Commonplace, Vol 2, Issue 6

In which the writer times things carefully. Very carefully.

Hello! Some of this is written as I’m listening to, and participating in an online SCA event, which is all about food. It is immensely pleasing to hear people talking about food in the background, while I’m typing away about much the same kind of thing. One of the excellent classes is on the topic of “cooking by sight”, which is about getting amounts and consistencies and other details without having precise measurements of volume, time, or temperature available. That’s provoking me to think about some of the basics of cookery again, and the ones I don’t really know yet.

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There are still plenty of things I don’t know how to cook, and whole techniques I’ve never tried, or only tried a little bit. Foremost among those is deep frying - it’s not a technique I know well at all, and I think I can still count the number of times I’ve tried it and not use all my fingers. I’m not even familiar with the way in which oil behaves, and it’s remarkably different to water. A set of instructions from Nigella Lawson say that the oil should be at 190C when the food goes in, and then held at 180C while it cooks. My experience is that either the oil sits sullenly around 140C, or shoots past 220C, depending on the hob settings, and then when I add the food, the temperature drops back below 160C and refuses to come back up. Thinking about it, I probably need to just be more patient on getting the oil to temperature, and then put in less stuff at a time. It’s something I need to work on, and get the hang of.

I did a lot - for me - of bread baking last year, so I’ve gotten some grasp on that. Once we’re done with the Lenten Experiment - which proceeds - I’ll get back to more baking. I want to try stuff in the direction of plain cakes (as Nigella Lawson calls them); cakes that are baked as a single block, maybe with some icing or something. Carrot cake and lemon drizzle cake are the two examples I can bring to mind, but there’s a recipe for a Marzipan Loaf Cake in Cook, Eat, Repeat that I want to try, to pick the most recent in mind.

Which reminds me that the SCA discussion had someone using the older word for marzipan - marchpane - and pronouncing it in such a way, MARSH-pan, that the connection was much more obvious. Sounding out Middle English is often useful for making sense of it, but I’m put to wonder how much my own accent is holding me back there; I would have said it as March-PAIN, which is still recognisable (I think), but not nearly as clear.

I know people regard me as a competent cook, and certainly in the areas where I have experience, I’m good. But it’s worth noting for the comfort of those who don’t think that they’re decent cooks that I only really learned to reliably boil an egg last year. Boil the water, lower the eggs in gently with a slotted spoon, and leave in there for 8 minutes; this results in really good hard-boiled-but-not-rigid eggs. I still have work to do on producing good scrambled eggs, too; I seem to not have any proper grasp on the timing.

Indeed, timing is possibly the most difficult part of cooking for me. This became evident a few years back when I was cooking for an SCA event in Crawfordsburn, in Northern Ireland. The kitchen there - the old kitchen, now, since there’s a snazzy new one in a more recently added building - has a stove that boils water slowly. I’m not clear on the physics of how that can happen more slowly on one stove than another, but this one took so long to bring water to a boil in the big pots we need to use (for forty to sixty people) that it completely destroyed my schedule. As it happened, the rest of the schedule for the day also ran a bit late, and court ran long, so it was ok, but I resolved to take on timing very carefully thereafter.

Since we’re eating meat on Sundays during Lent, I’ve been working on perfecting one particular set of timing, that of a Fried Breakfast. Most of it is grilled or baked, really, but the idea of The Fry is set in my terminology. It goes like this:

Start the oven heating to 220C. Make some coffee while that happens. When the oven is at temperature, retrieve the hash browns from the freezer (Lidl’s own brand, very definitely the best on the market), and the sausages from the fridge (Clonakilty Ispíní Móra, Gluten Free), and put them all on a sheet of greaseproof paper on a roasting tin in the oven. Set a timer for 18 minutes, and go drink the coffee and read some newsletters or the Gospel According to Saint Nigel of Slater, or something like that. When the timer goes off, turn the hash browns, shuffle the sausages around, get bacon (any smoked back bacon; I haven’t much to distinguish them) and black pudding (Clonakilty again) and put them on the grill pan in the top of the hot oven. Set a timer for 12 minutes, and possibly make some more coffee. When the timer goes off, turn the hash browns and sausages again, and switch from oven to grill. Put a serving dish of some kind in the the bottom of the oven, set a timer for 4 minutes, and start frying eggs. When that timer goes off, turn the bacon and the black pudding, put on some toast, and set the timer for 4 minutes again. At that point, nearly everything is done. Turn off the oven, put the eggs in the serving dish, and take the sausages out from the roasting tin and put them in the hot frying pan. Roll them over a few times over the next few minutes to brown them (they’re fully cooked, but they’ll only have a few lines of brown on them, which looks weird), and when they’re done, remove them to the serving dish and chuck a handful or two of fresh spinach on the pan. Let it cook down, turning it over a few times, while you move the bacon, black pudding, and hash browns to the serving dish, and serve everything up.

So two things: that’s a chunky paragraph, and most of it is timing and sequence. And second, it has taken me literally years to refine that process down. Disrupt any one aspect of it (someone at the door, disturbance among animals, forget to set any one of the timers) and it all goes to pot. And a third thing: none of the things cooked above “should” be cooked that way, with the exception of the eggs and maybe the spinach. The hash brown package will tell you cook them for about half that time, and the two stage bake-and-fry for the sausages and bake-and-grill for the bacon and black pudding are downright odd. And also, if the hash browns or sausages are a different brand, the cooking time needs to be reassessed again; non-Lidl hash browns take even longer to come to an acceptable crispness, and less meaty sausages will cook faster.

I’m sure there are people out there who can handle all of this in their heads and/or by instinct; I am totally not one of them. It’s a major factor in my liking for one-pot meals, too; everything is then done at the same time, with no messing around. At the same time, having worked this stuff out for one or two meals, it means that I can sit down and plan out the timing on a different one. This is particularly applicable to SCA cookery planning, wherein you might want as many as 15 dishes ready in three lots of five, fairly close together, and where you only have four (or sometimes six) hob spaces and only one oven. Interestingly, the old tech of solid fuel stoves, where there’s one big cooking surface, or modern fry plates, where you have effectively one giant frying pan, make this a lot easier; you can cook more stuff at once, and engage in an organic sort of move-this-to-the-hotter-spot, move-that-to-the-cool-end process. But I don’t have either of those in my kitchen, or indeed most SCA kitchens. So I keep rolling with spreadsheets and careful experimentation.

In more or less that line, or at least in similar terms of experience, I had mentioned grandmother cookbooks in the context of The Arab Table a few issues back. Here’s a whole article: This Is The Winter For Grandma Cookbooks. I think I may need to acquire a copy of Joy of Cooking, too.

And that I’m on to the traditional batch of links, here’s a recently noted thing about Lent, which isn’t really food related, but amused me: Chalk Sunday.

One final recommendation before I wander off to do the washing up: Closed Loop Cooking is an excellent newsletter, dealing with sustainable, plant-based cookery. It’s well worth subscribing to, not least because it provides a load of jumping off points to other food and cookery-related bits of information right across the internet.

Anyway. This issue has been brought to you by a new coffee machine, very suspicious changed packaging on “new taste” Coke Zero, new efficient desk-side storage, and a technologically advanced headset (by which I mean it has a microphone) . Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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