Tiny Things

This is Ruby, our new puppy. She’s tiny.

Tiny Ruby.

This is Floof, my sister’s dog (my nephew), when he was a puppy. He was also tiny. He’s still tiny.

Tiny Floof.

This is Benji, my mom’s dog, a few months ago. Tiny. 

Tiny Benji.

I bet everyone reading this went ‘aaaawwwww’. That’s because (a) my dogs are objectively the cutest dogs in the world, and (b) everything tiny is cute. ‘Small’ and ‘cute’ have almost become synonymous, and the conflation has even resulted in a new word: ‘smol’ – it’s ‘small’, but smaller and cuter.

Humans have long been drawn to small things. Japanese bonsai dates back over a thousand years, and is based on an even older form of miniaturising trees practised in China called Penjing. Some people in the 1600s decided that they wanted bonsai horses, so invented the miniature horse. Miniature horses were kept as pets in the upper echelons of society, not serving any purpose other than just to look cute. Around the same time, you might’ve been gifted a tiny portrait of your dinner party host as a kind of weird little useless memento. Miniature artists gained a lot of recognition in the 18th century, after getting the idea for miniature portraits from the small images in medieval illuminated manuscripts. In fact, the word miniature came to English from the Italian miniature, which in turn comes from Latin miniare (to illuminate), from minium (the red pigment used in the manuscripts). Even dollhouses – now seen as toys for children – were originally built for display purposes, for fully grown adults to flaunt all the tiny expensive things they had accumulated, or just for the sake of owning a miniscule version of one’s own house. Everyone from Queen Mary, to 1930s silent movie star Colleen Moore, to Britney Spears has dabbled in the world of “miniacs” (miniature fanatics). More recently, tiny houses have become a bit of A Thing in the USA. Sure, there’s the obvious advantages like being able to travel easily, not having to pay a mortgage, and being more easily off-grid. But I mean. Just look at them. They’re just so damn cute.

As children, my grandparents would take me and my cousins to what is (in retrospect) a pretty bizarre place: Santarama Miniland, in the south of Johannesburg. For some reason, we loved looking at lilliputian versions of the airport and the Hillbrow Tower and a cattle farm. Other non-tiny highlights included a large scary gorilla sculpture and a massive statue of Jan van Riebeeck. So there’s that. Anyway! Scientists have put forth many reasons for why humans like tiny things: we like things that look like baby mammals; we like to be in control and small things are more controllable than real-size things (creepy); we’re drawn to things that provide a lot of sensory stimulation in a little concentrated package; we like the idea of living in or out a fantasy, which is much more easily achieved on a smaller scale.

Like trees, horses, paintings, houses, and Johannesburg’s landmarks, food has not been overlooked in our quest to miniaturise everything. Mini Oreos, mini Marie biscuits, mini pizzas, mini bottles of alcohol, mini scones, mini croissants, mini doughnuts. Nothing is safe from being shrunk. Which, I mean, is totally fine because – I repeat – they’re just so damn cute. Online food content empire Tastemade has a whole series – Tiny Kitchen – of videos of regular-sized human hands painstakingly making miniature versions of various dishes so small they’re inedible. Everything from sushi to chocolate eclairs have received the tiny treatment. Tiny Kitchen’s YouTube channel have over 170 000 subscribers and the videos all receive almost as many views, despite not actually providing actual recipes nor showing the production of realistically consumable food. It’s just tiny for the sake of being tiny.

It would seem the last thing the world needs is yet another small-scale version of something. But the number of tiny things floating around in the world seems to be increasing, while the objects become ever more microscopic, people’s appetites for these lilliputian creations is doing anything but shrinking. It’s therefore my duty as a human being and tiny thing enthusiast (I can’t get enough of little dogs on Instagram) to add to the gargantuan canon of weensy wares. I’ve made three tiny versions of things: tiny chocolate pies/tarts, tiny spiced apple and honey pies, and tiny citrus Bundt cakes. They aren’t small enough that they fit snugly alongside other things of their ilk, but are not too microscopic that you can’t comfortably eat them. If you don’t have small tart tins or Bundt pans, you can make them in a cupcake tin or in a regular-sized tin.

To make the pastry for the chocolate and apple pies:

This is the best and most versatile pastry dough recipe: it can be freezed, it takes minutes, it can be used in savoury things (omit the sugar), and it’s extremely easy to work with. It’s based on Molly Yeh’s pastry dough recipe.

2 ½ cups flour

1 Tbsp granulated sugar

½ tsp salt

225g unsalted butter, cubed and cold

90ml cold water

1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar

Put the water and vinegar into a bowl or jug and stick in the freezer for a few minutes while you do the rest. Put the flour, sugar, salt, and butter into a food processor and pulse until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Drizzle in the cold water and vinegar while pulsing until a dough forms. You can also do this by hand. Tip the dough out onto a sheet of cling wrap, wrap up tightly, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. 

To make the apple pies:

4 granny smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped into 1cm pieces

2 ½ Tbsp honey

1 Tbsp sugar

Juice of half a lemon

½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp ground cardamom

¼ tsp ground ginger

Half of the above pastry dough recipe

15g unsalted butter, cut into tiny cubes

Egg wash: 1 egg beaten with a tablespoon of water

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the apple pieces, honey, sugar, lemon juice, and spices into a bowl and mix well to combine. The apples should all be coated in the lovely spicy liquid. Set aside while you prep the pastry. Grease your pie tin(s). Roll out a thin (about 3mm thick) round of pastry a bit bigger than the circumference of the tin. Gently press it into the tin so it fits in nicely and comes up and over the sides. Pop into the freezer for 3 minutes. Spoon in a generous portion of the apple mixture, and drizzle over a couple of tablespoons of the juices. Dot some of the butter over the top, then pop on the lid (you can do a lattice or just put over a solid circle and cut a little air slit in the top). Put the pie(s) in the freezer for 10 minutes, then brush with egg wash and bake for about 20 minutes (the pies should have an internal temperature of about 90C).

To make the chocolate tarts/pies:

I can’t decide whether these are tarts or pies. My colonial South African sensibilities are urging me to politely call them tarts. But they really are thick, puddingy, sweet and ‘Murican enough to be called pies. Either way, they’re super good and super easy.

Half of the above pastry dough recipe 

½ cup castor sugar

¼ cup cornflour 

Pinch of salt

1 ½ cups full cream milk

2 egg yolks

95g dark chocolate, finely chopped

½ tsp vanilla extract

15g unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 200C. To make the pie crust, roll out rounds of dough slightly bigger than the circumference of the pie tin, then gently press in and trim to fit. Prick the base with a fork several times, line with baking paper and fill with baking beans, rice or dried beans and blind bake for 15-20 minutes until slightly golden. Remove the paper and the beans and bake for a further 5-10 minutes until golden and crisp. Set aside until cooled completely.

To make the filling, put the sugar, cornflour, salt, milk, and egg yolks into a medium sized pot. Stir until combined, then heat over a medium heat – stirring continuously – until thick like custard. This will take a while – 8 minutes or so. Once it’s thick and bubbling, remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate, vanilla, and butter. Pour into the crust(s) and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

To make the citrus Bundt cakes:

This is based on a Jamie Oliver recipe. It’s unbelievably easy and yields a cake that’s light and floral. This also bakes up really nicely in cupcake form. Double the recipe for a regular Bundt cake.

185g unsalted butter, softened

185g castor sugar

185g self-raising flour

75g plain yoghurt

1 Tbsp tahini

3 eggs

Juice of 1 lemon

Juice of ½ orange

For the glaze:

1 pomegranate – save 2 Tbsp juice and the seeds

2 Tbsp lime juice

150g icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C. To make the cake, put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until a batter forms. Scrape into the Bundt tin(s)/cupcake pan and tap a few times on the counter. Bake for about 20 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Cool for just a few minutes before turning out of the tins onto a wire rack.

To make the glaze, whisk all the ingredients together until a thick but pourable glaze forms. Drizzle over the cooled Bundt cakes, then top with the pomegranate seeds.

Cats, pineapples, and I

We recently adopted a cat. She’s an all-white elegantly dainty little thing with a pretty pink nose and large topaz eyes. She had been left behind when her previous owners emigrated (rude, but good for us). Zoë (her name) is a pure-bred Turkish Angora cat, who – as a kitten – would have cost upwards of R10 000 (€522/$588/£470), Joy the cat rescuer tells us when we went to meet her. 

Zoë

Turkish Angoras and other equally ‘expensive’ cat breeds are bought because of this fact, like one would buy a Ferrari or a Rolex or, in 18th Century colonial America, a pineapple: as a masturbatory display of wealth and status.

Pineapples were ‘discovered’ (it clearly only counts if a white man does it) in South America in 1493 by Columbus, who ‘discovered’ many things, which led to a surge of desperate Northern Americans and Europeans trying to grow the tropical fruit in a distinctly un-tropical environment. The few smart cookies who worked out that you could mimic tropical conditions in a greenhouse cashed in big time. In the 1700s in America, if you had a spare $8000 (in today’s money) you could buy a pineapple to put in your house. It wasn’t just a pineapple, though – it might as well have been a sign saying “I have money, bitches”. If you weren’t lucky enough to afford to buy a pineapple, you could rent one to adorn your arm at parties, like a spiky escort. And if you were super cool, you could even build yourself a pineapple-shaped house.

I’m Charles II and I have a pineapple na-nana-na-na, oil on canvas, c. 1675

Food has long been inextricably linked to wealth and status. The presence of sugar (which at one point cost 6 minutes of a slave’s life) in a household was a sufficient indication of that family’s wealth. Salt has been used as currency, in ritual sacrificial offerings, and as part of a soldier’s wages (the word salary comes from the Latin word for salt salarium); the Austrian city of Salzburg (literally ‘salt castle’) is named after the area’s greatest source of income; and if you are the ‘salt of the earth’ or ‘worth your salt’, you are doing quite well. And my privilege at being able to order extra avo on the side of my breakfast (at R30 for a quarter of an avocado) does not elude me.

It’s snobbery that drives one to purchase an expensive cat, just as it’s snobbery that supports the entire French patisserie industry (why else would you spend so much something so sickly-sweet? I’m looking at you, macaroons – PARDON – macarons). It’s also snobbery that fuels language prescriptivists. Those grammar police who just wait for you to leave your participles dangling, or say “John and me” instead of “John and I” so they can pounce. The purists who think slang and colloquialisms are debased forms of a language, and start twitching when the Oxford English Dictionary adds words like “twerk” and “lol” and “tweet”. Language is inherently flexible and needs to evolve (that’s why we don’t all speak Proto-Indo-European), because maybe people are this way too (that’s why we don’t all crawl around on all fours or have pineapples on our mantlepieces). Something expensive isn’t necessarily better because it is so (except butter is always better than margarine and I will die on this hill so don’t fight me). So eat your German pastries because they taste better than the French ones despite not being as pretty, adopt your pavement special kitten because it needs a home and not because you can wank about it to your friends, and for god’s sake stop saying “it’s John and I” whenever you get the chance (you can scroll down for a preachy diatribe on this, if you’re interested).

For the recipe accompanying this rant (lol soz), I have chosen another stalwart of the food snobbery world, and requisite at any la-di-dah high tea: the scone. This is based on my great-grandmother Evelyn’s recipe for scones, which was rife with un-snobbish substitutes necessary for a working class lass in post-war England (like vegetable oil, instead of butter). I have overhauled the recipe into something decidedly snobbier than my great-gran’s ration-friendly version, but hope this is offset by my “whack it in a food processor and cut into squares” approach.

Alyssa’s re-snobbified version of Evelyn’s de-snobbified scones

4 cups flour

6 tsp baking powder (or use 4 cups of self-raising flour and omit the baking powder)

2 Tbsp castor sugar

Pinch of salt

110g unsalted butter (or salted, but omit the additional salt), cold and cubed 

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup of milk mixed with 1 Tbsp vinegar (or 1 cup buttermilk)

Put the flour, baking powder, sugar and butter into a food processor and whizz until crumbly. It should be mostly sand-like with the occasional little butter blob. Pour in the eggs and milk and pulse until a dough forms. Don’t be tempted to pulse any longer. Tip the dough out onto a floured surface, dust the top with more flour, pat into a rectangle, then roll out until 2,5-3cm thick. Use a sharp knife to cut into 12 squares (3×4) – this prevents you from having to re-roll the dough, which can result in tough scones. Arrange the squares on a lined baking tray and bake at 200C for 10-13 minutes, until puffy and lightly golden. Serve warm with strawberry jam, lemon curd and whipped cream. They will keep in an airtight container for a couple of days, but leftovers are unlikely.

Lemon curd (adapted from Nancy Birtwhistle’s recipe because she can do no wrong)

Lightly whisk 4 eggs in a pot, then add in 150g castor sugar, 100g cubed unsalted butter, a tiny pinch of salt, and the zest and juice of two lemons. Place on a medium-low heat and whisk continuously until everything melts and the mixture thickens. I like a very smooth curd so I strained it into a glass container before popping in the fridge.

A rant about “and I”, which is validated by the fact that I am a linguist and not just an angry anti-grammar-police-police

Thanks for reading this far! Here’s why you can definitely say “and me” whenever you damn well please:

In prescriptivist English (i.e. the English that people say you should speak), you use “I” when it is the subject and “me” when it is the object.

I am hungry.

*Me am hungry. (the asterisk means this construction is not used in the language, which is different from saying it shouldn’t be used in the language)

*He loves I.

He loves me.

And so:

John and I are hungry. (prescriptively correct)

John and me are hungry. (prescriptively incorrect, but used)

He is coming to meet John and I. (prescriptively incorrect, but used due to overcorrection)

He is coming to meet John and me. (prescriptively correct)

Following this rule, “John and me are hungry” and “He is coming to meet John and I” are ungrammatical. BUT people say them nonetheless. This is because the opposite of prescriptive language is descriptive language – in other words, if a speaker of a language uses that construction then it is an acceptable form in that language. Linguists seek to describe the language as it is spoken, regardless of what the prescriptive grammar books say. What this is indicative of is that we are currently in a weird transition period where we are moving towards “John and me” over “John and I” in a few constructions, and so there is usage overlap, especially due to the overwhelming overcorrection to use “John and I” in all contexts. This happened a few decades ago with “whom”, which was fading out in favour of “who”, despite fervent attempts (by die-hard fans of case markers?) to preserve its usage. “Whom” is almost entirely gone now. It’s sad that my grandchildren will never get to see a “whom” in the wild. Just as it’s sad that I’ve never seen a “forsooth” or “thou” in the wild. You can read more about language changes in the time of coronavirus here.

Cardamom, Orange and White Chocolate Biscuits

There are some memes floating about on the internet that I take as a personal affront – just Google ‘cardamom meme’ to see what I’m talking about. Offending memes usually depict someone in pain with a caption indicating that the anguish has been caused by biting into a sneaky cardamom pod. This apparently irksome experience is actually one I have always sought out. There is little containing cardamom I wouldn’t eat (I am sure this will become ever more evident the further into this blogging business I go). In fact, I challenge anyone reading this to test my willingness to eat something cardamom-centric.

Cardamom is native to southern India, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. The spice is the seed pod of a large bush festooned with delicate white, deep pink, and yellow flowers. Introduced to Europe around 1300 BCE, cardamom was used by Ancient Greeks and Romans medicinally and in perfumes, but never quite achieved as illustrious a role in their cuisine as it did in India. In Scandinavia, however, cardamom quickly became a baking staple after it was allegedly brought there by Vikings returning from the Siege of Constantinople. Before the early 20th century, India led the cultivation of cardamom, but after a German plantation owner introduced the spice to South America, Guatemala quickly took over as the world’s biggest producer. Guatemalan cardamom still constitutes the greatest percentage of world production to this day, seemingly much to the chagrin of India’s cultivators (according to this very salty article in the Times of India).

The recipe below is an ode to one of my favourite sweet cardamom combinations: cardamom, white chocolate, and orange. These biscuits taste like all the best bits of an Indian sweet, with an extra dose of citrusy brightness from the orange zest. They are ridiculously easy to make as the use of a food processor eliminates the need for softened butter. I chose to go with circles of about 5cm in diameter, but this dough holds its shape beautifully when baking so the sky is the limit. I also topped mine with gold-leaf to be FancyTM, but this adds literally nothing to the overall taste. It is also worth noting that the yield of this recipe is extremely high. Like, you will have a heck of a lot of biscuits at the end. You’re welcome.

For the biscuits:

380g flour

½ tsp salt (leave this out if you use salted butter)

2 tsp baking powder

150g granulated sugar

½ Tbsp ground cardamom

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

225g butter, cubed

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

For the dipping chocolate:

300g white chocolate

½ tsp ground cardamom

To garnish:

Orange zest

Finely chopped pecans or pistachios

Sprinkles, or other decoration of choice

Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, sugar, cardamom, and zest in a food processor or large mixing bowl (if using an electric hand mixer). Add the butter and pulse until it becomes very well incorporated and looks like compact beach sand. This will take longer if you are not using a food processor, but persevere because it’ll be worth it in the end. Crack in the egg and pour in the vanilla, then pulse until it holds together. Tip the dough out onto a piece of greaseproof paper and gather all the straggly crumbly bits together. Cut the mass in half, then roll out each piece between two sheets of greaseproof paper until your desired thickness (I went with about 0.5cm). Slide the two flattened pieces of dough onto baking sheets and put them in the freezer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile heat the oven to 180C. Once the slabs of dough are frozen, cut out your shapes of choice and place on a lined baking sheet, with about 5cm between them. You can re-roll and cut the scraps quite easily. Freeze for 5 minutes before baking – this is important as it helps the biscuits maintain their shape. Bake for about 12-15 minutes (depending on the thickness) until they are golden and smell glorious. 

Once the biscuits are completely cool, prepare the chocolate for dipping: melt the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of simmering water, then stir in the ground cardamom. Remove from the heat and apply to the cooled biscuits in whatever way you please (dunk, drizzle, submerge, line, gild, enrobe, slather etc.), then decorate with chopped nuts, more orange zest, and sprinkles. Wait an hour or two for the chocolate to set before eating.

Enjoy!