Friday, 3 August 2007

Competition Entry

Back in March I entered the Waitrose Food Illustrated search for a new food writer. No, I didn't win, but the winning entry has been published in the August Issue of WFI and you can read it here. It's very good. And if you feel so inclined you can read my entry here:

Beast of Baking

“Off-limits” was something I experienced very little as a child. The medicine cabinet was definitely a no-go, and I wasn’t particularly welcome in my brother’s room either, but otherwise there were few barriers to my explorations at home. This made it even more frustrating that opening the deep, wide cupboard on the side of the kitchen island was prohibited. I knew what was in there, but I wanted more than a glimpse or a touch. I wanted to use it; to plug it in, to attach things and to be in control of the large, white contraption that was so powerful and enigmatic.

The electric mixer was mysterious and magical in both its physical characteristics and its abilities. It seemed to me like the heaviest thing on earth. Occasionally I would open the cupboard and try as hard I could to make the thing budge, but it wouldn’t move an inch. Lying on its side on its special pivoted shelf that rose up and locked at countertop level, it seemed like a sleeping monster in its den. The movable parts that connected to the front and underside of its hinged torso were weird and wonderful limbs with fascinating functions. It was the equivalent of a bizarre, beastly Mr. Potato Head. Its electrical umbilical cord placed it firmly on the grown-up side of the toy world and made sure that it was only for use with adult supervision.

The most fantastic part of the mixer was watching it work and imagining the outcome. On occasion I would come home to the dull, undulating whirr of the machine, and I would walk straight into the kitchen excited to see it high on its pedestal. I soon developed a hierarchy of mixer attachments: the lowest on the ladder was the dough hook, as its use meant that a thick, heavy, wholegrain bread was on the way; the middle rung was occupied by the meat grinder, which ground steak into mince for burgers or Bolognese, two of my dinnertime favourites; and finally the whisk attachment which I wanted to see most, used mainly for the magical creaming of butter and sugar that was the base of so many cakes and cookies of my dreams. I would watch in awe as ingredients were either ground, kneaded or mixed to create something new and awesome.

I wanted more than anything to be in control of the machine, to play at making a magic potion. My mother was not cruel; when she was using it I was allowed to be the kitchen helper. During those encounters I learnt that sometimes, especially when baking, it is important to be precise in the kitchen. In fact, I still think of measures in terms of the yellow cups and spoons we used. On the other hand I learnt that through practice it is possible to be creative and experiment with both quantities and ingredients. Recipes came not only from books, but also from scraps of paper on which notes were scribbled down in someone else’s kitchen. Sometimes they came straight from my mother’s head.

My sensory memories of my early baking experiences are the strongest. They start with the textures of the ingredients: cold, silky butter slipping out of my hot little fingers and clouds of super-fine flour settling in my hair and on my apron. I would dip into the mixing bowl at every chance, even when the butter and sugar were hardly combined and the grains of sugar crunched loudly between my teeth. However the finished batter was always the best, and therefore I detested my mother’s rubber spatula which robbed me of some of the last of the batter that clung to the bowl (I already had enough competition from my brother). After retrieving the bowl from the grip of the machine, I would retreat to the kitchen table and use the rubber spatula to get as much of the batter as I could into my mouth. Inevitably it would coat my face and clothing too. Just as I was finishing the bowl the sweet smell escaping from the oven would announce the impending arrival of the finished treat. There was never a dull moment.

The food that came out of the mixer was not always perfect, but I learnt to appreciate the process as well as the result. Although I preferred, at that age, a delivery pizza to my mother’s whole-wheat deep pan, I began to value the fact that that bread rose out of the flour, water and yeast we had mixed together. This culinary romanticism is something I have carried through to adulthood. Food with a story just tastes better. When enjoying baked goods made with care for the village fete, imported mountain cheese made of milk from a small herd in Switzerland or homemade tomato soup, the knowledge of where the food came from and how it was made is almost as important to me as the ingredients themselves.

Before I was old enough to use the mixer independently we moved abroad and had to leave it behind. Sadly, we didn’t replace it, so when I recently invested in one of my own I knew immediately which recipe I wanted to try first. Chocolate chip cookies are heaven to adults and children alike. I like to make these with my niece, and though I now understand the concern about small fingers near mixers, sharing in her anticipation makes the baking all the more enjoyable.

Dried cherries give these a more adult flavour, but you could leave them out or split the batch. Although it is easier to make these in an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, a handheld electric whisk also works well. You can use a large bowl and wooden spoon instead, but call in the reinforcements as you’ll need a lot of elbow grease to thoroughly cream the butter and sugar together.

Cherry Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies

225 g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
200g light muscovado sugar
100g golden caster sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
225 g plain flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
250 g rolled oats
170g chocolate chips or chopped dark chocolate
100g dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 165 C (Gas mark 3). Put the top shelf about two-thirds of the way up the oven. Grease a baking tray. I like to use leftover butter wrappers for this as they have the perfect amount of butter and I can feel a little greener for it.

Whip the butter until it becomes pale. Cream the sugars into the butter about 50 grams at a time. At the end most of the sugar will have dissolved and you should have a pale and fluffy mound with just a few grains of sugar creating crunch when you taste it (which you should).

Add one egg to the mixture at a time, beating gently until incorporated. Don’t forget to use that trusty rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Mix in the vanilla.

In a small mixing bowl combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Slowly add the flour mixture to the butter, sugar and eggs by the heaping spoonful, being careful not to beat the mixture too furiously as this will toughen the dough.

Stir in the oats. If all of the dough is sticking to your whisk you may need to abandon the gadgets at this point and start mixing with a spoon. Fold in the cherries and the chocolate chips. Try to distribute them evenly in the dough that there is at least a taste of chocolate and cherry in each cookie.

Using two spoons, measure generous tablespoonfuls of dough onto your baking sheet about two inches apart. Flatten the dough out with the back of a fork and place the tray in the oven. Avoid the temptation to multitask at this stage, as the cookies need a keen eye. I enjoy watching through the oven door as the dough spreads out and marks its territory on the sheet.

When you see the cookies start to brown at the edges they’re close to done. This should take 8-10 minutes depending on the thickness of your baking tray. For chewy cookies, take them out when they are golden but still glistening. If you prefer a crunch, leave the cookies to develop a rich brown border. Let the cookies cool on the sheet for a few minutes before removing them to a wire rack.

I love these warm out of the oven. If you manage to restrain yourself, they will keep for a day or two in an airtight container. If not, tuck in and indulge your inner child!

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