Monday, 26 December 2011

Book Review: Cooking Without Recipes

For some reason, I got given a lot of cookbooks yesterday.  Do you think that maybe people might be under the impression that I like cooking?

One of them was this.  My mother's note with it said 'saw this and thought of you' - and she was so right.    This book says what I have been saying for many years - that recipes are all very well, but that they are only a guideline.  Except when baking, you can usually just ask Nigella what she thinks chestnuts are for and just wing it.  Even when baking, start with a basic sponge mix at 180 and whatever else you put in it (except too much liquid) can't go far wrong.

The book starts nicely with a bit of family background, with the author talking about his aged, widower father finally learning to cook all the dishes he loved best.  It's a bittersweet tale as father dies before he achieves his goal of effortless cooking, but it's a lovely example of the 'if so-and-so can, then you can' school of encouragement from food writers.  Delia tries it with herself but I don't know if any of us believe her.

Moving on, he describes the basic tools needed for decent cooking - big pan, frying pan, pestle and mortar. Not much else.  The pestle and mortar is a very nice touch, non-obvious and an encouragement to get mashing unusual flavours.  No-one uses enough marinades and rubs in this country.  The big pan is the Etch-A-Sketch of the kitchen - create anything you like by twisting the gas knobs, and if it goes wrong just shake it all up and make soup.  Soup is Mr Dundas' fallback cock-up dish, which is again a philosophy I can get behind.  What happens to cocked-up soup however remains a mystery.

Then he goes into the main description of what sort of cooking you might try with various ingredients.  They're divided very roughly into meat, fish, veg, nuts and seeds etc. and there are some great suggestions for combos (eg. seafood and vermouth) and basic sauces with which to experiment.

Influences and flavours
There is a lot of French in this book I think, but then I was never quite sure what 'French' cooking was as a child.  To me, using a lot of garlic and herbs became second nature watching my parents, so I never made the distinction between French and British.  The big 5 flavours in this book are virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, peppercorns of various colours and lemons.  Not unfamiliar to many I hope.  I've already vowed to have more lemons in my kitchen when I get one of really my own, partly because the Man and I drink a lot of G&Ts and partly because Dundas is right - they are a very versatile flavour.

Suggestions, Hints and Tips
The biggest tip in the book, most repeated and consistent is 'look at the food.'  Look at it, poke it, prod it, smell it, know it, and start to work out what it is for.  Is it a crunchy thing, an oily thing, a gamey thing, a slow-cook or fast-cook thing?  Then you can start to mix and match it with other things.  He gives some guidance on meats, and how to get the best out of them; a couple of not-really-recipes along the way like 'squash whole tomatoes into the English Breakfast pan so that they explode tomato over everything else' (I'm paraphrasing).  Generally though you are left to make up your own mind, mistakes and -along the way -cock-up soup.  There is also the usual (nowadays) tiresome evangelisation of local shops and farmers markets etc, which we all know we should shop at more but won't.  I forgive him.

I forgive everything because the writing is so very lovely.  Pretty unsubtly Significant Othered (the mention of the many men in his life comes early in the intro) Dundas is constantly referencing how good it will be to cook for friends -or a lover.  Favourite turn of phrase about the necessity of lemons -'Being ill without hot toddy with lemon and Scotch whisky is like being in love without Champagne.'  Possible, but not nearly as nice.  Brilliant.  Unlike my other favourite gay cook, Nigel Slater (who Dundas is also justly fond of), his writing evokes not the simple, tasty but rather lonely supper for one man and his food but the joyous shared experiment.  There is a 'we're all in this together' about the whole book.  None of Nigel's small, perfect, seasonal portions here - it's all bold, random, hearty and 'whatever you fancy'.

I recommend that everyone read this book.  It's great inspiration for even the most established foodie, and the best call-to-arms I could think of for anyone who's just trying to make it on their own.  Dundas and I share the despair at the cook-by-numbers, Delia generation who have no idea how food actually works, just do as they're told until it comes out 'like it should.'  Shake off the shackles of How To Cook, and pick up Cooking Without Recipes.  Then put it down, buy a pestle and mortar, pour yourself a G&T and wait for inspiration to strike.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Sharing Christmas Traditions

It is Christmas Eve.  I am about 2 or 3.  A family friend leans down and asks me, "What day is it tomorrow, Elisabeth?" in an encouraging tone.  I think for a moment, and solemnly answer,

I'm going home for Christmas this year.  It's not far, but it feels like a world away from the subtly different family traditions which I have been invited to at the boyfriend's for several years running.  For me, Christmas is not Christmas without:

  • Films - all seen a million times before - Die Hard, Muppet Christmas Carol, Wallace and Gromit  and/or the Great Escape
  • A tree of sorts, and decorations around the house
  • A cake of sorts which must be more durable (yet considerably more edible) than a cockroach
  • Stockings, real big wooly ones, at the end of the bed in the morning, to be opened before everything else on parent's bed.  Must contain socks, posh colouring pencils and paper, and a Terry's chocolate orange at the bottom.  Optional small Lego figures and sugar mice.  I am now too old for stockings at my dad's, but still get given a very different and equally generous kind by boyfriend's mother. 
  • The Food: Goose for tea, Eggs Benedict for lunch, chocolate croissants for breakfast with lashings of Bucks Fizz
  • The Events: a photograph of my Dad's foot, a tradition which started accidentally after he took photos of my toddling brother and I opening presents on the floor two years running and put his foot in it.  The foot is now the star of the show.
  • The Schedule: Presents happen after breakfast.  Everyone knows this.  Then you have the rest of the day to play with them.  Everyone takes turns to open one present each, and watch the delighted (or not so) face of the recipient.   I cannot understand the idea of presents after lunch, unless you have a second go when friends arrive for tea with more presents.
  • The Delayed Reaction: Almost every year my un-godmother remembers to get or make my brother and I presents, and forgets to send them.  There is then a brief revival of the Christmas spirit in February, about the same time as the last of the cake is binned.
This is not to mention all the usual people who ring, or call round; the great aunt who always sends a £20 note and yet is almost never seen; the Family Walk which may occur and is an occasion of great sniping, windiness, and Family Fun Corrie-style; school carol services; pictorial advent calendar (never chocolate); defrosting the car; drinking far too much, and getting my mother to make the huge Lego set because we can't be arsed to spend two hours following the instructions.

Of course I won't be getting all of these things when I get home this weekend, because as I mentioned last year, there is a new family set up and new traditions are forming.  I have grown older, and there are fewer presents and more bottles on the table.  But there will be the memories, the ghosts of Christmasses past, in the air, in the conversation, and on the screens.  There will be people to regale with stories such as the anecdote at the head of this post.  I encourage all my readers to share their own traditional, ideal Christmas in the comments - and if you can, with your significant other.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Orange Festive Layer Cake

I've been watching a lot of Jamie Oliver on 4od recently, and he really really seems to like putting orange zest in almost everything at this time of year.  It is an awesome flavour but it's one of those things which is a hassle to get at if you don't have the right equipment.  One of these days I will work out how to steal the other half of the zest back from a traditional grater after using the little diamond-punch-holes; in the meantime, I recommend you acquire one of these:
You can get them from Lakeland and they really really are the best.  More dangerous for your fingers, sure, but they are the Global Knives of the grater world.  I am struggling to justify getting one for myself after spending money on Christmas presents and really needing my own camera to take photos for this blog!

The whole point of watching cookery shows is not (in my humble opinion) to try and learn or steal the recipes there shown but to work out which general flavours and techniques the chefs are using and steal them.  One such I learnt was marmalade and game - another was a reminder to break out the orange zest.   This is my Jamie tribute, and a change from both a traditional Christmas fruitcake and my usual Nigella Lawson Certosino with candied fruit on top.

Orange Festive Layer Cake
You Will Need: shallow rectangular tin, greaseproof paper and scissors; little plate, cheese-grater, lemon squeezer; small saucepan, scales, chopping board and sharp knife, large bowl and wooden spoon, whisk, plate, teaspoon, large plate.

4oz caster sugar
4oz Kerry Gold butter (I should get a sponsorship deal from them one of these days)
3 star anise

1/2 tsp ginger
8 cloves
2/3 oranges
2 eggs
4oz self-raising flour

1) Preheat the oven to 180degrees C.  Line the bottom of your tin with a sheaf of greaseproof paper. 
2) Zest the oranges onto a little plate.  Juice one of the oranges.  Add the juice to the sugar in the saucepan over a low heat and stir until dissolved.  Simmer very slowly.  Add the anise, cloves and ginger to the sugar.
3) Beat the eggs in the large bowl until well blended.
4) After a few minutes, fish the whole star anise and cloves if you can find them out of the sugar. Peel the  oranges or three or four clementines and and slice them into half-centimetre rounds.  Gently add these to the pan, coat in sugar and use to line the bottom of the tin. 
5) Cut the butter into small chunks and melt into the sugar.  Stir until blended on a low heat, then gradually  whisk into the eggs in the large bowl.
6) Add the orange zest to the eggs.  Stir to mix.  Add the flour a little at a time. Gently pour the cake mix over the oranges in the tin and spread out evenly.
7) Bake for 15-20 mins or to clean skewer stage.
8) Allow to cool completely before turning out onto a plate, so that the bottom orange layer is now uppermost.  To do this, put the plate over the top of the tin upside-down, grasp the bottom of the tin firmly and turn over.  Remove the tin and papers.  
9) Serve cold or warmed, with a glass of Grand Marnier and something creamy.

Pro Tip:  If you doubled or even tripled the quantities, you could layer these one on top of the other to make an even fancier concoction.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Knitting Reblog: Hurricane Hat by Andrea Goutier

It's great to be knitting again after a while, and now that I've booked the flights to go and see my mother in the Colorado Rockies it seemed only fitting to start myself a skiing hat.  A quick search on Ravelry turned up this lovely pattern by Andrea Goutier

I have to admit that mine has not got the lovely swirls on it much at all - I was convinced I had misaligned my purl stitches for the first two inches, and then decided to abandon the decoration and do all knit stitches for speed as I needed my earwarmth quickly!  But looking at it now, the swirls are putatively visible and I'm sure you can make them work.

I am in awe of this lady for being able to think up a pattern in the round.  One day I hope to be a much better designer than I am, but in the meantime borrowing the genius of others to create necessary warmth will do.

I've also been following the blog Dances With Wool on Blogger, which is a beautifully written diary from a lady in Finland.  Her Advent posts, counting down the few hours of daylight in the harsh Arctic December, are particularly touching.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Gingerbread Stave Church

If you made the gingerbread house from last post, and fancy knocking things up a notch, why not put another couple of layers and some chocolate fingers on it and make a small stave church?  It's the perfect mix of Jesus and Vikings for the Christmas season, and you can even destroy it like a marauding pagan later.

Gingerbread (well, Pepparkakor) Stave Church
You Will Need:
Remaining pepparkakor dough; ruler, pencil, squared paper, scissors; greaseproof paper, baking trays, rolling pin; royal icing; dinner knife; small bowl, small amount of dark chocolate; 2-3 packets dark chocolate Cadbury's biscuit fingers; cake decorations of choice. 

1) Using your house pattern as a template, draw out another wall/roof layer, a tower and a pointed steeple onto squared paper, each about 3cm high.  The second layer should start about 4cm from the eaves of the first.
2) Retrieve your remaining dough, and roll it out to 3mm thick.  Cut out two of each wall, gable and roof, and four triangular steeple-pieces.  With the remaining scraps, make dragons, crosses and a weathercock to stick to the roof.
3) Make a batch of royal icing using 1 egg white and 8oz of icing sugar, and/or use any remaining from making the gingerbread house.
4) Stick the gable pieces to the roof of the house.  Add Wall 2 between the gables on each side, using skewers to prop up the bottom edge.  Allow to set for a good while before attempting Roof 2.  Glue everything together well with icing.  Allow to set.
5) Add the tower pieces to Roof 2. Complete with the steeple pieces.
6) While the steeple is setting, melt a little chocolate in a small bowl in the microwave on a low setting.  Use the chocolate to stick chocolate fingers to the large gable ends and walls of the church. Leave some space on one end for a door.
7) Spread more icing on the roof, and use to stick Shreddies, flaked almonds, jelly diamonds or other small tile-like sweetnesses on.  I only did a row per roof as I ran out of icing, but may do more later.  This is a good point to involve any small children you may have hanging about.
8) When you have finished decorating the walls and roof, add the dragons to each corner, crosses to each end, and weathercock on top of the steeple: Break the pointy end off a skewer to roughly the height of the triangular steeple, plus 2cm.  Insert the pointy end into the edge of the weathercock carefully, supporting with icing if necessary.  Post the blunt end through the top of the steeple, to rest on the top edge of Roof 2 inside the tower. 

9) Place the church in its final resting-place, and sift icing-sugar snow over the top if desired.  I did this to mine at the last minute before Christmas to prevent icing sugar getting everywhere in the meantime. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Gingerbread House

Last year I tried to make a gingerbread house, and it didn't work *super* well because it was too house-shaped.  Most templates on the interwebs have very steep roofs and short walls, as this makes balancing easier.  When I drew my template for this year, I made it steepy too.

Yaay shoddy MS Paint diagrams are back!
The numbers are measurements in centimetres.  Cut the shapes out of squared paper to make them easy to measure.

Gingerbread House
You Will Need: (Squared) paper, pencil and rubber, ruler, scissors; one batch of dough to make pepparkakor; greaseproof paper, baking trays, rolling pin, cooling rack; teatray, tinfoil; scales, small bowl, whisk, dinner knife, piping bag (or a freezer bag with one corner cut off to make a tiny hole), wooden skewers; cake decorations of choice.

1) Using my recipe from last year, make the pepparkakor dough.  While it is resting in the fridge for at least half an hour, draw out the templates.  The squared paper will make it much easier to get straight edges.  Cut out one of each shape.
2) Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C.  On a floured surface, roll out half the dough until it is about 3mm thick.  Cutting around the templates, make two of each shape.  Save all the remaining dough clingfilmed in the fridge.
3) Cover the baking trays in greaseproof paper and lay the shapes out on the trays with plenty of room to spare.  If necessary do them in two or three batches.
4) Bake for 10-15 minutes until really golden and getting dark around the edges.  This ensures stiffness.
5) When they are ready, take the shapes from the oven and allow to cool for a good while on the trays, before transferring to cool completely on the rack.  Go and do something productive for half an hour to make sure they are completely cool.
6) Select where you want to put your house, and make sure that the teatray can sit there without any danger of being bumped into.  Cover the teatray in a single layer of tinfoil, sellotaping the foil to the back of the tray at the edges.
7) Make the royal icing to stick the house together:  whisk an eggwhite in a small bowl until frothy.  Incorporate eight ounces of icing sugar a little at a time until really thick and glossy.
8) Assemble the house, using the piping bag or erzatz piping bag to draw straight 'foundations' of icing on the tinfoil for the walls and gables.  Using volunteers, wooden skewers broken to size or a combination of both, hold up the walls and roof until you are sure you can leave the house alone.  This should be at least 3 hours to be on the safe side.
9) Using more icing, stick cake decorations, sweets and so forth to the roof and gable ends of the house.  If you wish it is safe to involve small children at this point.  If you have a really steady hand you may be able to pipe icing icicles down from the roof. 
10) Place the house in its eventual home, and scatter icing sugar over for snow if desired. 

You may notice that you have some dough left over.  Well noticed!  Save all the bits, because if you feel in the need for something a bit more ambitious, skip stages 9 and 10 and come with me to the next post for a Gingerbread Stave'll need all your remaining dough.  If you don't want to do that, you could make more happy shapes to surround your house with or to hang on the tree threaded with ribbon.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Christmas decorations

As you may know my father and his girlfriend N got married recently, so they had a wedding photographer.  This meant that wedding photographs, and hence an album for them, had to be chosen.  I muscled in on a meeting with the smudger to decide on the format of said album, because it was in Kettner's and I had nothing better to do than drink white wine and talk about pretty books.  During the course of the evening some samples of bookbinding leather were produced, all dark reds, and someone said  "Here Girlie, you might have a use for these".  I love being crafty at these moments - it's amazing what people will give you for free knowing that some use can be made of it, that you'd never have found elsewhere except for money.

Back home Dad and N had got a very small and stylish wooden christmas tree decoration, which was too little to hold even the littlest of our baubles really.  Inspired, I fetched some thread, my riveting tool/holepunch (from John Lewis of course) sewing scissors and the leathers.  It was a simple matter to draw rough designs on the leather in hard pencil, cut them out and punch holes in them with my marvellous tool.

A little thread or fine wire and they were ready to hang up.  For the angel on the top I devised a different method - as he was flat, I gave him a square base with a square hole in it which folds back.  This allows him to slot down onto the tree and then rest against it.  He does look more like Mephistopheles than Gabriel, but I blame this on the inherent evil of commercialising the birth of Christ and celebrating it with bits of peeled cow.