Cocoa and Quesadillas

Does anyone drink cocoa anymore? I don’t mean hot chocolate – delicious and welcome as it is – but cocoa. Made with cocoa powder and sugar, with water if you’re feeling austere or milk if you want to be a bit more indulgent. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually had it. In fact, rather than a taste memory of it, I think more of literary references, associating it with Enid Blyton-style midnight feasts. It’s about campfires, adventures and nostalgia.

Cocoa powder in my kitchen is generally used in chocolate cake. My favourite is Nigella Lawson’s sour cream chocolate cake, where the sour cream produces a lovely, soft, luxurious cake. More regularly I use cocoa powder in granola. The recipe I use comes from Joy the Baker‘s first cookbook, in which a couple of tablespoons of cocoa powder are stirred into the base of a granola, making it subtly chocolate-y. It’s paired with coconut, cinnamon and, in my version, whatever nuts or seeds happen to be in the cupboard (peanuts and pumpkin seeds this week).

However, a new cookbook induced me to use cocoa powder in a very different way. I was introduced several years ago to the idea of chocolate or cocoa powder in chillis, in which the dark bitterness of chocolate is used like a spice to provide depth, and have used this several times in various chilli recipes over the last few years. The other week, I tried a recipe from the Whitewater cooks at home cookbook, a Canadian cookbook I was given for my birthday, for chicken quesadillas with pumpkin mole sauce. This uses cocoa similarly to how it’s used in chilli – as a spice to provide earthy depth to the sauce – but here it’s smashed into a loose, gritty paste with ground pumpkin seeds and peanuts, chillis, cinnamon and cumin. The sauce is then spread onto one side of a tortilla, topped with cooked chicken and cheese and cooked as usual for a quesadilla. The flavour was fantastic, not at all chocolate-y, but deep and earthy, complementing the chillis and making a simple quesadilla a bit more special.

Ippolito d’Este

The Cardinal’s Hat, Mary Hollingsworth

This book drew me in. I was a bit reluctant when I first started reading it, but as I got more into the story, I became much more interested. This book is part-history, part-biography and tells a fascinating story of life in Renaissance Italy and France, focusing specifically on the life of Ippolito d’Este.

Ippolito d’Este was the archbishop of Milan and this book details, in part, his route to becoming a cardinal. Mary Hollingsworth researched this book using archives of documents at Modena and one of the most fascinating things about it is discovering how much of the story of a life can be gleaned from documents such as bills, inventories and letters. Chapter Two was particularly interesting, as it contains a reconstruction of Ippolito’s household – describing the members of staff who worked there and the physical appearance of his home. There is, for example, a highly-detailed description of his bedroom, including decorative items. When visiting homes from the sixteenth-century today they sometimes lack the textiles and other decorative objects that would have been present in the past, and therefore can seem austere to modern eyes. The high level of detail that Hollingsworth has gleaned from the archives corrects this impression, ensuring that the reader sees in her mind’s eye the real sumptuousness of Ippolito’s surroundings. It provides a little bit of insight into daily life, albeit for a very wealthy household.

The nature of this book provides an interesting combination of everyday life and larger political events. During the period covered by the book, Ippolito spends a significant amount of time in France with François I and we are therefore see the conflict between Charles V and the French king through the lens of his experiences. Although this was interesting, particularly in the context of Ippolito’s attempt to acquire a coveted position as a cardinal, it was really the juxtaposition of this with the details of everyday life which I found the most interesting.

 

The only criticism I have is that the story ends fairly abruptly. I’m not sure why this is – perhaps the archive did not cover a later period in Ippolito’s life – but it was a shame. For example, there is no explanation as to what happened to Ippolito in later life. We know that he eventually became a cardinal, but we are left somewhat in the dark as to Ippolito’s eventual fate. This is, however, a minor criticism and I would otherwise recommend this book as a little window into everyday, albeit affluent, Renaissance life.

Apples and Cinnamon

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Autumn has arrived. We’re teetering on the edge of October, the leaves are turning golden and I’m craving apple crumble. It’s definitely time to bring out the cinnamon.

I was trying to use up some cinnamon sugar recently, leftover from some snickerdoodles, and came across a recipe for ‘Baked Apple Cider Doughnuts’ in  Lily Vanilli’s Sweet Tooth by Lily Jones. I love doughnuts, but am not generally up for attempting them at home. I associate them with seaside holidays, eaten hot from the fryer out of a paper bag, licking the sugar from my fingers. Although I like the iced and glazed doughnuts which you can buy in coffee shops, I’m particularly nostalgic for simpler sugar-coated ones.

However, as the recipe title suggests, these are not traditional fried doughnuts, but baked. A good number of apples are diced and mixed with a relatively small amount of cake-like batter, coated in a spiced sugar and baked. Admittedly, they aren’t as wonderful as the fried kind, but they were still really good and far easier and less messy than attempting deep-frying in a home kitchen. It wouldn’t have occurred to me before to use a cinnamon sugar mixture to coat doughnuts, but it worked really well. The apple and cinnamon combination is, of course, delicious, and reminiscent of those apple crumbles I’ve been craving. The gentle spice of cinnamon is perfect for this time of year, providing something warming but not quite as heavy as the soups, stews and rib-sticking puddings of winter.

A Fairy Tale

E.T.A. Hoffmann, ‘The Golden Pot’ (translated by Ritchie Robertson)

There are some stories that you need to read multiple times in order to get to grips with them. Not necessarily because they are overly complicated or particularly difficult to understand, but rather because there is so much going on in them and there are so many layers of meaning, that it would be impossible to grasp them all after reading them just once. These can be some of the most rewarding stories to read. When you first read them, there is the satisfaction of finding out what happens in the story, but then you are rewarded for subsequent readings with more and more interesting things to think about.

I suspect that is one such story. ‘The Golden Pot’ by E. T. A. Hoffmann is a relatively short story, so it’s a fairly quick and easy read. It tells the story of Anselmus, a student, and the adventures that result when he takes a job copying texts for the Archivist Lindhorst. The Archivist appears to be a man, but claims to be a salamander from Atlantis with three serpents as his daughters. There’s a love triangle, in which Anselmus is torn between Veronica and Serpentina, the Archivist’s daughter. One of the main themes of the story is the interplay between reality and a fairy world. Are the strange events in the narrative dreams, imaginative flights of fancy, or are they really happening to the characters?

I really enjoyed this story and am keen to read more of Hoffmann’s work. It was both fun and thought-provoking and I would recommend it to anyone interested in fantasy literature or fairy tales.

Rice Pudding for Summer

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Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer (or Nigella Summer, depending on your edition) is unsuprisingly a book about summer food. I bought my copy from a charity shop in the depths of last winter, when I tend to eat more soups, stews and hot puddings in order to stay cosy. I was therefore thrilled to be able to try out some of the recipes from this book over the last few months.

The recipe I chose to make uses ingredients that are easily available all year round. Lots of the recipes in the book use typically summery ingredients (e.g. strawberries, fresh tomatoes etc.) but this Lemon Rice Pudding is, rather, a summery interpretation of what is classically a cold weather dish. Rice pudding in Britian is rib-sticking and nutmeggy. Associated with school dinners and Sunday lunch, it’s something you would load up on to spend an afternoon running around outside in the cold. Nutmeg is a crucial flavouring and a spice generally used in the colder months of the year in Britain, particularly around Christmas.

This was a very different kind of rice pudding. Rather than baking it in the oven, it’s cooked on the stovetop for a considerable period of time and flavoured with lemon zest. Once cool, you beat in lemon juice and, once chilled, fold in some whipped double cream. I was initially wary of a lemon rice pudding because I am so used to the hot, nutmeg-skinned ones we normally eat, but the lemon works spectacularly well in this chilled version. The double cream gives a fantastic texture, making it seem almost mousse-like, and in turn the sharpness of the lemon cuts through the richness of the cream. Nigella suggests serving it with blueberries, but I think it would be good with any fresh summer berries alongside, perhaps as a way of easing us into the autumn to come.

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Reading about Robots

There are many fictional robots. Most of the ones I’ve come across have been in film or TV, rather than literature. Those which spring to mind include Doctor Who‘s Cybermen, the Terminator films (plus spin-off TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles), the film of I, Robot and, more recently, the excellent and thought-provoking Channel 4 series Humans. However, a book I’ve just read opened my eyes to the use of robots in real life.

Riotous Robots, by Mike Goldsmith, is aimed at children. Published by Scholastic, it’s very much like the Horrible History and Horrible Geography series of books, using a similar sense of humour and comic-strip-style drawings to keep children engaged. I had the sense while reading it that it’s aimed at slightly older children, purely because there were fewer quizzes and there was a also bit more complex detail than I would have expected (although this may be due to my complete lack of knowledge about robotics prior to reading this book). My edition was published in 2003 (although there seems to be a more recent one) so it’s obviously quite out of date, but it was still useful and a fun read.

It starts out with a discussion of Artificial Intelligence in fiction, mentioning Frankenstein, Asimov and a couple of others I hadn’t heard of before. For me, this was a great, accessible way to introduce the subject, given that my only experience with robotics was through fiction. There then follow chapters on the different types of robots and their various uses, such as in factories, in the home, in space, under the sea, dealing with hazards and in medicine. I’d had no idea that the use of Artificial Intelligence was so broad. I was especially interested in the ‘Spacebots’ chapter, which discusses probes, landers and rovers, some of which were launched around the time of the book’s publication. I read this chapter with the internet in front of me, so that I could look up the results of those explorations. Fascinating stuff.

The final chapter was also thought-provoking, posing the question ‘…are robots really dangerous?’. It goes on to discuss potential future developments in robotics. It would be interesting to find out which of those have now come to pass.

Overall, this was a good introduction to the subject. I loved the opportunity to learn about something new in an accessible and engaging way

Cloves

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Flavour-wise, cloves pack a punch. This is probably why I always have loads of them in the cupboard – you don’t need many of them in any given recipe. They mostly remind me of Christmas due to their presence in spicy, warming recipes, like gingerbread and mulled wine, but I’ve recently been using them in other types of dishes.

When looking for a way to use up an almost full jar of whole cloves in the cupboard, I found a recipe for ‘Minced Lamb Korma’ in The Complete Book of Mince which is a spoof cookbook by, apparently, René La Sagne. Although this is a very silly book, the recipes I’ve tried so far genuinely work.

I enjoy the combination of lamb and spices, having first attempted it in the Turkish Lamb Pilaf recipe I made at Easter. This curry has an array of spices – cardamom, cumin, turmeric, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Rather than just adding all these spices into the curry sauce, the recipe instructs you to mix the cardamom, cumin and turmeric into the raw meat and allow it to hang out in the fridge for an hour or so before you cook it. This allows those flavours to really permeate the meat itself, rather than just the sauce.

This was a good, solid recipe – although it produced an extraordinarily unattractive curry, it was tasty. It was a great way of clearing out the storecupboard, just a little.

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