Hoo boy. Guys, I hope you're all doing well out there and staying safe.
Not too long ago I wrote my New Year's resolution for 2020. It was:
"I just want to enjoy every day for what it is. That means no more worrying about what tomorrow might bring."
2020 is making that pretty bloody hard right now!
My goodness. When I started this blog fifteen years ago (and, actually, when I started my life a few decades before that) I did not once think I would end up blogging about the apocalypse. But apparently that's just how things go sometimes.
For future Janine (when you decide to reread this as part of a trip down memory lane) this is the coronavirus aka COVID-19 aka worldwide pandemic edition. You, future Janine, probably don't remember all the details of this time, so I'm going to write them down.
For the rest of you who aren't future Janine (meaning you are neither me nor from the future) I apologise for all these words before we get to the good stuff. This is a food post, I promise. (Just pretend you're reading a normal food blog, where you have to read the person's life history before you get to the cake.)
So, when I wrote my last food post at the end of February, I must have known that coronavirus was a thing. I was probably having to start doing things like washing my hands more often and disinfecting things at work. But things have changed so much between then and now that I can't really remember. Back in February coronavirus was scary but not yet a pandemic. I thought we'd have some tough times, but in no way did I forsee that our whole way of life would change, or for so long.
Future Janine, what's it like where you are? I mean, I'm hoping you're there in the future, somewhere. Have things gone back to normal? Do you even remember what normal is? Have things changed for the better? Or for worse? Or has everything reverted back to the way it was, so neatly that 2020 feels like it was a fever dream? Is the thing you're worried about most the fact that you need to write a report for work but you haven't had the time to do it yet? (aka as things were in 2019?) Is that the extent of your stresses? I hope so. (If not, then these words from your past self are probably not making you feel great. So, um, stop dwelling on what I'm saying and pull yourself together. This is a food post for God's sake.)
In March the tempo of the spread of the virus picked up in the UK. Things stayed kinda normal for a bit. Some meet-ups with friends were cancelled, but some weren't. I went to visit Steve and Heather in Bristol. Nick and Eva came over from Amsterdam and we watched Nick run the Bath half marathon. It was nice to see friends and chat and go for a Sunday roast in a pub. But even then these things were starting to feel strange, like we were only pretending at being normal. It was growing hard to buy toilet paper. James and Eppa couldn't come along because their son had a fever (unrelated to the coronavirus, I might add). I saw my friends but I couldn't hug them. I COULDN'T HUG THEM.
Maybe I shouldn't have gone to Bristol. The train there was only half full. Lots of runners at the marathon had pulled out. But I was content to follow government advice, which at the time advised staying home only if you had a cough or a fever. Government advice changed rapidly the next week when they advised everyone to practice social distancing, regardless of symptoms. By the following Friday unessential businesses were closed and almost everyone was working from home, and by the Tuesday after that the country was officially in lockdown, meaning you could get fined for leaving your house without a good reason. And that's where we are now.
Was it too late? The day after returning from Bristol I developed a mild cough. It was, I might add, ridiculously mild: so mild that I feel bad calling it a cough. But was it the virus? Had I unwittingly passed it to everyone in Bristol and Bath and on the train while I was asymptomatic? Maybe. As soon as I felt ill I isolated at home for seven days, as per the government guidelines, so at least I wouldn't have passed it on to anyone else. Looking back, I find it hard to think that such a mild cough was COVID-19, but you absolutely can't take chances with this thing. And I don't normally get coughs in March, especially when they come with no runny nose or cold-like symptoms. Future Janine, do you ever find out if you had this thing?
Before I went to Bristol people had started panic-buying toilet paper, so there was none in the shops. When I came back from Bristol and went into isolation, people had started panic-buying food. That was the hard part. That scared me. I had grown up, privileged me, with food security, so even the slightest wobble in that food security was suddenly an eye-opener. To think that only days before the panic-buying I had made the dishes that I am going to discuss in this post and my biggest worry then had been that the supermarket might not have pistachios! Suddenly I found myself worrying that the shops would have no food at all. In a panicked haze wondered if I could use the cornflour in my cupboard to make bread. I wondered how much vitamin C I could get from the candied peel I'd used to top cakes.
Being in isolation made it more scary. I couldn't go to the shops myself, so I was only receiving reports from others. "I was able to buy tomatoes and broccoli today," said my boss in a phone call, "tonight I'm going to dine like a king." I had visions of completely empty shelves. Folks who live in the UK, is that the way it really was?
Unfortunately I went into isolation on the day I'd normally do my weekly food shop. I only had a bit of store-cupboard stuff left and that was it. Online delivery from supermarkets was laughable in its unavailability. I cursed everyone who was receiving deliveries when they weren't in an at risk group and had the easy means to get to the supermarket. A colleague offered to drop food round to my house if I couldn't get any online, and I felt like crying at the kindness of the offer.
In the end I didn't need my colleague's help. I eventually found a local corner shop who delivered through UberEats and my food arrived 20 minutes after I ordered it. Thank you, local corner shop, you star. I felt like crying when the delivery guy arrived. I feel like crying now.
God, how first-world-problems this is. HOW PRIVILEGED I AM that even this slight blip in food security drove me to tears. There are people out there who live with this fear from week to week to week. The absolute worst-case scenario that I would have faced would have been having to order takeaways for a week instead of cooking my meals. That's it! Yet there I was, morosely watching "MasterChef" and being astounded at all this food that was being made just for a TV show instead of being made to feed and nourish people.
I feel a bit changed by the experience, but even now my attitude to food is returning to normal. Panic-buying has slowed and now the only thing it's hard to buy is flour. I am no longer in isolation, so each week I get the confirmation of seeing supermarket shelves laden with food. But I need to make sure I don't forget that fear I experienced; not entirely. Don't ever forget, future Janine, how privileged you are to eat well every single day. Don't forget that fear of an empty cupboard. Remember the people who experience it time and again. Do what you can to make sure that no-one has to feel that way.
So. The world is changed. Everyone who can stay at home is doing so. I haven't seen friends or family or colleagues for weeks, but I video call people every day. I leave the house maybe once or twice a week, so I am taking vitamin D supplements and doing YouTube workouts. I would like a hug, but it might be a year before I get one.
These are strange strange times, but staying at home is important right now. Nearly 28,000 people in the UK have died of COVID-19, maybe more. Nearly 240,000 people in the world have died of it. But, for the UK at least, we've passed the peak. Numbers are decreasing, and all we have to worry about now is making sure they don't start rising again. What will happen to the economy and life as we know it in the coming years is less certain, but maybe I should go back to my New Year's resolution on that one: "I just want to enjoy every day for what it is. That means no more worrying about what tomorrow might bring."
So, that was a long and rambling example of WRITING THINGS DOWN FOR POSTERITY. The main point for you guys who aren't future Janine is to let you know that this will be the last food post for a while. (Or the last post on any subject for a while, probably, because what is there to photograph and talk about?) Panic-buying has stopped and supermarket shelves are stocked, but they're not fully stocked. There are still quite a few things that it's hard to get hold of, and it's difficult to know, until you're in the shop, what those hard-to-get-hold-of things are actually going to be. I don't want to waste my recipe fun on weeks when I can't find half the ingredients. How can I possibly complain about having to make two tablespoons of ginger juice if I find out the supermarket doesn't have any ginger? It would sadden me to have to half-arse these recipes any more than I normally do, so I'm going to put them on hold until I can be more certain of getting the things I need. And who knows when that will be?
I am still cooking; don't worry. And I'm even trying out new things, but I'm seeing recipes as loose guidelines rather than things to follow precisely, and loose experiments are not really what I want to post here. (That's not to mention the fact that I can't do any baking at the moment, because I can't share the bakes with my colleagues, and I definitely can't eat that much cake all by myself.)
As an aside, I have to say how much cooking has helped my family through this lockdown. Every day we are sharing photos and videos of what we've made. Some videos have been silly and some have been sensible. My aunt and uncle shared video instructions on how to make their traditional curry, and half the family followed along and made the curry in their own homes on the same day. Almost every day I video call my Mum while cooking, so she and I can cook in our own kitchens together. It's lovely that we all have this shared hobby to bring us joy.
Future Janine, you'd better not be crying again. Have you done any baking recently? Why not? Put some effort in, godammit.
And so, in true food blog style, now you've had my life story, it's time for the food.
Jordan Bourke's creamy avocado pappardelle with pine nuts
Making this recipe was when I first started to realise that the world wasn't normal any more. I was going to make this for a visit from Deborah (she's a vegetarian who likes Italian food) so I bought vegetarian hard cheese instead of Parmesan. The recipe is actually for tagliatelle not pappardelle, but when I got to the pasta aisle in the supermarket there was very little pasta left: there were two types of expensive pasta, including this fancy pappardelle that I used here, and there were lasagne sheets. And that was it. A whole section, just blank. After I'd bought the ingredients, Deborah cancelled the visit. She didn't want to take crowded public transport to get to mine, which is completely understandable. So I made this just for me. It wasn't too hard to make, but anything involving a zester, toasting nuts, and using a food processor is more work than I really want to put into a bowl of pasta. In taste it was lacklustre. It was ok, and perfectly fine: lemony, cheesy, basil-y, pine-nutty, but for that amount of washing up afterwards I wanted it to be amazing. To be honest, all it was missing was a bit of sweetness. Add in a touch of sugar or some fried onions and it would have been wonderful. And, I tell you what, I may not want to spend £5 on 300g of pasta in normal circumstances, but my God it was really good pasta. In some things you can't taste a price difference, but in this you apparently can.
Beef, beetroot and butter bean stew with Stilton dumplings
Where the previous dish was lacklustre, this was everything I could want. You've got a bit of sweetness from the veg, but there's also savouriness from the beef and the stock (I left out the wine, as usual), and the green beans add a nice piquance on the side. And those dumplings. Those dumplings! They are to-die-for! I always love dumplings, but I don't normally like Stilton. Yet the Stilton in these dumplings counters the sweetness of the stew perfectly, and having gooey cheese ooze out of them was great. I do have a few issues with the dish though. The green beans are a faff to make, and even though they're nice, I'm not quite sure that they go fully with the stew; they feel a little at odds with it somehow. I've never made dumplings in the oven before, so I didn't know if you had to cover the oven dish to cook them or not. I decided to cover it, which meant my stew didn't reduce at all and was runnier than it should have been. My biggest issue, however, is that the original recipe (which I scaled down) says it serves eight people but only asks you to make twelve "walnut-sized" dumplings. I know dumplings expand, but they don't expand that much! Especially not with cheese inside! Who wants to have their stew with only 1.5 tiny dumplings per portion? That's sad, and it made me sad too.
Pistachio and cardamom cake with mango-saffron jam and Italian meringue buttercream (recipe from "Baking with Kim-Joy: Cute and Creative Bakes to Make You Smile" by Kim-Joy, which was a Christmas present from Mariya)
Look. At. That. Beast. Look at it! Maybe this picture doesn't do it justice. It had four layers and came to nearly 30cm tall. I had to buy a cardboard cake box and a cake board to transport it to work in, because none of my plastic boxes would fit it. The cake board nearly buckled when I lifted it! Why am I making a cake so huge! I've never made a cake so big before! (This, guys, is why I take cakes to work and don't eat them all myself.) A lady at work asked me if I was practising for a wedding (the recipe says you can decorate it elaborately or go for this uncoloured version with pistachios and flowers - I chose rose petals, because that's what I had to hand - on top). The answer is: no wedding, I just torment myself for fun. So, you ask, what's it like making the biggest cake you've ever made? An experience, is what I will say. You can see from the shoddy plastering (and the fact that I think it is called plastering; I've never covered a cake with buttercream before) that I don't really know what I'm doing yet. It was made more of an experience because on both days when I was making it (I made the jam one day, the cake and buttercream the next) the plumbers working on the flat upstairs told me they had to turn the water off in the whole building for two hours. On two consecutive days! On the first day they gave me five minutes' warning. On the second day I must have looked so upset and distraught that they decided to halt proceedings for an hour so I could at least get two of the sponges in the oven. Argh! I had legit booked a day off work to make this cake; I wasn't going to let some plumbing miscommunication stop me in my tracks. The sponges themselves were a pain to make. You have to roast pistachios, grind cardamom pods, use an electric whisk to add all the ingredients together including, for some reason, yoghurt, and then you have to separately whisk egg whites and fold them in! It didn't help that I refused to purchase the two extra cake tins needed to take me up to the required four, so I made and baked the cakes in two batches. I can see why the cake needed whisked egg-whites plus baking powder and self-raising flour though. The sponges didn't really rise at all; or rather, mine rose a bit, then sank back down. I think it's all the pistachios in the mixture weighing it down. The result was a cake that, while not being doughy and uncooked, was still dense. However, the flat cakes made it much easier to stack them on top of each other. Then you have to make your own mango, cardamom and saffron jam which, no big deal. Oh god. I made a half-hearted blueberry jam for macarons once and then made marmalade another time and both came out too runny. Because I didn't want runny again, and because the recipe explicitly asks for it, I bought myself a sugar thermometer. Now things couldn't go wrong! You would think. But the resulting mango jam was so runny that, once the cake was cut, the jam ran out of the cake, onto the cake board, through the gaps in the corners of the cardboard cake box, and all over the staffroom table. Great! I don't know what went wrong. Either mango (even unripe mango, like the recipe states) doesn't have enough pectin to make it set, despite using jam sugar, or the recipe misses out an important step, or I need a lot more practice in learning how to read sugar temperatures. I think it might be the latter. You then have to make the buttercream, which you use to sandwich the sponges together with the jam, and also to cover the cake. The recipe points you to two buttercream recipes that you can choose from: American buttercream (mix butter and icing sugar; job done) or Italian meringue buttercream (difficult, and requires a stand mixer or will become a living hell). I, of course, chose the Italian meringue buttercream. Look, there's method in my madness. I knew I wanted to try the Italian meringue buttercream at some point, so why not exorcise that demon immediately instead of having it loom over you? Plus, I know that American buttercream is often too rich for me, so I thought the Italian meringue buttercream might taste nicer. The Italian meringue buttercream recipe made a huge amount (it covered my cake and I still have half left-over in the freezer; when I'm going to be able to use that I don't know, because that amount of buttercream absolutely requires taking the results in to work) and the recipe was also terrifying. You start by weighing egg whites. I've done this before and I hate it. Separating eggs is always scary and I don't want to have to do it with up to eight eggs! (In fact, if you include the egg whites for the sponges, I separated even more eggs than that. Honestly, I was worried that someone in the supermarket would be worried that I was stockpiling eggs and butter when I bought the ingredients for this cake. At the time I thought the idea of stockpiling eggs was unrealistic and ridiculous; little did I know.) Then you whisk the egg whites while adding sugar slowly, while simultaneously also boiling a sugar syrup until it reaches precisely 115°C. You have to time these tasks so that you finish whisking the egg whites and boiling the sugar syrup at exactly the same time. I failed at this, and stopped whisking my egg whites while I still had 20 minutes or so to go on the sugar syrup, but I didn't notice any issues. You then taking the boiling hot sugar and pour it in a very thin stream into the egg whites while whisking constantly and trying not to spray boiling sugar over yourself (in that I was successful: I only sprayed it over the kitchen instead). Then you whisk the mixture for 30 bloody minutes until it cools down. And then you whisk in a mountain of butter. These instructions expect you to have a stand mixer, so that you have two hands free to deal with the sugar. I DO NOT HAVE A STAND MIXER. I used an electric hand whisk, so I had to keep putting it down to check on my sugar syrup. And then pouring in the boiling sugar while whisking was... Look, I had the whisk in my good hand, which meant I had the boiling pan in my weak hand and WHY DO I HAVE A HEAVY-BOTTOMED PAN. I kept getting tired and having to put the pan down, but the hand holding the pan wasn't near a heat-proof surface, so I kept having to do some complicated contortions to put the pan back on the hob. My God! And then, when you've done that and have successfully not blinded yourself with boiling sugar, you have to whisk the resulting mixture for 30 minutes. NO THANK YOU. The whisking is meant to help it cool down faster (can't add cool butter to hot meringue). In the end, I managed to keep whisking (my arm was so tired) for 15 minutes. At that point, the poor motor in my whisk seemed to actually be making the meringue hotter, so I left the meringue to cool down by itself. Then more whisking while you add shitloads of butter, ok. At this point my mixture curdled a little, I think because it was too warm for the cool butter, but a quick and frantic Google told me to keep on whisking, which I did, and I eventually ended up with something light and fluffy in texture that held its shape very well. The final step was to whisk in vanilla. Once all the cake components are complete (cake, jam, buttercream) and you're on the verge of a breakdown, all you have to do is put them together! This is why my final cake in the photo looks a bit rushed. It was also lopsided and had a bit of a jam-leakage issue, where my buttercream "dam" hadn't held on one of the layers. Despite the fact that my finished cake doesn't compare to the beautiful cake in Kim-Joy's book (I mean, I've never crumb-coated a cake before, so this is learning all the way) I am pleased with the result. And the cake seemed neat enough that the folks at work were impressed (or maybe that was just the size). The Italian meringue buttercream was a right pain to make, but it sets into perfect layers, which means that the cake looks great when you cut into it (and ignore the jam oozing everywhere). In taste it was absolutely delicious! There are lots of flavours there: pistachio, cardamom, saffron, mango, vanilla (even rose on the top of mine) but they all worked together. The buttercream wasn't too rich and actually tasted a lot like vanilla ice-cream, even if the amount of butter in it made it feel like you'd put lip balm on. Eating a whole slice was quite a challenge, because it's four layers high. But yes. It tasted great and it looked ok and I feel very proud of myself that I've achieved something like this. In a way, I'm glad this was my last recipe before lockdown, partly because I was able to end on a high, and partly because it was so exhausting that I had no desire to cook anything for a long time afterwards.
Stay safe, guys. I'll see you on the other side.