Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Generally speaking, there is not much danger in being an Australian abroad.

Unlike Americans, who run the risk of being dragged into all a manner of unpleasant discussions with regards to their president, their politics, and their culture, Australians can escape with just a few potshots at their drinking habits - and if those firing the volleys are British - the performance of their cricket team. No-one has a bone to pick with the Australians. They're quite content to make silly references to Crocodile Dundee.

Unless Vegemite comes up. Then all bets are off.

Vegemite, for the uninitiated, is a dark, sticky sandwich spread that looks like engine grease and tastes like concentrated soy sauce. It is apparently rich in Vitamins B1 and B2. Its television jingle is bested only by the one for Aeroplane Jelly in sheer irritation quotient.*

Consumption of Vegemite involves generously buttering two slices of bread, and then applying the thinnest layer possible of Vegemite to one slice before putting the two together. (If you are an Australian schoolchild, you might also add a slice of cheddar cheese.) Applying a layer of Vegemite to each side, or applying anything other than the thinnest layer possible, is... inadvisable.

As you might guess, Vegemite is an acquired taste. As you might also guess from my description, I never really acquired it. I'll eat Vegemite if there's nothing else available (or if I'm suffering a severe Vitamin B deficiency), but otherwise, I'll pass. And so when it comes up in conversation, I will either cheerfully join in the mockery, or offer an apology - whichever seems most appropriate.

I've heard many people recount their first encounters with Vegemite. As far as I can tell, they fall into three categories:

The Lemming. In which a friend wants confirmation that Vegemite is, indeed, just as awful as he or she thinks it is. Catchphrases: "This is the most revolting stuff I've ever eaten", "I'm not sure this qualifies as food", "You have to try this stuff to understand just how disgusting it is."

The Practical Joke. In which a friend, thinking that Vegemite must be something Australians like to feed to unsuspecting foreigners as a practical joke, decides to pass on the favor. Catchphrases: "I brought you this amazing stuff from Australia!", "No, you need to spread it on more thickly", "I know it looks terrible, but it tastes great."

The Unknown Horror. In which an unsuspecting foreigner doesn't experience Vegemite for him or herself, but gifts it to a friend anyway. Catchphrases: "I got you this stuff from Australia - I'm not quite sure what it is, but the natives love it", "They say it's a sandwich spread", "It's very popular. It must be pretty good."

The best (worst?) story I've heard belongs in the third category.

As Isobel tells it, she was five years old when her father came back from a business trip with an individual-serving container of Vegemite that he'd picked up on the plane. He had no idea what it was, and she, having never before encountered any sticky brown foodstuff that wasn't chocolate-based, assumed that Vegemite was similar. She took a generous spoonful. Her reaction, as you might imagine, was traumatized.

Stories like Isobel's make me think that a mere apology for the culinary atrocity created by my crazy compatriots may not be sufficient. I think it probably does take chocolate - and quite a lot of it - to compensate.

Which is why I'm going to invoke Nutella, the glorious Italian hazelnut-chocolate spread, as a sort of anti-Vegemite. I don't know that I can say anything about the marvels of Nutella that hasn't already been said. Like Vegemite, it's brown and sticky, but unlike Vegemite, it's chocolately and delicious, an absolute culinary joy. The simplest way to eat it is to slather it - thickly - on plain white sandwich bread, but it's quite happy in the company of butter and sugar too, as the pound cake below will attest.

If you've had an unhappy encounter with Vegemite, consider this a peace offering. If you haven't... well, if anyone tells you they brought you a present from Australia of the edible variety, and it's not a package of Tim Tams... you won't eat it, right?

*YouTube at your own risk.

Nutella Swirl Pound Cake

I found a reference to Nutella swirl pound cake on another blog when I was trying to figure out if anyone else had written about pound cakes and bumps. Nutella is a dense substance, however, so this pound cake contains a little baking powder to help with the rise.

(Serves one. Cake may be wrapped and frozen.)

Preheat oven to 325F. Ready a two-cup loaf pan.

Place a stick of salted butter in a large mixing bowl and let sit at room temperature until the butter is easily squashed with a fork. Add half a cup of white sugar, and cream the mixture together with a fork until smooth.

Stir in a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla essence, and a quarter-teaspoon of salt.
Crack in one egg, and beat until smooth. Crack in a second egg; beat until the mixture is thick and smoothish (it will look slightly curdled.)

Fold in a scant cup of flour and one-eighth of a teaspoon of baking powder. The batter should be smooth and creamy.

Spoon one-third of the batter into the baking pan. Add a generous dollop of Nutella, and use a spoon to spread it out. (Resist the urge to lick the spoon.) Spoon another third of the batter into the baking pan, and add another generous dollop of Nutella. (Keep resisting the urge to lick the spoon.) Spoon in the remaining batter, and run a skewer through the mixture to swirl it together. Give the pan a gentle shake to smooth out the top. Transfer the pan to the oven.

(Okay, now you can give in to that urge. Lick away.)

Bake for an hour, or until a skewer stuck in the middle comes out with only Nutella on it. Remove the pan from the oven. Let the cake cool in the pan for five minutes, then carefully turn it out on a wire rack. Allow to cool completely.

To serve, cut into generous slices. Skip the fork and lick your fingers.

Monday, December 21, 2009

an evening in the life of a minor demon

"Avarice needs to get moving in five minutes!"
"Someone get me more baking trays!"
"Where are the paper towels?"

According to Milton, Lucifer said that it was better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. He never said anything about serving in Hell.

Probably just as well. From what I can see, it involves a lot of heavy-duty baking trays and swearing at a cabinet trolley. I suspect it probably wouldn't make for great literature.

I'm in the kitchen prep area at O.N.C.E in Hell, the ten-course dinner theater extravaganza based on Dante's Inferno, presented by Cuisine En Locale and Oberon. This is my third O.N.C.E, but it's the first time I've ever been present as a kitchen minion (or should that be minor demon?) Tonight's service is well under way: Gluttony (beans and slow-cooked pork ribs) has just left; Avarice (turnip flan with celery root mash) is coming up next.

The baking trays aren't for baking. We're using the baking trays - slotted into cabinet trolleys - to transport plates between the kitchen area and the backstage area. My task for the night is to stick with Jen, JJ's assistant, and help her get the food from one point to the other without any mishaps. Between courses, I'll be conscripted into doing whatever else needs to be done - like collecting and cleaning the baking trays as they come back from the kitchen, so that they're ready for the next course.

Oberon is a club, not a restaurant. There's a kitchen area with a sink and bar fridge, but not an actual kitchen. Instead, the O.N.C.E team has brought in steam cabinets, coolers, electric burners, microwaves, toaster ovens, fans and even a fryolator, to create one.

We have folding tables set up end-to-end to create a counter for plating. For Avarice, I help lay out trays of red-and-gold bordered plates; Trevor moves down the line with a piping bag of chocolate ganache, tracing dollar signs, and JJ and others follow with individual flans, tipping them out of the molds.

(No photos. My hands were full enough without a camera. But you could try the writeup here.)

I scramble for the paper towels so that we can wipe off any stray drips, help Jen move the trays of completed plates to the cabinet trolley, and take one end for the trip down the long, twisty, bumpy corridor to the backstage area, praying we'll make it without any mishaps.

Unfortunately, prayers don't count for much when they come from Hell. The trolley is old, and one of the wheels comes off its track when we're halfway down the corridor, causing the cabinet to tilt at an alarming angle. There's considerable cursing as we half-drag, half-carry the trolley to the backstage area, and we hold our breaths as we pull the trays, hoping none of the finished plates suffered any mishaps.

Thankfully, we're spared that fate. The plates are fine, and once they've been handed off to the serving staff, we lug the trolley back to the kitchen area, where Annabelle manages to get it back on its tracks.

Now I just have to unload the trays, wipe down the trays, and start laying out plates (navy blue borders with gold edges) for Heresy while the rest of the team fills mugs with jasmine-scented kale salad for Wrath.

Our kitchen area isn't equipped to handle the kind of power a commercial kitchen demands. Tech has fiddled with the power so that we can theoretically run everything we need, but the circuits keep blowing. Trevor has been baking off the last of the pastry coffins in between blowouts, and the final batch has just finished cooling when we start to plate Heresy.

As Jen frantically communicates with front-of-house through her headset, we decorate plates with swirls of pumpkin puree, top them with pastry coffin vol-au-vents, fill the vol-au-vents with lobster salad, and add a final sprinkling of spicy dried chile powder.

Jen and I fill the cabinet with the trays of finished plates, and once again drag the trolley down the long, twisty, corridor, trying not to curse too much when we hit the bumps. We hand off the plates to the serving staff, and I drag the trolley back to the kitchen.

I'm starting to hate that trolley.

Violence is cold beet soup: the glass goblets are transported backstage in crates (no trolley!) and the serving staff pour the soup from pitchers. Our prep is thankfully minimal, giving me extra time to collect and wipe down baking trays for Fraud.

For Fraud, the menu indicates that we're serving Beef Wellington with mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables. While there is puff pastry and duxelles, it's been wrapped around firm tofu, not beef. (That's the fraud.)

Out come the plate-covered baking trays, and we move down the tables with pots of mash and pans of vegetables, following with slices of Tofu Wellington and saucing with mushroom gravy. The trays go into the cart, and we're back to the long, twisty corridor.

Back in the kitchen, we're experiencing technical difficulties: the electrical circuits are not playing nice with the fryolator. In fact, it might be more accurate to say they hate the fryolator almost as much as I hate the cabinet trolley. They're blowing every ten minutes. Heresy is supposed to be a mini beef slider with French fries; JJ makes the decision to eighty-six the fries.

The burgers are fine, however, and we wipe down the folding tables and lay out sheets of greaseproof paper. We set out buns, and JJ gives quick tutorial on how to wrap a burger for those of us who never worked in fast food. The patties come out of the oven, and we start wrapping as quickly as we can.

The burgers are served in paper bags with a pamplet from "Beelzebub's Burgers"; they leave the kitchen on two big trays, sparing us the task of dragging the trolley back down the corridor again.

The final course is Heaven: a dessert of creme anglaise topped with a meringue, garnished with basil-blueberry sauce. We set out wide-mouthed glasses, floating meringues atop creme anglaise and adding dollops of sauce. Once dessert leaves the kitchen, JJ ducks out to catch the Heaven performance, and the rest of us take a break.

By which we mean "nibble on the leftovers." After all, there are some perks to serving in Hell.

There are plenty of extra vol-au-vents, and I snag a spoonful of creamy lobster salad to eat with the flaky, buttery pastry. There are also extra turnip flans, which sound odd, but have a light, custardy texture, and a sweet, delicate flavor.

Peering into the steam cabinet, we find a bowl of beans and ribs, and extra slices of Tofu Wellington, gravy, and sides. The beans and slow-brined ribs are fantastic, but it's the Tofu Wellington that surprises me. Disturbed as I am by the concept, it's actually quite delicious. The tofu texture works well with the flakiness of the pastry, and the duxelles and the gravy are flavorful enough to make up for its blandness.

When snacktime is over, cleanup begins. As Jennifer, Trevor and Bee ponder ingredients and logistics for the next evening's show, I make my way to the much-despised cabinet trolley. I have yet another stack of baking trays to clean before my night is over.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

things that go bump

It's that time of the semester again.

My frenzied, deadline-heavy weeks are over, and now I have just the low-level stress of a research paper to contend with. My desk is piled high with books and papers, and I am chipping away at the page count in a slow and painful fashion. This is when I find solace in my mixing bowl, returning to variations on the basic mixture of butter, sugar, and flour.

As much as I long for a KitchenAid mixer, I prefer the meditative process of hand-mixing when I'm stressed. Lately, I've been fascinated with pound cake, the old-fashioned kind.

Classic, old-fashioned pound cake uses no chemical leavening. The rise depends entirely on the tiny air bubbles created by creaming together butter and sugar, and beating in eggs. A well-beaten mixture produces a cake that forms a bump on top. Part of the pleasure of baking a classic pound cake is peeking in the oven at the forty-minute mark and seeing if the cake has "bumped."

I know that some add a little baking powder for a lighter texture, but I like the dense, rich, eggy results of the classic proportions. Using the classic proportions in full is a hefty undertaking, however, which is why I prefer to bake it in quarter-pound quantities using a mini loaf pan. (It's easier to achieve a well-beaten mixture when you're working in smaller quantities, too.)

Vanilla is the basic flavoring of pound cake, but I like it with lemon zest and a sticky, tangy lemon glaze.* Add a cup of tea, and paper-writing is almost bearable.

Almost. Whether I end up measuring my page count in pound cakes remains to be seen.

Glazed Lemon Pound Cake

(Serves one. Can be cut into slices, wrapped and frozen.)

Preheat the oven to 325F. Ready a 5.75 inch by 3 inch loaf pan (two-cup capacity).

Place a stick of salted butter in a mixing bowl and leave it to sit at room temperature until it is easily squashed with a fork. Add half a cup of white sugar to the bowl. Cream the butter and sugar together until smooth.

Add a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla extract, a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and the zest from one large lemon to the bowl, and give the mixture a quick stir. (Hang on to the zested lemon. You'll need the juice for the glaze.)

Crack in one egg. Beat with the fork until the mixture is thick and smooth, then beat a little more. Crack in another egg; beat until the mixture is thick and smooth-ish; it might look a little curdled.

Gently fold in a scant cup of flour (four ounces or so). The resulting batter should be thick and creamy. Spoon the batter into the pan, and give it a gentle shake to smooth out the top.

Place the pan in the oven. Bake for an hour, or until a knife or skewer stuck in the middle comes out clean. Let the cake sit in the pan for five minutes before turning it out on a cooling rack.

While the cake is cooling, prepare the glaze. Take the lemon you zested and juice it into a small saucepan. Add a tablespoon or two of sugar, and heat the mixture just to the point where the sugar dissolves - don't worry about bringing it to a boil. Let cool.

Once the cake has fully cooled, brush the top and sides with glaze, allowing it to soak in between applications. Cut into slices. Serve.

*Lemons courtesy of Virgin, who returned from Thanksgiving break with a bagful from the tree in her parents' yard at home.