Haiku Prompt Challenge: ‘Rise’ and Save’

Cake, Do Not Dessert Me…

When sponge does not rise

Smother cake with hot custard –

Saving your baking…

There’s an old phrase in use here in the UK, ‘saving your bacon’, and originally it meant saving your body from harm – so my tongue-in-cheek haiku this week is a play on those old words, referring to ingenuity saving the day after a typical baking disaster, of which I’ve (unfortunately) had many over the years… 🙂

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Jambalaya…

One of my favourite Cajun dishes is Jambalaya – a satisfying spicy mix of rice and several different meats and veg – and personally I find the rich smoky flavour of this large potful cooked by my husband’s cousin on a wood fire in the back yard pretty damned hard to beat 🙂

stirring-the-jambalaya

Stirring the pot…

jambalaya-cookingBubbling away nicely…

jambalaya-ready-to-eatFinished Jambalaya, ready to eat – and eat it we did! 🙂

‘Add The Holy Trinity…’

Cajun Cooking Lesson Two: ‘Add the holy trinity…’

Once the roux is made, the next step in many Cajun-style stews is to add the holy trinity of onion, celery, and bell pepper – and also chopped garlic – yum!

roux-with-holy-trinityRoux with the Holy Trinity added – the finished dish was white beans, cooked outside 🙂

Adding the cold, crisp veg to the sizzling pot stops the roux darkening any further, and after it has all been stirred about for a bit, releasing all that fragrant aroma, a flavoured stock (broth) is added along with seasoning, and at this point the stew base is ready for whatever particular ingredients come next, depending on what dish is being made.

When it comes to stock, I’ve always preferred to make my own – it’s what I learned from childhood onwards, boiling up a chicken carcass or a ham knuckle to make a delicious base for traditional Scottish soups, so I use that same basic stock for my Cajun stews, and they turn out perfectly well. But the weirdest-feeling thing to get used to for me was that Cajun cooking is almost back-to-front from the way I learned to cook in Scotland.

I learned through cooking at home long ago that meat is first browned off, then diced carrots and onions or whatever are added, and all are cooked together immersed in liquid stock before the finished stew is thickened and seasoned pretty much at the last minute, with a traditional mix of cornflour and Bisto to give the gravy that glossy rich brown colour. Stew is often served with boiled potatoes and peas and/ or other garden-grown veg.

Cajun stews, however, are thickened from the start, and vary from being sticky butterscotch to treacle coloured, depending on the darkness of the roux used, which in turn is dependent on the meat used – for example shrimp stew needs a light roux, whereas alligator (not that I’ve tried it!) can apparently take a very dark roux. The rich flavour and seasoning is always cooked in from the very beginning, too, and the resulting stews are usually served with boiled rice, and perhaps with sweetcorn or field peas or white beans.

Cajun seasoning tends to be a blend of many things – a locally-made blend we picked up in Pierre Part when we last visited contains sea salt, red pepper, granulated garlic, paprika, black pepper, and granulated onion – but the Brand names I see used most frequently are Tony Cachere’s Original Creole Seasoning (known simply as ‘Tony’s’), and Zatarain’s crab boil and fish fry.

‘First, Make a Roux…’

I’m originally from the Highlands of Scotland, my husband is from the swamps of Louisiana, and we live together in the world’s melting-pot that is London, so between us we have access to a veritable smorgasbord of cultural cuisine.

I love the alchemy that is cooking – love everything about it, sourcing ingredients, preparing them, putting them together in various ways and (hopefully) conjuring something delicious out of it all at the end of the process. So inevitably, the prospect of learning all about real Cajun cooking from my in-laws was just too good a chance for me to pass up.

Even the names of all those traditional Cajun dishes – Jambalaya, Shrimp Etouffee, Turtle Sauce Piquant, Red Beans and Rice, Gumbo – sounded truly exotic to a Scots lass brought up on a rather plain but wholesome diet of mince and tatties and the like. So I watched, and I did learn after a fashion, and thought it might be fun to share some of those learning experiences here…

Cajun Cooking Lesson One: ‘First, make a roux…’

All good Cajun recipes seem to start with this same basic instruction. Ok, I thought – that’s going to be some kind of paste made with grease and flour and cooked out – how hard can that be? I’ve spent a lifetime making a basic creamy white sauce with butter, flour, milk and seasoning, surely it can’t be that different? In a way I was right, but in another way I’ve found there’s a whole world of a difference between the two.

Making a pale and delicate white sauce requires a truly light and subtle touch and the shortest of cooking times; here less is more. The initial buttery-yellow paste needs to be stirred continuously and thinned out almost immediately, with the addition of more and more milk while it thickens smoothly as the flour cooks out and the sauce reaches the right consistency. All that is left is to season to taste, et voila, c’est magnifique, bon appetit!

In Cajun cooking, making a far more robust roux – from lightest to darkest – requires a paste of hot oil and flour being carefully cooked out while continually stirring for as long as it takes for it to reach a pale-to-dark caramel colour with a distinctive nutty burnished aroma. For me this takes a good ten minutes or so at least, and only at that point is any liquid added to stop the basic roux darkening any further, and allowing for the rest of the cooking process to be continued. The basic rule is, the darker the roux, the richer the flavour; here more is more.

After an initial period of trial and error, I finally succeeded in the art of making a light to medium roux – yippee! The tricky bit for me seems to be getting the initial temperature of the heat-source right – too low and the roux will not darken and thicken quickly enough, but keep the heat too high and it burns all too easily, carbonises instead of caramelises, smelling acrid and turning blackened and gritty in the blink of an eye. Burned roux – and it definitely lets you know it’s burned – is forever spoiled, and sadly there is nothing left to be done with it but start all over again.

On the topic of burned roux, unfortunately I have to report that however pleased I am to have passed muster with a light- to-medium roux, succeeding in making a dark roux is another matter entirely. My brother-in-law is an absolute roux-master, his dark rich gumbos a firm favourite in the family. The basic process here is exactly the same, but the time it takes to achieve the darkest treacle-toffee colour and deepest nutty aroma is so much longer. It requires a level of patience and skill that right now it seems is beyond me.

However hard I try, I just can’t seem to catch the beautifully darkening roux just at the point of turning, but before the point of burning – I either tend to play it safe and stop too soon, or subconsciously want it to work so much I jinx it, and before I know it, it’s spoiled, time and time again.

I realise it’s something I need to work out for myself eventually, experimenting variously with more or less fire, quicker or slower stirring, judging by sound or smell, until I finally find myself catching that turning-but-not-burning point with ease. But until that time comes, I guess I’ll just have to keep on trying – practice makes perfect. And try I will, because I refuse to be beaten by something as simple as a couple of spoonsful of grease and flour and a variable bit of heat… 🙂

PS My mother-in-law has since shown me how to make roux in the microwave – beautifully quick and so much easier – but I still want to be able to do it the old-fashioned way, just so I know I can!

Butter curls…

Today I was thinking about butter curls – those little ridged single curls of butter pre-shaved off the hard solid block and presented on the table in fancy little dishes in the hotels and restaurants of my childhood. Beautiful yellow tongues of the best butter, elegant and individual and decidedly decadent in their sensuous style.

Nowadays, of course, we have those soulless foil-sealed single-portion plastic-moulded packs – disappointingly boring to look at and fiddly to open. They may be infinitely more hygienic, but are indeed ‘sterile’ in every meaning of the word.

I remember the gloriously rich dairy smell of freshly churned golden butter, remember making butter with my grandmother in her farmhouse kitchen, turning it and shaping it into rectangular pats with ridged wooden butter paddles. I remember the butter sitting out in the butter dish, unrefrigerated, soft and spreadable and so lusciously lovely…

I think it’s time I invested in a butter curler, made some home made butter again and introduced my grandchildren to the joys of individual butter curls nestling invitingly on a pretty plate 🙂

Weekly Writing Challenge: Pie

My childhood memories of pie are tightly bound up in Saturdays’ usual lunch-time treat of pie and beans. A freshly-baked meaty Scotch pie bought that morning from the baker’s van, oven-warmed and eaten with tinned baked beans – lovely! Growing up in rural Scotland, with no easy transport to the ‘local’ shops in the nearest village several miles away, we had a succession of vans – basically miniature shops on wheels – that came round door to door every week.

The grocer’s van was the largest, with the most variety of produce on board, and he came twice a week – what fun we had during the school holidays, carefully choosing which sweets to spend our pocket-money on. Racing to the big blue van, jostling each other good-naturedly to see who could clamber up the steep metal-covered steps inside the rear door and reach the temporary plywood ‘counter’ placed across the gangway before anyone else, and so be served first. Selected sweets duly paid for and clutched in small paper bags, we would then spend the rest of the day guarding our own haul, whilst surreptitiously coveting everyone else’s. Ah, those were the days!

The white fish van was far smaller, more compact, and came every Thursday, filled with beautiful fish bought fresh from the harbour that morning, laid out in white polystyrene boxes packed with crushed ice. The fish-man, dressed smartly in his white coat and hat, would serve from behind the van, standing outside in all weathers, opening wide the back door to reveal his set of white enamel scales and little tin money-box, square polythene wrappings hung diagonally on a hook on the inside of the door. The smell of truly fresh fish, fish that had still been swimming in the sea the night before, is far less strong than you might imagine – still recognisably fishy but somehow cleaner, a salty ozone odour I rarely smell anywhere any more.

The baker’s van, like the grocer, came twice a week, once at some point during the week and again at the weekend, but my strongest memories are of Saturday mornings – the simple joy of no school, a morning of watching our favourite cartoons on TV, then eating pie and beans for lunch. The baker’s van was smaller than the grocer’s, but bigger than the fish van. Steep narrow steps took you up into the tiny serving area, where the tantalising smell of sausage rolls and pies and cakes and fancies laid out behind in tilted trays to best display their tempting wares always filled our nostrils with such promise.

I absolutely loved Scotch pies – individual cylindrical short-crust pastry pies with meat filling and a small round hole in the middle of the pastry lid. The funny thing is, I remember every Saturday standing in the baker’s van choosing with such care which particular sweet treat I would have that week, but yet I would always choose the same savoury Scotch pie for lunch, mouth-wateringly fat and juicy, always eaten hot with baked beans, and always devoured with such unrestrained pleasure… 🙂

Weekly Writing Challenge: Pie

Scripture cake…

The members of The Scottish Women’s Rural Institute must really have been good Christian women if the recipe in their Cookery Book (Sixth Edition) reprinted in March 1950 is anything to go by…

scripture-cake

I thought I’d have a go at deciphering it, so being mindful of the times, and as my knowledge of the bible is limited to… well, let’s just leave it at ‘limited’… I’ve used the official King James Bible Online as a reference for the given passages…

The recipe decoded, as far as I can work out, goes as follows:

Four and a half cupfuls of 1st Kings, iv, 22 – ‘And Solomon’s provision for one day was 30 measures of fine flour, and threescore measures of meal’

One and a half cupfuls of Judges, v, 25 – ‘He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish’

Two cupfuls Jeremiah, vi, 20 – ‘To what purpose cometh there to me incense from Sheba, and the sweet cane from a far country? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet unto me’

Two cupfuls of 1st Samuel, xxx, 12 – ‘And they gave him a piece of cake of figs, and two clusters of raisins: and when he had eaten, his spirit came again to him: for he had eaten no bread, nor drunk any water, three days and three nights’

Two cupfuls of Nahum, iii, 12 – ‘All thy strong holds shall be like fig trees with the firstripe figs: if they be shaken, they shall even fall into the mouth of the eater’

One cupful of Numbers, xvii, 8 – ‘And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and behold the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds’

Two tablespoonfuls of 1st Samuel, xiv, 25 – ‘And all they of the land came to a wood; and there was honey upon the ground’

Six articles of Jeremiah, xvii, 11 – ‘As the partridge sitteth on eggs; and hatcheth them not; so he that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days, and at his end shall be a fool’

A pinch of Leviticus, ii, 13 – ‘And every oblation of they meat offering shalt thou season with salt; neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meat offering; with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt’

Twp teaspoonfuls of Amos, iv, 5 – ‘And offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving with leaven, and proclaim and publish the free offerings: for this liketh you, O ye children of Israel, saith the Lord GOD’

Season to taste with 2nd Chronicles, ix, 9 – ‘And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices great abundance, and precious stones: neither was there any such spice as the queen of Sheba gave king Solomon’

Method – Add citron and follow Solomon’s advice for making a good boy – Proverbs xxiii, 14, and you have a good cake – ‘Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell’

So from all of that we have:

Four and a half cups of fine flour
One and a half cups of butter
Two cups of sugar
Two cups of raisins
Two cups of figs (and in Scotland in the 1950s, I imagine they would definitely have been dried figs!)
One cup of almonds
Two tablespoons honey
Six eggs
A pinch of salt
Two teaspoons baking powder
Season with spices to taste (probably ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, i would think)
Add lemon and beat well…

Sounds to me like a pretty rich, dense fruit cake – no baking instructions given but I guess it would bake like a Christmas cake 🙂

Five smells I love…

The salty, fresh, sea smell that absolutely takes your breath away when walking along the beach in a bracing British wind as it whips your hair and stings your nostrils.

The wet-leafy earthy smell of walking through woods after the rain.

The keratin-and-shampoo smell of the soft little tickly whorls on top a baby’s head.

The papery-inky, promising smell of a new book.

Fresh food cooking… bread, bacon, coffee, cakes, cookies particularly spring to mind most immediately but are not necessarily exclusive… 🙂