Saturday, 28 June 2014

Cupcake wars

Kooky Bakes Red Velvet Cupcake

The history of the cupcake as phenomenon, cultural symbol of western femininity and modernity, started in 2005 when the first series of Sex and the City aired. In between zipless fucks, Manolo Blahnik heels, Mr Big and Manhattan cocktails, our fearless protagonists, that is, four go mad in New York, would buy cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery. Before that cupcakes did of course exist; they were mass produced and sold in supermarkets, they were baked in china cups in the dying embers of range cookers by Little House on the Prairie homesteaders. But nobody had really noticed them before. They weren't a thing.
Suddenly the small cake was pimped up, with a new hairstyle and attitude.

Cupcakes take the cake.
So after the Marmite cupcake debacle, I decided to look closer into the sweet but savage world of cupcakes. I'd received several private messages recounting dastardly deeds with baked goods; it seems rip-offs abound. Cupcake bakers will get very angry if their designs or original ideas are taken by another company. Magnolia Bakery started in 1996 but the California based Sprinkles, who claim to be the world's first cupcake company, opened in 2005. By 2012, Sprinkles even opened a cupcake ATM in New York, for addicts. Sprinkles are fairly litigious when it comes to stealing designs, specifically their signature 'dot' fondant design. But some cupcake companies seem to be totally cool about others being like, really really similar.
There can be difficulties when famous bakeries produce cookbooks. The first Humingbird bakery, which started in London in 2004, brought out a cookbook in 2009. There were many complaints;  it seemed they'd merely divided their large scale commercial recipes down to 10 cupcakes and of course, the recipes didn't work. They had to get in testers and now insist on domestic testers for each book, so the problems have been ironed out. Since then the books have been the most popular cupcake recipe books in the UK. But bakers can be a tight-fisted and paranoid lot: I know of at least two famous UK based bakers who put inaccurate recipes in their cookbooks, I got this inside information from their ex-employees. One will see desperate tweets and Facebook questions from amateur cooks who blame themselves rather than the cookbook.
Big cakes aren't dying but there are an increasing amount of people living alone, and the cupcake is perfect for them. You could almost say the cupcake is a diet food, for it is portion control!

This week, I went with my friend Scott of Kooky Bakes on a 'cupcake crawl'. Instead of beer, we got drunk on sugar and buttercream.
Our first stop, the Primrose Hill Bakery, is in the heart of yummy mummy land, nestled between the green heights of Parliament Hill and the gritty delights of Chalk Farm tube. The interior consists of icecream pastels; lemon yellows, mint green and strawberry pink with the polished chrome detailing of 1950s furniture. Scott tried a Red Velvet cupcake while I tried their signature bake, the salted caramel cupcake.
The Red Velvet cupcake was not very red. They'd gone for the 'natural' look of faintly rosy brown. Primrose Hill doesn't use much buttercream. I know people criticise the amount of buttercream, the ridiculous height of a cupcake in comparison to the humble low-key fairy cake, but I actually like buttercream.
How much buttercream should there be on a cupcake? I interrogate my expert companion.
Scott sighs: "I do a third. A third of the height of the cake.This would be a classic American cupcake."
Why do you think cupcakes are so popular?
"People think that starting a cupcake business is easy, they can do it from home. That's how I started, but now I have a unit and three assistants." He continues,"the market is saturated. But there is still a huge appetite for it."
Scott arrived in the UK from America in 1999.  He wanted to work in food and twice got to the semi-finals of Masterchef. The first time, he was in the same section as Thomasina Miers, who went on to win. Scott started his company in 2010. He doesn't have a shop but sells at markets like Brick Lane, Brockley, Tottenham, Wapping, Kerb and Street Feast.
Why do you think people get so angry about cupcakes?
"It's hip to be down on cupcakes."
It's true, the cupcake craze has been blamed for the demise of the modest fairy cake; the reversal of feminism and the obesity crisis.
What is the future of cupcakes?
"Well cupcakes rode through the recession. It's the perfect little treat, a cheap luxury. Cupcake companies are starting all the time, there is obviously the business for them. So I think it's still growing."
Scott adds: "There is no new cupcake. Yes we have the cronut and other things but nothing supplants the cupcake. The cupcake is extremely functional, portable, individual. You can buy one for yourself and not feel guilty."
Scott charges £2.50p per cupcake, the standard London price. "It's a fair price for small batch hand-made cakes."
At the Primrose Hill Bakery, we take a systematic approach to tasting.
First, we look at the buttercream density and consistency.
Scott's advice:
"Buttercream should be light but not claggy and it shouldn't fall apart. It shouldn't be hard, it should be soft, with no crust. I look at the levels of sugar, butter and cream cheese. I look at acidity and tang. But most importantly the buttercream should taste of something."
Secondly, we consider the cake:
Scott: " It should be moist with an even crumb, no giant holes."
Scott likes to squeeze them a little, around the casing, to see if they are moist. He prefers a thin cupcake case, slightly translucent, it doesn't pull apart.
He changes his recipe according to the weather, if the temperature is warm then the whole thing, buttercream and cake, is softer.

What size should a cupcake be?
"A US cupcake is the size of a British muffin. The sponge should come up to the top of the paper cases. A UK cupcake is a little bit smaller. There are three size baking tins: muffin size, bun size and fairy cake size."

Next we visit Sweet Things a few streets away in Primrose Hill. The shop isn't as pretty but they have interesting glass panelled sweet-filled tables.
Scott again orders the Red Velvet cupcake (£2.60p). Straight away we can see that there is more buttercream and that they've used the classic Number One sized piping bag nozzle which makes a bouffant swirl.
The sponge is softer and moister "made with vegetable oil" informs Scott knowledgeably, but it's fairly tasteless and greasy. It's not sweet enough either. The colour on the other hand is a proper crimson red.
The salted caramel cupcake (£3) has chocolate buttercream icing with a little sea salt on top. I like the sea salt but feel the buttercream should have been caramel not chocolate. Scott extracts a microscopic hair from my cake. "I'm obsessed with that sort of thing".
Scott says sadly: "There is not much flair here. The Red Velvet buttercream is cream cheese heavy.
Vegetable oil is used because it has a longer shelf life, especially in the heat. It's very common in baking in the United States. Sometimes margarine and vegetable fat can work well, Dan Lepard has been known to use Trex. But this Red Velvet cake, it's not sweet or tangy, there is no buttermilk. There should be buttermilk."

Scott gives me a present of one of his cupcakes, the most popular flavour, Red Velvet, which I try when I get home.
It is perfection. The height of the buttercream, the ratio of frosting to cake is ideal. The colour is vibrant, the cake has the sour flavour of buttermilk undercutting the sweetness. The sponge is moist with a small even crumb and no holes. You want American baking? Ask an American to bake for you.
In Primrose Hill

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Home-made Pizza recipe with a side helping of empty nest syndrome

Have you ever tried using 00 flour? This is an Italian standard, very finely ground, like talcum powder. Unlike British flour, Italian flour is not graded in terms of protein. In the UK, strong bread flour is high protein while plain flour is lower protein and good for cakes and pastry.
00 flour refers to the grind and the colour, for it is the whitest flour. There is low protein 00 flour and high protein 00 flour. You get a lovely fine smooth result but choose the higher protein version (around 13%) for pizza or add some strong bread flour. But, if you are a pizza obsessive you need to check out this site where 'pizza gods', mostly men, often professional pizza parlours, chat about achieving the perfect pizza. The bottom is referred to as the 'underskirt'. The forum members exchange pizza pictures. There is a chart describing all the different styles, from New York to Chicago and Neapolitan.
To get that authentic pizzeria vibe, use a pizza stone or a flat baking tray and heat it up before putting the dough onto it.
Use parchment paper to slide the pizza disk onto the pre-heated stone or tray on a low rack on the highest heat once it's in the oven. As an Aga user, I have a peel and use the paper with the peel to slide the pizza onto the floor of the hottest oven.
The topping? Well if I'm prepared then I'll go out and buy some good mozzarella balls, tearing them up rather than slicing. After scraping a layer of cooked tomato sauce on the pizza, I use whatever I have in the fridge, the end of a jar of pesto, a few thin bracelets of yellow pepper, some summer red wheels of tomato, a few mustardy capers.
If you don't have tomatoes, use strawberries, they have a comparable flavour compound called strawberry furanone. I once made a tomato salad with cream and sugar. Guests thought they were strawberries. This will be my next attempt: savoury strawberry pizza.
This week my daughter returned from university, just for a week. As a compulsive feeder, it's a relief to have someone around to cook for. I've been doing less supper clubs lately, having stiff deadlines to meet with my books. Blogging has also trailed by the wayside.
It has been painful to get used to living alone over the last two years and I miss her so much. But two days after she returns, we are bickering, mostly about feminism. I keep forgetting the difference between sex and gender. I upset her when I say something 'biphobic'. I have to look it up to discover my offence. I am updated with new expressions: 'TLDR' is 'too long didn't read'. We sit outside a pub and double date on Tinder. I swipe hers and she swipes mine. She wants me to date. It feels impossible, I'm out of the habit. She has recently split up with her boyfriend and is convinced that she will be alone FOREVER. She's 20 and gracefully beautiful, long glossy hair, velvety complexion, a perfectly symmetical face, curly thick eyelashes, tiny hands, trailing a sweet smell of coconut. She tells me terrible things. Stories from university. Of how boys her age, raised on porn, treat girls.
We discuss the weirdness of having a husband or a father. Mostly, having been a two person 'family' for 18 years, we don't realise that other people have them. (Like I don't realise that other people eat meat, it shocks me, over and over again). Having written two books back to back and now on my third, I've spent alot of time in isolation over the last year. My world is a Vipassana silence, burrowing into myself, seeking words. One resists, no no, but it is ultimately blissful.

Home-made Pizza Recipe

Makes 2 medium pizzas

Prep time: 1hour 30 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes

15g fresh yeast or 7g rapid dried
1 tsp honey or maple syrup
320ml water
500g 00 flour with a high protein meant for pizza (13%)
Or 400g 00 flour (low protein around 9% with 100g strong bread flour)
20g semolina
10g sea salt
50ml olive oil

100g cooked tomato sauce
Half a yellow pepper
2 balls mozzarella, torn
2 or 3 good tomatoes, sliced wafer thin
A scraping of hot sauce
Olive oil
Sea salt
Shavings of pecorino

In a pyrex jug add the yeast and honey to the luke warm water. Measure out the flour, semolina, salt and olive oil, either in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, then add the jug of yeast and water. Knead for ten minutes or mix with the dough hook for five minutes.
Then cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave for an hour. Preheat the oven to it's highest possible temperature. Put in the stone or flat baking tray.
Then tip out the dough and cut it in half.  Oil a piece of parchment paper and with your hands, stretch out the dough onto the paper. Gather your topping ingredients.
Bake the dough for 2 to 5 minutes on the paper until the top is just firm. Pull out the pizza and brush on the tomato base. Add the rest of the ingredients, whatever you have. Last minute scrunch on some sea salt and zigzag some olive oil over the pizza. Stick the pizza back in the oven for ten minutes.
Pull it out and cut it with scissors into portions.
Repeat with the second half of dough.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Outstanding blog award from Britmums

It's been a tough week, but this award from Britmums, a coalition of parent bloggers who assemble for an annual two day conference on blogging, was a highlight. That and the articles about me in the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard on l'affaire Marmite.
I did of course completely cock this up by not hearing my name being called and therefore not collecting my award. I then got up on stage afterwards, switched the mike on and, punching the air, made a call to arms about Marmite Cupcakes. My daughter cringed: 'Who do you think you are, Johnny Rotten?'
But thank you Britmums for this, I really appreciate it.
Yesterday, the first day, there was a funny and honest opening speech by Emma Freud. Then a panel of important women including Stella Creasey MP talked about women in the media. I then, being pushy mum, FORCED my daughter, (still cringing) who is studying politics at York, to collar Stella Creasey about work experience. Stella said she paid interns but only used people from her constituency in Walthamstow. Fair enough.
I gave a talk on recipe writing and copyright and today I'm giving a workshop with Cooksister, on food photography and styling. 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Marmite Cupcakes and recipe copyright

The Marmite cupcake recipe from my book Supper Club
You may have seen stories in the newspaper about Marmite cupcakes in the last week or so.  In 2010 I created a recipe for two types of Marmite cupcake: one with a Marmite caramel centre and topping; the other with a Marmite chocolate ganache centre and topping. 
The recipe was also published in my book Supper Club; recipes and notes from the underground restaurant. See the proof above.
The recipe, ostensibly created by an outfit called Lola's Cupcakes, seemed remarkably similar to mine. They dug out the centre of the cupcake and filled it with Marmite caramel and topped the cupcake with a buttercream version of the same plus Marmite chocolate ganache.
Lola's cupcakes received an enormous amount of publicity about this, claiming in the press release that they were the first to make Marmite cupcakes.
But I ran my Marmite cupcake recipe text through a plagiarism checking site and the following links came up:
Daily Mail, 9 June 2014, "Love it or hate it... the MARMITE cupcake is here: Baked treat mixes salty yeast spread with caramel and chocolate" 
My Daily, 10 June 2014, "Marmite Cake: The Latest Food Fad, But Would You Try It?" 
Metro, 9 June 2014, "The Marmite caramel cupcake: You'll either love it or hate it" 
Evening Standard, 9 June 2014, "Marmite cupcakes? Got to give it a try."
Rather a coincidence, wouldn't you say?

I tweeted Lola's cupcakes and got back some very patronising tweets full of kisses attempting to bat me away. I persisted and they eventually sent me this email:

'Their' recipe is here in Shortlist magazine. But their recipe makes no sense. The ingredients and the method do not match. (That's what tends to happen when you copy and paste from someone else's work, you slip up.) You can see from the comments under the Shortlist article that readers are confused. Words directly copied from my blog post are in red.

In Shortlist magazine:

For the insert (in the cake) their ingredients say:

Caramel condensed milk 240g
But there is no mention of condensed milk in their method. Instead their recipe says:

1. Put the sugar and the water into a saucepan and put on a medium heat and boil without stirring until it becomes a deep amber colour.
2. Brush down the sides of a pan with a brush dipped in water to prevent crystallisation.
3. Remove from the heat. Whisk in the cream slowly and carefully this may spit. Stir in the marmite. Leave to cool and make an insertion in the cupcake with an apple corer. Fill with the cooled marmite caramel.
Just to remind you, my blog post says:
Make your caramel.
  • Combine the sugar and water in a medium sized saucepan until it dissolves.
  • Bring it to the boil, without stirring, until it's a deep amber colour.
  • Brush down the sides of the pan with a brush dipped in water to prevent crystallisation.

But the biggest 'coincidence' is that the genius who runs Lola's Cupcakes came up with this quote which is in all the newspaper stories and is almost verbatim what my blog post says:

Asher Budwig, managing director of Lola’s Cupcakes, says: ‘Marmite’s saltiness complements the caramel extremely well, but the centre will either be a shock or a pleasure depending on where your Marmite sensibilities lie!

Let's compare and contrast with my blog post of 2010 which says:

"It was important to have that salty intense Marmite hit peeking through the sweetness and this was achieved by creating a strongly Marmite flavoured 'centre' in the cupcakes. This 'centre' would either be a shock, or a pleasure depending on where your Marmite sensibilities lie..."

So what can I do about this? 

They are big, I am small. So Lola's Cupcakes feel that they can do what they want with impunity. But have they no pride? And to be sooo lazy that they actually steal the words from my blog and pretend that their owner said this?  If you are going to nick someone elses idea, cover your tracks a little better.

Let's discuss the whole matter of recipe copyright. It's the subject of a talk that I'm giving with Lavender Bakery and Maison Cupcake at the Britmums conference next weekend "How to make a recipe your own".
Most recipes are not original. Recipes are like Chinese whispers, every time someone cooks them, they turn out slightly differently. You cannot copyright, for instance, a classic recipe such as a Victoria sponge or a recipe for hummus. These dishes are in the canon. All we can do as cooks is slightly tweak them. A Vicky sponge needs certain ingredients in a certain quantity combined and baked in a predetermined order. You can put a different flavour in there, you can add a different fruit, you can make it smaller or bigger, but basically a Victoria sponge is still a Victoria sponge.
Ditto hummus. Hummus needs chickpeas, tahini, salt, lemon, olive oil. You can change the bean. You can change the oil. You can dick around with the recipe but hummus is hummus is hummus.
Now Marmite/caramel has been done before by Signe Johansen in the Marmite Cookbook while Marmite/chocolate ganache has also been done before by Paul A Young
But neither has put both elements into a cupcake. My recipe is not the same as their recipes either. I started from scratch.
I would argue that Marmite Cupcakes is not a classic recipe, it's an original idea, even a gimmick. While a cupcake is a basic recipe, adding Marmite is unusual, and digging out the centre or the 'insert' is another idea, and combining Marmite/caramel and Marmite/chocolate ganache in that cupcake is too close for comfort. As a unique recipe, Lola's cupcakes could, at the very least, have credited me. David Lebowitz in this article, talks about recipe attribution, how to give a polite nod to those who came before.
Legally, note that ingredients cannot be copyrighted. The method cannot be copyrighted either. Minor changes and rewriting the method is not illegal, however it is not terribly ethical. 
But words can be copyrighted. If you copy the exact same words in the method of a recipe from someone else, that's a breach of copyright. Using the exact same words in the exact same order from somebody else's blog post, without crediting them, IS a breach of copyright. 

Update: they have also used my recipe on their facebook recipe app without permission or credit.

New update: I had a phone call with Marmite in which they responded with weaselly words and refused to explain how this 'error' happened, they then threatened me by saying that Lola's were going to pursue me for libel. Marmite promised me some work in recompense but never followed through. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Fish stew with saffron recipe

On steamy humid days you want quick, light, savoury meals. Go to this month's column for where I've created this Marseille inflected recipe, using a mix of smoked fish and shellfish, provencale vegetables and a hint of the east, saffron. This recipe matches with light-bodied red wines which can be chilled. More here.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Brazilian cookery: cheesy footballs recipe

 This recipe, 'pao de queijo', cheese bread, is adapted from The Cabana cookbook, a beautifully designed cookbook with Brazilian recipes. I've tried this recipe a few times from other sources and this one is the best so far. I used something called 'sour starch' from Yoki, a manufacturer of Brazilian foods that you can often find in small stores. This sour starch is gluten-free and made from manioc or yuca or cassava. You can really see the African influence on Brazilian cookery with this ingredient; it is popular in Africa and Brazil, with a high carbohydrate count but very little protein. There is also 'sweet manioc starch' from the same manufacturers which is finer. A combination of both gives you both the chewy inside and crispy outside of the classic pao de queijo. The most important one however is the sour starch, you won't get an authentic result without it.
This is a like a New World version of cheese puffs.

Pao de queijo: something to snack on with a few beers while watching the footy.

Makes about 30

Takes about 30 minutes to make start to finish.

125ml whole milk
50ml vegetable oil
1 tsp sea salt
175g sour starch 
75g sweet manioc starch
2 eggs
200g strong cheddar (or Parmesan)

Preheat the oven to 200c. In a small saucepan heat up the milk, oil, and salt. Once it starts to boil, pour it straight into a stand mixer then, very quickly, dump in all of the flour and mix on a low speed until the dough is thoroughly mixed and coming off the sides. Then add the eggs, keep mixing on a low speed, until thoroughly combined. Finally add the cheese until fully mixed and you have a smooth shiny dough.
Pinch off small amounts, walnut-sized balls, smooth them into spheres and place on a prepared (with parchment paper or a silicon mat) baking sheet. Bake for approximately 15 minutes until golden. Eat straight away while hot. Great with hot sauce and a cool beer. 

  • Don't make the balls too big.
  • The dough can be made ahead of time and frozen into little balls. You can heat them up directly from the freezer.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

May bites: Polish food, Dabbous, Fermentation with Sandorkraut, and wine studies

Finished my vegan book and commencing on my Get Started in Food Writing book. I've been delayed by fact that my iMac died and was out of action for over a week. Nowadays a computer four years old is considered a relic; five years old and it's officially on the dinosaur list and the Mac helpline can no longer help you.
Otherwise it was a good month: I won the Fortnum & Mason best online food writer award, which was a delight.
I have heard that MsMarmitelover's Secret Tea Party will not be published at the end of August as promised but in November, just before Christmas. Trouble with this pub date is that it may well get drowned out by the Christmas books of the big guns such as Jamie Oliver. Still, there is a step-by-step illustrated gingerbread house recipe - as seen on the Kirstie Allsop show - and a winter solstice-themed afternoon tea. Plus, as I've said before, a decent tea should have a hot element to it, fresh off the griddle crumpets etc, all of which I've provided recipes for. I hope you will eschew the mainstream book authors and buy MY book. (Fingers crossed!)
Here are the other things I've been doing in the month of May:
I visited, as a guest, Polish restaurant Ognisko, set in the grand premises of the former Polish Hearth club in South Kensington. Now, there is a good deal more to Eastern European food than borscht and dumplings. Owner Jan Woroniecki told me that the lumpen reputation of Polish food is due to the second world war and the Soviet occupation. This restaurant attempts to widen knowledge of the variety and subtlety of the Polish menu. The first thing I loved about this place is that it had a portrait of iconic Polish actress Rula Lenska on the stairwell in her red-haired Rock Follies glory. The dining room is large, airy and atmospheric, with elegant candlelit tables and cream tablecloths, while in another room men were singing opera impromptu. Food came in a series of small plates with rye bread, pickles, sour cucumber, blinis, borscht, smoked fish including herring, toasted kasha, a kind of buckwheat, delicious pelmeni pasta dumplings with chestnut, dill, cream and wild mushroom sauce. Drinks with the meal were Bison vodka and a malty beer. Unfortunately the zurek soup, a sour rye dish, was not available. Next time. 

Oh god, I'm about to commit a food industry crime. I've been told off before (in the early days of my blog) when making a couple of mild criticisms of another chef's pop up because "you don't criticise other chefs". Well, apologies to the internet, the zeitgeist, the Michelin star inspectors and every food critic on the planet, but I wasn't that keen on Dabbous. Maybe it was because I had the vegetarian (except for one course) menu. But I found it... clichéed, try-hard, not terribly interesting with faded flavours. Yes, visually it was very beautiful. It ticked every foodie box that chefs currently employ: the borage flower carefully placed (ho-hum), the sawn-off egg shell presentation (hell I did that in 2010 and I'm basically a housewife), the use of pine (yeah, yeah, every sodding Scandi chef has been doing that for a few years now and pine is not a big deal ingredient-wise in the UK so why imitate them?), putting funny vegetably ingredients into dessert (cucumber in a sweet lemon verbena soup?). The menu listing of unusual ingredients that you couldn't actually taste was a recurring fault: dessert was 'barley flour sponge soaked in red tea'. Yer mean rooibos? Couldn't taste it love. Dessert failed because it wasn't a) very sweet b) very memorable c) didn't conform to my restaurant rule number 10. It was a dessert for people who don't like desserts. My friend Les never eats dessert so he liked it. 
My mates Les and KC had the non-vegetarian menu and really enjoyed it. I tasted a bit of their two favourite courses, one with an acorn praline (I've cooked with acorns and they are horribly bitter so kudos for making them taste good) and the other, the best dish of the meal, was king crab with a rich, creamy sauce. But my vegetarian menu had none of these umami delights. The other yawnsome felony that modern chefs commit is the lack of carbs: the bread was ok but not very sourdough, and there was some potato in the pedestrian brandade de morue. But if I've spent £75 with only one glass of wine I expect to leave with at least one dish that I loved and can't wait to eat again. This did not happen. 
A plus point was the handsome and helpful staff.  
Fermentation talk: I've been banging on about fermentation and micro-bacterial rockstar Sandor Ellix Katz for about five years now. I went to see him at the University of Westminster at an event run by the Weston A Price foundation while he was on his UK tour. Katz, who looks like a member of the Village People with his handlebar moustache, is a very charismatic teacher, talking fluently without notes. Not to be missed if you have a chance to see him. Also at the talk, filling in for Sandor when he was unavoidably late due to our terrible trains, was Sonia Dunduru, who runs Cultured Probiotics. She has two autistic sons and spoke movingly about how daily doses of fermented sauerkraut helped them progress. I took extensive notes at this talk and will blog about this soon. 
Lost Lectures: I gave a talk about a couple of years ago for this pop-up lecture event where experts from different disciplines, as well as people who simply have an interesting story to tell, give talks. I went along to hear Vicky Pryce talk in May but discovered many others who were more interesting. I wanted to hear Vicky Pryce because I've been appalled by the fact that everyone involved with Chris Huhne's speeding crime case has ended up doing more prison time than him. Vicky Pryce, his ex-wife, lied for him, saying she was driving so that he wouldn't lose his license. He then left her for another woman and she took revenge by confessing. Huhne, a government minister, lost his job. In court, Pryce, a high-powered economist, pleaded the archaic defence of marital coercion. My mother (who said 'it's perfectly normal for couples to take speeding points for each other, I would do that for your dad'), my sister and virtually every columnist was outraged by this. How dare she, a successful woman, make out she was bullied by her husband? My view: just because you have a good career in the outside world, this doesn't make you immune to marital coercion - you can still be a victim of domestic abuse. It is also a fact that women are more harshly treated in courts because not only are they committing a crime but they are committing the even greater crime of not being feminine. Crime is seen as masculine, something that men do. Also, what the hell is wrong with revenge? It's a very human response to the behaviour of her husband who abandoned her. I feel she was punished for protesting her husband's bad behaviour. Political wives are supposed to suck it up.
However, seeing Vicky Pryce live made my sympathy for her diminish. She's not a good public speaker, droning on in a monotone, which doesn't help. Rather than talking about the emotional impact of the ordeal, she mostly talked about her book 'Prisonomics', about the economic idiocy of putting women in prison for non-violent crimes, particularly the effect on their children. Which is all very well, but it felt like she was trying to ignore the fact that she now has a criminal record and that she was attempting to speedily leapfrog into respectability by taking on the cause of women prisoners. She came across as simultaneously arrogant, out of touch and vulnerable, which is probably how she appeared in court. She has an unfortunate manner. Always good to see people for yourself isn't it? 
One of the most interesting and original talks was by Vice writer Joseph Cox on the positive aspects of the deep web and Silk Road. Do watch the video in the link. 
Paris Lees, the transgender columnist, was a disappointment because she copped out of  preparing a talk herself. Instead, she brought on another lady, Dr Kate Stone, who is also male to female transgender, who gamely recounted her story about being gored in the throat by a stag. Her issue was that all the newspapers headed their stories with 'transgender scientist' rather than bloody hell! someone has been stabbed in the throat and survived! Which I can understand, but realistically, being transgender is still quite unusual and newspapers are all about novelty and er... newness. The clue is in the name. 
Paris Lees herself is quite controversial amongst feminists since she wrote a column, 'I love wolf-whistles and cat calls', about how much she enjoys being sexually objectified (again, understandable because that means her transition has succeeded and men fancy her). This carried the unfortunate implication that all of us cisgender women should probably stop whining about it. Anyway, my sister who was with me, had had a couple of drinks, bravely got up during questions and challenged Lees on this, saying, I paraphrase, "I've been a fag hag since I was 14, so I'm not against the LGBT community, but what are you doing for the feminist cause as opposed to the transgender cause?". Paris Lees literally had no response. I also got the impression that the Lost Lectures is unused to anybody asking difficult questions. It's not Question Time. 
Philosopher Julian Baggini gave a short talk on his latest book 'The virtues of the table' where he explores meat eating and fair trade food. "Everytime we eat our brains evolve" is one quote. I didn't really get what he was talking about so here is a review by that anti-foodie Steven Poole. 
Last week I started my Wset level 2. What’s a Wset? This stands for Wine and Spirit Education Trust. You can study up to level 5 and then you can take the Masters of Wine qualification. I’m only on the baby slopes of wine knowledge. 
The course I was on was taught by Nick Adams, one of the MW’s for, in a horrible little town called Huntingdon. It didn’t take too long to drive there from London but then I just drove round and round the town, finding it impossible to find either my hotel or the hotel where the course was held. Stopping to ask the locals directions revealed the most ignorant, rude and probably in-bred people I’ve ever met in the UK.  From the tattoed dad (and not in a cool way) with his no-neck offspring, snarling ‘get a sat nav’ when I asked the way, to the night receptionist girl at the Marriot hotel (’No, you’ve not paid, give me your card’ when the room WAS paid for) in the end, I was desperate to leave for the embrace of the comparatively warm and cuddly London.
In the sixties, Huntingdon decided to build a ring road around the town, leading non-locals to tear their hair out with frustration at the impenetrability and poor urban planning of a place that, it turns out, is on the cover of the latest edition of Crap Towns. Believe me, I didn’t know that before I got there, I found this out from direct personal experience. But hey, don’t listen to me, read this.
However the course, as taught by Nick, was brilliant. I didn’t expect it to be so interesting and such fun. It explained so many of the things that have confused me about wine. And you get to taste! I'll do a post on some of the things I have learnt, or follow me on Twitter on the 5th, 11th and 18th of June where I'll be live-tweeting from the course.

Rose d'Anjou
I also went to a wine event promoting Rosé d'Anjou on a rooftop in Hoxton, organised by the sibilantly charming wine writer Douglas Blyde, which also had an interesting talk about food photography with Paul Winch Furness. I haven't actually had a moment to open the wines given to me but will await the Wset instructions on how to differentiate rosé wine. 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Review: 6 healthy cookbooks

I'm no health nut but my recent work on a vegan book, due next year, led me to take an interest in vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and raw cookery plus the use of coconut, so useful in the vegan repertoire. I think, even if we do not adopt alternative diets on a full-time basis, we can learn lessons and tricks from all of them.  

The Homemade Flour cookbook (Fair Winds Press) by Erin Anderson £16.99p
Content: how to grind your own flour. This might seem to be an unneccessary pfaff partly because we have lost the notion of 'fresh' grains, habituated, as we are, to the supermarket providing bags of milled flour. In the old days, you'd grow the wheat, take it to the local mill, and ta da!, 'fresh' flour without preservatives. This is also a handy book if you are interested in ancient grains such as Kamut, Emmer or Einkorn; if you want to make flour from grains other than wheat such as Amaranth, Teff, Sorghum, Flaxseeds, information that is useful for bakers and gluten-free cooks.
You need either a flour mill or a powerful blender such as a Vitamix (a machine which is a must for vegans).
Design and photography: softback but exudes class and style.  Photographs are taken by Erin herself.
Recipe I'd like to try: Pita bread with Emmer flour
Divine Vegan Desserts (Grub St) by Lisa Fabry £10.99p list price, £9.12p current Amazon price
Content: Knowledgeable and well written by ex-pat Londoner Lisa Fabry, now residing in Australia. Good technical information on thickeners, binders, sweeteners and whether a recipe is low G.I.
Design and photography: Softback and sadly a bit cheap looking. This book deserved more money spent on reproduction. Photographs and styling ok, but let down by poor reproduction.
Recipes: excellent. Real knowledge of vegan food and ingredients. Creative workarounds in this most difficult of vegan subjects, how to make good desserts without resorting to eggs and dairy.
I'd like to try: vegan panforte and eccles cakes
Vegan Finger Foods (Fair winds Press) by Celine Steen and Tamasin Noyes £14.99p list price, £12. 84p current Amazon price.
Content: both authors have worked extensively in vegan cookery, blogging, writing and testing vegan recipes. If you are a vegan who entertains or an entertainer (host) who has vegan guests, this is a great book for vegan canapés. The amount of events I go to where there is nothing for a non-meat eater to eat, this would be an essential book for caterers.
Design and photography: softback cover; clear, bright photography, for virtually every recipe.
Recipes I'd like to try: spinach swirls, hot pepper toastwiches
Raw Food, French Style (Frances Lincoln Ltd) by Delphine de Montalier £20.00p list price, £13.40p current Amazon price
Content: the author, the rather grand sounding Delphine de Montalier (anyone French with a 'de' in their name is aristocratic) is a food stylist and cookery book author. We don't associate French food with healthiness, rather heavy cream sauces and plenty of butter (which is not unhealthy in moderation, hence the French paradox), but this book gathers recipes from both De Montalier and a "new generation" of French chefs who are less classic, more international and open-minded towards a modern approach to food. Raw food sounds a bit grim, but naturellement the French can ace this subject with customary panache. This is not a vegan book, although there are plenty of plant-food recipes, it includes meat, fish and dairy, but obviously all raw. There is the 'barely cooked' chapter, but the raw food diet permits anything that has not been heated above 48 ºc. This book is also useful for paleo diet enthusiasts, who imagine they are eating in the style of hunter gatherers. I agree with Michael Pollan, who says that rawfoodists (and paleos) are ignoring the health benefits of cooking, which allows more access to the nutrients in food, and indulging in a fantasy idea of what cavemen ate.
Design and photography: a thick expensive looking hardback, smart design, nice food styling by Delphine and photographs of every recipe by David Japhy. (I do like a photo of each recipe. I know in the old days people made do with engravings or, god forbid, just a written description of each recipe but I like to know what the dish should look like). This is great value for money, a coffee table book for a bargain price when compared to the other books (but short runs of specialist books do cost more).
Recipes: colourful, vibrant, imaginative.
I'd like to try: Page 238: Lemon Tart, completely raw, using nuts, dates, vanilla powder and lemon zest.
Fusion food in the vegan kitchen (Fair winds Press) by Joni Marie Newman £14.99 list price,  £11.37 current Amazon price
Content: European cuisine is particularly dependent upon and centred around meat, fish and animal protein. European chefs hardly know how to cook without the easy umami boost of charred flesh. While 'fusion' food may have fallen out of favour, the plant-based food lover neccessarily looks to other cultures, Indian and Asian in particular, for tasty food. Joni Marie Newman delivers: ideas are culled from El Salvadorean, Korean, Japanese, Californian, Peruvian, Italian, Greek and Filippino cuisine.
Design and photography: a bit cheap looking. Softback. Ok photography and styling.
Recipes: some creative fusion recipes here. Hot, Sweet and Sour Seitan Ribs with Lemongrass 'Bones' sounds imaginative, the picture really does look like ribs. But I've tried seitan a few times now and can't make myself like it.
I'd like to try: Churros with sweet coconut cream filling. Faux Pho broth.
Superfoods for life, coconut (Fair Winds Press) by Megan Roosevelt £12.99 list price, £8.96 current Amazon price
Content: I'm now ordering kilo tubs of coconut oil in bulk. This is the saturated fat that is ok to eat, in fact Lauric acid from this 'monkey face' nut is very good for you, treating Alzheimers (now known as Diabetes III) for instance. Every part of the coconut tree can be utilised, and it can be turned into coconut sugar, flour, butter, milk or oil while coconut water can even replace an IV drip. This book contains good advice on fats (fat doesn't make you fat you know) and cholesterol.
Design and photography: Softback. Good functional design and photos but a handy small reference book rather than a coffee table jobbie.
Recipes I'd like to try: basic recipes for home-made coconut milk and cream.