A few years ago I decided that going to England to work would be an adventure. I applied to an agency who organised everything for me: job, work permit, medical examination, and all the paraphernalia necessary to convince UK immigration you're a) not a terrorist, b) not going to deplete the national budget by claiming welfare and c) generally an all-round OK person with nothing illegal on/in my person. Easier said than done, which I'm sure many of you are aware of.
Once through the immigration obstacle course, I plunged into my job with all the enthusiasm that befits a foreigner, and found that the job I chose was actually terrible. The job description was something like "Medical officer on duty at all hours to provide medical care should the attending physician be unavailable", but should really have been "The idiot they're going to call at 3 in the morning to discuss with Mrs. Smith in Bed 7 the recent surgery her daughter's roommate's cousin's mother had to undergo in a hospital in Portugal. Also, while you're at it, all the other odd jobs nobody else could be bothered to do". Then again, they paid a lot of money, so I probably would have done it anyway.
During these long, lonely hours with limp brussels sprouts and overcooked beef roast swimming in bland gravy (UK Hospital food 24/7 is everything you expect and more) and Maltesers from the vending machine as my only sustenance, I found the comfort of online book clubs. In particular the Big Read Messageboard on the BBC website, sadly not in existency anymore. I got to know a whole lot of interesting people, and read many books I otherwise wouldn't have, all from the privacy of my converted private hospital bed next to the hospital kitchen with the limp brussel sprouts smell. I loved it.
Later in Australia, when I fell pregnant with the Little Girl, and got so ill that I only moved from the couch to the bathroom for 7 months (as this is a food blog I won't go into too many details), I started looking for a nice online bookclub again. I never really found one I was happy with, until I started this blog and came across This Book Makes Me Cook. I have found my nirvana - books and food in one, and I joined as quickly as I could press Enter.
The book we read for April was Julie/Julia, the one from the food blog (No, that's no typing error. I am about 2 months late with this post) Baby Brother rented me the DVD during our recent trip to South Africa, and I loved it, so when it turned up as one of the choices for this month's book, I voted for it, bought it, and started reading with joy. My joy slowly dimished over the next few days as I progressed, until I couldn't wait for the book to finish. And not in a good way.
What?! Somebody not loving Julie/Julia?! Yes, I know. I'm weird that way. Some books everybody seems to drool over, I sometimes just can't see the point of. Like The Lovely Bones, The God of Small Things, and Angela's Ashes. But I think you have to give me Julie/Julia. Let me explain.
First of all I need to get the dirty kitchen off my chest. All through the book Julie talks about her dirty house. She describes dustiness, stickiness, and cat hair everywhere. Including the kitchen counters. In fact, at one stage it's so bad that she discovers maggots breeding in the dish tray. Now, I don't want to give the impression that I am a clean freak, because my mother will assure you that I'm definitely not. However, even I have never let my house go to the point of maggots. Reading all this didn't make me want to cook as much as it made me want to get up and scrub the kitchen counters with hospital grade disinfectant. Yuck!
I was also very disappointed not to read more about Julia Child herself. After watching the DVD, which has quite a lot of her, I looked forward to getting to know more about this extraordinary woman. No joy. The only reference is a few short letters throughout the chapters, with the only purpose of leaving you wanting more. I'll have to ask my good friend Google.
The book ends with a chapter on how Julia Child changed Julie Powell's life. She talks about the absolute joy of making some sauce, and the sense of accomplishment she felt mastering all the recipes. I was really surprised when I read this, because battling through the chapters I didn't come across joy, or really much sense of accomplishment. Lots of swearing, lots of throwing things, Julie trying to console cheating girlfriends, a husband walking out. Joy? Not so much. I read about one huge struggle, and honestly, I was glad when it was over.
And now for the question you've all been dying to ask. After reading about eggs poached in red wine and baked cucumbers, how on earth did I end up making Martha Stewart cookies? Well, this is the recipe that Julie uses to cheat on her husband. Seriously. In her own words: "I can't imagine anyone - a few of the more repressive Islamic societies aside - who would consider baking an act of adultery. Still, for Eric, knowing what he knew of my proclivities, watching me roll out thin layers of cornmeal dough, sprinkle them with chopped pecans, cinnamon, and melted butter, then lay another layer of dough on top, and repeat over and over with infinite patience, must have been a little bit like noticing I'd gotten a bikini wax and a tight red dress before leaving for some business convention in Dallas." But please don't blame the cookies. From the beginning of the book I wondered which dish to make, but when I read this description (the cookies, not the bit about the waxing), I thought it my duty to change these cookies from "stalker food" to the fabulous little things they really are. I made them for mother's day (my first!), and they were fabulous indeed. Remarks included "Amazing!" and "Delicious delicious!" and "Why didn't you make more?".
I liked them too. The cornmeal in the cookie was really, really good. It remains slightly chewy, which is a great partner to the crunchy nuts. I substituted mixed spice for the cinnamon in the recipe, and will do so again. Not that I will ever contradict Martha Stewart in anything. She is after all the queen of the cookie recipe. But I am looking forward to getting to know Julia Child better.
Cornmeal and Spicy Pecan Cookies
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen
1/2 cup whole pecans
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon or mixed spice
2 tablespoons packed dark-brown sugar
1 large egg white, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Toast the pecan halves in a skillet until warm and fragrant. Be careful not to burn them
In the bowl of electric mixer, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 4 minutes. Add egg and vanilla, and mix until combined.
In medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. On low speed, add flour mixture to butter mixture. Mix until combined, about 30 seconds.
Transfer dough to clean work surface, and divide into 4 equal portions. Place 1 portion between two 30 cm square pieces of parchment. Roll out dough to a 10 by 20 cm rectangle. Repeat with remaining 3 portions of dough. (I found the dough very difficult to role out, and ended up just patting it into shape, which worked perfectly) Transfer to baking sheets; chill at least 10 minutes.
In food processor bowl, process pecans, cinnamon and brown sugar until nuts have been finely chopped, 12 to 15 seconds. Transfer mixture to a bowl.
Remove top pieces of parchment from dough. Brush one lightly with egg white; sprinkle 1/3 cup pecan mixture over top. Brush second rectangle lightly with egg wash. Invert second rectangle over first; remove parchment on top. Repeat layering process, leaving top rectangle uncoated. Trim the stack so you have straight edges. Wrap and chill overnight, or at least for a few hours.
Preheat oven to 180°C. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Cut brick into 1/2cm slices; place slices on baking sheets, with some space for spreading. Bake biscuits until light golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool. Bake or freeze remaining dough. Store in an airtight container up to 2 weeks.