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


aforkfulofspaghetti said...

I think you tamed him!

Fiona Beckett said...

Have to say that while far from taking a girly attitude to food I LOVE Victoria sponges and trifle. Yours look great!

Hermano 2 said...

It was a revelation and a very fun way to spend a day, what I can remember of it.

Sophie said...

What a beaty of a fine trifle!!


Jonny said...

Sounds (& looks) like an afternoon well spent, but are you saying that underneath that gruff exterior Simon is really a bit of a wuss? :)

Signe said...

Aforkful and Jonny - not sure I tamed him, or indeed that Simon is a wuss (sacre bleu!) you would have to ask him if he's been whisking and folding since last Sunday ;)

Fiona and Sophie, thank you both!

Hermano 2, yes I have a patchy memory though I do remember everything tasting very good. The Negroni at Rules afterwards was probably source of my downfall

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you decided to like trifle and victoria sponge - i'm not quite sure how you didn't in the first place - you must never have had properly made ones. You should perhaps start exploring all the variants of trifle out there - i managed to find a norwegian take on it :0
And as for cocktails - well it looks like you had an excellent teacher there.

OysterCulture said...

What a fun read, I would love to have been a fly on the wall to appreciate the education that took place. I question the quality of anything I produce while consuming a good cocktail, so I greatly admire the outcome of this endeavor.

meemalee said...

Fab post Sig, but I'm still not convinced about trifle ...

Majumdar's always showing off about steaks he's consumed :p

jasmine said...

Coffee spluttered all over my keyboard, propelled by gales of laughter when I read your first sentence.

Personally, I think the macho gruff image thing is extreme overcompensation exascerbated by peer pressure. Men: for such simple creatures they do make things difficult for themselves and the rest of us...

Sounds as if you and Simon had a great afternoon!

Great post, thanks so much :)