Panettone and a Protagonist

Panettone

I’ve been doing a little research. My current work-in-progress features an Italian-American protagonist and I’ve needed to get inside her head. That has meant trying to understand her culture, her history, her family and….her food. You can already start to imagine what a burden this has been. I’ve been eating Italian food like cuh-raze-y, frequenting my local Italian deli (surely the best in all of Sydney) and hanging about Italian festivals.

Yes. I have loved every single minute of it.

But, as you know, really truly understanding another culture is tricky business. In all the travelling I’ve done I’ve found cultures to be multi-dimensional, complex and, often, contradictory. Different regions can give rise to very different cultural ‘personalities’ and just when you think you’ve got things pegged you encounter another exception. If all that wasn’t enough I elected not one but two foreign (to me) cultures for my main character in this work. [Or she / they elected me, but that’s a whole other story about how characters come into your life. Right?!]

This is not my first go at writing from a cultural perspective that is not my own. Grace, protagonist of The Colour of Tea is English. Perhaps one day I will finally attempt a manuscript written from the perspective of a nomadic, kiwi girl with a slightly unhealthy love for libraries and baking! For now, I have my work cut out for me – living in the head of an Italian-American and eating my deli out of bocconcini, baked ricotta, marinated olives and tiny tins of anchovies. I’ve accidentally stumbled into the best suburb of Sydney to live for my research – Five Dock – and have gotten accustomed to writing in cafes with the mellifluous sing-song sounds of Italian being spoken in the background, smells of espresso and a perfect, chewy, almond meal biscotti at my elbow. Life is tough.

At this time of year, in my neighbourhood, the most ubiquitous sight in the delis and supermarkets is a mountain of variously coloured panettone boxes on sale. Panettone is a sweet, dried-fruit-bejewelled bread, served at Christmas. The boxes are pretty and the price point is ridiculously low, the stores now trying to clear their stock and make room on their shelves.  I’d always wanted to try panettone but had never given it a go, so I was grateful that the Italian-American protagonist occupying my thoughts gave me the push I needed. Personal verdict? I like it. It’s a mix between a very light fruit cake and brioche. It’s lightly spiced, eggy, sweet but not overly sweet. Fluffy and light inside with a firmer outer crust and resembling a gigantic…muffin? Well, that was the panettone I bought. I am sure they vary greatly. All the more reason to keep sampling them…

Although I loved the panettone, I can’t say the rest of my family helped me dig into the huge serving. So I’ve been staring at my humungous panettone and feeling guilty. Like many of you, I am sure, I come from a long line of proud non-wasters. Food is a gift and a pleasure not to be thrown away lightly! I had to do something with all that glorious panettone, so I started in on research for recipes and finally ended up making up my own version of Panettone Bread and Butter Pudding.

Now, this may well be the equivalent of making rice pudding from leftover rice from a Chinese dinner. I’m guessing that no Italian or Italian-American does this kind of thing! In fact, I could be horrifying someone out there that I’d even think of it and I am sure there is a much more traditional alternative to panettone leftovers. But perhaps that’s just the way with us writers of fiction – we have to accept a certain amount of deviation from “real-ness”. It’s a challenging journey to make – walking the line between creating a genuine voice and taking a chance to create a fictional character. Research can bog you down and become obsessive, in the search for a “true” voice, requiring, at some point, a leap of faith. It’s ironic that while I’ve been pondering this issue a lot lately, I’ve gone and made something just like the issue – a merging of something quintessentially Italian and Me. My tastes, my musings, my fiction.

I don’t know if I’m going to get my protagonist “right”. Probably not, hopefully not too far “wrong”. I’m sure it will take a lot of finessing through the editing process to get her closer to the mark. But for the record, the food version, my panettone bread and butter pudding was quite yummy, thank you. Or at least I thought so.

What’s your favourite part about “getting inside the head” of a protagonist?

Panettone bread and butter pudding

Panettone Bread and Butter Pudding:

Ingredients:

50g butter, 3/4 large panettone (2lbs, 908g size), 100ml milk, 300ml cream, 3 large eggs, 8 tsp sugar

Method:

Heat oven to 180 degrees celsius, butter slices of panettone

Grease a one litre pie dish with butter (I used my Staub dutch oven)

Cover dish base with panettone, buttered side up. Layer.

In a saucepan heat milk and cream but do not boil.

In a separate bowl beat eggs with 3/4 of sugar till light and airy and pale in colour

Pour warm milk mixture over eggs, continue beating until all milk mixture added.

Pour this mixture over the panettone slowly, push the liquid gently into the panettone. Sprinkle remaining sugar on the top.

Bake in a hot oven for approximately 30 minutes, until the surface is golden brown and the pudding risen and egg mixture set.

Serve hot with ice-cream, cream or whatever tickles your fancy!

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Always Eat Breakfast

Hello to you! I trust 2013 has treated you well so far. Thanks for adding to my looong list of recipes-to-make with that last post. Really, all I need right now is more reasons to eat.

So I’m going to give you another one. Your suggestion of resolutions got me thinking, and not just about how I can be a better human this year. It got me thinking about breakfast. It doesn’t take much, admittedly. But I started thinking about breakfast metaphorically–the start of the day, the hopeful beginning of something, just like January is to the rest of the year. Maybe the night before was a bender (or at least, in this house, a late night of cleaning-up-after-toddler and falling asleep halfway through a movie) and you want to do better with this new day you’ve been given. I often find breakfast sets the tone for my day. If I burn the pancakes, it doesn’t bode well.

So….

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If you want to start the morning-month of the year off right, have a slice of breakfast pizza. I found it through Smitten Kitchen, but it’s from here originally. It is breakfast + Pizza = heaven.

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And now that we’re fed and satisfied, on to the list of resolutions I may or may not stick to. Hmmm, that was a disclaimer, wasn’t it? Shame on me for using the word resolutions when there’s nothing resolute about them. I will resolve to to better next time. Maybe.

1. Write more. That’s easy–I have a novel to edit by March. What’s not so easy: writing from scratch. Need to do more of that too.

2. More creative thinking. Which is different from thinking more creatively, because I think I’m already a creative thinker. I just don’t do as much of it as I used to.

3. Eat more whole grains. Easy. Done. I got this for Christmas.

4. Study patience. DH and I recently had a conversation about the nature of patience. It’s more than waiting for something for a long time without getting antsy. It’s grace, it’s courage, it’s confidence–in yourself and others. And that stuff is hard.

5. Get. Out. Side. Too much house makes Ria crazy.

What about you?

XO

Ria

Naughty and Nice

Hello to you in 2013! Just like that – a whole new year. How’d that happen exactly? What has the new year brought you so far? For me it’s ushered in a few extra kilos. Dang. I hopped on the scales the other day and had to exclaim “Hey where’d you come from, you cheeky monkeys?” Oh that’s right, from a bit of this –Peppermint bark

I know you probably can’t handle yet another festive recipe right now, so I have only this one to share and then it’s on to healthier things. I just can’t help myself but tell you about this peppermint bark because I’ve made it a couple of years running now so I think it might be a tradition. This year was so hot I had to wrap the little morsels up in individual baking paper and then box up. They looked so cute I was very impressed with myself.IMG_9652

Here is the recipe and in case you need to know metric amounts:

480 grams. white chocolate, such as Callebaut, finely chopped (dbl = 963g, triple=1,930g)

30 red-and-white-striped hard peppermint candies, coarsely crushed (dbl = 60, triple =90)

200 grams bittersweet chocolate, such as Ghirardelli 60%, finely chopped (dbl= 400g, triple = 600g)

6 Tbsp. heavy cream (dbl = 12 Tbsp, triple = 18 Tbsp)

¾ tsp. peppermint extract (dbl = 1.5 tsp, triple = 2 1/4 tsp)

I tripled the recipe (I know, let’s just say my in-laws are plentiful) and I used candy canes instead of peppermint sweets because I couldn’t find them late at night on Christmas Eve. Shockingly poor planner, me.

So that’s that one. Make it if you dare. Utterly addictive stuff.IMG_9659

And now for the healthy stuff. The extra kilos and the heralding of the new year encouraged me to finally make this sensational brownie I had read about on My New Roots and hadn’t made yet. It’s just dates and nuts and raw cacao and no monkey business (wheat, sugar etc). It’s raw and it’s amazing. I never thought I would pair those things in a sentence. I thought it might be okay, but I wasn’t quite prepared for it to be really really yummy.IMG_9468

My sister thinks it has a little too much cacao in it, but if you’re a dark chocolate freak like I am I think you will love it. I didn’t have medjool dates so soaked some regular ones for a little while until soft and then I mucked about with different nuts like trading the almonds for macadamias. Still yummy. I’m starting to think you might not be able to b*gger this one up too badly (Southern hemisphere speak for “botch it up”) even if you get a little crazy with the alternations. Make sure to get your hands mucky, squishing it down into the pan, of course.Mucky hands

Raw Brownie is going to feature pretty regularly in our house in 2013. I keep it in the freezer so it’s super cold and cut a square for my mandatory sweet fix with tea and / or writing. Speaking of 2013, I have to ask about resolutions. Did you make any? Are you opposed to making them? Design*Sponge had this great post of visual displays of resolutions from creative types. Some were quite inspiring. I loved “Be Here Now” and “Aid in the Flourishing of Others”. This follow-up post is a good ‘un if you’re still writing your goals.

I’ve started scribbling down a few resolution-y type thoughts on a notepad, ready to be crafted into a meaningful list. I’m not fussed about having a list bang-on New Year but I do like to make a few goals. I generally go for no more than five but I have quite a few changes I want to make this year. The one I thought you’d like the sound of is “Make space for creativity and inspiration”. I don’t mean physical space, I mean head space. 2012 was all about rushing around and cramming activities / chores / thoughts / feelings into tiny spaces; loaded up like kids on bunk beds. There was far too much multi-tasking and doing things half baked. It was harried. I was harried. This year I want to slow down and make some room. Lie in the bath without a book or a note pad. Stare out the window. Turn off the television. Stop doing two things at once. I think I need a few more empty pockets in my day and my life. Pockets to be filled with inspiration. Daydreams. Plots and characters. This hurrying and busy-ness has become a little habit forming and it needs to stop. Wish me luck…

How about you? What are your resolutions, if any? And what can you just not stop eating in 2013 (so far)?

HUGS, Hannah x

Comfort Me with Chocolate

Is that a song? It should be.

Specifically, chocolate pudding, from scratch. I’m not sure what’s in chocolate pudding from-a-box since I don’t have any in the house, but I imagine there are more ingredients than in this chocolate pudding. It is too simple and easy to be ignored. And, as I think you will agree, dresses up well enough to be taken out. The French call it Pot au Chocolat and it includes egg yolks among other things (French things often do, n’est-ce pas?). My version is eggless and creamless except for the whipped cream I couldn’t help spooning on top. And you must do this. It is not guilding the lily. It is putting the lily in the right vase with the right accompanying greenery and standing the whole show in front of a sunny window. Okay?

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Now for the book analogy to go along with the chocolate pudding: comfort reading. Because what’s better than eating your favourite dessert? Why, eating it while reading your favourite, comfortable reading material. I think I’ve made it plain what my words of choice while eating are. But depending on my need for comfort (and whether little e is sleeping) I might read Haiku or the West Coast Seeds catalogue or a YA novel or a graphic novel. And of course blogs–which, let’s face it, are often the most easily-accessed reading material. Those are definitely comfort reading. You know when you just need a boost or a laugh or to read something you’ve already read but really enjoyed?

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Well, that’s this chocolate pudding, too. It’s been in my repertoire since I lived in a basement suite in East Vancouver as a student and aspiring-and-often-terrible writer, which is to say, for many moons. I come back to it because it always delivers that warm, wrapped up love feeling that got me through nights of angsty singledom then and gets me through cold December nights of baby-induced exhaustion now. Just like a favourite book. I’m looking at you, Jane Austen.

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Chocolate Pudding

(adapted from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest)

3/4 cup good quality dark chocolate, chopped

2 tbs brown sugar

2 cups whole milk

pinch of salt

3 tbs cornstarch

1 tsp vanilla

Combine the chocolate, sugar and milk in a saucepan and gently heat to melt the chocolate. Remove from heat once mixture  is uniform. Place salt and cornstarch in a small bowl and then pour a quarter of the hot mixture over the salt/cornstarch, whisking vigorously to avoid clumps. Then pour this solution back into the saucepan. [I often get a few lumps and hate that, so I pour the solution through a fine-mesh sieve into the saucepan.] Stir the chocolate mixture over low to medium-low heat (depending on your level of patience), until thick and glossy. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. I like to use ramekins because it makes the pudding look sexy and stops me from eating too much at once. A skin will form on the top pretty quickly, but you can avoid this by lying a sheet of wax paper on the surface right away. Or just eat the skin with the rest of it like I do. Or cover it with whipped cream after it’s cooled in the fridge. It’s really a win-win.

What’s your Queen of Comfort (food and book)?

XO

Ria

Sticky Pages

Is it wrong to have a crush on a cookbook? Let’s just say if there was a desert island with a full kitchen and I could only take one cookbook (the ingredients for which would just be there, of course) I’d take the Rebar Modern Food Cookbook. I’d also take it into the afterlife with me if I were a pharaoh.

It is full of delicious awesome. Its pages are sticky and spattered in a way that might make DH shudder. He likes clean books. I do too, but I also think cookbooks, ones that are really loved, must be used. And I cannot,  no matter my good intentions, remember to put the cookbook into its plexiglass protection sleeve when I’m cooking. I’m one of those people.

But here’s why I love the Rebar cookbook.

1. It comes from a real-life restaurant in Victoria, BC, which is every bit as good as the recipes, and boasts a retro collection of jelly molds on its walls.

2. Every recipe I have tried in this book (I’m thinking somewhere around 75%, which, if you think about it, is kind of crazy. That’s a lot of recipes.) is awesome.

3. There’s a lot of garlic called for. No apologies. Just tasty business.

4. The desserts and soups and breakfasts and salads and homemade tortillas are all winners. Did I repeat number 2? I think I did.

5. There are no shiny, sexy colour photos of up-close food–just black and white candids of Rebar staff and happy customers and random cameos of a toy T-rex. In a world where sexy colour photos sell the book, I kind of root for this underdog.

6. It’s flexible. Recipes are vegetarian or vegan, or have a bit of seafood, but can be infinitely adapted for any diet.

I don’t know about you, but cookbooks are kitchen porn to me. I often read them while eating. [edit: past tense. I often read them while eating before I became a parent] I’m one of those people who plans their dinner right after eating breakfast. I have yet to find another cookbook that has hit as many home runs as this one. But enough with the mixed metaphors.

Here’s a few photos of my most recent Rebar recipe. Banana bread. With walnuts and wheat germ. I made them into muffins so I could eat more of them in one go without getting depressed that half the loaf was gone.

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I just realised something that should have been evident years ago: the word cookbook encapsulates our two favourite things–food and writing. Both are verbs and nouns. They are the same word, save one letter. If you read the word long enough, it starts to actually mean writing. Cooking a book, the way cooking a baby is a euphemism for pregnancy.

Am I crazy? Maybe. I need to go eat some banana bread.

What’s your favourite cookbook?

XO

Ria

The Time Machine

So this weekend little e and I escaped to the city so DH and a friend could put in a closet in one of our upstairs bedrooms. It’s our mission to move up there because the rooms are nicer, the light is better and little e can have her own room instead of her crib taking up most of my office.

I arrived home to find a fully framed-in, drywalled closet, like magic. My role was to handle the childcare for 48 hours, so I definitely got the best part of the deal.

Closet pre-drywall

But here’s the best bit: while taking out a cabinet, DH discovered several ancient artifacts. The house was build around 1910 and we think renovations to the upper floor happened between the 20s and 50s, which explains these:

The big paper is some kind of newsletter from 1957 which starts by talking about some annual general meeting and then goes into numerous fifties-style jokes. –Oh, you want to hear one? Swell!

“A woman stormed into the manager’s office in a New York department store and demanded her money back.

‘The dress I bought has moth holes in it,” she said. ‘The sales clerk says there’s nothing she can do.’

‘She’s right,’ said the manager.

‘But what about the notice right on the sales slip–money cheerfully returned if not satisfactory?’

‘Sure,’ said the manager. ‘But there’s nothing wrong with your money.'”

But below is my favourite artifact–I mean, what? I’m itching to take it down to the city archives to find out what it means and when exactly it’s from.

And isn’t this the most horrible and wonderful linoleum you’ve ever seen?

I can’t contain my glee when things like this happen. I thought for a while I’d like to be an archaeologist (still would in my dreams), and this is as close as I’ll probably get. Because isn’t that what we want as writers–perfect moments captured in time? Maybe I wanted to be an archaeologist because I wanted to discover stories. As a writer I get to do that too, just not by digging in the ground. You may recall my fondness for writing prompts (sorry, it’s the teacher and writing student in me). Isn’t this discovery of frozen history the raddest writing prompt ever? Maybe bested by the dog magazine, gun cleaner and box of bullets we found in the attic two years ago, but anyway–still amazing! If I let my mind wander, I can hear the conversation that went on while picking out that lino. Likely by a couple named Bert and Mabel. I better go write it down…

XO

Ria

Anatomy of a Birthday Cake

[Update: Here’s the link to the radio interview I did about my book, Nobody’s Dog, which I promised I’d post when I got it.]

So we had a momentous birthday here the other day. Someone turned One Year Old.

I grew up in a family that cherished–nay, obsessed over–homemade birthday cakes. Every year we got to pore over the Australian Women’s Weekly Kid’s Birthday Cakes book, with all its shiny colour photos and array of choices. Would it be the bear? The Barbie with the fancy dress? The swimming pool? I admit, that one always weirded me out a little. But it was a birthday tradition, and one I want to pass on to little e.

Of course, this year she’s too young to have any say in the cake choice, so I took on the challenge. It was actually harder than I thought. Not because I couldn’t choose between the cakes (I’m a jump-in-ask-questions-later kind of baker), but because I realized the ones I was interested in making had very colourful icing. And that means everyone’s yearly quota of Red No.5 and Yellow FCF, which I try my best to avoid. Not that that stuff doesn’t show up in other food we eat all the time, but the idea of consciously putting it in my child’s cake was…off-putting. Anyway, as you’ll see below, I went with something light blue–the cake in the book was much darker–so it has a kind of Caribbean ocean feel to it.

But that’s not the end of the cake saga. You’re on the edge of your seat, I’m sure.

Let’s just say it had been a crazy week in a string of crazy weeks and late at night on a Friday, I baked the cake for the next day’s party. I doubled the recipe because I was determined not to run out of cake once I started cutting it into shape. I had bought a really big cake pan for it. It came out of the oven looking great. I let it cool for a little while. Then I went to turn it out onto the cooling rack. It was still warm. I should have known better.

I have no photos of the carnage, but basically the edges removed themselves from the pan enthusiastically while the middle did not. So I ended up with three jagged pieces of cake on the cooling rack. I was so amazed at my own idiocy at 10pm the night before the party that I just stood there in the kitchen staring at the broken cake. DH came down the stairs and found me like that. I couldn’t speak. He got out the spatula.

There have been other times when I’ve been grateful to have an artist for a husband. Plenty of them. But I never thought I’d say that my husband’s Arts degree in ceramics and sculpture would save our daughter’s first birthday cake.

The above photo shows no evidence of the spackling and sculpting that took place to make the cake look like one piece instead of three. Testament to DH’s talents. And here it is in all its Caribbean whale glory:

It was delicious. Wish you had been here.

What talents are you especially glad your husband possesses?

XO

Ria