The Pursuit of Imperfection

Cooking is relaxing to me. It stops me from going a little bit (more) mad. There’s nothing I enjoy more than sitting at home, my greyhound’s head on my shoulder, reading cookbooks and mentally composing menus, some of which I will prepare, some of which will never reach fruition. This is how I ideally spend my weekends. I don’t like the time to be interrupted by something trifling like cleaning the house or answering the phone. My husband understands this and he very diligently cleans around me, only grumbling slightly when a large pile of cookbooks tumbles on top of him. Either that or he spends the time perfecting his gaming skills.
As you can imagine, after such relaxing weekends, Monday mornings are always a shock to the system. I try to start the day cheerfully by reading something by the Barefoot Contessa before I go to work. I always find Ina Garton’s books to be soothing, a sort of visual chicken soup for the eyes. OK, so maybe I’m sold on her picture perfect lifestyle but I find her more appealing than the sterile Martha Stewart or Delia Smith. And lets face it, sometimes we like to escape from our current existence if it only lasts for as long as the car drive to work and then on your arrival at work you discover that one of your male co-workers has ignominiously used the Ladies Bathroom, rendering it, and the surrounding perimeter, an inhospitable environment for several hours. This kind of outrageous behaviour doesn’t happen in Ina’s world. Never mind that her flowers never wilt and always are immaculately arranged, her herb-scented biscuits never sink into her chicken casserole and her soufflés never flop. We have real life to remind us that things aren’t perfect and deep down we know that Ina’s life is no more perfect than our own. In truth, we probably wouldn’t want our lives to be completely perfect because we’d simply become walking, smiling zombies, like Stepford Wives. Perfection is one thing that we all strive for but can never achieve. Cooking is one area where I feel that anyone can be almost perfect, whether it’s making the best beans on toasts or the most fabulous roast chicken or poached trout quenelles. What cooking comes down to is if you and your guests leave the dining table happy and content, then you’ve achieved almost the impossible.
Sometimes I cannot muster up the energy to cook supper so I rely on my multi-talented husband to cook for me. He knows what food I enjoy and this usually entails something stodgy that I wouldn’t normally prepare for myself. He is incredibly philanthropic because I know that deep down he doesn’t relish tucking into a meat pie and mash yet he knows that I find comfort in that most traditional of all meals, one that was prepared for me by my mother when I was much younger and that is still served on many British household tables at dinnertime.
On Saturday, he offered to cook for me and my mum (who, conversely, doesn’t particularly enjoy pie and mash either). With him at the reigns, I was free to knock up a quick dessert as I was to serve as chief fruit chopper and stirrer for the annual preparations of the Christmas Cake.
My husband enjoys freshly prepared foods that are vegetable heavy, like Stir Fry and multi-ingredient salads, like the famous Cobb Salad. I am not the biggest fan of too many vegetables on the plate, I can just about tolerate things like sugar snap peas, and baby Sweetcorn but I find broccoli and cauliflower and carrots to be a bit boring unless smothered in calorific sauces. I may not have been born into the French Culinary Tradition but I will sure as hell die in it.
Anyway, he made Chop Suey with Lo Mein (crispy noodles that us Brits can’t buy readily over here – actually they taste pretty good, sort of biscuity) and some Crab Rangoon (which are deep fried egg roll wrappers stuffed with cream cheese, crab sticks, spring onion and finely chopped chilli – completely delicious). It was a real hit with the family, who love my husband’s cooking, and we had to shoehorn ourselves out of our couch potato positions in the living room to make the Christmas Cake.
I love cooking for Christmas. It gives me a sense of tradition and history. I am helping to make something that my mum would have helped her mum make and so forth and the traditions continue. We tried to make the cake slightly less traditional – we all hate currants (too burnt tasting for my liking and they get stuck in the grandmother’s teeth) so replaced them with chopped apricots that had been soused in my Quince Brandy. This was also to replace the universally despised chopped peel, although I highly recommend making your own, the depth flavour and texture is much better. A further splash of the Quince Brandy gave the cake an elusive scentedness and a hint of the exotic that will (hopefully) elevate the standard Christmas Cake into something very special. The kitchen was filled with the aroma of Christmas long after the cake had finished baking. The smell is as evocative as the first cut grass of spring or the sound of fallen leaves underfoot.
The dessert that I had chosen to make to help sustain us during our hard work in the kitchen was another Tamasin Day-Lewis one, again from her latest book, Kitchen Classics, called Date and Walnut Blondies. For those who might not be aware, Blondies are a non-chocolate (unless you use white chocolate, I suppose) version of Brownies. They are ideal for non-chocolate lovers (who apparently do exist) who still have a sweet tooth. They are sticky with dates and taste like toffee. The nuts add a delicate crunch, although I replaced the walnuts for pecans, partly because I was Americanising the recipe, and partly because I prefer the taste of Pecans to Walnuts (which can be bitter), but mostly because I couldn’t be bothered to shell all the walnuts that I had (and because I want to gild them at Christmas and hang them on the tree instead).
The recipe came with a disclaimer not to cook the sugar and butter together for too long otherwise it will turn to toffee. This is what happened to my Blondies. As soon as I poured the melted mixture into my dry mixture it all sort of seized up and went very, very thick, like overcooked congealed porridge, but I persisted with the recipe nonetheless and pummelled it into the loaf tin. After about 20 minutes, I peeked and it looked like a caramel colour brick. It didn’t have that gossamer thin sugar crust that it was supposed to but it was cooked. I let it cool for about five minutes, removed it from the tin and curiosity could wait no longer so I cut a slice off and – biting tentatively into the brick slice – found that it was completely delicious! Not at all like the texture of a brownie but perhaps the fudgey dates had lent their tooth-filling quality to the final mixture. Whatever. They were polished off with gusto amidst cries of ‘More!’
Whilst I will cook the sugar and butter with a bit more care next time, these Blondies will definitely be made again in this kitchen and with due haste too.
And so to conclude. The lumpen Blondies are proof that whilst things aren’t always – can’t always - be precise in the kitchen, they don’t have to resemble the picture in the cookbook to taste like perfection. After all, who would have thought that the great Summer Classic, Eton Mess would have developed from a disastrous Pavlova or Date and Walnut Blondies could have produced Chewy Date and Pecan Bars?

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