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Wild food, or food to drive you wild

Last month’s Guestrant at Electrik was one of my favourites to date. Wild foraged food is something both Miss South and I have dabbled in before, but with the best will in the world, we don’t have the knowledge to go beyond the well known and well-trodden without some proper guidance.

So when I read Beth Creedon was the guest in Electrik’s kitchen for June I was rather excited… I knew how well-received her first stint at Electrik had been last year, so I signed up right away. Beth’s a bit of an expert in foraged food, and comes with good credentials and form in preparing foraged feasts. She, alongside her husband, also runs Dig, Manchester’s best local veggie box scheme. I’d met her at the recent cheese ‘chewtorial’, and her obvious knowledge and enthusiasm for foraged food was infectious.

After the disappointment of the previous month’s event with Julie Bagnolli being cancelled due to poor attendance (shame on you North West foodies… surely you’re not doing anything better on a Monday night?) this needed to be something special to put a smile back on the faces of my dining companion and I. We needn’t have feared: it was.

We arrived, wet after a sudden heavy rainshower, looking over the well-stocked bar. Once again we decided to stick to beer, rather than wine, although there’s a decent selection of both in Electrik. We joined another couple on a table – always one of the best things about pop-up & supperclub-type arrangements is meeting new folk – and snatched a quick look at the menu which was being passed around.

The menu tantalised, teased and prompted whispered questions around our table. It sounded simple and restrained, yet wonderfully exotic. What the hell is Fat Hen? Do cherries go feral only when you lose them? Was that really two desserts on the menu? We couldn’t wait to learn more… so when Beth came out of the kitchen to introduce the first course I was straining to hear every word.

When it arrived the first course looked gorgeous… a perfectly turned-out layered terrine, surrounded by delicate leaves, sitting on a base of finely-sliced beetroot. We found out during the preamble that Fat Hen’s actually a kind of wild spinach-like leaf, not a plump poultry bird, so that was one mental image shattered. It, and the goats cheese in the terrine, was delicious, crowned with a sprig of chickweed. I’ve picked sorrel leaves in the woods before, and love their distinctively tart flavour. This sorrel was French, and the flavour of their leaves added piquancy. The star of the dish, though, were the little pickled dandelion buds. Wow! Revelatory stuff: these unassuming wee buds tasted like capers, and gave the whole starter an extra frission which I’d never expected. I may have to start home pickling…

With such a good starter our expectations around the table cranked up a gear. The main, with razor clams at its centrepiece, caused me some excitement (Miss South has already written on our love of these moreable molluscs) but my dining companion was somewhat nervous at the prospect of blade-like bivalves, being a little squeamish about such things. When the course was presented – a single razor clam shell laying across a bowl of chowder – this did little to allay her concerns, but she became more convinced when she tasted the contents.

The ‘hero’ shell – dressed with the flesh of several razor clams, hearty chunks of chorizo and a sprinkling of chives – capped a healthy portion of chowder. In this the razor clams were paired up with a goodly selection of smaller, more conventional clams. Accompanied by Barbakan bread, a perfect heart-shaped pat of delicious butter, and a hunk of lemon, this was simple but great fare. Salty pork and shellfish is a sure-fire winner (I’m looking at you, scallops and black pudding, as a prime example) and the rich notes of the chorizo complemented the tender pale flesh of the clams perfectly. The broth was rich and oh-so-moreable… by the time I looked up from my bowl there was a surfeit of empty shells and crockery around the table.

After that it was time for dessert #1… Beth reappeared from the depths of the kitchen to explain that yes, she couldn’t decide which dessert to serve us, so she opted for both. Hellish for us punters, you must understand, to be saddled with such an onerous task. The ‘feral’ cherries were local, but not totally wild… more like a domestic cultivar which had gone walkabout… so they were less tart than their wild cousins. Again, this looked so pretty… a cherry ‘mouse’, complete with almond ears, sat atop a cream cushion on a delightful chocolate mousse in a ramekin. Digging to the bottom of the mousse revealed macerated cherries, their sweet syrupy flavour riffing off the dark chocolate. Oh, and the finishing touches: glitter, and a sprinkling of popping candy on the plate, only added to the sense of giddy playfulness. Thumbs up!

The second sweet came shortly afterwards, and continued the local and slightly tongue-in-cheek theme, with a light hare-shaped shortbread accompanying strawberries, ice cream and praline pieces. The strawberries are Dig’s own organic offspring, grown in nearby Cheshire in polytunnels. Not sure what variety they were, but their flavour was rich and fruity, exuding summer with every mouthful. The elderflower and lime ice cream started to melt quite quickly, but the taste was divine… light and sharp citrus notes, with the elderflower rounding everything out in the background. The lavender praline was the unexpected highlight for me: I have a soft spot for lavender and its soft floral presence lent itself well to the slightly chewy sweetness of the praline. The whole dish disappeared quickly, but the flavours lingered on as a gentle reminder for some time. A fresh, light and well-balanced full stop to a really good meal.

Presentation was absolutely spot-on, food was fresh and perfectly cooked, and the theme and focus of the whole meal was bang on. A good balance of playfulness, education, quality and localism (without being too hung up on every last ingredient being utterly wild or from on our doorstep) made it a great menu. Oh, and at £25 a head, very good value considering the extra work which must’ve gone into the sourcing and preparation of the course. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough… bravo to Beth (and her sous for the night, Deanna).

Today’s Guestrant features Mary-Ellen McTague and Laurence Tottingham from Aumbry. After June’s experience I can’t wait to see what these graduates of the Fat Duck will deliver from Electrik’s modest kitchen…

Guestrant at Electrik with Deanna Thomas*

I’ve read about Electrik Bar’s ‘Guestrant’ sessions since they started last year, but despite making mental notes to check them I’d never managed to organise it. Their most recent event, with guest chef Deanna Thomas of North Star Deli fame, tipped the balance for me. This was on Valentine’s Day, and the prospect of a night out, unencumbered by saccharine-sweet clichés, red roses and crappy piped (or worse still, dodgy live string) music provided a fine excuse for a good meal out with my partner.

For those who don’t know it, Electric Chair was one of the venerable institutions of the Manchester club scene from the 90s onwards (Mister North has fond memories of multiple occasions spent in darkened basements listening to Detroit deepness, dirty disco, Mancunian classics and rampant riddims thanks to these guys). These days the Electriks empire has perhaps mellowed and diversified with age, and they opened the unsurprisingly-named ‘Electrik’, a fine café/bar in south Manchester’s Chorlton, a couple of years ago.

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Nutella Cupcakes

This weekend was World Nutella Day (no, really) and since I have fond memories of Mister North and I sharing a jar of this hazelnut infused wonder on family holidays to Italy and then keeping the jar as a drinking glass, I thought I would have to do something to acknowledge the day. Since I had a group of friends coming round for tea and cake, cupcakes sounded just right!

There is a recipe for ‘chocolate and hazelnut cupcakes’ in The Hummingbird Cookbook, but since I really don’t like their recipes with their reliance on milk in the sponge, I decided to use this recipe which can be made gluten free as well.

Since I have no gluten issues, I didn’t have the makings for those cupcakes and decided to use the standard recipe instead, so I cannot comment on how the gluten free ones turn out. Both recipes look very easy and follow the standard method for making a cake. I followed it exactly apart from going freehand with the Nutella as I figure life was too short to measure out a 1/4 cup of it as it isn’t the most malleable consistency, and it’s unlikely anyone would complain about them being too chocolately or too hazelnutty!

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Supermalt Cupcakes

A recent blog post by friend Yoruba Girl Dancing about white people’s lack of love for Supermalt got me thinking. I love the taste of malt thanks to growing up with Veda bread and working in a diner as a teenager making malted milkshakes, so I don’t really mind Supermalt, although I do find it teeth-itchingly sweet. But having never sampled it until I moved to Brixton, it’s not really part of my repetoire and I would never buy it to quench my thirst. What about cooking with it instead?

I made these Coca-Cola cupcakes for my friend G’s birthday party a few weeks ago and was impressed by how easy they were to make and how incredibly moist and brownie-esque they were. I could see no reason why they wouldn’t work with Supermalt instead of Coke. Hopefully they’d be as moist as the Coca-Cola ones, but more like a cake crossed with Soreen…

The slight risk that they might just be disgusting meant I decided to make them over the weekend for a birthday party where I knew my friend C would be bringing some of her legendary lemon and blueberry cupcakes which would take the taste away if my baking experiment went awry!

The trickiest part of this recipe was finding a small enough amount of Supermalt. It tends to come in six packs and I had to go to several shops before I could get my hands on a single can of the stuff. Mission accomplished, I got cracking on the recipe. It is best to melt the butter, cocoa powder and Supermalt together first to allow it to cool slightly to minimise the chances of the egg curdling when you mix everything together. Out of interest, the amount of Supermalt (or Coke) required comes to about 2/3 of a normal can…

The Supermalt mixes takes about 5 minutes to melt and measuring out the rest of the ingredients does the same. Then you simply mix everything together, watching the batter going from thick and fudgy to soft and smooth by the time it is all mixed and combined. It’s one of the easiest cake recipes I know and it’s difficult to over-mix this batter so it’s a good one to do with kids. It’s also nice and thick for spooning into cases so great even if you’re a bit clumsy.

I used some new square cases from Ikea that are a cross between a bun and muffin case in size (and a rather fetching print to boot) and each one took two full dessertspoons of batter. Don’t overfill your cases with these cakes as they rise a fair bit and look better not overspilling the cases. Even with the slightly bigger cases, I got 18 cakes from this batter before popping them in the oven for about 25 minutes or until I remembered what was making the lovely baked smell in my flat…

While they were cooling, I turned my attention to making a frosting for the cakes. Last time I used the Coca-Cola buttercream suggested and found it to be incredibly sweet and a bit sickly even with a fizzy Cola Bottle for a touch of tanginess. This time I thought a cream cheese frosting would go down better. I combined two packs of full fat cream cheese with a splash of leftover Supermalt and two tablespoons of cocoa powder and found I had gone too much the other way and the frosting wasn’t sweet enough. In fact it had a bitter aftertaste that jarred somewhat. I abandoned the idea of adding more Supermalt and put a teaspoon of vanilla extract and about a tablespoon of icing sugar to sweeten it slightly and this time it was perfect. Light, creamy, slightly sharp and not at all cloying.

I left the cupcakes wrapped in a teatowel overnight and then my friend C very kindly frosted them for me the next day before I added a an extra blast of sharpness with some pomegranate seeds on top before serving them up to ravenous guests. And they went down a storm! I think they were much better with the Supermalt than the Coca Cola as they were less sweet and firmer and tasted more grown up with a bite of dark chocolate, but without losing the fudgy finish that sets these aside from the average chocolate cupcake.

If you manage to have any of these fabulous cupcakes left (I only had three) they also keep amazingly well wrapped in a teatowel to protect the frosting. They ultimately didn’t taste anything like Soreen cake, but were so good I’m glad I have a second spare can of Supermalt in the fridge to make these due to popular demand! Especially if I don’t have to go camping with them!

Ice Magic: Nitrogen Ice Cream at ChinChinLabs

Food has become more than fuel the past few years thanks to the influence of luminaries such as Ferran Adria, Bompas and Parr and Heston Blumenthal who create fabulous flights of fantasy with their ingredients. But while those creations make great dining (and of course television and books) they aren’t usually easily available to the average person in the street. Therefore my eyes lit up when I heard that Europe’s first nitrogen ice cream bar has opened in Camden in the shape of ChinChin Laboratorists

This is the chance to witness some gastronomic theatre while eating some great ice cream without re-mortgaging yourself for the pleasure. It sounded worth braving the teenage goths of Camden for and it didn’t take much persuasion to get a group of us together to try it out this Friday afternoon.

Opened last Sunday by husband and wife Ahrash Akbari-Kalhur and Nyisha Weber this dinky little lab designed by Okay Studios is tucked away between the joss sticks and hemp items of Camden Lock and despite being small, is easy to spot thanks to the wooden swings hanging outside. This sums up ChinChin Labs perfectly: a rather adult idea that makes you feel like a kid again!

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