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.

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
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
2C icing sugar
2 tbsp buttermilk


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.

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