Inspiration doesn’t just come from cookbooks. When re-reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire a couple of weeks ago, I was struck, not just by what a cracking read it was, and how I was completely unable to function after finishing it, but also by the descriptions of food. There’s not a huge amount of eating that goes on in Wicked but what’s there is distinctive and evocative and made me want to cook. The food is somehow otherworldly and yet very earthy and imagineable. If they were all cooking up snozzbangers or eating frumblejump soup, amusing as it sounds it wouldn’t make for such satisfying reading. Anyway, like the utter geek that I am, I devised Sunday’s dinner entirely based upon what I’d read. I sort of hinted as much to Tim (who in fact has been reading Wicked rather fervently himself although refuses to admit enthusiasm) and he sighed in an I-saw-this-coming kind of way. But you know, better that he heard it from me first.
The saffron cream: “They spooned the airy mounds into one another’s mouths, sculpted with it, mixed it in their champagne, threw it in small gobbets at one another until the manager came over and told them to get the hell out. They complied, grumbling. They didn’t know it was the last time they would all be together, or they might have lingered.”
So naturally, I had to try and make some for myself.
I had envisioned a kind of syllabub-style dish, and indeed nothing is stopping you from replicating this without the mascarpone I used – a mixture of yoghurt and whipped cream would have been my choice otherwise. I began by macerating a pinch of red-gold saffron threads in a capful of dry sherry, a spoonful of honey for sweetness, and a couple of crushed, fragrant cardamom pods. Interestingly, despite saffron being more expensive per gram than crack cocaine, I spent more or less nothing on this dish. Saffron – gift from Tim. Sherry – a gift from Mum, who instinctively knew I needed some. Honey – in the cupboard. Cardamom pods – another gifty from Mum. As for the mascarpone – well, I had some sitting in the fridge leftover from my tiramisu. And yes, I do get given food as presents and you better believe I love it.
It went from this:
Look at that gorgeous, golden yellow colour, and not an E-number in sight. My seratonin levels have skyrocketed at the very sight of this stuff. Saffron: I’m just mad about it.
Once strained and folded into the mascarpone, (with the juice of an orange for added zing) it toned down to the palest primrose colour. To go with – because they mentioned biscuits being served with the cream in Wicked – I did a batch of Nigella’s fabulous madeleines from How To Eat. I made these for the first time back in October (and do read the post if only to appreciate how my photography has improved) and haven’t attempted them since, luckily the silicone tray I bought for them was cheap enough to warrant such reckless neglect. To lift these madeleines out of the ordinary, to make them…wickeder if you will…I added a dash of ras-el-hanout, a morrocan spice blend usually used in savoury foods. It is so fragrant and warm and cinnamony that to me it makes perfect sense to get a little fusion-y and use it in something sweet.
Above: The batter has to wait for an hour in the fridge. And you have to wait for it for an hour. Nigella doesn’t say what this adds to the end result. But I daren’t disobey.
They were a cracking success, so much so that it’s threatened to go to my head and I want to sprinkle ras-el-hanout in everything. I’m picturing it in ice cream, in cupcakes with cinnamon icing, in rice pudding, in biscuits…needless to say, I’m going to give you the recipe because such is the nature of people who read food blogs, I just know that some of you out there have a madeleine tray kicking round. Gathering dust. Giving you the guilt-eye whenever you open your cupboard. Be guilty no longer – make a batch of these.
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat
(insofar as adding half a teaspoon of spice is adapting.)
90g butter, melted
1 T clear honey
75g caster sugar
90g plain flour, sifted
1/2 t ras-el-hanout (optional, you can of course make these without it.)
Mix the butter with the honey. Beat the eggs and sugar together in a bowl – using a whisk if you dare – for ages and ages till thick, pale, and expanded. Sieve the flour in, then add the honeyed butter, and fold it all gently together. Leave in the fridge for an hour, then take it out of the fridge and sit at room temperature for half an hour. Sometime in this half hour’s sitting you want to set the oven to 210 C. If you don’t have a silicone mould like me, then lightly butter the indentations. Place a spoonful of now-puffy mixture in each shell-shaped cavity, don’t worry about filling it as the heat makes the batter spread. Bake for 5-10 minutes. I find 7 minutes to be perfect. Let them cool slightly before eating…however you like. Sprinkled with icing sugar, dunked into hot tea, a la mode with ice cream or…
…to be used for a loving spoonful of saffron cream.
Of course it wasn’t all pudding. My desire for a roast chicken (well, chicken is geting more expensive by the day, I can’t even remember the last time we’ve had it for dinner) happened to coincide with mine eyes alighting greedily upon this passage from Wicked:
“The guests tucked into snails and garlic, roast crest of fallowhen with cilantro and clementine chutney, and…a sumptuous helping of lime tart with saffron cream.”
Now, both Wikipedia and Google render the fallowhen non-existent, and I have an inherant fear of gastropods, and I’ve already covered the saffron cream AND limes are jaw-clenchingly expensive…but after reading this I thought that a plump, free-range chicken, smeared generously with butter that has been flavoured with chopped coriander and orange zest…roasted with garlic cloves and half an orange up it’s…cavity…and served with coriander and pistachio sprinkled rice…would be a fabulous precursor to the pudding.
Above: I said generously. My pestle and mortar (or mestle and thingy as ex-flatmate Kieran used to call it) wasn’t entirely necessary for this process but made me feel like I was really creating something, and capably at that. I’m certain that Gregory Maguire must have a love of cooking because the food translates well from page to plate: the earthy freshness of the coriander matching excellently with the perky orange zest, the honeyed-yet-grassy saffron lifting the creamy, tangy mascarpone…
Can you believe it’s September already? Sorry it has taken me so long to post, firstly I nearly fainted away at the amount of comments I recieved for my tiramisu – an absolute record of Micheal Phelps proportions for this blog – secondly I’ve just been plain busy. Time is dissolving like baking soda into milk. Like icing sugar into melted butter. Like arrowroot into raspberry coulis. Where was I? It promises to be a splendid week: my best friend is in town for a conference so hopefully we will be catching up for coffee, on Thursday night Tim and I are going to be seeing Bill Bailey’s comedy gig, and on Friday we are going to go see The Dark Knight again with some movie vouchers. Uni has started again and we had genuinely spring-like weather today in Wellington. Of course, tomorrow it will probably be back to raining again but you take what you can get…