Of dogs and horses

There's nothing like the smell of fried onions coming from a hotdog stand - that intense, intoxicating, "oh-so-yummy' aroma accompanied by the equally tantalising sound of the onions sizzling on the hot grill. There's always a stand by the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue that makes me stop to entertain the idea of getting a hotdog no matter how full I am from a meal in Chinatown. I suppose that's great publicity for you.

While I've always managed to resist temptation with the Shaftesbury Avenue stall, munching on a hotdog piled high with sauteed onions and oozing brown sauce and ketchup seemed like just the right thing to do at the racecourse.

And so there we were, hotdogs in hand (the meat-lover uncharacteristically decided on fried noodles for some reason), squinting, cheering, soaking up the atmosphere.

I love how hotdogs are one of those comforting, universal things that seem right for any occasion - even a day at the racecourse.

Carluccio's Canary Wharf

I suppose it was wishful thinking on our part - attempting to get a table at Jamie's Italian in Canary Wharf on a Friday night. Perhaps on any other occasion, we would have been accepting of the 30-40 minute wait for a table but on that particular Friday night, we were far too hungry to stand around waiting for our remote-control-like devices to beep. We decided to head to Carluccio's for our Italian fix instead.

Carluccio's Canary Wharf
Docklands
Reuters Plaza
London, E14 5AJ

The thing that strikes you first as you walk into Carluccio's is the feeling of warmth that greets you - the buzz of activity provides a lively atmosphere while still allowing you to enjoy a good conversation. This seems to be the general feel of all of the Carluccio's outlets that I've ever visited.

Penne Giardiniera - Pugliese penne with courgette, chilli and deep fried spinach balls with parmesan and garlic. I decided on this almost immediately, having enjoyed the dish tremendously at the Bicester Village branch. It was love at first bite then - the slight crunch of the spinach-parmesan-garlic balls offset by the soft courgette. While extremely similar to the Bicester Village rendition, the Penne Giardiniera in Canary Wharf didn't quite hit the spot. I cannot put my finger on what exactly was different about it, though. Perhaps bags and bags of shopping make all the difference.

Pasta con Funghi - egg pappardelle with a mix of shiitake, oyster, porcini and button mushrooms. Like the Penne Giardiniera, this dish was ordered based on our visit to the Bicester Village branch. I remember marvelling at the delightful mushroom flavour that was simultaneously strong and subtle.

Bistecca di bue con patate - 10oz bone in rib steak, chargrilled and served with rosemary potatoes and red pepper sauce. After some soul-searching, our meat-lover simply had to order the steak. While he enjoyed the red pepper sauce, he found the steak to be overdone.

Tiramis├╣ - Savoiardi biscuits soaked in strong espresso coffee and coffee liqueur with mascarpone and chocolate. I've always had a very soft spot for tiramisu - the intense flavour of coffee, the creaminess of the mascarpone and the sponge that soaks it all up. Carluccio's does a very good version of this classic. It's definitely worth saving some space for.

For some reason, the Carluccio's in Canary Wharf didn't quite live up to expectations. It might have been the chaos that comes with a Friday night dinner service or simply that the quality of food isn't as good as the Bicester Village branch. Nevertheless, the restaurant is still worth a visit, especially if you stick to the pasta dishes and remember to end your meal with some tiramisu.

Cream Puffs

My earliest cream puff memories involve trips to the neighbourhood bakery with my grandmother whenever she came to visit. We'd take a stroll down the street to see what the bakery had to offer for the day. If we were lucky, we'd come home with a dozen or so mini cream puffs - I absolutely loved every light, fluffy, custard-filled bit of those little treats.

I was always under the impression that making cream puffs would involve complicated techniques - the need to whip eggwhites a certain way or the need to get the oven temperature just right. On retrospect, it seems likely that I may have somehow managed to associate cream puffs with souffles. So when the housemate suggested that we make cream puffs, I immediately imagined us in full project mode - deciphering a complicated recipe, whipping countless eggwhites and fashioning some sort of make-shift baking device that we needed but didn't own. When I saw the recipe she had pulled up on our favourite recipe site, I couldn't have been more surprised. No crazy techniques, no complicated procedures - I'd say that making a batch of cream puffs would be easier than turning out a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

Based on Shellie Wendel's Cream Puffs Recipe

Ingredients:

1/2 cup butter
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 eggs

Custard powder
50g plain chocolate
Milk


Make custard as per instructions on the packaging (we used about 2 tablespoons of Bird's custard powder to make a pint of custard), adding the plain chocolate to the mixture.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C).

In a large pot, bring water and butter to a rolling boil. Stir in flour and salt until the mixture forms a ball. Transfer the dough to a large mixing bowl. Using a wooden spoon or stand mixer, beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto an ungreased baking sheet.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the preheated oven, until golden brown. Centers should be dry.

When the shells are cool, either split and fill them with the custard mixture, or use a pastry bag to pipe the custard into the shells.



I have to admit, we did have to fashion a utensil that we needed but didn't own - a piping bag. We've come away having learnt that while a ziplock bag generally does the trick, it really isn't the cleanest tidiest way to go about it.

I marveled at how the bits of dough transformed into gorgeous, golden brown puffs in the oven, almost as if by magic.


Who would have thought - cream puffs, easy as ABC.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

It's one of those days - it's warm, the sun is out, the iPod has managed to pick just the right songs, buses and tubes seem to be arriving at exactly the right time and you've decided to ditch your packed lunch to enjoy the all-day breakfast at your favourite little cafe. Yes, it's one of those perfect spring days.

These chocolate chip cookies, while amazing on any day, are especially perfect for those not-so-perfect days. There's nothing like the smell of cookies in the oven to perk you up, even on the rainiest and gloomiest of London days. I stumbled upon this recipe after our resident chocoholic hinted (rather strongly) that he would really like my next baking session to involve chocolate chip cookies.


These cookies should come with a warning: CAUTION - HIGHLY ADDICTIVE.

Adapted from ELIZABETHBH's Best Big, Fat, Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe.

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 white sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 cups dark chocolate chunks


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Grease cookie sheets or line with parchment paper.

Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.

In a medium bowl, cream together the melted butter, brown sugar and white sugar until well blended. Beat in the vanilla, egg, and egg yolk until light and creamy. Mix in the sifted ingredients until just blended.
Stir in the chocolate chunks by hand using a wooden spoon.
Drop cookie dough onto cookie sheet. Be sure to space cookie dough balls about 3 inches apart from each other.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until the edges are lightly toasted. Cool on baking sheets for a few minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.


It was love at first bite for the chocoholic. After begging me to teach him how to make them, he's made at least one batch almost every night since I made the very first batch of cookies almost 2 weeks ago. I find that using chocolate chunks instead of chips gives you those wonderful melty pockets of chocolate that really give the cookies character. The chocoholic has experimented with different types of chocolate and we've come to the conclusion that nothing beats dark chocolate. Also, be sure not to overbake the cookies - it's soft and chewy that you're after, not rock-hard and crunchy.

Best eaten right out the oven, swapping stories with your housemates after a long day.

Amazing.