Thursday, 24 July 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. I think there are echoes of such associations in Seamus Heaney's poem, 'Blackberry-Picking'.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.

August Laux, Blackberries in Basket

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney, 'Blackberry-Picking'

I met Seamus Heaney a long time ago when, my mind still full of Yeats and Ireland, I was on a summer visit to County Sligo for the annual Yeats Conference. Heaney was there reciting his poetry and lecturing and afterwards passing the evening stillness with a drink and a chat. He was as alluring a person as I found his poetry to be. What I think is most attractive about Heaney's work is the simplicity of tone in his poems and that element of earthiness that has him affirm the evanescence of all beautiful things but also the futility of human affairs. For Heaney life is not something fixed and rigid; it leaks, it bleeds and, sometimes, it reveals itself unto us in all its rotting obscenity.

~ Blackberry and Apple Torte ~

This is a delicious combination of blackberries and apples in a supremely tender and moist cake. I changed the original recipe significantly, partly because I like to fragrance my cakes with essences and liqueurs and partly because, with recipes containing melted butter, I prefer to whisk the eggs and sugar to a billowing foam, which creates a much softer crumb and moister texture. I also increased the amount of blackberries, simply because you can never have enough blackberries. I was not disappointed.

(Inspired by Martha Stewart Living)

granulated sugar, for coating pan
115 gr unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for pan
100 gr granulated sugar
2 large eggs
160 g + 1½ tbsp self-raising flour
30 g ground almonds
¼ tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
zest of 1 orange
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 tsp Grand Marnier or Calvados
90 ml buttermilk
3 Pink Lady or Granny Smith or McIntosh apples peeled, cored, and sliced
1½ cup blackberries (frozen or fresh)

2 tbsp packed light-brown sugar
1/4 tsp mixed spice
2 tbsp butter, cut into pieces

Heat the oven to 190 C.

Butter an 9 inch (23 cm) spring form pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the parchment paper, then dust the pan with granulated sugar.

Prepare the cake batter: In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.

In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, ground almonds, baking powder, and salt.

With a hand-held mixer, whisk the eggs and sugar (about 5-8 minutes) until it has tripled in volume to form a tick, pale-coloured  foam that leaves a trail for about 5 seconds when you lift the whisk. Beat in the orange zest, vanilla extract and Grand Marnier.

Using a rubber spatula, fold in the melted and cooled butter. To do this, you need to lighten the butter first so that it's not heavy, by mixing 1 tbsp egg mixture into the butter. Then pour the lightened butter into one side of the bowl and fold gently into the egg mixture. Finally, pour in the buttermilk in a steady stream and fold in just until incorporated.

Next, fold in the flour mixture gently in 2 stages until just moistened.

Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan. Arrange the apple slices over the batter and sprinkle with blackberries. Gently press the fruit into the batter.

Prepare the topping: Combine 2 tablespoons brown sugar and the cinnamon, and sprinkle over the fruit. Dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter.

Bake in the middle of the oven until the top is dark gold, the apples are tender, and a cake tester inserted into centre comes out clean, about 55 minutes.

Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool slightly (about 10-15 min). Serve with blackberry yoghurt or cream, which you can make by gently heating a handful of blackberries with a teaspoon granulated sugar until they reach syrupy consistently, letting it cool and then folding into yoghurt or whipped cream.

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.

Sunday, 12 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?

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Herta Müller | Plum Frangipane Tart

I admit! Ηers is not a household name and it was only after the awarding of the Nobel prize for literature in 2009 that I heard of her. Herta Müller sets her stories amidst the cruelty and terror of a totalitarian state, usually in Communist Romania under the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. The Land of Green Plums is a novel concerned with displacement and disconnection, with minorisation and isolation as it explores the disruption of normal human relationships resulting from the trauma that the threat of violence causes.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

D.H. Lawrence | Fig Frangipane Tart

Lawrence's poem 'Figs' is less about eating customs or the botany behind the title's fruit, although both form an intrinsic part of the text, and more about women; or rather about the symbolism of figs which reveals the poet's attitude to female sexuality.

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.
Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Nancy Willard | Stuffed Peppers and Tomatoes

It was the titles of her books, with their literary allusions but mainly their fantastical combination of the ordinary and the imaginary, that intrigued me most about Nancy Willard. Her collection Household Tales of Moon and Water, from which the 'How to Stuff a Pepper' poem is taken, puts domestic life and the relationships formed within such a frame in a rather wondrous light.