Friday, 22 April 2011

Easter Brownies with White Chocolate and Walnuts

The Ewing is the normally the baker in this household, but since since I've been writing this blog I seem to have gone a bit cake crazy.  I needed to make something tasty, suitable for a Spring celebration with  friends, and that could weather a long, hot journey on the tube. There's not many people who would turn down a chocolate brownie, crispy on the outside and dense and fudgy in the middle, especially when topped with a handful of mini eggs.

Although the Ewing left her much loved Gary Rhodes recipe out to me follow I ended up going a bit off piste, adapting a Good Food recipe with a few touches of my own for good measure.  I used white chocolate for the chunks in the brownie batter, and added a handful of walnuts for some crunch.  I also added a touch of cinnamon, aping the lovely Hepburn brownie I enjoyed from Outsider Tart a few weeks ago. The spice adds a nice, woodsy note to the chocolate, without being too overwhelming.

Walnut and White Chocolate Brownies

185g Unsalted Butter
185g Dark Chocolate
50g White Chocolate
50g Walnut Pieces
3 Large Eggs
275g Golden Caster Sugar
1tsp Cinnamon
85g Plain Flour
40g Cocoa Powder

Mini chocolate eggs to decorate

-Preheat the oven to 160c and line a 20cm squared tin with baking parchment.
-Break plan chocolate into chunks and place in a bowl with the diced butter. Melt over a pan of simmering water, or in the microwave.  Allow to cool to room temperature.
-Break the eggs into a large bowl, add the sugar and cinnamon and whisk with an electric whisk until light and fluffy. (About 5 minutes)
-Gently fold the cooled chocolate mixture into the eggs and sugar.
-Sift the flour and cocoa into the bowl, and fold in lightly.
-Chop the white chocolate and walnuts and add to the mixture.  (Do not overwork the batter, or the brownies will be too heavy.)
-Pour into the lined tin and cook for 25-35 minutes.  It is ready a papery crust has formed on top and there is no 'wobble' in the middle when you gently shake the tin.
-Allow to cool completely before turning out the tin and cutting into squares.
-Decorate with chocolate eggs, affixed with a little melted chocolate or glace icing , if desired

These are a piece of cake, for want of a better phrase, to make.  The only difficult part is judging when they are perfectly cooked.  The whole point of a brownie is the dense, fudgy crumb.  Overcook it and it will become dry and crumbly, under cook it and it will be sticky and soggy.  I ended up cooking these for a bit longer than the recipe suggested, checking on them after every five minutes, and they were perfectly gooey in the middle when I cut them into squares.

They seemed to go down very well with the girls, and there were only a few solitary crumbs left in the tin by the next morning.  They are good with morning coffee, or afternoon tea, and fabulous served slightly warm, with fresh raspberries and smothered in thick cream or ice cream.  Another advantage is they improve with keeping, for up to a fortnight, wrapped up in foil or in an air tight tin.  That's if you can resist their chewy, chocolatey charms long enough...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Artisan du Chocolat- English Breakfast Eggs

I saw these rather unconventional eggs mentioned in a review of the Chocolate Festival on London's South Bank, and knew I'd have to track a bag down before Easter.  Made exclusively in the UK for Selfridges (I think they're available in Artisan's stores too) They combine favourite breakfast flavours with fine chocolate.  The question was: would they be worth the braving a Saturday afternoon trip to Oxford Street to pick them up?

Although excited I was still a bit wary of trying these.  So often I get seduced by interesting flavours and packaging, only to be let down by what's inside.  There isn't much information on the packet, it doesn't even say which egg is which flavour, but on opening the packet I could definitely smell the faint notes of fry up, mixed with sweet milk and cocoa.  Odd, but not unpleasant.

White Chocolate with Cepes Mushroom

This had a pretty strong aroma, not unlike the porcini stock cubes I bought back from Italy recently.  Although I didn't find out the flavour combinations from the website until after I had tasted the eggs this one was clearly fungi.  I know white chocolate isn't 'proper' chocolate, but sometimes I really enjoy it's creamy, vanilla notes. This was more like eating plain cocoa butter.  It was slightly greasy in the mouth, and not very sweet.  The absence of vanilla let the mushroom flavours shine through, but the background chocolate tasted a bit waxy, and wasn't interesting enough to make this very enjoyable.

Milk Chocolate and Bacon - 35% Cocoa Solids

The bacon smell was immediately noticeable, and there was also a sweet, rich cocoa note.  The flavour was exactly like eating a Frazzle bacon flavoured crisp with a square of milk chocolate.  Strange, and really quite nice.  The quality of the chocolate saved this from being too sickly, as the meaty, savoury bacon flavour worked with the malty, slightly bitter edge.  I enjoyed this, and it was good fun, although it's not something you would want to eat too much of.

Dark Chocolate and Tomato - 72% Cocoa Solids

This egg had a lovely, slightly smoky aroma with the ferrous note of tinned tomatoes.  Again, that may sound quite unpleasant, but I found combination worked very well.  The tomato flavour was sweet and slightly metallic, and combined nicely with the fruity notes of the dark chocolate.  The strength was in the quality of the chocolate and the subtlety of the flavour.  Just enough to notice, but not enough to over power, or for the overall effect to become too cloying.

Overall these are pretty good fun, and a nice idea for those who are looking for something a bit  different this Sunday. I found the white chocolate disappointing, but the milk and dark versions were tasty and unusual. At £7.50 for three small eggs they're not especially cheap, but would certainly be a interesting gift from the Easter Bunny.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Quex Barn, Birchington, Kent

With all the recent burger, BBQ and chocolate escapades the latest Farm Shop Friday write up has been a bit delayed.  Although it already feels like an age since my Kentish jaunt I couldn't leave out the lovely Quex Park in Birchington, home of Quex Barn.

Quex Barn is a farmers’ market and restaurant owned by local farmer Ian Matheson.  Most of the meat sold at Quex Barn is reared locally on the Quex Estate, and they also produce cold pressed rapeseed oils and, just launched last month, a range of Kentish crisps in local flavours.

As you enter there is a counter, selling cakes and drinks, in the main shop area, and then the restaurant through double doors to the right.  When we visited on a grey Friday afternoon there were plenty of diners still enjoying lunch, and a stream of people calling in for coffee.  These included two men who arrived clutching bunches of freshly picked asparagus, which were put straight into a bucket by the till, who stopped for a chat and to warm their fingers on mugs of hot chocolate.

Any place that greets their customers with a wooden board of warm, freshly made sausage rolls is alright in book.  These resembled my favourites from The Ginger Pig, but at bargain £1.75 a pop, they didn't mirror the price.  They were pretty much piggy perfection.  A highly seasoned, dense, meaty core, I'm guessing a good half a pound of sausage, covered in a thin, flaky carapace of pastry.  They really need no other accompaniment, but I found they also went very nicely with a smidgen of apple and chilli chutney.

As mentioned above, the meat sold at Quex is all reared locally and the butchery make their own sausages and pies.  Local fish and seafood is available as well as a large range of condiments, spices, pickles and jams.  There is a range of fresh fruit and veg, and they even have keen allotment holders bringing produce to sell if they have a glut on their hands. Local ciders, juice and wines are sold and we bought some of the Biddenden Strong Dry Kentish Cider; a lovely, clear and fruity tipple, perfect for a sunny day, but at 8% deceptively strong!

There is a small antipasti bar, where we picked up some feta stuffed peppers and patty pan squash in olive oil and a selection of, very garlicky, olives.  Those with a sweet tooth can buy cakes, fudge (the coffee and walnut we took home had a buttery taste and a crumbly, tablet like texture) and chocolates.  There are also  large freezers containing frozen vegetables, berries, danish pastries, fish and locally made 'ready meals' that even tell you the name of the chef who prepared them.

The cheese selection included a unpasteurised Kentish Blue, which the very helpful assistant encouraged us to sample before we bought.  This is a fairly hard cheese with a subtle blue flavour and a rich finish.  As there was a problem with the scales printing the label for our purchase we had the opportunity to try several other cheeses and chutneys while waiting including Stilcheton, a smoked cheddar and some lovely damson chutney.

A special mention must go to the Kent Crisps, made with 100% Kentish potatoes and available in a range of flavours designed to showcase the Garden of England.  I saw that these were too be launched just before our visit and was keen to try some, especially the Oyster and Vinegar which are claimed to be a flavour first.  On hunting them down we were not disappointed.  The crisps had a very light, almost 'baked' taste, and had been cut nice and thick for a good crunch.  As a bit of a crisp connoisseur I enjoyed the punch of Sea Salt and Biddenden Cider Vinegar and the tangy, rich Ashmore Cheese and Onion.  The Oyster crisps were pleasantly unusual, with the slight tang of the sea and a moreish flavour that made me wish that were are available in larger bags.

Quex is a great little place to pick up some local produce, stop for a coffee or stay for dinner.  They offer cookery courses, and host yoga, pilates classes and a healthy eating group, details of which are advertised on their website. On leaving we noticed that even the birds are catered for with their own feed centre. 

In the summer months you can combine it with a trip to the Powell Cotton Museum, and Quex House and Gardens, but it's worth a visit at any time for those sensational sausage rolls alone.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Atomic Burger, Oxford

City of dreamy Sci-fries.

Atomic Burgers in Oxford has been on my radar for a while now, and I finally got around to visiting by combining it with a trip to Oxford's inaugural Chocolate Festival.  Situated on the hip Cowley Road, where the independent is still thriving, from the outside it sums up everything that's good about being a bit different.  From the rocket logo sign, to the Astro Turf grass and the Gremlin in the window you know that this isn't any old identikit burger bar.  You can also see it's going to be buzzing inside by all the bikes piled up against the white picket fence.

The inside is no different.  It's a bright space, with small wooden tables laden with the ubiquitous squeezy tomato shaped ketchup bottles, (they also have a yellow tomato containing, somewhat controversially, french mustard) and metal cans full of cutlery.  The walls are adorned with space murals and there are plastic tubes full of plastic 80's toys.  At the back of the restaurant the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man guards the till.

 After being shown to our seats, and given the lo down on the new menu by our very friendly waiter, we were faced with the difficult choice of deciding which meaty marvel to order.  In keeping with the cult vibe the burgers have all have quirky names.  The Jake and Elwood is a burger with blue cheese, the Fat Tony has meatballs and pizza sauce, and the Dolly Parton features a double stack.  Each burger can be ordered as beef, chicken or veggie pattie, and there are also some tasty looking alternatives such as ribs, dogs and pulled pork.

If you feel really brave you can take on the infamous Godzilla Challenge. Here you must attempt to finish a monster burger and fries, doused in Godzilla Triple XXX sauce, within one hour . Winners, and losers, are immortalised on the mirrored wall that runs down one side of the room and you get a T-shirt (and probably a dose of heartburn) for your efforts.   

The amazing chocolate peanut butter shake, with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.  This was thick, creamy, nutty and spot on.  I was very sad we didn't get one of those battered metal beakers, containing some more shake, as this was slurped far too quickly.  Along with the good old choc malt this is must be the pinnacle of milkshake flavours.  They also do a Sugar Puff version, which looks pretty interesting.

My Dead Elvis, in all it's gooey glory.  This comes with grilled onions, swiss and cheddar cheese and bacon.  I ordered mine with gherkins, which came as a solitary DIY style pickle rather than pickle slices in the bun I was hoping for.  Gherkin gripes aside this is a fab burger.  Melty cheese, salty bacon and a juicy, nicely charred patty that was still a little pink in the centre. The bun has been toasted on the grill, and soaked up all the meaty juices admirably. 

For personal preference I've decided that if a burger has salad it also needs mayo/some sort of 'burger' sauce too.  In the case of the Dead Elvis I'd be quite happy to ditch the rabbit food all together and just enjoy the triple protein hit from all that delicious beef, cheese and bacon.

The Big Kahuna burger.  This comes loaded with swiss cheese, pineapple and teriyaki sauce, and the Ewing pimped it with some extra American cheese.  Can pineapple ever a good idea with a burger?  Well reader, while good taste and common decency may dictate otherwise, (i.e. not in my opinion) there certainly wasn't much evidence left on the Ewing's plate.  When asked about how it tasted later her comment was;  'Juicy and pinappley.  I think there might have been a bit of salad in it, I can't really remember...'  So there you go.

Both our Atomic burgers were really good, no nonsense, diner style fare. Just how I want my burger to be.  The beef was smoky and full of flavour, the bun held together well and the fillings were generous.  Next on the wish list is a Pee Bee and Jay.  Another divisive number, featuring peanut butter, onion marmalade and bacon, which I think sounds pretty awesome.

We both ordered the Sci-fries, but mine arrived looking distinctly down to earth.  Luckily they were far too spicy for the Ewing, so she was more than happy to swap with me.  Sci or not these are wonderful skin on chips, with the sci version liberally sprinkled with a garlic chilli seasoning.  The garlic flavour was quite subtle, but they were certainly fiery!  They were crisp and greaseless with a good 'potatoey' flavour that is often absent from lesser frites. The onion rings being eaten on the table next to us also looked great, and are on the 'to do' list.

After that blow out we barely had the energy to eat the jelly babies that accompanied the, pleasingly small, bill. I'm certainly planning to come back very soon, and next time want to leave room to try the homemade pies and the wicked looking ice cream sundaes.  In fact it may take several more return journeys to sample everything I want to on their menu.

Atomic Burgers serves some very tasty food in some very cool surroundings, and is certainly worth a trip.  The only sad thing about our visit was knowing there isn't one closer to my house to satisfy those big, bad burger cravings. That, and the fact they only serve there fabulous looking breakfasts before noon, when I'm at work or still buried deep under the duvet. 

So if you're looking for an out of this world burger, at a down to earth burger joint, then, as they say on their website, it's time to get your buns down to the real thing and go Atomic. 

Atomic Burger on Urbanspoon

Monday, 11 April 2011

Arnold Palmer Cupcakes

Tee time on the range.

Despite never having swung up a club, and holidays spent eating unripe figs on a golf course in the Algarve while my dad sneaked in 9 holes, I love golf.  And the Masters, held every April in Augusta Georgia, is my favourite tournament.  Everything looks so exotic and perfect.  Manicured fairways, pine and peach trees, dogwoods and azaleas.  Bright white sand traps and bright blue water hazards.  Even after four whole days of stroke play I find very little to match the excitement of the last few holes on Sunday evening.

This year we've been lucky enough to have some decent weather here in England that doesn't make me look enviously at their short sleeves and sun visors.  So what better way to celebrate the sun than with a homage to one of the greatest golfers, and four times Green Jacket wearer, Arnold Palmer. 

An 'Arnold Palmer' is a drink, usually served in the States, that is comprised half iced tea and half 'old fashioned' lemonade.  History has it that Palmer was heard ordering the mix sometime in the late 60's and soon his name became synonymous with the beverage. (a 'John Daly' sees the drink spiked with a slug of vodka.) Now days you can even buy official bottles and cans of the the stuff endorsed by the man himself.

To take the idea one step further I decided to make tea flavoured cupcakes with a lemon flavoured frosting, an idea I first saw while while watching Georgia native Paula Deen on the Food network one afternoon. Although fancy cupcakes are not the kind of things I normally go for I thought it would be nice to do something a bit different.  After all it's not everyday you get to garnish your food with an neon straw.

 On googling the recipe I found that reviews for it didn't seem too positive, bemoaning the lack of tea flavour and wisdom of using two whole sticks of butter for the frosting.  Unfazed I decided to use a plain cupcake recipe, and infuse some Lady Grey tea bags into the milk.  I also put a few tea leaves into the batter mix, for extra flavour, and then topped the cakes with a lemon buttercream.  

Arnold Palmer Cupcakes
Makes 9

Earl Grey Cup Cakes-
125g Caster Sugar
125g Unsalted Butter
2 Large Eggs
250g Self Raising Flour
100ml Milk
4 Earl/Lady Grey Tea Bags

Lemon Buttercream-
60g Butter
200g Icing Sugar
Juice and Zest of One Lemon
Pinch of Salt

-Heat milk in a pan or microwave proof jug until nearly boiling. 
-Add three tea bags, stir and leave to infuse for 30 minutes
-Preheat oven to 190c
-Cream together softened butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
-Whisk in eggs one by one, and mix thoroughly.
-Fold in sifted flour and the contents of one tea bag.
-Add infused milk to batter, you may have to add a splash more to get it to dropping consistency.
-Fill paper cases two thirds full of mixture and bake for 20/25 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean.

-Beat butter, zest and icing sugar together until light and creamy.
-Stir in lemon juice and a pinch of salt.
(you may need to add a little more sugar if the icing is too thin, or a splash of milk if it's too thick)

I was very happy with the tea taste in the finished cupcakes.  Often flavours are muted once the cakes are baked, but these still had bright notes of orange and bergamot with the aroma of a freshly brewed cuppa. I used silicon baking cases, which conduct the heat far better than paper cases and left the bottom and sides a bit more 'done' than usual.  (that and forgetting to set the timer...)

The icing was a bit of an adventure too.  Deciding that if you're going to get wet you might as well go swimming, I fashioned a piping bag from a sandwich bag with the end snipped off and attempted to decorate the cakes.  Not a terrible effort, although I did get a bit bored half way through and finish them off with a palette knife. If you're not into too much kitsch, or want a lighter icing, then icing sugar mixed with lemon zest and juice into a thick paste, would also work well.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Chocolate Festival, Oxford

Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, and I lured the Ewing from her bed and onto the road with promises of plenty of chocolatey loveliness at the inaugural Oxford Chocolate Festival.   

The event has been running on London's Southbank, and in Brighton, for the last few years, but this was the first time it had made it out to the city of dreaming spires.  Such was my excitement that I even swapped my usual bacon sarnie for a bowl of pineapple and pink grapefruit so I could attempt to do full justice to the lovely treats I hoped would be awaiting us.
I needn't have worried.  As we reached Broad Street at about noon we were greeted with the sweet smell of churros and chilli in the air, and hoardes of hungry tourists and shoppers. I could also see, through the throngs, stalls laden with all sorts of sweet and savoury goodies just waiting to be sampled.  As well as tasting some sweet treats I also hoped there would be a chance to chat to a few chocolate  producers and try a few new and unusual products.

The first stall we stopped at featured Damian Allsop's chocolate alchemy and was ably presided over by the man himself.  When we arrived he was patiently explaining the flavours of his chocolate compact discs to a young customer and he genuinely seemed enthused by his products.

The first chocolate we tried was his version of a salted caramel made with a muscavado ganache centre. It has a complex flavour, with the sugar giving it a dark molasses note, and even though the centre is solid it isn't too rich or cloying. This is a chocolate I tried as part of the petit fours at the Hand and Flowers in Marlow, and until recently this is where Allsop also had his factory.  He seemed impressed I had remembered this (I rarely forget a good pud) and chatted with us about Tom Kerridge and our shared excitement about new series of the Great British menu. 

He then let us try some of his famous water ganches, including a divine basil one, and it was at this point a bystander suggested that the Ewing should help promote the stall as the chocolate was sending her in raptures! The water ganache, as the name suggests, are made from chocolate blended with water and fresh fruit, herbs and spices.  His plain chocolate truffles contain no dairy at all which gives them a clean, fruity taste that really showcases the chocolate.

We ended up buying some of his chocolate compact discs, to be reviewed in a later blog, and three bags of misshapes.  At £3.50 a bag these were the steal of the day as each bag contained over a dozen delicious chocolates in a good range of different flavours.  The mini hazelnut ganache lollipops were especially tasty.

Not only were the prices at the festival lower than on the website there was, obviously, no P&P to pay and he even gave us a little extra discount (possibly to get the Ewing away before she managed to eat everything...) It was also good to listen to someone who obviously has a lot of belief and passion in what he is doing.

The next stop was Duffy Sheardown's Dark Star Chocolates.  Unknown to me until a few weeks ago, when his name cropped up on my Twitter feed, they are one of the only British producers of bean to bar chocolates.  This means that they oversee whole production process, from sorting and cleaning the beans to roasting, grinding and creating the finished product. The chocolate Duffy's produces is single origin; beans gathered from one harvest, from one region and from one country.  Like wine the chocolate's flavour may change year on year with different growing conditions and climate changes. 

We got chatting to Duffy's wife, who explained that writing the tasting notes for the different types of chocolate could be very difficult.  Firstly because of the subtly changing flavours of each year's harvest and secondly because every one's palate is slightly different.  Apparently this has lead to a few disgruntled customers writing comments such as 'this doesn't taste like .... at all' on internet forums.  There's clearly no pleasing some people as all of the samples I tried had bright, clean flavours with that lovely glossy snap and smooth melt.

One bar that wasn't available to try was the Honduras Indio Rojo - 72% dark chocolate, the first criollo bar they have produced. (Representing only five percent of all cocoa beans grown, criollo is the rarest and the lowest yielding cocoa bean on the market and is native to South and Central America.)  This bar had centre stage on the stall next to an ominous sign saying that the bar's rarity made expensive, but with no price.  Remembering the old adage 'if you have to ask then you probably can't afford it' my enquiry was met by the pleasing answer of £5.50.  Rather a bargain and something that I will soon be blogging along with the trio of bars the Ewing bought.

Next was a refueling stop at Outsider Tart. Theirs was the best looking stall; rustic wooden crates, upturned and piled high with wonderful cakes, brownies and cookies.  This is the kind of baking that really appeals to me.  Generous slices of simple, cakey goodness with a twist on classic flavour combinations, but without all the fancy ribbons and swirls.

I would of happily tried them all but managed to show remarkable restraint in just choosing a Hepburn brownie.  Anything cinnamon is a winner in my book, but combined with triple chocolate it could only be a triumph.  The Ewing tried her first whoopie pie, a marbled chocolate number, and wasn't disappointed.
Final stop was a quick visit to the Big Yum stall.  Children of the 90's may remember a confection called  Pretzel Flipz that was available for a brief time while I was growing up.  These Flipz were small, salted pretzels coated in either chocolate or white fudge.  Sadly they were discontinued although you can pick them up at places like Cybercandy.

The Big Yum Swerve is like a souped up version of the Flipz, using a swirled white and milk chocolate coating and a maltier, crunchier pretzel.  As the recent salted caramel obsession has shown us sweet and savoury is a very moreish and successful combination.  The nuggets of salt cut nicely through the chocolate and the crispy centre contrasts with the soft outside.

Not only are they tasty, but there also based in my neck of the woods.  One of the ladies manning their stall  informed me that stockists can be found on their website,  mail order is available and any Swerve lovers in the Buckinghamshire area can pick them up, with prior arrangement, from their High Wycombe base.  After eating a whole bag on the way home I'm not sure if this is a convenience or an unwanted temptation!

As always we had to leave before we could properly explore every stall.  The savoury Mexican food, with added chocolate in some dishes, looked intriguing and it's always difficult to walk by while people are enjoying fresh, hot churros. As I still haven't got Ewing's Easter egg I will also be checking the website, with details of all exhibitors, for some inspiration.

Overall we had a great morning, eating browsing and chatting.  My only, small, gripe was with the site lay out. I'm not sure whether the council dictated the positioning of the stands, but a bottleneck had been created where Broad Street joins the very busy Cornmarket Street, while at the bottom of the street there was plenty cordoned off space without any stalls.  I hope the festival returns next year, and it would be good to see a few more exhibitors, and possibly a seating area, making use of that extra space. 
The busy stallholders and happy people I saw certainly suggested the event was on course to be a big success.  Anyone that missed the Oxford stop can also catch the Chocolate Festival in London and Brighton over the next few weeks and, chocoholic or not,  I would recommend a trip to try some tasty treats.