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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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.