Friday, 31 January 2014

Burns Night

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o need,
While thro your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead. 
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An cut you up wi ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis

Burns Night is a celebration of the life and times of the Scottish icon, Robert Burns and is held near the poets birthday, 25th January (normally the closest Saturday due to the amount of whiskey that is likely to be consumed).
Now, I'm not Scottish.  Most of my friends aren't Scottish and there is no real reason why we should be celebrating Burns night except for a general appreciation for his poetry and a desire to spend an evening in good company, eating good food and drinking good booze.  As Sinead would say, it's all about the craic.  She messaged me a few weeks ago, asking what I was doing on Saturday.  As luck would have it I happened to be free (RV later messaged me to see if I wanted to get tickets for the Play That Went Wrong, which, by all accounts is just brilliant and well worth going to see if it is in your area but I had to politely decline).

Turns out she was planning a Burns Night - we would get together, eat neaps and haggis, recite Scottish poetry, drink whiskey and play games for as long as we could see straight. 
There are certain ceremonial functions to a traditional Burns night.  You normally start with a soup course (or in our case, blini's - close enough).
Followed by the Selkirk Grace and the Piping of the Haggis.  In the absence of an actual piper who could actually play the bagpipes whilst the haggis is being bought out reverently on its silver trencher (there is a huge difference between being get a note out of a set of bagpipes and getting a half-way decent sound out of it) we settled for the Ipad.  Again, close enough.
The haggis is bought forward on a silver trencher whilst all the guests stand and solemnly swear their oaths of everlasting loyalty, fidelity, obedience and allegiance to the round mix of sheep's pluck and stomach lining on the table.

The nominated speaker then recites the Address to the Haggis before majestically and dramatically slicing into it with the ceremonial knife.  All the guests listen carefully, nodding their appreciation and not having the faintest idea what the poet is actually going on about.  Most of the time the speaker doesn't have the first blue clue what they are saying either.  We had a real Scotsman reading for us as well and he couldn't understand a word of what was coming out of his mouth.
Finally the Address to the Haggis is complete and everyone toasts with a small dram of whiskey and settles down to plates full of haggis, neaps and whiskey sauce.  I should probably pause here and explain that haggis is sheep's pluck (ie. heart, liver and lungs) minced with onions, oatmeal, suet, spices, salt and stock and traditionally encased in animal stomach lining and then simmered for 3 hours.  I know that if you have never tried haggis this does sound utterly appalling but it is delicious - it's a bit like a more complex version of the stuffing you get with a roast dinner.   Neaps are simply turnip mash (although we had parsnip mash) and you can also serve it with tatties - potato mash.  The whiskey sauce is just whiskey and cream. 
A good Burns night supper is always served with plenty of alcohol and this was no exception - there was a good selection of whiskey, beer, wine, champagne and I bought my decidedly un-Scottish Naga vodka along for people to try - it made a few eyes water! 
However a night cannot be purely about eating, drinking and reciting poetry that noone understands and after the last of the haggis was cleared away we ventured away from tradition and the games were pulled out, conveniently meaning we skipped the Toast to the Lassies and the Toast to the Laddies.  Firstly there was the drinking version of Jenga with forfeits on every brick and drinking penalties if you failed.  I made it very clear very early that I was not using the naga vodka for drinking penalties - I would have roasted my throat! 
The results here are fairly predictable.  The more people drink the more unstable the tower gets, the more overconfident they get, the more wobbly their hands get until, finally,

That's Lula looking distinctly unimpressed with the nights activities thus far.

After a brief sugar break, courtesy of my miniature salted caramel chocolate tarts (which I somehow turned into grown up dime bars due to the caramel being a bit harder than normal) we continued.
This time Dixit got pulled out.  Dixit is a game I have never played before but I am now utterly addicted.  You are given a set of beautifully crafted picture cards and you don't reveal them to anyone.  You then come up with a description for one of your cards which needs to be vague enough not to be obvious, but clever enough to still win you points and put your card facedown on the table.  Everyone else puts a card facedown on the table from their own deck which they feel matches your description.
The cards are shuffled and turned the right way up and everyone votes with their little counters for the card that they think was the original.  The scoring system is a little complicated but basically you get points only if a few people correctly guess the original card (if everyone does it was too obvious and therefore you need to try harder) and you get points if people you put down one of the other cards and people voted thinking that it was the original.
It is very clever, very creative and utterly addictive.  I think that the phrase or word below was 'Transformation of the sibling'.  Turns out it was a Labyrinth reference.
We played until the wee hours then, unable to really see straight anymore, decided it was probably time to make a move homeward bound.  We should have sung Auld Lang Syne with joined hands before we left, but the taxi arrived remarkably quickly.   I think Sinead and Ben may have inadvertently created a new annual tradition though. 

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Winter is Coming: Bacon Lattice Beef Pie

Winter is coming.
No it really is.  I know it's basically February already but after an unseasonably warm October-December I am finally getting the use out of my winter coat. The last few days the temperature has most definitely plummeted and the ice hail is decidedly unpleasant.

Winter is also coming in another sense though.  Game of Thrones is back soon-not-soon.  This is a time period that is far enough away that I shouldn't really be organising a gathering already in its honour yet here I am, organising away.  This may or may not have been inspired by the fact that RV bought me a copy of the Game of Thrones Cook Book, A Feast of Ice and Fire.  This cookbook was bloody difficult to get hold of but you can normally find copies floating around on Amazon these days.  For any fans of the book, or TV series, you will know that food and drink plays a huge part in creating the right atmosphere from the banqueting tables in the great halls at King's Landing to the cushioned tents on the plains of Essos . George R Martin even ensures that the type of food varies from region to region, from Mutton in Onion-Ale broth on The Wall to Poached Pears in Highgarden.  The cookbook is American and this means translating measurements and cooking temperatures but this isn't too much of an issue.  A bigger issue are some of the ingredients.  One of the most interesting looking recipes is Dornish Snake in Fiery Sauce but when it came to finding fresh rattlesnake in Kent I'll admit I was scuppered.  Numerous people suggested replacing it with chicken but for me that completely defeats the whole point of both the recipe and the culinary experience.
The authors of the cook book are the food bloggers Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer who own Inn at the Crossroads.  The thing that sets this food blog apart from all the others out there is that Chelsea and Sariann spend time researching the recipes in Martin's books in crumbling and dusty old medieval cook books and manuscripts.  Hence the pasty I use in my pie is the recipe that can originally be found in A Propre New Booke Of Cokery, 1545.  How's that for authentic?  Most of the recipes they present are both the medieval version, and a slightly more modern day counterpart which may be a bit truer to how Martin originally imagined the dish in the books.
In preparation for the dinner party I road tested a couple of recipes, starting with the Bacon Lattice Beef Pie from Winterfell.  The recipe book shows the medieval and the modern day version, and I opted to make the modern day version as the medieval looked a bit more like a sweet beefy pork pie than a dinner pie.  I'll be honest -the bacon lattice lid just looked cool as well.
I have translated all the measurements to their UK counterparts.  Sorry if you are reading this from across the pond! These are very specific measurements - I got as close to them as my fairly non-precise scales would allow.

Medieval Pastry Dough:

Pinch of saffron
125 ml water
113g unsalted butter, room temperature
384g plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 egg yolks, slightly beaten.

As a note, my pastry is normally awful as I have hot hands.  This pastry works so well because the water is tepid when you use it, creating a warm dough.  Gently heat the water until warm (barely warm, not hot) and then take off the heat and dissolve the saffron in it (it will dye the water but won't actually disappear).

Rub the butter into the seasoned flour with your fingers until you end up with a crumb like consistency then add the egg yolks and the saffron water.  It doesn't look like there is enough liquid to make a pastry dough but there is.  Incorporate all the ingredients together to make a dough that is yellow in colour and smooth.  Wrap in clingfilm and leave to one side to rest whilst you get on with everything else.  When you do roll it out it will look like this. Make sure you leave a bit of an overhang.
12 strips of streaky unsmoked bacon
28 grams unsalted butter
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 medium potato, peeled and cubed
2 tablespoons plain flour
680g stewing beef
236ml good quality beef stock (I've upped this from the original 118ml as my pie was a little dry)
Salt and pepper
Large pinch thyme
Bay leaf
Pre-heat your oven to 200C

First of all, lay out your bacon in a lattice pattern on a baking dish, making sure it is large enough to cover the top of your pie dish.  If it is a little bit larger, that's fine.  Make sure your baking dish has a lip all around the edge or be prepared to clean up dripped bacon fat later.
Cook your bacon near the top of the oven for 15-20 minutes until crispy.  Set aside to cool, leaving the oven on for your pie.

Melt the butter in a pan over a medium heat.  Add the onion, carrot and potato and cook gently until the onion is soft and golden.  Toss the beef in the flour until each piece is covered and then add to the vegetables and cook over a low heat until browned all over.  Stir in any extra flour and cook for 1 minute longer.

Add the stock, salt, pepper and herbs and mix well.  Turn the heat down and simmer for 20 minutes until the gravy has thickened.  Taste and check the seasoning now and adjust if required.  Let the meat mixture cool.
Grease your pastry dish with butter.  Roll out your pastry so it is big enough to line the dish with an overhang and press into the pastry dish, making sure it sits smoothly.  Fill your pasty case with the meat filling and then place the bacon lattice top over the top of it.  If you have any bacon hanging over the edge or spare just break it off, crumble it over and pop it into the pie.
Fold the overhanging dough back over the bacon top, sealing the pie and bake for about 40 minutes or until the crust is golden.
Serve wrapped in furs, with steaming cups of ale served in pewter goblets and wolves lying by the fireplace.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Chocolate Cafe

If you have a sweet tooth that you have trouble controlling you may wish to look away now.

No, don't read any further.

Stop right there.

You didn't stop, did you?

I'm sorry, but I can't help you. I did warn you and I am not responsible for your next actions.
I've walked past the Chocolate Cafe so many times in the past but have never really ventured in.  There was this one time when Steve and I stuck our heads through the door just before Christmas before deciding that was a bad mistake (the queues were rather daunting and there was nowhere to sit) but other than that I have never been beyond the front doors.
Part of that is a self-preservation thing.  If I don't go into a chocolate shop, I won't eat my way through the counter and bring the leftovers home.  However temptation finally got the better of me and I met Ellie there for a leisurely weekend lunch one cold January day.  
It is a beautifully decorated place, a little bit gauche in places it must be said but there is a theme and they have run with it.   It has that plush, decadent feel of a velvety chocolate truffle or a rich fudge cake oozing with hot chocolate sauce and slathered in cream.  Browns and golds with the gilded hues of sweetie wrappers cuddle you in out of the cold and the wall murals reminds me of the chocolate shops in Italy.
Everywhere you look there is texture and warmth, seducing you to come further.  The lighting is warm and quirky with carved ornate lanterns and hanging teapots that looked suspiciously like the friendship drinking bowls you find in Vallee D'Aoste in the Italian Alps.  There is a large space upstairs filled with snug armchairs and wooden tables, whilst downstairs tables line the glass windows allowing for a spot of people watching as you indulge your sweet tooth.

Once you enter, you are greeted by the counter piled high with chocolate treats.  They sit there, just begging you to choose them and take them away with you.  You can spend a long time deliberating between the different flavour combinations, especially as there are some particularly unusual ones there (blue cheese in a truffle?  How about melon, apple and Parmesan?).  We resisted for the moment and grabbed a table.

The menu is extensive and draws you in.  Black Tea Hot Toddy or Vanilla Ice Cream Porridge or a slice of Green Tea Cake or keep it simple with chocolate dipped strawberries? There is a full hot chocolate menu as well (you would expect nothing less from a Chocolate Cafe). 
I knew I would be diving headfirst into a pile of chocolate a bit later on so I behaved myself and ordered light to start with.  I am a sucker for herbal teas, the more unusual the better and when I saw that there was a Yerba Mate tea on the menu I had to try it.  I have never had one before and I had no idea what to expect.
I was presented with a very light and delicately fragrant herbal tea in a fruit gourd with a metal straw.  It originates from South America and has an almost citrus flavour.  You are forced to let the tea infuse for the perfect amount of time as it cools, due to the fact that the straw is just too hot to use otherwise!
The straw comes with its own filter to prevent you from accidentally swallowing the leaves (which apparently are a relation of the holly tree).  It tastes like a light, slightly woody green tea and was absolutely delicious.  Ellie had an orange and apple smoothie filled with anti-oxidants which she seemed to rather enjoy!
I have heard mixed reviews about the service at the Chocolate Cafe but when we visited we found the servers to be attentive and the food arrived quickly and piping hot.  I ordered the fresh soup of the day; a Roasted Red Pepper, Tomato and Rosemary soup.  It was thick and clearly packed full of fresh ingredients and came with a great slab of fresh bread.  It was incredibly filling, and at around £5, good value as well.  Eating it makes you feel positively virtuous, important for later on.
After the soup I ordered another tea, this time a White Chinese Flower Tea.  These are a bit of a novelty and mine tasted like a bitter Jasmine tea, an acquired taste and one I happen to like.  There were three different varieties you could order from the menu, each one with a different flavour profile.  You can see why they are a novelty; they look beautiful.  The tea comes served in a glass teapot and you watch the flower expand and the colour bleed out of the flower and steep into the water as it infuses.  You should be given a little timer for the tea to measure when to pour but I think that the servers forgot mine so I just judged it by eye.  You can always ask for a top up of water if it becomes too bitter for you. 
For dessert there was a plethora of chocolate options, from cakes and muffins and brownies to bowls of liquid 'drinking' chocolate (more like a bowl of molten chocolate).  Ellie and I went for the chocolate buffet - a selection of 4 chocolates from the chocolate bar.  I chose a white wine and pistachio chocolate (couldn't taste the wine, which was possibly a good thing), a white chocolate and cranberry popsicle truffle (divine), a dark chocolate and ginger truffle (my favourite) and a white chocolate, chili and cardamon truffle (nice flavour palate but I would have liked a little more chili heat at the finish).  They don't look very big but they were incredibly rich and I was struggling to finish mine at the end! 
The Chocolate Cafe also sells a selection of home made cakes, breads and muffins to take away or eat in as well as goodies from their shop.  There is free wi-fi throughout and we weren't made to feel rushed at all during our stay.  We got so caught up in our chatter as well that 3 hours had vanished before we realised it and not once did we feel like the staff were hinting that we should leave.
They have just started doing kids parties at the 'Chocolate Spa', which, if the photo's are anything to go by, look brilliant and extremely messy!  I found that the prices were a little bit dearer than a bog standard cafe but the quality was excellent and well worth the slight increase.

There is a full wine bar as well and on some evenings the Chocolate Cafe does acoustic music nights, comedy nights and even workshops for kids.  It's well worth following them on Facebook to keep up-to-date with their activities.
I have a feeling that this place is going to be bad for my waist line.