Thoughts on Burns Night: Haggis, Scotch, and Authenticity

The cottage leaves the palace far behind
– “Cotter’s Saturday Night”, l. 168

Every January 25th unknown numbers of people around the world, for largely unknown reasons, gather to celebrate something called “Burns Night”. Usually these celebrations involve the drinking of Scotch whisky, the eating of something called “haggis” and (sometimes) the reciting of a brief bit of poetry about the “Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race” in the 18th Century Scots dialect of English, pronounced with wildly varying degrees of accuracy. The whole thing is usually great fun, which is likely the reason the traditions continues: there simply aren’t that many actual Scottish, poetry-loving haggis-eaters in this world and I suspect the vast majority of celebrants know little about haggis, Scotch whisky, Scotland, or the rakish farmer-poet from Alloway, Robert Burns. Certainly few are able to call to mind even a single line of Burns’ verse apart, perhaps, from “Auld land syne . . .”.

Here are a few more lines:

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
– “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose”, ll. 5-12.

Robert Burns, the man whose “Imortal Memory” tradition has us toast on his Night, was born a tenant farmer in 1759 in the village of Alloway in the Western Lowlands of Scotland. His father was a bit of a self-taught polymath and made great effort to support his family and to educate his children, with greater success in the latter endeavour. Robert was schooled, both at home and more formally, in Latin, French, and English literature. This learning helped him little in escaping the back-breaking and fairly hopeless life of the tenant farmer, but it certainly provided him with forms and fodder for his poetry. Many of his most accessible pieces are love poems written in the early years of a short life. Burns spent a great deal of time, it seems, trying to convince servant girls, barmaids, and female farm workers to be his muses and lovers. At least three of his illegitimate children – not counting the four children his future wife, Jean Armour, bore him out of wedlock – are the product of his “encounters” with such “muses”. A modern sensibility can’t help but be disturbed by the power dynamic of Burns’ first reproductive success, in 1785, involving Elizabeth Paton, a servant girl in his mother’s household. Was this what we would call love? Or was it rape, one of uncountable #MeToo moments of history?

By whatever name, these “seductions” soon became a pattern of Burns’ life. In November 1788, a few years after his encounter with Elizabeth Paton, after Burns found himself sexually shut out by a lady who struck his fancy, her servant, Jenny Claw, perhaps unsurprisingly, in due course, bore Burns a son in November, 1788. In March of the same year, Jean Armour, still not married, had borne Burns twins again. The children sadly did not outlive the month. At this point, Burns had just eight more years to live and was to father six more (known) children, five by Jean Armour and one by a Dumfries barmaid, Ana Park, in 1891. The last child, a son, was born four days after his father’s death in July of 1796.

Burns was clearly, if not selflessly, devoted to sex. He was also devoted to drink and to good, simple, hearty food. But Burns also made desperate attempts to continue to make a living as a farmer, a habit which remained with him even after his poems brought him success in Edinburgh. His first volume of poems, descriptively titled “Poems: Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”, caught the eye of an Edinburgh publisher who brought out an edition in the big city in April of 1787 and paid Burns quite handsomely. Burns was, for a time, the toast of the town, hobnobbing with the gentlemen and ladies and ladies’ maids particularly. He abandoned plans to emigrate to a new life in Jamaica, apparently thinking Scotland had become more hopeful for him. In time, however, he alienated many of his new friends with his common man republican sympathies, first for the American Revolution, and later for the revolution in France. He turned from city life, bought a new farm and continued to write. But this farm failed too, as had so many for his family. He moved to Dumfries, fathered a last child, joined a volunteer military unit in 1795, apparently to prove his loyalty to the Crown, and died a year later at the age of 37.

Some blamed drink. Some blamed the hard labour of his life. He had declined a position at a newspaper in London. He had declined a candidacy for the Chair of Agriculture at Edinburgh University. He had, quite simply, declined.

Is it this fairly melancholy life that we celebrate on Burns Night? An old mentor of mine, Dr. R. J. S. Grant, wrote a study of Burns titled “The Laughter of Love”. But where is this laughter? Where this love? In this life? Perhaps Burns tells us himself what to celebrate in his “Epistle to James Smith”, a letter in verse to his good friend and companion in drink and the seduction of the women of Mauchline:

Some rhyme a neibor’s name to lash;
Some rhyme (vain thought!) for needfu’ cash;
Some rhyme to court the countra clash,
An’ raise a din;
For me, an aim I never fash;
I rhyme for fun.

The star that rules my luckless lot,
Has fated me the russet coat,
An’ damn’d my fortune to the groat;
But, in requit,
Has blest me with a random-shot
O’countra wit.
– ll. 25-36

Burns says clearly here that whatever other reasons he may have for writing verse – he certainly wrote his share of political pieces – always the prime driver of his work is fun. He is quite clear that his fortune in life has been meagre, but there’s that random-shot of country wit he’s been granted, and he is determined to use it. Burns seems never to have had much ambition beyond ploughing a straight furrow, getting enough to eat and drink, satisfying his lust, and, most of all, writing verse.

Then farewell hopes of laurel-boughs,
To garland my poetic brows!
Henceforth I’ll rove where busy ploughs
Are whistlin’ thrang,
An’ teach the lanely heights an’ howes
My rustic sang.

I’ll wander on, wi’ tentless heed
How never-halting moments speed,
Till fate shall snap the brittle thread;
Then, all unknown,
I’ll lay me with th’ inglorious dead
Forgot and gone!
– ll. 49-60

Perhaps the only ambition he ever satisfied in life was this quest for fun. And, although he claimed not to want it, he achieved a remarkably wide, if somehow shallow, fame in death. His goals in life were simple:

While ye are pleas’d to keep me hale,
I’ll sit down o’er my scanty meal,
Be’t water-brose or muslin-kail,
Wi’ cheerfu’ face,
As lang’s the Muses dinna fail
To say the grace.
– ll. 139-145

It is in his poetry, not his melancholy life, that Burns finds for himself and passes to us the fun he seeks in simple things, in food and drink and human companionship. It is here, in the poetry, that Dr. Grant hears “The Laughter of Love”. The memory of joy preserved and transmitted in his verse is the truly Immortal Memory that is toasted at any Burns Dinner worth its Salt:

On January 25th each year we drink a toast to the Immortal Memory of the poet of the laughter of love and for one brief, shining moment we are one with our dear ones, one with our fellow men and women, one with the little mouse with whom we share a common destiny and mortality.
– R.J.S. Grant, The Laughter of Love: A Study of Robert Burns, p. 168

This unity is surely the hope gestured to at Burns Night Dinners, but what does the obscure national dish of a small country have to do with sharing “a common destiny and mortality” with the people of the world?

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
– “To a Haggis”, ll.1-2

Much wailing and face-pulling can be heard and seen at any mention of haggis-eating. This rather ordinary food product has acquired, due, I suspect, to a great deal of manly-Fear-Factor-inflation of the gross-out possibilities of organ-meats-I-have-eaten-in-my-life when good buddies get together – this haggis has acquired a bit of a reputation for being inedible or, at the very least, somehow disgusting. But consider: a principle ingredient is onion, one of the most common vegetables in almost any national cuisine. Another is minced liver, considered a delicacy under the name “paté”. Perhaps haggis needs a French accent to be acceptable to food snobs. Oatmeal goes into the beast as well, that common, warming breakfast staple. Perhaps heart is not so common in the North American diet as it once was, but a wonderful, flavourful muscle nonetheless, and one that any steak-lover would be foolish to ignore. It’s all stuffed into some bit of an animal’s digestive tract (traditionally the stomach, they say) exactly as the finest sausages are stuffed.

“But”, you shout, still anxious for the gross-out, “what about the lungs?!”

Yes, much is made, particularly by the Scottish National Chamber of Commerce and such protectors of all things Scottish, that haggis must contain the lungs – the lights as they’re also known – of the animal. Well, I have news for all living Scots at home and abroad: a dead Scot says you’re wrong. On page 160 of F. Marion McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Recipes, published in 1929, in a “Traditional Cottage Recipe” for haggis, we read “A little lean mutton may be substituted for the lights.” To further destroy the tyranny of modern haggis convention, Ms. McNeill also suggests on the very same page that haggis may be made in a jar, or in a pan “like a stew”. Haggis is beginning to look a lot like that paté after all. To be honest, when I am asked about haggis (as, odd to say, I often am) I ask back “do you like paté?” If their face scrunches up and they say “no” I tell them “you won’t like haggis”. But if their face brightens and they say “yes” I’ll say with confidence, “give it a try.”

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi sneering, scornfu view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An legs an arms, an heads will sned,
Like taps o thrissle.
– “To a Haggis”, ll. 25-42

While Burns’ Address “To a Haggis” is great fun and a bit of a hype-machine itself, the dish described is no mystery. It is exactly what Burns says it is: a hearty, filling, satisfying, rich, and flavourful dish fit for the taste of a hard working rustic. It isn’t meant for those who want their “authentic”, vegan, freegan, gluten-friendly (although haggis usually is that), organic, hipster, fashionable fricassees and French ragouts. Haggis is for quelling hunger, and that is why Burns praises haggis, the “Great chieftain o’the pudding race”, as “honest” in the first line of his poem. Haggis is not, and should not be, pretentious. It is rustic food, food made with what is on hand in an 18th Century Scottish farmer’s simple home, authentic with no need to be labelled such.

This life, sae far’s I understand,
Is a’ enchanted fairy-land,
Where Pleasure is the magic-wand,
That, wielded right,
Maks hours like minutes, hand in hand,
Dance by fu’ light.
– “To James Smith”, ll. 67-72

And consider Scotch Whisky, “O thou, my Muse!” as Burns names it in the invocation of “Scotch Drink”. Today, Scotch Whisky, even of the most inferior blended sort, is a premium product. A fairly fine bottle can easily cost a day’s labour at minimum wage, and it wouldn’t be hard to drop two days’ wages for something only a little better. In Burns’ day, in contrast, Scotch Whisky was the labourer’s drink, “the poor man’s wine” (“Scotch Drink”, l. 40). Compare Canada today, where a more than decent wine can be had on sale at Superstore for less than an hour’s labour. When Burns celebrates Scotch Drink in the poem of that name, he is celebrating the home-grown, common people’s, inexpensive, consoling tipple at the end of the working day. “Scotch Drink” and the “Address to a Haggis” are nothing other than celebrations of what would today be termed Food Security, By Local, and the One Hundred Mile Diet.

For loyal Forbes’ charter’d boast

Is ta’en awa!

“Scotch drink”, ll.113-114

After the Scottish nationalist rebelion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie had been brutally crushed at Cullodden, the English Crown rewarded families who had remained loyal with gifts such as charters of excise tax exemptions. On the basis of such a loyalty exemption, the Forbes family dominated the Whisky industry for over a century from their distilleries at Farintosh. But in time the Crown recinded the Forbes’ charter. When Burns laments “Thee, Ferintosh, O sadly lost!” he is not lamenting the closure of a distillery that made his favourite, authentic, small batch three-hundred-dollar-a-bottle Scotch. He is lamenting, rather, the loss of a large scale distillery that produced copious quantities of affordable (cheap) hooch that flooded the Highlands and the Lowlands and helped to keep the labouring classes happy for at least a century. Ferintosh was the common man’s drink, a dozen levels below Johnnie Walker Red Label, sort of the two-four of Lucky Lager of the day.

Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland lament frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips, an’ barkin hoast
May kill us a’ . . .
– “Scotch Drink”, ll. 109-12

Take the haggis of Burns’ day, with neeps and tatties if you wish, add his affordable Ferintosh whisky, and compare these to the great pomp and formal ceremony of one of the umpteeen Burns Night Dinners at fancy hotels around the world each January. Would the Burns we have seen, the Burns of the common people, the Burns who turned down a job in London and a University position to return to the rural plough – would this Burns, “our Rabbie”, be comfortable at that fancy hotel, do you think? Perhaps briefly, but he would soon be in the kitchen, harassing the waitresses, sharing a box lunch with the dishwasher, and singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” at the top of his drunken lungs!

Burns was a respecter of neither pretension nor of authority. He was of rustic stock and never lost his love for the simple things of a working man’s life. If you want to celebrate Burns Night in the true spirit of Burns, don’t seek out haggis or Scotch whisky (unless they’re the sorts of food and drink the ordinary working people would eat and drink where you live) and don’t read 18th century Scottish verse if you only read it once a year and don’t understand it anyway. In my town a true Burns Night would probably involve something like beer and pizza with friends and family with whatever music brings you and your dear ones together. Maybe even something about the old sod by Spirit of the West.

If you are at a Burns Dinner this January 25th, or any January 25th, please take a moment to read “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, and raise a glass of something affordable to a poet of the common people, a poet devoted to fun above all else, and stuff your face with comfort food, whatever that may be in your country, with your family and friends.

Wave that magic-wand of pleasure he mentioned to his friend James Smith, and have fun in the fairy-land of life!

We wander there, we wander here,
We eye the rose upon the brier,
Unmindful that the thorn is near,
Among the leaves;
And tho’ the puny wound appear,
Short while it grieves.
– “To James Smith”

The Spotted Cow – A beverage – or maybe a desert

For the past week or so the song “Spotted Cow” from British folk-rock legend Steeleye Span’s Below the Salt album has been going through my head, quietly begging me to be the name of a new beverage.  As regular readers (both of them) will know, I’ve been fiddling about with beverage recipes the last while, like my Mazal Tov Cocktail, my Guavalhalla, and of course, my Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket. I’ll not share my mojito recipe except in person, but I will cautiously share my plan for the Spotted Cow.

Probably obviously, the Spotted Cow is a variation on the venerable Brown Cow: Kahlua and cream or milk. But, how to make it spotted? How to keep the Kahlua as brown islands in the stream of white cream?

I thought for a day or two about some sort of molecular gastronomy solution involving edible alginate, etc., but that seemed too extreme. Finally memories of neighbourhood block parties flooded my mind:  Jell-O Shots!

So, after whipping a pack of unflavoured gelatine into 50 ml of boiling water 

and a miniature of Kahlua (from the freezer) into that (I inverted Mr. Knox’s directions on the sachet),

 I spooned the results into a flexible icecube tray, 

slid it into the fridge and stepped out into the frosty evening to walk to 7-Eleven for a bit of cream.

When I got home the little bottle-shaped Kahlua spots were nicely set and were easily popped out of the tray

and into the waiting glass of cream.

What an odd thing!

I ended up enjoying it with a spoon, as though it were some sort of dish of strawberies and cream going all boozy coffee and Jell-O and my quiet winter evening had been transformed into a strange James Bond morning in Istanbul directed by a late-period Stanley Kubrick but in the hotel roomat the end of 2001.
I think I’ll mix myself a Vesper and leave you (both) with the song that started this mess:

The Guavalhalla: a Tiki Drink for the North

I’ve been thinking about Tiki drinks lately, probably because I recently stumbled on some kitschy Tiki mugs and because I’ve long had a strangely obsessive nostalgia for the remembered exterior of The Beachcomber restaurant, long, long vanished from Downtown Edmonton.  In my researching (some say “hoarding”) manner, I began to gather what seemed to be typical ingredients and began to consider some Tiki Experiments.

For those who don’t know, Tiki drinks are an invention of the mid-Twentieth Century in America and they have all the naive, colonial, appropriating, and, most important, happy elements of that mid-Twentieth Century (White) America. They’re mostly tropical fruit juices and garnishes, usually rum(s), touched with exotic syrups, topped with paper umbrellas and other frills, and usually served in a faux-Maori, glaring-face “Tiki Mug”.  They can be intolerably sweet sugar drinks but ideally are intensely refreshing confections of spirits and essences of tropical holidays.

For some reason I had bought some Guava nectar although I found it hard to find a Tiki drink recipe that used the stuff.  So, I needed to invent something, didn’t I?

What did I have? Guava. What to do with it? Name the cocktail, of course! I needed a name that included the word “Guava” which I was determined would be the major ingredient of my Tiki drink. As I drove through Edmonton one afternoon last week, I rolled the word Guava around with the rest of the English language. The English language is, of course, a product of multiculturalism just like this city I live in and, inevitably, the name came from a fusion of very different cultures.

“Guava” is likely ultimately a Taino word, transmitted to English through Spanish. What to do with it? “Guava . . . Guava . . . ” I said “Aguava . . . Aguava . . .” I said. “That’s like Aquavit, the Scandinavian caraway infused spirit” I said to myself. “Aguavavit.  No.  Guava . . . Guava . . .  . . . Guavahalla!” At a stroke I had the name and the principal spirit for my Tiki drink, a Viking-Tropical fusion.

The rest was mere details.

wp-image-318632288

The Guavalhalla in a non-Tiki glass

The recipe for my Guavahalla (Guavalhöll in Norse)

In a cocktail shaker with lots of ice shake vigourously:

1.25 ounces Aquavit (I used Brennivin from Iceland)
0.5 ounce White Rum
0.5 ounce Jamaican Rum
2 ounces Guava nectar
1 ounce pineapple juice
Juice of half a lemon
0.25 ounce orgeat syrup
a splash of ruby red grapefruit
a scant splash of passion fruit syrup
a dash of pimento dram
a little coconut water

Serve over copious amounts of ice

Garnish with a pineapple wedge, citrus slices, cherries, lingonberries, cocktail umbrellas or whatever you have lying around.

Enjoy (responsibly) the northern caraway peeking through all those tropical flavours as our northern winter rises on our horizon and our wonderful Edmonton elms begin to drop their leaves again!

The Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket: A Beverage

Many years ago I heard of an intimidating beverage called “The Hangman’s Blood”, ostensibly invented by Anthony Burgess. Burgess called the Hangman’s Blood “a beery concoction of many liquors and stout and champagne.” Sometime after hearing of Burgess’ “invention”, I was quietly and purely by chance reading an odd children’s novel called “A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. “A High Wind in Jamaica” was published in 1929, a month after Burgess’ twelfth birthday. I don’t know if young Tony Burgess read Hughes’ book, but . . .

Captain Jonsen, however, had his own idea of how to enliven a parochial bazaar that is proving a frost. He went on board, and mixed several gallons of that potion known in alcoholic circles as Hangman’s Blood (which is compounded of rum, gin, brandy, and porter). Innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so, once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort. (A High Wind in Jamaica, p. 64 in my Folio edition)

When I realized Hughes’ precedence over Burgess, I edited the Wikipedia entry on Hangman’s Blood to set the record straight. You’ll have to take my word for it that it was me.

But, I’m actually not writing about Hangman’s blood today, except as a prelude to my own variation on that drink which I suspect but can’t prove has a deeper history alluded to in Hughes’ mention: “that potion known in alcoholic circles . . .”

My Office

I was sitting in my office last week having a cold Pimm’s and Sanpellegrino following a hot afternoon of yard work. Apparently Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel was in the back of my mind because suddenly a drink recipe burst fully formed from my forehead like Athena from the brow of Zeus: The Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket. Tonight I mixed the first ever (as far as I know) mug of it. And here it is:

The Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket

Into a big glass place

Ice — lots of it — for the Antarctic
Navy Rum — one measure — for the seafaring life
Gordon’s Gin – one measure — for the hero’s middle name
Pimm’s No. 1 Cup — one measure — for the hero’s last name
Amontillado Sherry — one measure — for one of the finest of Poe’s stories
Bourbon — one measure — for Poe’s time south of the Mason-Dixon
Juice of half a Lime — to ward off scurvy

Top the glass up with

Arthur Guinness’ Stout — for the hero’s first name

Garnish with

A healthy pinch of Salt — for the sea spray over the bow in a Southern Ocean gale.

The ingredients and the finished product

I’m happy with it. Definitely an ocean flavour to it, and something mysterious and unidentifiable but pleasant. Unusual, but not a Poe Horror. The aroma may have a little something of the (watery) grave about it, but it’s strangely pleasant. And there’s a distinct earthiness about the flavour. The salt is necessary. This is certainly a drink to savour while savouring Mr. Poe’s writing!

A close-up view

A note: I did not make my Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket with the double measures Burgess recommends for his version of the Hangman’s Blood. Singles seemed adequate and more in keeping with the temperance Mr. Poe strived for but did not always achieve in his life.

Public Service Announcement

Please drink responsibly.
At home.
Alone.
Late at night.
In the dark.
Reading something by Poe!

On Gluten-Free Bread

Hoy, ayer y mañana se comen caminando,
consumimos un día como una vaca ardiente,
nuestro ganado espera con sus días contados,

pero en tu corazón el tiempo echó su harina,
mi amor construyó un horno con barro de Temuco:
tú eres el pan de cada día para mi alma.
— Neruda, Love Sonnet LXXVII

I never thought I’d be bothered with the gluten-free thing, but, when someone close has a number of food-sensitivities and the request is made to try one’s hand at a gluten-free baguette for a small family dinner, suddenly one is excited by the new challenge.  So, with about two days’ notice, I had to draw on all my experience and knowledge of bread baking and at the same time temporarily forget a lot of what I knew and ignore my expectations and instincts.

The big challenge of gluten-free yeast bread baking is the fact that gluten is the almost-magical ingredient that makes real bread possible. Nothing in the world has quite the properties of that mix of proteins called “wheat gluten”.  Wheat gluten has unparalleled ability to form airtight, extremely elastic little bubbles. Even rye gluten is not a match for the gluten of wheat.  If you try making a loaf of 100% rye bread, look closely at the dough as it rises, particularly if brushed with oil.  You will see — perhaps even hear — bubbles escaping to the surface of the dough.  This is why 100% rye bread is inevitably more dense than a good wheat bread.

What can possibly be added to non-gluten bearing flours that will help form and hold bubbles with something approaching the satisfactory?  Eggs, particularly egg whites, are often recommended. But, did I mention food sensitivities? Living with a mild nut allergy, I’ll not dismiss the concerns of the truly food sensitive. (The fashion/fad food sensitive I will happily dismiss.)

So. No gluten. No eggs. What’s left?

Well there’s this interesting product that is derived from what amounts to bacterial snot. Xanthan gum is a polysacchride, basically a charbohydrate polymer that is secreted by the bacterium Zanthomonas campestris. The gum was discovered by Allene Jeanes and her team in the mid-20th century and approved for use in foods in the U.S. in 1968. It’s a relatively new and very versatile food additive manufactured in a simple process not unlike brewing beer or, indeed, bread making.  A vat of feedstock is inoculated with the bacteria, the concoction is allowed to ferment for a few days, and then a load of isopropyl alcohol is dumped into the vat (that’s the part that makes me smile at the “natural” label on my package of xanthan gum).  The alcohol makes the fresh snot solidify and sink to the bottom of the vat. The gum in rinsed, dried, and ground up for sale in expensive little packets at your local Green, Organic, Whole, Vegan, Gluten-Free Health food store.

Without the xanthan gum, my project could never have risen much above terribly disappointing hardtack. And if I didn’t talk much about the isopropyl alcohol bit, I might be able to get away with it.

I skimmed a few recipes online and read the back of my sack of Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose Flour — mostly chickpea flour so watch out for gas if you eat a lot of this bread. Then I laid out my basic recipe, based mainly on my own real baguette recipe.  I used a cup of Bob’s flour, quick rise yeast, salt, two teaspoons of xanthan gum, half a cup of water and a splash of lime juice because it was handier than lemon.  I was aiming for something like the texture of real bread dough, but the result was a little crumbly and not at all elastic.  After a bit of time to rest and maybe rise, I threw it into a 450 degree oven for twenty minutes and pulled out — a bread stick! It was dense but tender and chewy with good flavour, but not a baguette by any measure.

For the second attempt, I used the same proportions except for the water. I used a full cup of water and made what I would call a batter rather than a dough.  I oiled the top of the loaf and left it to rise. I could see bubbles popping through the oil.  When it was close to double in size, I gave it 20 minutes at 450 degrees and this time I had something approaching an actual baguette! And it tasted good!  It wasn’t really what I would call bread, but it was a quite satisfying product in itself.

Now I had to produce the presentation loaf, the one that would be the accompaniment to a family chili dinner. A little bit of tinkering with ingredients and process and the following recipe is what I have to call an almost complete gluten-free success (it wasn’t so good for garlic bread, I’m told):

My Gluten-Free Baguette

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All Purpose flour
2 generous teaspoons xanthan gum
1 tablespoon fast-rising yeast
1 scant tablespoon baking powder
salt
1 cup water
a splash of vinegar
olive oil for coating the top of the loaf

Mix dry ingredients very well.
Mix water and vinegar.
Mix wet ingredients well into dry ingredients. The dough will be very wet, more like a batter, about the texture of a pound cake batter.

Spoon the batter into a parchment-lined baguette pan. Shape into a smooth loaf with the back of a wet spoon. Spread olive oil over top of loaf.

Let rise for half- to one hour until sort of doubled.

Bake 20 minutes in a pre-heated 450 degree oven. Spritz water onto the loaf in the oven every few minutes.

If you love bread but have a sensitivity to wheat or gluten, there is definitely hope, as long as you don’t have a problem with bacteria being doused in isopropyl alcohol so that bacterial snot solidifies and is collected for your bread. You’re already cooking the life out of yeast cells. Can it be so bad that millions of bacteria died for your baguette?

On Bread

Like bread-making, any mugwump can do it.

— Elizabeth David, “Pleasing Cheeses,” Nova, October 1965.

Real conversation:

“You make bread?”

“Yeah”

“You got a bread machine?”

“No.”

“Then how do you make bread?”

“?”

I’ve baked bread as long as I can remember, first with my mother’s guidence and for at least four decades now on my own. Through high school I kept a sourdough starter alive, baking five smal loaves every Sunday as the centrepieces of the next week’s school lunches. Some might argue that I find baking bread to be one of the simplest of kitchen things because of this stupid long experience making the stuff. I would argue, however, that I feel this way because it truly is absolutely dead simple to bake a more than decent loaf of bread with little experience and less effort.

The other day I made a couple of loaves. No kneading. About three minutes of hands on effort. Lots of free time to do other tasks in and out of the house while ostensibly making bread.
Here it is:

Stir together

2 cups of bread flour
1 cup of whole wheat flour
a bit of salt
a spoonful of “instant”yeast

Stir in 13 ounces of water

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and go away for the day or go have a good night’s sleep.

Whenever you get around to it, give it another quick stir.

After an hour or two, divide the lump roughly in half and quickly shape the two bits into elongated lumps on well-floured boards. Cover with plastic wrap. Go away for an hour or two.

Put a couple of heavy cast-iron lidded casseroles or pots or something into the oven and crank it to 450°F. There’s only one in the picture because my sister-in-law had my other one.

A while after the oven and the pots get hot, take the plastic wrap off the loaves, pull the pots out of the oven, take the lids off, sprinkle flour into them, flop the loaves into the pots, put on the lids and shove the lot back into the oven.

After thirty minutes or so, take the lids off and let the bread brown for five minutes.

When the five minutes are up, take the pots out of the oven, lift each loaf out of its pot, scrape the flour off their undersides, and put them on a rack to cool, if you can wait to taste your newly baked bread!

That’s it. Bread the easy, old-fashioned, no machine way. I’ve even baked this bread in a fire pit in my back yard (the cooking time was under ten minutes).
To be honest, I don’t know why there’s any sort of market for bread machines.

My Mazel Tov Cocktail

It’s pretty hard to be alive and not be aware in some sense of the U.S. Election. And for anyone who spends a bit of time on social media it would be difficult to be unaware of Donald Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes’ televised “Mazel Tov Cocktail” slip of the tongue  Of course, the twitterverse exploded with fulmination and amusement and, eventually, recipes.  Last night CBC Radio’s As It Happens even got involved.

Well, I can play that game, too.

After some moments of historical thought, consideration of current events south of the Medicine Line, and ruminations on flavour, I’ve come up with my own Mazel Tov Cocktail along with justifications for each ingredient.

Mazel Tov Cocktail

1 ounce Manischewitz kosher wine, obviously

1 ounce Finlandia vodka (I wanted Koskenkorva but it doesn’t seem to be available in Alberta)

1 ounce orange juice

1/2 ounce Wild Turkey Bourbon

A healthy dash of orange bitter(nes)s

Shake well in an iced cocktail shaker.

Serve in tiny glass bottles with an outrageous weave of orange zest and a small sprig of rue.

An outrageous weave of orange zest and a sprig of rue

Manischewitz Concord grape wine is awful, sweet stuff on it’s own, but a necessary accompaniment for any Mazel Tov toast.

The improvised incendiary device known as the Molotov Cocktail was given its name by Finish soldiers during the Winter War against the Soviet Union. It seems only appropriate to give Finland a nod in my Mazel Tov Cocktail. Koskenkorva would be even better.

The orange juice provides a necessary citrus balance to the grapey sweetness of the Manischewitz. It also is a cheap shot at a certain presidential candidate’s epidermal pigment challenge.

The Wild Turkey Bourbon? Wild. Turkey. cf. above mentioned candidate. And his supporters.

And I don’t think either the bitters or their orangeness need explanation.

I think you see where I’m going with the garnish.

The ingredients, with a lovely Canadian sunset

Good luck with your election, neighbours, and Mazel Tov, America!

A glass actually works better