Fig and Almond Cake with Mascarpone Cream

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I have recently moved into a new house. A desire to do a bit of nesting, coupled with just having bought yet another cookbook, the baking book Honey and Jam, led me to make a cake.

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Whilst trying to orientate myself in the surrounding streets of very similar grand Georgian terraces, I popped into the local corner shop. I went in with pretty low expectations, banking on just getting milk and eggs. However, I was confronted with quails eggs, cashew nuts and several different types of brie. So I bought some duck eggs, my favourite brand of local butter and some cashew nuts for good measure.

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The flavours in this cake were inspired by some ice cream I had recently at Swoon Gelato: caramelised fig and mascarpone. The duck eggs gave it a richness, and the butter tinged it yellow, and I added some ground almonds to the sponge. I topped the cake with sliced figs, fig jam and mascarpone cream.

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Sweetcorn Fritters with Griddled Chilli Pineapple

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This recipe was written by my friend Clare, a chef. She’s an amazingly creative cook, and a fan of putting (non-toxic, as she always reminds me) glitter on top of everything from cakes to roast dinners. I remember a particularly surreal occasion involving rice noodles topped with silver glitter. Clare’s got an incredible gift for making a meal look like a work of art, meaning that the dishes she whips up usually look too pretty (not to mention too covered in glitter) to be edible. Clare wrote this recipe as a guest contribution to Ohana magazine, and asked me to take the photos.

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We cooked this recipe back on dreary, dark February evening. Ironic, considering Clare’s titled this recipe ‘Sunshine Sweetcorn Patties’. To make this recipe, Clare bought over her entire spice cabinet, and set about decanting pretty much the whole lot into the fritter batter. This is a relatively simple recipe, but one that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Whilst Clare fried the fritters, I fussed about ‘styling’ the shot: arranging pieces of fabric on top of a wooden box and going through numerous plate options. I eventually settled on a neutral, sand-coloured plate to compliment the yellow of the sweetcorn.

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I have had a few (unsuccessful) forays into artificial lighting before, but as I had no other option on this occasion I had to give it another go. Sunlight is naturally more flattering to food than any other type of light, in my opinion. High-end food photography for big brands is usually done with carefully controlled artificial light in a studio, but I prefer the more authentic touch that natural light gives. My ‘set up’ for this shot involved dragging a wooden box to the middle of my bedroom floor and angling a desk lamp at it. Most of the problem with artificial light seems to be the high contrast and harsh shadows that using a single directional light source creates, so I counteracted this by placing a diffuser between the lamp and the food. This helped a little, but there was still some white balance adjustment needed in post-production to get the colours to look less washed out. The finished result is ok, but will never compare to the magic quality of natural light.

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Poco

Poco

Brunch is becoming quite a thing in Bristol. So it’s only proper to get on board. There are many things about going out for brunch that appeal. There’s no bleary-eyed drudgery of attempting to make it out for breakfast, especially as I find it nigh on impossible to leave the house without some sort of sustenance. It has the sort of relaxed casualness that you always wish could happen at an evening meal out, but never quite does. There is also a jubilant sense of infinite possibility: brunch could be followed by coffee, cake, or, lets face it, wine.

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When I first moved to Bristol, I was obsessed with trying every restaurant, bar and café that was even casually mentioned, by anyone, as worth a visit. I had a (very) long list of places, which was constantly being updated. Now I have rationalised this somewhat, and have narrowed it down a shorter (but only slightly) list of my favourite places. Poco is near the top. It’s in Stokes Croft, the area of Bristol famous for that kerfuffle with Tesco, and all the Banksys. Occupying a pretty nondescript corner, with a few rickety tables clinging to the pavement outside, a first time visitor might wonder what all the fuss is about. But step inside, and you’ll soon see.

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The atmosphere is that of a casual Spanish tapas bar, with a tiny open kitchen surrounded by clusters of bar stools. Poco was founded by chef Tom Hunt, who champions ethical, local produce, and lets these ingredients shine through with simple, sympathetic cooking. This view is demonstrated in his cookbook, The Natural Cook, one of my current favourites. Going inside Poco is like stepping into the cookbook, complete with the same blue-rimmed enamel hipster plates – which, upon noticing, I had to suppress a squeak of excitement. I visited Poco to conduct some very loosely termed ‘networking’ (any excuse for brunch) with the lovely Rin, a writer and fellow Instagram obsessed foodie. We opted for the famous Poco brunch dish, consisting of exotically spiced sausages, fluffy scrambled eggs, sourdough toast and fiery Moroccan harissa. This dish definitely deserves the cult status that it has achieved, and exemplifies the simple approach to quality ingredients for which Poco is famous.

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Read some of Rin’s writing here.

http://eatpoco.com

Date and Ginger Cake

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I recently heard of the concept of a ‘house-cooling’ (from the infinite wisdom that is Kinfolk magazine). This is pretty self-explanatory, being the opposite of housewarming: it involves saying a fond farewell to a dwelling that has provided so many memories, and welcoming in the transition and all its exciting new developments. My friends Alex and Heather have lived on a houseboat for the past 3 years. The time has come to say goodbye to the converted Dutch barge, and they are moving out of the boat onto dry land.

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I made this dark and sticky ginger and date cake to take to the ‘boat–cooling’ gathering. I felt that feeling something stodgy and spicy might be in order, not least to fuel the impending sorting and moving of an entire boat-worth of stuff. We ate the cake huddled in the warmth of the boat, feeling the calm sway of the water and remembering all the many previous days and evenings spent there. This time felt poignant given the shift in seasons too – saying farewell to the boat and farewell to summer. There was a definite fizz of excitement around the anticipation of the next exciting phase, of things to come.

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Chocolate and Hazelnut Mousse

Food, for me, is about so much more than something we need to consume to stay alive. It has the power to evoke memory: to immediately transport us back to a particular time or place. Nutella, for example, instantly takes me back to childhood summers spent in France. My friend and I would secretly stuff ourselves with as much fresh baguette smothered with far too much Nutella as we could before our parents caught us.

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So Nutella was the inspiration for this mousse. As any Nutella addict will tell you, chocolate and hazelnuts make a good team. I have made many a chocolate mousse in my time, but never tried adding hazelnuts. It makes sense: the earthy sweetness of the roasted hazelnuts complements the dark bitterness of the chocolate. And the occasional crunch from the nuts alongside the velvety smoothness of the mousse is a winner.

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I made this to serve at a dinner party for my birthday. It’s ideal for this, as it can be made the day before and left in the fridge to firm up – just remember to take it out of the fridge a little before serving, so that it’s not too cold. We had a mushroom and pesto lasagne, followed by rather ridiculously large helpings of the mousse. We had such a lovely time, so from now on the taste of chocolate mousse will instantly bring me back to that evening.

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Lemon Drizzle Cupcakes with Yoghurt Icing

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I am currently unemployed. The café that I was working at has changed hands, so I took it as an opportunity to move on, move out of home and get on with my life. However, for now I am still in fully-fledged holiday mode (which will only last a little while longer, or so I’ve told myself). This leaves lots of time to sit around in my onesie watching trashy daytime TV, eating toast and trying not to think about life. One of my many distraction techniques is to spend ludicrous amounts of time on Instagram. For the uninitiated, Instagram is like Twitter, but with photos. For those still dumbfounded, it’s an app that lets you post photos on a live feed, and follow other people doing the same.

lemons and bee pollen

One of the things that is (horribly 21st century word) ‘trending’ on Instagram at the moment is bee pollen. It is especially prevalent among the health-obsessed Instagrammers, the type of people who see a spinach, kale, kiwi and avocado smoothie as a desirable breakfast. Things like porridge topped with chia seeds, hazelnut butter and bee pollen (and yes, I did just quickly pop onto Instagram to do a search for ‘♯beepollen’) are appearing. Bee pollen is formed by bees when they gather nectar- apparently they roll pollen into balls then discard it. It’s supposed to be very good for you, allegedly containing all the nutrients that humans need, which balances out the large amount of butter and sugar in the cupcakes ever so slightly.

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I thought I would sprinkle some bee pollen on top of these cupcakes, definitely more for aesthetic appeal than for taste. It’s fair to say it looks much nicer than it tastes – it has a pleasant chewy texture but tastes oddly savoury.    I also used honey rather than sugar for the drizzling syrup, to stick with the bee theme and to give a sticky moistness to the cupcakes, which is complemented by the slight sourness of the yoghurt icing.

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Crème Brûlée

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One of my more specialised Christmas presents this year was a cook’s blowtorch. We have been trying in vain to come up with uses for it other than caramelising the sugar on top of a crème brûlée, tentatively suggesting things like charring the outside of aubergines, but it really only has one purpose. I love this particular dessert so much, though, that having a piece of rather expensive kitchen gadgetry designed solely to make it seems fine to me.

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Crème Brûlée originated in England, in Cambridge, under the appellation ‘Burnt Cream’. The dessert was then adopted, and probably perfected, by the French, and given a much more elegant name. On a recent trip to Paris I opted to try many incarnations of the dessert, ranging from passable to sublime. The exact combination of a thin layer of crisp caramel hiding a luscious, wobbly underneath is surprisingly hard to come by. Often they are fiddled about with, and things like ginger, blueberries or cardamom are added. For me, the most successful crème brûlée will always be one flavoured purely with vanilla.

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The blowtorch took a bit of getting used to: the rushing of gas and the sudden ignition are slightly alarming – my first couple of attempts definitely deserved the description ‘burnt cream’. After a few practices and some YouTube tutorials, I was able to get something resembling gently caramelised. A few black patches are fine though- the slight bitterness greatly complements the creamy, sweet custard.

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Lemon Curd and Marscapone Mousse

mousse and spoon

Sometimes, recipes swirl around in my head for days. They start off as one thing, then morph into another, as I add or take away elements. At two in the morning, I’m often wide awake racked with indecision about whether to use mozzarella or goat’s cheese, white or dark chocolate, basil or oregano, cherries or peaches in a particular recipe. Not all in the same one, you understand, that would be too much like crazy fusion cuisine for my taste.

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This recipe started life in my brain as a sort of lemon curd trifle, then I decided to add marscapone to make it more like a cheesecake, then I did away with the biscuit base all together, added some whipped egg white and voila– a mousse. Naming things can be a struggle sometimes, as I often want to just say it’s a lemon curd and marscapone….thing. But I guess a ‘thing’ sounds less appealing than the sultry vowels of a ‘mousse’.

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I have already waxed lyrical about the joys of fruit curds in my Passionfruit and White Chocolate Cheesecake post, and I’m afraid here I go again. I am mildly obsessed with making lemon curd. As well as lemon curd, I have tried orange, passionfruit, blackcurrant (and those are just the ones I can remember making off the top of my head). But lemon curd is always a winner – it’s cheap to make, unlike passionfruit, and goes so well with so many things.

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Brioche

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One of the joys I remember vividly from childhood summers spent camping in a friend’s garden in the Pyrenees was the breakfast. We would wake up to find yards of thin, fresh baguette and fluffy brioche to dip in hot chocolate. I was surprised, and delighted, to find that this was a legitimate breakfast. Even with our parents present.

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I went to Paris recently, having been to the south of France many times, but never the capital. I composed a mental ‘food list’, which included snails, duck confit, Nutella crepes (all accomplished).  One of my first things to tick off was that lovely breakfast, evoking memories of lazy, sunny mornings with nothing to do for the rest of the day but eat.

Brioche and jam

Happily, we found this lovely bakery near our apartment in Montmartre. We had brioche rolls and hot chocolate, along with pistachio and almond croissants and pain au chocolat. It’s fair to say we returned to this bakery with obsessive, waistline-troubling regularity during our stay in Paris.

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I arrived home intent on recreating the delicate little brioche rolls. Brioche works just as well as part of a savoury meal; these rolls are adapted from a recipe for brioche burger buns. I ate mine both dipped in hot chocolate (of course) and spread, a little smugly, with homemade plum and amaretto jam.

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Chocolate and Chestnut Bars

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Many of my friends seem to have some sort of ‘dietary requirement’, whether it is a matter of ethics, such as being vegan or vegetarian, or an allergy to certain foods – I have one friend who is allergic to dairy, cinnamon and tomatoes. My friend Clare fits into the latter category, as she is lactose intolerant. This allergy cuts out a surprising range of things – even some brands of the contraceptive pill.

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There is a vegetarian café in Exeter called Herbies, which is something of an institution. It has been running since my parents lived in Exeter some twenty years ago. It became a favourite back in the day (at school), as it was easy to find something nice that didn’t contain meat or dairy.

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So when we met up a few weeks ago for a reunion of sorts, deciding where to meet for lunch didn’t take long. The main courses were of the usual salad and falafel variety, but it was the puddings that really stood out. We shared several and galloped them down, fighting over the last pieces, with cries of ‘it can’t POSSIBLY be vegan!’.

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One pudding that I vowed to try and replicate was the chocolate chestnut terrine. When I asked what was in it, they cagily mumbled something about chestnut puree being the secret. So, lo and behold, here is my take on a chocolate chestnut terrine. I made mine with a biscuit base to add a bit of textural variation, and added eggs and baked it, to make it more like a brownie. It’s not vegan, but it is Clare-friendly, and she seemed to like it.

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