Thursday, 28 August 2014

This Woman's Work - Fanny Cradocks' Code for Happiness

When I was young I remember that my Mum always had an issue of Woman Magazine floating around the house. And every house we ever visited. They did the rounds between friends and family, swapped with other magazines, in a sliding scale from Woman's Own to the People Friend. Woman Magazine was the most coveted though, after all it was the 'Worlds Greatest Weekly for Women'. In 1973 the magazine showcased Fanny as a role model for readers, and not for the first time. Fanny was delighted to pass on her instructions to help those who may be less successful, and therefore less happy than her naturally, to have something at least to aspire to. Yes, Fanny was the cover star of her day, in name only - no picture, with Johnnie by her side of course. The Brad and Angelina of the 1970's? It seems bizarre looking back, but then again the seventies were, weren't they?

Fanny gets straight to it, telling the interviewer that the thing that makes her 'hoping mad' is women who have no purpose in life. They mostly annoy Fanny because when they are invited round for tea or supper they have nothing to talk about, and she loves talking. The interviewer notes that Fanny 'talks incessantly', that she 'rattles on', that her speech is 'rapid' and 'with hardly a break for breath' which must've been quite exhausting. Fanny urges these poor women who 'have nothing in their lives' to 'do something, even if it's charity work' and apply some self discipline to their lives. I wonder if my Mum was inspired?

Fanny herself is keen to point out that she had four careers, and not 'just the cookery' that she was most well known for. Add television personality, writer and strangely interior decorator to the list. I assume that's just at her own home, I really can't imagine Fanny being called upon to design other people's houses, but maybe she was the Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen of her day? She puts her unrivalled success down to her self discipline, her 'work hard' mentality. She learnt her skills, despite privileged upbringing, with stints as a washer-upper in a Roman Catholic canteen and selling vacuum cleaners door to door. You see, she really is just an ordinary person. Can you imagine answering a knock at the door to hear Fanny rattling on and on... I'm sure you'd buy a cleaner from her just to get her to stop talking!

Fanny was quite the entrepreneur really, and media savvy. She takes the opportunity of the magazine feature to completely whitewash over her life and true personality. And why not? She claims that her 'family always comes first' and tried to paint a picture of an idyllic life where her husband, home and children are her linch pins. She tells tales of daily 'staff' lunches on the lawns to say thanks to all the hard working gardeners, secretaries and cookery students she works so hard to support. They laugh and joke together... It's quite a different picture to the glimpses of interaction we see on TV. Fanny says 'I always work from home, it stops me from becoming a tough, hard career woman type, something I'd be really terrified to become.' The fact that she wasn't even legally married to Johnnie, her children despised her and the assistants terrified of her, seem unimportant to the story.

It wasn't just in career that Fanny was hailed as an inspiration though, the article claims she 'looked terrific' in her super trouser suit, mod cork platform shoes and little jaunty cap sitting on top of her light brown hair. Fashion icon Fanny? The rest of the fashion in the magazine take a different style, but then they were more than likely behind Fanny. Who could keep up? Fanny recalls the days when she was 'fat' and had to employ her self discipline to regain the weight and size of her eighteen year old self. She worries about lonely women when their children flee the nest - and they fly towards the biscuit barrel as a substitute. Fannys advice? 'Diet - get thin and get a romance!' Oh, and do charity work. She ends by reflecting that 'being a woman is divine, you really can have your cake and eat it can't you?' which leads nicely into a selection of Fannys favourite recipes. Presumably she no longer eats them herself. Far too self disciplined, but for those less fortunate...

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Pineapple Packs A Punch

Fanny is planning a very special party, which requires some very special jellied creations and I am very pleased to report a very special punch. For this little soirĂ©e Fanny is desperate to hang on to the very last of any summer sunshine by transporting us to the Caribbean, which she is sure will dazzle any party guests. The party does require a lot of pre-planning though, anything from a week to 3 months of preparation, but Fanny says this is a boon to the busy housewife. Nothing worse than running around like mad as guests arrive. Parties should appear effortless. Even if they take three months of work. The main plan for this party seems to be to get all the guests completely sloshed, which sounds like such a terrible idea to me... Well, no, actually it sounds like a fabulous idea. 

Fanny gets stuck straight in to the hard stuff. The Planters' Punch requires the most preparation, as the flavour intensifies over the months of steeping. Good old Fanny suggests using a whole bottle of the very finest Barbados Rum here, all muddled in with totally tropical tastes. I have a bottle of Captain Morgans Spiced Gold which seems right for the job to me. To the rum, Fanny adds some strained orange and lemon juice, thinly sliced cucumber, a sliced peach, orange segments, sliced pineapple, Angostura Bitters, nutmeg and some slightly syrupy water. Fanny does suggest substituting the syrupy water with a quarter bottle of Falernum if you have it. I couldn't find any, but it does sound worth tracking down for authentic spicy Caribbean-ness. I need more than three months to prepare for this party clearly!

I could quite happily sit down with a jug of this straight away, but Fanny insists not only that I share it, but I pop a lid on it and store it for months. Spoilsport Fanny. To keep my mind off it meantime, Fanny gets me whipping up a heavenly creamy jelly with more than a hint of Hawaii. This can be made well in advance too, keeping perfectly well in ordinary domestic refrigeration for a week. It's a slightly different style again, as ever Fanny is teaching me I need to remember, which has thick confectioners custard as the base. To this, I add a tub (it could easily be a tin) of strained and whizzed up pineapple, and double cream. It's already looking fairly thick, but for this set delight it's in with some Vege-Gel from Dr Oetker this time, the whole mix heated up and poured into my mould. Oiled, naturally. And a cat, plainly.

Fanny hates to waste anything, so sets me to making an additional jelly from the strained pineapple juice, which will also add to the 'fun' of the presentation. Fanny says it can forked-up into a foam, or cut into shapes, or set into an actual pineapple. I suppose the options are endless. I opt to add some harmless yellow food colouring to mine and cut them into little cat shapes. Just for fun Fanny. The finished Bavarois d'Ananas as Fanny called it tastes just as you'd expect - like set pineapple custard, it's quite pleasant but the texture a little strange. Perhaps I added too much Vege-Gel? There isn't much wibble-wobble. In all the preparation for this fantastic party I've completely forgotten to invite any friends to join me. Oops. Can I wait any longer? Will the sun stick around? There's nothing for it, I'm going to have to crack open the spice-laden fruity Punch and have a party for one. In the name of research you understand. If it's good I can always make another batch for 'friends'. Cheers Fanny!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

My Cherry Amour

Fanny Cradock probably never had Jelly Fluff, she probably never even heard of it, but for me that's the only childhood memory of creamy jellies I have. I'm not sure I ever had cream that wasn't in a tin or a squirty can now that I think of it. Not real cream anyway, I'm not sure when I first had real cream! Jelly Fluff was made in my house anyway with a packet of brightly coloured jelly and a tin of Carnation Evaporated Milk, then served with maybe a digestive biscuit or two. It wasn't even a favourite, in secret I couldn't stand the evaporated milk at all. At least in Jelly Fluff it was slightly more bearable than the other dessert option, which was just digestive biscuits with a tin of everything-tastes-the-same Fruit Cocktail and the dreaded evaporated milk poured on top. My favourite 'fruit' from the tin was the hard to find bright pink cherry half - there was usually just the one! Probably just as well Fanny wasn't party to any of this, she'd give it a withering look sure to make it curdle.

Fannys version is a much fancier affair, naturally. A lovingly set mixture of cherry juice and cream. Fanny does say that a tin of cherries may be considered here, but only if out of season. It never occurred to me when I was young that there might be a whole can of those bright pink cherry halves available! Fanny was a big supporter of canning and packing her own produce, so she probably had a few tins or jars of cherries squirrelled away, and never had to resort to the Del Monte. Luckily for me, cherries are bang in season and I found some gorgeous dark black ones to use in this dessert.

The kitchen did resemble a crime scene from Dexter once I'd pitted the cherries mind you. I wonder what the splatter analysis would show? Fanny uses the fresh cherries for a garnish on the finished dessert, so just need to be 'flicked' with a little Kirsch at this stage. To make the very cherry cream Fanny suggests juicing up some cherries, or using the juice from the can. I found some lovely natural cherry syrup in my local Polish deli recently, so that's good enough for me!

The usual jelling rules apply here, add the vegetarian alternative to cold liquid and bring to the boil. For Fanny, it's the same with her gelatine powder. I'm using Agar flakes this time instead of powder, which take a little longer to dissolve and are a little harder to measure accurately. The packet suggests a tablespoon per 250ml of liquid. After the diluted cherry syrup reaches boiling point, it simmers for a few minutes before the tub of whipping cream is plunged in. Quickly, Fanny insists, it should be whipped together. I never really use whipping cream, even for whipping. It's a mystery to me really. 

Remembering Fannys sage advice for jellies I oil my mould well in preparation, with a spray oil which gets into all the nooks and crannys. Oil for cream, wet for not. It's a glorious deep pink colour, and sets really well at room temperature in about an hour. It looks like it has a good wibble wobble as I take my deep breath and turn it out. It slips out of the mould perfectly. Phew! Some whipped double cream and those kirsch soaked cherries finish things off nicely. Maybe I should've added some more agar flakes though, it begins to crack a little under the weight of the fruit, which is good enough reason for me to eat it VERY quickly. It thankfully tastes nothing like the Jelly Fluff of old, not that I had that with alcoholic cherries of course. It's smooth, sharp and creamy, like a thicker cheery cherry mousse. Ever the nostalgic though, I'm really wishing I'd bought some digestives to have with it...

Thursday, 14 August 2014

We Cannae Call Her Fanny - Irn Bru Jelly

Fanny Cradock wasn't her real name. She chose it, or maybe it chose her. Whichever way, it was a master stroke in ensuring that she was never forgotten. Would her career ever have taken off if she'd remained Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey? It would be so easy to forget plain, pedestrian Phyllis wouldn't it? Fanny was born into a grandiose world where names were all important, but sadly wasn't given a memorable one herself. Her mother was Bijou (a name she hated 'Like some damned Pekingese') and her father had a variety of pseudonyms, most notably Valentine. So I guess choosing more elaborate and appropriate names was second nature. Fanny chose several. In various guises she was Frances Dale, Phyllis Cradock, Nan Sortain, Elsa Frances, Susan Leigh and even Philip Essex. Friends called her Phyl. Her brother insisted she was Phatti. Johnnie's pet name for her was Jill. She really had a different name for each occasion, and for each part of her very varied career. Fanny was the one that stuck.

Today, it's really a bit of a joke name, or, to some, even an insult to call someone a 'Fanny'. Fanny herself seemed to carry it off with style and grace, it's hard to imagine her as anything BUT Fanny. She WAS Fanny. I wonder if she'd laugh at the Irn Bru adverts which resulted in bottles appearing all over Scotland emblazoned with her name in direct response to the Coca-Cola 'personalised' version. The adverts had everyone talking about the name 'Fanny'. I think she'd find it a hoot. As long as people were talking about her, and she'd believe they were, she'd be delighted. That's what her name has given her, and I reckon she knew it would. It's almost impossible to mention the name Fanny without sniggering and without thinking of Mrs Cradock. Perfect.

Working in jelly allowed Fanny an opportunity to shine. Her aim was to bring a little of the Victorian splendour of enormous jelly structures to the modern dinner table, without the hours of work and the kitchen full of maids. For Fanny, it was an everyday dessert of suspended fruit, and she favoured mandarin segments seemingly floating in an orange cloud. For this one I'm substituting orange juice for Irn Bru. Well why not, they go together like Fanny and Johnnie.

To make the jelly vegetarian, I am again using an agar based powder. The difference with this to regular gelatine is that it needs to be added to cold liquids, dissolved and brought to the boil before leaving to set. There go all the lovely bubbles of fizz in the Bru...

No 1970's dessert would be complete without a tin of mandarin segments, and they are still easy enough to find in the supermarket. Adding some lovely fresh, in season Scottish raspberries for a splash of colour, taste and to add a flourish to the final presentation. I don't think Fanny would've, but maybe Jill or maybe even Frances might've.

So, the Irn Bru jelly liquid is boiled up and ready to go. Fanny says to dribble a little bit in the base of your wetted mould and then to start setting the fruit into it. When that layer is firm, lay another on top and cover again with jelly. And so on until your mould is full. See, no need for the kitchen maids, perfectly achievable in an ordinary domestic kitchen. The veggie jelly sets in around an hour and, with my fingers well and truly crossed, turns out well. It holds it's shape with a very welcome wibble and wobble. The finished jelly is a little cloudy, which I find happens with Agar, but the colour is vibrant and unmissable... Just like Fanny herself. So, stand back Phyllis, Frances, Nan, Elsa, Susan, Philip, Phyl, Phatti and Jill, this one is for Fanny and all the other Fannys out there. 

Monday, 11 August 2014

Is Aspic still aspirational?

Fanny says I'm not ready to learn about the delights of 'real' Aspic just yet. What could it be about this savoury jelly used to suspend all sorts of vegetables and salads to protect them from exposure to the nasty air, that I'm not ready for? Yes, salads. I'm not absolutely sure I'm ready to learn about Aspic at all if the truth be told. Perhaps it's one of the long forgotten culinary arts that should remain in history? Fanny insists though that this particular 'branch' of garnish and presentation (after all, there is nothing more important) should be learnt properly to avoid savoury jellies which taste of nothing at all, or at best like a cross between cold tea and sea water. Imagine the shame when the well-to-do guests dive into the lovingly created buffet table only to gag in horror if the aspic tastes gruesome?

It's almost as if Fanny is tempting us in with the promise that if we first master the 'simple' stuff, she will reveal how to whip up the 'real' Aspic in a later partwork. When we are ready for such elaboration. The simple version is a mix of stock, egg white, eggshell (indeed), wine vinegar, sherry and seasoning. Oh and gelatine. Will a vegetarian version work? I'm assuming that the ingredients have some sort of magical chemical reaction which makes them taste sensational when set. Will agar powder cut it?Maybe I'm focusing on the wrong thing - instead of wondering if it will set, I really should be wondering why the heck? 

Most of the ingredients need to simply mingled together in a pan, but first I have to wash the eggshell and 'pare away' the inner skin. It must ruin everything or something, Fanny doesn't say. The washed, crushed shells go into the pan to be heated up, moderately. Once the agar powder has dissolved, Fanny says to whisk it (although you understand she is talking about gelatine powder really) vigorously until a scum appears on the top. I clearly should've paid more attention during science at school, it was fascinating to see it change colour completely before my eyes, and 'scum up' just as Fanny said. The next instruction is to then allow the mixture to reach boiling without touching it before lowering the heat to the lowest possible setting. Fanny says to draw the pan to the side of the burner so that it just puffs and heaves. 

Ten minutes later, the pan comes off the heat to sit for a further three minutes. I'm remembering now why I didn't pay that much attention in science class, the fascination is wearing thin. All this precision and concentration is a little boring. Sorry. Fanny says to strain the mixture through a jelly bag, but I don't have one, so I improvise with some muslin and a small sieve. Fanny says the Aspic that runs through will be pale, clear and modest. Erm. Mine is a bit cloudy, but I reckon that my stock was more cloudy to begin with than the bone stock Fanny used herself. Maybe I should've made my own veggie stock, that'll teach me.

So, the reason for making this Aspic in the first place is to produce an engraved presentation for the aforementioned buffet. I was more into art than science at school, so this is appealing again. Fanny says to swirl a small amount of Aspic into an ordinary pudding bowl, and then to quickly place little scraps of vegetable into a pattern she shows which she suggests is appealing. Once set in place they are secured with little spoonfuls of Aspic before filling the bowl and leaving to set entirely. As if this is not enough to drive my buffet guests giddy, Fanny shows me how to make Salad Flowers from cucumber and tomato. It's essentially taking strips off the cucumber, assembling five thin slices in a circle, adding little crescents of tomato flesh and stem and leaf details. I kind of like it though. Above all, garnish and presentation. As for the Aspic? It looks good actually, and certainly tastes of stock, sherry and vinegar with little bits of vegetable suspended in it. Not a whiff of cold tea or the sea. Possibly I'm never going to be sold completely but we'll see what reaction I get from my buffet guests and let that be the decider. 

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Well (veggie) Jel

Many believed that Fanny Cradock may herself have been preserved in Aspic by the time she appeared in full technicolour in the 1970's, such was her outdated yet strangely fascinating style and technique. She brought to mind 'days of old' and labour intensive preparation in the kitchen, when in actual fact her aim (she said) was to save the ordinary housewife the shackles of such things. Even in the 70's the thought of making elaborate jellies and aspics to present to your guests was frowned upon, but not by Fanny. Her feeling was that the fault lay with the home cooks who had a number of 'culinary bogeys', which of course included gelatine, and it was her role to eliminate them! Fanny insisted that if you treated gelatine properly, it would ALWAYS behave as good as gold for you. Who knows what she'd have made of me trying to turn all her gelatine laden dishes vegetarian mind you...

It's always a little frustrating when chefs dream up a delicious dessert using gelatine, as I never quite know how to switch it up to a vegetarian friendly version... What quantity of those funny slippery sheets of slime they use do you substitute for whichever vegetarian version you are lucky enough to find. There are gels, flakes and powders, but no slippery sheets. Fanny provides detailed charts showing how much gelatine to use for each type and quantity of any given liquid. Here's the good news, she's not a fan of slippery sheets and instead uses gelatine powder. Maybe this conversion malarkey won't be so tricky after all?

Fanny insists that we are all firm with ourselves over accuracy. We MUST measure out not only the powder but also the liquids, making sure we give our scales a good prodding before we do so to ensure they behave. I do like to measure things anyway, clearly I am teachers pet in the jelly class. She has not time whatsoever for those women who write to her to moan that there gelatine has sunk to the bottom of their dishes, or has clumped in lumps. Fanny gets down with the kids in her response and can only think of a one word reply... 'punk!' I am pretty sure her exact response may have rhymed with that but was unprintable in the 70's. Her method is to scatter gelatine powder onto the given quantities of cold liquid in the charts, heat and stir over a low flame and then add it to the bulk liquid. The instructions for the Agar powder I am using first (from Experichef) are more or less the same, except I add the powder to the total amount of liquid before heating. It's 1g of powder to 100ml of liquid. Fanny says this is 'POPPYCOCK' but in fairness I don't think she was really referring to Agar...

Fannys' first foray into the land of wibble wobble is entirely decorative. She wants to show us the wonders of jelly by helping us recreate a Victorian table centrepiece for a ball or supper, which of course would have always been homemade. I didn't really imagine they had packet jelly in those days anyway, but I think she's warning us not to dissolve some flavoured cubes from the supermarket here. Fanny says all I need to produce an quick and easy 'elaboration' is some fluted pastry cutters and a sharp knife. As long as I prepare my jelly moulds correctly that is. If my mixture if contains cream they should be oiled, if they don't they should be thoroughly wetted. I'm trying out a range of different moulds for this Victorian sensation, but no cream. Wet it is! 

I am taking my inspiration from Fannys own illustration which shows a colourful plateful of cut jelly stacked high. I whip up a large batch of clear Agar jelly, just until the mixture boils, and decide to colour it in my moulds so I can get more variation. A muffin tin doubles up as a mould, as well as some individual baking trays, and of course some 'real' jelly moulds. They all take well to the gel colours (I like to use Wilton) mixed together with the ends of cocktail sticks) and set well while they cool. The cutters do their job and all there is to manage is the assembly. Fanny uses some pretty a Aspic cutters, and I have a modern day set of small shapes. I feel that I have well and truly eliminated the 'jelly bogey' and am ready to progress to a whole partwork of equally weird and wonderful 'set' creations! Are you ready to join me?