Hoppy Easter! Sunday, Mar 31 2013 

Hope the Easter bunny visited you all!

I got a lovely bag from my mum full of goodies, including Creme Eggs, a Cadbury Buttons egg, and a Lindt bunny (although I didn’t buy any little ones this year to bow down to it).

I also got some of these:

which I used to make these:

crispy cake

Definitely one of the easier treats out there and easily one of the most satisfying too. I used a proportion of 60g of cereal to 100g chocolate, but the beauty of this recipe is in its flexibility: you can use any plain cereal you like (rice krispies, cornflakes, bran flakes…) and any type of chocolate (although milk chocolate is the most commonly used in this recipe), and of course it stands up well to increases in the chocolate proportions too :p All you have to do is mix the melted chocolate with the cereal, spoon it into cake cases, shove in 2-3 mini eggs, and then put into the fridge!

I definitely like the symbolism that Easter treats provide: the eggs and nest above are great for reinforcing the “new life” theme, and Easter eggs themselves symbolise not only this, but also are supposed to symbolise the empty tomb of Jesus and his resurrection. (Hence why Easter eggs are not actually supposed to come with things inside them.)

I also made some other treats this season with explicitly religious connotations. One of them was a simnel cake, of which you get a generic picture, since I can’t find the one I took (boo):

The issue of how many marzipan balls you are supposed to include is a point of contention for many bakists. Many simnel cakes have one marzipan ball in the middle to represent Jesus, so then you have to dither over how many “disciples” you will have around the outside edge. You can either have 11 around the outside edge and Jesus in the middle, or 12 around the outside edge with Jesus included (noting that you obviously exclude Judas both times). While fruit cakes are popular throughout English culinary tradition, the nice thing about the simnel cake is that it’s lighter than many of these (such as the Christmas cake), perhaps due to the fact that it does without the long period of being fed with alcohol (which would make sense given the traditional austerity of Lent). Plus, the addition of spices makes it more Germanic, thus differentiating it slightly from other English fruit cakes.

I also made hot cross buns this year, aiming to ape Heston Blumenthal’s mandarin and Earl Grey version:

hcb

(You can’t really see the cross brilliantly, but if you look closely, it is there.)

My Heston experiment did not really work, for the reasons that:

a) Orange essence is really not a strong enough substitute for real mandarin zest

b) Closer scrutiny of the ingredients of the Heston buns reveals that I should have added orange juice as well

c) Closer scrutiny of the ingredients of the Heston buns, and the recommendation of a friend, also suggests that I should have soaked the raisins in Earl Grey for much longer

and d) I shouldn’t have bothered to add Earl Grey liquid to the bun mixture, as all this did was to make the bun a browner colour.

None of this is to say that my hot cross buns didn’t taste nice, but I clearly still need to tinker with my recipe if I want to imitate Heston’s efforts fully.

The cross on the hot cross buns, of course, symbolises Jesus’ crucifixion, and even though I am no longer religious, I think it’s nice to have these subtle reminders of how these festivals (and indeed festival foods!) originated (although interestingly, in the case of the hot cross buns, pagans originally used the cross on these cakes to symbolise the four quarters of the moon).

However, I’m still on the lookout for new Easter foods to try, such as Fastelanvsboller, or Shrovetide buns, which are eaten in Norway and are flavoured with cardamom and almonds.

More difficult to recreate, though, could be these marshmallow bunnies:

(reminiscent of a late 1990s Easter spent in the US)

…and, of course, this bad boy, as publicised by Pimp That Snack:

Hoppy bloomin Easter indeed. Now to finish my headless Lindt bunny…

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Confectionery Review: Lucky’s Wednesday, Oct 26 2011 

When Lucky’s offered to send me a free box of their chocolates, I jumped at the chance (come on, free chocolate? You wouldn’t be able to resist either). The main draw for me was that unlike most commercial chocolate (as opposed to ballotin-ridden, artisanal, sold-in-posh-boutiques chocolate), Lucky’s focuses on using Valrhona chocolate (which I believe I’ve already spoken about at great length). However, they are no ordinary chocolate company, firstly for their focus mainly on cake, and secondly for their Alice in Wonderland theme.

I was initially a little disappointed when the box arrived due to the Alice in Wonderland theme not being as obvious as I’d hoped. When I showed the box to my husband, and asked him what it reminded him of, he promptly came out with the name of some modern art guru that nobody’s ever heard of. A far cry from the white rabbit and Mad Hatter, then.

But let’s get to the important stuff: the cakes. They’re roughly Fondant-Fancy size, are square, and have the Lucky’s logo on top of them. On the website, you can create the box by choosing any combination of 12 cakes from the following flavours: Salty Insanity, Going Bananas, Looney Raspberry, Fruity Rhapsody, Chunky Nutter, and Mocha Madness. However, my box contained not only 2 Looney Raspberrys, 2 Coco Rush and 2 Chunky Nutters, but also one each of Salty Insanity, Fruity Rhapsody, Fancy Fudge, Hurry Bunny, Nutty Delay, and Sour Kick – of which half, as you will have noticed, are not available on the website for selection for this particular gift box. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.

Anyway, it was certainly beneficial to test a fuller sample of the range of flavours the company has to offer. Plus, since they were so large, we were able to cut each cake in two, thus making the box last longer and allowing us both to test all flavours. Despite my husband not being a fan of white chocolate, he enjoyed the Looney Raspberry more than I did, whereas I preferred the Fruity Rhapsody. As you will remember from my toffee-and-caramel-related tirade in my post on Quality Street vs Roses, it was great to see a genuinely diverse selection of flavours available. As well as the fruit versions, there were traditional nutty variants (Chunky Nutter, Nutty Delay, Coco Rush) and a fudge version (Fancy Fudge). Hurry Bunny – a white chocolate, cinnamon and blueberry confection – was risky yet strangely alluring.

However, to me the stars of the show were the more innovative creations: namely Salty Insanity and Sour Kick. The former is described on the website as “Valrhona 60% cacao dark chocolate…sea salt caramel notes”, while the latter combines honey cake with apricot compote and 40% milk chocolate. These I could happily eat a whole box of.

But what goes up must come down, and unfortunately there were a few downsides. It perhaps goes without saying that the Alice in Wonderland thing needs to be played up far more strongly if done at all. Secondly, and funnily enough, with all of the other flavours incorporated into each cake, the high quality chocolate sadly ended up taking a back seat: in a blind taste test you would not know it was Valrhona. Finally, perhaps the biggest drawback lies in the price; while the flavours are strong and the cakes are well-made, at £35 for 270g net weight, it’s really very expensive for what it is. Fine for a gift at a push, but I would have reservations about spending this amount on myself. Plus, even if I did have £35 to spend on chocolate (or indeed cake) I find myself thinking I would get a better deal elsewhere, whether at a mainstream chain (you can have 1kg of chocolate for this price at Jeff de Bruges, for instance), a posh supermarket (at Marks and Spencer, for your £35, you can have this, for example – which, you’ll note, serves 40 people), or even an independent chocolaterie.

So sorry, Lucky’s – it might be a nice idea as a one-off gift for friends or relatives this Christmas, but I don’t think I’ll be joining your roll of regular customers anytime soon.

Afternoon tea review: Royal Crescent Hotel Sunday, Sep 11 2011 

We managed to snag an afternoon tea for two at the Royal Crescent Hotel courtesy of Maximiles.co.uk (I had been saving my points up for a while for this one). It granted us an afternoon tea for two people worth £25 each, and we were rewarded with a languorous afternoon in a beautiful setting.

You of course enter via the famous Royal Crescent in Bath, a semi-circle of Georgian houses that have been inhabited in the past by such luminaries as Isaac Pitman, George Saintsbury and Thomas Falconer. Service at the front desk is slick, polite and smart, with us being immediately directed through the door and across the garden to where afternoon tea is served. This took us across a beautiful lavender path and into a tastefully-decorated salon, where the purple theme is wonderfully continued alongside shades of taupe and green. (In spite of the sunny picture above, it was a rather blustery day when we visited, so we opted for indoor seating.)

The sleek service at the hotel’s main entrance was contrasted by the slightly more bungling service inside the salon. The waiters did not seem to know what to do with our voucher and for a brief moment I did worry that they wouldn’t accept it and that we’d end up paying the £50. Now, on the one hand, I’ve been there and done that: I worked in all manner of service professions (waitress, hotel receptionist, cashier…) while a student, and can still recall the horror I would feel when presented with something unusual that I just didn’t know what to do with and that a more experienced member of staff had to deal with for me. This is normal part and parcel of any job. HOWEVER – we also redeemed another voucher recently via the exact same method (purchased using points via Maximiles, and then redeemed via http://www.buyagift.co.uk before booking with the retailer in question) in order to book a hotel room for November with The Marquis at Alkham, and their guy knew EXACTLY what to do with the voucher. So my point is this: if the establishment is going to offer such a voucher scheme, then why not train your staff properly in how to process it?

Anyway, once we’d got settled (and, to be fair to the waiters, they did do their best), we were talked through the entitlements of our voucher and the offerings of the afternoon tea. The £50 in question got us a pot of tea each (Lapsang Souchong for me, a more traditional English breakfast for him), and a three-tiered tray of sandwiches (on the bottom tray; including salmon and egg fillings), cakes (on the second tier) and scones and buns (the crowning glory). The tea was all very well, although I have seen more care and attention taken in tea rooms in Bath town centre, which provide individually-set timers for the steeping of each teapot (for example). The sandwiches, too, were crust-free and more than acceptable taste-wise, but fairly standard fare (comparing favourably to the similarly-priced afternoon tea served at the Randolph in Oxford). The only downside was the egg filling – my dislike of eggs meant my sandwich with this filling in it had to be passed to my husband.

This didn’t actually matter, though, as we had skipped lunch in favour of this occasion and were glad we had: the amount of food didn’t look like very much on the tray, but with at least 2 or 3 sandwiches each (it may have even been more like 4), 3-4 cakes each and then a scone and a Bath bun each, the afternoon tea at the Royal Crescent, even at its most basic level, is like a meal in itself. Upgrade, and you can get extra pastries, cheesecakes, tarts, champagne and strawberries thrown in too.

The Bath bun, with its intense load of sugar packed atop it, was delicious but a messy eat – utilise your napkins to the full, people. And while the scones were served with raspberry jam (what’s up with that? Only strawberry will do for the uber-traditional scone consumer), they too were delicious and satisfying. If the hotel had wanted to continue the traditional theme, Sally Lunn buns could have also been included. However, the selection of small cakes served was delicate, beautifully decorated and not at all sickly (in fact, the whole thing went down very nicely). By the end we were STUFFED – you certainly get a lot of tea and food for your money.

Our afternoon was complemented by the discretion of the waiting staff (we in no way felt harangued, harrassed or hurried) and the views over the gardens, which were unobstructed and clearly visible from our seats. We did not experience the poor service experienced by other reviewers, either, and for the full afternoon tea and sumptuous setting, we would certainly return. However, if you want a more low-key tea and cake, try any one of the excellent city tea rooms.

The Royal Crescent Hotel
16 Royal Crescent
Bath
BA1 2LS
Telephone: 01225 823333
Fax: 01225 339401
Email: info@royalcrescent.co.uk

Rousquilles! Thursday, Sep 1 2011 

Rous-what? I hear you ask.

Rousquilles (pronounced roos-keels) are round French cakes from the Roussillon region of France that taste of lemon and aniseed, are dusted in a thick coating of icing sugar, and are vaguely doughnut-shaped. Found in Catalan areas of France (for example, near Perpignan), you will have difficulty finding them elsewhere.

I personally discovered them thanks to my parents owning a house in this area of France, and also found that my husband liked them too, having had a childhood friend whose parents were from the region, and therefore having fond memories of sharing them with this friend. As well as being a slightly different taste experience, they are also relatively inexpensive at under €4 for 16 (so less than 25 centimes per rousquille) and available in French supermarkets in this area of France, often coming in a box of 16 divided into 4 handy sachets for lunchboxes and the like. However, they are also heartily recommended as a dessert, naturally with a local sweet wine as an accompaniment (try Rivesaltes, Banyuls or Maury).

The name comes from the Spanish for “little wheel” (rosquilla – thanks, Wikipedia!), but the Spanish-influenced desserts in the south of France don’t stop there. There’s the chocolate version of the rousquille, the choconine, which adopts an aniseed and vanilla flavour combination, and touron (aka Catalan/Spanish nougat). You can also try the Caprice du Roussillon or the Croqu’amande (both almond cakes) – but for me the jewel in the crown of Catalan cake after the rousquilles is the couronne (quite literally ‘crown’ – funny that), which essentially looks like a ‘plain’, uniced rousquille, with aniseed as its flavour.

The texture of the couronne is, to the best of my recollection, harder than the more crumbly rousquille. Another challenge that presents itself to the rousquille eater is the equally crumbly layer of icing sugar, which means that things can get messy (hence another reason why the 4 separate “étuis fraîcheur” are a good idea, so that you can catch the crumbs without incident and thus not make a mess of the sofa).

So, in short: all hail the regional speciality! (Story of my life, I think.)

Books about tea and biscuits and cake Sunday, Mar 27 2011 

…and of course I could go on with that fantastically vague description.

We all agree, surely, that the wonderful but at times overwhelming world of Tea and Things To Eat With It can get a little tricky to navigate. Reading informative but entertaining books on the subject is certainly one way forward.

The following book reviews were originally posted to my book blog but I thought that you lot would like to see them too 🙂 Enjoy!

A NICE CUP OF TEA AND A SIT DOWN
–The blurb–
“Put a cup of tea in your hand, and what else can you do but sit down? This wonderful new book is a celebration of that most British of life’s cornerstones: taking a break, putting your feet up and having a breather. There is, however, a third element that any perfect sit down requires and it is this: biscuits. As Nicey so rightly points out, a cup of tea without a biscuit is a missed opportunity. Finding the right biscuit for the right occasion is as much an art as it is a science, and it is a task that Nicey has selflessly worked on for most of his tea drinking life. From dunking to the Digestive, the Iced Gem to the Garibaldi, everything you’ll ever need to know about biscuits is in this book, and quite a lot more besides. Is the Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit? And have Wagon Wheels really got smaller since your childhood, or have you just got bigger? […]Nicey and Wifey’s Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down does exactly what it says on the biscuit tin. So go on. Take a weight off, put the kettle on, and enjoy.”
–The review–
Ever since e-publishing and the web in general took off in any serious way, there have been worried whispers among teachers, librarians and other book-lovers regarding the future of the beloved book. However, with popular web editions increasingly coming off the web and into people’s hands in the form of physical copies (you only have to look to Belle du Jour and Petite Anglaise for examples of this), for now at least it appears that we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down, by Stuart Payne, is one such book. Initially conceived as a website to catalogue information on currently available biscuits and to mourn the passing of biscuits from days gone by, and for people to get into deep conversations on this subject, it has now come off the web and appeared before us in real book form. Sales of this have probably enabled the author (and his co-contributor, referenced in the book only as Wifey) to sit back, relax, and enjoy their new-found wonga, as the website itself has not been active now since 2008. While it remains available now for consultation, this may not be the case forever, and so it does seem to be distinctly advantageous to have a real book at our fingertips as an encyclopaedia for all biscuity matters.
While that description may seem slightly overblown, the deceptively slim-looking book truly has encyclopaedic qualities. It contains everything you could ever want to know about biscuits old and new from around the world (and, to be honest, in some cases, more than you ever wanted to know – in some places it becomes wildly detailed), as well as giving information about tea, the history of tea, the best way to drink it, and what to drink it with. Cake is also given a passing mention somewhere towards the back. All of this is laid out very methodically and articulately, making it a handy reference tool.

But, further to this – even if it is slightly politically incorrect to judge a book by its cover – it is certainly not boring, as perhaps one would expect from (you guessed it) the fun-loving cover design. Stuart Payne’s piercing wit shines through at every turn, making the reader’s quest to find out more about biscuits as entertaining as it could possibly be. Accessible and intelligent without being patronising, and with a good dose of humour along the way, this is a one-of-a-kind, detailed book which will find a place on any bookshelf in the land – even in houses that don’t normally have bookshelves.

THE RITZ LONDON BOOK OF AFTERNOON TEA
–The blurb–
“An irresistible collection of traditional teatime recipes and charming stories from the world famous Ritz Hotel.”
–The review–
You may have noticed by now that I am becoming a tad obsessed with tea, given my reading of this and Stuart Payne’s missive within a very short space of time. I also noticed this occurring when somebody at work was asking me about tea, for me to say “Oh, I don’t know very much about it really” only to rattle off quite a few quite specific pieces of information, including about my own favourite type of tea (Lapsang Souchong) and how to prepare the tea.
So books like this are really for entertainment just as much as for knowledge, although by the end of this one the reader is rightly confounded by the apparent lack of link to the Ritz (in spite of its title). Apart from the book possibly being sold there, and the hotel being mentioned from time to time in the book’s earlier sections, the book really is just about tea and cakes and the history thereof in general rather than it being anything to do with the place in particular. Still, it’s not as if it matters terribly in the end, as it still makes for a satisfying and informative read as well as being lightly entertaining. The humour, tone, typeface and illustrations are all so genteel that I did in fact wonder if this was a modern reprint of a book from a bygone age; however, it was written in the mid-2000s. Whether it is intended to be satirical or serious is therefore something that comes into play but does not really matter all that much when all is said and done – much like the book’s premise itself.
Slim and concise, it is packed with information, humour, cake recipes, history and anecdote, as well as quotations from various luminaries on the subject of tea and tea-drinking. It is all highly British with its sense of “this is how you pour the tea” and “oh, but that will never do”, and all without seeming too preachy. We marvel and drool with awe at the recipes and descriptions that are included and immediately make up our minds to spruce up our own afternoon teas; in reading the history of this British institution, too, we feel proud to be imbibing a little history in our cups and feel inclined to go beyond the humble tea bag. It is, in short, aspirational and delicate while continuing to be cuttingly witty in unexpected places. In addition, its well-written, precise and slightly coy style helps in transporting us to days gone by.
A faultless and unpatronising book which not only educates, informs and entertains but also introduces us to the work of Helen Simpson – which, it seems to me, would be well worth seeking out.
Other works by Helen Simpson
Four Bare Legs In A Bed (1991)
Dear George, and other stories (1996)
Hey Yeah Right Get A Life (2001)
Getting A Life (2002)
Constitutional (2005)
In The Driver’s Seat (2007)
In-Flight Entertainment (2010)

Beaster (or Earthday) Tuesday, Apr 20 2010 

The new lexical hybrids above of course refer to the close incidence of my birthday and Easter.

For the former. I made myself a coffee cake, usingDelia Smith’s (or Saint Delia as my mum calls her) recipe.

It was pretty nice, although next time I think I’d omit the fromage frais from the topping, replacing it with extra mascarpone and icing sugar. The fromage frais gives it a weird tang that detracts from all the other good stuff about the cake. On the up side, the boy was unduly impressed that I managed to write my name on the cake (thanks to Vahiné chocolate icing tubes, I’ll have you know). Go me.

My aunt and mother also share my birthday, but I didn’t ask what kind of cakes they had.

For Easter here in France, they do sell eggs, but they’re not as central to the whole proceedings or as flamboyant as they are in the UK. They’re much more sophisticated and (as a rule) generally much more expensive. In the supermarket you can get the occasional low-end cheaper egg but they are mostly aimed at children (and I do have some dignity left). The chocolate hens that are sold are often better value than the eggs, even though you get the same amount of chocolate. Inside the hens (and the eggs) you get lots of little chocolatey trinkets, such as mini chocolate eggs, mini chocolate fish (remember this is still a Catholic country) and mini chocolate squid (**** knows why). They are usually quite nicely presented, coming with a ribbon wrapped around them, and with their own dinky little fake nests:

(Hey, look, you even get a better photo this time.)

In addition to this (because I am greedy), I not only had all of the usual Easter paraphernalia brought over for me from England by the mothership (including mini Creme Eggs and proper Mini Eggs), but I also invested in the following:

Baby bunnies!!!!!

This little ensemble was maybe a bit more expensive than it deserved to be (€13,50 for the mug + 10-12 tiny Lindt bunnies, several of which were already – ahem – given a good home prior to this picture being taken), but at least you get to keep the mug after. And they’re just so damn cute! Shame I didn’t buy a big Lindt bunny as well so that they could all bow down to it like a god.