Weekend bake: Pact Coffee meringues with coffee cream, chocolate & crushed pistachios

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It seems like everyone on Twitter and Instagram has been going mad for Pact Coffee, from yoga goddesses in printed lycra balancing steaming cups of the stuff on various twisted and contorted limbs to the mention that the brand is getting on an almost daily basis when it appears artfully arranged alongside Symmetry Breakfast’s latest creation.

So, when the inevitable email dropped into my inbox asking if I’d like to try some, I was intrigued.

Unless you’ve been brought up on babychinos by your yummy mummy, few people can say that they loved a cup of coffee when they were little. I first started appreciating it when I worked at an Italian restaurant and began knocking back creamy cappuccinos and jolts of espresso on the advice of my manager, who had a special sort of disregard for the average Englishman’s coffee making skills.

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Nowadays, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve turned into a bit of a closet coffee snob and have been lucky enough to guzzle some delicious mouthfuls of the black gold, from fruity almost floral beans in Ethiopia to rugged, rip your tastebuds off tar in Turkey and heavenly burnt butter-rich brews in Laos and Vietnam.

That being said, i’ve never considered shelling out monthly for a regular supply of curated coffee, which is what the ethos of Pact is: an on-demand, to-your-door delivery coffee subscription service.

“At Pact we are on a mission to get the UK drinking better coffee by making incredible, freshly roasted coffee accessible to everyone. Our world-class beans are bought from dedicated farmers, roasted in small batches at Pact HQ in Bermondsey and shipped within 7 days.”

Ed, who contacted me, was thorough to say the least, taking particular care to find out exactly how I made my coffee and what utensils I used to make sure he sent me exactly the right sort of blend for my tastes and coffee making capabilities – somewhat of a rarity when it comes to free samples!

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When it arrived, I could smell the blend before I’d even ripped open the envelope and, when I finally did, the whole kitchen was flooded with the luscious, almost acrid burnt sugar smell of freshly roasted coffee.

I’d been sent a fudge, figgy smokey blend called Farenda Lagoa from the Sul de Minas region in the heart of Minas Gerais, Brazil, where the beans are grown on the slopes of Serra do Pau D’Alho and the coffee is produced at altitudes of up to 1200 metres.

One of Pact’s head honchos had tasted this blend and decided that it reminded him of juicy raisins and buttery pastry, hence it’s moniker ‘Pain au Raison’, and, after trying, I can’t disagree. It’s a delicate flavour and takes a lot of coffee to produce a brew with enough punch to give a decent whack of flavour, but, when you do get enough into it, the result is delicious: nutty, sweet and incredibly mellow.

After making it for the first time all I could think was how well this coffee’s inherent dessert flavour would translate into a sweet recipe.

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So, after a few more tastings, I came up with the following: crispy, chewy meringues that combine this fruity coffee with rich, dark chocolate, crunchy nuts and lashing of freshly whipped, coffee-swirled cream.

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PACT coffee meringues with coffee cream, chocolate & crushed pistachios

This makes around six cream-filled bites. Double it if you’re having a bigger feast or more people over.

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Ingredients
for the meringues

3 egg whites
100g caster sugar
2tbs strong black coffee

for the filling and topping

2-4tbs strong black coffee
300ml whipping cream
1tbs icing sugar
a handful of pistachios
100g dark chocolate

DSC_5669I was using my favourite new toy for this: The Kenwood Multione and my Lakeland piping bags

Method
  • Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and pre-heat your oven to 100 degrees.
  • Make a small cafetiere of strong coffee and pour it into a bowl once brewed to get cold.
  • Make sure your bowl is utterly dry and grease free otherwise you’ll end up with soggy, split egg whites that won’t whip well. Separate your eggs (I always keep my egg yolks to make mayonnaise or lemon curd with them later on) and whisk the  three egg whites with the whisk attachment on your mixer.
  • When the eggs begin to puff up and become frothy, start to add the caster sugar a spoonful at a time and whip until the mixture has become glossy, smooth and forms stiff peaks.
  • Gently drizzle through most of the 2tbs of coffee and turn with a spatula before scooping the mix up and pushing it into a piping bag.

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  • Pipe fat blobs into your baking sheet and drizzle over with drops of the remaining coffee – this mixes with the sugary meringues to make a sort of sticky coffee toffee that adds a wonderful chew to the cooked meringues. If you don’t have a piping bag you can just spoon the mixture onto the baking sheet.

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  • Bake in your preheated oven for between 2-3 hours. After two hours your meringues will be soft and chewy on the inside, after three they’ll be crisp and crunchy so it entirely depends on how you like them!
  • Leave the meringues to cool while you whip your cream and icing sugar into stiff peaks. Swirl through the cold coffee you’ve set aside for the cream. You can always add more icing sugar or a drop more coffee if you’d like it a little sweeter or stronger.
  • Set aside your whipped cream in the fridge until you’re ready to pipe it onto the meringues. Meanwhile, melt your dark chocolate in a bowl above a saucepan of simmering water before dipping the bottom of your cooled meringue halves into the rich chocolate goo.
  • Leave these to set and let the chocolate harden before piping one half with cream and sandwiching your meringues together.
  • Crush or chop your handful of pistachios and drizzle the meringues with the remaining chocolate before chucking over the nuts.

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You can keep these in the fridge for 24 hours before the meringues start to go soggy…but to be honest I doubt that they’ll last that long!

Weekend bake: Pink grapefruit posset with lavender & almond shortbread

It’s a bit late in the day for a weekend bake. Then again, I seem to be late for a lot of things recently as I am exhausting all of my energies juggling a new job and trying to find a new place to live in London, which, if you’ve ever run the Spareroom gauntlet, you’ll understand is no mean feat.

But, aside from all of that and preparing for the imminent struggle of hauling my life from one end of this busy city to other in a few weeks time, I did manage to enjoy this glorious weather we’ve been having this weekend and slip in a picnic with close friends in Battersea Park.

I also managed to indulge my insatiable sweet tooth and knock up a little afternoon treat: a zingy, creamy blush-coloured posset that’s simply bursting with sweet sunshine.

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I can never resist creamy desserts. I remember I used to spend half my working evening at my first restaurant job lusting over the homemade panna cottas that wobbled seductively at me every time I opened the kitchen fridge.

This posset is similar to a panna cotta, only much simpler to make and it really is as creamy a dessert as you can get…in fact it only has three ingredients: cream, sugar and fruit.

Possets are ancient puddings made from cooked cream that used to be curdled with alcohol instead of the acid from fruit that is used today.

They were originally given as curative medication for fevers or colds…it’s unlikely that I’m going to find that prescription recommended on the NHS website these days but it’s definitely something I’ll remember next time I come down with a cold!

“It is mentioned in the Journals of the House of Lords in the year 1620 that King Charles I was given a posset drink from his physician… Shakespeare mentions possets several times in his writings, in Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5, he mentions the posset’s medicinal properties and that it is made from curds”
– British Food History 

I’m not convinced I’m suffering from any particularly life threatening fevers at the moment (unless Spring fever counts), but there’s no doubt that this little pot of soft, unctuous goo did me the world of good and hopefully it’ll brighten anyone’s weekend who needs a little sugary boost.

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This is the perfect dinner party pudding for summer as you can make it hours in advance. You’ll probably want to use fancier glasses than I did if you’re making it for a party…that’s one of the things about house sharing, all of your crockery and utensils are a mish-mash of collected and found pieces.

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Pink grapefruit posset with lavender & almond shortbread

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Ingredients
for the posset

300ml double cream
100g caster sugar
2 pink grapefruits (100ml freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and the rind from two grapefruits)

for the shortbread

125g salted butter
55g caster sugar
130g plain flour
50g ground almonds
1 tsp dried lavender – I like to use delicately dried lavender from Bart. Be careful not to put too much in or your biscuits run the risk of tasting a bit like an old lady’s knicker drawer!

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Method
  • Pop some assorted small glasses into the fridge to keep cool.
  • The possets take up to three hours to set in the fridge so get these out of the way first. Grate the rind from your two grapefruits before slicing and squeezing them to make 100ml of juice.
  • Pour the cream and sugar into a saucepan and heat over a medium heat and keep stirring it until the sugar has dissolved. Let it come to the boil for a minute before taking off the heat and quickly stirring through the grapefruit juice and rind.
  • Pour into your cooled glasses and put back in the fridge until set and firm with a little wiggle – this should take 2-3 hours.
  • Make these quick shortbread biscuits by beating the butter and sugar together to a creamy pulp before adding the flour, ground almonds and lavender.
  • Mix together until it forms a soft dough. Shape balls of the dough into rounds or soft ovals with your hands and push down onto a greased baking sheet.
  • Leave these to cool down and firm up in the fridge before cooking – too much handling makes the butter in these break down into an oily mess.
  • Bake at 180 degrees for 10-12 minutes until they turn a soft golden brown and leave to cool before dusting with icing sugar and serving with the possets.

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Weekend bake: Hot cross bun bread & butter pudding

This ridiculously quick and easy bread and butter pudding makes the perfect afternoon tea treat for Easter Sunday.

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It’s ideal for that no man’s land stretch of time on a Sunday when you’ve already reached peak chocolate intake and that roast lunch seems like a distant memory.

I used to hate bread and butter pudding. They served it on fridays at my secondary school in a soggy, glutenous mass and the only thing I used to eat was the burnt piece of crunchy, sugar-covered toast on the top … the gloopy, suspiciously yellow stuff underneath would only ever get a cursory poke with my spoon.

I changed my mind about bread and butter pudding a year or so ago when I ordered it on a whim at Ginger & White. When it arrived, glimpses of golden brown croissant just poking their edges above the wobbly, creamy eggy custard beneath, it was a revelation and I was determined to discover a super-easy way of recreating it at home.

This is the easiest pudding I’ve made in a long, LONG time and it uses one of my favourite Easter treats — delicious hot cross buns. I’m afraid I didn’t make my own buns for this recipe, I shamefully cheated with hot cross buns from Marks & Spencer … although, to be fair, these chubby beauties are so delicious with their chunks of juicy berries and cherries that I’m really not that sorry at all.

This recipe makes just enough for two hungry people, just double or triple the recipe (and the size of your dish) if you have more mouths to feed.

Hot cross bun bread & butter pudding

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Ingredients

2 Berries & Cherries hot cross buns from Marks & Spencer sliced into three slim rounds
175ml double cream and milk mixed together
1 egg, beaten
1 tbs caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
20g salted butter
dusting ground nutmeg
pinch of brown sugar

Method
  • Gently toast your rounds of bun and butter them before layering into an oven proof dish or bowl.
  • Mix the egg, cream and milk mixture, vanilla and caster sugar in a jug and pour over the buns.
  • Dust with nutmeg and sprinkle with the brown sugar before popping into a preheated oven at 175 degrees centigrade for about 25-30 minutes until the pudding has a seductive little wobble and has puffed up to a golden, toasted brown.

Serve with lashings of cream if you’re feeling extra indulgent and try not to count the calories too much — the diet can start after Easter!

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Black & white bark with salted pistachio brittle & edible flowers

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I’ve found, rather tragically, that as you get older the amount of Easter chocolate you are given dwindles.

When I was little there were Easter egg hunts in my grandfather’s vegetable patch and endless aunties and uncles and godparents who seemed determined for me and my brothers to eat our weight in chocolate.

There was even one fateful Easter when my father — convinced that we’d been given too much chocolate for our tiny tummies to handle — hid our eggs to “keep them safe”… he ate them ALL and we’ve never quite forgiven him for it!

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As it’s Good Friday and I’ve got a blissful day off from my new job, I thought it would be nice to create a more grown up chocolaty treat that’s perfect for Easter indulging.

This recipe for bark uses easy-to-make cheats tempered chocolate to give it that satisfyingly brittle snap when you crack into it and is decorated with a mixture of salted pistachio brittle (one of my favourite things to make for a sweet treat) and a scattering of vibrant edible petals that are busting with Spring colour.

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“Tempering chocolate is an essential step for making smooth, glossy, evenly coloured coating for your dipped chocolates. Tempering prevents the dull grayish color and waxy texture that happens when the cocoa fat separates out. Tempered chocolate produces a crisp, satisfying snap when you bite into it.”

If you’re unsure about which flowers you can and can’t eat, have a look at this pretty picture guide I unearthed on Pintrest: Edible-Flowers-Product-Guide-2013 copy Image: http://www.mayesh.com/Blog/tabid/67/EntryId/287/Product-Guide-Edible-Flowers.aspx

Black & white bark with salted pistachio brittle & edible flowers

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Ingredients

25g pistachios
75g caster sugar
A good pinch of sea salt flakes – I love the texture and intensity of Maldon sea salt
200g good quality dark chocolate – I used a bar with 85% cocoa solids for mine
200g white chocolate
Petals from a few brightly coloured edible flowers – I used chrysanthemums for this as they are such a festive riot of colour in rich burgundy, burnt orange and sunshine yellow and they have a distinctive, peppery flavour that cuts through the dense white chocolate

Method
  • Rinse your petals in cold water and blot them dry on kitchen roll.

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  • Weigh out 50g each of the dark and white chocolate and chop very finely with a sharp knife, keeping the chopped shades of chocolate separate so you don’t mix up the colours. These will be the bits of chocolate you use to temper your melted hot chocolate. When added gradually, they’ll bring down the temperature of the chocolate until it turns into a rich, thick, spreadable goo that hardens with a glossy shine.

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  • Make the brittle by heating the caster sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until it turns into a light caramel. Don’t stir it and be careful not to burn it. You can tip the pan from side to side gently to move the sugar around if you think it is caramelising unevenly. When it’s liquid and golden, quickly stir in the pistachios and drop the mix onto a piece of greaseproof paper. When your caramelised nuts have hardened you can bash the mix into chunky shards with a rolling pin.
  • Bring a large saucepan of water up to a simmer and put a mixing bowl over it, taking care that the bottom of the mixing bowl rests above the water and not in it. Drop in your remaining 150g of dark chocolate and leave until it’s completely melted.
  • Take the bowl off the water and wrap the base in a tea towel to keep warm while you begin to add in the dark chocolate shavings, mixing with a spatula at all times to keep the mixture moving – otherwise it will start to set.
  • When the chocolate has all melted, pour it into one half of a lined baking tray. You can use a strip of tin foil to separate the two halves of the tray if you are worried about the two chocolates meeting in the middle.
  • Scatter over the crushed pistachio brittle and the pinch of sea salt and leave in a cool place to set.
  • Repeat the above steps with the white chocolate before covering it in a dusting of the edible flower petals and leaving to set.

DSC_5609 The bark should take a good few hours to harden depending on how thickly you’ve layered on the chocolate. When it’s completely set, just break it into shards and dig in. This is a recipe that I might have to hide from my dad this Easter! DSC_5650

Saint & Sinner: Mango, almond milk quinoa porridge and Comté & rosemary gnocchi with pine nut garlic butter

There have been far too many weekends that have sailed by without me being able to get down to some proper cooking in my little Clapham kitchen.

I woke up famished on Friday and, after sticking my nose in the fridge and spotting a mango that was heading inexorably towards overripedom and a lump of 18-month aged Comté  from a recent (and unutterably delicious press evening), I decided to roll my sleeves up and knock up a terribly healthy breakfast and a decadent, butter-rich, carb-loaded lunch.

Mango, almond milk quinoa porridge

Mango, almond milk quinoa porridge - the edible woman

I first encountered quinoa porridge when I subjected myself to a week of eating like Gwyneth Paltrow for a feature with Huffington Post. After a week of sugar/dairy/wheat/caffeine/alcohol/soy/fun-free eating I was ready to savage the next person who dared to wander past me holding a bar of chocolate or a cocktail, but I did get a taste for a couple of her breakfast ideas. NOT the squishy, kale-fuelled smoothies mind you, but her ingenious use for leftover quinoa.

Mango, almond milk quinoa porridge - the edible woman

There’s always left over quinoa.

Quinoa is one of the few plant foods that’s a natural protein, is naturally gluten-free and is packed with iron, B-vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, vitamin E and fibre. When cooked, it lasts at least four days sealed in tupperware in the fridge or for a disturbingly long time when frozen.

This fruity, fibre-rich and crunchy alternative to oat porridge is doused in creamy almond milk and finished with a scattering of sliced strawberries, juicy mango and a splodge of runny honey.

All you need to do is cook the funny little grains beforehand until they explode into nutty spirals. I use about half a cup of uncooked grains per person fora single portion of porridge, but of course you can cook up lots and store it for the week ahead in the fridge.

Mango, almond milk quinoa porridge - the edible woman

for the quinoa

1/2 cup quinoa
1 cup water

for the porridge

1 ripe mango sliced into thin slivers
5 ripe strawberries washed, hulled and sliced
3/4 – 1 cup of cooked quinoa (the 1/2 cup raw grain will expand into about this)
1/2 almond milk
a handful of almonds
1 tsp honey (you can leave this out if you like your food to be ultra healthy)

Mango, almond milk quinoa porridge - the edible woman

Method
  • Always start by rinsing your quinoa in a sieve as the husks have a strange, milky coating on them. Pop the quinoa into a saucepan with the water on a medium heat and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and let it simmer until the water is absorbed and the grains have opened up. This should take about 15 minutes.
  • Fluff the grains up with a fork as you would cous cous and then add in the almond milk.
  • Gently heat this through until it’s piping hot and transfer to your breakfast bowl before decorating with the fruit and nuts and dribbling on the honey.

Blueberries also work really well with this, as does banana and a spoonful of almond butter. You can also add a spoonful of chia seeds into the mix for an extra protein boost.

Mango, almond milk quinoa porridge - the edible woman

Comté and rosemary gnocchi with pine nut garlic butter

I’ve always loved gnocchi and can’t resist these fluffy potato pillows if I see them on a menu; although I must confess I’ve never attempted to make them before and was shocked at how simple they were.

Comte and rosemary gnocchi - the edible woman

The key to perfectly light gnocchi is using dry, fluffy potatoes. Always dry roast your potatoes in the oven and avoid boiling them to reduce their moisture content.

Plain gnocchi are simply delicious served with a dash of homemade tomato sauce or baked with a cheese topping, but they also absorb flavour very well, which is why I decided to include some grated, full-flavoured Comté and chopped rosemary in mine.

Comte - the edible woman

for the gnocchi

100g grated Comté (any hard, strong cheese would do just as well, like parmesan or gruyere, if that’s what you have in your fridge)
2 large baking potatoes (there’s a simple rule for measuring gnocchi portions that goes one potato per person per portion to about 75g flour)
150g plain flour
1 egg
a few large sprigs of rosemary, chopped very finely

for the coating

1 bag of fresh rocket
30g pine nuts
50g butter
1 large garlic clove, crushed

Method
  • Put the potatoes into a preheated oven at 200 degrees centigrade to bake until they’re completely soft. The best gnocchi are made with hot potatoes so you’ll have to test your pain threshold a bit with these!
  • When the potatoes are cooked, peel off their skins and push them through a potato ricer; the smoother and fluffier they are, the lighter your gnocchi will be. The best gnocchi melt in the mouth.
  • Gently mix in the cheese and chopped rosemary with a good pinch of salt and tip the flour out onto a flat surface. Pour the potato mix on to the flour and make a shallow well in the middle of your potato and flour mound.
  • Pour in the egg and bring the mixture together with your hands, kneading it into a soft dough (you don’t have to use all the egg – just if it feels too dry and refuses to come together without flaking)

Comte and rosemary gnocchi - the edible woman

  • Shape your mix – trying not to work it too hard as this makes the gnocchi tough – into a fat sausage and half it with a knife or pastry card.
  • Roll each dough sausage out into a thin snake. Cut 1-inch pieces off the snake and pop onto a lightly floured tray. You can try to give them the distinctive gnocchi ridges by rolling them over the back of a fork…as you can see from my little monstrosities, I wasn’t very adept at this!
  • Set a pan of water on to boil and put the crushed garlic, butter and pine nuts into a pan over a medium heat. Let the butter melt and caramelise the pine nuts but try not to burn it.
  • Drop the gnocchi into the boiling pan of water. They cook in under a minute and you’ll know they’re done when they pop up to the surface and bob around.
  • Remove them with a slatted spoon and drop them into the hot pan of garlic and pine nut butter, coating them in the sauce. Add in the rocket and let it wilt before serving straight away with a twist of black pepper and a few shavings of leftover cheese.

Comte and rosemary gnocchi - the edible woman

My Favourite Things: February

The book I couldn’t put down; the drink I could drink forever; someone’s wise words that stuck with me; the place I didn’t want to leave…sometimes all you want to do is fall in love all over again with the things you lusted after, adored and coveted last month.

The Album

Jungle by Jungle has been the backing track to everything this month, from drinking and dinner parties to frantically typing up work at my kitchen table.
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The Book

I rediscovered my love of Angela Carter in this little masterpiece. Beautifully written, heartbreakingly raw and fully explored in my review for February’s books coming this weekend.

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The Drink

There was no contest last month, it had to be this ridiculously healthy yet naughty tasting Sloe Beet cocktail from my favourite new south London haunt, London Grind.

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The Food

Last month it was more of an ingredient that I simply couldn’t stop eating, pomegranates!

The Images

In February I rediscovered Pinterest, which has lead, naturally, to hours being spent creating and curating colour-coordinated boards and little collections of dreams and loves. The board that grew the most was my pink one, Pretty in Pink. For some reason I couldn’t stop finding endless images of beautiful rosy things, so here are a few of my favourites.

The Movie

Last month I finally caught up on the final few Oscar nominated films I was yet to see. The last one I watched was Whiplash. I had put it off until the end, honestly thinking that I wouldn’t like it much.

I was wrong.

Whiplash may just be the best film I have seen in years, let alone a month. A powerful, brutal, bloody war epic of a music film with a throbbing, insistent and unflinching soundtrack that left me breathless and my jaw on the floor in awe. Full Metal Jacket with drums…although much better than that sounds.

See it. Now.

The Place

It was a close call between the wonderful The Word on the Water and Keats House in Hampstead, but in the end my happy place last month was in the salon at Keats House listening to historical flautist Yu-Wei Hu and guitarist Johan Lofving perform a programme inspired by Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale.

The Video

How could it be anything else other than this heart soaring video of Sergei Polunin dancing his flesh coloured tights off in an abandoned church?

Sergei Polunin, “Take Me to Church” by Hozier, Directed by David LaChapelle from David LaChapelle Studio on Vimeo.

The Want

I want these Alice High Heels from Boden. I want to wear them with ripped skinny jeans and a chunky cream knit and with black cigarette trousers and a crisp white shirt or worn-out denim dresses.

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The Words

From the mouth of the wonderful Angela Carter. Amen.

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Header Image: Julien Haler/Flickr

Baking Gluten Savvy Bread with Maria

For a long time now, gluten has beeen seen as the foodie devil incarnate, so I went along to a healthy bread class with Bake with Maria on behalf of Foodepedia to see if I could learn to be gluten savvy instead of gluten scared.

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“So, before we start, does everyone know exactly what gluten is?”

This seemingly innocuous question was asked by Maria Mayerhofer, the baking genius behind Bake with Maria, who is out to get Londoners baking and making, one beautifully executed cookery class at a time.

I stumbled up the residential steps to Maria’s Baking Lab on the edge of South Hampstead in the dark one rainy evening last week, utterly convinced I was in the wrong place until I spotted a doorway filled with light and, on closer inspection, emitting the encouraging smell of freshly baked cake.

As I walked into the teeny tiny kitchen and work space, I was immediately offered a raspberry financier and some still warm, buttered banana bread and, eyeing it suspiciously, asked if it was gluten free. A mistake, because Maria and her team don’t do gluten free, they do gluten smart, which is why I was there, to take part in a Gluten Savvy Bread Class.

Gluten, a protein composite found in wheat and grains, has had it hard these past few years. Accused of upsetting stomachs from New York to London, it’s been relegated to the unpopular food ranks alongside fat and, more recently, sugar – fat might be getting an invite back to polite dining society; the foodie jury is still out on that one. Today, gluten has almost become a dirty word, uttered by filthy bread cravers whose only socially acceptable outlet is spending £4 on an artisan sourdough loaf, which is the only sort of ‘healthy’ bread, obviously.

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I’ve heard countless people, from housemates to co workers proudly announce that they’re giving up gluten or claiming that they couldn’t possibly eat it as it makes them feel bloated as they cradle their tummies protectively. Now, real gluten allergies are no laughing matter. Coeliac disease is a terrible affliction and means sufferers can’t stand even a trace of gluten, from its presence in soy sauce to ale. Tom from Shipton Mill thinks he knows why people associate that bloated feeling with bread: it’s the quality of bread you’re eating.

At the time he said this he was encouraging me and a bunch of food writers to squeeze a bog standard sliced white loaf back into dough pellets like we all did as kids, while pointing out that these loaves, which he called ‘water standing up’, are mass produced, barely proved and full of additives and preservatives that are far more likely to cause irritation than actual gluten ever is.

Gluten free loaves didn’t get off easy either, as Tom pointed out that bread should have four ingredients (flour, water, yeast, salt) while gluten free loaves often have closer to 13, with everything from sugar to starch, stabilisers and flavourings added to the original mix to keep it tasting and feeling like, well, bread.

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And so began our gluten education, or should I say re-education at the hands of Maria and master baker Emmanuel Hadjiandreou, the author of How to Make Bread, who walked us all through the astonishingly simple process of baking fresh, delicious breads at home.

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As well as explaining how spelt (which, incidentally hasn’t really altered for the past 6,000 years) is more easily digested by the body yet still contains gluten and showing us how to roll the perfect seeded baguette, Hadjiandreou showed us how to do a gluten wash – submerging raw dough in water and squeezing it until you’re left with a stringy residue – on different types of bread dough to see just how much gluten they actually contain.

And that’s exactly what the classes at Bake with Maria aim to do: to practically show you the joy of baking and serve it alongside a side order of specialist knowledge. As an added bonus you get to eat everything you make at the end of the class, which for us meant loaves hot from the oven and dripping with butter and Maria’s homemade hummus and beetroot dip and a warm baguette to carry home on the tube, much to the olfactory envy of fellow passengers.

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As we were sent home, each clutching our baguettes and beaming with a shared sense of gluten epiphany, there wasn’t one of us that didn’t believe what Maria had been saying to us all along: that healthy, very much gluten FULL loaves are quick and easy and incredibly cheap to make at home and everyone should be doing it.

 Visit www.bakewithmaria.com to see all upcoming pastry, bread and cake classes and for more information on prices.

Original piece written for the wonderful Foodepedia.co.uk and can be read here.

Malaga memories: On finally appreciating Picasso

“I was born of a white feather and a small glass of Andalusian eau de vie. I was born to a mother the daughter of a fifteen-year-old girl born in the percheles of Málaga the handsome bull who sired me with his forehead crowned with jasmine.” – Picasso: Écrits. Paris. Réunion des Musées Nationaux Gallimard, 1989.

Mercedes swivelled suddenly, her brown leather bag stuffed with tickets stubs and empty water bottles crunching against my hip as she held my arms and looked me square in the face with dark eyes livid and shining, bubbling over with barely concealed passion.

You would have thought that I was used to the fire and the fervour that seemed to simmer just below the surface of most of the Malagans I had met so far, but it still jolted my prim little English self like a rabbit caught in the glare.

“Do you know Picasso? Do you love him? Well, today you will.” She intoned in looping, Spanish splashed English, punctuating her sentences with empathic head nods, like a bright little bird observing a worm it’s just trapped in its claws.

“Ah…good.” I replied meekly, trying to muster some convincingly reverent energy against the mega watt rays of her enthusiasm.

“Come, come, we will explore eaaaavarythink. I will show you it all.”

She refocused the intensity of her gaze into the first room of the Palacio de Buenavista – a great, sweeping Andalusian mansion that has been turned into the home of some of Picasso’s most intimate paintings – and ushered me on, honing in on a painting that, from a distance, looked like a mess of square and splotches.

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I’ve never really got Picasso. Well, to be truthful, that’s an understatement. I never really liked him. That also may be an understatement. I have, without doubt, never understood him.

There was always something that rankled, perhaps the harsh, geometric lines, those misshapen, melting faces broken apart and reformed like your own reflection is mangled in water when you stick your finger in and swirl.

They’re indistinct and fragmented and, underneath it all, there’s that venomous little slithering whisper that thinks given enough paint and canvas any artistically gifted child could do just as well.

But then, one sunny Spanish morning in Malaga, where Picasso was born, my guide Mercedes whisked me around and began to slowly instil her deep seated and deeply rooted adoration for this renegade painter and serial womaniser in me.

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It grew slowly, burning softly at first, born from a grudging respect that sprouted in my belly and grew in increments, finally bursting forth in front of one painting that managed to wrench tears from me as Mercedes stepped back, finally satisfied that her job had been done.

But it took a few paintings before I got there, each picked out from the multitude by Mercedes who pulled me from room to room, positioned me at different viewing points; forced my eyes to watch from doorways and corners and impossible angles to reveal strange aspects in seemingly ordinary pieces and opened a deep well of pure, unfettered emotional attachment to paintings I would have, save for her, observed politely before shrugging off.

As a rather unproductive writer, I can’t help but admire such a prolific artist as Picasso was. He produced thousands of works of art and was still painting in his 90s before he died. He had mastered and dismissed stuffy still life and angular, Renaissance perspectives by the time he was 17, although that’s not to say he didn’t admire the masters: El Greco, Matisse, Degas…he just liked them deconstructed and reformed through his own eyes.

Which is probably why I find it hard to appreciate his work, because he paints everything at once and it’s too much. Picasso saw that real people moved, and objects showed you their whole selves from every angle at once; not just a blank, prettily one dimensional facet. So his works became a multitude of positions and expressions all contained in one canvas. It’s confusing, it’s arresting, it’s bold and it’s what made him unique.

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But it wasn’t Picasso’s reinterpretations of still life or inanimate objects that made me love him, that made me feel him. It was his women, which he talked about through the portraits he painted of them. And one woman in particular, Olga Stepanovna Khokhlova, a Russian ballerina and his first wife.

They weren’t his most famous pieces and they certainly weren’t his most celebrated, but they were, to me, his most accessible and they were all tucked away in this little collection kept in his home town.

“I think about Death all time, it is as a woman who will never leave me.” – Pablo Picasso

It started with a painting that wasn’t actually of Olga, it was of one of Picasso’s later lovers, a photographer called Dora Maar. It’s her face that later became The Weeping Woman and it’s her screaming face I see in Picasso’s most famous piece: Guernica.

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“Look at her hands, fighting and clawed; look at her eyes, she is full of fear and pain.” Mercedes whispered to me.

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Her hands were up, tearing through the canvas. Her body was militated and deformed into a human wheel, her mouth open in an endless, unquenched scream. Her picture, while it seemed harmless enough at first, terrified me.

And then Mercedes showed me Olga.

Olga

Picasso married Olga in 1918 and they had a son, Paulo, together.

Later, Picasso started having an affair with a 17-year-old French girl called Marie-Thérèse Walter and she became pregnant. When Olga found out in 1935, she took Paulo and moved to France and asked for a divorce. Picasso refused to divide his property with her, despite the law, so they stayed legally married until she died from cancer in 1955.

Picasso didn’t attend her funeral.

6_fgOlga Khokhlova with a Mantilla, 1917

Wearing a classic Spanish Matiquilla Picasso makes a young Olga look cold, yet dewy and rosy.  She looks like she’s made from fresh cotton and the underside of a lily; untouched and clean. When Picasso looks at Olga in 1917, a year before they were married, she appeared pristine and perfect to him. This was Picasso’s Olga at the peak of their love, at the very beginning.

163TF-VOL1-CAT   9,Mother and Child, 1921

This painting might not even be specifically of Olga, but she was still his muse in 1921, which was the year she gave birth to their first son, Paulo.

Suddenly Olga has taken on a beatific, religious and almost regal air, She’s lost her almost waxy, floral glow and been replaced by a white holy fervour. Gazing fixedly at her child she looks like devotion incarnate.

She could be a renaissance oil masterpiece, a old madonna and from afar this painting makes her elegant, white and swanlike. But, as you step closer, creeping like grandmother’s footsteps,  her image mutates and she appears dumpy and squat up close, her body obscenely fat. There’s something almost cannibalistic in it, as if she’s drawing her bulk from Picasso to feed to the infant. His brush and paint devouring her image in return.

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In the final painting I saw of Olga, she was transformed again. There was none of the florid prettiness of before or of the overt womanliness. There was just a pale woman with her head in her hands. The blue of her housecoat sapping her colours.

She and her painter no longer seem to like each other, their love has dimmed and all that’s left is this painful distance between canvas and eyes. She looks withered, all her original rosy softness has been carved away to this ivory boney lines, her plumpness deflated.

As Mercedes recounted the decline of Olga and Picasso’s love and marriage it all felt so unutterably sad and as she talked, my eyes begin to mist over and the blue of Olga’s coat swam in my eyes, burning through the water.

But it wasn’t just Olga’s portraits that made me finally fall for Picasso, it was all the paintings of his lovers, his muses, his wives.

It was his French ladies, painted feline and blue, all elongated and calm.

It was the pink and round paintings of Marie, flushed with youth and gleaming.

It was the depictions of ‘The Flower’, Françoise Gilot, her face wreathed in petals.

And it was his raw, sexual and strangely regal portraits of Jacqueline Roque.

It took all of Picasso’s women for me to finally love his work, to finally connect to it, although I couldn’t help but wonder as I left the cool shade of the Palacio de Buenavista, was it really Picasso that I loved or was it the women he loved through paint and portrait.

Malaga

I was shown around Malaga as a guest of the Malagan tourism board and Monarch Airlines. You can read all about my sunny Spanish adventuring here.

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In pictures: Ten stories from Postman’s Park

I’ve been meaning to visit Postman’s Park ever since I moved to London but, somehow, something has always got in the way. Sometimes the weather, sometimes work, sometimes my own laziness. But last week, I finally made the trip to this little slice of solemn London to read about stories of sacrifice from ordinary, extraordinary people.

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Just a short walk from St Paul’s, this tiny park sits wedged against the walls of The Aldersgate Talks church and got its name because the workers from the old General Post Office used to eat lunch there everyday.

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In 1900, Victorian painter and philanthropist GF Watts installed a memorial to recognise and commemorate the heroic acts of Londoners and set their stories into glazed Doulton tiles for all visitors to see.

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On the day I visited there was a cold, weak sun like an undercooked egg leaking frigid light through the bare, skinny trees. Council gardeners were spreading fertiliser, striding through the damp and undernourished flowerbeds in eye-searing high vis jackets; wheeling barrow loads of foul-smelling muck to throw over the churned, red and raw scented earth.

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Workers were hunched against the benches in front of the plaques, scattering crumbs and sweet wrappers to the breeze and shifting either with irritation or discomfort as tourists, like myself, leaned over and looked past, studiously ignoring them to focus instead on the people pinned behind them.

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As I read about people I didn’t know and has previously never heard of, I became drawn in by simple, shared emotions: grief, fear, admiration. I read about children who died saving siblings and friends. Mothers who gave up their lives saving their babies. Men who sacrificed themselves in a single, split second decision to save someone else’s life.

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As I stood there and stared, slowly absorbing these lives, I started to forget the other people around me. I forgot to be annoyed when someone’s son started screaming about chocolate to a mother who was half-heatedly trying to interest him in the stories of kids not much older than her own who were suddenly, all in a moment, not here anymore.

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Instead I looked left and caught the eye of the elderly woman next to me and we smiled. Short and sad. A shared, paper thin sort of smile that acknowledged both how wondrous and wretched these stories were.

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It’s hard to read these stories yet you consume them tirelessly standing there in that small little patch of ground. It’s also hard to not to cry in Postman’s Park, not only from the sheer selflessness of it all, but also because of that awful, sneaking question that bubbles up and that you can’t quite quiet: could you do what these people have done?

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I couldn’t take pictures of all of the stories in Postman’s Park and these aren’t by any means favourites or ones that I have somehow deemed ‘most worthy’, they’re just ones that caught my eye.

Weekend bake: Valentine’s Day pomegranate, yoghurt and rose cake

Instead of the usual bah humbug post for Valentine’s Day, this year I thought I would do something a little more productive and bake a pink-tinged, vaguely Valentine’s themed cake.

This fragrant, almost-Middle Eastern little cake is a dense, fruity bake that combines crushed cardamom and yoghurt instead of butter with ground almonds and my favourite fruit of the moment: pomegranate.
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In fact, given the option, I think I would eat pomegranate with every meal at the moment, which is why it’s lucky that this super fruit goes with everything from salad to red meat as well as sugary puds.

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It also means that I get to use one of my new favourite baking ingredients – Nielson Massey Rose Water. I adore the smell of roses and, when used with extreme caution in cooking, their delicate, floral flavour is utterly intoxicating. Just opening this bottle flooded my kitchen with the smell of fresh laundry and English gardens in the  summertime.

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I decorated this cake with crystallised rose petals, which are one of the easiest and prettiest cake decorations I know. These delicate little sugared flowers look like something from a fairytale, but are deceptively easy to make and will keep for weeks if you store them in an airtight tub. The first time I made a batch to top some cupcakes, my friends spent the whole time ignoring the cakes and picking off the petals, devouring them like sweets.

Valentine’s Day also means that there are plenty of single roses to be nabbed at the shops, which is handy as you don’t need a whole bunch to make crystallised petals. A single rose will make lots of edible decorations, so if you’ve been lucky enough to get some this Valentine’s, why not knock some up for afternoon tea today.

DSC_5331Ingredients

for the cake
4 cardamom pods
125g ground almonds
125g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
150g caster sugar
150g greek yogurt
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
the seeds from half a pomegranate

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for the icing
few drops of rose water
few drops of pink food colouring
100g icing sugar
2 tbsp water

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for the crystallised rose petals
petals from one rose (pink or red looks prettiest)
1 egg white
50g caster sugar

Method

  • Crush the cardamom pods (throw away the tough husks) and bash the fragrant seeds in a pestle and mortar until they break up. Drop them into a large mixing bowl.
  • Add the ground almonds, flour, baking powder and caster sugar and mix with a wooden spoon.
  • Beat the yogurt, eggs and vanilla essence together with a fork and drop into the dry ingredients, mixing well until you’ve got a thick, paste-like texture.

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  • Halve a pomegranate and pick out all the fruit from one half, making sure you remove all the little bits of membrane and pith. Gently stir the juicy seeds through your cake mix before plopping it into a greased cake tin. I used a ring tin as it makes such a pretty shape, but you can use any tin you have handy – this cake doesn’t rise much so don’t worry if the mixture is near the top!
  • Pop into a preheated oven at 180 degrees for around 30 minutes until the cake is golden brown and a skewer comes out clean when pushed through the middle.
  • While the cake cools – you should wait ten or so minute before you try to prise it out of the tin – make the crystallised rose petals by gently washing and drying them before brushing with egg white and dipping them into the caster sugar until they are completely coated.
  • Lay the sugared petals out on a lined baking tray. These will dry on their own if you leave them in a warm, dry place, but if you’re in a hurry, which I always am, you can put them into the cooling oven after the cake – they should dry out and go hard and shiny in about 10 minutes.
  • To make the icing, simply sieve the icing sugar into a bowl and drop in the water, mixing until you have a rich, glossy mixture that coats the back of a spoon. If it isn’t thick enough you can add more icing sugar. Add in a few drops each of the pink food colouring (beetroot-based, natural mixtures are best) and the rose water – be very careful with the rose water as a little goes a long way and too many drops will leave your icing tasting a bit like potpourri!
  • When the cake is completely cool, put the cooling rack on a tray (this icing will drip everywhere) and drizzle the icing all over before finishing with the crystallised rose petals and serving with tea or a big cup of turkish coffee.

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Bites of travel, food, culture and creative writing peppered with reviews and the occasional rant. Generally soused in gin

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