Monday 26 August 2013

Gluten Free Afternoon Tea at The Rubens At The Palace, London

I was recently the lucky recipient of an afternoon tea for two gift experience at the prestigious Ruben’s Hotel in London. Apart from the occasional scone and pot of tea on coastal holidays, I have never had a proper traditional afternoon tea. One of my best friends from ‘back home’ and I have been saying for years that we must treat ourselves to a fancy afternoon tea in London but never got round to organising it. When I was given the Tea for Two experience organised by Experience Days I knew exactly who was coming with me.

The Ruben’s Hotel is situated in Victoria, very close to Buckingham Palace and just across the road from the Royal Mews, so you couldn’t get a more perfect location for an English afternoon tea. I was particularly excited as they said they were able to offer a gluten free menu, which seemed just as delicious as the regular menu, which other places I’ve looked at do not. At the time of booking I informed them I was coeliac and so would need a gluten free menu and was assured this wouldn’t be a problem.

Upon arrival my friend and I were greeted by the concierge, who smartly dressed in a full back suit, opened the door for us and led us to the dining room. From here we were shown to our table by our waitress. The dining room was plush and elegant yet quite understated.  The furniture was dark wood and the fabric in tranquil shades of gold, bronze and brown giving a very relaxed feel to the place. Grand chairs or long comfy benches were set either side of the table which was positioned quite low down, level with your knees rather than waist height. This proved to be a brilliant arrangement as it meant you could still see your dining partner over the top of the tiered afternoon tea stand when it arrived and it made for easy viewing and reaching of the pastries on the top layer of the stand.
The tables were all pre-set with linen napkins, china plates and traditional pink and white floral tea cups with matching sugar bowl and tongs. Settling into our comfy chairs and browsing the tea menu we both felt we were in for a treat. We both chose the Rubens Afternoon Tea which consisted of a selection of finger sandwiches, scones and then a selection of cakes and pastries. I again confirmed my need for gluten free.
We both ordered lavender and blackcurrant tea to drink and when the waitress bought it over she poured it for us, holding our tea cups on a tray and pouring the tea through an ornate tea strainer into our cups in turn. We then both got a full teapot full of tea for us to top up our cups as we wished. The lavender and blackcurrant tea was a fabulous glossy ruby maroon colour and only lightly floral. It made with loose leaf tea and little pips of lavender were poured out and caught by the tea strainer as we topped up our cups. Feeling very elegant we sipped our tea and waited for the food to arrive. We sat talking to each other in whispered voices, feeling almost as though we were in a library amongst the hushed quiet elegance.
After 20 minutes we noticed several other tables being presented with their food and yet we still hadn’t received ours. I assured my friend it was probably my gluten free food that was holding things up and it would arrive soon. After 25 minutes we were getting quite hungry as it was nearly 2:30pm at this point and we had obviously skipped lunch to ensure we were hungry for the tea. After 30 minutes I purposely looked at my watch and glanced at a waitress who was serving another couple hoping to pass on a hint. A few minutes later the concierge appeared and apologized for the delay but explained there had been a problem in the kitchen. I asked if it was because I needed the gluten free menu and he said yes. He offered us both a free glass on Champagne but as neither my friend nor I really drink and we both had empty stomachs we thanked him but declined. He offered us instead a strawberry and basil sorbet which we greatfully accepted.
When he returned with our sorbet it was a lovely looking scoop of a deep red sorbet, flecked with green and sitting in…a wafer biscuit. As he set it own in front of me I looked at it incredulously and said “You’ve just told me the delay is because I need gluten free food and now you’ve given me a wheaty wafer, I can’t eat it” He looked a little flustered, apologized and then said he would bring us our food straight away and dashed off. I rolled my eyes at my friend who was happily demolishing her own sorbet with moans of delight. She proclaimed it the best sorbet she had ever eaten, which it lovely except it only made me hungrier.

Shortly the waitress appeared bearing two three-tiered cake stands of our food. We had been waiting for 40 minutes by now, so we were delighted to see it. She explained what was on each of the tiers. A base layer of cucumber & cream cheese, smoked salmon and egg & watercress finger sandwiches on gluten free bread for me, crusts off obviously. My friend had the same only on wheat based bread. She had fewer sandwiches than me and was assured a chicken and another ham roll was also due her, which they would bring when they were ready. She cleared the sorbet plates and left.
On the middle layer we both had two warm scones which had been wrapped in a napkin to keep them warm. Two gluten free sultana scones for me and a plain and sultana scone for my friend. This was accompanied by a dish containing two scoops of clotted cream and a dish of strawberry jam to share.

Both our top tiers of assorted mini cakes and pastries looked fantastic. My friend had strawberry cheesecake, lemon and lavender cupcake, honey and walnut financier, rose macaroon and a violet dark chocolate ganache!
I had the rose macaroon, violet ganache, orange & almond cake, strawberry jelly, berry meringue and some slices of mocha syrup cake! Wow! As I had more treats than my friend I gave her my strawberry jelly as she adores strawberries.
We both started to eat and I was impressed with my egg & watercress sandwiches. The bread was soft and light and held together well. We noticed we hadn’t been given any plates, our first ones having been removed with the sorbet plates. I managed to ask our waitress for some who apologised and promptly bought us some replacements. My friend finished her sandwiches and as there was no waitress in sight we decided not to wait for her extra sandwiches and to start on the scones.
It was then I realised that they expected us to share the jam and cream. This was not an issue for the cream as we could both take one of the scoops onto our own plates but the jam was in one single dish. This would be fine if you were both eating normal scones, but as mine were gluten free I didn’t want to risk cross contamination of eating one scone and then having my friend dip her knife back into the dish to eat her second and transfer wheaty crumbs into the jam. Not good planning by the food staff. Thankfully as I’d had a fruit tea I hadn’t used my tea spoon so we used the spoon to drop blobs of jam onto our scones without letting it touch the scone.
I was really impressed with my scones. I’ve had a gluten free scones once before and it was dry, crumbled and was so dense you could have knocked someone out with it. Thankfully not the case here. These were flakey, buttery and studded with juicy sultanas. They were still a little heavy, being more like a cross between a croissant and a pantone, but so soft, moist and buttery they were delicious! The clotted cream was incredibly smooth and creamy and the jam nicely fruited. So good.
We both then turned out attention to the pastries. My orange and almond cake was fantastic. Really moist and soft with a delicious fresh orange flavour and nice damp texture from the almonds. I was impressed.
The dinky rose macaroon was packed full of floral rose flavour and nicely chewy in the centre. Again, the best macaroon I’ve tasted, although I wasn’t so sure about the thick white chocolate flower on top which seemed a bit clunky after the delicate mini macaroon.
My meringue nest was ok. I’m not really a meringue fan, but I found the meringue to be completely crisp and very sweet. It almost tasted shop bought, but the fresh berries, cream and fruit coulis hiding in the base were good.

The slices of mocha cake were also delicious. They had a sticky moist syrupy top layer, soaked into a strongly flavoured chocolate coffee cake. Look how fudgy and yummy it looks.
I’d given the strawberry jelly to my friend who is a strawberry fanatic and had saved the violet ganache for last. This proved to be a good idea as it was rich, not too sweet with a sophisticated delicate violet flavour. This gave a nice contrast to the other sweet treats I’d enjoyed. The texture of the ganche was amazing. There was no hard chocolate shell, it was just pure truffly ganache. Smooth, creamy and so perfectly soft it started to melt the minute you took a bite. The violet flavour is not one I’ve had often but it was so delicate that it worked brilliantly with the chocolate.
We both had a fabulous time and it felt such a treat to sit in beautiful surroundings enjoy tea and cake, but overall a mixed experience. Definitely mostly good and I would certainly recommend it and go back myself, but there were a few things I felt they could certainly improve on. However, I suspect most of these are because I needed gluten free food, which although doesn’t excuse things, does mean most people shouldn’t have a problem.

Areas that let it down
  • Took 40 minutes for our food to arrive when we had pre-booked
  • The complimentary sorbet by way of apology arrived on a wheat wafer despite having moments before talked about my needing gluten free food – more staff training/awareness
  • My friends extra ham and chicken sandwiches never arrived
  • We had to ask for serving plates
  • Having a single dish of cream and jam to share is not a good idea if one of the guests is coeliac due to cross contamination – more training/awareness
  • Lack of waitress around, no one checked it we were ok until right near the end when we decided not to ask about the missing sandwiches as my friend was full.
Things that would make me go back
  • All staff were very polite and courteous
  • The surroundings were elegant and very comfortable
  • We felt like we were getting a treat and that we were sophisticated ladies enjoying our afternoon tea
  • The china and traditional elegance
  • The choice and quality of the gluten free food
  • The food overall was of a very high standard and consisted of some different innovative cakes and pastries, not just your bog standard menu.
  • Those gluten free scones!

Sunday 18 August 2013

Spinach, Feta & Paprika Savoury Muffins

Last weekend the weather was rather cold, wet and blustery. The perfect weather for staying indoors and baking. As I’ve been baking rather a lot of sweet things recently I decided instead to bake something savoury.

I had a look through my fridge at what needed using up and came across a block of feta and a half used jar of sun dried tomato paste and decided to combined them together in a savoury muffin. I wanted another colour and so fished out a couple of blocks of spinach from the freezer, which I think always goes well with feta. Hunting through my spice cupboard (yes I have a whole cupboard full of herbs and spices) I settled on some smoky paprika from Schwartz, which I think goes wonderfully with tomato.
I used a combination of self raising flour and then some nuttier brown rice flour to add a little grainy wholesomeness to the muffins. You could use fine ground cornmeal or polenta to achieve the same effect.

Mixing the batter together produced a wonderful smoky earthiness from the paprika, which also lent the batter a great subtle red-orange hue. All the colours together looked so pretty, green spinach, pure white feta and dusky red paprika/tomato.
During baking the muffins smelt so inviting, a mix of savoury smoky aromas that had me peeking through the oven door impatiently. After baking the muffins had a pale golden outer crust that was slightly crisp and scone-like, but breaking into one revealed a soft and tender crumb. These aren’t as light and fluffy as sweet muffins, being savoury they are more wholesome but they are by no means dense or heavy.
The chunks of feta became soft and creamy while the strands of spinach were scattered throughout giving a very attractive appearance. The muffins were slightly sweet to taste, but just as salt adds flavour to sweet things, I found the sweetness seemed to enhance the savoury elements of the muffins. I found the subtle smoky earthiness of the paprika added a slight tongue tingling warmth in a similar way that chili does.
They were delicious eaten on their own but I discovered they were even better with a little houmous or chutney. I took a few to work and warmed them in the microwave before dipping pieces into my soup and it was a lovely alternative to bread.

This was my first foray into savoury muffins, but I doubt it will be my last.

Spinach, Feta & Paprika Savoury Muffins
250g gluten free self raising flour*
50g brown rice flour or fine cornmeal*
40g caster sugar
1½ tsp gluten free baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1¼ tsp paprika
¼ tsp salt
180ml milk
2 eggs
100g (2 blocks) frozen spinach
1 tbsp sun dried tomato paste or tomato pesto
100g feta cheese
6 cherry tomatoes
6 extra cherry tomatoes for decoration (optional)

Preheat your oven to 180C. Grease the 12 wells of a muffin tin thoroughly with oil.
Defrost the spinach in the microwave and squeeze out any excess liquid. It’s fine to still be damp, but not swimming in liquid. Chop roughly and set aside.
Chop the feta into 5mm x 1cm pieces and half the cherry tomatoes and set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together the flours, sugar, salt, baking powder, bicarb and paprika.
In a jug, measure out the milk and then beat in the eggs and sun dried tomato paste/pesto.
Pour the egg mixture over the flour mixture and stir briefly until some of the liquid is starting to be absorbed. Add the spinach, half the tomatoes and feta and fold together gently until just combined. (The batter should still be soft and lumpy, you don’t want a smooth mix).
Use a large spoon or ice cream scoop to generously fill the wells of the muffin tin with the muffin mix. They don’t rise much so you can pile them up quite high and leave them looking rustic. You’ll get between 10-12 muffins.
Place a halved cherry tomato on the top of each muffin if desired and bake for 22-25 minutes until golden brown and firm to the touch.
Allow the muffins to cool in the tin for 5 minutes before running a round bladed knife around the rim and removing them from the tin. Place on a rack to cool slightly.
Serve warm with houmous, chutney or cheese. Also taste great dipped into soup.
Eat or freeze on day of baking. On defrosting, warm slightly in the oven or microwave before serving.
Makes 10-12 muffins

Note: If you don’t want to make them gluten free then replace the gluten free flour with normal self raising flour and use fine ground cornmeal/polenta in place of the brown rice flour.

Sunday 11 August 2013

Gooseberry, Raspberry & Almond Crumble

A few weekends ago I went to a PYO (Pick Your Own) fruit farm and enjoyed a happy but rather prickly hour picking my own gooseberries and raspberries. After munching on a few I decided I wanted to bake something with them and decided on crumble.

Gooseberries and raspberries look so pretty together, their contrasting red and green colours look so striking and as they are both in season together, it makes sense that they would taste good baked together too.
I lightly cooked the gooseberries first, just so they started to soften as they were a lot bigger and firmer than the raspberries. I love the flavour of almond with fruit and so added a little almond extract to the fruit and sugar base and then some ground almonds to the crumble topping. I was actually surprised how fragrant and inviting this made the crumble smell while it was baking. Warm sweet fruit and heady almond is a match made in heaven in my opinion.
I also added a few gluten free oats to the topping, as I like the little bit of texture they add. You can leave them out or replace them with some flakes almonds if you can’t tolerate gluten free oats.

The finished crumble was fabulous. The juices had escaped from the gooseberries and mingled with the jammy raspberries to form a delicious sweet and sticky pink syrup with a lovely subtle almond flavour. The gooseberries themselves were a mix of sweet and intense sharpness. I found the ones that had burst seemed to take on some of the sugar and were nicely sweet and syrupy, while the few that remained intact released a burst of tart fruity sharpness when bitten into. I know plenty of people who would have found this too sharp, but I loved it. It also helped prevent the pudding from being too sweet. I love tart sharp flavour – I have been known to eat raw cooking apple! If you like your sweets to be sweeter simply taste a gooseberry and add more sugar before baking.
It was the perfect fresh and fruity summer dessert and the zingy colourful fruity was definitely the star of the show.

Gooseberry, Raspberry & Almond Crumble

450g gooseberries
40g caster sugar *see note below
½ tsp almond extract
150g raspberries

Crumble Topping
75g brown rice flour
15g tapioca starch
30g ground almonds
30g gluten free oats
50g butter
45g light soft brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 200C.
Place the gooseberries into a pan along with 2 tbsp of water and cook gently until they are just starting to soften and a few are beginning to burst. You don’t want to cook it until you have puree.
Remove from the heat and stir in the caster sugar and almond extract.
Spoon the gooseberry mixture into a baking dish approx 5x8inches, and scatter the raspberries over the top.
Make the crumble topping by mixing together the flours, oats, almonds and brown sugar. Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the flour mix.
Rub the butter into the flour using the tips of your fingers, lifting them up above the bowl and letting the mix fall back into the bowl as you rub.
Continue until you have a mix of small clumps and fine crumbs of crumble.
Scatter the crumble over the top of the fruit and bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly golden brown.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving. Also tastes great cold or served with custard if desired.

*Note: some gooseberries can be very sharp and sour tasting. Taste a gooseberry when they have been lightly cooked and mixed with the sugar. If it is too tart for your liking, add 20g+ more sugar to taste.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Mint Choc Chip Frozen Yoghurt

Growing up I don’t think I was really aware of having a favourite ice cream flavour, but now, looking back I think it would probably be mint choc chip. We didn’t have it that often as my two siblings always preferred chocolate, but I have very fond memories of being able to choose a mint Feast ice cream from the ice cream van or the rare occasions when mum would present a mint Viennetta ice cream slice rather than a homemade dessert after dinner.

Mint is quite a unique flavour and I think that fact it was usually always dyed a pale green colour helped with the attraction. Nowadays my ice cream preferences have become a bit more sophisticated with hazelnut or coconut and lime being some of my favourite (and hard to find) flavours.

Last weekend I ended up with two large tubs of yoghurt, having forgotten I’d already bought some, and in a moment of nostalgia I decided to turn one tub into mint choc chip frozen yoghurt.

I added brandy to the mix, not for flavour, but because I had read that adding a little alcohol to homemade ice cream will help prevent it from being too icy or freezing too solid, as it has a lower freezing point than water. I think vodka would be ideal, but as I didn’t have any brandy did the job perfectly. The resulting frozen yoghurt was smooth and creamy and certainly seemed to melt a lot quicker than previous ice creams I’ve made – this could be good or bad depending on how quickly you want to eat it.

Eating this ice cream brought back fond summer holiday memories of hot sandy beaches and playing with the water hose in the back garden. I also found the mint flavour really refreshing on a hot afternoon. One thing I discovered is that it is very important to chop your chocolate into very fine pieces. I left a few chunky bits in mine, thinking I was being generous and it would be nice to hit a big bit of chocolate, but in reality the chocolate was very firm and hard and I actually much preferred the smaller flakes of chocolate against the soft frozen yogurt, much better than the occasional big chunk that I had to crunch and chew.

Does anyone else have any ice cream flavours that bring back memories of their childhood?

Mint Choc Chip Frozen Yoghurt

500g Greek yoghurt
1½ tsp peppermint extract
50g caster sugar
1½ tbsp brandy
1/8 tsp green food dye paste
60g dark chocolate, finely chopped

Set your ice cream to freeze*
Combine the yogurt, caster sugar, peppermint extract and brandy together in a bowl. Mix until the sugar has dissolved. Taste and add a little more sugar if you prefer it sweeter. (The mint and sugar should take more pronounced that you would usually like, as the flavours lessen on freezing.)
Take one tablespoon of the yogurt mix and combine it with the green food dye paste until the paste is smooth and well combined. Then stir this concentrated green yoghurt mix back into the rest of the yoghurt until you have reached your desired strength of green. (I like using the pastes as these are more concentrated and don’t add any extra liquid to your mix).
Pour the yoghurt mixture into your ice cream maker and churn according to manufactures instructions. When it is starting to thicken and holds its shape and the finely chopped chocolate and leave to continue freezing and mixing until thick and softly set.
Transfer the ice cream to a plastic Tupperware container and place in the freezer to stiffen up for around 1 hour. If left longer, you may want to leave it to soften for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Note* If you don’t have an ice cream maker, simply pour the yoghurt mix into a plastic container and place in the freezer. Take it out every half and hour and give it a bit of a whisk to ensure an even freezing, until you’ve reached your desired consistency.