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I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked recently. It’s a fascinating book not least because it allows you to drop sentences like ‘I was reading about some cheese-making nuns earlier’ into your conversation.

It’s part-history, part-scientific explanation of why we cook the way that we do. It’s loosely structured around the four elements – fire, water, air and earth – which are aligned with four different cooking techniques – barbecue, braising, bread-making and fermentation of various kinds (from pickles to beer).

It is less didactic than some of Pollan’s other books (not that I find him particularly didactic but then, he is probably preaching to the converted. Saying that, I’ve also been reading Jay Rayner’s A Greedy Man in a Hungry World: How (almost) everything you thought you knew about food is wrong which has some interesting counter-arguments and alternative viewpoints about the state of the global food economy) but reading it has totally transformed the way I think about cooking.

I’m one of those people who likes to understand things. I love the moment of clarity when you finally ‘get’ something whether it’s a tricky mathematical concept or simply just ‘whodunit’ in Broadchurch. If you tell me the reasoning behind a rule, I will happily obey it (providing that I don’t fundamentally disagree with the reasoning of course).

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What I feel like Cooked has done is to provide me with that understanding of what happens when you roast a piece of meat over an open fire or gently sweat an onion in pan with a touch of olive oil. I know more about why flavours and textures develop in the way that they do and how to apply those lessons to everything that I cook.

The onion is a good example, actually. I “knew” how you were supposed to cook an onion for a stew or a braise or a sauce – over a low temperature for a lot longer than you’d think until it was soft and glistening but I rarely bothered. It seemed like such a waste of time. Because I know what is happening when you cook it now, I understand why it does make a difference and I make the time to do it properly.

The subtitle of the book, A Natural History of Transformation, sums up to me the very essence of cooking. The fact that you can make bread by the judicious use of a little heat (and time) from flour and water is nothing short of miraculous. The discovery of how to cook – how to generate more energy from what can be found on the land – has had the most profound effect on the development of the human race. Without it, I wouldn’t be sat at my desk right now, typing these words, watching as another skyscraper springs up on the other side of the river.

All of which is to say that cooking is pretty magical really isn’t it?

There is something about baking a cake which seems to be the most magical of all transformations. It is so unprepossessing – a quick whisk of flour, sugar, eggs and some kind of fat into a sloppy batter. It’s hard to reconcile that with the dome that comes out of the oven 15 minutes later, firm to the touch and doubled in size as the bubbles of air inside expand in the heat.

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I roasted a pan of strawberries in a drizzle of honey and a splash of balsamic vinegar, watching as the berries shrank and shriveled in the heat. The skin of the strawberries darkened to a purple hue as the water evaporated leaving behind a concentrated and intense strawberry flavour.

And then, there is the whole business of making a meringue. How the egg whites and sugar transform from a puddle to a light and fluffy mound, those stiff peaks that mean you can turn the bowl upside down without accident.

Of course, cooking is a whole lot more than a series of mechanical processes. However much you might be transfixed by the transformative powers of your oven, sitting down and eating will always be as, if not more, important.

I made these cupcakes for a picnic a couple of weeks ago to celebrate a friend’s birthday. We sat by a lake on a sunny Sunday afternoon, drinking champagne cocktails from plastic flutes and reminiscing. We’ve had many picnics together in the ten years or so since we all became friends at university. We don’t see each other as much as we should. Our lives have gone in very different directions. But the fact that we can all come together from time to time, to eat cupcakes and to laugh, is more magical than anything else.

~

Olive oil cupcakes with roasted strawberry meringue buttercream

Cupcakes slightly adapted from Glorious Treats

Frosting slightly adapted from Martha Stewart

Yield: Makes about 30 

Swiss meringue buttercream is one of those things that always seemed excessively complicated but it’s really not, particularly if you have a thermometer and a stand mixer. It’s much less sweet than normal frosting and has such a lovely soft and fluffy texture; it works really well the depth of flavour from the roasted strawberries, heightened by a touch of balsamic vinegar. For an excellent guide to making swiss meringue buttercream, you can’t do better than this post from Rosie. This is also a fairly good basic cupcake recipe – light and moist because of the yoghurt and olive oil but sturdy enough to take whatever you want to throw at it. Next time, I’m going to use ground almonds (or, even better, ground pistachios) in place of some of the flour. 

For the cupcakes:
  • 315g (2 1/2 cups) white spelt flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda/bicarbonate of soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 335 (1 1/2 cups) golden caster sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
  • 240ml (1 cup) extra virgin olive oil
  • 225g (1 cup) plain yoghurt

For the buttercream:

  • 400g (4 cups) strawberries
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 4 egg whites
  • 225g (1 cup) sugar (I used white sugar so that the buttercream remained pink)
  • 450g (a little under 3 sticks) unsalted butter, a little cooler than room temperature, cut into cubes
  • A pinch of salt

First of all, roast your strawberries for the buttercream. Preheat the oven to 170C/325F (fan), place your strawberries in a baking dish and drizzle with the honey and balsamic vinegar. Roast them for about 35 – 40 minutes until they start to shrivel.

Remove from the oven and set aside to cool and line a couple of cupcake pans with paper cases.

To make the cupcakes, lightly whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in large bowl) beat together the eggs, sugar, vanilla and olive oil until combined.

Fold in a third of the flour, then half the yoghurt, another third of the flour, then the rest of the yoghurt and then, finally, the last third of the flour.

Divide the batter between paper cupcakes cases, filling them about 3/4 of the way up. Bake for about 13 minutes until golden brown and risen. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pans for a couple of minutes before transferring to a wire rack.

Once the roasted strawberries have cooled, blitz them in a food processor until pretty smooth. You can strain the resulting mixture to get rid of the seeds of you really want but I didn’t bother.

And now it’s time to play with meringue!

Put your egg whites and sugar in a heat proof bowl over a pan with an inch of gently simmering water – try to make sure that the pan doesn’t actually touch the water otherwise you might end up with scrambled eggs! I used the bowl of my stand mixer which made life a lot easier. Heat the egg whites and sugar to a temperature of 70C/160F, whisking all the time. This will take longer than you expect and by the time you’re done, it should feel warm to the touch.

Remove the bowl from the heat and either attach to your stand mixer or beat with a handheld whisk for 6 – 10 minutes until stiff peaks form and the bottom of the bowl is cold to the touch. Switch to the paddle attachment of your mixer (or a very low speed of a handheld whisk) and, at a low speed, at the butter and the salt bit by bit beating the mixture until smooth and glossy.

Finally, fold in the roasted strawberry puree. You can pipe swiss meringue buttercream but I chose to just pile it on top of my cupcakes as I knew they were going to sit outside in the sun for a bit.

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