Saturday, 31 January 2015

What I'll read in 2015

As I type, my eyes drift to the stacks of books that have neatly or not-so-neatly accumulated by my bed over the past month. With Christmas and my birthday occurring in short succession, it's usually a book-booming time of year, and this January my flat has seen an exceptionally glorious influx of the printed word. All the 'H's of the recent big book awards are there - Hilary Mantel and Henry Marsh and Helen McDonald; then Sarah Waters and Zadie Smith, Robert Macfarlane and Vera Brittain, Atul Gawande and Ann Patchett. In the tide of books upon which I surf into the new year, I spy the imaginational landscape of my 2015. It looks like this:

1. I will at last get to grips with Wolf Hall, via Bring Up the Bodies, which apparently is 'easier'. I've watched Hilary Mantel with curiosity over the past few years, fascinated by what she has to say about writing and by her peculiarly determined presence. She's obviously totally committed to the intangible leap-of-faith vocation she has chosen. Earlier in my academic career I was an early-modern historian, which meant that I dutifully made a number of attempts with Wolf Hall, but it was not to be, and I've been reassured by friends that 'the first fifty pages are the hardest'. Inspired by Mark Rylance's applauded invocation of Cromwell on the BBC, now is the time. I'm going to ease myself in with Mantel's short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

2. After last year's happy discovery of John Lewis-Stempel's Meadowland and its soothing effect on the soul, I will make further forays into books about the outdoors. Oxford as a city is a lucky place in which to live, with its sandstone, spires, and old Victorian houses, but at the end of days bouncing from suburb to city, I sleep better with some green space in my imagination. Thanks to dovegreyreader I've just discovered the Wainwright Prize for UK nature and travel writing, and its long-list will be waiting for me after I read Costa Book Award winner H is for Hawk, and Robert Macfarlane's enticing voyage over the English countryside, The Old Ways.

3. As the 2000s roll on and centenaries accumulate, I find myself increasingly drawn to early twentieth-century British history. The film of Vera Brittain's autobiography Testament of Youth has brought the lives of women in WWI to the nation's screens - but it is much more than just another war memoir. As a child I listened to the audiobook, read by Cheryl Campbell; Brittain chronicles her transformation from provincial young lady, to army nurse, to bereaved post-war student at my old college, Somerville, and her story is extraordinarily intimate despite its cool delivery. This month Testament of Youth was my main book, broken only by reading for review another Somervillian Jane Robinson's sympathetic history of illegitimacy in twentieth-century Britain, In The Family Way. Happily for me, Brittain wrote at length, and I'll be thinking about her and her peers for many months to come.

Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh
4. I have always been drawn to books that - simply put - deal with life, death, and the hinterland between, which is probably why I'm now a medical anthropologist. Just after Christmas I whipped through Henry Marsh's excellent Costa Award shortlisted Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery; Marsh captures the uncertainties and inexactitudes of neurosurgery and the medical encounter with beautiful prose and reassuringly unflattering honesty. The book is all the better for it. I'm now looking forward to reading Atul Gawande's acclaimed Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and what Matters in the End; I've been reading Gawande since I stumbled across his Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science when I was seventeen. The humanity in these thoughtful testimonies is startling and inspiring, as they give voice to the parts of life that are often hardest to talk about.

So another year of reading awaits, in-between thesis-writing and sporadic attempts at baking, and I can already see the rising tide of books filling the nooks and crannies of my room, hours, and mind. For the past few months I've been abstaining from buying books, with a view to rediscovering what I already have; happily the book windfall at the turn of the year has equally had the effect thus far of making me dig out the old and dusty, the dog-eared and abandoned. A library is as much an experience of mind as a physical collection of books, and it's exciting with a new year to see in mine new constellations, and new lineages, as well as glossier covers.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

How To Badly Bake Great Apple Pie

The Bramley apples were still sitting in my fridge, placid and impervious in their waxy skins. Catching sight of them amidst the New Year clear-out I realised that right here on January 2nd was the portal into substantiating one of my resolutions: Cook More, and in particular, Bake. What could be better on a dark and dingy Friday afternoon than to make an apple pie that would last all weekend? It didn't matter that in my student kitchen kit I didn't have a sieve, whisk, or rolling-pin. I had found ways round these so far, and apple pie would merely present new and satisfying challenges to the kitchen wild-west spirit. 

The idea filled me with enthusiasm. I decided I could not go wrong with a BBC recipe, so set about Mary Henry's Proper Apple Pie. First, the filling:

·       '3 large Bramley cooking apples, chopped, stewed and cooled.'

I grew up stewing cooking apples from the old tree in our back garden that had once formed part of an orchard. For years it had practically plagued us with apples, filling every available cranny in kitchen and garage, morphing into apple sauce and apple crumble and apple and almond pudding - but never apple pie. I chopped and popped the apple in a big saucepan with a touch of water and left it on a low heat to caramelise and stew in its own juice. So far, so homely.

Next, the pastry:

·       '255g/9oz plain flour
·       pinch of salt
·       140g/5oz hard margarine or butter
·       6 tsp cold water.'

I had not made pastry since I was four. I had a distinct and joyful memory of squidging and kneading a great blob of pastry on the kitchen counter for hours. At some point it fell on the wooden floorboards, to which it adhered with great purpose and determination. For all the persistence of my small four-year-old fingers, it would not dislodge. The mark remained for years until concealed by a non-stick expanse of linoleum. 

I figured pastry would be easier now, and Mary gave me no cause for concern: 

'Sieve the flour and salt into a bowl,' she said, and 'Rub in the margarine or butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.'

Whether it was the lack of a sieve or a failure of brawn, the solid pat of butter was not having any 'rubbing', so I put the whole lot in the microwave for a moment, hoping the heat wouldn't do anything to the self-raising flour. This made it much more workable. Within moments, I was able to:

'Add the cold water to the flour mixture. Using a knife, mix the water into the flour, using your hand to firm up the mixture. The pastry should be of an even colour and suitable consistency for rolling.'

And there it was: pastry. More than twenty years after my last attempt, there was my fat splodge of pastry sitting happy and uncomplicated on my counter. I had heard so many scare stories about pastry and it was clearly all nonsense. I divided the splodge in two - half for the bottom, half for the top of my apple pie - and contemplated the next step:

'Take one half and roll it out so that it is big enough to cover an 20cm/8in enamel or aluminium plate,' said Mary, blithely.

And there the troubles began. For the hideousness of pastry lies in those four little words: 'roll it out' and 'cover'. My smartphone internet history recorded the frustrations of the following half hour. First up was 'how to roll pastry without a rolling pin.' With no empty wine bottles kicking around I opted for the combination of a hiking water bottle and a jar of lemon curd from the fridge. But then the horrid stuff was just sticking to the water bottle and to the glass jar and there was not so much 'rolling' going on as 'squashing with heel of hand' and 'unpeeling from water bottle and sticking on desperately to other corner of misshapen pastry'. For some reason the temperature in the kitchen had risen by about five degrees and I was grimly remembering that I had thought this would be fun. 

In mounting irritation I continued to google. 'Why is pastry sticking to rolling pin' and 'pastry breaks when rolling' yielded various suggestions, most of which gave me hives. 'The colder the pastry is the better,' some said, as I remembered that I had bunged the wretched butter/flour mixture in the microwave, and childhood memories of cling-film-wrapped pastry sitting in our kitchen fridge popped urgently into mind. Well, it was too late now. Other recipes were mooting things like 'an egg' and 'lemon' and saying not to roll with 'too much flour' or 'too much water'. My optimistic sentiments about Mary Henry's Proper Apple Pie were slipping rapidly downhill. She had prepared me for none of this and as the kitchen got ever hotter the simplicity of her instructions were starting to seem frankly as if she were having a private joke - on me. I gritted my teeth and wondered whether I would have to settle for stewed apple for pudding tonight after all. 

And then, suddenly, as I prodded mournfully at the sticky, doughy, pastry mess, it came to me. I fished out the silicone-surfaced baking paper that I'd bought the day before to use with chicken. I scraped up my malformed pastry blob with my sharpest kitchen knife and laid out a sheet of paper underneath it, silicone-surface uppermost. Then I cut another sheet and laid it on top, starting to roll with my chilled lemon curd jar. Reader, it worked a treat. In moments I had a lovely large expanse of rolled pastry. I couldn't have cared less about the varying thickness and the peculiar ridges that my faithful jar was making. I had rolled pastry. God only knows what had happened inside it in the meantime, with experimental bits of flour and water added and doubtless all character beaten out of it, but it was flat and it looked like something that could convincingly go on the underside of an apple pie. 

Now, to 'cover' the dish. I carefully peeled the top layer of silicone paper away and tipped my pastry paper upside down, pressing it carefully into the shape of the ceramic dish. Here the temperature around my ears inexplicably rose another few degrees as I attempted to dislodge the pastry from the paper without it breaking. Slowly, delicately, it came away. The pastry case looked very sorry around the edges, but I no longer cared. It was in. 

'Cover the pastry with the stewed apples and sprinkle with sugar to taste.'

This much I could do. Not having much of a sweet tooth, I sprinkled about two and a half flat dessertspoons of light brown sugar over the tart apple and a half-teaspoon of ground cinnamon as an afterthought. With emotion still running high, it was a haphazard sprinkling; there was a very sweet corner in my apple pie.

'Roll out the other half of the pastry. Moisten the edge of the bottom layer of pastry and place the second piece on top.' 

With fight/flight mode still in full throttle, I rolled out the other half of my pastry using the same sheets of silicone-coated baking paper and transferred it to the top of the pie. Miraculously, the Bramleys had created just enough apple that the straggly ugly circumference of my bottom layer of pastry could actually connect with the top half. Now:

'Press down on the pastry edges, making sure that they are properly sealed,' said Mary. 'Trim off any excess pastry with a knife in a downward motion, again using the plate as your guide.'

I laughed bitterly at the idea that I would be fussing around with making the evil pastry look pretty by nicely trimming it. Instead I pulled off bits and redistributed them around the pie where appropriate. The pressing and pinching of the pastry halves together, however, proved strangely mesmerising. 'Fluting', Mary called it. Very satisfying. I went round the pie a few times, just to make sure it was well-fluted. Very well-fluted. Aaah. 

Finally, Mary instructed me to 'Prick the surface of the pastry lightly before placing the pie in the oven.' I was not, I'll admit, very happy with Mary after the pastry debacle, and part of me wanted to sulk and not do what she told me, but I figured that if I were going to throw one more thing at this pie, I might as well throw a few stabs - sorry, pricks - with a sharp knife. Then, with the distasteful relief of a mother who doesn't like her child very much, I threw it in the fan oven at 190 degrees and left it for half an hour. 

I knew what was going to happen: the pastry at the bottom would be soggy. This always happened on Masterchef, and I knew it would happen to my awful pie. I would be surprised if the top layer cooked as well with all that stewed apple bubbling away underneath. I winced at the idea of serving my dinner guest soggy-bottomed apple pie - surely there's nothing more horrible than undercooked pastry - but I had just about had it with this pie, and I ruefully concluded, as I watched it stay uncannily motionless and supposedly cooking through the oven door, that I would just have to write it up as a learning experience. 

After thirty minutes, I pulled out the pie - lightly golden on top - and poked it tentatively. The top crust was firm to the touch, and I let it sit to cool while I cooked dinner. An hour later, my dining companion and I broke it open for gastronomic inspection. The pastry, never a robust specimen, didn't take kindly to being transplanted from ceramic to plate, but having served my friend with something that looked more-or-less like a portion of apple pie I waited nervously for the contorted facial expressions of polite, middle-class, English discomfort.

They never came. Instead, there were exclamations of delight, and desire for a second helping. I couldn't quite believe it and tucked in myself. Friends, this was a delicious apple pie. The wretched pastry was as light as a feather and cooked all the way through on top and bottom. The apple was not too sweet but not so tart it needed extra sugar. The fluting round the edges had held the pie pastry together and there were no escaped bubble-ups of stewed apple, nor, indeed, any burnt bits. My friend had a second helping. I started having pie twice a day. In due course my flatmate piled in. Five days later, there is a tiny corner of pie still sitting in the fridge. It's mine - all mine. 

And so, Mary Henry, all is forgiven; you have indeed taught the nation how to make foolproof Proper Apple Pie. 

Proper Apple Pie