It’s one of those disconcerting nights that should be the answer to a parent’s prayer: child away for a party and sleepover! And yet we knew we’d miss her, and we did. Twelve years old is a funny thing: there’s almost no downside (horrible slang word), very little caretaking or annoying tasks or interruption of one’s own agenda. There’s just the amusing, entertaining, touching conversation, and the fun of hearing what’s happening in the world from Avery’s point of view. The only upside (sorry) is the opportunity to cook something she doesn’t like. But even the fun of that is really overshadowed by her absence. I try to grab some irritation against her by finding piles of dirty clothes everywhere, like Hansel and Gretel’s trail. One outfit under my desk where she changed to go to her party, another set of outergarments in the living room where she watched “The West Wing” with us before she left, and don’t even MENTION her bedroom! A frightening display of sartorial disarray. But in all honesty, the little piles just made me miss her more.
We’ve been unusually busy this week. It…
I still can’t get over it. My baking curse, the one in which I could not properly produce anything for dessert, seems to have lifted! Because while I have known for some time that I could produce ONE cake with no difficulty, today I achieved its successor, and I cannot wait to share it with you.
Now, believe me when I tell you that I fully realize an English lemon drizzle cake is child’s play, learned at the knees of their mothers, to most English people. It’s the basic, the one you set a bright ten-year-old to make on a nice sunny Saturday afternoon (well, that description in and of itself sounds like fiction, the sunny bit) in time for tea. But I am a person who had a mother at whose knee I might learn to play Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” or memorize the complete Agatha Christie, but would never learn to cook anything because she detested cooking so. In fact, the only reason I learned to cook at all was to relieve the poor dear of her metaphorical apron and take over feeding the family so she could get back to needlepointing exquisite samplers while simultaneously refinishing some enormous piece of Indiana antique furniture. I know, she doesn’t sound real. But she is, thankfully.
I digress. My point is, I have learned cooking by trial and error, for the most part, and there have been plenty of errors. Oh boy! I have one reader of this blog who is kind enough to tell me that my errors make her feel more confident, and I can absolutely see the point of that. As I get older, I have less and less patience with people whose purpose in life seems to be to make me feel inadequate, and I gravitate more and more to the types who say, “Well done!” This is not to say I can’t accept criticism, because my writing experiences this year have done away with most of whatever ego I ever had. But I like to be with people, whether in writing or real life, who are REAL. People who screw up and then can dust themselves off, explain how, and get it right the next time.
That being said, I have made a disproportionate number of mistakes in the creation of things to eat at the end of a meal. In part this is because my idea of dessert is another soft shell crab, or meatball, perhaps another piece of cheese. But mine is a life that includes a smallish child to feed, Bake Sales to contribute to and the like, and it has become increasingly embarrassing to have all dinner guests say mildly and with complete confidence, “Would you like me to bring dessert?”
Well, I have my apple and banana cake now, Avery’s favorite breakfast of all. And today, the perfect lemon drizzle cake came out of my oven. I just can’t tell you how pleased, and relieved, and inspired I am. Perhaps other cakes are in my future. Of course this cake could be a lime drizzle, or orange drizzle cake just as easily. A satsuma and clementine cake! A Meyer lemon cake, let’s get crazy! But for the moment, I give you:
Lemon Drizzle Cake
225 grams (one cup) unsalted butter, softened
225 grams (one cup) caster (ordinary American) sugar
zest of 3 lemons, finely grated
zest of 1 lime, finely grated
225 grams (one cup) self-raising flour, or plain flour with 1 tsp baking powder added
juice of 3 lemons
85 grams (1/3 cup) caster sugar
Beat the butter and sugar till soft and fluffy, then beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in zests and flour gently until fully mixed (including the baking powder if you are using plain flour). Tip into a loaf pan and smooth the top flat with a spoon. Lick the spoon.
Bake for about 45 minutes in an oven set to 185C, 350F. Watch carefully, because all ovens are different. Take care not to burn bottom or brown top too much. The cake is done when the middle of the top doesn’t jiggle when pressed gently. Err on the side of baking less rather than longer.
Cool cake enough so that you can handle the tin. In the meantime, mix the lemon juice and sugar till dissolved. Prick the top of the cake all over with a fork and then SLOWLY drizzle the mixture over it. If you drizzle too fast, the mixture will end up all sliding down the sides of the cake. Serve warm.
Heavenly! I adapted this recipe from Tana Ramsay, beleaguered wife of Gordon. I’ve tripled her measurements for lemon zest and juice, and added the lime zest. My family like citrus! But feel free to cut down on these if your family are not lemon freaks.
With my cake safely made, John and I went off in the drizzly grey London afternoon to get Avery at school, and Emily traipsed along with us, down the cheery little expanse of shops down the road from their school. So cozy. We passed the massive building housing the romantic swimming pool, at which I performed my first “receptionist duty” last night. Such responsibility! Collect the keys from school, try to remember the code for the gate and door, turn on the lights, collect the cash box, swimming caps for sale, sign-in book. And so many swimmers turned up! Among them, in the gathering chilly darkness, were Annie and Fred and Emily, all chattering sixteen to the dozen as they do, partly why I love them: so cheerful and busy compared to our very quiet (too quiet) household. And a lovely old man who signed his name, ran his finger down the list of names and said, “Oh, dear, oh dear, I’m the 13th swimmer. You know, my dear, in my block of flats the numbers go from 12 to 12A to 14. Makes a hash of deliveries, but…” I offered the information that many American hotels have no 13th floor. “Well, obviously there IS one, but they skip the number and just go right on to 14,” I babbled. He wisely ignored this sally and made his stately way to the pool.
Well, I can tell you that the cake met with the approval of Emily, Avery and John. Being me, naturally there was a screwup. I had put the batter into the pan and the pan into the oven when I saw the container of baking powder on the counter. Holy s&^t, I had forgotten to put it in. I salvaged the pan from the oven, poured the batter back into the bowl, added the baking powder, put it back in the pan, back in the oven. It’s a very forgiving recipe, because all was FINE. And the drizzle never glazed in the way that traditional lemon drizzle cakes here do. All the drizzle ran into the cake. Emily diagnosed too much lemon juice to the amount of sugar, but just as I was planning to try again tomorrow with more sugar, Avery said, “I prefer it with no glaze. It can be too sweet, and this version has just enough BITE.” Thank you, food critic on the hearth.
There you go. Enjoy, because it’s foolproof and it will brighten up your day, grey or not. And you family in Indiana: throw a couple of snowballs for me!
Well, until it happened to me, I wouldn’t have believed that something looking like this could land on a dinner table ANYWHERE near me. I’ve lifted this photo from the Daily Mail, which in the person of Tom Parker Bowles was trying to convince people to celebrate Burns Night even though a creature like this might turn up unannounced and demand to be eaten. Yes, it’s haggis. I have heard many, many accounts of this storied Scottish dish, but until Sunday night it had never passed my lips. And before I say anymore, it was DELICIOUS.
Burns Night is a traditional evening meant to celebrate the life and work (and appetite, apparently) of Robert Burns, the renowned Scottish poet who was born 250 years ago on Sunday, January 25th. The revels include the reading of a poem devoted to haggis (luckily there was a Scottish man on hand to perform this), the ritual presentation of the haggis, and then in what must be a stunningly painful climax for the poor piece of lamb-stuffed intestine, the ceremonial stabbing and rending from end to end of the haggis. Ouch.
We were lucky enough to be invited to Avery’s chum Emily’s warm and friendly house just a few streets away, for the big event. Emily’s mum Annie is fast becoming one of my nearest and dearest. The whole family are full of energy, fast-paced and generous to a fault: young Fred had come by the previous day with a bevy of chocolate fondants for us, and my goodness that fellow can cook. He and I have many impassioned discussions about food, the absolute supremacy of cooking as part of daily life and the utter unfairness of the timed cooking round on “Masterchef.” “No one cooks under pressure in real life at home! It’s ridiculous!” he explodes. I so agree. So Sunday night found us walking to their house with the clean fondant ramekins, the plate on which Annie brought brownies for the Inauguration, a bottle of Polish vodka… you name it. Of course as we approached, John smote himself on the forehead: “Why the hell are we bringing VODKA to a Scottish man’s birthday party?”
Lovely, lovely evening. Other friends were already there, toting a very alert and well-behaved four-month-old baby girl that Emily immediately took charge of. Cooing, bouncing her up and down, Emily tried to convince my child, the least maternal creature on earth, of the charms of babyhood. Avery, while not actually getting up and leaving the room, contrived to get as far away from the baby as she could. I must remember to tell my sister and brother-in-law how divine Avery must think THEIR new baby is, to have treated her so nicely at Christmas. Never mind, early motherhood isn’t for everyone.
We repaired to the dining room, one of my favorite spots on earth now, glowing dark red walls, gorgeous art collection, Annie’s special hand-lettered place cards, everyone’s smiling faces. There was a gorgeous salad of lamb’s lettuce, smoked salmon (Scottish!) and quail’s eggs, hard-cooked. My first quail’s egg not in a restaurant, and I couldn’t help thinking of dear Sebastian Flyte in “Brideshead Revisited,” for whom they were one of the four basic food groups along with whiskey, champagne and gin.
Then our Scottish guest intoned the poem, with a MUCH more pronounced Scottish burr than I noticed in ordinary conversation!
Address To a Haggis
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dicht,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht,
Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sicht,
Here Christopher plunged the knife into the haggis and I got my first surprise: it doesn’t slice, as you expect it to, like a sausage: it… implodes. Well, it deflates and oozes. None of which make it sound very appealing, I’m aware of that, but the odor is delectable, and the texture most surprising. It’s merely ground lamb and oatmeal, for the most part, and quite, quite lovely. The sheep’s intestine serves merely as casing, and when Avery said later, “I’ll never eat haggis because I’ll never eat intestine,” I mentally crossed my fingers and hissed inaudibly, “John, don’t you say a word about sausages…” but no such luck. “Well, you know, ordinary bangers are cased in intestine, too.” This was said with great relish by my husband, whose job it is NOT to find something we will all three eat at dinner, among which things was, until that moment, a sausage. For heaven’s sake.
With our haggis came the traditional neeps and tatties: with a nice flair for presentation, Annie added carrots to the turnips, the “neeps,” and the mash was fluffy and quite a perfect foil for the rich, luxurious haggis. Divine! The dessert was traditional as well, and very nice for people like me who don’t like heavy, sweet puddings. Here it is, from Xanthe Clay’s column in the Daily Telegraph:
4oz/110g rolled oats or pinhead oatmeal
10floz/280ml double cream
11oz/300g crowdie or Quark
6 tbsp heather honey
5 tbsp whisky
1 bag frozen raspberries, defrosted
Put the oats in a large frying pan and cook over a medium high heat, stirring constantly, for 5–8 minutes until they turn brown and smell toasty.
Tip on to a plate to cool.
Lightly whip the double cream and mix with the cheese, which will make the cream stiffen up more.
Roughly stir in 4 tbsp honey and all the whisky.
Layer the cream, oats and raspberries in six glasses, finishing with a dribble of honey and a few raspberries.
Eat immediately or keep in the fridge.
A delight. We of course stayed far too late, on a school night, but it was worth it. This sort of evening makes me feel even more than usually grateful for good friends: and British friends! When we lived here in the early 1990s, I am ashamed at how few British friends we made. Part of that lack was to do with how many expatriate friends we had, but part of it was the lack of a school-age child to pull us into relationships (and the attendant adventures) with real people who are part of real British life. I know I will never be an Old Girl from Avery’s school, as Annie is, nor am I married to an Oxbridge gentleman as her husband is, but we can bask in their reflected glory, whenever we’re lucky enough to be invited. A rare night.
An amazing night at the Donmar, watching Derek Jacobi as Malvolio (the yellow stockings! the smile!) in his element, in an unexpected comedic turn in “Twelfth Night.” The last thing Avery’s constitution needed, on Thursday night, after a week that included the inaugural festivities late into the night, was another adventure before a much-delayed bedtime. But just you TRY to get tickets to the play on a weekend! It can’t be done. So there we were. It is without a doubt one of the most enjoyable theatre evenings of our experience, so go if you can. A marvellous jester with a beautiful voice, quite a convincing pair in Viola and Sebastian, but Jacobi is the star, big surprise. At times he had the demeanor of Lane, the famously unflappable butler of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” or Bunter of Lord Peter Wimsey fame, but then the appearance of the life-changing love letter brings out all the humor. You’ll love it. Avery was in heaven. As we clapped and clapped, she said softly, “That’s definitely what I want to do.”
To think I played Viola in college! How could I have so little memory of the play? Every once in awhile a line came back to me, but let’s be honest, it’s 25 years ago at best.
What else has been happening? A couple of failed dinners (never buy cheap prawns for a fancy Thai dish, someone print that on a t-shirt and sell it; not enough cream in tonight’s carbonara, but still edible), punctuated with a sublime if mistaken version of my ever-changing “slow-braised chicken.” Two weeks ago I asked John to put it in the oven for me and we arrived at home that night to find that a recipe that called for a CUP of white wine had been transformed into one including an entire BOTTLE of white wine, as well as the usual tablespoon of butter used to rub the inside of the pot being transformed into an entire BLOCK of butter, about a half cup. THAT was a nice version of the recipe!
The latest innovation occurred when yesterday I put together the dish, clapped the lid on, and left the house to take Avery to the ice rink. Then I called John and said in shame, “I forgot to put the chicken in the oven. Would you turn the oven to 120C [240F] and stick it in?” No problem, it was on time.
Something, however, prompted me to call several hours later to check to see how the chicken was going. “It should smell marvellous by now!” I assured him, and was surprised to be met with total silence. “What? Is it overdone?” I asked. “You won’t believe this, I am SO sorry,” my beloved said. “I turned on the wrong oven.”
So… slow-braised chicken became FAST-braised chicken, and in two hours at 200 C, 400F, it was lovely. Not quite as melting, but lovely. And the chicken soup for lunch today was sublime. So fear not, you can do almost anything to this recipe and be home SAFE. Good luck, and remember: a mistake is only a variation, told the wrong way! Avery and I decided that if I hadn’t called home that afternoon, and we’d been willing to wait about two weeks for dinner, we’d have had “REALLY Slow-Braised Chicken.”
Slow-Braised Chicken With Root Vegetables
(serves four for dinner, plus soup)
1 large chicken
1 bunch fresh thyme
5 cloves garlic
handful new potatoes
1 bottle nice white wine
1 cup chicken broth
Maldon salt and black pepper
Butter the inside of the large pot. Place the bunch of thyme on the bottom and put the chicken BREAST DOWN on top of it. Separate your garlic, peel it and whack a few cloves with your knife, then slice your parsnips, onions and carrots as you like them. Throw them all around the chicken, with the potatoes. Pour a good cup of wine over all, then the chicken stock. Season it all well.
Place in a very low oven (120 C, 240 F) with the lid on. Cook for at least three hours, but any time after three hours the oven may be turned off and the chicken left to rest. Just before serving, turn the chicken over very carefully (it will tend to fall apart) and remove the broth-soaked skin and discard. Place a pat of butter on the breast and put the lid back on so that it melts. When you are ready to eat, carve the bites you like best and serve with a baguette to soak up the juices, while drinking the rest of the wine.
Pull the extra meat from the bones and save them for sandwiches, then cover everything in the pot with water and simmer for at least two hours for the best chicken soup of your life.
Have you ever eaten an artichoke? You get one point if you have eaten an artichoke in what I may call “dip-form.” I can account for a fair number of you on that score because some of us lucky souls have been the recipient of my brother in law Joel’s incomparable artichoke dip involving copious amounts of mayonnaise and pecorino cheese, never to be underestimated. The two-point answer is if you have actually bought and eaten a jar of prepared artichoke hearts, lovely in a salad or on a slice of toasted baguette with some goats cheese.
The three-point answer, the one that comes with the fluffy toy, is if you have bought a raw artichoke and somehow dealt with it as an ingredient. And in the last few days of intensive polling, I have encountered a surprising number of very foodie people who have if not an aversion, a suspicion bordering on prejudice against the humble choke. Why?
I think it is one of those foods, like the coconut or the crab, that must have taken a VERY, VERY hungry person to discover it was edible. Honestly, the thing is covered with lethally pointy leaves that have left tiny pinpricks on my fingers ever time I prepare one. Only one tiny portion of each leaf, should you survive cutting off the tips, is edible, and to eat it at ALL you have to steam the hell out of it. Then the alleged best part, the heart, is at the very bottom, and filled with the horrid choke that’s like a cross between dental floss and milkweed.
Well, if you’re like me, you are stubbornly attracted to this bizarre vegetable. I get cravings, and drag the things home, saw off their tops, cut the leaf tips with scissors, peel the leaves from the stem, and then steam them. And WITHOUT FAIL, I boil the saucepan dry and only notice this when an acrid black smoke has filled the kitchen and ventured out into whatever room I’m in at the time. Whatever substance emanates from the artichokes into the cooking water turns absolutely adhesive when it boils dry, I can tell you.
Yet I persist. I take the half-cooked artichokes out of the dry pan and transfer them to another pan, and then doggedly watch it until it boils, determined not to make the same mistake twice. While it’s cooking, I make a drop-dead vinaigrette, although I know lots of people like to dip their chokes in melted butter, and others still more greedily in mayonnaise. No, my vinaigrette wins hands down: three parts olive oil to one part balsamic, the juice of a lemon, some mustard, fresh thyme, salt and pepper, a little pesto if I have any.
And here’s the silliest part: I don’t even LIKE the heart. The Holy Grail of the artichoke world, the heart holds no charms for me, Don Quixote-like as I am. So John gets the heart. I stick with the leaves.
Well, this week I decided that the roasted artichoke dip made by my beloved local deli-eatery, Brooks on the Green, could surely be made by little old me, and I looked up a recipe for roasting artichokes. The recipe I found involved all the steps I described above, which is plenty of work already, THEN you slice the artichokes in half lengthwise, remove that horrid choke, watch as the cut surfaces instantly turn a very unappealing moldy-looking grey, no matter how fast you rub it with lemon juice.
Once you’ve done all this, you rub the artichoke halves all over with a mixture of fresh thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper, then lay them cut side down in a foil-lined dish, with a garlic clove and a lemon slice underneath each one. Then you cover the whole dish with more foil and roast it in the oven at 425 for 40 minutes.
Then what? The recipe didn’t say. So I served them, bless my ignorant little heart, to us for dinner, with a sharp knife and hope in my heart. Roasted artichokes! Finally. And I saved one to use in the dip I was so sure would be within my grasp to replicate.
Well, let me be the first to tell you, there are no circumstances on this earth under which the leaves of an artichoke are edible. They are tough. They are sharp. It was like eating garlic-flavored magazine covers. Or drivers licenses. I simply could not understand it. I had followed the recipe precisely and the recipe had many happy, contented comments following it. What on earth had I done wrong?
I slept on my failure, dreaming that I was being chased by artichokes, thrown to the ground and all my blood drained by being scraped with their nasty little leaf tops. When I awoke, I went straight to the computer and guess what I found? Would you believe there are videos on YouTube teaching people to roast artichokes? This is a very strange world. So I duly watched it. And I discovered the dirty little secret. You eat a roasted artichoke in precisely the same way you eat a steamed one: you pull the leaves out one by one and scrape the base along your teeth. That’s STILL the only part of the leaf you can eat. After going to all that trouble!
I slunk into the deli yesterday under the weight of my disaster. “Oh, we get the artichokes in ready-roasted. And we use only the heart. The leaves aren’t worth anything.” NOW they tell me.
I felt so dumb. Imagine being middle-aged and a not-inexperienced cook, and still thinking you can eat the leaves of an artichoke, even with a STEAK knife. It can’t be done.
I felt so exhausted by the whole endeavor that it will be awhile before I buy another artichoke. Although it’s not the poor thing’s fault I was so ignorant. But for the foreseeable future, my table will be graced with some nice, harmless, innocent and most important, SELF-EXPLANATORY… broccoli.
What a completely thrilling afternoon and evening for us here in London, watching our lovely man become President. England is so excited! Europe is thrilled, expectations couldn’t be higher. Festivities here started as soon as our little girls came home from school, since Avery’s friend Emily was coming with her family to celebrate. They banged on the door in the gathering twilight, “Why didn’t you pick us up, your phone doesn’t work, we waited in the cold…” all the usual litany of complaints from an afternoon when nothing went quite as planned.
I must explain why we had English friends with us for the inaugural: Emily’s family lived for years in Darien, Connecticut, and heartwarmingly, they came away from their years in America with a firm love of all things across the Pond. It was to them that we repaired on Thanksgiving, and it was of them I thought first when I wanted to invite someone to watch the inaugural fun with us. So in they trooped, bearing gifts as always: a plate of luscious brownies, tubs of ice cream. I was putting the finishing touches on my Alderton ham baked in marmalade, and enormous dish of very American macaroni and cheese: the smoothest Raclette in the world forming the basis of the sauce this time.
We watched the oath of office in the living room, on that insanely ridiculous sofa cushion of such drama. Annie and I cried off all our makeup, listening to our new president become so, and speak of his new responsibilities. A remarkable moment, speaking to our enemies: “we will reach out our hand, ready to shake yours if you unclench your fist.” Amazing! To hear the president speak of reconciliation, to hear him utter the word “curiosity” as a virtue to be attained by the American people was a very invigorating and touching experience! Things may not be perfect, but there is a new breath, and it feels so good. The BBC describes his speech as embodying “the mixture of hope and realism that he has made his own.” How lovely. And when he said that the son of a man who could not have got a seat in a restaurant in America 60 years ago was now taking the highest oath of office in the land, we all felt quite overwhelmed, including the little girls who clapped and clapped. I’m so glad Avery is old enough to understand what happened today.
And dinner: “Oh, no!’ I remembered at the last minute. “I meant to make stuffed mushrooms for a first course.” Emily’s cookery-mad brother and I looked at each other. “Let’s do it.” We worked feverishly and had a marvellous time producing them and wished instantly that we’d made about four times as many. It is really the best recipe, rich with goats cheese and bacon, shallots and garlic. With a huge salad of rocket and baby beetroot leaves, and a spicy dressing, it was a nice, warming supper. In the background played all the inaugural drama. Avery brought out her first real self-made dessert, a lovely chocolate pot made from a recipe by Mark Hix, and a total success it was.
Altogether a gorgeous evening with such treasured friends, good food though I say it myself, and now, late at night, a chance to breathe and relax. I face a meeting of my writing class first thing in the morning, and feeding them lunch after. Leftover ham, anyone?
Congratulations, America. It has been a fabulous day.
But before I get to the recipe, can I just say that I love cookbooks. Well, not so much what you’d define as strict cookbooks. What I gravitate to is a story: the story of a life, punctuated with food. I tend to like to WRITE the sort of thing I like to READ. So it’s no accident either that I’m working so jolly hard on setting down MY stories and recipes, nor that I spend the rest of my time reading other people’s. And then of course there’s the added layer of cooking their recipes, to varying degrees of success.
Lately, though, my writing project has become a blurred confusion to me. I can no longer decide if any of my chapters are worthwhile, if any of them make sense, much less achieve that nirvana-like state called “flow.” In all my previous writing life — schoolwork, dissertation, art reviews and the like — flow was never anything I thought about. The writing just DID. Flow. I was the sort of writer who irritated other writers, because in general the first draft was just fine, so I developed a lazy strategy in which the first draft was the last draft.
I have diagnosed my trouble as being a case of caring too much. Always before, my writing projects were intellectual pursuits, and mostly a means to an end. But now each memory, each anecdote, each chapter takes me back to a cherished part of my life, with treasured people and irreplaceable context. It all matters too much! So I’m becoming labored and tormented and un-natural. No flow.
The solution, everyone tells me, is to find a structure for the book and then let the various ideas I have for filling it find their proper slot in the structure. Like having rules to a game so the players don’t just flounder around running into each other. When I wrote my dissertation, my advisor gave me a piece of invaluable advice: imagine your whole book as a chessboard. Each one of your ideas will play a role, and you simply assign them to their place on the board, then flesh them out. I had no difficulty in doing that, for the purposes of a feminist analysis of late 19th-century sculpture in France. Somehow, doing the same thing for meatballs, macaroni and cheese and vichyssoise is proving much trickier and fraught with danger and confusion.
Let’s see: the choices for structure are these. I could organize it chronologically as I lived my life, starting with childhood memories and food, running right to the present. Or I could organize it seasonally, picking out seasonal events and memories and setting them in order. Or it could be arranged by types of food (this sounds the least appealing to me, since the book isn’t primarily about food). I’m sure there are other organizing principles that haven’t occurred to me.
So I’m in a bit of a block.
Reading everyone else’s highly accomplished work helps on one level, in that it gives me something to strive for, a standard to meet. But the flip side of that is that I look at my own work and find it wanting. And of course no book reads exactly like another, and mine needs to find exactly its own voice and structure too. Sigh, double sigh.
How about something practical? Let me tell you what NOT to do with your crab tart should you decide to make it. The mistake I made yesterday would have flattened my confidence several months ago, but having racked up some hours in the baking department, I felt that surely I had made just one error, not even a disastrous one, and the key was to find it, and not to do it again. I’ll explain.
Baking is a scientific process, as you know (I am in constant denial of this fact, to my peril). I can’t just add a little of this, a little of that and expect it to work, as I do with soup, or pasta sauce, or meatballs. I also cannot ignore the process itself, the rules and sequences of activity. Well, needless to say, I did. Yesterday, for my beloved Lost Property group from Avery’s school.
Lost Property. There is something amusing about the name, when you first hear it, and when someone first approaches you at a school tea wearing a badge that says, “Molly, Lost Property,” your first reaction is bemusement. The designation sounds like a pathetic label worn by a child on a railway platform during World War II in Eastbourne. In truth, it’s the single coolest volunteer opportunity at the school, in a sort of chicken-and-egg sort of way. Was Lost Property cool, and so cool people joined, or were the very first LPs extraordinary to begin with? We are well known for hosting an epic luncheon of majestic proportions at the start of every term, each term hosted by a different volunteer mother (me, yesterday), and attracting positively Lucullan contributions in every course. I may say indiscreetly that the wine is contributed by a Master of Wine (not many are women, apparently), who burst into the meeting saying, “Have you a radio? Someone turn it on to Radio 4, I’m speaking.” The main courses were monuments of elegance, the salads luscious, the cheese board ridiculously magnificent.
I was more than happy to enlist John’s help in bringing up a banquet table from the basement, borrow chairs from my Lost Property friends up the street, make my friend Annie drive me all over West London searching for crabmeat for my darling tart. Then the vintage linen tablecloth, the many mismatching dinner plates, salad plates, EVERY silver fork and knife polished by me the day before… I drew the line at cloth napkins, however. For 30? Not in the mood.
But the tart. I was putting it together the night before the lunch, while also grilling salmon, finishing cream of mushroom soup from homemade stock, steaming rice and sauteeing broccoli for dinner. And somewhere in the middle of all this, accompanied by Avery’s singing “The Bare Necessities” and playing “Fur Elise” endlessly on the piano, I decided it would be best to bake the tart halfway, refrigerate it overnight, and finish baking it the next day just before the luncheon.
Well, I can tell you that this strategy is a disaster. There is some chemical reaction in the cooking process with things involving eggs (I think) that means you CANNOT stop the process halfway through, a quarter of the way through, any PORTION of the way through, and hope for success. How did I find this out? Because when I took the tart from the oven at serving time, somewhere about halfway through the champagne, I could see that the filling had not set. Not nearly enough. I put it back in the oven, turned the heat up slightly. Guess what happened then? Any extra butter or cream or BOTH from the filling slipped quietly out of the springform pan and onto the bottom of the oven floor and while it didn’t actually catch on FIRE, it produced a noxious smoke that billowed into the kitchen when I opened the oven door. Shades of my parents’ first Thanksgiving when their turkey fat exploded on THEIR oven floor.
I managed to ask someone quietly to open the garden door, someone else to open the front door, turned up the exhaust fan as high as it would go, and executed a sleight of hand manoeuver to liberate the tart from the oven and SHUT the door as quickly as I could. No harm done.
And I have to say that the tart was eaten, every last slightly gooey morsel, instantly. Several ladies complained that they did not get second helpings. But I learned my lesson. Cook it all at once. That’s all you need to know.
Tonight I redeemed myself somewhat. Having felt uninspired for cooking dinner, I jumped in with both feet and decided to make Moroccan meatballs. Always a good idea, and tonight it turned out to be an even better idea than ever before, in a most unexpected way, I might add. I have always had a warm place in my heart for the “kefta,” the Lebanese lamb mixture I obtain at Green Valley in Edgware Road, for the meatballs. I have nourished a romantic attachment for the mysterious and unnamed ingredients in this meat mixture, an ambrosial elixir of gently spiced and exotic deliciousness.
Tonight, however, John did the shopping, and not at Green Valley. “Just buy lamb,” I advised, “and parsley and garlic.” So at home I chopped flat-leaf parsley super-fine and minced garlic and squished in ras el hanout, that irreplaceable aromatic spice blend from Morocco, mixed it all with the lamb, kneaded it like bread dough and formed meatballs, which I dropped into the simmering tomato sauce to poach. And do you know what?
FAR BETTER than the mix from the Lebanese market! So fear not, any more, my friends who do not have access to a foreign market. Mix your own. Just gorgeous. With eggs poached at the last minute into the top of the bubbling, garlicky sauce, there is nothing nicer on a cold, windy, rainy January London night.
It turns out: after all this thinking about my writing, with this experience I produced a second draft of my meatballs and it was an improvement. A lesson learned. Enjoy.
Lamb Kefta Meatballs with Tomato Sauce and Poached Eggs
(serve about 6)
1 kilo lamb mince, mixed with 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, 4 cloves minced garlic and 1 tbsp Moroccan ras el hanout spice, rolled into little 1-inch meatballs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 white onion, finely minced
2 large cans peeled plum tomatoes
1 tbsp ras el hanout
1 1/2 tbsps ground cumin
1 tbsp lemon-ginger powder
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
5 extra tbsps fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley
In a very large, heavy-bottomed deep saucepan, saute the garlic and onion in the oil and add the tomatoes, breaking them up with your hands as you put them in. In my humble opinion, there is no place in this life for tinned chopped tomatoes. Don’t you wonder what sort of tomatoes they use when they know they can get away with them not looking like a tomato? Just buy whole and break them up during the cooking process, I say. Add the spices and the parsley.
This sauce must simmer for at least two hours, but it can sit almost indefinitely.
About an hour before you want to serve the dish, drop the meatballs into the sauce, in one even layer, as many as you can fit (we ended up with 30 meatballs and they all fit). Then cover the pan and leave to simmer for 20 minutes. Again, these can sit almost indefinitely with no risk of becoming tough.
When the meatballs are thoroughly cooked and you are about 10 minutes away from serving, break eggs, one at a time, and lower into the sauce, as many as you can fit (we managed about 4). Cover and cook until the eggs are poached, about 8 minutes. Throw the remaining parsley on top. Resist the temptation to play with the eggs until they are cooked through! A bite of egg yolk and a bite of meatball smothered in the sauce was… divine.
This dish smells like nothing in this world. Your guests will feel they have died and gone to heaven, and you will be a star. I served this with steamed potatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with parsley, and a salad made of cucumbers and dill in sour cream.
Isn’t this photograph wonderful? I completely forgot, in my zeal to tell you about Washington, D.C., to describe our most wonderful experience of all: the self-photography project at the Corcoran Gallery! An artist called Mark van S has initiated a ridiculously simple interactive project: he’s set up a camera against a white screen, and visitors can photograph themselves with a little remote button, and the photographs are shown immediately on an enormous screen in the museum lobby, then accessioned onto a computer system. It’s open until January 25, and I cannot tell you how much we enjoyed it! Silly expressions, John held up his shoe, then Avery horizontal, then Avery’s back of head. A lovely, spontaneous way to express yourself. Go! Do it.
Well, as for my subject line, I exaggerate as usual. It’s a love affair only in my bookshelf, on my countertop, in my oven. Richard Corrigan is a divinely Irish Irishman, and a divine cook, and what’s more, he can write a mean cookbook with recipes that actually WORK. Which is no easy task, as I can tell you trying to do the same myself (without the Irishness or the divinity).
But first, how on earth has nearly a week gone by without my speaking to you? Oh, no no, I’m being too hard on myself: it’s only since Monday, the last day of Avery’s school holiday. And would you believe, that very day I got an email from someone asking about our plans for HALF-TERM?? That’s right, she has another week off in just a MONTH. Lord have mercy.
Tragically the most memorable event of our week was the unbearably sad memorial, yesterday, to the daughter of friends, a child who went to school with Avery and died of a brain tumor after a year of suffering. It seemed unbelievable to be gathered, yesterday morning, in the same church where countless Spring Concerts, Christmas Festivals and Harvest Thanksgivings had been sung with Avery’s school, all faces alight with smiles and pride and indulgent love. Yesterday all was darkness, to me. So much black clothing, so many tears and tissues. Heartbreaking recitations and readings and singing from the child’s best friends, her headmistresses, family. Finally finished and I could go home to wait until time to collect Avery at school, hold her tight, appreciate her whingeing about homework, rejoice in her annoying requests for permissions to be signed, bathing costumes found. The joy in feeding her dinner, watching her talk with her father, chase the shy cats.
And we were invited next door to meet our new neighbors: two tiny black kittens! Indistinguishable, one boy, one girl, Midnight and Smokey. I think we will be frequent visitors.
And perhaps the single funniest moment of all of John’s ongoing job crisis. I told Avery this afternoon that he’d spent all day on the phone with his “erstwhile partners.” “What does erstwhile mean?” Avery’s friend Emily asked ingenuously. “Used to be,” I said succinctly, but Avery added, “Well, they went from ersatz partners to erstwhile rather quickly.” God love her education.
No, the single funniest moment for a long LONG time came when Avery burst out of school to ask us if we’d heard of the latest Ben and Jerry’s flavor of ice cream, “Yes Pecan.” That is what makes America great, and may we have MORE of it in the coming four years.
Today battling my stupid cough once more, which seems to come and go, some days leading me to believe cockily that I’m through, and then I am completely winded by running up and down five flights of stairs to do laundry. Either I have some dread disease or… I don’t. Either way, it’s making it a bit of a chore to host 30 ladies tomorrow afternoon from… Lost Property. Yes, lunch tomorrow will be all of us discussing everything under the sun from politics to childrearing to art history to catering to… whatever these mind-bendingly impressive volunteers from Avery’s school can get their minds up to. And my contribution? Ah, here’s where Richard Corrigan comes in. It’s my irreplaceably luxurious, ridiculously caloric, every-bite-counts crab tart. Just you wait, Lost Property.
Crab Tart with Scallions and Goats Cheese
175 grams plain flour
75 grams cornflour (cornstarch)
1 tsp salt
120 grams cold butter
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 eggs, beaten
sprinkles cold water
250 grams white crabmeat
250 grams goats cheese
1 bunch scallion, minced
600 ml double cream
6 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
Make the pastry by mixing, in a food processor, the flour, cornflour, salt, butter (in little pieces, gradually), and thyme. Then add eggs and water to make a nice stiff dough and form into a ball. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
Roll out pastry to be at least 2 inches larger all round than the tart tin (21 cm diameter and 3 cm deep). Line the tin gently with the pastry, draping the extra over the sides (do not trim yet). Line with foil and weight with beans and bake at 160C for 40 minutes, then take out the foil and beans and check to see if the pastry is dry. If not, bake again for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, beat the eggs with the cream and season well. Beat the leftover egg and brush the baked pastry crust with it, all over. Scatter the scallions and crabmeat over the bottom, then pour over the cream and eggs. Bake at 180C for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 160C for another 40 minutes. Leave tart to cool to room temperature before serving.
You will roll over and beg like a dog when you have tasted this recipe. I have rephrased Richard’s (can I call him that? after all, I do love him) instructions as I do not have his cookbook to hand right here. It’s called “The Clatter of Forks and Spoons” and is a delight to read, but I can tell you now it is also a COOKBOOK. Bless his little Irish heart, and may my Lost Property Ladies enjoy the fruits of my labors.
Right now the “something old” seems to be ME. The Cough That Ate Hammersmith has rendered me helplessly worn out, this first week back in the saddle. Actually I will not feel properly back in any saddle until Avery returns to school, which happens tomorrow. Then normal life will resume. Last week was remarkable for precisely nothing: unpacking, taking down the TWO Christmas trees (two trees seemed like such a good idea when they were new and fresh, not so very when they showered needles everywhere and refused belligerently to fit into the plastic wrap with which we tried to haul them out the front door). Then we spent some time settling our Christmas belongings here at home, taking naps at odd times of the day, shopping with friends (Westfield Shopping Centre is actually quite bearable on a weekday in January with girlfriends, as opposed to a Saturday before Christmas with a cranky husband), and writing class on Friday. I came away from the session with more suggestions than I can reasonably get my mind around, at least until my child is gainfully employed away from home, tomorrow.
Just a week ago found us at Red Gate Farm closing up the house for the winter, helping Rollie store firewood in the shed, going sledding with Alyssa and her family, Jane and her dad (Jill stayed cozily at home drinking tea and rocking baby Molly), coming home to lunch around the dining room table. Is there anything more heartwarming and savoury than tomatoey, garlicky brisket on a cold, snowy day?
(serves about 8)
1 brisket (corned beef)
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 white onions, sliced
1 large can peeled plum tomatoes
1 bottle beer
1/2 cup dark molasses or treacle
Now, here’s the difficult part. Put everything in a heavy stockpot, crushing the tomatoes in your hand as they go into the pot. Cover it and put on a very gentle simmer. DO NOTHING for at least 3 hours. Seriously. That’s it. Serve with noodles or mashed potatoes, and a nice skillet full of shredded Savoy cabbage, sauteed in olive oil and garlic, seasoned well.
Not to be missed. Now here is an intriguing question, however. How is brisket different from corned beef? It turns out that brisket is a cut, a part of the animal, while “corned” is a process of curing, usually in salt. So while I bought a brisket, my brisket had been corned (but was still raw), and when I cooked it with my tomatoey method, I called the finished product “brisket.” Are you thoroughly confused? Do not despair. All briskets (whether corned or un-corned, flat cut or point cut) have one thing in common: they are a tough, cheap cut of meat and as such need to be catered to, but ONLY in terms of cooking time, not the effort involved. Just keep your brisket on a low, friendly heat with a lid on the pot to keep the sauce from reducing, cook it a long, gentle time, and you’re in business. It is meltingly tender and a real crowd-pleaser.
Sadly, at the same lunch I learned a hard lesson about my starter, the lovely Christmas oyster stew about which I raved before. Two lessons, actually. Never ever let it freeze, and after that, never ever EVER let it boil. Because mine did, and I’ll apologize here on my public forum (since one is never meant to apologize at the time of eating, at one’s own table) for the grainy, separated nature of the soup. The flavor was still ambrosial, but once the freezing or boiling (or, dash it all, both) processes have had their way with the broth, it will never be creamy and perfect again. I’ll admit it, I took my oyster stew for granted and didn’t coddle it. I went sledding, callously, and left it on a hot stove to suffer as it might. Never again.
From that day, so peaceful and pleasant and leisured (Alyssa and her family kindly helped to denude our lovely tree of its ornaments, leaving just the lights to comfort us over the end of the holiday), life got put on fast-forward. We were up at the crack of dawn, actually in the dark, to jump in the car and drive to Becky’s house in Greenwich, there to leave the car and be driven by my saintly friend to the Stamford train station, there to jump on the slow train to Washington, D.C.
John’s mom had pulled every favor she ever had with her good friend Jane, a behind-the-scenes Republican party faithful, to get us a private tour of, if you can believe it, BOTH the West Wing of the White House AND the House of Representatives. It was truly stunning to poke our heads into the Oval Office and the Roosevelt Room and the Press Room, to sit in the very seats occupied by the Justices of the Supreme Court at the State of the Union Address. One prevailing theme hovered over our entire tour: everything was so much smaller in person that it looks on telly! I think cameras must do a sort of panoramic sweep of these rooms, making them look imposing and intimidating, because to the naked eye they are quite cozy and intimate. But massively impressive. All of Washington was overlaid with a sense of anticipation: giant scaffolding projects in front of the Capitol Building and the White House, ready for the inauguration on the 20th.
And we WALKED. From the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, imagining all that square footage FILLED with people in a couple of weeks. Our tour guide for the House said wryly, “Let’s hope for sunshine, because there are no umbrellas allowed in the public.”
The most touching thing, and perhaps the most unexpected, about both our tour guides and all the staffers we saw running around with IDs and clipboards was their extreme YOUTH. One example in particular put our age into perspective. When the House tour guide was walking through the underground tunnel with us from one building through to the Capitol, I asked where he’d gone to school. “Wabash,” he said, smiling, and I said “My gosh, we went to DePauw! Old rivals, right?” and he said, “Oh, my mom went to DePauw. Maybe you knew her, class of 1980… well, 1980 something.” For heaven’s sake, when did we get to be people who might know someone’s MOTHER?
It was an overwhelmingly American series of days, more flags than you’ve ever seen in one place waving proudly, lots of uniformed and other types of officials, all having sworn one oath or another of loyalty and service. And dinner! We went both nights to the Old Ebbitt Grill, a bastion of good old-fashioned American food bought by local producers. Buffalo wings with celery and blue cheese dressing! The best calamari this side of Roc in Tribeca, and best of all, a dozen oysters on the half shell to share with John. Loud voices, boys chatting up girls over a beer, dark shining wood, jolly barman.
And the luxury of spending time with John’s mom, having her all to ourselves. She and Avery were roommates in a room adjoining ours and we simply hung out each evening after we’d walked ourselves into a state of collapse. All too soon it was time to catch our train back to Connecticut, sadly leaving Nonna to her airplane flight later in the afternoon.
We spent the Monday (goodness, only a week ago!) packing up, flying out, and here we are. Awaiting whatever adventures 2009 will bring: Lost Property, getting better at tennis, working on my book, finding somewhere to volunteer, learning to drive (ouch). Happy New Year, everyone! Next post: a savoury pastry shell flavoured with fresh thyme and filled with crabmeat, goats cheese, scallions, cream. Recipe to follow, as soon as I’ve paid my dues at the skating rink…