Saturday, 13 July 2013

For A.A. Milne (1881 - 1956),

"For this trick you want a lemon and a pack of ordinary playing-cards. Cutting the lemon in two, you hand half to one member of your audience and half to another, asking them to hold the halves up in full view of the company. Then, taking the pack of cards in your own hands, you offer it to a third member of the party, requesting him to select a card and examine it carefully. When he has done this he puts it back in the pack, and you seize this opportunity to look hurriedly at the face of it, discovering (let us say) that it is the five of spades. Once more you shuffle the pack; and then, going through the cards one by one, you will have no difficulty in locating the five of spades, which you will hold up to the company with the words "I think this is your card, sir"—whereupon the audience will testify by its surprise and appreciation that you have guessed correctly. It will be noticed that, strictly speaking, the lemon is not a necessary adjunct of this trick; but the employment of it certainly adds an air of mystery to the initial stages of the illusion, and this air of mystery is, after all, the chief stock-in-trade of the successful conjurer."
   -- The Sunny Side


Most of us probably remember A.A. Milne fondly from childhood readings of Winnie the Pooh and the Christopher Robin poems. I personally remember reciting "They're changing the guard at Buckingham Palace / Christopher Robin went down with Alice" repeatedly while dancing wildly through hallways for much of the late '80s. It was like a posh version of the song that never ends. (My poor parents.)

But Milne was not just a children's author. He started out as a humorist with Punch, a magazine that must surely have been an inspiration for the wonderful Private Eye. It was full of cartoons and columns to make the turn-of-the-century Briton chuckle into his tea, and Milne made his name there. It wasn't until much later, in fact, that he turned to children's writing - by which time, he'd written everything from early screenplays to novels to stage drama. 

But it's Milne's satirical writings that tickle my fancy. In one Punch extract, he wrote a list of party tricks that included the above lemon magic trick. The hapless 'magician' does nothing more than steal a glimpse at someone's card, while using a completely pointless lemon to distract the audience. This seems pretty much bang on accurate to every magic act I've ever seen.

Personally, I'd prefer to put my lemons to good use in some kind of delicious baked good, such as these mini scones. The beauty of these is that they start out tasting relatively plain... but add a drizzle of lemon-honey syrup, and then another drizzle of tart icing glaze, and the inner crumbs absorb extra moisture until they become little cakey bites of summer. 

"Little cakey bites of summer" sounds like a euphemism for mosquitoes, now that I think about it.
Of course it's not summer here in the Southern Hemisphere, so I added honey to these to ward off any impending sniffles. Anytime I can taste summer while fighting winter counts as a win, in my book. 

Speaking of books - eat these while flicking through Milne's collection of Punch articles and assorted stories courtesy of Project Gutenberg. The ephemera in section VII are particularly good for short bursts of fun.

And speaking of short bursts of fun: "THEY'RE CHANGING THE GUARD AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN WENT DOWN WITH ALICE!"

Sorry Mum.

 
Lemon Honey Double Drizzle Scones

Ingredients

Scones:
2C plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
120g butter
1/2C honey
Juice & zest of one lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg

Syrup: 
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp honey

Glaze:
3 tbsp lemon juice
1C icing sugar

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together. In a separate bowl, cream the butter and honey. Add the lemon zest and juice, vanilla, and egg and beat well. Incorporate the butter mixture into the dry ingredients and incorporate until it all comes together smoothly. You can beat on low if needed.

Shape the mixture into balls of about one tablespoon each and arrange on a baking tray. Bake for 10 minutes; turn the tray, and bake a further 5-8 minutes or until lightly browned on top.

Syrup: warm the lemon juice and honey together in a small saucepan until reduced and slightly syrupy. Transfer to a fine-lipped jug and drizzle over the scones while they're still warm.

Glaze: beat the lemon juice and icing sugar together to form a thin liquidy glaze. Transfer to a fine-lipped jug and drizzle over the scones while they're warm, for a translucent effect, or when cool for visible lines of icing.

Makes about 30. Serve with tall glasses of raspberry lemonade.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

For Philip K. Dick (1928 - 1982),

"He had reached his sheep, now; it lay ruminating, its alert eyes fixed on him in case he had brought any rolled oats with him. The alleged sheep contained an oat tropic circuit; at the sight of such cereals it would scramble up convincingly and amble over."
     -- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep


In Philip K. Dick's novel (best known as the inspiration for Blade Runner) the world is covered in dust after a devastating world war, and very few animals have survived. Most humans have flown off to other worlds; for those left on earth, their status in society is determined by the animals they own. But for poor Deckard, who can't afford a real animal, his troublesome robotic sheep has to suffice. It is programmed to behave like a real sheep, all the better to fool his neighbours. Hence, when he arrives with rolled oats, it 'acts' excited.

This is how I know I'm not a robot. My oat-inspired scrambling is not a programmed response. It is filtered through so many senses -- it builds through autumn, and peaks in July, and the oats prompt visions of thick, silky bowls of porridge and toasty cookies, warm from the oven and smelling vaguely of nuts. I can practically taste the cinnamon, the warmed winter fruits, I can even feel the full-belly satiety that comes only from a bowl of oats.

The only exception to this complex, sensory oat response comes on the five out of every seven winter mornings that are workdays. On those days, the oat response is simple. Wake up. Imitate consciousness. Prepare instant oats from a packet. Eat. But I swear, on those other two mornings, there is actual human brain activity involved.

So if I'm a robot, I must be very advanced. I could only be a robot of such complexity that the oat response hits all the senses. I would have to be built with a crazily complex mix of sense mechanisms, electrical impulses, and behavioural responses... oh, wait.

Perhaps it doesn't matter whether we are biological androids or some higher form of life. Perhaps I'm overthinking this. Perhaps I can just eat my damned porridge without falling deep into metaphysical / ontological / philosophical enquiry.

Because on the two mornings per week when I have time to make it properly, porridge is a sublime experience. This one combines rolled oats with apples and pecans cooked in maple syrup to form a bowl so filling, so comfortingly sweet/spicy, that I don't really care anymore what form of life I am.

Oats: sighted. Oats: consumed. Probability of oat recurrence: 100%.

Android win.


Pecan Apple Porridge

Makes 2 hearty servings

Ingredients
1.5C rolled oats
2C water
1C milk
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cinnamon stick
Pinch of salt
1 tsp butter
1 tbsp maple syrup
1/3C pecan nuts, roughly chopped
2 apples
Vanilla yoghurt and extra maple syrup, to serve

Method

The night before you want to serve the porridge, combine the oats with 1.5 cups of water and leave to soak overnight.

In the morning, transfer the oats and soaking water to a saucepan. Add the extra half cup of water, full cup of milk, vanilla, cinnamon stick, and salt. Simmer for 8-10 minutes or until thickened, but not homogenously smooth. Add extra water if needed to stop it getting dry.

While the porridge cooks, melt the butter and maple syrup together in a large saucepan. Cut the apples into wedges and throw them in the saucepan. When they begin to turn golden, add the chopped pecan nuts and cook until the apples are soft, and the nuts aromatic.

Remove the cinnamon quill from the pot and discard. Serve the porridge in deep bowls, topped with the apple & pecan mixture. Drizzle with vanilla yoghurt and extra maple syrup.