Raspberry Debacle

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.


7 June, 2007

Lamington Cupcakes and Lamington Truffles

Filed under: afternoon tea, cake, food origins, spring, vegetarian — Holly @ 1:47 pm

Lamington cupcakes, with a floral background.

One of my favourite things about food is that every recipe must have been invented by someone. Somebody decided, in the days before electric mixers, to beat egg whites with sugar for half an hour and then plop them in the oven; someone decided to stick some chopped-up cow inside the cow’s own intestine. It’s as if Archimedes, getting in his bath and noticing the water level rise, had cried out “Eureka! We can use this to measure the volume of objects, oh and also I bet if we took the displaced water and made it really warm and put carrots in it then they’d go soft and a bit delicious.”

Because a lot of foods are the result of what seem to be massively unintuitive decisions, a lot of food origin stories will attribute a new recipe to a happy accident; someone left corn out on the bench too long, someone else cut their french fries too thin in order to aggravate an awkward customer. My very favourite food origin story concerns the lamington, an Australian cake made from squares of sponge, often joined together with strawberry jam, dipped in chocolate icing and then desiccated coconut. Wikipedia’s version of the story:

Lamingtons are most likely named after Charles Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. However, the precise reasoning behind this is not known, and stories vary. According to one account, the dessert resembled the homburg hats favoured by Lord Lamington. Another tells of a banquet in Cloncurry during which the governor accidentally dropped a block of sponge cake into a dish of gravy, and then threw it over his shoulder, causing it to land in a bowl of desiccated coconut or peanut butter. A diner thought of replacing the gravy with chocolate and thusly created the lamington known it today.

This is the most fantastic food origin story ever, replying on:

  1. a baron; who
  2. eats sponge-cake over a dish of gravy; and who on
  3. dropping the cake into the gravy is sufficiently infuriated to
  4. fish it out only to
  5. throw it over his shoulder, where it meets the work of
  6. somebody who left a dish of desiccated coconut lying around at a banquet, and who is probably not the same person as the one who
  7. naturally responds to this by looking at the gravy and suggesting it be replaced with chocolate.

This is without even addressing the claim that the dish might not have contained coconut, but instead peanut butter. Or the alternative suggestion that lamingtons might have been named after the baron because of their resemblance to his homburg hats, which… well, this is a homburg hat, from Hats in the Belfry:


A homburg hat

And this is a lamington:

A lamington
(from manthatcooks)

I don’t know, perhaps barons get special homburg hats that are shaped like boxes and covered in diamond shards.

The main trouble with lamingtons, for those of us who don’t live in Australia and can’t get them at the local bakery, is that they’re a pain to make; you have to stab the sponge cake with a fork and drip chocolate icing on it while you rotate it slowly (dropping the squares in the chocolate and then tossing them over your shoulder doesn’t actually give you a complete covering, it turns out, and also can get really messy when you miss the bowl of coconut). My current solution is to make lamington-style cupcakes, with a swirl of jam in the batter and lamington icing on top. Non-Australians will also bite into these without fear, which is not necessarily the case with the traditional lamington; whether you consider this an advantage or not depends, I suppose, on how much you like them.


25 May, 2007

Poppyseed Pear Cake

Filed under: afternoon tea, cake, fruit, spring, vegetarian — Holly @ 11:15 am

Close-up of a pear cake with poppy seeds.

Are there any proper conventions for naming recipes? Desultory research turns up a woman who likes to name recipes after the characters in books she’s written, but I haven’t written any books. I have written most of a thesis (it’s why I haven’t been posting here for a few weeks); but my housemates might object to eating Instantiating the Characteristics of Barthes’ Ideal “Writerly” Text Risotto and Convergence of Critical Theory and Computer Science Cookies.

There must be trends in recipe-naming. Mediaeval or Renaissance cookbooks mostly seem pleasantly matter-of-fact, if occasionally opaquely spelt: “a pigge”, “Peacoke Sauce wyne and salt”, “A salet with harde egges”. The seventeenth century is much the same; “To bake Apricocks green”, “To make a Foole”. When there’s a divergence from the rule, it’s a bit embarrassed: “To make red Ginger-bread, commonly called Leach-lumbar”.

The matter-of-factness breaks down more in the nineteenth century; Mrs Beeton has a “Soup a la Cantatrice”, to improve the voice, and a “Useful Soup for Benevolent Purposes”, to, er, use for benevolent purposes. Recipes from the period start being named after people more frequently: “Dr. Dobell’s Flour Pudding” sounds particularly unappetising, though I’m not sure whether it’s the “Dr” or the “flour” that does it. By the 1950s half the recipes in existence seem to be named after people, many of them fictional and with no discernible relation to the food; He-Man’s Tuna Noodle Casserole, John Beresford Tipton Bars. By the fifties, recipe writers have also firmly established the policy of mentioning, in the recipe’s title, any unexpected ingredients — if you’re going to feed someone Pepsi-Cola Cake With Broiled Peanut Butter Frosting then they probably deserve to know what they’re in for.

These days the standard practice seems to be to specify the type of food, and also some distinguishing details or ingredients — more detail than a mediaeval-style “an cayke”, but stopping short of “chocolate-coffee cake with vanilla, salt, baking powder, butter, sugar and those little silver balls on the icing maybe, if there are any left in the cupboard, or hey, how about a broken-up flake”. My problem is that today’s cake has four distinguishing details (lemon, poppyseed, upside-down, pear), which is too many for a name.

Fortunately, professional chefs grapple with the same problem, as a forum discussion of “Roasted duck and goat cheese filled crepes with watermelon and cucumber syrup” demonstrates. The resolution they favour appears to involve the extensive use of nonwords; suggestions for the duck include “Quackenbaa Crepes” (ducks quack and goats baa, y’see) , “Cheese & Quackers”, and my personal favourite, “Roasduck in Crepes”. And who am I to go against the dictates of professional chefs?


19 April, 2007

Chocolate Polenta Cake, Strawberry Ice-Cream, and Useful Kitchen Gadgets

Filed under: afternoon tea, cake, fruit, gluten-free, icecream, spring, vegetarian — Holly @ 11:05 am

Chocolate polenta cake, a strawberry, and strawberry ice-cream from above

After I’d ordered my ice-cream maker, but before it arrived, there was an article (in the Guardian, I think) claiming that ice-cream makers were the most useless of kitchen appliances, with a high cost-to-use ratio springing from the combination of their price (twenty-five to fifty pounds) and the fact that nobody actually uses them. Several weeks of ice-cream-maker ownership has reassured me that this is not the case, but in matters of science instinct must give way to analysis; so today I have chosen to compare my ice-cream maker to a number of other kitchen appliances. This will allow me to work out whether it really is useless, or whether the Guardian is just talking charming nonsense.

The electric tablecloth: No longer available in shops, the electric tablecloth is, er, an electric tablecloth. You can stick bulbs into it and they will light up, and if you spill a drink on it, you will die.

  • Pros: an interesting demonstration of the Edwardian idea that electricity is good with everything (compare the home instruction book Things A Lady Would Like To Know, which recommends, for cramp, “Be electrified through the part which uses to be affected, or hold a roll of brimstone in your hand”, and for deafness, “be electrified through the ear”).
  • Cons: No longer commercially available. Oh, also the death thing.

A self-winding fork for spaghetti: Like the electric tablecloth, this 1937 experimental model is not comercially available.

  • Pros: Spaghetti can indeed be quite difficult to eat decorously.
  • Cons: Almost entirely useless; inventor intended it as a joke; early twentieth century novelty kitchen items are slightly amusing, through the magic of passing time, but people are still selling these, zanily no doubt.

The inside-the-shell electric egg scrambler: A needle is inserted into an egg. The electric scrambler’s scrambling process is initiated, and the needle jiggles around for eight seconds. You then have a pre-beaten egg, which you can either crack open and use as you will, or boil to get a homogenised pale-yellow boiled egg.

  • Pros: Won’t kill you; apparently not intended as a joke; quite small.
  • Cons: Homogenised pale-yellow boiled eggs? What? What?

Duck press: A duck press costs $1500 (expedited shipping not available), and is used for pressing barely-cooked duck until all its duck juice comes out. We learnt about duck presses from a recent programme on Edwardian food (housemate Brendan has already posted about it) but they’re still being manufactured and used; La Tour d’Argent apparently served its millionth pressed duck in 1996 (#253,652 was for Charlie Chaplin).

  • Pros: For an extra $60, you can get a duck press with little duck feet; duck press can perhaps be multipurposed for pressing garlic, trousers, Oxford University, etc.
  • Cons: Takes up quite a lot of bench space.

My ice-cream maker: £36, compact, batteries included, makes delightful ice-cream and sorbet.

  • Pros: You don’t even need to pre-freeze the bowl. You just put the whole machine in the freezer (it’s quite small, but I can measure it if anyone wants one and is worried about whether it would fit in their freezer), and then a few hours later you have ice-cream. Ice-cream!
  • Cons: £36 is a fair wodge of money; and while it’s in the freezer the machine makes little shivery grinding I’m-cold-let-me-out-please noises whenever you walk past the fridge. If you’re in the habit of anthropomorphising kitchen appliances (or drawing sad faces on them), you might find this troublesome.

There’s some competition from the duck press, but I think it’s clear that the ice-cream maker is in fact the least useless kitchen appliance, and furthermore the only one that’s necessary for making chocolate polenta cake with strawberry ice-cream.


13 April, 2007

Galangal Raspberry Friands, and Using Up Leftovers

Filed under: afternoon tea, cake, fruit, gluten-free, spring, vegetarian — Holly @ 11:19 am

A blueberry friand and a raspberry friand

I’m dreadful at using up leftovers. Occasionally I make stock from a leftover roast, but then a week later I still haven’t used the stock for anything and it’s growing cloudy in the back of the fridge. I bake at a rate of about 120% of our household baked-goods consumption rate (and then booby-trap the baking trays, to decrease the chances of other housemates contributing to the problem), and the last slice or two of any given cake ends up in the bin. When I do manage to use leftovers, as often as not it’s in a more expensive meal than I would have cooked otherwise, after I’ve spent twenty minutes searching for recipes with everything I have to use up (kale, roast beef and banana pasta?), and then another fifteen running down to the supermarket for half the ingredients.

Obviously this is a bad thing and I need to to get better-organised, and also more local friends who eat a lot. Also obviously, it’s the result of the historically and socially unlikely luxury of being able to easily get more food than I need. Certainly the idea of using leftovers appeals to me immensely, but I’m unlikely to start rinsing the dressing off uneaten salad and freezing the carefully dried leaves, or rubbing old tealeaves on the bathroom mirror to clean it (apparently you have to buff it with a soft cloth afterwards to, er, wipe the tealeaves off). I do enjoy and use wartime advice like “if only a small amount of [lemon] juice is needed, prick one end of a lemon with a fork. Squeeze out the amount needed and store the lemon in the ice-box” (from the 1940s Foods That Will Win The War And How To Cook Them); but modern squeamishness has me cringing at the same book’s chapter on gelatine. (Gelatine is good for using up leftovers in a number of ways, all of which boil down to “get a load of gelatine, mix it with a lot of leftovers, leave it all in a mould to set, slice, optionally give dish a name including the word ’surprise’.” This technique is consistent regardless of whether the leftovers are fish, fruit, cheese, rice, or coconut and celery.)

The use of leftovers I find most startling and delightful comes from the bijoutiers. Perhaps everybody knows about them except me, but I’d never even heard of them until yesterday, and they’re brilliant. They worked in Paris, particularly around the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but existing in some form until the middle of the twentieth, and they would walk around to embassies and restaurants and oversupplied wealthy houses, collecting the leftovers, tossing them into a basket: pie-crusts and boiled eggs, chicken wings, scraps of raw pastry, squashed fruit, nuts, uneaten vegetables. Back in the markets, the bijoutiers would arrange the leftovers on tiny plates, in jewel-like patterns, and sell them on; sometimes to hungry passers-by, sometimes even to restaurants, who would add them to their own menus.

In Versailles the waste was even more extravagant, and elaborate meals would be sent from the royal table untouched. The leftovers market differed correspondingly; no bijoutiers to collect the scraps, but rather the Versailles kitchens setting everything out in the market themselves:

The foods that come from the King’s table, and those of Princes, are barely touched when they go on sale. The bourgeois are not embarrassed to serve them since anything that was on a Prince’s table is said to be both delicious and safe to eat. At least a quarter of Versailles lives off of the food once served on the royal table and the cooks of his Majesty are, in fact, preparing foods for lowly stomachs for which these culinary masterpieces were never intended. Huge fish go untouched from his Highness’s table, or that of the Count of Artois, to a hat maker’s table, to the delight of his little family, who feed on succulent dishes and no longer need to cook for themselves.

This is the sort of leftover even I could eat consistently: elaborate delicious meals with absurd ingredients, available cheaply and conveniently. As it is, though, the only sort of leftovers I manage to use up with any regularity are egg whites and egg yolks, and that’s not much of an accomplishment: the solution to “oh, I have some leftover bits of egg” is usually “RAPID EMERGENCY CAKE: INITIATE BAKING PROCEDURES NOW”. Reasons to bake are not something I generally need more of, so egg-yolks become ice-cream or dense and gooey cakes, while egg-whites become friands, uneconomically (almond meal is not a cheap way of using up anything) but deliciously.


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