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.

The Profound Comfort of Food

When I fell at school and scraped open my knee my teacher gave me a Marie biscuit while she called my mom to come fetch me. After the events of 9/11, supermarkets and restaurants in New York reported a spike in mashed potato sales. When I graduated with my Master’s degree, we celebrated with pancakes at Salvation Café in Joburg. In The Big Bang Theory, even socially-inept Sheldon understands that the correct thing to do when someone is upset is to bring them a hot beverage. When we finished the final kilometre of the 56km-long Whale Trail hike, we rewarded ourselves with Coke, pizza and ice cream. A Hindu blessing is not complete without a piece of sweet barfi. And even Jesus decided to be immortalised as a carbohydrate. For humans, food is used to comfort, to reward, to incentivise, to celebrate, to mourn, to ritualise.

Ruby Tandoh recently revived her wonderful Good Food Things series: lists of ordinary yet extraordinarily satisfying and enjoyable food-related experiences, which serve as a source of comfort and pleasure at a time so rife with worry and uncertainty. Tandoh emphasises the unfussy normalcy of these Good Food Things – floating ravioli, Nik Naks, a rediscovered snack, molten cheese – implying that ‘comfort food’ isn’t so much a criteria-driven category of food; rather, even the most insignificant and commonplace of food experiences can spark joy. The very banality of food is what is most reassuring about it. If you ask anyone what their idea of comfort food is, the answers are often overwhelmingly beige: cheesy, carby, creamy, eggy. One’s comfort food declarations are often accompanied by some sort of justification – “my grandmother made this”, “we always have this for Iftar”, “I’m embarrassed by how British it is”, “it sounds gross but I promise you it’s good”. We choose comfort foods in part for what they contain – often serotonin-producing things like sugar, fat, and starch take centre stage – but also because of the associated nostalgia. 

First appearing in a 1966 article on childhood obesity, under the callously succinct headline ‘Sad Child May Overeat’, the term “comfort food” referred to the fatty, starchy meals eaten by sad, lonely children to make them feel better about being sad and lonely. This reductive view of the powers of food neglects the comforting role of food in a world increasingly characterised by the voluntary and involuntary movement of people. Food is the easiest thing to cling to for members of diasporas, and so is often the most meaningful aspect of a culture. It is inherently political. It makes sense: even without displacement, most cultures of the world use food in celebration and ritual, placing an importance on certain food that transcends just basic nourishment. For the white American, tacos and enchiladas are the best kind of TexMex. But for the Mexican immigrant, it’s a cruelly ironic bastardisation of home. For me, challah recipes are cool because they always make two loaves, but to Jewish people this has religious and historical significance that I and my secular greed don’t appreciate. Comfort food means childhood, nostalgia, memory, but it also means culture, heritage, belonging, and identity.

My personal choices when it comes to comfort food are therefore predictable: things associated with important people in my life, my childhood, and my heritage. My Greek-Egyptian grandmother’s unfussy spaghetti with butter and salt, slightly crispy on the bottom, which leaves you with a greasy chin and a beaming tummy. Or my English gran’s tuna pasta – slightly overcooked penne, with bechamel sauce and tinned tuna – which is obscenely squelchy but tastes of happiness. My Xhosa nanny’s phuthu pap, eaten hot with crunchy sugar and cold milk, which tastes of love and a bit of sadness that she’s gone (and echoes centuries of black women mothering white children). My best friend’s mom’s crunchy potato tahdig, heaped onto a plate and only half-jokingly fought over at the table, which tastes of indestructible friendship and adopted family. My boyfriend’s mother’s masala tea, which he now recreates almost flawlessly at home, which tastes of love, acceptance and excitement for the future. My mom’s hummus, eaten with everything imaginable, which is one of the first things I learned to make on my own. Greek stuffed vegetables; Spanish paella cooked by my grandfather over the fire at family events; slices of bread, slathered in tomato sauce, loaded with cheese and grilled until melty by my dad on a Sunday evening to curb the pre-Monday blues; Five Roses tea, with milk and half a sugar (ideally made by someone else) for dunking Marie biscuits and Ouma rusks; croissants and rooibos cappuccinos after Parkrun, even if they take an hour to arrive at the table; and about a hundred other things – all personal, all delightful, all happy.

Phuthu pap

2½ cups water

Pinch of salt

2½ cups mielie meal

Sugar, to taste

Milk, optional

Bring the water and salt to the boil, then pour in the mielie meal and don’t stir it. If that goes against your culinary sensibilities, you may give the pot a bit of a wobble. Turn down the heat, pop the lid on, and simmer for 5 minutes. You may now breathe a sigh of relief and stir everything together, then cover again and steam over a veeeery low heat for about 30 minutes, occasionally fluffing it up with a spoon or fork, until cooked through and crumbly. Scoop into bowls and serve with your favoured combination of milk and sugar. I like lots of cold milk and a little bit of sugar, while my sister likes it dry with lots of sugar.

Yaya’s pasta with butter

Spaghetti

Salted butter

Salt and pepper

That’s it

Boil the spaghetti until al dente. Drain, then return to the pan. Add in as much butter as your little heart desires, then stir over a high heat until some of it catches at the bottom (I was never sure if my gran intended for this to happen, but it is Absolutely Necessary). Grind on some salt and pepper. Watch Anastasia and be happy.

The Ubiquity of Oat Biscuits

It was recently Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand, which was brought to my attention by a surge in the number of Instagram posts prominently featuring oat biscuits. Anzac biscuits are eggless oat biscuits that were historically made by the wives of Australian and New Zealander (what’s the adjective?) soldiers fighting in World War I. This little nugget of commonwealth history, naturally, got me to thinking about oats – a staple ingredient in porridge, biscuits, and even some beer – and just how multitudinous the variety of oat biscuits we humans have available to us is. Everyone from self-proclaimed (and who am I to argue) domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, to Ottolenghi and Mary Berry, from Milk Bar (a symbol of American decadence), to Martha Stewart has a recipe for some sort of oat biscuit. Queen Elizabeth II is also apparently partial to an oat biscuit for breakfast, and a version is also an ol’ faithful from my mom’s side of the family (more on that later). 

Oats have been cultivated all over Europe for thousands of years, but from the 17th century, they became a symbol of Scotland. Barley production in the country declined fairly rapidly to make way for the more versatile and longer-lasting oat – the derided staple grain of the barley-and-wheat-eating Englanders’ inferior neighbours. Samuel Johnson, in a disparaging entry in his 1755 dictionary, defined oats as ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ from which ‘tolerable good bread’ can be made.

The entry on oats in Samuel Johnson’s catchily-titled ‘A dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers to which are prefixed, history of the language, and an English grammar: in two volumes.’

Scots must have taken their version of an oat biscuit (called an oatcake) with them to newly-expropriated North America. The first documented recipe for an oat biscuit in the USA (where oatmeal cookies are now the country’s fifth favourite cookie) appeared in 1896, in a voluminous recipe compendium compiled by the rather unfortunately named Fannie Farmer. The recipe appears on page 406 (!!) of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, and does not contain raisins – a fact highlighted by a few American oatmeal cookie fanatics who despair at the unfair classification of this biscuit as a health food. Raisins were only introduced to oatmeal biscuit recipes almost a decade later on the packaging of Quaker Oats, a leading American brand of oat-y products. 

Fannie Farmer’s 1896 recipe for oatmeal cookies.

As a child, one of the biscuits in my English gran’s biscuit repertoire most favoured by me and my cousins was what we called Quaker Oats Biscuits. I understood this to mean that these were oat biscuits originally made by Quakers. This made sense: my gran was from England, Quakers were from England (according to a novel I’d read), oat biscuits seemed decidedly English in their homely deliciousness, and I was only familiar with South African Jungle Oats (not American Quaker Oats). It took me 25 years to figure out my mistake. So here’s my gran’s recipe for Quaker Oats Biscuits, which involve neither Quakers nor Quaker Oats, but are nevertheless an important addition to the plethora of other oat biscuit recipes floating around the interwebs and elsewhere. The only amendments I’ve made to the original recipe is the use of butter over margarine, a slight reduction in the amount of sugar, and the addition of a bit of salt.

1 cup flour

1 cup oats (Jungle Oats, Quaker Oats, rolled oats, etc.)

½ tsp salt

¾ cup sugar (brown or white)

125g unsalted butter

1 tbsp golden syrup (or honey)

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda, dissolved in 1 tbsp hot water

Preheat the oven to 180C. Combine the flour, oats, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Melt the butter with the syrup in a saucepan over a low heat. Once the butter has melted completely, pour it into the dry ingredients along with the bicarb and water mixture. Stir everything together until well-combined – there should be no visible flour, and all the oats should be slightly moistened. Set aside to cool for a couple of minutes while you line two or three baking sheets with baking paper. Scoop out about a heaped tablespoon of mixture, roll it into a ball with your hands, then set it down on a baking tray and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Keep going with the rest of the mixture, until you have transformed it all into lovely little pats of buttery, oaty deliciousness. Make sure to leave a good few centimetres between each biscuit. Bake for 12-14 minutes until deep golden.

Note: the photographs in this post were taken by Kabir Dhupelia.