Macaroons

Say the word ‘macaroon’, and most people will think of the elegant French macaron – meringue-like in texture, sandwiched with some delicately flavoured cream, brightly (or pastel) coloured. I have fond memories of a trip to Ladurée in Paris one morning for macarons and a hot chocolate. Macarons have a reputation for being difficult to make and therefore signify both French elegance and skill. By contrast, the Scottish macaroon is less elegant and more homespun, a staple of sweet shops and popular with children. They are usually made into bars and are made of fondant covered in chocolate and coconut. This is a classic of Scottish confectionary, extraordinarily sweet (much like tablet). I enjoyed eating them bit by bit, breaking off a chunk here and there for an occasional treat. I was intrigued to learn from Sue Lawrence’s A Cook’s Tour of Scotland that macaroons were originally made with leftover potato.

English macaroons are a different thing altogether. I’ve had macaroons before, most often coconut ones, but discovered a recipe for an almond version in Jane Brocket’s book Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer. This cookbook was a gift from a friend and is a wonderful treat as it provides recipes for food found in children’s literature. It focuses largely on literature from the so-called ‘golden age’ of children’s fiction, including lots of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit and a few non-UK writers such as L. M. Montgomery and Louise May Alcott. It’s a delightful book, aimed largely at nostalgic adult readers and prompts you to re-read the classics and enjoy them with your favourite treats. The recipe for ‘Fresh and Gooey Macaroons’ was inspired by an Enid Blyton book which I don’t think I’ve ever read and describes them as perfect for elevensies.

I assumed that their texture would be similar to their French counterparts, but that they would perhaps be slightly bigger and less delicate. I was very wrong. Rather than being meringue-like in texture, they were much chewier. There is a relatively small amount of ground almonds and sugar for the quantity of whipped egg white, meaning that the egg white provides the glue rather than structural heft. What emerged was exactly what the recipe title suggests – chewy and gooey in the middle, slightly crisp on the outside. They were also really craggy. This added to the feeling of nostalgia – rather than being perfect products from a French patisserie, or commercially produced confections in a Scottish sweet shop, they were exactly the things you could imagine that Blyton’s characters would devour from a home kitchen or local bakery.

A little luxury

When I was in London this summer, I visited the V&A museum and had a wander around their exhibition on luxury. It got me thinking about the meaning of luxury, both how it’s culturally and socially defined, and how I define it for myself. Generally, it’s thought of as being something expensive, but the exhibition made me realise that luxury is often related to scarcity and, therefore, things that require unusual skill, opportunity or effort could all be seen as luxurious.

I cooked a luxurious meal the other night. Why was it luxurious?

  1. I made pudding just because I felt like it
  2. There was a bottle of wine
  3. I cooked a more time consuming and complex main course than I would usually attempt

Julia Child is one of the most well-known food writers of the last century, and I’m lucky enough to own a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book provides a thorough introduction to French cooking techniques, all of which are clearly explained. The recipe I chose to make (Fricassée de Poulet à l’indienne) combined two key skills of French cuisine, neither of which I’d attempted before, which were making a fricassée and enriching a sauce with egg yolk and cream.

You start, as is standard for a stew, by softening onion, carrot and celery in a pan, then browning chicken pieces. Where this differs from a stew is that you then allow the chicken to cook without any liquid for about ten minutes, after which you add white wine and stock. You then allow it to braise in the liquid until the chicken is fully cooked. The difficult bit comes with the enrichment at the end – removing the chicken from the pan, straining the sauce and then using it to temper a mixture of egg yolks and cream, hoping all the time that the egg won’t scramble.

I modified the recipe substantially, adding curry powder (a variation suggested in the book) and serving it with spinach, rather than onions and mushrooms. I also used dried herbs rather than a herb bouquet, because they were what I had on hand. I strained the sauce earlier than the recipe stipulates, in the vain hope of reducing the mess, and omitted a final butter enrichment to the sauce, which I didn’t feel was necessary.

I’m really pleased I tried this recipe – the result was a triumph. It tasted rich and decadent and would be great for a special occasion. It wasn’t an expensive meal to make, rather the luxury of it was about having the time to create something fabulous (I was in the kitchen for a while), tending to it, trying something new and scary, and presenting it proudly at the end of the process.

P.S. The pudding I made was this chocolate pudding pie from Smitten Kitchen. Far less grown-up than the main course, but yummy.

P.P.S. For another good use of curry powder, I would recommend these curried potatoes from Budget Bytes. This recipe is a great blueprint – I threw in some spinach last time – and makes a filling meal with some naan bread on the side.

Witches Abroad (Terry Pratchett)

When you find another Terry Pratchett fan, you can more or less guarantee that you’ve found a potential friend. Pratchett’s work in general has been a huge influence on my life. I first discovered his work through the Bromeliad trilogy and can still remember laughing out loud at those novels when staying with friends, who were desperate to know what was so funny. In my later teens I graduated to reading the Discworld novels. I’ve read most of them now, and reread them frequently. Each one still feels like a wonderful treat.

Most Discworld fans have their favourite books or series within the series. The Night’s Watch novels, for example, are deservedly very popular. I love them all, but my favourites are the Witches books, in particular, Witches Abroad.

I love these characters. I identify on occasion with Magrat’s wet hen-ness (and attended a party dressed as her a year or so ago) and Granny Weatherwax is, in my opinion, one of the greatest literary characters in existence, but Nanny Ogg is my favourite, for her bawdy sense of humour and her general cheerfulness. I particularly enjoy Witches Abroad because its major themes are highly relevant to my life and interests.

It’s about travel. I remember reading it about ten years ago when I was in the midst of lots of travel, including spending significant time abroad. I’m a linguist, and Nanny’s attempts to communicate in languages other than her own are both cringeworthy and hilarious. As she states, ‘they say travelin brordens the mind, I reckon I could pull mine out my ears now and knot it under my chin’. This is, of course, true, and expresses for me the joy of travel, as well as the difficulty that can be a part of it. Of course, a good story can also ‘brorden the mind’.

Witches Abroad is also about the importance of stories. This is true of many of the Discworld novels, but is especially the case in this one, as the need to make sure a story works is the crux of the drama. There are many references to famous stories (Cinderella, the Three Little Pigs, Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz), always fun for an avid fantasy or fairy tale fan to spot. But, more interestingly, it is the power of stories themselves that is addressed in this novel: ‘People think that stories are shaped by people, In fact, it’s the other way around’.

Lilith, the antagonist, wants to be an author. She wants to control the people around her so that they have the ‘happy ending’ demanded by the story. But, as Desiderata Hollow says ‘I knows some people who make stories work their way’. And that is pretty inspiring stuff.