Tag Archives: america

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Today is Epiphany, so I wanted to make something traditional to go with the day. I made a (delicious) French galette du roi last year, but this year I was after something a bit more colourful than brown puff pastry when it is so grey and cold outside. Don’t get me wrong – I love a galette. We even shared one at work yesterday (news flash: I didn’t find the hidden figure, so I didn’t win the golden crown this year…) but there’s a limit to how exciting it is ever going to look.

And that’s where Louisiana’s King Cake comes in. You want colour? This guy is going to give it to your in full green, gold and purple Technicolor glory!

The King Cake is associated with the New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras. From 6 January, folk will get together for parties and serve up a King Cake. A key tradition if you want to be authentic is to get hold of a small plastic toy baby. Said baby should be baked into the cake, and then you invite your friends round to share it (hence the party).

The person that gets the slide with the baby will receive good fortune, and he or she will host the party next year. If you’re worried about plastic melting in the cake during baking, you could just push the toy inside the cake once it has cooled and before you ice it.

And if you are terrified about the choking hazard that said baby could present and you’re worried about serving up a deathtrap cake, you could instead hid a whole pecan or hazelnut in the cake. All of the fun, and actually a whole lot less risky.

The sugar on top is really important. Those colours matter – they are the official colours of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. They appear in beads, costumes, body art (!), decorations and, of course, on top of King Cakes. The history of Mardi Gras suggests that this colour palette can be traced back to 1872, when the King of the Carnival selected them. The gold symbolises power (rather than the more common association with wealth). Purple stands for justice, in terms of what is the right thing to do. And finally we have green, standing for faith.


Rather than going to the hassle of buying fancy coloured sanding sugar, I made my coloured sugar by putting a few spoonfuls of granulated sugar in a jam jar, then adding some gel food colouring I had diluted with a little vodka (you could use water). Put the top on the jar and shake it like crazy – and voilà, you have evenly-coloured sugar. I repeated the process with some pearl sugar to get some bigger chunks, and I think they worked out pretty well. For the gold, I added some strong yellow colour, but also some edible gold lustre powder, so it really does sparkle. Afterwards just spread the (damp) sugar on a plate and leave it somewhere warm to dry, then crumble it with your hands. It’s easy but probably worth doing the night before so you’re all set to go when you want to actually decorate the cake with lavish sprinkles of jolly colours. If you’re fed up with the cold and grey, massing about with rainbow sugar will cheery you up.

If you’re wondering about that sugar and thinking you might just skip it, don’t! The cake itself looks fairly ordinary, even with the white icing, but once all that sugar is on top….well, the whole thing is just transformed in an instant into a dazzling riot of colour and sparkle. It certainly brightened up my morning!

I made this cake using an adapted cinnamon bun recipe, so the dough is made with scalded milk to which I added butter, then left that to cool down. I then made the dough, swapping out cardamom for ground nutmeg, and filled the cake with a buttery cinnamon-brown sugar mixture. I’ve seen some suggestions about using chopped pecan nuts and even sultanas, so if those are your thing add them – they will taste great. I’ve also used a basic water icing for the glaze. You can make it richer with some cream, or even work cream cheese into the icing (or go more extreme and work cream cheese into the filling as well). This is a celebratory cake – you should be able to go fairly crazy with it. Just be sure to use those three colours!

I’m sure there is endless variety in terms of exactly how this cake should be made, and of course there must be people who swear that their recipe and no other is the real deal. Great, but my version tastes good and still looks very jolly, so I am happy with it.

And how does this lot taste? It’s delicious. In fact, it’s just like a giant cinnamon bun!

To make a King Cake:

Note: you can see how to shape the cake in this video, but I used my own recipe not the one listed there.

For the dough:

• 150ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 60g butter
• 1 large egg
• 350g strong white flour
• 50g white sugar
• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• milk, to brush before baking

For the cinnamon filling:

• 60g butter, soft
• 60g caster sugar

• 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• optional – chopped pecans or sultanas

To finish

• 1 small toy plastic baby or ceramic figure (optional)
• 150g icing sugar

• a few spoonfuls of water or double cream, to bind
• green, purple and golden granulated sugar, to sprinkle

1. Put the milk in a pan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the butter, stir until it has melted, then leave to cool until lukewarm. Once cooled, add the egg and beat well.

2a. If using a bread machine: Throw the milk mixture and the rest of the dough ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2b. If making by hand: put the dry dough ingredients into a large bowl. Add the milk mixture. Stir with a spoon at first, then transfer to a floured worktop and knead until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (this could take up to 10 minutes). Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with cling film, and leave in a warm place until doubled in size. When done, remove the cover and knock back the dough.

3. Make the cinnamon butter – put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until smooth.

4. Time to assemble the cake. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Roll into a large rectangle of around 30 x 50cm. Spread with the cinnamon butter. If you’re using nuts and/or sultanas, sprinkle them on top. Roll from the long side into a tight sausage (the sausage should be 50cm long).

5. Line a large baking tray with greaseproof paper. Transfer the sausage to the tray, and form into a ring. Join the ends as best you can – you can cover the join with icing later, but try to ensure there is a decent join, and moisten the overlap with some milk to stop the filling leaking out during baking.

6. Take some kitchen scissors. Start to snip into the outside of the ring at regular spaces – you want to go in about 1/3 of the way. Cover loosely with lightly oiled cling film or place in a large plastic bag, and leave to rise until doubled in size, about an hour.

7. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Brush the loaf with the milk and bake for around 25 minutes until puffed up and golden but not too dark. I recommend turning the tray after about 10 minutes to get an even rise and colour. You might want to lower the temperature towards the end of baking if the colour looks ready after about 20 minutes. When baked, remove from the oven and cover with a clean teatowel – this will trap steam and keep the cake soft. Leave to cool. If using a plastic baby, a ceramic figure or a pecan nut – press this through the base of the cooled cake.

8. Make the icing. Put the icing sugar in a bowl, and add two tablespoons of water or cream. Mix well, then keep adding a little more water or cream until the icing is still thick but will flow slowly. Spread the icing on top of the cake, then sprinkle straight away with the coloured sugar.

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{9} Snickerdoodles

You wait ages for some American Christmas cookies to make an appearance here, then two come along in quick succession. We had bizcochitos a few days ago, and now we’ve got New England’s snickerdoodles.

Snickerdoodle. It’s a funny name, eh? With a moniker like that, there is obviously some sort of fascinating story, and…well…I did look, but I didn’t actually find anything conclusive.

The obviously-always-reliable Wikipedia suggests the name is Dutch or German in origin and is actually a corruption of the German Schneckennudeln (the appetizing “snail dumpling”). But given the word ‘cookie’ comes from the Dutch koekje maybe the name has its origins in New Amsterdam rather than New England? It certainly sounds to anglophone ears like something a stereotypical Dutch character would stay on a comedy show. So I wondered if the name could be a more random literal translation. Well, the Dutch words snikker-doedel could be translated as “squeaky bagpipe”, but that really is getting rather silly. But hey, it’s Christmas, and I usually spend December 1/3 full of marzipan, 2/5 full of mulled wine and the rest full of chocolate and mince pies, so I’m really not so fussed.

Anyway, this crazy talk of squeaky bagpipes links to the other name origin theory, which is that New Englanders are apparently quite partial to whimsical names for their baking. This story sort of works, with other local names including Joe Frogger cookies (molasses, rum and nutmeg) and Hermit cookies (sultanas and raisins). Honestly, it is not exactly the long list of whimsical names I had hoped for, so I’m going with the corrupted German name story if it’s all the same.


That is enough talk about the name. What about the taste? These little guys are all about the cinnamon. It’s one of my favourite spices (the other being cardamom) and I’ll devour anything with a good dose of the stuff in it.

The recipe and flavour seems to be pretty universal – buttery dough (which might or might not have vanilla) that is rolled in cinnamon sugar before baking, and often with a traditional wrinkled and cracked appearance on top. Isn’t it nice when we all agree? Well, there is debate. There is a clear split in the world of snickerdoodle fans, is between those that like them chewy and those that prefer them to be more cake-like. Maybe it is being British that makes me prefer cookies that are either crisp or chewy. Anyway, my version are slightly chewy, which strikes a happy balance between the two.

When it comes to flavours, I’m usually all for experimenting. But this is one of those times when you just don’t need to. In fact, you probably shouldn’t mess around. Snickerdoodles are for lovers of cinnamon, and that’s why you would make them. I can’t imagine using any other spice to make these (clove cookies? Just…no!).

So happy snickerdoodling. Is it a verb? I really think it ought to be. And long may your bagpipes squeak!

To make snickerdoodles (makes around 30):

For the dough:

• 330g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 225g butter
• 300g caster sugar
• 2 large eggs

For the cinnamon sugar:

• 100g caster sugar
• 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1. Mix the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar and salt. Sieve, and put to one side.

2. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture and mix well until combined. The dough will be fairly sticky. Wrap it in cling film and chill for at least an hour, or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

4. Make the cinnamon sugar: mix the sugar and cinnamon, and place in a bowl for later.

5. Take pieces of the dough the size of a large walnut (around 30g) and form into a ball. Roll the ball in the cinnamon sugar. Place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly, leaving plenty of space for the cookies to expand. I baked them in batches, 8 per tray.

6. Bake the snickerdoodles for around 8-10 minutes (turning the tray half-way) until they have expanded and flattened. They will be soft when you take them out, but they will firm up and go a bit wrinkly as they cool. Immediately sprinkle over a little more cinnamon sugar, then transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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{7} Bizcochitos

If you are a regular follower of my Christmas baking endeavours, you’ll know that most of the delights I post about come from random corners of Europe. I think the only exceptions so far are  South African soetkoekies and Japanese-inspired chestnut sweets.

Well today we’ve got another addition to this exclusive set, as we’re heading all the way over to the Southwest of the USA – to New Mexico to be exact.


Bizcochitos are crisp-yet-crumbly biscuits dipped in sugar, and flavoured with aniseed and cinnamon. So far, so festive. However, bizcochitos are much more than just a festive cookie. It turns out that they are nothing less than the official state cookie of New Mexico.

Bizcochitos have a long history that can be traced back to the first Spanish residents of a region then called Santa Fe de Nuevo México, which would go on to become the state of New Mexico. Confusingly, the country of Mexico had not become independent of Spain at this time, so this name doesn’t seem to be as an alternative to the national of Mexico.

Anyway, over time, bizcochitos become associated with weddings and Christmas. Those original cookies were flavoured with the spices available at the time, either those that grew there or those that arrived via trade routes. And I think the use of lard in some versions can be traced back to this too – lard features in quite a few Spanish cookie recipes today. It is certainly the first time I have seen a recipe in which cinnamon and aniseed are the two prominent flavours. It’s an unusual but delicious pairing.


A key part of making bizcochitos is coating them in sugar while still warm from the oven. And you might wonder if you really need to add this layer of sweetness? In a word, yes!

First off, it is traditional, so if you don’t dip them in cinnamon sugar, you’ve just got some aniseed cookies. Oh, and it’s quite fun to dip them as you juggle them, hot from the oven, between your fingers to get them properly coated. Second, it is the sugar that adds the intense cinnamon flavour. I’ve added a little ground cinnamon to the dough in this recipe, but I think you’d be missing out if you didn’t do the dip. Finally, the dough itself is not that sweet – these little guys assume they’ll be rolling in sugar, so just go with it.

This is also a cookie that I discovered in a different way to most of my festive baking. I usually go on the hunt for ideas, trawling the web and looking in cookbooks. But I found out about bizcochitos as I was given a bag of them by our friend Jess when she visited from the US. They were addictive, so I looked them up, made them myself, and I was hooked. I can only hope that I’ve done them justice.


This is a great dough if you want to cut out fancy shapes and have the cookies keep their shape – I’ve gone a bit crazy with the cutters here. Some sources suggest stars and crescent moons are traditional, so I’ve gone with stars as well as hearts and scalloped cookies.

I’ve also done some smaller bite-sized cookies in the shape of a five-petal flower. These have a bit of a story about them. Yes guys, this is a post peppered with asides and memories! The shape is typical of a Japanese cookie called soba-boro which is made from buckwheat flour. I had originally intended to include soba-boro as one of my twelve bakes this year, and I made them twice. Sadly, I just didn’t like them. It turned out that they are known for a specific flavour which comes from using baking soda as the raising agent, and it just was not a flavour that I enjoyed. I thought I had made a mistake in my first attempt, so I was rather deflated when I realised on my second attempt that they tasted the same. Given they are a big hit in their culinary home of Kyoto, it may just be my personal preference. However I was quite taken with the shape, so I decided to try it one these cookies, and I think the result is really great. There is not fancy cutter involved – just cut out the flower, then find something round to cut out the centre (I used the tip of a large metal piping nozzle).


In terms of making these cookies, the process is fairly easy. The only advice I would offer is that once you’ve cut out the cookies and put them on the baking sheet, it is worth chilling them again so that they keep their shape as they bake. I put the whole tray in the freezer for 2 minutes, and it seems to do the trick. Other than that – get baking and think of the dramatic scenery of New Mexico as you enjoy the unusual flavour of bizcochitos.

To make Bizcochitos (makes 40-50, depending on size)

For the dough:

• 225g unsalted butter
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon aniseed extract

• 2 teaspoons aniseeds, crushed
• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1 large egg
• 350g plain flour, plus more if needed
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon salt

To finish:

• 150g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the cinnamon, aniseed, aniseed extract, brandy and egg, and beat well until light and fluffy.

2. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the flour to the butter mixture and mix with a wooden spoon and then your hands until it comes together to a soft dough.

3. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill it in the fridge for 30 minutes, or overnight.

4. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

5. Make the cinnamon sugar – put the sugar and cinnamon in a bowl and mix well.

6. Roll the dough out to around 4mm thickness and cut out cookies. Place them on a baking sheet (don’t mix shapes and sized on the same tray – some will burn before others are baked). Pop the tray and cookies in the fridge or freezer for 2 minutes.

7. Bake for 8-12 minutes until golden (the time will depend on the size – the flowers were 8 minutes, the scalloped cookies took 12), and turn the tray around during baking to get an even colour. Let the cookies cool for a brief moment, then fully dip each one into the cinnamon sugar, shake off the excess and transfer to a wire tray to cool completely.

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Independence Day Cake

It’s the Fourth of July, so here is a little cake in honour of US Independence Day! It’s my take on a recipe for the late 1700s – based on a bundt cake, and finished with gold in honour of the big day.

independence_cake_2

independence_cake_1

There is a little bit of a story behind this recipe. I found the original in one of my cookbooks, which features cake recipes from around the world. Among them all was a gem of a recipe of Herculean proportions and with little by way of directions. The limited information was all down to the fact this recipe originated in the late 1700s. Rather than just updating it, the author cleverly presented in all its glory, with original directions as follows:

Independence Day Cake by Amelia Simmons (1796)

The Cake:

• 20 pounds flour
• 15 pounds sugar
• 10 pounds butter
• 48 eggs
• 1 quart wine
• 1 quart brandy
• 1 ounce nutmeg
• 1 ounce cinnamon
• 1 ounce cloves
• 1 ounce mace
• 2 pounds citron peel
• 5 pounds currants
• 5 pounds raisins
• 1 quart yeast

Topping

• crushed loaf sugar
• box cuttings
• gold leaf

Sadly, the temperature of the baking oven was not given, but I would imagine it would need to be cooked slowly. If you do try and succeed do let me know.

And you know what? It was that last sentence that got me. This was not a “tested” recipe of the sort we’re all used to…but…what if I were to take that recipe…convert into measurements that are not so voluminous, and try to make this into a cake? With that, a challenge was set.

Before I could convert this lot, I was faced with a few decisions that were going to test my culinary knowledge. First off, I had to get the types of ingredients right. The butter was pretty easy (it’s a safe bet that the butter we have today is not unlike the butter available back in the 1700s), but the sugar was less clear. Should it be white or brown? While I like to use muscovado sugar in baking, this was supposed to be a celebratory bake, so I opted for sparkling white caster sugar. Next, the flour. In cakes, it should be plain flour. However, when making yeasted doughs, I use strong white flour that gives a light, springy texture. I didn’t know which to go with, so given this was more cake than bread, it would be plain cake flour. Luckily the spices, citrus peel and dried fruit did not require much thinking, otherwise I would have been in the kitchen all day fretting!

The method also presented something of a challenge. I started by weighing everything out into bowls, and then I was own my own – pure guesswork territory. I creamed the butter and sugar, added the eggs, then the flour and the yeast mixture. After that, the fruit was worked into the batter, and I left the cake to rise for a few hours.

Sadly…the cake had other ideas, and decided that it didn’t really want to puff up as I had hoped. Instead, it remained dense. All in all, a bit of a failure.

I was deflated but not defeated. A few days later, I had another go at the cake, but this time embraced the fact that the world of baking has moved on since the 1700s, and we now benefit from a magic substance called baking powder. I could skip the whole yeast thing, and instead rely on the white stuff to do the job. And this time, the cake worked like a dream. The crumb is tender and moist, and the cake has a rich, velvety texture that works very well with the spices, citrus peel and dried fruits.

independence_cake_3

independence_cake_4

Now, we also need to keep in mind that this is a cake to celebrate Independence Day. The original recipe suggests loaf sugar, box cuttings and gold leaf. I’ll freely admit that I have no clue was is meant by box cuttings (leaves from the box hedge plant?), and I didn’t have loaf sugar to hand. So again, I improvised – a simple glaze, drizzled in loops on top of the cake, and then finished, as was intended, with some flakes of gold leaf. Very celebratory!

So what do you think? Suitably impressive for the Fourth of July? I’d like to think so, and I hope that Miss Amelia Simmonds would too.

To make an Independence Day Cake (modern version!):

• 4 tablespoons rum
• 60g citrus peel, chopped
• 90g currants
• 90g sultanas
• 190g butter
• 280g sugar
• 2 eggs
• 350g self-raising flour

• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon cloves
• 1/2 teaspoon mace
• 150ml milk

For the glaze

• 85g icing sugar
• 4-5 teaspoons double cream
• gold leaf

1. Put the rum, raisins, sultanas and citrus peel into a bowl. Mix, cover and leave to sit overnight (or if you’re in a hurry, heat quickly in the microwave and leave to sit on the kitchen top for an hour).

2. Prepare a cake pan. If using a bundt pan, brush with melted butter, then dust with plain flour. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

3. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the spices and mix well.

4. Combine the flour and the baking powder. Add half of the flour mixture and half of the milk to the batter, and mix until smooth. Repeat with the rest of the flour and the milk. You should have a smooth batter that drops slowly from the back of a spoon.

5. Finally, fold in the currants, sultanas and citrus peel.

6. Spoon the mixture into the cake pan and bake for around 45-60 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Once baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly, then turn out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

7. To finish the cake, make the glaze by combining the icing sugar and cream. Mix until smooth – it should be soft, but not runny. Drizzle on top of the cake, then add flakes of gold leaf to finish the cake.

Worth making? In spite of all this history and the fact I’ve had to convert this cake into modern quantities, this is a great cake – spicy and fruity, but not heavy. This would make a great and lighter alternative to traditional fruit cakes.

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Thanksgiving in Miami

Today I’m completing the triple – the last part of the grand tour of the East Coast of the US!

As much fun as it was to spend a decent amount of time in New York and Washington DC, these are not places noted for their warm weather in November, so it was off to Miami’s South Beach for a week, staying at the super-fancy SLS South Beach hotel. This is a recent addition to the city, but based in an old art deco building which once housed the Ritz Plaza. It’s quite something to wake up in the morning to be greeted by the inviting blue waters with the sun shining brightly. I defy you to look at the picture below and not be jealous!

I’d love to say that I could write lots about daily cultural events and sightseeing, but the reality is that most of the time was spent lying on the beach, swimming in the sea, walking around South Beach’s art deco historic district, eating, drinking and buying souvenirs. In my defence, there was a lot of cultural activities up north, so beach life was perfectly acceptable by this stage. The food was also pretty darned good – in particular, I loved the SLS hotel restaurant Bazaar by José Andrés, where the patatas bravas were superb, and the great Escopazzo restaurant, which offered a superb vegetarian tasting menu with wine pairing. Extravagant, yes, but wonderful food.

One of the reasons that we ended up mostly staying in South Beach and doing nothing more challenging than choosing between beer or a margarita is that you need a car. It’s not just that Miami is a fairly car-friendly city, it’s that all of Southern Florida makes having a car pretty much essential. South Beach is on an island, and you can walk everywhere, but if you want to go a bit further afield, you’ve either got to rent a vehicle, take taxis, or brave Miami’s public transport system, and as we had no ride, that made exploration a little challenging.

However, we were keen to check out Calle Ocho (8th Street) in Little Havana and the Miami Design District. So we decided to do it by public transport. Yes, public transport. From our perspective, the buses looked quite cool, with their 80s neon Miami Vice style livery and on-board airco. However, many Americans (i.e. those with cars) looked at us like we were utterly mad. Maybe we were naive, but the main problem with trying to get anywhere using a bus was simply that it takes a long, long, long time for something to turn up, then another long, long, long time for you to get anywhere.

Anyway, after a long, long, long trip, we got to Calle Ocho, but Little Havana turned out to be a little less exciting than I had hoped, but I put this down to the fact that it was a cool, cloudy Tuesday morning, so hardly the riot of Latin culture that you might expect. Perhaps Saturday evening after the sun has been beating down all day means the place is alive? Nevertheless, I managed to score a jar of Cuban dulce de leche and find the Gloria Estefan star on the Calle Ocho Walk of Fame. Then another bus back to Downtown Miami. This was also slow, but those Cuban grannies all look pretty awesome in their designer sunglasses.

Afterwards, I did something I’d been tipped off about years ago – downtown Miami has a driverless elevated train that whizzes around the towers, and it’s free to boot. It was quite fun after the sloooooowness of the bus from Little Havana to practically fly around the city and it offers some great views. After checking out superyachts at the seafront, it was a short taxi ride up to the Miami Design District. Sadly, they were gearing up for a major event, so a lot of places were closed for remodelling. However, I managed to pick up some quite fun Christmas decorations and an earthenware fox from the Jonathan Adler store, all of which seemed suitably OTT to represent Miami in my Christmas box.

The other “big trip” of the week was with a friend who lives just north of Miami to Delray Beach on Thanksgiving, and then on to a dinner with Cuban friends in the evening. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve seen so much food! There was a huge turkey covered in bacon, massive trays of mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with nutmeg/brown sugar/marshmallows, greens, cornbread…. I managed a small portion of the veggie goodies, and have to admit the sweet potatoes were pretty amazing, although I could not quite bring myself to eat them with the marshmallows. It was a great night, and we were honoured to be invited to join in with a special celebration.

Other than that, it was a week of palm trees, sun, sand, key lime pie, swimming, flip flops, ice cream and cold beer. I could really get used to these extended holidays! Hope you’ve enjoyed the pics, and normal (foodie) service should resume shortly.

And with that, back to real life in London!

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The Monuments of Washington DC

You might have seen this post before – I accidentally pressed the “publish” button last night!

After the buzz and excitement of New York, the next leg of my trip was to visit Washington DC. The train was, by far, the easiest way to get between these two great cities. We’d pitched up early at the station, but it seems you don’t need to be there more than 15 minutes ahead of time. Any earlier, and you’ll find yourself hanging about on the concourse, desperately looking for a source of free WiFi. Lesson learned!

The trip itself took in Philadelphia, Baltimore and coast of Chesapeake Bay. Travelling through the landscape, the evidence of the recent storm was still clear to see – felled trees, fallen power lines and damaged buildings. However, there were also elegant bridges, beautiful forests and lakes whizzing past. Far nicer than the plane for such a short trip!

DC was a new city for me, and I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, I have seen it for years on TV, but I wondered what the place was like, the feel, the pulse of the place. Living in London, you’ve got a combination of the fun, exciting city alongside the grand buildings, monuments and institutions of state in one place, somewhere where things are chaotic and unplanned. In contrast, DC was planned to serve as a national capital, with streets based on a neat grid system and wide avenues.

That’s the theory, but there is, quite frankly, nothing that can prepare you for the moment that you first see the Washington Monument by night, or the glistening white dome of the Capitol above the city. This place was intended to impress and I was wowed.

We were staying at Donovan House on Thomas Circle, which is a boutique hotel with a great futuristic feel in the rooms. A padded dark leather band around the middle of the room lent a 2001 feeling (minus the crazy robot) and the bathroom has a spiral shower. It also has a fantastic roof terrace with good views, but sadly it was too chilly to enjoy this other than by sneaking a peek early one morning. Next time…

A great thing about our location was that it was a few minutes to walk to the White House. To the White House. So, of course, that just had to be the first stop. I like to think of myself as being reasonably well-travelled and sufficiently cool not to get giggle like a schoolchild, but I was genuinely excited to be standing at the railing looking at this iconic building. There were even a few protests outside to make it clear that you’re in a place where politics is the life blood of the city.

For that first evening, we had a dinner booked, but enough time to sneak up to the bar on top of the W Hotel opposite the White House, and enjoy cocktails while trying to spot snipers on the roof. A French 75 and a Negroni made us less than efficient at spotting said snipers, but again, it was just so thrilling to be sitting there, drink in hand, taking in the spectacular view. I really want to go back there in summer when the whole terrace is open on a warm evening.

For afterwards, in a rare moment of organisation, I’d booked dinner at a restaurant in the Dupont Circle area called Nora. If I told you this was America’s first certified organic restaurant, you’d think it was a terribly worthy place, but it about as far from the lentils-and-nut loaf brigade as you can imagine. The cocktails were great, and the food superb. As a bonus, they offered a tempting vegetarian tasting menu, but we stuck to the a la carte. I also loved that whereas London folk tend to be loud and raucous, these DC folk were chatting enthusiastically but intimately in the dimmed lighting. Maybe it’s because everyone is discussion political intrigue?

The next day, it was time for some serious sightseeing. In NYC you feel like you’re seeing what the city is about by just walking the streets and looking up from time to time, but in DC, there are monuments galore that you must go to see. I had booked to go to the US Capitol, so it was a quick ride in the surreal DC subway system. I say “surreal” as the system is clean, modern and very retro (the future as imagined in the 1970s), but what was rather strange was the way each station looks the same, and each of them is very dim. It’s like the people running this system want you to feel like you’re deep underground. If they’re replacing the lights, I suggest a higher wattage would not go amiss. But don’t lose that retro look.

Emerging from the darkness back into the light, you get what must be one of the great views in the world, the US Capitol against a perfect blue sky. The air was crisp, and the leaves on the nearby trees added a little extra brightness to the scene. But we were not just there to look at the outside, we were going to do the full tour. And the Americans know how to do a good tour. They start with a film that explains the national motto e pluribus unum (out of one, many) and even I, as one of those Brits who had earlier burned down the original Capitol, found this all very rousing. It was then time to go and see the rotunda, the sculpture gallery (each state can place two statues in the Capitol, made either from marble or bronze), the original chamber of the US Supreme Court and experience a vote in the US House of Representatives. All big, all grand, all impressive. With all of this celebration of the good ole US of A, we felt it was only fitting to have burgers and fries in the Capitol cafeteria. As you’d expect, their burgers and fries were pretty darn good.

Next, it was a slow wander from the Capitol down to the National Mall. As this time, there was a lot of work underway at the front of the Capitol to erect the stage for the second inauguration of President Obama, and the grassy areas were being re-turfed as part of a renovation project. Great work, but spoiled my ability to get some great pics…grrr… but in the fantastic weather, the Washington Monument looks sensational on the horizon and the various buildings the form part of the Smithsonian lined the Mall like grand old dames of the city. Sadly, when reaching the Monument, it turns out it is closed for renovations until 2014 due to damage caused during a recent earthquake (!), but pressing on, the Lincoln Memorial beckoned in the distance. The reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial offers a spectacular vista of the Washington Monument, but I found the ambiance around the Memorial rather surprising. I had expected a spot of contemplation and reflection on the life of a great man, but there were a lot of loud tourists, people sliding down the banisters, shouting, playing music from iPhones. Perhaps its a sign of my age, but I would have thought people would have treated the Lincoln Memorial differently. But I guess it is better that people are visiting than not.

Walking back through the park, we passed the very moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The style is incredibly simple, and knowing that all of the names on this wall were people who were either killed or were missing in action is overwhelming. I found it hard to comprehend just how many names were engraved in this place. Here, things felt calm and respected, and the presence of flowers showed that these are names which still mean a lot to people today.

From the National Mall, we headed back to get another view of the White House from the front, including something that was attracting a lot of attention – Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden. I loved the fact that it looked like the sort of garden that any family could have – in the corner of the lawn, growing what looked like a decent selection of vegetables, and with a couple of kids asking their parents if they could have a garden like the First Lady. There’s an impact being made right there. Afterwards, it was over to Georgetown to get a slightly different take on the city, and enjoy the pretty old houses and leafy streets, which looked prefect in the hazy late afternoon autumn sunshine.

The next day was dedicated to checking out everything that had been missed the day before, namely the wonderful museums of DC. So often when I’m in a new city, I find myself comparing the one or two museums with what we have back in London, and thinking “yeah, it’s nice, but London has more”. Not the case here, however, as DC has some amazing collections. Truly inspirational to have access to so much in such a concentrated area.

The first port of call was the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. This was an old (apparently crumbling) government building until it was taken over, the courtyard given a dramatic makeover with a glass canopy and converted into a gallery. A beautiful space, and I loved the exhibit on great 20th century American personalities. From there, we passed the National Building Museum. While we did not have time to go round, it was topped as a fascinating place to pop into given the huge columns inside the structure supporting a vast atrium.

The next place I wanted to go, and where I was keen to spend as long as I could, was the National Museum of the American Indian. The story of the American Indian population is one that I was not too familiar with, but I found this place both informative and deeply moving. There was some wonderful content showing both the richness of what has been lost across the Americas as well the work that still goes on to protect this cultural heritage today.

The final stop was the National Museum of American History. Here was the chance to see some of the history behind some great American icons – most importantly the Stars and Stripes – as well as the way in which the media has played a fundamental role on shaping the role of presidents and the way they are portrayed. As a favour for a friend who was keen to have some pictures, I passed the exhibition of First Lady fashion. Yes, I saw that Nancy Reagan red china service as well as that Michelle Obama inauguration ball gown. Pictures of her Jimmy Choos are below if you’re into that sort of things…

That evening, there was just time for a stroll around the Mall by night to enjoy the illuminated monuments, before dinner in the Asian restaurant Zentan in our hotel. It turns out, this was the place to be for dinner, going by the number of sexy interns who were hanging around the bar. We’d already had a tip that Zentan is famed for “some salad with like a zillion things in it” and, indeed, there is was on the menu, the Singapore Slaw with 19 ingredients. It was, quite simply, amazing. Crisp fried noodles, tender julienne vegetables, carved carrot shapes, squash, peas, toasted peanuts, plum sauce, daikon…I would struggle to name all 19 ingredients, but I loved it.

The next day, there was just enough time to explore the up-and-coming 14th Street area, before heading off via Ronald Reagan International Airport. We could have flown out of Dulles airport, but come on – you know you want to fly from Ronald Reagan. And with that, the chilly autumnal days of the North-East were behind us and it was next stop Miami!

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Six Days in the Big Apple

You may have noticed the recent blogging min-hiatus, which was due to me going on holiday for two and a half weeks. In November! A sheer delight, and something I have had been looking forward to for a very long time.

I promised a little note of what I got up to as well as some pictures, so here you go! This gallery is probably quite familiar to you if you’ve been following my shots on Instagram, but it’s also nice to see all these little moments in one place.

Arriving just after Hurricane Sandy, it was clear on the way in from the airport that the city was still in clean-up mode. Even a week later, there were fallen branches and only a partial subway service. I felt it best to steer clear of the hardest hit areas – they need to recover and clean up, and without gawking tourists. It also makes you incredibly grateful to live in a city that does not, by and large, experience this sort of extreme weather.

I was staying in the middle of Manhattan at the NoMad hotel which is “located in the hear of the historic NoMad district” according to their website. The NoMad moniker (which was a new one to me) apparently comes from the area being north of Madison Square, but “the cheap wig and costume jewellery district” would have been a bit more accurate. If you need a Lady Gaga hairbow special, there is a place just down from the NoMad that sells it – you never know when the need may arise! I’m sure that this will probably be a very trendy part of town in about six months, and passé in about twelve, but at the moment, I was staying in a (very small) island of cool in the middle of a lot of weaves and clip-in pony tails. One gem (not of the costume variety) was The Flatiron Room on W 26th Street, which offers a vast array of whisky, either straight or in cocktails (think Old Fashioned or Rye Sours, rather than Mojitos). This place was so good we drank rather too much whisky before dinner at the NoMad hotel restaurant, and doubtless, we made an impression on the restaurant staff for all the wrong reasons…nevertheless, if you’re in the area, it’s worth checking out, or even booking a table to slink along later to enjoy hard liquor and some live music.

What I did like about the neighborhood was its proximity to mega-delicatessan Eataly on Madison Square, which was perfect for morning coffee and Italian pastries. It had what seemed like acres of floor space piled high with just about any Italian food treat you can imagine. I can see how people spend a lot of time and money here, but I used it more for browsing – I can get most of this stuff in London if I look hard enough, and I wasn’t aiming to bring back Italian chestnut flour or Parmesan from New York. I suspect that one you start shopping there, it’s hard to stop. However, in the nearby Whisk I did pick up something more unique, a selection of bitters with some unusual flavours, so ideal to add a little extra something to festive G&Ts. The hotel was also very close to Madison Square’s daily farmer’s market, where you had tables literally groaning with cut-price post-Halloween squash, and I came away with a selection of goodies for daytime picnics, plus maple syrup from Vermont and maple candies made from pure, crystallised syrup. It was here I also came upon one of the most unusual things of the trip – a rye sourdough bread baked with cheese and sauerkraut, made by an upstate farm. It sounded strange and I had to try a slice. At first I wasn’t keen, but by the last mouthful, I was ready for one more. It’s a strange combination, but somehow it worked. With a cold beer on a warm day, it would have been even better.

Of course, it was not just about food, and there was quite a bit of sightseeing on the agenda. On just about every visitor itinerary is the High Line (a park constructed along an abandoned elevated rail track), and for me this was my third visit since it first opened. I walked along the initial section around three years ago, when it was still a novelty and quite quiet. However, it has since taken its place as one of the things to do in the city, and it’s less of an elevated walk and more like a shuffle. A shuffle the does offer some spectacular views across the city, the West River and glimpses of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. By this time, it has extended all the way from 14th Street up to 30th Street (not, ahm, one of NYC’s jewels), but is going to be extended further towards the West River, so I look forward to seeing that next time I’m in town.

In terms of more traditional sightseeing (and so back to food), I wanted to go back to a little breakfast place I love called Elephant & Castle, if for little more than the fact this place shares its name with a London tube station and it offers great pancakes. From there, it was a hop, skip and jump into the West Village and SoHo to check out lavish boutiques selling items I could not afford. It’s fun, but sort of like going to a gallery where you can admire lovely things you will, without a doubt, not be taking home afterwards. I did manage to score some nice items in various cookshops though, adhering to the mantra that I should try to buy things that I cannot get (or can only get with difficulty) back in London.

One of my favourite visits during the trip was to the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side’s Orchard Street. This is a historic building which has been preserved and now serves as a museum, telling the story of various immigrants who came to the US and lived at this address on Orchard Street. We got a tour which told the story of a Jewish seamstress in the late 19th century and an Italian family in the first half of the 20th century. If you get the opportunity, it’s well worth stopping by – stories from the past the have parallels with our times, and the museum makes it all the more real by tracing these people through time via census records to tell their story. In one case, they have recordings of the memories of one woman who lived there as a little girl, which was very moving.

That evening, dinner was in Dirt Candy in the East Village. The name might sound odd, but it refers to candy from the dirt (earth) i.e. vegetables! The chef/owner Amanda Cohen offers up innovative hearty vegetarian fare, and can also make anything on the menu as a vegan option. I’d read ahead of the trip that this place has been hit by the flooding and power cuts of Sandy, so I was glad that it had re-opened. However, I got my dates wrong, turning up a day early. Luckily, we had theater tickets booked, so could assure the manager we would be out within the hour. Given that it’s a rare treat to find somewhere where you can choose between two veggie dishes on a menu (even if one if often the dreaded mushroom risotto), I felt positively spoiled for choice to have a free run at the menu here. We loved the scallion pancakes, cooked like Danish æbleskiver (or “puff pancakes”) and that chard gnocchi main, but the star was the dessert – aubergine tiramisu with rosemary candy floss. If I’d just been more organised, we could have stayed a little longer to enjoy the great food rather than dashing off to the theatre. Mea culpa.

Yes, NYC is a show town, and I had taken the opportunity to see a play, the oddly-names If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. This is the tale of a dysfunctional British family, and as their lives and relationships fall apart, they destroy the set, culminating in a flood scene. The star of the play was Jake Gyllenhaal, and a few folk have been curious to know how well he did a British accent. Overall, I think he did a reasonable turn, as he wasn’t trying to do the standard posh English. It did wobble a little towards Brummie, West Country and Australian from time to time, but overall, a decent attempt. However, the content was rather heavy going for holiday viewing, so I didn’t exactly leave with the spirit soaring.

However, any feeling of melancholy was swiftly removed by a wander through Times Square. Yes, this is perhaps about the tackiest place that you can go to in this town, but there is something compelling about all that neon. I swear that while standing there, you could feel the heat of the lights on your face in the chilly winter air. It might be lame, but it’s also an exhilarating and vibrant place. I was there as a tourist, and I loved it, even if just for a little while!

On the final day, with another clear blue sky, it was perfect weather to take in the autumnal shades of Central Park, where gingko trees were blazing with gold, and maple trees were brilliant crimson. I also swung by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and managed to acquire a glass pomegranate, thereby continuing my tradition of buying impractical Christmas decorations that then need to be transported with great care in trains and planes (fyi – this pomegranate made it back to London in one piece).

I was also happy to get the chance to meet up with someone I’ve been corresponding with on Twitter, the very lovely Johanna Kindvall, who is behind the great Kokblog site. We went for lunch in a little place in Boerum Hill, and I think it’s great fun to finally meet people you’ve been in contact with for a while. If you don’t know her blog, it’s worth checking out for a fresh take on Scandinavian food seen from a Brooklyn perspective. Dirt Candy was also her tip, so I got to enjoy two tasty meals thanks to Johanna!

For the last evening, I had dinner at the Don Antonio pizzeria, where I had one of the tastiest and naughtiest things I’ve eaten for quite some time. Their house specialty is the Montanara Starita, where the pizza base is quickly fried, before being topped with smoked mozzarella and tomato sauce and popped into the oven. Most likely quite unhealthy, but it was absolutely delicious, and I have to admit that it’s lucky they don’t have a London branch (yet?), as these things could become addictive. But in case the fried pizza was not enough, as a dessert we took something that sounded like “angel hair”. I expected delicate strands of crisp, fried dough akin to churros. Instead, it was a bowl of chunky pizza dough, slathered in Nutella. Another dish that could get addictive, and even I had to admit defeat before I got to the half-way point.

With by belly filled and wrapped up against the cold, we went off to see a light-hearted new musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens. I loved it – in fairness I had consumed a lot of wine by this point (including more in the theater, which was offering the stuff by the pint!) but it was firmly marketed as a jolly Christmas affair, and I think they got the pantomime theme spot on. There was also a lot of British humour in there, and I did wonder if the audience were getting all of the jokes, but everyone seemed to be having fun. Maybe not high art, but a great night out, even if it’s difficult to know how Mr Dickens might have reacted.

And with that, after six action-packed days and nights, it was time to leave NYC, and head off to catch the train from Penn Station to Washington DC! I hope its not too long until I’m back though.

Oh, and I have to comment on that last photo. I’ve included it as there were adverts everywhere for the Lindsay Lohan TV movie Liz & Dick. It actually premiered the day after I left the US, so I’m curious to actually see it when it comes out. It’s been tagged as something of a “must see” for various reasons!

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Fourth of July: Boston Baked Beans

Today it’s the Fourth of July – so let’s make something traditionally American, the good old-fashioned Boston Baked Beans!

Well, I say “good old-fashioned” but actually, I don’t know very much about them other than I like their name, so I thought it was about time to give them a bash. And a recipe from The Well-Cooked Life looked just perfect.

I know some people get terribly snobbish about baked beans and don’t like the tinned ones, but I’m not one of them. One of life’s greatest pleasures is a Saturday morning involving toast covered in cheese, grilled and then topped with baked beans. Delish.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea of making beans from scratch that had a bit more pep to them. A few minutes on Google told me that they are normally made with salted pork and molasses, so you’ve got a powerful savoury/salty yet sweet flavour. Clearly the pork was not going to happen in my case, so I added a bit of soy sauce instead to get more “savoury” than just salt would contribute. The other ingredients also promised something rather grand – lots of spices, hotness from sambal (my preferred way of adding heat to a dish), sweetness from molasses and fried onions and sharpness from some cider vinegar.

Boston Baked Beans are also a complete doddle to make, albeit a little planning is needed to make sure that the beans are properly soaked and cooked, but it’s mainly a case of soak, boil beans, mix sauce, bake.

One little wrinkle that affected my beans – I didn’t have dinky little beans (like you get from the tinned ones) so I used the ones I had in my cupboard, which were crab-eye beans. They were a little larger, and stayed a little firmer when cooked. They were still delicious, but when I make these again, I’ll be using the smaller beans in the future.

What you do need to be prepared for is that these beans are not a neon orange hue – all that molasses or treacle makes the sauce a rich red-brown colour. However, the flavour is completely, totally, utterly sensational. The sum is greater than the individual parts – and actually, that makes this a rather fitting dish for Fourth of July.

To make vegetarian Boston Baked Beans (adapted from here):

• 350g beans
• water
• 3 tablespoons oil
• 1 clove garlic, chopped
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 white onions, chopped
• 2 heaped teaspoons paprika
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 2 large pinches ground cloves
• 2 tins chopped tomatoes
• 2 tablespoons concentrated tomato puree
• 1 teaspoon of chili or sambal
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 240ml treacle or molasses

• 120ml cider vinegar

1. Soak the beans overnight in cold water.

2. The next day, cook the beans according to instructions on the packet (how long you boil and simmer depends on the type). When cooked, drain the beans.

3. In the meantime, make the sauce. Fry the onions in the oil until golden. Add the garlic, cook briefly, then add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes.

4. Mix the cooked beans and the sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning as required.

5. Pour the beans into an ovenproof dish. Cover and bake in the oven at 160°C (320°F) for 2-3 hours until the sauce is thick and the beans are soft. If the beans get too dry, top up the water.

Worth making? This is a complete flavour explosion, and utterly delicious. The basic recipe should appeal to most tastes, and you can tweak and adjust the spices to suit what you like. Definitely worth having a go at.

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Guest Chef: Brooklyn Berry Pancakes

For those that have missed the many, many hints at the end of 2010, I spent New Year in New York this time round and had an absolute blast.

On 30 December, we had a real Mad Men evening, and headed to Midtown for dinner at the super-swish Casa Lever. This place was, quite simply, stunning. A fantastic bar with well-made (i.e. strong) cocktails, and a funky 1950s-inspired retro interior. That selection of Warhol-style prints on the wall? Eh…no…they are Warhols. I loved, loved, loved this place. The menu is not vast, but even given this, I found the veggie selection to be pretty good, and – refreshingly – rather innovative. Mushroom risotto is all well and good, but ’twas not to be seen. Instead, it was a joy to eat  their fantastic baby beet salad, followed by pear ravioli with smoked butter. Sitting in the coveted corner table, all of us dressed up smartly, it was a superb meal. We rolled out of there, and straight into the nearby Monkey Bar for more, eh, cocktails. Just a quick Old Fashioned to finish off the evening. Then into a cab and whisked through the icy streets of Manhattan, over the bridge and into Brooklyn with the glittering skyscrapers of the city piercing the freezing night air…

…however, the next morning, it is fair to say that we were a little “delicate”. I put it down to the jet lag. Honest! But we were fortunate enough to wake up to the smell of the hostess’s pancakes. After a little persuasion, she agreed to let me take the pics and post the recipe. So here as her (almost) famous Brooklyn Berry Pancakes, which also makes her my first guest chef of 2011!

In this recipe, you are looking for large fruit, and then drop three or four sizeable berries (blackberries, raspberries – fresh or frozen) onto the top of the pancakes are they sizzle in the skillet (frying pan – this word confused me at first – we really are two nations separated by a common language).

All was peaceful until I asked for syrup. Maple syrup was promptly presented with a flourish (“the finest Vermont maple syrup from our trip up there in Autumn…”), and I made a throwaway comment about how great golden syrup is on pancakes. Don’t get me wrong, I love maple syrup, but I also love golden syrup and salty butter on pancakes. But this was the wrong crowd, and there was probably nothing I could do to bring them round. The American perspective about the wrongness of golden syrup was rammed home with a tale about glazing a holiday roast in England with golden syrup and the resulting “interesting” taste experience that followed. We left it agreeing I would never persuade them, and all was good when we later dropped by Dean & Deluca in the New Year, I picked up a full 16 fl oz of maple syrup to take home. With that, we were all friends once again, not that I think we were ever not.

To make American Berry Pancakes:

• 180g plain flour
• 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• pinch of salt
• 2 tablespoons melted butter (plus extra, for frying)
• 300ml milk
• 1 egg
• 2 handfuls berries (fresh or frozen)

Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the centre, and add the melted butter, milk and egg. Whisk until smooth, adding more milk if the batter is too thick – it should be fairly thin (aim for single cream consistency) or it will thicken up too much when cooking. Pour batter into a measuring cup or something with a spout.

Put some butter in a frying pan and heat gently until melted. On a medium heat, pour enough batter the same size as “silver dollar” pancakes (about the size of your palm). When they start to bubble on top, drop a few berries on top. Flip over and when done, place on a plate in a warm oven until ready to serve.

Serve with sliced banana or apple and…pour maple syrup all over them!

Worth making? Tasty and always welcome first thing in the morning to give you the energy to head into town for sightseeing! And with that little jolt of fruit…well, you might even be able to claim that it is healthy.

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