Normally I don’t keep track of whichever saint we are celebrating on whatever day, but a Twitter post by Foods of England made me sit up and take notice of St Mark.
Because, you see, St Mark’s Eve is the chance of a year for women to see into their own future, in a limited sort of way. Specifically, it’s a chance for unmarried women to get a glimpse of their future husbands through the use of *~*ritual magic*~*.
I know what you’re thinking: I’m already married. And while that may be true, the opportunity to check that there wasn’t a future husband out there was too good to pass up. Perhaps one who was willing to build me a replica Roman kitchen in our garden rather than moaning about “building regulations” and “fire hazards” and “parental responsibility to spend our money on school shoes instead” blah blah blah…
According to Foods of England there are a few versions of Dumb Cake and the ritual that goes with it. The name may come from the Middle English word “doom” which originally meant “fate” or “judgement” – as in the Domesday Book (sometimes spelled Doomsday).
Anyway, the basic principals of the ritual were the same: unmarried girls had to bake some sort of cake together in silence. They would either eat the cake themselves or give it to another girl to eat, and that night would dream of the man they were to marry.
Cake before bed was an idea I could get behind. Though there seemed to be a few versions of the cake, many of them had missing ingredients or required the use of more girls than my family of 3 could accommodate.
In the end I settled on the 1911 recipe from Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District by Charles Dick. It seemed most appropriate – a complete (if very plain) recipe requiring the use of only 2 girls and, as Peterborough is not that far from me, semi-local.
“Dumb Cake. On Midsummer Eve three girls are required to make a dumb cake. Two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put a piece under each of their pillows. Strict silence must be preserved. The following are the directions given how to proceed: The two must go to the larder and jointly get the various ingredients. First they get a bowl, each holding it and wash and dry it together. Then each gets a spoonful of flour, a spoonful of water and a little salt. When making the cake they must stand on something they have never stood on before. They must mix it together and roll it. Then they draw a line across the middle of the cake and each girl cuts her initials each on opposite sides of the line. Then both put it into the oven and bake it. The two take it out of the oven, and break it across the line and the two pieces are given to the third girl who places a piece under each pillow and they will dream of their future.
Not a word must be spoken and the two girls after giving the pieces to the third girl have to walk backwards to bed and get into bed backwards. One word or exclamation by either of the three girls will break the charm.
Another variation is that two only make the cake and go through the same form as the preceding, only they divide it themselves, then each eats her portion and goes to bed backwards as in the first case and nothing must be drank or a word spoken.
Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District.‘ by Charles Dick (1911)
I had to make peace with the prospect that this might not work. Firstly, I was married and in every case the ritual stressed it was for unmarried girls. Secondly I intended to rope my husband into helping me; the recipe said it should be two girls making it, but I thought that he might appreciate the chance at seeing if there was a future husband for him too.
As the recipe made it clear the girls should go to bed as soon as the cake had been baked and eaten we decided to make it relatively late, so as not to waste our evening. Personally, I’d have quite liked an evening of silence.
We began by finding things we had never stood on before. I chose two books and spent much of the following hour slowly descending into the splits as the books slid further apart on the tiles. My husband, being a bit more practically minded, put one foot in a gift bag and one foot in a bag of our daughter’s toy blocks.
Then we began our cake in silence. Together we scrubbed a bowl and dried it. We each put a spoon of flour, a spoon of water and a pinch of salt into the bowl and mixed it up to a dough.
We rolled the dough out and shaped it into a circle. Then we scored it down the centre with a knife and added our initials to each side. The cake (although let’s be honest – it was bread dough really) was baked for 12 minutes while we shuffled around each other without saying a word and trying to make as little noise as possible. Of course within three minutes I’d slipped off my book-shoes and pulled a pile of plates off the side as I fell.
Once it was cooked we took it out of the oven together and very solemnly broke it in half. We ate our halves in silence, then, walking backwards, made our way upstairs (if you’ve never walked up steps backwards you’d be surprised at how tricky it is. I looked like a broken marionette, exaggeratedly lifting each leg because I couldn’t judge the step height.)
But did it work?
This morning the first thing I asked my husband was what he’d dreamed of. His reply was “you”. Lovely, I thought.
“We were having an argument, and I decided I didn’t want to be married to you anymore.”
My outcome was equally disappointing. Rather than a dashing prince, or an exciting adventurer (or even my current husband I guess I should add), I dreamed of Jim Henson. You know, the guy who invented the Muppets and who passed away in 1990.
Trouble was, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Jim Henson, so what I actually dreamed was that I met a man in a full body banana suit – like the ones people run in for charity – who told me he was Jim Henson.
I realised I’d been neglecting my 20th century history, so today’s experiment is an attempt to rectify that.
In all honesty I chose it because of the title: surprise potato balls. What’s not to like?
The recipe came courtesy of the Ministry of Food, which was the government department tasked with rationing during World War Two.
Technically, the original ministry was established in 1916 to regulate food stocks and deal with supply and trade issues. This first ministry was disbanded in 1921 and for the next 18 years Britain was presumably overflowing with unregulated cheese and never-ending supplies of luncheon paste.
But alas, with the dawning of World War Two the nation was plunged into desperation again, and the second ministry was set up in September of 1939. Its role was similar to the first one, but as well as rationing it was also tasked with researching ways food could be used and preserved.
Ration books were issued to every person in the land with different coupons depending on your age and health. Pregnant women and nursing mothers, for example, were allowed a supply of 1 pint of milk per day when (by 1942) the typical allowance for others was 3 pints per week.
By the end of the war the only things not covered by rationing were fresh fruit and veg. The government, eager to encourage the use of as much of these non rationed foodstuffs as possible, published leaflets with an array of questionable and unappetising enigmatic and inventive recipes for desperate cooks to try out at home. And the veg with the most potential? The humble spud.
Oh, how the ministry loved potatoes. Perhaps Lord Woolton, the minister for food during World War Two had shares in a potato farm. Perhaps he just loved chips. But the ministry churned out pro-potato propaganda as if people’s lives depended on it. Which, I guess, they sort of did.
“There is no vegetable more useful than the potato”, one leaflet cried. The potato provided “fine energy” as well as being a “protective food”, crowed another. People were advised to eat at least 12 ounces or even 1lb of potatoes a day, in any form they could stomach.
Don’t get me wrong – I love potatoes. Any type of potato is fine by me, but I have to admit that even I’d begin to find a never ending diet of mash, chips and roasties a little dull. So, to prevent people getting too bored, the government created the not at all creepy character Potato Pete – a cheeky, slightly pervy potato cartoon who they hoped would appeal to housewives everywhere.
Potato Pete even came with his own potato recipe book, complete with brightly coloured pictures of him spouting out catchphrases, or linking arms with delighted and presumably lobotomised human women who skipped off giddly into the sunset with him, a potato.
Making Surprise Potato Balls
One of the recipes in Potato Pete’s recipe book is for Surprise Potato Balls. The writers of the booklet did at least have the wherewithal not to call them Potato Pete’s Surprise Potato Balls, but I still found them hilarious, because I have the sense of humour of a ten year old.
They were straightforward enough: mashed potato with grated carrot and parsley, rolled into balls. I peeled the potatoes, which was a mistake because the ministry actually encouraged people to eat the skins to minimise waste.
One the balls were done, each one was filled with a teaspoon of Branston pickle and then rolled in breadcrumbs and baked for 15 minutes.
The surprise was obviously meant to be the shot of sweet and tangy chutney, but in reality it was how underwhelming these were. I’m not sure what I expected, it being a wartime recipe and all, but the potato was extremely bland. The recipe had said to use milk only if it was absolutely required, which it wasn’t, so I hadn’t. There was no butter or margarine included. This meant that the flavour was quite lacklustre and a little watery.
I served the potato balls with brown gravy (another war time staple, for fashion reasons as much as culinary ones) and the whole effect was of a meal of filling, hot, beigeness. And I suppose that was the point: war was not luxurious. People were making the best of what they had and if a meal could manage to fill you up without tasting outright awful then that was cause to stick it in a recipe book and encourage others to try it.
If you’d like to see Potato Pete’s Potato Balls in full swing (gross) then head over to YouTube where you can watch me make these.
The swamp of one-term presidents – specifically presidents who failed to be reelected – is not a deep one to drain.
The reasons an incumbent president loses reelection are numerous and nuanced, but fall into a couple of broad categories. Either they are completely incompetent in the face of global or national crisis(es), or they have deep personal and/or moral failings. It is rare that one president manages to fulfil both categories so equally.
Despite not living in America, the election has dominated headlines here in the UK since November. Until quite recently there was still a dedicated ‘US election’ tab on the BBC website for anyone looking for a quick and cheap way to dramatically increase their blood pressure.
On this historic day I wanted to look back on another one-term Republican president: Herbert Hoover. He was president from 1929 to 1933 and is remembered mainly as the president during the Great Depression.
Guided by a belief that federal government should not have a direct role in bolstering the economy (but rather it was down to local authorities to support local businesses), Hoover ended up reacting to the early days of the Depression by downplaying it somewhat, believing it would be a short-lived economic blip.
Unfortunately it wasn’t a blip. Over the next few years, millions of people lost their livelihoods and homes. Tens of thousands of these people ended up living in shanty towns made of cardboard and whatever else could be scavenged, begging for food and work and queuing outside free soup kitchens for hours each day. Out of damning criticism of Hoover’s perceived incompetence, these places were nicknamed ‘Hoovervilles’.
By the time of the next election in 1932, Hoover’s popularity was at an all time low – there were even assassination attempts made against him. Unsurprisingly, he lost both the popular and electoral vote by a landslide. This paved the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt to become the first Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson’s term ended in 1921.
None of this has got anything to do with food…
Well, no. And yes.
When Roosevelt took over in March 1933, his wife Eleanor was reportedly horrified to find cockroaches in the White House kitchen. Later her housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt wrote:
I can’t work up any charm for cockroaches. No matter how you scrub it, old wood isn’t clean. This was the ‘first kitchen in America,’ and it wasn’t even sanitary. Mrs. Roosevelt and I poked around, opening doors and expecting hinges to fall off and things to fly out. It was that sort of place. Dark-looking cupboards, a huge old-fashioned gas range, sinks with time-worn wooden drains, one rusty wooden dumb waiter. The refrigerator was wood inside and bad-smelling. Even the electric wiring was old and dangerous. I was afraid to switch things on.
Yet despite the supposed state of the kitchen, Hoover apparently liked his food. He would eat pretty much anything, wolfing down plates of pie, baked hams and soups with such speed that his kitchen staff used to keep bets on how quickly he would finish a meal. His own cook, Mary Rattley commented that “Mr. Hoover is the easiest man in the world to please.”
Easy or not, Hoover had a particular fondness for sweets, which is where today’s experiment comes in. Taken from The Presidents’ Own Whitehouse Cookbook, Herbert Hoover’s sweet potato (emphasis on the word ‘sweet’) seemed a timely recipe.
The instructions read like simple mashed sweet potato at first. I dutifully peeled and boiled two large potatoes before mashing them with butter, nutmeg and cream. The next step was to add some ground walnuts, which seemed more unusual but quite promising. Then things got…strange.
“Dot the top with marshmallows” the recipe instructed, “and brown as if for a meringue.”
Marshmallows – was this a savoury dish or a sweet one? A quick Google informed me that sweet potato with marshmallows is a fairly common dish in America (not so much in the UK), so maybe I was about to have all my culinary preconceptions challenged by this.
I covered the still-hot mashed sweet potato with mini marshmallows and baked it for a few minutes until they were just starting to brown.
It looked and smelled fairly appetising, I have to say.
I like marshmallows and I love sweet potato, so there was nothing inherently dreadful to me about the recipe, but I still found the concept a bit unnerving. With the marshmallows oozing small pools of melted sugar over the potato, I dolloped a spoon into my bowl and dug in.
My first thought was that the combination was a little jarring. The sweet potato tasted exactly as I’d expected – with a slightly nuttier aftertaste because of the walnuts – but it was a pretty earthy, naturally sweet flavour. In comparison, the marshmallows tasted quite synthetic and I found the mix a but off putting in all honesty.
It wasn’t as sweet as I’d expected, though. Being baked had leant a toastiness to the marshmallows which I think tempered some of their sugariness. The walnuts – which I’d ground to a coarse dust – gave the sweet potato additional texture and worked really well with the creaminess of it all.
Would I make it again? Perhaps, with fewer marshmallows. I really liked the walnut addition to the sweet potato, so would definitely incorporate that into future cooking.
Ultimately this was a very American dish which made it perfect for today of all days, and as the USA enters a new era and administration of hope and unity I wish all my American readers the best.
Herbert Hoover’s Sweet Potatoes
2 large sweet potatoes 60 ml (or 1/4 cup) cream 60g (or 1/4 cup) ground walnuts 1 table spoon butter Mini marshmallows Nutmeg Salt
Peel and boil the sweet potato until soft.
Mash the sweet potato with the cream, butter, salt and nutmeg until completely smooth.
Stir in the ground walnuts.
Dot the top with mini marshmallows and heat in the oven at 190 degrees C (375 F) for a couple of minutes until the marshmallows are golden brown.
“Remember, remember, the 5th November: gunpowder, treason and plot” is about the only thing people recall from key stage 3 history lessons. Well, that and “Richard of York gave battle in vain”, which doesn’t really count now that I think of it.
Ask any child in year 8 around this time of year and they’ll tell you that bonfire night commemorates the date that Guy Fawkes – an aggrieved Catholic intent on overthrowing the anti-Catholic James I – was caught under the houses of parliament holding a lit match atop a mountain of gunpowder, practicing his best ‘wasn’t me, guv!’ expression. Luckily for the king, he was caught in the nick of time and marched off to the Tower of London to be, er, questioned.
It’s often the torture – sorry, questioning – part that’s the most memorable (for 12 year olds, at least.) All that stuff with the rack and deformed signatures on forced confessions just really seems to focus year 8’s. Illegal methodology aside, Guy Fawkes was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered on 31st January 1606.
Well… no. For a start, it wasn’t Guy Fawkes who came up with the plot to blow up the king and houses of parliament. That was the brainchild of Robert Catesby – an influential and wealthy man from a Catholic family who had watched his father and brother in law imprisoned for their faith.
Enraged by years of persecution (and perhaps harbouring a desire for more power), Catesby scouted out a band of like minded rebels and managed to rent out the cellar directly under the houses of parliament. Convenient, right? They spent the next few months gradually filling the space with 36 barrels of premium grade gunpowder and then waited patiently for the right time.
Of course, this situation raises questions about the competency of James’ security; for a notoriously paranoid king, it seems crazy to think that his guards didn’t perform regular checks on the contents of the cellars underneath the most important building in England.
Anyway, poor Guy Fawkes was given the job of lighting the fuse and then legging it like crazy to Europe, safe in the knowledge of a job well done. Meanwhile another plotter, Sir Everard Digby, was due to abduct the king’s daughter at the time of the explosion and install her as puppet queen who the Catholics could control. Unfortunately for Guy Fawkes et al, the plot was uncovered at the last minute and the plotters were exposed, eventually captured and executed.
But is that the truth?
As I said, it seems crazy to assume the government didn’t know about 36 barrels of gunpowder quietly festering just feet below the nobs and nobesses of the land (but not really the nobesses, thanks to a no ladies rule). And in fact, it’s just that: crazy. Sure, James I might not have known about it himself but there are strong arguments to suggest his first minister Robert Cecil did and was keeping a close eye. In fact, an anonymous letter warning one MP to stay away from parliament on the fated night ended up in the hands of Cecil as early as 26th October, yet he chose not to act straight away. Perhaps he was waiting for the plot to continue until he could gather enough evidence to be certain of executions or, for the cynical observer, to catch the plotters at the eleventh hour to make himself and the government appear even more heroic to the public.
And so we gather by every year to remember Guy Fawke’s ill-fated foray into arson by watching a human shaped sack of hay burn on a giant bonfire while children sit on their parents’ shoulders, whining for hot dogs and toffee apples.
It was, wasn’t it?
The term ‘toffee’ traditionally just referred to boiled sugar rather than the creamy, individually wrapped sweets grandmas keep in their pockets. Toffee apples’ simplicity and cheapness makes them a decent money spinner for food vendors on bonfire night, but also a family friendly treat; children can replenish the ebbing sugar rush of Halloween, and parents can soothe their own guilt with the knowledge that somewhere underneath the sugar and syrup is a lump of fruit. The trouble with this bargain, of course, is that most kids throw their toffee apples away once the hard sugary layer has been nibbled off to reveal a disconcertingly mushy apple on a stick.
The idea of preserving fruit in syrup or sugar is as old as time; the ancient Egyptians used honey to preserve all manner of things from food to, er, dead bodies. Toffee apples, while not quite as old as ancient Egypt, made use of that great tradition in a cheap and useful way by ensuring that the final few apple harvests of late October wouldn’t go to waste.
The Oxford Companion to Foodsuggests the phrase ‘toffee apple’ first crops up in a food context when the BEF Times mentioned them in its 1917 Christmas edition. However, as author Alan Davidson points out, the invention of the 2 inch medium mortar, nicknamed ‘the toffee apple’ in 1915 suggests the sweet treat was already well established in Britain.
What about the recipes?
Popular theory suggests that candy apples (please note the careful wording there!) were the invention of American sweet manufacturer William Kolb who – like Isaac Newton himself – was struck by inspiration when an apple accidentally dropped into a vat of boiling sugar syrup. Okay, maybe not exactly like Isaac Newton. Regardless, Kolb immediately saw the potential to make cash and rot teeth and lo, the toffee apple was born.
Kolb’s invention may have come in 1908, but the first printed recipe for anything resembling a toffee apple wasn’t published until around 1919 (if you have an earlier one please let me know!) It appeared in American book Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher under the less crowd pleasing name ‘Apples on a stick’.
Take small apples and stick in each one at the top, a small wooden skewer, such as butchers use to pin roasts. Now cook a batch of Molasses Taffy to 280 degress F. Then dip the apple in the hot batch so as to cover it completely. Let the surplus syrup drip off, then stand them on a slab until cold.
…for molasses taffy boil to the soft ball 1 quart of New Orleans molasses, 1 tablespoonful of granulated sugar. Now stir in 2 tablespoonfuls of vinegar, ¼ pound of butter, and boil until it becomes hard and brittle in cold water. Just before removing from the fire stir in ¼ teaspoonful of soda dissolved in hot water and pull.
Household discoveries: an encyclopaedia of practical recipes and processes, Sidney Morse, 1908.
First I began by making my molasses taffy – an American term for a chewy toffee. I scaled down the sizes and boiled molasses with sugar until it hit 116 degrees Celsius: soft ball stage. Once that had been achieved I threw in some vinegar and butter and boiled it to 146 degrees Celsius: hard crack stage. Then, I dipped a green apple into the mixture and coated it well.
The apples looked impressively sleek and dark. True, they did also look a little like the poisoned apple in Snow White – kind of black and oozing – but even so, still quite magnificent.
Unfortunately though they didn’t taste or feel anything like what I thought of when I thought of toffee apples. I had wanted a satisfying crack to the shell but these were still slightly chewy (though I think that was down to my dodgy thermometer reading.) I’d also hoped for a sweet tangy flavour, whereas these were decidedly more bitter in a treacly kind of way.
Select very small red apples, wash and dry them, put a stick or skewer in each, and dip them in the glace. [To make glace] 1 pound sugar, 1/8 pound cream of tartar, 2/3 cupful water. Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan, stir only until the sugar has dissolved, then cook to 320 degrees.
Mrs. Allen on Cooking, Menus, Service, Ida C. Baley Allen, 1924.
This was more like it. I selected the reddest apples I could find and once my sugar had reached the hard crack stage, dipped the fruit in carefully.
They certainly looked the part as I hung them from a tray to harden: red, glossy, and with a very satisfying tap when I knocked my knuckle against one. They tasted much better too, exactly as I remembered them from my childhood: first a sugary, caramelised sweetness as I bit into the shell and then a slightly sour type of sweetness from the apple. Unlike my childhood self, though, I found I actually wanted to finish my apple even after the sugar had been eaten. Hooray for personal growth!
I know that this year’s bonfire night is different to the bonfire night we might have hoped for but for those of us staying in tonight, I recommend giving these a go; they were truly delicious and comfortingly nostalgic. And hey, maybe if enough of us make them then next year when I ask year 8 what they know about bonfire night they’ll surprise me with a comprehensive historiography of toffee apples instead of the usual!
450g granulated sugar 56g cream of tartar 155 ml water 4-6 apples
Place the sugar, cream of tartar and water in a pan and heat until it is boiling. Swill, don’t stir the pan.
While the sugar is melting, skewer the apples from top to bottom with wooden skewers. Make sure the skewer goes through the full length of the apple.
When the temperature reaches 146 degrees C, turn the heat off.
Quickly dip the apples, one at a time, into the sugar until they are evenly coated all over.
Place the apples on greaseproof paper and allow to harden for several minutes.
I’ve been meaning to do a recipe by Julia Child – an absolute stalwart of 20th century American cooking – for a while, but other things kept cropping up. Truthfully, I also felt a little daunted by her recipes, which seemed to go on for pages.
Child co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, but it was initially rejected because, at over 720 pages long, the publisher thought it read too much like an encyclopaedia than a recipe book. This was especially problematic given its target audience: inexperienced household cooks trying French cooking for the first time.
French cooks Beck and Betholle had collaborated with Le Cordon Blue trained Child because they wanted to create a French recipe book that would appeal to American audiences. It was hoped that Child would be able to offer appropriate translations and alternatives to ingredients that were hard to come by in America. To ensure the recipes could be replicated by anyone, no matter how inexperienced, the three authors placed a great deal of emphasis on precise measurements and detailed instructions. This approach helped make the book a success in the end (that’s putting it mildly: it sold over 100,000 copies within 5 years and spawned multiple editions), but at the cost of brevity and ‘lightness of touch’, which are now highly valued by lazy busy cooks like me. Hence my apprehension.
The Julia Child approach
In the end I shouldn’t have worried. The recipes may be long but, like the woman herself, they are also straightforward. In preparation for cooking Child’s Coq au Vin, I did a little bit of research and watched a clip of her making crepes to get over my irrational fear that everything she made was fiddly. She moved fast, but her approach to cooking was essentially the same as I’d grown up with: bung stuff in a pot in the right order, whisk it up a bit, and cook simply. There were no fancy gadgets used, no careful dressing of the plate with alarming smears of sauce or foam, no discussion of “dressing the plate” at all, actually. As the woman herself said about nouvelle cuisine: “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate – you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”
In interviews she came across as friendly and warm, and when I read she had coined the phrase “a party without a cake is just a meeting” and advised those who were wary of using lots of butter in cooking to “just use cream” instead, I knew I could follow her recipes with wholehearted confidence.
Coq au Vin…
…Is a dish that was made for autumn. It’s rich, it’s comforting, it’s hearty. It’s something my dad tries to make every year once the weather turns, but he calls it chicken stew and his usually includes half a tin of beans, or an opened jar of olives in an effort to “use them up”. Though dad’s chicken stew is delicious (see, I can be nice about my family!) it’s not always 100% authentic, and I’m fairly sure it’s a recipe he follows from his own instinct rather than Julia Child’s version.
I found Child’s instructions a little bit confusing initially as the ingredients were only listed as and when they were being used, rather than all at the start. This made shopping for them a bit frustrating; I had already been down the veg aisle to get garlic when I realised I’d need to return to it for onions, so I continued in the one way system until I could loop round to collect them. Aha, I thought, butter next. But then I read on and realised I’d need to go back again to collect herbs. Cue more shuffling down aisles I didn’t need to visit in the name of Being A Good Citizen. Okay, sure, a sensible and methodical cook would have prepared the recipe in advance so they could see what they needed from the shop before they arrived but we all know being sensible or methodical isn’t quite my style; I’ve clearly inherited my dad’s ‘see what’s in the house and stick it in a pan’ approach to cooking.
Julia Child’s version
To start with I sliced bacon into lardons and simmered it in water for 10 minutes. Child’s instructions were very exact – there wasn’t any of this vague ‘cook for approximately the time it takes to sing happy birthday twice, or until the bacon turns a dark shade of taupe and seems cooked-but-not-too-cooked’ malarky. It was the absolute opposite to some ancient and medieval recipes I’d donebefore, where no clear instructions were given at all, and I almost felt ungrateful for begrudging its rigidity.
Once simmered, the lardons were sautéed in butter and then removed from the pan. The chicken breast, cut into chunks, was browned in the fat of the lardons which were then re-added to the pan and cooked together for 10 minutes. I added 70ml of cognac to the pan and winced as I followed instructions to “avert your face [and] ignite the cognac with a lighted match.” I tried to set the dish on fire five times, but each time the match just fizzled out. Eventually I gave up and reconciled myself to the fact that I was just going to have to put up with the extra alcohol content. Shame.
After abandoning my attempts at flambéeing (which would have inevitably ended up with me losing my eyebrows anyway), I added wine, chicken stock, and other bits and bobs and left the lot to simmer for a while as I focused on the brown braised onions that Child recommended be served with the chicken. She recommended using pearl onions, which I couldn’t get hold of, so I used shallots instead. As well as onions and a sprig of parsley to garnish the plate, she also suggested serving the dish with sautéed mushrooms but I didn’t because, well, gross (and we also had some broad beans to use up instead.)
At this point I want to say that the house smelled like 1960’s France but I think, given the lack of cigarette smoke in the ingredient list, it probably didn’t. It still smelled bloody amazing, though.
When the chicken was done I took it out of the pan and placed it on a serving dish, covered with foil to keep it warm. I boiled the remaining liquid until it reduced to about a pint. I added some blended butter and flour – a beurre manié, apparently – to the liquid and whisked until it was thick enough to coat a spoon. The thickened sauce was poured onto the chicken, which was surrounded by onions, and served.
In a conclusion that will surprise exactly no one, this was delicious. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, probably because it felt like over 50% of it was just alcohol or butter. The chicken was tender and fell away in chunks and the bacon just melted into the background. The sauce was thick and rich – tomato-y and winey – which only highlighted how buttery and sweet the onions were as an accompaniment. The whole thing was divine. Seriously. I know I can be a bit OTT, but it was. The next day it was still just as good eaten as leftovers and I actually had a mini argument with my husband when I realised he’d eaten more than his half.
Would I make this again? Do you have to even ask? True, at times it felt a little like I was cooking with a benign drill sergeant, and I was definitely much more tired by the end of it from double checking and the exact timings. I also found it a bit odd that the ingredients popped up when they were used, rather than listed at the start, because it made me feel like I was playing a stressful round of at-home Ready Steady Cook – suddenly lurching to get the flour out the cupboard and weigh it out whilst peeling shallots or whisking sauces. Overall, though, it was worth it.
P.S. No, I haven’t seen the film…yet.
Julia Child’s Coq au Vin
For the Coq au Vin 85g bacon 1kg diced chicken 56g soft butter 70ml cognac 700ml red wine (Burgundy, Beaujolais, Chianti) 235ml chicken stock 1 dessert spoon tomato paste 2 cloves mashed garlic Sprig of thyme 1 bay leaf 28g flour
For the braised onions 450g pearl onions or shallots 1.5 tablespoons butter 1.5 tablespoons olive oil 120ml of beef stock 1 bay leaf Sprig of thyme
Remove the rind from the bacon and cut into lardons.
Simmer in 900ml of water for 10 minutes. Remove and pat dry.
Fry the bacon in 28g of the butter until brown.
Remove the bacon and add the diced chicken to the bacon grease. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and fry until brown.
Return the bacon to the pan with the chicken, cover and cook for 10 minutes.
Add the cognac and, if you like, set it on fire. Good luck.
Add the wine, chicken stock, garlic, tomato paste, bay leaf and sprig of thyme and cover and cook for 30 minutes.
Begin on the braised onions. Heat the oil and butter in a pan.
Add the onions, whole, and cook for 10 minutes, coating them well.
Pour over the stock, add the herbs, and cook for 40 minutes until the onions are soft but still hold their shape and most of the liquid has evaporated.
Begin on the beurre manié. Mix the flour and remaining 28g of butter together to form a paste.
Remove the chicken from the liquid and place on a serving bowl. Continue cooking the liquid until it has reduced to about a pint’s worth of liquid.
Whisk the beurre manié into the liquid until it thickens enough to coat a spoon.
Pour the thickened liquid over the chicken and serve with the onions.
About a week ago someone on Twitter posted an old photo of Ivana Trump, ex-daughter-in-law of successful real-estate developer Fred Trump. She was wearing a black dress with what appeared to be a golden belt with an actual diamond attached to it. Surrounded by golden plates and crystal candlesticks, she loomed over a huge golden basket of meat. A gilt framed painting hung in the background above a clock that looked like it belonged on a royal mantlepiece in tsarist Russia. She was grinning richly, fork in hand, looking directly into the camera as if saying “Welcome to Mar-a-Lago, make yourself at home on our million dollar sofas and be sure to get your earplugs in before my husband joins us.”
To those of you who are already dismissing the vitriol and snark in this post as evidence of “jealousy” I say: Well, obviously! I am sojealous I could lie down in the grass and blend in without issue. Some of you may be better liars people than me and would turn the other cheek but I cannot. Vitriol and snark are all I’ve got to navigate my jealousy at not having lace napkins and silver side plates like Ivana’s.
Actually, I’m being insincere. By 1992, Ivana was divorced due to “cruel and inhuman treatment by Mr. Trump” so the photo wasn’t actually taken in Mar-a-Lago, but rather in the dining room of her own Connecticut mansion. By that time, Ivana was developing her own business ventures mainly based around fashion. Efforts to build successful property developments largely failed, but it didn’t stop her from embarking on other ideas – she had stints on TV and, speaking on The First Wives Club, coined the striking phrase: “Don’t get mad – get everything.” She may have been speaking from experience; reports of the divorce settlement are vague – she had to sign a non-disclosure agreement as part of the agreement – but it seems that Ivana received an amount somewhere around the $25million mark when she and Donald split up.
The picture that had piqued my curiosity was from a one-off cookbook by Robin Leach called The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook, which documented what the great, good and just plain wealthy of the 90’s fed to their dinner guests. As well as individual interviews, exclusive menus were published too, such as from the Cannes film festival (Foie Gras, Fish, Beef, Celeriac and Artichoke, Chocolate Cake), and a New Orleans gala menu welcoming their Royal Bigots Prince and Princess Michael of Kent to Mardi Gras celebrations (Quail, Pasta, “Chocolate Breathless”, Pralines, Sugar Paste Harlequin Masks.)
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
Somewhat aptly, by the time the book was published, Robin Leach was himself something of a celebrity, having hosted the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous since 1984. At times, the cookbook runs the risk of reading as a list of slightly luvvie anecdotes about the time its author met so-and-so actor, or dined with royalty. But I can’t be too harsh here; I’d absolutely do the same and, given how well connected Leach was, it’s actually quite restrained.
In creating ‘The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook’ we discovered that the rich and famous are no different from the rest of us when it comes to cooking and entertaining… As the social “season” approaches, hard working hostesses are never found on a tennis court or yacht’s bow.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook, Robin Leach.
Was it being ironic? I couldn’t work out if it was me or the celebs who were being mocked here; certainly I’ve never set foot on a yacht’s bow but it’s not because I’m too busy… (I did once find myself on a tennis court but it was purely accidental and I left as soon as I realised I was expected to actually run after the ball.)
Anyway, back to “Ivana’s” goulash.
Ivana began her chapter by describing how her chef created wonderful meals for special occasions, specifically winter get-togethers for her girlfriends. Sixty of them. They flew in from “London, Chicago, Paris” for a “special menu that was very low in calories but also festive – the perfect combination for a ladies’ luncheon…” A low calorie meal to celebrate Christmas with sixty of my nearest and dearest: exactly what I’d want after a 12 hour plane journey…
In another depressingly telling comment about the pressures to be a rich and famous woman, Czech-born Ivana mentioned that she found Czech food “fattening” and “terrible for the waistline”, despite clearly wishing she could eat more of it; she lists her favourite foods with increasing gusto, describing the dishes as “fantastic” and saying she was “in love with the cuisine.”
It all sounded delicious and, as a non-celeb who’s only ever been papped when driving too fast, I was looking forward to seeing how her fattening, indulgent goulash would turn out. Though the book called it “her” goulash, in reality it was actually Ivana’s unnamed chef’s goulash – she just got to have her photo taken with it.
Traditional goulash recipes are more of broths, rather than stews like Ivana’s version below. They can range from the incredibly simple to the more complex, and the rich flavours are generally achieved by cooking the ingredients on low, slow heat to release the full range of flavours over a long period of time. Many of them contain chunks of starchy veg as well, to add texture and bulk.
Beef Goulash for two, not sixty.
Since I wasn’t cooking for sixty of my closest girlfriends but only my family, I halved the recipe. After doing an obligatory admire of photos of Ivana posing by enormous mirrors, silk and damask curtains, and gold leaf covered servants, I began.
The first thing to do was melt a tablespoon of butter with a tablespoon of olive oil in a casserole dish. Once this was done, I added diced beef shin, dusted in flour and paprika, to the fat and sautéed.
The next step was to add one medium diced onion and a clove of crushed garlic and cook until they became translucent. Ivana’s recipe said this would take two minutes. Two minutes. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first in a series of misleading statements made throughout the recipe. Clearly, Trumpian vagueries began well before 2016.
After the onions had gone see-through – about 15 minutes – I added a cup of water, followed by a sprinkle of marjoram, salt and pepper, and then placed it in the oven to cook for about an hour. I found this surprising; other recipes for beef goulash seemed to require upwards of two and a half hours to cook. Some Hungarian recipes also included ingredients like wine or rich beef stock, whereas Ivana’s was staunch in its dedication to water and…nothing. True, original goulashes used only water, but for a recipe described as “fattening” in a cookbook called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, I began to wonder whether Ivana’s definition of what was and wasn’t “fattening” was the same as mine.
After an hour’s cooking I added a skinned, chopped tomato and half a diced green pepper. Then, with the goulash coming to an end of its cooking time (I added an extra half an hour in the end) I boiled some egg noodles and drizzled them with a tablespoon of melted butter before serving on the fanciest plate I could find, à la Trump.
My husband was so excited when he saw me setting the table. Champagne? At lunchtime? Who did I think I was – Melania Trump?
The goulash looked and smelled good, but when I tasted it, I was a bit underwhelmed. There was nothing unpleasant about it at all, but it wasn’t as indulgent as I’d been expecting, given who its author was.
The beef was slightly chewy. Not inedible, not unpleasant, but hardly the melt in your mouth texture I’d expect – and it certainly didn’t scream “luxury” at me. There was a pleasant sweet heat from the paprika, but it was a background flavour; Ivana had specified no more than 3 teaspoons of the stuff.
The noodles were buttery but that was about all you could say for them. They swam, slightly, in the goulash liquid which was a fairly insipid mixture of water and fat. The diced pepper was still a little crunchy and together with the tomato lent a negligibly bland veggie element.
All in all, it was fine – and if a professional chef had prepared this it would probably have been great. The trouble was that the book wasn’t about professional chefs; it was about ordinary people copying professional chefs, with instructions that maybe weren’t as accurate as they could have been – with disappointing results.
As mentioned, some more traditional goulashes use only water and their main flavour comes from the abundance of paprika, slowly released beef fat and gently sweated onion. Ivana’s recipe wasn’t totally inauthentic to only use water – but it fell down because it tried to do everything too quickly – translucent onions in 2 minutes, tender beef shin in 1 hour?! I wondered why she considered this relatively plain version such a “fantastic” treat when there were far better ones out there.
Perhaps it was because for Ivana, this was fantastic? How many times did she mention her weight or calories in the first few paragraphs of her introduction? I counted no fewer than three separate references. She must have been hungry most of the time. Buttered noodles and beef must have seemed desperately indulgent to someone who was constantly watching what they ate. And if a chef always prepared it for her (as she admits), she may not have realised how much time and effort it genuinely took to make a good goulash before she sold her version to Robin Leach.
Perhaps, in the end, I just made it incorrectly, or maybe her instruction to “season the stew with salt” was actually rich-person code for “add a whopping great quantity of cream and sauvignon”.
Whatever her reason for classing this as a fattening “favourite” – it was a perfectly adequate Monday lunch. Sure, we were both a bit “meh” by the end of it, but it did the trick and we couldn’t complain about not being full. In fact, I was even left with enough stamina to begin planning my next experiment – a banquet to feed 100 people on no more than 10 calories per person.
450g diced beef shin 1 tablespoon plain flour 1-3 teaspoons of paprika (sweet Hungarian if you can get it) 2 tablespoons of butter 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil 1 medium onion 1 small garlic clove Pinch of marjoram Salt 1/2 green pepper, diced 1 diced tomato, peeled and de-seeded 400g egg noodles
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C.
Dust the beef with the flour and paprika.
In a pan, melt half of the butter with the oil in an oven proof casserole dish.
Add the beef and sauteé until browned.
Reduce the heat and add the diced onion and garlic and cook until translucent.
Add enough water to cover the beef and add a pinch of marjoram and salt.
Cook for 1 hour, replacing water if needed.
After an hour, add the tomato and pepper and cook for a further 30 minutes.
Cook the egg noodles in salted water according to the instructions on the packet.
Drain the noodles and melt the remaining butter over them.
If you ask any adult who was primary school aged in 2005 what the biggest event of that year was they’ll all say the same thing.
No, not the inauguration of George Bush, or the launch of Youtube. A few may comment that the biggest event might have been the first screening on the new Doctor Who, but they’d be wrong. I am, of course, talking about the time Jamie Oliver banned turkey twizzlers from school dinners.
If you didn’t live through this event you can’t understand just how deeply it shattered the nation. I’d go so far as to say no school dinner based scandal has ever rocked the foundation of our society like it since – including the horse meat fiasco of 2013 (actually, had turkey twizzlers not already been discontinued, they may have been caught up in that one too…)
For those of you who don’t know (and those of you who just love the drama of it all), in 2005 celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched a nation-wide campaign to remove lunches that he saw as being overly processed and heavy in fat and salt from school canteens. His plan was to replace these “fast-food” school dinners with ones cooked from scratch that included wholegrain and fibre on the ingredients list, and vegetables that didn’t contain E-numbers. Had he simply sought to add healthy options to school dinners, rather than remove all the deep fried offerings from the menu, then it’s unlikely I’d be here today, reminiscing about these lardy, fatty, spirals of meat. But that was never his plan; Oliver was unwavering in his stance – all unhealthy food must go.
It was a daunting quest for an age when a school meal could be nothing more than a pastry shell filled with melted cheese served with a side of Panda Pop cola (another school dinner great, taken too soon.) My lovely village primary once served me a lunch of nothing but custard, for example. But when Oliver embarked on his campaign, in the mess of potato smilies and chocolate cement, there was one lunch that quickly stood out as a particularly nefarious meal: the turkey twizzler.
It’s hard to describe a turkey twizzler to someone who didn’t grow up with them. How do you explain the rationale behind making a meal for kids out of spirals of turkey scrapings from the abattoir floor, mushed to a pulp with lard and breadcrumbs, coated in sugar and spices, and deep fried in oil? It doesn’t matter, the point is kids went wild for them. Standing in the lunch queue the whispers would trickle down the line with growing excitement: “it’s turkey twizzlers for lunch!” You can imagine the despair when they became the object of Oliver’s wrath.
Sides were picked in preparation for the Great Twizzler Conflict and the media did its best to represent each one fairly: on one side – an alliance of fast food junkies with no plans to live beyond forty and freedom-fighting parents who feared their little darlings would explode upon contact with something as healthy as even a baked bean. On the other – organic loving, vegetarian hippies who ate nothing but pure sunbeams and crapped out smugness. The battle ground was readied, a time for the fight was decided and the war cries were heard: parents would meet outside the school gates at lunchtime.
And meet they did. In scenes not dissimilar to humanitarian aid workers handing medicine through the fences of detainment camps, mothers slotted McDonald’s fries through the lattice work of school gates for their offspring to fight over. Business savvy parents with dubious scruples ran takeaway rackets, collecting money for daily orders and delivering them to rabid pre-teen hoards through gaps on the playing fields. On the other side of the war, parents rallied round Oliver and formed vigilante groups, calling themselves Ninjas, and stormed school kitchens to ensure not one trace of fat was found. Others formed collectives and took it in turns to cook meals for the school community while alternative catering companies, ones who couldn’t even spell “turkey twizzlers” let alone make them, were being sought.
In the end, Oliver was successful, and despite manufacturers offering to rejig the recipe to reduce the fat content, turkey twizzlers were removed from school lunches before being discontinued towards the close of 2005. But the landscape of school canteens was forever changed. No longer did we live off carbohydrate and grease. When the whispers filtered down the line they carried messages of despair and dismay: “it’s runner beans again.” The fall of the mighty twizzler heralded the end of other school lunch staples and in 2007 the government introduced compulsory rules for school caterers to follow under the document “Nutritional Standards”. The document pointed out that, in 2007, nearly a quarter of all children starting primary school in England were classed as overweight or obese. Similarly, three fifths of five year olds showed signs of dental decay.
Initiatives to combat such startling figures were drawn up and included the “eatwell plate” – a chart highlighting what the ideal nutritional makeup of a child’s meal should be. These plans were rolled out to parents and schools; every classroom had a glossy poster of the eatwell plate and pupils searched it with growing anxiety: where were the chips? The nuggets? Goddamn it, where were our potato waffles? All gone. In their place: fish, legumes, wholewheat bread and pasta. With growing horror we realised an entire third of the plate was labelled “fruit and vegetables”.
Fried food was to be “restricted across the whole school day” and could be served no more than twice a week. In addition to this, there were to be two days across the week where no meat, battered, breadcrumbed or pastry-based food was to be served and instead only wholesome vegetarian meals were to be dished out to fill hungry bellies.
Worse was yet to come. Under the new legislation, schools were banned from selling chocolate, confectionary or crisps. Cakes and biscuits were to be eaten only at lunchtime as part of the eatwell plate. Fizzy drinks were outlawed. Blackmarket tuck-shops boomed and kids took out payments from playground loan sharks when they couldn’t afford the extortionate prices for a packet of Smarties. You had to be careful, though; miss a repayment and the sharks would come round to your locker and break all your crayons.
Fortunately for me, I had ended my time in primary education by 2007 and had escaped to the land of secondary school and packed lunches. The eatwell plate lost its power over my cohort and became an object of ridicule in PSHE lessons. People ate KitKats with reckless abandon in the corridors, and the bins were overflowing by the end of the day with such brazen items as crisp packets and shop bought sandwich wrappers. It was like a paradise.
Cowed though the nation had become, hardcore twizzler fans never gave up the fight. Almost immediately after their demise, appeals sprang up to reinstate them to their former glory and a 2017 petition to “bring back turkey twizzlers” has been signed by over 27,000 people – and the number is still growing. In 2019, the Telegraph warned (or celebrated, depending on your view) that turkey twizzlers could even make a comeback to school canteens after a no deal Brexit.
Given that the turkey twizzler was a mass produced, factory manufactured item, rather than a recipe as such, recreating it with 100% authenticity was impossible. What I did find, however, was a list of ingredients from the original product. Some of the ingredients I’d only ever seen in chemistry lessons, and many of them were just strings of numbers and letters; hardly the sort of stuff available in Sainsbury’s. What I’ve tried to do, therefore, is stick to accurate ratios and focus on the main ingredients while leaving the additives out.
Turkey twizzlers were a peculiar food, not because of their ability to transform a nation into a furious, additive-reliant mob, but because of the amount of fat in them. Let me explain: turkey isn’t an exciting meat. It can be bland and underwhelming, but what it does have going for it is its low-fat content relative to other meat. So it remains a mystery to me why anyone would take the main selling point of turkey and flip it on its head by adding so much lard that, when cooked, just over 21% of a turkey twizzler was just fat.
The other weird thing about turkey twizzlers was that, despite the name, they only contained 34% of turkey. The rest of the twizzler was fat, water, rusks and additives.
I started with the two percentages I knew I had and worked out that if I was to make 500g of turkey twizzlers I’d need no more than 170g of turkey meat. I chose turkey sausage meat as it contained on the label some of the additives I’d not been able to buy myself, without adding anything that wasn’t on the original twizzler list. The ingredients in twizzlers were listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amounts listed first. After turkey (34%), the next ingredient on the list was water – but the “recipe” I found didn’t provide a quantity. Pork fat, however, was the third ingredient and I already knew that twizzlers were found to contain 21% of fat after cooking, meaning that the amount of water in my twizzlers had to be somewhere between 106g and 170g. I didn’t want sloppy twizzler, so I opted for a relatively reserved 110g.
Rusk was the fourth item before we embarked into a list of E-numbers and spices. I decided, therefore, that it had to be a relatively high percentage of a twizzler since so far there was nothing to “bulk up” the meat. I chose to add 100g, leaving about 15g or so wiggle room for spices, salt and flour.
The turkey, rusk, lard and water was blended in a food processor along with a tablespoon of flour and a teaspoon of salt until it resembled the infamous “pink slime” of reconstituted fast food. I shaped out five sausages and ran skewers through them before putting them in the fridge to firm up.
To create the iconic spirals that gave twizzlers their name, I cut into the sausages right to the skewer and angled up, so that the meat was sliced in one continuous spiral. Each twizzler was rolled in a mixture of BBQ, tomato, mustard and salt spices and then shallow fried in vegetable oil for a few minutes on each side. Because I wasn’t sure they were done I also finished each one off in the oven for fifteen minutes, just to ensure they were cooked all the way through.
By now the kitchen smelled like, well, the inside of a school canteen circa 2004. There was grease and oil spatter up the walls and a smoky, fried smell in the air. My skin and hair smelled like the inside of a deep fat fryer, no matter how much soap I scrubbed with. On the plus side(?!), I was inching ever closer to what promised to be an early grave as my turkey twizzlers finished off their cooking.
Once they were done I pulled the skewers out of them and marvelled at how springy and successful the spirals were. They were clearly a homemade version of the iconic school dinner, but they weren’t a bad take. Because they’d been made from scratch and I’d skipped all the additives, I even wondered if they might pass the government’s Nutritional Standards guidelines. Not likely, I thought, as the fat pooled off them and filled up a side plate.
Now might be a good time to admit something: I’ve never actually tried a turkey twizzler. Well, I had a clandestine forkful of one once, when my friend didn’t want to finish hers. My parents, wary of school dinners before the Great Twizzler Conflict even began, put me and my sister on the school register as being vegetarians – even though we weren’t. Rather than turkey twizzlers, beef burgers and chicken nuggets we were served cheese flan, cheese omelette and cheese quiche (which was cheese flan, but with a sprig of parsley on top to make it fancy.)
I don’t remember loads about my one mouthful of turkey twizzler, other than that I was seriously underwhelmed. It was chewy, fatty and the flavour was indistinguishable. My husband, on the other hand, had no restrictions placed on him, and punched the air with delight when I said I was going to try to recreate them. I therefore deferred to his judgement when deciding how successful this experiment had been.
The first tentative mouthful brought back the memory of the texture: crispy on the outside, springy and smooth inside. Though my twizzlers were larger than the original, I was pleased to see I’d pretty much nailed the springiness of the spirals in at least two of them.
In terms of taste – they were, as my husband put it “like turkey twizzlers without the MSG.” The flavours were very close to what he remembered in that they were a mix of fat and fried meat with a smoky coating, but without the chemicals and flavourings they lacked something of the fizz, the addictive quality, of the old twizzlers.
In the end we didn’t finish these beyond a few exploratory bites. As kids, the idea of deep fried lard and turkey might have been appealing, but having been part of the process I couldn’t wait to bin the lot and drink a pint of kale smoothie. In one afternoon I felt I’d done what Jamie had been trying to do for the best part of his career; in the end he hadn’t needed to campaign and fight against the pro-twizzler faction – all he’d had to do was teach people how to make them.
170g turkey sausage meat 110g water 106g pork lard 100g rusks 1 tablespoon plain flour 1 teaspoon salt Vegetable oil for frying
For the coating: 3g sugar 3g BBQ spice 2g tomato powder 2g flour 1/4 teaspoon salt
Add the turkey, lard, water and rusks to a food processor and blend until a smooth paste forms. Add the tablespoon of flour and teaspoon of salt to bind the mixture together more. If you think it is still too loose, add another spoon of flour.
Shape the turkey paste into 5 large or 6 medium sausages. Push a skewer through each one and place int he fridge for several hours to firm up.
Mix up the ingredients for the coating and spread over a plate.
Remove the meat from the fridge and with a sharp knife, cut up in a spiral from the bottom to the top of the sausage, making sure to cut deep enough to hit the skewer. You may need to wiggle the spirals down the skewer slightly to ensure even frying.
Roll each skewer in the coating and shall fry, one at a time, in a frying pan of vegetable oil.
Fry each twizzler, turning every minute, for about 7 or 8 minutes. Alternatively, you can bake them for 18 minutes at 180 degrees C.
Before today I’d never made or eaten meatloaf before. Growing up, my whole experience of it came from watching American films from the 90’s where it was always presented as a bit of a disappointment: dry, bland and uninspired, occasionally with ketchup. None of my friends ate it either so it became something I thought of as semi-fictional, in a boring kind of way. I think there was only one film where meatloaf was made to seem dangerous and exciting, but it was part of a messy, short lived scene that ended with a pickaxe and bits of Meat Loaf all over the walls and floor. Other than creating some mildly conflicting emotions in 12 year old me (who, let’s face it, knew she shouldn’t be watching a DVD that featured so much leather and red lipstick on the front cover), this particular scene didn’t really change my opinion of the dish overall.
I’m unsure why I thought of meatloaf as this slightly ugly, dull meal in comparison to the fancy sounding terrine when they are such similar dishes. It’s probably because the word “terrine” evokes French elegance, upmarket restaurants and crisp white napkins whereas the word “meatloaf” sounds like something we’d all be fighting over in the dystopian wasteland of a nuclear winter as part of a futile effort to avoid resorting to cannibalism. Or maybe I’ve just thought about it too much.
“It’s really boring” I told my husband. “At least, I think it is. You probably won’t like it.” I showed him the ugly photo of lumpy meatloaf in Marguerite Pattern’s 1967 edition of Quick and Easy Cookbook in Colour.
“Well why are you making it then?”
I showed him the photo of Wurstel Sausage in Aspic which had been the alternative for my foray into the food of the 60’s and 70’s. He agreed I’d made the right decision.
In theory meatloaf has been around for centuries because dishes of compressed minced meat have existed since ancient times. In Apicius there’s a recipe for Brain Sausage involving pulverised minced brain which is shaped and cooked in a pan and sliced into portions to be eaten cold. I would do anything for my love of historical cooking, but I won’t do that. I needed a modern, non-brain version to make instead.
Our modern idea of meatloaf first appeared in American print in 1899 – coincidentally just after the invention of the meat grinder. From then on it became a firm American staple, appearing in cookbooks and on dining tables for decades after. It wasn’t until 1939 that meatloaf made it to British print, however, by which time it had cemented its place as a versatile but fairly inelegant meal. The recipe I used for today’s meatloaf, taken from Quick and Easy Cookbook in Colour, appeared under the title “Made-up meat dishes” which did little to change my perception of meatloaf as something that wasn’t quite real, but I was prepared to change my mind. Besides, I was using my gran’s old cookbook which bore tell tale splatter marks from when meatloaf had been all the rage in the 70’s.
First I melted 1 oz. of margarine in a pan, added two chopped onions and cooked them until they were soft but not brown. I then added 3 oz. of mushrooms, flour and milk to form a white sauce and cooked until thickened. So far, so easy. I was actually quite pleased to see that the first two ingredients were vegetables and not meat; it somehow made the unappetising image in the book a little less daunting.
Once the onion/mushroom/white sauce mixture cooled slightly I added a combination of minced beef and sausage meat, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, two eggs, 3 oz. bread crumbs, a teaspoon of mixed herbs and 1 oz. of parmesan cheese (“Oh, you’re making a fancy meatloaf then”, my mum said when she found out the ingredients.) I then added 3 tablespoons of tomato puree which gave everything a disconcerting pinky/orange hue and reminded me of Rocky Horror again, before squidging it all into a loaf tin and baking for just over an hour.
The thing I hadn’t appreciated about meatloaf is that it’s often meant to be served cold. Patten’s recipe called for the meatloaf to be chilled in the fridge for a couple of hours once cooked before being sliced and served with a salad. I had intended to serve this for dinner, and by the time it was done it was already 7pm. I didn’t think my family would appreciate waiting another two or three hours for a meal that I’d done nothing but complain about since starting. It’s fair to say expectations weren’t high and tacking on an additional countdown to inevitable disappointment wasn’t something I fancied doing to my family – so I served it hot.
Sliced warm, it didn’t quite keep its intended loaf shape – entirely my fault, but not very helpful in boosting the overall attractiveness of the meal. That said, it didn’t look as awful as I’d imagined a whole tin of squashed meat would. There was a pretty satisfying brown and crunchy top to the meatloaf which, once broken, revealed a surprisingly tender and moist interior. I was delighted to find that the crumbly dryness I’d been expecting was no where to be seen – it was like eating a lasagne without pasta and was quite delicious.
The mushrooms and white sauce lent the whole thing a pleasantly silky texture as well as preventing dryness. The tomato paste gave a surprisingly strong “vegetable” taste that threatened to distract from the beef and sausage meat, a combination that worked quite well, although I would have preferred more sausage meat than Patten used in her recipe.
I wanted to see what it tasted like cold, though, so a couple of hours later I cut a slice from the refrigerated leftovers. The flavours had intensified, with the beef becoming more prominent in particular and the tomato taking a welcomed backseat. The texture had become a little chunkier and less smooth too – it was somehow more robust. Overall I think I preferred it cold, as Patten had intended.
Despite my limited pop culture references leading me to believe meatloaf was a bland meal, I didn’t find it bland at all and my husband and daughter seemed to wolf it down. However, the overall presentation and fact that it was best eaten cold meant that it would be out of place at a dinner party.
If I was going to a picnic though, and wanted something that tasted great but didn’t make me look too try-hard, I would absolutely make this again. Likewise, I could see this being a much enjoyed family meal if I had time to prepare, cook and chill it properly. And that, I think, is the beauty of meatloaf. It’s not trying to be anything more than it is – occasional family meal, satisfying picnic lunch, theatrical aging rock star – it’s all good.
Today’s experiment and blog post can both be filed under “super quick”, which you’ll find next to the folder marked “can’t be arsed.”
You know those days when it feels like you have ten thousand and one things to do but no energy, time or patience for them? Well so far it’s been that kind of month. Maybe it’s because we’re onto week eight thousand of “lockdown” (are we still calling it that?), maybe it’s because my husband and I are stuck in a cycle of lasagne-spaghetti-ravioli dinners because we were both silently hoping the other one would step up and attempt to cook something without pasta, maybe it’s just because it’s June and I’m still checking to see if I need a coat before going out. I don’t know, I’m tired.
Rock buns (or rock cakes, as they’re more commonly called) are the sort of cakes we’re all familiar with from childhood. Having been coaxed into a trip to see grandparents by the promise of cake once there, rock buns are exactly the sort of non-iced, non-chocolate “treat” you’d end up being presented with. Or at least, that’s how I remembered them.
These rock buns are taken from a World War Two Ministry of Food leaflet – a government produced pamphlet to provide households with filling and nutritious recipes during the height of rationing. With eggs, butter and sugar all on ration by 1946, today’s experiment threatened to hark back to the days of disappointing afternoon tea at gran’s.
The recipe reflected the constrictions of the time; no eggs, very little sugar and margarine instead of butter. Reading it, there was also a distinct lack of descriptive language – whereas modern cake recipes usually tell us about the intoxicating smells, the golden hues, the nuttiness that dances lightly on the tip of the tongue etc, etc – this one really didn’t.
In fact, the whole thing was three sentences long. There was not one simile, not one metaphor, not even a charming anecdote, to make it more appetising. Clearly poetic writing skills were also on ration in 1946.
“Make the foundation recipe with the addition of 4oz. dried fruit and 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice added with sugar.”
I did as I was asked by mixing up a batch of the plain cake foundation recipe that formed the base of many of the cakes in the leaflet. At four sentences long, this was practically an essay and took a whopping 10 minutes to complete, but I persevered.
To the foundation mix I added the required dried fruit and spice and then just enough milk and water solution to help it form an incredibly dry dough (about two tablespoons.) I then rolled it into golf ball sized lumps and popped it into “a hot oven” for about 10-15 minutes as instructed. After 15 minutes the rock buns were still a bit anaemic looking so I left them for another 5 minutes or so while I went back to Googling “family dinner ideas – not pasta.”
Finally, they were done. About time too – I’d given up a full half an hour of my afternoon on these and was almost on my knees with exhaustion. I presented the fruits of my 30 minute labour to my husband and daughter with about the same levels of enthusiasm and energy as the author of the recipe had when writing it down.
“Here you go, sweetheart,” I told my girl. “Here are some disappointing cakes mummy made. What do you think?” I turned to grab the bin in anticipation…
And stopped; no one was complaining. My husband was already reaching for a second and nodding appreciatively. I bit into mine.
I don’t know whether I was just an obnoxious child (likely) or my gran was a terrible baker – but these were nothing like how I remembered. Where was the cardboard flavour? The burnt and crumbly currants that left a bitter aftertaste for hours? The crust so hard your teeth cracked with every bite?
Though these lived up to their name in terms of appearance, once the hard outer layer was broken into they were surprisingly soft and scone-like. The currants were plump and juicy and even as someone who dislikes dried fruit in cakes I found I didn’t mind them here. In fact, they were kind of necessary because they added a moistness that stopped the rock buns from becoming too dry.
In terms of flavour, the mixed spice shone through – perhaps because there was a lack of other flavouring – but it was very subtle and worked well with the currants. Unsurprisingly the rock buns weren’t very sweet; again I was reminded of a plain scone and were it not for a commitment to authenticity I think a big dollop of strawberry jam would work well with them (jam was on ration from 1941 to 1950.)
Sure, these rock buns lacked the appeal of an icing covered fairy cake and they weren’t as rich as chocolate fudge cake, but they were still incredibly moreish and I was surprised that for such a simple recipe they were so delicious. I found myself reaching for a second and then a third in a very unrestrained, un-1946 kind of way. It may have taken no time at all to whip a batch of them up, but it took even less time to devour them and with each one I felt my mood lift a little.
Gran, if you’re reading this – I’m on my way over. Get baking.
115g plain flour 115g self raising flour 45g margarine 45g sugar 50g currants 1 teaspoon vanilla essence 1/2 teaspoon mixed spice Pinch of salt A tablespoon of milk or water
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees c.
Combine the flour, sugar, currants, salt and mixed spice in a bowl.
Add the margarine and vanilla and combine.
Add the milk or water until the mixture just sticks together.
Roll the mixture out in golf ball size balls and place on a baking tray. Leave space between each one as they will expand a bit as they cook.
Cook for 15-20 minutes until they turn golden brown.
A couple of weeks ago I got a gift. And, to pinch a Tim Minchin lyric, “like most gifts you get it was a book.” Actually, it was several books (and for any Minchin fans who were wondering – no, none of them were the Bible.)
My gift was a bundle of retro cookbooks from Lyalls Book Shop containing such gems as Dainty Dishes and Cyril Scott’s Crude Black Molasses: The Natural “Wonder-Food” – a pamphlet dedicated to promoting black molasses as an alternative medicine for almost all injuries and illnesses known to man. Scott, a composer and musician, also published other ‘medical’ works including Victory Over Cancer Without Radium or Surgery. This publication gave Scott a chance to flex his medical credentials as a “musical composer with a taste for philosophy and therapeutics”, which must have come as a blessed relief to the doctors of the time who Scott describes as being knowledgeable but “not necessarily wise or even skilful” and who had become “so cluttered up with accumulations of academic learning” they could therefore no longer see the simple and obvious facts surrounding the causes and treatments of cancer. He sold himself as a layperson who, unlike medics with “professional prejudices” (you know, like using cutting edge science to treat people), was blissfully unburdened with any medical training whatsoever and was therefore perfectly positioned to advise the public on the kinds of cancer treatment available to them – the more molasses involved, the better. An unfortunately prolific writer, Scott also published other works such as The Art of Making a Perfect Husband (actually I might get that one) and a 1956 opus magnum entitled Constipation and Commonsense.
But among the comedy was a Bestway Cookery Gift Book that promised to take me “step by step through the Everyday Dishes to Delightful Experiments in high class Cookery!” I couldn’t find too much info about the Bestway series (my book was a fourth book) but it seems that the offices of the “Best Way” series published a yearly book of recipes during the 20s and 30s for housewives. The books covering a range of recipes ranging from simple household staples like sandwich cakes to more challenging dishes such as Galantine of Beef (an inexcusable serving suggestion implied this dish should be served with the word ‘galantine’ piped over it in butter forced through an icing bag.)
The Bestway Cookery Gift Book was pretty functional and contained very few tips and tricks about its recipes – unlike modern cookbooks that are 30% anecdotes about how the author’s treasured and very secret family recipes were passed down faithfully through the generations only to end up reprinted in six languages.
The closest I could find by way of an introduction to today’s recipe was a paragraph called “Jam-Making Hints” which was confusingly formatted like an acrostic so that I spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to work out how to pronounce ‘UANKT BWP’ and what it meant. It actually turned out that each point was meant to be an easily remembered tip in jam making, like the world’s most impossible mnemonic; so far I just have Underdressed Androids Never Kick The Ball Without Permission which, I found out, was not a helpful jam making tip in the slightest.
Anyway, on to the jam. Straight away it was a farce. When doing these sorts of experiments I like to aim for as much authenticity as I possibly can and I start with a score of 100 and mentally deduct points for every alteration or mistake I make. Usually I end up with around 70 points left over but today I’m proud to announce I hit a new personal best: 40.
“4lbs marrow” was the first ingredient. Nowhere was selling marrows but I did have three large courgettes in. A quick Google told me that marrows were basically courgettes that had been allowed to go over (sort of) so I figured there wouldn’t be too much harm in using these instead. Minus 20 points for substitute ingredient.
I also didn’t have 4lbs of them so I had to half the recipe. Later I’d find out that this was a good thing, but at the time it felt like I was tipping further into the void and I deducted another five points. Once the ‘marrows’ had been peeled and chopped I saw I was supposed to pass them through a mincer, which we didn’t have. What we did have, though, was a blender which achieved a perhaps slightly too mushy result, but was infinitely quicker than trying to chop the courgettes by hand into mincemeat (or should that be minceveg?). Minus a further 10 points.
The recipe then instructed me to put my minced marrow into a bowl and “sprinkle with sugar and leave overnight.” So just how much sugar should I sprinkle on? Why, just over 1kg of course. It wasn’t so much a sprinkling as an avalanche but I was 35 points down already and had already seen that the words “preserving pan” appeared in later instructions (I don’t have one) so couldn’t afford to fritter away any more points. I delicately dumped sprinkled an entire bag of sugar over the courgette mess and left it overnight.
Despite the recipe recommending I return to complete the next stages “in the morning”, I actually forgot it was there until the next afternoon by which time the mixture was exceptionally stiff, almost like fondant icing, and a very faint green colour. The next stage was to add 1 large tin of pineapple, minced, to the courgette and sugar mixture. Ever so helpfully the recipe gave no indication how large “1 large tin” actually was.
At this point in the day there was a big government announcement about an advisor who had broken lockdown rules but wouldn’t be punished for it. I was therefore a bit distracted when adding my pineapple which explains why I accidentally forgot to half the amount to match the courgette and sugar, and estimated that 1 large tin was about the size of 2 small ones (which was what we had in) and added those, blended, to the mixture. Minus 15 points for incorrect quantities and over blending of pineapple, resulting in lumpy juice rather than finely minced fruit (but plus 100 for being able to stick to lockdown guidelines for 10 weeks even when those in charge can’t, am I right?)
It was now time to heat everything in my non-existent preserving pan. There seemed to be an awful lot of mixture and I doubted whether it would all fit in any of my saucepans so I chose to cook the jam in my ever reliable and ever inauthentic wok, which I’ve used to help Anglo-Saxon and ancient Persian bread rise, but have never actually used to cook a stir fry in. Yes, yes I know – minus 10 points. The trouble with cooking jam in a wok, I found, was that it didn’t heat evenly. I knew I was trying to get to about 105 degrees C for it to set, but after 15 minutes or so some parts of the wok were nearing 105 degrees and others were struggling to get past 100. I decided to transfer half of the mixture to a pan and cook it in batches, which worked much better.
After skimming off the scum and adding the juice and rind of a lemon, it was time to take the mixture off the heat. It looked pretty dubious. I don’t know a lot about jam, but I do know it relies on pectin to make it set, which is mostly present in the skins of fruits, particularly hard fruits. Not only had I used two very soft fruits, but I’d also peeled them thoroughly beforehand. The majority of the pectin was therefore coming from one measly lemon which, I now noticed, had a used by date of May 16th. I don’t know if that affected the levels of pectin in it, but with the way this whole thing was going it felt like this would only be a bad thing. I wasn’t sure my jam would set as firmly as I was used to but short of actually following the recipe properly by using the correct ingredients, quantities and methods, I felt I’d done all I could.
Amazingly, one thing I had done properly was sterilise some jars to put my jam in. The trouble was that both jars were old pickled onion jars and had retained some of their vinegar-y smell despite my best hot water and soap efforts. In a last minute attempt to find jars that didn’t have such an offensive whiff about them I raided my fridge for almost empty or gone off jars of something – anything – that I could use instead. There was nothing I could justify eating up or throwing out yet. And, I’m sorry to say, the only thing that came close was yet another jar of pickled onions sat forlorn and forgotten at the back of the fridge, left over from Christmas.
I spooned my jam, which had by now thickened to the consistency of wallpaper paste into the jars and sealed them, leaving a little in the pan for taste testing.
It’s very hard to explain what this jam was like. Texture wise, it was lumpy and a bit grainy. Not unpleasant, necessarily, but not at all refined. Taste wise, it was…weird. That’s the only way I can describe it. It was sweet – very sweet – but in a plain way. I couldn’t really taste the pineapple, other than a bit of a tropically tang on the tip of the tongue, but my husband said he definitely could, so it may depend on individual palates how much comes through.
Mostly though, it tasted of very sweet courgette and I couldn’t see when you’d eat this. On toast? In puddings? Not really – it’s not fruity or acidic enough for toast or puddings or anything that needs either of those things to cut through. With cheese and crackers, like a sweet chutney or quince jam? No – it’s far too sweet for that and not spicy enough either to add an interesting dimension. The only thing I could see this being used in because you wanted to (rather than because you had to use it up) was possibly as a filling for a lemon cake that had a lemon buttercream icing on top to provide some sourness to the relative sweet blandness. Hardly a jam for all seasons, then. Now you may want to argue that some of this disappointment was down to my lackadaisical approach to this recipe, and you may be right. But,just like an aforementioned advisor, I believe that I acted responsibly, legally and with integrity at all stages of this recipe and will therefore not be taking any real responsibility for its shortcomings.
So overall what did I learn from all this?
One – as a family, we eat too many pickled onions. Two – Like a musical composer with a taste for philosophy and ethics dipping his unqualified toe into the world of medicine, I did not posses the skills or tools needed to make this jam a true success. I ended up losing points in almost every category, like some sort of inverse jam-based Torville and Dean (weird analogy, right?) despite this recipe not actually being that hard to pull off.
Ultimately I wouldn’t recommend you make this unless you make a lot of lemon cakes (and even then, remember, that’s an untested recipe) or you really just want to try it for yourself. The concept was interesting and in the end it wasn’t bad or inedible, it just doesn’t have a clear role in recipes. With more pineapple and less marrow, perhaps it could be more of a traditional fruity jam but as it stands this is one that I’m happy to leave in the recipe books.
P.S. in the end I actually was able to think of a better mnemonic – one to perfectly combine the farces of politics and jam: Unelected Advisors Needn’t Keep To Basic W.H.O. Protocol.
Marrow and Pineapple Jam
900g of marrow when prepared 1kg of sugar 500g of drained tinned pineapple Rind and juice of 2 lemon
You will need to sterlise 2 or 3 jars for this recipe. I recommend sterilising them while the mixture is cooking which means they will be ready by the time it’s done.
Peel and blend the marrow to a coarse pulp.
Cover the marrow with sugar and leave for 12 hours.
After 12 hours, chop or blitz the pineapple finely and add to the marrow and sugar.
Over a low heat, cook the marrow, sugar and pineapple together until the sugar has dissolved.
Once the sugar has dissolved, bring the mixture to a boil, skimming any scum from the surface.
When the mixture reaches 105 degrees C, remove from the heat and pour into pre sterilised jars.