"there is somehow nothing more pleasing than getting a simple thing spot-on." Nigel Slater
Apologies to November 5th for not acknowledging you at all. Well I did a little because it's my son's wedding anniversary, and as I have often said to him, the date helps me remember - always - because of "Remember, remember the fifth of November." But I didn't acknowledge the real significance November 5th, however significant is to my son - on the blog.
The Guardian, as always has helped me, because their weekly newsletter was full of bonfire night suggestions, including a couple of recipes for baked potatoes. November 5th is such a nostalgic thing for me, although always difficult, like Christmas to reconcile such cold weather festivities to Melbourne's summer weather.
But one of the very many nostalgic things I associate with Guy Fawkes night is the baked potatoes we cooked in the bonfire - for we always did have a bonfire topped with a guy, plus fireworks - Catherine wheels, rockets and bangers (didn't like the bangers) in our small back garden. I do remember those potatoes - often charred almost to extinction, but somehow delicious - which goes to prove the influence of occasion, setting, emotional state on food.
"This weekend, up and down the country, thousands of Britons will be grimly chewing their way through charred remains in the name of Guy Fawkes, who seems, as if annual immolation wasn't punishment enough, to have become the unofficial patron saint of the burnt potato." Felicity Cloake
But it's so exciting for small children Felicity. I can still taste the very distinctive mix of charcoal and fluffy very hot potato. I sort of didn't like it because of the charcoal - which we ate - but I also sort of did, and Guy Fawkes wouldn't have been Guy Fawkes without them..
For Felicity however,
"ovens were invented for a good reason: jacket potatoes." Felicity Cloake
Which is why a thought just flashed through my mind, in response to my big question of why the rest of the world - other than the British colonies - yes America was a British colony once - doesn't do baked or jacket potatoes. (The name is interchangeable it seems - even with the same person.). The thought is that it's actually all down to Guy Fawkes and his November 5th bonfires. Nobody else does Guy Fawkes. They do Halloweeen, or All Saints or All Hallows, and of course they are all related to ancient pagan festivities to try and keep the evil spirits/witches/whatever at bay as winter approached. Fire against the dark and all that metaphorical stuff. But those other festivals don't do the bonfires and therefore the potatoes.
Why didn't they do baked potatoes everywhere else? It's sort of the reverse question to yesterday's why don't the British do kebabs and yet the reason for the question is the same - it's such a primitive way to cook something - over/in a fire, I could not find an answer by the way.
And here's an interesting thing - the Japanese apparently don't have many ovens - hence no recipes for baked potatoes. I learnt this from a piece from Tim Anderson of The Guardian who featured a recipe for Japanese style;e baked potatoes with butter and salmon roe. And I have to say that they do look rather gorgeous.
But enough about Guy Fawkes, bonfires and other nations - I know I have done Guy Fawkes before and it is definitely not the best way to cook baked or jacket potatoes in a fire. No - go to Nigel Slater for that. HIs article The perfect baked potato seems to be the bible to which many turn. And I have to say that he covers the subject in a very comprehensive and entertaining way. His method of opening the potatoes when cooked is especially idiosyncratic and is commented upon by many others - even though it's actually an idea he got from Rosie Stark. I should just get you to read the whole article - well you should anyway - but here is the lengthy description of opening the potato. I can't resist. It's very comprehensive:
The karate-chop method works best. I was told about this long ago by cookery writer Rosie Stark and it works unfailingly. You need practice to get it right. Too slow and you burn your hand. Too hard and you shower the kitchen with potato shrapnel and nobody gets any supper. Ideally, you bring your hand down fast and sharp as if you were doing a karate chop, but only hard enough to crack open the potato skin. It sounds silly but the point is that it lets the steam escape in one great woosh, causing the flesh to turn instantly to snow. Slice it open instead and the result will be solid I should add that it is a good idea to cover the potato with a tea towel first. I mention this in light of a reader who wrote (kindly) to tell me of a scalded hand she got using my method. "You should have done it quicker" must have sounded unsympathetic as a reply, but you do have to look sharp. Thhwack! I do without the protection I suggest above. Not out of machismo, but to save a clean tea towel."
He also sort of reassures that this is one of those very simple things that it's hard to do right. Start with the right potato - a fluffy one - not a waxy yellow one, - 'ordinary' ones in fact, and the bigger the better really, although in his article he does tell you how to make something just as good and very similar if not quite the same with small new potatoes. Which we can't get here. The nearest we have is chat potatoes or baby potatoes of various kinds.
"A good baked spud is as much about luck as good planning - a fact that will infuriate those who think successful cooking is all about following recipes. As often as not, you just chuck them in the oven without a second thought and they come out perfect: the baked tatty from heaven. Another day you can get the correct 'floury' variety, bake it with a little sea salt in a hot oven and serve it within seconds of it leaving the oven and yet it still won't be right. You can follow all the rules and yet food sometimes does its own thing. In this case a skin that is unwilling to crisp up nicely and flesh that refuses to turn to froth. Sometimes cooks just have to cross their fingers." Nigel Slater
And incidentally Felicity Cloake preferred Delia's oven temperature - lower and longer, than Nigel's.
Ok - now you have your perfect baked potato. What now? Well you can, of course, just eat it with butter slathered over the top - or sour cream if you must. And this is all I do. I have never gone for the topping approach but I really don't know why. After all it's pretty easy and open to you having fun improvising about what you might top it with. I mean I adore potatoes and yet I am comparatively unimaginative in the way I cook them and just stick to a few tried and true - and traditional ways of cooking them - roast, mashed, boiled, gratin. I don't do chips any more.
Anyway I looked and found a few suggestions to get you going. There are two basic approaches - top your baked potato with something and eat it - or then put it back in the oven to brown off - there is usually cheese involved. This is what I found - mostly from Nigel I confess although Jamie has some ideas too - well it's also a down-to-earth Jamie kind of thing isn't it?: Curtis Stone's
Stuffed jacket potatoes with Gruyère and mushrooms; Baked potatoes stuffed with smoked haddock and mustard from Nigel via The Little Bean website which is working through some of his recipes; another one from Nigel - Baked potatoes with nduja cream; Jill Dupleix's Crash-hot smashed potatoes which is apparently one of her most famous recipes; Jamie's Garlic, thyme and anchovies baked potatoes in which the potatoes are slashed thickly before baking - in foil - a method that Nigel doesn't recommend by the way - except for bonfires. Jamie also has four other ideas for toppings and some general thoughts on the matter - four of his toppings are shown here and finally back to Nigel and The Little Bean for Baked potato with basil and Parmesan which is really simple because really you are just dolloping some pesto on top.
Lots to stimulate invention there, although nevertheless I shall still probably stick to the basic but supremely delicious form.
"The perfect baked potato is rough, salty and crisp outside, pure white and fluffy within. It should, I think, be round and fat, and be served so hot you have to blow on each forkful before you put it in your mouth. No waxy-fleshed trendy varieties please, just a plump King Edward as big as your hand, and butter, lashings of it, to mash into the snow-like flesh." Nigel Slater
I mean why would you want to mess with something so simply perfect?