Pastry and lemon and sugar oh my.

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Small House #2. I’ve made the butteriest of buttery pastries, it’s chilled in the fridge, I’ve rolled it with – not even the standard wine bottle, but a bottle of posh cranberry cordial. The baking beans are, of course, elsewhere, and so I’ve lined the pastry case with baking parchment and then filled it with flour. It just needs a bit of weight (and it’s Dan Lepard’s idea, and I’ve come to trust him). The oven is hot (the top oven that is: a cheap oven bought on the Holloway road came with so many promises, but delivered a fan oven with a broken thermostat. Our house-warming supermarket curry met a sorry end on account of temperatures rising to well over 300℃. Making do with a tiny oven in both our small houses – keeps with the general theme, I guess). The roast is out and on the table, and with our guest waiting politely to eat I take a shortcut, and don’t bother to move the oven trays around. I’m sure it will cook just fine on the top shelf.

It does. So does the baking parchment.

My beautifully (rustically) prepared pastry case boasts black tips above an (admittedly perfectly cooked) blond base. Burning (alight) leaves of baking parchment are smothered with a Jamie Oliver Special Collection oven glove. My first thought (I now admit) is to save the pastry, not the kitchen. Onto the floor (and the hob, and the top of the washing machine, and my just laundered jeans) goes the charred baking parchment. And all of the flour. But the pastry is saved (note in the photo the little triangles of missing crust? They were the burntest burnt bits).

The others are still waiting to start the non-dramatic, non-fire-inducing, and now not-so-hot roast dinner in front of them. But at least they can look forward, without disappointment, to a Mary Berry tart au citron at the end of the meal. The roast tastes damn good, too (and anyway. On Masterchef – it’s back! – John and Greg are always eating the final contestants’ cold food and not minding too much. It must be a palate thing). The concluding tart delivers on flavour if not on appearance (icing sugar goes a long way but you’ll probably have seen through it). Not supermarket-own smooth, but worth it for the sweet sharp zest that cuts through the cream – the pile of lemon skins indicate not a speck of pulp left unsqueezed.

Puddings involving crisp, short pastry (with no soggy bottoms) and the beautiful sweet-sharpness of lemon-meets-sugar seem to be a theme this Spring (or should we still be calling it Winter? It’s snowing outside). You lucky things, I’m treating you to a double whammy: here’s a photo of this weekend’s Treacle Tart (another one à la Mary Berry – I can hardly blame the pastry fire on her). While it contains a whole pot of Lyle’s Golden Syrup (and amusement as the shocked faces of family and friends watch the spatula scrape every ounce of syrup from the tin), there is enough lemon to give it a wonderful tang. Not to mention plaited lattice work on top. What a beauty. We thought we’d have a hard time finishing it. We didn’t.

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Sugar, sugar, sugar: Fudge, Caramels, Brittle, and everything in between

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Every six weeks I have an appointment to sit down for an uninterrupted hour and talk about baking, cooking, and Masterchef. Oh, and get my hair cut at the same time. This week my hairdresser and I share our affection for Keri, the last woman standing on this year’s Masterchef: The Professionals and a worthy finalist not because of her gender but because she cooks food that I, and Greg Wallace thank god, really want to eat. We also bemoan the fashion for the ‘smear’ of [insert your choice of vegetable here] purée that adorns practically every plate of food on the show. Imagine if you were the first person to invent that smear. How bored would you be of it by now. Must come up with something different. My hairdresser’s Christmas menu sounds out of this world, the kind that you might see on a restaurant menu card: the kind that will struggle with how to smear onion purée across a plate without ‘smearing’ onion purée across a plate. My Christmas menu will have no such problem, as it will be as traditional as can be with everything doused in gravy with no thought for presentation. That’s what it’s all about.

IMG_0494To add to preparations for Christmas festivities we’ve spent the last week with a fake dog. Not a cuddly toy dog as a present for my nephew, no. Something much more sensible: an imaginary dog. In order to decide whether we can really fit the responsibility of being parents to a little furry creature into our busy lives, we try to start each day by deciding, for instance, ‘who’s going to take care of Frankie today’ (choice of name not mine). Or, alternatively, ‘I need to go to campus for a couple of hours but I’ll make sure I’m back in time to take Frankie for a walk’. Or, of course, ‘where’s Frankie going to spend this week, in Small House #1 or #2?’ And so on. Frankie has been a delight, but has also taught me not to leave unwrapped fudge on the counter top.

IMG_0492The fudge is now wrapped and accompanies a variety of other flavours and textures of sweets. I have spent the whole weekend making them, to the disapproval of my mother, whose ‘oh dear’ over the phone tells me she doesn’t trust me not to eat them all myself. I am careful to only leave myself the odd ends, however, and once the rest is packaged up ready to distribute to assorted family and friends there’s no chance I’ll unravel them. The real showstopper is cardamom and white pepper fudge which is, if I do say so myself, out of this world, with an enduring heat from the pepper. It is also, satisfyingly, my own recipe, although I am indebted to inspiration from both Dan Lepard and Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra. I want to put white pepper in everything now I have discovered its effectiveness, and I add it to a batch of biscuits that finish the weekend in style – orange blossom and pistachio, adapted from a tried-and-delightedly-tested cardamom and rose water shortbread recipe from Sugar and Spice. I still haven’t made the Panettone, as an exhausted end-of-term weekend deserves more frivolity than a recipe that (if authentic) demands four rounds of proving. There may well not be enough hours in the day.

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Week 9.5: when I tried not to bake but failed.

IMG_0477Somehow or other, real life takes over virtual blog-writing life this week, and my musings on cake baking and TV watching take a back seat to prepping a paper to deliver at a research seminar where people I really respect will be wanting to hear about topics other than the perfect rise on a loaf of bread or techniques for icing a cupcake. And so, the weekend before the paper is due to be given, I am not baking. I am, instead, perfecting my 2,800 words and tinkering with my powerpoint presentation. I do take a break to make a loaf of rye bread but, since it’s already tried and tested, it doesn’t really count as a proper session.

Four days before paper is due to be given, I’ve made my way to London and am carrying the aforementioned loaf of bread from train to physio to British Library to coffee shop to public lecture to dinner to tube to my mum’s house, where I deposit the brick-like parcel ready for her morning slice of toast. I have no doubt that all of the venues I have passed through have only appreciated the mysterious scent of sweet treacle rye emanating from my handbag. Three days before paper is due to be given, I’m getting baking withdrawal symptoms already. With talk sent to discussant and powerpoint already excessively fiddled with, I justify to myself some time off to bake cakes and biscuits to flog at a recital performed by my sister the up-and-coming soprano. Schumann, de Falla, and cupcakes. Sounds like something we could market.

Earl Grey cupcakes with lemon icing. Chocolate Orange cupcakes with white chocolate icing. Cherry bakewell cupcakes. Chocolate crackle biscuits. Shortbread marzipan biscuits. All courtesy of The Great British Bake Off, and all very yummy, though if I were to tinker with the recipes (which I am gradually building up the confidence to do) I would add heaps more flavour. The toil of the biggest juggling trick of multiple recipes I’ve ever performed is bound to leave me desperate to get back to work again the next day (or so I tell myself, with just an inkling that it will leave me eager for more). I’ve photographed the recipes from home and honed the quantities of ingredients into an economical shopping list that is the very picture of precision. If only my astute preparation would extend to checking oven temperatures: five different requirements for five different recipes. Five mixing bowls washed up three times each. Every knife and spoon in the drawer. Every surface in the kitchen (which, at my mum’s house, counts for more than in either the Pod or the Pad). A baking spree that lasts four hours and results in colourful delightful delicacies that go down a treat with spares left for days’ worth of puddings.

Day after the paper, which has gone well and left me satisfied but exhausted, I make up for a week’s worth of missed MasterChef episodes and neglected mid-day movie breaks and stay in bed watching an eccentric range of screen offerings. The objectionable and frankly boring male-directed narrative of women’s desire Room in Rome. The is-it-really-still-going tedium of Grey’s Anatomy‘s ninth season. Plenty more in between that are mindless enough to withstand the simultaneous writing of Christmas cards. An hour in the bath glued to the last 100 pages of AM Homes’ delectably debauched Music for Torching is enough of a break from the screen before it’s time for Strictly, whose dance fusion week is worthy of multiple bouts of applause from my delighted spot in front of the telly. Another bake-free weekend is bound to come back to get me mid-week when my fingers are twitching and the caster sugar jumps out of the cupboard begging to be used. By then it will almost be Christmas, anyway, and I may as well give myself over to preparations for the season’s much anticipated notoriously time-consuming Yuletide ambition: panettone. Yes, well, we’ll see.

Six degrees of Kevin Baking (oh god did I just go there)

Still recovering from the turkish-delight-making joys and perils of the weekend just passed, I stick to fairly low key baking adventures this time: a repeat of a simple wholemeal loaf not worth a photo but satisfying for my ability to make it with only a quick glance at the recipe, and a trio of Nigel Slater delights – including a remake of those meringues with the blessing of an electric mixer – for dinner with dear friends (who devotedly stay with us for an evening of good food and merriment and a night of futon-sleeping squeezed between sofa, desk, television and dining table – plus side, it’s the warmest kind of camping you’ll get in November). I also whip up a batch of gluten-free chocolate and almond cookies for their Saturday teatime arrival, proud and disconcerted in equal measure by my newfound tendency to insist on homebaked treats and to use the term “whip up” to describe my making of them.

You might think that my lack of baking this weekend is all for the sake of getting more work done that I managed to fit around last week’s bakeathon. It’s more for the sake of catching up on missed episodes of exceptionally funny Fresh Meat and often-disappointing-but-worth-it-for-the-delight-of-Romola-Garai-sparring-with-Dominic-West The Hour. And, of course, to go out and buy a pair of DMs for the first time since I was 13. “DMs?” asks one friend on a facebook status I have posted to garner support for the sense of queer / pre-queer nostalgia I am feeling post-purchase: “Surely you don’t mean Daily Mails?” I once bough one for the sake of a free bar of chocolate and felt rather sick afterwards (not from the chocolate). Doctor Martens are worth the extra expense. Another friend gently berates me: “Ok I can just about take it on you, but I do wish undergrads would stick to uggs, it’s like teaching my teenage self”, she says. These dark red beauties, classic enough to boast the customary yellow stitching around the sole but with a heel and an edge of elegance, are far removed from the bright purple boots of my adolescence. I justify the purchase by calling them my “queer conference shoes.”

With two further sets of dinner guests planned for the week ahead I spend Monday preparing menus. Specifications: a) if a cake just needs to be made (and how could it not be) use a loaf tin because the square tin is 200 miles down south; b) try to double up on ingredients for the sake of at least a semblance of economy. It starts to look like a game of 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon but with food. I’ve been meaning to make rye bread for a while and settle on a recipe from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet. Rye: Dan Lepard also has a rye apple cake which looks delicious. To count as a desert cake must be served with cream. Cream: Nigel Slater’s Spiced pumpkin soup with bacon looks great for dinner #1. You’ll find nothing in common between that dish and the one I’ve chosen for dinner #2 (linguine alla vongole) but the fact that they’re just pages apart in my favourite cookery book, The Kitchen Diaries.

Monday’s plunge into the working week demands a lunchtime treat: a bacon sarnie with portobello mushrooms and rosemary. To ease my guilt about the third helping of bacon in as many days – if it’s in the name of research it’s justifiable – I insist on a working lunch. And now I have a brown mushroomy bacon stain on my copy of Epistemology of the Closet and I’m no closer to the day’s word-count goal. On Tuesday, I delight in the 30 minutes of bubbling time the rye bread mixture requires before proving and baking – this kind of cooking might just be a way to atone for my adolescent aversion to science – and on Wednesday, no nearer to Monday’s work goal, I spread this sweet-salty pumpernickel-like loaf with soft irish goats cheese for a quick pre-supervision lunch. The apple cake has come out of the oven and promises to be a tasty accompaniment to an evening of lesbian film watching with my (not lesbian) friend who knows the names of more lesbian films than I do and whose recent completion of a PhD on food begs for a co-written paper on lesbians and food. Sounds like a guest blog post in the making.

Week 7: Turkish Delight, or, how sweets made my fingers bleed

I have blisters on my fingers. I have blisters on my fingers from making sweets. I’ve also just started using twitter, so to get into the spirit here goes an attempt at a witty ironic hashtag: #firstworldproblem. (oh god. such hashtagging makes me feel immediately uncomfortable, for its capitulation to the lure of social networking, and for its dubious politics of condescension. I go straight to good old Guardian comment is free to recover.)

To make turkish delight you put an overwhelming assortment of very sweet ingredients into a saucepan and heat over a hot stove until you find yourself wading (metaphorically…sort of) through what resembles a bubbling grey gluey cement. Or the hot sulphurous mud I once bathed in as a salutary novelty on a family holiday to, fittingly, Turkey.

“Stir for forty minutes without interruption in the same direction,” the recipe (from Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra’s Sugar and Spice) states. “Do you think you can do that?” my girlfriend asks me with a look of skepticism on her face (and the knowledge that it is just a matter of time before she is frantically called on to take over the stirring). “No problem,” I say with a cute smile and a decisive head nod.

It takes just fifteen minutes before, sweating with aching arms and paranoid about any warned-against interruption to the stirring process, I cajole her into taking over for me, “just for a minute”. I take over again and only Alastair Cooke’s Letters from America on a podcast on my iPhone can distract me from the torture. Forty minutes of stirring bubbling cement with a wooden spatula takes its toll and the blisters are still present when I bring the pistachio-filled, coconut covered delights to the PhD study room for tasting a few days later (in the time it takes to attend a workshop on Herbert Marcuse, they’re all gone. Good sign. Worth the effort? My fingers say no. Still, someone suggests I can tell my supervisor my hands are red from writing so hard and long, and they might just be on to something – baking turkish delight, baklava and three loaves of bread in a weekend has got to produce something that gets me kudos in a supervision beyond the likely stupefied and vaguely disapproving “you made that?”).

Turkish delight has marked only the first of our weekends’ baking relay races: cooking for my parents’ visit to the pad two days later I have decided to make meringues. When I remember that the electric whisk is lying dormant in Small House #1, I refuse to give up on the promise of meringues topped with cinnamon, raspberries and dark chocolate (another from Nigel Slater’s Dish of the Day) and there we go, taking it in turns to whisk egg whites and sugar by hand. “I’m doing what Jamie Oliver recommends”, I say to begin with, “alternating between my upper and forearms so I don’t ever get tired.” Five minutes later both my upper and my forearms are shot and our now-team-building meringue-making mission resembles a personal training session as each of us manages “just one more” rep of the taskmastering whisk and all I want is to get back to my computer to do some ache-free typing. #procrastinationforthewin.

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