Sunday, 15 December 2013

George Orwell | Blue Stilton and Cranberry Bread

George Orwell is probably not a writer you would normally associate with tantalising depictions of food, especially as, in The Road to Wigan Pier, he unflatteringly described the human being as 'primarily a bag for putting food into'.

But his 'In Defence of English Cooking' paints a different picture of Orwell's usually rather grim and pragmatic attitude to eating. The essay was published in the Evening Standard in December 1945 and enumerates the high points of British cuisine of the time.
But there is one point on which public opinion could bring about a rapid change for the better: I mean cooking.
      It is commonly said, even by the English themselves, that English cooking is the worst in the world. It is supposed to be not merely incompetent, but also imitative, and I even read quite recently, in a book by a French writer, the remark: ‘The best English cooking is, of course, simply French cooking.’
      Now that is simply not true, as anyone who has lived long abroad will know, there is a whole host of delicacies which it is quite impossible to obtain outside the English-speaking countries. No doubt the list could be added to, but here are some of the things that I myself have sought for in foreign countries and failed to find.

I will have to agree with George Orwell that there is more to English cooking than simply imitating  French cooking. And whilst kippers, marrow jam or bread sauce, which Orwell goes on to add to his list, may not be to everyone's taste, there is certainly a lot to be said in defence of puddings, Oxford marmalade, roast potatoes, and of course cheese.
Then there are the English cheeses. There are not many of them but I fancy Stilton is the best cheese of its type in the world, with Wensleydale not far behind.
George Orwell, 'In Defence of English Cooking'

With it crumbly, creamy texture and distinctive flavour, stilton is certainly 'the best cheese of its type' and definitely deserving to be ranked highly, alongside the finest of French cheeses. There are two types of stilton, blue and white, both of which have been granted the status of a protected designation of origin by the European Commission. This means that only cheese produced in the three counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire and made from pasteurised local milk can be called 'Stilton'. It gets its characteristic blue veins by piercing the crust of the cheese with stainless steel needles, which allows air into the core. The cheese takes approximately nine to twelve weeks to make and mature.

The history of stilton goes back possibly to the late 17th and certainly the early 18th century. There's a reference to it in Daniel Defoe's 1724 travel account A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain, in which it is called the 'English parmesan'. But according to the Stilton Cheesemaker's Association, Blue Stilton was first marketed slightly later by the Englishman Cooper Thornhill, owner of the Bell Inn, in the village of Stilton, Huntingdonshire. According to legend, Thornhill discovered a distinctive blue cheese in 1730 while he was visiting a small farm near Melton Mowbray in rural Leicestershire. He loved the cheese so much that he made a business arrangement which granted the Bell Inn exclusive marketing rights to Blue Stilton. The fact that the main stagecoach routes from London to northern England passed through the village of Stilton enabled Thornhill to promote the sale of this cheese and so the fame of stilton spread fast.

~ Blue Stilton and Cranberry Bread ~

Traditionally in England, stilton is eaten at Christmas and this recipe for Blue Stilton and Cranberry Bread, bursting with the unique flavours of Blue Stilton and plump dried cranberries, is a wonderful treat for an occasion when only the best will do.

I have followed Paul Hollywood's recipe from his book How to Bake. You can find the original recipe in the book or here. My only change was to reduce slightly the amount of cranberries and increase slightly the amount of stilton. Just because!

500 g strong white bread flour, plus more for dusting
10 g salt
10 g instant yeast
30 g unsalted butter, softened (can be reduced or omitted)
320 ml cool water
200 g stilton, crumbled
60 g dried cranberries

Put the flour in a large mixing bowl and add the salt to one side and the yeast to the other side of the bowl. Add the butter (if using) and 3/4 of the water and turn the mixture round with your fingers. Continue to add the remaining water, a little at a time, until all of the flour has been incorporated. You may need to add less or more water, depending on the type of flour you're using. The dough should be soft but not soggy.

Put the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5-10 minutes until the tough forms a soft, smooth skin. When the dough feels smooth and silky, put it into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise until it's doubled in size – at least for one hour, but you can leave it for 2 or even 3 hours.

Line a baking tray with baking parchment paper.

Very gently tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Without knocking it back, flatten it out with your hands, then roll out using a rolling pin into a rectangle, about 35 x 25cm. If necessary turn the dough so that you have a long edge facing you. Sprinkle the cranberries and stilton on top evenly leaving a little space around the edges.

Roll up the dough from the closest long edge into a sausage and press along the seam to seal it. Coil the sausage into a spiral and put it on the prepared baking tray. You can also tuck a few extra cranberries between the folds on the top for a pretty visual effect. Put the tray inside a clean plastic bag and leave to prove for one hour, or until the dough has at least doubled in size and springs back quickly if you press it lightly with your finger.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 220 degrees C and put a roasting tray in the bottom to heat up.

When the dough has risen and feels light to the touch, fill the roasting tray with hot water. Dust the bread lightly with some flour and and bake in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes or until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the base.

Cool on a wire rack. Enjoy with what else... more cheese! What can I say! I'm a cheese lover!

Note: There's more information about stilton cheese and recipes how to use it on their website here.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Emily Dickinson | Honey-Roasted Figs and Plums with Blueberries

When I first came across the poetry of Emily Dickinson, I was fascinated by the simplicity of her verse, her unconventional punctuation and her idiosyncratic capitalisation. I was also intrigued by the reclusive nature of an author whose poetry seems to have overlooked the Civil War that tore up her country. Dickinson's engagement (poetic or otherwise) with the war still remains equivocal and there have been numerous attempts to either justify or explicate her political stance. Perhaps we are mistaken to expect poets to perform the role of chronicler directly responding to the historical events of her time. Perhaps poets are best left to sing the song they sing best not out of circumstance but pleasure.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Sylvia Plath | Fig and Plum Torte

To describe The Bell Jar as a feminist novel concerned with the disjunction between the dominant patriarchal social reality and the anticipations of a young woman battling against not only gender and identity stereotypes but also her own mental fragility is perhaps to state the obvious. Sylvia Plath presents a heroine who invariably finds herself confronted with having to choose between opposing poles and who ironically (and tragically) serves no socially identifiable purpose. What good does a degree in English literature do if you don't know how to cook, take shorthand, speak a foreign language or dance?

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Herta Müller | Plum Frangipane Tart

I admit! Ηers is not a household name and it was only after the awarding of the Nobel prize for literature in 2009 that I heard of her. Herta Müller sets her stories amidst the cruelty and terror of a totalitarian state, usually in Communist Romania under the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. The Land of Green Plums is a novel concerned with displacement and disconnection, with minorisation and isolation as it explores the disruption of normal human relationships resulting from the trauma that the threat of violence causes.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

D.H. Lawrence | Fig Frangipane Tart

Lawrence's poem 'Figs' is less about eating customs or the botany behind the title's fruit, although both form an intrinsic part of the text, and more about women; or rather about the symbolism of figs which reveals the poet's attitude to female sexuality.

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.
Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Nancy Willard | Stuffed Peppers and Tomatoes

It was the titles of her books, with their literary allusions but mainly their fantastical combination of the ordinary and the imaginary, that intrigued me most about Nancy Willard. Her collection Household Tales of Moon and Water, from which the 'How to Stuff a Pepper' poem is taken, puts domestic life and the relationships formed within such a frame in a rather wondrous light.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Pablo Neruda | Lemon Curd Delights

Pablo Neruda wrote 'Ode to a Lemon' at a time when his return to Chile from exile seems to mark a significant shift in his poetry away from the political considerations of earlier periods and towards an examination of ordinary, everyday things - a flower, a bird, a stone, a plant.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Jane Austen | Apricot Frangipane Tart

Although she no longer exerts on me the same fascination as when I was a young English Lit student, I still do find Jane Austen enjoyable and quite often powerful, especially when elements of social critique penetrate the polished veneer of her carefully constructed fictional worlds. In Mansfiled Park, Austen uses the imagery of the apricot tree to discuss themes which are surprisingly relevant to a modern reader, such as rootlessness and transplantation, but also cultivation and deception of appearance. The apricot, whose "natural taste" remains unrecognised, becomes a point of contention not only between the characters in the novel, who continually misappropriate and misinterpret, but also between the novel and the reader, who is challenged to offer a fair appreciation of the text.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Albert Camus | Berry Financiers

In the tragic times leading up to the second world war, Albert Camus defied the misery of his age by turning to the tenacity exemplified by the brazen blossoming of the almond tree on a cold February night - a flamboyant explosion into a sea of white against the tyranny of moral fanaticism.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

W.B. Yeats | Berry Fruit Tart

Yeats once wrote that "the desire that is satisfied is not a great desire". The search for beauty and the desire to reconcile dream and reality has Yeats's mythic persona Aengus, god of love and poetry, wander into the realm of physical experience.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Basic Recipe | Pâte sablée

This is my favourite type of pastry for summer fruit tarts or for frangipane ones. Rich but without being too sweet, it has a delicate yet crisp, crumbly texture that can only be properly appreciated once tasted. Because of its delicate texture, it needs to handled very carefully when baking but the positive aspect is that you don't have to worry about keeping ingredients sufficiently cold, or about shrinkage, or even about undercooking.

D.H. Lawrence | Moonshine Lemon Tart

Lawrence's travel to northern Italy, at a time when the threat of war loomed heavily over Europe, lent itself to a poignant study of the destiny and history of man.