Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jane, concluded.

English Food is the only cookbook I've ever read that evoked dejá vu. This because Laurie Colwin, one of my favorite writers, adored Grigson's works. Colwin was a devotee of all things English, and much of her cookery writing sings the praises of teatime and dishes like Grigson's Sussex Pond Pudding, which appears in a Home Cooking essay titled "Kitchen Horrors."

Having first read of Sussex Pond Pudding as a horror--and it does sounds rather awful--it was strange to happen upon the original recipe. Grigson also cites Joyce Molyneaux's Carved Angel Cookery Book and Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book, books Colwin loved.

Still, reading a cookbook written by a woman who died too soon--Grigson was only 62--adored by a writer who also died too soon--Colwin died of a heart attack at 48--is deeply saddening. We will never have more of Grigson's tartly amusing recipes or Colwin's gentle exaltations of domestic life. The world is a lesser place for these losses. Yet each woman's words are kept alive by people like me, who, reading one, earnestly seek the other.

Ultimately, it's probably a good thing that Grigson's recipes do not call out to me, as the quest for English cookbooks is an expensive one. My lust for widely available cookbooks is bad enough. Though I must say Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cooking looks terrifcally tempting.

Which brings me back to the idea of cooking styles. After wanting English Food for months, and going to some lengths to find it, I read it through the way one would a novel. I delighted in its prose while benefiting hugely from its scholarship. Ultimately, though, English Food is destined to be a reference text. Not that the recipes aren't excellent; they simply aren't my style. My style, I realized with a shock, was French Farmhouse/California Organic Princess.

On one level this sounds hideously pretentious, and it's a good thing people don't go around asking each other about cooking styles. It's a subject fraught with conceits and crochets, especially here in the land of competitive cookery, where eveybody is busy trying to out-organic-farm-source everybody else.

But I do have a style, and Grigson's recipes, mixing fruit with meats and lard with cream, brought this home. I was reminded of Amanda Hesser, who, in Cooking for Mr. Latte, laments her lack of a cooking repertoire. This is due in part to her work at The New York Times, where she must test drive any number of recipes for publication. Yet she writes of feeling adrift compared to her mother, who cooked nightly for a family of six, and her mother-in-law, whose recipe jottings went back thirty years. These women had set of recipes to work from, bounce off of, improvise with. Hesser felt inadequate.

"For months, with Tad's (Hesser is married to writer Tad Friend) gentle encouragement, I had been trying to distill the mass of recipes in my head down to a manageable stable of favorites, a repertoire I could rely on and that friends and family, and Tad in particular, would look forward to. I wanted to contain recipes that represent who I am, what I find pleasurable, how I live." (190)

I can't say I ever gave style that much thought, though, interestingly enough, Hockeyman had. He noticed my fondness for stews or food with lots of natural gravy. (It's all about sopping up with good bread.) When The Cooking of Southwest France entered our kitchen, he told me I "cooked French." Envisioning haute cusine, or cuisine minceur, all those perfectly sliced, minimalist dishes with coins of sauce, followed by sculpted sorbets, I objected. It sounded so awfully twee. "I don't cook like that. I can't. I wouldn't."

"You cook French farmhouse," He said.

Well. Cough. I opened the fridge and had a look at the duck confit aging in its glass jar, then into the freezer, stuffed with more duck legs, a pound of duck fat, and a whole organic chicken. I considered the lentils and the insanely expensive French butter. My abiding interest in patés, confits, and garbure.

Guilty as charged. But unlike Hesser, who interpreted her lack of style as a kind of willful immaturity, I remain hesitant to label my cooking. My fondness for all things duck grew from my long-term love of poultry, which in turn came from a childhood of Sabbath chicken dinners, matzoh ball soup, and lots of schmaltz. And as much as I've come to appreciate pork in all its forms for what it brings to a soup, stew, or as the main dish, I still dislike lard.

And tastes change. I may be firmly French at this moment, but Asian foods, particularly Thai and Indian, exert an increasing pull.

It is safe to say, though, that I will never prepare Sussex Pond Pudding.

N.B.: Home Cooking refers to this dish as "Suffolk Pond Pudding." The recipes are the same in both books, and as there is no "Suffolk" recipe in English Food, I can only assume this was an editorial oversight in the Colwin book, albeit a minor one.

Suffolk, or Sussex Pond Pudding, given in American cooking measures:

8 ounces self-raising flour
4 ounces chopped fresh beef suet
milk and water (no amount given)
slightly salted butter (see above)
soft light brown or caster sugar (no amount; "caster" is confectioner's sugar)
1 large lemon or two limes

Butter a pudding basin. Make the first three ingredrients into a dough, reserving a quarter for a lid. Line a pudding basin with the larger portion of dough.

Put about 3 1/2 ounces of cut-up butter and sugar into the pastry basin.

Prick the lemon or limes with a larding needle. Lay it atop the butter and sugar.

Fill the remainder of the basin with equal amounts of butter and sugar. Grigson says "another 100 grams, possibly more."

Roll out the pastry saved for the lid. Place it over the basin, sealing it to the sides for a perfect join. Cover this with pleated foil secured with string, leaving enough string to create a handle.

Lower the basin into a pan of boiling water. The water must come at least halfway up the sides of the basin. Cover and leave to boil 3-4 hours. Should the water level drop, add more boiling water to the pot.

To serve, remove the foil lid. Put a deep dish over the top, invert, and slice, giving a bit of lemon and buttery juices to all.


Colwin writes:

"I followed every step carefully. My suet crust was masterful. When unwrapped from its cloth, the crust was a beautiful, deep honey color...My hostess looked confused. 'It looks like a baked hat,' She said.
'Never mind,' I said. 'It will be the most delicious thing you ever tasted.'
My host said: 'It tastes like lemon-favored bacon fat.'
'I'm sure it's wonderful,' said my hostess. 'I mean, in England.'
The woman guest said: 'This is awful.'
My future husband remained silent, not a good sign." (143-44)

Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.
Jane Grigson: English Food. Penguin Books, U.K. 1992.
Amanda Hesser: Cooking for Mr. Latte. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.


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