The Friday Fave: The Supersizers

I’ve never been much of a fan of reality TV, with one exception–I try to watch at least one episode of any historical reenactment series I come across. (Some turn out to be dreadful, and I abandon them.) I haven’t seen them all, but I’ve found several over the years. I’ve been interested in history all my life, particularly in how people lived with different social mores and without the medical and technological advances that we enjoy. (I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of costume dramas?)

This is by far the best of the lot, as far as I’m concerned, although I don’t think the term “documentary” really applies, and “The Supersizers Go…”, a reference to Morgan Spurlock’s torturing himself by (allegedly) eating only McDonald’s food for a month, isn’t the best of titles. That said, I really really wish I’d found it sooner.

The show follows Giles Coren, a food critic, and Sue Perkins, a comedian and now co-host of the Great British Baking Show, while they spend a week at a time eating, dressing, and investigating the hobbies, fads, and social constraints of specific time periods. The first series is devoted to different eras in British history; the second includes a few other places in Europe.

I suppose it’s ostensibly a cooking show as much as anything–it goes into cooking methods, serving styles, and eating habits in considerable detail, and employs professional chefs to recreate dishes from each period. Each episode starts and ends with a doctor assessing how the week’s diet has impacted the participants (this is the only similarity to Spurlock’s documentary). In the interim, there is some eating, some dressing up, and Coren and Perkins try out unusual activities such as trying to seduce a (very patient) volunteer with foods thought to be aphrodisiacs in the eighteenth century and applying cosmetics from eras past. There is also a lot of drinking. A lot of drinking. Sometimes at every meal. Because Britain’s reputation as a nation of heavy drinkers is not a new thing–even during the centuries when most of Europe drank beer at every meal because water and milk were unsafe unless boiled, the British were accused of drinking too much.

It is hilariously funny.


Reading: Octavia Butler, Kindred

Author Octavia Butler

Kindred is a seminal work of science fiction. This is what I had been told, and this is what I went in to the book expecting. It’s not what I came out thinking (although I thought plenty of other things). Octavia Butler’s novel features a woman who finds herself inexplicably pulled through time whenever a particular person is in mortal peril, which unfortunately happens a lot. She is a black woman. He is a white man in early-19th century Maryland, the son of a slave plantation owner.

Published in 1979, Kindred is generally referred to as the first science fiction published by a black woman. 1979 was the year in which Margaret Thatcher was elected, Michael Jackson released “Off the Wall,” and five people protesting the KKK were shot and killed (by the KKK) in North Carolina. As relevant as the complex issues Butler raises in her book felt to me today, I truly can only imagine what they felt like to the average reader in 1979.

Cover of Octavia Butler's KindredButler’s writing is thoughtful and well-crafted, the pace of the story fast and yet each scene lingers. The relationships that Dana (the heroine) develops–with her white husband in both their own time and the antebellum South; with the slave-owning, abused boy to whom she is so oddly tied; and to the enslaved blacks on the plantation–are richly imagined.

That being said, I had a lot trouble reading this book as science fiction. Sure, Dana is pulled through time. That’s pretty weird. Turns out the guy is her distant relative. That’s intriguing. But there is no more exploration of that theme, and no investigation into what greater meaning it may have. The characters seem at best bemused.

I enjoy a lot of speculative fiction that doesn’t fit squarely within the box of a genre. And yes, science fiction has evolved a lot since 1979, but Dune had been out for 14 years, Star Wars for two; the genre was pretty well established. There is so very little in Kindred that could identify it with science fiction that I wonder if it hurts rather than helps the book’s tremendous power.

Reading this as a straight parable, or as historical fiction in which liberties are taken (see: Outlander…), might open it up to new readers. Far from diminishing Butler’s work, I would rather see it correctly homed so it could have the broader recognition it deserves.

Stuck for POC-authored sci fi? Try this excellent Buzzfeed list of 19 books, and one from Colorlines for comparison.

Still, perhaps I am not accounting sufficiently for the glass ceiling effect. Kindred does not constitute science fiction to me, but for a black woman to write herself in to a genre that had previously excluded her? That is extraordinary.

Have you read this or other works by Octavia Butler–forget that, by any person of color in this still very-white, very-male genre? Do you think I’m being too restrictive in my definition of science fiction? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.

Lemon Lavender Meringue Pie (and Brownies)

I’ve been back and forth these last couple of weeks housesitting, so planning time to bake things has been tricky. I was away for most of Sunday, so my planned baking project–the pie–had to wait. Instead, I made Ina Garten’s outrageous brownies the Friday before, because they looked easy and I had a chocolate craving.

They are easy. They are also lethally rich. Half went in the freezer, four largish ones to the friends I was housesitting for, and the remaining ones are slowly slowly disappearing from the cookie jar, half-square by half-square. You can find the recipe (and demonstration) here. I neglected to take pictures of the process this time because I was in too much of a rush, but here is the final result:

Pie 11Not a drawback by any means, but I was a bit surprised that they didn’t have that crispy crust on the top that rich, sugary brownies often do–they’re gooier than I expected, particularly as I left them in the oven rather longer than recommended. My only other variation from the recipe was to leave out the espresso powder, although I’m sure they’re even more delicious with it.

Yesterday I set out to make my lemon meringue pie. I used the America’s Test Kitchen recipe, which can be found here (unfortunately there’s a paywall, although they do offer free trial subscriptions. If you come across any of their massive cookbooks in a second-hand shop or a yard sale, I recommend them–I have their meat book, their classic cookbook, and their baking book, and while this hasn’t stopped me from buying other cookbooks, they’re great fail-safes and they often explain a lot about the chemistry of why some techniques and recipes work when other standards are a matter of luck.)

It turned out to be an all-day affair; there’s quite a bit of make a part, let it chill, add another part, etc., and I was in and out running errands in between. I grated the lemon zest and squeezed the juice the night before, and started on the crust in the morning. I’m growing to like making pie crusts quite a bit–they always used to be a disaster for me when I was younger, so I’ve been buying ready-made ones for years. I’m not sure what I was doing so wrong before, but they’re working much better for me now.

Here are some of the ingredients, the chopped and frozen butter, and the completed and wrapped dough, ready for chilling. Allegedly there is some way to do this that does not involve a food processor. I would not recommend it–surely trying to incorporate frozen butter into flour rather defeats the purpose of the butter being frozen?

Pie 7 Pie 6 Pie 5

Pie 4 Pie 12Pie 16

Above is the dough after a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Rolling it out wasn’t as difficult as I’d anticipated. I used an all-butter crust for this recipe, not having any graham crackers on hand, but I think a graham-cracker crust is traditional for lemon meringue pies? My experience is limited. I’ve had lots of key lime pies in the past, but very few slices of lemon meringue.

Lemon 2

It did shrink a bit on one side; not sure why, as the dish was in the center of the oven. The damage wasn’t bad enough to make a difference to the end result, happily. Back in the fridge it went, for another hour or so.

Next was the filling. I was worried about this, because my cornstarch has in the past proved rather weak when it comes to doing its job, and I had barely enough for the recipe. I was also terrified that I would curdle the eggs–in all the recipes I’ve tried that required adding eggs to a moderately hot liquid, I’ve actually succeeded in not doing this, ever (knock on wood), but it remains one of the aspects of cooking I fear most.

Pie 3

  LemonPie 8




The eggs didn’t curdle, and the cornstarch did its job. This was the only point at which I altered the recipe, by adding about 1/4 of a teaspoon of culinary lavender oil (lavender and rose oils are strong stuff, one to two drops is enough for a cup of hot chocolate). I love the flavour of lavender, but there aren’t many other tastes it mixes well with; it does best with lemon and with chocolate.

I probably could have stopped at this point and been happy with the result, but the lemon curd by itself makes for quite an overpowering pie.  Back in the fridge again, for two hours this time.

Pie 1

Finally came the meringue. This was an Italian meringue rather than a French, like the one I got wrong before. Again, I was worried I would get the temperatures wrong and ruin the whole thing, but all came out well. I used an extra egg white, as the eggs I’d started with weren’t as large as I tend to use. I ran out of white sugar in this last measure, so I topped up the cup with turbinado. It didn’t make any difference to the taste, but the meringue was more ivory than white. (I don’t recommend this as a replacement–I used only a couple of tablespoons, but adding more would probably alter the chemistry of the meringue and cause disaster. I only resorted to the turbinado because the thought of going back to the grocery store close to rush hour nearly reduced me to tears.)


I’m quite pleased with the finished product. The meringue did not collapse in the oven or afterward; it’s still fluffy and pretty this morning, although the necessity of covering it with plastic wrap for storage has damaged a few of the peaks. The flavour of the lavender didn’t come out as much as I’d hoped, so next time I’ll increase the amount of oil, perhaps a half or two-thirds of a teaspoon. It’s not the most complicated of recipes, but given the need to wait between the steps and before serving, it’s best kept for a weekend. On the plus side, there was plenty of time for cleaning up between steps, so at the end I didn’t have stacks of pots and equipment to clean–I got to sit down and enjoy a slice in peace.

Pie 15

Friday Fave: Angels in America

Angels 2

I’m sure many of my friends are sick of familiar with hearing me go on about just how amazing so much of the television produced in the last fifteen years has been, how shows like the The Wire, Peaky Blinders, and Borgen have made screenplays not simply an offshoot of stage drama but something like a hybrid of plays and the serial novel from the days of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It isn’t as though I didn’t like television to begin with, but there is a depth to these recent series–albeit not always in every season of some long-running ones–that rivals many of the films considered to be more serious art, which I think is a great pity. Six Feet Under was the first such series that I saw, back in 2002; it was like nothing I had ever seen, and I loved it. About a year and a half later the HBO production of Angels in America aired, and I was transfixed.

It was a play to begin with, of course, so adapting it for the screen was presumably less of a challenge than stories written as novels or other prose, but the freedom afforded by filming with regard to locations, sets, and special effects gave the scenes a dimension that just couldn’t be achieved on a stage. (My experience of drama is admittedly limited, but to my mind there are some plays that will always be better on stage than on screen; I do not think this is one of them.) I had heard of it when I was growing up and considered buying the script when I was in high school, but resisted because I wanted to see it on stage first. (I still haven’t had the chance, but I live in hope.)

From the opening scenes I thought the production was as close to perfect as could be; the ensuing years and numerous viewings have not altered my opinion. The casting was spot-on, particularly Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, and Al Pacino as the vile Roy Cohn. There are so many luminous moments in the six hours that I don’t have a favourite scene, although I do have a favourite line–Belize looking Cohn straight in the eye and saying “I am the antithesis of you.” Prior’s line about taking anti-depressants “in wee fistfuls” in his first dream-sequence meeting with Harper, and Harper’s vague query about why Mormons are thus named are close seconds. If there is a flaw at any point in the film, it is Emma Thompson getting too strident and manic as the Angel in her scenes with Hannah Pitt–for me a couple of those moments veered from the intense into the absurd.

The play is valuable for so many reasons. It’s an insight into the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the discrimination faced by the LBGTQ community, which much of our society still has so much trouble understanding. It’s a particularly haunting account of personal struggles with physical and mental illness, and of how fear can lead us to hurt those we love most. It’s also an insight into how the idea that the straight white Caucasian male is superior to all other genders, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations can damage just about anyone, even those who believe most strongly in the idea–even when they are among those disadvantaged by such a position, such as Hannah Pitt and Roy Cohn.

Beyond–or underlying–all this is the fact that it’s a beautiful work of literature, and that the television production is a gorgeous example of what can be done on a screen. Aside from the fact that I am a staunch feminist and I believe strongly that the rights of the African-American community, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community continue to be suppressed and infringed upon in this country, I get frustrated with commentary on works such as Angels in America, Between the World and Me, and Hamilton that dismiss them out of hand because they “advance a liberal agenda.” Dismissing these and other such works because they portray a worldview you have no experience of or familiarity with is to miss the point of what good art is, and what it can achieve. It is possible to be able to appreciate a work while still disagreeing with its central premise, or actively disliking the person who created it (*cough cough* Woody Allen, Roman Polanski). Refusing to listen to / read / watch something because you do not share the perspective of the creator or protagonist(s) is as absurd as saying that a woman shouldn’t read Tom Jones and can’t enjoy its humor because she’s not a randy and yet hopelessly romantic young man, or that only men with military experience should watch Band of Brothers–another near-perfect example of filmmaking–because it fails the Bechdel and DuVernay tests. Badly. Such refusals are as dismissive of our cultural inheritance as the proverbial reduction of the Western Canon to a single-semester course in “dead white men”, because they deny that we still have art that is vital and creative and new, and that all of the techniques and facets of language those same dead white men used, and in some cases created or perfected, are still present and alive in these new works. (If characters being portrayed by people of different races and genders bothers you, blame Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Sarah Bernhardt; Lin-Manuel Miranda was not the first to hit on the idea.)

Margaret wrote an excellent review of Between the World and Me a few weeks ago, in case you didn’t read it the first time. I will have more to say on Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton, and its amazing cast at some point in the (hopefully near) future. If you haven’t seen Angels in America, or haven’t seen it in a long time, give it a try. It’s held up well in the years since its filming.


Victoria Sandwich

This was another week of not being in the kitchen as much as I would have liked, because there was too much to do elsewhere. Fortunately most of the other lingering jobs have been finished now, so this coming week I can spend more time doing things I like.

I did manage a decent lunch on Friday, at least. I tried my hand at Margaret’s zucchini and goat cheese tart; it was delicious, but my version wasn’t as pretty as hers, so I neglected to take pictures before cutting into it. I did some roasted asparagus to go with it, but that didn’t turn out particularly picture-worthy either; the asparagus was too young, and some of it was rather woody, so it was a bit of a disappointment.

For dessert I did a Victoria Sandwich, a dessert I’m particularly fond of making because it’s so easy to incorporate fresh fruit in constructing it. (Traditional recipes do not call for actual fruit in the middle, just jam and sometimes cream, but if you can get berries to match your jam of choice in season, why not?)

I used Mary Berry’s recipe (she from the Great British Baking Show / Great British Bake Off, if, like me, you’re addicted to the program). I usually follow her recipes to the letter, at least until I get to the assembly/ decoration stage, but this time the butter didn’t make it to room temperature–I was pressed for time–so I went with softened butter, which is possibly why it was a bit crispier at the edges than it should have been. I didn’t notice any other defects. I chose to do strawberry fruit and jam this time; raspberry filling is the classic choice, and I’ve done blackberry and blueberry versions in the past that have also come out nicely. I’m thinking of doing a raspberry and lemon curd version some time, but haven’t attempted it yet.

VS 8VS 7VS 6VS 5

The mixing and baking went as expected; because the butter wasn’t as soft as it should be, I whipped it for a couple of minutes first to soften it a bit more. I used a mandoline to slice up the strawberries, and added a tablespoon of powdered sugar to the cream before whipping it. When I add the jam, I stir it up thoroughly before spreading–even at room temperature, trying to smooth out a lump of jam on the cake itself will tear the cake, so unless you have a brand of jam that is already quite soft (like Bonne Maman), give it a stir in the jar or in a bowl before assembling the cake.

VS 4VS 3VS 2

Normally I would attempt to arrange the fruit in circles, but my first layer of strawberry slices looked rather patchy and the next refused to make a recognizable pattern, so I just went with haphazard but relatively stable layers, so as to avoid the the top layer of the cake making a dash for freedom when I placed it on top. For Victoria Sandwiches, I always use powdered sugar rather than caster sugar on top, because I think it makes for a prettier finish:

VS 1It turned out quite nice. My one reservation was that the sliced strawberries would make it hard to cut and tear the lower layer of cake, but it cut quite cleanly. It also disappeared in record time–I sent some home with my guest and some to a neighbour, and the remaining half was gone by Sunday afternoon. This is the trouble with Victoria Sponges in my household–I would make them more often, but they disappear so quickly that it’s better when half can be sent home with guests, because they can’t be frozen.





The Friday Fave: Samantha Bee

I miss Jon Stewart’s incarnation of The Daily Show every day. I knew I would, although I expected to like Trevor Noah a little more than I do, and I thought we’d see more of Jessica Williams and Hasan Minhaj than we have. Trevor Noah is doing a fair job, considering the shoes he had to fill, and is definitely improving–the Lindsay Graham episode was excellent. (If you haven’t seen it, try to catch it on the Comedy Central site before it’s taken down.) Nonetheless, the feel of the show is very different now.

I’ve been watching the show since its first incarnation with Craig Kilborn, and Stewart since he hosted Short Attention Span Theater. When Stewart took over from Kilborn, he shaped it into the platform for satire and biting commentary that it became–under Kilborn there was more pure silliness and every episode ended with a mock game show, if I remember correctly. Not that Jon Stewart’s tenure didn’t include a fair amount of pure silliness as well, but the moments I miss the most were the times when they kept the commentary to a minimum because it was so simple to show up the politicians and pundits just by playing things they’ve said at different times back to back. Speaking solely for myself, I’ve found the Republican primary race–not least Trump’s appalling and repellent performance–a tiny bit harder to endure without him. I missed the blend of acerbity and absurdity that Stewart’s crew perfected, and I worried that it would live on only in John Oliver’s show on HBO. (Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show is awesome, but of a completely different format, far more conversation and debate among guests than mockery and satire.)

I worried a little too much, as usual. Samantha Bee took a large part of what made The Daily Show great when she went over to create Full Frontal for TBS, and it is every bit as good. Unlike TDS and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, she doesn’t organize her program necessarily around the events of the past few days but focuses on specific topics that have been relevant for a matter of weeks, months, or, in many cases, years. She is also every bit as capable of making me–and my Conservative father–laugh hard enough to cry.


She deals with many of the same political topics that TDS, LWT, and other political comedy programs do, but she spends a good bit of the (too little) time she has looking at how the issues or events at hand affect not simply the country as a whole or a political class or income group, but at women in particular, and other minorities. Given the recent onslaught of state bills targeting women’s reproductive rights and the attempts to overturn both the ACA and the Roe v. Wade decision at the federal level–not to mention the attempts to block the LBGT community from marrying, adopting children, working without harassment, and using the bathroom–we desperately need this, and more like it. Jon Stewart and his TDS crew perfected this technique of keeping an audience informed while making them laugh, something essential to us as a society since the news networks have begun to sacrifice truth and actual news for the sake of propaganda, pandering, and feel-good segments.

Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal is on Monday nights at 10:00, and I believe the episodes that have already aired are available on the TBS website and on YouTube. In the meantime, here’s a taste:

Thomas Keller’s Mushroom Quiche

Thomas Keller mushroom quiche
The quiche we want is not always the quiche we deserve. This is Thomas Keller’s version, image c/o Food & Wine. Mine looked just like it.

Invited to a French-themed dinner party where the main event was duck l’orange and another guest had already volunteered the potato gratin, I volunteered a truffled quiche. Seemed fancy. Seemed hearty. Seemed appropriate. The thing is, I had never made a quiche. I don’t even really like quiche.

But then I saw a promising recipe on Food & Wine. It mentioned “silky custard” and “several inches high” which are the circumstances that apply when I do find myself enjoying a quiche. And once I had already obtained ingredients, I realized on a closer look that I had picked a Thomas Keller recipe. You know, he of that little-known hole-in-the-wall THE FRENCH LAUNDRY.

Perhaps I should have applied slightly more common sense at this stage. For instance, going to Whole Foods and buying a quiche. However: I did not. (In my defense, since I’m pretty comfortable with pastry and had the entire day to work, I figured I could take it slow and get it right, because apparently I have never met myself?!)

So here’s the deal, folks. Quiche is hard.

  1. Make a crust with so much butter you actually lie about it to people.

    Note: I did like Keller’s unorthodox stand mixer method for mixing the dough. I was dubious but stuck with it and will be using it in the future.

  2. Let it rest in the fridge and then let it come back up to rolling temperature. Pretend like you knew this would take about 2 hours.
  3. Par-bake this crust, which is several inches high, until it is golden brown.
    1. Check it halfway through and realize that you only put in half an inch of pie weights so your crust is toppling and shrunken, hahahaha no problem you’re only three hours behind on your schedule!
    2. Do ignore the fact that your kludgy crust-fixes will likely not work, and think gamely to yourself, “The top edges will be sliced off anyway!”

      Butter crust for quiche
      Totally normal. Everything is fine. This looks just like the picture.
  4. Slice up and cook, like, a lot of mushrooms. A lot. And some shallots.
    1. Make sure you use butter for this stage because you have not used enough butter yet.
  5. Let the mushroom mix cool In a panic, scatter the still super-hot mushroom mix over the pre-baked crust.
    1. Right! There should be cheese in this! Go find some and grate that s**t right in there.
  6. Make the first half of the egg-and-milk mixture for your custard and definitely do what I did and mix up the proportions so that then you have to retroactively mix in more milk to the sloppy mess already in the crust, carefully, with a whisk, while crying.
    1. Assure yourself that this is for sure what Thomas Keller does when he makes quiche.

      Iceland puffin photo
      Here is a picture of a puffin in Iceland! Isn’t this much better than those disaster photos I literally could not spare 2 seconds to take while cooking?
  7. Scatter the rest of your thankfully delicious mushroom mixture on top of the mess you just made. Top with the second half of the custard.
  8.  Watch the custard spill out onto the baking tray through the gaps in the crust that your kludgy fixes (see Step 3.2, above) failed to adequately stop. Crying more is okay at this stage, but personally, I recommend healthy, loud, really offensive cursing. Kick something!

    Kitchen mess during cooking
    Generally I am a “clean as you go” cook. Also: Dishwashers save lives.
  9. Figure you might as well bake it before throwing it away, and while it’s in the oven you can put on clothes that aren’t covered in flour and butter. Remember that dinner party you’re going to in–oh god it’s in an hour—-
    1. Assess the amount of cold coffee left in your cup, add an equal amount of Kahlua, and absolutely under no circumstances look over at the clock.
  10. Check the quiche a bit early. Experience the actual miracle of it being done! Be grateful for your friends making soothing noises at you. Transfer it to a pan not coated in a horrifying mess of custard spillover, pack it up for the ride to dinner, and hope for the best.

Turns out this tasted lovely. The bottom layer of custard did not set correctly, presumably due to my frenzied attempts to fix my proportion mistake, but it wasn’t too bad. And the top layer was in fact supremely silky and light despite having partially drained out the sides.

Thomas Keller mushroom quicheKeller’s method of layering the cooked ingredients and the custard layers did result in a beautiful distribution of mushrooms throughout the quiche. My black truffle salt and white truffle oil additions turned out to be right on the nose–not overwhelming (I thought) while still prominent. The par-baked crust stayed crispy and flaky and was nearly good enough to make one overlook its hideous aspect.

All in all, I was glad I hadn’t chucked this in the trash when steps 1-All of Them went wrong. A lesson in learning to love the imperfect.

Yorkshire Puddings

Most weekends when I head into the kitchen I come out four or five hours later with two or three concoctions that taste good, look more or less like the book says they should, and I enjoy a brief sense of accomplishment for having done something that makes me feel like a grown-up, before returning to my normal state of feeling overwhelmed.

This was not one of those weekends. On Saturday I made blueberry muffins and oatmeal muffins (both from America’s Test Kitchen recipes, which can be found here), which were good but just not inspiring for some reason. I made this recipe for dinner at my father’s request. (Note: I do not know who came up with the labels “simple” and “healthy” for this dish–the healthy label was applied on another site. It is neither. It was somewhat tedious to prepare, if not terribly difficult, and no dish consisting of stuffed pasta topped with fried pork wherein the [also fried sauteed] vegetables are effectively a garnish has any business being called healthy.) It wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great either; my father ate a few bites, threw most of his serving away, and then insisted that it had been my idea to prepare the meal in the first place. I was not pleased.

On Sunday I lacked the heart to spend much time in the kitchen, so dinner came out of packets from the refrigerator and the freezer and there was no dessert. We had roast beef, though, so I decided to make some Yorkshire puddings to go with it.

Yorkshire puddings are one of those things that taste like home to me–they are a reminder of childhood Christmases in England when the holiday was a week of fun and new things with family I rarely got to see, before worry about budgets and the stress of preparing things crept in. My mother would only ever make them at Christmas, and was never happy with her results: they were always soft and buttery and pancake-like, never achieving the crisp edges of the store-bought ones, which I have never seen on this side of the puddle. I didn’t care–I’ve always found them delicious no matter how soft they were, and still prefer them slightly underdone at the base. They are comfort food to me, like hot chocolate, fresh blackberries, or a grilled cheese sandwich, and I needed something to cheer myself up this weekend.

I tried my hand at them for Christmas about three years ago, and achieved entirely by chance what she had always tried and never managed: crisp, rounded edges with a dip in the middle. Her recipe book of Classic English Cookery insisted that the batter be chilled before pouring it into the pan and set in the oven, but things had been a bit hectic in the kitchen that day and I had set the batter aside while other things were baking and promptly forgotten about it for an hour. When they came out of the oven they were perfect, and didn’t deflate. Aside from a poached egg, this is the only thing I have ever been able to cook better than my mother did.

She would only cook them at Christmas; I try to make them at least once a month. I would do them more often if I thought they were remotely healthy, but unlike roasted brussels sprouts, they are not a vegetable, so I don’t get to use every excuse to make them. It has taken me a bit of fine-tuning to get them to really crisp up at the edges and not deflate once they’re out of the oven. I’m still having a bit of trouble getting the ones at the center to puff up properly; the one thing I haven’t tried is doing them on a convection cycle, so I will do that next time.

Yorkies 2
Extreme close-up of finished puddings

The recipe is simple: two eggs, one cup of whole milk, one cup of flour, pinch of salt. When I don’t have whole milk on hand, I find that adding a couple of tablespoons of cream to low-fat milk does just as well. Add all ingredients together and whisk until smooth. The batter must be at room temperature before baking: this can be achieved by leaving the eggs and cup of milk out for a few hours, or mixing up the batter and leaving it to rest for at least an hour before baking–I haven’t noticed any discernible differences in results.

Heat the oven to 425 F. If you have any beef drippings (or bacon fat) on hand, put a good pinch (about 1/2 to 3/4 of a tablespoon) in each cup of a twelve-cup muffin pan–butter or oil will also do. I usually use butter, but drippings will give you the best flavour and have always produced the best results in my experience. Put the pan in the oven until the fat or butter is quite hot–I wait until I can hear it sizzling. Take the pan out of the oven and pour the batter into the cups–I start with about 1/4 a cup in each muffin cup and top up a few if there is any batter left over. Put the pan back in the oven and bake for at least 20 minutes. If the puddings are not turning a dark brown along the top edge, leave in for a few more minutes–taking them out too early will result in deflated puddings. Still delicious, but not crispy.

I did a bit of research online, wondering if there were other variations on the recipe. Some versions I found indicate that the batter ingredients should be doubled (4 eggs, 2 cups milk, 2 cups flour) and the muffin cups filled to the top; some also insist that the batter should indeed be cold, as per my mother’s old cookbook. This has never worked for me either–like my mother, I get tasty muffin-shaped pancakes, not Yorkies.

Yorkshire puddings are traditionally served with roast beef–still the rule in my house, otherwise I’d be making them every week, and that would be bad–but I don’t see why they couldn’t be served with any sort of roast meat. The batter can also be poured into a pan and sausages laid in a row down the middle to make toad-in-the-hole, but they must be British sausages, which are exorbitantly expensive here when they can be found at all, so I’ve never tried this for myself. What Trader Joe’s describes as Irish sausages are not actually Irish or anything like a sausage produced in the British Isles. (Here in the US you can sell solid chocolate bars that are only 11% cocoa and “taco meat filling” consisting of only 35% beef, but apparently you’re not allowed to label a sausage a sausage if it contains a certain percentage of breadcrumbs….) They’re a nice attempt, but don’t have the flavour or consistency of the real thing. If you have a UK imports shop near you, you might be able to find Cameron’s or some other version of the real thing.


Who, exactly, wants to read my novel?

The reason I ask is because some days, I’m not sure I want to read my novel. Mostly the days on which I am editing it. Since I am currently engaged in a painful top-down restructuring of 200,000-ish words, that’s most days. That’ll teach me to never write without an outline again (I hope).

Here are a few criteria I have identified for readers of my eventual book:

  • Must enjoy speculative fiction or fantasy
  • Must like character-driven books
  • Preferably not care if characters kind of wander around for a while Doing Stuff for Some Reason
  • Enjoy detailed descriptions of Nature In All Its Glory
  • Be my mom

Do you fit these criteria? If so, comment here to be a beta reader!

Today I have been writing down the plot points for the Book That Will Be; I already wrote down the plot points, insofar as I could, for the Book That Is. I’ve done a lot of noodling with the desired plot plots but writing them down in an orderly fashion has had me spooked. I guess it’s because it feels like I’m committing to them now, and commitment is not my strong suit. Choosing one path means you can’t go down the others. But that’s what got me into this mess: trying to leave as many options for myself and my characters as open as possible led to a meandering, decisionless wasteland.

Do any of you who are writers, reading this, relate? Do you find it difficult to make choices for your characters?

Pop quiz! Is R2D2 here channeling me when I have:

  1. Been working on my plot map for 3 minutes
  2. Just re-read my extant draft after it’s been a while
  3. Decided to rewrite 40% of my book AGAIN

The correct answer is, of course, all of the above.

The Silver Kittens

Tristan 3         Henry 3        Jamie 3

Tristan                             Henry                           Jamie

Margaret did warn you that there would be kittens. They’re not actually kittens anymore, but they’re physically small cats, an inheritance from their likewise small mother, so I still have to stop myself calling them “the kittens” even though they’re coming up on two years old. I’m trying to adapt this to “the little ones”, but just now I have more important bad habits to break. They’re not actually silver, either, but their fur does look that colour when the sunlight strikes it in a certain way.

In a house full of cats, these are the babies, and almost universally beloved, an unusual event in my experience of introducing new cats to the house. My ten-year-old tortoiseshell Portia hates them, but she hates almost all other cats–she would prefer to have all the human attention to herself. Not to mention the treats and the cushiest places to sleep.

We did not plan on keeping them all. When I went away to university, however, my mother’s love of animals got out of hand–having left behind five cats and a dog, when I returned (due to her being diagnosed with cancer) there were so many animals that the words “there are too many cats” made it past my lips for the first time. The most recent addition, my father’s ginger tom named Tigger, actively resented my intrusion into what he had obviously come to think of as his territory, and it was at least a year before he accepted me as part of the household. We had lost a few to old age and feline cancers in the last few years, however, so I was pleased when Violet started hanging about the house, obviously pregnant and looking for handouts. They were born some time in June, coming up on two years ago, and Violet brought them out in the open for the first time on July 15, the day after my birthday. The plan was to catch them all and have them neutered, vaccinated, and treated for worms or any other parasites, then release Violet back into her usual haunts, keep one kitten, and have the others adopted. Events, however, intervened.

To begin with, I had a hard time catching them. They would barely tolerate being touched; they fought so hard when I picked one up I was afraid I would accidentally hurt them, so they wriggled out of my grasp quite easily. Finally, when they were about four months old, I managed to throw a thin blanket over Tristan and bring him inside. It took him a couple of hours to calm down, and days before he’d let me touch him again. So began my first experience with taming feral kittens.

Tristan baby 1
Tristan looking deceptively tame at five months old. He preferred not being touched, but he’s never much minded the camera being held up in front of him.

The other two took longer. We had already named them, and Jamie was starting to respond to that name by October, but it was nearly December before we managed to get them in the house. Violet had already pushed them away before I had caught Tristan, and Jamie was starting to trust us, so one night when it got very cold we left the door to the utility room at the side of the house open and Henry and Jamie came in on their own.

Because they were much older than is ideal when socializing kittens, and because my mother’s condition was worsening rapidly at that point, everything took so much longer than it really should have. After a couple of weeks we moved them into my bedroom with their brother; fortunately it took them only a couple of hours to resume their former bond.

Jamie 4
Jamie helping out when I was putting away clean laundry.

Taming them took a long time, because we started too late and because until about a month ago there have been very few days in the last sixteen months when I have not felt completely overwhelmed. In the first few weeks after my mother’s death, though, knowing that I was responsible for my cats’ welfare was the only thing that kept me from being suicidal. They persisted in needing food, grooming, and affection when everyone else had either withdrawn or was too far away to visit, and if I wasn’t there to look after them they’d likely go to a shelter where they’d stand a poor chance of finding new homes, due to age (all but two of the older ones are over 14) or remaining wildness (the little ones). I promised my mother I’d take care of them, so I was bound to that if nothing else.

Henry 1Henry 5

Rare shots of Henry not regarding the camera with deep suspicion, mostly because he’s not actually looking at the camera.

Henry 6

He really, really doesn’t trust cameras.

Before Jamie and Henry were moved into the house, Tristan had become quite acclimated, sleeping tucked up against my legs at night and occasionally enjoying a head scratch, but I had to start from scratch with the other two. I made a nest of sorts on top of a box underneath my bed for them–they were still small enough at that point that they could all fit into a single cat bed, and they’ve never grown out of their affection for one another. Many of the techniques advised for younger cats still worked with them, even at eight months old; if I made eye contact with Henry and Jamie, they’d run off, but if I slipped a hand under the bed they would (sometimes) tolerate being stroked. They grew to trust me as a source of food, and eventually learned how to ask for what they wanted with particular meows or behaviors (often involving staring at me fixedly, which is really quite unnerving to wake up to).

Like most cats, they’re very interested in whatever we eat, and the smell of roasted fish or beef brings them running. All three of them have a taste for bread, especially Jamie, for whom it is a favourite treat, one that he doesn’t get very often because it can’t possibly be good for them.  I find this exceptionally strange in a cat, as I’ve never known other cats to show the slightest interest in the stuff unless it’s got butter or cheese on it. They picked the habit up from their mother: When she first showed up at our house she developed a habit of stealing the stale bread my father leaves out for the birds, before he realized she was a regular visitor and started giving her proper cat food. My father has had to break his habit of leaving the crusts of sandwiches or pizza where Jamie can reach them after we found a couple tucked away in his hideouts, obviously saved for later gnawing. Cats are weird.

Henry and Jamie 1
         Henry (left) and Jamie (right)
Tristan 2

One by one, they each decided that they were happy here. Tristan was over a year old when I heard him purr for the first time, which made me so ridiculously happy I nearly cried. Henry was next, and then finally Jamie, who surprised me one day by not simply tolerating his head being scratched but rubbing around my ankles for a full five minutes and inviting me to scratch his back and under his ears as well. He’s remained mercurial ever since–sometimes he refuses to be touched at all, at other times wholeheartedly affectionate, following me around and rubbing his chin all over my hand to mark me as his. Oddly, he’s the most tolerant of being held, even allowing me to carry him short distances before struggling to get down. Tristan and Henry will still dart away half the time if they think I’m going to try to pick them up; if they do consent to be held, it’s only for about thirty seconds at most.

Tristan and Jamie 1

Tristan and Jamie are still devoted to each other, and can be found like this at least once a day.

Tristan and Jamie 2

Henry now greets me every morning as soon as he notices I’m awake by throwing himself down on my lap or my chest, settling into a soft, boneless heap of purrs for five minutes or so until he notices something he wants to chase. In the last week Tristan has resumed his old habit of sleeping pressed up against my legs at night. Tristan’s favourite being, however, cat or human, is Tigger, the (now ridiculously oversized) ginger tom, who got over his resentment of me after a couple of years and is now super-affectionate. Tigger is easily three times Tristan’s size (and probably four times his weight), but Tristan spends a good deal of time trying to persuade Tigger to engage in a bout of feline kickboxing. The first few times we heard Tristan wailing and carrying on we’d rush through to the living room, fearing disaster, only to find Tigger sitting quite placidly on the floor, watching Tristan stalking around him and trying to bully Tigger into a response with all the squalling. Occasionally Tigger will extend a paw and bat at him, but he’s been remarkably patient with the younger wannabe lion, permitting Tristan to paw at him, jump on him, treat him like a surrogate mother, and occasionally use him as a pillow while they sleep. (Tristan has a penchant for sitting down on his brothers like they’re cat beds rather than fellow cats; Jamie and Henry are rarely inclined to put up with this, being slightly smaller than Tristan himself, but Tigger does not seem to notice.) Once in a while Tigger does consent to run when Tristan wants to chase him; the glee on Tristan’s face in these moments is hilarious.

Tristan and Tigger

I still sometimes feel overrun, forever having to clean up after them and feed them. Never again will I have so many pets at once–it isn’t sensible, and can cause stress for the animals as well, although we’ve somehow avoided that complication. Neither, however, could I ever be without them. The best times of day are still the moments when they come to me for affection, wanting me to play or to act as a cushion while they sleep. They are a large part of what has gotten me through the last year and taught me to look forward to new days again.