The season for pumpkins is over!, I hear you cry. Well, not if you're me, and you've spent the last two months steadily stockpiling massive gourds so that you now have a small collection on your balcony, enjoying a radiant sea view. In my head I refer to them as The Gourd Gang, and they're a mighty attractive bunch, some with delicate slate-blue skins, some knobbly and dark green. I'm pretty sure I've burned enough extra calories from lugging them around town in my bike panniers (at one point I was carrying three, which is basically like having a pregnant bike) to justify an extra large slice of this recipe, which remains my favourite ever sweet dish with pumpkin. (Contenders for the savoury title are a lasagne, a Thai coconut noodle soup, and Italian pumpkin ravioli with sage brown butter. In case you were wondering, which I'm sure you were).Read More
While piles of crisp, eddying golden leaves and a nip in the morning air are sure signs that autumn is in full swing, I tend to feel the seasons more through their food. Nothing for me is more autumnal than the sight of pumpkins, in all shapes, sizes and colours, lined up at the farmers market, or russet apples piled in abundance in the grocery stores. At this time of year, my appetite shifts towards hearty, bolstering foods in varying shades of gold, green and red; porridge becomes a staple breakfast and my love of baking shifts up a gear or two. Here in Denmark, we are blessed with fabulous bakeries on every corner, and one thing I particularly love about this little Scandinavian corner of Europe is the dark, flavoursome nature of the breads on offer, which are often punctuated by crunchy seeds and dense with nutty wholegrain flours.Read More
I learned to make Thai soups on a cooking course in Chiang Mai, and couldn’t quite believe how little effort went into something so vibrant, flavoursome and punchy. The creation of a prawn tom yum took under five minutes, and simply involved throwing some ingredients into a wok of simmering water. The resulting broth was heady, sinus-clearing and fresh, and I resolved to make these simple soups a staple in my kitchen upon my return. Now there is something vaguely ritualistic about their creation, as I chop through galangal, lemongrass and chillies with the small cleaver I bought in a Thai market, picking kaffir lime leaves off the plant in my conservatory and pouring rich, zesty coconut broth into deep bowls lined with a tangle of soft rice noodles.Read More
I’ve become a bit obsessed with pumpkins since the start of autumn. Their golden flesh is so versatile that I’ve managed to incorporate it into nearly every recipe I’ve cooked over the last few months, from Thai coconut soups to pesto pasta, macaroni cheese to breakfast scones. I love their dense, almost fudge-like texture, and the way they roast into warming caramelized perfection in no time at all. Their slight sweetness pairs well with so many ingredients, particularly salty things like bacon and cheese, although it is also fabulous with sturdy winter herbs and a variety of spices, piquant smoked paprika being one of the best.Read More
1. One pumpkin, so many meals. My boyfriend has started to despair of my ongoing pumpkin obsession. I currently have at least five in a basket in my kitchen at any one time, and buy a gorgeous slate blue Crown Prince every time I go to the market. This is no mean feat, as they weigh about three kilos. But it’s worth it for the luscious bright marigold flesh, with the texture of delicate fudge and a deep autumnal flavour. I’ve discovered that a single one of these pumpkins can be transformed into about eight different meals, which is pretty budget-friendly considering they cost £1.20 at my local market. I also grew my own pumpkin this year (top left) - a proud moment. Here are just some of the recipes I’ve enjoyed with pumpkin over the last two months – catch them while they’re still in the markets and have a go yourself.Read More
In How to Turn a Bird into Dinner Part One, I waxed lyrical about the moral benefits of eating game, and directed scathing retributions at those who termed my pheasant-butchering activities ‘gross’ whilst simultaneously chomping away on meat of dubious provenance without a second thought. I disclosed photos of my apron-clad self clutching a pair of bloody scissors looking nervous yet jubilant, the bare breast of a pheasant gleaming baldly before me. Fast forward two years and my butchery skills still leave something to be desired, I still feel a sense of considerable elation when I manage to produce something edible from a feathered carcass, and I still feel strongly about the issue of meat ethics and the advantages of eating game. Fortunately, however, all that moral high ground was covered in Part One, so this time you just get straight to the good stuff: roast bird.Read More
I think it’s time to stop listening to ‘accepted’ kitchen wisdom. I first embarked upon this strand of culinary anarchy about four years ago, when I decided to take the dramatic - and, by all accounts, wholly inadvisable - step of baking a strawberry. Inspired by a berry upside-down cake I ate at a market in Prague, I whipped up a plain cake batter, lined a tin, and scattered handfuls of berries over the bottom with reckless abandon. Amongst their number was the controversial strawberry: hitherto I’d been warned by many a cookbook that strawberries are emphatically not a cooking fruit; they are simply too watery and will ruin whatever you dare to throw them into, bleeding like fresh corpses into your cake and polluting your puddings. The resulting dessert was a triumph, the cake crumb lightly flavoured by the intense sweetness of the berries, and I’ve been exercising my rebellious streak ever since.Read More
Everything turns orange in the world of food media around this time of year. You can’t look at a recipe without finding that pumpkin has been sneaked in there somewhere. Sweet or savoury, breakfast or dinner, between the months of September and December it’s almost guaranteed to contain the golden vegetable, especially if it’s come from anywhere near America (in which case it will almost definitely also include cinnamon).Read More
I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling that autumn is the best time of year to be cooking. While I love the colourful bounty of summer, particularly gluts of downy apricots and bouncy red berries, autumn brings with it wonders of equal beauty, along with another crucial ingredient: weather.
You see, along with the mists and chill days of autumn comes that magical thing: an excuse to eat comfort food. Suddenly we can justify wanting nothing more than to curl up with a bowl of hearty stew and a pile of pillowy mashed potato. How lucky that Mother Nature chooses this time of the year to offer us dark, rich game; golden, robust root vegetables; glossy burnished nuts; curled, crunchy, springy greens; mellow, juicy, russet-skinned orchard fruits. While perhaps not as obviously glowing and vibrant as the produce of high summer, to me autumn ingredients have a dark, subtle and muted magic of their own.
In order to celebrate British autumn produce, I was asked by Floral & Hardy garden designers to come up with a three-course autumn feast, to demonstrate the range of ingredients that can be grown in British gardens, making the most of our gardens and also saving a bit of money in the supermarket. Given my aforementioned love of the culinary potential of this season, I of course said yes, and had great fun coming up with three lovely autumnal recipes for you, the first of which is this starter - stay tuned for the main course and dessert over the next week or so.
You probably don't need to be told that growing your own fruit and veg is a great thing to do. I am looking forward to turning the patch of wilderness that is the garden of my new house into a treasure trove of home-grown delights at some point; I love the romanticism that comes with being able to take your dinner from its natural habitat to the kitchen by walking a matter of metres, saving money and food miles. Among the wealth of produce available to be grown by the home gardener are courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, beetroot, blackberries, beans and mushrooms - all beautiful autumn ingredients. I'm no expert on home-grown, though, so if you're keen to get started I would recommend the wonderful Tender cookbooks by Nigel Slater, who talks about growing your own from a cook's point of view. Floral & Hardy also have a gardening blog for the keen (or amateur!) gardener.
This recipe, a perfect autumnal starter, combines several of my favourite seasonal staples.
Firstly, we have squash. Perhaps the most quintessential autumn vegetable, owing to its presence on our doorsteps hollowed out with an evil grimace and a candle inside, there are very few uses to which squash cannot be put in the kitchen (but don't try cooking with those pumpkins the supermarkets sell for Halloween, which are watery and tasteless). It generally finds its way into my lunchbox every day alongside couscous and feta cheese, but can form a sturdy basis for substantial cold-weather salads, combined with pulses like lentils, pearl barley, or bulgur wheat. It's also excellent in risotto. Owing to its sweetness, squash needs to be paired with salty flavours - strong cheeses are ideal, or bacon. It also works surprisingly well with other sweet things, like dried fruit and chestnuts, which somehow make it seem less sweet in comparison.
While the butternut squash is ubiquitous in markets and supermarkets, it's worth tracking down other varieties if you can - farmers' markets often have them. Crown Prince squash are lovely, with a delicate teal-coloured skin and a robust flesh, although they're often giant. I'm a big fan of the little squash that can be served as individual portions, as is the case here. They come in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colours, and possess a knobbly, rustic charm that is lacking in the predictably super-smooth, tapered butternut. That's one of the reasons for growing your own, too - you can enjoy varieties you might otherwise struggle to track down.
Next up, Swiss chard. This is both a blessing and a curse to the magpie-like food shopper, a breed to which I am unashamed to state I belong. Whenever I spy bunches of glorious chard at a market or supermarket, I can never resist hoarding it. Those rainbow stems are just too beautiful. However, it then languishes in my fridge because I'm never entirely sure what to do with it - unlike squash, I have no knee-jerk recipes up my sleeve for chard (until now). The best guide is to treat the stems a little like celery, and the leaves like spinach. I once made a delicious Swiss chard and feta filo pastry pie, which combined the chard with salty feta, pine nuts, and plump raisins. The combination is delicious - the raisins go wonderfully well with chard, enhancing its natural sweetness and preventing its iron tang from cloying, while the nuts provide texture.
I adapted that combination here, for the stuffing of the squash. I sauteed the chard stalks along with some sliced red onion - another ingredient that seems very autumnal to me - and garlic. To this I added dried cranberries, soaked in boiling water until plump and juicy. I could have used raisins, but cranberries - though not grown over here - seem very British at this time of year, given our penchant for them on the Christmas table. The chard leaves went in too, to soften, and finally some chestnuts.
Chestnuts are an ingredient I only discovered a couple of years ago. I went through a phase of dutifully roasting my own in the oven, until I realised that life is too short and you can buy perfectly decent pre-cooked, pre-peeled vacuum packed ones that are fine for cooking (though if you just want to eat them on their own, I'd suggest buying a bag of raw ones and doing it yourself). I may also have had a few explode in the oven due to my sub-standard scoring of their skins - they make a thoroughly alarming cannon-like explosion sound; I wouldn't recommend it, for your own sanity.
Chestnuts, with their rich flavour and fudgy, crumbly texture, add a beautiful sweetness and interest to all sorts of autumn dishes. They're great with rich meat, like game, because of their sweet flavour. They're also good with other sweet ingredients, like squash. I added them to my chard mixture for texture and flavour, where they went extremely well with the sweet cranberries and the crunchy, earthy chard.
This is a really lovely starter dish for autumn. The sweet chard mixture is combined with gruyere cheese, spooned into a squash that has been hollowed out, seasoned and roasted until tender, then everything is baked in the oven with more gruyere cheese on top. You could use any cheese - blue cheese, goat's cheese or feta would all work well - but gruyere has a delicious strong, salty, rich flavour that is necessary to contrast with the sweet squash, cranberries and chestnuts. Each person ends up with a delightful little squash bowl encasing a delicious sweet-sour-savoury filling, with a moreish crust of salty, burnished gruyere cheese on top. It's pretty easy to make, can be assembled in advance, and is vegetarian (though gruyere probably isn't totally veggie, like a lot of cheeses, so you might want to check which cheese you use).
I really love the combination of flavours in this dish. It would be the kind of nauseating food-writer cliche that I hate to pronounce it 'autumn on a plate'...so instead I will call it 'autumn made better by putting cheese on top'.
Stuffed squash with swiss chard, cranberries, chestnuts and gruyere (serves 2 generously):
- 2 small squash - best if you can get round ones, but if not just use the rounded ends of butternut squash
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- A few sprigs lemon thyme (or normal thyme)
- 50g dried cranberries
- 80ml boiling water
- 2 bunches swiss chard
- 2 red onions
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 150g cooked chestnuts
- 60-80g gruyere cheese, grated (or more if you love cheese...and who doesn't?!)
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the squash in half horizontally and scoop out the seeds, so you have four cup-shaped halves. Rub the squash inside and out with olive oil, then season well. Sprinkle over a few thyme leaves. Place in the oven and cook for around 30 minutes, hollow side up, until just tender.
Meanwhile, make the stuffing. Soak the cranberries in the boiling water. Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan. Peel and thinly slice the red onions. Cook these over a gentle heat for a few minutes until starting to soften, then add the garlic cloves and cook for a few more minutes. Slice the chard stalks thinly and add to the pan. Cook for a few minutes until these are softening too, then add the cranberries, the cranberry soaking water, and the chard leaves.
Cover with a lid and cook for around 5 minutes, until everything is softening. Remove the lid and allow the water to evaporate away. Roughly chop the chestnuts and add to the pan, along with a generous amount of salt and pepper and a few thyme leaves. Taste and check the seasoning.
When the squash is cooked, remove it from the oven. Stir half the gruyere into the chard mixture, then use this to stuff the squash. Sprinkle the remaining gruyere over the top of the chard in the squash. (If you have any chard mixture left over, just serve it alongside when the squash are done). Put these back in the oven for 10-15 minutes, until the cheese has melted.
Is it possible to have a craving for something you've never eaten before?
I suppose it is, if you think about bizarre pregnancy cravings. Soap, coal, chalk, cigarette butts and laundry detergent are, apparently, not uncommon cravings for women with child. They're not items you're likely to have tasted before in life. I didn't eat pasta until I was around fourteen years old (shocking, I know). The first time I did, it was because I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to make myself a bowl of pasta (with oodles of grated cheese and a bit of crispy bacon, in fact). I can't really explain this; I just knew I'd like it.
So it is really quite plausible that over the last few weeks I've had a huge craving for pumpkin pie.
Being an American dessert, associated with Thanksgiving and this festive time of year, it's unsurprising that I, living in the practically provincial locale of Cambridge (UK), have never tried such a thing. However, Tastespotting and Foodgawker keep festooning my eyes lately with images of luscious-looking pumpkin pies when I'm trawling through their images during my daily food porn fix. Fluffy and creamy and delightfully marigold, they whisper sweet promises of sugar and spice and nutty, caramel undertones. Although I have never been near a real-life pumpkin pie, I can practically taste one as I ogle those gorgeous images.
Baking with pumpkin really isn't that odd. It's no different to making carrot cake, which we love over here in the UK - they're both orange root vegetables with a natural sweetness and moisture that makes them perfectly suited to baking. I first tried using pumpkin here, when I made some delicious little cake squares using butternut squash. I love the complex flavour of cooked pumpkin, sweet and nutty and buttery all at the same time, so I knew I'd love it when combined with other sweet things.
What I've made here is not really authentic, in that it's more of a cheesecake than a pie. There's no pastry involved. However, there is pumpkin, sugar and lots of autumnal spice, so I think it counts. It's also utterly delicious. The base is a simple mix of ginger nut biscuits and butter (can't really go wrong there - quite a lot of it ended up in my tummy before it ended up in the tin), with a filling of pumpkin and cream cheese bound together with egg and flavoured with orange zest, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and vanilla. Oh my, it is good.
I think, in terms of texture and appearance, this is the best cheesecake I've ever made.
The filling was the absolute perfect consistency, soft and almost mousse-like but still substantially creamy. I wonder if this is down to the fact that I put a tray of water in the oven while it cooked, to create a sort of steam bath for the cake. It didn't stop a couple of cracks appearing on the top, but it definitely gave it a wonderful texture far superior to any cheesecake I've made before. Instead of being a little dry and crumbly, it was perfectly moist and indulgent. This could, of course, be due to the addition of the pumpkin purée.
Because a) I was too lazy to make my own and b) I wanted something vaguely authentic, I used a can of pumpkin purée (you can get it in Waitrose or Ocado). I've never worked with this stuff before - it's just pure pumpkin, so it saves the faff of peeling and roasting your own. I'm sure you get a better flavour if you make your own (as I did for this delicious butternut squash cake), but I quite liked the look of this stuff - fluffy, smooth and orange, it turned the cheesecake mix a lovely golden colour. The use of spices, vanilla and orange zest really bring out the sweetness of the pumpkin, but you can't really taste it that much - you'd never guess it was in there if you didn't know. Instead, you just get a lovely sweet, slightly caramelly flavour.
(I almost wish I hadn't used orange zest, though - not because of the flavour, but because I grated most of my knuckle off while trying to get the zest off the orange. Fortunately I managed not to bleed into the cake, but it was a close thing. Those microplane graters are highly effective, but damn are they sharp.)
The combination of creamy, sweet, festively spiced filling against the crunchy gingerbread base is wonderful, but even better when you get the crunch of a pecan nut. I was going to grind these up and put them in the base mixture, but was worried their flavour would be masked. Instead I just toasted them whole and used them to decorate the cake. In future I'd use more, or grind them coarsely and scatter them all over the top, as they really lift the cake from being something special to something truly wonderful.
Pumpkin, pecan and ginger - a fabulous and scrumptious combination. Thank you, America.
Incidentally, if you haven't yet come to see/follow my new Facebook page, please do!
Spiced pumpkin, ginger and pecan cheesecake (serves 6):
(Adapted from 'Iowa Girl Eats', here)
- 12 ginger nut biscuits, blitzed to crumbs in a blender
- 50g butter, melted
- 600g light cream cheese
- 400g pumpkin puree (homemade or from a can)
- 130g light brown sugar
- Zest of 1 orange, very finely grated
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3/4 tsp each of ground ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg
- 1/8 tsp ground cloves
- 2 eggs
- A large handful of pecan nuts
- Extra nutmeg, to decorate
- Icing sugar, to decorate
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (fan oven). Grease and line the bottom of a 20cm springform cake tin. Mix the biscuits with the melted butter and press into the bottom of the cake tin. Bake for 10 minutes, until golden and crisp. Remove from the oven. Turn the heat down to 160C.
Meanwhile, using an electric whisk, mix together the cream cheese and pumpkin puree. Add the sugar, zest, vanilla and spices, then finally add the eggs and beat to incorporate. Pour into the prepared tin.
Place an oven tray of water at the bottom of the oven, then put the cake in. Bake for about an hour, until it has mostly set but still wobbles a little in the middle. Remember that it will set more as it cools, so you don't want it to be completely solid.
Leave the cake to cool in the oven with the door ajar (this helps to stop it cracking), then remove to a plate. Toast the pecans in a dry pan or the oven, then scatter over the surface of the cake, or decorate neatly as I did. Grate over a little fresh nutmeg and sprinkle over some icing sugar, then put in the fridge until you need it (if it's been in the fridge for a long time, remove 20 minutes or so before serving).
3. Fig and orange cobbler. Figs and oranges are a surprisingly successful combination (my aim this autumn is to discover all possible partners for the wonderful fig - raspberries and oranges are two of my new finds). Mix sliced figs and segmented oranges (about eight figs and two oranges) with a little dark sugar and a splash of rum, orange juice or grand marnier in a pie dish. Dollop on this cobbler topping, then bake for half an hour or so until the fruit releases its beautiful garnet juices and the topping is crisp and crunchy. This also works wonderfully as a crumble, especially if you mix some oats and almonds or hazelnuts into the crumble mixture. The figs soften and the oranges become really sweet and flavoursome, and the combination together is juicy, fragrant and delicious. Add some good vanilla ice cream and devour: autumn in a bowl.
4. Porridge with apple and quince compote. A delicious, unusual and thoroughly seasonal way to start an autumn day. Simply simmer peeled, chopped quince in a little water and lemon juice until almost tender. Don't throw away the cores and peel - simmer those covered in water in a separate pan while you cook the quince. Add a few sliced cooking/Cox apples to the chopped quince (peel if you like - I only bother if they're quite big, otherwise it's too fiddly) and the water from the quince cores and peel, and cook until the apples start to disintegrate. You should have a lovely, pale gold bowl of fragrant goodness. You can add sugar, but I don't think it needs it - quince is sweet enough on its own. This is lovely on hot porridge scattered with a few blackberries.
5. The Great British Food Revival. A brilliant programme all about championing British produce that is in danger of being sidelined by foreign imports, putting us back in touch with our food heritage and urging us to save those traditional ingredients from extinction (think peas, pears, crab, pork, potatoes...). I loved the first series, and the second is just as good, judging from what I've seen so far: Gregg Wallace extolling the virtues of Yorkshire rhubarb, an ingredient very close to my heart and one that I hoard like a mad person during its short season. There's still some in my freezer. He comes up with some unusual and delicious recipes that I can't wait to try.
While on the subject, I love Gregg Wallace. I think he has an honest and immensely refreshing attitude to food. None of this poncing around with silly descriptions about umami, mouthfeel and acidity. He simply says "it's like a hug from the pudding angel". If that isn't a concise and accurate description of a dessert, I don't know what is. He is entirely unpretentious and seems like a genuinely nice, fun person. And I'm not just saying this because he likes rhubarb, though that does win anyone brownie points in my eyes.
I'm also looking forward to seeing Valentine Warner's contribution to the show, mainly because I had lunch with him a couple of months ago and am childish enough to get excited about having met people who appear on TV.
I went to see the new film of Jane Eyre at the cinema last night. The novel I enjoyed immensely, but, like several other Victorian novels, it was only truly brought to life for me by a TV adaptation (another example being the splendid TV adaptation of Dickens's labyrinthine novel Bleak House). The adaptation in question is the fairly recent BBC version starring Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson as Mr Rochester and Jane. What don't I love about this version? I think it is possibly the best attempt to capture the spirit of a novel that I have ever seen, excepting perhaps Bleak House. None of this could have been done without the brilliant acting and the excellent script. What I think is really important about the BBC version is that it modernises the dialogue between Jane and Mr Rochester. Not much, barely even perceptibly, but it adds a level of banter and flirtation that isn't really there in the book, whilst still retaining the archaic feel of the speech. I love the bit where Jane, by now clearly smitten with the inscrutable Rochester, has to return home to visit her dying aunt. She must ask Rochester for her overdue wages in order to fund her journey, and there follows a charming exchange where he jokingly accuses her of being a "mercenary girl" and refuses to hand over all she is owed in order to ensure she returns to claim the rest. This exchange doesn't jar with the 19th-century setting, but it, to me, transforms Jane and Rochester into real people, the kind of people a modern audience can identify with.
Another excellent quality of the BBC version is that, to me, it perfectly portrays the blossoming of romance between two people. It excels at capturing the tension inherent in stolen glances, chance meetings, casual phrases loaded with meaning. One must almost stop and remember, watching it, that one is not Jane Eyre, and not falling in love with Rochester themselves (although the handsome ruggedness of the rather dashing Toby Stephens does little to help them). Consequently, the scene where Jane is finally made aware of Rochester's feelings towards her is an emotional triumph. So easy to sound trite and stilted, Jane's speech,
is fully believable, the perfect culmination of the emotional tension that has built up over the episodes. Rochester's proposal, uttered in a hoarse, urgent growl, is in no way a crass attempt to turn Victorian novel into romantic comedy. Rather, it is almost entirely unromantic in its sheer desperation and hurriedness. The only concession to Hollywood-style overload is when a torrential rainstorm appears out of the blue as Rochester kisses Jane, forcing them to seek shelter after running back to Thornfield. Perhaps this wasn't entirely necessary, but it doesn't ruin the perfect interaction that has preceded.
Finally, the scene where Jane is reunited with Rochester is enough to make anyone weep. Its portrayal of the solitary, irascible Rochester demanding his candles - "Do you think that just because I'm blind I don't need them?!" - is quite within character, and again reminds us of that very human ill-tempered streak that has proved so charming in him thus far, when it has been directed at, and softened by, Jane. His desperation as he clutches Jane's proffered hand and realises "these are Jane Eyre's fingers" is pitiable and adorable, and the sheer emotion in his sightless eyes immensely touching. Then, of course, in true Rochester style he goes and cracks some self-deprecating joke.
This, for me, encapsulates what is so brilliant about this adaptation. It allows us to believe fully in the love shared by Jane and Rochester. It's no use taking for granted that all the viewers know that Bronte's novel is a great love story, and hoping that will suffice regardless of the chemistry between the actors and characters on screen. The BBC version allows us to identify with the star-crossed pair; it brings the love story into the modern age, fleshes out Bronte's original dialogue with banter, joking and flirtation, and allows us to see Jane and Rochester as we might see one of those great modern couples: Jack and Rose from Titanic, or perhaps Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew from the hugely successful One Day (as you may suspect, I also loved this novel). We can empathise, relate, understand, which means we can fully appreciate Jane and Rochester getting it together, as much as we can mourn their separation and rejoice in their final reunion. This version, for me, is the definitive Jane Eyre.
I also think Ruth Wilson is an excellent choice for the role. Her Jane is, just as Bronte specified, plain. The grey dresses and harsh hairstyle the BBC have placed her in for most of the screen time don't do her any favours, yet you can see flashes of a potentially beautiful woman every now and again, usually when she is happy after something Rochester has said or done. She has a charming little smile that cannot help but make her look like a naughty child, which appears in her flirtatious interactions with her master. It is the perfect expression for a timid young woman who, deprived of love and comfort for most of her life, finally stumbles upon a kindred spirit. We can fully identify with the girlish Jane's embarrassed little grin, the grin of one who is in the first flush of romance.
So the new film, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fasssbender, had a lot to live up to. I'd love to say it did this admirably. One of my good friends who shares most of my views on literature and cinema, told me that it was the best Jane Eyre she'd seen, that it surpassed the BBC version and that she found herself weeping at the end. I went with high hopes.
Unfortunately, the film did not live up to those hopes.
There are several major differences between the film and the TV series. Obviously, the film is shorter. This, I think, accounts for many of its defects. With four hours to play with, the BBC had plenty of time to drag out the initial interaction between Jane and Rochester, to add in all those little quirks of romance that make it so realistic, so charming, and so emotive. A film that isn't even two hours long can hardly hope to do this. There was none of the banter, none of the flirtation, none of the blossoming romance between Jane and her master. The first glimpse of attraction came, as in the TV series, when Jane saved Rochester from a fiery death courtesy of the mad Bertha Mason. They stand there in the smoky room, silhouetted against the embers, lips barely a centimetre apart, before Jane remembers her place and leaves, remarking that she is cold.
In the BBC version, this scene doesn't seem at all out of place; there has been a previous scene between Jane and Rochester by the fireplace at Thornfield that sets up the initial attraction, and - I can't quite put my finger on why - the closeness between the characters doesn't seem odd or jarring. In the film, I turned to my friend and said "Well that's a bit forward, isn't it?" Their lips were practically touching. It seemed totally out of character, totally bizarre, for the cold and reserved Jane to be doing such a thing. Especially because she had spent the previous scene, her first real conversation with Rochester, looking thoroughly bored and unaffected by his harsh mannerisms and his obvious desire to elicit some sort of reaction from her. I wouldn't have been that surprised had Wasikowska's Jane let him burn in his bed.
The next thing you know, Jane has come back from her visit to Aunt Reed and thinks Mr Rochester is making plans to marry Blanche Ingram. There follows the speech, the "poor, plain, obscure and little" speech that I await with bated breath every time I watch the BBC version. It didn't have the same effect, not at all. For a start, in the TV series Jane's agony at thinking Rochester in love with Blanche is long drawn out. He does nothing to assuage her worries, making her think he is going to marry Blanche (and even discussing sending Jane to Ireland as she won't be needed once he sends Adele to school) before, at the last minute, breaking the news that it is Jane he loves and is preparing to marry. The relief of this tension accounts for the emotional and touching scene between the two as he proposes. In the film there was no such tension, no sense of Jane's pain as she falls in love with a Rochester whom, she presumes, loves another. In fact, her display of emotion when she gives her speech comes as rather a surprise. Since when is she in love with Rochester?
Having failed to set up this romance, the film cannot hope to redeem itself. There is just no emotion or power behind any of the words. I don't want to confuse this with bad acting; I think Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are excellent as Jane and Rochester. As excellent as the constraints of a very limited script and time frame can possibly allow them to be. Fassbender perfectly captures the enigmatic Rochester's character, the fine line he seems to be treading constantly between rage and despair. Jane is quite the plain, reserved, guarded creature Bronte - I'm sure - intended her to be. Yet I feel she is too guarded. Wilson was brilliant because she perfectly captured that intense hunger for love and affection that Jane, shown nothing but spite for most of her childhood and adolescence, would no doubt evince in every part of her life. You can't imagine Wasikowska's Jane passionately loving anyone at all.
Another interesting feature of the film is its focus on Jane. When watching the BBC version, the viewer is undoubtedly encouraged to identify with Jane. I may think this because I am female and therefore obviously going to align myself with Jane, especially if it means ogling the exquisitely rugged Rochester, but I don't think that's the only reason. The novel is, after all, called Jane Eyre, not Edward Rochester. We travel with Jane throughout life; we experience her pain, anguish, joy and passion. The film, I felt, did the opposite. The focus was always on Jane, but Jane as Rochester might see her. This might just be its way of capitalising upon what is obviously a very attractive female lead, but I found the constant focus on Jane rather tedious. There was little chance for Rochester to express himself; there was no real mention of his dark past in the Caribbean, or in France where he met the mother of Adele. We did not feel, along with Jane, the intense moods of her capricious master; rather, we felt Jane's cold, guarded exterior as Rochester might. I almost wanted to yell at the screen "HE MADE A JOKE! SMILE, FOR GOD'S SAKE!" but she never did.
This, I think, is another problem of the film. It completely sapped the story of humour. Whereas the viewer of the TV series can enjoy Rochester's banter and the contribution it makes to the budding romance, the film just felt dark and oppressive. This is exacerbated by the camera work; everything is always dark, barely lit by a single candle, with most scenes taking place in close rooms or bad weather. Contrast this with the BBC scene in which Rochester points out a dragonfly while on a springtime walk with Jane, a reminder of the love of nature they both share, and a scene that shows there were, indeed, happy times in the courtship of Jane and her master. In the film there are no such happy times. I don't think Jane smiles at all in the entire thing, nor Rochester. It is grave, humourless, and consequently entirely incomprehensible why these two end up together. How can a couple fall in love if they can't have fun?
On a positive note, I think Mia Wasikowska, visually, is a wonderful Jane. She manages to be plain yet beautiful, to seem small and reserved as Bronte's Jane does. Her acting is excellent; she plays the part she has been given very well. It's just a shame that the part she is playing is not, for me, what Jane Eyre is all about. Michael Fassbender is equally good in the acting sense, but again, I think there is something missing in his portrayal of Rochester. I know what should be missing in his portrayal of Rochester - those ghastly sideburns.
Which brings me on to the ending of the film. Firstly, entirely ruined by a ridiculous beard sported by Fassbender. Yes, this is totally shallow and not really in keeping with the rather serious 'film critic' tone I have adopted hitherto, but it must be said. He looks like a caveman. When he and Jane kiss, instead of thinking "aww", all I am thinking is "how can she even FIND his mouth?" Fortunately, Jane then lays her head against his chest, hiding the beard so that we can only see Rochester from the nose upwards. As I whispered to my friend "That's better - now we can find him attractive again". I wonder if this was done on purpose to ensure the cinemagoers left on a high, rather than on a note of revulsion. I think Gillette definitely missed a trick here by failing to capitalise upon an excellent opportunity for some subliminal advertising.
On a more serious note, I did not like the ending. The general formula is the same as the TV series, but all the emotion was missing. I found it hard to care that Jane had been reunited with her lover, and that he was sadly blind. He thinks he is in a dream; she tells him, "awaken, then". Then the credits roll. My friend shouted rather loudly, "Surely not?!" as the screen went dark. It felt unsatisfactory somehow, even corny. I was expecting a flood of emotion; instead, I just looked at my watch and was glad it wasn't even 10.30pm yet, and I had time for a cup of tea before bed.
I hope I am not being too unfair to the film version. As I mentioned before, I think a lot of its faults are down to it having only half the time of its TV counterpart. But a single scene like the dragonfly one mentioned above, a single joke shared between the lovers, may have redeemed the whole affair. Yet we were not to have one. Instead we had a lot of sullen looks, a tiny amount of sexual tension, an exhausting amount of candlelit faces (I think I broke my contact lenses straining my eyes trying to see properly) and a film that, to be perfectly honest, seemed a little bit pointless. It brought nothing new to Jane Eyre, a statement which cannot be said for the TV version. The BBC brought modern romance to Bronte's classic; it brought it into the 21st century, it made us realise why we should care about a love story set in Victorian times, and it provided something truly compelling and touching from start to finish. The film is, in my opinion, entirely forgettable.
As this is a blog about food, and I have yet to mention the subject, I thought about coming up with some tenuous link between Jane Eyre and this recipe. I considered the following:
a) Well, no wonder Jane and Rochester looked so miserable in the film. They clearly hadn't been eating these BUTTERNUT SQUARES OF SUNSHINE.
b) I just couldn't stand how gloomy the film was. Every scene was so dark. If only they'd had some of these BUTTERNUT SQUARES OF SUNSHINE in each scene.
c) Odd that the Jane in the TV series was a brunette, and yet Mia Wasikowska's Jane had auburn hair. Hair the colour of these BUTTERNUT SQUARES!
d) If only Rochester had made Jane a batch of these BUTTERNUT SQUARES after his deceit and bigamy necessitated the abandonment of their wedding. I'm sure she could have forgiven him his treachery and raving wife if she'd had enough pumpkin goodness in her stomach.
e) This recipe is almost as yummy as Toby Stephens.
None of them seemed quite fitting, in the end, so I abandoned the idea. Instead, I present you with a recipe that has nothing at all to do with Jane Eyre. I just had to get the above rant off my chest, and thought it might inspire some interesting discussion.
Back to cooking.
For a while now I've been nursing a severe craving for pumpkin pie. This is odd, because I have never had pumpkin pie. It's a distinctly American thing, one which we Brits don't really embrace, so I don't even know what it tastes like. However, I remember eating an incredible sort of pumpkin 'flan' in Venice a couple of years ago. It had a smooth, creamy texture, and an intense richness of flavour redolent of butter and spice. It was served with a scattering of grated ricotta salata, a wonderful cheese rather like feta in its saltiness, and one that I absolutely cannot find over here (a fact that pains me greatly). In my mind, I imagine pumpkin pie to have that wonderful texture and depth of flavour, but with added sweetness. It's one of those things that I just know I would like, were I to try it.
Mind you, I also thought I would like liver, but my first experience of that was a deeply unpleasant one. However, my faith remains in pumpkin pie. It will save me.
I'm going to have a go at making my own soon, but in the meantime these cake squares are the perfect thing to sate my pumpkin craving. I was going to make pumpkin scones, which I keep seeing everywhere on food blogs (again, I think it's an American thing...apparently they sell them in Starbucks over there, which is probably why I've never seen one because I hate Starbucks and refuse to enter its premises), but then I found a recipe for pumpkin cake bars which looked so delicious and intriguing that I just had to try it. After the success of my courgette and cardamom brownies, I'm always ready to rise to the challenge of including vegetables in baked goods.
It's quite hard to imagine the flavour of a cake whose main ingredient is butternut squash. I assure you, however, that these are delicious. They taste rather like gingerbread, thanks to my heavy-handedness with the mixed spice, with a sweet, caramel note that you can't quite place - that's the squash (I tend to use squash rather than pumpkin in cooking, because its flesh isn't as watery and it makes a better purée). They have a really moist texture thanks to the squash, and I added some pumpkin seeds for a bit of contrast. To bring the whole thing together, a drizzle of orange icing.
If you passed these off as 'gingerbread' to friends and family, they'd never know. My mum asked me what they were, and I tried this, but she was persistent. "What's the secret ingredient? I know there's some sort of vegetable in there". Fear not, readers - this is only because she knows me and she knows my penchant for including something rather weird in nearly everything I cook. However, she liked these very much, as will anyone you bake them for.
They're also pretty healthy, as baked goods go - spelt flour, lots of butternut squash, agave nectar to replace some of the sugar, only a tiny bit of fat, plus pumpkin seeds which are pretty good for you. In fact, they're probably the healthiest thing I've ever baked. Again, don't let this put you off - it just means you can eat more of them. You wouldn't guess from the taste, which is really moist and delicious, despite the absence of butter.
Incidentally, I always think it's odd that something with the name "butternut" can be so good for you. Perhaps it was a marketing gimmick designed to make people eat up their root vegetables.
I reckon these would be great with a cup of Chai tea, if you're feeling the need for a warming spice overload. Though normal tea is a good accompaniment too. Eat, sip, snuggle, and embrace the onset of autumn.
Spiced butternut squares (makes 16):
(Adapted from 'Chocolate Covered Katie', here)
- 300g butternut squash, cubed, roasted until soft then puréed in a blender
- 100g spelt flour
- 3/4 tsp cinnamon
- 3/4 tsp mixed spice
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 egg
- 3 tbsp agave nectar (or light brown sugar/honey)
- 2 tbsp light brown sugar
- 2 tbsp milk
- 1 tbsp rapeseed (or other flavourless) oil
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 tbsp pumpkin seeds
- Icing sugar (about 100g)
- 1 tbsp fresh orange juice, for icing
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/fan 160C. Grease and line an 8x8in traybake tin with baking parchment.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, spices, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add the squash purée, egg, agave nectar, milk, oil and vanilla. Mix well until the mixture is thoroughly combined, then fold in the pumpkin seeds.
Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 20 minutes. Allow to cool in the tin for a few minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack. When cool, slice into 16 squares.
To ice, mix the icing sugar with a little orange juice to form a fairly thick icing (you might not need all the juice). Drizzle over the cooled squares.