Saturday, 23 June 2012

Dear Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986),

Your book "The Second Sex" is required reading for every young feminist. You wrote, at the exact right moment in 1949, that "it is not women's inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority." For your work, I and many other women, through many generations, am and should be grateful.

However, this is a food blog. 

So as much as your work might interest me in other capacities, right now, I want to know what a young woman such as yourself, growing up in Paris in the 1910s and 20s, liked to eat.

In my mind, Paris in the 20s is a land of baguettes and brie; mille feuilles and madeleines; crepes and candied chestnuts. Possibly this is based on a recent viewing of "Midnight in Paris," and possibly Woody Allen should not be my source on period Parisian cuisine. 

Woody and his futuristic 10-foot banana from "Sleeper". Subtext anyone?

So Simone, I turn to you for inspiration. Your “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” contains all sorts of youthful impressions of food; an early sense of repulsion with the textures of porridge and fish, transitioning into a girlish delight at fruit candies, and fond memories of Mama’s powdered sugared almond creams. (Powdered almonds... sugar... cream... getting inspired...)

Indeed you even consider it your duty to control the universe by eating it:

"I was never attracted to paradises flowing with milk and honey, but I envied Hansel and Gretel their gingerbread house: if only the universe we inhabit were completely edible, I used to think, what power we would have over it! When I was grown-up I wanted to crunch flowering almond trees, and take bites out of the rainbow nougat of the sunset... Eating was not only an exploration and an act of conquest - an acquired taste in the real sense of the phrase - but also my most solemn duty."

Mine too, Simone, mine too. It is my duty, today, to take the fruit of almond trees, powder it down with sugars, and form a delicate Parisian biscuit worthy of your youthful tastebuds. It is then my further duty to stuff those biscuits with American volumes of buttercream, and temper the American excesses with a French combination of pear and chocolate (a combination known as ‘Belle Helene’). Since your sister was named Helene, this is almost relevant to your memoirs! My final, most solemn duty, will be to eat the resulting macarons, with maximum greed and licking of bowls, as an act of feminist imperialism. I eat the fruits of my kitchen to dominate my kitchen, and to transform it from a feminine prison to a centre of pleasure! With this double-stuffed Belle Helene macaron, I say booyah to the patriarchal tradition!

OK, maybe I just want to eat macarons. But still, I thank you and your fellow feminist pioneers for allowing me to cook only when greedy, and never by gender-obligation.






Double-Stuffed Belle Helene Macarons

Ingredients

Macaron shells: 
2 cups icing sugar
1 cup ground almonds
6 tablespoons high-quality cocoa powder
4 egg whites (room temperature, preferably 2 days old)
2/3 cup caster sugar

Buttercream:
50g butter (softened)
100g dark chocolate
1 cup icing sugar

Caramelised pears:
1 can pears
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup brown sugar

To finish:
1/2 cup slivered almonds

Method

To make the macaron shells, load the icing sugar, ground almonds, and cocoa powder into a food processor and blend until they are all combined. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until thick and foamy, then add the caster sugar slowly and keep beating until the mixture reaches the consistency of shaving foam - all thick and glossy. Once you have a nice stiff meringue-y mix, stop beating. Slowly sift in the powdered dry ingredients, in four batches, stirring minimally to combine. Rule of thumb with macarons: you want to stick to a maximum of 40 strokes to combine wet and dry ingredients. Gently does it! Once you have a batter, load it into a pastry bag (I use a large zip-lock bag with a corner cut off.) Pipe small (2-3cm diameter) rounds onto lined baking trays, spacing them slightly apart. Give the trays a firm whack on the counter to eliminate any air bubbles. Leave the macaron batter rounds to dry out for an hour.

Meanwhile, make the buttercream by melting the dark chocolate, then beating in the softened butter and icing sugar. Using an electric beater, mix the buttercream until it's glossy and firm. You are shooting for a texture that's creamy but structually sound enough to hold up a macaron shell - tinker with the amount of icing sugar if your buttercream is too thin, or add a dash of milk if it's too thick. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Time to make the caramelised pears: in a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Slice the tinned pears into slivers small enough to be sandwiched in a macaron - I got three slivers per pear half. Throw these into the melted butter and cook until slightly browned. Add the brown sugar and cook until caramelised. (Don't leave them in there forever though, otherwise you get toffee... which is also yummy... but not delicate enough for a macaron.) Remove the pear slivers and set aside.

Crush the slivered almonds into even smaller slivers, and toast them in a dry pan until golden and fragrant. Set those aside too.

By now, your oven should be hot. Cook the macaron shells, one sheet at a time, for 15 minutes on the middle rack. Since ovens are variable, you might want to use the first sheet as a test batch. They should come out crispy on the outside, and marshmallowy on the inside. If they are still gooey, increase your cooking time; if they are too crunchy, decrease it.

Once all your macaron shells are cooked and cooled, it's time to sandwich them up. For each shell, dollop a bit of buttercream on the underside. Rest a piece of caramelised pear on the buttercream. Sandwich with another buttercreamed shell to form a full macaron. Roll through the crushed toasted almond slivers so that some stick to the filling. Eat and thank me in the comments!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Dear Robert Frost (1874 – 1963),


I temporarily resent you. You’ll see why in a minute. It’s not actually your fault. But still, for the moment: you suck.

OK, I’m going to put aside my bitterness. Because underneath it, I should be grateful to you. You stepped into the world of American letters at a time when poetry was somewhat high and mighty. Longfellow held sway when you were born, and he was obsessed with big poems, epic poems, poems that make the heart sing aloft to the heights of Mount Olympus, where they might touch the gods and break through the very clouds above! You get my point. 

For those of us who are interested in poetry as a window on the real world of real people, you were part of a very welcome new era. While many of your contemporaries toiled away under the umbrella of Modernism – paring back poetry to its core, intellectualising it, experimenting with it, depersonalising it – you took it to the fields. Mr. Frost, your predecessors wrote for the gods; your contemporaries for the scholars; while you wrote for the people

Your poems take place in quite simple, rustic settings. You usually take us to an orchard or a gentle wood somewhere, and consider life for a few stanzas, before releasing us. In “Blueberries,” for instance, your two gossiping townsfolk tell us about a father who raises a family of berry-eaters:

 “He has brought them all up on wild berries, they say,
Like birds. They store a great many away.
They eat them the year round, and those they don't eat
They sell in the store and buy shoes for their feet."
"Who cares what they say? It's a nice way to live,
Just taking what Nature is willing to give”

Despite what “Sex and the City” would have us believe about 21st Century women, I’d rather eat berries than trade them for shoes. So this poem rather appeals to me. Especially when the berries are described so lushly:

The fruit mixed with water in layers of leaves,
Like two kinds of jewels, a vision for thieves.

Hmm... a berry-based recipe... preferably frosty... this led me to consult the fridge.

There’s berries there, I think I know
There’s tofu: could be risky though
I’ve seen it whipped into an air
To make a mousse’s volume grow

But I’m concerned it could be gross.
My paramour would be morose
To eat a berry-coloured slop
To satisfy my grandiose

And strangely vegan lit-ambitions.
It may provide him ammunition
For future fights, or tiffs, or spats,
Or angry claims of malnutrition.

Or it could be lovely, light and sweet
And healthy, as a breakfast treat
And if it ain’t, we shall not bleat,
For we’ll be dozy as we eat.

This, Mr. Frost, was how you inspired a tofu-raspberry mousse. And this is why I now resent you. Because y’know what? The mousse was disgusting. Even to a dozy morning-brain, it tasted like dirt. Tofu is fine if it’s cubed and fried and disguised with vegetables. But as the star ingredient in a sweet dish? NO. There’s a reason why tofu is the road less travelled by. Sigh. 


Tofu-Raspberry Mousse

Serves 2-3, or a very hungry garbage bin

Ingredients

300g soft tofu
250g raspberries (fresh or, if frozen, thawed)
4 tbsp honey
2 tsp lemon juice
Yoghurt and muesli, to serve

Method

Combine the tofu, raspberries, honey and lemon juice in a blender. Blend for a really long time. Then blend a bit longer. Let me inform you of the implications of ignoring my instructions here: if you don’t blend forever, you’ll end up eating flakes of pure, raw tofu in the morning. Scared yet? Good. Blend some more. 

Divide the mixture into wine glasses and chill overnight. In the morning, top with yoghurt and muesli. Take one (very small) bite. If you really, really, irrationally love tofu, keep eating. Otherwise, make a face, swear loudly at me for writing this recipe, and prepare some toast.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Dear Stephen Hawking (1942 - ),


The other day, after a morning of learning about physics at a literary festival, my significant other and I went to a cafe. It was one of those terminally unhip places where tattered Christmas decorations are still up in May, and everything on the menu contains sundried tomatoes because the owners heard they are in this year.

We ordered drinks and split a giant chunk of something intended to be lasagne-esque. After trucking hungrily through the pasta-like substance, we came to the side salad. It was sparse and pitiful, garnish-sized, and dressed in what I can only assume was some kind of petroleum by-product. 

Trouble was, as desperately hungry as we were, this mini-salad would not be speared. Our forks disappeared into its leafy fronds and came out unadorned. There was simply so much empty space in this salad, so much nothingness, that it could not be transported to our waiting mouths. 

Having recently attended a lecture by Lawrence Krauss based on his new book A Universe From Nothing, this predicament took on an almost astrophysical significance. Turns out, empty space is not empty at all. Nothingness is never nothing. Particles zing in and out of existence all the time; theoretically, it would be possible for an entire universe to pop into existence in my living room as I type this.

In fact, Dr. Hawking, I was reminded of your famous assertion in A Brief History of Time that:

“What we think of as ‘empty’ space cannot be completely empty because that would mean that all the fields, such as the gravitational and electromagnetic fields, would have to be exactly zero... There must be a certain minimum amount of uncertainty, or quantum fluctuations, in the value of the field.” (112)

In other words, so-called empty space actually contains virtual particles, invisible so far to us, but measurable through the indirect effects they cause. 

Stabbing fruitlessly at my almost-empty space salad, I realised: it was not the salad’s fault that its cavernous spaces did not give rise to instantly materialising sturdy leaves! Indeed, my fork was not probing into ‘empty’ space at all, but rather exploring loaded space, waiting for tomatoey particles to join around it. They fact that they didn’t might be evidence that I don’t fully understand the behaviour of particles; or perhaps it’s evidence that cafes need to develop more molecularly malleable foodstuffs.

Either way, I felt much better about my unforkable salad once I’d come home and created something equally hard to eat, but much tastier. I imagined its airiness might give rise to a spontaneously generated affogato for dessert, but alas, particle physics has some catching up to do before it meets my demanding standards. 

In your honour, Dr. Hawking, I present the Almost-Empty Space Salad!

 
Almost-Empty Space Salad

Serves 2

Ingredients

Rocket leaves, or other spindly salad leaves
2 tomatoes
40g grated parmesan

Carrot Mousse
1 carrot
1 yellow carrot
1 ½ tbsp butter
1 ½ tbsp flour
1C apple juice
Salt & pepper
Nutmeg

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C. 

Thinly slice the tomatoes, and arrange them on a lined baking tray (leaving some space). Arrange the grated parmesan into four sparse discs on the baking tray. Place the tray in the oven and bake the cheese & tomatoes for about 5 minutes, or until the parmesan is melted and golden. Remove the parmesan rounds (they should stick in a nice neat, but stretchy, circle) and rest them on a plate in a single layer to crisp up.

Return the tomato slices to the oven and bake around another 30 minutes, until dried out but not blackened. Keep checking them, as the timing can be variable. When they’re dry and leathery, remove them and set aside to cool.

To make the carrot mousse, cook the carrots however you want (boil, steam, microwave, etc) until soft – just make sure to follow the laundry-day rule, and keep the colours separate. When soft, blitz each one separately in a blender or processor with a dash of apple juice to form a puree. Transfer your yellow & orange purees into medium sized bowls. 

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan, and add the flour. Stir for a minute or so, until it thickens up into a roux. Add the remaining apple juice (about ¾ cup) and simmer until thickened. Add the nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Divide the saucy apple mixture between the bowls of carrot puree, and mix each well. Spoon the mixtures into small dishes (crème brulee dishes work well) and bake at 180C until bubbling (around 30 minutes). Leave to cool, then refrigerate until really cold.

To serve, arrange the leaves, tomato slices, daubs of cold carrot mousse, and parmesan crisps on a plate. Stab ineffectually with a fork several times. Give up, and shove your mouth into the plate like a pig at a trough.

Or... like a particle hovering on the edge of a black hole. Ah, Dr. Hawking, you see what I did there?