Flirting with Flavour


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Pocono Blueberry Muffins

I moved home last month.  Suddenly the year in London that had seemed such a long time came to a close.  Bags and boxes packed and shipped, doors locked for the last time behind me, a taxi ride across town to the Heathrow Express with MC beside me clutching our “travelling hamper” passed from Maria, to me, and now to another Maria, a last emigration through security into Terminal 5, 7 ½ hours of reading, writing, and fitful sleep interspersed with conversation with my neighbour (because I seem to have that look that welcomes strangers to converse with me), and I was running into my mom’s arms at the airport, encouraging her to speed down the highway so I could climb into my bed at last.  Of course, always on the move, I only spent two nights at home before hopping in the car to drive up to New York for a good friend’s wedding and from there to the Poconos for my annual siesta by the lake.

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This year was different, however.  This year, added to the leaps and bounds of Rascal greeting me upon arrival were the faces of three of my cousins, whom I had not seen in over 5 years.  I must admit to a wee bit of apprehension.  Knowing that I was no longer the same little girl who had frolicked with them in Bermuda, I wondered what had changed for them.  I needn’t have worried, though, because family is family.  Our last memories of spending time together may have been growing dusty in the backs of our minds, but it didn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter.  Squinting over puzzle boards, helping me remember words forgotten in my state of dissertation-weariness, plucking blueberries off the bush in front of the cabin and then working together to turn them into delectable muffins.  We no longer have to search in the recesses of memory, we have living memories now.  It is a beautiful thing and I am grateful for it.

But now, this is a food blog, so where’s the food?  Every food has a story, and as one friend recently pointed out to me, the experience and people are just as important as the food itself.  So, today, after a long hiatus (sorry about that – dissertation and moving took a lot out of me!), I thought what better way to restart than with, you guessed it, blueberry muffins!

For me, summer isn’t summer without blueberries.  And while, in recent years I have become slightly obsessed with blueberry cornmeal pancakes, and blueberry pie is undoubtedly the queen of summer delicacies, blueberry muffins are the unsung heroes.  So simple that even in a sparsely outfitted summer kitchen you can find the ingredients, yet so delicious that it really takes all the restraint one can manage not to finish the entire batch in one sitting.  Fresh from the oven.  Still steaming.  With the blueberries barely cooled enough to not burn at the touch.  There were four of us, after all… but we did manage to restrain ourselves, so we could enjoy the fruits of our labour the next day, and the next.  And you know what, they might be even better reheated in the toaster oven!

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With 2 cups of blueberries, these muffins are really all about the blueberries.  My mom exclaimed excitedly (and with mouth full) that she had never had such blueberry-y blueberry muffins!  I usually use muffin tin liners, but since we didn’t have any, we buttered the muffin tins and I must say, I may never use liners again.  The result was that not only the tops got crisp on the outside, but the bottoms too, which helped to seal in the moisture for a nice spongy interior.  I also decided to throw in some cornmeal the second time I made these, because, why not?

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Blueberry Muffins
From Food52

Makes 12-16 muffins

Ingredients:

2 2/3 cups flour (I subbed 1 cup cornmeal for 1 cup of the flour)
2 2/3 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 cup sugar, scant (you can also use a sugar substitute, like coconut sugar and it is possibly even more delicious, because it acts like a brown sugar and caramalises)
4 TBSP melted butter, slightly cooled (or canola oil – I can never be bothered to melt and cool butter and canola works just as well)
1 egg
1 cup milk
2 cups fresh blueberries

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 425F (218C) and line muffin tin with cups or butter/spray the tin well.
  2. Mix the dry ingredients together in a medium bowl (you will be adding the wet ingredients to this). Then mix together the butter, egg and milk, and add to the flour mixture, mixing quickly with a fork.
  3. Fold in the blueberries.
  4. Divide the batter between the muffin cups.
  5. Bake 18-20 minutes.


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London’s Best (mostly gluten free) Cupcakes

In honour of a certain person’s upcoming visit, I have decided to share my list of the top cupcakes in London with you all.  For those of you who, like me, have to stay away from either wheat or gluten, I hope this helps you take full advantage of all London’s many bakeries have to offer.  Only a couple years ago it was next to impossible to find gluten free cupcakes in this city.   I am happy to report that not only have they become more prevalent, they are also steadily increasing in quality, so you can actually find absolutely delicious (and regret-free) cupcakes, as well as many other baked goods!  Trust me, I know that feeling of jubilation that comes when you notice that single option among 20 in a coffee shop that you can eat.  Even if you’re not hungry, or it’s not the flavour you were craving, you’ll probably buy it (proof – I bought Caffe Nero‘s new rye carrot cake last weekend. It was actually pretty good… but that could be the joy of being able to buy a cafe treat speaking).  The cupcakes below warrant more than the surprise-buy, they deserve cupcake-specific trips, I promise!  And if a state of euphoria ensues, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you… 🙂

By the way – these are in no particular order.  Because most bakeries only do 1 gluten free option, where you go and which you choose will depend on your mood!

Primrose Bakery

Their Primrose Hill location is the original (and source of their name), but they now also have a small storefront in Covent Garden that is the perfect location for that sweet treat after (or before!) a long day of studying.  A deliciously dense flourless chocolate cake is available everyday and most days they also have a chocolate almond cake (sold by the slice) or cupcakes.  On some special occasions they switch it up and make some of their signature flavours with a gluten free base, such as rose!  I know I said these aren’t in any particular order, but Primrose is probably my favourite bakery in London.  For my birthday, B “surprised” me with a custom decorated chocolate almond cake.  It really is everything you could want in a chocolate cake.  Dark, dense, moist, and CHOCOLATY.  The almond gives the crumb a really nice texture and complements the dark chocolate beautifully.  I have snuck bites of their non-gluten free selections and would readily recommend them as well.  The violet cupcake was particularly special, with violet permeating the cake and the frosting.  I have really never had anything quite like it.

birthday cake from primrose bakery!

birthday cake from primrose bakery!

chocolate almond cupcake from primrose bakery

chocolate almond cupcake from primrose bakery

primrose bakery storefront in primrose hill

primrose bakery storefront in primrose hill

Hummingbird Bakery

Red velvet has been my favourite cupcake, since discovering Red Velvet Cupcakery with my aunt back in early 2009 (they remain, btw, my favourite cupcake shop).  I had yet to find one, though, that was gluten free, until last fall, that is, when P surprised me with a box of four of Hummingbird‘s gluten free red velvet cupcakes.  When I first saw the box I must admit I started running through all the various excuses I could make to not try one in front of him, fearing  they were probably regular cupcakes and while they looked gorgeous, I did not want to risk eating the wheat.  When P informed me that they were gluten free, a lot of jumping, screaming, and hugging ensued.  Yes, all for the cupcakes.  The frosting is a tad too sweet for me – they could do with making it more “cream-cheesy”, but they are delicious and certainly satisfy my craving for a good gluten free red velvet cupcake, when I don’t feel like baking them!  Hummingbird also sells vanilla cupcakes with either vanilla or chocolate frosting as part of their “made without” range.  And if you give them enough advance notice they’ll bake you pretty much anything special order.  Primrose (above) and Bea’s (below) do the same.

cakes in the window at hummingbird bakery in south kensington

cakes in the window at hummingbird bakery in south kensington

outside hummingbird bakery's south kensington shop

outside hummingbird bakery’s south kensington shop

Bea’s of Bloomsbury

One cloudy afternoon last September, after a long day of stressful and exhausting flat hunting, I convinced B & P to peak into the Bea’s on Theobald’s Rd.  I’d read about it, I said, but hadn’t had the opportunity to try anything from them yet.  We obviously ended up sitting down (a much needed break!) and I ordered their gluten free chocolate cupcake.  I have since had it numerous times as part of their full afternoon tea, which by the way, is definitely one of the best (and most fun) afternoon tea options in London.  One word – ganache.  The frosting on their chocolate cupcake is not just any old frosting, it is a deep, dark chocolate ganache.

afternoon tea at bea's of bloomsbury (st paul's)

afternoon tea at bea’s of bloomsbury (st paul’s)

The Freefrom Bakehouse

Considering my frequent visits to Borough Market and self-professed love for red velvet cupcakes, it is surprising that I did not try the Freefrom Bakehouse‘s red velvet cupcake sooner.  Boy am I glad I tried it now, though, instead of waiting until I was about to leave London.  Hummingbird’s is great (and available from their various locations every day), but theirs is the best I have had aside from Red Velvet Cupcakery’s in DC.  The frosting actually tastes like cream cheese (thank you!) and the cake, well it’s moist and the perfect median between dense and light crumb.  Best of all?  It does not taste like it’s gluten free!  All too often gluten free baked goods end up tasting grainy and like something is missing.  Well, it is.  Flour.  But none of the cakes, cookies, and other treats from Freefrom taste like that.  They all stand up on their own, indistinguishable from their flour-full counterparts.  It is well worth tracking down these guys at either Borough or any of the other markets and festivals they set up at.  And don’t wait as long as I did!  Go now!

Violet

I read about Violet (Claire Ptak, founder of Violet, worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley before moving to London) and stumbled upon it at the Broadway Market two years ago.  In that instance I took home a variety of their cupcakes/babycakes – salted caramel cupcake, chocolate cupcake, flourless chocolate babycake, almond and polenta rhubarb babycake – and was blown away.  I was subsequently inspired to make my own version of the almond polenta cake (it’s naturally gluten free!), though I still need to perfect that recipe.  It has taken me two years to get back to visit their stall at Broadway and this time I came away with their spelt and vegan chocolate cupcake with violet frosting.  Warning, this one is not gluten free (in fact, spelt has a higher gluten content than wheat flour does).  The spelt flour gives it a gentle nuttiness that compliments the dark chocolate cake, which is delightfully moist.  And the violet frosting, well, it’s perfectly sweet and somehow manages to stay way from the risk of seeming like you’re eating potpourri.  Then again, I would expect nothing less from a Chez Panisse alumna.  They are at Broadway Market every Saturday and their storefront on Wilton Way is open Tues-Sun.

selection of violet cakes

selection of violet cakes

violet cakes

violet cakes

almond + polenta rhubarb babycake

almond + polenta rhubarb babycake


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Moving/Halloween

Moving.  The process of packing your entire life into boxes, shipping them off into the ether, with fingers crossed that they will make it back to you in the new flat, in the new life.  This past June I fit the past four years into thirteen boxes.  At the time I was equally horrified at how many material goods I had somehow managed to pick up at uni and shocked that four of the most formative years in my life could so easily disappear inside the uniformity of a brown cardboard box.  Then, of course, there’s the wake up call of those thirteen boxes showing up on your doorstep and having to unpack them.  What on earth do I have that could take up thirteen boxes?!  Why couldn’t I have been more effective in culling my belongings??  Do I really need all this stuff?  Maybe I should just ditch it all and live out of a minimalist suitcase for the rest of my life.  This last thought was especially appealing as I saw how easily my flatmate, B, fit her two suitcases of clothes into her closet.  Suffice it to say, I still don’t have enough hangers and in preparation for our house-warming – which successfully encouraged us to complete the unpacking process – I may have shoved all excess belongings underneath my bed.  Oh well!  That’s putting things away, right?

The thing is, some of those thirteen boxes housed my precious kitchen supplies, which I obviously couldn’t get rid of.  And thank goodness I had all my spatulas, whisks, cutlery, knives, baking pans, etc, because our “furnished” flat had a distinctly “unfurnished” kitchen!  After serious struggles even getting a dining table where we could eat/work (I mean, really, how can you call a flat furnished if there’s nowhere to eat?), we had no energy to expend on forcing more concessions in the kitchen.  Natural conclusion?  Thank goodness for those thirteen boxes!

Now that we’re finally settled in and I’ve made my first batch of chai, B and I have started hosting mini-dinner parties.  Wednesday seems to be the night, so last night, since it was Halloween, obviously pumpkin was the star ingredient.

We started with a simple salad of baby greens (rocket, watercress, and spinach) with grape tomatoes and toasted pumpkin seeds.  The main was inspired by a meal I had last November at Enoteca Turi in Putney – pumpkin and scamorza risotto.  I’m not usually a fan of smoked cheese, but the creamy, smoky quality of scamorza paired with the sweet pumpkin, it is an unbeatable combination.  It may even top mushroom as my favourite type of risotto.  Unfortunately I always struggle to find scamorza when I want it, only stumbling upon it accidentally when I don’t need it.  Perhaps I should just start seeing that as a sign from the universe that tonight’s the night to make pumpkin risotto!  Anyway, last night, coming home late from campus, we had to make do with the cheese counter in our local Sainbury’s, which meant choosing a paprika smoked cheddar that actually ended up working very nicely!  Last, but certainly not least, we had pear and apple ginger crisp for dessert.  No pumpkin, but I didn’t want to overdose so early in the season.  The ginger really made all the difference in this dessert.  It played off the sweetness of the baked apples and pears adding a hit of spice to end a night of girly chat perfectly!

Pear and Apple, Ginger Crisp

This was inspired by posts from Pastry Affair and Sweetie’s Home

For the filling:

4 or 5 small apples (probably only need 3 larger ones)
2 or 3 large pears
½ inch grated ginger
zest from half a lemon
¼ c brown sugar, packed
3 Tablespoons butter, cubed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 Tablespoons sugar

For the crumble topping:

¼ cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup brown sugar
½ cup flour
1/3 cup oats
1/3 cup sliced almonds
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt

Method:

Preheat the oven to 375F or 190C.  Grease a 9x9in baking pan and set aside.  I used a 9x13in pan and it worked fine, it was just a bit thinner and there were a few small gaps in the topping.

Wash, core, and chop the apples and pears into large-bite-sized cubes and place them in a large bowl.  Add the grated ginger, lemon zest, both sugars, butter, and vanilla to the fruit.  Mix and set aside.

Place all dry ingredients for the topping (sugar, flour, oats, almonds, spices, and salt) into a second large bowl.  Drizzle the vegetable oil over top the dry ingredients.  Mix with a fork, or your hands, until you reach a crumb-like consistency.

Spread the filling evenly into the baking pan.  Sprinkle the crumble over top of the fruit, ensuring you have no gaps!  (Unless, like me, you use a slightly larger pan, in which case your options are to accept the holes or double the recipe for the topping.)

Bake the crisp at 375F (190C) for 20-30 minutes.  Because mine was thinner it was ready after 20 minutes.  Remember timing can be very oven specific, so may vary.  I recommend checking after about 20 minutes and then readjust according to your oven.

Allow to cool for a few minutes and dig in!  It’s really delicious either hot or cold, but on a cold, rainy night eating it fresh from the oven was a real treat. 🙂