Ramblings..., Reviews

Grillstock Smokehouse, Walthamstow – review

 

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There may be some (or indeed many) that view the opening of a new American BBQ joint in London as yet another example of lazy, greedy people trying to cash in on recent food trends. Another attempt to grab a few extra quid from the ‘dude-food’ obsessed crowd of bearded 20-somethings who slavishly follow every pop-up, food van, or ‘next big thing’ bricks-and-mortar establishment. And if the new branch of Grillstock in the heart of Walthamstow (alarms begin to sound as people realise they have to travel beyond the hipster haven of Hackney) was the result of cynical, soulless, cash-laden backers trying to make a quick buck then perhaps such suspicions would be justified.

But this, my good friends, is Grillstock.

And there’s a little bit more to it than that.

Starting life as a Bristol music and food festival way back in 2010, long before pulled pork featured on almost every pub and restaurant menu, Grillstock is a loud, meaty love-letter to the massive BBQ festivals and traditions of the US. We’re talking about groups of people who all get together over a weekend and sit around their blackened smokers, occasionally testing temperature and burn rate, to produce the ultimate in low and slow cooking, drinking ice cold beers, and generally being awesome. Grillstock (the festival, which this year is taking place at three different locations) puts meat at the centre of their celebrations and, like the US, features a genuine BBQ competition where everything from chicken to brisket to ribs is judged and rewarded with a variety of prizes and awards, alongside some great music, fine beer, BBQ demos, and some excellent places to chomp on various parts of porcine anatomy. And the chilli-eating competition is alarmingly entertaining to watch.

Following the success of the festival, a little smokehouse in Bristol’s St Nicholas market opened which was quickly followed by a larger site at Clifton Triangle and the lucky locals were thus able to feast on genuine, fabulous BBQ all year round. Having visited both on several occasions I can honestly say that the meat at Grillstock in Bristol seriously rivalled anything I’d had in London and, actually, made me rather jealous in the process. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got some excellent BBQ in the capital – Miss P, Pitt Cue Co, The Joint – but we didn’t have Grillstock.

Until now.

Following the success of their first opening outside of Bristol (in the beautiful city of Bath), the owners turned their eyes toward London and, having carefully found the right site, opened their doors to the baying public on April 10th this year. I was lucky enough to get an table at the soft opening (which was by guest-list only) the day before and took a good friend along who also shares a penchant for smoked meats. This was my first proper expedition out of South London since being ill and I was personally very pleased I could just sit on a tube to the end of the line – thus saving more energy for meat.

On entering I have to say I was pretty bowled over by the place. The Clifton smokehouse is small – one large table down the middle of the room and that is it – but Grillstock E17 is spacious and filled with a huge variety of seating options. There are tables for two, a few booths, a big communal table with high stools, and a selection of customisable options for groups of anything from 5 to 10. Like Bristol (and I assume Bath too), once you’ve been seated you then order your food from the bar, collect your drink, and sit back and relax in anticipation of a huge meaty feast to come. The decor is pretty stripped back – the breeze block walls are adorned with posters from Grillstocks past and a bit of metal here and there – but the atmosphere and lighting is welcoming and hearty. It’s the kind of place that will be great on a hot summers day but also perfect to hide away and warm up in thedepths of winter. Also like Bristol, the staff are relaxed, friendly, and clearly enjoying themselves.

DSC_0982But what about the food?

Grillstock offer either a plate of one type of meat, a combo of three, a sharing platter of all four meats for two people, or the Grand Champion which is a selection so big I wouldn’t be surprised if it took more than one staff member to carry it (finish it in an hour and win a shirt and some hot sauce – maybe next time). They also do a range of burgers which includes the vast Lockjaw, consisting of two 5oz burgers, pulled pork, brisket, burnt ends, cheese, and fry-sauce which has to be seen to be believed, as well as hot dogs and a variety of sides and extras like BBQ beans and cornbread. This may make choosing your dinner rather difficult.

I’ve eaten my fair share of ribs, pulled pork, and wings in my time. Some have been good, others pretty poor. My combo platter of all three aforementioned meats at Grillstock was, quite simply, amazing. The ribs were soft and tender with a good ‘bark’ of smoked exterior that yielded to reveal perfectly cooked meat within. The wings had a nice zing and were succulent and delicious and the pulled pork was smoky, savoury, and incredibly more-ish. These marvels of smoked flesh were served with a huge fistful of fries, a well-balanced slaw, a lovely little brioche-style bun, and some house pickles which put many so-called ‘home-made’ pickles I’ve sampled in London to shame – crunchy, tangy, a bit of spice – everything a pickle should be.

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Ribs, wings, and pulled pork combo

My companion also had pulled pork but chose the smoked chicken and a slab of brisket to go with it. Brisket is a hard thing to get right – it is easy to dry out and turn into a leathery mess that needs a saw to hack through it – but the years of experience of low and slow cooking pay off here, producing a juicy, smoky, slab of wonder. The chicken was pretty special too.

Chicken, brisket, and pulled pork

Chicken, brisket, and pulled pork

All of this can be smothered in the house BBQ or hot sauces, which sit proudly on the table alongside traditional condiments like ketchup, American mustard (French’s of course!), and the classic Frank’s Hot Sauce.

And speaking of Franks – Frank Underwood would definitely come back for the ribs here, even though he has a favourite rib joint of his own.

Sorry, I may have been watching a bit too much ‘House of Cards’….

Back to Grillstock…

To go with our meats, we sampled the own-brand pale ale which was light and nicely hopped – perfect with BBQ – and were certainly tempted by the wall of bourbons and other boozy delights that shone from behind the bar. I can also recommend the Pistonhead lager or any of the Brooklyn beers they offer – all easy drinking and all perfect with the food. Or you can have cider, cocktails, iced tea, or root beer. You get the idea.

We were reluctant to leave – it was very tempting to sup on a few more beers, wait for the food to go down, and then start again but eventually we shuffled off, full and happy.

I cannot recommend Grillstock highly enough. Everything from the staff, the room, the food, the drink, the atmosphere – it’s all brilliant. And surprisingly well priced too. The combo platter (which filled me up enough so as not to need dinner) is £18 which is an absolute bargain, I have been to places where a single portion of (not so good) ribs cost more and certainly didn’t come with such a wide selection of sides. The beers were £3.80 each and you can get a Jack Daniels and Coke for £3.50! This is all good news.

So get on up to Walthamstow and try it. Or, if Bristol or Bath are nearer, head down there instead – you’ll find the same quality of food and service across the board. And once you’ve done that, buy a ticket to one of the festivals this year either in Bristol, Manchester, or London and take your experience further. Grillstock’s motto is Meat, Music, Mayhem – it could not be a more fitting description of this excellent enterprise.

Grillstock Walthamstow

198 Hoe St,

E17

www.grillstock.co.uk

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Meaty, Ramblings..., Recipes, Reviews

Pig’s Trotters on Sourdough toast – review & recipe

It may seem odd to be reviewing a recipe but sometimes a dish requires more than a list of ingredients and a method. Generally I always try to follow instructions as closely as possible on the first attempt of a new recipe, only making changes if something is not working properly i.e. burning. Which does sometimes happen. But every cook will tweak recipes as they go and I’m no different. However this recipe is so good that I find very little adjustment is required.
It is one I’d been wanting to try for a while but had never quite been brave enough to attempt – the ingredients alone fill one page of the recipe book and the process takes several hours. However it was the first dish I ever ate a fine dining restaurant (the excellent Trinity in Clapham) and has stayed with me ever since. I saw that it featured in Trinity chef Adam Byatt‘s book ‘How to Eat in’ and I managed to get hold a copy to ogle over. And there it was ‘Pig’s Trotters on toasted Sourdough’. Brilliant. But, as I said, complicated and time consuming. It also features a fair amount of meat and, as my wife is a vegetarian, it was never going to be something that I could present for a normal dinner at home. And it’s a starter anyway so there you go.

However, as she was away for a couple of weeks and I had a good friend coming to stay – one with whom I often cook over-the-top and ambitious dishes – it seemed like a good opportunity to give it a go. And the recipe says that the cooked trotter mix can be kept refrigerated for several days (ideal for making in advance) and also frozen so allowing me to make a full batch and only use what was required for two before storing the rest. Or scoffing it myself. However, in the end I decided to do a half batch as I wasn’t sure I’d get four trotters in my casserole.

As the title suggests, the main component is pig’s trotters which was not something I had ever cooked with but that never stopped me before. It also needs smoked ham hock along with stock vegetables, vinegar, and spices. I had decided to forgo the garnish of crackling – not because I dislike it but purely because as I was only cooking for two it seemed a bit excessive and crackling doesn’t exactly keep well. After ringing various butchers with no avail to enquire about the availability of trotters, I meandered into Brixton where, of course, I was soon in possession of two huge trotters and a good hunk of smoked hock. The recipe says that some trotters need to cleaned and soaked overnight to remove impurities before having any hairs removed but these were ready to go and so no fuss for me. Thankfully.

The cast iron casserole was dug out and my instinct about only doing a half quantity was proved wise – the two trotters I’d bought only just fitted in. Lucky me. I carefully prepared everything – chopped vegetables, measured oil and vinegar, found the right amounts of spice – then, after re-reading the recipe again, I began.

Trotters ready to go!

Trotters ready to go!

It is here I must tell you that although I said the recipe was complex, the processes involved are actually very straightforward – there are simply several of them. Vegetables and spices are browned in oil then quickly caramelised with honey, vinegar added and then reduced before the meat and stock are added. All very simple. This is where the time factor comes in. The trotters need to be simmered slowly to break down all the gelatinous tissue so the initial cooking-time is five hours with regular basting. Note that the trotters will curl up slightly (as if they are still alive) during this period – this may be slightly alarming the first time you open the lid to baste them. Well, I was alarmed.

After five hours in a low oven, the casserole is removed and the mixture allowed to cool (time factor again) then the meat and skin is separated and diced, the vegetables strained and discarded, before the stock is left to chill in the fridge (again, plan you day carefully to allow for this), skimmed of fat and then reduced. Not complicated stuff – just a series of processes.  I didn’t add all of the skin as the recipe suggests, opting for about two thirds as it seemed to be plenty.

While the stock reduces, more onions are fried in a pan and joined by the meat and stirred together before the rich coloured stock is added and everything is reduced to the consistency of a sticky, juicy and chunky pâté. At this point, the mixture can be cooled and stored for future reheating and this is what I did. Although I had a sneak preview first of course.

My sneak preview

My sneak preview

It was gloriously rich, almost overpoweringly so, but the finished dish features a sharp and creamy Sauce Gribiche and a fried quail’s egg to help counterbalance the richness so I wasn’t worried. The Sauce Gribiche was a recipe I’d used before so I didn’t use the same as Adam although the ingredients and flavours were the similar – hard-boiled egg, oil, vinegar, cornichons and capers, tarragon and parsley. Great with many things not just trotters.

I had got some quail’s eggs from the local butcher and, once the toast (my own sourdough of course) was on, the trotters reheating, we carefully cracked them into the pan and cooked for about one and a half minutes. The dish was assembled and looked, well, pretty damned impressive I must say. Almost professional standard in my own rather humble opinion. And it tasted utterly amazing with the richness being perfectly balanced out by the Gribiche and quail’s egg. A truly wonderful starter and one of the best dishes I have ever cooked.

The finished dish.

The finished dish.

So in conclusion, should you try this recipe out for yourself? Yes. Absolutely. Don’t be put off by the size of the ingredients list and the time involved – other things can be done while the trotters simmer and the advance preparation make it perfect if you’re planning a special dinner. Or just a greedy night in. Is it as good as the one in the restaurant? Well, that’s a matter of opinion isn’t it?

If you want to try it, here is the version that I used – it makes enough as a starter for 4-6 people.

Ingredients

  • 2 shank pig’s trotters (check with the butcher if they need cleaning and soaking)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 carrot
  • 1/4 head of garlic
  • 2 large white onions
  • 1 stick celery
  • 1 small leek
  • 100ml vegetable oil
  • 1/2 star anise
  • 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 2 tsp honey
  • 25ml red wine vinegar
  • 500g smoked ham hock
  • 1 litre Chicken Stock
  • 2 quail’s eggs

For the Sauce Gribiche

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 100ml extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 5 cornichons – finely chopped
  • 1 tsp capers – rinsed, dried, and finely chopped
  • Handful each of parsley and tarragon leaves, finely chopped

Method

Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 3/170⁰c.

Peel and roughly chop the carrots, garlic cloves, and one of the onions.  Trim and roughly chop the celery and leek.  Peel and finely dice the remaining onion and keep separate (to add to the cooked trotter mix later).

Heat half the oil in a large cast iron casserole and colour the roughly chopped vegetables with the spices over a high heat.  Onceed brown, stir in the honey and boil for a few minutes and caramelise lightly, then add the vinegar and boil for a further 2 minutes until reduced by half.

Drain the trotters and place on top of the vegetable mix with the ham hock.  Pour in the stock, put the lid on the pan and bring to the boil, before transferring to the oven and cook for 5 hours, basting the trotters from time to time and turning them over at hourly intervals (and not being too freaked out by the movements of the toes!)

Remove the casserole from the oven and leave to cool, then lift out the trotters and ham hock and set aside.  Tip the contents of the pan into a fine sieve set over a bowl and let the stock strain through.  Chill the stock in the fridge so that the fat rises and sets on the top.

Carefully remove the meat and skin from the trotters, then dice both the meat and skin and place in a bowl.  Separate the meat from the skin and bones of the hock.  Dice the meat and add to the bowl.

While you wait for the stock to chill you can make the Sauce Gribiche (or whenever you need it to serve) by placing the egg in a pan of boiling water and simmering for 7-10 mins until hard boiled. Remove and run under cold water until cool then peel the egg and separate the white from the yolk (which should be a solid ball), reserving the white for later. Mash the yolk with the mustard in a bowl until you have a smooth paste.

Slowly dribble in the oil (as if making mayonnaise) and mix the paste – it will look like it has split or turned into a horrific mess at first but keep mixing until it turns into a smooth, silky mixture.

Chop the egg white into small cubes and stir in to the yolk-mix, along with the chopped capers and cornichons, then finally add the chopped herbs. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary and keep refrigerated until required.

Skim the fat off the chilled stock, then transfer the stock to a pan and reduce by half over a high heat.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a frying pan until hot and fry the diced onions until caramelised. Mix with the diced meats, and stir in the reduced sauce.  Season and keep warm until ready to serve – or cool and store in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 10 days.

Toast some sourdough bread and carefully fry the quail’s eggs for no more than one and a half minutes (any longer and you won’t get a runny yolk) then assemble your dish by spooning a generous amount of the trotter mix onto the toast, top with the fried egg and garnish with a dollop of Sauce Gribiche and a scattering of parsley.

Feel very pleased with yourself.

I’d like to thank Adam for not only creating this brilliant recipe but also giving me encouragement via Twitter as I made it!

 

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Boqueria, Acre Lane – Review

This was a piece I originally wrote for the Brixton Blog, however it transpired I’d totally misinterpreted the brief and reviewed the wrong site – Boqueria recently opened a second branch in Battersea and it was there that I was meant to go.

Ho hum.

However, as I’m not capable of much at the moment, I thought I’d post this here for anyone who has tapas cravings in South London.

Enjoy!

Tapas sneaks itself onto many menus – wine bars (how terribly 80s), posh pubs, not-so-posh pubs, and many restaurants will do a version of the snack-based selection. It is often used as an excuse for chefs to try and show how ‘multi-talented’ they are which resulted in varying quality which sadly, in my experience, tends to fall on the ‘rather rubbish’ side of the scale (although I have to say the British tapas in the Beer Emporium in Bristol is AMAZING – rare roast beef with horseradish on dripping toast? I think so!).

So what do you do? Well, if you’re in Brixton you actually have a fair amount of choice from Seven at Brixton in Market Row to Boqueria on Acre Lane or some of the other more diverse and Portuguese influenced eateries up towards Stockwell.

Chorizo in cider and Patatas Bravas

Chorizo in cider and Patatas Bravas

But as Boqueria has been on my list for a while, it was up to Acre Lane we went on a quiet, chilly night  .

On entering the first thing that struck me was how smart and clean the place is – sometimes in regional restaurants someone feels the need to plaster the walls with cliché in an attempt to make the diner ‘imagine’ themselves to be in the country of origin and it pretty much never works. Boqueria is minimalist, sharp, and high-end yet relaxed and inviting. The long bar stretches towards the door with stools and the odd tall table at one end and the doorway through to the dining room at the back. Immediately you realise that if you just fancied a quick drink and bite (which, after all, is what tapas is all about) you would be just as welcome as if you planned to spend an evening in the restaurant. The staff come out to greet you and very quickly it begins to feel like the beginning of a good time and that is a rare thing in a restaurant these days.

We were asked if we’d booked but as we were arriving at 6.30pm we hadn’t thought to, especially given the day of the week we visited, but this was no problem although we were warned they’d need the table by 8.30 (and looking at their booking sheet they were not lying). And anyway, if push came to shove and we were still there by that time, there would have been no issue with us heading to the bar to finish up.

After a bit of a debate with the waiter about where to sit (the original offering was in a rather, ahem, atmospherically dark corner) we had a good look at the menu and were pleased to see that there were 5-7 choices per section, suggesting a focus on flavour and quality rather than a myriad of disappointment. From the Entrantes we opted for Pan con tomate (bread with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil) and then a selection from both the Meat and the Traditionales parts of the menu – Patates bravas (the benchmark of any tapas), chorizo in cider, suckling pig (with apple sauce and lemon sorbet), and a soft, mild cheese with quince jelly and tomato jam. That seemed enough to be starting with and we had a fruity, crisp white Legaris wine to wash everything down with.

Cheesey delight

The first to arrive was the bread and although it didn’t look like much it packed one hell of a flavour punch – mashed raw tomatoes with a hit of garlic and salt, run through with delicate olive oil and served on soft, toasted bread. Sheer delight and gone within seconds.  The cheese (which came soon after) looked rather splendid – perfect triangles of pale dairy, dotted with quince cubes, raisins, and a side plate of the tomato jam – but was fridge cold which was a tad unappealing. Once it warmed up however it was a true delight – the mildness of the cheese worked wonderfully with both the quince and tomato which were sweet but not cloyingly so – and it was soon joined by the chorizo, patatas bravas, and an elegant dish of suckling pig balanced on parsnip crisps.

I have to say the patatas didn’t fill me with confidence. I was expecting a rich tomato sauce and a garlic aioli to go over the crispy potatoes but was presented with what looked a suspicious, beige burger sauce. I tried a mouthful and was immediately converted – the aioli/sauce was hot with garlic but sweet with a big whack of tomato and the potatoes themselves were perfectly cooked – lightly crisp on the outside and soft and delicious within, even the ones hiding at the bottom under a layer of sauce still retained their crunch. Fantastic.

Suckling pig

Suckling pig – truly wonderful

The chorizo was deep and smoky with the paprika oils oozing into the cider they had been braised in and was addictively moreish. But the star of show has to be the suckling pig – meat so tenderly soft that it almost fell into a thousand delicate pieces as my fork touched it. Velvety smooth, deeply porky, utterly brilliant – a shining example of slow-cooked perfection. The sauce and sorbet were excellent compliments and I would quite happily have eaten another 2 or 3 portions to myself. No need to order more though – we were quite full by the time our plates were empty.

I sampled a traditional Tarta de Santiago con helado de vainilla (almond cake with vanilla ice-cream) for dessert and was soothed into a very happy place with the moist almond mixture – like a cross between the top of a Bakewell tart and the lightest sponge – but mildly frustrated that my ice-cream was a frozen ball that threatened to jump onto the floor every time I tried to eat it. Patience not being my strong point when it comes to puddings. It melted soon enough and was pretty spot on however.

We had no idea how much we’d spent – Boqueria is listed as a top ‘Cheap Eats’ place but we hadn’t really been paying that much attention (another danger with tapas is the ease with which the cost can spiral when more and more dishes are ordered). We were very pleased to find our total bill coming in at under £60 including wine and service which, for the quality of not just the food but the service and venue, was pretty amazing. And more than enough encouragement to start planning a return visit.

So if you fancy good, confident Spanish cooking in a nice, relaxed, and smart surrounding – head up to Boqueria on Acre Lane (or their second branch in Battersea) – you will not be disappointed!

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Archive Reviews pt 1

Apologies for my absence of late – I’ve been a tad distracted as I have started the final module for my Masters Degree (sadly not food related).

As I’ve got a couple of reviews coming up in the next couple of weeks I thought I’d start to share my first few pieces for the excellent Brixton Blog – starting with a personal favourite of ours, Mama Lan, which is an awesome Beijing-inspired eaterie which started in the hustle of Brixton Village and now has a second branch in Clapham.

You can read my review of that second branch here.

Here are some extra pictures too – it is seriously awesome on every level.Perfect pork dumplings A true feast

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Ramblings...

Mission: macarons pt.4

Macarons are potentially difficult little so-and-so’s to arrange. Due to their shape and their relatively fragile structure, you don’t want to put them in a big pile or try and delicately balance them on top of one another. As this was for a wedding (and not just any wedding after all!) we wanted something a little bit more elegant. My wife did some web-based research and eventually came up trumps with this:

The macaron stand of joy!

The macaron stand of joy!

OK, ‘stand of joy’ it’s real name but it was exactly what we needed – removable tiers and enough stability that it would happily sit for hours with our army of blue and cream macarons loaded on to the separate levels.

Not exactly the cheapest stand ever but the only one that would do the trick. And if you want one for yourself then you can get it here.

We were slightly worried at first as the plastic seemed a bit thin but it was light and easy to assemble. And we didn’t really have any other option at this stage so there was no point arguing.

Originally we were both going to go to the venue on the morning of the wedding and set it up then I was to head back to Mum’s so I could get changed and then come with my sister in the wedding car. However it became clear that this was a massive waste of time and also added an extra element of stress to my day which I could well do without, so my excellent wife offered to take the macarons and set them up, thus enabling me to go straight home and get myself sorted.

And I am very glad I did – it turns out that due to general venue madness, she wasn’t able to finish setting up the macarons (which took well over half an hour to do) until after 1.30pm – the wedding was at 2pm!!!!

Phew!

The wedding itself was wonderful – the weather held and the bride and groom both looked happy and smiling all day long.

But I was desperate to see those sodding macarons.

My wife showed me a picture and they looked amazing but I was incredibly impatient to see them for myself and, finally, after canapes, drinks, photos, and general wedding times, we were invited in to the barn for our dinner.

And I was greeted by this:

Ta da!

Ta da!

 

What a beautiful display!

After all the work we’d done, the ruined batches, the recipe finding, the filling, the stand hunt, I have to say I was bursting with pride when I saw it. Absolutely bursting.

Both bride and groom were thrilled with it and it drew the required number of ‘ooh’s and ‘aaah’s from the guests. And by the end of the night there were only a few left!

So there you go – a year in the researching, a good two days in the baking, and nearly an hour of building. I give you – the macaron wedding cake!!!!

Blimey.

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Mission: macarons pt.3

Preparing for a wedding is stressful. Even if ‘all’ you have to do is fill some macarons, write a speech, and give your sister away. Not as a gift you understand. Anyway…

With all the shells happily sitting in the freezer, the matter of the filling was being sorted. The blue ones (which had a few drops of strawberry flavouring) were to be filled with some kind of white chocolate-based excitement and the cream ones with a lemon curd butter-cream. We toyed with the idea of making a white chocolate ganache for the blue macarons but, partly due to time, partly due to not wanting an over-runny or over-thick ganache (and because ganache does have the tendency to ‘sweat’ when standing around), we decided to cheat and buy some white chocolate spread which, although obviously made for spreading on toast, even said on the label that it was ideal for filling cakes or similar baked goods. Perfect. Although Mum hasn’t quite forgiven me for making her go to ASDA to buy it. Deary me.

We had decided in advance not to attempt to fill the shells at Mum’s – there would be chaos in the forms of nieces and nephews as well as general pre-wedding madness which is not conducive to creating delicate French treats – instead we had elected to do the task at my mother-in-law’s house which would not only be calmer but was actually closer to the venue which made transporting them much simpler.

In the time since I was at home, Mum had made a couple of extra batches as promised and this was all dutifully packed in to a big box alongside icing sugar, butter, lemon curd, and the aforementioned white chocolate spread. A large pot of coffee was brewed, and we unpacked to survey our works. It looked rather daunting.

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Many macarons to fill…

We hadn’t counted the shells at this stage – afterall, we had no idea how many would actually make the grade so instead we decided to make a load of butter-cream and make a start then see what we ended up with. Although quite my good lady-wife decided to mix 500g of icing sugar, 250g of butter, and a pot of lemon curd by hand is still something of a mystery…

How much filling to put in each one was also something that needed to be worked out. We didn’t want it to ooze down the sides but neither did we want it to be so small that no-one would taste it. The insides of some of the macarons were quite delicate and the white chocolate spread was a bit thick to start with so we had to be very careful and, in the end, it worked out at a generous teaspoon of filling for each with a bit more for some of the larger, flatter ones.

It was pretty time-consuming – after 3 hours we were only just over half-way through but the ones that were filled were looking pretty good.

A box of lemon curd filled macarons ready to be packed away!

A box of lemon curd filled macarons ready to be packed away!

There were of course, some casualties. A fair few of some of the more, ahem, interesting batches had become so fragile that although they may have looked great, there was little more than air and sticky filling in the middle and we ended up losing (and indeed scoffing) more than I’d originally thought. Although it should be pointed out that it was certainly not unexpected.

Casualties of war...

Casualties of war…

But, three pots of spread and the whole batch of butter-cream later (and several cups of coffee complimented by a couple of glasses of wine) we were finished and, after a final count, were the proud creators of 245 multi-coloured macarons.

Time for a sit down and some more wine….

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Ramblings...

Mission: macarons pt.2

I think it’s fair to say that to attempt to make catering-sized amounts of anything is always going to be a challenge.

When I ask anyone who works in the food industry about how to get around the challenge of producing tasty treats on a large scale they always tell me that timing is important, organisation essential, and help irreplaceable. If I’d tried to make going on for 130 macarons myself I would have had to allocate a whopping chunk of time and an even bigger amount of patience to complete the task, and given how well I know a batch can seemingly completely unexpectedly go utterly wrong, I was well aware that the final number would have to be closer to 200 to allow for spoilage, breakage, and other problems. I also knew that using my Mum’s larger kitchen and workspaces would make everything a whole lot easier, and the fact that she wanted to help turned out to be a godsend.

We had, in theory, enough ingredients for 5 or 6 batches. We had four baking trays, two ovens, and all the requisite colourings and flavourings that were required – my sister had asked for blue and cream macarons – so after a large vat of coffee, we started work.

The ingredients are ready!

The ingredients are ready!

The recipe says to blitz the almonds and icing sugar together in a food processor and then passing through a sieve to get a smooth mixture but after recent practices, I had introduced the extra step of running the ground nuts through a spice grinder first – far fewer chunky pieces left in the sieve and an altogether finer mix. This also added a few minutes extra prep onto the production time – something which can ultimately add hours to a day in the kitchen.

But we worked together weighing, measuring, sieving, and folding the ingredients until our first batch was ready to be piped. The baking trays were lined, the piping bag prepared, we were ready to go. I filled the piping bag (we opted for Mum’s traditional one rather than disposable ones – the older one was bigger and easier to fill) and confidently began piping the first discs of our mission. Which promptly slopped across the parchment and ran into each-other, creating a series of blue pools and splodges. Hmmmmm…..

The second tray looked a bit better but the mixture was far too thin and I was (I have to admit) fairly disheartened – if the second or third batch had gone a bit wrong I wouldn’t have minded so much but the knowledge that we would probably only get four or five usable macarons from the first batch was slightly depressing.  As well as the mix being too thin, I got the impression that my piping nozzle was a bit wide so we found a slightly smaller one to use for the next attempts – the recipe says to use a 1cm nozzle. However, sweeping any gloomy thoughts aside, I tapped the trays on the worktop (vital to help form a decent ‘foot’ on the baked macaron) and left them to rest for 20 or so minutes.

This was actually a later (and better) batch but you get the idea...

This was actually a later (and better) batch but you get the idea…

As I was weighing out the next set of ingredients we suddenly noticed we’d totally overlooked a rather important aspect of the production line – baking trays. The macarons have to rest before baking – this forms a slight skin which is key to the success of the bake and the shiny, smooth top of the finished product. So while the first batch rested we couldn’t do much more than weigh out the icing sugar and almonds. This was going to slow things down considerably. Thankfully, Mum lives within walking distance of the town-centre so she rushed off to get four more trays while I put the now-rested first batch into the oven to bake. It wasn’t a total disaster but, as predicted, we got a measly three or four usable pairs of macaron shells to start our pile.

Armed with new baking trays, we soon found our stride and had a good few hours working together. The second and third batches were much more successful and the whole task looked as if it would indeed be achievable in time for the wedding (which was the following weekend). Using the smaller nozzle was paying off and we were pleased to find a second piping bag which meant we could clean and dry one whilst using the other. We’d even got the perfect blue that had been asked for.

Some of the better baked blue macarons...

Some of the better baked blue macarons…

I was, however, slightly worried at the concept of making cream-coloured macarons – every attempt I’d made at paler colours always looked, well, a bit anaemic and unappetizing and I’d tried several times to persuade my sister that a rich yellow was the shade she wanted. She didn’t. She wanted cream and that was that.

Fair enough.

So we decided to try adding literally three drops of yellow food colouring to the mix and seeing what we got.

And thankfully, it turned out to be the perfect pale cream that was required.

Cream macarons

Cream macarons

That was lucky.

But the fifth batch were hilariously thin and refused to come off the parchment.

And the sixth batch (back to the blue) went a strange green-turquoise colour in the oven.

Mysterious.

By mid-evening (we’d started at about 11.00am) we’d had enough for the day and carefully packed the fruits of our labour into Tupperware boxes and put them in the freezer – you can freeze the un-filled shells for a couple of months and they defrost quickly and perfectly, very handy if you’re making a large number.

The next day we thought we’d bash out a couple of extra batches for luck and, either through cockiness or under-whisked eggs (or both) we had some very flat, very delicate and sticky macarons to try and wrestle off the baking parchment. Oh well.

Our final count of usable, roughly matched pairs was 188, with nearly equal numbers of cream and blue. Mum said she would try and do a few more over the coming week to bulk up numbers – there wasn’t a chance for me to make more, nor did I fancy trying to transport them – and I would return the day before the wedding to fill them and then take them to the venue for assembly.

The clock was ticking….

Boxed and ready to go...

Boxed and ready to go…

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