It was a quiet weekend – well, a quiet weekend as long as you weren’t driving at Silverstone , riding in the Tour de France or playing on Centre Court. As I was doing none of these things, I was having a quiet weekend and on quiet weekends, I often take the opportunity to bake and I knew what I wanted to tackle this weekend.
You see, earlier this week a friend from work brought a recipe to my attention – a recipe for Gin and Tonic cake. over on Pudding Lane, a British cooking blog. Gin and Tonic? A drink cake? I was not unfamiliar with the booze soaked cake concept. Remind me to tell you about effect of rum soaked pound cake on people from my past. It’s terribly amusing. But that’s for another time. I pondered the cake. I read the recipe. I decided that this was something I was going to try. After all, my in-laws and a good many of my acquaintances are all about a good gin and tonic. To here them discuss it, it sounds the most refreshing drink in the history of drink. So, it sounded like a great idea for summer cake. It was a classic pound cake from a proportion point of view and I’m all about pound cakes as many of you know.
So Gin and Tonic cake was my intention. Until Saturday. When I started to think, “well, but I don’t drink gin and tonic. Why couldn’t I swap in the making of one of my drinks?” And then it occurred to me, the lemon-infused vodka!
You see, several weeks back, we’d taken some half decent vodka, popped a mess-o-lemon rinds and a bit of bruised lemon grass into the bottle and left it to infused. We tasted it. DAMN it was smooth. It eventually took on SO much flavor from the lemon rinds that you could easily have just popped an ice cube into it and enjoyed it with no mixer at all. What about a twist on the drink in cake form?A Lemon Vodka Twist!
And so I did. I made a few changes beyond the choice of booze. I used caster sugar instead of granulated for the drizzle (I find it dissolves a bit better). I used SLIGHLTY less lemon juice since the lemonyness of the vodka was VERY intense.
LEMON VODKA TWIST CAKE
- 4 eggs, weighed in the shells
- equal weight of:
- caster sugar (that’s super-fine sugar if you’re in the US)
- self-raising flour
- 2 lemons – zest of one, juice of two
- 10 or so shots of lemon infused vodka (a shot =25ml)
- 150g caster sugar (you can use granulated if you like – table sugar if you’re in the US)
For the cake:
- Make sure eggs are at room temperature and butter is softened. Preheat the oven to 180C.
- Weigh your eggs in their shells, and make a note of the exact weight. (Remember – a classic pound cake is all about equal proportions)
- Weigh out same weight of butter and caster sugar. Cream together until light, fluffy and pale. (This is when the softened butter makes life easier – especially if you’re me and you like to do all this creaming and whisking by hand.)
- Crack in the eggs, and beat until combined. (The goal here is as much smoothness as you can get)
- Sieve in the flour, mix again. (I know sieving is a pain – and strictly speaking, you don’t have to. I often don’t. But I did it this time since I wanted a really smooth batter and sieving is another way of achieving that.)
- Grate in the zest of one lemon and stir through the juice of that same lemon plus 3-4 shots of the vodka. (The batter is going to suddenly look AWFUL. It’s going to look uneven, watery, lumpy and weirdly translucent at the same time. Do not panic. Mix. Mix steadily and calmly. The smoothness will return.)
- Then pour into a lined 1kg loaf tin. (I used a silicon loaf. You can use a tin. Your cake might be a smidgen higher than mine if you do. The silicon allows the cake to bulge slightly on the sides.)
- Bake in the centre of the oven for 45 minutes, or until the cake passes the knife test. (All ovens vary but 45 minutes is when yo need to start keeping a close eye on the situation. Mine took slightly longer than 45 minutes but then, having baked in it quite a bit I knew it would. Note to self: get oven re-sealed.)
- Remove from the oven, and set aside while you make the drizzle.
For the drizzle:
- Combine the sugar, rest of the vodka and juice of remaining lemon in a bowl.
- Prick the surface of the cake with a fork or skewer, then pour over the drizzle.
Let the whole thing cool completely. It came out of the loaf tin brilliantly (thank goodness for silicon bakeware, that’s my position) and is cooling. Initial (very light) dousing with drizzle happened and has soaked in. When cooling complete, rest of drizzle will be poured along top.
Slice and enjoy. I know I did. It was amazing (couldn’t wait until after dinner). You definitely get the lemon and then there’s “something else there” (which obviously is the remaining waft of the vodka though you don’t taste vodka and the alcohol has all cooked off). Texture-wise this is one of the softest cakes and most stable crumb-structures I have ever made and the drizzle has soaked into the top third perfectly. And now if you will excuse me, I’m gonna go finish this slice.
If there’s one dessert dish I loathe, it’s a fruit salad. Soak it in some exotic liqueur, and I can just about stand it. But throw a bunch of chopped up fruit in a bowl and call it a dish, and I’m instantly depressed. At best, a fruit salad conjures up for me Cloris Leachman as the splendidly gruesome Nurse Diesel in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety warning that “tardy boys don’t get fruit cup.” At worst, it reminds me of the dietetic pudding option in a fading British seaside hotel.
Thing is, I adore fruit in a salad. Taken away from its “sweet” context, fruit can make a savory salad really sing with flavor. Because sweetness is just one of the flavor notes in any given fruit.
Citrus fruits are also acidic. Green apples, and even pears, have an almost steely edge of sharp crispness. Raspberries and cranberries are as tart as they are sweet. And in the height of summer peaches and nectarines have that juicy tang underneath their sweetness that that sends you off into the dreamy fullness of a hot July as soon as you bite into them.
And what really brings out all those extra levels of flavor is not sugar, or cream, or custard, but a light seasoning of salt and pepper.
If this seems culinarily counter-intuitive to you, consider the tomato, the avocado, and the olive. All, of course, are fruits. Yet we use these fruits in an almost exclusively savory manner. Would you chop a tomato into an Ambrosia fruit salad? Some olives into a fruit crumble? Serve whipped avocado instead of cream alongside a slice of pie? (Actually there are some fascinating vegan recipes for chocolate mousse that utilize avocado, but that’s an extremely inventive response to a necessarily restrictive diet.)
No. When we cook or prepare dishes with these fruits, or even just snack on them, we think of them as being responsive to salt and pepper instead of sugar.
So why stop with these three fruits? There are, after all many world cuisines that already use other fruits in that savory context. North African cuisine uses dates and apricots in tagines. Middle Eastern cuisine scatters pomegranates over pilafs and lamb dishes. Thai cuisine pairs dry-fried beef mince with papaya and those intensely sour little green mangoes in fabulously hot and crunchy salads. Jamaican meals of jerk pork or saltfish and ackee wouldn’t be complete without fried plantains on the side.
European cuisines use fruit this way as well. There’s the classic French salad of pear, endive, walnut and blue cheese, and the Italian salad of orange and fennel that makes a magical counterpart to any grilled fish, not to mention the classic condiment Mostarda di Frutta.. There’s also the German dish of Himmel und Erde, which brings together apple, potato, and black pudding. Even the Indian traditions of fruit chutneys and pickles have become staples here in Britain, their use moving far beyond accompanying curries to being served alongside cheese and cold cuts. Indeed the British are rightfully well known for their inventiveness when it comes to fruit chutneys.
And yet, all too often I get an almost scandalized response when I suggest salting fruit instead of sugaring it (something I’ve done since a child, but that’s another story). I get the impression that in the Western World, we all too often segregate fruit into either that depressing dessert, a virtuous snack, the kind of breakfast that “gets things moving,” digestively speaking, or just juice. It’s been well known for quite a while now that only drinking the juice of a fruit rather than eating it gives you all of that fruit’s sugar, and actually little of its nutritional value, so in this increasingly nutrition-conscious day and age, it’s even more important to find ways to get all that goodness back into our diets.
There are so many fruits that are far more versatile than you might think, not to mention so many pairings that, while perhaps unexpected, really dance together on your plate and your palate. Mangoes and pineapple, for example, both partner brilliantly with the fruity heat of fresh red or green chillies. So in that spirit (and it’s most certainly an evangelical one on my part) here are but a few suggestions:
- Leave out that predictable tomato and make a leafy salad even more verdant with halved green seedless grapes, or slices of kiwi fruit!
- Give a ham, cheese and mustard sandwich an added layer of tart crisp flavor and texture with thin slices of green apple!
- Throw some raspberries into a salad of spinach, mushrooms and walnuts! Even better if it’s a warm dinner salad with chicken livers!
- Go 80′s retro by turning grilled honey-and mustard chicken into a salad with snow peas and honeydew melon!
- Go Greek with a salad of watermelon, feta cheese, red onion and mint to accompany grilled lamb!
- Give a chicken salad tropical zing with green chillies and chunks of pineapple! For added camp value, serve in boats carved out of the pineapple!
- Replace tomato with pineapple for a tart, fiery, and sweet salsa to accompany grilled fish!
- Forget your usual salsa altogether and throw together a salsa of mango and black beans to go with any grilled meat, or even just a bowl of corn chips!
- Make a kiwi fruit salsa to accompany grilled shrimp or calamari!
- Liven up a plain grilled or steamed skinless chicken breast with a salad of mango, radicchio and spring onions, dressed with a simple lemon vinaigrette!
- Enjoy the perfect summer lunch of nectarines, prosciutto, and mozzarella, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil! Add radicchio for bitterness and crunch!
- Stir some pesto sauce into well-mashed avocado for a light and creamy dressing for a cold pasta salad!
- Stuff pitted dates with slices of Parmesan cheese for extremely moreish cocktail nibbles!
- Or make the ultimate savory fruit salad of pink grapefruit and avocado, dressed with a vinaigrette made from the grapefruit juice, Dijon mustard, and good olive oil! Add shrimps or scallops to make it a full-on meal!
As I said, these are but a few suggestions. They’re all incredibly easy and quick to prepare, and utterly delicious to boot. Recipes for all of the above abound on the internet and elsewhere, so there’s really no excuse for not being a tad adventurous and turning that grim fruit salad into something spectacular to surprise yourself and anyone else you’re feeding.
So go, go now, and savor your fruits! It really doesn’t take much labor.
Let me first make clear that this recipe does not call for any actual magpies. It does, however, call for a mayonnaise dressing.
Now I have previously been somewhat snooty with regard to mayonnaise-based dressings for leafy or vegetable salads. While I still hold that such heavy dressings swamp light salads, that view doesn’t extend to pasta salads. In fact, in my opinion the opposite is true, especially if you’re making a pasta salad large enough to last you for a week of workday lunches. I’ve found that using a vinaigrette dressing on a pasta salad that large makes the pasta itself go claggy after a day or so in the fridge, and I also wind up having to make more dressing just to keep the salad moist.
Which is why I think that a pasta salad is where a mayo dressing comes into its own. The mayo gives the dressing body, and allows it to cling to the pasta without soaking in too deeply, so the pasta still feels fresh and toothsome. And there’s something so non-traditionally “Italian” about a pasta salad anyway, that you can let go of any concerns regarding toeing the historical culinary line. In addition, store-bought mayo (a pasta salad is no time to go to the efforts of making your own) is really rather bland, if not cloyingly sweet. While this is why I generally loathe store-bought pasta salads, it does mean that you can load your own mayo dressing up with other flavour sources. From whichever cultural source you like, really.
Which in turn brings me to the magpie nature of this pasta salad. I like to think of it as a flight of fancy along the Northern Mediterranean coast, with occasional swoops down to pick up bright and shiny flavours. Aside from the Italian pasta, there’s
- mayonnaise from France (or Mallorca, depending on which culinary history you believe),
- chorizo from Spain, oregano from Greece,
- capers from Cyprus,
- lemons from pretty much everywhere in the Med,
- olive oil from also pretty much everywhere in the Med, and red peppers and
- chili flakes from, well, the Americas (magpies can fly further than one might think).
The chili flakes won’t make the salad challengingly hot at all, but just add that subtle note of heat to keep you peppy after what is essentially a carb-loaded meal. And it may seem odd to add the components of a lemon vinaigrette to a mayo dressing, but I promise you it works wonderfully. The lemon brings a zingy freshness, and the olive oil not only re-asserts that necessary flavour component to the mayonnaise, but also a voluptuous smoothness.
MEDITERRANEAN MAGPIE SALAD
For the salad:
- 500g (1 pound) cooked short chunky pasta, rinsed thoroughly with cold water, and also thoroughly drained . I use trottole tricolore, but you could use penne, or fusilli, or indeed any textured pasta of your choice. I like tricolore for the colors, as well as the pretence that there are more vegetables involved.
- 360 (3/4 lb) cooked chicken, chopped or shredded. I use roasted chicken thighs from the supermarket because I find roasted dark chicken meat has exponentially more flavour, especially if it’s been cooked on the bone and in its skin, but if you’re a skinless breast person, so be it.
- 15-200g diced chorizo sausage. Just make sure you buy the kind that’s cured to the point of not needing further cooking.
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 1-2 large red roasted and skinned red peppers, finely chopped. ( if you’ve got them in a jar so much the better, and use the oil for the dressing)
For the dressing:
- 2 cups store-bought mayonnaise, low-fat is fine.
- 2 teaspoons capers, finely chopped (if you’re using capers stored in salt-as I do- make sure to rinse them well first)
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
- the juice of 2 lemons
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
First combine the salad ingredients in a large enough bowl to accommodate. It’s best to do this with your hands, just like a leaf salad. That way you can feel and see the chicken etc being incorporated throughout the pasta. Season them with salt and a bit of pepper (not too much pepper, as there’s heat coming from the chorizo and chili flakes).
Then in another bowl, stir the capers into the mayonnaise. If you have a pestle and mortar, I would highly recommend giving the dried oregano and chili flakes and salt a good grinding. Woody dried herbs really benefit from this, as it helps draw out their residual oils, and therefore flavour. Seriously, it makes a world of difference. Whether or not you do opt for this step, then stir the herbs and chili flakes well into the mayo. Then add the lemon juice and the olive oil. Once you add the last two ingredients, the dressing will look like it’s split on you. Fear not. Just whisk it like the clappers for a moment or two and it will come back together, with added volume.
Now just dollop the dressing onto the pasta salad and, with a large but light spoon, keep tossing it through. The motion you’re want is one that lifts everything from the bottom up to the top, rather than around the bowl. I like to make these salads in a glass bowl, because then I can see for myself that nowhere have I failed to incorporate a bit of pasta. Now just give it a final seasoning of salt and a dash of pepper -remembering that anything containing pasta- or any starchy carb- can take a lot of salt- and stow it in your fridge, ready for the workday lunches to come!
“Life,” the writer Shirley Conran once famously noted, “is too short to stuff a mushroom.”
Now however much I may disagree with her about stuffing mushrooms (gorgeous little button mushrooms stuffed with a brandied chicken liver mousse! meaty portabello mushrooms stuffed with brie and garlic and walnuts!), I must concede that Ms Conran was not on some anti-fungal crusade. She was, instead, making a much larger point about the uselessness of women (but also men, if you think about it) engaging in needlessly fiddly and time-consuming activities simply to prove their status or- even worse- their worth. Boiled down, if you think that presenting the world with a stuffed mushroom is what will finally show them all that you have it all and can do it all, you’ve probably got a very skewed idea of what having it all and doing it all actually means.
This thought, amongst a colorful array of others, occurred to me the other day when I faced up to the realities of a challenge I had set myself: making homemade potato chips.
I am of course referring to potato chips in the American sense (not the British), as in those paper-thin slices of potato you munch on while watching TV, or have alongside a club sandwich. They may be flavored, or just salted, but they must be crisp. Which is why the British don’t call them chips, but rather, crisps. Incidentally, this nomenclature does not hold true in Britain when said “crisps” are served alongside any form of game-by which I mean “food that has previously been shot,” not “a sporting event involving teams and a ball.” In British terms, that would be a “match”. When said crisps are served alongside food that has previously been shot, they instantly become “game chips”, which, in turn, have nothing to do with poker, or baccarat, or any other form of gambling activity. Less incidentally, the British term “crisps” would come back to haunt me.
How had I come to setting myself this challenge? I had been interested in the history of the potato chip (or crisp) ever since I had first learned of its possibly apocryphal origins (which would also come back to haunt me, apocryphal or not). How to explain the enduring allure of a simple chip (or crisp) that, even in this age of tortilla chips, and lentil chips, and bagel chips, and pitta chips, and beetroot chips, and cassava chips, all with their seemingly endless variety of flavours, still commands fully one third of the US snack food market, and is the leading snack food across the entire globe? If a snack food had gone from being commercially produced as an apparent one-off to being made across the United States by little mom-and-pop stores, and thence to being produced in massive industrial quantities, couldn’t it be brought back home?
Well of course it can, and has. It didn’t take much of an internet search to discover that indeed many, many people do make their own potato chips. There are a great many recipes out there, and equally many people touting the joys of frying-or baking, if you’re phobic about frying- your own. My enthusiasm for attempting this for myself increased greatly with every “It’s so dang easy” account I read. And my enthusiasm went absolutely stratospheric when I recalled having read many years ago that one of the most glamorous, beautiful and heavenly creatures that ever lived was not above such a task.
Ladies and gentlemen, I mean none other than Her Serene Highness Princess Grace Of Monaco.
You most probably already know that Grace Kelly, late of Philadelphia, would become globally famous for her beauty, her poise, her talent, and for marrying rather well. But what you may not know about the Star Who Became An Actual Princess, is that she was equally famous among her family and friends for her homemade potato chips.
For decades after marrying Rainier III (Rainier Louis Henri Maxence Bertrand Grimaldi, which is rather more of a mouthful than your average chip or crisp), she would still take time out from princessing duties to make and serve these chips to guests at their family retreat, Roc Agel.
Well! Thought I, if Princess Grace could do this, why shouldn’t I give it a go? It would probably be the only one of her achievements I could match. After all I am male, sadly past the age of porcelain skin, don’t have enough hair to go blonde, am unlikely to marry a Prince (even in this enlightened age) and am never going to star in a series of iconic Alfred Hitchcock films unless they seriously re-define the term “Zombie Movie”. But surely I can at least make my own potato chips?
And with that inspiration, my thoughts took a somewhat hubristically entrepreneurial bent. Beyond just making chips like a princess with a day off, surely I could surpass Laura Scudder, who in 1926 formed her own potato chip company in Monterey, California , and was the first to send her chips out in wax paper bags-with a freshness date, no less- thus replacing the barrels which would leave chips crumbled and stale at the bottom. Or even Joe “Spud” Murphy, the Irishman who first developed the process of flavoring potato chips during manufacture. So what if he gave the world its first Cheese And Onion crisps back in the 1950s? Walkers Crisps here in the UK run a competition every few years for people to come up with new flavorings. The prize is worth a million quid! I could win that prize! And , like the Icarus of root vegetables, I concluded that I could fry even higher! I, yes I, a humble foodie laboring away in a humble kitchen, would produce the world’s first Cheese And Onion potato chip that would be equally delicious as its forebears, without also inducing rapid-onset halitosis!
So, buoyed up with fantasies of being a Potato Chip Prince in my own right, I set to work. I bought my kilo of potatoes, got home, and merrily began the task of peeling them and cutting out any knobbly or sprouty bits. I use the term “merrily began” advisedly, because as anyone who cooks knows, there is something a tad disheartening about peeling potatoes, especially in bulk. But unless they’re baby new potatoes or you’re baking them, potatoes must be peeled. There’s just something so menial about peeling potatoes that I, and any other cook I know, will rapidly pass on that particular task to anyone else at hand, be they a willing child, a patient friend, or Ruby the scullery maid from “Upstairs Downstairs”. Nonetheless, with every scrape of the vegetable peeler I told myself that soon others would be doing this for me while I swanned about in my office, possibly wearing a chef’s jacket studded with Swarowski crystals. And epaulets. Epaulets are right for a Prince.
The potatoes peeled, I then set about the far more entertaining task of slicing them into the requisite paper-thin slivers. I had a kitchen mandolin to hand. Working with a mandolin is always fun, and a tad suspenseful, in a “will I lose a digit or sever an artery” kind of way. It is also, of course, extremely fast, so in what seemed like no time at all I had a bounty of potato slices soaking in cold water to remove the starch. This also is a necessary step. Any excess starch would prevent the potatoes from crisping, and that half hour they needed to soak simply left me with more time to day-dream about serving my chips to friends, the chips going viral (in the appropriate rather than “pathogen” way of course), and what I would stud my epaulets with if my jacket already had Swarowski crystals.
Reality began to seep in once the potatoes slivers had soaked for the appropriate time. Now they had to be dried. A damp potato sliver, you see (and more to the point, feel), is a spitting mad potato sliver once it hits hot oil. So each sliver had to be laid out on paper towels, and then covered with another layer of paper towels, in order for any vestige of moisture to be eradicated. If you’ve just sliced a kilo of potatoes paper-thin, this requires a vast amount of surface space, alongside enough paper towels for you to feel that you’ve personally contributed to global deforestation. The sight of all these potato wafers scattered about the kitchen ( on the table, the counters, spare shelves…) was beginning to unnerve me, but unless I switched courses and decided to throw together a massive dauphinoise for no good reason at what was swiftly becoming a lateish hour, I had to plow on.
Not having the candy thermometer that most recipes called for, I couldn’t wait for the oil in my deep pan to reach the requisite exact 350 degrees Fahrenheit, so instead I opted for the “test a slice method”, wherein, according to the online guidance I had chosen, one looks for a chip that is “bubbling briskly, but not too briskly. You don’t want the chip to brown immediately.” Satisfied that my first chip was bubbling away without getting an instant tan, I added the rest of the first batch and watched them sizzle away for the suggested three minutes a side, at which point they were allegedly ready to be fished out and left to dry on wire cookie racks.
Which of course meant making space amongst the drying raw potatoes for the drying cooked potatoes before you get on with the next batch. The problem was finding said space when the kitchen already looked like a potato infirmary. I had planned enough ahead for one batch of chips, thinking that a moment or two on the rack would elicit instantly crisp chips ready to be salted and dumped in a bowl for munching on as I carried on with the next batch. I was even rather looking forward to a warm, crisp “crisp” or two. But I had neglected to fully grasp one essential aspect of making homemade potato chips.
They don’t actually go crispy until they cool down. If ever.
My urge to get rich, and get rich now sadly impeded me from thinking clearly and slowing the whole process down so I could wait a half hour or so between batches to see what worked and what didn’t. Theoretically, this would have meant only one flabby batch, and then a whole series of batches laying resplendently golden and crunchy on their wire racks. But sadly I was too caught up in Mitty-esque dreams of a Getty-esque future.
So my first batch, golden though they appeared, remained stubbornly flabby, and more than a tad greasy, even after they’d reached room temperature. I discovered this midway through cooking the second batch, at which point I’d already switched another load of potato beds for potato racks, and was beginning to feel on a bit of a rack myself. Clearly, I had to cook the second batch for longer, and look out for the apparently tell-tale blisters of puffiness within the chip that appear if it’s going to crisp properly. Said blisters did appear, only to sag like a lanced boil once I scooped them out of the oil. And the chips were about as “crisp” as a rainy weekend in the Tropics.
I won’t bore you with the full details of each subsequent batch, but suffice to say that by batch 3 I had learned that potato chips, when browned, taste burnt even if they don’t look burnt. By batch 4 I learned that burning chips taints the oil, so that even if you haven’t burned batch 4, they still taste burnt. Batch 5 taught me that new oil, and cooking the chips faster produces the exact same result as batch 4, and batch 6 just left me with deeply poisonous thoughts about this particular member of the Deadly Nightshade family.
By this point, surrounded as I was by burnt or unburnt, yet uniformly flabby chips, my thoughts of Grace of Monaco turned equally dark. I began to doubt whether Her Serene Highness was quite so serene when faced with such stubbornly flaccid chips as I. Especially if oil kept splattering her gorgeous complexion like it was splattering my less-than gorgeous visage. Worse, what if the tales her friends told of her making these chips long after she’d become royalty were also apocryphal? What if she really just swanked it by the pool in her kaftan and tiara as sundry Monegasque Minions manned the pans? While I couldn’t hold on to that thought for long (it’s like those tales of her being a bit of a serial shagger before she married- you just don’t want to think it of her), I did suddenly start to contemplate, whilst carrying on with batch 7 in a grumpily determined manner, whether the famous tale of the origin of the potato chip was relevant to my efforts.
That story holds that on August 24th 1853, in a restaurant named Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York, a customer complained about his fried potatoes being a touch over-cooked and seasoned. According to this legend, the resident cook, a man named George Crum, who had a less than sunny disposition and a distinctly cloudy view of customer service, was so incensed at the customer’s complaint that when the dish was sent back, he sliced the potatoes thinner, cooked them for longer, and wildly over-salted them. To everyone’s surprise, the customer was delighted, and thus the potato chip was born. Now recipes for sliced fried potatoes predate this story, and many (not least Crum’s own sister, who claimed the credit for herself) have come forward to discredit it, but it’s a good story.
And it was relevant to me because chips were clouding my disposition too. As each batch failed, and I was getting progressively more tired and hungry, I searched about the kitchen for a something to snack on while I waited for my, well, snack. Did I want an apple? Perhaps a banana? Just a bite to tide me over. Then I realized that what I really wanted right now was a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
And suddenly it was as if I was in some sort Damascene kitchen moment. As batch 7 sizzled away into blackened bits, my mind sizzled with the new-found knowledge that in all my enthusiasm for making the perfect homemade potato chip, I had left out the most important ingredient. And that ingredient was hunger.
Oh I hungered for success in my challenge, and for vaulting success beyond that, but I don’t actually hunger for potato chips. I like them, they’re fine. But I don’t love them. I never actually buy them unless none of my many more preferred snacks is available in the shop. I far prefer the crunch of a corn chip, and the flavors too, regardless of what synthetic process brought them to my taste buds. More than any chip, I love almost any kind of salted nut. And I’m already more than adept at popping corn without the aid of a microwave if I want to much on something salty while watching a documentary about the secret lives of the Grimaldis. If I do opt for a potato-based snack product, it’s invariably a can of Salted Pringles. And they aren’t even really potato chips. They’re made in part from potato flour, but that perfect mouth (and dip-scooping) shape, and perfect crispness has not sprung directly from the potato itself.
So I had just wasted a kilo of potatoes, a litre of oil, a forest’s worth of paper towels, and several hours of my time, just to prove a point. I had felt the need to prove to myself, and eventually to others, that I could make my own potato chips, whether I actually wanted them or not.
Now setting yourself challenges as a cook and foodie is of course a great thing. It’s a fantastic moment when you’ve learned to cook the food you love all by yourself, especially if it’s a perilously complicated dish.. It’s perhaps an even more fantastic moment when you can share that new-found ability with people you also love. Who of us hasn’t looked round a table of people gorging themselves on a repast of your making, and felt a little tingle of pride? But it’s a good idea to make sure that, when you set yourself that culinary challenge, your motives are as clean as your hands.
Making food, be it a majestic feast or a humble snack, is really rather pointless when it doesn’t also involve hunger for that food, and at least a little bit of love. And really I’m absolutely convinced that Princess Grace loved making her potato chips. How nice for her to be loving and generous without having to don that tiara first. Tiaras can be quite heavy, you know. And great foodstuffs quite often come from happy accidents. George Crum may have been an irascible fellow, but he accidentally made someone very happy indeed, assuming that story isn’t just a load of old chips.
So as I set about clearing up the awful mess I’d made in the kitchen, I thought again of Grace, and how her homemade chips were an act of grace, really. And as my churlishness faded away, I was left with a little reward. I popped one last chip into my mouth as I swept the last batch into the bin, and it was good. Not perfect, but light, and crisp, and denuded of grease. So I had done it. I had made one good chip, and that was more than enough for me. I knew that I’d probably never repeat it. Beyond the effort, and time, and paper towels, all of which I would willingly sacrifice again for a better epicurean cause, I knew that homemade potato chips had been my stuffed mushroom.
I still have ambitions, though. I may never get a prince or be a prince, but I still want those epaulets. And some Cool Ranch Doritos.