Weekend bake: Lavolio Easter egg nest cakes with pineapple, toasted coconut and rum buttercream

When you’re a grown up, Easter just isn’t as much FUN. And a little bit of me hates admitting that. There’s something about being a child and knowing that there’s a time of year when you are legitimately allowed to gorge yourself silly on chocolate with no repercussions (unless you grew up with a dentist for a father like me and had to suffer through the disapproving glances and constant, terrifying threat of egg confiscation). Somewhere along the way though, when you get old enough to have your own money and have thrown off the shackles of the pocket money dictatorship, the anticipation of events like Easter loose their potency.

Which is why you have to find some other way of getting excited about it. And what’s more exciting than a poorly concealed triple pack of Cadbury’s and or Nestle £1.99 egg specials waiting to be discovered in the garden? Actual grown up, decadent Easter treats made for adults whose discerning tummies no longer crave the sugar high that comes from wolfing down four creme eggs and most of a KitKat Chunky egg (you know, the ones that come with those god-awful mugs that invariably end up lurking at the back of an office kitchen cupboard coated in inedible tea stains).

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Grown up little morsels of deliciousness like Lavolio’s mini Easter eggs. Created by former banker Lavinia Davolio, who quit her job to set up a bespoke chocolate company, these sugary bites are made by hand coating roasted almonds in layers of white, dark and hazelnut chocolate before spinning them in a pristine shell of sugar. It’s safe to say that when Bake with Maria, the baking school who taught me all about gluten and sent me on a culinary odyssey to Tuscany, posted me a tin of these eggs and asked me to come up with a cupcake recipe using them for Easter, I was pretty pleased.

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The below recipe is my tropical take on Easter nest cupcakes and is made with adults in mind…which basically means it has a tasty glug of booze in it and a sweet surprise hidden inside each cake. Enjoy!
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Lavolio Easter egg nest cakes with pineapple, toasted coconut and rum buttercream

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Makes 12

Ingredients

125g self raising flour
125g caster sugar
1⁄4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
125g soft unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 tbsp coconut milk
Lavolio Easter eggs

For the syrup
2 tsp caster sugar
1/2 ripe pineapple, cored and sliced into chunks
pinch chilli flakes
200ml water

For the buttercream
250g salted butter (you need salt here to offset the sweetness. If you only have unsalted, beat in a good pinch of Maldon sea salt along with the sugar)
250g icing sugar
2 tbsp good rum – I used Bajan Estate Barbadian rum

For the decoration
1/2 ripe pineapple
50g shredded toasted coconut (if you can’t find any, buy some fresh coconut, slice thinly and roast in the oven along with the pineapple)
Lavolio Easter eggs

Method
  • Slice the stalk and leaves from your pineapple and cut off all the hard rind and the ‘eyes’. Halve it horizontally and turn one half into slim slivers using a mandolin slicer – be extra careful here, I nearly lost a thumb to my mandolin when I wasn’t paying attention!
  • Lay the rounds of sliced pineapple onto a baking sheet lined with parchment and leave to dry out into an oven set to 100 degrees C for around 1-2 hours. Peel the dried pineapple from the parchment and set aside to cool and harden.
  • Put the syrup ingredients into a saucepan along with any leftover pineapple juice from the mandolin and simmer on a low heat until the pineapple chunks have broken down and you’ve got a sticky, sweet reduced syrup – about 20 minutes.
  • Make the cupcakes by creaming together the soft butter and eggs in an electric mixer. Add the coconut milk and beat for a further 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of your mixer and beat for another 30 seconds.
  • Fill cupcake cases 2⁄3 full of the cake mixture and drop one or two mini Lavolio Easter eggs in to each cupcake. Pop into the oven to bake for 20-25 minutes, until a cake skewer comes out clean. When they are hot out of the oven, spoon a teaspoon of the pineapple syrup over each cake and let it soak in.
  • While the cakes are cooling, make a start on the rum buttercream. Beat together the butter, icing sugar and rum and set aside until your cakes are completely cool.
  • Decorate by smearing over a generous amount of buttercream using a small palette knife (don’t worry about making it smooth – you want your cakes to look a little rustic) and top with two mini Lavolio Easter eggs. Arrange shards of dried pineapple and toasted coconut around the eggs to make a nest.

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Explore the upcoming classes at Bake with Maria’s school here, their private events here, and find out about their annual culinary holiday to Tuscany, here.
Find out where you can locate Lavolio’s chocolate shop, here.

Weekend bake: Valentine’s champagne, raspberry & French goats cheesecake

Did you know that the ancient greeks invented the cheesecake? They even served small cheesecakes to athletes during the first Olympic games in 776 B.C. and if that isn’t a ringing endorsement to consume them for health reasons then I don’t know what is.

We might have been a bit late to the party by the time it rocked Western Europe’s world in 1000 A.D. but we quickly made up for it by making it one of our best-loved desserts.

A fat wedge of cheesecake is one of my guilty pleasures too, which is why I decided to make one with a Valentine’s Day-apprporiate version for this most sappy of weekends using a very special ingredient…no, definitely not love, although I am unashamedly in love with the product in question: French goats cheese.

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When the lovely folk at Easy Chèvre sent me a cool bag full of goats cheese, I’ll admit, pudding didn’t automatically spring to my mind. But, after my experiments with ice cream in the last recipe challenge and after tasting the fluffy cloud of whipped fresh goats cheese with it’s salty sweet tang and sharp, lemony edge, all I could think about was how deliciously it would whip into a cheesecake.

My champagne & raspberry cheesecake with a brown butter shortbread base is an insanely rich and delicious dish to make for a weekend treat, as well a brilliant way to finish a meal – especially on Valentine’s Day, when the thought of shelling out cash to sit elbow to elbow with a bunch of strangers eating a reduced version of a restaurant menu for double the usual price seems less than appealing.

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Instead of more traditional ginger or digestive biscuits, I’ve opted for shortbread enriched with brown butter and crushed roasted hazelnuts to bring out the mellow edge of the fresh goats cheese and offset the sharp, citrus sweetness of raspberries and champagne.

Valentine’s champagne, raspberry & French goats cheesecake

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Ingredients

200g goats cheese
500g raspberries
1 bottle of champagne (you’ll only need two glasses but if you’re like me you’ll want to drink the rest of the bottle while cooking)
300g shortbread biscuits
100g roasted and chopped hazelnuts
125g unsalted butter
500g marscapone
75g icing sugar
4tsp caster sugar
half a lemon

Method

  • Start by cracking the champagne (obviously)! Halve 160g of raspberries and put into a bowl and then pour over a glass of champagne to cover the fruit and leave to stew until they’ve turned the liquid a pretty blushing pink. You can add a teaspoon of caster sugar along with the bubbles too, but I prefer to keep my berries tart to offset the sweetness of the cheesecake.
  • Grease and line a 7-inch fluted tart case with baking parchment. Then blitz the shortbread biscuits in a processor until you have a rough crumb consistency. Pour into a bowl with the roasted and chopped hazelnuts.
  • Heat your butter in a small pan on the stove until it bubbles and turns a delicious golden brown – this will add a lovely richness to your biscuit base and enhance the nutty flavour that the hazelnuts give. Pour over the crushed biscuits and nuts and mix before flattening into the base of your tart tin, ensuring you press right down into the edges. Pop the tin into the fridge to keep cool and firm up until you want to fill it.
  • Cream together the French goats cheese and the marscapone with the icing sugar and a good squeeze of lemon juice.
  • Take your chilled cheesecake base out of the fridge and arrange your champagne-soaked raspberry halves in concentric circles on the biscuit base (drink the marinating liquid if you feel inclined) and then carefully top with the creamy cheese mixture using a pallet knife to spread the topping over the fruit without crushing it.

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  • Put it back in the fridge to cool and set while you make a raspberry sauce to finish. Blitz the remaining raspberries in a processor with another glass of champagne and two or three teaspoons of caster sugar to taste. Pour the raspberry puree into a saucepan and gently heat until it’s reduced to the consistency of soft caramel. You’ll need to keep stirring the mix as those champagne bubbles make it a little volatile (I learned the hard way how difficult it is to clean pink foam off the stove top).
  • Finish by pouring the raspberry sauce into a squeeze bottle or syringe or, if you don’t have one in your kitchen (I didn’t) just dip the handle of a spoon into the puree. Take out your cheesecake and gently drop spots of the sauce in concentric circles on the top. As a rough guide, they should be about the size of a 5p coin and about an inch and a half away from each other.

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  • Then, carefully trail a skewer through the dots, dragging as you go around the cheesecake to create the effect of dripping hearts.

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  • Paint a few more hearts onto plates to serve with glasses of leftover champagne and the rest of the raspberry sauce to pour.

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Pays d’Oc IGP recipe challenge: Partridge in a pear tree pt.2

Earlier this week, I made a nutty, sweet pearl barley risotto with partridge and pear jus to eat alongside a plummy bottle of 2013 Les Boissières Merlot (£10.25). Usually when I make a decadent mid-week dinner, it’s because I’m being a pig. Standard.

But this time it was for a wine and recipe challenge set to show off the inherent quality of the wines from the Pay d’Oc, a territory caught between the land and the sea that produces some of the finest wines in France.

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It appears that I’ll never be a one-and-done sort of person. So, in the spirit of Christmas leftovers, I’ve created a second sweet and spicy raw salad recipe for the Pays d’Oc IGP wine challenge that uses similar ingredients to the first one, found here, but, as an added bonus, can be made from any leftover roasted partridge you might have.

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While this would work with turkey, too, there’s something about the gamey richness of partridge meat that works so well with the fruity, spiced flavours of this raw winter salad’s dressing and pairs so perfectly with a glass of indecently fruity, pillow-soft Les Boissières Merlot. Plus it involves my favourite festive vegetable: Brussels sprouts.

Roasted partridge salad with shaved sprouts, cauliflower and radish with a spiced fig dressing

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Serves 2

Ingredients

Leftover partridge breasts, sliced
1 ripe Comice pear
6 Brussels sprouts
1 head of red endive
1 cauliflower
6 radishes
4 figs
4/5 cloves

Kitchen cupboard:
olive oil
balsamic vinegar
brown sugar
ground ginger

Method

  • Wash all of your veg to remove any lingering bits of dirt and grit.
  • Remove the outer leaves of the cauliflower head and, using a mandolin if you have one (or a large, sharp kitchen knife if your don’t), thinly slice pieces of the cauliflower.

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  • Thinly slice the sprouts, radish and pear and arrange on plates along with leaves of red endive and shaved cauliflower.
  • Slice up your left over partridge and scatter over the vegetables.
  • Cut the figs in half and put in a small pan with four teaspoons of balsamic vinegar, five tablespoons of water, a pinch of brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and the cloves.

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  • Simmer the mixture on a low heat until it’s reduced down to a glossy, almost jammy liquid and the figs are a fudgey mess. Mix with a little olive oil to loosen and drizzle over your salad before serving.

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Find out more about the exceptional wines of the region here: http://www.paysdoc-wines.com and on their twitter account @paysdocigpwines

And buy the wine I was matching, Les Vignes de L’Arque, Les Boissières, Merlot, 2013 (£10.25) at Leon Stolarski here: http://www.lsfinewines.co.uk/acatalog/Les_Vignes_de_l_Arque.html

The French goats cheese challenge part 2: Beetroot, apple & French goats cheese tart with a cauliflower, walnut & cumin crust

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Wandering around the supermarket on Sunday, I was embarrassingly delighted to see the first harvest of cox apples had landed. When I was small, my mum used to take me and my brother to a little pick your own farm called Cuckoo’s Corner for the start of Autumn. We’d run wild there, through the orchards of gnarled, stubby apple trees, kicking up the newly-fallen leaves and sinking our milk teeth into the tawny skins of crispy fresh apples snatched straight from the low-hanging branches.

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So I didn’t take much convincing to use some of these red-tinged fruit in my second recipe for the Easy Cheesy Chèvre French goats cheese challenge; this time using the more punchy-flavoured Crottin de Chavignol, which is made from the raw milk of Alpine goats and is the most famous of all the Loire Valley goats cheeses.

“Creamy French goats cheese combined with beetroot, caramelised red onions and a hint of cumin is a warming ode to Autumn.”

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Recently I’ve been experimenting with using cauliflower instead of flour for things like pizza bases and pastry. It might not be as firm or crispy as ordinary shortcrust, but it’s gluten free, packed with nutrients and goes beautifully with an added edge of toasted nuts or spices.

Plus, fewer calories from butter means you can eat more or it, right?

Beetroot, apple & French goats cheese tart with a cauliflower, walnut & cumin crust

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Ingredients

2 rounds of Crottin de Chavignol
2 cox apples
4 bulbs of beetroot
3 dsp balsamic vinegar
2 large red onions
1 dsp caster sugar

for the base
1 large cauliflower
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp cumin
100g walnuts

Method
  • Start by baking the raw beetroot. Wrap each bulb in tin foil and put on a baking tray in a preheated oven at 180 degrees C for around two hours until they are soft and their skin peels off easily. Leave to cool for a bit before you slide the skins off and wear gloves as they’ll stain your fingers pink for days.
  • Next, make the caramelised red onions by slicing thinly and putting into a saucepan with the sugar, three dessert spoons of balsamic vinegar and 150ml of water. Cook on a low heat until the water has dissolved and the onions are soft and sticky.
  • To make the base, remove the leaves and cut the core from the cauliflower and blitz in a food processor to a breadcrumb consistency. Cover and cook in the microwave on high for six minutes then carefully tip it out onto a clean tea towel to cool.
  • Put the walnuts and cumin in a saucepan and gently toast for five minutes before blitzing to crumbs in the food processor.
  • Cauliflower holds a lot of water, this quick trick from BBC Good Food helps to squeeze most of it out so you can avoid the dreaded soggy bottom on your tart: when the cauliflower has cooled, gather the corners of the tea towel together and twist over the sink to squeeze as much water from the veg as possible.
  • Mix the drained cauliflower with the nuts and cumin crush and beat in the eggs. Push the mixture over the base and unto the edges of a 12-inch tart tin with a palette knife and bake at 180 degrees C for 20 minutes until it’s turned a golden, biscuitty shade.
  • Spoon over the cooked red onions and then slice your apple and beetroot into segments, arranging over the top with slices of Crottin de Chavignol.
  • Put the tart back into the oven for around 20 minutes until the apple is soft and the goats cheese is bubbling. You can spoon over a simple balsamic glaze to finish if you like – just heat balsamic vinegar with a spoonful of brown sugar in a pan until it turns thick and glossy like treacle. Serve with any leftover caramelised red onions.

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Weekend bake: Pear, vanilla and thyme shortbread tartlets

In between spending an embarrassingly long amount of time on YouTube scratching my latest (and strangest to date) music itch and hauling myself out of bed at 4am to go to Billingsgate Fish Market (it involved wine, which’ll be explained later) I unearthed some mini tart tins that my friend gave to me an age ago and decided it was probably about time I made use of them.

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And, since they’re perfectly in season – and happen to go with the glut of leftover vanilla pods and bunches of thyme that I rescued (possible stole) from a recent food shoot – a pear tart just seemed like the right thing to do.

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Call it Sunday laziness, but after knocking up some crème pâtissière, the inclination to make puff or even short crust pastry deserted me. So, instead of all-butter pastry, I opted for and all-butter shortbread; a sweet, crumbly biscuit alternative that’s actually perfect for little tarts like this as it has a firm structure and moulds itself like pliant play dough into tins.

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Pear, vanilla & thyme shortbread tartlets

Makes Four mini tarts with enough shortbread left over to make around 12 extra biscuits for mid-weeks snacking

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Ingredients

for the base
250g salted butter
110g caster sugar
360g plain flour

for the filling
8 egg yolks
120g caster sugar
50g plain flour
4 tsp cornflour
560ml full cream milk

for the top
2 ripe pears
4 tsp lemon curd
caramelised pistachios to scatter (optional)

Method
  • Grease your mini tins with butter and heat the oven to 180 C
  • Make your shortbread by creaming the butter and sugar together until soft and fluffy
  • Add the flour and mix until it becomes a thickish paste. if it’s a little crumbly, don’t panic, it’ll some together when you roll it out
  • Tip your mix into cling film and leave in the fridge until you’re ready to roll. Shortbread is a tricky thing sometimes as because it has a high butter content, it can start to melt and become oily if you don’t keep it in the fridge. Also, the more you work shortbread, the tougher it becomes, so try not to handle it too much
  • Make the crème pâtissière by whipping together your egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl until pale and a little frothy
  • Add the cornflour and plain flour and beat until smooth
  • Put the milk, a split vanilla pod and a few sprigs of thyme into a saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. When it’s bubbling, pour through a strainer (to keep the thyme twigs and pod separate) over the egg and sugar, whipping all the time
  • Then, simply pour the mixture back into the saucepan and bring it back to the boil, stirring all the time until it’s thick and cooked through. It’ll need to cool before it goes into the tarts, so just cover with cling film and leave in the fridge until you need it
  • Roll out your cooled shortbread between two sheets of baking parchment so the rolling pin doesn’t stick and gently fold over your tart tins, pushing it into the mould with your fingers. Don’t worry if the shortbread spills over the sides, you can neaten up the edges once they’re baked
  • Prick the bases with a fork to stop to them rising and put the tart cases into the preheated oven for around 10-15 mins until the shortbread is lightly burnished
  • Peel, core and slice your pears into thin slivers that you can layer as petals while the tart cases cook
  • Remove the tarts from the oven and leave to cool. They’ll need to be completely cold before you add in the crème pâtissière and decorate or they’ll melt the creme

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  • When they’re cool, fill them in the case as they’ll be less fragile. Just spoon in a generous amount of crème pât and top with sliced pears. For a little but of colour, heat a few teaspoons of lemon curd in the microwave and spoon over the pears. you can also scatter on caramelised pistachios for added crunch

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Carefully lever the tarts out of the cases and serve with a cup of tea and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if you’re feeling extra greedy.

Review: A little lusciousness supper club

Over the last few years, there’s been a quiet movement creeping across London – the rise and rise of the supper club: the at-home restaurant where diners can share a multi-course meal at a fraction of the cost of eating out. To give some indication of the strength of the wave of supper clubs that are surfacing around the city, you only have to look online, where you’ll even find insurance companies dedicated to providing specialist supper club cover – you know, for those evenings when your delicately wrought filo tart sends guests into a wine spilling, carpet burning frenzy.

This cosy trend couldn’t be more removed from a traditional underground food movement, however. No one minds if you talk about supper club. In fact, word of mouth and repeat custom is what’s letting these intimate affairs thrive, which is why I’ve spent a few evenings recently jumping on the supper club band wagon…evenings that have invariably involved sitting in someone’s lounge with a bunch of strangers clutching a bottle of wine from my kitchen cupboard and wondering why everyone seems to know everyone else.

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It’s important to add though, that not all supper clubs were made equal. Enter Rosie Llewellyn, a blogging, foodie powerhouse with an unblemished 5-star record on Grub Club. A perfect score is nigh-on impossible to achieve in food, because, as anyone who’s ever cooked food ever in their life knows, you can’t please everyone. You could cook an absolute blinder and still get some sad bastard whining about the shape of the plate or the fact that you’ve garnished the main course with an out-of-season herb.

I’ve salivated over Rosie’s instagram feed for months, so the thought of sampling her food first hand at her West London home filled with me undisguised joy. I’ve noticed that supper club evenings can be made or broken in minutes, often not by the food itself, but by the company. But then again, I have a sneaking suspicion that on Rosie’s evenings, like really does attract like: and that means lovely people.

While Rosie was slaving in the kitchen carving oversized haunches of crackling-covered pork belly, I was knocking back a jam jar of rocket-fuel gin cocktail and discussing the British film industry with a bunch of German creatives and a couple of regulars who clearly seemed enamoured with Rosie’s blend of no-nonsense, classic cooking – an encouraging sign if ever there was one.

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A sure sign of a good evening AT an event like this is the speed of which the meal flies, and this one passed in a blur of popping corks, platefuls of autumnal-themed food and unpretentious foodie chat (if that’s even possible).

Certain highlights sang out throughout the night though: there were tiny squares of burnished, buttery shortbread wedged into dollops of glossy tart raspberry mousse for dessert; fat rounds of expertly-picked cheese that were begging to be scooped up onto the accompanying salted biscuits in between and sugar-coated sweets made from foraged, hedgerow fruit – Rosie’s version of a Rowntree fruit pastille – that were almost boozy in their dark depth of flavour and bruised, purple colour at the end.

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What I’m getting at is Rosie is a consummate professional who makes uncomplicated, hearty British food and to whom sourcing the best in season produce is evidently paramount. There wasn’t really anything to fault with. If I’m being picky, which I suppose I should as I’m speaking for all the sad, fault-finding bastards out there (begrudgingly mind, as I genuinely loved the evening), the mouth-coating richness of the pork paired with black pudding bon bons, buttery mash and tonsil-ticklingly sharp-sweet plum-roasted parsnips was delicious, but the gravy was a little thin.

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There. I said it…what a bitch. Hopefully Rosie will still have me back for the next one.

Originally penned for Foodepedia and can be found here.

Feel the burn: The World of Zing meets The London BBQ School

London Barbecue School, SE15 3SN www.londonbarbecueschool.co.uk

There are a few things you expect to find when you go to Peckham. Crop-top wearing, top-knot sporting teenagers swigging tinnies in the queue for Bussey building, sure. That you’ve got slightly soggy shoes with the faint whiff of fish after sloshing through the post-market puddles around Rye Lane, natch. A BBQ school tucked away round the back of a car park dedicated to the art of the grill, not so much.

‘Walk past the blue shipping containers’ is never the most auspicious set of directions to receive when you’ve been offered a BBQ Masterclass, especially when it’s chucking it down and you decided that wearing a floor-length silk skirt was a good idea. But, even after playing hide-and-seek in a Peckham carpark – dragging half the downpour (as well as about acre of mud) along with me – I found out that this sequestered little corner of south east London is well worth a visit.

Beyond that blue shipping container, and a world away from Peckham Rye Station, is a little enclave of BBQ enthusiasts who are determined to teach eager students all about real flame-grilled food. Created and founded by the bright bods behind School of FoodThe London BBQ School offers private and group cookery classes in the great british outdoors on their own array of Kamado Joe and Big Green Egg ceramic barbecues.

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And recently they’ve teamed up with another bright spark, Pritesh Mody, a spice aficionado and the man behind World of Zing, to turn up the heat on a few select occasions throughout summer, which is why I was there: to put my tastebuds to the test with a chilli-orientated cooking class.

I’ve never been shy of trying spice, my palate, however, often disagrees with my head’s determination to test my tolerance (one incident in Goa where I was reduced to washing my prawns in mineral water while a row of waiters pointed and laughed at me springs to mind), but I’ve always been a believer that spice should mean flavour, not all-out heat – a notion that Mody shares with me and aims to demonstrate with these intimate group classes and tasting sessions.

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As well as an in-depth introduction to a host of rare breed chillis, each with distinctive flavours and intensities, you’ll get a chance to learn how to turn these dried little firecrackers into sauces, marinades and dips that the chaps at the BBQ school will smother on juicy chicken wings for you to feast on throughout the evening.

It all started mildly, with a smoky chipotle rubbed set of chicken wings and slowly escalated from there, until, drunk on the pulse of fire dancing around my tastebuds and the rather good glug of World of Zing’s Pink Pigeon Spiced Rum Punch that I was handed on the way in, I was goading Mody to release the big guns: the nagas. The result was a surprisingly delicious naga ketchup that was as tangy as it was blisteringly spicy, which neatly proved the whole point of the evening: if you think you don’t like spicy food, you should come here to really put that theory to the test, because you might be surprised at quite how delicious proper chillis can be.

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The BBQ & Chilli workshops run monthly and tickets include barbecued nibbles; a glass of World of Zing’s Pink Pigeon Spiced Rum Punch and a free pack of World of Zing rare chillies to take home.

The next class is scheduled for Wednesday 23rd September 7.00pm – 8.30pm (£20 per person), but, if you want to put your own tastebuds to the test and turn up the heat on this gloomy British summer now, why not try one of The World of Zing’s exclusive chilli recipes below.

Chipotle Dry Rub – Rich and Smoky

2 Chipotle Meco Chilli
1⁄2 Pasilla Chilli
1 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp sea salt

Blitz to powder.

Rub over chicken, pork, beef or even potatoes and enjoy!

Aji Amarillo & Habanero Chilli Ketchup – Cheats recipe for an ultra-fruity Ketchup

250ml shop-bought ketchup
3 Aji Amarillo Chillies (rehydrated in hot water for around 20 minutes)
1 Habanero Chilli (rehydrated in hot water for around 20 minutes)
25ml Pineapple juice
Juice from 1⁄2 a lime
Pinch of salt
1 tsp of garlic puree/powder

Blitz in a blender until you’ve got a smooth sauce. Splash of hot water if it’s a little too thick

il Tavolo: a Taste of Zurich

In late June, a Frenchman, an Italian, a Swiss hotel manager and an English girl wandered into a bar. It might sound like the beginning of a terrible joke, but this was actually the start of what I had expected to be a sedate trip to Zurich.

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Skipping forward and hour or so – after the cocktails and cigarettes downstairs (yes, if you can believe it, in Switzerland there are still places you can smoke inside); after the expats had taken to the neon-splashed dancefloor in a haze of Euro pop classics; and after an actual rocking horse had been deposited at our table, its fairground-bright paintjob gleaming demonically under the golden glow of the velvet lamps and a vast chandelier swaying gently from the wooden beams above – I realised that if I was expecting anything when the hotel’s dapper chauffeur swept me into the leather-scented confines of his sleek taxi and we pootled into the pristine streets of downtown Zurich, this wasn’t it.

But then again, Zurich, as I found, was full of surprises. Generally thought of as a financial hub and haute couture shopping haunt for bankers and fat-walleted tourists, it isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find a five-day food festival dedicated to showcasing the best of the best from the city’s finest chefs. However, that was exactly why I was there for the weekend: to visit the fourth annual il Tavolo food festival and to sample Zurich on a plate.

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Sandwiched between Italy, Germany and France, it’s hardly surprising that Switzerland has borrowed from its neighbours, not only when it comes to languages (walk down any street in Zurich and you’ll catch snatches of all four of the country’s native tongues: German, French, Italian and Romansch) but also in gastronomy, which has flashes of international flair that extend far beyond its cheese-heavy reputation for fondue, vacherin and raclette.

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And that’s exactly what il Tavolo is all about – establishing Zurich a premier foodie destination by showing off just how vibrant, varied and accomplished its food scene can be with six waist-expanding events stretched over five days that feature a collection of celebrity chefs, a 200-metre long banqueting table and an entire constellation of 5-star hotels. As I discovered after that ‘quiet drink’ on my first night, Zurich doesn’t do anything by halves.

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The starter

Before that foray into Zurich’s nightlife, I got a taste of what was to come at my hotel for the weekend, the Storchen, a 650-year-old hotel with so much old-school charm and traditional gravitas that it has its own boat station. Aside from one of the best breakfasts I’ve had – made even sweeter by the fact that you don’t even have to get dressed for it, you can simply pre-order from the vast menu and have your selection delivered to your room at the hour you specify – the Storchen’s head chef, Fredi Nussbaum, serves up some pretty impressive fare too. Which I discovered when he sent over a plate of perfectly-cooked sturgeon followed by a light as air confection of cherries, absinthe mousse and mint as I drank in the dusk-laden view of the inky-black Limmat river alongside the Frenchman (a vineyard owner), the Italian (a journalist) and the Storchen’s Swiss hotel manager and il Tavolo president, Jörg Arnold.

The main event

The real eating began at the il Mercato lunch and dinner on the festival’s final saturday – a beguiling combination of fine food and relaxed attitude housed in a huge warehouse that usually plays host to the city’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.

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Under an air hanger canopy strung with paper lanterns in rainbow shades, the space had been transformed into a cavernous restaurant with one long table running through the centre, flanked on either side by a legion of cooking stations and stalls selling everything from fat dusty truffles and wheels of cheese to delicately-iced wedding cakes and tins overflowing with pearls of glistening, tar-black caviar.

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All that was left to do was peruse the rogue’s gallery of top chefs that loomed large and in charge from giant posters stationed next to each cooking section, pick a 5-star hotel and load your plate with one of the two taster-sized courses they were cooking to order. It was a foodie free-for-all, with no limit to the amount of times you could come back to each station for a top up, which was lucky, considering that it didn’t take me too long to fall for the butter-covered ravioli and milky pillows of balsamic-drizzled buffalo mozzarella from Da Angela’s Mike Thomi, or the spicy little portions of Miang Kam (bitter leaves filled with roasted coconut shavings, chilli, shallots, ginger, shrimp and a squeeze of lime) served up by Nikom Thooppanom from Himmapan Lodge.

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With a range of chefs and cooking styles on show, there’re bound to be some low points. Mine came in the form of a plate of bland couscous and chicken and a corn dish covered in soggy popcorn that had no place on a plate. Luckily though, the flipside to this is that it isn’t long before you stumble across another gem, like the exquisite little quenelle of vanilla mousse with a perfect sliver of tempered chocolate that Maurice Marro and Olivier Rais from Bar du Lac offered.

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After the long lunch stint, there was just enough time to head back into the city for a half-hearted and full-bellied attempt at catching some of Zurich’s most arresting sights – Chagall’s stained glass windows in Fraumünster church; James Joyce’s old handout at Platzspitz; the birthplace of Dadaism at Cabaret Voltaire cafe – before I was back on the tram for il Mercato, round two.

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In the evening, things got a little more, well, Swiss. And by that I mean flashy. It’s no secret that Zurich is known for a few things: financial institutions, banking giants and money, money, money. When night fell and the Pommery corks began to pop in earnest, I found myself sitting next to the fabulously glamorous editor of one of Switzerland’s biggest glossy magazines and across from the rather lovely former runner up to Miss France, Florence Jacquinot.

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The food had a dash more panache as well, with the same chefs returning with jazzed-up menus for the evening crowd such as elaborate little plates of glazed quail with rocket risotto from Frank Widmer at the Park Hyatt, yoghurt marinated duck liver with cherry from The Dolder Grand’s Patrick Hetz and smoked salmon, shrimp and herb-spiked wild rice from the Storchen’s Fredi Nussbaum.

I’d like to pretend that I maintained my dignity here with some sort of nod to moderation, but alas, I didn’t. Gripped by buffet-fever I moved haphazardly between the stations, weaving between the wandering live musicians, shiny-faced tourists and lipsticked locals chattering in high-speed German as they tottered past in towering heels, balancing tiny plates up my arms in an attempt to sample everything on offer. It was flavour carnage towards the end, but what a happy ending it was as I sloped back to the Storchen, full of at least one week’s meal quota.

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The last supper

One of the nicest things about il Tavolo is its final hurrah: a family-friendly brunch held on the Sunday morning, where there’s a distinct lack of glitz and a more laid-back approach to cooking. The head chefs take the morning off and instead of haute couture cuisine, the likes of steaming bowls of creamy porridge with ladlefuls of dark cherry compote, feathery little pancakes fried in butter and splashed with lemon juice and piquant little shots of carrot and ginger soup served with tiny pastries stuffed with salty fish paste take centre stage.

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The banqueting table itself had even been transformed into a neverending buffet with a pantry’s worth of jars filled with quinoa salad, bircher muesli and marinated feta studded with apricots (that may just have been the most delicious thing I tried all weekend). And that was just the side dish to the plates of muffins, cheese, sliced meat and piles of burnished rolls and loaves of every persuasion, from brioche to breadsticks, that decorated the table like a sort of beautiful edifice to gluttony.

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I’m not sure how I managed to heave myself back onto the tram and into the city, let alone how I managed to squeeze my body into the seat on the flight back after my three-day marathon of food, champagne and Swiss sunshine. The only thing I do know after my il Tavolo odyssey is that Zurich is setting itself up to be a real European foodie contender.

For more information on Switzerland visit www.MySwitzerland.com or call our Switzerland Travel Centre on the International freephone 00800 100 200 30 or e-mail, for information info.uk@myswitzerland.com; for packages, trains and air tickets sales@stc.co.uk.

SWISS offers up to 110 weekly flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich. Fares start from £63 one-way* and 115 return*, including all airport taxes, one piece hold luggage and free ski carriage. (*Please note this is a leading fare and is subject to change, availability and may not be available on all flights. Terms and conditions apply.) For reservations call 0845 6010956 or visit: http://www.swiss.com

Originally penned for Foodepedia, and can be found here.

Review: Afternoon tea at The Arch London

50 Great Cumberland Pl, London W1H 7FD www.thearchlondon.com/afternoon-tea

Somewhere along the line, afternoon tea became less of an occasional treat of the ilk that was popularised by the 7th Duchess of Bedford back in the 19th century and more of a, well, for want of a better word, ‘thing’.

Nowadays, the uber trad treat has turned into a thematic foodie experience with an infinite number of variations on offer, from all chocolate affairs like the Charlie & the Chocolate Factory version at One Aldwych to low fat incarnations such as the Intercontinental London’s Guilt-Free tea. There’s even a tea you can take while driving around London aboard a vintage bus. I know this, because I’ve tried it.

The Arch, however, is trying a different tack. This lovely little Georgian-with-a-facelift hotel in a quiet residential street tucked away from the roar of Marble Arch’s notorious traffic jams has given it’s afternoon tea some edge with an international accent and a street food vibe.

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I visited late one Friday afternoon, settled into the curve of one of their restaurant’s hard-to-leave chocolate leather couches (complete with oyster-grey velvet curtain…in case you fancy sipping your tea in private, I suppose) and worked my way around the world with their afternoon tea with a twist (£28).

The cocktail list here (which you can add to your tea to take the price up to a rather steep £38) is brief but well formed with a seductively delicate thing called Indian Clouds on it, which I discovered combined Jasmine tea infused Bombay Sapphire and butterscotch schnapps with pink grapefruit juice to create something that tasted like sweet, summer rain.

The teas were also excellent, with a Silver Needle white blend that lingered with hints of melon and cucumber and deserved a special mention. The tea itself arrived all at once on slender wooden blocks of sanded wood and, for a split second, I thought they’d delivered canapes instead of tea, so accustomed was I to seeing a tiered cake stand.

Instead of the usual sandwiches and scones, I was delivered smoked chicken, chilli, avocado and mango tortillas; mini handmade scotch eggs with Piccalilli; skewers of chicken satay; mini fish and chips with tartar sauce and that stalwart of the business away day buffet: mini cheese burgers with onion marmalade in brioche buns.

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The baby portion of fish and chips was rather good, as was the just-sharp-enough tartar sauce and the ridiculously good scotch egg with its molten yolk middle. Any place that can serve a well-cooked, runny egg-centered scotch egg on a mass scale gets a tick from me. Another standout was the poshed-up chicken select – a nugget of sesame seed covered chicken with it’s jammy slick of surprisingly fruity satay sauce.

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The burger was perfectly pleasant, even if the edges of the bun were so dry and chalky that the overall effect was of stale burger bread than soft, buttery brioche and the tortilla was fine, if lacking in enough punchy chilli or flashes of coriander for my taste. The trouble with creating a tea that’s designed to give guests a taste of foods from around the world is that chances are, some of your guests will have eaten something similar on their travels, and will be expecting as much authentic flavour as possible, instead of a watered down version.

The sweet tray was laden with sugar-rich treats from spearmint green chocolate macarons and crispy little coffee-rich eclairs to teeny-tiny raspberry and pistachio tartlets with golden pastry that snapped and crumbled into buttery perfection.

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The little fried doughnuts that were perched on the edge of the platter delighted and frustrated me in equal measure. They were featherlight and dusted with just the right amount of sugar and cinnamon. At the first bite they exploded and oozed sharp-sweet globs of applesauce that dropped onto my plate and pooled into an unctuous, sticky mess. All lovely, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much more lovely they would have been if they were served hot. Perhaps they were warm when they arrived alongside the savoury platter…I’ll never know.

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Another cold clanger for me was the rice pudding with toasted coconut. It came rich with coconut cream and layered between chunks of soft, sweet ripe mango in an elongated shot glass, which was all very nice. However, I’m of the mindset that rice pudding should never be served anything less than hot enough to slowly melt the sugar you sprinkle on it into caramel. No matter how well balanced the flavours are, all I’m going to taste when I ladle a sad, chilly spoonful into my mouth is Dickensian gruel.

I finished my tea with the final piece of the tea puzzle, The Arch’s only curiously conspicuous concession to tradition – a miniature victoria sponge. It was a little dry, a little dense and a little, well, sad among the splendor of its internationally-influenced companions. At this stage the cake here just feels a little like tradition for the sake of it and it would have been nice to see a little of the creative flair applied to the rest of the menu make it into the cake, perhaps a touch of lychee or a rose-infused fruit syrup, at any rate, something to give it a bit of welly would have been well received.

An intriguing, if not without its flaws addition to the thriving London tea scene.

Originally reviewed for Foodepedia, and can be read here.

Review: Aqua Nueva, London

Aqua Nueva 5th Floor, 240 Regent St, London W1B 3BR www.aquanueva.co.uk

The first challenge F and I had with Aqua Nueva was finding the place. Google maps stubbornly insisting that it lived above the apple store on Regent Street. It doesn’t. After fruitlessly wandering around for a while, a kindly waiter from Bella Italia took pity on us and pointed towards what looked more like the entrance to a swish gym/business centre hybrid than a restaurant, which was further compounded by the sleek black-lit lifts that you have to take to find Aqua’s two restaurants: Kyoto and Nueva.

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Then there was the dimply-lit labyrinth of black marble and plush booths that you have to navigate to get to Nueva. You know you’ve arrived when you catch a glimpse of the huge blue bull that looms through the gloom, guarding the end of the maze like some sort of mythological minotaur. The final challenge I had with Aqua Nueva was just how unutterably delightful the staff were, to the point that they were smiling at me so much I had to check to make sure that they weren’t grinning at someone far more important behind me.

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As a converted Londoner, I often treat overt displays of unbridled friendliness with suspicion, but there was something about the way the softly-spoken manager swept by to say hello while delivering glasses of fizzing cava and the way the waitress laughed her way through her favourite and most hated dishes on the menu that made this feel delightfully, enchantingly genuine. And what could make you want to love a restaurant more than a welcome like that?

I developed a reverence for traditional tapas after a lazy summer holiday with my mother, which we spent wandering around Granada, Seville, Ronda and Cordoba, ducking out of the fierce September sun and into the nearest dimly-lit bodega for little snatches of food at every opportunity. I remember eating fistfuls of salted almonds and fat green olives swimming in a slick of fruity olive oil and sipping mouth-strippingly fresh carafes of thin vino roja while we waited for fat croquettes studded with jamon and thick wedges of manchego to arrive.

Aqua Nueva’s tapas-style menu is a world away from classic fare scrawled on a chalkboard in rural España. This is a primped up, poshed up, refined version with a pin sharp aesthetic that’s served with a modernist edge and a nod to adventure. In short, exactly the things that would ordinarily send me running for the Andalusian hills, but, as much as my traditionalist self was rebelling, when the food is good, it’s hard not to fall hook line and sinker for it.

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That being said, by far my favourite thing of the evening arrived first: teeny-tiny emerald green pimientos de Padrón, lightly fried and scattered with coarse sea salt. I’m always banging on about the beauty of simple things, and these were simply beautiful (which, at £6.50 a portion, they should be).

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There was a lovely lightness of touch demonstrated again in a beetroot dish where thin slivers of purple-stained beetroot were paired with tiny morsels of fried Monte Enebro cheese and coated in a liquorice marinade that, thankfully, offered more of a fennel-scented tickle than an overly sweet liquorice allsort smack in the face. The small plate of coiled spirals of aubergine peppered with 34 different spices was perfectly pleasant, although would have been improved immeasurably if it was served warm and not limp and frigid.

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There was one dish that left me completely cold, however, Aqua Nueva’s take on that tapas stalwart, patatas bravas. Real patatas bravas should come in a golden, sizzling mass, smothered in a fiery red sauce that promises oily goodness and indigestion. The ones on this menu come bone dry, separated from their sauce by slate and a dipping pot. It was a step away from tradition in the wrong direction that reduced the generous and rustic nature of this dish into a sort of chip-esque side plate.

Luckily, by this point, a gloriously good glass of Blanco Rioja had arrived and I was distracted from my potato-induced irritation by its lavishly butter-soft floral flavour.

There are many meat and fish mains on this menu to tempt even tapas purists, from confit crispy pork with langoustines to razor clams with white asparagus and almond vinaigrette, but I was particularly impressed with the grilled Iberian Secreto pork that came in tiny, juicy little strips nestled between crispy fried potatoes and feather-light dollops of whipped, creamy aioli.

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Desserts arrived in a flight and ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. The white chocolate bavarois was delicately scented with just the right amount of rose to keep it on the right side of turkish delight instead of soap, although it could have done with just a touch less gelatin; while the decadent, almost spiced chocolate mousse was heaven on a spoon…the spongy olive oil bread that it rested on like a mutant loofah, not so much, although F was a fan of its cakey consistency and whisper of flavour.

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Then there were the vanilla tomatoes and goats cheese ice cream with baby bites of moist, salty olive cake and a smattering of confused strawberries. A dessert like this will always be divisive. Unfortunately for me, I’m of the mindset that it doesn’t matter what you do to a tomato – dip it in sugar, serve it with syrup, cover it in edible gold – I don’t want it on my pudding plate.

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The most frustrating thing was that the sharp-sweet goats cheese ice cream was perfectly balanced and would have turned something like a wedge of baklava dripping with honey into something exceptional. It was an intriguing and brave venture, but for me it was a misstep.

It all ended with a sip of fiery, dry-as-a-bone Goya sherry and another glass of that mouthwatering cava, which we drank on their expansive terrace. Standing there in my everyday jeans and shirt, I was painfully aware of the flash, lithe young things showing off fake tanned limbs in teeny-tiny playsuits, Michael Kors and Mulberry bags clanging against their jutting hipbones as they strutted around. It struck me that, in parts, Aqua‘s sprawling complex feels a little like a high class playground for twenty-something cocktail swilling city workers with money to burn, so it’s lucky that there are some excellent dishes and attentive staff there to pull it back from the edge of pretension.

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As I stood there looking out over the bleak but strangely beautiful panorama of London’s skyline under the fuggy summer dusk, half-listening to a couple of Aussies trying to chat up a group of Spanish girls, I caught myself thinking that while it wasn’t quite Seville, it was certainly something.

Originally reviewed for Foodepedia, found here.

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

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