Friday, 30 September 2016

Spotlight on: Fortnum & Mason

When I'm not cautiously deciding whether or not I'm too broke to afford a Pret wrap, I like to pretend I'm a fabulously wealthy socialite who lives in Mayfair and has a butler named Whatley. As in, "Get the car, Whatley, we're going to Harrods. I'm in desperate need of a new Birkin bag." Anyway, one of the places where I like to live in my imagination is the upscale department store of Fortnum and Mason. Generally known for its food halls, it is a grand shop with some of the most beautiful displays I've ever seen.

It was still summer when I went and the sweeping staircase in the middle of the ground floor was decorated like something out of a fairy tale. I wanted to descend those stairs in a giant princess ballgown and waltz with Prince Charming.

Founded in 1707 as a grocery store and situated along Piccadilly, Fortnum & Mason certainly have cornered the market for fancy and overpriced food but somehow, even though you laugh at the prices, you somehow still want it all. Or at least I do. I wanted the delicate chocolates and the little pots of honey in their honey mansion. I wanted the splendidly English hampers and especially the tea, for which the shop is famous. I wanted to laden Whatley's arms with shopping bags and have him drive home and unpack while I take afternoon tea with Lady Pendlington-Smyth.

I felt a little like an impostor while I perused, like the shop assistants just knew I wasn't going to buy anything. Not everything was terrifically expensive, I must admit, but enough was specialist and artisanal to make it obvious I was just there for a nosy. I noticed there was a sign for the crypt downstairs and, my interest piqued, I wandered around the wine section in the basement like a lost sheep until I found it.

Situated in what is probably one of the oldest sections of the store, it has been arranged to look like a Vampire Count's dining room. You can almost see Dracula swishing his goblet of wine and saying, "I vant to suck your blooood." Of course there are ghost tales about the crypt to add to the store's mythology. You can actually hire it out for private functions, which is pretty cool. I bet it would make a terrific party location. In fact, I think fancy socialite me may hire it out for Halloween. I'll get Whatley to pick up the decorations at once.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Taste the rainbow

I have always wanted to make a grand cake, in the show stopping Great British Bake Off style. And my Dad’s 70th birthday last weekend seemed like the perfect occasion to give it a go. The thing is, while I’m a tolerable baker I’m not particularly artsy (toddler drawing stick men comes to mind) and therefore not very good at decorating. I’ve tried before, oh, how I have tried. Every time I try I think – this is it, this is the cake where I suddenly ‘get it’. It’s never the cake. I once saw a teapot cake online and thought ‘I could make that’. Easy, right? Big mistake. Not only did I have none of the correct tins, I also had very little experience in making a cake in any shape other that the pre-designed round ones. It ended up a normal round shape with extra pieces of cake sticking out at all angles and held on with cocktail sticks. Oh yes, and with bright blue icing with crumbs sticking on it to add to your mental picture. Luckily, the one photo taken with my grainy phone camera (this was pre-iphone) has been lost to the history books. It tasted good, though.

So when I saw pictures of rainbow cakes on Pinterest, I had to reign myself in. Hold up Becky, I told myself sternly, you know how this usually ends. But the idea persisted and I found a recipe online that looked manageable and was step-by-step (this one here). Instead of making do with what I had, I very carefully read which tools I needed and specially ordered them in. I got a Sugarflair rainbow icing kit, which are highly concentrated gel pastes, from Ebay for about £12. Pricey, but a little goes a long way and I’ll definitely get price per use out of them. I also bought a cake leveller from Dunelm and an offset spatula for the icing.

I got to Mum and Dad’s on Thursday and set about to making the sponge that evening. The sponge was relatively simple to make and I had use of my Mum’s ancient but still amazing Kenwood mixer. I blasted Taylor Swift (Taylor Swift is the ultimate baking music. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself and then you’ll see!) and danced and sang about as I cracked eggs and mixed sugar. I divided the mixture as evenly as possibly into six bowls and used about 1/6-of a teaspoon - or the very end of the handle – to add my colouring gel. The gel needs quite a bit of vigorous stirring to fully integrate the colour but once it’s done it looks very effective. The gel also goes everywhere, all over my hands and the spoon, so I had to wash my hands and the spoon after each go to make sure it didn’t stain or cross-contaminate the colours.  

I originally was going to bake in a bigger tin so the cake was wider rather than taller but there wasn’t enough of each mixture for that. In fact, there was barely enough mixture for my very smallest tin. It only covered just covered the tin and was no more a centimetre high. I baked them two at a time, for around 12 minutes each. Because the mixture was so thin, it didn’t need much longer or it would have burned. I only had two tins to I had to turn them out quickly, fan them to cool and then line the tins again before adding the next colours. It was a bit of a hassle, but who has six tins the same?

The cakes turned out just a little uneven though generally not too bad, but looked rather flat. This was a good thing, I realised, because if they had risen like a normal sponge the cake would be far too high and topple over! The recipe deliberately made the sponges dense so they would layer more easily. Once they were cool, I wrapped them in cling film and popped them in the freezer. There they lay in their frosty prison until Friday evening when I transferred them to the fridge to thaw.

On Saturday, the real work began.

I was a bit afraid that if I used the cake leveller that I’d break the sponge so I got my more experienced older sister to do it instead. I made a simple buttercream icing and layered the first three levels (purple, blue and green). I then put that bit in the fridge to chill and harden for around 30 minutes. I then did the same for the next three layers and the top. I also did a crumb coat, which is a thin base layer on all sides of the cake that is meant to sweep up all the crumbs and make the cake smooth for the real icing. Like a base coat for a wall or your nails.

The now rather high cake went into the fridge for an hour. Before you think how simple and lovely this all sounds, let me stop you right there. There was yelling. There was sniping. There was accidentally putting the layers on in the wrong order and then having to peel, re-ice and try again. All the while a million other things going on in the kitchen in preparation for that evening’s barbecue. It was not a relaxing process.

Because I can’t seem to ever make life simple for myself I decided not to cover the cake in buttercream but instead with Swiss meringue icing. Had I ever made it before? No. Did I decide this very stressful day was the perfect time to try it out? Yes, because I’m an idiot.  

One baking blog calls the Swiss meringue the fool proof meringue. Lies! If it’s not fool proof it’s definitely Becky proof. The process involves whisking egg whites and granulated sugar over simmering water (making sure the bowl is metal not glass and that it doesn’t touch the water) until it reaches around 60 degrees Celsius. I didn’t have a food thermometer so I had to use the method where you rub your fingers together in the mixture and if you don’t feel grain, then take it off the heat. By my account it should have been done so I took it off the heat and kept whisking until it formed peaks. Easy peasy, right? Or so I thought. As soon as I put the meringue on the cake it began running down the sides, not keeping the nice stiff texture like the recipe assure me it would. I whisked some more but the same happened. I started to freak out – it looked terrible. My sister told me to add some icing sugar which I did but it made the icing sweeter than intended! I mean, it tasted very good but what good is taste when it’s not staying on the cake? I kept adding more sugar until the icing vaguely held its shape and then I shoved it into the fridge, hoping desperately it would not run.

It did set, luckily, but the icing wasn’t smooth and beautiful like I’d hoped. In vain, I used some jagged edged smoothers to give it a bit more oomph but it didn’t work. Defeated, I threw on some confetti sprinkles and hoped that at least it would taste ok. When it was time to put out the desserts at the barbecue I was a little nervous but also quite proud of my tower cake. I cut a slice out of it to show the colours and – woomph. There it was, not quite a show stopper but fairly impressive. The inside, while it wasn’t perfect, did look rather striking. I nudged it to the front so everyone would get the full effect.

People told me it tasted good. I don’t know if they were just being nice, though. I think it tasted quite nice but because of the buttercream and outer icing, and because one slice was so big it was so very sweet. Like, I can't eat any more or I might be sick sweet. Next time I'll make a less sweet icing, I think. Or maybe just a smaller cake! 

Monday, 12 September 2016

They call it Stokey

I'm still on the hunt for neighbourhoods in London where I might eventually settle. I'd heard good things about Stoke Newington, so I decided to check it out after church. It's known as a place for young, cool parents which worried me a bit as I am neither a) cool or b) a parent. I am young(ish), however, so one out of three isn't bad I suppose. Stoke Newington - or Stokey as the locals call it - is in the borough of Hackney on the overground and is definitely cool.

The first thing that struck me about it was the variety of places to eat. From independent coffee shops to brunch spots to rustic pizza joints, it was a foodie's dream. It was a hot day and the majority of the cafes and restaurants had overspill seating on the street, so the whole area had a vibrant atmosphere. Church Street is the main hub of Stoke Newington and has a bit of Bohemian feel, full of little shops and markets. It was definitely a bit hipster - I saw many a hat and many a vintage bike - but not in an obnoxious, penny-farthing-riding kind of way.

One of the other main attractions is Clissold Park. It is big and beautiful and is especially great for kids, although I thoroughly enjoyed it too. It was originally a Georgian estate belonging to an abolitionist and the manor house is still standing, now housing a cafe. Just some of the amenities of the park are a paddling pool, skate park, animal enclosure (there are goats! One is called Dylan!), tennis courts and well-equipped play park. The New River runs through the park, which stank a bit but looks very pretty, as well as the Capital Ring walking path. 

The only thing that stopped Stoke Newington from being my absolute perfect place to live is the transport options. The overground around the entire area wasn't working which meant either getting the bus or walking half an hour down to Dalston Junction. I suppose the lack of tube means that it can stay relatively unspoiled and un-touristy. There are a lot of buses, so it not completely cut off.

Pretty, hipster and interesting? Stoke Newington, I've got my eye on you.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

I'll live in Hampstead if you let me

Hampstead is an area I've heard about time and time again for being one of the loveliest neighbourhoods in London. Those people are not wrong. It has a village feel and would be simply wonderful to live in. It's full of  little shops, markets, cute side streets and is located right next to the Heath. There's only one catch: you pretty much have to be a millionaire to afford it.

I walked from Finchley Road station, which is only about fifteen minutes away from me on the tube, so I got to see quite a lot of the area. I also stumbled into a charity shop which had a load of cool, vintage dresses that would be great for fancy dress! It took about twenty minutes to walk, uphill mostly, and went from huge redbrick Victorian houses to chocolate box Georgian places once I got to the village. I've heard Hampstead is a bit 'yummy mummy' and I did indeed see a lot of prams and leaflets for children's activities. There were very few of the usual high street shops to be found, instead there were artisan bakeries and expensive designer boutiques.

 Once I wandered off the beaten track, I found more pretty houses and even a tiny little village green Ok, it was a patch of grass forming a triangle between two streets with two benches, some trees and a red phone box, but it felt a bit like a green! The further I walked away from the village and toward the Heath, the bigger the houses got. I found some that were set back from the street with gates and driveways. I even found the Grand Budapest Hotel!

The only downside to Hampstead (apart from the price) is that it didn't feel very 'happening'. I couldn't see many bars or arty type venues. I can imagine it would be the perfect place to raise kids, or if you want to get away from it all but still stay close to the action. With three train stations (two tube and one overground) in close proximity to each other, it's a really, really fantastic area of London. Unfortunately, I'm never going to live there. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The British Museum never loses its charm

A foggy day, in London town,
Had me low, had me down,
I viewed the morning, with much alarm,
The British Museum, had lost its charm

It was a grey, muggy day in London town but fortunately, for me, The British Museum never loses its charm. I followed the masses through the bag check area, up the steps where people were studiously ignoring the 'don't sit on the steps' sign and into the huge atrium. The British Museum is so big that you could spend a whole day and not experience it fully. If you don't know where you want to go, you could be aimlessly roaming the museum for hours. I knew where I was heading first: the Kings Library. 

The Kings Library room is pretty much my perfect library, with wood paneling, balconies and books stacked high as the ceiling. It used to house the books from the British Library, which has since moved to Kings Cross, so it isn't actually a library anymore. The books are all on loan and behind glass so you can't look at them and the main purpose of the room is an exhibition on the Enlightenment. 

After I'd exhausted that room, I made my way up the stairs to the Ancient Egypt area. It was boiling hot inside the museum, although luckily not as crowded as it usually is. I spent a bit of time looking at all the artifacts - really fascinating - and then went down to the section which houses the Rosetta Stone. Now, I know what a hugely significant object it is but I found it a little...underwhelming. It's always so crowded that it's difficult to get a good look at it and it's hidden behind a thick pane of glass. There are many other objects, such as the huge statue of Rameses II that I found much more impressive.

By this time I was getting thirsty and hot, so I decided to leave the rest of the museum for another day. I've been to the museum quite a number of times and still feel like I've barely scratched the surface. 

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Tea, cake and my new favourite place

In true English fashion I am a tea enthusiast. I mostly drink a variety of black teas but I'm rather partial to herbal and fruit ones these days too (but not green, I don't think anyone truly loves green tea). And what goes perfectly with tea? Why cake, of course!

I started my tea and cake journey accidentally, when my friend Anna (who had dragged me shopping on Oxford Street) announced that there was a bakery nearby that did a great chocolate cake. Eager to escape the shops - shopping is torturous when you have no money - and never one to turn down tea or cake, I dutifully followed Anna down to the Soho branch of Gail's Artisan Bakery.  It was a small bakery with minimalist decor - all exposed white brick walls, wooden tables and blue cups. I had recently eaten so instead of the heavier chocolate cake I opted for a sour cherry and dark chocolate scone with a pot of tea. The bigger cakes were quite pricey to eat in and while the scone was good, it wasn't amazing. Next time I go I think I'll try the chocolate cake.

Yesterday I was having a picnic in Green Park with a friend when it started to rain. Wondering where we could go that wasn't too far or too crowded, the thought of a tea room I'd seen years ago popped into my head. It was the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall, a place I'd walked past every day for two weeks when I was doing my Walker Books internship but had never gone in. It was only three stops away on the Victoria line and my memory from 2012 somehow led me to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and the darling tea room.

As soon as I stepped through the threshold I knew I'd found 'my' place. The interior was part old-fashioned study, part bric a brac store and totally me. A variety of board games were available to play, there was a stack of newspapers for reading and even a toy chest for the kids. It felt cluttered but in a deliberate way, as if this was part of the aesthetic rather than because they didn't know how to clean.

There was more food than just tea and cake on the menu, but those were the main attractions, with a huge list of different types of tea. The cakes were dotted around the cafe under glass domes and I spotted a delectable red velvet cake immediately. The specialty teas were also a bit on the steep side, with £6 for a personal pot or £9 to share. There was a good deal on the house tea, though - £8 for a pot for two plus a slice of cake (so the other person would only need to buy another slice of cake in theory) which we went for. I had the red velvet cake which was very sweet and very tasty. The pot was loose leaf and came with a knitted tea cosy. We spent a good few hours sipping tea and playing scrabble.

If the relaxed vibe and cute interior wasn't enough, they also have a cat! A shy little black and white thing, who twisted its way around the tables, ignoring the outstretched hand of every patron who tried to pet it. I'm not one to see a cat without stroking it, so I sort of lured it out and then forced my affection on it. It liked - well, tolerated - me in the end.

The Tea House Theatre also doubles for a performance venue, hence the 'theatre' in the name, with poetry readings, plays, dances and all sorts going on in the evenings. I'm definitely going to try to go to one of those events someday. It is one of those places I can see myself going back to again and again, each time bringing someone new to discover its quirky charm.