Monday, 31 January 2011

Waitrose Cookery School: Macaroon Mania

Back in November, Waitrose launched a new cookery school. It's probably not news to most of you eager cooks as there have been lots of articles and reviews in the last couple of months. I'm going to add another one to the mix!

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I love Waitrose! We both arrived in my neighbourhood at the same time, Waitrose and I. My local branch opened it's doors just around the corner from us just a month or two after we moved into our house. Both of us have been here for more than 16 years now and have a mutual love-in going on. I'm loyal to Waitrose; it's my primary supermarket. And Waitrose is loyal to me too; looking after me by consistently delivering good products, employing friendly staff, showing good customer service and on top of all that, it's widely regarded as an ethical supermarket too.

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So, I was quite excited by the idea of Waitrose Cookery School. Luckily for me, I was invited to check out the school, along with a group of fellow bloggers, a few nights before it opened to the public on November 8th.

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Located above the huge John Barnes (Finchley Road) branch in North West London, it's a beautiful space. Modern white walls and black and white flooring are lifted by the warmth of pale wooden furniture and shelving. Chrome fittings look suitably high tech. Tables are decorated with funky centre pieces made from fresh vegetables. Bookshelves are stacked with a cookery book collection every single one of us lusted after. Bottles of wine and other cooks' ingredients line other shelves. Pristine cooking equipment is stacked along deep window sills.

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At the far end of the room is the cooking space. The tutor's workspace is set in a long line, faced by stools for the students. Beyond it are workstations for the students.

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To one side is a bar area – some of the classes include cocktail lessons too.

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There's even a state-of-the-art lecture theatre available too.

As impressive than the space are the team Waitrose has assembled to run the school itself:

Gordon McDermott has 17 years experience as a chef, much of it working at some of London's best restaurants. He was a lecturer at Rick Stein's Cookery School for four years and he established and ran the Anton Mosimann Academy in London. In his latest role as Waitrose Cookery School's Course Manager he designs the courses, picks the chef instructors and ensures that courses are delivered to the highest standard, as he did during our taster session.

James Campbell is the school's Head Chef for Pastry. He became Gary Rhode's Group Head Pastry Chef at just 24 years old and has over 20 years experience in five different Michelin restaurants. In his role as Head Pastry Chef at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel he ran cookery courses and demonstrations as far afield as Malaysia.

James taught the macaroon-making part of our sample class, with Eleni Tzirki (school sous chef and trainee pastry chef) assisting.

The other part of our sample class was a cocktail making course, taken by Wilson Chung. Wilson, who hails from Australia, is one of the school's sous chefs. Growing up in a family nearly all of whom work in the food industry, Wilson's career in restaurants, bars, professional food writing and Australian TV is perhaps inevitable.

Also helping on the night was James Bennington, the school's Head Chef. James began his career in professional kitchens in 1997 but his big break came in 2005 when he became head chef at La Trompette, which at the time, didn't have a Michelin star. With James at the helm, it gained one in 2008. James left La Trompette in 2009 to join the cookery school (which may explain why we didn't enjoy it quite as much on our second visit, last summer).

If these five are representative of the rest of the Waitrose Cookery School team, I am sure each and every class is bound to be very good.

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Before starting our sample class, we were treated to a range of drinks and canapés, freshly made by the cooking team in the kitchen. (The school offers half day, full day and evening courses; the first two include a sit-down meal in the spacious sitting area.)

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myself and lovely Becca from how to make a mess

Jackets or aprons donned, we first lined up on stools in front of James' demonstration station and watched him and Eliza take us through our basic macaroon recipe.

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The school advocates making meringues using the Italian meringue technique rather than French, which means making a sugar syrup and adding it to the whisked egg whites whilst hot. This partially cooks the meringue mix before baking. This meringue is then folded into a paste made from ground almonds, more sugar and more egg white.

We were encouraged to ask lots of questions and we did! All were answered with patience, consideration and a little humour. We gleaned lots of tips on what to do and what to avoid!

After the demonstration we went back to our own cooking stations (one between two students) to have a go at making our own. The teaching staff were constantly available to give guidance and reminders, as we worked.

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Becca and I had some problems; we were scuppered not once but twice by our mixer grinding to a halt half way through whisking the eggs and hot sugar syrup. Our instructors quickly brought out a replacement mixer from their cupboards but this failed too and we eventually did our whisking at James' demonstration station.

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It meant we fell behind and were still piping our shells when most of the class moved across to the bar area for Wilson's cocktail lessons.

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It wasn't a problem, however, as he repeated the lesson three times so that everyone who wanted a hands-on experience had a go.

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Those of us who didn't make our own cocktails didn't miss out on sampling some of Wilson's delicious concoctions!

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As our sample session was a shortened evening one, we made orange macaroon shells and then filled them with some "here's some we made earlier" piping bags full of orange marmalade butter cream.

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We were also given some pretty pink shells (sparkly with edible glitter) and two different fillings which we piped inside – a thicker pink buttercream and a runnier mulled wine reduction that we pooled within a circle of the buttercream.

As we were finishing up, we were given pastry boxes in which to take our creations home with us, which I liked.

Although I've made macaroons twice before, I've always felt nervous about working with hot sugar syrup, and have used the French meringue technique. After attending the class, I'd feel confident in trying the Italian meringue recipe again, though I'd definitely invest in an electronic kitchen thermometer first.

Here's the recipe for the macaroons we made during our practical:

Orange Marmalade Macaroons

Ingredients

Meringue
187 grams caster sugar
75 ml water
62 grams egg whites (roughly two egg whites)
5 ml orange food colouring
Paste
187 grams ground almonds
187 grams icing sugar
62 grams egg whites (roughly two egg whites)
Buttercream Filling
180 grams whole milk
80 grams sugar
40 grams egg yolks
300 grams butter, diced
100 grams orange marmalade

Method

  1. For the Italian meringue: In a small saucepan, add the sugar and water and mix until there are no lumps. Add the food colouring and place the saucepan over medium to high heat and place the sugar thermometer inside. The required temperature is 114C.
  2. In the electronic mixing bowl, add the 62g of egg whites with the whisk attachment. This will then be ready for the sugar syrup when the required temperature is reached.
  3. Cut out two sheets of parchment paper, the same size as the baking tray and set aside ready for piping. Then place the correct sized nozzle in a piping bag and set aside.
  4. In a medium sized mixing bowl, add the ground almonds and icing sugar. Continue to check the temperature of the sugar syrup.
  5. Once it has reached 112C, start whisking the egg whites on slow speed. Once the temperature has reached 114C, lift the thermometer out and slowly pour the syrup down the side of the bowl ensuring not to splash yourself! Turn onto full speed and after approximately five minutes, the Italian meringue will become glossy and soft.
  6. Then, we need to make the paste: Add the other 62g of egg whites to the icing sugar and ground almonds and mix with a spatula until a paste has formed.
  7. Once the Italian meringue is ready (soft peaks will form) this is combined with the paste in 2 stages. If it is over mixed the mix will become too liquid and the macaroons will become very flat once cooked. It is important to ensure a nice gentle mixing motion.
  8. The macaroon mix is then ready to be piped. Using a spatula, fill the piping bag with the nozzle half way. Pipe some mix into each corner of the baking trays in order to stick the parchment paper onto the tray. Pipe in straight lines going from left to right leaving a 2cm gap in between each macaroon.
  9. These are now ready to be baked for 12 minutes at 140C.
  10. Once they are cooked, take the trays out of the oven and leave to cool.
  11. For the orange marmalade butter cream: Heat up the milk over medium heat.
  12. Separately, dice the butter and set aside.
  13. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together.
  14. Once the milk comes to the boil, add some of the milk to the egg mix and mix with a spatula, Then, transfer this mix to back into the saucepan with the rest of the milk. Continue to stir over a low heat with the spatula and once the mixture coats the back of the spatula, pour it into the electronic mixer with the paddle attachment on medium to high speed. (you can also use a thermometer and once it reaches 80C, take off the heat)
  15. Once the mix has almost cooled in the electronic mixer, begin to add a third of the diced butter on low speed. After a minute, increase the speed and wait for a further 3 minutes. Add another third of diced butter and repeat this process until all the butter has been added. The butter cream should become thick, smooth and shiny.
  16. Finally, add the orange marmalade to the butter cream and mix on low speed until the marmalade is fully incorporated.
  17. Using a spatula, spoon the mix into a piping bag and set aside ready to pipe on the macaroons once they have been cooked and cooled down.


Pros

  • Beautiful, spacious environment with good quality equipment
  • Demo then practical learning format
  • A strong team of instructors and support staff
  • Clear instruction
  • Encouraged to ask questions


Cons

  • Quite large class sizes
  • Sharing work stations – fine if you book with a friend but may or may not work out if you book a single and end up with someone who monopolises or you don't get on with
  • Pricey


School Information

The Waitrose Cookery School is located in NW London, just by the Finchley Road tube station. Full day courses cost £175. Half day (morning or evening courses) are priced £105. The school also offers demonstration evenings for £65. For more information, call 020 7372 6108.

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Thursday, 27 January 2011

How to make Strawberry Vodka Liqueur

Last summer we went strawberry picking. I enjoyed it so much I ended up with far too many strawberries. Some we ate fresh, of course – with and without cream. I made a lot into strawberry jam (though it didn't set so I have several jars of what I'm calling strawberry sauce for ice-cream!). And some went into strawberry ice-cream.

The rest I decided to make into strawberry vodka, having been inspired by friends' efforts.

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First, I weighed my hulled and chopped strawberries. I wanted something sweet and rich so I used an equal weight of fruit and sugar. You can use less, of course – as little as half weight of the fruit. My friend recommended using about 1.25 to 1.5 times spirit to weight of fruit. I chose vodka but you can use gin, if you prefer.

With my three ingredients measured out, I divided them between five jars (somwhat approximately, since the jars were different sizes), sealed them tightly and left them in the (dark, cool) larder for just over 6 months.

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For the first few weeks, I shook and turned them once a week or so. After that, I left them untouched.

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By the time I went back to them, the colour had leached out of the fruit and into the vodka. The liquid seemed much more viscous than the original vodka.

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Pete had to help me open the jars; the lids on four of them were jammed on very tight indeed! I strained the contents through muslin straight into a large measuring jug, the easier to then bottle it.

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I deliberately mixed the results of all five jars together as I figured some might be more or less sweet or more or less alcoholic, as I'd not shared the ingredients exactly according to the different jar sizes. I wanted a single finished liqueur.

The results are absolutely fantastic!

I've called it a strawberry vodka liqueur rather than just strawberry vodka because it's really thick and syrupy, very rich and sweet and has a really strong flavour.

We poured it into some saved alcohol bottles to store.

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I didn't make much as I didn't realise how fabulous it would be but my plan is to make lots more next strawberry season so that I can share it as gifts for friends.

P.S. The alcohol soaked fruit wasn't wasted – we had it alongside some home-made lemon posset that evening!

Homemade Strawberry Vodka Liqueur

Strawberries, chopped, hulled and weighed
Sugar (same weight as strawberries)
Vodka (1.25 times weight/volume of strawberries)

  • Combine ingredients and seal into an airtight glass jar.
  • For the first few weeks, shake and turn regularly, to help the sugar dissolve and flavours mix.
  • Leave to mature for at least 3-4 months; the longer the better.
  • Strain through muslin for a clearer finished result.
  • Bottle and enjoy for as long as it lasts!

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Monday, 24 January 2011

ThaT Burger!

ThaT Burger opened on Watford High Street in August 2009.

It's an odd location for a new burger joint that's bringing American-style fast food burger culture to the UK, not least because Watford is not renowned for it's dining scene – the local market for genuinely good fast food is relatively small. I know many burger obsessives willing to travel clear across London for a good burger. I'm not confident the same applies to Watford!

Still, I'd read good things about them and I work just a few minutes walk away, so I finally made my first visit on my first day back at work, in January.

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Inspiration for ThaT Burger comes from from US chains In N Out, Five Guys, Sonic and others, none of which I've visited but all of which I've read lots and lots about. The photos in this post on Five Guys, Chicago makes that clear, from decoration alone.

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The interior is very much a regular fast food burger joint with a simple red, white and chrome colour scheme.

The full menu is located on the pillar; the meal deal options on the overhead boards.

A standard burger (with two patties) with a regular soft drink and fries, comes to £4.55. You can down size to a single patty burger meal for £3.80 or pay more for additional toppings (including different types of cheese, bacon, jalapenos) or to substitute onion rings for the fries, or a milkshake or J20 for your regular fizzy drink.

Alternatively you might fancy a chicken burger, a falafel veg burger, an order of buffalo chicken wings or a portion of homemade cheesecake.

We experienced a minor frustration with placing our order, working through the numbered panels on the overhead menu boards: we tried to order a burger meal, then give our chosen toppings, followed by our drink and then our side. Unfortunately, the till software is not set up to match the menu boards and the member of staff who served us insisted on skipping ahead to fries and onion rings, which threw us a little bit. Not a big deal, just a minor detail.

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Orders made, you will be given a pager to let you know when your order is ready for collection – orders are prepared freshly for each customer. You can choose to grab a seat or pop back out onto the high street, if you prefer, though it's unlikely you'll have to wait more than a few minutes.

Our order was ready very quickly and we got stuck in.

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The burgers were pretty good! Pete went for a standard two-patty burger plus American cheese. I chose the standard plus guacamole and mushrooms.

The patties were fairly thin (to allow for fast cooking, given that orders are cooked fresh) so a double patty is the minimum number I'd want. The beef was good quality, with a pleasant flavour.

Pete's American cheese was just as you'd expect, with that strangely plastic quality of its kind. My guacamole was rather nice but didn't go that well with the gherkins, lettuce, onion and tomato also included. I'd ask to skip the gherkins, at the very least, if you go for guacamole yourself. The mushrooms, I'm not sure about – they were actually too strong and reminded me of rehydrated dried ones. I picked most of them out and then my burger was just right.

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Fries are hand cut on site, with the skin left on. They were good.

Onion rings were a thing of beauty and absolutely fantastic. Probably the best that I can remember having, certainly in the span of my working memory. The onion was sweet and cooked just enough to be both soft and have a bite. The batter was very, very light and crispy and only just clung to the onion. A thing of wonder!

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On my second and third visits, I opted for the chicken burger instead of beef. Oh, my goodness me! Like the onion rings, this blew me away – easily the best chicken burger I can remember! A generously sized, moist chunk of chicken, evenly bread crumbed and freshly fried and served with the same default gherkins, lettuce, onion and tomato. Really, really excellent!

My only request would be to have homemade coleslaw as an additional topping – my very favourite thing to have with a chicken burger.

Oh and can I say a word about the milkshakes? ThaT Burger use high quality ingredients and stir real fruit into the frozen drink before serving. My banana and chocolate milkshake had a wide straw so I could suck up chunks of soft, fresh banana and broken up pieces of chocolate bar – yes I needed to chew now and then! It was mighty fine, as was the strawberry milkshake Pete had on a later visit and the strawberry banana one I had another time.

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For a regular meal deal, with some additional toppings, you're looking at about £5. If you go for onion rings, milkshake or more toppings, you'll hit the £6 mark. Of course, you can make it a blow out by adding chicken wings and cheesecake, if you've got the room!

Whilst the prices are a little higher than the main high street fast food burger chains, especially when those chains are running one of their price promotions, I'd say they are very reasonable for what you get. What you get is good.

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Judging by the Wall Of Fame, some of the regulars haven't held back from ordering extra patties or competing for the fastest 10-patty burger eating time!

Having had such a great experience on our first visit, I made a quick phone call and arranged to pop in the following week meet and interview one of the owners, Justin.

Justin launched ThaT Burger with his brother Ian, plus a couple of other investor partners. He tells me he and Ian are "partners in everything we do" and work together on their various businesses. Ian runs restaurant businesses The Rotisserie and Delisserie; Justin runs an internet business; they also have a catering business.

How did ThaT Burger come about?

Justin lived in California for 10 years. He tells me "there are quite a few [burger restaurant] concepts over there, In N Out being the oldest one, Five Guys is another, which has been an explosion over the last 8 years..."

"I love burgers, that's why I've opened this… it's not just that I lived in California! I love burgers, I've eaten burgers every day for the last 25 years, probably more than I should have eaten. I know what a burger is supposed to be…"

This genuine love for burgers, together with inspiration from across the pond, lead to Justin and Ian developing their own brand of fast food burgers for the UK.

Their burgers, Justin tells me, are somewhere between In N Out and Five Guys. Their fries are Belgian style, and the decision to keep the skin on came from asking their Facebook fans for input. The onion rings were inspired by those at a well-known chain in South Africa (where they were born and grew up). The milkshakes take a leaf from the fresh fruit ices and smoothies at Sonic. All were refined by the brothers and trialled (with the help of Facebook fans again) to appeal to the local market.

"Look, we do very few things here but everything we do we do better than most, especially in a fast food environment, I'm not claiming to have the best burger in the world, I'm claiming to have the best fast food burger in England, without a doubt!"

On those I've sampled so far, I'd have to agree with him!

The biggest question mark for me is the location.

I mean, this is a concept that needs a sufficiently large audience who appreciate a really good fast food burger and are willing to pay a little more than they might spend at BK and McDs for the privilege. There are certainly some of those punters in Watford, but clearly not enough.

Justin candidly agrees that location is their biggest mistake and that he's somewhat frustrated. Their very loyal fans visit regularly but the masses are not beating a path to the door.

"There's something about a burger that is cool, for me at least, but Watford is not the right place."

He has confidence in the concept and tells me that they are talking to investors and looking for other sites.

I'm gunning for London, maybe Soho or Camden… I shall keep my fingers crossed.

ThaT Burger is located on The Parade (a continuation of Watford's High Street, at the East end).

For those coming from out of town, it's a 10 minute walk from Watford Junction station. Direct trains from Euston take less than 20 minutes. Journeys are charged for zone 8.

ThaT Burger
15/17 The Parade
Watford, Hertfordshire
WD17 1LQ,

ThaT Burger on Facebook

Please note that my first and third visits were made anonymously. I met and chatted to Justin on my second visit.


Sadly, ThaT Burger is closing. Its last day of trading is Sunday 6th February. I shall keep my fingers crossed for a London location in the future.

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