Raspberry Debacle

6 July, 2007

Duck and Cherry Salad

Filed under: birds, fruit, gluten-free, meat, salad, summer — Holly @ 12:19 pm

Cherry and duck salad, close-up

There’s a story that the Egyptian caliph al-Aziz was very fond of cherries; so fond that he had a servant in Lebanon who tied cherries to the legs of carrier pigeons, who would fly them to Egypt each day for the caliph’s breakfast.

And then there’s another story, an old English carol, about Mary and Joseph walking in a grove of cherries. Mary asked Joseph to bring her some cherries, since she was with child and could hardly climb up to fetch them herself; Joseph responded, peevishly, with “let him pluck thee a cherry that brought thee with child”. At this point the unborn Jesus communicated with the cherry trees and asked them to bow their branches down, so that Mary could “have cherries at command”.

These supernatural and superexpensive lengths don’t seem excessive; cherries are really really nice, in strong contention for the coveted position of “my favourite food”. I’ve happily eaten a pound at a sitting, though perhaps that isn’t really such a lot - compare it, for example, to the mountains eaten by Elizabethan forerunners of today’s competitive eating (recorded by Horatio Busino, an Italian visitor to England in the early seventeenth century). Back in the early 1600s, cherries were sold in London streets still on their branches, and “it was an amusement to go out into the orchards and eat fruit on the spot, in a sort of competition of gormandize between the city belles and their admirers”.

It’s an odd competition, but no odder than “tie cherry stalks into a knot to demonstrate that you’re good at kissing and/or oral sex” (neither of which traditionally involve tying things into knots with your tongue, unless I’ve misunderstood something grievously). If you’re going put bits of cherry into your mouth for competitive purposes, it might as well be the bits that actually taste nice. On one occasion, back in Busino’s time, a young woman ate twenty pounds of cherries at a sitting, outdoing her closest competitor by two and a half pounds, and a character from Katherine Mansfield’s In a German Pension by sixteen:

He sat down, tugging at a white-paper package in the tail pocket of his coat.

“Cherries,” he said, nodding and smiling. “There is nothing like cherries for producing free saliva after trombone playing, especially after Grieg’s ‘Ich Liebe Dich.’ Those sustained blasts on ‘liebe’ make my throat as dry as a railway tunnel. Have some?” He shook the bag at me.

“I prefer watching you eat them.”

“Ah, ha!” He crossed his legs, sticking the cherry bag between his knees, to leave both hands free. “Psychologically I understood your refusal. It is your innate feminine delicacy in preferring etherealised sensations…Or perhaps you do not care to eat the worms. All cherries contain worms. Once I made a very interesting experiment with a colleague of mine at the university. We bit into four pounds of the best cherries and did not find one specimen without a worm.”

This was more or less true; the young woman who ate twenty pounds of cherries must have eaten at at least half a pound of worms in the process. Even now, home-grown cherries are likely to be riddled with the things. There’s no point in examining them for clues, either - the eggs are laid through a hole so small as to be invisible, and any hole big enough to see is an exit, where the fat white worm has wriggled out. This means that cherries without a hole in them are, if anything, more dangerous, since any worms will still be inside. The only solution seems to be to break each cherry open before eating it - or if you’re only a bit concerned, to drop the cherries in water, and throw out any that float as probable worm-harbourers.

Despite all this talk of worms, I’m still intending to get some cherries as soon as I’ve finished this post. Ideally, of course, I’d have them tied to the legs of birds and flown in through the window, but perhaps I’d choose ducks rather than pigeons. For midsummer a week or two ago we had a twelve-course lunch-turning-into-dinner (full menu here), and the duck and cherry salad was easily my favourite course, so having all the ingredients delivered in one easy bundle would be ideal. (Yes, I know I said salads were universally pointless. It turns out I just wasn’t including enough summer fruit.)


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.


4 June, 2007

A Sketch Towards a Taxonomy of Meta-Desserts

Filed under: dessert, discussion, obsessions — Holly @ 10:56 am

Close-up of a section of a meta-dessert chart

So, first I made flippant comments about “Convergence of Computer Science and Critical Theory Cookies”, and cookies that reference other cookies. Then I made some small loaf cakes with brownies for a base. Then Leonard pointed to his 2003 post on meta-desserts — desserts that reference other desserts.

As he points out, desserts can basically be piled on top of each other indefinitely, or at least until you hit the ceiling. This is why I like baking: you can leave out major ingredients, accidentally replace them with something else, freeze or heat up the result or cover it in chocolate sauce, and then when you’re finished you can chop it up, cover it with cream, mix it with fruit — and chances are it will still taste good.

However, there are limits, and also classificatory difficulties. What are the fundamental dessert types, the metaphorical atoms of dessert, or “dessertoms”? A brownie is very “stable”, which is to say it can be combined with many different desserts while still remaining delicious — but surely it isn’t a fundamental dessert type: a brownie is basically just a sulky teenage cake. A crepe, on the other hand, probably is a fundamental dessert type, but it’s a relatively unstable one — it won’t taste good if you put it on a cookie.

Furthermore, desserts can be transformed not just through the application of another sort of dessert, adding dessert type A to dessert type B, but also by the application of a Dessert Function. Dessert Functions are things like “freeze it”, “put nuts on it”, “take out all the flour”, “cover it in alcohol and set it on fire” — stuff you can do to any dessert that has a good chance of leaving it edible, or better still transforming it into an exciting new dessert.

Clearly this is a topic that requires for further discussion:

  1. a rigorously defined vocabulary;
  2. extensive research to discover the fundamental dessert types;
  3. some sort of consistency in what “applying dessert type A to dessert type B” actually entails; and
  4. Lots of little pictures on graph paper.

Well, if we have a Meta-Dessert Conference and Party, I can bring number 4.

I call it “A Sketch towards a Taxonomy of Desserts and Meta-Desserts”, though I’m thinking of adding a subtitle as well. I’ve listed dessertoms: cookie, cake, sweet bread, pastry, crepe, crumble, fruit, chocolate, cream, custard, egg-white-and-sugar, and ice-cream. (Obviously this is a very broad-grained study, and further research would be well-advised to, eg, clarify that the broad category of “cake” can itself be divided into a number of fundamental types which can have transformations enacted upon them while still remaining cake). These run along the top of the page; following a column down, you can see what might happen to each dessertom when a different dessertom is applied to it (to apply Dessertom A to Dessertom B, you either (a) use Dessertom A as a component ingredient in making Dessertom B; or (b) put Dessertom A inside Dessertom B; or (c) put Dessertom A on top of Dessertom B, in roughly that order of preference).

I’ve also included seven Dessert Functions: shrink, freeze, chill, put in food processor, heat, add leavening, and remove leavening. At this point I ran out of graph paper, and had to leave out “add nuts”, “squash”, “take out flour” etc, but just because they aren’t on the page doesn’t mean they aren’t equally valid.

To reference the entries on the sheet I will refer to the Dessertom in brackets, and prepend the applicable operation: the notation for applying Custard to Crumble is therefore Custard(Crumble); performing Freeze on Chocolate is Freeze(Chocolate). The result of the operation is indicated by an arrow: Freeze(Chocolate) -> Frozen Chocolate.


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.


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.


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