Thursday, March 31, 2011

London Calling or - Eating my way through Europe

I'm off tomorrow for a 4 week trip to the UK and Italy. The main purpose of the trip is to take my Mum to Cornwall where her ancestors originated. Specifically we're taking a boat trip to the Scilly Islands and hopefully the small island of St Martin's where the Ellis family has been living as far back as we've been able to trace. In Italy we're retracing the steps (or tracks) of my father's tank regiment in the Apennines. Along the way there's a week in London and a visit to Rome and Venice. This is my first trip to Europe and, as you would imagine, I'm most looking forward to discovering the food cultures and book shops of both countries. While I have some idea what to expect from the Italian leg, I have no idea what the food scene will be like in the UK-fish & chips & fried Mars Bars? I guess I'm about to find out. While this is not primarily a book-buying trip, what I am expecting to find in the UK is some excellent cookbooks, particularly antiquarian. I guess I'll find that out soon enough too!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The end of cookbooks or just one more excuse to buy an IPad?

In an article entitled "Gadgets you should get rid of (or not)" in the NYTimes today, Sam Grobart gives a list of gadgets you should dispose of (desktop computers, point-and-shoot cameras, ipods among them) or hang on to (alarm clocks) and has this to say about books:

"BOOKS Keep them (with one exception). Yes, e-readers are amazing, and yes, they will probably become a more dominant reading platform over time, but consider this about a book: It has a terrific, high-resolution display. It is pretty durable; you could get it a little wet and all would not be lost. It has tremendous battery life. It is often inexpensive enough that, if you misplaced it, you would not be too upset. You can even borrow them free at sites called libraries." (So far so good, I thought, clever little para, must link to it on my facebook status. But then he goes on:)
"But there is one area where printed matter is going to give way to digital content: cookbooks. Martha Stewart Makes Cookies, a $5 (now $3.99) app for the iPad, is the wave of the future. Every recipe has a photo of the dish (something far too expensive for many printed cookbooks). Complicated procedures can be explained by an embedded video. When something needs to be timed, there’s a digital timer built right into the recipe. You can e-mail yourself the ingredients list to take to the grocery store. The app does what cookbooks cannot, providing a better version of everything that came before it. Now all Martha has to do is make a decorative splashguard for a tablet and you will be all set."

This of course is the biggest problem with the technology. As we all know from the cookbooks on our own shelves, a cookbook has to be on the bench, and even more so with these apps which have built-in timers and videos etc. A splashguard is also not going to protect the gadget from a major spillage which may wrinkle or even ruin a $40 cookbook, but will kill an $800 Ipad. Another problem with them is that for $3.99, this application provides 50 recipes for cookies, and by the time you've bought applications for all the things you might want to cook, you could end up spending significantly more than for a cookbook with hundreds of recipes. Of course there is also the fact that for every gorgeous app like this or Nigella Lawson's Quick Collection ($9.99 for 70 recipes) there will probably be as many dodgy collections you will never use. I have the epicurious app on my iphone which allows you to search the almost 30,000 recipes from food dite I find it incredibly useful if I'm out shopping and can't remember the ingredients for a particular recipe. It's also great if I'm at home and need a recipe for something unusual ( like Shrimp and Grits I made last week) and I don't want to have to go down to the shop to look one up. However while I am going to buy an Ipad, and will probably download lots of apps to do with food and cooking, and will use it in my kitchen, I am almost positive that it will never be able to replace a lot of my vintage favourites like Miss Drake. It certainly will not allow me to browse through a 19th century Mrs Beeton for inspiration for my 19th century dinner, and it won't look as good on my shelf!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Prawns in Aspic and Sardine Tablets? A Mrs Maclurcan dinner

On Saturday I was fortunate enough to participate in an all day symposium entitled Food Traditions and Culinary Cultures as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. The day was organised by Jill Adams of the William Angliss Institute's Coffee Academy. There were two highlights for me: The first was visiting the William Angliss Research facility and the copy of the Edward Abbott cookbook I acquired for them last year. I felt like a proud parent.

The second highlight was the symposium dinner with a menu based on recipes from Mrs Maclurcan's Cookery Book, an Australian classic. The dinner was cooked by the institute's students and we were fortunate to have some excellent matching Tahbilk wines (Tahbilk - which used to be known as Chateau Tahbilk - is Victoria's oldest winery). As regular readers will know, I relish trying out recipes from old cookbooks. With some of the dishes we could predict what might appear on the plate in front of us, but others were a real mystery. As soon as I got home I looked up the recipes in the book to send to my fellow diners, and I've shared a couple below.

The meal started with a mystery: Australian Soup which had an orange hue but was not pumpkin and little transparent spheres at the bottom of the bowl. The recipe revealed the spheres were tapioca and the soup was very simply made by boiling tapioca in 'brown stock' and then adding the juice of tomatoes. The flavour of the end product would very much depend upon the quality of the stock, and I don't think you could get away with packet stock if you made it at home.

Second Course was Prawns in Aspic. I don't think there's going to be a revival of dishes in aspic anytime soon, going by this dish. It was certainly pretty to look at, but a little watery and insipid for modern palates I suspect by the response of our table. Which is not to critique the cooking of the dish which was beautifully executed, but instead the recipe they were working from.

Main Course was "Braized Beef with Pickled Walnuts, Celery Fritters & Baked Cucumber". The walnuts lent a nice piquancy to the richness of the beef, and the cucmbers (which I had never tried cooked) were suprisingly good. Celery fritters just tasted like celery deep-fried and brought to mind the deep-fried artichokes David and I had tried in Salinas in 2009 - a waste of a good fresh vegetable.

The next part of the menu was a puzzler. A dessert (Macaroon Cream, absolutely delicious. I've included a recipe below) was followed by the interestingly named Sardine Tablet which was itself followed by a 'pudding': a Coffee Jelly. Apparently this was a common custom of the time (late 1890s), but I'm fuzzy on the details.

The Sardine Tablet turned out to be a small pastry case with a filling of sardine which had been creamed together with hard-boiled egg yolks, capers and seasoning. Quite tasty but not a great follow-up to the Macaroon cream.

The final course of Coffee Jelly was a small palate cleanser and was followed by coffee and port.

It was a fun night and has inspired me to try a similar venture as a cooking class in the not-too-distant future.

Macaroon Cream

1 pint milk                          Jordan almonds
3 egg yolks                        1 dozen macaroons (recipe follows)
1 oz. gelatine                     1 glass sherry

Soak the gelatine in a little milk for half an hour. Add the grated rind of 1 lemon to the 1 pint milk, sweeten to taste; place it over the fire to heat but do not let it boil; beat up the yolks of the eggs and pour the milk through a strainer onto them;add the gelatine gradually while stirring, and cook slowly until the gelatine is dissolved, then pour it into a basin to cool. Dip a mould into cold water then ornament with the almonds (split). Pour a little of the custard in then put a layer of the macaroons soaked in sherry, another layer of custard and so on until the dish is filled. Put on ice to set; turn out carefully and serve.

(not to be confused with the oh-so-trendy macaron)

3/4 lb of sweet almonds (I would substitute almond meal)
1/2 lb sifted sugar
whites of 3 eggs

Beat the eggs to a stiff froth; add the suagr almonds and a little lemon juice. Place small pieces onto a baking tray and bake in a slow oven for 20 - 45 minutes (they need to be golden brown and the tops will crack)

I'm going to attempt these next baking day (

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Making Whoopie.....(Pies)

I was fascinated while travelling in the US last month by the way that American chefs and entrepeneurs are constantly re-inventing 'old' or classic dishes and making them the latest trend. A few years ago it was cupcakes, more recently mac 'n' cheese,( there's a restaurant in New York called S'mac) donuts, pies etc.

This time I noticed Whoopie Pies everywhere. Originally of Pennsylvania Dutch origin (you can read a New York Times article about them here) I'd describe them as a cake/biscuit hybrid or maybe a teeny teeny layer cake. Two discs of (usually chocolate) cake sandwiched together with a fluffy frosting.

On my last trip to Sur le Table before leaving San Francisco I picked up a Whoopie Pie tin & this morning had a crack at making them. You don't have to have a special tin, you can also bake them on a baking tray, using an icecream scoop to get perfectly round, even cakes.I've cobbled together a recipe for them from the packagin on the pie tin and a book in my shop called Amish Country Cookbook.

First the cakes:

Cream together 120gms of softened butter and 1 cup firmly packed soft brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add 1 egg and 1tsp vanilla extract and beat until well-combined.

Sift together 2cups plain flour, 1/3 cup cocoa powder, 1tsp baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 tsp salt. Add the dry ingredients alternately with 1 cup butter milk ( or milk soured with lemon juice) until just combined (As with all cakes it's important not to over beat).

Spoon 2 tablespoons of batter into each cavity spread batter to the edges. Bake for about 8 minutes.

When they're cool you sandwich them together with raspberry jam and 'Marshmallow Fluff' - not something you can buy on any Australian supermarket shelf ( or at USA Foods I discovered when I went down there to buy grits) . So I went online and found a recipe here for the calorific spread. You could instead use a traditional royal icing or buttercream icing.

Here's the result:

I love the way they look and as I saw on my trip, there are almost endless possible variations.

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