27 Oct 2012

Prune and orange muffins

Show day came with bleak skies, cold air and rain - lots of rain. But my friend B and her little ray of sunshine H came over for morning tea. We quickly admired the colour in my front garden as we dashed thru the drizzle and into the warmth of the house (yes, this is October in Hobart). We settled down with hot drinks (coffee for B, tea for me; oh, and juice for H) and caught up on trips to the mainland, renovation plans, office politics and dolls-for-little-girls-politics.

B had kindly, deliciously brought along pitch-black chocolate cupcakes from the local gourmet grocers; we laughed at the hypnotised look on H's face; she looked like a little blonde bunny in the headlights of this sugar confection. She kindly assented to eating some of my baking, but all the time those large round eyes stared at the remaining black chocolate cake on the plate before her.

I guess in the face of that dark wickedness (and we adults agreed it was quite something), prune and orange muffins would seem rather lacklustre (and looking at the pics now, they actually look like old-fashioned rock cakes). And that may be why marketers are calling prunes 'dried plums' or even jazzier names. Re-branding them so people forget their health food connotations?

But really, prunes should be proudly prunes! I love prunes, especially in baking. One of my favourites is Nigella's chocolate cake enriched with pureed prunes. Chop up some plump juicy prunes - and maybe soak them in a little brandy or Tia Maria - then fold them thru your next brownie, or scatter them thru your next custardy bread and butter pudding, and then tell me you do not love prunes.

So why I saw this recipe I quite easily bypassed the 'wholesome muffin' label and the fancy re-branding and saw, simply, delicious prunes. Prunes with orange zest - another perfect pairing.

I'm not used to muffins - they are dryer than cupcakes, and not as sweet; or at least these ones were. But I did some re-branding of my own and called them muffin-scones, and then was quite comfy with them. And B said it was nice to have something not-too-sweet. We enjoyed them cut open with a little smear of butter, as you would a scone.

And the prunes? Fruity, silky and rich, brightened by the orange zest and warmed by the mixed spice I slipped in. Perfect.

Prune and orange muffins
Adapted from a recipe by the Sunsweet brand of 'plum amazin diced prunes'. Next time I may add a titch of vanilla for a little sweetness, or just up the orange zest and spice.
  • Prep paper cases in a muffin tin or two, and preheat your oven to 180.
  • First chop up enough prunes to give you 1 cup of diced prunes, then finely zest 1 orange.
  • In a large bowl sift 1 and 1/4 cups of wholemeal SR flour, 1 and 1/4 cups white SR flour. Add 1/2 tspn baking powder, 1/4 cup raw sugar and 1/4 tspn mixed spice.
  • In another bowl or large , lightly whisk 2 large eggs and 1/3 cup light oil.
  • This is going to look weird, but this is where I mucked around with the recipe, so I'll give you what I did plus what the recipe stated. Into the eggs and oil, add 1 cup plus 2 tbspns dairy. I used 1 cup of a combo of greek yoghurt and sour cream (the recipe: skim milk. Skim? Not in this kitchen!) and 2 tbspns soy milk (the recipe: natural yogurt) (I have often substituted dairy in this way before and everything always works).
  • Right, now pour the liquid into the dry, add the prunes and zest, then mix until just combined (I added a dribble more soy milk to catch the loose flour at the bottom of the bowl).
  • Spoon into your muffin tins and bake for about 15-20 minutes until done (a skewer comes out clean).
  • I think these are best served warm, with that little bit of butter, and a good friend's company. 

22 Oct 2012

Garden highs, kitchen lows

This weekend was altogether more successful in the garden than in the kitchen. Saturday’s weather was mild and perfect for gardening (compared to the rain and hail flurries of Sunday), so I pulled on my old gardening trackies and long-sleeved shirt and set to work.

A lot of weeding: alternating rain and sun over the last couple of weeks has caused everything - the good and the bad - to grow, so weeding was first on the to-do list. It was a good feeling to stand back after each patch or bed, hands on my lower back to stretch out the aching muscles, and see exactly what I’d achieved. In my day job, I’m an editor, and editing is a similar process to weeding: thinning out the unnecessary and removing the unwanted til the good stuff stands clear and has the space to shine. It’s therapeutic and satisfying, whether it’s words or weeds.

As you can see above, there are still flowers amongst my vegies, and they survived my weeding wrath; the royal purple aquilegias will soon be joined by vibrant blue larkspurs. They attract the bees into the garden so they are in fact quite strategic plantings. That and they are simply beautiful.

After the weeding, I sowed some more peas and beans (you can just see the bare trellises above). The seeds I sowed a couple of weeks ago are either very slow or complete duds; they really should’ve been up by now. The climbing beans I pushed in around the base of my teepees are thru: big, sturdy things punching up out of the soil. I marvel at their power.

I watered and seasol-ed, then took on the job I really dislike and procrastinate over endlessly: mowing the lawn (I feel much the same way about vacuuming the house. Is it a pushing thing?). But a freshly-cut lawn does make a difference to the appearance of the vegie garden and my ornamental garden out the front (which really deserves its own post soon, as the abundant spring colour fills me with such joy).

And finally, on Sunday (before the hail), Mum and Dad came up and I got my first tomato bush of the season (propagated by Dad), a small but healthy mamma mia. Dad is promising two more, so we found spots and he dug over and prepped the soil for me. Another thing to nurture and get excited about. Thanks Dad!

Cooking, on the other hand, was very ordinary. The pearl barley risotto I made… mmm, I’m not so sure about. It was beige and gruel-like. To fold through this I roasted chunks of sweet potato, pumpkin (from Dad) and red capsicum with smoky paprika, cumin, fresh sage and rosemary – gloriously fiery in colour and perfect in flavour.

But I fear the glue-like consistency of the barley risotto doesn’t do these vegies justice; after all, texture is as important as flavour and appearance. Mum’s chickens may end up eating very well.

How was your weekend? Did you have highs and lows?

New boots

New friends

My parents bought me a new pair of garden boots (not the Blundstone brand, but doesn't everyone call their boots 'blunnies'?). They are, as you can see, clean and unwrinkled, solid of sole and very hard. They will take months, perhaps years before they are as comfortable as old slippers, as my current ones are.

Also, being brand new and so stiff, I need to sit down to pull them on and off; no quick one-legged kick-offs. As well as effort, this requires a fair bit of time, as I discovered when I all-of-a-sudden needed to go to the loo, really quick and right now.

Did you get any presents this weekend?

Old favourites

18 Oct 2012

Prep work

Advance work was needed for something I hope to make over Show weekend (Hobart show; otherwise known as a good excuse to take an extra day’s leave and enjoy a four day weekend).
So as soon as I woke up this morning, I shuffled into the kitchen and measured out 1/3 cup of juicy sweet raisins into a bowl for some boozy soaking. And then discovered I had no brandy! You’ll never get me drinking the stuff but I love sloshing it into a chocolate cake or soaking fruit for a pudding. Obviously I had been doing more sloshing and soaking than I realised. So the next best thing I decided was Tia Maria; no strict measurement, just enough to sit the raisins in a little puddle, as you can see above (then cover with cling wrap and pop into the fridge until I get back to you).

Let me tell you, inhaling the rich sticky aroma of Tia Maria at 6.40 am is one helluva way to start the day. Mm-mmm.

16 Oct 2012

New Dig In features

If you're one of the lovely people who read Dig In via your email inbox (thank you!), I invite you to come on through to check out the site. I've been renovating, creating some new features, including:
So if you're after the ultimate brownie or how to plant cabbages, but can't recall which month I posted it in (don't worry, I can't remember either), I've made it easier for all of us.

Thank you again for supporting Dig In and, as always, I love hearing what you think.

15 Oct 2012

Jammy meringue slice

The lovely V shot me a challenge: what could she do to use up jars of jam?

I'm sure many people - like V - are looking at a motley collection of almost-empty jars of jam that really should be used up before the next season of jam-making begins over the coming summer months.

My immediate answers were jam drops or a jammy bread and butter pudding; a little later I remembered my jammy cheesecake cake, too. This was proving to be a much easier challenge than CC's, which was to come up with ten uses for panko crumbs (I'm working on it!).

But then V and I got googling (as you do). Google 'what to do with leftover jam' or some variation and you'll realise this is a common affliction. V found a layered slice with a streusel topping, which a few days later she reported was easy to make with her young daughter and very delicious, too.

I remembered the old-fashioned slice that layers cakes, jam and a coconutty-macaroony topping. Of course - a morning tea classic!

I consulted two authorities for my recipe: my favourite 'More cakes and slices' by the Australian Women's Weekly and the charming 'Ladies, a plate', the anthology of New Zealand home cooking collected by Alexa Johnston (if you don't have this book, it's worth perusing for the lovely linens and tattered recipes used to illustrate it).

Did you know in New Zealand this is called a 'Louise cake'? And if you make a variety using a chocolate base, it is called 'Elizabeth square'? But of course! What serendipity.

So if you need to use up your mum or auntie's raspberry jam before she hands over your 2013 batch, here's the ideal solution. After jam drops, jammy B&B pudding and jammy cheesecake cake.

Jammy meringue slice
Base and general instructions adapted from AWW's 'More cakes and slices'. Meringue topping from Alexa Johnston's 'Ladies a plate'. You'll know this is ready when a sweet, toasty aroma fills your kitchen, and the top looks like a golden cloud. Take a bite and you'll think 'cloud', too - a crisp meringue puff that collapses delicately in your mouth. The jam layer should be a tart variety to contrast with the sweetness of the light-as-air topping. Enjoy slowly, with your eyes closed.
  • Prep a small slice tin (mine measures 16 x 28) and preheat oven to 180.
  • Cream 90 grams soft butter, 1/2 cup sugar and 1 egg. Then stir in 1/4 cup SR flour, 2/3 cups plain flour and 1 tbspn custard powder. Spread in prepared pan (mine mix was both stiff and sticky, so be prepared for some fun!).
  • Bake for 15 minutes then remove from oven to cool for 8 minutes (if you have nothing else going on in your oven, turn the temp down to conserve some energy).
  • While it's cooling, whip 2 egg whites to stiff peaks, then beat in 115 grams sugar and 55 grams dessicated coconut (next time, I shall whip the whites to soft peak stage then add the sugar and proceed to stiff peak stage - I would have liked the sugar dissolved a little more).
  • One your 8 minutes is up, spread the base with jam of your choice (I think this would also be excellent with a lemon marmalade) - not too thickly - and then top with the meringue. Sprinkle over a little more coconut; I used the longer shredded coconut for this.
  • Get your oven temp back to 180 if you turned it down, and bake for another 25 minutes or so until the top is golden. 

10 Oct 2012

Spring potato bake

Or, saved by a potato

Retro springy cloth from Frangipani Fabrics

I was unwell recently and for too-many days I went off my food. Completely — the smell, sight, even the thought of food made me grimace. Eagerly anticipated library books were pushed away for another day. Tepid water was all I could stomach; even tea was disastrous.

Gradually though, I began eating; I knew I needed to so I could get better. Half a slice of dry toast. A silver of tinned pear. A spoonful or two of over-boiled broccoli and peas, mushed to baby-food consistency. Bland, easy to down without further waves of nausea. As an exercise in mindfulness I might perhaps recommend it, as I thought long and hard about every mouthful. For someone who usually eats with abandon, it was a surreal horror.

It wasn’t until I chatting to my friend F that I finally realised I was ready to cook and eat again. We were discussing Spanish food — F is Spanish; it is wonderful to hear her say ‘chorizo’ – and she described a simple dish of boiled potatoes and green beans, drizzled with olive oil and scattered with crunchy salt. Something easy and comforting for when you have little time or inclination or appetite for stronger flavours, she said. Perfect for a recovering tummy and palate.

I bought four medium-sized potatoes on the way home from work. I don’t eat a lot of potatoes; they are not even a pantry staple, as many a spud has sat in a dark cupboard and grown those long white feelers before I’ve gotten to them.

The potatoes were cut into chunks and steamed, not with beans but tender young kale leaves, as well as their almost-flowering heads (it looks a little like very loose, long florets of broccoli). Appropriately dressed, the meal was simple but substantial, and I ate with real enjoyment.

I decided then to re-make a dish I’d made a month or so ago: essentially a potato bake or sort-of dauphinnoise, with additional layers of green peas and spinach. I had mixed results: it tasted delicious – once I’d added extra ingredients like my zingy parsley pesto – but looked sloppy, all the creamy layers melting together wonderfully – instead of staying distinct as they were in the recipe photo. At the time I knew I’d make it again but tweak it even further, because the potatoes and creamy ricotta delivered perfect comfort food.

However, for some reason, the dish didn't turn out with the same sloppiness as the first time - which may have looked a mess but was delicious. Did I bake it a tad longer this time? Did I actually bake it at 180, not 200 last time? Were the potatoes a different variety? Should I have used even more sour cream? Was I imagining it?! But the flavours were the same balance of fresh and almost-rich. I know this will be one of my staples – for convalescence or otherwise.

Spring potato bake
Adapted wildly from a Delicious magazine recipe. This is not a quick dish to make, as there are lots of stages, so perhaps save it for the weekend. Or find someone to help you.
  • First, defrost or cook a cup of frozen peas, then mash or blitz them a little in a food processor.
  • Next, put 3 cups of water and 1 cup of milk in a large saucepan - I actually used 4 cups of water and 3 huge serving spoons of full-fat dried milk as I don't keep cows' milk. Add a couple of cloves of garlic and a small lump of butter.
  • Then slice 1 kg of potatoes very thinly; a mandoline makes short work of this. Add to the milk and bring to the boil, then reduce and simmer until the potatoes are just tender, but still retaining some bite. Stir gently every now and then, but be prepared for some of the potato to stick to the bottom of the pan.
  • Meanwhile, mix 500 grams of the ricotta you buy at the deli with 3 or 4 tbspns sour cream, some salt and pepper, and a generous amount of finely chopped chives (the original recipe specified 2 tbspns).
  • Meanwhile (the potatoes do take a while), you can either make a portion of my parsley pesto... or open a jar of your favourite green pesto.
  • Back to the potatoes. Once done, drain the potatoes but not too well; keep some of that creamy liquid clinging. And quickly put some soapy water in the empty pan to soak those stuck-on bits of tatie!
  • Grease a biggish casserole dish - mine is a 25cm round one - and heat your oven to 200.
  • Start assembling: put half the potatoes in, then all the ricotta-chive mix, then the mashed peas, then blobs of your pesto (blobs, not a thick layer), then the rest of the potatoes. Then top with a spinkling of parmesan and breadcrumbs or panko crumbs.
  • Bake for about 30 minutes or until crisp on top.

6 Oct 2012

Book review: 'The Edible Balcony'

Have been re-reading Indira Naidoo’s lovely ‘The Edible Balcony', and I wanted to capture some of her beautiful, inspirational and ‘keep it real’ words:
  • ‘You’ll weep at your failures, but gloat over your success… growing your own food is a magnificent addiction’ (actually from Peter Cundall)
  • ‘You can’t grow everything you eat, but you can eat everything you grow’
  • ‘Try and use something you have grown yourself in every meal you cook at home’ (or that Dad has grown?)
  • ‘Only grow what you like to eat’
I'm inspired and excited by Indira’s book. She talks about the disconnect between us and our food: how we have moved away from the Aussie tradition of a backyard vegie garden with a lemon tree. When I was growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney, we had the garden and lemon (and an orange and grapefruit tree too, I’m sure); I can picture the small space clearly.

In this modern world, gardening (whether it's flowers or vegies) offers up ‘tangibility’. For me, who spends the day thinking, editing and writing with words and ideas and emails, the physicality of digging a garden bed, weeding out and watering – of generally getting my hands dirty – is a huge attraction. A need, even. After spending much of this week in an airless, orange conference room, today I spent hours in the garden doing all these things - weeding, watering, topping up mulch around the savoys, squishing snails, staking errant hollyhocks. Even though the day was cool and overcast, it all needed to be done - not just for the sake of my cabbages or hollyhocks, but for my sanity.

It’s not always relaxing – some jobs can be frustrating, back-breaking (indeed, right now my back has that dull ache from bending over) and tear-inducing, as Peter mentions above. My much-anticipated sugarloaf cabbages are either bolting to seed, or riddled with caterpillar holes. I'll be lucky to get three good heads.

Indira's books also ticks thru the issues of taste, seasonality, local food and food miles, and processed western diets. I connected with so much of what she wrote. Here are some more quotes that I needed to record:
  • ‘Delayed gratification is what edible gardening is all about’
  • ‘The wonderful thing about gardening – it teaches you to be present and attentive. It makes you stop and focus on something that is outside of yourself’
  • ‘We need to be reminded in our busy lives that everything has a time and a purpose’
The photo above shows you the scene on my sunroom table. A collection of seeds yet to be planted - I've decided to wait a few more weeks to stagger my harvests.

The pretty speckled beans are borlottis that I saved last summer - I love eating the fresh green beans but, as so often happens in the hotter months, I looked away for a few minutes and they went from elegant and tender to big and starchy. So I saved them for decoration - and sowing.

The butternut is from Dad, which also ended up as decoration, not dinner; as did the other pointed squash. Both have now hardened up to the point of being impossible to cut even if I wanted to; I'd need a machete and upper-body strength I just don't possess.