Friday, 19 April 2013

For G. K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936),

"Tea, although an Oriental,
Is a gentleman at least;
Cocoa is a cad and coward,
Cocoa is a vulgar beast"
   -- The Song of Right and Wrong

If I didn't know any better, I might be tempted wage war with G. K. Chesterton over these few lines. In addition to the egregious racism of the reference to tea (his were different times, but still...) I can't stomach the disdain for cocoa.

Who could be bitter about something so sweet?
I mean, come on. Cocoa is a vulgar beast? Chesterton, did you never try chocolate cake? Wait a minute... something doesn't add up. G. K. Chesterton was a corpulent man. Once during the war, when someone asked him why he wasn't out at the front, he was rumoured to have replied "if you go round to the side, you'll see that I am." Surely a man of such generous dimensions wasn't shy of a little powdered chocolate.

As a matter of fact, his tirade of insults towards humble cocoa had little to do with his tastebuds. When he published his disparaging little ditty in 1913, Chesterton was employed as a writer for the Daily News. The Daily News was owned by famed chocolate magnate George Cadbury. George Cadbury was a prominent supporter of the sitting Liberal government. Senior Liberal party members were embroiled in an insider trading scandal. Chesterton was involved in exposing the scandal. In this rather tense state of affairs, Chesterton considered it distasteful to keep writing for a Cadbury (Liberal) paper when his own political leanings were so far opposed to that of his employer.

So, making his contribution to the proud history of resignation letters which give a subtle, creative middle finger to the boss, Chesterton 'resigned' by printing his anti-cocoa ditty in another publication. Nothing personal, cocoa. (Except that Chesterton supposedly didn't like the taste of it any more than he did the politics. Nutjob.)

But enough. A hundreed years have passed since then. Chocolate and politics still mix - mostly in my mouth when I chomp on fair-trade-no-palm-oil slabs of the stuff - but surely we can enjoy a hot mug of cocoa without thinking about insider trading. Especially now that the weather in the Southern Hemisphere is packing in, and the storm clouds are rolling by, sending cold sheets of less-interesting beverages pounding onto my head.

Love you too, Auckland.
Right, so it's decided. Cocoa is on the menu. But to placate Mr. Chesterton, I shan't use that wimpy Cadbury powder. Instead, I'll use my trusty mulled wine recipe, but rather than using wine as the base, I'll use milk and chocolate melts. Then I'll add the nutmeg, cinnamon quills, orange zest, and other tasty bits that make mulled wine so... mully (in a non-X Files kinda way.)

Finally, I'll add a few flakes of dried chilli for warmth, and some salt to set the whole recipe into overdrive. See Chesterton? In 2013, cocoa is neither cad nor coward.

In this form, though, you might be right about the 'vulgar beast' bit. Mmmm, sweet vulgarity.

Mulled Hot Chocolate

Serves 2-3

1/2 C dark chocolate melts
2 C milk
2 cinnamon quills
Peel of 1/2 an orange, in large strips
Fresh nutmeg
Pinch chilli flakes
Pinch salt


Warm the milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the chocolate melts and orange peel. Grate in some fresh nutmeg to taste (I use about 1/4 tsp.) Grate a little off the end of one of the cinnamon quills, and drop both quills plus the gratings into the saucepan. Add a tiny pinch of chilli flakes - about 3 flakes. This is just enough to ensure warmth, without making the finished product taste like chillies. Add the salt and stir with a wooden spoon.

Simmer the mixture, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate has melted and the flavours have mingled, about 10 minutes. Before serving, strain the mixture through a fine sieve to remove any large flavourings. Serve in small shots as this is very rich. (Then have seconds because it's delicious.)

Saturday, 13 April 2013

For O. Henry (1862 - 1910),

"Betimes I was stirred by invalid longings for something to eat that did not come under the caption of 'grub.' I had visions of the maternal pantry 'deep as first love, and wild with all regret,' and then I asked: 'Jud, can you make pancakes?'"
   -- The Pimienta Pancakes

Ah, pancakes.

In O. Henry's story, a hungry man waiting for his pancakes listens to the cook tell a tale. It goes like this:

Two men are interested in one woman. Man #2 swears that he is only pursuing her for her secret family pancake recipe, and will back off if Man #1 gets the recipe from her. So Man #1 tries to coax the woman to give up her pancake recipe, but every time he says 'pancakes,' she shrinks away. Eventually, Man #1 hears that Man #2 has eloped with the woman. How? He told her that Man #1 had an old frying-pan-to-the-head injury, and would rave about pancakes when he got "overhot or excited."

Let's think about this: he would rave about pancakes when he experienced frenzy or agitation.

It might not have been true of Man #1, but it's a pretty convincing lie. Because really, pretty much any agitation can be cured with pancakes.

I had a long day at work! Pancakes are reviving.
I have no money! Pancakes cost cents to whip up.
Life is generally too hard! Pancakes make it better.
Life is better now! More pancakes take it one notch higher. 

Plus, as a general bonus, they provide an excellent base for flavoured butters, like this mound of whipped cinnamon silkiness.

Think of it as moisturiser for your stomach lining.
The one thing I'm torn on, though, is height. Do I go for thin, crepe-like British pancakes, sprinkled with lemon juice and sugar just as Mama used to make, or do I go for a fat, fluffy Americanised short stack?

This decision is too hard! Pancakes will make it better.

Dammit. That didn't help. But in honour of O. Henry's citizenship, I went for the Yankee stack, stuffed with berries, topped with a lashing of cinnamon butter, and drizzled with maple syrup.

So if pancakes are the cure for being "overhot and excited," what should I do when the pancakes are themselves exciting? Eat more, I guess. What a marvelously vicious circle.

Mixed Berry Pancakes with Cinnamon Butter

Serves 2

1 1/3 C flour
1 tbsp white sugar
Pinch salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 C buttermilk (or a scant 1/2 cup milk & 1/2 tbsp vinegar)
1/2 C milk
1 egg, separated
2 tbsp melted butter
1 C frozen berries (I used raspberries & blueberries)
Oil spray or butter, for the pan
Cinnamon butter:
2 tbsp butter, softened slightly
1 tsp cinnamon
Fruit garnishes:
Fresh berries
1 banana
Maple syrup


If you don't have buttermilk, combine half a cup of milk and half a tablespoon of vinegar, and set aside to curdle for 5-10 minutes while you make the pancake batter. 

Sift together the flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda. Toss the frozen berries through the flour mixture (this stops them from bleeding too much colour). In a separate bowl, combine the buttermilk (or vinegar-curdled milk), regular milk, and egg yolk. Add the melted butter and whisk well. Slowly incorporate the wet ingredients into the dry. Beat the egg white until stiff, and gently fold it into the pancake batter.

Cook quarter-cupfuls of pancake batter over medium-high heat in a little melted butter or oil spray. Wait until bubbles appear on top, then flip and cook until brown on both sides. Keep warm in a low oven or warmer while you make the rest of the pancakes.

To make the cinnamon butter, stir cinnamon into the butter. You might be tempted to add brown sugar, but don't. The whole delight of the cinnamon butter is the play of its saltiness on the sweet pancakes.

To serve: fry segments of banana until browned. Top a stack of pancakes with a spoonful of cinnamon butter, fresh raspberries, and fried banana. Drizzle maple syrup on top. Swoon.

Monday, 8 April 2013

For Beatrix Potter (1866 - 1943),

"It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is 'soporific.'"
   -- The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies

Beatrix Potter was a smart lady. In addition to writing children's books, she was a keen scholar and might have become a professional botanist, had the Linnaen Society not refused to let a woman present a paper. (Gasp! A woman scientist? Sadly, reactions haven't changed that much.) 

But she pottered (ha - see what I did there?) along independently, doing her own private studies, and producing brilliant scientific drawings along the way. So when she writes about the soporific effects of lettuce, you have to assume that it's more than a plot device to act upon anthropomorphised bunnies. 

Turns out, she was right. The sap from cut lettuce contains lactucarium, a substance structurally reminiscent of opium, and (in sufficient quantities) an effective sleep-inducing painkiller. It's not going to get you high or anything, but put it this way: you wouldn't want to have piles of lettuce on your poppy seed bagel before taking a drug test. 

None of this, either.
If you're just lounging around on a Saturday afternoon, however, mindlessly watching sports* on television, the relaxifying help might be welcome. So here's what you do. You take the concept of the salty TV snack, and you imagine how a flopsy bunny might alter it. Of course, you'd start with lots of lettuce. Cos leaves make for nice natural cups, so now what? 

Replace the traditional pretzel / chip snack with some healthy roasted chickpeas. Douse them in a liberal coating of chilli flakes and smoky paprika. Then assemble the whole lot with some fresh asparagus, feta, and lime cheeks. Voila! Ultra-relaxing, healthy, crunchy TV treats that you can wolf down in two bites, before curling up into a nice, lazy nap. Just don't let nasty Farmer McGregor find you.

*I never, never do this. I mean, what is the appeal of watching other people use their muscles in a pointless frenzy of narrative generation? But there was a triathlon happening outside my apartment last weekend, and I was too lazy to actually go out and watch it in person.

Chickpea Lettuce Snack Cups

Serves 2 as a substantial snack or light meal

1 head of cos lettuce
1 can (420g) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1/2 tsp salt
1 bunch asparagus
50g feta
1 lime


Preheat the oven to 180C. Toss the chickpeas with the oil, paprika, chilli, and salt. Roast for 25 minutes. Meanwhile, wash and chop the asparagus into short (1cm) segments. Add the asparagus to the chickpeas and roast another 10-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Snap the leaves off the head of cos; wash and dry well. When the roasty bits have cooled, flake the feta through and spoon the mixture into the lettuce cups. Serve with lime for squeezing.