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How to have the best 29th birthday ever

Gusto

Address: 263 Ponsonby Rd, Three Lamps, Auckland 1011
Online: gustoitaliano.co.nz

3-stars

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Image credit: Mint Design

When it came to celebrating my birthday this year, I got a bit stuck. For one, I didn’t actually have a birthday. After leaving Los Angeles the evening before the big day I settled into my 13 hour flight back to NZ. By the time I got to the baggage carousel at Auckland airport my birthday had been and gone. Turns out, now that Doctor Who is a woman, all us females can time travel too.

Second, while I’d been soaking up the vitamin D on Venice Beach, Mr C was exploring temples in Tokyo. Ergo, no husband to celebrate with.

Fortunately, since making this paradise island my home two years ago I have found two wonderful women to call friends. As a girl who hasn’t had two friends to rub together since 1999, I’m still not quite sure why these babes want to hang around with me. But until they realise I’m a Radio 4-loving, lightweight, bookworm geek (Shh! Let’s hope they don’t see this post!) I am LOVING having such cool BFFs.

To celebrate the novelty of having girlfriends to the max I triangulated my perfect birthday evening in Ponsonby, starting with manicures at The Art of Nails.

Midway through getting our nails done, a hen(s) party arrived. What could have spoiled our experience was turned on its head by the staff, who poured us all bubbles and brought us nuts, grapes and strawberries.

Already feeling a little tipsy at 4pm, it was time for pre-dinner drinks. Clearly I couldn’t resist the allure of a new wine bar called Annabel’s! Intimate and cosy with friendly clientele and bar staff, Annabel’s is a gorgeous little hidden secret. We gave our best eyelash flutters, but got nothing for our efforts, even after mentioning that it was Annabel’s birthday at Annabel’s. Ah well. Drinking wine from a glass with my own name on made up for it.

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When it comes to dining, my friends know that I take any opportunity to taste a tiramisu for the blog. Our third stop was Gusto, the warmhearted favourite for Ponsonby locals.

Inside, the restaurant was all abuzz. There are Italian posters on the wall, exposed brick walls and wood furniture the lighting is a warm orange and the conversation was flowing as smoothly as the wine.

The food will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Italian dining. From antipasti through to pasta and mains, this is the place to come if you’ve got a real Mediterranean craving.

Rest assured, there’s a tiramisu on the menu. And while the presentation is classic traditional Italian in a thick glass cocktail glass, it’s not an old-fashioned recipe. Gusto’s is the more unusual whipped egg white recipe, rather than a creamy mascarpone style. It’s yummy, but the egg white has lost some air and fallen a little flat, making the combo too runny. The tiramisu is totally undeserved and unnecessary after antipasti and pasta. Who am I kidding, though, it’s never necessary, is it?

From the luxury of being pampered to the yumminess of Italian food and wine with my name on it, spending the perfect 29th birthday evening with Anita and Becca gets five stars (while the tiramisu only gets three).

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How many stars in Hollywood?

Amarone Kitchen and Wine

Address: 8868 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90069
Online: http://www.amaronela.com/

3-stars

Amarone Front
Image credit: Yelp

 

If there’s one place to feel like a star, it’s Hollywood. And so it was that I stepped out of a flash hotel on Sunset Boulevard into a balmy evening last week feeling a million dollars.

My sister, Tasha, had revealed the innermost secrets of her make-up bag to me (which included products I had never heard of) and totally pampered me with a make-over. She was so gentle and deft with the brushes; she looked so practiced and professional as she tilted her face to consider whether I needed a little more of that or a little less of this.

As I opened my eyes and swivelled the chair to face the mirror I could hardly believe it. My skin, usually so sun- and spot-damaged, looked smooth and warm. My eyes, which always seem to disappear in photos, totally popped. I felt fantastic! Just right for a night out.

For our first ever trip to Tinseltown, I had lined up an itinerary with all the tourist essentials. The Walk of Fame, the Hollywood sign, Universal Studios. But you know me. I could hardly do a trip overseas without a special blog post, could I? And so it was that we left our West Hollywood hotel that night and headed for the local Italian, Amorone, on Sunset Boulevard.

In true WeHo contrasting style we passed innumerable giant movie billboards along with a few less than salubrious joints.

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We were welcomed into the small restaurant in the typical Italian fashion that I’ve come to feel at home with on the tiramisu quest. All flamboyance, arm gestures and familiarity.

And oh wow, the food. The main meal was simply divine. Tagliatelle with mushrooms shouldn’t be that good. Somehow, without much of a sauce, it was fragrant and mouth watering and delicious and perfect. A total stand out.

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Then the moment we were all waiting for. But when it came to dessert Mum couldn’t help herself and let the cat out of the bag. ‘She’s got a blog about tiramisu,’ she told our gesticulating waiter. No pressure, then.

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‘And…?’ he asked me, expectantly. I swallowed.

‘It’s great!’ I enthused.

In truth, I just couldn’t bear to disappoint this lovely, smiling man, who had spoken so passionately and energetically about the fresh, home-made tiramisu.

To be fair, it was presented beautifully. Just the right size – which I’m picky about when it comes to tiramisu. The creamy layer was perfectly light and had a slight citrus taste to it, which gave it a zesty lift.

Unfortunately the rest let it down. The cake was watery, with a funny aftertaste and no coffee kick. Was the alcohol missing? The cocoa dust on top was so dry it caused me to have a choking coughing fit. I feel terrible being so critical of a dessert made and presented with such flourish and passion, but I have to be honest. After a knock-out main, this tiramisu was a real disappointment.

Amarone Tiramisu2

There may be no shortage of stars in Hollywood, but this dessert only gets three from me.

 

Tiramisu in a Bottle

Tuatara Brewing

Online: Tuatara Brewing

2-stars

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I remember telling someone in April last year that I’d just finished my first beer.

‘Of the night?’
‘No, ever.’

I can honestly say that – with the exception of a chilled Peroni after a day in Hong Kong’s unrelentingly muggy heat – I have yet to truly enjoy a beer.

So when Mr C saw a bottle of Tiramisu, it had to be worth a try, right?

I was certainly tempted by the recipe, which includes Wellington Chocolate Factory Dominican Republic cacao nibs. And as (probably) New Zealand’s most dedicated tiramisu connoisseur the description was especially enticing:

“designed around its Italian dessert namesake. A ‘pick me up’ to get us through the winter months… Tiramisu is bold, rich, warming and moreish – velvet on the palate!”

As a confirmed non beer drinker, though, the oatmeal stout was never going to win my tastebuds. The espresso flavour too bitter, the stout too strong and malty, the dark chocolate too rich. Lucky for me, I had a handsome helper and the rest of the bottle found a good home.

There’s a good reason why the best tiramisus have light cream and moist sponge. Let’s be honest. This tiramisu didn’t stand a chance.  I’ll be back in the warming embrace of an Italian trattoria for a proper slice of cocoa dusted cake and mascarpone next time…

Small-Batch Tiramisu

Round 2: Mr C and I made our second tiramisu this weekend and we were pretty pleased with the result. Why not have a go yourself? Let us know any feedback in the comments below!

Difficulty rating: Medium
Yumminess rating: 

4-stars
Serves: 6
Time: 40 minutes prep + setting time
(Ideally make the ladyfingers a day in advance; they take about 20 minutes)
With thanks to Smitten Kitchen for the recipe

Ingredients

Ladyfingers:

  • 2 large eggs, separated
  • 1/3 cup (65 grams) granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
  • 2/3 cups (85 grams) all-purpose flour
  • Powdered sugar, for dusting

Tiramisu filling:

  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 1/3 cup (65 grams) plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
  • 250 ml pack mascarpone
  • 1/3 cup (80 ml) sweet or dry marsala
  • 1 cup (235 ml) strong, warm espresso coffee
  • Cocoa powder, for sifting

 

Method

Ladyfingers

1. Heat oven to 200°C (400°F) and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites of two eggs until stiff.

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The first time we tried these the egg whites weren’t stiff enough and the ladyfingers fell flat. To check they’re right, make sure you can turn the bowl upside down over your head without getting any mixture on your hair.

3. In a large bowl, with the same beaters, beat egg yolks with 1/3 cup sugar until thick and pale. Gently fold in the egg whites, then fold in the 2/3 cup flour, trying not to deflate the mixture.

Watch out! Don’t do these two steps the other way around – if you have the egg yolk and sugar on your beaters when you beat the egg whites they won’t go stiff. (I learned this the hard way…)

4. Pour the mixture into an icing bag. No worries if you don’t have one, just take a freezer bag and snip off end to about a 1-inch opening.

5. Pipe the fingers into 3 inch strips. Leave a good 2 inches between each one as they spread more than you’d think.

6. Sprinkle each with a pinch of granulated sugar and a light dusting of powdered sugar, then bake until faintly gold and dry to the touch (about 6 to 8 minutes). Allow to cool for a minute before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

If you’re making these a day in advance, leave them out uncovered to allow them to dry out a bit.

 

Tiramisu filling

1. In a medium bowl, beat 3 egg whites until stiff.

2. In a larger bowl, using same beaters, beat the egg yolks and ⅓ cup sugar until thick and pale yellow (about 3 to 4 minutes). Beat in the 250g of mascarpone until combined, and continue beating another minute for extra fluffiness.

IMG_20170610_1406563. Beat in ⅓ cup of your chosen booze until smooth. Marsala is the traditional one, but we used amaretto and considered rum too.

4. Gently fold in the egg whites until combined, trying not to deflate the mixture. It will be a loose, soft, creamy custard.

5. Combine a cup of espresso and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a small bowl. Set aside.

 

Assemble

In our first go at tiramisu we used a loaf tin. After reviewing quite a few different versions of the dessert ourselves, we decided that smaller is better and opted for individual portions.

1. Dip ladyfingers into the espresso mixture until wet but not falling apart. Break in half and place the halves in the bottom of the cups. Spoon 1 generous tablespoon of the cream over it.

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2. Repeat with the second halves of the biscuits and another spoonful of cream. Fill ⅔ full, then leave for at least 4 hours. Top with a dusting with cocoa powder just before eating.

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Not Feeling Fired Up

Archie’s Pizzeria

Address: 63 Davis Crescent, Newmarket, Auckland 1023
Online: Find it on Facebook

3-stars

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Image credit: newmarket.co.nz/business/archies-pizzeria/ 

We all know that the weather turns to custard on a bank holiday weekend. Indeed, when I woke up indecently late this morning my pillow was so cold that my cheek got an icy shock as I rolled to one side. But once we’d escaped the chilly micro-climate surrounding our house a stunning day revealed itself. Perfect cornflour blue sky, not a single cloud to be seen.

If you looked out from the beach at the end of our road you’d see the volcanic island of Rangitoto (below right). To the left of that you’d spot Devonport’s twin peaks of Mount Victoria and North Head, on the North Shore of Auckland (below left). Just two miles away as the crow flies, it’s a 15 mile drive following the road around the shore and over the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Today we were going to scale both the peaks (not as impressive as it sounds) to build up our appetites for a tiramisu quest later in the day. (The less said about the large Big Mac meal and hash brown we’d already polished off that morning the better, thank you very much).

We explored the military tunnel complex, gun emplacements and fortifications at North Head Historic Reserve and lapped up the beautiful 360° view at the top of Mount Victoria.

Having descended back to Devonport we surreptitiously investigated a couple of Italian joints on Victoria Road. With no sign of any tiramisu on the menu we headed back to our side of the bridge and, with some help from Google, scouted out the best tiramisu in our own neck of the woods.

Think ‘Italian restaurant’ and a bustling, warm and welcoming atmosphere probably comes to mind. However, the stark plain walls and spartan chairs and tables left us wanting at Archie’s Pizzeria in Newmarket. No question, the place was busy for late lunch on a Sunday. The wood fire was blazing and innumerable chefs were crammed into the small kitchen behind the bar. The owner – Archie himself – was such a cliché of an Italian restaurateur they wouldn’t cast him for the role in a film. But where was the vibe?

No messing about, we head straight for the dessert menu. Looking to the tables near us, though, we feel a twinge of regret as we eye steaming, creamy tagliatelle and fragrant, melty pizza. Today Mr C joins me for tiramisu and adds an espresso martini to the order for good measure.

The presentation is just as you’d expect from a low-key Italian cafe; nothing fancy. The sides are slightly crisp where it has been exposed to the air, but once we dig in it is moist. The generous creamy layer of mascarpone is the first thing I taste and it is perfection. Sweet and delicious and light. The first sponge finger layer is good: suffused with booze but not soggy.

 

The second layer is disappointingly dry. The sickly chocolate sauce liberally squeezed over is clearly not homemade, like the sponge base. Mr C is glad of his ‘inspired decision’ to get a cocktail, which ‘definitely helped the situation.’ Halfway through and I’m struggling, and easily distracted by planning our weekly shopping list.

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Hold on a minute. You shouldn’t get distracted eating a tiramisu! It should grab you by the shoulders and devour your attention until the plate is clean. You should feel as fired up as that stone pizza oven. It’s very name means ‘pick me up’, for goodness’ sake! Overall, it’s a passable effort. With a bonus point for the heavenly cream, this is a solid three stars.

Practically Perfect

Farina

Address: 244 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby, Auckland 1011
Online: http://www.farina.co.nz/

5-stars - blue

Farina.pngFarina’s bar

 

 

The roar of the wind is ferocious. Strands of teenage girls’ long hair stand on end; a yellow waterproof coat pops out amidst the grey-greenness of the urban landscape. The burnt red and orange trees gyrate from side to side as the traffic lights and lampposts wobble ominously.

I’m on the hunt for a cup of tea and some warmth, which seem in disgracefully short supply on such a wet, miserable day. ‘They need Pret a Manger in New Zealand,’ I huff to myself as roadworks with no sign of workers force me on an unnecessary detour. My coat looks like it’s come straight out of the washing machine and my hair as though I ran the brush through it backwards by the time I get my cup of English Breakfast. It’s scalding to my lips.

Back out in the bluster I clutch the cup with both hands trying to bring colour back into my bloodless fingers. Within seconds the tea has lost all of its blistering heat and barely warms me.

Thank goodness then for the welcoming embrace of Farina – an Italian restaurant set in one of Ponsonby’s 19th century villas – which has a heater pumping out warmth over the door.

The setting is Ponsonby cool, with vintage style lightbulbs, green mosaic tiling and ‘CUCINA ITALIA’ above the bar in fluorescent green.

It’s the perfect weather outside to catch up with a friend over lunch. We devour the fresh, soft white bread with zingy, flavourful olive oil, alongside vinegary mushrooms and eggplant, all served in little jam jars. The flavours zip around my mouth like a pinball machine.

Farina Tiramisu + Me.pngWith Anita off to work this evening and unable to have any alcohol, it’s down to me to order the tiramisu ($11.50). It arrives beautifully presented in a little jar, the golden lid resting against the rim. As my spoon touches the cocoa it plunges beautifully through light, generous cream and moist sponge. And the taste? Delicious. The cocoa dusting is a little too thick; it clings to my spoon and the roof of my mouth. But I’m being picky. It’s gorgeous. The best yet on the tiramisu trail. The quest can only get harder now; can anything top Farina’s tiramisu?

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The mile high tiramisu

Malaysian Airlines

Flight: MH131 – Kuala Lumpur to Auckland

0-star

Malaysia Airlines.jpgMalaysia Airlines plane. Photo: Australian Aviation

What I love most about eleven hour flights is the opportunity to try new cuisines. So I was pleased as punch to discover that supper on the plane home from Malaysia featured tiramisu, meaning a bonus post on the Tiramisu Quest. Well aren’t you lucky, readers? Lucky, that is, that you didn’t have to put it anywhere near your mouth.

Perhaps it was the unique skills of the chef. Perhaps it was the six hour wait for our connecting flight at Kuala Lumpur airport that did it. But after a lengthy wait for Mr C to chew (you don’t normally have to chew tiramisu, do you?) and eventually swallow his first mouthful, the less-than-favourable verdict was in. ‘It’s like the fire-retardant foam filling of an airport chair cushion.’ Ouch.

IMG_20170419_233650The scent the tiramisu emitted was pungent, even from a seat away. A combination of mint toothpaste and instant coffee from a machine.

Wary of what my tastebuds were about to experience, I watched Mr C analyse the remainder of his dessert before I tentatively scraped off the top layer. ‘It’s a challenge to finish,’ he explained, as I tried my first bite. It is hard yet furry, like an office carpet tile. ‘Dusted with coffee scented ant poison,’ as Mr C so eloquently puts it.

Perhaps the middle layer would improve the situation. The texture is almost impossible to describe; I’ve never experienced another food substance like it. The closest I can think of is a stodgy panna cotta: rubbery, blubbery and cloying.

‘Ohh, minty!’ I say, doing my best to find something in the dessert’s favour. ‘Like an Aero bar.’ Mr C nods in agreement. ‘Yes, like a minty Aero bar that got addicted to crack for a decades, was eventually scraped out from under a bin and decided to drown its sorrows with a cup of stale coffee and an ashtray of cigarette butts.’

MA TiramisuI finally make my way to the base. It is, if this is possible, the worst of the three layers. Dry as though it has been out in the Malaysian sun for the last few days, with no observable flavour at all, it sticks to the roof of my mouth and refuses to budge.

I’m tempted to award this tiramisu half a star for the belly laugh and tears of joy I experienced from Mr C’s hilarious live review of this sky-high tiramisu. But as far as the Tiramisu Quest goes, it can’t get any lower than this. It’s a zero.

Tiramisu at Twilight

Non Solo Pizza

Address: 259 Parnell Road, Parnell Auckland
Online: www.nonsolopizza.co.nz

2-stars

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Osteria bar, Parnell – Auckland. Photo: Concrete Playground

It’s twilight on a balmy autumn evening as we walk along the main street through Parnell. The street’s buzzing with families and friends out celebrating. The closed shops and galleries are brightly illuminated inside, to show off the expensive pieces of art and clothing. Our destination tonight: Non Solo Pizza.

NSP Canopy.pngThis Italian bar and restaurant is owned by the same husband and wife team as Poderi Crisci, a stunning vineyard restaurant on Waiheke Island. Having spent a dreamy four hours with family savouring the degustation there, my hopes are heightened for tonight’s dessert.

The restaurant is thrumming with conversation and laughter, with no tables available, so we take a seat in the courtyard bar area – separately branded as Osteria – under a canopy of vines, fairy lights and a deep blue sky.

Me with NSP Tiramisu.pngOur dolci arrive within minutes of ordering. An affogato for Mr C and my tiramisu.

The presentation is beautiful. A craggy cuboid, topped with chocolate scrolls and generous pourings of vanilla and chocolate sauce.

I close my eyes with pleasurable anticipation as I taste my first spoonful. Then the dry cocoa powder tickles the back of my throat, making me cough. My first few spoonfuls of sponge are dry, as though the cream, coffee and alcohol have all been forgotten.
NSP Tiramisu 3Then, at last, I hit some soaked sponge. Strangely, though, there’s no coffee infusion, no boozy kick. It just tastes… wet. And I still haven’t found the light, delicious cream I’m looking for.

By about halfway through I’m stalling. The sauce, chocolate and cake are heavy. It’s large. Not a pick-me-up so much as a weigh-me-down.

Mr C generously helps me to clear my plate and we start talking ratings. Should we boost it up for the magical ambience and lovely presentation? I don’t think so; the tiramisu must speak for itself. And that, disappointingly, is why tonight’s tiramisu scores a trifling two stars.

It all started one Saturday evening

My love affair with tiramisu or ‘pick me up’ (in Italian) began many spoons ago. My friends know that if it’s on the menu, I can’t resist the heady combination of espresso, cocoa and mascarpone. I’ve tasted that divine dessert on my travels around the world – Italy included. Right now, home is Auckland, New Zealand.

To celebrate my husband’s recent birthday, we travelled to our capital city, Wellington, where we spent the evening at a cosy Italian restaurant. While I devoured my seriously scrumptious dessert, Mr C suggested sharing the amore with other tiramisu lovers. What is the perfect tiramisu?, we wondered, and where could we find it? How long has it been around, and what’s the traditional Italian recipe? And so, feeling warm and fuzzy from the chianti, I began my quest for the greatest tiramisu…

Do you have any recipe or restaurant recommendations? I look forward to hearing from you! You can contact me via email.

Annabel x

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Can’t decide between puds? Have both.

Ombra

Address: 199 Cuba St, Te Aro, Wellington 6011
Online: www.ombra.co.nz

4-stars

Ombra Restaurant
Ombra restaurant, Wellington. Photo: Architecture HDT

It’s been a gusty day in Wellington, with a wintry chill that’s whipped straight through my springtime jacket and feels biting to this soft Auckland girl. Stepping in from the wind gives me a warm tingle. Inside the low light is seductive, candles lit at each table. The space is compact, with couples dining almost elbow to elbow with the couples on the tables either side. There are old-fashioned cotton drapes in the window, but this is no outdated bistro.

The smell is divine, making my mouth water instantly. Fragrant garlic and sizzling chorizo fill the atmosphere. Mr C eyes the menu and I catch a flicker of irritation when he notices it’s sharing plate style. Wine, I think, trying to divert attention from the heinous small plates. But our waiter is flitting from table to table, avoiding my increasingly manic eyes and smile as I try to flag him over. Not a good start.

When he finally makes our table my stomach is growling and my impatience is overflowing. We ask for the house red. He recommends we opt for a more expensive bottle. Mr C is unimpressed. I’m past caring; I just want a glass of wine. Any wine. To move things along, I agree to the pricier plonk.

Stellar mains and a carafe of said wine help the situation. Flavoursome meatballs, juicy mushrooms, crispy polenta chips and hot, fresh bread.

Ombra Tiramisu -- RoundIt’s crunch time: the all-important dessert. While I can’t skip the tiramisu ($7) – obviously – the chocolate mousse on the table diagonally over from us is making me salivate. We order both.

The cream has a full, thick texture, but is somehow still light. A good lick of vanilla infused through the creaminess gives it something different. The sponge is light and not soggy. Impressive. The problem? It’s too sweet. There isn’t that boozy punch, that needed kick of espresso, to balance out the sugariness. Overall? It’s a solid effort, and I’m satisfied, but not wowed.