Monday, 15 December 2014

Of Mince Pies and Other Stories

I am currently updating my blog. The last few months have been rather difficult (and hectic) and although I've been baking a lot, I haven't been able to blog as much as I would have liked to. But I'm hoping to complete the update by the end of March very soon.

In the meantime, wishing everyone an interesting and creative New Year!

Sunday, 14 September 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.

Sunday, 25 May 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, 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, 20 April 2014

Marcel Proust | Cream of Asparagus Soup + Roasted Asparagus

Some books you just never get to read - despite best intentions! Some books change with us and so does our appreciation of them when we realise they no longer hold the same appeal. And then, there are those long-forgotten books that still echo in our mind in fragments of thought, in scattered words, and we read with new eyes.

I started Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust years ago when I was studying European Literature but put it down 100 pages later; it seemed too long and I too impatient. I picked it up again recently, partly to check out a quote and partly out of nostalgia for my own lost time, and found myself entangled in a weave of surging memories, melancholic episodes and philosophic reflections. 

It's a bewildering book: not just because of the long sentences, the endless digressions and meanderings, the painfully slow-moving narrative but because I couldn't help feeling captivated by the subtleness and sensuality of Proust's style.
I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet - still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed - with an iridescence that was not of this world. 
Édouard Manet, Bunch of Asparagus

Édouard Manet, Asparagus

There's an interesting story behind Manet's asparagus paintings, which shows the wit and irony we often encounter in his work, but which also provides a link to Proust's novel. Manet's A Bunch of Asparagus was commissioned by Charles Ephrussi, a Jewish-French art critic, art historian and art collector. The two men agreed upon the price of 800 francs for the painting, but Ephrussi overpaid the artist by 200 francs. To rectify this, Manet painted a single asparagus spear and sent it to Ephrussi  with a note saying: "This one was missing from your bunch".
I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare's Dream) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.

Charles Ephrussi was one of the inspirations for the figure of Charles Swann in Proust's book.
Poor Giotto's Charity, as Swann had named her, charged by Françoise with the task of preparing them for the table, would have them lying beside her in a basket, while she sat there with a mournful air as though all the sorrows of the world were heaped upon her; and the light crowns of azure which capped the asparagus shoots above their pink jackets were delicately outlined, star by star, as, in Giotto's fresco, are the flowers encircling the brow or patterning the basket of his Virtue at Padua.
 Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way
(trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)

This is a luxurious, velvety and incredibly tasty soup which is so simple to make with just a handful of ingredients. And I love its vibrant colours and exuberant disposition! The addition of roasted asparagus is what, I think, sets it apart but it is wonderfully flavourful without it as well.

~ Cream of Asparagus Soup + Roasted Asparagus~

Asparagus Soup:
650 g asparagus
2-3 tbsp olive oil
15 g unsalted butter
1 lt chicken stock
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small potato, cubed
1 tbsp plain flour
grated Parmesan cheese
salt & pepper

Roasted Asparagus:
200 g thin asparagus spears, divided
3 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
2 tbsp shaved Parmesan cheese
flaked salt
1-2 tsp lemon juice (optional)

Prepare the soup:
Rinse the asparagus. Trim the woody ends from the bottom of the spears. Cut the tips off and put aside, then cut the spears into 2.5 cm pieces. I was left with 500 g asparagus.

Heat the butter and oil in a large saucepan over a medium high heat. Add the onion and garlic and fry gently for about 5 minutes, until soft and sweet, without colouring. Add the chopped asparagus stalks and the cubed potato and cook for 4 minutes, stirring frequently, then add the tips and cook for 2 minutes until they are bright green but not browned. Stir in the flour until incorporated.

Add 4/5 of the stock and bring to the boil over a high heat, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface. Simmer over medium heat for 3-5 minutes until the asparagus is tender but crisp.

Reserve 12-16 asparagus tips for garnish. Season with salt, cover and continue cooking for about 15-20 minutes, until very tender.

At this stage, you can remove the soup from the heat and, using a blender, whiz until finely blended. But I like to add some roasted asparagus before blending to enhance the flavour (see recipe below). If, while blending, you find the soup is too thick, you can add more stock. Adjust the salt and return to the heat for a few more minutes.

Serve warm with some grated Parmesan cheese, freshly ground pepper and French bread. Garnish with the reserved asparagus tips and serve the remaining roasted asparagus as a side-dish.

Prepare the roasted asparagus:
Heat the oven to 190 degrees C.

Rinse the asparagus and trim the woody ends from the bottom of the spears.

Place the asparagus in a roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, then toss to coat completely. Spread the asparagus in a single layer and tug the garlic slices between the spears. Sprinkle liberally with flaked salt, pepper and 1 tbsp shaved Parmesan cheese.

Roast on the top rack of the oven until just tender, for 10-12 minutes, turning the asparagus once half-way through.

Remove about 10-12 roasted asparagus spears, roughly chop them and add to the soup before blending.

Sprinkle the rest of the roasted asparagus with lemon juice and the remaining Parmesan cheese just before serving.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Nathaniel Hawthorne | Redcurrant and Poppy Seed Mini Cakes

What is so interesting about American literature is not only the fact that American writers are always experimenting with style and ideas but also that many of their works continue to remain relevant today. One of my great favourites is The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book was published in 1850. It became an instant best-seller but (unsurprisingly) met with wide protest from religious leaders who disapproved of the book's unsavoury depiction of the people of New England during the period in which it was set, almost two centuries earlier in Puritan Boston, Massachusetts.

Ironically for a book that explores the idea of freedom from religious bounds and moral idealism, The Scarlet Letter opens outside a prison door. Hawthorne wryly observes that the founders of any new colony, 'whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project', are soon obliged to realise that it is 'among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison'.

Hawthorne's novel is a story of sin and guilt, of repentance and dignity; 'an earthly story with a hellish meaning', according to D.H. Lawrence, but one which bleakly proposes that the ugliness of morality is often entwined with the brutality of the law inasmuch as love and hatred are really the same thing:
Each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his object.

But the book's success lies, I think, in the creation of the character of Pearl, 'the elf-child' and 'demon offspring' at the centre of the novel. Little Pearl is as uncompromising in her affections as she is relentless in her scorn. She really sees through the hypocrisy and moral conformity of the society that has ostrasised her mother. She not only rejects the authority of her earthly father, and for that that matter of patriarchy, but also challenges the moral supremacy of a celestial deity.

She has a strong, inhuman affinity with nature, adorning herself with wild flowers like a nymph-child or infant dryad and tasting of its scarlet fruit:
The great black forest—stern as it showed itself to those who brought the guilt and troubles of the world into its bosom—became the playmate of the lonely infant, as well as it knew how. Sombre as it was, it put on the kindest of its moods to welcome her. It offered her the partridge–berries, the growth of the preceding autumn, but ripening only in the spring, and now red as drops of blood upon the withered leaves. These Pearl gathered, and was pleased with their wild flavour.

She is happily making friends with the forest animals - a partridge, a pigeon, a squirrel, even a fox and a wolf - and seems perfectly content in their company:
The small denizens of the wilderness hardly took pains to move out of her path.... A fox, startled from his sleep by her light foot-step on the leaves, looked inquisitively at Pearl, as doubting whether it were better to steal off, or renew his nap on the same spot. A wolf, it is said—but here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable—came up and smelt of Pearl’s robe, and offered his savage head to be patted by her hand. The truth seems to be, however, that the mother–forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wilderness in the human child.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

~ Redcurrant and Poppy Seed Mini Cakes ~

One of the advantages of my nomadic childhood was that it acquainted me not only with a whole new world of ideas and attitudes but with a novel way of cooking too. And so, while I never stayed in any one place long enough to become an integral part of the local life, I decided at a rather young age that developing a cosmopolitan outlook was far more exciting than growing roots.

I love baking with fruit and I would happily trade any chocolate cake for a simple dessert with fruit in it, but had never used redcurrants before. Not surprisingly, when I saw these redcurrant teacakes at La Tartine Gourmande, I was intrigued - indeed taken over by a compelling urge to make them. It was simply a matter of getting the redcurrants; and when some day I spotted them, the temptation to buy in excess was impossible to resist.

I made significant changes to the original recipe, mainly substituting spiced rum for the lemongrass, adding a small amount of ground pistachios, using vanilla extract instead of vanilla seeds, and last but not least using beurre noisette. What came out of the oven was an explosion of colour and taste. Even my friend SA who declares an aversion for sponge cake had to admit they were pretty, pretty good!

(Adapted loosely from La Tartine Gourmande)

180 g unsalted butter
110 g icing sugar, sifted
80 g ground almonds
20 g ground pistachios
65 g plain flour, sifted
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
4 egg whites, lightly beaten until foamy
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp spiced rum
1 tsp poppy seeds
2/3 cup (105-120 g) redcurrants (if frozen, do not thaw)

Makes 12 mini cakes

Prepare the beurre noisette: I used the same method as for my raspberry and blackberry financiers. For this recipe, however, you will need 140 ml beurre noisette for the batter to make the redcurrant cakes. Use the remaining brown butter to grease the moulds. This will enhance the nutty flavour of the cakes.

Heat the oven at 180 C.

Butter and flour generously 12 ridged cupcake or mini muffin moulds. You will need to make sure that every inch of the moulds is well-coated with butter and dusted with flour so that the cakes don't stick. Then place the moulds on a baking tray and put them in the fridge to set while you prepare the batter.

Prepare the batter: In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ground almonds and ground pistachios, icing sugar, salt and baking powder. Make a well in the centre and whisk in the lightly beaten egg whites, the vanilla extract and the spiced rum. Add 140 ml melted brown butter while continuing to mix. Finally add the poppy seeds and the redcurrants and mix lightly taking care not to break the redcurrants.

Divide the batter between the 12 moulds, pressing down gently to fill all available space. Place in the fridge on the baking tray for 10 minutes to set.

Bake for 25-30 minutes. Mine were done at precisely 27 minutes.

Remove and let cool down for a few minutes before carefully taking them out of the moulds onto a cooling rack.

To serve, dust with icing sugar and enjoy!

Sunday, 23 March 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, 2 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.