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Plastic free cookery: Pasta à la Casa

Welcome to week 2 of plastic free July! I hope your pursuit of less plastic is going well for you, because I fluffed up on day one. Not to panic: you learn from absent-minded moment and keep going. And so this week, in pursuit of reducing my plastic, I made pasta.

Pasta wasn’t always the staple of the kiwi kitchen: from a quick scan of my small cookbook collection, it seems publishers thought three pasta recipes was plenty. The 1937 Cookery Book of NZ Women’s Institutes has three pasta recipes: ‘Macaroni shape’, spaghetti and tomato sauce, and Macaroni and tomatoes. The 5th edition of Tried Recipes, compiled by the Victoria League of Auckland has a recipe for Kidneys and Macaroni, Macaroni Cheese and Macaroni Tomatoes. The 1955 edition of Edmonds has three pasta recipes; Salmon Macaroni Salad*, Chippolata Spaghetti,* and Minestrone soup (with vermicelli). Pasta’s now undeniable role in our kitchens grew from the 60s: in 1967 Edmonds released the 8th edition of their famous cookbook, with an expanded range of pasta recipes.

In 2019 I had the opportunity to travel to Italy to study conservation of historic objects. It was amazing for the art and material heritage, and the food was my secondary focus. After the tour I took a day trip to cook in the Tuscan hills, where I learned to make pasta. This is the recipe I received in the class:

Base Recipe for all types of home- made pasta.

  • 400g plain flour (00 type flour or All Purpose Flour)
  • 4 eggs

Sift the flour on to a clean work surface. Form a kind of volcano- shaped mound and use an egg to push the flour around to make a well in the centre. Break the eggs into the middle.

Whip the egg with a fork, slowly adding the flour to the eggs. When your fork no longer functions because thedough is too thick, use the side of your fork to scrape off any excess dough stuck to your work surface. Add the excess dough scraps to the top of your main dough and get a coating of flour on the outside of the dough so it doesn’t stick to your hands when you begin kneading.

Clean your hands and the work surface and lightly dust it with flour. Start to knead the dough with the heel of one hand. Folding it in half, pushing and turning 90 degrees. Continue to knead the dough for 10-15 minutes until it becomes smooth and elastic. If the dough gets hard, wet your hands and continue to knead and it will become softer. Wrap the dough in cling-film and place to one side to rest for around 10 minutes.

Place the dough out on the lightly floured work surface and gently roll it out with a rolling pin to form a sheet of roughly 2mm in thickness. Remember to flip the dough regularly, and keep a light dusting of flour on it so that it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin or the work surface.
When your sheet of pasta is rolled out, dust it with flour and roll it down uniformly until you have it all on a big roly-poly. With a sharp knife cut out
your noodles to a width of about 1 cm( 3/8 inch) and lay them on a clean cloth dusted with flour for about 30 minutes.

When ready, bring to the boil a pot of salted water (as salty as the sea), add the pasta and cook it for 5-7 minutes as desired.

Why “Macaroni”?

You may notice that older recipes more often call for ‘macaroni’ than for pasta of any other shape. I had a hunch that macaroni was used as a generic term for what we now call pasta, or if the range of shapes available really was that limited. While trying to figure it out, I found The Eternal Table, written by Karima Moyer-Nocchi. (Her post on Roman Macaroni was so good I had to make it for dinner the same night I read it). I reached out to Karima to see if she had any insight.

Karima explained that the history of the words pasta and macaroni are not clear-cut, but that ‘pasta’ more often referred to dough (which makes me think there’s a familial relationship between the words pasta, pastry and paste). The first recorded use of the word macaroni was in 1273, and was a food category. ‘Pasta’ as we know it today only really came to its current use as a “chic reference for people ‘in the know’ – a sort of cultural inner-circle badge – picked up when Italian ‘cuisine’ came to dominate the international gastronomic stage” Karima explained. The swap in terms may have something to do with the association of Naples, whose population were referred to as mangiamaccheroni – macaroni eaters – and being associated with the Neapolitans might have been rather undesirable. Which is bizzare to think of, given the popularity of pasta today, and the love for pizza, Naples most famous dish.

“Macaroni Eaters” by Domenico Gargiulo. Three Neapolitan beggars, or lazzaroni, eat a dish of macaroni with their hands in the middle of a street.

* I want to make these for the sole fact that they sound so bizarre to the modern palate.

Sunday Baking: Belgian Biscuits

There’s no denying that the kiwi Belgian Biscuit is an instantly recognisable member of a bakery’s display cabinet. Spiced biscuits, sandwiched with raspberry jam and crowned with pink icing, they’re a sweet treat that were renamed for patriotic reasons during the first World War.

I’ve been intrigued by Belgian biscuits since I read the the story of Jim Fish, a Southland baker who had been baking for sixty years. His secret was to use cassia to spice the biscuits, instead of cinnamon, which is more commonly used. But what’s the difference? Confusingly, cassia and cinnamon both come from the same tree, both from the bark as well. The difference is that cinnamon is the inner bark, has a more subtle flavour, and will coil over itself into a straight telescope, or break into shards. Cassia is the outer bark, tan in colour, and the edges curve inward to the centre like binoculars. It has a more robust flavour, which is why Jim Fish likely recommended it, to give the biscuits more punch.

I used a recipe from one of my older Edmonds cookbooks, possibly from the 60s, which asks for a mix of spice, and doesn’t specify the pink icing on top – instead, it just states that the biscuits be iced and topped with a cherry or angelica.

The name Belgian (or Belgium) comes from after the World Wars, when German foods (places, and people) were renamed with more patriotic or local titles. Belgium biscuits were known as German or Linzer Biscuits, but were quickly renamed in allied countries – becoming the Empire Biscuit in the UK or Belgian/-um in Scotland and New Zealand, in solidarity with the invaded Belgium.

Typically in the UK an Empire biscuit is two rounds of shortbread, topped with white icing and a cherry, making it look like what New Zealand calls a ‘shrewsbury’. In New Zealand, shrewsbury biscuits have a window in the top biscuit to see the jam below. In the UK, shrewsbury biscuits have currants and lemon, can be eaten as a pudding and are an entirely different kettle of fish.

Along the way, kiwi Belgian biscuits acquired a pink icing, or a white icing dusted with raspberry jelly. The recipe I used was from somewhere in the mid-Century, and so still had the white icing decorated with a cherry, leaving them to look quite festive, and a little like a bakewell tart. They lost the shortbread base and became spiced.

I took the chance to dig through some of my other cook books, and found a range of recipes, all on a similar theme of a cinnamon-spiced biscuit, sandwiched with jam and iced:

Belgian Biscuits, fro the Self Help Wartime Cookery book.
Belgium Biscuits from The Victoria League’s Tried Recipes, 5th ed.
Belgian Biscuits, from a book that has lost its cover, so I refer to it as Cookery, as that title sits in the header of each left page.

So there you have it – an incomplete and meandering look at the Belgian Biscuit. I have to confess that the versions I bought to sample while researching this post were actually quite disappointing, so if you’re ambivalent about biscuits I suggest trying an older recipe for some Sunday entertainment and as a much sweeter and tastier treat.

Another bakery-sold Belgian Biscuit.

Plastic-free Cookery: wanna chip bro?

Here in New Zealand, we love our chips. According to Potatoes New Zealand, 71,914 metric tonnes of potatoes were turned into crisps and a further 282,446 metric tonnes of potataoes were turned into chips (meaning french fries and thicker). That’s an insane quantity of snacks that Kiwis have troughed through.

Crisps are a modern phenomenon: a little too complicated for the home cook to waste time and oil over, perfect for street vendors to sell, and when packaged in plastic, the ideal thing to sell to the consumer in supermarkets, dairies, petrol stations, and just about anywhere you could find yourself hankering for a snack. Two of the most recognisable brands in crisps in New Zealand are Eta, founded in 1955; and Bluebird, established in 1953.

In 2016 stuff.co.nz asked New Zealanders to vote for their favourite chip flavour as an influx of new and interesting flavours came to tantalise our tastebuds. Salt and Vinegar and Ready Salted ranked the highest, but some surprises were in store – we were acquiring a taste for chilli, or even along the lines of caramelised onion. My biggest surprise was to see Barbeque poll lower than Chicken flavour, but as you can read in the Spinoff’s ranking of chip flavours, everyone has Opinions.

Poll results for popular chip flavours. As you can see, I’m a fan of Ready Salted.

But it’s crunch time – I made my own crisps. It required purchasing a mandoline and three varieties of potatoes, to test floury against waxy and ‘all purpose’. This is my experience.

Finely slice your potatoes with a mandoline, rinse them, and soak to remove excess starch before drying each individual slice before frying. It’s really important to dry the chips, because water expands explosively in hot oil and can cause bad injuries.

I fried my crisps in canola oil in a deep cast iron pot. They took longer than I expected to cook, around 3-4 minutes per small batch. The absolute success went to the agria potatoes, which fried evenly and had great body to them. The Desiree potatoes were a flop – they absorbed the oil, wouldn’t crisp up (even with ‘drying time’) and became slimy discs of dissatisfation. I was so discouraged I decided against even bothering with the Nadine – the dumb blonde of the potato world – and added my slices to soup the following night in place of noodles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find any historic recipes for potatoes in my small collection of cookbooks. They’re a pain to make. The legend of the potato chip/ crisps creation harks back to Saratoga Springs in New York, in 1853 where, as the story goes, a fussy customer kept sending his potatoes back to the kitchen, demanding thinner slices until the chef, George Crum, in a fit of spite sliced them so thin and fried them so crisp that he inadvertently delighted his finicky customer. This story has been claimed to be a romanticised lie, with several key facts not aligning. Like many foods, the origins of the potato chip are obscured in time, and likely contributed to and refined by a number of cooks.

The question remains over whether I will quit my chip habit due to their plastic packaging. Proper Crisps now sell a small range in home compostable bags, which I often choose. But while making your own is fiddly and fills your home with the smell of hot oil, I might make a habit of making crisps (outside) for special occasions, to impress my friends just as George Crum is said to have done 150 years ago.

Agria crisps, salted and gobbled up before I could get a pretty picture. Frankly, can you blame me?

Sunday Baking: Tomato Soup Cake

I have a great love of strange and kooky recipes, and honestly fell head over heels with the idea of a tomato soup cake when I spied it on Instagram. Add the fact that my birthday was coming up and I that I have a habit of presenting friends with strange cakes for theirs, it only made sense to bake one and delight terrorise my colleagues.

The recipe is taken almost exactly from the Campbell Soup website, which has a detailed history into the cake’s origins. In my version I substituted the lard for butter, and omitted the raisins.

Soupcake
An earlier recipe and the inspiration
 Tomato Spice Cake

2 Tbsp butter

1 C sugar

2 C flour

1 tsp mixed spice

1x 420ml can condensed soup

1 tsp baking soda

Preheat your oven to 180°C with a shelf set on the middle rung. Butter and line a cake tin and set aside.

Cream the butter sugar and mixed spice until it’s grainy and blended. Sift the flour on top of the sugar blend.

Add the baking soda to the tin of soup and mix until you see the colour change from red to orange, which is caused by tiny bubbles. Baking soda reacts with acid, and the soup has that aplenty. Quickly add the soup to the remaining ingredients and mix until you’re just beyond where you’d mix a muffin: the lumps are gone but it’s not perfectly smooth. Spoon into the cake tin and gently slide into the oven. Bake for around 35 minutes, checking regularly thereafter to test it with a skewer.

The cake will go from Halloween orange to the most beautiful shade of sienna, and your house will smell of sugar, spice and rich tomato: strange, but not in an unwelcome way. The flavour is of rich spice and umami: deep and comforting.

One it is cool, blend 250g cream cheese with 170g icing sugar and the zest and juice of 1 or 2 limes (depending on how big and juicy they are), and ice as you wish.

The best part about strange cakes like this is getting to play with the icing. I opted for a relatively safe cream cheese and lime frosting, but dabbled with the idea of including basil as well. Other temptations included playing up the tomato aspect and dressing it like it was a spiced tomato juice, adding some Worcester sauce to the batter and adding a spicy frosting. Then I went one step further and seriously contemplated adding vodka, à la Bloody Mary. This cake lends itself to play and cream cheese is an excellent companion for the rich flavour.

Soup cake 1
Crumb shot

The recipe first appeared as a depression era recipe somewhere around the 1920s to 30s, and adapted itself well to wartime households with rationing on eggs and butter. Also known as Mystery Cake, the recipe often includes raisins and acts as a spiced fruit cake, which I imagine would work quite well. I didn’t add raisins because I had run out and couldn’t be bothered making a run to the supermarket late at night. I imagine it would be wonderful with fruit, but I love the fact that this version really just lets the tomato sing.

My colleagues all expressed reservations about the cake, and yet by 4pm both had been gobbled up and I had multiple requests for the recipe. Many people went back for seconds and it was even a hit with children, who gobbled it down. I imagine it would be a brilliant birthday cake option for a tomato sauce-obsessed child. We all agreed that the tomato wasn’t unwelcome, in fact it was heartening and moreish. The crumb was beautiful and it was the perfect, toothsome level of moist.

I was worried as the Cambell’s recipe above called for it to be baked for an hour, and some reviews said that even baking for 35 minutes was too long and left the cake dry. My best explanation is that ovens have continued to improve in terms of heat reliability and efficiency and that an hour certainly is too long for a modern oven. That said, you should also spend some time baking so that you can learn the quirks of your oven, and I recommend checking in with a skewer after 30 minutes.

I would absolutely bake this cake again. Modern renditions have become more elaborate, but this is a cake perfect for tight budgets and busy brains. For those watching their intake, a one-twelfth slice of the recipe above (without icing, and it’s still tasty without) comes out at about 860 kilojoules, or 205 calories.

I had my doubts, but I’m sold!

Further reading:

New York Times Mystery Cake

University of Chicago Press

The Enduring Allure of Tomato Soup Cake, The Kitchn

Plastic Free cookery Challenge

Plastic is ubiquitous and seemingly inescapable. The first man-made plastic compound, ‘Parkesine’, was unveiled in 1862, and since then plastic and its various types have evolved and grown. Light, cheap, hygenic, preserving and flexible in use, plastic eventually became intertwined with the modern packaged food industry. Go to your local supermarket and you’ll find just about everything in plastic, from meat to milk, bread to cheese, fruit to peas. According to National Geographic, of the 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year just 14% is recycled.

A leading justification for the use of single use plastics to package food is the role that packaging can play in extending shelf-life of food and consequently reducing food waste. However, per capita food and packaging waste rates in Europe remain amongst the highest globally, suggesting that packaging has not offered a silver bullet to the food waste problem. 

Institute for European Environmental Policy

In my home, we’ve been trying to cut down on plastic for about two-and-a-half years. But we still end up with thing in the rubbish bin, filled with the treats that we can’t yet buy plastic free from our local grocers. As Plastic free July is coming, I thought I’d undertake that long-needed audit of the rubbish bins to see what my weaknesses are, and if there’s a way to circumvent the plastic by making it myself. A quick dig through our bin revealed a few places for improvement:

Chips.

Known as Crisps in the UK , reputedly the spiteful creation of an irritated chef in New York, and popular the world over, potato chips – those thin, crunchy slivers of potato come in a plastic bag that are a devil.

Cheese.

Before plastic, cheese could come wrapped in fabric (cheesecloth), covered in wax, or even in jars (particularly Stilton cheese). Dishes such as rarebit, raclette and fondue were dishes that specifically used the hard, dried ends of your cheese. And while waxed cheese is still seen, it is usually in wedges – and shrink wrapped in plastic.

Crackers.

To go with my cheese addiction, crackers come in loads of packaging. While in Florence last year, I was astonished to see towers of crackers at the local bakeries for sale. It struck me as symbolic of the relationship Italians have with their food, which seemed (to me) much more diverse in terms of suppliers, and more intimate with your foods origins.

Pasta.

Breaking the alliterative trend here, Spaghetti is the hardest pasta for me to source plastic-free. I imagine that it’s hard to sell without it breaking, but given the simplicity of the ingredients I should really be better at this.

The challenge:

During Plastic Free July, I m going to try to find recipes that I can use to replace the commercial version. In this attempt I’ll seek to use historic recipes to try and recreate the foods that people would have eaten before plastic became quite so entrenched in our pantries. That might mean a Victorian recipe for crackers, a modern recipe for pasta, or a made-up recipe for crisps. But what it means is that I can reduce my waste further, and I can explore the recipes for food that comes from a time when more was made at home, and when plastic wasn’t everywhere.

Join me on instagram or Twitter with the hastag #plasticfreecookery. Food and recipes can be modern, vintage and historic in the spirit of togetherness and of fighting a modern problem that people lived for thousands of years without.