January 27, 2010

All the pleasures of the world...

Food is a very personal thing. We each have our own likes and dislikes; things the mere thought of which send our stomachs churning, and those that make us go over all funny in the pleasantest of ways. And for each it also serves a different purpose. For some it is simply a means to exist, and eating a necessary task performed with minimal feeling to fuel vital bodily processes; while for others, it is much, much more.
Having spent a large part of my independent life with someone who fell into the former category, I can vaguely appreciate both positions (as I, evidently, fall in to the latter). It is a difficult thing, as a Lady Baker, to have your efforts pushed aside in preference for enteral feeds, and even though you knew that the choice was made purely because the energy for physical consumption was lacking, having something you know you do well regularly turned away was sometimes a little torturous to bear (for both parties). But it did make me see food from a different perspective, and perhaps I have a better understanding of the fundamentals because of it.
So in thinking about what food means to me, I would say that it is in fact anything but personal. It is something to be shared and enjoyed as a fundamental pleasure in life. Of course the food itself is important, and we all enjoy stealing a moment of private indulgence from time to time, but the things I love most about food are never personal. I love spending time at Team Pretty Bake, bandying around baking ideas, learning new skills, sharing hilarious kitchen moments and gifting the products of our endeavours to friends and neighbours alike. I love taking something I enjoy and seeing the delight it can instill in others. I love that it is something people will talk passionately about, and so willingly share their knowledge of their own personal obsessions.
And I love communal dining.
While I tend to balk at popular fads, I must confess to enjoying the concept of tapas and its contemporaries, because to me they epitomise what eating out should be. It seems that as we are all swept deeper into the maelstrom of a frenetic life, we have somehow forgotten how to stop and genuinely engage with those around us. I love a meal that can be shared and enjoyed together, because what I want from an evening out (or even an evening in) is not just shared food, but a shared moment. I want to give my undivided attention to those I consider deserving and to take that time as if nothing else matters, letting the rest of the world blur around us as we share anything and everything, things which may be insignificant in the bigger picture, but things which are important in that moment. To try something new and share novel gastronomic adventures that can be enjoyed in context because they have been experienced together. And it is a moment in which you’re not afraid to have an opinion because in this regard at least, food is personal. Everyone has different tastes and perceptions so there is no right or wrong, just different perspectives, which only add to the melting pot of discussion.
And in spite of my social ineptitude, which can make large social gatherings awkward, and my distinct lack of a belief system, which renders the majority of festive occasions rather meaningless, I am in fact rather fond of traditions. I enjoy the stories behind their conception and the fact that, no matter how far removed they now are from their original meaning, people will continue to carry them on purely because it is an opportunity to share good food, and a moment, with the people they love. But having said that, I don’t think I really have any traditions. For a long time now I have baked gifts for Christmas, and I’ve practically always made my own birthday cake, but as far as traditions go, that’s about it.
So I thought then, that perhaps it’s time to start some.
Or maybe adopt some.
Or at the least bake something delicious which happens to have a tradition associated with it, and then try and do it again…
One thing that I’d like to properly master is pastry, and in looking to the French for inspiration (I have borrowed heavily from the delightful Clotilde, here), I happened across Galette des Rois. Used to celebrate l’Epiphanie - the day on which the three kings Gaspard, Balthazar and Melchior came to pay tribute to the world-famous baby born - Galette des Rois is simply flaked pastry filled with frangipane or crème d’amande. Naturally, the religious significance is completely lost on me, but there is an adorable family ritual that goes with it. The youngest child in the family hides under the table as an adult divides the galette in to even slices, and then said child calls out which slice goes to whom. The blindness of the allocation is due to the presence of la fève, which is hidden in the galette. Historically a dry fava bean but now a little porcelain figure, whoever gets la fève is dubbed King (or Queen) for the day, gets to wear a gold (paper) crown, picks who the Queen (or King) will be, and “glows with pride for weeks hence”. To me this all sounds positively enchanting, and since Miss Rose was to be fulfilling proper work obligations for the next few weekends, I took the opportunity to acquaint myself with my new surrounds and start my own tradition of Galette des Rois, from scratch.
Now, people always seem to freak out a bit when it comes to making pastry. I don’t quite know why, but it does take time and effort, so I guess if you’re not confident with how it will turn out, it could be such a waste. Also, it must be made with love, so if your hearts not in it, it is simply not worth your while even trying. Fortunately, the qualities required for making pastry seem to come to me naturally, I have the patience for executing things that are elaborate and time consuming, and I have love to give, so it happens that pastry and I get along rather well. And besides, when it is listed in what is fast becoming my favourite book of reference (thanks mum!) as having “729 layers of moistened flour separated by 728 layers of fat”, and described as a “dough-fat sandwich”, what’s not to love?

puff pastry, from scratch
Having lovingly prepared my puff and dying to test whether it would actually do so, it simply remained for me to make the crème d’amande
crème d’amande
Assemble the galette

Bake, celebrate the fact that my puff actually puffed (hurrah!), and then, with the heavenly aroma of pastry deliciousness pervading the house, wait patiently for it to cool before cracking the Champagne and letting the tradition inauguration commence…
Galette des Rois
There was, however, one minor problem. Well, two actually.
The first, which the observant amongst you will by now have noticed, was la fève. I’d wanted to pass on the dried legume, but it seems that small porcelain figures suitable for baking are far harder to come by than I’d anticipated, and there were only so many blank stares from sales assistants I could bear before requiring a delicious cold press from Sensory Lab to help ease the disappointment. So there was going to be no quaint ornament with which to perform the ceremonial gamblings, and it is something I will have to remedy before Epiphany next. Perhaps, Miss Hart, next time you’re in Paris, if you wouldn’t mind…
But in a way, my inability to find a suitable la fève was rather fortuitous because it helped address the second problem, which was:
I live alone.
I had no small child to clamber under the table and call out which piece goes to whom with squeals of delight, and given nearly everyone I know had taken the advent of our national holiday to do just that, I in fact had no one at all.
So it saved me from slicing the galette myself

Ducking under the table to emit the obligatory “squee”

Blindly turned the plate so that selection would be random

And then, with the odds certainly not in my favour, collecting my piece to see if I would be Queen for the day (while ignoring the fact that I’d neglected to acquire a crown fitting of the occasion anyway)…

So although I need to work on my timing, find an appropriate la fève and get hold of a gold crown fit for a King, I was extremely happy with how the pastry turned out, and the Galette itself was certainly something worth going all traditional over.
Maybe next year, if you’d like to join me, we’ll do it properly then…


Simon W said...

Count me in for next year, perfect puff, i'm very jealous as i've never had the patience

pinknantucket said...

I think I still have my crown from last year (made from acid-free library board and spraypainted gold). Also, ditto what Simon W said!! Also also, McGEE IS A GOD.

Kate said...

would a nice small piece of Beaufort quartz do until a more suitable treasure can be found?

Anonymous said...

We have two small children you can borrow as long as we can share the galette !Susie xxx