Monday, 24 September 2012

Banana bread. Again.

There is an American writer - dead now - called Richard Yates. You will know him because he wrote a book called Revolutionary Road, which was made into a film with Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet a few years ago - 2007 I think, or 8.

Anyway he wrote loads of books and I read them all. That's not a boast, they're mostly very short. But I did also read his biography, which was really long. And then I wrote a very long piece, almost as long as the biography, for The Independent about him, which I think they still owe me my £90 fee for.

The thing about Richard Yates, the reason why you don't know his name as well as you know other big American writers, is that he was just really obsessed with his mother. In every single book he wrote, there she is. Irritating, mad, feckless, vain, selfish, shrill, talentless, deluded. In Revolutionary Road she appears as an estate agent and because that's the only book of his most people have read, they think nothing of it.

But she's there, in all the others, lurking. And when you read one Yates book after the other, it ends up seeming really quite mad. After the third or fourth book you get a horrible psycho "ehhr ehhr ehhr" tingly feeling, like if you were to walk into the bedroom of a friend and it was plastered with photographs of you.

So the reason that Yates never really made it, died alone and mad in a tiny dirty flat, despite being a really terrific writer, was that he was unable to tackle the big themes that make you properly famous; instead he zeroed in, time after time, on miserable little people leading miserable little lives, every book, every page, stalked by his unbearable mother. Revolutionary Road was a hit by accident, while obsessing about how much he hated Ma, Yates also - almost as a side-line - struck a chord with discombobulated middle America. But it was a fluke.

I fell to thinking about Richard Yates and his unwitting, untherapised obsession with his mother when I found myself, almost trance-like, making yet another type of banana bread. Considering I am trying to get material for a book, it seems so mental and obsesseive compulsive to keep making the same thing over and over again with no reason, no explanation.

Although I suppose there is an explanation. And that is, banana bread is fucking delicious.

This recipe I found on a card in Waitrose, and it was originally a banana, chocolate and caramel cake, using a tin of Carnation caramel, but I got home and didn't have any caramel but did have a tin of condensed milk, so I used that instead.

I know it's just banana bread and I know there are already about fifteen recipes for it on this blog and I probably belong in a nuthouse but this is really terrific, all the same.

Banana and Condensed Milk Bread
Makes a 1kg loaf

75g butter
25g caster sugar
1 large egg
1 397g can condensed milk
225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
3 ripe bananas, mashed

Preheat your oven to 180c or 170c for fan ovens. Grease and line your 1kg loaf tin. You can get away with just lining the sides with one long strip of greaseproof paper, but you must grease the ends well.

1 Beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy then add the egg - do not worry too much if this curdles -  followed by your can of condensed milk. Mix the flour and baking powder together and fold into the mixture.

2 Fold in the banana and then pour into the tin. You can decorate this, if you like, bearing in mind that it is going to rise quite significantly. I dotted a spine of walnut halves down the middle, which then heaved away to the left - like a hip tattoo on a pregnant woman.

3 Bake for 1 hr

Eat, then ring your shrink.


Sunday, 2 September 2012

Poached chicken breast and its sauce for Laura*

Most diet plans and recipes featured in newspaper colour supplements and in magazines will at some point instruct you to eat a poached chicken breast. I am not averse to diet recipes but a poached chicken breast has always struck me as a terrible thing. Tasteless, papery, depressing.

But I have to lose some weight. I don't know how it happened, but I've got fatter. I don't recall eating more, or differently, but some cosmic shift has occurred to make me acquire more weight. I don't know how much because I don't weigh myself, but I know that a few months ago all my clothes fit and now they don't. Specifically certain pairs of jeans. Specifically round my middle. I would go on my own-brand Shitty Food Diet, but it has been failing me. I don't know why.

Things were made worse recently by going on holiday to a Greek island where among the guests were two 40-year-old women who were in terrific shape. They were lean and mean like Japanese calligraphy; they exercised all the time - running down to the beach at 7am to swim to a neighbouring island and back - and ate practically nothing. AND there was this 18 year old boy who had abs you could grate cheese on. He looked like he'd been Photoshopped. All round it was not a terrific week for feeling hot and sexy and whippet-like. And my hands swelled up so much in the heat that I had to stop wearing my wedding ring.

By the way, don't all rush to shriek that I am pregnant, because I am not - chance would be a fine thing. (Not quite as easy second time around, it seems.)

Anyway looking pregnant without actually being pregnant is the worst of both worlds. So I have been casting about for things to eat that won't make me get any fatter and thought that things may have got to such a drastic stage that I will have to give poached chicken breast a whirl.

The thing that made me definitely decide to do this was recalling an interview with Cheryl Cole about two years ago, when we were still in thrall to her and were not yet weary of her chocolatey eyes and perfect teeth and cavernous dimples, where she talked about losing a lot of weight. She would eat for dinner, she said, poached chicken breast (A-HA!) with "some kind of creamy sauce" and steamed vegetables.

The creamy sauce here is key - a rich creamy sauce will liven anything up, even a sodding chicken breast and you can, if you are doing a low-carbohydrate regime, as I am, slobber it all over whatever you're eating. It will just make everything okay.

Please do not be daunted by the sauce I have invented here. It is the same principle as Hollandaise but very easy as you are not required to do that awful buggery thing where you cook the egg-and-butter mixture only for it to fucking split and make you cry (this may only apply if you have PMT). What you sacrifice for ease and speed is a small amount in the way of consistency, which in the case of this sauce is a little thinner than an echt Hollandaise. But it is the key to being thin. So just do it.

Poached chicken with its sauce
For 2

2 chicken breasts
3 egg yolks
200g butter
a dash of vinegar
salt and pepper
juice of half a lemon
1 tsp of stock powder if you have it, don't worry if not

1 In a pan large enough to accommodate both chicken breasts heat up about two inches deep of water with your stock powder and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat until it is simmering and then add the chicken. Cook this for 12 minutes, turning occasionally. Try not to let the water hit a rolling boil, or dip below a brisk simmer.

2 If I were you, I would wait until the chicken was cooked then take it out of the pan to rest before you attempt the sauce because although the sauce is not hard, it is best to have no distractions while you are doing it.

(I made sure Kitty and husband were both watching television while doing this and not liable to pester me for biscuits, stickers, hugs or story-reading. Kitty can be pretty demanding, too.)

The chicken needs to rest for a bit anyway. Don't be put off by how utterly disgusting the chicken looks when cooked - all pale and dead-looking - this will be disguised later; see picture above.

3 For the sauce first melt the butter in a saucepan. If you have one of those marvellous pans with a little pouring lip, use that, if not don't worry. After it has melted keep it over the lowest flame possible to keep warm. Then separate the three yolks into a small bowl.

4 I have an electric whisk for this step. I'm sure you could do it by hand but it might be tough on the old wrists. So, while continuously beating the yolks, add the melted butter in a thin stream. People make a lot of fuss about how hard this is, it really isn't, just be careful.

5 Once add the butter has been added, season with salt, pepper, lemon juice and vinegar. Add all these cautiously and taste all the time. Egg yolks are precious; leftover egg whites are a bore - you do not want to have to do the whole thing all over again. I like a very vinegary Hollandaise - or should I say "Hollandaise" - but you might not.

6 You can just eat this now, or if you need to wait a bit while cooking some veg -  (I made a broccoli accompaniment *cries* by boiling some broccoli for 5 minutes then tossing in toasted sesame oil, soy sauce and sesame seeds) - then get any old pan, fill it 2 inches with water and then heat to skin temperature and keep it there, then place your "Hollandaise" in the water to keep it a sort of baby-bath temperature, which will stop it from going grainy. Stir every now and again anyway.

7 To serve! (And this is key, for morale) slice the chicken into what is know in the restuarant menu trade as "medallions" and lay out on the plate, slather generously with sauce, and also any accompanying boring vegetables.

Giles, to my total astonishment, declared this "the most delicious thing" I've ever cooked. I was stunned. He hasn't said that for ages. So there you go. Although just between you and me, I think he might have just been trying to be nice because I'm so fat and spotty at the moment.

Happy dieting! :(

N.B. I have not been posting because my publisher wants an absolutely terrifying amount of original copy and so I have been sitting in my room in front of my computer not posting anything because any new ideas I have must go into the book... but I haven't been writing any new copy either. What is wrong with me?

*This post is dedicated to a really terrific girl I know on Twitter, @lauraewelsh, who once said the funniest thing to me ever, which is that the greatest skill a parent can have is to eat an entire packet of crisps with their head in a cupboard. She is on a diet, too.