Black gold – London’s best coffee shops and some black sesame madeleines

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(Amended to update the little blurb on Prufrock).

So, I was browsing the Stylist’s website the other day and came across a brief article on London’s best coffee shops.

As an avid coffee drinker (coming from a family that managed to kill an espresso machine by drinking more cups of coffee per day than any espresso machine developer could have ever imagined (we now have a commercial espresso machine)), I keep a list of favourite coffee shops (key attractions are: (i) decent coffee (look out for the crema on your espresso and the use of fresh milk – noone wants to drink a cappuccino made with UHT milk), (ii) free wi-fi (because I am a cheapskate and treat my ipad as though it’s a limb I never knew I had by carrying it around with me wherever I go), and (iii) outstanding pastries and cakes (which reminds me I need to tell you about Gail’s almond croissants)).

However, once in a while I like perusing these sorts of Top 10 lists, for inspiration – with the arrival of flat whites and a fresh wave of industrial style cafes and speakeasy type eateries, new cool coffee places seem to be growing like mushrooms – and many of them even serve half-decent coffee! Win win.

The Stylist’s list starts with the Monmouth Coffee Company (http://www.monmouthcoffee.co.uk/), so I am already pleased: Monmouth Coffee Company is a favourite of mine, a cafe with its own roastery which has been around for eons (when I lived around the corner as a student, Monmouth Coffee Company was one of the places I would head to for a quick caffeine fix or to pick up some coffee for my French press). What is even better is that Monmouth have recently upped their game, not only can you now indulge in a fresh cup of Monmouth coffee while picking up ingredients for your dinner party at Borough Market, Monmouth coffee stalls are now also present at most around London festivals. Quite a few of the coffee shops on the list are actually new to me (although I have driven past the Shoreditch Grind numerous times in a taxi when coming home from a long night at the office … unfortunately they seem to shut before midnight so I have never made it in time for a nightcap cup of coffee …) and I am excited to give them a try. The comments to the Stylist’s article are also well worth a read (lots of old favourites there) and I thought I would do a run-through of my five favourite coffee shops around London:

1. Gail’s Bakery (www.gailsbread.co.uk)

Yes, a bakery, but an artisan bakery with several locations across London, and their Exmouth Market cafe is where I start my weekends now that I am no longer glued to my lawbooks. Not only is Gail’s a convenient stopping point halfway of a leisurely (admittedly, rather lenghthy) stroll from my flat to Covent Garden, it also serves superb flat whites in huge cups (yup, a contradiction in terms given that flat whites are usually served in dainty little papercups or vintage glasses but to me the ratio of milk to coffee to froth in a flat white is such a perfect balance, I happily chug litres of that stuff with my breakfast). But, the piece de resistance are their pastries (taking us back to point (iii) of key ingredients for a decent coffee shop). Being an artisan bakery, you would hope they would manage to churn out decent pastries, and boy does Gail’s do its pastries well – the two that clearly stand out from the crowd for me are the almond croissant and the cinnamon rolls.

I have eaten an almond croissant or two in my lifetime and regard myself as pretty good at spotting an exceptional one when placed in front of me. The key is a slightly stale croissant, filled with ample frangipane (ideally freshly made with roughly ground almonds, sugar, butter and egg, going easy on the bitter almond aroma – you want the filling to taste not just of almonds but for it to also be a buttery eggy custard), drenched in sugar syrup, baked just long enough so that the frangipane filling is set without the croissant becoming dry and brittle and covered with tons more slivered almonds and icing sugar. Anyway, Gail’s almond croissants tick all of these boxes and then some – in particular, rather than ground almonds, the frangipane is made with chopped almonds (using unblanched almonds) and this gives the croissants a certain nuttiness which I now miss in ordinary almond croissants. Gail’s is also quite generous both in the size of its almond croissants as well as the amount of frangipane filling. Curiously though, however full I feel after my weekend breakfast of a flat white and an almond croissant, it still seems to be the perfect portion size, never too little and never too much.

In case almond croissants are not your thing (seriously, what is wrong with you?), Gail’s will still love you, there are plenty of other amazing pastry options, both sweet and savoury, including awesome flaky cinnamon rolls (a deep love for which both my sister and The boy who bakes seem to share, as he recently posted a recipe to make these at home).

2. Prufrock (http://www.prufrockcoffee.com/)

AKA the most expensive flat white I have ever had. Let me explain, in a recent quest to try out new cafes, I noticed that Prufrock, located in Leather Lane, only required a small detour from my normal walk to work, a detour that was probably short enough to ensure I would arrive at my desk with my cup of flat white at perfect drinking temperature, not too hot, not too cold. To my disdain, I was short of cash when I went to Prufrock the first time and had not planned on buying enough coffee and pastries to hit the GBP 5 minimum card spend. To my shock, the guy behind the counter offered me to come back the next day to pay the outstanding balance. Having lived in Central London for 9 years this was a bit of a shock and actually made me feel a bit uncomfortable. So instead I started perusing the store for anything that might bring the price of my coffee up to the minimum spend. Prufrock has a nice selection of coffee-making gimmicks and gadgetry as well as coffee beans but in the end I settled in an almond pastry and a jar of Portuguese orange marmalade – my dad is a huge fan of this and I figured this would make a nice little coming home present for my next trip to Germany. The end of the story is I ended up paying around £10 for my coffee but ended up walking out with a very good flat white, a nice pastry and a jar of Portuguese orange marmalade (which is still sitting in my cupboard as I forgot to take it with me for my last trip). Would I go back to Prufrock? Absolutely, the coffee is hands down very very good, I am all for supporting small businesses and people who are passionate about what they do and Prufrock must also go down as the friendliest coffee shop I have ever been to in Central London.

3. Caravan (http://caravanonexmouth.co.uk/)

Again, a cafe/eatery with its own roastery, and, again, conveniently located halfway between my flat and work/Covent Garden. It also got a thumps up from the Observer Food Monthly for its coffee. Leaving all of that aside (and leaving aside the no bookings policy most of the time and the huge queues), if you come here on a weekday morning (they open at 8) you can indulge in their awesome flatwhites, the gorgeous industrial-minimalist intererior design and engage in some awesome people watching. Besides, the food is fantastic and I have Caravan to thank for introducing me to the glory that is toast with mashed avocado, a drizzle of olive oil and chili flakes – this might be my new favourite breakfast yet and that coming from someone with a huge sweet tooth is a HUGE.

4. Tinderbox (strangely no website)

A cafe located in the Angel Centre in Islington (its former location was right on Upper Street). A cute cafe with some quirky interiors (old airplane seats, little diner-style compartments, some sitting on a stair like contraption), churns out pretty great coffee (although on the strong side) served in cute vintage cups and glassware (and who can say no to an iced coffee called “icebox” that is served in those vintage american milkbar style milkshake glasses?), has some awesome cakes (the cheesecake is my favourite), wifi (although this comes at a fee) and some good people watching – from students wasting their time away pretending to be studying to new couples sharing a slice of cake, some yummy mummies, girlfriends catching up. I have been coming to Tinderbox ever since I moved to London and I am still a fan, it is down to earth, the coffee is great and it has a very homey feel to it.

5. Nordic Bakery (http://www.nordicbakery.com/)

Although the Nordic Bakery does some pretty decent coffee, the main attraction here are the cinnamon rolls. I could pretend otherwise, but that would not be fair. The area around Golden Square is a bit of a desert when it comes to eaterie/cafes etc. Yes, it is away from the hustle and bustle of Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus, but it is also a bit of a trek from Soho and its cute cafes. So your only other options are an Italian cafe with erratic opening hours (as in, I don’t think I have ever seen it open) and EAT. So the Nordic Bakery was a long overdue addition to this area of London. And, most importantly, they make these awesome Swedish cinnamon rolls – a yeasty concoction filled with lots of melted butter, cinnamon and cardamom – the sweet perfumes coming out of their kitchen are already amazing (and yes, I have been known to hang out at the cafe for a food 30 minutes for the next fresh batch of cinnamon rolls to come out of the oven), but when I then bite into a freshly baked roll (burning my tongue on the caramelized and piping hot sugar everytime), I am immediately transported to my 14 year old self trying these for the first time on a trip to Stockholm with my girls’ Cathedral Choir when these fresh baked cinnamon rolls were the thing that kept us warm on a 2 week tour around Stockholm in temperatures far below those at home.

So there you go, my 5 recommendations for cafes in London. But, this is a foodblog, so it would not be fair to tell you all about coffee without offering you something sweet (especially after I go on and on about my love for pastries). Eh voila, a recipe for black sesame madeleines because sometimes, nothing is better than sitting on the sofa with a freshly made cup of coffee (no fancy flat whites here, just a steaming cup fresh out of the french press or a dainty cup of espresso out of my moka) with a small little something. And we all know that these small little somethings taste best when homemade.

Black Sesame Madeleines (makes ca. 12 mini-madeleines)

Ingredients

1 tbsp black sesame seeds
40 g butter, plus some extra to grease the tin if not using a silicon mould
1 egg
50g caster sugar
60g plain flour

Directions

1. Lightly toast the seeds in a dry frying pan (they are ready when they start smelling nutty). Cool, crush in a pestle and mortar and set aside. Melt the butter, cool and set aside.

2. Using an electric hand mixer, cream the egg and sugar for 5 minutes. It will triple in volume.

3. Add the flour, and fold in gently.

4. Pour in the cooled melted butter, and crushed sesame seeds. Mix together gently and then leave the mixture to rest in the fridge for an hour.

5. Remove the mixture from the fridge and let stand at room temperature for half an hour. Pre-heat the oven to 220°C.

6. Brush the madeleine tin with melted butter. Using a tablespoon, put some batter into each shell-shaped indentation, and bake in the oven for about 4 minutes. Keep an eye on them though – you may need to give them less time.

7. Cool on a wire rack.

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2 thoughts on “Black gold – London’s best coffee shops and some black sesame madeleines

    • Thanks Steve – will try and pass by next time I am in London. I must admit the post is a bit outdated by now – so much has happened in London’s coffee scene in the last couple of years (not to mention the artisanal bakery movement) – I should write an addendum next time I go back, although Gail’s is still one of my favourite places for pastries.

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