In my last post I mentioned my love for cooking. Making, baking, sharing and enjoying food has comprised a large portion of my life. Providing a heaping plate full of happiness and satisfaction. Since I consider food another of my big passions I wanted to talk about where my love for cooking started and what I’ve found recently that’s got me all excited (hint: it has something do with chocolate).
Growing up with three brothers, a busy mum and lots of family and friends coming over to visit meant food was a production in our house. We had to make enough to feed a lot of hungry people. In our house chores were assigned to every member of the family and food was homemade, never out of a packet. This meant I learned to cook fairly early. Exactly when I can’t pinpoint. I do remember preparing meals for my family by the age of 13. Not counting the daily bowls of cereal for breakfast and slices of cinnamon toast after school that my brothers and I gobbled every day. When my mother and step-father were out of town I became the surrogate parent. During those times the best meals to cook were big pots of soup or chili with rice and literally loaves of bread with lashings of butter. The food I prepared was usually gone in an instant. We never managed to keep enough chili around to last the duration of our parents absence, so it was back to cereal and cinnamon toast.
Holidays and big events were as much about preparing the food as they were about the people we were feeding. In my teens I spent many years in the kitchen carrying out my duties as sous chefs, table setter and dish washer. Sometimes my mother would let me help measure and stir when she made cakes, pies, and cookies. I loved making cookies! In many ways I think you could say food was another member of our family. We didn’t mind.
When I was 18 I left my tiny, perfect apartment in Mendocino county and moved down the California coast to Santa Cruz. This was to be the beginning of sixteen years of happy memories, lasting friendships, and lots of cooking. At twenty I started work at a local bakery which had recently been opened by an outgoing surfing baker, or was it a baking surfer. During my brief year at Jennifer’s Bakery, which is sadly now closed, I learned air is your enemy when storing food, a bakers hours are for someone other than me, and that bakers who surf have their own special way of keeping time.
Fortunately for me, I also learned how to make truffles, properly mix muffins, endlessly roll pastry dough layer after buttery layer, and mix, bake, cool, slice and decorate a wedding cake. All of those delicious skills have kept me in good baking stead ever since. I’m glad I spent a year working at a bakery and I sincerely wish never to be a professional baker or pastry chef. Not ever. That stuff is hard work!
Being in the kitchen is an important creative outlet for me. I’d go mad if I couldn’t bake or cook. During times in my life when money was tight and my food budget was paired down to the bare minimum I found myself getting more and more depressed because I couldn’t be creative in the kitchen. Eventually my shopping list was afforded more items, and suddenly I felt much better. I had more to work with, more options to be creative. Food nurtures my body and my spirit. Mine and millions of others. Over the years that connection of creative nurturing hasn’t changed.
In my late twenties I participated in cook-offs with a group of my friends. We’d choose random recipes out of a cookbook, go shopping for the ingredients and spend the day cooking. Sometimes we wound up with multiple main dishes, or three puddings. Didn’t bother us a lick. No points were awarded and there was no winner or loser, like on Iron Chef. Although that particular group still cooks together and host their own food battle parties a-la Iron Chef. Our cook-offs were more about spending time together laughing, drinking, seeing what we could come up with and deciding which dishes we preferred. Those are some of my happiest memories. Good times, very good times indeed.
It’s different living here in Birmingham, UK. My passion for food isn’t shared with the same gusto as it was back in Santa Cruz. Still, I find my chances to cook for friends and enjoy the experience of sharing something I love. Despite my abhorrence of bakers hours I still have a great love for baking. These days I welcome any excuse to bake. I use the cold Autumn and Winter months as an excuse to make apple pies using apples from our ancient apple tree in the back garden, pumpkin pies (which I could eat year round), truffles, cookies, bread and pretty much anything else I fancy.
About a year ago my husband and I stopped buying bread from the shops and instead make our own soaked (also called fermented) bread. The soaking process helps to break down phytic acids in the flour which can be hard to digest in our bodies. Normal bread gives me what I call a wheat hangover. Fermented bread doesn’t do that to me. We add nuts and seeds which makes the bread denser and more filling than what you find in the store. I also make fermented tortilla and pizza dough. I recommend giving them a try. They’re fantastic and quick to mix. We hand mix our doughs, bread makers are too limiting for us. The soaking takes extra time, of course, but that extra 24 hours is well worth the wait!
While I may wage war on phytic acid in my daily bread, when I bake cakes and pastry I tend to go with standard recipes I learned years ago. I’ve got a dog eared Betty Crocker cookbook that’s seen me through twenty years of happy cooking. It’s filled with quick foundation recipes from which I can spring board into gastronomic creative genus or epic food failure, depending on the day. 😉 Quick and easy is best in a busy world. Once you’ve got the basics the worlds your oyster!
Recently I stumbled across the quickest chocolate cake recipe I’ve ever tried. It took me 35 minutes from start to eating-hot-cake-out-of-the-pan finish! I’m not even kidding. That night I was on no-pudding revolt. There was nothing pudding-like in the house to eat but I wanted something yummy. Something fast and slightly sweet using ingredients in my cupboard. I Googled ‘quick chocolate cake’ and rejected five recipes before choosing one. I decided to forgo icing (too much sugar) and instead used tinned fruit on the bottom. The result was a gorgeous easy chocolate apricot upside down cake. Light and fluffy yet slightly chewy like a brownie and not too sweet. Super chocolaty heaven. I ate so much my tummy ached.
The cake was so easy and scrummy I decided to make it again that weekend for a family event. This time I ditched the fruit and went for a whipped cream topping. It was a hit with my in-laws, I’m pleased to report, and I fully expect to be making it again very soon….
I augmented the recipe slightly. Listed below is the recipe exactly as I re-created it:
* 1 1/2 cups flour
* 1 cup brown sugar
* 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
* 1 teaspoon baking powder
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1/4 teaspoon salt
* 1 cup water
* 1 egg
* 1/3 cup walnut oil
* 1/4 cup cider vinegar
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 1 can of apricots (or your preferred fruit, fresh is fine) + handful of brown sugar
* Use whipped creaming as a topping if you like.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Have ready two 6 inch round cake tins, buttered. If using fruit: sprinkle brown sugar in bottom of cake tin and layer apricots (or preferred fruit).
2. Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the water, egg, oil, vinegar and vanilla. Mix with hands until blended (I love this bit! Our hands are our best tool, so long as they’re clean).Pour into cake tins.
3. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool for a few seconds then use fork to scoop out warm cake and insert into eager, happy mouth.
4. Or you can cool the cake, put whipped cream on top and devour.
I wish you many happy hours of creative cooking!
Misha UnRuley Bruce
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