Review: afternoon tea at the Sculpture Hall Café, Manchester

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review! Happily, I’m back on it with two thumbs up for the wonderful Sculpture Hall Café in Manchester, where I went for afternoon tea as part of a day-long hen do in the city last weekend.

I knew I definitely wanted to do afternoon tea for my hen party, but I wasn’t sure where would be best to go. After a bit of Googling, I discovered the existence of a café within Manchester Town Hall, and knew it was the place to go after perusing its rather tempting Manchester-themed afternoon tea menu.

I do like a good ol’ traditional afternoon tea, but I’m just as keen on trying new twists on the sandwiches-scones-Victoria sponge composition of a standard afternoon tea. The Manchester theme was right up my street as it featured one of my favourite local creations – the Manchester tart, albeit in the form of a cake! I was in coconut heaven just thinking about it.

Firstly, the café itself. The Sculpture Hall Café occupies a neat little space on the ground floor of the town hall, just off a rather impressive corridor with some amazing architectural details. The café’s name comes from the number of busts and statues of famous local people placed around the space. The decor is lovely – all dark brown leather sofas and tastefully decorated walls, topped off with great views of Albert Square from the large windows.

We could choose from a standard afternoon tea or a champagne afternoon tea. This being my hen do, most of us went for the latter option! I was pleasantly surprised when we were served with small bottles of champagne rather than having a tiny amount of fizz poured out for us – I think someone worked out that each bottle was equivalent to a glass and a half of champagne.

Sculpture Hall Cafe afternoon tea
The food was beautifully presented on tiered stands. The order of the food on the tiers was a little different to what I’m used to – the savouries were on top, with the cakes in the middle and the scones on the bottom.

The savouries were excellent. I had a vegetarian version of the afternoon tea, so my options were cream cheese and cucumber on rye (not pictured because I only remembered to take photos after I’d scoffed it!), a mini carrot and cheese sandwich and a mini Lancashire cheese and leek tart topped with a little chutney. All of it was delicious, but the tart was probably my favourite (especially as there was a lovely cheese crisp embedded in it).

Sculpture Hall Cafe afternoon tea

Carrot and cheese sandwich + Lancashire cheese and leek tart

There was also some sort of choux filled with mushrooms, but as I’m not a fan of mushrooms, I left that to one side. The savouries were served alongside hummous, piccalilli and ham hock for the meat eaters, which could be spread on slivers of bread.

Then it was on to the scones, which were filled with a variety of dried fruit (I think cranberry featured quite heavily) and not as mini as the menu makes them sound! They were scrumptious, as were the mini Eccles cakes, which contained a heavily spiced filling dominated by ginger. Just beautiful!

Next, it was time for the middle tier, which featured the aforementioned Manchester sponge cake . The coconut sponge was one of the best I’ve ever had – buttery yet light at the same time, and complemented nicely by the rich buttercream and dab of jam in the middle.

Sculpture Hall Cafe afternoon tea

Top: Vimto delice and Manchester cake. Bottom: fruit scones and Eccles cakes.

However, it’s not often that something beats coconut in my culinary affections, but the Vimto delice ended up being my favourite. Imagine a thin layer of sponge covered with a dome of Vimto-flavoured mousse and covered with a quite frankly amazing, tart, jelly-like Vimto glaze… oof! It really was something special and the perfect end to the meal along with a nice cup of tea (and the last of the champagne).

Before I wrap up, I just want to stress how good value our afternoon tea was – it’s an incredible £12.50 per person for the standard afternoon tea and £19.95 with champagne. I’m used to seeing prices in the region of £15-20 without champagne and £25+ with champagne, so it was truly refreshing to see such low prices for brilliant quality food.

All in all, the Sculpture Hall Café was a wonderful discovery for us and provided one of the best afternoon tea experiences I’ve ever had (it’s probably only rivalled by Northcote). Excellent food, amazingly low prices, lovely staff and magnificent surroundings – perfect! I’ll definitely visit again.

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Lemon and white chocolate scones

Lemon and white chocolate sconesI’m usually a stickler for scones as they should be – either fruit or plain, buttered, spread with jam and with a dollop of cream on top (especially when it comes to afternoon tea!). But I do enjoy a flavoured scone, too – and this is what I was hankering after when I decided to make these lemon and white chocolate scones.

Scones are really easy to make, but you need to follow a couple of rules to make sure they come out just right. One rule is to avoid over-mixing the initial scone mix if you can, and another is to avoid over-kneading the mix when turning it into a manageable dough. Another is to not add *too* much flour when rolling out and cutting the scones, if you can, so your dough stays nicely moist. Follow all of these, and you should end up with some delightfully light and well-risen scones!

Lemon and white chocolate scones
I added the lemon flavour through finely grated lemon zest. I only used one lemon, but I think two would add a bit more of a tang – the lemon in my scones was quite subtle! I just used bog standard supermarket white chocolate, making to sure to sample some to check it was *just* right (ahem).

I brushed the tops of my scones with milk before baking, but you can also do it with beaten egg for some nicely shiny tops.

I ate my first scone while it was warm from the oven (which meant the chocolate was a bit gooey!) and without any accompaniments, but subsequent scones were enjoyed with butter and strawberry jam. I didn’t have any cream to hand, but that’s very much optional with these, anyway!

These lemon and white chocolate scones would be lovely as part of a cream tea or afternoon tea with a difference, perhaps in the spring or summer, considering the flavours. Do try them!

Lemon and white chocolate scones

Lemon and white chocolate scones recipe

Makes around 14 scones

  • 280g self-raising flour, plus extra for rolling out the dough
  • 70g cold butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 55g white chocolate, chopped (or use chocolate chips)
  • Zest of 2 lemons
  • 150ml milk
  • Milk or 1 beaten egg, to glaze

To serve:

  • Softened butter
  • Raspberry or strawberry jam
  • Clotted cream

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to gas mark 7/220C/425F. Line a baking tray with baking parchment, or grease the tray with butter.
  2. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the flour with your fingertips until the mix resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  3. Stir in the sugar and white chocolate.
  4. Stir the zest into the milk, then slowly add the milk to the flour mixture and stir until you get a soft but manageable dough (you may not need all of the milk). Do not overmix.
  5. Lightly flour a work surface and tip the dough out of the bowl on to it. Sprinkle a little more flour on top and roll the dough out until it’s around 2.5cm thick.
  6. Dip a fluted cutter into some flour (I used a 58mm cutter) and cut the scones out of the dough, transferring them to the baking tray (make sure they’re well spaced out – you may need two trays, or bake in batches).
  7. Roll out the remaining dough and repeat until all of the dough has been used up.
  8. Brush the tops with either milk or beaten egg, and bake the scones in the oven for 10-12 minutes, until risen and golden.
  9. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Serve sliced with butter, jam and cream, if you like.

Bakewell slices + an epic afternoon tea

Bakewell slices
A few weeks ago, my fiancé and I hosted a celebratory afternoon tea for some friends to belatedly mark our engagement. If you know us, you’ll know that we do love to throw a bit of a do, and this was definitely a do and a half! One of the many things we made was these Bakewell slices.

Before I go on, I do apologise for the quality of the photos – I’ve never been great at taking pictures, but in my defence, we did happen to have a magnum of prosecco on the go at the time!

Anyway, the Bakewell slices were the one thing I hadn’t made before, so I suppose it was a bit of a gamble. However, I used a Mary Berry recipe for these, and she rarely puts a foot wrong, so I was pretty confident that they’d turn out well. And turn out well they did!

It basically just involved making some pastry, lining a tin with it and topping it with a layer of raspberry jam, some almond sponge mix (flavoured with almond extract rather than ground almonds, which surprised me a bit) and flaked almonds. Then the whole thing went in the oven. And that was it!

They were truly scrumptious, and got thumbs up from the guests. They’re great to make if you want to impress with something easy to make, and are easily made in advance (I made mine the day before and they kept well in the tin).

Afternoon tea
So, what else did we make? We also had the following on the menu…

  • Finger sandwiches (savoury cheese and beetroot; egg mayo and cress; cucumber, dill and cream cheese)
  • Plain and fruit scones (recipe from BBC Good Food; I made two batches and put sultanas in one of them)
  • Viennese whirls (recipe from the Hairy Bikers and previously blogged here)
  • Victoria sponge (recipe from BBC Good Food and previously blogged here)
  • Lemon tart (recipe from The Best-Ever Mediterranean Cookbook)
  • Dark and white chocolate eclairs (recipe from Raymond Blanc)
  • Assorted afternoon cocktails (hic!)
Viennese whirls, scones and finger sandwiches

Viennese whirls, scones and finger sandwiches

Victoria sponge

Victoria sponge

Lemon tart

Lemon tart

All in all, it was a great do and all of the food was lovely (even if I do say so myself). We made far too much as usual, but it’s always better to make too much than too little. Especially when it means you can basically have afternoon tea for breakfast AND lunch the next day…

Afternoon tea with GBBO’s Luis Troyano

Luis Troyano afternoon tea
You might know from some of my previous posts that I’m a massive fan of Great British Bake Off – and that I was a particular fan of finalist Luis Troyano in last year’s series.

I absolutely loved his attention to both visual detail and flavour (check out my attempt at one of his recipes), and was ever so slightly disappointed that he didn’t win. However, he’s still baking and has a book, Bake It Great, coming out in August.

I was rather delighted when he announced that he would be holding a special afternoon at the Stockport Plaza (a beautiful old cinema conveniently close to my area) to promote the book. Of course, I just had to get a ticket!

The cinema really was a lovely setting. The afternoon tea was held in an Art Deco cafe/restaurant decorated in a tasteful yet simple style – very much like what you’d expect a classy tearoom would have looked like in the 1930s.

There were quite a few people already tucking into their cakes when we got there, but it was all very relaxed and friendly. We were shown to a table, and tea and three tiers of food loveliness appeared soon after we sat down. You can’t see them in the photo above, but the bottom tier had lots of finger sandwiches – egg, cucumber and salmon.

However, it was the sweet treats we were most interested in, and which Luis himself had made in their entirety. As well as the compulsory scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, there were chocolate brownies, Bakewell cupcakes, carrot cake cupcakes, and blueberry cheesecake eclairs. YUM.

Carrot cake cupcake
After polishing off the sandwiches, we started with the scones, which were perfect – substantial yet extremely light. Then I moved on to the carrot cake cupcake, which was bursting with zesty orange and fruity sultanas and topped with a fantastic mascarpone buttercream. I’m so glad it was proper buttercream and not the overly sugary icing you usually get on cupcakes!

Blueberry cheesecake eclair
Then it was on to the blueberry cheesecake eclairs – choux pastry sandwiched with a cheesecake-y filling and fresh blueberries. This was so inspired – I’ve never thought of using cheesecake as a filling for eclairs, but it’s such a fantastic idea! The choux was very nicely made and not too heavy. Perfect.

Bakewell cupcake
Next, the star of the show – Bakewell cupcakes. My, these were so good! They looked pretty unassuming, but they were actually filled with delicious jam. The sponge itself was delightfully almond-y. So very good.

Bakewell cupcake
The recipe for these cupcakes will feature in Luis’s book – I know what I’m going to make as soon as I get my hands on it!

Chocolate brownie
Finally, it was time for the chocolate brownie (apologies for the blurry photo, but I was concentrating more on eating than on taking pictures!).

I was a bit worried I might not have room for everything, but going for a long run that morning seemed to increase my appetite quite a lot! I savoured every bite of this brownie – it was very chocolatey indeed, but balanced nicely against vanilla and salt, so it wasn’t too sweet and was scarily addictive.

As we ate, Luis made his way through the room and stopped to speak to everyone and answer questions, which I thought was nice of him. I asked him what was in the brownies, and my boyfriend fiancé praised the eclairs.

Luis then revealed his secret to making the perfect choux, which I can’t actually remember in its entirety now (it’ll be in his book, hopefully), but involved keeping it in the oven for as long as possible without opening the door before you’re supposed to, as that affects the bake. It was lovely talking to Luis, and nice to know that he’s every bit as approachable and kind as he seemed in the show.

All in all, we had a fantastic time and enjoyed all of the food immensely. I’m now hoping that Luis’s fellow GBBO contestant Chetna Makan has the same idea and decides to hold an event near me too…!

Review: Northcote 7-course meal and afternoon tea

I’m deviating from my usual baking blog post this week to rave about Northcote, a hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant in one of the most beautiful parts of Lancashire. I whisked my boyfriend away to this lovely establishment earlier in the week as part of his 30th birthday celebrations for a seven-course meal and afternoon tea the next day (so there is some baking to discuss!), and we had such a great time that I want to tell you all about it and urge you to go!

About Northcote

Firstly, a little bit about Northcote itself: the hotel is fairly small, with 18 rooms, but it’s beautifully decorated and furnished, and boasts some amazing views of the surrounding Ribble Valley and Forest of Bowland. It has its own gardens in which a wide variety of produce is grown, and this focus on local ingredients is one that definitely comes through in the restaurant’s menus.

Northcote is run by Nigel Haworth, with head chef Lisa Allen in charge of creating the restaurant’s dishes. I first came across both of them while watching Great British Menu a few years ago, and was impressed by their cooking even then. A colleague of mine recommended Northcote to me a while ago when we were talking about gourmet breaks in general (read his review here), and I made the decision to go for it back in March.

The meal

Neither of us eat meat, so I booked us in for a vegetarian tasting break. I thought we may as well try as many different things as possible, as it’s unlikely we’ll get to eat at many Michelin-starred restaurants during our lifetimes! We were told to make sure we went down for dinner half an hour before our booking to enjoy some Louis Roederer champagne and canapés, as well as to browse the menu that was especially designed for us mushroom-hating vegetarians:

Northcote vegetarian tasting menu

The menu looked absolutely perfect from the outset. My boyfriend opted for the wine package (where he had the recommended wine with each course), while I sensibly just had a glass of wine every other course to avoid not remembering a thing about this lovely meal the next day!

We were then taken into the dining room, where we were seated near the French windows offering spectacular views of the nearby hills. To our surprise, we were offered a ‘pre-starter’ that wasn’t on the menu – an eggshell filled with a creamy cow’s milk curd custard, which surrounded a ball of sorrel granita and was topped with a salt and pepper yolk. There was also a delicate cheese and rosemary breadstick to go with it. I now refer to this course as the poshest egg and soldiers EVER. It was absolutely delicious and I scraped my eggshell clean!

The first proper course was just as lovely. Neither of us are huge fans of blue cheese, but there was just the right amount in the sauce to add flavour but not overpower the artichokes. Similarly, my boyfriend doesn’t really like avocado, but he loved the second course. I was particularly intrigued by the samphire, having never had it before but seen it on countless episodes of Masterchef and Great British Menu. It was indeed delicious.

We were particularly looking forward to the third course, being huge fans of beetroot. It didn’t disappoint. The presentation was very summery and I really liked the horseradish with the beetroot.

Northcote three beets, herbs and flowers

Three beets, pickled shallot hearts, horseradish, herbs and flowers

The next course was pretty unique – I don’t think I’ve ever had anything remotely like it before. The ‘curry flavours’ were delivered in what I think was a yogurt-based coating on the wood-burnt onion, and were very delicate. I was quite excited about the next course, as I’ve never had gooseberries before. Their tartness went perfectly with the kiev and sorrel elements, and I’m happy to say I am now a firm gooseberry fan. I should say that this course was accidentally delivered to us with a mushroom sauce, but the staff were very efficient in quickly swapping it for what we were supposed to have, so we have no complaints on that front!

Then came what were my two favourite courses of the night. We were both in raptures over the heirloom tomatoes, which we agreed were the most tomato-y tomatoes we’ve ever had. I assume this is partly down to the tomato itself, but I think they were also cooked in such a way to deliver maximum flavour. Absolutely gorgeous!

Northcote heirloom tomatoes, courgette and flower

Heirloom tomatoes, slow-roasted courgette and flower

I was, of course, especially looking forward to the dessert. I love strawberries and was expecting a lovely little pile of them with blobs of minted cream. To my delighted surprise, we got this instead:

Northcote strawberries, cream and mint

English strawberries and cream, garden mint

The centrepiece was a sphere of milk chocolate filled with cream and an absolutely divine strawberry coulis. Around it was some milk chocolate soil and fresh strawberries on a bed of cream with fresh mint. I was most definitely in dessert heaven and could have eaten three more of this course!  At this point, we retired to the bar for a post-meal whisky (my boyfriend) and an extremely alcoholic espresso martini (me).

I have to say that the sommelier for our meal, Adam, was absolutely brilliant in explaining the flavours for the wine chosen for each course, and how they complemented the food. Every wine was perfectly selected and we could definitely see how each one matched the food on our plates. I should also praise the waiting staff who explained the components of each dish so we could fully appreciate them. All in all the service was absolutely top notch.

We did come away pleasantly full and extremely happy with the meal. If you’re concerned that a tasting menu might leave you feeling hungry due to the small portions, I would say this is not a problem if you go to Northcote! I would imagine the meat-based menu to be even more satisfactory in this regard.

Afternoon tea

The next day, we enjoyed a fantastic breakfast in the restaurant (Lancashire cheese omelette) and then spent the day exploring the area. We attempted a country walk but got lost fairly quickly (this is normal for us), so we drove to Clitheroe instead. I’d never been before but I would go again – it’s a pretty market town with lots of independent shops and the ruins of the smallest Norman castle in England. We bought some cheese (Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese and, rather intriguingly, Lancashire goats cheese) and then spent some time in a beer garden in Waddington before heading back to Northcote for afternoon tea on the terrace.

I’d like to think of myself as a bit of an afternoon tea connoisseur by now, so I was really looking forward to seeing what would be served up after the wonderful meal the previous night. We weren’t disappointed:

Northcote afternoon tea

Afternoon tea at Northcote

We had a nice selection of mostly vegetarian sandwiches (I tried a smoked salmon sandwich, which was lovely – and I don’t particularly like smoked salmon!) which we polished off pretty quickly, having not eaten since breakfast. We then moved on to the middle tier – a plain and fruit scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam, which is my favourite combination for a cream tea, so I was particularly pleased with that! The scones were lovely – nice and light and a great carrier for the rich cream and sweet jam.

Northcote afternoon tea

Scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam

Then it was on to the top tier – shortbread, lemon meringue tarts, mini Victoria sponges and Valrhona chocolate cakes. The shortbread was the lightest shortbread I’ve ever had, but no less delicious for it and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The curd in the lemon tarts was absolutely delightful and the pastry perfectly baked.

I LOVED the Victoria sponges. I’m a firm believer in a Victoria sponge being the centrepiece of any afternoon tea, and the ones we had at Northcote were beautiful, with a light sponge dotted with fresh strawberries and a topping of freshly whipped cream and strawberry jam. We both finished with the chocolate cakes, which were topped with salted caramel hazelnuts. They were very chocolatey thanks to the choice of chocolate (read my thoughts on Valrhona cocoa here!) and were the perfect way to end our afternoon.

Northcote afternoon tea

Chocolate cakes, lemon tarts, Victoria sponges and shortbread

The tea that accompanied our feast was very nice as well – it’s always good to see large fragments of tea leaves in the pot instead of the fine ground stuff you usually get. We lingered on the terrace for a while to enjoy the sunshine and views before finally driving home.

All in all, our time at Northcote was a wonderful experience that we’ll never forget. We both agreed that the meal was the best we’ve ever had in a restaurant, with both the food and service coming together to create the perfect evening, while the afternoon was the cherry on the cake, so to speak! If you’re looking for ideas for a luxurious gourmet getaway in beautiful surroundings, I honestly can’t recommend Northcote enough. We will definitely go back.

Housewarming afternoon tea

Housewarming afternoon teaNearly three months after moving into my first house, I finally got round to holding a housewarming do last weekend. Rather than opt for a standard party that would probably result in lasting damage to my new investment, I decided to hold a family afternoon tea – the perfect excuse to bake an awful lot.

My boyfriend and I split the baking duties after coming up with what seemed like a reasonable list of goodies to make for 11 people, including 2 small children who probably wouldn’t eat much. We both started preparations the day before, and must have put in almost 24 hours of graft between us altogether!

All of our savoury options were vegetarian, due to me being a pescetarian and my boyfriend being veggie. However, my mum brought the savoury stars of the show, some chicken samosas (not pictured), to appease those with meatier appetites. She also brought some onion bhajias for us non meat eaters – despite suffering from some horrible jet lag after a recent trip to India. What a trooper!

Housewarming afternoon tea sandwiches

Sandwiches – egg & cress, or possibly savoury cheese

Housewarming afternoon tea sandwiches

More sandwiches

Housewarming afternoon tea mini Caesar salads

Mini caesar salads

My favourite part was, of course, the sweet baking…

Housewarming afternoon tea Victoria sponge

Victoria sponge

Housewarming afternoon tea toffee brownies

Toffee brownies

Housewarming afternoon tea scones

Plain and fruit scones. Served with clotted cream and a choice of raspberry or strawberry jam.

Housewarming afternoon tea brandysnaps

Brandysnaps

Housewarming afternoon tea Viennese whirls

Viennese whirls, with some Viennese fingers lurking behind them

Housewarming afternoon tea Victoria sponge

Another pic of the Victoria sponge, just because. Along with some cucumber sandwiches. Making a starring guest appearance: ELEPHANT TEAPOT

The tea of choice was some loose Ceylon from Whittard’s, which I would highly, highly recommend for its fresh, delicate flavour – the perfect accompaniment to afternoon tea.

All in all, the event was a huge success, as evidenced by the coma-like silence as everyone sat around clutching at their stomachs towards the end. I was worried about there not being enough, but there was so much left over that we held another afternoon tea with the leftovers for some friends the next day! And there was STILL a lot left over from that, so I made everyone take some goodies home with them.

Housewarming afternoon teaBelow is a list of everything that was made and, where relevant, where the recipes came from and links to any previous posts about them: