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.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Happy Halloween!

2016 cat pumpkin
 Yes, Halloween was last night. For the first time we actually laid in a supply of fun size Mars Bars in case of trick-or-treaters... only to have Paul panic in the face of human interaction and tell the only ones who knocked that we didn't have anything.

We also had a suitably autumnal dinner of pheasant cooked with cider and apples. It was very tasty, a Diana Henry recipe, but it looked extremely unappetising (I skinned the pheasant so that was all pale and the apples fell apart so it was a very gloopy beige plate). So instead, I present you with our dinner from Saturday night. Really simple venison nachos. Also nicely seasonal, and I think it'd make good party food, although we just had the plate between us on the sofa while we caught up on Graham Norton on iplayer.

Monday 17 October 2016

Fig and frangipane tart and a long weekend in Paris

Last weekend, we went to Paris. This is a Big Deal. I know people in the UK are supposed to be completely blasé about jaunts to the continent, but a combination of the global economic crisis, Paul not having a sensible (or valid) passport and not having a reliable cat sitter has meant that we hadn't been away together in seven years. Seven. Years.
Fête des Vendanges Montmartre - pic by Paul Fourie
But we've found a cat sitter who Urchin seemed to accept and we both now have EU passports, so it seemed like a good idea to take advantage of open borders while we still can. Found a pretty good deal on and prepared ourselves in our own ways. Paul's way is to charge batteries and organise electronics, mine is to read blogs for restaurant recommendations and worry about what to wear.
Fête des Vendanges Montmartre - pic by Paul Fourie
We decided to book restaurants for the three nights we were away, and just wing other meals. And chose restaurants fairly close to where we were staying, for ease of staggering home afterwards. Unfortunately, choosing from restaurants that have a good website, online booking and an English translation does rather mean you end up in pretty touristy places. But that's OK - we were tourists, we don't speak French and we quite liked the idea of eating onion soup at every meal as long as the hotel room had openable windows.

Fête des Vendanges Montmartre - pic by Paul Fourie
Unfortunately our dinner reservation on the first night hit a serious snag. We wandered (OK, puffed and wheezed) towards Sacré-Cœur, and found ourselves in the middle of a food festival, part of the Fête des Vendanges Montmartre. We should have popped in to La Mere Catherine and cancelled our reservation and just eaten ourselves senseless, but instead we restricted ourselves to a modest cornet of charcuterie and a couple of glasses of wine so as not to spoil our dinner.
Fête des Vendanges Montmartre - pic by Paul Fourie
Part of the attraction of La Mere Catherine, as well as the old-school brasserie menu, was the age. Established 1793. There can't be many restaurants in the world with that kind of history - Rules in London is almost as old, but that's going back to the very beginning of what we think of as restaurants. I had a good goats cheese salad, a rubbery steak with excellent potatoes, tried to explain steak haché to an over-tired American tween who was deeply sceptical (although she did try her mother's snails) and a potent rum baba. It was entirely expected and fine for what it was. But my heart was 2 streets over eating foie gras inna bun, wooden boxes of grilled cheese and long glasses of Planteur.
Goats cheese salad
We wandered back through the festival after dinner for a glass of Monbazillac and for Paul to take more photos before calling it a night.

Next morning we had quite a late start. And then we walked. And walked and walked. Had a restorative croque madame and a couple of cups of coffee and walked some more. I've decided that I don't really love a croque madame. As much as a fried ham & cheese sandwich, topped with bechamel and a fried egg sounds like it should be bliss it's all oddly subtle for my taste. It'd be better with sharp cheddar, a good spoonful of mustard and a splash of Worcestershire sauce. If it was, in fact, Welsh rarebit.
Croque madame - that egg is undercooked even for my taste
After loads more walking and a couple of stops for fortifying glasses of Kir we went back to the hotel room to change for dinner. The restaurant, Sacrée Fleur, was only a 5 minute walk away but they'd sort of put the fear of God in me with repeated warnings that they only hold bookings for 15 minutes. We were on time... and given that during our meal we saw several people turned away I can definitely see why they enforce the policy. It's a tiny space and I can imagine that a single table not showing could kill their profits for the whole day. The staff were utterly charming (that reputation for rude French waiters? Everyone we encountered, bar a waitress in the Café des Marronniers, was delightful and incredibly patient with us) and the food was excellent - really simple but very good beef, with nice chunky chips and a selection of sauces. And the best bread we had in Paris, with a properly good crackly crust. Then Paul had tarte tatin and I had a crepe flambeed in Grand Marnier which was lovely. We went back up to Sacré-Cœur but the Fête des Vendanges was bonkers - unpleasantly, claustrophobically packed with a lot more broken glass around than I thought my thin sneakers could tolerate - so we went back to the hotel. Late mornings and early nights were pretty much a feature of the weekend.
Beef at Sacree Fleur. Awful picture, good food.
On the Sunday morning we headed straight to the Latin Quarter for breakfast and a good poke about. We'd thought we'd had a good lie in but the streets were post-Apocalyptically quiet. Which was nice really. Coffee and a ham & cheese crepe set us up for the rest of the day. I wish I could say we spent all weekend eating rare and beautiful pastries and six course dégustation but we really didn't. We spotted a shop selling bite-size versions of Kouign Amann, which we meant to go back to but... didn't happen.

More walking... and it was an absolutely beautiful day so there were more drinks breaks. We ended up going straight to dinner at La Strasbourgeoise. It's opposite a major railway station and it's absolutely huge but if you like a vast plate of choucroute - and I do - it's completely fine. Smokey, salty pig bits, tangy cabbage and a few boiled potatoes if you really can't deal with unremitting pork and cabbage.

We walked off the meal with another schlep up to Sacré-Cœur - which made me extremely crabby because Paul insisted that the food festival would still be on when I knew it wouldn't be that late on the last day. And I was right which made him extremely crabby. But we'd walked past a couple of likely looking places on Rue Paul Albert, so we went back down, grabbed a table and shared a very good apple tart and a couple of glasses of cognac.
Rue Paul Albert - pic by Paul Fourie

Our last day started with coffee (of course! - Paul really struggled to get a decaf Americano, and I stuck to iced coffees after the first day because I found the café crème to be unpleasantly bloating and espresso is too intense). I'd been pretty keen for a decent croissant but we never found a place that looked like it had both good pastry and a place to sit and eat it. We really should have done a bit more research, I think. So I had an omelette, full of ham and chunks of potato.
Our last meal in Paris was more of a snack as far as I was concerned. Paul had a steak, but that omelette had been plenty for me, so I just had another iced coffee and then we shared a fabulous fig frangipane tart. When we sat down, the table behind the counter contained a whole apple tart and a whole fig tart but by the time we ordered there was just the one slice of fig tart left. So we knew it was good and it had to be ours. Just wonderful - biscuity crust, thin, well-flavoured frangipane and loads of fat, ripe figs. A very appropriate meal before we pootled off home.
One friend said it looked like tentacles. I can see that. But delicious.
The tart was so good I made my own version this weekend.

Fig & Frangipane Tart

Shortcrust pastry (your favourite - I bought pastry)
100g butter
25g well-flavoured honey
75g golden caster sugar
100g ground almonds
2 eggs
2tbs amaretto liqueur (optional)
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
8 figs

Preheat oven to 180C

Line tart tin with pastry. Cream together butter, honey and sugar until fluffy, then add the almonds and eggs, amaretto and cinnamon and pour into the pastry shell. Cut the woody stems off the figs and cut almost into quarters, and wodge into the frangipane.

Bake for 30-40 minutes, until nicely risen and browned but still with a hint of wobble.  Eat warm or cooled.

Sunday 28 August 2016

Courgette and herb slice

I know it looks like we eat a lot of meat. We do. Especially at this time of year when clear, warm evenings make cooking outdoors appealing. But we also eat a lot of vegetables - sometimes without a piece of meat in sight.

One of my former flatmates used to make the most delicious zucchini fritters - heady with herbs, given an added punch with crumbled feta. This slice, which is almost like a less-eggy frittata, is inspired by those but without the labour of making little individual fritters. And as I live in a country that calls zucchini courgette, that is what I will call them. You can call them baby marrows if that's what floats your boat.

I start this on the stovetop and finish it in the oven - I feel like that prevents any danger of soggy bottoms and makes it easier to slice and serve.

Courgette and herb slice (serves 2-4)
3 eggs
100g self raising flour
500g courgettes (i.e zucchini), grated
75g fresh herbs (I used 25g each of mint, flat leaf parsley and coriander), roughly chopped
200g kefalotyri cheese, grated
Freshly ground black pepper
2tbs olive oil

Mix the flour into the eggs and mix in the other ingredients, except the oil. It will feel very dry initially. Allow to stand for half an hour - the liquid will draw out of the courgettes and loosen the batter nicely.

Preheat oven to 180C

Warm a suitable vessel (i.e a skillet or something that can go on the hob and in the oven) on a medium heat on the stove and add the olive oil. When it starts to sizzle, add the courgette batter and smooth down. When the edges start to crisp a little, put it in the oven and bake for about half an hour, until well-browned. It won't rise much, the self-raising flour gives just enough lift to stop it from being stodgy.

Allow to stand for at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving with salad. It's good warm or cold.

Sunday 21 August 2016

Barbecued short ribs

Shortribs rubbed with salt and pepper
The weather yesterday was pretty crumby. Which would normally be counter-intuitive for wanting to barbecue, but was actually perfect for what we had in mind. A long, slow cook, indirect and covered, with lots of smoke. Periods of rain are no barrier to that sort of barbecuing.
Two hours into the smoking
Paul had spotted some cheap but very meaty beef short ribs at the supermarket, and bought every pack on the shelf (there were only three), so I simply rubbed them with salt and pepper before we put them in the barbecue on indirect heat. We added smoking chips every half hour for 4 hours.

Then we wrapped them. We couldn't decide what seasonings to add, so we ended up doing each one individually. One we basted heavily in some Germantown Commissary Barbecue Sauce that a friend had brought over when she visited from Memphis. One we just added a bit of chicken stock to (would have used beef stock if I'd had any). The last had a good slug of red wine and several whole cloves of garlic. Then they went back in the barbecue for another 2 1/2 hours before resting for half an hour.

L-R Memphis BBQ, chicken stock, red wine and garlic
The meat had a deep bark and was beautifully succulent, slipping straight off the bone. The one with the chicken stock was the most moist, while the one in barbecue sauce had the best flavour. I was anticipating that the barbecue sauce would be a bit sweet, but it was deliciously piquant. The red wine and garlic one suffered a bit, because we managed to poke a hole in the foil, so it didn't retain moisture the way it should. It was still excellent, but the ratio of bark to tender meat was a bit off.

I think the next time we do short ribs, we'll add a bit of stock AND baste in the barbecue sauce. And make sure someone goes to Memphis to get us some more.

It's very rich meat - you really only need a green salad with it and maybe some pickles.

Sunday 14 August 2016

Forty Dean Street

Very much to my surprise my ninth blogoversary has come and gone without acknowledgment. And two months have slipped by since I last posted. I just haven't been feeling it. I have spent much of the last couple of months raging over the Brexit referendum and ensuing economic uncertainty and rise of racial and religious-based hate crimes and, well, none of that has added up to me wanting to cook much or write about food. Food is joy and love and caring and inclusion, which all feels a bit pre-Brexit.
Prawns with cherry tomatoes and crostini, and antipasto platter
Which means that this meal, at Forty Dean Street has felt like a wondrous time gone by. It was utterly joy-filled as well as being completely unexpected.

There can be a certain predictability about blogger dinners. They are on a Tuesday, of the 15-20 people there I maybe know a couple and PRs are scattered through to keep everyone happy. Everyone's on their best behaviour, determined to enjoy themselves and the networking-inclined hand out business cards. Very pleasant they tend to be, if not always memorable.
Linguine with seafood, spaghetti with fresh lobster
Dinner at Forty Dean Street was on a Thursday. There were only six of us - three PRs, three bloggers. And it ended up being less a dinner than a dance party with food. The description of the restaurant - affordable, family-run, seventeen years in business - had me anticipating something a bit staid, while "favourite with our regulars, the media crowd and tourists alike" didn't make me feel particularly confident. So maybe my utter pleasure in the food and atmosphere was born of low expectations, but I do think it was genuinely good.
Lamb chops
Mention had been made of the owner coming to tell us about the restaurant and talk us through the food, but he was far too busy joyously DJing an impeccably selected soundtrack for a 40th birthday in the corner, and dancing with anyone who would stand up with him.  The food didn't need any introduction though. More than two months later I am thinking about how richly flavoured the spaghetti with lobster was and how perfectly tender the lamb chops with mustard crushed potatoes were. Beautifully prepared and utterly delicious.

The selection of desserts wasn't quite as good as the savoury dishes - the tiramisu was almost as good as mine, the pannacotta wobbled delectably and the cheesecake was a fair example but... I dunno. I think I'd just eaten enough and was enjoying dancing at the table because none of it wowed me particularly.

The bottom line is that it isn't somewhere I would take a first date, or have a work lunch where I was discussing redundancies, but for very nice food at an extremely reasonable price with a jolly party atmosphere... it's just what you want. And god knows the more support we give the independents in Soho the better, otherwise soon it'll be acceptable but dull franchises as far as the eye can see. Which would be such a shame.

Thursday 2 June 2016

A barbecue or two

It turns out that this week's festival-for-raising-awareness-of-things-we-already-knew-about is National Barbecue Week. It's the 20th anniversary of it, in fact.

Apparently the average British family now barbecues nine times a summer. Since we barbecue about three times a week from April to October, that doesn't leave a lot of barbecuing for anyone else, but there you go. Of course, most of our barbecues are simple, after work affairs, grilling some sausages or some veg and minimising the amount of washing up that will need to be done. But on a weekend if the weather forecast is OK, we'll plan something that takes a bit more effort and is a bit more extravagant.
Brisket point
Project Brisket was such a success, and we still had the point half in the freezer, so we decided to have another go. With the added complication that we weren't going to eat it at our house. So we rubbed and we smoked, then wrapped it tightly in foil and towels and took it over to friends, where it finished cooking in their barbecue.

It wasn't as successful as the first one. I think we didn't give it long enough in the second half of the cook. It was delicious, but not as meltingly tender. You actually needed a butter knife to cut it. Paul was disappointed in himself.
Good bark, nice smoke ring
But honestly, if you hadn't tried the previous attempt you wouldn't have felt there was anything lacking.

We took a good portion of leftovers home, which made a fantastic salad (cold salad vegetables, warmed-through meat, tangy Thai-ish chilli and fish sauce dressing), with some sweet potato wedges.

Having scratched his brisket itch, Paul decided that ribs were to be the next target. According to Neil Rankin's excellent book Low and Slow: How to Cook Meat, American pork ribs have a lot more meat left on them, whereas pork belly is so profitable for butchers here that they trim really close to the bone. He does talk about the conversation you need to have with your butcher to get really meaty ribs, but that wasn't something I felt up for, so I just bought a couple of scrawny racks from the supermarket.
We rubbed them with salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika and smoked the living daylights out of them in a cool, humid barbecue, then poured on a tamarind glaze, wrapped them in foil and finished the cooking. Then, while they rested, I deep fried some okra and made a salad. The ribs were perfection. Just meaty enough, with excellent flavour, and tender enough to slip easily off the bones.
Jalapeno & cheddar cornbread to go with pulled pork
Having conquered brisket and ribs, Paul decided that pork butt was his next ambition. I removed the rind (it was going to cook too long, slow and humid for crackling) and put it in the freezer for some day in the future when I fancy making chicharrón. I scored the fat and rubbed the whole thing with a mixture of salt, pepper, fennel seeds and garlic powder (5g each salt, fennel and garlic, 10g peppercorns - made more rub than I needed).

Then the usual routine of long, slow smoking (apple wood, this time), then wrapping for the rest of the cooking time.

I couldn't be bothered making a sauce for it, so after we broke it up into chunks we just sprinkled it with a little Tabasco. We had it with cornbread, and an olive and orange salad. Some of the leftovers went into a sort of Chinese chilli sauce with aubergine and made a very satisfying meal the following day. I think we've held our end up for British barbecue.

Sunday 29 May 2016

A. Wong

Last autumn we went to a cookbook festival. Cookbook Confidential had a bunch of talks, demonstrations and panel discussions, and it was brilliant. Diana Henry and Kay Plunkett-Hogge talked about how to write a cookbook, in such an inspiring way we immediately went home and pre-ordered Kay's book Heat (which has now been released and is wonderful. Diana didn't have a new book out). And Richard Turner, Dan Doherty and Andrew Wong talked about their food heroes.

Paul fell a little bit in love with Andrew Wong. Something about the way he talked about his approach to food really captured Paul's imagination, and he's been keen to get to A. Wong ever since, but somehow dinner in Victoria has never quite been the right thing. But on Friday night we did it.
I started with a Harbin cocktail, which was a take on a margarita - absolutely divine. I ended up having two, because the bottle of Gewurztraminer Paul ordered was so nice he didn't want to share...

We couldn't be bothered with menu reading or decision making, so we ordered the ten course "Tastes of China" menu. Which was, I think, an absolutely brilliant idea.
smoked halibut
Before the ten courses began, we were served a couple of snacks. A little bite of something crisp, with smoked halibut and crunchy jellyfish, and a prawn cracker. It's the first time I've had a prawn cracker that actually tasted of prawn.
Not your average prawn cracker.
Chilli sauces
We were also given a pair of chilli sauces - one made with fermented bean curd, one made with shrimps - but the prawn crackers had so much flavour we only tasted these out of curiosity.

Then the menu proper began. The (completely charming and lovely) waiter introduced each course explaining where the original dish came from and some information about that region of China. Tastiest geography lesson ever.
Dim sum duo.
Dim sum duo
The menu began in Hong Kong, with an incredibly delicate har gau and delicious siu mai. I am not generally a fan of foams, but the light citrus foam on the har gau was a very good friend to the sweet, bouncy prawns. The siu mai was firm and very porky. Neither one bore a lot of resemblance to the dim sum we buy frozen in Asian supermarkets.

The second course was listed as 茶叶蛋 63 degree ‘tea egg’ with shredded filo and satay powder but we were told that Andrew wasn't happy with his eggs and so something else would be served. I'm always absolutely delighted to be told that - even if it is something I am looking forward to, and to be honest, this was the course I had my doubts about because of Paul's known soft egg aversion - it just shows that the chef really cares about the quality of what they are sending out.

Instead, we were served 成都豆腐花 - Chengdu street tofu, soy chilli, peanuts, preserved vegetables. 
Chengdu street tofu
The waiter told us how when he was growing up, little old ladies would travel through the streets with a yoke over their shoulders: fresh soft tofu on one side and a variety of tasty toppings on the other. This was so delicious. This was the dish that tofu naysayers should be offered to cure them of their heresy. The tofu was a light, soft curd, the preserved vegetables gave a toothsome crunch and deep savour, and the peanuts added another level of crunch, fat and flavour. I committed my first crime against table manners for the evening and drank the remaining juice from the little bowl. It was so good I almost wept. I did actually comment to the waitress who cleared our plates that I didn't see how the meal could get any better after a dish like that. It did.

Shanghai steamed dumplings, ginger infused vinegar. 
Shanghai soup dumplings

I have never had a xiao long bao like these. Never made quite as much mess with one either. The "caviar" on top was a spherification of something delicious, I think. Ginger maybe? And in picking mine up I ruptured the silky fine skin and ended up having to drink the broth off my plate. I like to think that the staff viewed it as an appreciation of their skill and not me being a complete pig.

红烧臭鳜鱼, 蝦醬什菜 
Anhui province red braised fermented fish belly with mixed vegetables and dried shrimps
Apparently the thing in Anhui province is fermenting fish for days. Which sounds a bit like Surströmming - so I wasn't at all disappointed when the waiter told us that this was an interpretation of the dish, with the fermented flavour present in the sauce, to be dabbed on the shatteringly crisp fish skin and delicate braised flesh. It was very good, but the best thing about the dish was the accompanying vegetables, cooked with dried shrimp butter. I want to eat those vegetables again and again and again.

What the dish really needed was a bit of bread so we could fare la scarpetta - the sauces were so good and it was sad seeing so much go back to the kitchen. Even a spoon would have helped.

Braised abalone, shitake mushroom, sea cucumber and abalone butter
Braised abalone
I like to think I am a pretty open-minded sort of eater, but  sea cucumber... When I was a child, we had a holiday in the Cook Islands and I am still traumatised by standing on sea cucumbers in the sea around Rarotonga. I was not a bit sure about this dish! But everything else had been so delicious, and the story of how abalone is prized in China for its resemblance to old Chinese gold coins lulled me into taking a bite. And it was very nice. I think the small brown squares were the sea cucumber, but I couldn't really tell. They certainly weren't horrifying. The slices of braised abalone and the slices of shiitake mushroom were very well matched for flavour and texture - tender with a subtle chewiness - the crisp shreds of deep fried greenery added a lovely extra dimension, and the buttery abalone juice was just wonderful. You don't tend to taste much butter in Western Chinese restaurant food, but it's a very nice addition.
Shaanxi pulled lamb ‘burger’ with Xinjiang pomegranate salad
The Muslim population of Shaanxi have contributed lamb dishes, fragrant with cumin, to the cuisine. I've tried it in a couple of different forms: as tender slices of fillet, crusted with cumin; as a murky hotpot with firey sauce and luscious chunks of meat to be sucked from the bones. 

This version - pulled lamb in a rich sauce, with lots of lovely accompaniments, to be stuffed into little buns - was the nicest take on the pulled meat trend that is swamping London restaurants, and a really enticing interpretation of the flavours.
Yunnan seared beef with mint, chilli and lemongrass served with a pulled noodle cracker and truffle
Technology came to the party for this course. Our waiter had an ipad and showed us a short clip of Andrew pulling the noodles for these crackers. Mesmerising. Mine lacked structural integrity (or Paul had a knack that I lacked) and crumbled all over the table and my face, but the flavours and the crunchy noodles topped with soft mushrooms were excellent. If the Yunnan black truffles on top were not augmented with truffle oil, they are the most intensely flavoured truffles I've ever had, I think.
The seared beef with mint, chilli and lemongrass was a tribute to Yunnan's proximity to Vietnam, and the exchange of flavours along that border. It tasted very much like a combination of Chinese and Vietnamese food, with a sweet-ish but not gloopy chilli sauce and the freshness of mint (both raw and fried to crisps) and cucumber.

四川香辣手撕茄子, 宫保雞丁
 Sichuanese aubergine with Gong Bao chicken, roasted peanuts and ‘hot pot’ essence
Gong Bao chicken
I'd lost track of the number of courses we'd had at this point, but as soon as I saw the bowl of rice I knew that this was the last of the savoury dishes. We were instructed to eat the Gong Bao chicken (and told that it was very definitely not Kung Pao or Hong Bao) first, with our fingers, and then the aubergine. Which was most certainly the right way around. The aubergine, perfectly silky and luscious, had so much of the málà numbing fire sensation that I wouldn't have been able to taste the chicken. The plain rice was very welcome as a bit of a palate cleanser before the desserts.

北京 酸奶, 菠蘿
Chilli barbequed pineapple with Beijing street yoghurt

Apparently the reputation that China has for not using dairy products isn't entirely accurate - in Beijing, yoghurt is a very popular street food. This was a very nice one. Tangy but not too sour, a little gingery syrup and a chunk of warm, sweet, spicy pineapple.

雪圓子, 荔枝, 檸檬雪酪
Poached meringue, lychee granite, mango puree and orange sorbet

The final dessert was a cheffy play on the idea that the Chinese finish a banquet with a fruit platter. An orange made from two hemispheres of poached meringue, filled with a blood orange sorbet and coated in a crisp sugar shell. A fresh, perfumed mango mousse, a crunchy lychee granita (definitely to my taste - the aroma of the lychee without the excessive sweetness or slimy eyeball resemblance) and a red envelope of sugared lotus root crisps. We were told that when lotus roots are pulled up they are very long and keep coming and coming, so they are seen as a symbol of longevity. And as oranges are seen as symbolic of wealth, it was a wish for us to be long-lived and prosperous. Which is just about the nicest thing a waiter has ever said to me.
Sugared lotus root crisps
There was one more little treat in store though. A white chocolate mah jong tile, filled with strawberry ice cream. So pretty and just the right touch to end a very memorable meal. 


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