Sunday, 27 October 2013

For Helen Fielding (1958 - ),

“Well done Bridge, four hours of careful cooking and a feast of blue soup, omelette and marmalade."
  - Bridget Jones’s Diary

Teaching Bridget Jones’s Diary to a class of second-year English students is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.

Reason 1: most of them had read the book before coming to class. That almost never happens. All hail the power of pop fiction.

Reason 2: the class divided neatly into three groups. Half of the female readers loved the book – they thought it represented their lives perfectly and captured their anxieties in great comedic fashion. The other half of the female readers thought that it was where feminism went to die, and wanted to smack Bridget in her shallow, man-trailing, diet-obsessed face. And almost every male reader had no idea what they’d just read.

This particular three-group divide led to some of the more entertaining debates I’ve ever seen in an English class. Example:
Student #1: “Bridget Jones is my hero! She doesn’t hide who she is, she’s totally real, she’s me!”
Student #2: “Then I want to slap you with a Germaine Greer book as much as I do her.”
Student #3: “What’s a calorie? Why does she act crazy? Do women really think like that?”
Student #2: “ABSOLUTELY NOT!”
Student #1: “TOTALLY!”
Tutor: [Sits back, enjoys the show.]

I tend to agree with the exasperated feminist reading myself, though if you convince yourself that Bridget is a critique of what society and the media encourage women to turn into (might be reaching there) then it can be quite a fun read in places.

At any rate, I’m proud to be a million miles from Bridget Jones, in attitudes to men, body image, money management, and cooking. For her, serving dinner to friends involves a series of semi-drunken misadventures and blue-souped disasters. For me, serving dinner to friends involves picking friends who won’t judge me if I fail miserably, and then just cooking something that seems tasty. 

Actually there's a bit more to it than that. If I'm being totally honest, I usually cook the day or two before a dinner party so that I have time to fix any disasters. Which is why tarts (as in pies, not using derogatory terms for Bridget here) are quite handy. They keep easily, and can be served at any temperature you want. When I have friends come over in a couple of days, my tart will still taste as good as fresh.

For this tart, I’m adapting Bridget’s orange-themed dessert – but instead of despairing when the fancy Grand Marnier oranges taste like marmalade, I’m going to embrace marmalade as a star ingredient. The result is essentially a bakewell tart, but instead of the full English berry jam effect, I’m going for a more Mediterranean orange-and-almond, nostril-filling headiness. 

So the dessert is an adaptation of Bridget's, but I'm going to be totally faithful to the rest of her menu. Dear friends: come over for blue soup and omelettes!

Friends? Hello? 

Orange-Scented Almond Tart


Tart shell:
200g flour
50g cornflour
150g cold butter, in small cubes
50g sugar
2 egg yolks
4tbsp ice water

Tart filling:
3/4C marmalade
100g butter, softened
2 egg whites
100g sugar
100g ground almonds
2tbsp Cointreau (or other orangey liquer)
2 drops orange oil
150g (approx) flaked almonds
1/3C honey


Tart shell:
In a food processor, pulse the flour, cornflour, cold butter, and sugar until it’s fine and crumb-like. Add the egg yolks and pulse a few more times. Add the ice water, tablespoon by tablespoon, and keep pulsing until the mixture all of a sudden forms a giant ball of dough. (It will happen, you just have to be patient.) Transfer the dough to a floured board and knead a couple of times, then form it into a flat patty and wrap it in cling film. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Once the dough is cold, roll it out and press it into a 30cm fluted tart pan. Refrigerate the pan for another 30 minutes and preheat the oven to 150C (fan-forced.) Line the pan with baking paper and fill with ceramic beans. Bake for 25 minutes; then remove the paper and beans and bake for another 10.

Tart filling:
Increase the oven temperature to 160C (fan-forced.) Spread the baked tart shell with half of the marmalade. Beat together the butter, egg whites, sugar, ground almonds, Cointreau, and orange oil. Pour the mixture over the marmalade. Sprinkle over the flaked almonds and bake for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together the remaining marmalade and honey. Drizzle the mixture over the tart and bake for another 10 minutes.

Serve the tart warm with vanilla whipped cream / ice cream, or cold with Greek yoghurt. A dusting of icing sugar is no bad thing either.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

For Ray Bradbury (1920 - 2012),

“He stood for a few moments, looking about. Behind him the rain whirled at the door. Ahead of him on a low table, stood a silver pot of hot chocolate, steaming, and a cup, full, with a marshmallow in it. And beside that, on another tray, stood thick sandwiches of rich chicken meat and fresh cut tomatoes and green onions.”
-  The Long Rain

The characters in The Long Rain are stuck on the planet Venus in a ceaseless, driving rain. There are supposedly Sun Domes on the planet which will offer respite from the rain, but they are impossible to get into.

Aucklanders are uniquely qualified to understand Bradbury's short story. As we emerge from yet another drizzly winter, we anticipate the moments of spring sunshine that might poke out from between the rain clouds – but somehow they never seem to arrive. Does that make us quasi-residents of the planet Venus? The rest of New Zealand might see some merit in that theory.

The other group uniquely qualified to relate to endless downpours is academics. Perhaps I'm only saying this because it's late October, and the semester is ending, and an unstoppable deluge of assignments and exam scripts are flooding in. But the sunny domes of research time are harder and harder to break into, and the fat droplets of student writing are hitting me in the face. 

What will become of those of us who fit into the double-category of Aucklander and academic? I anticipate drowning. (Though the liquid of choice for academics at the end of the semester is wine, so it might be OK.) I also anticipate having no time to do anything more complex in the kitchen than slap ingredients onto other ingredients. Which is why I can totally relate to the desire of Bradbury's characters to find something simple and warming so that at least the inside of their bodies are a bit warmer than the outside.

I’ve already settled on the perfect hot chocolate, but the perfect chicken sandwich is something I’ve been labouring over for many a delicious lunchtime. The essentials are: 1) ultra-fresh bread; 2) hot chicken, straight from the oven (or rotisserie bag); 3) some kind of toasted seed or nut; and 4) double spreads – one for each half of the bread.

This particular sandwich uses drumstick meat, baby spinach, fresh tomatoes, hummus, guacamole, and toasted sunflower seeds on a warm baguette. I've had similar success with breast meat, salads, aioli, sundried tomato spread, and toasted pinenuts. It's a permissive formula. 

It's also about as much cooking as I want to do in late October. You hear me, fellow academics? I'm already planning my next meal. Let me hear ya say taaaaake-ouuuut!

Restorative Chicken Baguette

Makes 2 hefty-sized sandwiches


1 baguette (I used a soft Italian-style one)
4 chicken drumsticks, roasted or rotisserie
1/2C guacamole (this is my favourite quick recipe)
1/2C hummus
1C baby spinach leaves
2 tomatoes, sliced
2 tbsp sunflower seeds


With the oven at around 180C, warm the bread and toast the sunflower seeds together for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, strip the meat off the drumsticks and set aside. 
To assemble the sandwiches, cut the baguette into halves and split each half. Spread a thick layer of hummus on one side of the bread, and an equally thick layer of guacamole on the other. Stuff in the spinach, tomato and chicken meat, and sprinkle over the sunflower seeds.

Eat over a plate or a napkin - these are messy!

Friday, 11 October 2013

For Helen Barolini (1925 - ),

"It had become his special task to make the ricotta, and he had a big copper kettle, jealously excluded from any other use and kept meticulously shining and clean, which he used on the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. It was like his time as a shepherd in the mountains. On days when the milk was delivered in huge quantities he'd start the fire and have the children keep it continuously fed. Then he'd stir, stir the huge amount of milk in the copper kettle with a beautiful constant rhythm that he had to keep just so, he said, so that the ricotta would come smooth and sweet."
     -- Umbertina

There are no morning people in my household.

My partner and I are usually braindead until I've had my coffee and he his tea, which brings about a dilemma. One of us needs to gather the wherewithal to slump over a boiling kettle while the other dozes uselessly.

On weekdays, when he has to catch an early bus to work, it's him. But on weekends, when his alarm is silent, I have no chance of having my coffee brought to me. His weekend dopiness is so bad that he has been given the nickname 'Sleepy Meerkat' because... well, this happens:

So I have to drag myself out of bed, stumble to the kitchen, and get our reviving drinks underway. The upside of being the early riser is that I get to observe the extended weekend version of SM's hysterically incompetent six-phase waking routine. It goes something like this:

One: Incoherent mumbling
No words are formed, no movement possible. Potential awakeness indicated only by general groaning.
Administer tea.
Two: Dream transitioning
Wildly surreal mumblings about contents of dreams, usually involving anthropomorphised animals, e.g. machete-wielding monkeys in ballgowns.
Remind SM to drink tea.
Three: Dopiness
Waking up now; slight smile, utterances limited to “goo mahnin.”
Reply “good morning,” do not get too close due to risk of paranoia.
Four: Paranoia
World is frightening and unfamiliar; tendency to be startled by curtains, pillows, etc.
Reassure SM that curtains are, in fact, curtains, and not machete-wielding monkeys in ballgowns.
Five: Narrating
Limbs are counted; actions recognised. E.g. “I’m waking up. My leg is over there. It’s bent a bit. There’s an arm in my mouth,” etc. Lasts up to half an hour.
Administer second tea, if in a hurry to progress the phases. If not, induce amusing metanarration by stating: “You’re narrating,” prompting chorus of “I’m narrating. I’m saying what I’m doing,” etc.
Six: Nodding
General agreement with principles of awakeness, manifested in excessive silent head-nodding.
Weekdays: “You’re late for your bus.” Weekends: balance third mug of tea on head; take photos.

On weekdays, with the incentive of needing to get to work, all six phases can rush past within an hour. Sometimes, though, especially on weekends, some form of food is needed to boost SM's blood sugar and get him through the phases. (I have wondered what would happen if, one Sunday, I withheld tea and breakfast. He might just nod all day. He might nod forever, like those people who get the hiccups for forty years. I shouldn't experiment on someone I love. I shouldn't...)

So this morning, I was in the mood for pancakes, and whipped some up from my favourite morning-proof recipe.

But they needed something extra. Some sort of added protein, to help SM remain nod-free throughout the morning. And since I'm still in an Italian mood, that something was bound to be ricotta. I love the thought of eating something long-stirred and drained, even though my ricotta was probably made in a sterile facility by people wearing hairnets, and not by someone's copper kettle-toting Italian papa like in Helen Barolini's novel. Still, even flaccid non-Italian supermarket ricotta can be perked up, with a few additions.

Honey makes everything better. Except maybe ant infestations.
My additions of choice for this recipe are honey, toasted almonds, and a good whipping in a blender cup. Whipped ricotta uses a thinning agent (usually milk) and a lot of aeration to make the ricotta luxurious and creamy. You can dollop the finished product on just about anything - I'd take a spoonful with figs on scones as an Italian take on Devonshire tea. 

But today this whipped ricotta was gorgeous with the season's first strawberries layered between warm pancakes into a huge stack, and drizzled with maple syrup. Actually, I would have happily stopped at "the season's first strawberries," but SM needed more wake-up nourishment than that.

Don't worry, I'll eat more of your friends later.  

I know what you're wondering. Did it work? Did SM take one bite of the magic ricotta-layered pancakes and bolt upright, speaking his gratitude in full, cogent sentences? No. He roused enough to polish off the plate and drudge reluctantly out of bed. But a few moments ago, as I uploaded a photo of his breakfast to this very post, he said: "Oh that looks good, when did you make that?" 

3 hours ago, you adorable dolt.
I would consider this a food fail, but even if he didn't recognise his own breakfast, I enjoyed mine immensely. 

Plus there's some whipped ricotta leftover, which I plan to eat for breakfast tomorrow on thick slabs of french toast with an extra drizzle of honey. Perhaps I should add some pop rocks to SM's plate tomorrow. But I shouldn't experiment on people I love. I shouldn't...

Honey-Almond Whipped Ricotta

Makes just over a cup

70g sliced almonds
200g ricotta
4 tbsp milk
2 tsp honey (I used a wild thyme variety)


Toast the almonds in a dry pan until lightly browned and fragrant. Load the almonds into a blender and grind down to as fine a powder as you can get. Add the ricotta, milk and honey, and blend until smooth and creamy. 

Serve with pretty much anything baked, or with fresh fruit, or both.