Sunday, July 24, 2016

Let Them Eat Cake! And Chocolate Eclairs! And Pies! And Macaroons! And….

These are difficult days. And what are we doing? We're denying ourselves carbs. And sugar. And butter. Why, people? Why? 

Oh, sure, calorie-laden, fat-drenched, lactose-rich, carb-dense, sugar-soaked, gluten-packed baked goods are bad for us. Okay, okay, you're right. But take heart, dear friends! If you are avoiding any or all of those culinary bad boys, here is a way to have your cake and eat it too — metaphorically speaking, at least. It is called the Great British Baking Show.

Now in its third season on PBS, this one hour TV show from the UK (where it is in Season 6 and known as The Great British Bake-Off) certainly sweetens my summer. Every week, we are treated to the creation of scrumptious, outrageously gorgeous baked goods produced by competitors who vie for "Best Amateur Baker." Don't you just dream of being crowned with that title? I know I do! (This, in spite of the fact that I tried a cake recipe last weekend calling for fresh peaches that turned a horrifying, blue-green color. Oh, my! If I had presented THAT disaster to the GBBS judges, I would have been laughed off the show! More on that in a minute.)

I'm not keen on most "reality" shows, but when I watch the GBBS, I find myself falling like Alice through the looking glass into a fantasy world of tarts and cupcakes and honey buns that's incredibly therapeutic. First of all, GBBS Land is beautiful: a lush green English country garden with little lambs nibbling the lawn and ducks padding in the pond. A perpetual spring and early summer blossoms week upon week. Gentle English drizzle refreshes the roses and rhododendrons. And in the middle of this idyllic, pastoral scene stands an enormous canvas tent that shelters a monumental pastry kitchen.

Great care has been taken by the show's producers to dress the set to evoke the most charming of Edwardian British tea rooms. Every detail is delightful. The pastel palette, the crockery on the shelves, the little Union Jack flag banners, and the cake stands with glorious confections perched upon them. It's what Downton Abbey would look like if Mrs Patmore, the cook and pastry chef, were the central character.

All other equipment in the tent lands firmly in the 21st century. The ovens have the cleverest of doors that open outward and then tuck neatly away underneath. Bakers can ever so gently slide in their meringues or their bain-maries of custard cups. No awkward reaching, butt-in-the-air, arms-out-stretched, that surely would put one at risk of dropping a pan of wobbly cake batter and look so bad on camera.

And such tenderness the bakers show toward their pastry progeny. They kneel or sit right there on the floor, peering through the oven doors, gazing into the bake chamber to monitor doneness and proper rising. They tap their resting bread dough in the proving drawer with feather touch to see if it has risen to the exact right moment it needs to be kneaded. They delicately decorate towering cakes with fondant flowers and lovingly lace linzertortes with lemon zest.

Next comes the taste test by the program's judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (seriously), both award-winning pastry chefs in their own right. This can be a bit punishing, watching them sample luscious-looking delicacies….while you're not. Your sweet tooth will surely salivate. But don't be tempted to jump up and search the kitchen for that last, stale Digestive biscuit in the cupboard just to sop up the drooling. Watch carefully. These TV people are sampling creamy custards and fluffy cakes. Nobody is snorfing down an entire dessert. They are trained professionals. Do not try this at home!

The best feature of the GBBS, in my opinion, is the graciousness with which competitors treat one another; the judges and hosts are equally fair and respectful. Far from cutthroat or dog-eat-dog, on GBBS everyone helps each other out. The judges are firm and direct, but oh, so polite. Everyone is so kind. No petty rivalries. One and all hug it out at the conclusion of each show. You get the feeling that they are truly sorry to see their dear friends winnowed out of the contest. It's as though baked goods inspire everyone to be more civilized; to become their best selves. Power to the pastry!

I would have been content to accept that this one-hour, TV-induced state of euphoria was temporary; brought on by vicarious sugar highs. But then I had the incident with the blue-green peaches. I believe that what happened next proves my theory.

A dear friend in Vancouver came to the rescue with research showing that an interaction between the acidic peaches and baking powder containing aluminum was a likely culprit. I went to Whole Foods to buy an organic baking powder.

Meanwhile, I sent emails to three online baking crisis lines (yes, they exist) one of which was Gourmandise, a cooking school in Los Angeles. The most delightful reply came from someone named Clémence, owner and pastry chef at Gourmandise. She was quite certain that the problem was my elderly, non-anodized aluminum cake pan. Clémence signed off her email with, "Wishing you a delicious day." How enchanting is that?!? I wrote back immediately with my thanks and a note saying that I loved her sign-off. It made my day. Clémence wrote again to say, "Glad we figured it out!" and his time her closing remark was, "Wishing you the sweetest afternoon." 

I like to think that we could all use a delicious day; friends helping out; perhaps an hour of good manners, sharing a light, beautiful Angel Food, followed by wishing each other the sweet of afternoons. Wouldn't that just be the icing on a cake? 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


If you've watched as many PBS murder mysteries and British crime dramas as I have, you know that when the going gets tough, the tough make tea.

Yes, if Detective Chief Inspector, Vera Stanhope knocks on your door, well, you should just march right into the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil. Brace yourself for bad news. You're going to need a strong cup of brew.

And it isn't just Vera who will order up tea when delivering unsettling announcements. Tea will be administered to anyone suffering a shock, whether they get the grim report from DC Janet Scott and DC Rachel Bailey, Sergeant Catherine Cawood, Inspector Endeavour Morse, Detective Inspector Robbie Lewis, or DI Jimmy Perez, way up there in the Shetlands, or even amateur sleuths, like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. "Best sit down. You've had a nasty blow. Here's some tea."

This wouldn't work on American television. I can't see Matthew McConaughey's character in "True Detective," saying things like, "Here ya go, Luv! A nice cuppa will soon put you right." Can you? 

"Best add lots of sugar, Pet. Come on. Drink up. It will do you good." That's what Vera would say. But I can't see American TV cops offering tea. If they did, it would be more like some hardened, gruff Andy Sipowitz-type shoving a mug toward someone in the interrogation room. It would have the words, "World's Best Dad" written on it, a soggy tea bag afloat in tepid water extracted from the coffee maker, and one of those strings attached for bobbing the bag up and down to extract a tiny hint of flavor. Not the same is it? 

You see, in the British crime genre, tea possesses soothing qualities. It involves ritual that socializes and calms. You can't be interviewed by crackerjack detectives until you're feeling a bit steadier.

My own love affair with tea dates as far back as the 1970s when I started watching PBS. I was enthralled with the civility of it all. The maid has discovered the body of His Lordship upstairs in the study. Slumped over an oak desk. Stabbed. A letter opener lodged in his back. Everyone downstairs in the library is keeping a stiff upper lip, but clearly need to compose themselves. "Ring for tea, won't you, darling?" Her Ladyship will say. The gathered suspects will emit a collective sigh. "Oh, yes, we can bear anything if we have tea."

It seemed only natural to me that I would adopt tea drinking as part of my British telly-viewing. "Ooo! The butler just brought in the tea tray. Must go make myself a cup. And butter a scone as well!" Tea and a murder just go hand in hand, don't they?

Soon, tea became our morning beverage. And when 3:00 rolls around, it is time to put the kettle on. I love the ritual of preparing it and pouring it from my favorite red tea pot. Holding that hot cup between two hands. Settling into a comfy chair. Sighing. Ah! That first, piping hot sip. Nothing like it. I can see why it is the British TV cop's go-to beverage for un-jangling rattled nerves. It certainly works for me. It's like putting on UGG slippers and a beat-up bathrobe. Comforting. Warm. Caring. Sympathetic. "Yes, Chief Inspector, I'm ready to answer questions now."

If you, too, wish to add tea drinking to your PBS viewing, my recommendation is to make it properly. Bring cold water to a rolling boil, at which time, and only as it is boiling, pour it over tea leaves (or bags of the very best quality) in a tea pot that has been rinsed, and thus warmed, with hot water. The pot can be your best porcelain or serviceable crockery, but it is best if it is seasoned with years of tea stains that have never been washed away. Next, clap the pot's lid on, and let your brew steep for 3-5 minutes before you pour it into your favorite cup or mug. Add lemon, milk, cream, honey or sugar per your taste. I drink it clear. But I suggest, if you've had a nasty shock and the police are at you door, add a heaping amount of sugar. This is what they do on British police dramas. It seems to help.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

As American as Apple Pie. As Canadian as a.....

If we are looking for an equivalent Canadian metaphor to the old saying, "As American as apple pie," let's try the butter tart on for size. 

For those of you unfamiliar with this sweet treat, the Butter Tart involves an open-faced, individual-sized, pie-crust shell with a gooey, brown sugar, egg and butter filling, with or without raisins. Although similar to pastries from other world cuisines, the butter tart is thought to be a genuine Canadian original and everyone's favourite Canadian dessert. For us ex-pats, it is impossible to visit our Home and Native Land without at least drooling at the sight of butter tarts in a local bakery. To eat one is to risk a diabetic coma, so sometimes we refrain. But never mind, it is metaphor we are seeking.

What does it mean to be "as American as apple pie?" Quite simply, this phrase has come to describe something that is characteristically American. An article in the Huffington Post, 11.26.14, entitled, "Why Are We as America as Apple Pie?" theorizes that, "apple pie as the quintessential American product may be an apt metaphor after all — it was brought here from foreign shores, was influenced by other cultures and immigration patterns, and spread throughout the world by global affairs….it all began with apples, which, in the nation’s infancy, were grown on almost every farm." 

So what have we got that describes something "typically Canadian?"

A lot of the apple pie symbolism rings true for butter tarts in the Canadian context. The recipe's origins represent three major players from foreign places that settled the early nation: French immigration in the 1600s (Tarte au sucre), English/Scottish settlement (Border pie and Treacle tart), and American influence (Pecan and Shoo-fly pies.) Other immigrant groups in ensuing years brought fruit to the discussion and by 1900, the first recipe for butter tarts was published in the Women's Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie, Ontario. It took off from there.

Every individual's preferred butter tart qualities (runny or sticky; raisins or currants; thick crust or thin; nuts or no nuts; touch of maple syrup or not; firm or flaky) are not only tolerated, but celebrated in typical Canadian character, and being tarts, these little morsels are all of uniform size so that no one gets an unequal portion of the pie, so to speak. 

Sweet, but not cloying, open-faced, a bit crusty. What better description of your typical Canuck? 

And so, I ask you, shouldn't "As Canadian as a Butter Tart" become our national metaphor? 

Happy Canada, everyone! Happy Birthday Canada. I'm celebrating by making Nanaimo Bars. I tried, but I couldn't stretch the metaphor that thin.