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!