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Posts Tagged ‘currants’

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Comfort food #1: gingerbread-chocolate chunk cookies.

I recently finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s about a little boy’s surreal adventure with his neighbors (and monsters. We’re talking about Gaiman here). And in his characteristically masterful way, he drives home his plot without ever coming near a cliche.

To show the difference between the climate in the boy’s home (precarious) and the climate in his neighbors’ home (safe), Gaiman uses food. We learn the boy has grown up scared of it: his grandmother would tell him not to gobble as he ate. School food was to be eaten in tiny portions. And if he didn’t like something served at the dinner table, he’d be chastised for not finishing it. All of this sorely damaged his relationship with food.

Then we’re shown a stark contrast: the boy enjoys hearty portions and happy mouthfuls of shepherd’s pie and spotted dick* at his neighbors’ house. These folks care for him and protect him unconditionally. In the safety of their kitchen he feels comfortable and accepted, and for the first time in his life, he is able to eat, and eat well—without fear.

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Lemon curd, cooling and regrouping.

Having a safe place to eat is a fundamental, primal need. Where do you have to be to relax when eating?

Mind you…I don’t mean eating food that tastes best in certain places, as in eating crabs by the beach, or Brie and baguettes in Paris. That’s about charm and locale. I’m talking about eating in a place that’s peaceful and comfortable enough that you can have your fill and be satisfied.

I think of the squirrels outside my window, who will nibble a seed while sitting on the ground, but if they win the carb lottery with half a discarded bagel they will scoot up a tree to eat it. I think of my late and much-missed dog, who—much to the consternation of my mom—always ran into the dining room to eat on the silk Oriental rug. I think of my favorite hangout when I was home from college**, a place lit by ancient, battered candles, checkered tablecloths with cigarette burns in them, crappy, slanted paintings on the wall, the best thick-cut, toasted, buttered pound cake I have ever tasted, and Dutch coffee—a concoction that’s about 10% coffee and 90% heavy cream, whipped cream, and butter. The place was started by hippies and since I am a hippie, I sank into my chair like butter on that pound cake and was completely content. I was relaxed enough to taste—really taste—every single bite. Aside from my own dining room table today, that’s my place.

Where is it for you?

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Homemade Nutella (gianduja)–warm semisweet chocolate, toasted and ground hazelnuts, cream, butter and a little sugar.

*A classic UK pudding of cake studded with currants or raisins and served with custard. I saw it on the menu in a pub in a tiny Scottish village called Pool of Muckhart. It was a toss-up, but I had the jam roly-poly instead.

I love the UK.

**The Inkwell in West End, NJ, now and forever.

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Last Christmas, after nearly a year of physical therapy required from a car accident and then the effervescent joy of Hurricane Sandy, I needed a Zenlike project. For me that ain’t T’ai Chi, so I whooped it up by making a Traditional English Christmas Cake. I never liked heavy fruitcake suitable for advanced weaponry, or made with the weirdo iridescent candied fruit that you see in supermarkets this time of year*, but was curious to find out what fruitcake made with real, wholesome ingredients would be like.

The recipe called for warm jam to cover the whole cake, then marzipan to cover that, then Royal icing, then decorations all over the top. It looked groovy, it tasted groovy, and even though it took a while to make, it was a gas. This year I went with another kind of fruitcake: Irish Christmas Cake, from a recipe in my 1969** Time-Life cookbook, The Cooking of the British Isles.

In keeping with the style of fruitcakes made in the north of England and Scotland, the Irish Christmas Cake doesn’t get any more decorative than what you see above. Which is fine. It called for the usual suspects—dried cherries, currants, two kinds of raisins, candied orange peel (but I chopped up the peel of an organic orange instead), walnuts and simply ground allspice. It also called for an ingredient I was unacquainted with: angelica. This would have been the one candied fruit I would have added were I able to find it, but after trying six stores, I gave up. I know it’s available online, and the oracle of Wikipedia tells me it has an intriguing, distinctive flavor, but the recipe called for just two tablespoons. No go. I hope to find it sometime locally.

The one thing inexplicably lacking from the recipe itself is one I had no problem finding, and that’s whiskey***. I added a splash or two of Jameson. Faithful reader, righteous travel writer and self-professed #1 Irish fan of this blog, Brendan Harding was fairly horrified at the recipe’s omission. He remembers ‘being sent to a bar as a kid to buy the whiskey for the cake and getting a free ‘soda’ as I waited. Mum made me hide the whiskey on the way home so the neighbours wouldn’t think we were a family of alcoholics. :)’

And as an amateur folklorist, I was excited to read in my cookbook about the superstitions that accompany making this cake. 1) Every member of the family must take a turn stirring the batter. 2) Each must stir clockwise, the direction people presumed the earth went around the sun, reflecting the heart of the season and the winter solstice. Stir it counter-clockwise, or as the local dialect would say, ‘widdershins’, and you’re tempting Fate. At worst, doom will befall you; at best, the cake won’t turn out well. Brendan confirmed this: ‘Then we all made a wish as we stirred the ingredients. Stirred clockwise!’

Me, I’ve always stirred everything widdershins because I’m a righty and it’s easier. Completely forgot and stirred this batter the same way. The cake turned out great, so I guess I have a dance with Fate soon.****

And a dopey mistake that turned out to be not that dopey: I remembered to add the golden raisins only. But I think the extra raisins would have ended up making the cake too sweet. So there.

In a professional kitchen, the below is called mise en place—to set everything in place. Since I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, I call it what we in the theatre world would call it, which is a preset.

Here’s my preset, expertly shot by me standing in my slippers on a chair.

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Crap, I forgot the walnuts in this shot.

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There we go.

Obviously I had to sample and eat a warm slice at 9 o’clock at night. Fruitcake is one of those treasures like gingerbread that actually taste better a day or so after baking, after the flavors get cozy with each other, and in this case, have a little drink. But I can attest to the fact that this tasted pretty darn good warm, an hour out of the oven.

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*And last year, and probably since the Ford administration, since it’s so crammed with corn syrup and food dye #7 that it’s immortal.

**Heckuva good year, producing both great Bordeaux and small brunettes with a penchant for blog footnotes.

***Spelled with an ‘e’ in Ireland, without the ‘e’ in Scotland. Now you can sleep tonight. Aren’t you glad you know me? 🙂

****Per sentence one, I was hit full-on by a Buick in 2011 and survived. Fate might want a dance, but I’m leading.

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