Tefal Actifry or vanilla slice?

I suppose Einstein was just sitting minding his own business at his desk in the Patent Office in Zurich when his neat idea about relativity came flooding into his mind.

Well I had a similar experience this evening. I was just sitting here listening to nineties band The Magnetic Fields playing All My Little Words when it suddenly came to me that if somebody asked me I’d be hard pressed to say whether the Tefal Actifry is better than a vanilla slice.

To show you what I mean, here are pictures of them both together and you’ll see for yourself:

Vanilla Slice, the Princess Royal of cakes
Vanilla Slice, the Princess Royal of cakes
Tefal Actifry, a hot air chip cooker
Tefal Actifry, a hot air chip cooker

 

 

 

 

 

Now on the one hand, if you had just sat down to a cup of Darjeeling or Assam and were looking for a suitable cake to complement it, then excuse me but the Actifry just wouldn’t cut it. The vanilla slice wins hands down, with its layers of light, crispy puff pastry (did you know that rough puff pastry is exactly the same thing as puff pastry? If you didn’t, then that fact alone is worth visiting this page for) spread with delicious fruity strawberry jam; topped with a layer of sweet icing; and sandwiching mouthwateringly rich crème patissière absolutely jampacked with fresh from the dairy double Cornish cream and delicately tinged with real vanilla, from a real vanilla pod grown in Madagascar. And by the way, there aren’t really any penguins in Madagascar – you need the John Lewis Christmas 2014 advert for those.

But then if you’re fancying chips, at a time when only chips will do, and the chipshop is closed, or you’ve been advised to lay off the chips because of their fat content (29.3% on average), then the trusty old Actifry will not do a bad job for you. Peel and chip the potatoes – the thinner the better, not big fat ones that I don’t really care for – and rinse them under the tap to remove the starch. (I’ll cover varieties of potato in another post). Dry with a paper towel and load into the Tefal and turn it on. After five minutes, when all the surplus water will have been driven off by the heat, open the machine and add a single tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil from Italy (forget Greek or Spanish, only Italian will do). Turn on again and wait 20 to 30 minutes till the chips are browned to your liking. Open the machine again and eat all the chips as fast as you can!

Hardly any fat, crisp as can be and soft and light in the middle.

So you can see my dilemma. The Actifry, apart from chip quality, is pretty rubbish, costing a fortune and being made of flimsy plastic, so that the lid breaks and you have to buy a new one for another fortune, or the paddle that agitates the chips around breaks off and you have to buy another one. So that does suggest you have to be really desperate to forgo the vanilla slice for the chips. But if you’re desperate, then, well, there you go.

I was just wondering whether I was desperate for chips at that very moment when one of the universe’s most arcane secrets came to me. Are you ready?

Even if you’re desperate for chips, you will always always choose the mille-feuille instead. Here is one to show you what I mean:

Mille-feuille, the Emperor of cakes
Mille-feuille, the Emperor of cakes

The secret is that the mille-feuille is actually several vanilla slices in one. So you get at least two layers of crème pat, preferably three or four, each with its own jam layer. Beats even crispy chips every time. No wonder that Napoleon christened it the Emperor of cakes.

 

 

 

 

 

mille

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Amazon echo and chocolate swiss roll

First the important bit: a light fluffy chocolatey Swiss roll packed with fresh whipped cream.

Chocolate Swiss Roll - The Queen of Cakes
Chocolate Swiss Roll – The Queen of Cakes

The chocolate Swiss roll is truly the Queen of Cakes – or the Cake of Queens, assuming that Her Majesty loves this culinary wonder just as much as I do.
BUT it is absolutely vital that it is very very chocolatey – intensely so – and that the filling is abundant and rich and real fresh whipped cream. Swiss rolls with butter-cream go to the bottom of the class. Ugh! How on earth can anybody eat one of those?
So while I’m savouring this mouthwatering treat – in fact up to my third slice – I happen to come across Amazon’s latest big idea that I feel I must share with you. But get your CSR ready first, as this is such a crazy idea that it will take your breath away.

They call it Amazon Echo and if things go to plan, practically everybody in the world will have one of these in their house very soon.

Big Brother is watching you - though there's no video yet, just sound
Big Brother is watching you – though there’s no video yet, just sound

Why is it crazy?
The Echo is an always-on internet-connected device that listens to you in your house 24/7. Yes, they think that you’ll be happy to pay $199 for a device to snoop on you and report back to them what you are doing, saying, probably even thinking.

And in return, if you shout out “Alexa, what is the weather like?”, it will tell you and save you the trouble of looking out of the window.
It will also let you buy music, videos and probably anything else that Amazon sells without the hard work of going to your laptop, tablet or phone to do it.

How amazing is that?

There’ll be all kinds of “safeguards” and promises of confidentiality built in of course. And it wouldn’t surprise me if people are happy to trust that Amazon is not listening in when you don’t want it to, or recording and saving your data to sell on or use against you at some embarrassing moment in the future.

I’m not sure either what happens if your OH is called Alexa and you cry out her name in the height of passion. Will it record your most intimate moments too?

And of course the daftest thing of all about this little gadget apart from the fact that it’s just a black cylinder standing in sinister fashion in your room, is that all your info goes straight over the net, to “the cloud”.

So goodness knows who can intercept it at any stage on its way from your router, through to the exchange and beyond to this fabled “cloud” which really means somebody’s server probably in a third world country because it’s cheaper to keep it there, or purloin it after it’s arrived.
This little beauty is available only in the US at first – and another daft point is that you can get one “By Invitation Only”, but there’s a button on the Amazon website for you to click and get an Invitation. Doh!

I must admit I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1st.

So anyway, that’s all the CSR gone and all the spare cream and chocolatey crumbs licked up. Wonder what cake to go for next. What do you think?

Monty the penguin and chocolate eclairs

monty
Monty the £95 penguin

So John Lewis have now got the media waiting every year at about this time to be the first to admire their new Christmas video and give them millions in free publicity.
You’ve got to admire them for it, and cast beside the oodles of free publicity from the papers, internet and even national news channels the production cost of a rumoured £7 million looks like a bargain.
All JL is trying to do of course, is raise its profile at the buying season to empty your pockets, and boy does it do that well.

Yet each time, doesn’t the video get gooier and gooier? Less and less subtle?
A little penguin looking for a mate? Give me a break. At £95 a time (cost on the JL website, except they’re out of stock) little Monty can stay single.

The only thing that kept me calm when I saw this video was the chocolate éclair I was eating – and it’s very fitting that the spellchecker has put in the accent for me on the word éclair (look it’s done it again) as this is a high ranking member of the Royal Family of cakes.

Eclair
Chocolate éclair, the Prince of cakes

Let’s assume an average price of £1.50 for a top quality one of these, meltingly light choux pastry, gleaming luxurious and luxuriant rich dark chocolate topping, crammed full of enchantingly wholesome whipped cream. Yes, I mean a real quality one, not one of those finger-thick imposters you get from the bargain boxes or freezers. So at £1.50 a throw, that means that a stuffed penguin would cost the equivalent of 63.1/3 of these big fat beauties.

Now could you tell me that a stuffed penguin can bring as much delight as 63 pukka chocolate éclairs, even ignoring the spare third? No, I didn’t think so. Case closed. Q.E.D. as we used to say in maths classes.

I’m certainly not going to post the video on here, as you’ll have already seen it, and in the time it takes me to put the Youtube code in, I could have eaten another third of a delicious choux pastry cake.

And for next year’s video, I predict a lovely soft bed full of little kittens with big ears and big eyes, mewing pathetically, and a voiceover saying “Give us all your money or these kittens get it”.

House of Cards, and Battenberg

If you haven’t already seen House of Cards, the US political thriller TV series starring the late great Kevin Spacey, then get out the Battenberg, plug in those Bose headphones and get watching.

Battenberg - the cake of Kings
Battenberg – the cake of Kings

And yes, I know that the great Kevin Spacey isn’t technically “late” in that he’s still alive, but the phrase “late great” has such a ring to it.
The US edition first aired in 2013, ran for two seasons, and a third is currently being filmed.

It’s not, as you might suspect, about Clintons the famous High Street card shop, nor about magicians doing sleight of hand but rather about shady deals, backstabbing, suspect practices and plain criminal activity in American politics. It’s centred on the White House and Congress, and concentrates on Spacey’s character Francis Underwood’s struggle to climb the greasy pole.

The West Wing notably features some great insights into the sorts of shenanigans and compromises you need to get involved in to be successful in politics, but House of Cards is much grittier and more realistic – though still not, one suspects, anywhere near as bad as the real thing. After all you just expect US politicians to be liars, cheats, swindlers and all-round baddies, so there’s no believability gap there and you can get involved and enjoy it right from the start (or the get-go as they say over there, for reasons that escape me).

The original House of Cards TV show, based on a book by Michael Dobbs, was actually British and aired in the early 1990s, starring the immortal Ian Richardson who died in 2007. Francis Urquhart, his character equivalent to Spacey’s Francis Underwood, brilliantly portrayed similar underhand, bad and downright criminal behaviour in his own climb to power, and that original series is highly enjoyable and well acted. But even though you know deep down that our own politicians are just as deceitful, egotistical, ruthlessly ambitious, shameless and corrupt as any to be found in the world, somehow the image of the corrupt politician just strikes a chord in one’s vision of the USA. You just expect American politicians to be on the take and so the US version with Spacey seems that bit more satisfying and true.

It really is a brilliant show, in fact so good that I’d watch it even if there were no battenberg to hand – I’d go so far as to say that I’d even watch it while eating a Victoria sponge – you can’t get much plainer than that, can you, and you all know how much I love cake.

Victoria sponge - a boring cake
Victoria sponge – a boring cake

And speaking of cakes, it’s interesting that the regal battenberg cake didn’t have its name changed when the royal family started changing theirs.

The Queen and her lot are really from the house of Saxe Coburg-Gotha thanks to good old Prince Albert who married Queen Victoria, but George V thought it a good idea to change the family name just before the country went to war with Germany so he wouldn’t be mistaken for one of the enemy. He chose Windsor as a good old English name for them, and Windsor they’ve been ever since. Yorkshire Pudding would have been more convincing, or even Smith, but there you go.

So anyway, Battenberg, another old German dynasty named after a village in Prussia (“berg” in the name means mountain) is tied in with the Saxe Coburg-Gothas, and Lord Louis Mountbatten, close relative of the Queen, also thought it a good idea to drop the title of His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg and rename himself Mountbatten so it wouldn’t seem odd his sending our ships in to bat against the Germans. So the cake could just as easily have come over too but didn’t.
That’s why this wonderful confection, sumptuously clothed in marzipan, is rightfully called the Cake of Kings, or the King of Cakes, and certainly one of my favourites to accompany US political thrillers.

I recommend House of Cards and I recommend battenberg cake – they make a fine pair.

Cake, cake and more cake

Ok. I’ve written a bit about music over the last few days, so now it’s time for something far more serious. Cake!
Now the Great British Bake Off has finished for another year, I’ve been looking around for a way to satisfy my love of cake, and what better way than eating cake? As much cake as I possible could?

Today has been my fist three-cake day for a while. Don’t judge me, I just love cake!

Cakes I’ve eaten today, in order brilliantness

1 – Chocolate pudding

Chocolate puddingDo you remember when they use to make puddings? Proper sponge cake puddings, with custard. It might seem a bit school dinnerish, but personally, I don’t think you can beat rich, moist chocolate pudding with thick Birds-Eye custard. It’s so stodgy that it’s almost a meal in itself, but boy, I’d choose it over any other food any time.

I had this cake after dinner in the evening, and ended up so stuffed I felt like Henry the Eighth. If Henry the Eighth ate puddings, instead of chickens and larks tongues and jugged hare.

We actually baked it ourselves using this recipe, which means there’s plenty more if I get a bit peckish. And I will keep getting peckish as long as there’s some chocolate pudding left 🙂

 

2 – Tiramisu cupcake from ‘Cupcakes by Charlie’

cupcakeSo I was wandering around Harrogate, and passed a lovely little cake shop called Cupcakes by Charlie. The display looked gorgeous so I popped in, in search of cake, and I’d come to the right place. Now you might not like this, but I still call cupcakes ‘buns’. Maybe it’s a northern thing, but to me, they’ll always be buns.

In the same way as I ask for a ‘large chips’ in McDonalds, instead of fries. It’s partly me being annoying, but I also resent being made to call things by stupid American names. Anyhow, buns now seem to be called cupcakes, so I’ll go along with that for now.

So, how was it? Chocolate sponge (again), topped with coffee and Baileys buttercream, and a jaunty little wafer. it was very nice thank you, and a great addition to my cup of coffee. The buns (cupcakes) are works or art, and I’d love to be able to make them myself. maybe the shop could get involved with cupcake making experience gifts, and charge people to learn how to do it, because they know what they’re doing.

I’ll be going back there again, but probably be buying a box of four, so I can scoff them at home too.

 

3 – Tarte au citron

tarteLemons – they’re brilliant aren’t they? From Italian Limoncello on its own or in cocktails, to lemon drizzle cake, and my favourite, the tarte au citron. Like a zingy lemon curd dream inside a delicious pastry case, I picked up this tart au citron from Marks and Spencer. It wasn’t this specific one cos you have to order this, but it’s exactly the same product.

Interestingly, this was by far the highest calorie of any of my cakes, but then I probably ate enough for four people. Never mind, it’s not like I only had cake to eat that day.

 

As a final thought, I was recently reminded about the UK Pudding Club. where a club gathers every now and then to eats dozens of different sorts of puddings. It’s my idea of heaven, but based in the Costwolds which is a fair old drive for me.  I might start my own ‘Robert’s pudding Club’, where I eat lost of puddings, and cakes, and biscuits, and anything else I can find.

How come I’m not the fattest man in the world? It’s probably only a matter of time 🙂

RIP Jack Bruce, the power behind Cream

BRUCE CREAMI was sad to hear about Jack Bruce passing away at the age of only 71.

He was  a master of the bass guitar – not really surprising since he was classically trained on cello before switching genres to jazz/rock/pop – and his bass rhythms are quite distinctive on anything he recorded.

I remember well reading of his short time with pop group Manfred Mann where their repertoire was so unchallenging that he didn’t even need to rehearse, just turned up and played faultlessly on the night.

He featured in very many bands of different genres, but the one for which he will be remembered is of course Cream with the great Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, both of whom are still going strong and performing at the time of writing. Cream only lasted a couple of years, and to my mind a lot of their stuff is simply self-indulgent and too self-absorbed to bear repeated listening. And with his solo work going on until very recently, I do wonder if he found it frustrating that all most people remember him for is those two years in the late sixties.

Here’s a Youtube video of Jack being interviewed about “Silver Rails”, his first studio album after ten years released in March 2014

Or even better is this hilarious video of Ginger Baker being interviewed by a chap from the Guardian.
Ginger Baker is notorious for being “difficult” in interviews, and this one is no exception.

Just got some great Bose headphones

Yes you saw it here first!

I wanted some headphones for listening to music on my tablet and US TV series on my laptop, so thought it was about time I got myself a decent pair instead of those awful earbud things they expect you to use.

Well the first port of call was my local PC/entertainment shop, where the good news is that they had loads and loads of headphones – in fact all thirty metres on one wall was covered in different models. The bad news is that well over half of them are Beats by Dr Dre.

Now I’ve nothing against DrDre, whoever he is, and I’m sure that he’s very good at writing prescriptions, but the speed with which headphones bearing his name have taken over the world is amazing even though to my mind the value of his recommendation is limited to say the least. Actually, I do know who Dr Dre is (I looked it up on Bing) and what I found out makes me pretty sure that what he knows about headphones could be written on a beermat. Sure he makes a shedload of money out of them, but is that any reason for me to buy them? And if you need convincing, check out practically any review. They’re not all brilliant by any means.

Anyway, ignoring the Beats stuff made my checking out the shop’s stock a lot quicker. There were one or two by other well-known makers – Sennheiser for example, or Bose, along with some I hadn’t heard of. But I do like Bose gear.

If you’ve ever spent any time looking at audio reviews of anything, you’ll find that the so-called audiophiles just do not like Bose. They slam them at every opportunity, criticising arcane little points that they’ve found in their “audition” (yes, you don’t listen when trying them out, you audition them!). The main problem it seems is that Bose is good at marketing, and spends a lot on sales and marketing as well as technical quality and development, so self-styled audiophiles dismiss them as a PR company and don’t give their products a fair chance.

For myself I’ve always found the build quality and technical performance of their kit excellent. And let’s face it, they offer the chance to return your stuff for a full refund inside 30 days if you decide you don’t like it. Now does that show confidence or what? Try returning your Beats by Dr Dr after four weeks’ use because you don’t like them.

The Bose Soundtrue Around Ear headphones I picked are amazing.

Bose Soundtrue phones in some great colours
Bose Soundtrue phones come in some great colours

Light as a feather, comfy enough to wear all day, cover the ear and block out any outside noise without the eerie silence you get from Noise Cancelling phones (did you know that those give some people giddy turns??) and truly exceptional sound.

They come in a range of colours as well as the standard black.

The audio line feeds in just under the left phone and has a couple of control switches built in. These were designed to control the iPhone/iPad/iPod – all Apple devices – but there’s a clever app you can get for your Android tablet or phone that lets them work just as well there too. Which is as well, as I’m not a big Apple fan and wouldn’t touch an iPad with a long pole.

Headphones like these are not cheap, but if you reckon that they cost about the same as a top price ticket to a big name concert, then I know which I’d rather have. They’re guaranteed for two years and should carry on long long after that, if any of my other Bose kit is a guide. And I should add that I’m not on commission from Bose and get nothing at all if anyone else buys them. I just know great headphones when I hear them!