Thursday, 18 December 2014

Gesundheit Birmingham

Yo ho ho, all the fun of the festive fair. If you can't get to Germany for a Christmas market, let the German Christmas market come to you. Well that was my rationale for taking a trip up to Birmingham anyway. The German Christmas Market has become something of an annual attraction in Birminham's city centre at this time of year. I'd heard the hot chocolates were a must. It was time to sample one or two, do a spot of Christmas shopping and take the opportunity to visit friends in nearby Leamington Spa.

It's a bit of a long haul up to Birmingham, so I was pleased to find that the hotel I was staying in, was only a three minute walk from the station. In fact the Ibis Birmingham Centre New Street, is very conveniently located, making it ideal for the German Christmas Market as well as many of Birmingham's other attractions. I'm never quite sure what to expect in city centre hotels, but I was pleasantly surprised. The room was comfortably sized, clean and surprisingly quiet for a hotel in the city centre right next to China Town.

Once divested of my baggage, I took off to find something to eat. I was trying to find a vegetarian restaurant that I'd heard about. Many years ago, when I lived in Leamington Spa, I was quite familiar with the centre of Birmingham, but goodness how things have changed. The place has undergone a transformation and whilst it now looks much smarter, I found it completely disorientating. I quickly gave up on the veggie restaurant and passing a Wagamama, I decided I'd give that a try instead - another new experience for me. The place was absolutely heaving and it was only 5:30 pm. I found myself sitting opposite a local woman who was dining there on her way home from work. We struck up a conversation and ended up not only enjoying our respective meals but the company too. When we'd finished, she very kindly, went out of her way, to take me to the Christmas Market, which I had been unable to find, but was actually only around the corner.

What a splendid way to experience the market: the streets bustling with shoppers and glühwein enthusiasts, the Christmas lights aglow and the jolly strains of Christmas music. It truly felt most festive. I hadn't expected the market stalls to look just like a German woodcutter's cottage; this just added to the general charm. All sorts of wares and comestibles were on display including decorations hanging from the stalls, crafts, handmade wooden toys and cakes. But hot chocolate? I couldn't find a single cup.

Unable to locate my hot chocolate and not having had any pudding, I decided to indulge in a box of large flavoured marshmallows covered in chocolate. Judging by the lengthy queue I had to stand in, these were a much sought after delicacy. A box of 12 cost £6, which, quite frankly, I thought was a bit of a bargain. I decided to reward CT with his very own box.

I passed a comfortable night in the hotel. The mattress was just how I like them, firm yet giving at the same time. My back felt nicely rested and I ambled down to breakfast. I have to admit I wasn't really looking forward to this bit. I love a good cooked breakfast, but my experience at budget hotels has been disappointing - watery eggs, flavourless tomatoes and not much to tempt us vegetarians. How wrong I was. There was a choice of hot food and everything I had was well cooked and flavoursome. There was also plenty of cereal, yogurt, fruit, pastries, toast, cheese and meats of various kinds. I would have liked to have had some wholemeal bread for toasting, but eating white bread was something of a novelty.

I had until midday to check out, which meant I could look around the market again, unhampered by baggage. In the morning light and without the evening crowds, I was finally able to find that elusive hot chocolate; the Bailey's and pile of whipped cream at 10 am was perhaps a little decadent, but so worthwhile. I did think the price a little steep: £4.30 + a £3 refundable deposit for quite a diminutive mug. But hey, it was all part of the experience.

As the morning drew on and activity around the market increased, various living statues, buskers and other street entertainment started to appear. It was a very different place from the evening before, but no less enjoyable. Chocolate was what I was there for, so I bought a box of individually chosen chocolates for the friends I was going to be staying with that night. They looked and sounded intriguing, but I have yet to hear any feedback on whether they were any good. Other markets spilled out from the main German market in all directions adding to the bustling festive atmosphere.

Before catching my train to Leamington Spa later in the afternoon, I had a wander around the city centre. I wanted to see the famous new library and I'd also been urged to visit the museum by my previous night's dining companion. I was impressed by both. The library was thronging with people and I got vertigo on the freestanding escalators which headed forever upwards much like Jacob's Ladder. At the museum I saw the Staffordshire Hoard - the largest hoard of Anglos-Saxon gold ever found.

My overwhelming impression of Birmingham was just how friendly and helpful everyone was. From the staff at the hotel, to my dining companion to the ticket clark who went out of his way to make sure I got the very best deal and train to Leamington Spa. So if you can't make it to Munich this year, Britain's second city won't disappoint.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Panettone Meets Panasonic - My First Bread Maker

An old hand at bread-making I may be, but I was a little daunted when I was recently sent an automatic Panasonic bread maker to try out. I have never used a machine to make bread before, other than an oven and I was a little concerned I would fall at the first hurdle. In truth I've always been a bit wary of bread makers as I'd heard they weren't great for the flours I like to bake with - spelt and rye.

The rather sleek machine that landed on my doorstep really didn't look scary at all. I soon realised I needn't have worried about my flours, this model comes with a speciality mode for the more unusual flours as well as a special kneading hook for rye bread - hooray. Likewise it has a gluten free program which makes it accessible to pretty much everyone. In fact it seems that virtually anything can be made in this machine: big loaves, small loaves some as big as your head, even cakes and jam, it's what the showman said.

Specifications

  • model SD-ZB2502
  • raisin nut dispenser - additional ingredients can be placed here for automatic addition later in the baking cycle. It does not work for all programs.
  • two kneading paddles, one for rye and one for all other breads.
  • comes with measuring cup and spoon
  • crust colour can be chosen: dark, medium or light.
  • varying size loaves:  medium, large or extra large.
  • timer delay to enable overnight baking or something warm and delicious awaiting you when you get home from work.

Photo courtesy of Panasonic
What to try first was the big dilemma. It would probably have been sensible to have made a basic loaf, but hey, it's Christmas. Perusing the rather extensive list of recipes, I saw one for panettone - decision made. I've never made panettone before, or brioche, which was really the essence of the recipe. I decided to substitute the currants with chocolate - well why wouldn't I? I also used my own candied orange peel and thought I'd add a little orange flower water too. But I was careful not to mess with the quantities; I didn't want my first machine bake to be a dismal failure.

This is how I made

Chocolate Panettone

  • Weighed 400g strong white flour and poured into the bread pan.
  • Added 4½ tbsp vanilla sugar (golden caster), 1 tsp Cornish sea salt and 50g cubed unsalted butter.
  • Poured in two medium sized beaten eggs and 200 ml milk.
  • Added 1 tsp orange flower water, 50g chopped candied orange peel and 50g of dark chocolate chips.
  • Placed 50g raisins in the raisin/nut dispenser and 1½ tsp instant yeast in the yeast dispenser.
  • Closed the lid, chose the programme for brioche and waited about an hour for the machine to beep at me alerting me to the fact it was time to add a second lot of cubed unsalted butter - 70g this time.
  • Set it on its way once again and waited a further 3 hours for the bread maker to do its thing.
  • Eight beeps signalled the end of the process. I removed the bread pan and turned the panettone out onto a wire rack to cool - no problems at all. I was pleased that I could hardly see the hole where the paddle attachment was, a feature not shared by my mother's bread maker.

As it turned out, there were no hurdles to fall at, well maybe just a little one. The instructions were clear and the bread maker was easy to use - phew. The slight hurdle I stumbled at was that the raisins did not come out of their dispenser - this was a little annoying. It seems that this feature only works with some programs; as I later read,  I was meant to add the raisins, along with the other additions, when I added the second lot of butter - oh well! The loaf tasted absolutely delicious anyway. CT, who is a big fan of brioche, was delighted. It was light, buttery and fragrant. I think everyone may be getting chocolate panettone for Christmas this year.

The bread basket and dough paddle were easy to clean and really there was very little fuss involved at all. I am genuinely pleased with this bread maker. If only it would do the washing up as well.

I was sent a Panasonic bread maker to try out. I was not required to write a positive review and as always, all opinions are my own.

I am sending this Xmas Chocolate Panettone off to AlphaBakes with Caroline Makes and Ros of The More Than Occasional Baker.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Fun Fillers for Your Christmas Stockings

Here are a few ideas for stocking fillers if you are feeling a bit stuck. You will surely find something here for the food lovers in your life. I'd certainly be happy to find any of these in mine.

Drinking Chocolate Christmas Baubles

Hans Sloane is probably my favourite hot chocolate and I've tried a few over the years. It makes a rich and creamy beverage, even without the addition of milk and it is not overly sweet.  Made with water, these make excellent drinks for vegans or those with a dairy intolerance. You can read my previous reviews of Hans Sloane drinking chocolate Madagascar 67% and Ecuador 70% and Rich Dark (53%) and Natural Honey.

Photo courtesy of Hans Sloane




The latest to come my way is this adorable Christmas Bauble full of 53% chocolate beads that rattle around when you shake it. The sight of a Christmas tree groaning under the weight of these substantial baubles would be a remarkable sight; when I tired of the spectacle, it would be good to know that I could pop them individually into mugs and liberate the contents with some hot water or milk. From tree to tea-tray in a trice. Perfect! £2 per individually packaged bauble and they will arrive in time for Christmas if you order by 18 December. Alternatively the 270g packs cost between £4.49 and £5.49 and can be found at Tesco and Waitrose as well as online.



Personalised Cornishware Mug

I grew up with Cornish Blue and the plates, cups and jugs are still in regular use in my mother's kitchen on the edge of Bodmin Moor, though somewhat cracked and chipped these days. They hold a special place in my heart, though I now have a preference and yearning for Cornish Red. This personalised mug adorned with my moniker I found especially appealing. It's just the right size and has a chunky, hand warming quality about it - perfect for those bedtime mugs of cocoa I'm so fond of, or even chocolate tea. Next time maybe Santa will bring me a red one. £10 for an 8oz personalised Cornishware mug.

Chocolate Soap

Having received my dose of antioxidants and minerals internally, how about applying chocolate externally, in this case in the form of soap? Made locally in Liskeard by Cornish Soapcakes, I was frothing at the mouth at the thought of trying this. With its simple but effective packaging, this certainly looked good enough to eat when I opened it. Made with Green & Blacks chocolate rather than the usual cocoa butter. Is this a first for Liskeard and who knows, the world?



Cheese Making Kit

Cheese making is all the rage at the moment and Cheeky Monkey Cream Chargers have cleverly seized the opportunity and are making kits for home cheese making. I was sent a Goat (Chèvre) kit, which I'm excited to try, but haven't quite found time to do so yet. I adore goat's cheese which is fabulous for cooking and pairs remarkably well with chocolate. You can see some of the recipes I've tried with this combination. The kit comes with instructions, recipes, cheesecloth, citric acid, cheese-salt and herbs de Provence. It will make about 3 lb of chèvre. All I need to do is buy the milk and follow the instructions. I will report back when I have done so. There is a mozzarella and ricotta kit too, which sounds equally attractive. Both kits cost £6.

Raw Nibbles

Made by husband and wife team Soph and Ian in Suffolk, Raw Nibbles are on a mission to create delicious and healthful products which retain the nutritional benefits of chocolate by keeping processing to a minimum.  All products are handmade, vegan and free from dairy, wheat, gluten, beet sugar, cane sugar, soya, egg and artificial additives. Not only that but they are organic, with Soil Association certification, which always endears a producer to me.

Double Chocolate Brownie - dates, cacao butter, coconut sugar, cacao powder, cacao paste, vanilla powder, almonds hazelnuts.
This is substantial and dense, but with a fudgy texture consistent with a good brownie. It's certainly very tasty; I noticed that the date flavour comes through quite strongly - maybe it's my Middle Eastern genes, but I really liked that: I found myself desiring more than a nibble. Weighing it at 110g, it's currently on offer for £2.80.

Crispy Raw Chocolate - cacao butter, coconut sugar, cacao powder, cacao paste, sprouted buckwheat, vanilla powder.
Sprouted buckwheat in chocolate? This was a first for me and I have to say I was a little dubious. My mistake. Buckwheat usually has a powerful and distinctive flavour, which is not to everybody's liking. I needn't have worried, they tasted just like nuts with the same crunchy texture. The chocolate had a good snap with a feel of "real" chocolate. My mouth didn't feel assaulted by vast quantities of sugar - really nice.  Currently on offer at £2.40 for a 50g bar.

mberry - Miracle Fruit Tablets

The fruits of the miracle berry, Synsepalum dulcificum, a West African shrub, are compressed and dried into tablet form. The effects are the result of a taste modifying process caused by miraculin, a glycoprotein found in the berry's flesh. So what does all this mean? The theory is, it turns sour and bitter flavours sweet.

CT and I gave it a go. We each let one tablet dissolve on our tongue. It took rather longer than I was expecting and tasted fruity with a berry like tartness. So far, unremarkable. Then we tried drinking some freshly squeezed lemon juice. Wow! We'd heard it was meant to make things taste different, but it was still a surprise to find the lemon juice tasted sweet, really sweet. What fun. Fool your tongue like never before. An ideal party piece to amaze your friends at Christmas to go with the magic lantern show and other curiosities. Dickens would have loved these. Available from mberry at £12.99 for a pack of ten.

Crumb - Ruby Tandoh

For those that haven't been following the Great British Bake-off, Ruby, a young law student, was a finalist in the 2013 competition and now writes regularly for the Guardian. For fans of this iconic programme, she will need no introduction. Her book Crumb is filled with enticing recipes for bakes of all kinds; they not only sound highly flavoursome, but are down to earth and fancy free. The law's loss is our gain.

The book is both intelligently and clearly written, so it's engaging as well as informative. The recipes are easy to follow and full instructions are given for the novice cook. Each chapter begins with a "how to" section explaining ingredients and techniques. Answers are given throughout to many of the common questions which even experienced bakers may have: why is my cake too dense? Why is my bread too yeasty? Why is my Danish pastry leaking butter as it bakes? Ruby is also good at demystifying those little tips and tricks that the experienced baker takes for granted. So what does it mean when you say a curd has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon? Well she shows you.

Innovative bakes and twists on old favourites abound, inspiring me to get off the computer and into the kitchen. So far I have only made a batch of wholemeal walnut cobs and a jar of her lemon curd; both were simple to make and delicious. I have, of course, bookmarked a rather ambitious number of other recipes. These include: cherry stollen with pistachio marzipan, dark chocolate orange bourbons, blackberry ricotta cheesecake, chocolate lime mudcake and spiced chocolate tart. There you have it, my New Year's resolution.

Published by Chatto & Windus in September this year, the substantial 336p book costs £20.



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