Friday, 31 December 2010

Sleep, Toast and Hotcakes

I have a slight confession to make. When I can't sleep I watch Nigel Slater cook and he helps me drift off.  When I accidentally left my Simple Suppers DVD in America last December, it took six months for it to be returned to me. Insomnia was never quite the same while Nigel was gone. The person holding him against his will in the US said they couldn't find the DVD and that I must have left it in the airport on the way home. I knew it was still there. I knew it. In the house. Next to the upstairs TV. I was more thrilled to receive that disc in my birthday package than my actual birthday presents.

I'm never quite sure what it is about Nigel Slater that relaxes me so much. Maybe it's the slow but determined way he moves around his kitchen, leading all the way down to the gentle, considered way he plates his food.  It's dreamy. His vast banks of food knowledge are very reassuring. I genuinely feel that I could ask him absolutely anything about food and he'd have an answer. If I wanted to know the best way to incorporate berries into a custard, he'd know. If I needed to know how long pork belly needs cooking before the fat becomes unctuous, he'd know. But I also love that he still considers himself an amateur cook who writes about his food discoveries and conquests, despite decades of doing do.

Mostly though, it's the voice. You may disagree, but to me he's got one of those perfectly soothing 'everything's going to be OK' voices. I'd quite like him to leave me a voicemail message saying "Calm down. Everything's fine, Rachel" which I could play on those days when my blood pressure just won't seem to drop.

I've mentioned before the fact that I hold Jamie Oliver very close to my heart, but all that contagious enthusiasm isn't quite conducive to sleep. Imagine trying to nod off to *insert softened Essex accent* "OhMyWord! ThisIsTheBestThingYouWillEverEat! AMAZING! (CHEWCHEWCHEWCHEW) AndSoSimpleToMake! BishBashBoshInTheOven! Beautiful!" Nigel, on the other hand, drawls out alliterated phrases on choice ingredients in such a way that it's like valium for my ears. *insert softened West Midlands accent* "My real weakness (pause) is cheeeeese. I'm a sucker for a slither of Cheshire, or a wedddddge of creamy Stilton." My response is something similar to when Homer Simpson goes all gooey at the mention of loveable billionaire Arthur Fortune and, oh dear, I've got a bit of a platonic crush on my hands here, haven't I?

This would be why when we handed out our reasonably priced presents during our Secret Santa gathering at work, the sudden Nigel Slater bashing while conversations on Christmas food circulated made me very uneasy. An episode of Simple Suppers had aired the night before and the food possibly hadn't been as family-friendly as some other shows. I believe there were flower petals involved. I'm slightly sorry that I didn't stand up for my man. I merely played the diplomat, not committing to loving or loathing his food. The thing is, Nigel Slater isn't going to show how to make a three course meal in 30 minutes. He'll tell you about which flavours and textures work together and how to use seasonal produce. I should have spoken up when his use of strange ingredients mustered ridicule from my colleagues. Next time!

Last night the BBC aired TOAST, an adaptation of Nigel Slater's memoirs. It was lovely and in places almost magical. I was afraid I'd cry and, although there were a few watery-eyed moments, overall it was both a touching and gentle rendition of a tricky childhood. The final scene made me grin from ear to ear, but if you're still planning on watching, I won't spoil it for you. It was so richly produced I felt like I wanted to reach into the screen, touch the gorgeous 1960s decor and dive into the billowy lemon meringue Nigel bakes to trump his step-mother's efforts to rule the roost.

 By the way if anyone has a roll of this wallpaper knocking about, I'll happily take it off your hands:

I need it for my future walk-in pantry. 

For someone doing so much gushing in this post, I'm ashamed to say I never got round to reading the full book, but I had a rough idea of how Nigel's early life had panned out. I now feel compelled to fill in the blanks. The iBooks version is downloading to my phone as I type. TOAST was by the far the best thing I watched on television all Christmas, and you'll have to trust me when I say I watched a lot of telly this Christmas. If you're one of the lucky people who live on British soil you can watch again on the BBC iPlayer until the evening of January 6th.

As this is a food blog, I should at least end with one of Nigel Slater's recipes. His Christmas leftovers episode of Simple Suppers introduced me to Mincemeat Hotcakes, which are amazingly easy, delicious and are a brilliant way of using up that half-full jar of mincemeat you'd probably end up throwing away or discover again in April, covered in fridge grime and lettuce juice. They keep nicely for a few hours, but the man knows what he's talking about when he says they're best eaten straight out of the pan. The recipe can be found here on the BBC Food website. My efforts came out like this:

A few tips I wish I'd been given before making them:

  1. The large amount of liquid sugar in the mincemeat means the hotcakes can catch and burn very quickly. Keep the heat fairly low. This is my why first batch are hidden at the bottom of the pile, by the way. 
  2. Don't be afraid to turn too early. There is a knack to flipping them, but don't worry too much about making a mess. Get the palette knife in there and flip as quickly as possible before they have chance to burn.
  3. Mix the egg-whites in to the mixture as gently as possible. The more air you keep, the fluffier they'll be. 

Have fun and here's to a wonderful 2011. Expect a lot more from this blog in the coming year.

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