Go your own way: pear, cinnamon and ginger upside-down cake

1 Oct

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I’ve clearly been bingeing a little too hard on The Great British Bake Off. A sick day last week resulted in a lacklustre spell on the sofa, iPlayering my little socks off, and I finally got round to giving it a go. I’ve been frantically attempting to catch up with the rest of the series ever since.

It’s got me thinking about flavours and different, more adventurous baking ideas a bit more seriously than I usually would. Then, home for the weekend, I happened to look out of the window and see pears falling from the tree in my parents’ garden, and an idea was born.

I don’t usually make up my own recipes – not when it comes to baking anyway. I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy that baking requires more precision than I’m capable of working out, and that recipes know best. Still, I was feeling inspired.

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I poached the pears in red wine, then drained them and let them cool before popping them into the bottom of a cake tin. I made up a basic cake mix of butter, sugar, eggs and flour – a bit less of the latter than usual, to keep the texture moist enough to be consistent with the pears – and added some ground cinnamon and ginger. Fruit + cake mix = upside-down cake.

The result may not be the technically best bake I’ve ever done – it cooked slightly unevenly, and I was completely winging it in terms of oven times – but the warm flavours work together well, and it’s a nicely autumnal cake. I think I might go off-recipe more often.


Sourdough: a labour of love

24 Sep

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So, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the start of my Great Sourdough Experiment. Yesterday, that experiment finally came to fruition.

I’d had to keep the start brewing away for longer than strictly necessary (it seems you can keep it going for a near-indefinite length of time, provided you continue to feed it every few days) simply because of the sheer amount of time involved to make the bread itself. I genuinely hadn’t been home for long enough to allow for the proving until now.

In case you think I’m exaggerating: once kneaded, the dough needs to prove for five or six hours. You then shape it, and prove it for another 10-13 hours. I mixed up the dough at Saturday lunchtime, then shaped it before heading out for the evening. I didn’t put it in the oven until Sunday afternoon – although some of that delay was admittedly a result of a hangover.

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Still, it proved into some decent-looking loaves. Well, until the recipe told me to turn them upside down. Despite my best efforts (and the help of my housemate), they then ended up looking more like this:

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Oops. Hey, it’s not all about being pretty, right? Anyway, the finished product didn’t look too bad.

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Was it worth it, overall? Well, it tastes… alright. It’s certainly not bad, and it works pretty well with some salad and home-made tzatziki as a packed lunch. As a loaf of bread, it’s fine. Is it good enough to warrant two weeks of effort? Maybe not. I’m glad I gave it a go, mind.

Experiment findings? Sometimes delis exist for a reason.

A tiny taste of NYC

20 Sep

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Full and frank disclosure: I have never been to New York. Nor have I ever been especially desperate to – I’ve seen enough episodes of Friends and enough photos from actual friends to feel like I already have. But I have been to the New York Deli. Many times.

Tucked away in one of Cardiff’s quirky city-centre arcades, it’s a tiny place perfect for grabbing lunch. I spent many a happy hour gossiping over me of their hoagies while at uni (probably when I should have been in a lecture), and every time I manage to make it back there I’m veritably overwhelmed with nostalgia. And hunger, obviously.

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This is one of their Reuben sandwiches – salt beef, Swiss cheese and thousand island on rye bread (plus coleslaw, but I was wearing a posh dress and scared of spilling on myself). Just look at the amount of amazing filling in it.

Actual authenticity? I wouldn’t know. But this feels like a very good approximation of my imaginings, at least. Seriously, who needs to go to NYC?

I really wish this was my local

17 Sep

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“Can we go to The New Conway while we’re in Cardiff for Huw‘s wedding?” asked my friend Jamie, before we returned to our ex-adopted hometown on the weekend. “My friend’s taken it over. The food’s really good – I think it’s the only place in the city in the Michelin Pub Guide.” I’m not entirely sure what part of that he’d expected me to refuse. Hell, he had me long before the word ‘Michelin’.

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I am so glad we didn’t have to choose between the starters. Some decisions are just too tough to be made when in a slightly fragile state on a Sunday. Instead, we had a platter of pretty much all of them: houmous; olives; butternut squash arancini; fishcakes with onion and coriander salad; and roasted garlic, thyme, honey and kidney bean fritters. The latter were my favourite – light, crispy shells surrounding a soft middle, with whole kidney beans adding texture and a lovely, subtle undernote of sweetness.

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My philosophy that almost every savoury food can be improved with the addition of generous amounts of chorizo apparently holds true when it comes to a roast, especially when said roast involves large, juicy pieces of chicken complete with crispy skin.

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We had another platter to share for dessert: banana cake with apple compote and white chocolate icing; shortbread and toffee sauce; rhubarb panna cotta; and Jamaican ginger cake. I think it was somewhere around the panna cotta that we simultaneously realised our hangovers had lifted, and that we were sat giggling with joy over a fantastic board of pudding.

Somebody please remind me why I no longer live in Cardiff?

Back to school

8 Sep

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It’s been eight years since I left school – two since I left university – and I don’t miss it. At all. I still love learning new stuff, though, especially when it comes to food. So obviously I was overjoyed when I got a place on Bordeaux Quay‘s tapas course as a birthday present.

Today was the day. Under the guidance of the lovely Kelly Sealey – who may just be my new favourite person – me and eight others learnt how to make (deep breath): black olive tapenade, tortilla, mussels with shallots and sherry, lamb pinchos, romesco sauce (which we ate with Parma ham) and empanadas filled with chorizo. Oh, and as if we hadn’t eaten enough by that point, Kelly had prepared crème Catalan in advance for pudding.

It was a great environment for a class. We were paired up (I was with a nice gentleman called Nick) and then shared the cookery between the two of us at a station. Kelly showed us how to make a dish, and then we went off and did so. Then we reconvened at the front of the kitchen and ate the results together along with a specially matched wine. It was informal and plenty of fun; the afternoon flew by.

If I had to pick a favourite dish from the list, it would potentially be the tapenade – which is ironic, given that I don’t actually even usually like olives – or the romesco sauce, which I’ll definitely be making again. I’m also chuffed to have finally produced a Spanish omelette – indeed, any omelette at all – that actually looked the part, rather than simply a mess of eggs on a plate.

So, I learnt a whole bunch – including lots that I’ll be using in my own kitchen, and now I can’t wait to have friends over for tapas. What’s more, I did so while eating, drinking, giggling and generally enjoying myself. What could be better? I only wish that actual school had been more like this.

(Apologies for the lack of photos in this post – perhaps understandably, I was a bit too busy learning how to cook tapas at the time.)

Sourdough scares me a little

2 Sep

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I love sourdough; I should probably state that first of all. It has a lovely, distinctive tang to it, as well as a nice texture. I just try not to think too hard about how it’s made.

The idea of yeast fermenting for days – and being fed as it does so – creeps me out a little bit. I’m not an especially squeamish eater, but the idea of my food being alive as I prepare it isn’t one that appeals. It’s probably for the best if nobody explains to me the exact processes that go into making alcohol.

Still, I’ve decided to give it a go. The recipe for making the ‘starter’ is more akin to something something written by a mad scientist than by a baker. You mix flour, water and grated apple, then let it ferment and grow in a sealed jar for a few days. You keep adding more to it, then leaving it, for around ten days. It’s a project, if nothing else – and I do like a good project.

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It didn’t start out well. I read the ingredients list, but only skim-read the first step of the recipe, meaning that I accidentally added a whole kilo of flour instead of the 500g you were meant to start with (the remainder being what needs adding over the coming days). It was only when the consistency looked totally off (so, quite quickly then) that I realised, and was left desperately trying to fish half of the (thankfully still-dry) flour out of the bowl.

My recipe was also pretty emphatic that the apple had to be an organic one. I have no idea if the Braeburns in my cupboard right now are organic – and the supermarket was shut by the time I started on this glorified chemistry experiment – so I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that if they’re not, a vigorous wash in the sink was enough.

And hope that the mix doesn’t grow into The Blob.


24 Aug

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A few months ago, the question above is exactly what I’d have been asking myself. It’s also up on the wall in The Canary in Bath (credit for the photo goes to their website, by the way). The answer is: ‘drinking gin’.

I’m a recent convert to gin, but as soon as I realised (thanks to my friend Izzi) that I didn’t actually hate it, I quickly got well and truly on board. Now: gin is great. Nice gin is even greater.

The Canary is a specialist gin bar. Seriously, the selection it’s packing behind the bar is incredible. It’s also the newest addition to what could feasibly be described as a ‘street of win’ – Bath’s Queen Street – which also features such treats as The Raven, Firehouse Rotisserie and Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights (well, those last two are technically John Street, but close enough).

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The highlight of my visit was the Victorian Mojito. A double shot of Hendrick’s, muddled with cucumber, mint, lime and golden syrup, then topped up with tonic. Basically, like a normal mojito, but even more impressive. But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the raspberry gin, or the sloe gin. I enjoyed both of those very much.

The decor is quirky, the ambience warm, and the batman friendly and knowledgeable. Do you like gin? My newfound evangelicalism says that you should. And if you do, I can’t recommend a trip to The Canary enough.

Doughnuts and confusion

19 Aug

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Dear America, your recipes are confusing. There are many things you’re getting very right – your food meets with my wholehearted approval; I hold a profound love for your trash TV; you’ve produced some wonderful writers – but measurements is not one of them.

Today I decided – inspired by Felicity Cloake’s ‘how to cook the perfect…’ blog on the Guardian website – to attempt doughnuts. It is Sunday, after all. I love a good Sunday afternoon in the kitchen.

I didn’t actually use Felicity Cloake’s recipe, but instead bastardised one of those that she linked to as research: an American blog called 101 Cookbooks. I liked the idea of baking them rather than frying, because fussing around with a massive pan of hot oil seems like a lot of hassle, not to mention fried-cake guilt. Although once they’ve been dipped in melted butter and sugar, they’re still not exactly an innocent treat…

The recipe called for cups, which left me confused like a kitten that’s managed to get itself tangled up in a ball of wool. Until I remembered that I had this bad boy stashed away at the back of the cupboard.

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I just don’t really ‘get’ cups as a measurement. I’m sure it’s meant to be easier or more convenient, but it doesn’t strike me as either – especially as I presume everything has to be level, which isn’t that simple when it comes to flour. And as for trying to measure out tablespoons of butter… Nightmare. Please just use grams and millilitres, America. It’s way better, I promise.

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Still, once made the dough was a pleasure to work with (in fact I loved the recipe as a whole), and I had great fun setting up a little production line for buttering and sugaring the doughnuts once they were out of the oven. They turned out a little flat, but that’s entirely my own fault for not shaping them into balls. The recipe was for ring doughnuts, see, but I am British and so the idea of a doughnut with no jam in the middle strikes horror into my heart. So I made little hollows inside each with a wooden skewer and then piped in a happy splurge of raspberry.

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Oh, and America, another reason your recipes sometimes make me sad: I only have them on the internet, not written down in books and the like. Which leads to situations like this. I am sure flour and technology are not meant to mix:

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Incidentally, WordPress stats do suggest that some people in the US do read the blog. If so, For all my joking, I’d genuinely be interested in your thoughts on cups as measurement, and how UK recipes read to you. Get in touch!

*insert Blondie guitar riff here*

11 Aug

It started with an excited text message from a friend who lives in Oxford: “Atomic Burger have opened in Bristol! You must go – they’re amazing!” The name did ring a bell – I’d probably heard him raving about the Oxford branch before – so, after a quick scour of the menu online (sold!), I went.

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I can see why America has private healthcare: heart surgeons are almost definitely in cahoots with whoever invented this starter. Potato croquettes, wrapped in bacon and then smothered in a gooey layer of cheese and scattered with jalapeños. If I hadn’t been sharing it with someone else, I’d probably have needed a bypass on the spot. But what a way to go.

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The best thing about Atomic Burger, though, was the genuinely madcap range of burgers on offer, ranging from one with mini pizzas in place of the bun, through to ones topped with nachos or pulled pork. I went for the Mel Gibson: salt beef, thousand island dressing, cheese and gherkins. It was probably the toughest decision I’ve had to make all week, but admittedly I do lead quite a sheltered life.

It was also a good decision, because the combo worked perfectly – juicy, medium-cooked burger, with the tang of gherkin offsetting the richness of the other toppings. Best burger I’ve had in Bristol or Bath, I’d say – and that’s including The Burger Joint and The Market. Oh, and the ‘sci fries’ (chips with a chilli and garlic rub) were moreish like popping bubblewrap.

My only niggle was the service: slow, fairly uninformed and for the most part lacklustre. We had a couple of nice, enthusiastic waiting staff, but statistically that had to happen, seeing as we must have been passed between every employee in the place. It’s only been open for a few weeks, though, so I didn’t come away feeling too pessimistic on that front.

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On a final, positive note, they sell wine in litre bottles like this one. I’m definitely going back ASAP.

My baking goes to Hollywood

3 Aug

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As I mentioned in my last post, I recently received Paul Hollywood’s How To Bake as a birthday present. I love it – the writing is both accessible and informative, and the recipes cover a great range of bakes. It’s a largely savoury book, which is perfect as far as I’m concerned. After all, there are only so many ways to bake a cupcake.

They’re recipes I’ll actually use, too. The other day I decided to dive in feet-first with the sea salt and oregano focaccia recipe – it’s something I’ve been meaning to attempt for ages, and is one of my favourite breads.

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Suffice to say, it was messy. The dough is really wet, and sticks to your hands like nothing else I’ve ever made. If it weren’t for the recipes’ reassurance, I’d have been a bit nervous that I was doing something wrong.

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A few hours – and a couple of rounds of proving – later, the result was far more reassuring. And the end product? Well, it’s pictured at the top of the post. I’m pretty proud of it as a first attempt: it makes pretty damn good sandwiches with some rocket, chorizo and mozzarella.

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While the dough was proving, I also knocked up a batch of the gruyere biscuits. They were simple enough to do, and ended up wonderfully light (although I’d probably grate the gruyere more finely next time to give the dough an easier consistency to work with). They were also approximately as sinfully delicious as you’d expect from something made up of equal parts flour, butter and cheese.

Oh, and the whole house had the lovely, yeasty smell of rising bread. Triple win!