Cherished

October 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

The last week we felt three earthquakes, each minor enough to be scarcely worth the mention, but strong enough to focus the mind and to remind me that I really should replace the money I borrowed from our emergency fund. Two happened on the same afternoon and that night I brought my handbag up to the side of the bed when we turned in for the night, something that I remember my step-mum doing ever since the one time we were burgled in the wee small hours. I hesitate over admitting this publicly, but I put my camera in the bag, thinking that if something major really did happen I’d quite like to be able to document it in some meaningful way, and I also put my wedding ring on my bedside table instead of on the bookcase downstairs where it normally lives the night hours. I don’t know for sure, as I’ve never been in that situation, but I’m pretty sure that if it came to the grab and run moment, I’d be stuffing my teddy bear into my bag too. I’m a grown woman, I own a pair of Miu Miu heels that are spiky enough to kill in an emergency, and I can change my own lightbulbs and plugs, thankyouverymuch. But, and again, I am not too proud to tell you this, I have been accompanied most nights since I was born by a now somewhat ratty brown bear, gifted to me when still a peanut in a swollen belly. That bear has been rescued from football stadium cafes a 30 mile drive away after hysterics, transported across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the shorter but more significant 300 miles from home to university: a point of continuity in a life of suitcases and brown boxes. So yes, in that moment, I’d grab that bear to me, the stuffing flying from his worn skin and all, and be just as glad for him as for the wind-up torch.

When times are turbulent, whether because of tremors in the ground, or a travel schedule stretching the nerves like St Catherine on the wheel, I find myself craving the simple and grounding act of baking. Cooking, by which I mean savory-lunch-and-dinner cooking, is all fine and good, and a homespun dinner is crucial to the beat of a normal day, but the pleasures of kneading dough, or beating butter and sugar to a latte hue, is something else all together: elemental in its combination of the simplest possible ingredients yet indulgent in the headspace and homespace needed to carve out the rhythms of kneading and proving and shaping and baking. When the rest of my day is uncertain, baking bread brings it home with a gentle, floury sigh.

This hasn’t always been the case. There was a long time where the different stages and components of bread baking would wind me up tight as much as smooth me out. How much to knead, how to knead, what counts as doubled in size, to shape or to tin-bake: the doubts and worries would mount up to something much greater than the walk to the really quite good bakery downstairs and bread would be a project for another day. Dan Lepard has really changed all that for me. I started baking from his Saturday Guardian column on and off, soothed by the simple, fuss-free instructions and more than anything, the great results. I’ve been waiting for months for his cookbook and had it sent over from England on the release date, even though I knew I would be back a few weeks later and could pick it up in person. And I have not been disappointed.

I’ve tackled a bunch of things from this book in the week since it arrived here but the recipe that has really captured my imagination, on a day to day basis, is the sour cream sandwich loaf. Let’s be clear: we get good bread in San Francisco, by which I mean bread that a home oven is going to struggle to recreate. I don’t really have much desire, or need, to figure out a way to knock out good homemade wood-oven sourdough when I have Tartine within walking distance. But soft, fluffy, white bread, for slicing thick and pressing around smoky ham and pickles? That I cannot get here for as many greenbacks as I care to hand over. Dan’s recipe delivers a slice of home in all senses: a simple and effective method, written for someone baking a single loaf for their lunch rather than for restaurant style production (which is a personal bug-bear when it comes to bread writing), a relaxed and adaptable style that you can weave around your day, and, most importantly, the kind of loaf that would not be out of place in a commercial featuring cobbled streets, a West-Country lad, and a rickety bike. And they don’t have earthquakes in Dorset.

Sour Cream Sandwich Loaf
Adapted from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet

150ml cold water
100ml boiling water
125ml sour cream, cold from the fridge
2 1/5 tsp/7g/1 packet instant dried yeast
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
550g/19oz strong white bread flour, plus a little extra for dusting
a little sunflower oil

Mix the cold and boiling waters in a large mixing bowl and mix in the sour cream. Add the yeast, sugar and salt and stir to combine. Add the flour and mix to form a ragged ball. Let sit in the bowl for about 10 minutes, or a little longer if you like, for the flour to absorb the moisture.

Lightly oil a surface area of around 30cm/15inch. Turn out the dough onto the surface and lightly oil the bowl from which you turned it and your hands. Knead the dough by stretching it out with the heel of one hand by about 5-10cm then folding it over on itself with the other hand, turning by a quarter, and repeating. Do this around 10 times, at which point the dough will start to become smoother and firmer. Leave it on the surface for 10 minutes, then repeat the kneading. Leave for another 10 minutes, repeat the kneading again, then replace in the oiled bowl, cover with a clean towel and leave in a warm, dry place. Depending on the temperature of your room it will take 1-2 hours for it to double in size. In the meantime, prepare a tin of about 7-8 inches in length by buttering the insides and lining the base with greaseproof paper.

Once the dough has doubled, turn it out onto an oiled surface, pat it out to a rectangle that is about 2cm thick, and then roll it like a scroll. Place the roll seam-side down in the prepared tin and cover and leave to prove. It will take about another 1-1 1/5 hours for the dough to approximately double in size again. Towards the end of this time, preheat the oven to 390F/200C. When the loaf is ready, dust the top lightly with flour and bake for around 45 minutes. The loaf will rise significantly so make sure you leave it plenty of head room in the oven.

Remove the loaf, turn out onto a wire rack to cool, and eat as sandwiches or toast.

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The Aroma of October

October 23, 2011 § 1 Comment


Cakesnail comes to you this week from my sick bed. I am proud of my normally robust immune system and rarely ill, so I make for a poor patient, more of an impatient. On paper, three whole days of being at home, all commitments null and void, means catching up with the New Yorker pile, baking the Marrakesh date loaf that was the first cake in Dan Lepard’s new book to be graced with a “must bake!” yellow sticky note, sifting through the backlog of photos that need uploading. In reality, this cold has been brutal enough that a good morning is one where I manage to rise to get showered and dressed, and maybe sneeze my way through a couple of rows of knitting, before giving up all thoughts of productivity and collapsing in front of the Netflix back-catalogue of Oxbridge-based murder mysteries. Indeed, as soon as I’ve got you all going on the Christmas cake project, I’m sure there’s an elderly professor with a decades-old vendetta waiting for my attention.


If you want to make your own Christmas cake – and trust me, if you’ve never tried the homemade variety before you really do want to make your own Christmas cake – you have 1-3 weeks of a window to get it going: I calculate the Big Day to be 9 weeks away (cue anxiety attack!) and a good cake needs at least 6-8 weeks to mature. Critical are the two months of ritualistic ‘feeding’ the cake will undergo, which involves coaxing it to bursting point with brandy until you fear it might spontaneously combust at any moment. Then, and only then, is it ready to grace the festive table, ideally served at the perfect moment to distract squiffy uncles from quiz question disputes.


The end result of this cake is pretty special: plump with fruit without the dry crumbliness that is sometimes the scourge of the fruit cake, and almost sinfully alcoholic. Nonetheless, the real gift that you receive as the creator and keeper of the Christmas cake is the joy of the weekly feed. I’m not one for a protracted build-up to Christmas – one of my favourite things about Thanksgiving in the States is the way it acts as a holiday buffer, keeping all things elfin and tinsely to December. But we are somewhat bereft of true seasons here in San Francisco, and the careful weekly unwrapping of the cake comes to replace the crisp air and golden leaves that have always been a part of Octobers and Novembers past. We gently peel away the protective sheaths of tin foil and parchment paper to reveal the molasses-black cake nestled within their folds, and each layer removed allows that unique aroma of brandied fruits and nuts, spiked with spice and sugar, to spread that bit further, until it fills each corner of the kitchen as we spoon more liquor over the cake. It’s a fragrance of such joy and anticipation that it busts through even the most stuffed up nose or curmudgeonly attitude to the season. Do make it your October ritual too.


Christmas Cake
Adapted from Delia Smith’s Christmas

When talking homemade Christmas cake with anyone from the UK, there’s really only one recipe: Delia’s. Delia Smith is the queen of British Christmas cookery for more than just nostalgia: her cake (and Christmas pudding) is rich, dark and moist: all qualities you want in your fruit cake. I feel as though one day I should try another recipe, but I’d have to make it as well as, not instead of, this cake: it just isn’t Christmas without it.

Note that you will need to begin this recipe the night before you want to bake the cake

450g/1lb currants
175g/6oz sultanas (or golden raisins in the US)
175g/6oz raisins
50g/2oz glace cherries (rinsed, dried and finely chopped)
50g/2oz mixed candied peel (*see note below)
3 tbsp brandy
225g/8oz plain (all-purpose) flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
225g/8oz/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
225g/8oz soft brown sugar
4 large eggs
50g/2oz almonds, chopped (skins can be left on)
1 dessertspoonful black treacle/dark molasses
The grated zest of 1 lemon
The grated zest of 1 orange
110g/4oz whole blanched almonds (**see note below)

*it can be difficult, or expensive, to acquire candied peel in the US. I normally just candy my own – you can find instructions quite readily on the internet. This year I didn’t have time for this so I just left the peel out, adding a bit extra lemon and orange peel and a few extra chopped almonds.

**to blanch almonds, simply put the nuts still in their skins in a small bowl and pour boiling water over them just to cover. Let them sit for 5 minutes or so and then you will be able to pinch the skins right off the nuts.

The day before you want to bake the cake, weigh out the dried fruit and peel, place in a mixing bowl and mix in the brandy as evenly though the fruit as possible. Cover with a clean towel and leave to one side for the fruit to absorb the brandy overnight.

The next day, preheat your oven to 140C/275F and prepare a 8inch/20cm round tin by buttering it then lining with greaseproof paper both on the bottom and sides. Set to one side.

Sift the flour, salt and spices into a large mixing bowl, making sure they are well combined. In a separate large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until it is light, pale and fluffy. Beat the eggs in a separate small bowl and then add to the creamed mixture very gradually – a tablespoon at a time – keeping the whisk/beater running until all the egg is incorporated. This gradual method will help to prevent the mixture curdling (although if it does curdle don’t worry too much – it will come together with the flour). When all the egg has been added, gently fold the flour and spice mixture into the batter, taking care to try and keep the air in the batter. Now fold in the fruit, peel, chopped nuts and treacle and finally the grated zests.

Transfer the cake mix into the prepared pan, using the back of a spoon or a spatula to smooth the mixture evenly. You could leave the cake plain with a view to icing/decorating it, but if you plan to keep it plain (as we always do), arrange the blanched almonds in concentric circles over the cake. Cover the top of the cake with a double square of greaseproof paper with a 50p/quarter sized hole in the middle: the paper will protect the cake during the long cooking time. Bake in the coolest part of your oven (often the bottom shelf) for 4 1/2 to 4 3/4 hours. It might take a half hour or so longer than this but don’t even peek until 4 hours are up. The cake is ready when it feels springy and firm to touch.

Cool the cake for 30 minutes in the tin, then remove it to a wire rack to finish cooling. When the cake is cool, give it its first feed by poking holes all over it (I use a kebab skewer for the job) then spooning teaspoonfuls of brandy all over to permeate the cake. Wrap the cake in a double layer of greaseproof paper and then in a double layer of tin foil and keep somewhere cool and dry. Unwrap the cake at weekly intervals leading up to serving the cake and repeat the brandy feed. We serve the cake with brandy butter.

For a Rainy Day

October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve been trying to delay gratification in more parts of my life. I long increasingly for the pleasures of anticipation that I associate with a childhood of piggy-banks, where the pound coins from the Friday pocket-money-handover, and the heptagonal fifty pences slipped on the side by grandparents, and grubby pennies from the street were all squirreled away for the proverbial rainy day. The end goals of such saving evolved over the years: the cabbage patch kid mutating into a ballet-pink-framed bike, into a ZX Spectrum, into a black chiffon-sheer blouse from Tammy Girl, and eventually into 34 hours on a coach to the north of Spain for ten gloriously parent-free days in the sun. The anticipation, though, was a constant: progress impatiently measured by the weight of the penny jar, counted in trips to the bank on a Saturday morning, culminating in a plastic wallet stuffed full of pleasingly large-numbered and colourful peseta notes.

The last time I saved so feverishly and specifically was for dinner at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. It would have been hard to communicate to the 16-year-old on her way to the Costa Brava that ten years of time would see her putting aside about the same amount of money for an oyster served with headphones as for the entirety of that holiday, but the excitement would have been entirely familiar. I even had a literal piggy bank – a fat pig no less; an appropriate portent of the truffled pork that would form the peak of that dinner.

As I bring my fat pig out of retirement, I’m thinking about suitable new goals for the coppers swelling its plastic belly. One London restaurant that is already high on the wish list is Moro, in Exmouth Market. Although I’ve walked past it a dozen times or more, I’m holding out on walking through the doors for the time being. A particularly lovely author has promised to take me there as a celebration when he delivers a much-anticipated manuscript. In the meantime I’m saving mental pennies in the form of dishes from the recently acquired cookbook Moro East. This is the third tome to arise from the Moro founders, Sam and Sam Clark, and I think my favourite: inspired by the allotment they used to keep in Hackney it combines an imaginative use of vegetables with their signature Mediterranean style, and is spun through with an earthy but not preachy sense of home and community.

The first thing I make from the book is a dish for a literal rainy day: a pilaf of bulgar and cabbage, cooked with butter and spices, flecked with pine nuts and scallions, and served with a dollop of sumac-sprinkled yoghurt. It’s an unassuming, nourishing blend: not naturally showy but satisfying in its buttery homeliness. By all means, jazz it up by using it as a side dish for a piece of grilled fish, but if you take it at its humble face value you’ll find yourself with a grounding and affordable midweek supper, leaving you with more pennies for that piggy bank.

Cabbage and Bulgar Wheat Pilaf
Adapted from Moro East, by Sam and Sam Clark

Yields 3-4 servings

75g/4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, unsalted (*see note below for vegan version)
8 spring onions/scallions, sliced into rounds, including the green stems
50g/2oz pine nuts
1/2 tsp ground allspice
600g white cabbage (about 1 small-medium Savoy cabbage; other white cabbage would be fine)
200g/7oz coarse bulgar
300ml vegetable stock or water
2 tbsp sumac (optional if you can’t get hold of it: in the US try a Middle Eastern grocer; in the UK major supermarkets now stock this spice)
The leaves of 1 small bunch of parsley
Greek yoghurt to serve

*It would be easy to adapt this to be a vegan dish. Instead of using butter, try a combination of sunflower oil and walnut oil – about 3 tbsp sunflower and 1 tbsp walnut. You can simply omit the Greek yoghurt topping: the dish is quite delicious without it.

Begin by melting the butter in a medium saucepan or small dutch oven over a medium heat. When it starts to foam, add the scallions, pine nuts, allspice and a good pinch of salt and cook for 5 minutes, stirring a few times. Add the cabbage – it will appear that the pan is too full but in about 5 minutes it will have wilted enough to add the bulgar. After you have added the bulgar, add the stock to cover and season with salt and pepper. Lay a circle of greaseproof (parchment) paper on top and bring to a boil over a medium to high heat. Put a lid on the pan, on top of the paper, and cook quite fast for 5 minutes. Now reduce the heat to medium low and continue to cook for 5 minutes more. Stir in the sumac along with the parsley, remove from the heat and let the pilaf sit for 5 minutes.

Serve with a dollop of Greek yoghurt, seasoned with salt and crushed garlic if you like, and a sprinkle of sumac.

In which I am Torn

October 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

We were sitting around a large communal table, laden with glossy food and travel magazines. I was sipping a flat white of locally-roasted beans, trying not to ruin the delicate latte-art fronds. In front of us: a huge bowl of bircher muesli, adorned with slivers of apple and dates; a plate of orange-hued, creamy scrambled eggs atop thick-cut sourdough; a hunk of apple and cherry loaf, aside a honeyed bowl of ricotta for smearing. This is how we holiday: ambling from meal to meal, trying to walk enough in between to recoup some hunger for the next round. Walking off breakfast at bills, in Sydney, takes some miles.

In between mouthfuls, I flicked through a magazine and came upon an article from the ever-acerbic AA Gill about the differences between the Australians and British. The musings about the British obsession with past glories and consequent pessimistic approach to life rang true enough, if not especially originally so, but then we Brits form pretty easy targets for that kind of analysis. Instead, what stuck with me afterwards from the article, and through the entirety of September which saw me mostly on a plane, in a spare bed, in a hotel, but rarely at home, was the idea that travel isn’t really about where you are there and then, but about the perspective it gives you on where you are not: on your desk, your house, your street, your city, your country of residence.

And so I come back from the most recent set of travels and try to cling to the fresh eyes – even when rimmed red with jet-lag – with which I see life. Mostly I am able to admit for the first time in a long while that in an ideal world I would live both in San Francisco and in London. San Francisco nourishes my soul and my heart and London fires my mind and creativity. But it’s the travel between the two that makes both work, setting into relief the other. On the road or at home, it’s so often the food that gives me access to whatever is not there. So when I cart home the pile of cookbooks from London, leaving my weary suitcase-dragging shoulders set as concrete for the following week, I am transporting lazy, bantering afternoons in the pub, and the desire to be overdressed even on a Tuesday, and the crisp afternoons of early autumn, strewn with a light much thinner than the one that sets the California sun.

The Scotch Egg is quintessentially British to me, channeling a worn seat by the pub fire after a crisp walk through October leaves, or a picnic in the park cherished for a rare day of summer sun. But it travels well – literally and figuratively – a palm-sized portable token of the retro food revival. Fried chicken in San Francisco, buttery crumpets in Sydney, scotch eggs in London: all part of a search in our modern urban settings for the simplicity of times past, for pockets of community, for something with a comfortable back-story. We carted off a bag of the whopper-sized eggs, split in half for slightly more delicate access, to a music festival in the Golden Gate Park. Sexagenarian silver hippies in tie-died t-shirts stumbled, stoned, among teenagers with matted waist-length blonde hair, dancing with iPhones waved aloft. Elbow, “from Manchester”, a mere 30 miles from my place of birth, played out one of the main stages as the sun drifted towards the Pacific. The eggs were as gloriously hybrid as that moment, both utterly out of place and yet a perfect fit all the same.

Scotch Eggs
Adapted from The Ginger Pig Meat Book

Makes 4 eggs, which really is 8 servings unless you are a) incredibly hungry or b) a giant

4 eggs plus 1-2 extra beaten for the coating
50g/2oz plain flour
800g/2lb pork or sausages (see note below)
2 tbsp sage, chopped
salt and pepper
175g/6oz panko breadcrumbs
1 litre/2 US pints vegetable oil for frying

The original recipe calls for a mix of pork meat and pork fat. I used ground pork shoulder, which seemed plenty fatty to me. You could also take some sausages or sausage meat and use that instead in which case make sure they are of the highest quality and omit the stage of seasoning with sage and salt/pepper.

Place the eggs in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 6 minutes then remove to a bowl of ice water. Once cool, crack and peel the eggs. Dry them on paper towels and dust lightly with flour to help the meat mixture adhere.

Mix the pork meat with the sage and season generously. Use your hands to distribute the seasonings well through the meat.

Put the breadcrumbs, flour and egg on separate plates or in bowls. Take a quarter of the meat mix and form into a ball. Press into the ball to make a hole for the egg. Place the egg in the gap and gently form the meat until it covers the egg all round. Roll the meat in the flour, then in the egg wash and finally in the breadcrumbs. Repeat with the egg wash and breadcrumbs to form a thicker crust. Set to one side and repeat with the other eggs.

Heat the oil in a large pan until it reaches 175C/350F. Carefully place the balls in the oil and deep fry for 13 minutes, turning periodically to get an even golden brown colour. Be very careful and attentive with the pan and oil – do not leave it unattended and do not allow it to overheat. The oil temperature will dip when you first add the balls so you will need to increase the heat until it returns to the right temperature and then return the heat source to around medium.

Remove the balls from the oil with a slotted spoon and place to one side on paper towels to absorb the excess oil. The eggs can be enjoyed warm or cold and they keep well in the fridge, wrapped.

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