Ginger crunch, smoked tomatoes & cookbooks for singles

The beginning of this month I made a research trip to the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island. It was primarily fieldwork for a new script, but along the way I sampled some of Southland’s and Otago’s culinary offerings—and acquired a couple of local cookbooks. In Queenstown I bought a copy of the iconic Edmonds Cookery Book, described on page 4 as ‘a constant, reliable companion in Kiwi kitchens for over 100 years’. First issued as The Sure to Rise Cookery Book in 1908, a promotional tool for Edmonds’ baking powders, it’s been revised multiple times since and is now up to its sixty-ninth edition.

From one of Invercargill’s many charity shops—I’ve forgotten which—I purchased Food for Flatters. Another Edmonds publication. I bought it to add to my growing collection of (mostly retro) cookbooks for students, singles and small spaces.

In the 1960s and 70s the patterns of the past were changing. More young people were moving out of the parental home, not because they were all getting married, but because they were off to university or off to the city in search of independence—especially the freedom that was difficult to have with Mum and Dad in the adjoining bedroom. Bachelors, it was always assumed, led racy, carefree lives. Spinsters, by contrast, were objects of scorn or pity. That changed—well, sort of. Singledom became an adventurous lifestyle choice—for women as well as men. Cookbooks cashed in, and a subgenre emerged: the singles’ cookbook.

It’s worth noting however, that before Katharine Whitehorn (Cooking in a Bedsitter, 1963) and Helen Gurley Brown (Single Girl’s Cookbook, 1969) appeared on the scene, Marjorie Hillis was providing ideas for solitary suppers and budget-friendly entertaining to ‘bachelor ladies’ in Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner (1937). Joanna Scutt’s The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It colours in the social context and is an absorbing read.

I confess a soft spot for Cooking in a Bedsitter with its Shrimp Wiggle (page 168 in my 1974 Penguin edition) and its ghastly casseroles assembled from condensed soup, mince and a tin of celery. Just as well then that in 2020 it’s more likely to be Jamie Oliver accompanying sons and daughters to halls of residence or share houses.

When I got home from New Zealand, I discovered that about a quarter of the pages had been ripped out of Food for Flatters. Hmm. Disappointing, but look, it only cost $2, the money went to a good cause, and I wasn’t buying it for its recipes. Of course I wasn’t. Crumbed sausages or cheese rolls made with packet soup mix are not appealing. Although I was told several times that cheese rolls are a regional speciality, I wasn’t game enough to try them. Cheese scones, on the other hand—when I could find them without bacon bits—were invariably delicious.

Some of the meals I ate in New Zealand were excellent. Fish pie and Sauvignon Blanc on the terrace of a Queenstown pup, overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Discovering the delights of smoked tomatoes thanks to the fabulous Batch café in Invercargill. And on the snack and treat front, I reacquainted myself with that classic NZ slice: ginger crunch. A slightly crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth shortbread base topped with a thick layer of ginger icing.

According to the Edmonds Cookery Book New Zealanders have always been partial to slices and squares—a taste that continues if the number of bakeries and cafés selling them is anything to go by.

This recipe for ginger crunch is based on the one in Edmonds Cookery Book.

For the base
125g butter softened
½ cup caster sugar
1½ cups plain flour
1 x teaspoons baking powder
1½ x teaspoons ground ginger

For a thick layer of icing
110g butter
1 cup icing sugar
2 x tablespoons golden syrup
4 x teaspoons ground ginger

Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and line a 20cm x 30cm tin.

Mix dry ingredients, rub in the butter, then lightly knead the mixture until it comes together. It will be fairly dry and crumbly at this stage. Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and press it down.

Bake about 20-25 minutes until it’s a light, golden brown.

While the base is cooking put the butter, golden syrup and ginger into a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the butter is melted. Add the sifted icing sugar and mix it into the melted ingredients. Once everything is satisfactorily combined, remove the pan from the heat.

Pour the icing over the slice as soon as it comes out of the oven. Cut into fingers and leave to cool before indulging.

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