Last minute homemade Christmas gifts
For most of the year, my Pinterest feed is full of lovely fashion, design, food. lifestyle and home products. Come December, this is all replaced with people madly, wildly pinning ideas for a homemade Christmas. Homemade decorations, cute gift-wrapping ideas, elaborate table settings, and recipes galore. [Read more]
'Tis the season… to bake the perfect Christmas cake!
Love it or hate it, no festive season is complete without a Christmas cake – studded with jewelled, booze-soaked fruit, draped with golden marzipan, smothered in snowy peaks of bright white icing. With one month to go until the big day, the countdown begins now. Here are my five steps to the perfect cake… [Read more]
STEP 1: Soak that fruit
You can use whatever dried fruits you like best, although steer clear of anything that will become too mushy. My favourites are sultanas, currants, dried apricots, glacé cherries, crystallised ginger, mixed peel and dried figs. These get soaked overnight in about 120ml whisky until they’re plump and boozy. The following day…
STEP 2: Bake the cake
For the past two years we’ve been using this recipe from Felicity Cloake for our cake, and it’s served us extremely well. The outcome is a dense but not too heavy, golden cake, rich with flavour and texture.
STEP 3: Make it boozy
This is perhaps my favourite bit. Once the cake is out of the oven, prick it with holes using a skewer (don’t go all the way down or the alcohol will seep right out of the bottom) and brush with a booze of your choice. I’ve been going with Grand Marnier, because I find its spiced orange flavour very well suited to Christmas. Wrap it up in foil or parchment and store in an airtight container. Brush it again once or twice a week until the day before you plan to marzipan it. Be warned, unwrapping a gorgeous-smelling Christmas cake every few days and not eating it requires a certain level of patience.
STEP 4: Drape it in marzipan
As far as I can tell, white or golden marzipan are both fine for this. First heat a tablespoon of jam (apricot or marmalade are best) with a splash of water until you have a thick-ish syrup, the consistency of double cream. Sieve it to get rid of any bits, let it cool a little, and then brush it all over the top and sides of your cake. This will act as a glue. When it comes to layering over your marzipan, take your guidance from Dan Lepard’s handy video tutorial.
STEP 5: Smother it in icing
This is where it all finally comes together. Last year, instead of buying royal icing, I made my own using this fantastic Nigel Slater recipe. The result is a wonderfully thick icing that’s simple to make and decorate with. I halved his recipe as my cake was a lot smaller than his, and I increased the proportion of icing sugar as I wanted a finish that was more matt than gloss. If you’re adding some lovely kitsch decorations, make sure you do so before it sets as the icing gets pretty solid, which is great if you’re going for snowy peaks.
Eating out: Grillshack, Soho, London
These days you can’t move for burger joints in Soho. As if Honest Burger, Burger & Lobster, Burger Shack, Brgr.co, Ed’s Diner, and not one but two branches of Byron weren’t enough, Beak Street is now home to one more. But Grillshack is different. Why? Read on…
At Grillshack there are not one, not two, but three ways to order and pay. Once you’ve been seated in a diner-style booth, you choose from a short and simple menu and then you either:
* Stroll over to the counter at the back of the restaurant, where a real live person will take your order and payment.
* Stroll over to a touchscreen order point (also at the back of the restaurant) to place your order and pay.
* Stay seated in your booth, whip out your iPhone, log on to Grillshack’s wifi network, download the Grillshack app, and use that to place your order and pay.
Food is brought to your table, as are beers and wines, while other drinks (sodas, tea and coffee) are ‘pour-your-own’ using dispensers near the counter. There’s also a shelving unit lined with sauces that you can take back to your table, Nandos-style.
A small group of us (including Jo Allison who writes the wonderful Four a day blog) strolled over last Friday, after post-work beers at The Sun & 13 Cantons pub across the road. Working at a retail consultancy, where our job is to report on interesting ways of buying things, we were intrigued by the ordering system and tempted to try out the app. “I wouldn’t bother,” warned the waitress as she seated us, “you’re better off just going to the counter.”
It raised a question we often end up asking when we come across techy things in shops and restaurants. “Is this really necessary?”
In this case, it’s hard to say. There are obvious advantages. If there’s a queue at the counter, you don’t have to wait in it. If you’re ordering take-away, you can place the order before you arrive. And if you’re feeling anti-social, you don’t have to deal with other people.
But you do have to deal with technology, which in itself can be a bit of a bitch. The main disadvantage of the app is that, unless you plan on eating at Grillshack quite regularly, you have to download an app that you don’t really need. And you have to connect to the wifi. And you have to enter your card details. In my opinion, that’s too many steps for a hungry person to deal with, especially if they’re on an iPhone 4 that’s on its last legs.
I’m guessing the main intention of this setup was to give customers more options. But, as a customer, does having more options make the experience any easier? Surely the only decision I want to make is over what to have for dinner, not how I want to order it.
The food was pretty good. I had a decent burger, some great seasoned fries, radish slaw and a craft lager. The place itself has a nice vibe too - warm, inviting and lively on a cold Friday evening. Honest is still my favourite place for burger and chips in Soho, but if the wait time is another ridiculous two and a half hours on a Friday evening I’ll definitely be making a bee-line for Grillshack instead.
The high-tech ordering system isn’t what will draw people back here, it’s the atmosphere and the menu. Even as I type, I’m wondering when I’ll get a chance to head back to try their flattened rump steak and shoestring fries, and maybe an ice-cream cookie sandwich for dessert…
Grillshack, 61-63 Beak Street, London W1F 9SL
Eating out: Kimchee, London
If you’ve never had Korean food before, Kimchee provides the perfect introduction. Based on New Oxford Street, it caters to a hungry crowd of workers and students from the surrounding offices and universities. Last Friday I strolled over with my team from work to check it out. [Read More]
Eating out: Burro e Salvia, Shoreditch, London
From cannelloni to carbonara, pasta is Britain’s most popular ready meal according to sales data gathered by market research company Kantar Worldpanel. Not only did it overtake such British classics as shepherd’s and cottage pie, it also beat curry! [Read More]
Three great ways to cook salmon, from someone who doesn’t like salmon.
That’s right, I don’t like salmon. I’ve never ordered it at a restaurant. I rarely cook or eat it at home. Give me a piece of white fish, smoked fish or shellfish and I’ll gladly gobble it up. But salmon? Not so much.
The reason is simple - it’s too rich and the flavour is overpowering.
I used to think that I just plain hated it, but I’ve discovered that really it’s all about what you eat it with. Salmon is best kept simple, and the secret to success is to serve it with something that tastes bright and fresh.
So, here are three salmon recipes that I love… [Read More]
An alternative Sunday roast: Crispy duck in pancakes, with homemade plum sauce
I know, I know, you really can’t beat a proper roast dinner. But if you do fancy mixing it up a little, this is a low effort alternative that I’d highly recommend. It’s also a handy one when you’ve got people coming over for dinner on a Saturday evening. [Read More]
As is always the case with a roast, there are various components to this dinner, but none of them are complicated.
I’d recommend buying a whole duck – not only do you get more meat, it’s also juicier and fattier, which means more flavour.
Pat the duck dry with kitchen paper and place it in a roasting tray. Sprinkle all over (outside and in) with salt and Chinese five spice. Rub a chunk of grated ginger around the inside cavity too for extra flavour. Roast on the middle shelf of the oven at 170C, for 1.5 or 2 hours – until the meat is tender and the skin crispy. Every now and then, use some of the excess fat to baste the meat and spoon off the rest. If you need to, turn the oven up to 200C for ten minutes at the end to crisp the skin.
The plum sauce
While the duck roasts, you have ample time to prepare a homemade plum sauce. For four people, de-stone four plums and cut into quarters. Cook on a low-medium heat in a pan with 2 tablespoons of sugar, a big pinch of five spice, a pinch of salt (or splash of soy sauce), a couple of tablespoons of water and a teaspoon of grated ginger. Let this bubble away gently until the fruit has broken down into a thick sauce. Taste the seasoning (you might decide you want it sweeter). When you’re happy with it, pour into a little bowl to cool.
Finely slice cucumber and spring onion into long, slim batons. I also did the same with a couple of red chillies, but this is optional.
As well as the tangy and sweet plum sauce, I’m a big fan of dark, glossy hoi sin sauce. This can be bought in jars and just needs to be mixed with a little water to thin it down.
And finally, the pancakes. I bought mine from the freezer section of the local Chinese supermarket. They can be steamed or microwaved – either way, they are ready in seconds so I’d suggest leaving this as the last thing you do.
All that’s left is to pile everything into the middle of the table and let everyone help themselves.
A very simple supper: Smoked mackerel & cheese on toast
When it comes to cooking fish, I’ll almost always choose smoked over fresh. My reason is simple - it’s almost impossible to get wrong. You don’t need to worry about over- or under-doing it, and it’s packed with flavour so all you really need to do is throw in some carbs and you’re halfway to a decent meal. [Read More]