31 Dec 2012

Our Christmas Day

Christmas Day here was lovely - warmer than we dared hope; I wore my pretty new dress without resorting to a heavy cardigan, thick tights and warm slippers. We even sat outside to eat lunch - if you're in or from Tassie, you can appreciate the rarity of this. It was wonderful.

As soon as mum and dad arrived, I popped the ricotta parmesan puffs into the oven. Talk about little pastry parcels of creamy cheesy morishness! These will definitely be made again. We agreed that we probably ate too many of the little tempters - they were the pre-lunch appetisiers - but they were so hard to resist ('just one more'). Somehow though we did stop and there were enough for next-day leftovers.

Dad took charge of BBQing the little frenched lamb cutlets that I took a second mortgage out for; Christmas is the time for such extravagance. Meanwhile I prepared the vegies. I made:
  • steamed potatoes served with a little butter and sniped chives, and boiled egg halves (the rich eggs courtesy mum's chooks)
  • roasted sweet potato and carrots, flavoured with fresh sage leaves and a smidgeon of smoky paprika and chili flakes (dad doesn't like it too hot)
  • a warm green salad: my verdant oakleaf lettuce leaves, torn up and tossed with steamed zucchini and scarlett runners, and a young cucumber, all from dad's garden.

I made a light vinaigrette, toasted some walnuts, and served some avocado slices to dress the vegies. All fresh and delicious - what more could you want than wonderful leaves and vegies and sald thingies plucked from the garden only that morning?

Well, you would want dessert. Dessert was - a bit of a drama. It was a layer cake, two brownie cake layers sandwiching vanilla ice cream mooshed up with raspberries (the remains of my freezer stash of last year's crop - just in time for the new season).

Anyway, following the recipe, I made the ice cream layer in a 23 cm tin; when it was set, I popped it out, wrapped it well in cling wrap and stashed it away again. I used the same tin to make the brownie - faithfully following the recipe - which came out as thin as a pancake and strangely flexible in a rubbery kind of way. How I would slice something so thin into two layers was beyond me; how I could serve up something with such a bizarre texture on Christmas day to my parents mortified me.

So late that afternoon (thank goodness this was a couple of days before Christmas), I sped to the local supermarket, bought more chocolate, and started again - making my own trusty brownie recipe but with a touch of baking powder for lift. And a whole lot of Tia Maria for Christmas cheer. Well, I didn't add enough baking powder - it rose barely more than the first cake - but at least it wasn't bendy.

On the day, mum and I held a kitchen conference, and we cut the brownie and the ice cream each into semi circles and made a 'demi gateau' of the two cake segments and only one ice cream segment (I froze the other half - Christmas in July, perhaps?).

I also decided that if I ever made this again, I would use a much smaller tin and much more baking powder. Or I'd just make a brownie and serve raspberrries and ice cream on the side.

But it was rich and tipsy and creamy and over the top - a perfect balance to all those lovely vegies.

We ended our meal with a cup of tea and the closest thing we have to a Christmas food tradition in our family, one of mum's little tarts (there would be a riot from my corner if these did not appear).

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas.

Ricotta parmesan puffs
You can make the filling the day before. I would not use an eggwash next time, as the pastry did not puff up as much as I'd expected. Adapted from the Perfect Italiano website.
  • Gently saute a small leek and/or some spring onions in butter until softened, then allow to cool.
  • Combine 75 gms grated parmesan, 220 gms ricotta, 1/4 cup sour cream (I also added another spoonful to this), 1 egg, a little black pepper (I didn't add salt because the parmesan would be salty enough) and the cooled leeks/onions.  If you wish, cover and fridge at this stage until needed.
  • Take 3 butter puff pastry sheets and cut each into 9 squares (3 x 3). Preheat your oven to 200 and line some baking trays.
  • Put a small spoonful of the filling on each squre, fold over to form a triangle, then bring the two ends together in a croissant kind of shape. Brush with beaten egg if you wish.
  • Bake for 15 minutes or until golden. Just a warning: the filling will be very hot inside.
Mum's Christmas tarts
I've not made these before - this recipe comes from mum. I could eat dozens of these sweet sticky fruity tarts with a good cup of tea.
  • For the filling, combine in a saucepan 1/2 cup condensed milk, 2 tbspns brown sugar, 40 gms butter, 1 tbspn golden syrup, and 2 tspns lemon juice. Bring to boil, stirring constantly, then turn down the heat and simmer for 2 minutes or until caramelised.
  • Remove from the heat and add 1 cup mixed fruit, 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts and 1/2 cup shredded coconut.
  • At this stage, preheat your oven to 200.
  • Now take 3 sheets of pastry - mum has always used shortcrust but this year also used puff, and we decided the flakiness was better! Using a 7.5 cm round cutter, cut 24 circles and line  shallow patty pans.
  • Spoon the filling into the bases. Bake for about 15 minutes or until golden.

20 Dec 2012

Happy Christmas to you

It’s Christmas time. Time when every shop blasts you with tinny songs about snow and reindeer, the letterbox is stuffed with so many flyers and brochures, and everywhere, it seems, there’s pressure to buy and spend and cook fancy things and go crazy.
One of my favourite people in the blogosphere, Jane, posted some very sage words about this time of the year, and reinforced my own ideas about the festive season. To me, Christmas is about the people close to you: saying thank you to my friends for sticking with me for another year; sharing the day itself with my parents, my two most favourite people in my world.
Of course Christmas is also about food. We grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, where Christmas day was often a sweltering affair; poor mum cooked the traditional roast thru the heat, until salads and cold meat and seafood became acceptable for Aussie Christmases. I still remember bowls of dried fruit mysteriously soaking on the side cupboard, and the sweet chill of mum’s fruit-studded ice cream cassatas.
Since we moved to Tassie 15 years or so ago, with its unpredictable summer weather (34 one day! 13 the next!), the majority of our Christmas days have been cold – so warming traditional roasts are quite welcome!
This year, I will, for the first time, be hosting Christmas for my parents. I’m not used to cooking for more than one person at a time (that would be me), let alone multiple dishes, so it will a challenge! But I’m organising, scheduling and prepping in order to stay calm - you know that’s the kind of person I am - and I’m looking forward to giving back to my parents.
I have a menu planned and if it all turns out and I remember to take pics on the day, I shall tell you about the dishes in detail afterwards. There’ll be some ricotta-parmesan puffs for pre-lunch nibbles, BBQ lamb cutlets (dad will be in charge of the grill), and lots of salads and vegies, depending on what the garden delivers or looks best at the fruit and veg market. Easy, delicious, healthy food. Dessert however will be a fanciful thing of chocolate brownie layers sandwiching ice cream and raspberries – what would a Tassie Christmas be without raspberries?
Thank you to everyone who has read, commented on and generally supported Dig In with your kind words and positive energy. I started - only a few months ago - purely to write, but Dig In has become a diary of my kitchen and garden ups and downs, a way of sharing these adventures with my current friends, and, wonderfully, a way of making some lovely new friends in far-away towns, states and countries.
This will probably be my last post for the year; I need a break from sitting at a computer! Have a safe, delicious and happy Christmas and see you back in 2013.
e XX

17 Dec 2012

Weekend garden ramble

From now on, my two serves of fruit a day are cherries and berries! My first bowl of cherries from dad’s orchard:

I had a wonderfully restful weekend, which is a good thing at this time of the year. It started with Friday off work, and B over for some Christmas cooking: more wholemeal choc chip biscuits (my freshly-baked gift for her and her family), some fruity chocolate-y amazing truffles, and some mini meringues, which were a bit-nerve wracking for this first-time meringue maker – and the overly-cautious and warning-laden instructions did not help – but turned out perfectly.

I fully intended to document the morning and share it with you here, but we were having so much fun chatting, licking bowls (well, I was — B needs more practice in that area), and working out the most efficient schedule for the oven and the mixer that I completely forgot about getting out my camera. I have failed as a food blogger.
In the afternoon I sped off to my parents’ for the weekend (my new car sure can fly!). Actually, when I arrived, they were both out: Dad was still at the Sri Lanka vs Australia cricket match, and mum was off having a girl’s afternoon tea. My parents have a better social life than me.
The restfulness of the weekend came largely due to the intermittent but heavy showers, which kept us indoors more than usual. We would be all ready to go outside and say hello to the chooks, or deadhead the roses, or pick the raspberries, or darn the netting over said berries, when the rain would come whooshing down. Then of course the berries would be too wet to pick, and the chooks, having run helter-skelter for their house, would probably not come out for anything except food (hellos not sufficient).
Again, I fail you as a blogger because I didn’t take my camera with me. So I can only tell you about dad’s vigorous, vibrant scarlet runner beans; the black jack zucchinis with their astounding silver-speckled leaves; the juicy loganberries at various stage of ripeness (when fully ripe, they are black and taste like tropical fruit salad, but I’m happy to have them a little redder in colour and enjoy a tart explosion in the mouth). The rows and rows of onions of various persuasions (I took home a handful of pungent spring onions) and the lush rows of carrots, which pulled up out of the damp earth as perfectly-formed specimens (well, mostly - one had three legs) with a sweetness never found in a supermarket.
I am always happy-ish with my small suburban vegie plot until I visit dad, and see his multiple raised beds of tomatoes and corn and rhubarb and asparagus and more. A sigh of discontent and envy; then I remind myself that he is a fairly full-time gardener, cricket matches not withstanding. Anyway, it’s inspirational; I can see how much there still is to learn and achieve and grow.
At least when I returned home on Sunday afternoon, the rain had cleared and the sun was fairly sparkly, so I fed my modest rows of peas, beans, lettuce and kale; tended to my tomato bushes; and told my scarlet runners about their country cousins.
At least I could gloat a little that my pot of basil is far lusher than mum’s. I take these small victories where I can. Didn’t you know gardening is a competition sport within families?

12 Dec 2012

Wholemeal choc chip biscuits (for Christmas)

I love fruit cake – I’ll qualify that, I love moist homemade fruit cake, especially my mum’s. A thick slab - there is no other option; thin dainty slices are just not right - with a cup of strong black tea at mid-morning can be very fortifying. A hot wodge with real, homemade custard or even vanilla ice cream is properly, traditionally Christmassy for this time of the year.
I love the old-fashioned heartiness of fruitcake: it really does evoke memories of apron-wearing mums and nannas, or images of no-nonsense CWA ladies, following a stained and faded recipe that’s been passed down thru the generations. Fruitcake is not trendy or cool, but who cares: it tastes good.
However – even if I can’t fathom why - I’m aware that some people don’t like fruitcake. Especially the young’uns. Does the twittering, iPadding, facebook generation not appreciate the simple joys of sultanas and jelly cherries, and daisy patterns studded out with blanched almonds? Oops, I think I slipped into cranky-old-woman mode then…
So what to bake for my Christmas gifts to friends this year (who, now that I think of it, are mostly older than me but still more up-with-it than I am)?
Everyone, I figure, loves a choc chip biscuit. So I dug out a real winner, made with wholemeal flour and chopped chocolate. The wholemeal flour means you haven’t got a cloyingly sweet biscuit; the rough shards of chocolate distribute the oozy darkness more effectively than actual choc-chips do (eaten hot out of the oven, the chocolate really oozes. Well, I had to try them before I wrapped them up and gave them away). As you might with a choc wheatie biscuit, you can convince yourself these are almost healthy because of the wholemeal flour, but if you want healthy in a Christmas food prezzie, don’t look to me.
Happy Christmas everyone!

Wholemeal choc chip biscuits
Adapted from the Orangette website. This quantity made about 70 but the ingredients can be easily halved.
  • Prep many, many baking trays. Make sure you have plenty of room in your fridge.
  • First roughly chop 200 gms dark cooking chocolate (or milk if you prefer). I may be tell you something you already knew, but I found it easiest to break the chocolate into 2x2 squares and then chop away using a heavy knife (I used my santoku-style knife) - rather than attempt to cut the whole block at once.
  • Cream 220 gms soft butter with 1 cup each of dark brown sugar and white sugar. Then add 2 large eggs and 1 tsp vanilla.
  • Now stir thru 3 cups wholemeal flour, 1 and 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda and a generous pinch of salt. Then stir thru the chopped chocolate. The mix for me was pretty stiff.
  • Roll out walnut-sized balls of dough and flatten slightly (I use an antique baby spoon that mum gave me; it's just the right size and shape). Arrange on your baking trays, then fridge for half an hour. This is essential so they don't spread and form one large biscuit!
  • I can't help but thinking that if this was a Nigel Slater or Simon Hopkinson cooking show, I'd be sitting with a book, a glass of wine and a soulful record playing while I waited for the dough to chill. Instead, I did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen.
  • At the end of the chilling time, preheat your oven now to 180.
  • Bake the cookies. I did mine for 17 minutes and they cooled to a nice crisp biscuit, and I've had no complaints; perhaps try less time if you want a chewier/softer biscuit.

9 Dec 2012

Broccoli pesto

Lately I’ve been eating a lot of roast vegie salad. At first it came about because I had some cauliflower, pumpkin and sweet potato that were fast approaching their expiry date, and roasting them was an ideal solution. I tossed the veg with some new oakleaf lettuce from my garden, some puy lentils or chickpeas, some toasted walnuts or pepitas, and a simple dressing (see my original winter version here).

Then I realised it was an easy, brainless way of getting food on the table or into my lunchbox – I could bung some veg in the oven while I hung out the laundry or put away last night’s dishes. It was also a godsend to assemble a quick cold version during last week’s heatwaves, too.

But I began to crave more greens than just those soft lettuce leaves, as lush and vibrant as they were. So I bought three beautiful heads of broccoli, their tight dark florets as gorgeous as any bunch of flowers.

So here’s what I made, a sort of thick pasta sauce, a sort of pesto (have you noticed lately that almost any green vegetable – broccoli, kale – can be made into something labeled ‘pesto’?). I compared a few recipes but then just went with my intuition, tasting as I went until I got something fresh and, yes, green.
It didn’t get as far as dressing any pasta – I was so hungry I just spooned over some tinned cannelloni beans.
I was almost loathe to share this with you, as it was a kind of make it up as I went along thingy; and if I’m hyper-critical, it does rather look like baby puree. But what the heck? Maybe you’re craving something green, too.
Broccoli pesto
Really, make this to your taste – as much or as little of the flavours – or entirely different ones – as you like. But it’s the flavours that really elevate this from mushy broccoli, so be bold. This makes enough for about two serves.
  • Cut up the florets if two broccoli heads and finely dice the stems, too. Steam along with a generous cup of frozen peas.
  • Once tender, whiz up in your food processer along with the leafy bits of a few parsley stalks.
  • Now add a dribble of light olive oil, garlic-infused oil and kaffir-lime leaf infused oil (I made this last one myself), lemon zest and juice, a little salt and finally, a handful of fresh basil leaves (my first harvest). Blitz and taste and add more of what you like, including oil for a looser consistency (mine was fairly thick, but I put this down to impatience – I wanted to eat!).
  • Enjoy with pasta, or beans, or perhaps as a dip with toasty bruschetta-type bread.

6 Dec 2012

Attack of the italics

Do you get Dig In via email, only to see crazy paragraphs full of code and nonsense? It seems to happen when I start with an italicised caption. Hmm. My apologies - I'll investigate the feedburner soon (or maybe stop using italicised captions?).

Please rest assured that Dig in does not look that way at the actual site. So why not click on thru and read without all that silly faffle getting in the way?

Enjoy your day,

5 Dec 2012

Boozy raisin biscotti; Rome

As arty as it will ever get on Dig In.

Ciao bella! The last city I’m visiting on my stay-at-home-Euro-tour is Rome. I loved Italy: the open fields of the countryside, the narrow alleys of the cities, the long lines of tourists to see Michelangelo’s David. I remember pigeons scattering through Venice’s squares; a pair of red strappy sandals I admired through the shop window but never bought; vespas speeding past ancient ruins; bold flowers in gracious country villa gardens; and everywhere, the collision between the ancient and the modern.

When I return to Rome, I want to go to the opera, get lost amongst the chaos of the ancient streets, and wander through the food markets. Like Paris, I want to fall for the seduction of city that has been around for centuries; like Paris I want to eat as much as I can. Real parmesan, chewy ciabatti, pasta of every possibility, and dolce, dolce, dolce: rich cannoli, coffee-kicking tiramisu, anything with sweetened, baked ricotta.

Because even though I cook and eat a lot of Italian-style food at home — or Italian inspired, as Nigella so rightly declares in her new book — it will naturally be so much different in Italy itself. The trick will be to find the authentic restaurants and offerings, not the tourist traps churning out safe stereotypes.

Instead of pasta, I thought I’d re-visit Rome thru my ‘Italian-inspired’ biscotti. If you have a keen memory, you may have recall that I hinted at something I was going to make about a month ago — well, this was that, but I got horridly sidetracked and the plump raisins have remained soaking in Tia Maria all this time in the fridge. But they looked happy enough – the longer, the better, when making tipsy fruit.

PS What would you eat in Italy?

Boozy raisin biscotti
Full disclosure: this did not bake as it was supposed to. It took way longer than the recipe specified at both baking stages, therefore these are not thin, brittle and elegant biscotti I had hoped for; rather, mine look more like toddlers' teething husks (I always told you that Dig In wass as much about the failures as the successes). The biscotti are good though dunked in a cup of tea. However, I'll still give you the original recipe's baking/timing instructions - perhaps you'll have better luck with biscotti than me. Adapted from the Women's Weekly 'Biscuits, brownies and biscotti'.
  • Cream 30 gms soft butter, 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 tspn vanilla, then two small eggs.
  • Stir in 1 and 1/8 cup plain flour (I was halving the recipe, hence the strange quantity), 1/2 tspn baking powder and 1/4 tspn bicarb soda.
  • Stir thru 1/3 cup raisins, boozy or sober. To this I also added some broke up walnut halves but I'm afraid I didn't note down how much I added! I'm sure it would only have been about the same amount as the raisins; I apologise.
  • Cover and refrigerate mix for 60 minutes.
  • Preheat oven to 180 and line a baking tray. Knead the dough briefly, then form into a log shape about 30 cm long.
  • Bake for 20 minutes or until lightly brown and firm, remove and stand for ten minutes. Reduce oven temp to 160.
  • Cut the biscotti using a serrated or electric knife into 1cm thick slices, and replace onto oven tray.
  • Bake for about 15 minutes or until dry and crisp, turning halfway. Cool on wire racks.

2 Dec 2012

Garden: gung ho!

Larkspurs in the vegie patch. They attract bees, and look beautiful, but some had to go as they were falling on my new tomato bushes. They are wonderful inside now.

Yesterday was hot and extremely windy; not ideal or idyllic conditions for gardening, but the work had to be done. Donning a long-sleeved work shirt, my sturdy boots, a head scarf - my sun hat would have blown off - and plenty of sunblock, I set to.

The green waste bins are now over-stuffed; I need dad to come and take some of it away.  I have the beginning of a callus on the inside of my right thumb, from using my secateurs so much. I got scratches, dust in my eys, and very sweaty.

I got tired, satisfied by the progress and sense of order restored, but also upset and frustrated by the savage effects of the past few days' extraordinarily high temperatures and unrelenting northerly winds. By the savoy cabbages, which were once so promising but failed - of six in the ground, only one (sort of) came to any good. Gardening is life and death, joy and disappointment.

And then, amidst the dry soil and weeds and dying seed heads and dessicated pea bushes and insect-ravaged cabbages, were moments of beauty and possibility. Which is why we keep gardening.

Scarlet runner beans snaking up the nearby hollyhocks for support - I love the curly tendril going forth!

28 Nov 2012

Garden maintenance: to do list

The green waste bins beckon...

A couple of weekends of neglect, the end of the first flush of spring colour, and not enough rain have taken its toll on my garden. It’s time to do a complete sweep through and get things looking like someone lives here.
It only takes a few flowers — in this case, the royal-purple aquilegias (also known as columbines or granny’s bonnets) — to develop seed heads and the garden looks dull and ‘past it’. Combined with the clover popping up in the lawn and pelargoniums dropping their petals, my weekend is going to be very busy, and my green waste tubs are going to fill very quickly.
The big jobs of course are mulching. My front garden (apart from the stretch under the birch trees) was never mulched properly. So while I’m on my January holidays (it’s good to have long-term goals), dad and I will truck in some compost, manure or some other fertile, nutritious layer, then cover that with the same mulched-up wood bark we used so successfully for the birches.
Some people argue against wood chip for various (environmental) reasons, but I like it: this stuff had a nice mix of fine and chunky bits, so it looked very natural, and had that lovely peaty smell. It’s started to break down into the soil already, which makes it look soft and natural (much better than the sharp-edged, yellowy gravel that was favoured by my home’s previous owners).
However I can mulch the vegie garden, as I still have a pea straw bale and half a packet of sugar cane mulch. Once I’ve cut off the aquilegias’ seed heads, pulled out some little johnny-jump up pansies that have seen better days, relocated some rogue rananculas to the rest of their tribe in the front, dug out the bright pink pelagonium from what should be just a vegie garden bed, weeded out some killer thistles (leather gloves required?), pruned the new tomato bushes’ lateral branches and tied them up, re-trained the scarlet runner beans that want to break free from their teepee-style trellises, pulled out the lanky California poppies, tidied up the bee-attracting larkspurs … had a energy-restoring cup of tea and piece of toast, perhaps … once I’ve done all this, then I can mow over the coarser straw and spread both mulches all over. It rejuvenates the look of the garden as well as providing essential insulating qualities for the soil.
And that long list was just the back vegie garden. There’s deadheading, mowing, pruning back, pulling up and thinning out to be done in the other backyard garden beds as well as out the front. I’ve had an extraordinary success rate of some little unknown blue things from last summer — every seed they dropped was successful, by the look of it. But even I — who likes to give every self-seeder a fighting chance — even I have to admit there’s just too many, and they must be thinned out for the sake of the other plants.
So that’s how I’m spending my weekend.
Is it tidy-up time in your garden?

25 Nov 2012

Patatas bravas; Spain

Next on the itinerary of my European tour will be Spain. I’ve not been to Spain, so I’m undecided whether I should go to Barcelona, or Madrid; or perhaps a mini-tour of the country (any ideas welcome). But I now have plenty of time to decide, as it will be a while before I save up the money to step inside any tapas bar (but the new car is a dream to drive!).

Spanish food is (excuse the pun) foreign to me. I’ve never been to a Spanish restaurant, here in Hobart or elsewhere, and I’ve never cooked a Spanish meal, though I do remember a phase of borrowing Spanish cooking books from the library a few years ago.

But — I love spicy chorizo (and the sound when the word is pronounced correctly by my Spanish friend F – the zed becomes a soft fuzzy ‘th’ that is magical); I love the heat of dried chillies and the depth of smoky pimento; I love cooking with sherry (even if mine is spinster-aunt sherry not famous and expensive Pedro Ximinez; I should ask F to pronounce that one for me).

I've watched Rick Stein cook and eat his way through Spain and my mouth watered at the paella and seafood and lentils and oranges. My kind of food: simple ingredients, wonderful fresh produce, bold flavours.

And that’s what was tonight's recipe was all about. Patatas bravas is bite-sized potato chunks cooked with lemon, chilli, sherry and tomatoes. The simplicity of the cooking method belies the intensity and complexity of the wonderful flavours that fill your nostrils and explode in your mouth (an online search revealed, fittingly, that ‘brava’ means ‘fierce’). It makes me hungry to try more Spanish dishes. What else is waiting for me?

Buen apetito!

PS Do you do Spanish food?

Patatas bravas
I photocopied this from a library book but didn't note which one it was. Soooo easy, soooo good.
  • Cut 600-700 grams of scrubbed (but not peeled) potatoes into bite size chunks. Put a good slug of olive oil and a pat of butter into your favourite frypan, add potatoes and cook over a medium-high heat for about 20 minutes or so, stirring occasionally.
  • Meanwhile, do some prep: chop one onion, chop a couple of cloves of garlic (according to your tastes and the size of the cloves), zest a lemon, chop up a handful of parsley.
  • Back to the potatoes once the 20 minutes is up. It will look pretty darn tempting at this stage, but keep on! Add the onion and stir for about five minutes or until it starts to turn translucent. Then add the garlic, the lemon zest, 2 generous tablespoons sherry (and inhale the wonderful smell), plus 1/4 tspn each of smoky paprika and dried chili flakes (you may wish to amp this up if you like more heat). Give it a good stir to get the heat to the spices, then add half a 400 gram tin of whole tomatoes (freeze the other half for the next time you make patatas bravas!). This won't look like a lot of tomato - it's just enough to coat but not overwhelm the potatoes. Now add the parsley and a good squeeze of lemon juice.
  • Turn down heat, cover, and cook for another 15 minutes or so until the potatoes are cooked. Prod occasionally to make sure the minimal sauce is not sticking to the pan (though I must admit I got some blackened bits and they were quite delicious).
  • The recipe suggests serving this with other tapas; but I liked it by itself, or it would go nicely with a little green salad to contrast against the heat.

21 Nov 2012

Book review: Kitchen Diaries 2

Three kilos of books!

When did cookbooks get so big? So darned heavy? Every book I haul home from the library is large, hard covered, hundreds of pages and so very weighty!

On a whim, I actually got out my kitchen scales. My tax-return treat, ‘River Cottage Veg Every day’, weighs 1.4 kilos and has about 400 pages. The latest library loan, Nigel Slater’s ‘Kitchen Diaries 2’, is 1.6 kilos with around 530 pages. My goodness!

These are hardly books you can read in bed; I even find it hard to read them on the couch – I need to position some fat cushions on my lap to support the book and prevent me from sustaining a body strain injury from holding it up (it was traumatic enough dragging them home). It made me yearn for those little pocket Women’s Weeklies you see at the supermarket checkout, or the mini condensed versions of cheffy books that the newspaper gives away occasionally.

So here I sit, pillows and books on my lap, ibuprofen at the ready for what could be defined as a hazardous manual handling task.

Like his original ‘Kitchen Diaries’ book, KD2 is a book you can read chronologically, from page vii to 516, gradually moving thru the seasons and experiencing Nigel’s changing groceries, garden harvests, appetite and cooking. His considered, calm writing conveys his simple pleasure in these changes and swings: ‘sunlight … has a habit of changing my appetite. Pasta, potatoes and grains feel inappropriate and heavy.’

The other approach to KD2 is to randomly flip thru the pages, dipping in and out of Nigel’s life. What is so appealing to me is that it’s so ordinary. He readily admits ‘I am not a chef and never have been’, which to me signals that you’re in safe hands; no hard-to-find ingredient-of-the-moment or technical equipment only found in commercial kitchens.

He writes about leftovers, bare cupboards, making do with what remains in the vegie patch or in the shops at the end of the day on the way home. Let me flip for you – here on page 44, he writes of ‘the opened jars of sweet preserves in the fridge (that) seem to be multiplying’. I like that he too is staring into his fridge and facing dilemmas that we do.

He readily admits that not everything we cook and eat has to be ‘remarkable, memorable or classic. It doesn’t have to be great, the world’s best, or even anything to write about’. The pressure is off; it can be ‘just nice’.

Mr Slater, this is why I love you. But please, can you consider a lighter book next time?

18 Nov 2012

Chocolate cake; London

Next on my whirlwind European tour is London (perhaps it should have been first, as Heathrow would probably have been my first stop). Last time, I lived in London for a few months before youth-hostelling around England, Wales and Scotland. I adored seeing the Elizabethans at the National Portrait Gallery and the Rothkos at the Tate, attending free classical concerts in the crypt of St Martins in the Field church, walking through Regents Park, browsing through and spending up in WHS Smith. Again, food was not an obsession; in fact, I was feeding myself for the first time and missing my mother’s home cooking.

I worked for a little while at a posh chocolate shop just around the corner from Sloane Square and a quick skip to the Kings Road shops. Before working here, I wasn’t too fussed about chocolate. Now, I was surrounded by violet soft-centred bon bons and candied orange segments dipped in dark chocolate and hot chocolate made from shaved, real chocolate and dusted with cracked black pepper (apparently as the Russians do). And, dear reader, all of this chocolate heaven was Valrhona chocolate. To say it’s the good stuff is an understatement of epic proportions.

We were encouraged to eat chocolate, for how else could we sell it if we didn’t know what it was like? When a new goodie came in, or if a customer wanted to try something we hadn’t yet tasted, we put on our white cotton gloves, opened the glass-fronted cabinets, slid out the trays and popped a chocolate onto the wooden cutting board and cut it in two: half for me, half for you. And then took on an appropriately serious and connoisseur-ish demeanor until the verdict was reached.

I had a system for this all-day chocolate consumption. I made sure I had a good breakfast and a solid sandwich at lunchtime (usually from the nearby Pret a Manger); I drank lots of tea throughout the day. I would start the morning on the dipped candy fruit, progress to the cocoa-dusted almonds or filled bonbons, and finally eat the darkest truffles. To deviate from this system — to, say, throw yourself at a hunk of dark stuff before midday, to skip the sandwich — would cause sugary havoc and definite queasiness.

The upshot of that glorious time (apart from temporarily and convincingly adopting the plummy vowels of my Chelsea manager) was that my view of chocolate changed forever. My tastebuds changed for ever. I cannot eat milk chocolate, supermarket Easter eggs sicken me, and I’m a sucker for dipped orange segments (I stock up when I visit Haighs in Melbourne). I’ve never seen Valhrona here in Hobart (but please correct me if I’m wrong), so Lindt 70% is the closet substitute.

So to visit London this week, I’m not going the traditional route of Yorkshire puddings, toad in the hole, Victoria sponge or spotted dick. Because they are not my edible memories of London. Chocolate is.

PS What’s your best of British food?

Chocolate cake
Adapted from the chocolate book that accompanied the Australian Good Food magazine of August 2009. As this makes two cakes, you could always just serve one and freeze the other for an emergency.
  • Prep two 20 cm cake tins and preheat your oven to 180.
  • Melt 75 grams dark chocolate - I prefer to melt it gently in a bowl over  pan of simmering water.
  • In a food processor, whizz up 1 and 1/2 cups SR flour, 1/2 cup cocoa, 1 and 1/2 tspns baking powder, 1 and 1/4 cups brown sugar, 250 grams soft butter, a pinch of salt and 1 and 1/2 tspn vanilla.
  • Then add 4 eggs and the melted chocolate. At this stage, my small food processor reached capacity and began to protest, so I heaved the lot into a mixing bowl and gave it a good stirring. If the mixture is stiff, add a little liquid to loosen it; the recipe specifed water but I thought that was a wasted flavour opportunity and added a dribble of Tia Maria instead.
  • Divide the mix between the two tins, then bake for 30-35 minutes or until done.
  • Remove from oven and while the cakes are cooling, melt 150 grams dark chocolate, and then add a few blobs of thickened cream, stirring continuously over the heat. It may seize up on you but persevere and it will smooth and thicken. I didn't measure my cream, but I probably blobbed out about 1/4 cup all up.
  • Sandwich the two cakes with a little strawberry or berry jam and some of the chocolate, then spread over the remaining chocolate.

14 Nov 2012

Garden harvest: peas

I think that frozen peas are good.
Until I have the first taste of freshly picked and podded, barely steamed greenfeast peas, straight from my garden. How could I believe that frozen peas are good – even adequate?
My very own tiny emeralds are such tender, silky orbs - with the delightful little stem attached! They are a beautiful colour and texture, but the taste – sweeter than any frozen thing could even dream of being.
My pea harvests are usually modest, so I pay them proper respect and usually have just peas for dinner. Last night, these were accompanied by a few sugar snaps; cooking transforms them from a pale green to the same emerald as the peas. I get even more puritanical and have them only with a little butter or olive oil – not even any salt or pepper – nothing to intrude upon my focus of the pea-ness of my peas.

11 Nov 2012

Almond croissants; Paris

Last week, my daydreams – and savings – for going to Europe came to halt. I had to buy a new car. Instead of a plane ticket and a croissant on the Champs Elysses, I have a new car.
So if I can’t have my four weeks in the chic metropolises of Europe — London, Paris, Rome and somewhere in Spain — then I will bring Europe to me. To my kitchen, to be precise.
This week I start my adventure in Paris. The last time I was in Paris — 1997; last century! — I was young and not much interested in food; falafel in the latin quarter or crepes on the street were merely fuel for walking the city and taking the metro. Instead, I spent my days trawling the museums and boulevards and gardens. I saw the actual brushstrokes of famous paintings I’d studied in textbooks. I pocketed a conker from the Bois de Boulogne and polished it smooth over months, rubbing it in my pocket. I discovered the beauty of medieval tapestries at the Musee D’Cluny. I sat in sunny flowered gardens and watched art students sketch the statues.
My plans this time, next time, are to visit some of the museums again, go to the ballet, stroll through the streets… and eat every croissant, crocque monsieur, macaron and wodge of brie I stumble across.
Until then, here is an almond croissant. I love a croissant that is a little salty — that is, not an obviously sweet one — with crunchy buttery flakes and a substantial heart. Perfect served oven-warm with even more salty butter. I have discovered that I melt for a good almond croissant; when I discovered you could make them yourself, well, I melted a little more.
I don’t propose making the actual croissant — that’s too big an ask of my skills — but taking a good bakery croissant (not those floppy soft supermarket ones, which are good enough for a bread and butter pudding, but not for eating) and tarting it up a bit.
Instead of my passport, I grabbed this recipe. Bon appetit!
PS What’s your favourite French food?
Almond croissants
Adapted from taste.com.au. This recipe specified for six croissants; I bought four which turned out to be monsters (grand croissants!) but the mix for six was just right for four.
  • Preheat your oven to 170. Slice your croissants in half to open like a shell.
  • In your food processor, whiz up 150 gram soft butter, 1/2 cup icing sugar, 1/3 cup plain flour, 2 scant cups almond meal, and 1 tspn vanilla (I would use just a dribble more next time; the original recipe specified almond essence). Whiz until it balls together.
  • Divide this between your croissants - so I pulled this into four balls - then take a good portion of each, flatten between your palms til you form a thin layer, and insert this between the two croissant halves. Take the remaining, smaller portion and flatten again and lay on top of the closed croissant then spike with enough sliced almonds as you wish (they can be skin on or off, you could even use slivered almonds).
  • Pop on baking trays and warm thru for about 10 minutes.
  • Remove from oven, dust with some icing sugar, and enjoy while crisp and warm.

9 Nov 2012

My front garden

I tend to tell you about the action and adventure in my vegie garden, but my front garden takes as much of my time, energy and passion (and water, pyrethrum and seaweed solution).

Both let me blow off some steam after work with some digging or weeding. Both can make me happy — I don’t even need to be standing in them; a glance out the back door while I’m standing at the kitchen bench, waiting for the kettle to boil, lets me see the silverbeet, new tomato bush and nectarine tree. The large windows of my living room frame the colour of my front garden and sometimes, I do not need a book or the TV for company, I just sit and absorb the peace and beauty of the garden. On the weekend, I did yoga with a friend and it was fitting to do tree pose with my strong, flexible cut-leaf birches in view. I could make myself as tall and majestic as they were.

When I first moved into my house seven years ago, the front yard was almost a desert. There was a rough lawn and a thin front border housing undernourished box hedge plants (that would never make an actual hedge) and a couple of trees that not even my parents could identify.

Garden plans went on the back burner while I tended to necessary house things (painting, new windows, heating, new awning — it never seems to stop with a house, does it?). But I drew up plans of sweeping new garden beds and pathways, and dreamt of colour and perfume and bees and birds and the deep happiness that would come from a beautiful flower garden.

Over a couple of years, my wonderful dad made those sweeping beds and pathways for me. We removed those box hedges and weird trees (they now have a much happier life at my parents’ place; apparently the tree has been named after me) and we brought in soil and lawn. Over a couple of springs, we planted new trees, cuttings struck by mum, and seeds. Gardens take time — while I yearned desperately for my front garden, I knew that, short of having a TV show barrel in and do a blitz, the best gardens really do take years.

And maybe that’s what makes me love my garden so much. I can look at almost every shrub or tree and recall its planting and brief history. I can remember the hard times digging when the soil wouldn’t yield, when the penstemons turned belly up, when the red salvia took over and needed to be removed for the sake of the other surrounding plants.

I remember looking out my front window during the bleakness of winter time, being depressed by the frost-ravaged pelargoniums and the lilacs and new climbing roses that were mere sticks. I remember thinking things would never get better.

But slowly, the garden came back to life, and right now it is riotously abundant. My favourite view at the moment is where fluorescent-coral pelargoniums cushion the mauve flag irises, which have sprung triumphant in the last week or so. A couple of near-black irises frame either end of this tableaux, as do some of my favourite cut flowers, ranunculas.

But if I turn around, there’s the small white lilac, in only its second year of flowering, surrounded by wonderfully old-fashioned foxgloves, and purple aquilegias that may be covered in aphids but are also weighed down by droning bumblebees. And there’s a pink variegated weigela tree, so girly-pretty, competing with the darker, more sophisticated pink of the deeply scented boronia. To smell that on a warm summer’s evening is indeed heaven on earth.

Can you tell I love gardens – real, old-fashioned gardens? Not low-maintenance spiky cordylines in glazed pots sitting sadly on sterile, gravel beddings. As back-breaking and tear-inducing as it can be, give me a garden that requires maintenance; that requires tending and weeding and watering. Because while I’m doing that, I’m also admiring, relaxing, enjoying. I’m listening to the blackbirds sing and those bumblebees buzz, and maybe some distant lawnmower too; smelling the jasmine and the cut grass; and being rewarded by the colours and textures and joy of beautiful, beautiful flowers.

4 Nov 2012

Hazelnut cheesecake pudding

I have wanted to share this pudding with you ever since I started Dig In, because it is so fabulous, decadent and amazing. Fabulous to make, decadent to behold, and just plain amazing to eat. Alas, too many recipes, not enough time (or stomach capacity), and this layered pudd got pushed to the bottom of the list.
Until now.
There are still two huge ice-cream containers of dad’s raspberries and loganberries in my freezer from last summer – and the loganberries have already started flowering, ready for this summer. It’s always a good idea to clear out the old to make space for the new! So while I had been ‘saving’ these ruby-coloured frozen jewels, I decided the hoarding had gone on long enough. It is, after all, November.
(I realise therefore that this is not ‘seasonal’ cooking, so if you don’t have a stash of summer berries hiding in your freezer, please feel free to bookmark this page for when the fresh stuff starts to appear.)
This pudding is an adventure to make because, to get those multiple layers, you need to pull out multiple skills and multiple bits of kitchen equipment, bowls and spoons. This is a not a simple melt-and-mix pudding; I have absolutely nothing against those, but every now and then it’s good to do (and use) it all. At least I am sparing us the fiddliness of making individual serves here, which I seem to recall the original recipe specified; I probably realised that way madness lay and one baking dish was quite sufficient, thank you.

Besides, sometimes you don’t want the dainty portion control of an individual mini-cake. You want to scoop out a large spoonful of that rich hazelnut flavour, creamy baked ricotta-ness and tart-sweet, here-comes-summer fruit.
I hope it was worth the wait.
Hazelnut cheesecake pudding
Copied out many years ago and adapted from a Gourmet Traveller (in the GT it was 'Layered ricotta crumble cake').
  • The oven needs to be preheated to 180 but do this just before getting your fingers dirty with layer 4. Grease a small/medium sized baking dish.
  • Layer 1: cream 80 grams soft butter, 3/4 cup sugar and the zest of one lemon for a few minutes, then add 2 eggs and 1/4 cup sour cream. Lick the beaters then fold thru 2/3 cups plain flour, 50 grams hazelnut meal, 30 grams almond meal and 1 tspn baking powder. Spread in your prepared baking dish.
  • Layer 2: in your food processor, whizz up 350 grams ricotta (by preference, the more-solid stuff from the deli), 1 egg yolk, and 1/4 cup sugar (I used vanilla sugar). Smooth this over the top of layer 1.
  • Layer 3: scatter enough fruit of your choice over layer 3. You can use frozen or fresh berries; rich dark plums would also be a good match to the pudding's other flavours.
  • Layer 4: using your fingers, rub together 10 grams soft butter, 1 tbspn sugar, and gradually add enough hazelnut meal to form a moist crumble - I think I got to about 4 tbspns. Scatter over the fruit. This does not cover the fruit (and admittedly looks rather prissy), but it's the hint of texture you're after.
  • Wipe fingers clean and pop the dish in the oven, baking for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes - or until you can stick a knife in the centre and be assured the cake is cooked (it's a little tricky to tell with the fruit layer).  Serve warm or even cold when the cheesecake layer has set.

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.