Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Last flirt with matzah - caramel chocolate crunch

I was lucky enough to have two great-grandmothers alive until I was well into my teens. One lived in Australia, and sadly I never met her. The other, however, lived in London, and we saw her often. We, and all of the numerous cousins and second cousins, called her 'Putzi', because she called us 'putzelah' - a German diminutive. I have many memories of visiting her in her flat, and also of her presiding, matriarch-like, over family gatherings. She often used to come and stay at (now Israel, then London) Grandma's house for Passover, and when I saw Munchkin Granny at our seder night this year, we were reminiscing about a treat she used to make every year.

Unfortunately, neither of us could remember too much about it, or what she called it. It consisted of matzah (inevitably) spread with cinnamon and ground almonds. We both felt that there was something else involved which made it spreadable, and although I remember her making the mix sitting at the dining table, I have a feeling that it involved having the cinnamon mixture baked on to the matzah. With nothing more to go on, and no more ground almonds left after the cinnamon balls, I couldn't go too much further in recreating Putzi's Passover treat.


I did, however, find a chocolatey treat which seemed to be similar in spirit. It's a sugar and butter topping for matzah sheets, which becomes caramelised in the oven. It's then covered in chocolate and nuts, and chilled. Putzi's version was much nicer scented and didn't contain chocolate, but the smell of the buttery baking matzah did evoke a little of her. If I'd had the ingredients I would have tried another batch with cinnamon and ground almonds mixed into the butter, and with no chocolate. As it was, the choco-covered version was a very nice treat, and much better than the commercially produced stuff. I think that's it for the Passover baking now - we have two sheets of matzah left, but I think I will let The Scientist dispatch it in his own inimitable way - ie as a post-work snack with cheese. And so the year moves on.


Chocolate-Covered Caramelized Matzoh Crunch (adapted from here)

2 sheets of matzah
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup light brown sugar
pinch of sea salt (optional)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup plain chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds (optional) [I used desiccated coconut although I couldn't face the 'we're fine, we're fine, no we're burnt to cinders saga, so didn't toast it. It would probably increase the flavour if you did though]


1. Line a rimmed baking sheet completely with foil, making sure the foil goes up and over the edges. Cover the foil with a sheet of parchment paper.

Preheat the oven to 375F (190C).

2. Line the bottom of the sheet with matzoh, breaking extra pieces as necessary to fill in any spaces.

3. Melt the butter and brown sugar together in a pan, and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the butter is melted and the mixture is beginning to boil. Boil for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, add vanilla, and pour over matzah, spreading with a heatproof spatula.

4. Put the pan in the oven and reduce the heat to 350F (175C) degrees. Bake for 15 minutes. Keep an eye on it and reduce the heat if it's beginning to burn.

5. Remove from oven and immediately cover with chocolate chips. Let stand 5 minutes, then spread with a spatula.

6. If you wish, sprinkle with toasted nuts and/or a sprinkle of flaky sea salt.

Let cool completely, the break into pieces and store in an airtight container until ready to serve. It should keep well for about one week.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Recycled cupcake for Earth Day

The theme of Cupcake Hero this month is Earth Day, which was on April 22nd. I decided to produce a cupcake which had as small an energy footprint as possible. Perhaps I should have looked into building a fire from locally foraged wood; or powering the oven with the random walk of a cat (too random), but instead I opened the freezer and ferreted about until I found one of my favourite cupcakes – a jam and cinnamon number which I had stashed away after some earlier baking adventure. I left it to defrost on its own overnight, and then I decorated it with ingredients I already had – namely, sliced British strawberries, and applesauce bought from the local health food shop (not home-made, unfortunately – I did make some the other day, but we ate it all up on pancakes :) ).

Is that cheating? Well, perhaps, but I think that the thought behind it is sound. Firstly, I haven’t made something new that I didn’t really need when I had something perfectly good already. Secondly, I didn’t heat the oven unnecessarily and so saved energy. Thirdly, I have demonstrated my dislike of supporting green causes by buying extra stuff. Fourthly, I’ve used in-season products (the jam in the cupcakes was home-made using locally grown berries). And fifthly – well, who needs a fifthly when they’ve just produced one of the most yummy cupcakes on the Earth with minimal energy usage?

The original recipe was from Cooking Light, although I used blackberry jam instead of strawberry this time. Either is wonderful.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Hey hey, it's superfoods day: smoked tofu burgers

Eco Sis has noted a couple of times in the comments to various posts that the concept of superfoods as something which assists the body in fighting off specific disease is both spurious and dodgy in the way that it’s presented as working (she said, for example, that the nutrients from the cacao nibs I wrote about would need to be injected directly into your brain to have the required effect, which seems to negate the fun of eating chocolate and feeling smug to me). She pointed out this post on the Cancer Research UK website in support of the point, and I’ve also read similar statements on the Food Doctor’s blog, and at the BBC.

I take her point entirely, and use the word superfoods just to indicate a food type which has a particularly high level of any type of good nutrient. I like the concept used in this loose form as it makes trying new things fun as well as making sure we eat a variety of foods (which is, after all, what all the nutritionists and doctors say we need). I didn’t want Eco Sis to have to grit her teeth every time she read the word superfood bandied about here, so thought it was worth clarifying!

Today’s ‘superfood’ [provisos apply] is tofu. Soy has been cited as a goodie because it contains high levels of isoflavones which act like the hormone oestrogen in the body and are linked with lower levels of breast cancer, and improved bone density, although those links are yet to be definitely proven. We usually cook tofu in stir-fries, but we have another favourite which I have to admit (after my earlier rant about her) is from a Gillian McKeith book. It's one of the few that doesn't call for sea vegetables, wheatgrass powder or endless radishes. It's for smoked tofu and bean burgers, which are also a good compromise between our tastes for hearty food (The Scientist) and lighter ingredients with a yen for things that come from beans (me). We serve them with sweet potato chips or veggies, with the burgers in buns with relish. Today we had grainy pitas, some new tomato relish we bought at the farmer’s market on Saturday (I finished the last jar of my beloved home-made banana chutney, so was allowed a new jar under my own one-in-one-out relish rule), and some steamed purple sprouting broccoli, also from the market.

I like these burgers because they have quite a light texture and weight in your stomach, and because the smoked tofu gives them a nice flavour. I also like the crunch of the sunflower seeds, while The Scientist likes it that they get bulk from seeds rather than oats, which he thinks give burgers a strange taste/texture combination. They’re also very quick to whiz up in my lunchbreak, and leave for The Scientist to bake while I’m at the gym. And they taste great – all the fun of a burger in a bun with added generalised and no specific implications for magical disease warding off properties superfoodiness. There, I hope that passes the Dr Eco test!

Smoked tofu and bean burgers (from Gillian McKeith, You are what you eat cookbook)

Makes 6-8 [I halved it and it still made 5]

1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, trimmed, peeled and grated
410g can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
220g smoked tofu, cut in 2-cm cubes
75g sunflower seeds
1 small bunch fresh parsley [I used dried]
2 tsp wheat-free vegetable bouillon powder [I used regular]

Preheat oven to 200C/Gas 7/400 F. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blend for 6-8 mins until the mixture is roughly chopped but not smooth

Remove the blade from the processor, take handfuls of the mixture and shape into medium-sized balls. Place on the baking tray and press down gently with the back of a spoon to form burger shapes.

Transfer to the oven and bake for 25 mins or until golden brown in colour. Serve with a crispy green salad and some tangy relish.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Learning is sweet

One of the big parts of my job over the last few months has been working towards having a new undergraduate course validated. We’ve consulted, planned, aligned our learning pedagogy with our learning outcomes, created courses, and written reams of paper to support it all. Last Friday, we faced a University panel plus external advisers, to see whether we had convinced them of our case.

Luckily: we had! We were asked to make some relatively small changes, but on the whole they were pleased with what we’d done, and we can now start advertising and recruiting. What a relief.

I hadn’t wanted to jump the gun on what the outcome would be, but I did make a cake (I know, any excuse) as a sort of good luck motif. I chose a honey cake called a Lekach from my book of Jewish cooking as it was traditionally made for children on their first day at school to make their learning sweet. What better way to send our new course off into the world? Besides, in the year before he died, Israel Grandpa wrote up his memoirs, and asked me to help him edit them. I was very touched, and spent quite a bit of time with him talking about his memories. He grew up in Frankfurt, and one of the things he’d written was that he was sent off to school on his first day with a cone of sweets. When I asked him more about it, he said that it was a tradition to wish that your learning would be a sweet experience!

The cake was very easy, but make sure you stock up on honey before you start – a cup is really quite a lot! It was nicely moist and gingery, especially in the middle, and everyone who ate it really liked it. I should really have offered it to the panel to make them sweet, but hadn’t liked to risk being accused of bribery before we knew their feelings on the course!

Lekach (honey cake), from Jewish Traditions Cookbook, by Marlena Spieler

Serves about 8 (I cut it into about 16 quite chunky squares)

175g/ 1 ½ cups plain flour
75g/ 1/3 cup caster sugar
½ tsp ground ginger
½ - 1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
225g/ 1 cup clear honey
60ml/ 4 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
Grated rind of 1 orange
2 eggs
75ml/5 tbsps orange juice
2 tsp chopped fresh root ginger, or to taste [I used stem ginger in syrup from a jar]

Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Line a rectangular baking tin measuring 25 x 20 x 5 cm with baking parchment [I used a square brownie pan which was a bit less than this. It cooked in about the same time]. In a large bowl mix together the flour, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, mixed spice and bicarbonate of soda

Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and pour in the clear honey, oil, orange rind and eggs. Using a wooden spoon or electric whisk, beat until smooth, then add the orange juice. Stir in the chopped ginger.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, then bake for about 50 mins or until firm to the touch [I covered it for the last 15 mins or so so it wouldn’t get too dark on top] or until firm to the touch

Leave the cake to cool in the tin, then turn out and wrap tightly in foil. Store at room temperature for 2-3 days before serving to allow the flavours of the cake to mature.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Pease pudding hot

The theme of Retro Recipe Challenge this month is ‘Your Mother should know: recipes that were popular before your Mother was born’, and it’s hosted by Stephanie from Dispensing Happiness. I had to give it a go, really, especially since I failed to enter Stephanie’s cocktail event this month (I planned to; I even had something in mind, but it never managed to happen. I’m sorry). Food and history is a dangerous combination for me though because I take it too seriously. This should have been quite a straightforward idea, but no, I had to exercise my poor brain to distraction over it. Did it mean something Munchkin Granny would never have eaten at all? Something we don’t eat any more? Something her parents would have eaten (complicated, because they were originally German, then English, now Israeli)? In the end I decided to avoid the whole issue, and also thereby spare disclosing a lady’s age, and dive further back in time to my alter era: the eighteenth century.

I settled on pease pudding. I’ve never eaten it, and only recently found out what it actually is – boiled split peas (sounds attractive, doesn’t it??). It’s a very old recipe and a very English one, so I thought it fitted the ‘before your mother’ theme pretty well. It dates much further back than that though, and was originally called a pease pottage or porridge, which was just something made in a pot. It was also a food very commonly served in eighteenth-century workhouses, which is one of my research specialisms, so I was keen to find out what the people I study were eating The blog event instructions said that the actual recipe had to be from before your mother’s birth, so I (ab)used my access to eighteenth-century documents online and went right back to the source.

I found a wonderful book published in 1798 by one Eliza Melroe called An economical and new method of cookery describing upwards of eighty cheap, wholesome and nourishing dishes…with new and useful observations on rice, barley, pease, oatmeal and milk, and the numerous dishes they afford, adapted to the necessity of the times, equally in all ranks of society. What a promise! Unfortunately her pease puddings had meat in them (it was often served with bacon, apparently), so I plumped for one in Elizabeth Cleland’s A new and easy method of cookery of 1759 instead, which was very simple and included a few extra vegetables I’ve given her recipe below but I did adapt it a little. I scaled it back considerably for one thing (I used about a cup of peas and probably ended up with more like 2 ½ cups of water as I added more as it simmered), and I added a chopped carrot with the peas at the start (I didn’t have a leek). I also didn’t bother with the flour or the butter as it was quite a satisfyingly thick and wholesome panful already, but I did flavour it a bit more – I nixed the mint although it’s traditional, as it’s not a herb I like very much, and added marjoram, thyme and caraway seeds as they all seemed like very auldy English seasonings. Don't you love Mrs Cleland's instructions though: 'boil til they are enough'!

The product: good hearty wholesome English stodge. With the extra flavourings it was very nice, though I imagine that the butter would also have enriched it in its own particular way. A lot of the other recipes I’ve found do use meat, so I don’t really know what taste my workhouse people would have experienced. It would have been cheaper without meat, of course, but if you’re cooking for a lot of people, I suppose that adding just a bit of meat is a good way to add flavour. Workhouses weren’t the punitive places of Oliver Twist yet in the eighteenth century, although I’d hardly argue that they were nice places to stay, but they certainly did buy meat for their inmates, and often grew vegetables as well. Workhouse officials were very keen on publicising their dietaries so we know a lot about what inmates ate. Pease pudding was something that featured at least once a week in many places, and of course it’s also memorialised in that old nursery rhyme: ‘Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold, pease pudding in the pot nine days old.’ Well, I had it hot the night I made it; I kept the rest to have cold for lunch; but I’m not so keen on the nine days old part. I think that’s a tradition I’ll leave in the eighteenth century.

Pease pudding (from Elizabeth Cleland’s A new and easy method of cookery, 1759)

To make Pease Pottage

Take two Quarts of Pease, put them into three Quarts of Water, season it pretty high with Pepper and Salt, boil them till they are enough, mix a Spoonful of Flour with Water, and put in a little Mint, a Leek, two Handfuls of Spinage, all cut small; put in Half a Pound of Butter, boil it and dish it

NB, As far as I can make out, an imperial quart is 2 (British) pints

Friday, 25 April 2008

Statistically insignificant

Five years ago yesterday someone I happen to know quite well went into remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a cancer of the lymphatic system). Today is a significant day for being the first day of that person’s return to statistical insignificance. We had a little celebration with some friends and got an Indian take-away and some beers. I made some banana daal and cooked some wholegrain rice and home-made naan to accompany it, and it struck me just how many of the ingredients are good for fighting cancer: onions and garlic (neutralize carcinogens), lentils (like other beans, full of protease inhibitors which make it hard for cancer cells to spread outwards), turmeric (inhibits the production of enzymes associated with cancers), banana (fruits are good for protecting against colon cancer) and the wholegrain in the rice.

The person I’m thinking of always resists being described as brave in the way that they went about facing their gruelling treatment, as they say that they had no choice. That’s true, but they showed amazing fortitude and strength of character through 8 months of chemo and 4 weeks of radiotherapy (and all the associated feelings of ‘nurgh’ – a very evocative word), and I was very proud of them. That person was already a pretty healthy eater, and didn’t especially change their diet in the light of their diagnosis and treatment, but the most notable change in their relationship with food was that they developed a truly ENORMOUS appetite! It’s a shame that steak can’t be prescribed on the NHS. One memorable evening they ate dinner in a restaurant and then shrugged and ordered another whole main course. Another time they challenged the staff at a pub as to whether they really meant ‘as many eggs as you like’ on the Sunday brunch – and certainly did their best to test the promise. So curry with extra daal and home-made naan seemed like an appropriate way to celebrate their return to normality.


Since that person’s happy outcome I’ve become very aware of cooking with foods which might prevent cancers and other diseases, and increase the body’s chance of fighting them. I would love it if more people had a happy ending to their brushes with this nasty disease. So, I’m sending my banana daal to Mele Cotte’s second Cooking to Combat Cancer event, happy that I am still sharing hearty portions of healthy food with my particular friend five years after their treatment ended. They’re still waiting for their radioactive superpowers to arrive though.

Banana daal (from The accidental vegetarian)

Serves 6

1 onion, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2.5 cm piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 tbsp vegetable oil
Pinch turmeric
225g red lentils, well rinsed and drained (I was a ditzo and forgot to check on the lentil supplies in advance, and so had to substitute lentilles vertes)
700ml/1 ¼ pints warmed stock
Pinch ground cumin, ground coriander, garam masala
4 firm bananas, thinly sliced

Fry onion, garlic and ginger and the oil over a low heat for about 10 mins, until soft and golden. Add turmeric and cook 1 minute

Add lentils and fry 1-2 mins

Add warmed stock and bring to the boil, then simmer 15 mins

Add spices, season and cook a further 10 mins

A couple of minutes before serving fold in the bananas and warm through

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

No matzah sandwiches here

Matzah sandwiches were the least good part of Passover as a child. Matzah bri (rhymes with fry), however, was one of the goodies. I was working at home on Monday and decided to make some for my lunch. It’s just scrambled egg with matzah in it really, but you leave the matzah to soak for a bit so that it goes soft. I haven’t had it in years and there’s no earthly reason why you need to wait for Passover, but it was just as good as I remembered it. I ate mine Anglo-style, with some baked beans and a veggie sausage. I probably just ate it on its own when I was little. If you like your matzah crunchy you could just soak it for less time - which is in fact what The Scientist did when he was working at home yesterday. I was so proud when I got home and found he’d made matzah bri. In fact I probably kvelled.


Matzah bri

Serves me

One sheet of matzah broken up into largish bits
1 egg, beaten
Salt and pepper, to taste.

Soak the matzah in the beaten egg until it’s soft (I probably gave it 15-20 mins). Scramble in a small pan as you would scrambled eggs. Season to taste. That’s it!

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Passover goodies: the chocolate installment

I feel I've built up this Passover dessert thing rather a lot now. It *was* good though. I was glad I'd gone for a crowd-pleaser as Eco Sis and Eco Bro had really gone to a lot of effort with the whole evening. They catered for 8 people altogether - us and them, Munchkin Granny, one of their housemates, and an old youth group friend and fellow trainee medic friend of Eco Sis's, and his girlfriend, who were all lovely. Kiwi Family were also present in thought, and symbolised by their photos propped up on the table. Passover is such a family occasion that we couldn't have done it without them being there.


Catering for the Passover meal involves more than just the food. It's also making sure that all the ritual extras of the Passover meal are present. The main part of this involves the seder plate, which contains most of the symbolic food items referred to during the story-telling part of the evening. It includes: a burnt egg and a shank bone (we had a veggie alternative hand-crafted from a carrot) which symbolise the offerings made in the temple; some bitter herbs and radish for the bitterness of slavery; another vegetable (traditionally parsley in our family) which is dipped into salt water and eaten to remember the salty tears of the Jewish slaves; and charoset, which is a mixture of nuts, apples and cinnamon and represents the mortar the slaves had to use in their building work for the Pharaohs. (The word in the middle of our plate says 'Pesach' in Hebrew). There are also three sheets of matzah kept in a cloth cover for use at several points. The evening is ordered (the word seder actually means 'order') by a series of prayers, stories and symbolic rituals like the dipping of the parsley in salt water, drinking four cups of wine at various points and some songs, including one sung by the youngest person present, who will have rehearsed for weeks, and be nervously awaiting their star role. We had no children present this year, so the task fell to Eco Sis, who performed very well.

All these rituals no doubt seem very confusing (as the Ecos' housemate will no doubt agree!), but they are an integral part of why I loved seder nights as a child, and are rich in the symbolism of centuries of dark events and happy recollections in Jewish history. It all takes a really long time - Munchkin Granny had only got home at 3am the night before from the first-night seder at her brother's, and continues after the meal with more story and singing. Then, of course, there are the extra rituals which individual families bring to the mix, or traditions from different cultures. One of these was the spring onion whipping which Eco Sis had introduced us to a few years ago, but Jews from the Middle East have a whole range of customs we don't have, including dressing up as the Jews fleeing Egypt. There are loads more, but they'd just make this post far too long. We do a 'best of' version which is a little curtailed!

Eco Sis's spring onion after a vigorous bout of recalling past slavery

The main part of the story-telling happens before dinner, so you work up a nice appetite, especially with all that whipping. We always start with hard boiled eggs in salt water, symbolising the roundness of renewal and spring, plus the saltiness of the slaves' tears. Then Eco Sis had made peanut soup which everyone else loved, but which I sat out due to the old nut phobia. Then she'd made a baked aubergine dish which was lovely, and her guests had brought some amazing salads. And finally, the desserts: the cinnamon balls, the Turkish delight, and the main one: a chestnut, chocolate and orange mousse cake. Eco Sis is a big fan of chocolate mousse, and I'd made it with her in mind. The original recipe was a gluten-free one for a slice, but I made it in a round cake pan so that it would look more elegant as a dinner party dessert. Eco Sis was so keen to try it that she could barely wait for the photography to take place, but it got an undoubted thumbs up. And the best part was that it's really easy to make - just some stirring, melting and chilling. I'll definitely be making it again. I've only started using chestnut puree in desserts in the last year but I've got three good recipes now, including one of The Scientist's all time favourites - Nigella's jewelled Christmas cupcakes from Feast. In fact, that's what the rest of the tin of puree is destined to become later this week, so I may post about that later. Is it incongruous to use half a tin for a Passover dessert and the other half for a Christmas one - both eaten by The Scientist, who is completely a-religious?


Chestnut orange chocolate mousse cake (from recipes4us.co.uk)
(Gluten and wheat free)

Ingredients
225 g unsweetened chestnut puree
175g caster sugar
175g butter
250g plain chocolate (the recipe notes that you should check it's gluten free if that's an issue)
The finely grated rind and juice of one orange
Whipped cream, to serve (I didn't bother with this as we had so much else!)

Grease and line your choice of tin - I used a round 23 inch cake tin; the original recipe suggests a Swiss roll tin if you're going to serve it as a slice.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the puree until soft. Set aside

In another bowl beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Set aside.

Break up the chocolate and melt in the microwave or over hot water.

Add the melted chocolate and chestnut puree to a creamed butter and sugar together with the orange rind and juice. Beat until well blended.

Spread the mixture in the prepared tin and refrigerate for 8 hours until set.

Go face down in your serving and feel happy if you're Eco Sis.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Passover goodies: tiny Turkish treats

Last night Eco Sis and Eco Bro hosted our family Passover meal. We had a really good time – they’d gone to loads of effort, the food was lovely, and the festivities were fun. I’m actually going to save most of the details for my next post, when I will also write about the headline dessert (which got a lot of thumbs up, especially from Eco Sis), as I want to get this one in in time for Phe/MOM/enon’s Blogging for Babies event in aid of March of Dimes. This is an American fund-raiser for research into care for premature babies (details are at the bottom), and there are several reasons why I particularly want to log my support of it. But first, some background.

As I said in my last post, Passover is all about celebrating the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. There’s actually quite a lot of messy retribution and smiting on both sides in the story as we noted last night (most of it gets skimmed over when you’re a child!), but the main focus is on the idea of freedom. Eco Sis had some really thoughtful readings on the subject from Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, which made me feel as though I’d been rather flippant about the whole thing. She also got each of her guests to draw a picture of an object that symbolised freedom to them. The Scientist drew a ‘www.’ symbol, and Eco Sis drew a picture of Eco Bro’s internet-capable phone. They were both getting at how technology has given us freedom of information, and I take their point entirely, but it got me thinking about other ways that technology has improved our basic freedoms, of which one of the most important would seem to be the improvement of the chance of survival at all.

So that’s what led me to thinking of the March of Dimes and Blogging for Babies. I’d seen the event advertised a few weeks ago, but hadn’t been sure what to make (it just has to be something mini), and also I feel a bit weird about plunging into a lot of charity ‘events’ when you’re not actually contributing anything worthwhile to fundraising. I try to save up just the ones which are most personal to me, and this one is for two reasons.

Firstly, Munchkin Gramps has spent his whole working life (and he will flare his nostrils and deny it but it’s true) working to push back the boundaries at which premature babies can survive. The survival outcomes for tiny babies are now much much better than they were when I was born (at term in my case, I’m happy to add) but there are still a lot of very sad and sensitive issues around their quality of life. The second reason this subject means a lot to me is that one of my very best friends, whose name has appeared on this blog in the past, had to have her baby delivered by emergency caesarean at 27 weeks when she developed pre-eclampsia. Thankfully both she and the little one were ok, and he is now a bonny, bright and beautiful two and a half year old (and my birthday buddy, thanks to his unexpectedly early arrival). But I know that she and her partner went through a pretty horrible time before they knew that. So, like the Livestrong yellow food event, I feel that it’s one that’s worth a bit of extra publicity.

Happily, after all this introspection, one of my dessert offerings for the Passover meal last night fit the bill perfectly: Turkish delights. They’ve been on my list of things I’d like to make for ages, and I gave them a go over the weekend. Truly they harness the magic of science (sorry Scientist – I imagine that sentence is anathema to you!). I used a no-gelatin recipe though I’d like to a try a veggie-gelatin one another time just for comparison, and the only hard thing about it was that my jam thermometer catapulted itself out of the saucepan half way through the procedure and broke so I had to guess the temperatures. Luckily (since making sweets is one of those things where reaching the right temperature is pretty crucial), the recipe I was using said about how long to expect it to take, and it worked fine.

I’d done some web-surfing (of course) and found a recipe on another blog I like to read, Gastronomy Domine. Liz had made two flavours, but I halved the total and just made a rose batch (I’ve gone a bit mad with the rose theme since my friend T named her new baby Rose, and had bought some rose syrup which was waiting for an outing). It’s basically a sugar syrup boiled up to the soft ball stage, and a separate cornflour-water mixture which you simmer to an attractive grey glue, and then mix. You heat the mixture for about an hour, flavour and colour it, and chill it. Then you cut and sugar it, and hey presto: you have created beautifully glistening wobbly little gems of Turkish Delight. I was as proud as punch over how it turned out just because it seemed so entirely magical to have created it from scratch. I take no credit – it’s all down to the clever little molecules doing their thing. Anyway, I took them off to Eco Sis’s and everyone loved them. That set the seal on entering them for this event, so I’m sending them off as my sugary ambassadors to Blogging for Babies.

As to the other symbols of freedom – we had a money sign, a brain, some mountains, and the best – a bed, for the freedom to lay down your head wherever you need to.

Rose Turkish Delight (based on a recipe from Gastronomy Domine)

Makes about 40 pieces

2 cups sugar
2 1/4 cups water
Juice of 1/2 lime
1/2 cup cornflour
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar (Liz helpfully says this is there to stop the mixture from crystalising)
1 tablespoon essence of rose water (I used rose syrup which I assume is thicker, so I just put in a few squirts)
1/2 cup icing sugar
1/8 cup extra cornflour

Firstly boil the sugar with the lime juice and 1 1/4 cups of water. Remove from the heat when it reaches the soft ball stage (115C).

While you are doing this, combine the cream of tartar and 1/2 cup of cornflour with 1 1/2 cups of cold water. (Liz says using cold water should prevent lumps.) Mix well and bring up to a simmer, stirring all the time. Continue stirring at a simmer until the mixture has made a thick, gluey paste. This happens very quickly. Stir the sugar syrup into this paste. It went a bit lumpy but I stirred it vigorously and it smoothed out. Liz advises pushing the mixture through a sieve back into the pan if it stays lumpy.

Simmer the sugar and cornflour mixture, stirring every few minutes, until it's a golden-honey colour and about 120C (this is where Liz's instructions came into their own as my thermometer had gone kamikaze by this stage: it will take about an hour). Pour the mixture into a tray lined with oiled cling film. Add a tablespoon of rose water and a few drops of pink food colouring to one and stir. Cover and chill for a few hours until set.

When you come back to it it will be a quivering mass of Turkish Delight. I lifted it out of the tray still on its cling film, but needed to coat the knife in a mixture of icing sugar and cornflour (in the ingredients) so that it would cut rather than stick. Cut into squares, and roll them in the sugar/cornflour mix. Smile at the wonders of science before stuffing your face. Oh no, I meant taking them as a gift to your lovely sister.

Want to know more about Little Wonders March for Babies Team? Fantastic!! Here is the Team Page. Any amount that you can sponsor is extremely appreciated. Please, please help spread the word and sponsor Little Wonders if you can! Thank you!

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Passover goodies: cinnamon balls

As I said at the end of my last post, this weekend I have been working on desserts to take to our family Passover meal at Eco Sis's house tonight. Passover was another of my favourite Jewish festivals as a child. It's a week-long celebration of the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt, during which no bread, or anything else which is risen is eaten. This is because when Moses was instructed to lead the Jews out of Egypt he met quite a lot of resistance from the Pharaoh, who wasn't keen on losing his pyramid-building slaves. He only relented after being visited by the ten plagues, the last of which killed all the first-born sons in the land (the 'passover' name apparently relates to the fact that the angel of death passed over the houses of the Jews during this plague). So they had to get a bit of a move on when Pharaoh finally gave the green light, and they didn't have a chance to let their bread rise. Hence the no-bread thing.

Not only that, you can in fact have nothing leaven in your house at all during Passover. All bread and other leaven products have to be got rid of, sealed up, or 'sold' (sometimes on a temporary basis in the case of spirits!). A whole new set of crockery and cutlery are brought out and the whole house is spring cleaned. This is why I loved Passover as a child - for the ritual of getting down all the special kitchen goods which we only saw once a year. When you consider that religious Jews have separate cutlery and crockery for meat and milk meals anyway, this was quite a big deal. I remember particularly the funny little brightly-coloured UFO-shaped Passover eggcups we had, and also some Disney plastic mugs. Ah, nostalgia. The matzah (cracker) sandwiches we had to take to school were less good (they just broke everywhere), but there was a lot of good stuff too.

It has been quite a number of years since I was this involved in the intricacies of Passover, but in my cultural affiliation with it I still like to mark its arrival in some way. Usually this involves, hmmmm, baking. The last few years we've had a family get-together to celebrate the ritual first-night meal (though this year it's actually taking place on the second night), taking all the bits we remember most fondly from our childhood. There are usually a few new traditions someone has found out about - I particularly remember the year Eco Sis insisted on everyone whipping their neighbour with spring onions during one of the songs to symbolise slavery, but on the whole, it's mainly singing and recounting the story of the exodus from Egypt. In previous years I have catered for all of these rituals, but this year Eco Sis has nominated me to provide desserts.


Being a historian, I like to read up on things before doing them. I am also, however, too enthusiastic about the things I read to put them on hold, and have a complete disregard for how much dessert we can actually eat. This is how we have three desserts to take tonight. The one which features here is the most traditional in our family, and I actually almost didn't make them, but thought Eco Sis might be disappointed. It was hardly a hardship as I love them too: cinnamon balls. When I made them today I realised that they are actually a meringue base, plus ground almonds and cinnamon. Ground almonds are a common replacement for flour in Passover baking, and a flavour I love (the nuts phobia is related to the texture of actual bits of nut). They're really quick and easy to make, although the ones from my childhood were actually balls, whereas mine seem to be splats. They still taste amazing though (sorry, Eco Sis, I tried one already) and not much like meringue - chewier and softer.

We're off down to Oxford very shortly, so I'm off to pack up the cinnamon balls and other mystery desserts right now. I'll post the other recipes later if they get the thumbs up. Since Kiwi Sis is now up to date with the blog (showing remarkable stamina given that she's had 60 posts to get through in a week), I wanted to start with the one from our childhood. We'll save an afikomon present for you and the Munchkin!! Now, where are those spring onions...?

Passover cinnamon balls

2 egg whites
100g caster sugar
200g ground almonds
1 level tbsps cinnamon

Beat whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold in all the remaining ingredients. Form into balls.

Bake on a greased tray at Gas 3/325F/170C for 25 minutes or until just firm to the touch.

Roll in ice sugar

Makes about 24.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Why blog?

A few people recently have commented that my blog seems to be all about food. They say it in almost an accusatory way, although I’m not sure quite what they expected. This led me to reflect again on why I write it. I was initially unsure about whether to start a blog, as the idea seemed very self-indulgent and self-publicising. I am naturally averse to being the centre of attention and anything that starts with ‘self-‘ makes me a bit nervous. I like to see my friends in small groups, and feel very uncomfortable about the idea of hosting parties (another reason why we are unlikely ever to get married!). This is despite the fact that I am happy to go out of my way for other people, and know full well that my friends would willingly do the same for me. I had so much fun reading other people’s blogs that I was tempted, but there were so many great ones out there already that really what was the point of starting another? Then Kiwi Bro got a job in New Zealand, and the prospect of he, Kiwi Sis and their Kiwi Munchkin leaving started to become a reality. Suddenly the idea of a blog took on a whole new role, as a way not only for me to keep them in touch with what we were doing, but also for the whole family to leave messages for each other. And that’s really how it started.

Actually writing a blog, however, has been quite a different matter. I realised that I needed to think carefully about who might read it and what I wanted them to know. It’s quite strange that my friends know all my news and random little things I’ve been doing (and eating) without me knowing anything in return. That’s why the comment function is nice, as it’s the only way you know who’s reading. It’s also why so many of these posts are about food and not about our personal day to day lives, which are a) boring to most people and b) too close to our home life to want to divulge. And then it took longer than expected for Kiwi Family to get on the internet (they are now – hooray! Kiwi Sis has read up to the end of February and is having a lie down to recover). So in the meantime, the connection with a world of people I have never met in person has been one of the happiest and most unforeseen benefits of blogging – I never imagined that anyone I didn’t know would be interested in it, and I’m constantly delighted that I’ve met some really lovely people. Those people are also interested in cooking and baking and local produce and making ethical choices, and being both healthy and indulgent in what they eat, and that’s why I write so much about food. I was barely aware of all the foodie events that take place in blogland, and they have prompted me to try all sorts of new dishes and types of cooking. My cookbook collection has expanded even more, and I have a massive computer file of recipes I want to try. That’s been a great boon, and I was thrilled when my friend Julie said she’d tried one of the soup recipes I’d posted about, and when Eco Sis tried making the wonton dumplings. And also, I love writing the posts. I write a lot in my job, and have always enjoyed putting together nice sentences which communicate my ideas effectively. But here I don’t need to worry about statistical significance, weighing up arguments, and substantiating all my points. I can witter, blither and go off on the randomest of tangents without attracting the vitriol or disapprobation of a journal referee (see what I mean??).

So, to reflect on the reflection, that’s why I blog. I love meeting new foodie people; I love writing my posts; I love it that I’ve expanded our experience of foods and cuisines, and that it’s involved challenging The Scientist’s cooking boundaries too. And I love it that it has been a family bonding thing – Israel Grandma knows what I’m up to; Eco Sis leaves me messages; Munchkin Granny texts me when she can’t make the message function work, and I got into trouble with Munchkin Gramps when Junior Sis found out through a post that I’d been knocked off my bike. And if Kiwi Sis can summon the stamina to make it through March and April, I’m sure that mailing the munchkin will become more than just a name. I’m sorry if this is a bit long-winded and self-indulgent after all, but here are some more good words to end on. I wanted a better word for ‘overlapping’ today, and could only think of ‘contiguous’ which means ‘next to’. I opened up dictionary.com and was firstly delighted to see that the word of the day was ‘inveigle’, which is up there with ‘egregious’ on my list of words we should all use more. Then I put ‘overlapping’ into the thesaurus function, and was even more tickled when it came back with ‘no results. Do you mean evildoing’? Laughed? I nearly absquatulated. Thank you for bearing with me. Tomorrow I’m making Passover desserts, so normality will be restored.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Gingerbread: a lesson in history

As I said last time, I have been revving myself up into a frenzy of excitement over an event which combines two of my main loves: history and baking (not The Scientist this time, though he was around when it all took place : )). This is all in aid of Chocolate Moosey and her Vintage Cookbooks theme for Weekend Cookbook Challenge. The recipe has to be from a book published before 1980. This might cause most people problems because our shelves are all full of your Jamies and your Nigellas, and there might perhaps be an elderly Delia lurking somewhere from when you were a student. Even Eco Sis wasn’t alive in 1980, though Kiwi Sis and I were tottering about (definitely not baking yet). In my case, however, the dilemma was how far back to go? The eighteenth century (my favourite century) and their steamed puddings; the seventeenth and their seed cakes; the 1930s and their valiant attempts at making do in rationing….

In the end I settled on a lovely book which my friend Roz saw in a second hand bookshop in Saffron Waldon years ago, and bought for me. It’s called the Home Lovers Encyclopedia, and although it doesn’t have a publication date on it, I found it on an antiquarian book site dated to the mid-1930s. It’s full of tips of all kinds ‘for handyman & housewife’. I love dipping into it and discovering what skills and information were thought to be useful: ‘How the amateur apiarian [that’s bee keeper to you and me] may secure profitable results’;’Gate-leg tables and their making’; ‘Piano: how to clean’. Every one’s a gem, albeit one of dubious use in today's world. There aren’t too many recipes in it, and I finally found a section on baking almost crowded out by a perhaps excessively long consideration of how to play billiards (all illustrations featuring men only, naturally). There were some basic guidelines for simple cakes (‘points to remember about materials and methods’), but the one which caught my eye was the variation for gingerbread.

Gingerbread. Isn’t that a wonderful word? To me, it brings images of Novemberish evenings and Bonfire night (I have no idea why; the only ginger cake I remember from my youth was the Jamaican sort you get in an orange and brown wrapper from the supermarket, and we didn’t particularly eat it in November). In my imagination though, gingerbread is home-made, thick and moist and smells wonderful. Gingerbread is in fact a tricksy thing though. It can be all of those wonderful things, but it can also be a crispy ginger biscuit, preferably cut in the shape of a person. In fact it’s those that we did have more often as children, although our gingerbread man cutter wasn’t very well engineered, and their heads had a terrible propensity to come off as you moved them to the baking tray. I am always alert to this problem when selecting cookie cutters now, and have yet to find a gingerbread man cutter which meets my exacting criteria. This is also because I feel bad at buying a man, and feel I should also get a lady in the interests of gingerbread sexual equality, and for some reason that has just never happened.

This recipe was definitely for the cakey sort of gingerbread, although it was very sketchy on details. I had no idea how big a cake I was making, and the quantities were delightfully imprecise. Pounds I can cope with, but what is ¾ of a teacupful? We aren’t sufficiently genteel to own proper teacups, but I’m pretty sure it’s significantly less than ¾ of an American cup. I sort of guesstimated in the end, using a cup measurer but not filling it all the way. Then I was told to melt stuff over the fire. I revelled in the anachronism briefly and then turned on the hob. I was doing ok until I got to the bit that directed you to mix bicarbonate of soda in ½ a gill of milk. I have no idea what a gill is – is it big or is it small? I was woefully far from my computer, and The Scientist operates in metric. I guessed that it would be small and used a splash. It was with some interest, therefore, that I put my mixture in the oven, and even more with which I removed it about an hour and a quarter later. I’m pleased to say that my estimating and lack of forewarning on size worked out fine. I’d used a square brownie pan and was a bit worried the cake would be very flat, but it was ok. I cut it up as I was going to take it as a present to Rose’s mum when I saw her for lunch the next day, and the bit I tried was lovely. It wasn’t gooey, but was pleasantly moist, and very nicely flavoured. I may not have been a model 1930s cook with a white pinny and an army of under scullery maids – or even a person with a proper grasp of imperial measures, but I love the idea that I was making a cake which has served nurseries, tea tables, and no doubt cricket teas and school boy tuck boxes for centuries.

Oh, and it turns out that a gill is 5 fluid ounces, which also makes it 40 fluid drachms, and 2400 minims. And almost certainly more than my splash. Now I must go and read about gramophones: their choice and care.

Gingerbread (from The Home-Lovers Encyclopedia, c.1930)

‘A good plain gingerbread is prepared as follows: Melt ¼ lb sugar, ½ lb margarine, and ¾ teacupful of golden syrup in a saucepan over the fire. Beat up 2 eggs, and when the melted syrup is cool, add them to it and beat all together. Sieve together 1 lb flour and 2 teaspoonfuls of ground ginger, make a well in the centre, and into it pour the syrup, etc., mixing and beating the whole thoroughly.

Dissolve ½ flat teaspoonful bicarbonate of soda in ½ gill of milk, mix it with the other ingredients, and turn the mixture into a greased cake tin. Bake the cake in a moderately hot oven for 1 to 1 ½ hours, then turn it onto a sieve and leave until cold.

Monday, 14 April 2008

No croutons at all

This month's theme in Lisa and Holler's No Croutons Required event is mushrooms. Yay! I am pleased about this. In fact, there are so many brilliantly themed blog events coming up that I am going to have to re-set my running level of enthusiasm for fear of exhausting my readers.

Much as I love mushrooms, mushroom soup is not actually up there on my list of best dishes. I pretty much never order it when we're out as it's so often a disappointingly un-mushroomy bowl of scented cream. At home I do have two mushroom soups I like to make, but one is really a squash soup with marinated mushrooms floated on top, and the other is mushroom and barley, which has appeared quite a bit in blogland recently already. Luckily, Lisa and Holler have broadened this month's requirements, however, so that it can be either soup or salad. When faffing about on Cooking Light for some completely other reason that I can't even remember now, I found an interesting-sounding recipe for strawberry and poppy seed salad, which I decided to adapt as a vehicle for mushrooms.

It was very easy. Quite anti-climactic after all that wittering really, but its taste was wonderfully complex. It was basically sliced strawberries and flaked almonds on a bed of leaves, with a sweet poppy seed dressing drizzled over the top. I used Hampshire watercress (of which more soon, I hope) which I'd picked up at the central Oxford farmer's market last week when my work coincided with its day for the first time ever. I left out the almonds on my portion, but grilled some sliced mushrooms in the George Foreman (just for ease, since we were already cooking other things on the stove-top) and scattered them over the watercress with the sliced strawberries. And I made the dressing as written below.


It looked great - all that lovely green watercress, bright pink strawberries and poppy-seed dotted dressing. It tasted great - crisp, slightly bitter cress, cold moist strawberries, ever-delightful mushroom, and both crunch and sweetness from the dressing. AND, it was a doddle to make. The dressing was really quite sweet - you could easily cut back on the sugar quite a bit, but it really made the salad. Poppy seeds really seem to pack a punch of flavour. I've only ever really had them on bread or in hamentaschen, but I've used them in a pear and seed cake this week as well, and the flavour came through much more than I'd expected from the quantity in that, too.

Next time, history AND food in one event. I may need to lie down for a while before I write that one.

Strawberry Salad with Poppy Seed Dressing (Cooking Light)

Ingredients

3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons light mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fat-free milk
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 (10-ounce) bag romaine lettuce
1 cup sliced strawberries
2 tablespoons slivered almonds, toasted

Preparation

Combine first 5 ingredients in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk.

Place lettuce in a large bowl; add strawberries and almonds, tossing to combine. Divide salad evenly among 6 plates. Drizzle 1 tablespoon dressing over each serving.

Yield

6 servings (serving size: 1 1/2 cups)

Nutritional Information

CALORIES 78(35% from fat); FAT 3.3g (sat 0.4g,mono 1g,poly 1.6g); PROTEIN 1.8g; CHOLESTEROL 2mg; CALCIUM 53mg; SODIUM 45mg; FIBER 1.8g; IRON 0.8mg; CARBOHYDRATE 11.5g

Sunday, 13 April 2008

A mere trifle

I gave a lecture on the history of food in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries last week, and it was very interesting doing the preparation. I talked quite a bit about government control of food which obviously has a lot of modern relevance with our current concerns on traffic light labelling, obesity, diabetes, and costs to the health service. In past times in England there was generally a preference for market freedom, and a mistrust of government intervention (except for when food supplies were threatened when suddenly a lot of expectations on protection came to the fore!). Although the British government’s intervention in maintaining food supplies during World War Two was extremely successful – across the civilian population standards of nutrition actually improved during rationing – other attempts to change people’s diets in the first half of the last century were quite clumsy and full of middle-class assumptions on tastes and behaviour. School meals, for example, were seen as a way to educate working-class children in how to be civilised, as well as improving their health. Working-class women were criticised for failing to feed their families a nutritious diet, with little regard for poverty, or the food preferences of their husbands and children. It was really a very interesting topic to research, and I think that the students found it quite engaging too (I didn’t catch anyone actually asleep, anyway).

One little thing which struck me was a reference in one of the books I read to a Gallup/Daily Telegraph survey which asked a representative sample of people what their perfect meal would be if money was no object (referenced in John Burnett, Plenty and want: a social history of diet in England from 1815 to the present day (London, 3rd ed, 1989). Here’s what they said in 1947:

Sherry
Tomato soup
Sole or roast chicken, with roast potatoes, peas and sprouts
Red or white wine
Trifle and cream
Cheese and biscuits and coffee.

And this is what they said in 1973:
Sherry
Tomato soup or prawn cocktail
Steak, roast/chipped potatoes, peas, sprouts and mushrooms
Red or white wine
Trifle or apple pie and cream
Cheese and biscuits, coffee, liqueurs or brandy.

I was amused, and perhaps surprised at how similar the two lists were, and also how familiar they still look (I couldn’t find an equivalent survey for today, unfortunately). I think that sherry would be probably have fallen off the list by now, and prawn cocktail is fashionable in a bit of a retro way, but I’m pretty sure that a roast meal, potatoes and veggies would still be very popular. Apparently our favourite dish as a nation is now chicken tikka masala, which certainly reflects a change in cuisine and immigration since the 1970s, but cheese and biscuits, wine, trifle, apple pie…I bet most Brits still have a soft spot for them. The Scientist would certainly be very happy with the 1940s meal (his absolute favourite meal ever is Christmas dinner, closely followed by a Sunday roast). I’m always really intrigued about national cuisines, and food preferences so this list really tickled my interest. Of course it wouldn’t make me very happy, but I actually couldn’t decide what I would choose. I didn’t have a traditional British foodie upbringing – I had never heard of pigs in blankets until I met The Scientist, nor had I ever had mushy peas or trifle, and I’ve never in my life eaten a steak or a bacon sandwich. There’s so much choice around now that we’re spoiled in a way we’ve never been before. While I pondered the question though, I made a treat for my retro foodie Scientist:

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Verbiage

Johanna from Green Gourmet Giraffe has tagged me for a 'six word memoir', which has caused me some interesting pondering. I do like a good word, but describing yourself in just six of the little critters? Once I'd started thinking of good words I couldn't get them out of my head although they weren't appropriate at all. Breviary, wombat, treacle and jam - I really can't see any way to get them truthfully into my biography, although they are *so* satisfying to say. In the end I had to go down the compound 'Dogophile-Vegan-Nurse' pathway, and here's what I came up with:

1. cat-ophile-veggie-storian
2. tall
3. loyal
4. geographically-challenged
5. curly
6. really-tremendously-enthusiastic!!!

1 and 6 are probably fairly obvious from my blog. 2 and 5 even more so when you meet me; in fact they're family traits more generally. I was reflecting on the vagaries of having curly hair just this week when once again I returned from the hairdresser sporting some sort of unfortunate fluffy lampshade on my head. Sigh. All of us grown up Sisses have curly hair, though Eco Sis is a dinkier version. One of our Israeli uncles sent us a nice family photo of him and his brood recently in height order. It looked like a perfectly normal photo - until you realised that Israeli Uncle is 6 foot 4 and he was only in the middle of the shot! 4. is a more unique defining characteristic - in fact I think that Kiwi Sis got my spatial awareness genes as she always knows where she is whereas I can get lost truly anywhere. I have only once been able to identify which way was north (which The Scientist can somehow do magically almost anywhere) and that was when we were standing on the south coast in Brighton. 3 was a toss-up between loyal and kind, but since as I said in an earlier post, my loyalty to our cats means that I will now cheerfully throw water over any other neighbourhood cat, I went for the former.

On the latter topic, our friend Paul just sent us this link. It's a cat-cam which your moggie wears on its collar, and which takes a photo of wherever it is every two minutes. Can you imagine a more fun thing?! I would love to know where our cats go when they're out and about. I was amused that the cat featured on the site spends some time lurking under cars as that seems to be one of the pook's favourite places (judging by the oil stains he comes back sporting). He evidently found a good one during the rain last week as he came back looking like some sort of badger, with a big black mark all down his back. Actually, an anti-badger, since he's a white cat.

So, thank you for the tag, Johanna - I had a lot of fun thinking up my six words! I'm supposed to be passing it on to six more people, but I haven't been blogging long enough to know that many other bloggers personally. So, I will leave it as an open challenge to anyone reading this - do post a comment to share what you come up with. I asked The Scientist, but he only got as far as Scientist. I suppose they don't use that many words, do they? As inspiration, I will leave you with Munchkin Gramps's favourite Hebrew word, which is 'tachtanim'. It means underpants, so I suspect it won't be featuring in his memoir.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Yellow pizza - LiveSTRONG day

May 13th this year is LiveSTRONG day – did you know? It’s a day of national awareness of cancer issues and survivorship organised by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Like almost everyone else I know, our lives have been affected by cancer, and if I can do even a tiny thing to increase awareness of what Julie Walter’s character in Calendar Girls calls ‘that filthy disease’ I will do it joyfully.

Even us frivolous foodie types can get involved, thanks to Barbara at winosandfoodies, who is organising her second Taste of Yellow event. You just have to cook something yellow – anything at all, as long as it’s yellow. For some reason, I have fixated on yellow pizza, topped with yellow. I pondered for a while what pizza toppings would qualify, but happily veggies have quite a wide range to choose from, and I selected peppers and corn. Cheese pretty much fits the bill already, and as to the crust: polenta, which I haven’t cooked for a while.

The creation was nice and easy. I used yet another Moosewood recipe to guide the quantities for the base, which I then left to set for a bit on a baking tray. For the topping I just fried up some onion and garlic, added the corn and peppers, and let them sauté until they were soft. Then I scattered them artistically on the top, shaved some parmesan over, and popped the whole thing in the oven. Various recipes I’d read had been fairly explicit about letting polenta sit for at least 10 minutes after coming out of the oven which made me suspect that it was prone to collapse. I was very good and waited for my ten minutes, after which time it was still very reluctant to shift in one piece. Conscious that I needed a decent photograph I quickly snapped it while still on its baking tray – hence the less than perfect picture! Trust me – it looked better in real life. It did fall apart quite comprehensively when I prised it off, but it tasted really nice. I’d hoped that the polenta would crisp up more than it did and so was sulking a bit when I tried it, but there was actually quite a nice contrast between the crisper edges and the softer middle. So, it wasn’t exactly perfect, but it was yellow, and that’s the important thing.


I'm sending it on over to Barbara, who did an amazing job running last year's event - it attracted a whopping 149 entries. I hope this year beats it! I'm sending my entry with particular thoughts of Heather, Kathleen, and of course, Maurice.

Yellow pizza (adapted from Moosewood Low Fat Favourites)
(This amount serves 4-6 with a topping - I made 1/3 of it)

3 cups water
1 cup oatmeal
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

Bring two cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. While the water heats. stir the remaining cup of water into the cornmeal. When the water boils, whisk the wet cornmeal into it. Add the salt and 1tsp of the oil, cover, and simmer on a very low heat for 20-25 mins, stirring often to prevent sticking. Remove from the heat. Prepare a 7x12 inch nonreactive baking dish with cooking spray or a light coating of oil. Spread the polenta evenly over the bottom of the baking dish and set aside (I spread it out into a circle shape, and it didn't splurge out too much. Ideally I would have used a ring of some sort to hold it in its shape, but all my tins were too big).

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C

Prepare your choice of topping (the Moosewood original is for a mushroom and chard one) and spread over the polenta. Top with cheese. Bake for 20-25 mins, or until sizzling hot. Cool for at least 10 mins before cutting.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

In which I was unexpectedly smitten by walnuts

I have been a vegetarian for about 17 years, which makes me feel very old. I can’t believe I’ve been doing anything which has involved informed decisions for 17 years. That’s considerably longer than Junior Sis has even been alive. But in all that time, I have never made a nut roast. There are two reasons for this:

1. Whenever I’ve been served one (and there were times in my early vegetarian days where it seemed to be all I was ever given) it’s been crumbly, dry and completely unappetizing

And 2 and perhaps more fundamental: I don’t like nuts.


So, why have I been planning a nut roast? Several reasons actually. Firstly, Johanna at Green Gourmet Giraffe is hosting a ‘Neb at Nut Roast’ event, and I really like her blog and want to participate. Secondly, I feel I’m missing out on a basic part of being a veggie by never having dabbled in this lively field. Thirdly, nuts are very good for you. And fourthly, some researching of recipes has made me realise that nut roasts are endlessly adaptable, and it thus becomes a challenge to make one I like. I’d been twittering about this for a while when The Scientist broke the news that he would not be participating in my nut roast unveiling. I should have prevailed and argued that this attitude was precisely the reason that Johanna wants to rescue the poor reputation of the nut roast, but I saw an opportunity for mushrooms, sighed meekly and shut up.

Nut-wise, I went for walnuts as I still had some in the baking supplies Kiwi Sis had passed on to me when she left, and also they are high in B vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. A 2006 survey reported by the BBC even suggested that they can reduce artery clogging. Mushrooms provided the star veggie attraction, coupled with tomatoes, and I used cooked lentils and granary breadcrumbs as the filler. I wanted it to be quite moist and tomatoey, and the mixture on its own was actually moist enough that I decided not to add egg or any other binder. I also mixed in some pumpkin and sunflower seeds for added crunch and superfoodiness at the last minute. It was all very brown, but the mixture tasted promising and I duly set it to bake.



To be honest, I hadn’t had massively high hopes for my nut roast in advance, although they were cautiously rising as I noted the nice smells coming from the kitchen. After about an hour it was nicely crisp on the top, and seemed to hold its shape reasonably well. It wasn’t the firmest loaf in the world – cutting it into neat slices to serve at a dinner party might be tricky, but it did hold together. And, oh, it tasted nice. It was so very mushroomy, so nicely and seedily crunchy, so full of flavours – oh, my taste buds were singing with every bite, and I became increasingly effusive as the meal went on. I’d made a little roasted tomato and balsamic vinegar sauce to go on the side in case it was too dry, and while that added a nice taste it didn’t need it to compensate for anything. We both ate roasted sweet potato chips, some pear and leaf salad, and a bit of broccoli on the side, and The Scientist ate some (frankly very boring looking compared with my magnificent and nutritious loaf) chicken.


I really have to thank Johanna for hosting this event. I would absolutely and definitely not have tried making a nut roast if it hadn’t been for her enthusing, and I have thus uncovered new dimensions of veggieness and mushroomyness. The Scientist even looked mildly interested, though I fended him off with talk of fungi, but I may experiment with other veggies in the future to try to find a combination we both like. I made a small roast – just half a standard loaf tin since it was only me eating it, and it will last me a good few meals. I’m afraid that the ‘recipe’ is very rough as I improvised ingredients and quantities as I went along. That’s just what us nut roast aficionados do, you know. As to non-nut-loaf eaters: nebs to the lot of you.


PS: Kiwi Sis, you know I told you on Friday that snow was forecast? Here's the view from our back door on Sunday morning:



Fantastically mushroomy walnut loaf

Preheat oven to 180C

Whizz up about ¼ cup of walnuts in a blender to whatever texture pleases you

Fry a small onion and a clove of garlic in fry light for a few minutes. Add quite finely chopped mushrooms (I used half a big portobello and a couple of small chestnut mushrooms). Add a chopped tomato or two, and a squirt of tomato puree. Season – I used thyme, oregano, stock powder and chilli powder. Cook until veggies are soft.

Transfer veggie mixture to a large bowl with the ground nuts. Add about 1 cup of cooked lentils, about ¼ - ½ cup of dried breadcrumbs, some pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and mix. Add liquid or more dry ingredients as necessary and check flavours.

Spoon into a greased loaf tin, top with sesame seeds and linseeds for further crunch, and bake for about 1 hour (I checked periodically and moved it up to a higher shelf after about 45 mins to crisp up on top. Serve and enthuse.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Intercontinental cooking challenge #2: pie

For the second of our intercontinental blog challenges, Lisa from Unique Little Bits suggested the theme of savoury pastry. The idea is that each of us cook a dish from the other’s cuisine (ie, British for her, and American for me). The first theme was brunch, which we (and our other halves!) both had a lot of fun with.

The pastry challenge initially caused me a few head-scratching moments. All of the American pies I could think of were sweet, including ones which used what we would think of as savoury ingredients (a prime example being pumpkin pie). I thought of empanadas, but didn’t really want to go down the deep frying route, while all other pasty-type items seemed too close to British dishes. What I did come across, however, was the pot pie, which I had only heard of for the first time a few months ago when Nigella cooked one in one of her Nigella Express episodes. I hadn’t paid too much attention since it was a chicken pie, but some reading proved that it only really needed to be one covered in flaky pastry (as opposed to our heavier shortcrust), although the filling often sat in a pastry case as well. The filling was often thick and casserole like, which I thought gave me some ideas to play with.

I settled on a classic American combination of squash, beans and corn – the so-called ‘Three Sisters’ of native American cooking because they formed the staple of early agriculture. I went for chickpeas rather than the more traditional kidney, black or flageolet beans, as I thought the colour would look nice with the squash and corn (and also I like them more!). For the pastry I also had to abandon the favoured flaky recipe as The Scientist isn’t keen on it (he has a strange relationship with different types of pastry which I still can’t completely fathom. I have eventually learned that sausage roll and treacle tart is good; filo and puff is bad. Except for occasionally when it’s not – like the sausage roll. Ho hum – he can calculate pi to more decimals than you’d care to entertain, but can’t quantify his pie preferences). I did, however, go for a more ‘American’ take on a shortcrust-style pastry by using a recipe from Veganomicon which had cornmeal in it (it’s the topping for the seitan and mushroom pot pie). I do like making pastry so that part was fun, and I was also pleased to get a good balance of gravy in the pie, which I have never attempted before (I just fried some onion, then added some flour and cooked for a few mins, then the remaining veggies, some stock and a splash of wine. I also added some dried dill, oregano and thyme, a dab of mustard, and a glug of cider vinegar for extra flavour, which was loosely modelled on the combinations in a Three Sisters stew from Moosewood Low Fat Favourites. I cooked them all for about 20-25 mins before transferring to the pot, laying the pastry over the top and cooking for 35-40 mins).

We were both pleased with how the pie tasted. The cornmeal had a definite presence in the pastry and the filling had a nice thick gravyness to it. I served it with some locally grown purple sprouting broccoli and some carrots roasted in a foil parcel with thyme and a little wine. We rarely have a roast and veg type of meal, so it was quite a novelty!

Update: have a look at Lisa's brilliant take on Cornish pasties here!

Shroom-tastic and carrot-astrophe

I’ve had a bit of a bleurgh week – nothing too bad, just a general feeling of frustration that I’ve had to spend a lot of time going to meetings and departmental events and not getting any of my own research done. I know, welcome to the life of a faculty member. Sigh. I wanted to cheer myself up on Friday by baking something for The Scientist to take away to his weekend of gaming, and selected a Delia carrot cake (with a lemony orangey glaze poured over it, and a cream cheese icing, though her original was for a fromage frais one). I really should have just written off the week as one of under-achieving, but it seemed like just the thing to do at the time…

The first slight hitch was that the cake needed self-raising wholemeal flour, as did all the other carrot cake recipes I found. I only had plain, but added 3 tsp baking powder to make up for it, as per the instructions on the baking powder pot. While I was doing that, the pecans I was toasting busily turned themselves into nasty-smelling little cinders, which I thought was particularly evil of them as they didn’t have much longer than Delia instructed, and that was in an oven which was starting from cold (I was trying to put this together between breakfast and starting work so that it would be cooled and iced by the time The Scientist left for the weekend. This may also have been unwise). So, the pecans got binned, and untoasted walnuts were substituted. The rest of the mixing went ok, and I bunged it in the oven in one round pan rather than Delia’s two, as I didn’t have enough cream cheese (or inclination on a work day) to be sandwiching two together as well as icing the top.

I left the cake for just under the allotted half an hour as our oven has a tendency to be too hot (though my lovely new oven thermometer is helping to quantify that now). Then I put it back for another 10 minutes. And then another few. By this time I was getting fed up with constantly leaping up to check on the damned thing while trying to work (plus it was testing poor Mausel’s patience that her lap kept disappearing). Eventually I took it out and poured the glaze over it, but stuck it back in the cooling oven as a compromise measure. Some time later I came back to turn it out, when – absolute disaster – it flopped out of its tin as I released the spring, and spread itself goopily over the hob. Not only was it as smooshed as a custard pie, it was also clearly not cooked through (although nicely risen). I was cross, and I may even have questioned the legal status of its provenance. Then I picked it all up, padded it back down into the tin and shoved it back in the oven for 20 minutes. It was getting iced, after all, and The Scientist and his gaming friends are very forgiving over appearances as long as the taste is good. So far so not exactly according to plan. This cake was trying my patience (and Mausel’s)

By the time it came out again it was looking a little darker on top than would be ideal, but it did at least seem a bit more cooked through than it had on its previous appearance. Once cooled and (cautiously) released it didn’t look too bad, and maintained a reasonable degree of structural integrity when I transferred it to a plate. I made up some icing using cream cheese, icing sugar and maple syrup, and slathered that over the top. There were still a few volcano-like peaks sticking through, so I chopped up some more walnuts and scattered them over the top. It’s not going to win any prizes for its looks, but it will hopefully satisfy a group of hungry role-players. I’m actually quite surprised by how not-completely-awful it looks in the photos, as I don’t think I’ve made a less aesthetically pleasing cake since a cornflakey one which looked like it had the pox.

So at whose door do I lay the blame for my carrot-astrophe? While I’m not a big fan of Delia’s veggie recipes, it’s on the ground of extreme unhealthiness or lack of imagination. On the whole I’ve found her recipes do work, and have had some good experiences with her cakes and breads. I’m therefore reluctant to blame the recipe, and think that I will have to accept my ongoing voyage of learning as to the vagaries of our oven, and the fact that I was trying to do at least four other things at the same time. Plus perhaps you just can’t expect a cake to make up for a substandard week. That’s the cook’s view anyway; I’ll wait to hear what the consumers say.

My work day did actually get better after that, and come the evening I decided to treat myself to a mushroom fest in The Scientist’s absence. I also decided to revisit the yeast-based vegan cheese sauce effort since I have to admit that I didn’t actually do it justice in my last disastrous attempt. That time, I had been unable to find nutritional yeast, and so had used brewer’s yeast after reading that it was similar. Since then, however, I have read a lot more information about it, and you definitely can’t substitute the one for the other. Brewer’s yeast is bitter and not at all cheesey, so really I didn’t do a fair trial. I found some nutritional yeast in the health food shop in Lewes (of course), and bought it in the interests of finding out what the sauce was supposed to taste like.

Tonight, I just improvised a bit. I made up some pancake batter (that’s crepes to you, Dr D!) and while it was sitting, relaxing its gluten, or whatever it does, I gently heated a cup of soya milk with 3 tbsps of the yeast. When it started simmering I seasoned it with salt, pepper and parsley, and let it sit there over a low heat. Meanwhile, I fried some chopped garlic in some fry light, and after a few minutes added some chopped mushrooms. When that looked nice and done I added in some chopped chard, and cooked it until it was wilted. Then I stirred the whole thing into the cheesy sauce. It was looking a little thinner than I wanted, so I added a bit of cornflour and water. I then cooked the pancakes, placed some filling in the middle and folded it all up into a little parcel. And it was delicious. Really delicious. So delicious that I didn’t want to stop to photograph it. I apologise profusely to the nutritional yeast, and regret the size of the pot of brewer’s yeast I now have no use for. Any ideas? My ‘shroomy supper rounded off my slightly variable day nicely, and it amused me that I’d managed to concoct a meal with such Scientist warding-off properties. Mushrooms, savoury pancakes, nutritional yeast: I doubt he would have stayed in the same room. But then he’s off eating pizza and almost-disaster carrot cake while acting as Games Master in an alternative universe.

**Update: The carrot cake was a winner with the gamers (none of whom knew anything about the saga of its creation, including The Scientist). That’s got to be a point for Delia, I think**

Delia’s Ultimate carrot cake (From her Vegetarian Collection)

Serves 6-8

200g carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
175g dark soft brown sugar
2 large eggs
150ml sunflower oil
200g wholemeal self-rising flour (or the same quantity plan flour with 3tsp baking powder)
3 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp bicarb of soda
Grated zest 1 orange
110g sultanas
50g desiccated coconut
50g pecan nuts

For the syrup glaze:
Juice 1 small orange
1 tbsp lemon juice
75g dark brown soft sugar

For the cinnamon icing [I didn’t do this, but used cream cheese mixed with some icing sugar and maple syrup instead]
250g marscapone
200g 8% fat fromage frais
1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon
1 rounded tbsp golden caster sugar

To finish:
50g pecans

Pre-heat oven to Gas 6/4—F/220C, then turn down to Gas 3/325F/170C when you have toasted the pecans

Prepare two 20cm 4cm deep sponge tins by lining with baking parchment

Place all the pecan nuts (110g in total) on a baking sheet, and toast in oven for 8 minutes. Now chop one half roughly for the cake, and the other more finely for the topping later. Then turn down the oven

To make the cake, whisk the sugar, eggs and oil together in a bowl with an electric hand whisk for 2-3 mins, then check that there is no sugar left undissolved. Then sift in the flour, mixed spice and bicarb into the bowl, tipping in the bits of bran left in the sieve. Then stir all this in gently, followed by the remaining cake ingredients.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared tins and bake on the centre shelf of the oven for 30 mins. They should be nicely risen, feel firm and springy to the touch when lightly pressed in the centre, and show signs of shrinking away from the sides of the tin. Of not, give them another 2-3 mins.

Meanwhile, make the topping by whisking all the ingredients together in a bowl until light and fluffy. Then cover with clingfilm and chill 1-2 hours.

To make the syrup glaze, whisk together the fruit juices and sugar in another bowl and then, when the cakes come out of the oven, stab them all over with a skewer and quickly spoon the syrup evenly over the hot cakes.

Now leave them on one side to cool in their tins, during which time the syrup will be absorbed. When the cakes are completely cold remove them from the tins. Spread one-third of the icing over one of the cakes, place the other on top, then cover the top and sides with the remaining mixture. Scatter the remaining toasted pecans over the top just before serving.