a whole), I have discovered that it can be equally as satisfying to cook with the same gusto and passion as you would for a loved one even if it is just you reaping the rewards. Try viewing it as a form of pampering - an indulgent treat to be able to sit down in the peace and harmony of a quiet kitchen and enjoy the fruits of your own labour.

Yes there are times when things turn out so well that I wish I had someone to share my 'oohs' and 'ahhs' with. But there are also times when this isn't the case, when I've tried a new dish and the seasoning is a bit off, or when something hasn't quite been cooked to my satisfaction. It's at these moments that I'm glad not to be serving up my culinary disappointment to expectant hungry mouths.

The above aubergine and goat's cheese friatta is an example of one of my recent one-man suppers. It was a concoction of the random bits residing in my fridge. I've never been much of an omellette / frittata person, so this was as much an experiment as it was a way of quickly feeding myself.

I gently softened red onions, leeks and fresh red chilli, then added in cubes of aubergine, coarsely ground black pepper and sweet paprika. Following the addition of blanched baby broad beans and the last few stalks of some coriander, I combined the whole lot with eggs and chunks of goat's cheese. After the underside had set I popped the pan under the grill for a couple of minutes to brown the top, and voila! Some crispy salad leaves and a dash of balsamic vinegar was all I needed on the side of this speedy success.

parsley cheese scone

The parsely cheese scones were also a speedy success. (All this warm weather is definitely inspiring a cook-it-and-go spirit in my kitchen, as the sunshine just keeps calling me outdoors.)

I prepared these for a friend's baby shower involving afternoon tea and champagne.  I know, sounds very la-di-da. But it was in fact just a great excuse for a get together involving silly games and daytime grazing on yummy food and drink. It was a completely unpretentious spread, and full of old school treats such as jam tarts and mini Mr Kipling Battenburgs.

As I couldn't splash the cash with the present I decided to add in the gift of homemade food. And savoury scones just seemed to fit the bill. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

salt marsh

MUCH has been reported on the rise of the 'supper club' scene in London. It is not a new phenomenon. And some predict that it may now be on its way out. Prices for these 'at home' dining experiences rarely dip below £25, and at times nudge their way towards and in excess of £100 if an esteemed chef is to be in residence.

Of course these prices may be justifiedan intimate yet relaxed dining experience alongside great - and at times exquisite - cooking is a pleasure. One may even say it is a coveted experience when 'hot spot' restaurants are popping up incessantly, with 'no booking' policies leaving queues of customers outside peering in, and large prices for small portions (or 'tapas' as is the term du jour).

So, what is the diner seeking good food with a personal touch to do? If it's true that the supper club is on its way out, then where may it - or we - be headed?? I have a suggestion. Perhaps 'out' is code for 'out of London', and perhaps 'out of London' means further than Zone 2. Maybe even that Zones 3, 4, 5 or even (whisper it) 6 may need to be traversed...?

I think this may be the case. And I am proposing first stop Whitstable. Yes, as in Kent. A characterful seaside town from which I have been commuting to London for the past week. (This commute, by the way, was a delight in comparison to the daily slog I usually take part in.)

Whitstable is famed for its colourful beach huts and native oysters. It's a hodge podge of higgledy piggledy houses nestled amongst narrow passages, with a healthy selection of restaurants, boutiques, galleries - and charity shops - for a centre so small. It is definitely a foodie destination in addition a beach escape. And despite a sufficiently large list of delicious options recommended to me for delectation during my stay, my bank balance by no means allowed for me to indulge to my hearts content.

However. At the end of my road there stood an unassuming establishment, curiously not mentioned on said list. It's name was Salt Marsh. Name, address, and telephone number were all that adorned its facade. And on the late Sunday afternoon of my arrival to my temporary new home it was emitting a warm glow and bustling with business.

According to what I could garner from limited information on the internet, this was a little hub of fresh, hearty and homely fare, cooked by a guy called Tony, to the accompaniment of a record player spinning the sounds of days gone by. There were no menus, and no specific opening times. The portions awaiting us were reported to be large. The prices small. So far, so tempting. Oh, and 'daddy' Salt Marsh - Windy Corner Stores - resided at the other end of my street. 

On the evening of my visit, due to a variety of train induced calamities, it meant that M and I did not cross Salt Marsh's threshold until gone 9pm. Anywhere else in Whitstable this would have spelt disaster for our grumbling stomachs, as early closing of kitchens in Whitstable does not seem to accomodate for late night dining (frustrating for a city girl like me, I must admit). But this welcoming mix of eclectic wooden furniture, old fashioned radios and vintage posters, lit by large candles dripping wax directly onto the tables, was thankfully still happy to embrace us as Tony agreed to stay a little longer and cook.