I need something to cheer me up today, as John’s mom has flown away home and left us alone. I am very lucky, I know, to have a mother-in-law who is a chum, a companion and a friend — not to mention a dab hand at mincing all the cloves of garlic our family seems to require every evening to keep going. I get used to having her here, listening to all the stories that make up my ordinary and tranquil life. Most wonderful, though, is having an extra person in the house to gaze at my daughter with all the admiration I feel she deserves! Having her here to appreciate Avery and to take always the best photograph of us, to capture a moment, is what I miss most when she goes away.
So a little cherry-picking outing in the garden seemed in order. What to make of them? I would say a crumble, but a strawberry version I made last week went wrong — rather watery and forgettable. I certainly don’t want to waste these little beauties, fresh from my own backyard. Maybe just pitted, with a little Demerara sugar.
Rosemary’s time here was a truly wonderful visit, full to the brim with activities, and yet also laced with plenty of hours of quiet as Avery revised for her exams. Sometimes we left her behind when we went on our adventures, but there were also times when it was just pleasant to sit down with a book, putter about in the kitchen, listen to a light rain on the conservatory windows, curl up with a cat, or indulge in that lovely pasttime: watching John’s mom look through the enormous pile of photo albums that await her visits.
But most of our time during her visit was filled with fun. There was dinner with our friends with four daughters — one of them Avery’s great friend Meggie, home on half-term from boarding school and so a treat to see — all of them starving, so it is always a pleasure to produce a platter of plump sausages and a massive dish of five-cheese macaroni and cheese and tuck in.
Unbelievably, until now I have not offered you this recipe! How cruel of me, as there is nothing more comforting, more all-pleasing, more savoury and satisfying than a big spoonful of cheesy goodness. Here are my basic guidelines, although the beauty of this dish is that you can use any and all cheeses you have lurking in your fridge, making a clean sweep of the bits and pieces and resulting always in a luscious treat. I have found that no matter the cheeses I use, provided that one of them is super-creamy like Dairylea or Philadelphia, the dish tastes the same. My recipe provides a lot more sauce than most macaroni and cheese recipes, and it is this detail that makes the dish so luxurious, and yet simple and inexpensive. Perfect.
Luxury Macaroni and Cheese
(serves about 8)
1 1/2 lb macaroni, or conchiglie, cooked and drained
3 tbsps butter
2 tbsps flour
1 liter whole milk
skim milk to thin if sauce is too thick
as many cheeses as you have available: Wensleydale, Red Leicester, Double Gloucester, sharp Cheddar, Emmenthal: total 1 1/2 lb, grated
1/2 cup cream cheese: Dairylea or Philadelphia or Laughing Cow
dash fresh-ground nutmeg
tiny dash cayenne pepper
sea salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
3 tbsps melted butter
Have the cooked pasta available, spread into a large buttered dish, large enough to easily accommodate all the pasta and sauce.
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and add the flour, cooking together for a bubbling minute or so. Whisk in the whole milk, whisking constantly and scraping the bottom to get all the floury butter incorporated. Cook this white sauce until thickened. If you feel it is too thick, add a bit of skim milk, whisking all the while.
Add all the cheeses together, whisking as they melt. Season with the nutmeg, cayenne, salt and pepper.
When the sauce is thoroughly melted and creamy, pour it over the cooked pasta and stir carefully so that all the holes in the pasta receive the sauce. Top with breadcrumbs and drizzle with melted butter. Bake at 350F/180C for about 45 minutes, or until the middle of the dish is hot through.
Such fun to see the girls all lapping up second helpings of this creamy delight, plus savoury pork sausages and piles of fine green beans, sauteed with butter and olive oil and garlic and lemon zest. Shouting with laughter over all our usual topics, especially John’s grief over my insistence on taking his Amazon.com suggestions of books I might like, and running with them to the very precious bookshop in the village. “Are you TRYING to bankrupt us?” “No, I just want the bookshop to stay in business!” “Even if WE don’t?!”
The next morning found us in Shoreditch, trying to help John find a plot of empty land to buy to develop. This is his passion these days, and he spends a lot of his time bicycling around the East End looking for an unappreciated spot to rescue. Clerkenwell, Spitalfields, Hackney, they are all on his radar. We sat down for a reward to have lunch at the Albion, a spot I normally adore, but I must tell you, the fish and chips were very disappointing: rather soggy and tasteless. Thankfully my greedy self also ordered duck livers on toast, and oh my, a savoury delight. I’m still loyal to the Albion.
And then, my dream adventure. A trip to St Matthews, Bethnal Green, for a tour of their bell tower! You all know of my love affair with the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers — after all, I named my cat after her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey!
In 1897, this church, its ring of eight magnificent bells, and its merry band of ringers spent over nine hours ringing over 15,000 changes, to celebrate the New Year. And Dorothy L. Sayers heard of the feat, and memorialized it for us in “The Nine Tailors,” either her greatest detective novel or the most boring book ever written, depending on who you ask. You know where I stand. I adore that book.
Well, in September 1940, on the first night of the Blitz, the church was hit and everything destroyed.
The empty spot where the church had been was filled with a sad temporary church until 1961 when it was rebuilt and reconsecrated, and of course now the 50th anniversary of that rededication has come along. To celebrate, a restoration of the bells themselves, and their tower, has begun. And we contributed! (You can too.) So a tour was in order.
The dear Bellmaster and Tower Captain Leon was there to introduce me to Bell Number 7. John made the novel suggestion that the bells should be named after people and institutions who contribute to their renovation! “Here you are, Kristen, the Merrill Lynch Bell!” So far, though, just Number 7.
And he took us up into the roof where, for safekeeping, the peal boards are kept. These are boards that commemorate, in golden paint (under many layers of dirt going back 110 years!) the type of method rung on a given date, the ringers and the length of the peal. And THIS was, believe it or not, the actual board describing the 1897 peal that inspired Dorothy L. Sayers. Unbelievable!
John and Rosemary very sweetly smiled upon me and Leon as we babbled (I babbled, he was very coherent) about Stedmans — a method rung often in St Matthews, named for the man who really invented change-ringing, in the 17th century. They did not, however, follow along when Leon and I climbed precariously into the actual belfry, so I could see Bell 7, my friend.
But I could not glow for long because we were having guests for dinner: our old friends from Agate Road, the gorgeous Selva and Sara and Stephanie, our friends whose presence in our old neighborhood meant dinners and drinks, parties and thank-you notes flying through letterboxes, friends who were willing to try a new recipe, take a parcel from the postman, keep our spare key, let our cats through their windows. How I miss them all.
Our slow-cooked boneless ducks, stuffed with rosemary, garlic, lemon and butter and rolled and tied by Tony, had been cooking all day in the slow Aga oven while I was ringing bells, and while they were gorgeous to eat, they were ugly, so I shall not share a photo. But the courgettes, peppers and mushrooms, stuffed with sauteed minced bits of themselves, plus pinenuts and goats cheese, were beautiful.
Now, normally when in a foreign place, John and Avery and I are keen to blend in, to look as if we belong. But there are times when this sort of discretion is just silly and means that you wander around looking like you belong, but not actually learning anything. So we booked a guide through Oxbridge Tours, and if you can possibly get Sarah Weaver, DO. She is brilliant: a friendly American graduate student getting her PhD in English, specializing in Tennyson. Oh, the things she knew!
Did you know that Cambridge was founded in a specific year, 1209, in order to flee Oxford! That brave fact alone makes me feel fondly toward Cambridge. I suppose it’s the American rebellious pilgrim in me coming out, rooting for the underdog rather than the authority figure. It’s a village-feeling place, rather than the city feel of Oxford. I’ll leave you with some images, to inspire you to take your own tour.
Finally, the tiny little 11th century St Bene’t’s (short for St Benedict’s) Church.
This church would have been a pleasure to see in any case: its bell tower dates from 1033: IMAGINE! Thirty three years before the Norman Conquest! It is the oldest building in Cambridge. We went inside and there were its bell ropes, its peal boards, and THEN, most incredible to me, a plaque honoring the 300th birthday of none other than Fabian Stedman, father of change-ringing. He was a ringer there, right in St Bene’t’s. I couldn’t believe my luck.
We jumped onto a train just in time and sat in exhausted awe, back towards Kings Cross, then onto the tube, then into the car in wretched traffic homeward, and to a much-needed super-nutritious dinner. A clean-out-the-fridge stirfry, and I can just tell you that it revived EVERYONE.
Everything Stir-Fry with Fried Rice
(serves 4 very hungry people)
4 chicken breast fillets
2 fillet steaks
3 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp Mirin (Japanese rice wine)
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 bunch spring onions, sliced thin, put into two equal piles
6 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and minced
1 tsp Chinese five-spice
2 orange or red bell peppers, cut in mostly chunks, but one handful minced and set aside
2 bunches asparagus, cut into bite-sized pieces
handful frozen peas, thawed
1 cup basmati rice
3 eggs, beaten
2 tbsps peanut oil
sprinkle of sesame oil and soy sauce
Cut the chicken and beef into bite-sized pieces and add the soy, sesame, mirin and stir well. Set aside.
Pour the first tablespoon of peanut oil in a heated wok and cook the pepper chunks and asparagus, and peas, plus one pile of spring onion slices, till they are softened to your liking. Set aside in a bowl large enough to eventually hold all the ingredients for this dish.
Steam the basmati rice. Meanwhile, pour the chicken and beef plus their liquids, and the garlic and ginger and Chinese 5-spice, into the hot wok and cook JUST until done. Do not overcook! Place in the large bowl with the vegetables.
Pour the remaining two tablespoons of peanut oil into the wok and saute the second pile of spring onions, plus the handful minced pepper. Add the eggs and scramble until done. Add the steamed rice and sprinkle on a bit of sesame oil and soy sauce, then toss all together. Pour in the chicken, beef and vegetables and toss until well-mixed.
Saturday morning I had a thrill that harkened back to my various bellish adventures of the week… Tricia, my secondary teacher at church, let me pull a rope with the clapper free! And what’s more, I rang proper rounds with all the other ringers, for the first time. Thrilling.
Sunday we left Avery to revise, poor girl, and repaired to Angelus in Bayswater for their classic, unforgettable foie gras creme brulee, surely our favorite food on earth. And the usual Angelus conversations, remembering times there in the past (the day Avery received that amazing pile of school acceptances for her 11+!). The joy of being together, enjoying ridiculously good food that I could never make at home: duck four ways… confit of shoulder, perfectly pink roast breast, faggots and a liver sauce. Crazy! Duck, duck… duck.
Once home, we rescued Avery and headed off for her reward, a shopping trip to Westfield. Never my favorite thing, shopping, it was nevertheless lovely just to be with my two ladies, watching Avery try on dozens of outfits, finally choosing just a couple of things, plus some makeup she couldn’t live without. The mall closed at 6 and simply kicked us out, into a massive rainstorm! Oh how COLD it was! Walking without umbrellas around and around outside, trying to find a taxi! Shoes squelching, clothes dripping. “Look at my fringe!” Avery wailed, lifting up the offending bang, and letting it fall, splashing miserably into her eyes. Finally we ordered a private cab and stood shivering, waiting for it to arrive, feeling martyred.
Nothing ever felt so good as the Aga when we got home! And nothing ever tasted so good as the scrambled eggs, rich with double cream, and the bacon — both English and streaky! — with crisp rye toast and potato pancakes.
What a wonderful time we had, with Rosemary. Now we can start counting the days until she comes to us, this summer, at Red Gate Farm.Print This Post