Sunday, 28 February 2010

Orange and almond soft amaretti

Sometimes baking is the best hangover cure. If I'm incapable of making intelligent conversation after a big night out, I usually find I'm better in the kitchen, assembling some kind of treat. These soft orange almond biscuits were the result of having lots of left over egg whites in the fridge, and it's a great way to use them up. The biscuits have a slight crust on the outside and a wonderfully soft and chewy centre, perfumed with orange zest, orange flower water and vanilla. They are similar to the Italian amaretti morbidi. I think these are ideally eaten in multiples of at least six with a cup of coffee. And they're totally gluten-free.

Makes about 50 small biscuits. Adapted from Tracey Seamon's Italian almond cookie recipe on Epicurious.

You will need:

American measuring cups (so much easier to measure stuff out in when you are feeling fragile - less phaffing about with scales!)
Piping bag (easier to make uniform sized biscuits)
6 medium organic free range egg whites
5.5 cups ground almonds
1 1/3 cups golden Fairtrade caster sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1.5 tsp orange flower water
1 tsp vanilla extract
Zest of 2 organic oranges

Preheat the oven to 160C. Place greaseproof non-stick baking parchment onto flat oven trays. (You may have to do several batches of biscuits in the oven, unless you own a lot of trays). Zest the orange rinds and keep to one side. Mix the ground almonds and 1 cup of the sugar together. In a separate bowl, whisk your egg whites together at high speed (I use an electric hand whisk) with the salt until you have soft peaks. Then add the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar, and continue to whisk on a medium speed until you have stiff glossy peaks. Gently fold the eggs into the almond and sugar mixture using a spatula so that you don't knock all the air out of the whites. Add the vanilla extract, orange flower water and orange zest and mix together. Your mixture should look like this:

Spoon your mixture into a piping bag. (No need to put a metal nozzle on the piping bag). Squeeze small coils of mixture onto your baking tray, spacing each biscuit a couple of inches apart:

Bake for about 20 minutes until lightly golden, then remove and cool on a wire rack. These biscuits keep well in an airtight tin for several days, or can be frozen for several weeks (if you can resist eating them for that long...).

Wednesday, 24 February 2010


Sometimes in life it’s really fun to luxuriate in a little bit of swank. As in, going to a really all-bells-all-whistles top restaurant, where the food is stacked in fancy towers and the cocktails take ages to mix. Usually I’d find such places intimidating and over-fussy, but sometimes they can be all-out fun if the service is friendly. Such a place is Pearl, the restaurant where the chef is hunky chisel-cheeked Jun Tanaka. It’s all orchids in bowls, black silk, crisp white linen. The food is to-die-for. The staff are lovely. Not so sure about the piano player-cum-singer wailing out soft-rock ballads on the baby grand in the bar, but hey, I suppose this is a restaurant in a hotel, and that's a typical hotel trademark…

I hasten to add that I could probably never afford to go here on my own, but was kindly treated to this experience by my father-in-law for the celebration of my step-mum-in-law’s birthday. Weirdly, he had a total a nightmare trying to get any decent London restaurant to accept a booking for a table of eight people. (I mean, we’re not all hen parties! Large family gatherings must be commonplace in this city, so why is it so difficult to get a large table booking?) Thankfully Pearl was able to accommodate us – and to make amends for a booking mix-up, they gave us the private room for free: this was uber swank – all the lampshades were dripping in strings of beads and pearls and a huge bowl of purple orchids as big as a fishtank decorated the table as a centrepiece.

The food is proper Michelin-standard fare – I hope the pictures say it all:

Palate cleanser of celeriac and citrus-infused jelly: amazing:

Thinly sliced raw bream on a barley risotto with lemon zest:

More swank:

Vegetable plate: aubergine caviar, tempura courgette, mozarella, tomato:

Fish topped with thinly sliced chorizo:

Er, how posh? A pre-dessert of giant couscous with vanilla cream and mango (yum):

The incredible cheese plate:

Pineapple cheesecake with other fancy accoutrements:

Homemade vanilla yoghurt with rhubarb compote and ginger ice cream:

Petits fours:

252 High Holborn
London, WC1V 7EN
Phone: 020 7829 7000

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Lewes Arms

Sometimes it's so hard to find a pub that serves decent ales AND food. But happily we stumbled upon the gem that is The Lewes Arms, a stone's throw from the castle and tucked away behind the law courts in the historic town of Lewes in East Sussex.

We arrived, bedraggled and a tad depressed from having driven around the surrounding countryside, having walked out of a gloomy country pub where we could smell kitchen bleach upon walking into the bar, and where the locals peered at us (not in a good way) when we ordered a drink. So when we arrived in Lewes in the middle of a rain storm and found this little pub with its roaring log fire, cosy little rooms and the smell of wonderful food, our hearts were lifted.

This is Fuller's pub, so you'll find Fuller's ales alongside a good range of guest beers from around the UK - they seem to be passionate about serving really decent brews. The food is hearty simple fare, and done extremely well. We sat at a little corner table and a lovely black dog came and made itself comfortable at our feet. (It's always a good sign when a pub allows dogs inside, I think.) I had a very tasty smoked salmon salad that came with lovely crisp selection of salad, including watercress and radiccio (posh!), nice dressing (rare for so many pubs) and tender slices of smoky salmon with great wedges of buttered brown bread. N had the most stupendously juicy gammon steak with caramelised criss-crossed chargrilled marks, a rich parsley sauce and new potatoes. We both licked our plates clean, and when the handsome young goth barman came to clear our plates, he winked and said 'I see you didn't enjoy your food', to which we replied 'yes, it was rubbish and we won't be returning'. The Lewes Arms is about as perfect as pubs get, to be honest.

Address: The Lewes Arms, Mount Place, Lewes, East Susses, BN7 1YH. Tel: 01273 473 512

Monday, 8 February 2010

Thai food freakiness

I love travelling to different countries and tittering at all the amusingly-titled food packaging - 'Bimbo' bread, 'Fart' candy bars, 'Crap's' chocolate etc. (I'm so mature). I'm also obsessed with finding out what strange food habits other nationalities have. We Brits have some really poor food heritage that make foreigners cringe: Marmite, SPAM, stinky hot dogs with onions from dodgy geezers around Oxford Street tube station and withered 'elephant leg' kebabs or pickled eggs on a Friday night after the pub. When I first travelled to Thailand five years ago, I thought I knew roughly what to expect in the realms of wierd food offerings: perhaps dried squid chews, smelly durian fruit and the odd dried insect. But I didn't realise you could find 'dirty' food as well - Thais are crazy for stuff like day-glo Frankfurters and tinned condensed milk!

I have photographic evidence...

Observe the Thai love of processed meat – they are just crazy for Frankfurters, those nasty (I think) pink processed sausages in vacuum packs. You’ll see them being grilled at street stalls on kebab sticks, sometimes carved or etched into different shapes, or just lying in piles of unappetising shades of beige and pink. Wherever you are in Bangkok , a Frankfurter kebab is never more than a few metres away. You can get them at train and bus stations too, in case you get a dirty pork craving on the move.

Hark! Sausage man can sell you a wiener at the bus station - mmm, what colour to choose?

Or, get your fix at the train station: puts Upper Crust in the shade does it not?

Eek! Thai-style sausage rolls, with frankfurter goodness:

Which shade of brown, pink or beige is best?

If your Frankfurters weren't plastic enough, vacu pak them!

Another thing the Thais seem to lurve is tinned Nestle Carnation condensed milk. They chuck this gloop into fruit smoothies (urgh – why?) and all hot beverages. I can’t think of anything less refreshing in the sweltering tropical heat…

It's 40 degrees centigrade: I know, a nice refeshing glass of tinned condensed milk will really chill my mouth:

Carnation not your thing? Have a lovely Yakult, it's on sale EVERYWHERE:

Scary sarnies!

I tried the squid and holy basil flavour of Lay's crips: dirty but strangely good. Less nice was curried crab - a deeply unsociable experience...

The least appetising cakes! Pandanus leaf sponge with soybean paste filling, anyone?

On a slightly different note, I am including the following but in no way does it fall into the dodgy junk food categories above: this was an amazing sea bass salad eaten at the lovely Shantaa Resort on the island of Koh Kood. It's almost so pretty it hurts, right? It came with a sweet/savoury peanut sauce on the side. It was crunchy, salty and sweet, and really addictive. I badgered the hotel manageress for the recipe: she wouldn’t give away the quantities, but told me that the sauce contained fish sauce, garlic, chilli and…caramel peanut brittle! After a week of eating this tooth-rotting sauce every other day, I have just booked to see the dentist...

Shantaa Resort's sea bass salad with special peanut sauce:

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Thailand: they love the sweet stuff!

I've just returned from a fortnight in Thailand, where I made sure I did a lot of grazing. After all, isn't that what all the best holidays are about? So, kicking off with an afternoon cookery course in Bangkok at the Baipai Thai Cooking School, I made it my mission to get under the skin of Thai food.

A lot of what I ate was delicious - fragrant curries, zingy herby salads and gorgeous Pad Thai noodles. But I had quite a significant problem: Thai food was just too sweet for me. The Thais' love of sugar in all their seasoning means that you'll get a fistful of palm sugar liberally chucked into every dish whether sweet or savoury. Even a fruit smoothie will be pepped up not only with a healthy dose of sugar, but also salt and tinned Nestle Carnation milk! I found it overwhelming at times, and wished they’d tone it down. But no matter - I still ate extremely well. I was captivated by the outdoor food markets, where you could see huge piles of dried pink shrimps stacked up next to jewel-bright greens, bundles of flowers and buckets of wriggling fish. Eating in an outdoor night market is an amazing experience - you can graze for tuppence from an array of tiny ramshackle stalls offering anything from squid and chilli kebabs to steamed coconut dumplings, and Pad Thai noodles whipped up in a wok in front of your eyes. Double yum!

Here is a selection of photos from my trip...

Bangkok noodle seller:

The ingredients of pad thai, Bangkok:

The classic pad thai dish, Bangkok:

Trat night market, fish cakes:

Trat night market, coconut dumplings:

Trat night market, pad thai seller:

Mango and sticky rice, Taling Pling restaurant, Bangkok:

Traditional Thai condiments (sugar, dried chillies, fish sauce, chillies in vinegar):

Som Tum salad seller, Koh Kood island:

Fruit seller, Khao San Road, Bangkok:

Bai Pai cookery school dish: 'Golden Bags with Tasty Combination':

Bai Pai cookery school teachers:

The classic Thai beer: Singha

Bangkok Talaat Thewet Market:

Bangkok Talaat Thewet Market fish:

Bangkok Talaat Thewet Market vegetables:

Bangkok Talaat Thewet Market dried shrimps: