English spring is a cruel flirt.
Yesterday's blue sky and scudding clouds somehow gave way to a thick damp fog which clung cold and clammily to my gray fleece this morning. (No, I am not a sheep -- that would be my "walking gear.") Despite my piteous moans, (Bee, you always say it's too cold!), my walking partner declared that we would indeed walk the eight miles that we had resolved to walk.
WP and I signed up to walk the Edinburgh Moonwalk sometime back in early fall, when I was feeling fit and June seemed far, far away. Unfortunately, the Christmas food and drink debaucheries, plus the endless Birthday Extravaganza that is January, have rendered me chubby and decidedly dubious about my ability to walk 26 miles in under 6 hours. Even if it is in aid of a very good cause. Also, I am not a morning person and 8 am is never a good time for me. However, this is exactly why we have friends and walking partners. Without WP -- a stalwart British sort who went to boarding school -- I would have probably gone home and gone back to bed; with WP's gentle bullying, I did indeed manage to walk eight miles through the foggy forest.
Unfortunately, my delight in this accomplishment was rather dimmed by my dismay that my broadband service was on the blink! Only three days into blogging and already I've hit a technical snag! My afternoon was spent in that particular Purgatory where technical support persons from India dwell. First, you go through the first circle of hell: the automated telephone system. After much choosing of various options and listening to bizarre elevator-ish music (but not that soothing), you are finally transferred to a living person who, unfortunately, you can't understand very well. In my case, this is due to the inevitable clash between the Texan and Indian dialects -- but also to my lamentable knowledge of the workings of my own computer system. There was a lot of "What? Can you say that again?" from me, and a lot of "Madam, will you please listen to me" from my Indian interlocutor. Sometimes we would get cut off . . . was that really an accident? . . . and I would have to start over. At one point, we discovered that my particular kind of no-name modem (which caused much dismay, as I kept swearing there was no "make" to be seen) had to be handled by a different department. Anyway . . . despite the good time being had by all, I did have to eventually abandon the fight in order to pick up my kids from school. (Later, Sigmund turned on the computer and said, with his customary post-workday impatience, "There's nothing wrong with it! SEE!" Well, yeah . . . now.
This brings me to the subject of English comfort food. Somewhere between the weather and my computer frustrations, grew a need for comfort that can only be assuaged by a certain kind of food. Tex-Mex and a frozen margarita would have done the trick, but since that is not available I had to resort to my second favorite: English "stodge." Stodgy is one of those English words that I love. Although "stodgy" is not an admirable quality in a person, it can be a delightful quality in food. Bread pudding is perhaps the most stodgy food; but for a close savory second you can try "Toad in a Hole." Some people might be turned off by this description; I suppose it is understandable that a person might not care for a slimy amphibian in batter. I am the sort of person, though, who admires the style of English quirkiness that gave the world stodgy recipes with names like "Spotted Dick," "Gooseberry Fool" and "Eton Mess."
"Toad in the Hole" is a very simple recipe. Basically, you make up a Yorkshire Pudding batter and throw it in a hot roasting tin. Then, you arrange some browned sausages (or "bangers" in the local parlance) on top and cook in a very hot oven. This gives you a sort of sausage sandwich, I guess, but the the Yorkshire pudding is light and crusty on top and almost custardy in the middle -- and the whole is "infused" (my daughter's actual description) with a lovely sausagy flavor. I have skinny kids who come home from school ravenous and can be fed this kind of thing. For Sigmund, I provided a healthy lentil soup with just a small portion of Toad in the Hole on the side.
I got the recipe from Tamasin Day-Lewis's Kitchen Bible. This is a charming, useful book -- particularly helpful for the beginning cook as it starts with "Easy Things" and "Simple Skills" and moves on to chapters like "Classic Recipes" and "Serious Skills." I particularly like it because it contains so many of the English classics -- for things like Victoria sponge or Yorkshire pudding -- that you just can't find in most contemporary cookery books. Tamasin is a serious foodie; another good read, if you enjoy reading about the quest for the best and like a few starry anecdotes casually strewn between recipes, is her latest -- Where Shall We Go for Dinner?
Has anyone but me noticed the many similarities between Tamasin Day-Lewis and Nigella Lawson? Daughters of famous fathers; Oxbridge educated, posh, well-connected; 40ish but still overtly sexy; flowing dark hair; sensual writers who favor lots of adjective and adverbial embellishment. One major difference, though, is that Nigella has gone very commercial (and some would say almost cartoonishly over-the-top). Still, I love Nigella . . . and ignore Sigmund's mockery of her latest venture, Nigella Express. (For months, every time her name came up he would simper, "It's expresssssssssss," with a lascivious leer.)
I honor Nigella because she does write beautifully about food and she has shared many delicious recipes with me. For instance: for many years I've hated and dreaded the brussels sprout. You can ignore the sprout all year 'round if you want, but you leave it off your Christmas menu at your peril! In her wonderful book Feast, Nigella gives a recipe for brussels sprouts which are tarted up with chestnuts, pancetta and Marsala. You can actually still taste the sprout -- but it has been magically transformed into something delicious! Also, it mushes up so nicely flavor-wise with the turkey and roast potatoes. Probably the Nigella recipe that I love best, though, is for Rhubarb Crumble.
Rhubarb Crumble is ideal comfort food: it is just stodgy enough, but you can be "comforted" by the fact that you have actually eaten a portion of fruit with your pudding. It is the perfect late winter dessert because the beautiful pink rhubarb is actually in season and just the antidote to one too many apple pies. It is sweet and tart all at the same time. It is also stupendously easy and quick to make -- and therefore, just the thing when you have had a stressful day. (If, that is, you agree that rubbing butter into flour is a comforting thing to do.) What follows is Nigella's recipe . . . I have made it many, many times and it has never failed me.
(I have slightly amended the instructions for brevity's sake.)
1 1/2 lbs. rhubarb (chopped into 1/2 inch pieces)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 oz butter
1 T vanilla
1 T cornstarch
Toss the following together, and then cook for about 5 minutes in a pan over medium-low heat. You can do this bit ahead of time; stash it in a pie dish and stick it in the frig until you are ready.
Proceed with the crumble:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
4 oz butter
3 T vanilla sugar
3 T brown sugar
Mix flour and baking powder together; (or use self-rising flour and save 10 seconds!) then rub in your butter until it resembles oatmeally crumbs. Stir in the sugars, and then settle the crumble over your rhubarb filling.
Bake for 35-45 minutes in a 375 degree oven. My oven only needs about 35 minutes. It should be golden on top -- not too brown, and definitely not charred.
Most English people like custard on crumbles; Americans would prefer a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it. I think it is perfect on its own, hot, cold or lukewarm.
It is ideal for breakfast . . . and if you've fed your family something like Toad in the Hole, you can be assured of having generous left-overs for morning noshing. I myself enjoyed a bit of rhubarb crumble with a cup of tea for elevenses. Despite the fact that the British Gas boiler-man is here -- due to our lack of heat in part of the house -- and despite the weather being just as February-ish as yesterday's, I am having a much better day today.