Friday, 26 February 2010

oh my goodness

Grape Cupcake by Cup Cake Blog, as below

I just came across Cup Cake blog via Baby, Picture this...




I'm not normally a big cupcake fan, but how can I not be seduced by all this amazingness? It's Friday afternoon and I have piles of work to do, but work shmork when there's browsing of this calibre to be done.

Happy weekends all!

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Cafe Inspiration: Jikari, Granada

When I started this blog I thought one of the main items would be cafés I visited, loved, was disappointed by, admired etc. Using these examples to concrete my ideas of what the Imaginary Café would be. What works and what doesn't. What must I have and what can I do without. That kind of thing...

But I haven't been café-ing much recently, and I never seem to have my camera on me when I do (and THEN, when I do I get all shy and then just take covert snapshots that make the place look really boring - see above)...

Anyhow, I do have this pic of a place we found when staying in Granada last September. Granada was very very hot and I liked it a lot but not as much as Seville, although maybe that's only because we spent an entire afternoon in Seville eating The Most Delicious Dried Jamon I've Ever Tasted and sipping beers and that's just about as perfect an afternoon as any I can think of.

Anyhow, back to Granada. This little place was right next to our hotel and we spied it as we trundled past in 40C heat with our suitcases, feeling hungry. It looked open and relatively welcoming, so once checked in, we popped back to try its wares.

The seats weren't all that comfortable and the murals slightly overwhelming. There were plastic laminated menus and you couldn't see out the windows. But there are three reasons why we liked it and why it deserves a place in my Hall of Café Inspiration:

1. The Menu
Basically, lots of stuff on toast. I had avocado on toast and the toast was crunchy, the avocado was ripe and tasty. It cost about €1.50 and it was perfect. I LOVE a place that serves good toast. And I love a menu which offers you simple, cheap options done really well. You could also get combos of eggs, cheese, tomatoes, jamon, all sorts of other stuff on little tostadas. AND they had milkshakes.

2. The Coffee was Good
This is an absolute necessity. The coffee must be good. I'm not a huge coffee-drinker like my boyfriend, who is constantly fueled by the stuff, but I know the difference between a good cup and a bad cup and I just wouldn't go back to a bad coffee place.

3. I liked the feel of it
eh, the mural's not my style, nor most of the decor, but they had a little blurb on the back of their menus about Jikari, this cactus-derived kind of psychoactive drug I think (my Spanish isn't all that super) and how it encouraged creativity, and that was the vibe they wanted to create in their little space. And I really liked that. There were lots of happy, talking, lazing people in there, and the staff were friendly. It had a nice feel. And that is also, definitely, essential

Monday, 22 February 2010


Image: Claire Hartigan, Valentine Bears, via Elphicks

So, how was your weekend? I hope it was a good one.

Sunshine! - We had one day of glorious sunshine on Saturday. It was back to grey and rain by Sunday but so nice to be reminded that the sky can be blue.

Baking, smitten kitchen style - I don't know how I've never looked at smitten kitchen before - I've seen it linked to on enough blogs. Anyhow, I was thinking about making homemade pizza on Friday, and found a pizza dough recipe on sk, and then saw these little lovelies, which just about made my heart jump with glee - I'm not a big cupcake fan but they looked stylish, sumptuous and intriguing. My version were not nearly as pretty, but still very very chocolatey good. The pizza was glorious too.

More bread - using the recipe I posted last week, but this time with toasted mixed seeds. I'd really like to get into a weekly bread habit if I can. Last week's batch lasted perfectly just up to the weekend.

Columbia Road Market in the rain - Haven't been for years, but it's always nice to wander around the flower stalls and eclectic little East London shops. Unfortunately the weather was beastly, so we spent most of our time trying to dry out and warm up, but I was really glad to come across Elphicks, a lovely art shop, which I have now discovered has an equally lovely blog. I've used one of their cards as the image at the top of this post - does that not make you smile?
Thinking about giving - Wife in the City's got me thinking about a project I read about a little while back - the idea is to give something every day for 29 days; anything from a cake to an old piece of furniture to a smile to a compliment to some time. I really think this is something worth doing and will endeavour to start today. Updates to follow.

But now, it is Monday, and about time I did some work I think...

Friday, 19 February 2010

Treacle scones

Aaannd, back to baking...

Following on from Saturday's breadfest, on Sunday I just felt like scones. Not a common feeling, but it was definitely scones I was wanting to make. So I turned to my new favourite cookbook for a recipe - it's called the Glasgow Cookery Book and it's gloriously no-nonsense. I like books with no pictures; just recipes. I love to read my penguin paperbacks of Rick Stein and Jane Grigson in bed - I like to imagine the recipes, rather than to look at impossibly perfect creations that I'll never quite create (though I do have some lovely books with pictures I'm fond of too).

The GCB takes the no-pictures approach to its limits, with virtually no descriptions either. It's all kind of: "mix ingredients, bake for 20 minutes" brief and to the point. A welcome change from some recipes which adjectivise every ingredient and interject with metaphors about the mixture and so on. It covers absolutely heaps from basics to some quite complex stuff. There's some quaintly old-fashioned stuff in there but some really interesting recipes too. And the baking section is top-notch.

So, I tried their treacle scones. Intriguing, I thought, I've never tried a treacle scone before. But treacle tastes a bit like sunshine or hugs I think. It's undeniably warm.

And they were lovely - soft, big crumb, nicely lightly spiced, warmly treacly and perfect with some raspberry jam.

RECIPE (for a small batch - just 4-8)
100 g self raising flour (or 100g plain flour plus 1/2 tsp bicarb and 1 tsp cream of tartar)
1 tsp mixed spice
12.5g butter
1/2 tbsp treacle
milk, to mix

Mix dry ingredients. Rub in butter until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Mix in treacle and milk until a smooth pliable dough is formed. Roll out (I did mine only about 1cm think, though it advised 2cm I think) and cut.

Place on a greased and floured tray and bake for about 10-12 minutes at 200C until browned on top.


Thursday, 18 February 2010

Apocalypse Angst

Have you seen that film 'The Road' yet? Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, it follows a man and his son as they journey through the bleakest possible imagining of a future earth. It's relentlessly grey and desperately despairing. My boyfriend thought it a great film, I just couldn't cope with the grimness; 'why would anyone want to live like that?' I thought, and the whole way through I was tensely willing for the relief of death for the two main characters.

Anyway, there's a scene in it where they find some food in a bunker and they can finally feast. They're eating tinned prunes by lamplight and it must be glorious after such deprivation that they have had. But they know it's going to run out and there'll be nothing again.

I was eating tuna and salad last night and for some reason I was suddenly struck by the feeling that that tuna was like the man and the boy's tinned prunes. That it came from a cupboard which would soon be bare, and whilst I sat there happily eating the stocks would be falling and falling and soon there would be none, with whatever horrors come with that.

It hasn't helped that I've been reading Straw Dogs by John Gray, which is a really interesting and thought-provoking book, but also very bleak. It argues fiercely against any ideas of progress, of the human race bettering itself, finding a way to live within its means, because, it says, the species is not a 'thing', it is just the name for all us individuals en masse. And if you look at individual humans they are not made to be like that, to work out the way to a better future for everyone and to follow it.

It likened us to an infection that the earth has. It pointed out that population growth can be a survival strategy (e.g. for Kurds and Palestinians). Claimed that we were animals and nothing more.

And I think because I've brought about the future birth of another human being, all this was weighing on me more heavily than normal. 'What kind of world am I letting you in for?', I thought, to that little thing inside me, happily ignorant in its amniotic bath.

And then I listened to programmes on how children see awful things on the internet, and watch TV in beds so much they get diseases from sleep deprivation. And how young children use mobile phones, and the crashing newness of the world this one will know as How Things Are shocked me too. I wanted to move to the country and pretend it was the 19th century. Whittle reeds or something; cut off the outside world. And wait for the apocalypse.

I am feeling slightly better today. Less hopeless and pessimistic. I reflected on how almost everyone at every stage in history probably felt this fear of the future and a clinging desire for the supposedly simpler past. I guess it just means I'm getting old. I stood in line at the supermarket and pretended it was 2050 and I was wistfully dreaming of when I stood in line at supermarkets and everything was simple.

Sure, there are very real problems linked to overpopulation and our plundering of our resources. And new technology can be difficult to negotiate. But, I'll cope with the latter when I come to it, and as for the former, I'm convincing myself again that it's better to be delusionally optimistic and feel like I am doing something by recycling my tins or buying less clothes or whatever, than to be nihilistic and panicky about it and think it all hopeless.

So, vent over - next, back to baking...

(PS - it helps that I read this review of Straw Dogs which lets me see how biased and absurdly negative it is

Sunday, 14 February 2010

My favourite bread recipe

This weekend was quiet. I've felt tired, my brain vague and struggling, energy low, concerned about a friend, needing quietude and the self-permission to be quite slow and un-productive.

I baked because it felt like what I needed to do. First, Saturday, I devoted three hours to proper bread (after last week's soda disaster). This is a tried and tested recipe. When I ate it toasted for breakfast Sunday morning, I must have exclaimed at least four times how incredibly good it was. It tastes like goodness, like comfort and warmth and love. I really truly am besotted with good bread and this is good bread.

This is a recipe I've done so many times I haven't needed to refer to a book for ages. It's super-easy; do it once or twice and you too might feel moved to commit it to memory...

You take 1 cup of yoghurt (I use various size cups to measure, it doesn't matter that much - about the size of an individual yoghurt pot works well)

And add 1 and a half cups of warm water (I mix boiled with cold)

Mix and test with a finger - it should be lukewarm - too hot and the yeast will die; too cold and it will never develop. If it's too hot, let it cool a bit before adding yeast

Add one sachet or one tablespoon dried fast-action yeast

Then six cups of flour (I use 2/3 wholemeal and 1/3 white, or all wholemeal depending on how I feel and what flour is available) and a pinch of salt.

Mix flour in until it becomes something like a dough

Tip it out and knead on a floured surface for at least 15 minutes until pliable and starting to show little wrinkles

Put in an oiled bowl, cover and leave in a non-draughty place to rise for about an hour until doubled in size - it's ready if you push it with a finger and the dent stays there; i.e. it doesn't expand to fill it out

Punch it down to knock out the air, knead a little more, and shape into loaves. If you want to make any additions, make them at this point. I made one plain loaf and one walnut one.

Put on a greased and floured tray, cover and leave to rise until about doubled again - about 40 minutes.

Preheat oven to 180C, pop the loaves in and bake for about 40 minutes until brown on top and sounds hollow when you knock on the bottom with your knuckle.

Leave to cool on a rack.

(The short version of that is this: 1 cup yoghurt; 1.5 cups water; 1 sachet yeast; 6 cups flour; 15 minute knead; 1 hour first rise; 40 min second rise; 40 min bake at 180C)

NB - I thought I'd bought natural yoghurt, but when I went into the fridge discovered it was actually Apricot flavoured. Not wanting to go to the shop, I just chucked that in, and happily it was a great success - no apricot flavour, but I think the little bit of sugar helped it rise nicely and gave it a very slightly sweet taste. Can't say for sure whether it was down to the yoghurt, but it was one of the best loaves I remember making.

This is of course a very basic loaf. To see a different league of breadmaking altogether check out Clotilde's recent post on sourdough baguettes - how amazing do they look!? Sourdough is definitely on my to-do list of things to try.

I was going to move on to treacle scones but this post is already too long so I'll leave that for another one...

Degrees of (baking) success

So, I'm not quite sure why I have such an urge to keep blogging about things which hover between disappointing and disaster, but such an urge I appear to have.

As a prelude to a post on this weekend's baking - which actually was quite a success - I present last weekend's baking - a bit of a wash-out all round. I would have posted last week, except I was on a 'leadership' course, where I was encouraged to reflect on teamwork, my 'core self', and the difference between leading and managing. Most of it such utter nonsense that all it left me with was a steely determination never to end up in any job where I have to mix with anyone who spouts that kind of jargon non-ironically.

Anyway, back to the baking poor show. First, there was soda bread. I hadn't the requisite three hours for my usual bread recipe, so I tried my hand at soda bread for the first time - instead of yeast as a raising agent, it uses baking powder so is a lot quicker to knock up. It looked ok, it smelt reasonable, but when cut it crumbled into little chunks, and if you managed to somehow end up with a slice, and even to get some butter somewhere on top of it, when eaten it reminded me more of cake than bread. We ate most of it so not a total disaster, but somewhere near.

Next came the Seville Orange Tart. I couldn't resist buying some Seville oranges, as you only really see them in the shops for one month a year. But, still having marmalade in the cupboard from last year's batch (which was great - see recipe here), I didn't feel like any more and plumped for Moro's Seville orange tart instead. It was on the next page from a dark chocolate and apricot tart my sister's made several times to great acclaim, so I was hoping this might also turn out to be a winner.

Alas not. My orange curd looked promising, but once in the oven it rudely refused to colour and set before separating, and on removal from the oven looked like a lumpy, greasy, spotty mess. It tasted better than it looked, but just like a lemon tart, so I couldn't really see the value in using seville oranges. I'd rather perfect a really good tarte au citron. Disappointing.

The tart required 6 egg yolks, and I don't know what else to do with excess whites but to meringue them, so that was the third project of the weekend. Here's where this entry segues neatly into next, because both include a recipe I have committed to memory. With meringues it is this:

To each egg white, 50g caster sugar
Whisk egg white until stiff
Whisk in half of sugar bit by bit
Fold in remaining half of sugar
Bake in very low oven about 1 1/2 hours

Now, these weren't in and of themselves a failure - they looked quite perky and magical, and I experimented with coconut in some, and lime and lemon zest in others, both of which were quite pleasing. They were crucnhy and sticky and chewy. All good stuff. It's just - I don't really get meringues.

On our course we divided people up into introverts/extroverts, intuiters/sensers, thinkers/feelers etc. What would have been more interesting I feel would have been to divide us up into those that would buy a meringue and those that wouldn't.

I see them in bakeries and cafes looking perfectly delightful, but I don't understand why you'd want one over a cake or a flapjack or a toasted teacake. I mean, they don't go with tea, surely! They're really just a way of eating neat sugar, and they splinter all over the place, leaving you with little sugary crumbs everywhere (or is that just me and my appalling meringue-eating habits?...) Do you understand the appeal??!! If so, please do enlighten me...

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Experiments in Rye

So, this will be terribly dull but I'm going to expose you to my evening meal thought processes...

It was a week or so ago and I started thinking about dinner around lunchtime, as usual. Throughout the afternoon I was thinking about the half a head of broccoli languishing in the fridge, and about what vegetables might be cheap and available at the shops. Winter - root vegetables right? I thought about carrots and celeriac and swede and turnip and parsnip and about roasting, mashing, soup, sauces.

But nothing was really calling out to me. It was when I was on the tube that I suddenly thought about cauliflower - quite a wintery vegetable I think, and one that I love when it's roasted - crispy and sweet, quite elevated from the usual boiled cauli one comes across.

But what with? It's nice with a tomato and caper sauce, maybe some potatoes on the side. But something about capers wasn't sitting right with me that evening.

Half way down a rain-sodden street towards the food shop, I hit upon lentils - little nutty green ones; perfect with roast cauliflower. But what else, what else? Lentils plus vegetable does not a meal make...

I reached the shop and popped in some butter, some bread, eyed up the posh and delicious but seriously expensive apple juice, as I always do, and managed to walk away from it. I came to the grain shelves, and quinoa presented itself, and I thought, 'Hello!'. Just recently I'd read about a lovely sounding red quinoa salad. And I've had success in the past with bulghur wheat salads.

But the quinoa was nearly £4! I held it a while, realised that was absurd, and replaced it on the shelf. My eyes alighted upon some other grains I hadn't cooked with before - spelt and rye and some stranger things I can't recall... The rye was a steal at under a £1 and only required 40 mins cooking.

So, rye, lentils... I headed for the veg. Disappointingly dwarfish cauliflowers led me instead to think about squash - another good partner for lentils. And the broccoli in the fridge could go nicely with all that too. A little smattering of sundried tomatoes, perhaps something crunchy - hazelnuts? pine nuts? Finally I had a kind-of recipe sorted!

Seriously, if I didn't think about food all day long I don't know what my head would be full of...

Anyway, the rye was a huge success. Easy - just boil for 40 minutes (I used 1 cup rye to two cups of water, which was a good proportion, and about enough for 3-4 servings) and really nutty and satisfying.

I added the lentils to the rye after about 10 minutes - 1/2 cup with another cup of water - and cooked together to save space.

Meanwhile, I roasted parboiled squash and broccoli florets with some dried tomatoes I'd rehydrated in boiling water (these burnt - I should have just added them at the end!)

The whole lot was mixed together with a load of olive oil and a little red wine vinegar, and topped off with an avocado.

It seems great minds think alike, as Julia posted a delicious sounding similar kind of dish recently, with farro, another grain I've never cooked with, but am now keen to try. I definitely think her suggestion of a squeeze of lemon juice would have been ideal for my version. Perhaps a little parmesan too.

The possibilities with this kind of thing basically are endless - a grain, a pulse, a softer vegetable (roast squash, avocado, roast peppers, courgettes... ), something for crunch (red cabbage thinly sliced, pomegranate, pine nuts, celery...), perhaps even some cheese (feta, parmesan...), and a simple dressing. And there you have an easy-ish, healthy and really delicious meal (the leftovers of which are perfect for lunchboxes too!)