Friday, December 31, 2010

Oh my buttons!

In The Mill on the Floss, Tom explains to Maggie why he will not be running away the next day.  “It’s the pudden,” he confides, “I know what the pudden’s to be--apricot roll-up--oh my buttons!”  I’ve never heard of a roll-up before except of course those strips of candied fruit puree that kids used to (do they still?) have in paper-bag lunches called “fruit roll-ups.”  I assume this is a pastry.  It sounds very appealing, but more appealing to a not especially wealthy nineteenth-century English family who only ever has such things on special occasions than to my contemporary palate.  Apricot roll-up, ever since I read that sentence, has taken on a vibrant and uncertain life in my imagination.  I keep thinking of the words nd of why Tom is oh-my-buttonsing about it.  Incommensurate images float unresolved in my mind.  How is it rolled up?  It is made from fresh, dried, or otherwise preserved apricots?  What kind of pastry dough are they rolled up in: pate brisee, pate sablee, puff pastry, yeasted dough, or something else?  What is apricot roll-up?  At this point a google search would not answer the question I’m trying to ask.  I don’t want to know what it was historically, what George Eliot may have been referring to.  Because I don’t know what it is I have begun to imagine something.  I want to know what that something is, and in what ways it might be brought into the world.

Or maybe, considering what I did recently bake, I don’t want to make it tangible at all, and I’m content letting it draw me toward baked semblances.  After making pear-ginger tarte tatin and sweet potato pie for Christmas, I still had some pie dough leftover in the fridge.  Thinking of apricot roll-up, I rolled the remaining dough into a roughly rectangular sheet, covered it in thin pear slices, sprinkled it with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg, rolled it up and baked it at 400 F.  Well, fifteen minutes in I became paranoid that it wouldn’t become properly crisp and turned it up to 425 F.  Also I tried to pucker the ends together to keep the juices from running out too much.  The juices did run out and burned to a black caramel at the bottom of the pan, but I liked it.  It was a roll-up.  The nice thing about a culinary fantasy defined by a single word with little semantic grounding is that it can be many things.

I was also pleased because this pear roll-up was made from things that just happened to be around.  Probably derived from the frugality endorsed by environmentalism and an ego-aspiration to quiet resourcefulness, this is also one of my foremost culinary desires.

Like the sweet potato pie of last entry, I liked it because of what I thought I was making as well as because it, I thought, tasted good.  Some vagueness or polyvalence in what I imagine I’m making seems to be a necessary part of this equation.  Taste is again mediated by fantasy, but instead of the enticing photos I referred to as enthralling (as in actually placing me in their thrall) motivators to make Mrs. Hudson’s Biscuits, tarte tatin, and apple strudel, this came of a written phrase.  Why do I romanticize the textual seed of this fantasy, and hold the photographic distastefully between thumb and pinky?

1 small round pate brisee
1 large pear
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Roll out pate brisee into a rectangle roughly twice as long as it is wide.  Halve and core pear.  Slice pear thinly.  Lay pear slices parallel to the shorter edge in two rows.  Sprinkle brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg over pear slices.  Roll from short side to short side.  Pinch together the open ends of the roll.  Place roll in a baking pan with the seam facing up.  Bake at 425 F for about half an hour, or until the crust turns golden brown.

What I Really Eat

Eggs on toast and a cup of ginger tea is far too often
my breakfast.  Gosh, now that I'm writing about it,
it sounds nice.
Making gorgeous tarts and experimental sauces is all well and good, but what do you eat for lunch on a hectic day, for instance?  How about breakfast when your eyes seem to have retreated permanently into your skull?  What gets you through the days, presuming that nobody cooks for you and you haven't the money to go out?

I'm jobless, so my day-to-day food is still a little ambitious.  As in I might use the stove in addition to the microwave or the toaster.  No cooking at all is also a possibility, of course.  Recently for lunch I have been, rather than a dish per se, just throwing together three or four things that take a minimum of effort and not much time.  Most of the time this involves leftovers.

Mundane food would be strange to write recipes for.  It's creation is entirely circumstantial.  Unless you're the sort of person who plans all of your meals and meticulously buys only ingredients for use in your meals.  Personally I find life to be far messier, especially sharing food with who I live with.  Today my lunch was miso soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a pear.  Why?  Because miso, bread, cheese, and pears were around.  But someone else would have done something else with these same things.  My lunch was both circumstantial and idiomatic.  It would be silly to write a recipe because making these things is not particularly complicated nor desirable, and because they came out of a very particular situation.  Then again taking food in and out of different contexts is what recipes do.  Just because this context is not the pristine dream world of a culinary superstar and the food is not the subject of superlative praise does not make it pointless to share.  I guess.  Sharing is one thing, but a recipe?  Really?  Whatever.

The truth is, I didn't eat the pear.  It just sounded like what should have gone with it.

Monday, December 27, 2010


What makes a good tarte tatin? Going by the polite compliments of those who consumed the pear-ginger tarte tatin I made for Christmas dinner, my quibbles are excessive. Soggy crust does not matter. The way the butter rose to the top to form an off-white opacity does not matter. Hell, those things didn’t matter to me, either. I only wanted there to be more of it. Yet a sense of culinary aesthetics demands that the pears should not be laying in a pool of liquid when the tart is turned out onto a dish. (Maybe this could be avoided by using sugar instead of honey.)

There is also a sense that the making makes the dish, a conflation of the process with the result. The logic goes if I’m pleased with the pears boiling in honey--if it looks good, if it smells good--then the tart is good. This also goes for the sweet potato pie I made the same day. I liked its color (a bilious drab green), and what went into it. The light spices, the light sweetening of honey, the light color of the Japanese yam flesh, the thickness of the pie all came together in an aestheticism that had nothing to do with taste and yet constitutes a great part of taste. When I tasted it, it was the beauty of the process I was wishing for.

This is why it is necessary but impossible to separate taste from aesthetics, pleasure from ideas. Necessary because taste does not come of itself, and impossible for the same reason.

I might account for my former enthusiasm for the dozens of dense, eggy spice cakes by remembering my enjoyment of what went into them. There was a subtle balancing art of ingredients and spices that went into these cakes that was impossible to discern in the finished product unless you were me. It was possible for me to taste some hidden nobility in the cake despite the consistency which I could somehow deny. More likely I only now, several years later, remember them as dense and disgusting, and at the time there were not other possibilities that I knew of.

In honor of the cooking process’s interiority (if not the cook’s) rather than its ultimate appearance as taste to the world, the accompanying photos are of pear peels, pears boiling in honey, and unbaked sweet potato pie.

Excuse me.  Instead of "in honor of," the paragraph above should begin "to exploit," much like speeches that "honor" the dead.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A General Guide to Braising Vegetables

Or maybe this is called stir-frying. The idea is to brown them a little in oil before steaming them. 

flavorful liquids

Chop vegetables into bite-sized pieces about 1/4” thick. Heat a large saucepan to medium heat, add oil and spices. Temper spices for about thirty seconds before throwing in vegetables (carefully--they will sputter). Stir quickly to spread the spices around and stop them from burning. Fry on medium-high heat for about five minutes, stirring every minute. Add salt and flavorful liquids and cover for about three minutes. Continue steaming if not done (somewhere between crisp and mushy is my preference).

Of course, every vegetable is different. Bok choy for instance doesn’t need as much cooking time, and only the stems need to be really cooked, whereas the leaves just need to be wilted. This recipe is based on carrots and parsnips which I fried with garlic and black pepper and steamed in lemon juice and mirin. The parsnips cooked more quickly than carrots, and came out mushier than the carrots. Which was actually kind of nice.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mrs. Hudson's Biscuits II: Hiding Behind Photography

This recipe is vastly improved using the right ingredient, corn flour, rather than the course corn meal that made the first time like eating sand.  The photo of the finished product I daresay is beautiful.

There has got to be a better way to
spread this into a circle.
I'm not sure, however, if they're "good."  It may look like a moist, dense cake, but the corn flour ensures a flat texture that dissolves into a paste of silt in the mouth.  It doesn't really taste baked--it's more like a grain paste molded into a pleasing shape, like a corn halvah.

This time I spread the dough in a round pie pan, baking it as a sort of giant cookie, and then slicing into eighths once it was glazed and cooled.  Which admittedly makes far larger biscuits than called for.

It's only the texture I'm iffy about--the flavors of lemon and corn go well together I think.

Why did I try this in the first place?  Because the photos looked nice.  Now I've taken an appetizing (I think) photo, in a different way, of more or less the same thing.  If this weren't such an oddity, the world might be full of mouth-watering photos of it.  Culinary hobbyists' kitchens everywhere would pop out these sunny-looking treats.  The texture I've described as displeasing might instead be the subject of a poetics of delicacy.  Like chocolate, a few strange people would never like it, much to the confusion and even mild distrust of everyone else.  Or maybe not.  There's more to gastronomic phenomena than photography.

What did the gelatinous goodies of the 1950s taste like?  And I don't mean "what would they taste like if we made them today and tried them?"

Thursday, December 16, 2010

a nasty concoction

I used to
sneak into their kitchen
at night to concoct
an ineffectual remedy
for an intangible ailment
warm milk
I used two
spoons of honey


I am sugar high on this.  No, there is no photo.  It feels like decadence despite having stood impatiently over the little pan waiting for the honey to burn just so.  It's a Nigellaesque decadence: culinary labour as pleasure in itself.  I'll have to wash the dishes later, of course.  For now I can sit in bed spooning pieces of crushingly sweet pear and licking the spoon of darkened, ginger-perfumed honey.  Who needs crust?  Small pieces.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Kale The Bittersweet

Kale fried with dill seed is actually kind of good. If it exceeded my expectations, you might wonder why then did I cook it? There is a bag full of dill seed, at least I think that’s what it is, in the kitchen cupboard, I have no idea why. I don’t know what could I have been cooking for which I specifically needed dill seed. It smelled appealing when I was looking for a way to cook some wilting kale. Not knowing what it was, and knowing that nobody else was going to eat it, I fried it and some black pepper in sesame oil before throwing in the kale, which in parts soon became almost blackened with slightly bitter anise-like flavor. I felt that this was becoming a disaster: burnt, nasty flavor. When I finally tasted it, I liked it, but doubted the verity of my impression. Is this simply novelty? Would anyone else like this? Would I like this at any other time? Could I have carried out any experiment and been happy with the results? In other words, does this taste exist only in the fleeting moments when I devoured the fried kale? This of course is also a delusion--the “taste” was built as I remembered it, thought of how I would describe it, and began writing this blog entry. And what will probably drive me to make it again is a desire to have again the inflated memory that never quite was.

Such food passions vary in their capacities to disgust, satisfy, and beg to be tried again. Take the sugar binges that made up a good deal of my friendship with someone: every so often (perhaps weeks, perhaps months or years) we would make an absurd amount of some sugary dessert. Our enthusiasm diminished dramatically the more of it we ate, and after not too long we became disgusted with it. I would usually continue to nibble, helplessly in its thrall, exemplifying and sometimes uttering the phrase “take it away from me.” Overdoing it like this cured us for quite a while of our desire for whatever we had just made. But eventually one of us would want to try this all over again--not necessarily the exact same dessert, but to again go through the process from desire to disgust.

Emma Recchi's brief moment.
Favorite dishes are quieter and less dramatic. In fact, good cooking might be defined by its ability to not quite satisfy. To keep one on the point of wanting, to not overdo it. It is in this way that less can be more--one eats more to taste again what began but did not meet one’s fantasy. The impossible way to maintain a compelling fantasy is never-ending dynamism. The fantasy must never be revealed as already reached or completely out of reach. One must be kept always somewhat disappointed and somewhat hopeful. Among all the illimitable distractions of being, one sometimes strives to be entrapped briefly in such simplicity. Perhaps what I liked about the kale was its mixture of pain and pleasure, bitter and sweet. And maybe by singing such praises you will be convinced of what I am not.

1 bunch Italian kale
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon whole dill seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt

Chop the bunch of kale every one inch, keeping the stemmy pieces separate from the leafy pieces. On medium heat, fry the dill seeds and black pepper in the sesame oil for about thirty seconds. Add stemmy kale pieces. Increase heat to medium-high. Fry for about four minutes, stirring every minute. Add the remaining kale and cover. Uncover and stir every two minutes, repeating this process four times. Remove from heat, serve immediately.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Baked Sweet Potatoes With Nutmeg-Paprika Sauce, Leftover Roast Chicken, and Bok Choy

For once I'm writing a recipe (with pictures!) for one of my dinner improvisations.  The idea for the sauce came from my friend who likes sweet potatoes with olive oil, paprika, nutmeg, and salt.  The lemon in the sauce--used mostly because I had excess lemon juice from making a pear tart--is a bit intense, but seems to mellow over time and with bland sweet potato.  At first I thought it was a mistake using lemon juice, but it quickly grew on me.

The paprika didn't really taste like parika, and considering
that it didn't turn the oil bright red either, it probably wasn't.
Maybe it was mace.

For two:
2 sweet potatoes (I used "Japanese yams" which have dark purple skin and light yellow flesh)
1 largish bok choy plant
some leftover roast chicken

juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg yolk
1/3 cup chicken stock 
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon nutmeg
~1/2 teaspoon salt

for bok choy:
1 tablespoon cooking oil
2 teaspoons tamari
2 teaspoons mirin

Put sweet potatoes in oven, and heat to 375 F.  When sweet potatoes are soft all the way through (maybe 45 minutes), take them out.

Heat a large saucepan to medium-high heat.  Chop bok choy into biggish pieces, separating the leafy pieces from the stemmy pieces.  Coat saucepan with cooking oil, and fry the stemmy pieces for a few minutes, browning them a little.  Add leafy pieces, tamari, and mirin, and cover for another few minutes.  Uncover, stir, and reduce liquid (on the same medium high heat) for a minute or two so it begins to coat the bok choy.  Transfer bok choy into a bowl.  Remove from heat.

Whisk together egg yolk, lemon juice, and chicken stock.  When the saucepan has cooled down a bit, put on medium-low heat and add olive oil and paprika and nutmeg.  Stir a bit while the spices temper for a minute.  Add liquid mixture, whisking as you do so.  Take a tablespoon or so size piece of baked sweet potato, remove the skin, and mash it into the sauce with a fork.  Continue whisking.  Reduce the sauce for a few minutes.  If it's too thin add some more sweet potato, or flour, but it shouldn't bee too thick--more of a gravy consistency.  Remove from heat.

On a plate open a sweet potato up with a fork, and pour sauce over it and heated leftover chicken (microwave or bake on low heat in a covered container).  Serve with bok choy.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chicken Soup

Simmering stock from chicken carcass
and vegetable scraps that I've frozen
 over the past few weeks.
Making chicken soup from scratch is a long string of delayed gratification. It’s not just that there’s a lot of waiting, but also that there are so many stages of the process. This accounts, I think, for my enthusiasm for making soup. There are days of anticipation. First I have to salt the chicken, leaving the chicken to soak up the salt overnight. The next day I roast it, and if I’m feeling particularly impatient and productive, I begin simmering the stock in the same day. More likely it won’t be until the carcass is mostly picked off a day or two after I roast it that the stock is begun. Once the stock has finished simmering (usually I leave it overnight), finally soup can begin.

The above is a simplification of what’s involved of course. Before roasting the chicken really should be dried out a bit in the interest of crispy skin, although honestly I don’t often bother. Before making stock the carcass should be stripped of most of the good meat (but not all), which is at once satisfying and daunting (despite the fact that it takes less than ten minutes). After the carcass has simmered with flavoring vegetables, the stock must be strained and possibly skimmed. And of course the contents of the soup itself must be cooked and seasoned.
The stock is somewhat cloudy
because I misguidedly used
potato skins.

This time it was rice, carrots, and leeks. Planning and preparing the ingredients is for me a form of utopianism: “yes, this will be perfect in the soup.” And the soup I imagine will save any lack of care, binding everything together into a hot selfsame liquid. To reverse the sense of a Woosterism, once it’s in the soup, it’ll be spiffing.

At the end of all this the soup is--well it’s okay.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Chicken Attachments

My favorite parts of roasting chicken are the vegetables roasted in chicken juices and the soup.  That I think of the chicken meat itself as an added bonus probably reflects badly on the way I roast it. At least I began with some sort of guide: Beyond Salmon's notes on roasting chicken legs.

The potatoes, onions, and other vegetables (today it was broccolini) that I nest around the chicken collect and exude water, making the bottom of the chicken consistently soggy.  Because I don't have a meat thermometer I'm never quite sure when to take it out of the oven.  Testing for doneness involves cutting into it, which breaks the skin and exposes more flesh, so if it has to bake longer after testing it will lose moisture quickly.  Usually, paranoid, I err on the side of overdone, but this time by accident I undercooked it.  You can see in the photo that the leg meat looks fairly pink, as did the breast meat.  So I baked the meat sealed in in tinfoil at 300 F for another fifteen minutes or so.  Much of it is just going to go into the soup anyway.

Anyway, about the vegetables.  The slices of onion and potato were sidled up to the chicken after the first ten minutes of baking (at 450 F).  When the chicken was done (or so I thought), the potatoes were not.  At this point I removed the chicken, added the broccolini to the roasting pan, mixed it in, and put it back in the oven for about another twenty minutes.  The vegetables have been soaking up flavor from the chicken, olive oil, lemon juice (along with the lemon halves in the pan), garlic, black pepper, and salt.  (If it were summer, there would also be thyme.)  I adore them.

It occurs to me that the problem of soggy-bottom might be alleviated if I roasted the vegetables in another pan and poured the liquid from the chicken roasting pan into it when the chicken is done.  Alternatively I could make a gravy out of the chicken drippings and pour it over separately roasted vegetables.  But there is something appealing about this doomed method of roasting them together.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Photos & Memories to Eat

What I want to make:

Bakewell Tart.

Idli and Coconut Chutney.

Pear Souffle--not so ambitious, nor of bottomless pockets, I would skip the pear wafers and pear eau-de-vie.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Something You Really Shouldn't Make, and Something Else, Which Requires The First

The photo I saw on allrecipes.
1. Looking for a way to use four granny smith apples, I was going to try to make "easy apple strudel," which more or less amounts to surrounding apple slices with puff pastry and baking it.  Unable to find puff pastry in the store, I bought phyllo dough instead, thinking that surely I could use this for something involving apples.  The something I stumbled into on allrecipes was also a "strudel," and seemed to function upon a principle of turning phyllo into puff pastry by layering butter between each sheet.  That, it turned out, was a very optimistic reading of the author's thought process.  Granted, I didn't follow the recipe exactly.  The gist seemed to be: layer about eight sheets of phyllo with melted butter in a pan, then put some apples, sugar, and whatever else you want on top of it, and then... and then what?  Here the text of the recipe says one thing, while the photo clearly shows something quite different.  The recipe reads "roll the sheets up to form a log shape."  The photo looks more like the edges were rolled up to prevent juices from spilling out.  For reasons somewhat murky to me, I went for the photo.  It occurs to me now that anyone can submit a photo for a recipe on allrecipes.  Food photography incites a strong mimetic impulse, but here the assumption that the photos accompanying a recipe come from the author's execution of the recipe, filling out the vagaries that the recipe's words have left, is wrong.  In this case the photo is of someone else's (mis)execution of the recipe.  Allrecipes is thus where a recipe's signified is set adrift.

The web 2.0 mechanism has wide limits, but of course there are plenty of other instances of dissonance between a recipe and its accompanying photography.  In those lavish coffee table cookbooks filled with beautiful photos that take up whole pages, the recipes often lack the finishing touches that made them look so good in the first place.  I have this Thai cookbook that mostly consists of photos of the countryside and its people living a far more aesthetic life than anyone possibly could.  In all the photos the dishes have these amazing garnishes, are placed on rustic tableware, and sometimes even contain ingredients that aren't in the recipe.  What draws me to make a particular recipe in the book is of course the photo, but not only is the recipe inadequate--it is impossible to recreate the photo unless you live in a fantasy version of Thailand.  In other words, rather than follow the recipe, you're better off going to a very upscale Thai restaurant in the US.  Yet if you do follow the recipe, it will be a medium through which to experience the photo.  Though you can see that your dish is not as it is pictured in the book, you taste the photo.

My version.
In the case of this "strudel," the photo fantasy backfired: tasting what I made didn't confirm that my version pales in comparison to the pictured, but rather it told me that what was pictured wasn't that great. It tasted about like it looked--okay.  The phyllo at the edges curled up and turned crunchy, which was mostly just annoying.  I ended up scraping most of the excess flakes off before putting a piece on a plate.    The bottom crust was far too tough, making it difficult to eat with a fork, as well as being an unpleasant texture.  The filling at least was nice: tangy, sweet, and cooked just right (the apples were neither mush nor crisp).

2. As a result of the above debacle, I now had a lot of browned phyllo flakes.  Rather than throw them away, I decided to turn them into a sort of bread pudding.  The pudding came out much better than the original "strudel" I think.  What follows is a very rough recipe, as I wasn't really measuring anything.

~2 cups phyllo flakes (I tore up some uncooked phyllo too)
2 eggs
~2/3 cup milk
~1/2 cup sugar
~2 tablespoons honey
~2 teaspoons cinnamon
~1 teaspoon nutmeg
a few drops of vanilla
~1 cup chopped almonds
~1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 F.  In a bowl whisk together eggs, milk, sugar, honey (heat in a microwave first), cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.  In a 8x8 baking pan, toss phyllo flakes, chopped almonds, and raisins.  Pour wet mixture over dry mixture.  Bake until the whole thing puffs up--maybe half an hour.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Spicy Orange Sauce

1 large orange
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon crushed dried chilis

Zest orange and reserve orange zest.  Juice orange, removing any seeds.  In a large saucepan combine orange juice, orange zest, and egg yolk with a whisk.  Put saucepan on medium-low heat, stirring with whisk.  When it begins to bubble, add sugar, sweet chili sauce, and dried chilis while continuing to stir.  Reduce to a saucy consistency (it should flow, but thickly).  Remove from heat.

I made this to accompany baked tuna filets, and liked it very much.  Maybe it would go well with other things?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Picture Show: Soggy Pear-Ginger Tarte Tatin

Three D'Anjou (one of which is unripe), and one Comice.  More a compulsion than a desire for the end result.

Ginger in butter.  Ginger was not something I wanted to taste in the tart at this point.  It didn't smell right.  Adding it to the tart was just something I wanted to do.

Boiling sugar before it begins to brown.  The pear on the right is awfully green.  It won't taste like much of anything, but it will make the tart look right, have the right proportions.

Rolled out pastry with a patch.

At this point I removed the pan from the heat.  The Comice is the larger halves.

Because you need before and after photos of the crust.

The brown juice on the edges?  Much of it spilled off the side of the plate when I inverted it from the pan to the plate.

Despite this, the tart, I suspect because of the Comice, was soggy.  But it looks good, don't you think?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving is not a Great Art

This being a cooking blog, some sort of Thanksgiving post is probably expected. I was going to do one, actually, as I was planning on making pear-ginger tarte tatin. But the pears weren't ripe yet, so I made sweet potato pies again. The pies were good, but was there really anything to say about them? The scope of this blog has mostly only included deliberate experiments (or trying new recipes), and sometimes brief recipes of particularly good improvisations. But in fact "particularly good" is not at all the criterion for which improvised dishes or meals get written here and which don't. There are no criteria really, I just post when I feel like it. Some of the most well-remembered meals, usually those that were made to feed to my family, I never write down at all.

How are these statements connected?
"I'm very nervous when people talk about it as a great art."
"There's a lot to be said for mindless repetitive activity."
"It does not interest me if I'm not feeding people."
Well, Nigella Lawson said all of them. In the same interview she said she was unfazed "when How to Be a Domestic Goddess came out and I was railed against for being, you know, a traitor to the sisterhood, despite the fact that it was so obviously ironic."  Apparently Nigella expects we all share her level of self-consciousness in the nostalgia for domesticity she purveys.

Her story of how she started: when she was working as a journalist, she found space to think in the repetitive activities of cooking.  Making food, rather than a necessity, was in her story a psychological tool and a lifestyle choice.  Instead of feeding people because she's a housewife, she seems to self-consciously enjoy the fantasies that surrounded housewifery.  But obviously this is not the selfless fantasy of classic femininity.  One cooks for the pleasure of feeding, including the pleasure of feeding oneself.  One returns from an exhausting night of partying to make oneself bread pudding in the semidarkness of one's posh kitchen, and one eats it, alone, in bed.  If one is Nigella Lawson, one stages all this on camera and, I imagine, laughs about it.  What makes her so passionate about food, she is asked?  "I'm greedy."

This blog, on the other hand, is more about curiosity than greed or giving.  Although in trying new techniques and recipes, I often take part in a bit of both these pleasures.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mrs. Hudson's Biscuits

I was warned that the results of the strange recipe given to me were equally strange. Two “strange”s in this limited vocabulary turns from “intriguing” to “bad.” So I tried making the much tastier-sounding (and looking) “Mrs. Hudson’s Biscuits” instead.

125 g. butter

125 g icing sugar

2 tsp vanilla sugar or 2 tsp sugar with 2-3 drops of vanilla extract

1 egg

1 pinch of salt

juice and grated peel of 1/2 lemon

125 g. flour

125 g. cornflour
1 knife tip baking powder

butter to grease pan

100 g. icing sugar
2 tbsps lemon juice

Whip the butter until it is fluffy, then slowly add the icing sugar;
Add the vanilla sugar, egg, salt, lemon juice and peel;
Add the flour, baking powder and cornflour slowly and mix well;
Grease a baking tray with butter;
Fill a pastry bag with the dough and press small biscuits onto the baking tray;
Bake in a preheated 400F oven for 10-15 minutes
Make the glaze by mixing the icing sugar and lemon juice. Brush biscuits with it, and let it dry.
Makes about 70 biscuits.

Measuring flour.
Some of the quantities are in grams. The postage scale I use doesn’t have grams. Here are the quantities (roughly) in ounces:

4 1/2 oz butter (about one stick and another tablespoon)

4 1/2 oz icing sugar (somewhat more than a cup)
2 tsp vanilla sugar or 2 tsp sugar with 2-3 drops of vanilla extract

1 egg

1 pinch of salt
juice and grated peel of 1/2 lemon (I used the entire lemon’s zest)

4 1/2 oz flour (a little more than a cup)
4 1/2 oz cornflour (about a cup)

1 knife tip baking powder
butter to grease pan

3 1/2 oz icing sugar

2 tbsps lemon juice (I just used all the juice from the other half)

The sad fate of my hand-folded pastry bag.
Two oopses flopped down as too-late realizations (I suppose that’s what an oops is) throughout the execution of this recipe. One, in my enthusiasm for not having to go to the store, I used course corn meal instead of corn flour. That there was a difference didn’t even occur to me until I crunched down on a bit of the dough. Two, I preheated the oven to 350 F instead of 400 F. The first batch was baked at 350 F for the first five minutes. There’s not quite a third--a mistake, but not an oops: I tried to make a pastry bag to create the neat little shapes pictured along with this recipe that sort of resemble breasts, but as you can see from the photo, it, well, broke. I used a spoon and my fingers instead. Oh well.

Melted butter and icing sugar.
And one other, that may not have mattered at all in the end: the recipe said to “whip the butter until it is fluffy.” Not quite knowing how to whip cold butter, I melted it. Mixing icing sugar into this makes for a somewhat disgusting-looking, greasy mess. But as long as the butter has chance to cool a bit before the dough is baked, I don’t think it makes a difference.

They may not be the most perfect replicas, but they’re quite nice. The lemon flavor is pleasingly strong. My descriptors are very reserved.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Principles of Economy

A friend of mine found this strange recipe in The Sherlock Holmes cookbook: Or, Mrs. Hudson's storeside campanion formed upon principles of economy and adapted to the use of private families:

3 tbsp Butter
3/4 lb flour
6 oz sugar
1 grated lemon rind and lemon juice
2 eggs

Rub the butter into the flour; stir in the sugar and the lemon peel. When these ingredients are mixed, add the eggs and lemon juice. Beat the mixture well for a few minutes, then drop from a spoon onto a buttered baking sheet, about 2 inches apart. Bake the biscuits from 15-20 minutes in a moderate (350F) oven, until they lightly brown.

Who measures sugar by weight?  To me 6 oz seems like it isn't much at all.  The small amount of butter and sugar makes me want to classify these as a tea biscuit--something fairly bland but somewhat sweet.  But then there are the two eggs.  Two, for this little batch of dough?  They're bound to come out like dry, dense cakes (no rising agent here).  Who knows.

I doubt they'll look like these.
They appear to be a sorrier version of these very appetizing-looking "Mrs. Hudson's Biscuits."

Bored, and intrigued by the possibility that making these "biscuits" might surprise me, I think I'll make them tomorrow.  I'm tempted to take the literal approach and actually rub the butter with my fingers into the flour (something i've never done), rather than cut it in with a fork or a pastry blender.

Sweet Potato Pie II: Look look, pictures!

In reverse chronological order:

The second pie baked and fallen.

Just out of the oven, puffed.

Excess crust cut off with a knife.

Notice the spatula marks--the filling is thicker this time because I used more sweet potato but left the rest of the recipe unaltered from the first pie.

Lots of extra crust.

First pie baked.

Unbaked.  See?  This filling is much more liquid.

Prebaked crust.  I removed the weight for the last five minutes of baking.

Using not quite fully cooked sweet potato pieces as a weight to keep the crust from  becoming a balloon in the oven.

Boiling sweet potatoes.