I recently wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Word of Mouth section which looked at whether we’re now so obsessed with taking photos of our food we’ve lost the ability to just sit and enjoy a meal. The article sparked a lot of comment and Tweets – but turns out I needn’t have bothered penning the piece at all. Someone sent me a link to this very funny video Eat It Don’t Tweet It! which sums it all up much better than I did.
I know the weather has been heady in the UK this past week, but just as it doesn’t feel quite right to leap straight from tights into flip-flops, so it is with my food. Come summer, I will happily eat big cool salads for every meal but for now I’m still dipping my toes into the waters of meals served cold. That’s why this warm salad is so good for bright sunny spring days that are still being kissed by departing winter. Plus it has bags of flavour.
Griddled Little Gem is tender, nutty and slightly bitter, and makes totally different eating to that served straight from the crisper drawer. Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall suggests throwing them on the BBQ and proposes a lovely version with goat’s cheese. Xanthe Clay suggests the classic French method of braising the Little Gem with peas and broad beans, and serving it with tender spring Lamb. I was after punchier flavours, so paired the Little Gem with creamy gorgonzola. If you manage to get the lettuce hearts from the griddle to the plate without delay, the gorgonzola will melt slightly and become fantastically oozy. Adding thinly-sliced crisp pear and a sprinkling of walnuts then gives you the texture you need.
The maple dressing is seriously addictive and really brings this salad together. Depending on what you are cooking, you can alter the recipe by, for instance, replacing the vinegar with a good squeeze of lime and perhaps leaving out the garlic. This gives a really sweet-but-zingy result; I happily ate a bowl of mixed wild rice with this version of the dressing stirred through it for a simple supper last night. I now hide my maple syrup deep in the recesses of the larder because it’s become quite expensive and gets splashed over cereal and ice cream if I don’t stash it away.
I’ve found that opinions vary when it comes to how piquant the dressing should be. This recipe makes it reasonably sweet, deliberately so as a foil to the slightly bitter lettuce and the cheese. I suggest spooning the dressing over in a sparing manner when you plate up and then bring what remains to the table so that people can help themselves to more. You might want to serve this with some griddled sourdough as people might want to mop it up. It really is pretty good.
Serves 4 as a starter
For the dressing
- 60ml maple syrup
- 25ml white wine vinegar
- 60ml rapeseed oil (any oil will be fine really, even mild olive oil)
- 1/2 garlic clove, finely minced
- salt and pepper
- 4 Litte Gem lettuces
- oil, for brushing (any kind will do)
- a handful of walnuts, very roughly chopped
- 100g gorganzola (or according to taste)
- 2 ripe but firm pears
1. To make the dressing, gently heat the maple syrup until warmed through. Combine the remaining dressing ingredients in a bowl and then gradually trickle in the maple syrup, whisking as you go. Set aside.
2. Cut the lettuces in half lengthways, but leave on the tough stalky end so they don’t fall apart when you cook them. Heat a griddle pan until very hot and cook the lettuce cut-side down first for about 3 minutes. Carefully turn the lettuce over and repeat.
3. While the lettuce are cooking – you should have enough time – quarter the pears, remove the core and slice very thinly. If you do this before you start this dish, the pears will go brown.
4. When the lettuce is cooked, place two halves on each plate and scatter over little nuggets of gorgonzola, the walnuts and the pear slices. Give the dressing a good old whisk before spooning 1 tablespoon or so over each plate.
Sometimes I reckon that people like me take food a bit too seriously. We prattle on about foraging and local produce and the latest fad ingredient – and possibly lose perspective in the process. It’s not that these sorts of things are unimportant or uninteresting, but perhaps in our food obsessed world we have a tendency to over-analyse.
So in the spirit of not taking food quite so seriously I offer up the following. Thanks to Tangerine and Cinnamon for some of the links!
I don’t know what would do me in first here – the overwhelming desire to scoff the Oreo or the eyeball-popping attention to detail involved in the cameo’s execution? It’s not worth asking why Judith G. Klausner devotes her talents to this particular form of artistic endeavour – best just to enjoy the image. I might not show it to my kids, who already make a mess screwing the tops off Oreos and licking the icing. It would definitely give them ideas.
While we shop for the organic stuff, julienne and sauté it, or complain if it’s overcooked, these two brothers from Beijing have made a career out of carving musical instruments from carrots, potatoes and other vegetables. If any of you fancy chucking in your pans and taking up the broccoli flute – full instructions can be found here. No – I’m not joking.
I would like to own of one of these award-winning divisible whisks that comes apart for easy cleaning. It’s not that I have trouble cleaning the ones I already have – the dishwasher seems to do a perfectly good job – but I covet most kitchen gadgetry even if it’s slightly pointless. Sadly, awards it may have won, but shops it can’t be found in. If anyone knows where I can buy this item, please let me know. To watch the whisk in action can click here.
Back in the day, an acquaintence claimed to cook her salmon in the dishwasher (sans Finish, avec foil) with allegedly terrific results. The blog My Custard Pie suggests an even easier method, which will also save you buying a sous vide machine (if in fact you were considering anything so outrageous). I haven’t tried this technique but it looks like it works – and would certainly avoid that all-pervading salmony smell when you cook it in the pan. Next stop, making scrambled eggs with the milk frother on an espresso machine. I have seen it done.
You’ll either love or hate these strangely compelling little films. For some reason these folk are following me on Twitter!
This article is a longer version of an item that appears in the Guardian’s online food and drinks section, Word of Mouth.
The world now has its first cupcake ATM. That’s right – a candyfloss-pink hole in the wall dispensing cupcakes 24/7, just in case we need to scratch an itch for garishly-iced sponge confection in the middle of the night. Who’d have thought?
The doomsayers had been predicting a post sugar-rush crash ever since the cupcake surge began around the turn of the millennium. But the canny marketing wheeze by US gourmet cupcake company Sprinkles to install an ATM (or more accurately ACM – Automatic Cake Machine) in the exterior wall of its Beverly Hills store is a custard pie in the face of cupcake doubters.
More than 1,000 cupcakes a day have been issued by the machine since it was installed, to customers prepared to queue 50-deep and pay $3.50 a pop for the privilege. It raises the possibility that cupcakes may not, after all, be a passing fad. After all, 670 million cupcakes were consumed in the US last year according to research company NPD, and have now entered their second decade of vogue. As the Washington Post observed, cupcakes may have crossed the line from fad to fixture.
If more proof were needed, look no further than the global movement called CupcakeCamp where enthusiasts in 60 cities gather to celebrate cupcakes. Or, in the organisation’s own enigmatic words, “Cupcake Camp is an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and eat cupcakes in an open environment.”
Pioneering American cookbook author Eliza Leslie would surely need her smelling salts if she knew how her recipe had taken off. Published in 1828, her cookbook Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, is believed to contain the first recorded cupcake recipe. Some think the cupcake name is a reference to the individual pottery cups in which they were baked before the birth of the muffin tray. Alternatively, it might derive from the way Miss Eliza measured her ingredients – 1 cup flour, 2 cups sugar and so on – which broke the tradition of weighing everything and must have saved her many hours in the kitchen.
Miss Eliza’s cakes, made without the benefit of raising agent, were probably more akin to cup-sized rocks than the airy creations we drool over today. The US Hostess brand lays claim to having produced the first mass-produced cupcake-style product in 1919 – by today’s standards a very dull bake indeed, comprising simple devil’s food cake with not a hint of filling or icing. Ironically, given the cupcake-baking mania that would later sweep American homes, advertisements for these treats boasted: “Now baking at home is needless.” Cupcakes didn’t evolve into the objects of desire we know today until 1950.
New York City’s Magnolia Bakery, the acknowledged crucible of the cupcake boom, opened in 1996, selling prettily decorated cupcakes from its iconic nostalgia-themed store in Greenwich Village. A couple of years later Carrie Bradshaw took a bite of one an episode of the phenomenally popular TV series Sex and the City –in the process setting the world on its frosting feeding frenzy.
The phenomenon was not to be confined to the US. In 2000, Nigella Lawson persuaded the British public of the virtues of cupcakes over the more perfunctory English fairy cake. Her retro-chic spin on cupcakes, sprinkled with dolly mix and other classic childhood treats, tapped into a vein of nostalgia for a sweeter, simpler era (although arguably one that never existed). Nigella encouraged women to bake cupcakes not because it was their role in life to do so, but because they were entitled to reclaim some of the domestic sphere if they chose to. Cupcakes proliferated in UK homes and in dedicated bakeries. The UK joined a cupcake bandwagon that seemed unstoppable.
Of course, in trying to make sense of it all, we have, inevitably, politicized a simple piece of cake. Not content to accept that they’re easy and cheap to make, glamorous and stylish to buy and appealingly proportioned in a diet-conscious world, social commentators have sought a deeper reasoning for the popularity of cupcakes. Some have decried them as a symptom of a society no longer willing to share; the Guardian described them as “the favourite greedy treat of the me-generation”.
Academics at New York’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy have even posited that the location of cupcake bakeries might be a more accurate gauge of urban gentrification than more traditional socio-economic barometers like property prices. Interestingly, they had to abandon their field research when the number of New York cupcake outlets grew too numerous to properly assess.
And where there’s a craze there’s a critic. Cupcakes have come under attack in recent years, a lot of it sneering in tone. In an essay in award-winning food journal Fire & Knives, academic Sarah Emily Duff questioned the vehemence of the anti-cupcake lobby and pointed to the Observer’s description of cupcakes as one of the ten worst food trends of the decade, up there with genetically modified food.
But Duff made the further point that some of the attacks stemmed from the fact that cupcakes were deliberately positioned in the marketplace as “girly” food.
“… I do feel that some of the anti-cupcake movement is informed by a dislike of things associated with women,” Duff said. “What concerns me is that we’re still associating children’s food with a particular kind of childlike femininity.”
Beyond gender issues, you also get the distinct feeling that much of the anti-cupcake movement is rooted in good old food snobbery, with cupcake commoners on one side of the baking schism and the elite macaroons posse on the other.
But the biggest names in gourmet cupcakes are too busy inventing mad new flavours, installing hole-in-the-wall gimmicks and plotting their expansion to take any notice of the harpers. For example, Sprinkles already has ten US stores and is preparing to expand to London with its ATM “soon” as well as Paris and Tokyo. Several other companies have similarly ambitious plans to spread the cupcake love.
The largest gourmet cupcake chain in the US, Crumbs, went public in a $66 million merger last year and has since expanded to 50 outlets, with plans to grow six-fold in the next few years. But all is not completely rosy in cupcake land. Crumbs reported net losses of $3.7 million in the year to December 2011 and announced that structural and merchandising changes would be made in a bid to turn the good ship cupcake around.
It may be premature to state that the cupcake bubble will never burst.