Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Hotel Chocolat Milk Chocolate Almonds

Just before Christmas 2010, Hotel Chocolat finally opened in Newcastle, nestled among the jewellery shops on Blackett Street. The staff welcomed shoppers with trays of complimentary chocolates and remained friendly and helpful each time I “popped by” that day.  This year as an early Christmas gift, Hotel Chocolat offered me more free chocolate from their Christmas menu and sent me a tin of Milk Chocolate Cinnamon Almonds.
My family love nuts. We eat nut roast on Christmas Day. My grandparents used to get extra nut rations during the War, claiming to be vegetarian (to be fair, they were). And a favourite Christmas treat when I was a child was a wooden bowl filled with almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and brazilnuts in their shells, which my mum would crack open while we watched TV. Looking back, I can’t quite see why this seemed so much fun. Maybe it was the novelty. Maybe it was because we didn’t have Xbox.

Thankfully the Hotel Chocolat almonds came ready shelled and - joy upon joys -  caramelised and coated in milk chocolate. They have “a warm hint of cinnamon” – to be honest, if this were a hint to a crossword clue I’d be asking for another, but not everybody likes cinnamon as much as I do.

A fellow Newcastle food blogger had written a great review here of the very same almonds and had had the brilliant idea of baking them in biscotti.

I wondered what I could bake with the almonds that I hadn’t already eaten. Eventually I opened a little-used cupboard and the answer was staring me in the face: I didn't need to bake. I have an ice cream machine.

Recipe: Milk Chocolate Almond Cinnamon Ice Cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 300ml milk
  • 300ml double cream
  • 1tsp vanilla essence
  • 3 tsp ground cinnamon (I WILL have my cinnamon way)
  • 125g Hotel Chocolat milk chocolate almonds, roughly chopped. You can use more if you haven’t <ahem> eaten the rest

  • Slowly heat the milk to boiling point in a pan and whisk the egg yolks with the caster sugar in a bowl
  • While still beating, pour the milk into the egg and sugar mixture
  • Return the pan to the heat but do not let it boil or the mixture will separate. Stir constantly until the custard is thick enough to form a film over the back of a spoon.
  • Leave to cool. Once cold, add the cream, vanilla essence and cinnamon and pour into the ice cream maker
  • Once the ice cream has started to thicken after about 10 minutes, add the chopped almonds

I was left with four egg whites, a perfect excuse to make meringues. I piped them in the shape of Christmas trees and added some tiny silver dragees.

The result was a perfect Christmas treat - chocolate, almonds, cinnamon and meringue – masquerading as a snow globe. Happy Christmas! 

Saturday, 26 November 2011

But it’s not my birthday, Archdeacon

When I was 15 and bored in a GCSE Russian lesson, I started chatting to a friend of a friend about what was pretty much my only topic of conversation: how much I loved Rowan Atkinson. “Yes”, said Han, “I love him too”. There was an almost audible click in the air and we have been best of friends ever since.  When two like-minded people meet, they can be capable of great or terrible things. Or they can just while away their study periods drinking hot chocolate and arguing about who should get to marry Rowan first.

To be fair to Han, she had seen him first and had been far more diligent in her information gathering. She had a horde of untold treasures that she generously shared with me – the first series of Blackadder on video (VIDEO in the early 80s!), a programme from his one man show in London (she’d actually been to see him in LONDON!) and an autograph from Rowan in reply to a very funny letter she’d sent him (a piece of paper he’d TOUCHED!)  It seems odd now looking back to an age before the internet when you couldn’t just Google for images or news or reviews, or go on You Tube for an entire video back catalogue or go tappity tap tap “oh so that’s where he lives” tappity tap tap Google street view “that bush could do with a trim”.

When we were in our teens, pictures were hard won by going through stacks of magazines in a dentist’s waiting room, video clips were snatched by hovering over the record button at all times (advert breaks were particularly fraught), backdated reviews had to be ordered at the public library on microfiche, and if you wanted to have a sneaky peek at someone’s house armed only with a photograph and some vague geographical information, good luck to you. We laugh today about where we’d be if we’d had the internet back then. Prison, probably.

By the time we were 17, we’d met Rowan three times (always charming), got his autograph and travelled to London to see an episode of Blackadder Goes Forth recorded at the BBC. We knew Blackadder and Not the Nine O Clock news off by heart and often went into a semi-private language that was intensely irritating to everyone around us.

Then in 1990 we were dealt a double blow: firstly, instead of marrying a pair of schoolgirls  Rowan married a woman he’d actually met. Secondly, he made Mr Bean. We left school, went to university, got jobs, got older, got cats, but still watch our Blackadder dvds together.

Today is Han’s birthday and there was only one way to decorate the cake. On the top I’ve painted the Blackadder snake and dagger motif that I used to carve into school desks with a compass (sorry). It’s copied from a gift tag Han made me years ago on Rowan Day, celebrated each year on Twelfth Night with the exchange of gifts and cards, the eating of certain foods designated as Rowany (potatoes, cheese, Mars Bars) and the watching of videos.

There aren’t many Blackadder birthday quotes but luckily “But it’s not my birthday, Archdeacon” is a particular favourite. There are several Blackadder fonts available and I used the Blackadder II font as the quote is from this series (episode 5, “Beer”).

Lastly, I added the figurines sitting in order: The Blackadder, the series viewed as inferior but which does have some very good episodes and was filmed in part in Northumberland at Alnwick Castle, making it extra special. Then Blackadder II, my favourite series, in which the world realised what was patently obvious even to a 13 year old: Rowan is very handsome, even if the man himself has said the beard makes him look a bit like Peter Sutcliffe. The figurine looked a bit more camp than I was hoping, and I could say the same for Blackadder the Third, Han’s favourite series. I was pleased with the uniform on the Blackadder Goes Forth figure.

Sometimes it feels like a long time ago that we sat goggled eyed in the front row at BBC Television Centre; sometimes it feels like yesterday.  Han is one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met, combining a fierce intellect with a sense of humour so dry it could sandpaper walls. A true polymath, she’s at home in literature, medicine, music or sport and can name the X Factor contestants/Lear’s daughters/the Scooby Doo team with equal ease. If Rowan ever tires of Mrs A, I can heartily recommend Han as a replacement. Happy birthday, you fine saucy young trollop!

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Clandestine Cake Club - November

In Newcastle, you know Santa is on his way when Fenwick reveals its Christmas window. For the last 40 years the department store has entertained shoppers with an elaborate display of moving, singing automata, a bit like XFactor only better.  I love the Christmas window, though I do think they should do something about all those pesky children spoiling my view.

A few years ago Fenwick courted controversy by choosing the theme of aliens (Newcastle was NOT happy) but since then has stuck firmly to full-on Christmas and recently even had a nativity scene ('who wants that at Christmas time?' muttered my mother). This year the theme is children’s characters and the tableaux include the Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Sooty, Cinderella, Camberwick Green and Oliver Twist.
There is also Alice in Wonderland enjoying cake at the mad hatter’s tea party.
Last night, cousin Helen and I also enjoyed cake in Fenwicks, as it kindly hosted the last Clandestine Cake Club of the year. The theme was “Winter” and I decided to make an Italian Christmas panettone, banking on it being light enough to leave room for trying as many other cakes as possible. I found a recipe for cranberry and chocolate panettone on the BBC Good Food website, which is a treasure trove of tried and tested recipes. I swapped the white chocolate for dark to make it less sweet. I’d never made panettone before but it wasn’t hard, it just takes time as the dough needs to prove for a couple of hours before baking.

We had special guests at cake club:  CCC founder Lynn Hill from Leeds and Appetite magazine, who photographed the cakes while we ducked from the camera squealing “don’t publish photos of us stuffing our faces with cake”. If you see a photo of a table of women politely sipping green tea, know that it is a lie.

 Helen and I managed to try most of the cakes – my favourites were the eggnog cake - light and spiced and not too sweet (would love the recipe please!); the damp gingerbread - fluffy and delicious, and the spiced orange. Eating a dozen slices of cake is hard work and over the past few months I’ve picked up some good tips:

1) Fairly obvious, but cut a small slice. A really small slice. Then cut if in half and share with a friend.
2) Go easy on the icing. For some reason it’s very filling.
3) Save the chocolate cakes for last. For similarly obscure reasons, chocolate cakes seem more filling.
4) Remember it’s a marathon and that you need to rehydrate. Keep the tea and coffee flowing.
5) Dig deep. Just when you think you can’t eat any more, you will find some extra stamina to carry you to the finishing line.

By following these simple rules, Helen and I were able to sample at least ten cakes, then go out for a large and excellent meal at The Broad Chare, where I complained to a journalist friend that Geordies are too often portrayed as drunken fools, then tipped a glass of wine into my own lap.

Helen and I will continue our semi-professional training over Christmas in readiness for January’s cake club. Hope to see you there!
Too much cake, I can't go on. Leave me, Gary and save yourself.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Bonfire Night Cake

I was chatting recently about autumn celebrations with Han, part time Creative Director (unpaid) at Cake Poppins. We agreed that in our day, by which I mean the late 70s, the real autumn celebration was not the US style trick or treating for Hallowe’en, but Guy Fawkes’ Night on 5 November.

Historically, bonfires have been lit on this day since 1605 to celebrate the failure of a Catholic plot to assassinate the Protestant King and became a focal point for religious divides. By the 1970s, it was the night when your dad was sent to the bottom of the garden with a box of fireworks while you played with a sparkler.

Here is a photo of me and Lucy wearing matching bobble hats knitted by my mum. Note that even on a night in early November, we are wearing short skirts with bare legs. People often wonder how Geordies brave the cold on a night out. It’s simple – we start training at an early age.
The cake itself is chocolate hazelnut baked with fresh raspberries and covered with chocolate hazelnut ganache. Last month I did a course at Cakes4Fun and a tutor told us about a wedding cake he’d made, replacing some of the flour with ground hazelnuts, adding raspberries and mixing Nutella into the ganache. There is something magical about listening to a very handsome man telling you about a lovely cake and I highly recommend the experience. If you can’t get to Cakes4Fun, why not print off and laminate a recipe, find someone absolutely scrummy in the street and ask him to read it out.

Anyway I thought I’d give it a go (the baking, not the laminating) and the cake turned out a treat. I have some of the Nutella ganache left over and plan to roll it in chopped hazelnuts to make truffles. So what if I got on the scales the other morning to see the message “Err”.
I have erred and strayed like a lost ox
The cake is decorated with milk chocolate cigarellos but you could use Matchmakers, preferably the orange ones because they are the tastiest. The guy is just a guy – some towns make an effigy of a hate figure  for their bonfire but I don’t hate anyone enough to want to burn them alive. He is, however, sitting on a cigarello, so he’s not even comfortable for his impending death. The leaves are cut with a little ivy cutter, which I hoped would pass as maple, and there is a little hedgehog escaping as a reminder to CHECK UNLIT BONFIRES for animals. The cold might be God’s way of telling us to burn more Catholics, but there’s no reason to burn their pussycats as well.

I’m afraid the opportunity to pepper this blog with quotes from Blackadder has been too tempting to resist. There’s a shiny sixpence for anyone who can spot all seven. This competition is not open to employees or members of their immediate families. Unpaid or otherwise.