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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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.

Using yeast to make paragraphs double in size – baking as punctuation to writing

With a weekend of writing to accomplish I find myself, on a Friday morning that should be set aside for research, rapidly scanning the final 100 pages of a certain erotic novel I’ve already admitted to buying so might as well admit to reading too. Given how objectionable it is I am ashamed to admit that I have finished the damn thing – I do love to be provoked, and have spent a week tutting to myself whilst simultaneously trying to hide its cover from fellow train passengers. E. L. James take note, if you hope to win over feminists with a penchant for good writing: it is never wise, in my humble opinion, to refer to the seduction tactics (i.e. rape) of a certain Alex D’Urberville as a means to arousal. What’s more, any writer whose secondary characters are an ‘inner goddess’ and a ‘subconscious’ (missing the point, dur), and whose protagonist can describe her first sexual climax using the metaphor of a washing machine on spin cycle has a dubious sensibility and is not worth my time. Or not worth more than 517 pages worth of my time, anyway.

The weekend follows a favourite pattern: stay at home and, with no desire to socialise, spend days reading (ever one to mix and match pop and high culture I have moved on to W. G. Sebald’s exquisite The Emigrants), watching, and doing lots of cooking. Lamb shish kebab from Nigel Slater’s Real Cooking (mint. parsley. garlic. lamb. yes. yes. yes). Roast chicken with beautifully crispy potatoes and sticky sweet roasted onion and buckets of gravy à la my mum. Homemade chicken broth with orzo and sherry. Thai chicken coconut curry (we insist on using the whole bird and it goes a long way). Oh, and an old family favourite of my childhood for a lazy Sunday pudding – bananas baked in orange juice and spices with raisins and brown sugar. I could be 5 or 10 or 15, it’s so timeless for me, and delicious.

And the baking bit. As has doubtless been made clear, the no-sugar month has been cut short. Its enriching legacy lives on, however, in an addiction to baking bread. Loaf number four is a hazelnut, apricot and honey wholemeal loaf from the second GBBO cookery book. What the title doesn’t tell you is that it’s plaited. Oh yes, I’m that good. After the third attempt I am, anyway. My girlfriend has craved bread for days but in typical support of my baking endeavours she has refused to buy any from the shop and dutifully waits for mine to rise and come out of the oven….just minutes before we’re due to be eating supper. How can we resist a little taste, though – crisp on the outside, filled with roasted hazelnuts and soft, juicy apricots, with the sweetness of honey but savoury enough to dip into soup or spread with cheese – and it’s enormous, so it lasts for days.

Cut to Monday afternoon, rainy outside, and the work still isn’t going so well. I’ve taken a break to eat lunch and watch the first half hour of a Romanian flick that promises sensual lesbian romance but delivers ugly incestuous tragedy. It doesn’t inspire me to keep writing and so I decide to treat myself. 15 minutes later I’m sitting in the Waitrose cafe with a cup of tea and a chelsea bun. I’ve lowered the average age by at least forty years but it’s nice, boasting proper crockery and silverware which is more than the posh Peyton and Byrne cafe at the British Library can say for itself.

My girlfriend has been jokingly threatening me with a visit here ever since it opened round the corner in the summer but in reality, on this particular afternoon, watching cars park outside to the sound of golden-wrappered mince pies and christmas puddings “ding”ing through the checkout really is enough to lure me away from the menace of writer’s block that whistles through the flat.

One thinks, upon graduating from an undergraduate degree, that the twice-hourly (more like 5-minute-ly) word count checks during essay-writing hell will discontinue at postgraduate level. Such is not the case, and this weekend my baking efforts have been mere punctuations in a long and winding road of writing. The bread has doubled in size! The paragraph has doubled in size! There’s a curious parallel there.

A bake for every occasion – including another night in front of the box.

Two loaves of bread this weekend. I get home on Friday night, library-ed out and cold and wet from a dark rainy cycle home, and all I want to do is bake. As the loaf, my second ever, bakes in the oven, we have some Friday night viewing to get on with. First Fresh Meat to catch up on. Which reminds me. Earlier in the day, I am in the swimming pool. Following a hip injury I’m not supposed to run but I’ve been told that running through water isn’t as harsh on the joints and looks pretty nifty too. Mid-way through this Monty-Python-worthy length, still wearing the goggles and swimcap I have neglected to deposit at the side of the pool, I look up and notice that the lifeguard is watching me suspiciously. He is the spitting image of Jack Whitehall and I’m now convinced he’s making unbearably clever wisecracks at my expense as I prance.

Roll forward to the evening again and, with another dose of Fresh Meat‘s hilarious and exceptionally accurate portrayal of student life (anyone beg to differ?) come and gone, we’re back to complaining that LOVEFiLM has failed to deliver our weekly dose of The Wire (we’re about to start season 3. Yes, we’re a few years late but it’s still thrilling and utterly brilliant). We have yet another lesbian film. When I recall, the next morning, the merits of Kyss Mig (Alexandra-Therese Keining, 2011), I am reminded that my enthusiasm is somewhat heightened by the film’s recent sexually oriented companions. Since starting my PhD I have, in the name of research, put my girlfriend through all of the delights that LOVEFiLM’s list of lesbian films has to offer. And a lot of them are really, really bad. But this one is special. It has a cast that replicates many a Scandinavian drama (or so I’m told. I refuse to watch anything whose title promises The Killing), and that includes the jumpers.

This Friday night’s baking masterpiece is supposed to resemble the “cottage loaf” that Paul Hollywood boasts in his section on so-called “basic breads”. Mine looks more like a dishevelled snowman with a head too small for his body. Tastes good though, and is ready at 10pm in time for the next morning’s breakfast, after which it’s time to make loaf number two, a simple (or should be) wholemeal loaf which fails miserably to rise and drops like a brick out of the tin when I lift it out of the oven. To overcome the disappointment I am taken on a jaunt around town to purchase an amusingly odd selection of items. An iPad mini for my girlfriend (even more pointless than its larger predecessor…except it’s not. It’s beautiful, and I decide almost immediately, and whiningly, that I want one too); a new recipe book (the last one before Christmas, I promise, and anyway I can be forgiven because it’s all in the name of making treats for other people’s presents. And if it gets me two more Waterstone’s – apostrophe intact – loyalty card stamps then it doesn’t really cost so much to begin with); a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, which I buy merely for the purpose of understanding the intellectual properties of the phenomenon (and for the sexy bits); and ingredients from a Chinese supermarket for prawn and chilli dumplings. Credit goes to my sister for making the wanton wonton joke first. The dumplings, inspired by (if not 100% copied from) Nigel Slater’s delightful Simple Treats are shallow fried and served with a sticky sweet dipping sauce. Much more worthy of a photograph than the bread, and really fun to make. My friends can expect to prepare their votes of thanks for these yummy impressive-looking-but-easy-to-make (sshh don’t tell anyone) starters at dinner parties to come.

And a few other things worth noting. a) I’m writing this as I sit on the sofa of my very Small House and look out the wall-that-is-all-window and watch the fireworks. b) I feel a bit sick to my stomach about what might happen in the States tomorrow. For any of you who aren’t already convinced to NOT VOTE ROMNEY, Joss Whedon’s warning of a ZOMNEY future might give you the kick you need.

Week 4: Bread

My blog post is a day late this week because I’ve been a very serious academic doing very important work at the British Library. Looking around me, listening to the range of eccentric sneezes and even, yesterday, a giggle – I looked over to find him reading Milton. Really? – I consider the books stacked up on my desk waiting to be read…and decide that it would be unfair to leave my dear blog readers waiting any longer.

This week became the week of the three cinema trips. Perhaps to distract myself from the desire for sugary snacks to accompany an evening’s DVD viewing, or more probably because there happened to be a trio of pointedly different but equally compelling films to see in a specifically cinematic context (when I say a ‘specifically cinematic context’, I’m falling prey to a habit of poor scholarship by using three words instead of one. I mean ‘the cinema’). Film after film after film: brings me back to being a teenager, miserable at school, and visiting the local art house cinema three times a week on average. Four o’clock showings (sometimes followed by six o’clock showings, in between which the appreciative manager might bring me a cuppa) kept me going throughout those years of angst familiar to many a geeky teenage film buff. I soaked up films, no matter the subject, like a sponge.*

I suggested that my multiple trips to the cinema distracted me from my desire for sweet things. I’ve never craved popcorn more than in this un-saccharine month. I thought baking sweet things for other people might do the trick, and I attempted to bake a batch of cookies for book group. Not a good idea, however, when the whole process is jinxed by a) a baker who can’t taste the mixture (scraping the bowl has a serious scientific influence on the way the batch comes out, don’t you know) and b) the unbearable detail of a whole pile of baking equipment left at Small House #2. I must have failed somewhere converting grams to cups and so for the next (more successful) batch I did something I never thought I’d admit. I used a Martha Stewart recipe. To my (almost) disappointment, it actually served me pretty well, and I’ve lived to tell the tale.

Such an ordeal (the sugar detox rather than the Martha Stewart) has, at least, spurred me on to make bread for the first time. There are advantages to living in a small space: the smell of freshly baked goods circulate with ease. I have Paul Hollywood’s no-nonsense book to thank: there was no drama, little cause for tantrum, and a much deserved and very delicious slice of ‘farmhouse’ (highrise) white bread slathered with butter at the end of it as a prize. Bread baking is a very appropriate past time for academics who live at home I’ve decided because although hours pass from start to finish, there are built in breaks to read, or to write…or to generally muse on the affective turn in bread baking.

*I specified art house. I’d be lying, though, if I denied that the most thrilling of this week’s pillars of entertainment was Skyfall. And I saw it at the Odeon, at the front of a really big screen, on opening night. Get a good director in charge and what do you get? The best Bond film of all time. Well…of my lifetime, anyway (you can’t beat Timothy Dalton on a ski slope in a cello case).

Week 3: Fondant Fancies

‘Let’s be honest, they look a bit like decorated nipples don’t they.’

On a Thursday night I pack up my bag with my computer, chargers, wash bag, books, wallet and phone. And baking equipment. One of the casualties of the fortnightly migration from Small House #1 to Small House #2 that so many long-distance academic couples are bound to recognise is a coherence of kitchen apparatus, and so I sit on this Virgin train with a bag weighed down by scales, electric mixer, 20x20cm square cake tin. I’ve been organised: in order to avoid bringing the kitchen sink, I decide on the recipe for the weekend’s baking adventure well in advance. Inspired by the final of the Great British Bake Off: Fondant Fancies.

But there are always oversights. Like the battery for the digital scales that has run dead at the bottom of my bag, causing panic #1 of baking day to occur just minutes after returning from the second trip to the supermarket. It’s okay, though: the requisite take-battery-out-and-put-it-back-in-again trick has worked, though perhaps not for long – I do all my weighing at super speed. In between fancy-making stages, there are opportunities to pause. As the smell of lemon sponge starts to waft through the flat, I let myself a relax a bit (I’d better – it’s a long road from here on out) and get back to 1982 Janine. The ‘ageing, divorced, alcoholic, insomniac supervisor of security installations who is tippling in the bedroom of a small Scottish hotel’ is an unusual baking companion but a riveting one: the book has got better, as promised by friends and fellow bloggers alike. I also take a minute to comment on Tanya Gold’s aptly titled article ‘These fondant fancies are baking little girls of us all.

They weren’t fussing over nothing, those (little) boys on the telly. Fondant fancies (from Mary Berry’s recipe) are a bugger to make. ‘I loved what John from the Bake Off said about bakers’, my girlfriend says to me: ‘”You think bakers are all dainty housewives, but really we’re controlling people who just want to be loved”. A bit like you, really.’ When it comes to the throes of fondant fancy assembly, John is especially spot on. Forget that image of domestic bliss in a pinny: baking is anything but dainty today. Fondant icing is everywhere. And I left the pinny in Small House #1.

Jackson Pollock’s legacy in pink and yellow

They taste really good, and go really well on a dainty (see, I managed it in the end) saucer with some good old fashioned family entertainment (please note the self-mocking tone). The Dirty Dancing lift at the end of Strictly has us all three of us (sister has come to stay) whooping with delight. The fancies taste good with a cuppa the next afternoon, too, and a good lot of them even survive the return migration on the train to be consumed with gusto at Sunday night’s communal Claire Danes fix.

There’s a lot of butter and sugar in those little terrors. A lot, too, in the Peyton and Byrne teacakes made earlier in the week with a dear friend and fellow baking aficionado (marshmallow, like fondant, gets everywhere). For a month from today, however, I’m in solidarity with my healthy-eating sister (the very same who tucked into those layers of cake-jam-icing-marzipan-icing-icing-icing-icing…) and cutting out added sugar for a month. Watch this space for a month of getting to grips with bread making skills (can I justify buying Paul Hollywood’s recipe book for motivation?) as Things Taste Savoury in This Small House.

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