For many years, my username on some sites has been Kaveypie, rather than Kavey. That’s all down to my having introduced the members of one particular website to the delights of Weebl & Bob, back when the cartoon had just a couple of episodes to it’s name.

“Mmmmm, Pie!” became a common refrain and I became indelibly associated with it! Even today, some 7+ years later, I still find myself mimicking Weebl & Bob and singing out loud about loving donkey almost much as pie!

So, what a travesty then, that I’d never made pie myself!

I recently got my mitts on a book I’ve been eyeing up for quite a while: John Torode’s Chicken and Other Birds and decided on the chicken, leek and mushroom pie as the first recipe to try from it.

We had many of the ingredients already to hand: In the freezer, leftover roast chicken, home-made stock and home-grown leeks (peeled, sliced and frozen raw). In the fridge, most of a pot of double cream (which I figured I could substitute for single).

Our amounts didn’t match up to the recipe, and we realised only once we peered more closely at the contents of the defrosted box that the “leeks” were actually home-grown spring onions, which we went ahead and used, so I’m providing the original recipe ingredients first and then what we ended up using.

John Torode’s Chicken, Leek & Mushroom Pie / Kavey’s Chicken, Spring Onion & Mushroom Pie
Ingredients
100 grams butter* (I used 50 grams)
2 leeks cut into 1 cm pieces (I used a couple of spring onions, both green and white parts, cut quite small)
6 celery stalks, chopped (omitted)
50 grams plain flour plus extra for rolling pastry
250 ml chicken stock (I used 300 ml)
125 single cream (I used 100 ml double cream)
200 grams button mushrooms (I used 250 grams of slightly larger brown mushrooms)
750 grams roast chicken meat, without skin/ bone (I used 415 grams)
4 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
375 grams ready-made puff pastry
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for glazing (omitted)
salt and pepper

*The recipe ingredients specify 100 grams butter but the instructions only mention using 50 grams. For some reason, my brain noted the 50 grams reference and that’s what I measured out and used. But it did feel too little to easily mix the flour into (I hadn’t yet noticed the discrepancy between instructions and ingredients), so I would recommend using the full 100 grams in the ingredients where the instructions refer to 50 grams.

Method

  • Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add spring onions (leeks and celery) and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  • Add 50 grams flour and mix to a paste.
  • Stir in the stock and the cream.
  • The instructions suggest bringing to the boil and then reducing the heat to simmer for 15 minutes, but once I’d brought it nearly to the boil and reduced heat for just a few minutes, it was already a really thick consistency. I tasted to ensure the flour taste had cooked out and decided it didn’t need another 12 minutes cooking.

  • Remove from the heat and stir in the chicken, mushrooms and parsley. Season to taste.
  • Heat the oven to 220°C.
  • Take a suitable pie dish (recipe suggest 1.2 litre) and roll out the pastry to 5mm depth and 5 cm larger than the pie dish. Place the pie dish upside down onto the pastry and cut around it leaving a 3 cm border.
  • Use remaining pastry cut into 2 cm strips and fit the strip around the top edge of the pie dish, using water to help it stick, if needed. (I found the instructions for this a little confusing with no pictures to illustrate what was required; luckily Pete was able to decipher them!)
  • Transfer the pie filling into the dish, piling it more deeply in the centre than around the edges.
  • Set the pastry lid on top, using water to help it stick, if required. (Our ready-made pastry was quite sticky so we didn’t need any water).
  • Use a fork to press the edges down onto the existing pastry strip and seal the pie.
  • I added extra pastry to spell the word PIE. The recipe suggests marking decorative patterns of leaving plain as desired.
  • Cut a small vent in the pie lid, at the centre.
  • Bake for 25 minutes, reduce heat to 200°C and bake for another 15 minutes until the pastry is crusty and golden.
  • If the pastry browns too quickly, cover it with a sheet of damp baking parchment.
  • Serve hot straight from the dish.

I was soooooo pleased with this pie! We really enjoyed it, especially given how often we have leftover roast chicken meat and home-made stock to use not to mention leeks grown in our back garden! The spring onion substitute worked fine, though the flavour was a touch stronger than I think leek would have been, so would use leeks next time. And I loved the brown mushrooms, but might cut them in half next time, as they were a touch large, though perfectly cooked and very tasty!

Oh and, as we didn’t want to waste the strip of puff pastry leftover from the pie lid, we grated some Comté and made a cheese straw. As it took only a few minutes to cook, we shared it as a little canapé before the pie!

And what do I think of the book? It’s a book I’ve really enjoyed reading – I like Torode’s very personal and personable writing style. Many of the recipes look delicious! But I found myself bookmarking less of them into my mental queue of things to make than I usually do when I get my hands on a new cookery book – I never cook half of them but I love the idea of doing so! There are also a couple that don’t seem to fit the rest – the idea of using leftover roast chicken in a simple sandwich is probably one anyone who’d contemplate the rest of the recipes has probably worked out already! But the book has given me some ideas, and been an enjoyable read.

Thanks to Quadrille for the review copy.


 

Life’s pretty good as a food blogger!

I know people think of all bloggers as blaggers. And accepting any freebies is frowned upon by some. But… when someone offers to send you a sample of their chocolate brownies, brownies you’ve read such lovely things about, how exactly can you be expected to resist and why would you want to? The answer in my case was, “Yes! Yes, please… {dribble}, {dribble}”


And since my blog is a miscellaneous mix of restaurant reviews, home-cooked recipes, cookery book trials, feedback on food events and my thoughts and feedback on random food and drink products… sharing what I think of such samples fits right in!

Of course, some people worry that accepting products for review leads to unfairly positive reviews. To that I have two things to say: The first is that, I believe my blog posts to date show that this isn’t the case – I’ve not been afraid to say what I think when it’s been negative. I do my best to be as fair and balanced as I can but I don’t pull my punches. The second is that, when I’ve been sent something for review, I make it clear in my post, which gives readers the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to place less store in my opinions on these products.

So! My Gower Cottage brownies arrived in the post, just as the snow had melted away.

A real cottage industry, started only a few years ago by Kate Jenkins when she and her family moved to the Gower and Kate started selling her home-made brownies in the local village cooperative shop, the business has grown quickly, due to rave reviews from both customers and food industry awards bodies.

Kate’s brownies are deceptive.

I’ve often been seduced by a sexy looking brownie – all cracked crunch on top, moistness within, maybe some walnuts thrown into the mix – only to be disappointed by a gritty texture, rancid nuts or an overly sweet, cheap chocolate taste.

But this time, the opposite happened. I unwrapped the beautiful packaging to find some “plane Jane” brownies sitting on the parchment before me. Brownies that would never win first prize in a brownie beauty pagent, no siree bob.

But, oh! When I took a bite, I was seduced! Dense, gooey with a marvellously rich, deep dark chocolate taste these are seriously good, utterly indulgent, naughtily moreish brownies! These aren’t cheap thrill, quick and dirty, unsatisfying one-night-stand brownies. These are take-home-to-mother, marry and come home to every night for the rest of your life brownies!

They are are all about the eating experience rather than the window display! And isn’t that just as it should be?

If you need to say “thank you”, “I love you”, “get well soon”, “good luck” or just “I’ve been thinking of you!” to anyone who appreciates top quality chocolatey goodness, I can wholeheartedly recommend giving them a box of these brownies – they’ll get the message loud and clear! (And I’m hoping some of my friends and family might be reading this and make a mental note… I’m not kidding and yes please!)

I’ve had the good fortune to try some really good chocolate brownies this last year (Paul A Young, ChocStar and others). Hand on my heart, these are the best I’ve tasted.

 

Bob Bob Ricard reminds me why I rate restaurant reviewers Jay Rayner, Marina O’Loughlin and Fay Maschler quite highly but have absolutely nooo time for critics like A A Gill (just allowing his name to sully my blog makes me feel dirty;). His ilk strive so hard to be entertaining that their default mode seems to be disdain, mockery and posturing; they are far too jaded and world-weary to find fun in the over-the-top flamboyancy of places like Bob Bob Ricard. And god forbid they stop and think about what their readers might actually enjoy – I reckon some of them might quite like to indulge in a little pomp and circumstance on a night out now and again!

(And to the two critics who’ve renamed Russian owner Leonid to Sergei: which one of you was so lazy they copied the details from the other’s review and which of you puts your hand up to the original sloppy journalism?)

These days, I turn less to the words of restaurant critics when looking for the low-down on where’s good for food than I do to food bloggers and twitter (though when I do seek out reviews from the pros, Rayner and O’Loughlin are usually the first I check). And twitter is also where I’ve forged a wonderful, warm network of food loving friends – fellow food bloggers, industry PRs, restaurateurs and chefs, food journalists and cookery book authors, catering company owners, cheese and fish mongers, food producers and, of course, home cooks!

This online community of London foodlovers is also how I became involved in the Blaggers Banquet charity fundraiser and how I came to engage with Leonid Shutov, one of the owners of Bob Bob Ricard. We corresponded by email and chatted on the phone a number of times about the auction prize BBR kindly donated. I confess, until then I’d never heard of BBR but was delighted to put the generous prize into our auction and even more delighted to see how much it raised! My interest in BBR was definitely piqued!

And when Leonid mentioned some high-end vodkas he was tasting and I replied (vodka being the only spirit I’ll drink given my dislike for gin, whisky, brandy…) he suggested I get myself over to BBR and sample a few! Who am I to turn down that kind of invitation?

Although I’m currently on holiday between contracts, I did agree to deliver a single day’s training as a favour for a long-term client. I knew it would be a frustrating day so it seemed an ideal evening to pop into BBR for dinner and drinks. The day was even more exasperating than I’d imagined possible so I was quite the pressure keg by the time I met up with Pete at Picadilly Circus!

We arrived at BBR just after 5pm; unsurprisingly, we were the first customers of the evening, though the place became pretty busy by the time we left, and that on the second Tuesday of January!


Shown to one of the booths by our pink-coated waiter, Salvatore, we settled in and gawped at the décor – old world decadence with a sprinkling of glitz and a large dollop of kitsch! I loved the dark turquoise leather banquettes reminiscent of first class train travel in times gone by, the plush velvet curtains on little gold curtain poles, the regal yet futuristuc bronzey-gold chandeliers, the gorgeous Japanese book binding paper used to paper walls and ceilings with flying birds and tie dye circles, the resplendent bevelled mirrors and the beautifully patterned granite and marble table tops and a hundred other little details that contributed to the flamboyant whole.

I used to visit the site regularly in it’s (earlier) Circus days so the contrast between that modern, minimalist look and the current extravagance was staggering!

Moments later, Leonid joined us and we ordered aperitifs. Pete went for the house signature pink rhubarb G&T. Not normally a big gin drinker, or a fan of girlie drinks he really liked it. I had the pear bellini, a lovely variation on the peach original.

After slaking our thirst we took a quick tour around the restaurant including the downstairs bar. It’s red colour scheme and narrow room layout evokes even more forcibly the hey days of the Orient Express. Luxurious fittings, more private nook and cranny booths with extra fold-down seats and lots of glitz and glamour. It’s open to restaurant diners and members, but off limits if you’re neither.

The tour was followed swiftly by the voddie session! Leonid ordered a selection of Russian starters and, of course, the vodka! Salvatore poured us shots of Kauffman Special Vintage 2006, chilled to –18°C – chilling the vodka makes it more about drinking it than inhaling the fumes of alcohol beforehand. Leonid explained how best to drink it: ready a forkful of food, down the shot in one, and immediately eat the forkful.

Leonid explained that vodka “brings out and amplifies the flavours of the food but does not change them. Unlike wine, neat vodka cannot be properly enjoyed on it’s own, it needs food to complete the experience!”

We started with the jellied ox tongue with horseradish cream. I liked the textures of the meaty tongue against the wobbling jelly and the horseradish gave it a nice kick. And certainly the flavours sang out, whether that was the vodka or not I’m not sure, but I rather liked downing a shot before each mouthful!

Our second shots were Imperia by Russian Standard. This vodka has a more distinct grain flavour, perhaps less completely distilled than the other, perhaps with the taste of grain deliberately added back to it. Leonid described how some vodka producers take rye bread, toast it, soak the toast in water to create an essence of the flavour and mix this into the vodka to add in just a hint of the grains from which it’s made!

With these shots we tried the russian herring, cured with salt rather than the sweeter cures more common in Scandinavian versions, and served with tiny rings of raw red onion. Powerfully fishy and packing a hefty salt punch, we swiftly followed each mouthful of herring with a bite of boiled royal kidney potatoes – the naturally buttery flesh instantly cut through the saltiness.

As both Pete and I preferred the Kauffman, it was shot after shot of this vodka that prefaced the remaining ox tongue and herring as well as other dishes.

The malosol cucumber is brined in dill, sea salt, horseradish, garlic and blackcurrant leaves (a new one on me) for just 24 hours to create this refreshing pickle that is at once fresh cucumber and crunchy pickle. Very more-ish!

Not really into our champagne we were nonetheless able to watch the champagne call button in action, as Leonid commandeered it to call for yet more vodka. It worked!

The star of the selection was undoubtedly the meat pelmeni with white vinegar and sour cream. These very traditional dumplings are filled with a pork, beef and raw onion and, in Russia, they are usually made in bulk and frozen. They were served with a generous pot of sour cream and another of white vinegar, the perfect accompaniments. Not unlike chinese steamed dumplings but without the ginger, chives and other ingredients that are often included. I definitely ate the lion’s share of these, each one with a very generous dollop of the sour cream.

One last treat was in store and that was salo served on rye bread. Salo is cured pork lard, known in Italian as lardo di Colonnata (named for a Tuscan village where it’s produced). As the Tuscan version is virtually the same as the Russian, BBR source theirs from Italy. Salty, fatty pork with the rich rye taste is another dish that we found worked very well with vodka!

Our conversations were many, varied and fascinating but when I took a trip down memory lane (and tested out my one remaining phrase of Russian) to relate an extremely vodka-fuelled trip to the Ukraine and another, a couple of years later, to Moscow and St. Petersburg, equally vodka-heavy it was time for Leonid to showcase quite how different our premium vodkas were to the Stoli of those long-ago years. A bottle of Stolichnaya was duly brought out, chilled as the others had been. Cough! Splutter! Cough! Really, I coughed a lot. 20+ years makes it easy to forget quite how rough and raw Stoli is and certainly made us appreciate the Kauffman we quickly retreated back to even more!

Now, you might be forgiven for assuming, based on the above, that BBR is a Russian restaurant. Actually, the eclectic all-day menu is mainly British and the handful of Russian dishes have been added to complement the vodka and as a nod to Leonid’s heritage.

Finally picking up the menu (with sections for cocktails and shakes, vodka, caviar and russian snacks, starters and soups, mains and sides, desserts and afternoon teas) we ordered yet more food.

Torn between a number of starters, Leonid steered me towards the Scottish langoustine cocktail. My face dropped as Salvatore stepped in to tell me they didn’t have any langoustine today but my smile returned in an instant when he continued by proposing that they make it for me with lobster instead. Leonid confided that supplies of good quality lobster are actually easier to secure than langoustine so this is the norm rather than the exception! Given that the price stays the same, who am I to argue? I love lobster meat and but don’t have it often. And it was good – a generous portion of moist, firm meat on a bed of properly crunchy lettuce smothered in an unctuous marie rose sauce.

Pete went for the rabbit, foie gras and date terrine. The richness of the foie gras, the meatiness of the rabbit and the sweetness of the date came together to create a balanced dish; and a combination we’d not encountered before. Very nice!

Leonid ordered the BBR beef tea soup, a proper Victorian restorative! In his bowl were raw pieces of beef, a poached quail’s egg and alphabetti spaghetti. In an amusing touch, the only letters provided are B and R but I didn’t check whether the Bs were twice as many as the Rs! The soup is served in a silver teapot to be poured over the beef, egg and pasta. A little bit of ceremony can be a fun thing now and again; I rather liked it!

We were on our own for the mains – running a restaurant does require some work, after all. Having asked Leonid about their most popular dishes I duly ordered the chicken kiev. Pete opted for the pork cheeks braised in port.

The kiev was beautifully cooked: tender moist chicken, a crunchy bread-crumbed exterior and juice garlic butter inside. Although the flavour of the garlic came through perfectly well, I’d have liked more garlic butter, so a little flooded out onto my plate as I cut into the chicken. Pete, on the other hand, was of the “less is more” camp. What really made me grin whilst eating this dish was the sweetcorn and potato mash. So creamy, it was the essence of sweetcorn and I completely adored it!

And yet, the pork cheeks in port were even better! Neither of us had eaten pork cheeks before and were bowled over by their tenderness. We were also surprised to find the cheeks more beefy than porky, perhaps because they are more like red meat than the more familiar cuts of pork? The rich, full-bodied port sauce was perfect and the kitchen didn’t stint on it either. Served with carrots and mash, this is one of the dishes I’ve been dreaming of ever since!

With his pork cheeks, Pete had a glass of wine, drawing on our waiter’s advice. I’d heard about BBR’s wine list as it caused quite a stir in the industry; such that even a non wine-drinker like me had heard of it. The reason is simple – unlike most premier restaurants BBR have capped the mark-up they put on the price of any bottle of wine, no matter how premium, to £50. This is, explains Leonid in the wine menu, plenty to cover the cost of selecting, sourcing, storing and serving the wines and provide a modest profit. This means that BBR undercut many top restaurants by hundreds of pounds on some bottles, making them a popular destination for those who like to appreciate top class wines when dining out. We don’t fall into that category, but luckily wines start at £5.50 a glass and £19.25 a bottle for whites and reds and there are a number of choices coming in at less than £30 a bottle.

By this stage, as you can imagine, we were pretty full! But, in the name of research, curiosity or just flat-out greed, we took a look at the dessert menu. And that was our downfall; we could not resist! Torn between the warm chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream, the striped ‘strawberries & cream’ soufflé, the vanilla, salted caramel and valrhona chocolate ice-cream and the bramley and cox apple jelly with cream and shortbread we compromised and ordered the apple jelly to share. And two BBR chocolate truffles as well.

Well, the chocolates, one raspberry and one lime and mint, were perfectly nice. But it was the jelly that stole the show. You’d think the most appley thing you could eat would be an apple, wouldn’t you? But no, I think it could be this jelly, which was the very essence of British apples. The sweet cream and two crisped apple slices were lovely on the side. And the shortbread rounds were the shortest shortbread I’ve come across; given how they crumbled the moment you put them in your mouth, I can’t imagine the delicate touch needed to keep them in one piece during baking and service!

During dessert, Leonid returned and brought with him his friend and business partner Richard. (Incase you’re wondering, Ricard is Leonid’s piss-take nickname for Richard and Bob is Richard’s nickname for Leonid. Bob’s name features twice in the restaurant name because he stumped up two thirds of the money). As simple as that!

Queue lots more fun chatting and laughter, and nosey questions about how the pair met, how they conquered Russian PR and how they came to open a restaurant. And all kinds of random other stuff. And the slightly surprising discovery of a mutual fondness for penguins, which may or may not have been Richard pulling my leg, though he did seem to know more about penguins in the Falkland Islands than most people I’ve met!

Truly, we had a really lovely evening.

I had been a little nervous beforehand, not about meeting Leonid nor about the vodka sampling but about the food. I’d not googled in advance for food blog posts and restaurant reviews, nor had I heard much mention of the food in the food twittersphere and I worried that this might mean it would be disappointing, mediocre at best. And if it had been, I’d not have reported otherwise. So, imagine my delight (and relief) when we not only had great fun with our hosts but also had an unexpectedly fantastic dinner as well!

Of course, I googled for reviews as soon as I got home and discovered again why I rate Rayner, O’Loughlin and Maschler – despite sampling the best of what London has to offer and being no strangers to luxurious surroundings, good food and excellent service, they were able to recognise what BBR offers – a strong serving of tradition, a hefty dose of the theatrical and great eating and drinking!

I loved Circus (excluding the last few years) and I love it’s successor even more. In a world of short-lived restaurant openings, long live Bob Bob Ricard!

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon
 

When Fiona threw down the cheese gauntlet with her Ultimate Macaroni Cheese Challenge, I could not resist!

Macaroni cheese is a dish I adore and, like so many, have very fond childhood memories of. And yet, I hadn’t made it for years and years and years. What an oversight!

Such neglect meant I didn’t have the confidence to create my own original recipe. I thought about entering the best use of artisanal cheese category and popping down to Neal’s Yard Dairy for some Montgomery’s Cheddar or whatever else took my fancy, but I didn’t have time to schedule a visit. And I’m not well placed to suggest the best drink match, given that I enjoyed my macaroni cheese with a can of Coca Cola, though Pete said it went well with the Bergerac red he opened. So I guess I’m aiming for the most mouthwatering photo (or series of photos)!

What this means is that, for the first time ever, I tried to think ahead about how I wanted to photograph the ingredients and finished dish. My main photographic interests are travel and wildlife and I tend to shoot candidly, so working studio-style feels alien to me. Having long lusted over the magnificent photography on blogs such as La Tartine Gourmande, Matt Bites and What’s For Lunch, Honey? I knew I’d never match their skills with food styling and design. But instead of grabbing a couple of snapshots on the kitchen worktop as I usually do, for the first time ever I set up a makeshift table (on a cardboard box), chose and draped a new red travel towel as backdrop, thought a little about my choice of dishes and presentation and roped in my husband to hold an off-camera flash to the side for me whilst I took the photographs.

Of course, the other decision was which recipe to choose? For the last several days, Pete and I have been tidying the spare bedroom. This has been a week-long process because of my hoarding nature and our mutual hatred of house work; both of which had lead to a tottering mountain of boxes of stuff which we always intended to deal with shortly after boxing, but never did. In one, I found greetings cards from our wedding day (in 1994), in another we discovered work files from a job I barely remember and in yet another was a pile of Sainsbury’s and Waitrose Food Illustrated magazines from 1999 to 2001! Scouring through these magazines for “keeper” recipes (including a great one for chicken and garlic by Fiona herself) I found not one but two macaroni cheese recipes; I took this as a sign that I absolutely had to enter the challenge!

So I chose the Nigel Slater recipe I found in an old Sainsbury’s Magazine:

Nigel Slater’s Really Good Macaroni Cheese
Ingredients
350 grams macaroni (or any other short, hollow, dried pasta)
95 grams grated mature cheddar
1 litre milk
1-2 bay leaves
60 grams butter
60 grams flour
6 slices smoked streaky bacon
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 handfuls fresh, white breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons grated parmesan
salt and pepper

Note: We used 150 grams of mature Cornish Davidstow cheddar. And as the milk we had in was fully skimmed, I sloshed in a little double cream that I had in the fridge. We opted for De Cecco tortiglioni instead of macaroni as I like large pasta tubes.



Method

  • Preheat oven to 400°C.
  • Cook the pasta in boiling salted water till just tender.
  • Grill the bacon until slightly crispy and cut into small pieces.
  • Meanwhile, warm the milk in a saucepan with the bay leaves; turn it off as it comes to the boil.
  • Melt the butter in another pan, add the flour and stir over a moderate heat until you have a smooth roux.
  • Pour the hot milk into the roux and whisky to remove any lumps and then simmer, stirring regularly, until the sauce is the consistency of double cream.
  • Stir the grated cheddar into the white sauce.
  • Fold the drained pasta, bacon pieces and mustard into the cheese sauce, and then season to taste.
  • Transfer the mixture into an ovenproof dish.
  • Mix the breadcrumbs and grated parmesan and scatter over the pasta and sauce.
  • Bake for 35-40 minutes.

After all that effort in planning, making and photographing, I was actually a little disappointed with the result! The flavour was really lovely, with the bacon and mustard complementing rather than overpowering the cheese, and the Davidstow providing a lovely rich flavour. But for me, the texture was too stodgy. Talking to Pete though, it seems it’s a matter of preference as he thought it was just as it should be! I realise I like mine to be much looser and saucier; essentially, I want the texture we had when we poured the pasta and sauce mixture into the baking dish.

Given that the mixture is hot when it goes into the baking dish, next time instead of baking it in the oven for half an hour, I’m going to pop it under the grill for a much shorter time. That should allow the breadcrumb topping to brown without drying out the pasta and sauce beneath.

Click on the images to view larger versions.

Jan 142010
 

I had just started secondary school when Thorntons hit the big time.

Apparently, they’ve been around for nearly a hundred years, but I think it’s fair to claim that the eighties was their decade. Suddenly, soft-centred contintental chocolates were readily available and at affordable prices too! At a time when top quality chocolate wasn’t easy to find in the UK, let alone the mindbogglingly wide range of choices we take for granted today, their Belgian-style chocolates quickly became a top choice when looking for a sophisticated gift. Or so it seemed to my pre-teen eyes, at any rate… My friends and I delighted in having personalised messages iced onto their shaped chocolate moulds and a box of Thorntons was so much more elegant than the ubiquitous Milk Tray or Black Magic.

But, as so often happens to chains that experience such rapid growth and become part of the mainstream, they seemed to get stuck in a rut and were left behind as palates changed and the nation demanded more innovation and higher quality from our chocolate.

Certainly, my chocolate tastes moved on, and Thorntons simply no longer delivered the quality I was looking for. I wanted something better, and I wasn’t alone.

Hotel Chocolat were, to the noughties, what Thorntons had been to the eighties, building upon their successful chocolate tasting club by launching a great many high street stores. It must have been hard for Thornton’s to watch market share slipping so fast to this new contender!

But now Thorntons are fighting back as the launch of their new range of chocolate blocks attests. Ranging from plain white, milk and dark chocolate options to exciting combinations such as milk chocolate with tonka bean, dark chocolate with macadamia and balsamic in dark chocolate each square bar weighs between 70 and 90 grams and is priced between £1.79 and £1.99.


The first block I tried – the milk chocolate with strawberry – didn’t impress. The 32% cocoa madagascan chocolate tasted overly sweet. My husband described it as “cheap easter egg chocolate” and I agreed, which wassurprising given the sticker on the front telling me it won a gold in the great taste awards 2009. And whilst there was a generous amount of strawberries, virtually no fruit flavour came through at all!

Second under the tonguescope* was the milk chocolate pistachio block. The same madagascan 32% cocoa was, this time, combined with a generous portion of salted pistachios! Better: in this block the excessive sweetness of that chocolate was balanced out by the lip-licking saltiness of the nuts. A decent bar and this time, I could see why it might garner a great taste 2009 gold award, though the chocolate was still too sweet for me.

*Tonguescope is a perfectly cromulent word! ;)

Third to be tested was the dark chocolate with macadamia. Combining dominican republic 60% cocoa with lightly salted macadamia nuts, I hoped this block might cater to those looking for less sugar in their chocolate. Unfortunately, this was not the case: I found the chocolate both too bitter and too sweet at the same time – a curious incongruity! I liked the macadamia nuts but could not eat more than two squares of this before pushing it away. This bar won a bronze at the Academy of Chocolate awards.

Last on the block was the milk chocolate with tonka bean. This one was made from venezuela 38% cocoa infused with tonka beans which gave “delicate flavours reminiscent of almond and vanilla”. The description on the back of the box was spot on, those flavours came through subtly but clearly. The chocolate itself was silky smooth. And not too sweet! This block was the runaway winner of the selection, for me and the only one I could recommend to others, based on my own chocolate preferences. Of course, if you like your chocolate sweet, you may absolutely love the previous three! Apparently it only won a silver in the at the Academy of Chocolate awards, but it’s my pick of the four blocks.

I’m keeping an open mind about the other blocks – certainly after the tonka bean one I’m up for giving them a try. I’ll keep you posted if I do!

 

So! Eggs then. One of the most versatile ingredients available to us and one of my personal favourites and yet, I’ve shown such a lack of imagination in using them.

Yes, I enjoy them boiled, fried, scrambled and as omelettes. Yes, I have made eggy quiches and flans. And yes, I use them plentifully in baking.

But I’ve really not shown much initiative in making them the star of the meal in more varied ways and that is something I’m putting right with the help of Michel Roux’s book on Eggs, which I posted about recently.

The second recipe Pete and I made from the book was baked eggs at it’s simplest – just eggs and cream, really.

To Roux’s succinct list of butter, salt, pepper, eggs and double cream we added some grated Comté.

Comté Baked Eggs
Ingredients
Butter, salt and pepper
Eggs
Double cream (1 tablespoon per egg)
Grated Comté (1 tablespoon per egg)

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 170°C and put the kettle on to boil.
  • Butter the ramekins and season with salt and pepper
  • Place the ramekins into a baking tray.
  • Break an egg into each ramekin
  • Carefully spoon in about a tablespoon of double cream into each ramekin. Roux counsels taking care to avoid covering the yolk with the cream, but we found it made no difference to the end result (having done so in one ramekin by accident).
  • Sprinkle the grated cheese over the top.
  • Pour boiling water into the baking tray around the ramekins to come approximately half way up the sides.
  • Bake for approximately 10-12 minutes until the egg whites are reasonably firm but the yolk still runny.

Two each served with buttered toast made a simple but very satisfying weekday supper.

More elaborate versions in the book include baked eggs with chicken livers and shallots in wine, baked eggd with smoked haddock and grain mustard and eggs en cocotte with girolles! Mmm!


Michel Roux’s “Eggs”, published by Quadrille, is priced at £9.99 but is currently (on posting) available from Amazon for just £6.46 (for the paperback edition).

 

For Christmas, I bought Pete a cast iron mincer. It was an inexpensive (and rather heavy and large) stocking filler which I bought in a charity sale, boxed and brand new. But I had no idea if would even work let alone work well.

So I was happy to find a recipe that allowed us to test the mincer as well as Michel Roux’s Eggs cookery book, recently received for review from Quadrille. Having successfully tried a few recipes from his Sauces book recently, I was really keen to get cooking with eggs.

The first recipe I chose? Scotch Eggs! One of my favourite things and certainly enjoying a renaissance these last few years, with creative versions from The Handmade Scotch Egg Company (who I encountered at the British Cheese Festival back in 2008) and traditional versions on offer in many a pub and restaurant.

Before we could start on the recipe itself we needed to convert our pork shoulder steaks to mince. Enter mincer!


Unfortunately, our work surface proved to be deeper than the mincer’s clamp could straddle so instead we clamped the mincer to a chopping board and used a clamp from Pete’s toolbox to secure the chopping board to the work surface. Phew! Time to start cranking the handle! The mincer worked like a charm. Quite a faff feeding the meat through, and it took quite a while (not to mention repetitive graft, on Pete’s part) but the end result was excellent. Job done!

That completed, we had all our ingredients assembled.

Michel Roux’s Mini Scotch Eggs
Ingredients
8 quail’s eggs (we did 12)
300 grams pork fillet or shoulder, trimmed and finely minced (we had approximately 350-400 grams minced shoulder steak)
2 teaspoons parsley and chives (we used parsley only)
salt and pepper
small pinch cayenne (we used a large pinch of paprika)
1 egg white + 2 medium eggs (we used 2 large eggs in total)
2 tablespoons milk (we omitted this)
seasoned flour
100 grams white breadcrumbs (we knew our bread was too fresh to make into crumbs so we toasted it before blitzing)
300 ml groundnut oil to fry (we used vegetable oil, not sure how much)

(Adapted) Method

  • We hard-boiled the quail’s eggs and peeled them.
  • We mixed the minced pork meat with an egg white, the parsley, salt, pepper and paprika.
  • Dividing the meat mixture into twelve shares we took a portion, flattened it ito a pattie in the palm of a hand, placed an egg into it and gently moulded the meat around the egg.
  • Each egg was liberally floured; infact we double floured them.
  • We beat the second egg with the leftover egg yolk and dipped each floured quail’s egg into it and coated it well.
  • The eggs were then liberally (and gently) rolled in breacrumbs.
  • We heated the oil in a small pan. The recipe suggests 180°C but as we didn’t use a thermometer we guesstimated. We cooked the eggs in pairs for about 3 minutes rather than the suggested 1.5 to 2 minutes.
  • After letting them drain on a kitchen towel, we ate them still warm.

They were delicious! I particularly liked the fresh parsley in the meat layer and the golden crunch of the breadcrumbs.

In retrospect, mincing the meat by hand before hand meant it took us two hours to make these. Next time I’d buy meat in bulk, mince the same way and freeze for later use.

I’d like the recipe to give more guidance on how much seasoning to use as, although we added what we thought was a generous amount of salt and pepper, the end result was significantly underseasoned (and the large pinch of paprika we used was completely lost). I realise that seasoning is to taste, but really had no clue where to start on this one.

What I did like was how straightforward the recipe was to follow. Roux has a simple, unpretentious writing style. The recipe worked and it gave us the confidence to make something we’ve never made before!

I’ll be trying (and sharing) some more recipes from this book in coming blog posts!


Michel Roux’s “Eggs”, published by Quadrille, is priced at £9.99 but is currently available from Amazon (at date of posting) for just £6.46 (for the paperback edition).

 

 

… is that I can’t go to steak club!

A comment I made on twitter about feeling like the only food blogger yet to enjoy the legendary steak and burgers at Hawksmoor restaurant in London lead to a flurry of tweets from fellow carnivore friends suggesting we go together. Result and happiness on my part! The suggestion of a girls steak club quickly took off and many excited wimmins eager to share the beef chimed in.

Sadly, in the ensuing rush to make this into a reality, a date was picked that I could not attend. Learning of this on a day when I was already very close to tears (thanks to paypal and ebay, who I hate with a true and fierce passion) lead to the embarassment of my crying actual tears, just because I couldn’t go! Behaviour quite unbecoming of a 38 year old, even one who loves her steak!

Cue gallant behaviour from (no doubt slightly bewildered) husband who suggested he’d take me instead and we’d have our very own steak club!

Having just started a glorious three month sabbatical from work we took advantage of our freedom to make a weekday lunch time visit, driving into the city and finding a pay and display parking space virtually opposite the restaurant. Great start!

Our lovely waitress took our drinks orders, responding well to my nondescript request for a non-alcoholic cocktail, “something sweet”. Quick, targetted questions helped elicit my eventual request for raspberry and mint and she had the barman make me a virgin raspberry mojito which absolutely hit the spot! Pete went for a Meantime Pale Ale, which he enjoyed though felt was served too cold.

Reluctantly, but sensibly given the meatfeast to come, we eschewed starters and went straight to the main event.

Pete opted for the famous Hawksmoor burger. A real burger lover, he confirmed that the (very generous) pattie was incredibly moist and tender, wonderfully beefy and perfectly balanced by the lettuce, tomato, gherkins and red onions. He was pleased with his choice of ogleshield cheese too. The accompanying chips were nice, though nothing to write home about.

I was permitted a bite of the burger and was duly impressed, even after all the hype! Yes, it really is a very tasty burger!

I chose a 400 gram (gulp) rib-eye steak, medium rare. And some grilled marrow bone, because I love it. And a side of buttered spinach. To my delight, a little bowl of bearnaise was also provided – tasty but would have been nicer warm. Far too much meat for me, but I gave it a good effort and enjoyed what I managed to eat immensely. A nice texture and great flavour, and deftly cooked. All one wants from a piece of beef!

Full beyond belief we nevertheless could not resist the allure of the Victorian apple and blackberry trifle. Spiked with brandy and topped off with scrumpy cider ice, it was refreshingly light and the perfect thing with which to round off our meal!

I was also delighted to be able to catch up with owner Will Beckett, who I’d been wanting to meet for ages, having met fellow owner Huw Gott at the Blaggers Banquet! Will’s dry humour on twitter often has me smiling and he made us very welcome at Hawksmoor.

I’m looking forward to confirmation of their second restaurant in the West End. Apparently, they’ve found the premises but won’t say a word until the paperwork is all signed!

In other news, why not join the ranks demanding weekend burger goodness at their original branch?!

Hawksmoor on Urbanspoon
 

Chicken liver paté is one of my favourite things… and yet, a couple of years ago, I’d never made it myself.

A friend was kind enough to share his recipe for chicken liver and brandy paté which I duly made and enjoyed. It was very straightforward and inexpensive too! Having gained the confidence to experiment I adjusted the recipe and adjusted it again and with a final tweak or two, came up with my own.

Mine has rather a lot more alcohol than my friend’s original recipe, so you may wish to add it gradually, the first time you make it, incase you prefer less! Likewise with the garlic.

This is a great make-ahead starter or light lunch and works well served with toasted, home-made bread or brioche and some sweet chutney.


Kavey’s Chicken Liver & Port Paté
Ingredients
• 400 grams chicken livers
• 150 grams butter
• 1 medium to large onion; diced or finely sliced
• Thyme; fresh or dried, to taste.
• 5-6 cloves garlic; roughly chopped or crushed
• Salt & pepper
• 100 ml port
Optional
• Clarified butter; to cover
• Replace 50 gm butter with 50 gm double cream

Method
1. Chop the onion and garlic finely and soften in about 1/4 of the butter until just starting to colour.
2. Add the livers, thyme and seasoning and fry together over reasonably high heat for about 3 minute until the livers have stiffened and browned. They should be pale pink inside but no dark (raw) pink should remain.
3. Leave to cool.
4. Tip the contents of the pan (including any melted butter/ juices) into a food processor and blend.
5. Once you have achieved a smooth paste add the rest of the butter (and the cream, if using) and blend again.
6. Add the port, check the seasoning and blend once more to combine.
7. Then pour into a large, shallow dish or individual ramekins.
8. Tap the pots gently to free bubbles and leave to cool.
9. Optional: Clarify some butter (melt and remove impurities) before pouring or spooning very gently over the surface of the paté, to a depth of about 3 mm.
10. Refrigerate overnight.
11. Serve, from the fridge, with toasted bread or brioche and a sweet jam or chutney.

Notes
• This paté needs to overnight in the fridge before serving. It’s too runny on the day it’s made.
• Even after a night in the fridge, this is a soft, spreadable paté; not the terrine kind you can cut into slices and lift out of the dish. For that reason, I make it in a large, shallow dish for an informal dinner, where everyone dives in and spoons a dollop into their own plates or in individual ramekins for a more formal presentation.
• If the surface is covered in butter, it will last a few days in the fridge.
• It freezes very well, just allow it to defrost for several hours in the fridge.

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