Sunday, 29 April 2012

Dear William Burroughs (1914 - 1997),

Today I looked in my fridge, sighed at the array of leftovers, and thought of you.

You were a human assortment of bits and pieces – aristocratic, yet addicted to heroin; Harvard-educated, yet uninspired to work; conservatively dressed, yet with a tendency to get drunk and play “William Tell”.* No part of you was particularly harmonious with any other part of you.

Plus you lived past 50, which is wildly rebellious for a Beat writer.

Which is why, when I opened the fridge door to find a cup of tamarillo mush (leftover from sorbet), some ground, cream-steeped hazelnuts (leftover from a hazelnut custard), and a thick caramelly sauce (origin uncertain), your name popped into my head.

You and your friends (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other assorted Beats) were very good at cobbling things together from bits of detritus. You were arrogant or brilliant enough to decide that whatever random thoughts were bouncing around in your brains were pure gold, and should be published immediately in whatever form they took. Planning? Undesirable. Editing? Optional. Obscenity trials post-publication? A mark of honour.

You, in particular, didn’t see the need to produce original writing at all. After a few early novels, you developed a technique which I’m going to steal for my baking: the cut-up method. As in, take whatever is around you – I’m sitting next to a cracker box and a TV Guide, for instance – and cut it up into a new text. This, Mr. Burroughs, is the sort of thing that literary critics love. They can wax lyrical for decades to come on how the author is obsolete, and all writing is pastiche, and all composition is merely an act of collation. That’s all very well and good, but my poem on the “100% Natural Sesame Kardashians” is probably not destined for posterity.

At any rate, I think cut-up baking could be the next big thing. (Got leftover turmeric fish in the fridge? Make cupcakes! Er, maybe not.) Luckily, my fridge-orphan ingredients get along quite well.

And by another stroke of luck, the cut-up technique allows me to bypass your actual feelings about food – that it is somehow a debasing necessity which distracts us from other highs – and avoid cooking to this literary menu gem from Naked Lunch (1959):
Filet of Sun-Ripened Sting Ray basted with Eau de Cologne and garnished with nettles / The After-Birth Supreme de Boeuf, cooked in drained crank case oil served with a piquant sauce of rotten egg-yolks and crushed bed-bugs.
So here you go, Mr. Burroughs. Your very own Cut-Up Cake. Containing zero afterbirth.

But I make no guarantees about the crushed bed-bugs.

William Burroughs’ Cut-Up Cake


150g butter
½ cup sugar
3 eggs
½ cup caramel sauce                                         -
1 mushy banana                                                -            Or any other tasty combination of
½ cup fruit sauce or jam (I used tamarillo)         -            leftovers you have lying around.
1 cup roughly chopped hazelnuts                      -
¼ cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 ½ cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt


Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, caramel sauce, vanilla, milk, half of the hazelnuts, and the banana, and stir to combine. Sift in the flour, salt and baking powder. Mix until just combined.

Pour into a greased cake tin and top with spoonfuls of fruit sauce or jam, interspersed with raspberries. Bake at 190C for around an hour, or until a skewer comes out clean. Once the cake is cool, drizzle it with more caramel sauce and sprinkle with hazelnuts.

Enjoy with a cup of tea... because the method may be Burroughs', but the libations probably shouldn't be.

NB. Depending on what leftovers you use, the cooking time could be wildly variable, so keep an eye out. If there's any naughty over-browning at the edges before it's cooked, you can cover the top with foil.

*Not a joke: just ask his second wife and the Mexican police.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Dear Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870),

You should probably know, I have an intense bias against 19th century authors. A seething, resentful, bitter bias. A bias born of having attended class after class after endless class for which Austen was required reading. A bias which turns me grey at the merest mention of social graces or good marriages.* It is my general opinion that most fiction from your century is a half-step above the average Mills & Boon, and I would turn away any tome of it, no matter how well-respected, if there was a nice modern Vonnegut or Auster available instead. It’s nothing personal Charlie, I have no issue with your writing in particular, it’s just that you’re a vomitous Victorian.  

Great Expectations: improved?
This is completely unfair, of course. I quite liked Great Expectations when I was a kid. Some of the film adaptations of your novels are even somewhat palatable on a rainy day. Besides, Henry James called you superficial, and given how much I hate him, that’s high praise indeed. In fact, now that I think about it, your greatest sin is not your fault. How could you have predicted, when penning A Christmas Carol, that you were condemning us to bilious annual retellings in every cheesy sitcom from Family Ties to Sanford & Son? (Six Million Dollar Man’s “A Bionic Christmas Carol,” I’m looking at you in particular.)

OK Charlie, I’ve been too harsh. Given your slew of charmingly scallywaggical ragamuffins and pithy one-liners, perhaps I should leave you out of the vomit club. Especially because, in Dombey and Son,+ you have your jolly Captain give us these words of wisdom:

           Train up a fig-tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade of it.

I’m going to ignore the tree bit, and the old bit, and the shade bit, because: FIGS! Oh my goodness, yum. You can almost never find them in NZ, but they’re available at the moment... at one market in Parnell... if anyone knows of any other places to get a hit, please fill me in via comments. 

I kept the drool out of shot.
Sadly, though, if I were to create a Dickensian fig treat, I would have to base it around the gruel family of culinary slops. So to hell with tradition! You’re getting tiramisu. 

Honey Fig Tiramisu

Serves 10


200g savoiardi biscuits (sponge fingers; about 20-25)
1 cup very strong fruit tea (feijoa or berry flavours work well)
1 tbsp fruit syrup of your choice (I like Monin’s pomegranate)
1/4 cup honey
400g mascarpone
1/4 cup caster sugar
2 eggs
12 figs


Find a dish at least 10cm deep, and big enough to take 10 savoiardi fingers on its base. Mix the tea, fruit syrup, and half of the honey together. Dip half of the fingers in the mixture, and arrange on the bottom of the dish.

Separate the eggs. In a large bowl, beat the yolks until pale, then add the mascarpone, the other half of the honey, and half of the sugar and beat together. In a smaller bowl, beat the egg whites with the rest of the sugar until firm but not stiff. Gently incorporate the egg whites into the mascarpone mixture.  Lather half of the mascarpone cream over the savoiardi arrangement. Slice the figs, and arrange half of the slices over this first layer.

Dip the last half of the savoiardi fingers in the tea and syrup, and layer over the mascarpone cream. Lather the rest of the mascarpone cream over top, and arrange the rest of the fig slices on top. (For those keeping track, that’s fingers-cream-figs-fingers-cream-figs.) Refrigerate for 8 hours to allow everything to firm up.

Slice, drizzle with extra honey, serve, and enjoy with a shot of espresso and/or liqueur, since your tiramisu missed out on both.

*It seems that the Victorian literature which is popular now tends to be about people rallying against social conventions. In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer denies wealthy suitors, and in Sense and Sensibility, the daughters have minds of their own... as much as you can, if you’re corseted out of all consciousness. Many of Dickens’ characters are outside the comforting confines of a nuclear family – seriously, Charlie, how many times can you write about poor orphan boys! But even with all this outside-the-box social writing, it’s still all about the box.

+ Not your most popular work, perhaps because you gave it the unfortunate full title of Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation. Ooooh, I’m hooked.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Dear Toni Morrison (1931 - ),

I realise that it is a cliché for a 90s-educated leftist intellectual to claim The Bluest Eye as one of her favourite novels. Yes, we all read it in high school, and yes, it made our English teachers gooey-eyed, and yes, it taught us valuable lessons about why we shouldn’t want to be what we aren’t. The thought of little Pecola wanting her doll’s blue eyes still breaks my heart. And yes, it has renewed relevance these days. The idea of female beauty being the opposite of whatever one looks like (whiteness for a black girl, in the novel’s case) is played out all over billboards. I think of your book every time I see tanning creams marketed in Western countries, or skin lightening creams marketed in India & Asia. 

Wrong, wrong, WRONG.
But Ms. Morrison, social relevance is not the main reason why I love your book. As an indirect argument for racial and gender equality, it is affecting and important. But, as shameful as it may be, I tend to get distracted from the significance of your themes. Because – here goes – I just think your style is cool! Sorry. This is very much like respecting Nelson Mandela mainly for the cut of his suit, or Germaine Greer for her panache on the dance floor.* I love the way you subvert the stuff of suburban niceness and show its repressive side. The book’s opening, in which the typical “Dick and Jane” story is crushed and cramped into a tight wad of fist-like words, is one of my all-time favourite moments in literary style. 

And it is only a bonus (the icing on the cake, one might aptly say) that your descriptions of food are so luscious. While your female characters might be tied to the stove with a sense of oppressive gendering, what they produce is pure nostalgia. The drinks are always served in jam jars, and the chicken is always crispy, and the children buy sweets at the corner shop with small coins, just like I did back in the day. (Stop. Having the term “back in the day” pop into your head at age 28 is quite startling. Noted. Moving on.)

Now the passage I’m cooking from is remarkably Kiwi. It involves fried fish, and fish ‘n’ chips is our long-standing beach tradition. It’s passed for Christmas dinner at times. There is no evidence, archaeological, anthropological, anecdotal, or otherwise, of distant ties between New Zealand and Southern United States cuisine, so I’m just going to assume that fried fish is universal:

“…every Saturday we’d get a case of beer and fry up some fish. We’d fry it in meal and egg batter, you know, and when it was all brown and crisp — not hard, though — we’d break open that cold beer…” Marie’s eyes went soft as the memory of just such a meal sometime, somewhere transfixed her.
Given that I don’t like beer, and I snagged the only man in the country who shares that view, we’ll just have to incorporate the beer into the fish batter – a technique long known to produce delicate and crispy results. And given that we really don’t like beer, we’ll use lemon lime & bitters instead. Should work, right? (I’m actually quite wrong about that. The good folks at SciAm, who look at food from the perspective of physics, rather than the perspective of gluttony, have written on the specific properties of beer which aid the crisping process. Summary: carbonation is only one of them, and it requires foaming to actually work. Oh well. Experimentation!) Let’s also add some vegetables, because I want to minimise tomorrow morning’s fried food hangover. So here we go. The Bluest Fish (ew, hopefully not):

Lemon lime & bitters: for fizz; also because lemon and fish are a classic combination; also because I like saying “lemon lime & bitters-battered”.

Snapper: a classic Kiwi fish.

Corn and tomato: for summery nutrition and colour.

Parsley: super healthy, and super bright in a puree.

Lemon, lime & bitters-battered fish with parsley puree and corn salsa

Serves 2

Lemon, lime & bitters-battered fish: 

·         2 fillets fresh fish (I used snapper)
·         Canola or other cheap oil, for frying

·         8 tbsp flour
·         1 egg
·         ½ tsp baking powder
·         ½ tsp salt
·         150ml lemon, lime & bitters

Corn salsa with roasties:

·         3 tomatoes
·         1 ear of corn (or frozen kernels)
·         3 small red roasting potatoes

Parsley puree:

·         1 tbsp oil
·         ½ head parsley (about 1 cup), stalks removed
·         ¼ avocado
·         1 tsp lime zest
·         2 tbsp sour cream


Combine all the parsley puree ingredients in a processor and blend until smooth. Add more oil if it’s not moving; you’re looking for the consistency of yoghurt. Combine all the fish batter ingredients (except the lemon, lime & bitters) in a bowl and stir until paste-like. Add the lemon, lime & bitters very slowly, stirring until you get something which looks like pancake batter. Store both mixtures in the fridge. (The batter needs to cool for half an hour or so.)

Cook the corn however you like (10 minutes in simmering water is my method of choice) and shuck off the kernels. Chop the tomatoes into small pieces and combine with the corn. Chop the potatoes into similar-sized pieces. 

Heat the cheap frying oil in a saucepan. Meanwhile, cut the fish into manageable sizes and salt generously. When the oil is hot, lower in the potato pieces (slowly and carefully, wearing protective gloves if you’re worried about splatter injuries). Cook for about 8 minutes or until they go golden and crispy. Drain on paper towels, then add to the tomatoes & corn. 

Dredge the fish pieces in a little dusting flour, and then in the lemon, lime & bitters batter. Shake off any excess and lower the fish pieces carefully into the oil. Cook on each side for about 1-2 minutes or until golden, then remove and drain on paper towels.

Stack up the cooked fish on top of the salsa, sprinkle around any spare potato pieces, and spoon on the parsley puree. 


*I have no idea if Germaine Greer can dance, and I don’t know enough about men’s fashion to make any sartorial judgments on Nelson Mandela. And now the combination of dancing and suits has made me picture them both in full Saturday Night Fever mode. Curse you, childish imagination!

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Dear Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922),

      Every young literary scholar is scared of you. Your opus In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past) is so huge that it turns academics into baseball commentators. Let’s look at the stats, shall we? 

  •  2000 characters 
  •  7 volumes
  • 3200 pages (4300 in English translation)
  • 2.25 hours of my life spent attempting to read the first sentence

"Why Sir, I do believe we've cracked the first paragraph. Huzzah!"

OK, slight exaggeration on that last point. But you have a reputation for being difficult, in a brilliant Parisian sort of way. So when your attention turns to baked goods, I breathe a sigh of relief. Ahhh, a time to sit back, read of tea, and vicariously meditate on the crumbling of a madeleine:

... one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. (Trans: Scott Moncrieff)
Of course, the temporary reprieve of the tea-soaked madeleine also sets up the rush of memories which will fill the next six volumes. Hmm... But oh! Controversy! Madeleines don’t crumble. Marcel, you crafty fox. 

For the uninitiated, madeleines are spongy, cakey, scallop-shaped cookies. A French delicacy, and quite famous for their Proustian heritage.  But scholars – making excellent use of their time and many degrees – have argued over their propensity to crumble. And Proust, because your protagonist was essentially yourself, it’s reasonable to think that you actually did sit over a cup of tea once, and find inspiration in its sodden crumbs. But some scholars suspect that the crumbs must have come from something drier than an eggy, buttery madeleine. Dry toast is the current consensus.

This whole issue has become quite popular among those who enjoy food-fiction crossovers (I call them the lick-lit set.) NPR featured a fantastic interview on the non-crumbling Proustian madeleine phenomenon; you can read the transcript here. A journalist at Slate even tried to reverse-engineer a crumble-friendly recipe, using the details in the passage as clues. This led to the invention of phrases like “hygroscopic properties” and “locus of crumb production”. So there you go. We’re getting all scientific about our curved cookies. Non-Proustian madeleines are the new non-Euclidean space.

Now Marcel, I don’t mean to throw my hat into this ring, because I find it slightly ridiculous that experienced journalists and professors expend their brainpower researching what you may or may not have eaten a hundred years ago. But in your honour, I will create a cookie of such exceptional tea-crumble-ability that it will inspire some future writer to crack the 5000-page mark (apologies to the future scholars of that one). And just to avoid the controversy, it will not be a madeleine. Here’s what’s in your new inspirational tea-crumbly cookie:

Butter: because your usual daily diet consisted of croissants, and we don’t want to shock your system.

Quite a lot of flour: to get that collapsible texture.

Honey: for natural sweetness.

Pepper: because you did not have a sweet tooth, and because pepper with honey seems like a provocative, ticklish, revelatory combination.

Sable: the original French butter cookie; for that haute cuisine feel.

Honey-Pepper Sables

Makes 16

125g butter, softened
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup honey
½ tsp finely cracked black pepper
1 egg, plus one extra for brushing
2 cups flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt


Preheat the oven to 180C.

In a food processor, whip the softened butter with the sugar, honey, and pepper until aerated – about three minutes. Add the egg and whip to combine. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl and add the butter mixture. Combine it without overworking. Shape the dough into a ball and refrigerate for an hour, as you would a pasta or pastry dough. 

Once it's cold, roll out the dough and add more flour if you need to. Cut out around 16 – 18 shapes. Sables are traditionally cut in the crimpy-edged shape, but if I hadn’t had to photograph these, I would have gone all Dali-esque and made airplanes and pineapples, so go nuts. Using a toothpick, draw criss-cross lines in the surfaces of the cookies. Beat an egg, and brush over the tops. Bake for 13 minutes, give or take, until golden.

Soak in tea and be inspired!

Monday, 2 April 2012

Dear Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75)

I feel it is only right, when starting a blog called “The Parmesan Poet,” to address the first entry to a poet of parmesan. You, dear Boccaccio, knew food. You wrote about it, and you ate it. Liberally.


True, you wrote in an early form of Italian and I can’t read your work in its original form. But I choose you anyway, partly because parmesan is a universal language, and partly because your name reminds me of focaccia. (That makes me trust you. Foody-sounding names have brought me to some of my favourite authors. I call this phenomenon gastronomastics. As in: you can’t read Michael Chabon without sipping some Chablis. Just as you can’t read Steven Pinker without chewing on a Pinky bar. Or Kingsley Amis without nibbling a King-size Pinky bar. But I digress.)

You are famous for the Decameron, a collection of spicy vignettes about local Italian characters playing tricks on each other. In one story, a dim fellow named Calandrino is tricked into believing in a land where: 

“they bind the vines with sausages, and a denier will buy a goose and a gosling into the bargain; and on a mountain, all of grated Parmesan cheese, dwell folk that do nought else but make macaroni and ravioli, and boil them in capon’s broth, and then throw them down to be scrambled for; and hard by flows a rivulet of Vernaccia, the best that ever was drunk, and never a drop of water therein.”
I’m not sure what makes me sadder: that the mountain of parmesan did not exist, or that Italians used to dilute their wine with water. (I don’t mourn the sausage vines. For some reason, I suspect that growing grapes in intestinal casings would make the wine even worse.)

But Boccaccio, your story of cheesy topography raises my eyebrows. Parmesan, while delicious, is not known for its structural integrity. You specify that the cheese is grated... well, maybe 14th Century Italians had some form of magic microplane, but my grated parmesan - even a mountain of it - could not support a population of presumably rotund residents. This won't do.

Challenge accepted, Boccaccio. I shall make you a mountain. Not of parmesan – I figure lasagne is a more solid Italian building block. But the parmesan will rain down on it, thick rustic shavings of the stuff. For you, Boccaccio: freeform squash, hazelnut & sage lasagne. Here’s what goes in it:

Nutmeg: like your writing, which was spicy, but warm and endearing.

Sage: because you are considered one of the three wise men of Italian letters (with Petrarch and Dante). Geddit? Sage? 

Squash: I’m sure I could come up with some reason why a gem squash suits you, but honestly, I just had one in the pantry.

Parmesan: because you wrote of a mountain of parmiggiano-reggiano cheese. Though, forgive me, I live in New Zealand, so it’s plain ole parmesan. (PAH-ma-zin in my accent - again, sorry.)

Freeform Squash, Hazelnut, and Sage Lasagne

Serves  4


Fresh pasta:
·         3 cups plain flour
·         3 eggs
·         3 tbsp water
·         1tsp olive oil
·         ½ tsp salt
·         1 egg extra, for egg wash

Squash & hazelnut filling:
·         1 small gem squash
·         100g ricotta
·         2 tsp honey
·         50g parmesan
·         1/3 cup dried mushrooms
·         1/3 cup hazelnuts
·         handful of sage leaves
·         sprinkle of nutmeg
·         squeeze of lemon juice
·         100g ricotta, extra
·         handful of sage leaves, extra

Butter sage glaze:
·         40g butter
·         1/3 cup hazelnuts
·         handful of sage
·         sprinkle of nutmeg
·         sprinkle of flaky salt


Before you do anything, preheat the oven to 180C. Cut the top off the gem squash, drizzle a little olive oil over it, and pop it in the oven to bake until it’s soft.

Fresh pasta:
Find a clean surface. Measure out the flour into a heap, and make a well in the centre. Add the first egg to the well, and gently incorporate the flour by collapsing the edges of the well. Mix the water, oil, and salt, and incorporate half of this the same way. Repeat with the second egg, the second half of the water mixture, and finally the third egg. You should now have a disgusting mess that doesn’t look like it will ever taste good. Continue to work the ingredients together, adding more flour if you need to, until it forms a roughly pasta-like substance. Knead for a few minutes. If you’re using a pasta machine, refrigerate the dough in some cling film for 30 minutes. When it’s well-chilled, run it through the machine on the widest setting, progressing towards a medium setting. If you’re rolling by hand (as I did), knead the dough for a good 10 more minutes until it’s thoroughly pliable. This is a workout. It takes ages, but eventually the dough will spring into a buttery, glorious mattress of deliciousness. Assuming you’re a weakling like me, roll it out until it’s as thin as you can physically make it. If you’re stronger, stop at about 1.5mm.

Take your gem squash out of the oven (it should have had enough time while you’ve made the pasta – about an hour). Scoop out the seeds, then scoop the softened flesh into a food processor. Throw all the other ingredients into the processor as well (except the reserved ricotta and sage), and pulse until chunkily combined.

Assembling the stacks:
Cut the dough into squares, around 10cm x 10cm. Drop a teaspoon of the reserved ricotta onto a square, and smoosh it around to cover the pasta. Add a good two teaspoons of squash filling, then layer a few reserved sage leaves over top. Repeat with more squares of pasta and more filling until your eyes are satisfied. The recipe should make enough for four medium-height stacks. Bake your stacks for around 20-30 minutes, depending on your oven. They’re done when the pasta starts to brown and the ricotta bubbles.  

Butter-sage glaze:
While the stacks are cooking, add all the sauce ingredients to a hot saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted, the hazelnuts are toasted, and the sage is crispy. Pour over the cooked stacks and serve. [Warning: this glaze is dangerous. You’ll resent the pasta for taking up room that could have been used for more glaze.]

Buon appetito!