Thursday, November 24, 2011

Kitchens of My Childhood

Corey at Tongue in Cheek wrote about her Mum’s kitchen, still the same kitchen of her childhood, full of baking and constant comings and goings of family. She sent me back to recollecting the kitchens of my childhood.

The front of the school where I grew up - not me in the picture!
I say kitchens, because there were two. The small galley kitchen in our flat and the big bustling school kitchen below. I grew up in a school, a small, English boys’ boarding school. The buildings were an old manor house in warm honey stone built for the local squire and his family in the late Victorian era. Spacious and roomy but not too imposing. Our flat was the upper floor in the servants’ wing forming an L to the main house. Our kitchen was small, the end of the wing partitioned off, high counters put in by the first headmaster and his wife, who were both tall, big windows just a bit too high, but light and airy looking over the stable yard.

There wasn’t much counter space for spreading out on, but my mother had a trolley that we used as an extra surface when baking biscuits or cakes and it is there that I remember waiting to scrape out the cake mixture, hovering, one foot in the green carpeted corridor, as she scraped as much into the cake tin as she could, us willing her to stop before it was all gone. It was there I learned to make drop scones, proudly serving up a plateful to a party of visitors one tea-time (was it the school governors?).

Every corner was used, cunning turntables on the corner shelf just inside the sliding door held all the little pots of baking powder and such like, another turntable on the wide window ledge held jams and honeys, bottles of orange squash and Ribena lined the counter, cereal boxes lived high on top of the wall cupboard, with the sliding glass door that one of us broke trying to climb and reach something. Tupperware lived in the cupboard underneath the trolley that needed just the right pressure to open. A blue padded top stool with a retractable step sat next to the trolley to reach the high shelves over the cooker. The four of us could just fit in to do the washing up if we stepped around each other carefully.

The big school kitchen immediately below my bedroom was another domain. Three big Agas in an imposing row kept it warm year round. A huge table stood in the middle, big built-in wooden dressers on two sides. In the days before stainless steel regulations took over, it was little changed from the old manor house kitchen, with painted wood cupboards and linoleum floor. In term time it was a hive of activity presided over by the cook and housekeeper.

I would sidle in with a  bowl on a mission from my mother to fetch flour, dried fruit or eggs from the store room. A big old fashioned scales with weights sat on the dresser. Three big metal dustbins held the flour (self-raising and plain) and the sugar. A metal dipper sat on top of each, to scoop out from the white powdery mountain inside, and I’d carefully weigh out however much I needed, adjusting the metal weights in pounds and ounces, for whatever recipe my mother or I was baking up in the flat, before scuttling back upstairs to our little kitchen.

The dried fruit required more exciting fetching. The first drawer in the dresser held a heavy bunch of housekeeper’s keys. Above the drawer hung a clipboard with the school menus for the week pencilled in. I would check it out regularly, my heart quailing if it showed fish for lunch on Friday, or relieved if a favourite pudding was planned. All the larders were kept locked, but I had the entree and could help myself to the keys and go and fetch whatever was needed.

The dim housekeeper’s larder held shelves stacked with dry goods and tins, and smelled of spice and raisins, in my memory at least. Whatever I was fetching I would be tempted to open the dry fruit cupboard and lift the lid of the tin containing mixed dried fruit (the cake mix with candied peel) and grab an illicit handful... There were three other interlinking larders with wire mesh screened windows and stone slab counters, dating back from the days before refrigeration and between them all the food for the school was stored. Apart from that there was the potato shed in the back yard, dark and slightly damp where the potatoes were stored in a heap still covered with earth. Milk was delivered daily, as the fridge for the whole school in those days was only the size of an average large family fridge today.

In term time I slipped in and out of that kitchen shyly and surreptitiously, politely greeting and then escaping back up to the quiet upstairs, occasionally lingering if it looked like there might be enticing tastes offered. But in the Christmas holidays the school kitchen became ours. My aunt’s family, and great uncle and great aunt, joined us and we would cook meals for the extended family downstairs, expanding into the school as if it were once again a family home and manor house. Then we would stand around the big table, my aunt, mother cousin and I, icing the Christmas cake, mixing up brandy butter with frequent tastes, peeling potatoes, preparing big meals.

The tall cupboard that contained food colouring and baking supplies was at our disposal for making peppermint creams with all the fancy cookie cutters. The Agas always kept the kitchen warm and toasty, unlike the chilly winter corridors of the school in holiday time, with central heating turned right down. By now I knew that the wooden sloping lidded box on the window salt contained salt not sugar – my toddler brother and I had discovered that, tricked by laughing kitchen staff, who were then less than thrilled when we spat our mouthfuls out over the clean kitchen sink!

We’d use the rattling metal school trolleys to wheel the food up the stone flagged passageway to the smaller dining room, or to take tea things, always a proper afternoon tea with bread and butter, cake and biscuits, through to the wood panelled main hall which we transformed into a sitting room, grouping all the sofas and chairs around the huge fireplace, the school Christmas tree adapted for our own use.

After Christmas with the new school term, we shrank back into our little upstairs kitchen again.

Those tastes of a big warm kitchen with a central table stayed with me. My dream kitchen was formed by the descriptions in Rosemunde Pilcher novels of a kitchen stretching the width of a London basement, welcoming friends and family to sit around and chat, sofa at one end, room to stretch out and bask in the warmth of baking and cooking. And that is what I now have here.

A kitchen that stretches into sitting room, a big table where everyone can sit around, scents of baking bread and biscuits. And I almost never cook fish on Fridays!

What do you remember about your childhood kitchen?

Friday, November 04, 2011

Cooking Without Gas

Running on empty
Photo credit © Ichtor |
 One of South Africa’s best kept secrets right now, isn’t a beautiful game reserve or a beach-side boutique hotel... it’s the fact that we’ve run out of gas. Bottled LPG gas for cooking that is. About 1200 restaurants have closed and yet no-one in the general public knows about it. We only found out because we ran out of gas the other day and our usually supplier has none. Nor do any of the other suppliers in our area. We tracked down some in a town 120km away on Wednesday, baulked at driving the distance and then today when we were desperate enough to drive that far, found that they had run out too.

Everyone I mention the shortage to is surprised and disbelieving. Large gas bottles can last a family for months and so for many people this isn’t an issue. Only for improvident souls like ourselves, who find that our spare bottle  was never re-filled and now that’s it. Until the gas manufacturers get their act together. Apparently several of the nation’s plants closed for servicing at the same time, or something like that. Well orchestrated to make us appreciate them more perhaps! Or maybe so that we don't complain about a price hike when they finally do have supplies again... so cynical!

So now after years of treating our microwave with utmost suspicion I am forced to consider it as a means of providing nutrition for my family. I secretly suspect it of stripping all nutrients from any given food-stuff (surely irradiating food is a bad thing?!!), turning wholesome ingredients into junk food and probably turning me into an alien at the same time.

Luckily our oven is electric, so it’s just the hob that I am without. So now I am Googling stuff that most students could probably tell me. How to cook rice in the microwave.... I tried it last night and to my amazement it worked perfectly! The amount needed for our family takes longer in the microwave than on the stove, but as a means of survival until the gas returns, it is a success. Next up is tomato sauce for pizzas, which shouldn’t be too tricky. Pasta is another matter when you’re cooking for five... so any ideas of meals that can be cooked without using the hob at all would be much appreciated.

And if you haven't yet voted in the Food category of the SA Blog Awards, please do click on the button below  and help Food and Family on its way! The promise of tea, scones and strawberry jam still stands!

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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Strawberry Jam Season - And The Recipe

Strawberries have been an intrinsic part of my October and November life since before my blog began. Some years we’ve grown enough to sell, jam and feast on, others only enough to gather surreptitiously and tell no-one else about, lest we be short of a few jars of jam before the next season rolls in. Two years running we had a strange bug that bothered our strawberries  (we grow organically so no sprays)  and I spent ages sorting and chopping out the bug bits, jamming the remainder.

Strawberry jam is one of my home-made Christmas gifts to friends. I beg jars from all and sundry, spend evenings washing, drying and chopping the gorgeous ripe fruit.

I pick twice a week and yet never get beyond popping that perfect sweetly ripe berry into my mouth instead of into the basket.

At least one morning a week a huge pot of ruby jewel-like syrup bubbles on the stove, filling the house with a warm rich jammy aroma. Often it bubbles right over, leaving a sticky mess to clear up later.

And then there is the satisfaction of a neat row of filled jars, sealed and cooling on the counter.

And yet never yet have I posted my recipe for strawberry jam. Not because it’s a big secret. It’s very simple with no tricks of the trade other than good strawberries to start with. So I’m sharing it now, just in case you are also lucky enough to have excess strawberries on your hands.

Recipe for Strawberry Jam
1 kg strawberries
750g white sugar
2-4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more
(you can easily double the quantities if you have a big enough pan and plenty of fruit)

Wash and dry the strawberries. They must be dry before you start or the water will dilute the natural pectin and it will take forever to set. I usually put a clean dishcloth on a tray and lay them out in one layer after washing with another over the top until most of the dampness has been absorbed.

Chop the berries, in half or quarters depending on the size.

When you have 1 kg of chopped berries, put them into a large stainless steel (or enamel) pan and pour over the sugar. Give the pan a shake to let the sugar get cosy with the berries. Leave the pan in a cool place, covered, overnight.

(The soaking in sugar overnight helps the soft fruit retain its shape in the finished jam instead of dissolving to a mush as it cooks)

Next morning the berries will have given out a beautiful red syrup, floating with sugar icebergs, and are ready to cook.

Bring the jam gently to simmering point over a low heat. Stir several times to make sure the sugar isn’t stuck on the bottom. Only when all the sugar has dissolved, raise the heat. Add the lemon juice (for its pectin – the amount to use depends  on the fruit – use too little and it won’t set  - the riper the berries the more lemon juice you need ).

Bring the jam to a brisk bubble. Watch it like a hawk – at this point it loves to bubble right up and over the edge of the pot, to flood the stove top with sticky red syrup. This is why you need a really big pan. Ideally the berries and sugar should come no more than half the way up the sides of the pan before you start cooking.

Let it cook for 20-30 minutes, then test it for set. Mine tends to be fairly runny, as that is how we like it. It keeps the fresh berry flavour better.

Pour the hot jam into sterilized jars and seal immediately.

Our season started late this year and so the strawberries are only now getting into top gear. I’ve only just made my second batch of jam, but the way they are fruiting this week I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll have enough for gifts, enough to see us through the year and even some over to sell at the local market.

Now if it will stop raining I’ll just go and pick that last row which is groaning with ripe berries.

Oh and the youngberries have loads of flowers right now, so in a few weeks we’ll be picking them too. 2011 is a good year for berries!

Other recipes to do with strawberries: strawberry cake... or strawberry tarts

I've bravely entered the SA Blog Awards this year, so please vote for me - all you have to do is click on the Vote button in the sidebar on the right - then confirm your vote on the e-mail they send you. Only one vote per category per person - so I'm hoping the promise of strawberry jam will sway you! Tea and scones at my house anyone?!