Wednesday, June 18, 2014

seafoam, or the littlest mermaid makes her choice

If I were you, I wouldn’t believe the stories that humans tell about ocean-dwellers.

Remember that stories are always more telling of the tellers than of those of whom the story is told. Bards and minstrels have their keep to earn, and they are not above weaving fancies from whole cloth. You would do well to doubt the words of seamen and lighthouse-keepers, too. Sea-cows and driftwood are easily mistaken for other shapes in the water, and the mind does strange things in the company of rum and loneliness.

Mark my words: only fools and sailors ascribe truth to human stories of the sea.

Sound travels strangely in the water. It stretches and warps, pulls into twisted shapes like the glassy rock that forms near cracks in the ocean floor. The speech of ocean-dwellers is spare. Legend has it that we learned to sign before we learned to speak, and all ocean-dwellers, no matter how rich or powerful, are taught the simple signs.

There are many ocean-dwellers born deaf, born mute. It matters little that I cannot hear. It matters more that I, a noble-born, cannot sing. And yet, neither of these truly matters, because the greater fault lies elsewhere.

Slenderness is prized in sea-maidens. The line of the collarbone, the stark jut of the wrist, the ribcage in relief. These are all marks of beauty, and of these, I have none. Beneath my skin sits a solid, stubborn layer of fat, like that of a seal in winter. My shoulders are broad, my tail, short. My eyes, wide-set and kelp-brown.

I learned early on that I would never be lovely in the eyes of others. My mother was dead, and my governess indifferent, my education brusque and careless. For all that my father was adviser to the sea-king, any suitors would be few and far between. As for my father himself, he preferred to devote the little time he had for his own affairs to shaping the minds of my brothers. No-one paid me any mind. Unheard and unseen, I was free to come and go, and so I decided I would live to please myself.

It is not the poor who starve here, under the sea. The peasant folk brew their tea with milk from the sea cows and eat herring and mackerel with buttered laver bread. The noble mermen, too, have their share of pleasures: gull’s egg custard with sweet shrimp and samphire, poached monkfish liver with sea-grape must, lobster smothered in cream rich with its own coral. 

But when the palace kitchens prepare meals for the noble merwomen: Shredded kelp, the stringy sort that sticks in the teeth. Unseasoned sea lettuce. Octopus cooked hard in the steam vents, enough to make a jaw ache from all the chewing. The tiniest crabs, all chitin, the sort that take a dozen and the better part of an hour’s picking to produce a bare mouthful. As though a hungry belly might give up, in seeing such poor return for labor. 

Despite my governess’ rote protestations, I refused a fate of dabberlock broth and steamed whitefish. Instead, I preferred to steal food from the banquet kitchens. First the odds and ends: scraps of fatty tuna, trimmings from pressed shad roe. Strips of dulse to chew, blades of sea-palm to nibble. As I grew bolder, I would reach into the cooling kettles and pilfer bladderwrack pouches filled with milksweet, and slip ladlefuls of green caviar right out of the seasoning pots.

I learned, too, to steal food from palace functions. Not state banquets – there were too many watching eyes at those – but celebrations at which all present would be tipsy on sea-grape wine. On one particularly lively night, I slipped into the hall and made away with a whole platter of oysters, baked in cream and heaped high with sea urchin roe. I swam for the palace gardens, eyeing the coral maze as a hiding place in which to enjoy my spoils.

I felt a hand on my arm at the entrance pillar. I turned to see the youngest of the seven sea-princesses: golden-haired, blue-eyed, and said to have the sweetest voice of all. I braced myself. Nothing good could come of being noticed – and by a princess, at that.

Instead of anger or disgust, she smiled - completely free of guile – and gestured for me to keep moving. Uncertain, I swam into a deep thicket of long reeds with the littlest princess at my side.
“Could I have an oyster?” She signed her words as she spoke, and seemed pleased by my surprise.
“My governess taught me to sign. Her sisters were like you.” A hesitant breath. “Please?”

I took in the jut of her collarbones, the stark edges of her ribs, and the desperation in her eyes. My hands moved as if they weren’t my own.

You can have more than one, if you like.

We abandoned decorum. Together we devoured the oysters, scraping and licking to get at every last trace of cream. Once we’d reduced the platter to a pile of pearlescent shell, the littlest princess wore a blissful smile, heedless of the urchin roe smeared on her chin.

“Thank you. I take meals with my sisters, and they’ve been preparing for tonight’s ball. We’ve barely eaten at all these past few tides.”

Slenderness is prized in sea-maidens. And princesses must be the most delicate of all.
The next day, I felt a hand on my arm again, as I prepared to enter the kitchens.
“I had hoped I would find you today! I want to show you a secret.” Again the princess was smiling, and I could see nothing but genuine pleasure in her smile.

Wait for me at the maze. I won’t be long.

I went back to the coral maze with two bladderwrack pouches of milksweet in hand. Milksweet is a delicacy made from the milk of sea-cows that have been fed on sweet-reed, heated until it turns thick and golden. The littlest princess had never seen this, and I showed her how to pierce the wrack with the point of a tooth and suck out the milksweet within. Her eyes went wide with delight, and much to my surprise, I found that I, too, was smiling.  

The littlest princess brought me to the far edge of the gardens, right near where they bordered a trench with a fast-moving current. Inside a coral grove was a cave, and in the cave a treasure-trove.

Bottles and trinkets, masses of brightly colored seaglass. Land-dwellers’ objects: an oval mirror with a silver frame wrought into strange flowers, a carved wooden figure of a woman’s head and shoulders, eyes wide and mesmerizing. Jewels of all sorts, rings and necklaces and bangles to adorn a school of noblewomen.

How did you come by all of this?

“I like to explore the shipwrecks when I can get away from the palace. My sisters make my excuses so long as I bring them jewels.” The smile that curved at the corner of her mouth was distinctly mischievous. “As you can see, I have ensured that they will be making my excuses for quite some time.”

I smiled back, again. Something about her smile compelled me to return it.

“Is there something that might catch your fancy? I’d like to present you with a gift.” Her gestures were careful and grave, and there was no levity in her expression. Gift-giving is a serious matter amongst ocean-dwellers, a tally of favors given and owed.

I looked. To do otherwise would be unthinkable. I had no use for jewels, but perhaps I could find a token amongst the land-dwellers’ objects, a curio or trinket of some sort.

Then I saw the dagger. A gaudy thing, to be sure - gold-handled and inlaid with glittering red stones – but beautifully balanced, and wickedly sharp.

The mer-boys, in the first step towards coming of age as mermen, receive knives. Even the nobles, the ones who only ever hunt tuna for sport, carry knives. There would be no need to steal from the kitchens if I could hunt on my own.

This, please.

Something of my thoughts must have shown in my expression, because rather than engage in a formal clasping of hands, the littlest princess instead picked up the knife, kissed me on each cheek, and then presented it to me – handle forward – in the fashion of the knife ceremony.

“May your blade sing true,” she declared.


From that moment on, it became common for the littlest princess to seek me out for company. Together we stole away: she to go exploring reefs of shipwrecks, and I to seek out oyster beds and sea urchins. I made off with a spear from a store of ceremonial armor, and I learned to watch for the flash of silvery scales that signaled a school of herring or mackerel.

Better yet, we would explore Abovesea. Humans are fools to think that merfolk know nothing of the land. There are islands that have belonged to the merfolk long before the land-dwellers ever found them, with caves in which we keep stores, for even the ocean has its lean years. Spaces where we prepare delicacies that cannot be made underwater, beaches where we gather delights from the shore.

My favorite was a series of islands where beach plums grew thickly, and we could dig in the sand for turtle eggs. We would lie in the shallows, gorged and sticky with sweet-tart fruit, and bask in the warmth of the sun. Somewhere along the way, I had grown to enjoy the company of the littlest princess.

I learned that the littlest princess had days filled with lessons: singing, dancing, and deportment. She dined with her sisters under the watchful eye of ladies-in-waiting, fed a grim, steady diet of dabberlock broth and shredded kelp. I would lay my hand on her belly and feel it rumble, count the stark edges of her ribs. And I would do my best to sate her hunger.

At times when the court was preoccupied with its own dramas – courtiers caught in clandestine affairs, diplomatic envoys to charm and flatter – the littlest princess could slip away more easily.

On the eve of her third sister’s initiation into society, she caught me by the kitchens, eyes dancing with mischief.

“All the palace are too busy to pay me any mind today, or tomorrow. We can go on a proper adventure.”
“Let’s go Abovesea, out to where the land-dwellers live!”

She wore a look of such delight, I hadn’t the heart to protest. Armed with knife and spear, fortified with a net bags of provisions (strips of dulse and a whole slab of poached monkfish liver – a good haul from the kitchens), we swam into a swift-moving current and rode our way towards the far shore, hand-in-hand.

We surfaced in a clear, calm bay, with cliffs on one side and a long stretch of beach on the other. There was nary a seagull, let alone a human, in sight. The water was warm and clear, and we were content to float as we ate, passing my blade back and forth to cut slices of the rich, dense liver.

Then I spotted something on the horizon. A human craft. Not a ship, but a little boat, listing at an odd angle. The little princess and I exchanged the briefest of glances – and then swam towards it.

There was just the one human – a male, as best as I could tell – bobbing in the water like a piece of driftwood. We each hooked an arm around him and began towing him towards the beach. Soon he started to cough and splutter. And then he looked at us, wild and panicked and thrashing, like a sea cow caught in a web of driftwrack. Sea cows, when panicked, can die from their fear. I suspected that the same might be true of land-dwellers.

The littlest princess wasn’t fazed in the slightest. She opened her mouth, and I knew from the rise and fall of her chest that she was singing. I watched the panic in his eyes fade to calm. We brought him onto the beach as easily as one might net a stunned tuna.

“Merchildren. How strange and wondrous! I don’t suppose you understand my speech, do you?”

I could see that the littlest princess could not make sense of the sounds from his mouth, but I could read the words from his lips well enough.

“Thank the stars that you came by when you did! I would have been lost, for sure. The next time I venture on an expedition, I’ll have to bring a crew. I am not much of a sailor, I fear.”

The land-dweller seemed to expect no response from us, content to keep spilling words from his mouth. Then he looked us over more closely, and he turned to me.

“Tsk. Your sister needs feeding. I can see her bones, the poor thing.”

He fumbled for the leather satchel that was still tangled about his waist, and pulled out a little sack woven from some kind of grass. “Here. We call them toffee chews, though I suppose now they’re more saltwater taffy. I haven’t the slightest clue if you have such things under the sea, but I imagine all children like sweets.”

The land-dweller’s words were strange, but I knew he was offering us something to eat. The princess and I were quick to stuff our mouths with these strange little lumps – hard to chew, like octopus, but rich and sticky like the best milksweet.

“Oh, if the palace cook could see you! She’d have you eating dumplings in fowl gravy, and steamed puddings with jam and cream.” The prince had a sleek, well-fed look to him, and I guessed that he would be the sort of man with a roundness about the middle by the time his hair turned grey.

As the princess and I ate, the prince’s speech grew harder and harder to follow – I wasn’t sure what a “diatom” might be, though he seemed greatly preoccupied with it. The littlest princess and I, finished with our unexpected meal, knelt in the sand and waited. Finally, the prince noticed that we were watching him expectantly, and shook his head, startled, as though waking from a dream.

“Well! I’d best make my way back to the palace. Such a pity about my samples. I’m sure I had some truly marvelous specimens. Still, I’ll live to see another expedition, thanks to your help. You have the most heartfelt gratitude of the kingdom and court, little merchildren.”

With that, he set off away from the shore.

“How strange! I wonder what he was saying?”
I read his speech. He said you needed feeding. Also, I think he might have been a prince.
The corner of her mouth curled in wry amusement. “A prince said I needed feeding? Land-dwellers are nothing like us, are they? Still, I wouldn’t have refused another sack of that milksweet.” 


Strange as it was, the encounter soon slipped my mind, forgotten in the face of bigger fears. Somewhere, in the midst of our adventures, the littlest princess had come of age. She would attend her first formal ball, and the diplomats would negotiate for the best treaties and alliances. All eyes in the court would be upon her.

I saw no sign of her for several tides. Finally, on the eve of her initiation into society, I found her in the corridor by the kitchens.

Her hair had been threaded with seed pearls and braided to form a diadem to hold back the remainder of her long, waving tresses. Her navel had been decorated with a tiny golden seahorse. The fine webbing of her dorsal fin and tail had been pierced with two dozen golden hoops, and a golden chain ran through them, hobbling her movement and forcing her to travel as slowly as a sea-snail. From a distance, it looked as though she were gliding through the water, barely moving at all.

“How do I look?”
I wanted to tell her she was beautiful, but my hands moved of their own accord.
A bitter smile. “The only honesty I’ve had from anyone tonight.” 

I lifted my hands to respond, but words wouldn’t come. Instead, I took her hands in mine, and hoped that she would understand what I could not say.

She smiled again, and there was something of her usual mischief in her eyes. “Be sure to steal some oysters in cream tonight. I hate to think of them being wasted on all those pompous sea-slugs. I’ll see you at the maze tomorrow.”

Morning found me in the maze, pouches of milksweet and a net bag of sweet scallops in hand. When the littlest princess swam up, she moved carefully, as though she’d been tossed by eddies during a bad storm. She accepted a pouch of milksweet, but shook her head at the scallops.

“My tail aches from the fin chain. My head aches from all the wine.”
And the prince?
A dark look crossed her face. “Let’s not speak of him.”

We sat in the reeds, and the littlest princess rested her head against my shoulder. Perhaps it was only the light, but her golden hair seemed dull, and the fine skin beneath her eyes looked dark and bruised. I wanted to speak, but again, the words wouldn’t come.

“The sea-slugs are negotiating today. Much of it is posturing about territory with no strategic value. I expect I’ll be betrothed by the time the tide changes.”
Perhaps it won’t be so bad. I knew they were foolish words as soon as they left my fingers, but my own silence was wearing upon me.
“I expect it will be worse.” The words were light and quick, almost careless. “I won’t do it.” 
What will you do?
“I’ll run away. Abovesea. The prince was kind, wasn’t he? Land-dwellers must live better lives than ocean-dwellers.”
I tried to hide my shock. How would you do that? You can’t live on land.

She raised her head, and I could see the stubborn tilt of her chin. “I’ll go to the witch. She can give me legs.”

The witch. A healer, but no ordinary healer, or so the story went. Impossible to say where rumor left off and the truth began.

Is that wise? They say the witch drives hard bargains.
“Can you offer me a better choice?”
As much as I wanted to protest, I saw the truth of her question.
I’ll come with you.
“No. They say she’ll only deal with those who come to her alone.”
How will I know you’re safe? Will I ever see you again? 
“Do you remember the beach where we found the prince? Come and find me there.”


There was a great hue and cry when the littlest princess was found missing. I offered no counsel, and no-one asked. There was fear that she had been taken by a great shark or stung by a pufferfish, and for a while, all comings and goings were closely watched.

Tides passed, and eventually the guards dwindled back to their usual number. None tried to stop me as I left the palace and found a current to carry me to shore.

A figure stood on the beach, and it waved furiously as I swam up to the rocks.

Her gestures were rapid with excitement.

“It’s been so long. I’ve waited here every day. I feared you’d never come to see me!”
We’ve been kept under close guard. They thought you had been taken by a great shark.
“No. Here I am, still alive.”

It was high summer, and the sun bore down full and relentless. I could barely see for the brightness of the light. Only when I squinted did I realise.

Her hands moved. Her lips did not.

Why aren’t you speaking?

I can’t. The witch took my voice.

Did the prince remember you?

No. Not at all.

I looked more closely. Her long hair had been worked into braids with ropes of pearls, piled up like an elaborate bird’s nest. Her waist had been bound with a sort of cage and pulled in so far I feared she might snap in two. Her collarbones were stark, and the bones of her wrists, too. It took all I had to keep my expression calm and untroubled.

What happened to the cook? The one who was to feed you?

She smiled – a terrible, bitter smile. The land dwellers like their children plump and round-cheeked. They prefer their maidens slender and frail.

What do they feed you?

Her answer was enough to raise bile in the back of my throat. Green stems, stringy like kelp, in sour sauce. The flesh from land cows, hard and tough and tasteless. Eggs from flightless gulls, cooked to the consistency of jellied laver. Served from plates so thin and fine as to be nearly transluscent, eaten with knives and forks of silver, and all of it in the daintiest, scantiest mouthfuls.

And the prince?

A political pawn who would rather occupy himself with his experiments – he spends his time studying tiny ocean creatures – than with matters of state. His younger brother is the statesman of the family. He was the one to suggest that I be made one of his Highness’ betrothed’s ladies-in-waiting. She favors slender girls with golden hair, and there is no gossip to be had from a mute.

Could you run away?

Run? I can barely walk. The witch’s magic is cursed; every step is like swimming through sawgrass.

My breath caught in my chest. This was swimming to escape a great white shark, only to end up caught in the cruelest of riptides.

I’ll bring you something to eat. You can still eat oysters, can’t you?

A weak smile. I could eat two dozen. Maybe three.

The next day, I stole through the kitchens and went hunting before finding a current that would take me to shore. I brought oysters and sea urchins and scallops and milksweet, and I let out a breath I did not even know I had been holding when I saw delight in the littlest princess’ eyes.

Come join me in the water. Maybe it will soothe the pain. 

A wry smile. I would, but I can’t swim.

Down by the beach was a rockpool, just deep enough for sea anemones and starfish, but shallow enough that I could see the pebbles on its floor.

Could you sit here, in the water?

I think so.

She slipped into the rockpool, still clad in her human garb. She ate greedily and joyously, and I was relieved that one pleasure, at least, had not been lost to her. Expression placid and untroubled, oyster brine dripping from her chin – we could have been on an adventure, our greatest worry only when we might steal away again.

Do you remember the first time we met?

Of course. I was so hungry I thought I was having visions. You can’t imagine how good those oysters tasted. She smiled, but it was a lost, wistful smile, and I could not bring myself to return it.

There must be a way to undo this.

What would you do? Turn the tide back to the eve of my betrothal? If I had left for the Far Seas, I would never see you again. At least I can still see you now. 

For all that the littlest princess seemed resigned to her fate, I took little comfort from her words. And so I went to seek out the witch.

The witch’s cave lay fairly close to the palace grounds, but it was surrounded by swift-moving currents that guarded it from all but the most daring or desperate of visitors. Upon fording the final current, I found myself in a thicket of long grass, and I was startled to see a figure emerge from its shadows.

Palace rumor marked the witch as a hag, a horror, a mer-woman as monstrous as a sea-cow. The figure before me was broad-shouldered, her tail as long and as muscled as that of the strongest palace guard. Though her hair was cropped short, it gleamed bright gold beneath a frosting of silver, and her eyes were nearly as blue as those of the littlest princess. Looking at her, I knew she was no outcast. She had chosen her place in the world.

“There you are. I wondered how long it would take for you to find me.”

Somehow, it didn’t seem surprising that the witch, too, signed as she spoke. She guided me into her cave, which was clean and well-lit with pots of glowgrass, and passed me a bladder of tea from a pot on the stove. I sucked it down greedily. It was rich and creamy and filled me with warmth.

“Milk tea with beach-plum brandy. Keeps out the chill. Another?”

I shook my head. My words were burning my fingers.

You made her mute, I began, keeping my gestures quick and harsh, but I wished for sound, I wished to be able to weep and wail as I raged at this woman. You curse her to feel pain with every step she takes.

She sighed. It was a long, weary sigh. Her gestures were careful and deliberate.

“Great magic demands great sacrifice. If not her voice, it would have taken her youth or her sight. I thought the loss of her voice the least of all evils. A pretty girl has her charms, even when mute. As for her pain, it is not of my doing. To make legs, I had to rend apart her tail. The body does not forgive such wrongs quickly or lightly.”

What happens if the prince doesn’t fall in love with her?

“You’ve been listening to the foolish legends of old. Humans live shorter livespans than we do, but much else is the same.”

She left the ocean because she couldn’t starve in the palace any longer. She’s still starving, up on land.

“That’s beyond my power.”

How can I undo this?

“You can’t. Only she can.”

How can she undo this?

 “Great magic demands even greater magic for its undoing. Blood sacrifice, the more powerful the better. Royal blood would be best. Her voice is lost, but she can have her tail back, good and whole.”

The witch held out a knife to me – a long, thin blade carved from the whitest of bone.

“Take this to her. She must make her choice by next daybreak.”

What price must I pay for this?

At this, the sea witch smiled. It softened her. “The currents say that you are a keen hunter and quick with a spear. I could use an apprentice,” she signed. “Oh, and fear not. We eat well here.”


I went to see the witch. We can undo this.

What did you do? The littlest princess’ eyes scanned me from top to tail, as though she feared I’d gone to the witch and come back with some part missing. What did she take from you?

Nothing. It wasn’t my trade to make.

I held out the bone knife. She took it from me warily.

What am I to do with this?

The witch said there would have to be a blood sacrifice. She said royal blood would be best. Your voice is lost, but you’ll have your tail back. You could come home.

She moved to gesture, and then caught herself, setting the knife at the rockpool’s edge.

If only it were that simple. You know what they’ll say. The stories they’ll tell. The foolish sea princess who fell in love with a land prince. Poor little princess. Lovelorn, mute princess. Do you know what that means?

I stayed my hands. I hadn’t the words to explain. She would be cast aside, but not cast out. Forgotten, but also invisible. The closest we might ever come to freedom.

That was careless of me. Of course you know. And then, with a sigh, But it’s what you’ve always known.

She picked up the knife again, tilting it so that the polished bone caught the light.

How long do I have?

Until daybreak.

Will you be here?

I’ll wait for you. I promise.


I wait. I wait hours in the harbor, head just above the water, as the stars dim and the sky lightens.

Finally, I see the prince at the water’s edge. The littlest princess follows.

Please, I sign. The words spill from my hands, frantic and furious: Please take the blade and sink it between his ribs, he’s only a human and I would trade his life for yours. I will go diving for scallops and we will feast on their sweetness, and I will catch the fattest tuna and carve its rich marbled flesh into steaks that we will hold between our hands and eat in greedy mouthfuls. I’ll apprentice with the witch and take care of you and you will never be hungry again, not a day in your life.

I wait for her to look up. Maybe it will be enough for her to see me, for me to wave to her. When the littlest princess finally sees me, she raises a hand. Her signs are quick and crisp: I’ve made my choice.

I wait for her to come up behind the prince. Instead, she turns the blade and drives it into her own chest. For a moment, she freezes – a perfect princess cast in ice. Then her body collapses, dissolving like snow on the waves. There is no blood. Just a splash of seafoam, spilling like an accusation.

Above, the sun is starting to rise.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

goosefat, or, the godmother is no fairy

Child, stop crying. I can’t help you unless you tell me what it is that ails you.

The royal ball? Oh, child. Our mistress isn't being harsh, but sensible. The king and queen may have invited all the land, but they don't truly expect all the land to attend. The journey to the city is more trouble than it's worth for the households of minor nobles; we'll get our due in other ways. Besides, I’ve seen the way the butcher’s boy looks at you. He thinks well upon you, I’m sure.

The prince isn't looking for a match, despite what you may have heard from the tavern girls. His future engagement is the diplomats' fuss and worry, not a matter of the heart. No matter what the old tales would have you believe, princes don't marry scullery maids. And princes are not necessarily good and true, either.

Here, drink this. Verveine, to calm your nerves. Dry your eyes.

Let me tell you a story.

I was a child of the woods. A foundling, raised by a huntsman and his wife, but loved as though I were their own. I grew up in the shade of poplars and linden, with acorns and horse-chestnuts for playthings. I slept under quilts thick with goose down plucked from the birds my father hunted, and ate savory stews of rabbit and duck that my mother cooked over the fire in our hearth. My life was quiet and simple, and if my mother and father sometimes spoke in hushed, frantic whispers, I was too untroubled to notice.

The summer of my fourteenth year, two days after I woke to find my bedlinen spotted with blood, my father fell ill with fever. His face swelled and became strange. His nose like a boar's snout, his teeth like tusks. My mother said it was old magic, evil magic, and and for three days she burned sage and lit beeswax tapers, hoping to drive the evil out. She did so in vain: he died bleeding from his eyes and ears, a river of red blood. In the days that followed, I would catch her looking at me with speech heavy in her mouth, and in some moments, I didn't know if the words that lay on her silent tongue were those to form a prayer - or a curse.

I was quick and fleet of floot, but not strong enough to wield an axe or draw a bow. And so we foraged in the woods: picking watercress from where it grew in tangled mats in the stream, stealing eggs from the pigeons’ nests, seeking out blackberries and hazelnuts as the leaves turned in the autumn. For a time, I thought us safe. And then, as the nights grew colder and longer, my mother developed a cough that would not quiet, no matter how much horehound tea she drank. At first frost, blood bloomed scarlet on her handkerchief, and I knew we could not stay in the woods.

We left the woods for the city. My father had been foreign, a country man from a neighboring kingdom, but my mother knew the ways of the town and sent me to the royal palace. I believe she would have had me be a lady's maid, but I knew nothing of hairdressing and could not curtsy without making a fool of myself. I found a place in the kitchens instead. Though I had never seen an artichoke nor a pea, and couldn’t tell a salver from a soup spoon, I knew good mushrooms from bad, and I could pluck and truss a game bird with ease.

In the kitchens, I peeled potatoes until my hands were raw, stripped peas from their shells until my nails split. I clarified stocks with egg white to produce consomme as clear and as deep as fine brandy, and poached whole trout to encase in gleaming aspic. I learned to strip a peacock of its feathers and skin, and when roasted and gilded with saffron, reassemble its tail. My hands were marked with burns and scars, and when I looked upon them, I felt a certain pride.

The king and queen were kind but distant, in the way of rulers who await their retirement from the throne. It was said that when the prince – the sole heir – returned from his diplomatic posting abroad, he would be crowned king. Upon the official announcement of his return, there were hushed whispers amongst the staff. Avoid being alone at night, said the upstairs maids. The prince has a roving eye and wandering hands.

I was grinding almonds for marchpane the day I first saw the prince. I would have known him for who he was even without his tunic and embroidered robes. It showed in the way he moved, perfectly certain of his place in the world. I curtsied with the other staff when he arrived, and then turned back to my business of crushing almonds into fine powder.

I startled when he came over to me. He stood so closely, I could feel his breath on my neck. You look, he whispered, like a maiden with her hands in first snow. You are a maiden, aren’t you? And then he curled a finger in a lock of my hair. Dark like ebony, he murmured. I will have you soon. I shivered, and he smiled – a slow, pleased smile.

I slept poorly that night, my dreams filled with imps that knotted tangles into my hair. In the morning, on my pillow, I found a comb set with onyx, carved from the darkest, richest ebony. Horrified, I threw it into the fire.

I was skinning rabbits the next time he visited the kitchens. He ran a hand down one of the discarded pelts. Ermine is softer than this, he murmured. And then he leaned in and brushed his fingers along the hollow of my throat. Your skin would look lovely against a bed of ermine fur, white as snow. I will have you yet. The skinning blade trembled in my hand, and he chuckled.

That night I dreamed of a rope around my neck, and woke gasping for breath. Looped around my throat was a strand of pearls, lustrous as moonlight, tied with a ribbon as fine and white as milk. Horrified, I tore it from my neck and dropped it into the chamber pot.

The third time he visited the kitchens, I had rose petals laid out for sugaring. He picked up a petal and rubbed it between thumb and forefinger. These are almost as smooth as silk, he murmured. I think you must feel like this, he whispered. And then he brushed a thumb across my mouth. Red as blood, he declared. You will be mine. The sugar pot slipped from my fingers and sent a drift of crystals scattering across the workbench. He laughed.

I dreaded sleep that night. I thought myself tormented by needles, pricked by pins. I woke to a feeling of chill. Fastened around my waist was a fine chain, and hanging from it, a garnet like a teardrop, like a single bead of blood. I yanked it from my waist and threw it out the window. I did not dare wonder what my fate would be if the prince came to the kitchens a fourth time.

Days passed. And then the king came to the kitchens, which he had never done – not in the memory of any cook – in a state of great excitement. The diplomats had done their work, and the prince would marry in the spring. There would be a feast and a ball to celebrate the engagement.

A feast like no feast before. Scallops in their shells, perfumed with sweet wine. Silver dishes of caviar set with mother-of-pearl spoons. Paté of hare, rich with livers of fattened geese. Squab with figs and morels. Doves roasted with slices of truffle patterning their skins. Galantines of pigeon garnished with carrots and parsnips fashioned into roses. Beef tenderloins with savory mushrooms beneath a majestic crust of golden pastry.

Meringues adorned with sugared violets. Syllabub flecked with candied citron. Gilded marchpane, ginger comfits. Crushed ice in blown-glass goblets, drizzled with rose syrup. Hothouse peaches with skins like the setting sun.

For a centerpiece, we chose Cendrillon, from the old tale. A piece montee of pastillage and pulled sugar, a fairy castle with spires. A figure in a ballgown of pale blue, leaving a tiny shoe on the palace steps in her haste to flee.

I thought myself safe the night of the ball. The nobles were sated and merry. I could hear the faint strains of music from the kitchen as I swept out the ovens and laid fresh kindling, my last task before I could rest for the night. And then I heard footsteps behind me.

Cologne couldn't disguise the wine on his breath. He told me that if he couldn't have me, then no-one would. And then he smiled at me - sometimes I still see that smile in my nightmares - and told me that because he wanted to see me afraid, he would give me until midnight before he unleashed the hounds. I had heard the grooms’ stories of the hounds. If the hunters weren't quick enough in the chase, they would fall upon the fox and tear it to pieces.

He took me by the arm and forced me up the stairs, barring the kitchen door behind. He pulled me through the front halls and into the ballroom. The musicians had left; the floor was deserted. As much as I knew I should run, it was as though my feet were rooted to the ground. As he left, I heard him call for the doors to the ballroom to be locked and barred. In the distance, a clock chimed half-eleven.

The prince, for all his forays into the kitchens, was still lacking certain secrets that the servants guarded. Or perhaps he knew those secrets, but did not recognise their power. Behind one of the tapestries was a passageway that led back into the kitchens, permitting us to cater to feasts in the ballroom with minimal delay.

There was meat in the kitchen stores. Hams, haunches of venison. Stone crocks of goosefat. As the clock struck the half-hour, I dipped my hands in goosefat and began to grease the marble steps of the ballroom’s spiral staircase. Back and forth I ran, the fat shining on my hands, fear lending me speed. Once all the steps were greased, I dragged all the ham and haunches of venison I could heft to the foot of the stairs.

The prince kept his word. At the final stroke of midnight, I heard the baying of the hounds, and then the doors swung wide. The prince held the hounds’ leashes in both hands, and he was laughing as he saw me. Not that he laughed for long. The hounds pulled him along in their haste to reach the meat they could smell, and his slippers found no purchase on the greased marble. He hit the foot of the staircase with a loud crack, his neck bent at an impossible angle. The hounds were busy with their spoils, and I climbed my way back up the staircase on my hands and knees.

I left the palace and kingdom both, and sought a place as a cook in the land that my father had once called home. Now I am here, cook to a household of minor nobility, and this is where I hope to stay. Beef stew with carrots and plain rice pudding are a far cry from ballotine of poussin and rose bavarois, but I believe I am safe here, as I once was in the woods. A simple life. There is no shame in a simple life.

Now, child, I can’t fashion you a ballgown from a moonbeam. I can’t make you slippers of glass. Maybe princes are not all cut from the same cloth. But I would counsel you to take up with the butcher’s boy, and leave princes in storybooks, where they belong.

White Celebration Cake

This isn't a dessert from the classic French canon - it's a good deal lighter, for starters - but it's a glorious excuse to eat lemon curd and raspberries and cream, which is just the sort of thing I think belongs in fairytale feasts. It's a lovely cake for a birthday or other festive occasion.

You can start making this cake in the morning and have a finished cake by the evening of the same day, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's much easier to spread it out over two days.

(Adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum's White Velvet Butter Cake. Makes one four-layer nine-inch cake, which will serve twelve.)

Equipment roundup: you'll need a stand mixer, two 9-inch cake pans, silicone or rubber spatula, cake stand or serving platter, and a palette knife or other wide, dull knife (for frosting).

First thing on the first day: make the cake base. Start by leaving out a stick and a half of butter to soften.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Cut rounds of parchment paper to fit two nine-inch cake pans. Grease the pans with butter, line with parchment paper, then butter the parchment and dust with flour, knocking out any excess.

Separate four eggs. Save the yolks (you'll use them in the lemon curd filling) and place the whites in a small mixing bowl. Stir in a quarter-cup of milk and two teaspoons of vanilla.

Grab the bowl of your stand mixer. Add three cups (ten and a half ounces) white flour (cake flour is best, but all-purpose is fine), one-and-a-half cups (ten and a half ounces) white sugar, four teaspoons baking powder, and three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt.

Set the bowl in the mixer. Turn the mixer on low for a few seconds to mix the dry ingredients together. Add the softened butter, followed by three-quarters of a cup of milk. Mix on low speed until the butter and milk have been absorbed, and the mixture looks rather pasty. Mix on medium speed for a minute and a half to aerate. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

Add the egg mixture in three batches, mixing on high for twenty seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides. The mixture should be quite thick; don’t worry if it looks curdled.

Divide the batter equally between the two prepared pans, and give them a gentle shake to smooth out the mixture. Bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes, or until the cakes are golden on top and a tester stuck in the center comes out clean.

Leave the cakes in the pans for ten minutes before turning them out on greased wire racks to cool. (Reinvert the cakes once they've been turned out.) Allow to cool completely before wrapping airtight.

Second item on the first day: make the lemon curd.

Take the four egg yolks left over from the cake, add another whole egg, and beat the lot with three-quarters of a cup of sugar in a heatproof mixing bowl. The mixture will be sticky and a little grainy.

Set the mixing bowl over a small saucepan of gently simmering water, and whisk in half a cup of lemon juice. Keep whisking - this will take a while - until the mixture starts to thicken. Stop whisking when your whisk starts to leave little trails in the mixture (the "ribbon" stage.) Remove the bowl from heat.

Stir in a half-teaspoon of salt, and whisk in six tablespoons of chilled butter, one tablespoon at a time. Allow to cool, then cover with plastic wrap and chill.

First item on the second day: prepare the cake layers. Unwrap the cakes and place them on a flat surface. Trim the cakes so that their tops are flat, then carefully split each cake in half horizontally to create a total of four thin rounds of cake. This is easiest done with a cake leveler, but you can manage with a serrated knife if you have a good eye and a steady hand.

Second item on the second day: make the mascarpone whipped cream frosting. Combine eight ounces of marscapone, one-and-a-half cups heavy cream, a quarter-cup of powdered sugar and a half-teaspoon of vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on low speed to combine, then gradually increase the speed until the mixture forms soft peaks. Turn off the mixer.

Third item on the second day: make the berries-and-cream filling. Take a pint of blueberries and a pint of raspberries and mix them together in a bowl. Add just enough of the whipped cream frosting to hold the berries together.

Finally, the fun bit: assembling the whole thing.

Set out the cake board, cake platter, cake stand, or whatever it is that you're serving the cake on. Ready your cake layers, lemon curd, berry filling and whipped cream frosting.

Place a dab of whipped cream frosting on the surface of your serving platter or cake stand and set the first round of cake upon it. Cover the cake round with a thin coating of lemon curd. Spread with a layer of the berries-and-cream mixture. Try to keep it as level as possible. Place the second cake round atop the berry mixture, and repeat the process. Do the same with the third cake round. Once the fourth cake round is in place, run the edge of a palette knife or other dull knife around the sides of the cake to smooth out any excess lemon curd or berry filling.

Working from the sides up, cover the cake with a generous coating of whipped-cream frosting. Use a butter knife to create swirls in the frosting. Cake may be garnished with edible flowers, if desired.

Cake may be chilled for up to a day in the fridge, but is best served as soon as possible. Serve with extra berries and cream on the side.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

poetry, prose, and the common oyster

In 1942, the French essayist Francis Ponge published a collection of writings - short pieces in a nebulous space between essay and prose poem - called Le Parti-Pris des Choses. He wrote of everyday objects: a loaf of bread, a candle, a bar of soap. He wrote, too, of the humble oyster.

The oyster, though the size of an average pebble, is of a rougher appearance, a less uniform color, brilliantly off-white. It is a world stubbornly closed. However it can be opened: it must be held in the folds of a dishtowel, and with a blunted and chipped knife, prised at again and again. Probing fingers cut themselves, nails tear: it is rough work. The blows inflicted envelop it with white circles, a halo of sorts.
Inside lies an entire world, both food and drink: underneath a firmament (strictly speaking) of nacre, the heavens above cling to the heavens below, forming nothing less than an ocean, a sac viscous and green-hued that ebbs and flows in scent and sight, fringed at the edges with blackish lace. 

Sometimes, though very rarely, a pearl forms in its nacreous throat, which is quickly used as ornament.

 Ponge's language is exquisite and precise, and it captures an oyster with beautiful clarity. However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, sometimes the difference between food preparation and food writing is like the difference between "lightning" and "lightning bug." Clearly, the sorry bastard never worked a day in food service in his life.

If he had, the poem might look something more like this:

Sunday lunch. We've already crossed the hundred pax mark, and it's not yet two pm. I have just sent the last of five pizzas up to the pass, and I am hoping for a few spare minutes in which I might tidy up my bench and perhaps run back to the coolroom for another container of tomato paste.

"New order, one dozen oysters!" calls the chef. I grit my teeth. The new order is my problem; due to a quirk in kitchen layout, the pizza station is also responsible for cold seafood.

"Oui, chef!" is my response, a shout projected over the exhaust fan and the whirr of the pastry section's Pacojet. Inside, I am thinking "Fuck." And probably whispering it under my breath, too. Take this for an absolute truth: there are no clean mouths in a commercial kitchen.

I go for the tray of oysters in my reach-in fridge. They arrived earlier this week from a tiny little coastal town in New South Wales, twenty dozen in a coffin of Styrofoam, sent by express air mail. I spent an afternoon scrubbing their purple-tinged shells of mud and sand and algae, stacking them with foil interleaved. Now I reach in and grab thirteen - just in case one is bad, or cracks, or proves truly impossible to open.

Over to the sink with my baker's dozen of oysters, teatowel in one hand, oyster blade in the other. The trick, I know, is to seek out the hinge, the weak point between the shells.

Ponge had one thing right: the oyster is a stubborn little bugger. The moment the hinge gives way is always one of triumph, followed by a moment of held breath as I confirm that I've neither stabbed the oyster nor left any traces of shell. Then a fresh wave of irritation, as I remember that there are another eleven to go - assuming there aren't any oysters that are bad or any brittle shells that splinter - and I can't help but wish a pox on the idiot who ordered a whole dozen.

Four, six, eight, nine... ten... eleven... twelve. Recheck to make sure I haven't miscounted.

When the full dozen are opened and ready, they are arranged on a platter in a bed of rock salt. Then it's a scramble to assemble all the accompaniments. Carefully spoon red wine vinegar mignonette into a dish. Add a lemon wedge carefully cleansed of all pips, long slivers of saucission, and dainty squares of grain bread generously spread with pale French butter. Confirm that plate is complete and clean. Over to the pass.  

"One dozen oysters. Service, please!"

I am always immensely, intensely relieved when the platter is whisked away.

Know this for a fact: if I opened an oyster in lunch service and found a pearl, I'd just be relieved to catch it before it could become a choking hazard.

Sauce Mignonette: An Exercise in Brunoise of Shallot

You'll see mignonette with all kinds of vinegars, but I like white wine vinegar because it shows off the purple-and-white of the shallots. (Believe me, if you're going to make yourself cross-eyed cutting brunoise of shallot, you'll want to show off your knifework, too.)

Begin by setting up your cutting board and readying a nice, sharp knife. Grab your shallots; allow one large shallot per dozen oysters. 

 Take your shallot, trim off the papery tip, and cut it in half lengthways.

Peel off the papery skin.

Remove the green germ from the center of each half.

Place one half cut side down, and cut it across horizontally, into thirds.

Like so:

Then make cuts along the length of the shallot, from root to tip.

Then cut across, to form dice.

Repeat the process with the other half, plus any remaining shallots. Place the brunoise in a small bowl. Pour over white wine vinegar, enough to cover:

Allow to rest for an hour or two, so that the vinegar can infuse. Transfer to a serving container.

Serve with freshly shucked oysters.

Also, for anyone who might be curious, Ponge's work in the original French:


L'huître, de la grosseur d'un galet moyen, est d'une apparence plus rugueuse, d'une couleur moins unie, brillamment blanchâtre. C'est un monde opiniâtrement clos. Pourtant on peut l'ouvrir : il faut alors la tenir au creux d'un torchon, se servir d'un couteau ébréché et peu franc, s'y reprendre à plusieurs fois. Les doigts curieux s'y coupent, s'y cassent les ongles : c'est un travail grossier. Les coups qu'on lui porte marquent son enveloppe de ronds blancs, d'une sorte de halos.

A l'intérieur l'on trouve tout un monde, à boire et à manger : sous un firmament (à proprement parler) de nacre, les cieux d'en dessus s'affaissent sur les cieux d'en dessous, pour ne plus former qu'une mare, un sachet visqueux et verdâtre, qui flue et reflue à l'odeur et à la vue, frangé d'une dentelle noirâtre sur les bords.

Parfois très rare une formule perle à leur gosier de nacre, d'où l'on trouve aussitôt à s'orner.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

a stubborn dream

A confession: I've been hiding from the internet, and ignoring my writing. (The latter is probably self-evident.) I didn't write much when I was working in an office because I didn't do enough cooking. And now I haven't been writing because I've been doing little else.

In the past three months, I have discovered that I am not a line cook by nature; though I might master it, I may never come to love it. I am more certain of my vocation, but less sure of my place in my current kitchen. I may want to work in a different sort of restaurant. I may want to move out of restaurant work and into catering. I may even want to go back to the labyrinthine kitchens of a big hotel.

There is a dream, however, that is proving to be remarkably stubborn.

We'll call it the Gingerbread House, because that was its name when I first mentioned it as nothing more than the idlest of idle fancies, a castle in the sky. I was still a recent law graduate, or perhaps an unhappy office minion, and I spent my free time plotting out recipes for baked goods.

The Gingerbread House would be a bakery-cafe, or a patisserie cafe - or something in between. There would be scones and muffins in mornings, and baguettes and ciabatte and focaccia in the afternoons. A quiche of the day for lunch. There would be brioche on weekends, and an espresso machine - one of those vintage Italian models - with a barista to make bone-dry cappuccino and ristretto strong enough to chase away even the worst case of morning sleepiness. There would be no table service, just a side counter with cutlery and napkins and water pitchers and water glasses. Customers would pay, collect their food, and sit at whichever table they liked.

On the last Saturday of each month, the cafe would close early. We'd pull all the tables together to form one long table, and serve up a communal high tea. A proper spread: egg salad sandwiches with the edges rolled in chopped parsley, avocado, tomato and ricotta bruschetta, chicken and leek pie with a golden crust, a fancifully tall chocolate torte garnished with crystallized violets, currant scones with jam and clotted cream, and all a manner of little tarts and buns and other sweet, sticky, delectable treats. The dainty and the hearty, in one fantastic jumble, with guests passing plates up and down the table and eating until they couldn't manage another bite. An afternoon tea of the best kind.

It's still too early to tell if the Gingerbread House is nothing more than an idle fancy. I don't know what the next three months (six months, twelve months) are going to bring, or how my next kitchen will shape me.

In the meantime, though, may I tempt you with some currant scones?

Currant Scones

(Makes a dozen or so.)

Preheat the oven to 200C (400F.) Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Get out a mixing bowl and dump in two cups of self-raising flour (two-hundred and eighty grams). Stir in a heaped quarter-teaspoon of salt, and three tablespoons of white sugar (thirty grams).

Take one hundred and ten grams (three point eight ounces) of chilled butter, cut it into small cubes, and add them to the flour. Use your fingertips to rub the butter in until the largest pieces are no bigger than peas. Stir in half a cup (seventy grams) of dried currants.

Pour in half a cup of milk, and one well-beaten egg. Stick a hand in the mixture and stir until the mixture just comes together. Turn it out on a clean countertop.

Press the mixture out into a rough rectangle, and fold it over in thirds, like a letter. (Don't worry if it's shaggy and messy and falling apart.) Press it out again, and fold it over in thirds. Repeat again one final time.

Flour the dough lightly on both sides. Grab a rolling pin, and roll it out until it's a little less than an inch thick. Dip a scone cutter or a small drinking glass in flour and use it to cut out rounds. (You can gather up the scraps, squish them together, and roll them out a second time, but don't do it more than twice - overworked dough makes for tough scones.)

Arrange the rounds on the baking trays. Bake the scones for fifteen minutes or so, or until lightly browned on top. Transfer to wire racks to cool. Serve warm with jam and cream.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

the first day of the rest of your life

In the morning, you wake up early. You eat fruit and yogurt and drink a cup of tea while reading your e-mail, keeping an eye on the clock. Shoes on, keys in hand, you do a quick check: knife kit, jacket, apron. You pull the door behind you with a solid bang, and run your hand over the lavender bush by the door, filling the air with its warm scent.

You can walk to work. It's a long road, but straight and wide, and on a sunny morning, it's a good commute. When you arrive at the restaurant, the open kitchen is already bustling, filled with the sizzle and clatter of meals being readied, echoing with cries of "Behind you!" and "Order up!"

You pull on your jacket and apron, roll up your sleeves. Hands are washed, knives set up. You grate potatoes to pack into ramekins, the first stage of hash browns. You cut tomatoes and sweet red onion for bruschetta. You pick over basil and scrub zucchini. There is butter and sugar to cream together, an easy, familiar routine, for cookies filled with raisins and chocolate chunks.

In the lunch rush, you griddle buckwheat pancakes to layer with lemon curd, decorating the plate with powdered sugar and orange zest. You toss greens and tomato dice with red capsicum and cucumber as a base for a warm haloumi salad. You learn to keep an eye on the temperamental toaster, pulling slices of fruit loaf and sourdough before they char. Old habits merge with new lessons. In time, the rhythm of this kitchen will become second nature.

The hours vanish. Soon the dining room is quiet, just one or two guests relaxing with an afternoon espresso and the paper. You sit down to staff meal, eating pasta in red sauce with feta and rocket and olives, suddenly aware of the ache in your feet. After you've eaten, you begin closing down the kitchen, restocking ingredients and returning parchment and plastic to their places on the shelf. Sinks are scrubbed, floors are swept. The fryer is emptied of oil in a steady, reassuring gurgle.

This is the first day of the rest of your life. No more computer. No more office, no more suit. No more crying at your desk and fabricating allergies to explain away your red eyes. You've finally exchanged your mouse for a chef's knife, and now you can wear jeans to work.

Your new employer stands at the cake case, clearing desserts that are no longer in their prime. When he reaches the cake stand holding croissants, he asks if you'd like to take the old ones home. He wraps them neatly in greaseproof paper and tucks them into a paper bag that goes in your backpack, nestled on top of your apron and jacket. A gift, a welcome. A homecoming.


A croissant is pretty much a yeasted puff pastry. Baking your own is not as complicated as many cookbooks make it out to be, but it is a multi-step process with long stretches of waiting time, so patience is essential. Begin the recipe three days before you plan to eat them.

Note: I've given measurements in metric and imperial, but I recommend the metric.

(Inspired by this recipe. Makes a half-dozen regular-sized croissants, or a dozen mini-croissants. Recipe not for one unless you're trying to make stale croissants for bread pudding, or you really do want to eat half a dozen croissants in a single sitting.)

First, the dough: In a bowl, combine two hundred and fifty grams of flour, three tablespoons of sugar, one-and-three-quarters of a teaspoon of yeast, and three quarters of teaspoon of salt. Rub in one tablespoon of butter. Stir in one hundred and seventy mililitres (half a cup, plus two tablespoons) of cold milk. Stick a hand in the bowl, and stir until the mixture comes together. Knead until a smooth dough forms. Pop it on a plate, cover with plastic, and chill in the fridge overnight.

The next day, begin by prepping the butter: Lay out a sheet of parchment paper, and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Take one hundred and fifty grams (five ounces) of chilled butter and cut it into slices. Arrange them in a square on the floured parchment. Sprinkle with flour, and top with another sheet of parchment. Using a rolling pin, thump and/or squish the butter until the pieces join together. You'll have a rough square; trim it to five-by-five inches (it will be about a quarter-inch thick), and place the trimmings on top. Use the rolling pin to press them in. The butter square should be on the pliable side; if it's very stiff, give it another thumping with the rolling pin.

Wrap the butter in the parchment paper, and place it back in the fridge.

Pull your dough from the fridge. Shape it into a rough square, and roll it, from the center out, so that it's large enough to fit the butter square diagonally (the corners of the butter square should touch the mid-points of the dough square.)

Fold the dough over the butter, and pinch the edges to seal.

Grab your rolling pin. Placing gentle pressure on the dough, roll until you have a rectangle that measures roughly seven by twelve inches.

7 x 12inch - 3x turns.

Gently fold the dough into thirds, like a letter. Wrap in plastic and chill for twenty minutes in the freezer.

When the twenty minutes are up, pull out the dough and place it so that the long side is perpendicular to your counter. Roll it out again into a rectangle that measures roughly seven by twelve inches, and fold it into thirds again. (Every fold is called a turn.) Rewrap the dough and return it to the freezer for another twenty minutes.

Roll and fold the dough one more time, so that you've given it three turns in total. Wrap well in plastic, and place in the fridge to chill overnight.

The next day, pull the dough from the fridge and place it on the countertop. Working slowly, roll it out so that it's eight inches wide by about thirty inches long (or for mini-croissants, about five inches wide by about forty-two inches long.) The dough will become resistant as you roll; pull it up from the counter gently to let it shrink back fully. When you reach the desired length, take a ruler or measuring tape and trim the excess dough so that you have a neat, long rectangle.

Mark the dough at five-inch intervals along one of the long sides (three-and-a-half inch for mini-croissants.) On the other long side, mark one interval at two-and-a-half inches (one-and-a-quarter inches) and then mark the rest at five (three-and-a-half.) With a small sharp knife, using these intervals as starting points, cut the dough into triangles.

Use your knife to cut a small notch, about half an inch long, in the wide end of each triangle. (This helps the croissants hold their shape once they're rolled.)

Take one of the triangles between two hands, and pulling very gently, stretch until it becomes about ten inches long (six and a half for mini-croissants.) Try not to compress the dough.

Place the triangle on the counter with the point facing upwards. Starting from the wide end, roll the dough away from you. Be firm, but gentle. You want enough pressure to get the dough to stay, but not so much that the layers become squished.

Roll until the very point of the dough is tucked under the body of the croissant. Turn it around, so that the point faces towards you.

Take hold of each end gently, and bend them inwards to form a crescent shape.

Shape the remaining dough in the same fashion, and arrange the shaped croissants on two parchment-lined baking sheets. The croissants will expand as they proof, so leave plenty of room in between.

Make up an egg wash by beating together one egg with a teaspoon of cold water until very smooth. Brush the croissants with egg wash (hang on to it, you'll need it again later) and place them in a warmish, draft-free place to proof. (Someplace not too chilly, but not so warm that the butter in the croissants melts out.) Leave them, and go do something else for about two hours.

The croissants are fully proofed when you can see the layers of dough if you look at the croissants from the side. Also, if you shake the tray, the croissants will jiggle.

They're almost ready for the oven! Get the oven preheated to 425F. Brush the croissants with egg wash again. Slide the trays into the oven. Bake for ten minutes, then rotate and swap the trays. Bake for another eight to ten minutes, or until the croissants are a deep, rich brown all over. (If they're browning very quickly, lower the temperature by ten degrees or so.) When the croissants are fully baked, pull them from the oven. Transfer to cooling racks.

Allow the croissants to cool until just warm. Serve with jam or Nutella.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

not just for the birds

Of all the many exciting things about relocating to Melbourne, one of the most exciting might be having a garden again.

It's a small backyard - more of a courtyard, really - but there's a little square of garden, just enough for herbs and a few plants. I've planted basil and mint, and we'll see if my minimal experience with gardening is enough to keep them alive.

There's also an apricot tree. Technically, it's the neighbors' tree, but several boughs protrude over the fence, and as far as I can see, only the birds have shown any interest in the fruit on their side.

Unfortunately for the birds on this side of the fence, I've been up early since the apricots began to ripen, and I've collected what fruit I can every morning. Even at a rate of just four or five apricots a day, the fruit bowl has been getting full, and there's only so much of a dent I can put in the pile by adding apricots to my morning yogurt. I decided it was time to do some baking.

Apricots are stone fruit, of the same family as peaches and plums, and like peaches and plums, are well-suited to desserts such as crumble and tart. I didn't have quite enough apricots for a crumble, however, and I baked a tart the last time I encountered fresh apricots, so I turned my thoughts to cake instead.

As I was considering flavorings, the sage bush in the garden caught my eye, and I decided that a pound cake flavored with brown butter and sage might make for an interesting contrast to the tart-sweet quality of the apricots. I hit a slight snag after gathering all my ingredients, however - I was a little short on butter, and reluctant to make a trip to the grocery store.

Instead, I decided to bake muffins rather than pound cake, using a mixture of butter and olive oil and adding a generous amount of finely chopped fruit. The apricots turned soft and jammy and kept the muffins nicely moist, and the sage aroma came through well, just as I'd hoped.

I sat outside for afternoon tea. It only seemed fair to leave any stray crumbs for the birds.

Apricot Sage Brown Butter Muffins

These muffins are modified from classic pound cake proportions, so they're still quite sweet and rich, and best baked as small muffins, rather than large ones.

(Makes one dozen small muffins, which may be frozen.)

In a small saucepan over low heat, melt seventy grams of unsalted butter (about two ounces) and add eight to ten large sage leaves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until butter foams and turns golden in color, and the sage leaves darken and crisp up. Remove from heat, and transfer to a mixing bowl. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, break up the sage leaves into small pieces. Set aside to cool.

Take five or six small ripe apricots (about a hundred and fifty to two hundred grams; five to seven ounces) and cut an X in the bottom of each. Place in a colander and pour boiling water over, then rinse under cold water. Using a paring knife, peel away the skin of each apricot. Cut each apricot in half and discard the pits. Cut the apricots into small dice and transfer to a small bowl. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 165C (325F.) Grease and flour a quarter-cup muffin tin.

Take the mixing bowl with the sage brown butter, and add thirty mililiters of olive oil (two tablespoons), followed by a hundred and ten grams (half a cup) of white sugar. Add a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and an eighth of a teaspoon (just a few drops) of vanilla extract. Stir well.

Crack in one egg, and using a fork or a whisk, beat the mixture until the egg is well-incorporated. Crack in a second egg, and beat the mixture again. It will be quite thick and smooth.

Fold in one hundred and forty grams (one cup) of self-raising flour, little by little, until you have a smooth batter.

Spoon a little batter into the bottom of each muffin cup, add a sprinkling of apricot dice, then spoon over more batter. The muffin cups should not be completely full - you'll have a little space at the top. Once the muffin cups have all been filled, sprinkle them with the remaining apricot dice. Transfer the muffin tin to the oven.

Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until muffins are golden and a skewer or fork stuck into the center comes out cleanly. Allow the muffins to cool in the tin for ten minutes, then turn out on a rack.

Serve warm for afternoon tea or breakfast.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

the obligatory new year's eve cocktail post, sans cocktail

I had the idea that my taste in alcohol would mature after college.

I thought it would be part and parcel of that mysterious metamorphosis from which I'd emerge a full-fledged Grown-Up. At some point in my twenties, my dress sense would evolve, I'd lose my taste for hot wings, and somewhere along the way, I'd also acquire a taste for gin-and-tonics and develop the ability to drink wine and have something intelligent to say about it.

So far, I've decided that hot wings lose a lot of their appeal when there are no late nights in dorm common rooms involved, but my taste in clothing is stuck at dark jeans and t-shirts with funny slogans, I find that gin still tastes medicinal, and the only comment I can make about wine is what it smells like when I stick my nose in the glass. I still drink dry whites, fruity reds, dark beers, Frangelico-spiked coffee, and not much else. I might learn to mix a proper martini at some point (it seems like a useful skill), but it's doubtful that I'd actually drink the finished result.

Suffice to say, no-one would put me in charge of drinks at a New Year's Eve gathering. (Well, not unless they planned to serve nothing but large quantities of bone-dry prosecco.) That's fine with me, because I'm perfectly happy to handle canapes and cocktail nibbles instead.

I think of canapes and cocktail nibbles as two distinct categories of appetizers. Canapes, in sufficient quantities, will make a meal. Cocktail nibbles, however, are closer to bar snacks - something to graze on before the mini quiches and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears make their appearance - and therefore shouldn't be too elaborate, or too numerous. Toasted nuts, mixed olives, maybe a few thin curls of salty ham. Items that can be found at a good deli or import store, and don't require any cooking.

Of course, there's always an exception to the rule. Cheese twists (or cheese straws) are long spirals of cheese-flavored pastry, pleasant to nibble on with a glass in hand, and quite festive as part of a cocktail spread. While you can find some perfectly serviceable varieties at a good import store, they're even better when baked from scratch.

The recipe below is essentially a basic pastry recipe, modified to incorporate cheese, and given the "rough puff" treatment to produce flaky, crispy twists. Classic flavorings for cheese twists include paprika and rosemary, but I've chosen to flavor mine with toasted cumin seeds and black pepper. They're quite moreish, and they have the added bonus of making my underdeveloped taste in alcohol irrelevant. Never mind the martinis - I find that they pair best with bone-dry prosecco anyway.

Parmesan Cheddar Cheese Twists with Toasted Cumin and Black Pepper

For rosemary and black pepper twists, replace the cumin with one teaspoon of finely chopped fresh rosemary.

(Makes about three dozen six-inch twists. Will keep in an airtight container for up to a week, but they're best consumed fresh.)

In a dry pan over low heat, toast one tablespoon of whole cumin seeds until aromatic, about five minutes or so. Transfer the cumin to a small bowl, and set aside to cool.

In a mixing bowl, combine two hundred grams of plain flour (about a cup and a half) with a quarter-teaspoon of salt. Cut in a hundred grams of chilled butter (about seven tablespoons) and rub it in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in fifty grams of finely grated - preferably Microplaned - parmesan (one point eight ounces, about a cup), a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and the toasted cumin seeds.

Add four tablespoons of ice water, and turn the mixture gently until it just starts to hold together. Add sixty grams (two ounces) of finely chopped sharp cheddar and work it into the dough.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop. Flatten it out roughly with the palm of your hand, and fold it over into thirds, like a letter. Flatten it out again lengthways, and fold it over into thirds again. Flatten and fold one more time, to make three times in all. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill in the fridge until firm.

When the dough has been fully chilled, pull it from the fridge and cut it in half. Wrap up one half and stick it back in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 180F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.

Take the dough half and roll it out between sheets of greaseproof paper until it's three milimetres (about an eighth of an inch) thick. Trim the dough so that it's fifteen centimetres (about six inches) long (keep the scraps) and then cut it into centimetre-wide strips.

Take a strip of dough and set it on the countertop. Take the ends between your fingers, and turn them in opposite directions so that the dough twists upon itself. (Give the strip plenty of turns, because the dough will untwist a little after it's been placed on the baking tray.) Lay the twist on a baking tray, and repeat the process with the remaining strips. Transfer the twists to the oven.

Bake the twists for twenty-five to twenty-eight minutes, switching the trays halfway, until twists are golden brown. As they bake, roll and cut the remaining dough. (Any scraps can be re-rolled, too.)

Transfer the finished twists to a cooling rack, and finish shaping and baking the remaining dough.

When all the twists are cool, transfer them to an airtight container. To serve, arrange in wide-mouthed jars or glasses. If you like, they may be warmed slightly before serving.

Note: I suspect the twists may be shaped, frozen, and later baked from frozen, but I have yet to test the theory, so don't take my word for it.