Raspberry Debacle

12 September, 2007

Vegan chocolate-banana-coffee ice-cream: a food, not a hat

Filed under: dairy-free, gluten-free, icecream, summer, vegan, vegetarian — Holly @ 9:13 am

Vegan chocolate ice-cream in a wine glass, with spoon.

My problem with ice-cream has always been the drips, more virulent than any other foodstuff (except maybe tomato sauce on spaghetti, flung out in all directions as the strands are slurped up). It was years before I could eat an ice-cream without getting at least a few drops on my clothes; I’d hide beneath paper napkins while I ate and — if it was really nice ice-cream — surreptitiously suck the drips out of the paper when I was done.

I find it surprising that there isn’t (unless I’ve missed something) a bigger overlap between “food” and “clothes”. Obviously food-clothes wouldn’t last very well, but surely that means they’d be ideal for an ostentatious display of wealth, something that food and clothes individually have always been used for: “look, I have so much food I can dress in it, such vast resources I can afford clothes that I’ll want to throw out in a day or two”. But instead, food in clothes is generally fake, made from plastic or fabric.

There’s Adam and Eve and their (traditional) fig leaves, which you can stir-fry and eat. There’s Carmen Miranda, and other more muted versions of the “fruit on a hat” idea. But apart from that, there’s just occasional “look at those zany scientists/artists/bakers, making dresses out of wine/chocolate/cream-puffs” news stories, though to be fair the news stories wouldn’t exist if the zany scientists/artists/bakers themselves didn’t. The cream puffs were
for a wedding; the chocolate for a fund-raising fasion-show (”then there were those who feared it would melt, fall off and embarrass us and the model wearing it”), the wine for the causes of art. It was “inspired by the skin-like layer covering a vat of wine that had been contaminated with bacteria and gone “off”", it breaks easily, it tastes like “a kind of chewy, slightly alcoholic sludge”, and apparently further research could make it a “viable option” for commercial use (I’m beginning to understand better why food-clothes are uncommon; perhaps “further research” will involve replacing it with, eg, cotton).

Back in the realms of folklore, Scottish brownie-critter Aiken Drum started out as the Brownie of Blednoch, wearing a kilt of rushes; he worked hard on a farm until they tried to give him a pair or normal trousers, at which point he ran away in a panic. Alternatively, he was an aspiring soldier:

An’ his coat was o’ the guid saut meat,
The guid saut meat, the guid saut meat,
An’ a waistcoat o’ the haggis bag,
Ay wore Aiken Drum.

Nowadays, his children’s-song appearances have him wearing nothing but food: “his coat was made of good roast beef” and he played upon a ladle. In more recent variants he’s even given spaghetti hair, fish-stick pants (I don’t see how these would work), pizza eyes (ditto), and whatever other foodstuff the singer feels like adding in.

Beyond this, there’s nothing: bracelets with tiny candy beads, coconut shell bras, occasional flippant edible dresses or comedy underwear, rice-paper hats to eat and astonish your friends. And this, from a Scottish parish newsletter:

Tea and cakes were then served and the competition for ‘an edible brooch’ was judged as follows: 1 Barbara Robertson, 2 Maureen Simpson, 3 Margaret Leslie. Mrs Jean Morrison gave a comprehensive vote of thanks ending a very pleasant evening. Anyone wishing to join the guild, should go along on the first Thursday of each month.

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15 August, 2007

Chocolate Raspberry Crumble Cake

Filed under: cake, dessert, fruit, gluten-free, summer, vegetarian — Holly @ 12:09 pm

Chocolate raspberry crumble cake, seen from above

Chocolate makes everything seem nicer. Stealing £140,000 worth of an unspecified product: pretty nasty. Stealing £140,000 worth of chocolate flakes: well, quite endearing, at least superficially. Stealing £140,000 worth of chocolate flakes and then offering them to ice-cream sellers: positively charming.

This seems to be a fairly consistent rule. A seven-metre-high scrambled egg sculpture would be repulsive. Make it out of chocolate, and suddenly it’s fine (although having a sculpture “modelled after the Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building and Chrysler Building in the United States” does, sadly, seem to mean “er, shaped like a big rectangle”). Squirrels stealing pieces of dog flesh: slightly alarming. Squirrels stealing chocolate eggs: delightful. And if you’re approached by cocoa bean thieves trying to sell $150,000 worth of beans, of course it’s going to be more exciting and less scary than if they were trying to sell you $150,000 worth of stolen TVs.

One of my favourite chocolate stories is set centuries ago, in the 1600s. Spanish colonists in Mexico had a habit of drinking hot chocolate everywhere, even in church, but their bishop — perhaps understandably — wasn’t too keen: sure, a few popes had decided that chocolate wasn’t a food, as long as it was drunk in water instead of being mixed with milk or eggs or chickpeas (chickpeas!), but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t distract from the sermon. The bishop banned chocolate in his church; the colonists responded by trooping off to another church; the bishop responded by excommunicating them; they, in turn, responded by killing him with a cup of poisoned hot chocolate. (Allegedly.) Somehow the mere presence of chocolate makes this a friendlier, if no less murderous, incident. And sure, the Aztecs sacrificed a lot of people to a lot of gods — but then they settled down with a nice mug of hot chocolate afterwards, so they can’t have been all that bad.

I’m not advising you to embark on a new career as a thief, or to begin sacrificing passers-by to Tezcatlipoca, but if by chance you’ve already started and you’re looking for a way to appease your horrified friends, you could do worse than bringing them a slice of this cake. It really is very nice.

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9 August, 2007

Colours, disguises, and two-pepper soup

Filed under: gluten-free, main, spring, vegetables, vegetarian — Holly @ 8:17 am

Two-pepper soup on a dinner table

The way food looks affects the way food tastes. At school, I used to put green food colouring in my common-room-fridge milk, and although it meant I drank blue hot chocolate for a year, it also meant it was usually someone else’s milk that got stolen. On a World War II ship, the cook once found he’d run out of cherry-flavoured jelly; to still the complaints of the crew, he put red food colouring into the lemon jelly, and everyone was happy. If you give someone chocolate yoghurt in the dark and tell them it’s strawberry, experiments show they’ll believe you.

Where this gets really interesting is when the appearance of food begins to completely overwhelm the taste. Mediaeval cooks would sew half a pig to half a chicken and call it a cockatrice; their Victorian followers would make carefully-coloured ice-cream in asparagus moulds (”to produce this fancy ice you will require at least eighteen asparagus moulds made in pewter, and procurable at most ironmongers”, the instructions read).

Wedding cakes come at the modern peak of food-for-show. They’re rarely cheap, often massively expensive, and they usually taste, well, pretty nasty. This is where the cake rental companies that have been in the news lately come in. They provide a fake wedding cake with a tiny portion of real cake in a drawer, and a slit you can put a knife through for the ceremonial slicing. The bride and groom pretend to cut the cake together; they pull the little real slice out; and then the cake as a whole is wheeled off to be surreptitiously replaced in the kitchen with “here’s one I prepared earlier”-style slices of another cake entirely.

This seems, on the face of it, a pretty ridiculous idea, but fake cakes aren’t new. The rulesets (pdf) of cake-decorating competitions often allow the use of a styrofoam “cake dummy” instead of a real cake base; and if you’re more concerned with appearance than taste, why not? In fact, I almost want one, just to have lying around the house (”what’s that?” “oh, it’s just my cake dummy”). I’m not, however, convinced by the idea that “a fake cake displayed on a kitchen counter or dining room table is especially appealing when a home is for sale and on display for potential buyers”. The recommended cake in this version is papier-mache and uniced, and I can’t imagine it would stand up to close inspection, or that most people wouldn’t find it quite creepy (though perhaps a papier-mache oak tree and/or third bedroom would add to the resale value).

I lack the patience and skill for cake decorating; the closest I get to food whose appearance overwhelms its content is a two-pepper soup (where “pepper” in this context means “bell pepper” or “capsicum”). At first it just looks pretty, but give everyone a skewer and they’ll happily draw patterns until it’s gone cold. If you can manage to persuade them to stop drawing for a few minutes and eat it, they’ll find it tastes pretty good as well.

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7 August, 2007

Ins, Outs, and Chilled Mulled White Wine

Filed under: drinks, fruit, gluten-free, summer, vegan — Holly @ 9:52 am

Three glasses of mulled white wine, with a bookcase in the background.

EDIT: Hello, everyone here from gluten-free forums! If you’re interested in gluten-free recipes, I have an archive here; about two thirds of the recipes on the site are gluten-free, and I’ll be posting another gluten-free cake recipe later in the week. If you’re here because you’re upset by the line about gluten intolerance in the post below, then I’m sorry to have upset you. The piece is intended as a parody of articles about food trends, written in-character by an imaginary food writer. However, I realise some of you recognise this and still find it offensive, and I don’t like upsetting people, so I’ve edited the joke to get rid of the line that seems to have been the specific cause of your anger. I should perhaps explain that I’ve been doing a lot of gluten-free cooking over the last year, and I do realise that gluten intolerance (and the specific subset of it that is coeliac disease) is a real, and serious, condition; but I can see that the tone of the piece perhaps implied that I’d just picked it as a random “funny” disease. Feel free to stick around for the recipes; the cake coming later in the week really is very very delicious. END EDIT

It’s always hard to keep track of which foods are fashionable. A few weeks ago, the Observer told me that strawberry cornettos are in, for example; who would have thought it? But at the same time, tiramisu is unfashionable despite its similar redolence of the 80s. It’s simply much too popular. Out: truffle oil, chocolate lava cakes, butternut squash, chicken breasts. In: foie gras speakeasies, bread. Oh, it’s all so difficult!

The main trouble with comprehensive in-and-out food lists is that everyone else reads them, so the “in” foods become popular, and then they’re “out” again, all within six months. To make things worse, the lists are usually published at the end of a year, so those of us in July or August are left without guidance. Fortunately, I’ve managed to get hold of an advance copy of next year’s Official Food Ins and Outs, and I’m ready to share them with you. Only with the help of the list can you can be safe from the risk of serving your friends pesto (in for quick-service restaurants, so out for the rest of us, I’m afraid).

IN: Portable pizza ovens. Back in the sixteenth century, many households had no oven. Instead, it was common practice to send a loaf of bread or a cake out to the local baker, who would pop it in his oven once he was done for the day. This is no longer necessary for most of us, but what are we to do about pizzas? It’s famously difficult to make home-made pizza that lives up to good restaurant pizza, simply because home ovens don’t get hot enough. This doesn’t mean you should give up on making your own! Once the weather has cooled down, ice-cream vans will take out their freezers and fit super-hot ovens instead. Consider prepreparing three or four pizzas in a range of flavours, and when you hear that tinkling Greensleeves you’ll know it’s time to run out to the street and get them cooked properly.

OUT: Putting cocoa percentages on chocolate wrapping. This used to be IN, but now it’s filtered down to Magnums and Cadbury. The thing to do with mid-level chocolate wrapping these days is to attribute abstract nouns and emotions to the different varieties; see Newtree’s FORGIVENESS, Chuao’s PASSION, Dagoba’s ECLIPSE.

IN: Truffle booths. At the moment the truffle booth is an underground movement, but it’s heading mainstream. Customers pay for a private booth in a restaurant, and a selection of truffles is wafted in front of them while they breathe deeply.

OUT: Food processors. It just tastes so much better if you chop it by hand.

IN: Remember perfectly spherical watermelons, square tomatoes, and all the rest of the “grow things in moulds so they’re a weird shape” fad? It goes back at least as far as the nineteenth century, when glass cucumber straighteners came into fashion. Relatedly: you know how corsets can deform the ribs and permanently change someone’s waist shape, if worn consistently enough? By 2009 you can expect cattle corsetry to be the big new thing: buckle in the young cows and wait for exciting rib shapes on your table come 2010.

OUT: Gluten intolerance. The Atkins people started eating bread again years ago, after all.

IN: Brownie intolerance. Brownies are cheap, easy and delicious, so they’re ubiquitous these days, and the only way we can get them off menus is to develop an allergic reaction en masse.

OUT: Truffle booths. Yes, already. It was a fleeting moment of popularity; you had your chance, and you missed it.

IN: Heritage cutlery. In the past, good cutlery was inherited; only an arriviste would buy her own. Look for heritage cutlery to make a resurgence soon, though due to changing standards of serving size, nineteenth-century salad servers may need to function as twenty-first century spoons and forks.

OUT: Vegetables. Vegetables are everywhere these days, which means top chefs are already looking elsewhere for inspiration. The behind-the-times tastebuds of the masses might mean that potatoes are still listed on the menu, but the with-it restaurants will treat you well if you ask, quietly, for a side-dish of mashed squirrel instead.

IN: Mulling. Give it a couple of months and we’ll be firmly into Autumn, and mullers will spring up everywhere. This may be your last chance to get some mulling done before the rush.

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30 July, 2007

Mice, and also blueberry and blue cheese salad

Filed under: fruit, gluten-free, salad, summer, vegetarian — Holly @ 11:45 am

Blueberries, walnuts and blue cheese.

We currently have a mouse. Or several mice, it’s not really clear; nobody’s ever seen more than one at a time, but if it’s a single mouse then it’s very very good at finding its way back from a distant garden, and also at making a scritching noise on two sides of the room at the same time.

Apparently mice only need three grams of food a day, so it seems quite churlish to deny them that, but on the other hand it’s quite churlish for them to skitter across the floor and jump around the side of the oven. Non-human animals aren’t supposed to be in the kitchen unless they’re very very cute, or else food.

This does point at an obvious solution to the mouse problem. It’s surprisingly difficult to find mouse recipes online — they’re all tangled up with a lot of badly-spelt mousse — but not impossible. It turns out that mice are a staple food in some parts of Zambia, for example, where broody couples are said to be longing for a son so that he can kill mice for them.

Zambian mice are generally boiled and dried before they’re eaten, and there’s even a song to mock cooks who don’t realise this, and try to prepare them differently:

Some do not know how to cook mice.
Some do not know how to cook mice.
Onion, tomatoes in the mice.
Onion, cooking oil in the mice.

Elsewhere Alice Thomas Ellis, in Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring, reports on a woman who cooks mice to her own, distinctly non-Zambian, standards:

In 1920 when I was four years old an old woman who lived near my family in Radlett and whom I used to visit on every occasion I could find, would give me sugar mice to eat. These were made by skinning mice, which she had caught in an ordinary mousetrap, emptying them and then tying them by the tail to a wooden spoon where they were suspended into a strong sugar syrup in a cast iron saucepan over a slow heat. After some hours (or days) the mice became crystallised and, when they were cold, she would give me one to eat. They were delicious and even the bones were crisp and edible.

Outside of Zambia and Radlett, fried mice have been used as a cure for whooping cough and bedwetting. Neither of these are currently major household problems but we’ll be getting a new housemate in a few weeks, so who knows?

The only problem that remains is catching the mice. A study sponsored by the Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association confirmed last year that mice aren’t all that fond of cheese, and would prefer to eat fruit, grains and nuts; so keeping some cheese in for old times’ sake, this blueberry salad seems like a pretty decent bet for luring a delicious mouse to a trap.

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25 July, 2007

Afternoon Tea and Cranberry Buttermilk Scones

Filed under: afternoon tea, fruit, spring — Holly @ 10:31 am

Cherries and raspberries with background scones

Back in the nineteenth century, English moustaches were huge, waxed and worn on every forelip that could muster them. This caused problems: the nineteenth century was also a key tea-drinking period, and if you dangle your waxed moustache above a gently steaming cup of tea, the wax melts. Even if your moustache manages to hold up its magnificent peaks through strength and bloodymindedness, it’s still going to get tea in it.

Fortunately, ingenious nineteenth-century potters found a solution: the moustache cup. A small ledge sits across the top of a teacup, and tea-drinkers rest their moustaches on top of the ledge, sipping tea through a little hole while keeping their waxed ends safe.

In these modern days of less complex teacups, it would perhaps be possible to guard one’s moustache by drinking directly from the spout, as teapot designers originally intended; or, venturing into the less distant past, by making tea so repellant that you have no desire to drink it. In the seventeenth century, when tea was still in the process of being introduced to Europe, one set of instructions suggested that the drinker

beat up the yolks of two new-laid eggs with a dessertsponful of fine sugar and then mix them with a pint of hot (but not boiling hot) China tea that has been poured off the leaves.

Apparently the scrambled-egg tea drink

discusseth and satisfieth all rawness and indigence of the stomack, flying over the whole body into the veins, and strengtheneth exceedingly and preserves one a good while from the necessity of eating.

I find it quite easy to believe that I would be relieved from the necessity of eating for some time after eggy tea, yes.

If you can ignore the bit where they’re pouring it onto eggs, though, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a great period for tea in Europe, mostly because nobody was quite sure how to make it or what its effects were. Maybe it was an evil drug (William Cobbett, campaigner against the evils of tea, claimed that tea “is, in fact, a weaker kind of laudanum, which enlivens for the moment and deadens afterwards”); maybe it was the best thing ever.

For some reason, anti-tea activists were particularly keen on involving pigs in their experiments: Cobbet suggested that people who doubt the poisonous nature of tea should

put it to the test with a lean hog: give him the fifteen bushels of malt and he will repay you in ten score of bacon or thereabouts. But give him 730 tea messes, or rather begin to give them to him, and give him nothing else, and he is dead from hunger, and bequeaths you his skeleton, at the end of about seven days.

and the anti-tea Mr Hanway reported an experiment which showed the apparently dire results of, er, scorching a pig’s tail with hot tea.

On the other side, though, there were anecdotes demonstrating that tea was a healthful tonic:

The Princesse de Tarente [...] takes 12 cups of tea every day, which, she says, cures all her ills. She assured me that Monsieur de Landgrave drank 40 cups every morning. ‘But Madame, perhaps it is really only 30 or so.’ ‘No, 40. He was dying, and it brought him back to life before our eyes.’

To be fair, this last is from Madame de Sévigné, who also reports that, for example, the fair-skinned Marquise de Coëtlogon drank too much hot chocolate during her pregnancy and as a result gave birth to a small black child. Plus she doesn’t report any experiments involving pigs, so she can’t be very reliable.

Desperate to settle the matter of whether tea is a harmful drug or a delightful healthgiver, but without any pigs at hand, I recently conducted an experiment with two housemates, an aunt, and a small boy, whereby I denied them sandwiches and cake and fed them only tea and scones. They’re still alive, twitching their big hairy ears and wiggling their curly little tails, so presumably that settles it: tea is healthy, and also these scones are pretty nice.

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