Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Writing and Peanut Butter Cookies

I think I have already elaborated quite a lot on my love of peanut butter. You can read about it here. I eat it from the jar, on apples, and on toast (preferably with a cup of tea to hand.) In London, over Christmas, the princess and I found ourselves in Partridges, which is a very swanky food shop in Chelsea. I swear, we just went in to look. Well...

We found that Partridges has an amazing American goods section where you can get things like Pop Tarts and Reese's Pieces and peanut butter M&M's. It's amazing. The princess worked in the States for a while and so we were a little like kids in a candy store. Hell, we could put kids in a candy store out of business. There was a lot of high pitched squealing of excitement. There may even have been some sneaky dance moves going on. It was madness. (And the cookies and cream Pop Tarts surprisingly good.) But above all the excitement at the peanut butter M&M's was the discovery of peanut butter chips, also made by Reese's. I've seen peanut butter chips in recipes and other blogs before but this is the first time I've actually found them. You can imagine the over-excitement that ensued. Obviously, they ended up in my Christmas stocking and they've been hiding out in my grocery cupboard, waiting for an excuse to be used.

I started to write again today. And, as is custom, there had to be a baking diversion. The weighing and combining of ingredients is methodical and thus soothing. Plus there's a little work out attached because I had to do all the beating by hand. These are American cookies. There's no getting around it. They're super sweet and a bit oily and crunchy on the outside but soft in the middle. They would probably go well with a glass of milk if you were that way inclined. I had them as a mid-afternoon sugar booster with tea. It was epic.

This recipe is adapted from The Primrose Bakery Book. If you haven't been yet and you like cake, you need to go to this bakery. It delivers on sweet icing, good cake and the shop (the one in Covent Garden anyway) smells just amazing. They make good coffee too.

Peanut Butter Cookies
Adapted from The Primrose Bakery Book
Makes approximately 30 cookies
115g unsalted butter, soft
230g crunchy peanut butter
175g granulated sugar
120g light brown sugar
1 egg
1 tablespoon milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
290g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp bicarb
230g peanut butter chips

Heat the oven to 180C and line 2 baking trays with baking paper. Combine the butter and peanut butter until smooth.

Then add in the sugars followed by the egg, milk and vanilla.

Beat this until smooth. Add in the flour, bicarb and baking powder followed by the peanut butter chips.

I managed to mix everything together using a spatula but at the end I folded in the chips by hand because it was easier. Obviously you can make this in a standing mixer or with an electric beater. The book recommends you weigh each cookie to 40g which I did in a vague way - my cookies weighed between 38g and 42g if you want to be technical about it. Roll the cookies into balls and then place them on the baking sheets, pressing them down slightly. (If, like me, you only have a tiny oven and the baking tray needs to be in the oven whilst it is pre-heating, I recommend rolling the dough into balls and keeping them on a wooden board and then baking them off in a series. It takes longer but really, what is the alternative? No cookies?)

Bake for 10 minutes. You won't be able to do the thumb test when you take them out so they'll seem underdone but just leave them on the hot trays and they'll continue cooking as the tray cools, resulting in a cookie that is soft in the middle but crunchy on the edges. The book dusts the cookies with golden caster sugar but to be honest, I didn't feel the need to do that. They're super sweet anyway and I didn't have any golden caster sugar around. Allow them to cool completely before storing in an airtight container. They won't last long.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Meat-Free Mondays

There is always this tension that exists when blogging. It's a kind of am I cool enough for this sort of tension combined with an oh my god, people might actually read this and therefore I should think about what I'm writing tension. I'm not a big fan of tagging along with other people's trends and therefore have avoided mentioning meat-free Monday. It's all the rage right now, for those of you who might have missed it and is tied in with arguments around global, industrial food etc. I've debated a lot recently about posting anything on the whole food system debate. It serves the overwhelming context for my research and so I've been doing a lot of reading into it but I feel that this blog is more a testimony to my love of food than a discussion point about the ethics of what I'm eating. For the record though I now find food choice much much harder and I feel guilty if say, I get all your can eat chicken wings when out with friends. It's just another tension I have to live with.

But I digress. This is a great recipe anytime of the week but if you're feeling particularly guilty on a Monday, it makes a seriously good veggie dinner. If you can't stand the idea of doing meat-free anything I suggest you fry off some bacon pieces at the beginning and then keep them aside to toss together with everything else at the end.

Broccoli and Walnuts with Orecchiette
This makes enough for one
half a shallot
1 clove garlic
1 small green chili
1/2 head broccoli
handful of walnuts
enough pasta for one

Get the pasta on the boil. I used orecchiette, but feel free to use the pasta of your choice.
Slice the shallot, finely chop the garlic and the chili. I use chili plus seeds but feel free to de-seed the chili before you add it to the pan. Cut the florets off the broccoli into bite size pieces that will cook quickly. Heat some butter and olive oil in a non-stick frying pan until the butter bubbles. Add in the shallot, garlic, chili and broccoli. Toss everything together nicely and allow to fry for a few minutes. Add in some hot water to create a little steam effect and leave until all the water has disappeared. Drain the pasta, toss into the pan with the broccoli and give everything a good shake. Tip this into your bowl, crumble in some feta and Parmesan, add a swirl of black pepper and as many walnuts as you're in the mood for and eat!
I like the broccoli to be done only al dente so this is the kind of pasta you can make when starving cause it only takes about 12 minutes, or the time to cook the pasta really.

Bacon and Pea Risotto

There's been a festival of bacon happening in my house this week. It's the fault of the friends I had dinner with on Saturday, with whom I partook in an overflow of wine and therefore woke with a hangover on Sunday morning. And a craving for bacon. I eventually made it to the shop and made myself a wicked breakfast, at 3pm. But there is only so much bacon I can consume in one sitting and so the bacon has been looking at me from within the fridge, screaming 'eat me! eat me!' everytime I open the door. It's not pleasant. I am forced to make this risotto to use up some of the bacon.

Bacon and Pea Risotto
Makes enough for several people. Or one, with a large appetite, plus leftovers.

Some butter and oil
1 shallot
about 3 strips of bacon (plus extra to snack on whilst stirring)
1/2 cup risotto rice
about 500ml stock
3/4 cup peas
parmesan (lots)

Heat the oil and butter in a pan. Add in the sliced shallot and sweat until translucent. Remove from the pan. Add in the bacon and cook until crispy. If you can be bothered (I cannot) wipe the inside of the pan clean. Alternatively use another pan. Place the shallot and some extra oil in this new pan and heat slightly. Add in the risotto rice and fry for a few minutes until the rice is translucent at the edges. If you have white wine (I didn't) add is a generous splash at this point. Then start to add in the stock, a little at a time, and turn down the heat so that the risotto bubbles slowly, in a kind of relaxed, chilled out sort of way. Stir, adding stock, until the rice becomes creamy and the whole debacle thickens slightly. At this point add in the peas and bacon. (You'll probably end up with much less bacon that you anticipated because you have been snacking on it whilst stirring.) Allow about 5 more minutes at this point for the peas to cook through. Grate in a load of Parmesan and allow to stand for 5 minutes before serving. To make it extra decadent you can stir in some butter and cream at the end.

Friday, January 20, 2012

When Cake Goes Bad

So I wrote an initial draft of this post and got one of my friends who'd accompanied me to one of the places to screen it first. He said it was fair and civil and directed me to a website where I could read his review (which was much more scathing) and coincidentally I was able to see other reviews of the two places below. After reading these reviews I've decided that actually the places should be named (I wasn't going to originally) and also, clearly other people and bloggers have weird ideas about what constitutes good cake.

I don't really like writing criticism. You'll notice that this blog is more about my adventures in the kitchen than my adventures in dining rooms and I tend to only mention places that I like. This is because I am not a critic and certainly do not pretend to be an expert on cakes and pastries and the like. I'm just an avid fan. But as a fan I feel the need to share with you the experience I had of cake in Edinburgh. If for no other reason than to counter-balance the overwhelming number of reviews that lovelovelove these places.

The first cake avoidance took place at Loopy Lorna's, in Morningside. I'd been to Loopy's previously, in their other location, and it was nice. We sat outside, the service was good and the food was adequate. Loopy's is now located in the Churchill Theatre and entrance is by way of the main theatre entrance which at certain times means you're fighting a crowd. Loopy's is child friendly. Now, I'm not saying that places that are child friendly cannot be good. I'm simply saying that my experience of child friendly places is that they tend not to be good. Firstly, this place was slightly grubby. In that we've-not-cleaned-the-floor-since-last-night kind of way. The tables didn't feel quite clean and my wrists got sticky from resting against them. The service was awful. There clearly weren't enough staff and there didn't seem to be logical designation of tables. There was also that confusing do we pay at the till or will they come take the money question at the end. It took ages to get our order. When it came it was okay, nothing special, nothing amazing. Meh I think is the right expression. My soup was nice but not evenly heated so some parts were scorching and others warm. (If you're going to heat stuff in the microwave, please remember to stir it.) The scone we ordered came taking up the entire plate so that butter was left on the table in those hideous pre-packaged bars found on airlines. Strawberry jam looked like 'congealed blood'. That is never a good sign! But the cherry on top was the sight of the cakes on display. A long line of them took up space near the till and varied from layer cakes to rice crispy treats. The colour was what really got my attention. I'm all for colour, don't get me wrong. But this was luminous pink and lime green and bright bright yellow that is so obviously food coloured it's off putting. Mint chocolate bars had a layer of grass green (what I presume was buttercream) on top that looked as if the golf course had been misplaced. I had to step away. The cakes weren't covered in domes which means they dry out in the air. It was sort of American style baking but in a bad way. Portion sizes were also overwhelming. I've noticed other reviewers think massive portions mean you're getting your money's worth but I'd argue not. A pastry or cake slice should be enough for one to eat comfortably, not enough to feed a family of four. 

I didn't think things could get much worse than that but they did. I met other friends for lunch a few days later on the Shore in Leith (which is my favourite place in Edinburgh - but I'm biased because I used to live there). For coffee he suggested we try Mimi's which has been getting rave reviews everywhere. Now, the three of us are probably not the critics you want in your restaurant together. I know a little about cake. M grew up in Switzerland and thus knows about cake and A grew up in hotels and thus knows about cake and service. Together we can be supremely impressed but we do expect things that I suspect other, not-so-obsessed-with-cake individuals may not.

First impressions were 'it's like Changing Rooms took over Greggs'. The decor was very Cath Kidston but in a kitsch, not lovely kind of way. (Also, what is with the need for cake places to sell random mugs/aprons/paraphernalia. Concentrate on selling cake!) It all went downhill from there. Waitresses seemed to be plentiful but unhelpful. (We couldn't work out where to order, no one seemed to want to seat us - and this was a busy day where seating options would have helped.) Cakes were displayed behind glass but looked surprisingly similar to those I'd seen the week prior which makes me suspect that either everyone in Edinburgh goes to the same training school or they were made by the same person - which seems odd as Mimi's is supposed to be run by a master baker. The highlight in this cabinet was the Strawberry Sensation that was all hideous girly-pink with no strawberries in sight. Pink cake, mountains of pink frosting. Eeurgh. We gambled and ordered the only appealing thing to share - carrot and lime cake as well as a Benedict bar/Lamington cross (I'm still not entirely sure.) The saving grace was the coffee which was drinkable and strong.

The carrot cake was exceptionally large. The lime consisted of a few gratings on top and a candied piece as decor. The cake itself was nice but the icing lacked cream cheese and was far far too sweet. The other thing (I can't describe it more specifically, was it a slice?cake?pastry?) was like butter and jam rolled in coconut. We couldn't discern what it was supposed to be at all. I then saw the savoury side of the menu. Instead of perhaps sandwiches on lovely bread, some soup or a salad there was pub food. It seemed a completely bizarre option in what was supposed to be a cake place. Stovies? Hot pot? It was like someone had gotten confused halfway through and created something between a pub and a cake shop. I'm not sure. To crown it all were the pictures in the bathroom of people (I can only presume the patrons or staff) posing with cake. Too bizarre for words. We spent the afternoon lamenting that fact that we weren't in mainland Europe eating Florentines. And insisting we couldn't be the only ones who felt this way.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New York Cheesecake

Moving cities and making new friends is a difficult process. It's especially difficult if you are chronically shy and incapable of making small talk. Beyond the hi, what do you do sort of conversation I am lost. I am uneasy in crowds and avoid networking type things at all costs because I am totally useless at networking. However, being able to bake is clearly something that is helpful when meeting new people. Who cannot be turned by the waft of a chocolate brownie or the smooth, satin filling in a lemon slice? For most people, food is important (at least it is for the people I know which means either I am only friends with foodie type people which, I guess, is possible or most people are willing and eager to seek out good food...) and food thus becomes an easy stepping off point of departure in a friendship. Many a friendship has been cemented over a good dinner or a slice of cake or a glass of wine. (Never forget the importance of alcohol in making friends.)

So new friends of mine offered to make dinner on Saturday (which I obviously accepted) and I was asked to bring dessert. Much thinking went into the decision of what to take. Brownies? Lemon tart? Cheesecake? In the end the cheesecake won if only because this is possibly the world's best cheesecake (slightly edging out Bill Granger's White Chocolate Cheesecake which we'll talk about another time) and it's super easy to make without an electric beater/standing mixer. (How I do miss my standing mixer...)

This recipe was given to me by one of my mentors who taught me (almost) everything I know about pastry, cake and the like. I've served it to various people and used to make it often but hadn't thought of it in a while until a friend requested a cheesecake recipe over Christmas. It's a super smooth cheesecake that has that cloying mouth feel of clotted cream. Everything about it is decadent and yet, surprisingly, it's not overwhelming. It's the type of cheesecake which allows another slice without making you feel like you need to undo the top button of your jeans. It's the cheesecake to take when you're trying to win over your mother-in-law.

Eat it plain (we did) or with berry compote. Flavour it any way you wish. I'm partial to vanilla myself but lemon works well as would lime, orange (you could use chocolate biscuits as the base then) or possibly rosewater, although I'm not 100% convinced of that... I made half the amount here, in a 20cm tin. My only gripe was that it wasn't as high as I would have liked. If you make the full amount (that listed below) bake it in a 24cm tin.

New York Cheesecake
For the base:
250g digestive biscuits
125g unsalted butter

For the filling:
450g cream cheese (Philadelphia)
180g egg yolks (about 9 egg yolks)
30g cornflour
200g caster sugar
500ml double cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract/1 vanilla pod

Preheat the oven to 160C. Line the outside of the tin with a layer of baking paper and then a layer of foil. This will protect any mixture from dripping into the bottom of the oven. (The easiest is to place the foil under the baking paper under the tin. Fold the foil and paper simultaneously around the edge of the tin.)
Place the biscuits into a plastic bag and bash with a rolling pin until finely crumbed. This works well as a stress reliever. Alternatively blitz them in a food processor. Melt the butter and add to the biscuits (now in a bowl) stirring until all incorporated. Press this into the base of the tin using the back of a spoon to smooth it out. Refrigerate until needed.
Place the sugar, cornflour and cream cheese in a bowl and using a spatula incorporate until smooth. Alternatively using a beater, beat until smooth. It's very important that the mixture be smooth at this stage because you won't be able to do anything about lumps later on. Take time here. It's worth it.

Add in the cream, vanilla and yolks and whisk together.
Pour this mixture onto the biscuit base and bake until just set in the middle and slightly raised on the sides. It'll take between 40 minutes and an hour or so. It should still wobble slightly in the middle when you take it out.
Allow to cool to room temperature before refrigerating. Then eat at will. Preferably with friends.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Winning Croissants

So it turns out Bourke Street Bakery know a thing or two about croissants. My croissants have turned out ridiculously well. They're laminated and flaky. Golden and poofy. Yes, poofy is a word. I may have died and gone to croissant heaven. Either that or I have found my new calling. It wasn't even that much hard work. Well, okay the rolling and folding part took a little effort. And my ability to calculate time is still a problem so my croissants were proving last night at 8.30pm at which point I decided it was probably best to wait until today to bake them so I had to keep them in the fridge overnight and then remember to remove them this morning so they could spend the day coming to room temperature. And my actual rolling-of-croissant skills clearly need developing. But they're going to make an excellent dinner! It was so worth the effort. And it proves you can make (almost) anything in a tiny tiny space.

Croissants proving

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Writing and Croissants

I am sure that for some people writing comes easily. In my visions on my perfect life there is a desk, a computer and a view (and possibly some flowers) and all I need to do is sit at the desk and the writing will simply flow from my fingers. The reality is not nearly so neat. I'm busy attempting to write pages about the obesity debate for my research paper which is due in May. This process is fraught with anxiety, restlessness, life panics and general 'what the hell am I doing' questions. It starts with reading, which I have actually done and which, for me, is the easiest part. I read. I absorb. I make small notes. Then I file away and read some more. It's luxurious.

The writing part is not so luxurious. I retrieve the read articles and make copious notes whilst trying to remember exactly what I am planning to say so I only take the relevant material. I usually fail well at this point, getting confused as to what I am planning to write, and then doing procrastinating things like washing and cleaning the kitchen. I have just completed this process. Now I usually get a few more articles, just in-case.

Then I sleep on it and allow my sub-conscious to organise my thoughts. On day two (or three or four) I start to put pen to paper. In the literal sense. I like my first draft to be handwritten as it makes me think about what I am writing. It also means that the typing up is an editing process. Typing up is easy. It's the putting pen to paper organising of thoughts that is painful and distressing. Not sleeping and having life panics feature a lot at this stage. I am about to start this stage. It does not look good.

So, whilst my thoughts gather together I am looking for a distraction. What better distraction is there than baking? And what is more challenging than making a croissant? If you read this blog you will know I've tried to make croissants before. They sort of worked but they weren't anything I would take out in public. I am going to attempt them again. I am armed with a gift-to-self recipe book Bourke Street Bakery and their recipe which includes a ferment which I am going to make this afternoon. First I am going to buy a scale and the necessary ingredients. Then I am going to combine and knead and rest. In between all of this I am going to collect my thoughts and think about starting to write. Tomorrow I will finish the croissants and I will put pen to paper. It's going to happen people.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Wow, It's 2012 Already?

It's that time of year for taking stock and re-evaluating things. I was going to do this before the end of the year but that happened so quickly that I did not get a chance. Okay, I admit it. I was out having fun. The princess came to visit for a while and my dad was here too so I was showing them around town, jolling it up in London and then recovering in Gullane, which for those of you out of the loop is the most fantastically beautiful part of the world. (I have excellent friends who live there. Yes, life is sweet.)

Last year was pretty massive and my hopes for 2012 are that it will be slightly less dramatic.
Things I managed to do last year:
Finish my Masters
Start this blog (that should probably be number one but my MA was so tortured that I figure it can get prime spot!)
Meander around Europe for a month with fabulous people
Move countries
Start my PhD

Not bad going for one year. Some parts were horrid, others were wonderful. Years are supposed to be like that I think. Some good (travelling), some not so good (leaving behind Pixie-Jack Russell extraordinaire). This year already has some things up it's sleeve. Mainly it's work related - I have to write a paper and defend it in order to move forward so that's the big plan. Other plans include more hanging out in Gullane, some weddings at home, some travelling and a whole host of baking. Oh and I want to learn Japanese so I'm throwing that into the mix too. I fully admit to being one of those people who if not completely stressed out and over-worked is bored.

So here are some of the holiday highlights. I'm planning a post on Borough Market (because no matter how touristy it gets, it's still one of my favourite places) so those pictures aren't here...

 Dog in the window at Fortnum and Mason

 Horror ride at Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

 Pigeon gathering in Hyde Park

 Laduree. Sigh.

 Tower Bridge seen from a window at the Tower of London

 Lego Christmas Tree at St Pancreas

 Is this not the most fabulous dog jersey ever?

 Westminster Abbey
 I want to be remembered like this! Amazing...

 View from my window up in Scotland

The beach at Gullane

Port at North Berwick