On resolving – resolutions for 2017

fireworks
HAPPY NEW YEAR

Resolutions are often fraught things, aren’t they? They are so tangled together with promises about the year ahead and visions of our ideal lives and selves, not to mention the comedown after a season of parties and feasting and socialising which could have lasted a few days but for some people lasts a month or more. No wonder we feel like we need a reboot come January.

I found it difficult to make a list of resolutions ahead of time and spent the first day of 2017 mulling them over. I am lucky that I receive the days between Christmas and New Year off, a perk of the sector I work in. Removal of this privilege would doubtless result in a revolt to put the poll tax riots to shame. Few of us will ever become truly wealthy in this game, so give us our holiday, is the general sentiment. Because of this the New Year slipped into frame quietly; as I was travelling home on the 31st, and didn’t go out to celebrate, there was little sense of transition, the clean slate.

When I read other peoples’ resolutions they are often quite inspirational – ‘be braver’, ‘write my novel’, ‘travel every month’. Mine are much more…homespun? More like good ideas than visionary aspiration. Still, here we go. I’ve started with food ones, but there are a couple of non-food related resolutions towards the end.

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

amieux-freres_fay
Image via Wikimedia Commons

I honestly feel quite conflicted about this one. On the one hand, I know it will probably be very beneficial for me personally – the health benefits of eating fish and the Omega 3 fatty acids they contain are myriad and seem to cover a new vital function a week, from heart health to brain function to overall emotional wellbeing to management of aggression. I have been catching up on BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme over the winter break and listened to a fascinating podcast on Diet and Dementia; it was noted that eating fish twice a week is strongly correlated to a lower risk of developing dementia (eating berries also seems to be correlated to a lower risk, but berries are seasonal and perishable and so I don’t think I can commit to eating them regularly in winter). I’m not yet thirty, but I fear dementia like I fear Type II diabetes: it’s slightly irrational, but both are diseases correlated with age and with significant lowering of our quality of life if developed. I am an academically-minded person and the idea of losing my brain, which is to say my essential self, is very, very scary. So if I can do something which will have a long-term protective and preventative impact for my health, especially when it is as easy as eating more fish, which I love anyway, it seems obvious to do it.

Yet the personal benefits to me must be balanced against the wider, indeed environmental, consequences of increased consumption of fish in the context of the global decline of fish stocks. Our oceans are not well-managed, and even consuming farmed seafood may put pressure on wild fish stocks, as farmed fish are frequently fed fishmeal made from their wild cousins. When farmed fish is fed on grains, as livestock is, they develop Omega 6 rather than Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s very, very easy to eat, and indeed overeat, Omega 6 fatty acids, so in this case the unique health benefits of eating fish may also be significantly reduced.

On balance, I’ve decided to keep this resolution (obviously) because I’m quite careful about how I buy fish, only buying those caught using more sustainable methods. I avoid all trawler-caught fish, seek out alternative fish species to very popular, possibly overfished, types, and almost always buy fish which has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

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Bringing in a lunch prepared at home is almost always more economical and healthier than buying one in the shops, especially as I don’t usually like supermarket ready meals. I also tend to find the meals I bring in more filling than shop-bought ones.

This was also one of my resolutions for 2016. I was often successful but did occasionally fall of the wagon, which I expected – it’s an aim rather than a stick to beat myself with. I tended to slip up more towards the end of the year when my time was running short during the weekends and inspiration was failing me.

I like to aim for three days a week because I don’t then feel guilty if I miss the full five working days, but also because if I aim to prepare three days’ worth of meals I usually actually manage to make a week’s worth anyway.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

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This is a goal made with the impact of our eating habits on the environment in mind, and possibly acts as a corrective to my slightly more ethically troubling first resolution. I toyed with making the goal more stringent, with at least three vegetarian days rather than simply meals a week, but have kept it as above in the interests of setting a goal which is manageable.

While I hope that this resolution will also help me to eat more healthily – with respect to such things as my intake of vegetables – vegetarian eating is no shortcut to health. God knows this ex-vegetarian has eaten enough cheesy, butter and cream-saturated vegetables, or those slicked with generous quantities of silky olive oil, to know a vegetarian diet is not necessarily always synonymous with austerity. In the spirit of the environmental ethos which has governed the setting of this resolution, and with a nod to health, I will also aim to choose vegetarian recipes which do not rely heavily on resource-intensive cheese and dairy products to bulk them out and boost flavour.

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

I used to not only read food blogs avidly (I still do, although less than I used to owing to time constraints) but also bookmark many recipes with aplomb. Many of these recipes remain, bookmarked and uncooked, many years later. While they do not take up physical space, being mere bookmarks, they do seem to occupy a lot of psychological space and, for some reason, weigh on my mind. 2017 is the year to free myself of these mind-forg’d manacles and start cooking the recipes I have so carefully set aside. I have many recipes gleaned from blogs which have become much-loved gems, and it will be fun to see if I have other future classics hidden in my archives.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

Antwerp's Grote Markt
Antwerp’s Grote Markt, with bonus crane

I felt a bit strange about committing to writing this down – especially after a year which many people feel has been characterised by a resurgent and often repugnant strain of nationalism – and wasn’t entirely sure if it was a food or non-food resolution. But I want to mark my Belgian roots more than I currently do, and almost any observation of culinary or other traditions would be an improvement on the current situation. While I am fully, 100%, Belgian (which surprises many people, who assume I have at least one British parent), I have lived outside Belgium most of my life and have rarely felt emotionally connected to Belgium as such in a way which could be considered patriotic or nationalist. However, as members of my family become older, and especially following my father’s death, I have developed something which resembles nostalgia, sentiment, for my heritage, and certainly resembles an appreciation for my own culture which I’m sure wasn’t necessarily there a few years ago. My ‘roots’, as it were, always seemed so permanent and ‘just there’, which I could pick up and go back to whenever I felt like it, not like something that need to be nurtured and preserved. As I get older, and with those changes within my family, these connections seem all the more fragile and strangely important, as if, after all my protests, the intersection of my personal and cultural histories is actually essential. Who would have thought it?

This is, of course, not just a culinary thing – cultural heritage is strongly associated with language and I have become more and more sentimental about the Flemish language and preserving it. I know if I end up having my own children that it will be important to me to pass on Dutch to them and ensure they speak it, which is not something I thought was necessary even a few years ago – indeed I dismissed the learning of Dutch as not worth the effort, as it’s not an internationally important language. (The speaking of Flemish/Dutch and French is a very fraught thing in Belgium; as I’m Flemish and speak Dutch with my family, I don’t have the same sentiment towards French). However, cultural identity is also cemented in the eating of common foods and partaking in common celebrations, and as I like to cook this might as well be my way of observing my heritage.

I suppose in this respect I will be starting with the celebration of ‘Verloren Maandag’ (Lost Monday), a celebration day held on the somewhat awkward date of ‘the first Monday after the first Sunday after Epiphany’. It is not only a very Belgian celebration but one very unique to Antwerp, the city where I was born and involves the eating of sausage bread, putting this resolution directly in conflict with No. 3.

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

Must sleep more in 2017. I am terrible at sleep and really need to work on going to bed at the same time every night and falling asleep, rather than staggering into bed at midnight and staring at the ceiling for two hours.

7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London

This was also on last year’s list of resolutions and I didn’t manage it, which is a bit shameful, but I hope to manage this year.

8) Read at least one book a month

I am a pretty decent reader, mostly thanks to a long commute, so I’m setting this so I don’t slip out of the habit. I don’t think I’ve properly read a book in months. My boyfriend kindly gave me Ian McEwan’s Nutshell for Christmas so I suppose I will start with that.

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Baking Advent: Apricot and amaretti fruitcake with Marsala and clementine buttercream

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with baked goods.

Apricot, amaretti and marsala fruitcake

In my last post I mused about being, becoming, a grown-up; and the changing tastes of adulthood were something I thought of when making, and then eating, this fruitcake.

For some tastes are the ones we grow rather than the ones which come to us instinctively. The liking of certain foods – the bitterness of wine and beer among then – mark the undeniable transition from picky child and wary adolescent. Jay Rayner predictably called it for the oyster, which, in a slightly icky (and, it must be said, heteronormative) 2011 article which I have never really liked (I like a lot of his other writing), he describes as “the truly female tastes of adulthood” (yawn). Then there are olives – salty, briny; blue cheese – pungent, moudly; even the raw, iron, undeniably fleshy taste of rare steak.

Apricot, amaretti and marsala fruitcake with marzipan stars
Marzipan stars on a naked cake for a modern look

Fruitcake, to me, is a grown up food, too. As a child, its dense, sticky richness was something best avoided in favour of, say, a predictable slice of chocolate cake. It sits heavily on the stomach and coats the palate in a thick wave of raisiny sweetness almost as a dessert wine does. A fruitcake is assertive; it is strong; it is not really that sweet and can be nibbled with cheese as much as eaten as pudding after a meal. It requires a bitter drink of some kind – hot black coffee; unsweetened, tannic tea; even ale – to offset the rich taste and texture. After years of remembered aversion and dislike, those same failings have become, in my eyes, the fruitcake’s very virtues. It is filling, it is rich, it is unapologetically traditional in vine-fruited taste and dense, even at times stodgy, texture.

Christmas fruitcake with clementine and cinnamon buttercream
Christmas fruitcake with clementine and cinnamon buttercream

I wasn’t intending to post this recipe, mainly because the photos I took weren’t very good. But this cake is so very delicious; I brought it in to work (a rare enough event) and my colleagues were full of praise – one even said he feared it would put all other Christmas cakes this year in the shade. That’s the kind of thing someone who brings in a homemade cake likes to hear…

The dried apricots in the fruit mix add a lighter, sharper taste and texture than the traditional combination of raisins, currants and mixed peel alone, and the pulverised amaretti biscuits which are included in the batter mix replace the more conventional breadcrumbs: they are dryer and, again, lighter, as well as adding a delicate almond perfume which complements the marzipan shapes the cake is decorated with. A few biscuits are held back to decorate the top of the cake. The sweet Marsala wine which plumps up the fruit and is used to feed the cake at regular intervals naturally imbues it with moisture, but also sweetly echoes the taste of the dried fruit within the cake. The clementine buttercream is of course deeply seasonal and adds a burst of freshness to proceedings. I added a dash of cinnamon to it too.

Apricot and amaretti fruitcake
Action shot – the cake getting dug into at work, in its tin

I went for a ‘naked’ look for this cake, partly because naked cakes are so very fashionable; partly because I don’t really like the royal icing that usually tops fruitcakes; and partly to avoid the awkwardness of buying sufficient quantities of marizipan and carefully rolling it over to drape the cake. I liked the look very much, in the end – though having said that, the original cake, as decorated by BBC Good Food magazine, looked absolutely glorious – with a coating of (edible) gold spray paint, it was fantastically Louis Quatorze.

Recipe below the jump, as ever.

Continue reading “Baking Advent: Apricot and amaretti fruitcake with Marsala and clementine buttercream”

Video: October/November 2016 Food and Cooking Favourites

I managed to film and edit this video – which includes some of my favourite food for entertaining, as well as some wines I love which would be perfect for Christmas – in reasonable time, all things considered. A gold star for me. If you want to hear me extol the virtues of braising chorizo in red wine, my favourite muscat and vitamin C-packed fruit, then have a watch…

Baking Advent: bakery-style oatmeal-raisin cookies

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with baked goods.

Bakery-style oatmeal raisin cookies and milk

I had lots of ambitious plans to post up a baking recipe every day in December – partly to clear my drafts folder full of half-finished posts – but as the exercise became more stressful, my boyfriend talked me out of it with this dry comment: “You’re a grown-up with a sensible job. No one expects you to put yourself through this.” Then he made me go to bed.

I sometimes doubt how sensible my job really is (usually when filling in a bizarre piece of paperwork), and for sure I often doubt that I’m really a grown up. My job is characterised by tight and sometimes unexpected deadlines and a dizzying set of regulations – internal and external – that are introduced in frenetic spurts between long consultative periods, and I mostly see myself as floundering in the midst of this soup. (It’s also characterised by lovely, warm colleagues who habitually fish me out of said soup). I often – often – worry about whether I’m actually coping, or doing things right. You know the swan metaphor, about how they look calm on the surface but no one sees them paddling like hell underneath? I’m sure everyone can tell I’m paddling.

Oamteal and raisin cookies

Only occasionally have there been moments when I have felt assured and in control (granted, most of the time you’re not observing yourself, you’re just getting on with the day). One of those moments was when I was delivering a goodbye speech for a colleague – I caught myself, as if having an out-of-body experience, speaking calmly and fluidly about her and her contributions to the organisation, and managing a few in-jokes about corporate documents and policy papers. It was a grown up moment, however brief.

I’m sure it seems an awkward segue to go from paddling through adulthood to cookies, but in fact I think there is a connection. Baking, making lovely things to share, is also soothing, therapeutic, and just fun – and can even make me feel more in control. I may not have finished the day’s spreadsheet (yes, this is my life now), but if I bake a batch of cookies it not only gives me some time to myself but gives me a feeling of mastery over this tiny domain. The oatmeal-raisin cookies below are also deliciously easy to put together, they are made from storecupboard staples, and they result in palm-sized, bakery-worthy sweet snacks.

Bowlful of oatmeal raisin cookies

I found this recipe on a delightful blog, aspoonfulofsugar.net (it sadly no longer exists), which I read avidly as a teenager, completely compelled by these adults who, in their spare time, cooked and baked and then wrote about it. This was in the early days of food blogging, just past the heyday of Julie Powell’s blog Julie and Julia, when a young Parisian (or should I say Parisenne?) launched her blog Chocolate and Zucchini and became a rising star in the food blogosphere. Back then, the online food world was a somewhat small close, tightly-knit place (bloggers used to actually regularly meet each other in Real Life) – and blog photography was sometimes (not always)…basic. Things were quite homely and sometimes slapdash and pictures of dinner clearly taken – gasp – at night, with flash, under artificial light. This particular recipe is apparently from the TV tie-in cookbook ‘Cooking with Friends’, featuring recipes for foods seen in the iconic programme. Angela, the authoress of aspoonfulofsugar.net, converted the recipe’s American measurements into metric, but over time her original measurements have been tweaked a little by me.

Cookies and milk

These are big, rich, and crisp cookies – almost crunchy – not too sweet, but wonderfully buttery, studded through with raisins that somehow remain plump and juicy after baking. You can get a softer texture, if wished, by baking them on the lower end of the recommend baking times, about 12 minutes, and you could also experiment with turning down the temperature to the more standard 180C. Myself, I like a cookie full of crunch and texture, and tend to cook them for the full fifteen minutes so they are crisp all the way through. Perfect with a cup of tea, though a cookie as all-American as this surely deserves to be dunked in a glass of milk.

Recipe below the jump, as always.

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Baking Advent: little plum friands

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Plum and almond friands

I went to the gym yesterday, for the first time in…a while. I’ve been busy, and sick, and social, and taking a French course, all of which has disrupted my usual gym-going routine, which was pretty settled and well-established. Once dropped, I felt too intimidated and apprehensive to go back, even though I knew that the tension in my shoulders and recent difficulty sleeping could have been resolved with some exercise.

Well, I finally managed to get to gym, albeit much later in the evening than I planned and on the strength of two glasses of wine from a work function (oh yes), and I’m pretty much back to square one in terms of fitness, which is pretty annoying. However, once finished, I did feel better, more focused, my thoughts less troubling, and I slept well. Having exercised, I also let myself indulge in one of my plum friands, serving it up with a trickle of double cream.

Plum friand

Friands are egg white and ground almond-based mini cakes, oddly popular in Australia, and very similar to French financiers. Friands tend to be baked in round shapes, unlike rectangular financiers, whose shape is said to resemble gold bars; for financiers, the butter is typically browned until it picks up toasted hazelnut notes; and friands typically have additions and flavourings such as chocolate, coconut, and fruit, whereas the financier is unadulterated almond. These differences aside, both recipes involve ground almonds, icing sugar, melted butter, and egg whites, so I think it’s safe to say they are related in some ways, cousins at least even if they’re not close enough to be siblings.

I made this recipe to use up the last three plums in the house – conveniently, that’s all that was needed. It also helped me finish off my stash of ground almonds, which had grown to ludicrous proportions thanks to a brief macaron phase; and there were egg whites in the freezer compartment (they just about fit) which just needed a brief thawing. So this recipe was serendipitous in some respects.

Buttery vanilla friands

I did make two tiny tweaks to the recipe as printed by Waitrose Weekend, a free newspaper distributed in Waitrose supermarkets. Firstly, I did not line the bottoms of the muffin tin with circles of baking paper, because the idea of cutting them out made me feel deflated. Instead, I greased the bun tin thoroughly – and I mean thoroughly – with melted butter, let the friands cool for a good while, and then eased them very gently out of the tin with a flexible palette knife when they were barely warm (I think if you let them cool to absolutely cold the plums might adhere). You do need to be careful when doing this because the plums can stick to the tins and cause the cake to break when prised out of the tin, but I genuinely think it’s a million times better than cutting out baking paper circles. But to each their own. Secondly, I replaced the called-for almond extract with vanilla extract, because I was serving them to a friend who doesn’t like the pronounced, cloying bitter-kernel taste of almond extract (although she likes almonds). In fact, I think the vanilla extract was a good choice as it brought out the soft, buttery tenderness of the cakes rather than highlighting the almond.

Recipe after the jump.

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Baking Advent: zeitgeist cookies

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Banana, oat and chocolate no-sugar-added cookies
Banana, oat and chocolate cookies

Well before the current fad for food characterised mostly by what it isn’t – gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, vegan, plant-based and so on – Heidi Swanson, author of the blog 101 Cookbooks (and four cookbooks of her own) published a recipe for Nikki’s Healthy Cookies. Based on a mixture of oats, ground almonds and coconut, and free from added sugar, these cookies had been developed by her high school friend Nikki as a treat she would be happy to give to her children who, Swanson notes, had been largely nourished on whole foods. The recipe is from 2008, but the philosophy of these cookies couldn’t be more au courant – again suggesting, perhaps, that it is the progressive, trend-seeking and setting enclaves of New York, California and the Bay Area that dictate food trends in Europe, albeit sometimes years later.

Bite-sized banana, oat and chocolate cookie

I’ve adapted the recipe below – primarily by substituting the desiccated coconut called for, as I didn’t have any in the house and didn’t feel inclined to buying a packet of something that would then sit, unused and dusty, in the cupboards for an age – and, with my tweaks and metric measurements, and reflecting on how very of-the-moment this recipe is, I’ve renamed my version ‘Zeitgeist cookies‘.

These cookies aren’t just for appropriate those voluntarily choosing exclusionary diets: I made them to bring to a gathering of friends, one of whom has been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. For her, the lack of high-GI flour and inclusion of wholegrain, lower-GI rolled jumbo oats and almonds (which do not affect blood sugar) and lack of added sugar made these a treat she could enjoy more easily than baked goods based on refined ingredients. She also said that the inclusion of dark chocolate was (relatively speaking) fine for her as dark chocolate has less sugar than other kinds, and the fat means the sugar is released more slowly into the bloodstream.

Big chunks of chocolate play off a moist, craggy interior
Big chunks of chocolate play off a moist, craggy interior

These are not thin, crunchy, crisp cookies: the banana makes them moist and soft all the way through, although they hold their shape well and are not particularly cakey in texture. The taste of the banana carries well and plays off nicely against the chocolate. Given that the original recipe was developed by a whole-foods-orientated mother, I’m not sure to what extent children would like these. The texture is nubbly, maybe even slightly chewy, from the oats, and they’re studded with dark, rich chocolate which adds a faint hint of bitterness. While these tastes and textures would be welcomed by adults, I do doubt somehow that children would really fall on these – particularly if they’re used to more conventional treats. My friends and I considered this as we nibbled and concluded that using milk chocolate instead of dark would make them more child-friendly (and still probably lower in sugar than most cookies).

Healthy chocolate and banana cookie

Recipe below the jump.

Continue reading “Baking Advent: zeitgeist cookies”

Baking Advent: sticky, syrupy gingerbread loaf with rum

Baking Advent: celebrating the festive season with a different daily baked good.

Sticky gingerbread loaf

This ginger cake is another recipe I have used for a long time, again gleaned from avid food blog reading. The recipe makes a small cake, a simple unadorned loaf that could even be called humble; certainly homely, with all the comforts associated with that word.

What I love about this cake is that I’ve very rarely been without the wherewithal to make it at a moment’s notice. If I only have a scrap of butter, a lick of golden syrup and a single egg rattling in the cupboards, I can make this cake. I’ve baked it in a loaf pan and a square brownie tin, and doubled it for bake sales; it is incredibly forgiving. Once, I added the egg too quickly to the sticky mixture of syrup, butter and sugar which is first melted together, and the egg coagulated in the mixture. I strained out the bits of cooked egg white and continued as normal; the cake baked up perfectly.

Homely, homey, and delicious

Straight out of the oven a slice is warm, sweet and mild: the gingery flavour and stickiness develops over the next few days, and is enhanced if you wrap it in foil between servings. Personally I like my gingerbread the way my grandmother eats it, which is to say sliced and buttered.

It’s a flexible and infinitely adaptable gem. You could add additional spices, or add-ins such as sultanas soaked in a little brandy or apple juice, or even small chocolate chips if you like the combination of chocolate and ginger. The version I made below includes a splash of rum and some chopped preserved stem ginger to add an additional warming, spicy backnote. It doesn’t require any embellishment to be a lovely little cake, but it makes a nice change. Recipe below the jump, as always.

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