Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Afternoon tea - what a slog!

By: Mrs Robot

I've tried making afternoon tea* a number of times over the years, and have reached this conclusion: if you're actually cooking the things yourself, the more frequently you do it, the easier it gets. This is because you need a decent variety of items, which means baking an awful lot of different things from scratch. If you make it regularly, you can stick some things like scones (frozen baked) and pastry cases for tarts (frozen before cooking) in the freezer for next time, which reduces the work considerably. If you don't make it regularly, it can feel like a lot of work and a bit wasteful, though if you're very greedy, like Mr Robot and myself, you'll settle for eating a whole cake, a whole batch of scones, or all of whatever other baked goods you make.

This afternoon tea came about because Great British Bake-Off is on telly again and in Cake Week everyone had to make madeira cake for the signature challenge. It struck me that I had never made madeira cake, so decided to give it a go. Cake making is an 'interesting' thing in the House of Robots because all the temperature indicators have rubbed off our oven dial, and our oven thermometer has broken, so I simply have to guess what the temperature is. Anyway, my lemon one worked well, and had a decent crack along the top, which the Bake-Off judges insisted was essential. Perhaps it's because I used a recipe from an old volume of Beeton; I doubt she could control her oven to within 10 degrees either.

At the same time, I had a yearning for something baked and cheesy. It could have been cheese scones, but I decided to make Dorchester biscuits, a recipe from Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book. Basically butter, flour, cheese and nuts, they're the very antithesis of the current 'clean eating' trend and for that reason alone are well worth your time making. Dirty, dirty biscuits! Best eaten with an expression of utter bliss while sitting opposite someone who's bored you rigid with tales of quinoa and kale salads, I reckon. They're incredibly simple, and very addictive. No type of nut is specified, though I like peanuts with cheddar. If I'd used stilton – Berry recommends cheddar, but experimentation is a good thing – I'd prefer walnuts.

In a piece of truly awful planning, I didn't realise we'd all but run out of bread until I'd started making sandwiches (ham and chutney), so filled in the gaps with tomatoes cut in a waterlily shape, then filled with coils of ham and mayonnaise rosettes piped on top, and savoury eggs. I hardboiled the eggs, chopped them in half, removed the yolks, mashed the yolks with more mayonnaise and a bit of curry powder, then piped it all back into the eggs. Quel faff, as Holly Golightly might've said. They did taste nice, though. I put the whole lot on vintage pressed glass cake stands**. Job done.

And after all that baking and work, we demolished the whole lot in about 20 minutes. Maybe I'll have another go in about six months...

*We all know the difference between afternoon tea and high tea, don't we? The latter is a rustic meal, usually with a substantial hot element – the sort of thing the Famous Five seemed able to drop in and enjoy at random farmhouses. If it's a dainty affair, it's afternoon tea. 'High' refers to the time it was eaten; afternoon tea is the earlier meal, enjoyed by fine ladies in drawing rooms, whereas high tea would be had later and was the early evening meal rural workers would have when they came in from the field. People seem to confuse the two nowadays and it sends me into a ranty rage, it really does. British people, know your culture! Non-British people, stop dicking around with my culture! 

 ** You can get these absurdly cheap in charity shops. My tall one cost £3.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Supperclub Nights - Noya's Kitchen

By: Mr Robot

We’ve been wanting to do one of Noya’s Vietnamese supperclubs for ages but they’re not easy to get into. At the time of writing (early August) she’s fully booked until, um, next year. With very good reason, as it turns out.

A couple of friends got word of some late availability, so naturally we piled in.

The supperclub is held in a cafe (The Bear Pad) in the Bear Flat area a 10-minute stroll from central Bath and done on a BYO basis. I put my chum Dave in charge of wine since he can’t resist a trip to Great Western Wine, while Mrs R and I trundled our way up the hill for a pint or two of aperitif before arriving, giddy with anticipation.

You see, we’ve done a fair bit of Vietnamese-ish cooking at home (thanks again to Uyen Luu’s marvellous book) but have never had it done properly by someone who knows what they’re doing.

So while we have complete faith in our books you could never describe us as more than enthusiastic ignorami. Here, for the first time, authenticity beckoned.

Clearly I can hardly pretend to give an authoritative critique, but I can tell you it’s a bloody good evening. 

Noya greeted and seated us, and we sat twitchily waiting for the booze our friends to arrive, and the food to come.

We opened with Steamed Pork Noodle Roll and Prawn Summer Roll, along with a stern warning to USE THE DIPPING SAUCE.

I am at least an old enough hand to know that one but from the gasping and oohing around us, it well aimed. 

Mrs Robot’s a sucker for a summer roll so my right ear was largely full of happy chirps, while for me the pork roll was the highlight, soft and rich and savoury and so good with that dipping sauce (a little lighter than we make at home I noted).

I confess I kept that little dish by me throughout the evening so I could dabble a fingertip when (hopefully) no-one was looking. The stuff’s addictive.

Next up came a Hue Chicken Salad, with chicken wings and huge rice crackers. Not only was this extremely delicious, the salad is a favourite at home and was gratifyingly close to what we’ve made for ourselves. +100 kudos points to us then.

The wings were an excellent addition: the salad tends to be quite crunchy, it’s very fresh of course, and I find the vegetables bring out the acidity in the dressing. The wings gave contrast on all levels being soft, sticky and slightly sweet. It even brought fingers to balance against chopsticks! A lovely combo we’ll seek to replicate.

Incidentally, two courses in the place was buzzing - a great convivial atmosphere built up very quickly and the venue makes for a fine casual evening.

As Night spread her starry wings ‘cross the sky, Dave brought out the second bottle of Riesling and Noya’s minions brought out beef wrapped in betel leaves.

This was the revelation of the night. It was amazing, and unlike anything I’ve tried. I suppose the closest comparison is a close-textured sausage, and there were almost black-pudding hints of fragrant spices and a hint of sweetness. A delicious thing.

It came with (and I’m indebted to Noya for breaking this down for me, ‘cos I’d never have remembered all the detail) lemongrass peanut sauce, mint mango, pickled daikon and vermicelli noodle. To be honest, though, that was merely a medly of background loveliness to me - I was all about the Betelbeef.

Say it three times...

For course four Noya gave us all a huge cuddle, in the form of a steaming mound of perfect Jasmine rice alongside a ginger and chilli chicken stew that was full of deep, round flavours - the kind of thing that makes you sorry to be in public because you just want curl around it and trough.

Finally, regretfully, we ended with a classic creme caramel accompanied by coconut biscuits. Very definitely my kind of pudding. It was a great way to end actually, bringing in the French influence of course, but it also felt a little like coming home after this lengthy, wonderful exotic voyage. What an evening.

As we waddled our way slowly down the hill to the inevitably missed train and eyewatering taxi bill, we vowed sincerely to do this again as soon as possible. Next year.

All images (C) PP Gettins

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Cricket cuisine

By: Mrs Robot

There are lots of very good reasons to like going to watch cricket, but have you ever considered the food? Some of my best memories of cricket matches are of the food, odd though it might sound. Some years back we saved for three years to go to Barbados to watch a West Indies-England Test, and I still remember the man who'd walk through the ground selling paper bags of fishcakes, yelling, "Last two! Last two!" (It never was the last two.) Then there were fish cutters (breaded flying fish fillets in break rolls), macaroni pie (macaroni cheese) and other tasty treats sold from stalls behind the stands. At Lords, there are gourmet burger vans. The food at the ground at Bristol hasn't stuck in my mind, though the Caribbean restaurant we walk past on the way back to the railway station has.

Mr Robot and I went to Edgbaston this week to watch the first day of the third England-Australia Test match. I was looking forward to it, because Edgbaston is in Birmingham, and that means masses of good curry. Or so I thought... But I'm getting ahead of myself.
 There are food stalls all the way round the ground behind the stands, but there is one main area where most of the vans and stalls are clustered. Our seats were in a stand very close by the food court, which was fab. When we walked in, we had time for a good look around. Hog roast and pizza, waffles and burritos, burgers, posh sausages and fish and chips... so much choice. Though you will notice something missing there. Where's the curry? We settled for a breakfast bap (bacon, sausage, egg, and black pudding, all in a brioche roll) and I got a free cuppa from the Yorkshire Tea stall.
Lunch was excellent soft tacos from Smoqued. The tacos were made from purple maize and were delicious. Later Mr Robot had a foot-long hot dog and I dragged him to the other side of the ground in search of Edgbaston Cheese Crunch. I'd seen it mentioned on the ground's website, with no description, and there was no description online. What could it be? As Birmingham is in the Black Country (the amount of industry there in the 19th century meant the whole region was sooty) I wondered if it was pork scratchings covered in cheese. Edgbaston Cheese Crunch turned out to be our old chum macaroni cheese*, coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Not very healthy, but very tasty.

And that curry? There was a lone curry stall, Spice Nation, which we visited at the tea break. It was excellent. There may not have been the choice I'd imagined, but the quality was definitely there. Beautifully tender lamb, well spiced... delicious!

All that, and a decent performance by England too. Owzat?
*After the cricket, I got into a Twitter chat with Mi Mi Aye about macaroni pie. I'd wondered if the cheese crunch owed its origins to Birmingham's large Caribbean community. She mentioned that macaroni pie was also a Scottish delicacy. Early in Barbados' colonial history, the sugar plantations were worked by Scottish indentured servants, the ancestors of the 'redlegs', and I found myself wondering if they'd taken macaroni pie there, and the people who came to the UK in the 1950s brought it almost all the way back.