Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Season Your Reading

There are two things I love: books and food. I’m never happier than when I can combine the two.

In August I reviewed Rosy Thornton’s evocative and moving Tapestry of Love. It is set in the Cevennes valley in France and while it is a love story, it is deeply redolent of the landscape, weather, people and food of that area.  The paperback version of Tapestry of Love has been released and to celebrate Rosy is offering readers of Charlotte’s Web a series of recipes for the food that her characters cook and serve during the course of the novel. In the 15 pages of recipes, Rosy includes salads, aoili, stews and something I won’t be waiting for Christmas to make: Devils at Horses’ Heels.

As a taster, here is Rosy’s cevennol recipe for lovage soup: 

Potage à l’Herbe de Maggi  (Lovage Soup)

Serves 4

This thick green soup is served to Catherine at the al fresco meal shared by the inhabitants of La Grelaudiere in the Mériels’ orchard to celebrate the spring transhumance. It has the distinctive, astringent taste of lovage, a herb which in French is formally called ‘la liveche’ but which is known to many French people as ‘l’herbe de Maggi’ because it is a key ingredient in bottled stocks produced by the Maggi company since before the war.

If you do not have lovage in your garden (where I promise, once introduced, it will grow like a rampant triffid), then substituting parsley will make for a pleasant (though rather different) herb soup.

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed

a good colander full of lovage leaves, rinsed and with any tough stalks removed

1½ pints of good chicken stock

1 oz butter

salt and freshly ground black pepper

¼ pint cream (optional)

 Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the garlic, onion and potatoes and sweat, stirring, over a low heat until soft but not browned. Add the lovage and pour over the chicken stock, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer until all the vegetables are soft, then blend in a food processor or with a hand-held blender. The soup should be smooth and quite thick, but if necessary it can be thinned a little with more stock, or with milk. If you like, you may add cream to make the soup richer – though that is not how Madame Mériel serves it!

Just mention in the comments if you would like the recipes and I will email them to you. You’ll be so glad you did!

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Just So Easy Afro-Teutonic Beer Bread

The lovely Jeanne has tagged me to take part in Breadline Africa’s Worldwide Blogger Bake-Off. According to Jeanne, Breadline Africa is a:

South African-based charity that is seeking to put a lasting end to poverty South Africa (and further afield in Africa) by breaking the cycle of poverty and helping comunities to achieve long-term self-sustainability. Breadline Africa was founded in 1993 when a group of community and social workers in South Africa (who had first-hand knowledge of the uniquely African problems that they faced) formed an alliance with like-minded colleagues in Europe (who were well-placed to source donations in valuable foreign currency). Armed with this unique combination of skills, Breadline Africa has been able to raise funds in Europe and use their local knowledge to identify which small, ground-level projects in Africa are most likely to succeed with a financial boost.

On Blog Action Day, Breadline Africa launched their Worldwide Blogger Bake-Off campaign. The aim is to raise $1 million in funds for a project to convert shipping containers into locations for food production and distribution in Africa. It is hoped that these sustainable community kitchens will not only provide food such as bread and soup to those in need, but also opportunities for skills development within poor communities.

So how does the Breadline Africa Worldwide Blogger Bake Off Campaign work?

Quite simply: bake bread, give dough. You can sign up for the campaign, make a donation, upload your bread recipes and document your culinary adventures in the media centre to spread the word. Bloggers can go even further by downloading the Blogger Bake-off widget and tagging five other bloggers to do the same – which I have done. My five tagged bloggers are:

1. Alida of Here We Go … Again

2. Helen of A Was Alarmed

3. The Very Wise Mandarine

4. Herschelian of The 3 Rs.

5. Tanya of Just Me

And now, to the bread …

The thing is, though I bake, I don’t make bread. Being good South Africans, we barbeque or braai, all the way through summer. I have a way with salads, and desserts, and Germany’s Top Husband does his thing at the grill, but our repertoire has never included bread. However, two summers ago, I borrowed a South African beer bread recipe from Jeanne because it was just so easy. The original recipe called for thyme and cheddar cheese, but since neither were available to me, I replaced them with rosemary and Emmenthaler, bringing a lovely German twist to a South African recipe. Unfortunately I have never photographed it, but I assure you it looks and smells as delicious as it tastes. There are never any leftovers, because everyone ADORES it. Try it, and preen at your new-found skills!

The Just So Easy Afro-Teutonic Beer Bread Recipe

Ingredients:

500g self-raising flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

125g Emmenthaler cubed

340ml beer

50ml water

1 tablespoon of fresh rosemary chopped

Maldon (or kosher) salt to sprinkle

Method:

Preheat oven to 180°.

Grease a small loaf tin.

Sift flour and salt into a mixing bowl.

Stir in beer, cheese, water, rosemary.

Mix until all the flour is moistened the dough forms a consistent mass.

Transfer to loaf tin, sprinkle with salt and place in oven.

Test with skewer after one hour and if it comes clean, remove from the oven.

Eat with large slabs of butter and thank me. Oh, and Jeanne too.

(PS After an hour’s struggling, I am giving up trying to upload the widget. I will return when I have more strength. But in the meanwhile, please click, donate, bake bread, vote for my recipe or do something to help raise people out of poverty. Thank you.)


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Birthday Books

Having hosted two birthday parties in two days – my daughter’s and my own – I am extremely relieved that our Christmas is going to be a relaxed one, celebrated mostly at other people’s houses. The best thing about not having to plan, shop for and cook a full Christmas meal (just our contributions) is that it leaves me with time to read my birthday books.

I’ve just finished Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and am already deeply into Alice Munro’s Runaway. I’ve just read Munro’s memoir, so was thrilled when one of my clever party guests brought me some short stories of hers to try. The collection comes with an ecstatic introduction from Jonathan Franzen, who explains why he likes short stories so much:

I like stories because they leave the writer with no place to hide. There’s no yakking your way out of trouble; I’m going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you’ve got nothing to say I’m going to know it. I like stories because they’re usually set in the present or in living memory; the genre seems to resist the historical impulse that makes so many contemporary novels feel fugitive or cadaverous. I like stories because it takes the best kind of talent to invent fresh characters and situations while telling the same story over and over.

I’ve never been a fan of short stories, preferring rather to dive into a novel and luxuriate there, but I am loving the Munro book, as Nova predicted I would.

One of my friends gave me Bernhard Schlink’s Die Heimkehr. She told me as I unwrapped it that it might look like it’s written in German, but it’s really, really written in English. She was joking, of course, but perhaps this quiet down time between the years is a good moment to try reading in German again. I have resisted it, because it takes a level of concentration and effort that reading in English doesn’t. I loved The Reader, which is set right here where we live, so I’m sure to enjoy this new Schlink.

My friends seem to formed a united front, because my co-birthday girl has given me a German book that I can’t resist: Küchengeschichten: Die wunderbaren Rezepte meinen Freunde by Kristina Möller. In English that would be “Kitchen Stories: My friends’ wonderful recipes” – and it comprises a description of each of her friends, some of their favourite recipes and some wonderful art.

I love reading about food at this time of year. It’s about having the time to settle down in an armchair with a cup of coffee, or better still a glass of red wine, and dream about new foods to cook in the new year. A dear friend, who was unfortunately absent from the party, sent me Claudia Roden’s Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey & Lebanon, and I am entranced and delighted by the delicacies inside. I may have to take the Turkish yogurt cake to our Christmas Eve celebration with friends.

Other friends gave me wine, bath goodies, Christmas candles and jewellery, so I felt very spoilt. Thanks to all my further afield friends who phoned, emailed and sent messages on Facebook. I had a wonderful birthday. And I know that being 39 is going to be great: a year of reading, writing, cooking, travelling, loving and dreaming.


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Charlotte’s Fabulous Lemon Drizzle Cake

Actually it’s Victoria’s Fabulous Lemon Drizzle Cake and she got it from some heart-healthy American recipe book, but I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing it with the world. My family adore this, even my non-cake-eating husband, and I frequently make 12 muffins instead of the cake, with exactly the same quantities. A friend of mine in England has made both Nigella’s and Jamie’s (and if I know her, Delia’s) Lemon Drizzle Cake and says this one is the best. I dare you to try it. You know you want to. Then come back and tell me it’s the best Lemon Drizzle Cake ever.

The Ingredients:

1 cup caster sugar

1/2 cup butter (in the Heart book it was margarine, but I refuse to countenance margarine in my kitchen)

1 egg

2 TBSPs low-fat plain yogurt (in an emergency, I once used vanilla and it was fine)

1/2 cup milk

1 1/2 cups flour

1 tsp baking powder

Grated zest of a lemon

For the icing: juice of a lemon, plus 1/4 cup caster sugar

The Method:

Preheat oven to 180°

Grease, flour and – if you have the energy – line a standard loaf tin, or put muffin cups in your muffin tray

Cream the butter and sugar

Beat in the egg and yogurt

Beat in the milk

Sieve the flour and BP, then beat into the egg mixture until blended

Stir in the lemon zest

Pour into loaf tin or muffin tray

Bake for one hour or until a skewer comes out clean

Combine lemon juice and sugar and before pouring over the warm cake, stab it all over with a piece of dried spaghetti to make holes for the syrup

Remove from tin, place on rack, leave to cool

The Result:


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Cream the Butter and Sugar

These are my five favourite words in the English language (apart perhaps from “let me take the children” or “you go and lie down”). All my favourite recipes start with these words. I love the action of putting sugar and room temperature butter into a mixing bowl and taking a fork to them. I could use my mixer, but there is something inexplicably satisfying in doing it myself. My kids are getting pretty good at the action too, which does remove some of the fun for me, because then I have to do something dull like sieve the flour or line the tin. I want to be creaming the butter and sugar, kids. You do the boring bits.

I had a bake-a-thon this weekend. First of all, it was raining on Friday and there was a gang of hungry children rattling around the house. I love baking on a Friday; filling the house with good smells before the weekend starts. I made Bindi’s Tangy Yogurt and Oatmeal Muffins. This recipe does not involve any creaming of butter and sugar, but they are so good and packed with such wholesome ingredients that they have the same psychological effect. I love watching the children eat them and all the while I’m thinking “you’re eating oatmeal, oatmeal and plain white yogurt, and you don’t even know it”. It gives good smug. Bindi suggests putting banana in them. On Friday I did plain chocolate chips.

Then on Saturday we were invited to a very South African event – a braai and a rugby match on TV. I was asked to bring a salad but because my salad recipe did not start with my favourite words, I also spontaneously made a batch of shortbread to take, which we ate with fresh strawberries. Shortbread contains no yogurt and no oatmeal, but it does contain a ton of butter, which you cream along with a ton of sugar. I used the recipe from Cook with Jamie, which he describes as the “best shortbread in the world”. Jamie recommends using some lemon or orange zest for extra zing, but I scraped out a vanilla pod instead and made vanilla shortbread. It was delicious.

Today we were also invited out for lunch and I promised to bring dessert, because I knew that would mean I could cream the butter and sugar again. This time I had some “help” and we made our family’s favourite cake – V’s Lemon Tea Loaf. Although V is American, this is actually a British lemon drizzle cake, but a superior version thereof. When the cake is hot from the oven, you spear holes in it with a piece of dried spaghetti (I love that part too) and then pour over a sticky syrup of lemon juice and water. When you eat it, it’s moist, sticky, soft and delicious. We had it with fresh raspberries and cream. I felt both were extraneous. The cake speaks for itself. It requires no back-up.

Having been deprived of creaming the butter and sugar by my kitchen assistants (who sweetly offered to wash up afterwards), I took the chance while they were out of the kitchen to make some biscuits from How to be a Domestic Goddess. There was absolutely no need to take anything more along to our lunch, but because the helpers had deprived me of my chance to cream the butter and sugar, I was forced to get my fix. I chose what she calls “Granny Boyd’s Biscuits”, which contain all of four ingredients – butter, sugar, flour and cocoa. I was able to quietly and meditatively cream the butter and sugar all alone in my kitchen. The biscuits turned out well. As Nigella says, they are dark and smoky and would go nicely with vanilla ice-cream.

So. All that sugar making you feel sick yet? Me too. Let me leave you on a lighter note, with the salad I took to the braai. It’s one I’ve been looking at for a while in Nigella’s Forever Summer and I at last got to make it. The main salad ingredients are feta and watermelon, which you chop into large chunks. You slice a red onion very finely and let it seep in lime juice. Then you pour the onion and its juices over the feta and watermelon, adding chopped fresh mint, flat leaf parsley leaves (not chopped), black olives and some olive oil. It’s scarily delicious and looks beautiful. Eating it on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a winter rugby scene on the TV and wet German hills outside made me think of Greece. I believe they have sugar there too.


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What Cooking Means to Me

What is it about cooking? When I left home at 18, I could just about make a salad and boil an egg. As a student, I made bland budget tuna casseroles and soups. In my early married years, I made pasta, pasta and pasta. And then at some point a culinary explosion happened in my consciousness and I developed a genuine interest not just in eating good food, but in cooking it too. Perhaps it was moving to London from provincial Germany and being amazed by the variety of foods available. Around that time, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater were starting to publish their cookbooks, and the way they wrote – unintimidating, gentle, with clear instructions – spoke to the kind of direction I was needing in the kitchen. My skills needed to catch up with my tastebuds.

The planning, purchasing and preparing of food takes up an enormous amount of my time. I don’t resent it. It’s a daily pleasure, not a daily bind. I like the idea of the slow movement, of selecting lovely fresh ingredients, taking them home, and preparing something delicious to feed my family. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s just the kids eating I do trot out certain standards – the faithful fishfinger, sausage and mash, pasta with pesto – but I do try to push their eating boundaries often.

With so many people posting about their delicious Christmas and New Year meals, I couldn’t help thinking about how much cooking means to me. It’s gone from being a dull necessity to something approaching a craft, but more than that, as it encompasses a whole range of things that are important to me.

One of the things I love about cooking is that it’s creative – I’m mixing flavours, colours, things that go well together on a plate. I discovered for our New Year’s meal that braised red cabbage and apple is a great accompaniment for grilled salmon. Salmon’s quite oily, and the red cabbage counteracts that heartily. Also the pink salmon and the purplish cabbage look beautiful together. I still love a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, because it’s a threesome that works on the palate as well as the plate. I love putting a wet mess of ingredients into an oven and taking out a cake an hour later. I’ve discovered recently that I can smell when a cake’s ready. I’ve got a nose for cake.

Another thing I love is the pleasure food gives, both to others and to myself. Thanks to Nigella, I taught myself to bake while pregnant with Ollie and now he sees the muffin tin and starts shouting “cake, cake”. He even ate the chestnut cheesecake I made at Christmas, despite its being brown and heavy with chestnuts and slightly tinged with rum. Lily adores soup, and begs me to make it for her. I made a shepherd’s pie the other night – a really bog standard English mince and potato pie – and my husband and father-in-law gobbled it up making appreciative noises all the while.

Cooking is an escape, but a legitimate one, because I’m feeding people. I can say “Will you get these kids out from under my feet; I’m trying to cook a meal here”, but I can’t say “Will you get these kids out from under my feet; I’m trying to write a blog post here.” I love pottering in my kitchen, browsing my recipe books, staring out the window in a half-daze, imagining our next meal.

Living in Germany, I’ve had to learn to love the challenge of sourcing unusual ingredients (things like coriander, mint, halloumi cheese, butternut squash, pitta bread, limes) in a country where supermarkets are small, focus on seasonal food and cater for provincial tastes. If I’m planning to cook something unusual, it takes time and planning to source things – if I can’t find it in the supermarket, I visit a grocer, order what I need and he provides it the next day. It requires forethought. When I first moved back here, I resented the fact that I couldn’t just walk into Sainsburys and say “Oh lamb would be good, let’s pick up some mint and couscous too” but now I find the slight hardship adds to my enjoyment when I finally eat the meal I’ve planned. It’s got to be character-building.

I like looking in the fridge, seeing what I’ve got, reading a recipe, making a match and producing something delicious. I like using things up. For instance, we had half a stale panettone left over from Christmas, and I turned that into a delicious bread and butter pudding for New Year’s Eve dinner. After Christmas, we were all feeling a little queasy from the rich meals we’d been having, so I used a couple of chicken breasts and some sticks of lemongrass to make a lovely, refreshing chicken broth. There is something of the happy homemaker in this, but I don’t deny, it gives satisfaction.

I love cookbooks. In the last few years, I’ve got a bit stuck on Jamie and the two Nigels, the latter both being great writers. A new cookbook that’s started challenging my repertoire is Moro, which is Spanish and Moroccan food. Jamie’s just inspiring – I still learn something every time I read one of his books. Tonight it was how to chop potatoes into matchsticks for rosti. I browsed through a friend’s Elizabeth David the other day and saw how well she writes. She does much less hand-holding than Nigella or Jamie, it’s a more seat-of-your-pants kind of cooking. I want to do some of that. Nigella’s taken me through my apprenticeship, but it’s time to graduate to bolder stuff.

I like that my repertoire and courage are growing. I’ve learnt that if you follow a recipe, you’re likely to have success, and this has given me confidence. My next step is bread. I want to start baking bread. If I can do cakes, surely I can do bread. Perhaps that can be my second new year’s resolution: in 2007 I want to write more and learn to bake bread.

I like the values that home-cooking instills. I’d rather make my kids a tray of home-cooked muffins than buy them the plastic ones filled with preservatives in the supermarket. I love that they are becoming brave eaters, and in our home there is a lot of praise for trying food. They are not required to like it, but they are required to try it. One will eat any soup under the sun, another adores pulses in any form, and my darling baby boy will eat anything his mummy bakes. We sit and eat with our children for at least one meal a day – usually lunch – we light candles, chat, gently impart some table manners and enjoy some family time. They know where their fruit and vegetables come from, they know that their bodies “need green” and they love their food.

I like sharing recipes and talking food. This I do with many of my friends, and also with my blog friends. I’ve made Bloglily’s spice cookies and they were gorgeous, and I’m going to make Kerryn’s white chocolate cheesecake with raspberries when I host my bookclub dinner in January. I’m planning to try Jen’s fudge once I’ve recovered from the Christmas excess.

Cooking is also an act of love, and a way to show caring. I’ll let Kerryn (who puts it beautifully in one of her comments) round up this long and winding post succinctly for me:

I believe strongly that food prepared with love has the ability to pass that love along. I try never to cook while angry and always try to add a dash of love for those I’m cooking for.


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Pomegranate Pavlova Takes The Cake

One may cook one’s goose on Christmas Day, render sprouts edible, time an array of vegetables to be hot all at the same time, or lie gibbering on the couch sipping another glass of champagne, whatever takes one’s fancy, but really the only important part of the festive meal is the dessert. I care not particularly about the bird – I prefer to pass it over to my husband as if it were a rugby ball, saying “Catch this, darling, it’s all yours”. And he obliges by trussing it down, tending it, nursing it and finally carving it up.

It is the pudding that obsesses me (I use the word pudding generically, to mean “the interesting sweet stuff that follows all the other stuff”). I start some weeks before, researching, re-reading all the well-thumbed “dessert” sections of my favourite cookbooks. I don’t bother going the traditional route – no-one, or hardly anyone, likes an old-fashioned Christmas pudding (here I use the word specifically to mean “a pudding cooked in a basin with lots of fruit and nasty stuff”). I rather like mince pies, but no-one else in my family does, and they can only be eaten with tons of brandy butter, so I eschew those too. This year, I narrowed down the favourites to:

Nigella’s Raspberry and Lemongrass Trifle (with vodka)
Nigella’s Chestnut Cheesecake (with rum)
Nigella’s Festive Pavlova (with no added alcohol)

I’ve made the first three times now, and it’s always a raging success, but this year I needed to chart new territory. In a raging fit of domestic goddess-hood, I decided to make both the latter puddings. Now, given that there were three adults for Christmas Eve supper and four for Christmas lunch, this was completely OTT. But I allowed myself the excuse of Christmas excess and sold myself on the plan by justifying that the egg whites could be used for the Pavlova and the egg yolks for the cheesecake. Saving eggs! Saving money!

The pavlova was easy: those aforementioned egg whites, whipped up with caster sugar, cornflour, vanilla extract, splash of vinegar and pinch of salt and tossed into the oven for a slow cook at 150 degrees. After it had cooled down completely – be attentive, here comes the really clever bit – I turned it upside down. This is Nigella’s tip and it ensures that the moist, spongy bit of the meringue amalgamates nicely with the cream. I then layered thickly whipped cream, lemon curd, cream again, and then scattered the pomegranate seeds on top. It looked extremely pretty, as you can see, and tasted light and delicious. Father-in-law and husband were suitably impressed.

The chestnut cheesecake has thus far proved itself to be extraneous. I am the only person who has sampled it. It is subtle and lovely and standing in lonely splendour in the fridge, being elbowed by goose and sprout remains. I shall have to try and foist it on the children tomorrow – cheesecake for breakfast, anyone?