Friday, 30 November 2007

Fun, Fun, Funfetti!

I'm a keen baker. I aim for Domestic-Goddessery. I do not use packet cake mixes. For me, the packet cake mix belongs in some kind of culinary purgatory, inhabited by jars of Dolmio pasta sauce, tinned carrots, and 'Smash' instant mashed potato.

What then has brought me to this? A morning happily spent mixing, baking, icing and finally eating a large slice of a Pillsbury 'Funfetti' cake. Once again I can quite happily blame some of my fellow food enthusiasts who have raved about this cake, and persuaded me to throw aside my prejudices and try it.

I purchased a box of Funfetti cake mix, along with the accompanying tub of Funfetti Frosting (in for a penny, in for a pound...) on my last trip south of the border, adding it to the list of groceries stockpiled in an already full-to-bursting car. Even if I had not previously been primed to purchase this cake the jaunty box and, most importantly, the picture of the vibrantly-coloured cake would have been enough to land it in my trolley. The claim that 'a cup of pudding' was a part of the mix only added to the intrigue. How sweet is that Pillsbury man?! (Mind you, having read the ingredients, I can now only assume that the cute little chap is formed from pure lard). He had been peering at me out of the kitchen cupboard for far too long, so armed with my new sillicone bundt pan, I felt the urge to bite the bullet and bake the cake.

As you can see, the baked sponge looked gorgeous, even to me with my inate distrust of blue food...

I went for the 'artfully casual' style of icing the cake (cake-decorating not being one of my culinary strengths) and had great fun literally throwing the sprinkles at the sides of the cake. I will be finding them on the kitchen floor for weeks I'm sure.

And the proof of the pudding? Well, I actually thought it was quite nice! Teeth-achingly sweet, as Nigella would doubtless say, but deliciously moist, vanilla flavoured and excitingly speckled with colour. I'm not sure I would go out of my way to purchase it again (and considering that I need to drive to a different country to buy it, it would be quite far out of my way) but it has been hugely fun to try.

The Ultimate Comfort Food (or School Dinners Revisited)

The weather here has turned cold. Not just a little chilly. We're way past the point of just putting on an extra sweater, and turning the heating on for a couple of hours in the evening... the local schools have already had a couple of 'snow days' (last Thursday I had to do yard duty in a blizzard), my regular exercise is now shovelling the snow from the driveway and the average temperature over the coming week will be -10. Pretty soon we'll be plugging in the car's block-heater overnight so that the engine doesn't freeze.

I could say that it's at this time of the year that our thoughts turn to puddings, but that wouldn't strictly be correct... my thoughts are more or less permanently turned to puddings, although I rarely make them. However, it's at this time of the year that a very particular type of pudding comes into its own; yes, the School Dinner Pud. Stodgy, starchy, rib-sticking, custard-doused, but above all warming and filling. I suddenly felt a desperate urge for a pud like this last Tuesday evening. The problem with most such puddings however, is that they take a long time to cook - a steamed syrup sponge would have hit the spot, but I wasn't going to wait 3 hours for it.

Fortunately a brain-wave hit - semolina! Even more fortunately I had a packet of it in the cupboard, so within 5 minutes Rob and I were tucking into a bowl of it. It's hard to believe that 3 simple ingredients (semolina, milk and sugar) can create such a satisfying pudding (sorry, but 'dessert' just seems far too fancy a name for this), and in such a short time. A dollop of raspberry jam (Rob's topping of choice was Golden Syrup) and my joy was complete.

I'm not sure that I ever ate this at school - although Rob did, and hadn't eaten it since, so emotionally scarred had he been by the experience! - but I do remember eating it at home as a child, and loving it even then. I think now it ranks with rice pudding as one of my favourite Winter puds, and is probably old-fashioned enough to be lovingly thought of as 'retro', only adding to its appeal.

A Trashy Classic

One of my great culinary interests is food that can only be described as 'trashy'. The great Nigella describes this phenomenon thus:

'Trashy food, in its platonic ideal, should contain at least one brand-name product... it should use a low-rent ingredient, one that gastro-snobs would never normally even consider keeping in the house". (Nigella Bites, 2001)

Although I am fascinated by food that can be described in such terms - and often read cookery books that are full of such recipes - I rarely actually cook in this way. I read with awe about my fellow bloggers' forays into the world of 'trashy' dishes (Lisa) - the food always looks so good (even if the ingredients don't immediately suggest that it would!)

However, on discovering cans of the legendary French's Fried Onions in my local supermarket (by all accounts a superbly declasse ingredient all on their own) I felt compelled to purchase some. Printed jauntily on the side of the can is a recipe for 'Green Bean Casserole'... a recipe of which I'm sure Nigella herself would approve whole-heartedly, for amongst its ingredients are listed a can of French's Fried Onions, a can of Cream of Mushroom Soup and 500g of frozen (or canned) cut green beans. Brand-name products? Check! Low-rent ingredients? Check! A nightmare for gastro-snobs? Check, check, check!!!

I set about making this with great gusto, and was delighted (and somewhat relieved) to find that it was genuinely good. Not just good really, but excellent. I had made it as part of our Thanksgiving meal - we had been away for Canadian Thanksgiving in October, so decided that the weekend after American Thanksgiving was as good an excuse as any for a large meal. Although we didn't eat that much of it during that particular dinner (not enough room on our plates, plus it didn't seem to be quite right on a plate swimming in gravy) we both enjoyed it the following day as a vegetable accompaniment to the leftover chicken.

Now bring on the frozen meatballs in grape jelly...

Sunday, 18 November 2007

I'm sorry, but...

I consider myself to be a very polite person. I hold doors open for people, I always write thank-you letters after birthdays and Christmases and I am careful to say please and thank-you at every possible opportunity. I am often shocked by the poor manners displayed by some of the children that I teach in my capacity as a supply-teacher, and insist on politeness and mutual respect in the classroom.

I believe that manners maketh the man, and that good manners will ultimately do you a lot of good. For example, I'd like to think that it was my politeness and smiling banter with the check-in girl at La Guardia airport last week that was responsible for me moving up the list of passengers on stand-by for the earlier flight that I managed to get onto. It seems that it's human nature to be nice to people who are nice to you (and how I snickered - politely of course - at the surly businessmen sitting in the departure lounge, grumbling that they hadn't been put onto the earlier flight. Perhaps if you'd smiled I wanted to say).

Being a 'Brit Abroad' certainly seems to be a bonus too, much to my surprise. It seems as though as well as having a reputation for beer-swilling loutishness, there is also another stereotype of the British as being highly intelligent and well-mannered... a stereotype I'm more than happy to be labelled with! A Canadian told me recently that upon hearing a British accent he immediately mentally ascribed extra IQ points to the speaker - it seems that speaking the Queen's English has its benefits.

It turns out, however, that politeness also has a darker side... As I boarded the aforementioned flight to Toronto, I clutched my boarding pass and searched for my seat before noticing with dismay that someone was already sitting there.

"I'm sorry, but I think you may be sitting in my seat" I said.

The woman concerned proceded to huff and puff, and make a loud performance about finding her boarding pass in order to prove me wrong. When she realised that she had in fact made a mistake she continued to huff and puff whilst gathering up the belongings that she had spread all around her.

"I'm so sorry" I simpered.

She stood up and trod on my foot whilst moving to her correct seat.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" I said... and at that point had the kind of out-of-body experience more usually reserved for those on the verge of death. I looked down at myself, apologising profusely for a litany of things that weren't my fault and suddenly realised - there is such a thing as being TOO POLITE.

It continually surprises me that people can be very rude. I'm with Lynne Truss on this one with her astonishment at the 'utter bloody rudeness of everyday life'. (I share her views on punctuation too - and YES, I know the address for this blog should have an apostrophe in the contraction it's but apostrophes don't appear to be acceptable in website addresses). However, I am beginning to realise that some people's excessive politeness merely allows rude people to be even ruder without fear of reproach. Sometimes a little straight-talking might be more effective. If I had simply said "Ow! That's my foot!" when hatchet-faced-aeroplane-woman stood on it, perhaps she might have been jolted out of her grumpiness for long enough to apologise and realise that she was in fact speaking to a real person instead of some kind of idiot only capable of uttering the words "I'm sorry".

So here's my resolution. I'm going to start being just a little less polite. Not to the point of rudeness, but just enough to make sure that I'm not treated as a doormat. It'll be a difficult habit to break, but as the obsequious blandishments spring to my lips, I'm going to try to consider whether they're entirely necessary.

Thank you for reading my blog!

Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens...

Inspired by some of my fellow bloggers, these are a few of my favourite (kitchen) things...

I adore the shape of this mixing bowl and the set of measuring cups. The cups came from the confusingly named 'Salisbury Bedding Centre' in Salisbury (UK), which sells all manner of exciting kitchen goods as well, of course, as bedding. I was excited to find the similarly-shaped pink bowl/jug here in Canada. It makes it look as though they've been reproducing in my kitchen cupboard.

This set of melamine bowls makes me happy every time I use them! The gorgeous pastel colours, the way they 'nest' so neatly inside eachother... kitchen bliss! I think I bought them in Winners - part of the TK Maxx chain of jumble sales, I mean shops.

More bowls. These sets of prep-bowls are popular here in Canada and I have seen them in many designs. However, this is the nicest one I've seen. I actually bought them for myself as a birthday present last year - I know where Rob keeps presents he's going to give me, so I bought it and snuck it into his 'present drawer' (keeping my eyes closed obviously, so I didn't see what else was in there).

I adore all of our Emma Bridgewater crockery, but here are some of my favourite pieces. The bowls (see a theme here?) are a lovely shape, and I particularly love the Garden Bird designs. Most of our crockery is the polka-dot pattern, but we have a couple of pieces in other patterns. The little bottle was a present from my friend Sarah. I often pick wildflowers to go in it, but they're a little thin on the ground right now (buried under the snow).

I sometimes feel like the lovechild of Emma Bridgewater and Cath Kidston. I adore pretty much everything they produce. This is my favourite teatowel... but woe betide anyone who tries to actually USE it - this rectangle of beautifully-printed fabric is purely for decoration.

OK, enough of all that good taste... here's some of the kitch that you were no doubt waiting for. What more fabulous way to drink tequila than from these great little cactus-shaped shot glasses. They rarely get used, but look wonderful in the glass-fronted drinks cabinet. I've been planning a cowboy-themed party for years and when it finally happens you can bet your bottom dollar that these will be playing a role. Yee haw! Slam 'em cowboy!

Retro-packaged groceries. Fabulous. See, I don't just photograph them in supermarkets, I sometimes buy them too.

Doing the dishes can be a miserable job, but it somehow seems less of a chore when one has co-ordinated the gloves, sponge and washing-up liquid! I found these lime-green gloves in Ikea and bought 3 pairs.

Tea plays an important role in our lives - what a relief it was to find that Canadian supermarkets stock Typhoo! I still have to get my Lady Grey brought over from the UK, but I can live with that. I hate the drips of tea that result from trying to carry a used teabag across the kitchen to the bin, but now - voila! - problem solved with this sweet little teabag dish, a gift from my husband. I often consider how lucky Rob is to have married me - I think many women would be horrified to receive some of the gifts that he buys... I'm often given such things as teatowels and dish-sponges (see the heart-shaped one in one of the pictures above), but fortunately I love them. Good job really, as I think I received my lifetime's supply of diamond jewellery when he foolishly took me to choose my own engagement ring...

More tea. I love my blue enamel teapot. It's a lovely shape and most importantly, doesn't break when you drop it! This is Rob's mug actually, but it's the best one ever when you need a gallon of tea. I'm sure that you're all thinking that it's a genuine Emma Bridgewater piece, and the connoisseurs among you will be wondering why you've never seen it in her catalogue... but no, I made it myself! No, not the mug, clearly, I'm not a potter, but I painted it in one of those great paint-your-own pottery cafes in Salisbury. I figured that the polka-dots would hit the limit of my artistic ability. I think it's quite convincing.

I love to bake, and then I love to put cakes and cookies into these tins. The spotty one was my first, and is still my favourite. It became well-known in the staffroom at my previous school. If 'the tin' was on the table then breaktime treats were in store! The Easter one was a Dollarama bargain.

Our enormous Canadian fridge is covered in magnets (well, one of our fridges... a further post about the beer-fridge is already forming in my mind...). This cheerful moose is my favourite. I notice now that it's 'ironically' holding a photo of me...

And finally, following my recent trip to NYC, in pride of place in my kitchen is my tin of Dean and Deluca Nigella Seeds. I had never heard of Dean and Deluca until I started reading Nigella's recipe books, and ever since I saw that picture of the tin of Nigella seeds I just knew I had to have some. Will I ever use them? Who cares?

And so, Julie Andrews style, I'll skip back to my kitchen now and smile when I use some of my favourite things. Because it's true what she (nearly) sang: "When the headache bites, when the excess-glass-of-wine-last-night stings, when I'm feeling sad, I simply remember my favourite things, and then I don't feel so bad".

Saturday, 17 November 2007

A Bite of The Big Apple

When Rob announced that he was heading to Rome on a 2 and a half week long work trip, I couldn't help but feel insanely jealous... not to mention a little miserable at the thought of being 'home alone' for such a long time. Don't get me wrong, I quite enjoy some time alone to indulge in long baths, changing into pyjamas as soon as I get home from work, drinking wine, cooking and eating cakes and watching trashy films (just call me Bridget Jones), but I can only do this for so long without worrying about turning into Waynetta Slob (or a wino)... Something had to be done.

The internet has opened up a whole new world to me over the last year. I have always been passionate about food, but I have been delighted to find many other people online who share this passion - not only share it but positively encourage it - and in that process have become firm friends. In my desire to find 'something to do' while Rob was away, my thoughts immediately turned to my foodie friends, and I decided that I would take a trip to New York to visit one of them.

What can I say? It was SO wonderful to visit a city and spend time there with a fellow 'foodie'. I suspect that many other people would look at me rather strangely when I whip out my camera in a delicatessan or supermarket, but if you've read my previous posts you'll know this is not only a likelihood but a certainty! Elisabeth had cleverly incorporated some hugely exciting food-related visits into what was always going to be a hugely exciting trip to a hugely exciting city.

Here are just a few highlights. My foodie friends will already have seen some of these, posted excitedly onto probably the only chat-forum in the world where people would hyperventilate with excitement at the name 'Dean and Deluca'. However, for the benefit of some other friends and family, this is my bite of the Big Apple. More photos (of some of the more usual tourist sights) can be found on our website.

The Buttercup Bake Shop, home of some of the most famous cupcakes in New York.

I think that I'd like to work here... although would probably be fired within the day for excessive consumption of the stock.

Here's what I chose from the aforementioned Bake Shop - a Red Velvet Cupcake. They're justifiably famous, and you'll be pleased to hear that the excessive amount of red food colouring that must have gone into it had no ill effects the following day.

This is Dean and Deluca - the deli beloved by Nigella Lawson, and therefore a place of pilgrimage for all of her fans. I gasped in delight upon finding tins of 'Nigella' seeds (actually black onion seeds) on the shelves, and bought many, therefore forced to spend the duration of the flight home hoping my bag wouldn't be searched at customs. Explain that... I can almost hear the rubber gloves being snapped on in preparation for the full-body search reserved exclusively for international drug-runners...

It's a true mecca for the serious foodie. Imagine the hole this place could make in your bank-balance if it was your local supermarket... ouch!

It was at the moment when I was taking this photograph when a member of staff approached me with the words "No photography please Madam"... Upon giving this some further thought, I remain baffled as to why this rule should be in place. Did they think I might be stealing their ideas in order to open a rival delicatessan? Have they been besieged by over-excited Nigella Lawson fans, clamouring to be immortalised in a photograph inside this famous shop? Did they think I was some kind of journalist, hell-bent on writing a poor review of their store? Well, I'm no journalist, but this stupid rule leads me to give D&D a serious black-mark. Being scolded for taking photographs inside what is basically a glorified supermarket (OK, it's very glorified, but...) just made me cross. And didn't stop me anyway. Pah!

No such worries in The Food Emporium, a wonderful supermarket tucked underneath the 58th St bridge. Just look at the architecture there. Rather puts my local Sobeys to shame!