Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Preparing for the Blaggers' Banquet and musings on the power of Twitter

"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns"

Donald Rumsfeld, that old rogue, may have uttered these words in a rather different context but there were moments last week when I thought I was planning a military campaign, not a fundraising banquet. And believe me, there were a scary number of known unknowns in the run-up to the philanthropic feast that was the Blaggers' Banquet

Amusing as Rummie's comment is, in writing this blog post it seemed apt to turn instead to the image of Wonderwoman for inspiration. I can't convey to you how much I wished I had superhero qualities like hers last week, yet lo and behold it turned out the team of Blaggers' Banquet organisers evinced some of their own action hero qualities resulting in a banquet that has thus far been universally praised

Planning the banquet was a team effort, led by:
Niamh of Eat Like A Girl

and pulled together by:

Kavita Favelle
Mathilde Deville
Denise Medrano
Susie Sandford Smith
Ailbhe Phelan
Linda Williams

When Niamh asked me a few weeks ago to be in charge of the Blaggers' Banquet kitchen I naively assumed all I had to do was put together a menu and gather some ingredients. "Piece of cake, time for a cocktail!" I thought

Then Niamh told me what had already been blagged in terms of ingredients. And then I heard the price tag for each ticket:

£75 for a 4-course meal including wines

Gulp. So no ordinary dinner party then

Rather than share with you the complete picture of what happened in the run-up to the banquet (trust me, it's a long story) I thought I'd proffer a few anecdotes from this past week of preparations to give you an idea of how we pulled the event together, focussing especially on those suppliers I worked with

As an anthropologist I've been keeping a close eye on Twitter in recent months and last week the potency of this "new media" really hit home for the first time. Twitter became the single most useful medium for us to galvanise banquet volunteers, tempt guests to part with that £75 and crucially from my perspective as head chef for the event - a brilliant tool in sourcing ingredients at short notice. Below I've done a chronological countdown to D-Day, or B-Day as Niamh might say, and have copied in a few tweets to give you an idea of how dynamic the process of planning this banquet became. Click on #blaggersbanquet and you can see for yourself how many thousands of tweets the banquet generated

Friday 6th November:
meet with Niamh at Borough Market to discuss strategy. Umpteen cups of coffee later and glares from Monmouth staff as we take up their table, we've got a spreadsheet to assign roles to all the bloggers. Somehow I manage to double-book myself and the inimitable MsMarmitelover joins us for part of the strategy session when she and I are meant to be meeting discuss the menu for her forthcoming Umami Night

I tweeted that Niamh and I have a plan of action in place:

Great plans afoot for #blaggersbanquet the fun part of creating a menu now begins!
9:02 PM Nov 6th from TweetDeck

Off I totter back to Bloomsbury, confident that we can pull this off in ten days' time. A quiet weekend beckons and that evening the Man and I get drenched in monsoon-like rain going to the cinema. Spend weekend lurgified. Awesome

Monday 9th November: time to tackle the Google spreadsheets the bloggers have set up for the banquet:

two university degrees and proficiency in four languages are clearly of no use in dealing with excel spreadsheets, am totally befuddled
2:38 PM Nov 9th from TweetDeck

Baking bread is one of my core skills, Excel spreadsheets most definitely not. Start tackling recipes for the menu instead. What's going to be most effective on the night both in terms of mise-en-place and for the kitchen team? Hawksmoor's kitchen reputedly tiny so we need a menu that won't collapse under the stress of serving 50 diners

Having a dyslexic's nightmare reading through recipes for Sunday's #blaggersbanquet resorting to ruler to read each line!
3:52 PM Nov 9th from TweetDeck

In a moment of mischief I think to myself "what if we made the front of house bloggers wear catsuits for the banquet?" I suspect that might bring in the punters and tweet:

Contemplating whether I can get away with asking bloggers to wear catsuits while serving at Sunday's #BlaggersBanquet
5:36 PM Nov 9th from TweetDeck

To which I receive almost immediately several tweets from the bloggers telling me mutiny is nigh if I enforce the catsuit rule. Spoilsports

Have sourced delicious fresh goat's and chived goat's cheese from Sarah at Brockhall Farm being a curd-nerd this is fantastic news

Tuesday 10th November: still grappling with menu and spreadsheets, trying to figure out which ingredients have actually been blagged and are confirmed, which have just been inserted by the bloggers but not yet confirmed. Turns out we have a major problem: where to store large quantities of meat and other ingredients in need of refrigeration. Hawksmoor's fridges are full to the brim so Niamh tweets:

RT @eatlikeagirl: We urgently need somewhere that can offer us some refrigerated storage for lots of meat for a few days #blaggersbanquet
1:45 PM Nov 10th from TweetDeck

This evolves into an ongoing problem all week. Next time the banquet shall only feature chestnuts and mushrooms

I talk to the good people at Fish For Thought about sourcing seafood for the banquet. They prove to be so helpful that they hand-deliver monkfish to Hawksmoor on Sunday AM. More on this in the next blog post about the banquet itself

Good news about desserts that Tuesday afternoon:

#blaggersbanquet dessert is now in the bag! Thanks to lovely @TrishDeseine for donating chocolate and her favourite chocolate cake recipe
1:54 PM Nov 10th from TweetDeck

Being in charge of the banquet puddings I do a little dance. And pop a piece or three of chocolate in my mouth to celebrate

The question of non-alcoholic soft drinks then comes up. Some confusion as to whether this has been blagged. Google spreadsheet not giving clear answer, so I tweet:

#BlaggersBanquet we're looking for non-alcoholic soft drinks for Sunday. DM me if you have a contact for cordial/soft drink Co. Thanks!
4:43 PM Nov 10th from TweetDeck

Again, almost immediately I receive three replies. I choose Firefly Tonics and within minutes we have soft drink supplies for Sunday sorted. Emma Dalglish at Firefly offers to donate 144 bottles to the event and is nothing but helpful throughout the day as we discuss deliveries and quantities. Makes a contrast to some suppliers I had been dealing with up to that point

The question of bread arises. Sourcing cheese isn't proving problematic, but bread is. Chris Young at the Real Bread Campaign kindly offers to contact Real Bread suppliers to see if any will donate

I ask my friend Wendy at Peter's Yard if she could spare us some crispbread for the banquet and within minutes she's replied saying yes. Not only does she say yes but offers two fantastic bread books as prizes for the banquet, and goes to bat asking some of her contacts for further ingredients. I tweet:

Oh the wonderful people @PetersYard have promised their delicious crispbread for #blaggersbanquet * thank you *
8:14 PM Nov 10th from TweetDeck

We also hear from Kate at Lahloo Tea that she will donate green jasmine tea and a tea chocolate by Damian Allsop to the banquet. Close of play on Tuesday I tweet this to thank them all

Many thanks to @brockhallfarm @PetersYard @lahlootea @FireFlyTonics + @foodforthink for helping this non-blagger out w/ #blaggersbanquet !!
9:05 PM Nov 10th from TweetDeck

Wednesday 11th November: the final push I had hoped would be today. How wrong I was, we would still be sourcing ingredients up to the last minute:

Good morning all, putting in final orders this morning for #blaggersbanquet VERY excited about Sunday :)
11:32 AM Nov 11th from TweetDeck

Some banter by fellow tweeters at my accepting deliveries of Brockhall Farm cheese in the next few days - apparently I have a reputation for being a greedy cheesemonster:

@goodshoeday you're suggesting I would eat all of @brockhallfarm 's cheese before Sunday?! Do you know how much we're getting?!
12:25 PM Nov 11th from TweetDeck in reply to goodshoeday

The remainder of Wednesday was spent locked away in a film studio near Kentish Town as part of filming for the final of Gordon Ramsay's F-Word. Predictably, I turned my phone off for the day and all hell broke loose with sourcing the main course for the banquet. Some suppliers just didn't getting back to me, others insisted on being the sole supplier. Rather shockingly I fielded several enquiries for free tickets, requested without a trace of irony. Erm, this may be the Blaggers' Banquet, but isn't it somewhat shameless to blag tickets when it's for charity?

Thursday 12th November: Catching up on emails from Wednesday, now having to scramble for supplies. Increasingly grumpy at how problematic it is dealing with some PRs when earlier in the week the PRs and suppliers I dealt with were straightforward and incredibly helpful

Unduly excited by email from the School of Artisan Food - they offer a short course in either baking, cheesemaking, brewery, butchery or preserving as an auction prize for the banquet. Result! I might just bid on that prize when it goes online

Pong cheese arrives, and boy is it a pongy selection:

Pong cheese for #BlaggersBanquet has arrived thank you good people of @PongCheese the flat is rather fragrant ;)
12:57 PM Nov 12th from TweetDeck

It takes every ounce of willpower not to tuck into Pong's finest - I love stinky cheese. As soon as I've cleared space in my little fridge the next delivery comes:

And lovely goat's cheese from @brockhallfarm has just arrived, along with fresh goat's milk for the #BlaggersBanquet *thanks Sarah*
1:32 PM Nov 12th from TweetDeck

Earlier in the week I realised we had hardly any dairy products and emailed the bloggers to see if they might have contacts for milk, cream, butter, eggs and creme fraiche. This was tweeted a number of times when suddenly I had a DM (direct message) from Sainsburys who follow me on Twitter. I couldn't believe it - they offered to source all our dairy supplies, no questions asked, no demands made. Phew!

A HUGE thank you to Rhona @sainsburys and Tim Whirledge for helping us source dairy for Sunday's #BlaggersBanquet !
3:19 PM Nov 12th from TweetDeck

Most of the Sainsbury's dairy arrived in increments and much to the bemusement of my flatmate - clearly if I ever design my own kitchen I should have a walk-in fridge for storing dairy if this banquet becomes an annual event

In the midst of sourcing ingredients, there were also generous offers from food producers and the likes of the lovely Petra Barran of Choc Star Van fame to donate their time for "experiential" prizes in the online auction:

RT @ChocStarVan: Experiential #blaggersbanquet prize - special Choc Star dessert delivered in choc-mobile to dinner of 12 anywhere in LDN
6:20 PM Nov 12th from TweetDeck

That auction started yesterday and Petra very kindly offered to drive to a lucky winner's house anywhere within metropolitan London to supply them with a dinner party chocolate bonanza from her van of chocolatey goodness. You can bid on this brilliant prize here and all proceeds go directly to Action Against Hunger!

Thursday's other huge problem was sourcing fridge space:

Urgent request for fridge space to store 20kg meat for this Sunday's #BlaggersBanquet !! Please RT
6:59 PM Nov 12th from TweetDeck

Which proved frustratingly elusive. We'll know that for next time

Then India Knight of The Times very sweetly plugged the banquet on our behalf:

RT @eatlikeagirl: thanks @indiaknight for your posterous link & RT - - we'll be doing it again! :) #blaggersbanquet
8:13 PM Nov 12th from TweetDeck

The boyf did a requisite tweet at my behest about getting his ticket for the banquet (in exchange for some cinnamon loaf I believe) :

RT @twilliams81: have my ticket for Blaggers Banquet. SOOOOO excited to go #blaggersbanquet (envious of you feasting while I'm cooking!)
8:21 PM Nov 12th from TweetDeck

Sadly he was ill over the weekend so didn't make it which was a real disappointment :-( Next time Thomas!

The question of sourcing bread was proving to be as problematic as sourcing fridge space and out of the blue I decided to contact St John Restaurant to see if they could spare us some. I DM'd the restaurant and within minutes had a reply. One phone call later and we were promised 12 loaves of St John's finest sourdoughs, and they went down a treat on Sunday night with the main course stews! I tweeted:

Excellent news, we have delicious sourdough bread from @SJRestaurant donated for Sunday's #BlaggersBanquet - thank you so much :)
8:23 PM Nov 12th from TweetDeck

That night I dashed over to Marylebone and took a break from the banquet planning to be inducted into The Marmarati a society of Marmite lovers which turned out to be the most brilliant PR event I'd been to in a long time. Was good to get away from thinking about the banquet for a few hours, and I raffled off a copy of the brand-spanking new Big Bumper Book of Marmite (Absolute Press) at Sunday's banquet to boot!

Friday the 13th proved to be the most testing day of the week. There was still a fair amount of menu planning going on at this stage as several supplies we'd been promised didn't pan out, or the offers rescinded. The main course supplies were resolved, and we had guarantees from both Riverford Organic and Abel & Cole to supply us with all the veg and fruit we needed for Sunday. I took delivery of Billington's sugar for the banquet dessert and coffee

Trethowan's Dairy had generously donated a 2kg Gorwydd Caerphilly for the banquet cheese board, but the question arose of who could collect it from Borough Market:

RT @goodshoeday: We need someone to go collect a 2kg cheese from borough today or tomorrow for #blaggersbanquet volunteers pls
11:57 AM Nov 13th from TweetDeck

Simon Majumdar, one half of fraternal blogging duo Dos Hermanos offered to go collect it for us, even though he couldn't attend the banquet and delivered the mighty cheese to Hawksmoor on our behalf, which we're incredibly grateful for

The Follow Fridays flooded in that day, and Niamh tweeted a shout out to the banquet team:

RT @eatlikeagirl: OK! My first #FF @scandilicious , @MathildeCuisine, @KaveyF & @sosusie - the stellar organisers for the #blaggersbanquet
12:32 PM Nov 13th from TweetDeck

Meanwhile I was still fielding comments about my cheese obsession from these two jokers:

@josordoni @goodshoeday are you two casting aspersions AGAIN?! Cheese induced coma? Jar of marmite and sourdough in my tiny hands?! Sheesh..
1:11 PM Nov 13th from TweetDeck in reply to josordoni

Then disaster struck:

About to get in shower betw/deliveries of #blaggersbanquet ingredients when door rang, ran downstairs+locked myself out. In dressing gown.
5:26 PM Nov 13th from web

Yes, I was in my dressing gown in the middle of the afternoon (all times on the tweets incidentally are Tehran time!) as I had been taking deliveries all morning and hadn't had a chance to shower or get dressed in between the emails, phone calls and tweets about the banquet. Needless to say this was hilarious for everyone on my street, not so hilarious for me

Anyway, I owe Jeni, my lovely flatmate and Kennards a big thank you:

Phew, back in flat! owe flatmate who ran home from work and the lovely people at Kennards, local deli next door a massive favour *thank you*
5:47 PM Nov 13th from TweetDeck

More deliveries ensued throughout Friday:

Barber's delicious 1833 Vintage reserve Cheddar occupying top part of flatmates' fridge - very tempting to break into before Sunday ;)
6:15 PM Nov 13th from TweetDeck

just taken delivery of @PetersYard 's fabulous crispbread we're using for canapes and cheese course at #blaggersbanquet *thanks Wendy + Ian*
6:38 PM Nov 13th from TweetDeck

Billington's sugar arrived for #blaggersbanquet now need to meet w/cooks @HawksmoorLondon and collect @TrishDeseine 's 72% chocolate !
8:14 PM Nov 13th from TweetDeck

And then it was time to dash down to Hawksmoor to meet with the cook's team (who I'll be writing about in my next blog post), Niamh and Tom of Hawksmoor to go through the plan for Sunday. We came away feeling confident but there was still much to be done and last-minute supplies to source...

Saturday 14th November: woke up with butterflies in my stomach, a long list of things to do, more deliveries to accept and a ferocious storm outside:

last day before #blaggersbanquet - collecting 5kg of @TrishDeseine chocolate, baking 10 chocolate fondant cakes for tomorrow! Bring it on
12:36 PM Nov 14th from TweetDeck

My cup runneth over....have just taken delivery of many many kilos of organic butter for #blaggersbanquet Nom nom! Thanks to @sainsburys
12:59 PM Nov 14th from TweetDeck

Off to Mayfair I went to collect chocolatier Trish Deseine's 72 % chocolate for the banquet fondants, a recipe she had also kindly supplied. Let me tell you Mayfair is a curious place on a Saturday morning, virtually empty bar the occasional Bentley or Rolls. Was relieved to scamper back to safer realms of Bloomsbury where the Man was waiting for me, ready to bake:

RT @twilliams81: @scandilcious' flat helping with #blaggersbaquet. She is very bossy. Good job it fr charity ;0) (hah! bossy, me?)
2:53 PM Nov 14th from TweetDeck

Bossy! Well I can't complain, as I don't know many men who would sacrifice their Saturday afternoons to break big catering blocks of chocolate for making ten large fondants. In the process I tweeted:

loving @twilliams81 evident gusto in bashing up enormous block of @TrishDeseine 's chocolate for the fondants!
10:58 PM Nov 14th from TweetDeck

Yes, my Man is secretly a baker, he just doesn't know it yet

Not much sleep was had on Saturday night as there was still work to be done for Sunday, but you'll have to read about that tomorrow..

Hopefully this post has given a sense of what the preparation was like, and how down to the wire we were in many respects. It was a fascinating experience and we all learnt so much in a short period of time. I'll be posting thoughts on the banquet itself tomorrow, but in the meantime for a reviews have a peak at this one from food and drink writer Fiona Beckett here and see some fantastic photos capturing the event here

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Getting ready for the Blaggers' Banquet

It's all systems go for London's food bloggers - we've blagged far and wide for the finest ingredients to showcase at tonight's epic Blaggers' Banquet, held at legendary Shoreditch steakhouse Hawksmoor. Inspiration for the banquet came from Niamh Shields aka Eat Like A Girl and we're doing it all in aid ofAction Against Hunger. That's right, every single penny goes straight to a worthwhile cause, more of which you can read on Niamh's blog and of course in the coming days as we tally up the initial proceeds from tonight's fiestanza!

Having come to this late and blissfully unaware of the brouhaha earlier in the year when bloggers gained a reputation for supposedly "blagging" free meals I wasn't sure quite what to expect. Working with fellow bloggers, food suppliers and PRs the past few weeks has been a fascinating exercise both in military-style planning and a total revelation in how extraordinarily generous people are. I'll be writing more about the experience after tonight's event as now is the time to start hauling all the food supplies I've blagged downstairs to drive over to Hawksmoor. The cooks and prep team, of which I've been given the daunting task of leading today, are all meeting at 11am sharp and we've got a day of serious work ahead of us to honour both Action Against Hunger and in treating 50 banquet guests to a feast they'll remember. I'm confident the team of cooks and prep will triumph, they've been nothing but cool, calm and collected in the past week as I frantically organise a banquet menu and make last-minute demands on a Saturday night to come up with brilliant canape recipes. They shall all feature in blog posts next week so you can get to know the team :D

Follow our progress throughout the day and into next week on Twitter using the hashtag #blaggersbanquet and come join us on Facebook There will be an auction online to raise more money for Action Against Hunger, so if you can't be with us tonight but would like to bid on a fabulous foodie prize then please do so. Details will be up soon, I promise

Time to don the chefs' whites and get cooking. Wish us luck!

Friday, 6 November 2009

Spelt Cinnamon Loaf

The Germans like to say that "Alles geht durcheinander" when things aren't going right, and that about sums it up this week - actually that's not strictly true, this week's been fine, I'm just grumpy due to lurgy/porcine flu. So instead of having multiple tantrums I returned to my favourite kitchen activity - baking

Yes, those who follow this blog will no doubt express their bemusement, after all I renounced baking last week but Scandi softie that I am I just couldn't help posting a recipe for this spelt cinnamon loaf. A Johansen favourite if there ever was one

The recipe has been adapted from a tried and tested cinnamon bun recipe in Trina Hahnemann's 'The Scandinavian Cookbook' but I've made it a bit easier - with spelt flour all you have to do is give the dough a good thrashing with a large wooden spoon for five minutes, and I chuck the dough in the fridge overnight to slow-ferment. Perfect for lazy weekend brunches, and even though my nose is blocked I can just about detect the heady scent of cinnamon, sugar and butter

Try it and let me know what you think

As we say in 'Weegieland, god helg!


I've halved the original recipe, but used 2/3 of the original filling recipe as I like butter and sugar. Instead of only using refined flour I toss in some wholemeal spelt flour to add a bit of texture and nuttiness. Feel free to use plain wheat flour as the original recipe suggests. There are photos below the recipe to show method and how to make the bun version


300g refined spelt flour
125g wholemeal flour
70g caster sugar
20g fresh yeast
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
250ml whole milk scalded
75g butter


100g soft butter
75g caster sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon

In a small saucepan, scald the milk along with the butter and allow to cool while you assemble the other ingredients. In a large bowl, sift all the dry ingredients together - if you want these less grainy, then leave out some of the bran from when you sieve the wholemeal flour - and stir through using a large spoon

Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients, add the egg, then the milk. It's important the milk/butter is below 50 Celsius degrees when you do this, otherwise the yeast will die when it comes in contact with the hot liquid. If you don't have a thermometer to measure the milk's temperature, use your fingers. The milk should feel warm to the touch, not hot.
Mix the ingredients together until the mixture comes off the sides of the bowl and looks - for want of a better word - doughy

Place in a lightly oiled bag or bowl and refrigerate overnight

The next morning, take the dough out of the fridge and place in a warm room or cupboard (not the dryer as I once did...forgetting that it tumbles. Yes I am an idiot) and let it come to room temperature

Make the filling by mixing butter, cinnamon and sugar together. Using a rolling pin, make a rectangular shape of the dough, about 40cm x 30cm. Place the filling on the center of the rectangle and spread out. If the kitchen's a bit cold - as mine was this morning - and the butter is firm, use your hands to spread the filling. Not only does the heat from your hands help to smooth the butter over your dough, but it's immensely satisfying getting your hands all sticky. Butter makes an excellent moisturiser, and the sugar acts as a great exfoliatiant ladies!

Once you've finished making a mess with the filling, and - crucially - tasted it, start rolling the dough into a wide cylinder so it looks like an uncooked swiss roll. Ie. roll from the longest part of the rectangle, not the shortest

Using a sharp, uncerrated knife, cut the log into 1.5cm/1 inch slices if you want buns, or slice the log in half and bake in two lightly oiled bread tins. Allow to rise for 30-40 minutes in a warming cupboard until the loaves have doubled in size. Gently poke one with your little finger and the indentation should stay put. In other words, there is no 'spring-back'

Preheat the oven to 200 Celsius (400 Fahrenheit) and before you place the buns in the oven, glaze with a little milk. Bake on the upper-middle shelf of the oven for 30-45 minutes. The loaves are ready when you tap them and they sound hollow

Cool on the kitchen window sill as I did and risk the loaves falling off or being nibbled by pigeons. Or do the sensible thing and allow the loaves to cool on a wire rack for 1/2 hour before slicing

Needless to say this keeps for a number of days and makes excellent toast ;-)