Restaurant Review: St. Aldate’s Tavern

In my undergraduate days, St. Aldate’s Tavern was our college pub. I’d meet up with our rowing crew there for a pint before a rowing dinner or crew date, or just head down there in the evening with friends. It was never the most glamourous pub, never the most upper-class clientèle, but it was our pub.

But times changed. The Royal Blenheim re-invented itself a few years ago and in the process became the college pub for a new generation of students. The college bar was re-done so more students stayed in college for the evening pint. With The Old Tom serving great Thai food, or pubs like The Chequers nearby having a better selection of beers, it was no surprise that St. Aldates had to find a new image to stay alive in Oxford. But find a new image it did.

Returning for the first time in years for lunch this week, I was pleasantly surprised at the transformation of the once-grimy pub. Clean crisp decor, chic bar stools, and jazz playing in the background, you could now order your drink from a nice wood-backed bar. The building was just a lot brighter, and the toilets were now somewhere you might want to visit. Really a different place.

The food and drink served were notably different too. Now with daily menus printed, the bar snacks looked genuinely interesting- salted pig’s ears, or home-made scotch eggs, for example- rather than the usual boring fare. For lunch, I ordered a parsnip, apple, and sage soup, which came with a freshly cooked bread roll, and a pork and apple sauce roll, which came with chips or salad. The soup was filling and flavourful, with the sage really coming through- just the thing after walking through Oxford in the cold. The bread was well made, and the pork well cooked. Coming in at £4.50 for the soup and roll, and £5 for the pork roll, my lunch was good value for money, and I was nicely full. A friend I was with had some meatballs which were also well rated.

At the time, St Aldate’s Tavern was having a real ale festival, and there was a good selection of beers. After sampling one or two beers to help choose, I enjoyed a Henley dark ale, which was fruity with tastes of caramel. Also available was a German wheat beer on tap, as well as the usual pub fare. Similarly, they served Stowford Press cider by Weston’s, one of the better ciders out there, in my opinion. The wine list was nothing special, but there were one or two nice choices at the more expensive end. I imagine that most discerning drinkers would find something they like here.

Overall, I was impressed at the turnaround, and would definitely come back. It’s not the pub that it was in my undergraduate days, but maybe the pub it is now is a better one.

Fourteen-Course Dinner Parties

Dinner parties are brilliant fun. Great food, great wine, great company. Getting the nice china and wine glasses out for a special occasion. Planning weeks in advance what you will cook. Thinking about food-wine pairings. Spending an entire day beforehand cooking your best stuff to impress guests. Cooking courses you wouldn’t usually cook- starters, soups- when normally all the effort goes into the main and pudding. Really, they are one of my favourite occasions.

But what I have outlined above also constitutes a lot of effort- especially if you want to go for a large number of courses. Similarly, the cost of the cooking ingredients can quickly escalate, and that’s before you even consider the wine. When you have a lot of food to cook and not enough time to cook it in, the process can become very stressful, in addition to the pressures of entertaining you already have. All this adds up to a great time for your guests, but for you? Probably not as much fun as you hoped.

A way I found to reconcile these ideas started in my undergraduate days: collaborative dinner parties. Everybody chips in with one or two courses, bringing wine which pairs well with the food they make. The financial cost and effort is spread around all the guests attending. Everybody can put effort into their course, but benefit from the whole effort the group has put in. There’s still some organising to be done- emailing round beforehand to find enough people, picking courses, and so on- but what you end up with is a brilliant meal that you could never cook on your own.

Here’s the most recent collaborative dinner party I hosted, and if these pictures don’t motivate you to try this idea out, I don’t know what will.

Amuses Bouche: Red Caviar and Russian Black Bread
Wine: Sovetskoye Shampanskoye
What better way to start off a dinner party than Champagne and Caviar? Little red balls of flavour bursting in your mouth, washed down by sparkling wine- definitely woke up my palate. Provided by a friend whose focus is Russian history, I feel we got an authentic Russian experience here, along with some interesting stories about life in Russia. The wine was an eye opener- lots of residual sugar, but went well with the food, the sweetness of the wine complementing the saltiness of the caviar.

Appetiser: Green Thai Curry Macaron
Wine: Faldeos Nevados Torrontés, 2011
Not wanting to overdo the size of this course, the macaron would be little more than a bite of flavour. Sweet almond shells with lime, basil and curry cream filling did just that. The wine pairing was the real success for me, with the Argentinian Torrontés being light and acidic, it balanced everything out.

Starter: Melon with Prosciutto Crudo
Wine: Casa Roscoli Pinot Grigio 2011
From the same friend who brought us Champagne and Caviar, this starter was based on times spent in Italy, living off melon and prosciutto. A classic combination, with the freshness of the lemon, sweetness of the prosciutto, and acidity of the wine all playing their part.

Soup: New England Clam Chowder
Wine: Richter Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, 2009
Made for us by a native of New England, the clam chowder was rich, creamy, sweet and heartening- really capturing that chapter of Moby Dick which always gets me excited about this dish. The wine was one of my favourites bottles of the night, a lovely sweet Riesling from Germany. At only 8.5% alcohol you might think it would not stand up to the dish, but with plenty of acidity and a long finish it worked well. The sweetness of the wine brought out the sweetness of the clams- just a pity there were still ten courses to go, so I couldn’t have seconds.

Shellfish: Prawn Satay Skewers
Wine: Vouvray Grenouilles Demi Sec Careme, 2009
Another sweeter wine complementing the natural sweetness of the shellfish, but balanced out by the strong flavours of the satay sauce. I prefer satay sauce to be really peanutty, and this one hit the spot. Just a mouthful of prawn here, but plenty of taste, and with fourteen courses, that’s just what you want.

Fish: Sakana-san
Wine: Sawanotsuru
Going to a Japanese themed course here. Tempura battered whitebait, a miso ice cream, and a trout and wasabi mousse, all piped into a Japanese character (I think meaning “I caught this in my net”). Paired with a warmed Sake, the wine just let the food speak for itself. Which wasn’t hard- there was a lot to like.

Pasta: Millefeille
Wine: Bricco Rosso Suagna Langhe Rosso 2008
Pasta is always a hard course to assign, because not many people have a pasta maker. But a friend did a great job of this course, with herbs rolled into the pasta dough, and a pepper and chicken filling for the tower. Sprinkled with Parmesan, the course was just the right size for a large meal like this- pasta is course which is easy to over-do and cook too much of. Paired with an Italian red, the ripe fruit and heat of the wine brought out the spicy chicken and peppers, working very nicely.

Poultry: Chicken two ways
Wine: La Clape, Arpège, Château Rouquette-Sur-Mer, 2011
Of course there would be one course I forgot to take a picture of, even worse that it is of Mrs. Oxfood’s course, so here is an old photo instead. There were two varieties of chicken here: lime and coriander, and paprika, all served with a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Real contrasts, loads going on. The wine was 90% Roussanne, a grape from the south of France, which was full, fruity, and well balanced. Probably my favourite food-wine pairing of the evening, just for the ability of the Roussanne to deal with what was a very complex course.

Game: Venison Bolegnese
Wine: Barolo Villa Peironte 2008
One of the most enjoyed courses of the evening, a beautifully cooked piece of venison loin, slow cooked venison shoulder, and polenta cakes was served for the game course. The dish was rustic- in a good way- with the grainy polenta cakes really adding something to the texture of the course, balancing everything out. The wine really sung here too. When you have a big wine like Barolo, you need something really meaty to work with, exactly as was done here. Firm tannins, high alcohol, big body- a wine which benefited greatly from decanting.

Cheese: Saint Nectaire, Comté, Laguiole
Wine: Bodegas Palacios Remondo Rioja ‘La Montesa’ Crianza, 2009
Lovely cheeses here. When going for a cheese course, I think people often try and put too contrasting cheeses out- a Stilton, Brie, and Cheddar on the same board, for instance. But these cheeses worked together very nicely. The wine was a strange Rioja, as it was made from mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, but it had plenty of personality. We just had a taste, then saved the cheese for later.

Sorbet: Quince and Vanilla Sorbet
As it happened, I couldn’t have picked the sorbet much better. Sandwiched between a cheese course and a chocolately orangey pudding, the sorbet was not so much a palate cleanser as it was an intermediary between main and pudding courses. I love quince, not as a fruit to eat, being very dry and woody, but as a fruit to roast, purée, and then use in a variety of dishes as a complementary flavour. After a few hours in the oven, you get a fruit a bit like a cross between a baked apple and a baked pear, so you can see how it worked well with the surrounding courses. A lovely sorbet, one I will certainly make again.

Heavier Pudding: Chocolate, Orange and Spice
Wine: La Concha Palomino Pedro Ximenez
A plate of a chocolate and cardamon mousse, dark chocolate and ginger cake, chocolate and orange truffle, and candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate. Sound nice? It really was. Top marks as well for the food-wine pairing, the not-so-sticky Pedro Ximenez sherry worked wonderfully allowing the pudding to shine. I always like pairing sherry with puddings, and here is a great example where it helps the dish much better than any wine- or pudding wine- would.

Lighter Pudding: Planters’ Punch Special
Punch was once one of the traditional courses of a very large meal like this, so it was fun to see one served as the lighter pudding. At this point in the meal, you don’t want to see loads of cream on your plate, so a liquid course was very welcome. We didn’t need a wine pairing here either, there was plenty of alcohol already present. Loads of great exotic fruit here, pineapple, grapes, melon, passionfruit- all working very well with the rum in the punch. A good fruit salad is one of my favourite puddings, and I will often choose this over richer fare. A well designed, very tasty course.

Petit Fours: Pistachio Baklava, Orange and Passion Fruit Marshmallows, Financiers
Wine: Calvados Pays d’Auge, VSOP
Although most people had eaten their fill at this point, these petit fours still managed to disappear while everyone was sitting at the table chatting after the meal. I had a lot of fun making these, the baklava in particular I had never made before, but they turned out great. The marshmallows were made in a similar fashion to the Pink Fluffy Marshmallows I made previously, just adding a passion fruit and orange syrup to the marshmallow while aerating. Financiers are classic petit fours, rounding the selection out.
For those who haven’t tried Calvados before, it is apple brandy made in the north of France. I think it is brilliant, and a good value for money substitute for brandy like Cognac or Armagnac. The apple flavours in the Calvados added a lot to these petits fours- at least for those who made it this far.

Overall, a brilliant meal. Not surprising, when you consider the amount of effort that went in to it. But with everyone chipping in? I’ll be doing this again.

Green Thai Curry Macarons

Macarons are one of the more fashionable patisserie items to make at the minute. Not to be confused with the coconut-chocolate biscuit that is the English macaroon, these biscuits are made from a very light and airy dough made up of almond flour and egg whites. There’s not a lot of flavour from the biscuits themselves, so usually they are filled with a butter cream of some sort. The filling is piped in the night before, which allows the biscuit to absorb a little, creating a softer, smoother texture. Creativity and taste aside, another lure of macarons is that they are quite tricky to make, despite the ingredients being relatively simple. Macarons have their characteristic ‘pieds’, or ‘feet’, a mythical part of the cooking process, caused by a combination of egg white rising, and surface tension of the dough. Particularly important is to get the macarons to have perfectly formed feet- if you don’t get the feet, or the feet aren’t even all the way around, you lose marks for presentation. However, I think macarons can definitely be made well, domestically. You’ll need a bit of kit- piping bag, nozzle, pastry scraper (and an electric mixer helps)- but once you have these, the recipe is that not that complicated (a bit like making a cake or biscuits), it’s just a little fiddly.

So when I was planning the appetiser course for a dinner party recently, I fancied trying to make a savoury macaron. I’ve seen recipes for savoury macarons in fancy cookbooks- beetroot and horseradish, bloody mary, or asparagus- and fancied that something like this would make a fun appetiser. The flavours had to go with almond, as you don’t want to mess with the magic formula for the base biscuits, which led me to curry of some sort. Out of curries I thought could be used here, a green thai curry worked best, and finding a recipe with different coloured top and bottom macarons sealed the deal.

Interesting for me too was the food-wine pairing. What wine do you pair with a savoury curry sweet almondy macaron? A lot of people will say that you want to pair a dry Riesling with a curry, but I’ve never been sold on the pairing, as I think there are too many flavours present. Instead, I wanted something a little more neutral, but still with good acidity, a light body, and light flavours, so that the cacophony of tastes in the macaron could shine through. I went with a Torrontés, a native Argentinian white. It worked wonderfully- plenty of zip, light, and when we picked up notes of lemongrass, I knew that had hit the spot. I think Torrontés would be a great wine for curry in general, so if you are able to source a bottle, give it a try, the strong food-wine pairing added a lot to the meal.

Overall the green thai curry macarons actually worked pretty well- much better than I was expecting. The almondy and sugarry sweetness, spicy lime and basil curry, and acidic and floral wine somehow balanced each other out, all tugging on the taste buds about equally. But I would definitely make the same macarons again. A really fun course to make, but quite challenging and complex at the same time.

Green Thai Curry Macarons

Recipe for macarons taken from Mad about Macarons. Measurements should be as exact as possible. Makes around 12 green thai curry macarons. You could make, say, red thai curry macarons, or tikka massala macarons in a very similar manner.

Ingredients:
150g egg whites (aged 4-5 days)
100g caster sugar
180g ground almonds
270g icing sugar
Red and green food colourings
50g butter
2tsbp fresh basil
zest 1 lime
5g cornflour
1/2 beaten egg
50g coconut milk
2tsp green thai curry paste

Recipe:
1. Make the macaron dough.Whisk the egg whites until firm peaks, gradually adding the sugar as you do so. Put in enough food colouring until you get a rich pink (note the almond colour will take some of this away). Sift the almonds into a large bowl, add the icing sugar, then fold in the whipped egg whites. Split the dough into two equal portions, then add the different food colourings to each.
2. Work and pipe the dough.With a pastry scraper (or spatula if you don’t have one), work the dough to press out some of the oxygen from the whites. Scrape the mixture into a piping bag with a plain nozzle (1cm around tip). Line two baking trays with baking sheets, then pipe your macarons onto the sheet.
3. Cook the macarons. Preheat the oven to 160ºC, and bake for around 15 minutes. There is quite a fine point when they are done, so get to know your oven and adjust cooking times slightly if necessary. Leave to cool on the sheet, then slowly (as they are delicate) peel them off.
4. Make the filling. Cream the butter and mix in the fresh basil and lime. In a another bowl, combine the cornflour and beaten egg. Heat the coconut milk over a medium heat in a saucepan until boiling, then add the cornflour and egg mixture. Whisk constantly until the mixture has thickened to coat the back of a spoon. Leave to cool.
5. Make the macarons. When the filling is cool, pipe it onto the macarons. Leave in a fridge for as long as you can (ideally overnight) for the texture to develop.

Quince and Vanilla Sorbet

Quinces are fruits of the same family as apples and pears. They used to be eaten extensively in ancient times, being “very popular with the Greeks, who ate it hollowed out, filled with honey and cooked in a pastry case”, according to Larousse Gastronomique. The Romans used to use it in perfumery. But nowadays, it’s mostly made into marmalades, jellies to go with cheese, or liqueurs. Regulated to that list of those “classic” English fruits that nobody eats anymore- damsons, sloes, rosehip- we don’t see quince much in culinary use. Or at the supermarkets- I had to get my quinces from the greengrocer’s in The Covered Market in Oxford.

But it amazes me why I haven’t discovered quinces prior to recently. They’re awesome. You wouldn’t want to eat them as a fruit- quinces are very dry and woody- and they hardly look especially appetising either. But roasted: wow. After a few hours in the oven, the house was filled with a beautiful smell that would be hard to find in a soap shop, a bit like a cross between a baked apple and a baked pear. But even after roasting in sugar syrup for a few hours, they were still dry and woody, but the flavours had developed beautifully. So what do you do if you have a food that tastes great, but is textually undesirable? Purée it, then use a culinary ‘vehicle’ to carry it. For a fruit, that means a jelly, an ice cream, or, as I’ve done here, a sorbet.

Sorbets have very similar science to ice creams- it’s all about the water crystal formation. Small water crystals will give you a smooth texture, larger ones will give you a grainy texture, like a granita. They key is making sure you have lots of small sugar molecules, hence the liquid glucose. Similarly, making the sorbet in an ice cream maker will allow for smaller crystals to form, because of the churning action. Fortunately we need lots of sugar for roasting the quince, to help develop the flavours. But you can make sorbet out of practically anything, it’s a great method of bringing out the taste of a food in a unique way.

Quince and Vanilla Sorbet

Sometimes recipes ask for vanilla pods when extract will do, but here you really want the real deal. The flavour works beautifully with the quince. You’ll need to purée the quince, so a hand blender or food processor is required.

Ingredients:e
4 Quinces, as ripe as possible, peeled and cut into chunks
300g caster sugar
2 vanilla pods
50g liquid glucose

Recipe:
1. Roast the quince. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC. In a saucepan, add ~100ml water to the caster sugar. Split open the vanilla pods and scrape into the sugar solution. Stir until all of the sugar solution has dissolved, and bring to the boil, and keep it there for a few minutes. Put the quinces in a large roasting tin, and pour the sugar solution on top. Cover with foil, then roast in the oven for several hours, until the quince is soft. Allow to cool.
2. Make the sorbet mixture. Purée the quince along with the juices. Add the liquid glucose, and as much water as is required to make the mixture up to 1.1 litres. Chill overnight.
3. Make the sorbet. Make the sorbet in an ice cream maker according the manufacturer’s instructions. Take out of the freezer a few minutes before you want to serve.

Introduction to Wine Structure

Most of us have some idea about which wines they like and which they don’t. But when we’re asked why- why you like Merlot, or why you like Shiraz- often we don’t have a good answer for it. Wine structure is what you get when you strip away the appearance and flavours- the texture, it could be called. It’s really important to the quality of the wine- a bottle of wine might cost a lot more just for a longer finish, for example. I’ve always preached that it’s important to drink wine you like, so you need to know what wine you like. Learning about wine structure can help you identify why you like a wine.

Similarly, for identifying wine blind, structure is very important. A tasting note might say “dry, medium body, medium acidity, long finish, medium alcohol, evidence of new French oak”, and you’ve probably whittled it down to only several grape varieties already. I’ve often blind-tasted a wine and had no idea what it was from the smell, but figured out the structure, and guessed the most likely grape variety from the structure, and what do you know- that’s what it was. Structure doesn’t lie.

Also important to mention is how important wine structure is to food-wine pairing. For example, if you’ve bought a nice delicate fish, and cooked it properly, you’ll want to drink a nice wine with it. But pick a full-bodied, highly acidic, over-oaked white? You’re not going to taste that fish over the wine. Equally, if your delicate pinot noir gets drunk with steak, it’s not going to be delicate anymore. Making the right wine match will make or break a dish, and learning about wine structure will help you to do that.

Here are the seven main structural components that we focus on in blind tasting. Next time you try a wine, try to figure out how much it has of each of these components, and see whether or not that is what you like. Because at the end of the day, it’s figuring out what you like, and why you like it, that is important.

Acidity
When a wine is really acidic, you’ll know it- like drinking lemon juice. Acidity is important in the wine, it’s a bit like the wine’s backbone. It’s also key for food-wine pairing, as acidity cuts through fat, so if you have a fatty meal, then  you’ll want an acidic wine. It tends to be that cooler climate wines with lower alcohol and lower body have high acidity, with a couple of notable exceptions. If you like acidic wines, you might like riesling, some chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or pinot noir. If you like less acidic wines, you might like sémillon, merlot, or some malbec.

Alcohol
Alcohol is one of the structural components that’s easier to find out- it’s right there on the bottle. But if you don’t have the alcohol, you can detect it by considering how much heat you get on the back of your throat when you drink the wine. High alcohol wines will feel hot, lesser alcohol wines less so. You want to have the alcohol in balance with the wine- too much alcohol relative to, for example, the body will be unpleasant. It’s worth figuring out whether you like higher alcohol wines- just because it has more alcohol in doesn’t mean it is better!

Body
One of the most common questions I get asked when giving wine tastings is what is meant by a “full-bodied” or “light-bodied” wine, and it is actually surprisingly hard to answer. Often I answer in terms of viscocity. Full-bodied wines will be more like honey, whereas light-bodied wines are more like water. But when you taste a light-bodied wine together with a full-bodied wine, it’s pretty obvious which is which. So have a think about whether or not you enjoy big wines or smaller wines. If you like big wines, you might like new world malbec, merlot, or viognier. Similarly, those who like lighter bodied wines might like pinot noir, riesling or French sauvignon blanc.

Finish
Finish is how long the flavours and texture of a wine stays in your mouth. A wine’s finish can either be short, medium, or long. Sometimes a long finish is very pleasant, but sometimes strange flavours can come out in the finish, like bitterness, spice, or sweetness. As with the alcohol, you want the finish to be in balance with the rest of the wine. A full-bodied wine with lots of alcohol might feel very strange if all the flavours fell away very quickly. It’s also easy to confuse acidity with finish, as the acidity can often linger. The finish is sometimes a mark of the quality of a wine.

Oak
A lot of wines will be fermented in oak barrels. There are two common types of oak used in barrels: French and American. French oak gives a sweet, vanilla, buttery toast note, whereas American oak is more intense and spicy. Oak provides flavour and tannins, which are useful for ageing of wine, but how much you detect the oak will vary considerably. Some wines- particularly new world chardonnay- can have, in my experience, too much oak to be pleasant; when tasting the wines, I have found it hard to taste much more than the oak. Over-oaking can hide other problems with the wine, which is sometimes why wines are made in this style.

Sweetness
Sweetness isn’t whether or not you get sweet flavours like peach or honey, but whether or not there is actual residual sugar in the wine. Most wines don’t have residual sugar, so would be classed as ‘dry’. Common wines which might be ‘off-dry’ or ‘sweet’ are dessert wines like muscat or Sauternes, some riesling from the Mosel in Germany, or some chenin blanc from the Loire in France. Sweet wines are often very pleasant- not alcoholic fruit juice as often thought- but for some reason are out of fashion at the minute. Some new world producers are actually leaving a small amount of residual sugar in wines that are typically left dry, trying to create a style popular with modern tastes. If you haven’t had a proper sweet wine, they are a lot of fun, and worth trying.

Tannins
It’s also tricky to try and explain tannins. Tannins are chemical that are in grape stalks and wood, and they produce a drying effect in your mouth, sucking out the saliva. They coat the inside of your mouth, and build up as you drink the glass, their drying effect increasing. Tannins soften over time- they are actually what polymerise into sediment in the bottle- so an older wine often won’t have such a harsh feel to it. Tannins can have a lot of character, being long, silky, round, small, grippy, chewy, green, or rustic, for example, and this character can be quite important when identifying a wine blind. Some grape varieties naturally have more tannins, like cabernet sauvignon or the aptly named tannat. Equally, some grape varieties like pinot noir or any white grapes have few tannins.

If you are interested in other posts on wine, I’ve written an Introduction to French Red Wines, an Introduction to French White Wines, and food-wine pairing posts on Fine Dining, Wines for a Wedding, and Food to go with Sweet Wines. I’ve also done reviews on The Wine Society and wine books Essential Winetasting and Judgment of Paris.

Chocolate Coated Lebkuchen

Winter is my favourite time of year. It’s not just because the weather turns cold, or because the holidays are just around the corner, but the main reason I like winter is because of the food that is in season and the meals that are traditionally eaten at this time of year. Rich stews, game, roasted fruits, spiced cakes and hot drinks- perhaps it’s just that anything warm will taste good after coming in from the cold. British cooking also comes into its own in winter, with pies, casseroles, and roasts, all of which are easy to make, and benefit from slow cooking. Similarly, a lot of tasty methods of preserving food for the winter are traditionally used now, like making confit, jamming, or curing, which have a rich gastronomic history. Finally, the family feasts during winter, like Christmas or Thanksgiving, where people make a real effort with what they are cooking, are something I continually look forward to year-round. Winter really is a great time for food.

BBC Good Food Magazine recently did a feature, asking chefs which foodstuff they thought “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without”. There was the usual set of answers- mince pies, mulled cider, or roast potatoes- but for me, it’s spiced cakes. Treats like stollen or lebkuchen are one of my favourite foods of winter, and invoke all the appropriate childhood memories which will keep me eating them year after year. Lebkuchen, which are little spiced cakes, a little like gingerbread, come from Germany- another good cuisine for winter. Originally invented by monks in the 13th century, what we might see today in stores have evolved from honey cakes or pepper cakes, which were traditionally given as gifts at this time of year.

So if you are looking to make a few ‘food gifts’ for Christmas, or just fancy a Saturday afternoon baking session, give Lebkuchen a try. They’re easy to make, fun to decorate, and keep well- the few I have left over from over a week ago are still very enjoyable to eat with the morning coffee. But then again, maybe it’s just that everything tastes better in winter.

Chocolate Coated Lebkuchen

Makes around 24 cookies. I used dark chocolate with orange when making my lebkuchen, I think the flavours complement the spices very well. The recipe here is adapted from one on BBC Good Food.

Ingredients:
250g plain flour
85g ground almonds
2tsp ground ginger
1tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp baking powder
1/2tsp bicarbonate of soda
pinch each ground cloves, grated nutmeg, ground pepper
85g butter
1 orange, finely grated zest
100g icing sugar
1 egg white, beaten
100g chocolate

Recipe:
1. Make the dough. Heat the honey and butter in a pan over a low heat until homogeneous. Meanwhile, mix together the flour, almonds, spices, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, and lemon zest in a large mixing bowl. Pour in the melted butter and honey, then mix well. Cover and chill.
2. Make the cookies. Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC. On a floured chopping board, roll our the dough until it is around 2/3cm thick, then use cookie cutters to cut out the shapes you want. Alternatively, just roll them into little balls, pressing down on them, to just make round cookies. Bake for 15 minutes, then cool on a wire rack.
3. Ice and chocolate-coat the cookies. Mix the egg white and icing sugar together. Then, using a pastry brush, coat the cookies in the icing mix, and leave to dry. When dry, melt the chocolate (either over a water bath, or if you are careful, in the microwave). Again, use a pastry brush to coat the cookies.

Book Review: Cooking for Kings: the Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef

Antonin Carême was a nineteenth century French chef. Born in the slums of Paris, Carême worked his way through the ranks of pastry boys and pâtisseries to become the most influential cook of his time. At this time, the restaurant hadn’t really reached fruition as an establishment, and the best chefs were employed by the richest people of the day, and to taste their cooking was invitation only. During the tumultuous time around the French Revolution, Carême worked for Talleyrand, a famous French minister, King Louis XVIII, and in London for George IV. Besides the responsibilities that come with jobs of that station, like catering banquets for ten thousand people, Carême published cookbooks, invented pastries that we still see today, and produced his famous piéces montées, large edible pastry sculptures of Paris architecture or Chinese palaces, designed to impress those visiting. His life sadly cut short by the fumes from too many cooking stoves, there might have been others who produced great food before him, but Carême really put the cherry on royal culinary entertaining.

Cooking for Kings: the Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef details the life of Antonin Carême, many of his menus, culinary adventures, and political effect. It’s an enjoyable read, pitched just right, so that food enthusiasts can get a lot out of it without concentrating too much on the historical side of things, but, equally, those interested in the politics or culture of the time can still find interest looking through the lens of cooking. As the cover says, a “biography with recipes”, there are a number of recipes provided so that you can try to make Carême’s style of food at home, if the ingredients don’t cost an arm and a leg (truffles, anyone?). Overall, I learned a lot from this book, and if you are interested in French cuisine, or the culture of France at that time, I would recommend giving this a read. 8/10.

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