Friday, 21 November 2014

Henry Thoreau | Life in the Woods + Rustic Country Bread



I am grateful for civilisation. Nor do I entertain any romantic illusions about the ennobling quality of primitive existence and its innocent communion with nature. Life in the woods, it seems, is a constant battle against the encroachment of nature - harsh, unrelenting, indifferent and so too are its people. It is not always a welcoming feeling; often one of enclosure, of being crushed under the weight of centuries gone by. But I wonder if solitude is incompatible with civilised life and what it is that each year pulls me back, to the mountains, to confront only the bare facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it is to live and to die.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
Henry Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods

Thoreau had a profound effect on me during my formative years, an effect so deep I have not been able to shake off even when I could no longer share his transcendental views or his championship of provincialism. And so, while I can appreciate that if 'a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer', I am not convinced that the dismissal of the new and the consequent return to the old contributes to the moral advancement of mankind. The construction of railroads and bridges and engines is, I think, as much a sign of high-spiritedness and intelligence as are the works of music and poetry. Money and the market may indeed not be necessary to live what Thoreau calls 'a whole human life', but poverty does not liberate from the constraints of society and D.H. Lawrence, whose thought often echoes the idealism of Thoreau, understood how stifling such a life can be.


What perhaps resonates most strongly for me in Walden is the idea of life experienced as renewal and a desire to speak without bounds.

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves .... The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!
Henry Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods


~ Rustic Country Bread ~

I made this bread at an altitude of 1300 metres, in a little village perched on a mountain slope near the peak, where the ruins of the past keep an eerie silence amidst the humming of insects, the shrill of a wandering eagle and the incessant murmur of the waters. Did those people, who once inhabited the area, live a happier, fuller life? Did their physical proximity to nature make them privy to some wisdom that my post-industrial, meta-modern life is supposed to have denied me?


I made the bread at first out of necessity because the nearest bakery was half an hour away and no transport to take me there. But it was its superb taste that made me overcome the almost daily toil of its preparation. I like its rugged look - partly due, I suppose, to the type of flour I used and partly because I didn't think to sift the flour and then add the bran back; rugged like the white rocks and the skin of old fir trees. It is the trees that stir a passion in me.

Country Bread:
400 g yellow duram wheat bread flour
200 g whole wheat flour with the bran included
1 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp instant dried yeast
375-500 ml tepid water
1 tbsp olive oil, for greasing tin
extra flour for dusting

Sift both flours twice, then put in a large mixing bowl, making sure to reintegrate the bran that’s left in the sieve, and mix well. Add the salt to one side of the bowl and the yeast to the other. Make a hole in the centre and add 300 ml of the water, turning the mixture round with your fingers. Continue to add the reamaining water, a little at a time, until you've picked up all the flour from the sides of the bowl and the mixture forms a rough dough. You may not need to add all the water or you may need to add a little more. You want dough that is fairly soft without being soggy or too tight.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 20-30 minutes until the dough forms a soft, smooth skin. When the dough feels smooth and silky, put it into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise in a warm and draft-free place for 1.5 to 2 hours, until it has doubled in size.

Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Without knocking it back so as not to deflate it, shape the dough into an a ball or oval by gently folding it inwards and place on a lightly oiled baking pan which is between 24cm and 28cm in diameter. Cover with a tea towel and leave to prove for another 1.5 to 2 hours.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 220 C.

When the dough has proven, dust lightly with flour. Then make 3 cuts across the top on the diagonal, using a serrated knife or a sharp blade, and sprinkle with a little water.

Bake for about 60-75 minutes or until it is golden in colour and sounds hollow when tapped on the base. Cool on a wire rack.

Note: As this bread was made at a high altitude, some adjustment to the amount of yeast and water required would be necessary. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Laura Esquivel | Caramelised Onion, Red Pepper and Goat's Cheese Tart



There is a unique relationship between literature and film, a tentative symbiosis between the written word and the cinematic image that allows the latter to adapt, appropriate or negotiate the former. Many films are based on novels, short stories and plays but what determines the dynamic of this relationship is a different matter. Sometimes the film rises to the challenge of the book: Coppola's Apocalypse Now is as brilliant as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Sometimes, it's a disastrous affair: think of the adaptation of The Scarlet Letter or of Vanity Fair. And then there are times when the film surpasses its literary origin, so much so that we have no idea it's even based on a book, as with J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear or Hitchcock's Psycho.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Queen of Hearts | Strawberry Tart



What I like about nursery rhymes, and this goes for folk tales as well, is their outwardly innocent simplicity and their unassuming tone. I also like them for their palpably raw sense of reality, often shocking and taking unexpected turns. Many nursery rhymes used to parody the politics and leaders of the time or spread scandalous or rebellious messages. I find it ironic that what was once an instrument of communication of dissenting opinion about current events has now become an unsuspecting source of delight for children. I remember fondly those silent nights when my father would read to me little rhymes from my Mother Goose book and the characters and stories would leap out of the pages -  tumbling down hills, falling off walls, jumping over the moon. 'The Queen of Hearts' was one of my favourites, perhaps because of its promise for a tart, perhaps because of its evocation of a summer's day.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Eugenio Montale | Lemon Bundt Cake with Lemon Curd



My search for a lemon poem took me, via the as yet unexplored Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee, an evidently captivating travelogue through the citrus groves of Italy, to twentieth century Italian poet  Eugenio Montale. Any writer who proclaims to have 'wanted to wring the neck of the eloquence of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence,' is bound to attract my attention. In his poem 'The Lemon Trees', written in 1925, Montale offers a less than sensual poeticized image of lemon gardens.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Andy Warhol | Roasted Tomato and Pepper Soup



As the story goes, it was American art expert, gallery owner and erotic author Muriel Latow who gave Andy Warhol the original idea to paint Campbell's Soup Cans by suggesting 'something you see everyday and something that everybody would recognize. Something like a can of Campbell's Soup.'

Warhol's artwork, consisting of thirty-two canvas paintings each depicting a particular tinned soup variety offered by the company at the time, was shown for the first time in July 1962 in Los Angeles, California. The exhibition marked the debut of pop art as a significant art movement. The semi-mechanised process of production, the non-painterly style and the commercial subject were in contrast to the fine art values but also the mystical idealism towards which abstract expressionism was veering.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Basic Recipe | Shortcrust pastry




This is a flaky kind of pastry for savoury tarts, very much like pâte brisée, and was the result of considerable experimentation. I had long been dissatisfied with pastry that had a ratio of half butter to flour as I found it hard to roll and not very tender, so I have slightly increased the amount of butter. The pastry is not particularly rich as I find that this enhances the taste of the filling. I also use the fraiser technique for blending the dough without overworking it.


110 g unsalted butter, very cold and diced
200 g plain flour
pinch of salt
3-4 tbsp icy cold water
1 small egg yolk, for the glaze

This makes enough pastry for a 23cm tart tin or a 36cm x 12cm rectangular flan tin.

Dice the butter and put it in the fridge, together with the flour, for 30 minutes prior to making the pastry. I don't normally put it in the freezer as it hardens the butter considerably and makes it difficult to handle.

To make the pastry, sift the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl, add the diced butter and, using your fingertips or a pastry cutter, lightly rub the butter into the flour until it forms course breadcrumbs. Add the icy cold water, a tablespoon at a time, and using a knife or fork stir it in until the dough just comes together. The quantity of water will vary with different brands of flour.

Turn out the dough onto a clean surface and form into a rough ball.  Using the heel of your hand, push a small amount of the dough away from you flattening it. Gather the dough together and repeat as above 3-4 times until you get a round, soft ball - this will give it a flaky texture. You should not overwork the dough. Shape the ball into a flat disc or rectangle, wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge ideally for a couple of hours or at least for 30 minutes.

Take the pastry out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature for about 5-8 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry. If it starts getting sticky, sprinkle more flour on the surface and the rolling pin. Transfer the pastry into a lightly greased loose-bottom tin. If it breaks, just patch it up. Prick the base with a fork, cover with clingfilm and chill for about an hour.


To bake blind, half an hour before taking the pastry out of the fridge, heat the oven to 185 C.

Remove the pastry from the fridge, cover the sides with foil and place a large piece of crinkled baking parchment on top. Fill this with baking beans and bake in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes. Then remove the foil, baking paper and beans, patch any cracks with left-over pastry and glaze with egg yolk beaten with a little water or milk. Bake for another 10 minutes or so until dry and lightly golden.

Use as directed by recipe.


Sunday, 16 February 2014

Seamus Heaney | Blackberry and Apple Torte



The simple joy of blackberry picking! The wild anticipation, foraging through the urban jungle, the excitement of the pick, and when you think you've picked enough, you spot one more, perhaps a little out of reach - and don't they invariably seem to be the juiciest of the lot? You tiptoe and stretch and brave the thorns until the hand reaches the treasured clot and you pluck the fruit with a triumphant smile.

Blackberries, it seems, have many different meanings in folk stories. They often symbolise sorrow and remorse or arrogance, as in the Greek myth of Bellerophon, a mortal, who tries to ride Pegasus to Olympus, falls and becomes blind when he lands in a thorny bush. This obviously functions as a cautionary tale. Seamus Heaney's poem, 'Blackberry-Picking', echoes some of the myth's associations but I think it presents a more physical although painfully compelling reality.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Jane Austen | Bakewell Tart



I've already written elsewhere of my tentative relationship with Jane Austen, but as this post is about a quintessentially English dessert, the bakewell tart (not to be confused with bakewell pudding), it seems inevitable that I should turn to Austen once more. As far as I know, there is no reference to the tart in Austen's novels, but the small town of Bakewell, which is associated with the tart, does get a brief mention in Pride and Prejudice.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Emily Dickinson | Honey-Roasted Figs and Plums with Blueberries



When I first came across the poetry of Emily Dickinson, I was fascinated by the simplicity of her verse, her unconventional punctuation and her idiosyncratic capitalisation. I was also intrigued by the reclusive nature of an author whose poetry seems to have overlooked the Civil War that tore up her country. Dickinson's engagement (poetic or otherwise) with the war still remains equivocal and there have been numerous attempts to either justify or explicate her political stance. Perhaps we are mistaken to expect poets to perform the role of chronicler directly responding to the historical events of her time. Perhaps poets are best left to sing the song they sing best not out of circumstance but pleasure.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Sylvia Plath | Fig and Plum Torte



To describe The Bell Jar as a feminist novel concerned with the disjunction between the dominant patriarchal social reality and the anticipations of a young woman battling against not only gender and identity stereotypes but also her own mental fragility is perhaps to state the obvious. Sylvia Plath presents a heroine who invariably finds herself confronted with having to choose between opposing poles and who ironically (and tragically) serves no socially identifiable purpose. What good does a degree in English literature do if you don't know how to cook, take shorthand, speak a foreign language or dance?