Saturday, 30 October 2010

Hallow & Boo-Bye

I don't do Halloween. Not in the trick-or-treating, dress-uppity, drunken kind of way, anyway. There are so many things wrong with it, and I won't bore you with a rehashed story of the Americanization of a Celtic tradition or my rather sensible theory (if I say so myself) that it should really be 'treat or trick' ('Gimme a treat or else I'll play a trick on you', no?). No, you won't find me scantily clad in haphazard fancy dress (read: an inappropriate Lady Gaga or Dead Nurse costume) on the October-beaten pavements of Glasgow - although I must admit that a friend's friend's idea to transform herself into the devil from the Master and Margarita sounds like my cuppa pumpkin punch. Nah, if you mention Halloween, I say boo-bye and thanks for calling.

Yet there are other festivals and traditions observed around this time of year which inspire evening entertainment these days. Most in-your-facely, there's All Saints and All Souls, an opportunity to think of those who have passed away before us. And even without religious inclinations, the music, art and poetry inspired by people whose spirits haunt our lives long after they have moved on can make rainy, windy evenings ever so snuggle-up spookier. Yeats has the right inclination and adds some refreshing spirit of the alcoholic kind to the scene, so be my guest and picture it:

'Tis All Souls Night and the great Christ Church Bell,
And many a lesser bell, sound through the room,
For it is now midnight;
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come,
For it is a ghost's right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.
W.B. Yeats, All Soul's Night (1928)

W. B. Yeats published this poem in his collection The Tower, a volume heavily influenced by his interest in the occult. As a young man, Yeats tried his turn-of-the-century soul at a variety of occult traditions: Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, the Hermetic Order and anything else that made sense to him who had grown up in an Ireland marked by folklore, myths and confusing political times, and who had moved to a London on the brink of Modernism amidst all sorts of uncertainties.

In 1890 he finally joined the Order of the Golden Dawn and found himself in the good company of many a brilliant artist and intellectual, among them Oscar Wilde's wife Constance, writer Algernon Blackwood and, eventually, the master of a troubled existence Aleister Crowley. Incidentally, here's someone who liked to play dress-up. A lot. But don't let's go there. At all.
Aleister Crowley/Frieda Harris, Thoth Tarot
Trump XV "The Devil"

What united Yeats and Crowley (though they could not stand each other's guts) was the Tarot. Yeats had been introduced to the Tarot, its symbolism and skrying techniques along his path from novice to master within the Order, like any other adept. Crowley went beyond the mere understanding and use of the deck and designed his own set of Tarot cards, which have a disturbing history: the poor artist recruited by Crowley, Frieda Harris, had to interpret Crowley's inspiration into pictures. He talked in trance (or under the influence or substances stronger than muscatel), and she drew with beautiful colours, undoubtedly diluted with some blood and tears. Much like a gruntled diner who describes a taste sensation to a chef and then finds the latter's creation not quite what he imagined, Crowley sent Harris back to the kitchen, er, drawing board. Again and ditto. It therefore took Lady Harris several years to finish, but the result is still stunning (see above).

Crowley was not the only one to create a new version of a Tarot set - far from it! Let me introduce you to Adam McLean's Tarot site, a branch of his Alchemy Website: Adam is collecting and blogging about Tarot decks from all walks of life, all corners of the world and with all levels of artistic sophistication. I might return sometime soon to tell you more about the history of Tarot cards. And like the history of alchemy, it is a fascinating, haunting and wonderful tale indeed.
Penelope Cline's Wild Green Chagallian Tarot,

Sunday, 24 October 2010


Nightmares, successes, rainbows, and delightful tidbits of information made up the weird wonderfulness of this past week. In an attempt to unload the overload created in yours truly's brain, here is a smorgasbord of factoids and thoughts, for you to graze and amaze at. Napkins ready - here goes.

Sweet success
Last week's caramels have been a success to the point of causing cat fights among my friends, both Facebook and real. I feel like Monica in Friends around Christmas time - call me candy lady...

The caramels were also a potential source of foot-in-mouth disease: I had been around the mixture for so long on the day of manufacture (the equivalent of spritzing yourself with 5 different perfumes to the point of total nasal confusion), that the experience of tasting one the next day was novel, surprising and surprisingly pleasant. Briefly forgetting I was in the company of others, I shoved a sticky piece of heaven into my mouth and exclaimed "Goodness - these ARE good!" - much to the amusement of the munching bystanders. What they did not know is that I was complimenting the recipe, much as I would slag the cookbook if something turned out spit-out-loud disgusting. Every girl her own food critic and whatnot. If you think I am complimenting myself in suchlike situations, then that's the way it is. No more caramels for you, though.

Nigella Lawson
Photo (appropriately) from

Nigellan nightmares
Prior to this week, I had never seen Nigella Lawson in action. In fact, I had barely browsed her books, since they seem to involve too much meat and fat to apply to my idea of a good meal. Browsing on the BBC iPlayer, however, I recently came across her latest series and decided to tune in, to see what all the fuss is about.

Dear reader, I am traumatised. What is wrong with that woman? Apart from her appearance (please tell me it's an ironic take on herself) and the sloshing around of cream, butter and other questionable ingredients to excess, she bites the heads off prawns, declaring, with a creepy smile, that "there is something primitive about prawns, like they are creatures we used to be millions of years ago. We have evolved, so now we get to eat them". I paraphrase - I could not watch it a second time. Sometime along the line she must also have eaten a thesaurus. Her adjectives (many of them neologisms of the cheesy kind, yet not so bad that they're fun) are all over the place and distract from the cooking. Maybe that's their purpose.

If I ever declared I wanted to be the next Nigella, I take it back a thousand times. Heavens, I'd rather be the next Alfred Biolek, and cook with the stars. Applications will now be received.
Alfredissimo, a German cooking show
Alfred Biolek & comedian Anke Engelke
(photo from

Nom & nommer
This Saturday, a dear Italian friend turned a crisp, sunny morning into perfection by inviting a bunch of hungry girls to shop at Mansfield Park farmers market, followed by brunch at her place, made from the fresh produce snatched up at the market. So many revelations! A smoked mozzarella, fried and served on organic bread; heather honey; Greek delicatessens; the best tomatoes in town; carrots with dirt on them, the way nature intended them to be; duck eggs!

Farmers markets are really like think tanks for cooks, presenting better versions of familiar foods and enticing unfamiliar ones. They are also cures against food ruts. Accompanied by accordion music and friendly Glaswegian banter, this could not have been more pleasant. If you do not have an Italian friend with superior barista skills to cook up a brunch for you, do still go - if you're anything like me, you'll love it.
Tapa can be found on Mansfield Park farmers market,
on Facebook (whence this picture originates)
and in two fabulous locations in Glasgow

Colour me criminal
The final tidbit for today comes to you courtesy of aforementioned multicultural brunch. I learned that Italian mystery novels are known as gialli - named after the yellow covers of early paperback publications, mostly translations of Agatha Christie & Co. And that is my cue to return to noshing and reading. Farewell, dear reader, whatever colour or taste your day may assume today - may it be a good one.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Of Boiled Sweets and Humbug

After a rather long and busy week, which included some news that left a bad taste in my mouth, I decided that today was (and still is) the day to take some time and hand the same over to an activity which I have no control of. None whatsoever. Something that will dictate its own time frame and has a chance to go wrong, but will demand my full attention (thus leaving less time for gloomy ponderings) and, if anything, will be exciting. A substitute for dancing while my knee is still on the mend. In short: an ill-advised food experiment.

Dear reader, I made them. Salty caramels. Without a thermometer. Surely (I told myself), I cannot be the first person to work without one, in spite of many recipes' warnings that it'll all go wrong, friends vanishing from sight, children pointing and laughing, etc. I decided that my eyes, ears and tongue, although not too sure about what to look/listen/taste out for, could judge the caramel situation just as well as a dial with a stick calling itself thermometer - after all, alchemists had had produced fine metal concoctions in pre-Celsian or -Fahrenheitesque times without such equipment. So, I tapped into my inner daredevil-cum-alchemista, crossed my tummy and hoped to end up with something edible. Here's the whole story, sugary start to sweet end.

Salted Caramels
-adapted from three recipes beyond recognition-

300g sugar
250 ml honey
250 ml heavy cream
110g salted butter
more salt to taste

Warning: caramel is insanely hot. Never, ever, ever risk getting spatter, boiled-over caramel or other spillage onto yourself, and if you want to try it, coat a cold spoon very thinly with the finished product and wait before trying!

Sugar and honey go into a pot and are heated, swished around (not stirred - a useless act that makes everything messier than necessary) and heated more, until the sugar caramelises, one recipe said. It did not mention the bubbles, nor that this would take quite some time with these proportions of ingredients. I must say, a gas hob might have helped, but I got there in the end (ca. 20 minutes in).

Observation 1: bubbly sugar-honeyness
While that is doing its thing, heat the cream in a pot and keep it very warm. That made sense. I had experienced the surprisingly quick, rock-hard mess you get when adding cold-anything to caramel in a pot - something that will not be molten again (not even with alchemical methods, I imagine) and ruins both whisk and pot. Lesson learned while making caramel pudding (or not) aged 10. Right. Cream heated. Next step.

When the caramel is the right colour (and smells nice - hanging your nose over the sugar-bubbles is really nice and potentially good for your skin - ok, I made that up, but it cheers one up beyond measure), whisk in the butter in small knobs (buttery caramel smell, observing lumps sinking into oblivion, it's all good). 

Now stir in the hot cream, little by little. This is danger at its best: just a drop too many, and everything goes over the rim of your pot, big mess, game over. If you're anything like me, you'll play around with this a little bit. Then cook the mixture for a while to get the right consistency.

Observation 2: mixture and consistency

Yes, this is where every recipe tells you not to heat above 120 or 125 C. It does things to the crystals and makes your sugar brown even more. Well, I stuck to heating it on a very low heat so it was simmering away, watching the mixture turning slowly (really slowly) from runny into something more creamy - eventually, frantic whisking (something you're not supposed to do, but it's so much fun) will clear the bottom of the pot for a second, leaving whisk marks like motorboats in deep waters. Of course, watching the caramel drip from the whisk helps, too. Now is the time to add more salt if you like.

Observation 3: slow caramel drops
But how do you know when it's done? What is the right consistency? Well, here's something I learned from The Kitchn: drop a bit of caramel into a glass of cold water, and it will cool down and show you what texture the sweet will have. If it's still too liquidy for your taste, keep boiling it. In my case (since I was very cautious, being a caramel virgin and all), the process took 30 minutes after all ingredients had been combined. I ended up with a toffee-like consistency.

Pour the finished caramel onto a baking tray or similar, lined with parchment paper, and let it set for a while, until it's warm and pleasant to the touch.
While you're waiting for this to happen (it took much less time than I anticipated - somewhere between half an hour and an hour), cut more parchment paper into squares fit as wrapping paper.

You will know that it's ready for the next stage when you can cut through it quite easily, too - the mixture will not stick to the knife.
Now find someone to help you - without a helper, this final stage took me an hour (with the result of ca. 100 neatly wrapped caramels).
Take each cut square and roll it a little to make a neat caramel, then wrap. Mine are good - much more intense than anything you buy in a shop. Very little goes a very long way, and I am more than ready to share. If you live in Glasgow, leave a comment with your 'scary yet successful food experiment' story to get a sample! Comments from further afield are also very welcome, but I'm afraid I don't deliver beyond city bounds. Your comments will be edited and posted on Wednesday.

So, what have I learned today? A lot of things. For instance, making sweets is better than eating them (I only had one try-out caramel and am perfectly content). Thermometers are humbug. It's fun to figure out how to do something that seems too tricky to try. And so on.

Most strikingly, though, I learned more about how I learn: it's a messy process which consumes all my brains and senses while I'm at it. It's therefore something that slows down time and accelerates it at the same time  - it feels like I spent a whole day in caramel land, and I am late doing what I was supposed to do today. So, I'd better re-join reality and get on with my work. Luckily, the world is a little bit sweeter again.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Golden Spurtle

Alchemy and mystery need to take a back seat today, because this day (10/10/10) marks World Porridge Day! Never heard of it? Well, this extravaganza brings together oodles of spoon wielding, oat stirring cooks from around the world in the Scottish highland village of Carrbridge. They compete for the Golden Spurtle, an award marking excellent porridgemanship if ever there was such a thing; and they also raise some money for charity while they're at it.

Oh my, even a quick read of that first paragraph gets my scholarly heart racing, my historical brain brooding and my stomach, well, growling. I shall suspend the dash into the kitchen for my elevenses (guess what's on the menu?) to elaborate - I suffer for my art.

The world in a grain of oatmeal
Basics first: the origins of porridge go (and I use the technical term here) way back. It is a fact that the human bowel does not like raw grains. A couple of spoons of uncooked rice or barley would not only be very unpleasant to chew and swallow, but also difficult to digest, which defeats the whole point of food: no efficient nutrition, no pleasure, just rubbish. Soak the grains and cook them, and it's a different story. Ancient cooks picked up on that rather quickly. In fact, hot cereals predate the baking of bread and the brewing of beer as we know it. I call porridge the bread/beer for beginners.

Nutrition and food science have relaunched the porridge as a superfood. Cue buzz words like wholegrains, protein, fibre, vitamin E, several B vitamins, zinc, antioxidants and, golly, even phytochemicals! Slow release of energy, food of both gods and athletes. There is even more information on the Golden Spurtle website, but I think, like porridge, some of this is to be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps we can just agree on the fact that porridge connects simplicity, culinary cunning and comfort in a bowl, and connects people across the world and its ages with a heartfelt 'yum' and a pat of the belly.

International intermezzo
At this point, I cannot help but throw in this video, made by one American guy who travelled across 42 countries and got the people from all over the world world dancing for this wonderful, wonderful clip. Click on the link below the image and enjoy!

Right. Now you want to know how to make porridge, right? Or more likely, you've been using the same method for years and are waiting for me to propose a perfect method, only to feel superior (because, quite obviously, yours is so much betterer than mine!). Well, I shan't comply. Porridge production is as touchy a topic as religion or politics. Don't let's go there, shall we?

Viewed from a safe distance, porridge shows different characteristics in different countries. Scottish porridge is traditionally made without milk, just from water, oats and salt, and it is this mixture that will gain someone the Golden Spurtle today. My impression of English porridge comes with the authority of the University of Oxford behind it: for what it's worth, my brother returned from his first stint at that place of learning with a formula shared by one of his professors: O-W-M 2:3:2. That is to say, two parts oats, three parts water and two parts milk; pinch of salt; cook, stir, let sit, eat, Bob, uncle.

Whatever you do, do not be fooled by those sachets of 'quick oats'. Admittedly, the Dorset cereal variety (no added dodginess, just oats and dried fruit) are handy for the office. But 'quick'?? How much quicker could a dish be? If you use the slightly unorthodox yet perfectly acceptable method of pouring some boiled water on oats and shoving everything into the nukomizer for a minute or two, there you are!
Steel cut oats (image from Wikipedia)

Finally, a word on oats. Depending on where you live, you'll have a choice of 'traditional' or 'rolled', 'quick' or 'porridge' oats, and it's all rather confusing. The difference is in the violence exerted upon the oat as it is crushed into a flake. The more force, the smaller the particle, the quicker the cooking and the mushier the result. It comes down to taste, I suppose - but given how cheap oats are, go on, spend that extra 50p on a bag to discover whether the organic ones are really better than the traditional ones. You might be surprised, either way. It is thus that I discovered steel cut oats, which are readily available in the US but much harder to get over here. For steel cut oats, the oat is not squashed but rather cut into two or three pieces. They require soaking overnight, but they have a wonderfully nutty flavour, a hearty texture and yet an overall delicacy that makes you want to enjoy them just as they are, with a tiny drizzle of honey and a dash of milk (or, even yummier, soy milk) sloshing around it.

The golden spurtle
I know, I know, the golden spurtle has been on your mind since that first paragraph. You can follow the competition on the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Champion website. By the way, a spurtle is a wooden Scottish kitchen implement (dating from the Middle Ages, apparently), used for traditional porridge stirring. Now you know. What I don't quite understand is how it is superior to your regular wooden spoon - smaller base surface? Better hand/wrist feel? Some scientific connection between stirring behaviour and the smoothness of the resulting porridge? Oh darn, here's history repeating itself... now I want one...

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Ceci N'est Pas Un Blog Post

October - a time when the academic term is in full swing, Christmas sweets smile sickly-ly from shop shelves, the days are getting cool and shorter, and the constant debate when to turn on the heating threatens one's good relations with one's flatmates - even when one lives alone. That's one perspective.

Another view of autumn in full swing is that it's time to break in your boots, break out the tea cosies, snuggle up in front of a fire with a good book in the evenings, see friends over cups of coffee, and above all, make the most of the sunny hours there are during the day. Platitudes? Cuteseyness? Perhaps. But who cares when it feels good? Yours truly has enjoyed a lot of suchlike goodness lately and will hence not spend much time waxing lyrical about things when there are boots to be waxed and books to be read. There is time, though, for two notes that might warm up your autumn. Here goes.
Kember & Jones, Glasgow

If you find yourself in Glasgow's West End while peckish, Kember & Jones on Byres Road offers pretty much all your heart desires: excellent scones, dashing soups, a very wicked raspberry-banana bread, savoury tartlets, and much more - not least the occasional waft of chocolatey warmth from the oven. The queue during lunchtime is long, but this is food one likes to go to lengths for. And while this food emporium (oh, whatever - they can get away with it if anyone can) is good any time of the year, autumn transforms it into everyone's favourite home away from home. Take a friend and watch the rain through the windows. Fall for it.

'Tis squash season! Shout it from your kitchen window (though better not too loudly - been there, done that, scared the squirrels). Roasted, souped and risottoed squash are well-established yummities which are great to revisit every year. But let me introduce you to a version which has been an eye-opener as much as a mouth-opener to me in recent years. It was recommended by a famous historian of alchemy, and goodness, the man knows what he talks about in both lecture room and kitchen! Ladies and gentlemen, I present

Butternut Squash Gnocchi
Cut 1 butternut squash of ca. 2lb in half, de-seed and place face down onto an oiled baking tray to roast at a medium temperature until soft (takes about 45-60 minutes); then scoop out the flesh and mush it up with a fork. Add another splash of finest olive oil, a very decent dash of salt, some pepper, spices or herbs as inspired (rosemary and thyme go well with this; some like nutmeg), and finally some flour (ca. 2 cups), which is to be mixed in delicately until the dough holds but is not too stodgy.

*** Beware: gnocchi dough does not like to be manhandled (that goes for the potato variety as well) - if you do knead too much, it takes its revenge by sulking itself into a chewy mess that will cling to your teeth. So, take the loving approach, not the I-will-punch-the-living-daylights-out-of-you one.***

When it's all akin to gnocchi dough as you know it, wrap in clingfilm and rest for at least 30 minutes in your good old refrigeration device (that might be your fridge or, in single-glazed flats, your hallway...).

When dinner time comes around, divide the dough into manageable portions (4-6, I'd say), roll into sausages and cut off gnocchi-sized bits, which you then imprint with a fork on one side to maximise surface area. Put onto a lightly floured surface in a single layer and keep covered with a damp kitchen towel or aforementioned clingfilm until ready to cook.

Bring lots of water to the boil, salt generously, and tip in a test gnoccho. It should float up to the surface after 3-5 minutes, at which point you remove it with a slotted spoon, gobble it down and proceed to cook the lot, in batches, adjusting cooking time according to the taste test.

The finished gnocchi are best on their own, perchance with a bit of melted sage butter on top, some grated Parmesan and more black pepper. They feel incredibly comfortable beside a selection of perfectly cooked wild mushrooms, and (just for colour and crunch) some steamed broccoli topped with roasted flaked almonds.

I'm afraid I have to break off here - there's a squash that wants roasting in my kitchen and squirrels waiting to hear the good news just outside it. But go ahead, try it, and feed a friend - because that's what food/autumn/life is all about, isn't it?