Sunday, 23 December 2012

Makeover in progress

The Parmesan Poet is shining her pens, learning about DSLRs, and preparing to relaunch a new and improved blog in the New Year. Watch this space!

In the meantime, merry Christmas! And since this is a literary blog, I must defer to a writer:

“A lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.” -- Garrison Keillor

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Dear Alexandre Dumas (1802 - 1870),

As an urbanite, living in turbulent economic times, I should perhaps be thinking about security.

The news tells me stories of economic decline, and the papers tell me stories of impending ecological catastrophe, and popular culture tells me that we are mere moments away from a zombie apocalypse.

I should bar my windows! Barricade my doors! Install acid-spitting gargoyles outside my building! I should train myself in fencing! Practise fighting duels!

But being the sort who would rather read a book than do any actual work, my training must be literary in nature. I want to read myself into preparedness.

That is where you come in, Mr. Dumas. Surely, if I read The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo in quick succession, I'll magically be able to hold my own against the impending hordes of zombies/recessions/climate change deniers? When I close the back cover, I'll find my hand free of book and full of sword, quick and nimble, and ready to carve a giant 'A' for Anaise into the chests of those who cross me.*

Or perhaps I'll find myself, head full of swashbuckling self-belief, still displaying the patented Irvine Sword Hold, modelled loosely on how Liz Lemon holds a sandwich.

Beware the wrath of my blood-stained... oh wait, I dropped it.
 The most realistic outcome is that I'll get to the end of The Three Musketeers and not particularly want to stop reading, so I'll continue with the other D'Artagnan romances. By the time I get to the last one, entitled Ten Years Later, I'll stumble across a passage which actually does talk about security precautions:

Was it a wall that M. Fouquet was constructing? Was it a fortification that he was erecting? ... Le Croisic has a port of fifty feet, it has a look-out which resembles an enormous brioche (a kind of cake) elevated on a dish. The flat strand is the dish. Hundreds of barrowsful of earth amalgamated with pebbles, and rounded into cones, with sinuous passages between, are look-outs and brioches at the same time.

Uh-oh.  Food was mentioned! Stay focused, think about safety, look-outs, fortification, the brioche is just a metaphor for... briochey... brioches of... brioche...

Nope, too late, I'm looking up recipes. At least the bread will fortify my satiety. That counts, right?

*Except that marking someone with an 'A' is from another book, and this isn't meant to become a crossover blog post.



Fortifying Pear Brioches

Makes 12 big 'uns

Ingredients

Brioches:
3 1/2C bread flour
150g butter, softened
3 room temperature eggs
2 tbsp dry active yeast
4 tbsp caster sugar
2/3C warm milk
Pinch of salt

Rustic frangipane (almond cream):
3/4C sliced almonds
1/4C sugar
1 egg
3 tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp flour

Toppings:
3 cans tinned pear halves
50g pistachios, chopped
50g dark chocolate, shaved

Method

To make the brioches:
Sift the flour into an enormous bowl. Add the yeast and make a well in the centre. With clean hands, slowly pour in the warm milk and use your fingers to work it all in. Add the sugar, butter, salt, and eggs, and do some more finger-smooshing after each addition. It probably looks far too sloppy for a bread dough, but bear with me. Turn the slop onto a floured board and knead for 10 minutes. Yes, your hands will resemble monster movie props at first, but eventually the dough will coalesce into a smooth ball of goodness. Turn the dough into a buttered bowl and leave to rise in a warm place overnight. In the morning, punch the dough down and give it one more knead. Divide it into 12 pieces, and roll each piece into a ball. If you are a sensible person, roll out the balls into small rounds with a rolling pin. If you're like me, smash them down with your fist. Preheat the oven to 180C, and leave the brioche rounds to rise a little more while you make the toppings.

To make the rustic frangipane: 
Throw all the ingredients into a food processor and blend until smooth with a few knobbly bits of almond skin. Spread a teaspoonful of frangipane onto each brioche round.

To top, bake, and finish the brioches:
Top each brioche round with half a pear, and press it firmly into the frangipane-topped dough. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Pull them out of the oven and sprinkle over the shaved chocolate and chopped pistachios. (Tip: because I am a chocoholic, I like to use thinly sliced dark chocolate buttons as a thicker version of chocolate shavings.)

Serve warm with coffee. If intruders approach your estate, offer them spare brioche to ward off attack.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Dear Roald Dahl (1916 - 1990),

Please do me one favour.

If it's not too much trouble, could you please rise from the dead, brush yourself off, and write a Halloween version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

It doesn't have to be a big deal, I don't need a whole new novel or anything. I just want to know what the man who invented lickable wallpaper and coconut ice skating rinks would do with All Hallows' Eve. Write me a list.

Gummy ghosts that burst out of your tummy to scare trick-or-treaters?
Witches' masks with lickable lollipop interiors?
Licorice leprechauns that sing real Irish deedle-dee-dees on your tongue?
Boysenberry blood to drip down the walls?
Marzipan zombies complete with bubblegum brains?

I could use the seasonal pick-me-up. You see, one of the few drawbacks to living in an apartment building is that trick-or-treating is not part of the culture. My building is very antisocial, and that's (usually) the way I like it. But come the early days of November, there's something sad about not having leftover sweets to nibble.

This is a false lack, though. New Zealand has not traditionally been a Halloweeny nation. We've only recently caught on to the idea, and so I never had a childhood of late October sugar-puking. Nevertheless, I feel cheated! Where is my bag of tooth-rot? Where is my tummy ache? Where are my piles of discarded wrappers?

If I can't feed on the spoils of actual Halloween hunter/gathering, then I shall manufacture the same effect. Sorry Mr. Dahl, I know it's not in the spirit of Charlie to simply go to the supermarket. "Charlie on Aisle Four" would have been an uninspiring novel. But I want to create a post-Halloween recipe, and I'm willing to buy things to sit in as 'leftovers' if I must.

So let's pretend I was given pretzels, M&Ms, marshmallows, and all manner of other glucose goodies the other night. Oh dear, how shall I ever use them up? How about dumping them all in a crazy kiddie cookie? Rereading your books makes me feel nostalgic anyway, so kiddie food can only amplify the effect. Time for regression cookies!

Bonus: things you find out when you research Roald Dahl:
  • He was married to the lady who played the wealthy client of George Peppard's gigolo in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"
  • The chocolate espionage storyline in Charlie was based on the real rivalry between Cadbury and Rowntree's. Intrigue!

Regression Cookies

Adapted from Nigella's Chocol-oat Cookies
Makes 24

Ingredients

1/2C flour
3/4C oats (the fat juicy kind, not the instant porridge kind)
3tbsp cocoa powder
1/2tsp baking soda
100g butter, softened
1/4C caster sugar
1/2C brown sugar
1 egg

Mix-ins - fill two cups total with your choice of:
M&Ms
Mini marshmallows
White choc chips
Dark choc chips
Crushed pretzels
Cocoa pops
Salted peanuts
or anything else you have on hand

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Cream the butter with the sugars. Beat in the egg. Sift over the flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda. Mix in the oats.

Here comes the fun bit!

Fill two cups with whatever crazy kiddy candy makes you feel nostalgic. Use Halloween leftovers. Or, if you're a grown-up and you didn't go trick-or-treating, steal some candy from a baby. Whatever works. Mix your gathered/stolen candy into the biscuit batter until it's a sickening swirl of artifical colours.

Scoop out tablespoons of mixture and roll them into flattish discs. Arrange twelve to a baking tray and bake in two batches, for 15 minutes each batch. They'll come out looking slightly composty, and decidedly unphotogenic, but they'll taste like childhood.

Serve with milk and pledge to have salad for dinner.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Dear Evelyn Waugh (1903 - 1966),

No.

No, no no no, no, NO, no.

You had it all wrong.

As the author of Brideshead Revisited, a book whose most redeeming feature (some might say, its only redeeming feature)* is its descriptions of delicious feasts, you MUST not revise those away. If you're going to force us to sit through snobbish dinner conversations, you should at least make the dinners sound tasty.

And you did, at first:

I remember the dinner well—soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in white wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviare aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bère of 1904.

Sounds sumptious! Thanks, Waugh old boy!** But you wrote that from hunger. From your sickbed in the Second World War, such richness was merely a memory. And when you revised the novel, you wrote: “the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful”.

I'll say  again: NO.

What's distasteful is writing a novel glorifying the English nobility over the 'common man' at a time when Englishmen from all walks of life were fighting together. But to write of food? That's universal. We all take pleasure in the aromas and varieties of our national cuisines. If you are embarrassed about the wealth on the table, then surely that's only a symptom of a deeper embarrassment. Keep your red pen off the blinis! They never hurt anyone.

In fact, I'd like to rescue your blinis. For a lass of hardy Irish stock, that means just one thing: I'd like to take your blinis-and-caviar out of the English country estate and add potatoes!

Potatoes make everything better.
Because there is, in fact, a form of potato pancake, beloved in Ireland, called boxty. My Irish nana told me stories about boxty. (This is possibly a lie. I don't remember if she mentioned boxty. But in my head, I heard it from her.) Boxty is an Irish potato flatbread - somewhere between a pancake and a hash brown. As someone who loves pancakes and hash browns, this is a major selling point. You would normally serve boxty with soup or stew, but why not make 'em mini and top them with fancy brunchy toppings?

Beats trying to make a caneton a la presse or a lemon souffle, that's for sure.

* I could rant long and hard about Brideshead, but many left-leaning secular humanists have done that already. Suffice to say,  it was written towards the end of the Second World War, by an Oxford-educated Englishman, whose writing leave was arranged by the Minister for Information.*** In other words, it was enabled by the person responsible for encouraging patriotic writings. Shall we then read any ideological motives into the novel's valourisation of English nobility and (as Martin Amis put it) its rubbishing of post-war egalitarianism? Yes. Yes we shall.

** Yes, Evelyn Waugh was a man. Didn't stop the Times Literary Supplement calling him "Miss Waugh" though, in the days before he was famous.

*** The Minister was Brendan Bracken, a.k.a. Orwell's model for Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Says it all, really.

  

Brunchy Boxty Blinis

Makes approx 40-50

Ingredients

Blinis:
1kg potatoes, peeled & washed
3/4 C whole milk
2 tsp salt
1 egg
1/3 C plain flour
Ground pepper
Few small knobs of butter

Feta cream:
100g feta
100g aioli
Dash of milk

Toppings - choose from:
Mushrooms
Asparagus tips
Halved cherry tomatoes
Parsley
or anything else you can think of

Method

To make the blinis:
Divide your potatoes into two even piles. Cut one pile into small chunks and boil until soft. Grate the other pile and transfer the gratings into a sieve over a bowl. Sprinkle half a teaspoon of salt over the gratings to help them release their juices. Let them sit for half an hour or so to drain. Once the gratings have dried out, the bowl below them will be filled with potato water, with a starchy layer at the bottom. Pour out the potato water, but leave the starchy layer in the bowl. Dump the dried gratings into the bowl with the starch. Next, mash the boiled potatoes with 1/4 cup of the milk. Add the mash to the bowl of grated potatoes, along with the rest of the milk, the egg, remaining salt, and pepper to taste. Mix together. Heat a pan on medium-high and melt some butter. Drop tablespoonfuls of the blini mix into the pan and cook until browned; about 5 minutes each side.

To make the feta cream:
Blend the feta with the aioli and enough milk to form a creamy sauce. For ease of daubing on the blinis later, it should be about the consistency of firm Greek yoghurt.

To make the toppings:
Fry some veges of your choice in butter or olive oil. I used mushrooms and asparagus tips.

To assemble:
Top each blini with a daub of feta cream and a piece of vegetable topping. Sprinkle the serving plate with a little parsley for extra colour.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Dear Herodotus (c. 484 - 425 BC),

I am of the opinion that modern society is only just beginning to catch up to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks:

You and your peers had free democratic elections without corporate sponsorship.
Your education system aimed to produce intelligent citizens, not productive workers.
Your society valued mathematicians and philosophers.
Your theatres were full of audiences.
Your stomachs were full of wine.
Your fashions were comfy. 

Now, it's possible that the rampant slavery and marrying of one's siblings were not ideals we should aspire to. But other than that, your society rocked.

I also envy the ability of ancient Greek scholars to make careers of creative embellishment. You, Herodotus, were a master at that. Your epic tome "The Histories" -- purportedly, as its title suggests, a work of non-fiction -- was widely believed to contain as much fiction as fact. I would love to try that in my thesis. E.g. Chapter One: Margaret Atwood is a purple monkey. Her books are about badgers who run for busses in the rain. I could screel out 80,000 words of that, no sweat.

Your own histories were more a conglomeration of fact, oral history, rumour, and just plain stuff-made-up. The bit I want to cook from, though, is based on a real historical figure. In the passage, Cambyses II, the Persian King, is chatting to his wife. This all sounds quite normal, until you realise that they are talking about his recently having murdered his brother. Hmm, drama. Oh, and also, his wife is his sister. And this is the second of his sisters he has married. Jeez, I hope you were lying about this, Herodotus:

The two were sitting at table, when the sister took a lettuce, and stripping the leaves off, asked her brother "when he thought the lettuce looked the prettiest - when it had all its leaves on, or now that it was stripped?" He answered, "When the leaves were on." "But thou," she rejoined, "hast done as I did to the lettuce, and made bare the house of Cyrus." Then Cambyses was wroth, and sprang fiercely upon her, though she was with child at the time. And so it came to pass that she miscarried and died. 

Admittedly, incest and salad did not have a happy ending in "The Histories." But I think there's something to be said for 'incest' in food. I'm not suggesting we mate chocolate buttons with chocolate flakes... except that HOLY CRAP, yes I am!

But I am suggesting that we draw our food from the same soil. Think about it: the whole philosophy of farmer's markets is inherently incestuous. We want to buy local. In other words, in order to minimise food miles and ensure freshness, we want foods that are grown near us and therefore, near each other. What could be more incestuous than wanting to become one with the fruits of our own land?


Have I grossed you out yet? Sorry. Stick with me here.

What could be better than a salad of local produce, freshly grown nearby and bought mere hours ago at a farmer's market?

Well, since I'm no rabbit, I can make that salad better with cheese! And beans! And tuna! And... and... ok, the incest-levels are falling. But perhaps I'm just improving the genetic diversity of my dinner. That's plausible, right?

See Herodotus? You're not the only scholar who can make stuff up.



Incestuous Farmer's Market Salad

Serves 2

Ingredients

2C salad leaves (I used rocket and pea sprouts)
5 red cherry tomatoes
5 orange cherry tomatoes
1 pear, sliced
1/2 avocado, sliced
1/3 pomegranate
1/2 can (200g) cannelini beans
5 broad beans, shelled & beans extracted*
90g tuna, flaked
Small handful mint, chopped
Small handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic
100g haloumi
Sesame seeds (I used black sesame)

Method

Arrange the salad leaves, tomatoes, pear slices, and avocado slices on two plates. Extract the seeds from the pomegranate and sprinkle them over.

Mix the cannelini beans, broad beans,* tuna, mint, and parsley in a bowl. Dress with lime juice and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Spoon the mixture over the salads.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Smash the garlic cloves in their skins to crush them a little, and drop them in the oil. (The garlic is just to flavour the oil, but eating the fried bulbs afterwards is a worthy cook's treat.) Slice the haloumi and coat it in sesame seeds. Fry in the hot garlicky oil until browned on both sides. Arrange the haloumi over the salads.

*Some people are sensitive to raw broad beans because of their lectin content. Steam the beans first if you're worried about getting a stomach ache from them.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Dear William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616),

Oh dear.

I have become one of those literary scholars who writes about you.

There are thousands of 'em already. I swore I'd never join their ranks, because no offence Bill, I like chatting about your plays and all, but they've been done to death. They've been performed in every conceivable way, from the classic interpretations at the Globe, to musical / gangsta / teeny-bopper versions, to such brilliant cinematic creations as Hamlet 2 starring David Arquette.*

The producers are currently in talks with Lindsay Lohan for "Lady Macbeth Outs Her Spots: Brought to you by ProActiv"


Plus they've been scrutinized more closely than a presidential candidate's tax records. Forget, for a moment, the thousands of brilliant minds committed each generation to the study of your works. There are teams of scholars performing research on your handwriting - which is astonishing when you consider that the only known examples are six signatures on legal documents. Not to mention the whole industry of 'attribution studies' (read: literary conspiracy theories) trying to prove that you were not even the author of your own plays. Honestly: I don't care to read a full catalogue of all the bird species you've even mentioned.** Or perform a geneological study of your aunt's great-uncle's second cousins.

But it is necessary that I write on "Othello" this week, because damn it, I made something with strawberries. And nowhere in all of literary history do strawberries mean as much as they do in Othello.

Because in Othello, Desdemona's virtue is symbolised in a simple white handkerchief. And that handkerchief is decorated with embroidered strawberries. And those strawberries are sewn in thread dyed in maidens' blood, just so you know that they're meant to symbolise fidelity:

Iago: 
She may be honest yet. Tell me but this,
Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?

Othello: 
I gave her such a one; 'twas my first gift.

Iago: 
I know not that; but such a handkerchief --
I am sure it was your wife's -- did I to-day
See Cassio wipe his beard with.

What comes to mind, when I read about the handkerchief, has nothing to do with Desdemona's supposed affair with Cassio. I'm more interested in how the heck you sell the concept of blood-dyed thread to the maidens? I mean, let's say I'm a 17th Century textile worker. I'm manufacturing some red thread, and it has to be symbolic. So I find a troupe of innocent looking young girls, paste on a beseeching smile, and approach them with a syringe? No, because syringes weren't invented. It would be a beseeching smile and some sort of hatchet. Perhaps they decorated the hatchets with Hello Kitty? Now there's a topic for some original Shakespearean research. 

Now that we are all thoroughly repulsed, let's eat some strawberries! Since they feature on a creamy-coloured luxurious handkerchief, I'll combine the strawberries with some cream. And just to distance them from the visions of blood and hatchets, let's add some nice distracting basil and balsamic vinegar. Something this unusual would never have shown up on a Jacobean menu. And if it did, I'm sure the blood that the strawberries were marinated in came from the most virtuous of innocents.

*In which the prince and Jesus, with the use of a time machine, try to save Gertrude and Ophelia. Not a joke. I couldn't make that up.

**Not only does this exist, but in 1890, an American fan decided to import every species into the USA. 122 years and 200 million birds later, the starlings are a bit out of control.


Strawberry, Basil & Balsamic Ice-cream

Makes 1 litre, with a little extra for sneaky tastes

Ingredients
2 punnets strawberries
2 big handfuls basil leaves
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2C sugar
3C cream
1C milk
1/2C Greek yoghurt

Method

Blitz the strawberries, basil, balsamic, and sugar in a food processor. Combine the cream, milk, and yoghurt in a bowl, and slowly mix in the berry puree. Chill for a few hours.

Pour into an ice cream machine and  churn until a taste makes you swoon! Done.

If you don't have an ice cream machine, you can freeze the mixture in a bowl or tin; just be sure to stir it every hour or so during freezing to stop ice crystals forming. A proper whisk with electric beaters about 3 hours in is a good idea too.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Dear Daphne du Maurier (1907 - 1989),

How the heck have I been writing a literary food blog for all this time, and haven't mentioned you? Daphne, I apologise for the horrendous oversight. You should have been featured long ago. Your books are filled with so many richly described, lavish, drool-inducing treats that I could practically eat the pages.

Perhaps it's because you wrote of people who weren't short of a dollar, at a time when many were. When you wrote Rebecca, for instance, the world was in recovery from the Great Depression. The food, like other fashions, was simple, in deference to the times, yet quietly rather comforting. (Spam notwithstanding.) Even the afternoon teas of the wealthy de Winters in Rebecca were hearty and unpretentious:

"Those dripping crumpets, I can see them now. Tiny crisp wedges of toast, and piping-hot, floury scones. Sandwiches of unknown nature, mysteriously flavoured and quite delectable, and that very special gingerbread. Angel cake, that melted in the mouth, and his rather stodgier companion, bursting with peel and raisins. There was enough food there to keep a starving family for a week."

Perhaps the thought of those starving families is why the food, though plentiful, was kept plain and satisfying. The 1% of just about every other generation have gone overboard with their food, to the point where you could eat impeccably-prepared feasts for hours, and never feed the soul. The aristocracy of the Regency era ate roasted boar's heads. The rich of the Roman Empire ate peacock brains. (And on the baffling flipside, Marie Antoinette, despite her reputed fondness for delicate pastries, actually lived on boiled chicken and water and never told anyone to eat cake.) The bottom line is, no matter how well resourced any generation has been, they've never perfected the art of eating for satisfaction over fashion.

But something seemed to happen to the eaters of the late '30s. Maybe when you have the memory of breadlines fresh on the mind, you seek out soul food. The characters in Rebecca are not poor - yet they eat things that are baked, and hot, and simple, and don't involve foams or spheres of things that are not naturally foamy or spherical. Every morsel is an opportunity for the kind of voluptuous, unctuous, soul-warming pleasure that only comes from the thorough satisfaction of one's appetite. Take note Masterchefs: you can craft little florets of flambéed quails' necks all you want, but I'll pick a dripping crumpet every time.

They also don't eat as much as they make available to themselves, so perhaps they shouldn't be our model of ethical eating. But one way or another, I can relate to the narrator of Rebecca - having married into the unfamiliar wealthy world of an older man, she can focus, as I often do, on the simple pleasures of a laden table. (Can't relate to the marrying-an-older-man bit so much. Despite many stalkerish letters to Noam Chomsky, I didn't marry any older men in my early twenties.)

So now, as I read Rebecca, I'm spoilt for choice as to what to cook. Except that the choice is easy, because the words 'piping,' 'hot,' and 'scones' are sitting there on the page. And since it's just turned spring here at the bottom of the world, my scones must be hollowed out and stuffed with fresh gardeny things. Because if I've learned anything from your writing, Daphne, it's the value of luxurious simplicity.

Stuffed Scones

Makes 8

Ingredients

1 3/4 C flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder 
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
100g butter
3/4 C grated parmesan
3/4 C grated cheddar
2 eggs
3 tbsp greek yoghurt
3 tbsp milk
4 spring onions
1 1/2 C assorted chopped tomatoes
100g haloumi
Handful of flat leaf parsley 

Method

Preheat oven to 200C.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and paprika. Add the butter in small cubes, and rub between your fingertips until it's well-mixed and looks like a sandpit after a rainstorm. Mix through the grated cheeses, eggs, yoghurt, and milk until just combined. Slice the spring onions very thinly. Add half of the diced onions to the scone mix and set the other half aside.

Knead the scone mix until it's springy, around 3-4 minutes. Form an amorphous batter-blob, of roughly even thickness, and cut out shapes. Arrange them on a baking sheet, along with the chopped tomatoes.* Bake for 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool.

Using a paring knife and a teaspoon, carve a section out of the top of each scone to form a bowl. (The scooped-out bits would make flavoursome breadcrumbs... I guess... they didn't make it that far, in my case.) Slice the haloumi and fry in a medium-hot pan until golden. Fill the scone bowls with the tomatoes, remaining half of the sliced spring onions, parsley, and top each with a slice of haloumi. 

Serve with tea in front of a Hitchcock film.

*It's not strictly speaking necessary to bake the tomatoes. I did it because my scones were going to travel with me quite a ways, and I didn't want the tomatoes leaching liquid into the scones. As it happened, they leached liquid onto the baking tray and then into the scones, achieving much the same semi-sodden effect. Their flavour was intensified though, so I think baking them is the lesser of the two evils. You could bake them on a separate tray if you don't mind washing dishes for the rest of your life.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Dear Guy de Maupassant (1850 - 1893),

Here is my typical Saturday thought process:

I want cake.
But I don't want to get out of bed to make one.
But I still want cake.
[Wriggle with angst.]
But I'd rather read for awhile. 
It's warm here in the bed. I'm not getting up.
[Pull out laptop. Search various online literary databases for keyword: cake.]
Ahhhh, a story about cake.
[Read, read, read.]
Y'know what would be really great right now? Cake.
But that's so much effort. 
[Sensible side of brain intervenes]:
Oh for Pete's sake woman, either get up and make cake or shut up about it! Talk about your first world problems!

But I'm so comfy!
Urgh, alright, alright, I'm up.

It's a good thing I read that story too, because it woke me up just enough to stop me from stumbling sleepily into the fridge and stubbing my toe. In fact, that's the great thing about reading a short story on a lazy weekend day. Not only does it settle your brain into a relaxed state of semi-wakedness, it also, if it's about social politics, highlights the appeal of your pajama-clad slovenliness. In other words, Mr. Maupassant, your story shows me how not to eat cake. Madame Anserre serves a cake to her guests at high-class gatherings of the cultural nobility, and there is a fussy elitism around who gets to cut it:

"It was noticed that the privilege of "cutting the cake" carried with it a heap of other marks of superiority--a sort of royalty, or rather very accentuated viceroyalty. The reigning cutter spoke in a haughty tone, with an air of marked command; and all the favors of the mistress of the house were for him alone. These happy individuals were in moments of intimacy described in hushed tones behind doors as the "favorites of the cake," and every change of favorite introduced into the Academy a sort of revolution. The knife was a scepter, the pastry an emblem; the chosen ones were congratulated."

The reason it's so much fun to read this on a lazy Saturday is that I have no such gatherings planned. There will be no classist overtones when I plunge my knife in; no social politics, no favouritism. You know what there will be? Crumbs. Which I will lap up like a starving dog, spill onto my pajamas, and eat anyway. No-one will watch me, and my crumb-picking will not be interrupted by pretentious conversation or down-the-nose glances of haughty diners. I shall eat as impolitely as I please, and though I have the company of Madame Anserre's guests, they are restricted to the page, where they cannot judge my slovenliness.

This is how to eat cake: lavishly, sloppily, without ritual, and over a fine piece of writing.

And so my post-baking thought process goes:

[Cut slice.]
Back to bed!
[Eat. Read. Nap. Drool.]

Chocolate-Orange Mascarpone Mud Cake

Adapted from Cupcakes are Pretentious

Ingredients

Cake:
2C flour
1/2C cocoa powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
180g butter
1C dark chocolate melts
1C caster sugar
1 1/2C orange juice
Few drops orange oil
2 eggs

Topping:
100g mascarpone (room temperature)
100g cream cheese (room temperature)
1C icing sugar
Few drops lemon juice
Fresh berries (I used strawberries & raspberries)
Mint leaves

Method

Preheat the oven to 150C.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter, chocolate and sugar together. Add the orange juice and oil, and stir into a divine-smelling gloop. Pour the choc-orange liquids into the dry ingredients and whisk to combine. Add the eggs and whisk some more until it's smooth and has the texture of pancake batter.

Pour into a cake tin (mine's about 25cm across but that made a very tall cake) lined with baking paper. Bake for 45-60 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool the cake before topping it.

To make the mascarpone topping, beat both cheeses together with the icing sugar and add lemon juice to taste. You might have to adjust the amount of icing sugar and lemon juice to get just the right consistency - it should look like a voluptuous mound of softly-whipped cream. Once it's perfect, pile it on top of the cake and decorate with berries and mint. You could use orange zest or nuts as well if you were in such a mood.

Cut a slice to eat in bed, messily, over a book of short stories (preferably cake-themed).


Monday, 10 September 2012

Dear Yann Martel (1963 - ),

I'm quite emotionally attached to the bottle of orange juice in my fridge. It's just a reconstituted pulpy supermarket brand - nothing fancy or freshly squeezed - and yet it is a presence in my small urban flat. Like the open arms of a mother, it holds all the promise of nourishment, reassurance, and (because my fridge is kinda crap) warmth.

So I completely understand why, when you had to write an orangutan character to echo the role of your protagonist's mother in Life of Pi, you called it Orange Juice. (Or maybe it was the orang- thing. That might make more sense.)

Actually, you could probably get away with calling it anything at all. Since most of the book consists of a young boy's imaginative view of a traumatic situation (being lost at sea), you could call his animal friends by any damned name you wanted and it would seem plausible. A talking sea turtle named Couch Cushion? That's just Pi being imaginative. A flying gerbil named Toilet Seat? Ah, from the minds of babes.*

Search tip: if you're trying to find something as random as "flying gerbil toilet seat" on Google Images, and haven't had any luck, try the formula "[random search terms] AND "Japanese animation"". Works every time.
But Orange Juice makes sense. For an orangutan whose quiet strength and ethereal beneficence makes it a mother-figure, the orange glow of juice is symbolically apt. (Spoiler alert: OJ is also quite short-lived in the book, again, as it is in my fridge.)

Now readers might be thinking: how on earth do you take recipe inspiration from the name of a character? Don't you feel like you're eating / drinking an orangutan, or someone's mother, or both? I don't know how to answer that. Especially when the passage I'm using is this:

"She came floating on an island of bananas in a halo of light, as lovely as the Virgin Mary. The rising sun was behind her. Her flaming hair looked stunning."


When orange juice presents itself to you on a bed of bananas, there's only one thing to make: SMOOTHIES! So yeah, once we throw the orange juice in a blender, we're not really calming down these 'mutilating a living creature' associations. Sorry, Yann. 

Does it help that the smoothie is really, really good? That it tastes as sweet as Pi's first sip of fresh water after 227 days on a lifeboat? But better, because it has mint? Does the mint take away the connotations of monkey-blending?

Or am I perhaps overthinking this, and should shut up now and drink my smoothie?

Yes. Yes I should.

*Actually, my nutty paramour and I have slowly invented a whole mythology of bizarre animals. We have the Caterpillar of Cold Days, and the almighty Food Duck (with his twelve ducklings on a lake of orange sauce), and when we're at work, the Spreadsheet Tortoise. But it's maybe not so cute when 30-year-olds come up with this stuff...


Mutilated Orange-utan Pineapple Smoothie

Serves 2

Ingredients
1C orange juice
1C frozen pineapple - from fresh, people, not tinned^
1/2 frozen banana
Handful of mint leaves

Method
Throw everything into a blender. Blend. Drink. Don't really need a recipe for that. 

^If you use tinned pineapple in this, I will know. I won't say anything, but you'll wake up one morning next to a head of shredded pineapple leaves.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Dear Anthony Burgess (1917 - 1993),

It's amazing what happens when writers are motivated by a quick buck.

You studied and worked furiously your whole life: you were a scholar, a teacher, a translator, a linguist, a writer of every form of writing there is, and, just to mix it up, a composer of hundreds of symphonies and libretti. You cannot possibly have lacked a dollar or two. And yet you wrote many of your novels quickly, by your own account artlessly, for the cash. Even your most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange, was "a jeu d'esprit knocked off for money in three weeks".

Noble reasons, of course. If I were diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, and wanted to leave a nest egg for my spouse, I might also feel motivated to write five novels in a year.* Heck, even in my healthy state, I'd be more than happy to scrawl out a manuscript of A Mechanised Mandarin for anyone who has a few grand to spare. (Publishers: call me.)

What I wouldn't do, if I were just in it for the cash, is write something high-risk. Let's think about this from an investment point of view. Mr. Burgess, you wanted to make money, so you invested your time in writing a novel. Now, I may not be an economist, but that introductory finance class I once took taught me that risky investments sometimes fail. So writing a novel about a sociopathic delinquent who drugs and rapes children and murders old women is perhaps not a safe way to guarantee a living. In market terms, it's like investing in Amazon in 2001: a really bad idea at the time, but weirdly and counter-intuitively profitable.

Why? Well, Mr. Burgess, your brain's decision not to die of cancer was a wise one. You outlived the wife you were earning for, married your mistress (who happened to be a shark of a literary agent), negotiated crazy deals for your future work, and made a pile of money. Then you protected your money-pile by residing in a crappy van on the roads of Europe, thereby avoiding the 90% British tax rate on the wealthy at the time, and died a multi-millionaire with 11 homes throughout the Mediterranean.

So even though you made the mistake of selling the film rights to A Clockwork Orange for $500 to some lawyer, who would onsell them to Stanley Kubrick for $200,000, you couldn't be too upset. The book's controversy gave you notoriety, which gave you a lifetime of riches. It seems my Financial Markets 101 professors were right: high-risk equals high-reward. (Speaking of which, time to buy some Facebook stock.**)

But onto the actual food bit. The title of A Clockwork Orange has very little to do with anything in it, as far as I can tell, except that it's the title of a book that one of Alex's victims is working on when he is attacked. This leads to a reading of A Clockwork Orange, within A Clockwork Orange, that is so meta it reminds me of Abed's movie in Community. Alex mocks the mini-clockwork-orange's stance against "the attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness... laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation".

Obviously, Mr. Burgess, you do not see the sweetness in all mankind. However, in my experience, humanity is at least as mechanical as it is sweet, which is not to say that these qualities can't go hand-in-hand. What, for instance, is more appealing than the ordered shape of a spiral, containing the sweetness of oozing orange oil? And when those shapes are joined together like cogs in a giant baking tray, so much the better. There. See? My baking is practically an act of critical commentary. So in fact, when I potter about in the kitchen of a weekend morning, I'm actually making progress on my PhD. Right? Right? Right.

*Actually, I would probably be more motivated to sleep and feel sorry for myself.
** Yeah, right.


Clockwork Orange Buns

Adapted from Five and Spice. Makes about 24 buns in two batches.

Ingredients
Buns:
1 3/4C warm water
1 tsp active yeast
2 tbsp sugar
5C high grade (bread) flour
3 tsp salt
Few drops food-grade orange oil
1/2C olive oil
Filling:
2 tbsp melted butter
1C sugar
Zest & juice of an orange
1/4C dried cranberries
1/4C dried figs, chopped into itsy bitsy pieces
2 bananas, sliced
Glaze:
2C icing sugar
2 tbsp buttermilk

Method

Sprinkle the yeast & sugar over the warm water in a large bowl and let sit for 5 minutes. The yeast should foam up - make sure your water is around 45 Celsius to activate it properly.

Mix in the salt and the flour, cup by cup. You can do this by hand, like I did, or with the dough hook if you're lucky enough to have a mixer. Add the olive and orange oils and keep on mixin'. Knead for awhile (5-10 mins) until the whole thing springs to life and becomes supple and fragrant. Form a ball and rest it in an oiled bowl, covered in wrap, for about an hour to let it rise. Pick someplace warm, because I swear you can taste the sun if you rise the dough by a window on a bright day. Meanwhile, combine the filling by mixing the zest & juice of the orange with the cup of sugar.

Once the dough is spongy, punch it back down and knead a little more. Form half the dough into a large rectangle, about 30 x 20cm. Brush half the butter over top, and spread over half the orange-sugar filling. Layer on half of the dried fruit and banana slices. Roll up, starting from the long side, to form a coil of deliciousness. Pinch the end side onto the coil to seal it. Slice into about 12 rolls and arrange in a baking dish. These will need to rise in the sun for another hour (though you can rise them in the fridge overnight if you want to make them in advance). Repeat with the other half of the dough & fillings, and either do the whole slice-and-rise thing, or, as I did, wrap the coil and refrigerate it to finish the next morning.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Bake the risen rolls for 30-35 mins. When they are semi-cool, drizzle over a glaze of beaten buttermilk and icing sugar. Then eat them warm and thank me because oh my goodness these are ultratasty.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Dear Alistair Stafford (1982 - ),

I'm breaking with convention for this post, to honour an author who - though not published or famous, or, indeed, in the habit of writing - is possessed of great imagination and humour.

He has the kind of brilliant wordsmithiness (go with it) that feels wasted when confined to a text message, or an email, and delivered only to one person. Therefore, without his permission or knowledge, I am revealing to the world some of the wit and wisdom of Alistair Stafford, my cohabitant and beloved, on the occasion of his 30th birthday. He will possibly be shy about this, but being English, it is quite easy to placate him with tea and gingernuts. So here goes.

  • On his ability to sing: "I cannot and sound like a strangled weasel with a heart condition mowing the lawn."
  • On drawing philosophical insight from unreliable Auckland buses: "There will always be another bus."
  • On his tendency towards text-speak when tired: "I'm shore u cn four give me."
  • On his tendency to get bored with normal online chats: ".gnitirw sdrawkcab ylluf .siht yrt s'tel" 
  • On office work, according to Phillip K. Dick: "Why do bureaucrats dream of electric paperclips?
  •    O
    __l__
        l
      _/\_

    On elaborate emoticons: "This is me trying to hug you while fighting a debilitating spinal disease, and despite being decapitated."
Clearly,  Alistair's new status as a 30-year-old man is tenuous, since his writing suggests someone fluctuating wildly between the emotional maturity of 30, and the whimsy of an 8-year-old.

Not that I'm complaining. Living with an imaginative Englishman encourages me to test my culinary skills to present British classics in new ways. For instance, since we've already mentioned tea & gingernuts, how many ways can I pair them? Tea-rimisu has already become a staple. So the next step, I figure, (and a birthday-appropriate one at that) is to load tea-steeped cream cheese onto a lemony gingernut base in a wildly experimental tea-secake.*


 After all, in How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker famously used cheesecake to explain the evolution of tastes for survival purposes. We like sugar because it was in the interests of our survival on the plains to develop a taste for ripe (sweet) fruit rather than unripe (bitter and potentially poisonous) fruit. Similarly, we like a creamy mouthfeel because fats were also a key nutrient in early human survival. Cheesecake combines sweetness and creaminess into one, pleasure-button-pushing package. Of course, in Pinker's metaphor, the modern repackaging of sugar and fats into unnutritious cheesecake is an example of how the evolved brain doesn't support our best interests in modern society. But on a 30th birthday, I think the pushing of pleasure buttons is perfectly justified. Besides, the Anaise Irvine edition of How My Mind Works goes: "this is the anniversary of the birth of someone who makes me very happy. Cognitively, I am predisposed to celebrate this birth. Without this birth, I would not have my soulmate. Therefore: bake a cheesecake." (It's astonishing how many of my mental processes end in "therefore: bake a cheesecake".)

So, Alistair Stafford, 1982 - [ages away], here is your tea-secake, baked lovingly to celebrate thirty years of your existence, eaten over a conversation involving yet more of your wit and wisdom, and written up here with a hope that we will keep celebrating birthdays until the very notion of linear time becomes old-fashioned; then, around 33 years from now, when the Swiss develop liveable colonies in space, we can climb onto a spaceship and celebrate birthdays eternally, Tralfamadorially, in the chaos of quantum time.


*A note on tea: until I met Alistair and his family, I thought the idea of tea-drinking Englishfolk was just one of those cultural cliches, like New Zealanders munching pavlova (one of the few desserts I'll turn down). NO. This is no cliche. I have been taught a list of acceptable tea brands, so that when I go grocery shopping alone, I can pick out a single-origin tea and not a blend. And god forbid we order tea at a cafe! There is inevitably a rant about the designation of English Breakfast as a default tea, given that it is a blend and is therefore unacceptable. Plus there is a whole vocabulary opened up when you treat 'tea' as a verb. As in: Have you tead? / No, I am de-tead. / Well, we must tea you. Etc.



Englishman's Teasecake

Adapted from here

Ingredients
Crust:
1 packet gingernuts (or other hard biscuits)
1 tsp lemon zest
50g butter
1 tbsp sugar
Filling:
400g light cream cheese at room temperature
1/2C sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1/2C cream
3 teabags (PG Tips or other single origin brand, if this is really for an English diner)*
2 tbsp strong tea

Method

Preheat the oven to 170C. Line a 20 - 25cm springform pan with baking paper.

To make the crust: load all the crust ingredients into a food processor and combine. (Warning: gingernuts are tough cookies, pun intended. Your food processor will make a LOT of noise for a minute or two.) When the mixture looks like fine rubble, pull it out and press it into the springform pan.

To make the filling: warm the cream in a saucepan, and add two of the teabags. Rip the third teabag open and add the leaves. Steep the teabags in the heated cream for a few minutes, without letting it boil. Meanwhile, cream the cream cheese and sugar. Add the egg and yolk, and beat some more. Remove the teabags from the cream, pressing out as much flavour as possible. Add the tea-ey cream to the cream cheese mixture, and stir together. Pour over the gingernut crust.

Prepare a bain marie. Fill a roasting dish with boiling water. Cover the base of the cheesecake tin in foil if necessary, so that no water can seep in, and settle it into the bain marie. Bake for 40 minutes or until the filling is mostly set but still slightly wobbly. Let it cool, and then refrigerate until cold and set.

Serve with extra cups of tea and gingernuts. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Dear Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547 - 1616),

You know you've hit the jackpot as a writer when your native tongue is nicknamed "the language of [insert your name here]." So when people call Spanish "la lengua de Cervantes," I bet it gives you a little thrill. (Unfortunately, writers are usually dead by the time they reach this status... so... sorry about that.)*

It also helps if, four centuries after your write it, people still review your most famous work as the 'first' and 'greatest' modern novel of all time - or, in one oft-quoted assessment, "the Spanish Bible" (Miguel de Unamuno). Now I have never understood why people call Don Quixote the first modern novel. I mean, come on Cervantes. It wasn't even your first novel, let alone the first novel. You had written a pastoral novel before you got around to scripting your chivalric epic, as had many others. Heck, there are novels written on 11th century Japanese scrolls, if you know how to read 'em. Even beside all that - and this is the crux of my problem with the whole "first novel" thing - the protagonist of Don Quixote is a man who has funny ideas from reading too many novels. How can we name a novel about a man who reads too many novels as the first novel?! That's like strolling up to some prehistoric chicken, ignoring the egg it's just hatched from, and congratulating it for being the first of its kind while its mother clucks disapprovingly in the corner. And yet, literary critics continue to heap unquestioning praise on Don Quixote as the originator, the great untouchable king of novels, the first of the form.

Okay, okay, some parts of that claim are true. Novels before yours were typically very closely constrained by rules of genre: there were pastoral novels, there were romantic novels, there were poetic epics, but there wasn't much in the way of free-form novel-length prose. But if we consider a "novel" to be defined by its form rather than content (prose style, length more than that of a story or novella, to be read off the page rather than performed, etc etc) then surely the novels that were around for a long time before Don Quixote's 1605 debut should count. And even if we are snobby enough to discount early genre novels, then we box ourselves into limiting our view of "the novel" to exclude modern genre fiction, or indeed many of the works of modernism and postmodernism which play with the boundaries of the form.

Cases in point: in 1951, Jack Kerouac typed On the Road on a 36-metre length of scroll. Is that not a novel? The text in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000) curls all over the pages, becomes architectural, and sometimes isn't text at all. Is that not a novel? The death of a character in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67) is marked with a full page of black. Is that not a novel? (Actually, don't answer that one.)

To me, a "novel" is a unit of fiction writing that, if our alien overlords were to discover it in some horrible impending future dystopia, would tell them something about their human slaves. A novel, in other words, is a sociological and anthropological artifact.

To a cook, one of the interesting anthropological discoveries lying in wait in Don Quixote concerns rice. For those of us who succumb to every food trend (Oh! It's 1998! I think I'll have some pesto. Oh! It's 2001! Where's my cupcake? Oh! It's 2011! My caramel needs more fleur de sel. Etcetera.) paella has been around long enough to become familiar. The aroma of saffron, the bubbling of smoked paprika-infused rice, and the exotic piles of prawns, peppers, and parsley just waiting to dive in, are all common kitchen sensory experiences. Even the frustrating, infuriating, non-intuitive command NOT TO STIR has become a little more acceptable, after many glorious tastes of that golden crust on the bottom of the pan.

But when you consider that paella has only been popular worldwide for a few years, and has only existed since the 18th century, it's quite astonishing to find references to unstirred rice in Spanish fiction from 1605. And yet, Cervantes, that's what you give us:

"It is better not to stir the rice though it burn to the pot."

Even if this was given as a metaphor - a maxim on the dangers of meddling with Spanish duennas - I like to think it hints at the existence of some early form of paella. So, Cervantes, did you feast on plates of crusty rice, tomatoes, and seafood? Not going to rise from your grave to tell me? OK, mind if I feast in your honour? No? Great.

*I can live in hope that, after my death, English will be renamed "the language of Irvine". Sadly, English has already pretty much been formulated by other writers. Thus, I shall have to write in another, bastardised language. I therefore take this opportunity to debut Irvlish, a burgeonating lingwage of neu phorms n innovational lingwistik neuvelties. Irvlish: the lingwage ov Irvine!**

**I feel dirty.


Cervantes' Unstirred Paella

Serves 6-8, but I only shared with one.

Ingredients
0.5g saffron threads
1/4C boiling water
Olive oil
2 chicken breasts, cut into 2cm cubes
1 smoked onion, diced^
4 cloves smoked garlic, minced^
1/2C tomato paste
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 can chopped tomatoes
1L vegetable stock
2C arborio rice (or paella rice, if you can find it)
10-12 cooked prawns
1 red capsicum, seeds removed & sliced
Salt & pepper
1/2C olives
1/2C parsley, roughly torn

Method

Measure out the half-gram of saffron, ignoring the sneaking suspicion that this is what drug dealers must feel like. (To avoid amplifying the drug dealer feeling, try not to sniff the saffron just yet.) Dissolve the threads in the boiling water and set aside.

Heat the vegetable stock in a large saucepan. Meanwhile, in a paella pan or other large frying pan (my stoneware pan worked great), warm some olive oil on medium heat. Brown the chicken and set aside.  Add a little more oil, and sweat the onions (about 4 mins). Then add the minced garlic and cook for another minute. Throw in the paprika, tomato puree, hot vege stock, and tomatoes, and simmer for a few minutes.

Add the rice, give it a quick stir to distribute the grains, and then put down your spoon. I'm serious. No more stirring allowed, from this point on. Refer to your Cervantes. Cook the rice in the tomatoey liquid for 10 minutes.

Add the browned chicken, and arrange the capsicum slices and prawns on top. Season with salt and pepper. You are still not allowed to stir, so I don't know why you've picked up your spoon. Tut tut. Cook for another 15 minutes.

Before serving, sprinkle the olives and parsley over the top. Now your spoon can enter the pan, but only to scoop out delicious chunks of crispy-bottomed paella.


^NZ readers: you can buy smoked onions & garlic at the Parnell markets on a Saturday / Sunday morning. Failing that, use regular onions & garlic - but trust me, the smoked variety smell amazing.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Dear Tom Stoppard (1937 - ),

Very few writers care about math.

There are excellent reasons for this. At school, those who gravitate towards English probably do so partly because they love words, but partly because they don't love numbers. This is not a firm rule, of course (and in my own School Certificate exams, I scored 1% less in English than Maths) but based on the poets, writers, and literary scholars I've met, it's fairly reliable. Not set in stone, maybe, but at least in wobbly gelatine.

But there are excellent reasons against this as well. Sure, Wordsworth wrote about how lovely daffodils can be, and that's great. Good for him. But mathematicians look at a sunflower and plot how the placement of the seeds in its centre follows the Fibonacci sequence; and they notice that same 'golden spiral' appears on pineapples, pinecones, in the family trees of honeybees, and in the Romanesco cauliflower. (Read "The Golden Ratio" by Mario Livio!) The mysteries of mathematical flora and fauna must be at least as beautiful and poetic as the "sprightly dance" of Wordsworth's daffodils.

Math!

The more I study how scientific and mathematical paradigm shifts are represented in literary texts, the more I realise just how the sciences and arts perform the same functions. You, for instance Mr. Stoppard, have explored all sorts of scientific ideas in your works, because they are, like the written story, lenses through which we view our world. In your play Arcadia, the brilliant and adorable 13-year-old budding mathematician Thomasina uses fractals (and chaos theory, and entropy, and astronomy, and so on) to understand the orderliness of the natural world, and on its coexisting chaos:

[Order]
"Each week I plot your equations dot for dot, xs against ys in all manner of algebraical relation, and every week they draw themselves as commonplace geometry, as if the world of forms were nothing but arcs and angles. God's truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose?"

[Chaos]
"When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round, making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again."

I like this a lot: the world of Arcadia is formulaic and predictable, yet beautiful, yet messy. Reminds me of my cooking.

Speaking of which, with the golden spiral as insipiration, it's time to make a mathematical supper. Since I don't have a Romanesco cauliflower, my dinner will not involve a Fibonacci sequence, but I console myself by remembering that even my pedestrian supermarket cauli still has a fractal structure.

Math: now 10% less glamorous!
In keeping with today's mathematical theme, dinner should involve not only fractals, but layers... gratin!
And in keeping with Thomasina's observation of the swirled jam, it should involve chaos... swirls of sprouts and other yummy bits and pieces!
Thus we have: Thomasina's orderly-chaotic mathematical hoki on potato-cauli gratin!

Kudos to me. I've taken a literary extract about boring rice pudding and, by reading it through a tenuous web of mathematical connotations, turned it into something less... gloopy. Next week: a quantum theoretical reading turns Oliver Twist's gruel into mille feuille.



Hoki on Potato-Cauliflower Gratin

Serves 2

Ingredients

1 tbsp olive oil
1 hoki fillet (or other white fish)
1/2 C sliced water chestnuts
4 small vine tomatoes, quartered
4 sliced mushrooms
Drizzle avocado oil
1/2 C sango sprouts

Gratin:
3 agria potatoes
1/2 head cauliflower
1/2 - 1C milk
1/2 leek
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 C finely grated pecorino cheese (or parmesan)

Method

To make the gratin: preheat the oven to 180C. Finely slice the half leek, and jiggle the slices in a bowl of cold water to release any dirt that was trapped between the layers. Remove and dry on a paper towel. Mince the garlic. Heat the olive oil in a frypan, and sweat the leek slices and garlic until softened but not browned. Meanwhile, boil or steam the cauliflower until tender. Load the cooked cauliflower into a food processor with the oily leeks & garlic. Blend slowly, adding the milk in a fine stream through the feed tube, until the cauliflower is smooth. You're looking for a consistency that's thick enough to bind the gratin, but thin enough to pour. Once the cauliflower cream is done, scrub and slice the potatoes. Layer the potato slices in a baking dish, pouring a little cauliflower cream over each layer. Once you're layered up, sprinkle the pecorino (or other cheese) over the top and cover the whole thing with foil. Bake the gratin for around an hour, until the potatoes can be pierced easily with a sharp knife. Then remove the foil, switch the oven to grill, and grill until the cheese is browned and bubbly.

To cook the fish & other bits: heat the oil in a frypan. Toss the water chestnuts, tomato quarters, and mushrooms in the oil until browned. Set aside. Cook the fish until the sides are browned and the inside is white throughout - about 2 minutes each side. (Don't worry if it breaks up a bit, that just means it's fresh).

To serve: cut the gratin into small (around 5cm x 5cm) squares. Layer 2-3 squares on top of each other in a bowl, forming a little tower. This is important, because all fancy food is served in little towers:

 
(I did actually once make a tower of roasted vegetables with little carrot turrets, in honour of Bernard Black.)

Drizzle avocado oil around the squares. Arrange the fried tomatoes, mushrooms, and water chesnuts around the bowl, and add a few sango sprouts. Layer the hoki pieces on top of the gratin squares, and top with a few more sango sprouts. Serve with a cold glass of white wine, and eat over a reading of Arcadia - or if you're feeling less mathematically complex, Flatlands. 

Monday, 30 July 2012

Dear Wendy Cope (1945 - ),

I discovered you from an article in the New Statesman. It was headed with the alluring quote: "I can't die until I've sorted out the filing cabinets." I could relate. As a somewhat obsessive filer, I live in constant fear of dying with a desk full of messy papers. It reaches the point where, if I know I've got a stack of papers left unsorted, I'll look left and right one extra time before crossing the road. Now there are probably more important reasons to want to stay alive, y'know, like love and family and friends and making a contribution to the world. But my fear of stepping in front of a bus comes largely from my desk, and, if I'm wearing daggy underwear that day, from my dread of the mortician's sartorial judgement.

But you, Ms. Cope, had sold your archive to the British Library. Now there's a reason to become a poet. If you're significant enough, you can get some library somewhere to take all your papers off your hands, and to pay you for the privilege!

And this, after a career of Bridget Jones-style witty laments for the men who leave (and take the corkscrew), or who almost buy you flowers, but don't. So let me get this straight, Wendy. You built a career out of sarcastically cocking your eyebrow at the world. You kept this up for a couple of decades, and actually made a living at it. And then a library paid you to sort all your old emails?

You are my hero.

Oh, and you also write clever wordplays about food. For instance, in "The Uncertainty of the Poet", you take the same 10 words, and rearrange them over and over to get multiple meanings:

I am a poet.
I am very fond of bananas. 

I am bananas.
I am very fond of a poet.

I am a poet of bananas.
I am very fond.

A fond poet of 'I am, I am' -

Very bananas.

Fond of 'Am I bananas?
Am I?' - a very poet. 

Bananas of a poet! 
Am I fond? Am I very?

Poet bananas! I am.
I am fond of a 'very.'

I am of very fond bananas.
Am I a poet?

Some meanings are straight-forward. Some are silly. Some are remarkably deep. Some are quotable - often, when I'm writing something that seems poetic, the phrase "I am of very fond bananas" pops into my head, which is apt, because I am fond of my banananess.

OK, Wendy, I think we've established that you deserve something yummy created in your honour. In the spirit of rearranging things, let's take two flavours - banana and salted caramel - and twist them into all sorts of combinations. Banana caramel cake! Sandwiching caramel buttercream and banana slices! With caramel sauce! Done.

We shall call this combination: I am of very fond banoffee.



I Am Of Very Fond Banoffee Whoopie Pies

Makes 16

Ingredients

Cakey domes:
2 very ripe bananas
125g sour cream
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 C brown sugar
1/4 C macadamia oil
2 1/2 C plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
250g caramel chips

Fillings:
2 firm bananas
1 C caster sugar
50g butter
500ml cream
300g mascarpone cheese
50g butter, extra, softened
1C icing sugar
1 tsp salt
Cornflour, to thicken

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Load the overripe bananas and sour cream into a food processor, and blend to combine. Add the eggs and vanilla, and pulse. Add the sugar and oil, and pulse once more. Set aside.

In a large bowl, sift together all the dry ingredients. add the banana mix, and stir minimally until it comes together. Add the caramel chips, and stir until gloopy.

Dollop 1.5tbsp gloops of batter into small mounds on a lined baking tray. You can pipe them out if you want nice perfect circles. Bake for 10 mins or until lightly browned.

Meanwhile, make a caramel sauce. Heat the caster sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan until it starts to bubble and go amber (resist the temptation to stir). Once it's caramelised, add 50g of butter and 1/2 tsp flaky salt, and stir into a liquid toffee. When that's melted together, add the cream in a slow drizzle, and heat until smooth. This stuff gets REALLY hot - the clumsy should wear covered shoes and oven mitts to protect their skin from any spills.

Next, make the buttercream filling. Using a hand mixer, beat together the softened 50g butter, mascarpone cheese, icing sugar, one cup of the caramel sauce, and the remaining 1/2 tsp of flaky salt. Because of the soft cheese, this is likely to be runnier than a traditional buttercream, so add a little cornflour if needed to make it firmer.

When all the cake domes are baked, slice the firm bananas. Brush each cake dome with caramel sauce on its underside (ooh, naughty!). Sandwich the domes together with a few banana slices, some buttercream, and some drizzled caramel sauce. Finish with another drizzle of caramel over top.

WARNING: These are American-level ridiculous desserts. I have a superhuman sugar tolerance and even I could only manage to eat half of one of these. Find someone to share with, or prepare to feel sickly.

 

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Dear Chinua Achebe (1930 - ),

So many authors love it when things get ironic. Not Alanis-Morrissette-meeting-the-married-man-of-your-dreams fake ironic, but wink-wink-subverted-expectations real ironic. (Alanis, if you're reading this, please note the below.)



 < Ironic



      Not ironic >




Misunderstanding irony in a song about irony = meta-ironic.

Mr. Achebe, your novel "Things Fall Apart" contains one of the best uses of irony I've seen in fiction. In a book about (among other things) Christian missionaries in Africa and the notion of religion as its own form of imperialism, you based a human sacrifice on a Biblical fable. Things fall apart, as the title says, when Okonkwo, a Nigerian village leader and yam farmer, kills Ikemefuna, his ersatz son, to fulfil an oracle. Pretty much the same thing (but with a softer ending) occurs in Genesis, when Abraham very nearly kills his son Isaac because God told him to, but an angel of God stops him at the last second and he sacrifices a ram instead.

Given that you originally wrote the novel (somewhat controversially) in English, and it has been very widely read in Western countries (possibly more so than any other African novel), this was a smart move. If you had represented human sacrifice in a Nigerian village without that kind of parallel, readers might have seen it as a cultural problem; but by pairing it with a Biblical equivalent, you frame human sacrific as an anthropological problem. There are killings in Okonkwo's village, you tell us, but the traditions and stories of the supposedly 'civilising' missionaries are no less brutal.

(Incidentally, one of the reasons I became a literary scholar is so that I could train my otherwise blankly accepting mind to detect all the secret messages and hidden codes in stories. If I hadn't done that, I would still think that Citizen Kane is about how newspaper work isn't as fun as snowsports.)

Anyway, this is all beside the point. In "Things Fall Apart," there is a New Yam Festival - a time for the old to be swept out, the new to be brought in, and the bounty of yams to be celebrated:

“The pounded yam dish placed in front of the partakers of the festival was as big as a mountain. People had to eat their way through it all night and it was only during the following day when the pounded yam “mountain” had gone down that people on one side recognized and greeted their family members on the other side of the dish for the first time."

The reason I bring up irony, Mr. Achebe, is this. I had the genius thought of pounding grated yams into hash cakes and eating them, fried with tomatoes, for brunch. I did NOT have the attendant genius thought that, in my long history of trying to make hash cakes, they've almost always disintegrated. I forgot the possibility of falling-apart hash cakes because I was contemplating "Things Fall Apart." < IRONY!

Luckily, they didn't (too much), and by the time I piled on tomatoes and an oozing poached egg, it didn't seem to matter. So there we go. Ironically almost-falling apart yam hash cakes from "Things Fall Apart."

Alanis, I hope you've been taking notes.



Yam Hash Cakes with Fried Tomatoes & Oozy Poached Egg

Serves 2

Ingredients
500g yams (oxalis tuberosa - not giant sweet potatoes)
3 eggs
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp dried garlic flakes
2 tomatoes
1/2C baby spinach leaves
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp white vinegar

Method

Beat one of the eggs in a reasonably roomy bowl, and add the paprika and garlic flakes.

Wash and dry the yams, and remove any fibrous bits (I usually top & tail 'em). Grate them into a big mountain of yam mush. Squeeze the liquid out of the grated yam, and add the solids to the bowl. Chop the spinach leaves into thin strips, and add most of those as well (reserve some to garnish).

Mix the grated yam & chopped spinach through the egg and seasonings until it's all combined.

Heat the oil in a large frypan over medium-high heat. Chop the tomatoes in half and add them, face down, to the pan.

Shape the yam mixture into patties and cook in the oil for about 6 minutes each side, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Meanwhile, poach the remaining two eggs. Bring a pot of water to a gentle simmer, and add the vinegar. Crack the eggs into small dishes, and slip them into the water. (I realise this sounds like needless creation of dirty dishes, but trust me. It's much easier on your eggs this way, and their whites won't spin out of control like Tom Cruise's marriages.) Simmer for 3 minutes, then remove and dry on the paper towels with the hash cakes.

Stack the yam hash cakes into two piles, and top each pile with two fried tomato halves and a poached egg. Garnish with the leftover spinach strips, some aioli if you have it, and some extra smoked paprika. If you're feeling hedonistic, pierce the egg yolk and watch it ooze.




Monday, 2 July 2012

Dear Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862),


I have a fascination with witty epitaphs. Personal favourites include Winston Churchill’s (“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter”) and Rodney Dangerfield’s (“There goes the neighbourhood”).*

An offshoot of this fascination is an interest in famous last (or nearly last) words. Writers are fantastic for this. Your own nearly-last words, Mr. Thoreau, were brilliant. When asked, on your deathbed, if you had made your peace with God, you replied: “I did not know we had ever quarrelled.” 

And why would any god want to quarrel with you? You were an abstemious, earth-loving, preservationist thinker far before any of that was fashionable. Your basic philosophy was to live off the land without exploiting the land. Your book “Walden” is a how-to guide for lone wolves who want to give up the luxuries that act as “hindrances to the elevation of mankind”. In other words: you paved the way for the kind of anti-wealth and environmentalist thinking that has reached an apex in the Occupy movements and climate change discourse. 

Those readers who are thinking hurry up, get to the food! are probably worried, at this point, that a recipe inspired by simple living is going to consist of boiled tree bark and fire-roasted grubs. Relax. The last time I boiled tree bark, it was cinnamon, and I was making ice-cream. There will be no Survivor-esque recipes on this blog, ever. 

Thank goodness, Mr. Thoreau, that you wrote of food metaphorically as well as literally (since literally, you talked an awful lot about growing beans). 

I’m quite enamoured, for instance, of this little gem:
“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

Indeed. I’m sure this means something quite deep about the merits of the natural world over the hollow pleasures afforded by participation in the rat race. However I take it much more simply. My literary scholars’ interpretation of this quote is more or less: oooooo, pumpkin! And since we’re in the heart of a deep and frosty winter, my next thought is: oooooo, soup! And then, for the sake of circularity, my brain goes: oooooo, pumpkin soup in a pumpkin!

A pumpkin lid, ready to lift off the pumpkin 'bowl.'
And so Mr. Thoreau, somewhat indirectly, your treatise on simple living has inspired simple food, trounced up for the blogosphere with pretty presentation. I might have more appropriately served my soup out of a hollowed-out badger’s skull, but allow me my rat racey perks.

*When I kick the bucket, I want my entire doctoral thesis engraved on my tombstone; partly to validate the effort of having written one, and partly to mess with the engraver.


 Purple Carrot & Pumpkin Soup-in-a-Pumpkin

Serves 2

Ingredients
2 mini pumpkins*
3 purple carrots*
1 tbsp olive oil
Water or stock, to blend
Salt & pepper, to taste
Sour cream and sage leaves, to decorate

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C.

Cut the tops off the pumpkins. The easiest way to do this is to angle your knife so that it’s pointing in towards the centre of the pumpkin, rather than straight down. Thoreau says: don’t lose any fingers, otherwise you won’t be able to harvest next season’s beans. Remove the seeds from the pumpkin, and set aside to roast later if you feel like it. Extract the pumpkin flesh with a melon baller, taking care not to puncture the skin. Leave a 1cm layer of pumpkin in the skin to ensure structural integrity.

Wash and peel the purple carrots and chop into smallish pieces. There is absolutely no reason for the carrots to be purple, other than it makes the soup look cool, so use ordinary orange ones, if you like, or neon blue ones, if you know a good gene splicer. Layer the carrots in a roasting dish with the pumpkin innards and pumpkin shells, and drizzle with olive oil. Roast until tender, about 20 mins. 

When they’re done, load the carrots and pumpkin innards into a blender, and blend to a paste. Add some water or stock, and blend again – repeat this process until the soup reaches your preferred consistency. I used about a cup and a half of liquid. Season with salt & pepper.

Pour soup into the roasted pumpkin shells, garnish with sour cream and sage leaves, and gobble down with plenty of fresh bread.

*For Auckland readers, I found mine at the fruit & vegetable shop in Milford mall.