Sunday, 24 February 2013

Review - The Tea Room at QVB, Sydney

I obviously didn't post last week, and that's because I was a bit busy - I found myself in Sydney for the weekend, and, determined to pack as much into my weekend as possible, my schedule looked a little like this:
9am - Breakfast with the entire St Kilda Football Club (hmm, I should think harder about how I word that one, given their track record... what I meant was that they happened to be in the Virgin lounge where I happened to be eating my breakfast!)
11:45am - get off plane in Sydney and high-tail it to my hotel to drop off luggage, then walk down George Street towards the Queen Victoria Building, foolishly wearing unpadded sandals
1:10pm - arrive at the QVB and spend some time wandering about. Decide that I like it well enough because it resembles Melbourne and its arcardes (sorry, Sydney, I like you on weekends but I can't imagine living there!), what with the mosaic floors
and domes
and old-style architecture
and general all-round arcade-y-ness.
1:30pm - finally find my way to the Tea Rooms on the third floor. It honestly took me quite a while to figure out how to get there, because I knew it was on the third floor but most of the building only goes to the second floor. Here's the tip: if you walk to the north end of the building, you will be faced with the Fat Budha restaurant, and most likely be confused. But if you look a little more closely you'll see a small sign and a staircase to the right, and you climb that to reach the tea rooms.
More on my jam-packed weekend later, because given the title of this post I should probably actually write about the tea room!
I chose the QVB tea rooms after contacting the lovely Lorraine at Not Quite Nigella and asking for her high tea recommendation. She said she hadn't been to QVB in a while and had heard that it had slipped a little, but that it was quite a traditional service. I think the Royal Albert flatware alone probably sold me!
I was meeting Cesar and Pete, two guys I met on my recent trip to Africa (I'll write about that one day, too, I promise!). I figured seeing as I'm rarely in Sydney I should try and see some Sydney-siders, and also should probably take the opportunity to cross off one of my New Year's resolutions, in addition to climbing the Harbour Bridge (that one's on my 101 Things list, and I did it the following day). Done, done and done.
We met at the table, which I had booked the day before. I was under the impression when I booked that we had nabbed literally the last table in the house, so you should definitely book ahead by more than 24 hours. And because they start to close at 3pm on a Saturday they wanted me to make a 1:30pm booking, not a 2pm one like I had originally planned (I've been stuffed around by flight delays so many times that I nowadays try to build in a half-hour contingency to everything). Anyway, it all worked out okay and Virgin ran on time despite a late take-off in Melbourne. You never used to be able to trust them but these days they're definitely improving.
They took our order quickly - probably a little too quickly, given Pete had literally just sat down and had not even picked up his menu when the waitress came scurrying over - but because we were having the traditional afternoon tea ($43 on weekends, including tea or coffee) it wasn't a big deal. We were given glasses of water almost straight away, and little silver teapots came with matching tea strainers about 5 or so minutes later - one individual one for Pete, and a two-person one for Cesar and I. From there it was probably another 10 minutes or so before the food came out, and I was starting to wonder where it was but I suppose they were heating the things that needed heating.
As it turns out, three tiers plus one plate of food all spaced out might not look like much, but it's actually quite a challenge to get through!
I started with the spinach and feta pastry, which was moist on the inside, flaky on the outside and very tasty.
Next, assuming them to be warm and that they should be eaten that way, I attacked a mammoth scone with clotted cream and jam. The scone wasn't as warm as I had expected, wasn't really warm at all, in fact, and I have to say the scone itself didn't impress me greatly... but that's because - yes, I'm going to say it - I make the world's best scones. I'm sorry, but I do. Or, I did, this one time. They were utterly perfect, and every scone that has passed my lips since has paled in comparison. But this was a good, robust scone; not too dry; and didn't fall apart when I spread my jam and cream on it, which is important. Not a scone to be ashamed of, and certainly generous in size.
Next I moved onto the fingers of sandwiches. There were two for each diner, and there were two each of three different types of sandwich, so you had to hope that the other diners wouldn't want the same sandwiches that you did! Our plate included two tuna, two curried egg, and what we thought was two chicken salad but turned out to be one chicken and one ham. I had an egg sandwich and a chicken one, and both had lovely, fresh bread and the fillings were just right. The chicken salad had a little celery and a little walnut in it, which was a nice touch.
On the same tier as the sandwiches there were these tiny, odd little pastry cases filled with what seemed to be a warm cheese sauce or maybe even aioli?? I think we had all assumed that it was a mini quiche and one of us actually tried biting into it and ended up with it on their chin. If it was a quiche it certainly had not set properly. I, unusually for me, put it all in my mouth in one hit and didn't make any mess at all! The filling was too runny for it to stay long on my tongue so I didn't have much of an opportunity for the flavour to register, so I can't say a lot about it. Perhaps we were supposed to put it on the sandwiches or on the spinach pastry - I really have no idea. Maybe someone more cultured than me can tell me what it was supposed to be?!?!
Coming in for a slightly closer view now, the next thing I attacked was a passionfruit yo-yo (melting moment). It's the round one between the two macarons at the front of the bottom tier. The two biscuits were quite thin and melt-in-your-mouth shortbready, and the passionfruit buttercream was tasty and full of flavour, but I knew the very second I picked it up that it had been sitting out a little too long and that the filling was soft and warm. So I sort of slid the two halves of the biscuit off so that both had some filling on them, and ate them separately. I once again, surprisingly, made the right choice, because when Pete bit into his the cream squirted out the sides. But the filling hadn't separated out or gone greasy; it was just a bit tricky to eat.
Next came those little oblongs of cake on the top tier. From what I can tell, one layer was a hazelnut (or possibly almond)-based cake, one was plain sponge and the top was a chocolate gel. The cake reminded me a little of tiramisu, although not as strong, with its moistness and chocolate and hazelnut flavours. Definitely a winner, and certainly only for consumption in inch-long pieces!
Back down to the bottom tier for those little lemon meringue boats. Barely a mouthful, airy and light, and the lemon filling was beautiful. I could probably rack up half a dozen of these and eat them with a cup of tea and good book in hand, no problem at all.
I then ventured into macaron territory. Now, I have to say I'm a little embarrassed to admit, but my macaron experience is quite limited. My first-ever macaron was at Doncaster shoppingtown at Laurant Patisserie and I expected big things, given that we were in the midst of the Great Macaron Craze of 2011. I found it to be a bit meh, but then, when I thought about it, I realised that a biscuit made of almond meal and egg white is likely to be quite plain and that the star performer should be the filling. I don't think Laurant should take what I say personally as I have only tried one in their range so far so can't really judge.
My next macaron (okay, it wasn't one - I ate three) was at La Maison du Chocolat in New York City in October last year (why yes, I do have a knack for sniffing out patisseries, chocolatiers et al in foreign cities, why do you ask?), and I also tripped over Magnolia bakery, just around the corner, which is why I didn't get around to eating the macarons until late the following day. I wasn't terribly concerned as I was aware that they are at their best on Day Two or Day Three. So they were stuck in my hostel locker with a stinky backpack that has done a lot of work over the years in my travels with no wash (you'll be pleased to know that the first thing I did when I got home was throw it in the washing machine!), but they still fared reasonably well. It confirmed for me that the ganache in the centre was the star performer of a macaron.
So when I encountered a pistachio macaron I wasn't really sure what to expect. I mean, it was certainly the exact shade of pistachio, but I like in-your-face flavours like lemon and raspberry and dark chocolate, and pistachio is obviously a much more subtle flavour. I am pleased to announce that the flavour of the macaron did not disappoint me - it did taste like pistachio, and the light but creamy filling carrying that flavour did not overwhelm it. But the structure of the biscuit went much the same way as the passionfruit yo-yo - the filling oozed out the sides, and this time I hadn't thought to separate the two halves. Sigh. Now I feel like I have to go on a macaron-tasting adventure to determine what makes the perfect filling, both in flavour and in texture. If there's somewhere you know (preferably in Melbourne but not necessarily) that will offer me a spectacular macaron experience, pease let me know!
At around this time, the tea rooms were starting to be packed up around us, table cloths and all, and bills being brought to tables, which was a little bit offputting. I suppose that was the intention! The room, surprisingly, became even echoey-er than before with fewer people and furnishings in it. It had previously been quite difficult to hear Cesar and Pete speak, I suppose because of the shape of the room, but then, I am a bit hard of hearing with background noise. It's probably not the best choice of location if you want a quiet, intimate chat, though.
My last-but-one petit four was one of those fruit tarts on top. I saved it until amost-last because I love fruit tarts in all their forms, and they're pretty hard to get wrong. I also wasn't certain I'd be able to fit it in if I ate that orange miniature cupcake on the bottom of the stand first, and the waistband of my skirt was already a little snug, so I didn't want to risk not eating it. The pastry was sweet and crumbled perfectly; the creme patisserie was light but rich; and the fruit was, well, fruit. As I said, pretty hard to get wrong (unless the creme patisserie tastes like uncooked cornflour, in which case you know you have a problem!).
And finally, as the bill was paid, I made a final lunge at the orange mini cup cake. It was rich and buttery, with a strong orange flavour which balanced the butteriness. I'm glad I squeezed it in :)
All in all, I would recommend the Tea Room at QVB, if only for the setting - it is a mixture of tables and of old-fashioned, studded leather and brocade lounge chairs - and the experience of having high tea on nice china. There was a good selection of food, and most of it was well-prepared, but I was a little disappointed by how soft the filling in the biscuits was. I would suggest perhaps going in the morning instead of the afternoon to counter that. Luckily I don't judge a tea room by its macarons ;)
As for the rest of my weekend, well it involved two dinners with friends down at Darling Harbour, two lots of fireworks, a drink down at the King Street wharf with Pete and Ceasar, a Harbour Bridge climb, a couple of cocktails at Bar 100 in the Rocks, and hot chocolate and cake at the Lindt cafe. Not a bad weekend at all, thank you Sydney!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Raspberry Sorbet


I can't remember whether I mentioned it, and I'm inclined to say that perhaps I didn't, but last year I was given a brand spankin' new Kenwood mixer for my 30th birthday by some super-duper-awesome-wonderful people in my life. I admit I was torn between getting a shiny Kitchen Aid, preferably in Rasberry Ice, or a Kenwood. But I grew up on Kenwood mixers, and this puppy has a massive 1500W of power versus the insipid 300W of a Kitchenaid. No contest.
So although this is beautiful, this is what I ended up with. Which is also beautiful, but in a different way. I'd be lying if I said I didn't get quite a bit of pleasure out of polishing it yesterday! #whyimsingle
Titanium Major - KMM020
From To purchase visit "shop" at top of page
Not only does it have a 1500W motor but it also has a mixing bowl that is 2L bigger than does the Kitchenaid, so in theory I can now make quadruple batches of pavlova in one bowl without it exploding. And, oh, the batches of cake I could make! And the cream I could whip! I have such lofty ambitions :)
Anyway, for Christmas, my parents (independently, because they're divorced) gave me cash to put towards attachments for the Kenwood. I had enough for two attachments which are actually quite decent value for money. For example, the Kenwood stand-alone food processor is worth about $400, but the food processor attchment for the mixer was about $130. I guess the theory is that once you have the machine, the money you save on the attachments is about equal to the money (and space) you would save on all the other kitchen gadgetes. 
So I counted my little wad of cash and ordered the ice cream maker and a food processor attachments, and they arrived last week. And on the weekend, I used both to make raspberry sorbet, and it was amaaaaazing. You know, presuming you love raspberries just as much as I do! It was more tart than sweet, and made around four servings of two scoops each. I imagine next time I may consider straining the seeds out, but not for sure. I'm probably too lazy to bother, truth be told ;)
First, I used the food processor to puree the raspberries.
And then I used the ice cream maker to make the sorbet (duh). With this particular unit you put the ice cream maker insert in the freezer for 24 hours before you want to make the ice cream, so it requires a little forward planning, but honestly, if you can't predict that you're going to want ice cream then you're a moron. You could probably just keep it in the freezer all the time, and because it's a bowl you can put your frozen peas in the middle and you won't be losing a whole lot of space in your freezer to it. 
Sorry there's not a good shot of it (there are sure to be many more opportunities to take a picture of me making ice cream!), but imagine a plastic-on-the-outside, metal-on-the-inside bowl with a flat bottom and straight sides that sits within your mixer bowl. The cavity between the plastic bit and the metal bit contains what I assume is the same fluid you get in those plastic freezer bricks you put in your esky (as we call it. For those playing in New Zulund an esky is also known as a chully bun (=chilly bin), and for everyone else in the world I think it's known as a cooler or possibly an ice box). The ice cream maker has a clear polycarbonate lid, and that white plastic bit you can see in the middle has a shaft that goes down to the bottom, then splits into two paddles. The two paddles make their way in opposite directions to the side of the bowl where they make a 90 degree turn and move up the sides of the bowl. You can juuust see the top of one of the paddles poking out on the left of the bowl, at about the five-minutes-past-nine position.
350g of fresh or frozen raspberries, pureed
3/8c castor sugar (that's half of 3/4, if you're having trouble picturing it)
1/2c water
1/8c lime juice
Dissolve sugar in water in saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Once dissolved, bring it to the boil and boil for one minute. Set aside to cool.
Once cooled, mix through pureed rapberries. Add lime juice and mix (I had left the raspberries in the food processor and added both the sugar syrup and lime juice and turned it on quickly to mix them through).
Put in ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's instructions. In this case, the brief is to assemble the (pre-frozen) bowl, make sure it all lines up, then turn it on low and THEN pour the mix in. If you do it the other way around it will freeze to the side of the bowl and you will have problems!
In my case, it took half an hour for it to become a scoop-able but slightly wet sorbet. Being impatient, I was fine with that. The instructions say most things take half an hour, but to leave it going for up to 45 minutes if it's a little soft, and then if it's still not hard enough then you scoop it out and put it in the freezer. I know that the half of the batch we didn't eat on the first night hardened significantly in the freezer, so I had to let it sit on the bench for a while (the fridge might have been smarter) before scooping it out.
Easy peasy! I have to say, I was a little turned off ice cream making by my sort-of-disasterous vanilla ice cream, but I think I'm back in the game. And sorbet is a good place to start because there's no mucking around with eggs making a custard first.
What an excellent Christmas present. I look forward to many more interesting ice creams and sorbets! (I have my eye on a honey-walnut ice cream. Mmm...)

Monday, 4 February 2013

Michelle Bridges' Salmon with Char-Grilled Asparagus and Tomato Salad

I thought I'd share a savoury recipe for once. Normally it's all about cupcakes here, but since I have had increasing difficulty buttoning my pants I thought it might be wise to limit my cupcake intake for a time. Don't panic, it's not forever, just until I can fit back into a pair of pants (in the Australian sense, not the British sense!) other than the only two things left in my wardrobe that fit me!
So a while ago (hah probably nearly a year ago. Well done, Past Vanessa, for using your new cookbook so much) I bought myself a copy of the Michelle Bridges Crunch Time Cookbook. For the Americans out there, Michelle Bridges is Australia's answer to Jillian Michaels, although probably not quite as hardcore and mean.
But she still says some vastly unpopular things that make some women very angry, and there seems to be quite a polarised opinion on her methods, but she's right about a lot of things, and she definitely doesn't sugar coat it (because sugar is the devil. Duh.) - we're not going to lose weight by cuddling puppies or making daisy chains or through positive affirmations about ourselves, and we're certainly not going to do it by eating cheese (mmm, cheese... *undoes jeans button*). But as anyone who read her book knows, she actually does give a damn about the psychology behind weight gain, and does try to address it. So she's mean AND sensible ;) I don't agree with her brand of rapid weight loss because to me it's unsustainable, but it obviously works well for some people.
Anyway, to her recipes - last year I wrote a less-than-complimentary review about her Lentil Shepherd's Pie, probably because it was kind of watery, unfilling and a little bit low on taste. That could easily be fixed with some spices, and, as I said, you could probably add a little sweet potato to it in order to thicken it up and bulk it out. Last night's recipe was a bit higher on flavour thanks to the addition of basil and balsamic vinegar, although I suspect it may not have filled me up had I not added the zucchini and snow peas. That's not saying much, though, given what a bottomless pit I have been lately!
I'm sorry there are no photos - I was too hungry! - but I think we all know what a piece of grilled salmon sitting on top of a salad looks like.
The link to the original recipe is here, but I had to wing it a little because the supermarket was out of asparagus, and we were out of spray oil at home. And also because I feel superior in knowing that you get more flavour out of tearing herbs than chopping them!
The original calorie content is 269cal per serve (recipe serves two), but I'm guessing my version was probably closer to 300-325cal thanks to the oil and the fact I used beans (and a larger number of them) plus snow peas and zucchini rather than just a few spears of asparagus.
Two handfuls mixed salad greens, washed and drained
Handful of green beans, topped, tailed, halved across, washed
Smaller handful of snow peas, topped, tailed, halved across, washed
1 small zucchini, washed, topped, tailed, sliced down the middle then in diagonal, 1.5-2cm chunks
1 250g punnet of cherry tomatoes, washed
Handful of basil leaves, torn
2tsp balsamic vinegar
2tsp olive oil
2 150g salmon steaks
Put salad greens and torn basil in two large bowls.
Heat half the oil in a grill pan (I used our old family cast iron frypan instead. It's an amaaaazing piece of kitchenware to have, it's not even the schmancy enamelled type, and it probably cost about $20 from a camping shop). Put the beans in and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally so that they get a little bit of charring but don't burn.
Next, add snow peas and cook for about 30 seconds to a minute before adding the zucchini and tomatoes. Stir occasionally for another minute or two until everything is a little bit brown and heated through. I recommend tasting the zucchini at this point as uncooked zucchini is quite bitter.
Remove from heat and divide evenly between two bowls. Drizzle evenly with balsamic vinegar.
Return pan to heat with remaining oil. When pan is hot, grill salmon on both sides until lightly browned but still pink in the middle. Serve atop salad. Enjoy! (and I can say it wholeheartedly this time!)

Friday, 1 February 2013

Broccoli Salad

One of my 101 Things challenges that I've been surprisingly lax on is having a dinner party with a theme every six months. So just before Christmas I decided to hold a "red and green" themed dinner party in honour of the traditional Christmas colours.
Okay, so it was more "shades of red and green", which meant that pink and burgandy and purple and very pale green were all acceptable colours.
I'll eventually post a couple of other recipes, including a beetroot and goat cheese salad, a roasted vegetable salad, and an orange polenta cake covered in pink rose-flavoured buttercream and sprinkled with pistachios. Such pretty colours!
In the meantime, here is a salad that sounds utterly revolting, but which I promise is not. It really, really isn't. In fact, I could eat rather a lot of this and not get sick of it. I think. But it's red and green (sort of) and I made it for this red-and-green dinner party as well as for another Christmas potluck lunch.
It's adapted from a recipe on Simply Recipes and I have basically played around with the quantities, including eliminating half the dressing (because it was absolutely drowning in it the first time I made it for a pre-Christmas BBQ the weekend before the dinner party). I can't really claim it as my own, but I have added a couple of steps that I think were quite important for the success of the salad.
2 medium-large heads of broccoli
1/2c toasted slivered almonds
3 middle rashers of bacon (i.e. the full length, not the short cuts), rind & outer fat removed
A little oil
1/3 red onion, diced
1c frozen peas, thawed
1/2c mayonnaise (I used whole egg mayo - much nicer than that 97% fat free garbage)
1tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp honey
Thaw peas on paper towel and pat dry. You will want to use fairly new peas and not the ones from the back of your freezer, otherwise they'll be all wrinkly and manky.
Chop onion and set aside.
Dice bacon into 1-1.5cm pieces and fry in a little oil (you won't need much as the bacon releases fat) until lightly browned. Remove from heat and drain on paper towel. Set aside.
In the same pan, toast the slivered almonds and keep them moving until lightly browned. Remove them from the pan immediately that this happens, otherwise they will keep cooking and burn. Set aside.
Remove florets from broccoli heads. If you wish, you can also chop some of the stalk up and use that (I didn't). Bring a large pot of water to the boil, and prepare a large bowl with iced water. Place broccoli florets in water that is at a rolling boil and leave them only until they turn green (no more than 1-1.5 minutes) then lift out with a slotted spoon and plunge them into the iced water to arrest cooking. They should be bright green and still crunchy, but not repulsively so. You just don't want them to be soggy. You may need to do this in two batches. Drain broccoli thoroughly then pop in the refrigerator until you're ready to dress and serve it.
Mix the mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar and honey until thoroughly and evenly combined. Keep refrigerated until ready to use it.
Shortly before serving, combine broccoli, almonds, onions and bacon in a large bowl. Pour dressing evenly over salad and toss to combine.

This is a shot without my favourite ingredient - bacon - because I am an awesome friend and didn't put it in until after the vegetarians had taken a serving. And bacon is why I will never be a vegetarian!