Out of the Frying Pan And Into the Antipodes--
Recipes & reminiscences from 70-plus years of New Zealand & Australian food; with some of the loves, some of the lovers, and some of the culinary & social history.
(A few names & places have been changed to protect the guilty)

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Duck For Cover

Duck For Cover

We never had duck at home: it was just too expensive and very hard to get—in fact, before we had frozen poultry and supermarkets, unobtainable to ordinary New Zealanders, unless you kept your own ducks or had someone in the family who went shooting.

Le canard pékinois enchaî
In Paris in the 1970s I had Peking Duck with Claude; that must have been the first time I had duck. It was the only Chinese dish he liked: he took me to the nearest Chinese restaurant, in a side street just off our street in the 10ième, nearer to the grands boulevards, several times, once with his friend Michel but other times just us. He’d always order just the Peking Duck and never let me pay. The flip side of the coin being that that was the only dish he’d order! It was nice but not extraordinary. Poor Claude had the most tremendous crush on the rather pretty young Chinese waiter, but as far as I could see the young man, though he was very polite, (a) wasn’t interested and (b) thought he was mad to just order the duck, bare!

Duck for Cover!
Domestic ducks are very fatty. Wild ducks are said not to be, or this is the received wisdom: I’ve never had wild duck. The first part of the adage, however, is most certainly true. I’ve only managed to afford duck a couple of times. The first dish I did, roast duck, was very nearly a disaster. It generated so much fat that it overflowed the baking dish and made a horrible mess in the bottom of the oven, a flood well over a centimetre deep. I was very lucky it didn’t set the oven alight. The experience was so traumatic that I can’t recall what the duck tasted like.
    No wonder today’s moronic telly chefs muck around for ages (or their unseen slaves in the background do), skinning their duck breasts and either roasting or pan-grilling the skin separately and tra-la-la… Oven-roasting a whole domestic duck is a very risky business!
    By the way, notice how they always do the duck breasts very rare? This is because they’re incapable of cooking them through and not making them either tough or, since they lack the fat, very dry. Yeah. You can keep your half-raw poultry, thanks, self-appointed culinary experts.

By contrast, the second dish I tried making was delightful. It was a cold dish, “en daube”, set in jelly. It’s fiddly to make but at the time I was a lot younger and keener, and followed the directions slavishly—though I seem to recall I didn’t manage to source all the herbs. It’s a classic Elizabeth David recipe:

Canard en daube
You need 1 large duck or 2 small ones. One which is old and too tough for roasting will do very well for this dish.
Prepare a number of little strips of bacon and the following mixture of herbs:
    A handful of parsley, 2 shallots, chives, a clove of garlic, a bay-leaf, a sprig of thyme, a few leaves of basil, salt, pepper, a scrap of grated nutmeg.
    Chop all these very finely and roll each strip of bacon in this mixture. Make incisions all over the duck and lard it with the pieces of bacon. Truss the duck and put it into a casserole or braising pan into which it just fits, and pour over it two tumblers of white wine, the same quantity of water and a liqueur glass of brandy. Cover the pan and cook the duck very slowly indeed for 3-4 hours. The sauce will reduce and, when cold, should turn to jelly.
    When the duck is cooked, place it in the serving dish; leave the sauce to get cold, so that you can take off the fat, warm it [i.e. the sauce] again slightly and then pour it over the duck, and leave it to set. The duck will be very well cooked, so it will be perfectly easy to carve at the table.
(Elizabeth David. French Country Cooking, By Elizabeth David; Decorated By John Minton. 2nd revised ed. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1966.) (First published 1951)

Old Wives’ Tales
Funnily enough, although we never ate duck in New Zealand back in the Fifties and Sixties—and only saw live ducks at the zoo or in the Domain—we absorbed the current received wisdom, aka old wives’ tales, about ducks.

Clutches of ducklings, so the story runs, were traditionally often fostered by hens in the farmyard, perhaps because they supposedly made better mothers than the ducks did. It’s certainly a story I heard in my youth. This Victorian picture illustrates it.

Never eat raw duck eggs. I’ve known that all my life, from so early that I have no memory at all of first being told it. This was a serious warning in the 1950s, when refrigerated whipped puddings were all the rage, and most of them were made with beaten egg whites. (See “A Christmas Pudding From Katherine”.)

    We did occasionally get duck eggs in the 1950s, but I’m blessed if I know where from. Everybody had large back yards on their quarter-acre sections, of course, and quite a few people kept chooks—though this was ceasing to be the norm—but we didn’t know anybody who kept ducks. I suppose Mr Green the grocer occasionally got some in.
    The message was that duck eggs could have duck poo in them. It wasn’t until years and years later that I learned why: ducks, unlike hens, only have one tube for both eggs and poo to come down, and there is always the chance of contamination—and hence a dose of salmonellosis. Okay, never eat raw duck eggs. It's quite safe to use them in baking, however.

The Literary Duck, With Covers
Apart from the stories absorbed at our mother’s knee, our main knowledge of ducks came from books. I’m pretty sure I heard the story of Jemima Puddle-duck when I was about four or five, so, 1948-1949, but we didn’t own the book back then. It must have been a borrowed copy. About ten years later we had our own copy and my little sisters listened to it with bated breath. That foxy gentleman was so scary! (Exactly what this story reveals about its creator’s psyche, possibly better not to enquire!)

     I think the next book I knew that had ducks in it was probably the lovely hardback non-fiction volume, profusely illustrated with black and white photographs, that I was given when I was about seven. I wish I could remember its title! It was an English book, intended for children, about animals and birds, from which I absorbed all sorts of interesting and useful facts about a range of English creatures, only some of which ever made it out to the Antipodes. Fallow deer, that’s right! It had several sorts of English deer. And I think swallow-tail butterflies, too. And, um, English thrushes? Yes, I’m pretty sure it had a lovely picture of a thrush. They have been introduced in New Zealand, so I guess that one was sort of relevant! It helped to illuminate all those Enid Blytons I read, that’s for sure! Though the vernacular of the “William” books remained opaque.

The “Library” Van
Such a very English volume might seem an odd choice for a child living in New Zealand, but there was nothing like it published locally: we didn’t own a single New Zealand children’s book until I was about eleven, at which point some misguided relative or friend gave us a wishy-washily illustrated volume of Maori legends rewritten for children. Not really this well-meaning donor’s fault: there simply was nothing else in the nineteen-fifties. We were lucky, though: our parents were both readers, so we were encouraged to borrow books from the entrepreneurial Mr Armour with his library van. He owned a bookshop and stationer’s in the next suburb: it was a completely private enterprise. To us as kids it seemed a norm, but looking back, we were incredibly fortunate. A family that had about 1/3d (one shilling and threepence) left over from the weekly wage, no kidding, would never have been able to buy its kids the number of books we got through! The nearest public library was miles away, with no direct bus service at all. I got to know Honeybunch and the Bobbsey twins through Mr Armour’s van, followed by Just William, of course, and the egregious Darrell of Malory Towers, and a little later the Swallows and Amazons. Not to say Biggles and co.! Actually, if we had been anywhere near a public library we’d really have lost out: in those days librarians disapproved entirely of most of these offerings, an attitude which lasted well into the eighties, and as far as Enid Blyton’s concerned, well beyond. When they finally built a brand-new library at the nearest big centre, about half an hour away on the very infrequent buses, we recognised the Arthur Ransomes with relief, but that was about it. Just as well I was too old for most of my old favourites by then, because I certainly wouldn’t have found them at Takapuna Public Library.

Ping! …Missed
The world of Honeybunch, the Bobbsey twins and Pollyanna seemed no stranger to me than that of the Famous Five (I was convinced for years that “Quentin”, their uncle, was a made-up name): I certainly never realised that they came from different sides of the Atlantic! Mr Armour’s van was crammed with American children’s classics—well, definitely classics in their way, never mind the experts on children’s literature (dreadful expression) I encountered in later life—but there were some that he missed, and The Story About Ping was one of them. I’d have been too old for it by then, but if he had stocked it, I’m sure Mum would have borrowed it for my younger sister.
    I shouldn’t be so grudging about those well-meaning ladies who introduced me to the study of “children’s literature” and the real definition of a “picture book”, because it was they who showed me Kurt Wiese’s completely charming illustrations of the famous Chinese duck, Ping. Chinese-American: the book is American but the illustrator had lived in China.

    The picture above, from AbeBooks.com, shows the cover of a well-used first edition, from 1933. A reprint edition is available from Amazon.com, so you can still get to see Wiese’s really great talent as an illustrator. Ping, though he is a bit yellow—well, he is Chinese, and the book does date from the nineteen-thirties—Is definitely one of the best ducks in literature: a very duck-like duck!

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Dreaming Of A White Christmas

The sweet known as “White Christmas” is an Australian specialty, a kind of white fudge. Like many home-made sweets, it’s made in a solid slab and then cut up into pieces.
    The base ingredient is a vegetable fat which remains solid and stable at room temperature: either the hydrogenated coconut oil “copha” (the Australian term; in New Zealand it’s Kremelta), or white chocolate, which is sweetened cocoa butter (theobroma oil) from the cocoa bean.
    To this base the usual additions are glacé cherries, and any of a range of secondary ingredients such as other dried or crystallised fruits, rice bubbles (a favourite), desiccated coconut, nuts, a sweetener, and often a dairy option such as milk powder or even cream.

Healthy? No.
Before we look at the recipes, let’s get our facts straight. You didn’t think that sweets were gonna be good for you in any case, didja? No. However, given the current food fads, especially the fervent advocacy of coconut products, let’s find out exactly what we’re talking about, here. “White Christmas” may be based on copha or on white chocolate—but claims that one is healthier for you than the other are spurious. White chocolate does have less saturated fat than copha, but both are very high in saturated fat. And copha is something that should be eaten infrequently in very small quantities: not used as a base for anything you bake regularly. You’ll quite often see it in slice recipes. Avoid it.

*** Copha
Copha, as it’s called in Australia (“Kremelta” in New Zealand) is hydrogenated (solidified) coconut oil. You can find out all about coconut oil from Wikipedia’s excellent article “Coconut Oil” and believe you me, after reading it you won't ever believe it's healthy again. Here’s what it says on the process of turning the oil into a solid:

RBD [refined, bleached, and deodorized] coconut oil can be processed further into partially or fully hydrogenated oil to increase its melting point. …
   In the process of hydrogenation, unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids) are combined with hydrogen in a catalytic process to make them more saturated. Coconut oil contains only 6% monounsaturated and 2% polyunsaturated fatty acids. In the partial hydrogenation process, some of these are transformed into trans fatty acids.

“More saturated.” Ouch. What this means is, the coconut oil product (copha) gets worse.

*** White Chocolate
“White chocolate is a chocolate derivative. It commonly consists of cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids and is characterized by a pale yellow or ivory appearance.” (“White chocolate”, Wikipedia). Cocoa butter is the vegetable fat extracted from cocoa beans. Wikipedia’s article on it tells us: “It contains a high proportion of saturated fats as well as monounsaturated oleic acid.” (“Cocoa Butter”, Wikipedia).

*** Let’s compare fat facts
The list below, compiled from the two Wikipedia articles mentioned above, shows you the comparative fat content of coconut oil, cocoa butter, and a couple of popular cooking oils. The percentages are of the weight of total fats (fatty acids) in each.

Coconut Oil:
82.5% Saturated
6.3%   Monounsaturated
1.7%   Polyunsaturated:

Cocoa Butter:
57 - 64% Saturated
29 - 43% Monounsaturated
0 - 5%     Polyunsaturated

Canola Oil:
7.4%   Saturated
63.3% Monounsaturated
28.1% Polyunsaturated

Olive Oil:
13.8% Saturated
73%    Monounsaturated
10.5% Polyunsaturated

If the unhydrogenated coconut oil is 82.5 percent saturated fats, the hydrogenated copha is going to be even higher. Oh, dear. Because white chocolate is a commercial product it’s impossible to tell exactly how much saturated fat each version contains, but since it’s mainly cocoa butter, it’s a very high proportion. Not as high as copha, no, but it’s not gonna be healthy!
    But gee, who gorges on fat-laden foods at Christmas, anyway?

The Forerunners
Such easy-to-make recipes as “White Christmas” and its cousin “Rocky Road” have replaced the earlier home-made sweets created as slabs to be cut up, such as nougat, which were much harder to make. This 1959 recipe from The Australian Women’s Weekly is typical, entailing a lot of hard beating:

Cherry Nougat
One and a half pounds sugar, 1/2 lb liquid glucose, 6 tablespoons water, 1 egg-white, 4 oz glace cherries, 2oz chopped blanched almonds or walnuts, l teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon lemon juice.
Place sugar and glucose into saucepan, add water, stir with wooden spoon over low heat until sugar is dissolved. Boil steadily to 240deg. F. Pour into basin. When cool but not cold, beat for 3 minutes, then fold in stiffly beaten egg-white, cherries, nuts, vanilla, and lemon juice. Continue beating until white and stiff. Press into greased bar-tin. When set, cut into blocks.
(The Australian Women's Weekly, Wednesday 2 December 1959)

    In this combination we see the old-fashioned version of the Christmassy combination of red glacé cherries and a white base which now typifies “White Christmas.”
    Later, in 1980, Mrs L. Pescott had another version of this nougat, in her Early Settlers Household Lore, a large collection of what she claimed were old traditional Australian recipes. A lot of them clearly have nothing to do with early settlers, they were just her friends’ and relations’ favourites of the moment. But some of them are old recipes, and the ones in her section on “Sweetmeats” look pretty genuine. Most of them entail a lot of hard work—not to mention knowing the tricks to make the thing turn out right! “Twisted Hair”, for instance, is a recipe for pulled toffee (often “pulled taffy” in the older American books), which would have been over a hundred years old. Likewise “The Vicar’s Barley Sugar”, shaped into twists in the old way that most of us would never have heard of in 1980. And “Marzipan” is very old, far predating most of the others.

Cherry and Nut Nougat
    1 oz. halved glace cherries;  1 oz. chopped walnuts;
    6 ozs. granulated sugar;  1/2 gill water (1/4 pint);
    1 level teaspoon honey;  1 egg white;
    a few drops of lemon juice;  a sheet of rice paper
A tin six inches square will be required.
Line the tin with half the rice paper. Dissolve the sugar in the water in a medium sized pan over gentle heat. Make sure every grain of sugar is dissolved before the mixture comes to the boil. Add the honey.
Bring the mixture to the boil and boil it continuously, without stirring, for 3 or 4 minutes until the syrup seems thicker.
To test for the right consistency, drop a little of the syrup into a cup of cold water and when it is ready it should roll into a firm ball between the fingers. As soon as this stage is reached, take the pan off the heat
Quickly whip the egg white stiffly then beat the syrup into the egg white. Stir in the lemon juice, cherries and nuts and pout the nougat into the lined tin.
Cover the nougat with the rest of the rice paper. Leave the nougat overnight or until it is absolutely cold. Cut the nougat into rectangles.
(L. Pescott. Early Settlers' Household Lore. Rev. ed., Richmond, Vic., Raphael Arts, 1980)

Dreaming of that White Christmas
“White Christmas” itself can’t date back earlier than the nineteen-thirties, because its base ingredient, copha (hydrogenated coconut oil), was introduced in Australia in 1933. (See more in “Snap, Crackle— Slice? The Australasian ‘Slice’ (2)”)
    Later, versions of the sweet appeared using white chocolate.
    There is a recipe in the new edition of The Golden Wattle Cookery Book (Thirty sixth impression, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1999, reprinted 2005), but this book has been added to over the years since it was first published in 1926, so there’s no telling when each recipe was written.
    Irving Berlin’s song White Christmas as sung by Bing Crosby was well known years before the famous movie came out in 1954, as I mentioned in the “Snap, Crackle, Slice” blog article. But the recipe? Well, in 1948 it wasn’t a recipe, it was a bathing suit:

    Presumably the sweet took its name from the song: when the film came out it became even more popular than it had originally been.

    The sweet considerably post-dates the movie. The first published version of the recipe I could find under the now traditional name, “White Christmas,” is in The Australian Women’s Weekly of 15 November 1978; two years earlier, however, we can discern its culinary roots in the same magazine’s “Ripe Cherry Slice” of 8 December 1976:

Ripe Cherry Slice
250g (8 oz) dark chocolate;  1 1/2 cups coconut;
30g (1 oz) solid white vegetable shortening [copha/Kremelta];
1/4 cup ground almonds;  1/2 cup icing sugar;  2 egg whites;
2 tablespoons rum;  125g (4 oz) glace cherries
Melt chopped chocolate and vegetable shortening in top of double saucepan over simmering water.
Line two 25cm x 8cm (10in x 3in) bar tins with aluminium foil, pour half chocolate mixture evenly over base of ach tin (reserve remaining chocolate for top); refrigerate until set.
In bowl combine coconut, ground almonds and sifted icing sugar. Add unbeaten egg whites and rum, mix well; chop cherries roughly, add to coconut mixture, mix well.
Spread mixture evenly over chocolate in both tins, pour remaining chocolate mixture evenly over coconut mixture, refrigerate until set.
Before serving, allow to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, to soften chocolate so that it cuts well; remove from tins, carefully peel off aluminium foil, cut into slices.
(The Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 December 1976)

“Vegetable shortening” in such recipes always means copha (in Australia) or Kremelta (in New Zealand).

    Here’s the 1978 recipe for “White Christmas”:

White Christmas Slice
250g (8oz) solid white vegetable shortening [copha/Kremelta];
2 1/2 cups coconut;  1 1/4 cups icing sugar;
1 1/4 cups full cream milk powder;  250g (8oz) glace cherries;
60g (20z) dark chocolate
Melt chopped vegetable shortening over low heat.
Combine in bowl coconut, sifted icing sugar and powdered milk. Add melted vegetable shortening, mix well.
Spread one third of the mixture over base of 18cm x 28 cm (7in x 11in) lamington tin which has been lined with aluminium foil. Refrigerate until base is nearly set.
Chop cherries roughly, sprinkle over base, press lightly into base. Spread remaining coconut mixture evenly over cherries, refrigerate until set.
Put chocolate in top of double saucepan over simmering water until melted, remove from heat, cool slightly, then spread evenly over top of slice; refrigerate until set.
Cut int slices to serve: for easier cutting, remove slice from refrigerator 30 minutes before cutting.
(The Australian Women’s Weekly, 15 November 1978)

    These two recipes date from the period when home cooks began to make easy sweets in slab-like form, intended to be cut up into pieces: these were often called a “slice”. Today, recipes called “slice” are rarely for sweets. The modern terminology “slice” is nearly always used for a flat cake-like substance, baked or unbaked, intended to be eaten as a dessert or for morning and afternoon tea. I’ve tried to trace its history in two earlier blog articles: Condensed Cholesterol & Sugar Blindness: the Australasian ‘Slice’ (1)” and “Snap, Crackle— Slice? The Australasian ‘Slice’ (2)”.

The modern take? Drop the glacé cherries

White Christmas
    600g white chocolate, chopped;
    1 cup (160g) blanched almonds, roasted;
    1/2 cup (75g) dried apricots, chopped;
    1 1/2 cups (150g) walnuts;  1 teaspoon ground ginger
Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water and stir until melted and smooth. Stir in the almonds, apricot, walnuts and ginger.
Pour into a 26cm x 16cm tin lined with non-stick baking paper and smooth top with the back of a spoon.
Refrigerate for 1 hour or until set. Turn out and cut into long slices.
 –Makes 20.
(Donna Hay Magazine. Issue 42 (Dec 2008-Jan 2009))

You can see that it uses white chocolate, not copha: white chocolate is a much more up-market ingredient!
    A few years later in Bite website The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly reprises this mixture but adds rice bubbles and mini marshmallows, popping the result into paper cases, cupcake-fashion (cupcakes being very In with the middle-class Antipodean housewives, this decade):

White Christmas Clusters
    180g white chocolate;  1/4 cup cream;
    1 1/2 cups rice bubbles; 1 1/2 cups marshmallows [mini];
    75g dried apricots
1. Place chopped chocolate and cream in a heat-proof bowl and melt over a saucepan of simmering water or melt in a microwave.
2. Stir in the rice bubbles, marshmallows and well- chopped apricots. (use mini marshmallows or cut large ones).
3. Spoon mixture into mini paper cases and leave to set. Store in an airtight container. Serve festooned with ribbon.
—By NZ Woman's Weekly. (Bite, circa 2018) http://www.bite.co.nz

Back to the dream?
The same magazine, at around the same time in the same website, also gives the now traditional version with the glacé cherries—except that it adds currants. An odd touch; was it supposed to make it original?

White Christmas
        2 1/2 cups rice bubbles;  1 cup coconut;
        3/4 cup icing sugar;  1 cup milk powder
        1 cup glace cherries;  1/2 cup currants
        250g vegetable shortening [Kremelta/copha]
1. Combine all ingredients except vegetable shortening.
2. Melt vegetable shortening over a low heat and stir into the dry ingredients. Press mixture into a baking-paper-lined 20cm square slice pan.
3. Refrigerate until set and then cut into squares.
—By NZ Women’s Weekly. (Bite, circa 2018) http://www.bite.co.nz

Still dreaming
The sweet “White Christmas” has become such a cultural icon in Australia that collections of its variants are now being published: try the BestRecipes feature for Christmas 2018, “11 White Christmas treats to enjoy with a cuppa.” The website notes: “You’ll be dreaming of a winter wonderland with these sweet treats.”
    If you like peppermint, their “White Christmas Peppermint Surprise” looks intriguing!

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas 2018, and the happiest of new years.