Monday, 24 September 2012

Dear Daphne du Maurier (1907 - 1989),

How the heck have I been writing a literary food blog for all this time, and haven't mentioned you? Daphne, I apologise for the horrendous oversight. You should have been featured long ago. Your books are filled with so many richly described, lavish, drool-inducing treats that I could practically eat the pages.

Perhaps it's because you wrote of people who weren't short of a dollar, at a time when many were. When you wrote Rebecca, for instance, the world was in recovery from the Great Depression. The food, like other fashions, was simple, in deference to the times, yet quietly rather comforting. (Spam notwithstanding.) Even the afternoon teas of the wealthy de Winters in Rebecca were hearty and unpretentious:

"Those dripping crumpets, I can see them now. Tiny crisp wedges of toast, and piping-hot, floury scones. Sandwiches of unknown nature, mysteriously flavoured and quite delectable, and that very special gingerbread. Angel cake, that melted in the mouth, and his rather stodgier companion, bursting with peel and raisins. There was enough food there to keep a starving family for a week."

Perhaps the thought of those starving families is why the food, though plentiful, was kept plain and satisfying. The 1% of just about every other generation have gone overboard with their food, to the point where you could eat impeccably-prepared feasts for hours, and never feed the soul. The aristocracy of the Regency era ate roasted boar's heads. The rich of the Roman Empire ate peacock brains. (And on the baffling flipside, Marie Antoinette, despite her reputed fondness for delicate pastries, actually lived on boiled chicken and water and never told anyone to eat cake.) The bottom line is, no matter how well resourced any generation has been, they've never perfected the art of eating for satisfaction over fashion.

But something seemed to happen to the eaters of the late '30s. Maybe when you have the memory of breadlines fresh on the mind, you seek out soul food. The characters in Rebecca are not poor - yet they eat things that are baked, and hot, and simple, and don't involve foams or spheres of things that are not naturally foamy or spherical. Every morsel is an opportunity for the kind of voluptuous, unctuous, soul-warming pleasure that only comes from the thorough satisfaction of one's appetite. Take note Masterchefs: you can craft little florets of flambéed quails' necks all you want, but I'll pick a dripping crumpet every time.

They also don't eat as much as they make available to themselves, so perhaps they shouldn't be our model of ethical eating. But one way or another, I can relate to the narrator of Rebecca - having married into the unfamiliar wealthy world of an older man, she can focus, as I often do, on the simple pleasures of a laden table. (Can't relate to the marrying-an-older-man bit so much. Despite many stalkerish letters to Noam Chomsky, I didn't marry any older men in my early twenties.)

So now, as I read Rebecca, I'm spoilt for choice as to what to cook. Except that the choice is easy, because the words 'piping,' 'hot,' and 'scones' are sitting there on the page. And since it's just turned spring here at the bottom of the world, my scones must be hollowed out and stuffed with fresh gardeny things. Because if I've learned anything from your writing, Daphne, it's the value of luxurious simplicity.

Stuffed Scones

Makes 8

Ingredients

1 3/4 C flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder 
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
100g butter
3/4 C grated parmesan
3/4 C grated cheddar
2 eggs
3 tbsp greek yoghurt
3 tbsp milk
4 spring onions
1 1/2 C assorted chopped tomatoes
100g haloumi
Handful of flat leaf parsley 

Method

Preheat oven to 200C.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and paprika. Add the butter in small cubes, and rub between your fingertips until it's well-mixed and looks like a sandpit after a rainstorm. Mix through the grated cheeses, eggs, yoghurt, and milk until just combined. Slice the spring onions very thinly. Add half of the diced onions to the scone mix and set the other half aside.

Knead the scone mix until it's springy, around 3-4 minutes. Form an amorphous batter-blob, of roughly even thickness, and cut out shapes. Arrange them on a baking sheet, along with the chopped tomatoes.* Bake for 20-25 minutes. Allow to cool.

Using a paring knife and a teaspoon, carve a section out of the top of each scone to form a bowl. (The scooped-out bits would make flavoursome breadcrumbs... I guess... they didn't make it that far, in my case.) Slice the haloumi and fry in a medium-hot pan until golden. Fill the scone bowls with the tomatoes, remaining half of the sliced spring onions, parsley, and top each with a slice of haloumi. 

Serve with tea in front of a Hitchcock film.

*It's not strictly speaking necessary to bake the tomatoes. I did it because my scones were going to travel with me quite a ways, and I didn't want the tomatoes leaching liquid into the scones. As it happened, they leached liquid onto the baking tray and then into the scones, achieving much the same semi-sodden effect. Their flavour was intensified though, so I think baking them is the lesser of the two evils. You could bake them on a separate tray if you don't mind washing dishes for the rest of your life.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Dear Guy de Maupassant (1850 - 1893),

Here is my typical Saturday thought process:

I want cake.
But I don't want to get out of bed to make one.
But I still want cake.
[Wriggle with angst.]
But I'd rather read for awhile. 
It's warm here in the bed. I'm not getting up.
[Pull out laptop. Search various online literary databases for keyword: cake.]
Ahhhh, a story about cake.
[Read, read, read.]
Y'know what would be really great right now? Cake.
But that's so much effort. 
[Sensible side of brain intervenes]:
Oh for Pete's sake woman, either get up and make cake or shut up about it! Talk about your first world problems!

But I'm so comfy!
Urgh, alright, alright, I'm up.

It's a good thing I read that story too, because it woke me up just enough to stop me from stumbling sleepily into the fridge and stubbing my toe. In fact, that's the great thing about reading a short story on a lazy weekend day. Not only does it settle your brain into a relaxed state of semi-wakedness, it also, if it's about social politics, highlights the appeal of your pajama-clad slovenliness. In other words, Mr. Maupassant, your story shows me how not to eat cake. Madame Anserre serves a cake to her guests at high-class gatherings of the cultural nobility, and there is a fussy elitism around who gets to cut it:

"It was noticed that the privilege of "cutting the cake" carried with it a heap of other marks of superiority--a sort of royalty, or rather very accentuated viceroyalty. The reigning cutter spoke in a haughty tone, with an air of marked command; and all the favors of the mistress of the house were for him alone. These happy individuals were in moments of intimacy described in hushed tones behind doors as the "favorites of the cake," and every change of favorite introduced into the Academy a sort of revolution. The knife was a scepter, the pastry an emblem; the chosen ones were congratulated."

The reason it's so much fun to read this on a lazy Saturday is that I have no such gatherings planned. There will be no classist overtones when I plunge my knife in; no social politics, no favouritism. You know what there will be? Crumbs. Which I will lap up like a starving dog, spill onto my pajamas, and eat anyway. No-one will watch me, and my crumb-picking will not be interrupted by pretentious conversation or down-the-nose glances of haughty diners. I shall eat as impolitely as I please, and though I have the company of Madame Anserre's guests, they are restricted to the page, where they cannot judge my slovenliness.

This is how to eat cake: lavishly, sloppily, without ritual, and over a fine piece of writing.

And so my post-baking thought process goes:

[Cut slice.]
Back to bed!
[Eat. Read. Nap. Drool.]

Chocolate-Orange Mascarpone Mud Cake

Adapted from Cupcakes are Pretentious

Ingredients

Cake:
2C flour
1/2C cocoa powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
180g butter
1C dark chocolate melts
1C caster sugar
1 1/2C orange juice
Few drops orange oil
2 eggs

Topping:
100g mascarpone (room temperature)
100g cream cheese (room temperature)
1C icing sugar
Few drops lemon juice
Fresh berries (I used strawberries & raspberries)
Mint leaves

Method

Preheat the oven to 150C.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter, chocolate and sugar together. Add the orange juice and oil, and stir into a divine-smelling gloop. Pour the choc-orange liquids into the dry ingredients and whisk to combine. Add the eggs and whisk some more until it's smooth and has the texture of pancake batter.

Pour into a cake tin (mine's about 25cm across but that made a very tall cake) lined with baking paper. Bake for 45-60 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool the cake before topping it.

To make the mascarpone topping, beat both cheeses together with the icing sugar and add lemon juice to taste. You might have to adjust the amount of icing sugar and lemon juice to get just the right consistency - it should look like a voluptuous mound of softly-whipped cream. Once it's perfect, pile it on top of the cake and decorate with berries and mint. You could use orange zest or nuts as well if you were in such a mood.

Cut a slice to eat in bed, messily, over a book of short stories (preferably cake-themed).


Monday, 10 September 2012

Dear Yann Martel (1963 - ),

I'm quite emotionally attached to the bottle of orange juice in my fridge. It's just a reconstituted pulpy supermarket brand - nothing fancy or freshly squeezed - and yet it is a presence in my small urban flat. Like the open arms of a mother, it holds all the promise of nourishment, reassurance, and (because my fridge is kinda crap) warmth.

So I completely understand why, when you had to write an orangutan character to echo the role of your protagonist's mother in Life of Pi, you called it Orange Juice. (Or maybe it was the orang- thing. That might make more sense.)

Actually, you could probably get away with calling it anything at all. Since most of the book consists of a young boy's imaginative view of a traumatic situation (being lost at sea), you could call his animal friends by any damned name you wanted and it would seem plausible. A talking sea turtle named Couch Cushion? That's just Pi being imaginative. A flying gerbil named Toilet Seat? Ah, from the minds of babes.*

Search tip: if you're trying to find something as random as "flying gerbil toilet seat" on Google Images, and haven't had any luck, try the formula "[random search terms] AND "Japanese animation"". Works every time.
But Orange Juice makes sense. For an orangutan whose quiet strength and ethereal beneficence makes it a mother-figure, the orange glow of juice is symbolically apt. (Spoiler alert: OJ is also quite short-lived in the book, again, as it is in my fridge.)

Now readers might be thinking: how on earth do you take recipe inspiration from the name of a character? Don't you feel like you're eating / drinking an orangutan, or someone's mother, or both? I don't know how to answer that. Especially when the passage I'm using is this:

"She came floating on an island of bananas in a halo of light, as lovely as the Virgin Mary. The rising sun was behind her. Her flaming hair looked stunning."


When orange juice presents itself to you on a bed of bananas, there's only one thing to make: SMOOTHIES! So yeah, once we throw the orange juice in a blender, we're not really calming down these 'mutilating a living creature' associations. Sorry, Yann. 

Does it help that the smoothie is really, really good? That it tastes as sweet as Pi's first sip of fresh water after 227 days on a lifeboat? But better, because it has mint? Does the mint take away the connotations of monkey-blending?

Or am I perhaps overthinking this, and should shut up now and drink my smoothie?

Yes. Yes I should.

*Actually, my nutty paramour and I have slowly invented a whole mythology of bizarre animals. We have the Caterpillar of Cold Days, and the almighty Food Duck (with his twelve ducklings on a lake of orange sauce), and when we're at work, the Spreadsheet Tortoise. But it's maybe not so cute when 30-year-olds come up with this stuff...


Mutilated Orange-utan Pineapple Smoothie

Serves 2

Ingredients
1C orange juice
1C frozen pineapple - from fresh, people, not tinned^
1/2 frozen banana
Handful of mint leaves

Method
Throw everything into a blender. Blend. Drink. Don't really need a recipe for that. 

^If you use tinned pineapple in this, I will know. I won't say anything, but you'll wake up one morning next to a head of shredded pineapple leaves.