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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


1 June, 2007

Death by Rhubarb and Fig Tart

Filed under: dessert, fruit, gluten-free, spring, vegetarian — Holly @ 10:43 am

Pretentiously-photographed tulip and rhubarb-and-fig tart.

Another brilliant thing about South London: the charity shops. Yesterday it was Lou Jane Temple’s Death By Rhubarb, tagline: “At Cafe Heaven, the souffles don’t fall, but the bodies do”.

Cover of a book called Death by Rhubarb

It’s a “culinary mystery” from 1996 in which cafe-owner Heaven Lee “turns sleuth to save her restaurant”, and it has a fantastic disregard for genre boundaries. “Tonight they were sharing three Blue Heaven salads, and a double macaroni and cheese”, the main text says, and then there’s a recipe for Blue Heaven Salad. “You’re right, Pearl. What would this street do without you, you and your gingerbread?” says a character, and then there’s a recipe for Pearl’s Gingerbread Upside-Down Cake. The series also seems to be charmingly autobiographical; character Heaven runs Cafe Heaven, writer Lou runs Cafe Lulu.

There are now seven books about Cafe Heaven, including A Stiff Risotto (I feel like there’s a pun here I’m not getting?), Red Beans and Vice, and Bread on Arrival. I particularly like Bread on Arrival for being the wrong way round: instead of death being smuggled into a seemingly innocent meal, it’s a meal being smuggled into a macabre situation. Presumably ambulance attendants rush a dying patient to the hospital, and when they get him there he’s… been replaced by a life-size bread mannequin? I don’t know, the charity shop only had the first two books in the series.

The question, anyway, is whether I should take this as inspiration to rejig Raspberry Debacle as an ongoing mystery. The answer is “almost certainly not”, but I’ve been preparing possible renames, just in case:

  • Rest in Peas (restinpeas.com is unfortunately already registered, though there’s nothing there)
  • Vegetable Stir-DIE
  • Um, Scrambled Legs?
  • Fig-or Mortis?
  • Capital Bun-ishment?
  • I know, A Sudden Tart Attack!
  • This isn’t as easy as it looks, though
  • Portobello Mush Doom? Monosodium Glutafate?
  • Gluten-free chocolate cake but it isn’t really gluten-free and someone’s allergic to gluten oh no, though maybe that should just be called Gluten-FULL Chocolate Cake?
  • Last Dill and Testament

Ivy, Battersea’s bakingest postgrad, sighed as she looked at the body in the kitchen. “I don’t know where you’re going to keep it,” she said. “There’s no room in our fridge, and you know Patriona doesn’t like meat in hers.” Patriona was their housemate — she was a vegetarian and gluten-intolerant!

“It’s not mine,” Ivy’s boyfriend Keath replied, stroking his beard in a puzzled way, because he had one.

Ivy sighed again, and looked up the stairs. “Cory!”, she called, “is this your body in the kitchen?” Cory was their other housemate. He had short hair.

There was a bit of hilarious misunderstanding while Cory thought she’d meant his actual body, that he lived in and typed with and things, because that’s the natural assumption surely, what with people not usually leaving bodies in the kitchen. Finally, however, the misunderstanding was cleared up.

“Maybe it’s Patriona’s?” Cory said.

Ivy phoned Patriona.

“No,” Patriona said, “I didn’t leave a body in the kitchen. I’m a vegetarian and gluten-intolerant, remember! I hope you get rid of it before dinner, anyway, remember Robert and, I mean, um, Zobert and Snosh are coming over. Did you say you were making a tart?”

“Oh!” Ivy said. “The tart!” She ran to the oven, and pulled out her Rhubarb and Fig Tart just in time.


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