Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Book Review: Melt

When I think about it, I don't think us Brits really know how to do sandwiches. We can successfully do dainty little morsels that sit neatly with afternoon tea, there are a variety of satisfactory pre-packed possibilities available in supermarkets and garages (I lived on chicken, bacon and mayo sandwiches for three years at university), and our coffee shops serve up some delicious paninis, but by and large we stick to what we know and play it safe. You certainly couldn't call us adventurous, not like the Americans, they will sandwich any-dang-thing. 

When I think of American sandwiches, I think of Joey in Friends describing his meatball sandwich, I think of Man Vs Food (yes, I watch it, it's hypnotic), I think of Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches, those sound good. I think big, bold and exciting, so when Melt came into my hands, I felt apprehensive (in an incredibly British sort of way), but completely intrigued. 

The book focuses on the grilled cheese sandwich, and is divided into two parts, Savoury, and Sweet, and the two parts are made up of four chapters, which are adventurously titled: Gastronomically Gourmet, Living On The Edge, Epicurean Adventures and Experimental Territory. 

Firstly, the thing we Brits need to realise about the grilled cheese sandwich, is that is it less like our normal sandwiches, and more like a toastie, it's hot and the butter goes on the outside. It isn't going to be healthy, but it's going to be indulgent, comforting, and far more exciting than pre-packed, sliced ham or tinned tuna (oh, you know what I'm talking about). 

The whole design of the book screams fun, it's bright, bold, and has a slight comic feel. It certainly doesn't take itself too seriously, so if you like your recipe books to contain food that aspires to be on Masterchef, walk on now and remain hungry. 

The great thing about sandwich recipes, is that they are incredibly simple, it's essentially compiling a bunch of food items rather than actually 'cooking', and indeed in some places the instructions do get a little repetitive — "Let sandwich cook for 3-5 minutes per side or until bread is golden brown" — but all that means is that it's super easy, and anyone can cruise through the pages and then go create a taste party in their mouth. 

There are certain things in this super easy sandwich book that may catch you off guard, some of the sandwiches are bread specific e.g. Chaliah, so for the full experience, it'll be no good relying on a loaf of pre-sliced white bread from the supermarket. Also, being an American book, there are ingredients in general that we may not be familiar with (marble cheese, packages of Stouffers Spinach Souffle), so you may struggle to follow some of the recipes to the letter, be prepared to google and improvise. 

The only thing that makes me a little sad, is that not all the sandwiches have a photo, there are many photos included, and one could argue that many of the sandwiches look similar, so why fill a book with too many of them. I would argue that there is a lot of pleasure to be found in a picture of a grilled cheese sandwich and it should never be underestimated. 

There are some curious flavour combinations included such as roasted brussel sprouts with cheddar, some ingredients sound a little 'studenty' (the Soupless French Onion incorporates french onion soup mix), and there are some even more curious ideas for fillings that will throw any notion you had of carb control right out of the window: Fish and Chips (with cheese and coleslaw), Risotto (yes, rice in a sandwich) and Farfalle pesto Grilled Cheese (yes, pasta). However, there are other sandwiches that are less kooky, one that whets my appetite in particular is the Salmon Croquettes with Dill (posh fish fingers, yum).

This book may lead you to stretch your definition of what a sandwich is. To me, a sandwich involves bread, and being able to pick it up and eat it with your hands. There are several sandwiches in Melt that don't adhere to such rules. In the savoury sandwiches we find alternatives to bread such as lettuce leaves, mushrooms, eggplant slices, potato pancakes and savoury waffles, which I think are great ideas, but it's moving onto part 2 where we find the sweet sandwiches, that our definition of sandwich, particularly a grilled cheese sandwich, becomes challenged. 

Some of the sweet sandwiches, such as the Harvest Fest (sweet potato, cinnamon, marshmallows, apples and cheese) sound different and interesting, and others such as Squash with Apple Butter (spaghetti squash, apple butter, cranberry goats cheese in a croissant) sound tasty, but two brownies, with mascarpone and a crumbled cookie in the middle, whilst sounding absolutely delicious, is a pudding, not a sandwich, a pudding. 

My obsession with the definition of sandwich aside, Melt is great, great fun. Yes, you may have to improvise with some of the ingredients, but if you are bored by lunch time snacks, then this book is full of ideas to turn your midday meal time into a circus for your tastebuds. It's great for keeping kids entertained, great for those that aren't naturally gifted in the kitchen, but might like to be, and students, still trying to build their repetoire of meals. It is a bit wacky, but it does provide what looks like a great variety of grilled cheese sandwiches... and puddings! 

Melt: 100 Amazing Adventures in Grilled Cheese
Shane Kearns

RRP: £15.99 (Available from Amazon)
Adams Media Corporation
  • ISBN-10: 1440538743ISBN-13: 978-1440538742

Please not I was given a review copy of this book, but was not paid to write the review.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Adventures In Chocolate!

The other week, as part of a birthday/christmas present from my friend Gayle, three of us headed into London to take part in a chocolate workshop from My Chocolate. Tucked away in a basement room, at the end of a long corridor, we found ourselves surrounded by jars containing sweet treats, and table that looked like this (look up), not too shabby. 
Our host for the evening was Davies, he guided us through all the practical chocolaty bits and pieces, and told us lots of interesting things about chocolate. The first thing that we made as a group were chocolate martinis. We each had to decorate our glasses with melted chocolate swirls before mixing and shaking up the provided ingredients. 
We were then taken through various pieces of chocolate that had been put out in front of us, discussing textures, flavours, percentage of cacao and countries of origin etc. We were also able to try cacao nibs and some 100% cacao (I think...I could be wrong... you noticed the glasses of Presecco on the table right?).

We made our own slabs of chocolate, which we were able to flavour and decorate. I chose cherry and decorated with nuts, as I thought those would be a pretty tasty combination, the white chocolate was purely because I like white chocolate. 

We were given a ganache to pipe out onto our baking sheets, but the nozzle on our table was cut a little big, so they came out more like cute little poos, rather than little piped blobs of cuteness. 
While our little poos were firming up slightly, Davies showed us how to make American chocolate fudge. We were given a slab of the chocolate fudge, and what I believe was Gianduja, to decorate alongside our truffles. What followed included rolling, dipping, sprinkling, rubbing (transfers), and possibly asking for more marshmallows when our table ran out, after dipping them in the ever present bowl of melted chocolate and eating them throughout the night, (how were we supposed to know that we'd need them again later?). 

I was pretty impressed with my selection of chocolates, although it turns out I'm not a fan of crystallised rose petals, (fortunately I only made one of those). 
 Gayle's treats. 
Lydia's treats.

The evening concluded, with us packing our chocolates into boxes and bags, whilst enjoying a chocolate and dessert wine pairing. I didn't think I was a fan of port, but it goes so well with chocolate, it may be my new hobby (yes, you can absolutely have chocolate and port as a hobby). I think we also tried some marsala (but don't hold me to that).

It was a fabulous evening, which I would highly recommend. There was a lot of information to take in, and trying to fit it into just three hours, did feel a little bit rushed. It also may have been a little bit lost on us, as after several glasses of Presecco, we did turn into ever so slightly inebriated giggling young ladies (okay so 'I' may have been giggling slightly more than everyone else). That isn't a complaint though, it was the best fun I've had in ages! 

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Book Review: The Forager's Kitchen

It wasn't so long ago that I declared to my fiance that, apart from a couple of titles left on my wishlist, I thought I had enough cookbooks. A reliable go-to book for weekday evening meals, thanks to the Hairy Bikers, tick. A selection of baking books containing much sugary deliciousness, courtesy of Mary Berry, The Hummingbird Bakery, Lily Vanilli, and Bea of Bloomsbury, tick. For a second there, I didn't think there was anything else that I could possibly need, but I was wrong, I needed a book that could offer me knowledge and brand new (old) flavours that I hadn't tried before, I needed The Forager's Kitchen by Fiona Bird. 

If you are considering whether your current repertoire is looking at bit lack-lustre, and are tired of the fluffy recipe books full of pretty indulgences, then The Forager's Kitchen comes as a welcome alternative. The book offers a beginner's guide to foraging, alongside tasty recipes for you to create with a new selection of ingredients. It still includes all of the beautiful images of meals that you expect from a modern cookbook, but it also offers a whole treasure trove of useful information. 

It's written beautifully, with a light, friendly, engaging tone, full of wit and intelligence. In the introduction Fiona mentions some of the positive aspects of foraging, such as the adventure to be experienced in the great outdoors, being in touch with nature, and obviously, free food. She adds words of wisdom and caution too, reminding us that a basketful of bounty is never guaranteed, that you will need to pick seasonally, and to be mindful of the needs of other foragers and wildlife, so not to be greedy and over-pick. She points out that foraging is about sharing and being considerate, and also respecting the rules and laws of the land, not trespassing, and being aware of which plant life is protected. She suggests where you can begin to search, the places best to avoid, and the kind of kit that you are going to need, whether it's outdoor clothing or kitchen appliances. Possibly of greatest importance, is the rule repeated throughout concerning misidentification, 'if in doubt, leave it out'. Fiona wisely points out that to help identify wild foods, you are going to need more specific, detailed field guides, and won't be able to rely on identification using this book alone. To help with this, there is a short list of recommended books at the back, as well as sites to visit to gather information on rules and laws that need to be upheld. There are lots of images of foragable foods in their natural locations, but some of them are small, hence the need for a detailed guide, and although not every recipe has a full page image, the ones that do are brightly lit, and just as enticing as you would expect.

The five chapters following the introduction are divided into types of foods or foraging locations: Flowers and Blossoms, Woodland and Hedgerows, Fruits and Berries, Herbs and Sea and Shore. Each chapter is then divided into specific plants/fruits/items. So for example in chapter one, after a swift introduction to edible flowers, we are introduced to Elder. We are given the latin name, various colloquial names, where it can be found, how to forage and gather, how it can be used, as well as some fun elder folklore (did you know that elder leaves are supposed to keep flies away, that is why cows like to shelter beneath it?).  

Elderflower in particular, is one of my favourite things, so I was thrilled to see recipes for Elderflower pancakes, Vinegar, Wild Elderflower and Gooseberry Curd and of course, and of course Elderflower Cordial. Throughout all these sections there are additional 'Wild Notes' that make helpful suggestions on how to adapt the recipe in order to use other wild ingredients instead of the plant in question, for when it is out of season perhaps, or if you don't happen to like that particular flavour. The adaptations make it easy to use the book all year round, even though ingredients may only have a short foraging window. Chapter one also includes sections on Honeysuckle, Sweet Violet, Wild Cherry, Wild Rose, and an interesting selection of meadow flowers. 

The recipes appear at first glance to be a little unusual, but are easy to follow, and there is an element of fun that runs throughout - the use of flowers in a recipe to introduce some colour changing magic occurs several times - but having said that it is an educational book that makes me feel like a knowledgeable grown-up (well a little bit at least). It is both fun and informative. 

Other recipes that have caught my attention in particular include: honeysuckle jelly, custard tarts with violets, wild cherry blossom panna cotta, salted caramel wild hazelnut shortbread. The bilberry and hazelnut crumble cake and dulse pesto (with pasta) in particular look absolutely delicious. 

The thing I found so delightful is that there is a great balance between the foragable foods that I expected to see (enter blackberries, hazelnuts, field mushrooms and elderflower), and those that I'm less familiar with, and have little idea what they would taste like, such as douglas fir, chickweed, clover and sweet cicely. Of course there are many things I have heard of, (thanks to the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall), but it is this balance between the foragable food you expect to see, and more unusual ones that help make the thought of foraging approachable to a beginner. 

I love the idea of opening up a recipe book and not having any memory of the flavours I'm reading about to fall back on, it feels very exciting and adventurous. I can look up how to make salted caramel or a chocolate fudge cake in most recipe books, and have preconceived expectations. A book like this however, lets you dip a toe into the unknown, and Fiona is not only telling you what these new flavours are, but where they can be found and what to do with them. With over 100 recipes and a ridiculous amount of information this inspiring book represents value and adventure. 

I think I've stumbled across something very special. We've all heard of foraging and free food and, although we love the concept, many of us (I assume) have no idea where to start and still make our weekly trip to the supermarket. This book scratches at the surface of lost instincts and digs around trying to reignite memories last seen with our distant ancestors. It feels like I should already know these things, but they've been long forgotten. You are likely to get cravings that you didn't know you could experience. You might not be able to pinpoint the flavours yet, but you know there is going to be something floral, or sharp, sweet, nutty, or reminds you of the sea, and those cravings must be directly linked to those buried foraging instincts, instincts that are tired of fluro-lighting, plastic bags and trollies and are crying out for something fresh. 

Foraging does appear to be quite fashionable at present, but to get the most out of this book, you are going to have to show a bit of commitment to the cause. You will have get out there and give it a go, but seeing the tantalising possibilities presented so beautifully, it has given me the inspiration and motivation to get started. 

The Forager’s Kitchen by Fiona Bird is published by Cico Books at £16.99 and is available from www.cicobooks.com
(images courtesy of Cico Books)

 Please note that I was given a copy of this book, but was not paid to write the review. 

Friday, 12 April 2013

A Cup Of Tea & A Catch Up

It's nice to have a catch up occasionally, but it does make me realise just how much my life revolves around eating. There are worse things I suppose :) Anyhoo, here is a bit of March, which saw me writing book reviews - as always - going to my niece's birthday party (what you are seeing there is a drunken brother-in-law raiding a fridge, as that is what happens if you drink irresponsibly!), and eating treats from my local coffee shop, The Seasons. I also finally popped an engagement photo in a frame (although it hasn't a real home yet, and is sitting randomly on a windowsill...), then over easter Rob made some pulled pork and bread rolls (delicious), I made some edible but rubbish cakes (note to self, never wing it, always follow the recipe), bought some pretty plates, and we also had french onion soup grilled cheese sandwiches, courtesy of Joy the Baker, scrummy but very, very rich! 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Cards I've Made: Lewis

Lewis is 2 today, here is the card I made for him! Happy Birthday Lewis! :)

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Forgotten Flowers & Favours

Today I found a whole bunch of photos sitting in a folder that were intended for my blog, but instead have been gathering dust and feeling a little lost and forgotten. Therefore I thought it was about time I shared them with you! You may have seen some of my paper flowers - that I'm creating for my wedding - in a previous post, well I've now added a splash of colour to them. These are ones I finished off about a month back, last weekend I made around another hundred that are now waiting to be painted. 
We have also been thinking about favours. We wanted to give people a hot chocolate mix to take home with them, and are going to use a Jamie Oliver recipe, it's delicious, but unfortunately it looks a mess! Who new that after looking at all those flashy Pinterest images, that show you how to host the perfect party, that getting fine powder into a cellophane bag, would be so damn hard! The image above was our first disastrous attempt, and the images below, our slightly improved attempt. Our packaging experiments are leading us towards sending the powder down a funnel into the bag, to keep it as clean as we can, and popping the marshmallows and fudge pieces into a separate bag, so they can be removed easily without getting covered in choccy dust.