Saturday, 25 September 2010

One In The Oven

Baking is the generation of goodness, and really a little bit like magic. It's no coincidence that we talk about women having a bun in the oven when they are pregnant - two major ingredients, some waiting around, and out comes something completely different!

Anyone who has baked and enjoyed cakes knows that satisfying smell that comes from the oven, the resistance of a knife against the cake crust, the way those tiny crumbs tumble platewards as you sink your dessert fork into the freshly cut slice... Unfortunately, everyone also knows that wrong proportions, dodgy ingredients, wonky ovens and many other, more elusive parts of baking can result in brick-like buns, smelly situations and, inevitably, tears. An even more embarrassing scenario when you're having guests over. I am speaking from the experience of someone who has sworn at many a malfunctioning oven in a host of rental hovels. But I soldier on in the knowledge that I am not the only one suffering from oven envy. (Incidentally, some people who have had children can take the image of the ruined baked good as a metaphor for buns of the other kind - but I won't dwell too much on that.)
From J. J. Becher, Physica subterranea (1st ed. 1669, here 1703)

Alchemists had their own ideas about ovens and reproduction. Curiously, not about cakes, as far as I know. Anyway, many metaphorical images that are ubiquitous in alchemy involve the conjunction of male and female bodies resulting in the birth of a child (read: the mixing of two different components, who join to become a third); and the gestation of matter in a hot environment. Sometimes, the father will eat the child (the third substance is mixed with one of its original components); in other scenarios, they both go into a sauna (moist heat, think baker's oven).

If you think about it, this way of thinking about chemical processes makes a lot of sense: it allows for the distinction between of similar and different substances, the definition of their origins, and for the development of a theory of how these metals, minerals and other materials can, and cannot, be used. And all with the help of a (forgive the pun) familiar picture. This is particularly useful when things go wrong in the alchemical workshop. For example, if mixed ingredients refuse to mingle, they might both be 'male'. If the child they produce is not sweet but a rather frightening brat, they were not compatible. If it comes out resembling charcoal, the oven/womb was too hot. What you end up with is a network of materials and procedures that will produce reliable results. And to be honest, even if this alchemical shorthand is not an exact science according to today's standards, it is much more attractive than a hexagonal molecular structure.
Molecular structure of caffeine
found on Wikipedia

On that note, I'll end this short and sweet post, because I've got a cake in a rather crappy oven. I fear it may come out charred on one side and uncooked on the other. But I shall love it anyway.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

****ing Off - The Culinary Way

September always puts me into the mood for thinking back to Septembers past. This particular month that has always seen me deliberately rustling through the first few fallen leaves (which is really rather squidgy and disgusting up here in Scotland most of the time, but hey, that's why God invented the ankle wellie); it has observed me tuck into onion tart, washed down with barely fermented 'new wine' with much gusto; and a few years ago, it saw me stumble over many a pumpkin during my first autumn on the East Coast of the United States of America. I had just moved into a flat in a brownstone - the flat that would turn out to be below neighbours who added not only many a slammed door to my sleepless nights but also inspiration for many new additions to my voodoo doll collection. This was also the flat whose landlords lived just down the road and made me fantasize about writing bad, bad words onto their dirty living room windows in mirror image. But I get distracted.
Image from
the Pfalz area is definitely worth visiting just for its onion tarts and new wine!

Said landlords were part of a neighbourhood movement that looked after the cleanliness of the street. Fair enough, except it involved dumping the sweeping and snow shoveling of the pavement outside my 3-party building onto the lucky tenant on the ground floor. Guess who that was. Much later, I found out that that was actually illegal. You sweep and you learn. Anyway, one day, I found a piece of paper in my letter box inviting me for (read: ordering me to) a street sweeping event (11am-5pm, arrive on time, bring your own broom, smiles optional) followed by a 'cook-off'. I was fraught. I hate prepositions. Whatever was that "-off" meant to be?

It turned out to be a barbeque competition of sorts: every neighbour placed his own 21st-century version of an open fire onto the street, charred some pieces of meat and assured me that his sauce was saucier than the others'. Their wives had a bitchy version of the same contest, but they were ranking the cuteness and cleverness of their offspring. Needless to say, the fact that I was a childless vegetarian did not go down well. Someone pointed into the general direction of a group of individuals who did not fit in, either, and exclaimed "Violet over there is a vegetarian, too... I think". Her name was really Rachel, but whatever.
For more information on the Great British Bake Off,

Much more to the point, I have observed an increased use of the "-off"-appendage since that day, especially in the media. My beloved Great British Bake Off is not called the Great British Baking Contest, and there are 'dance-offs', too. (I resist the urge to wax punnical about 'doze-offs' and 'write-offs' here, but you get the drift). Funnily enough, cook-offs often seem to resemble the act of frying off (as in "Jus' wait a minute, luv, I'll jus' fry off this spam fritter - be right with ye!"). Generally, though, no matter how hard I try, I cannot help but perceive the "-off" less as a snazzy slogan and more like an invitation to, well, 'off' others and their cooking pride. Surely this cannot be the point of baking? What do you do with a perfect cake, the one that trumps all others, if there's no one there to eat it? Does it even exist if no one is there to hear the crunch of its crust or see its crumbs fall?

In the interest of working with rather than against one's friends and peers, here's a shout-out to Shana, whose wonderful blog on food-related words and their history may be found at It is here that I first heard about jostaberries, and the etymology of 'omelette'. Hats off (without a hyphen) to her!

F*****-off (Thats 'fridge-off', if you don't mind)
If this post reminds you a bit of the style of the Tony Hawks, this might be because I have spend a recent bout of sleepless nights in his company. Well, to be fair, he was the reason for my lack of sleep. In an attempt to delegate bed-time reading to someone other than myself, I was listening to the audiobook version of his Round Ireland With A Fridge - Hawks's account of his hitchhiking adventure around Ireland in the mid-90's with a fridge in tow (a drunken bet lost, a hilarious experience gained). Yep, it really does not help your going to sleep when you find yourself in giggles at regular intervals. But Tony and his fridge were the perfect company these last few increasingly chilly nights. Highly recommended.

On that note, my research for feeding the friendly with cakey goodness next weekend calls. So, I'll leave you to your own devices for now. **** off and read something, or cook something - and enjoy September while you can!

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Mystery Food And Oxonian Tales

Unbeknownst to most faithful readers, I spent last week in Oxford at a summer school that was a challenge all around: the classes startled and bemused; the accommodation (undergraduate digs in Teddy Hall) made grateful for one's humble but private bathroom arrangements at home; the schedule induced skiving urges; the breakfasts developed into battle grounds between hot beverage enthusiasts; and the food was not so much a challenge to the taste buds as an exercise for the sleuthing part of the brain (What the deuces _is_ that?).

Eventually, I decided to suck all the learnage that could be had from the classes; slept soundly in the arms of student day recollections - followed by a long, hot shower upon returning home; skived generously, mystery novel in one hand and a cup of milky tea in the other; won the tea battle; and yearned for Hogwartsian feasts most every night.

You wish to hear more, especially more detail? Then fetch yourself a beverage of your choice, settle down, and listen to this woeful account of my Oxonian adventures.

My official mission, to conquer the world of encoding and transforming for the benefit of my current bread-winning activity, shall be glossed over here. Suffice to say I learned little about the official summer school topic, but much more about human nature. I also collected marvellous material for a future sitcom.

 - - Did someone say tea?

The Tea and Me
College food is a frightful affair in general: produced on a budget in a professional kitchen that dreams of a life with Jamie Oliver when no one is cooking, it combines the magic of large volumes of food with a lack of imagination when it comes to vegetarians. More of this anon, but first, a focus on breakfasts.

Picture the scene: a large group of largely middle-aged professionals, some American, some British, gathers around bowls of cheap cereal (a fellow-eater shouted gleefully 'Mmmmh, sugar!' upon his first bite), pounces upon the offer of cooked brekkie, or (in the case of yours truly) makes do with some cardboard toast and jam. But we all know the breakfast is really about the beverages anyway, right?

Anyone who has lived in college (any Oxbridge college, I dare say) knows that the coffee is a no-no. Germans actually have a name for this type of beverage: Bluemchenkaffee. This roughly translates as 'flower coffee' - so weak that you can see the flowers painted at the bottom of the cup through a full cup of brew. Scarred by many a previous disappointed expectation, I lithely dodged the thermoses of coffee and looked for tea, which was, curiously, only served upon demand. Here I hand over to excerpts from my diary:

Day 1: By the time the teapot got round to me, its 7 (!) tea bags (in a 5-cup pot) had swum themselves into exhaustion, and I was greeted by a dirty puddle of scum-topped, steeped-till-slurp-do-us-part tea. Quick trip to a coffee house round the corner.

Day 2: Ordered and hogged pot of tea for self, removing bags after precisely 3 minutes. Bliss.

Day 3: Ordered pot of tea for self, made to remove tea bags after an already dodgy 3.5 minutes, and got barked at from across the table: "Oy, there are British (sic) people here who like strong tea - do not remove the tea bags - why don't you just put more milk in if you want it weaker?"
The lady in question did not know who she was dealing with: a historian of chemistry who knows very well to distinguish between the strength and the muddiness of tea; who can explain what happens to tannins (and your stomach lining, not to mention taste buds) after 3 minutes of water hitting tea; who can go into molecular detail about the differences between leaf tea and tea bags, and their purposes when it comes to sloshing around in a tea pot. She was also accosting a very hungry vegetarian who could manage a whole pot of tea on her own and ordered another pot of tea for the querulous over-stewer. Problem solved.

Days 4-6: No one has dared talk to the Teagirl over breakfast. Breakfast in peace. All is good. Plotting to make same strategy work in order to get toast before it's cold. Quick trip to the bakery round the corner.

College dinners. They did not involve pastry concoctions (thank goodness), but filled aubergines, tomato gunk, limp pasta and a dire need for spices. And for afters? Sponge and 'custard' (cue: package), Angel Delight (hello, '70s) and the infernal profiteroles... a decent summer pudding on the last night, though. In recognition of the logistical problems faced by college kitchens, I shall keep my peace and whip up one of my specials tonight, which will be enjoyed without the tedious background noise of conversations best not repeated.

Skiving with Lord Peter
Skiving lessons, nipping across the street to Patisserie Valerie for a bracing bucket of coffee and macaroon or to covered market for the best bath buns and quiet cuppa tea, one needs the right company to enjoy it all thoroughly. I chose to take Lord Peter Wimsey along and read, slurped and munched my way through Gaudy Night in this more than appropriate setting.

The setting is Oxford in 1935. Harriet Vane, Wimsey's long standing love interest, revisits her old college for a reunion (the 'gaudy') and gets caught in a series of crimes, thoughts about women's role in life, a dilemma between learning and life, and her own investigations which bring her heart closer to the ever sweet Lord Peter. Yes, yours truly has a major crush on the latter. In many ways, Gaudy Night is the bookish equivalent to a really good old movie: very stylish, wonderful and a classic. It's just a pity that the edition pictured above has a rather generous sprinkling of typos throughout. Lord Peter would be appalled, make a witty remark about it and then make it all better by taking one out for punting and tea. I, on the other hand, shall keep my eyes open for a vintage edition and adopt the (correctly represented) use of an apostrophe for 'phone and 'plane.

Incidentally, Harriet remarks upon the poor quality of college coffee early on in the novel - perhaps a college tradition? And with this thought in mind, I shall proceed to make myself another cup of brew from beans brought back from covered market, and read the conclusion. I cannot wait to find out whodunnit!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Bad Cooking

The best and worst dressed A-Listers. The Golden Globe and the Golden Raspberry. The fabulous Bad Science column in the Guardian vs. the Nobel and IgNobel Prizes. The good vs. the bad and the ugly. And the lists go on. As consumers, voyeurs, self-styled experts and just plain human beings in a media world, we seem to be obsessed with extremes. Or when was the last time you praised something as 'wonderfully mediocre'?

Much more than the fact of 'best' and 'worst' lists and their popularity, I am intrigued by the emotions they elicit. In the first instance, there is admiration of the beautiful and disgust or displeasure at the sight of the ugly. But then it gets twisted: we scrutinise the beautiful for flaws and points to criticise, to the point where 'too perfect' becomes the worst property, and the muttering of 'photoshopped' a redeeming feature for someone - even if we are not sure who we are trying to compliment (or shoot down even more) by pointing to digital Frankensteinianism. On the other hand, ugly things are praised for their uniqueness; 'interesting' is  used in a positive fashion; and, in the case of talkies, 'it's so bad it's good' (for a laugh) makes a bad flick better than a boring one.

Sitting over a completely self-inflicted mediocre cup of coffee this morning, I started thinking about food and history along these lines. Come along for a few thought bites, if you like - you might want to bring a napkin.

Starred Alchemy
To alchemists, the best recipe was one that worked, and the best product one that did what it said on the, um, cover. Alchemical texts had a resilience to vanishing from sight, because they were supposed to work by default: if they did not work out, it was the alchemist's fault for misinterpreting the recipe or not having the right equipment, skills or brains to make it work. Nevertheless, the canon of the most popular recipes changed with the times, with some classics topping the charts for many centuries. I'll return to this point in a minute. Overall, though, alchemists strove for perfection and were always keen to find the best advice, equipment and ingredients for their trade. They discovered what worked along the way, and made experiences of the character-building kind, too. They were not perfect, but not hapless, either. Something many home cooks can sympathise with.

Early historians of chemistry, for whom alchemy was one big burnt piece of toast best forgotten, focused on colourful tales of botched alchemical experiments and anecdotes about foolish men who believed they could turn lead into gold. What makes failure so much more delicious in hindsight is the assumption that progress equals improvement, that today's attitudes are more sensible than yesterday's, and that (and this is the crucial point) those who have gone before us could have seen what we see if they'd only looked more thoroughly. Would alchemical recipes win Michelin stars in the chemist's kitchen? Of course not. Like anything, the story of alchemy is made up of the successes, the failures and the vast amount of everyday dishwashing in between. Thank goodness the history of alchemy has reached a point where we know a little about the success stories already; are curious about the failures from a historically more balanced point of view; and have the luxury to write about everyday practices, too.

Star-Crossed Cooking
The Observer recently published a list of the 50 best cookbooks. And what a joy it was to read! More intriguing, however, was a discussion of why we buy cookbooks (for reading rather than cooking, or at least with best intentions to do the latter but ending up doing the former) and a few anecdotes about recipes published with typos or botched measurements which no one ever put into practice. Which made me wonder: are there lists of the worst cookbooks? A little later, the Guardian delivered an answer in the form of reviews of bad cookbooks. Fair enough. But like their alchemical predecessors, canonical recipe books remain popular for long periods of time. The written word here, too, has a life of its own.

What about good or bad food, though? We all fancy ourselves food critics these days and think we can do it better; yet parents notoriously think their children's grubby biscuits are the most delicious thing in the world (which reminds me of a story my mother told me: when she was a child, the neighbour's daughter would come over to make cake sometimes, and enjoy kneading the pastry dough so much that she reduced it to a grey ball of unshapely better-not-ask-what-it-is. Even my eight-year-old mother was revolted. Maybe this trait runs in the family?). I am not sure what the moral is. But being a wannabe know-it-all, a Foodie With A Capital F or Gourmet (with fancy French undertones) can spoil meals just as much as throwing health and safety overboard to please your offspring. Nuff said.

Cooking for one (as in 'oneself') day in, day out, I am my own best, worst and can't-be-arsed chef, food critic and dishwasher. And in this case, the worst food is that which is not properly anticipated. It's worth getting really, really hungry before tucking into cheese and toast to make the ditto and ditto the most delicious meal in the world. Of course, I am reading a recipe book as I eat. Munching into the sunset.

Bad Food
Ok, who am I kidding? I am not a figure in a romantic novel involving food instead of men. I am opinionated. Yes, indeed. And when I heard about the supposedly low-cal version of Twix being released on the market, I ranted to everyone around or at a monitor near me. The idea of this new product is to replace the delicious buttery biscuity bit with a curly wafer, which is topped with the caramel and dipped into the chocolate as we know it. I have a thing about low-cal inventions, and no, please don't get me started.

In a sudden bout of aspiring self-improvement and experimentalism (motto: don't bad-mouth it before you've had it in your mouth) I was tempted into buying one of those Twix Fino bars and giving it a go. Dear reader, what can I say? I really wanted to like it, to prove myself wrong and mend my karma. But it just does not work. The caramel overwhelms when not balanced with a proper biscuit, the wafer is sickly and pointless, producing a pathetic crunch opposite the caramel's munchiness, the combination with milk chocolate is just too sweet, and the low-cal message (wrapped into a slinky steel-coloured wrapper the whole thing is, too) too deafening to ignore. Save yourselves and your money. Rather, go get some flour and eggs for the kids so they can make something equally disgusting at home. You know what? It might even be better...