Thursday, February 25, 2010

Glamour Puds

I must admit that despite a deep interest in puds and a shallower interest in glamour, Glamour Puds had passed me by until this afternoon. The first series of pastry chef Eric Lanlard's Channel 4 cake show is stripped across this week at 2.55pm, with the second one scheduled to start on Monday. It has thoroughly daytime production values but has brought him a modicum of attention, and in an interview in today's Times he ponders the British fondness for style over substance in the celebration cake stakes.

Lanlard is, of course, a major proponent of that style, filling bespoke celebrity orders as well as selling handmade cakes to less well-known Londoners. His trademark dessert tower, beloved of brides who wish to give their guests a nice pudding rather than a finger of fruity misery, is much copied. He's got chops when it comes to sugarwork as well, although that's much less fashionable than whipping out a sheet of cocoa butter transfers.

The show I caught while on sofa duty, dedicated to wedding cakes, exposed the difficulties of demonstrating a real skill on telly without turning your audience off. Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets has solved the problem by getting RB to call for his assistant whenever anything too involved or unsexy is required: whole chunks of the recipes are missed out, and we're directed online to finish the job. It's shameless, but then we don't expect RB to toil over stock or parfait or rouille in real life, anyway.

Lanlard's approach is slightly different and, due to the constraints of the format, a bit half-arsed. He'll show you how much hoo-ha is involved in certain aspects of preparation – before you get past first base on his mini lemon cheesecakes, you'll need moulds and acetate strips, and he's at least honest about the fact that stacked cakes require dowelling rods for structural support, and for that, of course, you also need a hacksaw – but then goes all coy about how to make decorative white chocolate fans. There's vague talk about equipment being readily available, but no advice about how, if you're going to stick marzipan to a cake with apricot jam, you need to sieve it first.

The C4 food website doesn't really succeed in filling in the gaps, so the blushing bride seeking inspiration for her wedding cake is in receipt of some seriously mixed messages. Is the dream pearl-encrusted cake achieveable? Yes, but probably only by Eric.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Welcome to Burritoville

Actually, no. Manchester is about as far from being a hotbed of quality burritos as it's possible to be, but we're making progress. At the hairdresser's the other day (a while ago, in fact – thanks for keeping us offline for seven days, BT) there was an upset in the usual information exchange. Normally, the lady who cuts my hair tells me how she's getting on with her new boobs (she's disappointed by her recent augmentation because they don't look fake enough) and I recommend restaurants she might like to take them out to. Everyone's happy.

This time, she had a suggestion for me: Pancho's Burritos. It's a little stall that has recently opened in the food bit of the Arndale market, our own North West nod towards the food-cart culture that's supplying the hungry of other cities with spicy street snacks galore. The hairdressers of the Northern Quarter prefer it to Barburrito, and I've got a lot of time for the lunch preferences of people who are on their feet all day.

Pancho, if it was he, made me a stormingly large foil-wrapped pork burrito stuffed with everything and a little bit of spicy sauce. I should have asked him to hold the iceberg lettuce – that cold, crisp, throat-grabbing watery greenness reminds me of bad packed-lunch sandwiches and misery – but otherwise it was a decent effort, hot and fresh, and far preferable to those Ditsch soft pretzels you see people clutching as they wander around the Arndale.

Perhaps even better than the pork juices dribbling down my arm is the other stuff Pancho's sells. They've got a brilliant selection of all things spicy, including alternative brands of smoked paprika (it transpires that La Chinata, pictured above, is not the only fruit), chipotles in adobo, tomatillos, green sauce, red sauce and loads of different dried chillies, plus corn tortillas and masa.

A few years ago, as a test for a Mexican cookbook I'd been sent, I struggled to get any of this stuff in Manchester, and the big spicy dinner we held was lacking as a result. I think I ended up buying bits and bobs in America and concealing them in my luggage, in case another Mexican cookbook landed on the doorstep. I will fear leaky bottles of hot sauce no longer. Pancho's is here.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Expressing disappointment

This is not just any tagliolini fungi. It's Francesco Mazzei's tagliolini fungi for Pizza Express. I've got a lot of time for Mazzei and his Liverpool Street restaurant, L'Anima. Just after it opened I went with my friend Suz and, although we stuck out like sore and slightly shabby thumbs among the cityish clientele, we were treated with exceedingly good grace. Apart from one oversalted pasta dish, the meal was brilliant, and the chef-patron subsequently proved to be a generous interviewee at the last minute, when he could – and many would – have just told me to bugger off.

Mazzei follows Theo Randall into the guest chef slot at Pizza Express, and at the beginning of February his dishes were launched at a party at the chain's Soho restaurant. Unable to waddle that far, I tried his pasta dish – there are also pizzas and starters – at Pizza Express in Hale over the weekend. Away from the bright lights of Greek Street, it wasn't, frankly, that hot.

There was a decent quota of chunky mushrooms and the promised whiff of truffle, but the portion was exceedingly mean for £9.45, and it had been flashed under the grill, leaving some strands in an advanced state of burny mortis, crisp, black and crunchy. I understand that the launch went well enough, but there are 372 restaurants in the PE chain; the dishes will have been designed for easy and effective roll-out, and if Mazzei was hoping to show off his wares further afield, he's been let down by the fellas in the stripy tops.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Ice, ice baby

I didn't sleep much last night. It's the excitement. Sometime today, the delivery men from Currys (who, if they are anything like their in-store counterparts, will be nice but stink of fags) are coming. They will bring with them my ticket to culinary freedom. I cannot wait.

I've long been equipped with pestle and mortar, good knives and the best plug-in items that messrs Kenwood and Magimix can provide. But, since leaving home for Manchester in the late nineties, I have never had access to a proper freezer. Those crappy ice-making drawers at the top of normal fridges have been my lot in life; the one we have now is capable of keeping a tub of Cherry Garcia frozen yoghurt solid for about 36 hours, which creates occasional, intense bouts of ice cream frenzy, followed by long fallow periods.

The decidedly mid-range fridge freezer we chose at the weekend is ostensibly because of the baby. I'll be able to freeze little cubes of carrot puree, refrigerate his milk, and get to things without bending down because, well, I can't. There's also a theory that women should spend their maternity leave cooking, labelling and freezing big batches of nutritious meals for the weeks after birth, because otherwise they will end up living on Cheestrings and their beloveds will leave them.

That's all very well, but at the moment I can only see frozen fun and frolics. An ice-frosted bottle of gin with ice cubes rattling alongside. Chicken bones frozen until there's enough to make stock, rather than chucked heartlessly away. Blackberries picked down near the Priory. Blobs of biscuit dough ready to bake at will. Orange sorbet frozen in the hollowed-out shells for when my sister comes round and we remember holidays in France. Ice cream that can be eaten, rather than drunk, after two days at Hale and Hearty towers! Excuse me. I've just got to look out of the window and see if the men from Currys are coming.