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.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

FRANCE: Nobu Matsuhisa comes to Paris at Le Royal Monceau Raffles

bathroom in the Deluxe Collection Room at Le Royal Monceau - Raffle Paris

The country's first Matsuhisa restaurant opens at Le Royal Monceau - Raffles Paris

World-renowned restaurateur and celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa has an internationally recognised name, although it's usually either his given or his family name hanging above a restaurant door. Both are associated with the high-end fusion cuisine that blends traditional Japanese dishes with Peruvian ingredients. His restaurants go by the name of Matsuhisa and Nobu, and together they can be found at 39 sites dotted around the globe.

The most recent addition to this galaxy of stars is the very first in the whole of France, Matsuhisa Paris, which opened in Le Royal Monceau in March this year, and is Nobu's sixth Matsuhisa restaurant.

Under the guidance of Executive Head Chef Hideki Endo, this latest outpost has both adopted and adapted the celebrated formula of Peruvian-Japanese cuisine from Nobu's other restaurants, whilst managing to incorporate some local French delicacies. Think algae tacos with black truffle, crispy oysters with caviar, and wagyu beef with foie gras ravioli and ponzu sauce.

Matsuhisa Paris at Le Royal Monceau - Raffle Paris
If you'd like to put your trust into the kitchen entirely, go for the omakase menu, which roughly translates to a multi-course feast chosen by the chef on the day, dependent on the best ingredients he has to hand. I've tried an omakase menu at a sushi bar in Tokyo, to much delight. It's often the best way to go if you're feeling indecisive. You don't know what you're going to get, it just keeps coming, and it's all very good.

From the all round very well executed menu I sampled during my visit, highlights included the sashimi trio: yellowtail with jalapeno and yuzu soy sauce, scallops, and seabass with dry miso. The spinach salad with dry miso might have been my favourite dish from the entire meal, and the wagyu with antichucho sauce (cumin, aj√≠ pepper and garlic) was glorious. Our table asked for some off menu otoro (the fattiest and most prized part of the tuna belly), because if you don't ask, you don't get. And we got. Marbled, delicate, gorgeous.

the Deluxe Collection Room at Le Royal Monceau - Raffle Paris

If you're popping over from London to pay the new Matsuhisa a visit, and you fancy pushing the boat out, it makes sense to spend the night in one of Le Royal Monceau's exquisite rooms. The property reopened in 2010 after a dramatic and complete two year transformation by designer Phillippe Starck. And the result is impressive.

The Deluxe Collection Room I stayed in is inspired by the 1940s and 50s, with a walk-in closet as big as my bathroom at home. And every inch of the actual bathroom is tiled in mirrors. No hiding in there. 

It's also worth noting that one-way tickets on Eurostar now start at just £29 (based on a return journey), if you book far enough in advance. Which is a steal, and probably cheaper than getting to the rest of the UK.

Note: the meal at Matsuhisa Paris, the travel on Eurostar, and the stay at Le Royal Monceau Raffles were all hosted as part of a media visit. All views remain my own.

Related links

Monday, 16 May 2016

AUSTRALIA: How to spend 5 days in and around Sydney (the Blue Mountains) - Part 2

views of the vast eucalyptus forests from Echo Point, Blue Mountains

Think you need weeks, rather than days, to do any bit of Oz justice? Not necessarily. I hopped over to Sydney via Doha on Qatar Airways for a total of one week - two days travelling, and five days exploring. That's a decent amount of time to cover a city and its surroundings areas. 

Segueing seamlessly into the second part of this two part series - the first covering how to spend three days in the city of Sydney - this post deals with the remaining two days of the five I spent in this part of Australia. 

Less than two hours away by train or car and around 85km northwest of Sydney, you'll find the slice of eucalyptus paradise that is the vast Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, and one of the country's most spectacular natural parks. 

If you're into the great outdoors, wildlife, nature and adventure, the Blue Mountains' close proximity to one of Australia's most popular cities, means a night or two there really can't be missed if you find yourself in this part of the world. 

What to do in the Blue Mountains

Have an outdoor adventure at Scenic World

Scenic World in Katoomba (the chief town of the City of Blue Mountains) has quite a bit to boast about. It's got the steepest incline railway in the world (that's us in it in the picture below), the steepest aerial cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, and a 2.4 km pathway through rainforest that's hardly changed since the Jurassic period, which also happens to be the longest boardwalk in the Southern Hemisphere.

Add to that bristling panoramas of the wilderness, waterfalls, valleys and rugged sandstone tablelands, and the opportunity to explore ancient caverns and discover limestone crystal and underground rivers deep within the mountains, and you have the makings of the ultimate Blue Mountains adventure.

And all this less than two hours from Sydney. What a treat. 

Scenic World, Corner Violet Street & Cliff Drive, Katoomba NSW 2780

Scenic World in Katoomba, Blue Mountains

Soak up the views at Echo Point Lookout

We almost bypassed this, as we'd spent the morning feasting on gorgeous views at Scenic World. But I'm glad we didn't.

Perched on the edge of the escarpment, on the traditional land of the Gundungurra and Darug People, all that stands between you and eucalyptus forests fading into the horizon is a metal railing. Which makes for some fantastic and completely unobstructed photo opportunities.

From this point you can see the southern Blue Mountains, Kanangra-Boyd Wilderness, and the storied Three Sisters sandstone rock formation from a variety of lookouts. You can also head down the path to the Three Sisters Walk, and for those after something a bit more taxing, take the 980 steps down the Giant Stairway to the valley floor. 

It's also a great spot to appreciate how the area got its name. These immense forests are densely populated by eucalyptus trees heavy with oil. They fill the atmosphere with finely dispersed droplets of oil, which, in combination with dust particles and water vapour, scatter short wavelength blue light. This means on warm days, the whole area is cloaked in a blue haze. Very cool.

Echo Point Escarpment, Echo Point NSW 2780
More details about Echo Point on the Destination NSW website.

magnificent views from Echo Point lookout

Get close to nature on a bush walk

Oh boy, did I enjoy this. The hugely passionate Tim from Tread Lightly Eco Tours drove us into a remote part of the World Heritage area early one morning, to rendezvous with some kangaroos. Mist-covered wilderness, learning about wildlife and the Blue Mountains environment, spotting loads of wild wallabies and kangaroos - this was right up my street.

I learnt a serious amount of interesting nature facts, which for a wildlife nut like me, I couldn't get enough of. 

Did you know: kangaroos are the only animal on the planet to be permanently pregnant (bonkers reproductive process - look it up). They're also the only animal on the planet to not have a gait i.e. they can't move their legs independently, they can only hop (rabbits can walk, if you're wondering). There's a mind-boggling 22,000 species of fungi in the Blue Mountains, one of the highest concentrations in the world. It also has one of the highest counts of lightening strikes thanks to the conductive iron sand rock, and it's that lightening that creates about 1000 bush fires a year. And Australia is the only country that has trees which drop their bark in autumn, instead of their leaves. I mean, I could go on.

Tim also packed a breakfast for us to enjoy al fresco in the morning dew, including still-warm rhubarb turnovers made by his wife, yoghurt, homemade granola, and coffee. Really, it was a good morning.

Tread Lightly Eco Tours, 102 Great Western Highway, Medlow Bath NSW 2780

spotting kangaroos and wallabies on a bush walk with Echo Tours, Blue Mountains

Where to eat in the Blue Mountains

High Tea at The Hydro Majestic

The Hydro Majestic is in fact one of the country's most iconic and historical hotels. The Wintergarden is a popular dining option within the property, thanks to the sweeping views over the Megalong Valley. It's here that people come from far and wide to enjoy a premium afternoon high tea, whilst gazing out the windows over the sensational surroundings.

I appreciated the option of an Eastern High Tea, with steamed dumplings, crispy BBQ duck spring rolls, coconut chicken sugar cane skewers, twice cooked pork belly and a selection of eastern and western desserts, with the usual choice of tea or coffee. Particularly good if you're from the UK where we're spoilt with afternoon tea options, and you're a bit jaded by the classic format.

The Hydro Majestic, 52-88 Great Western Highway, Medlow Bath NSW 2780

high tea at The Hydro Majestic, Blue Mountains

Leura Garage

There's no hiding this laid back and bustling restaurant was once a mechanic's workshop; there's timber, steel, stone and leather, with a vintage car-hoist used as a wine rack and plant pots made from stacked tyres. 

Leura Garage is about hearty and fresh food cooked simply, blending the best of city and country life, with a strong nod towards Italian cuisine. Expect the likes of big and bold salads, arancini and calamari, pastas with beef ragout or mountain mushrooms, roast lamb shoulder, and a range of pizzas.

They also take their environmental impact very seriously, taking great pains to minimise their carbon footprint. A rainwater storage system holding 22,000 litres makes the restaurant self-sustainable for its water needs, and 100 square metres of solar panels on the roof help keep electricity bills at a minimum. Along with a host of other initiatives, it's a beacon in eco-construction in one of the country's most beautiful natural environments.

Leura Garage, 84 Railway Parade, Leura NSW 2780

lunch at Leura Restaurant in Leura, Blue Mountains

Echoes Restaurant

Should you want to enjoy dinner teetering on the very edge of the Blue Mountains National Park, this is the place to do it. Outstanding views are a common theme when visiting this part of the world, and the ones from Echoes Restaurant boast cliff edges and lush rainforest valleys, right through the Jamison Valley to Mittagong, 80km away.

The menu showcases modern Australian cooking with an Asian influence using local produce, and complimented by select boutique Australian and imported wines. Expect the likes of pan-fried quail with kale, shimeji mushroom and a tamarind and honey glaze, and chicken wrapped in jamon with sweet potato and quinoa rosti, braised fennel, wild mushroom and truffle velout√©.

Echoes Restaurant, 3 Lilianfels Ave, Katoomba NSW 2780

sunset views from Echoes Restaurant, Blue Mountains
dinner and views at Echoes Restaurant, Blue Mountains

Where to stay in the Blue Mountains

You'll find Fairmont Resort in Leura, one of the most charming upper-mountain cities in the country. Incidentally, it's also the only city in the world that is actually within a world heritage area. And it's also the only city in the world that has managed to keep McDonald's from opening a restaurant there, even if it does cost the local council $150k a year in legal fees. Keep up the good fight! Both things I learnt from Tim during our bush walk with him (above); told you he was a fountain of fascinating facts.

Part of the prestigious MGallery collection, Fairmont Resort features 222 charming and spacious boutique-style rooms and suites, surrounded by Jamison Valley, and adjoins Leura Golf Club. It's an upscale base from which to launch your Blue Mountain adventures.

Fairmont Resort, 1 Sublime Point Rd, Leura NSW 2780

Fairmont Resort Blue Mountains, Australia

How to get to the Blue Mountains

I've already covered the journey from London to Sydney on Qatar Airways in Part 1 of this two part series - do check it out. It was a joy.

To get to the Blue Mountains from Sydney, you can drive the 90 minutes direct via the M4 motorway, or take the scenic route through the Hawkesbury along Bells Line of Road. If you're catching the train, get the Blue Mountains Line from Sydney's Central Station to Katoomba, and you'll be there in just two hours.


Note: This Sydney trip was hosted by Destination New South Wales and the flights by Qatar Airways. Thank you to everyone involved for a truly wonderful experience. I've been greatly missing Sydney since the moment I left..

All views remain my own, as always.

Related links

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