31 May 2015

shrewsbury biscuits

Hello S,
Thank you for your email. I am very flattered, as I am a fan of the British Bake-Off series.
However, I know from watching those shows that I certainly do not have the broad range of baking skills, nor am I consistent enough, to put myself forward for this opportunity. Unless you want the comedy aspect of someone burning the cake or adding too much flour or ... gasp, having the dreaded soggy bottoms!
You have certainly allowed me to dream a little but I know the reality would not be pretty.
Thank you again for contacting me — I shall eagerly watch out for the Australian series.
This, dear reader, was (I hoped) my gracious response to an email from one of the producers of a new season of baking competition show. Can you believe it? Me, a bake-off baker? At first I thought it was spam! Had the producer not read about my burnt cake or botched rhubarb cobbler?

As I said, I would surely provide those awful moments when the poor contestant walks away from the oven without turning it on, or opens the oven door to have smoke billowing out or the supposedly puffy dutch baby pancake be as flat as … a normal pancake (I didn’t share that one with you). I’d be that scene they play before and after the ad break (or even on the commercials) where the baker walks towards the judges and drops the tray of biscuits all over the floor. The tragic, comic moments to make everyone else look wonderful (or just plain competent). And cooking under pressure, with judges and other safe contestants watching your every move, undermining your confidence with sly suggestions?

So I politely declined. And then told lots of people about it.

My mother shared my fears. As fans of the British Bake Off shows, we were always astounded by what those bakers could do – the scope of their skills and techniques. It seriously is not amateur home baking to make those fanciful and difficult breads, cakes, pastries and desserts. Yes I can bake — but not like that.

The two Vs (yes, I have two friends called V) said I should email that producer right back and say I’d changed my mind (I hadn’t) and do it, as did the lovely T. Who revealed — does anyone else know this? — some very intriguing background information.

Now I knew contestants have downtime to practice theirs skills, but T said they are also taught and instructed by proper chefs! Her sister, a pastry chef, has provided crash-course training to a few people who have appeared on various cooking shows to bring their pastry skills up to speed.

Really? I could learn from experts and professionals? Those contestants aren’t as naturally gifted as they appear — they’ve had expert guidance? Maybe I would email that producer back…

No. You may think, after my last post, that I am turning down all of life's wonderful invitations. But I am a realist by nature. As flattering as the invitation was, no (but if there’s a magazine publisher out there who wants a new columnist, now that’s a gig I wouldn’t pass up!).

So it is only fitting that I make some Bake Off biscuits. Some lovely old-fashioned, easy biscuits, studded with currants and zingy with lemon zest. These I could make with cameras rolling. But so could anyone. Bake Offs require much more skill than these little treats do.

Shrewsbury biscuits
Adapted from Paul Hollywood's recipe in 'British Baking' - a wonderful book to read, even if you are not British. I did not sprinkle extra sugar on top before baking. A very economical recipe, it makes a modest batch, depending on your cutters; I used small and medium sized and got around 20.
  • Cream 100 gms softened butter, 100 gms sugar and the fine zest of 1 lemon.
  • Beat in 1 large egg.
  • Stir thru 200 gms plain flour and then 50 gms currants. You'll then need to get in and squeeze the dough together with your hands, or you can knead it on a lightly floured surface.
  • Place the dough on a stretch of greaseproof paper (about a foot long), and roll out til 5 mm thick. Then wrap another layer of paper over the top and some clingfilm or foil, and fridge for an hour or so.
  • After an hour, remove dough from fridge, prep some baking trays and preheat your oven to 180.
  • Cut out your biscuits using your desired cutters; squish and roll the scraps back together to use up all the dough (or nibble on it...).
  • Place on baking trays and bake for about 15 minutes or until golden.
  • Remove from oven, cool on trays for a few minutes to help harden them, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • These are wonderfully hard biscuits and so very good at afternoon tea with a cup of tea.

17 May 2015

on pretty young things

What I want to talk about today is: have you noticed how all the female foodie stars are such pretty young things? Or is it just me (noticing, not young and pretty)?

Whether they're clean living, vegan, sugar free or bone-brothing paleos, they're all young and gorgeous, with super-model-wavy hair, chic Breton stripes and skinny jeans, and glowy perfect skin. Even my mother has noticed: Rachel Khoo is such a cute thing, she declares, mesmerising us as much with her perfectly applied red lippie as her ability to blitz up shortcrust dough. Undeniably, enviably beautiful.

Rachel's not the only one, and their TV shows, blogs or books are filled with as many portraits as them as close-ups of their food. It's not enough to be a great cook, you better look dishy too. At least that's what it seems to me.

Don't get me wrong - none of this is sour grapes. Well, maybe I'm a little conflicted. Like the photos I see in Vogue and other glossy magazines I love to read, of models and celebs, I know there is much magic involved (makeup, botox, photoshop) to produce that perfection - but I still can't help compare myself wistfully to these unattainable images. So when I watch or see these female foodies, there is awe and knowing folded thru with perhaps a little envy (especially if I'm having a bad hair day or I'm dagging about in sloppy trackies after a day in high heels).We're savvy enough to decipher what the message is: that their brand of cooking, eating and living not only infuses them with healthful antioxidants and omega 3s, but mega-doses of loveliness too. So maybe it will do the same for us, too?

They are younger, hipper descendants of Nigella Lawson. Do we all remember when she oozed onto our TV screens with her heady, winking sex appeal (interestingly, she was conspicuously visually absent from her early books)? I used to closely observe her movie star eye makeup and wonder where I could find just that shade of lip gloss (I'm a brunette too, but that, unfortunately, is where all physical similarities end). In comparison, I don't think any of us had girl-crushes on Margaret Fulton or Delia Smith, did we?

Recently I was offered the chance to do some appliance demonstrations at a major homewares store (for various reasons, I declined). After my initial ooooh!, I started wondering how I'd cook, smile and talk at the same time (you try it - it's not as easy as Poh et al make it look). And then, what should I wear? Something safe and low key, because that's how locals roll on the weekend? Or something more me, with my pink lippie, a dress and ballet flats (perhaps there is a little of Ms Khoo in me after all). To manicure, or not to manicure? For a moment, that was the burning question.

In the end, it all came to nought, but... oh the decisions and the possibilities. Hats off, I concluded, to all those glossy gals, from the retro super-glam to the no-makeup-makeup chicks. We want to eat and cook like them; perhaps, just a little bit, we want to live and look and be like them too.

10 May 2015

nigella's chocolate prune cake

Not long ago, Catherine reminded me that I hadn’t made a Nigella recipe for a long time. How could that be? (Easy – too many cake recipes, not enough time.)

I decided to make the recipe that Catherine had, a chocolate cake with rich sour cream, but then I pulled out my copy of ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’ and the pages fell open to the store-cupboard chocolate cake.

I used to make this one regularly, the variation using pureed prunes, because I love prunes, and their squidginess in a chocolate cake is a certain kind of deliciousness (if you google around, you’ll find lots of other variations to Nigella's original recipe — it really is very accommodating ). I’ve also made a boozy version — soaking the prunes in tia maria — but I wanted to share these with my friend C who does not drink. Tipsy or nor, these cakes, perhaps more prune-y than chocolate-y, are as rich as Christmas fruitcake, smooth and fudgy, and a little sticky (so finger licking required).

Catherine, I promise I’ll make the sour cream one soon, but in the meantime, here’s the chocolate prune cake, in all its sweet glory. Mum has been pestering me to post the recipe ever since she had a wodge (I have of course offered to write the recipe out for her), so here it is.

Chocolate prune cake
Adapted from Nigella’s store-cupboard chocolate cake in ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’, so named because the original is made with jam or marmalade – ingredients we probably all have in our pantry. I made 8 mini loaves rather than one 20cm round cake, which the recipe specified.
  • The night before, soak 300 gms pitted prunes in either tea (I use earl grey) or an alcohol such as Kahlua or Tia Maria. This step makes them deliciously plump and soft.
  • On baking day, preheat your oven to 180 and prep your chosen baking tin (see my notes above).
  • If there is any liquid left unabsorbed by the prunes, drain and discard (or in the case of the boozy stuff, drink...). Whiz up to a puree in your food processor.
  • Over a double-boiler set up, gently melt together 125 gms butter, 100 gms dark chocolate, 150 gms sugar (I tend to use half brown/half white) and a pinch of salt until well combined.
  • Remove from heat and stir thru 2 large eggs, the prune puree, then 150 gms SR flour.
  • Dollop into your prepared tins. Be sure to lick the bowl.
  • Bake for 25-30 minutes for small cakes or until done (longer for a single large cake).
  • Cool on wire racks. These are lovely warm, with a dollop of sour cream or natural yoghurt - the zing compliments the fruity richness wonderfully - and just as delicious and squidgy when cool.

3 May 2015

garden share collective: may

With the slide towards winter, the busiest and most productive time for my vegie garden is on the wane.

Two weekends ago, mum and dad came up for a much-needed ‘backyard blitz’. Three pairs of hands made very light work of end-of-season tasks, the two biggest being dismantling the tomato patch (rolling off the netting, pulling up the stakes and the now brown and brittle tomato plants, and giving the bed a quick once over) and pruning back the yellow peach tree.

About six weeks ago, maybe more, I came home from work to find one of the peach tree’s limbs had dramatically split, due to the weight of all the fruit it was bearing. The limb had sort of cleaved, forked, but somehow was not entirely damaged; the fruit continued to grow and ripen. But with most of the fruit now picked or fallen, it was time to cut back the broken branch (to the relief of the sage and chrysanthemums trapped beneath) and many other limbs, too, that knocked and scrapped noisily against the gutter in any winds.
Poor ugly tree
Dad largely did these two jobs, with mum and I catching limbs, picking up tomato debris, and tidying things into the council green waste bins or a pile for dad to come back and take away on his truck. Mum then took to two of my roses with the secateurs and gusto.
All this dramatic cleaning out and pruning – combined with the dramatically reduced lily-pily and the now denuded autumnal birch trees in my driveway – left me feeling a bit exposed for the first few days; like a kid with a too-short haircut. It was so bare, everywhere.
Work in progress. Tea essential
Elsewhere, I’m waiting for the various lines of beans to completely finish, their swollen pods to dry off for next season’s seeds. I’ve already collected a good handful of borlotti beans for this purpose.
The zucchinis are on their last legs – I get a couple of delicately slim fruit every couple of days; enough to make me wistful for their fat summer siblings.

Over the next month, I hope to pull out just about everything, then feed the soil before letting it hibernate. This was new soil put in after dad built the frames lastspring, and  I have been feeding the soil ever since, mostly by digging in kitchen scraps directly, between the plantings. On the weekend, when he was uprooting the tomatoes, Dad said this was doing good – there were a pleasing number of worms about. Which cheered me tremendously, because wormies are a good thing! I’ve organised to get some bags of horse poo from a co-worker who has horses, and I’ll be looking out for bagged-up sheep poos when I drive the country road down to my parents place. Ah, the bliss of being a gardener – getting excited about poo.
I am also collecting marigold seeds for next season
The only things I intend to plant next are some silverbeet, some purple sprouting broccoli (if it’s not too late) and some garlic (if I get around to buying some local organic bulbs).

The biggest and newest addition to chez Dig in is my second lemon tree. Say hello everyone to Lemonicious (Beyonce has a lot to answer for). She is a birthday present from mum and dad, after I have been whinging every since I bought my home (ten years ago) that I wanted a better lemon tree. Last weekend, I enlisted the help (muscles) of my friend A to dig the hole, and together we planted this sturdy, upright young tree (thank you A, you shall get some lemons!). This variety only grows about a metre to a metre and a half tall, which is just perfect for my backyard. I’m already dreaming of the G&Ts in a couple of years’ time – yes, I know you have to let the tree, not the fruit, grow for the first year or two. Gardeners need patience – and a few helping hands - don’t they?