Saturday, 22 April 2017

Picture restaurant and thoughts on blogging

For Christmas, Paul gave me a day-long silver jewellery making course. Which I thoroughly enjoyed. One thing that startled me, though, was that when we were introducing ourselves at the beginning of the course, a couple of the other participants announced that they were doing this (absolute beginners) course because they intended to make a career out of it. Without any real background in jewellery making or knowing whether they had any aptitude they were determined that this was going to be their thing. On the one hand I admired the confidence, but on the other that just seems bonkers to me.
Warm sourdough rolls and whipped butter
And I have to say that I am feeling much the same way about food blogging these days. Back lo, these many years ago, when I started blogging, it mostly seemed to be people who liked food or liked writing or both, using a free platform with a shitty layout and rubbish photos. And enjoying it. We made friends with people with similar interests, spent time commenting on other people's posts and took our time over things.
Delicious basil martini
Now it seems like a lot of people have decided that there is money to be made and they decide they are going to be Food Bloggers. They come in with professional-looking headshots in their profiles, a business plan, a brand identity and an SEO strategy. They have media kits. They have business cards. They hustle. It's a valid approach, but it's not my approach and it does make me a bit wistful for the days when we made friendships, not networking opportunities. I deeply admire, though, the people who started around when I did who have actually been able to cope with change and adapt to the new environment.
Beef bites
The whole landscape is different. I've stopped accepting PR invitations and removed myself from a couple of databases, because it you want a blog to promote your thing I'm really not your girl. I don't care about my reach. I don't know how many, if any, readers I have. I seldom bother cross promoting my blog posts on other channels (I will put them on the Foodycat facebook page but I won't pay to boost posts, so not a lot of people will see that). I'd rather leave that stuff to the people who are passionate about making their blogs pay.
Asparagus, pea and wild garlic veloute
It also occurred to me this week, that while there are products that I have continued to buy and use after initially being sent them to review, there's only one restaurant that I have been to for a blogger event that I have subsequently been back to on my own dime. Since I don't have a lot to offer a restaurant in terms of generating buzz, the point of me really is going to a place, being inoffensive to staff and paying for my dinner - so I have a pretty terrible track record.
Beetroot tartare, goats curd
I first went to Picture, on Great Portland St, with a bunch of bloggers in 2014. And then again less than a week later. Then somehow I hadn't managed to go back. I knew they'd opened a second restaurant in Marylebone, but I'd never made it to that one either.
Pork, pickled carrots, granny smith apple
This week, though, I was looking for a venue for a dinner with a friend (same friend I'd had lunch with at Picture before, as it happens) and Great Portland St ticked the boxes for her to get to Waterloo or Vauxhall and me to get to Baker St or Marylebone after. I'd assumed we'd go a la carte - didn't think I could stretch to the £45 6 course Spring menu (still very reasonable, but once you add drinks and service charge that's probably £65. Not on a Wednesday). But then when I booked I discovered they were doing a Taste on London deal of the Spring menu and a cocktail for £35.
Roast cod, charred gem, salsa verde, merguez
It was all wonderful really. In a perfect world the skin on the cod would have been crisp. And the merguez tasted more like chorizo. But plate after plate of delicious, well-seasoned food with interesting contrasts of taste and texture can't really be sneered at. The first time I was there I noted that the menu had moved from veg to pork to fish in a slightly confusing way, but that the fish had been a necessary palate cleanser between rich pork and rich beef. This menu went with a similar formula with the clean, pearly cod breaking up the lightly smoked, meltingly tender pork and the voluptuous lamb. But even so I couldn't possibly have faced a cheese course, either before or after the chocolate mousse.
Lamb, sprouting broccoli
Chocolate mousse was the pudding the first time I ate at Picture too. But they make such a good one it hardly matters. The presentation was better this time! I wasn't quite sure about the blob of cream being almost the same size as the mousse, but it actually concealed the delicious milk jam (basically condensed milk, for those of us who adore it). The mousse was very light, just the right sweetness and although I had my doubts at the beginning I actually managed to finish the whole dish. In addition to the £35 deal, we had a beef bite each and shared a carafe of wine. So with the service charge it came in at £50 a head. Definitely worth it.
Chocolate mousse
Showing the milk jam

Monday, 17 April 2017

Easter Weekend

We're on the last day of the blissful 4 day Easter bank holiday weekend. I love this weekend. It's spring, so there are lots of flowers blossoming and a sense of promise and excitement, but at the same time there's no real pressure to do anything.
My cooking for the weekend made respectful nods to a variety of traditions without being absolutely traditional.
Saffron, sour cherry and pistachio buns
Saffron crocuses are an autumn crocus, but at the same time crocuses are such a sign of spring that it felt right and proper to flavour some sweet buns with saffron. The dough was studded with sour cherries, then rolled around a pistachio and cinnamon filling and finished after baking with a hot, tangy lemon glaze. They didn't feel a million miles from a hot cross bun, but also reminiscent of baklava. Just the thing for the luxury of lingering over coffee on a long weekend.

I also made a savoury pie. Sort of nodding to some of the Mediterranean ones. This was filled with ricotta, feta, watercress, chard and wild garlic, with eggs cracked on top of the filling to bake under the crust. I should have blind-baked the base - the bottom was a bit soggy - but the flavours were excellent.

On Saturday we went for a walk from Latimer through the Chess Valley. About half way along there is a watercress farm (the last working watercress farm in the Chilterns), with a farm stall and honesty box. The farmer had just brought out a fresh batch of watercress so we grabbed a bag.
Watercress farm
That watercress formed the base of our salad on Saturday night (with a beautiful Galician bone-in sirloin steak). And left enough for a second salad on Sunday - with radishes and British asparagus (asparagus season, hurrah!). Which was all we needed to accompany a boned leg of suckling pig, rolled around a wild garlic and fennel paste, and barbecued for 6 hours until the meat was jelly-soft and the skin crisp as glass. The leftover pork will form our lunch in an hour or so, but I haven't quite decided how. There's plenty of time to think.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Pear and blue cheese crostini

There isn't a lot that I can recommend about Paul being away. I like having him around. Urchin likes having him around. But one food thing I really quite like and he really doesn't is fruit in savoury stuff. I have been taking advantage of his absence to indulge.

This was my lunch today - toast rubbed with garlic, smeared with a soft blue cheese, then topped with pears poached in red wine, caramelised walnuts and balsamic pearls. And very nice it was too.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Fig, bresaola and burrata

Paul's in South Africa for a couple of weeks spending time with his mother and brother while I hold the fort here. And the fort needs quite a lot of holding - Miss Urchin is not at all amused by his abandonment and for the two days he's been gone she's been extremely demanding and not very interested in letting me sleep.

I remembered that the last time he was away for a while she was similarly demanding, and didn't understand why I felt the need to cook when I got home from work, rather than dedicating my time to entertaining her. So mostly while Paul's away I am planning to eat very fast, low effort meals.

This was pretty fast and low effort, but still really rich and indulgent for a Sunday lunch. If you find burrata too rich for words, a fresh buffalo mozzarella or even a creamy young goats cheese would also be nice.

Fig, bresaola and burrata (serves 1 as a main course)

50g hazelnuts, blanched
1 small bunch basil
1 small garlic clove
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
4 slices bresaola (or proscuitto or serrano ham)
4 figs
1 x 100g burrata
extra balsamic

Roast the hazelnuts in a 160C oven until nicely browned and tip the hot nuts into a mini processor.

Turn up the heat to 180, halve the figs and put them on a baking sheet and roast for 15-20 minutes.

Add the basil, garlic, mustard, olive oil and balsamic to the mini processor and pulse to a rubble.

Arrange the bresaola and burrata on a plate, tip the hazelnut rubble onto the plate and add the hot figs. Drizzle with a little extra balsamic. A glass of fino sherry would be particularly nice with this, but I didn't happen to have one.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Peanut butter chocolate birthday cake

I hadn't been asked to make a birthday cake for my young friend The Hurricane since 2012. I had assumed that her growing sophistication meant she was well and truly too grown up for my extremely rudimentary decorating skills.

However, this year she asked if I would. Of course I said yes. We brainstormed over drinks (prosecco for me, water for her). Chocolate was a given. I offered ideas for additional flavourings and she scorned all thoughts of raspberries or apricots but decided that peanut butter and caramel would be good.

Peanut butter buttercream swirled with caramel
It was always going to be the Be-Ro Milk Chocolate Cake. It's obedient, reliable, sturdy enough to slice and decorate and not overwhelmingly chocolatey. The Hurricane may be an unbearably grownup a-couple-of-days-from 12 year old, but she still doesn't like too much intense chocolate.

The rest was assembly really. The layers were sandwiched with Perfect Peanut Buttercream (astonishingly good. I used a smooth, organic peanut butter with salt but no added sugar), swirled through with some Carnation Caramel, then covered with more of the buttercream. I'd thought about putting some chopped peanut brittle in with the layers, but I thought The Hurricane's parents and orthodontist wouldn't thank me at all if I buggered her braces two weeks before Christmas.

Chocolate mirror glaze
Then I topped it with John Whaite's chocolate mirror glaze. I got the consistency a bit wrong with this one - I cooled it so it wouldn't melt off the butter cream but then it was too thick to flow easily. I liked the result of the dribbles showing the underlying buttercream though, so let's call it deliberate. It does have a gorgeously shiny finish though, and a rich chocolate flavour.

The final decoration was a bunch of gold sugar stars, white and dark chocolate stars printed with gold stars, and gold star sprinkles. Simple, but effective. When I delivered it, she was pretty darn pleased. I did have to issue a warning that the glaze would show if she attempted to eat any of the chocolate stars off it.

I asked them to send me a picture of the cross section - the lairs (as Mary Berry says) have held their definition very well. And they ate an impressive amount!

Monday, 14 November 2016

Peach pecan upside down cake

"BUT HOW", I hear my regular readers shriek, "BUT HOW DARE SHE MAKE A PEACH CAKE IN NOVEMBER!?!?"

Well yes. At first glance you would think that I have abandoned my seasonal principles. HOWEVER, this cake was made with lovely fresh peaches that I peeled, quartered and froze in summer, when they were sublime. For the last couple of months they have been staring at me every time I opened the freezer drawer, daring me to do something with them and I finally decided what. A nutty sponge cake, given extra lightness and lift with buttermilk, baked on top of the thawed peaches.

I intended to pour a layer of buttery caramel over the bottom of the tins before putting the peaches on, but when I thawed the peaches I was left with about 150ml of the most superbly clear, intense peach essence, so I boiled it with sugar and was left with a lovely peach jelly, which really boosted the peachiness of the flavour. You can go the caramel route, or use peach jam.

Peach & pecan upside down cake (makes 2 x 20cm cakes but very easily halveable if you don't want two)

150g butter 
250g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs
250g wholemeal self raising flour
¼ tsp baking powder 
pinch of salt 
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla extract 
150ml-ish buttermilk 
100g pecan nuts, chunkily chopped
100g sugar, extra & 25g butter, extra OR 100g good quality peach jam
4 peaches, peeled and cut into quarters

Bourbon or Southern Comfort to serve - optional

Preheat oven to 160C. Line 2 20cm sandwich tins with tin liners (it's oozy - you really do need to use either an old-school solid tin and grease it really well or use tin liners if you only have springform or loose-based tins)

Line the base of the tins with peach jam or caramel (made with the 100g sugar, a splash of water and the butter). Arrange the quartered peaches on top of it.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the eggs, one at a time. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Fold the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture in two batches, alternating with the buttermilk. It may need a little more buttermilk - you don't want a stiff batter, but you don't want it runny, either. Fold in the vanilla and pecan nuts.

Divide the batter between the two tins and bake for 50 minutes- 1 hr or until well risen and browned. The skewer test might give a false reading because of the gooey bottom.

Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out. Serve warm as a dessert (flamed with bourbon and served with brown butter pecan ice cream is particularly fab), or cool completely to serve with tea.

It'll keep for 2-3 days in the fridge, and even once it's started to get a bit stale, a zap in the microwave with a splash of bourbon or Southern Comfort on it will perk it right up. Which is what my colleague and I did at work last Wednesday when we were in utter despair over the US election results.


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