Just storing this link (and recipe) here so I won’t lose track of them.
Do visit The Greedy Frog’s page on the subject and read the (correctly) cranky rant about how cheese does not belong in this.
It’s looking like the Owl Springs Partnership site needs a reaming out (asst’d technical issues) so I’m relocating some stuff for safety’s sake.
Our Parmesan biscuit recipes have been there: posting them here for the interested. (This way if the URLs change over there, I can always just instruct the site to redirect them here.)
We’ve been using the standard garden-variety North American style of home bread-baking pan for a long time, but there comes a moment when you realize suddenly that you’ve been using the wrong tool to produce the effect you want, and you start looking around for something that’ll do the job better.
In particular, though high-risen loaves with domed tops are undeniably lovely, Peter and I found that about half the time the loaves we made in the standard bread pan were showing a preference (once they’d risen to the pan’s top) for, during the further rise, expanding sideways rather than upwards. With more highly hydrated doughs, this definitely turns into a problem. The loaf-in-process sags over the sides of the pan while it’s baking, and afterwards you wind up having to chop the sides off it so that slices will fit into the slots in the toaster… altogether a most unseemly business. So we started looking for taller-sided baking pans that would give the rising dough more support in the upwards direction.
The first thing we tried was a lidded baking pan/baking tin from a US maker now long associated with this type of bread pan: a “Pullman pan”, so called because it was the type of bread pan used in the kitchens of Pullman train cars. (The style turns out to be far older than its use on the railway, though. European bakers were producing so-called pain de mie, “bread made for its crumb” [rather than its crust], for at least two centuries previous. This was the preferred bread for premium sandwiches, canapes, croutons, and toast.)
At any rate, the pan we got from the US company was well made, heavy, and baked a good loaf. But it was both bigger than we needed—loaves made with it wound up needing to be cut in half to fit in our bread box—and also a bit fractious: sometimes difficult to shut, and also often difficult to open. This got frustrating. After a while we passed the USA pan to friends at a local pub/B&B, and went back to the “regular” loaf pans for the time being.
Recently, though, one or the other of us spotted the items below on Amazon. They’re available from numerous different retailers, leading me to believe that they’re being manufactured by one or two companies in China under different badges or marques for different retailers.
This style of pan is available in various sizes and materials, so we decided to get a couple of the smaller ones—essentially one-pound loaf pans—and see how they worked. They come in both steel and aluminum versions.
...So we sent for them, and along they came. We’ve been testing them for some days now, and briefly: they’re terrific.
As regards materials: the aluminum pan weighs 405g: the steel one weighs 624g. It’s going to take more testing, over more time, to determine which of them does a better crust on the bread (though again, since these are pain de mie pans, the crust isn’t really meant to be the main act).
These pans are both rated for a 450g loaf….though, again, it’s going to take some testing to see how much leeway there is in this rating. Some of the recipes we use produce denser loaves than the house recipe for Just Plain Old White Bread. That, though, is the recipe we’re using at the moment for testing purposes.
The thing to warn you about in advance, if you get these, is that right out of the box, the non-stick coating on these is SERIOUS BUSINESS. The pans will Zamboni around with alarming slidiness on any kitchen surface where you place them. You don’t dare pick them up without having a firm grip on both the pan and the lid, as (given the slightest opportunity) the lid will slide right off the pan and head for points unknown.
Frankly, though, as a baker who’s dealt in her time with more than enough annoyingly sticky pans that should have been nonsticky, this is kind of a refreshing change. I’m going to be interested to see how long this phase lasts and how durable the nonstick coating is.
The important thing, though, is how readily freshly baked bread comes out of these. And the answer is: very readily. Tip them over and the new-baked loaf just kind of falls out. Though the docs suggest that the pans should be greased (indeed, buttered…), it’s looking like there’s no need for that at all. It might prove necessary to grease them when you’re baking things that have a lot of sugar involved in them. I’m thinking about testing the household seed cake recipe in one of these shortly to see how it behaves.
Anyway, here are some pictures, so you can see how these compare, size-wise, to the normal-size bread pan: and how a loaf baked yesterday with the lid off looks. …A note about those three little holes you can see at the bottoms of the pans: those are apparently for air circulation. I have yet to see whether there’s a problem with doing a very wet batter bread in one of these, but I’ll test that soon and add notes on it here.
For those who might be interested in getting their hands on one of these: hope this helps!
(Above: the pans themselves, with the little spiracle-like air holes visible…)
And below: the result when we sliced open the latest non-lidded bake...
(PS—disclosure: we’re members of the Amazon Associates plan, so if you use one of the lnks above to buy one of these, we get a wee tiny commission. …But you probably knew that. Just saying…)
Because when composers start talking about cooking, it’s smart to listen. 🙂
This bake unfolded on the Twitter thread here:
1/2 Equal weight of eggs butter sugar flour . Melt butter and sugar together , whisk in the beaten eggs , whisk in flour once eggs incorporated, pour into greased baking tin . Bake for around 40 minutes 180-200 degrees . Blend Juice of two lemons and icing sugar into a syrup.
When cake has cooled , use cocktail stick to make loads of deep perforations on top of cake , pour over thick lemon syrup so it soaks into the holes but also covers cake with thin layer . It’ll cool to a lemony sugary crust . Eat whole thing in one go
Right… starting in on this now. 3 large eggs for me = 200g; so, 200g each of flour, butter, sugar.
And there’s the cake. A little dark on the top and around the edges, but that’s just our oven (it runs hot, and any first bake is therefore experimental…). Don’t think I’m going to care after the icing hits it.
Now the icing. (For those interested: my baking only sporadically uses icing sugar, and if I buy it in, typically it turns into a brick in the box/bag before I get around to it. So instead I usually make my own in the coffee grinder. The grind is finer than storebought.)
…So. I’m short of cocktail sticks, but I do have skewers.
I’ll be adding this in stages, as I want the cake to soften up and become more absorptive as I go along.
Unfortunately I don’t have an image of the icing stage. Apologies. But: here’s the finished cake.
Oh, and here’s @DavidGArnold‘s lemon drizzle cake from yesterday. Extremely nice. Can see why someone might be tempted to eat it all at one go. 🙂
The following recipe was improvised on the fly on the evening of October 16, 2020, and unfolded on Twitter. I don’t allow my tweets to be unrolled (because the companies that do that make money off my labor without giving me any). But I’m happy to share the recipe, and the process, here in my own web space, with anyone who’s interested.
Status report, Baking-While-You-Write dep’t: These three Bramleys weigh 1100g (that biggest one is nearly half a kilo all by itself. I FEEL AN APPLE PIE COMING ON.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, or who dip in here from time to time, will know that cooking and cookbooks are issues of interest in our household. Particularly the cookbooks. There are a couple hundred of them in the living room at the moment (and that’s after we weeded out some unnecessary ones and sent them off to the library at the end of last year). They span all kinds of cuisines and approaches to cooking, and a nontrivial percentage of them are pre-20th century.
I have to confess that the older ones are some of my favorites (and not just for the recipes: often because of the advertising that appears in them, or because of other associations—regional, historical, linguistic. For example: a covey of cookbooks in (Sursilvan) Romansch, bought as much for the language/dialect or vocabulary as for the regional specialties). US and European “community” cookbooks of the 1800s and early 1900s are also favorites of ours. And some such cookbooks get added to the collection due to having come up on the local radar by other means, often obscure.
Right now, for example, I find myself looking at a project I wasn’t expecting to need to add to my TBW pile: a full-blown translation of a French cookbook. This one has a bit of a resemblance, in approach anyway, to one we’ve had available for download at EuropeanCuisines.com for a while: Mrs. de Salis’s fabulous Savouries a la Mode.
Savouries, like the many other guides and cookbooks Harriet de Salis wrote during the late 1800s/early 1900s, was aimed at the “New Woman”—the lady of the house whose circumstances, for whatever reason, rendered her unable to afford the staff / extra hired help that were in some classes taken for granted in an earlier time, and without whom it was thought impossible to “keep house properly”. So recipes that might have otherwise been lost to us (except by the former household staff themselves writing cookbooks, which fortunately also happened) are preserved, in full detail, in de Salis’s works. And old recipes of this kind—dishes or treats that one might have expected to be able to readily have at home, once—are always welcome.
Now let’s veer briefly sideways. While researching Belgian waffles for our page on that subject at EuropeanCuisines.com—and particularly the Liège waffle that often falls through the cracks somewhat for North Americans, since a (non-yeast-raised) version of the Brussels waffle tends to be more popular there—I went looking for French- and Vlaams-language online waffle resources, and came across the venerable website GaufresBelges.com and its recipe page. Their recipe for a beer-based waffle caught my eye, and I was pleased to see that they’d credited the cookbook.
Having tested the recipe—and finding it not at all bad—I started wondering what else might be in that cookbook that was worth knowing about. So I went looking for it, and soon enough found references to “La Patissière des Petites Menages” online: but the book itself turned out to be not that easy to find. As usual, this made me more interested in getting my hands on it, not less. Finally I found a copy available through a listing similar to this one at the French version of Rakuten, and sent off for it.
What arrived was a solid little paperback, old but very well made: the kind of thing you would have picked up from a kiosk or newsstand / newsagent of the time. The type is beautifully bitten into the page. The binding is sewn in signatures (and provoked immediate nostalgia for the long-ago days before paperback binding was universally done with glue). The 20-centime price tag translates, in modern buying power, to the equivalent of about a Euro. The book is 175 pages long: an introduction, a glossary, 140-odd pages of relatively brief and simple recipes for all kinds of baking that can be done in the home oven, a comprehensive index, an ad for other books from the publisher (A. -L. Guyot), and an ad for a company selling accordions and zithers.
…As you page through it, it becomes obvious that in this cookbook’s recipes the emphasis is on being able to make your own slightly-specialized goodies at home, without having to go down to the shops (or the baker’s) for them. (Which is perhaps why the lady on the cover isn’t wearing traditional baker’s togs, but bicycling bloomers.)
Peter, who has a university-level French course under his belt, kindly took a run at translating the introduction.
TO OUR READERS
As we announced, this “TREATISE ON PATISSERIE” completes our “COOKERY FOR SMALL
HOUSEHOLDS”, and we hope it will receive the same favorable reception.
Even in the most modest homes, wives and mothers will doubtless thank us for
providing means to treat their loved ones by enhancing the daily menu with
appealing delicacies to delight young and old.
At family reunions, or where groups of parents and friends are invited to a party for a wedding, a baptism, or other happy occasion, it will be a pleasure for any housewife to make by herself and inexpensively (without resorting to the baker’s oven), some tasty appetisers: PASTRIES, PIES, VOL-AU-VENTS, succulent SWEETS: DONUTS, CHARLOTTES, MERINGUES, TARTLETS, or fine DESSERT CAKES: BISCUITS, WAFERS, MACAROONS, FANCY COOKIES; even aristocratic ICE CREAMS, SORBETS etc. …
Finally, ladies, thanks to the recipes contained in this volume it will be easy to create
a domestic pantry abundantly supplied with LIQUEURS, SYRUPS, JAMS, FRUIT PRESERVES
and CANDIES, which will be all the more most appreciated when prepared by your
We have done our best to offer you a useful and pleasant manual in clear and
practical form: we hope we have succeeded!
The biscuits (cookies, a North American would say) and wafers particularly have my interest: but everything else looks good too. I look forward to getting to grips with the work of translation, a little at a time (because baking is one of the ways I get some of my writing work done. You’d be surprised how much character work you can deal with just while kneading bread…). When everything in the book has been translated, we’ll make it available in unadorned form for download at European Cuisines, and possibly bring it into e-print at Amazon as well. (And I’ll post about it here as well.)
Well, a little weird.
Ireland is on COVID-19 lockdown (and will be for the next couple/few weeks, it looks like), and our next grocery delivery isn’t until nearly the middle of next week, and there’s no telling whether there’ll be baking yeast in it. And yesterday we were down to our next-to-last packet of it. So I sighed and got ready to start employing stopgap measures.
…And a quick note here: if you’re presently drawing breath to say “But I saw a post about how to make your own…” or “No one is ever really out of yeast, let me tell you how…!” — then please don’t, because there’s no need. I’ve been baking bread casually since my twenties and much more intensively over the last decade (Peter and I simply decided in unison that we’d had it with supermarket bread, and when we found the most dependable recipe imaginable, that was that). At one time or another I’ve built levains and starters from scratch, worked with sourdough starters more than a hundred years old, and have caught and cultured wild yeast on two continents. I’ve even written fiction about yeast, Thoth help me.
Anyway, right this minute—as a busy longtime-work-from-home small-businesswoman who is usually hip-deep in several universes at once while also doing website management—my preference for day-to-day baking is plain old active dry yeast of the Fleischmann’s, Red Star or SAF type. These have been genetically tailored for their work and suit my needs perfectly—being predictable, reliable, and in no need of coddling or extra attention. To be told “All you need to do is mix together some flour and water and let the natural yeasts…!”, etc etc, is for me (at the moment) too much like someone kindly offering to replace my missing Lotus Turbo Esprit with a Trabi. I will cope just fine, but I won’t sing paeans of praise about the alternative strategy. So let’s not go there, yeah? As KP says, “Please and thank you.”
Anyway. What was plain when I got the urge to bake yesterday afternoon was that I was going to have to throw together a preferment, because the thought of actually using up that last packet of yeast was giving me anxiety. Fortunately, when doing the last bake I’d used only 3/4 of the package of yeast, and had set aside the rest for this very purpose. So:
(Stage 1) Find favorite handled soup cup. Spoon in a tablespoon or two of flour and that yeast, and stir it about well to get combined. Add about a quarter-teaspoon of sugar just to let the yeast know that, momentarily anyway, Life Is Unexpectedly Good. Add a quarter cup of water, or a little more if necessary, to make a thick paste. Then cover the cup (or other vessel) and put this whole business aside somewhere warmish for a couple of hours. (Note that no salt is involved in this procedure until making the actual bread dough, because the salt acts as an inhibitor and the last thing you want to do with the yeast at this point is get it feeling inhibited.)
(Stage 2) In a couple of hours there should be some bubbling going on. Stir the bubbles down, add half a cup of lukewarm water, enough flour to make another thick paste, and another quarter- to half-teaspoon of sugar, because keeping the yeasts extra happy/active at this point is smart. Mix it all up until it’s smooth and put the whole business aside for another couple of hours.
(Stage 3) Repeat the above routine one more time with about twice the ingredients, except for another half-teaspoon of sugar for the yeasts. Then off you go and spend another hour or so doing something else. If the bubbles aren’t pretty active in the bowl or cup or whatever when you get back, give it another hour.
(Stage 4) And now we finally start actual breadmaking. Measure out about 200g of wholemeal/whole wheat bread flour and 400g of white bread flour. Stir in 10-12 g of salt (usually about a scant tablespoon). Add to this about 2/3 of the starter and about 350ml of water, and knead by hand or in a mixing bowl with a bread hook until it comes together and is smooth and silky-ish. 15 minutes or so by hand: in a mixer, six minutes on low speed and six minutes on high. Add more flour if necessary. Grease or oil a big bowl: put the dough in it and turn it so it’s evenly coated: cover it with plastic wrap and put it somewhere warm and comfy to rise. (I wrap mine up in a foam throw from Ikea. Works great.)
Because of the lowered raising capacity of this yeast—which is still getting up to speed—the rise takes significantly longer than usual. In this case it took something like four hours for the sponge to fill my raising bowl, which was fine, because I was binging The Rise of Phoenixes (while oblivious to the potential pun, don’t mind me, I catch on slow sometimes) and the plotting and backstabbing had seriously sped up from the previous ten episodes’ everybody-is-poisoning-everybody-else-with-slow-poisons-while-snarking-at-them arc.
At this point I hit pause long enough to punch the dough down… or actually, smoosh it down: it was very soft and sloppy. It was also larger than my normal loaf, because I’d had a put a fair amount of extra flour in to stabilize it. It became plain that (a) it was realistically too late to wait through a second rise and bake last night—which meant an overnight “cool rise” out on the sink in the boot room—and (b) if I put it in a regular loaf pan / tin to do that, it would overflow the thing in the middle of the night and make all kinds of mess. So I oiled a three-liter Les Cousances casserole, dumped the sponge in there, covered it with a tea towel, and left it to its own devices for the night. Then I went back to my binging, though not before adding more water and more flour to what was left of the preferment, and just a few pinches more of sugar, because so far at least the yeasts had been behaving Very Well and deserved a treat.
When I got up in the morning and came downstairs, here’s what the casserole looked like:
So it was plain that it was now time to bake, yay! Oven up to 200C, then (when preheated) slid the casserole in and for good measure threw about 150ml of water into the roasting pan at the bottom, to make some steam. Timer set for 50 minutes, and off to do some email and other stuff.
When the timer went off, this is what we wound up with:
It took another couple of hours for the loaf to cool and stabilize enough to slice safely. It’s a peculiar looking thing, but Peter came along and pronounced it one of the best bakes of this kind ever. (He’s fond of the pot-baking end of things: he’s quite good with the New York Times no-knead recipe.) Having had a couple of slices, I’m inclined to agree. Light: a delicate springy crumb, nice and open in the usual manner of slow-and-cool rises: definitely tasty. The crust’s a bit aggressive, but a night in a bread bag will sort that out.
…So that’s one way to do it. That said: I still want my damn active dry yeast. Meanwhile, the preferment is sitting in the office window, enjoying the warmth from the wood-burning stove, and it’s getting to be time to feed it a little again. (Because an online associate caused me to think of the torture-a-cinnamon-roll concept just now, and a yeast-raised cinnamon roll can be pretty good. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.)
…See, it’s even got a hat!
And for the moment, that’s all she wrote.
Using the vestigial English term “cracknel” to define this common snack food format of the Middle Kingdoms may at first seem a strange choice, considering the weird peripatetic course the word has charted across this world’s linguistic landscape over the last century or so. Having started out as a 1400s-period descriptor for a twice-baked savory-or-sweet biscuit, it then became gradually attached to all kinds of sweet and savory crunchy things, from pretzels (hard and soft) to commercially-produced crackers to (in southern US usage) the little bits of pork crackling left over after rendering lard. Various wafers, candy bars and nut-brittle-type sweets also use the term. (Check out this aggregation of Instagram posts including the hashtag #cracknel. Your head will spin at some of the things that turn up.) There’s even a Biblical reference, where “cracknel” turns up to render a Hebrew term suggesting biscuits that have been pricked with a fork before baking.
The connection seems, logically enough, to be the concept of crunchy things, which makes sense considering the term’s English etymology. According to the OED, it comes to us from the French craquelin, which is derived from croquer/”to crunch”. These days craquelin can mean (in general usage) a cracker, or (in more specialized usage) a pastry dough used to produce a crackly finish.
The cracknels that turn up in the earliest-preserved Tudor cookbooks, though, most closely match the Middle Kingdoms approach — a twice-baked biscuit, the first baking being of a long thin roll of seasoned dough, and the second baking of thin bits sliced off that roll. By the late Tudor period on our Earth, the second bake had been dropped out of the process, and the dough was simply rolled out very thin and cut out into rounds (see the recipes here reflecting this technique). But during the period being covered by the present Middle Kingdoms works, the preferred cracknel style closely matches the Tudor one… and is easily recognizable to a modern this-Earth baker as the normal method for making biscotti.
The words best used to render “cracknel” in the major languages of the Middle Kingdoms are surprisingly close (Arlene and N. Arlene kechte, Darthene chekech, Steldene emekch, even Ladhain kchhe). This, along with the words’ age — all of them are archaic — tempts one to think that they jointly preserve a common root word in what we may as well call the “late Medioregnic” dialect: the little-known common language/lingua franca spoken by human beings during the long terrible period when the phenomenon known as the Dark overshadowed the world. During this time much knowledge, even of languages of discourse, was lost in the near-extinction of humanity. So there’s an odd satisfaction in thinking that so small, homely and enjoyable a thing somehow persisted through the long disaster and (along with humanity) made it out the far side, back into the light.
The technique for making Middle Kingdoms-style cracknels is simple, and very close to the modern this-Earth biscotti method. Make a fairly firm dough with flour, a leavening agent (though some regions forego this), enough eggs to hold it all together, some honey if you like, and whatever herbs and seasonings (or in some cases cheeses) you favor. Roll this dough into “logs” and bake these until they color and firm up. Remove from the oven and allow to cool enough to cut them into small thin slices. Then return the sliced pieces to the oven at a lower temperature and bake them again, turning once during the process. The this-universe-Italianate cutting method of slicing on a sharp diagonal is sensible (in that it exposes the maximum amount of surface area to the gentle heat of the second baking) and attractive, but not mandatory. …Though there are regions of the Kingdoms where, if you had no other clue, you could tell where you were within thirty leagues or so by how the locals cut their cracknels.
Flavorings for Kingdoms cracknels are a matter of seasonal availability and the whim and affluence of the baker or cook. Steldenes favor putting chopped fresh or dried whitefruit in them (because of course they do: Steldenes are well known to put whitefruit in everything) and numerous other fruits as well, ideally dried; also fruit pickles and syrups, nuts and nut creams, especially almond and chestnut, and metahnë or weeproot, a close analogue to Armoracia rusticana, our common horseradish. Mid-latitude Arlenes tend to favor mellower spicery (yellow berry-pepper, capsicums, green onions and garlic, the various wild and tame parsleys) and grated hard cheeses, from the very mild to the very sharp. Western and “upper” Darthenes lean toward warm-country flavors: sweetbark, yellow citron (identical to our Citrus medica) and green citron (a local analogue to Citrus ichangensis, the Ichang papeda); anise, ginger, caraway, honey-rush (a relative of Saccharum officinarum, our sugar cane), and mint-grass. People from cooler, wetter climates (“lower” Darthen and Arlen, upper Steldin) prefer hotter or “darker” spicery in their cracknels: whitefruit again, dark berry-pepper (similar to our Piper nigrum), poppyseed, various nuts (walnut, chestnut) and smoked honey. But even inside these general areas of preference there’s endless variation, influenced by whatever local ingredients are felt to suit cracknels particularly well.
(There are also regional differences in preparation. The most extreme of these would possibly be native to North Arlen, where, as a substitute for the second baking, some people deep-fry their cracknels. Up south in the more conservative parts of mountain country, mentioning this behavior will inevitably start a discussion about the naughtiness and perversity of the decadent North. Brawls have occasionally started over this issue. Let the tourist beware…)
In the towns and cities of the Kingdoms, every bakery of any note makes cracknels to their own recipe and seeks to lure customers away from other bakers by unique combinations of flavors or superior baking technique. Competition (both informal and formal) is intense. In both Prydon and Darthis there are annual contests for the best cracknel in the city, and it’s not unknown for judges in these competitions to be bribed. In Prydon, for some years since the enthronement of the new King—when people started having time or inclination to be thinking about this kind of thing again—there has been a push to require competitors to formally swear in one or another of the Goddess’s City temples that they will not accept gratuities or otherwise seek to influence the contest outcomes. But so far no formal action has been taken… King Freelorn perhaps having wisely decided to keep his (and the Lion’s) nose out of it.
Fortunately one doesn’t need to have a Middle Kingdoms commercial bakery in the neighborhood to experience cracknels. They’re easy to make at home. Here are two representative recipes. One is in the Steldene style, with Jalapeño and chipotle chilies standing in for the inevitable whitefruit (and adding not only smoked paprika but Cheddar cheese, which the more hidebound Steldenes might look a bit askance at… but ask me if I care. They won’t be eating them). The other is more northern Darthene in its flavoring, using caraway as an aromatic and substituting lemon for the ubiquitous green or golden citron of the warm North.
Preheat the oven to 180C for a regular oven, 160C for a fan oven.
Because of the chilies in this dough, it makes sense to wear disposable gloves for this next stage of preparation. If you choose to work bare-handed, please be extra careful about washing your hands thoroughly before touching your eyes or any part of you that features mucous membrane. Jalapeños and chipotles may seem innocuous in your mouth, but getting capsaicin from them in your eye (or onto/into other sensitive area) is an experience better avoided.
Mix the flour and all the dry ingredients together. Beat the eggs well, add them to the dry ingredients, and mix and knead together until the ingredients start to come together into a dough. Add the chopped chilies and grated cheese and knead until well combined into the dough. (If you can do all the above in a mixer bowl using a dough hook, so much the better; it’ll be a lot less work for you.)
Prepare two cookie sheets by lining them with baking parchment. Lightly flour a work surface and tip the dough out onto it. Divide the dough into four pieces and roll each one into a log of dough about 30cm long. Place the logs on the prepared cookie sheets, two per sheet, well separated. (They may spread a lot, or they may not, but it’s wise to give them room.)
Put in the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the dough has risen and spread a little, and the outsides of the dough logs are slightly browned and firm. Remove them from their cookie sheets to a rack, and allow them to cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, lower the heat in the oven to 140C for a regular oven, 120C for a fan oven.
With a sharp knife, slice the dough logs on a sharp diagonal in slices about 1cm thick. Lay the slices out flat on one or more of the prepared baking sheets (you may only need one) and put them back in the oven for twenty minutes. At the end of this time, pull the baking sheet out and turn all the slices over: then return to the baking sheet for another twenty minutes.
Remove to a rack to cool completely. When cool, store them in a tin until ready to serve. They will keep well in the tin for up to a month… assuming you can stay away from them for that long. If you can, stay away from them the first day of baking as well: after a day or so the flavors intensify somewhat.
Preheat the oven to 180C for a regular oven, 160C for a fan oven. Prepare two cookie sheets as above.
In your mixer’s bowl (assuming you’re using a mixer), combine the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, ground caraway seeds and lemon zest and mix well. Add the beaten eggs and knead well, using the mixer’s dough hook if you can. If the dough is reluctant to come together, add lemon juice teaspoonful by teaspoonful until it does.
This dough will be stickier than the previous one, and will probably have to be scraped out of the bowl onto your floured surface. Additionally, it may need some more flour added to it so that you’re able to work it into logs — once again, four of them, each about 30cm long. Place on the prepared baking sheets, well separated, and bake for 25 minutes. The top of each log should be firm and just slightly colored.
Remove the once-baked logs from the oven and place on a rack to cool for 15 minutes or so. Reduce the oven heat to 150C for a regular oven / 130C for a fan oven. Slice the logs up in 1cm-wide slices, on the diagonal, as previously. Lay the slices flat on one of the baking sheets and return to the oven for twenty minutes. Then as before, remove from the oven, turn all the slices over, and put back in the oven for a final twenty minutes. When finished remove to racks and cool completely.
Store in a tin or other tightly-closed container when completely cool. Like their spicier variant, these too will keep for a month in a tin.
A few process notes:
Make sure to have your knife very sharp before beginning work on the once-baked rolls.
When cutting, do not be tempted to press straight down with the knife: the cracknels will inevitably break in half (or smaller) and not be pretty. Slice each slice and take your time. Resharpen the knife if and when necessary.
As in most Earth-analogues inhabited by human beings, the broken or irregular ones are for the cook. Just which ones are irregular (and how many…) is the cook’s call.
Serving suggestion: With the cold drink, beer or wine of your choice. Disclosure: I haven’t yet tested these with beer. Results will be forthcoming on or around New Year’s.
One caution: Crunchy and delightful as these are, they can sometimes bake up very hard. If you have any concern about the strength of your teeth, please be careful about how you bite into these.
(ETA: And now that it has its own online home, visit the cookbook-in-progress at https://foodandcooking.middlekingdoms.com.)
The recipe isn’t his, but I think of him whenever I make it (which is way too often. Not in terms of thinking about David Gemmell, but in terms of eating the brownies…).
This recipe closely parallels one I always used when Dave would come to visit us in the house on the hill that we were then renting (from Harry Harrison) in Avoca, further east in County Wicklow. Along with the memory of the visits (always delightful: long walks, late nights, a lot of laughing) and the brownies (the record for baking them was four times during one visit) comes the memory of how we “lost” Dave in the bathroom for an hour on one visit, because the household’s complete collection of Calvin & Hobbes books was in there and he’d never come across the characters before. Only the cry of “There are brownies, Dave!” was able to cut the session short.
The recipe is easy and quick to make — the phrase “thrown together” would suit it: just mix everything together, pour into a buttered pan, bake — and produces a result very much like the much-loved “brownies from the box” that the Betty Crocker people used to make in the US. (Maybe they still do? But [assuming they do] I haven’t had more modern ones and don’t know what they’re like these days.)
This recipe is similar to one from AllRecipes.com, but mine is a bit lighter on the flour, producing a brownie a bit on the “squidgy” side. (That’s my preference, and Peter’s. Like yours more cake-y? Add another 1/4 cup of flour to start with and see how that behaves.) Also: I add conversions to metric measurements-by-weight for those who like more predictably even results.
First butter a 9-inch square baking pan and preheat the oven to 350F / 175 C.
Sift or stir together well the flour and salt…
Measure out the cocoa and baking powder and stir together.
Then combine them with the flour and salt and stir together until the dry mixture has gone a uniform color.
Put the dry ingredients aside for the moment, and measure out the sugar and oil. Beat well together; then add the vanilla and beat that in.
Add the eggs and beat them in too.
Then dump the dry ingredients into the egg / oil / sugar / vanilla business (or the other way around, if you prefer; it makes absolutely no difference as far as I can tell, I’ve done it both ways, both on purpose and by accident…) and mix mix mix mix mix…
…until it’s all gone pretty and glossy and shiny. It doesn’t have to be absolutely smooth; don’t beat it so much that the gluten in the flour starts to develop. You don’t want that.
Pour the whole business into the baking pan.
And that’s it! Shove it into the oven for 30 minutes and bake.
At the end of half an hour, test it for doneness if you believe in doing such things. (I’ve never bothered. If the brownies rise, they’re done enough for me.)
…And you can see what they look like in the picture at the top. Peter likes sour cream on them, so that’s what we’ve got a pic of. Me, I just cut them up and stuff them in my face.
So go thou and do likewise: and think of Dave Gemmell, perhaps, if you do so. A lovely, dry, funny, talented man. Lost to us too soon, dammit.
There’s a widespread headcanon among the writers of Sherlock fanfic (and others in the fandom) that Mycroft Holmes — possibly as an associated phenomenon of an old or longstanding weight problem — is very fond of cake. For some reason, chocolate cake is the favored candidate in these theories. So in 2012 or so, when without warning I turned up the notes I’d made on this cake when I ran across it in Switzerland in the very late 1990s, my thoughts turned to Mycroft, and the idea that he’d have really liked this one.
I got busy recreating the cake as accurately as I could. In the neighborhood of Sedrun — the tiny town near the Oberalppass where I ran into it — it was referred to simply as an Urner brenntweintorte, suggesting that its ancestor-cake originally came from over the border. (Andermatt is in Canton Uri: Sedrun is in the Graubunden.) I had no luck in getting the recipe from the little confiserie where it was one of the star items, and with reason: I think they suspected me of being a spy for another bakery.
But over time I’ve learned how to pretty accurately analyze what I’m eating, and my notes from my two visits to the little confiserie were pretty detailed… so I don’t have too many qualms about sharing it here. (It’s kind of overdue for that, anyway: it’s been up in a couple of different versions on Tumblr since 2012, but not at my main blog until now.)
I’d say it’s a cake worthy of a Mycroft’s attention. It’s nowhere near as pretty as the original, for which apologies. (I can still see that lovely cake in my mind’s eye. The glaze on top was smooth enough to skate on, and their version had six significantly skinnier layers. It was a beautiful thing.)
So here’s the recipe. I add one caveat in passing. Others who’ve baked the cake have sometimes found the initial batter overly thick / dry. There’s a more extensive note about this here, but the problem seems to have been something to do with egg size. In particular, Irish eggs run larger than US ones: so get the biggest “extra large” eggs you can find.)
Double Chocolate Courvoisier Torte with Brandied Buttercream Filling and Two Icings (Brandied Nutella Frosting and Cream Cheese & White Chocolate Ganache Glaze) ...otherwise known as Mycroft’s Delight
Note please: this cake will take the guts of an afternoon to make. Don’t attempt it as a last-minute thing. In particular, there’s no harm in baking the layers, soaking them in the syrup, and then refrigerating them overnight – you can then pick up where you left off with the fillings and icings.
Ingredients come first: directions after.
Also note: this recipe is set up for three 8-inch layers. You can, of course, if you like, do what I did here – bake two 9-inch layers in a springform, then cut them in half crossways and stack them.
For the cake proper:
For the soaking syrup:
For the buttercream frosting base / filling:
(A note in passing: you will be dividing this in half. Half goes in between the layers; the other half gets Nutella mixed into it and goes on the sides of the cake.)
For the brandied Nutella side-frosting:
For the ganache / cream cheese glaze:
The white chocolate ganache proper:
…So let’s take this one thing at a time.
First of all, make the cake layers.
Butter and flour three 8-inch cake pans/tins, even if they’re nonstick. (To prevent the cake acquiring pale patches during baking, you can mix a teaspoon of cocoa with each couple of teaspoons of the flour you use to prep the pans.)
In a mixer with the whisk attachment, beat together the eggs, sugar, vanilla, orange extract and orange zest, until this business is light and fluffy – usually ten to twenty minutes. At the end of this process, slow the speed down and add the dry spices.
When these have been combined, stop the mixer and alternately fold in by hand the combined, remaining dry ingredients and the melted chocolate.
Preheat the oven to 350F / 175C. Bake the layers for about fifteen minutes until done (check for doneness with a skewer if you have any doubts). Remove the layers from the oven and allow to cool for at least 15-20 minutes: then bang the pans on the worktop to loosen things up, and turn the layers out onto a rack to cool completely (usually 30-45 minutes).
When completely cool, use a skewer to poke twenty or so little holes in the top of each layer. Do your best not to go all the way through the bottom of the layer. Put the layers on a cookie sheet or other waterproof surface to prepare for the next stage.
Now make the soaking syrup:
Boil the sugar and water together for five minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. When cool, stir in the cognac or brandy (whichever you used) and set aside until the layers are ready.
When they are, pour the syrup carefully over the tops of the layers so that it soaks in through the holes. Use a pastry brush to paint any excess syrup evenly over the tops of the cake layers.
Now set the layers aside while you work on the filling and icings.
Make the buttercream filling:
In the mixer bowl, using the “normal” beater or paddle, combine the butter, icing sugar, egg yolks and brandy, and beat like crazy for about ten minutes until perfectly smooth (beat longer if you need to).
Scoop out half the buttercream and use it to “butter” the bottom and middle layers of the cake: then stack them. Press down evenly and gently on them (I usually use a cookie sheet for this) to even out the layers and the filling.
Now make the Nutella-and-buttercream side frosting
Add the cocoa, melted chocolate, brandy and Nutella to the remaining buttercream mixture, and beat very well. Since the goal is for this mixture to stick to the sides of the cake and not run straight off onto the serving plate, check the texture and beat in some extra cocoa if necessary to thicken the frosting until it’s tractable.
Smooth the sides of the cake with the flat of a knife if necessary to deal with any buttercream that’s oozed out the sides. Use the Nutella frosting mixture to coat the sides of the cake. Also frost the upper edge and a little ways up onto the top surface of the cake with the Nutella mixture if you can. If you have enough to frost the whole top without the side frosting being too thin, that’s great: it’ll look better.
Finally, make the white chocolate ganache and cream cheese glaze
Prepare a large bowl with some cold water and ice cubes in it. Then break up the white chocolate into as many pieces as possible, and put them in a heatproof bowl that will fit comfortably in the bigger bowl that contains the cold water and the ice cubes.
Bring the heavy cream to a boil. Then pour it over the white chocolate. Working with a whisk or spatula, gently stir the chocolate and cream together until the white chocolate is completely melted. When the ganache is smooth, stir in the butter.
Now cool the ganache by putting the its bowl into the larger one and stirring constantly so that it doesn’t harden. After about five minutes of this, start beating in the cream cheese by forkfuls. You’ll probably need to whisk it at the end of this process to get rid of the last few lumps. Finally, add a tablespoon or so of brandy to make it easier to work with. (You can correct the thickness of the ganache back and forth by beating in more cream cheese or a little more brandy until it reaches the consistency you’re after.) Spread and/or drizzle this mixture over the top of the cake until it’s evenly covered.
Once all this craziness is finished, you may want to refrigerate the cake for half an hour to stabilize everything a little.
Serve in thin slices. A shot of brandy on the side (to cut the incredible richness) and a double espresso wouldn’t hurt, either.
And by the way: there’s fanfic to go with the cake.
Every now and then I’ll be minding my own business and doing my work, and then suddenly, without warning, the urge to commit fanfic will strike.
Mostly I ignore it because I have so many other things on my plate. But every now and then comes a day when it can’t be ignored. The story that appears here was the product of one of those days.
When I was making this cake back in 2012 or so, the phrase It was dark, dark at heart… whispered itself in my mind’s ear. Over the days that followed, that phrase fought its way out and dragged a whole bunch of other words behind it. When it was complete, I let it out into the world on my Tumblr, and then (for reasons I still can’t remember) took it down, and then (just because I damn well felt like it, I guess) put it back again. And here it is now, to go with the cake recipe (just reposted for National Chocolate Cake Day).
Stories satisfy the writer in the aftermath of their creation for all kinds of different reasons. But right now this one makes me happiest because it nailed down (a year or three early) a bit of personal headcanon which has as of Sherlock season 4 been proven true. Otherwise, it also nails down memories of a happy time — when I spent a while in its featured locale while working on the first draft of Stealing The Elf-King’s Roses — and incidentally, there near the source of the Rhine, took a phone call that heralded what was about to become a five-year development process culminating in the miniseries Die Nibelungen*. It was kind of a magic time, and one I enjoyed preserving here… while nodding in the direction of one of my oldest fannish loves, the great Canon, through one of its newer versions.
And the cake’s pretty good, too. 🙂
Once upon a time, in somber mood, Mycroft Holmes asked Dr. John Watson what, in the light of the qualities of Sherlock’s mind and certain piratical tendencies, one might deduce about his brother’s heart. He asked this – so John thought later – seemingly with no great concern that any similar question might be asked about him. And indeed few men, or women either (Anthea aside) would be correctly positioned to either ask or answer. Sherlock, if the subject arose, would probably roll out the heavy-gauge snark and suggest that in his brother’s case, the way to his heart is almost certainly via his stomach – but due to the first organ’s tiny wizened size, something’s apparently gone wrong with the connections to the second, so that incoming material inevitably continues through the system in the normal boring fashion…hence Mycroft’s never-ending diet.
When this issue comes up in conversation, as with Sherlock it always does, Mycroft mostly just sighs: because the nature of his job mandates that he keep himself in proper condition to do it, and this issue has accordingly been folded into his personal security and self-defense portfolio. Other aspects of that portfolio are slightly less controversial between him and Sherlock: the invisibly armored black cars, the overarmed, overtrained drivers, the redoubtable Anthea and her watchstanding colleagues – about whose gifts even Mycroft is glad to relax into don’t-need-to-know mode. He does know that the Double-0’s (though not necessarily their watchful Quartermasters) tend to exit the soi-disant “International Exports” building en masse to avoid embarrassment (theirs) when they see Mycroft’s Angels coming in to do their yearly sidearm and unarmed-combat certifications with their normal no-testosterone-needed competence.
And then of course there’s Mycroft’s final line of defense, which almost no one suspects because that umbrella looks so very, very slim. (The inevitable rumors have made the rounds about hidden ricin pellets, but these are unfounded.) Naturally, Anthea knows what the umbrella’s hiding. Equally naturally, Sherlock long ago deduced what’s in there. And in his very mellowest moods – stretched out beside the midnight fire and cradling the violin, with John cozily dozed-off in the opposite chair – the world’s only consulting detective will sometimes allow himself a tiny, secret smile when the issue comes up for consideration. If he was able to speak a civil word to his brother without arousing his suspicions, he might even some day admit to being obscurely touched that Mycroft carries with him everywhere, invisible in plain sight, a perfectly tempered, razor-edged reminder of the long golden childhood afternoons when they played the Pirate Game together with shouts and sticks, before moving on to edgy adolescence and beginning to routinely drive each other mad.
About the diet, though, Sherlock unfailingly rags Mycroft without mercy: and it’s really most unfair, because it does work. Mycroft has for some years employed the Rotation Diet, which after a truly Holmesian level of assessment he eventually determined was the most effective tool for his own purposes. It sets a rational intake and (surprisingly light) exercise baseline, does a good job of fooling his metabolism into burning more calories than it should, and allows for the inevitable ups and downs of his work life: and in particular it allows for “free weeks” during which one may safely go a bit off the rails.
This is important to Mycroft, because he knows that power, especially when it leans so close to the absolute, must be constantly tested to prove that its foundations are sound. Its bearer’s weak points must be laid bare, examined, reinforced, then stress-tested again. And for Mycroft, cake is a weak point. It would be irrational to deny it.
So when it comes time for him to do the quarterly assessment of his strengths and his ability to manage his weaknesses, not just any cake will do. He requires something truly dangerous, a veritable Moriarty among cakes… so that his mettle can be tested, and proven not wanting, at the highest possible level. And finding the worthy antagonist for such tests has occasionally proven as much fun as the test itself.
Now, Mycroft has more than once had reason to be pleased that he can count among his closer acquaintances a gentleman who occasionally serves a neighboring European government in a capacity similar to Mycroft’s. This gentleman – whose codename is “Colin” – while confabulating with Mycroft late one night over brandies at the Diogenes, let slip (in that particular sort of casual manner meant to suggest to his counterpart that the matter’s not casual at all) that he knows a woman who has a close connection at Confiserie Sprüngli in Zürich.
This made Mycroft’s eyebrows go up with interest. That choice place near the lakeside end of the Bahnhofstrasse, under the shade of the linden trees, is known and honored among chocolate lovers the world over for the suave intensity of its productions; and the best of its cakes, the truffle cake, is truly a thing of beauty, if a bit lightweight for Mycroft’s requirements. However, Sprüngli proper, as it turns out, was not the epicenter of his colleague’s interest. Colin told Mycroft of how in a moment of weakness (possibly fueled by a bit too much after-hours kirsch), the Sprüngli confectioner shared with Colin’s female associate a tale of something extraordinary, a secret hidden away among the mountain peaks a couple hundred kilometers south: a link to something in both his, and Mycroft’s and Colin’s, lines of work – something both richly confectionery and tantalizingly historical, and something that poses a possible solution to Mycroft’s upcoming quarterly quandary.
At the juncture of the two mountain chains that bisect Switzerland north-to-south and east-to-west, there lies a strategic pass: and guarding the heart of that pass is a garrison town called Andermatt. The place is placid in the obvious way that only army towns with a secret to keep can be. On the surface everything seems quite calm, the normal Swiss efficiency overlaying everyday life and the normal tourist influx to the local ski areas, while Swiss soldiers on deployment come and go, mostly by rail, doing yearly duty rotations and coming back from operational maneuvers in the most S.O.P.-ish manner.
Mycroft, of course, by virtue of his office knows for a certainty what some Swiss suspect – that all the mountains around Andermatt are tunneled deep with caves not made by nature, and stuffed full nigh to bursting with assorted military hardware of a nature that would cause the most dreadful fuss if word ever got out. Of course it does not: here also the Swiss are most efficient. What Mycroft knows about the business often makes him smile… but not as much as he now smiles about the Andermatt neighborhood’s great nonmilitary secret. For just over the mountain wall to the eastward, through the smaller gateway valley called the Oberalppass, lies something far more interesting to Mycroft in the near term than the three mountains with the fighter-plane dispensers inside, the concealed death rays, and the buried nukes. And this secret is… a cake.
It must be said here that if Mycroft has another weakness besides cake, it’s an unquenchable thirst for life’s resonances. If one can see Moriarty as a manipulative, string-pulling, malice-bloated spider at the heart of a farflung web of information meant to be turned to evil purpose, then one can also conceive of Mycroft as the queen bee (yes, shut up, Sherlock, truly it’s getting quite old) at the heart of a vast, humming hive of historical and modern data; an exquisitely tone-sensitive analyst tuned to the chorused thrumming of past, present and likely future, and graced with the synthesis gift, the ability to hook that old or distant or unlikely solution to this new problem and cause things to sort themselves out for the best. Very occasionally, being human, he fails at this – especially and most painfully when dealing with problems closest to him. The resonances tend to fall out of phase then, or their sines cancel – and when he fails, he does so, to his endless grief, spectacularly. But mostly Mycroft succeeds, and as a result goes on year by year professionally listening to the hum of history, trying to stay alert to past errors while analyzing what’s in tune, what’s not, and how it all resonates with the now. And the resonances are always key. They’re a sign of the universe trying to heal its own wounds or suggesting ways to put its own problems right, and Mycroft has learned that he ignores them at his peril.
When Colin started describing to Mycroft what lay up past the Oberalp mountain wall, this particular resonance thrummed right down into Mycroft’s bones, and his mouth started watering as he heard not only what went into the cake, but who was making it. Not too far over the Oberalppass from Andermatt, Colin told him, on the main pass road, is a little town called Sedrun. It is a quiet place, at once (in the classic Swiss manner) gracious to visitors and inturned and suspicious of strangers in the way of small country towns everywhere. But this place holds something unusual hidden at its heart. In Sedrun’s confiserie works a direct descendant of one of the great names among the professional confectioners whom the Swiss of centuries past called “sugar-bakers”. These men (and a very few women) moved among the great courts of Europe at the beck and call of royalty – free agents who shifted at will from ducal to royal to imperial court for vast sums of money or other considerations – and everywhere they went, they baked pastries and cakes of fabulous quality, and constructed monumental confections beyond the skill of mere mortals.
But these superstar chefs of their time came to carry with them more secrets than just how to make perfect millefiori-style sugar plate that looked like Venetian glass, or what mixture of flours in the dough would produce the optimum rise and flakiness in that (then) hot new treat, the croissant. Wearers of the perfect cover story, and free to travel where lesser men could not because of the skills in their hands and the recipes in their heads, the sugar-bakers pioneered professional organized espionage – spying for one petty king or count or grand duke against another, turning double or triple agent as it pleased them, courting reward and risking death for fun or the joy of travel or the pleasure of matching wits with their rivals (or their clueless masters) and coming off best. They were the great-great-grandparents of the agents of MI5 and MI6, playing the Great Game in times and circumstances as deadly as our modern ones… but their preferred weapons were flour sieves and pastry bags. Their stories are hardly ever told in our time. But again and again the sugar-bakers quietly changed the course of history and the face of political Europe, while at the same time spending their days interleaving butter a hundred layers deep with dough and marzipan, or perfecting the stable buttercream filling.
The cake of Sedrun – a multilayer chocolate torte with an unusual array of icings – was based on a family recipe a quarter-millennium old, and was being baked by the direct descendant of one of these lost experts. Mycroft could no more have refused the prospect of tasting a cake of such noble lineage than he could have refused to shake the umbrella off his closest-kept secret and match swords with his brother under the summer trees of their childhood, were Sherlock only to pick up a blade and challenge him one more time.
So having heard the tale, Mycroft bided his time until an excuse arose to take him to Zürich (a tête-a-tête with an unfortunate British-affiliated private banker caught deep in most ill-advised weapons-related money laundering). Then, that distasteful business handled, in company with Anthea he made his way a couple hours’ drive south and east in the big embassy-lent car, down EuroRoute 2 to the Gotthard Pass, through the camo-ridden streets of Andermatt, and finally up over the Oberalppass to Sedrun. There, on the north side of the two-lane main road, he found the confiserie of his desire. It was no more than the bottom floor of a brown three-story chalet with awninged cafe tables outside and a wood-paneled coffee shop attached: a simple tidy quarry-tiled space full of a truly divine scent of baking bread and a number of polished pine tables and chairs, the whole of it no bigger than Speedy’s. Mycroft sat down at a table for two and ordered a slice of the cake.
When it arrived on the shining table on its plain white plate, Mycroft’s casually ironic thought about the need to seek out a Moriarty among cakes rose up for reconsideration and took him by the throat. The cake’s surface was pale, slick and glossy, elegant and smooth – but underneath, it was dark, dark at heart. Mycroft had rarely gotten the sense before that while he was sizing up a piece of cake, it might be doing the same to him. He was getting it now.
He picked up his fork post haste, stuck it deep into the thing before it could start coming up with any clever ideas, and abandoned himself wholeheartedly to pleasure.
Normally, as a general indicator of a cake’s quality, Mycroft timed himself to see how long it took to finish a slice. This time… he forgot. It wasn’t that time exactly stood still while he was eating, but it certainly slowed down to an amble and paused occasionally to admire the scenery.
Afterwards Mycroft stood up very quietly, ordered himself a milchkaffee, and strolled out briefly through the scatter of sidewalk tables, past gossiping town housewives and middle-school kids chattering in Romansch, past where Anthea sat texting busily away with a glass of the local soft Fendant white wine in front of her. There he stood on the sidewalk and looked westward up the curving pass road, while considering his options and doing sums in his head.
There the afternoon sun had already slid out of sight downsky in a wash of misty air, blinding beams from it striking upward from behind the towering jagged snow-dappled peaks of Oberalp and Piz Cavradi, silhouetting them: rays of a crown of white fire against the paling blue. Mycroft stood there for a little, breathing in that very clean, already-cooling air, thinking of old mistakes made, the pain of making them, the price of putting them right, and the need to keep oneself on an even keel while doing so – because sometimes mere bare self-denial serves nobody’s best interests. Behind him, up the grassy hill behind the bakery, cowbells were making a quiet musical tunk, tunk sound. Across the road, out of sight on the downslope but very close, icy glacier-fed water rushed and tumbled over a bed of big rounded stones; for this was the southernmost source of the Rhine, and the soft kicked-up spray of the living water hung the scent of new beginnings on the still air.
Mycroft stood there a few seconds more, then went back in for his coffee. He sat and drank it, musing; then went to the bakery counter to pay his bill, and finally asked to speak to the master baker.
The man wasn’t long coming out – a craggy silver-haired man of middle height whose stance and look immediately put Mycroft in mind of someone at home. Post-military, Mycroft immediately perceived: but considering the combination of Swiss military tradition (all adult males serve in some capacity) and this particular neighborhood, that was obviously going to be the rule rather than the exception. High-ranking, but gave it up to carry on the family tradition when his father died. Happily married, training his son to carry on the tradition after him, but not ready to retire just yet: tempers his chocolate personally. Proud: and in command. …A few minutes’ conversation made it plain that under no circumstance would this gentleman ever part with the recipe: and of course that made sense. Had to try, though. Nothing ventured, nothing gained…. But after a few minutes more, the two of them worked out an arrangement by which someone from the British Embassy in Bern who had business down this way would swing by once every couple of months, pick up a cake, and send it home to London in the daily diplomatic pouch.
And so it would come to pass. The challenge would be to make such a cake last him two months: if it went away before then (not, of course, counting pieces given to other people) Mycroft would hone his resolve to a finer edge and try again. If he succeeded, then he would chalk up a small victory and allow himself another cake. As he went out to the car (where Anthea was already ensconced) carrying the string-tied cake box, the matter was already managed and ready to be dismissed. In his own mental management storage – no palace of the mind, but a utilitarian space that looked far more like the warehousing facility in Raiders of the Lost Ark – the cake was already sliced up and tucked away in a virtual twin of his own larder freezer.
But the satisfaction of what he’d acquired remained, and Mycroft smiled slightly to himself as he got into the car, already planning the disposition of those careful slices. A few seconds later the driver pulled out, making a doubtless-illegal U-turn in the middle of the Oberalppass road and heading west again for the tall stack of switchback curves that would lead back down to Andermatt and the northbound motorway.
Then Mycroft sighed: because enjoyable as such indulgences were, they were better far when shared. However, Anthea would unfortunately refuse such an offering, as her preferences did not run to chocolate. Sherlock, as a message to the present’s source, would bin it without a second thought. John would most likely eat it, out of a desire not to waste, if nothing else: but his acceptance of the gesture would likely cause him complications later, and Mycroft had no desire whatsoever to destabilize that particular household dynamic. Mrs. Hudson, however, would enjoy some. Mycroft tagged one of those in-mind slices with her name. And Colin must of course have a slice. A moment later that one had been moved into the kitchen freezer in Mycroft’s virtual version of the Diogenes Club.
And there was – he thought while the car wound its way down the switchbacks – one more possibility.
Mycroft hesitated. Yet, still…
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
He pulled his phone out. Anthea glanced over at him. “Something you need, sir?”
Mycroft shook his head. He dialed: waited for the connection: and smiled a small secret smile.
“DI Lestrade, please. …Yes, thank you, I’ll hold…”
*See also Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King (the name under which it aired on SyFy in 2004) and Sword of Xanten (the name under which it aired on Channel 4 in the UK). It aired in most major world markets through one or another of its co-production partnerships, and as a result it had more titles than you could shake a dessert fork at.
In 2010 or thereabouts, a tiny little cookbook came to us via Peter’s Mum and immediately became a household favorite.
It was published in 1903 for what was the first generation of middle-to-upper class British housewives who couldn’t afford to hire kitchen staff, but still wanted to serve food suitable to a high-class household. These cooks were also beginning to come into possession of the first generation of true labor-saving devices — the initial gas and electric ranges, the first refrigerators — and were looking for recipes to take advantage of them. So along came Harriet DeSalis, and with this group of readers in mind, wrote Savouries A La Mode.
The cookbook was a huge hit — no surprise, when the recipes worked so well. Dipping into it, one finds recipes that make the mouth water and make the chronic cook (at least this one) itch to get into the kitchen and see how they turn out. It became the first of a series that went on well into the early part of the 20th century and sold hundreds of thousands of copies over numerous editions.
They’re all in public domain now, those original editions of Savouries and its sequels, which is what moved me to scan that first book and make it available over here at EuropeanCuisines.com. But the other reason I scanned it was so I don’t have to hunt down the cookbook proper, when the urge strikes, but can just load the PDF onto the iPad and work from that in the kitchen.
The other evening I was feeling like having some kind of snack, and it occurred to me to pull out the DeSalis and see if we had the ingredients for anything that looked nice. Paging through it, I ran into the Cheese Straws recipe, and the bells went off and I salivated on cue.
Here’s the recipe.
“Take two ounces of flour, and mix with it a little salt and a cayenne-spoonful of red pepper. Then take three ounces of Parmesan cheese: grate it. Rub the cheese and two ounces of butter well into the flour, then mix all these ingredients, together with the yolk of an egg, into a smooth stiff paste. Roll the paste out into a strip one-eighth of an inch in thickness and five inches wide, which is to be the length of the cheese straws. Cut this strip into strips one-eighth of an inch wide, so that they will be five inches long and one-eighth of an inch in thickness. With the remainder of the paste, and with two round cutters, cut little rings of paste. Put the cheese straws and rings on a baking sheet and put them into a hot oven for ten minutes, the heat rising to 246 degrees. For serving, put the cheese straws through the ring like a bundle of sticks.”
So. My first thought: God that looks fiddly. But never mind. Also: Forget about the little rings, this isn’t going to be a dinner party. The second (okay, maybe the third) thought: We don’t have any Parmesan: only Cheddar.
…Like I’ve ever let that stop me. (An old allergy put me off Parmesan early, and these days, though no longer allergic, I avoid it.) So I went forward with the same amount of Cheddar, knowing that the mixture would be a little wetter due to the Cheddar’s extra moisture, and I’d need to compensate with slightly longer baking.
What I learned in the process of making these:
…And that’s all there is to it. The straws were incredibly delicate and buttery due to the very short pastry — but the cheese is great in them and the cayenne gives them a terrific kick. The whole bake lasted through about twenty minutes of the first Hobbit movie. Peter tells me they work as well with beer as mine did with that red wine.
Try them and see how they work out for you. And mind your baking times, as the Secretary and I will disavow any knowledge of your actions if the sneaky little creatures burn to a crisp between one minute and the next. (Like my first batch did.) Do a small batch first and watch them like a hawk.