Monday, 26 May 2014

Photo-ready Tea at The Biscuiteers, Notting Hill...

One of my favourite, and yet equally, most frustration-inducing parts of living in London, is without a doubt how essential the camera of my much dropped, truly battered phone is to my daily life. And most of all, a fundamental part of almost every meal time...

Much to my boyfriend's despair (he doesn’t even know how to pronounce instagram, let alone use it...) said phone is whipped out before anything passes my lips; breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, cake, midnight snack- Whatever the food stuff, it must be greeted with a filter, blur and hashtag before it vanishes into my hungry, not so patiently waiting mouth. It is just so damn tempting. And, it is not just me. Irresistible to many a foodie that is spied rearranging candles, artfully ruffling napkins and standing on chairs to get the perfect aerial view of their rapidly cooling food before they can even contemplate building that first forkful. In our world, a flat battery before the food arrives is what disasters are made of.

Yup, this is an obsession that has the capacity to become a serious problem; we halt conversation midway to snap our partners panacotta, grabbing their menu to get the perfect table shot before they have even read through the bread and olives section, all with a slighty crazed look in our eye and an evil glare just waiting for anyone who even dares to knock our elbow mid-photo. Yes, our obsession with instagramming our plates is not only pushing the boundaries of acceptable dinner-time behaviour, but a sure-fire way to wind up dining partners until you have to start asking for a table for one. No wonder some restaurants across the Atlantic have started banning this phone-foolery for ‘ruining the ambience’. But stop I will not, this is an addiction from which I don't want to be freed...

A couple of weeks ago, resisting all temptation to keep my phone in my handbag and see things with my eyes rather than the lens; I had one of the most photogenic days in a long time (since the speckled eggs and glistening hot cross buns of Easter, as you can read here). The phone was in more demand than ever; snapping bacon and cheese smothered burgers and strawberry shortcake concretes at Shakeshack, stormy skies and billboards in Covent Garden and a pop-art hued Miley swinging from a wrecking ball on a wall in Hammersmith; it just seemed to be that every which way I turned offered another photo opportunity.

But one of the most coveted photos of the day had to be the red and white stripped cake stand that graced the shiny glass table-top in the overwhelmingly cute, cartoon-kitch Biscuiteers shop and tea-room in Notting Hill. Adorned with perfect, razor sharp triangles of smoked salmon sandwich with lemon and dill cream cheese, the brightest raspberry and blueberry macarons and topped off with the amazingly decorated, intricate biscuits for which this place is famous; I would challenge anyone not to whip out their camera. Even if only for the fact that Adele (yup, the actual one) was sat on the table next to us icing a gingerbread man.

But enough about that (and yes, I did resist the snap-happy temptation on this occasion...) what I am really interested in is, of course the food. The super-cute tea has a decidedly British theme, with crisp, black pepper specked cucumber sandwiches cosying up to perfect squares of Battenburg and delicious, lemon scented angel cakes. Brownies crowned with iced underground biscuits, a bright red phone-box gingerbread and those crisp, fruity macarons; all washed down with as much English breakfast tea as you can handle, this was one sugar-rush I could most definitely justify.

Usually going for £40 for two, the tea was included in the Emerald Street Afternoon Tea deal; an absolute snip for half the standard price. Perfect, and with enough to spare for a little black and white box illustrated with the super-cute shop front full of leftover treats, it is well worth a trip, even just to ogle at the iced bacon rashers and yellow yolked sunny-side up eggs in the English breakfast biscuit selection, or to wait out for Adele... 

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Devil in Pastel Clothing...

Crisp, shiny shells, cracking as you bite to reveal a mallow soft, chewy centre and a rich, tooth-numbingly sweet hit of the richest buttercream- Macarons may look innocent as they line up like pastel hued polka dots jumped off a Mini Boden party dress, but don’t be fooled- They are the devil.

A little while ago, during the first few nervy weeks of foraying into the world of product development, I was given the unenviable task of rustling up a big old batch of these little horrors for a (rather important) customer presentation. No pressure then...

No exaggeration, a batch of about 6 macarons took me around 8 hours. As my frustration reached fever pitch, many of the cracked, burnt and unrisen met their fate in the deep dark hollows of the bin, many more were hovered up by my less fussy colleagues as they prowled through the kitchen looking for an afternoon sugar boost (a daily occurrence, and this was a very good day for the more human-hover inclined of the office...) My life started to pass in a blur of food colouring stained fingers, bowls of stiff-peaked egg whites held over my head, and, high on sugar, wondering if I had finally, spectacularly, gone mad.

Overmixed, undermixed, enough to make you want to never look at a bag of ground almonds again; I finally and quite triumphantly, cracked the recipe at about 5.15pm. And here ensued an obsession. Determined to get these little buggers looking like they have jumped from across the channel from a candy striped boulangerie in Paris, I spent the next few weeks churning out perfectly round macarons like a sugar obsessed geometrician (real word, I promise).

Spiced rum and caramelised pineapple, Clementine and dark chocolate, coffee bean, white chocolate and vanilla, sour cherry and pistachio; the flavours were the easy part. The downfall was almost always the mixing. Macarons are without a doubt one of the most sensitive, needy delights to ever grace a cake stand. The key is to finding the optimum moment, where the almonds are folded into to the fluffy pillows of whisked egg just enough, but most definitely not too much. As Mary Berry says, the mixture should be the consistency of ‘shaving foam’. And it would be madness not to listen to her...

But really, the most important thing is practice. And a very large portion of patience. Keep having a  go; any that go wrong can just be put down as flavour testing, and you are sure to find many a willing helper to assist you on that front. Just keep thinking of that wondrous moment when you take a tray of perfect, crisp, shiny disks of delicate almond treats out of the oven. I imagine it is very much like lifting the winning an Olympic gold. Or maybe having your first child...

But the most exciting part, once you have mastered the mixing, are the endless flavour combinations you can conjure up with macarons as your canvas. Orange zest, vanilla, coffee, dark chocolate; filled with passionfruit curd, white chocolate ganache or bitter Seville marmalade- There are no limits to what you can create. Maybe just leave the bacon and egg combo at the kitchen door...

On this occasion, after many un-photogenic attempts, I went for delicately fragranced pistachio and rose water combination, and a zingy lemon number, bursting with lemon zest and curd. Sweet, soft, crisp, creamy and drop-dead delicious all at once; don’t let what I have made sound like an unnerving difficulty level put you off. Follow this recipe, remember Queen Berry’s word of wisdom (just chant shaving foam, shaving foam, shaving foam as you fold) and you will be on to a winner. Smug smiles at the ready...

Macarons, makes about 12

For the Macarons
135g ground almonds (or 75g almonds and 50g ground pistachios/hazelnuts)
3 egg whites
2 tbsp caster sugar
Pinch of salt
Your preffered flavouring (lemon zest, orange zest, almond essence, vanilla extract etc.)
A pinch of your chosen powdered food colouring
For the butter cream
150g butter, softened
300g icing  sugar
Your preferred flavouring (lemon zest, rose water, vanilla extract, cocoa powder, crushed raspberries or strawberries..Go mad!)
Preheat the oven to 180oc
Blend the ground almonds and icing sugar briefly in a food processor until fine and well combined
In a large, clean bowl, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form. Add the caster sugar and whisk again until the mixture forms stiff peaks
Gently fold in the almonds, icing sugar, colour and your chosen flavouring, until the mixture is the texture of shaving foam- Be careful not to over-mix, but make sure everything is properly blended!
Pipe evenly sized rounds of the macaron mixture onto lined baking sheets and leave the macarons to form a skin (essential for a shiny top!) for at least an hour.
Bake in the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the top of the macarons are crisp and dry.
Leave to cool while you make the buttercream. In a large bowl whisk together the softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy, before beating in your chosen flavour and colour.

When the macarons are cool, sandwich with the buttercream and any other extras you fancy- Think lemon curd, jam, chocolate ganache!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Brixton Bites...

Now, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (most nights, when a big plate of the smelly stuff appears to snuggle up next to a nice glass/bottle of wine); there is nothing better than cheese. Yup, the smellier the better, blue, yellow, the creamiest of whites, soft, crumbly, flecked with salty delicious crunchy bits; I just can’t get enough.

So when a recent outing took me past the charcuterie strewn front of Champagne + Fromage in Brixton Village; the fine, stinky, drop-dead delicious Reblechons and perfect, milky skinned rounds of Camembert were well and truly calling my name. Well, Charlotte is très français as prénoms go- what did I really expect?!

Beckoned by the rickety folding chairs, dotted with tartan cushions and clustered invitingly around brushed steel tables, several already boasting slender flutes of softly bubbling champers; this place is straight from the pages of my holiday album circa ’04 (without the dodgy tie die tankini, or even more dodgy henna tattoos). With most glasses of bubbles on the menu obligingly offering you change for a tenner, and the selection of cheeses and saucissons giving many a deli across the channel a run for their Euro, Champagne + Fromage is the perfect place to commence a night exploring the never-ending delights of the bustling, achingly-cool, foodie-destination into which Brixton Village transforms after the last of the daytime fish, meat and random cookware vendors pack away their wares and close up their shutters.

Now, be warned; the menu is not one for the lactose intolerant/vegetarian/- Plates of peppercorn specked, fat rippled charcuterie cosying up next to big wooden boards of fruity Brie de Meaux and blue veined Roquefort, and an extensive list of meat and cheese draped, olive oil drizzled tartines on the crustiest artisanal baguette, this is French food at its finest.

But, for 3 girls giddy on a couple of glasses of reasonably-expensive pop, on this occasion the only way to go was hunks of bread dipped into the ooziest of baked camembert. With options ranging from garlic and herb, to rounds flecked liberally with crunchy nuts, we opted for our wheel to be spiked with figs and thyme.  With just enough sweetness from the fig to cut the richness of the cheese, and fragranced perfectly with earthy thyme, the speed at which the whole cheese was demolished pays absolute testament to just how perfect this place is, whether it is for a quick aperitif or to take full advantage of the amazing French fare on offer. They even do afternoon tea complete with homemade macarons. C’est un triomphe.

Snuggled in blankets, the tables bordering the crowd of hungry revellers filling their faces with delicacies ranging from Japenese Okonomiyaki and crepes bursting with caramelised bananas and homemade butterscotch, to buns dripping with pulled pork; Champagne + Fromage well and truly cemented Brixton Village as my favourite foodie destination in London. Top the evening off with a legendary sour-dough pizza at Franco Manca and several lemon cheesecake martinis in Seven at Brixton and you have pretty much my perfect evening.

Food, friends et fromage. What more could you want?