Christmas Macarons

Oh really?! But aren’t they rather difficult to do well?

When one hears this, it’s likely that they have announced they are contemplating making one of the following:

  1. A soufflé 
  2. A chocolat fondant
  3. A batch of macarons

I was contemplating the third option which, by all accounts, was doomed to fail. For this reason I studied a Martin Chiffers recipe forwards, backwards and upside down until I was really sure that I knew what I was supposed to be doing.

I inherited my love of the kitchen gadget from Muv- the owner of the world’s greatest collection of fantastic culinary tat, including a mechanical apple peeler, an electric tin opener and a runner bean de-stringer. I decided some time ago that it was about time I bought a silicone macaron mat. Turns out it was a hugely worthwhile purchase as I’m holding it responsible for my 100% macaron success rate, well, that and Chef Chiffers.


As well as making it ridiculously simple to remove ones cooled macarons, the raised ring shapes mean one can guarantee identically sized bakes.

I did a bit of experimentation with the piping and found that a bigger nozzle was beneficial, and that a smoother shell was achieved by piping into the middle, with strength and confidence, rather than a swirling technique. Lifting the piping bag to finish causes a small ‘nipple’ to develop, as far as I’m aware this is perfectly acceptable in master baker circles, but can be smoothed down with the back of a teaspoon. In fairness I think they look rather sweet.


I didn’t flavour the shells, for fear of ruining the consistency of the mixture, however I did colour them using Wilton’s food colour gel using a combination of brown, red and black. For the filling I made a buttercream which I flavoured with cherry brandy as a nod to one of my favourite Christmas tipples. For the decoration I made a white chocolate ganache, topped with some adorable sugar holly leaves and berries which I picked up in Waitrose.

Mince Pie Making @JOCookerySchool

It is a fact that my brother William makes the fairest mince pies in the land. Which is surprising as he has exceptionally warm hands- long associated with terrible pastry chefs. Every year it’s a battle to get a batch out of him, and once we’ve eaten them all, a second batch is demanded. It shouldn’t be so difficult to get one’s hands on a mince pie.

As the recipe is kept extremely close to his chest, the solution Muv and I decided, was to attend a mince pie masterclass at Jamie Oliver’s Cookery School then shower the family with millions of pies.

The cookery school is based at London’s Westfield White City shopping centre and is presumably relatively new as everything was gleaming. As we arrived we were presented with a darling apron and talked through the pie concept by our dear cookery teacher/ chef. In conclusion the mincemeat filling can be whatever you want it to be! In this case bulked out with large chunks of sweet, roasted butternut squash.

The process was explained in steps before we were sent off to our cooking station to have a go ourselves. Unfortunately for us, our station was on a kind of galley with several ovens heating at full blast- having been out the night before, the extreme heat didn’t make me feel particularly invigorated.

We were encouraged to cut out pastry stars and the like to stick on top of our pies, but greedy buggers we are, Muv and I decided that a much better use of the pastry was simply to make as many pies as we could. I’m calling our design the sunflower, but call it what you will.

While the pies were steaming in the oven we were given a demonstration of how to make our own mincemeat (the stuff we used had been made up in advance by the team as it takes hours to bubble away), taking it in turns to sniff the delightful smelling fruits and spices. And then, rather unexpected, our dear teacher had to dash off to teach her next class- boy, has Jamie got them working hard! We were left hanging around for a good 10 minutes, until the sous chef came to check on our pies. My advice would have been to release us all out of that roasting hot kitchen, maybe got everyone a drink, and requested that we return in 10 or 15 minutes. I don’t think this is usual procedure thought, as the other class, a hen party perhaps, had tables to sit at and were sipping champagne in a much cooler environment.


Finally our dear little pies were ready. Rather than burn the roofs of our mouths we settled on having the pies boxed up to take away with us, we were even permitted to take a little clingfilmed parcel of our left-over dough which was kind.


We made it as far as Liverpool Street Station before we gave in to temptation and bit into our still-warm pies. Delicious, Christmassy mincemeat, encased in what reminded me of the pastry we used as a kind of modelling clay at Granny’s when we were little- you’d slip the odd bit into your mouth when her back was turned and be extremely disappointed that it tasted of flour, rather that sugar and butter as you’d hoped. It was at that moment I realised that I was never going to be the favourite child. Jamie’s books may line my bookshelves, but sadly his (my) mince pies are no competition for my brother’s. 

Christmas Cake

After last year’s Christmas creation, the pressure was on envision this year’s masterpiece. 

Muv, the dear, had her wooden spoon at the ready on Stir Up Sunday and baked an exquisite fruit cake, stored in the pantry for a month before ‘the handover’.



Fortnum & Mason’s marmalade was warmed and liberally applied to the cake as a glue and a crumb coat.

I made up a batch of marzipan, which is unbelievably easy to do and tastes nothing like the shop-bought variety. This was then rolled out and neatly wrapped around the cake. She then went back into the pantry for 3 days to allow the marzipan to dry out.

Meanwhile-

After reading Mima Sinclair’s Gingerbread Wonderland cover to cover, I set my heart on a gingerbread house cake.


Unfortunately, as my brother has stealthily worked his way though the vast majority of the golden syrup (I dread to think what he’d been doing with the stuff!) the gingerbread was to be a hybrid of light and dark- I hope Mima doesn’t mind such things!


Using a set of Lakeland gingerbread house cutters (cheat!) I set to work on my building blocks. When cutting out shaped biscuits, it’s always advisable to refrigerate them first to help them retain definition during cooking. Although I followed this advice to the letter, I was concerned that the shapes had spread slightly in the oven, so I used the cutters again after baking to make sure they were right. Potentially, the ‘building blocks’ may not have fitted together neatly had I not re-cut, so the open edges and a small amount of cracking from pressing down on the cutter were a small sacrifice.

To avoid any messy disasters, I built my house over several days. Farv frequently reminds me that I could never win Bake Off working at this pace, but now the dream team have split up I’m not sure it even matters!

Day 1: Baked gingerbread
Day 2: Iced design on to flat panels using royal icing
Day 3: Glued walls together using royal icing, supported by many cans of beans

Day 4: Glued cereal squares to roof panels, glued chimney to roof
Day 5: Glued roof panels to house, waited several hours then iced snow detail on to roof

Day 6: Iced cake with royal icing, added toadstools
Day 7: Christmas Eve- crumbs! It’s going to be close! Set house on cake, lit, added forest floor make from chocolate truffles, chocolate swiss rolls and ground almonds.
Day 8: Merry Christmas! Phew!

Below: My second cousin Ethan caught in the act of stealing my window frames- such a cutie!

Hallowe’en Afternoon Tea @Lancasterlondon

It’s become an annual tradition that Petula and I celebrate Halloween in the most unauthodox manner we can think of. Previously we have visited a horror farm, and on another occasion we made a haunted house from pieces of toast.

This year, we killed two birds with one wonderful stone and celebrated Halloween over tea. 


Although one has taken tea at The Lancaster previously, and with so many teas to be taken in town it almost seems wasteful to duplicate, however the theme was so vastly different that it was a whole new experience for me.

As we made our way into the tea lounge we were faced by our bloodied and ashen faced server, as silly, young girls do we got the giggles and soon our zombie friend dropped his guard. We were seated at our table and presented with the rather gruesome sounding menu. A cucumber coffin you say?


It is always a joy when Petula and I are permitted to drink our way through the tea menu- a hotel’s speciali-tea (haha!) is usually my first port of call, however on this occasion I’d asked my friend’s permission to have an English Breakfast tea. “Now what is wrong with a cup of EB?” You might ask. “Nothing” I reply, “please feel free to drink EB to your heart’s content.” However, if you are on a voyage of tea discover you won’t get very far from home on English Breakfast. It’s the vanilla of tea, the spaghetti bolognese, the fudge in a box of Miniature Heroes- you can do so much better, my dear. My excuse, if you will hear me out, was that on that particular morning I had taken only one cup of tea using rather old milk, it hadn’t quite turned, but the tea tasted thin and metallic which hung around my throat like a bad memory. Best to get straight back on the horse I thought, remembering the time my brother did fall off a horse, bashed his nose, and was forced to jump straight back on by his girlfriend, despite the blood streaming down his face. In other words, I desperately needed some tea. 

“I’ll have a pot of English Breakfast please.”

A request which was greeted with a look of disgust (I can understand, I was disgusted with myself) from our server who proceeded to lecture me on why I shouldn’t have an EB, and that maybe I might like a chai, as though it were some sort of alien concept to me. I can see where he was coming from, chai is rather lovely after all, but I was rather offended that my choice of EB suggested I was boring. It was so condescending that I had to bite my tongue rather hard! This was my only criticism though, as everybody else was more than accommodating. 


Well the savouries were rather scrummy, the beef being a favourite, the scones small but perfectly formed (cream in a tube in-keeping with the art theme, but no substitute for clotted cream and rather a meagre amount) and the patisserie was very impressive- the dead man’s finger eclair, as I’m going to call it, a clear winner. Unusually the food was not served on tiered plates in the middle of the table, but on a side-table in a boxed filled with dry ice- a theatrical masterpiece! 


Somehow we managed to drag our sitting out for 3 1/2 hours! Sometimes one feels like one is being hurried along, or ignored once a length of time has passed, but not so here- the atmosphere was so comfortable that it seemed a shame to leave. Satisfied that the experience was well worth £35, I’m sure we’ll be back. 

Tea Memories

  

A second-hand teabag, a spoonful of sugar and a large quantity of milk- that’s how I remember it.

We’d be having a sleepover at Nana’s. Already in our pyjamas, with a tea towel tucked into our collars in case of spillage, sipping the warm, milky tea while Sandy Pussycat stretched himself out on the hearth rug.

These are my memories of tea.

***

We’d be at Granny’s, in her farm house kitchen, eating crusty cheese rolls while various dogs wound in and out of table legs and human legs. 

The teacups were pale blue or yellow and she always used a teapot. Always milk first. Everyone added their own sugar, which invariably meant you put at least three spoonfuls in your tiny cup. 

***

Farv always said you weren’t grown up unless you drank tea or coffee. I tried both. I didn’t like either. Tea didn’t taste the same at home.

***

A builder called Stuart was at our house. He drank tea like a chain-smoker puffed on cigarettes. He had a round, friendly face and we all thought he was wonderful.

Muv would send me to collect his cup for the next round and, completely deadpan, he’d say “I had to chew that!”

“Right, that’s it!” I thought, spooning marmite, gravy granules and a few drops of Tabasco into his brew. George’s Marvellous Medicine.

***

The tea came out of a machine. So did the coffee and the orange squash. I was new and everyone drank something different. A 32, a 34… They all knew the machine’s code for their preference. 

The tea was thin and smelt horrid, but the office was cold and the liquid was warming.

I carried six steaming cups on a tray. One of ‘the men’ made me jump and what I didn’t spill on my poor hands became jumbled up in the cups. Hot chocolate-tea was surprisingly pleasant.

***

Christmas Markets

  
The first rule of being a flapper is:

Never turn down an invitation*

Also known as ‘burning the candle at both ends’, which was a darn-sight easier when I was 18. A decade on, I found myself attending a rather swanky soirée (read boozy work Christmas party) on the Friday night, which lead, uncomfortably straight into a 6am coach trip to the continent. One declined the offer of a hotel room for fear of somewhat over-doing it and missing one’s connection, deciding that it was somehow better to have a minuscule few moments of sleep at home. One rolled out of bed in such an unladylike fashion at 5 o’clock, had the maid fling some clothes on her and her chauffeur put her on the coach.

Some 10 or so hours later, after the most treacherous of channel crossings, our party arrived in Lille.   

 First thing first, a visit to Sephora. For those of you not familiar, it’s like Superdrug set in a nightclub. Pay on one’s credit card and save the euros for the marché.

Rather a fleeting visit to Lille, but we managed to sample a local delicacy, something like dauphinoise potatoes with a layer of fromage on top. I opted for the mont d’or. Quite lovely.   
 This was followed by a chocolate tête which resembled a Tunnocks teacake. I lugged these about for several hours ’til we gave in and ate them all.   

 And that was the end of my Lille adventure. We arrived at our hotel, drank some Pschitt (I kid you not) and retired for the night.

 We rose early the next morning, breakfasted, and onwards to Belgium.

Belgian chocolate being a staple of one’s diet, Bruges was likely to be one’s idea of heaven.  

Having crossed sweet stone bridges and meandered through adorable cobbled streets we popped into this tiny tea room on the promise of the most wonderful hot chocolate. Let me just say they lived up to the claim on their canopy. 

    
 After much wandering and purchasing we took luncheon in a café bar advertising something along the lines of, and you’ll have to excuse my Flemish, ‘camembert in de oven’. 

Served with apple and bread, it was absolutely divine. And of course one was gasping for a cup of chai by this point… But couldn’t help laughing when a silver tray covered in a paper doily arrived, topped with a glass and a teabag sachet. One couldn’t decide whether they thought they were serving British royalty, or had just got it completely wrong!   

 I’d spotted a shop earlier in the day and knew I had to drag Muv in there when I had the chance. Dille & Kamille is a kind of Scandi homeware store where everything should be considered for purchase. It was a job to control oneself!

I left with a lovely set of tea leaf measuring spoons, a biscuit cutter, a bag of Christmas tea and a jar of green pesto (a favourite of my brother). I was dangerously close to purchasing a stack of Flemish recipe books but I realised this was madness! This is definitely a shop we’d appreciate in the UK- please bring it over!   

   
At 5pm it was time to embark on the long journey home laden with chocolate. Despite the extreme levels of tiredness one had a rather jolly time. Bruges is definitely worth another visit in the near future, what a wonderful city.

*unless it’s for Netflix & chill, in which case one is permitted to break the rule.

Stir Up @landmarklondon


Christmas pudding is a big deal in the Beetroot household, and not solely reserved for the month of December. One is as likely to have pudding and custard on the 25th December as on 9th March or 28th September.

In previous years Muv and I have got together on Stir Up Sunday to begin our marvellous Christmas cake, making sure everyone has a turn with the wooden spoon for good luck.

This year I saw an advertisement in Good Food magazine for a Christmas pudding masterclass including champagne on arrival and a two-course lunch at none other than The Landmark Hotel- one of my favourite places in London.

A few weeks later, we emerged from Marylebone station to find the splendour of old railway hotel in front of us. Once armed with a flute of champagne, an apron and a chef’s hat, we were seated at a high table with a mixing bowl sunk into the centre and surrounded by many, many ingredients. 

Chefs Gary and Oli arrived, talking us though the history of the Christmas pudding, pudding traditions and the world’s most expensive pudding (£23,500 and created by ex-Savoy chef Martin Chiffers, if you’re interested). Then it was time to get our hands dirty; chucking in the ingredients as directed by chef, giving it a good old stir and getting drunk on the scent of the alcohol infused fruit.

 Once everything was mixed and given the nod of approval by chef, we divided the mixture between three pudding basins- pressing it down firmly- covered in baking paper, tin foil over the top and tied with string to hold it all together. We were instructed to steam the puddings within the next 24 hours and then keep them in a cool, dark place until they were ready for their second steaming on Christmas Day (if we could wait that long!) 

Next came a delightful surprise- a barman from the Mirror Bar arrived with arms full of of cocktail shakers and magically, a host of other ingredients appeared on our tables.
  
After some pouring, vigorous shaking and a bit more pouring we each had a glass of eggnog. It’s not something we’d tried before, it’s never really appealed in all honesty, but we both really enjoyed it. Thankfully a recipe card was tucked into our gift bag so we’re certain to recreate this festive cocktail in the near future.

 By this point, and feeling rather sozzled, we were more than ready for lunch. Smoked salmon followed by slow-cooked beef- absolutely delicious. 

 Post luncheon we were presented with gift bags containing our three puddings, all beautifully presented in celophane and ribbon, a Landmark embroidered apron, a pudding competency certificate and copies of all the recipes. I think there might have even been a Landmark pen.

Muv either had a wonderful time or still considers herself incompetent, as has asked to book us places next year! Perhaps Gary could run a stollen masterclass instead to broaden our Christmas baking skills.

Afternoon Tea @Langham_London


The Langham has been on my ‘to do’ list for rather a long time. It was a happy coincidence that my dear, dear friend Petula was looking for a venue for her birthday tea and up popped an email in our inboxes.

“Did you get an email about-”

“Afternoon tea at The Langham?”

“And the private room?”

“Yes! How exciting!”

And so it was booked.

When booking for 10 guests or more, one is able to request a private dining room. One half expected to be shut away in a windowless room, but as it turned out we were seated in a beautiful, bright room with a large dining table and the full attention of two servers.


 I have come to expect a stuffy, sometimes snobbish atmosphere with my afternoon tea; a sense of respecting the ritual, rather than an elitist club. I believe there is a proper way to behave on these occasions and I do have a problem with those who choose to wear jeans to tea- how truly awful!

The Langham was somehow different to what I was expecting. The sense of propriety was certainly there- our servers laid napkins across our laps, tea was poured for us (very important in my ‘afternoon tea’ books!) yet they both had the most sparkling personalities I have ever encountered in the hotel world. We felt so well looked after, so amused, and it was all very genuine.

A lovely moment was when one of the guests- an afternoon tea virgin-  thought she spied slices of chocolate cake from across the room. ‘No, no’ we said, ‘they’re sandwiches!’ Of course, we were referring to the dark, rye bread. ‘Oh, chocolate sandwiches!’ She exclaimed. Even Bhau, our server, was laughing at her mistake and a few minutes later he emerged from the kitchen with a tray of Nutella sandwiches! How delightful!


The sandwiches, or savouries as I should probably call them were a play on the traditional- egg and artichoke for example. Some worked- the eclair was absolutely divine… Some less so, beef and ‘slaw for example was a bit too obscure for my taste, but I commend them on their adventurousness.


  
Unusually, we were served a lemon posset palette-cleanser. I’m not a lemon fan at all, but it was actually rather lovely and certainly did the job.

Darling Bhau soon discovered that it was Petula’s birthday celebration and arrived with a ‘special’ tray of the most wonderful salted-caramel tartlets and was insistent that she was served her scone in the same way as Her Majesty, the Queen on her birthday. It was a sweet, if rather hilarious moment when he cut her scone with a knife and fork, then spread it with jam and clotted cream (in the wrong order I hasten to add!) Thankfully he stopped short of feeding her, or I might have burst with laughter!


 You might call me a little mean but having sipped hundreds of cups of breakfast and afternoon blends, I’m after something a little different and am keen to test my server’s tea knowledge. Unfortunately I don’t remember the other gentleman’s name, but he did a fine job of meeting my exacting requirements and took the time to explain what made this tea special.



The cakes and pastries were pleasant- one never manages to test them all for fear of feeling rather sick by the end and kindly, we were given sweet little boxes to take them away in. I particularly adored the shortbread teapot.

I had seen that the cocktail bar in The Langham had recently received an award of excellence, but it being a Saturday night and all, there was rather a wait to get in. Perhaps one might venture in next time.

All in all, a highly recommended experience for food and frivolity.

Oreo Cake

  

My dear friend Petula is rather partial to an Oreo biscuit (or cookie, as I believe they are actually called) so with her birthday approaching I set myself the challenge of creating her an Oreo cake.

I sketched out some ideas and decided upon chocolate sponge cakes sandwiched together by a crushed Oreo buttercream. Knowing the biscuits themselves are a very dark brown/black colour I realised that the brown of the cacao powder was never going to be dark enough so a dark chocolate ganache was required to cover it.

  
Experimental baker that I am, I created some sort of chocolate-caramel ganache, and then, because I like to make my life difficult, I covered the sponges individually so the buttercream would be neatly exposed.

  
I made a vanilla buttercream then crushed a whole packet of Oreos into it- terrible!

  
Once sandwiched I topped with a lovely, shiny dark chocolate ganache.

And this is where I made things really difficult for myself-

   
 I spent two hours cutting out a template for the Oreo design. Time well spent though I believe, as the finished cake did look rather spectacular.

   
  

Never one for a huge fuss, there were no candle or a horrific rendition of Happy Birthday, just a slice of cake and a cup of tea. It went down rather well I thought!
  

100 Years of Jazz in 99 Minutes

  
It’s funny how things work out isn’t it? 

Six years ago, in the midst of my English Literature degree I fell in love with a module called Post-Victorian Literature, and more specifically, Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies.

The novel is a satire of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, with their carefree attitudes and wild antics. I don’t know whether it was because up until this point I had been studying the starchy Victorian novel, or because it was a reflection of the lifestyle I was living back then- but I loved it! 

The lecturer, a Mr. Chris Baldick, was himself rather old-fashioned, highly intelligent and completely mesmerising. We sat in an attic room with a tiny window, scribbling down his every word. My favourite ever Baldick quote is “What on earth is ‘fat-pig style’?” in reference to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.

I was so home-sick that I returned home the day after I’d submitted my work. Nestled back in my own room I delved into Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Alec Waugh’s The Loom of Youth and Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling. I absorbed various biographies on the Mitford sisters, Josephine Baker, Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald, Nancy Cunard- one discovery led to another and I was hooked.

Trend setter that I am, flappers and 1920’s style have become the theme du jour over the last few years, allowing me to make the most of my vast collection of embellished dresses and beaded head dresses. I’ve attended Gatsby-style balls, Charleston dance classes, spent New Year’s Eve in full flapper attire and found myself at an amazing 20’s themed Secret Cinema event.

With dancing, one usually encounters music and I soon found an interest in the, then, new US import- jazz music.

Now, wouldn’t it be lovely if a hand-written invitation had been passed to me by the butler over breakfast. However these days, one has to make do with an email in their inbox. Would I do ___ the honour of attending a jazz soirée, etc. etc. The venue was two hours away and in two days time!

 
I knew my darling Nana would love to experience this so I took her as my companion. And what a wonderful time we had! For some reason we were given the best seats in the house and as the band emerged from the back of the hall we couldn’t help but grin. I can’t pretent to be a jazz expert of any sort but I just know I enjoy it!

Of course, jazz music transcends several decades and countries (as the band demonstrated by marching us through the last 100 years of the genre in little over an hour and a half), but my obsession with flappers has blinded me to everything else. So when Nana told me she used to jive to jazz in the 50’s, it was a whole new discovery for me. There is something beautiful about triggering an old memory- I could have cried with joy when she relived the days of dancing with my late grandad. How they moved from London to the countryside as a young, newly married couple and that their new friends were rather taken-aback by their exuberant, largely improvised jiving. Nana said she wasn’t keen on the attention but grandad would drag her on to the dance floor and it would end in a round of applause.

We purchased a CD from the band and listened to it on the two hour drive home, remembering the serene expression on the drummer’s face, the unbelievable speed of the pianist’s fingers and the goosebump-enducing singing voice of the trumpet player, of all people!