Saturday, February 28, 2009

Birthday Cake: Chocolate Nemesis

The lengthy process of auditioning cakes for my birthday finally arrived at a suitable candidate. A tough task, but it had to be done.

I abandoned my previous contenders when I came across David Lebovitz’s post about the chocolate cake recipe I found on a men's room wall. I had to try it, even though it involved translating from the original French.

The flat mate and I were duly impressed - me especially with the addition of a small glass of strong coffee - while the flavour of the coffee itself remains hidden, it dramatically deepens and intensifies the chocolate. Yum.

Thinking more on this theme brought me back to the ultimate flourless chocolate cake recipe: the River Cafe’s Chocolate Nemesis.

I first ate this at the famous restaurant itself. I remember our party of six admired the huge cartwheel of a pudding on the counter as we came in. However, I was the only one to actually order a slice.

My involuntary orgasmic gasp on my first mouthful brought 5 large spoons down on my plate - “for a taste” - leaving me with virtually no pudding left. The nightmare of maintaining a polite composure as I watched my nemesis disappear lives with me still.

So once Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray published their River Cafe Cook Book, I tried to do the recipe one Christmas - with disastrous results. I later found out I was not alone. In fact, this recipe had become pretty notorious in London: Julian Barnes himself wrote about the social phenomenon:

“Moralists know that Hubris inevitably leads to Nemesis, but never before had the theory been given such literal expression. Overweening pride in one's ability to cook led to chocolate disaster. The pudding - in case you need reminding - was a signature dish (as the vile phrase has it) of the River Cafe. People had eaten at the restaurant, discovered this most decadent of puddings (2lbs chocolate, 10 eggs, 1lb butter, 1lb 5oz sugar), and, when the first River Cafe Cook Book came out, decided to try it for themselves.

Why it went wrong we Nemetics never discovered. The paranoid explanation was that some key element of the recipe had been deliberately omitted, thus driving customers back to the restaurant for the authentic item. The more plausible one was that there is a difference between the professional and the domestic oven, that certain dishes exaggerate this difference, and Chocolate Nemesis exaggerated the exaggerations. But the failure was generally so spectacular that few got back up off the floor and tried it again.”

Well, I laid my nemesis ghosts and tried it again, from their River Cafe Easy book. It worked! - at least, it came out, stood up, and was deliciously rich and fudgy: but not quite the perfection that in memory lives forever fresh.

Kate Moss in the British Museum

Marc Quinn is probably my favourite sculptor working in Britain today. He recently exhibited a sculpture of Kate Moss made of cast solid gold at the British Museum, as part of the Statuephilia show. It was brilliant.

The museum staged a talk between writer Will Self and Marc Quinn as one of the events accompanying the show. It was very well attended and reasonably enlightening. Quinn spoke about how the piece was about cultural notions of 'value' and contemporary myth. The sculpture clearly links a contemporary cultural icon, Moss, with classical mythological systems and questions our value systems, or the process whereby cultural value systems are created.

Unfortunately, the audience question section threw the floor open to retrogrades who felt authenticity means the artist should make everything himself (the romantic cult of the mark of the artist dies hard). I was impressed with the good humour and ease with which Self and Quinn handled these comments. I just squirmed in embarrassment for the questioner.

Yotam Ottolenghi's Mushroom Lasagne

I salivate over Yotam Ottolenghi's recipes every Saturday in the Guardian, although his usual massive list of sometimes obscure ingredients usually deters me from trying anything. However, his recent mushroom lasagne recipe looked so delicious, and so relatively easy to do (we've all made lasagnes before, right?), that I decided to try it out on my friend Marie, who was visiting on her way to Minneapolis recently.

We paid a touristy visit to Borough Market where we loaded up on fancy mushrooms - pied de mouton and girolles (and then back-tracked to Sainsbury's for loads of more ordinary chestnut mushrooms.

A letter in the Guardian the following week pointed out that Yotam's recipe called for almost a kilogram of butter and cheese. Checking back, this is true. All I can suggest is avoid thinking about it too much. The results are truly spectacular. Since this was the very first Ottolenghi recipe I was trying, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and use all of the specified cheeses: Gruyere, Feta, Ricotta, Mozzarella, and Parmesan. I do admit I thought the list was a bit extravagant but the genius of this selection of cheeses, and the way the lasagne is constructed, means you get the full value of all the different flavours and textures coming through. The same goes for the herbs, which add a welcome green sparkle to the cheesy construction.

We got 6 very generous servings out of this, and I'm definitely adding it to my list of party tricks.

the first LP I ever bought

Animals by Pink Floyd.

Heh, no, this isn't something I have treasured over the years: I bought it last month, via Ebay!

I was of LP buying age when this came out. To be honest Pink Floyd weren't my cup of tea then - I was more into Abba. Also, my parents really hated music or "noise" and we did not have a hi-fi in the house at all - I used to tape record Abba songs from the radio.

A local framers has a line of top-slot beechwood frames for LPs, and Animals is in the window. It looks great, and Battersea Power Station is a real icon of mine (as well as being a local landmark), so I decided to make my own.

It was £10 off Ebay. The seller helpfully left a price sticker on the (perfectly preserved) LP - he got it for £3 down in Devon. Nice mark up!

I'm wondering if these things will escalate further in price, especially for albums with classic artwork?

four o nine

It it wasn’t for Qype, I might never have known about this restaurant: and for years, I lived virtually around the corner!

What interests me is that this place has certainly captured the imagination of the Claphamites (or, at least, the qyping section of the Claphamites), as opposed to its competition on the common, Trinity, which hasn’t attracted nearly as many reviews, despite hanging in the same sort of price range, and with similar pretensions to above-average cooking.

Trinity’s decor feels a little bland and soulless - 409 gets it absolutely right. It’s a gorgeous, welcoming space, even though they cram as many tables in as humanly possible - great planning, from a turnover point of view. It feels intimate, not necessarily over-crowded, but it got completely ram-packed the Friday we were there.

I was emailed to confirm my booking, and then called on my mobile to re-re-confirm on the day, too. With (I thought) a pretty rude stipulation that we had the table for 2 hours max - pretty rich, I thought, coming from a neighbourhood restaurant (and this in the dog days of February).

I booked an early slot because Marie was just off a long-haul flight. We arrived just before 7 to a very quiet restaurant - but by 9 the place was heaving, and we had to shout to hear each other. We weren’t hassled to leave.

The staff were all pretty wonderful - friendly, polite, helpful and efficient. I really felt they were concentrating on making the experience good for us, but our waitress didn’t hover unnecessarily either - she actually had quite a large number of tables to look after.

And the food was faultless. Every element was just perfect. My sea-bass was fabulously fresh and tasty; Marie loved her chicken. We both had a sublime rhubarb compote and blood-orange sorbet for dessert.

Yep, it’s not cheap, and extras are very efficiently padded onto the basic special-offer menu (in the end, making up over 60% of the bill - despite we only had one glass of wine each). But I would say this is a real peach of place - can’t wait to go again.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Could this be me?

Very exciting news - Antony Gormley has announced his work for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square: members of the public will stand for 1 hour each on the plinth, day and night, for 100 days later this summer.

So, I've registered my interest already. I'd love to do this! Knowing my luck, though, I'll get the 3am shift on a rainy weekday night.

But still. Imagine being able to say you are a priceless artwork by a famous sculptor :-)

Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid

Well, it was probably always going to happen. The Brits award, together with the recommendations of friends whose opinions I cannot ignore, finally wore my resistance down and I bought it:

What do I think of it?

I eat my words. It's actually a masterpiece - soaring, sublime melodies and beautiful lyrics. A grown-up, more sophisticated Coldplay, if you like. The rather stately, repetitive rhythms are enlivened by clever, imaginative musicianship and the whole thing is just perfectly produced. Wonderful stuff.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

the end of the compact disc

The price of CDs has come down and down, and the space HMV devotes to them has become smaller and smaller. I’ve always liked to purchase a CD as a back-up for iTunes - because I distrusted Apple, and it just seemed sensible. This approach was vindicated when my computer and iPod were stolen simultaneously, and I lost over 100 songs purchased on iTunes. The burglar however turned his nose up at all my CDs, so I was able to rip them all again. It’s very annoying when iTunes still recognizes I’ve bought a song before - but I have no way of accessing my previous purchase.

So I was alarmed to read a prediction that this new Depression will kill off the CD as a format entirely. Oddly enough, in January, due to the sales and fall in price of CDs, I bought more of them in one month than I ever have before.

But nevertheless, even I am now moving slowly into a post-CD world. First, Apple announced an ease of restrictions on iTunes songs (good!), and secondly, I have signed up for a new back-up service, which backs up my whole computer on a continuous basis. Of course, it is a worry that my stuff is being backed up in California (earthquakes, anyone?), but on balance I feel a lot safer. As expensive as it is to replace a stolen laptop, the data you lose is far more precious.

I have noticed that some CDs - usually compilations - are cheaper to buy on Play or Amazon. This I am afraid is the CD’s last competitive quality. It is indeed now an unsustainable format.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Newsflash: Snow in London!

Boz alerts us to the legal imperatives here, so I rush to comply forthwith.

This is state of play at 1am last night:

and at 8 am this morning:

This BBC weather forecast made me laugh:

Meanwhile, out in the garden:

And on the Common:

The Common erupted in a frenzy of snowman making:

I spotted two ambitious souls making an igloo on the paddling pond. I'll check to see how far they got tomorrow morning: I'm [supposed to be] off to Birmingham!