…turns out it’s mostly about food!
At the start of South Africa’s level 5 lockdown back in March 2020, it was clear that there was going to have to be a shift from me trying to be more outgoing as was the case for so many people throughout this pandemic. We would be “stuck” at home for what I assumed would be far longer than the proposed three weeks. I’m ok with staying home, especially here, and I recognise my privilege in having choice and security in those choices. We have space – SOOOO much space – and an income we can rely on for some time. For me, managing my mental and physical health became a question more of what to do with the time. I wouldn’t be able to arrange meetings with friends or go out mooching for some time. My initial thought was that I would essentially focus on a bit of reading and ‘finishing Netflix’. What happened, though, was unexpected in that I found myself actually getting quite restless – physically. We bought paint and finally made this place ‘our own’, but what to do once the painting was finished? I had been letting my workout routine lapse a little, so I took it up more concertedly, helping to stave off the ‘lockdown excess’. This was necessary, given that I’d decided that baking would now be something else I could work on. We are fortunate in that both my husband and I are decent cooks. He does almost all the day-to-day cooking, while I initially contributed by baking breakfast muffins and the odd cake as a treat. Now, almost a year on, tea and cake has become a daily marker and I am far more experimental in general.
On our last meal out together, my husband and I went to a well-known steak chain for a meal. I’m a fan of a nice cheesecake, and it’s almost always something that draws my eye on a restaurant menu. However, in South Africa, I’ve often been disappointed to find that coconut Tennis biscuits are often used in the base of cheesecakes. I cannot tolerate coconut these days – a physical reaction, not just my dislike of the flavour and texture – so I had become accustomed to checking before ordering. This was the worst response I’d had, though. The waiter assured me that no coconut was used, having spoken with the kitchen/management staff, so I was quite upset when this turned out to be incorrect. Worse – the manager insisted that there was no coconut and offered to show me the recipe. I took him up and immediately pointed out that they were clearly using a coconut biscuit in their base! “Well, what else am I supposed to use, eh?” was his grumped response. I couldn’t resist, “Hmmm… ginger biscuits, digestives, maybe?”. The tip was meagre, suffice to say, and we apologised to the waiter that his manager’s attitude had affected our experience but slipped him a discreet ‘extra’ to make up for it.
Anyway, lockdown, I decided, would give me the opportunity to seek out and develop my own baked cheesecake recipe – guaranteed coconut-free. We also happened to have a glut of lemons in our garden, so my first attempt was a baked lemon and blueberry cheesecake using a ginger biscuit base. I started out trying to find recipes from South African cooks – figuring that I would be more likely to find them working with locally available ingredients. UK friends: I am yet to find a reliable source for low-fat crème fraiche! Eventually, I found what looked to be an interesting recipe from Zola Nene – a blueberry swirl cheesecake with a ginger biscuit base. My first attempt ended up being an approximation, mainly because it used a lot of full fat cream cheese and I wanted to finish up some lower fat alternatives we only used occasionally. I found out that quark is just fat free smooth cottage cheese (easy to find in our local Pick n Pay supermarket) and decided to use that to replace some of the full fat cream cheese. It is sloppier, so my first attempt was a little too wet by the time we got to the end (with only two of us eating it, it lasted about a week!), but it worked. I experimented after that until I ended up with a fairly settled recipe – a mishmash of so many other recipes I forget! Anyway, after several weeks of lockdown cheesecake, even the home workouts weren’t helping and I was grateful when the lockdown regulations were eased to allow outdoor exercise. We took up running and haven’t (quite) looked back.
Experimenting with something as tricky as the cheesecake gave me more confidence to experiment elsewhere and eventually, I jumped onto the banana bread bandwagon. Hearing Diane Morgan recommending Nigella’s coffee banana bread on the radio one morning, I went in search of the recipe. Instead, I found a banana gingerbread recipe. It was one the author admitted that had been adapted from a Nigella recipe, so I gave it a shot. It was lovely – a nice moist, Christmassy-inspired cake, but I couldn’t help feeling it needed “something”. My husband has a nut allergy, so that was immediately ruled out. I tried adding some sunflower seeds, which was nice but not quite what I was looking for. Instead, I opted for a boozy mixed fruit option, which I’d seen in a Mary Berry and another Nigella cake. Both of those take some rum (we were still in the alcohol sales ban then, but had some brandy left over from last Christmas) and gently cook sultanas/raisins and allow them to soak up the booze. I have since taken a slower approach: I soak the fruit for two weeks or longer, transferring the leftover syrupy liquid from one batch to the next.
There is a certain ‘feel’ I think you can get for cooking and baking that comes partly with time, partly with practice and partly from being inquisitive. The best chefs are amazing inventors, putting so much time and effort into their craft, I was hesitant for so long to mess with their recipes. Surely, if it wasn’t working, it was my fault, right? Not necessarily, though. My trawling through recipes for new ideas has shown me that it isn’t heresy to ‘do your own thing’. I’ve often gone my own way, using ideas I’ve seen and adjusted for either what I’ve got in the cupboard or how I feel at the time, but I’ve almost never done it with my baking. In that regard, until the pandemic hit, I was a strictly ‘by the books’ baker. That is partly how the pandemic has changed me: I’ve adapted a few recipes this year, coming up with my own take on a couple of home-made ‘lighter’ Christmas puddings (again, taking the fruit-soaking approach which worked so well for the banana bread). One traditional pudding got soaked in brandy for the weeks leading up to Christmas. Another was an adapted ginger sponge pudding, which exploded out of the container while cooking (using the traditional steaming method – needs a slightly larger container than was available), but which was amazing otherwise!
A couple of times, experiments have worked rather too well, yielding far too many of Dorah Sithole’s chocolate beetroot cakes, for instance, for two people to get through in a week. The neighbours we have bonded with remotely through our lockdown humour very much appreciated the contribution, though. The biggest lockdown breach happened when they sent out a cry for “just a beer or two” when South Africa’s alcohol ban ticked into its third month. It kicked off my most experimental phase – making ginger beer with plain bread yeast rather than the recommended champagne or brewer’s yeast. I took the slow route, figuring that if I didn’t have the perfect yeast, it would be better simply to go for flavour in case the fermenting part didn’t work well. That turned out to be almost too successful, and when alcohol sales were reinstated, we still had a good few litres of boozy ginger beer to get through!
If all of this sounds like a fabulous triumph, then it leaves me to mention the very disappointing chocolate avocado frozen yoghurt experiment. That, I believe, was almost definitely one substitution too far. The original recipe called for coconut milk, which I replaced with yoghurt, but the avo was nowhere near ripe enough and overall, the flavours just didn’t come together. Part of me is convinced that it could still work, but I need to ruminate more on just how to ‘fix’ that recipe! I’m happy to share the actual recipes I have so far ‘tweaked’ if there’s enough interest, so feel free to message me if you’re interested – @nomthagawe on Twitter or Insta.