This should be a post about Eton mess gelato. For almost six weeks now, ‘Eton mess gelato’ has been peering at me from my drafts folder, asking to be written. First quietly, and then with an insistence that bordered on whining. Weeks went by, and I didn’t write about Eton mess gelato. In fact, I didn’t write at all. This is not a post about Eton mess gelato.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve made the damned gelato. It was delicious. We photographed it. I noted the recipe down longhand. I’ve created a document. I’ve given it a title. But I haven’t written it. What on earth could I say about Eton mess gelato that wouldn’t feel totally disingenuous?
Because, right now, I really don’t want to cook. I was able to hide it for a little while, even from myself: I had exams which relegated the need to cook anything other than entremets so far down my list of priorities, that I didn’t address it. We went on holiday, where cooking wasn’t possible. I had deadlines on my return, and then zoomed off up North. A diet of oven pizzas and omelettes became my slightly miserable staple. I cooked for family and friends and work, but when it was for me, I couldn’t have feigned interest if I tried. I sat down to write about Eton mess gelato, and the words didn’t come.
I was sure that when I was back in my own kitchen, equilibrium would be restored. But, I returned home, and the cooking fatigue continued: I cooked dishes for work, but abandoned the stove as soon as I could. I went five days before realising the only thing I’d eaten was the rice pudding I’d been recipe testing.
So perhaps this goes some way to explaining why for the last few weeks, there have been no blog posts. I was pretty confident I hadn’t fallen out of love with cooking, but it was clear we were going through a rough patch, and I couldn’t bear to write about it.
For the last five years, when my mental health has wobbled, whether it be through grief, or job misery, or good old existential angst, I’ve turned to food. Cooking was always the answer. So what could I do when the answer had become the question?
It’s a problem that isn’t easily ignorable when your income relies on food. There’s a strange shift when you are lucky enough to be able to turn something that was once a hobby, once a release – an escape – from work into, well, work.
The answer, it turns out, is bread. The only thing I could stand the thought of, could stomach, was plain toast.
I’m not terribly virtuous when it comes to baking bread: even when cooking and I are on good terms, bread is an after-thought for me, and usually supermarket-bought. So when I found myself unable to countenance anything other than toast, the obvious answer was not to start baking my own.
Which is why it came as some surprise to find myself in the kitchen not only cooking willingly for myself, but baking bread. Nothing fancy, no showing off, just loaves of brown bread, baked in tins. No scoring. No sourdough. No bannetons. Just plain old bread.
I baked the bread, and sliced into it. And I ate it. The first thing I’d cooked and wanted to eat, the first thing I’d cooked for myself, in weeks. And three days later, I baked another one. Baby steps.
So next week, there will be Eton mess gelato, and after that, a coffee and cardamom cake. But right now, there is just brown bread.
It goes like this:
Makes: 1 large loaf
Takes: 3 hours, but only 10 minutes’ hands on time
Bakes: 40 minutes
350g strong brown bread flour
100g strong white bread flour
50g wheatgerm (optional)
130ml warm water
6g fast action yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
40g Pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons vegetable or light olive oil
1. Mix the flours, wheatgerm, yeast, salt and sugar together in a large bowl. Add the oil and warm water and bring the dough together with your hands. Knead the dough for a couple of minutes until it’s smooth and elastic. Place in a clean bowl and cover with clingfilm. Leave for an hour or until the dough has doubled in size.
2. Punch the dough down in the bowl until all the air has been knocked out of it. Recover with clingfilm and let it double in size again.
3. Add dates, pumpkin seeds, or any other fillings and work them into the dough. Flour a 2 pound loaf tin. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and fold it in on itself, creating a seam; this will create tension in the loaf. Turn the dough over so that the seam is on the bottom of the dough, and spin it around a couple of times: this will tighten the seam. Place in a loaf tin, cover with clingfilm, and allow to rise up one more time.
4. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Bake the loaf for 40 minutes, covering after 25 minutes if it’s looking toasty.
5. Leave to cool before slicing – if you can bear it.
Icing on the Cake
I ate this on its own, with a lot of butter, for many, many meals. And when I felt a little better, I smeared blackberry and bay jam all over it.