Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: Birley's Sandwiches, Cannon Street, London

When I was just starting out in my career a more senior colleague used to go to Birley’s to buy his lunch most days. That was at least ten years ago and when I went to a Birley’s recently I thought ‘wow, they’ve been going for ten years’. In fact, they have been around for more than 25 years, according to the company’s website – the secret to their longevity is perhaps partly that they do move with the times but aren’t built around trends. If you just want a ham sandwich (that isn’t pre-packaged), you can get a sandwich – but they also do things like Cajun spiced chicken focaccia.

I was on a course near to the chain’s Cannon Street location and didn’t have long for lunch, but didn’t want to take a sandwich back to the windowless basement room the course was in. I didn’t think I had time to eat in a café but tried Birley’s and was pleasantly surprised. I got a table, and had enough time to eat a hot toasted Cubano sandwich containing ham, pulled pork and pickles, and get back to my course in time.
You order your sandwich at one counter and go to another to pay, which keeps the flow of customers moving (and means you can browse what is in the counter without people being in the way), then return to the counter with your ticket and wait for your number to be called – this gives them time to toast a sandwich if you order something hot. You can definitely buy cheaper salads and sandwiches – even in the City – but in my opinion Birley’s is worth the extra money.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

5 easy ways to DIY the perfect gluten free Christmas hamper

When it comes to giving a gluten-free person a great gift, it can be hard to find something that they will like. Staying clear of some of the most popular type of presents makes it tricky to come up with ideas, especially for those who are not naturally good at shopping for presents for other people. Giving someone a hamper at Christmas is a good way to give them a selection of their favourite things but if that person is gluten free, it is vital to ensure that everything inside the festive basket can be enjoyed.
This means that it is important to do a bit of research before buying anything and looking at the ingredients is a good idea, and anything that is gluten free will be advertised as such, so look at the labels before buying. Tasty gluten free hampers for Christmas are fairly easy to put together once a few gluten free items have been identified and while some people will choose to put their own hamper together; others will prefer to use a company that specialises in Christmas hampers to put together a special gluten free basket.

Whichever way appeals, here are five things to put inside a gluten free hamper this Christmas:
  1. Candles
One of the easiest ways to give someone who follows a gluten free diet something nice is to avoid giving them anything food-related. Scented candles can be put into a nice hamper at Christmas and given as a gift and they can come with different smells, in a variety of colours and all kinds of sizes and shapes.
  1. Toiletries

Another great gift to give a gluten free person is some toiletries, including:
  • Aftershave
  • Perfume
  • Moisturiser
  • Bubble bath
  • Face creams
  • Soaps
These can come as a mixture of items in one basket and they make for the perfect gift for anyone who likes to pamper themselves.

  1. Alcohol
Not all alcohol is gluten free, so it is important to do some research first.

Below are a few examples of alcohol that doesn’t contact gluten:
  • Vodka
  • Gin
  • Rum
  • Tequila
Important: However, it is important to note that some flavoured alcohol will contain gluten and lots of alcohol contains wheat, so it is vital to check out which bottles are safe for someone on a gluten free diet.

  1. Fruit & Flowers
Another great way to buy someone a present that doesn’t contain gluten is to buy Christmas gift baskets from filled with fruit and flowers.

  1. Gluten Free Food
Of course, the easiest way to buy a gluten free dieter something that they can eat is to buy specialist gluten free food and this can be done by checking out labels or shopping online in a dedicated gluten free section of a website.

Many people now follow a gluten free diet for a number of reasons and as such, putting a hamper together for a gluten free person this festive season is easier than ever before.  

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Meal Planning Monday 2016 - Week 42

spaghetti Bolognese

tuna steak and spiralized veg for me, chicken chargrills for him

prawn stirfry with spiralized veg and creamy quark sauce; my husband will go to his mum's

bubble and squeak patty for me, gammon for him

burger and chips

Lunch: hotdogs
Dinner: chicken thighs and roast potatoes (cook extra chicken for tomorrow)

Lunch: pizza bagels
Dinner: filled Yorkshire puddings using leftover chicken

This is a blog hop- join in!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Tips and advice from some of the best bloggers around at Stylist Live

Where can you hear from Michael Zee, the man behind the Instagram sensation Symmetry Breakfasts, Kate Doran from food blog Little Loaf, Alex Stedman of fashion blog The Frugality, Amali de Alwis, CEO of Code First: Girls, restaurant critic, author and TV pundit Grace Dent, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, lawyer, cookbook author and wife of former Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Dan Doherty of restaurant Duck and Waffle? Why, at Stylist Live, of course!
I love Stylist magazine - it's distributed free of charge in certain large cities (including London where I work) and at airports, a ground-breaking idea for a 'proper' magazine. It's weekly so smaller than the monthly glossies but in my opinion the same level of quality and a really excellent publication, as its various awards prove.

Several months ago I saw an ad in the magazine for Stylist Live - an event in London featuring over 150 inspiring talks and workshops with stalls and demonstrations. I feel like I don't often spend a day doing something just for myself, so took a day off work and bought an early-bird ticket for just £15, which gave me access to reserve one session plus a catwalk show - but crucially, I could go to any other talks on the day if there were still spaces.

So off I went on Friday, arriving at the show just as it was opening, and headed straight (well, after getting some breakfast) upstairs to the rooms where the talks and workshops were taking place. Perhaps because it was Friday (Stylist Live also took place on Saturday and Sunday) there weren't quite so many people and I was able to get into all the sessions I wanted to and usually got a good seat near the front.

I went through the schedule and circled the talks I was interested in (plus the one I had already booked) and decided to start the day with something a bit different - a talk on coding from Amali de Alwis, CEO of Code First: Girls. Her organisation teaches girls how to code, aiming to increase the number of women in technology. She gave a fascinating talk about women in technology and basically explained how the internet works, and is clearly passionate about what she does and why more women shouldn't be afraid of coding.

She explained coding languages and talked about how you can create websites - I asked Amali whether it's very difficult to move from a blogger platform like this Google one that I use, to create my own website - something I'd never dreamed of doing in a million years. Amali said it's really not that hard, and Code First: Girls offers 8-week evening classes in London where by the end of it I can have created my own website looking exactly how I want it. I might have to do that!

The second talk I went to was by Alex Stedman from The Frugality. I'd never heard of it as it's a fashion blog and I don't follow those - Alex has 70,000 followers on Instagram too so must be doing something right! I've since browsed her blog and it looks really good - Alex is a stylist by background and shares clothes and accessories you can buy on the high street that don't cost a fortune.

Alex Stedman from The Frugality (right)

Alex gave advice on using affiliate programmes (eg Linkshare) to make a commission from anything on your site that you promote and readers click through to the retailer to buy; she also felt that having too many sponsored posts on a blog is not a nice user experience as you lose your voice. The best way to grow your following, Alex suggested, is to put yourself out there on social media - people won't just stumble across you.

She also felt it was important to have a niche and not to try to be something to everyone - which I do with this blog. It's inspired me to think a bit more about my brand! Her other tips included:
  • only work with brands that fit your style (you have to say no to good freebies sometimes)
  • get a good camera - but it doesn't have to be expensive
  • have a consistent style in your photography
  • curate your Instagram grid to give it a balance
I really liked Alex and thought she came across as very articulate and clued-up and was surprised I took so much away from listening to a fashion blogger.

The next session I went to was Michael Zee on 'how I turned my food blog into a business'. You've probably come across Michael's work - he's the man behind Symmetry Breakfast, which is such a brilliant idea. His brand is instantly recognisable from the photos - to Alex's point above - and when someone in the audience asked how he managed to get such great photos in terms of lighting and set-up, Michael admitted his dining room just happened to have the perfect natural light in the mornings. He made it sound effortless, but I'm sure it's anything but!

He started posting pictures of the breakfasts he made for himself and his partner on his personal Instagram feed but friends suggested he create a dedicated account, and when it was shared by a well known shoe designer his followers leapt overnight.

Michael's book SymmetryBreakfast: Cook-Love-Share is now out and he said in answer to a question about whether he was approached to write it (he was), that if nobody approaches you to write a book, then don't be scared to self-publish. In fact, blogging and Instagramming is self publishing anyway!

One fact I loved was that Michael - who was really funny and likeable - admitted that he owns over 1,000 plates which are arranged by type in cabinets along the entire wall of his dining room.

There are so many great food blogs around but I felt quite bad that I had never even heard of the Little Loaf since blogger Kate Doran had been invited to give a talk on 'how to create a brilliant food blog'. I've since visited her site and can say she does indeed have a brilliant food blog, and a book: Homemade Memories: Childhood Treats With A Twist Kate actually brought some homemade biscuits to the event for everyone to try which was a lovely touch - and they were really good!

Kate Doran from Little Loaf (left)

Kate had lots of useful advice for food bloggers:
  • decide what you want to get out of blogging - is it mastering new recipes or getting comments from readers, or something else?
  • The best blogs let the audience into a little piece of your world
  • be true to yourself
  • good photos are really important - always shoot in natural light if you can
  • don't over-style photos but do use props. For instance, an apple pie is quite brown but if you put some fresh green apples next to it, it lifts the whole photo.
  • build a community on social media
  • write for your readers, not for algorithms
  • post regularly (she emphasised this doesn't have to mean frequently) so people know when to expect something
  • but only post when you have good content, not to just throw something up
I then went to get some lunch and had earlier spotted the Mac Factory, a stand selling macaroni cheese, which I love. They are based in Camden and do various events and festivals - they literally only sell macaroni cheese, but with different toppings. I chose 'posh spice' with chorizo, harissa and onion; all their macaroni cheese pots are topped with a parmesan crumble which is really nice. The harissa was a tiny bit too spicy for me but I loved the dish and it reminded me I should really make macaroni cheese more often - unfortunately my husband isn't a big fan of pasta but I am trying to slowly change his mind!


The catwalk show was next and I considered not going but there weren't any other talks at that particular time I wanted to go to, so I thought I may as well. It only lasted about 20 minutes and consisted of five themed 'looks' including about 8 models in different outfits to fit each theme. We were given a programme listing everything so you could pick out anything you liked and know which shop it came from which was a good idea. I did actually end up buying a silver skirt when I got home - not from one of the catwalk looks as some things were quite expensive and a lot of shops don't cater for my size, but I found this one in Evans.


Finally I went to a panel session on what we will be eating next year - but the speakers quickly got away from food trends and started talking about everything from restaurants they liked to which music festivals have the best food (Wilderness, apparently). The panellists were Grace Dent, who I'd seen on TV only the night before on The Apprentice: You're Fired; she is a restaurant critic, columnist and author - she's written various books including How to Leave Twitter: My Time as Queen of the Universe and Why This Must Stop; Miriam Gonzalez Durantez was introduced as a lawyer, mum, food blog and cook book author - Made In Spain: Recipes and stories from my country and beyond- interestingly, they didn't mention the reason that she became widely known in the first place which was as the wife of former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Obviously she's a very successful woman in her own right and not living in her husband's shadow! (As an aside, I loved her style and the dress she was wearing). The third panellist, Dan Doherty, is the head chef at Duck and Waffle which I have previously reviewed here, and also has a cookbook out: Toast Hash Roast Mash: Real Food for Every Time of Day

L-R: Dan, Miriam, Grace, Stylist deputy editor Susan Riley

Asked what food trends they particularly liked, Dan cited the rise of Middle Eastern cuisine (particularly in London) while Miriam waxed lyrical about the turbot at the River Café, which she said was "like a religious experience". Grace was quite derogatory about the increase in restaurants and cafes selling just one type of food like the pop-up crisp restaurant and the cereal café in London.

In terms of trends coming up, Miriam suggested that healthy eating would continue to be big - specifically high protein and goat would become more popular as a meat, while nuts and seeds would continue to be important. She also spoke of the move towards the chef and the customer being at the heart of the dining experience and that food is "much more person-focused".

Dan felt that the clean eating trend had perhaps gone too far; that the intention was good but it is "getting out of control" and that it's more important to eat balanced meals. Grace was happy to see people are increasingly "taking vegetables seriously as a main dish" -she is not vegetarian but often doesn't want to eat meat and spent years ordering two sides instead of a main dish, to which Dan joked "chips and mash?"

The panel gelled really well together and were very funny, especially when they were discussing veggie burgers that look like they are bleeding (like rare meat) - apparently the 'blood' is made from beetroot juice.

I was the only person to put a question to the panel in the whole session which was pretty cool. I asked which food trends had taken them by surprise, to which Grace immediately answered chia seeds. They are quite slimy apparently... I have a jar in my cupboard that I haven't got around to using very much of! She also wondered about "trends that refuse to die - when will we reach peak burger?". The bao trend - pork in buns - is "delicious but why are we queuing around the block?" she wondered.

Miriam mused that we don't eat enough fish in this country which surprised her as we live on an island,  but she also thinks that the quality is going backwards.

Dan mentioned raw kale - a big food trend but he pointed out that raw brassica tastes "effing disgusting" and gives you a stomach ache. He also said he had come across raw coffee in tablet form which is supposed to speed up your metabolism, and Grace mentioned the fact that every so often the idea of eating insects arises - which she swiftly dismissed as never going to happen, and I have to say I hope she's right!

I had a look around the stalls at Stylist Live after the panel, and bought a lovely cow hide bag from Owen Barry (I couldn't resist as my last name is Cowe!), had a mini makeover at Lancôme and generally browsed everything else that was on sale. I would have liked to try out the new Dyson hair dryer but the queue was too long!

Next year Stylist Live will be in Olympia - which I actually thought was a bit of a shame as I imagine that might mean it's even bigger. This year it was at the Design Centre in Islington which was easy to get to (for me anyway) and a very manageable size - easy to move between sessions without having to walk miles and enough stalls that you could get around without your feet killing you by the end of the day!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Jammie Dodger Cupcakes

We had a bake sale for Macmillan at work recently and even though I wasn't going to be in the office that day, I wanted to take part. I decided to make cupcakes as I was going to have to do them mid-week after work, and I don't get home that early thanks to a long commute.

When there is a lot of choice in a bake sale, the things that go first tend to be the more indulgent-looking or more unusual. I remembered ages ago seeing some Jammie Dodger cupcakes online and knew there was a recipe in the Hummingbird Bakery book .

The recipe in the  book explains how to make your own Jammie Dodger-style biscuits, which might be a fun thing to do one day, but I didn’t have time for that, so I bought a packet of mini Jammie Dodgers to use on top of the cupcakes. I remembered how good my cupcakes were that have an Oreo biscuit base and a Jaffa Cake base and decided to use a full-size Jammie Dodger in the base, before the batter was cooked, and also add a spoonful of jam in the middle of the cake after it was baked, which isn’t part of the recipe and is my own adaptation.
Here’s what I did
Makes around 15 cupcakes
For the cake:
15 Jammie Dodger biscuits
70g butter, softened
210g plain flour
250g caster sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
210ml whole milk
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
15 tsp strawberry jam (about 200g)
For the frosting:
15 mini Jammie Dodgers
500g icing sugar, sifted
250g butter, softened
Preheat oven to 180C.
Mix the flour, butter, sugar, baking powder and salt with an electric mixer. Normally I would cream the butter and sugar first then add the eggs; this way gives you a breadcrumb-like texture which I think gives a more biscuity-flavour somehow, which is just right for this recipe.
Pour the milk into a jug and beat in the eggs and vanilla, and gradually pour the liquid into the dry ingredients, mixing slowly as you go. Increase the speed of the mixer until you have a smooth batter.
Line a cupcake or muffin tin with large cupcake cases. Place a Jammie Dodger – with the heart facing up – in the bottom of each cake case, then spoon the cake batter on top until the cake cases are almost full. Bake for 20-25 minutes then leave to cool.
When the cakes have cooled, use a teaspoon to remove a little of the centre of the cake, retaining the part you removed in one piece. Add a teaspoon of strawberry jam to each cupcake, and replace the 'lid'.
To make the icing, beat the icing sugar and buttercream until smooth. I had intended to pipe swirls onto the cupcakes but ran out of icing (I thought I had more but didn’t!) so ended up spreading it on top to make it go further. Top with a mini Jammie Dodger.
I'm sharing these with Charlotte's Lively Kitchen as she runs the Food Calendar challenge, and this month was the Macmillan Big Coffee Morning.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Chicken in a Red Pepper Sauce

This recipe comes from a card picked up in Sainsbury's years ago; I have made it before but never blogged about it so thought I would do so now. It's a good way to get extra vegetables into your diet - I don't like red pepper in large quantities but enjoyed this recipe.

To serve 4, you need:
1/2 tbsp. olive oil
4 skinless chicken breasts
2 fresh chillies, deseeded
2 large red peppers, deseeded, cored and chopped
75g sundried tomatoes
2 tsp soft light brown sugar
1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
227g can chopped tomatoes
salt, pepper

Brush a large frying pan with the oil and cook the chicken breasts over a medium heat for about 15 minutes or until cooked through - it will take longer if they are large.

Meanwhile put all the other ingredients in a food processor and whizz until smooth.

Transfer the sauce to a saucepan and heat through for a few minutes, then serve the chicken breasts with the sauce on top.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fizz, Balloon and Gift Birthday Card

This is a quick, informal card (perhaps in the way that Mary Berry means when she says informal) that is suitable for someone of any age and gender. I used a piece of red and yellow polka dot paper to cover a card blank which I decided to use in landscape orientation. The three pictures mounted onto it are cut from an old birthday card I received - there's nothing wrong with recycling! I added the words 'happy birthday' from a pack of silver outline stickers, mounted onto a piece of red card.