French Chocolate Macaroons!

I’ve long loved French macaroons with their crispy shell, gooey interior and flavoursome filling – and indulged in quite a few during our fortnight in France a couple of months ago.

During that trip I purchased not one but two recipe books dedicated to the macaroon.

I’ve been planning to make some over the Christmas break and Pete and I finally made these beauties yesterday!

We’re rather pleased with them!

The macaroon biscuits are much paler than those in the recipe book because I decided not to add food colouring, which appears in pretty much every recipe I’ve come across. And they are a touch flatter than those in the books, though only a little. I assume their mixture is a touch less liquid than ours was and so allows one to make slightly taller circles of goo on the baking sheet.

But the taste and texture is just perfect – had I bought these from a shop in France I’d not have been disappointed!!!

(And YES that photo really is of the ones we made!)

Restaurant Review: Moti Mahal, London

Friday night one of my best friends treated me to dinner as her Christmas gift to me. We went to Moti Mahal in Great Queen Street (between Holborn and Covent Garden tube stations).

Last year we went to Zaika for Christmas and we’d been planning to visit Benares this year. My friend lives in Canada and we meet about once every six weeks, when she’s in London for work. Last night’s date was made at the last minute as she thought she’d still be at a client’s site in South Africa but her plans changed last minute. Unfortunately, a few hours notice for a table in Benares (on a busy Friday night) was unlikely (though I did phone and check just in case) so instead I booked us a table at Moti Mahal, 45 Great Queen Street, between Covent Garden and Holborn.

Having eaten a few times at a Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi (when visiting family) I had been keen to try one of the London branches for some time. Moti Mahal is quite a Delhi institution. I expected the same as what I’d experienced in Delhi – familiar annd tasty dishes cooked very well at reasonable prices. Apparently, although the other London branches are more along the lines of an above-average curry house, the one we visited was something else entirely.

The food was absolutely fabulous. Really, really good! And far more refined and elegant than standard curry house fare.

After cocktails we were served an amuse bouche of carrot and celery soup in miniature white mugs. On top of each mug was balanced a dinky disk of pastry with a chutney or vegetable compote on top. Luckily I couldn’t taste the celery so enjoyed the thick, carroty soup.

For starters we shared:

Sagar Rattan – Scallops seared with onion seed and coriander stem, tamarind glaze, pan fried Devon crab cakes

The scallops were meltingly soft, coated in an unctuous brown sauce that complimented without overwhelming their flavour. The tiny crab cakes were rimmed with a ribbon of aubergine peel and full of flavour.

Barra Peshawari – Tandoor roasted lamb chops with kashmiri chillies, cumin mash, spiced puy lentil salsa

The lamb was beautifully flavoured and very soft. A touch too hot for my wussy preferences but still delicious.

For our mains we shared:

Khyberi Nalli – Braised lamb shanks glazed in the tandoor, tomato and green pea upma, orange and mustard cress salad

I don’t think I’ve ever had a lamb shank with such tender, meltingly soft, beautifully flavoured lamb. The meat quite literally fell off the bone and the spices were subtle enough to let the flavour of the lamb shine. I even sucked the marrow out of the bone end – lamb marrow is one of my very favourite things! We both thought this dish was a highlight.

Paneer Akhrot ka Salan – Paneer, walnuts and peppers simmered in Hyderabadi ‘Salan’ sauce

The paneer and sauce were very nice though without the wow factor of the other courses and I wasn’t as keen as I hoped on the walnuts in the dish.

Crab Pepper Fry – Crisp-fried spiced soft-shell crab, shrimps, red onion, green mango and ginger

Wow, this was spectacular! Tender crab within a soft crunchy shell that itself was encased in a thin but spicy batter and then deep fried. Even with the strong spices the crab was still part of the whole. Served with king prawns and other vegetables, we cut it down the middle and had half each. I’d only had soft shell crab in oriental cuisines before. This Indian version was fabulous and another of the evening’s highlights.

With our mains we had a saffron pulao rice and a plain naan, both good.

Greedy as ever, we made room for desserts:

Custard apple kulfi, summer berry soup

A nice variation, was delicious though I couldn’t discern the custard apple flavour I did enjoy the bite of pistachio nuts within the kulfi. The soup was more of a sauce in which the tower of kulfi was stood and was nice enough.

Christmas pudding, whisky ice-cream

My friend seemed to enjoy this dessert. No Indianisation applied to it.

The bill before cocktails, wine and tip was about £85.

Both of us had really enjoyed our 9 course degustation menu at Zaika last year, though we’d agreed that the starter dishes were far better than the main course dishes there. We both agreed that we had enjoyed the majority of the dishes at Moti Mahal more.

Gorvett & Stone Fresh Mint Truffles

I may have mentioned previously that I bought two lots of posh chocolates at the Cheese Festival (yes I do know that chocolate isn’t cheese) from producers called Gorvett & Stone and Chococo.

Well, I have to say that Gorvett & Stone’s mint truffles are the most incredible combination of mint and chocolate that I’ve ever tasted. Somehow, they don’t taste like dried mint which is the flavour in every other mint drink or food I’ve ever had, but like fresh mint picked minutes ago from the garden. Incredible!

Not cheap but if you’re wanting to be extravagant check out their site: Gorvett & Stone

A rather lovely birthday weekend full of food and friends!

On Friday we started the weekend off as we meant to continue by going for lunch to OrientalCity (roast duck, char sui buns and pork dumplings) before heading for our lovely hotel in Burford, Burford Lodge.

After settling in, we had a walk down through Burford which wasn’t as pleasant as it sounds in the rain. Sadly, quite a few shops shut earlier than theirposted times because of the weather and lack of visitors. Anyway, in the shops that were open I bought myself a rather lovely flashing rubber ducky for the bath (pale blue with little flowers on it but flashed through pink, purple and blue) and also some traditional sweets (cola pips, parma voilets etc) and posh violet cream chocolates from Hamiltons sweet shop.

We had dinner at the hotel that evening; highlights were my starter whichwas a mushroom and stilton tartlet with crumble topping and my dessert which was a belgian milk chocolate fountain with fruit, marshmallows and profiteroles to dunk under the chocolate! I like the fruit best so it was healthier than it could have been but only marginally!

Saturday morning started with a wonderful breakfast of fresh fruit (I dunked mine in the chocolate fountain again), juice, tea and coffee, yoghurt, toast and a full cooked breakfast including delicious Clonakilty black pudding. We didn’t have room for the cereal and muffins also available.

After breakfast we stopped in Burford again so I could buy some decorations in the Christmas decorations shop (I’d shopped in there a few years back but had resisted buying myself the same hippo ornament I’d bought for a friend. I rectified this by buying said hippo plus matching elephant).

We also browsed the little church flea market running for the day. Bought a fabulous coffee table photo book on African wildlife (yes, another one), some little owl ornaments for Pete’s mum and (don’t ask) a 1972 copy of Chairman Mao’s little red book. I wanted it from the history buff perspective and Pete thought it might prove useful when debating politics with a right-wing American who has a tendency to refer to Pete as a communist. He figures that if he’s going to get called one (although he’s not) he may as well drop in the occasional quote here and there!

So after this we went off to the cheese festival in Millets Farm Shop in Frilford. We arrived at about 11.30 am. I tasted lots and lots and lots of goodies, not just cheese. Bought some pear and ginger jelly, some mint chocolate from a posh chocolate stall and lots more chocolate from another posh chocolate stall (which came with a rather fantastic fuschia pink bag).

We’d arranged to meet an online friend and he and his Mrs found us at the special Blue Cheese tasting session which we all enjoyed. Just as well they found us as I thought it might be quite fun to wander through the queue asking plaintively “Are you my friend?” but Pete vetoed that!

After that session a good friend of ours (from uni days) arrived and the three of us pootled around together through the various food and drink tents. Enjoyed a hog roast roll with apple sauce and crackling. Bought some cheese and some sausages. Resisted many more cheeses (as we’re going away soon and there’s a limit to how many cheeses even we two cheese fiends can eat). Oh and we tried some divine ginger wine and ginger cream liqueur but resisted buying as we’ve so many bottles of liqueurs in the cupboards at home. Ooh and tried some stilton flavoured ice-cream, which was odd, so bought a scoop/ cone of the pistachio instead!

After exhausting the stalls at the festival we visited the Farm Shop and bought a number of things including two fabulous elephant shaped tea tins by Williams, one pink ele and one grey ele.I lLove them! And some delicious bottled apple and pear juice. Definitely building up the Birthday present count by purchasing bit by bit!

That evening we had wonderful company for dinner in a nearby pub with the online friend and his wife from earlier, another friend from the same board (who I’d metbefore) plus her daughter (who IS, we discovered, my twin when it comes to our tastes infood, our determination never to iron or to waste too much time tidying and our propensity to accidentally break our toes), plus their family friend who turned out to be someone I knew – we’d both been on a fantastic trip to Kenya in 2004, plus our friend Dave as well. A lovely evening.

Next morning was my birthday! Woke in the hotel and enjoyed another fabulous breakfast (including more fruit kebabs coated under the chocolate fountain) not to mention the yoghurt, toast and cooked breakfast. Spoke to my sister on the phone (she’s on holiday in Croatia) and exchanged birthday greetings. Plus opened cards including one from the hotel owner/ manager, which was an unexpected touch!

On leaving the hotel this morning we had planned to stop at the Burford Garden centre very close by but it wasn’t open yet so instead we returned to Millets Farm to visit the garden centre there as we hadn’t had energy the previous day. They had a fantastic selection of Christmas ornaments so I purchased some gorgeous ones for myself and sister, ignoring the fact that she doesn’t actually have a Christmas tree most years and I’ve already got too many ornaments for ours”

We decided to take the slow roads home and came across signs for a car boot sale which we entered as the stall holders were calling it a day. I was quite pleased to pick up two boxed 1970s raclette sets for £1!

Then on to Henley where we asked to see one of the large rooms in the Hotel du Vin (for a future visit), pootled around the farmers market and had tapas for lunch at La Bodega.

After all this I had to take a short nap on getting home, before a brief surf online to pick up birthday emails before heading out for dinner (with more friends) at our very favourite restaurant, La Lotta (Italian). Not only did they have a Happy Birthday banner stuck to the wall behind “my” table, they also gave me a card – which happened to feature my very favourite bird in the world on it – a row of little bee eaters on a branch. I asked how they knew I loved that particular bird and the manager said they didn’t but the photograph reminded him of the kind of photographs I take! Also, they gave us a cake he’d baked specially, liqueurs on the house (which they do quite often) AND a bottle of nice wine as we left, as a gift!

It was lovely to see our friends (who spoiled me with more presents) and was the perfect ending to a rather perfect weekend!

Blackberry Picking!

On Sunday Pete and I went blackberry picking with a friend, who we were visiting for the weekend. We started out near her house where she’d noticed some brambles ripe for the picking and whilst we were there a kind neighbour recommended some other locations slightly further afield which we drove to afterwards.

There’s something very fulfilling about enjoying the autumn sunshine, gathering traditional fruits from the side of country lanes, chatting to walkers rambling past…

We gathered three full ice-cream tubs (not to mention the mouthfuls I crammed whilst picking), some of which went into a crumble for dessert on Sunday (I had mine plain with artificial sweetener) leaving plenty for our hosts plus a tub for us to bring home as well.


The Soda Bread Diaries

Having enjoyed the soda bread my friend made for a picnic in her garden recently, she sent me the recipe. It’s published in a book called The Baker’s Tale by Catherine Brown but is credited to James Burgess.

The first time I made this soda bread (last Wednesday) I followed the recipe exactly and the bread was just gorgeous.

The second time I made it (on Saturday) I accidentally added a touch too much buttermilk which made the dough too sticky to shape easily but texture and taste were still fine.

Third time, tonight, I added two “heaped” teaspoons of treacle, reduced the volume of buttermilk (adding a little at a time until all the flour and oatmeal were absorbed into a dough without it getting too sticky). Formed ball, flattened it, criss crossed the surface and baked for the normal 20 minutes.

Came out really, really well. The treacle made it only slightly darker in colour (so still not sure quite what went into the really dark brown stuff we encountered in County Cork last month) but definitely added a subtle depth of flavour.

Recipe (method re-written by me)

175g (6oz) wholemeal flour
75g (3oz) strong white flour
25g (1 oz) medium oatmeal
half teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
half teaspoon salt
300ml (10 fl oz) buttermilk* (I buy a 284 ml pot and don’t quite use all of it).

*Apparently, if you can’t get buttermilk you can use milk soured with the juice of a lemon.

  • Measure all dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.
  • Add the buttermilk a little at a time and mix into flour/oatmeal with hands to form a soft dough.
  • Take care not to add too much or dough will become very sticky.
  • No need to knead dough or leave it to rise/prove etc.
  • Shape dough into ball then flatten into a circle about an inch deep.
  • I’ve taken to slicing parallel lines across the top with a sharp knife at two angles to form diamonds. Not traditional for soda bread but I like it more than the more traditional quartering.
  • Bake for 20 minutes in pre-heated oven at 210 (fan assisted) or 230 (non-fan). (If you don’t like a very slightly moist and dense bread, which I do, leave it in a couple of minutes longer).
  • Check it’s done by tapping bottom – should be a firm crust and a slightly dull thwack form inside.
  • Leave to cool for as long as you can stand it – I didn’t last 4 minutes tonight!

Restaurant Reviews: County Cork

We got back on Sunday from a week in County Cork with friends…

Dinty’s in Union Hall
A tiny, simply decorated, casual pub restaurant on the harbour in tiny Union Hall, the setting belies the excellence of the food. On the first night several of us had deep fried brie as a starter – two tranches per serving, each one the size one would normally buy for a cheese board, about 6 inches long and utterly delicious. The other half of us had crab claws in garlic butter served with brown soda bread. So good I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. For mains two of us had the smaller seafood platter each – so large I couldn’t finish even half and had some of the leftovers for dinner another night – my plate was piled high with a huge mound of fresh crab meat, a pile of succulent king prawns, another of crab claws, 3 smoked mackerel pieces, 2 hot smoked salmon pieces, a mound of regular smoked salmon, several pieces of regular cooked salmon fillets… Others had the fish pie, the very tender and generous sirloin steak and the breadcrumbed plaice – a serving of 4 large fillets – 1 alone a normal perhaps slightly small serving, 2 a generous main meal, 3 already excessive and 4 too big even for 2 to share! With (limited) drinks, the bill was less than 35 Euros per person and well worth it. We went a second night and many of the same dishes were enjoyed as well as a generous chicken wing starter, some tasty breaded mushrooms and a T-bone steak (though second time around, we knew to share some of the dishes as they were just too large)!

Max’s Wine Bar in Kinsale
Recommended by someone on the BBC Food Chat board, this was a very elegant and adult place, the opposite in decor and style of food to Dinty’s. Four of us enjoyed a fantastic lunch there. The brown soda bread was as good as that at Dinty’s. My dublin bay prawn salad very tasty (though I did pick the celery out), my foie gras (second starter instead of main) the equal of any I’ve had in France, freshly sauted, served with a port or sherry sauce on a small bed of tagliatelle. The saffron monkfish special one friend had was beautifully cooked and presented. The omelette and saute potatoes Pete chose were also very well executed as was the creamy chicken pasta chosen by our other friend . The chocolate orange gateaux (we ordered two between us) oozed hot liquid centres which went well with the vanilla ice-cream. The cheese plate was delicious too. With wine the bill was only just over 30 Euros per person. Oh and for those who like dessert wine, the taster glasses are plenty big enough – you won’t need the full glasses, as we’re glad the waitress advised us. Fantastic meal, would go back in a heartbeat.

We also ate well elsewhere in County Cork enjoying simple home-made lasagnes, a delicious crab mornay, gubeen cheese crumbed and fried, seafood chowder, sandwiches, ice-cream and snacks in various cafes, pubs and restaurants.

Our first harvest of home-grown potatoes!

On Sunday Pete harvested the first of our home-grown potatoes from our back garden “allotment” – a variety called Edzell Blues! Of the 10 plants he’s grown he harvested the potatoes from just 2 of them which came to a little over 2 kilos. Apparently our yields would have been even higher if he’d earthed them up or something…

Sadly, the colour (which I think is more of a bright purple than a blue) fades almost completely on cooking. But we’ve enjoyed the potatoes for the last few nights. Tonight Pete roasted them in stock (no oil or butter) and they were even more lovely.

Restaurant Review: Rasa (South Indian) restaurant, London

Tonight I met a friend for dinner at Rasa, a South Indian restaurant in London. Apparently they have 8 branches – the one we went to is in Dering Street between Oxford Circus and Bond Street tube stations.

Neither of us familiar with South Indian dishes we went for their “feast” set menus, one vegetarian and one “vadakkan” (meat) one.

First came a selection of pre-starter snacks:-
* Achappam – my favourite, a flower shaped snack wth a very slightly sweet taste, made of rice flour, coconut, black sesame and cumin seeds.
* Pappadavadai – pappadoms dipped in a light rice flour batter with seeds and fried, for added crunch
* Pappadoms
* Banana chips
* Murukku – crunchy little sticks made from roasted rice flour and seeds

These came with various pickles and chutneys (6 in total).

My starters were
* Chicken samosa – different blend of spices to those I’m familiar with
* Lamb puff – like mum’s Indian sausage rolls, very nice
* Parippu – a 3 lentil soup
* 2 chutneys

My friend was given the same soup plus
* Banana boli – a battered plantain thing
* Rathrikka – a battered aubergine thing
* 2 chutneys

For my mains I had
* Thalassery Chicken Massala – a fairly familiar chicken curry dish
* Calicut Chicken Kurma – nothing like the korma I’m familiar with, this was coconuty and had cashew nuts as well – a wonderful flavour
* Malabar Erachi Chaaru – a lamb curry not disimilar from Norther Indian ones

My friend was given:
* Moru Kahiathu – sweet mangoes and green bananas in a yoghurt sauce – the only dish she didn’t like
* Rasa Kayi – mixed vegetable dish
* Cheera Parippu Curry – lentil and spinach curry
* Savoy Cabbage – a stir fried cabbage dish

Plus we had a shared dish of spicy potatoes, lemon rice, paratha bread and some Uzhunappam (rice flour bread).

And as if we weren’t full enough already the feast finished with some Pal Payasam – a rice pudding with raisins and cashew nuts.

Very nice food, good service, nice little restaurant. Only minus is that looos are 2 floors up!

Total bill (2 red wines, 1 lassi and tap water) came to £59.50 including their service charge!

Jellyfish, Tripe and Turnip Cake!

Today I went to a fun GTG of folks from the BBC Food Chat board. We met for lunch at Crispy Duck on Gerrard Street in China Town and shared a huge array of dim sum. Many dishes were familiar favourites (scallop dumplings, prawn dumplings, pork dumplings, thai octopus, turnip cake, sticky rice parcels and more) but I also tried some new dishes including jellyfish, served cold, sliced with cucumbers, a little like bang bang chicken and tripe, served, well just in gelatinous little strips.

I was surprised to enjoy both, especially the jellyfish. I hadn’t expected to like the tripe given the sheer number of people who find it disgusting. It’s still not something I’d necessarily choose to order but I’d happily eat it again.

I really like being able to try something new… I think it’s good to expose myself to something different alongside all the firm favourites.