I love a bit of baking, it has always been one of my favourite things to do in the kitchen. It’s usually my friends and family that have the onerous duty of consuming the fruits of my dabblings, but this weekend I was baking biscuits for over seventy-five coffee-loving Londoners. I had the great pleasure of taking part in a bake-off organised by Daniel Young. The New York-born food critic, resides in London, and with his pop-up events he’s on a mission to bring people together over a love of great dining while showcasing some of the capital’s finest food destintations.
Saturday’s event was a departure from the midweek pop-ups at Andrew’s greasy spoon cafe. Burgers and spaghetti replaced in favour of biscuits and coffee, while the venue was the Prufrock coffee shop, a leading light of the capital’s thriving coffee scene. The star of the show was homemade Speculoos, a spiced biscuit traditional in Belgium, Holland and parts of France and Germany. This would also be a return to my childhood, as I spent three years living in a small town in Belgium where my Dad was stationed at a British Army base. I have happy memories of eating Frikkadellen sausages (not that good in reality), strawberry and cream topped waffles and of course the ubiquitous Speculoos. Upon our return to the UK discovering that Speculoos simply weren’t available in British shops was a huge disappointment, I’m sure I was decidedly sulky for a good few weeks, that and the distinct lack of flavour options at ice cream man – I’d developed quite the taste for pistachio ice cream while on the continent.
That was over twenty years ago, aside from the occasional Speculoos that comes with the odd cup of coffee, my passion for these tasty dark sugary treats has faded. So naturally I was excited about visiting a great coffee shop and trying some homemade Speculoos. Homemade speculoos! To me, they’d always been a commercially made biscuit, the idea of baking them at home had never crossed my mind, it’d be as bizarre as baking a Custard Cream.
A few days later a Tweet from Daniel calling for people to take part in the bake-off, was like a call to arms. From hardly thinking about Speculoos in years, now I was pulling a hot baking tray of them out of the oven. How did the first batch go? Definitely room for improvement. For sure they tasted nice, but the spice balance was a bit off, and they weren’t thin enough. The resulting biscuits were soft and spongy like a Lebkuchen, a German Christmas cookie. I felt confident however, that I could deliver a box of biscuits for the Bake-off. There was a slight sense of trepidation at baking for so many people, would the Londoners be a hard crowd? I spent the next two evenings baking biscuits and tweaking my recipe.
On the day itself, my Speculoos lined up against two other bakers. Prufrock’s own Rosamund Connolly created some delectably dark and smoothly textured heart-shaped biscuits. While organiser Daniel’s contribution were a traditional oblong shaped, adding his American influence by creating a soft and chewy cookie style biscuit. It was great that all three biscuits were distinctly different and provided plenty of talking points in what turned out to be a tight contest. But in the end, Daniel won through.
All in all it was a jolly splendid day and certainly lived up to Daniel’s mantra of Eat Great Food, Meet Great People. Although strangers at the start, with Daniel’s excellent hosting, it soon felt relaxed like I was hanging out with some friends for good coffee and a bit of a natter. In truth I drank far more coffee than I should have, but it’s very hard to resist the many and diverse offerings served by the friendly and knowledgeable folks at Prufrock.
Set up by 2009 World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies and partner Jeremy Challenger, their first coffee shop is a light airy space devoid of unnecessary decoration. Only coffee making paraphernalia adorns the walls a stark contrast to the fuss and attention to detail that is devoted to the making of coffee. The expert baristas have a bewildering array of equipment at their disposal, marrying beans, roasts and brewing methods to create some seriously fabulous cups of coffee. There was also a lovely selection of cakes that I intend to try on my next visit.
Many thanks to all the great people I met and all the kind words about my biscuits, it was a lot of fun baking them and the recipe can be found here.