More Pierre

Some days are just meant to be good. That was today 🙂

I spent hours in the heartland of London’s shopping district systemically emptying the shops of clothes, shoes and accessories on my annual sales spending spree. I had completely forgotten how much better the stock is in central London, and it was hard to hold back with so much on offer! Westfield simply pales in comparison.

To finish off an exhausting day (surely shopping must be exercise), I treated myself to some Pierre Hermé goodies.

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I love the little drawing of the patissier himself on this London themed macaron box.

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So many delicous macarons to choose from. I stuck with salted caramel again, as it’s such a classic, but tried five new flavours to tickle the tastebuds. The velouté isphahan was gorgeous, as well as the velouté framboise – but it has to be said that the velouté citron vert was a resounding winner of new macaron favourite. It was a fantastically sharp burst of tangy lime and yoghurt that made my tongue curl in delight.

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My pockets are well and truly emptied, but satisfyingly so!

Later: I’ve now tried the pates de fruits too, but I can’t say I’m a big fan of them. It’s far too much like eating a fruity sugar cube, or a solid square of jam!

Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing

Over the years, I must have made cakes from hundreds of recipes. Yet it’s interesting that only a handful of them stay with me to get baked more than once. It’s mostly a balance between time required, the difficulty of the recipe, nutritional composition, and how well it goes down in a crowd.

Somtimes you make something, just catch a glimpse of it out of the oven, and you’re sold. Other times, it goes down well but you just can’t seem to like it. Most recently for me, this was this Ottolenghi cake.

Funny eh?

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Perhaps I expected too much of it, or was too careless in the method of preparation. After all, I did fling everything together without taking that much care, and it didn’t hit the spot the way I wanted it to. The sponge could have been moister, there were holes where apple pieces had shrunk within the cake. The taste didn’t hit the spot. Well….maybe it was lots of little elements combined.

True to Ottolenghi, it was a recipe that required all the mixing bowls a kitchen could yield, and a tremendous amount of washing up to follow.

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The maple icing was incredibly rich, and rather interesting to make. It was also lovely to work with, although I do prefer the taste of a classic cream cheese icing. The wave pattern I traced on as an afterthought. Simple, but decorative in that slightly quaint old-fashioned-tea-shop way.

I recall that Ottolenghi’s pear and amaretto cake was also not a favourite, and I did struggle with the hazelnut cupcakes (although they really did taste lovely). Perhaps I’m just not having a great time with the Ottolenghi cake recipes! Sometimes it’s the hype surrounding the recipe – I was hoping for something more showstopping. On the other hand, I was rather tired and grumpy when baking, and I feel like my mood affects the result too, so who knows? Might have to give the recipe another go in the future!

Farewell, and Next Time

I’ve been wowed and wooed by this Southern continent, and in some cases, truly wonderstruck. I’m going to miss my time here, but now it’s time to click my red glittery shoes (à la Dorothy), and return back home to rain and reality.

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On my last couple of days, the weather took a turn for the worse, and I decided to chillax, do a spot of baking, send off my postcards, and round up some souvenirs to take back home.

I have limited kitchen resources at my disposal here, so I decided to stick with two simple but delicious recipes – flapjacks, and a yoghurt cake. The flapjacks were modified by replacing golden syrup with strawberry jam, and they turned out perfectly! The yoghurt cake was a little more tricky as I had to use a very large baking pan, but in the end – minus a few burnt bits, it was pretty delectable too. Given the difficulties of navigating around a strange oven, I’m simply pleased that they turned out edible at all!

With souvenirs, I decided to stick with the sweet and simple. I confess I didn’t want to lump my nearest and dearest with jars of Vegemite, and Ugg boots in the fashion world are now a bit passé.

So I’ve stuck with the sweet and simple. A jar of local blue gum honey, some cute kangaroo keyrings. Australian-made sheepskins. And from New Zealand, some beautifully eye-catching opalescent paua shells.

I’ve also been left with a couple of unexpected souvenirs. My legs are decorated with a mosaic of scars following aggressive insect bites, which should hopefully fade away before too long!

My travels have left me with a burning desire and wanderlust to explore so many other places, and I intend to do so (once time and money become available). I also intend to bring with me some salient learning points to maximise those fun times whilst travelling abroad.

  1. Shop around for good hostels. For example, don’t always stick to YHA hostels – although they do tend to have good baseline levels of cleanliness and separate gender dorms – they can also end up being the most expensive option. Check reviews online. Smaller hostels tend to have the best atmosphere and are a great way to meet like-minded people.
  2. Likewise, organise some trips through the hostel. Choose small groups as that is also a good way of getting to know your fellow travellers and have some stress-free fun!
  3. Go for dorms that sleep 4-6. Get friendly with your dorm mates as you might end up hanging out with them!
  4. Use the hostel kitchens as this is a really good way of striking up a conversation.
  5. Don’t be shy. Start up conversations with your fellow travellers, say yes to invitations, leap into the water without being coaxed, and wear your bikini without fear!

Chicken, Pancetta and Broccoli Pie

When seeking out uses for homemade puff pastry, pie is always a good choice. A meltingly golden crust, hiding a wealth of chicken, pancetta, leeks and broccoli underneath. And in case you can’t work out what’s for dinner, it’s written out for you too 🙂

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Chicken, Pancetta and Broccoli Pie

  • 1 chicken breast
  • 1 tsp cornflour
  • 1/2 tsp vinegar
  • 1 tsp oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 onion, sliced finely
  • 1 packet pancetta, diced
  • 1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
  • knob of butter
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • 1/2 pint of milk
  • roughly 100g puff pastry, chilled.
  • 1 egg, beaten

Marinate the chicken in the cornflour, vinegar, oil and add salt and pepper to taste. Leave overnight in the fridge.

Gently sautee the onion in a large saucepan until golden. Then add the chicken and pancetta and cook until the chicken is fully white on the outside. Add the broccoli, and cook until tender.

In a small saucepan, melt a knob of butter and add the flour. Mix into a paste, then gradually add the milk to form a smooth sauce. Heat gently until thickened, whisking from time to time to prevent lumps from forming. Season with some pepper.

Mix the sauce into the pan of chicken, pancetta and broccoli. Season further if necessary. Tip into a medium-sized ovenproof dish and leave to cool.

Roll the puff pastry out to a thickness of 3mm. Lay the pastry on top of the dish and trim to size with a sharp knife. Seal the edges with a fork, and cut two holes in the centre of the pastry to allow steam to escape. Glaze with egg. Put into the fridge to rest for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 220˚C. Pop the pie into the oven and lower the temperature to 19o˚C. Bake the pie for 25-30 minutes until golden.

Comté and Caraway Straws

I’m a goal-orientated person with a short attention span. So once I’ve worked out how to bake something, I move on, and set myself a new challenge. Most recently, it was macarons driving me nuts, but I got there in the end.

Lately, it’s been bread, but I’d run out of yeast in the kitchen, and my fingers were craving something really really hard. 

That’s in the mental sense, not physically.

So what do I think of?

Puff pastry.

Gives home cooks palpitations. Even the professionals say they buy it in from the supermarket. Food bloggers? They say –  I make all my puff pastry from scratch all the time – what are you waiting for?

So today I took the leap, and made it.

Well….sort of made it. Rough puff pastry is a bit of a cheat, but I was assured that it was a doddle to make in comparison to the traditional, and I wasn’t quite that willing to devote tears and tantrums to a slab of dough.

I followed the recipe from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, intending to halve the ingredients, until I realised I’d  dumped in too much butter and water. After a little bit of backtracking with a knife and some water, a bit of folding, and rolling, and resting, and the pastry was good to go.

After all the sweet baking of late, I had an insatiable craving for something savoury. So to the rescue came Ottolenghi again with his recipe for cheese straws, adapted mildly to incorporate the thing I’m currently having for Comté.

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I’d never had caraway seeds before, and they smelt very pungent in the spice jar, so I only put the merest sprinkling onto half the cheese straws before they went into the oven. I think they add a nice subtle kick as a foil to the cheese-fest. 

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I made two batches, and you can see that in my first batch, I rolled the dough out too thinly because it was difficult to roll up properly, and I made very long, spindly cheese straws as a result. The second batch turned out better.

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Needless to say, both were incredibly moreish, and the texture was meltingly good. Another favourite.

But back to the original challenge. Did I feel that it had been worth it? Would I make rough puff again?

Well, honestly, not really.

The straws were delicious, and well worth the smiles on faces, the stuffed tummies, and the glowing feeling of being a domestic goddess. However, I don’t really use puff pastry in my usual cooking at all. And thus, it makes more sense to me to buy it rather than dedicating a whole day to making it from scratch. The whole process is simple, but you have to be organised, alert, and the kitchen becomes very messy too!

Shop puff pastry? Satisfaction, and minimal distraction. Possibly a dangerous combination where buttery goodness is concerned! 🙂

Chocolate Ganache Macarons

With macarons, it seems that practice really does work its magic. I’ve stopped using the dodgy baking tray, and to my delight, it has done the trick. This batch includes all salient features of feet, non-explosiveness, and shell solidity that give macaron-makers cause for joy. Again I used a recipe from the Ottolenghi cookbook, and replaced part of the ground almonds with cocoa powder.

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As usual, I kept the macarons simple. No fancy decorations, just great chocolate. Each macaron is sandwiched with a rich dark chocolate ganache filling. Short on cream in the kitchen, I improvised by heating up  50ml milk with a dab of butter, and melting 120g coarsely chopped dark chocolate into this. Silky and shiny, it formed a great filling.

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Unfortunately the light was grey and weak today, but I did my best to photograph the macarons to their best advantage.

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Be careful when choosing macaron fillings. They are such sugary beasts that a sweet filling can overwhelm the palate. Stick to sharper flavours, and you can’t go wrong. Here, the use of a bitter dark chocolate pairs perfectly. Fresh tart berry flavours would also fantastic, and that is definitely one to try.

Scrumptious Sydney

Vibrant, busy, bustling…Sydney is truly a spectacular city bursting with life.

I arrived in Sydney during the exciting Vivid light event taking place. The entirety of the harbour was lit up every evening with a blazing feast for the eyes, and there was plenty to play around with too, from the movement activated light displays, to the Avatar-esque glowing plant forms.

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It was an easy couple of hours entertainment to wander around and soak up the lively weekend atmosphere.

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Sydney is also a great city for food. I’ve already mentioned my excursion to the famous Bourke Street Bakery, and the even-better La Renaissance Cafe Patisserie, but there are so many other gems out there I wish I had longer to explore them all.

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In The Rocks, a picturesque, historical area of Sydney, there were food stalls crammed into the streets, serving all forms of global cuisine. Next door, a kitsch German-themed bar catered to what looked like hundreds of happy beer-drinkers as they were served by dirndl and lederhosen garbed staff.

The flavours of the food were simple, punchy, and delicious. I had a beef steak sandwich on one occasion, and came back for the turkish gözleme the next. The gözleme strangely reminded me of the savoury flatbreads I sometimes make at home, only this was filled with cheese, spinach, and a spicy mixture of ground chicken. So one I might try to reproduce when I return home, although I am increasingly curious to know what kind of cheese they used for the filling….

To sate my sweet tooth, I also found heavy appreciation in polishing off a plate of miniature pancakes, topped with melted butter, icing sugar, sliced strawberries, and a squirt of whipped cream.

There were many other great foodie places, that sadly I just can’t list them all. Kudos goes to the bakery in Katoomba for their potato-and-rosemary pizza. Unusual toppings, but it worked so very well. Perfect after an invigorating hike in the Blue Mountains.

La Renaissance Cafe on The Rocks, Sydney

I’ve found pastry nirvana in Sydney. and it just so happened to be right on my doorstep.

This French bakery shines with its gorgeous, fresh and flavoursome produce. First I was hooked with their excellent almond croissants. Meltingly divine -a crisp sugary crust, buttery layers of pastry underneath, then finally the soft almond cream heart.

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I couldn’t resist going back to try their other creations. The pear danish was a sumptuous blend of sweet, tender fruit under a bed of crisp pastry.

Then came la piece de resistance – the tartlets. I picked traditional flavours – going for a glazed mixed fruit tart on a bed of creme patisserie, then a Valrhona chocolate tart with a peanut caramel filling. Both were sheer heaven.

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La renaissance cafe has given me some inspiration to continue improving my own baking. I could definitely anticipate adding a nutty caramel twist to a chocolate tart, or challenging myself by learning how to make creme patisserie for a tart filling, instead of plumping for easier alternatives.

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Bourke Street Bakery, Sydney

Bourke Street Bakery has an international reputation that surpasses any bakery in Australia. I knew as soon as I landed at the airport I would be paying Bourke Street a visit. Nestled in an inauspicious corner of Sydney, the premises are surprisingly tiny – the window crammed full of rustic breads and tarts. As it was lunchtime, I opted for savoury bake in the form of a cute quiche. The sweet offerings looked so tantalising I couldn’t resist and ordered two tarts – chocolate and a ginger creme brûlée.

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The quiche was very ordinary in taste, with a tough unamenable pastry crust. A little dissatisfied with that, I eyed up the two sweet tarts with trepidation.

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Well I needn’t have worried there, because they were brilliant. The chocolate tart had just the right balance of creamy, sweet and rich. The creme brûlée tart had a powerful ginger kick, with a delightful caramelised sugar crust and unctuous oozy creamy filling. I left knowing that just for that ginger creme brûlée tart, it had been worth it. I am now intrigued to know if the bakery publish a version of their recipe as I’d been keen to try it out!