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Seriously buttered.

I’ve been considering it for quite a long time, starting from when I read the chapter on tea-time in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Cooking of the British Isles (1969, Time-Life Books). Great Britain has a reputation for producing dreck,* I know. But I’ve made over a dozen classic dishes so far, in and out of the cookbook, with nothing but great results.** To my (increasingly educated) mind, this is a simple cooking tradition that has put centuries of practice into fighting against the rain, and has figured it out. It warms the belly and fortifies the soul. I’ll believe the reputation only if my winning streak runs out.

In the tea-time chapter, the author tells of a conversation he once overheard between two elderly Englishmen. One loves crumpets, crackled and steaming on a platter. He always went for the bottom crumpet, knowing it would be utterly saturated with butter.

I’d never made crumpets before, let alone eaten them; New Jersey doesn’t really know from British food.*** But that visual was enough to sell me. Here’s what I did.

  1. The recipe calls for short, round tins, top and bottom lids removed, as you are to butter them and set them right in the pan as molds for the frying crumpets. Flan rings or large, round cookie cutters are recommended. I have neither, but it also suggests tuna cans with the tops and bottoms removed. Three cans of Bumble Bee Chunk Light later, I learned that tuna cans aren’t made with identical tops and bottoms anymore, as presumably they were in 1969****, and the modern rounded bottoms are virtually impossible to remove with a can opener.
  2. But! I had individual tarts with removable bottoms. That sounds very saucy, I know, but the truth is, they worked.
  3. The recipe is very easy to put together; it’s basically yeasted pancakes with a pinch of sugar, just enough for the yeast to snack on. What was a half-plastered Cirque du Soleil act was cooking the crumpets one by one, since I (also) don’t own a flame spreader (is that that term?). I have a huge skillet I could have used but only an average-sized burner. The butter in the pan kept wanting to burn, so I switched off between two average-sized pans. By the time I finished drips, splats, and assorted smears decorated much of the stove top and the big bowl. Dried, the batter is much like Gorilla Glue. Same color, no less.
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You just sit there and think about what you’ve done.

4. You’re also supposed to remove the molds once the crumpets set, but they’re scalding. The recipe just says to remove them, but offers zero clue as to how to do it. It’s worth noting that this cookbook was written for an American audience. I’m picturing the English author and staff giggling as they thought of the panicked antics we’d use remove those hot molds, trying not to burn our fingertips. ‘Make fun of our cuisine, will you? Yank wankers!’

This wanker used a set of tongs, which kept slipping and dropping the mold back into the gooey raw crumpet.

Most did turn out lovely, though, those I didn’t drop or dent, and I buttered them all. Look at the pretty scalloped edges; that’s the fancy tart pans. As far as taste and texture, I don’t agree with what I’ve read about crumpets, that they’re similar to an English muffin. These are very light, crisply browned on the outside and fluffy and tender inside, with a pleasantly sour taste. But I must agree with the Englishman who always went to the buttery crumpet on the bottom. He’s right on.

*Points for working a Yiddish word into a post about British food? Anyone?

**Okay, once, but it’s because the recipe wasn’t explicit enough. I’m trying it again.

***Our claim to fame is the three Ss: Sinatra, Springsteen, and summer traffic.

****I was in utero for all but 2.5 months of that year, but should have had the foresight to have taken notes. Curses.

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Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot famously said, ‘The English do not have a cuisine; they have food. Overcooked meat, boiled vegetables, inedible cheese. And the day they invent English wine, I am retreating to the Continent.’ *

I should emphasize I’ve only been to Scotland, sadly missing England, Ireland, and Wales, not that it’s forever. I’m going. But despite one meal in Scotland, strictly average fajitas eaten at the sole restaurant at the edge of Rannoch Moor, everything we ate was incredible.** The trick, always and forever, is to eat where the locals eat, and to eat what’s locally sourced. In the space of one week we put 800 miles on our little rental car, driving across the central part of the country. Coast to coast, from Oban to St. Andrews, we feasted.

From a remote farm we bought bags of wonderful homemade granola with bright orange marigold petals in it. At the Gateway to the Isles at the western coast we ate tiny succulent mussels, harvested at a nearby island, and no bigger than the tip of your finger. At the opposite coast in Anstruther (pronounced ‘Enster’), at the recommendation of a portly policeman, we had crisp, tender fish and chips with malt vinegar. All week we ate a proper English breakfast with eggs, rashers, and bangers prepared by the house manager, a small, wiry English expat (our host called him Wee Jim). And of course we tried haggis, although made unconventionally: tater tot-sized, fried, and served with a creamy garlic dipping sauce. Conventional or not, it was rich and satisfying. And everywhere there were local brews of beer and whisky.

But travel aside, I’ve loved the British dishes I’ve prepared at home, and there have been quite a few. This year I’m going to tackle more of them. The poor reputation is getting pushed aside. I want to try out classic dishes; I want to learn about this region’s great tradition of simple, comforting foods; and I want to talk about it.

My Cooking of the British Isles (Time-Life, 1969) will be my chief guide. I’ve already made Scotch Woodcock, Traditional English Christmas Cake, and Irish Christmas Cake. I tried Spiced Beef in Christmas 2014 and failed because the recipe didn’t emphasize that I needed to season every inch of the meat. But that’s on the editors of the book, not on the whole of the British Empire. I’ll try it again sometime.

For now, I started with Eve’s Pudding, a recipe from James Dunlinson, an Englishman who was the design director for Martha Stewart Living. Yesterday I was cooped up inside for most of the day while the outside was blizzarding. Today I put butter in a bowl to soften, shoveled out my car for an hour and a half, then came back inside and made this lovely thing.

It’s basically a cobbler, full of cinnamon and apples (would Eve have it any other way?). Warm out of the oven, with my extremities still red from cold, it was was a profoundly comforting experience. The British know from cold and raw; they built up a tradition of cooking to counter it. And it’s worked for a few years.

Poirot can stay a little smug; I always giggle at his statement. But not too smug.

*For best effect, say ‘food’ with a nasal French accent, the way he did. And it’s worth noting that Christie herself was an Englishwoman. Whether the statement was a sly personal editorial on the food of her homeland or her best guess of a Belgian’s opinion of it, we don’t know.

**Who in the name of all that is holy eats fajitas in the West Highlands? Well…I hadn’t had a vegetable in a week. It’s hard to find them in pubs in Scotland. When you see ‘salad’ on the menu chalkboard, they mean tuna salad or ham salad. Nothing green. As we were eating, an elderly Englishman approached our table gingerly about what he called ‘the fajitas,’ pronouncing the ‘j’. ‘Are they nice?’ he asked. If you need vegetables, and you probably do, then yeah.

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Those who know me well know I’m a bit of an Anglophile, as evidenced right there in the preceding Englishism. I don’t know why. English literature, English movies, the BBC—I love it all. Yes, the food, too. What exactly do people have against shepherd’s pie, clotted cream so thick you can stand a spoon in it, and fish and chips with malt vinegar? Do these people have no taste? This I consider their problem. Moreover, across the pond a renaissance has been going on for a few years now, one characterized by embracing the local and homegrown, and doing several yummy things with both. So there to the unwashed masses who do the pooh-pooh.*

I’ve never been to England**, which I hope to remedy sooner rather than later, but in the meantime I was excited to try Jenny Davies’s (of Jenny Eatwell’s Rhubarb & Ginger blog; URL below) recipe for a curry as part of my cooking project. Curries are a favorite English takeaway meal. Here in the States—in central New Jersey, anyway—curry isn’t a common thing for takeout (our own expression). I can count my experiences with curry on one hand, delicious though they were, even the one at Whole Foods’s food court. The nearest Indian restaurant is about a half hour away. This is a great sadness in my heart. The below helps to remedy that.

A few notes about the below to accompany Jenny’s always-charming language:

I edited lightly, and parenthetical additions following dashes are mine. It looks like a lot, but Jenny simply broke down each step for us. I listened like a good girl and spread out the process as she suggested, though—a wise idea. Loved seeing the basmati rice get longer instead of fatter like ordinary rice! Should have used a red chile, but Trader Joe’s didn’t have one, so I used a nebbishy jalapeno. Had to add red pepper flakes to the final product to make it spicy enough for me. I didn’t know what a donkey carrot was; Googled it, even asked a friend who works with Brits to make inquiries, both to no avail. And not having a donkey lying around, I couldn’t ask one to clarify. So I just used two big carrots. Didn’t use a tomato because this time of year in the northern hemisphere, they taste like a squishy wet nothing.

The result was a warm, flavorful, comforting dish that makes you feel as though you are taking very, very good care of yourself for once…and you are.

CURRY BAKED CHICKEN, VEGETABLE CURRY WITH RICE AND PEAS   (Serves 3 with leftover vegetable curry)

Ingredients:

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts

3 tbsp plain (Greek) yoghurt

1 tbsp mango chutney

1.5 tbsp curry paste.

3 tbsp sunflower oil—(I used olive)

2 onions, sliced finely

2 fat garlic cloves, chopped finely

1 hot red chilli (seeds are optional)

1 donkey carrot, peeled and diced

3 tbsp curry paste

2 tbsp tomato puree

2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced

6-10 mushrooms, washed and quartered

6 baby red peppers (or one red pepper, cut into pieces), top & tailed

250ml coconut cream—(about 1 c)

1 tsp chicken stock powder or a low salt chicken stock cube

Enough water to just cover the contents—(I used chicken stock instead of the powder/cube and water)

3 heaped tbsp red lentils

3-4 cauliflower florets, broken into small pieces

3-4 broccoli florets, broken into small pieces

1 large ripe tomato, quartered (or smaller) into wedges

A large handful of fresh coriander, chopped.—(In the U.S, we call this cilantro)

1 cup of uncooked basmati rice

Sea salt

Half a cup of peas—(defrosted, or freshly shelled).

Method:

1.  In the morning, mix together the yoghurt, chutney and curry paste in a large bowl.

2.  Trim the chicken breasts of fat and gristle, then score lightly across the top to allow the above marinade to more easily penetrate the meat.

3.  Add the chicken to the marinade and mix gently to ensure every little bit of chicken is covered in marinade. Cover with cling film and refrigerate until 30 minutes prior to cooking.—(I placed this in a Pyrex dish and covered with foil instead, then later put it in the oven as is.)

4.  To make the vegetable curry (which I recommend should also be done in the morning), heat the oil in a large, deep saucepan. Add the oil.—(Medium-low heat works.)

5.  Add the onion – and a small pinch of salt – and cook for around 10-15 minutes until golden brown, but not burned. Add the garlic and stir quickly, then add the chilli and stir.

6.  Next, add the carrot pieces, which will help to cool the pan and so avoid burning the garlic.

7.  Next add the curry paste and tomato puree and stir well to combine with the rest of the ingredients.  Cooked until the oil is released – just a few minutes.

8.  Add the potato/mushroom/red peppers and stir well to ensure they are coated with the curry mixture.

9.  Add the coconut cream, stock powder and water and stir gently to combine. Do not add any salt at this stage, but if you’re yearning to – add a little black pepper instead!—(Jenny, I like you.)

10. Stir in the red lentils and let everything simmer gently together for around 20-30 minutes until almost cooked.

11.  Finally – for this stage – add the cauliflower, turn off the heat, cover and leave to cool.—(I put mine in the fridge.)

12.  Several hours later and when you’re ready to prepare the dinner proper, begin by turning on the heat under the vegetable curry and pre-heating the oven to 200degC/400degF/Gas 6. Line a shallow baking tray with silver foil (optional – but it helps with the washing up!) and place the chicken onto the foil. Spoon any additional marinade over the top of each chicken breast. Place into the oven for 25-35 minutes or until the juices run clear if pricked with a knife.

13.  Three-quarters fill a good-sized saucepan with water, add a pinch of sea salt and place it on a high heat, to boil.—(2 c water worked for me.)

14.  Put the dry rice into a sieve and run it under a hot tap until the water runs clear. Once the water in the pan boils, add the rice and cook – simmering – for 7-9 minutes. 2 minutes before the rice is due to be ready, add the defrosted peas.

15.  As the rice is cooking, the vegetable curry should have come up to temperature. Remove the lid and allow the sauce to reduce a little as you add the broccoli, tomato and three quarters of the fresh coriander. Stir from time to time, to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.

16.  Once the rice is ready, drain and return to the warm pan. You can add a little of the chopped coriander for some extra flavour, if you like.

17.  Once the chicken is done, serve with the vegetable curry and green pea rice – with an added flourish of a sprinkle of chopped coriander for garnish.

Cheers, Jenny!

jennyeatwellsrhubarbginger.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/curry-baked-chicken-with-vegetable.html

*I’ve argued this point before, the one about eating what the locals eat.* It fails not.

**I have been to Scotland, which soaked into me like butter on a hot scone; and flying home passed over Ireland which, even from the sky, is an ethereal green. Someday I will get there. Wales, too, and not just to see Cardiff, though that’s an obvious draw.

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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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Gonna be even purtier when they’re tipsy.

The first thing I want to say is WOW, and the second thing I want to say is grazie. You sent recipes from as close by as across the lake and as far away as South Africa. I selected 25 of them. Stoked doesn’t come close!

I chose the recipes for this project after having exhaustively researched the origins and ingredients for each, creating a map across my studio wall with pins stuck in various countries, burning up Google, and whipping up a spreadsheet outlining…okay, no, that never happened, it’s more like I was just mouth-open intrigued by every one. That’s pretty much all of the rhyme and reason involved here. Some recipes are ones I’ve never tried before and have always wanted to, some are ones I’ve never heard of, and some are classics. And I’ve never made any before, which was a major selling point. Some of you sent more than one recipe. That’s cool. I’m a game kind of girl.

As I make each recipe I’ll be documenting the whys, wherefores, and holy-craps here. Along those lines, come on and cook one recipe or all with me. When you do, write in and tell me how it went. I think one of the best ways to get under the skin of a country and its people is to taste its native cuisine. Food and the stories that accompany it can be transporting. They can carry us to another time and place as well as or even better than an airplane can—or in some cases, a time machine.* Your kitchen is your cockpit. This will be an education for all of us.

I’m still waiting on an official go from some of you, and some I’m not sure I can swing,** but here are my choices.

*********************************************************************

Soft-Boiled Eggs with Dippy Soldiers

Curry-baked Chicken with Vegetable Curry and Green Pea Rice

Jenny Davies

jennyeatwellsrhubarbginger.blogspot.co.uk

*

Melon Jam

Peach Jam with Ginger

Octopus with Pasta

Katerina Papaspiliopoulou

Athens, Greece

*

Sauerbraten

Kay Coppola

West Long Branch, NJ

USA

*

Fried Zucchini Flowers with Mozzarella and Anchovy

Daniela Cassoni

Rome, Italy

*

Eggs Daffodil

Louis Rousseau

Santa Cruz, CA

USA

*

Toad of Toad Hole

Cheese Marmite Muffins

Mike Batho

Manchester, England

*

Applesauce Cake

Plum Pudding sauce

Kim Raynor

Wanamassa, NJ

USA

*

One-Gallon Daviess County Kentucky Burgoo

Mary B. Goetz

Owensboro, KY

USA

*

Oatmeal Cardamom Chocolate Cookies

Anita Burns

Corona, CA

USA

*

Homemade Maraschino Cherries

Linda Lavalle

New York, NY

USA

*

Rose Liqueur

Ladyfingers

Letizia Mattiacci

Umbria, Italy

*

Turkish-Inspired Leek Meatballs

Liz Reuven

kosherlikeme.com

*

Cornbread with Warm Buttermilk and Honey

Constance Moylan

USA

*

TMC Chicken POMOrado with Habanero

TMC Baked Rabbit with Mustard and Habanero Glaze

Johnnie Walker

Logan County, CO

USA

*

Grilled Pimiento Cheese

Sarah Lansky

Sarasota, FL

USA

*

Malva Pudding

Sauce

Richard Key

Ocean Basket N1 City Mall

South Africa

*

Hoppin’ John

Weena Perry

Keyport, NJ

USA

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Oh, and…

If you or any home cooks you know have authentic recipes from Asia, Australia, South America or other parts of Europe or North America, please hit me up at mcproco@gmail.com. The thought of cooking myself around the world gets me really jazzed. And I think we established long ago that I’m just a mite cracked in the head, so I might as well give in to it.***

*It’s true, but it’s also a gratuitous Doctor Who reference. So you know.

**Whether I will make the rose liqueur, for example, depends on whether I can find a sweet-tasting, unsprayed bush. And it has to be on public property, because making the recipe after having avoided a felony charge will only make it that much more enjoyable. I’ve tasted petals from about six different wild bushes that range from neutral tasting to bitter. Cross them fingers for me.

Cropped beach rose

Lettucey. Bummer.

***Two concussions strong!

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‘A few trifles’ is a quote from the stage drama Little Women, and the food you see here is what I made for the show, which is going on all this month in Holmdel, NJ. As prop goddess, it’s my job to rent, buy or make (not to mention schlep, maintain and track down from actors) everything that’s brought on and off stage. I often have to provide real (what we call ‘practical’) food for shows that call for actors to eat on stage. But the director for this production decided all of the Christmas Day treats that old Mr. Laurence next door sends over to the March family will be impractical—just for looks. I’m a stickler for authenticity on stage, and the theatre space is small, with the audience just feet away from the onstage action, so this took some doing.

The script describes the spread: chocolates, ice cream, fruitcake and cream puffs. I thought about buying most of it and polyurethaning the crap out of it so it would last the run of the show (and so the actors and mice wouldn’t eat it).* But I couldn’t find puffs that weren’t already filled with cream (which would spoil); fruitcake is tough to find in April; and ice cream wouldn’t survive beyond Act I Scene I.

Plan B, which I went with, was to make a bunch of homemade play dough and form it the way I do marzipan. Click on the photos to take a better look. This is my first go with shaping play dough for stage. Everything pictured here, except for the holly sprig on the cake, is made of play dough.

To make it: I combined 3 cups flour, 1.5 cups salt, and 6 teaspoons cream of tartar in one bowl and 3 cups water and 1/3 cup cooking oil in another. You can also add food coloring to the liquid. Then I added dry and liquid together and poured it into a heavy-bottomed pan over medium low heat. I stirred frequently until the mixture got thick and rubbery and lost its sheen. Then I took it off the heat to cool. Once it is, you can shape it into anything you want. Here’s what I did.

For the chocolates in the top tier of the epergne above: I shaped quarter-sized balls, flattened them, and let them dry out for a few days. Then I painted them with brown acrylic** paint and let that dry. I topped them with white acrylic paint in peaks, as if it were buttercream. Once that was dry, I covered them with polyurethane.

For the cream puffs: I shaped balls about 2″ in diameter and topped them with balls about 1″ in diameter, which looks very much the way choux pastry looks when piped, before it’s baked. Then I brushed on acrylic wood polish with a very light hand—just so they’d look slightly browned—and poly’ed them. Since the play dough wasn’t dried out beforehand, when I poly’ed them they cracked a bit. It makes them look like authentic puffs.

For the fruitcake, shown above (sliced) and below: I wanted to model it after Traditional English Fruitcake, which I imagined was a holiday favorite of Mr. Laurence, and one he wanted to share with his neighbors. First I kneaded in edible brown gel paste from my candy supply basket. But once it dried, it turned a disagreeable, asteroidlike shade of brownish green. On went the brown paint and then poly, the latter of which gave the cake an appealing gloss that made it look moist, buttery and alcohol soaked. I sliced it with a serrated knife.

I made a real fruitcake last Christmas, and iced and decorated it in the style of the south of England. For this one, I decorated it in the northern style—very simply, with bits of play dough shaped to suggest sliced almonds, lightly wood stained so they’d look toasted, and I scattered them around the edges. A sprig of holly was inserted into the middle, and I replace it with a fresh one each weekend.

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For the ice cream:  The show takes place in New England in the 1860s, before vanilla was the common flavoring it is today. Lemon was common, though. Let’s call the below lemon.

To give it a realistic effect, I used an ice cream scooper to scoop the soft play dough into the bowl. I chose a silver one which had a frosted-over look, suggesting the ice cream was creating condensation on the outside of the bowl. Then, while still soft, I covered it with lots of poly. Like the puffs, this made it crack a bit on top and gave it a subtly iced-over look, and the extra poly made it appear slick and slightly melting.

Good times.

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*Bit of an editorial there, especially the choice to put actors before mice; actors show far less discretion. When I propped Chekov’s Three Sisters in college, I had to provide a huge platter of impractical pastries for one scene. I bought real ones, and the actors nibbled at it like stoners until I was forced to shellac it. Even then I still needed to post a sign telling them to keep their sticky paws off it. Though I quite, QUITE relished hearing the occasional ‘Bleah! Goddammit!’ from actors who either weren’t literate or thought the sign was a joke.

**This is latex, or water-based paint—my favorite. Oil-based paint is nice and shiny, but it takes longer to dry, is more of a hassle because you need to buy turpentine, a solvent, to clean your paintbrush, and until it dries your house smells like a Sunoco station.

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Last summer my neighbor, a lovely English lady, flattered me by asking if I would edit her family recipe for Traditional English Christmas Cake. She considers it an heirloom; and in the hopes that her children and grandchildren would make and enjoy it for years to come, she wanted it to be as clearly written as possible. I edit recipes often for the magazine I work with, but the prospect of doing this gave me chills—good ones.

Start with the fact that I am an Anglophile who has seen many recipes for this iconic cake but have never tasted it. Next, add in the fact that my neighbor is a graduate of London’s Cordon Bleu; she actually made Coronation Chicken for ambassadors and dignitaries for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Wow. Lastly, throw in the history of the recipe, which goes back centuries. (To give you an idea of how far back I’m talking, a variation calls for 12 marzipan balls to be placed on top, and some historians believe they represent the 12 Titans.) This recipe is a piece of living history, and I was offered the chance to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait.

My neighbor asked that I get the edited recipe back to her sometime in the fall, so in early October I delved into it. She was very happy with my edits and reformatting. Last week she gave me a slice of the fruitcake, which she had made for a garden club holiday party. It was like nothing I have ever tasted, surprising and complex. And a couple of days ago, I made the cake for myself—a little version of it.

The recipe predates refrigeration by hundreds of years, back when brainy and resourceful women figured out how to make food last. This is an example of what they learned. We know adding alcohol to foods preserves them. Here, the extra addition of a double layer of icing to the cake acts as a yummy edible Saran Wrap, helping it to stay fresh for a good month.

Which brings me to my next point, which you were waiting for. The traditional holiday fruitcake is much maligned, and generally I’ll agree it’s well deserved. Store bought fruitcake can be leaden, tough to swallow and moreover dangerous to drop even at short distances. But a homemade fruitcake, made with care and beautiful ingredients? I wanted to see if it was worth making, whether it’s been passed down for so many generations for a good reason, one this generation has missed.*

The first thing you do is roughly chop up dried fruits, like fancy raisins, cherries and unsulfured apricots, and soak them in brandy overnight. Or you can use fruit juice. The next day you make the cake batter and mix the fruit into it. My neighbor said to use only dark colored fruits because it’s supposed to be a dark cake (hence why I used unsulfured apricots), and indeed it is; the addition of brown sugar and a bit of molasses to the batter helps keep it dark, too.

Once baked and cooled, you release the cake from the pan and put it on its serving plate, tucking strips of parchment underneath. This way, after you’ve iced it, you can pull the strips out and discard them. Your plate stays clean as a whistle.

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Next you roll out some marzipan (I used my own, but a good quality store bought brand like Odense works, too) that you’ll use to cover the top and sides of the cake. Set it aside for a minute. Then put some apricot jam and a little water into a saucepan and heat it up so the jam loosens and becomes syrupy. That gets brushed on top of the cake, then you cover it with your marzipan. Here’s how mine looked. It’s a bit of a patch job, but this is home cooking. And Martha I ain’t.

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Royal icing comes next. I have never made it before and was amazed at how easy it is. You put a couple of egg whites into a bowl, beat them a bit, then add confectioners’ sugar spoonful by spoonful until you get the consistency and amount you like. That’s it. If it gets too thick, add a little lemon juice or milk. Mine was almost as gooey as honey, thin enough to pour. I used an offset spatula to coax it down the sides and made sure all surfaces were covered.

Royal icing dries at room temperature, or I should say the top of it dries to a delicate crispness, like the top layer of newly fallen snow. Underneath it stays a bit creamy and soft. Luscious stuff.

If you come from the south of England, you decorate this cake with lots of Christmasy embellishments. If you come from the north, you decorate sparingly or not at all. My neighbor friend is from the south, so I followed her lead.

Below is the cake just after I put on the icing. I put the little bottle brush trees on at this point so their bases would stay affixed to the top of the cake.

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I added tiny pine cones around the perimeter, then while the icing dried I made two rabbits, a fawn and a squirrel out of more marzipan tinted with gel paste. (If I added the animals before the icing dried, their color would stain the icing.)

I’ve been making marzipan animals for years, but they’re always somewhat stylized, less realistic. They’re also quite a bit larger. I have never worked so small as I have here: the largest figure is 1.5″ and the smallest is just 3/4″. But when I started thinking about how to decorate the cake, the thought of making this little woodland scene jazzed me. I loved the challenge, and I love working with my hands. This is something I really needed, especially after the grueling past couple of months. Made me feel human again, like myself again.

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This morning I had a little piece of the cake. The allspice, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg are what come through first, heady and wonderfully fragrant. I didn’t taste a whole lot of the alcohol, but that might be because I have a dopey oven, and when I turned the temperature down from 325 to 295 as the recipe instructs, the cake finished baking before it made it to 295. So most of the alcohol probably burned off, and the cake was less moist than it should have been, but I still love it. I was worried that the marzipan and royal icing that covered the already sweet cake would make it molar-looseningly cloying, but I was surprised to find that they were less sweet than the cake, and actually mellowed it.

And it was a little piece, not a big one. My neighbor tells me another reason why Americans aren’t fond of fruitcake is because we’re used to cutting cake in large slices and eating the whole fat slice. But this cake is very rich, very intense. It is not meant to be cut the way you would a Bundt cake. It is meant to be cut in what she called ‘fingers’, in inch-long lengths, the way my mom cuts a slice of banana bread into fifths. That’s all you want at one time from this cake; a little goes a very long way. Which is good because you’ll want the cake made from this ancient recipe to last, you’ll want to have some to nibble on each day as you watch the sky darken, as our ancestors did before us.

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*Guess the answer 🙂

Post script: This is my 100th blog post! Thank you for reading, and I’m looking forward to playing with my food, with you, as long as I can.

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