Sunday, October 15, 2006


So, you want to say ‘Thank You’ or ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Welcome’ or maybe just ‘Hello’ or ‘Mid-morning break!’. And you want to not just say it, but bake it. What could be better than a batch of homemade cookies?

Who can not like cookies?

(Not that I had anything in particular to say, just certain ingredients to use that lent themselves to cookie-cooking. But as soon as I had made them I thought, what a good little gift these would make... )

These particular cookies are from The Cook’s Book – one of those books with big photos of clear, numbered steps to perfection that almost makes you feel anything in the world – buying a house, finding a husband, upholstering chairs, solving the middle east crisis - should be perfectly simple if you just follow the nice, ordered steps properly.

Well, whilst this is obviously not the case, happily the cookies, although they don’t look much like the picture, do look strikingly gorgeous, once all steps have been properly adhered to. It’s just a matter of a simple dough mixture, which is chilled and then sliced. Maybe 20, 30 minutes to make, and 10-12 to bake.

This recipe makes about 30 large-ish cookies – plenty for giving and sharing. The original recipe was the chocolate-nut version, but I’ve included the other two varieties I tried – Chocolate Orange and Orange and Blueberry. The blueberry ones (below), due to more moist berries and less dry nuts, were a bit moister, cakier than the others. Still delicious, but in a less cookiesome way.

Cookies - Three Ways

150g (5½ oz) butter
1 tsp salt
240g (8½ oz) light muscovado sugar
2 eggs
225g (8 oz) flour (I found you needed actually a little bit more than this – experiment until the dough sticks; it doesn’t need to be dry but not too gloopy)
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda

For Choc-Nut variation
120g (4oz) chopped nuts (hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, macadamias, whatever you fancy)
240g (8½ oz) really good chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids – I used Green and Black’s cooking chocolate)

For Choc-Orange variation
Finely grated zest of two large oranges
240g (8½ oz) really good chocolate

For Orange-Blue variation
Finely grated zest of two large oranges
Two handfuls of frozen blueberries

1. Cream the butter, sugar and salt together until light and fluffy
2. Mix in the eggs one at a time until well combined
3. At the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and which ever of the additional bits you are using (chocolate etc. )
4. When it is mixed into a dough scrape it into a ball with your hands then roll out into a sausage shape about 5cm in diameter
5. Wrap in foil or cling film and put in the fridge for at least 2 hours (you can leave it overnight if you want to prepare a day ahead)
6. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4
7. Cut the dough into 1cm thick slices, put on a greased tray and bake for 10-12 minutes until just golden brown
8. Cool on a rack

NB - The first batch I made I had no bicarb, and they came out pretty crunchy. The second, with bicarb were more spongy and soft. Neither had that perfect balance the book described of being ‘crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle’ so I’d advise on adjusting your bicarb and baking powder levels – less for those who like a little crunch and more for those of you in the soft cookie camp.

In all of the unlikely places...

It's an inauspicious kind of corner - opposite the bright lights of the Windmill Fish Bar, and continually subject to the waxing and waning roar of Kennington Lane. There's a Pizza Express round the corner, a couple of estate agents and a smattering of shops and eateries, but Kennington is not the kind of place which would inspire anyone not within walking distance to proclaim, "hey, let's go there for the evening!"

However, Franklin's, perched on said corner, is the kind of place which should make people want to come to Kennington. Once you're off the busy street it's calm and classy, without being fancy - subdued colours, matching modern prints adorning the walls, simple paper tablecloths and cute thistles instead of flowers.

The menu is changed daily, presented on a printed sheet of paper (as above - apologies for no better photos - I forgot to take my camera!). It's that rare thing - 'modern British' which really is modern British - made with local, seasonal produce, creative and yet with references to older times and traditions.

You know how you don't know what you've got til it's gone? Well, also I think sometimes we also don't know what we've lost til we find it again. In this case, good service. It's so long since I had genuinely good service in a restaurant that I think I had forgotten what it is. Not just polite and efficient, but genuine enjoyment and involvement; basically making it a profession, an artform, rather than the lowly service job it's often treated as. Both our waiter and waitress were helpful ad knowledgable without being patronising, friendly without being overbearing and enthusiastic without being fake.

This was just one aspect in which you could tell someone had had a vision of everything this restaurant should be and had made it. You could see it in the homemade bread and the good, sweet butter (attention to detail!), in the careful decoration, and not least in the food.

I had two starters, as last time I had a proper meal out I could barely even make a dent in my main course - better to err on the side of the caution and make sure there's room for pudding. It was the right thing to do. After the stuffed squid and breast of lamb I was quite full and not in need of pudding at all, although of course I couldn't say no…

But back to the starters; the squid was a tiny bit rubbery, as squid can be, but I don't think it was the cooking, just its inherent texture. The stuffing seemed pretty simple - tomato-y and chilli-y - but somehow had much more depth than I would have imagined, so that every mouthful was as bright and fresh and interesting as the last.
The breast of lamb was presented somewhat peculiarly - five cuboid fingers, crunchy in breadcrumbs and fried, aside a spoonful of obviously homemade piccalilli. Again, it was packed with flavour; like the 'lambness' had been distilled, and was rich and delicious, nicely complemented by the sharp piccalilli.

B had potted mackerel with toast. Not too dissimilar to a mackerel pate - more chunk and oily and with a slightly more subtle flavour than the smoked variety. The aged sirloin that followed, accompanied by wild mushrooms, was humungous - no other word would do. A solid, substantial slab of meat. It wasn't the best steak I've ever sampled, but pretty damn good (one slight quirk - the waiters don't ask how you'd like it cooked as the chefs want to do it their way. I guess that's fair enough that they want you to eat it how they plan it - which luckily was medium rare, but most people are just used to being able to have steak to their taste).

So, completely stuffed, we recklessly decided to ignore our moaning bellies and sample the pudding menu too. I can't refuse an apple crumble, and wasn't let down by their very apply, crunchy, muscovado-flavoured version (with extra-thick cream; almost like clotted) and B discovered a new ice-cream flavour - quince, which tasted a bit like mincemeat to me, or something kind of spicy, but very nice all the same.

The only downside to all this was that unaccustomed to such quantities of rich food, our stomachs somewhat incapacitated us - you know that completely too full feeling, where you just have to rest and let your body concentrate itself on digestion?

But, questionable gluttony aside, it was a 5-star meal; and a restaurant I would certainly like to go back to, even if I didn't live just around the corner.

NB - we paid £67 for three courses each, with drinks. They do a set course lunch Monday to Saturday until 5pm which is very good value at around £11 for two courses or £15 for three.

This is yum

I've been having a bit of a love affair with feta recently. Somehow the sharp, salty creaminess seems to be the perfect candidate for a number of culinary vacancies - finishing off a sandwich, melting onto toast, making up a simple salad.

This particular salad is the latest reason why I adore it. It's nothing special, no fancy ingredients, or techniques. But it is yum...

Feta, Avocado and Fennel salad

It's just that:
Feta (cubed)
Fennel (sliced)
and Avocado (ripe and cubed)
with a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

What Valerie did next...

Shortly after I first came to London (almost exactly six years ago as it happens), I started a mental list of 'London things I want to do'.

I can't remember the bulk of them now, but I do know one was to have breakfast in Patisserie Valerie.

Patisserie Valerie sits on Old Compton Street, and every time I was going one way or the other along that busy Soho thoroughfare, I made sure to slow down and allow myself the childish pleasure of nose-to-glass cake-gawping... The window under the awning is always full of magnificently frilly chocolate creations; cakes upon which dancing girls of icing shake multiple skirts; hosts of fruit tarts; a plethora of pastries; outrageously decadent gelatined creamy creations... It's a wonderland.

It wasn't until about two years ago that I actually managed to tick that ambition of the list though. One morning, Shelley and I were in town at just about the right time for breakfast and just about the right place for Valerie's.

So we entered the narrow little room and settled ourselves in a dated looking table near the back. I had poached eggs on toast, I had some fragrant tea, I had the thickest hot chocolate I've ever had, and if memory serves correct, I washed it all down with one of the preposterously pretty fruit tarts. Shell was a willing accomplice in gluttony, so between us we sampled a fair proportion of the menu, including taking extra cakes with us (in a pleasingly salmon pink box) 'for later'.

It was everything I had thought it would be.

Later, I had reason to have briefer and less exciting dalliances with other branches of the small chain. Cream tea on a winter's day, and various little tarts bought here and there. A treat to be sure, but with none of the magic of the original Soho branch.

Most recently Little Sister Saucepan and I sat down for a post-shopping pot of tea at the Kings Road branch, and proceeded to wait 20 minutes to have our order taken. After we'd waited another 5 or 10 for the tea, with no apologies forthcoming, we walked out and took our custom elsewhere.

So it's with mixed feelings that I greet the news that Patisserie Valerie has been sold (or at least enough of it to matter). It has been acquired by Risk Capital Partners of which Luke Johnson, already chairman of Channel 4, and now also of Valerie's, is a member. Johnson has been involved with the development of Belgo, Pizza Express, Strada and Giraffe, and is evidently expecting Valerie to follow the same style of domination.

According to the Times, "The first outlet [of Patisserie Valerie] opened in Frith Street, Soho, in 1926, when the Belgian-born Madame Valérie decided to introduce continental patisserie to the English. It moved around the corner to its present location in Old Compton Street after those premises were destroyed in the Blitz.

"The decor of the site is a holdover from the 1950s, complete with Toulouse-Lautrec cartoons. Since 1987 Patisserie Valerie has been owned by the Scalzo brothers, Enzo, Robert and Victor, who have turned the business into a chain of 11 cafés, all in London, including three franchised outlets.

"The sale process is understood to have been sparked by a difference of opinion between the eldest Scalzo, Enzo, and Robert and Victor, who are twins, over the best way forward for the business."

It seems to me that this recent development is in many ways but a consolidation of what was already happening. Although the Old Compton Street original seemed to retain much of its charm and integrity the process of branching out was already producing paler versions, cliches, clones. And now there will just be that many more of them.

I can't get that misty-eyed for the old Valerie, because I have only known it since it started expanding, and no doubt it will be a reliable-enough place to stop for an (expensive) cup of tea and a confection, as chains tend to be. But what chains can't provide is the magic and mystery of a place with its own history, which the original little VAlerie still clung on to.

No doubt also it will be a valuable asset for Mr Johnson, but I for one will endeavour not to contribute to his profit, and look instead for more exciting, singular little places - places to put on a wishlist, to aspire to, not to pass by with the same 'see it a million times' nonchalance with which we must view 90% of our modern high streets.