Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Recipe: Baked Cheesecake with Spiced Plums & Blackberries

Is it just me or do cheesecakes seem to have fallen out of fashion? At one time they seemed to be a permanent fixture on many dessert menus but they are not seen as regularly these days. When they are offered, they tend to be ‘deconstructed’ which always leaves me a little underwhelmed and although this seems to be the fashion these days, I have to admit that I have always preferred a no-nonsense-style wedge of cheesecake.

There are two main types of cheesecake; those that are uncooked and set with gelatine and those that are baked. I like both but will admit that I find it impossible to resist the baked variety which for me is best typified by a classic New York Baked Cheesecake with its topping of a thin layer of sour cream.

This recipe is for a baked cheesecake with a biscuit base and is fairly simple to make.  It is important not to over-beat the filling as this creates air bubbles which can cause the cheesecake to crack when it cools. Whilst this will not affect the flavour, it will affect the look of the finished cheesecake.

I like to serve the cheesecake with stewed or roasted stone fruits and at this time of the year nothing beats plums which are plentiful and inexpensive, so I have also included my recipe for Spiced Plums & Blackberries.

Baked Cheesecake
150g ginger biscuit crumbs
65g butter melted
360g Philadelphia Cream Cheese
175g caster sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
30g plain flour, sifted
200ml sour cream
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon


  1. Preheat the oven to Fan Oven to 160C/Fan Oven 140C/Gas Mark 2. Grease and base line a 22-24cm round loose-bottomed cake tin.
  2. Place the biscuit crumbs in a medium bowl. Pour the melted butter onto the crumbs and mix well. Press the mixture into the base of the prepared cake tin and chill in the fridge while you make the cheesecake filling.
  3. Place the cream cheese and caster sugar in a clean mixing bowl and using a hand-held electric mixer and beat together until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing on a low speed until they are just incorporated.
  4. Stir in the sifted flour, sour cream, lemon zest and juice and then pour the mixture into the cake tin on top of the chilled biscuit base.
  5. Bake in the preheated oven for 50-60 minutes and then switch off the oven but do not remove the cheesecake. Allow to cool in the oven and then remove and chill until ready to serve.

Serves 10-12

Spiced Plums & Blackberries
10 plums, halves and stoned
50g Demerara sugar
1 orange peeled zest and juice
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 vanilla pod split
125g blackberries, each halved lengthways


  1. Preheat the oven to Fan Oven to 180C/Fan Oven 160C/Gas Mark 4.
  2. Place the plums in a baking dish cut side upwards and sprinkle over the sugar. Break the cinnamon stick in half and add to the plums along with the vanilla pod, star anise and orange peel. Pour over the orange juice.
  3. Place in the preheated oven  for 15-20 minutes until the plums have softened and the cooking juices have reduced. Remove from the oven and mix in the halved blackberries and allow to cool. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Serves 6-8.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Culinary Escape: The Ice House Hotel & Spa, Ballina, County Mayo

So often in life it’s the little things that make a difference;- those little touches and attention to detail that turn something pleasant into a truly memorable experience. I was reminded of this during my recent visit to The Ice House Hotel & Spa where, from the moment that you first check in, you get the sense that you have arrived somewhere special and that your needs as a guest really do matter. As I say… it’s the little things that make a difference such as the genuine welcome that you receive and the plate of freshly baked sweet treats that are placed in your bedroom.

Ice House Bedroom
The Ice House is situated on the outskirts of the bustling County Mayo town of Ballina and sits perched on the banks of the River Moy which is famous for its salmon fishing. The older part of the hotel was originally the house where the ice was kept to preserve the large quantities of salmon which were exported to Scotland during the Victorian era. The old house has been seamlessly incorporated into the contemporary architecture but more importantly the building sits comfortably in the surrounding landscape and does not look out of place. The hotel, with 32 rooms including five suites, has a lovely intimate feel to it but at the same time it is decorated in an opulent style throughout and oozes luxury.

My spacious bedroom was located in the newer part of the hotel with stunning views of the River Moy through the floor-to-ceiling windows from where I could see cormorants performing rather fascinating wing-stretching exercises in the distance. The large king-sized bed was covered with a wonderful goose-down duvet, firm pillows and a beautiful blanket made at the local Foxford Woollen Mills. The luxury feel followed through to the bathroom with its almost industrial-looking polished stone sinks, large shower and freestanding bath tub. Toiletries are by Voya Seaweed Products – an Irish company - and as I was to find out the following morning are also used in the Ice House’s award winning spa.

View from the Ice House
After settling into my room, I decided to wander down to the bar which is located on the ground floor adjacent to the restaurant. I was pleased to find that the bar is well-stocked with a broad range of beers, spirits and cocktails available. I ordered a Shortcross Gin & Tonic which, despite the fact that evening was setting in, I decided to enjoy on the balcony looking out onto the river. As I took my seat outside on a large comfortable couch in front of one of the beautiful thick black limestone tables my bartender arrived with a Foxford blanket to wrap myself in should I feel chilly… and again I thought… it’s the little things that make a difference.

had arranged to meet an old friend for a late dinner in the hotel’s Pier Restaurant.  Part of the restaurant is in the original ice-storage room and leads out to a newly constructed glass extension where breakfast is served each morning. The restaurant has a lovely spacious feel and like the rest of the hotel has been decorated in a smart, elegant style with whitewashed walls and colourful artworks.

Crispy Ham Hock
Head Chef Anthony Holland has designed a succinct but appetising seasonal menu that also makes room for a number of daily specials. After feasting on some well-made breads including a brown soda and an onion-flavoured white bread we were treated to an unexpected amuse bouche consisting of vegetables, pea tendrils, goat’s cheese and air-dried lamb. This small plate of food was full of distinct flavours that awakened the taste-buds and was a wonderful start to our meal.

My starter of Crispy Ham Hock with Leek & Savoy Cabbage looked absolutely beautiful on the plate and tasted heavenly. Soft and slightly salty meat was combined into a disc before being bread-crumbed and pan-fried until golden. It was served with a rich creamy sauce that included broad beans and pancetta lardons. My companion’s starter of Pan-Fried Kidneys was excellent with a lovely sticky sauce that was well-seasoned and full of piquant mustard. Many people avoid offal but this dish was a perfect example of how delicious it can be when cooked well.

Pan Seared Rump of Lamb
Both main courses were also superb. My Pan- Seared Rump of Lamb was accompanied by a silky-smooth butternut squash purée, root vegetables and a fantastic mini-shepherd’s pie. A cucumber and mint dressing cut through the overall richness. This was a dish that celebrated lamb in all its glory and I loved it. My guest’s Pan-Fried John Dory was a simple dish that accentuated the sweetness of the fish. It was served with steamed broccoli, pan-juices and a pepper sauce. To accompany our mains we ordered sides of Sautéed Mushrooms and Buttered Seasonal Vegetables.

The wine list is impressive and contains an interesting selection of wines at a range of different price points. There are also a number of decent wines available by the glass. We decided to go for something a little unusual and ordered a bottle of a 2009 Hochar Carignan Cabernet Sauvignon from the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. This wine which is made from a blend of cabernet sauvignon and carignan grapes is full of concentrated fruit flavours that stood up particularly well to my lamb dish.

John Dory
We finished our meal with a couple of crowd-pleasing desserts that were very different but equally delicious. My Apple Tart Tatin with its crisp pastry base and caramelised fruit topping was everything that you would expect from this classic dessert whilst every element on my companion’s Chocolate Tasting Plate and in particular the chocolate pave were a chocolate lover’s dream.

I awoke the next morning after a deep sleep in my exceedingly comfortable bed and made my way down to a leisurely breakfast in the glass atrium located off the main restaurant. I chose pastries and fruit from the well-stocked continental breakfast selection which also included yoghurts, cereal, cheese, breads and juices and then ordered Eggs Benedict from the cooked breakfast. The eggs benedict were cooked perfectly and set me up for the day ahead.  Tea and toast finished my morning feast.

Hot Tub
The Ice House has won many awards for its Chill Spa including the Best Boutique Spa at the 2014 Tatler Spa Awards. The Chill Spa is an oasis of calm and in addition to an outdoor hot tub overlooking the River Moy, there is also a quirky barrel sauna and a futuristic-looking steam room. It offers a broad range of treatments using Voya Organic Seaweed Treatments. I had booked a Signature Massage under therapist Celine which takes approximately 60 minutes. Without a doubt this was one of the most relaxing experiences of my life and left me with a very zen demeanour for the rest of the week. I loved that way that the Chill Spa and its relaxation rooms have been designed so that they face out onto the river which gives you the sense that you are almost part of the landscape and added to my overall feeling of calm.

Barrel Sauna
I thoroughly enjoyed my short stay at the Ice House Hotel & Spa and would recommend it without hesitation to anyone seeking a break from the stresses and strains of everyday life. From the moment you arrive you feel cocooned from the outside world and I found myself floating around the hotel feeling more relaxed than I have felt for ages. Service is outstanding and staff are friendly and keen to make sure that every aspect of your stay is enjoyable. Everything about the Ice House has quality stamped on it and the attention to detail makes this a place that you will remember.

The Ice House Hotel & Spa
The Quay

County Mayo
Telephone: 09623500
View from my Bedroom

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Restaurant Review: Cava Bodega, Middle Street, Galway

Cava Bodega is one of three Galway restaurants owned and run by husband and wife team JP McMahon and Drigín Gaffey who are also responsible for the Michelin-starred Aniar and the more casual Eat Gastropub. Originally located on Dominick Street, Cava Bodega moved to its new home beside the Dáil Bar on Middle Street in late 2013 from where it continues to go from strength-to-strength, consolidating its position as one of the city’s most popular restaurants.

Cava Bodega Menu
The restaurant is split over two floors with a small street level bar cum dining area and a larger downstairs dining room where the chefs work at a furious pace in the open kitchen producing dishes from the extensive menu. The décor has a raucous, eclectic feel to it, with exposed stonework, brightly painted walls and artworks depicting various breeds of pig in all their glory. Empty wine bottles serve as candle holders placed on tables made from reclaimed wood and old wine crates form the serving bar in front of the kitchen pass. I found it immediately appealing.

The menu feels a little intimidating at first, with small print covering both sides of an A3 sized card. However, after closer inspection we realised that it included both the food and a wide range of Spanish wines. Also included are a nice selection of Spanish Sherry and Irish craft beers and ciders. Despite its length the menu is divided into easy-to-navigate sections covering vegetarian, fish, meat and dessert tapas options. With relative ease we selected a number of dishes to kick off proceedings, knowing that we could always order more at any time during our meal. After discussing preferences with my dining companion, we selected an easy-to-drink Langa: Garnacha/Syrah (Calatayud, 2015) (€30 per bottle) full of soft red fruits. This wine, like many in Cava Bodega, is also available by the glass or a 500ml carafe.

A large basket of Sourdough Bread was first to arrive to the table and was served with a full-flavoured Pedro Ximenes vinegar and a fruity virgin olive oil. This was soon followed by a duo of Pinchos - a type of open sandwich. The first of these Octopus, Onion Marmalade, Piquillo Pepper (€6.50) was a delicious combination of tender octopus, sweet peppers and piquant, almost jammy, onions whilst the Smoked Duck, Plum Compote, Hazelnut (€7) was also excellent with generous slices of gently smoked duck meat balanced by the acidity in the fruit compote and the crunch of the toasted hazelnuts.

There is one dish that I always order when I visit a tapas restaurant and in many ways it has become the culinary yardstick by which I judge the quality of these popular shared-plate meals. Unfortunately I have eaten a lot of mediocre Patatas Bravas in my time but the version in Cava Bodega (€5.50 per portion) with its spicy hit of smoked paprika and accompanying creamy sauce did not disappoint.

Goat's Cheese
Our next dish – a vegetarian offering was the beautifully plated Goat’s Cheese, Piquillo Peppers, Walnut Powder (€8). This was full of simple flavours which worked together to accentuate the mild and creamy goat’s cheese which had a wonderful grassy flavour on the palate.

Portions are generous in Cava Bodega and at the outset our waiter had advised that five or six dishes would be more than adequate for two people but we decided to forge ahead and order a trio of savoury plates. The first of these - Scallops, Black Pudding, Cauliflower, Panceta Iberica, Pistachio (€14) comprised three fantastically plump scallops which had been perfectly pan-fried with a lovely caramelised crust and soft, sweet centres that tasted of the sea. They sat on a bed of creamy cauliflower purée. Meaty, iron-rich black pudding and a strip of salty Iberico ham completed the dish whilst a pistachio crumb and a cauliflower crisp provided textural contrast. Quite honestly, I would go back to Cava Bodega for this dish alone.

Beef Steak
The scallops were followed by Beef Steak, Broccoli, Jerusalem Artichoke, Hazelnut, PX Sherry (€14.50). Here a substantial piece of pan-fried beef was served with a silky-smooth Jerusalem artichoke purée, crunchy toasted hazelnuts and a to-die-for dressing made from Pedro Ximenes sherry. Although this was a seemingly simple dish, it more than delivered on the flavour front. Like so much of the cooking in Cava Bodega, the focus of this dish was on the outstanding quality of the ingredients that had been used.

Our final savoury dish was the Moorish Chicken, Piquillo Sauce, Black Olive Soil(€9.50). Although my hunger was waning I found it impossible to resist the crispy-coated tender chicken with its accompanying piquillo pepper ‘ketchup’ and the black olive crumb which was used almost like a seasoning. This was an uncomplicated dish but deeply satisfying to eat.

Moorish Chicken
I will admit that by this stage our appetites were well sated but I’m a total dessert diva and insisted that we choose at least one. In the end we chose three to share between the two of us!

Desserts offered include the classic almond Santiago Tart and Crema Catalana but we were immediately tempted by the Churros, Chocolate Sauce, Chocolate Ice-Cream, Honeycomb (€6 small/€12 large). Churros are deep-fried fritters which are a popular street food throughout Spain and Latin America. They are also commonly served for breakfast with cups of hot chocolate. Here the churros were presented along with a velvety-smooth chocolate ice-cream and a fabulous chocolate sauce flavoured with PX sherry to create a delightful dessert. Chunks of an excellent honeycomb completed this crowd-pleasing dish.

Our second dessert - Leche Frita, Orange, Sorbet (€8) was another traditional Spanish offering consisting of wedges of thick – almost solid – custard which are bread-crumbed before being deep fried. In many ways my stark description does this fantastic dessert a huge disservice as it does not describe the sheer pleasure that is obtained from biting into the warm creamy custard set against the contrasting coolness of the sorbet and the juiciness of the slices of fresh orange.

The final dish of the evening, Sorbet, Rosé Cava, Berries, Liquorice Meringue (€9) finished our meal with an elegant flourish and in many ways was, for me, with my sweet tooth, the dish of the evening.  I absolutely loved the minimalism of this dessert comprising scoops of fruity sorbet and berries onto which dry rosé cava was poured. Shards of liquorice-laced meringue highlighted the natural sweetness of the berries and introduced an unexpected taste.

Leche Frita
Cava Bodega hit all the right notes with me. There was an exuberance to the whole experience that made it a place that I want to visit again. The primarily produce-driven cooking is innovative, based on using carefully sourced ingredients. The cooking seems rustic but you soon realise that a lot of care and consideration has gone into each plate of food that is produced.  Service is unpretentious and delivered in a brisk but friendly manner. I was in total awe of the waiters who climbed up and down the restaurant’s two sets of stairs between the dining rooms with the speed and agility of mountain goats. Put succinctly, Cava Bodega has the feel- good factor and it is easy to see why it is such a hit with Galway diners.

Cava Bodega
1 Middle Street

Telephone: 091539884
Sorbet, Rosé Cava