My Review of the “High Spirits Afternoon Tea” at The Paramount, Centrepoint, London

Update to this post 3 Feb 2015: The Paramount Bar and Restaurant has since closed their doors (as part of a larger redevelopment plans for Centre Point).

high spirits afternoon tea review by caroline hope

It fascinates me how Afternoon Tea is moving further and further from the original idea of serving food that would complement that perfect cup of tea sometime after noon. The High Spirits Afternoon Tea served at the Paramount has quite a different energy to any images of a languid Victorian meal that its title seems to conjure up.

Afternoon tea is described thus in the 1893 edition of Mrs Beeton’s book of Household Management which was the era in which I would suggest that this meal reached its apogee (there is no mention of the meal in the first edition of 1861).

This is the opening chapter on Teas from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Ward Lock, 1893:
“Under the head of “Teas” how many different meals are served? We say “meals”, perhaps, incorrectly, for the afternoon cup of tea (in many fashionable houses the only tea served) can scarcely come under this head: but independent of this, we have wedding teas, high teas, “at home” teas, ordinary family teas, and in some old fashioned places, whose inhabitants have not moved with times, still a quiet tea where people are invited to partake of such nice things as hot buttered toast, tea cakes, new laid eggs, and home-made preserves and cake. A pleasant meal, that is only the precursor of a good supper, of which we shall speak later on.”

The Paramount (restaurant and bar) provides a sophisticated, very urban meal that has overtones of the world of James Bond. Each morsel of food is infused with alcohol. That, along with the sugar, provides such a giddy rush of energy, that neither I, nor my guest, Samantha Pearce, were brave enough to dive into a cocktail for which the Paramount is famous for serving, and feebly opted for a virgin Mohito each.high spirits afternoon tea paramount, tea tray

The cocktail theme runs through the presentation of the food. Rather than serving conventional cakes and pastries, the focus was on presenting, each deliciously concocted alcohol laced dessert in unusual miniature cocktail glasses and jars. See the wonderful Amaretto Sour and Porn Star Martini

The sandwich shapes were almost created to mirror the high rise buildings that we viewed from our window side table – 385ft above the London streets.

Everything was snappy, smart and exciting and very much in keeping with the character and feel of the bar.

Possibly, the least discernible part of the meal was the tea itself. The strong boozy flavours permeating the food and the Virgin Mohitos rather overwhelmed the senses. The tea is supplied by Blends for Friends. Samantha had a Classic Black and I had the Altitude Afternoon. Both were good on the initial tasting but needed to be drunk quickly before going slightly bitter. However that is a minor quibble as we were both offered fresh pots of tea on request.

I urge you to go for the sheer joy of being so high above London and enjoying a really unusual take on this meal. Whether Mrs Beeton would approve is quite another matter!high spirits afternoon tea, view from paramount restaurant

For more information or to book a “High Spirits Tea at the Paramount” – call them directly on 0207 420 2900, tweet them on @ParamountSoho, join them on Facebook or visit their website.

The address is: Paramount Restaurant and Bar, Centrepoint, 101 – 103 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1DD. The tea is served between 2.30pm – 4.30pm. At the time of writing the cost is £28 per person, or with a cocktail…£42 per person.

Masterpiece London 2014 | Art, Antiques, Design – My Review

Masterpiece London

My lovely friend, Charlotte Howard, invited me to join her to see Masterpiece 2014, a rather amazing and professionally presented exhibition of Art, Antiques and Design that took place in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. It had that quiet opulence of soft beige carpets; our feet sank into it as we walked around.

There were some really stunning pieces on display and I felt a surge of thrilled excitement on seeing some fabulous chinoiserie pieces, just because it is so much in my mind with my newly devised History of Tea Tour at the Victoria & Albert Museum. (Find out more about the personalised tours here.)

I was really taken with some mirrors (or girandoles) and two delicate chinoiserie cabinets on thePagoda Girandoles Apter Fredericks stand and so enjoy seeing this influence from China – the mysterious and exotic country from which tea originated. It was not just tea that captured the imagination of the rich Europeans in the 17th and 18th century that resulted in this delicate liquor becoming Great Britain’s national drink. It was the overall sheer exoticism of items arriving from the land known as Cathay that really intrigued and stuck in our imagination.

Why should this be? I feel it is partly down to ‘less is more.’

During the 14th and 15th centuries, China had closed its borders to the barbarians of Europe with only a few travellers such as Marco Polo returning with information. No-one could check if these returning stories were true; so those about the great beauty and infinite luxuries of this far off land were greatly embellished and even fabricated. Perhaps this excerpt from Chinoiserie, The Vision of Cathay, by Hugh Honour aptly describes it?

“Cathay is, or rather was, a continent of immeasurable extent lying just beyond the eastern confines of the known world. Of this mysterious and charming land, poets are the only historians and porcelain painters the most reliable topographers. They alone can give an adequate impression of the beauty of the landscape with its craggy snow-capped mountain ranges and its verdant plains sprinkled with cities of dreaming pagodas and intersected by meandering rivers whose limpid waters bear whole fleets of delicately wrought junks, all-a flutter with bedraggoned pennants and laden with precious cargoes of jade, porcelain, samite, silk, green ginger, and delicately scented teas.”

“Besides their banks the palm and weeping willow flourish amidst phoenix-tail bamboos and a proliferation of exotic flora. Giant flowers abound here: chrysanthemums which tower above the men who tend them, paeonies which dwarf the birds nesting in their branches, and convolvulus whose blossoms serve as hats, as parasols, and even, on occasion, as the roofs of huts. Indeed the natural landscape is so beautiful that when laying out their gardens, the cathaians could desire no more than to reproduce it on a miniature scale, with paths serpenting round hillocks of artificial rock-work, sinuous rills, and forests of tiny gnarled trees.”

“The fauna is no less extraordinary. Huge and fiery dragons lurk in every mountain cave; gaudy birds with rainbow-hued plumage swoop over the plains; butterflies the size of puffins hover round the pendant blooms of Wisteria sinensis; and diaphanous-tailed goldfish play amidst the water-lilies and chrysolite rocks of stream and pond.”

Can you imagine the excitement as more and more items flowed from this continent ‘lying just beyond the confines of the known world’?

Nothing previously known could compare with the exoticism of hand painted wallpapers, lacquered and gilded furniture, woven silks, carpets, chintzes, delicate porcelain and of course the highly prized tea.

In time many of these luxury goods were to be manufactured throughout Europe as our native Painted Jug Vasecraftsmen emulated the skills and styles of the Orient, creating the mythological and idealised vision of this remote culture. Sometimes it was difficult to tell which pieces were originally Chinese or European.

It gives me a little thrill each time I see any oblique references to tea drinking. From visiting a modern day art and antiques exhibition such as Masterpiece, walking past the stunning de Gournay showroom in Old Church Street, Chelsea and then burrowing around in the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, everywhere there are strands of information interwoven with tea.

I would love to welcome you on one of my personally guided “History of Tea Tours” of the V & A. This tour is perfect for those who want to explore the history of tea drinking from its origins in China and East India to the height of its popularity in Georgian Britain, where it touched the English interior and forever shaped British culture.

The Tour includes not only the guided tour hosted by myself, but also a donation to the museum; printed tour notes; and of course tea and cake when we finish. Prepare to share two and a half hours with me on this tour. Reserve a place for yourself at only £42 per person >> click here.

Tea Time – A Themed Celebration of The Royal Chelsea Flower Show

Caroline at the Intercontinental Westminster

What a wonderful afternoon I had with Hilary Newstead at the Intercontinental Westminster Hotel. I had been invited to review their Edible Garden afternoon tea, which was created to coincide with the Chelsea Flower Show.

Despite the fact that I spend innumerable hours teaching classes around English tea time (including cake or scone baking; tasting fine teas or looking at the history English tea time), it is quite rare  for me to go “out to tea”. It was a real treat to review the Edible Garden Afternoon Tea at the Intercontinental , enjoy free flowing Laurent Perrier champagne and indulge in a glorious feast of exquisite garden-themed patisserie creations.

I took so many pictures – the food was just a feast for the eyes with the glass cloche centrepiece, under which our cakes nestled in a bed of dark (and edible) soil.

Lifting the glass cloche displaying the edible garden

Lifting the glass cloche displaying the edible garden

The Gorgeous Teatime Treats

How did the food taste?

The Pea and Basil Tart

The Pea and Basil Tart

Fresh, delicious and as it should be! When I got down to tasting each little treat as it was presented, they were divine. The biggest winners for me were the miniature Chelsea Bun and the Garden Pea and Basil Tart. I normally avoid currents and dried fruits  but this Chelsea Bun had been created by someone who understood what they were doing. There was almost more fruit than bun dough; the spicey, citrusy, moist fruit enveloped my tongue.  Likewise the pea and basil tart; the burst of fresh baby peas exploding in my mouth.

 

The quality of the tea:

More delicious treats

More delicious treats

We drank some exceptionally good teas that were supplied by Jing Teas. I had a Second flush Darjeeling that had nectar-like qualities and Hilary had a superlative Japanese Green Sencha, about which she was very excited as she had not tried before.

The Hotel, the service and the presentation:

The hotel excelled in all the areas that mattered:  superbly attentive waiters and bar staff who were knowledgeable and not at all officious; spotless and beautifully presented silverware and porcelain, comfortable chairs into which  we could just sink whilst indulging ourselves.

The only negative I have, and this is more one of a personal dismay, is to question why it is necessary to go to such lengths to design cakes to no longer look like food. This is not to doubt the skills of the pastry chefs – their technical virtuosity was par excellence – but why is it is necessary?  Nowadays afternoon tea seem to be a competition about who can ‘design’ the most ‘clever’ feast for the eyes.

I am with Sir Henry Cole on his theory of good design. He states that good design takes into account the intrinsic quality of the material being used.  For example a woven piece of fabric into which a flower motif has been woven displays the virtuosity of the woven fabric whereas a flower design that is printed onto a fabric will not display the quality of the weave – the printed pattern is what is seen and nothing more.

Perhaps this is what I found difficult with this meal – I was being asked to admire the cleverness of the pastry chef in creating clever little concoctions such as a chocolate flower pot, a garden wall or edible earth. However  the delights we feasted on were neither particular to the season during which we were eating it, nor could we see the qualities of the cake or pastry shining through the designed piece.

But this is one of my little bees that buzz around in my bonnet and a minor quibble.  I shall definitely return. Thank you Intercontinental Westminster, for a truly exceptional and wonderful afternoon.

My Essential Store Cupboard Secrets for Successful Afternoon Tea Baking

This may sound silly to say – but I can’t stress the importance of preparation. As with most work – transfer your skills from what you know in your day to day to your baking and you may find some remarkable results.

People who just seem to knock up a cake or some scones at the last minute have one secret weapon that may not be immediately apparent. They are utterly confident in their understanding of what they are doing by:

  • knowing how their ingredients will work together.
  • understanding the process of  each action, whether beating, folding etc.
  • being aware of what they have in their store cupboard.

In other words…they are ‘prepared’. Their preparation may have come about through years of practise so it becomes second nature. Part of that “secret confidence” is likely to be the result of what they use and what they keep as the staple items in their cupboards.

I’m going to share with you what my Top 10 staple food items are that I keep on hand. If you bake regularly or want to – it’s going to become more and more important to keep good quality ingredients in your store cupboard and fridge.

A peek of what is in my store cupboard

A proper visual peek of what is in my store cupboard!

Here’s a peek into my cupboard and fridge:

  1. Flour: Marriage’s organic plain and self raising flours and Sharpham Park organic wholemeal spelt flour. If you use supermarket ‘value’ flours you will be amazed at what a difference such a small switch can make. Whatever goes in will have an impact on what comes out. (Read my blog post on flour choices here.)
  2. Lemon Juice: a bottle of concentrated lemon juice to add as necessary.
  3. Very mature cheddar cheese: I find M & S is good on cheeses (always full fat cheese: I feel that anything that is half fat must have been ‘engineered’ in some way).
  4. A selection of nuts and seeds to throw into scones to make them more interesting. At the moment I am in a sunflower seed and walnut phase.
  5. Barts dried herbs and spices – throw out those that have been opened and sat on the shelf for years. The optimum time to use them is three weeks, yes weeks, after opening to get the fullest flavour.
  6. Good quality vanilla extract or paste – Little Pod is my favourite. I am too lazy to always scrape the seeds out of a vanilla pod so I use the paste that has the seeds in it.
  7. Instant espresso coffee powder (Nestlé or Carte Noir). A teaspoon of the dry powder is brilliant for flavouring macaron shells or I use it to create a concentrated paste for flavouring sponge cakes, buttercream icing and mocha ganache.
  8. Frozen chopped onions – not strictly for baking! I just find them useful as a base flavour for soups, especially if I have a lot of vegetables that are looking a bit sad and need to be transformed rather than thrown out. Then I might serve with wholemeal spelt flour and (dried) rosemary scones.
  9. Dark chocolate – at least 70% cocoa solids – I always snap up anything that is on offer in the supermarket. Very good for the soul in whatever form and if I suddenly have a late evening desire to make some ganache to have with some fruit I even make it with hot water rather than cream.
  10. Oats – but I am already nudging towards 11 items because I need to include golden syrup as well – to make my ginger and oat biscuits to take hiking.

These are my must-have items and I am sure  you must have some of your own? What are they?  What do you always make sure never runs out in your fridge or cupboard and why? I would love to know so please do share with me in the comments below…

The British Tea Time – A Tradition of Manners, Etiquette and “Polite” Society

Caroline Hope's Tea TimeThere is a strong worldwide perception that tea is an English drink. According to the UK Tea Council – as a nation we drink approximately 165 million cups of tea every day, coming in just behind the Irish Republic. Why has tea become so embedded in British culture when it is really an oriental drink? Have we got so used to it being part of our lives here that we no longer ‘see’ tea for what it is – the growing camellia sinensis plant that has well over a 1,000 different varieties around the world. (Sinensis really means ‘of China or of Chinese origin)

Over 96 % of tea consumed in the UK is sold in tea bags. Supermarket shelves are packed with assorted tea bag brands. The terms to describe them include ‘lively’ and ‘calming’, and our expectation is that they will taste the same every single time we drink them. And yet the flavour and characteristics of origin teas (teas that come from a particular area, eg Assam) are influenced by the soil in which they are grown, the height above sea level and the climatic conditions, very much in the same way as wine. Once you have tried a delicate first or second flush Darjeeling your palate will be longing for more.

Over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a resurgence of interest in high quality origin and blended teas. At the same time going out for tea as a special occasion has become increasingly fashionable. Even now both tea drinking and the meal taken in the afternoon, have a whisper of formal manners and good behaviour that has passed down the generations.

In the 18th century tea drinking was a way to demonstrate ‘genteelness’ within the growing urban ‘middling’ classes, whose new wealth was derived from the industrial revolution that changed the face of Great Britain. Your skills in serving and taking tea showed that you knew how to behave in polite society, whilst the quality of your tea paraphernalia demonstrated your wealth. Think of all those family portraits in art galleries of a family drinking tea – an immediate indicator of how fashionable and rich they were.

Make sure when you next go out to tea you have your photograph taken as you preside over a tea table piled high with delicate food and a delicious cup of tea – tell the world you know and participate in  the magic of the English style tea party!

I am running an “Introduction to Popular English Teas” course through CityLit this year. If you would like to find out more have a look at their website, or drop me an email on caroline@teaandscones.co.uk. The CityLIt website will be able to let you know if there is still availability.

Make Friends With Your Oven | How to Get The Most Out of Your Oven

Caroline's oven

One of the most common complaints I get in my baking classes is students saying how dreadful their oven is to use. Do any of these sound familiar to you:

  •  one area of the oven being hotter than another,
  •  each time you bake your outcomes are different ( maybe undercooked one time or overcooked the next, i.e. a lack of consistency)

I liken these comments to people moaning about how beastly their boyfriend is or a disappointment in their latest girlfriend’s behaviour. Perhaps the problem is that they are not being handled correctly or there is an unrealistic expectation of how they will behave?

For best results (both human and oven-related) it might help to understand your oven’s (and lover’s) little foibles – don’t apportion blame for characteristics that are inherent in its/his/her performance. Why not work with their best features and get great results?

How often do you use your oven?

Most of us only use our ovens for an hour or two maybe every two or three days. We  preheat the oven and, once the thermostat light goes out – think it is up to temperature. It is, but probably only in one area where the thermometer is positioned. It does not take into account that the shelves and certain patches in the oven walls have not evened out.  You may need to allow a longer time for preheating to get a really even ambience in your oven. (In Winter I find it is worse because the metal is generally colder). I now always bake a tray of biscuits or macarons before a class to get my oven really loosened up for consistent results in the class, i.e. always cooking at the optimum temperature.

In simple terms the oven sides are made of metal that expand and contract as they heat and cool with the particles in the metal shifting their positions. (This also applies to baking tins but I shall save that for another blog.) Most commercial bakeries use their ovens every day for eight to ten hours. As a result the metal ‘tempers’ very evenly as the particles have memory and expand quickly and easily to even out the temperature (I liken it to going to the gym regularly – your muscles remember the exercises more easily than when going once a month).   Constant heating equals consistent baking results. I find the lower the quality of the oven the more pronounced  the problem.

Do you understand the principles of how your oven works?

Different types of oven will all perform in slightly different ways. These are the most commonly found:

Conventional electric ovenThese are less usual these days but often, if you have a double oven with a large oven and a small half size oven, the smaller oven is a conventional electric oven.  The heat in this type of oven is produced by elements either in the sides of the oven or the top and bottom of the oven. This (slowly) heats the air in the oven up to the required temperature. It can use a lot of electricity. The oven will be hottest at the top.

Conventional gas ovenThe oven is heated by the gas flames at the bottom back of the oven and again the air is hottest at the top. The gas oven heats more quickly than the electric one.

Fan assisted oven   These operate as described above with a fan at the back that circulates the air around the oven. This provides a more even heat distribution.

Fan oven (as opposed to fan assisted) – these make up the majority of ovens now sold in the UK. The air is drawn out of the oven through the fan at the back over a heated element and injected back into the oven at different levels. This saves energy because you are only heating a small element  over which the air is heated as opposed to heating up static air in the whole oven cavity and heats up far more quickly. Under perfect conditions the temperature for a fan oven would be adjusted down by about 10% compared to something being cooked in a conventional electric oven.

Do you view a recipe as a guide or gospel?

So many times I have heard people wail that they follow the recipe to the letter and still the result is undercooked/burnt etc. Do you realise that the temperatures provided  may not be correct for your oven?  The author is using another oven in another kitchen and you may need to adapt your recipes to suit. Oven manufacturers are allowed a margin of error (I think around 8%) of the stated temperature compared to the true temperature before an oven is regarded as faulty. A recipe may say 180°C  so a 5% leeway hotter would mean you need to cook at 190°C. The author’s oven might be cooking at 5% cooler than the stated temperature so actually cooking at about 170°C. A further complication is that often it does not specify the type of oven being used, e.g. the difference between conventional or fan oven.   You may find it helpful to buy an oven thermometer to focus on whether your oven cooks hotter or cooler than the stated temperature.

So…in summary…

It is important that you take ownership of the process, adapting recipes and oven temperature to suit your way of cooking in your kitchen. Perhaps also get into the  thought process of thinking cool heat, medium heat, medium hot, hot etc.  And of course the better quality the oven, the less unbalanced the results.

Be tender with your oven and it will reward you with great results (all under your guidance).  You don’t expect a new lover to behave in the same way as an earlier one; you can delight in pleasures new. Happy baking!

The Debate Between Quality Organic Flour vs Supermarket Branded Flour | My Flour Journey

I may have got into some ‘expensive’ habits when it comes to baking that I would now find hard Organic Flourto break. I am great believer in good value i.e. weighing up the cost vs. reward ratio and certainly now I apply this when using flour.

For years I would buy the cheapest flour thinking ‘flour is just flour.’ A leading supermarket own brand costs 75p for a 1.5kg bag whereas as one of the beautifully packaged bespoke milled organic brand might cost up to £4 for the same quantity. My initial thought used to be “No contest”. I was teaching after all and any increased costs took away from my bottom line.

Enter: a whole new world for me..Organic Flour

A few years ago I heard Mervin Austin of Mount Pleasant Windmill talking about his allergic reaction to flour that had manifested itself when he  previously working for a commercial bakery for many years. Having developed contact dermatitis on my hands I thought it worth trying out good organic flour; anything to alleviate the pain of the ‘burning’ on my hands.

One Sunday, as I was preparing for a class that day,  I realised I did not have enough flour and rushed to my local supermarket. Happy Eater flour was all they had in stock. The class commenced and everything fine. At the end we sat down for tea to taste everything made by the students.  I was shocked at the texture and taste of the scones this time compared to my normal results with organic flour (they were still good but once you have made something thousands of times you do become very become extremely sensitive to every change).

Since then I have practised with numerous different flours and have found the quality really does make a difference,  especially when making something very simple such as bread, plain sponges and scones

Test it for yourself:

Why not put some normal supermarket branded flour into one bowl and some superior organic flour in another (at the moment I am using Marriages flour). Place one hand in one bowl and the other hand in the second bowl. Rub the flour between your fingers. You will feel the feel the difference (I hope!) and it is that difference that comes through in your baking. The organic one is much more slippery and silky (this also applies to wholemeal and spelt) whereas the value brand  ‘catches’ on the skin. If you hold up the bowls to the daylight it is likely the value brand is whiter – it will have been bleached which covers up any chemicals and any coarseness.

Food intolerances could stem from the quality of the flour

I would also wonder if the all pervasive additives and chemicals in the cheaper impure, low grade flours in so much of our food, especially ready meals and volume baked bread, has led to a lot of problems that are labelled under gluten and wheat intolerance.  I feel it is the ingested chemicals and additives used in mainstream food  productions that  are the problem rather than the bread itself.  I was on a wheat free diet for three years and really did not feel that much better for it (although my general diet radically improved!). I now only buy artisan bread if I can; Cranks wholemeal or lots of goodies from my local baker, Paul Rhodes in Notting Hill. Occasionally I eat mainstream bread  but I notice the difference to my well being if my consumption increases from once a week or so.

Quality (and higher cost) wins for me – over lower quality cheaper options

For me the cost reward ratio has no contest – flour is a staple that underpins so much of our food – aren’t you worth it to use the best? The compliments also will come in thick and fast for the superior baking results! Please do comment below with your thoughts and experiences with flour – I’d be interested to hear from you.

No clever baking techniques – just the obvious point: whatever you put in you are likely to get out.  We sometimes forget that flour was a living organism and expect each packet to be identical. They aren’t. And I am spending money on flour, not diamonds so I think it really is a luxury you really can afford.

Remember to follow me on Twitter for other baking tips and tricks, and of course to learn more about the wonderful world of tea.

My 10 Top Tips For Making a Perfectly Delicious Cup of Tea

Nowadays we are so inundated with choice and, in looking recently at the food halls in John Lewis, I thought “How on earth can anyone tell, when faced by a bank of beautifully packaged cartons which teas were going to taste good or not?”  It almost feels a bit like looking at endless rows of wine.

But, for me the answer to this question has two easy parts:

The first – just keep buying and tasting different teas until you find those that you like – ideally you will trust the brand you like.

The second – is to brew your tea with care.  A cheap tea made properly will taste far better than a high quality tea made badly.

I don’t know about you, but I do not have the patience to use kettles with thermometers and Caroline pouring teagetting things ‘just so’. However there are certain key rules to follow that will definitely make a difference to how your cup will taste. I honestly believe (and have tested) that the following points do indeed make the difference. (And yes in my tea lab (i.e. kitchen) I have tested both black and green teas using boiling hard and soft water and off-the-boil hard and soft water.)

So, here are my tips for Black Teas:

TIP 1: The tea will taste best using freshly boiled water with a  pH balance of 7 or above.

The ph balance increases the harder the water (with a higher calcium and magnesium content). (The famous Mrs Beeton even recommends putting a pinch of bicarbonate of soda in with the boiling water – at first I thought this most odd but realise it would make the water more alkaline.)

TIP 2: Ensure that you only boil your water once.

If you repeatedly boil water that sits in the kettle, then cools and is then reboiled, you will lose the oxygen.

TIP 3: Make sure that your water does reach boiling point (100 °C) and then pour straight into your (ideally) warmed cup or tea pot.

If you heat your pot prior to pouring in the boiling water the leaves will brew at a higher temperature than in a cold pot.

TIP 4: Don’t use continuous hot water taps or large urns.

The water is usually just below boiling otherwise it would be bubbling away. If your water is not boiling the tea will taste flat and lifeless.

TIP 5: Use a good quality tea or good quality tea bag – it does make a difference.

If you like a strong robust cup of tea try a high quality Assam that has the malty richness that can be diluted with milk if appropriate but lacks the harsh tannic that leaves a ‘rough’ taste in the mouth.

TIP 6: Brew your tea long enough for the flavour to infuse into the boiling water (read this with Tip 7.)

TIP 7: Understand the type of tea you are drinking

If you like a delicate fragrant tea you are probably not going to like a strong punchy Assam but itTea Types would be worth trying a Darjeeling or Keemun. Don’t try and brew the Assam for less time as a compensation for strength of flavour. You don’t water down red wine to create a white wine – you buy a different bottle. Tea is the same.

TIP 8: Remove the tea leaves after infusing for three to four minutes.

This will stop the tea from stewing or going bitter. With a tea bag it is easy to remove from a pot or mug. If using loose leaves I would recommend either a special tea pot where the leaves can be blocked off from the water, a tea filter (a fill your own tea bag), or a tea brewing basket that can be removed after brewing.

The extra tips I would give you for Green teas:

TIP 9:  Leave your kettle to sit for about 5 minutes after boiling so it can cool down.

Then pour over the leaves. This makes an enormous difference to the roundness of flavour in the mouth. Boiling water makes the green tea taste bitter.

TIP 10: If you can, use water with a lower pH balance (I used some bottled water with a level of 6.2) this water is slightly more acidic.

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If you are interested in learning more about tea, I am teaching a specialist tea tasting course spanning four weeks at City Lit in Spring 2014 and some single module classes in Summer 2014. Alternatively, if you would like to chat to me about some one-to-one time for a private class for you or a group of friends – please feel free to call me on 020 3730 3788, email me on                                caroline@teaandscones.co.uk or Tweet me on @Caroline__Hope.

My Top 5 Tips For Making the Parisian Style Macaron

This post is part of a series I have written on the intricate delicacy that is the Macaron. I give you the insights behind the history, the recipe and of course how to incorporate it into your perfect English Afternoon tea time.

I get so many people asking me for tips on how to really get it right when they make Macarons and so I thought it would be handy to share what my tips are. And…they may not be what you think…

1. Remember this is FOOD not an artwork

My recipe is a slightly adapted version of one I found in “How to be a Domestic Goddess” by Nigella Lawson. She described them as ‘the most elegant macaroons in the world‘. They are delicious, beautiful and have far more visual character than those of the Parisian bakeries.  They don’t look like the very regular shapes of those found in Ladurée or Pierre Hermé because she has not worried about creating something that aspires to someone else’s level of perfection. They taste delicious and are as they are.

2. Dark brown, mid-brown and beige coloured Macarons have flavour

Caroline's MacaronMost of us do not use our ovens for eight plus hours every day as in a commercial bakery. Thus our ovens will perform differently. This is all to do with how metals heat up and how often they are heated up which has an impact on the evenness of heat throughout the oven. An ‘underused’ oven is more likely to have uneven heat until the oven has been heated long enough for the shelves and oven sides to all be the have reached the optimum temperature. Once this is reached then you can bake batches without the later ones burning or finding that one area of of a baking tray cooks faster than another. Regular and constant oven use (i.e. a few hours every day) will find the oven reaching that point more easily and quickly (like your body when going to the gym – with regular exercise you become more flexible as your muscles remember the actions whereas a trip once a month is quite an effort.).

If you are a domestic cook you are more likely to find your oven behaves slightly differently each time. I find that colours need a perfect and identical oven temperature each time to gauge down to minute precision for perfect pastel colours. If you can give yourself a bit of leeway (i.e. go for chocolate, ginger, coffee, cinnamon) you will be less disappointed if some become tinged with brown.

3. The all important smooth top and a ‘foot’ at the base of the Parisian style Macaron

This is created by letting a skin form on the top of the Macaron after piping. Ideally it should be touch dry. The skin can be created by leaving out in a room that is well ventilated and without humidity. Alternatively you can create the skin by placing in the oven for about 15 minutes at the lowest possible temperature before cooking. Either way, check there is a skin. Then either turn up the oven if you have been skin forming in the oven, or put your air dried Macarons in to cook in a pre-heated oven. The ‘solid’ top will rise up and the ‘foot’ is your expansion layer at the bottom (think how a cake rises up – same principle). If you don’t have a skin, you won’t get the foot. Usually you will get lots of little cracks. If they crack – just continue and then sandwich together and eat! They will taste exactly the same and look like Nigella’s ‘most elegant macaroons in the world’.

4. Every time you bake them – imagine you are using new ingredients

These will all vary in some minute way. Ground almonds from one supermarket will be different from those bought from another. Likewise your ground almonds will be different from season to season even if from the same supermarket. This will have an effect when making your ‘macaronage’. The oilier the nuts, the quicker you get to the optimum folding point. I have also found if I use different food processors to combine the nuts and sugar this will have an effect – the sharper the blade the more finely ground the almonds become and more oil is released into the sugar.

5. Your eggs will also have an effect on your outcome

Try not to use eggs that are too fresh – like teenagers, they are quite frisky and your results might be a little variable. Ideally you want old eggs and under perfect circumstances you would age the eggs. This means separating them up to 7 days in advance of baking and putting your egg whites in a bowl in the fridge. The oxygen in the air breaks down the proteins in the egg whites. Then when you whip the egg whites with the sugar they will behave in the same way (like adults, perhaps we become more measured in our behaviour). I now feel the difference if using newly broken eggs and old aged eggs when whisking and then doing the macaronage – the more aged eggs whites have a slightly more viscous consistency.

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With both tip 4 and 5 I am really saying be aware that you are doing something new each time with living organisms…take their foibles into account if you are working towards a predictable outcome.

If you have any questions about your attempts at baking a macaron, please feel free to ask me below in the comments section, tweet me on @Caroline__Hope, or email me on caroline@teaandscones.co.uk – I’d be happy to help if I can.

The Beautiful Macaron : The History and Origins from Italy to France

This post is part of a series I have written on the intricate delicacy that is the Macaron. I give you the insights behind the history, the recipe and of course how to incorporate it into your perfect English Afternoon tea time. 

The French (or Parisian) Style Macaron

The French (or Parisian) Style Macaron

The Macaron (usually called Macaroon in English) is regarded as being a French type of almond biscuit. The original version was purported to have been introduced from Italy by Catherine de Medici  on her marriage to Henry II of France in 1533. The basic recipe for the biscuit has not really changed over the years. However the ratios of the ingredients used and the appearance of the end results were up to the individual bakers.

The innovative idea of Ladurée baker, Pierre Desfontaines in the 1930s, of sandwiching together two ‘Macaron’ shells with a creamy ganache has in recent years, led to a global domination by these ostensibly hand made Parisian concoctions. The  stack of pastel and even gold leaf ‘biscuits’ have an hypnotic effect on passers-by who dive in to become addicted to the latest fashionable sweet.

The Nancy Macaron - image courtesy of www.alainbatts.com

The Nancy Macaron – image courtesy of www.alainbatts.com

Nancy, in France, is also famous for its Macarons which are round and flatter than those of Paris. These also don’t have a smooth surface or the ‘feet’. After the closing of Les Dames du Saint Sacrement’s Convent, two Sisters began selling the macaroons in order to make a living and they became legendary as “les Soeurs Macarons” and a street in Nancy now bears that name. These are so famous there is now  a small bakery in Sandown, New Hampshire (www.macaroons.com) that makes these to an original 17th century recipe using almonds, sugar, egg whites and either honey or Dutch chocolate.

In England we are more used to seeing variations of a Nancy style macaroon, a large almond biscuit with a crackleglaze top in French patisseries. If you go to an English bakery the almonds are usually replaced with dessicated coconut and sometimes with a glacé cherry atop the more pyramid shape and sometimes drizzled or dipped with coconut. The coconut lasts longer than the almonds.

The Amaretti biscuit - image courtesy of: digitalsun / 123RF Stock Photo

The Amaretti biscuit – image courtesy of: digitalsun / 123RF Stock Photo

The most common macaron style biscuit to be found in Italy is the Amaretti biscuit. I used to adore these, carefully wrapped in a special wrapping you could set alight and it would shoot up to the ceiling. You can imagine my recent discomfort when I did this recently in a restaurant.  I think the paper must have been changed – it never took off and a small fire started on the table!

If you have any questions about any of the types of macaron, please do comment below, tweet me on @Caroline__Hope, or email me on caroline@teaandscones.co.uk. Make sure you read the rest of the series!