The Great Hummingbird Bake-Off: September 2014

Sticky Toffee Pudding vs.

Chocolate Orange

Every month the Hummingbird Bakery, which is one of my favourite cupcake shops EVER, creates two new, special edition cupcakes.  Every month, these cupcakes go head-to-head, battling it out for the number one spot.

September 2014 has seen the rivalry of two delicious cupcakes: Sticky Toffee Pudding vs. Chocolate Orange.  One is a rich chocolate sponge topped with a decadent chocolate orange frosting; the other is a fruity and toffee delight.  But which cupcake deserves the number one title this month?

Sticky Toffee Pudding

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I have to be honest and say that I have never really been a fan of sticky toffee pudding.  However, this cupcake transformed all of my negative feelings towards sticky toffee pudding into thoughts of pure joy.  The date and toffee sponge was rich, fruity, and moist, and was perfectly complimented by the sweet, toffee frosting with a caramel drizzle.  I honestly could have eaten this cake all day long quite happily.  This was the perfect accompaniment for my Caramel Frappucino that I had picked up from Starbucks on my way to the Hummingbird Bakery!

Chocolate Orange

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Hummingbird have transformed their standard chocolate sponge into a festively orange delight to bring in the autumn and winter months with a bang.  The chocolate sponge has a fantastic zesty zing that totally tantalises your tastebuds, and the sweet sugar-coated orange peel is a delicious addition on top of the thick, luxurious chocolate orange frosting.

Nevertheless, whilst chocolate and orange are usually one of my favourite flavour combinations, I could not get over how absolutely fabulous the Sticky Toffee Pudding cupcake was, especially in comparison to my preconceived ideas of what it would taste like.  Therefore, the Sticky Toffee Pudding Special Edition Cupcake is September’s star bake in my Great Hummingbird Bake-Off competition.

Brilliant Bill’s

Everybody I know has been raving about Bill’s, a small chain that has grown over recent years to become a foodie favourite.  I first heard about it from my best friend, who enjoyed her first experience at the new Bristol branch about 6 months ago.  Then one of my friends in London mentioned that she really wanted to try their afternoon tea, as she’d been told about their delectable homemade jam.  Having heard great reviews, I was hardly going to turn her down!

Unfortunately, my first experience at Bill’s did not quite meet my expectations, as the staff at the Covent Garden (St Martin’s Courtyard) restaurant were rather rude and abrupt when dealing with our complaint that our afternoon teas had been apportioned unequally across the two stands that six of us were told to share from.  Aside from the unpleasant service, the food was rather good, with an excellent variety of sandwiches; warm scones, clotted cream, and fresh jam; chocolate cake, strawberry and cream tarts, lemon meringue pies, and flapjacks, especially when you consider the bargain price of £9.95.  If there is one thing that Bill’s cannot be praised enough for, it is their dedication to providing good food at excellent prices.

Luckily, Bill’s in Bristol saved the day with their impeccable and friendly customer service, whilst still managing to serve great food, exactly as expected from all the wonderful things I had heard about this restaurant.  Whilst my best friend tucked into her burger, I started on dish one of five: hot cross buns with a whipped cinnamon butter.

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As it is coming up to Easter, I decided to treat myself to a traditional holiday indulgence.  I was automatically drawn to this dish on Bill’s menu, as I have always loved hot cross buns, but have never seen them served with a cinnamon butter.  I have to admit the flavours in this butter were a great addition to these warm, toasted, fruity hot cross buns; it was almost like a sweet, melted peanut butter.  These would make the perfect Easter treat in between shopping for Easter eggs!  (Plus, Bill’s have some extremely colourful chicken shaped ‘eggs’ for you to pick up on your way out if you’re much more interested in the easy life like me!)

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Next up were these beautifully fresh mini cinnamon doughnuts, with sweet strawberries and a pot of hot melted chocolate sauce, all served on a cute, rustic wooden board, with an elegantly designed greaseproof paper.  These were literally bite-size pieces of heaven.  Soft, warm, and sugary, there was no mistaking how fresh and wonderful these mini doughnuts were, and the chocolate sauce just completed the whole package.

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My favourite dish was the pecan pie accompanied by banana ice cream.  I find that pecan pie is one of those desserts that feature so infrequently on restaurant menus that I get insanely excited when they do eventually pop up!  Pecan pie was my favourite dessert growing up, until Marks & Spencer discontinued my one true love and created a pecan pudding shaped hole in my life, and I have spent those long, empty years trying to find the perfect pecan pie to fill that void.  Tonight, I may have finally found a winner! This pecan pie was everything that it should be: soft, sweet, gooey, with so much pecan goodness you could weep with joy.  I literally couldn’t be happier right now!

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I followed up the pecan pie with what I assumed was going to be my favourite pudding of the evening (as normally the pecan pie is a complete disappointment and everyone knows I am a MASSIVE fan of jaffa cakes)!  However, I was shocked that I was quite happy to leave half of this pudding due to the fact that I did not fall head-over-heels in love with it.  It certainly had all of the right components to make a jaffa cake: an indulgent chocolatey coating and a soft cake bottom, which sandwiched an orange jelly elegantly in between them.  However, something just wasn’t quite right, and I believe it was the cake:chocolate:orange ratio.  Essentially, the orange was wonderfully strong in flavour (this is certainly not a criticism; I am never one to complain about too much flavour!), but the chocolate was overwhelmingly thick on the edges and the cake was disappointingly thin in contrast.  It also wasn’t as fun to eat as a traditional jaffa cake, as I’m one of those people who love to tear the cake off from the delicate jaffa centre, leaving the best bit for last.  However, if you have a real craving for something chocolate orange after your main, this is definitely the dessert to go for!

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My last pudding was the crème brûlée with raspberries and shortcake biscuits.  This was truly a beautiful crème brûlée: it was smooth and creamy, with a beautifully crunchy caramelised topping.  Unfortunately, there was only one raspberry in my dessert, but the raspberry certainly added a lovely contrast in flavour to the delicious vanilla custard.  I loved the fact that the vanilla seeds were visible in every spoonful, confirming that the freshest ingredients are used for every dessert.

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All of this was washed down with my favourite drink of all time: a pink lemonade and vanilla ice cream float (a drink that I discovered on my first trip to Bill’s).  Attention to detail is as prominent as ever, with a delicate strawberry propped onto the side of the glass.

This was a truly wonderful evening – great company, great food, and great service.  I am glad that I finally got to experience the side of Bill’s that everyone has been raving about for so long, and I can’t wait for my next visit, where I might try something a little more savoury from the menu (finished off with a large slice of pecan pie, obviously)!

Luscious Ladurée

Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe; it has fashion, it has fascinating architecture, but most of all, it has macaroons.  So when I stumbled across the small Ladurée shop and café in the courtyard of Covent Garden, it took no time at all for me to become a regular customer!

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There is something a little bit special about macaroons, with their beautifully coloured delicate shells, which simply crumble into your mouth with every bite.  They are by far the cutest confectionary treat that you can just pop into your mouth when you’re craving something just a little bit sweet!  (Although, if you do this, you are not getting the full macaroon experience in my opinion; you’re missing out on that slight crunch, followed by a prolonged chewy softness that just oozes pure flavour into your mouth that you only considered possible in fairy tales until now!) The macaroon is an experience to be savoured!

As I was (supposed to be) sharing my macaroons with my boyfriend, I only picked out four flavours.  I thought it would be easier to resist eating them all if I’d already tried that specific macaroon; it wasn’t!  Unfortunately, the little leaflet that the waitress gave me detailing all of the flavours is wrong, so I won’t be able to refer to all of them by their official fancy French names, but after savouring each and every beautiful mouthful I can most definitely tell you what flavours they consisted of!

The first macaroon was salted caramel. This sweet little bundle of joy simply oozed its very generous helping of caramel filling into my very ready and welcoming mouth, and as I pulled the macaroon away from my lingering lips I felt the satisfying pull of the ‘gooey’ texture.  I know this sounds like a love story, but that’s because it is! I am officially in love with Ladurée!

Carrying on my sweet little journey, I encountered the rather special strawberry flavoured marshmallow macaroon.  This pink little ball of perfection epitomises exactly how I would imagine food in a Disney princess film to look, taste, and feel! Whilst it did taste a little bit like bubblegum (not that I’m complaining; it only furthered my nostalgic return to my childhood), I thoroughly enjoyed the change in texture with its marshmallow centre creating a slightly thicker and chewier experience than the rest of the macaroons.  Furthermore, the sprinkling of sugar encasing this miniature delight not only made it even sweeter, but also added a nice extra crunch to each bite.

The third macaroon was coffee and chocolate.  This was actually my boyfriend’s favourite.  The chocolate to coffee ratio was absolutely perfect; it had a very distinct, sweet coffee taste, which was followed up by an almost caramel-tasting chocolate flavour, which was reminiscent of the caramel Frappuccinos at Starbucks.  It was certainly a nice pick-me-up in the middle of a busy and stressful afternoon!

Last, but not least, was the chocolate and orange flavoured macaroon.  Far from tasting like normal chocolate orange flavoured confectionaries, which are predominantly chocolatey and simply complemented by a sweet orange flavour, this macaroon created a flavour sensation that was altogether extraordinary in comparison.  The orange macaroon was sharp and tangy, and stood out in contrast to the subtle sweetness of the chocolate filling.  With flavours that were both complimentary and distinctively different, this macaroon was special and confusing all at the same time; a definite unexpected adventure for your taste buds!

However, the pièce de résistance (my love of random French phrases being very appropriate for this post) was the Caramel Apple Macaroon.

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This giant macaroon was an absolute dream.  Even with a fresh, cooked-apple filling, which oozed a creamy surprise in the centre, and a sticky caramel filling sandwiching the whole dessert together, the macaroons retained their beautiful, crumbly crunch without the slightest hint of sogginess (my Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood judging hat came on here)!  And the whole thing was finished off with a ridiculously sweet and crunchy caramel drizzle and tiny apple pieces cooked to perfection to keep with the consistent softness of the whole pudding (apart from when you were ocassionally greeted with the satisfying crunch of the caramel drizzle)!

Whatever you choose as your Ladurée treat, I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed!  Everything is perfected right down to the last little detail on all of their confectionary delights, and I absolutely adore choosing from their massive collection of flavours and desserts every time I find the time and money to visit!  It won’t be a cheap trip, but every mouthful will be worth every penny!

 

My Home Made Valentine’s Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea

This Valentine’s Day I decided to make my boyfriend afternoon tea.  He’d never had afternoon tea before, and I’ve never really wanted to suggest we go for afternoon tea because it is really expensive (especially as we are students) and I’ve always worried that he would be underwhelmed by sandwiches, a scone, and a few cakes considering the cost.  However, in creating my own version of afternoon tea, filling each layer with food he adores, I truly learnt exactly how much time and effort goes into creating something that seems so simple, and just how much potential there is for it all to go horribly wrong!

I have to admit that the bottom layer was the least of my worries.  Whilst most afternoon tea specialists provide cute little cucumber sandwiches, I had long decided that my boyfriend would much prefer mini bacon & cheese burgers, hot dogs, and fried halloumi bites.  This was also by far the easiest layer, as all I had to do was cut up a block of halloumi cheese and fry it; boil some frankfurters, which were then cut in half to fit into the mini buns; and make mini burgers by mixing beef mince, chopped parsley and garlic together.  Also, these only took 5 minutes to fry.  Unsurprisingly, this was my boyfriend’s favourite layer, and he has raved about our ‘fast food themed afternoon tea’ ever since!

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The second tier was also very much centred around my boyfriend, especially as I had no idea whether he liked scones or not and I was not prepared to do afternoon tea without them!  His favourite chocolate bar is Twix, and so I decided to make chocolate chip scones and serve them with chocolate ganache and caramel sauce in order to create a ‘Twix Scone’.  (The caramel sauce, as you can see in the picture, turned out rather dark because I had to use dark muscavado sugar rather than brown sugar, but it still tasted delicious.)  These were a big hit, even though he admitted that he didn’t think he would like them, so I was very happy!

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My favourite tier, obviously, was the top tier.  This tier took the longest to make.  In fact, the whole thing took me 7 or 8 hours!  The sweet tier consisted of gingerbread men decorated with regal icing to look like us, heart-shaped chocolate fudge cakes, banana splits, and orange meringues.  The banana splits were actually the hardest to make out of all the desserts, as they required hollowing, but keeping the outside intact, so that the filling, which was a blend of condensed milk and banana pulp, did not spill out.  I also found that it is easy to avoid the mess and time of making meringues by buying a carton of readily prepared egg whites (I ordered mine from Waitrose).  The hardest part of making everything was the sheer volume of food that I was making and the time constraint in making it.  I messed up the ingredients on nearly every single recipe (for example, I completely forgot about the buttermilk in the chocolate fudge cakes, I added twice the amount of orange I was supposed to in the meringues, and those bananas were my fourth or fifth attempt)!  Luckily, everything still managed to taste great though!  It can actually be quite stressful trying to get everything done in time, as well as to a good standard.  Restaurants may have teams of chefs working on different aspects of their afternoon teas, but I can honestly say that after making my own I can fully respect, and, in the future, will take the time to appreciate, the time and effort that goes into each and every little detail of every afternoon tea.

Love is Sweet: Konditor & Cook’s Valentine’s Collection

There is no denying that Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to share beautifully decorated cakes adorned with hearts, kisses and other romantic embellishments with your significant other, basking in your sweet, sweet happiness with sweet, sweet loved-up sugary treats.  (Although in my relationship cake is more part of our staple diet than a delicious treat that we enjoy on occasion!)  Whilst picking up get-well-soon cupcakes from the local bakery for my ill boyfriend this week, who was slogging away in the library and quite frankly in need of a quick pick-me-up, I stumbled across Konditor & Cook’s Valentine’s range.  I love their specialist ranges, particularly their Mulled Wine Cupcakes at Christmas, so I decided nothing could be better than cheering my boyfriend up with these love-themed cupcakes.

Mr. Mount Hazelnut

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This was Konditor & Cook’s ‘manly’ cupcake, made especially for the man who does not want to be showered with hearts and kisses on a cupcake, with its macho moustache clearly oozing masculinity.  Funnily enough, this was my boyfriend’s favourite cupcake, so it obviously resonates well with the male species!  The hazelnut sponge was beautiful, soft, and spongy, and was no different in texture to the other sponges despite being wheat-free.  The flavouring was also impeccable, with a strong hazelnut sponge, topped with an extremely generous creamy hazelnut frosting.  Having pleased the boyfriend with ‘Oh, this is good!  This is my favourite!  This is the best cupcake I’ve ever had!’ it has gained the winning spot in Claire’s Konditor & Cook’s Valentine’s Cupcake Collection Competition (got to love a bit of alliteration)!

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Raspberry Chequer Cupcake

Second place goes to the Raspberry Chequer Cupcake.  This was my favourite in terms of flavour and decoration.  The icing was beautifully scented with a soft raspberry flavour, blended beautifully with white chocolate, which was delicately but thickly piped on top of a soft vanilla and raspberry-swirl sponge.  This gave the sponge a gorgeous marble effect, as well as adding to the subtle raspberry flavour that is typical of Konditor & Cook’s cupcakes; they are never over-powering on flavour.  However, the real treat was the raspberry surprise at the bottom, which gave a sharp but sweet kick to the cupcake, really setting it apart from the others.

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Lady Marmalade Cupcake

This orange-themed cupcake was much subtler in flavour than the others.  Whilst fun and flirty in its decoration, with lip-pouting seduction (although if you wanted to be more forward with that someone who makes your heart flutter, or possibly just you knickers drop, they had some rather bold biscuits to choose from with words such as ‘SHAG’ plastered across them in big capital letters)!  However, my love affair with this cupcake basically stopped there.  I love flavour, and the orange marmalade taste was just too faint for my liking.  I wanted it to be tangy and adventurous, like the decorative lips and ‘Lady Marmalade’ name suggested, but it just continued with the theme of soft and subtle flavours.  It would almost be like asking that innocent girl in your class/office, ‘voulez-vous cous chez avec moi?’  You know what you want, but it’s not going to happen!

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Curly Wurly Cupcake

Unfortunately, neither my boyfriend nor I were massive fans of this cupcake, which I was quite upset about because the Curly Wurly cake is Konditor & Cook’s bestseller and is used in their baking classes (something which I desperately want to do)!  Whilst the chocolate sponge was lovely (but, yet again, quite subtle in flavour, especially for a chocolate cake), it was the vanilla bean cream cheese frosting that neither of us were keen on.  The typically generous amount of icing was too overpowering for the subtlety of the sponge given the slightly tangy flavour of the vanilla bean cream cheese frosting on this cupcake.  I have to admit though, the frosting did go beautifully with the sponge after I scraped the majority of it off, and I can imagine it would be extremely complementary on their full-sized cakes that allows for more sponge and less frosting.

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Overall, the Konditor & Cook Valentine’s Collection was a heart stealer.  The decoration alone allowed these cupcakes to be the perfect gift for a loved one this February.  It is impossible to walk past the bakery window at any time of year without peering in to see the continuously changing flavours and always impeccably decorated cupcakes (so much so that my flatmate refuses to try their cupcakes because she’s adament that cakes that look THAT good always compromise on flavour, and I suppose that in some cases she is right).  However, I will always have a lot of love for the experimental flavours and decorative talents of this bakery and they always give you that special treat feeling when you walk out the door with a bag full of gorgeous looking cupcakes peering up at you as you walk along the street.