One of my favourite meals to have out is steak-frites (sounds slightly more sophisticated in French!) and while I was in Mandritsara I had the opportunity to dine out at the restaurant in town. There were a few significant differences between dining out in London and Mandritsara…
The first one being that we had to go to the restaurant in the morning not just to reserve the table, but also to pre-order the food so that it could be bought! This somewhat simplified the process of making the decisions as to what to eat – it was steak-frites all round!
When we arrived at the restaurant to eat in the evening, it was clear that such a large gathering of “white” people was the amusement for the local children. Although we were in the “private dining room” the door to the outside world was curtain, so a number of local children kept running in and out of the doorway and laughing at us!
The delivery of food was delayed because of a power-cut. Short interruptions in the electricity supply are quite normal (and the power is off during the night) but it was quite strange to be sitting waiting in the dark for food! Fortunately we had a few torches with us, so it wasn’t total darkness!
Normally I would have a glass of red wine along side my steak, but to complete the Madagascar experience, I instead washed it down with pineapple Fanta, which tasted a little like Lilt.
But, despite those differences, it was lovely to eat out relaxing in good company, and enjoy the food knowing that there was no washing up to do later!
Tags: croissants, Madagascar
Madagascar was a French colony between 1896 and 1960, and I am sure that many people have written eloquent, informed and intelligent articles about the legacy of French rule. I, however, am much more concerned about the practical legacy, which was clearly visible to me on my visit, in the food. In Anatanarivo and Mandritsara baguettes were sold in the street markets: basically the only bread that was for sale. Peter bought some delicious bread that had been baked in a wood-fired oven. But becasue the electicity in Mandritasara is turned off between 11pm and 8am the boulangerie opened in the afternoon not the morning.
My stay in Mandritsara also provided the excuse for Clairelise to order some croissants and pain au chocolat from a lady in the town who makes them at her home. A vast quantity were stashed in the freezer for future treats, but we were allowed some for breakfast on the Saturday. While they were not perfect croissants, they were comparable to a UK supermarket quality!
p.s. There is also a sporting legacy. I was delighted to see teenagers playing rugby when i was in the capital. Petanque is a big deal in Madagascar: Madagascar beat France in the final of the recent Petanque Confederations Cup.
The long pause since my last post was not an indication that it had all gone wrong… instead I moved “up country” to stay with my friends Peter and Clairelise who work in the Good News Hospital in Mandritsara. Rural Madagascar doesn’t have wifi and then while I was in the rain forest, I was too chilled out to write! I am now safely back in London, adjusting to the UK summer (which is colder than the Madagascan winter!) and getting back into the swing of things at work. But i did promise that I would share some more views on my time in Madagascar – so here is the first of a couple of post-holiday round ups (all with a food theme!)
The plan for my time in Mandritsara was pretty simple – I would hang out with the family, and do a bit of looking after the girls when they were both at work and generally share in their world. There was no major pre-planned entertainment other than Madagascar’s National Day which celebrates Madagascar’s independence from France.
National Day is celebrated on 26 June, and is generally referred to by the date “vingt-six”. It was a privilege to join in the celebrations and feel a little bit part of the party! On the Monday evening there was a procession through the town with lanterns with a chant in Malagasy which was all about the lanterns burning. But thanks to modern progress, the chant now has a new verse about non-burning lanterns, which were slightly safer Chinese manufactured light-up toys. I am not entirely sure of the background of the march, but it felt a little like a rolling Bonfire Night without many fireworks (and a lot warmer!)
On National Day itself, we (with a number of the other Europeans working at the hospital) were invited to a Malagasy home to join in their celebrations. At the centre of the celebrations was the food! It was great spread. Most notable would be the salad laid out like the Madagascar flag. The staple carbohydrate in Madagascar, served at all meals, is rice, so we obviously ate lots of that. We also contributed to the feast by bringing some cakes, which we had decorated with mini Madagascar flags.
It was a lovely day. The sun shone. We all enjoyed the food, and also discussion around the nature of national celebrations in different countries. I attempted to explain the recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations and what a “street party” is. After lunch we were entertained by some traditional singing and dancing. We were encouraged to join in…. but the less said about that the better!
Vingt-six was definitely a highlight of the trip, and I am grateful that I was able to share in the celebrations. I also think that it is brilliant that food sits at the heart of the celebration worldwide!
So… I disappeared off from the blog. I’ve not stopped baking- in fact have done lots of baking – but have not had time to write about it because the last few months have been rather dominated by work (and baking for work).
But I’ve escaped work for 3 weeks and am currently in transit to a small place called Mandritsara in Madagascar where some very wonderful friends of mine work in a hospital. I’m going to be spending 2 weeks Peter, Clairelise and their 2 girls hanging out and sharing on their lives. And as this trip is the result of the 2012 resolution to be be a bit more adventurous I hope you don’t mind me using the blog set up under my 2010 resolution as a place to share my thoughts on fulfilling this resolution!
This is a bit of an epic adventure. And like any serious journey it involved setting out at 4:30am yesterday (Sunday) morning for a day on a plane. First heathrow to Paris and then Paris to Antananarivo finally arriving at my hotel sometime after midnight!
The major discovery from yesterday’s travel is that Air France does good food (although perhaps not a surprise when I think about it). The croissant handed out on the hop to Paris was proper- buttery, crisp and light. And the chocolate cake served on the long hail flight was an amazing dark chocolate cake with only enough flour to provide structure and not distract from the high quality chocolate! (the haagan daz ice-cream served as a snack was also a good touch). Think the only time I’ve had better food on a plane was an upgrade to business class on a work trip to the USA.
And what of Madagascar? Today I’ve been taking in easy. But went for a walk around to see some of ‘Tana. I was struck by the French colonial legacy of bakery- the market stalls sell croissants and baguettes!
There are many profound things to be said about this country- and perhaps I’ll even write some down. But right now- I’m enjoying the warm welcome of a lovely hotel and looking forward to heading up country tomorrow on a mission aviation fellowship flight to Mandritsara.
Hopefully I’ll get some time later in the trip to tell you more about my trip- no doubt with a food angle!
Tags: cheesecake, Nigella, nutella
Again, I’m starting a post with an apology for not being around as much as I would like…. but sadly 2011 has started with a serious quantity of work, so not really having much time to do anything other than work. And work is even taking over my non-working time as I have just baked a batch of biscuits for a meeting tomorrow!
But i just wanted to draw attention to a friend of mine – Jennifer – and her new blog Running and Baking which is going to chart her preparations for an intended run across the United States of America. Yes – you did read that correctly – she is planning on running 3360 miles across the US over 3 months – working out at an average 42 miles a day. Jennifer is an awesome person – and when she is not running, she works incredibly hard and also bakes beautiful cakes – so go check her blog out!
I can’t really get my head round what is involved in running 42 miles, let alone doing that 80 times… but I guess one of the major upsides is you have to get the fuel in to keep you going…. so perhaps this recipe should be added to the eating schedule – it’s a nutella cheesecake from Nigella.
Making it: as there were only 3 adults and a child for lunch – I made half the recipe – but other than the maths of working out what the appropriate sized tin was and halving the ingredients – it was a doddle to make. The base is digestive biscuits, whizzed in the food processor with some nutella, butter and chopped hazelnuts. The topping is cream cheese, lots of nutella and some icing sugar. Then a generous application of chopped hazelnuts on top.
Eating it: wow – it was rich! But it was good! Ed’s only complaint was that I dished it up too neatly and so there was no need to “tidy” it up at the end… a situation remedied by his daughter deciding she’d prefer to have a biscuit – so he kindly “cleared up” her piece.
Next time: I have a slightly more sophisticated no-cook chocolate and mascarpone torte which is hard to beat…. but I think this will make a re-appearance on the dinner table…. but I don’t think I’d be able to go run a marathon afterwards…
Tags: chocolate, cupcakes, Hummingbird Bakery, wedding
Careful readers have noticed that there was a bit of a posting drought during November and December… and I think that this time I have reason (instead of an excuse) and it was all to do with cupcakes! When my mate Debbie got engaged to Nigel earlier in the year, I offered to make brownies or some such for the wedding – as they were planning on doing as much of the day as simply as possible. But in September, the offer got upgraded – to making me responsible for the provision of the cupcakes that were to be the wedding cake!
Fortunately I didn’t have to make the cakes all myself and had Jenni, Ruth and Lucy on standby to make their share of the cakes… but was responsible for sorting out the recipes and pulling it all together for the big day. So began 3 months of cupcake thinking (and baking!).
The colour scheme for the wedding was elegant black and white (with some red and silver highlights) so we found cases that matched the colour scheme and decided that the cakes needed to have white icing with some silver glitter. This was not difficult for the vanilla cupcakes but a little more involved for the chocolate cupcakes, because I wanted to maximise the chocolate hit by using a chocolate icing as well. So it was time to research white chocolate icing…
After a bit of wandering around the internet – I found a couple of options: a traditional buttercream enhanced with white chocolate and combinations of white chocolate and cream. So the only thing to do was to have a tasting session. Thus a group (including the bride and groom to be) was gathered up for an afternoon tea with oodles of cake.
The vanilla cakes were straight from the Hummingbird Bakery book and the chocolate cake providing the base for the icing experiment was also from Hummingbird book. (This is a straight forward recipe to make – and in the interests of heading towards consistency I was even measuring the batter into the cases to get them evenly sized – 50ml of batter gets 18 from a 2 egg mix).
The icing: I used this white chocolate buttercream and Bill Grainger’s white chocolate and sour cream icing.
The buttercream icing was simple to make – but couldn’t be left for long because as the chocolate cooled the icing became increasingly solid. The sour cream icing was a bit more involved – and it never got very thick – but repeated beatings (using the electric hand whisk) gave it sufficient structure as it got cool to be piped. But it was thick enough to make soft icing swirls.
My guests were deeply committed to the task of tasting and comparing the icings – either on the cake or as stand-alone spoonfuls – and the near unanimous conclusion was that the sour cream icing was the best as the sour cream offsets the sweetness of the white chocolate.
But there was a need for another trial – as I had concluded that the chocolate cake was provided an inadequate chocolate hit. So I made them a week later with more cocoa powder (60g cocoa to 180g flour instead of 40g flour to 200g flour in the Hummingbird recipe) and this was much better: stronger flavour and a slightly lighter texture.
So with the recipes perfected – it was time to distribute the duties for the big day… I ended up making vanilla cupcakes and some gluten-free cupcakes . So that was 4 dozen cupcakes… which was fairly simple, but disaster nearly struck when i made the vanilla buttercream – making enough to cover this many cakes was taxing for the Kenwood as the butter wasn’t very soft (it required 1 kg of icing sugar). But eventually the butter softened and a vast bowlful of buttercream was created. They all looked pretty good iced and ready to be boxed up.
On the morning of the wedding, the rest of the cakes were delivered to me, before I headed to reception venue to assemble the tower. Fortunately it was only a short drive, so no damage was done to the cakes in transit.
I had also bought a little Christmas cake to act as the top layer of the cake so there was a cake to cut and this was made more beautiful with a lovely flower arrangement in a family heirloom vase. The florist then made the tower more beautiful by strewing it with rose petals.
The tower looked pretty good… and went down really well with the guests. We had cellophane bags for people to take a cake home with them if they were too full! So happily all the cakes were distributed and hopefully enjoyed!
So thank you to team cupcake for all your help in making beautiful cakes. Thank you to all the taste-testers and those who have suffered my rambling thoughts on all things cupcake. Most importantly – CONGRATULATIONS to Debbie and Nigel and thank you for trusting me with your cake – I hope I didn’t let you down!
Tags: Christmas, drinks, Nigella
When it comes to throwing a party – I’m mostly a fan of dinner parties – but every once in a while I feel the urge to open my doors a little more widely – broadcast the invite and see who turns up. This year, as I am not cooking Christmas lunch, the civilised Christmas Eve supper with Richard and Ailsa or any other set-piece meal – I thought instead I would attempt a drinks party. I like the run up to Christmas – and always find it slightly odd that in the last couple of days before Christmas my diary seems to empty out as people head out of London… but I am not going anywhere…. so thought I would gather up those who remained and spend an evening of chat with a few drinks and nibbles.
I know when most people throw drinks parties they focus on canapes and savoury nibbles – but I also wanted to do some baking for the event – so I made some gingerbread muffins (which to me are the smell of Christmas), some vanilla cutout biscuits (quite pleased with my piping skills on those!) and some Christmas chocolate cookies (thanks to my lovely sister-in-law Kate, who bought me some suitably festive sprinkles following my failure to buy any in time last year)
But the party was also an excuse to make a drink that my friend, Ali, (who is the queen of Christmas) introduced me to earlier in December…. and it was so delicious I thought it would be great to be able to offer people something more thrilling than just a glass of wine. It is a simple cocktail called a poinsettia and I think if gingerbread muffins smell of Christmas – I think this is the drink of Christmas (as I am not a huge fan of mulled wine!). And because it is so yummy – I shall share the directions with you…
Poinsettia (from Nigella’s Christmas)
- Find a big jug
- Put 500ml of chilled cranberry juice and 125ml of Cointreau (or Grand Marnier or triple sec) into the jug
- Add a bottle of prosecco.
- POUR and ENJOY
Cranberry glazed sausages
I also made some cocktail sausages – it’s not really a party without sausages… and I used the recipe from Nigella’s Christmas (again – it is the text-book for the season!) which involves cranberry sauce, soy sauce, sweet chilli sauce, sugar, lime juice and clementine juice. The sausages were cooked in the sauce for about 50 minutes and got coated in that rather delicious mix and were very more-ish (and the leftovers made a delicious sausage sandwich for lunch today!). Although I have to confess that marinade didn’t reduce down as much as it should because I cooked them in a deep sided roasting tin – I think it would have been better to use a shallower baking tray.
So all in all – a good evening – I did my best to swan around looking glamorous, hopefully managing to be a generous host (a la Nigella) and generally we all had fun!
Tags: chocolate, nigella lawson
One of the best things about the Great British Bake-Off was the “signature bake”: the weekly challenge to make something that each of the contestants saw as their best – the thing that they made often and made well (I am always disappointed when someone confessed that it wasn’t really a signature dish but instead something that had decided to do in the run up to the competition because they thought they would impress the judges more). The idea of a signature bake is brilliant – something that you love making and that your friends and family love to be on the receiving end of… I have a number of recipes that are my failsafes, the things I turn to when I just want to bake, and that I know will always go down well. But the premier example – the recipe that is without comparison – has to be chocolate brownies – to be precise Nigella Lawson’s chocolate brownies – to be found in both How to be a Domestic Goddess and Feast (appearing as snow-flecked brownies).
Having made these brownies countless times – and to near universal acclaim – I feel I should share them with you (in blog form) and also pass on my brownie baking tips – that I have discovered over time to make the brownies as near to fool-proof as possible! (Some have suggested that I shouldn’t write this post – that my secret should remain secret – but I think the perfect brownie is such a wonderful thing – the knowledge MUST be shared)
Making them: pretty simple (and I can more or less do it on autopilot now!) But step 1 is to melt chocolate and butter together – I do it in the microwave – slowly! Then while that is melting, the eggs, sugar and vanilla are mixed together – I usually do this in the Kenwood, so that mixing can occur while I get on with the next stage – but really it’s not hard and can easily be done by hand or using a hand mixer. Once the chocolate and butter is melted, it’s added to the sugar/eggs mixture and mixed until smooth (It’s better if the chocolate is slightly cool – if its hot when you add it to the sugar the mix ends up being oily – which does not change the taste but just ends up looking slightly less lovely). Then add flour and salt and mix once more and then add “the fun”. Nigella suggests walnuts, and snow-flecked brownies use white chocolate chips – but I made an amazing discovery when I added mini-eggs to the batter one Easter and discovered that the crisp outer shell prevents the chocolate melting – so you get solid chunks of chocolate and a hint of the sugar shell. When it’s not Easter time – minstrels are the chocolate of choice – they make for an ultimate chocolate hit. Once everything is combined – its put into a lined tin and into the pre-heated oven for 25 minutes.
One of the key challenges of making the perfect brownie is to get it to be perfectly squidgy – I want my brownie to be fudgey and gooey and not at all like a cake! This requires courage from the baker – because what you have to do is take them out of the oven at 25 minutes – when the top is dried out and crisp (usually a little crack or two on the surface). At this point – the inside of the brownie is still molten and were it to be a traditional cake – it would be considered seriously undercooked. But trust me: this is necessary to get the right texture. Then leave the brownies to cool and then preferably leave them overnight without cutting them for the goo to set into the perfect moist and fudgey middle.
Eating them: I don’t want to be boastful – but these brownies are amazing! A usual response is “these are the best brownies I have ever eaten”. They work on their own with tea or coffee or with ice-cream and even chocolate sauce for the ultimate pudding! There is always some in my freezer – so any emergency can be dealt with.
Next time: I will continue to refine and perfect – perhaps trying some other additions to the batter to see what they would do – I’m curious as to what would happen to chunks of a crunchie bar…
Tags: beef, casserole, Jamie Oliver, stew
After occasional moments of sunshine and warmth (I think we did have Summer – but it was about 4 weeks of sunshine spread over 4 months!) Autumn has set in… and one of the great upsides of Autumn is that slow-cooked stews and jacket potatoes become increasingly enticing. I had some Guinness in the cupboard from making Nigella’s Guinness gingerbread (which i failed to blog about – but was fantastic), so thought I would try a beef and ale stew. After a little bit of internet browsing I came across a deeply straightforward steak and ale stew on Jamie Oliver’s website. So on Saturday afternoon, ahead of a cosy evening on the sofa watching a film with Dimity I made the stew…
Making it: Very straightforward – the onion and vegetables were sweated off in the pan for 10 minutes and then all the other ingredients added. Jamie said not to bother browning the meat – vindicating my usual lazy decision not to bother – I really can’t tell the difference in a stew and not having to brown the meat makes it much quicker and less smelly to prepare! Then it was shoved in a low oven for 3 hours and then cooked uncovered for the final 30 minutes to thicken up. I also put some potatoes in the oven for the final 90 minutes to eat with it.
Eating it: We were tormented by the amazing cooking smells for 2 hours, so by the time we got to eat it – we were most anxious to try it… and the taste was as good as the smell! A deeply satisfying, filling and flavoursome stew – perfect for a chilly evening.
Next time: I’ll probably make double the recipe and stash lots in the freezer. Also I might try to not be in the house while it is cooking – the smell was just too good!
Tags: chocolate, Hummingbird Bakery
Growing up I was privileged to know a wonderful American family who had attending the same church as my family. During the years they lived in the UK I was a regular visitor to their house with my family, for youth group events and just to hang out with my friends Sarah and Cindy. Being American, they had bought some strange and wonderful eating habits and foods to our bit of Surrey: I remain forever grateful for being introduced to ice-cream as an accompaniment to chocolate cake (in honour of birthdays). But my absolute favourite was Vicki’s chocolate chip cookies, that were more or less permanently on offer in the house – either made with chocolate chips or M&Ms (and most exciting at Christmas when the special festive colour mix of red and green was shipped over from the States). These were perfect chocolate chip cookies – with a gooey middle even when cold, and quite thin having spread out in the middle and slightly crisp edges. When I got married, Vicki gave me the recipe, and once tried them out…But in my immaturity as a baker, they didn’t come out right… and I lost the recipe. So I have always been on the quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie that would magically, in the manner of Proust and his madeleines (not that I have read Remembrance of Things Past) to evoke the teenage treat, and the person I once was… and remember the best of those years.
Over the last decade I’ve tried many recipes, tweaked a few promising ones – playing around with the type of sugar and the temperature and cooking time… but never quite got there. But a while back, while discussing how much I love the Hummingbird Bakery books with my friend Kath – she told me I must try the chocolate chip cookies from the first book. So this weekend, in preparation for having some girls over for afternoon tea, and an eye on taking some baking into the office – I thought I should try them out.
Making them: very promising start – the recipe makes a huge quantity and starts with butter and soft brown sugar beaten until soft and fluffy (which is an utterly delicious substance on its own). Then eggs and vanilla are beaten in, then flour and finally chocolate chips (the recipe suggested chopping chocolate – but I’m lazy so chocolate chips it was). I dollops heaped dessert spoons over 3 baking trays – making about 40 cookies in total. I left lots of space between the cookies to allow for spread – but it was insufficient because these cookies melted in the oven to flat cookies and in place they merged. But once they were out of the oven I was able to split them up once more – although none was a particularly perfect shape.
Eating them: I was pretty sure they were going to be good from the leftover batter. But then one of the baked cookies broke in half as I was transferring them to the wire cooling trays. Obviously I couldn’t serve my guests a broken cookies: i just had to test… and I was transported back to my teenage years… soft, gooey cookie with molten chocolate bits. My near-Proustian moment had come.
Later, when they were cooled, and I had company, I had to have another – just to check – and yes – it was indeed as close to the perfect cookie as I could imagine – even when cold they had the appropriately slightly fudgey centre (previously the closest thing to near perfect has been the occasional Millies cookie – but they are not right for other reasons). Happily my other guests without the time taste machine also thought they were delicious.
Next time: I will allow more space between the cookies as they more than doubled in size once in the oven!