Monday, February 21, 2011

The Cake for Dinner Revolution

Cookie Monster is right. Cookies are a sometimes food. Eating sugar and saturated fat in moderation along side 20 minutes of physical activi....zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Sorry. I nodded off there out of sheer boredom. It's just that I've heard it so many times before and hearing things that I'm supposed to do but don't want to do doesn't inspire me to do them. If that makes sense. How about some advice I'd actually want to follow? Here it is: sometimes you should eat cake for dinner.

...maybe not for Thanksgiving dinner...

I eat cake a lot. I am not fat (my bum-to-waist ratio is a little inconvenient for jeans shopping but I maintain that it's more to do with genetics. I'm pretty sure that the medical term for it is Camerino Tuchus, colloquially known as Ghetto Booty). My Body Mass Index is what it should be, my hair is long and healthy and I'm pale but hydrated. On a normal day in the absence of an occurrence of my mild superpower, if I listen closely I can hear exactly what my body is hungry for. I have a suspicion that feeding yourself what your body needs is a healthier lifestyle than constantly denying yourself. (What is my mild superpower, you ask? I get sudden and intense cravings for very specific foods. Like this past Sunday while still lying in bed, I was struck with a sudden hankering for a big bowl of Vietnamese soup with chicken, vegetables and thin egg noodles from Pho Bac in Chinatown in Montreal. I swear I've only been to that place twice in my life and the last time was probably around 4 years ago.)

Sometimes life pelts lemons at your head. For example, oh I don't know, your car might fail the NCT and you get clamped while at work, trying to earn enough money to pay for the repairs. So you pay the clamp release fee out of your rent account, which contains only exactly the amount needed for your rent, which is scheduled to automatically leave said account the next business day. You camp out at the bank the next day until they open their doors and you manage to deposit the missing money in time. Phew. Catastrophe avoided. What a lovely day! La la la. Life is beautiful. CRUNCH. That is the sound of an absent minded driver reversing over your precious Vespa. You aren't hurt. You managed to hop off in time. You just got a fright and start to weep. But the volume+amount of sobbing and hyperventilation concerns passers by and they gather around. Everyone is staring. You washed you hair this morning but didn't dry it before putting your helmet on. It's now half dry into a half Afro. You had ran off to the bank in the middle of bakery class and you are still in your big ugly uniform complete with apron, hounds tooth trousers (which accentuate the Ghetto Booty) and steel toed white loafers (Dr. Evil style). All the drunks on the road think it's hilarious and come over to stare, pretending they are interested in buying your Vespa just to get a closer look at the state of you. The DRUNKS think YOU look a state. It's days like this that it's OK to listen to your body when your body says, “I want cake for dinner”. I know it sounds crazy, but I'm sure the first person who declared Breakfast for Dinner to be a good idea got funny looks from the drunks too. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Grandma U

I was at the Dublin premier of the documentary film The Economics of Happiness the other night. It was a huge success, with so many people showing up that most of us had to stand. Summary: Happiness levels in America peaked in the 1950s, and has been on the decline ever since, which directly correlates with an increase in wealth. In order to reverse this trend, the experts tell us to act locally in order to rebuild communities, which will in turn increase happiness. All good points. But what stuck with me most from the film was something said by Dr. Vandana Shiva. She believes that one way we can rebuild communities is by introducing a Grandmother University. I instantly loved the idea. No surprise there.

Those that know me are aware of my gravitation towards octogenarians. Here's a typical conversation between me and my sister Nadya:

Nadya: “What are you still doing up? It's 9pm. It's past your bed time.”
Me: “It's okay, I took a nap. I've finished baking. Now I'm working on knitting a new tea cosy. Tea cosies are back in, you know.”
Nadya: “You are such an old soul.”
Me: “Thank you!”

This is nothing new. During a 6 month stint back in Montreal while waiting out a new Irish visa, my mother was worried by my sudden near-obsession with this new group of friends from my Irish writing club and my Irish language club and my Irish film club (I like clubs. I was also going through Ireland withdrawal). Of course she was concerned! These strangers could be hooligans and try to coerce me into any kind of shenanigans! She agreed to come along to a screening of Omagh at the Montreal Irish Film Club. Her relief and confusion was expressed in a whispered sentence that is pure, classic mommy: “More like the Q-tip club..!” Granted, P.J., Donal, Anne-Marie, Claire and Niall were generationally advanced and our friendship was perhaps unusual but oh, the learning! They knew so much about so much!

****Before I go on I feel I have to break and stress that although I like baking and knitting and learning and getting a good night's sleep and driving within the speed limit, I am not a total dweeb. I have a reckless side too. Just ask me about the Beanie Baby debacle that had me and my high school boyfriend detained at U.S. Customs...Yeah.

Grandmother University! What a Utopian place that would be! When I got home I took to Google to find out if such a place actually existed. Not really, apart from some vague information from the aforementioned expert. But think about it, if there was such a place, would the grandmas be putting it on the interweb? Probably not.

Then in dawned on me. I have already been proudly attending Grandmother University since my Facebook status update was “bring on the jam making competition!” It was the day I joined the Irish Countrywomen's Association.

For those who are unfamiliar with the ICA, think Mall Walkers, but instead of active older people meeting in their tracksuits, women meet in their finery to socialize over various topics of interest like cookery or gardening or crafts. It isn't usual for someone my age to join the ICA. Translation: It isn't normal for someone my age to join the ICA. In fact, in the Milltown chapter to which I belong, the next youngest member is 33 years older than me. But I think I have the benefit of seeing the Association from an outsider's perspective. It's a social club where skills and interests are shared in good company and that you attend wearing your pearls. These women are fabulous. They know how to darn socks, make their own soap and birth heifers. Learning forgotten skills is on trend, yet the ICA may be too shrouded in its stereotype to be adopted by the type of crew that now attend Bitch n' Stich knitting circles because knitting is cool  (did you hear that, Nadya?). That suits me perfectly - more seniors all for me. This month  I got a text warning me to bring a ruler and scissors to the meeting. Crafts! This was going to be a good one... and I was right. We learned how to make gift boxes out of decorative paper. Awesome, right!? These little guys are perfect for handmade chocolates.

Start with 2 squares of paper, one slightly larger than the other. You will need a ruler scissors and a pencil. Find the center of the paper by drawing an X from corner to corner

Fold 2 opposite corners into the center and crease the paper at the fold
Fold one again and crease the seam.
It' look like this

Unfold and repeat with the 2 other sides

Here are some of the ladies hard at work

You will now have a piece of paper with lovely fold lines
Cut along the 2 center-most fold lines on opposite sides of the paper, leaving a center square

Now back to folding...

Like that

Then that

Then that

Nearly there

Last fold...

And done! There's our bottom

And the pair together

Muriel traces a square of paper to line the box

I did the same

And voila!

A lovely handmade gift box, for those times when you can't go to the shop and buy a gift box

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Birthday Sisters

Caryna Camerino

Isabella Beeton

A few events coincided that got me thinking about me and my place in the culinary world. I was speaking with Mentor Steve, plotting my short and long term goals for Caryna's Cakes. Not long after I was studying for a college exam in Gastronomy 101 – a subject so boring that I transformed from my usual nerdy keener self, into one of those students that skips class. I became a skiver. So unoriginal! And I'm not even sorry. I couldn't help it... My natural instinct to sit towards the front of the class to “facilitate maximum learning” (I'm quoting myself here. Mainly to illustrate the nerdy keener bit I wrote earlier) were overridden by survival instinct; if I sat through one more lecture on how primitive man ate turtles I would surely inflict a fatal injury upon myself with my highlighter. I couldn't see how this class was at all relevant to learning how to run a successful bakery business. It wasn't until I was doing my own research on culinary history that I came across biographies of some characters so inspiring that it got me thinking: As an artisan baker, what kind of impact do I want to have on the world?

My 30th birthday is looming. I don't mind. I actually like getting older. I probably have something to prove because younger sister Nadya was always taller and people used to mistake me for the little sister. I also got ID'd this week while buying a bottle of Bailey's at Aldi. The older I get, the prouder I am to show that Drivers' License. So, as every year, on March 12th I will be joyfully celebrating my and Liza Minelli's birthday. But all this time I had no idea that I shared a birthday with another fabulous woman: the ever-relevant Mrs. Beeton.

Isabella Beeton was born of the 12th March 1836, 145 years before me. And if I can accomplish a fraction of what she did in her lifetime, I would be a happy bunny. Perhaps our lives as birthday sisters aren't so different. Let's compare:

  • Isabella Beeton was born in London. I was also born in a Commonwealth country, and we are both the oldest (her biography didn't specify if her siblings turned out taller...). Although, I am the oldest of 3 and Isabella is the oldest of 18. That's not a typo.
  • Isabella was a pianist. I too was a pianist, however I was a pretty crappy pianist. I hid an ace bandage in my piano bag that I put on while walking to Mrs. Hector's piano lessons around the corner so I wouldn't have to play with my left hand.
  • She married Samuel Beeton at the age of 20. I haven't been married. But that's okay, I'll give her that one. At least I didn't marry a man who gave me syphilis. Snap.
  • Isabella teamed up with her publisher husband to write articles for such magazines as The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine: an Illustrated Journal combing Practical Information, Instruction & Amusement. An astrologer once told me that I would collaborate with my future husband. Results of this are still unknown, but possible. The astrologer was very convincing.
  • At the age of 24, Isabella published her timeless tome The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady's-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: With a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort, edited by Mrs. Isabella Beeton. I also write very long sentences. Her book sold more than 2 million copies by 1968. It was 1,112 pages long, containing over 900 recipes. This was the first book that listed ingredients at the start of a recipe and the format has been in use ever since. When it was re-issued in March 2000, it sold out in London bookshops. I comparatively wrote a very good essay on nuts. I wrote another one on soy. I'm still waiting for a call back from Harper Collins on that one...
  • Isabella believes that a way to a man's heart is through his stomach. In her own words, as written in the forward of her book:
    What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife's badly cooked dinners and untidy ways. Men are now so well served out of doors -- at their clubs, well-ordered taverns, and dining-houses -- that, in order to compete with the attraction of these places, a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home. 
    I once baked a batch of brownies for a boy one handed with the other arm in a sling the day after a Vespa accident. It's not that I'm anti-feminist. The door is open for reciprocity. If you feed me I am more likely to love you.

It's not so much what she wrote. I am more impressed with how she wrote it. Isabella Beeton had an ability to see English life objectively so that she could identify and provide for what was missing. She filled the gap with a reassuring text that was like a domestic encyclopaedia, relevant to everyone, containing everything from how to spot a fever to recipes for cream cheese. And what she wrote is still relevant.

Julia Child gave us french cooking, Nigella Lawson gave us food pornography (and a cookbook entitled “How to be a Domestic Goddess”. Doesn't sound so original now, does it?) These women are talented, business savvy and intelligent. But they are not trailblazers. Isabella Beeton is. Especially for a woman of her time.

Here's what she has to say on eggs:

The eggs of different birds vary much in size and colour. Those of the ostrich are the largest: one laid in the menagerie in Paris weighed 2 lbs. 14 oz., held a pint, and was six inches deep: this is about the usual size of those brought from Africa. Travellers describe ostrich eggs as of an agreeable taste: they keep longer than hen's eggs. Drinking-cups are often made of the shell, which is very strong. The eggs of the turkey are almost as mild as those of the hen; the egg of the goose is large, but well-tasted. Duck's eggs have a rich flavour; the albumen is slightly transparent, or bluish, when set or coagulated by boiling, which requires less time than hen's eggs. Guinea-fowl eggs are smaller and more delicate than those of the hen. Eggs of wild fowl are generally coloured, often spotted; and the taste generally partakes somewhat of the flavour of the bird they belong to. Those of land birds that are eaten, as the plover, lapwing, ruff, &c., are in general much esteemed; but those of sea-fowl have, more or less, a strong fishy taste. The eggs of the turtle are very numerous: they consist of yolk only, without shell, and are delicious.

Suddenly turtles seem so much more interesting.

Sadly, Isabella Beeton died at the age of 28. I have a few weeks left at 29 and although I cannot possibly say that I will start where she left off, I can certainly say that I am inspired.