N’duja Focaccia

One of my favourite places to take brunch these days is Salon in Brixton Village. I hear they do a cracking evening service but, well, brunch is where my heart is, and after a tough session at the gym, the likes of nduja strewn scrambled eggs on toast is just the thing. An nduja pain perdou was a stroke of genius and, as you can imagine, right up my street.

The setting is as pretty as a provincial picture; a well stocked bar dominates a room filled with wooden furniture, dusky blue walls, old bottles and dried flowers. I love that seating is upstairs, on a slightly wonky floor, above the bustle of the market, an airy room that matches the external eclectic chaos with an equally boisterous, if middle class, brunching crowd. Best spot in the house is at the far end of the room, next to the window for people and market peering.

They often declare of a weekend morning their ‘special’; one of nduja focaccia with roasted tomatoes speaks strongly to me often, but never at a time I’ve been available to catch it. Until I do, I’ve stolen the idea myself and rather than a focaccia stuffed with chunks of the spicy Calabrian sausage, as I assume they do, I’ve mixed swirls of the paste-like version into the dough itself. Fiery ribbons and seams of chilli strewn sausage paste that licks the dough with it’s orange tongue.

My first instinct was to serve with roasted tomatoes, sweet and blistered, a soft mozzarella and some smoky prosciutto. I ate it again for brunch the following day as a beast of a sandwich, filled with more roasted tomatoes, smashed avocado and an nduja fried egg. Oooof.

It’s definitely a recipe I’ll be making again.

Focaccia is a super quick and simple bread to make, this time I followed Paul Hollywood’s recipe as it was one of the first to pop up in Google, but it’s much the same as recipes I’ve used in the past with success.

For the Focaccia

40g olive oil plus extra

250g strong white bread flour

180g chilled water

5g salt

1 sachet fast action yeast

Fresh Rosemary

nduja paste – I use one from M&S’ foreign grocery section that comes in a small jar

sea salt

Put the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the yeast to one side and salt to the other.

Add the olive oil and then water slowly to incorporate all of the dough until you have a fairly wet, rough dough.

Lightly oil a work surface, turn the dough out and knead for 5-10 minutes until it starts to become smooth and elastic. It should still be quite wet and sticky so don’t panic and add lots of flour, just keep scraping down and cleaning your hands.

Once it has a smooth consistency, push a dip into the centre and dot a good tablespoon of nduja onto the top. Fold the corners of the dough roughly back into the centre, then repeat once more so the nduja starts to become ripples throughout the dough, but gently and stop before you get a completely orange mess! Pick it up gently and place into an oiled bowl, fold side facing down.

Cover and leave for 1 hour until doubled in size.

Oil a baking tray. Lift the dough carefully out of the bowl and very gently stretch it out before placing onto the tray and pushing it into shape without letting too much of the air escape.

Cover and leave for another hour to let it rise again.

Preheat your oven to 220 degrees. Push deep dimples evenly apart into the surface of the dough, drizzle liberally with olive oil, sprinkle with rosemary and flaked sea salt then bake for around 15 minutes until the surface is golden and the bread sounds hollow when tapped.

Allow to cool before serving.

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Pancetta, Peach, Bourbon & Thyme Breakfast Buns

This is a bun that shoehorns everything I want for breakfast into one neat package. Sweet, savoury, peach and porky, spikily salty and sugary with a herbal twist. Umm, and booze…

I based this on Felicity Cloake’s chelsea bun recipe from her excellent Guardian Perfect column but replaced the butter for rendered Italian lardo. As you do. Well, I had the remainder of a lump of it reclining in the fridge and just knew it would enhance the dough for my intentions. Peach jam benefits from a lick of bourbon that’s echoed in an egg wash. I kept it fairly heavy on the pancetta after my introduction to Nuno Medes’ breakfast meat bread last week, an inspired addition to a newly launched breakfast menu at Taberno Do Mercado that also ticks many boxes for me, including as it does an oozing custard tart and some cute looking filled doughnuts. Alas, I haven’t made it there for breakfast yet, my delivery was from Clerkenwell Boy , my lunchtime partner in crime at, always perfect, Lyles.

Makes 9

200ml whole milk

60g rendered pork fat

450g strong white flour

2 tablespoons caster sugar

1 egg beaten

1 teaspoon salt

sachet fast action yeast

pancetta, finely chopped

fresh thyme

For filling and finishing

butter

beaten egg

caster sugar

egg

bourbon

white peach

lemon

fresh thyme

I had some lardo in the fridge, so I rendered that down in the oven, obviously retaining the meat scraps to throw back into the dough, but you could use butter in it’s place.

Mix the milk with the pork fat. In a large bowl put the flour and sugar, whisk in the yeast, then add the milk mixture and egg and stir to combine before mixing in the salt.

Knead the dough on a clean surface for around 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. Replace in the bowl, cover and leave to rise for around 2 hours or until doubled in size.

Meanwhile make the jam. I use a very simple method, finely chopping 3 peaches, then add the juice of a lemon and a good level of caster sugar, around the same weight of the fruit. Boil for several minutes until it thickens then add a slug of bourbon and heat again until slightly reduced.

Knock back the dough, adding the chopped pancetta at the same time and fully incorporate then roll into a long rectangle. Spread with butter and the jam then roll up from the long side. Carefully cut into 9 evenly sized pieces, making sure not to squash them too much as you cut. Place into an oiled, square baking tray.

At this stage I left my buns to prove overnight covered in the fridge so that I could bake them fresh, and more importantly eat them warm, the following morning, but they only really need a 30 minute rise. When you’re ready to bake, brush with an egg wash pimped with a glug of bourbon, scatter with thyme and caster sugar and place in the centre of an oven pre heated to 200 degrees for around 30-35 minutes.

 

 

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Summer’s Here – Of Peaches, Figs & Elderflowers

A sudden craving to be pottering around in the kitchen means – oh there it is –  a new season has arrived, bringing with it fresh produce and inspiration renewed. I’m as ever predictably whimsy.

I had, not a small, obsession with flat white peaches last year and it sees no sign of abating this – I still can’t get enough of their gently persuasive aroma and sweetly juicy flesh and it still tickles me that varieties have names like UFO and Cake Pearl. Another herald of summer is the elderflower, whispering to passers by of meadows and hedgerows, turns out that intoxicating scent of summer I’ve been getting as I leave my flat, and it’s obvious now I’ve identified it, is a large elderflower bush now blossoming beneath our rickety metal staircase. Easily identified by the buttermilk hued cloud, that on closer inspection reveals a lacy detailed cluster of delicate flowers. Ripe for cordial or champagne I only had sights on a fritter version – how can you fail to feel like an otherworldly creature when chomping down on deep fried clusters of blossom faerie queen style?!

I went with Nigel Slater’s recipe, subbing sparkling water and sugar for sparkling pink wine, because, well mainly what doesn’t benefit from pink fizz in the sunshine? I also rather liked the notion of adding a sticky pink tinged sweetness to that orgy of lacy cream petals.

I served mine with another faint current obsession which is greek yoghurt whipped with a lacing of tahini and then a very simple peach jam made from a mix of equally wilting yellow and white fleshed peaches.

I often experiment with various and seasonal flavours in toastie form, with a Doughnut Peach and Nduja one being the winning combo from last year; it worked so well I decided to use the same flavours as a pizza. Yup, still works. As does ripe black fig with finocchiona and nduja. I loosely adhered to this adaptation of Peter Reinhart’s Neopolitan recipe

A mid morning breakfast of figs, with tahini and yoghurt again, is doing it for me too, served sliced over toasted and buttered sourdough and drizzled with tahini.

Best thing I ate this week though? A very, very simple Thing On Toast – flat peach grilled, sliced over sourdough and draped with melting slivers of lardo – sweet, juicy and salty bliss.

Heirloom tomato salads, burrata dressed with a smoky olive oil, course and crumbly Tuscan Finocciona; the simplest feasts made magical by the fading light of a summers day.

 

Prod me when it’s Autumn hey?

 

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Neighbourhood Dining – 161 Kirk & Fields Cafe

If you asked me which of the many, many restaurant, cafe and bar openings I was most excited about last year, I wouldn’t hesitate with my two answers – Fields and 161 Kirk.

As I’ve grown more meh about proper restaurants and all they entail, I’ve felt myself increasingly drawn to places with more of a neighbourhood bent. Who doesn’t want to eat, drink, work, chill somewhere where they really do know your name? Both of these are South of the river, not entirely close enough to my own neighbourhood to claim my own but close enough in lieu of having anything better nearer. More importantly, they’re that alchemic balance of many small things that combine to create something that is far, far more than the sum of it’s parts. I’m less concerned about chasing that perfect coffee and the now dish, more interested in the collective ambience. Maybe it’s my age…

161 Kirk opened about a year ago to my absolute disbelief. I was sat, at the time, in North London with plans to move East for the evening. Nothing unusual there then. An email from a (trusted) friend declaring he was sat in a lovely new wine bar in Sydenham had a group of us racing back South unable to contain bewildered curiosity – or resist a boozy get together.

Turns out that was the first of many days and evenings spent at the cafe bar. It might be a couple of towns away from my own but I’m claiming it as *my* neighbourhood cafe, because it feels like it is. It’s the place I go when I need to get out of the house for a breather, to sit and work, take brunch and coffee, catch up with friends over a bottle or five of interesting natural wines or go for tinny reds and charcuterie boards for my Birthday and Christmas eve. It covers all bases (It’s also ridiculously reasonably priced!).

There was also that time they popped up in the fabric shop opposite for an evening of cocktails and another where they hosted a bunch of producers from the local market.

One of the owners is also part of ToastED, which I should mention here is also an excellent place, similar in vein, that I’ve had two absolutely cracking evenings at, with meals and wine to match. A dish of pork, astounding, and one of carrots that was bound with the most incredible puree that we surmised could only be that of brown butter anointed carrot – I dunked duck hearts in a supplementary dish of that carroty nirvana, that we’d demanded spontaneously, for the epitome of one forkful of heaven. Mangalitza charcuterie was the stuff of dreams.

Back at 161, and it’s much smaller and simpler but none the worse for it. Better in fact. The daily changing, succinct menu is influenced by cuisines from further shores, often a turkish influence, sometimes Jewish, Persian, as is quite often the case at the moment. A chocolate and olive oil cake is a recipe created by the other owner Belinda for her coeliac grandfather, she’s since become a friend. It’s touches like this that make up the warmth of the place. That as a package elevate it above and beyond the regular cafe or bar. Locals, at times, are challenging, sometimes obnoxious. But welcomed. They’re locals after all and this is a cafe for the community.

M1lk in Balham has always been worth travelling, even queuing for, as is inevitable if you attempt a weekend visit. An air of the quirky interspersed with the reckless and kitsch macabre. Music is boisterous, food is hearty and the atmosphere is frenetic and lively, thick with nostril teasing aromas. I struggle to leave without a takeout box of their pistachio and yuzu or brown butter and hazelnut cake or one of each. There’s a couple of pictues below of more recent visits, without trawling the archives of my phone too heavily, my favourite is generally the baked eggs, and coffee always served from twee crockery.

I’d known Fields was opening for a while (day job), had an inkling of the concept (press release) but was still unprepared for how stark a contrast it is from it’s sister M1lk. There’s so much to love about Fields even as it stands as a sort of work in progress, perhaps partly because of that. I adore, first, that it sits just behind a skate park, meaning there’s a steady stream of skaters ambling through the door, looking for refreshment – reminds me of my  youth and my brother. I think I imagine the clatter and roll of wheels as skateboards hit the deck, a ghostly echo of memories. In reality little more than a shack, there’s a soft focus glow that infects my vision of it, a 70′s watercolour wash lens that I can’t shake from my eyes. Perhaps that’s my tragedy; I can’t resist finding melancholy romance in the ephemeral, the out of place and different.

Fields eased themselves into service gently. On my first visit they had just coffee and cake. I say *just* but nothing is just here…. Walking across the decking I’m reminded of beach huts and the faded, wind and rain ravaged beauty of British seaside towns. The juxtaposition then of a space age Spirit winking from the window hatch is nothing less than brilliant and induces a chuckle every time. The interior is soft serve perfection with a deliciously subversive twist – look closer at the retro salt shaker and is that himalayan pink salt to match the candy walls? Too right it is. It’s these touches that tickle me, like the set of flying ducks on the wall and the actual soft serve machine. Why yes, of course they have one! But nothing as trad as vanilla here; hay smoked with gingerbread crumb or matcha and white chocolate; a slushy machine is similarly, brilliantly perverted.

I hardly need to say that the brunches are genius incarnate. Bacon and poached eggs on sourdough would be lovely enough with regular hollandaise, infuse that sauce cleverly with siracha and espresso and it’s taken to another level. A fruit salad couldn’t be further from the classic, a dish that comprises burnt plums, walnuts, cream and shaved apple, a heartbreaking, breathtaking plate of winter whimsy served on diner basics.

Croque madame is just as perfect as a version as you could dream of, all molten cheese and smoked egg yolk. A side of wild ramsons comes pimped with lurid celery salt. House made crumpets, light and fluffy, perch on a small mound of smoked goats curd, dripping with honey they’re finished with faerie dust, flowers and honeycomb. Ok, I might be lying about the faerie dust but maybe not, there’s a touch of the fantastical about this place. Remember the show Eerie Indiana? Feels a bit like that. Where nothing is *quite* what it seems…..You just have to scratch a little below the surface.

Peat smoked larder cake is subtly smoky with a sugar cracked crust. Coffee, of course good, is from Workshop and Koppi. Wine is astonishing, from a tiny French natural producer and sold by the glass at retail price. See what I mean? These things are delivered in such a way as to not draw attention – almost with a nonchalant shrug in cheap tumblers. Magical.

It’s not gathered quite the following of M1lk yet, but I guarantee it won’t be long before the public catch on. I kind of hope they don’t to be honest. Just our little secret? Just try not to fall in love over those confectionary hues yeah? My heart aches a little just looking at them.

I understand they’re launching an evening service shortly in time for warmer months….

 

 

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Pao de Queijo and the Beauty of Breakfast Abroad

I never take breakfast at home, merely a couple of black filter coffees at my desk, less if I’m out at meetings, a snack (again when desk bound) if I’m actually famished – not often. However when travelling, as I do increasingly these days, I relish breakfast time more than any other. Possibly because it’s so alien in my pedestrian life, maybe a reason too why I savour foods classified as breakfast or brunch most of all. There’s something transient about the idea of breakfast that I think I’ve romanticised.

When travelling, breakfast becomes my time to gather together my bearings before embarking apon the new, unfamiliar, sometimes daunting. To check emails and social media (at least I’m honest). Ready myself for the day ahead. I find it can also be an unrivalled insight into the culture of an area, an opportunity to absorb the ebb and flow and tone. I wonder if my recent (ish) love affair with coffee and cafe life has something to do with it’s own cultural punctuation and my enjoyment of it.

European buffet breakfasts can generally go do one with their homogenised eurosludgy mash up. I’ve recently opted to swap depressing, grey suit filled shells for airbnb and consequently dodged the accompanying complimentary disaster by hunting out nearby and illustrious cafes for my breakfast fix. This a double win, as it allows me the chance to request recommendations from the staff – always my top tip for traveling that – get recs from places you already like, staff are more likely to be into/appreciate the same things. In this way I can ricochet around a city for days, dining on hot tips from hotter kids.

A buffet breakfast is not always to be avoided though and never an excuse to simply lard it up whislt away from home as you see so many tourists do, gorging for no reason than sheer gluttony, hand to mouth with mindlessly inert movements. Having just returned from a trip to South West Brazil however, I can heartily condone a table spilling with exotic (to me) dishes, fruits that I’ve never seen so ripe and juices I’ve never before come across. Never mind that some of the dishes (explained to me later) are a local spin on things prepared entirely for expectant Gringos like me. An invitation to try a little bit of everything is not one I have power to refuse, taking small portions of everything. Just to try. To explore and discover. No doubt looking like that greedy tourist in the process. Hi *waves*

Amongst a veritable feast of papaya, melon and mango, eggs and sobrassata fried with onions (not the supple salami we get but a firmer sliced sausage – this being the thing presented for the Gringos benefit – locals would never eat meat for breakfast) and local cakes enriched with yoghurt or mayo, one topped with a coconut crust is particularly good, a banana bread served with banana fritters is near moist perfection. Juices verge on the joyfully ridiculous; watermelon and  mango are favourites and then I have my cashew epiphany. Asking what one particularly sweet nectar is, unable to match it to anything I’d encountered in my succinct juice repertoire, I’m told Caju. I furrow my brow at the unusual word and it’s repeated to me, caju, CAJU, you know like the nut, cashew. Aaaah. I don’t actually get it until our guide pulls up google images. Mind. Blown.

Do it.

One of my favourite breakfast discoveries is that of a recurring pairing of cheese with sweet. It’s one that’s repeated for dessert and as snacks throughout the day.

At breakfast it’s a firm, pale and unsalty cheese that I smear with guava jam, for a snack it’s the local Minas cheese served with tiny glasses of thick sweet coffee. A snack of Brazilian sweets happens twice; one of the traditional flavoured bonbons, Brigadeiro, typically chocolate but here I love the sweet cheese version filled with a guava paste; the other is at a cafe where we eat tiny cheesecakes topped with guava swhirls.

My favourite of all though is a combination we eat nearly twice daily while in Minas, that of a firm white cheese, they call it Ricotta but it’s more of a less salty, less crumbly feta, served with dulce de leche. I had no idea there were so many riffs on the sweet stuff; some of it searingly sweet and dark, some creamy, some sort of curdled, it appeared without fail at the end of every meal. Sometimes a humble jar would appear, lid askew, but more often it would fill glamorous glass vessels extravagantly, surrounded by much smaller plates laid with triangles of that white cheese and bulbous glass jars filled with candied figs – I’m aware this was offered to us as guests.

Consistent throughout my my week long induction to Minas Gerais is the exposure to their peo de queijo, little carby, cheesy puffs that you couldn’t help but notice as they sat prominent on every counter of the airport at Sao Paolo. They reappeared as palate cleansers between rounds of coffee cupping, at many snacking intervals and, joy! There they were again at the breakfast buffet.

Not bread. But not, not bread. I did a smidge of research and found them to be made from cassava root flour, that’s weirdly squeaky in it’s packet, with cheese and oil. They vary in texture from the soft, to almost quaver-like crispy and some near solid -  their unifying feature is (or should be) a squidgy middle, the best are crisp with a crackle across the surface and gooey middle.

At first I ate them as they were, enthralled enough to have so quickly discovered a new *thing*. Then we visited an incredible speciality cafe run by one of the co-ops and we were served a small basket-full of the puffs accompanied by little dishes of jam. Well, now this changed everything.  Another time they were served fancy like, topped with sesame seeds alongside a chilli and honey dip before dinner. If I’d stayed any longer I imagine I’d have witnessed them dunked into or filled with dulce de leche as seems to be the custom here. I’ve since been treated to Kaya toast and fancy they’d be rather nice with coconut jam.

I bought packet mix of the bread on a whim at the airport. Turns out it was simplicity incarnate and I have a sneaky feeling that’s what most of the locals use as it produces an almost perfect version of the buns. (I *think* I’m joking here). Feeling lacklustre after acute sickness upon returning, I manage a couple feebly stuffed in typical (me) fashion with mortadella and n’duja.

I’d brought a kilo of the flour back from Brazil, Polvilho Doce is on the packet, so I thought I really ought to attempt a proper recipe too. Deciding to use the Brazilian butter I’d also brought back in place of oil and Minas cheese rather than the suggested parmesan. Funny thing this, but most of the products of Brazil I’ve encountered have a faintly parmesan-ey aroma. The flour, butter and cheese all smell deeply, well, a little vommy, if we’re being honest. Hmm. Update on my Minas cheese while I’m here is that it’s getting funkier and firmer by the day. So not a bad sub for parmesan here to be fair.

These were again as good a version as any I’ve tried. I think they’d be good with chilli and or herbs too. I ate mine, while still warm and gooey, filled with some fatty prosciutto & jabuticaba jam – this is the jam that I’m told is typically served with the buns and a jar of which automatically came back with me. Jabuticaba is a firm, round, medium sized fruit that grows on trees, the jam is super sweet and tastes somewhere between prune and plum.

I followed this recipe from BBC Food – they all seem much of a muchness to be honest – and all very simple

250ml Full fat milk

125g Butter

300g tapioca or cassava flour

2 eggs

100g cheese

Boil the butter with milk until the butter is melted and the mixture is starting to froth and bubble lightly. Allow to cool slightly then pour in the flour. Keep mixing until everything cools down. It’s at this point that I remember I’m not working with actual flour as the mixture has an unusual glutinous quality. Add the eggs one at a time and beat until fully incorporated and the mixture has become glossy. Finally add the grated cheese and mix again until fully incorporated.

Scoop up egg sized pieces of dough, roll between your hands roughly and place on a greased baking tray.

Bake in an oven preheated to 220 degrees for around 30 minutes.

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Gypsy Tart with Cachaça Lime Curd

You either know what Gypsy Tart is, were brought up on it at school and love it, or you really don’t, and are probably faintly alarmed by the idea of this searingly sweet creation that is sweet pastry filled simply with dark sugar and evaporated milk. It’s a Kent thing, and the only positive food thing I can remember from my school days living in Maidstone. It was also the subject of one of my first blog posts and still the one that gets the most hits, when I can be bothered to check, I guess people love a bit of nostalgia.

Whilst in Brazil, I developed quite the dulce de leche habit. Though the many versions I tried varied in texture, firmness and flavour, quite often I was reminded of that old childhood favourite. It is, after all, essentially the same two ingredients; milk and sugar. I liked them all, from ones slightly less sweet with more of a curdy consistency, they ranged right through to one that is stirred in a heavy pan all day then formed into blocks, more grainy in texture, it’s served in slices like fudge.

My flavour awakening of lime and cachaća seems to have come back to London with me, and I felt inexplicably drawn to combine them in cake form. At first I thought maybe a sort of lime drizzle cake would work. But then I had a fantastic tart at 40 Maltby Street that was, I think, a hazelnut frangipane on a layer of lemon curd, and my brain went into overdrive. I still want to try that tart with blood orange or rhubarb curd. From that inspiration, this one was born. It’s still beyond sweet but also with a subtle zing. A reworking of a Kent classic, and my own roots, with new Brazilian influences.

Gypsy Tart with Lime and Cachaça Curd

For the curd

115g golden caster sugar

28g cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces

2 large eggs, beaten

juice of 2 limes

zest of 1 lime

30ml cachaça or white rum

Place the eggs, butter, lime juice and sugar in a heavy bottomed saucepan over a moderately low heat and whisk for around 15 minutes until it thickens. Pour the cachaça in slowly whilst whisking to retain the same thick consistency.

Pour through a sieve into a jar, stirring through the zest at the same time. Leave to cool, cover and refrigerate until required.

For the tart

225g plain flour

110g cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

80g golden icing sugar

1 large egg, beaten

ice cold water

400ml evaporated milk

330g dark muscovado sugar

In a large bowl cream together the butter and sugar. Add the flour, egg, and a pinch of salt and mix to combine, adding the water in teaspoons if necessary. Roll out and line a 21cm loose bottomed tart tin. Blind bake in the centre of an oven pre heated to 180 degrees for 15m. Remove the greaseproof paper and baking beans and cook for another 5-10 minutes until the pastry becomes golden.

While the pastry is cooking whisk together the muscovado sugar and evaporated milk. Whisk hard and consistently for about 15 minutes until the colour pales and it starts to firm up and expand.

Spread a generous layer of lime and cachaça curd into the bottom of the tart then pour the sugar mixture on top and bake for around 10-15 minutes until the filling is risen and the surface is tacky and starting to firm up.

Going to stick my hand up here and admit that my pastry skills are ‘rustic’ a best, I have little patience in this area I’m afraid and if it tastes good that’s enough for me!

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Three Cheese, Porchetta, Pink Radicchio, Hazelnut & Truffle Honey Toastie

Last weekend I suggested B might like to make his own dinner. Knowing I was eating at home too, and he being not often prepared to miss out, the obvious question followed; ‘Why, what are YOU having?’ . His response, after assuring him he wouldn’t want it, was one I get often –  ’Why can’t you blog stuff that will actually come up on a Google search?’. He says this with mild contempt, as he doesn’t understand the concept of doing things ‘just because’. Just because I want to, because it’s fun, because I can. Because I’m not fussed about SEO or monetisation.

Add to this the fact that I HATE being told what to do. I SHALL eat weird combos if I want to. *sticks bottom lip out*

The idea for this was formed during and after a leisurely wander along Bellenden Road, as I’m wont to do after a weekend morning’s gym session, and find myself in the uber middle class shopping den of General Store. As usual, all sensibilities go out the window as I purchase random ingredients in no rhythm or order than that of prettiness and impulse. In hindsight they’re also ingredients that hint at a snifter of that Spring in the air that I grasp to my chest with culinary intentions.

I’m not a remotely girly girl, in most situations, but who can resist the pink kissed frilly hem of pink radicchio, soft focus bloom of the vegetable world, that pairs so well with slender slivers of marbled porchetta that lilt a similarly hued tune.

I want a toastie. A toastie needs cheese. This one, I feel will benefit with a combination. A smear of goats curd shouts ‘hazelnuts’, so these also go in, lightly toasted and smashed. But it also needs melty cheese for full on, molten toastie effect.

I’d brought a wheel of cheese back from my trip to Brazil. Typical of the region of Minas Gerais, where local cheese is as ubiquitous as dulce de leche. Often served together no less. They have two common varieties; a pale, firm, fresh and unsalty number and then this. I visited the farm where they produce this particular one, named simply ‘Araxa Quesa’ – cheese of the region it’s exclusive to; just 9 cities within the region of Minas own the PDO. This award winning farm’s 56 cows (including a number of Jersey’s I notice with astonishment, standing out with those doleful eyes and lengthy lashes against the local ones that look to me to be indian with their drooping ears and slender physique, though I’m told they’re both a fairly common thing here) are milked twice a day with all production going to make cheese. The unpasteurised cheese is sold at different stages of ageing, the locals preferring it pale and milky but it’s aged much longer and also exported nationally (mine has got a proper funk going on, but I’m told to keep it out of the fridge to let it develop naturally). It’s affectionately known as ‘drop cheese’ due to it’s dripping process, it’s then stored, rotated and washed regularly. It’s delicious eaten in slices with their coffee, taken black and sweet, served in glasses and always made in batches then kept in a thermos for whenever required. Eaten for breakfast, snacking and post meals, the Brazilians of Minas like cheese. A lot. Even their butter tastes and smells like cheese.

ANYWAY. I figured it would make a great addition to my cheese mixture, and a pungency to add structure to what was, so far – sweetly bitter radicchio, sweet and fatty porchetta, nutty hazelnuts and creamy curd. I finish this combo off with more sweet and nutty in the form of comte and then a drizzle of truffle honey.

Did I mention that the bread I used is made by Little Bread Pedlar? They make the best pastries I’ve tried in London and their sourdough ain’t too shabby either, it looks like they’re stocking it regularly at General Store too. Good bread times for SE as Brickhouse opens shortly with their own cafe, using Square Mile coffee too no less.

I give you – The Pink Toastie – pure unbridled romance. If you’re into that sort of thing

Construction tips

Butter outside sides of the bread liberally – I usually do the insides too (and ALWAYS match the slices up so they don’t sit back to front – yeah, OCD)

Spread the bottom, inside, layer with goats curd and scatter over toasted hazelnuts, lay over crisp leaves of pink radicchio, then thin slices of porchetta or other fatty ham. Finally add handfuls of the other two cheeses, grated and mixed together. Always much, much more than you think is decent.

Place in a sandwich or panini press and leave for much longer than you think it needs. The cheese should fully melt, pool around the base of the sandwich and then crisp up again for optimal sandwich crust.

If you don’t have a sandwich press, a similar effect can be achieved by placing the sandwich in a heavy based frying pan with a weighted plate on top, then flip half way through so both sides toast.

As a sub for the minas cheese, I’d probably use something of a washed rind but firm.

I’ve barely touched the cachaca I brought home from Brazil, in fact most went out as gifts, mainly because I simply couldn’t imagine it tasting the way I’d developed such a taste for, made here in the deep murkiness of London as it makes it’s final push to emerge from the grips of Winter. But, believe me, we encountered plenty of it whilst out there, at least one caipirinha a night was the rule. Not a bad one to live by to be honest. Of course it’s made from fermented sugar cane juice, which I tried on the side of the road, squeezed fresh and simply directly from the cane – the ultimate in thirst quenching sugary treats.

Back home, as another kick up the backside to Spring, I made a twist on the classic by subbing lime for floral bergamot – pure sunshine in a glass.

Muddle 1 quarter of a bergamot, chopped into wedges with 1 tablespoon golden sugar (I’d LOVE to try this with raw cane sugar) then shake with plenty of cracked ice and 60ml good quality cachaça and serve.

Try it!

I gathered many and varied versions of the sugar cane spirit across the regions I travelled, caipirinhas should be made with the clear or silver variety rather than the barrel aged sipping ones. I need to investigate the brands over here…

 

 

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Bar Dining – My Recommendations

This time of year tends to signify a period for reflection, ahead of striding forward into the next year with all guns blazing, resolutions like ammo sitting loaded in pockets, learned nuggets of wisdom promising a, perhaps, straighter path through the following twelve months.

I’ve learnt enough about myself now to know not to be too hard on myself, though it’s taken many years to get here. So no New Year’s Resolutions for me, no restrictive diets or detoxes and no dry January. What may be more useful, is to learn to say ‘no’ a little more often. …We’ll see about that.

With old age I’ve also got to the point where I don’t really feel the need to use this blog to write about every restaurant experience, in fact I don’t necessarily feel that desperate urge these days to try any and every new place like I might have done once. God knows the internet doesn’t need any more inept thoughts on them. I know what I like, and more often than not I find Twitter and Instagram are as good a place as any to share those meals I do enjoy. Having scanned the last year’s, increasingly infrequent, posts I’ve noticed my shift towards recipe ideas and seasonal flavours. If I’m honest that’s partly because I find them far quicker to write but also because I like to note these things down here as a sort of scrap book and reference.

There *are* a number of places I feel I’ve neglected to comment on over the year, mainly again due to time restraints, so here I’m going to jot down my stand out recommendations for bar dining, since I’ve established that this is by far my favourite way to eat out. I, more often than not, don’t really want a full and coherent meal these days, so mix and match, snacky options score highly, I also require delicious wine and or cocktails, a relaxed atmosphere and warm but unobtrusive service. These that follow come up with the goods consistently and with aplomb.

40 Maltby Street is a place that fills me with warm tingles every time I walk through it’s doors, and at the same time makes me wonder why I don’t visit more often. It’s like coming home. Well, to a home with a very well stocked wine cellar and an accomplished chef in the kitchen. I know they’re now open some weekday evenings, but for some reason I can’t remove them from a Saturday lunchtime slot that always coincides with a trip to Maltby Street, having failed as yet to visit at any other time. Always busy, always warm, always welcoming, I’ve yet to find a more consistently, impressively ever changing, desirable menu in London. The wine list is always interesting, natural, with a couple of red and white corkers by the glass.

A recent trip just prior to Christmas was a particular highlight. A plate of pheasant sausages with sprouts, pancetta, chestnuts and bread sauce and a couple of glasses of wine a far more festive way to spend a saturday afternoon than the horrors of Christmas shopping. If there’s Yorkshire ham on the counter, make sure to get a plate.

I think the only place on this list I haven’t ever dined alone, and doesn’t technically have a bar to sit and eat at, is Quality Chop House. However it still fits the criteria. I would ordinarily say stick to the bar area and select from their delightfully comprehensive wine list along with a collection of plates of food. But having now dined in the main dining room, I’d say you surely have to try the set menu here at least once for the incredible experience and value.

Always, ALWAYS order the confit potatoes. Possibly the most ridiculous food item in London.

Wines are available to take away by the bottle and many of the ingredients can be purchased in the grocery and butchers next door. Whipped lard I find particularly hard to resist.

Josē’s simply can’t be beaten for tapas in a tiny but great space, I’m such a fan I’ve never visited the more proper Pizarro for fear of disappointment. Ooozing croquetas, unrivalled ham, the best potato bravas and should the Iberico Pork be on the chalkboard, DO NOT resist.

A plate of ham and a glass of sherry sat on one of the window seats is surely one of life’s great, simple pleasures. If you can shoehorn yourself in that is.

I’ve been a regular at Lyle’s since they opened in Shoreditch’s Tea Building earlier this year. The beautifully spartan room, a perfectly serene backdrop to a menu that is pared back to basics and transformed into astonishing plates. Highlights have included sweetmeats served with brown butter dressed grilled lettuce, duck hearts with sweetcorn and hazelnuts and a completely jaw droppingly delicious broth described simply as chanterelles, egg and onion that tasted all of myth and magic.

Lyle’s coffee bar is worth a mention as one of the only really decent places in London to get great restaurant coffee, serving a rotation of roasters but do keep an eye out for Parisian roasters Belleville as it’s one of the only places you’ll find them over here. It’s also one of my favourite, secret spots to sit and work, though just try and resist the incredible doughnuts and smoked pork fat canneles on the counter if you do. Seriously, just try.

I have a dirty little secret – I’ve never actually dined at The Clove Club. By that, I mean I haven’t eaten in the dining room from their set menu. I can’t ever get past the rather lovely bar and it’s snacks. It suits me just fine to be honest. Service is utterly charming, martinis excellent, wine best ordered by the bottle with friends and plates of aforementioned snacks. The pine fried chicken is now infamous, but don’t overlook some of the other small plates. We had some incredible chicken kebabs on a friend’s birthday made from various parts of a chooks anatomy including cleverly deboned and puffed up feet.

I’ve been to The Remedy a handful of times and each time I do, I remember how utterly charming it is. Just a small bar towards the top of Cleveland Street, they always have a great selection of light, natural reds (my preference) along with a list of small plates. The pair behind the bar always more than happy to chat, offer advice and tastes of their wines. It’s another of my secret little working lunch spots. They’re usually quiet around late lunch, so a plate of livers on toast with a glass of wine at the corner of the bar is pretty much perfection. I’ve heard a horrible rumour they’re now closed at lunch now though….

Best kept secret, if other rumours are true, is that they have a half price Monday industry night on all bottles.

Honey & Co never fails to delight. Again, it’s actually another spot without a bar, the tiny room is intimate enough to offer a similar service though. I’ve dined here alone and with friends and it’s always hit the spot perfectly. Itamar and Sarit are an absolutely charming couple, full of joy, and it comes through fully in their food. Middle Eastern mezes and larger dishes, turkish coffee and the most completely irresistible Fitzroy buns; one of my favourite sweet dishes in London – the pic below is of one half eaten, they way I do by uncoiling it’s syrupy goodness slowly, eking out the pleasure.

It’s been too long since I’ve darkened Duck Soup‘s doors. Shame on me. The danger of London’s vibrant dining scene is in that of neglecting old favourites. I fell in love with the small bar at first sight, and spent my first evening there feeling transported from the busy london streets, to European and warmer climes. It’s embodies a tick list of my favourite things; great wine list, classic cocktails, seasonal small plates, great bread and a chilled atmosphere that comes alive in the evening. Those small plates so enticing I’d happily order one of each, and pay a number of limbs for the pleasure, this type of dining can certainly rack up. But here I don’t mind because it works; it’s charming and intimate and welcoming in a way Raw Duck (sister restaurant) just doesn’t achieve – though I like it for other reasons.

It didn’t take Sager & Wilde to win me over, in fact I was hooked almost from day one. Leading the pack of a new breed of wine bars, of which I’d include The Remedy, that London was really, finally ready to embrace. I shan’t write in length as I did when they opened, but it remains one of the most perfect places to relax for a glass, or five, seduced by attentive staff and a wine list that boasts some of my very favourite things.

A serious trip here is not complete without one of their infamous toasties.

I plan to write similar posts on cocktails and coffee shops. For as ace and new and sparkly Kitty Fishers, Portland etc etc  look, oh and they sure do, I chose to dine, with a friend, at Duck Soup last Friday night. It was as brilliant as it’s always been, better than when they first opened (surely a lesson there…) – an intoxicating experience, wine splashed chatter rising above jazz, glasses chinking in candlelight. A white negroni to start, a dish of lamb hearts, bulgar, mint and pomegranate a highlight, not everything is perfect but the languid atmosphere soothes over any wibbles like the most effective of salves.

 

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N’duja, Goat & Ewe’s Cheese, Truffle Honey & Sage Toastie

I’ve been to some great restaurants this year and some terrible ones, some fancy and some more basic, but I’m a simple creature at heart and quite often all I really want is something comforting betwixt two slices of bread. You’d think finding this whilst out and about wouldn’t be a problem, especially since toasties are having a bit of a moment around town. But, as I’d previously found with doughnuts, they’re all too often to be found lacking, tear inducingly dull and badly assembled. Toasted sandwiches are not hard to get right, but it appears, diabolically easy to get wrong. I mean, who really wants a clump of ham and cheddar? Soggy tomato? Really? I know simple is sometimes best but NOT ALWAYS and only when the ingredients are outstanding (as they should be quite frankly) – at least put something else in there, even if it’s just some herbs, chutney, freshly cut tomato, spring onion, whatever. Also, fill evenly, I expect spreads all the way to the edges and I want an equal amount of filling in each and every bite – no-one wants naked toast.

You know that’s why I started making doughnuts don’t you? Because I was so bored and disappointed with everything else out there; just jam or custard; where were the curds, the pistachio creams and boozy jams? It remains that my favourite toasties are still the ones make at home.

I’m being overly ranty. Of course Kappacasein do an extraordinary beast, the bench mark for toasties, Sager and Wilde always have a great one on at their wine bar and the ones at Embassy East are very much worth a try. I just mean that on the whole toasties are disappointing when they should be a delight, small details too often ignored and SO uninspiring.

I wrote an ode to them once - well, sandwiches, but nearly.

So, I’m seeing 2014 off with this one and, as with many things, I’ll likely overdose on the combo till I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than eat it again. I’m like that – addictive personality and all that.

N’duja, Goats Gouda & Ewe’s Cheese, Truffle Honey and Sage Leaf Toastie

Cut two slices from a soft white loaf and butter the exterior sides.

Spread n’duja onto the unbuttered side of one, drizzle with truffle honey then pile on great handfuls of grated cheese, much more than looks decent. I used a combination of a sweet and tangy goats gouda and a semi soft ewe’s cheese, you could go regular goats cheese but you won’t get the alluring cheesy dribble and stringyness that I love in a good toastie. Finally add a couple of sage leaves to the top before putting in a sandwich press, they fry up all pleasingly crisp in the external layer of butter.

(I bought my n’duja and truffle honey in the foreign section at M&S but you can get both at various farmers markets and Borough Market and the n’duja at L’Anima Cafe is pretty unbeatable)

Always leave to toast for longer than you think it needs, till the n’duja melts and the cheese oozes out of the sides into molten pools.

Happy New Year!

 

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Of Sprouts and Marzipan.

Sprouts and marzipan. Both pretty  divisive festive ingredients – I imagine those little sprouts made of marzipan are enough to turn many a stomach while at the same time reducing others to wobble knee’d joy. I bloody love them both – perhaps not together, mind – and will eat either at any opportunity whilst they’re readily available.

I recently stumbled across purple sprouts (well, they’re actually labelled ‘Redarling brussells’ – but you know – PURPLE) and as such they immediately trump all other brassicas. They were damn delicious doused in David Lebovitz’s Pistachio Aillade but even better with my fridge staple; nduja. A mess of sweet, fried shallots, halved purple sprouts, a handful of toasted hazelnuts, generous spoonful of n’djua, all topped with a Burford Brown egg; it’s a very smile inducing, easy dinner indeed.

When people say they don’t like marzipan, I’m inclined not to believe them. I think most have been permanently scarred by the memory of those cloyingly sweet, modelled fruits. But honestly, what’s not to love about sugar and almonds? I just don’t get it. I adore the stuff in every guise, from frangipane and all levels of sickly sweet to the more restrained, less saccherine homemade versions, I guess you’d call them nut pastes.

I very, very rarely eat any of the sweets and puddings associated with this time of year, but I do make a lot of time for marzipan. One of my ultimate breakfasts over Christmas is a thin slice of sourdough toast, liberally anointed with salty butter and then finished with slivers of marzipan. This pistachio paste is a fragrant and fancy version, in keeping with the season. I only make small amounts at once, partly because it’s a pain pummelling too many pistachios at once, but also because I can’t be trusted not to eat it straight from the bowl until there’s not a scrap left.

Pound around 50g of pistachios in a pestle and portar until mostly ground but with plenty of texture, add around 25g ground almonds, 50g golden icing sugar, enough egg white to bring together as a paste, a good pinch of salt, clementine zest and a drop or 3 of maraschino liqueur.

Spread on buttered, sourdough toast and serve with the best coffee you can lay your mitts on for an insouciant take on the serious matter of breaking fast.

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