Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas baking

I can't believe Christmas has come and gone already. It feels like I just finished last year's Christmas dinner and here we are again, bellies groaning from good food while we pack up presents and throw out the wrapping paper and rubbish.

Christmas is my favourite time of the year and I love the preparation for Christmas: soaking the fruit for puddings and cakes, setting aside a day to steam the pudding, choosing which sweet treats to make for gifts (nougat, chocolate fudge, panettone, spiced biscuits) and making our family's traditional favourites of shortbread and mince tarts.

This year though, my Christmas preparation and baking was very limited, as we have a newborn in the house and there was not much free time available to do any baking. However, I've been stockpiling a collection of new recipes to try next year. Of course there's no reason why I can't make shortbread or panforte at any time of the year but it just doesn't feel right!

Two days before Christmas, my reservation at the local library for Nigella Christmas arrived. It's a sumptuous book, lavishly photographed and full of delicious and inspiring recipes. There's cocktails and canapes to start, followed by soups, salads and side dishes, different ways to cook turkey, goose, pork and beef, main dishes for vegetarians, sweet treats and edible gifts. I love the way Nigella writes about food. Her comforting, practical tone is combined with a sweet turn of phrase that makes you feel you can tackle any cooking task she sets. I must admit though that, although I've been collecting Nigella recipes for years, I've never actually made any of them, even though I've been inspired to many times. So, when I saw the recipe for the Yule Log, which looked impressive but used only a few basic ingredients (eggs, caster sugar, cocoa, butter), I thought it was the perfect dish to quickly whip up for our Christmas Eve meal.

And so it proved to be. I made a basic chocolate roulade that is spread with a rich chocolate butter cream and then rolled up into a log shape and covered with the rest of the butter cream. A few squiggles with a skewer to make it look like a log, a dusting of icing sugar to make it look like the log is covered in snow and voila! an authentic yule log. Although Nigella says in her recipe notes that the recipe looks finicky and is not a doddle to make, I found it quite easy to put together and thought that the final result was impressive and made it look more difficult than it actually was.

Christmas might be over for this year, but I'm looking forward to trying many more of the recipes from the Nigella Christmas book. A lot of the salads and the sweet treats, such as rocky road and gingerbread, can certainly be made year round. It will elevate your Christmas feast to a domestic goddess level but it's not a book that needs to be put away and only referred to once a year.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cocoa Farm shiraz chocolates

I find the rich, sensual taste of chocolate hard to match with wine. It tends to pair beautifully with the honeyed richness of Rutherglen tokays, muscats and ports and I've been to several Melbourne Food and Wine Festival events where we sampled a range of chocolates matched with these Rutherglen wines, with some interesting combinations.

But I've tended to steer clear of matching chocolate with other wines. Now, however, I've discovered that the peppery flavours of shiraz can match wonderfully well with smooth dark chocolate - and it can happen without the need for separate glasses and plates.

Farm By Nature is a Melbourne-based chocolate company that makes the Cocoa Farm brand. I've discovered their range of Wine Chocolate: milk and dark chocolate combined with raisins that have been infused with shiraz, pinot noir or merlot. The latest release is shiraz wine chocolate barrel gift boxes. Cutely shaped like a wine barrel, the individually-wrapped chocolates are studded with plump raisins and have a distinctive peppery shiraz aroma. The first mouthful yields strong peppery notes on the palate, followed by a smooth wine aftertaste mixed with satisfyingly rich, but not cloying, dark chocolate. The aftertaste is long and you could almost believe that you had just had a sip of shiraz. I found it impossible to stop at just one chocolate and had to hide the box to ensure Adam didn't polish them all off. I hope Santa brings me some more of these in my Christmas stocking!

For stockists, see

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Daring Bakers challenge - pizza

Pizzas are a great meal to make at home. If you have plenty of time, you can make your own pizza bases, which taste so much better than the take-away shop version, or you can cheat and use ready-prepared bases or pita bread. By making it at home, you have full control over the toppings you choose, so you can come up with your own creative combinations, or use as many (or as few) anchovies as you like!

Pizza and toppings was the October challenge, hosted by Rosa's Yummy Yums, for the Daring Bakers. The pizza dough recipe came from Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. It made a delicious thin, crispy yet chewy pizza crust and the only drawback is that it involves two days of preparation. Although the actual dough is easy to make (a standard mixture of flour, salt, yeast, oil, sugar and water kneaded into a dough), it needs to rest overnight in the fridge, which means the chef needs to do some planning ahead for pizza night.

Once the dough has rested overnight, you then bounce and toss around the pizza dough before putting it onto a pizza stone or baking tray, covering with toppings and baking for 5-8 minutes.

The toppings I chose were salami, olives and mozzarella; mushrooms, olives and caramelised onions; and potato and rosemary. The pizzas were absolutely delicious and enthusiastically received by my tasting panel.

I make pizzas reasonably regularly and I enjoyed testing this recipe. However, I think in future that I will stick with my Jill Dupleix pizza base recipe, as it only needs to rise for an hour or so before you can use it. Even this does require some planning ahead (it's not a meal you can whip up in 10 minutes after work, unless you've already pre-prepared the dough), but it's a recipe that I'm more likely to use than one that needs to be prepared the day before. Although it sounds daunting, it only takes about 10-15 minutes to actually prepare and knead the dough, and then it can prove for as long as you like. I strongly encourage you to try making your own pizzas, as the take-away versions will pale into comparison once you've tried it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Baking days

We've finally moved into the new house and have most of the boxes unpacked. It's such a massive, daunting job to move house that I'll be quite happy not to move again for a very long time. At least in this house I have space to unpack a lot of my kitchenware that's been stored away in boxes for a long time. It's like going on a shopping spree, as I uncover dishes, bowls and platters that I've not been able to use. Many of the beautiful dishes were wedding presents and I'm pleased to finally be able to use them and display them.

Moving into a new house has also meant acquainting myself with a new kitchen. Fortunately this one was renovated a few years ago, so is filled with lots of cupboards and new appliances. I have a dishwasher for the first time in my life! And I'm loving the new oven, with its gas hotplate and electric oven. My last oven was perfectly functional but it was so old that it was still in Fahrenheit and it took some trial and error in the early days of baking to work out just how long it would take to bake a cake or biscuits (cakes usually took at least 10-20 minutes longer than the recipe specified).

So it was time to try out the new oven and the recipe I chose for the occasion was choc oatmeal cookies from Bill Granger's bills food. This recipe has special resonance with this house: the previous owner baked a big batch of these cookies on the day of the auction and we nibbled on them afterwards as we signed the contracts. She told me the oven was a great baking oven and glowing testaments from neighbours about her baking prowess are testament to that. These cookies are now known to us as "auction cookies", so it was only fitting that they were the first thing I made in the new house. I can report that the oven works like a dream!


150g unsalted butter, softened
230g soft brown sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
125g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
a pinch of salt
235g rolled oats
175g choc chips

Preheat oven to 180 degrees and line three large baking trays with baking paper.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until fluffy and smooth. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat until smooth. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into the bowl and mix lightly. Add the oats and choc chips and stir to combine.

Roll tablespoons of mixture into balls and place on the baking trays. Flatten the balls with a fork dipped in flour. Bake for 20 minutes, or until pale golden. Remove from the oven and cool on the trays for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool. Makes 30.

Recipe from bills food by Bill Granger

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Food bites

With some free time on my hands as I prepare for a big house move, it's been nice to indulge in some foodie past-times recently. Packing up all my food magazines has taken quite a bit of time, as I stop to flick through the glossy pages and make yet more lists of recipes I want to try. The latest Donna Hay magazine has arrived and is full of enticing recipes and entertaining ideas. I'm trying not to stock up the cupboard or freezer with extra food at the moment, so have had to content myself with marking "must-try recipes" with sticky notes.

Emptying the freezer has enabled me to use up food and do some extra baking. The frozen raspberries left over from last year's berry picking have been turned into glorious jam and a raspberry and pistachio cake that was quickly gobbled up. Some of the frozen boysenberries were cooked in a sugar syrup and then sandwiched between puff pastry triangles with warm custard and dusted with icing sugar to make a quick and tasty dessert. In winter, I spent a wonderful day poaching quinces, the house filling with their wonderful spicy scent as they slowly poached into ruby globes of goodness. I couldn't use them all at the time, so froze the remainder and have just baked them with a brown sugar and hazelnut crumble on top. Fortunately the weather is still cool enough that a crumble is a welcome, rather than stodgy, dessert.

And there's been some time to pop out and try new places. When I lived in Brunswick as a student in the mid-90s, it was not the gentrified, trendy place that it is now. We tended to head to the city or Carlton to eat out but now East Brunswick is full of fabulous cafes and restaurants, all within walking distance of my old student houses. How I wish places such as Thaila Thai, Small Block, Gingerlee and Rumi's existed when I lived there! Although Brunswick is still an easy drive for me to get to, it's not the same as having the cafe around the corner from your house. My sister, her husband and I enjoyed the summer breakfast at Small Block last week: two triangles of thick bread topped with poached eggs and accompanied by beetroot relish, fat, creamy chunks of Persian fetta and a sweet avocado drizzled with lemon juice. It was a refreshing, summery start to the day, especially accompanied by good strong coffee.

A few days later, it was time to pay another visit to Noisette in Bay St, Port Melbourne, for a French-inspired breakfast of a creamy flat white and a crispy, flaky pain au chocolat that melted in my mouth. The plain and almond croissants were also tempting but the chocolate won in the end. This is another lovely little cafe that I wish was my local.

Not that I can complain about my local cafe, Nosh @ Newport, which has gone from strength to strength since it opened 18 months ago. It's filled a real niche in Newport. Once cafe-starved locals needed to travel to Yarraville or Seddon (I don't find much worth bothering with in Williamstown) for a coffee or cafe fix, but now we have Nosh within strolling distance. With books and toys, as well as a healthy children's menu, it's also popular with local families. The coffee, a Supreme blend, is always excellent. My favourite breakfast dish is the Turkish bread egg and bacon roll: two fried eggs, a mound of crispy bacon, aioli and melted cheese squashed into a fat toasted Turkish bread roll, accompanied with spicy relish. It always hits the spot!

Auction Rooms in North Melbourne is a relatively new cafe that's been receiving rave reviews for its excellent coffee and food. Situated on Errol St, you can sit in the front window, enjoying the morning sun and gazing through the enormous glass windows over towards the Town Hall. Inside is flooded with natural light and the tall ceilings and wide open spaces give an airy and warm feel to a space that doesn't feel overwhelming, despite its size. Coffee is freshly roasted each day, with details of the day's bean, its characteristics and the best way to enjoy it chalked up on a blackboard. I had a long black that was perfectly extracted. The coffee was smooth and sweet and there was no need to add sugar. Auction Rooms is also an outlet for Dench Bakers Bread, which features heavily on the menu, where dishes have cute names such as the Counter Bid and Opening Bid. I had the Real Deal, a dish of spicy baked beans with crispy grilled chorizo and cheesy polenta bread. It was a great late-morning breakfast and I can't wait to visit Auction Rooms again.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Daring Bakers Challenge - lavash crackers

It was a savoury challenge for the Daring Bakers this month. In a historic first, the recipe was also vegan and gluten free - Alternative Daring Bakers Natalie and Shel hosted this month and provided a gluten-free lavash cracker recipe (but thoughtfully included a gluten version for those who wanted to use flour). The dips to accompany the lavash crackers had to vegan- and gluten-free. This extra challenge was enthusiastically embraced by most DBers and many came up with amazingly creative combinations.

The lavash cracker recipe was quite simple: 1 1/2 cups of unbleached bread flour, or gluten-free flour blend, was mixed with 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp instant yeast, 1 Tb agave syrup or sugar, 1 Tb vegetable oil and up to 1/2 cup of water. After kneading for 10 minutes, it was rested for about 90 minutes (or until doubled in size), then rolled out into a paper-thin sheet, sprinkled with assorted toppings (I used paprika, sea salt, caraway seeds and sesame seeds to make four different types of cracker) and baked at 180 degrees for 15-20 minutes.

The finished result was superb! So easy to make and it tasted much better than the store-bought versions. This is the type of cracker you could easily whip up before a dinner party and serve with various dips, or just have on hand for a snack. As we're coming into spring here, this is the perfect weather to have crackers and dip. I didn't have time to research or cook a creative or delicious vegan- and gluten-free dip recipe (although quite a few DBers recommended hummus and guacamole, both of which I love), so I just mashed up some avocado with lemon juice and salt and pepper and this was a very satisfactory accompaniment.

I left a bowl of the crackers on the kitchen bench and Adam polished off quite a few before he asked where they came from. His verdict? "This is the best challenge you've done yet. You should definitely make these again." A ringing endorsement - and one I heartily agree with! Thanks to Natalie and Shel for their inclusive and fun recipe this month.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A little bite of sweetness

When my youngest sister got married earlier this year, she had a Middle Eastern/Moroccan theme. With the wedding ceremony and reception being held at a city bar, it was easy to customise the venue and decorations to suit this theme. Amidst the coloured lanterns and rose-petal cocktails, Bec and John decided to forgo the traditional wedding cake and instead have tasting plates for dessert featuring Turkish delight, Persian fairy floss and rosewater mini cupcakes. And this was the source of Melbourne Larder's first baking commission!

When Bec asked me if I would make the mini cupcakes for her, I instantly agreed without thinking it through. After all, I bake all the time for friends and family and this was no different. But then I felt some performance pressure - after all, these would be on display as a finale to the wedding feast and would feature in photographs. I like to present food nicely but I've never really taken a huge interest in food presentation and I find that I get the best results when I don't really try. Every time I've taken extra care for a special occasion, I've felt that the finished product has fallen short of my expectations.

Still, mini cupcakes aren't difficult to make and Bec wanted a fairly simple presentation. We decided to make a butter cream icing, tint it pale pink, and pipe it onto the top. The test batch turned out beautifully but we decided the pink icing was a shade too dark and made it lighter for the final product.

As I only have one mini cupcake tray (it makes 12), the day before the wedding was spent making a triple batch of mixture and cooking 100 cupcakes. Once made and iced, we then sourced every container we could find in order to transport the cakes to the venue, where they were set out on dainty tiered cake trays and looked absolutely wonderful (if I do say so myself!) Despite stiff competition from the Turkish delight and Persian fairy floss, the cakes were a great success and quickly disappeared.

I've since made another large batch of these cupcakes, this time for the high tea we put on for my middle sister's hen's day. The beauty of these cupcakes is that they're easy to make, they have a lovely soft texture because of the sour cream and they look cute. People also tend to go back for seconds because they're so small. Although the cupcakes are perfect for a special occasion, they also make a nice sweet morning or afternoon tea treat.


125g butter
125g caster sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups self-raising flour
125g sour cream
2 teaspoons rosewater

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Line a mini cupcake tray with paper cases.

Cream the butter and caster sugar together until pale and creamy and then add rosewater. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well between each. Stir in the sifted flour and the sour cream in alternate batches. Spoon into the paper cases and bake for about 10 minutes, or until golden and cooked through when pierced with a skewer.

To make icing, beat 125g butter with an electric mixer until as white as possible. Sift 1 1/2 cups icing sugar and add slowly to make a thick icing. Add 1-2 teaspoons rosewater and then add a few drops of pink food colouring until you reach desired tint. Spoon into a piping bag and pipe in a circular motion on top of each cake.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Great vanilla slice triumph

Vanilla slice is one of my favourite bakery treats. I don't buy cakes often but, when I do, it's a toss-up between vanilla slice and chocolate eclairs. The slice usually wins, perhaps because it's a more reliable bet than a bought eclair (I've had too many eclairs with dried-out pastry or filled with artificial cream). A good vanilla slice should have a creamy custard filling that oozes into your mouth (not a horrible rubbery block of custard that doesn't move because it's been set solid), surrounded by crisp pastry and topped off with a smooth, shiny icing. Some people are particular about the icing but I don't mind whether it's white or pink, as long as it's not too thick or too sweet.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett had a passion for vanilla slices and he helped rejuvenate the western Victorian town of Ouyen by setting up the Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph there 10 years ago. Each year, bakers from around the country vie to make the best vanilla slice. I've never attended the festival but the 2008 competition was held last weekend and the winner was Waack's Bakery in Stawell. By a stroke of good luck, I was in Stawell that weekend for my sister's wedding. We heard about the victory on the Friday night local TV news, so headed down the street on Saturday morning for coffee and vanilla slice. We were unanimous in deciding that Waack's was a worthy winner. The custard in the slice was smooth and creamy with a pleasant vanilla taste. It oozed out the side as we ate the slice but was not runny and didn't end up on anyone's lap. The pastry layers were thin and crisp and the top was covered with a thin, shiny layer of white icing. Delicious!

Digging through my vast recipe collection, I've come up with two potential recipes to try. One is from an old copy of Delicious magazine and the other is for "vanilla school pastries" from Donna Hay's Flavours cookbook. Both look quite similar, although the Delicious recipe uses a heart-stopping 750ml cream! I'm looking forward to trying out one of these recipes very soon. My attempt may not be up to the standard of the Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph entries but it will be fun to try.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Good hearty pub grub

Chicken parmigiana is good comfort food and it has legions of fans - there's even a website devoted to finding the best chicken parmigianas around Melbourne. Done well, chicken parma is satisfying pub grub, perfect with a pot, but done badly - well, you'd prefer to go hungry. It consists of a chicken schnitzel topped with a tomato-based sauce and smothered with melting cheese. Each of the separate components should be of good quality - the schnitzel should be well-cooked and not too oily, the tomato-based sauce not too acidic, and there should be not too much or too little cheese.

I must admit that I've always preferred chicken schnitzel, topped with tangy lemon juice, to chicken parma, although I don't mind a good chicken parma every now and then. Lately I've been perfecting my chicken schnitzel technique and one night Adam suggested that I turn it into chicken parma. It's a very easy dish to put together at home, particularly if you take some shortcuts (such as using a spicy tomato chutney rather than making your own tomato-based sauce). I've given approximate quantities for two people, so feel free to adjust according to number of guests and hunger.


Take a good-sized chicken breast (or two smaller chicken breasts) and cut in half. Lay the pieces on a chopping board, cover with plastic wrap and bash to a flat, even thickness using a meat mallet or heavy wooden rolling pin.

Lay out two plates and a bowl. On the first plate, mix together some plain flour with salt and pepper. Break an egg into the bowl, thin with 1 tablespoon of water, and whisk with a fork. Put a pile of fresh breadcrumbs (or bought breadcrumbs if you're struggling for time) on the third plate.

Take a piece of chicken, dredge in the seasoned flour and shake off excess. Dip into the egg-wash and then press into the pile of breadcrumbs, making sure it's evenly coated. Fill a heavy-based saucepan with about three centimetres worth of oil (canola, safflower or vegetable) and heat over a high heat (test if it's ready by dropping a cube of bread into the oil - it should sizzle and turn golden). Cook the schnitzels two at a time for a few minutes each side, then remove and stand vertically in a bowl lined with kitchen paper (sounds weird but this helps the oil drain off better).

Once all the schnitzels are cooked, lay them on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper. Top each schnitzel with spicy tomato chutney, or a tomato-based sauce, and scatter with grated mozzarella. Put into a warm oven (180 degrees) and cook for about 15 minutes.

I served the parmas with scalloped potatoes, which I made by thinly slicing two or three potatoes, cooking them in boiling water for five minutes, and then layering them in a baking dish with caramelised onions and cream seasoned with salt, pepper and nutmeg. This should be covered tightly with foil and baked in the oven for about 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 20 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Daring Bakers - chocolate eclairs

Chocolate eclairs are one of my favourite cakes. Recently recipes seem to be appearing everywhere for choux pastry, which is the foundation of chocolate eclairs and its more glamorous cousin, profiteroles. I was getting ready to make a batch of eclairs when the August challenge for Daring Bakers was posted - and it was for chocolate eclairs! Excellent timing.

Hosts Tony Tahhan and MeetaK chose their recipe from Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme. This recipe departed from traditional eclairs in that the eclairs were filled with chocolate pastry cream and iced with a rich chocolate glaze. We were allowed to modify the original recipe as long as we maintained one chocolate element, so I chose to fill my eclairs with whipped vanilla-flavoured cream and iced with the chocolate glaze, as this is the more traditional eclair that I like. However, I will make this recipe again and next time I will go all out and make the full chocolate version!

Choux pastry is an easy and forgiving pastry to make, with no kneading or resting time required. Butter, water and milk is brought to a boil in a saucepan, then a cup of plain flour is added all at once and the mixture stirred until it is soft and smooth. This dough is removed from the heat and several eggs beaten in until the dough is silky and shiny and can be piped into eclair shapes and baked. I don't have a very good piping bag set (it's on my list of kitchen gadgets to buy), so this limited my eclairs a little. The recipe called for a 20mm plain nozzle but I had one that was much smaller than that, so I piped three strips together to make the required size. This was not hugely successful, as the pastry did not rise as much as it should have, but I thought it was better than trying to spoon it on the tray. I noticed that this recipe, unlike my other choux pastry recipes, did not call for a slit to be made in the side of the eclairs once they were baked and removed from the oven. I think this is a step that I will include next time, as my gorgeously golden, puffed eclairs deflated not long after coming out of the oven. I've found that slitting the side helps the air inside the eclair to escape and prevents the deflating.

Although the eclairs did not look the best, the pastry had a nice flavour and I was able to puff up my eclairs with lots of whipped cream, finished off by the chocolate glaze on top. The eclairs were well received by my tasting group and this is a recipe I would definitely make again. Well done to this month's hosts for an easy but fun recipe that did not take half a day to put together!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lemon heaven

The days are lengthening and there is a hint in the air of a turn in the season. Soon it will be time to say goodbye to the stews, soups and puddings that have fortified us through the long winter days. But there are still cool days ahead, so plenty of time to whip up a few more winter favourites before the stockpot and casserole dish are packed away.

Much as I love chocolate pudding, I think lemon delicious is one of my favourite desserts. An old-fashioned classic, this dessert is aptly named: a deliciously light, cakey sponge top hides a creamy, custardy lemon sauce underneath. This dish satisfies you without leaving you feeling too full or that you've over-indulged, which can happen with some rich chocolate puddings.

I must have at least half-a-dozen recipes for lemon delicious, all variations on the same theme, but the one I keep returning to is from Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion. Stephanie writes that lemon delicious belongs to the era when a roast was followed by a hot pudding, as making two dishes rather than one was a sensible way of utilising the oven's heat.

Lemon delicious is extremely easy to make but does use a few separate dishes in the preparation. However, this is a small price to pay for such a delicious dessert.


2 lemons
60g butter
1 1/2 cups caster sugar
3 eggs, separated
3 Tb self-raising flour
1 1/2 cups milk

Preheat oven to 180 degrees and butter a 1-litre ovenproof dish. Zest one of the lemons and juice both. Blend the butter with zest and sugar in a food processor, then add egg yolks. Add flour and milk alternately to make a smooth batter. Scrape mixture from the sides of the processor bowl and blend in lemon juice. Transfer to a clean basin. Whisk egg whites until creamy and firm and fold gently into the batter. Pour batter into prepared dish. Stand in a baking dish and pour in hot water to come halfway up the sides of the basin. Bake for one hour (keep an eye on it to make sure the top doesn't brown too much). Allow to cool a little before serving and serve with cream.

Recipe from The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander

Thursday, August 7, 2008

From the larder...

We will soon be moving house and I'm finding that packing up can be a great inspiration for cooking, as well as a good chance to rationalise kitchen equipment. As I go through cupboards, I'm revealing all sorts of pots, pans, dishes and platters, some of which have been pushed to the back of the cupboard and forgotten about. Who knew I had so many white platters? Most of them have been gifts but do I really need so many? I'm also finding bowls of varying sizes and casserole dishes and hope that more of these can be put to good use once I have decent storage space in our new home.

It's also a good chance to go through the pantry and refresh stocks of spices and other baking items, and use up half-used jars and bags. I discovered half-empty packets of walnuts and chocolate chips in the pantry this week and they provided the inspiration to make some chocolate espresso biscuits, the perfect dense, fudgy snack to have in the house when you feel like a chocolate treat. I used what I had on hand and what I felt like eating so feel free to play around with this recipe and omit the coffee and walnuts, or substitute other nuts, so that the biscuits suit your tastes.


250 butter, softened
1 Tb instant coffee powder, dissolved in 2 Tb boiling water
1 cup (tightly packed) brown sugar
2 eggs
2 1/2 cups plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup cocoa, preferably Dutch-process
250g chocolate chips
100g walnuts, chopped roughly

Beat the butter until as white as possible. Add the coffee mixture, then mix in the brown sugar until creamy. Add eggs one at a time and beat until smooth. Sift together the flour, baking powder and cocoa and add to the butter mixture. Stir through the choc chips and walnuts. Roll dessertspoonfuls of mixture together and place onto baking paper-lined trays, flattening slightly with a fork. Bake at 180 degrees for about 10 minutes. You want the biscuits to still be a little soft and fudgy, as they will firm up while cooling. Cool on a wire rack. Makes 36.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Daring Bakers challenge - Filbert gateau with praline buttercream

Elaborate cakes were back on the agenda this month for the Daring Bakers. Host Mele Cotte chose the filbert gateau with praline buttercream from Great Cakes by Carol Walter. Filbert appears to be an American name for hazelnuts. I think hazelnuts and chocolate make a great combination so was looking forward to this cake. It was a detailed cake, not difficult, but one that involved numerous preparation steps for each part before it could all be assembled. The good thing was that each part could be prepared in advance and then the cake assembled on the day you wanted to serve it, so that saved a lot of pressure and angst.

The individual parts of this cake were the filbert gateau, sugar syrup, praline buttercream (which involved making praline and buttercream separately), whipped cream, apricot glaze and ganache glaze. As I mentioned, when broken down into parts, this cake was not difficult to make but it involved time, large quantities of eggs and sugar and many dishes!

The filbert gateau involved processing toasted and skinned hazelnuts with flour and cornflour to make a fine, powdery mixture. Seven egg yolks were whisked with sugar until ribbony and they were then added to beaten egg whites before the hazelnut mixture was folded in. The result was a lovely, dense nutty cake. This was split into three and each individual piece moistened with sugar syrup before being joined together with the praline buttercream.

I ran into some problems with the praline buttercream. I have a lot of recipes for praline but have never actually made it, so I was glad to have the opportunity to try. It was quite easy - melting sugar, stirring in hazelnuts to coat with caramel and tipping onto a baking tray to let cool. I think I left the sugar a fraction too long, as it was quite dark and had a slightly burnt taste but this is a process that will be refined with practice.

So the praline was not the problem but the buttercream was. I used the measurements given, which were US measurements and may not have strictly translated to Australian measurements. To make, egg whites were whisked until foamy and thick and then whisked over boiling water until the whites were warm and the sugar dissolved. Nearly 400g of butter was separately beaten until smooth and creamy and the meringue was then blended in separately to make a thick and creamy buttercream. So far, so good. Then I added the 1-2 tablespoons of liqueur and the mixture split. Despite following the emergency instructions on how to make the buttercream come back together, it didn't work and became a gluggy, buttery mess. Although it looked awful, I couldn't justify throwing such a large amount of butter out, so I added icing sugar and a little cocoa and this saved the icing, making it stick together and taste like icing rather than butter. I've tried a similar buttercream recipe in a previous DB challenge and haven't been happy with the results, so I think I'll stick with my trusty Australian Women's Weekly vienna buttercream in future. I also ran the recipe past a chef friend to see if he could give me some advice on where I went wrong but he thought the method sounded odd and said that he would normally make a butter icing or a meringue icing but not combine the both. Perhaps this shows the difference in Australian and American recipes, methods and palates. Any advice from American cooks will be gratefully received!

Once the buttercream was saved, I sandwiched the gateau portions together with the buttercream, with some whipped cream on top and then made the chocolate ganache, which is my favourite part. Cream and a tablespoon of corn syrup are heated and poured over grated dark chocolate to make a luscious thick glaze to dribble over the cake.

I took the finished cake along to share as dessert with my table at a fundraising trivia night. Everyone thought it looked like tiramisu but it didn't taste at all like tiramisu. It was a very nice cake and was quickly devoured but we all thought it was too sweet for our tastebuds. Only small pieces are needed and I thought that sandwiching the cake together with buttercream and whipped cream was too much - one or the other would have been enough. With the amount of effort that went into making this cake, and the fact that it really was far too sweet, I don't think that I will make it again. But I enjoyed the process and could see adaptations for this cake to adjust it to my palate - moistening the gateau slices with coffee syrup and sandwiching with a small amount of whipped cream before icing with ganache is an alternative I'd like to try.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Food in times of need

Food is often associated with major milestones in our lives. Sometimes it takes centre stage - for example, at a birthday party or a celebratory afternoon tea - and other times it is a side event, although still extremely important, such as gathering for a cuppa after a funeral. Lots of thought may go into planning for the event, such as choosing the birthday cake and accompanying menu or baking pink-iced cupcakes for a baby shower, and others may be as simple as everyone bringing a plate of something, whether a packet of Tim-Tams or a home-baked cake, to share. It is the ritual, the passing around of plates, the making of tea and coffee, the informality that comes with chatting while nibbling, that is important.

The offering of food is also an important source of comfort for those in time of need; to ease the burden of cooking from sleep-deprived new mums or friends grieving serious illnesses or deaths in the family. We need to fuel ourselves to keep going but sometimes the thought of grocery shopping and cooking is the last thing we want to do, particularly if time is in short supply. A dish of food, whether a soup or casserole or even a sweet treat like chocolate biscuits, is always appreciated.

Lately I've been baking many dishes of lasagna, which has somehow become my signature dish for friends in times of need. Two of my friends have recently given birth to their second child, while some family friends are grieving a very serious illness in their family that means most of their time is spent at the hospital. I have no Italian heritage and my lasagna is not a fancy or special recipe but it is a hearty dish that lasts for several meals, tastes even better the next day, and is easy to make and transport. When I was growing up, friends and neighbours were always quick to rally around anyone who needed help and mountains of food would be prepared and dropped off. It is such a simple act of kindness but it helps foster goodwill and a sense of community


To make the meat sauce, finely chop two onions and several cloves of garlic and saute in oil in a heated saucepan. Crumble in 500g mince beef and brown. Add one tub of tomato paste and one 400g tin of chopped tomatoes, mix well and simmer for about 20 minutes

To make the cheese sauce, melt two tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. Stir in two to three tablespoons of plain flour to make a roux. Slowly add two cups of milk and cook over low to medium heat until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat and stir through 250g grated mozzarella cheese and some salt and pepper.

To assemble the lasagna, spread some meat sauce over the base of a baking dish. Layer with lasagna sheets, then cheese sauce. Repeat layers until the meat and cheese sauces are used up, finishing with cheese sauce. Sprinkle a generous amount of grated parmesan over the top and bake in a 180 degree oven for about 35 minutes.

This mixture can be doubled or even tripled and can be frozen.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Daring Bakers - Danish braid

I'm running behind schedule but here, finally, is my post for the June Daring Bakers challenge: Danish braid. I've never made puff pastry before, or this Danish dough, which is from the same family of butter-laminated (or layered) doughs. Unlike puff pastry though, Danish dough is sweet and yeast-leavened. It's also less complicated to make.

The actual process of making Danish dough is quite simple, especially if you have a stand mixer, but it also requires time. Unlike bread dough, which can be left alone to prove for several hours, Danish dough needs to be turned and rolled every 30 minutes at least four times, meaning you need to stay nearby.

This recipe's method was to mix yeast and milk in a mixmaster, add sugar, orange zest, cardamom, vanilla, eggs and orange juice. Then, flour and salt are added and the mixture kneaded with a dough hook for about five minutes. The dough (known as 'detrempe') is refrigerated for 30 minutes. Although my usual method is to mix the yeast and milk together and let it sit for about 15 minutes to activate, I followed the recipe's instructions. Because I wasn't sure how much this dough was supposed to rise (compared with bread dough), I thought it would be better if I didn't deviate.

While the detrempe is chilling, butter and a small portion of flour are mixed together in the mixmaster to a smooth, lumpfree mixture to form a butter block known as 'beurrage'. The detrempe is rolled out into a large rectangle and the beurrage spread over the centre and right-third of the dough. The left third is folded over to the centre and the right side is folded over that (similar to folding a business letter). This is the first turn. This process is repeated three more times, with the dough resting in the fridge for 30 minutes before each turn. After the fourth and final turn, it's refrigerated overnight.

You can use many varieties of fillings for a Danish braid but the one given for this recipe was for caramelised apples, made by cooking chopped apples, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla lemon juice and butter. The dough was rolled out into a large rectangle and the cooled caramelised apples spread down the centre. To make the braid, five-inch cuts are made (about one inch apart) on each side of the rectangle, then folded over the filling like a plait. The instructions for this recipe made it sound more difficult than it was - it was quite easy to come up with the finished product, which looked very impressive. The braid is proved for at least two hours and then baked.

The end result was delicious. I've never made or eaten anything like this before and my taste-testers all enjoyed it. We liked the spiciness of the cardamom in the dough, which paired beautifully with the caramelised apple.

Although this recipe was not difficult, it was time-consuming and is not the sort of thing you could whip up quickly on a whim. If you were organised and made the dough and filling a day earlier, and got up early to make the braid and let it prove, it would be nice for a weekend brunch. I would like to make this again but would definitely need to be more organised! Thanks to Kellypea and Arimou for hosting this month's challenge. It was a good one!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Fabulous fondue

Fondue seems to be everywhere at the moment. The darling of the 1970s dinner party scene is trendy once again. A divine photo of fondue, thick cheese decadently dripping down the side of a copper saucepan, was on the front cover of the June Delicious magazine, and fondue featured in last week's special cheese issue of Epicure.

Back in May, just before fondue started being appearing everywhere, we had an authentic Swiss fondue at the home of Swiss-Australian cousins of my friend Fi. Having grown up with chocolate fondue as a special dessert (is there anything more delicious than dipping soft marshmallows or strawberries into a pot of bubbling melted chocolate), it was a great treat to sample a proper cheese fondue. Evi and Laurent were bemused to hear about chocolate fondue, never having come across it before. Their cheese version, however, was a more than adequate compensation. Made from a blend of melted gruyere and emmenthal cheese, cornflour, kirsch and garlic, the aroma from the two fondue pots at each end of the table was enticing. Evi had huge baskets of sourdough bread chunks, sturdy enough to stand up to the strong cheese, which she passed around the table. Laurent also had small bowls filled with kirsch; for those who liked an extra kick, the bread was first dipped into the kirsch and then into the fondue.

While the thought of so much melted cheese might sound overwhelming, its richness is cut by the kirsch and garlic, leaving a pleasant aftertaste. Fondue is basically an elaborate meal of bread and cheese but lifted to another level, and the communal pots (it's an unwritten rule of etiquette that you never double-dip) gives the table a convivial atmosphere that encourages a more open conversation between everyone, rather than restricting it to your near neighbours. The warmth of the dish conjures up images of cold, snowy nights in Switzerland, where a bowl of bubbling fondue would warm you inside and out.

Adam and I were given a fondue set for our engagement a few years ago but have yet to use it. Armed with Evi and Laurent's recipe, though (there's no exact measurements, as it really depends on how many you're making the fondue for), and with memories of a good night out, we're keen to host our own fondue night this winter. Chocolate fondue may never get a look in again!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Soup for the soul

There is nothing more soothing for the soul than a bowl of hot soup. Outside, the temperature may plummet, icy winds whistle around the house or rain drum on the roof, but if you feast on a steaming bowl of soup, it feels as if the winter freeze could never touch you.

Not only is soup nourishing mentally, it's also good for you, usually being chockful of vegetables, and it's a cinch to put together. Some soups require long simmering times but others can be on your table as soon as the vegetables are cooked, making it an easy dish to fortify you when you're feeling poorly, under the weather or just in need of some pepping up.

I love that soup also requires minimal equipment: a chopping board and sharp knife to prepare, and a saucepan and wooden spoon to cook. There's an endless variety of soups to choose from: velvety veloutes that make an elegant start to a dinner party; pureed vegetables sharpened with a hint of spice for a liquid burst of healthiness; and chunky vegetable and lentil or minestrone or ribollita, which are meals in themselves. Soup can be served on its own, perhaps with some buttery toast soldiers, or you can serve with accompaniments such as croutons or dumplings. You can follow a recipe or make up your own version as the fancy takes you. Best of all, most soups are forgiving of ingredients, meaning you can substitute whatever is in your pantry.

Melbourne's winter this year seems colder than previous years and we've already treated ourselves to many soups, including smooth pumpkin, chunky minestrone, a hearty vegetable and lentil soup and classic tomato. My latest favourite cookbook, The Australian Women's Weekly Winter Favourites, featuring an irresistible chocolate pudding on the front cover, includes a recipe for ribollita or Tuscan bean soup. It requires lengthy cooking time, so on a cold weekend afternoon, it was the perfect soup to have simmering on the stove. Despite the cooking time, this soup needs minimal effort and you will be fortified for days after eating it.


2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
200g piece speck, bacon or pancetta, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 x 400g cans tomatoes
1/4 medium Savoy cabbage, shredded
1 medium zucchini, chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cups beef consomme or stock
2 litres water
400g can borlotti beans, rinsed, drained
salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 thick slices ciabatta
extra virgin olive oil for serving

Heat oil in a large saucepan or stock pot. Add onion, garlic and speck, cook, stirring, 5 minutes or until onion is soft.

Add carrots, celery, undrained crushed tomatoes, cabbage, zucchini, thyme, consomme and water. Bring to the boil and simmer, uncovered, for 2 hours.

Add beans, simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, toast or grill bread.

Place a slice of bread in base of six serving bowls, top with soup and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

Recipe from The Australian Women's Weekly Winter Favourites

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Magazine inspiration

I love it when I arrive home from work and the latest issue of a food magazine has arrived in the mail that day. I especially love it in winter, when the cover usually features a mouthwatering photograph of a luscious pudding or a rich winter stew. I love to tuck myself away with a hot drink and spend a good hour or two reading through the magazine, noting the latest recipes and decorating the pages with sticky-notes marking all the dishes I want to try.

The winter issue of Donna Hay Magazine has just arrived. The chocolate and oat s'mores on the front cover are just a small snippet of a great issue. I thought some of the recent DHM issues had got a little uninspiring but the last two issues have been absolute crackers and I've wanted to make nearly everything featured. After flicking through the magazine, I'm already planning to make celeriac roulade and celeriac and potato soup, spinach macaroni cheese, beef, tomato and mushroom pot pies, lamb and garlic meatballs that can be used on pizzas, in soup or mixed in with herbed couscous, roast meats, hot cheese toasties and chips out of all sorts of vegetables.

Inspiration strikes as soon as I reach page 78, which features self-saucing chocolate puddings. My favourite chocolate pudding recipe is my grandmother's recipe but it takes 45 minutes in the oven, whereas these individual puddings take just 15 minutes. Before I can even think "mmm, chocolate pudding", I've already pulled out the bowl and am mixing together the ingredients for the puddings. In less than half an hour, my craving for chocolate and a hot pudding is satisfied. I'm looking forward to more inspiration from DHM this month!


75g plain flour
1 1/2 tablespoons hazelnut meal
45g brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 1/2 tablespoons coca, sifted
125ml milk
35g butter, melted
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
90g brown sugar, extra
250ml boiling water

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Sift the flour, hazelnut meal, sugar, baking powder and 2 tablespoons of coca into a bowl. Add the milk, melted butter, egg and vanilla and mix well to combine. Spoon into 4 x 1-cup capacity oven-proof dishes and place on a baking tray. Mix the extra sugar and cocoa into a bowl and sprinkle over the puddings, then pour over the boiling water. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until the tops are firm.

From Donna Hay Magazine, issue 39, Jun/Jul 2008.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Daring Bakers challenge - L'Opera Cake

It was another sweet month for the Daring Bakers, with the elegant French dessert L'Opera Cake on the menu. Believed to have been created around the beginning of the 1900s, L'Opera Cake is usually made of five components: a joconde (a cake layer), a syrup (to wet the joconde), a buttercream (to fill some of the layers), a ganache or mousse (to top the final layer) and a glaze (to cover the final layer).

When I read initially read the recipe, it seemed long and daunting. However, once I broke it down into the separate steps, it was quite simple and didn't take too long to put together. While I would not recommend trying to whip this cake up in a hurry, you could certainly put it together during the day for an elegant dinner party dessert. As the joconde and syrup keep well, you could make those the day before (which is what I did) to make it even easier to put together.

Traditionally, a joconde is flavoured with darker flavours such as chocolate or coffee. But this month's hosts, Lis and Ivonne (DB founders) and Fran and Shea, decided to celebrate their start of spring with L'Opera Cakes that are light in both colour and flavour (ie no chocolate or coffee but vanilla, coconut, lemon or almond).

The joconde was simple to make, being a mixture of egg whites (whipped to a meringue), ground almonds, icing sugar, eggs and butter. It made a lovely light sponge cake that cooked in under 10 minutes and had a moreish nutty flavour. The joconde was made in two lamington tins, so it wasn't a very high cake, but it was sliced up and layered into thirds, so the thickness was just right.

The joconde was moistened with a light sugar syrup that I flavoured with brandy (not having any cognac on hand). Although it was only a small serving, it made far too much for this cake, so I need to find some good use for excess sugar syrup as I didn't know what to do with the leftovers.

The buttercream was not hard to make but was quite fiddly. It involved making a hot sugar syrup (heated to 124 C on a candy thermometer) that was poured into beaten eggs and whipped, before a great mass (200g) of softened butter was beaten in until the buttercream was thick and shiny. I found a lot of my sugar syrup hardened into the bottom of my KitchenAid mixing bowl, so I'm not sure how much of the syrup was incorporated into the buttercream. The final product was thick and tasty but I think next time I might use my basic buttercream (butter and icing sugar) from the trusty old Women's Weekly cookbooks. I don't think it will have the same lightness of texture but it will certainly be quicker and faster to make.

I decided to omit the white chocolate mousse from this cake, as I felt that the cake was already loaded with calories and expense (a dozen eggs, loads of butter and sugar, plus several blocks of white chocolate if I made the mousse and glaze). The mousse was an optional extra for this challenge anyway.

The final step was to assemble the cake and drizzle over the glaze. The joconde was sliced into squares and rectangles, so that it made three layers. I moistened each joconde layer with the syrup, then spread over one-third of the buttercream, finishing with the buttercream on top. I refrigerated the cake for about an hour, until it was quite firm and made the glaze, which was a mixture of melted white chocolate and cream. Owing to a miscalculation on my part (the glaze recipe called for 14oz of white chocolate, which is nearly 500g), I only had 200g of white chocolate but this was enough to cover the cake, albeit thinly. The glaze was cooled and poured over the cake, which was then put into the fridge to chill and set.

The final result was an absolute winner with my tasting panel. It is a rich, special occasion cake, best served in small slices. We felt the cake was quite rich enough with just the buttercream and glaze and I think adding the mousse may have made this cake too sweet for our tastes. It is an expensive cake to make and does take time and effort but it is certainly worth it if you want a show-stopper of a cake for afternoon tea or dessert. You can also pretend you're in Paris when nibbling on a slice because it does have an unmistakeable French air to it - the seeming simplicity of the cake belies the attention that has gone into it behind the scenes.

Congratulations to Lis and Ivonne for choosing such a spectacular cake. Unfortunately my digital camera is broken at the moment, so I can't share photos of my finished product but it turned out wonderfully and I would definitely make this again.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Casserole weather

Some days, despite the thousands of recipes in my cookbooks and recipe files, I lack inspiration. The weather has sharpened into winter, making it perfect for pottering in the kitchen and conjuring up stews, casseroles and soups. But no recipe takes my fancy as I flick through my books. I've made a lot of soups lately and hanker for something more solid and substantial. I'm out of puff pastry, taking hearty pies off the menu. And the casserole recipes I find are more tricky than I want, involving lengthy marinating time. I want something I can throw together quickly in a pot and leave to simmer into an aromatic stew in the oven while I busy myself with other things.

And this is where my sister Bec comes to the rescue. She is an intuitive cook, who is able to mix up wonderfully aromatic and delicious meals without the need for recipes. Bec gave me the idea for a lamb shank casserole, which is a cinch to put together and cooks by itself in two hours, leaving you plenty of time to relax before sitting down to a hearty and nutritious meal. The extra bonus of this recipe is that it's not prescriptive and can be made with whatever vegetables you have in the fridge. Vegetarians could omit the lamb shanks, as the vegetable stew is delicious on its own or served with crusty bread.


2 lamb shanks
2-3 sticks celery, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 onion, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
2 potatoes, diced
1 tsp each of ground cumin and ground coriander
salt and pepper to taste
1 tub tomato paste
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes

Heat oven to 180 degrees. Heat 1-2 tablespoons oil in a large casserole dish and brown shanks. Remove to a plate. Heat some more oil and saute the vegetables until softened. Add the tomato paste and chopped tomatoes and stir. Sprinkle over the spices and stir. Add the lamb shanks, stir to coat, cover with a lid and place in the oven for up to two hours (depending on how quickly the stew cooks). Stir occasionally to make sure the vegetables don't stick. The shanks should become meltingly tender and the meat fall off the bone.

Use whatever vegetables and spice you have in the cupboard to put your own spin on this recipe. You could use four lamb shanks, as the stew makes enough for four servings, but I like to reheat the leftovers the next day and serve with something else.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Birthday cakes

As a child, we were allowed to select our birthday cake every year from The Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book. This has become a classic over the years and a staple in many kitchens. Most of my friends had birthday cakes made from the more than 100 cakes in this book. My sisters and I enjoy reminiscing over what cake we chose each year. I remember the piano, with its keys made from white chocolate and licorice, a sweet shop, and a log cabin with its roof made of Flake chocolates. Other cakes, chosen by my sisters, included the ballerina figurines on a rose-pink cake, the swimming pool filled with green jelly, the farm animals cake, the choo-choo train and the candy castle made with upside-down ice-cream cones iced with meringue icing. It was an exciting event to choose your cake each year, with the birthday recipient spending weeks poring over the pages before making the final momentous decision. We never gave a thought to how difficult or time-consuming the cakes were to make and mum faithfully made them each year. Even though one of my sisters and I have birthdays only two days apart, we always got our own cake each year.

My first mother's day present, which I received when my son was just nine days old, was the updated version of this book, now called The Australian Women's Weekly Kids' Party Cakes. I confess that I prefer the older version. Although the updated book has many new and exciting cakes, some of the old favourites have been banished (many of the cakes I chose, such as the piano and the sweet shop, have disappeared) and some have been updated for modern tastes or made more elaborate. For example, the number 10 cake in the old version was a lovely lamington cake, topped with whipped cream and shaved chocolate. In the new book, it's become the "soda and pizza cake" and is nowhere near as attractive or inspiring to make.

But there's still plenty of options and it's a fun challenge each year to select a cake. As my son has just turned two, I'm doing the selecting for him but soon he'll be old enough to choose his own. I now have new respect for mum producing these cakes each year, as quite a bit of thought and planning has to go into them. You need to make sure you have the right-sized tins and all the ingredients, which often include specific lollies that aren't always readily available. Luckily I have some good old-fashioned lolly shops nearby and they nearly always come to the rescue with the correct lollies, even if it means producing items I've never heard of.

Last year, we had the bright-green express train and this year I made the giraffe cake. Both seemed difficult when I read through the detailed instructions but actually proved to be reasonably easy to make. The book recommends that you use packets of buttercake mix but also provides a buttercake recipe. Being a packet cake mix snob, I choose to make my own cake and it is extremely easy and very little extra work. The fun is in the tinting of the buttercream icing and the decorating.

I thoroughly enjoyed the birthday cake tradition as a child and I love it even more now that I'm continuing it for my own.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Autumn nights

Autumn is my favourite time of the year for baking. The cooler mornings and the late afternoon chill in the air make me want to tuck myself away into the kitchen and bake all day with a hot stove to warm the house. Images of thick soups, hearty casseroles and steaming puddings float into my mind, displacing summer's BBQs, salads and ice-cream. Autumn also seems more inspiring for the food magazines, as the latest issues have the most gorgeous pictorial spreads of autumn feasts.

The best thing about casseroles is the minimum effort required to transform a simple mix of vegetables and chunks of the cheaper cuts of meat into a glossy, bubbling cauldron of goodness. Most casserole recipes require you to bung everything together into a cast-iron casserole dish and cook it for several hours in a moderate oven, meaning that dinner can cook while you get on with other jobs or relaxing with a glass of wine. Leftovers mean that tomorrow's lunch or dinner is also taken care of.

Delicious magazine features a good selection of casserole recipes each season. This week Adam reminded me of a Jamie Oliver stew made with Newcastle brown ale that we ate several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed, so I dug out the July 2004 issue and refreshed my memory. This is an easy casserole to make and is hearty enough to satisfy you on even the coldest winter night. Don't be put off by the amount of beer - although it smells overwhelmingly beery when you first start cooking, the liquid simmers down over time to become a thick sauce with just a hint of a hops undertone. It makes an enormous quantity and I find that I have to cook it in two separate casserole pots, as I don't have one big enough to fit the whole lot in.


1kg shin of beef (or use flank or neck), cut into 5cm chunks
2 Tb (1/4 cup) flour
olive oil, for frying
3 red onions, roughly sliced
50g pancetta or bacon, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
leaves of 1 small handful rosemary
1.3L Newcastle brown ale (about four bottles - use other brown ale if you can't get this)
2 parsnips, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
4 potatoes, peeled, roughly chopped

1 1/3 cups (200g) self-raising flour
100g unsalted butter, chopped
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves chopped

Place beef on a plate, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the flour and toss around until well coated. Heat a large frypan over high heat until it is good and hot, add a little oil and fry the beef in two batches until nice and brown.
Transfer the meat to a large casserole dish, mixing in the flour that was left on the plate after coating it. Put the casserole on medium heat, add the onions and pancetta, and cook until the onions are translucent and the pancetta has a bit of colour. Add celery and rosemary. Pour in the Newcastle brown ale and 285ml water, adding parsnips, carrots and potatoes. Bring to the boil, put on a lid, then turn down the heat to low and leave it to simmer while you make the dumplings.

To make the dumplings, blitz all the ingredients (with salt and pepper to taste) in a food processor, or rub between your fingers until you have a breadcrumb consistency, then add just enough water (about 1/4 cup) to make a dough that isn't sticky. Divide it into ping pong ball-sized dumplings and put these into the stew, dunking them under. Put the lid back on and leave it to cook for two hours. Taste it, season it and then serve the stew with greens and loads of bread to mop up the juices.

From Delicious magazine, July 2004

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dinner at Donovans

Donovans in St Kilda has long been on my list of restaurants to try. It has consistently received good reviews for many years and long-time chef Robert Castellani received The Age Good Food Guide's 2006 Professional Excellence Award. So, in keeping with my new year's resolution to actually get out and try places, rather than just listing them in my notebook as places to try, we finally dined at Donovans.

Situated on Jacka Boulevard and overlooking the St Kilda foreshore, Donovans' glass windows provide a stunning view over Port Phillip Bay that is equally pleasant in summer or winter. In summer, you can watch dusk and night gently creep in, while in winter the lights from the Spirit of Tasmania and other boats glow like diamonds on the water.

Inside, the restaurant has a cosy charm and it feels like you are in a friend's upmarket beach house. One wall is covered with photographs in frames of varying size and shape, while shelves lining other walls are filled with vintage crockery, such as floral-patterned jugs and coloured-glass cups and bowls.The soft carpet means noise from surrounding diners is kept low and is not intrusive. The wait-staff are impeccably attired, well-spoken, knowledgeable and attentive, but not intrusive.

The lengthy modern Mediterranean menu offers a list of quality produce cooked in interesting ways. Seafood dominates the starters offerings, all of which look tempting. But our eyes are drawn to the dessert menu and we work backwards, deciding we will forego an entree so that we can fit in dessert. A Black Angus T-bone from the Western District, a medallion of salmon, or Queensland leader prawns grilled with chilli and oregano are some of the offerings of the BBQ. But Melbourne is feeling the first chilly hints of the forthcoming winter, so my choice is the old-fashioned chicken pie with mushrooms and a pastry lid. It is elegantly served at the table: a plate with a garnish of vegetables is set in front of me, then the waiter produces the chicken pie with a flourish. The pastry lid is lifted off the pie and onto my plate and the waiter proceeds to ladle out the pie filling onto the pastry. This is a much more pleasant way to eat pie than having to cut through the pastry lid and scrape out mouthfuls. The pie filling is thick and creamy, with a gentle spice rounding out the chicken and mushroom flavours. This is comfort food elevated to an art form.

Adam's old-fashioned beef stew and grilled porterhouse with creamy mash and autumn vegetables looks very different on the plate to how we imagined it. Dark, glossy beef chunks are laid around the edge of the plate, alternating with small, fat bricks of porterhouse, with the vegetables and mash artfully arranged in the centre. The beef chunks are the essence of a slowly simmered stew, while the porterhouse has been lightly seared to bring out the best of its flavour. It is a richly satisfying dish.

The dessert menu is filled with tempting dishes: apple, rhubarb and raspberry crumble, white chocolate and macadamia tart, lemon gelato with a slosh of grappa or caramelised apple creme brulee. But chocolate on a dessert menu always attracts my attention and I can't go past the hot chocolate souffle with espresso ice-cream. The dark-coloured mound is more like a fondant pudding than an airily light souffle but it is still a fine dessert. It oozes a rich aroma and each mouthful is a dark, bitter hit of the finest chocolate, beautifully offset by the espresso ice-cream. Adam chooses the white chocolate and macadamia tart. Served with butterscotch sauce and double cream, it is far too rich for me but he devours it, declaring it one of the best desserts he's eaten.

Donovans was a wonderful experience and I'm sorry I waited so long to try it. Although its prices mean a visit here will have to be more of a special treat than an everyday experience for us, the quality of food and service is excellent and it offers a quintessential Melbourne dining experience. Donovans feels like a place where "just a night out" becomes a special experience. If I was crafting a dining itinerary for interstate or overseas visitors, Donovans would definitely be on my list.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Daring Bakers - perfect party cake

A sweet treat was on the agenda for this month's Daring Bakers challenge. Hostess Morven chose a recipe for "Perfect Party Cake" from Dorie Greenspan's Baking From My Home To Yours. Dorie's introductory notes to the recipe were glowing: "Stick a bright-coloured Post-it to this page, so you'll always know where to turn for a just-right cake for any celebration ... The cake is snow-white, with an elegant tight crumb and an easygoing nature: it always bakes up perfectly; it is delicate on the tongue but sturdy in the kitchen - no fussing when it comes to slicing the layers in half or cutting tall, beautiful wedges for serving; and it tastes just as you'd want a party cake to taste - special."

I must admit that I was a little sceptical when I read these notes, as it seems extravagantly high praise for a cake. However, having made the cake, I now agree with Dorie's sentiments. This is an easy cake to make but the end result belies the simplicity - it looks impressive and tastes even better than it looks. My panel of eager cake-tasters did not believe me when I told them how easy this cake was to make. The cake is a basic butter cake, flavoured with lemon, and split into layers that are sandwiched together with raspberry jam and a rich buttercream or whipped cream. I chose to use the option to substitute whipped cream for the buttercream, as I couldn't stomach the thought of an icing made with 375g butter! Although the buttercream sounded delicious, I thought the raspberry jam and whipped cream made a delicate combination that suited the cake's subtle flavour.

The cake's ingredients were simple: flour (I used plain flour instead of cake flour and it didn't seem to affect the final result), baking powder, salt, milk or buttermilk, egg whites, sugar, lemon zest, butter and lemon extract. A slightly unusual twist was to whisk the egg whites and milk together. I had expected that I would have to beat the egg whites until they were stiff but this was not the case - the tablespoon of baking powder gave the cake enough rising power to not need the extra from fluffy egg whites. The cake was baked in two tins, split in half when cool and then sandwiched together to make an impressive-looking layer cake.

Thanks to Morven for choosing such a wonderful recipe. I've not come across Dorie's books before but am now inspired to search them out. This cake is going into the "definitely make again" file. It is very versatile and would be suitable for a birthday, elegant afternoon tea or a glamorous dessert.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Too many recipes

At what point does collecting recipes cross from a passion or hobby to an obsession? I have drawers overflowing with recipe clippings, hand-written recipes stashed everywhere, and copies of old food magazines taking over my cupboards and yet I still collect. Not a week goes by without at least one recipe being saved from Epicure, Good Weekend or the Sunday Life magazine (or all three!) Then there's a new edition each month of Gourmet Traveller, Delicious and Donna Hay magazine to drool over. The Internet means I can collect recipes from The Times and Guardian websites in the UK and I recently discovered the excellent Cuisine magazine from New Zealand, which has a wonderful online archive.

I've tried all sorts of systems over the years to try and keep my recipes in order and easily accessible: pasting into a scrapbook, filing into plastic pockets in a folder, and sorting into filing folders according to food type. I commandeered two drawers in our large filing cabinet and embarked on filing in earnest but quickly grew tired of the project and dumped the lot, mostly unfiled, into one drawer. Currently I'm stashing away recipes in a large filing box from Ikea with no filing system whatsoever.

I'm not alone in this passion to collect recipes. Ivonne from Cream Puffs in Venice blogged about how she was always collecting recipes to make in the future. The crunch point came when she discovered a large stack of food magazines and recipes that she'd stored in her cupboard a year earlier and forgotten about.

"Why do I keep all these magazines? And why do I have all these loose bits of paper with recipes printed on them flying around my house? What is this all about?" Ivonne asked. "As I sifted through the endless pile, I kept thinking to myself that I couldn’t possibly throw this recipe out or recycle that magazine. This is the 2002 issue of so-and-so that has that perfect recipe for watchamacallit that when I finally get around to making it will be the best thing ever."

Ivonne is a far braver woman than me because, confronted with this massive pile of clippings, she did something I can't bring myself to do: she dumped the lot. She farewelled years of recipes without a backward glance and did not regret it.

While I agree with Ivonne's sentiments, I can't bring myself to throw out recipes. I always hope that I'll get around to making them, even though I know that I could spend the rest of my life doing nothing but cooking and still not make them all. I have managed to stop myself collecting some types of recipes - after all, how many lemon delicious, lemon tart and chocolate mousse recipes can you have? Looking at the several versions I have, I see that all use the same ingredients but only the proportions differ. (The same can also be said of chocolate cake but that is one recipe I can never stop myself from collecting, no matter how many I have!)

Ivonne concluded: "It finally occurred to me that the best chocolate cake I will ever make is the one that I actually make. The imagination is delicious, but reality is even more so. It occurred to me that it was time to squelch the insecure little baker in me that keeps telling me I can bake a better this or a better that and just get down to the act of baking."

It's not an insecure baker that keeps me collecting recipes - it's an addict who wants to keep trying new and different dishes and flavours. I'm not on a quest for better recipes; I just like to experiment. I have a treasured collection of family favourites that I make frequently and these are supplemented with new recipes that I collect. How else would my repertoire expand?

But Ivonne is right - we just need to bake. She has come up with the concept of "Magazine Mondays", where each week she makes a conscious effort to get in the kitchen and actually cook all the recipes she's bookmarked. It's a great idea and I might try and do something similar myself. In the meantime, here is a family favourite recipe that is regularly made: my sister's easy melt and mix chocolate cake that she makes every year for family birthdays. It is a never-fail cake and always disappears quickly.


1 1/2 cups SR flour
1 cup caster sugar
60g butter
2 tablespoons cocoa
1/4 cup boiling water
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk

Mix cocoa and boiling water together.

Sift flour into a bowl and add sugar. Melt butter and mix in, along with egg, vanilla extract and milk. Lastly mix in cocoa mixture.

Bake at 180 degrees for 30-35 minutes.

Ice with chocolate icing or vienna cream.

To make vienna cream, beat 125g butter in an electric mixer until as white as possible. Sift together 1 1/2 cups icing sugar with 2 tablespoons cocoa. Gradually add half this mixture. Beating constantly, add 2 tablespoons milk gradually, then beat in remaining icing sugar mixture. Vienna cream should be smooth and easy to spread.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Daring Bakers - French bread

I love making bread. Although it requires an investment of time and planning on the cook's behalf, it's surprisingly easy to make. I love the simple chemistry of bread; that you can combine flour, water and yeast - ingredients that are quite unappetising on their own - with some good kneading and time for proving and come up with a wonderful, crusty loaf of bread. A lot of people are put off by yeast and it can be temperamental and formidable at first. But the more you use it, the friendlier yeast becomes as you get to know its quirks and foibles and how bread should look and act in each stage.

So I was extremely pleased that this month's Daring Baker hosts, Breadchick Mary and Sara, selected Julia Child's classic French bread as this month's challenge. I've heard of Julia Child's name in relation to cookery writing but nothing else and I've never read any of her work (my inspiration has come from Australian and English cookery writers). Some quick research established that Julia was an American cookery writer who died in 2004. She spent many years in Paris and her cookbooks and TV shows influenced a generation of American cooks, particularly in relation to French cookery.

In their introduction to this month's challenge, Breadchick Mary and Sara said they both fell in love with the idea of cooking by watching Julia on TV. The classic French bread recipe, an "eighteen-page love poem to French bread", came from volume 2 of Julia's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1970. Breadchick Mary and Sara chose to include all of Julia's useful instructions, as well as the recipe.

It was a delight to be introduced to Julia's cooking but I did find the lengthy recipe and notes overwhelming at first. I had to read the recipe four or five times to get the gist of it and even then I kept it close by for quick reference as I made the bread.

The ingredients for French bread are simple: yeast, flour, salt and tepid water. But the investment of time is enormous, far more than I've ever devoted to bread-making before. It took me an entire day to make (although I didn't need to be hovering around the kitchen for the entire time, as most of it involved leaving the bread alone to prove). But the end result was definitely worth the time and effort.

A basic summary of the recipe is that the yeast (I used dried) is activated in tepid water and then stirred into flour and salt with some more tepid water. I've discovered a new brand of specialised flours (cake, bread, pizza etc) at the supermarket and am finding them excellent. This dough is a little softer and stickier than other bread doughs I've made. It's kneaded for 5-10 minutes, then set aside to prove for 3-5 hours, or until tripled in volume. We're having an unseasonally cool end to summer and I found this part took the full five hours. The bread is then kneaded again once more, quickly to release the gas bubbles and set aside to prove again for up to one-and-a-half hours. Then the bread is cut and shaped (eg into baguettes, batards, rolls etc - I chose to make a large round loaf called pain de boules), set aside to prove (again for up to one-and-a-half hours), then baked in a hot oven for up to 25 minutes. French bread is not baked in a pan, so it is vital that it is shaped in such a way that it will hold its shape when baked. After baking, an important step is to let the loaf cool for up to three hours to allow the crumb to compose itself. According to Julia, if you cut the loaf too quickly, it will be doughy and the crust soft.

The full recipe contained a lot of instructions and useful explanations about what was happening to the bread as it proved. It also was extremely specific in terms of equipment used (eg yeast had to be dissolved in tepid water in a glass measure and equipment requirements included canvas sheets for the pastry to rise on and a stiff piece of plywood to unmould the bread). Although this was interesting, on reflection I found the recipe too detailed for me. The reason I felt the need to keep referring to it was because of the detailed instructions; I wanted to ensure that I was getting it right. I now realise that these instructions are so detailed because they are for people who've never made bread before - quite rightly so, as you need these details if it's the first time you're making bread. But for someone who has kneaded bread many times before, reading the kneading instructions made me feel as if it was a new technique. However, this is just a small quibble, and I will be far less reliant on the recipe next time I make this bread.

I also admit that I didn't use a canvas sheet for the rising (I just rubbed flour into a cotton teatowel), I didn't use plywood to unmould the bread (I flipped it gently from the teatowel into my baking tray) and I didn't read the specification for using the glass measure until after I'd poured my yeast into tepid water in a plastic bowl. However, none of these slight deviations seemed to harm or make a difference to the final result.

This loaf of bread was the best bread I've ever made - indeed, I'm immodest enough to say that it is one of the best breads I've ever eaten. It had a soft but chewy texture, similar to sourdough, and was quite addictive. Even though we were ready to go to bed by the time the bread had cooled, we couldn't resist cutting some to try and we ended up demolishing half the loaf! As pointed out in the recipe notes, French bread doesn't contain any preservatives and is best eaten on the day it's made. I had a few slices left over by the next night and they had gone rock hard, so I blitzed them in the food processor and they made a great crumb crust for fresh fish.

Thank you to Breadchick Mary and Sara for choosing such an excellent recipe. I will definitely be making this again and I think it will become one of my favourite bread recipes. I also enjoyed the opportunity to learn about Julia Child and intend to do some more exploring of her cooking in the future.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rosy red rhubarb

I think of rhubarb as a grown-up treat. Although mum grew rhubarb at home, I never really enjoyed it as child. I found the tart taste too sharp for my palate and was frightened by the knowledge that the leaves were poisonous (although we never ate the leaves, it was one of those pieces of information that tends to lodge in a child's mind).

Now, however, I adore rhubarb and cannot resist buying a bunch when I see it for sale at a market (provided that it's in season and looks healthy). My palate now enjoys the sharp-edged sweetness of rhubarb that I disliked as a child. I love its ruby-red colour and the way something that looks like red celery can be cooked down with sugar into a meltingly soft puree to stir through custards for a pretty dessert or mixed with natural yoghurt and muesli for a delicious, healthy start to the day. Soft rhubarb topped with a rich, nutty crumble is a favourite winter dessert.

After buying a bunch of rhubarb at the Slow Food Farmers' Market, a rhubarb crumble was the first recipe on my list. But that only used half the bunch, so I turned my attention to other recipes. Most was used for a sweet compote to eat with yoghurt for breakfast but I used some of the compote to top spicy, buttery baby cakes in a recipe that I found on the Gourmet Traveller website. These simple cakes have a gingery taste that is beautifully offset by the little jewels of rhubarb puree dotted on the top. Although I made these cakes in the mini loaf tins as specified, I think these would also work well in muffin tins. This recipe is definitely going into the "make again" file.


225g soft unsalted butter
3/4 cup golden syrup
3 eggs
225g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves

Rhubarb compote
2 stalks of rhubarb, thinly sliced
55g caster sugar

For rhubarb compote, combine rhubarb, sugar and 1 Tb of water in a saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 2 minutes or until softened, then cook, uncovered for eight minutes or until liquid has reduced and rhubarb is soft. Cool.

Cream butter and golden syrup until pale, then add eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition, until mixed in.

Sift over flour, baking powder and spices and stir to combine, then spoon into nine lightly greased 2/3-cup capacity mini loaf pans and spoon 2 tsp rhubarb down centre. Bake at 180 degrees for 12-15 minutes or until just cooked. Allow to cool slightly, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool.

Recipe from Gourmet Traveller website

Monday, February 25, 2008

Slow Food Farmers' Market

The weather forecast was for a cool day and possible rain. Not the most enticing forecast, especially when we're still officially in summer. There were a few grey clouds dotting the sky and a cool wind but otherwise rain seemed far away, so we set off to the Abbotsford Convent on Saturday morning for the Slow Food Farmers' Market.

The Abbotsford Convent is a treasure for Melbourne. Slated for residential development in the late 1990s, the local community fought hard to keep the Convent precinct out of the hands of developers and it is now a thriving arts colony. Eleven heritage buildings and beautiful gardens are set on nearly seven hectares of land near the Yarra River, just four kilometres from the CBD. There's studios for individual artists, writers, craftspeople and health practitioners, a community radio station, and the food options include the Convent Bakery, Handsome Steve's House of Refreshment (licensed cafe) and Lentil As Anything (a vegetarian restaurant where you pay what you think the experience is worth).

Among the various festivals and events hosted by the Abbotsford Convent is the Slow Food Farmers' Market, held on the fourth Saturday of each month. Farmers' markets are a key part of the Slow Food principles, which treasure tradition, cherish communities and celebrate conviviality. Farmers' markets are a direct source of fresh produce and a chance for the buyers to meet the growers.

We pass people pulling trolleys loaded with food along St Heliers St as we approach the entrance gate at 9am. The market opens at 8am and the earlybirds have already enjoyed the array of fresh produce available. There's quite a crowd inside the grounds and there's a wonderful buzz and sense of community in the air that comes with the exhibition and purchase of delicious seasonal food. Stalls are displaying fresh organic vegetables including mounds of fat pumpkins, enormous shiny eggplants, long plump zucchinis, bags of Swiss brown mushrooms, a wide range of different potato varieties, punnets of enormous fire-engine red strawberries, glossy capsicums, small French plums, and a variety of fresh greens, such as bok choy, spinach, cabbage and cauliflower. We taste fresh pistachios from north Victoria. They are quite soft and don't taste much like the dried, salted variety you normally see in shops. The stallholder tells us that they make a good pesto, so we buy some to try.

It's easy to plan the week's meals with the variety of food on offer. A glossy purple oversized eggplant will be sliced into wedges and roasted with olive oil, some spices and tinned tomatoes to make a hearty side-dish. Bunches of crisp green asparagus can be mixed into pasta with pancetta and parmesan. The potato stallholder recommends Royal Blue potatoes, saying they are a good allrounder. (We steam them that night and serve with some fresh better and they are a truly delicious potato, with a creamy, nutty texture). A bag of Swiss brown mushrooms, cooked and flavoured with some herbs and balsamic vinegar, will make an indulgent Sunday breakfast. Broccoli, zucchini and pumpkin go into the bag to use during the week. And I can't resist a bunch of rhubarb that can be cooked into a rich crumble made with hazelnuts, flour, chocolate and butter.

There's plenty of other food on offer to sample and buy, including pates, dips, ice-cream, cheeses, saltbush lamb, free-range pork, bread, free-range eggs, blueberries, sultanas and currants, dukkah, jams, muesli and Turkish delight. We buy coffee and ciabatta rolls from the Convent Bakery for a mid-morning snack.

The rain stays away and we leave for home loaded up with food and a vow to return next month.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Daring Bakers - lemon meringue pie

It was another sweet month for the Daring Bakers, with this month's host, Jen from Canadian Baker, putting the classic lemon meringue pie on the menu. Lemon meringue pie has long been a favourite in both my and Adam's families, so I knew this recipe would have to be good to inspire us to substitute it in the future for our own recipe. Although this recipe was not challenging as I have made lemon meringue pie many times before, I enjoyed trying a new version and it had some different steps to my tried-and-true recipe.

The first step was to make the pastry. This was a simple sweet pastry and easy to make. I would normally not consider making pastry on a 30-degree day but, as a group of lemon meringue pie lovers were coming for dinner that night, I had no choice. The pastry consisted of cold butter, plain flour, sugar, salt and ice water, all blended in a food processor, then chilled for at least 20 minutes. This is very similar to the sweet pastry recipes I have, and it all came together nicely. It rolled out easily and made a very nice tart base.

The lemon filling was also easy to make. It differed slightly from my recipe in that it used five egg yolks (but it did make a large pie) and also that the method required the sugar and cornflour to be stirred into two cups of boiling water and then cooked over medium heat until very thick, before the egg yolks, butter and lemon juice were added in separate steps. (My original recipe calls for arrowroot to be blended with cold water and then mixed with sugar, lemon juice, eggs and butter and boiled for one minute). This recipe was similar but was made for a larger volume and each ingredient was mixed in separately. Adding the sugar and cornflour to the boiling water meant the mixture had to be carefully watched, as it thickened very quickly and easily turned lumpy (but nothing a whizz with the bamix couldn't fix). I found the filling mixture was a wonderful thick consistency until I added the lemon juice. It then became quite runny and did not set as much as I thought it would or should. When the pie was cut, the filling oozed out rather than cutting into nice slices. At the time, I wondered whether the metric conversions for this recipe were correct but, having since read quite a few comments from fellow DBers, this is apparently a common problem with this recipe. I would add more cornflour next time I made this pie - it called for 1/2 a cup but perhaps 3/4 cup would be better.

The final step was to make the meringue and the result was a magnificent glossy meringue that piled up very high on the tart. The recipe called for 3/4 cup of sugar but I cut this down to 1/2 cup and it was still a little sweet, so perhaps even a 1/4 cup would be enough. The meringue looked and tasted wonderful and I had plenty of willing kitchen helpers lining up to lick the bowl clean! The recipe said the pie should be browned in the oven for 10-15 minutes but I found mine was almost too brown after five minutes, so luckily I had kept an eye on it and pulled it out in time.

The final result was delicious and met with a loud chorus of approval. The meringue melted in the mouth, the pastry was sweet and light and the only hiccup was the runny filling but all agreed that it tasted wonderful regardless.

Would I make this recipe again? I'm not sure. I would definitely use the pastry recipe again for other tarts. I did enjoy this lemon meringue pie but I'm not sure it was successful enough to woo me away from my original recipe.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cooking heaven

I've been to cooking heaven and it's called The Essential Ingredient. I'm ashamed to admit that a baking aficionado like me, who loves trying new recipes and ingredients and is an avid reader of Gourmet Traveller, whose recipes quite often include an ingredient list marked with an asterisk that says "available from The Essential Ingredient", has never been to this shop. It's been on my list of places to visit for a very long time but I've never done it. This year I'm determined to stop making endless lists of places I want to visit and actually do it.

So I made the effort to visit and I could have spent hours there. Recipes churned through my mind as everywhere I looked I saw jars, bottles and packages of ingredients: preserved lemons; piquillos; anchovies; capers in salt; peppercorns in brine; extra virgin olive oil from around the world; sherry vinegar; verjuice; quince paste; carnaroli rice; harissa; type 00 flour; puy lentils; quinoa; olive tapenade; vanilla beans; saffron threads; chestnut flour; orange blossom water; chestnut puree; jars of milk, white and dark couverture buttons; light and dark muscovado sugar; rich, dark cocoa powder; light and dark demerara sugar; rosewater; cocoa nibs; cornichons in vinegar and slabs of couverture chocolate. There were dozens of glossy cookbooks, a wall of shelves filled with white dinnerware; and a huge range of cooking tools and implements. Oh for a huge budget, unlimited pantry space and a free week to devote to cooking and baking! I could easily have filled the entire car.

But I was forced to restrain myself and came home with just a few "essentials". One small item that made its way into my basket was dried lavender flowers, which I used to flavour some sweet butter biscuits. The lavender flowers impart a gentle flavour to the biscuit, giving them the faint taste of a lazy summer's afternoon. Taking just 15 minutes from the time you pull out the mixing bowl to the time you pop a warm biscuit into your mouth, it is also the sort of biscuit that is perfect to whip up on a lazy summer's afternoon.


125g butter, softened
1 cup caster sugar
1 egg
200g SR flour, sifted
2 tsp dried lavender flowers

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the egg, then gently mix in the sifted flour and lavender flowers, taking care not to overmix. Roll teaspoons of mixture into balls and place on baking paper-lined trays, flattening slightly with your hand. Leave room for spreading. Bake at 180 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until golden. Cool on wire racks.

Monday, January 14, 2008

To market, to market...

I never liked mornings as a teenager. On weekends, I'd surface near lunchtime, when the heat of a hot day had already kicked in, or the clouds on a coolish day had blown up and obscured the early morning sun that had held promise of a fine day.

Now I love early mornings. The sky seems washed clean, brighter and more fresh. All days promise well in the morning, even if they go off track later on. It's a time of quiet, as the city has not yet awoken and launched into the bustle of the day. Busy city laneways, like Degraves St, where you can barely move for the milling throng at lunchtime, are quiet havens. The smell of coffee and freshly baking muffins drifts around the laneway, as you dodge the baker and milkman making the day's deliveries. Many times I've enjoyed an early morning walk or run in brilliant sunshine, only to find it obscured by grey clouds within an hour or two, or the calm peace disturbed by squally winds that blow up later on.

One of my favourite places in Melbourne is the Queen Victoria Market. We're lucky to have such a treasure in Melbourne at all, let alone easily accessible in our CBD. Many's the time I've battled big crowds at the market on a mid-morning Saturday. Now I prefer to go in the early morning, arriving about 6.30am, when there are fewer people around. The market is pleasantly populated, with enough people to make you feel part of a communal activity, but not so crowded that you're dodging overloaded trolleys, big three-wheeled prams and meandering tourists while trying to check out what's fresh and best to buy.

First stop is the deli hall, where a compulsory purchase is the spinach and pinenut dip. Adam and I both adore this dip and it won't last long in our fridge. Other assorted deli items make their way into my little red jeep trolley: olives, pancetta, different types of cheese, Turkish bread, Polish sausages, dolmades, smoked salmon and big blocks of fresh Warrnambool butter. Then it's onto the meat and fish hall, where I'll wander the stalls to see what's on offer. I always stock up on fresh fish and seafood here, as I think the fish from this market is the freshest and cheapest in Melbourne. I often buy red meat and chicken here too but, as I'm blessed with a wonderful local butcher, I don't buy as much here as I could.

Last stop is the fruit and vegetable sheds. There's so much on offer that I spend a lot of time wandering up and down the various sheds before purchasing. Today, there's fire-engine red tomatoes from Murray Bridge that look particularly good. A plump eggplant will make smoky baba ghanoush, while a bunch of crisp asparagus will be delicious blanched and tossed in a salad with blue cheese and walnuts. Mounds of plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots look enticing. There's some leftover eggwhites in my fridge that will make little meringues that can be topped with whipped cream and a chopped assortment of these fruits.

By 7.30, my shopping is all done and it's time for coffee and breakfast and to plan for the rest of the weekend. There seems so many more hours in the day when you're an early riser!