Rachel Bennett

Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Icarus and the Great Melt

In Food on July 22, 2011 at 05:09

‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way . . . Travel between the extremes.’

– Ovid, Metamorphoses.

High hopes. I laid the pieces of my gateau out on the countertop, delicately, like jewels or fine china. There was a madeline biscuit base, a chocolate sponge and a gelatinized Kirsch cream. Behind these sat a jar of cherries in syrup I had canned the day before, a piping bag of chocolate ganache, and a plate of vanilla beans, sliced lengthwise and fashioned into knotted strands to mimic cherry stalks. Continuing with fierce concentration I assessed this mis en place.

The only item absent was the aerated chocolate and my heart sunk at the thought of it – what a failure. Heston Blumenthal’s recipe for this particular element does require special equipment including a vacuum cleaner, vacuum-seal storage bag, Tupperware container with a small hole bored into the lid, and a whip cream canister with nitrous oxide cartridges. The process, however, looks simple, deceptively simple. Heston instructs the reader to melt milk chocolate and stir in a little peanut oil. So far so good. Then he tells us to pour this mixture into the whip cream canister, charge with the gas, and spray the contents into the Tupperware container. This I dutifully completed, but then the trouble began. Placing the Tupperware inside the vacuum-seal storage bag and aligning the hole in the container’s lid with the valve in the bag, the reader is then instructed to turn on the vacuum cleaner and place it’s nossle on the bag’s valve. In theory the bag deflates, the chocolate aerates (expanding and becoming riddled with little tongue-tingling bubbles) and the job is done.

Being academically inclined, I’ve always found theory less complicated than practice and today was no different. I turned on the vacuum cleaner. Alas, instead of the vacuum-seal bag deflating my Tupperware itself deflated complete with chocolate inside, the plastic container crumpling into a distorted wreck reminiscent of a car that has encountered a solid stone wall; there was no hint of airy, honey-combed chocolate. I tossed the failed aeration away and tried to shrug it off, my ego threatening to deflate in tandem with the Tupperware.

All the other components were ready and my spirits rose. It would still be a beautiful, multilayered cake, even if lacking an element of intrigue that a layer of aerated chocolate might provide. So I assembled the cake in a loaf tin, just as Heston instructs: first the madeline biscuit base brushed with a layer of apricot glaze, then the chocolate sponge sprinkled with Kirsch and cherry syrup, topped by piped strands of chocolate ganache and dotted with cherries, and finally a layer of Kirsch cream. Having made double of each layer I then departed from Heston’s instructions, piling a second layer of each element on top, the resultant cake a tottering tower threatening collapse. The final step involves making a chocolate mousse and pouring it around the layers (inside the cake tin) and freezing the whole until set.

As in any good fable, it is always the last step before reaching the pot of gold at which the protagonist stumbles. My cake might have held together if it had not been for my impatience. Thinking the mousse had set I lifted the gateau out of it’s tin onto a serving platter. Alas, instead of holding firm, the creamy confection dissolved around the cake, oozing earthward leaving my masterpiece naked and swimming in a puddle of dark and glistening chocolate. Like Icarus abandoning his guide I paid the price, the laws of nature triumphing over artifice.

Eventually, I managed to repair the cake to some extent and with the help of chocolate shards, a good dusting of cocoa powder, and garnished with cherries it looked quite beautiful. As I cut into it however, the cake succumbed to gravity again, dissolving into a faintly sickening mass as I sorrowfully served it around the table. Suddenly I was profoundly tired of this food, and thought wistfully of a simple, steaming cherry pie—how much better that would have been—and made a solemn vow to eschew Heston, his vacuum cleaners, and all other forms of culinary pretension for good.

Several days later, however, I have had time to lick my wounds. I am still resolved to devote all culinary efforts to good honest food but I am glad I made the black forest gateau. It was never only about showing off; it was also a whole lot of fun. To pour over an unfamiliar recipe, drool over the pictures and search out strange ingredients—all of this is delicious and absorbing. It piques creativity and adds a dash of invigorating frivolity to the kitchen. After all, perhaps that first Egyptian goatherd who tossed some Arabica beans onto the fire was breaking the rules or wandering in rebellion from tradition. We shall never know; but today we have coffee.

Never regret thy fall, 
O Icarus of the fearless flight 
For the greatest tragedy of them all 
Is never to feel the burning light.

– Oscar Wilde


Of Cake and Peasants

In Food on July 15, 2011 at 07:12

The food I like best is simple. In winter hearty soups and stews, slow simmered oxtail and whole baked pumpkin. In summer big leafy salads and bowls of olives, thin slices of salami and piles of fresh cherries. And at all times bread—good crusty loaves the color of hot sand. It is the sort of food labeled today as ‘peasant’ cuisine, a rather fanciful label that bares scarce resemblance to the monotonous and meager diet of most of the world’s peasants throughout most of their history. But is sells well and has a nice ring to it. (Whereas plain old ‘bread’ can only sell for a couple of dollars, ‘peasant bread’ sells for at least double, an extra dollar tacked on to the price for each additional adjective. A loaf of ‘crusty Provencal harvest bread baked with heirloom wheat and kneaded by a sweaty, foul-mouthed, and cigarette smoking French baker’ would threaten the fattest wallet.) The modern gastro-science of gels and foams and spherified pig’s urine is interesting, in an abstract sort of way. And yet, for better or worse it is that straightforward and soul-warming, pseudo-peasant food that I like best and always return to cook and eat.

That said, I have an alter ego obsessed with culinary perfection and a mania for creating knee wobbling mouthfuls of something so unearthly—so blindingly blissful—that is silences the table.  I do not claim to have achieved such a feat, but sometimes the alter ego takes charge and I find myself launching into frenzied attempts. Now and then it feels good to toss aside mundane considerations, like work and budgets, and bake a cake so complicated it takes a week to complete and requires obscure and outrageously expensive ingredients.

My excuse for this latest mania—a recipe by the wizard chef Heston Blumental for a monumental Black forest gateau—was my birthday. My parents wanted to take me out to dinner. Wouldn’t it be nicer, I suggested cunningly, if we had a BBQ at home? I would do the cooking, naturally. And bake the cake. We could even make it a double birthday celebration as my brother’s was around the same time. My mother agreed, unwittingly committing herself to pay for my explorations in the land of culinary absurdity, unaware that Heston insists on the use of the best chocolate and the most extravagant kirschwasser (cherry liqueur) in his gateau. But it was my birthday and I won.

Making this cake is more a combination of middle school science and architecture than baking. There are eight separate elements including ‘cherry stalks’ fashioned out of dried vanilla bean and an aerated chocolate that requires the use of a vacuum cleaner. The barbecue is this Sunday and so far I have only complete two elements: the basic chocolate sponge and kirsch cream. That leaves six to go and I know Saturday will be chaos. And yet I’m going to love every minute of it. From figuring out how the vacuum cleaner is supposed to aerate my chocolate to making my own ‘wood effect’ base on which to present the cake, this is just the sort of indulgence my alter ego needs. Then it will leave me in peace to eat my peasant food for another six months, until Christmas perhaps.

And I still hold out hope for a culinary masterpiece of magnificent, knee-wobbling proportions.


Hand Over The Garlic

In Food on July 5, 2011 at 20:09

After a much-needed break I am easing back into dissertation research with an insightful yet eminently readable book by historian Harvey Levenstein called Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. I am beginning with this not only because it is a mercifully easy read, but also because it provides part of the socio-historical background I need in order to analyze packaging today.

In this book Levenstein focuses on the period between 1880 and 1930 as a time of great change—waves immigrants arriving in America, the proliferation of factories, fundamental changes in farming technology, uniquely American values and many other factors all contributing to the transformation of our food. From a diet based on the seasonal harvest of local farms supplemented by small amounts of exotic luxury products (such as coffee, chocolate, and sugar) America became a land overflowing with takeaway restaurants, food fads, and a year round abundance of long-haul produce.

This was also an era which gave birth to home economics education and social food reformers, both sprouting in the fertile soil of a paradigm shift in thinking on nutrition. With the discovery of the role of bacteria in spoiling food along with the revelation that food processing was often a filthy business (horrendous descriptions of slaughterhouses and the like) America became a land of germaphobes, obsessed with hygiene and sanitary cooking. Aided by the discovery of the different nutritional roles played by carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, this led to an approach to food Levenstein calls the New Nutrition. Food was seen as fuel, divorced from all social functions, and the key to a healthy and productive working class was to educate them in how to get the balance and quantity of nutrients right. Immigrants in particular came under criticism for spending too much of their meager incomes on expensive cuts of meat and too much time on laborious—and to the reformers morally questionable—foreign dishes.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, social workers busily studied immigrant cuisines in order to learn how to Americanize them. As Levenstein writes:

Many of these ‘Americanizers’ were convinced that the immigrants could never be weaned from their old-country attitudes to work, society, and politics until they abandoned their old-country ways of living and eating. The acrid smells of garlic and onions wafting through the immigrant quarters seemed to provide unpleasant evidence that their inhabitants found American ways unappealing; that they continued to find foreign (and dangerous) ideas as palatable as their foreign food.

To anyone with a heart or an inkling of the importance of food for cultural and individual identities, this is surely a painful thing to read. It is not, however, a dynamic limited to the historical time and place in question.

It strikes me that there is a parallel today, a sad symmetry to this older attempt to Americanize immigrants. Instead of attempting to exterminate their cuisines and cultures in our country, we export our fast food and culture to other countries. Instead of professional home economists studying immigrant cuisines in order to Americanize them, a fast food company now studies Indian or Chinese cuisines in order to inject its products with the precise flavors and external characteristics that will make these generic products palatable to foreign tastes and thus capture more and more markets. While the motives may differ, from social integration (and docility) in the past to corporate profits today, the tools are the same: the manipulation of cuisine by those in power for nefarious, often covert ends.

Caution, Flapjacks

In Food on July 1, 2011 at 22:55

I had a hankering for flapjacks, those gooey chewy oaten morsels that couple so well with an afternoon pot of tea. During summer I rarely crave such rich, bolstering fare. However, given that the sunshine seems to have rudely stood us up this year in the Pacific Northwest and a dull chill lingers in the air, I decided that flapjacks were perfectly fitting.

They are also ideal for those times when you want to bake something lovely—to fill your home with the redolence of honey, grain, and spice—but can’t quite work up the energy for an elaborate concoction. Flapjacks take all of ten minutes to prepare, requiring nothing more strenuous than melting butter and sugar together and languidly stirring in some oats.

The only trouble with flapjacks is the need to restrain your greed: they cannot be eaten straight from the oven as they will fall to pieces if attacked before cool. Yesterday I was, as usual, unsuccessful in the restraint department and ended up eating flapjack crumbles with a fork. Ah well, it may have been a bit messy but tasted just as good.

Later, feeling the need to sample the cooled version as well, I ate a flapjack too vigorously and it wrenched a filling from my tooth. So I was doubly punished for greediness and now cannot eat any flapjacks because of the gaping hole in one of my molars. So beware, flapjacks are easy to make, delicious to eat and ostensibly innocent but they have a dark side. Eat with caution.


A twist on classic flapjacks, these are chewy and sweet with a vibrant gingery kick. Enjoy with a cup of strong tea or coffee on a grey and blustery day.

200g butter
200g sugar
150g honey
50g dark molasses
400g rolled oats
a pinch each of salt, ground ginger and cinnamon
100g crystalized ginger, finely diced

1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C and grease an 8-inch square baking tin.
2. Melt the butter, sugar, honey and molasses together over a low heat.
3. Add the oats, salt, spices and crystalized ginger and mix well.
4. Tip into the baking tin, smooth the top and bake for 20-30 minutes until bubbly, dark golden and browning slightly at the edges, (covering with foil if it begins to brown too soon).
5. Allow to cool for an hour or so and cut into squares.




My Kitchen

In Food on July 1, 2011 at 05:14

The kitchen in my new studio has the dimensions of an oversized matchbox. When I first saw it my heart sank. This would not do. How could I possibly make good food in this rabbit hutch. The entire expanse of countertop would barely accommodate my pasta maker, let alone other necessities such as chopping board, scales and coffee grinder. I took one look and mentally stuck the studio from my list.

“And of course, you’d never get tired of that view,” continued the building manager, waving a hand out the kitchen window. I looked up. So consumed had I been in scrutinizing the kitchen’s failings I’d neglected to notice that the window looked squarely onto the Seattle skyline, at the center of which lay the space needle rising—majestic yet always somewhat bizarre—up to the heavens.

I paused. Apart from the kitchen’s disappointing size the studio was ideal. Sunny and clean, pitched in a perfect location in the heart of Seattle, just where Queen Anne hill rises up above the city and sound like the hulk of some ancient beached ship. It was also nice and cheap.

Turning around I surveyed the galley once again. It had a gas range and oven, a full fridge and freezer, a large sink and surprising number of cupboards. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad. In fact, there might even be benefits to a tiny kitchen: Everything is within arm’s reach; all pots, pans and implements are at hand in a crisis and there would be no flailing across the room with hazardous knife or cast iron skillet. Also, the kitchen could only fit one cook and, for a bossy boots like myself, this provides a welcome excuse for banning kindly helpers from the controls. With these thoughts in mind and the consoling reflection that the redoubtable kitchen goddess Elizabeth David cooked for years using a tin box perched atop a Primus camping stove, I decided to take the studio.

After a week I am happy with this cramped little cookery. So far I have not tested its limits with extravagant fare, nothing but a loaf of bread, some hummus, pesto and flapjacks. Soon I will christen it with a real feast. Then, if some culinary calamity occurs (as no doubt it shall), I can always gaze for inspiration and solace on the winking glass towers down town, on the goofy space needle sitting apart from them like the awkward kid, and on the great swath of clean, blustery sky above Seattle. I feel that good things will happen here; already it is a happy kitchen.