Tuesday, 27 February 2007


Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Kathedraal in Antwerp

Last Friday after work, I left my apron, oven and baking tins behind for the weekend and went to Belgium for a quick family visit and a (tiny) bit of retail therapy. Whenever I’m in Belgium I like to spend a day in Antwerp, where S and I used to live. And so on Saturday, I dragged S out of the warm coziness of my parents’ home to a grey and rainy city. Antwerp is a really small town – certainly if you’re used to cities like New York or London – and it is very easy and manageable to walk everywhere. While the main shopping street (the Meir) is like a mini-Oxford Street, with all the big chains and identikit shops, Antwerp does have a lot of small, independent shops and boutiques, which are worth a visit. But you have to know where to find them of course.

One of my favourite shops in Antwerp is Huis A. Boon (Lombardenvest 2-4), a delightfully old-fashioned looking timewarp of a boutique that has been around since 1884. They sell gloves in every shape, material and colour imaginable – long opera gloves, fingerless ones, buttery soft leather gloves that fit like a second skin, lined with cashmere or satin, from neutral browns and greys to the most exuberant colours – all neatly stacked away in little labelled boxes that line the shop walls. I buy a new pair there every other year or so and I’d say if you don’t find what you’re looking for there, it probably doesn’t exist.

Bazar Bizar (Steenhouwersvest 18) is a veritable Aladdin’s cave, full of little trinkets that you absolutely don’t need but that would be so nice to have. Their ever-changing assortment ranges from Moroccan tea glasses and tagines to Vietnamese lacquer bowls and Indian textiles. Above the shop is a tiny B&B, quite unlike any other. They do have a website and even an on-line shop (which is rather unusual for Belgium – even Ikea in Belgium has no on-line ordering), but it’s in Flemish only. Bazar Bizar is in the street where S and I used to live, in a beautiful old flat with high ceilings, wooden floors, marble fireplaces and an amazing view of the cathedral from our bath. There are lots of other interesting shops in the street – one specialising in cognac, another one dealing in 20th century design classics, a few art nouveau specialists and more – but there’s only so much you can do in one day.

't Koetshuis, Kloosterstraat 62

I also like a good rummage around the ‘juntique’ shops of the Kloosterstraat (most of the shops here don’t open until 2pm though). S always patiently undergoes my browsing – interior-wise, he really likes clean lines, modern and minimal stuff, while I love old junk and am always on the lookout for bargains. Or things that have ‘potential’. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately – for S) there was no way I could get that giant wardrobe, lovely cabinet, or Victorian school desk from Antwerp to my parents’ place, let alone pack them in my tiny suitcase and drag them onto Eurostar back to London. What I did manage to bring back were three glass jars for the princely sum of €2.25.

De Vagant - café and shop

One of Antwerp’s little drinking holes, where I have spent many a pleasant evening, is ‘jenever café’ De Vagant (Reyndersstraat 25). This café serves more than 200 ‘jenevers’ (schnapps), all sourced from about 40 producers in either Belgium or northern France. They have numerous sorts of grain-distilled schnapps, ranging from very strong to even stronger, but they also have fruit schnapps (apple is a traditional one), creamy schnapps and liqueurs (chocolate, coffee and vanilla) and even more exotic things such as cactus or rose schnapps. All their schnapps are listed on a menu of which, by the way, copies are sold, because their menus used to ‘disappear’ all the time. The café has a few large communal tables that will most likely be sticky, as the only ‘right’ way to serve schnapps is to put a shot glass on the table and fill it to the rim. De Vagant also has a shop, located right opposite the café, which sells practically everything you’ll find on the café’s menu, in different sized bottles. I still had to drive that day and drinking driving is never a good combination, so we skipped the café, but we did buy a bottle of chocolate schnapps for a cocktail loving, chocoholic friend’s birthday.

pizza quattro staggione and spaghetti carbonara from restaurant Verona

All that running around Antwerp made us really hungry, and we ended the day at ‘our’ old Italian neighbourhood restaurant, Verona (Oude Koornmarkt 28). Nothing spectacular, but they do pretty decent pizza and pasta at very reasonable prices. And they still recognise us and treat us like regulars, even though we moved away more than five years ago.

Of course there are so much more nice places to shop, eat and drink in Antwerp (if anyone needs recommendations, I’d be more than happy to e-mail some suggestions), but we couldn’t possibly fit all those in one day . And we had to leave some room in our tummies for my granny’s birthday lunch the day after...

p.s. I got a comment on my previous post, yay!

Monday, 19 February 2007

mini-madeleines (with oomph)

After reading Bea’s latest madeleine post, two thoughts went through my head. One was: I really should start reading Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps perdu again. In our French lessons in high school, we read an excerpt that I really loved. The page-long sentences, endless thought associations, and of course the madeleines dunked in a delicate tisane. Notice though I said ‘start reading’ and not ‘read’. Have you seen the size of this book? Daunting, to say the very least. I must have been in a world-conquering mood the day I bought the book. Needless to say, I have not yet conquered it (the book that is, not the world – I might do that some other time). I started reading it at least five times now, but never get past the first few pages.

The other thought that went through my head (and quickly drowned out the first thought) was, of course, ‘yum, gotta get me some of that’. Somewhere in the back of the kitchen cupboard there was a spanking new mini-madeleine tin, which I had bought it ages ago but somehow hadn’t got around to using yet. And I kind of made a deal with myself not to buy any new bakeware until I used everything I have at least once, so this was a perfect occasion. Also in the cupboard: a jar of chestnut honey, bought for the sole purpose of madeleine making. The recipe I had in mind is from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course, one of my favourite recipe books – the chestnut honey gives them just that little bit of extra oomph.

I was just a tad nervous about the whole thing. After all, I had never made madeleines before, someone long ago told me they are incredibly difficult to make and then of course there’s that elusive bump. But I shouldn’t have worried. After three minutes in the oven, I sneaked a quick peek (my oven doesn’t have a glass door and is not very accurate with temperatures, so I was a bit concerned) and there were beautiful little bumps on all of them. And after five minutes in the oven, they were just perfect: slightly bronzed and just a tad crunchy on one side, beautifully pale gold on the other side. Yay. So there. I made madeleines. I MADE MADELEINES! For the first time in my life. And it worked! Of course they taste best straight from the oven – let them cool just a bit, flip them over in the tin and eat while standing at the kitchen counter. One or two tiny bites (depending on how big your mouth is) of lovely airy and oomphy fluffiness and they’re gone. I enjoyed them with a mug of coffee.

After the baking (and tasting, and then tasting some more), I dug out the camera to take some pictures. Now I’m not at all good at photography and I don’t know anything about all the technical stuff. Usually I take a few snaps, quickly get fed up with it and think ‘Ah, sod it, there will be something useful’. And that’s it. But not this time. I had taken some pictures and was about to put everything away, when S tiptoed into the kitchen and took over. S is a keen amateur photographer and a bit of a gourmet himself, but I never thought he’d be interested in combining the two. And yet there he was, snapping away, re-arranging things and even exclaiming ‘we need white mugs!’ (if you’re wondering why: the white mug in the picture has its ear turned to the left, because it has an image on the other side). I’m starting to think this whole food bloggy thing is contagious. Hmm, imagine. We are blog. You will be assimilated, resistance is futile…

Thursday, 15 February 2007


Lately, I’ve been on a breakfast mission. I’m not talking about long, lazy, relaxing weekend breakfast or brunch but rather the hurried weekday ‘oh no I’m going to be late for work why didn’t I get up earlier’ breakfast. Getting thoroughly fed up with eating the same muesli every morning, I decided to embark on a quest to assemble a breakfast repertoire of all things healthy, filling (so I’m not starving at my desk come 11 am), interesting and, oh yes, delicious.

Toast, yoghurt, jam, granola and fruit all passed the revue, in various combinations. Banana-walnut loaf (or cake, or muffins) I’m undecided about; while it has all the goodness of fruit and nuts, it also has a lot of sugar and fat. Earlier this winter I ‘discovered’ porridge, which is apparently the best breakfast one can eat. Low GI and slow-release energy and takes you right through to lunch. Porridge being a quintessentially British breakfast staple, and my being not British, it took me some time to getting used to, but now I really love it. Especially on a freezing cold and crisp winter day, then it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I prepare mine in the evening (allows me some extra time in bed in the morning) with organic oats, milk and a drizzle of honey, and reheat it in the microwave.

Another new addition to my breakfast menu is pignola – a sweet, Italian breakfast bread which gets its name from one of its ingredients: pine nuts (pignoli in Italian). How authentic this is, I’m not sure – my Italian boss had never heard of pignola and a quick google search didn’t return any results. Incidentally, I left out the pine nuts, so I’m probably not allowed to call it pignola any longer. But hey, it’s my blog and my bread and I can call it whatever I like. In any case, my pignola turned out to be utterly delicious. A wonderfully fruity nutty loaf, crumbly yet not at all dry, it goes well with butter, jam or lemon curd and of course that essential first cup of coffee of the day.

Adapted from Linda Collister "Bread. From Sourdough to Rye."

2 3/4 cups wholemeal flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 stick of butter, diced
2 large eggs, beaten
1 packet of yeast
1 cup raisins, dried apricots and goji berries
juice of one two small oranges
1 cup hazelnuts and walnuts, lightly toasted
icing sugar, for dusting

Put raisins, apricots, berries and juice in a bowl and leave to soak overnight. The next day, mix flour and salt in a bowl, rub in butter with fingertips until mixture resembles breadcrumbs then add yeast. Make well in centre, add beaten eggs, raisins, apricots and berries and mix everything together. Turn out dough on floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes. Return dough to bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size (about 3 hours). Turn out risen dough onto floured work surface and work in nuts until evenly distributed. Shape dough into ball then disc and set onto baking sheet. Slip tray into large plastic bag, inflate slightly and let rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour). Bake at 375˚F for about 35 minutes until golden brown. Transfer to wire rack to cool and dust with icing sugar. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

the ultimate carrot cake

This is the first carrot cake I’ve ever baked, so whether it’s really the ‘ultimate’ one, I couldn’t say. Delia claims it is though, so ultimate it is. Now I have a little secret to confess: I’m not a big Delia fan. Ever watched one of her programmes on tv? She’s got such an enthusiasm for life (feel the irony here) and I find her annoyingly pedantic – telling people how to boil eggs or peel tomatoes. But maybe British people need to be told these things, I don’t know. The woman knows how to cook though, I have to admit that, and over the years I have become a huge fan of her recipes.

mise en place

A few years ago, someone at work who had just met me – and quickly figured out I liked cooking and baking – gave me Delia’s Vegetarian Collection as a christmas gift. This quickly became one of my favourite cookbooks and I, in turn, have given copies to quite a few friends, who all love the book as well. Every single thing I make from it just works, whether I follow the recipe to the letter, or muck around with it. I now trust Ms D to such an extent, I would even risk trying a new recipe from this book for a dinner party, since I know it will turn out well. Well, I wouldn’t actually, because I’m a Virgo and hence a perfectionist and a bit of a control freak, but you catch my drift.

Back to the carrot cake now. When I was a child, we used to have a ‘carrot cake joke’, which goes as follows: a rabbit enters a bakery and asks the baker: ‘Do you sell carrot cake?’ (this bit has to be said in a rabbit-like voice, of course). Baker says no, he has never even heard of carrot cake, rabbit leaves. This scenario repeats itself daily, until the baker one day decides to make a carrot cake, because the rabbit might be on to something there – after all, rabbits know their carrots. So the next day, when the rabbit enters the bakery and asks: ‘Do you have carrot cake?’, the baker proudly replies yes. To which the rabbit says ‘It’s disgusting, don’t you think?’. Silly, I know, but it seemed hilarious when I was young(er). When I told my brother on the phone I was making carrot cake, his initial reaction was something similar. Until I told him what goes in it. Not that much carrot. And it doesn’t taste the slightest bit of carrots. I wonder why it’s even called carrot cake at all. But I guess that must be a British thing.

I tweaked the original recipe a bit – I left out the orange zest (yuk) and dessicated coconut (yuk again), added some dried apricot, forgot to add the goji berries I had planned to throw in as well, substituted walnuts for pecans, added some oats, and used molasses alongside the soft dark brown sugar. I threw the whole lot into the oven, and an hour later a mountain of moist, yet crumbly deliciousness emerged, which I brushed with a lemon-orange syrup to moisten it even more. One word of advice, when Ms D says to line the cake tin with baking paper, there’s a very good reason to do exactly what she says. Otherwise, after you’ve doused the cake with the syrup, it will stick to the tin. And fall to pieces when you try to exact the cake from the tin. How do I know that? Hmm, let’s not go there. And no, the fact I wrapped my cake in paper for the pictures has nothing to do with this piece of advice whatsoever …