Sunday, 31 March 2013

Chocolate slot machine

It is rare that my brother is able to dredge up embarrassing memories from my past of which I have no recollection whatsoever. Last night, over whisky, he told me of an occasion over Christmas about thirty years ago when we had both been given one of those chocolate selection packs: Bounty bars, Milky Ways and so on. At the time, he was very keen on the concept of the slot machine - pressing buttons, pulling levers and so on. With a degree of cunning that I find it hard to imagine I possessed at the age of nine, I persuaded him to join in a game in which I had invented a chocolate slot machine. I think it was made out of a duvet. All he had to do was press imaginary buttons and in return he would receive a bar of chocolate. The only payment was that the slot machine's controller would take an initial bite out of the bar of chocolate in question. What William failed to recognise at the time was that this was HIS selection pack of chocolate and I was therefore appropriating my brother's rightful property...

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Steak

Is steak the quintessential classless dish? There are examples dotted throughout film, television and literature of all manner of people making it their (usually evening) meal of choice, and being quite protective about it.

Such as Enid Blyton's Fatty Trotteville, going into the kitchen, having declined to divide his steak among his friends, to make love to the cook and fishing half-cooked onions out of the frying pan.

Shirley Valentine's husband, livid when his Thursday steak is fed to the neighbour's far from vegetarian bloodhound and he is presented with egg and chips instead: "What's this?"

The wailed "Where's my steak and onions?" from a film whose name I can't even remember.

The splendid diet of beefsteak prescribed for the hypochondriac (the one who reads a medical encyclopaedia and discovers he has everything bar Housemaid's Knee) in "Three Men and a Boat".

There is even the glorious moment in my favourite television programme as a child, Rentaghost, when one of the ghosts is ordered to produce a steak to put on somebody's injured eye. Instantly magicked up is a very tempting looking plate of fried steak, chips and peas. Rejected by the wife of the injured party ("Not that kind of steak - a RAW steak you idiot!"), the plate is grabbed by a greedy Christopher Biggins: "I'll have that. Delicious!"

Also from childhood, I remember a particular strip in the recently defunct "Dandy" comic, which was one of the regular adventures of "Bertie Buncle and his Chemical Uncle". In this particular story, the uncle produces in a test tube a synthetic smell of steak and onions, which Bertie "borrows" and takes to school. He surreptitiously undoes the stopper in the classroom where one of those teachers who continued to exist in comics until at least the eighties sits in front of a blackboard, wearing mortar board and gown and brandishing a cane. The teacher is unable to discover the source of the delicious aroma wafting visibly across the classroom and licks his lips: "That smell is beginning to make me hungry. Slurp!" In the next picture, we see the steak-and-onions smell still drifting past the now suffering teacher's nose: "Oh dear, I can't stop thinking about food". Next we see him yelling manically as he leaps from his desk: "Class dismissed! We're all starving!" And finally, they are all wrestling with one another in the tuck shop, food flying everywhere, the teacher at the front of the queue, gown flapping. And all because of steak.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Pashka

It is hard to describe this without either sounding as though I am exaggerating...or as though I might be trying to put you off eating it. I think it's indescribable. The nearest thing to Ambrosia I have ever eaten?

I have heard it described as "Russian Easter Cake" but it really isn't like cake. My father described it as similar to "raw cake mixture" (don't forget how that was always so much nicer than the finished product). But unlike raw cake mixture, you really can eat large quantities of this without regretting it. My personal theory is that it's due to the sour ingredients offsetting the sweet in an impeccable combination. It is supposed to contain all the ingredients you are not supposed to eat during Lent.

The following recipe was handwritten for my mother by the granddaughter of a Russian woman - Kyra Mahoney - who, if my memory of family legend serves me correctly, left Russia as the revolution started. When my mother enthused and begged for the recipe, she was a little chary about disclosing it... Her daughter Chris, my mother's oldest friend, said that her mother would stand at the stove, stirring endlessly. These were pre-Google days. Eventually, Kate, her granddaughter, managed to obtain her Nan's recipe - and it is in front of me now: blue biro on green paper, and the ingredients in evidence on the paper. Here it is, unamended:

"1 lb cream cheese
1 lb cottage or curd cheese
8 oz butter
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 gills (6 fluid oz) sour cream
10 oz caster sugar
1 - 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla essence
6 oz blanched almonds (flaked)
4 oz seedless raisins
3 oz mixed candied peel

Mix cream and cottage cheese together and turn into a cheesecloth.

Leave in a cold place (not fridge) to drip overnight to make sure that cheese is really dry.

Next day, rub through a nylon or hair sieve.

Melt butter and allow to cool but not to set again.

Turn egg yolks and sour cream into a basin and mix together.

Add sugar and vanilla and whisk altogether for about 10 minutes or until sugar has dissolved. (Remember this was written before electric instruments were used).

Stir into the sieved cheese.

Add almonds, raisins and chopped candied peel and turn into a heavy saucepan.

Put the pan on a very low heat and cook stirring continuously.

When mixture shows signs of boiling (in about 1/2 hour) remove it from the heat at once (1st bubble) and stir until it is almost cold.

Take a sterilised flower pot (nearest approximation to a pashka mould) or a similar shaped vessel (not metal) of about 2 1/2 pint capacity with draining hole(s). Line it with cheesecloth and urn in prepared mixture.

Set the pot on a rack over a plate. Lay a piece of greaseproof or waxed paper over the mixture, set a saucer or small cake tin base in a plastic bag on top and weigh down about 2 lb weight.

Leave in a cold place/refrigerator if poss overnight.

Saucer must just fit inside lid of pot. We don't bother with greaseproof or plastic bag but fold excess muslin over top of pashka. I hope you like it."

Here is some commentary on the above, based on my having made it twice.

Bear in mind that the very first bit needs to be done in advance, but it takes fewer than 10 minutes: I recommend a Good Friday night and have an unhurried Easter Saturday making it: it doesn't actually take that long - say two hours before it's in the moulds and ready to go in the fridge. But one of the many points of this is that there is real pleasure to be derived in making it so give yourself plenty of time.

I use tea towels as my cheesecloth.

I use unsalted butter.

I use vanilla extract rather than essence.

This is the only recipe I know that uses gills as a unit of measurement.

The toughest part of this recipe is pushing the cream cheese and cottage cheese through the sieve!

There is no indication in this recipe as to when the butter is supposed to go in. I put it in once I've mixed the egg yolks and sour cream.

I approve of making it in a flower pot and have one that I use exclusively for Pashka. The photograph is of one made in London and eaten in Winchester.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Cornucopia

In Scandinavia, there is the Smorgasbord. In France, Hors d'oeuvres. Not to mention canapés. Spain: Tapas. Japan: Sushi. Greece and Turkey: Mezze. Italy: Antipasti. China: Dim Sum. India: Chat. There is even the Cornucopia in the Arabian Nights.

A too little-known children's book from the nineteen thirties called Street Fair has some wonderful descriptions of food. Here is a description of hors d'oeuvres from a restaurant that was frequented by Marcel Proust:

"The waiter brought a lot of little dishes filled with delicious bits of food; there were small dark olives, quartered hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise, sliced tomatoes, sardines, anchovies, sliced beets, quartered hearts of artichoke, tuna fish, radishes, rice with peppers -"

Even though one of the adults claims that this is "really too rich", we are told the waiter also "brought a plate of sausages with bright-coloured odours, three kinds of ham-"

But all the children are permitted are some radishes and tomatoes. "That was worse than not having any".

In England, we have the cold buffet. Much too severe an expression. "What a spread", people say brightly and politely, hoping there will be at least something there that's edible. Far too often, there is so-called quiche, wet and soggy, flabby chicken drumsticks and nasty little Scotch Eggs filled with a suspicious scrambled egg mixture.

I much prefer the term "cold collation" (or, better still, Granny's term, "cold collage"), particularly if it resembles Dr Watson's experience:

"It was after five o'clock when Sherlock Holmes left me, but I had no time to be lonely, for within an hour there arrived a confectioner's man with a very large flat box. This he unpacked with the help of a youth whom he had brought with him, and presently, to my very great astonishment, a quite epicurean little cold supper began to be laid out upon our humble lodging-house mahogany. There were a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pâté de foie gras pie with a group of ancient and cobwebby bottles. Having laid out all these luxuries, my two visitors vanished away, like the genii of the Arabian Nights, with no explanation save that the things had been paid for and were ordered to this address."

I wonder about the pâté de foie gras pie. The use of the word "pâté" rings alarm bells. If one is going to eat the stuff at all, it should be the genuine article: foie gras. No pâté about it. Would this, I wonder, have been simply foie gras en croute? I think I saw one of these in Selfridges's before they banned it. Finally, I note that the meat and wine is catered for but there is no mention of carbohydrates. Would the caterers have brought a salad or two with them? Potatoes dressed with olive oil and lemon juice? Some lettuce leaves?

Even without the vegetables, this sounds like a meal fit for a peer of the realm, as it is indeed intended. For understandable reasons, the peer walks out before the meal begins.

But unfortunately we did not walk out before a particularly unpleasant "cold buffet" we experienced several years ago. The party had been that most risky of events: those who were not hangers-on like us had been asked to bring their own contributions to the food. My father commented afterwards that the only thing he found that he could bear to eat on that table was his mother's pizza even though the pizza had had baked beans in it.

"Acres of disgustingness", shuddered my mother when we were a safe distance away. She then muttered something unflattering about the provinces. But her finest line, summing up her indignation at the evening wasted, was a reference to someone, admittedly shorter than average and admittedly tedious, who had monopolised her throughout the evening:

"And who was that monstrous dwarf?"

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Strawberry milkshake

Packets of Tunnocks Caramel Wafers; tins of Condensed Milk; and bottles of Strawberry Crush. These were things that my parents used to buy at Sainsbury's when we were all younger - but they were not, as might be expected, intended for my brother and I. They were for my father. My brother and I would, naturally, help ourselves to the odd caramel wafer. And, on occasion, the odd milkshake.

My father once found me in the kitchen mixing Strawberry Crush and milk and immediately took over at the brown work surface. Tipping double cream into a blender, adding the mixture I had prepared earlier, he skilfully blended all the ingredients together, giving a running commentary: "Now, I whipped the cream before adding it". Finally, he presented the result to me in a tall glass. "I think you'll find that's pretty special."

Many years later, I was thousands of miles away, in Madras as it was then called. A short walk along the Poonemallee High Road from the school where I was teaching and living, was a restaurant called the Gouri Shankar. Sometimes, instead of food cooked by the Ayah, we would each receive a plate of noodles or fried rice brought in from the restaurant. My high ideals - before arriving in India, I wouldn't have contemplated the notion of being served with special, costly food at the school's expense - were abandoned. The noodles, in particular, were delicious. Shona and Tory were the other volunteers. Towards the end of our time at the school, possibly a little impatient with the restrictions, we would sometimes venture out in the evening and head to the Gouri Shankar. It wasn't quite the pub that Tory longed for but it was atmospherically dark, chillingly air-conditioned and the noodles, as I say, were delectable. Plus they did rather good strawberry milkshakes. I had one on my nineteenth birthday. Not quite as good as the one my father made.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

My Favourite Cafe

When we lived in Coventry for the first seven years of my life, we used to shop in the Precincts. One of those terms like "ring road" and "dual carriageway" with which I was very familiar due to regularly hearing it. But I did not know exactly what it meant.

The precincts spread far and wide and, doing a morning's shopping, we would range over them, going into shops here and there, retracing our steps on occasion. Sometimes the sight I longed for came into view, from a number of different angles. But it would be a very rare occasion that we would venture in.

My favourite cafe was round. It was on the highest level of the precincts and to reach it you had to walk up a ramp. Walking up it, the lower levels of the precincts far below, was almost like crossing a moat to reach a castle. Inside, it was a Wimpy bar. These were the days before McDonald's persuaded them to get their act together and so there was, for example, a ketchup-encrusted plastic bottle on each table in the shape of a tomato.

I would tend to have the same thing: a fillet o' fish: an orange breadcrumbed square, with chips. Puddings were out of the question, beg as I might, but I would look longingly at the photographs on the menus with wordy descriptions of what was on offer. The idea of a Banana Longboat thrilled me, with its piles of "cocktail fruit" and scoops of vanilla ice cream. Then there was the "Brown Derby" which I used to pronounce as though it rhymed with herby. A sort of doughnut, I seem to recall.

More often than to my "Favourite cafe", if we ate out at all during these shopping expeditions, it would be to Elizabeth the Chef we would go: a steamy, bustling coffee-scented place that was altogether more sophisticated than the frankly greasy and tatty Wimpy Bar. But it didn't have the tomato-shaped bottles on the table, no fillet o' fish, and no Banana Longboats.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Thunder and Lightning

I cannot recall where I first came across this - the label on one of the ingredients? - but as soon as I did, it fell into the category of "Can't go wrong". The ingredients are very simple: Honeycomb and clotted cream - "but don't bother about the bread please", as A A Milne once wrote in relation to the honey part. Actually, I do bother about the bread. Ideally, a warm fruit bun. It is my Christmas breakfast of choice and a fitting prelude to the excesses which are to follow.

Further thoughts about clotted cream. I am filled with horror if anyone stirs in the crust on top. On the other hand, I am always delighted to meet someone who dislikes clotted cream, such as my godfather Douglas, because then I can have his share. My aunt Ce-Ce takes the view that there is only one fitting accompaniment to clotted cream: a spoon. She wouldn't bother with the honey. Uncle Brian, on the other hand, would let me have his share of clotted cream. He calls it "cow slime". Jack Spratt...

One of the things I recall about the first ever flight I took - Glasgow to Heathrow - was being presented with a small tub of clotted cream to have with my scone. My father, who had been given one as well, proposed (is that in the middle of suggested and insisted?) that we should share one of the tubs and take the other home for my brother. I agreed but not happily. I regret to report that the tub brought home went sour.

Nigel Slater has an interesting take on it which is that a much better concept than a scone with jam and clotted cream is a croissant with jam and clotted cream. As in so many other things, he is right. Scones are over-rated, a bit virtuous, tiring to chew: possibly a useful antidote to the richness of the cream - but frankly why bother?

Mum made her own clotted cream on a couple of occasions. It involved leaving a heavy flat dish to sit for several days, so she abandoned use of one bathroom which became the dairy. The result was extraordinary: clotted cream but even more so. The nearest commercial equivalent I have ever eaten is some "raw cream" I found once at Borough Market.

I have rarely ventured into Cornwall but when I paid a short visit there a number of years ago, I was determined to take home some clotted cream. I expected to find a modestly-sized, slightly over-priced tub illustrated with pixies or similar. What I found at the junction of a steep road in a very basic grocery store was far better: a large square litre-sized tub, more normally associated in my mind with vanilla ice cream. Packed to the top with thick yellow, granular clotted cream.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Allotment on the Underground

It was a cold night shortly before Christmas, a time for having "It's a Wonderful Life" moments.

On my way to drinks with a friend, I arrived by tube at Kilburn, a place I'd describe as "edgy" or even "gritty". Neither of which descriptors are intended critically. Having arrived from more manicured parts of London, I knew that, among other things, I was guaranteed to find on Kilburn High Street my two remaining bits of Christmas shopping, namely a pie tin and some Polish Kabanos.

On the platform I saw it: a small low-walled patch of vegetation. But not merely flowers. Vegetables. Herbs. And a sign explaining that this was an allotment run by volunteers and that anyone was welcome to pick their own vegetables, provided they left some for others. Chives are my thing so I picked one there and then and nibbled it. I then left and, glowing, headed to Kilburn High Street.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Gammon

My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Cecil; it is part of family legend that we are descended from Elizabeth I's Secretary of State. Another is that we have all inherited something called the "Cecil Mean Gene". That is to say, put at its gentlest, we avoid spending money and gain serious satisfaction from a bargain. Last night, I found myself in precisely that frame of mind while wandering around the supermarket. I lingered over the "Reduced to Clear" shelves, a place where there is a hint of tension. Will anything really exciting arrive there during my survey, so I get first dibs? Will someone manage to grab something before I do? I tend to watch people like a hawk, noticing what they pick up, occasionally willing them to return it so that I can then snatch it. It's like a return to toddlerhood.

What I found last night was a large piece of gammon which had been reduced to half price - the reason being, I surmised, that the best before date was that very day. Into the basket it went.

At home, I decided to conduct a little experiment. The gammon would be simply roasted. I stuck a few cloves in. Then, taking an idea from Nigella Lawson (cooking ham in coca cola) I tipped over the ham the dregs of a bottle of ginger beer and then smeared some honeycomb on top, put it into a hot oven and waited for a couple of hours.

I think it worked. The ginger beer had completely dried up on the bottom of the roasting tin. The fat of the ham was completely blackened and shiny. The ham itself was neither too moist nor too dry. I had some of the end for breakfast this morning, with unsalted butter, coarse grain mustard, in a hot cross bun.