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!