Spices at Starbucks Thursday, Oct 31 2013 

THE pumpkin spice latte. Gotta say I didn’t think it would have so much cream on it.

With Halloween and autumn now both officially, the food focus is shifting towards root vegetables, spices, and anything generally warm, sweet, and comforting. Starbucks’ spicy pumpkin latte seemed to fit this bill, so I set off towards my local branch today in the hope of procuring one. I’d actually seen it advertised a week (or maybe more) ago, but with our branch having only opened this month, I was waiting for the crowds to die down. Unfortunately, they were all out of pumpkin spice latte – it would appear that the onset of autumn combined with a branch of Starbucks opening for the first time in an affluent, expat-heavy town was a bit too much for their suppliers to bear – leaving me to hunt elsewhere in the next week or two for a chance to sample one (a quick look at the Starbucks website reveals that the fabled drink is not so limited-edition as to no longer be on sale after Halloween).

Perhaps the surprising part, though, is that I wanted to try the pumpkin spice latte at all. Why? I DO NOT LIKE MILK. I remember rejecting it even as a small child, scheming at playgroup to try to trade my milk for other children’s biscuits (ah, the 90s – they’re probably not allowed to give biscuits to three-year-olds in nurseries now). I also can still smell the warm, rubbery smell of the inside of the milk cup. BLECH.

Today my calcium intake is probably still quite shocking. I love cheese, but somehow manage to ration the amount of it that I eat. I tend to eschew yoghurts for fruit purées at lunchtime, and I don’t even take milk on my cereal. I am not a fan of cream or custard in vast quantities. Tea and coffee is served BLACK 99% of the time. So anything that gets some calcium into me is probably a good thing. My love of pumpkin and spices could well override my general dislike of milk. Plus, I’m a grownup now, and grownups are supposed to be able to try new things without puking, right?

So in the absence of the pumpkin spice latte at my local Starbucks today, what did I order?

I could have gone for the fail-safe option of a cappuccino, but I instead decided to go out on a limb and order a chai tea latte, made with skimmed milk. I had never tried this and so was a little apprehensive: not just because of the milk thing, but also because a) I resent paying for tea outside the home [it’s a fricking tea bag!] and b) I thought it might be bland and that I could be disappointed. WAS I EVER WRONG. This hit the spot in terms of warm spiciness and only slight milkiness. Starbucks don’t give too many clues about what their blend contains, only mentioning cardamom, cinnamon and black pepper in a slightly coy manner. However, they do hint at chai’s Ayurvedic Indian roots, which primarily emphasises healing through the power of spice. However, a little bit of digging around online reveals that the traditional spice base (named Karha) must contain ginger and cardamom as a given, with many variations on this basic theme existing. Beyond those two spices, most traditional blends can contain any or all of the following: cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, peppercorns, or cloves. These add to the drink’s medicinal qualities, and the whole blend together is in fact known as masala (chai is just the Urdu word for tea, in fact). Suffice it to say that once the spices and tea are mixed, and then sweetened and mixed with steamed milk, the whole concoction is bloomin’ lovely.

To continue the spice theme, I had a cinnamon swirl. Essentially a Danish pastry, this too was packed with flavour, thanks mainly to the sweet icing and the generously packed cinnamon that twisted throughout the curled bun. The sultanas were a little bit lost in amongst all of this, but I can forgive that. I don’t go to Starbucks that often (maybe two or three times a year), so it sounds a little sad, but this trip was a real treat. Throw in the Adrian Mole book that I’m reading, and I was HAPPY. Faceless global corporation? Maybe even that was challenged by the staff’s friendly and festive demeanour in my local branch today (and this is in France, where they REALLY don’t ‘do’ Halloween). Expensive? At €6 for a chai tea latte and a cinnamon pastry, not hideously so. And tasty? Absolutely. What’s that they used to say about spicing up your life…?

Have a break, have a…matcha Kit Kat? Sunday, Jan 13 2013 

I love Kit Kats. They’re one of my top go-tos if I’m feeling stressed, probably because I have a weird way of eating them. Using my teeth, I prise off the top layer of chocolate. Then I eat the small thick square pieces off the ends. Then the long sides. And finally the long layer of chocolate at the bottom, so that I’m left with just the wafer. Then I eat the wafer (you didn’t think I was going to do something weird like throw it away, did you?!). And so onto the next bar. If this is one of those 4-bar Kit Kats, this takes quite a while. (It’s quite an intricate operation, you know.) And by the time I’ve finished, I’ve forgotten whatever it is I was worrying about.

The entire delicate process of eating an ordinary Kit Kat means that the Kit Kat Chunky just doesn’t have the same appeal. I therefore wasn’t really aware of any other types of Kit Kat. UNTIL, for the pot luck lunch at my work, one of the parents brought in a whole box of these:

matcha kk

This is a matcha (green tea) flavoured Kit Kat from Japan. This is what happens when you work in a fairly international climate. You hear about four different languages as you walk down a corridor, you hear a range of accents and levels of language acquistion in the classroom and staffroom, and you get to try weird new foods.

So how was the matcha Kit Kat? The chocolate is a pale green, and so is the cream that fills the wafer. Disappointingly, though, it just tastes like white chocolate, with any green tea flavour not being distinct.

I was surprised to learn, though (thanks, Wikipedia!), that Japan has introduced over 200 Kit Kat flavours since the year 2000, including ginger ale, crème brûlée, and café au lait – all of which I’d love to try. The power of the internet also permitted me to recall the existence of the orange Kit Kat, which was briefly on sale in the UK (if I remember rightly, it didn’t actually taste that nice). I also discovered that a Cookies and Cream version of the Kit Kat has been available in Britain since 2012: now just how did I not know that before?!

So what flavours of Kit Kat would you like to see? Continuing along the tea theme, I reckon a version flavoured with one of my favourite teas, Lapsang Souchong, would have plenty of mileage…

Floral cupcakes Saturday, Jun 23 2012 

Now that summer is (kind of) upon us, the bakist is faced with their yearly dilemma: how far is it criminal to spend time hovering around a hot oven when the sun is out?

There are several ways around this so that, happily, we can all carry on baking. There are dishes such as panna cotta, which require very little time around a stove (we’re having a ginger and tangerine version tonight), and of course the almighty cheesecake (as in the English version, which doesn’t need any time in the oven. We recently concocted a lime and limoncello cheesecake, which perhaps inevitably could have done with more limoncello).

But another great summer treat for a cooler day is the idea of the floral cupcake. I use a recipe from the Hummingbird bakery, and while they make rose, lavender and jasmine versions, I have expanded on the theme to create my own violet and calendula cakes too. What’s more, there are still numerous possibilities that I have not yet explored, like elderflower, camomile, and linden flower (yes, all of these flowers are really available online and at places like Lakeland for your delectation).

So how would one go about this in the event of wanting to create these cupcakes at home? First you need the basic recipe (the below is the one I’ve casually lifted from the Hummingbird Bakery’s Cake Days book). To this, you add your flavourings (more on this in a moment):

(makes 12-16 cupcakes)

80g softened unsalted butter

280g caster sugar

240g plain flour

1tbsp baking powder

1/4tsp salt

240ml milk

2 large eggs

Mix together the dry ingredients. To the milk, add 1tbsp of your chosen flavouring (see below; I’m coming to it, I promise). Then add this with the eggs to the dry mixture. Put the mixture into muffin cases and bake for 18-20 minutes at 190°C. Simples!

NOW for the flavouring. In France, it’s very easy to come by various flavoured syrups in the supermarket, so this is definitely something to add to your trolley next time you’re over on a booze cruise: the syrups (chiefly made by Monin, but there are other brands, including supermarket own brands) can regularly be found in such flavours as caramel, candy floss, cocktail flavours (such as blue curacao), hibiscus, and violet. Sometimes what I do, therefore, is to add the syrup to the milk where flavouring is talked about in the recipe above.

Another great idea for the flavouring is to use tea. For the Hummingbird Bakery’s jasmine version, they use jasmine tea, and I can confirm this works well. It therefore stands to reason that it would work with other teas too. Try Twinings’ Rose Garden or Lavender Earl Grey teas to impart those recognisable floral flavours into your cake mix. Whittard also has interesting options – why not infuse the milk in the recipe above with their Jubilee blend of tea (which contains marigold, apricot and peach) and top your cupcakes with edible marigold petals as decoration? Alternatively, you could buy your own dried flowers online and infuse these in hot water (make sure they are marked as being edible by the seller).

So that’s the flavouring sorted – and while your cupcakes cool on the window sill, you can think about the decoration. How, for instance, did I make my rose cupcakes look like this?

Furry friends, I will tell you.

The crystallised rose petals came from the food section at Parisian department store Le Bon Marché (known as La Grande Epicerie). While I was there I collected some crystallised violet petals too. You *can* crystallise your own flower petals (the Hummingbird cookbook mentioned above tells you how) but this is only for those on the short of money and long of time. However, you don’t need to go all the way to Paris to buy these beauties: Melbury and Appleton (who are located in London, but also sell online) are just one retailer flogging them to UK bakers. You can also decorate with sugar flowers (buy ready-made, or make your own), sprinkle with the edible fresh or dried flowers I mentioned earlier (I use edible lavender sometimes), or finish off with sugars that already have the dried flower in question running through them (I use these, but you may want to try the Ethical Community shop online; they stock organic fairtrade rose and lavender sugars to name just a few). For a funkier take on it, smash up some Parma violet sweets or throw on some lime crystals.

But all of these decorations need something to stick to! I hear you cry. (And you’re right.) And now my cupcakes have gone completely cold thanks to your lengthy blethering! (Sorry. I know they taste good warm. But they need to be cold for you to ice them properly.)

SO. Hummingbird give the full frosting quantities as follows:

500g icing sugar

160g softened unsalted butter

3 tsp of your flavouring

50ml milk

Decorations

However, even when making the full amount of cupcakes I tend to find this to be far too much, so I often reduce it by half (so if making half the amount of cupcakes, make a quarter of the amount of frosting).

All you need to do is cream the butter and icing sugar, then add the liquids. If you want to add food colouring as well, then you can (but just a few drops!).

Once you’ve spread or piped the frosting onto the cakes (if spreading, keep a glass of warm water on standby to dunk the palette knife or spoon in from time to time; it makes sure the icing ends up on the cake and not just stuck to the cutlery!), you can add your decorations (flowers, sugar, sugar paste…). Then wait for the frosting to dry before you eat your cakes…if your willpower is better than mine, you’ll be able to.

If the British weather is up to it, take these floral fancies on a picnic with you. Or, alternatively, eat them inside over a pot of tea of your choice (ideally a tea to go with your cupcakes! A flowering tea in a glass teapot would be ideal – such as Whittard’s carnation plum flowering tea, which contains jasmine.), and watch the typical British rain come down. Perfect.

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

Things I Know About Tea Monday, Aug 8 2011 

…without resorting to Google :p

Tea is one of those things that I did not think I knew much about, until someone asked me. Next thing I knew, I had rattled off a list of facts, and surprised myself entirely.

I therefore thought I would share those facts with you. I did not even like tea until my second or third year of university; having become hooked on coffee by the time I was thirteen, tea just tasted too weak in comparison. The list that follows therefore, I hope, will enlighten any tea novices and set them on a road to discovering tea’s multiple subtleties of flavour. Of course, if you have more to add, please don’t hesitate.

1) Tea gets its colour before it gets its flavour. I can’t remember where I heard this but in my experience it’s true. Just because the tea has apparently turned an alarmingly dark brown, don’t be fooled and chuck out the tea bag/leaves in a panic.

2) To this end, follow the instructions on the pack. Whether buying tea bags or tea leaves, the packs usually come with instructions for brewing times, whether or not to add milk etc. Follow the instructions even if it seems to go against your usual way of making tea – there are so many different teas out there that what you do to serve one tea may not work for another.

3) Don’t obliterate the tea with milk. I like my tea with milk, but really, just a splodge will do.

4) Filtered water really does make the tea taste better. If you are going to get serious about tea, invest in a Brita filter or similar. Even if you only ever use it for tea and coffee making, you will be grateful. The taste difference really is apparent.

5) Don’t pour directly boiled water onto the tea. After the water has come to boiling point, leave it for ten seconds before pouring it onto the tea. This is so that you don’t scald the leaves.

6) There is so much more to tea than English Breakfast. There is a whole world of teas out there that may even be as complex as the world of wine. If you don’t like English breakfast, try chai tea, green tea, Lapsang Souchong, or any of the other myriad teas out there. Whittard is a good place to begin.

7) Tea leaves require longer steeping than bags. That’s why it’s even more important to follow the pack instructions.

8 ) Tea leaves do have a sell-by date! They won’t go off as such but there will come a point when they’re past their best, so once you’ve bought them, use them. You should also store them correctly (ideally in an air-tight container) once opened to stop their flavour contaminating other foods and to stop other foods contaminating their flavour.

9) There’s no real rule about whether you should add milk before or after. All over the internet you will find disagreements about this. I personally don’t care what you do; I prefer to add it after so that I can see the exact effects on the tea. I would only reiterate my above opinion: add milk if you like, but do it sparingly!

10) Tea is best consumed afternoon style. Not really a Tea Fact but a conclusion come to myself. Tea on its own is nice. Tea with a biscuit or some cake is very nice. Tea with a multi-tier tray piled high with cakes and sandwiches and pastries is just super duper omnomnom nice. A meal in itself, I think you’ll agree. On a sort of side note, plenty of websites detail possible matches between tea and other flavours, allowing such pressing questions to be answered as “what tea does go best with white chocolate mud cake?” (Answer: Dragonwell, Matcha, Oolong, Silver Needle, Sencha, Darjeeling, or Yunnan.)

Agree? Disagree? Answers on a postcard…

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)