Greenwich in Winter

Where has this year gone?! Time is such a strange phenomenon. It feels as if I’ve done everything and nothing over the past few weeks. Unfortunately I had one of the worst chest infections I’ve ever had for about three weeks which meant that most activities went out of the window. Somehow I also managed to start a new job within my company in this time. Change is good and it’s remarkable how easy it is to become complacent and over-comfortable within a familiar bubble. The new role is a great opportunity and I’m really enjoying it so far.

Speaking of change, I wrote about how gorgeous autumn was in Greenwich a little while ago. Autumn doesn’t feel like a real season to me. It is characterised by beautiful colours, a new rhythm of weather and people defying winter’s arrival by getting outside and making the most of the days still being of a reasonable length while they last. Retrospectively autumn feels like it lasted a few wondrous days. In actual fact I know I spent a good few weekends admiring how Greenwich and London is made so beautiful when touched by autumn light. Winter really does feel like a real season though. Although it’s been very mild in temperature (I shed my coat today and strolled around in a t-shirt and my scarf… what chest infection?) I can’t help but feel as if I’m living in near-constant darkness as, like many, I leave my house for work in the dark and it’s already dark by the time my working day is done. I feel as if we’ve settled in for winter for the next six months.

I suppose getting through challenging times of year is made more bearable by trying to find the beauty in such times. One of the best things about this season, obviously, is Christmas and all of its traditions. A personal tradition of mine is that my boyfriend and I go to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum and treat ourselves to fancy food and drinks afterwards. We celebrate our anniversary in November so it’s become a yearly tradition which I always look forward to enormously. I’ve kept our tickets from each year we’ve visited and they’re preserved happily in one of my scrapbooks. I’ve slowly been absorbing Christmas spirit and I’m hugely looking forward to my annual pilgrimage to the Cotswolds to celebrate. Winter does have a charm of its own though. Today on the next street down I came across a charity event for Demelza where participants were dressed as horses and there were various challenges to undertake, including a good old fashioned race, in full horse costume, on space hoppers. Naturally.

I’ve also been popping in to local pubs for mulled ciders and asking for my coffee extra hot to keep my hands warm for a bit longer when strolling. I’ve been acquiring bits and pieces to make a homemade Christmas wreath, wrapping presents in brown paper and adorning them with red twine and gift tags that I made out of last year’s Christmas cards. I’ve been trying out party food recipes including some goats cheese and caramelised red onion tartlets, jerk chicken and pineapple skewers and chorizo and halloumi bites.

So I am resolved to be more optimistic about what winter has to offer. I’ve managed to capture many valuable moments so far.

A winter rose clinging on even in December.

 

 

Mist in Greenwich Park.

 

Christmas lights inside the Greenwich foot tunnel dome.

 

Fresh brussel sprout trees at the local greengrocer surrounded by winter clementines and pomegranates.

 

Hot coffee!

 

 

Quiet moments in Greenwich Park’s Rose Garden.

 

Konditor and Cook looking lovely in Southwark (not strictly Greenwich as this post suggests all images will be but Southwark is part of my life nonetheless)

 

Christmas meat in the local butchers.

 

Greenwich town centre’s Christmas tree with the Cutty Sark’s Christmas lights.

 

On Small Business Weekend the local shops on Royal Hill offered free raclettes, fish stew, champagne and mulled wine. It was all delicious.

 

The Ranger’s House.

 

There’s a newsagent on Nevada Street in Greenwich which features on its window adverts that are good for a chuckle.

 

Christmas tree buying at the top of Greenwich Park.

Autumn is Beautiful

Autumn in London has been ridiculously beautiful this year. I feel like I’ve never really opened my eyes and experienced autumn before! There has been a bit of rain during the working week but luckily the weekends have been mostly sunny and so, so colourful. Apparently today is the warmest November day on record. I can’t express just how lucky I feel to live a stone’s throw from Greenwich Park. It’s alive with red, gold, brown, russet, bronze, yellow, green and purple. Some people speak of October as a time of change when longing starts to set in for the summer gone by and for the sunshine of next year which feels very far away. October in itself though has been a joy to behold and, for me, has eclipsed the mostly humid, grey summer months we had in London. Here are a collection of my favourite autumn pictures so far (many include my shoes, and some are just favourites I’ve snapped during the month of October).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pistachio Loaf Cake with White Chocolate Cream Frosting

I’m not sure how overtly autumnal pistachios are but I sure do love them. The ritual of shelling salted pistachios and seeing the pile of husks grow rapidly is very satisfying; for some reason my family seem to buy all of the pistachios at Christmas. While in Greece in September, I tried a wonderful bright green pistachio ice cream at Lolita’s Gelato and found out that pistachios are a local delicacy in Santorini, they’re everywhere. I love their green hue and that a handful of them counts as good fat! I recently came across a recipe in the Hummingbird Bakery’s “Cake Days” for this pistachio loaf cake and the idea really appealed to me. I must admit haven’t had the best of luck with Hummingbird Bakery recipes in the past. It was sadly hidden away right at the back of the book before the guidance notes, as if nobody is meant to find it! Well, I found it and had to give it a go.

The cake is soft, with sweetness coming from the frosting rather than the cake itself, well-distributed nuts and it is a lovely pale green against the white frosting. The chopped pistachios on top of the cake add a pop of colour and contrast against the white and easily give the flavour away to whoever’s looking! Just look at this green!

This was another long bake and a lesson I’m taking away is to reduce my oven temperature as the outside was ever so slightly too dark for my liking. When I tucked into a slice I felt that the outer crumb was slightly too hard. A similar timed bake with a touch less heat is one thing I’d do differently next time. Another random but potentially helpful point is that I used a very angular loaf tin. I have three different loaf tins with varying degrees of rounded corners and depths and I chose this one as it was the deepest, but on reflection I feel like the loaf cake looked a little like a brick with frosting on top 😳 (mostly because of the colour of it… but the sharp corners certainly didn’t help).

I can’t get enough of this frosting. It is so versatile. The original recipe called for a simple icing glaze (which I’m sure would work fine) but I wanted to use this frosting to give the cake extra height and volume, as well as a bit of piped decoration. I also judged that the cake was unlikely to be overly sweet based on the ingredients used, and wanted to add a little bit of luxury. I’ve slathered this frosting on blueberry cakes, lemon cakes, cupcakes of all flavours, carrot cakes… it works with many different cakes because the primary flavour is buttercream with a discreet white chocolate, almost vanilla-like sweetness.

This cake earned me a lot of kudos at work! People hear that you’ve baked with pistachio and are instantly interested; I suppose it’s quite an unusual baking ingredient. I would definitely recommend making it as a casual gift, to serve if you’re hosting a cup of tea for friends of an afternoon or to keep in a cake tin for slices during the week. It’s easy to make too (if you have patience for all that pistachio chopping!).

Ingredients

For the cake

190g unsalted butter
190g plain flour
190g caster sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp/5g baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
25ml sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g shelled unsalted pistachios, roughly chopped (for the cake mixture)
15g shelled unsalted pistachios, roughly chopped (to top the cake)

For the white chocolate cream frosting 

100g white chocolate
140g unsalted butter, very soft
140g icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla extract

  1. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees (fan) or 180 degrees (conventional), and grease and line a 2lb cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together in an electric mixer or with a hand-held mixer until pale and fluffy.
  3. Add the eggs one at a time and mix very well until completely incorporated into the mixture. It shouldn’t curdle.
  4. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together and add to the mixture in two halves. Beat the flour in on a slow speed to avoid overmixing.
  5. Add the sour cream and vanilla essence and mix.
  6. Mix in the 100g of chopped pistachio by hand so that they are well distributed. By this point the mixture should look a little something like this:
  7. Add the mixture into your lined loaf tin and smooth out. The recipe calls for 50-60 minutes before checking it with a skewer but mine needed about 67 minutes!
  8. Remove for the oven and allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes or so before turning out to cool completely.
  9. Melt the white chocolate in small chunks in a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. I have read that white chocolate has the lowest melting point of all chocolates and so if it’s overheated it doesn’t incorporate into other ingredients very well or set well. Keep stirring it and take it off the heat as soon as the majority of the chocolate is melted – the remaining chunks will melt in from the existing heat. Allow this to cool in the fridge for about 5 minutes.
  10. Beat together the butter, icing sugar and vanilla extract until fluffy and stiff (about 5 minutes).
  11. Add the white chocolate into the buttercream mixture slowly and continue to beat until it reaches a light and soft consistency. If you want to spread the frosting then feel free to use this straight away. I piped mine so I popped it in the fridge for 10 minutes to pipe smoothly.
  12. Spread or pipe the frosting onto the cake. Sprinkle the remaining chopped pistachios onto the frosting and put the cake on the nicest cake stand you have.

I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for more pistachio recipe as it’s not a common ingredient. I imagine it would go well with a sharp citrus flavour too. Perhaps I will incorporate some into my next lemon drizzle to see what happens!

PS – isn’t my copy of Homer’s “Odyssey” beautiful?! I’m slightly obsessed with it! I can’t take it out of the house as I don’t want to get the edges bent or accidentally spill something on it. It’s a joy to look at. And read of course; I’m making my way through it slowly but surely. I’d be interested if anybody out there has read it and would care to discuss it with me!

Proscuitto, Manchego and Balsamic Onion Quick Bread

Have you been watching the Great British Bake Off? It’s one of my favourite programmes of the whole year. It’s light-hearted and there aren’t really any expectations for the winner at the end, although some of them have gone on to do very well in the public eye, and some non-winners have too. Ruby Tandoh’s weekly column in The Guardian is one of my favourite sources of new and interesting recipes. I am a big fan of Nadiya and Tamal. I’d be very happy if either of them won!

After each episode I always feel very inspired to produce something from the week’s theme. I’ve got a lot of experience making cakes but I feel like cake week is the only one I’d be anywhere near my comfort zone within. I’ve noted down lots of recipes from the series so far that I want to try my hand at, and BBC Food are handily publishing 5 recipes from each week on their website. Today was the perfect opportunity to return to week 3 (bread week) and bake Alvin’s proscuitto, manchego and balsamic onion quick bread which basically sounds like heaven in an oven. I’ve never made a quick bread or soda bread before, and just the thought of the combination of ingredients and flavours here make me ridiculously hungry. They’re the the kind of toppings I’d go for on a pizza, or pull together on a cheese board.

I am very lucky where I live in Greenwich to have a couple of gorgeous independent shops about 30 seconds walk from my house. It’s all very English, there’s a fishmonger, butcher, florist, green grocer and cheese shop. The Cheeseboard is a teeny shop on the corner packed with wines, olives, chutneys, dairy products, bread and baked goods and CHEESE. They’ve never let me down so far no matter how esoteric the cheese is that I’m after.

There was a fair amount of preparation to do for this recipe. All that tearing of proscuitto and basil, dicing manchego and slicing onions. The actual breadmaking part feels very short! I suppose that is the beauty of a quick bread. Take your time over preparing the onions so that they become super sweet and juicy while cooling. It’s the presence of these onions that mean you could almost eat it without butter because there is already a chutney-esque flavour running through it.

After rubbing the butter and flour together, it’s important that all the dry additions are well distributed through the breadcrumby mixture because apparently quick breads shouldn’t be handled too much. You don’t want to be kneading it excessively with the aim of distributing the fillings. The picture above is what my dry ingredients looked like all ready to receive the buttermilk.

I used about 250ml of buttermilk to make the dough just come together rather than the full 300ml. It looked so appetising even before going in the oven! All the different flashes of colour are lovely.

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp cooking oil (olive, vegetable, rapeseed etc)
  • 1 large red onion, sliced
  • 3 tbsp (45ml) balsamic vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp (22.5ml) soft brown sugar
  • 450g plain flour
  • 1 tsp (5ml) bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp (5ml) salt
  • 30g cold, diced unsalted butter
  • 80g proscuitto, torn roughly
  • 200g manchego cheese, diced into roughly 1cm chunks
  • Handful of torn basil leaves
  • 300ml buttermilk (or 300ml milk mixed with 20ml of white wine vinegar)
  • 1 tbsp (15g) butter, melted, for brushing over the finished quick bread
  1. Preheat the oven to 200C/180C Fan/Gas Mark 6 and line a baking tray with baking paper.
  2. Warm the oil over medium-high heat and when hot, add the red onions and stir. Reduce the heat, cover with a lid and cook for 15 minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar, increase the heat slightly, and cook, uncovered, for a further 5 minutes. Set aside to cool completely (this should take half an hour or so).
  3. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a large deep bowl. Rub in the butter until it resembles very fine breadcrumbs.
  4. Put a small amount of cooked onions, manchego and proscuitto aside to top the bread with when it goes in the oven.
  5. Add the remaining onions, prosciutto, basil and cheese to the flour mixture.
  6. Mix the buttermilk with 25ml water. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and the buttermilk mixture, I used about 250ml rather than the full 300ml and you’re trying to make a dough which just comes together. Add more buttermilk if the dough is too dry, or a little plain flour if it’s too wet.
  7. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, roughly shape and transfer to the prepared baking trays. Flatten the loaf to about 4cm thick. Score the top using a sharp knife and top with the reserved balsamic onions, proscuitto and manchego.
  8. Bake for 40 minutes or until golden-brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the base. I covered the bread with foil 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time to make sure it didn’t get burnt. If the bread sounds hollow when you tap its base, it’s done.
  9. Transfer to a wire rack and brush with melted butter. Allow to cool fully.

The fact that this quick bread already has a handful of meat and cheese in makes it delicious on its own rather than a bread for sandwich-making. I had it with a spread of goats cheese. I was actually impressed by how soft the crumb was, as I was expecting a rather more dense loaf given the lack of kneading and yeast. Quick breads keep well in airtight containers, in the fridge for a few days or frozen when fully cooled down. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the GBBO final next week!

Beef Pho with Slow-Cooked Brisket

The last two weeks have been a rollercoaster of various bugs in my house. Stomach bugs, chest infections, colds, earaches. Pho has been on my list of things I want to make for quite some time now and I thought that devoting my downtime at home to a slow-cooked meal would be a positive outcome from a negative situation. Also, I have been reading a lot about how nutritious and mineral-rich bone broth is. What could be better when you’re poorly?!

Let me start by saying I love pho. I especially love pho when I’ve been unwell as I find its deep fragrances so healing, familiar and comforting. Just knowing the time that goes into cooking it instils a heartiness just like good old fashioned chicken soup. As anyone who loves pho can attest to, the bone broth is everything. Luckily I’m used to demonstrating patience with cooking as I spend a lot of time baking, and I settled on a minimum of 7 hours to make the bone broth.

A bit of online research offered some good explanations as to the differences between a stock and a broth. Several sources reasoned that seasoning is added to the broth to make it into a viable dish on its own, whereas stock relies fully on the flavourings derived from the bones and vegetable base. Also, apparently traditionally a broth would be made from mostly meat (or the leftover liquid from cooking meat), whereas stock would be made from mostly bone. Although one of my favourites in Vietnamese restaurants is bun bo hue (a spicier broth-based noodle dish), I wanted to start my pho-making adventures with a genuine broth base and settled on primarily using bones.

Beef bones for the broth. Appetising eh?
Beef bones for the broth. Appetising eh?

I am very lucky to live about a minute’s walk away from a wonderful, locally sourced butcher called Drings. I left my sick bed to go and get 1.5kg worth of beef bones to make the broth. I did request bones with a bit of meat and fat left on them to add to the meaty flavour.

I used Rick Stein’s pho bo recipe to get me started.

Getting started with the broth

Firstly, find the biggest and deepest pan you can. Mine was suitable for the bones, vegetables and about 5 litres of liquid and this yielded 4 generous bowls of pho. The initial stages focus on releasing fragrances and aromas from the spices and softening the broth base of onions and ginger. Then, similarly to making stock, the bones are added to a vegetable base of celery, carrot, onions, peppercorns and the spices and submerged in cold water. You have to watch the broth for the first half an hour or so to bring it up to simmering level and to skim off any scum. Once the broth stops producing scum, you’re good to turn the heat right down, cover the pan, and leave it for as long as you possibly can, with the occasional stir once an hour or so.

Resist tasting the broth as you go along if you can, I had a few tastes after 4 hours and I was worried because I found it bland. Be patient! Give it time, the flavours develop and they develop deeply. The late additions to the broth, including a pinch of palm sugar and fish sauce also add different dimensions to the broth that you won’t get tasting as you go along.

image

Serving the dish

Strain the broth through a very fine sieve or cheesecloth so that you’re left with a clear and pure broth. I strained the broth twice to make sure. Discard the leftovers apart from the slow cooked brisket and leave this to get even more tender for a few minutes. Cover, add the palm sugar and fish sauce, and leave over a very low heat to keep warm while you assemble the bowls.

3 minutes to soak the rice noodles in boiling water, arrange the brisket, sprinkle some spring onion, ladle the broth over the top, and serve. Let your guests help themselves to bean sprouts, herbs, chilli and lime.

Ingredients 

For the beef broth:

  • 40g ginger, roughly chopped and bruised

  • 350g shallots, sliced

  • 4 star anise

  • 2 cinnamon sticks

  • ½ tsp fennel seeds

  • 20 ounces beef brisket

  • 1.5k beef bones

  • 2 sticks celery, sliced

  • 2 carrots, sliced

  • 2 onions, sliced

  • 8 cloves

  • 1 tsp black peppercorns

  • 5 litres cold water

  • 1 tbsp salt

  • Pinch of palm sugar

For the rest of the dish:

  • 300g rice noodles

  • Bunch of mint

  • Bunch of coriander

  • Red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced

  • 2 limes, wedged

  • Bunch of spring onions, finely sliced diagonally

  • 4 tbsp nam pla, fish sauce

  • 100g bean sprouts

  1. Add the star anise, cinnamon sticks and fennel seeds to a hot and dry frying pan. Keep the pan moving until the spices become fragrant.
  2. Return the pan to the heat and add the bruised ginger and shallots and fry for 8-10 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the ginger and shallots are golden-brown. Transfer to the plate with the toasted spices.
  3. Place the bones, celery, carrots, onions, cloves, black peppercorns, roasted spices, ginger and shallots into a large, deep pan and pour over the water. Bring to the boil, skimming off any scum as necessary.
  4. Lower the heat, then add the salt and allow the broth to simmer for as long as possible (I simmered it for 7 hours).
  5. Slice the beef brisket roughly and add it to the broth approximately two hours to an hour and a half before you wish to serve the pho.
  6. Cook the rice noodles as per the packet instructions and add to four pho or noodle bowls.
  7. Add the mint, coriander, red chillies and lime wedges into a separate dish to add to your pho as per your tastes.
  8. Add the white part of the spring onions and the fish sauce to the broth.
  9. Sprinkle the green part of the spring onions and the bean sprouts over the noodles and beef. Ladle over the hot stock and serve with fresh herbs and chilli, just as you like it.

Note: I found leftover broth really hard to keep. I would recommend eating it all fresh! I didn’t try freezing it, but I have frozen homemade stocks before.

Learning how to cook pho at home from scratch has illustrated clearly to me that this is not a difficult dish to make. It’s a time-consuming one, but the hardest thing is getting the broth right, and given that I was so pleased with this broth, I feel that it can only get better with practice. If you have a rainy day at home, give it a try! I get such satisfaction from slow food and pho is a real crowd-pleaser. I’m going to try my favourite bun bo hue next. Get practicing in time for winter!

image