Friday, July 27, 2007

Sweet bites

About five years ago, a group of friends and I hired a houseboat and went sailing along the Murray River near Echuca-Moama on the Victorian-NSW border. It was a hot March weekend and we cruised up and down the river, stopping the boat for swims or to have lunch or dinner in a picturesque spot. Among the group were several excellent cooks and several hungry, appreciative men, so we were all happy.

We took boxes of champagne and beer and several esky-loads of food, far more than we needed and could possibly have eaten during the weekend. We'd serve up massive antipasto platters of olives, sun-dried tomatoes, marinated artichokes, dips, brie, camembert, blue cheese and crackers each evening and eat them while we watched big flocks of cockatoos screeching their way across the sky splashed with a deep pink sunset. We'd pull the boat into some shade at lunchtime and, after a swim to cool off, we'd cook up a BBQ of thick steaks and fat hamburgers.

In between the meals, there were plenty of snacks to keep us going. Every time I plan a trip somewhere, a food magazine or newspaper fortuitously publishes an article with the perfect recipes that I need to bake before I go. This time, Gourmet Traveller published a special on biscuits a few weeks before the holiday, so I made up big batches of spicy gingerbread biscuits with honey icing and hazelnut and vanilla creams. Not only were the biscuits delicious, they were also extremely easy to make. Both recipes quickly entered my repertoire.

75g hazelnuts
125g butter, chopped
150g soft brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
300g self-raising flour, sifted
Vanilla cream filling
130g soft butter, chopped
240g icing sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Put the hazelnuts on a tray, roast for 5-10 minutes, then tip into a tea-towel and rub off the skins. Cool and coarsely chop.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the egg and beat till well combined. Stir in sifted flour and nutmeg and the chopped hazelnuts and mix until well combined. Refrigerate the mixture for 10 minutes.

Roll heaped teaspoons of the mix into balls and place 5cm apart on baking paper-lined trays. Using the back of a fork, press the balls down to form round biscuits. Refrigerate for 10 minutes, then bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden. Cool biscuits on tray.

For filling, using an electric mixer, beat butter until light and fluffy. Add icing sugar and vanilla extract and beat until smooth and creamy. Sandwich biscuits together with vanilla cream (you may find you have some icing left over). Biscuits will keep for one week in an airtight container.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Luscious lemons

Lemons are one of my favourite fruits. Although we have our own lemon tree growing in the backyard, I love receiving bags of juicy, golden lemons from friends and family. There's always so many different uses for them, both sweet and savoury, as the feature ingredient or as a flavour enhancer. I lean towards the sweet side of things when using lemons. In winter, lemon delicious is one of my favourite desserts, with a creamy, custardy lemon sauce hiding beneath a golden sponge topping. I have several delicious lemon cake recipes to choose from, including a lemon and yoghurt version and a magnificently huge, dense lemon sour cream cake. And nothing beats a slice of lemon tart with double cream on the side.

Having received a generous bag of lemons recently, these are some of the lemon dishes we've been feasting on. Of course, lemons are great to have on hand so that the zest or juice can be added to seafood or chicken dishes. When we're getting near the end of the bag, I like to make up lemon curd to use in cakes or tarts, and a hot lemon drink is a great pick-me-up when I feel a cold coming on.

I've been making the following lemon cake for at least 15 years. It's a Beverley Sutherland Smith recipe from an afternoon tea cake feature in Epicure in The Age, probably in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and it quickly became a family favourite. It's a wonderful soft, buttery cake with the sweetness offset by the tart lemon flavour. A sticky sugary syrup on top means there's no need for icing. This is a great morning or afternoon tea cake.


125g butter
1 1/4 cups caster sugar
grated rind of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup milk

grated rind 1 lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup caster sugar

Butter the base and sides of a 20cm round cake tin. Line the base with non-stick baking paper and butter this also. Preheat the oven to 180-190 degrees.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the lemon rind and juice and mix well.

Sift the flour and baking powder over the top and add, alternately, with milk. Spoon into the tin, smooth the top and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 170 degrees and cook for 45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.

To make the topping, mix all the ingredients in a small saucepan and heat until the sugar has softened. Spoon over the top of the cake while still warm.

The recipe says to let the cake cool completely before cutting but I find I can't resist slicing off a piece of warm cake - there's nothing better than a slice of warm cake fresh from the oven!

Friday, July 13, 2007

'Tis the season for hot chocolate

It's cold, wet and wintry here in Melbourne - perfect weather for curling up on the couch with a good book and a mug of steaming hot chocolate. I recently visited Fraus, a fabulously good cafe in North Melbourne that serves thick European hot chocolates. I hadn't visited for a while and was thrilled to discover that you can now buy take-away sachets so you can savour their hot chocolates at home. While I am a caffeine addict, there's always room for a good hot chocolate. I've compiled a list of my favourite hot chocolates from around the world and would love to hear any nominations you have for places I should try (especially from fellow Melburnians, as I'm sure there's plenty of places close by that I don't know about.)


Fraus, Melbourne, Australia
A slice of Europe here in the grungy end of Victoria St, North Melbourne. After a morning shopping for fruit, vegetables and delicatessen delicacies at the Victoria Market, stop in here for an indulgent cup of hot chocolate made with the finest cocoa powder imported from Europe. The menu lists many varieties, including hazelnut, vanilla, caramel, nougat and tiramisu, but the classic hot chocolate, with a creamy, rich, milk chocolate taste, is the hands-down winner. It tastes so thick you feel you could eat it with a spoon. Heaven on its own or enjoy one after a croissant or savoury crepe.

Brunetti's, Melbourne, Australia
This Melbourne institution is rarely empty and is best savoured on a weekday when there's a better chance of scoring a seat. The long glass counters are filling up with the day's multitude of sweet treats. When ordering hot chocolate, make sure you specify the Italian hot chocolate or you will be served with (an admittedly still good) milky hot chocolate. The Italian hot chocolate, served with or without cream, arrives in a latte glass and looks unappealingly watery. But one sip and you are transported to heaven: a thick, rich, not too sweet hot chocolate. How can something that looks so thin be so deliciously thick in your mouth? Best enjoyed with a fresh escargot.

Europjska Cafe, Krakow, Poland
The cool, dark interior of this cafe, with deep maroon walls, comfortable chairs and little round tables, is the perfect image of a genteel 19th-century Eastern European cafe. Sitting in the window, we can look out at the bustle of Krakow's Old Town Square while the waiter arrives with a silver tray bearing little white jugs of molten chocolate, which we pour into white china cups. It's like drinking a chocolate fondue and is perfect accompanied by slices of Sacher torte and black forest cake.

Cafe du Commerce, Nancy, France
You'll pay extra for the privilege of sitting outside at a little round marble-topped table on one edge of Place Stanislas, a beautiful square in the middle of Nancy. But it's worth it, sipping on a smooth and rich hot chocolate while the hot summer sun blazes off the gilded gates that make up one corner of the square. The classical buildings that line the square are adorned with glittering gilded balconies, and the fountains in the centre are also gilded. With views like this, there's no need to order anything to accompany your hot chocolate - but perhaps seconds might be in order.

Wedel's Cafe, Warsaw, Poland
Inside the famous Wedel chocolate shop, with its glass counters filled with exquisite chocolates and topped with glass jars full of foil-wrapped chocolates, is the Wedel cafe. Choose either the green or pink room, both decorated with striped chairs, checkered napkins and tablecloths in varying shades of green or pink, and be prepared to blow your chocolate limits sky-high. The deliciously rich chocolate is served in white bone cups and is perfect on its own or with a chocolate pancake, studded with orange and pineapple chunks and drizzled in thick chocolate sauce.

Cafe de la Paix, La Rochelle, France
The seaside port of La Rochelle is lined with cafes and restaurants offering fine seafood and three-course menus for tourists. But go for a stroll in the little streets away from the port and you'll come across this turn-of-the-19th century cafe, decorated with lots of gild, ornate mirrors, engraved lights and little round wooden tables with comfortable sofa seats. Thick, rich hot chocolate drips into stylish white cups. A perfect accompaniment to a pain au chocolat for breakfast.

St Martin, Ile de Re, France
Hire a bike from La Rochelle and you'll work up a healthy appetite on your cycle across to the island of Ile de Re. After hauling your way up the Pont Ile de Re, a graceful bridge spanning the Atlantic Ocean, the 12km cycle to the island's capital, St Martin, takes you along the sea, past villages filled with little white-washed cottages and then inland through patches of pine trees and bracken. Hurtle down tiny cobbled streets to St Martin's sheltered port and harbour and take an outdoor seat at one of the cafes, where a thick, molten hot chocolate is exactly what you need to refuel you for the return ride.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Old-fashioned cakes stand test of time

I am the temporary custodian of my grandmother's cookbook. It's been passed around my mother and aunts and has now come to me. It's a tatty old A5 book, its brown leather cover held together with a strip of floral contact paper. Page after page is filled with my grandmother's copperplate writing, interspersed with recipes clipped from old newspapers and magazines. There's a leaflet from the White Wings National Bake-off competition. First prize for 1965 is "crunchy amber cake" (butter cakes sandwiched together with a custard filling and iced with a spiced meringue topping browned in the oven), while the "seafood banquet pie" took the honours in 1963.

Grandma's cookbook is filled with recipes for puddings, cakes, biscuits and slices. There's a short "savouries" chapter, mostly for casseroles. Surprised by the amount of sweet recipes, as I tend to think of dessert as being a luxury in the thrify past, I asked mum why there were so many. She explained that savoury cooking was quite plain, often meat and three vegetables, so there wasn't much need for recipes, as most housewives had a repertoire they'd acquired growing up. There was more scope with sweet food, hence the number of recipes.

Robert Drewe wrote in The Age on 23 December 2006 about finding his nan's cookbook, which contained recipes for 54 puddings, 41 cakes and 35 types of biscuits. "It's contents highlight the single biggest change in Australian eating habits since [nan's] cooking heyday: the sad passing of puddings and cakes," he wrote. "Apparently her family ate these delicacies all the time. If so, mystery of the ages, family albums show that they were all thin."

I haven't counted the number of puddings or cakes, but Grandma's book is full of delightfully old-fashioned recipes: flummery, strawberry float, junket ice-cream, blancmange, treacle cakes, sago treat, refrigerator biscuits, marshamllow cake or slice, and cream puffs (at least three recipes, one marked "unsatisfactory - too thin a mixture").

There's the evocatively named ruby cakes, topsy cake, dark cake, johnnie cakes, rock cakes, golden wattlecake, "slice using cake crumbs", Rickety Anns (sultana biscuits), Commando Tarts (butter biscuits topped with jam and meringue), Coconut Belles, Luncheon Cake, Fiesta Cookies, Chinese Chew, Fairy Biscuits and "Economy Biscuits by the Lady Mayoress of Melbourne".

I chose to make the intriguing "Bible Cake", mostly because of the novel way that the recipe is written. For those who haven't got Bibles at hand, luckily the recipe provides a "translation" (I've also converted from imperial to metric). It makes a large cake, a cross between a very light fruit cake and a pound cake. It's extremely moreish and is a great match with a cup of tea.


Take (1) 250g of Judges 5:25; (2) 250g of Jeremiah 6:20; (3) 1 tablespoon of 1 Samuel 14:25; (4) 3 of Jeremiah 17:11; (5) 250g of 1 Samuel 30:12; (6) 250g of Nahum 3:12 (chopped); (7) 60g of Numbers 17:8 (blanched and chopped); (8) 500g of 1 Kings 4:22; (9) season to taste with 2 Chronicles 9:9; (10) a pinch of Leviticus 2:13; (11) 1 teaspoon of Amos 4:5*; (12) 3 tablespoons of Judges 4:19 - the last clause.
* 'Leaven' is equivalent to baking powder

Mixing instructions: Beat 1, 2 and 3 to a cream, add 4 one at a time, still beating. Then add 5, 6 and 7 and beat again. Next add 8, 9, 10 and 11 (having previously mixed them), and last of all add 12. Bake in a rather slow oven (170 degrees) for not less than an hour and a half.

(1) butter
(2) sugar
(3) honey
(4) eggs
(5) raisins
(6) figs
(7) almonds
(8) flour
(9) spice
(10) salt
(11) baking powder
(12) milk