Tag Archives: marie antoinette

Let them eat ( Christmas ) cake!

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Poor Marie Antoinette. She never said it. But she’s suffered from that blighting propaganda ever since. What she needed, and still needs, is a good spin doctor to right her dreadful wrongs, but until she gets one, her name is indelibly associated with cake. (She was actually a devoted and intelligent mother, and I think I’d have gone mad if I’d been her, and known of the barbaric treatment the revolutionaries meted out to her eight- year -old son after she was beheaded during The Terror. Her son died two years later, by then completely mute, disease-ridden, covered in scars from beatings, and unable to walk. The past was sometimes as cruel as the present…)

But to return to the subject of cake. In the days when a woman’s place was in the home, and preferably in the kitchen, cake was part of that equation. I grew up in the fifties when women were still supposed to be there, and watched my stepmother struggle with the expectations around cake in those days. Her steak and kidney puddings had to be tasted to be believed, her steak pies with perfect pastry were sumptuous, as were her heavenly steamed ginger puddings and apple pies, but cakes were not her thing.

The pinnacle of cake-makings skills back then was the Victoria sponge. A pretty boring version of cake, and now long out of favour, but back then, the classic Victoria sponge was a firm cake cooked in two tins, and glued together with raspberry jam, the top sprinkled with icing sugar. Simple, but like all simple things, more difficult than it looks.

I would come home from school in the afternoon, and find my stepmother had had another go at a sponge, and was pretty down in the mouth, because as usual, it had sunk in the middle. As much as we were allowed to do, I fell on these failures, and revelled in the sunken, soggy, sweet middle – the best part of the cake, I thought. Sadly, years later, I discovered that my stepmother thought I was sending her up when I enthused about how delicious it was.

A few years later, living in Malaya, she was rescued from the kitchen by an amah who certainly didn’t bake cakes. Instead, like every other amah, she delivered a tea tray with rich tea biscuits and tiny Malayan bananas to the bedroom every day at four o’clock, to wake the dozing memsahibs from their afternoon rest in the tropical heat. With the pressure to produce the perfect sponge lifted from her shoulders, my stepmother began to be more interested in cake, and one holiday I came home from boarding school and was invited to experiment with making something called a boiled fruit cake – no creaming and beating, just a bit of mixing and boiling before baking.

So began the process of producing a cake in the tropics in the fifties. First the flour had to be sieved to get the weevils out. Every egg had to be broken into a separate cup to make sure none of them were bad, as indeed, many of them were. The rest of the makings came out of the food safe, which was a primitive cupboard made with wire mesh to ensure some movement of air in the sticky heat. It stood on legs two feet off the floor. The legs were placed in used sardine tins or similar, which were kept filled with water, to deter ants from invading the food.

The cake was simply a mix of all the ingredients and then baked. It wasn’t just soggy and sweet in the middle, it was soggy and sweet all through – just my sort of cake.

When I had my own kitchen, my ambition to eat cake was permanently at war with my determination never to get bogged down with the hard labour of creaming and beating that seemed to be involved in making a cake. But I found a temporary solution in the first months of my marriage – a cake that didn’t even have to be cooked – it was made from mostly crushed biscuit crumbs, melted butter and chocolate and finished off in the fridge. It was even a success with an old school friend who’d mastered the whole baking thing, and could even do a crème brulee.

But the real break-through came when reading the old Manchester Guardian, as it was called back then. Highbrow though the women’s pages were, Guardian women were not too cerebral to eat cake. And hidden away one day in a sensible article on cakes – nothing frivolous, just egalitarian, down to earth, common sense advice – I found the answer to cake-making. Instead of creaming the butter, or beating it with the eggs or the sugar, all we had to do was MELT the butter and stir it in.

This simple technique I applied to chocolate cakes, lemon cakes, you- name- it cakes. It‘s carried me through a life-time of eating cake and I’ve never even considered making a Victoria sponge.

But now I have another triumphant addition to my cake making repertoire – just in time for Christmas too. The NZ genius known as Annabel Langbien, who invented the three ingredient scones I wrote about, has also invented the three ingredient Christmas cake. This of course, is meat and drink to me, though being the over-the top person I am, (if half is delicious – twice as much must be twice as delicious!) I did actually embellish this gloriously simple recipe.

1kg mixed dried fruit, 2½ cups (600ml) milk or almond milk, 2¾ cups self-raising flour , 1 tbsp sherry, rum or whiskey, to brush (optional)

icing sugar, to dust (optional)

Place dried fruit in a bowl, cover with milk and leave to soak overnight in the fridge.

The next day, preheat oven to 160°C and line a medium (23cm diameter) springform cake tin with baking paper.

Stir flour into fruit mixture until evenly combined and smooth into prepared tin. Bake until it is risen, set and golden and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (check after about 1¼ hours and return to oven for a little longer if needed). Remove from oven and, while still hot, brush with sherry, rum or whisky, if using. Cool in the tin before turning out. Stored in an airtight container, it will keep for 3-4 weeks.

My embellishments included soaking the fruit in brandy and lapsang souchong cold tea, using a cup of almond meal and one and a half cups of  flour…plus a cup of melted butter, cup of brown sugar and three beaten eggs…then I couldn’t resist adding a teasp of vanilla essence, plus two teasp mixed together of nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spice –  and then a good table spoon of golden syrup… (still simple, No creaming beating etc – just all mixed together and utterly delicious).

I ‘m also thinking of going the whole hog when I unwrap it to eat, and layering on apricot jam to hold some marzipan, and icing on top of that. Otherwise I would arrange crystallised ginger on the top before baking.

I also cooked the cake very slowly, for far longer than Annabel suggests – wrapping the tin in layers of thick brown paper.

I wrote the first half of this blog on 5 June 2012… but thought I must share the updated version with this blindingly simple recipe for Christmas cake.

 

Food for thought

Thought control is the highest form of prayer. Therefore think only on good things, and righteous. Dwell not in negativity and darkness.

And even in those moments when things look bleak – especially in those moments – see only perfection, express only gratefulness, and then imagine only what manifestation of perfection you choose next.

In this formula is found tranquillity. In this process is found peace. In this awareness is found joy.

Donald Neale Walsch   Conversations with God Book 3

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Our best friends

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This magnificent creature was making the most of the water in the dog’s bowl at my gate. He could have been Captain Scott’s dog Osman, the wonderful husky who saved so many dog’s lives when the team fell into a deep icy crevasse. Gallant Osman hung on at the brink, taking the whole weight of the dogs and the sleds until they were rescued. This hero survived Scott’s disastrous Antarctic expedition, and ended his days here in New Zealand.

If I’m reading history, it isn’t the dates and the battles that stick in my mind but the children and the animals, and I hate to read in the news that a head of state has donated two Russian wolf-hounds, or a splendid race horse on a state visit. The poor creatures are torn away from their homes and given to uninterested strangers speaking a foreign language.

To this day, I sorrow for Mary, Queen of Scots’ little Skye terrier who came with her to the block, hidden in her long skirts. When the Queen’s head had been severed, the faithful creature rushed out and stood howling between the body and the head. Nothing would entice the little dog away from the remains of the person she was devoted to. Finally, when the Queen’s body was removed the little dog was repeatedly washed by her grieving ladies to remove the blood and the smell, but she refused to eat, and died shortly after of a broken heart.

Marie Antoinette’s pet- dog who shared her solitary confinement, was left behind when the white-haired, dignified Queen was hustled out to the guillotine, and was adopted by the prison governor – we don’t know for how long that little dog pined.

And Joy, the Russian Tsarevich’s spaniel, was found in the deserted house in Ekaterinberg, eight days after the massacre of the Russian Royal family, when an army of White Russians took the city and a group of officers rushed to the Ipatiev house where the family had been imprisoned. The little dog was starving and wandering around looking for his master. History does not put my mind at rest as to the fate of this little dog. (It also seems to suggest that being the beloved of royalty is a dangerous destiny.)

But just as bad was the fate of Joseph Banks’ dogs. Banks was the naturalist who sailed with Captain Cook on his first great voyage in 1768. Besides cluttering up the tiny ship with four servants, Banks also brought his two pet greyhounds with him.

After two years voyaging, still at sea, the Endeavour called at Savu Island, and after a drunken night dining with the local Rajah who wanted an English sheep and an English dog, Cook gave him the last sheep on board, and Banks gave him one of his greyhounds. What the sensitive greyhound went through pining and parted from his life-time companion, and the men who he knew and loved, to be abandoned on a tropical island among people who had no idea of what a dog or a sheep was, doesn’t bear thinking of – not by me at any rate.

And at Matavai Bay, Tahiti, ten years later, the captain of another English ship, the Mercury, reported that an English pointer left behind by a previous ship: “singled them out, showing its joy by every action the poor animal was capable of.” Which tells us that the dog was capable of distinguishing between races, and was homesick, and was probably hoping to go back to its old familiar home across the sea when it recognised the sailors. I wish I knew that the sailors had taken it back home, but I fear they didn’t.

Then there was Mackenzie, from New Zealand’s South Canterbury, a cattle rustler. His dog was brought into Lyttleton court as a witness. She slipped her chain and ran over to the dock, scratching and whining, trying to get in and join her master. The red- bearded rustler, who’d refused to speak a word until then, began to weep. He begged to keep the dog and take any punishment the court meted out.

“I ‘ll make your roads, I’ll break your stones… only let me keep her.” They didn’t let him keep her of course, being men of stone themselves, and the little black dog was sold to a farmer who she refused to work for, only knowing commands in Gaelic. We don’t know the end of either her or her master.

But what we do know is that too often it’s only their owners who care about their dogs. Once the person who loved them is no longer there, a dog’s life is an uncertain one. Which is why I love the wonderful people – and many of them are bloggers – who rescue and adopt the dogs who have been left behind. And in my experience there is no dog as devoted as one who has been rescued. I used to have three at a time, and wherever I walked, from kitchen to garden, from bedroom to study, fourteen feet moved

The gratitude of a rescued dog never ends. They know that all their happiness is the gift of love from a stranger who becomes their beloved.Last year, when his mistress died, Lochi, a rescued German shepherd, a beautiful silvery creature, went to mass every day at the church of San Donaci in Italy as soon as he heard the bells ringing. He sat where his owner last lay in her coffin. He died two months after her of a broken heart. (wonderfully, so as not to disturb him, the local priest served mass down in the church instead of at the altar.)

If only people had hearts as big and loving as dogs we wouldn’t have places like Syria and Palestine, Ukraine and Afghanistan and all the other broken hearts in the world. There is a mantra : let only love prevail…

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Still lotus-eating at the end of the long dry summer, I sat in a bower in my dearest friend’s green garden, enjoying a long talk and a simple lunch with her. Just a delicious glass of chilled rose, a slice of salmon on a bed of brown rice with goodies in it, and a salad of green leaves, translucent slices of ripe pear, and parmesan flakes mixed through with the vinaigrette, followed by coffee and a chocolate truffle… what more could one desire… love and lotus –eating !

The brown rice had been cooked and then marinated in soya sauce. Sun flowers seeds, sultanas soaked until plump, chopped apricots,  spring onions, and walnuts then mixed through. Delicious with the salmon, but just as good with warm lamb or chicken I suspect…

 

Food for thought

You might quiet the whole world for a second if you pray.       And if you love, if you really love,      our guns will wilt.

St John of the Cross, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

 

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