Monday, 21 December 2009

Marvellous Mooli's

Think of Indian cuisine and your mind doesn’t immediately leap to delicate bread making. If you think of baking at all then the familiar British high street fare of stodgy elephantine naan breads, oily poppadoms or chewy parathas may well be what springs up. These slander-worthy imitations of the delicious creations found on the subcontinent are as far away from the original as processed orange slices are from real cheese.

A visit last week to the newly opened Mooli’s in Soho brought to mind the pleasures that Indian bread in its true form can be. In a small, bright, premises at the north end of Frith Street two devout foodies presented me with perfectly baked, soft Indian flatbreads, known as rotis that taste just as they do in their homeland.

Freshly baked every day on a machine lovingly named Moolita, these rotis are the real thing: almost as thin as a French crepe the dough yields pleasingly as you bite into it, the perfect encasement for the delicacies within.

Behind the counter the concise menu is hung high, brightly listing the five types of Mooli available. Wanting to try everything our stomachs would allow we went for a feast of mini Moolis which arrived on vivid pink and green plastic trays, each with a corresponding chutney, made specifically to compliment its partner.

Asparagus and potato with tamarind chutney was demolished in seconds as we tried to guess the spices which had lent each mouthful such a moreish quality. Next a warm parcel of tangy tender chicken was brought to life by apple and mint, buzzing memorably on your taste buds. The paneer, while interesting to try, didn’t work as well, the mild flavour lost next to powerful tomato chutney and the texture and tepid temperature being slightly obscure for what is in essence cottage cheese.

The pork and beef were firmly back on track though; each mouthful of the soft meat gently releasing the punchy spices soaked up in the long cooking process which the owners are determined to maintain. Spicier than the first moolis we tried, the beef is cooled with raita and coconut while the pork is speckled with pretty pink pomegranate seeds.

As we got talking to Sam and Matthew, the entrepreneurs behind the restaurant, it became clear just how much attention to detail has been fostered onto this project. The two men have an infectious enthusiasm for their products with a story behind everything on the premises – whether it’s the ingredients sourced from far corners of India, recipes handed down from relations and perfected during hours of trial and error or the specialist equipment which has been hauled across the Atlantic.

Listening to them you quickly become caught up in what has been a labour of love to bring the flavours of Mumbai, Delhi or Kerala to our own pavements, for while at the high end of the London restaurant scene the likes of Benares and the Bombay Brasserie turn out world class cuisine, high street and fast food outlets rarely do justice to the Indian kitchen.

Mooli’s with their clean, fresh flavours and enthusiastic approach may well change this though. These parcels even win marks on the health front – there’s a complete absence of frying or oil, everything in the kitchen is baked (even the poppadoms) and nowhere will you find a cloying dollop of mayo.

Given the choice between an unfulfilling salad box and a marvellous Mooli, the decision is obvious. Mooli’s is a very welcome addition to the Soho lunch time scene as their already loyal customers will attest to – one in particular is so taken that he has promised to introduce a new customer every day.

Keep an eye on Twitter to hear about the challenges to win Mooli's for free.

50 Frith Street
London W1D 4SQ
020 7494 9075

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Providores

The Providores popped into my life in the nick of time; just as brunch had begun to get boring. London is a city awash with generic morning menus and this mecca for early eaters brings imagination in spades.

Opened eight years ago by Kiwi chef Peter Gordon previously of Sugar Club fame, The Providores is housed unobtrusively behind a wooden framed shop front on Marylebone High Street. Having been told to expect a queue we arrived early and sure enough a line of hungry punters had already formed; this in a city bereft of patience is evidence of the delights within.

Step over the threshold and a high communal table forms the centrepiece. Smaller tables line the walls and even the bright bay window has been cleverly turned into a breakfast bar, occupied today by lone diners and piles of Sunday papers. The space is compact, the diners many and the staff busy, yet the atmosphere is relaxed and unhurried.

Settling down at our table we take in the surroundings: statement white lamp shades draw your attention to the high ceilings in the centre of the room while oversized unadorned light bulbs dangle over our heads, their orange elements glowing brightly. The interior is clever, the lighting creating an illusion of space where there is none, features like nifty coat hooks hiding under tables keeping clutter minimal.

The menu is a revelation. Ingredients like sumac, yuzu, miso and tamarillo sit alongside bacon, bread and oats. Pancakes of sweetcorn and blueberry (£8.80), baked beans with smoky molasses (£2.80) and perhaps the most intriguing of all the combinations – poached Turkish eggs with yoghurt and chilli butter (£6.20). Read on further and the choice becomes impossible so intriguing are the dishes.

Tumblers of strong rich coffee arrive, the frothy topping bearing the baristas arty signature. A pot of fragrant earl grey is accompanied by a tea cup into which a small milk jug has been snugly slotted, another space saver or perhaps just stylish after thought.

Our eagerly anticipated choices arrive and we are impressed. A generous slab of French toast (£8.80), stuffed with bananas and pecans, topped with plenty of streaky bacon and surrounded by a pool of vanilla syrup disappears in seconds. This indulgent combination takes the best from European and American classics and creates a satisfying winner.

Opaque flakes of hot-smoked salmon, layered with spinach and perfectly poached eggs on walnut toasted bread, dripping with yuzu-hollandaise (£10.40) is mouth watering (yuzu being an oriental citrus). Labelling this a variation on the ubiquitous Eggs Benedict does it no justice, the dishes may have similar origins but I belie any classicist to try this without undergoing instant modernisation.

And finally: a bowl of porridge. Not just any old oats but “brown rice, apple, maple syrup and miso porridge made using soy milk and served with tamarillo compote.”(£6) A description so pretentious I couldn’t resist it. This porridge is so ridiculous it doesn’t contain a single flake of oat and despite not wanting to like it, the verdict was good. The brown rice lent an unusual texture but the finished dish was creamy not rich, sweet not sickly and made fresh by the apple puree, though nearer to rice pudding than the menu description suggests.

As our squeaky clean plates were whisked away it became clear that a return trip was a necessity. This first visit was just a sample of a menu brimming with intriguing and innovative combinations. It updates and questions the classics and is not afraid to be provocative in doing so.

The clearest illustration of this restaurant’s nature though lies beside the boiled eggs: the toasted soldiers come with vegemite. Any restaurant on British soil ballsy enough to usurp marmite with its cousin from the subcontinent has to be worth a visit.

The Providores & Tapa Room
109 Marylebone High Street
London W1U 4RX
020 7935 6175

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Friday, 4 December 2009

Cupcake Crazy

If there were a turf war between the oversized American cupcake and the humble British fairy cake the smaller species would have suffered the same fate as red squirrels at the hands of their grey cousins. A similar fortune has befallen the sugar sprinkled ring doughnut; now little more than a memory as the green and white Krispy Kreme stands have marched their sugary march through our station platforms and supermarket aisles.

Not that I’m complaining. I have been charmed by the enemy, defected and emerged as a staunch supporter of the opposition. Any fond childhood memories of fairy cakes at birthday parties and village fairs faded into the recesses of my mind when my teeth first sunk into an offering from the Hummingbird bakery.

Before this moment I wouldn’t have thought to complain about the paper cased treats I had greedily gobbled, but with hindsight they were not exactly gourmet. Sometimes they were show stoppers, topped with all manner of decorous sugary glazes, sprinkles, sparkles and spots. Yet often a solid chunk of slightly charred Victoria sponge cake lurked beneath, concealed by a dollop of hastily mixed butter icing, made with granulated sugar, leaving grains in your teeth. The lavish decorations and liberal doses of food colouring were I think an attempt to induce a sugar and colour rush precisely to disguise the sad little sponge beneath.

The Americans have nailed it though. Their supersize version is a light, airy, sweet sponge; the soft texture melting on your tongue like candyfloss, hardly requiring a chew. On top a gluttonously thick layer of fluffy smooth icing makes you wish for a bowl of the stuff and accompanying spoon.

Hummingbird and Magnolia bakery books have been on my shelves for months and each time I’ve flicked through their appetising pages something has stopped me from attempting to recreate these regal cakes. If I’m honest I didn’t think for a second that my own version would rival the heavenly heights of those in the bakery itself.

Amazingly though the Hummingbird vanilla cupcake recipe is without a doubt the easiest and most successful cake recipe I have ever tried (I’ve tried a lot). There is no beating, creaming or sifting; just a few blasts in the blender. And resisting all my instincts to change the method to something more traditional as I went along paid off because I bet the results would have passed a comparison test in the bakery’s window.

In fact it did make me wonder how publishing the book has affected their sales.

Better still the recipe works as a larger cake. Doubling the quantity, splitting it between three tins, filling them with homemade blackcurrant jam and topping with vanilla butter cream resulted in the most well received cake I've ever produced. Seriously, this triple layered beast of a cake seemed to have magic properties, is highly addictive and has already resulted in two job offers. Try it!

Hummingbird Vanilla Cupcakes

120g plain flour
140g caster sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
pinch salt
40 g unsalted butter
120ml milk
1 egg
½ tsp vanilla extract

Vanilla Buttercream

250g icing sugar
80g unsalted butter
25ml milk
½ tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 170°C and line a muffin tray with 12 paper cases. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together then flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and butter until just combine and sandy in texture. With the mixer running add half of the milk and mix until just combined. Beat the egg, remaining milk and vanilla together and gradually pour into the mixer while it’s running and continue mixing until smooth. Pour or spoon into the paper cases and bake for about 20 minutes.

To make the buttercream sift the icing sugar into the mixer, add the butter and beat until smooth, scraping in any mixture from the sides of the bowl. Gradually add the milk and vanilla extract and continue beating until light and fluffy.

When the cakes are cool spoon the buttercream on top.

Hummingbird Bakery on Urbanspoon