Friday 22 August 2008

Cream horns, Hitler, Mrs Wicks, and the joy of the vintage cookbook

I bet you've never heard of Mrs Wicks. Well, neither had I, until yesterday, when I bought her cookbook, issued in 1939 by the Shell Company of South Africa. I was thrilled to add it to my small but growing collection of South African cookbooks and food manufacturers' pamphlets from the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, and even more delighted when I found several handwritten recipes and old war-time cuttings** pasted on the inside covers of the book.

Finding any hand-penned recipe tucked between the pages of a vintage cookbook, or written on its end-papers, tickles me pink.

Old, dog-eared, cake-batter-flecked books like this appeal to me for many reasons. The first is purely visual: their covers and illustrations are so enchanting and innocent, in a mid-century kind of way. Even the photographs, which are generally frightfully ugly - especially when they involve jellied savoury rings and stuffed eggs, with their piped-on, turdy toppings - have a peculiar appeal. But, most important of all, I appreciate these books for the fascinating historical documents they are.

They reflect so much of the last century's attitude to women as domestic goddesses and aproned, lipsticked home-makers. Read in this light, they are sometimes heart-breaking. Cookbooks of this era often contain little poems and homilies about how to show docility and consideration towards one's husband. A few of them - and particularly South African vintage cookbooks - lament the 'servant problem', making comments about their servants that make my cheeks burn with indignation and shame.

But the overriding value of these little books is the brilliant recipes they contain. Not all the recipes, mind you. The war-time recipes, which reflect the hardships of rationing, make dismal reading, with their scrag ends and powdered eggs and outer cabbage leaves. Kitschy recipes of the sixties and seventies, involving a lot of jelly powder, Ideal evaporated milk, tinned fruit and stuffed eggs, are not inspiring. But scattered all over these books, and especially in the cakes, bakes and preserves sections - which generally make up half of every cook book published before 1960; goodness, but our grandmothers loved cake - are many wonderful old recipes that quite obviously have been passed down from mother to daughter over countless generations.

Gingerbread, ginger beer, Boston Loaf, Sussex Pond Pudding, Queen's pudding, fruit cakes and puddings and pies, syllabub, and a host of old South African recipes such as bredies, koeksisters, Hertzoggies, samoosas, biltong, mampoer, boerewors, pickled fish, melktert... the list goes on and on.

These recipes, some of which are many centuries old, are becoming an endangered species as the culinary landscape is flooded with squid ink and fish sauce and Balsamic vinegar and horrid towers of cheffy saffron-this and cardamom-that.

I started collecting mid-twentieth-century cookbooks about two years ago, when I grabbed an old sixties cookbook my mother was turfing out. I flipped through it with the scornful attitude of one who reads glossy food magazines, and was about to turf it into the don't-want pile, when I came across a photograph of a rabbit-shaped white cake coated in coconut flakes, and, a few pages on, a ghastly - and frankly rather pornographic - picture of a pastry horn overflowing with whipped cream. Both pictures evoked the most extraordinary response: I was transported in an instant back to 1967, and could feel myself standing on a chair on chubby toddler legs in our family kitchen, poring over the very same cookbook, and wishing my mom would make rabbit cake and cream horns for pud. I could hear the low hiss of our gas stove, smell the comforting whiffs of potato-topped fish pie baking in the oven, hear the buzzing of fat flies trapped in the sticky, curling yellow fly-strip hanging from the kitchen ceiling. A petrified knot of neurons in my forty-something old brain unbundled themselves, and along came a flood of memories of my childhood. Reading these old books and pamphlets is like tasting memories; like burying my nose in my mom's floury apron.

** One of the war-time cuttings reads:

SEND HIM A CAKE. Here is the way to make it yourself.

The way to a man's heart.... that applies more than ever before nowadays. Here's a recipe we know will please him. [I am going to try this recipe out, along with the Cinnamon Loaf, written by Mrs Evans of Germiston, South Africa, in 1940, picture left, in the next few days, so please check back soon]

And, on the flip-side of the cutting, the
news that Hitler received at his headquarters the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, who later returned to Budapest.
Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Thursday 14 August 2008

The supersonic, ultra-crispy wedgie

Making oven-baked potato wedges is hardly rocket science, right? You wedge 'em, dredge 'em, and bake 'em, right? Right, if you fancy eating a plateful of slightly oily wedges, which are delicious for precisely five minutes before they lose their puff and collapse into leathery old brown leaves.

I'm not casting aspersions on potato wedges - these are a brilliant, low-fat alternative to chips, perfect for ravenous teenagers or picky eaters. They take minutes to make, and, because they retain their skins, pack a good nutritional punch.

After much experimentation, I have settled on the following method, which produces gorgeous golden-brown wedges that are crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and have plenty of rustle and snap. (Note: since I wrote this post, I have refined the recipe and added a sprinkling of chickpea flour, which results in a superior crunchiness. Click here for the new recipe.)

First, and most important, the wedges need to be cooked for at least ten to fifteen minutes in rapidly boiling, salted water before they are baked. Yes, I know it's a bit of a hassle, but it makes all the difference: a wedged potato that is tossed in oil and salt and placed in a hot oven without being boiled first will certainly go golden brown and puff up, but its cut surfaces will turn tough and leathery within minutes of your taking it out of the oven.

Second, the water in which the potatoes are boiled should contain a generous amount of salt. I picked this tip up from watching an episode of Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection, in which he conclusively showed that potatoes parboiled in salted water turn a perfect golden brown, whereas those boiled in unsalted water are pallid in comparison.

So here's my method. Preheat your oven to 200°C. Put a large saucepan of water on the stove, add one tablespoon of salt, and bring to a rapid boil boil. Cut each potato, lengthways, into six equal wedges. I have a brilliant device that is specifically designed for wedging potatoes - but you can do it as easily with a knife. As you cut the potatoes, toss them into the boiling water. The water should just cover the wedges.

Boil them rapidly for ten minutes, or until you can easily push the tip of a knife right through them, with no resistance. They should be on the point of breaking up - but not quite. Tip the wedges into a colander and drain off the boiling water. Set aside to ten minutes to drain and dry out. Then give the wedges a light tossing and scruffing so that they roughen around the edges . In the meantime, tip a few tablespoons of olive or sunflower oil into a roasting pan and place over a medium flame. When the oil is sizzling hot, add a good pinch of salt and a grinding of milled black pepper, and what ever flavourings you fancy - some needles of rosemary, flavoured salt, spices, dried herbs, a pinch of cumin, a squeeze of lemon juice, a dusting of cayenne pepper, whatever takes your fancy - and immediately tip in the potato wedges. Give the wedges a good toss so that they are well coated in the hot olive oil, and then place them in the hot oven. Alternatively, you can heat the roasting pan of flavoured oil in the oven for ten minutes before you add the wedges.

Bake for thirty to forty minutes, depending on your oven, tossing and shaking once or twice, until they are golden brown and crispy. Serve immediately. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Quick, Easy Marinated Mushrooms

These are quite delicious and one of the best ways, I think, to eat rather flavourless white button mushrooms. Serve with plenty of crusty bread. If there's any liquid left over, use it in a salad dressing, or to marinate a new batch of mushrooms - you can use the liquid up to three times over. Keeps well in the fridge. This is one of my family's favourite recipes and I have been making it since I was twelve - although the formula has changed over the years to include new-fangled ingredients.

Marinated Mushrooms

2 punnets white button mushrooms
1/2 cup (125 ml) white wine
1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil
2 T (30 ml) Balsamic vinegar
1 T (15 ml) Kikkoman soy sauce
1 slice of lemon
juice of 1 lemon
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and sliced
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
a pinch of sugar
salt and milled black pepper

Wipe the mushrooms and place into a saucepan with all the remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Now turn off the heat and allow to cool on the stove. Allow to marinate for an hour or so - or overnight. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 4 as a side dish. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Our Gwen Gill gets a slap on the wrist over Delia Smith comment

I see that John Tovey had a go at Sunday Times columnist and veteran consumer journalist Gwen Gill in a letter published in Sunday's edition of the paper. I'm presuming this is the same John Tovey, the hotelier and chef famous for inventing Sticky Toffee Pudding. Here's what he said:

'Gwen Gill reached another profound low with her “Feeling Cheated” (Travel & Food, July 6) about Delia Smith’s latest book.

The opening sentence ending in “her name has suddenly become culinary compost” really sums Gill up and does her no favours.

I have been a close friend of Delia’s for 30-odd years. She has more integrity and talent in her little finger than Gill has in her whole body. The book sold 1.5 million copies: put that in your pipe and smoke it.'

A bit rough, I thought - I am a great fan of Gwen's, and she has integrity and talent by the bucketload - so I went in search of the original article. All I could find was a single sarcastic jab at St. Delia.

I can't imagine why Tovey has his knickers in a knot. All Gwen did, by commenting that Delia's name had become 'culinary compost', was to reflect the angry backlash against her latest bestselling cookbook, How to Cheat at Cooking. Foodies and loyal fans alike were flabbergasted by some of the trashy recipes in the new book, accusing her of, according to an article in The Guardian - ' hypocrisy, betrayal and cynicism'.

And anyway, Ms Smith doesn't mince her own words when it comes to dissing other celebrity chefs. A feature on celebrity chef spats, in The Telegraph, quotes her as saying, about Gary Rhodes and Antony Worrall Thompson, "I hate Gary Rhodes's programmes and I think that Antony Worrall Thompson is worse. He is dreadful, just repulsive. I think that Food And Drink, the show that he is on, is the most disgusting programme on television. I will never, ever know, as long as I live, how the BBC or the general public can tolerate it."

Although I'm also a fan of Delia's meticulous recipes, I haven't read the book, and judging from these recipes, and the comments by tasters, I don't think I want to.

As for Gwen- well, she's just been honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Vodacom Women in the Media Awards, and deservedly so. And I wonder what Tovey means by 'another profound low' and 'really sums Gill up'? Has Tovey ever actually met Gwen Gill?

So Oy, hands off our Gwen, Tovey - she's a national institution here in South Africa. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Organic, shmorganic? A carrot is a carrot is a carrot

Here's a bit of a smack in the broeks for the organic food movement.

According to a report in The Telegraph, a recent study has shown that there is no clear evidence of any difference in the vitamin and mineral content between the organically and the chemically grown crop. Susanne Bugel and a team at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Human Nutrition found that many people are willing to fork out more than a third more cash for organic fruit and veggies in the belief that they deliver more vitamins and nutrition food reared with pesticides and chemicals.

The Telegraph reports Dr Alan Baylis, from the society, saying: "Modern crop protection chemicals to control weeds, pests and diseases are extensively tested and stringently regulated, and once in the soil, mineral nutrients from natural or artificial fertilisers are chemically identical.

"Organic crops are often lower yielding and eating them is a lifestyle choice for those who can afford it."

The study was published in the Society of Chemical Industry's Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

What the study didn't look at is the health risks associated with pesticides and fertilisers, so maybe there's still a good reason to buy organic... or is there? I'm personally so distrustful of the entire health-food industry - don't get me started on homeopathy and other purveyors of snake oil - that I am not in the least bit surprised by this finding. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly