Growing up we had a rule that we weren’t allowed to mention Christmas until Halloween was over. This was a way for my parents to maintain a little extra sanity even as the toy ads and shops’ Christmas decorations came out at the tail end of the summer holidays. We never needed a similar rule about Halloween, but if we had I imagine it would have been opposed to celebrating in September.


Nonetheless, partly inspired by a recent episode of the Great British Bake Off, and partly as a way to introduce my new bride to some more of her adopted Irish culture, I decided to make a barmbrack today. This dried-fruit–based teacake is closely associated with Halloween in Ireland. In my own experience a brack contains a ring that’s supposed to bring good luck to the person who finds it, but according to Wikipedia the tradition involves the brack containing a selection of objects which predict different types of future events for the finder, not all of them positive:

In the barnbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Other articles added to the brack include a medallion, usually of the Virgin Mary to symbolise going into the priesthood or to the Nuns, although this tradition is not widely continued in the present day.

I don’t much like the idea of an unhappy marriage or bad luck, and having spent a hefty amount on being wed this year I’m not about to jump at the chance of doing that again any time soon. I do happen to have a shiny sixpence, so after appropriate cleaning (and wrapping it in baking parchment) that went in the mix.

I got the recipe from Edible Ireland, though there are recipes all over the web. I chose that one because I liked the introduction that went with it:

I have a friend who used to work in the famous Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street in Dublin years ago. She told me once about about the letters they got around this time of year, usually from tourists who had bought a loaf of barmbrack in the store to take back home with them. The people writing the letters were concerned that they’d found a ring in their bread, with one person saying they’d had it appraised and another one joking that they were relieved they hadn’t also found the finger that came with the ring. Most people sent the ring back.


On learning to cook

When I wrote about Lift I mentioned that one of my new habits I’m trying to establish is to cook dinner regularly. I’m never going to manage to do it every day, but it’s something I’m working at getting better at. It’s the type of skill the kind of guy I’d like to be is good at.

For a few months I’ve been slowly teaching myself to cook using Tim Ferriss’s “The 4-Hour Chef“. Ferriss is a divisive guy. Some people think he and his series of “4-Hour”-brand books are essentially a scam. The titles certainly have the air of the worst of the self-help section[1. “Teach yourself Japanese in 6 easy lessons”], and maybe some of the criticisms are valid.

On balance though I’d say that there’s a high enough density of useful advice and plain old inspiration to make his writing worthwhile. If nothing else, I’ve cooked a few of his recipes and got some good meals out of them. That’s more of a practical outcome than you’ll get from the bad self-help authors Ferriss is sometimes lumped in with. I also find him entertaining, which is important for any book that’s pushing up against 700 pages. Your tastes may vary.

The big advantage of “The 4-Hour Chef” for me is that it’s not just a recipe book. It’s a teaching book. Every recipe introduces the equipment and techniques that it requires, without assuming any prior knowledge. They start out simple and build up to more difficult dishes as you gain the skills you need to prepare each one. Every dish introduces one or two new techniques for you to add to your repertoire, with an explicit focus on making it as difficult as possible to mess up.

This progressive approach isn’t without its drawbacks. It makes it problematic to skip any recipes, which is an issue if a dish calls for ingredients you can’t get or equipment you don’t have. I’ve had a couple of long delays to my progress while I waited for kitchenware to arrive from Amazon, not wanting to move on until I’ve successfully prepared each dish. Still, you have to walk before you can run, and you have to scramble an egg before you can make a soufflé.

The most important lesson I’ve learned though is a meta-lesson: learning doesn’t come for free. It’s not a matter of making a series of successful meals until you get to the end and suddenly you’re a great cook. Sometimes you’ll mess up; sometimes your ingredients will differ from what’s called for in some small but important way; and sometimes the food gods are just in a bad mood.

In these cases you just fall back on a phone and a take-out menu, and try to figure out what you can do differently next time. New skills are acquired through experience, and experience, typically, is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

Yesterday I messed up almost every part of a sous-vide chicken with dinosaur kale. And I don’t care. Because a couple of weeks ago I was eating take-out while a botched rib-eye sat in the bin beside me, and a few days later I cooked the best damn steak I’ve ever eaten.

International dining etiquette

There’s an interesting piece on MSNBC Travel summarizing a few international rules for dining. It contains some familiar ones, like don’t eat with your left hand in India, or don’t order a cappuccino after noon in Italy. Actually that one isn’t such a problem. Italians are pretty happy to just flat out ignore you if you do ask for a cappuccino in the afternoon. It’s sometimes fun to order a decaf one, just to see how they react. And if you’re especially brave, order a tall decaf frappuccino. Just don’t blame me if you get hurt.

There are a couple of recommendations in the article that I should already know but didn’t. Apparently in Thailand the fork is used for putting food on the spoon, not for putting food in your mouth. I eat Thai food all the time and I never knew this.

There’s one tip in there that I didn’t know but which makes a lot of sense. In Georgia (I assume the country, not the state) it’s expected that you drink a glass of wine in one go instead of sipping. I think I know why this is. In my experience Georgian wine is terrible, like drinking super-sweetened garbage water, so if you ever find yourself in a position where you’re expected to drink it you really want to get it over with as quickly as possible.