Thursday 30 April 2020

My world is getting smaller and smaller

We are confined to a comfortable home with a garden and can go for a walk but I am not talking about small in a physical sense but in a psychological sense. So many of the casual encounters one had on a daily basis are gone, and family and friends are reduced to voices on the phone or face-to-face but digitally.  

We are in a very privileged position and I absolutely realise that – what I can’t deal with any more is the relentless horror of the news. I don’t think I am alone. We are desperate for hopeful or good news, news that isn’t haranguing the government or making endless comparisons to other countries – it will be relevant later, creating some disease and death Olympian competition now is pointless. The Prime Minister seems to be fair game for criticism for missing Prime Minister’s Questions when his partner gave birth during the night and he has survived a life threatening illness. (I don’t care how many children he has – it is her first child born at a very difficult time.)  The British Government operates with cabinet responsibility and a non-political Civil Service. He is only the first among equals.

So many of my friends have stopped watching the news – we watch the daily update from Number 10 Downing Street and switch off for the questions. 

Is it surprising then when a man, who turned 100 years old today, decided to walk in his garden to raise money for the health service he becomes a national hero? Not at all, he is a wonderful human being, gracious, optimistic, grateful and humble. People have donated over £30 million, he has been made an Honorary Colonel and today had a flypast of a Hurricane Bomber and a Spitfire to celebrate. His wonderful response was that he saw them flying in wartime and now they fly in peace.

The nation has been captured by his simple straightforward humble approach which is why so much money has been raised.  

There are very positive stories of ordinary sacrifices, good deeds, creativity and neighbourliness, etc but the media are obsessed with negativity, themselves and their own cleverness. I think they have missed a trick. We are not the only country that perhaps didn’t get it right – there are a lot of people doing their best and yes, that does include the politicians. We have a new kind of door stepping, remotely, of bereaved families. Each and every death is a dreadful tragedy for a group of people but we can’t grieve for strangers every hour of every day. 

Switzerland is opening up next week, schools are going back and shops are opening, and you can hug your grandchildren if they are under ten years old.  

Thursday 23 April 2020

COVID-19 lockdown: will swap toilet paper for yeast…..

It’s almost the weekend - challah is needed for Friday night. 

At the beginning of the lockdown in the UK there was panic buying.  People were seen leaving supermarkets with several multipacks of toilet paper and the stores soon ran out. Rationing was introduced and many jokes were circulated such as “I have six rolls of toilet paper, will swap for a cottage in the country”.

There were more shortages – flour, eggs, long-life milk, pasta and others as well. However as the supply chain smartened up and people stopped panic buying things have calmed down. There remains however a dearth of yeast. Unlike Switzerland where fresh yeast is available in every supermarket here it is only in specialist shops or on line. There is no fresh yeast, nor dried, nor instant so perhaps it is a bit mean to offer this recipe up now.  I have yeast….

Elaine and I served on a board together. We both arrived early for one meeting and were chatting about the recent Jewish New Year.  I told her that I had queued for 30 minutes to buy a challah at the bakery.  She wondered why I didn’t make my own – yeast baking is a challenge I had never attempted. While we were waiting she wrote out the recipe and I was very proud to bake the challah for my grandson’s barmitzvah.

Challah – Elaine’s recipe

40 g          fresh yeast *
100 g        white granulated sugar
1 K 
           Strong white bread flour
1 tab 
120 ml+
430 ml+    warm water – above hand hot as the oil cools it
an egg, beaten
Put the flour in a large bowl.  Crumble the yeast on top and sugar on top of that.  Mix the warm water and oil and add – it should be handhot.  Add salt.  Mix until sides of the bowl are clean.  Add equal amounts of oil and water if needed.  Final texture should be damp but not too sticky.  Leave to rise 2 – 3 hours or more in a warm place.

If you are making challah divide the dough into three pieces and roll into strips for plaiting. Otherwise you can make a round loaf.  Make loaves and put on a tray lined with baking paper and leave to rise for ½ hour for round and 1 hour for plaited.  You can alternatively put it into two 500 gram lined baking tins for regular loaves. Bake at 180C for 20 – 30 minutes. Brush with beaten egg. The loaves are ready when the base sounds hollow when tapped.  Remove from the tins if using and cool all loaves on a wire stand.  

* If you can’t get fresh yeast the equivalents are 3 grams of fresh – 1.5 gms of dry or 1 gm of quick.  So for this recipe it would be 20 gms of dry or about 14 gms of quick.   

If you have never tasted toast made from challah you have a treat in store.  

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Passover without maztah? Certainly not.

I confess that, as we were going to be on our own at Passover I made no advance preparations. However, Number One Daughter organised a virtual Seder from Switzerland so emergency preparations were required.  We couldn’t go shopping and the chance of any supermarket delivery was between nought and nil.

The most important part is the Seder plate, which contains all the items for the service – each loaded with symbolism.  Substitutions had to be made (and may not be approved by the Rabbi!)  Daughter doesn’t eat lamb and granddaughter doesn’t eat meat so their lamb shank-bone is replaced with a toy lamb on their plate.

What to do? Our shank-bone was replaced with a photograph of a lamb no bone of any kind being available.

Then there is the hardboiled egg, which is generally charred – waving it through a candle flame gives the appropriate appearance.

Bitter herbs are next – grated horseradish – luckily I had a piece of a horseradish root left over from some dish or other – enough to be grated for two of us. It can be supplemented with lettuce.

Charoseth was hastily made (not the delicious one I gave a recipe for earlier) but a mixture of a few nuts, some dried fruit and wine.  It would do.

Finally there was parsley – fortunately I had a few sprigs that had emerged with the sunshine.

One key ingredient was missing – matzah. This represents the unleavened bread that had to be cooked before they fled Egypt and before it had time to rise and is key to the service and the whole of Passover. There are many rules governing the making of this but the most important is that it should not rise. From the time the flour and water are mixed the baking must be completed within 18 minutes. There are two main ingredients, flour and water with a sprinkling of salt and a brush of olive oil. 

The result tasted surprisingly good – didn’t quite look the business – will know better for next time! See the footnote.

150 gms plain flour
80 ml water (approx.)
½ teas table salt 
a little olive oil
additional flour for dusting

Heat the oven to 245C and place a heavy baking sheet in the oven.  Pour the water a little at a time into the flour stirring together with a fork until it starts to come together in a ball. Lightly flour a work surface and rolling pin. Knead quickly for a minute or two until smooth.  

Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and then roll it out from the centre out until very thin. Prick each piece about 20 – 30 times with a fork to stop it rising. Flip and prick again. [1]

Place the rounds onto the hot baking sheet and place into the oven near the top. Bake for about two minutes and turn and bake for a further minute until crisp and brown.  Remove to a rack to cool. Brush lightly with oil and add a little salt. 

[1] Where I went wrong was to use too fine a fork – the holes are there but they should be more obvious.

Monday 13 April 2020

A memorable Passover and Easter – not in a good way

It was a strange week – so much happening and not happening.  

Passover, a holiday when the generations usually gather together to celebrate the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, was celebrated alone or virtually and remotely.  We sang the songs, the appropriate questions were asked by the children and answered by the adults; we ate the food and drank the wine and when we recited the ten plagues of Egypt we wondered if this year there wasn’t perhaps an eleventh. 

Following a peculiarly quiet Palm Sunday the Easter weekend, another usual gathering of friends and family and which is celebrated communally was similarly affected with closed churches. Families were apart, most painfully for the grandparents. The Archbishop of Canterbury delivered his Easter sermon to the faithful from his kitchen. The Pope’s Easter "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world message) was delivered from an empty St. Peter's Basilica instead of to the usual crowd.

The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, already in hospital with Covid-19 was moved into intensive care at the start of the week and when we sat down to celebrate our virtual Seder our thoughts were with him, the thousands of others and their families as well as the teams looking after them. 

He was discharged on Sunday and, abandon your cynicism about politicians making speeches, spoke movingly with fulsome and deserved thanks and gratitude. It may well have been a life changing experience – he will have much time to reflect as he recuperates.

Passover ends on April 16th and the dietary restrictions are lifted. When I was growing up in Johannesburg there was a huge agricultural and trade show at Easter with wonderful entertainment – the Rand Easter Show (it still exists  – but cancelled this year).  The timing seemed so unfair as it usually coincided with Passover and although we could go we couldn’t indulge in hotdogs and hot cross buns. I have saved some of the recipes from the newspaper to make my own hot cross buns.  

Thursday 9 April 2020

A virtual Passover meal

Along with many Jewish families we Zoomed into a virtual Passover last night.  We joined our family in Switzerland with some of their friends and their extended families – zooming in from the UK and the USA.

Passover has been celebrated in much worse circumstances so we were very grateful for be able to share the evening and while it was wonderful to see everyone, it will never be the same as the real thing, sitting together around a table sharing food.  Particularly sharing food: Swiss granddaughter was tasked with making the Kneidlach (see previous blog) which, I believe, were perfect but all we could do was look and drool!

Did I mention food? As I commented earlier my Jewish food is very much of the Ashkenazi tradition. However our wonderful son-in-law is not only a great human being but brings a rich Sephardi tradition from his mother.  

One of the items on a Seder plate is Charoseth: this represents the mortar the Jews needed to work with during their enslavement. Ours was something that had to be endured but his is delicious. This makes quite a lot – just as well.

Charoseth – Daniel’s 

360 ml red wine – not too dry
450 gms raisins
225 gms dates
100 gms chopped dried apricots
½ teas cinnamon
¼ teas ground cloves
½ teas fine salt (or to taste)
225 gms almonds

Bring the wine to a simmer and stir in the fruit and spices.  Cook on a medium heat until the fruit has absorbed much of the liquid and the wine has reduced to thick syrup – about 15 minutes

Roughly chop the almonds (can pulse in a food processor) and place in a large mixing bowl. 

Put the fruit into a processor and pulse briefly until it starts to come together into a paste – there should still be chunks of fruit intact. Add to the almonds.  

I believe this is improves with the addition of a pack of figs and Moscato makes a excellent substitution for the wine.  


Wednesday 8 April 2020

Kneidlach - a dumpling by any other name would not taste as good

Tonight is the start of Passover. There is a dreadful irony that the celebration of freedom from slavery, when families come together will be celebrated apart and in voluntary lockdown.  Thanks to various online “meeting” applications many of us will be able to celebrate by being together – virtually.  

We are not religiously observant but still come together to celebrate the holidays and be together as a family. And of course we always eat the traditional food: as we are of Ashkenazi descent it is very much the food of Eastern Europe and what is now part of Ukraine and Russia.  

Growing up, we always had the first night of Passover at our house.  There were never fewer than 24 and sometimes closer to 40 guests.  My father used to ensure that any Jewish member of his hospital team or medical student who had nowhere to go, came to us. 

The Passover service – the Seder – was interminable. There was much debating, singing and praying and glasses of wine. The youngest child had to perform by asking the four questions – which start “Why is this night different from all other nights…”  much relief when the baton passed to my sister and then other cousins.

One year, my cousin Barbara and I, seated at the end of the “children’s” table were bored and we started feeding each other – a piece of matzah and a sip of wine for you and a piece of matzah and a sip of wine for me - no one noticed.  I have no idea what happened to her that night but apparently I was put to bed before dinner ended and missed out on synagogue the following morning with a bad headache.  

Although I loved being with the whole family – I dreaded the concert that followed dinner. My father came from a very musical family (my sister inherited the talent, not me).  After a few rousing verses of various Passover songs played by my Aunt Essie (also my piano teacher) all the cousins would have to perform. I would have to perform a piano solo, then a duet with my sister. Barbara would also play and do a ballet dance.  Essie’s two sons, John and Michael –would play the piano and violin respectively to much acclaim and then my sister and I would have to recite – we used to have speech and drama lessons.  The audience was critical and knowledgeable – all the cousins learned to play at least one instrument – and I hated every moment!

But the tension about the meal was not mine then.  I have written earlier about the first time I made chopped liver – a staple at our festive table. I have made it often enough not to stress but then there are the matzoh balls/kneidlach aka dumplings.  The recipe is deceptively simple but one wrong move and they become like lead balloons or disintegrate into the soup.  There was always a hush as the first plate was served and a sigh when the verdict was pronounced “light as a feather”.

This recipe is from my mother-in-law.  She also used to make ones which had meat in the middle but that is a step too far for me.  And of course they are served in chicken soup.


(Bella’s recipe)

2 rounded Tab chicken fat (you can use goose fat or dripping)
300g matzoh meal
2 eggs

Mix the chicken fat in 480 ml boiling water.  Beat the eggs very well and add. Add the matzoh meal and mix well.  Let stand in the fridge for about an hour.  Form into balls and place on a wet plate. I suggest just larger than a golf ball.  Boil in chicken soup for about 20 minutes. They freeze, uncooked, extremely well.

Chag Pesach Sameach

Monday 6 April 2020

Where have all the anti-vaxxers gone?

Suddenly they have gone quiet or perhaps the media have decided that they don’t deserve a voice right now when everyone is pleading for a Covid-19 vaccine. 

I’m so old that I remember life before vaccinations – they don’t. Here are three pre-vaccination personal stories – two with a happy ending and one without.

I remember having Measles when I was about 14 and lying, delirious with a high temperature quite a lot of the time, in a darkened room for about a week.  My parents were worried that I would go blind.

My sister contracted mumps and I followed soon afterwards. It wasn’t pleasant.  I remember the pain when swallowing more than anything else.  So far so good: except our mother and father also caught it and were very ill. Mother developed encephalitis and father an orchitis (you don’t want to know) and then pneumonia.  That was scarier to us than our own illness. 

The third was when I was in high school.  Coralie was an outstanding athlete – first team for all sports and, if I remember correctly, in the open team, not the under fifteen.  One term we came back to school to find that Coralie was in hospital in an iron lung (pre-ventilator and intubation days). She did return to school with both legs in metal braces with crutches. We tried to help but there were too many stairs and she had to leave.  

The catastrophe of Covid-19 reflects a world without vaccines!

The anti-vax brigade also castigates “big pharma” – who needs them?

Number One Husband remembers contracting Scarlet Fever when he was about eight or nine and also being a darkened room.  His mother stayed with him and his father and brother moved out of the house to stay with relatives. He remembers waving to his father through the window. I don’t know if it was a consequence of the temperature His skin also peeled afterwards.  There is no vaccine for scarlet fever – a course of antibiotics sorts that out these days. 

Back to blogging about food tomorrow….

Sunday 5 April 2020

Vodka Chocolate Icecream – what’s not to like?

Some years ago friends were coming for dinner and called to ask if they could bring their American houseguest.  The guest worked for the US Embassy, I think in Portugal, and was visiting London. They brought us a giant bottle of vodka.  In those days neither we, nor our friends, drank vodka so I looked for a way to use it and this was the result – we worked our way very nicely through the bottle after that.

Vodka Chocolate Ice cream

180 ml sweetened condensed milk
110 gr dark chocolate, melted
120 ml vodka (!)
300 ml double cream
Marsachino cherries, drained well and chopped (optional)
Beat the milk, chocolate and vodka until combined.  Spoon into a freezing tray or bowl and freeze for about 30 minutes or until beginning to set at the edges.  Beat well again.  Whip the cream and fold it into the mixture with the cherries and return to the freezer
This does not freeze very solid because of the high alcohol content and actually doesn’t keep all that well – so make it no more than a couple of days before using. There is a lot of alcohol if you are eating a lot and driving...... 

Friday 3 April 2020

You don't need a sourdough starter to make bread!

You don’t even need yeast.  One of the threads on social media at the moment is people sharing information (bragging) about their sourdough starters.  I have only recently started baking with yeast let alone cultivating a sourdough starter.  We eat very little bread so I couldn’t be bothered to keep the darn thing alive.  In lockdown I might even start talking to it…..

But you can still have bread.  Here is Bella’s (Mother-in-law) yogurt bread: it is surprisingly easy and very good.  For many years it was the only bread I ever baked (and ever so healthy!).

500g whole-wheat flour                
1 teaspoon salt
1 heaped teaspoon bicarbonate of soda                 
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 500 ml carton plain yogurt

Optional – about 50g of seeds – sunflower or mixed – to taste.

Heat oven to 180C

Put flour into a large bowl.  Add salt, bicarb and sugar and mix well. Add yogurt and mix together – you can start with a spoon but will need to use your hands to incorporate everything.  Place into a lined 500g tin and bake for 1 – 1 ¼ hours.

This makes a fairly dense loaf but it keeps and toasts quite well.

Wednesday 1 April 2020

I am tired of my cooking….

I don’t think I have ever cooked so often. Number One Husband knows that I married him for better or for worse but not for breakfast.  Normally not for lunch either.  This meal is known in our house as “scrabble”.  Roughly speaking, open the fridge door, stand and gaze at the contents, assemble a meal from what is there, no cooking required: yogurt, cheese, salad and sandwiches figure often.

Yesterday I needed to eat something cooked by someone else. Very luckily we live near an excellent fish restaurant and as Deliveroo is working we had fish and chips. Please add a big tip if you are using Deliveroo – because they are delivering the food and standing back from the doorstep, people are not tipping.

Back to more comfort food: this was a favourite when our children were young – it is simple, easy to make, ingredients mostly in the store cupboard or freezer and most children love pasta. The quantities are approximate.  The cheddar slices are unusual but work very well 

Macaroni and beef

1 tab oil                                  
2 medium onions, chopped
1 garlic clove 
400 g tinned tomatoes
2 tab tomato puree
1 teas paprika
½ teas each oregano and basil  
500 g minced beef
75 g cheddar cheese slices
200 g cooked macaroni (about 75g raw)

(seasoning to taste – other herbs or more or less)

Heat oven to 180°C.  Fry onions and garlic until soft, add beef and fry for five minutes until just coloured.  Add all the other ingredients except for the cheese and bring to the boil. Place in a deep casserole and cover with the cheese slices.  Bake for 20 minutes.  

It freezes and reheats well so if there is anything left over it can be portioned out and frozen. Reheat very thoroughly. We do the same with leftover pasta and meat sauce – enough for one or two portions at a time.  Best with fusilli, penne etc – not spaghetti.