Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Champagne Tea, Waddesdon Manor, Bucks

Waddesdon Manor is a imposing, Renaissance-style house, based on a loire-style ch√Ęteau, in North Bucks. Built in the late 19th century for the Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to entertain guests and display his vast collection of art treasures, it has now been bequeathed to the National Trust and is the second most visited Trust property charging an entrance fee.

Although the Manor, with its vast collections of art, furniture silver, sculptures and ceramics, is well worth a visit, we were here on a bright and frosty December day for the Christmas food fair, held down in the grounds of Waddesdon Plant Centre, followed by afternoon tea. 

After stocking up on British cheese, game pies and wine down at the food fair we enjoyed an alfresco 'light' lunch of a duck burger with BBQ plum sauce, and an organic lamb and wild rosemary burger with mint jelly. Despite the ample amount we had already seem to have consumed a stroll through the stables and grounds and up to the Manor House soon whetted our appetites for the main event.

Although the Buckinghamshire porter cake with Oxfordshire blue cheese caught my eye we were both swayed by the Champagne tea, with its array of seasonal sandwiches, scones and cakes and a glass of festive fizz. For the virtuous amongst us, or those with allergies or intolerance, they even offer an 'amazing cake' that is fat, sugar and egg-free.

We were offered a choice of teas and a glass of either Waddesdon's own label champagne or rose.  As was Christmas who could resist a glass of, very nice, pink bubbles. The teas, from Jeeves and Jericho in Oxford, came in little iron tea pots and I enjoyed my 'light and elegant' darjeeling first flush while the Ewing went for the good old Earl Grey, made with Estonian cornflowers no less, taken with plenty of milk and sugar.

The open faced sandwiches came out first; a selection of smoked salmon and prawn mayo on dark rye, and brie and cranberry and egg mayo on crusty white. The salmon was fine, but the prawn was delicious; the prawns were big and sweet and the sauce rich and tangy. The brie was nice, but the cranberry sauce was on the sharp side, even for someone who loves sour things as I do, and it overwhelmed the soft lettuce and creamy cheese slightly. As I don't like eggs the Ewing got double bubble on the egg mayo (despite not proffering one of her sarnies to me as a swap). She reported it as 'lovely, the second best sandwich on the plate'.

The cake stand from top to bottom: Panna cotta with mulled poached pear; chocolate roulade with chantilly cream; mini mince pie; freshly baked scone; strawberry jam and clotted cream.

The scone with jam and cream.  Simple and lovely, the only criticism being it was served cold, meaning you miss out on that little puff of warm cake-scented steam as you break it open.

Their was a great festive twist to the panna cotta, the rich vanilla set custard, with just the right amount of wobble had been topped with slices of pear that had been poached in mulled wine.  The chocolate roulade was properly decadent, a centre of rich cream surrounded by dense chocolate sponge and covered in a chocolate carapace dusted with white chocolate shavings.

The final hurdle was the mini mince pie drenched in icing sugar.  I must admit I was struggling by this point, but, although the pastry was a little on the thick side, this was too tasty to pass up and I happily washed it down with the last dregs of tea and fizz. 

At £40 including service this was an afternoon indulgence that seemed well worth it. A glorious, bright winter's day spent in beautiful surroundings, with some lovely grub and a giant Christmas tree to boot! Quite the civilised festive treat.

Friday, 23 December 2011


Part three of the thrilling rice pudding collection, and what could be more timely than the Danish seasonal special risalamande? Ususually served on Christmas Eve, this version of rice pud is very rich and creamy with a pleasing hint of Christmas spice provided by the cinnamon and vanilla.

Traditionally there would be an almond hidden somewhere in the pudding. The lucky recipient would recieve a small prize, such as a chocolate or marzipan figure, on discovery (The discovery usually being concealed for as long as possible, so the rest of the guests are obliged to finish the whole dish of pudding, despite being full of festive food already).

Often accompanied by a (usually cherry) compote, I've descended to scoffing mouthfuls of the morerish stuff straight from the fridge. In fact this has been the only version of rice pud that the (normally happy to eat anything) Ewing has countenanced to eat. High praise indeed.


100g short grain rice (I used Arborio)
600ml semi-skimmed milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
200ml double/whipping cream
Large pinch of cinnamon
1 almond (optional)

To serve
Cherry compote (optional)

Place the rice and milk in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add sugar and vanilla and stir.
Simmer, uncovered, stirring regularly until rice is tender (20-25 minutes). Allow to cool.
Add cinnamon to cream and whip until it forms soft peaks. Gently fold cooled rice into cream mixture, add almond if using, and chill throughly.
Serve dusted with extra cinnamon.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Chocolate Dipped Candied Grapefruit with Pink Salt

When I was growing up my Nan always had a Tupperware box filled with home made candied orange peels, often dipped in dark chocolate, somewhere at the back of her cupboard. As a treat we would sometimes be allowed a few to snack on, and although the bitter, rich flavours were slightly overwhelming there was something rather exotic and grown-up about nibbling them.

As I got older the box of peels stopped being made, and I would always pass up the (usually expensive) orangettes when choosing chocolates for something containing nuts or alcohol. It was only last year, when the Ewing candied a whole heap of left over orange skins after some Christmas baking, that I realised how good they could taste, and why they often cost so much.

Although not difficult to make, the procedure is pretty time consuming involving several different steps. You need to give yourself the best part of a week from start to finish, which gives you just enough time if you want to make some as Christmas gifts this year.

Orange peels are the most traditional, but on seeing some pink grapefruit on offer while shopping, I decided to try something slightly different. After spending a Sunday morning diligently removing as much pith as I could from the pile of grapefruit peels, the Ewing came downstairs and announced that the pith should be left on as it soften and sweetens during the candying process and helps the peel hold together. No matter, both the 'peeled' peels, and the one with the pith left on, worked equally well.

After the blanching, boiling, candying and drying processes were complete I decided to half dip some of them in a mixture of milk and dark chocolate, and then finished with a sprinkle of pink Murray River salt flakes (obviously you could substitute any salt flakes, I just had some left from a trip to Australia, and it continued the 'pink' theme). As well as being the trendy thing to mix with chocolate the salt also reduces the bitterness in the grapefruit peel (as seen by some cultures adding salt to their coffee or Heston's tonic trick).

So, a bit of a labour of love, but well worth the effort. The final candied peel is zesty and sweet with a pleasing bitter finish and an added dimension from the chocolate, which pairs very well with citrus flavours. As an added bonus I chopped up the smaller pieces to use as mixed peel in fruit cakes and biscotti, far nicer than the tasteless, tough, dried lumps you buy in most supermarkets. The Ewing even managed to salvage a jar of the left over, thickened boiling syrup, full of little pieces of grapefruit flesh and zest, to use as a marmalade.

Chocolate Dipped Candied Grapefruit

8-10 pink grapefruit,
1kg sugar

150g milk chocolate
150g dark chocolate
Sea salt flakes or caster sugar to finish

Scrub and peel the grapefruit, leaving the pith on, and cut peel into strips.
Place the peel in a large pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil.  Drain and repeat process twice more. This helps to remove some bitterness from the peels.
Cover the peel with two litres of cold water and bring to the boil again. This time simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes, or until the peels ate soft and translucent.
Add the sugar, stir until it's dissolved and simmer again, covered, for another 45 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to stand for 24 hours.
Remove the lid and bring the pan to the boil again, boiling for about 30 minutes, or until most the liquid had evaporated and the peel is covered with a thick, bubbling syrup (be careful it doesn't burn).
Cool and then place sticks of peel on a wire rack and leave somewhere warm (by a radiator or in the airing cupboard) until dry (about 48 hours).

Melt chocolate in microwave or in a double boiler and then half dip the grapefruit sticks in the melted chocolate. Place on greaseproof paper, top with a sprinkle of sea salt flakes and leave until set.

Alternatively roll the peel in caster sugar and use in baking.

This will make quite a few sticks. Halve the recipe if you want, although they keep very well for a few months undipped, and a few weeks when dipped.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Brooke Burger, Pink & Lily, Lacey Green, Bucks

The Ewing and I have recently been engaged in some rural burger-sleuthing for the lovely @burgerac.  Read about our exploits trying the Brooke burger at the Pink and Lily pub in Lacey Green over at  Midsomer Burgers.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Feeling festive at Spuntino, Soho

I realise the world needs another Spuntino blog like Augustus Gloop needed a drink from Willy Wonka's chocolate river, but having recently enjoyed a long, late lunch at Russell Norman's take on a lower east side American diner with my dear friend, Beth, I feel compelled to write about the experience. Not so much to focus on the food, but for the feeling I got while dining here on a frosty December afternoon; a feeling that the Danes would probably call hygge, or the Dutch gezellig.

Although these words are often seen as untranslatable - the closest equivalent we have in English would probably be 'cosiness' -  the concept is probably best described as a feeling of togetherness, shared with close friends and family and often involving food and drink. Although the idea is often associated with Christmas and cold weather I have experienced similar moments both sipping dark beer in a brown bar in Amsterdam the week before Christmas and while singing around a bonfire on Midsummer's Eve in Copenhagen.

To be 'effortlessly' cool actually often takes a lot of pre-planning, and on our visit everything just seemed work; from the hipsters in their Christmas jumpers perched around the u-shaped zinc bar to the grungy decor featuring distressed wall tiles, chipped enamel crockery and low-wattage lighting the place seem to generate a happy buzz. The joint was full on a a late Monday afternoon (it is tiny), but fortunately a spot opened up on the only table, tucked away in the back corner of the restaurant, and we settled down for our feast.

Some of this feeling of seasonal goodwill can probably be attributed to the, small but perfectly formed,  negronis I was drinking; the perfect balance between gin, red vermouth and Campari garnished with a little festive orange wedge. Negronis are great at any time of year, but I particularly associate the wonderful bitterness of Campari with Christmas after a plum gin-induced holiday hangover that was conquered with the magic powers of Campari and soda.

There was, I'm pretty sure, a little enamel mug of complimentary warm, paprika-spiked popcorn to accompany our drinks.  But Beth made short work of it before I could grab a snap.

We tried a couple of fried snacks to start (the menu is mostly comprised of  little 'sharing' plates and nibbles); aubergine, sorry, 'eggplant', fries and stuffed olives. The aubergine was lovely and crisp, the fennel yogurt on the side married the pleasant 'mustiness' of cumin spice with a bright lactic tang.  The olives, stuffed with anchovy and breadcrumbed, were nice although I preferred them as they cooled and the tangy, fishy, briny flavours intensified.

Fennel, radicchio, and hazlenuts with truffle vinigarette. Sweet-toothed Beth shunned this dish, citing it as 'too bitter', a shame since it was easily the largest plate we ordered and I could have done with the help. Although I enjoyed the crisp fennel and crunch of the hazlenuts, finished with a big hint of truffle oil, there is only so much slaw you can reasonably get through without starting to feel like it's all to much work.

A bite of Beth's pulled pork and apple slider.  I was very surprised, and very thankful, that I actually got to sample any of this. Totalling a little more than a few mouthfuls this was a beautiful balance of rich pig and crisp fruit on a bun that was robust enough for the challenge.

Beth's clam chowder, again she was kind enough to share a couple of molluscs with me and I really enjoyed the sweet clams and creamy liquor. Although a sodium chloride lover, Beth did comment that this was on the edge of over-salted, even for her.

My cheeseburger with ultra crunchy shoestring fries. Again this was small, but perfectly formed, beef patty, glazed with cheese and served with red onion rings and pickle spears on the side. Normally I'm not so much of a fan of the DIY burger approach, but I enjoyed alternating between bites of burger and pickles. The patty was not particularly pink in the middle, but it was full of juice, as clearly demonstrated by the geezer of orange burger grease that spurted theatrically everywhere upon my first bite.

As the pale winter light faded and the sparkling lights of London started to spring up outside we had just enough room to share some pud before wrapping up to brave the crowds on Reagent's Street. The PB&J sandwich was masterful desert; strawberry jam oozing from between layers of creamy peanut parfait, topped with a generous handful of crushed nuts. The licorice ice cream with pineapple seemed like an intriguing choice too, and reason for a return visit in less inclement weather.

In a perfect world casual little hole-in-the-walls like Spuntino - where you can pop in for a quick snack, cocktail or full blown feast - would exist on every street corner.  But for now this remains a hip Soho gem, and the perfect afternoon spot for reclaiming that fuzzy feeling inside.

The lovely Beth

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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Cauliflower, Chickpea and Coconut Curry

With its creamy, tight curds, and bright green leaves the cauliflower is a beautiful vegetable that can be both completely splendid or absolutely awful. When it's blanketed in a mustardy cheese sauce, or roasted with a little chilli, to bring out the nutty flavour as the Italians do, there is little to rival it.  Too often though it can be bland, waterlogged, overcooked and sulphurous smelling, sad little beige lumps, sitting unloved on the edge of the dinner plate.

Recently we've seen a cauliflower Renaissance; first Yottam Ottolengi featured it as one of his 'key ingredients' on Radio Four, and then the Hairy Bikers dedicated a whole programme (and chapter of the first book) to it for the Great British Food Revival.  Although now available all year round the brassicas are at their peak during colder months, and one of my favourite ways too cook a cauli is in an Indian style, often with other vegetables and pulses, especially chickpeas and lentils.

When I first moved out of home, and in with my veggie boyfriend at the time, veg curries became a staple. It took me a while (and several pots of spicy, brown sludge) to realise tha,t unlike most meat and poultry based curries, vegetables do not need to be simmered for hours on end.  In fact the key to cooking cauli in curries is to briefly steam and then add to the sauce to finish off cooking, making sure it still  retains some 'bite'.

Cauliflower, Chick Pea and Coconut Curry

1 large cauliflower 
2 tins of tomatoes
2 tins of chick peas, drained
1/2 tin coconut milk (or 50g creamed coconut dissolved in a splash of hot water)
1 large onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
nugget of fresh ginger, grated
2 tbsp Medium Curry Powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
salt and pepper

to serve
Small bunch fresh coriander
Natural yogurt
Lemon Wedges
Naan/roti bread

Cut the Cauliflower into florets and boil or steam for 5 minutes. 
Add the Onions to a casserole, and soften in vegetable oil until starting to brown.  Add ginger, garlic and spices and continue cooking for another few minutes until mixture is fragrant and golden.
Add the tomatoes, chickpeas and coconut milk and season well.
Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for 20 minutes.
Add cauliflower and simmer for another five minutes,or until cauliflower is just cooked.
Sprinkle with fresh coriander and serve with yogurt, lemon and steamed rice or Indian bread.

Although it's a great showcase for the cauli, you can substitute pretty much any other veg you've got in the fridge.  And like most curries it tastes even better over the next few days, especially when accompanied by a couple of tandori naan or roti from the local takeaway and a cold lager or two.