Butter lust


Cream

Making butter is super quick with super-thick double cream like this

Butter is my dark secret. I eat it every day at breakfast, and sneak smears of it while cooking or just passing through the kitchen. I don’t do this at other people’s homes … unless I can get away with it.

While I appreciate good bread, it’s largely just camouflage for my butter habit – it’s the brown paper bag an alcoholic wraps round a bottle of Wild Turkey; the copy of Horse & Hound a teenage boy uses to conceal the latest issue of Big Jugs.

I’ve met people who only eat butter once a month, believing it’s really bad for you. Fortunately, the research is equivocal on the dangers of (high quality) saturated fats, and there is evidence that replacing butter with margarine or with carbohydrates may be even worse for you. There’s also some suggestion that butter can be good for you, with all its vitamins and such. This gives me a bit of solace … but it’s really only a justification for what I will continue doing – enjoying butter.

As Mary Oliver says in my favourite poem, “Wild Geese”: ‘Let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves’. Well, the soft animal of my body loves butter. However, my pleasure is usually off-set by worry: What happens if my arteries harden? If – with all my knowledge of healthy eating – I end up dying of diet-related disease? Each day at the breakfast table my knowledge-stuffed head does battle with ‘the soft animal of my body’. The animal always wins.

Butter promotes democracy (sort of)

I was encouraged to admit my love of butter after reading this recent post by Michael Moore, where he, too, admits to eating butter daily, and associates the practice with remedying some big social problems. That same week, I came out of the butter-lust closet in a big way, at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). At this year’s ORFC I heard about food as a human right, the imperative to let cows and sheep eat grass, and how communications technology can support food democracy. I also met filmmaker Anne Cottringer and got a copy of her latest documentary ‘Tune for the Blood’, about the passion and persistence of young farmers in the UK.

Over lunch I shared a table with a volunteer from the Youth Food Movement, who explained that she would be leading a butter-making workshop at 3:30 that day. ‘Wha-wha-what?’ I asked, halting mid-chew, as a piece of pasture-fed pastrami fell from my lip. It’s like I had just been told Johnny Depp would be arriving at 3.30 and really, really wanted to meet me, because he wants to make a movie based on my blog, and thinks I’m really good-looking. Suddenly, my plans to attend some important sessions about research on genetically modified foods were dashed – the soft animal of my body wanted to make some butter.

Butter boogie

Early butter

This is what I got after shaking the cream (not a euphemism) for about ten minutes

Before I moved to Europe I was familiar with ‘heavy cream’, whipping cream, Half & Half and Cool Whip, which in fact has no cream. Moving to Europe was like finding myself inside a game of Candy Land, only this was Candy Land for dairy fetishists, where cream comes in single, double, extra-thick double, clotted, whipping, créme fraîche and a few other luscious varieties.

Today we were using super-thick double cream from North Aston Dairy. Me and my dairy-loving compatriots were each given a small plastic container with a sturdy lid, and two big dollops of cream, along with a generous sprinkling of salt. We put the lids on our containers tightly, and then shook them for an uncomfortably long time (at least without a sports bra). At one point, me and another butter-maker broke out in some Latin-inspired dance moves; but mostly we just stood and shook.

Soon we became like nine-year-olds in the back of a station wagon, asking every few minutes if we were there yet. Our guide would peer at our shaken cream and say patiently, “Not yet. Keep shaking”. There was only one small blow-out, when someone’s container lid sprung a leak and droplets of buttermilk sprayed the crowd. One person delicately wiped the droplets off her blouse with a damp towel, while I ungracefully licked the droplets off my sleeve. (The other participants were lucky I didn’t lick their sleeves, too.)

Butter and buttermilk

After a few more minutes of shaking, the buttermilk separated from the butter

Sea salt

I added this coarse French sea salt to my butter at home, but I’m not sure it made much difference to the taste (except that it was too salty … funny that)

I shifted my container from one hand to the other, until, after about ten minutes, I could hear something solid bumping around. I opened the lid to find a lump of pale yellow butter and some white liquid at the bottom, which I was told was buttermilk. I was offered a slice of bread so that I could taste my butter, but instead I just stuck my finger in and licked the salty elixir straight-up. I was out of the closet now.

I made butter this way at home and it worked a charm. The cream I bought (again, from North Aston Dairy) was really, really thick, which made the job extra quick, and I added some crushed up French sea salt to see if it made a difference to the taste (not really). This isn’t the most efficient or cost-effective way to make butter, but it’s a fun way to get better acquainted with one of the foods I love most, and to practice some Latin dance moves.


Giving trick-or-treaters the finger


Demon hand made of cookies! Yum!

I haven’t blogged in ages, but today I just had to share. I love Halloween, and really miss celebrating it like I did when I lived in the USA. Here in the UK it’s not widely celebrated nor even welcomed by many people, and there are very few trick-or-treaters on the streets.

Instead of bellyaching about this (as usual), I looked for a culinary way to celebrate Halloween that was in accordance with its ancient roots … to honour the connections between life and death, and revivify a sacred Pagan or Celtic ritual to usher in the long, dark nights to come, or protect the crops from plague.

I stumbled upon some ancient wisdom from — you guessed it — Martha Stewart! Thanks to her, anyone who stops by our house looking for a treat this year, will get the finger …

Try the recipe yourself, and happy hauntings…

Unbaked fingers, ready to be glazed

My hubby glazing the unbaked fingers with green-tinted egg white

Just-baked fingers, with extra red food coloring


Sunshine in a jar


Lemon curd

Homemade lemon curd

It’s been ages since I posted here, quietly awaiting the end of winter and the ‘hungry gap’ — the period between the end of winter crops and the new produce of spring. Surprisingly, we’ve had some brilliant warm, sunny weather in the UK for the past two weeks, and it feels like spring even if the Earth has only just started sending up its tender green shoots.

With all this sunshine, inspiration hit me like a big yellow lightning flash — a lemon-flavoured one to be exact.

Nothing embodies warm weather and sunshine for me like lemon. I realize lemons aren’t exactly a traditionally British fruit, but even I get a taste for the exotic, and can’t do without lemons (especially Spanish lemons, which have a lovely taste and are grown close-ish to home).

I love lemony desserts, and especially lemon-infused cakes. My dad’s favourite cake has always been a white sponge with lemon filling and a marshmallow frosting. His mother made it for him for his birthday every year, and then my mother took over the tradition (with much cursing, as the seven-minute frosting can easily go wrong and become a sticky glob; mom always triumphed in the end, though). The cake was filled with lemon pudding made from a box, which was the only way I knew to make lemon filling. Then I discovered lemon curd – sunshine in a jar. My mother-in-law told me it was easy to make, which I hardly believed, considering it’s awesomeness. But I decided to give it a go.

Lemon curd

A bubbly concoction of lemon zest and juice, unsalted butter, caster sugar and eggs.

Reality TV for cake junkies

Having misplaced my mother-in-law’s recipe for lemon curd, I found one on The Pink Whisk. This is the site of Ruth Clemens, a once-amateur baker who competed in BBC’s The Great British Bake Off, the only reality TV show I like to watch. Each week, amateur bakers — ordinary folks — compete to make beautiful breads, delicate cupcakes and innovative tarts and cookies. I was mesmerized – honestly! It was exciting to see real, unpretentious people doing something they love, and wondering if they were any good at it, sometimes screwing up, often doing ‘good enough’, and occasionally baking something brilliant and (according to the judges) delicious. It was humbling and inspiring for an amateur like me. Ruth Clemens came second in the first series of the Bake Off, and now she bakes, teaches and writes about baking full-time at The Pink Whisk.

Curd, curd, curd … curd is the word

I took an hour away from doing my work today to try my hand at Ruth’s lemon curd recipe. It was really easy, and based on the puddles of it I licked off the counter (after discovering that the pouring spout on my pan was useless), it tastes really good. In fact, to my surprise. it tastes like lemon curd. It’s still cooling on the counter, so I’ve yet to find out if it has thickened as I expected. I hope so, because I’ll need it for tomorrow’s springtime baking adventure: a vanilla sponge-cake with lemon curd filling and piped cream on top.

NB: I’m no friend of a piping bag, so this will be something of a challenge. I expect a tasty cake with some very interesting cream sculptures on top. If it’s as artistically interesting as I anticipate, I’ll be sure to post a photo. I know I can’t compete with the 12 Ugliest Cakes or the beauties at Cake Wrecks, but I’ll do my best!

Find the lemon curd recipe I used at The Pink Whisk.Lemon curd


Getting a taste for the terroir (or How an American learned to love British food)


I wrote an article for the Food Culture section of the Campaign for Real Farming website, and it was published today.

Here’s a repost …

Bridget Jones movie poster

Before I moved to Britain, everything I knew about British food I learned from Bridget Jones's Diary (i.e., that everyone eats Turkey Curry after Christmas)

*******

There are nearly 14 million acres of farmland in my home state of Ohio, USA. I grew up surrounded by some of these acres – a green expanse of soybeans to my left, and a waving field of corn across the street. Yet I have no concept of my home state’s goût de terroir – literally the ‘taste of the Earth’. This is the term winemakers, farmers and the otherwise food-inclined use to describe the relationship between a food and the place it comes from, and how the soil, sunshine, rain and other conditions infuse a food with its unique characteristics.

My mother briefly flirted with growing beefsteak tomatoes and kohlrabi when I was very young, and I dabbled in gardening in early adulthood and had a brief stint working on an organic farm. Otherwise most of the food I ate was from California. No doubt much of that food included soybeans and corn – as fillers in burgers and sweeteners in processed foods, like fizzy drinks – but that hardly qualifies as ‘eating locally’: California is as far from Ohio as England is from Azerbaijan.

After thirty years living in Ohio, I came to live with my British husband in Oxford. What I knew about British food at that time came from a few chuckle-worthy spotted dick stories and a mention of turkey curry in Bridget Jones’s Diary. I hadn’t given it much thought, but was sure of one thing: I didn’t want to look, sound or eat like an American. These were the years of President Bush, Jr, and Americans were taking a hit in the popularity department. I decided that my ambassadorial contribution would be to experience my new home with an open mind, and ‘gustatorially’ that meant I wouldn’t insist on every dish being saltier, sweeter, fizzier and faster … or served in front of the television.

I failed. Despite my best efforts, I missed the salt, the sweet, the fizz. Some evenings I even scoffed nachos while watching Friends on Channel 4. During the first couple of years my impressions of British food culture consisted not of what it offered, but what it lacked … or rather what I missed. This included big slices of New York-style pepperoni pizza, made by independently owned pizzerias and delivered steaming hot to my door. It also included Tex-Mex and ‘interior’ Mexican food: fresh corn tortillas, black beans, fish tacos, and mole poblano (a blend of chocolate, chillies and as many as 20 spices, simmered with chicken).

Frozen pizza

I missed big, greasy New York-style pepperoni pizzas from small pizzerias in America. Sometimes I settled for frozen, like this one ...

I also started to crave the garlicky Polish kielbasa (sausage) my grandmother served at Christmas. The kind I found in Britain just didn’t taste the same (and now I’m committed to eating high-welfare pork, making most imported Polish sausage off-limits). I missed my all-time favourite dish – veal paprikash. My Hungarian-descended mother would make it for me when I visited: thick egg dumplings and chunks of veal simmered in a thick soured-cream gravy. (For the past 20 years my mom made this dish with chicken instead of veal, after discovering that veal calves were under-fed and raised in crates.)

I also craved my paternal grandmother’s green-jelly ‘salad’. (My husband rolls his eyes incredulously when I call jelly a ‘salad’, comparing it to Ronald Reagan’s reclassification of ketchup as a vegetable.) The dish is green jelly with a tin of fruit suspended in it, and cream cheese mixed in when the jelly is warm, causing the cheese to float to the top and create a solid layer of sweet, pale-green ‘icing’. While not the height of sophistication, that dish takes me right back to Christmas dinner in my grandmother’s tiny dining room in east Toledo.

Though I missed many things, I grudgingly got on with my new life in England, including trying to like the food. I joined the local Slow Food group, and heard about a box scheme that offered fresh vegetables each week. While I was no stranger to vegetables, I hadn’t spent much time with parsnips or Jerusalem artichokes, and I was only mildly acquainted with leeks. I liked beetroot, but felt cooking it demanded a lot of my time.

Yet I was determined to cook what was in that box every week. My husband took pity on me and handed me The Cookery Year,which his mother had given him. It’s handily organised by month, with recipes using a lot of local, seasonal ingredients. Along with additional support from Constance Spry and Jamie Oliver’s more British recipes in the Ministry of Food, I was soon roasting parsnips and swede and experimenting with lamb joints (lamb being expensive and hard to come by in the USA). Eventually I whipped up a somewhat puffy toad-in-the-hole and even attempted a few (flat but tasty) Victoria sponges.

My British food education was also helped along by the traditional food tastes of my husband’s Welsh mother and English father. From the first meal I had at their house, we sat at a properly ‘laid’ table (in America, we ‘set’ the table), and I learned to eat with the fork in my left hand and knife in my right (in America we hold the fork in our right hand to eat). I sampled boiled tongue, Yorkshires and beef, kippers in tomato sauce, and beetroot (boiled expediently in a pressure cooker).

British vegetables

Some of the fantastic and flavourful winter vegetables we get to eat in Britain.

A few years later I started shopping at two local farmers’ markets, one of which sources food from within 30 miles of Oxford. Along with the box scheme, cookery books and my in-laws, I was gaining something I never had in my 30 years in Ohio – an understanding of the goût de terroir of my adopted home. I found myself dipping soldiers into the golden yolk of a soft boiled egg, which was from a chicken who lived in a village down the road. I was eating toast topped with damson jam which my husband made from the fruit trees in our garden.

Toad in the hole

My first toad-in-the-hole (for those who don't know it, it's sausages baked with Yorkshire pudding). A bit overdone, but not bad for an American...

Fortunately, I also learned to adapt some of my favourite dishes from America to the ingredients native to Britain. A chat with my local butcher revealed spicy Toulouse sausage, which is a fine substitute for garlicky kielbasa (Toulouse sausages are from a French recipe, but widely produced in Britain). One of my favourite comfort foods – macaroni cheese – is an even more comforting dish here, made with cheddar and leeks. And getting educated about ‘rose’ veal – crate-free and well-fed at North Aston Dairy – means veal paprikash is back on the menu after two decades. I’ve even had some inspiration for great Mexican dishes by eating at Wahaca Mexican Market in London, where they use as many British-sourced ingredients as possible.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are,” wrote the 18th-century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. To my surprise, I think Jean might look at what I eat today and think I’m British, even if my passport says otherwise. I still haven’t managed to make a decent green-jelly-and-cream-cheese ‘salad’ the way my grandma did, and occasionally I eat crisps while watching CSI. But I also fantasise about roast parsnips, carrots and potatoes in the middle of winter, and look forward to nettle and red onion omelettes in spring. And, yes … I do like Marmite, smeared on bubbly cheese-on-toast.

This article first appeared in the Food Culture section of the Campaign for Real Farming website, 2 February 2012.


Going commando in the kitchen


I use recipes. Some people think that’s a weakness, a sign of someone lacking creativity or confidence in the kitchen. A person who is afraid to take risks. Perhaps they’re right, but I have good reason to cling to my cookbooks, and to my scraps of paper with hastily scribbled recipes from Epicurious. It has to do with:

Usual Suspects

The film that inspired our affectionate names for really bad dishes

A) a particular dish I made several years ago;

B) the 1995 film The Usual Suspects; and

C) my husband’s disused degree in German from Exeter University.

Shizer Soße

Here’s how it went. At a time when I wasn’t cooking as much as I do now, I set out to make one of our staple meals: pasta with cheese sauce. But boredom struck – I wanted to mix it up, do something different. As the flour and butter gently sizzled for my white sauce, emitting its nutty aroma, I opened the spice cabinet for inspiration. Oregano? Paprika? Turmeric? Yes! A curry sauce! With pasta? Maybe not. My forehead wrinkled at the thought. I can’t remember the rest of the details, but there was a lemon involved. And an onion. Salt, pepper and, of course, the milk for the sauce.

The result was gray, thick, mucilaginous, and mixed with al dente fusili. I warned my husband that it didn’t look good. He was optimistic as always, but after a few bites admitted that, in fact, it wasn’t very good. I said it was sh!t. He said, yes, it is. It is sh!t sauce. Shizer Soße, he said, pulling up those German language skills from bygone days. He also thought the sauce was mysterious and evil, like the similar-sounding Keyser Söze – the mysterious and evil unseen crime lord from the The Usual Suspects.

Henceforth, terrible dishes were christened, for example, Shizer suppe, which was a memorable soup my husband made with tonic water instead of the recipe’s suggested spring water.

Since the sauce incident, I mostly stuck to using recipes. Now and then, though, I improvised. Once I prepared something to share with the book group I belong to, and mixed ideas from a few different recipes to create what I envisioned would be a festive pumpkin filled with spicy fruit. The actual result was a baked pumpkin filled with clovey, gray stuff, in which floated raisins and dried dates. My friend B asked if it was savoury or meant to be a dessert. I wasn’t sure. It was Shizerkürbispampe (sh!t pumpkin mush), and went directly on the compost pile.

The Taste for Civilization

The Taste for Civilization, a fascinating book by Janet Flamang, which tells us why we need recipes (at least some of the time).

Recipes are there so we don’t kill ourselves

Recipes, of course, aren’t foolproof and there are so many available online now (including on this blog) that it’s likely you’ll come across a few which just don’t work (probably also from this blog). That’s why I tend to rely mostly on cookbooks, where the recipes are at least (or should be) tested. Even if you’re more of a ‘going commando’ cook, though, it’s good to pay homage to recipes: they keep us from killing ourselves.

As omnivores, we can eat lots of things (unlike most other animals), so recipes are a “condensed survival guide”, according to Michael Symons in A History of Cooks and Cooking. “Recipes signal safe, proper, and delicious eating,” claims Janet Flamang in her fascinating book The Taste for Civilization.

My Shizer Soße  and freaky pumpkin mush weren’t unsafe to eat, but they were a waste of time and ingredients (as well as an assault on the palate). But cooks are like “scientists, developing cuisines through trial and error” according to Flamang. I’ve now spent a number of years cooking with my survival guides, and can at last call myself a cook/scientist in the kitchen.

This recipe is an example of one of my more successful experiments: a layered vegetable bake. It takes a couple of hours to prepare and bake, but the majority of that is unattended. Hopefully it works for you, and doesn’t get compared to an evil crime lord.

Layered vegetable bake

Layered veggie bake

The layered veggie bake with cheese: the crispy, cheesy onion rings on top are the best bit.

1 egg

¾ cup milk or cream (or a mixture of both)

¼ cup yogurt, soured cream or crème fraiche

Salt and pepper to taste

Dash of nutmeg

1 – 2 cups each of cleaned, peeled and thinly sliced root vegetables: e.g., potatoes, rutabaga (aka swede), carrots, squash, leeks.

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 onion, sliced in thin rings

Preheat oven to 190C (375 F). Whisk together the first five ingredients and set aside.

Butter a large, shallow rectangular baking dish. Place a layer of vegetable slices in the dish, then sprinkle with some of the cheese. Keep layering vegetables and cheese until you run out of vegetables.

Pour the egg-milk mixture evenly over the whole thing. Arrange your onion rings over the top of the dish, then sprinkle on the remaining cheese. If you have any bread crumbs or sesame seeds around, sprinkle those on top, too, for added crunch.

Cover the dish with foil and bake for around 1 ½ hours, or until the vegetables are tender. Remove the foil and put back in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp the top. Serve with a salad.


Fight for your right to parsnip


Last week I was inspired, infuriated and energized at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). This is the third ORFC to take place during the same week as (and right across the street from) the mainstream Oxford Farming Conference (OFC).

Magdalen College, Oxford

The site of this year's Oxford Real Farming Conference, Magdalen College

The ORFC is about innovations and activism related to growing healthy, tasty food without destroying rural communities, the soil and human and animal health. The OFC is about growing more food more intensively, and is sponsored by investment banks, agribusiness companies and pillars of healthy eating such as McDonalds.

Of course, the OFC wasn’t just a bunch of baddies meeting to decide how to make us buy more fizzy drinks and destroy local food markets. They allowed a few people to discuss things like sustainable agriculture. That was so nice of them.

Be a local yokel

While I could just hang my head and cry into my fair-trade coffee about the very depressing state of the global food system, I won’t. Instead, I’ll focus on taking action.

Turl St Kitchen

Home of fantastic and affordable local and seasonal food in Oxford: Turl Street Kitchen. I ate here twice during the ORFC and am now officially addicted.

Some of the clear messages from the ORFC were to buy locally produced food and cut out the middle men (er, middle people) by buying from farmer’s markets or direct from growers (such as through a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm – find one near you in the US  or UK).

Another important message was to inspire people to go back to the land, especially young people, thus encouraging a generation of young farmers.

For the rest of us, we need to rediscover the “lost arts”: learning about the foods grown or raised in our region, cooking and preserving those foods, baking bread, sharing meals at home, and just generally getting back into the kitchen or garden (this applies to women and men).

Raiders of the lost arts

Part of rediscovering the “lost arts” involves learning about vegetables we’re unfamiliar with, don’t know how to cook, or dislike because we’ve had them badly prepared. This includes the mushy canned spinach you had in the school cafeteria, and Brussels sprouts, which I hated as a child but now adore (if they’re fresh).

Jerusalem artichoke, potato, red onion and goats cheese bake

One local vegetable that has always perplexed me is Jerusalem artichokes. But today I had a scrumptious Jerusalem artichoke, potato, red onion and goats' cheese bake at Turl Street Kitchen. I hope to try making a version of this at home.

Local eating requires local knowledge, something that’s been lost as the sources of our food have moved further and further away from where we live. A great way to learn is to ask the sellers at farmer’s markets how to cook the things they grow. You can do this at a butcher’s, too, if they’re selling locally produced meats (and find out how to cook weird and wonderful parts of animals that our ancestors coveted).

In an effort to inspire your adventures in the “lost arts”, I’m offering a hearty vegetarian risotto recipe using winter root vegetables. I love risotto, but when I think about making it I immediately remember the 20+ minutes I’ll need to stand and stir over the stove. Fortunately, this recipe is done in the oven, and I was impressed by how rich it tasted despite the lack of stirring.

Winter vegetable risotto

I’ve made risotto often in the spring and summer with spring greens, aubergine (eggplant) or courgette (zucchini), but I hadn’t experimented much with using the muddy root vegetables we get this time of year. The recipe I’m sharing is adapted from one at Waitrose.com. I substituted sweet potato for the swede (aka rutabaga — though sweet potatoes aren’t grown very widely here in the UK, so swede is usually a better option). I also added garlic, and used parmesan-style cheese instead of the special sheep’s cheese they recommend. Feta or another rich white cheese would have been very good, but I used what was in the fridge (try it with a cheese made locally!).

While it takes about an hour and a half to make this, most of that is with the dish in the oven, unattended. So it may not be a quick option for after work during the week, but perfect if you’re pottering around the house on a weekend.

What you’ll need

250 grams (about 1-1/2 cups) each sweet potato (or swede/rutabaga), celeriac and carrots

2 small red onions

Several cloves of garlic

3 tablespoons olive oil

A handful of fresh sage leaves (or use a couple of teaspoons dried)

175 grams (or just over 3/4 cup) of Arborio risotto rice

150 ml (just over 1/2 cup) of dry white wine

500 ml (2 cups) of hot vegetable stock (I used a vegetarian bouillon)

100g (1 cup) parmesan-style (or other) cheese (try feta, or whatever’s local)

How to do it

Preheat oven to 200 C (400 F, gas mark 6). Wash and peel the vegetables and cut into 2-cm (or just smaller than 1 inch) pieces. Peel and quarter the onions. Peel the garlic.

Veg ready to roast

Sweet potato, carrots, celeriac, garlic and red onion, ready to roast. After 40 minutes or so, add other risotto ingredients and cook 35 minutes.

Place the veggies in a large, shallow baking dish or tin, toss with olive oil to coat, sprinkle over chopped sage. Place in the oven for 35-45 minutes, stirring once or twice during the cooking. Next, add the rice, wine and hot stock and return to the oven for 35 minutes, stirring once.

Remove from the oven and stir in the cheese (add a hunk of butter if you like it really creamy, a la Jamie Oliver). Add salt and pepper to taste.

The original recipe suggests you eat this with a tomato and onion salad, but it’s winter, and tomatoes are grown in summer. Instead, try this lovely recipe from the very tasty and creative blog Not Eating Out in New York: Raw carrot and parsnip salad.


Wombat lebkuchen


iced lebkuchen

Glazed lebkuchen wombats and koalas with slivered almonds

This year, Christmas dinner will be low-key: just me, my husband and Harvey the Corgi. So there are no pressures to cook anything in particular.

No pressure to prepare my maternal grandmother’s stuffing made with dried white bread crumbs, a truckload of butter and chopped turkey livers; or my paternal grandmother’s stuffing made with white bread crumbs, a truckload of butter and celery. Not a turkey or goose in the style of my husband’s British family, nor Polish kielbasa as my dad’s mom used to do. And for one of the first times in a decade, we won’t be having Christmas dinner in Australia, eating winter foods in the heat of summer.

Instead of enjoying this freedom to do things just the way we like, I find myself befuddled trying to choose among the many culinary traditions my husband and I bring to the table.

Fortunately, there was support and inspiration from the BBC last night, via a programme called ‘Jerusalem on a Plate‘. It was a chef’s tour of the ancient city, featuring Arab and Jewish cuisine and the evolving, exciting fusion of the two. One chef remarked that the fusion of cuisines in Jerusalem is a way of creating a national identity and peace at the table, in a country struggling for both.

“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are”

Betty Crocker CB with grandmas notes

My main source of holiday cookie recipes: my late grandmother's 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, with hand-written notes and recipes

This is a famous quote from one of history’s most famous foodies: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, circa 1825. It reminds me why food goes beyond sustenance for many of us — it is linked to our identity and sense of belonging. I find this most striking during holidays like Christmas. What might Brillat-Savarin have said about the Christmas menu of a Polish-Hungarian-Swiss-German-American living in England, married to a half-English/half-Welsh man, with family ties to Australia? … especially when I serve up my first Christmas culinary offering of 2011: Wombat Lebkuchen.

Lebkuchen are traditional German honey-flavoured cookies, usually spiced similarly to gingerbread. There are as many variations of lebkuchen as there are decades since it was supposedly first made, in the 1200s. I’ve heard stories about strained arm muscles after stirring the stiff dough, and frustrations when rolling it out as it sticks to everything. The biggest challenge, though, is not eating them all at once: the longer they mellow, the better the taste and texture. With its long history and huge variation, lebkuchen seems appropriate for my experiment in culinary and cultural fusion.

The (grand) mother of all cook books

Cookie tab in BC cookbook

The worn out and then replaced tab for 'Cookies' in my grandmother's cook book

My choice of lebkuchen is something of a tribute to my paternal grandfather’s roots in Germany and Switzerland. But the recipe I’m using comes from my Polish grandmother’s American classic: the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, published in 1950. The book has tabbed sections for breads, cakes, salads, meats and desserts, and one tab has fallen off from overuse: cookies. My grandma replaced the tab with a sturdy bit of card on which she wrote COOKIES, and reinforced with a tiny bit of wood. She taped it all together with multiple layers of tape. She also added comments to some of the cookie recipes, such as ‘Delicious!’ next to the Russian Tea Cakes and a post-it on the Thumbprint Cookies page saying she added chopped nuts and chocolate chips when she made them in 1985.

The lebkuchen recipe is based on a mixture of molasses and honey, but I’ve replaced the molasses (less common in England) with black treacle, a sugar derivative which isn’t quite as dark as molasses but still has a strong, smoky flavour. I made the dough Monday night and let it sit in the fridge until Tuesday. The recipe suggests cutting the rolled out dough into rectangular bars, but I like to take any opportunity I have to make fun shapes. Once again, though, I had forgotten that I don’t have any Christmas cookie cutters  – the result of a transatlantic move and rarely being home at Christmas for the past decade. What I do have, however, is even better: my late sister-in-law’s Australian cookie cutters.

Rolling out the sticky dough

Rolling out the sticky dough required a lot of flour

Spicy German marsupials

Because my sister-in-law moved to Australia nearly two decades ago and even became an Australian citizen, the place has become a second home for our family. Adding Australia into my family cookie mix seems fitting, and so the wombat and koala lebkuchen were born.

Boiling the glazing icing

Making a simple glaze of sugar and water

Once I tackled the tricky rolling out of the very sticky dough, I placed the critters on oiled cookie sheets. The recipe suggested giving them 10-12 minutes to bake, but in my fan oven each batch took about six-and-a-half minutes. As they baked I was meant to be making a glaze of boiled sugar syrup and confectioner’s sugar, then brushing it on the hot wombats as soon as they were out of the oven. But they baked so fast I wasn’t ready. The glaze was a bit gloppy, then it hardened and I had to add more water, which made it runny. Boiled sugar things are not my strong point.

My wombats won’t win any beauty contests and I won’t be crowned most elegant baker, but the cookies are pretty good. I’ve tasted them. Several of them. This whole “putting them away to ‘mellow’ in a cookie tin” isn’t going over very big in our house. (Try the recipe yourself and good luck letting them mellow!)

Sweet remembrance

pre-iced lebkuchen wombats

Baked wombats, ready to be glazed

Sadly, I can’t share these cookies with the two people whose far-flung kitchens inspired me to make them: my grandmother and my sister-in-law. They both passed away within two months of each other, in 2009. I can, however, imagine them laughing at my ragged, badly iced wombats and koalas, over a good cup of Italian coffee (with my sister-in-law) or a filter coffee with a shot of whiskey (with my grandma).

Next up: there’s honey-infused cookie dough made with my grandma’s Betty Crocker recipe for ‘Merry Christmas Cookies’. It’s chilling in the fridge, and just about ready to be transformed into red- and green-iced kangaroos.

Iced kangaroo red

Iced kangaroo prototype