Toffee experiment & more

Anu Lakhan embarks on the Great Experiment: to recreate, or at least approximate, the perfect toffee, plus more

Illustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramLondon Map

The night before the Great Experiment, my sister shows me how to make toffee with nothing but condensed milk. Pour the condensed milk into a small, well-worn cast-iron pot and stir on medium heat. Her motives are kind: if the Great Experiment fails, I will have something quick, idiot-proof, and near-perfect to fall back on. The philosophy underlying the motive is less kind: I will, by insisting on doing things in a time-consuming, accident-inducing way, fail. And suffer third degree burns. And it won’t taste as good as hers.

The Great Experiment has its roots in a decades-old quest to find the perfect toffee. A perfect toffee was once discovered in 1993 in a small border town in Queensland, Australia, at a farmers’ market. It was a pale gold, the colour of wet sand in the sunlight; soft and dissolving rather than chewy, and it did not coat all the inner surfaces of the mouth. There was something slightly granular to the texture, as if flecks of castor sugar had been mixed in and magically remained unmelted. The package bore no label and the hunting party was never able to find the market from whence it came.

Even before we knew we’d never be able to find it again, my mother and I ate that toffee slowly. We knew if we ate too much of it at one go we’d lose the feeling of awe you have when you’re in the presence of a subtle perfection. We approached the toffee with a gentle lovingness. Each one was slipped out of the bag so clumsy, easily tempted human hands had no contact with any other individual piece. Then it was gone. Forever.

I hammered my way through innumerable other toffees before I realised part of the problem was the language barrier that exists across cultures within the English language itself. When many people think of toffee, they think of something you attack with a tyre iron. When I, and perhaps others in the West Indies, think of toffee, it is soft and something between stretchy and gooey, depending on the weather. Toffee is such a soft, squishable word. How could it be conceived of as granite? I’ve never understood anything about the way the communities of temperate countries think. (Apart from the Siberians, who eat nothing but meat.)

In Trinidad and Tobago, there are several commercial confectioners who sell something called toffee that bears a resemblance to what I have in mind. Not the perfection, but the right idea. The closest thing to my toffee I’ve been able to find on the international circuit is a caramel cream. Here, at the meeting of promise and possibility, is where the Great Experiment was born.

Toffee seems to exist on a continuum that goes from syrup to caramel to some kind of candy; much the way crepes, pancakes, and omelettes travel a line of more or less flour, eggs, and thickness. Toffee walks a harder line, one that involves that most temperamental of ingredients: sugar. Whether you’re browning sugar for stew or innocently adding some to a cup of tea, sugar has a way of doing things you wish it wouldn’t. Ask sugar to become candy and you have a most demanding, high-maintenance material.

Pre-sugar-manipulation, another challenge: double cream. Apart from a couple of high-end shops, there is no double cream to be found on the island. Obviously the reason the national menu lacks sufficient creamy foods. Double cream is almost half butter fat; 48 per cent, to be precise. It turns out a reasonable substitute can be concocted by using regular full cream milk and — what else? — butter.

No matter how small the amount of butter and milk to be used, find the biggest bowl you have. Or a bathtub. Or stand in an open field. With the hand mixer set at the lowest speed, kitchen, cats, and cook are covered in a fine mist of milk in the first twenty seconds. At this stage, there’s little point trying to work the milk in with a spatula — just endure. Every few minutes, as more milk is absorbed by the butter, push the mixer up a notch. Eventually, with your immediate premises decorated with what looks like really, really cheap fake snow, most of the milk will be incorporated and even though it still feels like butter, it’s light enough to pretend it’s whipped double cream.

Toffee-making is not as strenuous as fudge-making. You never feel you’re mixing cement with a toothpick. The sugar sits independently in the pot, and you push it around for about the time in which, if you weren’t standing by the stove pushing the sugar around the pot, you might have weeded the garden, visited an ailing relative, or read the phone book. This is dull work. And, really, in the first millennia of stirring, you don’t need to be paying such close attention. If you don’t have company at home, call someone up. Chat. Make tea. You’re here for a while. Just keep stirring. The minute everything is molten, hang up the phone and get the teacup out of range. Accidents happen.

“Busy making small circles” is how sister number four describes the act of appearing busy while doing nothing. It is, however, the best way to stir the caramelising sugar. Small circles around the circumference of the pot and then again in the centre keeps the sugar from sticking. Two or three rounds of circles and then a side sweep around the edges keeps all the sugar in play.

It’s easy, especially if you have all the other ingredients at the ready and more than two hands. Other things need to be added slowly while stirring. How? Butter, cream, vanilla, and water will create early-volcanic-type hissing and bubbling. Be not afraid. Stir on. The trickiest part is making small circles while holding the candy thermometer. Why aren’t these things designed to be self-supporting? When all is ready, the anti-climactic wait for the toffee to set is a good time to clean up. You don’t want all that cooked sugar hanging around the kitchen solidifying and attracting ants and neighbours.

The set toffee is not the toffee. It has a good, rich flavour — maybe a tad too rich. The texture is much what I’d hoped for — maybe a smidgen too stretchy. All in all, not a bad hour and a half.

As I toss out the package for the candy thermometer bought just that morning, the mocking humour of the universe is written in bold sans-serif: Clip attaches to the side of most pots and pans for easy handling. I thought it was like a pen clip for cooking nerds.

Recipe: experimental toffee

Math, even simple math, is to me as the sun is to landing on. Given the number of conversions and reconversions involved just in making the faux double cream (directions above), it’s a wonder I didn’t end up with a nice shawl instead of toffee of any kind.

Aim:
toffee, or un-embarrassing facsimile thereof

Apparatus:

slightly bigger than small cast-iron pot

metal spoon

large bowl

hand beater (if making the cream)

spatula (if making the cream)

square tin or dish (shallow and small)

waxed paper

Materials:

sugar, white, 10 to 12 ounces

butter, salted, 2 ounces

water, boiling, 2/3 cup

vanilla essence, 2 tsp

double cream*, a tablespoon or two shy of a full cup

* 1 cup double cream = 2/3 cup milk and 2 2/3 ounces butter. Actually, this is more heavy cream than double cream. Measured in cups, 2 2/3 ounces is about 1/3 of a cup. Nowhere near half. Feel free to add more butter until you’re on par with the milk. I hadn’t yet worked out this sum when I made the batch.

Method:

Measure out all the ingredients beforehand and keep them at a safe but accessible distance. With the pot on excruciatingly low heat, pour in the sugar and stir in small circles until it caramelises. Not too dark, you’re not making stew. Very slowly add the water. Stir slowly. Also slowly, one at a time, add butter, cream, and vanilla. This is why you need all the ingredients measured and at the ready; you’ll be too busy stirring slowly all the time to stop and measure now. Use a candy thermometer to ascertain that the mixture reaches 116°C. If you’re new to candy thermometers, read the instructions first, you never know what those darn things might be capable of.

Pour the mixture into the dish lined with wax paper. Chill until set but not impenetrable. Cut into individual pieces.

Results:

Some toffees are born great, some achieve greatness, some are bought.

Conclusion:

As in the dozens of lab reports I tried to write in high school, I feel hideously under-qualified to draw any conclusion. Just because a thing works doesn’t necessarily mean I did something right. Accidents, after all, do happen.

— Anu Lakhan

Why men cook

Debbie Jacob contemplates the culinary mystery of men who can cook

Real men don’t eat quiche, but they certainly do cook curry. You name the meat and I know men in central Trinidad who will curry or stew it. On weekend nights you’re bound to see a wood fire burning in someone’s yard as a group of guys gather around a pot of curried duck, goat, or yard fowl. Country folk say yard fowl is the only “real” chicken. You know when you’re eating a yard fowl because it is as tough as shoe leather.

I have always thought that country food tastes so good because of the lime that goes with it — not lime as in citrus, but lime as in a Trini gathering. Liming seems to be the reason that most men cook. Women get the drudgery of standing over a hot stove for daily meals and special occasions like weddings and holidays, but men cook for fun, or, if they’re chefs, they cook for style. These days, Trinidad seems to be on a mission to prove the culinary skills of men. Gone are the fund-raising days of cake sales and barbeques. In their place are cook-outs or cook-offs with names like Men Who Cook, Fathers Who Cook, Policemen Who Cook — the list goes on. Find a group consisting mostly of men, and a big banner, a few tents, and a line of rented warmers will proclaim they can cook.

Anyway, the last time I went to my mechanic in Warrenville, a tiny village carved out of the sugarcane fields between Piarco airport and Chaguanas, I discovered a new country cook, Mark Raymond. “You have to taste Mark’s hand.” That means he’s a great cook, in Trini-speak. Like most Trinidadians, Mark is a callaloo — an ethnic mixture of Indian and Chinese, but I think his nickname of “Chinee” stems from his mastery of Chinese cuisine. Chinee’s fried rice, with its miniscule cubes of sweet green pepper and carrot, is so famous it has transcended culinary boundaries and been served on a banana leaf during the Hindu festival of Divali. It’s an honour, I might add, to be a man who is welcome in a kitchen bustling with holiday activity.

When Chinee isn’t dabbling in pigments at the paint company where he works, he’s creating his own palette of colour in one of those heavy iron pots that have to be seasoned — that is, cooked in for several years so that the oil and curry seep into the crevices, until the ingredients become part of the pot. The older the pot, the better. These pots take on a communal appeal, because everyone contributes an ingredient: garlic, chives, fresh ginger root, celery, tomatoes, coriander — known as shadow beni in Trinidad — and, of course, those innocent-looking tiny red peppers that can blow the top of your head off.

When the wind cuts across the Caroni Plains it carries the laughter of a good lime and the smell of a nose-tickling curry. Better yet if the pot is a simmering stewed pork that begins with burning brown sugar. This is still sugarcane country, and even in the age of cable TV, there will be men who will carry on the tradition of a cooking lime. It’s the best place possible to cook up a good story and a good meal

Hungry day in London town

London offers a huge selection of West Indian food, from take-aways to à la carte. Rajendra Shepherd eats his way across the city

BEST FOR TAKEAWAY

1 Quashie’s Roti-Hot: 63 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush
• average price: £7 takeaway
This brightly lit takeaway offers breakfast bar seating in case you want to sit in with your roti or doubles. Buzzing at lunchtime, for its affordable food that can be eaten on the go. Be prepared to queue.

2 Roti Joupa: 12 Clapham High Street
• average price: £7 takeaway
How roti should taste. The owners, from Penal in Trinidad, have filled the menu with staple dishes including tasty dalpuri, filled roti, and paratha. The evening all-fours tournaments will keep homesick patrons coming back. A lime from home on a modest budget.

BEST FOR CANTEEN

3 Mr Jerk: 189 Wardour Street, Soho
• average price: £10 dinner
In the heart of Soho, the café’s dark front is easy to miss, but the canteen atmosphere is an acceptable accompaniment to the rustic cooking. Service can take a while, but the food offers no unpleasant surprises. Enjoy your meal with canned Jamaican ginger beer.

4 The Hummingbird: 84 Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park
• average price: £10 dinner
Hearty West Indian diners will relish entrées complete with rice and peas, salad, and provisions. The setting and service are basic, but this could become a regular haunt for the nostalgic. The callaloo would have been better without the crab-stick. Main dishes of jerk chicken, coo-coo with stewed fish, and curried chicken are vigorous and satisfying. Fruit and coconut cakes for dessert.

5 Da Bees Knees: Dragons Health Club, 27 Ruxley Lane, Ewell, Surrey
• set price: £11.50 Sunday lunch
From June 2006, this tasty Jamaican buffet will once again take over the gym restaurant one Sunday each month. Home-cooked dishes of curried goat, fried fish, festival, rice and peas, and mixed vegetables are delicately prepared. This is food that unseasoned diners of Caribbean food can enjoy.

BEST FOR À LA CARTE

6 Mango Room: 10–12 Kentish Town Road, Camden
• average price: £10 lunch/£30 dinner
Sumptuous food, great ambience, and trendy setting. Entrées like jerk pork with pak choy and breast of duck with honey and ginger, and nouveau desserts like mango and banana brulée or flambé banana with cinnamon ice cream prove West Indian food can dress up nice.

7 Cottons: 70 Exmouth Market, Islington
• average price: £10 lunch/£30 dinner
The original West Indian kitchen in London is Cottons, started twenty years ago in Chalk Farm. This second branch offers dishes like granny makes. Their tapas lunch menu makes variety affordable: try the chickpea and pumpkin soup, rice and peas, and jerk snapper. Over 150 varieties of rum is not a bad deal either. Friday and Saturday nights come with a soul singer and Sundays Brazilian drumming.

Thanks to fellow diners Allison Shepherd, Terry Ramdeen, and Marjorie Ramdeen

Hee-haw stew

Prescott Adderly on Inagua’s “kicking beef”

I’m always eager to dip into a Bahamian’s cooking pot. Had Victorian America sampled some of our delights, they would have rocketed to the bra-free, spit-swapping 1970s. There is something sensuous, hedonistic even, about our food. Articles about such cuisine provoke uncharacteristic rises in visitor arrivals. My reluctance to sample a certain culinary attraction famed in Inagua — one of the most southerly of the Bahama Islands — was hence surprising.

We landed. It was hot, my bag was heavy, and I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be visiting relatives. A moderately friendly-looking donkey strolled by. I soon discovered, however, a mildly hostile attitude to the very same beast. In fact, this cousin of the horse, friend of Winnie the Pooh and Palm Sunday carrier of Christ, was quite disliked on the island. As the day progressed, donkeys could be seen delightfully dancing in hanging laundry, entering homes, and generally squatting on people’s property. All of this could easily have been forgiven if they weren’t insistent on gleefully obstructing traffic during rush hour.

The response to this daily donkey invasion was simply to cook them. That’s right: “donkey tick you off, cook him”. I was all a-fluster. “Eat the donkey!” I exclaimed. My excitement didn’t go unnoticed. Soon some of the very kin I had dreaded visiting were offering me a hot plate of curried “kicking beef”, as donkey meat is known on Inagua.

“Oh, no, thanks, stomach virus.” I coughed for effect (the connection between cough and stomach makes as little sense now as it did then).

My interest in “kicking beef” was academic at best. I wasn’t thrilled about consuming any myself. Grilled, steamed or barbecued donkey didn’t exactly titillate my senses. I looked for reasons to avoid the inevitable. Qualms about health were quickly dashed: donkey contains more protein than beef, and is obscenely rich in iron, phosphorous, potassium, and zinc. An unhealthy eater myself, I wasn’t moved.

Further research revealed its popularity in Italian and Cantonese communities. Some Cantonese chefs compared its taste to that of dragon. I’ve never particularly desired dragon, so that didn’t impress me. I have, however, always romanticised anything connected to Italy. To put the final nail in the coffin, I discovered that donkey meat is often an unacknowledged ingredient in salami. That fact took the edge off — I’ve probably already unknowingly devoured the meat while watching C.S.I.

So one cool afternoon I ventured into this unknown dark meat. Silence as I chewed. I was bewildered by my own bravery. I’d already come up with a few polite let-downs: Oh, yes, I see why you enjoy it. More? Oh, not now.

Then it hit me. I was quite enjoying this rather steak-like meat. Its juiciness is gratifying. The untrained eater could mistake it for regular beef, but “kicking beef” is far superior. The honeyed taste lingers, richly enhancing the rest of the meal. Though occasionally tough, it was still overwhelmingly inviting, urging me to seek every untapped pocket of flavour. Afterwards the clean plate taunted me. I silently cursed the stingy portion.

That night I left Inagua with a shopping bag heavy with “kicking beef”. The “three days’ worth” lasted no longer than American Idol. I’ve since considered relocating so I might satisfy my continuous need for just a little bit more. Those Inagua natives, attempting to eliminate a problem, stumbled upon a true delicacy. Donkey meat is worth every desire-filled day until my next visit.