Monthly Archives: March 2012

On Location: The Gilbert Scott Bar

I’ve been incredibly busy at work recently, and I’ve come to appreciate the pleasures of a drink at the end of the day. We’re not talking the usual way that Brits seem to unwind together “down the pub” over multiple rounds of beer. No, I lived in Brussels for too long to pick up that habit. But a chance to unwind with a colleague in a classy bar, now that is appealing.

I happen to work near to fairytale-like St Pancras station in London, and so it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the Gilbert Scott bar.

I love it. I actually love it. It was a touch too busy when it first opened, but these days, it’s still buzzy but you can usually wander in and get a table.

A big part of the attraction is the decor – it’s all quite elegant as far as seating arrangements go, then it goes crazy – lots of carved stone, gilt and an elaborate painted ceiling in gold, rich reds, deep blues and luxurious greens. I always think that the ceiling has a rather glamorous “Arts and Crafts” feeling to it. It also has that sort of subtle lighting that makes you want to huddle round the table and share stories – whispered, and not shouted. All very Victorian and discreet.

The drinks menu is great – interesting cocktails, which change by the month (juleps in January, flips and fizzes in February, mojitos in March…get it? On tenderhooks to see what April will offer – advocaat or apero?) and the classics are pretty darn good (my drink of choice is a Negroni for the time being). For those that love a touch of fizz, the award-winning English sparkling wine is also worth checking out.

Now…let’s talk damage – it’s not cheap, but this is quite a classy place with a classy crowd. I love that it still has the feeling of a grand station café, where people next to you could be about to travel up to the wilds of Yorkshire, dash to the Eurostar to travel to Paris, or are waiting for the Caledonian Sleeper to take them up to the Scottish Highlands.

This is the sort of atmosphere that lends itself to ordering something sophisticated and then having a good old catch-up with friends. If you’re not quite taken with the cocktail list in any given month, they also seem to be willing to go off piste – the staff are friendly and know their stuff, and when I was there, my friend spent most of the evening raving about a rather interesting creation that included red wine and cocoa nibs.

In addition to a decent cocktail selection, there is a nice line in bar snacks, including fat chips with Sarson’s mayo, and my favourite – Countess Morphy’s potato croquettes.

Countess Morphy? You don’t know her? Well, neither did I, but it turns out she is the author of “Recipes of All Nations”, a tome from the 1930s that brought glimpses of exotic lands to the British kitchen. She sounds like a foodie aristo that could have some straight out of Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs, but it is rumoured that the Countess did not actually enjoy a title, and may in fact have been Marcelle Azra Hincks, a native of New Orleans. Whatever her story, I had an admiration for a lady who clearly understood the value of branding and turned that to her advantage. I want this book, and I will be keeping an eye out for it when I pass vintage bookshops. And she has a darned good recipe for croquettes too.

And if you’re hungry but not quite ready for the ware of Countess Morphy, I love these little silver containers with salt-and-pepper popcorn. An interesting touch instead of plain old nuts or crisps.

So…would I go back? Well, I tend to end up here at least once every couple of weeks, so I hardly count as an objective source. But I think this is once of the nicest bars in the area, and a really special place to enjoy a drink while you want for that someone special to arrive on the last train from Paris. They’re about to launch afternoon tea too, so I get the feeling I’ll be back just a little more often too.

The Gilbert Scott Bar, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, London NW1 2AR. Tel: 0207 278 3888. King’s Cross St Pancras Tube.

LondonEats locations map here.

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Kumquat Marmalade

My compulsive shopping habit struck again, and I bought a pound of kumquats. They always seem like such a good thing to buy, especially given that they are only around for what seem like a few weeks. It’s probably longer, but in the world of the impulse shopper, you rationalise these things by thinking that this just must be too good an opportunity to pass up.

First of all, I got to enjoy eating a few of them. I love the sour centre and the very sweet skins. That zesty tang stays with you for a while, even if you only eat a few. But the prospect of munching through a whole pound of them? Probably not…

So…what was it to be? Having recently got over my marmalade phobia, I thought I would give it another try, this time with the miniature members of the citrus family. I love my bitter marmalade, but I realise that if you’re not such a fan, then something a little sweeter is probably the way to go.

The good news is that, unlike with Seville oranges, there is no tedious de-pithing involved. Just slice up the kumquats (peel, pith and flesh), remove the seeds, soak, boil and you’re done. Well, not quite good news. Removing all those seeds is actually something of a faff, but it’s a good task to do when you’ve got half an hour and a radio programme to listen to. All in all, it’s probably a rather therapeutic exercise to help forget whatever else has been bugging you during the day.

I looked long and hard for a version of kumquat marmalade that would allow me to use little kumquat discs to keep their shape. It was rather a struggle – there were lots of versions that involved squeezing out the pith and pips, and they you shred the peel into strips. Well, I’m sorry, but if you’re not going to have the dainty size of the kumquats featuring in the marmalade, then you might as well use plain old sweet oranges. I wasn’t looking for shredded peel, I wanted circles!

In the end, I just decided to wing it and go back to my basic marmalade recipe, and use kumquats instead of Seville oranges. So I boiled up the fruit the night before, then the next day cooked it up with sugar (mostly white, with two tablespoons of muscovado), lemon juice and some pectin. I was mindful that there would not be as much pectin in this marmalade as my last attempt, so it would be acceptable to use a little helping hand. And the lemon was necessary to add a little sharpness to balance all the sweetness from the sugar and the kumquats themselves.

As you can see, the result looks great and it tastes fantastic. Currently (three days later) it has a very loose set, but this seems to change over time and it tends towards a light set. The “jammy bit” of the marmalade is sweet and lightly orangy, but it’s the peel that packs the punch. It tastes strongly of citrus, and there is not a single hint of bitterness.

You’ll end up with four to five jars of sunshine in spreadable form. It’s great on warm thick-cut sourdough bread with a good spreading of butter. Let the lot melt together slightly, and enjoy!

To make kumquat marmalade:

• 400g kumquats
• 1.2 litres water
• 800g sugar
• 4 tablespoons liquid pectin
• 1 lemon, juice only
• pinch of salt
• small knob of unsalted butter

Day 1:

Wash the kumquats, then slice them finely. As you go, you’ll need to pick out the seeds, which is frankly a pain. Put the slices kumquats into a pan with the water. Put the seeds and any scraps of peel into a piece of muslin – tie the ends an add to the pot.

Cover the pan and bring to the boil, then remove the lid and boil for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and cover the mixture. Leave to sit overnight.

Day 2:

Remove the pips and discard. Add the sugar to the kumquats and slowly bring to a rolling boil. Add the pectin, lemon juice, salt and butter, and cook the marmalade until it reaches 104°C (219°F) is using a jam thermometer, otherwise test manually(*). During the cooking process, you might have to remove any foam that appears (if you’ve used the butter, this helps keep the foam to a minimum).

When the marmalade is ready, leave to cool a little so that the marmalade thickens slightly (this helps to ensure the pieces of kumquat “float” in the marmalade and don’t sink). Decant the hot marmalade into sterilised jam jars and seal(**). Then enjoy on hot, buttered toast with a cup of tea in the morning!

(*) How to check for a set? Chill a saucer in the fridge. Put a little marmalade on the cool plate, and return to the fridge for a moment. Push with your finger – if the marmalade  “wrinkles” when you push it, the marmalade is done. If it stays liquid, then cook longer and check again later. This is why you are better to cook gently but for a longer time, as if you miss the set, the sugar will start to caramelise, and the marmalade will be very thick and sticky.

(**) How to sterilise jam jars? Wash in hot, soapy water, and then rinse very well – do not dry them. Now place up-side down on the shelf of a cold oven, and heat to 100°C / 210°F for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven using gloves, allow to cool slightly (they should still be warm) and fill with the hot marmalade. You can leave the jars in the oven with the heat turned off until you need them, as this keeps the glass warm, and warm glass is much less likely to crack when you add warm jam (science, eh?). Remember to sterilise the lids by washing in hot, soapy water, then rinsing well and then boiling them in a pot of hot water for a few minutes.

Worth making? This is a perfect marmalade for those that don’t like the sharpness and bitterness of the traditional English breakfast variant. The loose set means it can also be used over fruit for a citrussy lift. Highly recommended

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Caraway Biscuits

Many, many moons ago I saw a recipe by Heston Blumenthal as part of his “In Search of Perfection” series for making caraway biscuits.

My firm intention to make these biscuits was triggered by my fondness for caraway. I think it’s an underused spice, which is a shame, as I think it really has a lovely aromatic flavour. I love it in cheese and savoury biscuits, and it is fantastic in bread and with beetroot. So this struck me as an interesting recipe, that I mentally filed on my “to try” list.

However, I never quite got round to making these biscuits. The reason was that all this perfection seemed to involve too much work…multiple stages of chilling the dough, rolling it out to wafer-thinness, freezing it, then baking a sheet of the mixture and then cutting out the biscuits. So as far as I could see, there would be lots of scraps left over, which didn’t strike me as really all that perfect. Clearly, I’m too lazy for perfection.

So what have I done? Well, when in doubt, make up your own recipe, or make some tweaks to an old favourite. I’ve opted for the latter. I made some Dutch almond wreaths at Christmas, and I liked the way the dough worked – it held its shape and the biscuits were buttery yet crisp. So I have taken that recipe, and adapted it by adding a little ground almonds (a nod to Heston’s recipe) and a decent amount of caraway seeds.

The result is, frankly, amazing. Think of these as quite an adult biscuit – it’s a sophisticated taste, that goes well with a cup of Earl Grey or some green tea. Might not go down so well with an infant, but that’s their loss. I love them.

To make caraway biscuits (makes 40):

• 100g light brown sugar, sieved
• 160g plain flour
• 50g ground almonds
• 150g butter, finely chopped
• 1 egg white, lightly whisked
• 1/4 teaspoon salt, finely ground
• 10g (2 heaped teaspoons) caraway seeds

To finish the cookies (optional):

• milk
• caster sugar

Start by dry toasting the caraway seeds in a saucepan over a medium heat – keep them moving until they smell fragrant (1-2 minutes). Pour onto a place and leave until cold.

Put all the dough ingredients in a bowl. Use your hands to quickly knead to a smooth dough – it will be quite sticky. Place the bowl in the fridge for 30 minutes (this makes the dough much easier to work with). In the meantime, preheat the oven to 160°C. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface until around 1/3 cm thick. Use a round cutter (5 cm / 2 inch diameter) to make the biscuits and transfer to the baking sheet.

If you want, brush the biscuits with a little milk and sprinkle with sugar (optional).

Bake the cookies for around 20 minutes until lightly golden, turning half-way to make sure they colour evenly – watch carefully as there is not much between “cooked” and “burned”.

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Pistachio Kadayıfı Baklava

You’ll know what I’m about to talk about. We all have one of those purchases lurking in the larder. Something that looked such a smart buy when you were on holiday or in that posh deli, and for which you had such grand, grand plans. It was going to be amazing. A taste sensation. Guests would be in awe, impressed with your skills. Then you got it home…and it went into a cupboard to be forgotten about, save for the occasional pangs of guilt you feel when you see it, then quickly close the cupboard door so you can forget about it again.

In my case, the “object of guilt” it was a packet of Turkish kadayıfı pastry (the “angel hair” stuff). I picked it up when  was in Brussels, and it was going to form the basis of an amazing tray of fragrant, sweet baklava. Last weekend, finally, finally, I got round to using it, and as intended, it was to make baklava – using pistachios, flavoured with orange blossom water and cardamom.

To use kadayıfı , you rip off as much as you need, fluff it up, let it sit outside for a few minutes (to get rid of whatever preservative gas is used to keep the pastry from spoiling…I prefer not to think about it!) and then pour on some melted butter. Next, there is not much you can do other than roll up your sleeves and mix the butter into the pastry until it is well-coated. This is the messier and more fun version of brushing sheets of filo pastry with butter, and means the strands on top become crisp during baking.

I had planned to use pistachio nuts to fill this baklava, and I got hold of a bag of good-quality unsalted nuts. What did not go through my brain until it was too late was the realisation that I would have to stand for the best part of half an hour shelling them, by hand, then picking off the papery inner skin. It you fancy testing your patience, then shelling pistachios is one of the best ways to do it. However, you can save yourself a heck of  lot of work by getting hold of some pre-shelled nuts. Just a suggestion!

Rather than the brown sugar I’ve used in baklava before (which works well with hazelnut baklava), I stuck to white with the hope that the colour of the nuts would still be apparent after baking. The filling was finished off with a little cinnamon and a dash of orange blossom water, again not too much as I wanted the pistachio flavour to stand a sporting chance of being apparent after baking. However, the real magic of the East came from the syrup – made with acacia honey, orange blossom water, rose water and crushed cardamom pods. The cardamom on particular was a great addition, adding the lightly peppery, citrus-and-aniseeed flavour to the syrup. Just enough to be add a little something, but not too much that it was overpowering.

When the baklava comes out of the oven, you’ll think it is very fragile and wonder how you’ll cut it without everything collapsing. And you’re right, the kadayıfı wants to break apart. But once you’ve drizzled the hot baklava with the cold syrup and left the whole lot to cool, it slices like a dream.

This is a very different type of baklava compared to when making it with filo pastry. The strands on top stay crisp (and you get lots of little “snaps” as you bite into it), while the syrup soaks into the bottom layer and the nut filling. This makes for a nice contrast in textures. And it shows that sometimes, it can be worth revisiting that abandoned ingredient – it might just surprise you!

I ended up presenting this at a dinner as dessert. I’d merrily raided various Ottolenghi recipes for inspiration, so there had been a number of rich, aromatic and filling dishes, and I was sure that heavy chocolate cake wasn’t the way to go. So it was baklava with a few pomegranate seeds (colour contrast and a sharp tang to balance the sweet syrup) and the offer of whipped cream for those that wanted it. In the end, the cream went untouched, but all the baklava went. I just wish it wasn’t one of those things that is so addictively easy to pick at. Every time you pass it in the kitchen…just one piece…just one more piece…well, just one more…

To make pistachio baklava:

This looks complex – it isn’t. I’ve just tried to make the recipe as easy to follow as I can.

For the sugar syrup:

• 150ml water
• 200g white sugar
• 50g soft brown sugar
• 100g light honey (such as acacia)
• 2 teaspoons lemon juice
• 2 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
• 1 tablespoons of orange blossom water
• 1 tablespoon of rose water(*)

In a saucepan, heat the water, sugar, honey, lemon juice and cardamom pods until it comes to the boil and cook for a minute. Now add the orange blossom and rose waters, boil for a few seconds, and remove from the heat. Allow to cool. Remove the cardamom pods and any seeds before using on the baklava.

For the filling:

• 200g pistachios (or pistachios and almonds)
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 tablespoons orange blossom water

For the pastry:

• 300g kadayıfı (angel hair) pastry
• 150g butter

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Grind the nuts. You want them medium-fine, but with a few larger pieces. Don’t turn them to powder otherwise the filling will be too dense. Combine with the sugar and cinnamon, then add the orange blossom water and mix well – it should be damp and sand-like, not wet and sticky. Set aside.

Prepare the pastry according to directions on the packet. This will most likely involve “fluffing up” the pastry and mixing it with melted butter and mixing well.

In a dish (I used one 21 x 28cm), add half the buttered pastry, and pat down until even but not too compact. Add the filling, and spread out. Be gentle so you don’t mess up the base. Now add the rest of the pastry, spread out, then pat down with the back of a spoon – you can be quite firm here.

Bake the baklava for 20-25 minutes the top is crisp and lightly golden. When done, remove from the oven, allow it to sit for a minute, then drizzle with the cooled syrup . Do it slowly – a spoonful at a time – so that all the baklava gets a soaking. If you see syrup forming pools in some areas, don’t worry – it will all be absorbed.

Allow the baklava to cool fully before cutting into pieces.

(*) By this, I mean the lightly aromatic rose water. If you have the much more intense rose extract, then use just a few drops and not a whole tablespoon!

 

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Sienisalaatti

…or mushroom salad, if – like me – your knowledge of Finnish is less than fluent…

This was a little dish that I came across as a part of the Most Amazing Organic Breakfast at the Klaus K hotel when I was in Helsinki last summer for a wedding. It was hidden in amongst the breakfast goodies, and at first, it did not look all that dramatic. In terms of appearance, it was clearly overshadowed by bright orange buckthorn and vivid purple blueberry juices, cakes, cheeses, rolls and similar, but I’m a mushroom lover, and decided to take a little of it, just to try.

I must admit, this was with a slight twinge of reluctance, for their version was rather finely hacked, and a couple of us were looking at it for a while to work out whether it really was mushroom salad, or some disguised tuna mayo to catch out unwary visitors. Luckily, it was tuna-free, and it was delicious. So delicious. Utterly delicious! I kept going back for more, and by day three, I was piling the breakfast plate high with the stuff.

Given how good it tastes, this really is a rather simple recipe – sliced mushrooms, mixed with a savoury cream sauce. The only “trick” is that the mushrooms are boiled for a minute or two after slicing, so they take on a texture which is not quite raw, but they’re not as tough as they can been when they’ve been cooked for ages. They keep a little bite, but they are not too fragile. However, if you prefer your mushrooms fresh, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t skip the cooking step and go raw.

I was pretty confident that I could work out a recipe for this salad myself – surely I just had to work out how to combine mushrooms, cream, salt, pepper and some chives. Well, I was more or less right on that. However, I checked a few sources, and was being recommended some horrific levels of salt. Two teaspoons to three tablespoons of cream! My brain was yelling to me that this was clearly far, far, far too much, so I decided to follow the method (cook the mushrooms in water with a squeeze of lemon juice, then make the sauce), but let myself be guided by by own sense of taste – just a little salt in the sauce, and then round it out with a dash of sugar and some freshly ground black pepper. This is also a good rule of thumb when you see a recipe, either in a book or online – read it, and think about it – does it work? Does it have everything you’re expecting? If someone promises the lightest, fluffiest cake but there is nothing in the method or the ingredients list to provide the necessary va-va-voom for lift off, are you really going to follow it blindly? Exactly!

With the mushrooms done and the sauce mixed to my taste, I combined the lot, and the flavour was almost perfectly as I remembered it. Substantial, earthy and intensely savoury. It reminded me a little of walking in the forest on a damp day – which is, in itself, a rather Nordic thing to do. But something wasn’t quite there. Then I remembered that I had not added any onion – it just needed a tablespoon of very finely shredded onion. I added it, and that did the trick – it just added that tiny extra tangy touch to finish off the dish.

So there you have it – a light, simply Finnish mushroom salad that you can enjoy when spring and summer finally get here, and a nice savoury contrast to the sweet Nordic goodies I’ve looked at recently (creamy semlor buns and cinnamon rolls). There has been a lot written of late about how this year we’re going to see Scandinavian and Nordic food become more popular, and frankly, it’s about time too! There are some real culinary gems in there waiting to be discovered. Think of dinner outside on a warm evening when the sun hardly sets…and given I am writing this as I see pouring rain and trails of water flowing down the glass, that cannot come soon enough for me!

To make sienisalaatti:

• 300g mushrooms (12 large-ish button mushrooms)
• Squeeze of lemon juice
• 3-4 tablespoons double cream
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• pinch of sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion or spring onion
• fresh chives, chopped, to serve

Wash the mushrooms and slice finely. Bring a pan of water to the boil, add a squeeze of lemon juice, then boil the mushrooms for 2 minutes. Drain and pat the mushrooms dry with some paper towel.

While the mushrooms are cooling, make the sauce – combine the cream, salt, sugar, pepper and onion. If too thick, add a dash of water. Taste and adjust the seasoning as required, the mix with the mushrooms. Just before serving, put into a bowl and sprinkle with chopped fresh chives.

Worth making? The only thing that is annoying with this reicpe is just how long I waited before making it. The flavour is absolutely delicious, the method is very easy, and it makes for a wonderful addition to dinner as a side dish, or as part of a breakfast spread. Highly recommended.

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February in Pictures

I recently discovered Instagram. Well, to be accurate, I recently discovered how it worked – it sat on my phone for months before I realised that the fun of it is that you can share pictures, follow others, and see what your friends are getting up to. Once I understood that, there was really no stopping me, and I think I have subjected a lot of people to many, many random pictures.

I found it was particularly great when you are travelling. The filters that you can apply can turn a so-so shot into something that looks really very special, and the right effect captures the mood perfectly. Then once you get back to somewhere with wifi, log on, upload, and make a lot of people jealous that you are somewhere sunny while they are shivering at home.

As I got into using Instagram, I noticed there were a lot of folk posting rather random pictures. Okay, you expect people to post a selection of random things, but then I realised that there were some themes emerging. The lady behind Fat Mum Slim has been setting monthly challenges, with a topic per day, and people have taken to it like crazy. So while I missed January, I decided to go along and join in with February. And I am glad I did – it’s a fun thing to do, and you see things in everyday life that you might otherwise just overlook.

So here you have it, my month in pictures – including the grandeur of St Pancras station, London in the snow, and the gates of Buckingham palace.

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