This being a cooking blog, some sort of Thanksgiving post is probably expected. I was going to do one, actually, as I was planning on making pear-ginger tarte tatin. But the pears weren't ripe yet, so I made sweet potato pies again. The pies were good, but was there really anything to say about them? The scope of this blog has mostly only included deliberate experiments (or trying new recipes), and sometimes brief recipes of particularly good improvisations. But in fact "particularly good" is not at all the criterion for which improvised dishes or meals get written here and which don't. There are no criteria really, I just post when I feel like it. Some of the most well-remembered meals, usually those that were made to feed to my family, I never write down at all.
How are these statements connected? "I'm very nervous when people talk about it as a great art." "There's a lot to be said for mindless repetitive activity." "It does not interest me if I'm not feeding people." Well, Nigella Lawson said all of them. In the same interview she said she was unfazed "when How to Be a Domestic Goddess came out and I was railed against for being, you know, a traitor to the sisterhood, despite the fact that it was so obviously ironic." Â Apparently Nigella expects we all share her level of self-consciousness in the nostalgia for domesticity she purveys.
Her story of how she started: when she was working as a journalist, she found space to think in theÂ repetitiveÂ activities of cooking. Â Making food, rather than a necessity, was in her story a psychological tool and a lifestyle choice. Â Instead of feeding people because she's a housewife, she seems to self-consciously enjoy the fantasies that surrounded housewifery. Â But obviously this is not the selfless fantasy of classic femininity. Â One cooks for the pleasure of feeding, including the pleasure of feedingÂ oneself. Â One returns from anÂ exhaustingÂ night of partying to make oneself bread pudding in the semidarkness of one's posh kitchen, and one eats it, alone, in bed. Â If one is Nigella Lawson, one stages all this on camera and, I imagine, laughs about it. Â What makes her so passionate about food, she is asked? Â "I'm greedy."
This blog, on the other hand, is more about curiosity than greed or giving. Â Although in trying new techniques and recipes, I often take part in a bit of both these pleasures.
I was warned that the results of the strange recipe given to me were equally strange. Two â€śstrangeâ€ťs in this limited vocabulary turns from â€śintriguingâ€ť to â€śbad.â€ť So I tried making the much tastier-sounding (and looking) â€śMrs. Hudsonâ€™s Biscuitsâ€ť instead.
125 g. butterâ€¨ 125 g icing sugarâ€¨ 2 tsp vanilla sugar or 2 tsp sugar with 2-3 drops of vanilla extractâ€¨ 1 eggâ€¨ 1 pinch of saltâ€¨ juice and grated peel of 1/2 lemonâ€¨ 125 g. flourâ€¨ 125 g. cornflour 1 knife tip baking powderâ€¨ butter to grease pan
Glaze 100 g. icing sugar 2 tbsps lemon juice
Whip the butter until it is fluffy, then slowly add the icing sugar; Add the vanilla sugar, egg, salt, lemon juice and peel; Add the flour, baking powder and cornflour slowly and mix well; Grease a baking tray with butter; Fill a pastry bag with the dough and press small biscuits onto the baking tray; Bake in a preheated 400F oven for 10-15 minutes Make the glaze by mixing the icing sugar and lemon juice. Brush biscuits with it, and let it dry. Makes about 70 biscuits.
Some of the quantities are in grams. The postage scale I use doesnâ€™t have grams. Here are the quantities (roughly) in ounces:
4 1/2 oz butter (about one stick and another tablespoon)â€¨ 4 1/2 oz icing sugar (somewhat more than a cup) 2 tsp vanilla sugar or 2 tsp sugar with 2-3 drops of vanilla extractâ€¨ 1 eggâ€¨ 1 pinch of salt juice and grated peel of 1/2 lemon (I used the entire lemonâ€™s zest)â€¨ 4 1/2 oz flour (a little more than a cup) 4 1/2 oz cornflour (about a cup)â€¨ 1 knife tip baking powder butter to grease pan
Glaze 3 1/2 oz icing sugarâ€¨ 2 tbsps lemon juice (I just used all the juice from the other half)
Two oopses flopped down as too-late realizations (I suppose thatâ€™s what an oops is) throughout the execution of this recipe. One, in my enthusiasm for not having to go to the store, I used course corn meal instead of corn flour. That there was a difference didnâ€™t even occur to me until I crunched down on a bit of the dough. Two, I preheated the oven to 350 F instead of 400 F. The first batch was baked at 350 F for the first five minutes. Thereâ€™s not quite a third--a mistake, but not an oops: I tried to make a pastry bag to create the neat little shapes pictured along with this recipe that sort of resemble breasts, but as you can see from the photo, it, well, broke. I used a spoon and my fingers instead. Oh well.
And one other, that may not have mattered at all in the end: the recipe said to â€śwhip the butter until it is fluffy.â€ť Not quite knowing how to whip cold butter, I melted it. Mixing icing sugar into this makes for a somewhat disgusting-looking, greasy mess. But as long as the butter has chance to cool a bit before the dough is baked, I donâ€™t think it makes a difference.
They may not be the most perfect replicas, but theyâ€™re quite nice. The lemon flavor is pleasingly strong. My descriptors are very reserved.
A friend of mine found this strange recipe inÂ The Sherlock Holmes cookbook: Or, Mrs. Hudson's storeside campanion formed upon principles of economy and adapted to the use of private families:
3 tbsp Butter 3/4 lb flour 6 oz sugar 1 grated lemon rind and lemon juice 2 eggs
Rub the butter into the flour; stir in the sugar and the lemon peel. When these ingredients are mixed, add the eggs and lemon juice. Beat the mixture well for a few minutes, then drop from a spoon onto a buttered baking sheet, about 2 inches apart. Bake the biscuits from 15-20 minutes in a moderate (350F) oven, until they lightly brown.
Who measures sugar by weight? Â To me 6 oz seems like it isn't much at all. Â The small amount of butter and sugar makes me want to classify these as a tea biscuit--something fairly bland but somewhat sweet. Â But then there are the two eggs. Â Two, for this little batch of dough? Â They're bound to come out like dry, dense cakes (no rising agent here). Â Who knows.
They appear to be a sorrier version of these veryÂ appetizing-looking "Mrs. Hudson's Biscuits."
Bored, and intrigued by the possibility that making these "biscuits" might surprise me, I think I'll make them tomorrow. Â I'm tempted to take the literal approach and actually rub the butter with my fingers into the flour (something i've never done), rather than cut it in with a fork or a pastry blender.
I made sweet potato pie. Â I followed the recipe from the first google hit for "sweet potato pie," with some alterations.
Is this worth writing about?
I made some very broad statements in the last post, as I'm wont to do. Â While I was making the crust for the pie, I kept having to look back at the recipe I adapted from Helen RennieÂ to remember quantities. Â Despite making pastry dough many times, IÂ neededÂ that recipe. Â Or at least I needed its list of quantities. Â The recipe is not disposable. Â It's a kind of helper--somewhere to defer my memory. Â It's an instance of a cliche of how the internet has changed the nature of knowledge: it's not so important if one remembers everything, so long as one knows where to look. Â In the case of recipes however, the internet is not necessary at all--encyclopedic cookbooks have been serving as cyborg extensions of memory for a long time.
So I don't need to know how to make pastry dough. Â I wrote it here in this blog. Â The blog remembers how. Â To return to my question, is this worth writing, let's compare this to my diaries. Â I have boxes and boxes of diaries. Â Most of them I have read at least twice. Â Reading them is at once familiar and surprising--on the one hand, reading them triggers memories and I might also recall writing what I wrote, on the other, I had, up until reading it, forgotten much if not all of what I wrote. Â One is almost always remembering in one way or another, but there is obviously nothing cumulative about it. Â Reading a diary doesn't add to a collection of things I remember, but puts me in a different stream of remembering. Â Through reading the diary some memories come to life again--I think about them again briefly, they might crop up over and over for a long time. Â In other words, the diary must be read, and reading happens in time. Â Having "saved" (the anxiety of losing memories drove much of my diary writing) these memories in a diary, only in the unread text of the diary might they be saved. Â Only without a reader might the text be said to exist as a totality. Â But not really, of course--it isn't anything without being read, is it?
But this blog is not a diary. Â I'm not trying to record the ephemera of experience here. Â A recipe is simply supposed to record a procedure in a way that's followable. Â Actually this isn't so simple, as I've discussed before. Â And thankfully. Â Wouldn't it be awfully dull if even just a recipe could be written in the universal register? Â This suggests another purpose for a recipe: to notÂ be quite followable. Â Not that a recipe writer has to try to do this, but a recipe's potential to confuse, mystify, or unintentionally inspire might be valued. Â Because apparently I need to subject recipes to the literary theories of decades ago.
The pie was good. Â The crust I thought was a bit too hard, although someone else liked it, called it "crunchy." Â I prebaked the crust for fifteen minutes or so before filling it, using the sweet potato pieces in tinfoil as a weight to keep the crust from puffing up. Â Improvising a weight was the most enjoyable part. Â Next time however I'll just fill the unbaked crust, so that the crust turns out softer.
As we discussed earlier, dear nonexistant readers, the ostensible purpose of a recipe is to facilitate recreations of the same result.Â But of course this is not the whole story.Â When youâ€™re most in need of a recipe is when youâ€™ve never made what the recipe tells you how to make.Â At such a delicate time you take care to follow the recipe exactly.Â Having never followed the recipe before, it is easy to misunderstand the recipe.Â Sometimes, by sheer luck, the first time comes out flawlessly.Â More often there are some kinks, which over the next few attempts, are worked out, and finally a satisfactory result is produced.Â After this point, if you need the recipe at all any more, it is more as a memory map than an instruction set.
What is it you have created?Â Your creation conforms to the limited contours that the recipe provides.Â If you were after a replica of what the author sought to instruct you to make, however, there is no way of confirming this.Â Sometimes there are photos, which often provide a more forceful impulse than the recipe itself--you see the photo and think â€śI want to make that.â€ťÂ Itâ€™s sometimes easy to make it look right, sometimes it isnâ€™t.
All these masturbatory, death-of-the-chef preoccupations aside, whether or not the recipe changes, you change.Â At least, this is one way of accounting for culinary disappointments.Â Tonight I made pasta with tomato-cream sauce and shrimp for dinner, and I ate it, but only because I was hungry. Â The flavors were weak, and the textures even a little nauseating. Â Iâ€™ve made pasta with tomato-cream sauce in countless different ways, some less satisfying than others.Â And I keep making some form of it because I remember a few delicious instances of this dish.Â But this time itâ€™s been long enough I wonder if I have any idea what Iâ€™m after.Â If I made what to me was a wonderful pasta dish a year ago, and ate it today, would I like it much?Â There really isnâ€™t any way of finding out empirically.Â If I wrote down the precise recipe for those times when I made a particularly spectacular rendition, I doubt I would be able to reliably cook it again. Â And I doubt I would want to.
A recipe is a much more intriguing beast than it may have appeared.
The general shape inconsistently described above also applies to me writing this entry. Â Through writing, what I wanted to write changed. Â What I thought I was writing changed. Â These changes can hardly be tracked by the writing itself to create something coherent. Â To me it appears that throughout the entry I forgot what I meant to write, and began on a new, somewhat related tangent. Â By the end forgot the import of everything I had just written, summing it up as "intriguing."
I had forgotten about Olga de Trejos' La Cocina Practica. This ardently mundane title resurfaced in a--no, the: I haven't done it in five years or more--thorough cleaning of my room. I think the fact that it's in Spanish, a language I more or less understand but am not very comfortable speaking has a great deal to do with my conviction that there is something to be found in this book. In it's range of recipes it is The Joy of Cooking, but unlike Joy it is more concerned with nutrition facts than technique, and rather than outlining recipes in painstaking specificity, de Trejos, with her exceedingly short recipes, seems to assume you know what she's talking about. Not knowing, in my case, is compounded by the fact that Spanish is not my native tongue. However most of the recipes are nonetheless very recognizable. The book seems to be for the most part (and here's the resemblance to Joy) a convenient anthology of European-derived classics.
So I'm fascinated by a dessert I've never ever heard of: Bizcochuelo de Papa, or, in rough English translation, Potato Cake.
1 libra de papas 6 huevos 9 cucharadas de azĂşcar refinado jugo de 1 limĂłn y cĂˇscara rallada
Se hace un purĂ© con las papas bien calientes para que quede espumoso. Se le agrega el jugo de limĂłn, la cĂˇscara rallada y las 6 yemas bien batidas, con el azĂşcar. Se baten las claras a punto de nieve y se incorporan suavemente a la mescla anterior. Se coloca en un molde engrasado, se espolvorea con azĂşcar refinado y se hornea a calor moderado.
At first, having no idea what bizcochuelo meant, I thought it was a kind of potato pudding, because of the large quantity of eggs. The eggs are separated and the whites are beaten into frothy peaks. I like the spanish metaphor for this: one beats them "a punto de nieve"--"to the point of snow" or "into snow." The beaten egg whites, in my mind, make it a kind of angel food cake, but with potatoes. Why use potatoes in a dessert? The exotic imagination boggles.
My bad English translation of the recipe:
1 pound of potatoes 6 eggs 9 tablespoons sugar juice of 1 lemon and its zest
Make a pure with the hot potatoes so that they stay fresh (sparkling? in spanish espumoso) Mix in the lemon juice, zest and the six egg yolks, beaten well with the sugar. Beat the egg whites to high peaks and fold in the yolk-potato mixture. Put in a greased mold and sprinkle with sugar and bake to a golden brown.
You might notice there is no oven temperature, or, for that matter, baking time. Nor is any shape or size of baking mold specified. But what I really love is the way the recipe begins in the middle of the action. Never mind how the potatoes are cooked, or even if they're cooked--just puree them when they're hot, so that they remain... what? Perhaps someone could help me out with what espumoso means here?
I decided to try it anyway, making the following assumptions: the potatoes would be boiled and mashed without any of the water, the baking temperature would be 350 F, and the baking pan would be whatever I had that seems about the right size to accommodate the batter.
My friend who agreed to join me in this endeavor (as in to make another version and tell me about it) commented that it seems like a lot of eggs for not very much potato. I agree, but when I began mixing it together it began to make sense: the potato paste is very dry, and the six yolks are just enough. Well, five might do.
The result was something very nothing--pleasant and delicate. The metaphysical implications of describing it as â€śvery nothingâ€ť are familiarly appalling, but. Why not give (or allow) it a bit of fruit and/or a glaze? Doesn't this little cake look sad and alone?
PS I just realized that's calor moderado not color moderado. So the recipe does specify oven temperature, albeit vaguely, but not how to tell when it's done.