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Petit Dejeuner
24 July 2007 @ 18:51
I never thought it would happen, but since falling pregnant 15 weeks ago, I have gone off food. It started with chocolate, and then chicken. Two of my favourite things, and I haven't touched them for the past three months. Then it was all sweet things, cups of tea... At my worst, my diet consisted almost entirely of gingerale, apples, bananas, and toast.

I wrote some attempts at witty blog posts about this, but they ended up sounding whiny, and hungry, so they never made it. I tried to write about bizarre cravings, like melon (which was pretty much my favourite thing in the world for a while) but with the nausea, thinking about food was just too hard. My poor other half had to suffer through endless dinners of pasta in tomato sauce, which always seemed to go down as other things all moved to the verboten list.

Reviewing has become nigh impossible. I went to a restaurant last night and ate my soup and a quarter of my main before being stricken with heartburn that was so bad I had to leave. I can't go near a cheese shop, and when reviewing a bakery last month I had to sip a cup of ginger tea while scribbling notes as quickly as I could.

I hope that this isn't the end of this blog. I hope it's a temporary hiatus, and that it will come back stronger and better than ever, even if the only things I can think of to write about are ginger and egg and cress sandwiches (bland is key). If it doesn't happen soon, though, I fear the next updates will be of baby food and purees.

Until then, may your dinners be more exciting than mine.
 
 
Petit Dejeuner
25 June 2007 @ 16:12
The first sweets I remember are Lifesavers. Butter Rum and mint frequently showed up at church in the handbags of little old ladies and from there often found their way into my mouth. I didn’t particularly like either flavour, but that wasn’t the point: it was candy.

Every Christmas I can remember, my brothers and I got boxes of Lifesavers. They opened like a book and were decorated in a winter scene, usually Santa’s workshop or something like. I’d push open the perforated cardboard doors to reveal what seemed like countless tubes of Lifesavers. It always felt like an impossible amount, like the boxes of 124 crayons, but in reality it must have only been about eight rolls. It seemed like a lot more to me.

My favourites were undoubtedly the coloured ones: traffic-light tubes of alternating red, yellow, orange and green. Red and its sickly cherry flavour was the most desired, although now the smell makes me feel a bit ill. Butter rum always went to my mother. Rolls of exotic, special flavours were usually the first finished and by the time we went back to school, a half eaten tube of butterscotch or mint was usually all that remained, sometimes found under the bed months later.

I took it for granted that Lifesavers were ubiquitous. They’re a staple of any Canadian candy counter, and once I was allowed to buy candy, they were so common that they were hardly a treat. But here, there are no Lifesavers. Within a few weeks of arriving, I described them to someone who told me that there they’re called Polos. Sure enough, Polos come in a foil-wrapped tube and have a hole in the middle, but they are nothing like the Lifesaver. And although they dropped out of my candy top-ten by the time I was seven, I still miss them.


***
I found a shop in Edinburgh that stocks North American foods, from Betty Crocker cake mixes to Bazooka bubble gum. And tucked next to a pile of Almond Joys, they had a tray of Wintergreen Lifesavers.

In school, the going story was that if you chewed Wintergreen Lifesavers in a dark room, you would make sparks in your mouth that you could see in the mirror. I never tried this, and now it seems a shame to waste one on chewing. Besides, if it turned out not to be true, I’d be very disappointed.

I unwrap the silver paper, peel back the wrapper, and pop one into my mouth. The taste is very minty with a hint of chemical, and it’s wonderful. I suck it slowly and carefully, making sure I don’t crack it, and end up with the perfect thin ring that was so hard to achieve when I was little.

There’s nothing like candy-related nostalgia and when it comes to giving me a taste of home, these Wintergreens are lifesavers.
 
 
Petit Dejeuner
17 May 2007 @ 17:05
When I was younger, once a year the whole family would bundle off to New York to visit the Italians. My grandmother, aunt and uncle were all located on Long Island or thereabouts, and a week with them meant cousins, fights, lightning bugs, and ice cream trucks. It also meant an epic cross country trip and no fewer than three different flights.

During these trips, my older brother and I generally banded together in a way that was forgotten as soon as we stepped off the airplane in Victoria. We would sit together, fighting over the window seat, and Pete would time the flights and compare them to last year's. Victoria to Vancouver: approximately 17 minutes. Vancouver to Toronto: the longest, at about 5 hours. Then Toronto to New York: 3 hours, 27 minutes plus the ride to Nana's. She'd be standing in front of the house, which never looked any different and smelled wonderfully the same. And then, the real holiday would begin, complete with trips to the Empire State building, family dinners with a children's table, and teasing my American cousins that we really did live in igloos.

But for us, the airplane was its own adventure. Once we were pre-seated (the only joy of travelling with our younger brother) and the window seat battle resolved, we could crack into our flight provisions and the real fun began. Packets of Jolly Ranchers or gum were, for once, allowed, to prevent our ears from getting too sore. The stewardesses would come along with Air Canada travel packs, for years containing ewok-themed colouring and scratch-on transfers. We'd be taken to see the cockpit and given our 'wings'. And then would come the meal.

Airplane food was it's own adventure. Not in a perjorative, culinary sense - we weren't fussy about overcooked vegetables or overly salted potatoes. The adventure was opening each tiny, wrapped packet and feeling like astronauts as we puzzled it out. What we were meant to do with the block of cheese: mix it with the bun to make a sandwich, or put it with the pack of crackers? Did we have to eat the vegetable, or if we put the lid back on would mum just assume the container was empty? Could I eat the rice and leave the chicken, or better yet trade the chicken to Pete for his rice? And then, there was dessert. Tiny, elaborate cups of cream or mousse or cake. I remember one wonderful time when dessert was served in a thin brown cup which turned out to be chocolate! For years after we would excitedly nibble our china in hopes it was edible. It never was, and after a time I began to think I'd made the whole thing up. It remains my only experience of edible crockery.

As much as we talked about the movies, or the Gameboys we once rented in Vancouver airport, we talked about the food. The mystery snacks, the clinking drinks trolley, the steaming napkins dropped into our confused laps, the basket of hard candies passes round during the ultra short flight to Victoria. Even now, when the cousins and great-aunts and the fights and the summers all blend together, when I can't remember which year we caught beetles or were scared of cicadas, when we pushed sand in the hornet's nest and when I broke my grandfather's magnifying glass, I can still remember that chocolate cup. I bet Air Canada's marketing department would love to get their hands on that.

****
Recently, airlines have stopped offering two choices of meal and in perennial fear that I will be served either lamb or fish, I have this time chosen the vegetarian option. This arrives in front of me before anyone else gets served with the ominous code 'STRICT VGTN' written on the foil. I never said anything about strict.

Dinner is okay: rice with vegetables in a tomato sauce. It certainly won't win any points for inventiveness, but it's edible. I'm beginning to see what the 'strict' means, though. There's no cheese for my bun, no butter, no dairy to speak of. I glance longingly at the whipped topping on the cake next to me, and then down to my own sparse fruit salad. Oh well, been meaning to cut the calories anyway, and the standard option is in fact lamb so I feel validated in my decision.

Until the snack comes. At this point, just before landing, I am starving and while everyone else tucks into a cheese and onion roll, I unwrap my (brown) bun to discover: salad. Nothing else. I have tomato, cucumber, and (rather limp) lettuce. It is a mark of my other half's devotion that he wordlessly swaps with me. It is through such gestures that love is defined.

Soon after, we land at Vancouver and to the sight of Tim Horton's and the anticipation of two weeks of my mother's cooking, I'm home and the lettuce sandwich is already forgotten.
 
 
Petit Dejeuner
07 May 2007 @ 23:19
I remember the first time I heard about haggis. I was about eight, and my older brother gleefully told me about a Scottish dish that people actually ate, consisting of sheep heart, lungs and stomach. This was too gross to be believed and yet to specific to be made up. I swore that if haggis actually existed, I would rather eat spiders. The fact that it was safely confined to Scotland was a slight comfort. Scotland was a dim, far off country full of castles, sheep and heather. I wasn't entirely sure what language they spoke, and I was pretty sure they were located where Norway is commonly found. The whole thing - country and cuisine - had an element of make-believe.

By the time I reached university, my knowledge of Scotland was somewhat improved. My best friend had lived in Edinburgh for a few months, and from her I learned about ceilidhs, pubs, and something called devolution. I also learned that Scotland is reachable by train from London, and that Edin-braaa (as she rolled it) is full of fog, mad Scottish men and wee old ladies. Although somewhat clearer, Scotland was still another world.

As it had always seemed somewhat fantastical, it was little surprise that my manner of arriving here was also strange. I was given a scholarship in my final year of university, with the stipulation being that I had to use it in Scotland. I had approximately two weeks to find a postgraduate programme that at least mildly interested me and would accept me, and then I had a few short months to relocate my life to a small corner of coast on the East Neuk. I went wholly unprepared for Scotland, never having set foot north of Liverpool, but resolved to experience as much as I could. And that would include haggis.

It only took me a few days to try the deep fried Mars bar, and a few weeks to have a fish supper. Haggis, though, I saved until Burns' Night. This was partly through fear, and partly through a sense of propriety. If I were really to eat sheep entrails, I was going to do it right.

My first Burns' night had no piper, address to the haggis, kilts, or whisky. It took place at my friend Nathan's student flat, with his Scottish flatmate doing the honours of boiling the haggis. He did indeed stab it, once we'd peeled open the aluminum foil we'd boiled it in, and with some trepidation and nose holding, I ate a few spoonfuls. And since that first time, I've approached the whole experience with much less fear. I do find it has a very strong meat flavour (not surprising, really), but it also has oats and spices and when served with a whisky peppercorn sauce, is really quite nice. On the whole, though, I tend towards the vegetarian option. It may not be real haggis but at least there's no mystery in the ingredients list.

A few years ago, my brothers came to visit and it was with great delight that I served them haggis. They weren't quite as afraid of it as we were were twenty years ago, but it still took a fair deal of cajoling. In the end, though, it was pronounced okay. It might have been offal, but it's certainly not bad.

****
I am reviewing a restaurant which, like many in Edinburgh, is Scottish with a French influence. This one is actually quite nice, with a menu full of Scottish dishes with a modern twist. I can't decide on my starter, by the waiter points me towards the haggis crepe, a house specialty. A square pancake, swimming in a light gravy and topped with deep-fried leeks, it is wonderful. The flavour of the haggis is there, but not overpowering. The leeks add a crunch and just a touch of depth to the dish, and the crepe soaks up the gravy beautifully.

Haggis is no scarier than a sausage, but I have to say the mystery is part of its charm, from telling tourists that they are wee furry animals that run about the hills, to smugly ordering haggis, neeps and tatties without blinking an eye. These little balls of insides are not half as scary as they like to think they are. I'd take haggis over spiders any day.
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Petit Dejeuner
30 April 2007 @ 22:52
I used to think that cake came in two varieties: white cake with thick, crunchy, sugary frosting, or chocolate. Every year my mother would ask what I wanted for my birthday cake, and although I preferred chocolate, I usually went for the white bakery cake. It came topped with sugary pink roses, swirly writing, and thick icing on the corner pieces. Sometimes I could even choose what colour flowers I wanted, and this made it worth the dry, flavourless cake that it surrounded.

Gradually, I learned other cakes were out there. My brothers loved ice cream cakes for their birthdays and while I didn't really care for the ice cream, the cookie base was a favourite. For several years I ate only cassata, an Italian cake made with ricotta cheese, candied peels, and chocolate. I didn't mind a lemon drizzle cake, provided there was plenty of drizzle, and I was always fond of cheesecake. Carrot cake, though, was an acquired taste.

I wasn't immediately fond of it, to say the least. My first experience must have been when I was quite young, and was given a chunk of brownish red cake, dripping with raisins and carrots, slightly dry and tasting of the applesauce that had been used to sweeten it. This was the stuff of playground food when I was young: homemade granola bars, carob cookies, and for the lucky ones - fruit roll-ups. Maybe it was just my school, or maybe parents were different then, but the children who had chocolate bars in their lunches were few and far between. Excited by the prospect that there was cake in my lunch box, I was simply set up for disappointment. They might have called it cake, but I knew that it was just vegetables disguised as dessert and even at age 5, I knew that was a bit wrong.

It wasn't until I had my first proper slice of carrot cake, dripping in cream cheese icing, oozing sugar and moist fudgy-ness, that I began to love it. Now, not only was it cake, it had the added benefit of being made from vegetables, which clearly meant that it was good for me. I was shocked to discover many years later that carrot cake is generally very bad for you indeed, full of oil, sugar, and cream cheese. I promptly chose to forget that piece of information. After all, carrot cake might not come with sugar roses and fluted icing, but it certainly tastes a lot better on the inside. And as they were always telling us on the schoolground, it's what's inside that counts.

***
We are finally old. It's official - it's Sunday afternoon and we have gone to the garden centre to buy plants to start our first garden. We've never done anything like this before, and we wander aimlessly through the car park, swerving trolleys of dirt and car-loads of seedlings. Once inside, a labyrinth of green greets us and we gaze blankly at the rows of roses, herbs and tomatoes. In the distance, though, we see a sign: Cafe. We're saved. Cafe's we do know.

We order lunch, and a slice of carrot cake. It's now 3:00 and we're starving but our food looks to take a while. It's not for nothing that we love being grown up: we promptly eat the cake, potentially spoiling our appetites, and not caring a bit.

It is possibly the best carrot cake I've ever had. The icing sits at least half an inch thick, not too sweet so that it still tastes slightly tart and sour. The cake is rich, damp in the middle, but firm. The proportions are perfect, and I quickly devour my half, washing it down with ginger beer. I may not know about gardens, but I do know a good crop of carrot cake.
 
 
 
Petit Dejeuner
25 April 2007 @ 16:31
Of all the silly things that are written in the bible, I’ve always thought the worst was the line ‘[humans] cannot live by bread alone.’ I suppose I’d need to drink something as well, but that technicality aside I could happily live on bread alone for some time – although if I had my choice, I’d take it with a bit of butter as well.

In my picky eating years, bread and butter was a precious mealtime treat. My parents knew to watch me or I’d happily ignore whatever we were meant to be eating in favour of bread rolls and butter. I was bribed to eat my soup with promises of another slice if I finished, or another roll if I ate some of my fish – and I would have done almost anything for bread and butter.

I grew up with homemade bread. My mother had a Bosch bread machine which kneaded the dough for her and, she proudly told me, ten minutes in the machine was as good as kneading it by hand for an hour. She never used a recipe but would drop in flour, oil, yeast and sugar until it looked right. Then she set it to rise in a covered bowl before shaping the loaves and baking them. The whole thing took several hours, but the fact that she never complained makes me think she enjoyed it more than she let on.

The few times I’ve tried to make bread, I’ve had that same feeling. I think bread baking is ingrained in our nature; kneading the dough and setting it to rise is a centuries-old ritual. Now, though, baking bread is a skill that amazes people. Nothing impresses like home-made bread, and nothing seduces like the smell of bread in the oven. I find it hard to believe how much we took it for granted growing up. In fact, we thought store-bought bread was a treat; its spongy lightness was a novelty and we devoured the annual bag that came home when my mother made Christmas stuffing. And it’s true that bought bread has a charm of its own. Toast parties in graduate school, peanut butter sandwiches in my packed lunches, and toasties on a cold day all have their place in my heart. But for a loaf of my mother’s bread, I’d forsake them all.

One of my saddest days was when my mother threw out her sourdough starter. Sourdough, unlike other breads, requires a starter that must be fed and used on a regular basis. The older the starter, the better the bread. My mother’s starter began when I was 7. The first few loaves produced were good, but no indication of what was to come. A few years on, the sourdough was amazing. Long, white loaves with a tangy dough and thick white crust, my favourite sandwich was simply two slices with butter and cheddar cheese. I can still taste it now. Unfortunately, the bread has to be made regularly or the starter spoils, and when I was in my early teens it went off. I nearly cried when that floury jar that had lived in the dark cupboard for years was tipped down the sink. We never had another sourdough starter, and I’ve never tasted bread as good since.

When I moved to Scotland, however, I discovered bread and butter pudding. Layers of buttered bread and raisins, topped with cinnamon, sugar and custard, baked and served steaming hot - whoever came up with this dessert should be sainted. But wonderful though it is, I still wouldn't say that it was better than a simple slice of fresh, warm bread and butter.

Maybe man can not live by bread alone – but I certainly could.

***
I went to the French deli for lunch today, an amazing place around the corner from work where nothing costs more than £5 and everything tastes superb. They always bring round baskets of fresh French bread as well, with a pot of salted butter. To me, this is the equivalent of lines of crack to an addict. I had eaten three of the small white rounds, dabbed with butter, before my lunch even arrived, and I used another three to wipe my plate after. Like many people with Oreo cookies, I have my own way of eating it. First I tear off the outer edge, unwrapping a long spiral of crust, folding it and chewing. Then, the perfect inside is left. Soft and light, it folds around the pat of butter and dissolving in my mouth. Each bite is different, and each is perfect. But it’s still not as good as my mum’s sourdough.
 
 
Petit Dejeuner
18 April 2007 @ 00:55
Ice cream trucks were rare in Victoria when I was very young. They were there briefly, then disappeared, then returned when I was too old to properly appreciate them. But I do remember them from summers in New York where we would go to visit my grandparents. After dinner, just before the lightning bugs started glowing, when the prickly heat was just beginning to ease, we would hear the sounds of the ice cream truck. And because we were on holiday, and there were grandparents about, we would usually get an ice cream.

I was never that fond of ice cream, to be honest, but I never refused it. It was a treat, and the novelty of having that treat drive up to the house, music playing, was too much to resist. I can't remember what I would get, but I remember some patriotic rockets of red, white and blue that my brothers chose. But despite my lack of enthusiasm for the ice cream itself, the memory punctuates those hot New York summers with cicadas humming in the garden, simultaneously horrifying and enthralling me, Concords flying overhead on their way to land at JFK, annual reunions with cousins, and trips to the lake in Connecticut.

When we weren't in New York, ice cream was essentially a tri-annual treat. We were all members of the Baskin Robbin's birthday club which meant that every birthday until we turned thirteen, we received in the mail a gift certificate good for one ice cream treat. This, combined with the actual receiving of mail (a rare thing when you're seven), was a treat indeed and as my mother couldn't justify getting one of us ice cream without taking the others, the treat came three times a year.

Baskin Robbins was famous for having 31 flavours of ice cream. At the time, this seemed like - and perhaps was - a huge amount, but we seldom explored all of them. Tiger ice cream was never as good as its name suggested, containing orange and black licorice flavours, but I often chose it anyway. Mint chocolate chip was a constant favourite, and I sometimes dabbled in the chocolates. For a few years, we got round my mother's no chewing gum rule but ordering the pink or blue bubblegum ice cream. This was a rather vile flavour, overly-sweet even for my palette, but it had chunks of real bubblegum inside. If I ate carefully, I could retrieve the pieces of gum and save them for later. This worked until I realised that neither the ice cream nor the gum was particularly good and then I moved on.

When the last of us passed age 12, the Baskin Robbins trips were no more but my mother developed a penchant for Dairy Queen peanut buster parfaits: large sundaes of soft whip vanilla, hot chocolate sauce, and roasted peanuts still in their skins. I could take them or leave them, and would often order a hamburger instead of an ice cream on these trips, but on hot summer days nothing beat an ice cream sandwich or a treatza pizza.

In Scotland, they take their ice cream very seriously. In St Andrews, the local ice cream shop had ice cream happy hours every weekday, when all sundaes were half price. These were popular even on the coldest daysin January. Edinburgh has had a thriving Italian community for well over a century, and the first immigrants brought their ice cream with them. Any native Edinburgher will argue for hours over what constitutes a slider, how much a 99 cost when they were growing up, and whether nougat wafers are better than cones. I remain silent during these debates, nursing my memories of fudgsicles, ice cream sandwiches, and other equally foreign frozen treats. When it comes to these conversations, whether I actually like ice cream is irrelevant. What really matters is the memory of fast melting cones, dripping on a summer evening, in a different place and time. When it comes to nostaglia, you just can't beat it.

***
Today was Ben and Jerry's free ice cream day, as good a holiday as any, and the weather co-operated by being sunny if not exactly warm. At noon, I coherced various coworkers into walking with me the ten minutes to the nearest Ben and Jerry's shop, explaining that while we could walk across the street and buy ice cream, that was missing the point. We arrived three minutes before they started serving, and spent the time selecting our flavours. I was irrationally excited by it all, and felt almost child-like as I waited for my cone to be handed over the counter. My grudging companions looks of haughty composure also begam to melt away as they debated which flavour to try, and whose scoop was biggest.

I chose chocolate brownie, the low-fat frozen yoghurt version (I have grown up a little, I suppose). We ate our cones quickly, while walking back to work, and finished before they managed to melt onto our hands and faces. When we got back to the office, the others asked bemusedly if it had been worth it. And while it may not have been a New York ice cream truck on a hot summer night, it was. For just a few moments, when the cone is fresh in your hand, ice cream melts away years.
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Petit Dejeuner
14 April 2007 @ 23:34
I came to egg-in-a-hole fairly late in my childhood. Until I was about 12, I was completely grossed out by runny egg yolks. If I ate a fried egg, it had to be cooked through and so I generally stuck to scrambled eggs on toast, or hard boiled eggs at Easter. And then one day, my mother pulled out of her seemingly endless bag of tricks the egg-in-a-hole and I was converted. Runny yolks held no fear for me anymore: I mopped them up with bread, dunked my bacon into them, and licked the dripping yellow off my fingers when I ate a fried egg sandwich. I've not looked back since.

Egg-in-a-hole has many different names. My other half knows it as 'gas-house eggs'. Some people call it eggy bread, a good name, but not as good as egg-in-a-hole. And just as it has many names, there are many ways of making it. The idea is simple, but it's surprisingly hard to make it consistently perfect. My mother managed; I've never been able to make it just right every time. Mum always used brown bread. With a butter knife, she would cut a hole out of the middle of the bread, and then fry both the slice and the hole in butter. When she flipped the bread, she would then crack an egg into the bread. When the edges of the white were turning crisp and brown, she slid the egg in a hole onto a plate, placed the hole on top like a little hat, and squished it slightly so that the yolk began to ooze. A sprinkle of salt and pepper and whatever you call it, it's quite possibly the best breakfast ever.

******

Saturday mornings are my favourite time of the week. I lie in bed long past waking up, until the last bit of sleepiness is gone and I'm almost twitching to get up. Wrapped in my bathrobe, I head to the kitchen, make a cup of tea, and think about breakfast. This thinking goes on until I'm quite hungry and only then is it time to eat. We vary our Saturday morning brunch: toast, bacon butties, pancakes - or today, egg-in-a-hole. My boyfriend makes it for me, and it turns out beautifully. The bread is salty from the butter, with a crisp crust and soft inside. The egg is perfectly cooked so that the white is browned and the yolk is warm but runny. Some coarse sea salt is grated over top and then I tuck in. It's gone in about seven bites, and I mop the plate with the last corner of bread. I think we might have to make another round for lunch.
 
 
Petit Dejeuner
12 April 2007 @ 14:02
At church, we were always told that Easter was the most important holiday of the year, more than Christmas. We found this hard to believe: Easter was a miserable time, with the seven weeks of chocolate-free Lent before it, the agony of sitting through Church for most of Holy Week, and no presents. Looking back on Easter, though, a full eight years since my last proper Holy Week, the dread has disappeared. Instead I remember the egg hunts when we would still be finding eggs several months later (this ended when we got a dog and he found all the eggs before we did). Easter baskets: a Cadbury Creme egg for each of us, and a chocolate bunny, jelly beans and mini-eggs. Easter brunch, and usually a ham for Easter dinner. Sunshine, and a new dress and hat when I was very young. But above all of those is babka.

Every Easter, my mum would make babka. Babka is Russian Easter bread: cakey, eggy loaves which rose well above their tins with a crust the colour of toasted coconut. We loved babka and the three loaves which the recipe yielded never lasted more than a few days. My mother ate it plain; I preferred it with just a bit more butter spread on top.

I'm only a quarter Russian: my mother's mother emigrated from Russia in her late teens, following my great-grandfather who left to 'avoid being drafted in one of the many wars', as my grandmother said. My great-grandmother's name was Stella; my great-grandfather was John. I know little more about my Russian roots and other than a love of ice skating, Eastern European food, and the occassional bout of melancholy, I have few connections to the motherland. But babka makes me feel my Russian roots. We use my grandmother's recipe, and when I knead the dough, I think of my Nana following the same recipe, of my Papa eating it. For all I know she could have got it from a magazine in 1952 but I'll prefer to think that she got it from her mother, who brought it with her on the boat.

Babka was made on Easter Saturday, to the sounds of the Messiah on CBC radio and the promise of the Easter vigil that evening. The vigil was like a compendium of all things Catholic: candles, oils, fire, dark, baptisms, confirmations, the Litany of Saints - all rolled into a mere four hour extravaganza. It wasn't until we got home from mass, in the early hours of Easter Sunday morning, that we were allowed to tuck into the babka and the coloured Easter eggs. When we woke up the next morning, we would do it again - bacon, melon, hard boiled eggs and bread. My memories of babka are all laced with tiny fragments of crushed, dyed eggshell on the side of the plate and the bright foil wrappers of chocolate eggs.

My first Easter in Scotland felt empty. With no one to drag me to mass, I only went on Easter Sunday. There was no Easter basket or egg colouring. But I couldn't fathom Easter without babka. I made the bread proudly, and sat in the kitchen smelling it as it cooked. When the tops were golden brown, I tipped the loaves out and cut into them. The bread was rock hard, save for the bit in the very middle that remained raw. I was devastated: my first proper cooking flop, and it was a big one. I tried again the next year, and the same thing happened. I was left with three bricks of bread that clunked on the counter with surprising force. I became convinced that my mother was leaving some secret out so that the only way I would get babka would be if I came home for Easter. This year, I was determined it would work.

I bought new yeast and used self-rising flour. I kept the flat warm and I kneaded the dough extra-long. I covered it in a bowl and waited. And waited. After an hour, I called my mother in Canada and asked her what I was doing wrong. She told me to be patient and let it sit another hour. And lo and behold, in the third hour, it rose. Easter bread indeed.

This year's babka was the best yet but still not perfect. The oven was too hot and the bread was left doughy in the very centre, but I'm getting there. A few more years and I'll be ready. But somehow I doubt even if I do get babka right, it will ever be as good as it was when I was seven, in my Easter dress, eating it with hard-boiled eggs and the promise of chocolate.

***
Easter Sunday and we've just come home from a trip north. I missed church this year, feeling the good Catholic pangs of guilt as I wandered through a small fishing village in Angus at 3pm on the Friday and passed the churches. I didn't even go Sunday morning. But when we got home at 3, I decided the Easter bread had to be made. It came out of the oven at 7, steaming, golden, and smelling of cake. I let it cool barely long enough to touch and then sliced it open.

Thick wedges of white bread, sprinkled with raisins, sat steaming on my plate. The crust was crumbly, almost salty with the butter that had been brushed over the tops of the loaves. The middle was moist, the raisins swollen. I ate two slices, and then another. It was the taste of home, and even without the egg shells it was pretty good. Not as good as my mother's, but then what is?
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Petit Dejeuner
03 April 2007 @ 17:11
A few years ago, I worked in a bookshop. I'd just moved to Edinburgh and within the space of three weeks, I had been dumped by the main reason I'd stayed in Scotland. I needed to fill my time, and to do that I worked as much as I could. From 8-4, I made sandwiches on West Nicolson Street, burning my wrist on the inside of a pizza oven countless times as I made toasted bacon, brie and cranberry paninis for English students with five names. From 4 30 to 8 30, I worked in the children's section of James Thin's. It wasn't a fantastic career option by any means, but it kept me sane. It made me feel like my years of studying were useful, if for nothing else than to help out the occasional grandparent or godfather. I was around books and for a few hours, I wasn't just asking if they wanted lettuce and tomato. And, it got me a fantastic discount.

The months that I worked there, I read more than I'd read in years. For the first time in 19 years I wasn't in school and I had a lot of catching up to do. I read all the Booker prize winners for the previous five years, and then I moved on to the Orange prize list. I read new releases, books still in hardcover, and I started reading books about food. It was Nigel Slater's book, Toast, that made me want to be a food writer, and I can't write about toast without quoting his opening page:

My mother is scraping a piece of burned toast out of the kitchen window, a crease of annoyance across her forehead. This is not an occasional occurrence, a once-in-a-while hiccup in a busy mother's day. My mother burns the toast as surely as the sun rises each morning. In fact, I doubt if she has ever made a round of toast in her life that failed to fill the kitchen with plumes of throat-catching smoke. I am nine now and have never seen butter without black bits in it.

It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you. People's failings, even major ones such as when they make you wear short trousers to school, fall into insignificance as your teeth break through the rough, toasted crust and sink into the doughy cuhsion of white bread underneath. Once the warm, salty butter has hit your tongue, you are smitten. Putty in their hands.


When I was six, we made books for our fathers for Father's day. We filled in the blanks: 'My father is happiest when -. My father likes to eat -.' 'My father hates -.' Most of the children wrote in that blank, 'My father hates burnt toast' and the teacher seemed to think that was satisfactory. I struggled all day with what to write. My mother never burned toast. I'd never seen or smelled it before. I couldn't think what my father hated, but I knew burnt toast wasn't it. Finally, I settled on tent caterpillars: pests that appeared in our trees every year, and whose nests my father would, with what can almost be described as glee, burn every year.

I don't share Mr Slater's memories of burnt toast. My childhood toast was always perfectly golden, spread with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. But I do know what he means. There is nothing like toast. I go through phases with my toppings: strawberry jam for a while, a lemon curd phase when I was 16, but toast with butter, cut in half down the middle, is something I never grow out of. Often, when I got home from the bookshop after a 12.5 hour day, I would have toast for my dinner before falling into bed.

Now, toast-making duties fall to my other half. He makes me toast before bed, or for breakfast or when I get home from work. He knows without asking that I'm in a ginger marmalade phase, and he knows to cut it down the middle before he hands it to me. I can't say for certain whether I fell in love with him for his talents with toast, but they certainly helped. Nigel was definitely on to something there.

****
I'm home sick today, off work with a sore throat and no voice. By noon, though, I'm feeling a bit more alive and make a cup of tea and some toast. I spread it thick, with salted butter - not margarine today. Cut in half, the four pieces stack on my plate as I make my way to my blanket on the couch.

The bread was brown, so the flavour is nutty and dense - different from the fluffy lightness of white bread, but equally good. The butter has melted for the most part, but here and there there are pools of still intact whiteness - extra pockets of salt and cream. The middle of the slice is soft and spongy, the outside crunchy and thick. I fold one slice in half and bite down the centre, savouring the saturation of butter and the thinness of the bread.

On any other day, I would have found it difficult to stop with just two slices. Fortunately, my appetite is small enough just now that the first serving is sufficient. I wipe my buttery fingers on the side of my pyjamas and burrow back into the sofa. If there's one thing about being sick that makes it all worthwhile, it's the complete justification you feel in eating toast three times a day.
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