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Coffee and Walnut Cake

May 3, 2014

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This coffee and walnut cake was what I decided to make in celebration of four birthdays in December last year – mine, my cousin’s, and my aunt and uncle’s. I love the combined flavours of coffee and walnut. This was the cake I wanted to eat as a kid, but parents deemed anything that had coffee in it was not appropriate for a child. Now that I’m a grown-up (ha, I still get giddy with too much coffee), I can consume this to my heart’s content. It’s not too heavy so it’s perfect for an afternoon tea break that won’t make you fall asleep, and presence of the coffee gives a psychological boost of energy without actually delivering a lot of caffeine. Here I’ve ground some of the walnuts into the cake batter rather than just stirring in some chopped nuts, which lends a wonderful fragrance and a bit of toothy bite to the cake.

(Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s recipe)

For the cake:

  • 75 g walnuts
  • 200 g caster sugar
  • 225 g butter, softened
  • 4 large eggs
  • 50 ml espresso
  • 200 g plain flour
  • 2.5 tsp baking powder
  • 0.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1-2 tbsp milk
  • pinch of salt

For the frosting:

  • 350 g icing sugar
  • 175 g butter, softened
  • 50 ml espresso
  • walnut halves for decoration

In a food processor, grind half of the walnuts with the caster sugar until finely ground. Chop the remaining walnuts and set aside.

Cream the butter and walnut-sugar mixture together until light and fluffy, then mix in the eggs and espresso.

In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and the salt together before adding the dry ingredients to the wet. Add the milk until the batter forms a soft, dropping consistency. Stir in the chopped walnuts and pour the batter into two greased and lined 8″ cake pans.

Bake at 180C for 25-30 min, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool on a cooling rack while you make the frosting.

Beat the icing sugar, butter, and espresso together until the coffee buttercream is smooth. To frost the cake, tip one of the cakes upside down onto a cake board and frost the flat top of it with about half the frosting. Carefully place the other cake (flat side down) onto the frosting, then spread the remaining buttercream on the top. Decorate with walnut halves.

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Oxtail Ragu with Fresh Papardelle

November 24, 2013

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Every time November rolls around, I seem to forget how awfully cold it gets in the UK, how biting the wind is. Of course, I’ve never gotten used to the cold, despite having moved here from Hong Kong six years ago. But the change in weather also signifies wintery food rushing back onto the menu: stews, casseroles, hearty soups, Asian braises – all the classic belly-warmers you can think of.

Oxtail ragu seemed like the perfect candidate. Tender, silky oxtail chunks bobbing in a rich tomato and wine sauce, the flavours marrying overnight before tossing it with some fresh papardelle the next day. I was gifted a pasta machine from my cousin that I hadn’t used before, so this was a great excuse to try it out.

I’m not knowledgeable in wine at all, so I just chose a wine I thought was reasonable – Waitrose-own “rich and intense spicy Italian wine” (£4.99). I’d go for whatever you find acceptable to drink and use that!

Oxtail Ragu with Fresh Papardelle

For the ragu

  • 1 kg oxtail
1 large shallot, finely diced
  • 200 g carrots, peeled and finely diced
  • 2 stalks of celery, finely diced
  • A can of whole plum tomatoes
  • 
700 ml red wine

For the pasta

  • 2 room-temperature eggs, preferably free range
  • 200 g type 00 flour
  • A pinch of salt

Pat dry the oxtail and season all over with salt. In a large dutch oven, heat up some olive oil and sear the oxtail on all sides on high heat until browned. You want the Maillard reaction to occur to coax as much flavour into this dish as possible. This may have to be done in batches. Set aside.

In the same pan, sauté the diced shallots, carrots, and celery, tossing and coating until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the wine to deglaze, scraping up the fond as you go. Reduce for 5-10 minutes, then add the canned tomatoes along with their juices. Nestle the oxtail in the sauce, cover the dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid, and place the whole thing in the oven.

It will take about 2-3 hours for the oxtail to become tender; I kept it in the oven for 2 hours but mine could have done with a little longer in the oven. Remove the oxtail from the dish to a large baking tray and shred the meat from the bones using two forks.

Return the meat to the dish (keep the bones if you like, for stock later). Taste and adjust for seasoning. At this point, I let it cool on the counter and left it in the fridge overnight for the flavours to meld with each other, but if you can’t wait, no one is stopping you from having it straight away!

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To prepare the pasta, tip your flour and salt into a bowl and create a well in the flour. Drop the eggs in and mix well until it comes together as a dough – this will be difficult at first, but use a fork to begin with and scrape the sides down occasionally. Knead for 2-3 minutes by hand until the dough becomes smooth but not sticky. Cover it with clingfilm and let it rest at room temperature for an hour.

After resting, cut the dough into two pieces. Roll it out roughly to a rectangular shape, about 1/4 inch thick before passing it through your pasta machine on the widest setting. Fold it over onto itself and pass it through the machine once more. Keep passing the dough through the machine without folding in half, but decreasing the thickness of the dough one step at a time and dusting with flour in between passes if it starts to stick. Do this until it is at the thickness you want (I used the 3rd lowest setting on my machine, but it could have been thinner in hindsight).

Dust the pasta with more flour and nestle into little mounds while you roll and cut the rest of the dough, but if you’re not cooking it straight away, lay them flat on a baking sheet dusted with flour, or hanging over a rack (say, the handle of a wooden spoon, or a pair of chopsticks suspended between two jars).

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to the boil and toss your pasta in. It should only take a few minutes – I forgot to time mine, I think it was about 3-4 minutes but keep tasting it until it’s done! It had a much more different texture than dried pasta – snappier, silkier, and a more pleasant al dente chew. Drain, reserving a cup of the starchy cooking water.

Toss the pasta with the oxtail ragu until well coated, with a few splashes of the pasta water. Serve immediately!

P.S. Yes, that is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them underneath the table. The machine needed a thicker edge for clamping, so the closest book became the victim. Don’t worry, it was unscathed, just a bit floury.

Bull & Last, Highgate

July 7, 2013

Bull & Last is one of those restaurants where I’ve been yearning to go for years. I finally had the chance when my dad visited me a couple of months ago, and we had a lovely meal at Bull & Last to round off a lovely day walking around Hampstead Heath with the rest of my family here.

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It’s a beautiful space in a Grade 2 listed building, the interior of which is dotted with various bits of evidence that this is primarily a meat, and when in season, game-focused restaurant. (To me, this is a restaurant with a pub, rather than a gastropub.) The menu celebrates British produce cooked with bold flavours and rustic cooking. We started with their homemade charcuterie board and their fish board, and some excellent bread to get our appetites going (or so we believed).

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Charcuterie board with duck prosciutto, sliced so thinly the fat was a shimmering layer that melted away on your tongue, a chunky ham hock terrine, chicken liver parfait that I could not get enough of, duck rillettes, pig’s head, all served with some pickles, preserves, some leafy greens, and toast.

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Our fish board came with some gorgeously pink gravalax, potted shrimp, mackerel pate, wonderfully light and crispy fried squid, an incredibly moreish smoked haddock croquette, and some dressed fennel with soda bread.

By the time our mains rolled around, some of us were flagging. There’s actually quite a lot of food and I’m a sucker for bread & butter which isn’t great if you want to eat as much of the menu as possible! It was a difficult decision to choose what I wanted, but my uncle and I shared a Dedham Vale aged cote de boeuf and it was a stonkingly huge platter of beef.

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It was absolutely delicious, and gorgeous to boot. Served sliced to reveal its deep pink interior (but bone still present for you to gnaw on, if in close company), it came with fluffy triple-cooked chips and a bit of salad on the side. It also came with a bearnaise sauce, but the steak didn’t need it – the two together was almost too rich a mouthful for me. The sauce was also slightly gloopy, but everything else was fantastic. The beef had a great depth of flavour thanks to both the crust and the quality of the meat, and left you with a complex,  iron-y, beefy aftertaste that lingered long after swallowing the last of the steak.

We just about managed to finish the steak, but only with help from everyone else. I think in retrospect this could have fed 3 of us if we’d ordered another starter to share. In short, I absolutely recommend this place if you have several people you can go with to experience as much of the menu as possible, especially the charcuterie platter.

Bull & Last

168 Highgate Road
London NW5 1QS

Roganic, Marylebone

December 21, 2012

I was so excited to go to Roganic, and I’m extremely late in updating this (I went there more than 6 months ago, in June!) so I’ll preface this post by saying that it’s a two year pop-up restaurant and it was fantastic, so if you have the same tastes in food as I do, please make a booking before you have to make the trek to Cumbria to eat at L’Enclume, Simon Rogan’s other restaurant.

Initially, we had planned on having their £29 set lunch menu (3 courses), but the waitress placed the menus on the table and we couldn’t help but give in to the temptation of their 6 course menu. At £55,  it has been my most expensive meal to date, but it was worth every penny. We didn’t have wine, but you can select wine pairings for a reasonable price.

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First placed in front of us were little nibbles. The beetroot crisps with goat’s cheese curd and fennel was gorgeous to look at; I hated the beetroot + goat’s cheese pairing when I’d tried it as a mousse at Texture, but here it was beautiful. The cheese wasn’t too overpowering, and the dehydrated beetroot was crisp and sweet.

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Next, smoked eel and pork belly croquettes came in a little Staub pot lined with hay.

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The bed came in a little wooden tray with a smear of butter. I’m not sure where the butter was from, but it appeared to be whipped and it was cold and creamy. I love it when butter is cold yet spreadable!

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Our first course was carrot mousse, ham fat, pickled celery, crispy bacon, wild basil. Wild basil, we were told, tastes oddly meaty. It almost tasted like bacon! The mousse was light and sweet and complemented the meaty elements perfectly. Unfortunately I couldn’t pick up much of the celery, but I’m not a fan of celery (actually, I’m a hardcore celery hater) so maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.

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I think this might have been my favourite course of the day. Sweet pickled mushrooms, mushroom broth, buffalo milk curd. I’ve never thought to pair mushrooms and sweet flavours together, but this really worked for me. My friend didn’t enjoy it as much, but the meaty crumbs and the broth helped bring the dish to a more savoury dimension. The milk curd was great; it reminded me of the steamed milk pudding we get back in Hong Kong!

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The third course came straight from the sea: sea scallop, sea purslane, sea vegetables, oyster emulsion, diced oysters, green apple. The scallop portion was a bit measly, but cooked perfectly so it was just translucent in the middle. The oyster component gave the whole dish the slight bitter, metallic edge it needed to lift the brininess of the sea vegetables and the tartness of the apple.

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The next fish course was simply put together, but it was a textural playground: seared lemon sole paired with wobbly, smoked bone marrow, chewy buckwheat and dehydrated tomato, all finished with a bone marrow jus.
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Sous vide duck breast, mulled cider jus, icicle radish, mace. Another simple dish, not knockout or stunning, but the duck was a beautiful pink colour and still had a bit of chew to it, which I prefer to fork-tender meat.

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Strawberry meringue, macerated strawberries, yoghurt ice cream, buttermilk curd. I really enjoyed this dessert; it was a celebration of the British summer to come (which, sadly, only showed up for a few days). Here, the tang of the curd and yoghurt ice cream tempered the sweetness of the macerated strawberries well.

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We had more surprises next: milkshake infused with douglas fir pine and a lemon curd doughnut. I didn’t know if we were supposed to dip the doughnut into the milkshake, but they were really fun to eat separately anyway. The milkshake didn’t feel like a traditional shake made from ice cream, but it had a wonderfully refreshing flavour from the pine.

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Lastly, we were given frozen chocolate bourbon candies covered with white chocolate. This was such a fun way to end the meal on a high note!

If you can’t tell, I absolutely loved Roganic. The service was impeccable, not stuffy at all and didn’t look down on us for not having wine – and when a neighbouring table didn’t eat their chocolate bourbon candies (for what reason, I do not know), the waitress let us take the rest! The restaurant decor isn’t anything special; it’s spartan inside, but what really counts here is the food and service. I hope Simon Rogan somehow extends this pop-up restaurant so we can experience this again for a special occasion.

Roganic
19 Blandford Street, London W1U 3DH

Dabbous, Fitzrovia

June 24, 2012

Dabbous: famously known as the restaurant booked solid until October. Or is it December now? In any case, I was lucky to have secured a reservation before things got too out of hand. I dined on the Friday of the Easter weekend for lunch. 12pm was the only slot available even then. Sitting down at 12pm meant there wasn’t much atmosphere – it was just us and two other tables, leaving us feeling like we had to have a hush-hush conversation, even though it wasn’t really that type of restaurant. However, the food that came out more than made up for it, and midway through our meal the atmosphere had improved noticeably with all the tables filled.

Bread comes in a paper bag stamped with today’s date. Cute concept, and would have been lovely as a take-home present, actually! Served with butter and olives. The bread was warm, the butter was salty and creamy and the I had the olives all to myself as dining companion doesn’t like olives. I was quite happy.

I was even happier to learn that a 3- or 4-course set lunch menu was priced at £21 and £24, respectively. All the reviews I had read in anticipation of my visit to Dabbous had mentioned the fabulously good value set lunch. I’m a little torn – the portions are tiny, admittedly, and I did leave wanting a little more, but if the portions had been any larger I think the magic, the elegance would have been lost. The first starter we had was beef tartare with cigar oil and whisky. Masculine and smoky, but it wasn’t really to my liking. Thankfully, my starter was gorgeous:

Have I mentioned how much I LOVE asparagus? I’m willing to tolerate the unpleasant side effects for daily asparagus consumption. Alas, British asparagus has such a short season. Here it was served simply with virgin rapeseed oil mayonnaise, toasted hazelnuts and meadowsweet. Beautiful produce = a gorgeous dish. I used to hate mayonnaise. I am now a convert for homemade mayonnaise. Tangy and rich and creamy without an overly strong flavour thanks to the rapeseed oil, it was perfect for the asparagus. The toasted hazelnuts were an additional textural delight, with the meadowsweet giving off a gentle perfume just before you bit into the asparagus.

My 2nd course was a stunner, visually. That blowtorched surface of the salmon was such a contrast with the barely translucent flesh underneath. Paired with elderflower, spring onions, and almonds, it tasted every bit as good as it looked. The elderflower puree was tangy and sweet, cutting through the fatty salmon but it wasn’t overly greasy, thanks to the char.

However, the real winner of the day was clearly dining companion’s main course of barbecued iberico pork, savoury acorn praline, turnip tops, and apple vinegar. It looked simple; the taste was anything but. The pork was cooked to such an even shade of pink you’d think it was sous-vide, but it wasn’t; someone was just really, really good at cooking that pork. The savoury acorn praline was amazing – it was almost like a salty peanut butter with notes of sweet caramelized onion. It was savoury, it was full of umami, and if there was one criticism it would be that I was hoping for a smokier crust from the barbecue. Nevertheless, I was so jealous of dining companion. If I am ever able to come back to Dabbous, this would be the sole reason for my return. Damn that man who made this savoury acorn praline.

Having tasted dining companion’s pork, my 3rd course of braised veal shin, spelt, celery, and kinome fell short of my expectations. The shin was a little on the dry side despite coming with a shallow pool of broth and there just wasn’t that much flavour coming out of it. The broth was too salty, the pickled garlic was a garish shade of pink and visually did nothing to attract me to the dish, and I thought the celery overpowered the meat. On the plus side, the shin was tender and the spelt was a fun textural contrast. I was a little disappointed, though, and at this point I hoped dessert would pick me up.

When the iced lovage arrived, I wasn’t too happy. A meagre portion of sorbet which is meant to be a palate cleanser, being passed off as dessert in the set lunch? Not cool. I’d have been happier paying an extra £2 for a proper dessert, which I had come across reading other reviews. It tasted a little bizarre to me – I think it’s an acquired taste, as lovage is very similar to celery. I wasn’t a huge fan, and unfortunately left the meal on a bit of a dud note.

Happily, the barbecued pork with the savoury acorn praline and charred salmon were fantastic, and were definitely the highlights of our meal. At this price point, I would say it’s fair value for money considering the quality of the food and it is affordable fine dining. A few misses, but mostly hits, and deserves all the praise it’s getting. I will be back for that savoury acorn praline, dammit!

Dabbous

39 Whitfield Street

London W1T 2SF

MEATliquor, Marylebone

April 6, 2012

A couple of months late (as usual), I have finally jumped onto the MEATliquor bandwagon. I’ve been to its precursor #MEATEASY before; the winning combination of a juicy, medium-rare beef patty heavy with liquified fat and topped with a layer of melted cheese that only American slices can provide, all sandwiched by a soft bun that doesn’t totally disintegrate after soaking up the burger juice meant that the 45 minute wait was worth it. But we had a seat and a drink when we waited.

At MEATliquor, if you arrive anytime after 6:30pm, you are faced with a waiting time of anywhere between 30-60 minutes, outdoors. You can peer into the windows and watch the people who had the fortune to arrive early stuffing their faces while you wait, which only fuels your hunger. After an hour’s wait in the cold, I suspect any offering of food would be ravenously stuffed down your gob and set your tastebuds on fire.

Thankfully, I didn’t have such biases to cloud my judgement. My friend and I arrived at 5 minutes past 6pm. We walked straight in and managed to get seated immediately, although we did have to share a table. It doesn’t matter if you’re rubbing elbows with other fellow diners, as the music is so loud anyway that you can barely hear yourself talking. It all fits in very well with the dirty, gritty dive bar theme: male toilets, for example, are only indicated by a “Dicks” sign, and the interior is bombarded with paintings that no parent ever wants their young child to see. It’s not just a burger, it’s a MEATliquor experience.

I was curious to see whether its new location in central London, just off Oxford Street of all places, had any effect on its burgers. I could smell the grease (in a good way!) as I walked into the street behind Debenhams. And surprisingly, the location works. You almost feel gleeful as you turn down a side street off the busiest shopping street in London, to a seedy carpark where lots of dodgy activities could take place. Kind of like you’re about to engage in some delicious, illicit activity yourself. But let’s talk about the burger.

It’s still the best burger you’ll find in London, especially at £6.50. You’ve still got the beautifully cooked medium-rare patty, heady in its beefy, cheese-infused smell, sweet crunchy pickle, and a greasy golden bun with the requisite shiny cracked top. Kitchen rolls are provided on the table, as they were at #MEATEASY, and they are absolutely required. A bib wouldn’t go amiss. The onion rings were the best I’ve ever had, with perfectly seasoned batter and the sweet onion that left me with a breath that gave me a wide berth on the tube.

Admittedly, I was slightly underwhelmed at first. But a few bites into my burger, I realised it wasn’t an experience you could repeat at any other location in London. Other blogs have waxed lyrical and sung the praises of the cheeseburger and other such beefy, greasy delights on the MEATliquor menu. We didn’t order anything other than the cheeseburger and onion rings, but given the chance to go early again, I’d be delighted to try everything else on the menu.

As a minor quibble, I was quite happy with the level of service we received until we were about to leave. The bill for the two of us came to £26. Our burgerette had been nothing but sweet the entire time (but forgot the tap water, despite remembering our cocktail and juice orders), but after we put £30 on the table, we were asked if we wanted change. I wasn’t expecting to pay less than £30, but the fact that we were pressured to give her an answer on the spot made us feel awkward and shameful that I hesitated. I always expect to have the change brought back even if I don’t want it, so was caught off-guard by the question. It’s a small point, but nevertheless tarnished the entire experience a little bit.

BUT, all that said, go. Go before 6:30pm, drink from the well-priced cocktail list, and just enjoy the fact that you’re in a seedy bar/restaurant stuffing your face with the best burger in London without having to trek to New Cross.

MEATliquor
74 Welbeck Street, Marylebone

Sweet potato gnocchi with spinach

March 4, 2012

Just a quick picture post, no recipe. Last winter, when sweet potatoes were abundant and I had a weekend off, I made sweet potato gnocchi. They’re not the prettiest for sure as it’s only my first time making gnocchi, but the sweet, vibrant orange dumplings juxtaposed with the earthy green of the spinach, brought together with some melted butter made me a happy girl.

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