Cookshelf- Sweet Tooth from Lily Vanilli

lv front

It’s a funny thing being a girl sometimes. Even in our apparently modern age there is some serious definition flying around about who girls are and what they should do. Pink stuff, fluffy stuff, nurture and babies and smiling. Awwww. Now don’t get me wrong, I love cuddling a newborn whilst wearing a frothy fuscia frock in my immaculately clean kitchen as much as the next XX chromosome holder. And I’m lucky to have generation upon generation of tips and knowledge on such things from women who went that way before and I acknowledge that. But what about the rest? Yeah, girls stuff, love it but how about zombies? How about noisy car engines and massive steaks and Bruce Willis films? Because plenty of girls like that kind of thing too and they stray into a dangerous grey area of The Tom-Boy. That sweetly patronising term to safely box away all of your not strictly girlie tendencies under an insidiously ‘not a proper girl’ label. Tom Boy. We shouldn’t really be into all that but as long as it’s only playing, that’s ok. But it isn’t ok because it makes certain traits out of reach or undesirable. Because it makes us think girls shouldn’t be loud or assertive or dirty or up at the front, leading the stick-swords battle against invading alien hoards. Because this then spills into life scoring big, ugly lines through the gender roles in our minds as well as our boardrooms and yes, this is a problem today. If you don’t think it is I suspect you are either a boy or a princess.

Do I digress? Maybe slightly yes, I’m not going to start going on about why you should go and read ‘Lean In’ (although you should). There is no such thing as a feminist cake. There is, however, a large world of Chefs. Food is an industry now that goes way beyond basic cultivation and consumption- just look at your BBC Saturday morning line up for this. Check your Twitter trends and your youtube channels and we’re all mad for the Chefs. The James Martin, The Gordon Ramsay. Jason Atherton, Sat Baines, Hair Metal Chef, The Galvins, Jean Georges, Dan-Duck-and-Waffle-Doherty. If you’re into cooking, and eating, there are whole load of men out there in the front line to tell you how to do it. And they are all brilliant and talented and no doubt deserve to be listened to but there is something of a block when it comes to being truly inspired by, to wishing to aspire to a member of the opposite gender. I don’t want to talk about this being right or wrong or whether little boys should be allowed to wear skirts because I don’t care about that- the simple fact is that It Is. I love James Martin, I would give my left ovary to have him cook me dinner. Would I like to be him? Well, no, he’s a boy……..

So what exactly is my point in this waffle that is supposed to be a book review? Lily Vanilli. Lily Vanilli is my point. Yes all power to the boys but you have to look a little bit harder for a lot fewer high profile women in food unless of course you are seeking a new diet and don’t us girls get all the press about being fat? Don’t get me started.
In times of old, who did we have? Saint Delia? Who thought it might be nice to instruct the masses in the ridiculously simple or rechurned classic? Nah, not so much. Nigella then? Fuck. Off. Way to get yourself to the forefront of a male dominated industry and media in general by sticking your tits out and pushing the innuendo envelope. Genius. Yes sure she can cook and she’s had her share of all the rubbish parts of being a celeb and infact being a girl and all that but just, no. Silvena Rowe is bonkers yet worth your attention, but I’ll wager less than half the people who read this have any idea who she is. More digression.

Let’s end the great gender discussion to cut to a Halloween some years ago when a work friend bought in some ridiculously intricate and creepy cupcakes. How the hell did you come up with that?

A Zombie Ate My Cupcake.

Sorry, what?

A Zombie Ate My Cupcake. I found google, I found Twitter and I found Lily Vanilli and her baking creations and I found the first woman in food I had ever found wholly inspiring and wondrous and just bloody brilliant and I wanted to know everything she had to say about anything. I fell into that spellbound tingly obsessive state that is The Girl Crush. I found the most useful and comprehensive cookery book I own: Sweet Tooth (though AZAMC is a great buy for the extra creative amoung us). As books go it is nothing short of a revelation and to quote Saint Gizzie of Erskine (who we may discuss in similar terms one day) it is ‘the only baking book you will ever need’.

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I can’t say it enough times or with enough gravity- this is an excellent book. The recipes cover a massive range from cakes to pastries to ice creams in a truly fail safe manner. If you do as you are told, you will get a brilliant thing to eat  because of concise and easy to follow methods from someone who really, really knows what she is talking about. The technical sections explaining the science of ingredients and their different types is brilliantly useful for any cook of cakes or otherwise. Ah, the cakes.  And so much more than just the cakes and sweets and pastries and scones and bears, oh my! The photography is spectacular and would make a book of it’s own without the recipes but it is the personality that comes with this book that is truly inspirational. The introduction telling of cash short days leading to a determined young woman taking control and doing what she loved and building an amazing career out of it was the inspiration I needed to open my own food business. Yes, fine, my nowhere near as successful and laughable in comparison business but it pays for my holidays each year, and I did it because of Lily Vanilli and this book. Because she doesn’t preach, she doesn’t lecture, she just spells it all out in a way that means you can do it too. In a way that makes you to want to do it too, which is the real trick. I have many beautiful cook books with wonderful recipes that I like reading then putting back on the shelf. I avoid opening Sweet Tooth unless I know I have time to bake immediately afterwards. I am force issuing a copy of this book to everyone I can think of who might not have it this Christmas and I urge you to do the same.

There are a lot of high impact projects and fancy bakes in this book, plenty of simple comforts and basics too including the only buttercream icing I will ever, ever make again. Ever. Other favourites are the the Apple & Rosemary Olive Oil Cake on p61 for a rustic and terribly grown up treat and the Zebra Cake from p52 which is great fun to make even though I can’t quite get it as pretty as she does. Then on trend superfood bakes like chocolate and avocado cake and an amazing beetroot cake. Pages of decorative items and eyegasm visual display eats like meringue bones, nut brittle, candyfloss meringues and the bleeding heart cupcakes that first bought me into this fandom in the first place. Not to forget out and out indulgence in the form of absinthe hot chocolate and whisky salt caramel popcorn. Not in to all the showcasing? Try the spelt scones, which are doing the rounds weekly in my house at the moment.

Here endeth the fangirl rant. Buy this book if you bake, it is obscenely cheap on Amazon at the moment or available in the majority of your actual real life high street shops. Follow her @lilyvanillicake on twitter too and you can squee yourself as I do when she gives you a like or a reply. I’m off for a late scone breakfast.

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The New York State of Mind- Balade

Photo from

Photo from

What- Traditional and modern Lebanese/Eastern Mediterranean/Mezze

Where- 208 1st Ave, between 12th & 13th Street

How much- Mezze & wine for two $100 incl service

Overall- 9/10

Once upon a time a girl from Essex became mildly obsessed with fattoush- a simple zingy middle eastern salad she learned from a Gizzie Erskine book. This same girl got to thinking that it might be worth a bash at finding some good mezze on her upcoming trip to New York, though with some anxiety at how the Older Male Sibling would be coerced into this. He was fine with it, which ends any further great dramatic developments in the tale of how we came to have a Friday night dinner at Balade. As with many stops on our whistlestop NYC tour, Balade came up from a quick google of ‘best lebanese in NYC’, a further review in Time Out added foodie promise to the handy location close to the Grammercy Theater where we were spending the early half of the evening.

I’m going to take a moment here to confirm the rumours that yes, we queued up in the rain with a million teenage girls with long bangs to attend a snippet of The New Yorker Festival that involved an incredibly entertaining interview with Lady band Haim. They sang some songs too. It was really good. Yes, Haim. They are an actual band, being young and trendy doesn’t make them shit and I shall stand no more of your mockery about this!

So we booked a table online and turned up around 9- my first tip is to book directly with the restaurant, don’t rely on open table or similar third parties as they had absolutely no idea we were coming. Before you get to the food you see how Balade has won a couple of Diner’s choice and similar city based awards recently. On a Friday night it was standing room only (not even standing room for the four lads who arrived shortly after us and happily hung out in the hall to wait for a table). One thing that always bodes well for any restaurant is when it is jammed to the rafters with happy and diverse punters. You can take your kids, your wife or your work buddies to Balade, the menu will work for them.

It is a comfy but certainly not casual setting, with regional artworks and wooden pieces on the walls which gave half the impression of being in an ancient history temple set up in a log cabin. In a good way. I wont pretend to be thrilled about waiting around half an hour for a pre-booked table in an awkward space by the door but the general buzz, eye catching decor and complimentary glass of red for our troubles made it ok. I would no doubt tell a different story about the wait if the memory wasn’t now deeply ensconced with some exceptionally good food. I must apologise for lack of photographics due to some unknown damage to my SD card which left me with one fattoush shot and a load of corrupt files. We went for a mezze set up in the end, though nosing at the activity on other tables showed that the large plate options looked pretty special too.

Fattoush- a simple salad perfectly executed- lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, sumac, fried pitta. Superb. Regionally correct wine in the background.

Fattoush- a simple salad perfectly executed- lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, sumac, fried pitta. Superb. Regionally correct wine and labne in the background.

So the fattoush, well, I wont go on. I love fattoush, and this was done exactly as it should be. Hooray for fattoush. The baba ghanouj was also excellent- incredibly smoky. The last of the pitta servings went on scooping up big dollops of Labne. Labne was a new one on me, with my initial vote for halloumi over ruled by the older male sibling. It is somewhere between a Greek yoghurt and a cream cheese in consistency, tart but creamy and in this case covered in minced garlic and black pepper with a swish of olive oil. Fabulously satisfying with that not quite sour tang that lets you kid yourself this is healthy dairy, rather than cheese that you are filling your face with. Top notch, you can frame this one Jon: You Were Right.
I will mention now an alarmingly drinkable bottle of Chateau Ksara- Lebanese red being another first for me. Also selected by him. Ye gods he was right again! Reds fall into three categories for me: Fruity smooth ones that go down like Ribena; hefty old french ones that my Dad buys; and ones I don’t like. The Ksara was of the first kind, the dangerous kind, and it goes really nicely with a tub of Labne. Kebbe Kras (buckwheat and beef fritters) got points also and the opportunity to have chicken wings two nights in a row had to be seized. It broke my heart slightly that the waiter did a double take on the chicken wings to explain that they might not be what we expected. They were fantastic: marinated and char grilled, served slightly blackened with a hot sauce and pant-kickingly pungent garlic dipping sauce- beautiful. I thoroughly chastise anyone who has gone there in the past and moaned about them enough to prompt our order warning. There is life beyond Southern Fried, people!
So yes, the food is very good and yes, we ordered far too much of it. Although somewhat harassed, the service was good also, mind blowingly so in the case of a fantastically rude young female at the table next to us who set new levels in Talking To Staff Like They Are Mildly Retard Criminals Who Owe You A Living. My second tip for eating at Balade- take claustrophobics elsewhere this is a very ‘social’ restaurant without much space between tables and if someone is being a snotty princess nearby you’re going to hear it.

Balade was a good call. Eating Labne was a good call. Lebanese wine was a really good call and I’m not sad for listening to Haim.

click here for website, full menu, delivery etc.

The New York State of Mind- Mighty Quinn’s BBQ

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image from everplaces

What: Modern BBQ- ribs, brisket, wings, burnt ends.
Where: Many locations across Brooklyn, Manhattan, Jersey. We went East Village, 2nd Ave and East 6th St
How Much: $20ish pp for meat, side and drink
Overall: 10/10 for a quick, tasty dinner

Oh. My. Goodness.
Mighty Quinn’s was an early hit on my search list for where to eat in the East Village, convenient to our digs but I have to say it still would have been well worth the trip from further across town.
I’ve gone on previously about the BBQ trend in the UK at the moment and how easily and frequently wrong it goes. People trying to run a city based BBQ trend eatery need to go to Mighty Quinn’s, because this is how you do it.
The typical traits of such places are all there- no reservations, no table service, clunky furniture designed to look like there has been little care it its design, you know the type. But in a new twist you can’t even take a seat in MQ’s until you’ve got your dinner, as we were told in slightly tired terms by a nice chap who was cleaning but certainly not serving the tables. We later exchanged brief words about the upcoming Justice League movie and possibilities of Ben Affleck totally cocking up Batman. Extra points for friendly (if Affleck deluded) staff too.
So you don’t sit down, which is potentially irritating but not the end of the world. Instead you join the queue at one end of the wooden floorboarded space and shuffle expectantly up to the grills to see the staff at their craft up close and personal, all the while drowning in a meaty dream haze of sizzling smells that suddenly render it impossible to select your choice of dinner from a relatively short menu. You get a few meat choices (which you can buy per person or just by the pound), naked or in bread, then a few more sides and sort of salads. I had thankfully already decided before going that I wanted burnt ends. Which they had sold out of by 9 on a Thursday. Boo.

Wings n brisket with pickles. Try the broccoli salad too.

Wings n brisket with pickles. Try the broccoli salad too.

Once you can force yourself to choose they take your meat off the heat and chuck it into a little polystyrene tray with your choice of salad and pickles and usher you on past the sides bar, by which time you are allowed to pay and finally sit down.
The older male sibling couldn’t look past the lump of brisket on the grill infront of his eyes. I made a swift re-allocation of choice to chicken wings and a sharing negotiations commenced. Slaw, burnt end beans, pickled red onions and cucumber, broccoli salad. A dark beer for him and a ‘hard’ cider for me. Please note if you are not American, there is nothing noticeably ‘hard’ about this cider but it is a refreshing brew nonetheless.
I’m not going to break out my flowery adjective reserve here. It was bloody excellent and that is all. Brisket was tender and succulent in big beefy slices,exactly as brisket should be: bloody excellent. The chicken wings were crisp and both types of hot and (I think) Asian in style served with spring onion trimmings and the kind of mega-spice-mouth-freeze that I’ve only ever experienced with szechuan pepper previously: bloody excellent. Proper coleslaw, beany beans, lovely crunchy broccoli in a salad arrangement with bacon, almonds and some buttermilky dressing goodness now on my list to try and recreate at home.

The food at Mighty Quinns is Bloody Excellent.

So it isn’t a romantic, sensual experience in luxury dining (though you would get this girl there on any date night). There are no poetic menu descriptions, no raw vegan clean eater options, no artistic smears of reduced puree jus on your plate. Hell there aren’t even plates, but there is good, honest and incredibly tasty food and big bottles of house sauce on your clunky wooden table. The toilets are ridiculously huge with nice green tiles. It’s pretty good value, has a bustling, social atmosphere and serves better pickled cucumber than I do. You have no idea of the physical pain I feel admitting that, and if anyone else said first it they would have got a fork in the eye.

Thank you Mighty Quinns, for you are mighty indeed and I hope to one day find your equal on these shores. Or just come back to see you again. Bloody excellent.

click here for website