Sunday, 30 May 2010

Carrot cake

Yesterday we were visiting a friend's house in the evening for another friend's birthday. Kerry was planning on providing a buffet of hot meals, so I offered to bring some pudding. I got quite a few carrots in my fruit and veg box this week, so decided that naturally I had to make a carrot cake. I've not made many cakes before, so I was interested to see how it would turn out.

I used a recipe from Louise of Comida Y Vida, which you can find here. I had already tried Louise's carrot cake at the Midlands Food Bloggers meet-up, so I was looking forward to recreating it at home!

I didn't make the topping because it has cheese in it and I thought I'd be kind to my fiancé and make it edible for him, so I just dusted the top with icing sugar. Louise has since told me that she's made a topping using icing sugar and orange juice before and that works quite well, so I might have to give that a go in the future. I also used rapeseed oil rather than sunflower or vegetable oil, and that seemed to work pretty well.

This was before I dusted it - I managed to forget to get a picture of it after it was finished. Anyway, it was lovely - beautifully moist, sweet and very more-ish. Almost as good as Louise's! Everyone at the gathering appreciated it, the birthday boy, Febs, especially as he got to take the leftovers home.

I do love baking cakes. CAKE! Nom nom nom.

(NB: My cakes always come out slightly funny shapes because I am rubbish at lining cake tins.)

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Potatoes: A lesson

Another gem from the QI Fact of the Day:

When the potato first reached England, a potato-tasting banquet was given at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Only the leaves and stems of the potatoes (which contain a poison called solanine) were served. All the guests became ill and left early.

 The picture above is of the potatoes I am growing on my balcony, leaves bursting out of the growbag. As beautiful and abundant as the leaves are, we will not be eating them!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Jam-making & berry identification FAIL

This week's fruit and veg box brought with it some blueberries. At least, I thought they were blueberries. I even looked at some pictures on the internet to check and they look very similar, so I concluded they were blueberries.

Now, what to do with them? Some googling about took me to this recipe for blueberry jam. I had never made jam before and this sounded so ridiculously easy, it seemed almost criminal not to give it a go. I always thought that making jam meant dicking about with large copper pots and thermometers, so this sounded too good to be true (note to self: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is).

Once I started simmering the 'blueberries', I quickly realised that they were blackcurrants, given the colour oozing out of them. No matter, though, I thought. Surely the same principles would apply and I could carry on regardless. It actually looked quite promising and after adding the sugar it really looked like jam should look and I was excited about eating it.

I duly left it in the jar to cool and decided to spread some on some toast for lunch; which I would have done, were it possible to spread the substance which had now congealed in the bottom of my jam jar. Hard as a rock. Well, not quite, but too hard for jam.

And I've no idea what went wrong. Lots of things could have gone wrong - I may have boiled it too much, not boiled it enough or this recipe might not work with blackcurrants - but I can't pin it down to any one thing.

I still intend to make jam in the future, so if anyone has any good recipes, please pass them on!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

First radishes and other tales from my balcony

My radishes were getting a little overcrowded, so I decided to thin some out - I was surprised to see how big some of them had grown!

The problem with balcony gardening, is that I do not have the capacity to sow successionally - I need to wait until my radishes and carrots are completely ready and out of the ground before I can sow anything else in that pot, because there just isn't room.

I'm considering applying for an allotment, but the things that worry me about it are: how much work it will be initially, especially if it's covered in brambles or something. I work full time and weekends are pretty much the only decent amount of time I get to do any housework. My flat is already a mess as it is! How would I balance trying to keep an allotment in order as well? I've also been reading Norfolk Kitchen's blog about some of the trouble she's been having with "allotment politics". Anyway, it's just something to have a think about at the moment, but if anyone's got any tips or advice, it would be most gratefully received!

Back to my balcony garden... I have an infestation! Of dandelion seeds! This time of year, the area I live in turns into a floating sea of dandelion seeds. It looks quite pretty - bits of fluff gracefully floating around... However, they are a menace! They land in my pots and then five minutes later, there's a seedling. And there are millions of them. I have to keep raking the soil (being careful to avoid the plants I actually want) because they are too tiny and too numerous to deal with by hand. On the whole, we are pretty lucky being on a first floor balcony with walls on either side, though: I've never seen a slug up here and we've got very little chance of any ground frost this time of year up here because it's fairly warm and sheltered. Dandelion seeds, however, are my enemy.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Italy Part 3: Eating out in Malcesine

This is the third and final part of my Italy updates. We had some great food in the small town of Malcesine and I thoroughly disagreed with my travel guide which suggested that most restaurants in the town are awful! Here are some of our highlights.

Italians do like large meals - menus in Italian restaurants give you the option of five or six different courses: antipasti (starter), first main, second main, a cheese course, dessert and then coffee. All the restaurants in Malcesine never batted an eyelid at us ordering either just one course for lunch, or a couple of courses for dinner, although one restaurant did try to convince us to have coffee (neither of us are coffee drinkers).

We ended up eating at Al Gondoliere twice during our stay, as it impressed us so much the first time. We decided to stop there for lunch one afternoon after perusing the menu posted outside.
As you can see from the photo, there was an open area upstairs which had a lovely view over the cobbled streets of the town.

Most Italian restaurants charge a "bread and service" fee. This is usually about €1 - €2 each and you get as much bread as you want and breadsticks. At Al Gondoliere, we were also brought some olives - I was very taken with how green and fresh they were - a couple of them even still had their stalks on!
We both order a 'first main' course on this occasion. I had some delicious gnocchi in a tomato sauce. The only gnocchi I'd had before this occasion was shop-bought stuff, which can't even compare to what I had in Italy. It was so soft and creamy.

My fiancé had tagliatelle with Italian sausage and mushrooms, which he enjoyed very much (I didn't get a chance to taste any of it myself!).
We then decided to have pudding, as we'd had a relatively small meal for lunch. I had Bavarian cream with chocolate and my fiancé had a mint mousse. I was very impressed by the presentation!
I couldn't fault the taste, either. My Bavarian cream was delicious and very more-ish.

With our bill they also brought a small chocolate liquer each in edible pastry cups. Yummy! If you ever happen to visit Malcesine, I definitely recommend this restaurant - it is good value for what you get and the quality of the food. The staff are also very friendly, although a mixture of English-speaking and Italian only, so it's handy to have your phrasebook with you if you're not already fluent in the language! 

Another lunch we had was overlooking the lake itself at Ristorante Pizzeria Lido Paina - a beautiful location, although the restaurant itself was so-so. I ordered my first (and only) authentic Italian pizza. There was nothing wrong with it - it was nice (and huge!), but just not as stunning as I was expecting for pizza in Italy. Perhaps I just didn't pick the best restaurant in which to have my only pizza from the holiday. My fiancé had breaded veal, but we were a little suspicious it might be pork in there. But I'm not an expert, so we could of course have been wrong. I tried a bit and it was delicious anyway!

On our final night's stay we decided to sample a restaurant just a few yards from our hotel, as I liked the look of the menu and it was recommended in our guide book. Al Cosaro, uses freshly caught fish from the lake it overlooks as the basis for many of its dishes, although they do plenty of other things too.

For my starter I ordered pike with polenta. Polenta is something I have had limited success with at home, so I wanted to see (and taste) it done properly. It was good, particularly with the strong taste of the pike to accompany it.
My fiancé had pate de foie gras. I tried some and it was seriously good - so light and creamy. I just had to blot out of my mind how they make it...
For my main, I had beef with asparagus and 14 month matured parmesan. Could there be a more indulgent meal? I was a bit scared of the cheese at first, as it smelt (and tasted) really, really strong, but it went very well with the strong flavour of the asparagus and the beef. The beef was also wonderfully tender.
My fiancé had lamb cutlets, which were presented really nicely and were cooked really well too - pink in the middle, nice and brown on the outside.

An excellent meal to end our holiday and another top restaurant in Malcesine.

 Finally, I simply had to sample some ice cream from one of the many Gelataria in the town, so here's me, a bit windswept, enjoying a chocolate ice cream by the lake:

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Italy Part 2: Zeni winery

While on holiday in Italy we had hired a car (an Alfa Romeo 147, no less! Fortunately, it didn't break down; but both headlight bulbs did fail one day apart), and we used the opportunity to drive to Bardolino. Bardolino is a big wine producing region (we knew we were in for a treat when driving through rows and rows of vinyards on the way to our hotel from the airport), and we visited the Wine Museum there.

It was really cool getting a glimpse of the factory floor and seeing all the wine being bottled. Mmmm, wine...

It was also really cool seeing some of the equipment they used to use for wine-making in days of yore.
That's one of the barrels they used to use to crush the grapes with their feet. I always thought that looked like fun: it reminds me of that episode of I Love Lucy.

After the wine museum, there was the shop, where you could taste and buy wine. I tasted some wine, during which my fiancé felt the need to point out that there were pots you could spit into or pour the rest of the wine out the glass - "You don't have to neck it down," he helpfully explained. I just looked at him incredulously.

The best thing about the shop was the prices. You could buy really good quality wines for dirt cheap prices. There were also some massive bottles on sale, should you feel the need to own a ridiculously large bottle.

I went for something a little less excessive, but as you got better deals the more wine you bought, we ended up buying six bottles of the stuff. Fortunately they also sold polystyrene 'flight cases' for wine to keep the bottles in tact in your suitcase, which worked a treat. This is the one we bought:
It cost less than £25 for six of those and it has won awards and everything and I can vouch for the fact that it is very nice.

The only thing the winery was lacking was the capacity to deliver overseas: we would have happily purchased more bottles (especially at those prices), but were limited by what we could reasonably transport home. We already had to buy another bag as we had not banked on buying anything that bulky!

A few wines from Zeni winery can, however, be purchased from two suppliers in the UK: Averys of Bristol and Tanners Wines in Shrewsbury. Just remember to drink responsibly and never ever spit out free, good quality wine. Because that's just a waste.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Italy Part 1: Wedding!

Last night (Friday) we landed back in the UK after a short holiday to Italy. Specifically we went to Malcesine, a small town on Lake Garda. The main reason we chose this destination is that a friend of mine was getting married there, and I'd always wanted to visit Italy, so this seemed the perfect excuse!

Food formed quite a large part of the holiday: my friend's wedding included a 7 (or was it 8?!) course meal - the longest meal I'd done before that was 5 courses. We also visited some fantastic restaurants and pizzerias and had ice cream from one of the many Gelateria. I do feel like I ate an awful lot and have probably gained about 100 pounds in the course of 5 days. I also don't even want to look at another piece of cheese for a good long while.

I'm going to be writing about my holiday in a few different posts because there's a lot I want to tell and think if I tried to do it in one post it would be too long, so I'll start with...

The Wedding
I thought I would begin writing about the wedding we attended, because this was definitely a highlight of our trip, in foodie terms as well as emotional ones! Everyone loves wedding pictures, right? So here's one of the happy couple:

What a backdrop!

Jo & Rob (pictured) decided that they would have a seven course feast for their wedding, and where better to have that than Italy?! The dinner was held at the Hotel Excelsior, Malcesine and their wedding menu was as follows, accompanied by pictures:

* Strips of marinated salmon with herbs, breaded in black crumbs and fried with olive oil on green beans, salad and Grana cheese

*Toasted ham and cheese parcels, served with melon strips and green olive pesto

*Small fresh lasagne with tomatoes, baked au gratin with beef ragout in a white sauce and chicory spit covered in Fontina cheese

*Risotto with blueberries, bacon and Fontina cheese

*Green apple and vodka sorbet

*Fillet of oven roasted beef, coated in almonds with potato chips and fresh thyme
(no picture of this one - sorry!)

*Mango and passion fruit pastry

It is worth mentioning at this point that the hotel painstakingly provided a cheese-free version of each course for my lactose-intolerant fiancé. Much kudos to them for that!

I think my favourite course (aside from the sorbet, which everyone agreed was wonderfully more-ish - best sorbet I've ever had!) was the mango and passionfruit pastry. Fruity, light and delicious. A perfect end to a perfect feast.

At least, we thought that was the end, and then the cake appeared!
Sadly, I can't give much of an opinion on what the cake tasted like because I was so full I only managed one bite!

Canapes were also had earlier in the day before we went on a champagne cruise on the lake, which consisted of various nibbles including freshly sliced proscuttio and fresh parmesan cheese. There was also much champagne and both red and white wine for everyone. It was heaven!

This was a wonderful way to celebrate such a happy occasion and I'm very glad I got to share it with Jo & Rob. I can definitely say that their marriage has got off to a cracking start!