My father was a truly wise and wonderful man and, together with my mother, taught me and my siblings that 'charity begins at home'. That is, we learned about the mentality of loving kindness (as opposed to the misconstrued belief that you 'should always take care of your loved ones before anyone else in the world'). And this mindset has pretty much stuck with me throughout my life.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to tell you that I'm some kind of angel and my halo is feeling a little too tight. On the contrary. Thankfully, my father's humanity and wisdom also came with a wicked sense of humour, and I'm pleased to have adopted that fine trait from him too, together with my mother's strength and determination (and absolute love of baking).
Maybe it's the Endone I'm taking after the operation on my broken foot earlier this week, coupled with a few things that have happened over the last few days, but I've been thinking a lot about how my father would approach religious groups that came door knocking in the hope to convert a fallen soul. My non-practising Catholic dad was inevitably mowing the grass, pruning roses or pottering in his garage when such folks arrived in their Sunday best and with their good books in hand. While I'm sure that deep down inside he might have liked to chase them away (vigorously) with a straw broom, his good side saw him suggesting cheekily that if they would take the time to help him finish his work in the garden, he would be very happy to sit with them for a while and hear what they had to say!
Indeed, had any one of them said yes to his offer, he would have surely sat down and theorised with them, possibly for hours. After my mother's funeral, he discussed his views on the Catechism of the Catholic Church with a rather surprised Father Michael, who had given the service and popped in to the house afterwards to see how we were all getting along. Let me tell you, Father Michael didn't 'win' that discussion by any means. And no, not one of the 'visitors' ever stopped to help out with dad's chores, much to his mirth.
That's nice, I hear you say, but what is she really waffling on about?
The catalyst for these memories is the increasing number of unsolicited and invasive telephone calls that are coming in to the home phone from politicians, fraudsters and an endless stream of charities. With the political parties, we simply hang up, especially if it's a recorded message. We keep a whistle by the phone for the fraudsters, but first I string them along with my best Greek yia yia impersonation. The charities, now they're an entirely different kettle of fish.
There are more and more individuals and families in our populace needing help and many of them slip through the cracks, particularly without any government support whatsoever. And I understand that charities are for the most part not propped up by government either, hence why they are leaning on members of the community. As the carer of a family member with a chronic disability, I have seen first hand the excellent work that charities can do and fully appreciate the difference they can make to someone's life. To this end, I donate cash and saleable goods to as many 'causes' as I can possibly manage. I've also donated years of my time to community groups over the decades. So when the telephone rings first thing in the morning, and again in the middle of the day, and then again bang on dinner time on a daily basis, I'm sorry to tell you it annoys me. But, I usually deal with it in a calm and kind manner... until this week when the phone calls seemed more frequent and, worse still, the same charities followed up by calling again the next day!
Here we are, a middle-aged recently retired couple, coping with the fact that one of us is completely out of action after surgery on a broken foot. The cooking, cleaning, washing and shopping still has to be done, and there are specialist appointments to attend, and injections and pain medications to be administered. It's not that we are being mean or unkind, but now, more than ever, those cold calls from organisations seeking our help are not wanted. Perhaps if the caller opened with a polite 'Hello, I'm calling from XYZ, is now a convenient time?', the recipient would have the chance to respond with a yea or nay. But that never happens. Peter had his ear chewed off this week by a fellow wanting him to commit to going out door knocking for charity. Despite his best efforts, he wasn't able to end the call, so (with shrunken shoulders) he simply agreed. When the fellow called back the next day, heavens only knows why (!!!), I asked Peter to hand me the phone. Don't worry dear readers, I was kind and polite in my manner, if not just a little upset. I pleaded with the man to leave us alone for the moment, and explained why. Hopefully he won't call again, ever.
Afterwards, I thought about how my father might have dealt with these kinds of daily intrusions. He nursed my mother for years before she died. Something tells me he most likely would have installed his usual kindness and good humour, though I'm not altogether sure. For he too donated money and goods to those in need whenever and however he could.
I know I'm not alone with my feelings on this. I took a straw poll of friends and family via social media recently, asking 'Hit me with your thoughts on telephone calls coming in at home from charities and political parties... how do they make you feel?' The many responses came flooding back, in summary: 'Not happy. ANGRY. Very annoyed. Trapped. Intruded upon. Over it. Guilty. Frustrated. Loathe it.' It was made clear that many people donate to charities online; via their local church, school or community group; and to collectors at shopping centres as well, so the telephone calls are deemed particularly invasive. Only one friend said 'I listen to their case and if they are a worthy (probably local) cause I try and contribute'. Another friend made me smile with her response: 'I say bueno, bueno no hablo ingles.' Good plan. I think from now on I'm going to answer the phone in Hungarian.
Recipe for chocolate babka with hazelnuts...
And now for a more comforting topic. Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi is at the top of my list of favourite cookbooks. I love Ottolenghi recipes and have been cooking my way through the book. The section on Yeasted Cakes is particularly well-thumbed as it reminds me of my Hungarian-Czech mother and her beautiful brioche and other goodies. The Chocolate kranz cakes caught my eye, as they sounded similar to my Kakaós csiga or chocolate snails, only a richer more buttery version. Ottolenghi's recipe uses pecans and I was planning to substitute walnuts until I saw Lorraine's version on Not Quite Nigella with hazelnuts. Having bought a large bag of hazelnuts fresh from the grower at the Orange Farmer's Market, I decided I'd use a handful of hazelnuts too. Here is my adaptation of the recipe from Jerusalem. This quantity makes two delicious cakes, which keep well for days.
CHOCOLATE BABKA WITH HAZELNUTS
For the yeasted cake:
530g plain (AP) flour
100g vanilla infused caster sugar
2 teaspoons dried yeast
finely chopped zest of one lemon
3 large free-range eggs
150 unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed
spray oil for greasing the pan
a little extra flour for dusting
egg wash, for baking
For the chocolate filling:
50g icing sugar, sifted
30g best quality cocoa powder, sifted
130g good quality dark chocolate, melted
120g unsalted butter, melted
100g hazelnuts, chopped
For the syrup (optional, use an egg wash instead):
250g caster sugar
Combine the flour, caster sugar, yeast and lemon zest in the bowl of a stand mixer and combine the ingredients with a dough hook on the lowest setting. Add the eggs and water, and keep mixing at medium speed until the dough comes together, about five minutes. Start adding the cubed butter, a little at a time, until it melts through into the dough. Keep mixing on medium speed for about ten minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Make sure you scrape down the sides of the bowl during the mixing process so that all the dough comes together into a neat shape.
Next, sprinkle a light dusting of flour over the dough and cover with some cling film or a clean towel. At this stage the original recipe says that the dough should be left in the fridge for half a day or overnight. However, I followed my mother's usual method with yeasted cakes and left the bowl in a warm spot, free of draughts, so that the dough could rise.
Meanwhile, grease two loaf tins with some butter or spray oil and line the base and sides with baking paper. Now, divide the dough into two and set aside to rest again while you make the chocolate filling.
To make the chocolate filling, combine the icing sugar, cocoa powder, melted chocolate and butter in a pyrex bowl and mix to a 'spreadable paste' (per my photographs). Roll out the two individual balls of dough to a 26x30cm rectangle, taking care to ensure that the sides are neat and even. Using a spatula or palette knife, spread half of the prepared filling over each of the two rectangular shapes, leaving a 1-2cm border around the outer edges. Now sprinkle the chopped hazelnuts over the chocolate filling.
Now with both hands, roll up each rectangle on the long side, which is closest to your body, and finish the roulade at the opposite long end. See my photographs below. You should end up with a delicious long sausage, all nicely rolled up. Trim the last 1cm ends off each roll with a sharp knife. And now for the magic part. Using the same sharp knife, cut each roll into two again, lengthways through the centre (see my photographs). Place two lengths, cut side facing upwards, alongside each other, press them together at the top end and then gently plait them. Again, press the other end together. You will end up with two plaited babkas (see photographs).
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C. Taking care, transfer each plaited cake into a prepared loaf tin. Cover each one with a clean, damp tea towel and leave in a warm place, free from draughts, to rise, for around one hour. Remove the tea towels, brush each with an egg wash, and bake the babkas for approximately half an hour or until a skewer inserted comes out clean.
As soon as the cakes come out of the oven, you can brush them with the cooled syrup (I opted not to use the syrup, the cakes were perfectly good without it). You'll have no problem devouring these babkas, they are indeed delicious, particularly with good coffee.
Yeasted cakes remind me of my Hungarian-Czech mother...
The dough is spread with rich chocolatey goodness...
And then plaited...
Ready to bake...
Chocolate hazelnut babka, nagyon finom...
So tell me dear readers, what are your thoughts on cold telephone calls from political organisations, fraudsters and charities. Do you receive them often? And how do you deal with them?
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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- Liz Posmyk
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.