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Posts Tagged ‘The Cooking of the British Isles’

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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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Next up on my British (kitchen) invasion: The meat pie. It’s a dish that, when prepared well, altogether dismisses the region’s poor reputation for cooking.

I’ve had two meat pies—shepherd’s pie (made with lamb) and cottage pie (made with beef)—and love them quite dearly. But both are topped with mashed potatoes, and I’ve always wanted to try a meat pie enveloped in crust. This desire became more pressing after seeing a gorgeous one that Nigella posted last week on Facebook. It doesn’t take much with me.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday here in the States, and while I don’t share my countrymen’s enthusiasm for watching chilly gentlemen chasing a ball, I do share their fondness for extravagant treats. This year I would not have a veggie burger or some such nonsense for dinner. I would have my meat pie.*

I went to my trusty The Cooking of the British Isles (Time-Life Books, 1969) and opened up to a recipe that has had me mooning like a lovesick groupie since acquiring the book some eight years ago: pork-and-apple pie, with chunks of seasoned meat, apples, and onions baked under potatoes. I tweaked the recipe, baking the mixture under a short crust instead.

The Cooking of the British Isles was my go-to for the ingredients and the pork, apple, and onion proportions (I halved them). And I layered them per the recipe (the British charmingly like to layer things). But after that, I winged everything.

First, I cut a yellow onion into thick slices and tossed the slices in salt and dried sage. I cut up two pounds of lean pork into chunks, sauteed them, transferred them to a bowl, and stirred in a good amount of ground black pepper, salt, and more sage. Then I peeled and sliced a couple of apples into thick chunks.

I really wanted this pie to be high and mighty, and one of my Easter bread spring form pans served very well. I rolled out 2/3 of the pie dough for the bottom crust, layered in pork, then onions, then apples, and made a second layer.

Then I rolled out the 1/3 pie dough remaining and plopped it on top. My crimping skills are less than spectacular. (The result is above. Let’s call it a rustic look.) And because I read that way, way back in the day, bakers distinguished savory pies from sweet pies by decorating the top crust, I pulled a little bit of extra dough off one side of the pie and made a sticky little apple for the center. Then I slashed the top crust a few times to let steam escape. Last of all, I brushed on an egg wash—one egg with a little water added—to help it brown up in the oven.**

It smelled delectable. It tasted delectable as well, save one issue: the pork was a bit overcooked. Me being chicken, I was worried that if I only half-cooked it, it might not cook all the way through in the oven. Nope—for 30-45 minutes in a 400F-degree oven, it would have been fine.

I’m having a slice for breakfast tomorrow. Laugh all you like, but I’m following in the grand and ancient British tradition of a meaty breakfast. My favorite quote from the cookbook is courtesy of an English army general before taking breakfast at a London eatery.

‘Will you start with porridge, sir?’ the waiter asked. ‘Or would you prefer cornflakes?’

‘Cornflakes!’ roared the General. ‘Cornflakes be damned! Bring me a plate of cold, underdone roast beef and a tankard of ale!’

You have to admire the guy.

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*I actually woke up excited that today was the day I got to make this. Simple pleasures.

**You can use milk instead of water for the egg wash, or even cream if your cholesterol is dangerously low.

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I have two vices: really good-quality dark chocolate and old books. used book stores, book sales, kneeling on the lawn at a yard sale and looking through cardboard boxes, kicking up the smell of basement and attic.

today was the ocean grove (NJ) ladies’ auxiliary book sale. it’s held every july in front of the century-old great auditorium, under the shade of the equally-old pavilion. books, videos and magazines, 3 for a dollar. smiling snowy-haired ladies in bright polos and white slacks sell pork roll sandwiches, hot dogs and peanut m&ms to bring in a little extra money. other ladies sit at a folding table with a battered cash box and ask if you need a bag.

it takes a whole morning to look through fiction, non-fiction, hobbies and travel. a sub-category of my old-book vice is cookbooks, usually out-of-print ones, so that’s where I head first. I love the old promotional booklets that brer rabbit molasses and all-bran cereal sold to housewives for pennies in the 1940s, with their charming words of advice and homey recipes. a chicken pot pie recipe suggests using an old hen, saying it will have the best flavor. others encourage women who learned to cook at their mother’s knee to take up fannie farmer’s newfangled system of standard measurements. some booklets seem to be easing women into what must have been an uncomfortable practice, asking for 3/4 cup flour here, a butter lump the size of an egg there. we take standard measurements for granted today, but the notion must have been felt blasphemous for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers; from the beginning of time cooking had been accomplished by practice, by eye, by feel, and by intuition.

most of the treasures in my cookbook collection were found at this annual book sale. I’ve learned that one of the best ways to get under the skin of a country is to eat its food, and the cooking of the british isles (adrian bailey, 1969), part of a time-life book series, is a great example. an anglophile, I cheer when bailey defends his nation’s cuisine, insisting that those who dislike it must indulge in authentic regional british home cooking, especially the ritual of tea. scotch woodcock sounded intriguing to me, so recently I made it. toast and lavishly butter a slice of white bread, and on it spread a layer of anchovy paste. top that with very, very gently-cooked scrambled eggs. it was so delicious, so indulgent, that I laughed out loud. everything worked together brilliantly: crisp and soft textures, saltiness, richness.

the organic living book (bernice kohn, 1972), was written during the back-to-earth movement and is a calm, but earnest, read. in it must have been one of the first definitions of what it meant to eat organically, along with pleas for a national recycling program. how to compost, how to bake bread and make yogurt (the latter of which was considered distasteful at the time) from scratch, and how to read food labels are included. sometime I’m going to try kohn’s american indian recipe for tea made by steeping young sassafras roots. maybe this fall.

it was two summers ago that I found a book written by laurie colwin, whom gourmet magazine eulogized so lovingly in an article in the 90s. a novelist and occasional food writer, I had never read any of her work, so I picked up home cooking (1988). I have since gobbled it, over and over, laughing at her chutzpah and salivating at her no-nonsense recipes.

american cooking (dale brown [who is still writing, by the way], 1968), another time-life series book, features the incredible strawberry shortcake recipe made by his grandmother, a farm wife. (see the post ‘shivering with anticip…ation’ for the recipe.) it also illustrates with photography and recipes the wonderful diversity of our culinary heritage, and is eerily accurate in predicting irradiation and genetic engineering. brown’s looking forward to these practices, which he believes promise an exciting future in food. it’s the only content within those pages that makes me cringe.

today I found yet another time-life series book, the cooking of scandinavia (also dale brown, 1968) and the williamsburg cookbook (the colonial williamsburg foundation, 1975). williamsburg has some extraordinary dishes; their game pie has haunted me since I first had it ten years ago. when I leafed through the index and saw it, tears actually came to my eyes. well, it has duck, venison, rabbit and slab bacon cooked in port wine and currant jelly. I couldn’t help it. this fall, definitely.

Strawberry shortcake, an old recipe from a New York State farmer's wife, circa 1930s.

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