Thursday, 14 March 2013

"Brunching" Out

Brunch has always been one of my favourite meal times as it spells long lazy Sunday mornings idling away with good friends over mochas (extra hot please), indulging in hollandaise sauce, smoked salmon, bacon, maple syrup, digging into warm chocolate croissants oozing chocolate, you name it. My very good friends have recently moved into my neighbourhood and since we hadn’t seen each other for a while we decided to have brunch together. I suggested Tom’s Kitchen just for the convenience of it, unbeknown to them, my last visit had not been much of a success, admittedly that was over a year ago. Prior to that last visit, I think I’d almost become a permanent fixture there, you’d know exactly where to find me especially on Sunday mornings. I decided to give it a break when, I turned up at the Botanic (when it had just opened) and one of the waiters recognised me with the remarks, “what are you doing here!” I’m very good with faces and was shocked when I knew exactly where I remembered him from. Surely everyone knows that if either a shop assistant or waiter recognises you on the street, it’s time to change habits or just stop shopping!!!

During that particular visit, the food had been atrociously bad. I can’ remember the exact details, I’ve probably wiped it out of my memory as one does all painful experiences, but all I remember is that it was really bad! I realise that I may be a slightly “fussy” eater but trust me it was bad! One of the things that always took me there was the freshly baked bread and muffins they did every weekend, the latter of which one had to arrive indecently early for as they sold like hotcakes. To my disappointment, they’d actually stopped making fresh bread and I can’t even remember what I had to make do with instead!

There is nothing like freshly made bread. The smell alone instils such a warm fuzzy feeling in me that is almost romantic (did I mention that I am a hopeless romantic?) I remember a rather romantic experience recently in some foreign African country where I’d gone on a work trip. Being rather brave and adventurous, I’d agreed to be taken out dancing into the early hours of the morning by an acquaintance. As we were strolling back to the car for the drive back to my hotel, we must have passed by a bakery because suddenly this wonderful smell of baking bread hit us and I just stopped in my trucks and went on and on about my love for baking bluh, bluh, bluh. Suddenly all senses stopped working as I was given a thorough kiss, right in the middle of the street. How romantic, I must have cast quite a picture standing there waffling on about bread, then again he was French! Note to self, one must conjure food images more often in male company. Let’s just say I can never smell yeast in the same way again.
Some of my bread making attempts (it's that yeast smell you see)

Italian New Harvest Bread

Well, back to the present, we turned up without a booking, something you wouldn’t do in the old days (I guess at the back of my mind I didn’t really want to be there) but got a table anyway. Entering Tom’s Kitchen is like walking into a ware house conversion thingy, like those found in the trendy meat market in New York, which by the way I haven’t been to but have watched enough Sex in the City episodes to imagine what they look like. One’s met by heavy wooden tables and chairs and really “cool” looking people littering the place. There are even bar stools one can perch on and boy is the view from there interesting, you can see the chefs at work. I guess another silly romantic notion but isn’t there something so alluring about a man sweating over a stove, I suppose less of the sweating though.

We were shown to our table and a very lovely lady came over to take our drinks order. We decided to go for fresh juices and I asked for extra ginger in my CAG, not expecting to get it as I never do. When the waitress turned up with the drinks, the straw in one of the glasses was bent and she proceeded to let us know that that was the drink with the extra ginger, one sip of it and I knew I was in for a surprise, it was exactly as I would have made it myself!

 The one thing I never order out is eggs benedict/Florentine as I’m always very disappointed with it, either over poached eggs, soggy muffins etc. For some reason I decided to order it anyway and of course started by apologising to the waitress for the fact that I was going to complicate matters slightly. Her first answer was shoot, not the rolling of eyes or condescending attitude I’m always greeted with whenever I utter those words. Yes, I’m one of those people who always want something that isn’t on the menu... I proceeded to let her know that I wanted an eggs benedict with bacon and spinach and hollandaise on the side, oh and the bacon not too crispy! Her reply was, our eggs benedict is served with bacon anyway, so you want a half and half? Music to my ears. I then asked her if they had any muffins left and was told there was actually one left, which she quickly ran to grab for us before someone else whisked it away and then continued to take our orders. By this point, I was totally in love with her (of the sisterly type of course!). My friends ordered the burger and blueberry pancakes and hot chocolate drinks. We were told the hot chocolate was homemade which was rather curious but they couldn’t wait to try it.

Our food arrived and I exclaimed in horror when I realised I had only been given one streak of bacon,  my fault of course for having ordered a half and half, but no sooner had the words left my mouth than a side plate of bacon arrived at the table. Very gingerly I tucked into my half and half and boy, I was immediately transported back to my childhood. The bacon tasted like the bacon I had as a little girl or as my mum would call it, like “real bacon” I know that pork has to undergo some sort of curing process to create bacon but this was actually like eating the meat off the back of a pig. When I cut into my poached egg, I was greeted by a the most vivid of colours, saffron orange, again, took me back home where egg yolks are the colour the setting sun and it tasted heavenly.

I suspect the people at the next table weren’t looking at us because we cut a pretty picture but because of all the funny noises we were making, by now you know what I am like with food don’t you. I tried a bit of the burger and even though it was well done, one of my friends is pregnant, it was just out of this world. They even had a choice of chunky chips or fries and of course being French, they went for the fries with the homemade ketchup! The fries tasted like the ones I make at home another testimony that they were freshly cut on the premises. I’m told the hot chocolate was also incredible. When we mentioned all this to our waitress, eggs, bacon etc. she went ahead to tell us how the hens are interbred for the eggs and the pigs are a special breed left to roam the farm where they are bred. This was so refreshing as here was someone who actually had knowledge about what they were serving, which speaks very well for a restaurant.

My other battle with brunch places is finding the right mocha. Don’t laugh but you will be amazed at how wrong many places get it. But as things had gone very well so far, I decide to order one with the usual, extra hot please! Why one even has to say that beats me but I I’m told its part of the industry regulation, one can only heat milk to a certain temperature. Well, it arrived in a tall glass, as it should I hasten to add, and even thought it wasn’t as hot as I would have liked it to be (thank God as otherwise I would have burnt my fingers on the glass) it was just delicious, I guess it was something to do with the homemade hot chocolate.

We all left feeling very satisfied and I’m just so glad that my old grazing ground is back! The service was impeccable with food that put me in a good mood for the rest of the day. Can’t wait to go back.

Of course since my African adventure (yeast smell, kiss in the street….), I’ve taken every opportunity there is to bake bread, the smell brings back good memories you see ;-) Below are some more results:-


New England Rolls

Am still working at perfecting the Pantone as my last attempt wasn’t very successful but of course I blame the equipment.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Smells, Things that go Bang in the Night and taking on Raymond Blanc!

My adventure continues and my desire to provide a memorable dining experience hasn't waned either, if anything it's going from strength to strength.

People often ask me how I decide on my menus and frankly am not quite sure, all I know is that there is a lot of inspiration out there and often I go with what appeals to my imagination/taste buds which can be quite nerve raking at times, if not foolish. I'm no longer able to just read a menu, often I'll find myself dissecting it and trying to work out whether it's something I can recreate or whether an item deserves a place on my menu! The most bizarre place, I guess not that bizarre as it was a book but bizarre as it is one of the saddest and most harrowing books I have ever read with the most uplifting moment coming when all the characters are harmoniously brought together by food, they were making masala wada, an Indian “falafel” made with dhal, shredded coconut, coriander, chillies and onions, with a mind boggling result, I served it at the last dinner.

Masala Wada
Another example is when I decided to take on the master of classic cooking, Raymond Blanc. I'd just watched him prepare this amazing looking chocolate crumble tart on TV and decided that that was exactly what I was going to make. I managed to get hold of the recipe and to my delight there was a hazelnut ice cream and the most delicious sounding caramel sauce to accompany it, I didn't need any more persuading.

As I got to blanching and caramelizing the hazelnuts, the smells that were unleashed on my senses were enough to send me to heaven (my vision of it anyway), I absolutely love hazelnuts as my breakfast bowl will attest. What is it with smells? Like music, smells evoke all sorts of memories, reactions and moods in people, am told men like perfume with a slight vanilla scent to it as it reminds them of home/cooking, I feel another blog coming on. I remember when I was a little girl our milk was delivered by a farmer every day, straight from the cow so to speak and it was up to us to keep it in the right conditions for it to last. The things mum was able to conjure with that milk are incredible, see the “Back to My Roots” blog. Anyway, one day he failed to deliver for some reason and my cousin and I undertook the mission of going to collect it. On our way back, it started raining, now, there is something about the smell when the rain drops first meet the African red soil that is just magical, so magical in fact that my cousin literally lay down and licked the soil, I would have followed suit but I wash my oranges before I peel them for juicing for heaven's sake and it's not very me is it? ;-)

I digress, as I mentioned before, I had decided to take on Raymond Blanc, the list of ingredients involved was endless (I now own a useless 16 inch baking ring as I bought the wrong one), the process so long that I actually found myself churning ice cream at midnight (did I mention that I have invested in an ice cream maker). By the time I'd finished assembling everything it was almost midnight and I was shattered to the tips of my hair so decided to take a bath whilst the ice cream was churning as I didn't know how long it would take. I must have fallen asleep as the next thing I heard was a loud thudding noise which confused me at first but once my head cleared, I was able to work out that the propeller could no longer go round as my ice cream was at last ready. Of course I had to taste it, midnight or not and it was utterly divine, needless to say it will be on the menu at some point.

This is turning out to be quite an interesting journey as I'm discovering more and more about myself and appreciating my heritage more. As it turns out, my mum may have cooked more than I first let on, oops, and my maternal grandmother was a cook, she cooked for a local secondary girls' school, is cooking hereditary I wonder? lol. I suppose most of this was lost on me as I went to boarding school but my journey has triggered some wonderful memories from childhood, such as the great English baking books we had on the shelf with pictures of the most amazing cakes I could only dream of, boy did I love reading those books during my school holidays. I can't help feeling that perhaps that is why it is easy for me to conjure a taste just by reading the ingredients as I had to use my imagination a lot, I'd never heard of most of the ingredients they talked about in those books, must ask mum where they are!

Another wonderful memory is that of what I'd term my first baking lesson with mum. We had a gas cooker but as it was very expensive, we bought and I think they still buy gas by the cylinder, gas cooking was reserved for when we needed to make something quickly like when we had an impromptu visitor, trust me that happens a lot in Africa especially around meal times, or when we made roast chicken, come to think of it we did this a lot on Sundays after Church, another great British export I suppose. Anyway, mum had decided we we were going to bake a cake and went on to improvise an ingenious oven. We took a very large pan and filled it with sand and heated it on a charcoal stove called a “jiko” for almost an hour or more then made a well in the middle of the sand where we placed the cake tin with the mixture. We then covered the pan with a tin lid and put more charcoal on top and viola, we had an oven and actually baked a beautiful cake. I think I've seen Jamie Oliver do something similar by digging a hole in the actual sand to bake sea bass. Not sure how I had forgotten about this of all incidents in my cooking life.

Well, the journey continues and I intend to push myself even more, after all, what is the point of doing this if I don't better my skills. I'm amazed at my ability so far as I have managed to tackle some complicated recipes with astounding results, I guess I've always been as stubborn as a mule when it comes to cooking. Once I put my mind to cooking something I will do it. Macaroons are something I've always wanted to make ever since my girlfriend and I spent many a Sunday afternoons at Ladurée, this is before everyone else started making “not so good versions” . I have often been put off by the seemingly complicated process involved but I woke up one morning determined to tackle them with outstanding results to the delight of my friends ( including a Frenchie with “ Ladurée was just round the corner from my flat in Paris you know”) and the guests to my last supper as they adorned the goodie bags and will be making a regular appearance as I play with different flavours.

Lemon Macaroons
I look forward to welcoming you to the next supper on Saturday 19th May, please take a look at the upcoming events to see more dates and planned menus. Don't worry if a menu isn't up yet, it is bound to be decided way before the event. Do also look out for the “singles” evenings that I have in mind, very informal and chilled out affairs with good food and hopefully good and interesting company.
Keep Calm and Carry on Eating (only good food mind you)!