When the email arrived in my inbox last year asking me if I wanted to take part in a cookery show, my first response was a snigger. For a start, this had to be a joke; I don’t really watch much TV, never mind cookery shows, so I was ready to dismiss the whole thing as, well, a joke.
But there was a catch: the idea behind the programme, the email stated, was a celebration of multicultural Britain, through food. As some of you have noticed and commented on, this is a topic rather close to my heart. Like so many who have come to Britain as immigrants, food is the tie that keeps you – and your family – attached to your roots. When life is tough, a sweet dumpling will save the day. School-weary teenagers? Nothing that a few pretzels for lunch can’t deal with.
When I came to Britain for the first time in the 1980s, many of the families I encountered didn’t even use their dining table for meals, but had their food on a little tray in front of the telly. Outside Roald Dahl’s Matilda, I had never come across this concept before, nor the idea of buying your own airplane-style plastic box to heat up in a microwave, instead of a cooked dinner. ‘Stab and nuke’, my colleague calls those ready meals, which sums it up neatly for me.
Coming from a place were food is what holds families together, with the main meal the highlight of the day, often eagerly anticipated (Schnitzel! More dumplings!), I, like many other immigrants, I have managed to create a home from home, in form of a mini-Germany in the middle of Britain. No yodelling or dirndls, Sound of Music-style, nor marching to angry little men’s voices, but a place where the dining table is at the heart of the house, the place where we meet and eat. My children might not know much about German realpolitik or be able to appreciate the subtleties of the German grammar, but they do consider sourdough to be a necessity, and baking a life skill.
Anyway, to get back to my email. I ended up responding to it, and after many emails back and forth I was invited to take part in Nigel Slater’s new series ‘Eating Together‘, which is starting next week on the BBC. Now, although I am not watching much telly, I am quite aware of the British love affair with their TV chefs, and I fully agree. If anyone has challenged and changed British attitudes towards food over the last few decades, it is people like Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver, and their relentless insistence on the fact that you can, indeed you should, try this at home. Nigella Lawson made cooking sexy, the Hairy Bikers made it manly, and Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood made it competitive.
Nigel Slater’s contribution, I would argue, is a mix of all of the above. I’ve always looked forward to his recipes in the Observer: his mix of beautiful prose and imaginative food has made been making this a highlight of my week for years. I love his no-nonsense approach to cooking, the way he explains the main idea behind his creations, challenging you to come up with your own version rather than following the recipe. Oh, and I do love his garden, too.
‘Eating Together’ reflects Nigel Slater’s thoughtful approach to food, as well as his open mindedness: each week, a different type of food is explored – dumplings, soups, stews, custard, noodles – by inviting immigrants and their families to share their stories as well as their food. Over the six episodes, you are invited to join in with families from Japan and Poland, Mexico and Thailand, who have made Britain their home, as they prepare their favourite dishes.
My own contribution to the programme are Spätzle, the small noodles you might encounter on menus all over Southern Germany, Austria and parts of Switzerland. They are quite unique in their preparation, a skill that has been passed on from mothers to daughters over hundreds of years: the runny batter is being cut into boiling water by hand. Fortunately new technology in form of a ‘Spätzlehobel’ makes it a child’s play. We serve Spätzle as a side dish for anything that comes with a sauce or gravy that needs mopping up, as well as in soups or as a dish in itself. For the programme, Nigel decided to use my Spätzle for a German-inspired version of macaroni cheese, using very Apline ingredients such as speck and smoked cheese. As always, I admired his style and the panache with which he managed to pull this off, turning a deeply traditional dish into something stylish and, well, British. You simply have to believe me, it did taste absolutely delicious (I did tuck in rather unashamedly in front of the camera, and I helped myself to another portion after filming had finished …)
Inspired by Nigel’s carefree attitude I thought I’d finish this post with my own version of fusion cuisine – not that imaginative, I agree, but certainly pushing a few boundaries for me: a no-bake cheesecake. To any Swabian worth their salt, no-bake means no-cake. Using soft cheese was a step too far, tough, so I replaced it with a mix of creamy mascarpone and quark, the magic ingredient for our own cheese cake and cheese strudel. To keep the cake in shape you’ll need to add gelatine, of vege-gel, a vegetarian option. This adds a little fuss to an otherwise straightforward recipe, but the 5 extra minutes are well worth it!
No-Bake Quark and Mascarpone Cheesecake with Strawberries (for a 20cm / 8 in form or 10 muffin tins)
- 150g digestive biscuits, crushed
- 100g unsalted butter, melted
- 500g quark (fat free)
- 250g mascarpone
- the zest of 1/2 lemon
- 2 tbs elderflower cordial
- 2 sheets of gelatine or 1/2 packet of vege-gel
- 100g icing sugar, sifted
- a punnet of strawberries
- 3 tbs strawberry jam
Soak the gelatine sheets in a pint of cold water. Depending on your make, this should leave you just the right amount of time to get on with the base.
Line the bottom of the cake tin with baking parchment. Place the biscuits in a freezer bag and crush them with a rolling pin. Mix them with the melted butter and press the mix into the cake or muffin tin. Sprinkle the lemon zest over the base and place the tin into the fridge to chill.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the quark, mascarpone and the icing sugar with an electric mixer. Remove the soaked gelatine sheets and place them with 1 tbs of the water, as well as the elderflower cordial, in a small pan. Heat it up and keep stirring until the gelatine is melted completely.
Add the melted gelatine to the cheese mix, whisk it and spread it on top of the biscuit layer. Place the tin into the fridge to chill. This will take a few hours, making it an ideal cake to prepare beforehand.
Just before you want to serve the cake, wash, dry and mull the strawberries. Put aside the prettiest ones for decoration, and puree two of the less decorative ones. Heat the jam in a small pan until it is bubbling, then add it to the puree. Decorate the cake with the remaining strawberries, pour the puree over it, and serve.
Did I enjoy the filming? I absolutely loved it: watching all these professionals at work, their concentration and dedication to the finished programme was a joy to behold. But standing in front of a camera, I’m afraid, is not really my thing … Even more reason to admire those chefs and bakers who do have the courage and the confidence to step out and get on with it!
As for the programme, ‘Eating Together’ will be airing this Monday at 7.30 pm on BBC1. I won’t be making my Spätzle until the last episode, though – plenty of time to get inspired by all the different types of food, traditions and skills, and by Nigel Slater’s enthusiasm for all things food!