30 October, 2011

Operation Domestic Goddess: Gateau Breton

This weekend's bake was a "Gateau Breton," or Brittany butter cake.   As I looked at the picture of it in Nigella's book I confess I felt a little impatient to move on to more colorful recipes...  The parade of plain cakes and tea loaves is getting just a wee bit monotonous.

Thanks to this site I learned that this cake was created in the Breton (or "Brittany") region of France, a common way to use the region's staple buckwheat flour.  Nigella's recipe doesn't require buckwheat flour, nor do we have any in our cupboard, so I guess we weren't bound for a totally authentic French experience here -- but the 250 grams of butter and 6 egg yolks seemed in keeping with the spirit of French baking!

So.  Four ingredients: flour, butter, sugar, egg yolks.  Mix it all up, pour it in a pan, put it in the oven.  Result: A charming, rustic, chewy cake -- or so we thought, but appearances are deceiving.  What looks to be charming, rustic, chewy cake is in reality a hockey puck of butter and sugar.  What this picture does not show you is that it took me a full minute to hack out a slice, and that the entire bottom of the cake is essentially candy, where 250 grams of sugar caramelized.  R took one (and only one) bite, chewed thoughtfully, then said, "That is a disaster."  I had a taste, and it is, indeed, so overwhelmingly buttery that it's not actually enjoyable.  I think if it were not such a dense cake and had some other flavor, like citrus zest or vanilla extract, it might be more palatable.  (No insult the region and foodways of Breton intended; maybe the magic of Gateau Breton has just been lost in translation!)

Needless (and sad) to say, we won't be inflicting gifting this week's bake to anyone...But we decided it would probably make a lovely Frisbee, sundial, or clock face.

28 October, 2011

Stuff British People Like

Stuff British People Like
(a new series, with apologies to Christian Lander)

1. Queuing up
Some people will lead you to believe that football (that's soccer for all the Yanks out there) is Britain's favorite sport.  Others will say rugby.  The very bravest will try to persuade you of the thrills of cricket.  But in truth, Britain's favorite past-time is something seemingly very simple yet fraught with strategy and complex rules of etiquette:  queuing up.

Lovely day for a spot of queuing!
 In the sport of queuing there can be any number of players, male or female, young or old.  It really doesn't matter, because everyone is on their own team.  The ultimate aim of the game may vary depending on whether you are queuing in a shop, a transportation hub, a sporting venue, etc.; but essentially, you are trying to wait your turn in the most orderly fashion possible.  You maintain your place in the queue even if there is no cashier at the till or no bus on the horizon; they'll be there eventually, of course.  Extra points may be scored by attaining the spot at the front of the line or securing the best seat once on board the bus, but you certainly don't want to look too eager to accomplish these excesses.  There's usually a referee present in the queue.  Queuing referees are remarkably skilled, because they don't bellow penalties or use hand signals to hold back the chaos of the game; rather, they use only their eyes.  Their two piercing, judging eyes, supposedly engrossed with a newspaper but subtly scanning the other players to make sure that everyone is playing fairly.  One glare from a referee is enough to turn an offending queue-jumper to a whimpering pup, trudging to the back of the queue with his tail between his legs.

I was in line at at a cash point (translation: ATM) recently.  There was just one person ahead of me, and he was nearly done with his transaction.  I was pulling out my wallet when a young man strolled right up and planted himself in front of me.  I wasn't in a rush so I wasn't really bothered, but I wondered whether I should just make him aware of my existence to satisfy my sense of justice.  As I stood there trying to make up my mind, my Awkward Radar picked up on several squirms of discomfort emanating from the woman behind me.  The source of her agony was evident:  The young man had clearly violated the principle of the queue - but she was too polite to inconvenience him terribly by asking him to move to the back.  Oh dear!  I decided to put her out of her very English misery.  I "ahem"ed and said, "Pardon me--"  He turned around and looked quite embarrassed.  "Oh!  I'm so sorry, I didn't realize!" he said.  The woman behind me looked immensely relieved and said, "Yes, I'm so sorry, it's just that there's a queue..."  (Another very British thing, by the way: Apologizing for something that's not your fault.  Maybe that's where I get it from, Dad!) 

Always respect the queue.  For the love of all that is good, respect the queue.

24 October, 2011

The Hour Before Dawn

Lately I sleep poorly and wake early.  I open my bedroom door and am greeted by a panorama that Turner would've taken as an invitation to paint: the sun's approach is announced by a mother-of-pearl sky over the Isle of Dogs, and a lone rower pulls his way down the Thames at low tide.  Soon there will be tugboats and clippers introducing a dissonance to this harmony, but in this hour before dawn the waters are the rower's, and his alone.  Where he goes to work for the rest of the day I cannot guess, but I wonder if he goes about his tasks happier for having let the sunrise and the tide be the beginning of his day.  I have no boat of my own to row, but our wall of windows overlooking the river make the flat feel like a ship of sorts.  So I sit on the "deck" and watch the day come.  I wonder what these shores and life on them were like many, many years ago when sailors could only rely upon the wind, the stars, and their Maker for a safe journey.  I think about the songs that were born from lives reliant upon and subject to the tides...songs of discovery and songs of loss. 
I am trying to carve out a life beside this river.  I am learning the pattern of seeking, finding, losing that runs through life, advancing and receding like the tides.  In these hours before dawn, before the rest of the city is awake to distract and overwhelm, I am glad to let the quiet morning tell me of my Maker.  He has painted the sky and ordered the tides and fills the rower's lungs with breath.  He is behind and above and before any loss; he stands ready to be found in all my seeking, in the great things and the small.  If I am torn by wind or set my course by a dim star, he is still there.  The songs of this season of life will be songs of deliverance, songs of redemption. 

22 October, 2011

Operation Domestic Goddess : Almond Cake and Rosemary Loaf Cake

Today I became further acquainted with Nigella the Contradictory (thus hath she been dubbed in the kitchen of Flat 47).  On the one hand, she persistently advocates making things easy, taking shortcuts, preparing things in advance, etc.  Most of her cake batters are thrown together in a food processor.  Is that normal?  Maybe it is over here, but it was a new concept to me... On the other hand -- and despite her own claims that "None of the ingredients listed should prove troublesome" -- she has a penchant for exotic, hard-to-find and/or expensive ingredients that no average person normally keeps on hand.  Today wasn't the wildest example -- marzipan is easy to find, I just had never used it before -- but looking ahead through the book I see that we shall eventually require things like rosewater, pomegranate molasses, greengages, and gold leaf.  Maybe you tend to keep gold leaf lying in the cupboard, but it's not a staple here.
Nigella's starting us off gently, though, with some easy batters.  Today R and I decided to double up and do two recipes since we had the time, inclination, and necessary ingredients (how often does that happen?).  We made the Almond Cake first, our inaugural foray into using marzipan.  
Marzipan is a thick, sticky paste of sugar and ground almonds that comes in a block like the one pictured and can be rolled out and formed into various shapes -- or, as it happens, cubed and added to cake batter!  I expected the marzipan to have a really strong almond flavor, but when I sampled a piece of it (which I did several times...you know, quality control and all that...) I found that it's really mild.  After I stopped snacking on the raw marzipan, we threw it in the food processor with butter and sugar.  Eggs and almond extract (boosting the almond flavor perfectly) are added next, and finally the dry ingredients are pulsed in until you end up with a very smooth batter:
Now, at the dry ingredients point of the proceedings we discovered a slight lapse in Nigella's concentration.  The woman asks you to "mix the flour and baking powder..."  "What baking powder, Nigella?" you might ask, and with good reason, because after consulting the ingredients list three times you still do not see baking powder called for.  Tsk, tsk, tsk...We threw in a teaspoon of the stuff and hoped for the best.
What baking powder?
We don't have the cake mold Nigella recommends using, so we split our batter into two round pans and sandwiched the cakes.  In between the two layers is some of the passionfruit curd we bought recently, as well as some whipped cream with a little bit of orange juice for flavor.  Dieters beware: there is a lot of butter in this cake.  And six eggs.  But we plan to top it with berries, which will make it healthy.  Note how that was an assertion, not a question.
Next up in our carbohydrate double-feature was the Rosemary Loaf Cake!  I'm an unabashed rosemary addict.  When I lived with my aunts for a little while after college I would often go out into the yard and run my hands across their enormous rosemary plants, relishing the aroma the leaves left on my palms.  It now always makes me think of those two incredible women.  But I don't just love it for sentimental reasons (cue Linda Ronstadt); I love the flavor it imparts to both savory dishes and baked goods.  I may or may not have thrown in a bit more rosemary than Nigella called for, and an entire sprig across the top...
R and I were both REALLY pleased with the results!  This cake was more flavorful and a much more enjoyable texture than the Madeira Cake; very moist and soft.  We ate it topped with some Bramley apple compote that I made recently.  Apple and rosemary is a perfect flavor combination.  Delicious!

18 October, 2011

My Favorite Driving Song

It was summer in Elkton, Maryland. I was eight (I think...The Elkton years have all melded into one golden era that seemed like it would last forever). We piled into the white Dodge caravan with Dad and headed to a friends' house. At that time in my family's life we didn't listen to very much music...I guess my 6,000 siblings and I provided enough sonorous distraction on our own. But on this day the sky was too blue and our hearts were too buoyant - we could not be without song. Dad tuned the radio to the oldies station and sang along to every single song. I felt jealous and intrigued - jealous that I didn't know any of the songs and couldn't join in, but intrigued by this glimpse of my father's history. These were the songs of his childhood and teen years, and as he sang along with a joyful abandon I wondered what memories each song was conjuring up for him. I knew the 30-something tall-dark-handsome family man and amateur landscaper; but these songs were awakening the boy who played a million sports, wore madras suits and spent a whole summer listening to rock records while reading "The Lord of the Rings."

Suddenly I heard it for the first time: "A long, long time ago - I can still remember how that music used to make me smile..." Dad's eyes lit up. He turned up the volume, rolled the windows all the way down, and lifted his voice. I remember it all vividly. I was young, but I remember having a keen sense that there was something different about this song. It was catchy, which we equate with happiness, but this song wasn't entirely happy. There was something lost, something being mourned. I didn't really understand it, but I loved it. And I loved that it was eight minutes long, giving me time to learn the chorus and sing it with my dad. I think that was the day I started to understand bittersweet.

I still love when my dad sings something from his past. And I still love to sing with him. And I will always love me some "American Pie" by Don McLean, preferably while driving fast with the volume up and the windows down. What's your favorite driving song?

17 October, 2011

Four Days in Sweden

Monday, 10 Oct. 2011
2:53am - Car arrives to take me to Stansted Airport for my 6:05 flight to Sweden. I ask the driver how he's doing this morning.  He says, "Fine, fine," then swiftly moves to protect himself from any further conversation with me by turning up the radio.
4:00am - Zipper of borrowed duffel bag breaks just as I enter the security line. The rest of the traveling public gets to admire my orderly packing job.
4:45am - Still no gate number. I mill around the main terminal and decide that Stansted is basically a big warehouse that became an airport by accident. Whilst waiting I chat with an Irishman who's flying back to Cork on holiday. "You must have some Irish blood in ye," he says, "because you're so chipper and chatty." Thank you?
10:35am - I finally have Swedish kronor in my wallet and a cup of Zoegas coffee in my hand, and am on a bus taking me closer to my dear Swedish friends. Bus driver announces that "This bus is equipped with seat belts. And the law in Sweden tells us that we have to use the seatbelts." His tone implies that he doesn't think much of the law.

[This is where I stop keeping track of time] I'm met in Linköping by Karin, and we're soon joined by Caroline, who triumphantly glides up to us on her shiny new blue bike. We follow her to Berget Cafe & Tehus for lunch, coffee, and dessert. 
I absolutely love Swedish "Dammsuggare," which translates to "vacuum cleaner" because it's as if the marzipan coating has sucked up all the bits of broken cookie inside!

Tuesday, 11 Oct. 2011
Karin, my brother-in-law J, and I enjoy a long breakfast and a lot of coffee.  We talk about all sorts of things. And I drink more coffee.  I bask in their wisdom.  And did I mention the coffee? 
I take a long walk through the woods surrounding the house. When a beautiful place is described in a book, there is often a mention of the air smelling sweet. I've never exactly known what sweet air smells like, but I think I might have found it...
I go into town and have lunch with J and the pastor's family. We eat something that I've only ever seen in Sweden: kebab pizza. Shaved meat, onions, spicy sauce on top of pizza dough...It's delicious and I don't know why it hasn't made its way to the States.
That night J and I watch some [European] football.  I wonder if the day will ever come that I don't need to have the offside rule explained to me again.

Wednesday, 12 Oct. 2011
I take a bus to Jönköping to visit J's sister Jenny and her husband.  As we pass the enormous lake Vättern, I think what a treat it is to see water that's actually blue (no offense, River Thames).  Sweet Jenny and I do a little shopping, then head back to her flat for good conversation and good food.  I think how rich my life is, rich with relationships and opportunities I didn't earn or expect, but now can't imagine living without.  All this, and heaven too?  Amazing.

Thursday, 13 Oct. 2011
I embark on my journey back to London (train to Linköping; bus to Skavsta; plane to Stansted; train to Liverpool Street; Tube to Canada Water) thinking that I've got everything under control.  I'm used to public transport. I've even managed this whole traveling-alone-in-a-non-English-speaking-land thing without any major disasters, public embarrassments, or reinforcements of the "obnoxious American" stereotype.  What could really go wrong?  Well.  I'll tell you what could go wrong.  What could go wrong is that the train station could decide to not provide English instructions for the coin-operated public restrooms.  All I can discern is that I must insert 5 kronor into a slot in order to open the door, activate the lights, and use the toilet.  But when the lights switch off after 30 seconds and someone else inserts coins and opens the door, it occurs to me that maybe I should start learning Swedish pronto; it would've been nice to know that 5 kronor only buys you 30 seconds of privacy...
So I end up having to play the ignorant American card after all, to escape the angry tirade of the intruder.  Happily, no incidents more serious (read: embarassing) than that occur over the rest of my journey.  I've enjoyed beautiful Sweden and my beautiful friends, but it's rather nice to be back where they speak my language.  Toward the end of the 90-minute flight, at the moment when we finally break through the clouds and see the green fields of England below us, this thought involuntarily floats through my mind: "Oh, good -- I'm home again."

Operation Domestic Goddess: Madeira Cake

Nigella Lawson is a slightly odd bird. Odd in a fascinating way, so that I really can't help but like her. She's an incredibly smart, articulate woman, but there is something about her tv presentation style that flirts with the edge of the ridiculous. She has a breezy air about her, throwing in "splodges" and "smidges" of things and sharing kitchen shortcuts in a joyfully subversive, "I-can't-be-bothered-with-stodgy-technique" sort of way. Should I trust her as an expert? I don't know, but she's just so darn likeable.

Eccentricities aside, her food is really quite good. One of my favorite things to make at the holidays is her Pomegranate Jewel Cake, which looks and tastes wonderful. A good one to tuck away if there are any gluten-intolerant people in your life, as it uses ground almonds in place of flour.

The first time we met, R and I bonded over our mutual fascination with Nigella. We've decided that over the next .....however many weekends, we're going to bake our way through her book "How to be a Domestic Goddess." Not only will we get to indulge our love of baked goods, we also hope to make a lot of new friends since we'll need help eating it all!

First up, "My Mother-in-Law's Madeira Cake."
It's somewhere between a sponge and a pound cake, flavored simply with lemon zest. My reliable sources over at Wikipedia tell me that Madeira Cake is so named because it was typically served with Madeira wine for dessert in the 19th century. It's a very easy, basic loaf cake; I must admit that I wasn't exactly swept away by it on its own, but it's a great vehicle for various toppings.

--Which is my oh-so-subtle segue to telling you about our curd and chutney shopping spree! We went to a wine and cheese festival on the Southbank last Saturday and ended up buying four jars of deliciousness from this company's stall. I can't decide which curd to try first with the cake: lemon lime, or passion fruit? Or, shoot -- both!

04 October, 2011

Street Shenanigans

It is funny to experience London again after three years in DC. DC is organized on a grid of sensible, predictable streets running north-to-south (numbers) and east-to-west (letters), with a few diagonal avenues (states) thrown in there just to keep things exciting. An average person with an average sense of direction can navigate with relative ease. London, however...Ah, London. Its streets are an entirely different beast, a pulsing bundle of off-shooting nerves that tell the story of a city in their wildly diverse names, widths, and directions. When I am on a ramble with no real deadline or intended destination, it's the most delightful place to be because there is something new to discover any which way I turn. "Sweden Gate," "Helsinki Square," "Greenland Quay," and "Russia Dock" all help tell the story of the former shipping and trading activity in the Docklands. "Bread Street" and "Saffron Hill" remind us of things sold or grown long ago on spots that have long since been paved over to make way for a metropolis. "Gracechurch Street" -- well, Pride and Prejudice, need I say more?

So when there is time to bask in my discoveries, I love the rhyme-and-reason-less tangle of London streets. However, when I really need to be on time or am trying to find a specific place, the Washingtonian in me rears her ugly head. Would it hurt to be just a little bit more systematic, Britain? What's wrong with letters and numbers? Why does the same street change names five times? Why does the GPS say that my flat is in the river?! Was there a secret meeting between the city planning authorities and the cab drivers to craft an elaborate scheme ensuring that tourists get so lost, they give up and hire a cab? Or is it just the result of your national obsession with walking, walking, and more walking?

DC loves efficiency, order, and clear definitions between groups. London is happier to sacrifice those things for greater visual interest, the preservation of stories, and a real organic flow from neighborhood to neighborhood. When all's said and done, the latter approach really is fun. Just keep a map handy. :)

My re-acquaintance with the grand muddle of London streets has reminded me of "How to be an Alien," George Mikes's wonderful little book of observations on Britain and the British. Here is his analysis of this whole street situation: http://f2.org/humour/howalien.html#Plan