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.