Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cauliflower soup with cheese balls: could there be a better food for winter?

I've been finding this winter difficult so far. It is hard to believe that it's been little over a month since my boyfriend and I got back from our trip to the UK in mid October feeling full of optimistic energy and plans for the future. Since then, we've had the October bank holiday, the turning back of the clocks and the real onset of winter. This has meant a lot of dark evenings and Atlantic storms here in Dingle and it's been a struggle to stay energetic and resist the urge to hibernate.

On top of all that, any attempts I have made to put the plans we hatched on holiday into motion have met with obstacles. So far this winter, it has been quite the challenge to keep a smile on my face and stay optimistic.

This is where comfort food comes in and the dish I have to share with you today is my idea of a hug in a mug. It combines the flavours of cauliflower cheese with the wholesomeness and warmth of soup - it's just what I needed to cheer me up this afternoon.

If you too need some comfort food to cheer you on this winter's day, here's what you need to do.

Cauliflower soup with cheese balls
This serves four. It's incredibly easy to make and takes all of twenty minutes.

Ingredients for the soup:
50g butter
1 large potato, peeled and cubed
1 onion, finely chopped
1 litre/2 pints vegetable stock
500g/1lb cauliflower florets 
Salt and pepper

Ingredients for the cheese balls:
50ml/2 fl.oz. milk
30g flour
1 egg beaten
20g grated cheddar cheese 

  • Melt half of the butter in a large pain and fry the onion and the potato for 3 minutes.

  • Add the stock and the cauliflower florets and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender.
  • While the soup is simmering, make the puffs. Preheat your oven to 220 C/430 F. Melt the milk and the remaining butter in a saucepan.
  • When it has melted,add the flour all at once.  Stir the mixture until it forms into a ball that comes away from the sides of the pan. 
  • Take it off the heat. Allow to cool. Then stir in the egg and cheese.
  • Transfer the mixture to a piping bag with a small nozzle. Squeeze onto a baking sheet, making small mounds that are at least one inch apart. Sprinkle with some sea salt and extra grated cheese for even more yuminess.
  • Bake in the oven for five to six minutes until they have risen and turned a golden colour.
  • Finish the soup while they are cooking. Puree your mixture, saving a few florets to use as a garnish. Season with salt, pepper and some freshly grated nutmeg (ground is fine too) according to your own taste.  
  • Ladle the soup into your soup bowls and garnish with your cheese balls, cauliflower florets and even more grated cheese.

Sit back and savour your hug in a mug.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why do we love Italian food so? Two cookbooks give us the answer

Everyone seems to love Italian food. Even people who don't consider themselves foodies will have eaten pizza and their store cupboards will contain the likes of pasta and tinned tomatoes. This is a cuisine that has won over the taste buds of the world...

Perhaps this is why there is a constant stream of Italian cookbooks on the market and it might also be why two of them arrived in my postbox recently (one courtesy of
Quadrille Publishing and the other a prize in a competition run by the very lovely Irish Food Bloggers' Association).

 Neither could be classed as a typical cookbook. The first - The Real Flavour of Tuscany - is very unusual. Its subtitle - Portraits & Recipes from 25 of Tuscany's Culinary Artisans - already gives you a hint that it is far more than a collection of recipes 

Instead, it gives an insight into the cooking culture of this region through the eyes of some of its most celebrated food producers.

There's chef Gianluca Paoli who rises at 6am to heat his 200-year-old cast iron stove so that it will be hot enough to cook his famous arista (or roast pork loin). Gianluca tells of how he became a cook and describes what he calls the 'traditional but extraordinary' food he aims to cook in his Florentine restaurant. He also shares some of these recipes, including the one for that fabulous pork.

There's beekeeper Roberto Ballini who recommends his chestnut honey to be served with pecorino cheese and figs.

There's 70-year-old shepherd Salvatore and his son Giovanni. Salvatore has tended his flock of sheep since the age of seven and now Giovanni makes all sorts of cheese from their milk. The pair share recipes for simple dishes such as braised red peppers.  

There are many others. Massimo Biagi grows 800 different types of chilli and tells us how to cook the classic spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli flakes. There's a young farmer who grows olives, saffron and irises. He gives a recipe for saffron chicken, which is the only dish I have yet to cook from this book and which was tender, flavoursome and simple.

Each of the stories make you hunger to visit Tuscany and devour its food. Reading about beans being fed, one by one, into an empty potbellied bottle of wine, covered with water and flavoured with sage, garlic, salt, peppercorns and olive oil and then left to simmer in the dying embers of the fire overnight made me want to hop on the next plane to Italy. Seeing as that was impossible, the next best thing was being given some recipes to try in my own kitchen in Dingle. 

This book demonstrates just why Italian cuisine has become so popular. It's a peasant cuisine that is based on fine, simple ingredients that have been cooked by people with an awareness of tradition and a respect for quality. I have yet to finish reading about the different food producers in this book as I'm savouring their stories. And I have yet to cook anything apart from the saffron chicken. But that was so good that I'm looking forward to cooking much more.

The second book - Dunne and Crescenzi - is different again.
In 1999, a café and deli specialising in Italian food opened on South Frederick Street in Dublin and it has since become hugely popular with fans of Italian food and wine in the city. I have never visited it but I have heard tell of the quality of the food here: food that is local, seasonal and always of the highest quality and food that brings together the best of Irish with the best Italian products and the traditions of Italian cuisine.

The book is divided into chapters based on a traditional Italian menu. There are antipasti such as the irresistible sounding buffalo mozzarella, aubergine and prawn stack.

There are soups which range from a simple minestrone to a butternut squash, scallop and almond soup.  

 Salad options include such tempting treats as warm chicken salad with pancetta and peppers and orange and fennel salad. This section of the book also includes useful recipes for dressings, sauces and reductions.

Next up is the primi piatti or recipes for pastas and risottos and gnocchi. This book tells you how to make fresh pasta as well as how to create dishes like spinach and ricotta tortelli with parmagiano cream and balsamic reduction. There are simpler dishes too like penne with tomato, garlic and chilli. 

 Main courses range from pan-fried hake with cherry tomatoes to more impressive dishes like chicken roulade with mortadella (a type of salami), spinach and pine nuts.  

There are also side dishes – contorni – such as courgettes with leeks, raisins and pine nuts.  

Finally, there are desserts which include classics such as tiramisu and pannacotta and lesser known favourites such as ricotta and cherry tart or limoncello and peach cake.

The last few pages of the book are made up of a page on coffee and what the Italian terms for coffee mean; a page on wine; and nine pages of suggestions for wines to go with each of the different recipes.

With its easy to follow recipes, its full-page colour photographs, chatty introduction to each section and wine suggestions; this is a book that makes up for the fact that I've yet to visit this popular Dublin eatery. It makes me want to eat there the next time I'm in the city but in the meantime, I can practice recreating their food at home. 

 The Real Flavour of Tuscany by Lori De Mori and Jason Lowe and Dunne and Crescenzi by Eileen Dunne Crescenzi are cookbooks which show just why the world continues to have such a love affair with Italian food.

Addendum: last night, I made a leek and winter squash risotto from The Real Flavour of Tuscany and it was the perfect winter warming dish for a November's evening.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My name is Sharon and I believe in cake

I'm a life-long believer in the power of cake. A slice of cake, with or without cream or ice cream, always makes me feel better, no matter what the situation.

If you stop to think about it, you'll realise that there's a cake for every occasion. There are birthday cakes with their crowns of flickering candles. There are show-stopper cakes that serve as grand finales at special dinner parties. And there are cakes for days like today, days that are crisp with the onset of winter and that seem made for the indulgence of afternoon tea.

Cakes like this French apple cake which is bursting with seasonal flavour. Its comforting sweetness is balanced by the slight sourness of the Bramley apples and the gentle spice of the nutmeg. I can't think of a better cake to accompany a cup of tea on an afternoon in November.

Here's what you need to make this cake:

First layer:
450g/1lb Bramley apples or other cooking apples, peeled and cored
115g/4oz/1 cup self-raising flour

5ml/1tsp baking powder

115g caster sugar

90ml/6tbsp milk

50g/2oz/4 tbsp butter, melted

2 eggs

5ml/1tsp fresh nutmeg, grated

Second layer:
75g/3oz/6tbsp butter, at room temperature 

115g/4oz/a half cup caster sugar

5ml/1tsp vanilla essence 

1 egg


  • Preheat the oven to 160 C/325 F/Gas 3.
  • Grease and line the base of a 23cm/9in round cake tin

  • Weigh your ingredients and chop your apples into chunks. Lay them on the bottom of the lined tin.

  • Put all of the remaining ingredients for the first layer of your cake into a bowl or food processor and beat to a smooth batter.
  • Pour the batter over the apples in the tin and level the top with a spoon.
  • Bake in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes, until the top has become golden.
  • Meanwhile, cream the ingredients for the second layer together.  
  • Remove the cake from the oven and spoon over the creamed mixture.
  • Return to the oven and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes until the top is golden brown.
  • Allow the cake to cool in the tin and when it's ready to eat, you'll have all you need for the perfect afternoon tea. A soft luscious layer of apple sponge topped with a crispy layer that has become deliciously chewy around the edges.
  • Serve with cream, ice cream or even just a cup of tea. Sit back and savour what might just be a perfect moment.

This cake keeps well for a few days; its sponge layer becoming denser and more custard like while its top layer retains that sugary crunch. Yum!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Spuntino: a taste of London

There are times that I envy Londoners. I envy their shops, their shows, their museum exhibitions, their nightlife and most particularly their food.
In the past decade or so, London has become one of the foodie hot spots of the world. With its strong immigrant traditions and its growing respect for home-grown British food; the city now has so many tempting places to eat. From fish and chip shops, pie shops and noodle bars to tapas bars, sushi bars and Michelin-starred wonders; there’s something for every appetite in this city.

This is why I have a growing list of places I’d like to eat in London typed into my phone. So, whenever I find myself in the city, all I have to do is consult my list in order to choose where I’d like to have my lunch or dinner.

On a recent trip to London, I paid a visit to Spuntino. London-based bloggers had been talking about this place for months so I had to check it out for myself.

It’s in Soho and has such an unassuming exterior that if you didn’t know its exact address, you’d be very likely to just walk right past it. But don’t do this!

You may not spot it straightaway but the restaurant's name 'Spuntino' is scrawled on the bottom left-hand corner of the panel above the door. That's how low-key/wannabe cool this place actually is!

Spuntino has a no-bookings policy so you may have to wait for a while for a seat. Fortunately for us, it was a quiet time of day so we had plenty of seats to choose from.

The décor of the interior is interesting, with a Dustbowl-America-meets-hipster-London sort of feel. Most of the seating is at the bar, which is made to feel like an American diner, with some tables for more private dining at the back of the room. There are distressed tiles on the walls, low-hanging lights and staff with elaborate haircuts and tattoos.  

But I’m sure you mostly want to hear about the food. They’ve done away with the concept of starters and mains at Spuntino. Instead, it’s all about finger food, little plates of food that are designed to be mixed and matched – and shared, if at all possible.

With dishes ranging in price from £3 to £10 and most hovering around the £5 mark, it’s possible to taste quite a lot of the menu at just one sitting.

Which is exactly what we did but choosing what we wanted to eat wasn’t so easy. The menu here is a mixture of classic Americana, British comfort food and modern British cuisine. This means that you'll find yourself wavering between macaroni and cheese, egg and soldiers and a fennel, radicchio, hazelnut and truffle salad. What should you choose when everything sounds so tasty?

We were given a cup of chilli popcorn while we deliberated over our order. Served in an enamel cup (everything here is served in enamel dishes in keeping with the Depression-era theme), it was a nice touch but the popcorn was a little oily for my taste. That’s not to say that I didn’t eat it all though!

One thing was for sure. We had to try the dish that the restaurant has become famous for: its truffled egg toast. I’d heard so much about this thick slice of white bread, topped with melted cheese and truffle oil with a runny egg yolk in the middle that I had to have it.  

But, oh dear, I was every so slightly disappointed. The bread was a little stale, which made chewing it hard work and I found the whole dish a little too oily. Having already had oily popcorn, I began to worry that the entire meal was going to disappoint.

Thankfully, it didn’t. The pulled pork and pickled apple slider (a bite-sized burger) was a hit; its spiced meat contrasting nicely with the the fruit.  

The beetroot and anchovy salad served with a soft-boiled egg was the highlight of the entire meal. The earthy sweetness of the beetroot, the saltiness of the anchovy and the runny eggs made for a great combination and one I'll definitely have to try at home.

The softshell crab served with Tabasco aioli was another success. The crab had a deep smoky taste and a satisfying crunch that worked well with the spicy mayonnaise and the crisp fennel salad it was served with.

We also had purple sprouting broccoli served with romesco sauce. The kitchen fell down here again as a lot of the broccoli was barely cooked. In fact, it was nearly raw but the nutty romesco sauce made for a great accompaniment. I’d have eaten it on its own.

Finally, for dessert, we shared a brown sugar cheesecake served with drunken plums. I loved this. The deep complex sweetness of the brown sugar worked perfectly with the rich creaminess of cheesecake. The only thing that would have improved the dish would have been more booze in the plums. They would have benefited from a longer soaking in the brandy they tasted so faintly of.

My verdict on Spuntino? There were some misses but it was mostly a hit. It's definitely worth a visit if you want to soak up the atmosphere of a cool part of London and taste food that is trying to be different and is mostly great.
It's reasonably priced too. We had six dishes to share, two bottles of sparkling water and coffee for £43.

Spuntino. 61 Rupert Street, London, W1D 7PW.

Mon - Sat: 11am to midnight
Sunday: noon to 11pm

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

FoodCamp Kilkenny: a celebration of Irish food but some words of caution too

What is Irish food? What are the traditions of its past, the state of its present and what can we expect from its future?

These were among the many questions asked at FoodCamp, an event held as part of the Savour Kilkenny Food Festival last Friday. This event brought together food producers, retailers, food writers, bloggers, food organisations such as Bórd Bia and lots of other people with an interest in food - asking them all to take a long and hard look at Irish food today.

Various people had volunteered to give talks throughout the day and I attended talks by:

1. Colin Jephson of Ardkeen Foodstore and John McCarthy of Trail Kilkenny Food. They spoke about the importance of retailers supporting local producers and how both sectors can best benefit from each other. As I'm currently trying to decide how I should move my cupcake business forward, this was of great interest to me.

2. William Despard of the
Bretzel Bakery in Dublin's Portobello spoke of his passion for 'real bread'. His bakery has been producing high-quality breads in its brick-lined ovens since 1870 and he can't understand why so many Irish people choose to eat mass-produced slice pan instead. He demonstrated the strength of his opposition to such bread by pucking sliced pan across the room with a hurley!

William demonstrates the superior quality of his breads. This was before he hit the sliced pan!

3. Next up was my first encounter with the Dungarvan Brewing Company. I had heard so much about their beers but had never tasted them. A cheese and beer tasting session sounded like just the thing to remedy that situation! 
Claire Dalton introduced the company and told us a little about its history while Helen Finnegan from Knockdrinna Cheese cut up slices of her washed rind goat's cheese for us to try.
"The French peasant tradition might have been to eat wine and cheese together," said Claire. "Here in Ireland, we had no wine but we did have beer and it tastes just as good with cheese as wine does."
And so it did. The Copper Coast red ale cut through the creaminess of the cheese and made for a great match. I'm definitely going to be trying both again.

4. Journalist Suzanne Campbell spoke on the topic 'What's Ireland Eating?'. This was a thought-provoking talk that focussed on how our choices as consumers affect Irish food producers and our health in the long term. There is a price to pay for cheap food and it's important that we all consider just what that price is and who has to pay it.

Suzanne being very serious indeed.

Then, we broke for lunch and what a lunch it was. Everyone had brought something to share and four tables groaned with the different offerings. Pies, smoked trout, cheese, salads, cakes, cookies, brownies... There was so much to choose from that people went back for seconds, thirds and more.

Bellies full, it was time for more talks. The Irish Food Bloggers' Association met to discuss plans for its future. Having been established at last year's FoodCamp, Kristen and Caroline were keen to hear people's suggestions as to how it could go forward. Basically, the consensus was that people were delighted with all they had done to date and wanted more of the same. More events and perhaps even an Irish Bloggers' Conference in 2012 - I'll keep you posted!

Finally, it was time for the Food Fight. Chaired by John McKenna of the Bridgestone Guide, two teams debated whether traditional Irish cuisine was an embarrassment or an embarrasment of riches.
The speakers included, from left to right: Seamus Sheridan of Sheridan Cheesemongers; Catherine Cleary, food writer with The Irish Times; Birgitta Curtin of the Burren Smokehouse; John McKenna; Coleman Andrews, journalist and food writer par extraordinaire; Suzanne Campbell; and Regina Sexton, food historian and food writer.

The points they made were wide ranging, challenging and interesting. They recognised the problems of the past and how our attitude to and appreciation of food has been affected by British colonisation, the Great Famine and the austerity preached by the Catholic Church. (It's not very holy to enjoy one's dinner. It's much better for your soul to subsist on black tea and toast, was the main message here.)

They discussed the changes that are happening now; how we are realising that we have a virtually pristine environment producing world-class food such as lobster, seaweed, beef and dairy. We'd already tasted some of these foods during the day and chatted to the passionate people producing them and the retailers who are promoting them so we didn't need much convincing of this.
Catherine Cleary discussed the chefs who are building on this sense of appreciation of what's native and good. Her eyes lit up as she described a creamed corn soup cooked by Ross Lewis and a meal eaten in Aniar in Galway.

The overall consensus was that we're at a good place now. More of us recognise the value of what we've got and want to celebrate it. But there were warning voices too. There was Alfie McCaffrey of OldFarm Pork who spoke about the dangers of genetically-modified food and how Irish farmers should take a stand against it. Suzanne Campbell warned of the lax regulations in labelling and retail and how that works against a quality product. Both emphasised that while we have food to celebrate, we need to do more to protect it.

It was a lady (whose name I didn't catch but who was from Bórd Bia, I think) that made one of the most salient points of all. They conducted a survey asking people unfamiliar with Irish food which cuisine they would most associate it with. The majority chose Japanese sushi because they considered Irish food to be pure, chemical free food of the highest quality.

We need to do our best to keep it that way.