Friday, 28 August 2009

Cake & Cocktails

photo courtesy of Simon Majumdar

It must be hard being a man

Seriously, I'm increasingly convinced that girls really do have more fun. If you believe the rants of grumpy newspaper commentators, you probably think men (and boys) are so thoroughly emasculated by women and girls' advancement in every sphere that men are now reduced to quivering jellies in the face of such Boadiceaesque fierceness. "What good are men for?" ask the curmudgeonly commentators, no doubt quivering themselves

Hah! It's a wild exaggeration of course, but I reckon it's easier than ever for women to define ourselves in the way we choose rather than adhere to normative rules. "Real" men are mandated to steer clear of anything too feminine, that smacks of temperamental oestrogen and saddles them with the dreaded tags of 'empathetic', 'sensitive', or even worse ... 'girlie men'

Seriously? Are real men expected to be gruff swaggering autocrats who grunt and eat 16 oz steaks with their bare hands before conquering submissive little women?!

It's an image - note the word image - of the stereotypical chef, and ostensibly food remains one of the last bastions of such fabled masculine prowess. Men dominate the Michelin rankings, and female chefs accorded with that venerable status are - like South African athlete Caster Semenya - questioned whether they might be more XY than XX in their chromosomal makeup

Men supposedly cook manly things like steak, roast suckling pig and other sources of priapic protein. A meal is not a meal without meat, gruffrealgrumpyman will grunt. Women in all their flim-flam and flummery bake cakes, spend their days dreaming about Brad Pitt and salivating over Cath Kidston kitchenware splutter the chauvenist gastronomes. Myths abound - women in kitchens are unwelcome because their hormones interfere with their ability to cook. Yep, I was once told this by a chef, albeit a drunken loon with a potato for a nose. Fearless succubi will distract male chefs from the vital task of producing mind-blowing food say the culinary misogynists, etc., etc.

What blows my mind is why women are saddled with this image of only being interested in cake and the boring aspects of food, like diet and nutrition, or why a woman in the kitchen is cast as either a scary lesbian or dismissed as a succubus? I jest of course, there are countless women who defy such ludicrous cliches. But when Simon Majumdar, author of 'Eat My Globe', one half of the blogging duo Dos Hermanos and self-professed 'Real Man' suggested fellow girlie food blogger Gastrogeek and I give him a lesson in baking last Sunday I relished the chance to dispel the myth that "Real men don't bake"

Um, except when Simon pitched the idea of baking a victoria sponge and making a trifle I uttered an expletive unfit for print. Sponge and trifle rank in the top of least favourite foods - barring cupcakes - for this 'girlie' anthropologist. Anyone who knows me will tell you I rant and rave about how banal cakes in this country are and I may or may not have once referred to the classic trifle as an 'abortion'. A vague anarchic streak in me rebels against anything 'traditional' and these two dishes seem to represent the worst culinary traditions this country has to offer

photo courtesy of Simon Majumdar

As you can tell, I have pretty obnoxious views about food. Anyway, prior to our bake-a-thon, Simon tweeted "are you sure our baking session won't interfere with your Sex and the City marathon?" to which I retorted "I hate Sex and the City, that's where the banality of cupcake evil originated" no doubt to the befuddlement of anyone reading my tweets, after all I'm supposed to be a baker. Clearly we were in for an afternoon of japery, and being a Seinfeld girl I threatened to tweet 'SERENITY NOW!' if the battle of the sexes got out of hand

Of course the great irony is every boy I've ever babysat loves baking. Not that I was babysitting Simon, but boys like to get their hands dirty, which is why I dispatch all my male friends to wash their hands before entering the kitchen or touching any food. Given young boys' predilection for muckiness, it makes sense that they like to get stuck in cracking eggs, mixing cake batter and, if they are younger than age 8, show an endearing disregard for keeping the kitchen clean. Somehow this enthusiasm for baking gets knocked out of boys as they enter adolescence, which is a shame

Anyway, Simon knew better than not to wash his hands in the presence of a Scandi kitchen fascist. In exchange for this tutorial in trifle and sponge making he kindly proffered a bottle of delicious pinot noir, which I assumed we'd be saving for after our bake-a-thon, but then I'd blithely assumed I was going to be teaching Simon how to make cake and trifle

Arriving at midday on a warm Sunday, Simon suggested we fetch ingredients for the afternoon's tutorial. Off we went to buy eggs and butter and about a year's recommended intake of Jersey double cream. Sherry was on our list too and being the sherry novice I deferred to Simon's expertise on the matter - he talked me through the different sherrys available, we settled on a Manzanilla which has a pleasing ozone salty note to it, perfect for soaking the trifle sponge, not to mention sipping

Simon then picked up a bottle of Vermouth and Beefeater gin, again talking me through the different gins (I'm clueless when it comes to spirits, heck I'm clueless when it comes to a lot of things) and suggested with a glint of mischief in his eye that in exchange for entering the girlie orbit of baking, he would reciprocate by giving me a tutorial in cocktail making. Gastrogeek was waylaid by a late luncheon, so in the end it was just us two creaming the butter and trifling away

el maestro de cocteles, or hermano segundo (HS) in action

And so commenced a lovely afternoon of baking and cocktail making. It was honestly one of the more entertaining Sundays I've had all summer - Simon is great company and far from the gruffrealgrumpyman he claims to be. We talked about shooting, his new book, and as one would expect - baking and cocktail-making. Simon pointed out that the two skills, though seemingly divergent, actually dovetail in that they demand a deft touch, precision and a bit of technique. To his credit, Simon also asked a myriad questions about baking methodology, and whether or not he felt emasculated by wearing an apron (I gave him a navy blue chef's stripe one) you'd have to ask him

Needless to say, after the first martini any sensible contribution I made to the conversation vaporised as I tried to focus on standing upright and finishing the task of both sponge and trifle. There was a serious risk I'd end up like the Swedish Chef and the flatmates were decidedly bemused by how much booze was floating about in our kitchen during the bake-a-thon, not to mention how utterly pickled Simon and I were by mid-afternoon

After several delicious, refreshing cocktails, a glass of wine and some nibbles of cheese and olives later we eventually collapsed, I mean sat down and ate both trifle and cake, washed down with a chilled glass of Manzanilla. The whole afternoon was a revelation - Simon had taught me the rudimentary techniques of cocktail making (keep everything chilled) and whether it was the result of transcendent drinking, I came to the conclusion that trifle is not as ghastly as I remembered, and the victoria sponge was extremely tasty. No doubt the generous slathering of clotted cream in the cake helped, and liberal quantities of sherry in the trifle made the experience more memorable

What was the verdict? I retract all snottiness about victoria sponge and trifles - they are great British traditions and I might even make them again. And Simon? Well, you'll have to wait til his next book 'Eating for Britain' is out to read his musings on our cake & cocktail session :D

Recipe for the victoria sponge, or sandwich if you will:
  • 170g self-raising flour
  • 170g softened butter
  • 170g caster sugar
  • 3 medium eggs at room temperature
  • raspberry jam
  • clotted cream
  • drop of vanilla essence (not strictly traditional, but gives some flavour)
The classic victoria sponge is all about equal proportions of ingredients so make sure you're fastidious about measuring everything

Preheat oven to 180 C

Grease a round 20cm cake tin and place a circle of baking parchment on the bottom of the tin

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy:

Then whisk each into the creamed butter mixture, making sure it doesn't split by adding a teaspoon of flour. Fold in the flour, stirring through with a large metal spoon in figure of eight motions until the flour is incorporated to the wet mixture. If it looks a little thick or dry, add a bit of milk or water til the mixture reaches a dropping consistency when you lift some with the metal spoon

Place the mixture in your cake tin, bake on the central oven shelf for 30-35 minutes and go have a cocktail

Recipe for Trifle (adapted from p.658 of the Leiths Cookery Bible, Bloomsbury)
  • Waitrose sponge fingers
  • a liberal splash of Manzanilla sherry (recipe calls for 4 tbsp, yeah right)
  • homemade strawberry freezing jam (or compote, you don't want a sticky jam)
  • 150ml whole milk
  • 150ml double cream
  • 5 egg yolks, broken up with a fork
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 drops vanilla essence
  • 290 ml double cream (for whipping)
  • handful toasted almond slivers
  • handful blackberries or other summer berries
First cut the sponge fingers in half, and lay down in the trifle dish, pour over sherry and see if you can resist drinking a glass of manzanilla whilst doing this

Next, prepare the custard: put the 150ml of milk and 150ml of double cream in a saucepan, scald til it steams and then cool for a few minutes before adding a bit of this liquid to the five egg yolks. Add the sugar and vanilla essence, put this back in a clean pan (something to do with enzymes in milk when it scalds, you want to use a clean pan for the custard making)

Heat carefully over a low-medium heat, stirring all the time until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Do not boil the custard otherwise you will have sweet scrambled egg

Pour the custard on to the soaked sponge, then leave til completely cold

Add the strawberry freezer jam or compote, then whip the cream until fairly stiff and spread over the top of the jam. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and blackberries and eat with gluttonous abandon

Saturday, 15 August 2009

From anthropologist to fish wife

On Thursday fellow food blogger Gastrogeek and I traded our quotidien lives for a day as tradeswomen manning the UKFBA stall at the real food market in Covent Garden. Our aim was to raise money for Amnesty International and Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, and as Gastrogeek had asked me a few months back to share the stall with her I had plenty of time to prepare for this debut in trading and flogging

Or so I thought. Until Wednesday I had been quite relaxed about the prospect of spending a day at the market selling food. Mercantile instincts roused I made jars of plum jam to sell at the stall, reasoning that glorious English plums are at their peak right now and who doesn't like plum jam? Having spent last weekend foraging for wild cherry plums with Papa Johansen, made jam from them and some plump, indigo Czar plums from Grange Farm in West Sussex (see previous blog post) I naively concluded "this will be fine, just knock up some cakes and muffins on Wednesday and write a list of what we need, the rest will take care of itself"

Invariably I neglected to take into consideration the hobbit-sized oven in my flat, the time it would take to bake multiple batches in said hutch and how incredibly grumpy I get when on my feet all day, not to mention what a snail's pace I cook at. Much of Wednesday was spent cursing the oven and my singular tardiness, and wondering if this was such a good idea after all

Lest you think this is a whine about how hard it is to cater for large groups of people, let me assure you the experience of manning a market stall was exhilirating and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Be that as it may, Wednesday's seemingly endless preparation for the stall was a salutary lesson that you can never be prepared enough, it always takes much more time to bake than you anticipate and it's exhausting to cook large batches of food in a tiny domestic kitchen. Without a dishwasher, the washing up is endless and eats into your baking schedule

But enough moaning. Gastrogeek is the ideal partner in fish wife crime and so much fun to work with - she did most of the talking, I tried not to frighten away small children with my irascibility. We hit the ground running at 11:30am setting the stall up just before noon by which time Gastrogeek already had customers asking prices of her savoury goodies. It was a perfect summers' day so in terms of foot traffic we were extremely lucky as there was a constant flow of visitors to Covent Garden, and we were in a prime location to catch their attention

We had a mother visit us whose son is being treated in Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, she told us about his debilitating condition and the excellent care he's receiving which really brought it home how vital the hospital is. Because we were raising money for charity many customers gave extra or told us to keep the change, a reminder that despite all the economic doom and gloom the capacity for donating money to good causes hasn't disappeared. The occasional passerby would laugh at Gastrogeek's keema lollies and one bad-mannered teen even mimicked the action of vomiting when walking past our stall which I'll confess was disappointing in comparison to the generosity of the vast majority who sampled our wares

My matcha green tea and blueberry muffins garnered some bemused looks, but children bought them and as they were gluten-free they were more in demand than I expected. In general our interactions with passersby were extremely positive, except for the cheeky Italian teenager who asked where the nearest KFC was. I promptly dispatched him to the nearest cupcake shop which served the pasty, spotty teen right for his culinary insolence. Slow Food, you've got some work to do in your terra madre

Gastrogeek and I both thoroughly enjoyed the day and although it was exhausting the 9 hours flew by in no time. We agreed to make this an annual event, albeit next time we shall cajole local caterers/restaurants to lend us their ovens upon my mother's recommendation. In fact, we might just get the formidable Mama Johansen to cajole them on our behalf - no one says no to Mama J, trust me

You can read more on the build-up to Thursday's stall on Gastrogeek's excellent blog post "From Blogging to Flogging" here and her post-flogging analysis here Suffice to say, we both extend a huge thank you to all the food bloggers and friends who came down to support us. Without descending into an Oscar-esque-thank-you-speech we were fortunate to have a great stall neighbour who I shall call Prosecco Sam. He's on the corner by the Transport Museum and is delightful, go see him if you're moseying through Covent Garden and try a glass of his prosecco. As you can see below, we definitely appreciated his rose prosecco - the perfect sustenance to get through a hot summer's afternoon

And as for the punters and tourists who bought our wares, thank you. Below are a few photos of the day

Gastrogeek's genius idea of Keema Lollies received plenty of attention:

And her ginger chocolate cherries were such a hit with both children and adults alike we ran out by mid-afternoon. You can find the recipe on Gastrogeek's blog post listed above

My mocha & coconut cake proved to be popular so the recipe is at the bottom of this post. The beetroot brownies were also gobbled up, and mostly by children which was gratifying - they're tricky customers :D For those who asked after the beetroot brownie recipe this is the one I used, courtesy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Needless to say Gastrogeek's olympian ability to talk made her the perfect fish wife regaling her customers with witty anecdotes and upbraiding the odd person who sneered and walked away when told we were raising money for charity (!)

Goodshoeday paying us a visit and Gastrogeek larking about:

a moment of calm during an otherwise hectic day:

Nursing a glass of delicious rose prosecco, one of ahem, a few supplied throughout the afternoon by our neighbour Sam:

Being the donuthead that I am, I clean forgot to put the plum jams out until mid-afternoon, but once they were on display they sold well

And we made it! By 8:20 pm we were all packed up and ready to go home to a cup of tea and a hot bath. Exhausted after nine hours on our feet but thrilled to have raised a respectable £350, the profits of which go straight to our selected charities...

These may be straitened times but what a day observing and engaging with the generous, the friendly and occasionally the quixotic visitors to Covent Garden. Before I forget, a thank you to Joe, Gastrogeek's other half, for taking some terrific snaps of the stall on our behalf, a few of which are in this post

Recipe for Coconut Mocha Cake:

Adapted from my boss Fiona Beckett's recipe for cappuccino cake in her book 'The Frugal Cook' (p. 135 Absolute Press) I used more cocoa and made a mocha style icing - ie very dark and intense, not creamy at all...

Makes 12-16 squares or bars

  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 2 tbsp strong black coffee
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 225g softened buttermilk spread (e.g. Willow)
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 1 heaping tbsp plain yoghurt (to add extra moisture as there is more cocoa in this recipe than Fiona's)
For the icing:
  • 125g butter
  • 2 tbsp cocoa
  • 200g icing sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1-2 tbsp strong coffee (adjust to taste)
Preheat the oven to 180C

Line a shallow 18 x 32cm cake tin with baking parchment. Sift the cocoa into a large bowl, add the hot coffee and stir. Add the caster sugar, stir, then tip in the spread, eggs and half the flour. Beat very well with a spoon or electric whisk, and fold in the remaining flour. Spread this mixture in the tin and bake on the middle oven shelf for 35-40 minutes until risen and firm to the touch.

Allow to cool on a wire rack while you make the icing. Place the butter in a saucepan, allow to melt and then add the cocoa, the sugar and the vanilla. Stir really well, sometimes this has a tendency to separate but adding the icing sugar helps to smooth out the icing. Add the coffee to taste, stir and allow to cool for 10 minutes before icing the cake. If it's hot the icing will just run down the sides, and by cooling it slightly the icing will thicken. You can see a photo below of what the icing looks like, and frankly it rocks. Sprinkle a generous amount of desiccated coconut and eat with gusto

If you came down to the stall let us know what you thought, feedback is most welcome

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Crimson Tide

crimson jam made with czar plums

We Johansens love to forage, fish and hunt. In fact we love everything about the outdoors - the thought of mountains, forests and fjords renders us somewhat misty-eyed and nostalgic for long summer days on the west coast of Norway. Few things in life make us happier than hiking up those mountains, scampering through dark forests and catching fish from fjords or lakes. It's a heavily romanticised Grieg-inspired idyll of course, but nature is by definition romantic

So far, so Peer Gynt. In truth we're not a family of avid hunters, but fishing and foraging are primal activities so deeply ingrained in our DNA that Papa Johansen is the keenest fisherman I know, whereas sadly I am a useless fart at anything aquatic except swimming and like to imagine that dropping crayfish pots in the fjord constitutes fishing, thus qualifying me as some sort of piscine goddess. This is a source of endless amusement to Papa J, along with the fact that I hate downhill skiing. It must be hard not having a son when you're the Last Of The Vikings

As for hunting, the one time I tried shooting animate objects was last September on a gamebird hunting weekend in Derbyshire. Hunting is divisive, you don't need an anthropologist telling you that but the ritual aspects of hunting, whether for the Inupiat in Alaska, the Sami in Northern Norway or for the Ainu in Japan are integral to their identities and how they conceptualise the world. We descend from hunters and gatherers and being a committed omnivore I don't have any principled objection to killing animals - if you want to eat meat or fish you must at some point in your life be prepared to kill it, brutal a notion though that may be

Anyway, enough lecturing. I confess that despite my support of hunting generally I felt a sense of relief those birds weren't shot out of the sky by my trigger-happy hand. The same can't be said about my lovely Croatian friend Kata who shot birds with so much gusto it frightened all the men of our party

We're only a few days away from the start of grouse season, but a less gruesome activity beckoned this weekend. The foraging and picking of summer fruit is a gentle summer activity and I had yet to do any this year. My Norwegian grandparents owned a fruit farm in western Norway so I grew up picking wild and cultivated strawberries, raspberries, currants and plums during summers spent on their farm with the looney aunts

Dad and I had been missing that favourite of summer pasttimes (not the aunts mind you), so when I was in Sussex this weekend to see Ma & Pa we investigated nearby PYO farms. Off we went on a muggy afternoon to Grange Farm in the quaint Sussex village of Funtington where we spent a happy hour picking plums and apples before the rain came crashing down:

Picking your own plums may not save that much money but we thoroughly enjoyed stomping through Grange Farm where they have hundreds of plum, apple and pear trees, not to mention row upon row of blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes, rhubarb and strawberry patches...they're delightfully organised these Grange farmers which appeals to my Germanic sense of organisation:

And sure enough the czar plums we picked were plump and juicy with a fantastic indigo skin:

here's me picking the czars, avoiding the wasps:

Discovery apples:

Sadly I only picked a few kilos of these delicious apples before the rain started:

Tart, crisp and aromatic - the perfect English apples:

The reason for this frenzy of fruit picking? I decided to make plum jam in aid of Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital and will be selling the jam along with cakes and cinnamon buns this coming Thursday at the UK Food Bloggers' Association food stall in Covent Garden's Real Food Market. Rejina of the fabulous food blog Gastrogeek very kindly invited me along to share the stall with her and she'll be donating her profits to Amnesty International so if you have a spare half hour in your lunch break or you're moseying around Covent Garden do swing by and help us raise money for two very good causes

Recipe for plum jam:

  • 2kg de-stoned plums
  • 375g fructose (fruit sugar)
  • pack of "jam" which is basically ascorbic acid and a bit of pectin, we buy it in Norway
Put your plums in a large pot over a medium heat, stir while the plums start to dissolve and cook. Make sure to stir fairly regularly so the plums don't catch on the bottom of the pan and burn, they will start to look like soup:

Bring to a boil, stir and bring back to the boil three times. My father swears by this method, I suspect because three has some ritual connotation for him. Take the pan off the heat, add the fruit sugar, stir really well to distribute the sugar and put back on the heat. Bring to the boil one more time, then add the magic "jam" (this isn't strictly necessary but it helps the jam set...plums are quite high in pectin anyway so just cook the jam as normal without this mystical Norwegian powder) Decant into sterilised jars, seal, and turn upside down until cool

As an addendum, we foraged these wild cherry plums on an old Roman road near Chichester:

And voila! Made them into jam too:

Papa Johansen insisted we pick wild cherry plums on our way back from Grange Farm, and thus we spent an hour shaking the plum tree down, collecting plums and getting stung by nettles whilst being drenched in the rain. Good family fun. Dad very kindly offered to help with the jam-making, although by the time we got round to starting the wild cherry plum batch at 7pm we had both run out of steam. Be warned, you have to cook the wild plums whole and skim out the kernels as they separate from the fruit. Below Papa J looks less than impressed at how long it took us to prepare the wild plums (we slit them along the middle to help the separation of kernel from flesh):

And there was no sympathy from Mama J: "It serves your Father right insisting on foraging those wild plums, he never appreciates how much work goes into jam-making"

I suspect he probably does, and hereby extend a big thank you to Papa J for all his help. What better way for Father and daughter to spend time together...