Friday, 29 November 2013

selfridges christmas hamper challenge: panettone party bites

Great things come in small packages. It turns out they also come in bigger packages, made of wicker and with mustard yellow leather buckles. Or a luxury hamper, to be precise. A rather gorgeous one emblazoned with an ‘S’ on the front and stuffed to the gilt with all manner of things that desire to be nibbled and quaffed around this time of year.
I have the kind folk at Selfridges to thank for this gift. But as my mother says, ‘you don’t get something for nothing in this world’. No, wait, that’s not it. It's ‘you get what you pay for’. Usually in response to me moaning about Primark flip-flops separating into foam and thong in the middle of the street leaving me shoeless and the subject of much comedy.

Regardless, a challenge had been accepted in order for me to receive this hamper; create a Christmas dish to entertain guests from the delights that lay within. The contents at my disposal were a lot of rather good Selfridges own label products: Chianti, Prosecco, a bottle of Touraine Sauvignon, piccalilli, savoury thyme biscuits, chocolate butter shortbread biscuits, English fudge, strawberry jam, a Christmas pudding, a box of chocolates, brandy butter, giant chocolate coin, tea and coffee. But the main item that caught my eye was the stonking 1kg panettone that, once the cellophane was breached, filled the kitchen with the aroma signature to this enriched, intense, slightly sweet Italian bread. 

Incidentally, it's one of my favourite things to eat at Christmas and if you want to try making one yourself, here is a step-by-step guide to baking a panettone - it is entirely worth the effort. A lot of effort, mind. But without a doubt one of the most satisfying things that would ever come out of your kitchen.

Panettone at Christmas is nothing new. But a slab of it on a plate and served to guests can feel a little uninspired. Here’s a very simple but festive way to jazz up this well-loved loaf as finger food, of which there can never be enough of at any gathering of merriment.

Panettone Party Bites A large panettone (750g-1kg) Some chocolate, to melt (I used the chocolate coin) Festive cookie cutters Edible gold glitter (optional) Take the panettone and peel off the cardboard casing. Place the bread right side up on a cutting board and with a large bread knife, score marks right around the circumference approximately 1.5cm from the bottom. Slice off a whole round following the scores you’ve made, try to keep the slice all the same thickness. Using your festive cookie cutters, punch out shapes from your slice of bread. Tip: As panettone has many air holes in it, try to avoid including any very large ones in your shapes as they will cause them to easily break apart. Repeat slicing off rounds of the same thickness and punching out more shapes until you have either used up all of the bread or have the desired number of cut-outs. Place the bread pieces on a baking tray and toast under a hot grill for a minute. Be sure to keep an eye on them as they will brown very quickly - you want to achieve a golden colour. This toasting will help keep the shape and make them easier to handle. Only toast one side so you have a combination of crisp and soft texture. Remove from under the grill and allow to cool. Once cooled, arrange them very closely together, un-toasted side up, on a baking sheet ready for the chocolate piping.

Take half of the chocolate coin and break into pieces, place in a bowl and microwave for around 30s. Remove the bowl, give the chocolate a stir, and microwave for a few seconds more until the chocolate becomes smooth when stirred. Tip: Be sure not to overheat the chocolate or it will go all lumpy. It’s best to do just a few seconds at a time, stirring between each. Take a sandwich bag and spoon the melted chocolate into one corner. Twist the rest of the bag to create pressure in the corner with the chocolate, then snip a very small bit of the corner off with scissors to create a small piping hole. Watch out – the chocolate will come out immediately! Squeeze the bag and pipe lines across all of your panettone cut-outs. Once the chocolate has cooled and hardened, separate the bites and keep air-tight until you are ready to serve them. There is no need to throw away any bits of bread that didn’t make the grade for a cut-out (heavens no) - collect these and keep them in an airtight container. Every time you have a strong coffee, make like the Italians and dunk a bit in. Simple pleasures. Afiyet olsun.

Monday, 25 November 2013

casse-croûte, bermondsey - review

If it was possible to pluck a fictional eaterie out of the Parisian back streets of the film Amelie and plant it on Bermondsey Street in London, it would look exactly like Casse-Croûte. This small bistro with around 20 seats and a few spaces to prop up the digestif laden bar is about as French as Gérard Depardieu sporting a beret and belting out the full run of La Marseillaise. But more bijou (thankfully).
It has everything to match the French bistro of your mind, the sort you would hope to stumble into on the left bank after a walk from Montparnasse late one evening to continue a conversation about the works of Yann Tiersen over pastis and cassoulet.. Complete with red gingham tablecloths, café curtains, a black and white checked floor, heavily accented staff and French paraphernalia adorning the walls, it is the perfect place to entertain an intimate evening of animated conversation, saucisson and some very good vin rouge.
The restaurant opened in July this year, the brainchild of Hervé Durochat (co-partner of José across the road) and set up by Durochat and Alexandre Bonnefoy (ex-assistant head sommelier at Arts Club). The brief and daily changing menu is scrawled in French on a chalkboard at the back of the room - three options for each of the three courses with a welcome translation from the waiters should you need it.

A glance at these photographed and shared on the Casse-Croûte twitter account each morning reveals a kitchen cooking up staples such as black pudding, tartares, confit de canard, bouillabaisse, veal stew, coq au vin and regular entries from lesser used cuts of meat such as beef tongue, brains, veal kidneys and on the evening of our visit, pig trotter meat (curiously shaped into cuboids and surrounded by a delicate pastry).

Sampling a forkful, it was heavy with the same gelatinous collagen that forms when boiling chicken feet (so I was informed by my companion - Taiwanese - obviously). Not to my palate, but she lapped it up. ‘Great for the skin!’. If you say so. My herby chestnut soup was far more appetising; earthy, comforting and poured over a pile of coriander, dill and parsley at the table.

The rabbit was good, disintegrating into a boiled egg yolk like paste on the tongue (an acquired texture I suspect), the meat beefed up with creamy dauphinoise, garlic mushrooms, and the whole plate well seasoned with salt crystals. The girls had a duck pie topped with potato concealing rich, dark, slow-cooked meat within, and I had a side of food envy. We three each opted for a dainty portion of tarte au citron topped with soft meringue for dessert. Perfectly pleasing, but since the juice from lemons may as well run through my veins (the Turkish side speaking), more citrus would have pleased me further.
When, at the end of an evening, what I ordered matches what I wish I had ordered, the venture can be deemed a success. On this occasion, the fromage and charcuterie managed to escape my clutches despite the busy saucisson slicer in full view; there was every intention to order it, but we were defeated. In addition, the three of us were cramped around what should have been a table for just two, next to the toilet door which at times had clientèle outside waiting to use. My friend had her chair repeatedly kicked by a very apologetic but albeit completely mal-coordinated waiter due to her being sat where there should not have been a seat. These perils in exchange for the intimacy created by the snug space - I would specifically request a different table on my return.
And return I am certain I will do. With such a frequently changing menu there’s a lot that needs working through. Not to mention the draw of a gloriously stinking French cheese platter.
Liked lots: atmosphere, French-ness, daily changing menu, neighbourhood restaurant Liked less: our specific table that was too cramped Good for:
 romantically lit date, small groups, an authentic taste of France without the Eurostar

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

[object Object] Casse Croute on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

ponti's italian kitchen, oxford circus - review

There is no fresher hell than Oxford Street during the festive season. Step off public transport and say hello to the modern day version of Dante’s Inferno, all nine circles of it. 

Oxford Street is a strip of commonplace retailers and awful eateries. Along with the evil sibling that is Leicester Square, it is a place for tourists, out-of-towners and where patience goes to die. The closer someone lives to it, the less likely they will be found on it.

Almost every slack-jawed teenager, disorientated tourist, blinkered jogger, bullish bus, kamikaze rickshaw driver, meandering shopper and light-jumping cyclist within an arbitrary radius occupies this 1.5 mile stretch of arterial London road in the run-up to Christmas.

Entertain the area between the hours of 11 - 8 any day of the week and prepare to wade through full on family forces on day trips from the ‘burbs refusing to break their 5-person-wide formation, walk into oncoming traffic to get past the hordes lacking any sense of urgency, and sport bruised shoulders from all the barging. Unless my destination is Soho (for some of the best eating in town) or the Selfridges food hall, I try to avoid the area at all costs. Hell is (a lot of) other people, as Sartre so tersely put it.

Not everyone will agree with the grumbling grinch that lies within me. Some find delight in the festive shopping mania and the gaumless I’d-rather-be-playing-GTA faces of the spotty Saturday staff hauled in to match the crowds. And if these people are determined to brave the madness, there is a very real need for places that can relieve them of it. Refuges allowing shoppers to seek comfortable shelter and regain personal space whilst refuelling on decent food in pleasing surroundings are imperative. Ponti’s Italian Kitchen strategically located a stone’s throw from Oxford Circus station does just that, and rather well.

The Ponti’s Group is a UK Italian chain with a handful of subsidiaries. You have Caffe Italia found in airport terminals; Ponti’s restaurants in Watford, Wimbledon, Liverpool Street Station and Bluewater Shopping Centre (where I spent too many hours of my youth selling trainers in Footlocker then upgrading to skirts in Zara); and two Ponti’s Italian Kitchen’s on Duke street and John Princes Street (Oxford Circus), both in W1. The concept of the latter is to showcase quality ingredients from the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, where the roots of the family that has run the restaurant since 1963 lie. The Oxford Circus location is an altogether different kettle of pesce to the rest; befitting of its location, well thought out and believably authentic.

Strings of garlic and dried chillies suspended from the ceiling furnish the pizza bar at one end of the restaurant alongside a small deli, with cured meats and Italian biscotti mingling with the warm glow from the Christmas decorations in the windows. A Wednesday evening at 7pm and almost every table was occupied (and not all by tourists).

Sweet roasted butternut squash was served with wilted greens, very fresh and milky buffalo mozzarella and salty, crunchy nuggets of Parmesan breadcrumbs. Briny black olive tapenade and ice cold fleshy green olives from Puglia accompanied beautifully brittle flat Sardinian bread. Scallops wrapped in crisp parma ham were soft and seasoned and well acquainted with the garlic butter they were cooked in, served still in the pan alongside warm focaccia.

The cured meats were those of quality: salame piacentino (made from pigs reared in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy and then processed exclusively in the province of Piacenza), capocollo (Italian cold cut made from dry-cured whole pork shoulder or neck), Parma ham, cherry tomatoes, Parmigiano Reggiano, green olives and more bread.

Pollo alla piastra is a Christmas menu option and saw garlic and thyme roast chicken sitting alongside, honey glazed parsnips, cranberry sauce and roast thyme potatoes. An unobtrusive plate with meat that was well cooked, but who goes to an Italian restaurant for Christmas-spiked roast chicken? Not me. Stick to the pasta.

Which was really very pleasant. Large delicate ravioli parcels generously stuffed with spinach and ricotta, drizzled with sage butter, topped with a crispy leaf, fantastically seasoned and very satisfying.  

Side-stepping Christmas pudding which is wasted on me (I find it too rich, boozy and intense), the bomboloni were exquisite little packages of hot and sticky delight; doughnuts filled with sweet ricotta, glazed in acacia honey and with a wisp of citrus from lemon zest, served with vanilla pod ice cream and a second stomach in which to find room.

Four hours and almost two bottles of very good Pinot Nero from Emilia Romagna later, my companion and I rolled ourselves out, the final table to leave. You won’t find ground-breaking innovation, mind-blowing flavour combinations, or reductions painted onto your plate with a brush here. What you can expect are quality ingredients executed simply, in a warm eating-at-nonna’s-house atmosphere, in a very central location, for very reasonable prices. 

Have a seat and stay a while, or at least until the shops have closed.

Liked lots: atmosphere, service, central location, ravioli, wine, the deli to buy imported Italian goodies
Liked less: the Christmas menu (I never like Christmas menus)
Good for: forgetting just how much Christmas shopping there is left to do, and the limited time in which to do it; whiling away a few hours; taking refuge from the madness beyond the door.

My rating: 3.5/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

Note: I was invited as a guest to review this restaurant.

Ponti's Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Monday, 18 November 2013

honest burgers, soho - review

Some restaurants want to be all things to all people. Welcoming but exclusive, cavernous but intimate, classic but innovative, broad in their offerings but still specialists. It’s a format that works for a select few when mastered. But for the rest of the mere mortal dining options that line our streets, do one thing really well and there's a good chance you’ll be a success.

Honest Burgers in Soho is the offshoot from the original branch in Brixton Market and opened in the summer of last year. Founded by Tom Barton and Phil Eles, the recipe for their burgers was refined over time through customer feedback via the small catering operation they started with in Brighton. When the unit in Brixton became available, they snapped it up as a perfect spot to settle in the big smoke and have not looked back since.

The menu at Honest Burgers is comprised of burgers that all come with chips. Fillings are free-range chicken, their exclusive supply of dry aged beef mince from butchers The Ginger Pig (there are three variations of this option helped by a handy flow chart), or a spiced vegetable fritter. There is also a daily special. Sides come in the form of more chips (delivered with each burger anyway), a green salad, beetroot and apple slaw, and a chipotle mayonnaise. And that is the food menu in its entirety. 

Brief menus combined with occupied seats have my restaurant barometer reading reaching for the skies; you know good things are going down when the two are holding hands.

A maiden visit means opting for the namesake dish - it will be the longest serving entry with a recipe that's been sculpted over time. The Honest comes with a sweet red onion relish, smoked bacon, pickles and lettuce, with the thick patty draped in a layer of melted mature cheddar and sandwiched between a glazed, toasted brioche bun. 

From the list of things I was anticipating from this meal, a disappointing first bite did not make an entry. But it's what I got; there were no meaty juices collecting at the corners of my mouth to mop up with a rogue tip of tongue, and the centre of the patty was quite tough and dry. It was not unpleasant by any means, but it wasn’t the dripping, glistening, yielding slab of meat I had hoped for. 

It was the final morsel of this burger that revealed the potential of its content - it was soft and savoury and succulent. Coupling this with the fact one of my companions had a centre that had felt no heat whatsoever (it was pink as rare and not medium as we were told to expect), I suspect we were subject to a cook that needs a bit more scrutiny. All other components were perfectly befitting of the stacked-high jaw-stretching satisfaction one gets from a good burger. But if the meat had been cooked with more skill, I suspect it would have been excellent.

And the sides? Good grief, the sides. The slaw was vibrant and earthy and slightly sweet from the apple. And by the way, I don’t really like chips. I don’t even care for potatoes that much. But these fries were something else. Crisp exteriors, fluffy centres, tossed in finely chopped rosemary and liberal salt. Hot and savoury and a complete palate riot with the whisp of smoky heat from the chipotle mayonnaise. Get a second portion. Get a third.

Everything about Honest Burgers is unpretentious. Whilst centrally located in Soho, it’s situated on a quieter, small side street (Meard St, off Dean St.). It is bereft of any decoration other than the giant blackboard on one wall and a series of hooks to hang your coat on. Tables and chairs are basic wooden affairs (made by Tom and his step-father). The food is served in the thin metal blue-rimmed pie dishes you can probably buy in bulk from Costco. The light bulbs are pared-back bare. 

And in the same way the attraction of substance and intellect can be far more powerful than lusting over looks, I think it’s sexy. And I want to (and will) go back.

My rating: 3.5/5

Liked lots: chips; atmosphere; location; interiors; fantastic value; The Ginger Pig exclusivity; not feeling like I’d eaten a pile of filth and having to contend with a bout of self-loathing; no reservations but they very helpfully take your number and text you when a table becomes available so you can go and have a drink somewhere and return - wonderful
Liked less: my slightly tough patty - I’m almost certain it was just bad luck
Good for: potato converts; spontaneous dining; small groups; friends; a cheap good dinner

Afiyet olsun.

Honest Burgers on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Thursday, 14 November 2013

asma khan's calcutta-chinese supperclub - review

Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” is a saying that translates from Hindi as "Indians and Chinese are brothers". I know this because it was the response my Indian companion gave me, when I asked on route to dinner, her thoughts on the Indo-Chinese menu that awaited us at Asma Khan’s supper club.

I suppose it makes a lot of sense. China and India are two of the world’s oldest civilisations and have co-existed in peace for millennia. The first Chinese emigrant to settle in Calcutta was a Mr Yang Tai Chow in 1778 followed by many more, bringing with them their cuisine and culture. Not to mention Chinese is probably the most popular street food in Calcutta and what we would be sampling at dinner (both nuggets of insight shared by Asma to give the evening context - I am alas not a walking encyclopaedia of Indo-China relations).

Proceedings began with one of the best dishes of the night, chicken thupa. A thin broth occupied by shreds of soft 6hr slow-cooked meat full of flavour from the bone, homemade noodles, vegetables, garlic and ginger. A bowlful of well-being originating from Tibet and immediately recognisable as at home within those climes. With nurturing qualities to make any Jewish mother discreetly dab at a moist eye, it lulled me into a comfortable sense of ‘Asma is going to look after me this evening’.

And that she certainly did along with 26(ish) fellow diners, all seated in a quite beautiful open plan living room and dining space in her West London home. Chinese style beef momo dumplings I witnessed being parcelled up in the kitchen were steamed and served with a green chutney. The delicate casings housed chunky shreds of beef cooked with garlic, ginger and onions and the chutney was blow your scalp off, eye-sweating hot

Vibrant green and with tongue-tearing fire, I kept returning to it like a crazed masochist thanks to the incredible flavour from the coriander. It was zippy, refreshing and on the verge of self-combusting simultaneously - really very good. 

Crisp deep fried dumplings stuffed with very well flavoured chicken cooked down with onions and spices were served piping hot with spirals of steam rising from the breached skin, and so very wonderfully savoury; they did nothing in the way of pacifying my blistering tongue but who cares when you’re devouring parcels of joy.

Platters piled high with two ways of chicken made the rounds. Boneless chunks marinated in lemon overnight with delicate flavour and intermittent nuggets of quite glorious crispy bits with more intensity, and chilli chicken on the bone cooked down with green peppers and the signature Catonese influence that is a cornflour sauce coating. 

Tender beef slithers stir-fried with chillies were very satisfying between the teeth and smoked chilli garlic prawns were fat and firm. The beef hakka chow mein with homemade noodles had delectable pieces of meat, but the plate needed a little more oomph to compete with the rest of the menu.

Then there was manchurian gobi; cauliflower florets combined with a very rich and quite sweet tomato sauce that would have been just as at home stirred into a pan of steaming pappardelle and served with a few basil leaves. Despite my companion feeling as though the florets should have been crisper from their deep fried treatment and the sauce needing more garlic (she is well acquainted with the dish), this was my second favourite plate of the evening - I loved it.

Proceedings concluded with fruit chaat and a jelly intense with the flavour of coconut; the latter sporting an opaque layer from its milk and a transparent one from the juice. The texture was much firmer (and therefore more pleasing) than the wobble western offerings present. 

Whilst I would have liked to see more vegetables on the non-vegetarian menu (I really liked that gobi), and despite proceedings finishing a little late for a school night (a few people had to make their excuses before dessert as the clock approached 11pm), the menu was a great success with each morsel executed with knowledge, skill and most of all, a lot of love.

It's worth noting that at the time of moving to the UK in 1991 with her husband, Asma was bereft of the knowledge to even boil an egg; the distance she has come since then in terms of skill and success is inspiring. In 1993 Asma visited India for several months, determined to master the recipes and techniques from her ancestral kitchens that had been in her family for four generations. Since then, she has not looked back; via her business Darjeeling Express you will find her hosting supperclubs, pop-ups, private catering, cookery classes and more.

Upcoming Darjeeling Express events can be found on Edible Experiences but if you'd like to get in touch with Asma directly, you can reach her on Twitter @AsmaKhanCooks or drop her an email at

I'll certainly be returning for Asma's highly-acclaimed Indian supper clubs - it's all some of the people I know ever talk about.

My rating: 3.5/5

Cost: £35 (please note this may vary)

Afiyet olsun.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

birds of a feather: pheasant masterclass at jamie oliver HQ

It’s not often I get the opportunity to meet a culinary legend. 

Well, I say that. 

I bumped into Antonio Carluccio in the kitchen garden of Lainston House Hotel this summer. And I’ve sipped pisco sours with Raymond Blanc after he turned up at London Cocktail Club on a night I happened to be painting the town. It seems the stars do align occasionally. That, or I can sniff out an A-list chef like a bloodhound.

An event held at Jamie Oliver HQ near Old Street allowed me to add another of my all time favourites to this list; Gennaro Contaldo. About as southern Italian in the flesh as Vito Corleone eating a linguine vongole in the shadow of Vesuvius. Complete with a brown leather jacket and slicked back hair. Which is exactly what I hoped for; a wonderful character and a genuinely very nice man.

As were the two other professionals present, Andy Appleton (Head Chef at Fifteen in Cornwall) and Jon Rotheram (Head Chef at Fifteen in London and a close friend of fellow Essex boy, Jamie). All kindly giving up a few hours to share their skills and expertise, and feed a bunch of food bloggers for the evening.

The topic for the cook-off was pheasant, with a from-gun-to-table masterclass to help us get under the skin of this bird. Each chef walked us through their take on how to turn this underused, dark and gamey meat into a plate of something glorious.

Gennaro was up first and with all the impassioned gesticulation and inflected musical tone of words one could hope from such a character, deftly butchered the breasts of a partly feathered shimmering green pheasant. He spoke of the dark lean meat with much affection, shared stories of hunts and foraging, and while doing so prepared a very simple dish.

Into the meat he pressed slithers of garlic, sprigs of rosemary, a long slice of chilli, and seasoned. Cooked briefly in a pan (de-glazed with wine after) until still pink in the centre, it was juicy, aromatic and wonderfully Italian. With this he served a very complimentary patate arraganate; thinly sliced potatoes layered with oregano, basil, red onions, cherry tomatoes, a little white wine and baked covered in the oven for around 45 minutes.

Jon's offering used the meat to create a very British dish. His own sausages took centre stage; made with sixty per cent smoked pheasant and forty percent pork, complete with pork back fat and seasoning, we were told it was a recipe perfected after several attempts. And one he has nailed. Served with wilted kale, slow roasted onions, quince, crispy game chips, and sitting a top a pool of bread sauce, it sang all the notes of a hearty and comforting winter dish.

Andy returned to Italian influences with a caponata using some of my favourite ingredients (and incidentally no aubergine as is typical to the dish) to accompany pheasant that had been slowly pan-frying.

Diced roasted squash was combined with onion, celery, fennel, chestnuts, cherry tomatoes, thyme and lightly pickled raisins that had been steeped in red wine vinegar. Cooked out until softened and well acquainted, it had a rich autumnal glow and was topped with the sliced golden brown bird.

Game isn't something people tend to tackle too often. The unfamiliar can be daunting, and the meat can require a little more effort to source. There is then the challenge of what to do with it. 

I recall a day from my university years when my partner and I were presented with a fully feathered pheasant from a farmer friend of his parents. We de-robed it, took a knife to it, and cooked it the only way we could think of; in a roasting tray shoved in the oven. It came out dry and tough and was a huge disappointment.

To avoid any such circumstances for when you do locate some fine ingredients, it would be wise to take a look at the Jamie Oliver game recipes for some inspiration beyond roasting it to a second death. If you locate seasonal game and treat it a way that makes it shine, it's hard to eat a better meat at this time of year.

A huge thanks to all involved in organising this event; it was (as usual), a quite wonderful evening.

Afiyet olsun.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

soft bread rolls with ham and truffle mustard - recipe

When I find myself hankering for a specific item of food, there is little point trying to occupy my mind with much else until the desire has been fulfilled. Great bread fresh out of the oven, lacquered with a knob of melting butter, topped with a quality deep meaty filling and a slick of mustard, and you have have something close to what my daydreams are made of.

Paul Hollywood has a great recipe for barm cakes (originating from the Northwest) in How to Bake which I've used here, the bread more widely recognised as baps, flour rolls, soft rolls, and so on. They’re compact, hold a filling well and provide more bite than usual loaf bread whilst still remaining soft.

To finish the rolls I’ve stuffed them with quality cured ham, chopped capers and a dollop of indulgence in the form of Maille black truffle and Chablis mustard. Think of a whisp of heat coupled with the unmistakable presence of truffle, creating an unparalleled pairing with the rest of the porky and piquant goodness.

You can find this flavour of the mustard (along with more than 60 new variants) from La Maison Maille Boutique - a beautiful little store situated in the Piccadilly Arcade in the West End, and their first International Boutique which opened this October. This mustard is sold in a stone pot which once empty, you can take back to get refilled.

Soft bread rolls with ham and truffle mustard

Makes 12 - 13 rolls

500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
10g salt
40g caster sugar
10g instant yeast
40g unsalted butter, softened
320ml cold water

Good quality ham, ham hock, or other quality meat filling 
(enough for as many rolls as you wish to fill)
Capers, chopped
Maille black truffle and Chablis mustard

Put the flour in a large bowl. Add the salt and sugar to one side and the yeast to the other. Add the butter and ¾ of the water, and turn the mixture round with a wooden spoon or your fingers.

Continue to add water a little at a time until you’ve picked up all the flour from the sides of the bowl. You may not need to add all the water, or you may need to add a little more - you want dough that is soft but not soggy. Use the mixture to clean the inside of the bowl, folding the edges into the middle. Keep going until the mixture forms a rough dough.

Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for 10 minutes, working through the initial wet stage until the dough starts to form a soft and smooth skin.

When it feels smooth and silky, put into a lightly oiled large bowl. Cover with cling film and leave to rise in a warm place until at least doubled in size. This could take anywhere from 1-3 hrs, depending on how the warm the environment is where you put it.

Tip I use a very low oven for this (circa 25C) but you could put it into a warm airing cupboard if you have one.

Once the dough has risen, tip it out onto a lightly floured surface. Fold it inwards repeatedly until all the air is knocked out and the dough is smooth. 

Divide the dough into 12 or 13 pieces weighing around 70g each. Shape each one into a smooth ball by placing a cage formed by your hand and the table and moving your hand around in a circular motion, rotating the ball rapidly. The shape comes with practice!

Put the rolls onto a heavily floured surface and leave to rest for 30 minutes. Cover them with large upturned bowls to prevent them drying out. Meanwhile prepare your baking trays, you will need three. Line them with non-stick baking parchment or silicone paper.

Once rested, roll out the dough balls, using a floured rolling pin, until they are twice the size of the original diameter. Lift onto the prepared baking trays, spacing them apart to allow room for spreading, and sprinkle with flour.

Put each tray inside a large clean plastic bag and leave to prove for about 1hr until the dough has doubled in size and springs back quickly if you prod it lightly with your finger. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 210C.

Tip You can also use cling film to cover the trays but if so, ensure you’ve left no gaps and enough room for the dough to rise without pressing against the plastic too much.

When the rolls are nicely risen, light and airy, bake them for around 10 minutes only until you’ve achieved the same colour as in the photographs. Leave them to cool a little on the baking trays.

Keep the ones you don't plan to eat straight away in a lidded container once completely cool to keep them soft. For the rest and whilst still warm, cut them in half and allow some butter to melt. Add the mustard, layer the meat and top with some of the chopped capers. What joy.

Afiyet olsun.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

ba shan, soho - review

Chinese restaurants get a lot of stick. At least, they do from me. This is because most of them are appalling. 

Greasy piles of substandard meat and carbs swimming in radioactive sauces, slopped onto plates or stuffed into tin vessels, with a side of self-loathing big enough to make you want to drain the MSG directly from your veins. Menus read of generic fried vegetables with a stock protein in a thick sauce, dozens of chow mein options, and a selection of sweet and sour dishes and fried rices; plates of fodder adapted to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the Western palate. This is not what Chinese people eat. 

These routine menu items do nothing to accurately represent the full repertoire of Chinese cuisine: the country is enormous, as is the range of cooking that goes on there. Food is regional and style is distinctive, with influences taken from resources, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques and lifestyle.

The province of Hunan is located in the south-central part of China; a little piece of it can also be found in Soho with the name of Ba Shan above the door. Owned by the people who run the Szechuan sister, Barshu, over the road, it boasts an all Hunanese menu developed with Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop. If your idea of a great meal is having your chops whalloped with fire and flavour, there is little need to entertain the thought of dining anywhere else in town.

Piquant preserved yard-long beans chopped into chewy segments provided an unusual but stellar texture for the vegetable. Stir-fried with stiff boards of salty Chinese bacon and slithers of preserved crisp garlic, it was a piled high plate of spicy and savoury splendour. 

Square slabs of crispy fried tofu with soft middles saturated with black bean sauce squelched between the teeth, the dark viscous extract coating the inside of the mouth with its sloppy fermented pungency. Both plates were furnished with festive chunks of hot green chillies and even hotter red and both had me at their complete mercy - these are precisely the sort of flavour sensations my palate craves for on a daily basis.

A heap of aubergine mush pounded into submission with garlic and sesame presented still in its mortar, and a plate of slippery wood ear fungus, did wonders at pacifying blistering tongues. The glistening quivering dark mushrooms looked freshly hauled from a sea bed; dressed with vinegar, garlic and chillies they were cool, tangy, crunchy and slipped down barely touching the sides.

The restaurant decoration keeps with tradition, with Chinese lanterns, dark wood and walls adorned with images of Chairman Mao. Service was perfectly acceptable; whilst perplexity flashed across the faces of several waiters at the request of additional coriander (a request left unfulfilled - ‘it’s just for decoration, we don’t have any more’), tea was topped up, words were said smiling and despite advance warning of a 1.5hr time limit for the table, we were there for two with no problem. In other words, for a Chinese restaurant, the service was excellent.

The heat from Hunanese cuisine, whilst almost ubiquitous in its presence, is less of the type that leaves a fat tongue hanging out of your mouth in a desperate search for cold lactose. It’s more penetrating than that, permeating through to your core and the very marrow of your bones, leaving a subtle tingling sensation at the corners of your mouth on the way in. I don’t know how they do this, but it’s excellent

This is food that doesn’t just pay a visit to your taste buds, it conquers them outright. Planting the flag of flavour firmly into its new found territory to mark its occupation, the food from Ba Shan will leave an impression deep enough that you won’t be able to hold off your next visit for too long.

Liked lots: all of the food; the location
Liked less: was a little quiet at the start, but background music played later on; the menu link on their website is broken (prevents pre-dining anticipation build up)
Good for: authentic, fresh, real, regional Chinese food at good prices; blasting away a cold

My rating: 4/5

Afiyet olsun.

Ba Shan on Urbanspoon

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