Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Chocolate Festival at Southbank Centre

I was lucky enough to be able to catch the Chocolate Festival at Southbank Centre last weekend. The usual suspects all showed up, plus some newcomers; there were chocolate fountains, filled and painted eggs, tamales filled with chocolate, chocolate lollies made to look like anything that would appeal to kids and then loads of people making very refined chocolates- carefully sourced and delicately made confections.

I had my first encounter with Hotel Chocolates who are attempting to grown their own cacao, a noble enterprise. However, I'd have to say that while they have their marketing down- setting up corporate packages offering year round chocolate delivery- and the looks of their product is very sleek, it feels in no way handmade and the chocolates themselves left me pining for Criollo, Masdagascar, Ghana, Costa Rica. Instead I tasted sugar, cocoa butter and well, additives. I wish that I could rave about them since they are attempting something noble- to extricate themselves from the world of chocolate's dirty little secret.
I browsed my way through Rococo's offerings and now am a devotee. They have gorgeous packaging, which always leaves me wondering how things will taste. A+ in both arenas! The Gull's Eggs gave forth a lovely, not runny, salted caramel and had the perfect bite on the shell. Their Scorched Hazelnuts must be a classic in their collection because I ate four in quick succession, continued to snack on them until the bag was empty and then have been dreaming about them since (they are easy enough to get, I just might need to curb my appetite for them!). I have yet to try the flavored bars they offer, but plan to soon.
My favorite vendor by far was a newcomer on the scene (although she has quite the chocolate background having worked with Rococo and other confectioners)- Raffaella Baruzzo. She sources her ingredients in Italy- the freshest walnuts from Piedmont, the loveliest hazelnuts as well. She is working with confectioners making many wonderful treats, but one that caught my eye was i Tochi (what we call bark in the stateside) in clever combinations. I brought home a packet of Pistachio and Golden Raisins enrobed in white chocolate. Not too sweet or cloying, these were made correctly.
I also made a little trip to heaven tasting her chocolate covered nuts- the aforementioned walnut and hazelnuts. I am slowly devouring the bag of Gianduja she makes- rolled in dark cocoa powder rather than the usual cloak of couverture. Raffaella and I talked of setting up a special tasting and when that happens I shall post about it here.
In the meantime, I will be nibbling my way through the spoils of my trip out to Southbank.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New excuses to bake

I know it's the done thing to bake in the winter, starting in the fall and just baking baking your way through the dreary months. I always seem to forget this and start thinking about baking only when it's begun to warm up, making the hot oven sometimes a little bit of an inconvenience in the peak of summer. But this year I have an even better reason for my crazy spring baking than in year's past- my son's 2nd birthday party is just around the corner and I need get cracking on the perfect carrot and the perfect chocolate fairy cake recipes.

Luckily, I discovered a great online cook shop called Lakeland (oh, they sell some other things, but I am the girl who always lingers in the kitchenwares aisle, even online). I started out just needing a new cooling rack, but then realized that there were other things I should plop in my trolley. For instance, I have been mourning the loss of my beautiful Madeline pans since they slipped into the wall behind our boiler months ago. It seems there's a 3 for 2 sale on, so 3 pans in the trolley later... then I realized that these fairy cakes would need colorful decoration (I want the to turn out like the ones I found a photo of online, with the Totoro casually sitting on top in rolled icing), so a set of Wilton's food coloring went in. Since that brought me to the cake decorating area, my eye caught on these wonderful piping bags that are silicone lined, bumpy on the outside and come in a 50 pack. Just like we used to use years ago when I was a baker and wedding cake decorator. All for home use. A few other needed items in the trolley, check out and then, tick tock, wait wait wait.

Well, the baking bug had properly set in since the order was sent, so this morning I decided to put some carrots to good use. I also thought it was high time I tried out a Gordon Ramsay recipe. Just as the mini carrot cakes were ready to pull out of their pan, the bell rang and there was my order- 6 days sooner than I expected! Hooray. The jury is still out on the carrot muffin recipe, they're not nearly moist enough. Once I come up with my best recipes for these birthday fairy cakes I will make sure to post!

I also plan to get cracking on Madelines and Financiers soon! First I have to corner the market on butter...

Monday, March 22, 2010

A new sandwich, thanks to a wonderful Preserves Workshop

A couple of weekends back I had the great pleasure of attending a Preserves Workshop here in North London. It was given by Anna Colquhoun, who has a terrific website- Culinary Anthropologist. These cookery classes were brought to my attention by Riverford Farms (for whom I have broken up with Abel and Cole in search of better, more truly local produce) and they are a great way to meet other like-minded people who want to get in the kitchen and get cooking.

While we were having what Anna called a light repast (it was anything but, a feast of pairings for the wealth of superb offerings all brought out from her very impressive larder!) a particular conserve caught my attention- Butternut Squash and Quince.

We had dinner guests coming over a few nights later and with these flavors still on the tip if my tongue I dove in and made a nice tagine out of the basic combination of Butternut Squash and Quince. Add in a little Harissa for spice, simmer simmer simmer and voila! Way more tagine than can be consumed by 5 adults and one hungry child in one night. So I had to get cracking on the leftovers.

Which brings me to the sandwich at hand- I cut some lovely, airy and chewy rolls in half, toast, drizzle with winter harvest olive oil, add a handful of Gigantes which have been nicely cooked in a tomato sauce, a large dollop of tagine, a slab of freshly fried eggplant. Try to eat it slowly... you can't! The flavors just burst in your mouth and when they're done, you want more! I have also tried them in small wholemeal pitas. Delicious. Also good without the beans should you not have any lying about.

But trust me, these sandwiches, sarnies, stotties, panini (without the press!) and delicious.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I adore living in a country where I can buy short crust and puff pastry of acceptable quality at nearly every large grocer AND I can source some pretty excellent ones from the more boutique grocers.  Because of this, the wealth of Plum Tarts I inherited this week were easily transformed into a gorgeous Plum Tart in as little time as it took to slice them in half and shuck out their stones.

The whole process was made even easier by using some lovely Grapefruit Curd I had left over from the delicious preserves workshop I attended, led by the very talented and organized Anna Colquhoun of Culinary Anthropologist.

The class lasted about 5 or 6 hours and the skill levels of attendants varied from absolute novice to very serious dabbler.  Everything we made was delicious and the presentation was polished thanks to some very pretty jars and extra things from Lakeland

We made Grapefruit Curd, Carrot Chutney, Pickled Beets, Preserved Lemons and Bitter Orange Marmalade.  Some of these things will be put up for a while- the marmalade I'll save for a year and then open, the pickled beets might make their debut in the summer when it's too hot out to turn on the stove or run the oven, the curd is already eaten up and the carrot chutney, well I imagine I can break that one open sometime next month. Thanks to Anna for a great class, thanks to Riverford for getting me there!