Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Plaisir du Chocolat

I went back to Edinburgh this weekend to see family and found out that this lovely chocolatier has gone into administration, and, as of yesterday, is no more. It will be much missed, and Edinburgh will be the worse off for it. It was not a place I visited regularly, frequent trips being rather beyond my means, but on the occasions when I did go through it was thoroughly delightful. They served a range of different kinds of very good hot chocolate, my favourite being the chocolate expresso, a mixture of 70% chocolate and cream, and the hot chocolate with chillies, which was made with maybe 85% chocolate, and was wonderful.

Their cakes were also good, but best of all was their pastry. Thin, crumbling and delicious, I ached to make pastry like it. That said, very recently it had gone a little downhill, too thick, not crumbling and, dare I say it, a little soggy in the middle.

Their chocolates were truly beautiful, thin shelled creations with coloured cocoa butter prints on top. More importantly they tasted fabulous, and came in a treasure trove of flavours enough to make anyone weak at the knees. Lavander, pepper, green tea with jasmine were some of the more unsual, but wonderful pralines and salted butter caramels were also stand out.

I managed to get there in its last half hour of trading, and joined the many people paying homage by buying up the last of the home made chocolates.

Ironically, many of these flavours I will be trying for the first and last time.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Scones with Clotted Cream and Jam

As the weather is dreak and damp it seemed appropriate to break my work with some baking. Scones are one of my favourite things for afternoon tea. Decked with golden clotted cream and jam, and with a big pot of steaming earl grey they are quinessentially english. The best ones use buttermilk, which makes them ever so light and lovely, but I made do with normal milk.

225g of flour
75g of unsalted butter
pinch of salt
2 tsps of baking powder
1 egg
50ml of milk

Firstly sift the flour, salt and baking powder together. Cut the butter up into cubes and rub it into the flour with the tips of your fingers as if making pastry.

Beat the egg with the milk and stir into the flour crumb. You want the consistancy to be pliable, but not wet and sticking to your fingers. Try and work the mixture as little as possible when you mix it, or the scones will be heavy.

Roll, or press with your fingers to form a round one inch thick. Use a cutter to cut the scones into rounds.

Place on a greased baking sheet and bake at 180oc until risen and golden.

Serve warm with generous amounts of clotted cream and jam. My favourite jam to have with these is raspberry, but strawberry is traditional, and rhubarb and ginger jam is fantastic.

Scones go stale very quickly, and are best warm out of the oven, so either make a small batch or freeze the leftovers and reheat from frozen. Not that leftovers is often a problem.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Birthday Cake

It was a friend’s birthday a few days ago, and we all decided that in celebration of his advancing years we’d book a restaurant, get dressed up, and go out for the evening. I was on birthday cake making duty, which is something I love to do. The thing about birthday cakes is that they aren’t ever meant to be serious. Silly, celebratory and over the top is good, but pared down minimalism isn’t what is called for.

When I was little my mother would indulge my sweet tooth ad make layers of almond daquoise and fill them with a praline coffee cream for my birthday cake, decorated with piped whipped cream and swirls of caramel. Or icecream bombs with layers of different flavours. She even attempted a volcano for my brother, complete with fleeing lego figurines and fireworks.

Now I often make daquoise, or layered chocolate cakes for birthdays. They are easy to make for a crowd I find, so rich that all you want is a sliver of cake. But this time I decided to go down a different path: layers of sponge with cream and raspberries, decorated with merigangues and more raspberries.

Firstly I made a whole lot of meriangue and piped little meriangue kisses on silicone paper and baked them until they were almost completely dried out.

Then partly because I don't have a big enough cake tin to feed 30 people, and partly because it seemed like a fun idea, I made three sponge cakes in different sizes. At the last minute I split each into two and layered them together with raspberries and cream. Then I covered the whole lot in a thin layer of cream to allow the meriangues to stick, and covered the lot with little meriangue kisses and some plump juicy raspberries.

Simple, but effective. I got a bit worried about my sponge layers at the bottom sinking under the weight of those on top, but in actual fact they held up admirably, and the raspberries and cream kept the cake nice and moist.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Sea bass with samphire and pink fir potatos

It has been a beautiful spring in oxford so far, unseasonably warm even. But these last days have given way to clouds and jumpers.

Spring in Oxford means May Morning, which I, liking my duvet too much, didn't make it to this year. Its traditional to stay up all night to watch the choir sing at dawn from the top of Magdalen tower, and in previous years I've attempted this, only to fall asleep an hour before dawn, and have to drag myself out of bed on half an hour's sleep to watch the choir from a cold, half lit lawn. Its a beautiful, though very weird experince. I've always watched it from inside Magdalen, where there is an eerie, pre-dawn feeling, and various students walking around in various states of semi-sleep. A hush descends as the choir begin to sing, and then we all troupe back to breakfast, or bed. In the last few decades a pretty crazy 'tradition' has grown up where people outside the college jump from the tall bridge into the few inches of water in the river. This is supposedly traditional, but seems a pretty recent phenomenon, and has resulted in a lot of broken bones, the drop being substancial, and the water not deep enough to break the fall, and crowded with old shopping trolleys. I can only assume its some kind of link in to the idea of kissing the dew. In Edinburgh, where I used to live, people do this, with a distinct division between the morning hymns that take place on Arthurs Seat, and the all night revelry of Carleton Hill.

Anyway, all these seem traditions seem to add up to a time of rebirth, a cleansing, a lusty celebration of the new year.

Which brings me to dinner.
I found some lovely samphire in the market, perfect just steamed with lashings of butter. Samphire grows on shorelines and salt mudflats and has a distinctive fresh crisp flavour. It starts to be available in good fish mongers at about this time of year, or you may see it growing near the sea.

Unsurprisingly its lovely with fish, so I got some seabass fillets that looked good to go with it

Plus there were simply the sweetest little potatos in the Covered Market, they were all eyes and ears, and thin-skinned elongated beauty. Anyway, I boiled them whole, and then slugged them with plenty of butter, black pepper and the fleur de sel I love so much.

The samphire, like asparagus, just requires gentle steaming or a few minutes in a pan of boiling water. Make sure to wash any grit off it well first though, and also don't add salt to the pan, as it tends to be salty enough already. In fact I wish I'd soaked my longer, as it was a little too salty for my taste. The sea bass I just pan fried with butter and served the lot with wedges of lemon.

This is my entry for A Taste of Spring, held by What's For Lunch, Honey?