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.