Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
shadow
Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > 2019 > November

Camilla’s Thanksgiving Nightmare

With America’s favorite holiday approaching, I’m mapping out my days carefully, planning a party the last day of the weekend and pondering what to bring to my son’s house for our family Thanksgiving with a cast of sixteen. As I perused Brussel sprouts, nestling like tiny cabbages in their display stand at the supermarket, I thought back to writing Lipstick on the Strawberry. The Thanksgiving scene in the book shows my catering heroine, Camilla, having a very bad day. She saves it by a flash of ingenuity. Here’s the scene, below: I hope your Thanksgiving is much, much better!

I went into the kitchen and turned on the oven. A light went on satisfactorily, and I pulled the turkey out of its carrier and into a metal pan. I just glanced at the oven after turning it on, and looking at my watch, started bustling. It’s all about the timing, I always told my staff, and now Mrs. Reilly’s pressure to get the meal on the table earlier than I’d planned had set our plans askew.
“Paige, can you prepare a bed of ice for the oysters and slice this lemon and rim the tray
with parsley?”
I put the pies on the counter, pecan, blueberry, apple and pumpkin. I checked the oven temperature. Lukewarm. My heart started to race. Surely it would heat up soon. I hoisted the heavy pan to slide it in the oven. The bird’s breast bone stuck halfway in. I pulled out the bottom rack and moved down the middle rack as far as it would go. The turkey still would not fit.
My blood pressure rose. Mindy had come to visit the client. This order had come in while I was away. Surely this was the most basic information she should have noted. Small oven. Will not fit twenty-five pound turkey!
Mrs. Reilly poked her head around the door. “Are we nearly ready?”
“We’re getting there.” No point in blaming the client for this lapse. It was the caterer’s responsibility to make sure all the bits and pieces were in place.
“We’ll serve the oysters first, of course. Would you mind if we plate the main course from the kitchen?”
“I really wanted to serve it family style. Sort of you know, like I cooked it.”
“Uh huh.” I hated this type of client, the sort who pretended they made the food that someone else had slaved over. “Well, we could bring the turkey in on its platter and everyone can have a good look. But really, Mrs. Reilly, the turkey is difficult to carve at the table and it is easier and more elegant to serve everything on its plate from here. Paige can bring the plates out,” I said. I lifted a pot, exaggerating its heaviness. “Very few Thanksgiving tables, I find, are large enough to carry eighteen place settings and the serving dishes. Let us serve from here, please.”

“I’ll have to bring the china into the kitchen.” Mrs. Reilly’s brown bodice heaved. “The table won’t look so pretty!” With a huff, she left the kitchen.
“God.” Paige looked terrified.
“Don’t worry. Just start shucking the oysters now. Sorry, I know I said I’d do it, but I have to manage this disaster with the turkey.”
“How are we going to give them turkey that’s not cooked through? They’ll get salmonella.”
“Nonsense! It is cooked, but it’s not hot. We can fix that. First we’ll show off the turkey like she wants, then carve it in here. Heat up some broth, then we’ll put in a bay leaf and some thyme, and simmer the cut slices and the legs so they get nice and juicy and warm.” I opened a can of chicken broth as I talked. “We’ll pop the potatoes and squash and stuffing in the microwave, cook the beans on the stove top, and toss the Brussels sprouts in their sauce on top of
the stove. All you have to do is –oh Lord!”
Paige had dropped the oyster tray. Pinky gray crustaceans slid over the wooden floor. Ice formed puddles around them and parsley skidded under the sink.
“I didn’t see that. Quick!” I ran cold water in the sink and pulled open a cabinet to get a colander. “The three second rule. They should be okay. Just rinse and rinse again. And again.” I bent and picked up the few that had landed on their tummies, so to speak. “I think these would be fine, see how the shell’s curve stopped the actual oyster from contacting with the floor.”
For a moment, I stood there, hatred of wastage battling with my reputation.
“No. Throw those ones out. We’ll just use the others. Put extra parsley on the plate so we
can put fewer oysters on each one.”
While Paige mopped the floor, I cut up more parsley, and the refrigerator’s icemaker ground out another pound of cubes. I nestled them around the oysters. “Now. Let’s get the sauce on the side of each plate, put three of these babies on each one, and you take them in, nice and easy. Look calm. Don’t say a word.”
I stopped, a parsley stalk in hand. The compulsively honest Paige would likely apologize publicly to the hostess. I grabbed the platter. “No. I’ll do it. Let’s get the gravy going, then take it off the stove. Line all the veggie dishes up so we can microwave and cook everything in order.
Remember the order – potatoes and squash and stuffing in the microwave, heat the water for the beans, get the simmer broth on for the turkey which I’ll carve just as soon as we’ve shown it to the owner – God, it’s not brown enough!”
Deep breaths. “I wish Hannah were here – she’d put shoe polish on it or something! Just joking. What can we use? Can you look in the pantry – there might be some soy sauce in there?
Maybe some molasses or honey?”
“Soy sauce?”
“Yes, it gives a nice brown sheen. Probably adds a nice taste, too, to the turkey.”
Paige frowned doubtfully as she sidled into the pantry. In a minute or two she emerged, brandishing a bottle of soy sauce.
“While I’m doing the oysters, could you run out to the car and grab my hair dryer – I’ve got an idea.” I picked up the oyster plates and laid them across my arm.

A babble of voices rose from the dining room, Laughter tinkled and glasses clinked as I walked in. Mr. Reilly went from diner to diner pouring wine. His voice was loud, and he seemed a little unsteady on his feet. By the time I finished serving the oysters, he was back at his place, wine bottle in hand, and sliding into his seat, almost lost his balance. He caught me by the waist to steady himself and said, “Ah, oysters, food of the gods. Served by a goddess.”
I felt one beefy hand squeezing my middle while the other reached under the table, under my skirt, to caress my thigh. His hand was warm and aggressive, rising higher. I recoiled. No one appeared to notice, except Mrs. O’Reilly. She glared across the table with furious dark eyes.
“I hope you enjoy the oysters,” I said, and pulled away. The tablecloth in front of Archer Reilly started to pull with me. The Coalport china and the Georg Jensen silverware teetered. I pushed my assailant on the shoulder, trying to get my own balance, and his red face veered dangerously close to the table. The hand fell away from my leg. I flicked his wobbling glass upright and, with as much dignity as I could, walked back to the kitchen.
Trembling, I stood at the sink, pushed my hair back away from my face, and took a long glass of water. The groping made me feel utterly humiliated. Archer Reilly had treated me like a thing. A maid, a sexual object. Not that men hadn’t tried it on with me when I was younger. But this was in public, in front of his wife, and I was not a lowly employee. I was a business owner, the daughter of people who took it for granted that they, too, would be waited on at table, the ex- wife – here I bowed my head into the sink – of a Harvard professor!
I sensed Paige’s alarm. Turning, I saw the hair dryer in my assistant’s hands. I took it from her and placed it next to the turkey.
“How are the veggies coming along? Is the oven behaving itself yet?” My voice quavered. I opened the oven door, and waved a hand inside. Still lukewarm.
The pies sat thawing on the counter, little beads of moisture twinkling on their surface.
They were not ready to serve at all.
“We’ll just have to put them in this pathetic oven and have them heat up, slowly. They might be all right. If we microwave them, they’ll get soggy crusts. At the end of the day, that might not matter. Judging by how these people are going with the wine, they probably wouldn’t notice.”
“Maybe you should go in there again and serve more wine!”
“I think Mr. Reilly’s doing that. They didn’t ask for bar help or a wine server. We’ve got enough to do in this kitchen. These dishes are all going to have to be hand-washed; the best china and all, too valuable for the dishwasher.”
“I can wash the oyster dishes while they eat the main course.”
“Good girl. Now, we’re on a schedule here. Give me the hair dryer.”
“You wouldn’t.”
“I would. I am.” I plugged in the hair dryer and blew hot air over the turkey, sealing the soy sauce, which I had mixed with honey, onto it. We lifted the bird onto its platter, sprinkled parsley around it, and carried it into the dining room. The guests clapped, and Mrs. Reilly, not looking at her husband, raised a toast.

The World’s Easiest Chocolate Cake

The trouble with labor saving devices is that often they create labor. Take, for example my electric stand mixer. My mother used have one called the Mixmaster. It sat on the crowded countertop in our kitchen and was rarely used, unless my grandmother wanted to whip up one of her sponges.

It took up so much space. My own very heavy mixer sits in a cabinet with pull out shelves. I had those installed to make it easier to lift out the mixer but it is so unwieldy that pulling it out is like wrestling with an elephant. So it was with joy that I found this recipe for the most delicious chocolate cake, made with three pieces of equipment – two mixing bowls and a whisk. And of course a baking container. I use a spring form pan sitting on a cookie sheet to catch spills. My go-to cake pan is usually the spring form. It prevents bits of cake from refusing to come out of the pan and makes a pretty presentation.

I’m making this cake for my birthday this week. Credit for the recipe goes to Helen Goh – and to Yotam Ottolenghi for his adaptation, which appeared in The New York Times, 19 September, 2017.

Helen Goh was born in Malaysia but grew up in Melbourne, Australia, my home town.

A psychologist by training, Helen leapt into running a café without any experience and taught herself to bake. This fudgy chocolate cake from her tiny café, Mortar and Pestle, was deemed “the world’s best chocolate cake” by an enthusiastic journalist. Not one to sit on her laurels, Helen then went over to one of Melbourne’s best restaurants, Donovans, where she was pastry chef for several years. Now, she works for Ottolenghi in London. She introduced him to Australian patisserie and has a book called Sweet.

What You’ll Need:

THE CAKE
2 sticks plus 1 1/2 tablespoons butter at room temperature and cut into 3/4-inch cubes. If you use butter to grease your pan, you’ll need a little more. (Butter is recommended over spray.)
7 ounces dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa solids), chopped into 3/4-inch or smaller pieces
1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso coffee granules
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons self-rising flour, or, if you can’t find it in the supermarket, whisk together 1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and 2 3/4 teaspoons baking powder and use this mixture instead.
⅓ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt

THE CHOCOLATE GANACHE
7 ounces (70 percent cocoa solids), broken or chopped into 3/4-inch or smaller pieces
¾ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature

THE ESPRESSO CINNAMON MASCARPONE CREAM (not necessary but the final splurge)
1 ½ cups plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
¾ cup mascarpone
 Scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod or 1 tsp. vanilla
2 ½ teaspoons finely ground espresso
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 ½ tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

THE CAKE
Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch spring-form pan with butter and line with parchment paper.

Sift flour, cocoa powder and salt together into a bowl and set aside.

Dissolve the coffee granules in the boiling water.

Put the butter, and chocolate in a large metal bowl and pour in the boiling hot coffee. This will help liquefy everything so you can mix until it is all meltingly combined.

Whisk in sugar by hand, making sure it all dissolves.

Add eggs and vanilla extract and whisk again until smooth.

Pour the dry ingredients gradually into the melted chocolate mixture, and whisk till smooth and liquid.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean or almost so. I was alarmed to see that the top had cracked, but Helen says this is normal. Remove the cake from the oven and let cool. After 20 minutes release the spring of the pan or remove from the layer cake pan. Let cool overnight.

THE GANACHE
Chop the chocolate very fine and put into a heat-proof bowl. Or, if you have a food processor or blender, use this to mix until fine, then dump it all into the bowl.

In a small pan over medium-high heat, mix the cream and corn syrup. Just before it comes to a boil remove from the heat.

Add the hot cream-corn syrup mixture to the chopped chocolate, and stir with a wooden spoon till it is almost melted. Then add the butter. Stir again till smooth. Or if you are using the chocolate-filled blender or food processor, pour in the hot cream-corn syrup. Process for 10 seconds, then add the butter and whirr again till smooth. That’s Ottolenghi’s suggestion, but I wanted to use as few utensils as possible. I used the wooden spoon-in-bowl method and it is one less item to wash, for one thing. Chocolate, hot cream and warm butter make a lovely, easy to mix combination.

Cover the ganache in the bowl with plastic wrap, allowing the plastic to touch the top of the ganache.

Set aside until it has set. For a thin layer to spread over the cake, pour it over while still liquid. For a thicker ganache with a spreading consistency like a regular frosting, leave it for about 2 hours at room temperature.

The ganache can be stored at room temperature for 3 days or kept in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

1. If you insist on the final touch, whipped mascarpone and cream flavored with espresso, cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar, you may have to resort to the electric mixer. Place all the ingredients in the bowl of the mixer and beat until soft peaks form.

2. Peel the parchment from the cake and discard. Transfer to a serving platter and spread the ganache, if using, on top of the cake. Slice into wedges, divide the cake among plates and, if using, spoon the mascarpone cream alongside. With or without icing, the cake will keep well for 4 to 5 days in an airtight container.







Wilding – Returning Nature to our Farm

By Isabella Tree
The New York Review of Books, 2018

North America has lost a third of its bird population in the last half century, we learned in a recent news report.

So it is with other parts of the world, too. Isabella Tree has written a fascinating and beautifully written book about her corner of the world, a 3,500 acre estate in Sussex, England, a place which had been farmed for centuries until costs outran income and Isabella and her husband Charlie Burrell could no long afford that way of life. All the equipment, pesticides, and herbicides they needed to farm the difficult clay soil had them deeply in debt.

In a radical move, they let the place run wild.

And the birds came back. And the butterflies, the worms, numerous insects, and a riotous resurgence of plants, trees, and scrub.

It all began in 1999 when a tree expert diagnosed the reason their ancient oaks were dying. The soil had been compacted when underground earthworms and mychorrhizae were destroyed by the action of tractors and the elimination of wildlife. Twenty years later, their estate is teeming with life, visible and invisible, and the Burrells have reintroduced to the land red, roe and fallow deer, Old English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, and Tamworth pigs. The couple now run safari tours of their land, and sell the organically raised meat of their cattle, making more money than they ever did as farmers.

Making money is not entirely the point, Tree emphasizes. But the need to survive financially drove the decision to rewild their estate. The miraculous regeneration of the land through letting nature take its course has astonished them as it has others. While some of their neighbors complain about the untidiness of their once neatly hedged farm, the Burrells revel in its rampant sexuality. That’s a big theme when animals and insects are closely observed. Who knew a purple emperor mating display could be so riveting? Tree’s gorgeous writing keeps the reader glued to the page.

This is an important book, and a hopeful one. The degradation of the planet through monoculture, through the use of artificial fertilizers and heavy equipment has taken place over the last hundred years. But in only twenty years, Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell have reversed the course in the land they own. It’s a lesson for everyone.