When it’s time to stake a claim

It was big news in the foodie world last month when the US magazine Cook’s Source reprinted a blogger’s story about apple pie without her permission. In fact it was big news on all sorts of levels that together combine to create a rather juicy narrative: first, the discovery; then the “apology” (in which the now much-maligned editor of Cook’s Source made the mistake of suggesting that the original author ought to have compensated her for fixing a piece which was ‘in very bad need of editing‘), and finally the dramatic finale: “The Internet Has Killed Cook’s Source. Lessons learned: don’t underestimate the power of the interwebs, aka don’t believe for a second that you can get away with anything as stupid as stealing in a glass house.

(Bonus irony: apple pie is apparently one of those recipes that is not, by law, copyrightable because it’s as American as, well, apple pie, and therefore, like the blue sky, is regarded as common property).

All of which is a roundabout way of seizing my (self-appointed) title of biscotti queen, more about which shortly. But first, my adventures with “Trevor’s” infuriatingly ubiquitous moist cappuccino cake. I still can’t figure out where Cell C (yes, the mobile phone company) is going with this, but whenever I do a recipe search (never for a moist cappuccino cake, by the way), somewhere on the page is a link to “the moist cake“. Click it, and you are directed to this silly photograph, plus a recipe for…a moist cappuccino cake.

Well it looks like a pretty nice moist cake, so with the Philosophe’s birthday coming up, I thought it the perfect opportunity to get Trevor out of my system.

Except, this is of course not Trevor’s cake at all – as the recipe rightly states, it originates from BBC’s Good Food magazine (and a brief Google search will take you to that very fount). Fair and well, but half the reason I wanted to make this cake is because of what it looks like in Trevor’s hands. In real life, however, it should look more like this:

(Naturally you should never trust a mobile phone company to provide you with correctly represented recipes).

Undaunted, I forged on and got on with my own version of the Good Food cappuccino cake. Important tweaks: soak cake layers in Ponchos “tequila coffee” instead of boring old coffee; fill cake with icing of mascarpone and orange-scented dulche de leche instead of boring old mascarpone with coffee; slather cake with Lindt’s fabulous Twist of Sea Salt chocolate. And then build an android munching an apple out of marzipan:

It was moist and boozy, like a good cake should be. Thanks to Trevor and Good Food, I think this was some of my best work yet.

To the biscotti. Unlike my various misadventures down the elusive brownie hole, I’ve only ever used one biscotti recipe. I am sorry to say I don’t remember where I found it, but it was something that I photocopied and then cut out to stick in my then-little private recipe collection. I’ve used the recipe so many times that I should know it off by heart, yet I return to that grubby page every time I make them – which is doubly silly given that I think I started tweaking the recipe the second time I made them (approx. 500 batches ago).

So here it is, “my” (tweaked) recipe for the best biscotti:

– Toast a 100g of almonds, set aside to cool, then chop roughly

– In one bowl, mix 240g flour + 180g sugar + 1 tsp baking powder + pinch of salt

– In another, lightly whisk 3 eggs + 1 tsp vanilla

– Add eggs to the dry stuff, mix a bit, and then add almonds just before it all starts coming together nicely. Now take off your wedding ring and get your hands in there to knead until all the dry stuff is just incorporated (tricky timing: overknead and it will become too sticky to form into nice logs)

– Form into two nice logs and bake at 150C for 50 mins. Turn oven down to 140C. Cool logs for 5 mins, then slice horizontally into pieces that look like biscotti. Place back in the oven for 15-17 per side. Cool, store, eat.

Uhm, as a final note, it should hardly need saying that the buck obviously does not stop at almonds. Go crazy. Add aniseed. Chocolate chunks. Cocoa powder for a full chocolate monty. Caramelised ginger. Pistachio and cardamom. Cashew and coconut. Add some bran and raisins, if that’s what you need. Just don’t blame me when someone tells you they are no longer biscotti. I do think these babies need nuts. I also think they need to be thick and hard enough to deliver a satisfying mouthful of crunch.

In fact I am apparently such a snob about this that a well-known restaurateur in this city has instructed his staff not to offer me the wafer-thin, nut-free “biscotti” they offer everyone with their coffee. I think he means to punish me. That’s pretty funny.

Dinner for one

It is rare that I eat alone – and not at all ideal, I might add, simply because try as I might, I cannot by myself conjure up the delightful banter that the Philosophe (co-)provides on a daily basis. Not to mention that it is nowhere near as interesting trying to impress myself with delicious food as it is hoping to impress others. But sometimes that determined path of life leads you somewhere where inventiveness and sparkling conversation have no place, and the next best thing is a big old bowl of popcorn smothered in wasabi butter (no sharing!), and of course a good measure of whisky.

The great thing about popcorn is that it (generally) lasts longer than a plate of food, which makes it ideal if you find yourself watching two hour-long episodes of food competition (basically cues for hedonic hunger). I caught the first episode of Top Chef “Just Desserts” , which is entertaining enough if you enjoy imagining yourself as one of a bunch of hopefuls (each of whom is, gringo-style, *certain* they “have what it takes” to be the best) running around looking for ingredients to make their signature dessert, only to be told 5 minutes into prep that they have to reconfigure it as a … cupcake. (What the hell is it with Americans and cupcakes?). Their next task is to conjure up the “most decadent” chocolate dessert ever, and for a few seconds I felt cold sweat on my neck as I imagined what I would come up with and couldn’t think of anything fantastic. But then I remembered that I will thankfully never be in such a silly contrived circumstance, so I relaxed and carried on chomping my popcorn.

Then I chomped my way through Masterchef USA, which reliably delivers good verbal abuse with Ramsay at the helm (and given that they did their silly cupcake challenge three weeks ago, was fortunately focused on real food again).

Tonight – alone again, alas – I’ll watch the Masterchef season finale, even though Gordon-bloody-Ramsay couldn’t stop himself from tweeting the bloody winner this morning. Sometimes social media sucks (like, when people use it stupidly and spoil the surprise for the rest of us. Or when *some* people apparently can’t refrain from producing ever-more offspring, and must announce it to the whole world).

But I think I”ll head down delicious lane again and do something righteous with a couple of eggs. Because all afternoon I’ve had to deal with the goodness of a kitchen smelling of Ottolenghi’s apple-olive oil-maple syrup (and cinnamon) cake, which promises to be a delicious mess:

I’ll be sticking to Mr. O’s advice to leave it to “mature” for a couple of days before tucking in. Which means this evening, just an omelette and a glass of wine with my Masterchef. And only one more sleep till I can start cooking for two again. As it should be.

Getting what you ask for

Anthony Bourdain once challenged the audience at one of his speaking gigs to “Go home and Google Sandra Lee and Kwanzaa cake and … count how long it’s going to take for your head to explode.” And in another interview: “Watch that clip and tell me your eyeballs don’t burst into flames.”

So of course you Google Sandra Lee and Kwanzaa cake, and wait for the inevitable. You have been warned. (Great publicity for Ms. Lee, Mr. Bourdain!)

Well fortunately my head hasn’t exploded, and neither have my eyeballs burst into flames, but it certainly felt like I was playing with that kind of fire as I sat through 141 minutes of that DUMB-ASS, BRAIN-DEAD, TORTUROUS, WASTE-OF-F**KING-TIME-AND-MONEY film, Sex and the City 2.

Yes, yes. I knew it would be shite. I knew it would be shite even without having read all the reviews telling me it was shite. And being the (generally) level-headed kind of woman that I am, I should have switched it off as soon as that was confirmed, which was about 3 minutes into the film where you have to sit through a god-awful wedding between two men – officiated by Liza Minelli. Call it escalation of commitment bias, or call plain stupid, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to justify saying all kinds of horrible things about the film unless I had seen the whole thing. So I saw it, and now I can’t even find the words to say all those horrible things about it. All I can say is that it was a waste of a Saturday afternoon, and also that I hope – I REALLY REALLY hope – that there are no people in the real world who resemble any of the characters in that film.

Yet I fear that may be wishful thinking. Spotted in my very own neighbourhood the day before:

This dog, by the way, is the very same dog that, with its mommy (not pictured), moved into my(ex-) office earlier this year, and that higher powers in my department expected me to welcome with open arms. I did not welcome them with open arms. Instead I stayed the hell away from my office. Which means that until I took this picture, I had not yet seen the dog in the flesh. But now that I have, and have realised it is in fact not a dog but a handbag, I hate it even more. And lest you think I’m just a grumpy bitch, let me hasten to add that all this makes it even more delightful that I am no longer in said office, or said department, which also means that if I ever have to have a conversation with this doggy’s daddy, I will not have to be politic about his silly ideas about “talk-show democracies.”

There. Now I feel better, and can report on the best part – so far – of the weekend, which was about satisfying my craving for coconut cake.

I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t had a piece of this piece of moist coconut (and a touch of cardamom) goodness warm from the oven with a Nespresso “flat white” halfway through that film, I would not have survived. And if I hadn’t had another piece for brunch just now, I might indeed be a grumpy bitch. It’s true, coconut makes everything better, and come Women’s Day tomorrow, the Philosophe can celebrate the return of his charming wife.

Things you don’t want to know – but probably should

I recently watched a new Danish film called The Woman That Dreamed About A Man (or Kvinden der drømte om en mand, if you’re a native). It’s certainly not director Per Fly’s best work, but decent enough psycho-thriller entertainment when that’s what you need. Anyway, there’s one of those typically raunchy scenes when two strangers who have been eyeing each other across various rooms finally find themselves alone on a dark road, next to a conveniently located alley that they slip into without saying a word. The air is thick with erotic tension as they silently play the yes-no game, and then finally give in to an anonymous screw against the wall.

If that last sentence came across as rather lacking in finesse, good, because that’s exactly how sex between strangers in an alley should be. But what irritated me was that when their 30 seconds of heavy breathing (anti-)climaxed into a rather awkward button-closing, zip-locking silence, they suddenly lost all credibility as characters. No remorse, no guilt, and more importantly, no mundane panics about contraception, STDs, or the possibility of having just f**ked a psychopath. Just some inevitable exchange about when they can see each other again.

Fine, you may say, films are supposed to be in la-la land. But in 2010, that just doesn’t fly, no matter how much of a psycho you turn out to be (the woman did become one of note). Good films don’t let the banal stuff go. They linger on it, like that brilliant film Japanese Story, where Toni Collette has an affair with a married Japanese man who accidentally dies when they go skinny dipping. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, and with no one around, she has to get his body into her car, and it turns out to be quite a mission to manoeuvre a dead body. The scene goes on for ages, and is admittedly a little boring, but it’s also thoroughly captivating because it is so “real”.

Too much food media suffers from the same rubbish unreality as those two strangers in the alley. Everything is “dead easy”, or even if it’s complicated but “worth the effort”, it looks fabulous and tastes “divine”. But no one ever talks about how they feel after eating all this beautiful food – and here I’m not just talking about cooking shows, but also high end restaurant reviews. Which is why I was delighted to read the bit in Anthony Bourdain’s new book, Medium Raw, where he talks about how exhausting it can be to eat poncy tasting menu after poncy tasting menu at some of the “best” restaurants in the world. He wasn’t just jaded because luxury gets boring (surprise!), but because a lot of those menus are seriously taxing on one’s digestive system. So post-prandial romance is often off the cards – to paraphrase him very liberally – because the two of you flop into a taxi trying to suppress burps and farts the whole way home, and all you really look forward to is 24 hours later when you’ve managed to get all the crap (literally) out of your system.  (A general note on the book: a fun read IF you haven’t followed Bourdain’s speaking gigs over the last year or so, in which case you will realise that he has become his own speaking puppet. He speaks in quotes rather than thoughts. I call it the Michael Pollan syndrome).

Which leads me to the actual topic of this post: stuffed steak.

Tired of plain old steak, I wanted to make beef olives. But when it came to the whole pounding, rolling and tying bit, I was overcome by laziness, so decided to just stuff the steaks instead.

Pretty simple really. Make some kind of delicious stuffing (for instance, white anchovies, capers, olives, lemon zest, breadcrumbs, garlic, rosemary, pecorino, chilli flakes: all the major foodgroups). Then use a good sharp knife to transform your steak into a meaty pita pocket into which you stuff as much of the stuffing as you can possibly cram in. Now wrap tightly tightly in cling and leave in the fridge for an hour or so (to “set) while you enjoy a spicy Bloody Mary (it being the cocktail hour of course). When you’ve slurped the last of your Mary, get a pan nice and hot, dredge the steaks in a little flour, and get frying:

Look, so they aren’t exactly pretty. In fact we joked that I had produced a Rousseau version of KFC’s Double Down “sandwich” (where chicken stands in for bread, and cheese and bacon stand in for chicken). But apart from the meat being a touch dry, it was pretty delicious. It’s like steak and puttanesca, all in one. What’s not to love?

Should you try this at home? By all means, but I have two recommendations. Don’t forget to deglaze the pan with some sherry (or something), and perhaps a touch of cream, to create a bit of a gravy which you can serve as “jus”. Secondly – and this is important – do make absolutely sure that all your ingredients are good and fresh, and particularly that you don’t use anchovies which may have passed their best-before date.

Otherwise expect to spend most of the night on the loo. Bon appetit!

Strawberries soaked in vodka fail to impress

So after my recent bold declaration that this Doctor’s brownie adventures are officially over, I was naturally confronted with all sorts of Facebook banter offering yet more tips and tricks for that thing I had just renounced. The most evil of these was a recipe which calls for cocoa powder dissolved in hot water (rather than melting chocolate), along with the suggestion that the water be replaced by booze (Nina, you know who you are).

Talk of booze in food often takes the turn of trying to discover how best to keep it in there. If you dissolve cocoa in a cup of bourbon, won’t it all just evaporate during baking (for instance)? In other words, how does one maintain the integrity of a truly boozy brownie?

Well since brownies were out, and I had recently spotted a recipe for white-chocolate-raspberry blondies, things quickly spiralled downhill. In the fridge: raspberries, no; dried strawberries, yes. In the freezer: vodka, yes. The strawberries looked very pretty in their vodka bath, and the vodka looked very pretty when I removed the strawberries a few hours later (it was, in fact, bright red, which leads me to seriously doubt the naturalness of the dried strawberries. But hey, colourful vodka cocktail coming up soon).

Worse: the blondies were dry, and not boozy at all. Had they been presented at tea time as what old Danish aunties call “sandkage” (this one you can work out for yourself), they would have been a hit. But as blondies, they were dismal failures.

I’ve made blondies before, and they were yummy and chewy and more-ish, so I blame the recipe. But I should have known better – it came from a British magazine, and what do the Brits know about blondies? Like, who would actually follow a Jamie Oliver recipe for brownies? (Don’t bother, I already did.)

Speaking of which, I believe Mr. O is now doing his very own 30-minute meals. This is amazing. Because that is exactly what Rachael Ray has built an entire empire on. He was even on her show earlier this year. So it’s not like they don’t know each other. Couldn’t he have called it “29-minute Meals”? Or, “Dinner In A Jiffy”? Or, “Pukka Nosh in Half a Tick”? Really. Anything but “I’m Just Going To Take Someone Else’s Idea And Hope That No One Notices”.

Then again, maybe it’s all the same anyway. As Michael Ruhlman put it not long ago,

‘Part of the problem is the magazine editors and television producers drumming us over the head with fast and easy meal solutions at home. It’s the wrong message to send. These editors and producers and publishers are backing the processed food industry, propelling their message. What I say to you magazine editors and producers, to you Rachael Ray and you Jamie Oliver and your 20 minutes meals: God bless you, but you are advertising and marketing on behalf of the processed food industry.’

Well, I don’t know about the God bless you part. And hey, I’m all for knocking things up in a hurry, and if the Ray and the Oliver can make that happen, then good for them. But when it panders to a public that (apparently) hasn’t got the attention span to realise that what Sir O. says is nothing new, then I’m off that bus.

Those people they create would probably even say my blondies were delicious.

PS. To clarify, when I first heard about the 30-minute meal venture, I tweeted the man himself to ask if RR hadn’t been doing the same thing for years. His response:

I guess we don’t all interpret “potential problem?” equally.

In my not so humble opinion

Cape Town does like to think of itself as part of the big cosmopolitan world, so it’s no surprise that in recent years, there have cropped up a bunch of self-styled “foodie” blogs in the Mother City. Yes, this *could* be considered one too, but the bunch I’m thinking of are the ones who set themselves up as bona fide restaurant reviewers, with no apparent expertise apart from a) liking to eat, b) having enough disposable income to do so on a(n alarmingly) regular basis, and sometimes c) having eaten at restaurants in the actual Cosmopolitan world, which apparently gives them the authority of comparison.

Now, I like to read about other people’s experiences with food – who doesn’t? Continue reading “In my not so humble opinion”

Is “junk” food addictive?

In the same week that (just in time for Easter!) we are (again) told that chocolate is “good for you”, come these depressing headlines:

Depressing not because of the news itself, but because of how that news inevitably is – has been, will be – abused by lazy reporting and lazy reading. True to the “addicts” that some of us apparently are, we look to the instant gratification of headlines and will happily regurgitate them at dinner tables, if not (even more depressingly) use them to explain away the need to take responsibility for what we put in our mouths. Francis Lam at Salon put it poignantly when he wrote that ‘seeing food in the dark light of addiction … filled me with a confused sadness‘, but I’d venture that many more people will be delighted at the news. Finally, we can point the finger at evil food (Good news, Mr. Creosote. It’s been the food’s fault all along!). Continue reading “Is “junk” food addictive?”

The killers at large

So I’m watching this documentary, Killer At Large. It’s about obesity, in case you missed the pun. And after one talking head in the form of a rabbi, I start noticing how more and more talking heads are actually talking churches. There’s the imam, there’s the reverend, there’s the monseigneur. This must be truly “objective”, in other words, since all the world’s religions are safely represented. And no sooner had I made this observation than the next talking head was Michael Pollan.

Need I say more?

Of course there are lots of medical doctors saying things too. ‘We live in an “obesogenic environment” ‘.’ True hunter-gatherers that we are, we’re all genetically programmed to not stop eating until all the food is gone’. Which begs the question: why, then, aren’t we ALL obese, and in the tragic situation of “having to” undergo liposuction at the age of twelve? Continue reading “The killers at large”

Saving bacon

So I finally got a chance to watch Jamie Saves Our Bacon, part of Channel 4’s Great British Food Fight, which has now confirmed the previously unofficial canon of food vocalists, or chefs who shout at us about what and how we should be eating: Heston, Hugh, Jamie, and Gordon (to be fair, Heston doesn’t shout much, or swear, so he’s probably the odd one out. But that’s always been his thing).

I’ve watched a lot of Jamie Oliver over the years, for many of the same reasons that millions of others do: his food generally looks good, and he puts on a good show. But unlike many others, I am strangely indebted to him for giving me enough to think about to churn out an entire doctoral thesis on the celebrity chef phenomenon. I could even say that were it not for Jamie Oliver, you wouldn’t be talking to Dr. Rousseau today. (Scary, but true).

After all that watching, thinking, talking, and writing, I thought I’d seen it all. But after watching the bacon show, I was left pretty much speechless. What he’s done, and what he’s able to do, is truly astonishing, in all the best and worst ways.

The show is hosted in a studio fitted out with the usual podium for the star to stand on, surrounded by guests and fans. But this studio also hosts a number of pigs (no surprise there): there’s a stall with a sow who’s recently given birth; another with a sow who proceeds to give birth to thirteen piglets during the course of the show (the first piggy assisted by a vet who we watch sticking his entire arm up the mommy pig’s gwat), and perhaps most disturbing of all, a door leading to the “Pig Brother house”, in which four human beings are (voluntarily) locked in small cages that supposedly simulate the conditions of industrially farmed pigs under the worst welfare conditions (little space to move, bad food, and toilets. By the time we are introduced to the human piggies, Jamie’s friend Hugh has explained to us that contrary to popular perception, pigs are not only super-intelligent, but also very clean, and hate to shit where they sleep. So this set-up is decidedly unconducive to natural piggy behaviour).

The point of the show is to convince consumers to buy British pork, rather than the cheaper stuff imported from the EU, where pig welfare conditions leave much to be desired. The main problem, according to the wel(l)-farers, is the use of sow stalls – essentially the real version of what the human piggies were locked into: no space to turn, scratch, play, or do anything but gestate piglets while becoming fat, weak, and developing some combination of porcine depression and aggression. These contraptions were banned in the UK in 2003, but continue to be used in the vague space of the EU, which in this case was represented by Denmark, where 20% of pork production uses sow stalls (interestingly, this seems to be the percentage of Danish pork that is exported to the UK – presumably the Danes save the better stuff for themselves?).

It is about animal welfare – we were treated to some fairly disturbing footage (no surprise here), including a visibly horrified Joanna Lumley (whose face lends itself remarkably well to looking sad, despite her main expertise in playing the drunk) – but the bleeding heart stuff is really for British pork farmers whose livelihoods are under threat from the nasty EU, not to mention from British consumers who would rather buy cheap than happy pigs.

So that’s all fine and well. It’s a real problem, and therefore a good cause (and this is where Jamie’s bacon show trumps Hugh’s chicken spectacle, which never really made it about consumers and industry as much as trying to make everyone love their chickens before they roast them). And judging from the world’s reaction since Thursday when it was originally screened , the show was a major success. Sales of cheaper cuts of British pork had gone up by 20% by Monday, claims the Telegraph.  The very morning after the show, supermarkets were told to start revising their labeling policies (this was one of the major loopholes Jamie identified: consumers aren’t sure what’s British and what’s not). So what’s my problem?

Probably what it’s always been, and what I spent a bulk of that thesis trying to make sense of. Not that it’s Jamie Oliver (I have due respect for his various talents, including cooking good food and getting in people’s faces), but that it’s a chef. Five years ago when I watched him behaving like a rock star – just ‘avin a larf, bit of pukka this and that – I asked the question: doesn’t anyone think it’s weird that this is a chef? Now, as a climax to everything that began with school dinners, and his own chicken story, when a once-off 90 minute show can potentially save an entire industry, change the way people shop, cook, and eat, influence government legislation (and very likely wake up the Danes to something too), I’ll ask again: huh?

Of course it’s about much more than ‘a chef’, or even the power of celebrity, though it is about those things too. It’s also about media, and about trust: media as a platform to reach the kinds of numbers of people that need to act to make a difference, and the very strange power that media has to induce a sense of trust because it looks transparent, even as everyone knows it is a construct. I mean, there Jamie was wearing a SUIT in a studio with a bunch of pigs. But also with a bunch of very important people – government representatives, supermarket representatives, farmers, EU legislators – which he in turn got to pledge, on screen, in front of the 2 million people who were watching, to support British pork, so by the end of the 90 minutes he could sum up and say all these people have “promised” to do something. It was a piece of fucking first class bullying.

(Here we stop for an interlude of several hours, including lunch with a glass of wine, some decent limoncello, a nice massage, a good cup of home-brewed coffee).

So to wrap up, what I find remarkable about Jamie saving various bacons is not really the specifics of who’s doing it, or the fact that the most lucrative piece of bacon on the set is Jamie himself – these all confirm what I have suspected all along, and which brings us back to the issue of trust. The spectacle that he put on is just more evidence of a very real paradigm shift that is occurring at this very moment (but that many of us will miss because we are too mesmerised by the show). It’s about how things are mobilized in this society, and who we trust to be at the wheel.

We may be in the new age of Obama’s America, where millions of people have renewed faith in a politician’s powers of salvation (and real believers may even anticipate something of a revolution), but the powers of mobility have – or certainly are – shifting hands. There was a day when philosophers could write books with real power. Governments could, through generating fear or making promises, incite real change. And I sure as hell hope they still can. But I’m no longer convinced they’ll bother without being shamed into action by a figure who is now as likely to appear on the front cover of Newsweek as of People magazine. (Here’s an important non-trick question: which of those do you think has more readers?).

Perhaps the scariest thing of all is how something as momentus as this will slip silently into history as if it was meant to happen all along. I won’t be holding my breath for this year’s lists of the 100 most influential figures. I just hope that Obama at least makes it into the top 10.  (And I’m not talking about his action figure).