Sunday, 23 April 2017

This week I will be Eating Mostly... Interwar Cookery

Day Four/Five Update

Tuesday night I made Treacle Scones, from the Bestway book. I fancied this recipe because I'd never heard of treacle scones and it struck me as unusual. Anyway, this was quick and easy up to the point when I had to roll out the dough. The maths involved didn't work. Three-eighths of an inch is very thin, and given the quantity of dough, was either going to make a massive flat piece of dough, or loads more than 6-8 scones. So I tried one batch at the 3/8 thinness, with about half the dough cut into six. The other half I cut in four, rolled much thicker. There was no specific cooking time or heat, so I bunged them in at gas mark 5.

After a few minutes I opened the oven and whipped out one of the thin scones. It was fantastic: dark, crumbly, soft and treacly and not oversweet. At this point I made a mistake: I wasn't sure if it was done enough and decided to leave the scones another five minutes. When I got them out, the thin ones were definitely overdone, and the thick ones were heading towards it. The thin ones were ok hot, and I ate two with jam and cream dobbed on top, as they were too thin to cut up and were more like sconey biscuits. In the morning, the remaining thin scones were too hard to eat and I had to chuck the other three. The thick ones were OK, but I wish I'd just taken the whole lot out of the oven on the first look. I'd mentioned to work colleagues that I might bring scones in but as there were only four left and were a bit substandard, I didn't bother. There were complaints about non-provision of scones, so I promised to make another batch next week, when hopefully I will get it right. I have to say these would be perfect for Hallowe'en/Bonfire night, and apart from my overcooking them, were quick to make. Also, they made the kitchen smell great.

Thursday is my end-of-office week, so I wanted to cook something nice for the evening meal. I wasn't planning to follow any of the set menus, but this one kept catching my eye as it was next to the index page in the Odhams Book. It sounded quite achievable as well, and involved several things I like, so I decided to give it a go. When I looked up the recipes I realised the index on this book was a bit sketchy: there is no recipe for lemon blancmange listed at all, and I couldn't find the stuffed potatoes there either, though I did locate that by looking in the section on vegetables. I couldn't find a recipe for lemon blancmange anywhere, so I wasn't sure if they expect you to make it from a packet. I did find a recipe for lemon sauce which sounded good, and decided on that instead.

Anyway, the stuffed potato is basically a baked, restuffed potato so I put that in to bake first, then set about the celery soup. This was amazingly easy, involving only celery, onion, water, milk, butter and a stock cube. It starts with basically steaming the vegetables in a pan with butter, which is a technique used in the Edwardian cookbook I used last time as well. I don't understand why this isn't in modern cookbooks, unless it's because people are scared of butter. Maybe it's because it feels very counter-intuitive; you keep expecting the contents to burn, which they don't (as long as you keep the lid on). They just get all steamed and buttery, which must be a really good way of keeping the nutrients (and taste) in. You then add water, cream it and add the milk. I used a handheld food processor, which is great, but I did, while cooking, have a look at the instructions in the cookbook of how to achieve the same result without a processor, which is to sieve it. It looks a horrific amount of hassle, not to mention washing up.

Anyway while this was on I stewed a pear. It was a conference pear and it didn't want to be stewed, but it got there eventually, and I found the ingredients for the lemon sauce. I also decided to clear the dining table, which was covered in the general detritus of the week. At that point I remembered the book contained instructions on how to lay the table, and decided to go for it, because if you're going to cook a nice meal it seems a shame to eat it in the middle of mess.

The book did have instructions on laying a place for one, and as I was making some attempt at this, I wondered who would go to all this hassle just to lay a single place. I supposed it would be a wife getting dinner for a husband late home, or a son come back from somewhere, and I thought about what a lot of effort it was, and how loved and welcomed you'd feel if somebody did that for you, assuming you weren't the sort of boor who never noticed nice things at all.

One of the effects of doing this cooking all week is that you start thinking about food and its significance in the way that you usually don't. Earlier that evening I'd gone to the supermarket and while in the queue (there was a reasonably long queue) I was entertaining myself by working out what you can work out about the other shoppers by the contents of their baskets. Really a great deal, in fact: it's actually a weirdly intimate thing to do in public, like exhibiting your laundry basket. You can pretty much tell whether people are single or coupled (miserably or happily) part of a family, how much disposable income they enjoy, and where they sit on a sort of hedonism to hairshirtism continuum, and whether they even use a kitchen, or just a microwave. You can tell whether they take care of themselves and those about them.

Anyway I was pondering this as I was laying the table and thinking about the interminable sieving of celery soup that I wasn't having to do because technology, and how much effort and skill it took to cook from scratch every day (even most days) and all of the hassle of washing up and how no way would I do this every week even though unquestionably I feel healthier and have eaten more healthily than I normally do. And how it really did take one person running the home to keep this up week in week out, and how women (and everyone) got to considering that a crappy deal because its boring and low status. But I go out to work, and that's boring and low status as well, and I wondered if we'd made a terrible mistake, getting rid of the low-status work of doing the caring and effort ourselves, in-house, and whether we shouldn't have just got rid of the low-status instead of getting of getting rid of the work, because in reality it's difficult and high-skill and requires organisation and patience and a variety of technical abilities that nobody bothers with any more. And I thought about how loved you'd feel to come home to a table all laid with flowers and a home-cooked three-course meal and I wondered if when we buy treats from the supermarket it's not really the food we're trying to buy, it's that feeling of being cared for that you get when somebody takes the time and effort to make sure you're fed and warm and welcomed. And of course you don't get it, because everyone knows that buying your loved one a chocolate cake from the supermarket, while not unwelcome, is in no way equivalent to the emotional hit you'd get if they actually made it themselves. But of course mostly people don't have time for that, because time is what people don't have, and I wondered where the time had gone, instead, and how we let it get taken away from us.

And I wondered if it was because somewhere along the line society had got re-ordered by those who had never had to sieve soup or make pastry, and so consequently they thought this was a dumb job that could be replaced by a machine. And because they held all these soup-and-pastry-makers in low esteem they thought they could be got rid of and set to something more useful instead. And whether that wasn't a horrid mistake that actually removed something utterly necessary from society, so that we're all trying to get our self-esteem and sense of belonging from a chilled packet from the supermarket, instead. Anyway, I don't have answers to these questions, so the moral of this story is it's weird how making soup can send you off into a three-hour train of thought about patriarchy, feminism, technology, and emotional well-being, and if only they'd had another teller on the checkout in Lidl, or if the guy in front me hadn't been conspicuously buying food to go with his alcohol, none of this would've happened.

Anyway the celery soup was delicious. Really exceptionally good, like something you'd get in a posh French restaurant, and I am quite cross that no-one told me how to make it before given how ludicrously easy it was. It was also very cheap, and from now on is certainly going on my staple recipes list. The stuffed potato (I used cheese and mushrooms, with some butter and some mushroom ketchup) was also good, and the mushrooms kind of steamed inside the potato. It also got round one of the technical problems of baked potatoes (look, I eat a lot of baked potatoes) which is when all the butter melts and runs out and pools in the dish instead of the potato, because the butter was contained in the skin. It was quite contained in a way that a normal baked potato isn't, so I think could be a good dish for parties, or if people were wandering round eating. Also, will cook again. I'm not going to bother to post the recipe as it's a no-brainer.

The stewed pear was perfectly nice. The lemon sauce took loads of faffing, wouldn't set, and when I turned the heat up, turned into lemon-flavoured scrambled egg. Lemon flavoured scrambled egg is surprisingly edible, and I was really hungry by then, but that will not be reappearing on my cooking list. Non, no, nyet.

I haven't eaten the 43g tin of lobster, yet.

Day Two/Three Update
Slight miscalculation yesterday as I'd planned to make oxtail soup. However I got home from work at 7pm and merrily gathered the ingredients before spotting the recipe included the instructions 'boil for three hours'. Having swiftly taken stock I realised I didn't have a backup dinner plan and it was plough on or... well not much really, so I decided to carry on in the hope that the three hour thing was optional. Anyway, the ingredients looked very wholesome and peasanty. (I added the barley, which wasn't in the recipe, as I had loads I wanted to use up). It wasn't a lot of hassle to cook - apart from the time taken stewing.

By 8.30 I was ravenous so I went through the cookbooks looking for something I could make in the meantime. I came upon this: I didn't have any cream cheese, but I did have stilton, as well as all the other ingredients, so I knocked together a salad. It was delicious, and staved off the starvation until the soup was done.

After about half the recommended time, I sat down to a bowl of soup. It was nice, but also not at all like I expected, so I wasn't sure if I'd somehow got the recipe 'wrong'. It was quite light and fragrant, and didn't have the strong 'beefy' taste I remembered from when I'd previously had oxtail soup. It tasted of cloves and herbs and of vegetables as much as of meat. Anyway I ate it quite happily (also for wednesday lunch and dinner) but I feel like I'd have another go at cooking it at some point, maybe taking a bit more care with the timings, and see if turns out the same. I ate it with what the book called 'sippets' and were in the section entitled 'Things To Do With Stale Bread'. I'd run out of bread, but had some white sliced in the freezer, which I fried in quarters. It was tasty and crunchy, and a great way to despatch some past-it slices.

I was also going to make some treacle scones but due to the problems with the oxtail soup, decided to bump that forward by a day.

Started this on Sunday, and is now the end of Wednesday. Can report that I feel:
a) Disgustingly healthy, with more energy than I usually would at this point of the week and
b) Really hacked off with doing loads of washing up.

Day One Update

This is yesterday's food, but today I've been on the leftovers, so nothing to report, yet. Yesterday I wanted to go for a bike ride and take packed lunch, so I thought I'd do this dubious sounding concoction, Egg, Cheese and Banana Salad. Now I'll freely admit I picked this for ewwww value, but it also piqued my curiosity. I halved the quantities and made it straight in a box, so what I ended up with was basically a little lettuce basket with the ingredients in the middle. Reader, it was delicious. The cheddary taste went really well with the sweetness of the banana and the eggs, the lemon juice just added enough freshness to stop it being too gloopy, and the crispy lettuce was a great contrast. It also occurred to me that if you didn't do bread but still wanted some carbs as well as protein and veg, this is actually a great lunch to take to the office/on the train. 10/10, an unexpected win, and very easy to make.

For dinner I made this, and was quite looking forward to it. What I hadn't reckoned on was not having a mincer. I chopped up the meat fine, but then came to the mincing the aubergines bit. Raw aubergine, I now realise, has a weird rubbery texture and when I tried to chop it up with a handheld blender-thingy it just compressed weirdly and refused to give in. I had to chop it up small with a knife. Anyway I baked the results, and ate them along with rice. It wasn't a disaster but it also wasn't anything special, quite bland, and looked dry, although as a matter of fact, underneath the breadcrumbs, it wasn't especially. Verdict: way too much aubergine wrangling for an edible, if entirely undistinguised, result.

For dessert, I did better, with this unusual fruit salad which intrigued me. First of all, it was very pretty, a nice cheery yellow, interspersed with bright red grapes and cherries. I put the walnuts on whole. It was quite sugary due to the sauce, which was the only bit I had some doubts about. First, there was more sugar than needed, second there was too much sauce, and third I couldn't understand the point of the boil then boil again instructions. However I wouldn't leave out sugar or sauce entirely, as it made the sharper elements like the orange and pineapple nice and tasty. All in all, an excellent combination of crunchy things like cherries and apples, with softer, blander fruits. With the cherries, sherry, orange and walnuts it tasted kind of Chrismassy: I would definately make this at Christmas if I had guests, and maybe serve with ice-cream. Full disclosure: my hand might have slipped a bit when I added the sherry. Yesh. No regretsh.

Further adventures tomorrow.

Ever since I spent a week living out a Victorian cookbook last year, I've been wanting to do the same thing with another decade, and this week being otherwise a particularly boring one, now seemed a good time to try. Having resisted the blandishments of the 1970s I opted to go in for the 20s/30s. I have three cookbooks from that era so decided to use a combination of the three, and also to spread the enterprise over ten days, partly because last time I found it knackering having to blog every day. This will allow me to basically cook for two days, which is normally what I do anyway, and update the blog each day I cook something new.

Out of the three cookbooks, there's only one I'd cooked from before, the Complete Illustrated Cookery Book (1934). As a matter of fact this book is my go-to tome if I want a classic British recipe, but it is definitely a book aimed at a professional cook rather than a housewife. Despite being called 'illustrated', it mostly isn't. The second is Modern Cookery Illustrated (Odhams Press) which isn't dated but I'd guess is immediately pre-war. Modern Cookery Illustrated is aimed at the solidly prosperous middle-class family, and is the only one of the three to include gas and electric cooking temperatures. I'd never used it before, partly because of the dismal quality of the photographic illustrations, which make the food look entirely unappetising. However, once I started looking at the recipes, I realised there was actually a lot of nice stuff in there I'd like to try.It also has lots of useful info like seasonal times for vegetables and which vitamins each contain. It also has menu suggestions (which I won't be following) and a really useful thing I've never seen before: a list of what shopping you'd need to do each day to follow them, which would really take the brainwork out of food planning. There's also a list of common 'fails' with specific dishes and what causes them. These are both brilliant ideas that modern cookbook writers should emulate.

The third is The Bestway Gift Book, which is obviously aimed at a younger woman who has just got married and set up house, and has lots of attractive pictures. It's the only one that's clearly intended as present, and as such is quite heavily focused on sweets/treats rather than daily standards.

Anyway I decided to be a bit less 'planned' than last time, partly because I had three books to play with, and partly to follow the advice in the Odhams Press book to buy what looked fresh and wholesome. I went to the greengrocer, where it was immediately obvious that much of the vegetation completely failed to meet the standards laid out in the book. Ditto the vegetables in the supermarket. I bought bacon from the butcher (very much a staple in all these books) and some oxtail to make oxtail soup, and went to Sainsbury's, emerging at the till looking like I was doing the shopping for my great-aunt who's been dead since 1963.

One thing I did notice in all the cookbooks is that seafood I can't afford appears as quite a common staple: oysters, sea-bream, lobster. At this point I got cross that I had never in my life eaten lobster, so I bought a 43g tiny tin for £1.10. I'm quite puzzled as to how on an island all these things got impenetrably expensive, when they clearly didn't use to be. Answers on a haddock skin, please.

Anyway, I thought I'd want something to snack on during the week, so I kicked off by making these biscuits from the Bestway book. They were easy to cook, look classy and taste very pleasant, although I think they would have benefited from a pinch of salt. Would be ideal to take to a party or suchlike as a break from the endless cupcakes. But be careful, they cook really quickly.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Review: Lace in Fashion, Bath Fashion Museum

If you are going to the Fashion museum in Bath any time in 2017 you have an extra treat in store as they have an exhibition on all about Lace in Fashion. As well as modern designer pieces there are some going back to the 16th Century, when lace was rare, expensive and handmade. It then moves forward to the modern day, when lace is made by machine.

There's a couple of lovely Jane Austen-esque dresses, which as well as being beautiful are also simple and elegant, and look comfy to wear. Alas, this is soon subsumed in the high Victorian era of too much everything, swiftly followed by these ultra-fashionable late Victorian pieces which are just ouch. Fortunately World War one comes along and women are soon able to breathe again, in a variety of elegant and comfy drop-waisters which are also wonderfully tasteful.

Sadly the whole 'less is more' ethos of the inter-war years goes missing again in the 1950s, and while there's a couple of lovely 1950's lace frocks (including one owned by Princess Margaret, designed by Norman Hartnell) there's also a couple of horrors. Layers of tangerine lace do not for elegance make. The modern items in the exhibit are probably the least interesting, though I did swoon over a lovely, lovely pink and green dress by Alberta Ferretti.

If there's one thing I'd have liked some more of it's the background information about the lace and how it's made. I was curious about the huge handmade lace efforts of the Victorian era – it's easy to know about the kind of women that wore them, but what about the women that made them? Were they skilled, well-paid artisans, or slaving away in a factory? The dresses are amazing but I felt they were slightly bereft of stories – like this beautiful dress, knitted by a lady's grandmother in the 1930s as a wedding dress, eventually used for the wedding in 1946. What happened? Was the 1946 wedding to the man she was planning to marry in the 1930s, or someone else entirely? And what happened in between? And there's the lovely flapper dress, made in France, worn by an Indian Rani – who was she, and what happened to her? Clothes are an intimate part of women's lives, and as such if you're interested in women's history then any history of fashion is always fascinating. But I'd have appreciated a little more about the lives behind the fashion, as well. 

Admission to Lace in Fashion is included in the museum entry price.