Sunday, 29 November 2009

Breakfast included: Ston Easton Park

Surroundings: a perfectly symmetrical Georgian-meets-Palladian mansion in Somerset near Bath. Elegant dining room with sash windows, intricate plasterwork and views over the river and green lawns beyond. The dining chairs are huge and comfy and the room is split into two so it's intimate but still grand.

Buffet: the menu described home-made granola, but the bowl of cranberries, banana chips, pistachios and seeds was too lacking in oats in my view.

There was a wholesome-looking Swiss-style muesli and other cereals and pots of seeds and dried fruits, plus a basket of pastries that tasted better than they looked. Yoghurt was good, and fruit salad a little apple-heavy, but it's not really the season.

Hot stuff: Homemade sausage was herby and baked to perfection, but the scrambled egg was so-so - not yellow enough, too consistent and consequently a little bland. Loved the fact that the waitress hadn't heard of a macchiato, then made a really good one once I'd described it.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Best cafes: River Cottage Canteen, Bath

I'm indecisive. It was hard enough choosing River Cottage Canteen among Bath's copius cafes. Thank goodness the menu was a little more straight forward.

The cream of the crop? The River Cottage Organic Farmhouse Breakfast (£8).

- A rasher of Sydling Brook bacon, a homemade sausage, an egg (cooked to order), homemade baked beans, bubble and squeak and bottomless tea or coffee and toast.

Then there's the rest for £5 each (a bit stiff for toast but not bad for the rest...)

- Home-made toasted bread with a choice of locally made organic preserves

- River Cottage granola and yoghurt with seasonal fruit compote and toasted organic oats

- Organic Sydling Brook Bacon sandwich

- Scrambled or poached organic Barrington eggs on toast with pan-fried mushrooms

- Kid's cheese on toast (for under 8s)

It was buzzing, clattery, hearty, wholesome, tasty, fresh, warm, filling, and the smell of freshly cooked brownies gave you a big chocolately hug when you walked in.

Only thing that put me off was the location. It's the ground floor of Komedia, which sounds like one of those faceless Singapore gamers' malls, but is actually a groovy cabaret and music spot.

So, ignore the name, and pop in (p.s. after breakfast, the Roman Baths with Bill Bryson commentary is your next best bet and some shopping in the new SouthGate quarter).

Friday, 20 November 2009

Breakfast included: The Old Parsonage Hotel, Oxford

lots of olde worldy wonky charm - low ceiling, log fire in winter, dapper waiters and fascinating modern art with some charcoal Oxford sketches thrown in.
Buffet: home-made granola was high on nuts and seeds with a sweet toasted crunch and there was an option to add extra walnuts and banana chips from the bowl next to it.

The highlight were the gorgeous berry and yoghurt pots, the former between fruit and compote stage with plenty of sweetness to compliment the creaminess of the delectable, rich yoghurt.

There was also a wholesome nutty bread that tasted just baked and a selection of cheeses, ham and smoked salmon. The croissants were fine, with good flakiness, but not buttery, indulgent or 'just baked' enough.

Hot stuff: My poached eggs came in a small pool of water but were otherwise perfectly cooked and the Oxfordshire sausage was delicious and baked to perfection.

The bacon was a touch underdone - too pink - and the kippers with mustard butter were exceptional according to my dining partners.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Recipe: Becca's banana bread

Guest blogger Rebecca Partridge is a marketing executive for a leading organic food company and passionate about baking...

My obsession with banana bread begun when I lived in Sydney for a year whilst travelling the world. The Australians are in love with the stuff and I quickly realised why. Within months I knew the best cafes to get the freshest banana bread from and indulged nearly every day.

It wasn’t long after I left Oz that I forgot all about BB, four months travelling home through south-east Asia led me to another breakfast addiction of Pad Tai (but that’s another story!) and I had yet to find anywhere in the UK that served banana bread to remind me of the happiness it used to bring.

Then one day, my husband bought me home the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook and low and behold, there was a recipe for banana bread – and it was simple! I set about making a batch and enjoyed the smell that filled the house as it slowly rose in the oven.

I was so eager to enjoy the bread that I couldn’t wait for it to cool down and devoured the end slice as soon as I was able to cut it. It was just as remembered, only better because I had baked it myself.

Since then I have perfected the art of the banana bread making, I now know that you mustn’t open the oven door too early as the cake will sink, that ripe bananas really do make for a richer cake and that it's fine to use a mixture of all sorts of sugars that you may have lying around in the cupboards. I also know that I have to give most of the bread away to friends and family or I would end up eating an entire loaf in one day, it’s that good.

Banana bread is beautiful to look at with its marbling of brown through each slice, and it feels healthy too (although it really isn’t with all that butter and sugar!).

This is the recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook:

270g soft light brown sugar
2 eggs
200g bananas mashed
280g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
140g unsalted butter

23 x 13cm loaf tin greased and dusted with flour

Preheat the oven to 170c Gas 3

Put the sugar and eggs in a bowl and beat until well incorporated (can use a whisk). Beat in the mashed bananas.

Add the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon and ginger to the sugar mixture. Mix it thoroughly until all the dry ingredients have been incorporated into the egg mixture. Pour in the melted butter and beat until all the ingredients are well mixed.

Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf tin and smooth over with a palette knife. Bake in the preheated oven for 1hr or until firm to the touch and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Leave the cake to cool slightly in the tin before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Granola bar recipe test no.2

Source: Adapted from The Power Food Cookbook by Amanda Grant

Labelled: Nutty fruity slice

50g organic butter
50ml runny honey
50ml golden syrup
25ml olive oil
25g dark brown sugar
250g rolled oats
40g almonds toasted with the skin on
40g hazelnuts toasted with the skin on
50g pumpkin seeds
50g sunflower seeds
140g chopped dates and chopped dried cranberries

Instructions: Grease a 9" inch square tin. Melt the butter, honey, golden syrup, olive oil and brown sugar in a saucepan over a medium heat. Once melted add the remaining ingredients and coat thoroughly with the liquid mixture. Pour into the tin and press down firmly.

Bake at 180 degrees C for 25 minutes or until lightly toasted on top. Mark squares or bars with a knife and wait to cool, then cut up and store in an airtight container.

AGA: For a two-oven Aga bake on a shelf in the bottom of the roasting oven with a cool shelf over the top for 20 minutes then raise cool shelf to two runners above the tin for the last 5-10 minutes. For a three-oven Aga bake in the baking oven for 25 minutes.

Results: the bars looked more appetising than the results of Granola bar recipe test no. 1 because they were lighter in colour, offering a better showcase of the ingredients. They did, however disintegrate easily when being cut up and eaten. This is probably because I reduced the amount of butter and sugar, which would have bonded the bars better, but made them more unhealthy.

The bars had a satisfying crunch of baked oats with the flavour of the toasted nuts and seeds coming through. There was a hint of sweetness from the dates and cranberries, which wasn't overruled by the honey and syrup.

Conclusions: The colour and taste were spot on - packed with variety and wholesomeness, and more tastier than Granola bar recipe test no. 1.

But, the texture should have been more chewy to make the bars more practical to transport - they are, after all, intended as a handy snack to have on the go. By the time I'd carried them to the office in a tin, I opened the lid to reveal a mixture more akin to granola than granola bars. Delicious nevertheless.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Best granolas: Mrs Marengo's

Mildred's vegetarian restaurant in Soho has been busting veggie stereotypes for 21 years, offering hearty bean burritos, veggie burgers and meat-free curries to a buzzing - and often omnivore - London crowd for 21 years. You can imagine my surprise when a second veggie establishment opened right next door.

The cheek of it!

Or so I thought - until I found out that Marengo's was Mildred's younger sister. All takeaway's and lunch-break bites to Mildred's drawn-out candlelit affairs.

The breakfast menu is delectable, despite the fact it's not exactly original.

What is it about porridge that becomes so much more enticing when a)someone else had made it, and b)they've called it "Organic porridge (£2.40) served with honey, homemade jam or maple syrup with optional bananas, sultanas, granola or nuts..."

But it's the granola I love - £3.50 for a rolled-top paper bag filled with toasted oats, almonds, pecans, coconut, raisins, sultanas, cranberries, maple syrup and muscovado sugar to take home.

It's crunchy, just nutty enough, just sweet enough and perfect sprinkled on yoghurt or drenched in milk.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Recipe: low fat banana tea loaf

Sometimes toast doesn't cut it. Even Whole Foods sourdough doesn't cut it. You want something a bit more hearty that will perk up your taste buds.

This recipe is just the ticket - it's Soreen on stimulants and there's hardly any bad stuff in it (no butter, just a bit of brown sugar).

I'd recommend eating it with slice banana and/or yoghurt, or if you're feeling devilish, with butter. It tastes great warm (a few minutes in the Aga toast rack, or pop it in the oven, or sit it on top of the toaster and press the lever down).

It lasts a week in a tin and will do nicely for afternoon tea if you get fed up with it at breakfast.

It takes less than 10 minutes to prepare, but leave up to three hours soaking time for the fruit.

Low fat breakfast tea loaf (adapted from a Farmhouse Breakfast Week recipe)

1 earl grey teabag
250g dried fruit (I used dates and apricots, but cranberries, prunes, apples would also do)
170g soft brown sugar
2 eggs (beaten)
2 ripe bananas (mashed)
220g wholemeal plain flour
1tsp baking powder
half tsp ground nutmeg
half tsp ground cinnamon
half tsp ground ginger

Grease all sides and line the base of a 1kg loaf tin.

Soak the teabag in 300ml boiling water until you've got a strong cuppa. Remove teabag and add dried fruit to the tea. Soak for 2-3 hours.

Preheat oven to 180 degrees.

Mix together sugar and beaten eggs. Add mashed banana and soaked fruit with remaining tea. Mix well.

Combine flour, baking powder and spices and fold into the fruit mixture. Pour into the prepared loaf tin and bake for around 45 minutes or until the top is firm and an inserted skewer comes out clean.

AGAS: For 3 oven Agas use the Baking Oven and for 2 oven Agas, bake on a wire rack in the bottom of the Roasting Oven with a cooling shelf on top for the first 25 minutes, then remove cooling shelf for the remainder (but watch it doesn't catch on top - like mine did!).

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Sleeper train breakfasts

Choosing between the two breakfast offerings on Britain's only remaining sleeper train services is a bit like being asked whether you'd rather squirt lemon juice in your eye or drink sour milk... the best option is neither.

The offering on the ScotRail Caledonian Sleeper is a dead giveaway for its tartan-clad shortbread bar... hardly a breakfast staple, but at least it'll keep hunger at bay lest you fall for the not-so-pleasant charms of the 'breakfast panini', a crime against toasted sandwiches the world over.

For starters, the sorry sarnie is heated inside the plastic bag (god only knows when that was sealed) and secondly, the contents suffer from that rapid microwave temperature drop. Boiling hot Pop Tart lava is the first bite, then within seconds you're left with congealed goo to soothe your fresh mouth ulcers.

The yoghurt is passable, but too sugary, and as for milk in a plastic tube, well, need I say more?

The Night Riviera Sleeper to the West Country fares better - the biscuits will do for later and the croissant would appease someone who buys their breakfast at Greggs, but the banana is the real saving grace. I mean who likes Grannie Smith apples? So tart, so hard, so nasty-taste-in-the-mouth.

For all their culinary shortcomings, there's no better way to arrive than by train.

I challenge anyone not to be excited by the novelty of the sleeper - tucked into bed in one part of the country, only to wake up seven hours later, hundreds of miles away.

My advice - take the sleepr, but avoid the breakfast on the train. Drink in the scenery instead.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Best granolas: I'd cross oceans for Gayle's Granola

Christmas has come early! My shipment of Gayle's Capitola Granola has arrived...

It's time to lock the door, close the curtains, put the phone on silent, and dig out my finest bowl and spoon... even if it is past 8pm.

This granola is my breakfast elixir and it comes just twice a year when my mother-in-law hops across the Atlantic (she used to bring me Celestial Seasonings' Tension Tamer tea as well, until I found it in London. Thank you, Whole Foods).

Back to Gayle's Granola and it's oats, honey, almonds, sunflower seeds, coconut, dried apricots, raisins, canola oil, brown sugar, wheat germ, wheat flour, sesame seeds, sugar and vanilla toasted goodness.

It's nutty like Lovedeans granola, but a bit more sticky. It's crunchy like Lizi's granola, but a touch sweeter. The dried apricots and juicy Californian raisins give it the fruitiness of Eat Natural's granola, but the fruit is sparse enough not to interrupt the crunch. It's too naughty to eat every day, but it's my occasional transatlantic treat.

It comes from a bakery in California in a pretty pastel seaside town called Capitola. Gayle's was born the same year as me - 1978 - and like me, loves breakfast, and over the years has expanded (ahem...).

Gayle's Bakery is legendary... well, in Capitola anyway.

The eponymous owner, Gayle Ortiz, and husband Joe, have turned it into quite the culinary powerhouse, with two cookbooks under their belt and a host of admirers who flock from the nearby towns for a taste of life outside Starbucks.

I admire from afar, but every so often jump on a plane with an empty suitcase and a fistful of dollars to get my Gayle's fix (don't even get me started on the mochas...).