"And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon": Mythical Foodscapes in Children's Literature
Part I: Utensia

Although there have been few scholarly publications devoted to representations of food in literature, the subject has begun to receive greater attention in recent years. Children's literature offers a particularly interesting focus, for in stories of make-believe, food may be conjured in infinite variety. In many examples of such works, food bridges the fantastic and the quotidian- a banal ritual in an extraordinary manifestation. Food frequently provides the medium through which a character enters an elusive world, often occupied by talking animals, mythical beasts, and ambulatory objects. These foodscapes of the imagination become the entrance to marvelous adventures.

In Alice and Wonderland, for instance, after falling down a rabbit hole, Alice encounters a bottle marked 'Drink Me' and a cake marked 'Eat Me' which, after ingesting, cause her body to in turn shrink and then grow rapidly, hinting at the absurdites to follow. As in other tales and fables such as that of Hansel and Gretel, food is the conduit through which characters undergo a physical and/or mental transformation that translates their ordinary corporeality into the fantasy world.

In The Emerald City of Oz (1910), the sixth book in L. Frank Baum's chronicle of the Land of Oz, Chapter 16, "How Dorothy Visited Utensia," brings the main character, Dorothy, to the Kingdom of Utensia while traveling through the landscapes of Oz. Captured by a brigade of spoons, Dorothy, her dog Toto, and the yellow hen Billina, are taken to a land with a population made up entirely of kitchen utensils, ruled by King Kleaver. As the king and his subjects try to determine what to do with the prisoners, Dorothy is introduced to the various utensils around her. There is, for instance, the High Priest Colander, titled so because "He's the holiest thing we have in the kingdom" and the pepperbox, Mr. Piquant, who brashly condemns Dorothy to be killed three times, to which King Kleaver tempers with "Your remarks are piquant and highly-seasoned, but you need a scattering of commonsense. It is only necessary to kill a person once to make him dead; but I do not see that it is necessary to kill this little girl at all."

As the utensils disagree about Dorothy's predicament, each reveals a mirthful license. The corkscrew tries to weigh in, stating "I'm a lawyer...I am accustomed to appear at the bar" and the flatiron attempts to "smooth this thing over." Curiously, Utensia is characterized by an absence of food, perhaps explaining the boredom felt by the captain of the spoons brigade, charging that in capturing Dorothy he intended "To create some excitement...It is so quiet here that we are all getting rusty for want of amusement. For my part, I prefer to see stirring times." After Dorothy, Toto, and Billina are released and permitted to leave, they go into the forest to pick blackberries, for Dorothy is hungry and according to King Kleaver, "There isn't a morsel to eat in all Utensia, that I know of."

Despite, or because of its lack of food, Utensia is very much about the food that is not there. Although the utensils can move and talk, they are unable to prepare food, suggesting that it is their inability to cook that most strikingly separates them from the human world. Indeed, without their comestible partners the cookware and utensils are without purpose and somewhat forlorn. The flatiron reminds everyone, "We are supposed to be useful to mankind, you know." Hence, it is the idea of food and its preparation that engages the reader. The image of food itself is left to the reader's imagination.

Culinary Ephemera: The Cookie Cutter Wheel

At the Museum of Modern Art's Counter Space show, mentioned in the last post, a small utensil from the 1950's caught my attention. Known as a cookie cutter wheel, it is composed of several cookie cutter shapes fitted onto the spokes of a wheel, with a plastic handle. This simple contraption would allow the home baker to quickly and effortlessly stamp out a chain of perfectly cut cookies by rolling the wheel over the cookie dough as with a rolling pin. Although this piece is not included on the Counter Space website, I found an image of a similar vintage model here. While kitchen gadgetry is not unique to the 20th century, the low-tech, and indeed superfluous cookie cutter wheel typifies a period when domestic efficiency was marketed through an increasing array of modern appliances.

One method of promoting such kitchen tools was to align the product with a food manufacturer. A patent for a cookie cutter wheel was filed on October 6th, 1925 and issued in September of 1929 to inventor Cleveland P. Carney with the Calumet Baking Powder Company (est. 1889) acting as assignee. By matching up comestible products such as baking powder with associated gadgets, manufacturers could generate and reinforce consumer interest in both commodities, thereby saturating the kitchen with a range of commercial goods.

Kitchen Culture

Dolls' house stove, tin, English 1930-1960
shown in "Food Glorious Food" at Museums Sheffield and traveling to the V&A's Museum of Childhood

The kitchen is defined as a place where cooking is carried out. To this end it is usually characterized by the presence of a heat source. While this purpose has not changed since the earliest domestic settlements, the cultural construction of the kitchen continues to adapt according to prevailing attitudes and tastes. The modern Western kitchen, with its focus on efficiency and hygiene, began to take shape during the industrial revolution of the mid 19th century. During this time the use of machinery and theories of productivity came to determine the appearance, function, and concept of the modern kitchen.

Two current exhibitions and an ongoing exhibit online examine this evolving social artifact, tracing the impact of theoretical and technological innovations on the modern Western kitchen since the industrial revolution of the mid 19th century:

"Food Glorious Food"- a UK exhibit described as "a delicious helping of memories from field to fork" is now showing at Museums Sheffield until November 28th, 2010 (you may also be interested in visiting the museum's collection of culinary related Sheffield metalwork). A collaboration between the University of Sheffield, Museums Sheffield and the Victoria & Albert Museum, the exhibit will be traveling to the V&A's Museum of Childhood, where it will be on view from January 29th to May 8th, 2011. Unfortunately, neither museum provides a digital archive of the pieces in the exhibition.

"Counter Space"- a comprehensive, well-edited exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This thoughtful exhibit, deftly curated by Juliet Kinchin and associate curator Aidan O'Connor of the Architecture and Design department, is on view until March 14th, 2011. Divided into sections- "the new kitchen," "the frankfurt kitchen," "visions of plenty," and "kitchen sink dramas"- the show follows developments in kitchen culture and aesthetics from the years after World War I to the present day. Highlights such as a complete, physical example of "The Frankfurt Kitchen," designed by Frankfurt's first female architect, Margarete (Grete) Schütte-Lihotzky (1897–2000) in the late 1920's, are accompanied by lesser-known (but equally exciting) visual material such as posters and utensils, that illustrate the ideals of modern living, embodied in Germany's post-WWI urban apartment complexes. The exhibit is complemented by an excellent website that allows viewers to experience the show's themes and many of the pieces on display, along with relevant videos and additional information.

"In the Victorian Kitchen"- the California Academy of Sciences online exhibit of Victorian kitchen and table tools drawn from the academy's Rietz Collection of Food Technology. The exhibit features sections on British cooking technology, changes in English silversmithing, blue and white Staffordshire, and Victorian dessert moulds.

Because food is a cultural product in as much as it provides sustenance, the kitchen is a complex space upon which the ideals and aspirations of a society are impressed. Exhibits such as these help contextualize this space within broader social movements, but also reveal the significance of the kitchen on an individual level, in viewers themselves.

Also of note: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Let Them Eat LACMA," a year long investigation of the intersections between food, art, and living.

Recipe: Hijiki Doughnuts and Hijiki Hotcakes

Hijiki (Sargassum fusiforme) is a type of seaweed that grows along the coastlines of China, Korea, and Japan. Available in grocery stores in dried form, hijiki is commonly used in Japanese home cooking. Its crinkly, tea-like leaves are soaked in water for about an hour, swelling to tadpole sized pieces. Hijiki is very high in iron, calcium, and magnesium. Although it contains minute levels of inorganic arsenic toxin, Japanese health authorities do not consider hijiki to be health threatening as it is consumed in such small amounts. Furthermore, the toxicity level decreases significantly when hijiki is soaked, rinsed, and cooked.
For more about cooking with hijiki see this post from Just Hungry. For more on seaweed, see my post on agar-agar.

Hijiki seaweed, with a late 19th century English copper tea canister in the Aesthetic style, depicting cranes.

Hijiki has a mild seaweed fragrance, chewy texture, and a nutty flavor that is delicious in soups and mixed into rice. Yet the first time I tasted hijiki was in doughnuts that my mother had made in a Japanese cooking class: ping pong-sized balls of sweet and crispy, fried dough that concealed a soft interior filled with hijiki. Although I haven't been able to locate my mother's recipe from the cooking class, I have adapted my favorite recipe for baked doughnuts from 101 cookbooks to include hijiki.

Baked Hijiki Doughnuts
Yields about 2 dozen 2" balls


2 Tbs hijiki
2/3 cup warm milk
1/2 packet active dry yeast (about 1 generous teaspoon)
1 Tbs cooking oil, such as canola
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt

1/4 cup butter
confectioners' sugar

1. Cover hijiki with water and soak for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Drain in a colander, rinse, and place hikiji in a towel to wring dry, as you would with spinach. Set aside.

2. Place half (1/3 cup) of the warm milk in a large bowl and sprinkle yeast over top. Stir until dissolved. Let it sit for 5-7 minutes, or until you can see the yeast start to activate and produce little bubbles. Place remaining milk in a mixing bowl and stir in oil and sugar. Add this to yeast mixture. Whisk in egg, flour, and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon until well combined and then knead with your hands (either in bowl or turn onto a floured countertop) about 5 times, or until the dough becomes homogenous, elastic, and soft. If the dough is too sticky, sprinkle more flour on as you knead. If too dry, sprinkle more milk on as you knead.

3. Place dough in a large, greased bowl. Cover with a damp cloth and place in a warm spot to rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size.

4. Punch down dough and knead hijiki into dough until evenly distributed. Place 1 1/2" balls of dough on parchment lined baking sheets. Cover with a damp towel and let rise another 45 minutes.

5. Bake doughnuts in an oven preheated at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes. Meanwhile, melt butter in a saucepan. After 8 minutes, check on doughnuts. When the bottoms are golden brown they are ready. Remove from the oven, brush liberally with melted butter, dust with confectioners' sugar, and serve.

Another way to use hijiki is in dorayaki-style hotcakes. Dorayaki are Japanese filled pancakes, consisting of two castella cakes encasing a filling of either red bean, peanut, chocolate, or cream cheese.
The recipe below features hijiki and cream cheese inside a pancake made buoyant with whipped egg whites. I'd like to experiment with flavor combinations, substituting whole wheat pastry flour for all-purpose, and adding pureed pumpkin, sweet potato, or carrot to the batter.

Shown in an onigiri (rice ball) carrier, that works well for transporting hotcakes too.

Hijiki Hotcakes
Yields about 4 hotcakes. To make a large batch, simply multiply the proportions below. Freeze any extra hotcakes and thaw in the microwave to serve.


1 Tbs hijiki
2 oz. cream cheese
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbs sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs, separated
1 cup milk or soymilk
2 Tbs butter, melted and cooled, plus more for the pan

1. 1. Cover hijiki with water and soak for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Drain in a colander, rinse, and place hikiji in a towel to wring dry, as you would with spinach. Set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks with milk and butter. Add to flour mixture. In another bowl, beat egg whites at high speed until peaks form. Fold egg whites into batter in 2 additions.

3. Heat a pan over medium high heat with butter. Add a spoonful of batter and as the edges start to firm, gingerly place a teaspoon of cream cheese and a pinch of hijiki (about 7 pieces) on the center of the cake. Top with a little more batter. When bottom is golden (1-2 minutes), flip over and cook 1-2 minutes more. Repeat with remaining batter.

Culinary Ephemera: Siew Kee Restaurant Menu, Malacca ca. 1960

Restaurant related objects such as business cards, matchboxes and matchbooks, menus, and advertisements, as well as utensils, promotional memorabilia, and decorative accessories, can illustrate and help determine the tastes and customs of particular places and time periods. I have a small collection of business cards taken from roadside restaurants on a cross-country U.S. trip some years ago. Looking at the restaurant name, its specialties, and the graphics reveals an encapsulated sense of time and place. Menus are an excellent source of information on culinary trends and anomalies as well as social interaction.

Below is a menu from the Siew Kee Restaurant in Malacca (Melaka) in present day Malaysia, specializing in Chinese dishes. Malacca was one of the three port cities, including Penang and Singapore, which comprised the Straits Settlements of the Malayan peninsula when it was under British control up until 1946. Long before British rule, these trading centers attracted Chinese, Indian and European immigrants. Intermarriage between these groups and the indigenous Malay population created a region of cultural diversity. At this cultural interface, the culinary practices of each immigrant blended and expanded into unique, regional specialties. For more on Straits Chinese cuisine see my post on Peranakan Cookery.

Siew Kee Restaurant Menu

With red leather front and back covers, a blue cloth spine and silver lettering, this bilingual English-Traditional Chinese text menu features 15 leaves with the watermark of Loh Printing Press in Malacca. The restaurant's offerings are divided into: Baa Mee, Shark's Fin, Bird's Nest Soup, Snow Fungus, Pigeon, Duck, Chinese Dishes, Hot and Cold Drinks, Beer and Stout, Special Chinese Small Dishes, Special Chinese Dishes, and Champagne. There are no prices listed. The menu is undated but I suspect it to be from around 1960, based on the graphics and condition. The menu is well preserved, with slight foxing on some pages. I've included some of the pages below (click on the images to enlarge), along with a brief description.
Size: 5.5" x 8.5" (14 cm x 21.5 cm)

Also of interest...

The Science of the Menu

Variations on a Theme: Sandwiches, Part II

Speaking of the eponymous John Montagu (1718-92), 4th Earl of Sandwich, credited for his innovative method of staving off hunger at the gambling table, Elizabeth Robins Pennell writes: "A hero indeed is he who left the sandwich as an heirloom to humanity. It truly is the staff of life, a substantial meal for starving traveller or bread-winner; but none the less an incomparable work of art, a joy to the gourmand of fancy and discretion" (33). "The Subtle Sandwich" is one of a collection of essays that appeared under the title The Delights of Delicate Eating in 1896. The writer, Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936), a Philadelphian émigré to London, was a writer and art critic involved in late 19th century arts circles, who took to culinary writing in magazine columns in the later part of her career. Pennell's writing advocated for creativity in the kitchen; her prose, absent of recipes, instead describes food, cooking, and eating, as one would describe art. Indeed that is how Pennell, the all but forgotten predecessor to food writers such as Elizabeth David and M.F.K Fisher, saw it. A connoisseur and collector of early cookbooks, Pennell's impressive collection is accessible in the archives of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. It seemed fitting to quote her poetic truths in this post, Part II of Sandwiches. See Part I here. The sandwiches I've included below attempt an expansion on the idea of the humble sandwich, but maintain the traits of ease and portability. As Pennell advocates, "Set your wits to work. Cultivate your artistic instincts. Invent! Create! Many are the men who have painted pictures: few those who have composed a new and perfect sandwich"(38). In her characteristic allusion to possible ingredients, Pennell suggests "...the cool cucumber, fragrant from its garden ground, the unrivalled tomato, the crisp, sharp mustard and cress. Scarce a green thing growing that will not lend itself to the true artist in sandwich-making...And your art may be measured by your success in proving the onion to be the poetic soul of the sandwich, as of the salad bowl. For afternoon tea the dainty green sandwich is the daintiest of them all" (40). The setting was important to Pennell as well, completing the eating experience: "lyrical indeed is the savoury sandwich, well cut and garnished, served on rare faience or old silver..." (36).

Cottage Cheese Sandwich

For each sandwich you will need:
2 slices of bread
1/2 cup cottage cheese
2 Tbs chopped poblano peppers
1/4 tsp cumin

Grease a griddle or frying pan over medium heat.
Combine last 3 ingredients in a bowl and spread between bread slices.
Place sandwich on hot griddle and cook until golden on both sides.

Grated Carrot/Zucchini Sandwich

For each sandwich you will need:
2 slices of bread
1 medium carrot or 1 small zucchini, grated
1 Tbs mayonnaise, preferably Vegenaise
dash of curry powder

Mix last three ingredients in a bowl.
Toast bread, spread one or both slices with mustard.
Drape one slice of bread with lettuce and top with grated filling.

Note: You may substitute 1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels for the carrot or zucchini.
Fresh or frozen roti (available at Asian grocery stores) is delicious in place of bread.
See photo above.

Herbaceous Sandwich

For each sandwich you will need:
1/2 baguette, slit open and toasted
1/2 cup assorted fresh herbs such as basil, oregano, parsley, chives, tarragon, lovage
2 Tbs cream cheese
tsp olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
mustard, optional

Spread cream cheese and mustard (if using) over each side of toasted baguette.
Gently pile herbs on top, tearing the larger basil leaves into smaller pieces.
Drizzle with olive oil and black pepper.

Rose Petal Sandwich

For tea sandwiches you will need:
5-7 slices of high-quality white bread, such as Japanese white bread or brioche
6 oz. cream cheese or butter, softened and whipped with a fork
1 Tbs snipped chives
1/2 cup rose petals

Cut out bread using using a 3" round cookie cutter.
Spread with cream cheese or butter and sprinkle with chives.
Decorate with rose petals radiating from center. Repeat with one or more layers.

Suggested reading:
Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. The Delights of Delicate Eating. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Andrew F. Smith. "Sandwiches," The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Ed. Gordon Campbell. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Sandwiches Part I

Stone Fruit: Summer Garden Gems

Stone fruit trees are a dramatic presence in the garden, yielding delicate blossoms in the spring and gem-like fruit in the summer. Even in winter stone fruit trees retain a striking form, their dark, gnarled branches seen against a chilling grey sky. Between late January through March, small branches may be cut and brought indoors to force blooming, creating an unexpected wintertime floral display.

Apricot blossoms in early spring

During spring bloom time, stone fruit flowers such as cherry blossoms may be pickled or crystallized to make enchanting edible garnishes. Even the leaves of some trees may be used for cooking. In Provence, peach leaves infuse custard with a subtle yet distinct aroma of almonds and anise. Simply add 1 or 2 peach leaves to the pot as the custard cooks and serve alone or as a crème anglaise- a fitting accompaniment for a peach pie or tart.

Peaches growing on a columnar fruit tree.

Whether in an orchard of standard or dwarf-size summer bearers such as peach, plum, and apricot, or a small potted nectarine on a balcony, stone fruit trees will do well in almost any sunny location with minimum fuss. There are many varieties to choose from that are suitable for outdoor spaces of all sizes.

One of my favorite varieties is a hybrid known as the aprium, a genetic graft of 3/4 apricot and 1/4 plum. The unique fruit has the appearance of an apricot and features the apricot's buttery texture and mellow, sweet-tart character with a hint of the plum's ambrosial fragrance.

Aprium fruit picked in late June

Planting several kinds of stone fruit trees will yield a continual harvest throughout the summer. I had a wonderful crop of apricots and apriums in June, pluots and Japanese and Italian plums in July, and peaches in August. Because there is so much fruit, ripening at different times, I like to use some to make an impromptu fruit dessert, such as a tart or cobbler, and use the rest for jam and chutney. Of course, one of the greatest pleasures of picking your own fruit is eating it fresh off the stem, still warm from the sun.

Aprium Chutney

Stone Fruit Chutney


3/4 to 1 lb. stone fruit such as plums, nectarines, cherries, apricots, and peeled peaches, chopped
1/2 cup vinegar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1" piece of ginger, grated
1" piece cinnamon stick
1 clove
1 blade of mace or a sprinkle of nutmeg
1/2 tsp mustard seed
2-3 small dried chili peppers
1/4 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients except fruit in a large nonreactive pot and bring to the boil. Add fruit, and cook at a high simmer for about 20 minutes, or until syrupy. Remove cinnamon, chilies, and clove. Pour into jars and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Aprium Conserve

Stone Fruit Conserve


1 lb. stone fruit such as plums, nectarines, cherries, apricots, and peeled peaches, sliced
2 cups granulated sugar
juice of 1 lemon

Place fruit in a large nonreactive bowl with sugar and mash together. Stir in lemon juice and allow the mixture to macerate for 15 minutes. Transfer mixture to a large nonreactive pot and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 10-20 minutes, or until thick and syrupy. (Note: a longer heating time will produce a thicker consistency. Keep in mind that the conserve will firm up more when in the refrigerator.) Pour into jars and refrigerate up to 1 month.

The conserve is excellent with eggs, pancakes, toast, or simply mixed into creamy yogurt.

Japanese Plum Jam

Using Agar-Agar

The Malay word agar-agar (jelly) is also the common name for red algae such as Gracilaria lichenoides or Gelidium amansii, originating in the coastal waters of the Mediterranean and East Asia. For cooking purposes, agar can be found in either powdered or dried form in Asian supermarkets. When dissolved in liquid, heated, and then cooled, agar transforms into a moldable jelly. Odorless and vegan, agar-agar is a superior alternative to gelatin or isinglass and is used in many East Asian and South East Asian desserts.

Talam Agar-Agar, a Singaporean and Malaysian favorite, flavored with coconut and rose.

In the 19th century, South East Asian agar was introduced to the West, where the plant's properties began to be exploited for industrial use. Yet this marine plant has a long history in human consumption. Early Chinese texts such as the the agriculture and pharmacopeia classic Shen neng ben cao jing (ca. 1st century BCE to 1st century CE), record using 海藻, or haizao (sea grass or seaweed) to cure goiter. The bitter and cooling nature of the plant was believed to have a balancing effect on the internal organs. Later in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), red algae-- 海菜, or haicai (sea vegetable)-- is recorded for the same use (H.T. Huang, Science and Civilisation in China, v. VI: 5 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 575). Such texts record soaking the plant in wine, to be taken as a tonic, or grinding it and other medicinal ingredients into a powder, which was then compressed into a soluble capsule.

Japanese Kanten

In Japan, the gelatinous product of red algae is known as 寒天, or kanten (cold or frozen sky), and is often used for sweets such as yokan. Today, the technique for extracting kanten is derived from a method documented by Tarazaemon Minoya in 1658, in which harvested seaweed was boiled to extract the gel which was collected on trays and left outdoors on winter nights to freeze.

The benefits of using agar in cooking are nicely highlighted in Agar-agar: Secret Minceur des Japonaises, Paris: La Plage, 2007 (The Japanese Secret to Being Slim) by a French blogger known as Clea. Highlighting agar's use in weight loss, Clea points out that agar promotes good digestion and a feeling of fullness. During the 2 years Clea lived in Japan, she observed supermarkets, cookbooks, and women's magazines advertising the slimming benefits of cooking with kanten. Clea's book, written in French, is filled with beautiful recipes for sweet and savory dishes that use agar-agar to embolden the bright flavors and accentuate the vivid colors of fresh produce. Folded into cream desserts such as in a luscious thyme scented crème caramel, glazing a pear and chestnut cake, or embedded in a subtle goat cheese and honey- vinaigrette verrine, agar-agar shines as the secret ingredient.

Tomato-Basil and Herb Goat Cheese Terrine

Clea's recipe for Tomato "Burgers" particularly caught my attention. Agar is dissolved into strained tomato sauce and molded into round "burgers" filled with a zucchini slaw and toasted pine nuts. I decided to use my rectangular mini loaf pan to mould the tomato mixture. I then assembled the rectangular blocks with herbed goat cheese in between for a refreshing summer side dish. Because agar solidifies when cooled, it is perfect for make-ahead meals that can be left in the refrigerator until serving time.

Tomato-Basil and Herb Goat Cheese Terrine (adapted from Agar-agar: Secret Minceur des Japonaises, Paris: La Plage, 2007)

You will need a small rectangular mould, such as a 10-compartment mini loaf pan to make 3 terrine.


1 1/2 cups strained tomatoes
1 cup water
3.5 g desiccated agar-agar, or 2 g (scant teaspoon) powdered agar-agar
5 oz. goat cheese
1/4 cup nuts such as walnuts, pecans, or pine nuts, toasted and chopped
1 tsp olive oil
4 basil leaves
2 tsp oregano, chopped
black pepper, to taste
hummus, to garnish (optional)

1. In a medium saucepan, heat strained tomatoes, water, agar, and 1 basil leaf. Stir occasionally as agar dissolves. Reduce heat and simmer 5-10 minutes. Prepare moulds by rinsing under water. Pour tomato mixture into mould and place in the refrigerator 30 minutes, or until firm to the touch.

2. Combine goat cheese, olive oil, nuts, black pepper, oregano and remaining basil, minced.

To assemble:
Carefully remove 1 tomato slab at a time with an offset spatula, and place on serving plate. Top with a spoonful of goat cheese mixture and repeat. Place a tomato slab on top with a dollop of hummus and serve.

Talam agar-agar is a simple dessert that is perfect on a hot summer night. It is traditionally dyed with food coloring, creating a striking contrast between the colored bottom layer and the white coconut "frosting" but I like the subtle pink hue imparted by rosewater as well.

Talam Agar-Agar (makes 4)

Talam agar-agar is usually made in a tray or cake mould but this recipe uses individual ramekins.


Bottom layer:
3.5 g desiccated agar-agar, or 2 g (scant 1/2 teaspoon) powdered agar-agar
1 1/2 cups water
1 pandan leaf
3 Tbs sugar
1 tsp rose water

Top Layer:
1.75 g desiccated agar-agar, or 1 g (scant 1/2 teaspoon) powdered agar-agar
1/4 cup thick coconut milk
1/2 cup water
1 pandan leaf
1 Tbs sugar
pinch salt

1. Heat the ingredients for the bottom layer in a saucepan until agar dissolves. Simmer 10-15 minutes. Rinse ramekins under water. Pour liquid into ramekins and place in refrigerator for about 15 minutes to set.

2. Heat the ingredients for the top layer in a saucepan until agar dissolves. Simmer 10-15 minutes. Remove ramekins from refrigerator and pour over the firmed bottom layer. Return to refrigerator for 10 minutes or until set . To serve, loosen the agar-agar with an offset spatula and turn onto plates. Sprinkle with toasted dried coconut and drizzle with some extra coconut milk.

General agar-agar to liquid ratio:

3.5 g desiccated agar blocks per 2-3 cups of water (1/2 to 3/4 liter)
2 g powdered agar per 2 cups water (1/2 liter)

Recipe: Philippine Eggplant Fritters

Although eggplant (Solanum melongena) also known as brinjal or aubergine, is cultivated around the world, the plant is native to southern India and Sri Lanka. The petite variety, shown below, is often labeled "Indian eggplant" in grocery stores. While "Indian" is indeed redundant, the small, egg-shaped variety is mainly grown in India, where eggplant is called baingan or kathirikkai.

In both early and modern cookbooks, recipes using eggplant usually advise methods to remove the fruit's natural bitterness, or make it less mushy when cooked. Following the recommendation of a friend of mine from the Philippines, I've found the simplest way to cook small eggplants is to first boil them, then squash the softened eggplants with your palm, dip them in beaten eggs and lightly fry them. The fritters are soft with crispy edges, and not at all bitter. You can use any small eggplant variety for this. To make fritters with a large eggplant, thinly slice the raw eggplant lengthwise, dip slices in beaten egg, and shallow fry.

Philippine Eggplant Fritters

Serves 4


8 small eggplants, halved
2 eggs, beaten and thinned with 1 Tbs water
neutral cooking oil such as canola or grapeseed
sweet chili sauce

1. Add eggplant to boiling water and cook until the tines of a fork easily pierce the skin. Drain the eggplant and place on a kitchen towel to cool completely.
2. When cool, flatten each eggplant half with the palm of your hand. Heat a large frying pan with 2 Tbs oil.
3. Dip each flattened half in the beaten eggs and place in the hot frying pan. Cook 2-3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown, adding more oil as necessary.
4. Place cooked eggplant on a plate lined with paper towels to drain excess oil. Serve hot or at room temperature with sweet chili sauce.

Cooking with Roses

Last August I found a copy of a lovely out-of-print book, The Art of Cooking with Roses (1968) by Jean Gordon. While I waited until roses were again in season (May-June) before testing some recipes, I enjoyed reading Gordon's chapters on rosewater, rose extract, rose syrup, rose petals and rose petal preserves, and rose hips.

A dedicated rose enthusiast, Gordon founded the Rose Museum in St. Augustine, Florida in 1956. She also organized national rose exhibitions in the United States, lectured and published articles on the uses of roses, and was a member of the American Rose Society. Gordon wrote several rose-themed books including Pageant of the Rose, Rose Recipes: Customs, Facts, Fancies, and Immortal Roses: One Hundred Rose Stories, as well as Orange Recipes and Coffee Recipes. Although I could not find any information on the Rose Museum, operated from Gordon's home, the New York Botanical Garden's Library archives include a collection of Jean Gordon's papers: "newspaper clippings, photographs, notes, correspondence, journals, seed catalogs, book reviews, posters, photographic reproductions, booklets, leaflets, bibliographic index cards, and postcards" from the years 1950-80.

The Art of Cooking with Roses by Jean Gordon (New York: Walker & Co., 1968).

The Art of Cooking with Roses is particularly delightful, with uncomplicated recipes from around the world, including Turkish Rice Pudding (Kazandibi), courtesy of the Turkish Embassy, Chestnuts with Coffee Sauce, Indian Nut Custard, Scrambled Eggs with Rose Petals, Pickled Rosebuds, and Black-Eyed Carrots, cooked with black currants, butter and rosewater.

A recipe for crystallized rose petals caught my attention. Dipped in egg whites and dusted with sugar, the fragrant petals become crunchy like a delicate candy- a perfect decoration for cupcakes iced with Gordon's recipe for rose-flavored butter frosting.

Crystallized Rose Petals

Crystallized Rose Petals, from The Art of Cooking with Roses

Select highly scented fresh roses. Wash and dry well. Beat white of one egg to a foam. Dip small pastry brush (or use fingers) in egg white and brush well over sides of rose petals. Be certain that no surplus egg white remains on petal, but that both sides are moist. Shake granulated sugar on both sides and place on tray to dry in refrigerator.

Rose-Flavored Butter Cream Frosting, from The Art of Cooking with Roses


1/2 cup butter
1 lb sifted confectioners' sugar
dash of salt
4-5 Tbs rosewater

Cream butter with salt; add part of the confectioners' sugar gradually, blending after each addition. Add remaining sugar alternately with rosewater, beating vigorously after each addition until smooth and creamy. This amount should be enough to cover top and sides of two 9-inch layers, or 15 to 20 cupcakes.

Rose Cream Cupcakes Topped with Crystallized Rose Petals

For more on roses and gardens, including my rosewater recipe, see Rosewater: Essence of the Garden
& A Thousand Damask Roses

Rhubarb: A May Vegetable

Although common cultivated rhubarb is a vegetable from the Polygonaceae family (of which sorrel is also a member), the ruby toned stalks are mostly used in dessert recipes. Besides imparting its lovely hue, rhubarb's tart juices meld nicely with sugar.

Rheum rhabarbarum 'Valentine'.

Rhubarb, a cool-climate perennial, starts to appear in March and reaches its peak around May to June. While rhubarb is often grown in vegetable gardens, I prefer to plant rhubarb throughout my garden, wherever there is an opening amidst other low, sun-loving perennials and herbs, ensuring a bountiful crop. While the poisonous leaves are inedible, the plant's attractive appearance makes it a lovely choice for many locations (until the stalks are picked, of course).

While at Kitchen Arts and Letters in New York, one of my favorite bookstores, I found Mary Prior's Rhubarbaria: Recipes for Rhubarb, a brief but thorough collection of rhubarb recipes from early and modern cookbooks. From Prospect Books' "The English Kitchen" series, Rhubarbaria begins with "Rhubarb in Britain," a 24-page micro history that traces rhubarb's journey from China to the British kitchen through early modern cookbooks, botanical, and travel writings. The following chapters feature rhubarb in a variety of recipes; one chapter is titled, "Rhubarb as a Vegetable" and Prior includes many savory recipes, such as the Afghan Sabzi Rahwash: Spinach with Rhubarb and Dill. Some of the best recipes that combine ingredients from the garden are found in Chapter 4, "Rhubarb Soups." I think either Rhubarb, Ginger and Mint Soup, or Chilled Rhubarb, Ginger and Elderflower Soup would be perfect for a summer meal. Sweeter versions could be served as a dessert, such as Hungarian Sweet Rhubarb Soup, made with sour cream, or this pretty Danish Cold Rhubarb Soup.

Cold rhubarb soup from Rhubarbaria, made with porridge oats and vanilla.

Roly-poly with rhubarb jam filling and vanilla custard sauce.

Rhubarb-Green Tea Jam by Le Palais des Thés.

In dessert recipes, rhubarb is almost always cooked with sugar until it breaks down to a jam-like consistency. When rhubarb is not in season, simply substitute a good quality rhubarb jam for the fresh stalks. There are usually several enticing combinations to choose from such as strawberry-rhubarb, raspberry-rhubarb, or this rhubarb and green tea jam, from Le Palais des Thés. I recommend using the jam in a Bakewell Tart, a fruit and lemon curd filled cakey-pie topped with almonds, a riff on the British pudding.

Bakewell Tart, adapted from Tea & Crumpets by Margaret Johnson (Chronicle Books, 2009).

(for a 9" tart pan)

your favorite tart or pie dough

1/2 cup rhubarb jam
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbs lemon zest
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup grated almonds/almond meal
handful of chopped almonds

1. Preheat oven to 375ºF. Roll out chilled pie dough and line base of tart pan. Bake blind with pie weights for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and cool. Meanwhile in a large bowl mix together butter, sugar, salt, lemon zest, and eggs. Add flour and almond meal and mix well.

2. Spread jam over pastry dough in tart pan. Pour filling mixture over jam and spread evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle top with chopped almonds.

3. Bake for 30 minutes or until browned on top. Check on the tart periodically. If the top begins to get too brown, cover with aluminum foil for the remainder of baking time.

Rhubarb Bakewell Tart with Wisteria frutescens "Amethyst Falls."

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