Wednesday, July 9, 2008

a substitute for a substitute

The other day I had a craving for something sweet and indulgent, decadent even. It was the weekend and I had no plans, it was freezing and pouring with rain, I was PMSed. All I really wanted in the world was to curl up in bed with my man and hopefully, at some point, start to feel my fingers and my toes again. However, said man was unavailable, across the ocean and thousands of miles away from my bed in a place where it was warm and sunny. So as a very sad and ineffective substitute, I thought I might bake the aforementioned something sweet and decadent and eat it hot from the oven whilst sitting in bed in my cocoon of blanket and duvet. So, esconced in the cocoon, I began to plan my something sweet and decadent. There were several plans, all unfortunately involving a quick trip to the shops to stock up my baking cupboard. But no matter – think of what would lie ahead!

And then the black thought came to me. The remembrance that the bloody oven wasn’t working since the night before. It had pretended to, teased me - oven light on, little red I'm-heating-up light on, and then - pffft - the power tripped. The whole flat, lights out, power gone. And really, it wasn't a fluke. I tested the situation four times and every time - pffft (which also means I had to climb on top of the stove four times as the switch for the mains is way high up on the wall, over the oven. Ladders/chairs can't get close enough to the wall, so on top of the stove I go, all the while waiting for the damned thing to break in additional and more spectacular ways.)

It was enough to make me want to stay in bed all weekend, never moving. Except maybe to retrieve the occasional bottle of wine from the wine rack and maybe not even bother with a glass to drink it with. What was the point? Life held nothing for me this weekend.

But suddenly I thought – fudge. Fudge was the answer.

It’s a ridiculous creation, really. Just massive amounts of sugar and dairy, in various forms, caramelized together. And then people eat it, just like that. These days there are shops dedicated to selling fudge, with thirty different flavours and permutations. But the original, traditional confection is the one I am referring to, the one that I feel is somewhat ridiculous.

I am committing family blasphemy by saying so, of course. My mother’s fudge recipe is one that was handed down from her grandmother, the one she was named after. Ouma* Elspeth. It is a recipe that is used throughout the family, but especially by my mother as it became one of my father’s favourite treats. My dad had an insatiable sweet tooth, and as fudge is the sweetest of sweets it made him very happy indeed. It was always my dad’s privilege to scrape out the fudge pot with a spoon after my mother made a batch of fudge, grudgingly granting me one or two spoonfuls of the crinkly scrapings.

Because yes, naturally I also loved my mother’s fudge. The best bits were the crinkly scrapings reserved for my dad; but it was also great to take a square of smooth as silk fudge and roll it into a ball, the heat from my palms softening the sweet. And then bite into the ball of fudge, letting it melt bite-by-tiny-bite on my tongue until each bite disappeared and finally also the ball of fudge would disappear. I might have repeated this process once, even twice, but then the inevitable nausea after a bout of fudge-eating would set in and that would be then end of eating fudge – until the next batch came along.

When I moved out of the house and no longer saw my parents so often, fudge stopped featuring in my life. It had never been something I bought, because my mother made it at home and made it so much better than anyone else did. And most of the fudge out there was of the crystallized, sandy type. You know the type? See, there are two kinds of fudge, smooth and sandy, and any fudge-lover swears strictly by one type only – most likely the one they were brought up with. I grew up with the smooth type - to my mind also the only type.

So smooth fudge is what I wanted to make this weekend, and off I went – out of my lovely cocoon, mind you – to buy the ingredients. Butter, sugar, condensed milk, golden syrup. And a few slabs of dark chocolate, because what could be better than a combination of fudge and chocolate?

Plain fudge, it turns out, could be better. Would have been better. In the first place, that’s what my nostalgic taste buds were really yearning for. And in the second place, the chocolate obviously made my fudge set harder than it would have normally and didn’t even lend a really chocolatey flavour, more of a malted flavour. Obviously. You’d think, with all my cooking/baking/sweet making experience, these things would have occurred to me.

All of which does not mean that I didn’t enjoy the resulting malted fudge, and am not still enjoying it (just one block every evening, I swear. That can’t be so bad?). It just seemed like an even less effective and sadder substitute than I had imagined. The next cold, wet and lonely weekend, maybe I’ll try the original, plain Ouma Elspeth fudge, but I suspect no substitute will do much good until the real thing is back home and by my side.

Until then, in hope, here is Ouma Elspeth’s fudge.

Ouma Elspeth’s Fudge

250 g unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
2 tbsps golden syrup
1 tin condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt

Melt the butter and sugar together over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved completely.
Add the golden syrup and condensed milk and allow the mixture to simmer while stirring now and then to prevent burning. Let it simmer away for a while, up to an hour. The mixture needs to become a dark golden caramelly colour and has to reach the consistency of a thick sauce.
Now add the vanilla, tablespoon of butter and salt and beat the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon until it takes on a dull sheen and starts to set, making it more difficult to beat.
Empty into a tin, either smeared with butter or lined with wax paper, and allow to set at room temperature for at least an hour.

*Afrikaans for Grandmother

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

sweetie pies and sauce

Food is different for different people. It could simply be fuel, something to burn up in order to carry on with the more important aspects of life. It could be a thing to enjoy and derive pleasure from. It could be a nuisance, getting in the way of being thin and being in control of everything. It could be a basic need for survival that is heartbreakingly missing from so many people’s lives. It could be and it is all of these things. But sometimes food becomes more important than the ingredients it is made up of, the taste unfolding in your mouth, the feel of it as you bite and chew and swallow, the energy it provides. Sometimes food can be a way to communicate. Sometimes food can become a symbol – of hope, of love, of a particular time. Food can be a way to remember.

I am a so-called foodie, by nature as well as by profession. Because of its prominence in my life I get tired of food and frustrated by food, and often feel that I am trapped by it. And I am, inescapably (because whether by choice or by chance, my memories are built around food), perhaps even built with food. And so when I think back to a person or a time, I am unable to stop myself from thinking of the food I ate with that person or at that time. I involuntarily envision plates filled, tables set, forks laden, glasses lifted, dishes consumed. Parades of meals that I wade through as I try to get at the time or the person I am trying to remember.

But it doesn’t help to fight against the way my memories are programmed, to do so only keeps me from remembering. So I accept the endless snapshots and cameos of meals, allow them to wash through my mind and then along with them, often taking me by surprise, come those things that I am really trying to see again and feel again. Sometimes almost too much for me.

There was one day one the beach with my father, mother, sister and I, technically winter but to a family mostly living in Russia the wintry South African sun seemed almost hot. After poking around in rocky pools of seawater filled with tiny darting fish, bright sea anemones and mysterious creatures hiding in shadowy corners, we retreated to our sandy alcove, sheltered from the breeze, and baked contentedly. We were hungry, as always seems to be the case when suddenly exposed to the sea and the sun, and had luckily brought provisions. Amongst these provisions was a thing called a Sweetie Pie, and although I don’t know if Sweetie Pies are chocolates, candies or cookies, they’re definitely not pies. A chewy, biscuity wafer topped with a large dome of smooth, creamy, sticky marshmallow, slightly malted in flavour, the whole thing covered in milk chocolate and wrapped in thin, crinkly purple foil. At that point in my life I loved Sweetie Pies more than is strictly rational, hence the presence of a Sweetie Pie on the beach that day.

Now, there are methods to eating Sweetie Pies. In my method, you bite the top of the dome off, taking as little of the marshmallow filling with the chocolate, and you let the chocolate dissolve slowly on your tongue. Then you start scooping the filling out your tongue, little by little, until it is almost all gone. Finally, you break the chocolate up, pile onto the wafer, and put the whole mess in your mouth, which is difficult but part of the fun.

That day, I unwrapped my Sweetie Pie and prepared to take the first ritualistic bite. I think I was aware of my father opposite me having an uncannily gleeful expression but I was far too distracted to care. So I was completely taken by surprise when, sinking my teeth into chocolate that had been softened by the sun, my father reached over and gently but firmly smooshed the whole sweet, sticky mess into my mouth and across my face. He was chortling like a schoolboy, and when the shock subsided my mother, sister and I joined him in giggling for what seemed like hours. It was a perfect little prank.

Then there is a general memory, a composite of many similar incidents. My father, standing by the two-plate stove in our cramped kitchen in Moscow, a pot of Napolitana sauce simmering in front of him. A teaspoon hovering in front of his face, which is a study in concentration. When I was younger, the sauce would have been one made by my mother, although in later years it was sometimes my sauce on the stove. And my mother and I hovering, waiting for the verdict – more salt, more sugar, more pepper, more simmering. Only very rarely nothing. Our official domestic taster, and an astute one.

These days, when I see a Sweetie Pie I rarely buy one, but I always sense my father’s mischievousness without necessarily recalling the seaside prank. And when I taste my sauces for seasoning, I inadvertently take on my father’s stance and think for a second longer than I really need to as I see him. I don’t always want these reminders. There are days when I am feeling frail and an unexpected Sweetie Pie can gut me completely, slamming a fist of longing into me that nearly has me doubling over with the pain of it. But there is nothing I can do about it, and sometimes when I smile to myself as I dip my tasting spoon into a sauce I am glad.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

the best laid plans

Unfortunately plans are often foiled, no matter how well laid. Just so with my plans on the path to find more joy. There is a long list of all the things that made me sad, upset, and angry over the past week and generally made me forget that I had decided to be joyful. On the odd occasion that I did remember my resolution, I mainly became infuriated with myself for being so irritatingly schmaltzy. Joy? I don’t even like the word! It mostly reminds me of tinny renditions of “Joy to the World” and The Joy of Sex – which I’ve never even seen, let alone looked at, but there you have it.

However. Annoying as it may be, I started this blog and I used the word joy. Nothing to do but grin and bear it. So instead of listing all of the enraging, saddening and maddening things that happened over this week, I will try to salvage a few possible glimmers of joy.

a day off from work
a five-day-long visit from my mother (the reason for the day off)
buying hand-made and second-hand clothes – at a market – on sale!
making roast pork loin with perfect crackling
a delicious dinner out at a beautiful Indian restaurant
trying on my senior banquet (prom/matric dance) dress – it still fits, oh the relief
a family tea party that evolved into wine-drinking as the sun set
my cousins
work! for me! an end to boredom!
happy long-distance phone calls
mist and the fog horn and the harbour on these misty mornings

And, finally, my favourite: successfully making up a light but decadent flourless chocolate orange cake. I had printed a recipe for a Grand Marnier Chocolate Orange Truffle Cake. Of course, if anyone takes a moment to sit back and reflect on the name of this cake, it is obvious that it is a ridiculously decadent cake – enough to be nauseating. Sadly, I did not take the above-mentioned moment, focusing instead on the requisite combination of chocolate, orange and cake (my mother wanted a chocolate orange birthday cake). When it came time to buy the ingredients, I first of all forgot the recipe, had to run back home to get it, and then was aghast. Cream; chocolate; cream; Grand Marnier; cream; oranges; cream; more chocolate; and some heavy cream. I might be exaggerating, but that was the general idea behind the cake. Not much of an idea, in my opinion. It would have to be plan B, except that I had no plan B.
So I randomly tossed a lot of dark chocolate, three oranges, a block of butter and half a dozen eggs into my shopping basket and went home to make up the most wonderful cake. Rich, yes, decadent even, but just that little bit on the right side of the over-the-top line and so much more elegant, into the bargain.

And it wasn’t even in the plan.

Flourless Chocolate Orange Cake
This cake has a mousse-like texture and consistency, creating an illusion of lightness whilst maintaining an intensely deep chocolate-orange flavour. I like the feel of the orange zest contrasting with the smoothness, but if you’d rather have a perfectly smooth cake, leave it out. It will still be orange-y enough.

250g good quality dark chocolate, broken up
250g unsalted butter, cubed
Zest and juice of one orange
3 large eggs, separated
125ml orange liqueur (whichever you like best)
125ml water
50 g caster sugar
Strips of orange peel, taken from one orange, pith removed

To bake in: a 20cm cake tin, buttered and dusted with flour, the base lined with greaseproof paper

Preheat the oven to 180ÂșC.

Place the chocolate, then the butter and then the orange zest in a relatively large bowl and put the bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Leave it until the chocolate has melted and the butter has half melted, during which time you can separate the eggs – yolks into a small bowl and egg whites into a spotless medium-sized glass bowl. Break up the yolks with a fork.

Now take the bowl off the simmering water and whisk until the chocolate, butter and zest has combined and all the butter is melted. Slowly drizzle in the egg yolks as you continue whisking, and then drizzle in the liqueur, still whisking. Finally – still whisking! – add in the orange juice.

Whip the egg whites until they are stiff and fold a third into the chocolate mixture. You can be quite rough – this step is just to lighten the mixture before you very gently fold in the remaining egg whites with a large metal spoon, using as few folds as possible but making sure the egg white and chocolate is thoroughly combined.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, slide into the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the cake pulls away from the sides of the tine and has formed a nice crust on top. The cake will not seem completely set when you take it out of the oven; this is fine, it will set further as it cools, and anyway it is a mousse-like cake. Just don’t take it out if it’s still completely wobbly! Once the cake has cooled down a little, turn it out onto a pretty plate.

Note: if you like, for decoration, boil the orange strips till soft, then add the caster sugar and boil for another ten or fifteen minutes. Take the strips out of the sugar water, twist them and let them dry, then put them on the finished cake. I drizzled the resulting syrup over the finished cake for extra orange flavour, but it’s not essential.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

by the age of twenty-four...

“I was really going to be something by the age of twenty-three,” said Lelaina, from the movie Reality Bites. I find myself similarly at a loss when looking at my life which is obviously not yet amounting to a whole lot, and myself, as yet so unformed. Except that I’m not twenty-three anymore – I’m twenty-four. My situation, dear readers, is even more dire than that of Lelaina.

It is raining heavily outside – if the wind was just a little stronger I’d say we were having a storm. As it is, it’s just heavy rain. And I am sitting in front of my computer, at the office, with absolutely nothing to do. I have googled every single thing I can think to google. I have made all possible lists – grocery list, clothing wish-list, plan for my life list, plans for the weekend list, number of boys/men I have kissed/slept with list (there is a secret system of colour-coding for the two distinctions), countries I have visited list and countries to be visited list. I have eaten both my morning snack and my afternoon snack, and it’s still an hour till lunchtime. I could possibly drink more coffee but then I will develop the shakes and will not even be able to type up my own random ramblings for lack of anything else to do.

I realize that there are other office workers doing random shitty work who would love for it to let up a little so that their days wouldn’t be filled with so much random shittiness. I was once one of those office workers, in the not so distant past – a month ago, to be exact. Right now, though, I would give my right eye for a little random shitty work to do. I never thought boredom could be so soul-destroying.

But what I object to more than the boredom itself is the result, which is over-thinking, over-analyzing, obsessing and finally doom and gloom. I could handle being bored if I could empty my mind, Buddha-like, and be filled with peace and tranquility. Or maybe I would be able to handle the boredom if I could at least fill my mind with great thoughts, all ready to take the world by storm and make it a better place. Instead, I mentally whinge and whine about my life – shitty job, shitty/complicated/non-existent (depending on the week) love life, shitty apartment, shitty finances, and so on and so forth. These days, most things about my life are shitty, to my mind.

Eight years ago I assumed that, by the age of twenty-four, I would be happily married. I also assumed that I would be doing something relatively worthy work-wise, although the actual work I’d be doing always remained nebulous. I would be living in a nice house, in a nice area, driving a nice car to my nice job and generally all would be niceness. Vague, but – well, nice.

But I find myself in an ugly cramped office, alternately doing nothing or slaving away at petty and meaningless little tasks. My apartment, although in a beautiful area, is undergoing slow and not-so-elegant decay – it is the best my flat mate and I can afford. Yes, I am at my age still sharing with a flat mate, not a boyfriend or a husband, as the purported love of my life has left. But, fear not, no need to look for anyone else, as the love of my life, despite deserting me, still calls and e-mails, full of love, and generally keeps my hope alive while I know there is in reality no hope. So sometimes I crack and go on a date or dates, only to find that all of the men I’ve dated are a) strange, b) assholes, c) massively egotistical or d) all of the above. Generally, all of the above.

None of which is so awful, really. And it would be amusing, at least in anticipation, if this were the start of some chick lit novel. The depressed, angry, disappointed-in-love office girl, life filled to the brim with drudgery, who with caustic and bitter humour recounts the more embarrassing, dire situations of her current work life, social life and attempts at a love life; only to find, in the process, the amazing job that is her Purpose in Life and along with it, The One for Her. Forever.

However, this is not a chick lit novel, it is not fiction – it is my sad truth. But I am determined to change it, whether or not my actual circumstances change. So, contrary to expectations the start of this post may have created, I will not be writing caustic, bitterly humorous accounts of my failings in life and love. Rather, I am going to use this blog as a conscience to make me change my life and make it more joyful. There is a lot for me to be joyful about as it is, and so much more joy to be found.