Saturday, 31 August 2013

For Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 - 1881),

"It's like this. Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I'll pull you out.’he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day."
     -- The Brothers Karamazov

It's like this. Once upon a time, when I was an exchange student at UC Berkeley, I spent long, lazy afternoons reading novels under willow trees, talking over coffee with writers and artists, thinking and dreaming, and living a life of the mind. That's how I remember it, at least. But when I examine the memory in more detail, a few extra details emerge. The willow tree was real, but the book I read under it was singular: The Brothers Karamazov. It was assigned as part of a class on existentialism in literature,* and as a supposed great classic, I had no intention of skipping it like 99% of my classmates. So I laboured. Ye gods, did I labour.

Dostoyevsky isn't known for his brevity. Brothers is an eight hundred page doorstop of a book; and had he not died shortly after writing it, it would have been only part one of something even longer. Length alone doesn't bother me - but in addition to its enormity, Brothers is also incredibly dense. All the characters have about 20 nicknames (disclaimer: my memory might be exaggerating this somewhat), and it's quite a task to keep track of who's who.

As a philosophical novel though, there's much to chew over. The parable of the old woman with the onion is about as close as Dostoyevsky ever gets to simple moral judgements. The woman is wicked, and tries to doom others even as she saves herself; thus she burns. Dostoyevsky doesn't usually go in for simple good/bad characters. His characters are usually more like... well, onions. They have layers, they can make you smile and make you cry, they might smell bad and yet taste good, they go great in soups, and okay, I'm thinking less of Dostoyevsky's characters now than the onions.

They also both sweat.
The main similarity between Dostoyevsky's characters and onions is perhaps how much they both frustrate me. To make this caramelised onion tart, for instance, I had to slice a full kilogram of pungent, sadistic onions. I don't know how anyone did this in the days before mandolines. Even with the right tools, I was still blubbering like an idiot after the first vicious bulb.

But it was worth all the tears, the rubbing of eyes, the realisations that the hands I just used to rub those eyes were oniony, the burning, the regret, the washing of eyes, the belated washing of the goddamned hands, and the rewashing of eyes. Because this tart is the perfect mix of rustic charm and savoury sweetness. It's delightfully crumbly and warming, plus with this much onion, it's pretty much a guarantee against future colds.

And even if you make your own pastry, it's still a lot easier than reading Dostoyevsky.

Dostoyevsky would be marginally easier if you tried to mill the flour from scratch, though.

I should probably have another go at getting through the doorstop. It feels wrong to be a PhD scholar in an English department who can't discuss 'the Russians' with an expression of scholarly reverence. I have a vague intention of one day locking myself in a library with a selection of hardcover Dostoyevsky, Tergenev, Tolstoy, Pushkin, et al, sinking into a deep leather chair, and emerging three months later, serious and well-lettered.

Of course this might be the forward-projection version of my rose-coloured Berkeley glasses. What I'll actually do is lock myself in my bedroom with vodka and some ratty paperbacks, read haphazardly for a couple of hours, and emerge confused, tipsy, and restless for something more contemporary. At which point, I'll reread Zamyatin's We, guiltily, probably while eating more slices of onion tart.

Perhaps if I give away a slice of tart, I can appease the gods of Russian literature. Takers?

*The course, which was one of the best I took at Berkeley, is available online or via iTunes. Search for "Existentialism in Literature & Film" with Hubert Dreyfus. 

Caramelised Onion Tart

Serves 3-4 as a main; 8 as a snack

165g cold butter, in small cubes

Scant 2C flour
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp ice water (keep more handy)
1kg onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
100g feta
Small handful each of fresh thyme and oregano


To make the pastry, pulse the butter, flour and salt in a food processor until the butter is just incorporated. You should have a floury, dry and slightly lumpy mix. Add the ice water, pulsing in between tablespoonfuls, until the mixture comes together. Try six tablespoons first; you may need to add a couple more. Once the dough forms a rough ball, pull it out and knead it a few times on a clean workbench. Press it into a disc and wrap in cling film. Refrigerate for around an hour.

Meanwhile, slice the onions (I'm sorry.) Heat the oil in a large frypan over medium, and cook the onions with the garlic, stirring every couple of minutes, until they turn golden brown and sweet. This should take around 30-40 minutes. Add half of the fresh thyme leaves towards the end of cooking.

Preheat the oven to 180C while you assemble the tart. Roll the pastry out into a rough circle, about 4-5mm thick. Load the onions into the centre and spread out, leaving a 10cm ring of pastry uncovered around the perimeter. Crumble over half of the feta. Bake for 45 minutes or until the pastry browns.

Garnish with the other half of the feta (this gives a nice contrast between cooked, crispy feta and fresh white cheese.) Top with the remaining herbs.

I served this for dinner with a salad of rocket, blackberries and shaved parmesan. It's also great as a picnic food.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

For Stephen King (1947 - ),

“Reading in bed can be heaven, assuming you can get just the right amount of light on the page and aren't prone to spilling your coffee or cognac on the sheets. ”
     -- On Writing

Most writers I know are either tea drinkers or coffee drinkers, and there's no space in between. They seem to either be the serene type, composing poetry under elm trees with a thermos of hibiscus tea next to their vintage messenger bag, or they're the wired type, punching out short stories on a well-beaten keyboard in the manner of an insomniac 1940s newspaper reporter. 

I'm definitely in the wired camp. That's not to say that I don't appreciate the calming effects of a nice milky cup of chamomile - I would just prefer to be jazzed than mellow. When I'm blissed out on fruity teas, nothing gets done. But when I'm caffeinated, stories get written, student work gets marked, the house gets cleaned, and I dance in stores like a white guy at a wedding to whatever is on the PA system. It's a whole lot of fun.

Also, you get to drink this. Image from the fabulous blog Espresso Porn.
Sidenote: I usually like to evaluate the level of fun to be found in a food or beverage by asking: how much would you NOT want to eat/drink this while pregnant? It's not a foolproof evaluative device, since most foods would be less safe to eat while pregnant (and also less fun) if you blended a cigarette into them for instance, or a pane of glass. But when it comes to caffeine and soft cheeses, the formula holds.

It seems that Stephen King agrees with me. Coffee strikes me as perfect vicey treat to enjoy in bed over a book, and a perfect way to get your own book written.* In his craft manual On Writing, King talks a lot about how writers should fuel themselves: his argument is, with a lot of reading, and without resorting to drugs and alcohol as proxies for inspiration. But coffee isn't a proxy, right? It might not be inspiration, but at least it helps with the perspiration part.

If I'm tapped of energy and can't think what to write next, a well-timed coffee break, perhaps aided by a small burst of something sugary, knocks me back into life. It's not the healthiest literary crutch, perhaps, but it does the trick. So today, I decided to wrap all my kickstarters into one delicious, crumbly package: espresso chocolate shortbread. And then once I'd blended some delicious ground coffee beans, chocolate and cocoa nibs for the shortbread, I thought: these would work brilliantly to flavour a coffee-based mocktail. And then I ate/drank those things. And then I came to my computer. And then I knocked out this whole blog post in about twenty jazzy, finger-flying minutes.

See? It works.

Well... I say that now. Talk to me in a few hours, and I'll probably be a blithering mess of exhaustion and regret. But caffeine is for writing, and the post-caffeine crash is for guilty pleasure TV watching.

With that in mind, I'm off to write the great Kiwi novel. See you in the Wipeout zone.

*Though presumably King, a recovering alcoholic, skips the cognac.

Espresso Chocolate Shortbread

200g butter, cold
1/2C sugar
1/2tsp salt
2C flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
60g dark chocolate
1 1/2 tbsp coffee beans
1 1/2 tbsp cocoa nibs


Cut the butter into small cubes and load into a giant bowl. (If you have a stand mixer, use that. If, like me, you only have a weakling hand beater, use it but guard yourself from the evil buttery spatter.) Add the sugar and salt and beat until combined - this may take a wee while to break down the cold cubes.

In a small food processor, blitz the chocolate, coffee beans, and cocoa nibs.* Add the fine powder to the the beaten butter, along with the vanilla and flour. Beat again until the mixture comes together in a rough ball.

Roll the dough out to approx 1/2cm thick. Cut out circles and place onto trays lined with baking paper. Refrigerate the loaded trays for at least 40 minutes to allow the mixture to get really cold, and prevent it from spreading in the oven. Preheat the oven to 160C towards the end of the chilling time.

Bake the shortbreads for 25 minutes or until they dry out and brown a little.

You could dip them in dark chocolate once they cool down, but I prefer to dunk mine hardcore-style into yet more coffee.

*If you want to make the accompanying mocktail, add a third over again to each amount, then reserve 1/4 of the resulting powder for the drinks.

Writer's Juice

Serves 2

20g dark chocolate
1/2 tbsp coffee beans
1/2 tbsp cocoa nibs
1 tbsp drinking chocolate
50ml cold coffee
30ml cream
50ml milk

4 ice cubes


Combine all ingredients in a blender. Blend and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with chocolate shavings and/or coffee beans. Serve immediately.


Thursday, 1 August 2013

For Emile Zola (1840 - 1902),

“They all looked at each other cautiously. As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the marolles and the limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the parmesan, while the bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine. The livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained high note.”
   -- The Belly of Paris

The above excerpt of musical cheeses is well-known as Zola's "Cheese Symphony." There are a couple of reasons why that troubles me. 

Firstly, "cheese symphony" sounds like a polite way of describing someone's digestive discomfort after they've indulged in a little too much gouda.

Secondly, there are not nearly enough cheeses here. To achieve an entire symphony of smells, you'd need a whole orchestra of cheese. Where are the keyboards, the harps, the humble triangle? Can't we add an emmental, a sharp cheddar, perhaps a little something smoked?

I'm happy to help in the mission of expanding Zola's cheese symphony. In fact, with an anniversary to celebrate, a food expo in town, and a discount cheese voucher burning a hole in my pocket, I'm more than willing to set up a romantic and comprehensive olfactory feast.

All in service of literature.
But I'll also go a little further than that. Cheese on its own is great. But cheese with honey is pure pleasure. Add a few cheeseboard extras like marinated olives and figs, and the taste combinations are endless.

That's why today's post contains no recipe, but a few ideas on cheeseboard combinations. Taste, tweak, experiment, and enjoy!

By the time I post pictures, I've already eaten the food. That sucks right now.

Cheeseboard Pairings

Cheddar: A drizzle of beechwood honey with a thin slice of cheddar, on a chunky oat cracker. Hell yes. 

Parmesan: A sharp, crumbling parmigiano-reggiano* pairs beautifully with fruit flavours. I had some merlot jelly in the fridge (as you do), but fresh blackberries or berry jams also work well. In fact, fresh warm bread with parmesan and blackberries is my splurgy lunch of choice.

Camembert: (or brie for that matter.) A drizzle of NZ Kamahi honey makes soft cheeses taste even better than they do on their own. And that's saying something.

Emmental: Traditionally served with cold meats or grilled over savoury dishes, but also works really well with marinated figs.

Smoked cheeses: To be honest, I like smoky flavours on their own. Smoked brinza is its own cheese symphony. In a non-gassy sort of way.

Extras: Good quality crackers make a huge difference. I like a couple of choices: something dense and meaty, and something light and wafery. Anything salted is kind of superfluous when you're adding cheese.

Bread and jam get a major facelift.
A cheese-plus board like this is great for romantic occasions, and this one got gobbled up on an anniversary. When you take into consideration the range of little pleasures you're consuming, it's enough to form a light dinner.

Bon appetit, and praise cheeses!

*Parmesan is the generic term, whereas Parmigiano-reggiano is the official term for cheeses from that region. It's like how anything made outside the Champagne region has to be called sparkling wine. They're basically the same thing.