Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas Whisky and Marmalade Sponge

Strange as it may seem, way back in lovely sunny June this year I was asked by someone on Twitter to come up with an idea for an alternative to Christmas pudding. We're not the biggest fans of Christmas pud in our house anyway and by the time I've made Christmas cake following my nan's trusty recipe I can never be bothered to whip one up. Anyway, the idea I came up with was a whisky and marmalade sponge with a nice spiced Christmas whipped cream - I thought this could work quite nicely and be a much lighter but equally boozy surrogate for the traditional pudding.

We decided we would actually make the Whisky and Marmalade Sponge seeing as my Christmas pud loving dad would be away visiting my brother for this year's Christmas. A shame really as he would have bloody loved this.

For the recipe I adapted a Dan Leppard microwave sponge recipe but as we don't have a microwave I looked at a couple of Paul Hollywood steamed sponge recipes. I'd never steamed a sponge before and was a bit scared that it would go wrong but it was as easy as falling off a log. Armed with this knowledge I will definitely be experimenting with a few more sponge ideas.

I was dead happy with how the sponges turned out - I love marmalade and Bailey loves whisky so it was the perfect recipe for us. The only problem was Bailey, the heathen, doesn't usually eat marmalade so didn't realise why the fact that he bought a jar without bits in was considered to be such a massive goof. Bits would have made this loads better and I reckon all nice and sticky on top. Definitely get your marmalade with bits in, without bits is just plain wrong!

65g butter
65g caster sugar
Zest of 2 oranges
2 eggs
65g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
Extra butter for greasing the sponge cups
Orange marmalade
45 ml whisky
150 ml double cream
Ground cinnamon
Icing sugar for dusting

Start by creaming the butter and sugar together in a bowl until smooth. Grate the orange zest in with the butter and sugar before mixing well.

Add the eggs one at a time and beat into the mixture. Add the flour and baking powder then mix until free of lumps.

Next prepare the sponge cups. Grease using as much butter as necessary then fill the bottoms of the cups with about three teaspoon sized blobs of the marmalade.

Weird bitless marmalade
Next, pour the sponge mix into the cups on top of the marmalade and put the lids on. Heat up a large pan (lidded!) with enough water to come up about halfway or two thirds of the way up the cups when they're placed in the pan and bring the water to the boil. Place the sponge cups in the water and put the lid on. Steam the sponges for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the cream. Whip it up into stiff peaks and add 25ml of the whisky to it as well as two tsp of the ground cinnamon. You could also sweeten the cream here if you have a sweet tooth.

After the 40 minutes, check your sponges are cooked through using a metal skewer. Turn them out onto plates (they might need a bit of a tap, or a bash!) before adding a little quenelle of the whisky cream to the plates.

Sprinkle the cream with a pinch of cinnamon and the pud with a bit of icing sugar for presentation then serve!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Parker's Arms

Bailey's birthday meal and the stakes were high, seeing as he only went and took me to The French on my birthday! Fortunately Bailey is a happy man when seated in a cosy pub eating hearty food and drinking a good pint of local ale, which is what made The Parker's Arms the perfect place to celebrate his birthday.

There are very few places to have received as much unanimously positive blogger/Twitter attention (from people like the excellent Food Geek) as this Ribble Valley eatery and we had been dying to know what all the fuss was about for ages. However, that is easier said than done as Parker's Arms is a good hour+ drive away for us and not the most easy drive in winter at that but we were confident that it would be worth the trip.

Even the SatNav seemed a little unsure
As well as having a brilliant reputation, Parker's Arms seem to have a really good Twitter presence, with one of the perks for their followers being the 'Tweet Treats' they shower you with if you get in touch with the chef Stosie via @parkersarms. I wasn't too sure what a Tweet Treat was at this stage but I do know that Bailey and I are greedy so-and-sos and love a good treat...

However, had we known just how many Tweet Treats we would be getting we might have reconsidered ordering from the Festive Menu - with three courses plus canapés and petits fours on offer for an eye-poppingly bargainous £30. For the quality and quantity of food we were to receive, I have to say this is one of the best value meals we've ever had.

If I were to go into detail about the marathon of Tweet Treats we were lavished with we would be here all day so let me begin by saying these were all absolutely delicious. We were so impressed with the quality of ingredients and the cooking, at times we struggled to remember we were sat in a pub and not one of the country's best restaurants. The Tweet Treats began with a basket of crispy potato skins and pork scratchings served with chutney...

...followed by a beautifully cooked venison with damsons and damson jelly for Bailey... 

...then some pan-fried haddock with a wonderfully smooth celeriac purée...

...some cured mackerel with a superb home-made cracker and more little jellies...

...and a portion of mushroom parfait with bread. Best mushroom based thing I've ever eaten methinks and so lovely we tried to recreate it for our Christmas Day starter.

Phew! By the time we actually received something from the menu we'd ordered we'd had all this plus awesome bread and were bordering on full, but we didn't mind, we know that Stosie is obviously very passionate about showing off her amazing selection of localy sourced ingredients - and by local they mean LOCAL, with the fabulous front-of-house AJ often pointing out of the window to the nearby fields or hills when explaining where the produce had come from. 

The awesome bread with equally awesome butter 
Our canapés were an additional delightful surprise as the name 'fritters' gave no indication of how light and fluffy these little balls would be.

The birthday boy's starter was a Game & Barley Broth and he let out a sigh of panic on seeing the size of this robust bowl packed with meat and veg. Fortunately he found it to be surprisingly "light and refreshing" but also very delicious.

I on the other hand let out a sigh of relief on seeing my dainty portion of Crab Parfait with Lemon and Cucumber Jellies arrive. Like its mushroomy sister, this was a light as air and smooth as silk parfait rich in crab flavour and I loved the freshness the jellies brought to the dish. Bacon on the Beech - a much more well-travelled/eaten fellow than me, recently included this in his top 50 dishes of the year and I would agree it is one of the best things I've had all year. 

Bailey's main course was a rich, luxurious plate of Roast Loin of Suckling Pig accompanied by the best examples of roast dinner sides imaginable. It was another big portion but was so good Bailey managed to polish it all off and proclaimed it to be the best Sunday lunch he's ever had!

My Slaidburn Egg Custard Tart was quite simply one of my favourite tarts in memory and it was with great sadness that I had to leave some on the plate... I have often thought about that little piece of tart that I sent back to the kitchen uneaten and wiped away a small tear.

What made this tart so special was how light and fluffy the cheesy filling was, which was a nice texture contrast to the crisp pastry. The accompanying kale was gorgeous and I loved the addition of little chunks of chestnut. Probably the most successful festive vegetarian option I've ever had. YUM!

Fortunately there was a short break between the main and the desserts which gave time for AJ to go and walk the dogs but also for our mains to go down a little bit. This was lucky as I don't even think the 'additional dessert stomach' would have pulled through for us here. We said we wished there were a couple of big sofas in the corner that we could have used for a quick lie-down.

After the short rest I felt ready to tackle my Plum Pudding with Crème Anglaise, which was probably my least favourite plate of the day as I found the pud a bit stodgy and not as moist as I'd have liked, however all the accompaniments were amazing and worked really well all together. Still much better than most desserts I've eaten in other places!

Bailey's had gone for the Valrhona Chocolate Fondant and it seemed too good to be true that after such a spot-on meal even the fondant would be gooey in the middle...

...but of course it was! Not only that but all the little bits and bobs on the plate were so good that I noticed Bailey's eyes glaze over as he slipped into a coma of deliciousness.

We'd made it to the end of our mammoth meal when we suddenly remembered there was the small matter of the petits fours to deal with. A drop in the ocean perhaps but we did feel like we were about to pop and that a petit four might tip us over the edge. Fortunately they were quite petits and were one final example of beautiful Parker's Arms food - moist, light little cakes and an eyebrow raising salted caramel chocolate square which despite my fullness I scraped up every last bit of!

By the time we finished eating, night had well and truly fallen and we realised we'd been there for most of the afternoon and early evening. Truly an epic meal. We had enjoyed every bite and the service and atmosphere had been cosy and perfect. A very memorable experience.

I wasn't sure how Parker's Arms could actually live up to all the hype but in reality our meal surpassed our expectations. It was easy to see how the place has become so talked about - as soon as we had finished our meal I immediately wanted to shout about the place from the rooftops! Even though it is a bit of a drive, we've already been talking about going back there very soon and want to take all our friends so they can see how great it is too. Food and service like this is worth travelling for! So, did Bailey enjoy his birthday meal and how did it compare to The French? In fact... he said it was one of the best meals of the year and he actually enjoyed it MORE than The French! What a success. Thanks to everyone at Parker's Arms for such a delectable afternoon!

Parkers Arms on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Little Italy Kitchen

A hypothetical question for you my dear reader: what would you do in the unlikely event that a couple of stupid guests turned up to your carefully-prepared supper club over two hours late? Yes, TWO HOURS. I tell you what, I personally would not be best pleased. I would be incandescent with rage in fact, tell the disorganised duo where to go shove it and never again would they be allowed to darken my doorstep.

Well this is what makes Andrea - mastermind behind the wonderful Little Italy Kitchen based right here in lovely Levenshulme, a much greater man than I. When Bailey and I dragged our sorry selves to the supperclub after realising (due to a very polite and in no way incandescent with rage tweet from Andrea) that it started at 1pm and not 7pm as we for some reason had thought (the word "OOPS" is the world's biggest understatement), he and his partner and our host for the day Derek, welcomed us in with open arms. Not only that but Andrea went back to the beginning and recooked all the courses we had missed (minus the ravioli, which Andrea and Derek had eaten - good for them!) but still kept the other three punctual guests entertained with extra little nibbles. What a guy.

First up we were presented with an Aperetivo of an elderflower cocktail and some beautiful Italian nibbles which I eventually stopped feeling sheepish enough to enjoy very much. My favourites were the chilli breadsticks and sun-dried tomato toasts.

Next Derek presented us with two different Antipasti - spicy Nduja Dough Balls for Bailey which like all delicious things disappeared in about two seconds.

My pescatarian alternative to the dough balls was the Baccalà Fritters - great big chunks of air-dried cod in a light, and crispy batter. Marvellous.

Had we not been a pair of plonkers and been on time we would have at this stage received a Primo in the form of a Pumpkin and Pine Nuts Ravioli which I was assured by the other guests was phenomenal. Andrea showed us a picture and it looked awesome, we will have to keep our fingers crossed that he puts something similar on a future menu!

The Secondo was probably the course I loved best - King Scallops with Cannellini Bean Purée, Samphire, Chilli, Honey and some additional Smoked Pancetta for the meat eaters. Everything was so carefully cooked and delicately flavoured with the star definitely being the plate-scrapingly good bean purée. Renowned bean hater and potato lover Bailey said it was "like a more delicious mashed potato".

After arriving two hours late it would probably have been rude to lick the plate.
One of the bites Derek brought out for the guests who had to wait for us idiots to catch up was little squares of Focaccia which was a crunchy-on-top/pillowy-underneath, salty, olivey delight.

Finally we were back in sync with the other guests and it was time for my favourite course in any meal - the Formaggi. Yes, that's right - CHEESE!!!! Andrea had carefully selected some of his favourite Italian cheeses, including a very pongy Taleggio which had been lovingly brought all the way back from the motherland. Not only that but we were treated to not one, not two, but THREE homemade chutnies including a candied quince that Andrea served WARM! Totally amazing cheeseboard times!

The night was now drawing in and it was time for a gorgeous Dolce course called Drunken Pear Towers. These pears were beyond drunken, they had been on a week-long bender soaking in spiced red wine and tasted incredible. They were served on top of a pile of deliciousness in the form of a frangipane cakey tart thing and loads of mascarpone before before being drizzled with chocolate. If I didn't sound like a terrible Greg Wallace I would say it was LIKE EATING A CUDDLE. A badass, Italian cuddle.

To round off the super dooper meal we had proper Italian coffees and home made nutty truffles accompanied by good chats, also known as "top bantz", with Andrea and Derek - they really are great people.

I have to say apart from the food and great hosting on Derek's part there is another reason to visit the Little Italy Kitchen and that is their house is pretty much the best place I have been. It is a lesser-known fact that aside eating food, my other main hobby is gawping at pictures of beautiful but quirky houses. Levenshulme is particularly good for quirky house spotting and before I even met Andrea I'd already had my eye on his abode which is just round the corner from us. My favourite book is Bazaar Style by Selina Lake and can't tell you how many hours I've spent drooling over its pages, so to see Andrea and Derek's home (which looks like it is straight out of one of Selina's photo shoots) with my own eyes was very exciting. Ask them for a tour of the house and, like I did, ask them loads of questions about all of their things - everything has a fascinating story behind it and they did it all themselves - it's AWESOME.

Little Italy Kitchen was such a great supper club that we immediately started looking into going back (only partly to show Andrea that we are capable of turning up on time for things), especially when we heard talk of Rabbit Ragouts and Rum Babas. If you love any of the following things: proper Italian food, having a great time, beautiful homes, great gardens, good people, then please book yourself onto one of Andrea's supper clubs. He cooks from the heart and just loves to look after his guests which is a winning combination!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Wendy's House

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of vegetarian chef and generally lovely person Wendy Swetnam. Way back in June she taught me to make all manner of Middle Eastern delights (gorgeous healthy recipes that I have made several times since) at a Cracking Good Food course and I had an equally superb time at my birthday visit to her Secret Veggie Vegan Vintage Tea Party. However what I really couldn't wait for was booking into one of her Wendy's House supper clubs, but with allsorts going on we had to wait until November until we could finally attend one.

Wendy's House: Beyond cosy
Well here's a wee spoiler for you: it was worth the wait! One of my favourite supper club visits of all time, no doubt. I arrived at her incredibly lovely house in Trafford a little late due to having been so stuck on the M6 from Birmingham that I'd phoned Bailey to break the news that I might not actually make it to the party. This misadventure only made my welcome drink of a delightfully cinnamony Gingerbread Daquiri, when I did in fact make it to the party, all the more delectable.

After spending three hours in a crap car doing 20 on a crap road I can also confirm that the sight of a beautiful Roasted Squash Soup with Ricotta, Rosemary and Reduced Balsamic served in a baby pumpkin is a welcome one. This was delicious and got us talking about how more bowls should be edible, as long as they are as tasty as this one, mind. I embarrassed myself by being the first person on the table to dispatch the entire thing.

The main course was by far our very favourite - this Parsnip and Sage Rotolo really was a triumph. It was all at once sweet, creamy and warming with bags of root veggie flavour. I loved the crunchy parsnip crisps and the lovingly cubed beetroot. I could have chowed this down approximately three times over. Our friend Steve was adamant that he was going to go home and learn to make one just like it. I hope that he has been successful and will invite us over to eat one in the near future.

Tasted as good as it looked
I hadn't looked at the menu beforehand and I was expecting your average three courses so was very pleased to be presented with one of my favourite things: cheeeeeeese. Not only did this little platter feature my favourite type of cheese biscuit - the humble oatcake, there was also Blacksticks Blue, English Brie and a homemade quince compote to be enjoyed. I loved the sweet quince - the perfect accompaniment to the cheese. As if that wasn't exciting enough, Wendy put a jar of the stuff into a little party bag for us at the end to take home. That bad boy will be coming out for Bailey's birthday cheeseboard that's for sure.

Dessert was a predictably lovely Pear Poached in Apple and Cinnamon with a dainty square of Ginger Cake. The pear was perfectly poached and the cake was moist, sticky and rich with ginger goodness. The Buttered Rum sauce on top was fantastic and got me thinking 'Where oh where have I tasted a sauce this awesome before... oh yes, that would be the LAST time Wendy made me a sauce at the veggie tea party!' She is the caramel sauce queen.

There was a final surprise in the form of some lovely crunchy pistachio biscuits to accompany the post-dinner coffee. Great stuff.

It's great to be able to write a post where I don't have to complain about a single bit of food and while all the dishes were indeed excellent, there's also a lot to be said for being able to throw a good party; something Wendy did perfectly. Her home is beautiful and the attention to detail is the best I've seen at a supper club, right down to the pretty little table decorations and intimate lighting. Her guests were great and there was a really friendly atmosphere throughout the whole evening.

I am really starting to think that going out to supper clubs is way more fun and exciting than eating out in restaurants and Wendy's was one of my favourite supper club experiences yet. Bailey put it correctly when he said that if you're a vegetarian in Manchester and haven't been to Wendy's House then you are a "simple fool", but I wouldn't write this off as a veggie-only adventure anyway - Bailey said he didn't miss the meat at all (especially not while eating the amazing Rotolo). I for one am looking forward to booking in again for an evening of Mexican fun (no joke - Mondays at Wendy's are in fact MEXICO MONDAYS - how exciting is that?) and I would urge you to follow suit!


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