Category Archives: dessert

Cooking Challenge the Second

Before the lamb there was a different challenge, one that my heart was definitely in, but my head a bit reluctant to take on:

The Traditional Clootie Dumpling

(distantly related to the great haggis, which is hunted each fall in Scotland)

So why clootie dumpling, you ask? Why not flapjack (a delicious treat bound with honey I discovered courtesy of Mull Magic) or a proper baked bread like the Selkirk Bannock? Why choose a fruitcake-dumpling hybrid that needs to be half-boiled, half-steamed, then dried, all with equipment that looks like foreign instruments of torture (this may be a slight exaggeration, but the unfamiliar can be terrifying)?

Well, that’s what you’d be asking if you already knew about my weakness for British sweets. If you didn’t yet know about that, welcome. Have a look around the place.

Actually, I can pinpoint the source of my determination to make Clootie Dumpling: my visit to the Culloden Visitor Centre cafe, one cold August day in 2011. (P.S. I tried those haggis crisps on my most recent visit, verdict: tasty, but not habit-inducing)

Problem Ingredients: Suet & Sultanas

I did a fair amount of research (read: hemming and hawing) before actually committing to making it by buying ingredients. There was the issue of suet, for one. What was it, and was it necessary? After reading through a goodly number of British pudding recipes, I concluded it was. No messing about with Italian olive oil, French butter, or American margarine. You can read about the animal fat and its uses here. Also, what about sultanas? They seemed to be another elusive ingredient States-side, at least going by the local co-ops and natural foods stores.

A question to a Whole Foods employee was answered with the fact that if they were golden raisins, they wouldn’t carry them because the processing of drying grapes for raisins darkens their color, and any chemical means to stop this process for a golden color would not be allowed by their store. Whoo-ee! Well it’s an answer, anyway.

mise en place clootie dumpling

The pound or so of suet was divided into cup-size amounts and frozen. It was very different to handle, kind of like a malleable candle wax that was stuck in cheesecloth. The cheesecloth part of course was some fibrous netting of muscle fibers or something, but I didn’t look up the physiology to be able to tell you what, exactly. Sorry/ you’re welcome?

Now for the recipe. I had plenty of possible ones to choose from, Scottish cookbook hoarder as I am, the question was which one to use?

I ended up going with the common elements in each, and improvising along the way as to cooking times. The dough seemed to come together in a ball well enough, so I floured up the cheesecloth and plonked it into the boiling water.

dumpling before clootie

Problem Process: A Heatproof Plate

Here’s what was supposed to happen in the large pot. Turn a heatproof plate upside down in the water so the dumpling will have something to rest on, and not come into direct contact with the bottom of the pan. Plus, don’t tie the cheesecloth too tightly, as the dough will expand a bit.

There, in two instructions, lay my undoing. I didn’t have a plate I wanted to risk breaking, since I was none too sure about the heat conducted by air in the oven and that conducted by water in a pot. I went for a ramekin as the sturdiest item I did have, but the ball of dough was already too big to sit nicely on that. Curses!

‘Not too tightly’ then turned into ‘not tightly enough’ as the rowdy bubbling of the water made the ramekin pitch and toss and turn the ‘clootie’ this way and that, loosening the tie and letting some of the sugar and spices leak out to color the water, as you can see. (Maybe if I had a sailor to show me how to tie knots?)

Afterwards I went to ask the staff at Kitchen Kaboodle about the heatproof question, and two ladies both thought any plate that worked in the oven should work in boiling water. Hmph! All that , and I should have just asked sooner. Well, now YOU know!

And by the way, ‘clootie’ comes from the Scots word for cloth: ‘cloot’ which was used to tie up the dough. You didn’t think you’d be learning this much from this post, did you?

trouble in the pot clootie dumpling

You can also see my attempt to prevent the chaos from continuing, the long wooden spoon balanced on top and piercing the knot to hold the open part up and away from the water. However, the roiling, boiling water was too much and ended up pulling the spoon down into the pot too, many times over the several hours needed.

It reminded me of the adventure in canning tomatoes, actually. I took a class for it, then made a successful attempt at canning some glorious tomatoes from DC’s harvest last summer. They are still in my cupboard, waiting for the right moment. (Now that I’m moving again, that would have been last week, but oh well. We do what we can, right?)

I finally settled on putting a cloth over the pot lid, both to keep the steam in better (since the spoon let it out), and provide some friction to prevent the spoon from falling, but I had to keep tending to it every 15 minutes for almost three hours. This was the reveal moment:

unveil of clootie dumpling

And it was none too pretty, so I didn’t take a photo!

But down below is when I got it into a low-heat oven to ‘dry.’ This was traditionally done in a basket or pot by the fire. (Not in Portland, OR though)

roasting clootie dumpling

Verdict: Delicious

Finally! The pale, mushy outside could have been due to either the water getting in or not drying it long enough in the oven, or both. It did NOT look like the pictures of clootie dumpling that I’d seen, with their smooth, dark surfaces, so I do have that to aspire to next time.

However, the inside was very good, with the fruity flavor of raisins and currants mixed with sweet dark notes of sugar cane.

finished clootie dumpling

It even worked well as leftovers, heated in a microwave with water-speckled paper towels as is my wont, and drizzled with cream, since I couldn’t be bother to knock up a custard (see first definition here, for all you Americans with dirty minds).

I look forward to being in my own kitchen and trying this one again, as it was one of those food memories that demands satisfaction.


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Food, Glorying in Food

This blog is about trying new things, right? And while we may say No to certain things because we have all we can deal with at the moment, we want to make sure to say Yes when it is only fear holding us back. Case in point:

Fancy Foods Show, DCI got an email from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a… you get the point. The note was hoping for some cheap labor to help staff the booth of a vendor at the Fancy Food Show at the Washington DC Convention Center (2 blocks from my door). It would be near me, it would be about food, and I could do the weekend shifts: I gave an enthusiastic YAWP– I mean, YES, and excitedly arrived at the show on a  Saturday morning in June.

I was at a wholesalers’ booth where they featured other companies, and so got to meet several vendors even as I was working, shoving ‘all-natural’ mini-bottles of energy in front of people’s noses. I worked on my sales pitch, I tried some networking (#fail), and I learned a good deal about product marketing, candy manufacture in Denmark, and two types of chai from their producers, one stationed on either side of me.

PLUS, I got to spend a few breaks and an extra hour after my shift trotting around the show, sampling, asking questions of artisan producers- I mean, heaven, right? Well, not exactly. America is after all the land of manufactured demand… but there were also international booths as well. It was a feast for the explorative soul as well as the hungry mouth. The few that made a real, positive impression I pass on to you here. I wish I was an affiliate for these folks! :-)

Mackie’s of Scotland

Oy, you knew there’d be a Scottish company here when I said international vendors, didn’t you? Well, after not deigning to try the Haggis potato crisps when I was in the Culloden museum cafeteria, I did try them here. They were fantastic.

Wheeler Sugarworks, Inc.

I had an extensive conversation with the proprietors of “Jed’s Maple” and they were a delightful family operation from an area of Vermont near where I visited on my road trip last year. They exuded local knowledge and craftsman’s pride, and I would love to visit their farm if I get a chance to drive up there this fall.

Big Picture Farm

What an interesting idea- goat milk caramels! The caramels themselves were something special, but the intensity of care this outfit shows for their goats (all their names were listed on the table card) was evident too.


This local ice cream outfit not only specializes in outrageous flavor combinations, but keeps its ingredients as whole and natural as possible, inevitably leading to a very high-fat product. Don’t be deterred. Personally, I’ve thought of organizing a group to tour the facility in Silver Spring to see how they do it- wouldn’t that be awesome??? Shoot me an email if you’re interested…

and of course let us know what YOU’ve been able to say YES to lately, too!

Taormina: Rescued by a Resort Town

Dainties for Sale, Taormina


Italy can be a wondrous place, but it is like any other destination in one respect: you have to slow down to enjoy it.

In addition to sounds, scale, and people, pace is an important factor in traveling to refresh your self and reset your purpose. At home, in your life, you may have many responsibilities and commitments that constantly tug at your mind, but when you travel, you can hit the pause button on these in order to consider bigger questions, if you know how to alter your pace.

If you read the post on my journey from Sorrento to Sicily, you know that it was difficult for me to let go of knowing ahead of time my path and deal with things as I was allowed to by the Italian system (especially trains, ferries, and buses!). But this was actually one of the goals of my trip- to learn to go with the flow of things popping up as they liked. So, as you can see, Italy was the only place to practice thisOn this trip, I experienced a truck strike that prevented me from visiting Positano, and a train accident that left me stranded for 4 hours in Sicily the day before I was to fly out of Naples. Nothing if not exciting, right?

But back to pace. I had a week, and I needed some travel days, so that meant 3 days in the Neapolitan area and 3 days in Sicily. So what did I do to slow down the pace? I stayed in one town my whole time in Sicily. Some may think this a waste, but what I lost in different views I gained in depth of perspective.

The Fiat 500's View of Mt. Etna

I did not climb Mt. Etna, the live volcano that framed many of my shots. I did not go to Palermo, which is rumored to have the best arancine. I flung myself into Taormina, and wherever I wandered I did it on foot (a key part of altering one’s pace).

View of Mediterranean from Taormina town       Wedding, Taormina town square

This meant that I had time to visit places twice. To note a restaurant and come back later. To peek into a medieval church and later see it in modern use. To bathe in the light of a secret city garden plot, under stairs that split the sky.

Stairs Over a Garden Alley, Taormina

 To sample- OH, TO SAMPLE!- the delicacies on offer, including  the origin of one of my favorite treats: orangettes (the behind-right concoction)!

Delectable Treats of Sicilia

To listen to a neighbor restaurant’s hired crooner hold onto that ‘Vo’ note in Volare, just for me. To face a fear of heights and take the gondola down to the ‘spiaggia’ (beach).

Ticket for the Gondola, Taormina

…which led me to a grand view of the national sport in action, with a bonus view of the Deep Blue Sea! Who says personal victories aren’t rewarded?

View from Taormina Gondola, futbol!

Beach! Taormina

…which led to the highlight of the Taormina sojourn. Taormina, as you can see, sits on cliffs high above the sea, but they do have a few beaches down below to choose from. I joined a gaggle of university girls on a break from studies in Rome (ah, to be at that stage again!) to explore L’Isola Bella, a tiny island that is usually accessible by a sandy (actually very pebbly) spit.

There is a small museum, which I didn’t go in. After some sunning, I instead went for a swim to one side of the spit, where I observed a French family with their kids. There was a father, a mother, a little girl, an aunt and some cousins. Now when I say ‘a swim,’ it wasn’t very far, but it was still April, and the water was none too warm, so it still took some courage to dunk oneself in. Apparently the French adults thought so too, for they were staying in the shallow parts and sitting on the large rocks.

As a cousin beckoned further out, but the mother and father declined, the young girl, who was maybe 8 years old, got ready to jump in and join the cousin, turning to say to her parents: “Suivez la jeune fille forte!” and flexing her biceps.

L'Isola Bella bathing, Taormina

“Follow the strong little girl!” Hearing her say that, I just felt my heart swell. We all start off as strong little ones, confident that we can swim out to meet the cold. So maybe if we slow down and listen, we can hear that voice, and feel that confidence, again.

Clear Mediterranean Water, Taormina

 Staying in a resort town like Taormina helped me to set a different pace for a while, and listen to that strong little girl. Barring a resort town near you, how can you rescue yourself from both the hustle and bustle of outside life, and the nagging demands of your own to-do list?

Don’t put it off. It’s important.