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In the name of the recipe, and of the ingredients, and of the oven temperature preferably in Celsius. AMEN

I’ve been nesting.

(NB If nesting includes housework, I’ve been too generously interpretive with the artistic licence again. I’ve never been a keen fan of housework – apart from a fastidious approach to my kitchen. I am known to wipe down my kitchen cupboards on a daily to hourly basis. I also practice an aggressively contemporary approach to laundry.

However, a legion of dust-bunnies would have to be annexing the west wing and most of the south and east before I’d apply a duster. One of the main reasons I married Andrew was because he hoovers VOLUNTARILY ENTIRELY OF HIS OWN VOLITION WITHOUT BEING ASKED.

I know: he is A Treasure. Although Andrew thinks it was due to other attributes/charms, I’m pretty sure the hoovering was why I had to beat other women off with a broken Tequila bottle when I first met him.

It’s probably important to reiterate here that this is the sole expression of Andrew’s feminine side. I would like to remind you he also performs extreme car maintenance and once crumpled a beer can against his forehead.

Where was I? Oh, yes: basking in my own smugness.)

When I say ‘nesting’, I mean I’ve been spending a lot of time baking. Much to my shock, Bunqueen recently gave up her powers – without my even having to threaten her with a broken Tequila bottle – when she lent me her book Ladies, A Plate by Alexa Johnston.

The author is a historian whose hobby is cooking, and the book is a compilation of traditional recipes from community newsletters and old cookbooks. Although most of the recipes have a distinctly Kiwi flavour, many of them were staples of my own childhood (perhaps because my parents lived in Australia when they met): shortbread, pavlovas, pikelets, gingerbread biscuits, rock cakes, queen cakes, sponge sandwiches. The book also includes slaver-inducing recipes for Anzac biscuits, afghans, neemish tarts, cinnamon oysters, miracles and custard squares.

According to NZ Women’s Weekly, many people burst into tears upon opening the book. Which makes me seriously question the mental stability of many antipodean people, so let’s move on.

I embarked on a baking bonanza, making ginger crunch (Husband’s request), shortbread, almond macaroons, miracles, queen cakes and ginger kisses. In fact, I have limited interest in the end result. It’s the batter I snort by the dessert-spoonful; and I also love sitting around gazing adoringly at my ginger kisses.

While in Oamaru, I picked up a Sunbeam Snowy ice-cream machine to replace my old Krups, which was leaking freezer fluid into the bowl (lent a disturbing synthetic overtone to frozen desserts). So we’ve also been enjoying Irish coffee, almond praline, and white chocolate and toasted coconut ice-cream.

In case you think all we eat these days is biscuits and ice-cream, we do occasionally eat potatoes and – what are those things again? – oh yes, vegetables. My culinary crusade also embraces homemade pasta and breads; vegetable chili with sour cream and cheese; garlic bread; hot treacle griddle scones with butter and jam; spicy bean burgers with yoghurt and sweet chili; parsnip and potato mash with parsley sauce; spanakopita; Mediterranean rice with toasted almonds; potato bake; pancakes and/or waffles with chocolate sauce, fresh fruit and yoghurt; fettucini with pesto sauce; homemade baked beans; egg mayo sandwiches with watercress on herby Parmesan bread; and Cajun fries with sour cream.

Despite my being 17 weeks pregnant, Andrew and the dog appear to be the only members of the household putting on weight. Really, it is a mystery how I am even in the vicinity of 60kg, never mind remaining stationery.

Unfortunately, this fresh enthusiasm for all things boiled, baked, grilled, toasted, fried or waffled has suffered a couple of setbacks.

The first is that I’ve been having problems with vegetables. Gangs of turnips roaming around graffiting the garage . . . no, sorry, that’s just my imagination. Normally I’ve nothing against vegetables particularly parsnips and any pregnancy book I’ve read somberly stresses the importance of whangin into spinach. Yet there’s absolutely nothing that makes me crave a packet of salt and vinegar crisps like a broccoli floret.

I try to deflect any potential vegetable deficiencies with soups. Also, I had a carrot last week.

The second is that my brain appears to be broken. I used to be proficient at scaling up or down recipes on the fry, usually making 3/4 or 2/3 portions. These days, dividing by 3 yields at least four different answers. The problem is further exacerbated by somehow scaling all but one key ingredient, such that I end up with about four times too much salt or tabasco.

Conversely, I appear to have increased ability to multi-task – which would be useful if I were ever fully aware what I’m actually doing at any point in time. The other day, I flung two teaspoons of yeast and three tablespoons of flour into the bread machine before I realized I’d forgotten to insert the bowl.

I’ve also managed to refer to the opposite page for cooking instructions, resulting in hamburger buns which were – I’d like to go with ‘crusty’ but regrettably for the sake of accuracy it’ll have to be ‘charred to the consistency of calcified coal’.

Unfortunately I’m not an instinctive cook, investing a sort of religious faith in my cookbooks: ‘In the name of the recipe, and of the ingredients, and of the oven temperature preferably in Celsius. AMEN.’ The oven has to be belching fire and brimstone before I smell a- well, anything at all really.

We might be in danger of burning to the ground – but hey! At least we’re not about to starve.

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Frustrated pyromaniac

Did I forget your birthday? I am SO SORRY. Belated birthday greetings. You look terrific; evidently age improves you. Well done!

It was my birthday yesterday – and, oh come on, let’s face it, if you REALLY CARED you would have already called me to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ with a bonus verse of ‘For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ and a few hip-hip hoorays. And you can hope I had a great day all you want – and thanks for the sentiment – but it was crap, now you mention it.

It started off well enough, with a card and presents in bed. The most exciting of which was a flame-thrower – more accurately, a gas torch – for caramelising crème brulees.

Now, you may not know this about my husband, but he is a frustrated pyromaniac. If you were to tell me Andrew had offended a little old lady by refusing to assist her and her incontinent cat across a busy road, I’d think, ‘NO WAY I SIMPLY CANNOT BELIEVE IT’; but if you informed me he set fire to Blenheim and burned the entire town to the ground? I’d be all, ‘Well, that’s tragic and I hope nobody was hurt and I truly hoped it would never come to this, but I’m sorry to say it’s not a complete surprise.’

I’ve given up going out for dinner with the man because it’s too embarrassing being asked to leave after Andrew sets fire to the tablecloth. This morning, MarkJ tried to make out that there are worse things to be kicked out of a restaurant for. What would that be, MarkJ? Setting fire to the waiter’s FACE?

However, against my better judgement, I unleashed Husband on the task of filling my torch with butane gas.

After ten minutes of fiddling, Andrew was the only thing even vaguely smouldering. Via some applied nagging, I persuaded him to read the instruction leaflet accompanying the torch. Despite its lack of direction as to how to transfer butane gas to torch, he conceded it was a worthwhile exercise when he came across the list of applications, which included ‘engine maintenance’.

He was so excited he scorched the dining room table. Bizarrely, he also – and I am reluctantly impressed by this – managed to melt my gas torch with a match. Don’t ask me what he was doing; he provided no satisfactory or even plausible response.

Eventually, I managed to dissuade him from testing the gas flame on the canister of butane. It would have totally served him right had the canister exploded and fired off through the living-room window; but in retrospect, better it didn’t.

Moving on. We had a romantic dinner for two at home planned (no naked flames). Evidently, the third course had to be crème brulee. Completely disregarding the fact that this was my first flirtation with making custard, and the recipe relatively complex, I picked out a slobber-inspiring coffee caramel crème brulee recipe from Epicurious.

I started early, mindful of the hours of chilling required during prep. The first step involved adding coffee beans to cream, bringing slowly to a simmer, and steeping for 20+ minutes.

Undaunted by the pointed paucity of coffee beans in our household, I decided to use ground espresso instead, and strain the cream through a coffee filter or piece of muslin. Indeed I AM the type of cook who keeps a piece of muslin in a kitchen drawer specifically for that purpose. Does this REALLY surprise you?

Now, it turns out – and let this be a lesson to you all – that cream is too thick to pass through a coffee filter or piece of muslin. Even when you try to push it with a spoon, or squeeze the muslin to coax it through (read: splatter it all over the tiles).

Then I attempted sieving the mixture. Four passes later – washing the sieve and receptacles each time – the cream still had a decidedly gritty texture.

I tried again with a fresh batch of cream, this time adding a shot of strong espresso (cooled) to it. This might have worked but for the oily scum which dispersed across the surface of the cream as it heated.

Didn’t look that appetising.

It followed the first mixture down the drain. On my third go, I decided to add a couple teaspoons of Nescafe to (even more) cream. This appeared to work, apart from imparting – unsurprisingly – an overwhelming taste of instant coffee; such that I couldn’t hold back a wave of nostalgia for the potential of Method II.

I couldn’t understand why adding a shot of espresso to the cream hadn’t worked. Why? Why? Perhaps – yes, that would explain it! – maybe I had heated the cream too fast, thereby causing it to separate and resulting in oily scum?

So I tried it again, heating the milk over a low flame – with exactly the same outcome.

It was just as well I had reserved the reslut of Method III, because I was running out of cream.

Making the caramel looked tricky, but posed no problem in reality. Late in the construction phase, I was regrettably assaulted by an attack of fuzz-brain and attempted to add egg yolks directly to the hot caramel cream mixture, rather than tempering them.

For a while, it looked like we would be having scrambled egg crème brulee.

In fact, our coffee caramel crème brulees were exorbitantly delicious, including the delicate crunchy caramel topping.

Yes my creme brulee looked EXACTLY like this.

The evolution of Irish Curry

My mother introduced me to curry. I’m not sure whether it was Indian, Thai or Malay. It was probably best described as Irish Curry: an emerald-green, subtly-blended concoction of chicken, flour, a careful dash of curry powder, the raisins obligatory in any good 70s curry, and whatever happened to be hanging around the fridge that didn’t ooze when squeezed: potatoes, eggs, cheese etc. My mum made up vats of the stuff for dinner parties and served it with dessicated coconut, banana and rice that actually bounced. You had to be careful not to drop a spoonful, or it would ricochet around the dining room imperilling the collection of Waterford glass my parents won playing squash.

Really, the preceding paragraph speaks volumes about my family and upbringing. In case your volume is turned down, that would be: middle-class Protestant.

When I moved to London in the early 90s, I took an occasional detour from my staple diet of Pringles and Alpen to dine at restaurants. I didn’t limit myself to Indian eateries, but I certainly partook of the odd chicken korma – more accurately known as ‘English Curry’. My enthusiasm for Asian cuisine remained undimmed, despite a number of chicken kormas re-emerging explosively via my nose.

This enthusiasm encountered a set-back when I arrived in Dubai during Ramadan 1998. I was invited to lunch with a group of Indian women, who had each brought Tupperware containers of food which they arranged on a table in the staff pantry.

I’d heard rumour of ‘real’ Indian curries that literally scorch your eyeballs out of your skull, but frankly I didn’t believe it. The food was delicious and – although spicy – nothing to alarm my digestive system. It was then I realised I had the constitution of a cockroach genetically crossed with a rat.

There was a bowl of light green sauce standing in the centre of the table, which looked innocuous despite emitting a faint glow. I slopped a wodge of rice around the sauce with my fingers.

“Be careful,” said HR Mary (that’s Human Resources Mary, not Her Royal Mary) with a cautionary wag of her head, “this sauce it is very very very hot.”

“Oh, that’s ok,” I explained. “I love spicy food; I’m used to it- I was practically WEANED on curry. Anyway, I’m Irish.”

Then I popped it into my mouth.

Within seconds, a fireball exploded in my mouth and swept through my body, squeezing the moisture out of my pores. I wouldn’t be surprised if I actually smoked. I was convinced I was dying.

It was then I realised my constitution was more aligned with an Irish Mick whose definition of ‘savage spicy’ is salt and pepper.

Duly chastened, it was some time before I risked another confrontation with Indian food – this time with more respect, caution and humility. At the time, Kwality Restaurant on Khalid bin Walid Street near Budgie Roundabout was commonly agreed to serve the best Indian food in Dubai. At least according to the expats; the Indian community likely considered the food insipidly bland. For a ridiculously reasonable price – around $10 – you got a slobber-fest of warm puffy naans, poppadums, rogan josh, sagwala, tandoori, chicken makhani, fish curry, fluffy rice, and mango lassi. I took my parents there the first time they ever visited me in Dubai.

Then I met Andrew – and that was the end of that. I’ve already written extensively about Husband’s timid, capricious palate that only responds to regular protein massages. One of his culinary foibles is antipathy towards Indian food. When I ask him why, he says, “Don’t like it,” and clamps his mouth shut to ward off my potentially force-feeding him a spoonful of biryani.

We had just moved in together when I rang Boyfriend on the way home from squash practice one night and asked him what I should pick up for dinner. He foolishly insisted that I choose. No doubt he thought I loved him so much that, knowing how much he detested Indian food, I would never subject him to it.

Not the first time he’s been mistaken.

It was unfortunate that it was late and Boyfriend was hungry and got perhaps over-excited upon sighting the mound of foil-packed cartons. Also particularly regrettable was my choice of delicacy to convert him to worship at the altar of Asian cuisine, but I’d thought lamb rogan josh was fairly safe. I’ll never forget the look on Andrew’s face when I removed the carton lid with a flourish to reveal a steaming pile of what looked it had just been processed by at least five cows’ stomachs.

“Oh, just TRY IT!” I snapped.

I think it was the SCHLOP! sound it made sliding onto the plate that sealed its doom; Andrew flatly refused to touch it – or, for that matter, my chicken korma – and instead nibbled with pointed silence on a cold sausage.

Thereafter, I focussed on food that didn’t make Andrew dry-retch.

Two weeks ago, Agent of Death made curry for dinner. Although Agent of Death looks like the type of man whose diet consists entirely of rare carcass, his choice of flavours is actually confounding. In fairness, he also looks like the type of man who could chew raw chillies whole without breaking a sweat, and this in fact is accurate. He loves him some spice.

Agent of Death’s fish curry was the first time I’ve had Indian food for around 10 years and it was sublime: tender bites of blue cod with lashings of ginger, garlic, chillies and coriander all bound together in a coconut base. My love of Indian food re-awoke with a roar.

Since Husband said Agent of Death’s fish curry was ‘nice’, I took him at his word* and have been working through Agent of Death’s fully illustrated ‘The Food of India’ book (highly recommended) of Indian recipes, cooking curries for the family once or twice a week. We’ve had Molee, Fish in Yoghurt Sauce and a delicious Toor Dal with nibbly mustard seeds MMM. Next up will be Chole Chaat.

I sometimes garnish my curries with torn banana in honour of my mother – and to disgust/horrify Agent of Death. Which takes some doing.

* In company, you could serve Husband boiled bladder garnished with caramelised maggots, and not only will he proclaim it delicious, he will also eat it. However, I’m working on the assumption that his tastes have changed in the last decade. OK LOOK IT’S HARDLY MY FAULT THE MAN IS LIVING A LIE

Part III: The crumpet saga

To those of you who regularly read Deadlyjelly, or know me – even just a little bit – it will come as no surprise that there is a part III to The Crumpet Saga.

Because I refuse to accept defeat. Not only that, but I don’t recognise defeat; and furthermore I won’t acknowledge it OR give it a lift if if I see it hitchhiking in the rain.

Naturally I was going to give the crumpet recipe another go.

On my first attempt, when I threw out the remainder of the batter, I’d noticed flour clotted in the corners of the bread maker. That explained it! – the reason the batter was slightly runny resulting in crumpety tragedy.

So two days ago, I tried again.

This time, I was rigorous about button pressing and incorporating recalcitrant flour with a spatula and letting the batter sit for precisely 20 minutes.

Now, Jed is not a greedy dog, and generally avoids the kitchen due to the dangers of getting his tail trodden on or catching a pot of boiling noodles with his head. Unless, of course, he smells cheese; in which case he sits on my heels with infinite patience until it falls into his gaping maw.

Before I even poured the first crumpet into the frying pan, Jed was camped out on the kitchen floor with knife and fork.

I could probably use my dog as a barometer for culinary success. Evidently there is no substitute for canine intuition. This batch of crumpets was almost worse than the first. I experiemented with intensity of heat and length of cooking time, but the result was catastrophic crumpet carnage. Jed ate two batches, before I threw out the rest of the batter.

At least the dog enjoyed them . . .

. . . he barfed them up later.

Part II: The crumpet saga

I was so excited when I came across a recipe for crumpets.

Perhaps a little historical background is required here. Husband used to LOVE crumpets. Back in the first fresh halcyon flush of our relationship, it was a real treat to pick out a vacuum-sealed packet of mass-produced, chemical-ridden, cloyingly stodgy crumpets; toast them; and smother them in butter and jam in a semi-successful effort to render them palatable.

When our relationship graduated from fast-food and ready-packed meals, crumpets got left behind along with tequila slammers and snogging on the sofa for eight hours straight (these days if I snogged for eight hours straight, I think my mouth would just shrivel up and fall off).

It’s fair to say we haven’t had crumpets for years. Possibly decades. Well, one anyway. Definitely multiple years though, so we’ll stick with that since it sounds longer and therefore more DRAHA!MATIC.

So you can imagine the excitement upon discovering Alison’s recipe for crumpets. Or perhaps it was Alison’s description:-

Crumpets are a bit like pikelets risen with yeast instead of baking powder. They have tunnels which run from bottom to top and a special, different texture because they are made from a very runny dough. Our homemade crumpets aren’t exactly the same as bought ones, but they’re very good and fun to make.

Now, if I have one fault, it would be over-confidence. As faults go, I consider it preferable to character flaws such as wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, or a tendency to over-dramatising things.

Although perhaps not when applied to crumpets.

In short, perhaps I approached the recipe with a soupcon too much confidence. I’m pretty fault-free when it comes to measuring ingredients – agonising over how to measure ⅔ of a teaspoon – but instead of the light bread cycle, I erroneously chose normal bake. And rather than standing the batter in the machine for 20 minutes after kneading, I removed it before realising my mistake and returning it.

The resulting batter looked a bit runny, but then Alison HAD said ‘a very runny dough’ and, being a crumpet virgin, I was hardly in a position to judge (I believe standard missionary lends itself best to judging).

I heated the frying pan, greased up some cookie cutters, and poured in the batter. Despite the flame being low, within fifteen minutes the living room was shrouded in a haze of smoke. At first, some tantalising bubbles popped on the surface of the crumpets, but thereafter they just farted steam out the bottom. After the recommended seven minutes of frying, the crumpets were fairly cemented to the cookie cutters. The best part of the crumpets was the golden brown top, but the underside tasted distinctly of scorch. The interior was deconstructed mush.

Ultimately, regardless how much butter and jam we applied there was no way to render these crumpety travesties even vaguely palatable.

Application of herbs

“The rosemary’s just taken off in the last couple of weeks!” I enthused to our landlady this morning. “Here, come take a look.”

I was eager to show off my fledgling gardening skills. Since Landlady actually planted it, ‘skills’ in this case refer to a) Not Killing It; b) the thriving of rosemary in my vicinity; and c) the identification/cataloguing thereof.

I need a lot of reassurance when it comes to gardening.

Landlady initially made all the right noises when presented with the burgeoning bush. “Wow!” she said. “It’s . . . very . . . that’s funny . . . I don’t remember . . . is that . . . are you sure that’s rosemary?”

“Oh yes, uh-huh, I believe so,” I asserted confidently. “I used it to make rosemary flatbread last night. Andrew said it was EVEN BETTER than my garlic flatbread.”

Um, so, well, it appears it might in fact have been, er.

Lavender flatbread.

Blue cheese & walnut souffle

I said, “So, I’m thinking of making blue cheese and walnut soufflés for dinner.”

I was vigilant about mentioning the blue cheese, since Andrew is only intermittently tolerant of the stuff. However, I was relatively confident his tolerance would embrace soufflé. I mean, who doesn’t like soufflé?

Indeed, when Husband heard the word ‘soufflé’, it appeared to result in retrospective amnesia. Because later, when I removed the softened blue cheese from the microwave, he said, “Eee-ew. Stinks. What’s THAT for?”

“The soufflé,” I said shortly.

“Ugh,” says Yer Man. “You didn’t tell me it was a blue cheese soufflé-”

I interrupted the extensive soufflé preparation to fix him with a glare, and snarled, “I DID TELL you- I specifically said- it’s a blue cheese and walnut soufflé. I was as explicit as I could get fully clothed-”

“You KNOW I don’t like blue cheese-”

“But you do sometimes!” I cried despairingly, waving the whisk at him. “I have to resort to TALKING to you about WHEN you like it, and even THAT doesn’t work!”

“Sorry, baby,” said Andrew solicitously. “Listen, I won’t have soufflé. I’ll just gnaw my lamb chop.”

“I just spent the last forty minutes preparing this-”

“I know. Sorry. <mutter> KNOW I don’t like blue cheese.”

“<mutter> Arse.”

Apparently – and I believe this – married women don’t live as long as single women. Earlier this evening I actually felt five years slough off my lifeline. In fact, by my calculations, I only have a couple of minutes left to live. If this is my last post ever, you know what happened to me. In the meantime, I’d better type fast.

I had blue cheese and walnut soufflé for dinner, with a rocket salad and red pepper vinaigrette.

Here is what Andrew turned down:

Blue cheese and walnut souffle and rocket salad with red pepper vinaigrette

Sorry about the composition. The excuses: 1/ I am not yet practised in night photography 2/ it's a close up because I didn't want you noticing the tyreprints and scorch marks on the tablecloth 3/ I was distracted by greed

If you’re interested, the soufflé recipe is courtesy of Epicurious, here

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