25 gennaio 2014

When I was a kid

When I was a kid, my mother had a cookbook called "The I Hate to Cook Book". (I shall heroically refrain from commenting on that as pertains to her cooking. Suffice to say that she did, indeed, hate to cook.) And for years, on and off, I have been thought about a chocolate cake recipe in that book that I used to make when I was aged around 11 or 12. It was a really simple recipe, with several curiosity factors, including that you mix it all up straight in the baking dish and that it contains vinegar. So, on this cold grim winter  Saturday with my heating broken down, feeling an urgent desire for the comfort of chocolate cake, I harnessed the power of the World Wide Web to track down that recipe. 

And it turns out to be a cake that lots and lots of people are baking — nearly 9 million people, in fact, according to Google. (0.35 seconds to find 8,820,000 results for "chocolate cake with vinegar". I call that magic.) It dates back to the 1920s and is known in some parts as Depression cake, not because it makes you depressed but because its ingredients are cheap and — get this — don't include eggs. I'd forgotten that bit. It was also popular during the war, for the same reasons. Other names for it are wacky cake or magic cake, if you call those names.

So it goes like this: you mix flour, sugar, salt, cocoa powder and bicarbonate of soda together, add vegetable oil and vinegar, admire interesting bubbling effect (bicarb plus vinegar: this recipe does science too), add cold water, mix together, and bake for half an hour. I sprinkled chopped-up chocolate over the top just before slamming it into the oven, because I'm decadent like that. The whole assembly process took about eight minutes. 

The result is a dark-brown, moist, dense chocolate cake exactly like I remember it. With something just a little bit weird about it. That would be the vinegar and the lack of eggs, I guess. It also manages to achieve the paradoxical double-act of being both stodgy and insubstantial at the same time. It melts in the mouth yet sticks to your teeth. It is definitely not the best cake in the world, as some of the nearly 9 million asserted. Yet it is hugely comforting, being, as it is, a dark-brown, moist, dense chocolate cake. It is pretty much exactly what you need if it's a cold, grim winter Saturday and your heating's broken down. And it also has that little touch of retro chic.

24 gennaio 2014

We have had a month

We have had a month of unseasonably warm, dry weather. Now we have heavy rain, with snow and freezing temperatures forecast for the next two weeks. So it was inevitable that it would be at exactly this moment that the boiler ceased to function. 

Actually, it's the chimney flue that vents the boiler, but the effect is the same. (It's a solid-fuel boiler.) Clouds of smoke from the blocked flue billowing into our room mean that we can't use it. Which means no central heating and no hot water. John spent a morning taking it all apart and cleaning it and brushing out the chimney, but there seems to be a blockage further up than he could reach. Naturally, the chimney sweep isn't available straight away, and by the time he's able to come I fear the road will be blocked by snow.

We're keeping the kitchen and living room warm with the woodburning stove, and heating water on it. So we're warm enough. But I sure would like a hot shower.

14 gennaio 2014

Once again a chicken

Once again a chicken has gone rogue. After weeks with no eggs in the nesting box or in any of the usual hiding places, I tracked her one morning to find out what was going on. She snuck round the back of Mario's barn and nipped in behind some big round haybales. Half an hour later she strolled out again, innocent as anything and clearly not broody. I sent the Boy over to investigate and once he'd climbed over the baler and scaled two storeys of bales he reported that he could see a nest and that it had 10 eggs in it. He was all for abseiling down the north face of the bales, but it turned out to be a whole lot easier just to shift some stuff and squeeze round the back, no ropes or crampons needed. The hen had cunningly made her nest with a viciously toothed farm implement to guard it, but I scooped them all up safely. The next day she was back there again. What's wrong with the hen house?!