Spongati cake recipe from 1820

This is an updated version of a spongati cake recipe by Ivan Day. Day got the recipe from William Jarrin’s “The Italian Confectioner” which was first printed in 1820. The cake is sort of like an English mince tart but in my opinion, much better.

Ingredients

For the pastry

225gr (8oz) plain flour
50gr (2oz) caster sugar (I use pure icing sugar)
100gr (4oz) unsalted butter (the Danish brand, Lurpak is excellent)
3 egg yolks

For the filling

115gr (4oz) white bread crumbs
115gr (4oz) walnuts
20gr (2/3oz) currants
20gr (2/3oz) pine nuts
450gr (1lb) honey (I use macadamia honey)
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of black pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
Icing sugar to dust the finished cake

Method

Preheat the oven to 150C (300F)

Sift the flour and sugar. Chop up the butter into small cubes and mix with
the flour, sugar and egg yolks until you get a breadcrumb like, consistency
(I did this all in a food processor). Roll the mixture into a ball and chill
for about an hour or so. I always rush this step and it makes the pastry
more difficult to control (it splits and cracks) when it’s rolled out, and
on a side note, in Jarrin’s original recipe he says to let it sit in a cool
place over night.

The next step is to mix the filling ingredients together.

Take 2/3 of the pastry dough and roll it out into a 22cm (8 1/2″) circle and place
the filling in the middle leaving a 4cm (1 1/2″) clear border which you turn upwards
to make a rim. I actually do all this in a 22cm (8 1/2″) springform baking dish lined
with baking paper which makes it all easier to control. Roll out the rest of
the pastry to cover the filling and base, then press the edges together.

Put  several holes in the top to let out the steam and cook for about 40 to
45 minutes.

When the cake has cooled down, lightly dust it with some icing sugar.

This cake goes well with ice-cream, frozen yoghurt (my choice), custard or coffee.

By the way, for my regular visitors, sorry for not posting for a while and
my only excuse it that I’ve been making arrangements for my up coming
trip……. plus I’m just slack!

Canberra is great for cycling, but Degas is a creep.

This weekend my wife and I went down to Canberra to do some cycling, see the Degas exhibition and a ballooning festival. Unfortunately the planned ballooning festival didn’t really happen because on Saturday morning there was too much fog to take off and on Sunday morning the wind was blowing towards the airport which would have taken the balloons in to a no-fly zone.  Fortunately the weather was fine and since Canberra is such a good place to go cycling because of all the cycle paths that can be found there, we still had a good time. Canberra is built around a man-made lake called Lake Burley Griffin which is ringed with a 34 km (just over 21 miles) cycle path.  Although the cycle path is pretty easy we only cycled about 25 km because we both aren’t used to sitting on bicycle seats all that long and our butts started to hurt. 

On the way around the lake we passed the Australian National Museum which is housed in a spectacular building designed by the Australian architect Howard Raggatt. The picture below shows the enormous entrance.

The entrance to the Australian National Museum

After we finished with the cycling for the day we went to the National Gallery of Australia to see the Degas exhibition.

Going on a Saturday was a huge mistake because it was so crowded.  I absolutely hate being forced into a line to trudge along like a sheep heading into an abattoir looking at the paintings at other people’s pace.  Both my wife and I were very disappointed with Degas and to be honest I can’t really see what all the fuss is about. Sure, he was a good draughtsman and he could capture the light pretty well but I got really sick and tired of the voyeuristic nature of his images. 

Back when I studied photography it was explained to us that one of the debts that modern painting owed to photography was that it freed up painting to be more expressive rather than purely documentary. It’s pretty obvious when you look at Degas’s work that he was not only influenced by the way how the photographic framing quite often cuts through subject matter off to the sides of the shot, but also by Velasquez’s “Las Meninas”.  Sure enough, a lot of Degas’s work has a snapshot like quality that gives it a certain sense of spontaneity at first glance, but I found the more that I looked at his work, the more I had the niggling feeling there was nothing really spontaneous about Degas’s work at all. When you come to think of it, how could there be any real spontaneity? The act of painting is not an instant thing like pushing a button on a camera.

The more I saw of Degas’s work, the more I began to feel that it was produced by a voyeuristic and predatory mind. What has been described as the “snapshot like” quality of his compositions, because of the way how there are often people or objects in the foreground, off to the sides of the pictures, that have been bisected by the frame (just like in many snaps), actually look as though they are being peered around, by the viewer, at the main subject.

I began to feel uneasy as I looked at the paintings. It seemed to me that Degas stood behind things and people so he could perv on the subject without being observed. I can sort of understand how observing people is a bit like observing animals and that you will get to see more natural behaviour if your subject is unaware of you watching them. On the other hand, it isn’t for no reason, that directors of horror movies who want the audience to feel as though a character is being stalked, have the camera move behind cover like bushes, so that the audience feels as though they are seeing the prey through the eyes of the predator (by the way, this camera angle is known as, “point of view” and it’s frequently abbreviated to POV).

The reason why I have trouble with Degas’s work and his “point of view”, is that one of the dominant and recurring themes that he (and so many other brothel visiting impressionists) indulged in was that of the nude woman from behind.

It was the same old trope, of the woman either washing or drying herself off. From the angle of many of the drawings I would say that Degas was sitting behind the women almost looking up at their bent forms and in particular their backsides. Bum after bum after bare bum in pointless and quite often very contrived poses. It’s not even the fact that the images were of nudes. What bugged me was the fact that these women that Degas was supposedly so innocently representing were in fact sex workers in brothels who were catering to an old perv’s voyeuristic fantasy. It all seemed like some tacky bourgeois exploitation of the poor. I felt that just about the whole show was nothing more than one big grubby power trip.

I am just so over that whole absinthe drinking; brothel creeping; French impressionistic toss.

Van Gogh was far more talented, interesting, and way more honest. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of more of his work on my trip to Europe later on this year.

Gay flirtation. Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. 1988

Back in the late eighties I was living in Brisbane, Queensland and during the 1988 world Expo in Brisbane my mother bought a season’s ticket and stayed with me for a few months.  At the time I was living in an apartment in an area near the city called New Farm on the Brisbane River and it was a short ferry ride to the Expo site. In one of the neighbouring apartments were a gay couple, Greg and John, who thought because I was “living” with my mother, that I must be gay. Anyhow, as they told me later, their “gaydar” told them so. Let this be a lesson to all you guys over twenty one years old, still living with their mothers!  

One day Greg and John invited my mother and I to a birthday party at their place. They were great guys and a lot of fun, plus my Mum also got along with them as well, so we went along.  My Mother has worked with gay guys since the sixties and over the years has had gay friends. So basically, I’ve been brought up around gays and as such, I’ve never had a problem with them or their sexuality. Ever since I developed (no pun intended) an interest in photography, I’ve admired the photography of Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Alfred Eisenstadt, so when I was invited to go to Greg and John’s party I jumped at the chance to visit this “other world” and take pictures with the then new Kodak film TMZ pushed to 6400 ISO.

 

    

 

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Malaysian kampong tudung fashion. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 2007

Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, is a fairly modern city and it is striking to see the difference between the wealthier city people, many of whom dress like westerners, and the people from the country areas (mostly Malays) who dress in a more traditional and conservative way. The woman below looks like she has come into the city from one of the outlying villages (know as Kampongs in Malay). The headscarf she is wearing is called a tudung but here in the west it is better know as a hijab.

Kampong girl in her tudung

Malaysia is a comparatively moderate Islamic state and many foreigners would be mistaken for thinking that the women there are being coerced by fundamentalists into wearing hijabs.

First off a hijab isn’t necessarily a head covering, it’s more of a state of mind. Sure, a headscarf worn by a Muslim woman is called a hijab (or tudung in Malay) but hijab actually refers to dressing and behaving modestly. The modesty that Moslems are referring to, isn’t just sexual modesty but modesty in thought and action; such as not showing off or being raucous. For many Moslem women the hijab is a reminder to behave according to the teachings in the Qur’an and that includes being compassionate and non-judgemental.

There are huge debates going on in the Islamic world about what is hijab and it would be a big error on the behalf of non-Moslems to think that all Moslems think the same way about hijabs and what constitutes modesty. To give an idea of the sort of things that are being mooted, I’d recommend reading an interesting post by Unique Muslimah about current hijab fashion in Egypt (the comments will give you an idea of the diversity of opinion on the matter).

If you’re interested in seeing more hijab fashion (to help break the stereotypes pushed by the right wing western media) the Hijablog has some spectacular and beautiful examples.