Sunday, 23 May 2010

For Good Measure

My measuring methods for cooking follow the "pi by thumb" rule, as the Germans call it: a phrase that conjures up the image of holding up one's thumb to the ingredient to be measured, slowly winking with one eye and intently staring at the measuranda with the other, followed by a shrugging of the shoulders and dumping of said ingredient into the communal bowl, shared by the other ingredients who already huddle together, content that they are in good hands and everything will turn out fine. Funnily enough, it usually does. And the fact that this laissez-faire (fancy French for "that'll do") attitude does not translate into sewing came at the price of a cheap length of calico - but that is a topic for another post.

The reason why I, a lover of order and perpetual exposer of the self to new experiences (in the hope of mastering them perfectly in an unrealistically short period of time) embrace both attention to detail and creative chaos in the kitchen is probably a result of my literary exploits: I often read alchemical manuscripts which are roughly 500 years old. Alchemy is, in fact, the story of the triumph of skill in the face of seemingly insurmountable technical difficulties: just how do you measure temperature pre-thermometer? Even if you knew to which degree to heat up your mixture of minerals and metals, how would you achieve that on a furnace, basically a barely contained open fire? And while we're at it: scales, regulated measurements and quality control of organic materials were not in place in the alchemists' heyday, neither were "Ye Olde Alchemy Shoppes" which would provide tried and tested alchemical equipment. Looks like alchemists had no other chance than winging it...


But alchemists had skill, a tool that is worth much more than a calibrated thumb or a high-tech oven. Alchemists found ways to make their recipes work, and to describe their experiences in their recipes. Heat, for instance, could be regulated by controlling the air that could get into the furnace, and by lowering or lifting a crucible to the point where the fire heated it to perfection. Alchemists often used feathers or other combustible materials, held at the hight of the pot in question, to figure this out: if the feather singed, the fire was too hot for a delicate mixture; if it did not burn to a puff of smoke within the wink of an eye, it was not potent enough to break down metals. Crude? Perhaps - but it worked. As for measurements, I have not come across many thumbs in alchemical manuscripts, but certainly some sticks: placing a stick into a pot of powder or liquid and marking the level of the same makes it possible to measure out the same amount next time round - the equivalent to measuring cups that are so popular in American kitchens today.

Of course, any measurement still involves opening a can of worms on the side. Hot, almost feather-burning debates have been occupying bakers' minds while their hands are wrist deep in dough: is measuring by volume, with abovementioned measuring cups, all right, or does any self-respecting home baker need scales to measure by weight? Culinary chemists have figured out what happens on a molecular level when ingredients vary in their proportions. But like alchemists, many cooks develop skill as they cook (and burn) food over the years, the skill to measure weight, volume and time, even without scales, cups or a stopwatch; and the skill to rescue mishaps, or feed the cat with homemade charcoal.


If you would like to catch up on your theory before plunging into the kitchen of uncertainty, Julian Barnes's The Pedant in the Kitchen is a wonderful collection of witty essays around the perils and joys of cooking. Here, he puts his finger on the issue of measuring, or to be precise, the correct application of recipes to the home kitchen:
For recipe writers, onions come in only three sizes, 'small', 'medium' and 'large', whereas onions in your shopping bag vary from the size of a shallot to that of a curling stone. So an instruction such as 'Take two medium onions' sets off a lot of pedantic scrabbling in the onion basket for bulbs that fit the description (obviously, since medium is a comparative term, you have to compare across the whole spectrum of onions you possess).
On this note, I say, so what if there's a bit more onion in one batch of your onion bhaji? Like alchemists, we can only find out by trial and error if we've got a knack - and possibly create an elixir of life or dish of deliciousness in the future, without relying on the pragmatic prose of writers of cookbooks.

Today's dish is a salad I enjoyed at a wonderful restaurant in Inverness, the Cafe 1. I am recreating this from memory, and not doing as good a job as their chefs, who are alchemists extraordinaire when it comes to creating transformative experiences in food. You know how to make a salad (I hope), so without further ado, here are the ingredients for you to throw together.


Pomegranate & Halloumi Salad
  • crisp lettuce leaves
  • some shaved fresh fennel
  • slices of halloumi, grilled
  • a scattering of fresh pomegranate seeds
  • dressing: creme fraiche with lime juice and spices
Bon appetit!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Alchemical Desserts

Alchemy, and let's just get this out of the way, was a marvellous science of its time. Alchemists plunged into the world of cooking up a storm in a retort, discovered quite a few things along the way (including the properties of alcohol and the art of dyeing), and showed a determination in the face of failure that can only be admired. Their goal, to understand how nature works to transform metals in the earth and make bags of bones and blood, the human body, function, still drives many a young child to become a scientist today.

Before you scoff at the lead-into-gold thing: it's been done. With particle accelerators, just a couple of years ago. Admittedly the cost was higher than the reward, but the feeling of living an ancient dream? Priceless!

Still sceptical? Let me ask you: do you think science can find a cure for cancer? Are you sure? And if you have a smidgeon of a doubt - should all cancer research be stopped right now? You see, alchemists had no reason to believe that it was not possible to transmute lead into gold. And that's what makes them not the figures of ridicule they became in centuries after their heyday, but rather people who are curiosity and tenacity personified.

These days, 'alchemy' is an overused and fuzzy concept appearing in the titles of businessmen's self-help books and in the culinary area. But at the risk of flogging a dead tofu: I still marvel at things that happen to ingredients when mixed together and heated up in processes that are handed down from generation to generation. There really are many parallels between alchemy and cooking, starting with the use of recipes and ending with the unpredictability of the outcome, especially for the apprentice alchemical/culinary whiz.

Today's recipe stands for all those things that you cannot even imagine working when seeing the recipe. Lead into gold? Bah, humbug! Pumpernickel in a pudding? Blech, pass the humbugs, please. But trust me, this recipe transforms a few simple ingredients into something more yummy than its parts.

This dessert appears to be of Westphalian origin (hence the pumpernickel), and is perfect for a cold spring like this year's: substantial, with the promise of summer and a hint of decadence. Like many concoctions of mine, this is even better the day after the preparation. In the true alchemical spirit, why not make two portions and test this theory for yourself?

Black Forest Mess
(aka Westfaelische Herrenspeise)

500g quark*
1 cup single cream
a little sugar
lemon to taste (optional)

500g sour cherries in a glass**
a dash of Kirsch or other spirit of your choice (optional)

100g milk chocolate***
100g pumpernickel****
-----
1. Whip the cream and stir it together with the quark, a dash of lemon and sugar to taste (see ** below).

2. Drain the cherries, and if the spirit takes you, marinate them in the tipple for a little while.

3. Crumble the pumpernickel into small crumbs, grate the chocolate with a knife and mix it under.

4. Assemble: layer quark, cherries and crumby chocolate in glasses or a large bowl, finishing with the quark. For serving, grate a little more chocolate and place, of course, a cherry on top.

Lecker!
_______________________________

* Quark is a milk product, a pre-stage in the cheese making process. In emergencies it can be replaced with non-fat Greek yoghurt (the good, expensive stuff)

** Really sour cherries are best. If you can only get cherries in syrup, reduce the sugar in the quark mass

*** This has to be good stuff, with 35-40% cocoa (not more, not less). I recommend Ritter Sport or Green&Black's

**** This is an unnegotiable. It has to be packaged pumpernickel, not dark bread. It is available in the UK and the US, though you might need to look carefully before spotting it

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Apple And The Pips

Recently, while travelling to cake land (aka bread heaven) and back, dodging volcanic ash and convincing my mum of my baking skills, I inadvertently entered a parallel universe. One where cakes are secrets and apples do magic.



Item 1: the curious incident of the forbidden photo

I have been travelling internationally for too long as not to appreciate airport food that makes my heart and tongue go ‘wheee!’. Some German airports (dreary, clinical affairs with high security like anywhere else in the world) have a little oasis in the form of Moevenpick cafes: latte macchiato, fruit tartlets, proper sandwiches (crusty bread and aromatic cheese), freshly pressed fruit juice… you hanker for it, they have it.

Generous being that I am, I wanted to share the visual wow with my faithful blog readers, hence pointed my camera and clicked – only to be told off by staff – twice in different cafes! I could not help but ask for the reason. You guess: was it

     a) an airport security measure;

     b) the protection of trademark cake concepts; or

     c) the rule that photos of employees
         must not be circulated without their permission?

Leave a comment. He/she who is the first to guess correctly wins.


Item 2: The book

Apples and their pips feature in a wonderful book which, alas, is not yet available in English translation: Katharina Hagena’s Der Geschmack von Apfelkernen. In fact, I wonder whether it is possible to translate it. Sure, you’d get the plot: twenty-something librarian inherits her grandmother’s house in northern Germany and tells her family’s history, in all its mundane and wonderful parts, while reminiscing about a tragedy that hit her cousin when they were both teenagers. You would also pick up on the suspense, seeing as the circumstances of each character’s fate and background are only revealed as the present-day plot (involving a steamy love affair) move along. But what you might miss out on reading this in any other language than the German original, or indeed if you do not know Germany, is the acute, almost invasive observation of the sensations that come and go with the seasons, the consummation of food and the flavours of individual lives. The title of the book, ‘the taste of apple pips’, captures the bitter, or rather indescribable, unique taste of hidden things. Go, learn German, read the book! 




Item 3: The Cake (aka Ther Cake, as in Winnie Ther Pooh)

This cake, the piece de yum at a recent brunch of mine, combines apples and cakes. I nicked the recipe from Food52, but customised it (less sweet, more bite). It is absolute perfection. Try it if you don’t believe me!


Apple meringue cake 

Preheat oven to 170C/350F/gas mark 3.5, and prepare a round tin (26cm diameter) or an equivalent square-ish one (do the math, as they say).

2 large egg whites
1/2 cup brown sugar             Make a meringue mass and set aside.

1/2 cup unsalted soft butter
3/4 cup brown sugar             mix together, whisking like mad, then add
 2 egg yolks.

                                             Now stir together the dry ingredients:
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves            and add them together with
2 large, grated apples            into the sugar-butter. Finally stir in

1/2 cup toasted chopped walnuts
1/3 cup raisins

Put all of this into the tin, then pour the meringue mass on top and bake the whole thing for ca. 45 minutes. If the meringue goes dark too soon, cover with some parchment paper or foil, so it can bake to perfection without being scorched.

Ain't that heaven on a cake fork?