My intention to medicate all autumnal malaises and maladies with appropriate food has been… stalled somewhat.
I put my back out making meringues. Or rather, I thought I had put my back out making meringues. Last Sunday, I was making meringues and something very odd happened to my back and it hurt a lot.
I looked in the fridge and felt a twinge in my back. I’ve had a bad back for as long as I can remember, and occasionally have made some small movement which has hurt a lot, and caused me to stagger a bit for a few days. I breezily took to twitter to declare that I’d put my back out, and continued with my day. I was mid-meringue making, and had an argument with Sam over whether or not we had any ground cinnamon. One of those really stupid arguments that couples have about nothing: I absolutely could not tell you why we were arguing about cinnamon. I sat down stroppily in our living room to put a twist-tie on a packet of flaked almonds, and was thrown across the room [nb. Not by Sam. Keep reading].
My back had suddenly gone into spasm and was moving me around like the girl from The Exorcist. It was bright white, frightening, inexplicable pain; the most all-consuming pain I have ever felt. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t speak, let alone articulate what was happening to me. I was sick and nearly passed out. We called 111 who insisted they sent an ambulance to me. Which I complained about. Repeatedly. Complained until I was in a quasi-sitting position. Until a second spasm hit me. Then I decided maybe the ambulance wasn’t such a stupid idea.
But, my position wasn’t life-threatening, so we waited. We waited for six hours, me lying face down on the floor, changing position only when the spasms moved me from one part of the floor to another. The sheer intensity of the pain of the spasms didn’t dissipate, but the periods between did eventually become tedious. I was cold, and so, so sore. I vacillated between being hysterical, and the voice of reason. It got to the point where in those strange, dead, periods, waiting for the next inevitable spasm, a) I was able to identify pretty much every unswept spot on our floor, b) I could assess quite how undignified my position was (not aided by the fact the only way I could stave off spasms was by doing weird, manic breaststroke froglegs), and c) Sam had the opportunity to clean the whole house and bake off the bread he had been making. I can only hope that if I ever have children, I will come through labour to find a baby in one arm, and a freshly baked loaf of sourdough in the other.
Finally (after a lengthy phone call with a paramedic who explained that due to the non-fatal nature of my problem, they couldn’t give me an ETA for an ambulance), I managed, over the course of an hour and a half, to drag myself, mid-spasms, the 15 feet from our living room to bathroom. By this point, I had been prostrate for 6 and a half hours, and had needed to go to the loo for about 6 hours. It resembled a very long, boring version of the opening of Kill Bill Vol I, except in my version, Beatrix Kiddo is motivated not by revenge but the need to pee.
I eventually managed to get into bed, and over the next 24 hours, the spasms subsided, helped along by diazepam and fitful sleep. But my mobility was almost zero: I spent the first day unable to reach the other side of the bed. The second day, I got as far as making myself a cup of tea. Eventually, through a combination of rest, time, grit, and muscle relaxants, I started to get up and about again.
Since then I have been dosed up on strong painkillers and diazepam, fitfully sleeping 20 out of every 24 hours. I have been literally on my back, relistening to every episode of Serial, and trying not to panic about the fact I’m self-employed. I’ve basically lived off cups of tea and toast.
And I realised that my usual mechanisms don’t work here. Since the death of my mother, I have carefully developed and nurtured a method, a hobby, a skill, something that, when I am at my most miserable, under the weather, or anxious, I can turn to and it will buoy, heal, or calm me as appropriate, or just bloody distract me. But now, I can’t stand over the hob for any length of time, I can’t reach down into oven, I can’t get into our cupboards or fridge.
So when I was able to hobble to the hob, and stare pitifully at the cupboard, keening slightly, until Sam passed me a kilner jar, I wanted to bake something unapologetically, unashamedly sweet, indulgent, and brimming with flavours and textures. So I plumped for the pinacle and nadir of baked goods: the blondie. Blondies haven’t quite made it in the UK yet: they’re still very much a US phenomenon. Blondies are brownies without the chocolate. They straddle cakes and traybakes and puddings. They’re trashy and delicious. When warm, they have a cakey, almost gooey interior, which cries out for custard or ice cream. When cooled and set, they have a crisp, meringue like glossy top, and are fudgey and dense inside. They taste like a grown up cookie dough.
There are a lot of blondie recipes and methods on the internet — believe me, I’ve tried most of them — and most of them taste quite nice, but they don’t do what I want them to. They come out cakey, very soft, matte, occasionally dimpled. And yeah, they’re fine, but they bear no resemblance to brownies. So I put my deerstalker on and eventually worked out how to get that contrast of textures, and the all important glossy, almost glazed, crust, hovering above the rest of the blondie, with tell-tale cracks. Luckily, a combination of Edd Kimber, experimentation, and irritation came up with the goods, which you will find below. The key is to really, really mix the sugar into the butter mixture, and to make sure you’re using granulated sugar as well as the light brown soft sugar.
The version I’ve given can be served warm with maple bourbon sauce, which you can whip up very quickly, and the recipe is listed below.
I prescribe these for shock. Yes, there’s lot of butter and sugar in this recipe: it’s cake, that’s the point. Embrace it. This is the cake-equivalent of a strong cup of tea with four sugars in it: sometimes, in moments of stress or shock, it’s the only thing that will make a difference. Take it from me: they are precisely the sort of thing you need after putting your back into spasm for three days.
It goes like this:
Brown butter bourbon blondies with walnuts, white chocolate and maple syrup sauce
For the blondies (makes about 16)
Vanilla (ideally, scrape out half a vanilla pod, or use a teaspoon of vanilla paste, but a healthy dash of vanilla extract is fine)
Generous dash of bourbon*
80g chopped Walnuts *
80g white chocolate (or you could take the Nigella route and use milk chocolate to make them ‘blondies with their roots showing’)
Good grating nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
200g soft brown sugar
200g granulated sugar
400g plain flour
Pinch of salt
1 tsp baking powder
For the bourbon maple sauce (for two warm portions)
20ml maple syrup
Another generous dash of bourbon
40g soft brown sugar
For the blondies
1. Preheat oven to 160 degrees C. Take a piece of baking paper about an inch narrower than the width of your tin, but double it’s length, and lay it in the tin (this is going to give you handy, handy handles later one).
2. Melt your butter over a medium heat. When melted, add your cinnamon and nutmeg and continue to cook until the butter is browned: it will foam up and then the phone will disappear of its own volition, and leave little brown flecks at the bottom. When this happens, you’re good to go. It will smell nutty. Keep an eye on the butter, as you don’t want it cremated, and it can turn quickly.
3. Add all the sugar to the pan and cook for 5 more minutes: stir the whole time!
4. Remove from heat and leave to cool for five minutes.
5. Whisk the eggs into the cooled sugar mixture until well combined, pour in your generous dash of bourbon, and then fold in the flour, salt and baking powder.
6. Fold through you walnuts and chocolate.
7. Pour the batter into your tin and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven but LEAVE IT IN THE TIN. For like, 4 hours. Blondies take ages to firm up and you want nice, crisply cut squares. So wait. Then cut into slab-like squures.
8. Ta Dah!
For the bourbon maple sauce
1. Put everything in a small pan on a medium-to-low heat, and mix until everything is melted and combined.
2. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
On Sunday afternoons, we eat these warmed through int the oven, with hot maple and bourbon sauce, and cold ambrosia custard from a carton. On Wednesdy afternoons, we sit in separate offices, and eat them crisp and cold and a little bit crunchy with a large mug of tea.
PS. At the moment, I’m working on a salt and pepper blondie… but that’s a different story for another day.
*This would also be lovely with amaretto and chopped almonds.