Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cupcake decorating at Bea's of Bloomsbury


What makes a great cupcake? Pink glitter and spangles or great-tasting all-natural ingredients? If you ask Bea, she'd say the latter. Bea's of Bloomsbury is built around the principle of taste over looks, although the cupcakes (just one of the many delicious treats Bea sells in her coffee & cake place near Chancery Lane) look pretty good to me.

Last Thursday I tried a cupcake decorating class at Bea's. I'm pretty comfortable with making cakes but had never really got the hang of piping at home, finding it difficult to master the technique from following a book. Under Bea's watchful eye though, it all became clear.

We started by learning to make Italian buttercream - a cooked-meringue-based frosting that can be flavoured or coloured any way you like. It's lighter than the traditional American buttercream (made from icing sugar and butter), and easier to pipe. We also learned the correct technique to make a beautifully shiny ganache from chocolate and cream. While the frosting was whisking we tried piping intricate liquid chocolate motifs using handmade parchment piping bags. Bea was there to give helpful hints and turn my dyslexic toddler's handwriting into (almost) perfect swirls and letters.

We then moved on to pipe the buttercream or ganache onto our ready-made cakes to give that professional finish. It was surprisingly quick and easy once we got the hang of it and we had 24 cupcakes (included in the price of the class) finished in no time.

Frosting mastered, we moved on to sugarpaste flowers. Even though Bea prefers fruit to day-glo spangles, she did indulge us with a treasure trove of edible lustre and glitter. Again, I was surprised by how easy it was to get a professional finish with the right tools. You can see my efforts above.

For the grand finale, we were let loose on our cakes to decorate them any way we liked. Then, cupcakes boxed up and heads brimming with new ideas we went home with our creations. I took mine into work the next day and was told I was in the wrong job (in a good way, I think....)

Bea's cupcake decorating classes cost £100 for two hours tuition.

She is running halloween cupcake decorating classes and has a couple of spaces left for Thursday 29th October.  Maybe you could make some treats like these?
Beas ghost cupcakes

Bea's of Bloomsbury
44 Theobald's Rd, London, WC1X 8NW
020 7242 8330

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

London Restaurant Festival - Gourmet Odyssey

After the recent excesses of London Restaurant Festival, the blogosphere has been buzzing with reviews of Koffman’s pop-up restaurant on the roof at Selfridges. However, your faithful correspondent here at Princess Towers decided to investigate the Gourmet Odyssey instead (or rather, couldn't get a table at Koffman's).

The Odyssey consisted of a huge blow-out Michelin starred lunch, with each course at a different restaurant and intra-course transfer by jolly red double-decker. A great opportunity to try some new places and some oldies-but-goodies. Maybe it would even help to satisfy my purse-intensive restaurant obsession by dining at three in one day? It was worth a try.

We started with champagne at the Met Bar, that somewhat underwhelming nightspot beloved of the Gallaghers et al in the brit-pop era. It was interesting mix of people, mostly well-to-do flash types, a few younger couples and a chap in shorts and trainers who seemed blissfully unaware of his level of underdress. We were tagged, in pink naturally, by our host/nanny/herder Caz, so as not to get confused with one of the other groups and miss our bus. The poor girl looked a bit harassed, and I don’t blame her as the free-flowing Mumm top-ups meant that I for one was pretty tipsy before we even started.

Nobu lobster

Champagne duly quaffed, we tripped upstairs to Nobu, the first European offshoot in this forever growing Japanese restaurant group. The swish Nobu lunching regulars looked slightly disturbed to see such a motley crew of foodies traipsing in, but soon got back to their sashimi as we were safely tucked away in the canteen, ahem, I mean private dining room.

Nobu tuna

The room was a bit sparse, maybe minimalist is the term, but it was certainly large. Our group of eighty or so was seated at two long tables where we tried a trio of Nobu’s best-selling dishes - Lobster Ceviche, Salmon Sashimi Salad with Matsuhisa dressing and Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno. I can see why celebs like to dine here - it tastes healthy and it is genuinely delicious, albeit in a light, fresh and subtle way. Friendly on the palate and friendly on the waistline. My favourite dish was the salmon, tender, luscious and served in a gorgeous sesame sludge that was infuriatingly difficult to mop up with chopsticks. No wonder these girls stay thin.

Nobu salmon

And then we were off, herded from our seats and downstairs to the bus, with some big grins from the lovely staff on the way. A quick trundle through Mayfair and we were at our main course destination.

The Square couldn’t have been more different from Nobu. We had been there before (and loved it) but wondered whether the private dining would be big enough. It obviously wasn’t, as the fabulous staff seamlessly wafted us into tables of twos or fours, depending on how many tickets had been booked together. This was nice, a true 2* experience (I have never been hugely into sharing a table with strangers), and quite an achievement under the circumstances too.

Seated in prime position, we pounced on the bread like wolves, the hunger really kicking in now after our fishy sliver of a starter. It didn’t disappoint. White was crisp and pointy with a fluffy interior. Brown was hefty and hearty. Butter was perfect.

Square mallard

Fay Maschler of the Evening Standard was our host for this course, a rich, decadent and autumnal French dish of wild mallard served two ways - pan fried breast and a pie (or should that be a pastie?) of rich, dark, slow cooked leg with port and raisins, all served with pumpkin and chestnuts.

Our high expectations of The Square were fully met, resulting in an impromptu (and somewhat alcohol fuelled) dash to the front desk by me to make a dinner reservation for December. Phil Howard worked the tables, although he didn’t get round to us (maybe next time?). He obviously had huge passion for the food and quite right too as it was sheer perfection in duck form.

Main course over and visions of Phil's glorious raspberry souffle came to mind. We really didn’t want to leave, but leave we had to. Back on the bus, next stop The Greenhouse.

The Greenhouse is tucked away in a Mayfair mews that was too tight for our bus. It’s one of those places like Roussillon that I had heard of but never got round to visiting. It really was like a greenhouse, all subterranean, moist and leafy. And, well, green.

The dish was described as “Carré Dubuffet” Chocolate Biscuit and Vanilla Ice Cream. Not the most exciting of desserts we thought, but that was until we saw the plates.

Greenhouse choc ice cream

The “biscuit” was a triumph - a sort of brownie, mousse, tuile combination that managed to be rich and chocolatey and moist and gooey and crisp all at the same time. Here we were seated at a table of four, more civilised than Nobu but more sociable than The Square. We were paired with a lovely couple from Cambridge who obviously knew their restaurants and made great foodie dinner companions.

And so we came to the end, back on the bus to the Met Bar for a final bellini and some Stone Roses nostalgia. Then we teetered home, feeling slightly disorientated by the large amount of alcohol and food consumed in broad daylight and hoping that we wouldn't fall asleep on the train home.

The Gourmet Odyssey was a fabulous experience and, although expensive at £130 for lunch, it gave us a great introduction to some restaurants that we otherwise might not have tried. It wasn't a typical Michelin star experience due to the logistics of herding such a huge group around, but all things considered, it was a pretty slick operation and we left with our tummies full, our palates titillated and our minds brimming with new ideas.

And as for kicking my restaurant habit? Not a chance. We now have reservations at Nobu, The Square and The Greenhouse to look forward to later in the year…

Nobu, 19 Old Park Lane, Mayfair, London W1K 1LB
The Square, 6-10 Bruton Street, Mayfair, London W1J 6PU
The Greenhouse, 27a Hays Mews, Mayfair, London W1J 5NX

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Plum jam with star anise & cinnamon

Plum jam

It's autumn, and with leaves falling from the trees and the nights drawing in I felt compelled to spend a few hours over the stove, stirring something sweet and comforting.  Jam is pretty easy to make - in this case you just take equal quantities of plums and sugar, and optionally jazz it up with some spices. 

I used about 10 plums and filled two 500g Le Parfait jars, with a bit left over to be eaten that afternoon.

Jam keeps up to two years in a sterilised jar, if you don't know how to do this then read on...

Plum jam with star anise & cinnamon


800g plums, (weight without stones - about 10 plums)
800g caster sugar
2 star anise
1 tsp ground cinnamon

1. Wash, quarter and stone the plums.
2. Toss the plums with the sugar and cinnamon until thoroughly coated.  Leave for a couple of hours.  This isn't essential but does help to draw out the juices and make the jam quicker to cook.  You could always do this the night before and leave them overnight.
3. Preheat the oven to 140C/275F/Gas 1.
4. Put the plum mix into a saucepan with the star anise and heat gently until the sugar has all dissolved.  Once this has happened you can bring the jam to the boil.
5. Once the jam has reached setting point, decant into the sterilised jars and close the lids while the jam is still hot.  Setting point is at 105°C/220°F, so go by your sugar thermometer if you have one.  Alternatively, you can test the jam by putting a drop onto a cold plate and pushing with your finger to see if it wrinkles - if it does, you're done.

Why not try substituting some vanilla seeds or ground cardomom for the cinnamon and anise?  Or you could try splitting the plum stones and adding the kernels for an almondy flavour (although I must confess I didn't have much success with the splitting).

The Princess

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Polpo, Soho - a bit of a no-no

The occasion: the award ceremony to distribute prizes from a disastrous food quiz way back in February; the attendees: Helen of Food Stories, Chris of Cheese and Biscuits, Su Lin of Tamarind & Thyme and yours truly; the venue: Polpo, the latest hot "Venetian tapas" restaurant opening in Soho.

While Venice isn't exactly known for its food, our expectations of Polpo were high after its comprehensive media coverage and significant twitter-hype. The restaurant had already achieved 4/5 in Time Out and 3/5 in the Metro, always a good sign. Restaurant magazine recently featured two pages on this new venture, where I learnt that the co-owner, Russell Norman, was previously operations director of Caprice Holdings and the head chef had "a brief stint" at Bocca di Lupo. So far so good.

We eager four arrived at the restaurant, tucked away in a Soho side street almost opposite Bob Bob Ricard. It was dimly candle-lit (hence the lack of photos), absolutely packed and had quite a buzz. While checking in with the waitress, people walking in off the street were being turned away, so busy was the restaurant that night. The stripped down brickwork and brown paper menus developed the rustic theme Russell was clearly looking for. Service was youthful and friendly and the menu looked delicious. A different take on tapas. Our mouths were watering.

So we ordered a selection of plates - 3 or 4 per person seemed to be the done thing although no advice was offered by our waitress. We were intrigued by the pricing - some dishes seeming pretty reasonable but the turnip tops in particular stuck out as being very expensive at £5.80, the same price as the slow roast duck. We decided to order them, thinking they must be cooked in some spectacular, decadent fashion. We also ordered a selection of breads, seafood, meat and veg.

After quaffing a bit of reasonably priced Venetian wine, our waitress arrived with the pizzetta bianca. It was ok. The dough was thin and crisp, and the cheese and onion topping was, well, cheese and oniony. Not spectacular, but not horrendous either. An ok bar snack.

Next to arrive were the arancini, crisped golf balls of risotto stuffed with courgette and stringy cheese. I love risotto, I love cheese and I love crispy fried stuff. It doesn't seem like a difficult thing to get right. But these had absolutely no seasoning whatsoever. Faces were starting to fall around the table. Su Lin got out the salt shaker. We tried to keep our spirits up and held out hope for the next dishes.

We devoured plates of mussels & clams, slow roast duck with green peppercorns, black olives and tomatoes, pork belly with radicchio and hazelnuts, anchovy and chick pea crostini, cuttlefish in its ink, octopus salad, fennel with bobby beans and cobnuts. The duck was bland. The octopus was too salty. The mussels were not all open. The pork belly was just ok.

None of it was delicious, or even tasty for that matter, save the cuttlefish cooked in its own ink which was good. It was as if no-one in the kitchen was tasting the food, no love or care had gone into it. We were truly upset, Helen looked like she was going to cry. We wondered, charitably, if were choosing the wrong dishes, or if they were just having a bad night, but then half the menu can't be wrong - can it?

And then came the turnip tops. It's a real shame that the place was so dark that my pictures didn't come out, but try to imagine this: a small dish of bedraggled spinach. For £5.80. "Aren't turnip tops what you feed to sheep?", asked Su Lin. "Yes", we all agreed, "and they probably get more than one between four". It was truly shameful. The night will forever afterwards be known as Turnip-Top-Gate, if we can ever bear to speak of it.

So we got to the end of this mediocre spread and felt deeply disappointed and also pretty hungry.

Re-reading the Restaurant article today, I discovered that Polpo means Octopus. "The name has no significance at all", says Norman in his Restaurant interview, "it's just a very friendly word that you can't mispronounce." Sadly, the lack of substance seems to goes for the restaurant too - it's a great concept, superficially it's well executed - it looks good and it sounds good, the service is pleasant. But the food just doesn't match up.

Such a shame, we really wanted to love it but instead we ended up skipping dessert and topping up on ribs & wings at Bodeans. So Polpo, if you're listening, it's an easy fix - put some love into the food, season it and taste the blooming stuff before you serve it. All style and no substance does not a successful restaurant make.

UPDATE: Since we visited, the turnip tops have been reduced in price to £3.80
Polpo, 41 Beak St, London W1F 9SB

Polpo on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Farewell Floyd!

Keith floyd's lapin aux pruneaux

When James of Back to the Chopping Board and Julia of A Taste of Cherry Pie came up with the idea of a blogging event to honour Keith Floyd, I had to join in. 

Keith was an eccentric character who really put the fun into food, and my earliest memories of TV cookery were of him and his frequent "quick slurps" of wine whilst whipping up something homely and delicious.

I decided to adapt this delicious Lapin aux Pruneaux, because a boozy, slow cooked casserole is the sort of dish that really epitomised Floyd.

Lapin aux Pruneaux (Rabbit with prunes) - serves 4


600g diced rabbit
100g ready to eat stoned prunes
4 finely diced shallots
2 cloves crushed garlic
100g diced bacon
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup white wine
1 tbsp tomato puree
Fresh thyme
Oil/butter for frying
Seasoned flour for dusting

1. Lightly flour the rabbit pieces with seasoned flour.

2. Heat some butter and oil in a pan and fry the rabbit until browned on all sides.

3. In another pan, fry the bacon until golden.  Add the shallots and garlic, stir and fry gently until softened.

4. Add the prunes and white wine and then allow to simmer.

5. Add the tomato purée and stir in to the bacon, shallots, etc.

6. Add the chicken stock and bring to a simmer.

7. Add the rabbit pieces and thyme and simmer gently for about 40 minutes or until tender.  Add water if it starts to get too dry.

8. Season and serve.

Enjoy!  And don't forget to have a quick slurp while you're cooking...

The Princess

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Breakfast at Hunstrete House, nr Bath

Hunstrete House gardens

After a hearty lunch at the Hind's Head in Bray, we continued our drive down the M4.  Well, he drove and I slept - I was full of grouse and treacle tart after all.

Our destination for the weekend was Hunstrete House Hotel, a beautiful country pile with a 2 rosette restaurant, hidden away south-west of Bath.

Hunstrete House gardens

No dinner here for us, as we were off to a wedding for the evening, but I couldn't help noticing some interesting puddings like "deconstructed pimms" on the menu.

On our return late that evening we cosied up in the bar with a Baileys (me) and a Laphroaig (him).  It felt very Mitfordesque and grand, like staying with an ageing rich relation rather than at a hotel. 

Next day, we awoke bleary eyed and slightly hungover to the sight of herds of deer galloping past the window.  We eased ourselves from the four poster bed and dragged our weary limbs and throbbing heads down to breakfast. 

Hunstrete House breakfast menu

Hunstrete House

It was a grand affair with the usual fruit/cereal buffet and an impressive selction of cooked options, all based on local ingredients.  Service was high class, slightly on the slow side, but we were in no rush.

Hubby went for the full English, which went down very nicely.  In particular the "Saxon Splendour" pork sausage was firm and meaty, full of herby, porky goodness and not too much rusk.

I've had bacon, eggs, pancakes, maple syrup and blueberries in many combinations, but never all at once on the same plate.  It was glorious.  Rich egg, salty bacon, toothachingly sweet maply syrup and zingy blueberries with a crepe style pancake to mop it all up with. 

Hunstrete House breakfast

If that's not a hangover cure, then I don't know what is! 

Hunstrete House, Pensford, Nr. Bath BS39 4NS
01761 490 490