The F Words: Miriam Blocker

the f words

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Miriam. You might have noticed that Miriam and I share a last name; she's married, you see, to my little brother, and is a seriously amazing lady. She studied at the University of Edinburgh, where she managed a theater over the summers (where, it happens, she met said little brother), then moved here to the States to join my wacky family. Her parents, both Anglican priests, still live in Manchester, but are Dutch (mom) and American (dad) by birth. That said, Miriam still managed to develop a very English taste for Christmas pudding, something she got me to try exactly once. The apple cake she shares below is a bit more my speed---though I it's likely I just didn't pour enough brandy sauce on that pudding . . . Tell us a bit about your day job. I develop and manage marketing campaigns for new luxury residential developments in New York.

How did you learn to cook? I learned a lot from my mum---she cooked almost every day when we were growing up, and she’s good at it, too.  My dad has a few things he likes to cook---including his 1-bottle-of-wine-for-the-pot-2-for-the-table fondue---that I’ve picked up along the way.  I learned to bake with family friends, making particularly English recipes like Christmas pudding and Victoria sponges.  When I got to university, I started to cook with my friends and I learned a lot from them, particularly as many of them were much more confident and would throw elaborate (Ten course! Themed! Costumed!) dinner parties or combine ingredients I’d never have thought of (sometimes heard of).  And I am definitely still learning---since I moved to the US I’ve been working on perfecting cornbread, chili, apple pies, picking up tips from family and friends and Ina Garten (among others).

Do you prefer to cook alone, or with friends and family? I really like the idea of cooking with friends and family, and with a few select people it can work out, but I think I am best suited to cooking alone.  I often like things done a particular way, and our tiny Manhattan kitchen can make it all a little too cozy unless you are really comfortable with your cooking partner.  But when it does work it’s wonderful.  And I always like someone to check the seasoning.

What's your favorite thing to make? I love making pizza.  And ice cream.  They are easy once you’ve got down a good basic recipe (dough, custard) and then you can tinker around endlessly with the toppings and flavours.  And some delicious combinations have happened by chance because of ingredients I happened to have in the house, like whiskey and stem ginger ice cream.

I also love making curry.  It’s such a different set of ingredients than I usually use, and it is incredibly comforting to have a pot stewing on the stove.  It reminds me of home---my mum cooks great lentil curries, and Manchester’s famous Curry Mile is down the road from where I grew up---and of traveling in India with my best friend. We spent a day in Udaipur learning to cook, making real chai tea with whole cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods, vegetable curry with the Chunky Chat masala the local's swore by, and chapatis.

If you had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of your life, which would it be? Probably Italian---you just can’t beat a big bowl of pasta and cheese.  And pizza, of course.  And gelato.

What recipe, cuisine or technique scares the crap out of you? I was vegetarian from the age of 10 until just after I left university, so my formative years as a cook were meatless ones and I never really learned how to cook meat or fish.  I am still intimidated by recipes that require elaborate (frankly, often even embarrassingly basic) techniques.  And I am not really much help when it comes to preparing my husband’s annual clambake birthday dinner (another quintessentially American meal)---sure, I can peel potatoes and shuck corn, but I am helpless in the face of 10 live lobsters that need a sharp knife to the head.  I just tend to shout words of encouragement from the other side of the room (specifically, "Go, Meg, you can do it!").

How do you think your relationships with your family have affected your relationship to food and cooking? My immediate family ate together nearly every day growing up, so food was an integral part of those family relationships.  It just seems such a normal, and important, part of family life, and so natural to want to cook for and share food with people you care about.

Even today, home cooking is strongly associated with women’s traditional place in the family and society. How do you reconcile your own love of the kitchen with your outlook on gender roles? For me at least, cooking is a choice and not something that is expected (or required) of me by others because I’m a woman.  And being a proficient cook is no longer tied in the same way to a woman’s identity as a woman, to whether you are an ‘ideal’ woman or ‘good’ wife, so I can enjoy cooking without that pressure.  Which doesn’t mean that burden to cook now falls equally between men and women, but there are a lot of couples I know where the man does more the cooking than the woman.  Also, the kitchen at home when I was growing up was well-stocked with tea towels proclaiming "A Woman's Place is in the House. Of Bishops" as my mum was campaigning for the ordination of women in the Church of England, which was a good reminder not to get too caught up in traditional gender roles.

Tell us a bit about the recipe you’re sharing. When did you first make it, and why? What do you love about it? This is my mum’s Dutch Apple Cake recipe.  This is the one exception she acknowledges to her assertion that she can’t bake (which I don’t think is true anyway).  I’ve been helping her make this for as long as I can remember, and I requested it for dessert on my birthday almost every year.  Though my mum is Dutch, this isn’t a longstanding family recipe (I think it comes from the Katie Stewart cookbook) but it is now committed to memory, and hopefully will be a family recipe going forward.  It’s light, not too sweet, and it goes really well with ice cream, homemade or otherwise.

Miriam's Mum's Dutch Apple Cake This is a European recipe, so measurements are by weight, not volume. (You need a kitchen scale if you don't have one, anyway!)

For the cake 6 oz. self rising flour 1 level tsp. baking powder Pinch of salt 3 oz. caster (superfine) sugar 1 egg 6 tbs. milk 2 tbs. neutral oil (sunflower if possible)

For the topping 1 lb. cooking apples (Braeburns or Granny Smiths work well) 1 oz. melted unsalted butter 2 oz. caster (superfine) sugar 1/2 level tsp. ground cinnamon

Heat the oven to 400F. Grease a 9” inch tin (or 12” and reduce the cooking time slightly).

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl and stir in the sugar.  Blend the egg with the milk and oil in a separate bowl then pour into the flour mixture. Mix together with a wooden spoon, then beat well for one minute until batter is smooth. Spoon mixture into the prepared tin and spread level.

Peel, core, quarter and thinly slice the apples. Spread the melted butter over the cake batter using a pastry brush.  Arrange the apple slices over the surface of the cake, inserting them on their side (curved side up) into the batter in a circle, pointing out from the centre to the edge (like spokes on a bike, only packed tightly).

Mix the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle this over the apples.  Place in the center of the pre-heated oven and bake for 35 minutes.  Allow to cool in the tin for two minutes.

Serve hot or cold, as-is or with cream or ice cream.