Move Over Julia

Julia Child at Le Cordon Bleu

Above: Julia Child at Le Cordon Bleu in 1950.  As a child I watched her on Saturday afternoons with my grandmother.

You always want your children to have it better than you did.

By and large life has been pretty good to me, but like everyone else, I entertain the odd fantasy about what I would do if I won the lottery and found myself free to hop off the path that got me here, free to do something quite different.

In my mid teens, there was the odd, fleeting fantasy of becoming a concert cellist.  I prepared myself for this by not practising. This is like training for a marathon without so much as the odd long walk. Some might manage it. I, patently, was not among them.

I traveled in my gap year, sometimes picturing my future as a lone wolf journalist, always moving from trouble spot to trouble spot, dodging bullets to get my story, my luggage battered and my trusty camera my only constant companion. Apart from the fact that I never so much as kept a diary and took very few photographs, it was a thoroughly sound career plan.

Later, under pressure at university, I would dream of fleeing to Berlin and some tree-hugging commune in a run down Kreuzberg tenement.  Making a living didn’t come into it.  The moral high-ground would keep us warm.

Like many others, I worked my way through university in the hospitality industry and enjoyed it very much.  If I didn’t make it through Law, I would throw myself on the mercy of the executive chef of the hotel I worked at and beg for an apprenticeship in his kitchen. But I kept passing those exams.

When a stock market crash meant jobs were scarce, I mentioned my culinary plan B to my mother, who pulled a positively astounding 180 degree move and went from “Be a florist if you want to, but get your degree first.” to “We didn’t put you through university so you could work over a hot stove.” in under 60 seconds.

I have long since reconciled myself to being an amateur, very amateur, cellist, dodging bullets has lost it’s appeal, and frankly, Berlin hasn’t had quite the same cachet since the Wall came down. But the cooking thing has never left me.

Le Cordon Bleu, alma mater of the inimitable Julia Child, beckoned more than once, but Paris and London were far away from home and everything that held me here.  Then last year, they went and opened one right here in Wellington.  For all that it is right under my nose, to a mother of three with a mortgage, it might as well be on the moon.

I never thought one of mine would make it to Le Cordon Bleu before I did.  Certainly not before the age of nine, and especially not Francesca, as a toddler, possibly the most food resistant child in recent times.

Setting aside the intervening increase in appetite, it appears that disinterest in eating is not the same thing as disinterest in cooking.  Ever since Francesca could stand on a chair to see the bench, she has been a keen observer of culinary processes.

Cooking shows have also played their part.  Imagine my delight as my two eldest score every meal out of ten, with constructive criticism on presentation. Apparently I am not alone.  Good friend and partner in crime Natasha’s girls do the same thing.

In case you are thinking that I have spawned some kind of anorexic culinary savant, I should explain.

Natasha’s eldest and mine are of an age and have played together since they were very little.  Francesca was very fortunate in that when her friend got to go to a Petit Cordon Bleu class for her birthday, Francesca was invited to go too.

Classes are held in Le Cordon Bleu’s splendidly equipped kitchens.  A class of eight was taught by chef de cuisine Paul Dicken, aided by assistants who took care of the dangerous tasks: sharp knife work (splitting vanilla pods), deep frying and the like.

The three hour course was packed with content.  The children made hokey pokey  ice cream from start to finish including preparation of the custard base.  They cut pasta, crumbed fish, made pommes William and tuiles.

Back at home, I was struggling with some pasta of my own.  Francesca bobbed into the kitchen proudly bearing the fruits of her labours. “I’ve been using one of those this afternoon too, Mama” she said, eyeing up my very underutilised Imperia.  I was using mine to roll my dough, before slicing my tagliatelle by hand.  “Chef says you need to let the sheets dry a little before you cut them” my earnest little friend told me, helpfully.

imperia-pasta

We had guests coming around for dinner and I was out of time to chat, but the next day she spent the better part of an hour giving dear old Mama a blow by blow account of what they had done, how, why and using what equipment.  She had clearly engaged with the class content.  She was interested and spoke about her experience with quiet confidence.

Would I send her again?  Yes.  It’s costly, so not too often. But in terms of what she’s likely to get out of it, worth it.

The winter holidays are coming up in a couple of weeks, so to keep the momentum going, I’ve signed Francesca and Lydia up for an on-line holiday programme on kids cooking website It’s My Turn to Cook Tonight. We have a couple of house guests and maybe another one or two besides, so I’m preparing to give my kitchen over to the ten and unders for a couple of days.  No idea what the programme will be like, but if nothing else, it should be a good lesson in the use of information technology. There’s nothing to lose. The course is free and if we don’t like it, we can just switch the laptop off and find something else to do.

Not by Bread Alone: Schubert and Cheese Scones

Shirley Verrett

A quick review of my posts and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is another food blog.  And I suppose it is.

A Life Lived Lavishly is about leading a full life, but this is not the same as a life of being full or being chained to a stove. So why so much food talk?

Is it that between cooking and blogging, I don’t get time for much else?  It’s more than that.

Is it that all this blogging coincides with the beginning of the family birthday cycle, Matariki and the Winter Solstice?  That’s part of it.

To me, time with family and good friends is the foundation of a truly lavish life. Show me the time or culture where sharing food has not been a fundamental of social interaction, and I’ll show you a sad and messed up people.

Preparing food involves working with colour and texture, it gives us permission to play like so many preschoolers enjoying finger-painting. Cooking can satisfy our creative side. But so can many other things.  Check out my friend Jennifer’s blog and her 100 day painting project on Small Acts.

And then it’s winter, time to turn inside.  The warmth of hearth and stove draw us close. The nurturers among us like to dispense comfort in the form of warm food and drink.

Take Friday afternoon.  It was really cold and wet when the kids were coming home from school, so as soon as the baby was finished nursing, I got a batch of cheese scones into the oven and the hot chocolate underway. I’m no domestic goddess.  I don’t often bake, but soon my parental leave will be over and I won’t be home waiting for them any more.  I wanted to be able to make my children a simple after school treat while I still could, to play at being the mother I wish I could be all the time

But food is not the answer to everything. That Friday also brought some bad news.  Nothing I won’t get over, but a disappointment nevertheless. You can’t cure everything with a cheese scone, not even a really good one.

Which brings me around to another of the great pleasures and comforts in life.  Music.

Don’t ask me what kind I like. It’s not about genre. It’s something I can’t define.  Some music connects with you in ways nothing else does.  It’s the reason for sacred music, the reason that boys make girls compilations, the reason that some music makes you laugh, some makes you cry, and some just makes you want to dance.  And it’s very, very subjective.

I thought that now and then I might share a link to music that speaks to me.  See if it speaks to you too.  If you don’t like this one, don’t give up on me.  The next one might be quite different.

Friday I caught the tail end of 1998 movie The Governess. Whether or not the film is your cup of tea, I was reminded that the soundtrack included a particularly poignant Schubert Lied, the kind of music that sometimes makes me feel that was born out of my own time.  I can’t find the Ofra Haza recording of Ständchen from the movie, but this Shirley Verrett recording from 1965 should see you right.

In case Schubert is not your thing, here’s the recipe for the cheese scones:

Proper Cheese Scones

Not all cheese scones are created equal.

You may have come across one of those tragic specimens so often touted in supermarkets. You will know it when you meet it.  It is made on the same bulk dough as the rest of the scones and is therefore oddly sweet tasting, it contains very little butter, too much raising agent (giving it a nasty aftertaste and unpleasant mouth feel), it is dry and the only cheese involved will be on top of the wannabe scone.

That we allow this to go on, that we allow our culinary traditions to be so flagrantly dishonoured, verges on a national scandal.  The boys and girls at the EU have the right idea with the TSG scheme.

TSG-Logo

The Traditional Speciality Guaranteed Logo

This recipe is for a real cheese scone, the kind you can serve your mother-in-law in confidence.

The key to a good cheese scone is generosity.  Cheese scones are not meant to be a health food.   If you want to strip out the hard cheese and the butter, I strongly suggest, no, I beg you, find something else to bake instead.

  • 4c plain (all purpose) flour
  • 4 level tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • a generous grinding of black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper or hot chili powder, optional
  • 1/4 tsp dry mustard powder, optional
  • 100g (3 1/2oz) of butter, softened but not melted
  • sharp cheddar (or a combination of edam, tasty cheddar and parmesan) about 150 to 200g (5 1/2  to 7 oz) or 3 to 4 cups grated
  • enough milk to bring together a soft very moist dough, about 1 1/2 cups

1. Preheat your oven to 220 C or 430 F. Line a baking sheet (cookie tray) with non-stick baking paper.

2. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, cayenne and mustard powder into a large mixing bowl.  This step is important as it helps to incorporate air into the dough.  The higher you hold your sieve the better.

3. Using only your finger tips (you don’t want to overwork the flour), rub the butter into the flour mixture.  Keep your hands high and let the mixture fall back into the bowl (more of the air thing).

4. Stir in the cheese(s).  Now add enough milk to give you a very soft dough. Bring the dough together using a wooden spoon then working briskly with your hands (again, not overworking the dough).  Aim for a dough that is wet as possible, whilst still allowing you to handle it with well floured hands. If your dough is too dry, your scones will be dry too.

5. Tip the dough out onto a well floured bench or board.  Pat it into a rectangle about 5cm or 2″ deep.  A rolling pin is unnecessary.  If you push out the dough too thin, you’re scones won’t rise well. Think a couple of grades better than cheese flavoured hardtack.

6. Cut the dough into square or rectangular scones.  They can pretty much be as big or small as you like them. Arrange on the baking tray with a good inch between them.  Brush them with milk if you care for a more glazed look, but consider first whether they will last long enough to warrant the additional labour.  You can also sprinkle a little more cheese on the tops, but if you’ve put enough cheese into the dough this step is pretty much redundant.

7. Bake near the top of your oven until golden brown on top (about 12 to 20 minutes). They should be slightly crusty with a steaming centre.  For maximum enjoyment eat while still hot, split and with butter melting into each half.

Now that’s a cheese scone.

It really was a dark and stormy night.

It’s a long time since I was last ejected from a bar.

On reflection, I can’t recall it happening before, but surely I misspent sufficient youth that it must have happened, at least once.

Thursday evening, I definitely got turfed out of Havana Bar. I’d like to be able to tell you it was because my friend, Thor, picked a fight with the barman.  But in reality I was out with Thor’s mum and mums of other children in my daughter’s class. And the cause of our expulsion was that the roof had blown off Havana’s dining room, the restaurant guests were being reseated in the bar and we were out of luck.

hereisthesun-copy (2)           Havana Dining room

Left: Havana in better weather; Right: in the dining room with the offending section of roof (see skylight)

We understood, sympathised even, and, after sitting against the wall of the former worker’s cottage and feeling the force of each gust lift the whole structure up a couple of inches, or so it felt, were perhaps even relieved.

The weather hadn’t seemed that bad when we left home.  Dark?  Yes, Friday was the winter solstice in these parts.  Windy?  Yes, but it’s Wellington.  There’s a reason we have so many wind sculptures. Wet?  Also true, but none of us is made of sugar, and besides, it had taken a good number of emails to get this evening off the ground. We weren’t about to give up because of a bit of damp.  

I had not factored in how sheltered our house is.

We drove into the city around the bays. The rain, like the Zephyrometer, was horizontal,  one of my companions gaily explained how her husband had to stop and move a trampoline off the road to get home.  At traffic lights, the wind played with the car, like a kid blowing at a dead moth on a windowsill.

  zephyrometer

The Zephryometer: a bright orange wind vane.

Back out on the street, the wind was doing that thing where it kind of sucks the air right out of your mouth.  Fresh refuge was a mercifully short walk away. The Southern Cross looked warm and inviting. And it was.

Older Wellingtonians will recall the days when the Cross was a booze barn par excellence.  It was popular with students for the reasons that it was cheap and “relaxed” about age restrictions.  It was the kind of bar where the carpet was squishy and you kept a close eye on the barman to make sure he didn’t short serve your drink. It’s seen some variations since then, none terribly prepossessing.

Never my favourite spot, I haven’t been in there in over 10 years, so the place that greeted me on Thursday came as nothing but a pleasant surprise.  It was clean, warm, spacious yet still cosy.  The fire was going, and in the lounge area guests curled up with mulled wine and hot water bottles. Despite the weather and the size of the bar, it was quite full. The staff immediately found our group a corner in the dining area where we could all sit together.

An inveterate grazer, I was glad to see a range of small plates on the menu. But after last week’s steak debacle, I still had a craving to fill.

The small plates delivered to our table were attractively presented.  The larger meals were nothing fancy to look at. But my steak was indeed rare (they asked twice to check) and the cafe de Paris butter well flavoured and obliged by melting steadily over the course of the meal. No lump of meat sitting in a pool of melted butter as is sadly sometimes served. The salad was generous, fresh and, in blinding contrast to last week’s vinegar bathed travesty, subtly dressed.

The service was relaxed, friendly yet very attentive all without being overbearing, or overfamiliar.

If the place came as a surprise, there was more to come when I checked out the website later on. For me, this is a new high in family friendly.  On weekends between 10am and 2pm you can go for brunch and have your kids entertained by craft tables, toys and face painting.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays they set aside a space for parents and children to relax in the morning, with someone to keep an eye on the kids, and, if you’re still there later in the day, you can even score a free chair massage. For crafty types there’s a knitting circle on Monday nights.  

Why didn’t someone tell me about this earlier?  How could I not have known?

By the time we finished our meals and talked some more, the airport was closed, ferry sailings cancelled, trees were blowing over and we heard that 25,000 homes were without power.   Seemed like time to go home.

It was the worst storm my city has seen in my lifetime.  Roads along Wellington’s southern coast were damaged by 15 meter swells.  200kmh winds were recorded on Mount Kaukau.  The Kaitaki, a 1600 passenger ferry, broke its moorings with 50 staff on board and was eventually brought to anchor in the harbour.

Road Damage

Damage to Coastal Road

But you can’t keep a good thing down. By the next day the folks at Havana, like the rest of the city, were unphased, up and running again.   It would be a shame for something as trivial as a roof to get in the way of such a good place to while away an evening.   I’m just going to have to find another reason to get there soon.

Steaking my Claim

Steak

I have a weakness. Well OK, several, but this particular weakness relates to steak. If steak Béarnaise is on the menu, I will seldom go past it.

This probably makes me boring and unadventurous.  I can feel the kitchen crew yawn as my order is called away.  But I know what I like.  I like a good steak and, verily, I adore Béarnaise sauce. Tarragon, surely, is something the Almighty created to compensate mankind for other things, like long winters, and bubonic plague.

That so many menus feature some variant on the steak and Béarnaise theme, and have done for so many years, tells me I am not alone.

Boulcott Street Bistro      Steak at the Boulcott Street Bistro

Above: Venerable Wellington institution, the Boulcott Street Bistro, has featured Fillet Béarnaise on its menu for at least 20 years (left plate right above).

I like my steak rare. It’s an individual thing, a matter of taste.  My mother blanches at the sight of pink juices.  I, on the other hand, didn’t bother to order a steak for the close to 3 years of my life spent pregnant: if I was going to have to ruin a steak by having it well done, I could ruin it at home at far smaller cost.  And if there wasn’t something on the menu that would eat better (to my tastes) than a well done steak, there was really no point dining out.

Well Done

Nearly well done: but my mum would think twice about the slight blush and the pink juices.

I’m not a fanatic.  I will tolerate anything from a very rare steak to one which is bordering on the medium rare.  And that’s just as well, because for all their training and putative professionalism, despite the fact that this is what they cook service, after service, after service, many chefs in this country still struggle to get it right.

I realise that I split the town’s eateries into three camps. 

There are the reliable – those places where the food is consistently good, you know your steak will arrive just the way you asked for it, and where, if you want to risk something new and don’t like it, you can be confident it’s because you just don’t like the new ingredient, not because it was poorly prepared.  The service will be good, sometimes even excellent.

At Jacob Brown’s The Larder in Miramar (just around the corner from Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop) your steak will come just as you like it.  The same is true of the Boulcott Street Bistro, where Jacob Brown used to cook and which, in my opinion, had it’s heyday in the hands of chef and former Wairoa boy, Chris Green, now at Abitrageur, and maitre d’ Stephen Morris, former owner of Copita and now of Avida.  Likewise, Lyall Bay treasure Elements Cafe does an excellent scotch fillet with duck fat roasted potatoes, broccolini, almonds & bearnaise.

Arbitrageur              Chef Chris Green

Above: at Arbitrageur; Chef Chris Green in Action.  Below: The Browns outside Miramar’s Larder and Lyall Bay’s Elements:  Go the Eastern Suburbs

larder (2)         Elements

Then there are the  less-than-reliable, the places where you order your steak, giving very specific instructions and then hope for the best.  Not the best places to try tripe for the first time, no matter how much you support the concept of nose to tail eating.

These are not your first choice for prime nosh, but you are still willing to go, because the service is good (or at least friendly), because overall the food is pleasing, the location is great, the kids like it, you need to meet friends there, or you and your friends are on a budget and the pricing means you are willing to overlook a bit.

A good example is SOI at Greta Point.  Last time I went there my steak was over-cooked.  They very willingly cooked me another, which, sadly, was just as over-cooked as the first.  It was time to give up.  I was with a big group, it was just before Christmas. the place was packed, I didn’t want a scene, and it was a “two for” night. The steak was a good size, and still tasty and juicy.  I could still enjoy my meal.  I smiled, paid up and would still go again. I will still suggest it as a place to meet with friends, because on balance  it offers value to the diner, not least of all because of the location. You sit out over the water. I will never forget the evening we were there for a family birthday during an electrical storm with a pod of dolphins swimming past.  Magic.

SOI

With views like this, you can forgive the odd overdone steak.

Then there are the establishments I will not visit again.  On reflection, the fastest way to join this club is through bad service.

My third and final visit to Logan Brown was on a wedding anniversary.  The food, as before, was wonderful, but the waiter serving it seemed to take the view that we should be grateful to be able to eat there.

On the previous two occasions (business lunches both) service was remarkably slow.  On one of these we had been offered the option of a private space, but nobody mentioned the rather significant room fee until we were at the counter and paying the bill, our guests at our elbows.

It was all years ago and very likely just bad luck, but when it’s a special occasion, I’ve sorted a sitter, spent the afternoon working out what to wear, painted the face, done the hair, changed the outfit, done the hair again, put on shoes designed in defiance of basic engineering principles and am going to be laying out good money, do I want to take a punt on finishing the evening wishing we’d gone for a curry down the street instead?

You don’t need me to answer that one.

This group is not large. On the one hand, there aren’t that many places that have really ticked me off, and on the other, the hospitality industry being nothing if not ruthlessly Darwinian, the ones that do have a habit of going out of business.  Sooner rather than later.

Last week the Tinakori Bistro provided an unfortunate exception.  This restaurant has been around since Escoffier was learning to dice onions.  I’d been there with large work groups, and whilst the service was a little patchy, they coped well enough and the food was enjoyable.  On top of that, this is one of the few restaurants of its type where you can order two courses for $30 if your table orders from a smaller “set” menu.

Last Wednesday I met three friends there for dinner.  We all have mortgages, it was a casual weeknight meal and the $30 special seemed ideal.

The first problem arose when my companions all wanted main and dessert, while I wanted  first course starter. Because there’s nothing worse than everyone having to wait while one or two eat their starter, I figured I could have my main with my friends and would have the squid for dessert, as it were.  Not ideal, but it seemed like a reasonable solution.

It troubled our waiter.  I explained the timing issue. Would I not rather eat the other way around?  Yes I said, on reflection, I would indeed rather have my squid with their main, and my main with the others’ desserts. I hadn’t eaten all day, but reckoned the calamari would carry me through until the others were ready for their cheesecake.  It was very early in the evening so it’s not as though they were going to have to keep the chargrill going just for my bit of beef.

Our waiter looked uncomfortable.  That might be difficult for the kitchen, he said.  Well why ask?  As we all know, going out for a meal is all about making dinner easy for the kitchen and waiting staff.  Nevermind, the company was sparkling, and a rare steak Béarnaise would soon be sitting right in front of me.

It was, kind of, not very soon, but the wait was reasonable.  There was Béarnaise, though not a lot. There was also a steak, rather small.  The first cut brought disappointment and a fairly flavourless mouthful.  Grey fibers with touches of pink to the centre.  Perhaps I had someone else’s medium well steak.  Three steaks up on the pass – it’s easy enough to mix up the plates.  But no, theirs looked just like mine.

Medium Well

Not the actual steak, but about the same shade towards the right.

I cut another piece to make sure (left on the plate – you don’t send it back after you’ve eaten half, and as noted, it was not a large steak), but no appreciable difference in colour scheme.  The waiter brought the last of the vegetables.  I was afraid the steak had been overdone, I said, as I handed the plate back to him.  I relaxed back into the conversation, taking advantage of the chips whilst I waited patiently for my new, rare steak to come back.  By the way, it was either 6 months or they were coming up on 10,000km mark, because the chip fat needed a change.)

Then it happened.  The steak came back.  The same one.  Cut ruthlessly through the absolute middle and unceremoniously turned cut side uppermost, my second piece oddly now missing.  Chef, I was told, said it was rare.

In fairness, the very centre was pinker, but still with the fibers fully opaque and cooked through. And, really, you don’t want to have to work your way through a third of the steak to get to the bits that are medium, or, at a push, possibly medium rare?

I should have taken a picture, but who can think rationally at a time like this?  Chef, I said, needed to return to Chef school.  Did I want the steak or not?, the waiter asked.  Nothing like an ultimatum to make the guest feel better.  If Chef thought that was rare, I was not going to persuade him otherwise.  I told the waiter it wasn’t worth the fuss, set about my now rather cold meal, and vowed never to return again.

Not with the family, and certainly not with my 20 workmates.  No, we’ll be eating somewhere else, if I have to cook myself.

And the irony?  If I do cook myself, the meat will be very well done.  Just the way my team like it.

Rare  Very Rare or Bleu

Left: Steak, rare, the way I like it.  Red, but fibers developing opacity.  Right: Very rare or bleu (blue), what I often ask for to make sure I actually get it rare.  If the waiter looks unsure, I describe it as seared and just heated through, it is distinctly raw in the middle.  I only ask for it this way if I know the cut of beef will be beyond reproach.

My Grandmother and I

Nalesniki z Serem with a Gooseberry Compote

This post was going to be about my family’s birthday bottlenecks.

Lydia turned 5 on Saturday.  By Sunday afternoon I was back in the kitchen cooking away for my Dad’s birthday lunch on Monday.  It’s a public holiday in these parts, in honour of the birth of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II rather than my old man, but convenient for that purpose nevertheless.

I had plenty of time, and, in stark contrast to the stress-fueled frenzy of the preceding two days, was unwinding, taking quiet satisfaction in preparing a meal for kith and kin with the quiet company of my own thoughts.

The menu perforce, my thoughts turned to my Polish maternal grandmother, Babi, so called because it was as close as I could get to saying Babcia (Polish for grandmother) when I was small.

Our lunch would start with a pea and ham soup (grochowa zupa) and move on to marinated fish a la grecque (ryba po grecku) served with a good, hefty, dark rye bread.

For the main course we would have a garlic spiked pork shoulder, roasted slowly with onions carmelising in its own juices. Those juices would be reduced, finished with a little dry sherry and served along side the roast together with crackling, roasted potatoes, kumara (New Zealand sweet potatoes) and pumpkin, the über-Polish cabbage bigos, mushrooms in a cream sauce (grzby w śmietanie), beans (fasolka po bretońsku) and, in a small deviation from Babi’s repertoire because I had a couple in the fridge and because my mother loves them, pureed swedes (rutabaga) finished with caramelised onions.

For dessert, crepes filled with cream cheese (naleśniki z serem) and served with gooseberry compote.  The crepes with cheese were a favourite dish of hers, the choice of tart fruit to offset the richness of the crepes mine. Babi had a very sweet tooth and would have found the fruit unpleasantly sour.

It was a respectable amount of cooking to get through. Throughout my childhood, Babi used to pull off lunches like these on a regular basis.  In honour of birthdays, names days and other holidays there might also be one or more tortes to go with coffee.  Sometimes there would be two soups, meat dishes or desserts to choose from.  At others, the menu would be elevated by the addition of such treats as the boiled and fried potato dumplings Babi called palushki (little fingers), pierogi, the hand-formed, stuffed pasta that are the bright stars of the Polish culinary firmament (in my humble opinion), gołąbki – literally little pigeons, but actually stuffed cabbage rolls –  and so the list goes on – all delicious, all labour intensive.  Half the bread on the table was her own work too.

If I stop and consider that she would often have had me to stay for the weekend, piano lessons to teach on Friday night and Saturday morning, would have done all the shopping on foot or with her bicycle, that she had limited refrigeration and no freezer to speak of, that there was no hot running water in the kitchen and so she had to carry basins of hot water from the bathroom to wash the dishes, and that all along and without fail, she produced up to three hot meals a day, at least one including a soup course, (no take away the night before the big event) I wonder how she did it. And yet, on return from Mass on Sunday, the whole lunch would be ready to go as if the kitchen staff had been quietly at work since Thursday.

It’s one thing to recognise effort intellectually and another to engage with the reality of that effort yourself.  To take on the same labour, feel the heat of the kitchen, the sore feet and the back pain.  This is by no means the first time I’d prepared my grandmother’s dishes for the family, but until now, I hadn’t ever really put myself in her shoes and thought, this is what she did time and again to contribute to our family life, this is how much that life together meant to her.

My grandmother was raised in the bosom of a large extended family clustered around Kraków, Lwów (as it was then), Warszawa and Wadowice.  For her that life came to an abrupt end when Silesia was annexed to Germany at the beginning of World War II.  The separation was made permanent in ’44 when she fled an advancing Red Army and her Polish homeland with my white Russian grandfather.  In her yearning for those she left behind, she held us all tighter. But I don’t believe she ever really left Poland, so much as took it with her, and nowhere was that more apparent than in her cooking.

I loved my grandmother, but, being in some ways much alike, we often got on about as well as two old feuding strays locked in the same shed. Heckles would rise: Babi could get under my skin in two minutes or less.  A look could be enough to push all my buttons. Simultaneously, or so it felt.  That was on a bad day.

There were very many good days.  My grandmother was young and vivacious. She had a keen sense of humour and strongly irreverent streak. On a Friday night after dinner had been put away, she would sit down to her piano and practice, often Chopin, often from memory.  The hands that held and cared for me, that had spent the early afternoon peeling potatoes and frying onions, flew over the keys, her whole being focused on the music, concentrated completely, from body and shoulders through arms to the meeting of fingers and ivory to tell stories of loss and regret beyond words.

Other Fridays were for late night shopping excursions, perhaps with a shared package of hot chips to warm us on a walk home through a cold southerly blowing uninterupted from the Antarctic’s ice. We two would sit down to a game of cards and a cup of tea at her green formica kitchen table.  Tea, that is, with a good two fingers of brandy in the bottom of it.  We would talk and exchange jokes. Beds were warmed, blankets added.  I would be put to bed in a veritable cocoon of flannelette, with stories, prayers and fervent blessings.  During the night she would check in on us, my little aunty and me, and we would wake up with more blankets, or if it were a really cold night, then also warm coats heaped upon us until we could barely move beneath.

With age my grandmother got more difficult, she would seek reassurance by prompting disagreements, and she was pretty good at finding them. Increasingly our long conversations were centered on two tacitly agreed safe zones, cooking and memories of Poland. 

I never gave her credit while she was alive, but it is true that much of what I know about food came from what I learned at her table.  It involved all the senses. The silken, springy softness of a yeast dough that is smooth and elastic and ready to rise, the sound of a piece of meat sealing in searing hot oil before being braised, the smell of onions barely turning golden, the gloss of egg whites beaten just stiffly enough to fold through a pate to lighten it.  All the hundreds of minute observations that inform the cook, telling what is just enough and not too much.

These I learned largely from my grandmother. And, as I learned in Poland, her cooking had a provenance that reached back generations.  My grandmother learned from her mother who learned from her mother-in-law and so on.  My great-aunt Hania, the sister-in-law my grandmother never met, learned from the same sources and her cooking, though separated by decades and the better part of 18,000 km, was eerily similar to Babis. 

To my grandmother I might have been the most difficult child, but eventually I was the one who went back to her home and family, and the one she gave the family cookbooks to:  the books that her own mother sent on to an exiled daughter half a globe away.  Ultimately, they were my grandmother’s only inheritance.

Advancing dementia eventually robbed us of our middle ground.  Had I grasped the true meaning of what she had done for us over the years, I might have shown more patience and respect.  Instead I was cowardly.  I withdrew, met her on neutral territory, left contact to the days when I felt strong enough.

If there was one thing Babi had in abundance, it was faith.  So I hope that somewhere she sees her children still gathering, still enjoying her food.  I hope she knows when I cook her food, that it is my homage to her and my way of passing her love to the next generation.  If I failed to pay her her due when she lived, perhaps I’ll manage it yet.

Naleśniki z Serem

I’ll leave you with my recipe for these cheese stuffed pancakes. Like Babi, I make my own twarog or biały ser, a fresh white cheese like quark or quarg, but typically drier. However on the last occasion I managed to ruin it completely, so used marscapone instead.  It is by no means an exact substitute, but pleasant enough all the same. Otherwise you might try quark – if it is very wet then drain it in a clean napkin set over a sieve until the surplus whey has stopped dripping.  I understand that Americans can use Farmer’s Cheese, but have no direct experience of this.  At a push you could soften a block of Philly and blend in a little cream until you have a smooth, readily spreadable mix.

Naleśniki:

My grandmother used to make batters like these by eye.  It worked for her, but is difficult to pass along. This recipe taken from the Polish Heritage Cookbook by Robert and Maria Strybel produces an identical result.  Proportions here are given for a double batch.  About enough for 7 adults and three small children, two of whom can easily lay waste to about 6 small and unfilled pancakes each.

2c milk

4 eggs

1/2 tsp salt

2c flour

2 tbsp oil

1 1/2 to 2c water

about 100g/ 1 stick butter for frying.

1. Beat the eggs, milk and salt together, dump in the flour and beat until bubbles appear in the mixture.  Beat in the oil, then so much of the water as you need to make the pancakes spread readily.  The thinner the more refined the result.

2. I use a set of 6 inch (15cm) skillets for daintier dessert pancakes, 9 inches (23cm) for breakfast crepes or for stuffed rolled crepes where I am going to want all the edges folded in.  The size is totally up to you. Melt the butter in one of your pans and pour all the excess off into a mug or heat resistant glass.  Every time you go to pour a fresh pancake, brush as light a coating of the butter as you can onto the surface of the pan. 

3. Make sure the pans are good and hot.  Pour each pancake. Swirl enough batter around the pan so that it is just coated. (If you have excess pour it out of the pan back in with the rest of the batter. If it is too thick, beat in a little more water until the next pancake has right consistency.  It’s trial and error and comes with practice.

4. If your pans are well seasoned, you will know the crepe is ready to turn when it is set and can be shaken gently loose from the pan surface.  If your pans are not in great shape, you might need the help of a spatula.  Aim for a nice golden colour.   The side on the pan now will be the good side of the pancake.

5. Flip the pancake and cook the other side. You will notice that the underside browns in spots where there have been bubbles in the batter. You will not achieve the same uniform colour that you can with the first side to cook.  Just wait until the bubbles are a deep gold to light brown. This second side is the side you want to keep to the inside of the pancake when filling – it is not your presentation side.

6. Tip the finished pancake straight out onto an inverted plate, so that the first side is plate down and the spotty side faces upwards.  If you stack them like this, they are all ready to fill.  Unlike other fried foods where stacking is to be avoided, here stacking the pancakes keeps them soft and pliable, making them easier to fold.

7. Continue in this fashion until all the pancakes are cooked. How many you get depends on your pan size. Fill immediately or allow to cool, cover the stack and put it in the fridge until you are ready to use.   They will keep covered in the fridge for two or three days, but I think that making them earlier on the day they are to be eaten or the afternoon before is better.  Like most food, fresher tastes better.

Filling:

1kg twarog, quark or marscapone

icing sugar to taste

vanilla to taste (I used approximately 2 tsp of vanilla paste)

2 egg yolks

2 to 4 tbps cream (really only necessary if your fresh cheese is a bit dry)

8. Beat the ingredients together.  If the cheese you are using is crumbly, rub it through a fine sieve first – this will help to make the mixture smooth and unctious.

Compote:

9. Prepare a simple syrup:  cook 1 cup of sugar together with 1 cup of water until the sugar is disolved.  Add 1kg (2 1/4 lb) prepared fruit, in this case gooseberries to the syrup and simmer gently until the fruit is just soft. Cool, transfer to a serving bowl and chill until ready to serve.

This method works well with frozen berries.  Add to the syrup while still frozen.

Bringing it together:

Frying nalesniki up close

10. Heat a large skillet. Add a knob of butter.  While it is melting, fill as many crepe as you can fit comfortably into the pan (there should be at least a slight gap between each one).

11. My preferred fold for this kind of crepe is the so called handkerchief: put a couple of spoons of filling on one half of the pancake – spread around the half slightly, but leaving a good margin from the round edges.  Fold the unspread side over the spread side, then fold  in half again.  You will be looking at a 1/4 circle wedge.  Arrange in the skillet, cook on each side until golden on both sides.

12.  If you find the filling tends to run, then you might prefer a different fold.  Spread the filling in the middle of the pancake. leaving a margin of about 1/5th of the total diameter free around the whole edge.  Fold in the sides by that 5th on each side (across the middle you will see even amounts of folded in edge, uncovered filling and then the other folded in edge).  Fold up the bottom quarter of the pancake. Now roll over again.  One final roll should tuck in the rest of the pancake under.  When you go to fry the filled pancake, fry it seam down side first so as to seal it.  You should end up with a neat and sealed little oblong package.

13. Transfer to individual plates or a serving platter.  Dust with icing sugar. Repeat with remaining crepe or until you have the required number of servings.

14. Serve as is with the compote alongside.

Survivor: The Little Kids’ Party

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They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  They say a lot of things.

We made it, but it was tight, very tight, early 80’s jeans tight.  The kind of tight where eating is ill-advised and sitting down entirely out of the question.

Now anyone who’s had a baby knows that sleep is actually optional and that 5 hours is a veritable sleep in.  Unfortunately nobody told my cough that, so I’m back to hacking like a one woman TB clinic.

Plus I might have been a bit not very nice to my sainted husband sometime (continuously) between about 11pm  Friday and 2:30pm Saturday.  That would be about the same time that I swore never even to think about entering Masterchef, My Kitchen Rules, or any other cooking competition involving time challenges, ever.  (This in case I ever suffer a moment of sufficiently complete self-delusion to think I might be a contender.)

But it’s OK because the birthday girl loved her party and my husband, may he have many good wives, has forgiven me … again.

Was it all as planned?  Not entirely, but perhaps actually better.

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The Strawberry & Sprinkles Toadstool cake turned out fine, but a word to the wise:  if you’re going to bake a pink tinted cake, forget the sprinkles.  Only the blue and green ones show up and then you get these little white dots in the crust, all contributing to the overall impression of rampant bread mould.  The cake fairy ornaments went into hiding, but Lydia was too excited to notice.  I figure no harm, no foul.

We did the chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow flowers, even if the sparkly glitter didn’t quite show up quite as much as I would’ve liked.  I was short on time to make separate chocolate buttercream, so you’ll see I used the leftover from the toadstool instead.

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The cheese and tomato baby toadstool canape worked-ish.  They were a challenge to keep upright.  I should have piped the mayo spots on with a little zip-lock bag rather than dabbing manically with a pointy teaspoon handle, but overall they were still effective. Given free will, do small children eat tomatoes and cheese sticks? Not at all. So it’s probably just as well I canned the little crackers with lady birds made from tomatoes and olives.  The dog did quite well enough as it was.

Tomato and Cheese Toadstools

I also ran out of time to do the cheesey snail pastries and the sausage rolls.  By this I mean I could have done both if I’d used the emergency back up bought frozen sausage rolls and tried making the snails using pre-rolled puff pastry and grated parmesan.  Worse things have happened.  But the yeasty sausage rolls are a bit of a favourite.

They also say that necessity is the mother of invention.  Mostly I find myself thinking that necessity is just a real mother, but sometimes they get it right.  So we had yeasty snail-shaped sausage rolls.

The dough is quick to make and very, very forgiving.  You don’t need to let it rise.  Time having been exceeding short, the snails you see below represent a very rushed first attempt.  I have no doubt that, given an extra 15 minutes they could have been much prettier.  As it was, the results were not too shabby.

Snails before

Snails after uncropped

Now what do you do when you’ve managed to bake the cookies, but run out of time to do the fancy icing?  No worries. You now have a new party activity.  The children (and some of the adults) just loved this.

Make up two or three bowls of runny icing – icing sugar with a little boiling water from the kettle will do just fine.  Put out any leftover cake icing, rifle your pantry for sprinkles, cachous, jelly (jello) crystals and tubes of writing icing, stray candies and put it all out on the bench. Use plates or cold baking trays (cookie sheets) to accommodate the new creations, but remember that a high proportion of cookies will never make it that far.  Once the kids got bored, some of the parents had a go too.  Happy guests, happy Mummy and bonus: I’ve got this week’s tick for my commitment to weekly hands on cooking for the girls.

Little hands at work

Decorated Sugar Cookies

A couple of games of musical statues, afternoon tea and present opening, and it was pretty much over.  Family and very good friends stayed on.  We got take aways, kicked back and caught up.  Once we got all the little ones to bed, I curled up on the sofa in front of TV with the sainted husband, very tired, but good tired, and drifted off to sleep.

Did the kids like it? I’d say so.  Francesca has requested an identical party when she turns nine, so that’s one fan at least.

Lydia turns 5

In case you feel like trying the sausage roll snails, or anything else where you think yeast pastry would do nicely, here’s the recipe.  It has its genesis in a recipe from one of my favourite Russian/former Soviet cookbooks, Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman.

This batch yielded enough dough for about 2 dozen snails and 40 odd more conventional rolls made by taking half a cheese kransky sausgage (c. 5cm or 2″ long and about 1.25cm or 1/2″ thick) and rolling it diagonally across a square of pastry about 5cm/2″ square.

Easy Yeast Dough

Ingredients:

2 1/3c milk

4 tsp sugar

2 tbsp dried yeast

1c (225g or 2 sticks) butter (you can substitute vegetable oil in this dough, but for this I’d stick with the butter)

2 eggs

1 tsp salt

flour, preferably high grade/strong/bread flour between 6 and 8 cups (c. 750g to 1kg or 1 3/4 to 21/4 lb)

1kg or 2lb kransky, choritzo or similar thin smoked sausage

Note: If you prefer a shorter (less bready, richer) pastry, reduce the milk to 1 1/3c and increase the butter/oil to 2c (450g or 2 sticks).

Method:

1. Warm the milk until it is just blood temperature.  If you use the microwave be sure to stir  through before you check the temperature – sometimes you can miss a hot pocket and unwittingly end up milk which is too hot (kills your yeast), or which is hot at the surface, but really not very warm otherwise (yeast might not work very quickly).

2. In a large bowl, whisk the sugar into the milk until dissolved.  Add the yeast.  Just sprinkle over the surface and let it re-hydrate, or, if like me you lack the patience and want to be sure to avoid dry yeasty lumps, whisk it in.  Let it stand until it fluffs up: now you know you are working with live yeast.

3. While the yeast is doing the fluffy thing, warm the butter until it is just melted (or be prepared to wait while it cools).  Beast into the fluffy yeast mix together with the eggs and salt.

4. Once blended, add the flour, starting in 2 cup lots, then after 6 cups have been added, in smaller quantities until you have a soft dough that comes away from the sides.  Start with a wooden spoon.  Once the mixture is getting close to forming a dough, knead by hand.

5. Turn it onto a lightly floured bench and knead briefly.  Use immediately or cover and let it rise for a little. Cut into three or four sections (depending on what you find manageable) and roll out into sheets somewhere between 3 and 5mm (1/8 and 2/8″) thick.

For snails:

6. Trim the bottom edge of the pastry sheet.  Line up kransky sausages about 2cm or 1″ in from the edge, keeping them close so that there is no gap between saugages.  Trim the sides of the pastry sheet in line with each end of the sausage line up. Roll the bottom edge of the dough up over the sausage and then keep rolling the lot until the dough has wrapped around the sausages twice.

7. Trim the top edge of the pastry so that you are left with about 4 to 5cm (1 1/2 to 2″) of unrolled pastry. This will form the body and head of each snail.  Slice the dough cross wise into 2cm or 3/4″ slices.  Fold some of the unrolled pastry back towards the rolled section and pinch on each side to make feelers.  Glaze with an egg yolk beaten with a little water if you like.  Bake at about 195 C or  385 F until golden brown.

For plain sausage rolls (pigs in blankets):

8. Take half a sausage (c. 5cm or 2″ long and about 1.25cm or 1/2″ thick) and roll it diagonally across a square of pastry about the same size as the length (so in this case about 5cm or 2″ square), wrapping the dough around the sausage piece as you go. Glaze and bake as above.

9. This dough can also be used to make pizza pinwheels for school lunches (roll out dough into a rectangle, spread with a layer of tomato paste, sprinkle with cheese and sliced ham or salami, roll up tightly swiss (jelly) roll style and cut into 1.25cm 1/2″ slices.  Arrange on a tray and backe as per 7. above), or to make piroshki – but for that we need a separate post.

24: Guilt, Toadstools and Abject Panic

24

Call Kiefer.  I’ve got a new story line for 24.  This one will promise pace, action, and all the stress you could possibly want.  Did I mention danger?  Just try stepping into my kitchen over the next day or two …   Forget kevlar: Jack Bauer had best wear his favourite pinny.

See, I’ve got the flu.  Well not really.  I had influenza a couple of years back and this is not it. This is, however, quite bad enough thanks. Life has been less than lavish. Bits of my face are there that ought not to be and I’ve been coughing so hard it makes me giddy.  Not in a girlish, happy kind of way.  Everything aches.  The room is too hot, no, too cold, no, too hot…  

Anyway, I’m grumpy.  The timing could hardly be worse.  Lydia turns 5 this weekend. I have already ruined her last week at kindergarten by being unable to show to do Tuesday’s star cookie baking session (to tie in with the children’s Matariki celebrations).

I spent most of the preceding Monday night worrying that I wouldn’t be well enough to perform. And guess what?   I would be, beyond any possible redemption, a really, really bad mother.  I was letting down my Lydia.  Between school and kindy, I’d done four cooking sessions with her big sister.  Lydia would think I didn’t love her as much, she would suffer middle child angst in life-changing proportions.  Yes, one batch of cookies can have that much power.

Well, in the end we figured it wouldn’t hurt for Lydia to delay her school start for one day to allow one last cookie inclusive kindy Tuesday.  Crisis averted.  Temporarily.

But it took until Thursday to be well enough to contemplate a trip out for essential supplies.  Today is Friday and I have exactly 24 hours and 36 minutes to pull a Garden Fairy Princess birthday party from nowhere.  And believe me, these babies do not make themselves.

Let’s bypass the self-recriminations about the stuff I could have made and frozen weeks ago but didn’t because I thought there was plenty of time.  (Grrrrrrrrrrr)  Let’s not even talk about the parents that have not  R.s.v.p.ed to my admittedly late invitations, leaving me with no idea how many dinky little cupcakes and treat bags I need.  (Grrrrrrrrrrissimo)

There is the special request toadstool birthday cake.  I’m cool with that, but apparently this one needs to be rainbow coloured within.  Not in layers you understand.  Just within the one cake. (No, I stand corrected.  That was last week.  Now it is to be pink and strawberry flavoured with multi-coloured sprinkles throughout, and thank goodness for small mercies,  except that now I can’t bake the blasted thing without another shopping trip.)

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There are to be ladybird crackers, little canape that look like baby toadstools, snail-shaped cheese pastries and butterfly cookies.  Sausage rolls and flower cupcakes, glittery ones.  Then, as the birthday girl is a garden fairy princess, there are the costumes, table decorations, lanterns, streamers, treat bags, all that kind of thing.

And why?

Has Lydia demanded it?  No.  She would like the cake and the butterfly cookies, but like most persons her age, as long as there is a potato chip and some sticky icing in the offing, her needs are met.

There are the pictures she has seen on my Pinterest board.  But who put them there?  I did.

Did Lydia buy and devour the Donna Hay kids edition each year for the last 6 or 7 years?  No, though the girls do like looking at the pictures after Mummy is done.  Does she troll through Martha Stewart on-line looking for cute touches?  No. That would be me.

And would I think less of any parent who ordered in pizza and chips?  No.  Do I look down on parties had at bowling allies and skating rinks?  Certainly not.

So why?  Because in a life where I constantly wish I could do more and better for my children, there is that one special day that is all theirs.  Because cooking is one particular medium through which generations of women have expressed love for their families. And because, as my mate Maryanne Cathro says, one of the best things you can hope to leave your children is a stash of good memories to see them through the sometimes dark days of adulthood.

So, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…