Here Zucchini, There Zucchini, EVERYWHERE Zucchini!

I have never had a harvest of zucchini (courgettes in G.B.) as I’ve had this year!  It’s out-of-control!

This photo is just from this morning’s romp in the garden. Believe me, my garden is small … and I am no gardener. But, what to do with this latest batch??? So far, I’ve sliced, diced and stuffed zucchini.  I’ve pickled zucchini, frozen zucchini, made ratatouille, frittatas and quiches.  I’ve added zucchini to salads, stir fries and soups.  I’ve made zucchini muffins, breads, and fritters … and of course, the delicious lemon zucchini drizzle cake and chocolate zucchini bread (recipes available).  Friends, family, co-workers and neighbors don’t want them.  Yikes, what am I going to do?

I am tough … I’ll trudge on … bound and determined to use them all.  So, today I am making Mock Apple Shortbread Bars, a great, easy-to-make recipe that will have everyone scratching their heads.  Trust me!

MOCK APPLE SHORTBREAD BARS
Bake 350°.  Makes 40 or more (depending upon how big or small you cut them)

6 cups fresh zucchini, peeled, seeded and diced (about 3 large)
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
3-1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 sticks butter, icy cold and cubed
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1 cup oatmeal (not instant)

Use a large 16″ x 10″ sheet or jelly roll pan and line it with parchment paper or grease it well.  I like to use parchment paper so that I can lift everything out of the pan at once, let it cool and then slice.

In a large sauce pan, saute the diced zucchini with the lemon juice for about 10 minutes until soft (not mushy).  Add the sugar and cinnamon and cook for another minute or two.

While the zucchini is cooking, in a very large mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt, sugars and cinnamon.  Cut in the butter (just as if you’re making a pie dough or scones) until the flour is pea shaped and crumbly.  You can certainly do this by hand, but I like using a food processor.

From this flour mixture, take 1/2 cup and stir it into the cooked zucchini til blended with no lumps.  This will help to thicken the zucchini so that its not runny.

Add the oatmeal and chopped walnuts to the rest of the flour mixture and then take half of that and press it into the prepared sheet pan.  Really press down on it because this is going to be the crust.

Spread the cooled zucchini mixture over the crust.  Then, on top of the zucchini, spread the rest of the flour mixture and press down lightly.

Bake at 350° for 45-55 minutes.  The bars should be lightly browned, cooked on the bottom and the filling bubbly.  Cool thoroughly before slicing.  Cut them in squares, bars, diamonds.  Keep them large or small.  Trim the edges as I have here, or not.  There are no rules!

Serve these as a ‘grab and go’ bar cookie, or plated as a dessert with a scoop of ice cream. They’re great for picnics or the beach.  Crunchy and sweet, a gooey filling with a hint of cinnamon.  Your family will love them and they’ll never know they are eating their vegetables!

So if your garden is exploding with zucchini (or even if it is not), add this really easy-to-make, delicious  “mock apple bar cookie” to your ‘go to’ zucchini recipes!!  Absolutely delicious!

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Why Was the Hatter MAD?

Who doesn’t love the nonsensical story of a bored little girl, Alice in Wonderland?  This classic book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, written by Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) in 1871, has been translated in over 100 languages, has never been out of print and from which 17 movies have been made, the first being filmed in 1903.

I’ve written about Alice before … to mark her 150th Anniversary.  Check out the link if you are interested in learning more.  This time, however, I’m more interested in the less-than-subtle character of The Mad Hatter. You have to admit Carroll’s characters are incredibly delightful and entertaining.  Each character is a vivid portrayal of the people in Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll) world.  As Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, etc. each wrote about people with whom they were familiar, interesting characters who were actually part of their lives. How could you not love the Queen of Hearts (Queen Victoria) or the Cheshire Cat?  Of course, the tea party wouldn’t be complete without the Dormouse and the March Hare.

My favorite, and apparently Tim Burton’s as well, is The Mad Hatter.  But my question is, “why was the Hatter mad?”  In the book, he was never referred to as The Mad Hatter.  He is referred to only as “The Hatter”.   It is certainly apparent, however, with his constant barrage of questions, reciting silly poetry and songs, darting in and out of seats at the never-ending tea party, that he is without a doubt, MAD as a HATTER.   Where did this catch phrase and this character come from?

After visiting a “living history” (their words, not mine) museum this past weekend, I learned that “hat manufacturers” from the 18th and 19th century were ‘mad’, with acute cases of dementia, tremors and the like.  It seems the chemicals used to cure the felt used in hat-making included mercurious nitrate.  And we all now know the dangers of being exposed to mercury.  Mercury poisoning from the prolonged exposure to the vapors of mercury causes uncontrollable muscular tremors, distorted vision and confused speech, not to mention hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.  Dementia was a common ailment for Victorian-era hat makers.  Hence the term “mad as a hatter”.

Theophilus Carter – 1824-1904

Carroll knew one such interesting character by the name of Theophilus Carter, who, it is believed, could have been the inspiration for “the hatter”. Theo wasn’t actually a ‘hatter’ himself, but rather an upholsterer and furniture maker, and a very eccentric and flamboyant one at that.  Often seen standing at the door to his Oxford shop with his infamous top hat perched on the back of his head.  Could Theo have come in contact with mercury vapors while making and upholstering furniture?  Possibly.

How did the process for using mercury to cure felt begin?  It seems that it can be traced back to the Middle East where camel hair was used for the felt material from which fez hats are made. The demand for these hats was tremendous after Sultan Mahud made them fashionable and mandatory for his military.  It was discovered, quite by accident, that the felting process could be hurried up if the pelts were soaked with urine, camel urine to be specific.

19th Century Hat Making

The fashion for felt hats moved north into Europe and with it the manufacturing.  But, camel urine was unavailable.  It is believed that workmen in France, not having camels handy, used their own urine.  Interestingly, one workman in this particular French factory seemed to produce a consistently superior felt. This workman, it was discovered, was being treated for syphilis, with regular doses of a mercury compound.   The connection between the mercury in his urine and the improved fibers of the felt were made and thus began the widespread use of mercury nitrate in felt making.

As a result, mercury poisoning became endemic with hat makers.  Although the hatters were exposed to the mercury fumes in the making of the felt, the wearers were not.  The vapors would have dissipated long before the hat was worn. Needless to say, this process is now banned in the U.S. and Europe.  And now we know why “the hatter was MAD“.

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“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round,
“lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw,
“lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.
I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

 

The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot, by Sir John Tenniel.

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References:  Wikipedia, Corrosion Doctors, Alice in Wonderland, American Chemical Society,

The Diminutive Lady Who Ruled the World

I’ve been fascinated by Queen Victoria since watching “VICTORIA” the new Masterpiece series which began on PBS this past year.  Jenna Coleman, who rose to fame as the adorable side-kick on the on-so-popular British tv series, Dr. Who, plays the young, diminutive, but strong-willed Queen beautifully.  The series so intrigued me that when I saw the book, VICTORIA, THE QUEEN by Julia Baird, I just had to pick it up.  Described as “An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire” it is just that.  At 695 pages, it wasn’t a weekend read, but, I have to admit, once I delved into the pages, I couldn’t put it down.

At the age of 18 and just under 5′ tall, Alexandrina Victoria was never suppose to rule Great Britain.  This tiny teenager was actually fifth in line under her father, Edward, the Duke of Kent . When Edward realized that his siblings were not producing any heirs and that the throne might, in fact, become his, at the age of 51 he choose a young woman to wed, who gave birth the following year to the future monarch.  One year later, Edward died and it seemed his vision was to become reality.

Victoria never wanted to become Queen and, as a young girl, when faced with the possibility that this would become reality, would burst into tears.  Sinister plots and threats to kill her always loomed over her head.  Victoria’s mother would never allow Victoria to be alone or play with other children without a guardian, and made sure Victoria had an official ‘food taster’.

Of course, as Victoria blossomed into a young woman and her ascension to the throne became more evident, many a young man sought her hand in marriage. Although some of her suitors were dazed by the possibility of power, her mate had already been selected … by her Uncle Leopold … his son, Albert (yes, her cousin*).

     *Aristocratic families often intermarried.  It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that the medical           establishment began to be opposed to the practice, citing developmental issues.

Potential heirs to the throne were not surviving.  Victoria was next in line.  And it was with the announcement by private courier at 6am on the morning of June 20th of King William IV’s death did this 18 year-old teenager become the “Queen”.

Victoria immediately rose to the job of monarch of this vast nation, despite the thrashing and naysaying of the ministers, clergy and noblemen.  With her very first address before Parliament, strong-willed and determined, Victoria proved that this little slip of a girl, whose feet could not reach the floor when she sat o the throne, was a formidable force, to be respected and admired. But, could she rule alone?  Queen Victoria also needed to be married.

Although the marriage was, more or less, a foregone conclusion, Victoria did fall madly in love with (her cousin) Albert … and he with her.   Despite her concerns about being a wife and mother and not the decisive, powerful, ruling Monarch that she thrived to be, three years after meeting the tall, dark and handsome Albert, they were wed.

The Wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, February 10, 1840

Victoria had a fight on her hands, however, because she wanted the intellectual and ambitious Albert to be recognized not just as her husband, but as a well-respected and well-paid, member of her Kingdom.  She also wanted her husband to realize that SHE was the Sovereign and that nothing could stop her from ruling her country.  Slowly, Prince Albert began immersing himself in assisting Victoria with her ever-increasing duties as Queen.  Victoria loved being married and loved being Monarch of Great Britain.  She was devastated, however, to find out, after only a few weeks of being married that she was pregnant.  How was she to balance being a Queen with being a wife and mother?

Nine months later Victoria gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Victoria Adelaide, the first of her nine children. Surviving childbirth at that time was a challenge, with approximately 5 in 1,000 women dying from complications during labor and delivery.  Infant mortality was much higher, about 75 in 1,000.

Within the year, baby number two was on the way and despite her earlier protestations, Victoria was becoming less and less interested in political matters.  Meanwhile, Albert, a dedicated husband and father, took a greater role in handling matters of State, especially regarding slavery, working conditions and education, as well as the arts and sciences. Unfortunately, Albert suffered his whole life with, what we know today as Crohn’s disease.

The royal family divided their life between Buckingham Palace, the Isle of Wight and their beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where they could relax and be at peace. The children were growing and setting off on their own with schooling, marriage, adventures and misadventures.  Although Victoria was strong-willed and well educated, she depended upon Albert more and more, frequently referring to him as her “Lord and Master”. Her confidence as a ruler was slipping and she questioned her decisions.  But as Albert was taking a stronger hold in politics, his health was declining rapidly.  Then after 21 years of marriage, at the age of 42, Albert died.

Victoria was heartbroken.  She did not attend her husband’s funeral and threw herself into mourning, referring to herself not as the Queen, but as the “brokenhearted Widow”.  Dressed now only in black, with no adornments, for four years she was unwilling to appear in public. Then around the fifth year, although Victoria still continued to insist she was weak and feeble, politically, she slowly came back to being the force she was before marriage.

Never again would Queen Victoria wear anything but a simple black frock.  She would go on to rule the then most powerful country in the world until her death at the age of 82.  The “people’s Princess”, Victoria, was the longest reigning monarch until the present Queen Elizabeth II.

Beginning as a young child, Victoria recorded her most intimate thoughts and actions.  She was religious in keeping a calendar of all events, good and bad, to which she looked back on and celebrated continuously.  She was a voracious letter writer, and a very talented artist.  She loved to dance, play the piano and she cared very much about animals.

Edward, Prince of Wales, by Queen Victoria 1843

One of the reasons we know so much about Queen Victoria is because of the very important diaries and letters she wrote.  It is believed that, upon her death, Victoria had written a total of 60,000,000 words (2,500 per day), amounting to volumes of material (most of which have now been edited, some destroyed) which remain in the Royal Archives.

My point in writing this blog was not to give you more information about Victoria the Queen, but to share with you a woman, who, like the rest of us, loved deeply and emotionally, enjoyed fun and laughter, as well as serene, quiet moments, and upon whom extreme responsibility and pressure was forced.  She was not perfect, by any means.  She could be brash and selfish … certainly self-absorbed and obstinate … and battled depression for years.  But, Victoria, like most of us, was fragile and needy at times, and gave of herself, perhaps too much, at other times. Keeping her weight under control was a battle she ultimately gave up on.  She despised racial prejudice and injustice.  She loved to surround herself with beauty.

Yes, Victoria was the ruler of an empire who left a very impressive legacy, but she was a lover, a wife, and a mother, and admittedly not the best mother she could have been.  She was also a strong and passionate lover of her family, her country and the responsibility that was hers.  I think I would have liked Victoria!

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References:  Too many references to mention, but some included:  Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,  Albert Prince Consort, Queen Victoria, NY Times,  History, Julia Baird
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Lemon Zucchini Drizzle Cake

I might have mentioned in previous posts how much I love the Great British Bake Off.  Most of the items the bakers are asked to make I’m familiar with, but occasionally they’re asked to bake something that I (and even they) have never heard of.

While watching the other night, for the very first challenge, Mary asked the bakers to bake a “drizzle cake”.  A drizzle cake?  What in the world is a “drizzle cake”?  Get out the laptop and Google “drizzle cake”.  It appears that a ‘drizzle cake’ (a term used in the U.K. and not to be confused with a ‘glazed cake’) is a loaf or pound cake which has been punctured with holes after baking into which a simple syrup is poured (flavor of your choice), and then glazed.  Okay, sounds easy enough, which probably explains why it was the first challenge of the season for the British Bake Off contestants.  So, I’m going for it!

Of course, I’m not going to replicate Mary’s, or the contestant’s bakes.  As always I’ll create my own recipe, and with a garden bulging with zucchini (courgette for all the U.K. readers), have the perfect idea … a Lemon Zucchini Drizzle Cake.

After a few failed attempts (too much zucchini, too wet a batter, not enough leavening, etc.), the following recipe is a winner.  Not too puckery … not too veggie-like … and not too sweet, just chock full of lemony zucchini goodness.  Dense, rich and moist … think of carrot cake but without the spice … and, of course, add in the “drizzle” factor.

This one’s definitely a keeper.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

LEMON ZUCCHINI DRIZZLE CAKE
Makes one large loaf cake, or 12 muffins/small cakes.  Bake at 350° for one hour (for cake) … 35 minutes or so for smaller cakes … or til done.

1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons (or more) lemon zest
1 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract
2 eggs, room temperature
2 cups all- purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups shredded zucchini, drained dry

Drizzle
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350.  Grease a large loaf/cake pan or muffin tins.

This is really quite easy to make.  First grate the zucchini and put it in a colander to drain.  You want as much moisture removed from the zucchini as possible.  I grated the zucchini and let it drain for over an hour, then gathered up handfuls of zucchini and squeezed it dry.  If your zucchini isn’t squeezed dry, your cake will be wet and soggy.  And no one wants a “soggy bottom”.

In a large bowl combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Whisk together til well blended and the flour has lifted.

In another large bowl, beat the eggs til lemony colored and then add the sugar.  Beat well.  Add the oil, lemon juice, vanilla and yogurt.  Mix well and then add the lemon zest.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mixing well, but don’t over-beat.  Fold in the DRY, grated zucchini.

Pour the batter into your prepared pan or pans.  Bake in the center of the oven, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and dry … about an hour … and until the cake begins to pull back from the sides of the pan. When the cake is fully baked, cool it in the pan for 15 minutes, then remove it from the pan and cool it on a rack for another 15 minutes while you prepare the “drizzle”.

In a small bowl mix the confectioner’s sugar and the lemon juice.  It should be thin, but not too thin.  This is not a thick glaze.  After the cake has cooled, put it back into the pan and with a long skewer (I used a chopstick from last night’s takeout), poke holes in the cake about an inch or two apart.  Pour half the “drizzle” all over the cake, letting it settle into the holes, let it rest for about 15 minutes, then pour the rest of the “drizzle” over the top.

The “drizzle” oozes into this yummy cake making it very moist.   Leave the cake to set for at least an hour before serving.  And then serve this cake for a sweet treat at lunch, brunch or if you want the perfect accompaniment for your afternoon tea.  Absolutely delicious!  Enjoy!!

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Watercress …

I know what you’re saying “Huh, watercress?”  I said the same thing when a dear friend suggested that “watercress”  could be an interesting topic for my blog.  “But, watercress? Whatever could watercress have to do with the U.K. which would make it unique or interesting?” The only association I could make was, of course, tea sandwiches.   But after watching an episode of the fascinating PBS series, VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE, suddenly watercress seems as if it could be an interesting topic.  And now after doing my research, I’m writing about … “watercress”.

Watercress is known to have been growing wild along shallow wetland areas in the Mediterranean since before recorded time.  It has been cultivated in that region since 500 B.C. The botanical name for watercress is “Nasturtium Officinale” or “twisted nose” and with its pungent, mustardy tang, the flavor sort of makes you do that … wrinkle your nose.

Artaxerxes, the king of Persia (Iran today), loved watercress and ordered his soldiers to eat this cruciferous greenery to keep them healthy during their long marches.  The ancient Romans and Greeks believed that this aromatic plant would give you courage, strength and character. Although they didn’t know it then, watercress is rich in vitamins and essential minerals like iodine, sulpher, iron and vitamin C, and it is part of what today we call “super foods”.  I do believe, however, that Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, knew all this when he built his first hospital on the Greek island of Kos alongside a stream where wild watercress grew.  Hippocrates was a strong believer that disease had natural causes and he used various plant-based remedies to treat his patients … referring to “watercress” as the “cure of all cures”.

Watercress is very easy to grow, so as people migrated north, the seeds traveled with them … from the Middle East to Italy, Germany and ultimately to the U.K.  Slowly, British aristocracy began to recognize the value of eating this spicy micro-green.  Scientist, philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon, touted the belief that eating watercress would “restore youth to ageing women”.  The most notable botanist in London, John Gerard, recommended watercress as a remedy for, among other ailments, gallstones and, more importantly, scurvy.  Because of this recommendation, Captain James Cook added watercress in the diet of his sailors, and as a result, was able to circumnavigate the world three times.

The first British crop was grown in Kent in 1808 by an enterprising entrepreneur, William Bradbury, who saw the potential of this diminutive plant.  With each successful crop, he would gather the cress and take it to the London markets to sell.  It was during the Victorian era when the plant’s popularity really soared.   If you’ve been watching the VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE series on PBS, now you know how and when I had that “ah ha” moment.  Thousands of people living in London during the Victorian era were living in abject poverty. Because of the ever-growing population and the huge influx of imported goods, with no money and little work available, women and children took to the streets selling whatever they could to survive.

Watercress Girl by Johann Zoffany

In the center of London was the Farringdon market.  Not as large as Covent Garden, but a rather expansive market for food wholesalers, most of whom were selling watercress to these street urchins, now known as ‘watercress sellers’. Each day, hundreds of watercress sellers, mostly young girls, dressed in rags and shoeless, but armed with their wicker baskets, would line up before dawn at the entrance to this market, waiting for the iron gates to open.  When that moment came, they would run to the stalls to be the first to get their watercress for that day, hopefully before the cress was gone.  Then these young watercress sellers would walk the streets each and every day, regardless of the weather, selling bunches of watercress … to the working man who would eat it on the way to his job, or delivering fresh watercress to the homes of the middle class for their cleansing ‘watercress soup’. Known as the ‘poor man’s bread’ “Fresh wo-orter-creases here” was heard as early as 5am.

One street urchin became a legend in the watercress trade and was nicknamed “The Watercress Queen”.  Eliza James, at the age of five, was given 40 bunches of watercress each day, by her family, to sell to the workers in the factories in Birmingham.  For years, little Eliza would rise before dawn, go down to the factories, selling more and more watercress.  Moving from Birmingham to London, as she grew into adulthood, Eliza’s drive and determination continued.  Still selling watercress, she began buying watercress farms, one after another.  At the time of her death in 1927, Ms. James was the biggest owner of watercress farms anywhere in the world, handling up to 50 tons of watercress in just one weekend.  She was the only watercress supplier to nearly every hotel and restaurant in London, and still with all that success every morning, before dawn, up to the day she died, Eliza James would be at her stall at Covent Garden market selling watercress.  The Daily Mirror reported: “… by selling watercress (this) is surely one of the most wonderful romances of business London has ever known”.

In 1861, the Winchester Railway Company built a new railway to connect London and Southampton.  Although it was primarily a military transport, it also moved goods, mainly watercress … from the nation’s watercress capital of Alresford to London.  The railway transported so much watercress it was soon lovingly referred to as The Watercress Line. Today, thanks to the selfless endeavors of many volunteers, the railway is open as a museum and tourist attraction in the market town of Alresford.

The watercress industry continued to thrive during both World Wars. Watercress was a staple ingredient … in schools, at home, and, of course, at “afternoon tea”.  In the 1940s more than 1,000 acres of watercress were under cultivation in the U.K.  Unfortunately, by the end of the 20th century, less than 150 acres remain.

Realizing the nutritional value of watercress, small U.K. farmers have joined together to bring awareness to this once great British ingredient.  Each spring Alresford, the “watercress capital of the U.K.”, holds a Watercress Festival highlighting this versatile and delicious veg … with cooking demonstrations, watercress eating contests, a parade and, of course, the crowning of a watercress queen.

World Record Watercress Eating Championships 2016 (Image: James Newell)

A promotional campaign, “Not Just a Bit on the Side”, was launched in 2003, in the hopes of spurring interest in this, the original super food. Packed with essential vitamins and minerals, gram for gram, watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more folate than bananas. Current scientific research has shown that the high levels of antioxidants can increase the ability of cells to resist damage to their DNA, helping to protect against the cell changes that can lead to some diseases.  Perhaps Francis Bacon was right!

A big ‘thank you’ to Judy for suggesting this topic for my blog.  I didn’t realize, at the time, how culturally significant watercress actually was to Great Britain.  Needless to say, my curiosity is piqued even more and I’ll be adding watercress recipes very soon.

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References: Cambridge World History of Food, History of Food, BQ Quality Growers, Food Timeline, Wikipedia, The Victorianist, Geri Walton, Watercress Queen, Watercress Festival, Watercress Line

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The Great British Tea Break

What has happened to the great British tea break?  The “tea break” was just a mere 15 minutes, mid-morning and mid-afternoon, where all work stopped to allow workers to regroup, relax for a few moments, and share in a cuppa.  And it seems this lack of preserving traditions that were once very important is sadly happening all over the world.  In the States we’ve also done away with the once mandatory, twice-daily coffee break.  The lowly, but very important, tea break is just another British tradition that is slowly becoming extinct.  In today’s fast-paced, head-down, remote-access, work-at-home workplace, people, not only in Great Britain, but around the globe, just don’t have the time to stop and put the kettle on.

During the industrial revolution, a typical British laborer would start their day around 5 or 6 am. By mid-morning, a bit of fatigue would set in and employers realizing that their employees needed a bit of bolstering, would let their workers have a 15-minute break. Realizing that this “tea break” was a way of boosting productivity, they implemented a 15-minute afternoon break as well. Considering where most laborers worked – cold, drafty factories, warehouses and mines – coupled with England’s often damp and bone-chilling weather, you can understand how much a hot, hearty cuppa would be looked forward to.

For the better part of two hundred years, these 15-minute breaks where a worker could ‘have a sit down‘ with a hot cuppa and a biscuit, and share a story or two with a fellow co-worker, were an integral part of the workday.

The industrial revolution also brought with it ‘trade unions’.  Working conditions were, for the most part, so deplorable that people began to organize in an attempt to implement labor guidelines and safety measures, provide higher wages and benefits. Over time, however, the trade unions grew so large and powerful they became some of the biggest political forces in Great Britain.

In the 1970s, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, aka “Iron Lady”, began to break up the stronghold these powerful trade unions had on the economy and political scene.  To many people, especially those who worked in heavy industry and the public sector, this was a devastating move.  Workers took to the streets, from the north to the south, and began to strike.  “Tea Breaks” became the battle cry.

During the strikes, people endured electricity shortages and trying to buy candles … three-day work weeks and not earning enough money to afford heat … baking your own bread because bakers were on strike … rat-infested piles of garbage lining the street … the army recruited to put out fires because firemen were striking.  It’s amazing the U.K. survived such turbulent times.  But through it all, there was the “tea break”.

The traditional ‘tea break’ was once upheld as an important social activity in the workplace, but no more.  A recent study in the U.K. of over 2,000 workers were asked about ‘tea breaks’ and, sadly, 76% responded they were to busy to take a proper break.  Stepping away from the desk or workstation for a short break has actually been shown to increase productivity in workers, not to mention the valuable social aspect and morale boost that comes from a good cuppa, shared with colleagues.

Tea improves concentration, mood, and energy, as well as relaxation.  According to research studies by Unilever, people who drank tea four times a day for six weeks were found to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Their lead scientist, Suzanne Einother, said of these findings: “… they appear to confirm what many of us suspect; that the close to sacred ritual of the tea break can effectively boost your mood, which in turn can lead to other benefits such as improved problem solving.”

It seems to me that in this fast-paced, hurry-up world, we may have lost something important. Traditional tea breaks, or coffee breaks, seem to be a lost tradition as workers today tend to just  ‘grab and go’.  If only businesses and employees realized the benefits.  A short break every day can lead to a happier, healthier workforce. When I’m sitting at my desk, jotting down my thoughts, or in the kitchen whipping up something whether quick and easy, or intensely complicated, you can be sure there’s always a cuppa tea next to me.

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References:  Royal Voluntary Service, Washington Post, Wikipedia, BBC News, Daily Mail

TOAST

Have you wondered why I’ve named this blog ‘Tea, Toast and Travel‘?  Well the ‘tea’ seems fairly obvious as does the ‘travel’, but ‘toast’?  I’ve had that question asked more than once. For me ‘toast’ is a warm, crunchy accompaniment to a hot cuppa tea … slathered in creamy, salty butter and, most often, a thick, sweet, fruity jam.  As a child, whenever I was sick … cold, flu or just a belly ache … my Mother would make me “toast” which now epitomizes comfort food.  I also use ‘toast’ as a category for recipes that I feel pair well with a cuppa tea … whether hearty soups or quick and easy desserts.  And this blog is meant to be about me sharing what I enjoy, so “Tea, Toast and Travel” suits me to a ….. T.

Years ago, I mentioned to hubby that I would love to open a small restaurant called “TOAST” and just serve just that – ‘toast’.   High-quality, loose leaf teas would, of course, be served too, but it would be ‘toast’ with all kinds of specialty toppings from savory to sweet.  How about bacon, avocado and poached egg on toast … or a garlicky ricotta cheese and English peas spread with a hint of lemon … or a thick slab of roasted turkey breast smothered in pan roasted drippings (yes, I used to have that same lunch sitting at the Kresge’s counter with my grandmother) … or Nutella and banana slices, a sprinkle of pecans and topped with Marshmallow Fluff under the broiler all melted and gooey?  My ‘toast’ would not be thinly sliced, pre-packaged white bread. It would be crusty, thick slices of artisanal breads from sourdough to whole grains.

When I mentioned my idea to hubby little did I know I was a few years ahead of a trend.  Today it seems ‘toast’ has already become the latest fad among foodies.  There are restaurants named ‘TOAST’ in New York City, Los Angeles, Long Island, one in Michigan, another in Charleston, and there’s even one here locally. They’re all over the country and they are all individually owned … not a chain, each one with a different image and menu.  There’s even a point-of-sale system for restaurants called “toast”.

I know trends are short-lived, but how fun to ride the wave. We’ve survived the freeze-dried coffee era, the fondue dinner party fix, the ubiquitous seven-layer dip which appeared at every social gathering.  Then there were bagels:  breakfast bagels, pizza bagels, dessert bagels, bagel chips, bagel bits.  And, of course, thanks to Oprah, the never-ending parade of cupcakes.  From smoothies to sliders, mac ‘n cheese to short ribs, we now have ‘toast’.

The word ‘toast,’ in fact, comes from the Latin word tostum, meaning to scorch or burn.  It is believed that 5,000 years ago Egyptians used ‘toasting’ bread was a way of preserving it.  (Not quite sure how researchers have been able to determine that time line.) Romans also preserved bread by toasting it, and this continued to be spread throughout Europe.  The British really took to ‘toasting’ (what goes better with a cuppa?).  And, of course, anything that was popular in Europe found its way to the Americas.  Cutting slabs of bread and roasting them on an open fire sounds intoxicating and romantic to me.

Although its only been around for about 100 years, the most common household item is the electric toaster.  Doesn’t everyone have one?  The invention of the electric toaster in 1893 by a Scotsman was thought to be the greatest invention of all time, although sliced bread wasn’t invented until 1928.  I’m not sure how popular it was, having to lay your bread against the coils and and watch it, quickly taking the bread off before it burned.  It wasn’t until the 1920s when the electric toaster as we know it today was perfected, evolving into a two-slice, pop-up device with a timer.  And with the invention of pre-sliced bread, the world was changed forever.

As a child isn’t toast the first thing you learned to make?  Ask someone who may not know how to cook if they know how and you’ll probably hear “I can make toast”.  So now how do you feel about slicing bread, toasting it under some type of heat source, spreading your favorite topping on it and then sitting back and savoring its sweet, crunchy goodness?  Serve that up with a piping hot mug of tea, and I’m yours!


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References:  Thoughtco, H2G2, Today I Found Out
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Palmiers

If you know me, you know that I adore elephants.  Elephants are my most favorite animal (which we can discuss another time), and for some reason my “cannot resist dessert” is Elephant Ears. Is there a connection?  I don’t know.  Elephant Ears, or Pig’s Ears, or Palm Leaves are names for what the French call “Palmiers“.  Palmiers are an elegant confection or cookie made using Puff Pastry.  Puff pastry (flour, butter and water) is known and used by many cultures from Europe to South America to the Middle East for everything from sweet to savory.

French painter Claude Gelee, circa 1630. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Because I couldn’t authenticate the origin, “legend” suggests that Puff Pastry was invented in France in 1645 by an apprentice pastry cook, Claudius Gelée. As the story goes, Mr. Gelée wanted to bake a butter cake for his father, who was on a special diet. With a recipe of just flour, water and butter, Claudius mixed the flour and water together, but realized he completely forgot to incorporate the butter into the flour.  Thinking quickly he ‘lay some Butter in litle Pecies’ onto the already rolled dough.  He then folded the dough over and rolled it out … and then he did it again and again and again. After folding and rolling the dough several times, he formed it and baked it.  When Claudius removed the cake from the oven, surprisingly, not only had it risen significantly, it was light and “puffy”.  The story continues with Mr. Gelée being hired by the famous Rosabau Patisserie in Paris, where he perfected his  ‘puff paist’, became quite successful, moved on to Florence only to have his secret recipe stolen from him by the Brothers Mosca Pastry Shop.  Fact or fiction?  Who really knows.

What we do know is that Puff Pastry is a near relative to Phyllo (Filo) Dough.  Phyllo Dough is used throughout the Middle East much like European Puff Pastry and seems to have existed long before Puff Pastry was invented.  Although the two can be used interchangeably, there are differences.  Puff Pastry has layers of butter incorporated within the pastry, which when baked, causes pockets of steam to form in the dough.  The dough then separates into flaky layers.  Phyllo needs oil or melted butter brushed onto each pastry layer before baking, usually requiring three or more layers, it then becomes tender and flaky.

Making Puff Pastry from scratch is doable, but it is so labor intensive.  If you’ve ever watched the Great British Bakeoff, you’ve seen the Puff Pastry challenge where the contestants are asked to make Puff Pastry from scratch in order to create their specialty desserts.  No thank you!  For me, it’s to the frozen food aisle in the grocery store.  Good quality puff pastry, using butter and not shortening, is available and it’s not overly expensive.  Because it’s handy for so many dishes from meat pies to desserts, I always keep a couple of boxes in my freezer.

This recipe is an easy, sure-to-impress cookie … perfect for tea time.  You can get as creative as you’d like by varying the fillings … a mixture of brown sugar and pecans, or a cinnamon sugar blend, or how about bananas and peanut butter.  Get creative and have fun!

CHOCOLATE WALNUT PALMIERS
1 sheet frozen puff pastry dough, thawed
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup chocolate spread (Hershey’s, Nutella, Biscoff)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, or any chopped nuts

Preheated oven at 400° (but only after the pastry is rolled and in the refrigerator).  Makes about 2 dozen.

Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over the pastry board and then unfold the thawed puff pastry dough on top.  With a rolling pin, gently roll the dough out just to smooth it and incorporate the sugar onto the underside.  Turn the pastry sheet over and sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup sugar on the board and roll it again.

Spread the chocolate (or Nutella or even peanut butter, if you’d like) over the entire sheet of pastry.  Sprinkle evenly with chopped nuts.

Starting from one long end, begin to tightly roll the pastry into the center.  Stop halfway. Then from the other long end, tightly roll that side in to the center.  You should have an equal number of rolls on either side, meeting in the middle.  Squeeze the middle together, then turn the rolled pastry over and place it seam side down onto a parchment lined baking tray.  Place the tray into the refrigerator for at least half an hour (or 15 minutes in the freezer) to chill thoroughly.

Now its time to preheat the oven to 400°.   Take the rolled pastry out of the refrigerator and place it onto a cutting board. Cut into slices about 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick.  It’s entirely up to you.  The thicker the slices, the longer they will take to bake.  Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until they are golden and cooked through.  Cool on a wire rack.

You can make a quick glaze using confectioners sugar and milk to drizzle over the top (or not).

With a steaming cuppa tea, a fruity glass of wine, or an icy cold glass of milk, these crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside, sweet pastries are just delicious!  Enjoy.

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References:  The Foodie’s Companion, Fusion Chef, Great British Chefs

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The Tea Cup Story

I didn’t write this.  I’m not sure who did.  It’s just a lovely, inspirational story and I wanted to share it with you.

There was a couple who went to England to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They both liked antiques and pottery, especially tea cups. While shopping in an antique shop, they spotted an exceptional tea cup and asked, “May we see that cup? We’ve never seen one quite so beautiful.” 

As the shopkeeper handed it to them, the tea cup suddenly spoke. “You don’t understand,” the tea cup said. “I have not
always been a tea cup. There was a time when I was just a lump of clay.  My master took me and rolled me, pounded and patted me, over and over and I yelled out, ‘Don’t do that. Leave me alone,’ but he only smiled and said, ‘Not yet!’ ‘Then, WHAM, I was placed on a spinning wheel and was spun around and around and around.  ‘Stop it!  I’m getting so dizzy! I’m going to be sick!,’ I screamed.  But the master only nodded and said quietly, ‘Not yet.’

He spun me and poked and prodded and bent me out of shape to suit himself.  Then he put me in the oven. I never felt such heat. I yelled and knocked and pounded at the door.  ‘Help! Get me out of here!’ I could see him through the opening and I could read his lips as he shook his head from side to side, ‘Not yet’.

When I thought I couldn’t bear it another minute, the door opened. He carefully took me out and put me on the shelf, and I began to cool.  Oh, that felt so good!  Ah, this is much better, I thought.  But, after I cooled, he picked me up and brushed and painted me all over.  The fumes were horrible.  I thought I would gag. ‘Oh, please, stop it, stop it!’ I cried. He only shook his head and said, ‘Not yet!’

Then he put me back into the oven. Only it was not like the first one. This was twice as hot and I just knew I would suffocate. I begged and pleaded; I screamed and cried. I was convinced I would never make it. I was ready to give up.  But then the door opened and he took me out and placed me on the shelf, where I cooled and waited and waited and wondered, ‘What’s he going to do to me next?”

“After an hour, he handed me a mirror and said ‘Look at yourself.’ And I did. I said, ‘That’s not me; that couldn’t be me. I’m beautiful!’

Quietly he spoke, ‘I want you to remember, I know it hurt to be rolled and pounded and patted, but had I just left you alone, you’d have dried up. I know it made you dizzy to spin around on the wheel, but if I had stopped, you would have crumbled. I know it hurt and it was hot and disagreeable in the oven, but if I hadn’t put you there, you would have cracked. I know the fumes were bad when I brushed and painted you all over, but if I hadn’t done that, you never would have hardened. You would not have had any color in your life. If I hadn’t put you back in that second oven, you wouldn’t have survived for long because the hardness would not have held. Now you are a finished product. Now you are what I had in mind when I first began with you.”

The moral of the story:  God knows what He’s doing. He is the potter, and we are His clay. He will mold us, shape us, and expose us to just enough pressures so that we may be made into a flawless piece of work. So when life seems hard, and you are being pounded and patted and pushed almost beyond endurance; when your world seems to be spinning out of control, when you feel like you are in a fiery furnace, when life seems to “stink”, try this …. steep a cup of of your favorite tea in your prettiest teacup, and have a talk with the potter.

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LINZER COOKIES or IS IT TARTS?

Are these rich, shortbread-like nutty pastries with their fruit filling, topped with a sweet powdery cookie called Linzer Tarts or Tortes … or Linzer Cookies … or are they Linzer Tart/Torte Cookies? Could they also be Linzer Augen or Linzer Eyes?  It’s so confusing.  I’ve looked all over the ‘web’ and I can’t seem to get a definitive answer.  I believe Linzer Tortes are the large lattice-topped, pie-shaped pastries, cut into wedges and served wit a dollop of cream.  Now to find out …

As with so many other dishes, the Linzer Torte is named for the city from where it was invented … Linz in Austria.  “Torte” is German for ‘a rich cake made with eggs, flour and nuts’.

Linz, Austria

According to Wikipedia, the Linzer Torte is said to be the oldest ‘cake’ in the world.  I think I’ve read that statement about most of the desserts I’ve researched. Although with an original recipe dating as far back as 1653, it does qualify as ‘old’.

This rich, fruity dessert was a hidden gem in Austria until a pastry chef started mass producing it around 1820.  From Austria the recipe was brought to the U.S. in 1856 by a young Austrian, Franz Holzlhuber.  It seems a very artistic and talented Franz had a job promised him in Wisconsin, so he packed up his things and traveled west. Unfortunately, between Austria and Wisconsin, not only did he lose his luggage, he lost the job. With nothing else to lose at that point, Franz went to work as a baker in Milwaukee and introduced America to the Linzer Torte.

Today, if you search online for Linzer Cookies or Tarts, you’ll see them referenced as Christmas treats.  I’m not sure why.  Could it be that they take a little more time and effort to make, and the only time we put any effort into baking is during the holidays?  Yes, these cookies take a bit more time, but not that much, and they are so worth it.  (William Sonoma sells a dozen of these cookies for $49.95 …. yikes!!)

My shortcut, unlike Martha Stewart’s recipe, is to use almond meal … which is simply ground almonds. If you want to use hazelnut meal, or any other ground nuts, feel free.  They are usually available in better grocery stores.

LINZER TORTE COOKIES
Preheated oven 350°.  Makes approximately 24 2-1/2″ cookies.
1 cup ground almond meal
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
zest of one lemon
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 jar good quality raspberry jam (or any other flavor)
confectioners sugar to sprinkle

No need to preheat the oven until later because these cookies are easier to handle if the dough is chilled for an hour.
In a large bowl, sift and thoroughly mix together the dry ingredients.  In your stand mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy – about 3 to 4 minutes.

Beat in the egg and vanilla.  Reduce the speed of your mixer, or by hand, add the dry ingredients and the lemon zest.  Do not overmix or the cookies will be tough.

Dump the dough onto a floured board and knead quickly into a ball.  Cut the dough into two even-sized portions.  Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate about an hour.  Now preheat the oven to 350° and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.  No greasing required.

On a lightly floured pastry board, roll one portion of the chilled dough to about 1/8″ or 1/4″ thick.  The thickness actually depends upon you.  The thinner the cookie, the more crisp (and the more cookies).  I like them a bit thicker – 1/4″.

Using a 2″ to 3″ cookie cutter, cut the dough and place the cookies on the parchment-lined sheets. Flouring the cookie cutter helps to keep it from sticking.   Using a smaller cookie cutter – circles, hearts, stars, whatever you’d like – cut out the center from half of the cookies.  Remember, you are making tops and bottoms.  Gather up the cuttings and knead them back into the left-over dough and continue rolling and cutting.

Bake at 350° for about 10 to 12 minutes, until just cooked through but not browned. Gently transfer the cookies to a cooling rack.  Now roll, cut and bake the second batch of dough. While the cookies are baking, you might want to put the jam in a sieve to release any excess moisture. As Mary Berry says, ‘there’s nothing worse than soggy bottoms’.

When all the dough is baked and thoroughly cooled, turn the bottoms over so that you are assembling bottoms to bottoms.

Use a sieve to sift the confectioners sugar generously over the cookie tops before assembling the cookie.  Spread the jam on the bottom half of the bottom cookie.  Don’t be overly generous with the jam or it will ooze out the sides.  Place the top cookie on top of the bottom and you are done!

Rich, fruity, nutty whether you call them Linzer Tarts or Tortes or Cookies or Augen doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is that whatever you do decide to call them, I’m calling them absolutely delicious!!!

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References:  Wisconsin Historic Society, Wikepedia

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