Competitive Baking

Do you care about the Great British Bake Off? If you don’t, feel free to ignore this post. It is highly inconsequential and mostly about smug backwards-reading prognostication. If you do care – if you’ve been watching and gasping, squealing, oohing and ahhing, then you’ve probably cultivated your own favourites. And I hope, if you’re like me, your favourites are still going strong after passing yesterday’s quarter-final.

It’s not sensible that I should actually like the programme as I do. I had a long, slow disengagement with TV that started when I was still in high school. By the time I had graduated, all I watched was the news, CFL football, and reruns of Northern Exposure on A&E. When I got my own place in the second year of my undergraduate degree, my roommate and I agreed that cooking and playing music were much more important than the screen, and I’ve been without a TV ever since. My wife, fortunately, shared this sensibility.

Despite not watching it, I’ve been pretty comfortable in scorning it, in a lofty, high-culture sort of way. And my biggest sneers have been reserved for reality TV, though since the “reality” of such TV has been so thoroughly debunked, broadcasters have had to come up with alternate categories such as “factual entertainment.” More fabricated than factual, if you ask me, and the competition shows brought out the worst, it seemed. These instant-singer-sensation shows really pissed me off, as an aspiring songwriter and performer. But I could treat it as water off a duck’s back: know it for what it is, accept it for the profit-generating mechanism the broken industry requires, and know that it is inconsequential for what I want to do.

Then we moved to Britain. Then we discovered the BBC iPlayer. Then we relaxed after working, parenting, and studying by choosing quality from among the dross and watching it more or less on our time rather than the canalised settings of terrestrial television. Continue reading

Blackberries Revisited

I felt that same thrill—like I was getting away with something . . . —last summer when I discovered that the wall of our shared back garden was covered with blackberry bushes. Despite receiving no sunlight and poor drainage, the bush was full, and no one else was picking them.

-Michael Munnik, ‘Blackberries’
The Messy Table, 21 October 2013

So long as I’m poaching blog posts from my wife’s online column, this one also resurfaced for me in this move. The guinea pigs are about what we left. The blackberries are about what we have arrived to. When I wrote this post, nearly two years ago, I was grieving a particular loss and trying to make sense of neighbours and neighbourliness. The blackberries in our Marchmont back garden epitomised what infuriates me about the place. The blackberries on Easedale are emblematic of abundant generosity and good company.

Easedale, however, is a small island in the Inner Hebrides, a significant journey from our front door and not, therefore, an emblem we could appreciate with any regularity. Less so now that we are in Cardiff. Right coast, way wrong degree of latitude.

But it matters not: among the many virtues of the house we have moved into is a cluster of blackberries right in the back garden! My daughter was the first to spot it, and we got out with gusto to plunder what was already ripe and beautiful and black. Of course, it is only the beginning of August, so although the stock is small compared to our erstwhile Scottish riches, there are many berries yet to come. I have to chase my youngest away from them, and when we’re all picking, the elder two are good at monitoring him and reminding him that they go in the bowl, not in his gob. Best of all, as my daughter is proud to say, no one can tell us to cut them down.

Pear and blackberry pie, first fruits of our new home.My wife mixed them with pears and baked them in a pie. It was a wonderful completion to our first made meal in our lovely, sunny kitchen. And there will be more pies. This truly redeems what was broken.

Awards for the DIY Cookbook in 2013

Last post, I described my general impressions of America’s Test Kitchen’s DIY Cookbook. But this is a cookbook, right? So we can do better than general impressions. We can talk about recipes and techniques. Below, my gallery of awards for the recipes I made in 2013.

Most Frequent: Almond Butter, sometimes as Peanut Butter. Made a record nine times over the year. It has a stated shelf-life of two months, which means I should have only done six times. But our family goes through the stuff, especially because the neighbourhood school doesn’t prohibit nuts from packed lunches. It worked well, though I call their recipe a “qualified success,” as they don’t find the need for added oil. I buzzed and buzzed. We even got a new and mightier food processor as an early Christmas present when my parents visited after the baby was born. It improved things, but I could not create smooth, spreadable butter with nowt but the nuts. Shelling peanut butter However, it worked, and the kids even loved helping shell the peanuts.

Greatest Success: Ketchup. I can’t tell you how gratifying this simple condiment was. It made me love ketchup again. I had gone off it as an adult, though as a kid it was all I wanted on my hamburger. Our kids, as kids will wont, liked ketchup and I would wrinkle my nose in foodie distaste as I squirted it on their plates. Since it was something of a staple here, I decided to give the recipe a try, and here’s the thing: it worked because it turned out just like ketchup. Only it was my ketchup. I made it, I knew there was nothing funny in it. Improbably, it tasted better because I had made it. That’s not right: it didn’t taste better than Heinz, or the President’s Choice. It tasted good because I made it. I started eating it with my fish and chips. My wife squirts it on her (homemade) mac and cheese. The sheer fact of it is kind of ridiculous, and the recipe is easy to prepare over an evening.

Fail: Crème Fraîche. Not something we typically use in the house, but I tried making it before a tortilla night and it did not set, smelled funny, all the markers of dairy failure. In the cookbook’s defence, we used “reduced for quick sale” cream, and I think the incubation of this recipe requires fresher (the clue is in the name…) not-on-the-cusp cream. So, a qualified fail, but I’m sure if we bothered to try again, we could make it into a success.

Most Economical: Membrillo, though the editors use the Portuguese name Marmelada. Also called Quince Paste for Nigel Farage and others suspicious of foreign words , it is a thick, highly reduced jam that tastes excellent with cheese. It’s that funny deep orangey-red-to-purple jiggly block on the cheese board that some people were slicing into cubes and popping on a cracker with blue cheese or manchego that you didn’t recognise and so left, you fool. We discovered this when walking through Spain eight years ago, and it is lovely. It has a soft texture with a slight grain to it, and it is sweet but not overly so. It is a luxury item at your local cheesemonger, and I understand now why they charge so much for it: it is labour intensive. I made membrillo thrice this year, and each devoured a full Saturday. Not constant work, but continual monitoring and work at stages throughout the process means you have to plan your day around it. But seriously, for the price of three quinces and a bag of sugar, I had blocks of the stuff. I gave it away as presents, and we would just snack on it at night when the kids had gone to bed. If you were actually buying this stuff, such habits would not be practical. Or the revolutionaries would have you pegged as among the first against the wall. Not so when you do it yourself, comrades. So, for sheer monetary comparisons, membrillo wins hands-down.

Fresh Fig and Almond Breakfast Cake

An excellent fig cake, but not a recipe from the DIY Cookbook

(Runner-up: Fig Balsamic Jam. This only became economical for us because I found a flat of fresh figs about to go soft and mouldy at the wholesale greengrocers down the street. Two quid for a flat of figs, some of which we used in an excellent cake, six of which became a fun dessert whilst Granny and Grandpa were visiting from Canada, and the remainder of which made this really awesome jam. But in general, fruit jams are not economical unless you grow the fruit yourself. Fun, yes, and eminently worthwhile. But not cost-saving.)

Least Economical: Vanilla Extract. They tried to tell me the opposite: “cheaper, better, it lasts forever… You’re crazy if you don’t start making your own vanilla extract today,” writes Rebecca Morris. Maybe, if you’re comparing it against the luxury brand stuff at the posh boutique. But your bog-standard vanilla extract remains cheaper at the store. Vodka is not negligible, even if you’re using discount brands, and then there’s the matter of vanilla beans. Two quid a pop at the store down the road, and they wanted eight (8)?!? I’m sure the flavour would be justifiably intense and lovely and flowery and whatever. I’m not at such a peg in the plutocracy that my vanilla extract can demand this investment of me. We ordered beans online at what worked out to be a pound apiece (before shipping…) and I still cheated and used just two. And it tasted fine. That we have gone through our 250ml of the stuff in half a year suggests to me it is not yet worth the investment to up the foodie factor by experimenting with more or different beans.

The Buffalo: Candied Ginger. Award so named from our friends among the nations of Canada’s Prairies, who, so the story goes, used every part of the buffalo: the meat, the hide, the bones, let nothing go to waste. From Candied Ginger, I got the eponymous candied ginger as well as ginger-flavoured sugar (good in your tea) and the syrup it boiled in, which went down a treat with some fizzy water. Seriously, we did not actually get through all the candied ginger the recipe made before it went bad (two week shelf-life), but I would make it again and again for the syrup. Perhaps this should really be called the Blessed Byproduct Award.
(Runner-up: Ketchup. Not quite as impressive, but the solids that remain after you press the ketchup through a sieve make a nice base for a sauce. Tomato and onion and loads of condensed flavour.)

Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread

Fake Nutella, baby!

Brag About It Online: Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread. I put my Fake Nutella photos on Facebook to considerable acclaim. Also gave as gifts to neighbourhood friends who also follow the unusually continental ritual of putting chocolate on toast. Though Ketchup wins my success award, this stuff won my heart.
(Runner-up: Bacon Jam. Because when you type “____ _____ made bacon jam” into the internet, people get excited.)

Good Weird: Bacon Jam. The award’s name comes from a frozen concentrated juice my flatmate Ben and I used to get as undergraduates: orange strawberry banana. It sounded, looked, and tasted good and weird, so we called it Good Weird Juice. Bacon jam is this. This was the recipe, in fact, that made my wife think this was the right Christmas present for me. It has coffee in it, maple syrup, chili powder, and lots more. Plus, it is bacon and it turns into jam. But yes! Stir it in your pasta, spread it on toast, add it to a sandwich. Excellent stuff. I thought we were ahead of the curve on this one, but I spotted a jar of it on the shelf at Waitrose this past year, making me think I am only inside the curve. Apparently North America is already reasonably well-acquainted with the stuff. And so it should be. NB: also would be a good runner-up for “least economical,” at least in my books, as it demands 1/3 c. of maple syrup. Here in Scotland, that is a costly investment. The stuff doesn’t just grow on trees, you know!

Most Innovative: Worcestershire Sauce. They get points for taking something that is commercially produced through fermentation and doing it with spices instead. I’m not opposed to fermentation—neither are they. They have a whole section on pickles. But they wanted this cupboard staple to be a little more accessible, and with a funky blend of ingredients, they got it spot on.

Kids’ Favourite: Chocolate Sandwich Cookies. I was surprised by the unanimous vote of my 7- and 5-year-olds. Oreos are not such a huge part of our lives that Fake Oreos should be such a revelation. They just liked them a lot. This also win the Deserves Its Own Blog Post Award – watch this space for details.Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

Wife’s Favourite: Membrillo. Although she went “ooh” when I read out Raspberry-Peach Spreadable Fruit from the list of accomplishments at year’s end. But she’d forgotten that one, so maybe it wins Good but Forgettable. As, perhaps, so many of these things ought to be, just becoming absorbed into your daily life. But the membrillo stands out for her.

And in the next post, awards for some of the recipes I didn’t make.

My Year with the DIY Cookbook

The DIY Cookbook in our kitchen

“Magic”: The DIY Cookbook

On Christmas 2012, my wife gave me a copy of the DIY Cookbook, from America’s Test Kitchen. It was a savvy choice: she tossed between it and Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways—a poetic, thoughtful meditation on the inner worth of walking, also a frequenter of various “best books of 2012” lists. But that book requires attentive reading and could inspire seditious thoughts, such as, “Let’s go walking again,” whereas the cookbook is easy to dip in and out of. As I am in the middle of a PhD right now, too much absorption could be a bad thing. Also, I gave her a copy of The Old Ways, so they both ended up in the house without any comedy and return trips to the bookshop during the dreaded post-Christmas sales.

Now, the DIY Cookbook is not just any cookbook. It will not teach you how to make a blingy spaghetti or crazy braised veal anything, nor does it track down whiz-bang bread recipes from across the planet, much as I love cookbooks which do that sort of thing. This is about creating in your home the things you typically buy already made. It is about kitchen staples, forgotten traditions, guilty pleasures, and ubiquitous condiments. It is for people who look at the label and think, “What is that, how do I pronounce it, and what will it do to me?” It is for people who know that glucose/fructose, modified corn ingredients, and organic dehydrated cane juice all mean sugar but that breaking it down under different terms means it doesn’t look like Product X is just full of sugar. It’s also about restoring a little competency to our diet of practices. It is Makerism, and I know this is a hotly contested field, but I don’t mind taking a small amount of pride in being able to do something myself1.

Not only that, it’s devised by freakishly assiduous kitchen scientists. The collective authors of this book tried many different versions, tinkering with time, temperature, and process to get you something that is (most of the time) as good as what you could buy at the supermarket. I qualify “as good as” because sometimes it turns out much, much better. I haven’t yet met recipes in here that fall below the store-bought iteration (with one exception; details next post).

So, rigorous in its testing, affirming in its ethics, and revolutionary in its modesty, this was the book for me. The kids call it “Daddy’s magic book” and fancy me something of a mage. Notes in the DIY CookbookI wrote notes and dates every time I cooked with it, intending to describe my year of living with the DIY Cookbook once we ticked over to 2014. Here we are, and here it is.

First, some broad points. It is an excellent cookbook, and I’m glad I received it and worked with it. We already do most of our cooking from scratch, so it wasn’t a chore for me to somehow find the time in my busy life to be in the kitchen making things. I am a full-time doctoral student, a musician and songwriter on the side, the husband of an equally active wife, and the father of two children… no, make that three, because we had a new baby in July. Busy? We all are, mate. Don’t wear it as a virtue, don’t hold it as a shield. Do you want to eat homemade Nutella? Then get to it.

By the numbers: the book offers 99 recipes, plus a few variations. These are broken down into categories such as “pantry” and “dairy.” At the year’s end, I (we: my wife made one of them) made 16 out of the 99. A further nine recipes instruct us on things we already make at home: granola, yogurt, preserved lemons, corn tortillas, etc. If it looked like an improved method, I would give it a shot, but mostly there was no need (and with the Seville orange marmalade, good reason to avoid, methinks; details next post). So, 25 of 99 were manufactured in our home in 2013. Three quarters of the book remain uncharted waters, but remember my personal busy list above. Also, some of these absences were down to infrastructural impediments: software issues (ingredients that were too hard to source), hardware issues (such as the beer-making kit, which we do have and did use back in Canada), or spatial issues (this book is highly North American in focus, and presupposes things like big fridges, garages to store gear, and big extra rooms for preparation, maturation, or storage). I’m not bothered by our low sample rate, because life is long, and it’s not like I need to return the book at the end of the year. There is every reason to expect I can do more of these things next year and in the years to come.

Of what we did do, the pantry items got the highest hit-rate. Pickles, preserved meat, and (very oddly) snacks were complete blanks. But each section had things I would have loved to try, so there is worth across the book. I won’t bore you with the spreadsheet of what I did accomplish. Instead, a selection of awards will follow in the next post, to bring out my encounter with the book and its suggestions.

1 This may have been carried too far in 2013, the year in which I unscrewed and removed the back of my Samsung netbook to identify why my on-off switch wasn’t working when the computer seemed otherwise to be running decently, then ordered the replacement part for £6.50, then popped it in place when it arrived the following day, then restored the software guts from a System Image backup and ta da it was working just like… well, just like before the on-off switch stopped working.