28 June, 2007

June recipe: Strawberry cheesecake

Yes, Glastonbury Festival a foot deep in mud, severe flooding, play repeatedly delayed by rain at the Wimbledon lawn tennis tournament – it can only be summer in England. The item above all others that marks out TH White’s Arthurian epic The Once and Future King as fantasy isn’t the griffin hunt, or the spells that turn the young Arthur into a variety of animals or Merlin’s second sight, it’s the line, “But in Old England there was a greater marvel still. The weather behaved itself.”

Be that as it may, the long daylight hours still persuade soft fruit to ripen, and the blackbirds in my garden have kindly left a few strawberries for us to eat (or perhaps they missed them among the weeds, which love warm wet weather and are doing a passable imitation of a jungle). So here’s a summer dessert recipe for this month. If you don’t like or can’t get strawberries, you can substitute any dessert fruit of your choice.

Strawberry cheesecake

For the pastry:
8 oz (approx 250 g) plain flour
3 oz (approx 100 g) icing sugar
4 oz (approx 125 g) butter
1 egg
Or you can use ready-made pastry if you prefer

For the cheesecake:
4 oz (approx 125 g) cream cheese
1.5 oz (approx 40 g) sugar
Few drops vanilla essence
1 egg, separated
4 fluid oz (approx 100 ml) double cream (or whipping cream, I think the US name may be heavy cream)

For the topping:
Sliced or whole strawberries (or fruit of your choice)

To make the pastry:
Cream the butter and icing sugar until pale and fluffy.
Beat in the egg.
Beat in the flour to form a dough.
This quantity of pastry is enough for three 7-inch tart cases, so divide the dough into three and freeze two of them.
Wrap one portion in cling film or foil and refrigerate for about an hour.
Roll out the pastry on a floured board, and line a greased tart tin about 7 inches (approximately 18 cm) in diameter. Don’t try to roll it out too thin. If the pastry breaks or tears when you lift it into the tin, don’t worry too much. Arrange the pieces in the tin, press the broken edges back together like Plasticene and you’ll probably get away with it.
Bake the empty tart case in a hot oven (about 200 C) for about 15 minutes until golden brown and set. You can go through the palaver of blind-baking with the pastry weighted down with beans or marbles if you like, but I never bother.
Cool on a wire rack.
Or you can just buy a ready-made tart case of your choice.

To make the cheesecake:
Beat the cream cheese and sugar together until well mixed and smooth.
Beat in the vanilla essence.
Separate the egg, put the egg white in a clean bowl, and beat the egg yolk into the cream cheese and sugar.
Whip the egg white until stiff (an electric whisk is a boon here). Fold into the cream cheese mixture.
Whip the cream until stiff. Fold into the cream cheese mixture.
Pour into the cooked pastry case. (If there is any left over that won’t fit in the tart case, which may happen if your tart tin is a little smaller than mine, put it in a wine glass and it will set to something resembling a vanilla mousse. Or just eat any leftover mixture out of the mixing bowl, which I confess is what I do).
Refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight to set. If you don’t have time to wait, the cheesecake will still be just as delicious to eat, but it won’t have set and you’ll find it flows off the spoon when you serve it instead of staying in a neat slice.

To finish:
Top the set cheesecake with strawberries, sliced, halved or whole according to personal preference.
Dust with icing sugar if liked.
Serve cut into slices. I generally expect to get 6-8 slices out of this recipe, but it depends on how large a slice you like…
Will keep in the fridge for a couple of days, if it gets the chance.

14 June, 2007

Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' adventures

One of the UK digital channels has been re-running some of the TV adaptations of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels this week, which has been a welcome diversion. I'd forgotten how good they are. For anyone who's not familiar with the series, it's a sequence of military adventure stories featuring the dramatic and romantic exploits of Richard Sharpe, a fictional officer with the British 95th Rifles during the Napoleonic Wars in Spain. Sean Bean looked even better in 1993 when the first film was made, and David Troughton makes a perfect Lord Wellington.

I've read most of the Sharpe novels as well, and I'm struck by how well they translate to the screen. The screenplays differ from the novels, but they are just as good. Which I think is quite rare - most screen adaptations seem to lose something of the story compared with the original novel, and very few improve on it. I can only think of Hunt for Red October where I thought the film was better than the book (and not just because Sean Connery was in it, either).

Do you have a favourite screen adaptation of a novel?

By the way, posts will be erratic for a couple of weeks as my computer was trashed by a lightning strike a few days ago (What did I say or do to annoy Red-bearded Thunor/Thor?). Normal service will be resumed when I get a repair or replacement. Don't go away.

04 June, 2007

Old English Riddles - a thousand years of double entendre

“I am a wonderful help to women
The hope of something good to come
I harm only my slayer
I grow very tall, erect in a bed
I am shaggy down below
The lovely girl grabs my body, rubs my red skin
Holds me hard, claims my head.
That girl will feel our meeting!
I bring tears to her eyes!
What am I?”

(Answer at the foot of the post.)

This is Riddle 23 from the Exeter Book, also known as the Exeter Codex. The word ‘riddle’ derives from the same root as the Old English word ‘-raed’, meaning ‘counsel, explain, teach’. A riddle is typically a short poem describing a familiar object or activity in a cryptic way, and the listener (or reader, after they came to be written down) has to work out what is being described. They can be clever, witty, poetic, beautiful, almost mystical. As this one shows, they can also display a bawdy sense of humour. Seven of the Exeter Book Riddles are of the same form as Riddle 23.

English/British humour seems to be uncommonly fond of the risque double meaning. It’s a staple of seaside postcards, Carry On films, Frankie Howerd scripts, and innumerable other sitcoms, not to mention Shakespeare (“Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, wilt thou not Juliet?”). In English, it seems, any entendre can be double’d. It’s rather nice to see proof that this hasn’t changed in a thousand years. Incidentally, is this a characteristically British form of humour? I don’t associate it with US humour, but that may reflect the US material we see over here. Would any American readers care to comment?

The Exeter Book is believed to be the “…one large book in English verse about various subjects” which was bequeathed to the Exeter Cathedral Library by Leofric, first Bishop of Exeter, in 1072 and survives in Exeter Cathedral Library to this day. The date of its composition is not known, though it’s usually ascribed to the second half of the tenth century, say around 960 or so. The Exeter Book contains a remarkable variety of Old English verse, religious and secular, including The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Husband’s Message, The Wife’s Lament, Widsith and, of course, the Riddles.

To me, the Exeter Book Riddles show early English culture in an attractive light. Clearly these were people who liked jokes as well as elegies, who valued mundane tasks as well as heroes, and who enjoyed intelligent word games but weren’t above a vulgar belly laugh. It’s worth remembering that the Exeter Book was a gift from a bishop to his cathedral library, presumably expected to be read mainly by monks and other clerics. Evidently at least one senior churchman of the time was no prim killjoy.

Do you have a favourite riddle?

Answer: an onion. Whatever were you thinking?