Attack of the Rhombus Ravioli

Dreamstime Apocalypse
An artist’s impression of my kitchen at 6PM last night

I’m starting to wonder if I’ve taken too much on.

Part time work, full time parenting, this food blog, and my challenge to master every technique in Leith’s Technique Bible. What was I thinking when I chose to do something with the word “challenge” in its name? My whole life as a working mother is a challenge!

In any case, the wheels are clearly starting to come off.

That’s because last night I not only failed to make ravioli – I failed to rescue anything resembling a meal from the fiery wreckage.

While the first of those things has been known to happen on occasion (ravioli are hard, people), the second is a bit more unusual. In fact, I pride myself on being a quick-thinking cook who can take something to the table each night. Even if that something doesn’t bear much of a resemblance on the original dish. I am the queen of Plan B.

But last night, I tore through plans A to D, and ended up collapsed in a heap somewhere around W.

The ravioli started to go wrong when I made the filling.  And yes, I’m aware that’s the first part of the recipe. As soon as I’d mixed the pumpkin, bread crumbs and egg together, I knew the proportions were out. The filling was obviously too wet. Did I stop to adjust? No, not I! I forged ahead, and in doing so sowed the seeds of my own doom.

The next set of alarm bells I chose to ignore began to clang when I was making the pasta dough. I could make pasta dough in my sleep, but apparently, not this Wednesday. I added too much flour to the dough, and thought “I’ll just use the leftover flour when I’m rolling  it out”. Instead, I spent a long time trying to force the dough to take the excess flour. So now I had a wet filling and preternaturally stiff pasta.

Of course I decided to try my new ravioli wheel. This unwise experiment naturally ended with rhombus-shaped ravioli that refused to stick together and oozed filling.

Instead of calling it quits, I decided to try making larger ravioli. And then I decided to try making tortellini. And then I decided to fry the oozing ravioli rhombuses, because hadn’t I seen fried ravioli on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares once?

At this point, I can almost hear you yelling, “Why doesn’t she just stop?” We’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, I need to tell you that I burnt the fried ravioli. While they were on the stove I wandered off to help MJ locate her lost phone. I returned to a scene out of a public-service announcement. Smoke billowed from the pan, and the singed-pumpkin tang of failure hung in the air.

So I wiped out the pan, and put on another batch of fried ravioli.

Ten minutes later, MJ and Zool sat down to eat dinner. On each of their plates was four fried ravioli and some of my mother’s green tomato relish. Possibly sensing that now was not the time to play food critic, MJ made positive noises and ate the snack-sized meal without complaint.

I was left with two questions. What were we actually going to eat for dinner? and, Why had I kept going with the dish when, deep down, I knew it wasn’t going to work?

The first problem was solved by an emergency dash to the supermarket, to procure what Michael Pollan would call “a food-like substance”.

The second question was a bit trickier. It’s the sort of question that easily spawns others. Why did I keep marching grimly down the path to ravioli failure? Why did I ignore so many red flags that the dish was a dud? Why did I decide to make ravioli from scratch on a weeknight? I could go on.

There are many reasons I kept cooking the ravioli. A fear of wastefulness; a desire to find refuge in cooking a consumingly complex dish; the brain-frying exhaustion of being a working mother. But I think the main reason is that I am stubborn. And that’s a good thing. Stubborn is the flip-side of determined, and determined the reason I’m writing this blog post at 11PM afer a long, long day, while my toddler snores softly next to me.

I might be going a bit nuts, but if my default setting is to push through, then I think I’ll make it through everything. Even this crazy self-imposed challenge.

 

Have you ever persevered with a meal long past the point of common sense? Did you end up congratulating yourself for your determination, or cursing your stubbornness?

Weekly Reading #5

Every Sunday I’ll share the most interesting articles I’ve read on cooking, eating and food culture in the past week.

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‘Happy Easter’, from Zool’s Easter chickens

The Easter Edition

  • Easter in Norway from Thanks for the Food is exactly what is says on the tin. I am part Norwegian, but have had a lot of trouble reconnecting with the culture that died out in my family with my grandparents’ generation. Slice-of-life articles like this are great if you’re trying to immerse yourself in the Norwegian way of life. So break out the Easter chickens, and have a happy Norwegian Easter.
  • The BBC News Magazine asks How Did Hot Cross Buns Become Two a Penny? in their short history of commercially available buns. The comments are well worth a look too.
  • If all of this good cheer is leaving you feeling positively Medieval, head over to read Medieval Easter Traditions by a Medievalist Errant. Rolling (possibly rotten) eggs, free feasts, and tying people up in bed – if that doesn’t cheer you up, I don’t know what will.

Easter Contrition

Dreamstime mortified dog
I am more embarrassed than this dog who was dressed as the Easter Bunny for a stock photo.

A long time ago, I said some shameful and judgemental things.

Okay, it was yesterday, and the thing I said was that hot cross buns should be made to a strictly traditional recipe. Because the universe has a habit of instantly smiting me whenever I take a judgemental turn, on Good Friday I made hot cross buns with toffee topping, by accident. Let me explain.

At the moment, we’re neck-deep in Konmari – the Japanese art of getting rid of all you junk so your place doesn’t look like something off Hoarders any more. Marie Kondo, the expert behind Konmari, suggests to get it all done in six months. That gives me two and half more weeks to find a loving new home for all of my unwanted possessions. Which turns out to be most of them. So, a pretty big task.

That’s why I found myself arranging to sell a large bookshelf to a furniture dealer on Good Friday morning. The hot cross buns were on the oven and the glaze was on the stove, when a cheerful middle-aged woman with in a tiny van turned up to collect the shelf. She loaded it up like the professional she was, and I managed to sell her an antique magazine stand in the process. So far so good.

As she was leaving, my parents turned up to eat the buns. I took a momemt to mentally switch gears from “E-commerce” to “Special family time”. Suddenly, I was beset by the feeling that I’d forgotten something. Something important. Then I smelled caramael.

Racing over to the stove, I saw my sticky bun glaze was now very sticky indeed. It was, in fact, toffee. Panicking, I drizzled it over the buns, and apologetically took them to the table. But instead of disappointment, I was greeted with excitement and admiration for my innovation.

My mind flew to yesterday’s post where I’d lambasted anyone who would dare to add so much as a choc chip to this time honoured dish. And what had I made – toffee hot cross buns!

It got me thinking about all the reasons people might deviate from tradition.

There might be people who are intolerant to one or more of the main ingredients – yeast, lactose and gluten are all common allergens. There may be others for whom the traditional bun is tied up in terrible childhood memories, but adding some banana makes it just different enough. Perhaps you’re part of a marginalised community and you don’t feel included in this particular tradition.

Maybe you were just selling some furniture at the wrong time.

My lesson this Easter: food traditions beong to everyone. That means that everyone is free to use them how they are able to, and how they like.

Cross about Buns

Launcestron Advertiser 23 Mar
Advertising (1837, March 23). Launceston Advertiser (Tas. : 1829 – 1846), , p. 2. Retrieved March 24, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84754575

I try to be non-judgmental. I try to live and let live. But on the issue of hot cross buns I can’t hold back any longer.

A hot cross bun is made with a yeast dough and raisins, and is decorated with a cross. That’s right, raisins and yeast. Not choc-chips, as is particularly popular with the chain Baker’s Delight here in Australia. Not self-raising flour, which makes a scone, not a bun. And most certainly not craisins. Never craisins.

Sydney Gazette 26 Mar 1842 p3
Insolvency Court. (1842, March 26). The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), , p. 3. Retrieved March 24, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2556084

 

Then there is this year’s trend for the Franken-buns. My Facebook feed is currently overrun with loaf/bun hybrids. Supermarket chain Coles posted a recipe for Hot Cross Bun-ana Bread and were subsequently overwhelmed by requests to stock the darn stuff. Then there is the monstrous Bun and Butter Skillet Pudding. Am I insane to think that a hot cross bun should, at the very least, be a bun?

If you want a loaf with raisins and spice then what you’re searching for is a Seed Cake, the most popular sweet loaf in the Victorian Era. Here is a link to Mrs Beeton’s Recipe for Seed Cake. You’re welcome.

Don’t even get me started on hot cross buns in February. Hot Cross buns are for good Friday. If you’re confused about how the whole custom works, allow this 1836 edition of The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser to explain:

Yesterday being Good Friday, Banks, Public Offices, and Shops, were closed, and the various Churches and Chapels opened for sacred Worship. Hot cross buns were not forgotten, and as in merry England aforetime, the well known cry, “One a penny buns, two a penny buns – one a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns, all hot,” was to be heard at an early hour.

PORT PHILIP. (1836, April 2). The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), , p. 2. Retrieved March 24, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2203559

There is a meme going around that says simply: “Words mean things”. Seasonal dishes are a language unto themselves. If we use then out of place, we erode that language until the dishes just become novelty items or marketing tools.

Hot Cross buns, on Good Friday, mean things. Regardless of your religious faith, making or eating these little yeast buns on a Friday in March or April transforms you into part of a living tradition that goes back at least to 1733. Isn’t that worth finding another sweet treat to eat on the other 364 days of the year?

Weekly Reading #4

Every Sunday (or in this case, Wednesday), I’ll share the most interesting articles I’ve read on cooking, eating and food culture in the past week.

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Mint iced tea, ready for MJ’s return from work.

General

  • A Bit About Cake Flour (And How to Make Your Own) by Sarah E Daniels at Food 52 was a particularly exciting discovery. Cake flour isn’t a thing in Australian supermarkets, but it most certainly is in American recipes. As well as explaining what the heck it is, Daniels reveals a hack for those of us not living in the USA. Give that woman a sainthood!
  • How Katz’s Deli Makes Their Perfect Pastrami is a fairly straightforward feature by Serious Eats. But the comments section is a thing of beauty. A lot of people out there feel strongly about Pastrami.
  • Recipe: Salvadoran Pupusas con Curtido (Masa Cakes with Cabbage Slaw). Little fried pockets of cheese in tortilla dough. These should be a part of your life.
  • Recipe: Singapore Noodles from SBS. Overseas readers, you’re in for a treat. The Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Australia serves our many migrant communities. Over at their website they have a huge free archive of recipes written by professional cooks from every corner of the Earth. Start with this recipe for Singapore Noodles, and just keep going.
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My indoor basil plant. It leads a pretty tough life.

My Year at Leith’s: Presentation

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I made one for me too.

Of Fortitude and Lemon Wedges

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Serving suggestion: throw at family while yelling that you quit.

Two things happened at once this week.

The first is that I reached the section in Leith’s Technique Bible (which I’m learning cover to cover this year) on presentation.

The second is that my toddler went completely insane.

For those readers who aren’t parents, let me be the one to break the news to you that periodically children go a bit wrong. Whether they’re having a growth spurt or connecting a few particularly tricky neurons, they temporarily take leave of their senses and turn into a tiny ball of misery and destruction. Dutch researchers who’ve looked into the phenomenon euphemistically call these times “Wonder Weeks”.

There is a corresponding effect that occurs in parents. It’s a combination of sleep deprivation and being kept constantly off balence by your toddler’s mood swings and bizzare requests. I’m not aware of any scientific studies of this phenomenon, but if I had to use a similarly euphemistic name, I’d call it, “A Period of Adaptability”. As in adapting to no showers, a dirty house, and increasingly strange and desperate ‘meal’ ideas.

Let me sum the situation up in a single scene:

MJ was helping me carry Zool to the car. We’d all been up to 2AM the night before. Zool, because she wanted to fall asleep near us but not touching us; me, because I ended up driving her on a round trip to the nearest regional centre to achieve this; and MJ because she was lying awake at home worried we were going to die in a fiery car crash.

As MJ clipped a floppy Zool into her car seat, she said, “There’s chocolate in the glove box. But it’s pretty gross. It melted and resolidified a few times.”

I started rummaging for the chocolate, moving aside a Tupperware that seemed to be full of sliced onion. “I don’t care,” I replied. “I’d eat it even if it had been chewed on by rats.”

“That might have happened too,” MJ said.

I found the chocolate, and we finished the block standing next to the car.

Meanwhile, in an alternate universe of precision and excellence, Leith’s was suggesting that I remove the pointy ends from lemon wedges before serving them. The rationale behind this is unclear, as they also stipulate that there should still be pith at each end. Just not pointy pith. Why? Why! What difference could it possibly make?

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A lemon wedge, de-pointed but still blighted by the hideous central membrane.

My first response was to skip the section. Why did it matter if the watercress was in a bouquet, or the parsley was chiffonade-ed, or the lemon ends rounded? I had bigger fish to fry. We didn’t have any clean sheets, and we were perilously close to simultaneously running out of toilet paper and tissues.

But something gave me pause. Why was I going to do this if I skipped the hard bits, or gave myself a pass when Zool had a “Wonder Week”? What if, underlying each of those seemingly fussy techniques was actually a philosophy – a principal of always striving for excellence in food?

After all, though Leith’s Technique Bible is for both home cooks and chefs, the Diploma at Leith’s School of Food and Wine that it is based on is aimed at food professionals. These are people who, if push comes to shove, have chosen to prioritise food over laundry and sleep.

The reason I undertook this challenge was to see if a person like me – a mum and part time teacher – could learn to cook like a professional chef. Well, it turns out that to cook like pro, you have to prioritise food like a pro.

So dinner rolled around, and I needed a lemon wedge to serve with a warm root-vegetable salad. Zool had undressed her Elsa doll and then removed its head. The washing machine was beeping to let me know that it was ready to disgorge yet another pile of wet clothes. The dog was trying to dig a hold through her dog bed.

I chose to prioritise food.

It turns out that if you’ve got the opportunity and ability,  the only question that remains is: how much do you want it? I want to learn my craft as a cook enough to surgically remove various parts of lemon wedges in the midst of that chaos.

And you know what?  I actually like the way they look.

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You win again, Leith’s.

 

Can I Photograph Your Meal?

Dreamstime food phtography
“Just give me a moment to take this picture with my zoom lens, then I’ll scoop your dinner off this cloth and back onto your plate.”

Picture this:

You’re sitting at a casual dinner party, relaxing over a good meal and a nice drink. The diffuse evening light coming through the curtains bathes everything in a soft glow. The conversation is low-key but amusing. You could happily sit at that table for the rest of your life.

Then, the host comes up. She’s holding her camera, and you think she might want to take a photo of the guests to remember this time forever. Instead, she asks slightly awkwardly, “I’m a food blogger – can I take a picture of your plate?”

Yikes! Who wants to be that host? Not me, as it turns out.

I recently ran into this problem for the first time when I was mixing work and pleasure by testing a dinner party menu for the blog on a few unsuspecting guests.  We’d issued an invitation to MJ’s aunt and uncle weeks before I found out I needed to write a post on entertaining, but it still seemed crass to try and get those two birds with one dinner party stone.

It left me pondering if there is any polite way to photograph food that you’re about to serve to guests?

Photographing the meal secretly in the kitchen seems like the obvious answer. But it isn’t an option for me. MJ and I live in a farmhouse cottage that has been converted to have a single cooking, dining and living space. While I love being included in the party while I’m cooking, it makes it impossible to snap a sneaky pic of the plates before they go to the table.

This means I need to ask. But asking seems to imply a hidden motivation for the gathering. The last thing I want is for my guests to feel like they’re props, or that the event they viewed as a fun get-together is actually just part of my work.

On reflection,  it seems to boil down to honesty.  Having invited MJ’s family over for dinner,  we were socially and ethically bound to provide hospitality – including a relaxing atmosphere. That wasn’t going to happen if I was fiddling around with the placement of their sticky beef ribs to get the perfect picture.

In the end,  I couldn’t bring myself to ask MJ’s venerable uncle if I could take a few shots of his fried okra. The food went to the table un-photographed. My blog post ended up with just a few pictures of dishes that I’d prepaped earlier.

The only solution seems to be to include the question when I extend the invitation. It would mean coming out of the food blogger closet, but at least my friends and family won’t feel like they’re dining under false pretences.

Would you feel offended if your host whipped out a camera and zoomed in on your plate? If you’re a food blogger, what is your personal code of ethics for taking photos in social gatherings?