Monthly Archives: June 2012

Yaki Onigiri

That’s fried rice balls to you and me. Now think about it…fried starch…sounding pretty good, eh?

My first experience of yaki onigiri was in Brussels at a Japanese restaurant called Kushetei. It was a great dinner, but things got a little weird when we got to dessert – no selection of exquisite Japanese sweets, but instead we got mochi filled with ice-cream. Straight from the packet, complete with cute anime-style characters. I am sure that this would be delightfully whimsical to aficionados of Japanese culture, but to me, back in the day, it just seemed a slightly odd way to complete a meal.

Of the many tasty things that I tried that night, what stood out for me were the fried rice balls. The staff did have an annoying habit of sprinkling fish flakes over them (I don’t think they got that fish flakes were not a vegetable), so each time a fresh batch arrived, the fish flakes had to be picked off with forensic precision. Once that was done, the rice balls were delicious.

Back in my Brussels kitchen I decide to try making them myself, but my early attempts went rather spectacularly badly. What went wrong? Well, I failed at almost the first hurdle. I reached into the cupboard for rice, any old rice, and it was a packet of the plain white stuff. I had put enough thought into the process to realise that the rice needs to be somewhat sticky so that it could be formed into balls, so I just boiled it until sort of soupy, drained, and proceeded on my way. Well, whatever I did, it didn’t really work and I ended up with rice balls that had a tendency to collapse. I ended up with a large plate of oily, partially-fried rice swimming in soy sauce. It just about tasted alright, but this was not something that would cause the skilled chef in a Japanese restaurant to lose sleep. If anything, he’s probably have attached me with a sushi knife for my lame efforts!

Fast forward more than half a decade. Putting aside the fact that time seems to fly past with increasingly alarming speed, I would be so bold as to suggest that I am now a better cook, but more fundamentally, I also have access to much better ingredients. Brussels had good shops, but if you really want to get hold of culinary items that are strange, niche or obscure, London will oblige (with the exception of yuzu fruit – still no trace of it!). I’ve blogged about my searches for peculiar raising agents for baking (like ammonium or pottasche). For the rice balls, I needed sushi rice. Well, luckily that’s actually pretty easy to come by in this town. So as they say in the movies, let’s do it again, but once more with feeling (and the correct rice).

This time, I am happy to report that my rice was obligingly sticky, the rice balls could be formed with ease (and very sticky hands), and the result was sensational. Utterly sensational. One of those it is so good I can’t stop at three types of dishes. My only regret is that I did not make double the amount, and this is definitely going to be one of my kitchen staples from now on. I mean – fried starch. We all love that, right?

The good news – all you need is rice, oil and soy sauce. You’re about an hour away from something utterly delicious!

To make Yaki Onigiri:

• sushi rice
• oil (I used grapeseed)
• soy sauce(*)

1. Cook the sushi rice according to the instructions on the packet. Assume 75g per person.

2. While the rice is still warm, shape into balls or cubes. It’s easiest to keep your hands very well-oiled, as the rice is super-sticky.

3. Fry the rice balls. You probably don’t need more oil – what’s on the balls should be enough. Once golden all over, remove and brush with soy sauce. Fry again until crispy. And that’s it! Just sit back and enjoy!

(*) If you are feeling adventurous, mix the soy sauce with other things – I added a dash of sambal to mine (Indonesian rather than Japanese, but never mind) for a tiny dash of heat, and a little sesame oil for a nutty flavour.

Worth making? Get the right rice, and O-M-G these work amazingly well. These are fantastic as part of a meal or as snacks with drinks. While utterly delicious, they are also vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free, so they should be a winner with everyone.

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Making Paneer

If you’ve ever had cause to wonder exactly what Little Miss Muffet was eating on her tuffet on that fateful day that the spider came along and sat down beside her, then you’re about to find out. For it turns out that curds and whey are…well, basically paneer! Frankly, I’m surprised. Really – I had no idea!

Paneer is common in Indian cooking, and it’s one of my favourite ingredients. If it’s on a menu, then that’s usually the dish that I go for. A good paneer and spinach curry is a thing of joy.

I’ve got friends who have in the past been known to get rather snobbish when they try to make a curry. What? You’re not making your own paneer? Well, it’s just not the same. I always thought they were probably right, but let’s be honest – there are a lot of things we could all be making at home but don’t. Paneer always seemed like a job too far. I’ve always just bought the blocks as it makes things so, so much easier. Who actally has the time to make the stuff themselves? Well, it turns out that it’s actually a heck of a lot easier than you might think.

First, get several pints of whole milk. Heat it, then add some lemon juice diluted with hot water. The milk splits, and that’s bascially it! Then just strain it, rinse the curds, and then weigh down the paneer to drive out the excess water. You are left with a large, flat block of paneer that can be cut into pieces and then fried until golden, and then added to whatever dish you’re in the mood for making.

The flavour of the fresh paneer was different to the stuff you buy. It tastes fresher and lighter. The texture is different too – it does not cut as cleanly into squares, but it keeps a slightly crumbly, almost fluffy texture. When you come to fry the paneer, I noticed this time that it has a distinct aroma of buttery caramel as it cooks, which the commercial stuff does not.

So that’s my attempt at paneer, and I was completely thrilled when it was fried and produced this plate of golden deliciousness. It ended up in a spicy tomato and ginger sauce, enriched with a little natural yoghurt. A nice way to finish a Sunday!

To make paneer:

• 4 pints whole milk
• juice 1 lemon
• cup of hot water

1. Gently heat the milk in a saucepan until it just comes to the boil. Watch it doesn’t boil over – otherwise your hob will be a pain to clean!

2. In the meantime, mix the lemon juice with the hot water. Once the milk is just boiling, turn off the heat and add the lemon juice mixture. Stir until the milk curdles – this is the curds and whey separating. Leave to cool for around 15 minutes, gently stirring from time to time.

3. Line a metal sieve with muslin or cheesecloth. Pour the milk mixture into the cloth, and allow to drain. Gently run cold water through the cheese to remove any remaining lemon juice.

4. Gather the ends of the cloth then squeeze out as much water as you can.

5. Place the cheese (still wrapped in the cloth) on a tray and put something very, very heavy on top (I used a metal pan filled with  weights). This should flatten the cheese into a firm block. Leave to sit for an hour or two, and the excess water will be squeezed out.

And there you have it – paneer! Now use in your favourite Indian dishes. Like this or this.

Worth making? Making paneer is actually really easy, and the result is a bit nicer than the stuff you buy. If you’ve got the time (or need to occupy some children for a while) then it’s worth trying. However, I suspect I’ll keep buying it as it’s easier to have it ready for use in the fridge when I want it. Sorry guys!

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Horchata de Chufa

Valencia, in my dreams it always seems,
I hear you softly call to me!
Valencia, where the orange trees forever,
Send the breeze beside the sea
!

Yes, that it the theme song of the Spanish coastal city of Valencia. I visited it a couple of years ago, in the middle of a local festival (The Feast of the Left Arm of St Vincent, or similar), and you could hear that tune for hours on end. It’s quite infectious and lends itself to getting into the party mood. It’s a great place – a beautiful old town with traditional architecture, stunning modern architecture, and a unique park planted along the former riverbed that snakes through the city.

When travelling, I am always one for trying local specialties, and in Valencia two things stood out. The first was the agua de valencia, a rather lethal combination of cava, gin, sugar and fresh Valencia orange juice. Very drinkable, but the next morning, you are feeling, well….shall we say, less than alert.

The second was more suited to daytime activities such as museums, churches and all that Valencian art. And believe me, you will need a little pick-me-up after all that agua de valencia the night before. I’m talking about a drink called horchata de chufa (in Spanish) or orxata de xufes (in Valencian), which you can find for sale on many street corners.

Horchata refers to a range of drinks often made from nuts, seeds or rice, which are ground and mixed with water and a little sugar to make a “milky” beverage. This version is one that is common in Spain, where it is often made from tiger nuts, and which is lightly flavoured with a touch of spices and citrus peel.

Yes, tiger nuts. Chances are that you’re probably not familiar with these little fellows as they are pretty uncommon outside of Spain. However, they are to be found pretty much everywhere in Valencia and you can usually hunt it down in other Spanish cities if you look hard enough. I’ve certainly never seen them in London, but that’s not to say you would not be able to track them down if you were willing to commit some serious shoe leather to the task.

Chufas (to give them their Spanish name) are not actually nuts, but small tubers of a member of the sedge family of grasses. They are the size of hazelnuts, but look like small, shriveled potatoes or dried-out root ginger. So they’re nothing more fancy that little bulbs! However, if you soak them, the tiger nuts turn back the years, absorb water and become plump.

The actual horchata you make from chufas is not pure white (as it would be if made from rice), but has a very light tan colour. It has a certain richness in terms of texture, and the flavour is fresh but not heavy. The cinnamon and lemon zest add a certain aromatic quality to it, but the flavour is nutty – think fresh almonds or hazelnuts with a hint of vanilla. It is very much a drink for a hot day – either served over ice, or even served like a frozen milkshake – an Iberian snow cone!

So why all this background? Because when I was in Barcelona in early springtime, I went to Casa Gispert, a specialist shop offering a vast selection of nuts and dried fruits, as well as seeds, oils, wines and chocolate. A good place for a bit of a rummage. Way, way at the back of the shop I found bags of chufas. I knew immediately what I should buy them. It was finally going to be horchata time.

Now that was a little easier said than done, for I was really making something completely outside my comfort zone. No idea whatsoever. Flattering myself that I can sort of guess whether a recipe would work out or not, I perused a few websites to come up with something that seemed sensible (see here and here). However, I’ve come up with my own version (below), which is a bit of a make-it-up-and-hope-for-the-best sort of recipe, but it seems pretty darn good to me.

The locals actually take their horchata de chufa so seriously that they have gone so far as to set up a council to regulate local tiger nut production, with some interesting-looking recipes. However, I must draw the line at this one. To understand the joke, I should explain that many cafés in Valencia serve horchata with a sweet iced bun. All very nice, but these buns are lumbered with the unintentionally hilarious name of farton. Hilarious to the ears of an English-speaker, but I am sure the poor waitresses were rather over the schoolboy humour.

Naughty jokes to one side, although making horchata takes a bit of time, most of that time is spent letting things soak or infuse. It’s actually a doddle to make and makes a really pleasant, refreshing and different drink for a warm day. Salut!

To make horchata de chufa  (makes 500ml / 1 pint):

• 125g tiger nuts(*)
• 600ml water
• 1/2 stick of cinnamon
• 1 small strip of lemon peel
• 100g white sugar

• pinch of salt(**)

1. Thoroughly rinse the tiger nuts. Cover with cold water and soak overnight.

2. The next day, rinse the tiger nuts, cover again with fresh water and soak for a second night. The tiger nuts will change from small and wrinkly to smooth-ish and plump-ish, but should still feel very firm.

3. Rinse the tiger nuts thoroughly, remove any bad nuts, and put them into a food processor with about 200ml water. Grind as finely as you can. You might want to do this in smaller batches.

4. Pour the tiger nut/water mixture into a pot. Add the remaining 400ml water, the cinnamon and lemon peel. Stir and leave to sit in the fridge overnight.

5. Stir the horchata mixutre, then strain through a piece of muslin cloth to remove the bits of tiger nuts, cinnamon and peel. Squeeze the cloth to get as much liquid from the nuts as you can.

6. Add the salt to the milky liquid, and sugar to taste. Stir well to dissolve the sugar, and serve ice-cold(***).

(*) If you don’t have tiger nuts, you could use almonds or other nuts instead. If you do this, just soak the nuts overnight once as they soften more easily than tiger nuts.

(**) Salt is optional – I like it as it enhances flavours, but entirely up to you. Most likely not authentic…

(**) Horchata keeps for a day in a cold fridge, but won’t keep much longer than that.

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Utrechtse Spritsen

I realised today that this is my 300th post! It sometimes seems like I’ve only just started this blog, but then I look back at all those posts and realise just how much I’ve done. You forget a recipe or some special event, and then you see the post and it all comes back. Ah, memories!

Anyway, I promised a few days ago that I would try something from my new Dutch book of biscuits (which was a gift from Ria – thanks!). But which one should it be? I looked at several recipes, but in the end went for Utrechtse spritsen that my friend Sunshine had already spotted in my picture of the book. So that seemed about as good a way to start as any, and I decided to go with that one.

These are very rich butter biscuits which are named after Utrecht. It’s one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, blessed with lots of history and impressive architecture and beautiful canals. The name means “Utrecht shortbread” but from what I have been able to find out, the name originally comes from German spritzen (to spray) which makes sense when you know that the cookies are formed by squeezing the dough though a nozzle to get the distinctive ridges.

This was a new technique for me – you cream butter and a little egg, then add sugar, and finally work in the flour. The trick is to get a very light, smooth, soft dough that you can then squeeze through a star-shaped nozzle. You then make a wave pattern and bake. This leaves you with a long “strip” of cookie that can be easily cut while hot, but which hardens as it cools.

If you’re interested to see how to make them, there is a video here, but be warned that it’s only in Dutch. However, I think you get the idea of how to do it.

I found making these cookies quite easy, with two small wrinkles that it would have been nice to have known about before I started!

First, the mixture requires quite some muscles to squeeze the bag! The answer to this is probably to use a larger nozzle, but I did not have one to hand, so I just relied on sheer brute force. Also making sure that the dough is sufficiently light and smooth should make it easier to get spritsing.

Second, you need to cut the long strips of baked biscuit into pieces as soon as they come out of the oven. As soon as they come out. The biscuit starts to cool and harden very rapidly, and if you’re not quick enough, you get crumbly cuts instead of nice clean slices. This can be easily overcome by baking one long strip at a time, so that when it comes out of the oven, you can cut immediately with a very sharp knife.

The resulting biscuits are delicious – very simply, but perfect with a cup of tea or coffee. They’re about an inch wide and two inches long (3cm x 6cm) so they’re quite small, but I think that sometimes less is more. They’re the sort of biscuit you often get in a cafe with a cup of coffee – something small to nibble on. And when made yourself, they’re even better.

To make Utrechtse spritsen (makes approximately 30):

• 1/2 egg (30g), beaten
• 160g butter
• 100g light brown sugar
• 3g salt
• 15g vanilla sugar or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 250g plain flour

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a bowl, beat the egg and butter until fluffy – keep beating, it will happen! Mix in the sugar, salt and vanilla sugar or extract and beat for another minute.

3. Add the flour and mix well – towards the end you might find it easiest to mix with your hands. The mixture should be quite soft and light.

4. Put a star nozzle into a piping bag. Fill with the dough, then start to pipe a wave pattern – but there should be no gaps in the strip of dough. If you find that the piping is not working well, just scrape off the baking sheet and put back into the piping bag and start again.

5. Bake the spritsen for around 15 minutes until golden brown (turn the sheet if necessary to ensure even colouring).

6. Remove from baked spritsen from the oven and immediately cut into 3cm (1.5 inch) pieces with a very sharp knife

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Eye Bar (Noord, Amsterdam)

I’m just back from a few days in Amsterdam, and of course that meant I had the pleasure of wandering along picturesque tree-lined canals and peering across the water at pretty, tall houses. But sometimes, it is also interesting to find yourself in a part of town that might not be on the list of tourist hotspots, but which is changing and which brings with it a distinct buzz. In my case, I went to the “new” northern quarter of Amsterdam.

Noord is a corner of the city that is clearly about to change. Years ago, a trip to Amsterdam involved arriving at the main station, and heading south towards the charming old buildings and leafy canals as soon as you could. North? Oh no. The mighty river IJ (pronounced “eye”) marked the end of the city and beyond was terra incognita as far as the visitor was concerned, most probably unexciting territory won from the water. In short – not promising territory for those more interested in Dutch Masters and vintage flea markets.

But the times are changing. The city is building a new metro line to connect this quarter with the rest of the city. I’m sure it’s quite a feat as they have to deal with all those canals. As part of the renovation project, a new film museum has already opened on the north of the river. It gleams like a sleek yacht belonging to an unknown millionaire and has a cladding that is something of a nod to Dutch artist MC Escher, made from tessellating trapeziums (isosceles trapezoids, if you’re keen on geometry…I think).

But there is no need to wait years for the metro to be finished – just jump on the (currently free) boat behind the main station (which leaves every 5 minutes) and you’re on the other side of the IJ in, well, the blink of an eye. So what does this place offer the visitor? Besides some rather grand architecture of the building itself, there is a rather fantastic little cafe and restaurant, the Eye Bar-Restaurant.

I have to confess that it took me a moment to work out the clever name – it’s a play on the fact that it’s a cinema, and it’s on the River IJ, so the whole complex is called the Eye. In my case, it clicked after about 10 minutes. I like it.

The decor is wood and lots of black and white (a nod to the history of film) and the Eye has large glass windows offering vistas of Amsterdam. Now, let’s be honest, Amsterdam seen from here is not exactly picturesque. However, you do get to enjoy big skies and lots of sun dancing on the water. It’s actually all really rather lovely.

I didn’t arrive at the Eye at the right time for lunch, but I can recommend it as a place for coffee and cake. During my visit, they had only three sweet options on offer, which might seem a little bit thin. Just apple, lemon and chocolate.

However, what there might have been lacking in quantity was more than made up for in quality. The lemon and chocolate cakes came from Patisserie Holtkamp, and the apple tart (appelgebak) was from Patisserie Kuyt. A promising start!

Now, I need to confess that my picture really does not do this applegebak justice at all. It’s very much a tart – a buttery, crumbly base with generous amount of apple slices, currants, flaked almonds and cinnamon. Absolutely delicious.

I wondered if this was a healthy apple tart? Probably it was getting there, apart from some sugar and the rather heroic swirl of whipped cream along the side of the tart. But to have had it without the cream? Well, it probably would not have been the same experience. If you arrived flagging and ate a slice of that with your coffee, you’d leave happy and ready to take in more of the city.

Would I go back? Most certainly. The service was good, the coffee and cake excellent, and the Eye Bar has a spectacular terrace that allows you to make the most of a sunny day, or large windows to let in lots of light while protecting you from the elements. It’s also an area that is sure to change in the near future, so I’m sure I’ll pop back in if I’m in the neighbourhood.

Eye Bar-Restaurant, IJpromenade 1, 1031 KT Amsterdam. Tel: +31 (0)20 589 1402.

LondonEats locations map here.

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Little book of Dutch baking

I love to travel. A chance to switch off, slow down, and spend most of your time eating, drinking and sightseeing. It also provides lots of ways to get new ideas to take home with you.

So it was that during my recent visit to the Netherlands, I became the proud owner of a new cookbook, called simply Koekje (“cookie”). After a brief introduction, it then gets straight into the serious stuff of recipes written by two Dutch bakers, Cees Holtkamp and Kees Raat.

Dutch baking is probably most famous for the stoopwafel, two pieces of wafer filled with caramel syrup. And then…well, there is not a huge amount of recipes that spring to mind. Sure, there is speculaas, but versions of it also appear in France, Belgium and Germany, so a little tricky to claim it as unique. And that is where these gentlemen come to the rescue. Cees Holtkamp runs Patisserie Holtkamp, a traditional bakers which makes tempting treats that you can buy throughout Amsterdam. Kees Raat runs the Unlimited Delicious chocolate shop and patisserie in Amsterdam’s trendy Haarlemmerstraat. So basically…they know their stuff. They really know their stuff.

This means Koekje has a perfectly formed selection of 100 biscuits – 50 Dutch classics from Mr Holtkamp and 50 recipes with a modern twist from Mr Raat. The traditional cookies include some spectacular names like arnhemse meisjes (“little Arnhem girls”), utrechtse spritsen (“Utrecht sprays”), taaitaai (“tough-tough”) and haagsche wind (“wind of The Hague”), with recipes ranging from simple butter biscuits to those rich with nuts, fruit and spices. The contemporary recipes include javaanse jongens (“java boys” made with hot sambal sauce!), zeeschuim (“sea foam”) and zeeuws profetenbrood (“Zeeland prophet bread”). It’s fair to say that there is something in there for everyone, even if it does mean that you have to learn to pronounce names that often seem to contain an impossible pile-up of vowels.

I think this is a lovely little book – it’s been put together to look stylish, but each two pages have a clear picture of the finished item, and a simple recipe. Lots of these recipes look delicious, but none of them (yet) look like they would be too hard to make. It’s a good guide to just peruse when looking for inspiration, and it’s great to see traditional recipes and contemporary variants collected in one place and presented so well. A concept that would be great to see for the baking of other countries, perhaps?

It probably doesn’t take a genius to work out that I’m going to be making extensive use of my new Dutch baking bible. While there are a lot of recipes that are interesting, I am drawn to those that use more unusual ingredients – aniseed,  sesame, rye or sambal hotsauce – or those which are very different from British biscuits, such as “tough-tough” biscuits or the haagsche wind meringue recipe from 1880.

That’s the good news. Now for the bad news. As far as I’m aware, Koekje is not yet available in English, which is a shame, as I think it would be a great seller. So for the time being, it’s a case of even geduld alstublieft (patience please)!

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Diamond Jubilee: Diamants

Finally, after months and months of bunting and more Union Jacks than you could wave a stick at, the Jubilee Weekend has come and gone!

Today is the last in my series of royalty-inspired posts. I’ve made Regal Cola to serve at a street party, Edinburgh Tart (recalling HM’s previous title as Duchess of Edinburgh), Battenberg Cake (for Prince Philip’s family), Queen Cakes and Queen of Puddings. All well and good, but there is something missing. Something that reflects what this event is all about. Something that suits a diamond jubilee. What, oh what, should I make?

Clearly, it should be something that is based around the idea of the diamond. Biscuits in the shape of diamonds? Too easy. I could have gone for something that included edible diamonds, and while it is unlikely that HM will ever pop round to mine for a cuppa unannounced, I doubt that she would want to have a cake covered in fake diamonds. She’s got the real things back home. Nope, fake diamonds would be too tacky.

So I went rummaging in my cookbooks for a bit of inspiration…was there anything that referenced diamonds? Well, there  appears there is no such thing in the world of British baking. Nothing. Nowt. Nada. Rien…rien de rien…but wait…in the world of French baking, there is something. Something perfect. For France has some lovely little shortbread biscuits called diamants. Which means “diamonds”. Exactly what I had in mind!

If you don’t know these biscuits, they are super-simple. You make a shortbread dough, then chill it. Once very cold, you roll the whole log in granulated sugar to provide a little sparkle, then cut into slices for baking. Easy-peasy!

I think these are a suitable item to finish on. Shortbread seems to me to be somehow fitting – the Queen Mother was from an old Scottish aristocratic family, and we know that HM has a fondness for holidaying at Balmoral up on Scotland. Fine biscuits which are fit for a Queen!

To make diamants:

• 100 grams butter
• 50g icing sugar
• pinch of salt
• 1 egg yolk
• seeds of 1 vanilla pod or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 120g plain flour
• 20g ground almonds

Mix the butter and sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy. Add the salt, egg yolk and vanilla seeds, and beat until well combined.

Add the flour and ground almonds, and mix until the dough just comes together, and avoid the temptation to over-work.

Roll the dough into a log with a diameter of 3-4cm (depending on the size of biscuits you want). Wrap in cling flim, and leave in the fridge to chill in the freezer for an hour.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

Sprinkle some granulated sugar on a worktop, and take the dough “log” and roll in the sugar, pressing lightly to ensure it is well-coated. Use a sharp knife to slice biscuits of about a 1 cm thickness, and lay, cut side down, on the baking sheet.

Bake for around 10-12 minutes until the edges of the cookies are just turning golden. Remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly on the tray, and then move to a wire tack to cool completly.

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Diamond Jubilee: Queen of Puddings

The Diamond Jubilee festivities are ongoing – the Thames Flotilla yesterday and the Concert on the Mall this evening. Today I’ve moved on from baked goods and tried my hand at a pudding recipe. It’s the suitably regal Queen of Puddings.

The Queen of Puddings is a very rich dessert, which has a custard base, flavoured with lemon and vanilla, with a layer of jam (usually raspberry) and then topped off with lots and lots of fluffy meringue.

There are two ways to make this pudding – either in individual ramekins, or fill a large oven-proof dish for an even larger pudding. The result was – surprisingly – not unlike lemon meringue pie. Of course the custard was not as rich, nor as lip-smackingly tart as in a lemon meringue pie, but the citrus notes are still there. The pudding is traditionally served warm with custard sauce, but I think it also works well when served cold – you can appreciate the flavours of the custard, and the meringue becomes soft and marshmallow-like. In individual ramekins, I think they make for quite a stunning little dessert.

I suspect you might share my first reaction to the name of this pudding – I mean, it’s quite a bold claim, isn’t it? There are lots of desserts out there, so what makes this one so special? The first clue to the name is that this is the Queen of Puddings, not desserts. In days gone by, those that could afford sugar would make simple puddings with sweetened milk and left-over breadcrumbs. In time, a more luxurious version appeared, which included a layer of jam and which was finished off with a meringue “crown”, and hence the name “Queen of Puddings”.

This is a very easy pudding to make – you bring milk and cream to the boil, then add butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon zest. Then pour over fresh breadcrumbs and leave them to absorb the liquid. Once cooled, add egg yolks, then bake until set. Then you add a layer of jam, and then your imagination really can run wild. You finish off with a meringue topping which you can either pile up and swirl like clouds, or pipe it into swirls or cover in lots and lots of peaks. The recipe below is my own creation based on a number of sources – I’ve gone with what seemed right, what would give the right amount of sweetness and flavour.

Now…I’m going to confess that making this dessert was not quite as drama-free as I may have led you to believe. I started out making a large Queen of Puddings. I made the custard, baked it, added the jam, then piped the meringue on top to look like lots of little peaks. It looked superb. I baked it until the peaks were just golden, removed from the oven, and then tried to take pictures of it. The light was starting to fade, and I was keen to get the last of the sun’s rays for my shot, and hence I needed to get a surface to shoot on that was as close as possible to a window. At this point, I had two options. Either do it on a solid, stable surface, or build a precarious tower of cookbooks and balance a tray on top, then put the lot on a soft footstool.  So, like an idiot, I went with the latter, and after three pictures, the pudding started to slide. And it kept on sliding. The it fell off. I ended up with hot pudding all over my right hand (which spend a long time in cold water, then had anaesthetic cream applied to stop the sting!) as well as jam stains on my trousers and the carpets. Next time I am making something warm and want that “just from the oven” shot, I’ll be making sure my foundations are much more stable!

Now, time to setting down and watch the Diamond Jubilee concert!

To make a Queen of Puddings (makes 6 ramekins)

For the custard base:

150ml milk
• 150ml cream
• 25g butter

• 25g sugar
• pinch of salt
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g fresh white breadcrumbs

• 1 egg yolk

For the topping:

• 120g  jam (any, but red fruits are best)
• 2 egg whites
• small pinch salt
• small pinch cream of tartar

• 100g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon cornflour
• 1 teaspoon icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Rub six individual ramekins with butter.

Put the milk and cream into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the sugar, butter, salt, lemon zest and vanilla. Stir well until the sugar had dissolved. Add the breadcrumbs, and leave to sit for 20 minutes until the breadcrumbs have absorbed the milk and the mixture has thickened. If lumpy, blitz in a food processor for a few seconds. Once cool, add the egg yolk and mix well.

Pour into the ramekins and bake for around 15-20 minutes until the batter is just set but has not browned. Remove from the oven. Turn the oven heat up to 190°C (375°F).

Next, heat the jam in a saucepan. Once hot and runny,  divide between the six ramekins.

Now, make the meringue topping – in a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar to stiff peaks. Fold in the caster sugar and beat until stiff and glossy. Add the cornflour and beat for another few seconds. Spoon or pipe the meringue mixture over the puddings, dusting each with the icing sugar, and bake for 10-15 minutes until the topping is lightly golden.

Note: if you want to make a large pudding, double the amount of custard, pour into a 1 litre ovenproof dish. Use the same amount of jam. Make the meringue using 3 egg whites and 150g sugar.

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Diamond Jubilee: a tea party at Charbonnel et Walker

While tea party baking is a pretty big part of this weekend’s festivities at parties up and down the country, I was fortunate enough to receive and invitation to a tea party at Charbonnel et Walker, traditional London-based chocolatiers and…ta da…holders of a royal warrant.

So these are the people who provide chocolates to Buckingham Palace. As you can see below, they are also feeling very patriotic at the moment!

Charbonnel et Walker have been “purveying” chocolates in London since 1875. You might wonder where the French link comes from? Well, the future King Edward VII was rather partial to continental chocolate, and encouraged a French chocolate maker, Mme Virginie Charbonnel to leave Paris to seek her fortune in London. She teamed up with Mrs Minnie Walker, and the pair set up shop in Bond Street in fashionable and expensive Mayfair.

This is very much a traditional chocolate shop – beautiful boxes, lovely packaging and satin ribbons. The Jubilee, in particular, has inspired a lot of the gift boxes – lots of crystal crowns and Union Flags. However, if that’s not your thing, there are lots of more restrained (dare I say more British?) boxes to suit those tastes.

This last photography in particular is quite special – it is the actual royal warrant granted by HM The Queen.

I know Charbonnel et Walker’s chocolates, but the treat of the evening was the chance to actually taste things side by side – which truffle was my favourite, what chocolates did I like, and what new ideas are they thinking about?

We started with the classics – truffles, and would be tasting pink champagne, milk and dark versions. First of all, the very romatic pink champagne truffles. These are a milk chocolate centre with a white chocolate shell and dusting of powdered strawberry to give them a blushed look. These are the sweetest of the lot, and look very romantic, and are one of the best sellers. For the Jubilee, there are limited edition boxes encrusted with Swarovski crystals – I thought they looked rather amazing. If you were going for a more bling look at your party, this is clearly the way to go.

We also tried milk truffles, and then finished with dark chocolates dusted in cocoa. I liked all three, but it was the dark truffles that I loved. Rich, smooth and with a lingering warm earthiness from the cocoa powder. I might even go so far as to say the man’s truffle of choice?

After the intense richness of truffles, we got the chance to taste some more of their classic chocolates. And this is where things got very, very British. English rose and violet creams! These are fondant centres with rose or violet essence, and then topped with a crystallised petal. I’m normally someone that is a little wary of florals in chocolates but I was very pleasantly surprised by these – you know that these have rose and violet in them, but it’s delicate and refined. These have a very traditional flavour, so rather fitting for the nostalgia of the Jubilee. Indeed, I though these would be the sort of chocolate that would make wonderful wedding favours.

We also tried a couple of the “in development” flavours, which I gather are still top secret so I won’t talk about them. But there is one that I am going to rave about. For, to finish off, we were then treated to a new truffle that was about to go on sale. Salted caramel truffles.

Now, you might be sitting there thinking “yes, I’ve had salted caramel flavour in truffles before”. But these are different. Inside the chocolate shell there is actual liquid caramel and actual salt. Some bit into the truffle, and the caramel got everywhere. Others popped them in whole and let the flavours unfold. I was impressed. These things are very rich but seriously stunning chocolates. I’ll be keeping an eye out for these.

To wrap up our evening, we finally did get offered some teacups – it was a tea party, after all – but they did not contain tea. It was Pimm’s o’clock, the perfect summer drink to get us in the mood for a weekend of celebration.

So if you’re a visitor in London, you might see these chocolates on sale, but if you’re passing Piccadilly, you might want to pop in for a glimpse into the traditions on British chocolate. You’ve even got a portrait of Mme Charbonnel on the wall, keeping an eye on the whole affair.

Charbonnel et Walker, One The Royal Arcade, 28 Old Bond Street, London W1S 4BT. Tel: 020 7318 2075. Tube: Green Park.

LondonEats locations map here.

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