Saturday, 20 August 2016

RECIPE: Almond and thyme-crusted macaroni cheese muffins

A recipe for macaroni cheese muffins with an almond and thyme crust

I don't need much of an excuse to eat cheddar, a cheese that's most definitely in my top five favourites. So when the nice folk over at Danish cheese brand Castello asked me to come up with a simple recipe that 'breaks the rules', using one of their three Tickler cheddars, I needed little persuading.

macaroni cheese muffins
I've taken inspiration from a classic Cypriot dish called firin makarna (oven-baked macaroni cheese), where grated halloumi is used to make a cheese sauce, it's layered with lamb mince, baked in the oven, allowed to cool and harden, and served at room temperature portioned up into cubes. It's a different baked take on what is one of my favourite plates of food in the world: halloumi pasta with lemon and mint

Instead, I've stuck with a classic cheese sauce using Tickler Extra Mature Cheddar, omitted the lamb so it's good for veggies, added some spinach to help with the fibre quota, and jazzed them up with a thyme, almond and breadcrumb crust for extra flavour. I've also made them into individual muffin portions, so they're perfect picnic and party finger food. They're really very good. But then I guess it's hard to go too wrong with pasta and quality cheese.

RECIPE: Almond and thyme-crusted macaroni cheese muffins 

Makes around 18 muffins

For the cheese sauce
600ml whole milk, room temperature
50g unsalted butter
50g plain flour
350g block of Castello Extra Mature Tickler Cheddar, grated (keep 30g aside) (pic 2)
Fresh nutmeg
Black pepper

For the muffin crusts
2 garlic cloves
2 tbsp olive oil
1tsp butter
1//2 tbsp of thyme leaves
50g panko breadcrumbs
30g of grated Castello Extra Mature Tickler Cheddar (what you kept aside from above)
20g toasted almond flakes

For the muffins
400g elbow macaroni

70g baby spinach, roughly chopped

Here's the link to the step-by-step recipe for these macaroni cheese muffins with almond and thyme crusts on the Castello website for you to try at home. If you do, we'd love to know how it went! You can share your cheesy pasta muffins on Instagram and Twitter tagging @CastelloUK, or using the #DiscoverTickler hashtag. And tag me as well please - I'd love to see too. 

This is a sponsored post, in partnership with Castello, as part of their #DiscoverTickler campaign. I hope you get to try this recipe - it's GOOD. 

ingredients for almond and thyme-crusted macaroni cheese muffins
making the macaroni cheese muffins

making the macaroni cheese muffins

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

USA: 10 places to eat in downtown St Petersburg, Florida

Where to eat in downtown St Pete, FL

a moody St. Pete waterfront
I happened to be in the States for last year's Independence Day. Specifically Los Angeles, in what was week 28 of mine and the other half's eight month round-the-world travel stint (I've almost been back a year now - boy, that time has flown). I happened to wind up there for this 4th July too, thanks to the lovely folk at Visit The USA.

They asked me if I'd be keen on visiting St. Petersburg in Florida (close to Tampa), to discover the city through the medium of food, and share some intrepid culinary reporting with my readers. The answer was of course, yes. And by pure coincidence, my visit fell over Independence Day.  

I would be going on my own, with no itinerary and no schedule; I'd be free to seek out the best eating spots of my own accord and order what I want; I'd be able to call being a grazing glutton for five days in a new city 'work'; and I could totally make some new pals over street party beer drinking in the name of America's birthday (that's what they do, right?). I was well up for the task. 

It was a fab trip, and I'm really starting to get the draw of solo travel. There's no one to answer to, and it forces you to embrace your surroundings more than you might do with a familiar face in tow.

making new pals in St. Pete
Probably because of this, I ended up in a whisky bar one night, watching an adorably nerdy and simultaneously excellent blues band who were so good, I bought them a round of Jameson, and had one too many myself (I didn't leave the room until 1pm the next day). 

And I met some lovely lads in a café, who invited me to join them watching the July 4th fireworks. We ended the evening guffawing over cocktails and the hilarious differences between the English spoken in our two countries - thanks again guys. 

From my non-stop eating in St. Petersburg, with visits based on recommendations from locals and my own research, here are my favourite picks.

an all American breakfast at The Hangar
Restaurant, St Pete

1) The Hangar Restaurant & Flight Lounge

Some of the best meals I had in St Pete. were the breakfasts. I'm talking big portions of all-American classics; the things Brits will always order whenever we hop over the pond. You just can't find this stuff in the UK.

Get yourself to The Hangar Restaurant at Albert Whitted Airport; it's a very small one right on Tampa Bay for private aircraft. Order the Applewood smoked bacon, stone-ground grits, buttermilk biscuit, an iced tea, and get some biscuit gravy as an extra. What a way to start the day - it was terrific.

The Hangar Restaurant, 540 1st St SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701

hangover-busting brunch at Cassis, St Pete

2) Cassis American Brasserie

This was on the morning after that night of whisky. It was July 4th, I was worried most places would be closed, and I'd figured I'd almost certainly missed any brunch menus that might have been on (remember, I left the room late). 

I did a bit of dazed wandering down Beach Drive, and just before the point of collapse - a horrid hangover with unrelenting humidity is most unpleasant - I found myself in front of a couple eating outside (how?!), with eggs on their plate. Exactly what I wanted.

AC and a great corned beef hash at Cassis Bakery, with two sunny side up eggs. Yeh, that hit the spot.

Cassis American Brasserie, 170 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701

homemade Reuben knish made with love
from Saturday Morning Market, St Pete

3) Saturday Morning Market

If you happen to find yourself in St. Pete over a weekend, I'd recommend the Saturday Morning Market. 

Their mission: to be the heart of St. Petersburg, where people feel a strong sense of 'joyful connectedness and creative community'. 

You'll find real farmers, great food, interesting crafts and lively music, with a range of gourmet ready-to-eat and take-home treats.

Still on UK time, I got there bright and early and had my first breakfast stop of the day: a Reuben knish with home-cured corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and potato. Plus a ginger kombucha over ice because I was already wilting, even at 9am.

Saturday Morning Market, 100 1st Street SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701

all of the legs at 400 Beach
Sunday buffet, St Pete

4) 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House

Another weekend must do is the Sunday buffet brunch at 400 Beach. Buffets are a done thing in America, and done well - very much unlike the UK, where they're generally considered a bit naff.

There are a lot of them in St. Pete, but I didn't find another that offered all you can eat crustacean. Alaskan snow crab legs a plenty, I spent a glorious hour cracking, poking and sucking the hell out of those things like I was on commission.

There's other stuff too, like fresh salads, fry up staples, an omelette station, a carving station, and a whole little room of desserts. But it's the crab that brings the boys and girls to the yard.

400 Beach Seafood & Tap House, 400 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701

iced coffee and scone to beat the
FL heat at Banyan Café, St Pete

5) Banyan Café

Banyan Café on Central is a great spot to take some respite from the oppressive summer air. I intercepted a morning's wanderings with their iced Kahwa coffee and one of their fresh homemade scones, with mango and cinnamon.

It's also where I bumped into my 4th July pals (see above), and then got chatting to another guy who was visiting from California, to see if he should up and move his business here. Who then joined me for lunch (see Bodega below). Sure, why not.

Those Americans sure are a friendly bunch.

Banyan Café, 701 Central Ave, St. Petersburg, FL 33701

lunch fuel on Central,
The Cuban from Bodega, St Pete

6) Bodega

There is much online rhapsodising about The Cuban sandwich found at Bodega on Central. 

A shack with a chalkboard menu and paper dinner boxes, the menu at Bodega is inspired by the islands of Latin America, alongside a fresh juice bar to help with that heat (I know I keep going on about it, but it really was so hot).

In your sandwich expect roast pork ham, Swiss, pickles and mayo, and out the front expect a queue. I felt a bit like an extra in the film Chef.

Bodega, 1120 Central Ave, St. Petersburg, FL 33705

getting those greens in at
The Cider Press Cafe, St Pete

7) The Cider Press Café

Whilst it's tempting to fill your boots on carbs and protein when visiting the States, it's important to get those greens in.

A good spot for this is the Cider Press Café for some sunshine eating in the form of Florida inspired plant-based food.

I ticked off some of my fibre quota with The Cider Press Salad: mixed greens, apple, carrot, berries, smoked pecans and an apple cider, ginger and lemon dressing. And a kale, spinach, banana, mango and pineapple smoothie for good measure.

The Cider Press Café, 601 Central Ave. St Petersburg, FL 33701

big ice cream game from Paciugo, St Pete

8) Paciugo

Everything really is bigger in America. This was probably the largest ice cream I've ever been given, and it was only a regular.

A national chain founded in 2000 by Italians who moved to Dallas and missed the flavours of Italy, Paciugo's gelato is made by hand each day and comes in a brain-bending number of flavours

I got scoops of four much-loved classics - a fab chocolate sorbet, pistachio, coffee and salted caramel. It was all over my hand within seconds; I had to upturn the beast into a tub and attack it with a spoon.

Paciugo, 300 Beach Dr, Ste. 120, St Petersburg, FL 33701

steaming pho for a hot day at La V, St Pete

9) La V

I might have still been acclimatising to the heat and humidity on my first evening, but it didn't stop me chasing a steaming bowl of pho.

I found a lovely bowl at La Vie, with 12 hour stewed beef broth and generous amounts of meat, all paired with a hoppy Tampa Bay Old Elephant Foot IPA.

And then I knocked out by 9pm, as it was 2am in my head.

La V, 441 Central Ave, St. Petersburg, FL 33701

seafood-focussed fine dining
at Sea Salt St Pete

10) Sea Salt St. Pete

I was told I wasn't allowed to visit Florida and not eat groupa. I'm all for unwritten rules, so here she be. A glorious blackened groupa fillet from Sea Salt St. Pete, with a very nice Sancerre. 

There are few things more pleasurable than having a fancy pants solo meal with cocktails and wine and small and sweet Kumamoto oysters from British Columbia and great service - it was a pretty sweet evening.

Sea Salt St. Pete, 183 2nd Ave North, St. Petersburg, FL 33701

This is a sponsored post in partnership with Visit The USA, as part of a campaign to showcase the flavours of the country, one destination at a time. If you end up visiting St. Pete and trying out any of the treats above, I'd love to hear about it!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

RECIPE: Madeira loaf, lemon curd and blueberry trifle pots

A recipe for lemon curd and blueberry trifles made with low-fat quark cream cheese

Madeira loaf, lemon curd and
blueberry trifle pots

The Queen is 90 this year - three cheers for Her Majesty! I'll tell you who else has turned 90 this year, Sir David Attenborough. As wildlife and nature are my biggest passions after food and eating, David has been one of my all time heroes since I was a kid. And so, I'd like to dedicate this bake to both of these elderly but mighty great British institutions. 

The Queen is celebrating with a big bash today - The Patron's Lunch. The Mall in St James’s Park has been transformed for its largest ever street party, to celebrate Her Majesty's patronage of over 600 charities and organisations.

There'll be many more parties happening up and down the country, and Stork intend to provide the best baking inspiration for them.

As part of that, they got in touch with a few bakers to come up with fitting recipes for the occasion, to share on the Stork website. My brief, trifle! 

Now I'll be honest, I've never been much of a trifle fan. I don't like things with too much cream, and I really don't like jelly. So I took this as a great opportunity to come up with something that would appeal to all, even those who think they might not like trifle. 

Meaning “curd” in Slavic, quark is a soft, white and un-aged cheese made from whey. It has a much lower fat content than other cream cheeses (99.8% fat-free) and is popular in Scandanavia and Eastern Europe. Where a dish requires a voluptuous creaminess, I often use quark in place of higher fat alternatives, such as in this beetroot and quark dip. It both cooks well and is also excellent used in desserts. Best of all, you'll find it in all the standard supermarkets.

Quark sweetened with lemon curd makes up the white layer, and the rest is Madeira cake, more lemon curd, and blueberries. What you end up with is a clean, light, and refreshing trifle, that contains a lot less fat than its classic counterparts. 

This really is a great recipe, even if I do say so. I looked so forward to scoffing these every evening until my portions ran out. I'll definitely be rustling these up again.

stages of making the Madeira loaf, lemon curd and  blueberry trifle pots

What I've done is use Stork with Butter to make the Madeira loaf, and used cut up slices of that as the layers between the quark mix and lemon curd. This is the link to the step-by-step recipe on the Stork website for you to follow at home. I've been a long time fan of using Stork when baking sponges - it's a versatile ingredient, and the fact it can be used straight from the fridge is always a bonus. 

Here's the link to my Madeira loaf, lemon curd and blueberry trifle recipe for you to try at home. If you do, the lovely folk over at Stork would love to see how it went. You can share your trifles on Instagram tagging @bakewithstork, Twitter tagging @bakewithstork, or Facebook tagging the /bakewithstork page. And tag me as well please - I'd love to see too. And feel free to leave a comment below, letting us know how it went - I'd love to know what you think!

This is a sponsored post, in partnership with Stork, as part of a street party campaign to celebrate the Queen's 90th birthday and The Patron's Lunch. I hope you get to try this recipe - it's a corker! 

Related links
RECIPE: 'The Elvis' sandwich peanut butter, banana and bacon mini cakes
RECIPE: Easter Chick Cupcakes with Stork

Sunday, 5 June 2016

CHINA: 8 Sichuan dishes to eat in Chongqing

head to Eling Park for fantastic views over Chongqing

Sichuan dishes to eat in Chongqing

You may not have heard of Chongqing - a mountainous municipality, pitched at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers in south west China, about the size of Austria, and with a population of around 30 million - but if you're a person that's into your food, you have almost certainly heard of Sichuan cooking.

Chongqing was in fact part of Sichuan province until 1997, when it became one of China's four municipalities controlled directly by the central Government (the other three being Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin). They might have parted ways in the 90's, but their culinary roots continue to unite them; along with the city of Chengdu, Chongqing is one of the best places to get your chops around fiery Sichuan food.

The backbone of this internationally-heralded regional Chinese cuisine, is the permeating smoulder of dried chillies, the slap of raw garlic, and a tingling tongue from numbing and citrusy Sichuan peppercorns, all balanced out with dashes of black vinegar, fermented soya beans, ginger, star anise and peanuts. The same handful of ingredients showing up in so many of the local dishes, does sometimes mean they merge into one long chilli-train flavour profile. But if it's a flavour profile you like, (or in my case, love), you're in for a treat.

chillies, funky fermented things, more chillies - Chongqing

This was my first visit to mainland China (I've been to Hong Kong and Taipei - both of which I adored), and I'll be honest, I had a few not-so-favourable preconceptions; I was bracing myself. To both my surprise and relief, none of these were confirmed. The people were very friendly, the city was seriously clean (street sweepers everywhere), and the constant spitting which I hear plagues parts of urban China was barely present. 

First impressions count for a lot, and based on my experience of Chongqing, I'd go back to China in a heartbeat. Which just goes to show how important it is to experience something first hand and make up your own opinions. I may get my money's worth from that three year visa yet.

What I found particularly impressive is that before 1993, there were only ten or so buildings that had ten floors in Chongqing. Today, it's earnt the title of one of China's 13 emerging mega-cities, with around 1600 skyscrapers stretching into the horizon. And in terms of dining habits, I noticed the Chinese (at least those in these parts) tend to eat their evening meal earlier than the rest of the continent, with street food stalls and restaurants packing up at around 9-9.30pm.

My advice: get out early and hunt down as many of the below essential Sichuan eats as possible. It's not an exhaustive list by any means, but it's what I managed in my limited time there, and it's a damn good place to start.

scenes from Chongqing

1) Gong Bao (Kung Pao) Ji Ding - chicken with peanuts and dried chillies 

A very tourist-friendly dish and a good place to begin is with kung pao chicken, often found on Chinese menus outside China, especially in the States. The main ingredients are diced chicken, spring onions, dried chillies and peanuts, yet it's a dish that isn't actually that hot. 

The flavour is dominated by a sweetness, with a mellow hint of fire. It also lacks the fermented funkiness found in many other Sichuan dishes. Still full of flavour and very satisfying, this is a great dish through which to introduce the uninitiated to the local fare, and an easy one to replicate at home.

gong bao (kung pao) chicken in Chongqing

2) Suan La Fen - sour and hot glass noodles

suan la fen, sour and hot sweet
potato noodles in Chongqing
This guy is making suan la fen, sour and hot glass noodles. A stiff dough is made from sweet potato starch (hence the colour), which is then placed inside a bowl with large holes in the bottom. 

The mixture is thixotropic, meaning its viscosity changes depending on how much it's moved; the more it's aggravated, the more liquid the substance becomes. A bit like ketchup.

The dough which starts off firm ends up flowing out of the holes as the guy shakes the bowl. It falls into the water and cooks as chewy long strands, which are then served in a hot and sour chilli broth, topped with peanuts and coriander. 

I snapped this cook in the old town of Chongqing, but you can find this dish all over. It's pretty easy to spot if somewhere sells suan la fen, just look for the pictured set up.

3) Mapo Doufu 

This is a big favourite when it comes to Sichuan cuisine. Translated literally as "pock-marked woman's tofu," the dish was created in the 19th century by a lady with a pock-marked face, to sell from her family-owned tavern. The principal behind her creativity was to make a tasty and soulful staple from simple and inexpensive ingredients - silken tofu, ground beef or pork, fermented chilli bean paste, sichuan peppercorns, and lots of hot chilli oil.

You can find the dish all over China, so do try to seek it out wherever you are in the country. The chilli heat doesn't blast the cobwebs in one hit; expect it as a more gradual and layered presence, coming through as both sweet and hot.

mapo doufu in Chongqing

4) Dan Dan Mian - noodles with pork, chilli, garlic and vinegar 

Dan dan noodles is another Sichuan dish commonly seen outside of China, and one of my favourite things I ate during my visit. Spicy noodles will always be a failsafe crowd pleaser, and boy, does it please me. 

There are vendors selling this stuff everywhere, where piles of fresh, bouncy, and stretchy noodles are topped with dried chillies, soy sauce, black vinegar, sugar, salt, MSG, garlic, ground peanuts, chopped spring onions, ground Sichuan peppercorns, chopped pickled mustard root, and the omnipresent chilli oil. You can sometimes get ground pork too, if you're feeling fancy.

It's just so good. Sucking up the first of those savoury, oily, fiery strands sets the pleasure receptors into overdrive - obscenely delicious.

dan dan noodles in Chongqing

5) Hot Pot 

You're not allowed to visit Chongqing and not have hotpot - it's an unwritten rule. Now readily available all over the country and beyond, it is Chongqing that's the birthplace of China's version of fondue.

How it works is a group of friends sit around a circular table, at the middle of which there is a bubbling vat of broth over a gas flame, surface scattered with whole star anise, sichuan peppercorns, and a heck of a lot of dark red chilli oil. Furiously boiling liquid magma, plus all those chillies, makes for a seriously warm dining experience.

Plates of fresh and raw ingredients are brought to the table - anything from vegetables and tripe, to squid and thinly sliced beef - and each person dunks in what they fancy, cooking their food in the broth themselves. There are dipping sauces to coat your goods in before popping them in your mouth, such as sesame and of course, more chilli oil.

The social aspect is a big part of hotpot, so it works best when there are a few of you, rather than just two or someone dining solo. If you are on your own, make some friends and join another table - I bet they'd love to have you. Once you get past the shock of the huge block of white lard that's put into the broth at the start to melt and flavour the stock, the whole thing is a very fun experience. Especially with a few ice-cold local beers.

hotpot in Chongqing

6) Shuizhu Rou Pian  

This dish often uses fish (yu) but our version was with pork (rou pian). Either way, expect the copious amounts of chilli oil in it to be so extensive, that it will be slopping out the sides of the bowl by the time it's reached your table. 

Tender fillets of meat are marinated and brined, coated in cornstarch, and consumed by hot broth with a thick layer of chilli oil, and a smattering of dried chillies and sichuan peppercorns. As you drag the meat out from its fiery bath through the spicy oil, it will get a flavoursome coating, as may you shirt.

shuizhu rou pian in Chongqing

7) Shao Kao - grilled skewers 

Grilled skewers are representative of the country as a whole, rather than Sichuan areas specifically - they can be found on street corners throughout China. If you can thread it onto a stick, you'll find someone giving it a good grilling. Particularly popular in summer months when patrons seek out night bites and cold beers on balmy evenings. Whether you're in Chongqing or elsewhere in the country, get yourself a handful.

BBQ skewers in Chongqing

8) Chuan Bei Liang Fen - mung bean jelly with chilli sauce 

It's far from obvious what this is when you first spot it at a street stall or on someone's plate in a restaurant; I thought it might have been boiled down and cut up cartilage. This white and opaque jelly-like substance is in fact slippery mung bean jelly - made by boiling mung bean starch in water - and it's a favourite cold dish of Sichuan cuisine. 

It will come covered in numbing and hot chilli paste, with the usual sugar and vinegar to help balance things out. Expect plenty of deep, smoky, roasted heat - lovely stuff.

chuan bei liang fen - mung bean jelly with chilli sauce in Chongqing

How to get to Chongqing

Just when I start to think I'm getting to know the aviation industry, I'm reminded I still definitely do not. For example, I had no idea a Nordic airline was one of the best and most popular ways to get over to Asia. 

Finnair were in fact the first Western European airline to fly non stop to China; it was Beijing in 1988. They were also the first Western European airline to fly to Xi'an, the place with great Muslim Chinese food and the world-famous terracotta army (see my next post for more on that). Another claim is they were the first airline in the world to send SMS messages to customers regarding their flights. Which is fitting, seeing as SMS was invented in Finland. 

Their minimum connection time in Helsinki is 35 mins, and they're rather proud of their extremely low statistic of only losing 4 in 1000 pieces of luggage - that's a very good number.

I was lucky enough to experience their fully flat beds in business class, which included some of the best food I've eaten at 30,000 feet. That's thanks to the new culinary collaboration for long-haul business passengers, with world-class chefs Steven Liu from China and Sasu Laukkonen from Finland, launched in April this year. 

Think such Nordic delights as cucumber and dill soup with yoghurt and smoked salmon tarter; pressed beef neck with celeriac puree, herb butter and spring vegetables; Peltolan Blue and Viinitarhuri Finnish cheeses; organic Finnish ice cream by Jymy; and a very healthy stock of the excellent Finnish Napue gin, voted the best gin in the world to have with tonic, according to the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC)

Get a couple of those down your neck along with some fine bubbles, and you can start the holiday well before you get there.

aboard a Finnair flight from Helsinki to Chongqing


Note: This trip and the flights was hosted by Finnair. Thank you to everyone involved for a truly wonderful experience. Must get back to China...

All views remain my own, as always.

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