Since slowing down I have become more attuned to smells. Obviously the arrival of spring and the gardens bursting into life help but aside from the trees and plants, I am absorbing smells everywhere: food, perfumes, flowers… Wandering around Greenwich in the morning is a different olfactory experience as the same walk in the afternoon or evening due to various plants releasing their fragrance at different times of day and these mingling with fresh morning air, the headier ozone-filled noonday air, or the cool pollen-laden air of the evening. Also, the smell from the cheese shop and fishmonger gives way to the aromas from restaurant kitchens as the day progresses.
This heightened awareness of smells has gone hand in hand with a more alert sense of flavour, and unfortunately also the disappointment that accompanies flavourless meals in too many mid-range London’s cafés, restaurants and brasseries. In recent weeks I have been underwhelmed by several pre-theatre meals. The food was not unpleasant as such; it just tasted of nothing; was bland, empty and most of all unsatisfying.
A hollow tasting scone with cream and jam was the last straw! As I settled the bill on the half-eaten scone and a cup of tea, I resolved not to waste daily calories on flavourless food. Instead, as the weather improves, I am increasingly taking packed lunches with me on long days out and have decided to limit sweet treats to ones I have made (excluding, of course, desserts from tried and tested establishments).
Now I have always been a baker of cakes and desserts. My madeleines and pavlovas are legendary and left-overs regularly accompany guests home in doggy bags. In recent weeks, however, I have been expanding my repertoire to include more little treats like home-made chocolate bourbons, langues de chats and choux pastry.
I would love to embrace the macaroon culture: the flavour, texture, colour and sheer aesthetics of these dainty coffee accompaniments appeal to the girl in me but as a nut allergy sufferer these treats are unfortunately off the menu. Instead I have resorted to making a classic English treat to round off the meal: peppermint creams.
Just like my meringues and madeleines, the peppermint flavoured discs look impressive on the plate but are actually a breeze to make. Icing sugar, egg white (or dried pasteurised egg white if preferred) and peppermint essence are simply mixed into a malleable paste. Adding a hint of green food colouring takes the edge off the clinical white look. I then work the paste into hazelnut-sized balls on a parchment covered baking sheet before flattening them with a fork to achieve the traditional shape. Once the mints have chilled for an hour or two I heat best quality dark chocolate over a bain marie and dip half the mint into the molten chocolate – Mr M is encouraging me to throw caution and calories to the wind and cover the mints fully! The finished treats then go back into the fridge and once fully set can be stored for up to a week in an air tight container.*
The result is a heavenly indulgent treat. The luscious peppermint cream melts in the mouth in a way mass-produced ones never will and the intense fragrant taste of the peppermint essence and smooth bitter chocolate cut through the sweetness of the creamy paste. The luxurious chocolate and peppermint discs work wonderfully well with a thimble of rich espresso and are a reminder of how with a very little effort food can please so many senses!
* In this weather I prefer to keep them in the fridge and finish the mints within 48 hours, especially if I am using fresh egg white.