Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Cooking Risotto

September 15, 2014

I have been cooking for many years, sometimes with courage, sometimes with cowardice, but I’d never cooked risotto.


Partly because I’d heard that risotto is notoriously difficult to prepare.

Anyway, who could be bothered eating boring old stodgy rice when pasta is so fabulous and varied?  And easy. Marcella Hazan warns:  [risotto] is the most misunderstood of all the well-known Italian dishes.  

Marcella Hazan

Her description of the basic technique takes up a closely written page and a half  – and that’s before you get on to the recipes.  Maybe this is why some of my friends shudder when I mention risotto?  That sharp indrawn breath that’s almost a whistle whips through pursed lips – only partly in jest.

By Marcella’s standards, Margaret Fulton  (in the 1969 cookbook Mum gave me when I first left home) gets it horribly wrong – and she doesn’t even give a recipe!  (Don’t get me wrong – Margaret Fulton gets lots of stuff right – her book was my cookery bible for decades. )

2014-09-12 10.16.16

lost its dust jacket, and a little gnawed by a puppy in 2007

Rice for Italian risotto is prepared by first putting the unwashed, uncooked rice into hot oil or fat and frying to brown a little.  Stock or other liquid is then added and the rice stirred until the liquid boils.  The dish is then simmered or slowly baked until the rice is cooked.

Lovely Nigella Lawson, who has built a career on making cookery look easy, tells me about ‘stirring constantly’.  It’s knife-edge stuff.


But after much careful stirring and measuring, she offers comfort:

Then continue in this surprisingly peaceable manner. . . .

It’s a  little rubric, almost a mantra, that makes me feel that it’s all possible. But still, she’s a chef, and also, she moves on rapidly, after a crab risotto recipe, to various kinds of ways of making pasta seem a little risotto-like.  Maybe she, too, prefers pasta?

So:  fear, distaste and mild revulsion (gluggy rice! urk!) coupled with reluctance to bother – all characterised my attitude to risotto as a concept.

Tosca’s Mamma changed all that on our last night at Riva del Garda.


2014-07-01 07.49.34

Mountains above Riva del Garda


She served us an amazing, fabulous, creamy, savoury, smooth dish of something that may once have been rice but had now married with an extraordinarily delicious kind of mushroom and gone to heaven.  She achieved this apparently without effort or attention, while showing us around her lush vegetable garden.  Nigella, eat your heart out!  I’m no foodie, but I came home planning to make a breakthrough and learn how to cook risotto.  (I use the teach-yourself method. As any of my friends will tell you, I’m a hopeless, even recalcitrant listener.  My bootstraps are yards long after all the dragging I’ve done on them.)

The first risotto I made was according to Marcella.  I used the nice long grain rice in my cupboard and some posh mushrooms.  It was OK.  The mushrooms were nice but the rice was really just like cooked rice.  Obviously I had to buy the right kind of rice after all – arborio rice.  Even I have heard of that, though reluctant to spend up big for something as ordinary as rice.  Turns out I am still behind the curve – you can get quite a variety of kinds of rice all specially for risotto.  My hand hovered over the shelves of infinite varieties of rice, and plumped for arborio.  It sat in the cupboard.

A few weeks later, then, I had a go at my second risotto.  I refelected on my mistakes and tweaked several other things.   I must have cooked the first one too long, I decided.  With the right sort of rice, I used a stock cube as instructed.   So I ended up with a dish that was a little crunchy – not creamy soft at all.   And it tasted of chicken stock cube, about which the kindest thing to say is that it tastes commercial.  The smell reminds me of that packet chicken noodle soup we used to have as kids.

chicken noodle

We didn’t use Batchelor’s but I thought you would like this artwork.

It’s a smell of poverty and you can still nose it drifting from somebody’s Pot Noodle if you are not careful.

noodle soup

We actually had Continental brand.  Here’s a B&W version of the packets that stocked our cupboards – that and mushroom soup were the great favourites in our family.  Needless to say, nobody in our world ever simpered like this poor woman, huddled as she is inside the borders of the advertisement.

My third attempt  – weeks later again – happened by chance really.  I was just back from some distant place, out of everything I could prepare for a meal, and too tired to shop. I generally take this kind of situation as a challenge.  In the freezer there was just a bag of turkey giblets left over from Christmas.  (Yes – I know it’s now September.)   So I made a fabulous stock using those plus the random bendy carrots I found in the veggie drawer, and half a fairly fresh leek plus some chives from the garden and garlic (obviously) and some dried herbs.  Bubble for an hour.  It looked and smelt pretty good.  My usual move at that point would be to make soup – but there in the cupboard, right by the split peas, was the second half of the packet of arborio rice.  And so it began.

This time it involved careful simultaneous reading in all three of those cookbooks, following Marcella’s technique and channelling Nigella’s relaxed style.  And the quantities she gives, as well.  I opened a bottle of the white wine I made in France a few years ago – it never matured properly, and it’s a bit resiny, but a small tot while cooking passes muster.  And anyway, Nigella calls for a glass of wine to start off the rice.  So I sipped and stirred, stirred and sipped.  And ladling bit by bit wasn’t the drudgery people make it out to be.  In the end I had surprisingly used the whole litre of stock, and while stirring and sipping had idly stripped the turkey meat from its bones, ready to chuck into the risotto.  (After all, Marcella does say that it’s not a recipe so much as an adaptable style of cooking.  That’s my kind of cuisine!)

Well – you know the punchline: it was truly wonderful.  Rich and thick and creamy, and so abundant!  I couldn’t finish it at a sitting.  (Well – she does say ‘serves two’.)

Is there a motto?  Maybe it’s ‘Read the Recipe!!’  ?

Or maybe it’s ‘Be Careful which Bits you Ignore‘ – because I can tell you that two of Marcella’s comments can be disregarded (though Nigella is right about the chilli):

1.  you really can re-heat risotto,and –

2.  you really can eat it again the next day.  

Straight from the fridge if you are so minded.

Some sights of Canberra

May 21, 2014

We are used to seeing the beautiful side of Canberra.  Of course, there is another side right next door which is either dark, or incongruous, or both. But always interesting and sometimes charming.

Big trucks - more like the US than like Britain.

Big trucks – more like the US than like Britain.

We parked in Fyshwick – Canberra’s industrial suburb, where you go for computer repairs, car wreckers and such like.  For knitting wool, though, you go to Spotlight, over the border in Queanbeyan.  (That’s in the foreign border territory of New South Wales.)

Annabel has wonderful local knowledge.  She knows, for example, that there is a great coffee shop in Fyshwick:  Dream Cuisine.

luxurious lunches

luxurious lunches and pastries

Koala Tea blog has reviewed the tea.

It is thriving – local workers pop in for lunch, but so do the cognoscenti of Canberra.

glowing pastries - always different

glowing pastries – always different

And it has been written up in the papers:

in the paper - it won't be a secret for long!

in the paper – it won’t be a secret for long!

Opposite, however, is a symbol of how Australians perceive their economy.

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And a thought-provoking name for a business:


‘Trojan Hospitality’ it said – a bit hard to see here, but the red lettering stood out in real life.

It should be reassuring, as long as you remember that the Trojans were disastrously hospitable towards the horse the Greeks sent them.  But we do tend to think that  the Trojan Horse  represents betrayal.  (Would you stay at the Dunsinane Bed and Breakfast, run by Mr and Mrs Macbeth?  Then again, Leamington boasts a street called Banquo Approach.  It’s a more desirable address than you might expect.)

On another day we went to visit Brian, who lives on a farm with his three dogs.  He showed us a trick in which they jump into his bed.

into, onto - happy dogs.

into, onto – happy dogs.

A real farm, but just not his.

a puzzling sign in Adelaide

a shiny tractor and lovely pigs – like illustrations in a kiddies’ book

March 3, 2014

Thank you Val for breaking the drought – all the long time since I last wrote a blog.

Yesterday we thought it would be good to take the dogs and have a walk on a wold, instead of our usual urban and semi-urban dogwalks. By the time we had had lunch and a cup of tea at home, and driven (slowly) to Chipping Camden, it was pouring with a nasty kind of wind-driven sleety rain. Some of it was very heavy and pelting from the South. So we left the dogs in the car and went to find a cream tea. First we had to look in on an antiques fair – managed to escape without purchase. The Bantam Tea Rooms had luscious cakes in the window and a wood fire burning: they served a lavish version of the cream tea. Two slender young women next to us were eating scones and cake on the same plate – we were impressed and ordered up the same thing. The scone came with the absolutely best cream and jam I have had in a long time; the cake (chocolate for me, lemon for Andrew) was marvellous – light and fresh. It was Sunday afternoon, and the cakes were fresh! How often does that happen?

I chose Darjeeling tea – full metal pot, with teabag in, plus matching pot of hot water. China teacup and saucer reminded me of my Grandma. That cup of tea went on and on and on.

I can’t speak too highly of the Bantam Tea Rooms – and so I bought a teatowel for my mother. Anything that says ‘Chipping Camden’ will tickle an Australian’s sense of humour. We drove our baffled dogs home, slowly, through Cotswold lanes in the grey rain and the gathering dusk. We did have a walk with them in the end, on our usual park in Warwick.

eating a goose

October 23, 2013

Here in Berlin lots of restaurants are advertising special goose-oriented menus for the 11th November.

I'm starting to get the hang of Germany, and I bet they eat a lot more than just this.

I’m starting to get the hang of Germany, and I bet they eat a lot more than just this.

So I checked it out online –

Unser Martinsgans-Menü 2013

(auf Vorbestellung)


Amuse bouche

Karamelisierte Gänseleber

auf Thymian-Zwetschgen

und geröstetem Sellerie


Ofenfrische bayrische Martinsgans,

mit Akazienhonig glasiert,

auf Preiselbeer-Rotkohl, Apfel-Maronenpürée

und kleinen Kartoffelknödeln


Kreation von Mandelnougat,

Pattaya-Mango und Madagascar-Vanille


€ 46,- / Person

In the UK, needless to say, the 11th is all about remembrance and the end of World War One on that date.  People try to say that it has something to do with peace – I’m not convinced.

and lots of people wear these things -

and lots of people wear these things –

I wondered how roast goose might fit into this.  The answer is:  it doesn’t.  What a pity!  I suggest we find ways of bringing a roast goose feast back to the UK.  And quickly, too – preferably within the next fortnight or so, what with the eleventh of November rushing towards us.

It turns out that roast goose is part of a much older tradition – and the nicest saint I have ever read about.  The 11th of November is also Saint Martin’s day, and I have to tell you straight away that I’ve found out all this information from a charming wiki entry which I propose now to plagiarise shamelessly.   Saint Martin is the first saint not to have been martyred (there’s a relief) –

not normally a happy experience

not normally a happy experience – this is Saint Sebastian.  I just chose him at random for you.

– he died of natural causes in the fourth century.  The eleventh is an ecumenical date too. Martin Luther was baptised on that day, and so Protestants can celebrate the date as well.  (His parents probably didn’t realise he wouldn’t grow up to be a Catholic.)  Now all we need is a Hindu and a Buddhist connection . . . . No wait on.  I guess the Buddhists wouldn’t want a big roast-goose oriented blow-out.  (Though, bizarrely, there is an eating- goose-Buddha connection.)

a structure that celebrates not eating geese

a structure that celebrates not eating geese

St Martin turns out to have been a great guy.  He gave up being a soldier once he became Christian, which suggests some moral fibre, not to mention a fine capacity with logic.  He is also the guy who divided his cloak with the beggar – showing both generosity and fair-mindedness.

always nice to post a medieval image - the more famous paintings of St Martin show him as a knight in armour, which seems a bit anachronistic

always nice to post a medieval image – the more famous paintings of St Martin show him as a knight in armour, which seems a bit anachronistic

It gets better and better – he went to work for a guy called Hilarius, he missed his parents, and he lived in France (his full title is St Martin of Tours) as a bit of a hermit.  Tours must have been a very different place in those days.  I can relate to that ‘hermit in France’ thing – if his French was anything like mine, it’s more or less imposed on you.  Maybe Hilarius’s French was better – they made him Pope.

later Pope

later Pope

We are told that he died of an illness contracted on his travels  – not quite the same as ‘quietly at home’ but maybe that’s how he would have wanted to go.  I also like it that he isn’t festooned around with loads of improbable miracles, but he seems to have been a saint because lots of people liked him and he was just plain good.

It seems mean to leave you without an actual recipe for the roast goose – but, inspired by St Martin’s example, I cannot tell a lie: I have never roasted a goose.  And so your choice amongst the internet recipes is likely to be as good as mine.  (I like the look of the Hairy Bikers’ version though, as we have lots of apples this year.)

Lastly I am motivated to roast a goose this year because my lovely son William, who has his birthday on the 14th, will be at home – and that’s near enough for me!


September 25, 2013

Saturday morning and the air has stilled.  September sunshine brushes the market square and the warm stone houses in the hilly village of Ste Sévère.  No movement in the little streets, except for mine – and I a stranger.  In the Post Office – nearly midday, nearly closing time – I am the only customer.  A peaceful woman weighs the card I want to send – it rests, light on the scales, while she tickles my cheeky dog.  Those huge ears.  The local bar is sleek with the smell of leeks cooking. I drink excellent coffee alone, and chat quietly with the chef about black pepper and circuses, and leek fondue.  (Did he really mean ‘leek fondue’?)

 The ancient square is still empty, but the church bell strikes its rich tone, calm and precise.  It hardly resonates in the dry air, so limpid, and for once I don’t bother to count the strokes.  I slide the car gently out of town.

 Not a soul in the fields – no sound of machinery, no movement of beasts or men.  The great black and white donkeys stand at angles, close together but detached.  Wheat stubble rests; sunflowers and maize are drying – so slowly – imperceptibly small changes darken the grains a fraction more.  Across an empty field, the brook’s rush-rustling tumble runs below the silence.  For a few steps my boots crunch gently across a sprinkle of last year’s acorns.  Some small cautious creature briefly disturbs the dry grasses by the path; a tiny grasshopper lands on a papery dead leaf with the lightest of sounds: flick.  A pale, grey-brown sound.  Down the hill, across the little iron and concrete bridge and past silent well-kempt farmsteads, the dogs romp and I walk quietly, into the shade of the woods on our left.  On the other side, expanses of tall-growing flowering balsam run wild, all the way down damp margins to the stream. 


They say a blog is better with pictures – I’m not sure that I want to chop this one up. 

Here it is again with pictures – tell me what you think!


Saturday morning and the air has stilled.  September sunshine brushes the market square and the warm stone houses in the hilly village of Ste Sévère.  No movement in the little streets, except for mine – and I a stranger.

empty streets

empty streets

In the Post Office – nearly midday – I am the only customer.

The Post Office - ring to be admitted.

The Post Office – ring to be admitted.

A peaceful woman weighs the card I want to send – it rests, light on the scales, while she tickles my cheeky dog.  Those huge ears.  In the local bar (the Relais du Facteur), sleek with the smell of leeks cooking I drink excellent coffee alone, and chat quietly with the chef about black pepper and circuses, and leek fondue.  (Did he really mean ‘leek fondue’?)

no-one needed behind the bar

no-one needed behind the bar

The ancient square is still empty, but the church bell strikes its rich tone, calm and precise.

Across rooftops, the bell tower of the church.

Across rooftops, the bell tower of the church.

It hardly resonates in the dry air.  For once I don’t bother to count the strokes.  I slide the car gently out of town.

I slide out of town

I slide out of town

Not a soul in the fields – no sound of machinery, no movement of beasts or men.  The great black and white donkeys stand at angles, close together but detached.  Wheat stubble rests; sunflowers and maize are drying – so slowly – imperceptibly small, molecular movement.

maize drying on the cob

maize drying on the cob

Across an empty field, the brook’s rush-rustling tumble runs below the silence.

stream bubbling in the distance

stream bubbling in the distance

For a few steps my boots crunch gently across a sprinkle of last year’s acorns;

acorns scatter, shatter on the path

acorns scatter, shatter on the path

something disturbs the dry grasses by the path; a tiny grasshopper lands on a leaf with the lightest of sounds: flick.  A pale, grey-brown sound.

a grasshopper, still and undetectable on the dried grass

a grasshopper, still and undetectable on the dried grass

Down the hill, across the little iron and concrete bridge

concrete and iron

concrete and iron

and past silent well-kempt farmsteads,

well kept farmsteads: the Moulin Gras

well kept farmsteads: the Moulin Gras

the dogs romp and I walk quietly, into the shade of the woods on one side;


on the other, expanses of tall-growing flowering balsam run wild, all the way down damp margins to the stream.

flowering balsam on the field running down to the stream

flowering balsam on the field running down to the stream

A busy weekend

June 25, 2013
High summer at Burton Dasset

High summer at Burton Dasset

I’ve been dashing around as usual. Friday afternoon was a picnic in the hayfield that is Burton Dasset hills – one of Marion and John’s several farewell celebrations. Followed by a brass concert in the church. I downed an antihistamine and a couple of glasses of pink fizz – survived fine! The dogs had a lot of fun with the kids who were there, and totally ignored the sheep (good dogs!)

Sheep everywhere

Sheep everywhere

John and Marion may need to re-jig their visit to us in France, to fit with their house move. If so, I can linger here a bit longer and maybe do some more boating – actually staying on board for more than just overnight at last , which would be really good.

Then on Saturday I went out to the boat (very reluctantly – feeling tired and a bit scared after all this time) only to find as usual that it was wonderful on the canal path, fabulous on the boat, and terrific going through Bascote locks.

the ladder locks at Bascote

the ladder locks at Bascote

(Another anti-histamine, and a silk scarf to keep the dusty polleny wind out of my hair. Just about an adequate defence.) As I was walking the boat into the first lock (very slowly and carefully) another boat came up behind me, the Tumbleweed, with a friendly couple on board, boating down from Cheshire. So we went through Bascote locks together, and I could stay on board for the ladder lock. The dogs were impeccable again – the Cheshire boat had two beautiful black collie-cross-German Shepherds on board – very calm dogs.  Ours just noticed that they were there and then politely ignored them. Perfect. Then on to moor at the Cuttle Bridge at Bishop’s Itchington, and a celebratory pint (of Eagle, naturally) at the Two Boats.

the Two Boats pub by the canal at Long Itchington

the Two Boats pub by the canal at Long Itchington

that's not me holding it - but it's a nice picture of a pint  Nobody at the Two Boats was dressed like that!

that’s not me holding it – but it’s a nice picture of a pint.  Nobody at the Two Boats was dressed like that!

So boating woke me up – and I charged off to Heydon that evening to stay over with my stepson and his family. Little Jimmy (their new Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy) is very cute and ebullient.

Jimmy the Cavalier

Jimmy the Cavalier

They are all well and OK, but quite clearly not coming to France this year. They have heard of tick-borne diseases which really do sound nasty.  Maybe we should get tick collars for our three.

Sunday morning we went up to ‘the forest’ (Jubilee Wood, near Royston) – a perfect place to walk when it is windy and hay-fevery, as it’s so calm under the trees. The kids were rather disappointed to find that the log swings that used to dangle from high branches have all been cut down. 9Vandalism?  Health and Safety?)  The dogs gradually got used to one another – going for a walk together is definitely the way to do that!!

Drove back to Leam on Sunday through absolute downpours of rain – and arrived feeling pretty spaced-out and tired all over again. Aahhh.

Good news  here at home on Monday – the builders’ surveyor came, and said that they will build the gorgeous (well, cheap and cheerful) lean-to conservatory beginning on the 1st July. Exclamation marks hardly suffice to express my amazement and joy at this time scheme.

Today (Tuesday) I was supposed to be lunching at The Leopard, at Bishops Tachbrook, (yet another pub where one of my kids used to work) and catching up with a  friend who writes poetry and has had recent heart operations. At the last moment, my beloved VW Passat wouldn’t start – no sound from the battery but a click.  I speculate: flat battery? (unlikely); stuck starter motor? (do diesels do that?); immobiliser accidentally switched on ? (quite likely).  So we met nearby – a short walk along the canal to the (dog-friendly) pub, The Moorings.  We had a conversation about health, rather than one about poetry. –  and the food was excellent. Right now, therefore, I need to choose between watching Wimbledon on TV, and phoning the AA. 

Bundt cake part 2

December 24, 2012

A soddy cake: my mother’s name for a cake that hadn’t cooked properly – most of hers were soddy.  She said the word with a kind of rueful pleasure – Schadenfreude. I suppose, except it was her own dismay that triggered it.  Selbstshadenfreude, therefore?  There are reasons for a soddy cake: perhaps people stamped or trod heavily while it was cooking; perhaps there had been an angry voice.  Anger was known to ruin the rising of cakes.  So we crept around the kitchen, trying to be nice to one another.  Still the cakes fell.  Sometimes it was the oven’s fault (and by extension, the landlord’s fault – another in the catalogue chalked up against him) – the door didn’t fit, or she looked inside too soon (no glass doors in those days).  They were always packet cake mixes – Mum loved (and loves) innovations.   

It may be a very old word: in early modern English ‘sodden’ or ‘sothen’ means ‘boiled’ (the present tense is ‘seethe’).  Meat might be ‘roast or sod’ in the sixteenth century.[1]  Of course Mum was having a sneaky little giggle because a ‘sod’ was a term of abuse for anyone you felt was behaving meanly, but also a sodomite, and so an obscenity in the intolerant world of the fifties.  A child could detect the giggly sneer and the rudeness, even without knowing the derivation.  She loved to get away with things – and a fallen cake allowed her to get away with using the word and the smutty reference in front of children.


You’ve guessed by now that the lovely Bundt cake was almost totally uncooked inside.  The outside a lovely golden brown, it slipped eagerly out of the tin.  I put it on my mother-in-law’s glamorous blue-and-white Victorian cake plate, dusted it with icing sugar, and it was a gorgeous sight to behold, its peaks dominating the table of party food.  Until I cut into it: Alas! a solid, greyish-gluggy, inedible interior.  A truly soddy cake.  That damn oven! 


In that wakeful moment in the small hours I remembered how I had mixed it.  I adore that word ‘blitz’ that Nigella uses, but it is ambiguous.  How long do you blitz for?  And I thought about those meanings: ‘Blitzen’, the reindeer paired with Donner, is of course ‘lightning’ – a short sharp shock – yoked with her mate, the thunder.  (Are the reindeer gendered?  I suppose Vixen is – but the others?)  In comparison, I had blitzed that cake mixture to hell and back.  Somewhere in the depths of my mind I recalled a recipe book’s advice: “Do not overbeat the eggs.”  But in what context?  Anyway, I can tell you that overbeating the eggy mixture, followed by putting the cake into too hot an oven, in an overgreased tin, then turning the oven down too far, to compensate for the initial error – – – well, that’s a recipe for disaster!!

Just a dream of perfection: an image found online

Just a dream of perfection: an image found online

[1]Andrew Boorde’s Compendyous Regyment or Dyetary of Health of 1542, “Potage is made of the lyquor in which fleshe is soden [boiled] in , with puttyng-to chopped herbes and otemel and salt”.


Kitchen Disasters – the Voice of Experience

December 21, 2012

I’m feeling tense preparing for the little party we are having on the weekend: first party in the new, downsized, tiny house, so ‘party’ isn’t quite the word.  More a small collection of local people – dog walkers from the Eagle Rec., fellow drinkers from the pub that shut down recently.

(I hear that they’re going to build flash houses for pseuds on the lovely old orchard that was the beer garden. )

We might be able to shoehorn twenty folk into the living room, if they don’t mind a squeeze.  Then I was told that Saturday night holds unmissable TV – the final of Strictly Come Dancing.  So maybe it will be a very small group indeed

Today I am baking – a catalogue of disasters real and imagined.  First, I need to boil up some white rice – the only rice in the cupboard is whole grain or expensive organic arborio.  This is for a puppy with diarrhea – so it’s the arborio, then.  While that was bubbling and then cooling, I iced the Christmas cake – the best royal icing I’ve made in years, since usually it’s too runny.  I don’t do that skating-rink smooth icing (don’t?  I mean can’t) and I don’t much feel like flicking it up all over – that’s fun occasionally but not every year.  And I realised that actually I like the rough-hewn look you get from just running a knife over the top, and letting the marks fall where they may.  Maybe we can tell fortunes that way?  A cake fortune-teller – and a fake fortune-teller,  like the frog in The Mouse and His Child.  But handling the cake brought home to me how soft it feels.  It looks paler than it should, too.  Is it perhaps undercooked?  Oh the embarrassment of cutting it and finding it is still raw dough – and rather old raw dough, at that, as it has been maturing on top of the fridge for weeks, fed with brandy, in the proper style.  So it will be well preserved and sloppy – perhaps even drinkable – uncooked cake.  Maybe I can just shrug it off and shout ‘Yum Yum!’  Pass it off as a new seasonal cocktail?

Set off to make pumpkin pies – scrupulously carefully – this year using an uncooked pastry –  pate brisée from The Joy of Cooking.  Delighted to realise that the icing needed egg whites and the pastry needed yolks.  Terrific!  That drying crust of part-egg waiting forlornly in a cup at the back of the fridge won’t happen this year.   The pastry – obediently well-chilled – went solid in the fridge (is it supposed to?) and, solid yet sticky, wrapped itself around the winebottle I was using as rolling pin, tearing here and there as it stuck and fell back over and over.  Fingers work best to press it into shape, and I went over the bases scrupulously sticking and pressing bits of stray pastry wherever there were holes.  I’ve had this happen before – the filling seeps through those invisible gaps and forms a delicious but unsightly baked-on mass below the pastry.  Nobody eats this but me, and there’s far too much of it to throw away.  All those good ingredients!  (my mother’s voice, of course).  But this time will be different – and I think it just about is.  There’s no big mixing bowl this year – it went with my husband to his flat, when we divided up our possessions.  He texts he can bring it round later, but I want to pie onwards now, now, now!  So I opt for the blender.  Maybe this year the pies won’t be fibrous, with those dubiously-mashed bits of pumpkin I usually give up on too soon.  Also, this year, with little storage space, I haven’t kept a pumpkin from November, but bought a butternut squash.  (Well – in Australia we call them butternut pumpkins – so I reckon they can make a pumpkin pie as well as the next one – though never as well as a proper, solid Queensland Blue – but that’s another story.)  I check back in Joy of Cooking and find that the recipe says ‘Pumpkin or Squash Pie’ – so all the bases are covered.  I’ve forgotten to get Ideal milk, and can’t wait for the groceries to arrive, so I substitute crème fraiche and yogurt.  (I’ve used yogurt before, with great success.)  One of the crème fraiche pots is nearly a week past its sell-by date – but it tastes fine.  If anything, slightly milder than yesterday’s.  I don’t think it will poison anybody.  Vast quanitites of pale mixture zap around in the blender – I like Nigella’s term ‘blitz’.  Ah blitzed them stringy varmints down to a light cream.  As usual, I have far more mixture than I need – maybe something goes wrong in translating American volume measurements into UK weights – so once the pies are in the oven, write myself a pencil note in the recipe book.  ‘Always too much of this.’  Satisfying: I like marginalia in general, but especially in recipe books.  Ruthlessly, I tipped the leftover deliciousness straight down the sink.  Normally I would wait for it to go mouldy-green and stinking before tipping it out, but today I need the blender for other things.

The oven is an enigma – an oven of extremes.  At high temperatures it seems fairly accurate, but lower and middling ones are seriously low – so it seems that one can cook on hot or on cool, but never on moderate.  The warming-up time is leisurely.  My oven of extremes: passionately hot, or cold and unresponsive.  Manic-depressive oven. (There may be a connection between this and the state of the Christmas cake.) Right now it is taking an hour and a half to bake pumpkin pies – which should take an hour – and they are still pale on top.

And so Thursday passed into evening – I was doing well, so obviously that was the moment to open a bottle of red wine with a friend, and then when she went away, to open another with my stepson.  Midnight is too late for me (and certainly too late for an early-rising company chef).  Friday wasn’t going to be easy.

The pies came out fine – with some extra time.  Same for the chocolate brownies, which I have never made before.  The clue is to believe that they are done even when they don’t look done.  (My chef stepson’s words – a mantra to hold to as the afternoon wears on.  That, and remembering the time when I didn’t know that about biscuits: I baked and baked them to a crisp, not realising that they would crisp up once out of the oven.  I don’t think I have tried to make biscuits since.)  Needless to say I faithfully took the brownies out of the oven before they looked cooked (and anyway, we had a date to go uptown, Christmas shopping with two grandkids).  Maybe they are undercooked, like the Christmas cake.  ‘Bung ’em in the fridge,’ says my stepson, ‘they’ll firm up’.  And I do, and they do.  And later on – after a brisk shopping session and a trip to MacDonald’s – the youngest grandson has first slice of the Christmas cake.  It’s a bit pale – and oversweet to my taste – but it seems cooked enough.  The bundt cake is another story – I think I over-oiled the tin, tried to compensate for the cool oven by turning it up to start with, then felt guilty and turned it down again. The cake has come out partly-fried on its edges and not well risen.  Too hot and then too cool.  But at least it has held together rather better than last time.  More marginalia needed – I will note all this down in my copy of Nigella’s Christmas.  

I will defrost the pack of red summer fruits and use crème fraiche to disguise the shortcomings.  Gleaming in their various icy reds, the blackcurrants and redcurrants, the raspberries and blackberries look gorgeously Christmassy.  Youngest grandchild tells us all many times: ‘Those red berries are poison – you can’t eat them.’  He is very persistent, and listening to explanations is not his strong suit.  I suppose he has been told about holly berries, and there may be an element of Snow White in there as well.  Wickedly witchy, I, the stepgrandmother, hold the glowing plateful out to him.  As the kitchen’s warm fug touches the berries, a white sheen of frost forms, wonderfully or horribly, depending on your point of view.

In tune with the themes of this post, wordpress seems reluctant to let me upload pictures today.  I’ll fight that battle another day – in the meantime, my apologies – just use your imaginations, please.

Beasts of the forest and city – Auckland again

April 7, 2011

Auckland: Friday Feb 18th  
Between Green Bay and the alternative atmosphere of Titirangi (charming coffee shops and galleries, and an endlessly interesting community noticeboard) lies a wild green space: the Rahui Kahika Reserve.   It looks forested but the word ‘Reserve’ suggests that it is cared for, and paths roam through it.  The walk up to Titirangi lies beside a busy road, so walking through the Reserve looks like a good option.   The first path leads along the backs of houses, where a council employee is mowing vigorously, wheeling to and fro and flinging curves of chopped green grass through the air.  A little further on is another clipped green path, access to Godfrey Road – still no wilderness – just a cluster of teenagers in school uniform, sitting convivially on the grass and drinking sober cans of pop.  Friday afternoon in Green Bay.  Mowing is everywhere – someone else is mowing in his back yard.  Eventually the path curves deeper into the Reserve, across a little stream and past steeper cliffs, into quiet shaded darkness.  It peters out into something that looks like the tracks you made in the bush when you were twelve, and the last thing you ever wanted to do was to get to a destination. It starts to bend back in an almost imperceptible  way and clearly there is going to be no way through to Titirangi Road, now well above us.  Our map didn’t show contour lines.
We turn back, and edge along the little stream through the eerie shadows of tall trees. A huge, sudden movement just next to me and a little behind – big soft golden-brown wings flap in the undergrowth and an impossibly large bird lifts low across the path, to land on a branch – so close -.  For a moment I thought it was some kind of bat – maybe a flying fox – but no.  It sat patiently, waiting us out, while I stepped gently back to take photos.

Bird in the underbrush

I wish I could show you how he glowed golden-brown in the beam of sun.  I fell in love with him, perched there so calm and quietly still.  It was hard to believe he was in the right place.  How could he live there – the canopy is dense – how could he ever possibly fly up through all that?  Perhaps we needed to phone the animal protection people.  Could it be a young one? or lost?  Surely big birds need lots of space?  And he sat on, waiting.

he seems to be watching, too

Watching something so fine and large (‘Being earth-brown, earth-golden’) makes me think of D H Lawrence’s poem, ‘Snake’.  It ends:  
And so
I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life
And I have something to expiate:
 A pettiness.
My littleness is to creep close, and submit him to being photographed.  What an insult.  Perhaps my concern for his wellbeing just masks desire for control?  We looked him up later in the bird book: like every other bird I spot, the Australasian Harrier Hawk is classed as ‘common’.  Well, the breed may be common, but the experience of seeing one was extraordinary.

It wouldn’t really be fair to call the Auckland Choral Society a ‘beast of the city’ – but maybe it fits if you think of the criteria: that it has many heads, is exceptionally long-lived and produces a very rich, musical call.  Anyway, we went to their free ‘taster’ concert: excerpts from programmes to be performed later in the year.  Great fun, especially the singalong. 

The ‘taster’ had ended early in the evening, and failed to satisfy actual physical hunger, but luckily that was the day of the Lantern Festival, celebrating Chinese New Year.  There were crowds and crowds of people filling Albert Park to overflowing and surging down into the little streets nearby: who would have thought Auckland could hold so many?   A party atmosphere filled the bright darkness with hurly-burly, and strange inflatable beasts of the city imaged Chineseness and New Zealand life.

scarlet lanterns welcome the New Year

These are just a few of the displays, and there had been fireworks earlier.

a dragon gateway seems to bring luck to all who pass underneath

I’m not sure what that circle is on the top – maybe a lucky coin? Maybe the moon, or the sun?  I suspect it’s the coin, though, as Chinese good luck seems to be mostly about good health and cash.

Bok Choi, snails and distressingly humanoid chickens

– oh yes – and food.  Eating well is a big part of the Lantern Festival, as we found in the populous side-street of multifarious food stalls.  Not just Chinese food, either, but all kinds of Asian dishes abounded.

Chinese-New Zealand multi-culturalism

I guess these beasts count as edibles along with the other inflated lantern tableaux, but they also symbolise much more.  Chinese techniques and conventions representing iconic New Zealandness.  The medium is the message.

the great Australian pie

March 15, 2011

A riff on meat pies

As teenagers we were strictly forbidden to eat in the street, though perhaps the ban only applied to us girls. It was seen as rude, even faintly obscene: maybe that open mouth was an exposure of an inner part of the body that was properly kept invisible, decent. It was also forbidden to remove our navy terylene school gloves once we were outside the school gates (another inside/outside distinction). Given this prohibition, eating in the street would have been sticky and impractical as well as outrageous. These mores, internalised, persisted into adult life – but it was the sixties, soon to be the Age of Aquarius, the age of freedom. So, one day in 1971 when I stood on a corner of Bourke Street in Melbourne, eating a scalding hot meat pie in my hands, I felt a frisson of naughtiness, joy and liberation. And it also seemed only just that the hot gravy dribbled a little uncontrollably, and stained as it dripped.

The hot meat pie: the traditional fast food of Australia for generations. My uncle Norman (born somewhere around the 1910s) cited it as one of his key reasons for never travelling to England: ‘Warm beer and cold pies!’ he would exclaim, and shudder theatrically. He was a most kind man of few words. He and my aunt caravanned around Australia several times – they must have been among the earliest of the ‘grey nomads’ – and sported a bumper sticker: ‘See Australia First’. This was surely disingenuous, as I suspect they really meant ‘first, last and always’.

When we were children, my father regularly drove the family in our Morris Minor along the Pacific Highway from Port Stephens to Brisbane. He commented on every town we went through – ‘very cold place’ or ‘been bushfires through here’. As we neared Brisbane he would notice the little town of Yatala (pronounced ‘yattle-uh’): ‘Yatala pies’ he would say, and I don’t remember whether we ever stopped there, or had a pie. Maybe it happened once. Generally, though, we churned on past the wooden old-time structure with its rust-red roof and its large painted sign. Later we drove past in the two-tone FC Holden from Ipswich to the Gold Coast for family holidays (ah – cheap, cold watermelon from the roadside stalls), and most recently from Yeerongpilly, and then Moggill, down to the Broadwater every week in a series of Toyotas and Nissans. (I’ll tell you about Norm’s Chrysler Valiant another time). And every week without fail he would comment: ‘Yatala – good pies’. At some time the road was turned into a highway and only the turnoff sign to Yatala (‘Famous for its Pies’) could be seen.

So, on our way back from Mt Tamborine, Andrew and I decided to celebrate a lifetime of not stopping, by pulling in to see if the pie shop was still there, and if the pies really deserved to be still ‘famous’. It looked the same: colonial dark red tin roof and ochre wooden walls. The car park was much larger, and of course we had to get right off onto the old road to find it. But – not to beat about the bush – it was a total delight and a wonder. The clientele hadn’t changed much and neither had the atmosphere: it was still a place where a practical man, or a local tradie, or a travelling family could get a hot pie in a paper package. And such pies! The pastry was a marvel – the first bite carried me back to the pies of childhood. It tasted precisely right: light and savoury and fresh, not too crumbly or flaky but not soggy either. It was as if the memory of the perfection of childhood had been incarnated in a present reality. Furthermore there was now a variety of choices of pie, and a fridge full of milk shakes and soft drinks, to cope with the much larger throughput of modern pie-eaters. There was even a drive-through option, for pie-eating on the go. But perhaps the best part was that they hadn’t diversified into too many other dishes, or set out to be anything other than what they really were. The building felt just like the old one, though it is probably new, as there is plenty of space to sit at tables to eat, whether indoors or out, and on the walls there is a fascinating collection of photos of the pie shop in earlier days: inundated by the 1947 floods, for example. Sadly we could only try two of the fillings (I had the steak and kidney, Andrew had the steak and mushroom): what do you take us for? Gargantua? One of these pies will keep you going for a long afternoon of hard work, and there is no question of dripping gravy. They are properly filled with a solidity of meat. But we did take one home (their stock standard ‘meat pie’) for Dad to have for lunch the next day. Even reheated and a day old it was still terrific, he said.

Now I think we may have to plan to be on our way through Yatala at lunchtime more often, and to take Dad with us.

blazoning Yatala pies to the world

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