Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Venison Burgers

This past weekend we stocked our small city garden with friends and an old enamel washbasin filled with ice and good Philadelphia beers – Dogfish and Yards – and then we grilled a pile of burgers. Not beefburgers, and certainly not turkey burgers: ours were venison burgers. I love this purple-red meat and its winy flavour. But there is, perhaps, no food that more insistently reveals the divide between the country of my birth, and the country I now live in. Venison, in other words, means very differently here and there, and it always has. In England, venison is iconically bound to the brutalities of the hunting class. Poaching used to be punished with deportation and sometimes even death, and many ancient ballads follow the adventures and ultimate tragic fate of the bold poacher. Jonathan Swift got the association just right when he wrote, in that timelessly horrible and hilarious tract, “A Modest Proposal,” that English landowners who had squandered their herds would be happy to dine instead on the tender flesh of Irish children: “A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased in discoursing on this matter to offer a refinement upon my scheme. He said that many gentlemen of this kingdom, having of late destroyed their deer, he conceived that the want of venison might be well supplied by the bodies of young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age nor under twelve; so great a number of both sexes in every country being now ready to starve for want of work and service.”

When the English came to the Americas, they were so used to hunting being a sporting pastime of the leisured class, that they entirely misunderstood Native hunting practices. Indian men, whose unsurpassed hunting skills were essential to the survival of their people, were seen as lazy by English settlers who thought the Indians were enjoying one big holiday. But then again, part of the great lure of the New World for the English poor – whose poaching derring-do is most satisfyingly portrayed in Roald Dahl’s Danny Champion of the World– was the promise that wild meat was not only plentiful, but legally his who killed it. Thus the chapter-long description in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers of how the young hero refuses to sell his deer to the wealthy landowner. The young man explains that the profound relationship between the animal and the hunter proves the hunter’s personhood, a personhood that cannot be overridden by niggling objections regarding ownership of land or readiness of cash.

Perhaps my own emigration was motivated by the same fantasy. I certainly remember a strange surge of feeling the first time I held a piece of wild American venison, wrapped in wax paper, in my hand. I had been fed, in undergraduate days in England, upon the deer who clustered, fenced, behind the college. But then, in Vermont, my neighbour John and his son, Johnny, brought me a venison roast they’d bagged just over there, on our property line. John told the tale of how they’d both fallen asleep on their tummies on the granite rock overlooking the hill, waking to find the animal staring at them, not fifteen feet away. As I received that package and the story that accompanied it, I knew that I was not, so to speak, in Kansas anymore. Not only was the venison free to the hunter, but the hunter felt free to make a gift of it to me. Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free! I will shower venison steaks upon them!

My association of venison with ancient English property laws was finally fully severed for me this year, when I was given so much venison I had no idea what to do with it. A former student, Shannon, had taken several classes with me and across the course of teaching her about literature I had somehow betrayed myself as a glutton. She wrote to me at the beginning of semester offering me venison that she’d salvaged before her mother “literally fed it to the dogs.” I practically strapped an emergency siren to the top of my little red car, and sped to the pick-up point. There stood Shannon. She opened the trunk of her car to reveal the biggest cooler in the universe, chock full of packaged deer meat. It felt more like a scene from The Sopranos than a tender moment in Dead Poets Society, that’s for sure.

Shannon, an Iowa lass and a farmer’s daughter, explained that deer are so overpopulated in her state, that hunting quotas are high. All the men in her family hunt, and the meat was too plentiful for her family to enjoy it indefinitely. I was ecstatic. In the US, you cannot buy good venison because you can’t purchase the meat of wild animals killed by hunters: this meat can only be gifted. A hunting friend from my time in Vermont explained that even when you find commercial venison, too often it has been badly butchered. Venison fat is unpleasantly gamey and has the consistency of tallow. Any trace of it left on the meat will stick to your teeth and the roof of your mouth as if you’d chewed on an old candle. So to eat good venison in this country you have to be part of or close to hunting culture: to generations-old skills of tracking, killing and butchering. US venison, like so little other US meat, is self-sourced, plentiful sustenance.

My venison, if not exactly self-sourced, was so plentiful that I had to summon all my own native foraging skills and . . . buy a freezer. I had long planned the snagging of a full freezer, and had been blocked every time by B., who closely monitors the proliferation of kitchen paraphernalia in our house. A gleeful side-effect of the venison windfall was that now there could be no objection to my plan. No more stuffing things into the glorified icecube-compartment of my fridge. I hopped onto the internet and ordered up a life-sized full-on freezer, which arrived one short day later and the nice delivery men hobbled it down the basement stairs. It had barely had time to crank up its freon, when I surprised it with package upon package of venison, some of it steaks, some of it summer sausage, but much of it ground.

Since so much of it was ground I have experimented with using venison in ways I would not have credited. I have tried meatballs, both Swedish and Italian, and Bolognese sauces, and Shepherd-turned-Huntsman Pies, and sausages too. Often I sought out recipes that asked for veal and replaced it with venison, savouring the foresty flavour it contributed. When it comes to meat, I am used to searching out flavour through its fat – deliberately choosing cuts of beef that show marbling, and refusing to trim the luxurious fat and skin away from pork. But venison is different – although insistently flavourful, it is earnestly lean. It comes from an animal that has spent its life leaping and zig-zagging through landscapes, and this lithe a beast provides, of course, the leanest of meats.

Because it is not rich in its own fat, making a burger from venison requires the addition of other fat. Fatback is one option, mixing the meat with some ground beef is another. This time, I used just a few hefty slices of Pennsylvania smoked bacon that I found at the Fair Foods stand – enough to hint at smoky flavour but not enough to dominate. With its deep ribbons of white fat cut into small dice, it helped ease the dry, compact venison into burger form. For seasoning, I chose the flavours that feature in more formal venison recipes: some juniper berries, some rosemary needles, garlic and thyme. All of this chopped or ground fine, I mixed it into almost 5 pounds of meat in a large bowl, throwing in an egg to help bind it. These ingredients I sourced from my garden, or Fair Foods, but for salt, I went further afield and used some of my much-prized Halen Môn sea salt. Halen Môn produces organic salt from the clean, cold seawaters around the Isle of Anglesey, Wales. They sell a version of this beautiful white salt that is smoked until it is slate gray over Welsh oak chippings, and it is divine. I usually use this salt with pork or fish – they recommend eating it with gull and quail eggs and someday I will do that too. It was not going to show up as distinctly in these burgers, given that I was already using smoked bacon, but nevertheless I felt it was the right salt with which to honor the meat.

I bought some Pennsylvania Noble cheese – a muscular, aged cheddar from around here. Tomatoes – big, red beefsteak tomatoes with a classic air to them - came from the Amish farmers at the market, and would be accompanied by green frills of local lettuce and rings of red onion. I whisked up some mayonnaise from bright orange egg yolks, starting with a dab of Dijon mustard in the bottom of my bowl and watching for the emulsifying moment, holding that thick gloss firm with a steady combination of whisking and drizzling. I’ve never had any luck making mayonnaise in a food processor – the blades seem to turn it bitter – so this is another of those jobs for which I adopt a Luddite stance. A few days earlier, I had made jars of pickles from the stout, skittle-sized cucumbers grown in my neighbour Michele’s garden. I’d never tried making pickles before, and Michele made it easy, giving me a complete pickle kit in the form of the requisite vegetable, her recipe, half a bag of pickling spice and the tip to eat them earlier than the recipe says, so that they are still more cucumbery than pickley.

Condiments are one thing, but then there was the question of the bun. A burger needs a good one. And it was within the bun that the mystical limit – the point of obsession - lurked. A bun must yield to its burger, but also reassure it. It must be the cushion under the burger’s bottom and the hat on its head. Although I do not oppose ways of getting fancy with burger buns - making them crusty, turning them into English muffins, etc. - there is also something fabulous about a classically soft and sweetish burger bun. The kind I ate at school bbqs under umbrellas or on crisp, black Fifth of November evenings when Britons gather around bonfires in mittens, lighting fireworks (taking off their mittens first) and immolating effigies of a brave man who tried to blow up a king. Remember, remember the Fifth of November – and pass the ketchup! But the kind of burger bun I want to raise in honor of Guy Fawkes or anybody else for that matter, has to be torn from its friends in the batch, soft shreds of comradeship marking its sides. It has to be giving enough to leave fingertip impressions from your two-handed grasp and willing enough to sop up your condiments.

Luckily, my bread guru, Nancy Silverton, understands all these needs and expresses them fully in the introduction to her hamburger bun recipe. Made with both sourdough starter and yeast, this buttery, eggy dough takes three days and is worth every minute. The buns round and puff deliciously, but also turn out flat enough that you can stuff heaps of accompaniments in along with your burger without having to then unhinge your jaw to eat the thing.

Our evening rounded out nicely too. We lit oil lamps, stuck our feet up on chairs and one guest nestled in the hammock. We followed the burgers with two kinds of ice-cream made from local fruit: a rosy peach and a conspiratorially purple blackberry. Each ice-cream had just a touch of liqueur in it to keep it soft and to remind us that the nip of autumn – and hunting season – is just around the corner.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


The first thing I ever remember cooking was a bucket of mud soup that I fed to my younger brother. Despite being an instrument of torture, this dish was a model of eating locally, with the ingredients at hand. The two of us had been sent out into the garden in our matching anoraks to play with the tortoise, Herman. There were, it later transpired, several versions of Herman across our childhood, although at the time we weren’t informed of this, and I therefore can't really say whether this was Herman I, II or III.

The first two Hermans had death wishes. Herman the First didn't wake up from hibernation, and was, I now understand, simply replaced by a quick trip to the pet store. Herman II did wake up, only to emerge from his winter home and tumble to his death from the high, white cliff that yawned at his doorstep; his hibernation box had been placed on top of the dryer. But David and I were not told of this tragic leap until much later. Instead, another dash to the pet store was made, probably by my father, and one day we were told that Herman had finally awoken! That my brother and I did not question the identity of Herman III does not speak well of our cognitive abilities. Our langorous friend Herman had been a fossil with legs, for whom a day's hard labour involved looking right and then, if he was up to it, looking left. I must admit that we thought very little of Herman. Until suddenly, he became a positively scintillating pet, whose every movement hinted at the freedoms of the wild.

From our perspective, Herman took his winter nap and awoke as the speediest, most beady-eyed tortoise known to humankind. Herman III was not only accelerated but adventurous to boot. His predecessors were happy to live in the little tortoise house, with its flat roof made from asphalt trimmings, and emerge only when tempted with slices of cucumber, which they would dispatch, in a bureaucratic manner, with the sideways action of a pink tongue. They were tortoises who had become real Little Englanders, content with the blandness of a comfortable life, irked only if the neighbors peeped over the hedges. Herman III, on the other hand, not only got a leg on, but had places to go and bedding plants to eat. He tried everything. First in our garden, and when that King Buffet caused ennui, he moved on to the neighbours'. Born under a wandering and hungry star, Herman III made his way through stretch after stretch of suburban garden, burrowing a modest underpass whenever he was met by a fence.

It was a chilly business, trailing up and down the street, knocking on front doors and asking people, who clearly considered Other Human Contact an affront, whether they'd seen our tortoise or whether their primped gardens showed the effects of tortoise dining. But of course Herman III’s wanderlust had stirred love in our hearts. A rake, even a reptilian one, is always attractive to cabin'd, cribb'd and confined young people, and my brother and I felt a yearning sort of thrill in Herman’s explorations of the back gardens of Orpington, Kent. But one regretful day, we were informed that Measures Had to be Taken. Our father appeared with a drill, and proceeded, against our shrill protestations, to put a hole through the hem of Herman's lovely shell and attach him with a long chain to a stake near his little ranch house. Utterly unconvinced by the parental assurance that Herman was unharmed by the operation, we could barely conceal our delight when the next day the shackled Herman climbed onto his flat roof and hurled himself from it with such vigor that he wrenched his stake free. My brother and I watched, silent and conspiratorial, as Herman ambled off, his chain dragging behind him, a veritable Magwitch in the marshes. He who returns must, however, be doubly repressed, and upon capture Herman’s tortoise dignity was further sacrificed. My father got out a paint pot and Herman's pierced shell was daubed with our address in big white letters. Now on days of disappearance, we simply sat at home, eating dinner and listening for the knock at our door and the latest tortoise delivery.

Perhaps all that Herman desired was to taste the horticultural offerings of others: he was migrant because he was a gastronome. Or maybe he became a gastronome because of his taste for migrancy. All I know for sure is that my brother and I were not allowed to wander beyond our regularly creosoted fencing, and I, at least, was fascinated by food and its pleasures from a very early age. Forced to cook locally, I forced my brother to eat locally. I had a red bucket, there was a tiny circular pond that my father had dug and lined with a rubber guard. Give a child a stick, and she will find some good-looking soil, go in search of "herbs" and get to stirring. Bits of pansy, twitches of alyssum, a judicious blade or two of good lawn grass - I had the makings of a pretty delicious looking brew. We sat on our two designated sawn-off tree trunks, and at my urgings, my brother became my first dinner guest. This meal may also have been the origin of the strange, un-chefly habit I have of not tasting the food I cook until it is on the table - who can say? I don't have any recollection of my brother's assessment of this first soup of mine, but I daresay he does.

I have progressed since then. Like Herman, I have done some wandering, even if my chain still clanks noisily behind me. I have fallen in love with different cuisines one new garden plot at a time. I tarried a good while in the cookbook-less phase of life, spending my undergraduate years throwing random things into under-washed pots and seeing what happened. Then I hurled myself in the other direction, amassing cookbooks, relishing each new world they opened up, and following their instructions with evangelical zest. The middle road – a little of each approach – is the one I usually pick. But sometimes I am so torn between pre-planning a menu and just going to the market and seeing what I find, that I go equipped with a recipe book or two. On more than one occasion this havering has ended with me leaving my recipe book in a shopping basket or on a bench – a gift, I suppose, for another forager. Dithering in the face of enormous bounty is, of course, a quintessentially bourgeois bind, and the solution (to so many other things, as well) is to make peasant food.

Ever since making this year's pesto alla Genovese, I have been thinking of the summer minestrone I once made. It has only been half on my mind, and I hadn't quite planned it, when I spotted cranberry beans in the market this morning. These must surely be the most enchanting of beans, pretty enough to be the ones that made Jack give up his cow. Cranberry beans bulge glossy white and pink, as if one colour is the topcoat, flaked off, the other the undercoat broken through - but it remains their secret which is which. Upon cooking, the colour fades to nothing, the mottle soaked away in the broth, but like any good disappearing act, ripples of magic remain.

I happily filled a shopping bag with the beautiful pods – creamy white and pink just like the beans inside – and tried to remember what else had been in my minestrone past. Pesto topped it off, and this I knew I had. A parmesan crust gets simmered in this soup, and I always salvage mine for this purpose, merrily disregarding the fact that I produce rinds in far greater bulk than I produce minestrone. Chicken broth formed its base, and along with the giant freezer bag of vegetable odds and ends that I keep for making stock, I almost always have blocks of stock itself in my deep-freeze, an icy tally of roast chicken dinners consumed. The rest I wasn't sure of, so I wandered home clutching my bag of beans, intent on leafing through my recipe books.

Back at the ranch, I surrounded myself with a stack of cookbooks and revived with a glass of assam and rose iced tea. The rosebuds were a gift from my friend Dianna who procures me delicious floral teas from China - chrysanthemum and green tea and jasmine balls that bloom into flowers (again), as they steep in water - or dragonwell tea: each is more of a teacup-sized miracle than the last. My stack of books told me a story of no recipe at all. Clifford A. Wright reminded me that Genoese-style minestrone is a soup that changes with the seasons and "is the quintessential meal of cucina povera" because it uses what is to hand. My beloved bean recipe book, The Bean Bible, by Philadelphia food wizard Aliza Green - of whom a journalist memorably and rightly proclaimed "she could make a snow tire taste good" - reminded me that I had everything I could want of a summer minestrone right there in my fridge. Her recipe uses just yellow squash and zucchini and tomatoes and leeks. Leeks I didn't have, but some mild, sweet "Red Long of Tropea" onions remained from my farm share, and since they are an Italian - Calabrian - onion, I was sure my soup would be amenable. Everything else - the squashes, some green beans - had been left to me by a neighbour who had gone on holiday and I'd found a carrier bag of her garden goodies on my doorstep early one morning not so long ago. Sometimes the garden comes to you.

Minestrone means "big soup" and today that's what we had for lunch: an expansive bowl of gifted, salvaged and lit upon ingredients. Immediate vegetables, seasoned with the stored up flavours of sauce and stock, a product of both wanderings and sitting put - all I needed to complete the pleasure would have been the companionship of Herman III. But Herman III finally wandered off for good one day. Perhaps he found his way into the garden of his dream, reformed, and settled down. But I hope not. A true gastronome carries his home with him – it is his tongue and his heart and his imagination – and I hope Herman wanders still. Tortoises, after all, are old as the hills -- and will those crabby feet, in future times, walk upon England’s mountains green?

Serves 4 hungry people well

1 pound shelled fresh cranberry beans
1/2 pound fresh green beans, sliced on the diagonal
1 pound fresh tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 small red onions sliced
8 cups or 4US pints or 3.5 UK pints chicken stock
1/2 pound yellow squash, cut into half moons
1/2 pound of small zucchini, cut into half moons
handful of parsley, chopped
1/4 pound of any small pasta shape
Parmesan rind
Olive oil
Equal quantities of Parmesan-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano, grated

Put the onion, chopped parsley and a little olive oil in a stock pot and sauté gently for just a few minutes.
Add the stock, the cranberry beans, the tomatoes and the parmesan rind. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the beans are tender. Skim off any foam that might rise to the surface.
Add the green beans, the yellow squash, the zucchini and the pasta and return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the pasta is cooked and the green beans tender. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve and top with a generous spoon of pesto, a drizzle of olive oil, some grinds of black pepper and the grated cheese on the side.

Aliza Green, whose recipe served as the basis for mine, serves her Summer Minestrone with zucchini blossoms stirred in just before serving – if you have them, do it! Borage is also a traditional flavouring.

Leeks, mushrooms, celery, carrots, potatoes, eggplant, fava beans and greens are all to be found in other minestrone recipes, so substitute in vegetables as you like.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Tea Eggs

One of the only sadnesses I have about living in Philadelphia, in my elderly brick row house with its pocket handkerchief garden, is my lack of chickens. I would love to have a couple of chickens running about, but I’m a few inches and one city ordinance short of being able to do that. I had a flutter of hope on the matter when my aunt, who lives in Birmingham England, brought me up to speed on a new lodging option for the urban chicken: the Eglu. The Eglu is a “modern home” for the chicken who chooses the city life, a recyclable groovy plastic pod-house complete with an “eggport” for easy egg collection. Always a fan of the Frank Lloyd Wright design favourite, the carport, I am even more on board with the notion that every house needs an eggport. My beloved has often observed that my most romantic feelings are reserved for food, and it’s true that I go misty over the idea of nestling a freshly laid, soon to be boiled, egg in my palm. The mere sight of one of those Araucuna sea-glass coloured eggs sends me into a small swoon.

I admire the chicken as a citizen, too. I have no time for a clingy animal – I like one that has a life to live and just gets on with that alongside you. The chicken has much to recommend it on this score. The constant rummaging and wanderings off. The slightly dotty independence. The old-lady-like beady beakiness, that certain canniness beneath the cardigan. I have a sense that I would like their brand of sociality. In her youth, B was friends with a chicken, a red hen who was a refugee from a primary school egg-hatching experiment. Her brother brought the chick home and it became, like B, another unit in a large and diverse household that was a home, a parsonage, and a half-way house for people who were experiencing life’s flux, grateful for the chance to annex themselves to someone else’s family. B has many tales of these characters, my personal favourite being the bunch of Buddhist monks who lived in her basement. In the midst of this rich tapestry, the red hen and B clearly found some refuge in each other and there is a photograph of the 3-year old B with her arms clasped around the chicken, who is almost as big as herself. They are both gazing intently into the camera, like Victorians who have immobilized themselves for the technology. It is a portrait of good friends. Two runners around who are usually seen out of the corners of everyone else’s eye, and who found each other in the scratchy patches of garden they prefer.

The Eglu seemed like the opportunity to revisit such calmly symbiotic human-beast relations. Specifically designed for people with limited space, you and your chicken can choose the right Eglu to match your décor too: it comes in red, pink, blue, orange or green. If Toad of Toad Hall, that “charming sociopath,” as Alison Bechdel brilliantly summed him up in Fun Home, can have a canary yellow horse-drawn gipsy caravan, then surely our chicken comrades should be given the option of a little colour in their lives, too.

We, of course, get the pleasure of gazing on the chicken’s own magnificent palette. Not only are the colours of its plumage a sheer delight, but this is an animal with real style and both fashion-forwardness and retro-chic. Some breeds recall the era of mods and rockers, some are pure fluffy punk, others look like they have Italian leather trim – that brassy Gucci glam – and more than one kind looks like it patronises the same milliner as the late Queen Mum. If the visuals don’t appeal, the names must: Scots Dumpy; Frizzle; Cream Legbar; Gold Legbar; Speckledy; Welsummer; Nankin; Appenzeller. The red-combed Orpington Buff holds a special place in my heart given that it was first bred in my home town, but the chickens of my choice would have been the Gingernut Ranger and Miss Pepperpot. Their names proclaim a dedication to the culinary, and I feel we would have gotten along famously. “Would have,” because sadly it cannot be.

Even the Eglu needs a yard that is 20 x 30’ and mine is only 16 x 12’. Besides, in 2004, the City of Philadelphia passed an ordinance that bans farm animals from city spaces. This is truly a sad thing for the city that began life as William Penn’s vision of a “green country towne.” It turns out that this legislation may have been pushed through to try and deal with some people with full-blown “Pet Rescue” situations in their backyard, but it comes down hard on several populations. Anyone with any kind of urban farm initiative has been affected, as have Hispanic and Asian households who have a culture of chicken-keeping, and there’s no grandfather clause for someone with a beloved chicken or goat companion. It seems that there may be a loophole for anyone who uses their poultry for “educational purposes” and I have a toddler lined up for chicken and egg tutorials should I gain some more yard space anytime soon. B and I have post-ship-coming-in plans for the building of a vast roof deck, for which we have all kinds of wild-eyed dreams including a tomato farm, several fig trees and a Japanese hot tub. Perhaps, we thought, an Eglu or two would complete the scene? There is, on the other hand, the strong possibility that despite the Eglu’s “modern twin-walled polymer insulation,” rooftop Philadelphia summers might result in roasted chicken.

For now, then, I simply turn to the ladies at the Fair Foods stand, who supply me with superior local, genuinely free-range, wonderfully fresh eggs. These are the kinds of eggs that are so fresh, they come with wisps of hay attached and are impossible to peel once hard-boiled: Harold McGee explains that the albumen of fresh eggs has a relatively low pH which makes it more attracted to the shell membrane than to itself. Old eggs are better boilers. My yearning for fresh local eggs thus satisfied, the remaining loss is that faded-photograph connection to my sweetheart’s childhood, a way of floating back to the colours and flavours of the past.

But we have a thready way back to that too, a stitch that anchors us, much like that cloudy twist of albumen attached to all egg-yolks - the elastic chalazae that forms a safety harness for the yolk, allowing it to rotate but stay in the middle of its chalky house. Our version of that gentle life-line is a recipe, beloved by B, bequeathed to us by her mother, and originally shared with them by one of those temporary, passing-through members of their household. The recipe is for Tea Eggs and its author is a Mrs Sze. Mrs Sze and the other 6 members of her family were sponsored by B’s family so that they could escape Vietnam and the war. A Chinese family, who had gone to work in Saigon, they had translated themselves into an unfamiliar country already, and then, lifted out of the horror of the Tet Offensive, they found themselves living in Amherst, Massachusetts with a family of 6: the seven Szes adrift with six New Englanders. From all accounts, it was a relatively happy blend of both children and adults and the tales centre on culinary exchange. The favourite, for B, is the Tea Egg. She talks of it dreamily, and with the simplicity of a small child. This past Christmas, her mother gave us a handwritten book of family recipes. Two pages were dedicated to Mrs Sze’s recipes, written out complete with the Chinese ideograph for “five spice” and the note that “accent” (that would be the dastardly MSG) was optional.

Tea Eggs are first hard-boiled, cooled and then you gently crack the shells all over with the back of a spoon before simmering and soaking them in water seasoned with tea, spices and soy sauce. The aromatic bath seeps into the cracks, flavouring the egg and marbling it with brown lines that follow the shell cracks. The recipe calls for generic “strong loose-leaf black tea,” but when B stuck her nose into the Yorkshire Gold tea we consume most often, she shook her head. This was not the scent she remembered. Poking her beak into all our teas, memory was finally triggered by the enveloping aroma of Lapsang Souchong, and in went two tablespoons of those fermented black leaves. The eggs are beautiful in all their stages: the first, freckled underwater boil; the deep matte mahogany that their shells turn, with scraps of tea leaf attached; then there’s the wonder of the peeled egg and the remnant peel – the way that the marbled insides and outsides map onto each other.

We ask a lot of eggs. We’ve held candles to them to divine their secrets – startling the scene beneath the shell, we’ve indentured them to our symbologies, and painted them and buried them. There is much marvel in an egg, much joy in apprenticing ourselves to the art of the omelette, or the conjuring of the lightest scrambled eggs. Most approaches, it seems to me, recognize that the egg is its own entity and works best if we don’t touch it much. An omelet is tossed, scrambled egg curds should be barely disturbed (perhaps even hover over heat in a double boiler, or, some maintain, be steamed with a cappuccino machine), and eggs simply lodged in a glass jar with a truffle will assume the aromatics of that highly-favoured fungus. Even if carried on the winds of war, a tea egg is a good reminder of many things: of the “not sized, cracked” eggs that a large Massachusetts family bought straight from the farm in thrifty bulk, of the overlap of differing worlds, of the virtues of infusion, and of the fragrances that can be transported from one life to another when cracks appear.


Makes 8-20 eggs

8- 20 eggs (use the same 'broth' quantities)
1/2 cup soy sauce
4 tblsp salt
4 star anise, broken up
1 tsp five spice powder
2 tblsp dark loose tea leaves
a few peppercorns
one strip orange or tangerine peel
(I've adapted Mrs Sze's recipe slightly to make a stronger-tasting egg)

1. Hard boil the eggs by covering with water and bringing to a boil. Cover, turn off the heat, and let sit for 15 minutes. Cool completely in cold water. This loosens the shell.
2. Using the back of a spoon, gently crack the egg shells. Do not peel!
3. Put the eggs in water just to cover and add the broth ingredients. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1 hr.
4. Remove from the heat and place eggs and tea broth in a covered container. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. 
5. Eggs are best stored in the fridge, with shells on.

To eat, shell the egg and serve as a snack, or salad or soup ingredient.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Celebration Cakes

Today I did not make a cake. This is unusual anyway, but particularly strange because it is B's birthday. My pans are still in their cupboard, my icing nozzles stashed in the basement. Why this non-occurrence of cake? Because today the August sun, that sexy beast, is in full gold-chained swagger. The temperature is "96 degrees feels like 105 degrees" and as our friend Sharon maintains, if it feels like 105 degrees, it is. So we have sealed ourselves up in the room with the good air conditioner and plenty of iced tea - and my little Leo goes cakeless. At least our iced tea is freshly brewed from green elderflower loose leaf tea, and we are sipping it from B's birthday present: hand-blown Swedish tumblers that look like they have been extracted from a prehistoric glacier.

I know better - also a rare state of being - than to attempt high-summer cake-construction, due to a recent catastrophe. Our friend Imke had a Significant Birthday on June 8th and she had long been promised a birthday cake. Imke had reviewed several of my previous cakes and (lovingly) declared them to be far, far too high femme for her tastes. Her cake, she decreed, spinning off into parody of her German origins, was to be "Sqvare!" Her beloved, Heidi - a five-star dessert-maker - conspired with me to make her a sour-cream chocolate cake, sandwiched together with Italian buttercream laced with brandy, the entire affair coated in dark chocolate ganache. It turns out that Heidi and I in a kitchen together have entirely too much fun. Not having the right sized square tins, we proposed the genius solution of making the cake in round tins and "trimming" it. One on each side of the cake, we went at it with our knives, like topiarists on amphetamines. A bit here, a sliver there, some leveling . . . when we laid down our tools and stood back, we were surprised to see - well - not much cake. Tiny, square-ish, lopped and brown it sat in front of us. Slightly trembly, it seemed.

Undaunted, Heidi whipped up the Italian buttercream - spinning sugar syrup into the egg whites and adding butter until it became glossy and glamorous. We split and sandwiched the cake with it, and it started to look less like a surgically modified house pet and more like a liquorice allsort. We moved on to the ganache. Poured from a height, it slid over the cake-cube's uncertain shoulders, lending it a satiny sophistication we hadn't thought possible. But classiness is never a stable commodity . . . Just you wait, 'enry 'iggins, just you wait. . . .

You see, it was hot. It was June 8th and it was already hot. Heidi and I were faced with a dilemma - to refrigerate or not to refrigerate? Our question was a fair one: when it is hot and you have a melty cake, it would seem that you should pop it into the fridge. But when chocolate is involved, your hand is stayed: chocolate popped into a fridge "blooms," and not in the good way. Bloomed chocolate is dull and ashen. All that luverly glossiness would be lost. It was time to go to dinner, so we opted to leave the cake out and cross our fingers. When we returned, we would decorate it and have cake at home. The dinner - at a delightful neighbourhood bistro called Pif - was a joy. We toasted with champagne in honour of the particular Numeric Significance of the birthday, ate snails and dorade and foie gras and steak frites, and then there was some more champagne. And maybe a little wine too. We tumbled out of there and broke out sparklers to light our way home.

Replete with French food and plenty of champers, Heidi and I returned to the kitchen. We were both decked out in skirts and high heels and there was some teetering. Not just us, it turns out. In our absence, the little brown cake had been doing some sliding of its own. Its elegant chocolate cloak was now revealing just a hint of shoulder and that Italian hussy of a buttercream was slinking around corners too. I don't remember addressing this problem. I do remember Heidi and I, one of us with a fish slice, one with a spatula, sliding our implements under its bottom and raising the entire structure aloft, off its cooling rack and onto a presentation plate. The cake responded by stepping out of its outer garment altogether, retaining only a cap of ganache. Heidi and I got mean. We fish-sliced up the discarded ganache and started slapping it back on the sides of the cake. Heidi had brought a jar of dragees and we assured each other that these metallic marbles were just the ticket to disguise the damage. Sadly, on her way to administer this remedy, and in the very act of opening the dragees, Heidi tripped on her lovely shoe and fell forward half way across the kitchen. The dragees flew out in an impressive spray and landed all over the left side of the cake and the lava folds of its discarded ganache. Hilarity ensued. Eventually I drew out my icing bag, slid in the nozzle and filled it with icing. Imke was delivered a not-at-all sqvare pixilated cake that looked like it had suffered a stroke, but proudly announced HAPPY BIRTHDAY IMKE! in powder blue script. We still find the occasional dragee stuck between the floorboards, or in the sash window frame, winking up at us.

In some ways, I feel that Imke got what she called for. The cake that had precipitated her request for "sqvare!" - the hyper girly cake that Imke did not want - was not only frilly but almost disturbingly pristine. If Imke's cake was a colossal (but, I must say in Heidi's and my defense, aggressively delicious) failure, that other cake was probably the most immaculate gateau I have yet made.

It was an anniversary cake for friends celebrating 20 years of togetherness, and they had told us a tale of falling in love and buying pink heart-shaped balloons and wandering through a public park with them tied to their wrists. I decided to commemorate this act of adoration, and make them two pink hearts. I knew that the potential sickliness of this design -pinkness AND hearts - demanded some mitigation, and I thought that one way of doing this would be to link the hearts with a ribbon - à la the classic tattoo image. I went to Fante's, a huge and venerable kitchen store down the street in Philly's Italian Market, and bought two big heart shaped pans for not much money at all. I polled my friends about the cake flavour. They opted for poppy seed and rose, and I made them the white cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum's monumental Cake Bible, with the addition of slate-grey poppy seeds and dusty crimson rose petals. I cut a curve out of one of the hearts so that it snuggled up to the other, pampered them with the Italian buttercream and started swathing them in fondant icing that I'd massaged into being two different shades of pink and rolled out with a rolling pin as if it were pastry. It was clear that, tattoo design notwithstanding, I was headed fast down the petunia path of dalliance with high frouf, and was moving beyond mere "femme" to the giddy heights of full-blown, over the top foppery. By the time I found myself moulding roses out of scraps of fondant, ripping the edges of the petals for the lacy look, I knew there was no hope. Besotted with my own creation, I spent the day circling it, primping like a flushed chamber-maid.

I was not entirely new to this business of decorating cakes. When I was growing up, my mother took herself to an evening class to learn cake decoration and promptly became a professional. She made wedding cakes and christening cakes; formal, exquisite, royal-iced counter-signatures to the social ritual. At an early age I quietly decided that her cakes were far more beautiful than the marriages could ever be. None of her fussy brides or sullen grooms ever seemed worthy to me. The cakes took months and months to make. Because decoration with royal icing takes so long, they had to be fruitcakes. Fruitcake is horrifying, I know, to the American palate, but it is beloved in the land of my nativity and fruitcakes are preserved with so much alcohol and dried fruit that they last, drunken but stoic, forever.

Mother sealed the cakes with a layer of marzipan, then spent months covering them with layer upon layer of royal icing. Each thin coat had to be leveled off with a straight blade until there were no air bubbles and then left to dry for at least a day. Time got trapped between those friable layers. And it didn't stop with the wedding. The christening cakes were made from the small top tier of the wedding cakes. The bride saved that tiny tier, insulated by the marzipan and icing, until the baby was immanent and then returned it on swollen ankles to my mother. Mother would chisel off the disturbing dental crowns of now-stained confectionary and re-ice the diminutive form, making it sparkle again with sugar deposit and topping it with hand-made sugar cradles that actually rocked. I was her helper in all this, her little Igor. She set up a drop-leaved table in the middle of the narrow kitchen, and I inched around it, couriering wax paper sheets of brittle latticework from counter to table, building roses petal by petal, or hollowing out iced bells, so that mother could pipe clappers inside them, finished with a dab of gold paint. Together we journeyed to ancient, lace-curtained shops wedged into otherwise residential areas. They were lined with peg-board and seemed strangely empty, but the ladies who ran them produced felt pens with edible ink and buckets of powdered egg white and nozzles that piped leaves.

When family birthdays came around, we let loose a little. No royal icing for those, but instead buttercream. The Australian-style fondant icing hadn't quite caught on in England yet. Now it is ubiquitous, and I once spent an amazed hour on the internet discovering that in England you can get anything made in sponge cake and draped in fondant, and I do mean anything. I have noted before the fondness of the Great British Public for naturism, and it turns out that when it comes to naturism, you can have your cake and eat it too. Our family celebrations were mostly spent clothed (the photograph of us in matching Stuart tartan Christmas outfits is happily not digitized), but a representational cake was considered de rigeur at any celebration. We made fairy castles with upturned ice-cream cones for turrets, and football fields covered in green desiccated coconut and clocks with chocolate buttons and iced white numbers (a fundamentally pedagogical design made for the youngest birthdayers). The cricket bat and ball was a screaming success with my brother, so the next year mother made him a rugby ball, complete with seams and lacing. Led downstairs to it on the birthday morn, he made appropriate sounds, but by the end of the day he had to confess that he had no idea what the vaguely oval brown lump was meant to represent. Another time we made him a magnificent elephant, staying up into the wee hours to finish it. We perfected the trunk and carved white chocolate tusks, then we dropped the entire animal on the floor.

I have carried the cake sculpture - rather than the royal icing - set of skills through my various stages of life. I made a Mini Cooper for friends in college, a three dimensional mouse for a lovely child named Irené� and - perhaps my favourite - a sea-monkey for a graduate school room-mate. There is little call these days for elaborate royal-iced celebration cakes like my mother used to make: people want sponge cakes and easy-off icing. It may well return, in slightly different form, as many fashions do, and maybe our rituals will have changed by then too.


(Bundt if casual, but perfectly serviceable in other forms)

NOTE: Since "Anonymous" from the blissfully cooler north has requested it, I humbly submit the recipe for the Chocolate Sour Cream Cake. This recipe became a favourite when B's college roommate Holly commissioned me to make her wedding cake last summer. Her requirement was that it be the richest chocolate cake possible. Because it had to be transported to Massachusetts, navigate the demands of a very rural ceremony, and look presentable, she knew it couldn't be a flourless chocolate recipe, but she wanted a cake that came as close as possible. I started experimenting, making chocolate cakes, packing up big slices in Tupperware containers, and sticking them in two-day mail to Holly and her partner Debby. They taste tested many cakes and finally this recipe, adapted from one published in Cook's Illustrated, did the trick. I have made it many times since. It IS the chocolatiest ever, although it is best and moistest of all when it is cooked as a bundt cake. If you cook it as a bundt, try serving it (unfrosted) with whipped cream and raspberries. The wedding cake had to be big - a vast concoction 4 times the size of the original recipe (I had to do some very clever maths - you can't just multiply the recipe by four, because the larger the pan size, the less percentage of raising agent is required. Baking powder weakens the structure of the cake and had I just quadrupled everything, the large surface area would be under-supported. If anyone wants I am happy to send on the proportions for the giant version). What follows is the recipe for the regular (but generous) sized cake, with the buttercream and ganache recipes attached too for anyone who wants to go fancy with this and is not fazed by my tale. Remember, you put the buttercream between the cake layers (you can slice your original two in half to make four skinny layers), like sandwich filling, and pour the ganache over top of the whole concoction. Don't frost the top or sides of the cake with buttercream!


2 1/4 oz natural cocoa (not Dutch processed)
6 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped VERY fine - or grated - don't cut corners here
1 tsp instant espresso powder
3/4 cup boiling water
1 cup sour cream, room temp
8 3/4 oz (1 3/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
12 tablespoons (6 oz) unsalted butter, room temp
14 oz (2 cups) packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
5 large eggs, room temp
confectioners sugar for dusting

1. Line your pan. Melt some butter (not the amounts in your recipe -- extra). Stir it together with some cocoa (again, extra) until a paste forms. Using a pastry brush coat interior of standard 12-cup Bundt pan. Alternatively, use a cake release spray such as Baker's Joy. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 350F.
2. Now you're working with recipe amounts. Combine cocoa, chocolate and espresso powder in medium heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over and whisk vigorously until smooth. Cool to room temp, then whisk in sour cream. Whisk flour, salt and baking soda in a second bowl to combine.
3. In mixer fitted with flat beater, beat butter, sugar and vanilla on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and add eggs one at a time, mixing about 30 seconds after each addition and scraping down bowl with rubber spatula after first 2 additions. Reduce to medium-low speed (batter may appear separated); add about one third of the flour mixture and half of chocolate/sour cream mixture and mix until just incorporated, about 20 seconds. Scrape bowl and repeat using half of remaining flour and all of remaining chocolate mixture. Add remaining flour mixture and beat until just incorporated, about 10 seconds. Scrape bowl and mix on medium-low until batter is thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan, being careful not to pour batter on sides of pan. Bake until wooden skewer inserted into middle comes out with few crumbs attached, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert cake onto parchment-lined wire rack, cool to room temp, about 3 hours. Dust with confectioner's sugar.


Makes 4 1/2 cups

250g/ 8.75oz/ 1 1/4 cups sugar
5 large egg whites
Pinch of cream of tartar
1 pound unsalted butter, chilled
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Brandy to taste

1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring sugar and 2/3 cup water to a boil. Continue boiling until syrup reaches 238F on a candy thermometer (soft-ball stage).
2. Meanwhile, place egg whites in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat on low speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar, and beat on medium-high speed until stiff but not dry; do not overbeat.
3. With mixer running, add syrup to whites in a stream, beating on high speed until no longer steaming, about 3 minutes. Add butter bit by bit, beating until spreadable, 3 to 5 minutes; beat in vanilla and brandy. If icing curdles, keep beating until smooth.


Makes 2 full cups - enough to glaze a 9" cake

9oz/255g bittersweet chocolate
8oz/232g/1 cup heavy/double cream
1 tblsp Cognac

1. Process chocolate in food processor until very fine. Put it in a small heavy saucepan.
2. Heat cream to boiling point and pour 3/4 of it over the chocolate. Cover for 5 minutes to allow it to melt. Gently stir together trying not to create air bubbles. Pass through fine strainer and add Cognac. Cool till just tepid.
3. Check consistency: when tepid, the glaze should mound a bit before disappearing. If it is too thick, or seems curdled, add more of the warm cream little by little. If too thin, add some melted chocolate. When right, use at once or store and reheat.
4. Pour over cooled cake allowing excess to flow down the sides. If you want a double coat, refrigerate the cake after the first later, for about 20 mins or until firm. Apply a second coat -- but don't refrigerate after second coat or you'll lose that glossiness.

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