Monday, October 29, 2007

Daring Bakers: Bostini cream pie

After the success of my first Daring Bakers* challenge last month, I was looking forward to this month's recipe: Bostini cream pie. Not being familiar with either Boston cream pies or the Bostini version, I'm grateful to definitions from this month's host Mary (from Alpineberry): a traditional Boston cream pie is a vanilla layer cake filled with cream and topped with chocolate glaze, while the Bostini is a vanilla bean pastry cream topped with an orange chiffon cake and drizzled with a rich chocolate glaze.

My biggest challenge this month was the conversion of the American recipe into Australian measurements and then, as it was such a large recipe (nine egg yolks for the custard alone!), to somehow scale down these measurements (what's 1/3 of 1/2 cup?)

I found a convenient conversion chart on the Internet and discovered that 3/4 of a US cup is 2/3 cup + 1 dessertspoon in Australian measurements. I converted/estimated all measurements as best I could and they obviously worked, as this recipe was a great success.

The custard was rich and creamy and very moreish. Other DBs have noted that the custard was quite runny and more like a pastry cream, but I found that my custard set nicely and was quite firm, similar to the custard in a trifle (it oozed a little bit when I turned it out onto a plate, but it managed to stay in a mound, rather than running all over the plate). I would normally make a custard with eggs and milk, rather than cream, but this was a nice change and the dessert certainly benefited from having such a rich custard.

The next step was the chiffon cake. A chiffon cake is a light cake made with vegetable oil, eggs, sugar, flour and flavourings. As it doesn't use butter, the texture of the cake is derived from beaten egg whites (similar to an angel cake). The lack of butter in the cake means that the flavour is light and delicate and makes it perfect for partnering with custards, pastry creams and sauces. Other DBs had warned that the recipe made a huge cake, so I made a half-quantity (and had plenty left over). The recipe called for cake flour, which is not available in Australia, but Bill Granger came to the rescue, noting on the Sydney Morning Herald website that 1 cup of cake flour equals 3/4 cup of plain flour plus 2 tablespoons of cornflour. The cake was extremely easy to mix up. I chose to make it in a large cake pan and cut out pieces for the dessert, rather than baking it in individual pans.

So, to the final result! I served this dessert in two different ways. On the first night, we had the Bostini cream pie in fancy little glass dishes, filled with custard, topped with circles of cake and drizzled with the chocolate glaze (the easiest part to make, as the glaze is equal parts of chocolate and butter melted together). On the second night, I scooped out the custard (which I had set in little espresso cups) onto a plate, topped the custard mound with chiffon cake and then drizzled over more glaze. Either way of serving it worked well.

The Bostini cream pie was a taste sensation! As I was making the individual parts, I thought it would be a nice dessert but nothing special. One mouthful though and both Adam and I were in raptures! The chiffon cake was dense but airy and was a perfect foil to the sweet custard, with the chocolate glaze soaking in to the cake and adding extra flavour. I was thrilled with the final result and would definitely make this dessert again. The individual parts of the dessert are easy to make and not very time-consuming and the final result is so impressive that people think the dessert is more difficult to make than it is.

Thanks to Mary for hosting this event and for choosing such a wonderful dessert to make. The recipe is available on Mary's site, Alpineberry. Several points to note: as I mentioned, I converted all measurements to Australian measurements. Cake flour is made with plain flour and cornflour, and the American cornstarch is cornflour in Australia.

I'm eagerly looking forward to the next challenge!

* The Daring Bakers are a group of foodbloggers who, once a month, receive a recipe chosen by that month's host, make the recipe without modifications (unless allowed by the host), and then blog about the experience on the same day.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A savoury dish

My friend Alison recently commented that my blog seems full of sweet recipes. I do love a good cake, biscuit or pudding, but I'm equally keen on savoury dishes, so why am I not inspired to write about them as much as about sweet dishes? I'm not alone in this. As I've written before, my grandmother's cookbook is full of recipes for cakes, slices and desserts. Yet sweets would have been much more of a treat in her day than a regular occurrence, so it seems surprising that she would have so many sweet recipes in her cookbook.

It got me thinking about the nature of baking, as opposed to cooking. My theory is that, in general, baking is much more precise than cooking, and therefore more detailed recipes are needed. For example, for pesto I throw together a big bunch of basil and add garlic, olive oil, pinenuts and parmesan to taste. The idea of precisely measuring these ingredients seems ridiculous. Yet, by the same token, I would never make a cake by throwing together estimated ratios of flour, butter and sugar. Even as fine a chef as Stephanie Alexander agrees: "My [recipe] boxes labelled vegetables, meat and poultry, and fish are not nearly as full [as the sweet recipe boxes]. Is it because baking really does need more precision? I can always put together a savoury dish without instruction but would never dare start a cake without a formula." (Epicure, The Age, 15 May 2007).

Although I cook a lot of savoury dishes, they seem to easy or ordinary to write about. When I was a child, we had a roast for lunch every Sunday (my favourite is roast beef with Yorkshire pudding) and I've continued this tradition (although we have it for dinner, rather than lunch). But I've never thought about writing about it because it doesn't seem exotic enough and also because there's no set recipe to share.

But in the interests of balance, I've decided to feature a savoury dish. My backyard vegetable garden is full of spinach, which I love, so spanakopita seemed like a great dish to use up plenty of spinach. This version comes from The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander.


1 onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 spring onions, very finely chopped
1 large bunch spinach, steamed, washed, dried and finely chopped
2 tablespoons freshly chopped mint
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
finely grated nutmeg
2 eggs
125g fetta, crumbled
125g ricotta
60g grated parmesan
black pepper
120g melted butter
10 sheets filo pastry

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Saute the onion in the oil until softened. Add spring onion, spinach, herbs and nutmeg and cook, stirring, until spinach is very soft and there is no liquid in the pan. Tip into a colander resting over a plate and allow to cool. Beat eggs in large bowl, add cheeses and cooled spinach mixture and season to taste with pepper.

Choose a rectangular metal baking dish (28cm x 18cm x 8cm - I used a slice tray). It should be a bit smaller than half a sheet of filo. Brush the dish with a little melted butter. Cut the filo sheets in half. Brush each sheet with melted butter and settled 10 sheets in the dish, pressing up the sides. Spoon in spinach mix. Settle a further 10 buttered sheets over the top and tuck in any overlap down the sides. Score the top of the pie but do not cut through to the bottom. Bake for about 40 minutes, until golden brown. Serve warm or cold.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Celebrating chocolate week

According to English newspaper The Guardian, October 15-21 is Chocolate Week. What a great thing to celebrate! Chocolate recipes are by far my favourite and, out of the thousands of recipes I've collected over the years, the chocolate file is the largest. No matter how many chocolate cake or biscuit recipes I have, I can never resist collecting a new one. They essentially all use the same ingredients but there's always a new twist that entices me to try it - perhaps some coffee granules added to a choc-chip biscuit recipe, or a white chocolate fondant centre in gooey chocolate puddings.

What else is there to say about chocolate that hasn't been written before? We all know its wonderful properties and how a piece of moist chocolate cake can fix almost anything in the world. Whether you choose to whip up a basic cake on a whim, a more grand affair that requires a long list of ingredients and concentration in the kitchen, or some choc-chip biscuits to share with friends, there's always a chocolate recipe available to satisfy.

I've noticed recently that most chocolate recipes call for the "best quality chocolate you can afford", usually meaning expensive Vahlrona or Callebaut chocolate. I have no doubt that in some recipes you may notice the difference if cheap chocolate is used but I also think that this is another example of food snobbery, something that seems to be creeping in more and more to modern recipes. There's been quite a few occasions when I've gone to the trouble and effort of sourcing difficult and expensive ingredients only to end up disappointed with the final result. The recipe works, the end result is fine and yet there's a feeling of flatness, that the end did not justify the means. But that's another article all together!

I'm a sucker for any food recipe that has a chocolate picture on the front cover. It doesn't matter if I've already got 10 versions of the recipe; I have to add this one as well. Clearly I'm not the only one who feels this way, judging by how often chocolate will appear on a front cover.

Chocolate is indulgent and chocolate is fun. You can get a mini-hit through a choc-chip biscuit or a major overdose through a decadent dessert. It's not something to scoff but to savour. A French chocolatier once told me that you should eat a little bit of chocolate every day and that you should make it the best piece of chocolate you can afford (there's that phrase again!) so that you can savour it and then feel satisfied. My preference is for dark chocolate and I find that I am satisfied after a couple of small squares, whereas a chocolate bar leaves me feeling like I've had too much.

In Melbourne, we are spoiled for choice with our chocolate shops: Koko Black in Royal Arcade, Haighs Chocolate shops around the city, Cacao in Fitzroy St, St Kilda, Fraus in Victoria St, North Melbourne for wickedly rich hot chocolate, and chocolate afternoon teas at the Sofitel are just some of the treats on offer.

To celebrate Chocolate Week, here's a recipe for Choc-Nut Biscuits that I made up. It's an easy and fast recipe and will satisfy any mid-afternoon craving for chocolate.


125 g butter
125g white sugar
125g brown sugar
250g self-raising flour
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
150g chocolate chips
100g chopped nuts (your choice - I find walnuts or blanched almonds are good)

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Line two baking trays with non-stick baking paper.

Cream the butter and sugar until pale and creamy. Add the eggs and vanilla, then stir in the sifted flour. Add the choc chips and the nuts, mixing well.

Put spoonfuls of the mixture onto the baking trays (it may be quite sticky, so shape as best you can), and allow plenty of room for spreading. Bake for about 10 minutes or until golden. Cool on the tray for about five minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The great lamington debate

A plate of lamingtons at a work morning tea has been the catalyst for a great debate among my colleagues: should lamingtons have jam in the middle or not? My answer is an unequivocal no!

First, some background. A proper, home-made lamington is a true delight: a cube of light, airy butter or sponge cake, dipped in chocolate icing and rolled in desiccated coconut. Lamingtons are one of my favourite cakes and there is nothing more delightful for morning tea when made properly. Get it wrong, though - the cake is too dry and crumbly, or the icing is not the right consistency - and there's nothing worse.

There's no clear indication of when or how lamingtons were first baked, with many weird and wonderful anecdotes on the internet. Some stories say that a cook improvised when discovering that the sponge cake to be served up for afternoon tea had gone stale and the chocolate icing and coconut was used to disguise this and make it more palatable. It is thought that the cakes were named after Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901.

However they came into being, lamingtons have become a recognisably Australian cake - indeed, in 2006 the National Trust of Queensland named the lamington as one of Queensland's 12 favourite icons. When I was growing up, lamington drives were very popular as fund-raisers for schools and the football and netball clubs. I think this is where some people developed a preference for jam-filled lamingtons, as these lamingtons were flatter and drier than home-made ones and the strawberry jam helped to moisten and flavour the cakes.

The classic Australian cookbooks all agree that lamingtons do not have jam or whipped cream in the middle. The Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union (PMWU) cookbook (first published in 1904), Cookery: the Australian Way (the standard home economics textbook for secondary school students, first published in 1966) and Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion all feature similar recipes for butter cake and chocolate icing, although Stephanie prefers a Genoese sponge cake to butter cake.

It is easy to get lamingtons wrong. The cubes should not be too big, nor too small (too many bakeries sell gigantic lamingtons that are disappointingly dry and tasteless). The cake should be moist and not dry or crumbly. The cubes are much easier to cut and ice if you make the cake the day before and leave it in the fridge overnight. I like the contrast of the butter cake with sweet chocolate icing and the coconut. To me, a filling of jam or whipped cream makes the cake too sweet and detracts from the lamington's pure simplicity. Those who prefer otherwise say that the jam adds a sweetness and texture to what is an otherwise bland cake.

Let me know what you think - jam or no jam?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Addictive small bites

Several years ago, Adam and I house-sat for our friends Kerry and Matt while they were overseas. Apart from leaving me an impressively stocked pantry and cupboards bursting with cookware, Kerry also left out a large pile of Delicious magazines (my first taste of my new favourite cooking magazine) and a pile of books. Among the pile, I found a book called On Rue Tatin by Susan Herrmann Loomis. Although I had a pile of my own books to read, I quickly became immersed in the world of Susan, an American who spent a year as a chef in Paris and then returned several years later with her husband to buy a 300-year-old house in Louviers, Normandy.

Susan is an excellent writer and her tale of life in France was beautifully told, interspersed with delicious recipes that reflected the best of Normandy produce and the love that the French have for good food. Her second book, Tarte Tatin, continues the story of her life in Louviers and the cooking school that Susan has opened, where visitors stay for a week of cooking classes and meet with local producers and artisans. I highly recommend either of these books, although be warned that it may induce feelings of envy! Susan also has an excellent website:

In her book, Susan featured a recipe for les scourtins des vieux moulins (olive cookies from vieux moulins), a very old recipe from a family who produced olive oil at Les Vieux Moulins, an ancient olive mill in Provence. The recipe is an intriguing mix of sweet (icing sugar) and salty (olives) and I've been longing to try it since I first read it. Of course, like many of my clippings, it got put aside until recently when I decided to whip up a batch for morning tea. I'm sorry I waited so long now! These biscuits are totally addictive and, if it wasn't for the fact that I was making these for others, I would have devoured the whole lot on the spot! Enjoy.


125g unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup (110g) pure icing sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 1/3 cups (200g) plain flour
1/2 cup (100g) cured olives, such as kalamata or nicoise, pitted and coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Line two baking trays with non-stick baking paper.

Cream the butter until soft and pale yellow. Mix in the icing sugar until blended, then drizzle in the olive oil until combined. Add the flour and a pinch of fine sea salt, then mix gently but thoroughly until the dough is smooth. Add the olives and mix until they are thoroughly incorporated into the dough.

Place a piece of baking paper on the bench and put the dough in the middle. Cover with another piece of baking paper and roll out the dough until it is about 0.5cm thick (the dough is very sticky and the paper will make it possible to roll out). Refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes, and up to 24 hours.

Cut out 5cm rounds of dough and put them about 1.5cm apart on the prepared baking trays. Bake until golden (about 15 minutes), then cool on wire racks. Gather the leftover dough trimmings into a ball and roll out into a 2.5cm diameter log. Wrap well in plastic wrap and refrigerate until you're ready to bake. Then cut off 0.5cm-thick rounds from the log (this avoids over-rolling the dough) and bake.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Comfort food

We all have our comfort food recipes, standard dishes that we return to time and time again because they work, because they're easy to make, or because of the memories they evoke. Some days the larder is bare, or you're not feeling inspired to create a new masterpiece and that's when the tried and true recipes come in handy.

Zucchini slice is such a recipe for me. It's easy and fast to make, can be eaten warm or cold, can be successfully reheated in the oven or microwave, can be frozen, and you can omit the bacon for vegetarians. My mum has made this slice all my life and it's starred at many different occasions: at family picnics, a quick Sunday night meal, or something to take over to sick relatives or friends. When I was a university student, I moved house every year and mum always made this slice for us to eat, as it was an easy lunch for hungry workers.

I find myself making this slice more and more frequently, as it just seems to hit the spot at so many different occasions. Plus it's a hit with my toddler son and that makes it worth its weight in gold!

Zucchini slice

2 medium zucchini, grated
4 bacon rashers, diced
1 onion, diced
150g cheddar or parmesan cheese, grated
170g self-raising flour, sifted
3 eggs, lightly beaten together
a pinch of nutmeg

Mix all the ingredients together and put into a square cake tin lined with non-stick baking paper. Bake at 180 degrees for 30-40 minutes, until golden brown on top. Cut into slices and serve warm or cold. The slice can also be frozen.