Friday, November 28, 2008

Christmas Shortbread Stars

Whilst browsing through Cox & Cox I came across the brown sugar hearts pictured below and thought they were utterly adorable. When I first caught sight of them though I thought they were cookies and my heart sank a bit when I realised they were sugar lumps. I don't take sugar in my tea and I like my coffee only barely sweet.

Picture of brown sugar heart taken from Cox & Cox

The disappointment however inspired me to create my own cookies for perching so cutely off the side of a mug. I found a recipe for a basic vanilla shortbread dough and set about on my plan. With Christmas fast approaching (yes I know I know, but it is almost December now and I can't help but be excited) I thought why not be a bit seasonal and decided to go for stars rather than hearts. For added Christmas cheer I divided my batch of dough into two and added orange zest to one of them.

Carefully cutting nicks into my stars of dough I kept my fingers crossed this would work. The last thing I wanted was for their little arms to snap off after baking but as you can see they hung on in there! There were a couple of casualties but needless to say, they weren't wasted. The trick is to mould them slightly to your mug before they go in the oven. I've presented these with a mug of tea but I'd imagine they'd be just as happy clinging onto the side of desserts as well waiting to dive in! Countless biscuit recipes would lend themselves well to the idea. I can see ginger snaps with servings of vanilla ice cream... brazil nut biscuits with warm chocolate pots... elegant shortbread (again) with glasses of summery desserts of berries and cream... and homely oat cookie-bites on ramekins of stewed autumn fruits and custard.

The recipe made a nice crumbly shortbread. If I had dried cranberries or chopped almonds I think they would have complemented the zest very well. The basic vanilla ones were not as buttery as I would have liked but still very moreish nonetheless.

I'm really chuffed with how the idea turned out. Now mugs can enjoy getting into the festive spirit too. And looking at these pictures I wonder how cute the stars would have been had I iced smiley faces onto them!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Banana Bread

Everyone I know likes banana bread. It's one of those cakes that spans all tastes and ages. Young and old alike love it, even some who hate bananas love it. It's that very true and unassuming quality about banana bread which makes it appeal to the masses. It's the labrador of the cake world. It's a hug in a cake.

At home our most baked cake without a doubt is banana bread (or 'fanana fred', as we like to call it for some odd reason). This is no surprise because it is so quick and easy to make. At the same time it tastes scrumptious and fills the house with a welcoming aroma as it bakes. I'm certain that when I go home my mum buys more bananas than we can eat so she can dupe me into making batches of banana bread. And as the dutiful, banana-bread-loving daughter that I am, I pretend to be oblivious to her wily ways and bake double batches at a time with glee.

Traditionally we used to follow a recipe in one of my mum's cook books until I, like many the nation's domestic bakers, was drawn by Nigella Lawson's alluring love of food and I decided to try her recipe one day. What a revelation. I already thought our banana bread was good, but her recipe makes for one that is so much fluffier in texture and more melt in the mouth but without losing any of that all important hardy sponginess. Everyone I have made it for or I have passed the recipe to raves about how delicious and soft it is.

Nigella's recipe can be found here but I haven't mentioned yet that all my gushing refers to my version in that I omit the alcohol, fruit and nuts. I can't have foreign bodies in my banana bread! Banana bread is best enjoyed without crunchy nuts and chewy fruits disrupting its lovely squidgyness and comforting flavour. As I said it's the unassuming constitution that makes it what it is. Blinging it up is like trying to turn it into something it is not. I am so adamant of this that I will not even have chocolate in my banana bread. That is how stubborn I am about banana bread but it is only because I love it so, just the way it is.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Naked Chef's Truffles - Jamie's Italian

Last Saturday I made my first foray into the world of celebrity chef dining, not that I intend to make it a habit you understand, but in the British celebrity culture where chefs have carved quite a niche for themselves in the past few years it's hard not to notice the buzz when one of them decides to open a group of authentic restaurants dedicated to being affordable and accessible to everyone. And it's especially hard not to notice the buzz when one of them is located in the small town you currently reside in.

I wish I had more photos, but I was too busy eating!

Atmosphere and setting were lovely and what I'd describe as contemporary rustic. Cheeses and hams were hung from the ceilings above the antipasti kitchen and bar, tins of tomatoes were gathered in and around corners, large sacks of flour decorated steps and there was even a pasta-making machine quietly churning out fresh pasta where we had been enjoying our drinks. This was all dimly lit with the warm glow of low-hanging exposed lightbulbs and lamps, and scattered tealights to create a genuinely welcoming and relaxing ambience.

So what about the food? Well I am no expert on Italian food but I am an expert on what pleases my taste buds and they were for the most part pleased. Having perused the menu I decided on a pasta dish which is a very rare occurrence for me - the pasta machine sitting amongst the bar tables had obviously worked its charm. Cynicism aside, I should say I had arrived with the intention of ordering pasta the reason being I had not eaten fresh premise-made pasta before, only fresh out of a supermarket fridge. And on a roll for trying new things I went for the truffle tagliatelle which I decided to accompany with pan cooked garlicky green beans with tomatoes. I was going all vegetarian, another first. The boyfriend decided otherwise and opted for good old grilled steak with a side of skinny potato chips with rosemary salt. Good choice.

I also should not forget to give a special mention to Jamie's tomato ketchup which was presented in its own rustic glass bottle. It was tastily tomatoey and Jamie may want to cane me for saying this but as it touched my tongue I found myself reminiscing of my childhood when I loved to eat what all children loved to eat: fish fingers with Heinz tinned spaghetti. Sorry Jamie but believe me when I say this is a good thing. Your ketchup is like a grown up version of the tomato sauce I enjoyed as a child which is something Heinz themselves have not been able to bottle.

And of course despite feeling quite full I could not have a meal out without rounding it off nicely with dessert. The boyfriend was swayed by the idea of a bowl of Italian ice creams of the day which disappointingly had already started to melt when they arrived. We played a game of guess the flavour and concluded with vanilla (easy), rhubarb (I got that one) and what I think was toffee, he thought was cookie, then it all melted together so what it was will always remain a mystery. I ordered Gennaro's amalfi orange tart because I love citrus-based baked goodies and this one, which was of a sizeable portion, fulfilled my expectations. As we enjoyed these the chef approached us to say hello and asked if everything was ok. Another happy first for me. and I couldn't end without saying that the service from everyone who served us from the moment we joined the queue to when we left was faultless and friendly.

For the quality of food and dining experience prices were reasonable and quite competitive compared to other high end high street restaurants. Whatever your budget I recommend it to those who want to enjoy good simple food within a laid back but well executed setting. It seems reviews have been mixed but I can only go on my own experience which was on the whole positive.

Jamie's Italian
10 Milsom Place
Phone: 01225 510051

9th November 2008:
Since making this entry I have realised I lied! I only just remembered that in June this year I had some cracking fish and chips at Rick Stein's fish and chip shop in Padstow therefore when I said my visit to Jamie's was my first foray into celebrity chef dining I may have inadvertently told a fib. That said, my views of the old fuddy-duddy Stein's 'celebrity' status remain very dubious anyway although my brother would challenge me to the ground for saying that. I best be on my guard, he - my brother, not Stein - knows martial arts, and he may have Chalky on his side!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

early winter munchies

The clocks turned back two weekends ago and the boyfriend was remarking that if there is a being out there who flicks the switch for the nation to put us all into sync, they must have inadvertently flicked the winter switch too. It has been bitingly cold this past week and a half which means a further switch has been flicked inside me: the insatiably peckish switch.

Nomatter how well I plan my meals and try my best to assert some will power over the hunger pangs in my mind, I still end up quite indiscreetly reaching for the chocolates, the crisps, the cake. I'm quite astonished by my tendency towards excessive squirrel-like stashing of snacks during the colder months. However there really is something about the darker evenings and colder temperatures that bring out the instinctive squirrel in me as timely as they urge me to dig out the cosy scarves and gloves from the back of my closet. On a cold evening there is nothing more soul-warming than wrapping myself up in my duvet with a mug of hot tea, a good book or dvd on the laptop, and a sweet comforting bar of chocolatey goodness, knowing there is a lot more where it came from.

Yesterday I allowed myself to make yet another stash. It is the treasure of all my stashes. Not long ago supermarkets here stopped stocking one of my favourite ice creams of all time: Ben & Jerry's cherry garcia. For me, chocolate and cherries is one of the most complementary pairings that could be when you want something a bit feminine, decadent and heavenly, and I melt when I think of dark chocolate with kirsch cherries. They simply belong together and I believe such pairings create moments to savour or treasure in all aspects of life. Think of birthdays and candles, focus and achievement, stillness and snow. If all things could go so well together life would be nice.

Ben & Jerry's cherry garcia ice cream was inconsiderately replaced with the healthier frozen yogurt version in UK supermarkets which is pleasant enough but lacking in that all important creaminess which leaves it aiming quite a bit off-centre when it attempts to hit the spot. However, as if the ice cream angels were looking down upon me, I serendipitously came across what must be the last few tubs of cherry garcia ice cream in all of Britain at a local convenience store. And to top it all off with a cherry, at half price! Resistance didn't even dare enter my mind but unfortunately student budgetary constraints did so I restricted myself to two tubs, brought them back and tucked them nicely into the back of my freezer as a wave of contentment warmly swept over me. Ah, my little stash of chocolate and cherry treasure. Perfect to pair with those chick flick moments.

Monday, November 03, 2008

introducing my blog

I love food blogs. I could spend hours wandering through all the food blogs I've bookmarked, plus more, taking in the sights, the smells, the ideas. It is these journeys that have inspired me to create chocolate & jasmine my attempt to write about the food in my life as a very amateur foodie, and I do stress the 'very'.

I currently live in university halls therefore share a somewhat forlorn electric hob with many flatmates, I can only dream of owning an SLR with which to produce delicious food photography, I keep a very limited array of kitchen utensils because I know I'll be moving again, and while I am a competent enough cook, I am still very much a beginner with regards to the vast world of ingredients and flavours. If I had to choose one phrase with which to describe my cooking, it would be 'hit or miss'. I often surprise myself how well or bad something can turn out although I'm a baker at heart so at the very least anything containing flour that comes out of the oven tends to be a hit. On top of all this I live on a (mature) student budget so I often have to restrain myself and therefore recipes are always kept simple.

But for now, I do know that I love to eat and I love to cook. I also know I love taking photos however one thing I've yet to discover is whether I love blogging! So at the moment all I can do is try and hopefully I can nurture this blog into capturing the essence of food according to me.

So why 'chocolate & jasmine'? Well it combines two of my most foodie-loved: sweet delights and Chinese food. Anyone who knows me is aware
of my lifelong addiction to chocolates, cakes, pastries, desserts and puddings and the tardis-like second stomach I have to contain such treats (it's evolution I tell you).

The jasmine conveys my ethnic roots. I was born in the United Kingdom however my parents come from Hong Kong therefore my favourite cuisine would have to be what I have grown up with: traditional Chinese, accompanied by lots of fragrant jasmine tea of course.