29 Sept 2012

Pasta making at the Italian Pantry

Earlier this week I went back to school – cooking school! More precisely, Scuolo di Cucino. Yes, Italian cooking and even more specifically, pasta making.
You have probably gathered that I love cooking and eating (and reading and thinking about) Italian food. So the chance to roll up my sleeves and get my hands sticky making pasta was just too exciting to pass up. I haven’t had so much fun in a kitchen in a long time!
There were three other ‘students’ at the Italian Pantry's class, and, in a most civilized manner, we began the evening with a glass of prosecco and cheeses: a creay blue cheese, a soft one suitable for topping on pizzas or other grilled dishes, and my favourite, a hard, perfectly dry and sharp reggiano. Heaven on a slice of ciabatti bread!
Then we donned our aprons and stood at our own stainless steel benches, set out with boxes of semolina and 00 flour (which we took home at the end of the evening), three of the biggest hen eggs I have ever seen, bowls, a scraper and a gleaming pasta machine.
Our teacher was Matt (Matteo) with Helen, and armed with his guidance and her hands-on help, we began making the dough by piling the two flours in the bench, making a well for the eggs, then gradually gathering in the flour til the mix came together. Lumpy, then sticky, then crumbly, then – with a good firm kneading action – smooth and pliable and elastic. Aren’t eggs and flour – for that is all it was – magical? Matt said you could do it in a mixer (and therefore enjoy a glass of wine) but I loved feeling the dough change consistency – transform – and the kneading was rhythmical and hypnotic. The repetitive action of pushing the heel of your hand into the dough and away from you, then turning it and pushing again, turning and pushing – after sitting in an office all day it was calming and meditative.
Then the fun really started, with the machines! Tips I learnt from Matt and Helen (that we all said we didn’t know, and made all the difference):
  • dust the machine with flout so the dough doesn’t get caught, as often as you need to, especially if the dough is still a bit sticky
  • roll the dough thru the machine, then fold and rotate it before passing it thru again. Pass it thru each setting three of four times before moving onto the next setting (which determines the thinness of your sheet – you start at the thickest, 0, and work your way towards the thinnest, which I think was 8)
With each ‘pass’, the dough transforms (again) into a thrillingly smooth and silky dough (can you tell I enjoyed myself?); around setting 3 or 4 you can stop folding and then begin to stretch the dough and get some length. I wanted to get my pasta quite fine, so I got down to settings 6 and 7 on my machine - by setting 7, it was about two foot long and began resembling fine strudel pastry!

We had our first go with a soot-black dough Matt had made earlier, using squid ink. It was astounding. I made spaghettini, and the fineness of the strands as they fell from the machine was a beautiful sight to behold – it made me think of the fringing on a 1920s flapper’s party dress.

With the plain dough we made, I cute fettucine ribbons with the paper-thin dough. We then wrapped it into ‘nests’ – to wrap it around your fingers as we did is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime! We took our nests home, as well as some balls of dough to roll out and cut at home; I am thinking of pappadelle or cannelloni sheets.

We then watched Matt prepare two fiendishly delicious sauces for the pasta, both made in less than ten minutes - so quickly, I thought, ‘oh gosh, it’s so simple!’. But watching the rapid, practiced movements of a real chef toss in garlic, chilli, wine, sausage, reduced cherry tomatoes, is deceptive. My eyes couldn’t keep up. I’d be still sautéing the garlic.

When we sat down to eat, we all marveled at the wonderful chewiness of the fresh pasta; it had a good bite was not heavy in your stomach. And the sauces were so delicious, I again requested a sauce class.

Before I took the class, I thought, ‘this will be fun but I’ll never make pasta at home’. But with Matt and Helen showing us how to do it and sharing the tips you don’t find in a recipe book or the pasta machine’s manual, I released it would be realistically doable – and actually very enjoyable, I didn’t realise how lovely it is to knead and roll and fold and feel pasta dough. So I’ve asked mum to dig the pasta machine out of the cupboard. I have flour, an apron, and plans!

26 Sept 2012

Garden inspirations: Floriade

Other people’s gardens can stir inspiration and envy in equal measures. Every neighbourhood has one such garden - I’m working on being that garden.

Public gardens and floral displays do it on a grand scale, and while I love Hobart’s own Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, I’ve decided the most wonderful inspiration right now is to be found at Floriade in Canberra.
Mum and I made the trek there last week and were absolutely wowed. How many times is it possible for one person (that would be me) to exclaim ‘oh, isn’t it pretty’? ‘Pretty’ was definitely my most over-used word!

Tulips of every shape – rounded like goblets, pointed like elves’ hats, frilled and tattered - and every colour – red, orange, yellow, green, white, pink and mauve. Hyacinths as big as pineapples that filled the warm air with their heady, green-ish fragrance. Taller flowers under-planted by smaller ones in similar colours, creating nuanced waves of tones and textures. Ranunculas, one of my absolute favourite cut flowers, were lying in wait, ready to make their appearance in the coming weeks.

Some of my favourite plantings (oh, how to choose?) were snow-white tulips and hyacinths under-planted by equally icy pansies and bellis perennis and bordered by … dark green parsley! Or green and white ornamental kale! They were so surprising and beautiful.
The other big inspiration were the big tubs and troughs displaying herbs and vegies. Lush plantings of all shades of green, mixing soft foliage like lettuce, basil and chives with woody sages, variegated thymes and blackish plumes of cavolo nero. I am boringly pedantic, growing only what I cook with (parsley, thyme, chives; and basil in the summer months). But I have decided to transform my herb bed into another treat for the eye, clashing all sorts of textures and colours just for the sheer riotous beauty of it. I’ll be visiting a nursery soon for all sorts of punnets.

Since returning from Floriade with a camera full of pics and a head swimming with ideas, I’ve planted some vegie seeds, ready for the warmer weather (I just got them in when the rain came bucketing down, so not this week!):
  • A row of those dramatic cavolo nero; I’ll also cast some in my front flower garden and the new herb garden as part of its makeover
  • A patch of mixed salad greens: ‘roquette, oakland, endive, mache and chervil’ – what romantic names
  • A row of carrot seeds – ‘top weight, western red and chantenay’ – from Dad. I’ve never had luck with carrots, and with the gazillion frilly seedlings emerging in Dad’s garden I hardly need to, but I had the packet and the space, so why not?
  • Around my teepee trellises, an unlabeled bag of seeds I’d saved from too-many summers ago of climbing beans: scarlet runners and two (un-remembered) others
  • Some greenfeast peas (the ones you pod).

I also bought some fresh packets of beans: the climbing ‘blue lake’ and two dwarf or bush varities, a yellow butter bean ‘cherokee wax’ and green ‘hawkesbury wonder’. I love growing and eating beans, as you can tell! I’m hankering after some ‘lazy housewifes’– delicious beans that Dad has grown; they’re far from lazy and actually quite prolific! I also need a packet of snow peas – if I can find them; they appear to be sold out everywhere. Everyone, it seems, is getting on with their spring sowing.

23 Sept 2012

Book review part 2: Kitchen Counter Cooking School

This was originally one long post but I’ve cut it into two. Read part 1 here.

Growing my own makes me value food. These are my sugarloaf cabbages, about a week ago.

A couple of days after reading the Food Sage’s post about hunger and poverty in Australia, I read Kathleen Flinn’s ‘Kitchen Counter Cooking School’. Another American book, at first it made me smug to read about a group of American women who couldn’t (wouldn’t?) cook and instead filled their pantries and bellies with processed, boxed and bottled food: frozen ready-meals, packet cakes, tinned soups.

Scared of raw chicken and vegetables (truly: no one knew how to cut or cook them) and convinced by family members and advertisers that cooking was too hard and time-consuming, they relied on takeaways or things they could reheat in the oven. Pangs of guilt meant they’d stock up on fresh produce only to be defeated and let it rot in their fridge crispers.

As I said, at first this made me shake my head and think ‘oh, I’m not like that’. And on many counts I’m not. But Flinn’s book had some serious messages, touching on all sorts of threads that have been floating, tugging through my mind lately about cooking, eating, food:
  • how we have lots of cooking shows on TV, but none of them really teach us how to cook
  • how ‘normal’ and prevalent processed food is becoming
  • on the flipside, how this ‘eating clean’ thing I keep reading about is attracting bells and whistles, but take the California earnestness out of it and it’s just about eating ‘wholefoods’ (another trendy label). ‘Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise’ has always been one of my favourite rules of thumb.
One point that hit home to me was rather than developing a rotating handful of recipes you can cook without an actual recipe and know will produce a satisfying meal, we have been seduced (again, by advertisers, celebrity chefs and cooking shows) into believing we need to cook something different and exotic each time we enter the kitchen. After my recent bad run in the kitchen I questioned this need for constant reinvention and realised the value of doing what you know and doing it well.

In the end, Flinn’s group of women (she gave them basic but wonderful lessons in cooking and eating) changed (mostly) the way they way they bought food, cooked and ate it. Because they now had the knowledge and skills to purchase thoughtfully, healthily and economically, and to cook in a way that valued the ingredients and delivered a great meal. Most of the women did away with the packaged food and went ‘wholefoods’.

It was inspiring. I’ll admit that more than once, I put down the book and did a fridge and pantry inventory, wondering if bread counts as processed if you can recognise every ingredient and where Vegemite fits into all this.

‘Tomatoland’ and ‘Kitchen Counter Cooking School’ are two very different books but both made me think about how I want to eat and cook and treat my food.

Let me know if you’ve read these books, and your thoughts, or if you can recommend other good books.

Freezer-find friands

When was the last time you made those moist little morsels called friands? Me, probably two (or three?) years ago when I bought an ice cream maker (which I think now resides in a cupboard at mum’s) and was using loads of egg yolks for the custard based. This of course meant lots of egg whites, so for every batch of nutella ice cream I churned out, I baked a tray of friands.

Hang on. Nutella ice cream. Why did I stop??

When I recently found two big packets of almond meal languishing, forgotten, I also              uncovered a couple of containers holding 13 frozen egg whites. Thirteen! Something had to be done, and almond meal plus egg whites naturally equals friands.

I’d forgotten how east friands are to make. Yes, the beaters are involved, but you’re whisking up egg whites, not creaming sugar into butter, so there’s much less work involved.

The fruit for the friands also came from the depths of the freezer: thimble-sized raspberries and dark plums which I had had the foresight to stone and quarter before freezing them. I chopped these up into smaller chunks and pushed them into the stiffish cake batter.

Friands are nice when they get a little chewy and browned around the edges; the taste and texture is a nice contrast to the moist cake. Against this gentle, nutty sweetness was the surprising tartness of the plum chunks. I love contrasts like that.

Adapted from the excellent Women’s Weekly cookbook ‘More cakes and slices’.
  • Preheat oven to 190 and pop paper cases into a 12-hole muffin tin (you can see in the first photo I thought I needed an extra silicone case).
  • Whisk eggs whites until almost soft peaks.
  • Fold in ½ cup plain flour, 1 cup almond meal, 1½ cups icing sugar (soft if lumpy like mine) then stir thru 185 gms butter that you’ve melted.  Give it a good strong bash to make sure everything is incorporated and there are no lumps (you’re not trying to preserve any volume from the egg whites here).
  • Spoon into the cases, then stud with chunks of fresh or frozen fruit such as berries, plum, apple, pear  - whatever you fancy.
  • Bake for 25 minutes. When done, cook in tins for a few minutes before popping onto a rack and cooling completely – or eating while still warm with a good cup of tea.

15 Sept 2012

Orange and almond cake

To celebrate spring, I bring you a squidgy, pudding-like cake, pretty and sunshine-coloured. My mum made this orange and almond cake recently and gave me a slice – a wodge – and I was instantly in love with its rich texture and gentle orange flavor (next to apple cakes, orange ones are one of my favourites).

A sort thru the pantry revealed I had two large packets of almond meal, and a perusal of the fruit bowl at work on Friday afternoon saw a handful of those gorgeous red oranges, just crying out to be rescued. And as mum’s chooks are laying like crazy after their winter hiatus, I had three dozen eggs in the fridge just busting for a high-egg-count big-cake bake.

This is a perfect afternoon-cup-of-tea cake – the bergamot flavours of a good earl grey are particularly complimentary. But it’s also nice with a dollop of thick cream at the end of a long day.

Orange and almond cake
Adapted from a recent Coles supermarket magazine. If you’re lucky enough to have two electric beaters  (I have hand held and a stand mixer) this will save you washing up halfway thru.
  • Preheat oven to 180 and prep a 22cm round cake tin.
  • First, zest 1 or 2 oranges, and then juice them (and more if needed) for 150ml juice.
  • Separate 5 eggs. Cream the yolks with 250 gm sugar; if you have stand mixer, use it here. Add the zest and 1 tspn vanilla paste - the specks look pretty in the final cake.
  • Then stir thru ½ cup plain flour, 220 grams almond meal (the recipe specified 250 gms, but I couldn’t get any more in) and the juice.
  • With separate or clean beaters, whisk the egg whites until they are just stiff. Using a metal spoon, take a dollop and bash it in; I’m never too precious about the first scoop. Then fold thru the remaining white in two or three batches more carefully. It will look like you’re trying to combine soap bubbles with concrete – an impossible task – but it will happen.
  • Plop into cake tin and bake 45 minutes or until done. Cool on a rack, then turn out to cool a bit more, then dust with icing sugar if you wish.

12 Sept 2012

Book review part 1: Tomatoland

This was originally one long piece but I’ve cut it into two. Read part 2 here.

I like reading about cooking and eating and food. I feel comforted by Nigel Slater’s writing about the emotional ties we have to certain dishes or the immediate sensory experiences of different ingredients. I feel the ups and downs with Stephanie Alexander as she records her vegie garden challenges and successes in her regular Gourmet Traveller column. And I like introductory those paragraphs cooks write before the recipe, sharing a story about its providence.
However I also like to read books that challenge my thinking about food.
If you thought ‘lack of taste’ was the worst accusation you could throw at a tomato and its producers, then think again. In the American book ‘Tomatoland’, Barry Eastabrook reveals:
  • the appalling quantity and truly toxic nature of the chemicals used to grow tomatoes in the nutrient-deficient fields of Florida
  • the devastating health effects of these pesticides and herbicides (often applied unsafely) to the workers and surrounding communities
  • the human trafficking that enslaves illegal immigrants who cross the American borders in search of a better life
  • the government officials and agencies who turn a blind eye to the human misery and environmental wrongs, yet continue to support and be supported by the tomato producers.
It really makes you think differently about a tomato.
I don’t think we have illegal immigrants crossing borders and being enslaved by our agricultural industries. I’d like to think our industrial relations and safety laws protect people from being underpaid or poisoned. But am I being naïve?
Because I don’t know how our food producing industries operate. Media coverage (especially in Tasmania) is usually ‘look how this small family-run business is now supplying lettuces/walnuts/potatoes to the world!’ - in other words, marketing success stories, not objective or critical appraisals of their practices. And what about working and pay conditions, especially for seasonal workers?
Buying organic gives you some assurances about chemical use. And buying seasonal is another way of making a stand against the mega-industrialisation of produce. But who knows the seasonality of fruit and veg these days, especially if you don’t grow it? A supermarket magazine recently trumpeted ‘in season recipes’ for zucchinis; I thought they were a summer-only crop. I guess it’s summer somewhere; let’s pay the food miles and bring it to Hobart a few months early.
‘Tomatoland’ makes me want to know more about what happens in Australia, though I have no idea how to find out. What are your thoughts?

8 Sept 2012

Parsley pesto

Not pretty - but very tasty

Spring is officially here in Hobart, and for the first three or four days at least, it actually behaved like spring: cloudless, cornflower-blue skies, sunshine that was warm and cheerful, air that was soft and fragrant. The branches of my cut-leaf birches have glimmers of emerald green starting to unfurl; the colours of the spring bulbs beneath echo the sunshine and sky. Blossom trees are everywhere, pink and tremulous and hyper-feminine (since then of course, we have had hail, rain and snow on the mountain).

The brief show of warmer weather and brighter days set off a craving for pesto, but basil season is still a long way off. I love making pesto in the summer, and once you’ve made your own, there’s no going back to supermarket jars. I was resigned, however, to this fate, when I had a brainwave: parsley pesto! Who knows? It could be good.

Good? It was great. So great I immediately phoned my mum to tell her she must make it. Turns out she has; months ago. Oh.

The parsley version was bright, zingy – springy – and the technicolour green was just astounding. I actually said ‘wow’ when I dipped-and-licked my finger. Then I folded huge verdant scoops though some spaghetti and steamed broccoli and zucchini (a seriously green dish).

Nigella Lawson’s recipe is the only one I use for pesto, mainly because it contains no nuts. Going nut-free keeps the flavour vibrant and the consistency more like a dressing, not a thick paste, and therefore perfect for folding through pasta, dolloping on vegies, or adding to a garden salad. I’m faithful to the ratios of Nigella’s pesto recipe, except for the parmesan (I use much less) and sometimes the oil (using more for a looser consistency). The balance is perfect: in every mouthful you can distinguish every fresh, gorgeous ingredient.

I only wish I’d thought of making this version in the depths of winter; you could not fail to be uplifted by this punchy sauce. Make some now - think of it as practice for basil sauce, if you must - but truly, parsley pesto is no poor substitute.
Daffodils, jonquils, grape hyacinths and other sping bulbs beneath my avenue of cut-leaf birches (I have seven along the driveway), just starting to leaf up.

Parsley pesto
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s recipe. It takes only moments to make – I believe it took longer to pick the parsley from the garden; certainly it took longer to boil the spaghetti.

  • In a food processor, blitz a clove or two or garlic, 100 grams parsley, 100 mls light olive oil, 100 mls extra virgin olive oil and 40 grams grated parmesan (in Nigella’s original this is 100 grams as well – see the easy-to-remember ratio?) and a grind of black pepper and a pinch of salt flakes. Add more oil if you want a more fluid, dressing-like consistency.
  • Eat within a few days (cover and store in fridge).

5 Sept 2012

Fig jam and raisin rolls

When you cook or bake, do you start with the ingredient or the recipe? If you answered ‘ingredient’, is it something you have in your pantry, fridge or fruit bowl that needs using up, or one that catches your eye in the supermarket or fruit and veg market?
Usually I fall into the first camp: what can I do with the leeks or apples from dad’s garden? Or the three dozen eggs from the chooks who have suddenly remembered how to lay eggs? (I’m eating a lot of omelets right now). I tend not to go out and buy an ingredient to make something; I prefer to look at what I’ve got first.
However, cruising through the supermarket aisles the other day, right next to the rolled oats I needed, was the jam aisle. I’m not usually tempted by the jam aisle, as I have a fridge door full of mum’s jams and pickles and chutneys and other condiments (her recent beetroot relish was delicious, especially with her home-made labneh cheese. Yes, my mum made her own cheese. I need to give her a guest post soon!).
But on that fateful morning, I caught sight of all those iconic jars by the French brand Bonne Maman (if you’re into having pretty storage, these squat glass jars with their red gingham lids are the go).
Specifically, the jar labelled ‘fig conserve’ caught my eye and in a flash I remembered a recipe I had tucked away for fig jam and raisin roll cake. Into the trolley went that jar!
The next step was procuring the roll tins - metal cylinders with lids at either ends. Who has these anymore? When was the last time you saw a recipe for a roll cake? Such a wonderfully old-fashioned morning tea or after-school treat: remember those thick discs of date and walnut rolls smeared with butter?
Luckily mum had two tins, so I was all set to go. If you’ve never used these tins before, a word or two from my recent experience:
  • cut baking paper circles to fit the lids, and a sheet for each cylinder. Grease one side of each sheet then insert that into the tin. I think greasing the tin itself would be near impossible (I was quite pleased at my ingenuity)
  • the tins will have an air vent hole at one end; make sure this is at the top
  • remove your middle and top oven racks: the tins need to stand upright in the oven
  • once you’ve filled the tins, transfer them into your oven by holding the bottom lid securely, not just grabbing the cylinder as I did. Some quick action saved the batter from dropping out all over the bench!
This was such a homely cake (my favourite kind, really) with a not-too-sweet flavour and absolutely packed full of juicy raisins. So moist! No butter smearing required.
I was impatient and cut the cake too soon, hence it's collapsing under the weight of all those plump juicy raisins! Pretty spotty fabric from Frangipani Fabrics.

Fig jam and raisin roll cake
Adapted from a Women’s Weekly recipe
  • Preheat oven to 180 and prepare tins and oven as above.
  • Cream 125 grams soft butter with 1/2 cup light brown sugar, then add two large eggs.
  • Then fold in 1/2 cups SR flour, a generous 1/2 cup fig jam (you know what I mean by 'generous' by now) and 1 cup of raisins (the recipe said tochop them but I left them whole). Spoon the batter into prepared tins, distributely it evenly between the two tins, then pop the lid on.
  • Cook for 50 minutes. I thought mine were done at 45 (using the skewer test) but they could have done with an extra five minutes. Cool in tins for a few minutes then use the paper lining to pull out the cake and cool a litte more on racks before slicing.


1 Sept 2012

Women's Weekly best ever sponge cake

It is a truth universally acknowledged - well, acknowledged by me and mum - that you cannot go wrong with an Australian Women's Weekly recipe. You can have your Donna Hays, swear on your stack of Jamie Olivers; they are but the upstarts nipping at the heels of a kitchen legend. The Women's Weekly cookbooks need to recognised for their proper place in the hierarchy of recipe collections, and for me, this is at the very pinnacle.

'You can't go wrong with the Women's Weekly' is oft-quoted, as I said (to be truthful, usually more by me than mum, who probably agrees so I'll stop chanting this). Tried and triple tested, there are decades of experience behind this Australian institution that wraps every instruction and measurement with trust and faith that it will work, as it has worked for generations of home cooks. Want to know the best technique, what ratio of ingredients, what temperature? Pull a Women's Weekly off the shelf. That's part of the appeal for me - the history and authority that weighs in.

There are lots of wonderful collections: embracing old favourites and trying new cuisines; dinner party elegance to BBQ casual; casseroles to cakes and everything in between.

So when mum and I decided to bake an old-fashioned sponge cake, we naturally turned to a well-thumbed Women's Weekly cookbook. Anticipating all your needs, the recipe provided quantities for a 2 egg, 3 egg and 4 eggs sponge. The 2 egg mix would make a single 20 cm round cake; the 4 egg two, perfect for sandwiching and filling with jam and cream, and this is what we chose, because that really is the quintessential sponge cake, is it not?

Multiple siftings later, two light-as-air cakes were ready to fill and assemble, which was rather fun for me a I'm usually a gal who can't be bothered icing or decorating a cake.

And isn't a good old-fashioned sponge cake like this rather impressive to behold? So we had to get the footed cake stand out. Wonderful with a good cup of tea - as we trusted it would be, coming from the Women's Weekly.

Australian Women's Weekly best ever sponge cake
Before you start, make sure your eggs are at room temperature. I don't know the reason for this, but if the Women's Weekly tells me to do this, I do it.
  • Preheat oven to 180. Grease and line two 20 cm round cake tins.
  • Whisk together 4 eggs plus 2/3 cups white sugar on a medium high speed for about 7 minutes. A freestanding mixer will save your biceps here! Use a small bowl if your mixer allows; it helps whip up the volume quicker.
  • Meanwhile, sift your dry ingredients - 1/3 cup each of cornflour, plain flour and SR flour - three times, back and forth between two bowls.
  • Transfer the egg and sugar mix to a larger bowl then sift the flours yet again over this. Then, using a very light hand, fold the flours in. Take your time and be gentle; don't use your usual figure-of-8 bashing motion. However, still make certain you get all the pockets of flour incorporated.
  • Then distribute the batter evenly between the two tins and bake for 20 minutes; swap and rotate tins halfway thru to ensure even baking. The cakes are done when they start to pull away from the edges and a skewer comes out clean.
  • While they are baking, you have time to whip your cream, choose your favourite jam and get some icing sugar ready. And put the kettle on for a pot of tea.
  • Once the cakes are ready, cool them in the tins for a few minutes then pop them out to cool a bit more; they won't take long. Then spread one with jam, then cream, then place the other on top. Dust with icing sugar. Stand back and admire the old-fashioned loveliness of it all.
  • Sponges do not keep well (because there is no fat from butter or oil), so you have to eat them as quickly as possible! As if you need a reason...