Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nobbut a Trifle

“You could talk to him about os and argos, suet and grease, croteys, fewmets and fiants, but he only looked polite.” - The Once and Future King, by T. H. White

I think it was no accident that the Opening Ceremony to the 2012 Olympic Games contained nary a reference to the cuisine of the United Kingdom. Which is a shame, really.  Although England’s culinary history is splattered with blots of Groaty Pudding and Frumenty, there are also the marvels of the Pasty Barm, Bubble 'n Squeak, and my favorite, the Befordshire Clanger.  The country also boasts world-famous chefs and cookbook writers like Nigella Lawson, Jaime Oliver and Nigel Slater – to name a few – who are changing the way the world approaches not just British food, but food in general. 

A nation’s cuisine is subject to the same evolutionary principles as anything else:  The way a physical environment affects food supply and a species’ willingness to adapt to the previously-thought-inedible are certainly two of the usual suspects.  (I imagine a sense of resignation felt by the first anteater, who may have saved her species from extinction, but still had ants climbing in and on her nose. “Ants? Really? Why couldn’t I be the Honey Crumpet Eater?”  It turns out the first anteater sounds a bit like Eeyore.) The United Kingdom’s cuisine is no exception:  A densely populated island with a short growing season requires a willingness to rely on canned goods and powdered foods, while a predilection toward going to war over and over again – and sometimes bringing some home with you – makes for creative handling of offal and leftovers.  As the British seem to lack the culinary curiosity exhibited by the French or the Chinese, there aren’t many marshy amphibian animals or housepets on menus (I can’t speak for Scots), but there are organs galore, stuffed into sausages or wrapped in flaky pastry.

If you recorded the Opening Ceremony, watch the Parade of Nations again. Look closely and you’ll see the British Olympians discretely knocking crumbs and pastry flakes off their outfits as they enter the Arena. No, it’s true.

I happened to be in Boulder visiting my mother when the Olympics began. I had been bingeing on a series of books about an 11-year-old chemist in post-war England who solves murders. Really, I was on an actual bender – staying up until 3:30 in the morning, gobbling the stories up like so many puddings and biscuits, waking with a headache and a vague sense of guilt, of chores undone, blogs unwritten. Absolutely delicious. I followed those books with the extremely delightful Geurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is an epistolary description of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, complete with stories of monstrous war-time behaviour, stiff-upper-lippery, and the tearful evacuation of the children….of course, reading about the wartime evacuations of children makes one want to immediately poke one’s head into every wardrobe in the house. The nod to Britain’s contributions to Children’s Literature during the Opening Ceremony pleasantly underscored my fondness for the genre, even as it underscored my revulsion toward huge, inflated babies.

Returning to Seattle from Colorado’s dry heat is always a bit of a shock. Probably along the lines of how the desert athletes feel competing in London. I was watching some of the beach volleyball yesterday and didn’t envy them a bit, playing in the rain. Ugh. Seattle’s climate is much like London’s, although I suspect -- a suspicion based purely on Jane Austen's descriptions of characters rambling around for strawberries -- that their Junes are nicer than ours, or at least they were during the Napoleonic Wars.

The summer in Seattle is a week too short for us to host the Summer Olympics, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: things grow really well here. The astonishing amount and variety of purely incidental food is really quite something. The blackberries are starting to come out, as are the rosehips and the crabapples – all foods perfect for small batches of artisanal jams, great for gifts or simply served with a seared pork loin and some seared green beans. In about two weeks, the berries will be perfect for use in a trifle or a fool, both terms for a custardy British dessert hailing back to the sixteenth century – I’m sure they were making custardy desserts even earlier, but they didn't yet collect the recipes into Pamfletf Aboute Houfekeepinge.

(Etymologically speaking (haha!), it’s interesting to think about the words “trifle” and “fool.” My charming betta fish friend Lewis can use them in a sentence: “When you fool with me with that bloody paintbrush of yours, I flare my gill patches as a way of saying, ‘Hey, don’t trifle with me.’” Lewis is a bit wordy. And his gill patches are frightening, so I've stopped.)

Some recent hot weather was made even more memorable by the Blue Angel’s yearly appearance in Seattle skies. The planes practice for a week before Seafair, Seattle’s annual celebration of Fossil Fuel Consumption, screeching across skies, rattling the panes in my windows and putting my hackles up – if I had gill patches, I would have flared them, even though I actually enjoy the terrifying display and the eye-prickling dread the planes inspire within me. While the Angels practiced in the air, Elliot Bay’s placid water was crowded with Naval Vessels, which did maneuvers during the day and released thousands of sailors into Seattle after the sun went down. Trying to reconcile the cheerful, violent Military/Industrial War Machine with the cheerful, peaceful Parade of Nations is enough to addle one’s wits, but perhaps we can say they were both cheerful, noisy pageants and leave it at that.

The weather was warm enough to make the kitchen truly wit-addlingly hot. The Line Guys took turns reading the number on the thermometer stuck in our saucier’s sleeve pocket: “110!” “117!” "Oooh! 121!" Indeed, Saturday was hot enough to make me want to spout the old adage about one's ability -- or not -- to stand the heat in a kitchen, but experience has taught me that platitudes about heat (or fatigue) are among the last things the guys want or need. Easily digestible, cold, sugary food and a lot of water were much higher priorities, so I decided to fool around with a trifle.

Since we were still working, I didn’t add any booze to this recipe, but a slug of Madeira, Port, or Sherry are usually present in a trifle – the Scots call their version of this confection the Tipsy Laird, so knock yourselves out. Or don’t.

Recipe: Gingered Plum and Blueberry Trifle

1 Angel Food Cake, or Sponge Cake
1 cup Ginger Syrup (recipe to follow)
A ginger knob
2 cups pitted and sliced Plums, any variety
1 cup Blueberries
2 Eggs, separated
1 cup (for the syrup) + 4 Tbs Sugar
1 ½ tsp Vanilla Extract
1 cup Heavy Whipping Cream
1 small tub Mascarpone Cheese
A handful of any-flavor-berries and a few sprigs of mint for garnish.

Preparation time:  30 minutes or less, plus at least an hour in the fridge.
Serves about eight.

Ginger Syrup:
Peel a knuckle of ginger and slice it into coins, about $1.75 worth if your coins are quarter sized. In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, combine the ginger with 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water and cook over medium-high heat until dime-sized bubbles appear on the surface. Strain, return syrup to pan. Note: ginger syrup is pretty delicious, so make more if you think you’ll be glad to have it in the fridge. This Trifle requires nobbut a cup.

While your syrup is coming together, slice the cake and press it into concentric circles around the inside of a serving bowl. This is an unlooked-for opportunity to pull out that crystal punch bowl that so disappointed when you were opening wedding presents – a Trifle is meant to be seen, meant to be a mottled mess of colors and layers; this recipe is the simplest Trifle construction, only three layers, a trifle of a Trifle in a stainless steel bowl – might as well have used a Tommy’s brodie. But really, if the spirit moves you, add a layer of jam, add another layer of cake, add a layer of jello (don’t), add a separate layer of meringue….add berries and slivered almonds to the topping. You get the idea.

Anyway, press the cake into the bottom of a bowl and set aside. By now your syrup is ready. And I’ve kept you here reading when you should have been slicing plums. So go do that and then combine the plums, berries and syrup in that earlier saucepan and heat just until the berries start to release some color.

While they’re doing that, separate your eggs. Whip 2 Tablespoons of sugar into the yolks and then add the Mascarpone cheese and the Heavy Cream and whip until light and fluffy. Whip the egg whites with 2 Tablespoons of sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold the whites into the custardy cream. I know that sounds like a lot of whipping, but I’m confident you’ll work out a system.

Okay, quick! The fruit is still on the stove! Ack! Pour hot syrupy fruit mixture over the cake. Then top with the dairy concoction. If you’d like to take a page from Nigel Slater’s book, go for “dramatic, billowy folds.” I went for more of an “I should probably get back to the Prep List” look.


Serve in bowls or on plates. It’s a Trifle, so you know, don’t expect clean slices. Garnish with a few berries and a sprig of mint, maybe a dusting of powdered sugar, though you may be accused of garnishing the lily.

Pass around the treats. Enjoy the summer.