27 Jun 2012

Sticky date pudding + caramel sauce


I think we can all agree, it's pudding weather.

And more specifically: sticky date pudding?

Since the weekend there has been a lovely white blanketing of Snow On The Mountain. An icy little breeze cutting through the sharp sunshine. I try to drink an entire cup of tea before it goes cold; no luck at all.

But bubbling hot caramel sauce, dark and brooding, retains its heat well, all the way down to my belly. It's this burnished sauce that puts the 'sticky' into these puddings. And even though the sauce is made with an entire pot of cream (what an exhilarating feeling to up-end it freely!), there's no reason not to add some more - whether it be the thick double cream variety, or tart sour cream, or, for the perverse, ice cream - over these drowned little cakes.

Actually, they're not so little; they're big and moist and flavoursome. Made with sweet dates and a little mixed spice for warmth; made in deep Texas muffin tins. So these big little puddings require lots of caramel sauce, and then a bit more.

Because there is Snow On The Mountain, and will probably be more for some time yet. So eat up. Bikini season is a long way off.

Sticky date puddings + caramel sauce
Torn from an old supermarket magazine years ago
  • For the puddings, preheat oven to 180 and grease a Texas muffin tin (6 holes).
  • Place 150 grams chopped dates into a saucepan with 3/4 cup boiled water; bring to boil and then reduce to simmer for about 5 minutes or until the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and stir thru 1 tspn bicarb of soda. Beyond fizzing, I don't know what bicarb does either. 
  • Cream 80 grams butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1 tspn vanilla extract; then beat in 2 eggs. When combined, add 1 cup SR flour and 1/2 tspn mixed spice. Then stir in the date mixture.
  • Spoon into muffin tin and bake for 15-20 minutes until done (cake starts to come away from tin, skewer comes out clean, kitchen smells delicious). Cool in tin for a few minutes before turning out.
  • For the sauce, combine 1 cup brown sugar (dark by preference), 300 ml thickened cream, 1 tspn vanilla and 60 grams butter in a medium saucepan - it bubbles as it cooks so you need the wriggle room (I used a small saucepan and had to pretty quickly transfer it to something bigger, or I would have had caramel sauce all over my stovetop).
  • Cook over medium heat until it comes to the boil, then reduce way down and simmer - this should take about five minutes all up. Stir constantly, watch vigilently, do not walk away.

24 Jun 2012

Martha Stewart's silverbeet galette: the good, the bad

Have you ever tried a new recipe, cooked the dish, pulled it from the oven, served up a portion - with a generous side dish of anticipation - and thought, 'yes - but...'? Had a few bites, thought, that bit works, but the other bit lets the side down? Actually started re-writing the recipe while you were still eating?

That's what happened to me yesterday.

Martha Stewart's recipe was my starting point - as you may have gathered by now, I adapt or tweak or just plain change recipes (I take after my mother). This one was no different - though next time, I will change it even more.

So the good bit - the amazing bit - the pastry. The pastry stays and will be one I'll use again, for sweet and savoury. Here's the only tweak: I'll drop the salt down, and add a little sugar if I used it for a sweet tart. But this pastry was both study and delicate. I've never made a pastry with as many ingredients as this one: plain flour, wholemeal flour and rolled oats; butter, sour cream and an egg yolk. But so easy to make: just whiz it all up in the food processor. The dough comes out heavy - it has, after all, got all that fibre and all that dairy in it, I suppose.

But when it came out of the oven: so short - so short! - and flaky and light. Yet still somehow sturdy enough to support the filling, and rustic looking and substantial tasting with the finely blitzed oats and wholemeal bits. I instantly fell in love, and realised it could be so versatile: my mind was leaping ahead to wonderful, unexpected pairings of, say, generous chunks of sweet apple, or tart rhubarb, or rich summer apricots. It deserved so much better than the filling it came with.

To be fair, the silverbeet filling wasn't bad: gently softened onion, garlic, and the silverbeet stalks, then the shredded leaves. I used my darkest silverbeet, which has bright pink stems, so this 'stew' had such a pretty colour.

And that is where I should have stopped. And next time, I will (though perhaps a little fried bacon or chorizo would be delicious, as would chunks of silky-soft mushrooms).

But no, Martha advised adding balsamic vinegar. Thankfully I added only a splash - not the whole three tablespoons she advised. I can't imagine how vinegary that quantity would have tasted. And there was thyme in there too; even though I again used way less than specified, the woody herb hit a wrong note against the silverbeet and the balsamic. And then, further gilding the lily, you were to top this with a goat's cheese and nutmeg mix. This was all unnecessary. The nutmeg competed with the flavours in the silverbeet, and the cheese mix just seemed plonked on top; the whole lot was superfluous and without reason. Is it because some people don't like silverbeet, that it has to be disguised, hidden, ruined?

But let's end on the high note - the pastry! Remember the pastry! Please, make the pastry.

Have you ever had a recipe experience like this?

Martha's wholemeal galette pastry
I give the pastry recipe because it was so good, but only general notes on making a free-form tart with it. If, after all I have said above, the original does sound good to you, you can find it in Martha Stewart's 'Pies and tarts' book,as 'Swiss Chard and Goat Cheese Galette'.
  • In a food processor, combine 1/2 cup plain white flour, 1/2 cup plain wholemeal flour, 1/2 cup rolled oats and a scant 1 teaspoon salt (I would use less next time; if you were using this for sweet, add perhaps 1/2 to 1 teaspoon sugar). Whiz up, then add 110 grams cold butter, 85 grams sour cream, and one egg yolk. Whiz again til it comes together.
  • Remove from food processor, form into a disc with your hands, then wrap in cling film and chill for an hour.
  • When ready to use, roll out very thin - about 3 mm thick (mine was roughly 35 cms across - I measured for you) and transfer to a baking sheet (though next time I shall experiment with placing it on my preheated pizza stone, just to see what happens). Put whatever filling you wish (sweet or savoury - I can imagine roast vegies would be delicious) in the centre, leaving a 5cm border free. Then fold up this edge all around over your filling, to make a rough looking enclosure. Brush the pastry with a little cream.
  • Into your preheated oven at 190 and cook until done - pastry golden and crisp looking. This recipe took 45 minutes; please use your judgement depending on how moist your filling is, how hot your oven runs (and perhaps if you use a pizza stone to help conduct the heat).

23 Jun 2012

Roast pumpkin slices, two ways

I made a very simple but delicious meal from a wedge of pumpkin last night. I was aware that it had been sitting in the fridge, wrapped in crisp kitchen paper, for well over a week - since mum and dad gave it to me. Not too much, I said, I still have a butternut from the last time I saw you. Oh now how I wish I had asked for 'too much'.

This lovely pumpkin; a dark autumnal orange with grey-green skin (I haven't yet found out the variety from dad). I sliced it thinly - less than a centimetre thick - making sure each had a thin ribbon of that smooth skin. I had two recipes that I lightly consulted: one from Yotam Ottolenghi's book 'Plenty', the other from a blog by hungry girls (there are lots of us around, apparently).

Simplicity itself - as all good meals should be. While the oven came up to a roaring hot speed (about 200), I lay the delicate fan-shaped wedges of pumpkin on some baking sheets then anointed them with olive oil.

On the first, I took my cues from those hungry girls. I sprinkled over some dark smoky paprika, then a liberal shake of dried chili flakes, the burnt red colour of the flakes glowing against the pumpkin shards. Then a quick dash outside to the garden for some fresh rosemary - this week, any dash outside has to be quick, or you risk getting frostbite. Chopped up fine; salt and pepper.

A different approach for the other tray: a golden dusting with panko crumbs, crunchy and crisp? Do you have these in your pantry? Their lightness is a revelation, and they are so much better than ordinary breadcrumbs. Then some lemon zest, more S&P, and a good, good handful of finely grated parmesan.

Roast until they are done to perfection: the parmesan and panko biscuit-golden, the pumpkin soft thru, almost  melting; all glistening with the olive oil. When the kitchen smells cosy and fiery all at once.

I fanned these out on my plate, accompanied by a bowl of mixed salad greens and some lightly steamed zucchini chunks - still with a bit of crunch - and a ball of peppery, lemony labne. I imagined it was a bit like a mezze plate or tapas or tasting plate; really it was just two plates of tricked-up vegies.

But - oh! The chili-paprika pumpkin was fiery, perfect for such an arctic night, warming every last frozen tastebud. And the cheesy-crumby crusted pumpkin - the panko crackled in your mouth, the parmesan and lemon were sharp and bright and lively. I think I actually said 'wow' out loud.

And both had that delicious toffee edge that happens when a good starchy pumpkin caramelises with olive oil under high heat. There is science in the kitchen, there is alchemy and magic.

I devoured the lot, and wished there was more. I enjoyed them as the only thing on my dinner plate, with the soft salad greens a refreshing contrast to the velvety deepness of the pumpkin.

22 Jun 2012

Correction: jammy cheesecake cake

My apologies, everyone: the brownie tin measurement in this recipe should be 8 inches square, not 9. I shall correct the post, but I thought I should tell you in case you've already printed it out and are madly searching in your cake tin drawer for a size that doesn't exist. It probably wouldn't make that much difference, but ... just in case.

20 Jun 2012

Book review: New urban farmer

If you can’t be out doing the garden at this time of the year, the next best thing is reading about it. New urban farmer: From plot to plate. Great title, hey? This is an English book by Celia Brooks-Brown that I borrowed from the library, her account of allotment farming. It starts well:

‘I won’t pretend cultivating the now abundant allotment has been a breeze. It is unquestionably time-consuming and occasionally frustrating, guilt-provoking and back-breaking’

Truth! Any gardening book that warns of the woes as well as trumpeting the pleasures is on the right track, I reckon. Because while you no doubt have this bucolic, nostalgia-tinged image of being like a British wartime land-girl, donning your squishy straw hat and rolling up your spriggy-Cath Kidson floral sleeves and taking to it easily, it’s not always so rosy.

Another quote, another good reminder:

‘Growing your own is not about instant gratification – it’s a journey, not a destination’

After some basic gardening info, Celia’s book slots into that ‘a year in the life of’ genre, and it works well when describing the seasonal changes in a garden. She starts with the most abundant season, spring (which, as it is an English book, is March).

This book is full of character: the people sharing the allotment, the passerbys and neighbours who get surplus produce. In my backyard suburban vegie garden, I don’t have that same sense of community – the only person I really talk to about my vegies is my dad, for instruction and guidance, to learn what to do when; and my friend D, when we compare the state of our silverbeet and chilli plants during our lunchtime walks.

I also love reading Celia’s tales of the work of gardening: cleaning out and fighting weeds and pests, sowing seeds, re-using food containers for seed trays, being overwhelmed by the multiplying asparagus (reminder: must buy some crowns to plant) and rhubarb (I’m jealous!). And finally, someone else who refers old-fashioned curly leaf parsley to the trendy flat-leaf stuff!).

There are also recipes – what she’s making with her produce. It’s a tried and true formula, but this is such an inviting, charming read that it seems fresh and wonderful.

My only quibble with this delightful book is an editor’s one: there were spelling mistakes, doubled up words, text queries that should have been removed, and more than once, incomplete sentences. I hope these were corrected in subsequent editions.

This is really is an inspirational account of what gardening is really like.

Are you reading any good books at the moment? Gardening or otherwise?

17 Jun 2012

Jammy cheesecake cake

I made this cake a number of times in the summer, when I was working my way thru an obsession lately with layered cakes – not the two sponges sandwiched together variety, with whipped cream and jam (though they are good) – but the kind that have two or three layers of different tastes and textures baked into them.
This is a moist layer of butter cake, topped with cheesecake, swirled with jam, and sprinkled with a fine crumb topping.
Cakes like this are fun to make – this recipe used my food processor and my mixer (therefore different techniques). There was also a wonderful diary triumvirate; sour cream, butter and cream cheese. Cholesterol heaven!
And they are, of course, amazing to eat. I’ll confess this is nicer cold, when the thin cream cheese sets; being a thin layer, it is creamy and eye-rollingly wonderful, not sickly as it could so easily be if the proportions were different.
In the summertime I made this with tart raspberry jam, and also with thin slices of fresh apple (from my own tree - not dad's!). It is one of those accommodating recipes that you could use with any jar of jam with only a sppon or two left in, that needed using up; or, in the summer time, whatever stone fruit or berries you had piling up on the kitchen bench. I can imagine poached rhubarb would be delicious, too – a good, tart contrast to the creaminess of the cream cheese layer. This time I made it with quince jam of mum’s, so rich and sweet it was like liquid toffee (and the bits around the edges were like real, chewy toffee once baked).
Making it again today I realise I like a recipe to give you an indication of what you should be experiencing. I don’t need complete handholding, but it would have been reassuring to know that the cake batter is stiffer and dryer than concrete (but that the final cake is unbelievably soft and moist. Ah, the magical, mysterious science of baking!).
Jammy cheesecake cake
Adapted from another blog; I'm afraid I didn't write the name on my original printout. If this is yours, let me know.
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and line an 8 inch square brownie tin with baking paper.
  • Put 2 and 1/4 cups plain flour, 3/4 cups white sugar and 180 grams butter in a food processer and whizz up. Remove 1 cup of this and set aside.
  • Add 1/2 teaspn baking powder, 1/2 teaspn baking soda (bicarb of soda) and a scant 1/4 teaspn salt and whizz up, then add a good 3/4 cups sour cream, 1 large egg, and a generous 1/2 teasp vanilla (let it slop a bit). It will look stiff and unpromising (see above). Push this into your brownie tin. Use force.
  • Next cream a 250 gram block of cream cheese, 1/4 cup sugar and 1 egg til smooth. Pour over the cake base and lick fingers often.
  • Drizzle over some jam (warm in microwave first to make it runny, if necessary), or use fresh or stewed fruit (as discussed above). I used a couple of generous spoonfuls - I could still see the cream cheese layer.
  • Finally sprinkle over a couple of spoonfuls of the crumbs set aside earlier. The original recipe specified using the full cup of crumbs, but I think this would be too much (it also recommended eating this cake for breakfast). I freeze the leftovers for mum's chickens; if you don't have chickens maybe you could feed the pigeons in your local park? Waste not want not.
  • Bake for 45-50 minutes. It's hard to know if it's set using the usual skewer test, because of the creamcheese layer, but you can easily wiggle in a knife to have a look and then push it back together with no one knowing.
Jackson Pollock, eat your heart

16 Jun 2012

Chocolate wheatie biscuits

Full disclosure: these are mum's biscuits this time.

Back in the days when I bought biscuits - before I had a home with a working oven - I would occasionally buy packet biscuits from the supermarket, and I would choose between chocolate wheatens or granitas. I loved the healthy illusion of these treats: sure they were coated with dark chocolate, or studded with chewy-hard sultanas, but they were oaty (or wheaty), sort of plain and fibre-y and wholesome tasting, really just a step up from a bowl of porridge or a slice of brown bread, so surely they were practically health food, right? And sultanas were once a fruit and dark chocolate is full of antioxidants, so there was really no argument. With a hot cup of tea, I could really fool myself into having a virtuous health moment. I’d be flaying myself with birch branches and swimming in icy lakes, next.

I came across this recipe for chocolate wheatens – or ‘wheaties’ as they were called here, so as not to impinge on brand copyrights or similar legal issues – in an Australian Womens’ Weekly book I borrowed from  library (I cannot resist an AWW recipe book).
As is my wont, I changed the recipe about – due to necessity, not whim this time. I had no wheat germ but I had oat bran (so does this make them chocolate ‘oatens’?) and I had self raising wholemeal flour, not plain, so I did some swap arounds. All worked fine; when I pulled the trays from the oven and I had small delicate rounds, waiting to have their bottoms smeared (in the nicest way possible) with chocolate. I couldn’t wait though, and they were nicely dry and bran-y; bits get stuck in your teeth and behind your gums and require a good strong cup of tea to help with the clean up.
However, these are chocolate wheaties, and they’d be a bit too spartan without the coating of chocolate specified in the recipe.
Is there anything as sensual (but messy) as swirling blocks of chocolate in a double boiler to produce glossy molten goo?… Within minutes, each biscuit was licked with a little melted chocolate and left to (too slowly) cool. Perfection – the bittersweet chocolate and the short, wholemeal biscuits were a match made in ‘let’s pretend we’re healthy’ heaven.
You need to roll these out and fridge them before cutting out your rounds. The mixture was surprisingly sticky, so fridging made handling them easier – although gathering up the ‘scraps’ for the second roll out was a bit sticky again.
I honestly think next time I would roll these out as balls, maybe fridging them before cooking, in case that prevent them from spreading all over the place and becoming one big chocolate wheaten on the baking tray! The last ones that I did roll and flatten honestly looked much nicer – rounder and softer – than the stamped out ones.
My mother though (and these are hers pictured above) rolled her dough into a log shape, wrapped it in cling film and chilled in the fridge; I think she said for only half an hour. Then sliced them and baked that way. That sounds like a good thing to do too.
Chocolate wheaties
Adapted from the AWW.
  • Preheat your oven to 180.
  • Cream together 90g soft butter and 1/2 cup light brown sugar. Add 1 egg. When combined, stir in 1/4 cup dessicated coconut, 1/3 cup oat bran, 2/3 cups wholemeal SR flour and 1/3 cup white plain flour.
  • Please see my notes above. You can either roll out the dough and cut out the biscuits, or roll out balls and flatten them, or roll into a log then chill then cut. Whatever you like.
  • Place on baking trays and bake about 20 minutes (depending on the thickness of your biscuits).
  • Meanwhile, melt your dark cooking chocolate, in either the microwave or over a double boiler, whichever method you prefer. I used 100 grams and got a thin coating, but the recipe specifed 185 grams - which is what mum used, by the look of it, nice thick chocplate bottoms! Wait til biscuits are absolutely cooled before spreading over the base of each one. You can be neat and smooth, creative and use a fork to make wiggly marks, or I rather like mum's thick painterly smears.
  • These will soften gradually because of the chocolate.  So eat them up quickly.

13 Jun 2012

This week's obsessions

A new rangehood. Because the current one just stopped sucking. Making pasta is akin to taking a sauna: steam billows everywhere, condensation drips from the walls. Good for the skin I suppose, but not the paintwork, and strong cooking odours linger.

Of course, nothing is ever easy, and new rangehoods are much larger than the one currently in my kitchen (or, more correctly, sitting on the floor outside my kitchen). Which would not be such an issue if my home's previous owners had not built cabinets completely surrounding the rangehood. There is no wriggle room. So a minor kitchen remodel is in order.

On the plus side, a lunchtime visit to the appliance store revealed new ones are magnificently quieter now, and wonderfully easier to clean. So I'm kind of looking forward to getting a new one. Just not the process of putting it into my kitchen.

Peanut butter. I am obsessed with PB at the best of times; I keep a jar at work and have some every work day (curiously, I don't eat it at home or on the weekends). Occasionally on toast, usually on a baby carrot, sometimes on apple wedges, but mostly just on a spoon.

But I'm especially consumed by PB thoughts at the moment because the Australian brand I usually get is out of stock, the peanuts wiped out by the Queensland floods.

So an agonising hover in front of the supermarket shelves, analysing the ingredient lists and providence of the half dozen brands before me. Decisions, decisions! I chose a brand made from imported peanuts - but with no added salt or sugar (I realised my usual brand may have been Australian nuts, but had the salt and sugar).

Yes, I know - first world problems indeed.

Last night at the Aproneers I was stopped in my tracks by jars of PB - made locally in a suburb of Hobart, from some miraculous stash of Australian peanuts, and with no added this or that! Ticking all the boxes! Sold to the girl who cannot get thru a working day without a PB hit.

11 Jun 2012

Donna Hay upside down orange cake

If you can, look up close to see the pretty vanilla seeds. Also pretty, fabric from Frangipani Fabrics.

So I made something new this weekend with the cannelloni, but an old favourite for desserts. I love this Donna Hay upside down orange cake (henceforth known more briefly as orange cake) - though the way I have tweaked it, it is more like a pudding, syrupy and rich and sweet.

I love making this in the winter, when oranges are at their juicy best, their bright colour and taste cutting through any winter fug.

Eating this orange cake makes me happy. I make it a few times every winter, because every time I finish it, I think why isn't there more I could eat this for the rest of my life. But cooking it makes me happy too: cutting the fruit into very thin slices (they should be no more than 3-4 mm thick for the best results), the juice squeezing all over the cutting board, then eating the leftover bits. The smell of the orange slices candying in the sugar-vanilla syrup, blubbing away gently on the stove, all sunshine in a pan. Vanilla + orange = a very good thing indeed.

As I said, the way I make this is more like a pudding because I halve the cake quantity. This was out of necessity the first time I made it: I knew my pan was simply not deep enough to take the full amount. But once I turned it out and had my first slice, I discovered that what cake was there was happily drenched in that orange-vanilla magic - and therefore is, I suppose, a self-saucing upside down pudding!

So I keep making it this way. It is simply a straightforward cake batter poured over the orange slices, then baked and turned out. If you have the patience, you can push your orange slices into a pretty arrangement before you top them with the batter (I have done this), but it still looks like an edible stained glass window when revealed if you leave them to do their own haphazard thing.

I left this weekend's pudd in for five minutes too long. This meant the oranges weren't as syrupy looking as they have been in the past. What did happen though is the syrup sunk thru the cake, making it sticky and candy-like and just glorious. No bad thing at all!

This is grand while still oven-warm, perhaps with a little natural yoghurt, but just as stickily good when fridge-cold and the oranges are really chewy.

I hope you try this and love it as much as I do!

Upside down orange cake
Adapted from Donna hay
  • Preheat oven to 160 and use a pan about 22-24 cm across that can go on your stovetop and in your oven - it's an all-in-one kind of thing (less washing up!).
  • First make the orange topping: put 1 cup white sugar plus half cup water in the pan, stir over medium heat till dissolved. Then stir thru 1 tspn vanilla paste, then add thin orange slices - enough to cover the bottom, overlapping is fine. I generally cut two oranges and see how I go. Cook over a gently blubbing heat for about 10-15 minutes until orange is softened (this is why very thin slices are best). Once, done, remove from heat.
  • Next the cake: in a bowl, beat 2 eggs, half a cup of sugar and 1/2 teaspn vanilla for about 10 minutes until the mix is pale and 'tripled in size', says Donna. A stand mixer is good, or very strong biceps.
  • Then sift in 1/2 cup of SR flour, 1/2 cup almond meal, and 75 gms of butter that you have melted and cooled slightly (I put it in a small bowl in the preheating oven).
  • Then pour this carefully over the oranges, then bake for 35-40 minutes. You may need to cover with foil towards the end.  Once done, turn out onto a pretty plate and enjoy.

10 Jun 2012

Vegie cannelloni

This week I decided to get fancy with my vegies. It was a creamy risotto I made last week that set me thinking that I could do more than simply steam my greens (and reds and oranges) and toss them with salty butter, or olive oil and balsamic. I am a big believer of treating good produce simply - and when you have delicious veg to start with, doing more is, perhaps, gilding the lily. Plus, I am essentially lazy.

But I decided to challenge myself by making cannelloni. I consulted some recipes, got a general idea of what to do and what ingredients to use, and then made my own version up. I knew I wanted to use cabbage, as I have a Magic Pudding of a beast sitting in my fridge - no matter how often I use it, I've still got a massive lump there!

I also wanted a dark green hit: by using a forgotten head of broccoli (no doubt obscured by the giant cabbage) and some dark silverbeet leaves from my garden. I finely chopped then steamed all these - keeping the pale cabbage separate from the darker greens - then allowed them plenty of time to dry (in fact, I went and bought two climbing roses for my front garden).

Then I took my large duck roaster - a very large casserole dish with an impressive domed glass lid, apparently perfect for... roasting ducks. Who knows why I bought a 'duck roaster' - who knows what was going thru my mind - but here it is being called into service for cannelloni. I spooned some homemade pasta sauce over the base, then piled on the cabbage, for a lovely bed for the cannelloni.

To the broccoli and silverbeet I added a small tub of ricotta, a large spoonful of sour cream, and plenty of S&P til I had a squidgy mix. This I then blobbed onto some fresh cannelloni sheets -  like lasagna sheets, soft and pliable, ready to roll! I filled them to bursting and then crammed them into the roaster on top of the cabbage.

The rest of the ruby-red sauce went over the top, then - and this is the only time I followed a recipe - I covered the lot with foil and put it in a 200 oven for 30 minutes. As this drew to a close, the garlic and basil from my summer sauce filled the kitchen with the most delicious aroma. Outside it may have been growing cloudy and grey, but inside it was warm and rich and heady from the garlic.

After 30 minutes I removed the foil and then sprinkled over a good handful of grated cheddar and a smaller amount of parmesan and some panko crumbs. Back in til the cheeses melted with the sauce to make a golden, gooey topping.

The silverbeet-ricotta stuffing was mellow and comforting in a way that only bland cheese and pasta can be. And underneath, the cabbage had become meltingly soft, translucent from the oils of the pasta sauce.

I was so pleased I took the trouble - and really, it was no trouble - to try something different.

6 Jun 2012

Pasta puttanesca + boozy apple crumble

I hope today is not like yesterday, and the day before: when the light - or rather lack of - was the same no matter what the hour. When mid-morning was indistinguishable from midday, which blurred miserably into mid-afternoon. To get me thru the unchanging greyness of it all, I plotted my dinner.

Pasta with puttanesca sauce, my way. Which meant taking the premise of 'slut's pasta' - tinned tomatoes, tinned tuna, some garlic - and adding chilli flakes for heat (to thaw my toes). I used homemade pasta sauce - made in the summer and squirrelled away in my gorgeous retro chest freezer (perhaps 50 years old, maybe more) that hums away in the garage - one of the best presents my parents have ever given me! Anyway, back to the sauce: dark ruby red, flecked orange with olive oil, just what I needed to give colour to the day.

I also squished in half a tin of cannelini beans - while not in any recipe I've seen, I'm sure those working girls had a tin of beans in their pantry alongside the Sirena. And, then just because I felt like it, some steamed brocolli and peas. I'm sure my Italian friend D would be horrified at these additions - that's not a proper puttanesca! Heresy! - but hey, it's my kitchen. Puttanas need their greens, too.

Some S&P, and some chewy pasta (the same I used in my mac cheese) - a comforting but not heavy dinner. I made so much after I served up that I have enough for my dinner again tonight, and enough to squirrel away into the chest freezer for another couple of meals.

While I prepared dinner, I had my pudding course toasting away in the oven.

The night before I had made some boozy apples. The plan was for apple tart, but I ran out of energy and time, and decided that what I really wanted anyway was a light, crisp, oaty crumble topping. So I made the boozy apples - I love saying 'boozy apples'! - a lightly caramelised concoction of apple wedges softened in brown sugar, water and sherry. Don't wrinkle your nose up at sherry until you've tried it in a dessert like this, where it lends a beautiful, mellow quality to the fruit. But drink it? No way.

Once softened, I piled them into a shallow pie dish and let the flavours deepen overnight while I pondered the crumble. So last night, all I had to do was mix up a crumble that resembled muesli: rolled oats, flaked almonds, a little coconut, and the tiniest amount of spice - much less than I usually use, but I didn't want the crumble competing with the mellow roundness of the cherried apples.

The crumble was a fidget with my 'Nigella's crumble' - that's what I have written on the page; I have no idea of the precise providence. I recalled from last winter that this could be a bit biscuit-like, not what I was after this time.  So I drastically reduced the butter and flour, allowing the oats and flaked almonds to become the focus. The final result was quite loose - if you want something more solid, I guess work your way back to the original butter and flour quantities. But I liked this 'loose' topping. Just enough toasty crispness to complement rather than dominate those rich, translucent, almost jelly-soft apples beneath.

I had sour cream on the side. And seconds.

Boozy apples
Use in a crumble, or a pie or tart, or just enjoy by itself. I don't know where I got this recipe from.
  • Peel, core and cut into wedges 6 to 8 apples.
  • Place 25 grams each of white and light brown sugar (this adds up to a quarter cup, so do half and half in that) into a heavy pan/pot with 3 tablespns water. Cook till sugar dissolved, then add the apples and 1 tablespn sherry.
  • Half-cover, get a light simmer going, and cook til the apples tender and liquid reduced (this took me about half an hour).
  • Then combine 1 tablespn sherry, 1 tablespoon white sugar, and 1 teaspn cornflour. Add this to the apples and stir around til combined.
  • It's now ready to use.
Nigella's crumble (and mine)
I give you the original recipe and, where different, my quantity in brackets. Either this pie dish was smaller than ones I have previously used, or I am becoming more moderate in my old age, but I only used about half this. The remainder too went into the freezer for another day.
  • 125 grams butter, melted (50 grams)
  • 60 grams rolled oats
  • 40 grams flaked almonds
  • 30 grams coconut (20 grams)
  • 70 grams plainflour (50 grams)
  • 1 teaspn each cinnamon and mixed spice (1/4 teaspn each)
  • 75 grams light brown sugar (50 grams)
  • Combine these, sprinkle over your fruit, and cook at 180 until as brown as you like - about 25 minutes at least for me.

3 Jun 2012

Obsessed with vegetables

Even though this past summer was not my most successful in the vegie garden - I had as many failed crops as I did fruitful ones - I am now experiencing a deep, sad sense of separation from it.

There is now very little to do; I am only cutting silverbeet and curly kale; there is nothing else ready. Even the chilli plant is slowing down; there are long green chillis hanging down mournfully, as if to say, 'it is too dark and cold for us to ripen'.

Worse than the lack of productivity is the fact that I now only see my garden at the weekends.

This is a complete turnaround from the summer - a summer that was the most gorgeous one I can recall since moving to Tasmania. This summer I was outside after work every evening I could be, tending the different rows of climbing peas and dwarf beans, watering the silverbeet that would wilt in the heat, mulching and feeding, nurturing the survivors and mourning the deaths - and just revelling in being out there, getting my hands dirty, using a different part of my brain, relaxing and re-charging my batteries by gardening.

Now it is too dark and cold when I come home from work to go outside except if I need silverbeet, and even then it is a rush to get back inside to the warmth. So this weekend - where the skies have been grey all day and the air still and cold - I forced myself outside: to breathe in the fresh air, apply a little liquid feed to the cabbages, rake up the autumn leaves from my nearly-bare blossom tree. A little pruning, moving some pots - not proper tasks, just an excuse to do something in my garden. To say hello.

I cooked a risotto this morning, creamy, starchy carbs perfect for the upcoming cold week. Made with completely bought vegetables. Beautiful ones, and admittedly ones I wouldn't or couldn't grow - sweet potato, onions, brussels sprouts, red capsicum - but the fact that I bought them all was a little depressing. They were not properly mine.

I am in love with vegetables at the moment, obsessed by vegetables. Not just eating them or growing them, but reading or watching other people grow and harvest and cook them on the television. The River Cottage TV shows with Hugh F-W are so beautiful to watch, a rose-tinted escape to a very rewarding English countryside.

And I am wallowing in the gentle pleasures of Nigel Slater's 'Tender', how he transformed his London backyard into a beautiful, productive garden; how he fights the snow and the foxes, but enjoys the asparagus and tomatoes and peas. This quote hits the right note for me:

There is no possible way I could be self-sufficient in vegetables and fruit with a garden this size. ... That is not the point. I grow simply for the pleasure of growing; for the joy of watching seeds turn into plants and seeing them - sometimes - come to fruition. 

This is, so far, much better than Stephanie Alexander's 'Kitchen Garden Companion' - wrong time of year for me to read this, as every page was filled with summer harvests. In the mood I am in, it just depressed me more, reminding me of what I could not enjoy.

2 Jun 2012

Pear and ginger biscuits

The sun came out long enough for me to take a pic. Then it disappeared. Fabric from the tempting Frangipani Fabrics

A cold grey day. Too many cups of tea, to keep warm. Too much hot buttered toast, instead of proper meals. The neighbourhood eerily quiet, save the rude squawk of a wattle bird.

A dull day requires something bright to lift the spirits, and these pear and ginger biscuits are just the ticket. They are really fruit-studded shortbreads, with their light, crisp texture (thanks, I'm sure, to using icing sugar rather than normal sugar). The sweet-tang of the dried pear and the heat of the glace ginger (which looks like little chunks of golden amber) is a wonderful pairing. The kitchen had a rich warmth in the air; the perfume of pear was unmistakable.

These are morish little bites. You'll want one, then another, then just one more. And perhaps yet another cup of tea to go with them.

Pear and ginger biscuits
Adapted from an Australian Women's Weekly recipe
  • Prepare baking sheets. Preheat oven to 180.
  • Cream 200 grams of soft butter, a generous half teaspoon of vanilla, plus 1 cup of icing sugar, sifted.
  • The recipe actually calls for an egg at this stage too, but I just realised - I left it out! My biscuits turned out fine.
  • Add 1 and 3/4 cups of plain flour, sifted, then 1/2 teaspoon of bicarb of soda, then two heaped spoons of almond meal.
  • Then add 1/4 cup of finely chopped dried pear and 1/4 cup finely chopped glace ginger.
  • Roll into walnut sized balls, flatten slightly, place on your trays. I got 34 biscuits.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, then cool on racks, and enjoy!

New whiz-bang blog feature!

Hello everyone on this dreary Hobart morning,

I've gone all fancy and installed a new interactive feature for you.

There are now tickboxes at the end of each post, so you can quickly let me know what you think. It's great for those of you too busy to leave a full comment (I know you're out there).

If you read Dig in via the sign-up email, I'd love for you to click through to Dig in itself and let me know your thoughts - either by ticking a box or leaving some words.

Thank you everyone - old friends and new - who have already been so supportive in these early weeks of Dig in.

Much love,