Thursday, December 31, 2009

A simple little salad

After the feast that was Christmas, simple meals are on the menu for us now. Given the hot weather we've been having, salads are just the ticket. While there's always a place on my table for a basic little green salad, I also like salads with some more interesting ingredients, or those that could double as a light meal with some bread or grilled fish or chicken on the side.

Fortunately, the December 2009 issue of Gourmet Traveller, which is the magazine that Suzie from Munch+Nibble and I are focusing on in our We Made It challenge this month (where we select a current food magazine and try to cook as much as we can from that one issue) has come to my rescue, with a whole feature, "Dressed for Success", on salads.

From the delicious spread available, I chose to make the carrot and barley salad with dates and raisins. The beauty of this salad is that most of the ingredients are readily to hand (or easily obtainable, although it's always nice to be able to throw something together without having to make a special trip to the shops). As well as being an interesting mix of sweet and savoury, this salad is a cinch to put together and can be served as either a light meal or a side dish. It would also be a good addition to a salad buffet.

Although the recipe specifies that the coriander and cumin seeds should be dry-roasted and then pounded in a mortar and pestle, I took the lazy option and just used ground spices for this salad. Although the flavour is not as intense, it did cut down on cooking tasks and time.

Carrot and barley salad with dates and raisins
Recipe from Gourmet Traveller, December 2009

300gm pearl barley
1 tsp each coriander and cumin seeds, dry-roasted and coarsely pounded in a mortar and pestle
3 carrots, coarsely grated
40gm pine nuts, toasted
40gm golden raisins, soaked in warm water for 5 minutes, drained
3 dates, pitted, cut into slivers
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 bunch coriander, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup (firmly packed) flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 tsp red wine vinegar
2 Tb extra-virgin olive oil

Cook barley in boiling salted water until tender (20-30 minutes). Drain, transfer to a bowl and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, combine spices with remaining ingredients in a bowl, toss to combine. Add barley, season to taste, toss to combine, serve.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Day lunch

There's nothing more satisfying - or necessary - than sitting down with a soothing cup of peppermint tea and putting up your feet after hosting a successful Christmas Day lunch. The food has been devoured, the dishes washed and put away, the wrapping paper tidied up and presents sorted. In my case, I have a lovely stack of glossy new cookbooks to add to my pile. I can't wait to start cooking from them.

We hosted 16 people at our Christmas Day lunch but it was nowhere near as daunting as that sounds. Everyone was delegated to bring something: drinks, nibblies, a salad or two, dessert etc. As hostess, I was providing the ham and the turkey and lots of salad bowls and white platters for presentation.

My family likes a traditional Christmas lunch (by that, I mean the Anglo traditional lunch, with ham, turkey and plum pudding) but we are happy to add our own twists and interpretations. None of us are huge fans of a whole cooked turkey and I didn't want to spend Christmas morning trapped in the kitchen with a hot stove. So I ordered a turkey breast roll from my excellent local butcher (much faster to cook, with lots less angsty) and found a recipe for roast herbed turkey roll in the December 2009 issue of Gourmet Traveller (a magazine that Suzie from Munch+Nibble and I are focusing on this month in the We Made This challenge, where we aim to cook as much as we can from a selected magazine each month).

This is a lovely recipe - very stress-free for Christmas Day, with an excellent end result that belies the minimal effort involved. Combined with ham, roast chicken, a vast array of salads (including seafood, sweet potato, green salad, roast potatoes and a beetroot, walnut and feta salad) and several bottles of Seppelts Sparkling Shiraz, this dish was part of our stunning Christmas feast that satisfied all and meant groaning stomachs could barely accommodate dessert, let alone tea that night.

Roast herbed turkey roll with Meyer lemon mayonnaise

Recipe from the December 2009 issue of Gourmet Traveller

1 turkey breast (about 1.4kg), skin on (note - my turkey breast was 2kg and I did not adjust the recipe but this portion was adequate)
1 cup (loosely packed) each basil, flat-leaf parsley and mint, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Finely grated rind of 1 Meyer lemon (Meyer lemons are slightly sweeter than regular lemons, but it is fine to substitute if you can't find Meyers)
60ml extra-virgin olive oil

Meyer lemon mayonnaise
1 egg yolk
25ml Meyer lemon juice
2 tsp Dijon mustard
150ml light olive oil
Finely grated rind of 2 Meyer lemons

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Place turkey breast skin-side down on a work surface and make an incision lengthways along the thickest part of the breast to butterfly. Open flat and season to taste.

Combine herbs, garlic, rind and half the olive oil in a small bowl, season to taste and spread evenly over turkey. Roll into a long cylinder, tucking ends under, then tie securely at intervals with kitchen twine./

Place turkey on a wire rack in a roasting tray, drizzle with remaining oil, season to taste and roast, basting occasionally, until golden and juices run clear when pierced with a skewer (1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 15 minutes - longer if your turkey breast is larger). Remove from oven, cover loosely with foil and rest for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, for Meyer lemon mayonnaise, combine yolk, juice and mustard in a small bowl, whisk to combine, then add oil in a thin, continuous stream, whisking continuously until incorporated. Add rind, season to taste and set aside.

Serve sliced turkey with mayonnaise to the side.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A spicy side of Christmas

Heady spice mixtures and plump dried fruit feature heavily in Christmas baking. Many of the traditional dishes we've inherited from England, such as Christmas cakes, fruit mince tarts and plum puddings, are chock-full of these ingredients. But other nations have similar traditions: the spicy Dutch speculaas biscuits and golden fruit-studded panettone or panforte, a spicy mix of glace fruit and nuts, from Italy, for example.

For many years I've made a chocolate panforte at Christmas. No matter how full we are, everyone always finds a small hole in their stomach when the plate of panforte, dusted with icing sugar, comes out with coffee. In last year's Christmas issue of Gourmet Traveller, I found a recipe for panpepato, which is very similar to panforte. With a newborn in the house last Christmas, there was no time to make the panpepato but it was one of the first things on my list for this year (as this recipe came from the December 2008 issue, it doesn't strictly fit into the We Made This challenge that Suzie from Munch+Nibble and I are doing, but I'm including it anyway, as I haven't had a chance to cook as much from this year's edition as I'd hoped!)

According to Gourmet Traveller, panpepato is a Christmas specialty from the Siena region of Italy. It is similar to panforte but is spiced up with black pepper and cocoa or chocolate. "The hsitory of panforte and panpepato are intertwined and it's difficult to distinguish which came first and what their true provenance is," Emma Knowles wrote in her article on panpepato. "Legend has it that panpepato possessed powerful aphrodisiac qualities and also had the ability to stop husbands and wives from fighting, both of which are great reasons to whip up a batch yourself."

Panpepato is easy to make, although you will need a sugar thermometer and some confidence in cooking a soft caramel. The mixing stage needs to be done very quickly or you end up with a big, gluggy, unusable mess on your hands.

The recipe specifies that the panpepato should be baked in five 10cm-diameter springform pans. I made mine in a 20cm springform pan, as I don't have the smaller pans, and adjusted the cooking time slightly. The end result was fine but I do think the smaller versions would work very well if you wanted to give these away as gifts. Panpepato would make a wonderful gift for your friends: this is a wonderful cake, like a sexy older sister version of panforte. The dark cocoa gives it a luxurious element, while the spicy aftertaste of peppercorns lingers teasingly on the palate. This is a dish that I will definitely be making again.


Recipe from Gourmet Traveller, December 2008 (available on the GT website)

2 sheets of confectioner's rice paper
50gm plain flour
40gm Dutch-process cocoa
1 Tb ground mixed spice
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp coarsely crushed pink peppercorns
200gm candied orange, coarsely chopped
80gm almonds, roasted
80gm each walnuts and hazelnuts, roasted and peeled
150gm caster sugar
150g honey
Pure icing sugar, to dust

Preheat oven to 150 degrees. Lightly grease five 10-cm diameter springform pans, line bases with baking paper and then rice paper, trimming to fit. Sift flour and cocoa into a bowl, add spices, orange and nuts and toss to coat well in the flour mixture.

Heat caster sugar, honey and 2 Tb water in saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Do not stir again, as mixture may crystallise. Bring to the boil and cook until mixture reaches 120 degrees on a sugar thermometer (soft ball stage). Working quickly with a lightly oiled spoon, pour caramel over nut mixture, mixing well. Spoon into prepared pans and smooth tops with an oiled spatula. Bake for 10-15 minutes (time it carefully because this cake will not firm up or colour as it cooks). Cool completely in pans, turn out, then dust liberally with icing sugar. Serve cut into wedges (note that this cake is rich and a little will go a long way).

Panpepato will keep, wrapped in baking paper, and then plastic wrap in an airtight container in a cool place, for up to one month. To present as a gift, wrap panpepato in baking paper before wrapping as desire.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Waste not, want not: The Thrifty Kitchen

Many people who would baulk at the idea of shredding a $50 note at the end of each week don’t think twice about throwing out the equivalent amount in unused, soggy vegetables each week.

Wasted food is just one side-effect of a society that is becoming increasingly disconnected from the idea of seasonal food and thrifty kitchen practices, such as using up leftovers rather than throwing them out.

Lack of time and lack of cooking knowledge are often blamed for the increased reliance on packaged or takeaway food. But a new cookbook, The Thrifty Kitchen, by Suzanne Gibbs and Kate Gibbs, aims to inspire people to eat more healthily and cheaply at home.

Kate says the global financial crisis has helped focus people’s minds on their expenditure and be more careful with their money, and this was part of the inspiration for the cookbook.

“This is a book that needed to be done,” she says. “An enormous amount of money is being wasted by people not being strategic and planning their meals. People need to think about their food as if it’s similar to a business and not buy food if they’re not going to use it.”

The Thrifty Kitchen contains plenty of useful tips on how to shop thriftily, including how to get the best value at the supermarket, how to get your money’s worth when buying meat, and essential items to keep in the pantry.

As well as chapters on work lunches and weeknight meals that are cheaper, healthier and more delicious than takeaway, sections of the book are devoted to meals that can be made from leftovers and weekend meals to cook and keep, allowing even the busiest people to plan ahead.

“A lot of us know how to do this but we can all improve in the way we do it,” says Kate. “Be forward thinking in terms of the meals you and your family want to eat. Make a double quantity of spaghetti bolognaise and freeze some so you don’t need to get takeaway. If you cook a roast chicken for two people, you can put the leftovers in sandwiches or make a lovely pasta dish with some cream.”

While cooking your own food gives you ultimate control over what you put in your body, it is also much cheaper to cook for yourself, and using up leftovers helps reduce waste and lessens the impact on the environment. But Kate says it is important that cooking is realistically integrated into people’s day-to-day lives and the book shows people ways that they can best use their time to fit cooking into their life.

“We’ve given lots of useful advice along with the recipes, including some clever ways to be thrifty in the kitchen. We believe cooking is connecting with food. It’s about knowing what you eat and knowing how to develop and incorporate variety into your diet.”

Kate comes from a fine food pedigree: her grandmother is the doyenne of Australian cooking, Margaret Fulton OAM, and her mother, Suzanne Gibbs, is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who published her first cookbook at 24.

Food was integral to Kate’s childhood. She and her sister would often awake to delicious cooking smells wafting from the kitchen. Over breakfast , they would plan meals for the weekend and Kate says she always wanted to be involved in the cooking.

“We’d have family days where we would go to the fish market, buy mussels and come home and make Provencal soup. It was a lovely family event. You don’t need to spend a lot of money going out somewhere – you can just all get together and cook.”

Talking to Kate, recipes flow freely throughout the conversation. While pondering the answer to a question about her favourite recipe in the book, she digresses into a quick list of ingredients to make ricotta pancakes for breakfast.

“Food plays a massive part in my life. I choose my friends around how much they like cooking!” she laughs. “I’m lucky with my food background but, even if someone doesn’t grow up like that, you can still becoming engaged with food.

“When you love food, you’re not prepared to settle for second best.”

The Thrifty Kitchen is published by Lantern, Penguin Books, $49.95

Thursday, December 3, 2009

We made it: Speculaas

Suzie from Munch+Nibble and I are taking part in the "We made it" project, where we choose a food magazine each month and cook as much as we can from it. It's an attempt to actually use the magazines we subscribe to, rather than just bookmarking them.

This month's magazine is Gourmet Traveller and the first dish I made was from the "Classic Dish" section: speculaas. This is a thin and crispy spiced biscuit from Europe. According to GT writer Emma Knowles, the Dutch and German versions of speculaas are heavily spiced, with cardamom and ground white pepper added to the mix. Emma also added star anise and mace to her interpretation.

I have a simplified speculaas recipe from Miranda Sharp that appeared in Epicure a few years ago and it makes a very moreish biscuit. But the spice mix in this GT version sounded more robust and interesting, with cardamom, cloves, star anise, white peppercorns, mace, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg all featuring. Rather than using ground spices, you grind up the cardamom, cloves, star anise, peppercorns and mace yourself. I made it the old-fashioned way, using a mortar and pestle, and it does produce an intense spice mix with an almost medicinal smell. However, letting the dough rest overnight softens the harsh edges of the strong spices and mellows them into an aromatic biscuit. The aroma while baking is heavenly. As Emma notes, it's a good thing that the recipe makes a lot of biscuits, as it is almost impossible to stop at just one.

The verdict: An intense, addictive biscuit that would find favour at any time of year but is particularly welcome at this time of year; aromatic spices feature heavily in Christmas baking. While this is an easy biscuit to make, it does involve some labour and you need to allow time for the dough to rest (at least eight hours, but preferably overnight), as well as chilling the cut biscuits before making them. So while I thoroughly enjoyed this biscuit, it is not something you can whip up in a hurry. My simplified speculaas recipe is better if you're in a hurry; but the intense spices in this version make it a winner.

Recipe by Emma Knowles, p 38, Gourmet Traveller, December 2009

500g plain flour, sieved
2 tsp baking powder
220g butter, softened
250g dark brown sugar
2 Tb milk
Speculaas spice
8 green cardamom pods
8 cloves
5 star anise
1 tsp white peppercorns
1 piece of mace
2 Tb ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp finely grated nutmeg

1. For speculaas spice, finely grind cardamom, cloves, star anise, peppercorns and mace in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Transfer to a large bowl, add cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, stir, add to flour and baking powder and set aside.

2. Beat butter, sugar and a pinch of salt in an electric mixer until creamy (3-4 minutes). Add milk, beat to combine, then add flour mixture and mix until just combined. Form mixture into a dough with your hands on a word surface (add extra milk if the mixture is too dry), shape into a disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate to rest (eight hours to overnight).

3. Preheat oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Roll pastry on a lightly floured surface to 5mm thick, then refrigerate until firm (30 minutes). Cut into desired shapes and place on trays lined with baking paper. Chill until firm (20 minutes), then bake in batches until light brown and crisp (10-12 minutes). Cool for 5 minutes on trays, then transfer to wire racks and cool completely. Speculaas will keep, stored in an airtight container, for 1 week.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

We made it: Gourmet Traveller

Addict: devote, apply habitually or compulsively (to a practice); person addicted to a habit.

My name is Melinda and I'm addicted to food porn. My books are pushed aside to make way for more glossy cookbooks, out-of-season food magazines are stored in boxes in the cupboard until their seasonal time arrives, and I have storage boxes stuffed full of recipes clipped from magazines and newspapers. I want to organise them and file them but every time I pull out the box to do so, I get side-tracked by hypothetically conjuring up the dishes until I've run out of time. The clippings are piled back into the box and put away until the next time.

Thankfully, I'm not alone in my addiction. My friend and fellow blogger Suzie from Munch+Nibble is a fellow food porn addict - and possibly even more addicted than me! Whenever Suzie has spare time on her hands, she dives into a newsagent for another hit.

Several months ago, I surprised myself by cooking at least 10 dishes out of that month's issue of Gourmet Traveller. Suzie was suitably impressed, as we both tend to drool over each issue, bookmark dozens of recipes, and then file away the magazine without actually making anything. We have now set ourselves the challenge of picking a different magazine each month and try to cook, review and post as much as possible from that magazine in that month. Hopefully our pristine copies will soon be covered with the splotches and splatters of use in the kitchen.

If anyone else would like to join in with our "We made it" project, you are more than welcome - just drop a comment to either Suzie or me.

So, for our inaugural "We made it", we have chosen the December 2009 issue of Gourmet Traveller. This magazine is a favourite of mine: it is beautifully written, photographed and edited. I believe that Australian food magazines are among the best in the world, especially in the way the food is photographed and presented.

Gourmet Traveller has several regular columns that I really enjoy: Fare Exchange, where readers can write in and seek recipes of favourite dishes from chefs around Australia; Classic Dish, where a classic dish is featured, including its history and a recipe to try; Perfect Match, a wine and food match dish, and In Season.

A stunning trifle, glossy dark berries perched on top of a custard and sponge base, is the enticing cover photo of this month's issue. Inside is lots of inspiration for Christmas, with some old favourites given a modern twist, and Sydney star pastry chef Adrian Zumbo providing some zany Christmas dishes to make.

If you would like to join in the fun of cooking from Gourmet Traveller this month, leave me a comment, and make sure you go and visit Suzie at Munch+Nibble to see what amazing dishes she is whipping up. Check back regularly this month, as we plan to post throughout December about the different dishes we're trying.

If you are unable to buy Gourmet Traveller, you will find many of the recipes from each month's issue featured on its excellent website:

Monday, November 30, 2009

Snowy drifts of sugar

So many of the traditional Christmas baking dishes that we favour seem wrong for our climate: hot roast dishes, rich puddings and dense spicy treats are perfect for a snowy, northern hemisphere Yuletide but seem inappropriate when we're more likely to be heading to the beach.

Yet the tradition persists. To me, the aroma of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves are the essence of Christmas and conjure up images of sweet treats that we can eat with a reckless abandon that doesn't exist during the rest of the year (or why else are the January magazines full of post-Christmas diets?)

It is a time of excess, particularly in relation to baking. A slice of panforte here, a wedge of fruit cake there, here a mince tart, there a spiced biscuit ... there's plenty of excuses to indulge.

Despite my mounting pile of recipes, it's nice to return to some old favourites. I adore spiced biscuits and cakes - put the word "spiced" into the title of a recipe and you have my attention immediately. These cute little spiced biscuits by Donna Hay, finished off with a dusting of snowy icing sugar, are a perfect way to offer season's greetings.

Sugar-dusted spice biscuits

125g (4 0z) butter, softened
3/4 cup (150g/5 oz) brown sugar
1/4 cup (95g/3 oz) golden syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
1 3/4 cups (235g/7 oz) plain flour, sifted
1/2 cup (55g/ 1 3/4 oz) hazelnut meal
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
icing sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). Beat butter, brown sugar, golden syrup and vanilla extract with an electric mixer until pale. Add the egg and beat well. Add the flour, hazelnut meal, spices and soda and beat until just combined.

Roll two teaspoonfuls of mixture into balls and place on baking-paper-lined baking trays, allowing room for spreading. Bake in batches for 8 minutes, or until light golden. Cool, then dust with icing sugar.

Recipe from Donna Hay Magazine, issue 12

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Restaurant review: The Station Hotel, Footscray

Gentrification and renovation has swept much of the previously overlooked inner-western suburbs over the past few years, with many a fine old Edwardian or Federation house with lovely bones finding itself modernised. Along with the influx of artistes and yummy mummies has come a passion for good coffee and decent cafes, which has been largely catered for in Yarraville and Seddon.

Now Footscray has joined the throng, with the stately old Station Hotel, built in 1864, being brought into the modern era by highly regarded chef Sean Donovan. Footscray has long been the place to go for Asian and African food but diners west of the CBD now have a more upmarket option.

Donovan, who has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in both London and France and formerly weaved his magic south of the river at The Botanical, has waved his wand over the Station Hotel and turned it into the area’s first gastro-pub. While the surrounding area may seem less amenable to fine dining than South Yarra, London or France, his chef’s eye for detail and use of excellent produce has transformed the pub into a thriving local where it’s difficult to snare a table if you don’t book ahead.

The focus here is firmly on the food. The dining room interior is pleasantly neutral, with one wall papered in a subtle grey paisley pattern. The wooden tables, adorned with cloth napkins and heavy cutlery, are positioned quite closely together, although the noise levels never rise unacceptably and it’s possible to conduct a conversation without shouting.

When the Station first reopened, diners ordered and paid at the bar but this has been sensibly replaced by table service. The waitstaff are friendly and helpful, eager to answer any questions about the menu and not shy about complimenting patrons on their dining choices.

While the menu does reflect Donovan’s training, there are still some traditional pub favourites, albeit with a cheffy twist, such as beer-battered fish and chips or a burger with onion fries. There is a choice of eight different steaks, either Black Angus or wagyu, grain or grass-fed. Then there are the gastro-pub offerings: blinis, farro risotto and terrine de campagne. There is also evident pride in the produce used, with names such as Fratelli Galloni Prosciutto di Parma, Coffin Bay scallops, Smoky Bay oysters and the provenance of each steak detailed on the menu.

Seafood makes up the bulk of the short entree list. Marinated ocean trout is folded delicately atop four pancake-sized buckwheat blinis. The blinis are crispy and a little oily but saved by the accompanying sauces, one zinging with piquant horseradish and the other full of little salmon roe that pop sensuously in the mouth.

The Cashel blue cheese and leek tart is an upmarket, but well made, quiche. The pastry holds the firm eggy filling without sogginess but still has a flaky lightness to it. The blue cheese adds a subtle bite and the tart’s richness is offset by a salad of radicchio and thinly sliced apple.

The relative simplicity of the entrees disappears with the more elaborate mains. On paper, the spicy wagyu beef sausages with Gorgonzola, soft polenta, candied walnuts and sage – essentially a glamorous bangers and mash – sounds messy and complicated, with too many ingredients competing for attention. But there is a harmony in the dish, with the different flavours complementing each other and the smoky sweetness of the candied walnuts adding an extra sizzle of flavour. The waitress rated the sausages as “7 out of 10” in the heat stakes but our palates clearly differ, as I found the sausages to have nothing more than a pleasing warmth to them. They are coiled on a pillow of soft and creamy polenta, flecked with herbs and Gorgonzola. Radicchio and shaved parmesan add some lightness to the pure comfort food element of the dish.

Just as detailed on paper is the black pudding dish, which features Donovan’s gelatinous, slightly spicy black pudding. When the crispy, pan-fried skin is cut, the black pudding spills out over its accompaniments of caramelised onion, a brie and duck egg omelette and a mound of lentils and bacon. A slice of walnut and fruit toast adds a firm-textured dimension. Despite the many ingredients, this dish works, and the interesting juxtaposition of sweet and sour tastes makes it memorable. Black pudding is not to everyone’s taste, but if you are a fan, this is an excellent version.

The serves here are generous and desserts are no exception. A hot Valrhona chocolate cake, about the size of an entree plate, has surprise packages of poached quince pieces hidden inside. The fruit, and the bitter notes of good-quality dark chocolate, save the cake from being cloying or overly sweet, and it is finished off with a scoop of Jock’s vanilla ice-cream. The Station’s version of ubiquitous sticky date pudding is excellent: a large wedge of pudding is studded with walnuts and doused with a thick butterscotch sauce.

The Station Hotel has been embraced by locals and it’s easy to see why. While simple dishes are executed well and will not scare off those who are after a pub meal, there is enough innovation, passion and pride in the food here to attract those who want something a little more adventurous.

The Station Hotel
59 Napier St, Footscray
(03) 9687 2913

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Melbourne Larder Christmas cake

When I started planning to make my Christmas cake, I didn't factor in the weather. I imagine that it would wonderfully comforting at this time of year in cold England to have an oven emitting warmth and a kitchen filled with spicy aromas as a fruit cake gently cooks in the oven, but it is definitely the wrong thing to be doing in a hot Australian kitchen when the temperature is already 30 degrees at 7am.

But the dried fruit had been macerating in Irish whisky for three days and I couldn't put off the baking any longer. It was time to whisk up the cake batter and turn on the air-conditioner and let my cake bake slowly for three hours.

Fruit cakes seem to have fallen out of favour over recent years. I know very few people who still bake a Christmas cake every year. Fruit cake is certainly not glamorous or showy like a chocolate or celebration cake but it does have a certain richness and comfort factor. A rich cake densely studded with plump fruit and nuts and laced with alcohol is a delicious afternoon treat with a cup of tea, especially in winter. And, although it is not ideally suited for a hot Australian summer, fruit cake has a Christmassy air about it to me. I confess that my favourite Christmas treat is now a slice of spicy, chocolatey panforte but I still have a soft spot for a good old-fashioned Christmas cake.

In Christmas 2007, after reading through my collection of fruit cake recipes, I came up with my own version, which was a hit with the family. Most fruit cakes are quite similar - it's a matter of choosing your preferred dried fruit and then working out the proportions of butter, sugar, eggs, flour and spices for the cake batter.

People often think they need to set aside a large portion of time to make a Christmas cake. However, the cake is actually very easy to make and just requires preparation and forward planning in order to allow time to macerate the fruit and then to bake the cake. Long, slow baking is the key that turns the thick batter into a rich, dense cake. The other secret is to line the cake tin with brown paper to help protect the cake from drying out through its long cooking time.

Melbourne Larder Christmas cake

250g sultanas
250g currants
250g raisins
60g prunes
100g dates
100g dried apricots
100g glace cherries
300g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
250g butter
250g brown sugar
4 eggs
150ml brandy (or sherry, port or whisky)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon golden syrup
zest of 1 lemon

Soak dried fruit in 100ml brandy overnight. (This year I soaked the fruit in 150ml Irish whisky for three days in the fridge and this gave a deeper, mellower flavour. If you have time, I recommend this; but the cake will still taste fine if you only macerate the fruit overnight.)

The next day, pre-heat the oven to 150 degrees and sift together the flour, baking powder and spices.

Cream the butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and flour mix alternately. Lastly mix in the vanilla extract, soaked fruit, golden syrup and lemon zest.

Turn into a lined 20cm square cake tin.* Scoop centre into a light hollow to allow for rising. Place whole blanched almonds in a pattern around the edges of the cake. I sometimes make a little flower pattern in the centre as well.

Bake for 2 to 3 hours (cover with foil if the top is browning too much). Remove from oven and drizzle over the extra 50ml brandy. Cool completely in the tin and then turn out. Wrap the cake in several layers of greaseproof paper and then in foil and store in an airtight tin in a cool place until Christmas.

* The base and sides of the cake tin are lined twice - with brown paper and greaseproof paper. Lay two sheets of brown paper onto the bench, making sure it is larger than the tin. Trace around the base of the tin and then cut diagonally in from the sides to the base-line. This will allow the paper to fold neatly into the tin with no cracks for the cake to leak through. Repeat with a sheet of greaseproof paper.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Preparing for the festive season

Christmas-time is my baking highlight of the year. I stress the word "baking" because savoury dishes such as turkey and ham don't really come into the equation, although I do enjoy planning the main meal as well. I love baking Christmas treats: gingerbread, panforte, panettone, lebkuchen, shortbread, mince tarts, Christmas cake ... the list is long.

It's time to load up my shopping trolley with bags of dried and glace fruit, different types of nuts, spices such as ginger, cinnamon and mixed spice, and plenty of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. The kitchen fills with the heady, mouth-watering aroma of cakes and biscuits as they cook - a spicy smell that I always associate with Christmas and its delicious traditional dishes.

There are many cliches associated with Christmas and it can be a difficult time of year for people who feel forced to try and live up to the ideal of "festive cheer". But I'm fortunate in that Christmas was always a fun and social time of the year for my family. With relatives spread around the state, it was a good chance for everyone to get together and indulge themselves with good food.

The Christmassy treats that we served up for morning and afternoon tea were just as much a part of our celebrations as the turkey, ham and plum pudding. Everyone had a specialty and we eagerly looked forward to the chance to savour delicacies only available at that time of year.

I love learning about the different traditional dishes and adding them to my repertoire. To my Anglo traditions of shortbread and mince tarts, made to my grandmother's recipes, I've added a decadent chocolate panforte and my auntie's lebkuchen biscuits. Other dishes I've tried included buche de Noel (France), stollen (Germany) and panpepato (Italy).

But each year the list grows longer, as I find more books and recipes to add to the pile. Murdoch Books has recently released Cooking for Christmas, a sumptuously photographed book that has recipes for soups, entrees such as potted prawns, main dishes with all the trimmings, puddings and edible gifts. I'm trying to resist buying another cookbook but there are some excellent recipes in there...

I have the delicious magazine Christmas special from last year, to which I've added a Women's Weekly version that I bought last week. I'm eagerly awaiting the December issues of delicious, Gourmet Traveller and Donna Hay Magazine to find out what goodies are on offer this year, and I've been busily combing through past issues of Donna Hay Magazine to gain inspiration.

What dishes will make it onto my baking list this year? Chocolate and Grand Marnier buche de Noel from Gourmet Traveller? Stefano de Pieri's panettone? Gourmet Traveller's recipe for panpepato? Or old favourites, such as my chocolate panforte or a panforte that matches perfectly with Rutherglen muscat? It's time to write out the shopping list and fire up the oven ...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Going dotty

Certain things are guaranteed to always catch the eye of children, particularly if it involves lollies or bright colours. Smartie-studded biscuits, cute little iced gingerbread men and sugary honey-joys are a magnet for my son Daniel's eyes.

I believe that moderation is the key to eating well and I have no problem with the occasional treat of a cake or biscuit. However, I very rarely buy them. Sometimes it's because the promise never seems to live up to the taste (many cafe cakes are disappointingly dry) but it's mostly because I prefer home-made because I know exactly what is going into it and there's no hidden preservatives or additives.

So these sweet little vanilla-scented buttery biscuits are perfect. Budding little cooks will enjoy helping mix up the dough and will most of all love to decorate the biscuit with brightly coloured smarties. Quick to mix, quick to cook, a creative outlet in designing patterns on the biscuits ... this is a lovely little project that has kept Daniel amused many times. Best of all, these are certainly a lot cheaper to make than the cafe versions, which often sell for $2.50 each.

Dotty biscuits

125g butter, softened
125g caster sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
125g plain flour
125g SR flour
1 cup (250g) smarties

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Line a baking tray with baking paper.

Cream butter and caster sugar together until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and mix in.

Sift the flours together and fold into the butter mixture with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough. Turn out onto a sheet of non-stick baking paper, cover with another sheet and roll out to about 5mm thick. Cut out circles with a biscuit cutter (I used a 6cm diameter), place on the lined baking tray and press smarties into the biscuits.

Bake in the oven in batches for 10-15 minutes or until golden. Cool on a wire rack.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Book review: Cravat-a-licious

Many Australians have recently discovered food writer Matt Preston through his role on Masterchef and suddenly Matt and his cravats are everywhere.

But veteran Epicure readers such as myself have known and loved Matt and his witty restaurant reviews and food articles for nearly a decade.

It would be easy to dismiss this collection of articles (billed as "selected works") as a quick publishing response to cash in on Masterchef's fame. But the writing in Cravat-a-licious easily stands on its own merits. Preston's incisive and witty columns feature in Epicure, delicious magazine and Vogue Entertaining & Travel, among others.

The book is divided into five parts: Eat, Cook, Revere, Travel and MasterChef. The Eat section ranges from humorous essays on "25 things you should never do in the kitchen" to more thoughtful articles on migrant food and refugee catering (both of these essays contributed to Preston winning the World's Best Food Journalist in 2008 at the Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards).

In Cook, we follow Preston on his searches for the perfect tomato sauce, perfect risotto, perfect ice-cream and perfect home-cooked slice. All interesting forays through the history of the dish, and recipes are included.

Revere features profiles of well-known chefs, including Margaret Fulton and Skye Gyngell, while Travel looks at different world cuisines. A few essays on the MasterChef phenomenon wrap up the book.

The best thing about this collection is that the articles haven't dated. Even those that are nearly a decade old still sparkle with freshness and vigour. I've read most of these articles before (the articles and recipes on slices, biscuits, ice-cream and risotto still reside in my bulging recipe files) but I enjoyed re-reading them again. "How to win a ribbon" (a 2001 article about how to win a ribbon in the cookery sections at country shows) and "Preserving knowledge" (on how to make jam, published in 2007, and then followed up again earlier this year) are my favourites from this collection, perhaps because they tackle subjects close to my heart (keeping the art of home baking alive).

Preston writes as you imagine he would speak and his unabashed love of food and life shine through his writing. Experienced cooks and foodies will enjoy Preston's masterful knowledge and excellent writing, while novices will find plenty to help broaden their own knowledge. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Party time!

I wanted to show photos of platters filled with tasty morsels of food but, sadly, the guests gobbled them up before there was time to organise the camera. So here are the remnants of our feast, a lonely plate of leftover savouries: caramelised onion tarts, potato and fetta pastries, and corn and ham mini-muffins.

The potato pastries were served by my colleague Susie at a work morning tea recently. They were rapturously received and we requested the recipe from Susie. She happily provided it, although she said that the dish was really too simple to require a defined recipe. She's right; you can mould the basic ingredients to fit your own requirements. Best of all, the pastries can be baked the night before and refreshed in a hot oven for a few minutes before serving.

Susie's potato pastries

I haven't given defined amounts for these pastries, as you can adjust the amounts to suit the number of servings you want to make. Each pastry sheet made about nine squares. For the party, I used four sheets of pastry and about three large potatoes.

The beauty of this recipe is that you can tailor the ingredients to suit yourself: perhaps substituting goats' cheese for fetta, or adding a sprinkling of finely chopped prosciutto.

potatoes (ones that are good for cooking)
marinated fetta (I used South Cape marinated fetta, which is absolutely delicious, as the cheese is marinated in herbed oil
sheets of ready-rolled puff pastry
sprigs of rosemary, finely chopped
sea salt and black pepper

Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Set out the puff pastry sheets to defrost.
Peel the potatoes and slice into thin slices. Bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil and cook the slices until just tender (about five minutes or less), then drain.

Lay a sheet of pastry on a lightly floured bench (to stop it sticking). Place slices of potato across the sheet (I got about nine slices to a sheet, but you could get more or less, depending on how big your potato slices are. You want a little border around each slice.)

Top the potato slice with some crumbled fetta, chopped rosemary, a sprinkle of sea salt and some grindings of black pepper. Pop into the oven and cook until the pastry is puffed and golden (about 20 minutes). Remove and cool on a wire rack.

Pastry pinwheels

These pinwheels came about because I had two sheets of puff pastry left over from the potato pastries. This must be the simplest snack ever and disappeared quickly, with the adults clamouring for them as much as the children!

I used pesto and parmesan for the adult versions, and promite and cheddar for the children's version but the adults loved the promite version just as much, so I would suggest making a mixture of both to serve.

Again, adjust the quantities to suit the number of servings you want.

sheets of ready-rolled puff pastry
home-made or store-bought pesto
Promite or Vegemite spread
parmesan and cheddar cheese
Spread pesto over a puff pastry sheet and sprinkle over finely grated parmesan. Roll up like a sausage and slice into 1-cm pinwheels. Repeat using Promite and finely grated cheddar.

Place pinwheels on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper and bake at 200 degrees Celsius for about 20 minutes, or until pinwheels are puffed and golden.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Happy birthday! Part 2

Shiny wrapping paper lies shredded on the floor and the helium is slowly leaking from the balloons but there is no post-party flatness. Family and friends gathered to help us celebrate Emily's first birthday and the party euphoria and sugar high lingers.

Hosting a party, particularly at home, brings a whole host of administrative issues on top of the catering. Cleaning, dusting, putting precious objects out of reach of 15 stampeding toddlers, sorting out toys into boxes for different age groups, sweeping the back deck, setting up outdoor furniture, arranging the pot-plants, buying the balloons and streamers ... the list is endless. But an inveterate list-maker like myself finds it satisfying ticking off each item.

Also satisfying, and much more fun, is planning the party menu. With up to 50 people coming, we can't just throw together a few platters and hope that will be enough. Luckily there are good cooks on both sides of the family and all are drafted in to help fill the white platters that are marching out of the cupboards, eager to be used. Of course we have bowls of chips and lollies to put out, but there's also pastry pinwheels, club sandwiches, potato and fetta pastries, corn and ham mini-muffins, caramelised onion tartlets and smartie biscuits.

I'll share some recipes in a future post. In the meantime, here is the fairy toadstool birthday cake that I made for the party.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Happy birthday! Part 1

Today my baby girl Emily turns one. It's the common lament of most parents but it really is true: where has the time gone? This past year has really flown by and she is growing up so quickly.

We are having a proper party to celebrate on the weekend, and I've already planned the birthday cake from The Australian Women's Weekly birthday cake book. But for our little family dinner tonight I made a sweet little marble cake, all swirls of multi-coloured cake butter, topped with rose-pink icing and silver cachous.

The marble cake is very easy to make (although it does use a few bowls) and can be whipped up in surprisingly quick time. It is a basic butter cake mix that is coloured with cocoa and pink food colouring. It makes a lovely afternoon tea cake but is also nice for a little birthday celebration, particularly for a gorgeous little girl.

Marble cake

This is not a huge cake, so I make it in a loaf tin, which makes a good-sized bar cake. However, you could double the mixture and make it in a square or round cake tin (you may need to adjust the cooking time to suit).

50g butter, softened
115g caster sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250g self-raising flour
125ml milk
2 tablespoons cocoa
1/4 teaspoon bicarb soda
1 tablespoon milk, extra
few drops of rose-pink food colouring

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees (160 degrees fan-forced). Grease and line a loaf tin (it usually measures about 10cm x 24cm).

Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Gently beat in the egg and the vanilla extract. Sift the flour and mix in alternately with the milk. Divide the mixture into three bowls. Beat the sifted cocoa and bicarb soda and the milk into one bowl. Add a few drops of rose-pink food colouring (a little goes a long way but you do want this to have a strong colour) into the second bowl. Leave the third bowl plain.

Drop spoonfuls of mixture into the prepared cake tin. When finished, use a skewer to swirl through the mixture. Bake for 40-45 minutes (you may need to cover the top with foil if the top is browning too quickly) or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Cool in the tin for about five minutes and then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

When cold, ice with a basic butter icing (beat 25g softened butter, 125g sifted icing sugar and a few teaspoons of boiling water until smooth. Add a few drops of rose-pink food colouring, mix to a smooth consistency and ice) and decorate with silver cachous or sprinkles.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sojourn in Sydney

After Melbourne's cold start to spring (winter coats and flannelette sheets still a necessity), Sydney's balmy sunshine acts like a tonic. Layers are shed and upper arms exposed. Colourful spring outfits beckon from shops along Oxford St, Paddington, and credit cards are just begging to be used.

The occasion is a girls' weekend in Sydney and several girlfriends and I have flown up from Melbourne to spend time with some friends who are now Sydney-based. First stop is a fortifying sandwich at a little streetside cafe on Oxford St, where I spy a piccolo latte for $3 on the coffee menu. I first heard the term "piccolo latte" two weeks ago when a colleague from my Sydney office mentioned it was his drink of choice. Suddenly I'm seeing the term everywhere (although I've yet to order one; it sounds similar to a macchiato. Can anyone offer me more information?)

Letting six women loose along Oxford St makes for an interesting few hours (one person is heard to mutter something about "herding cats") but we manage to loosely stay together and not do too much damage to the credit cards. We freshen up at home and then it's time for cocktails at Blue Sydney at The Wharf at Woolloomooloo. The dark-toned bar is cavernous, with strategically placed low tables, comfortable couches and screens, and old hardware from the days when it was a working wharf is still visible. The cocktail menu is extensive and makes a choice difficult, so we settle for a mixture of sangria, champagne and mojitos. When the bill arrives, we also make the acquaintance of the $12 "service charge", which is applied for "table service" (although this seems a misnomer to me, as customers are steered gently but firmly to tables and I did not see a general bar where drinkers could prop). Perhaps, like the $50 main, this is a Sydney trend that is yet to filter down to Melbourne?

Dinner is at The Pier Restaurant in Rose Bay. It is a delightful setting, with a long, narrow dining room boxed with glass windows on both sides, offering beautiful views over the Harbour. Everyone chooses plump Coffin Bay oysters for entree, which are perfectly sublime with a squeeze of lemon juice. Yellowfin tuna, barramundi and John Dory and some of the options for mains. Most of the table opts for roasted barramundi, although yellowfin tuna also gets a vote. The barramundi's crispy skin contrasts nicely with the soft flesh and is complemented by sweet roasted carrots. Side dishes of salad and divinely creamy mash are wonderful accompaniments.

Although I'm normally a sweet tooth, the four options on the dessert menu leave me cold, especially at $28 per dessert. We order another bottle of Dixons Creek chardonnay and continue our reminiscing about the direction our lives have taken since we graduated from university. We take it in turns to ask the table a question (about joys, achievements and regrets). One question makes everyone think hard. What single possession would you choose to save from your house? Husbands and children are ruled out, as they are not possessions, and it is assumed that you are wearing precious engagement and wedding rings and don't need to save them. To stop everyone from giving the same answer, photos are also deemed inadmissible.

After thinking hard, my choice is my collection of cookbooks and recipe clippings collected over nearly 20 years. It would actually be very difficult to save all of these from a burning house (I would probably need a trailer or trolley to do so!) but, hey, it was a theoretical question. Some of my favourite books, such as The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander and recent titles by Maggie Beer, Gordon Ramsay, Frank Camorra, Bill Granger, Donna Hay, Jamie Oliver and Belinda Jeffrey are all still in print and available, so they could be left behind. But what about my precious scrapbook of recipes clipped from The Age's Epicure section since the early 1990s? Irreplaceable. Epicure once ran a "My Favourite Chocolate Cake" section and I diligently clipped each recipe and snapped up the book version, 50 Fabulous Chocolate Cakes when it was published by Anne O'Donovan in 1995. I can still picture myself in the bookstore in Rathdowne St buying the book, which came with a Gabriel Gate desserts book as a bonus (Not all the chocolate cakes that featured in the newspaper made it to the book, so it was worth my diligence!)

Other cookbooks to go into the save pile are a mixture of the sentimental and the no-longer-available: the metricated version of The Margaret Fulton Cookbook (the first cookbook I was given when I left home); The Cookery The Australian Way (third edition) (which I used in my year eight home economics class); my hand-written recipe book that was a Christmas present in early high school (only my absolutely favourite recipes were ever transcribed in here, but perhaps I would prefer to forget that the first risotto recipe I was given used long-grain rice!); Margaret Fulton's Book of Chocolate Cooking (picked up for $2 from an op shop in the late 1980s and the recipes and photography have stood the test of time); Irish Soups & Breads and the Kilkenny Cookbook (both mementoes from a trip to Ireland a few years ago), the RuffArtz little black book of coffee and cake (an absolute treasure trove of good old-fashioned cakes and slices from country cooks, collected to raise royalties for a small volunteer arts organisation in Ruffy in north-eastern Victoria); my mum's original copy of The Women's Weekly Birthday Cake Book (it contains some of my favourite childhood birthday cakes, which did not make it into the updated edition that I have); and my personally autographed copy of Jill Dupleix's Old Food.

Just like my old friends, these books have stood the test of time and have so much more meaning to me than just a collection of ingredients and methods. As I look at the books, I recall where I bought them, why I bought them and what I made from them. I don't know why some cookbooks occupy a more precious place in our lives than others but I like to think that sometimes it's the memories, as much as the recipes, that is the special glue that bonds me to these cookbooks.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cafe review: Treat

Here is a cafe that is aptly named. Imaginative use of quality ingredients and excellent coffee makes Treat a favourite spot with locals, whether it's sharp-suited buyers' advocates and real estate agents, impeccably attired eastern suburban matrons, or designer-dressed bubs with their yummy mummies.

The outlook is pure urban industrial: a jumble of overhead train and tram cables, straggly trees wrapped around a chain wire fence that barricades the train tracks, and trams and cars jostling through the busy intersection of Malvern and Orrong roads.

But inside is elegant and refined, like much of the clientele. This wedge-shaped corner cafe is filled with light through its floor-to-ceiling windows. Designers have made clever use of the difficult triangular block, with a narrow entry widening out into a serene, inviting space that is busy without being crowded. One wall is lined with a dark brown leather banquette scattered with artsy cushions. Other small tables are grouped around the cafe, with the prize spot being a table-for-two overlooking Beattie Ave and bathed in soft sunlight.

This is a favourite spot for ladies who lunch and the menu caters accordingly. Use of excellent and expensive ingredients, such as yellowfin tuna, Atlantic salmon, ocean trout, smoked duck and zucchini flowers, makes Treat a place where you can indulge yourself with a fine meal during daylight hours.

During the warmer months, elegant salads and lighter dishes predominate on the lunch menu. A salad of crispy-skinned ocean trout fillet with kipflers and a delicate lemon caper sauce errs on the small side but is perfectly pitched to its audience.

For anyone not watching their weight or carb intake, there are more robust dishes on offer. Corned beef might be an old-fashioned ingredient not often seen on menus (although, in the post-GFC world, previously unfashionable cuts of meat are enjoying a resurgence), but here it is sexed up into elegant and satisfying comfort food. Three thick slices of warm corned beef and melted cheese is sandwiched with pickles and Dijon mayonnaise between sourdough bread. Testifying to its popularity, it's migrated from a permanent spot on the specials board to a place on the fixed menu. Another option is the satisfyingly large veal schnitzel roll. A crispy schnitzel and gruyere is folded into a roll, with roasted potatoes, braised soft red cabbage and a little bowl of garlicky mayonnaise on the side.

Sweet treats change daily and might feature a moist pistachio cake or a subtle Masala-laced date and rice pudding that is more of a tart than a pudding. Excellent cafe lattes come adorned with latte art.

If you prefer to be out and about earlier in the day, the breakfast menu also looks welcoming. Brioche French toast, salmon and sweetcorn hotcakes, semolina pancakes, toasted breakfast bagels and an egg white omelette are some of the options that should get your day off to a good start.

Treat, 736 Malvern Road, Armadale

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The disastrous day trip

I've lived half my life in the country and half in the city but I forget how "citified" I've become until a small incident shows that there can still be a gulf between rural and urban life. Let me explain.

For several years, I've hankered to visit Kyneton, a small town in the Macedon Ranges and a comfortable drive from Melbourne. Specifically, I wanted to visit Annie Smithers' Bistro, which kick-started the culinary revolution in Piper St and which this year received its third successive The Age Good Food Guide hat. Since the bistro opened, Piper Street's lovely old bluestone and historic buildings have slowly been revived, with cafes, cake shops, an upmarket pizzeria, a gastropub, homewares stores and a gallery all crammed into a relatively short strip just out of the main centre of an otherwise ordinary Victorian rural town.

Two weeks ago, with some time off work and the children being looked after for the day, Adam and I decided to head to Kyneton for a day trip, with the planned highlight being lunch at Annie Smithers' Bistro. It was only as we drove up to the beautiful old bluestone building that houses the Bistro, which looked suspiciously dark and unoccupied, that it dawned on me that I should have checked the opening hours. Right on cue, Adam asked me "Did you check the opening hours?" And I had to confess that not only had I not checked, but that the thought had not occurred to me. I've become so used to Melbourne's seven-day-a-week culture that I did not stop to think that country towns, especially those that rely on weekend traffic from Melbourne, were likely to have a few days off early in the week. It was a Tuesday and the bistro's opening hours were Wednesday to Sunday.

Not to worry, we consoled ourselves. There were plenty of options in Piper St, as highlighted in the article and photo spread in the September issue of Delicious magazine. But, alas, most of the other options were also closed. Thankfully, Slow Living, at 54 Piper St, was open. It's a lovely, welcoming big open space, with lots of spacious wooden tables and a central counter stocked with a coffee machine and some cakes and biscuits. There's a grassed area to one side that would be perfect on a sunny day, with plenty of space for children to play while the parents relax with food and coffee.

The smallish menu features locally grown and mostly organic food, with several breakfast options and a couple of lunch specials each day. We chose the vegetarian lentil burger, a generously sized pattie bursting with lentils, chickpeas, corn, carrot and some spices. It came on a thick slice of sourdough, with salad and spiced yoghurt to the side. It may be just mind over matter, but there seems to be so much more flavour in organic food. This lentil burger was an excellent meal in its own right and was worth the drive from Melbourne.

To rub salt into our wounds, the cover story in today's Epicure is all about the revival of Piper St and Kyneton, and just reiterated to us how much we want to visit again (probably on a weekend!) and try out some more options. Next time, I will be more organised and will definitely check ahead for opening hours!

Monday, October 19, 2009

The future of food magazines

For a small market, Australia is blessed with some excellent food magazines, so I don't often look offshore for recipes (although The Times and The Guardian newspaper both have excellent food sections on their websites). I was interested to read Jill Dupleix's recent "Table Talk" column in the Sydney Morning Herald on "Has the food magazine had the chop?"

In this article, she noted that Conde Nast recently closed down the 68-year-old food magazine Gourmet, edited by Ruth Reichl. As a fan of Ruth's books, I've looked at their website a few times and once found an inspiring section on Christmas cooking that I kept. As I find the conversions of measurements and ingredients quite time-consuming, I don't often look to US magazines for inspiration, but Gourmet did have an interesting website and it's sad news to hear that it's closing. As Jill noted in her column: "Media pundits say we will never again be able to walk into a newsagent and have such an incredible variety of magazines to choose from. Good news for trees, bad news for those who take their fave foodie mag to bed with them. How will this affect us and where will we get our foodie info, recipes and cheffy restaurant news from in the future?"

"It is sad news indeed that Conde Nast felt there was nothing they could do with Gourmet magazine but fire everyone and cancel the next print run. It would have been wonderful if, instead, they had parlayed a few of the magazine’s great resources - terrific writers, photographers, food stylists - into a new form of online food content. The very fact that they didn’t, is also perhaps one of the reasons for the magazine’s demise - it’s called not quite getting with the programme, not engaging with the new media world, not picking up on new possibilities.

"But there is no doubt the world is changing. These days, we get our recipes, cooking ideas, produce news, food shop info and inspiration from a variety of different sources as well as magazines - effectively editing our own ‘foodie magazine’ to our own taste."

I agree with these excellent points. I love nothing more than settling down with a cup of coffee and the latest glossy food magazine, flicking through and enjoying the lavish photo spreads and planning new menus. I add post-it notes to pages, make lists of dishes I want to try and transfer recipes that get the thumbs-up into my special recipe folder.

But when it comes to finding a recipe quickly, or wanting to find a new recipe to try - perhaps I was given a bag of lemons and need to find new ways to use it up - I search online, rather than through the magazines. I'll usually go to the or the Gourmet Traveller website but so many of their recipes are on their website that you don't have to buy each month's magazine if you don't want to. Still, I don't think anything compares to thumbing through a fresh issue and you certainly can't snuggle up in bed with the website or read it easily on the train.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The gift of food

Slices are wonderful. They are usually easy to prepare, quick to cook and are generally good for feeding large groups. Because slices are generally baked in large slabs, you can stretch them out to accommodate numbers and I find that a small piece of slice is a lot more satisfying than a small biscuit.

Slices can be simple concoctions of a few pantry staple ingredients or elaborate mixtures with a base, filling and icing. When I was growing up, afternoon teas at the local primary school or tennis club always featured several slices, including hedgehog, jelly slice and lemon slice. A good housewife always had several decent slice recipes in her repertoire, and at least one slice in a cake tin in the pantry.

This week at work, we held a morning tea to farewell a colleague off on a six-week European and US holiday. With no sure idea of exact numbers, a slice seemed the safest bet, offering a slice of sweetness to break up the morning workload, without going over the top. One of my favourite cookbooks is Belinda Jeffrey's Mix & Bake, which has a whole chapter devoted to simple slices. Her walnut and caramel bars were the perfect morning tea solution, supplemented by some rich chocolate brownies. Although the brownies disappeared in a flash, the walnut and caramel slice receive rapturous admiration and requests for the recipe. It is extremely simple and incredibly moreish - Belinda writes in her introduction to the recipe that she is "forever trekking to and fro [from the fridge] for just another fine sliver!" Enjoy!

Walnut and caramel bars

160g plain flour
70g caster sugar
120g cool, unsalted butter, cut into small chunks

2 eggs
70g caster sugar
70g brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
200g walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped
Icing sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Butter a 23cm square cake tin and set aside.
For the base, put the flour and sugar into a food processor and whiz together for a few seconds. Add the butter and whiz again until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. It will seem a bit dry but that's OK. Tip the mixture into the prepared tin, shake to level, and then press down firmly on the mixture to form an even layer. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown. Remove from oven and sit it on a wire rack while you make the topping.

For the topping, put the eggs, caster sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract into a large bowl and whisk them together until well combined. In another, smaller bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt, then sift them into the egg mixture. Stir until it is well combined, then mix in the nuts.

Scrape the mixture evenly over the warm base. Return to oven and bake for another 20 minutes or until the topping is brown and firm to the touch. Leave to cool in the tin on a wire rack.

When the slice is cool, cut into fingers or squares in the tin. Dust with icing sugar to serve. Leftover slice can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.

Recipe from Belinda Jeffrey's Mix & Bake.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Where have all the avocados gone?

Where have all the avocados in Seddon gone? If you're having trouble finding any, perhaps it's because they're all being used in what has to be my breakfast dish of the year, the Promite Special at Le Chien cafe.

It's a deceptively simple dish that Adam raved about and I was keen to try. I love my Vegemite but I also have a soft spot for the sweeter, gentler Promite. A generously thick slice of bread is smeared with butter and Promite, then sliced avocado and tomato is jumbled across the top of two gently poached eggs perched on the bread. The combination of eggs and fresh avocado is a winner in my book anyway but the Promite adds a subtle, yeasty caramel note that lifts the dish into the realms of breakfast heaven. This is no small dish either: the kitchen does not skimp on the avocado or tomato and you will feel satisfied for hours afterwards.

We weren't the only ones in love with this dish, as plate after plate of the Promite Special appeared from the kitchen and was placed on almost every occupied table.

The finishing touch here is one of the best coffees in the inner west. Made with the Supreme blend, the long black is sweet and pure, with no need for sugar, while the cafe latte is simply perfect. It's easy to see why Le Chien inspires a strong and loyal following from locals.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Williamstown Farmers' Market

Today was the first day of the new Williamstown Farmers' Market, held at Commonwealth Reserve in Nelson Place. It's a delightful spot for a market, with the pretty buildings of Nelson Place a backdrop on one side, and stunning views across the bay to the CBD skyline.

The old market ceased operating a few years ago but the popularity of farmers' markets around Melbourne continues to grow and so it was exciting to see what produce was on offer. Despite the arrival of spring on the calendar, it was a cool morning, with a few spots of rain. Early risers (the market opens at 8am) found plenty to fill their baskets with.

First stop was the Matisse sourdough bread stall. The range includes a fruit loaf, rye and sunflower seeds, fig and fennel, olive rolls, baguettes and ciabattas, as well as several varieties of home-made dips. A large loaf, generously studded with plump fruit, was the first purchase.

Past the muffin stall, generously stocked with large and mini muffins, the Arctic Fox beer tent and the Robinvale olive oil stand, we came to a stall selling sweet, juicy Pink Ladies, my favourite apple. After tasting a sliver, which was one of the most delicious apples I've ever had, we had to buy a bag. Then to counteract this healthy fruit, we came across a tart stand, with delicious combinations such as gin and lime, double chocolate and lemon curd.

Fresh vegetables, cakes and pastries, curry sauces, free-range eggs and fresh milk from Warrnambool, smallgoods, Boosey Creek cheeses, and pates and terrines were some of the other goodies on offer.

The range of produce was excellent for the inaugural market and I, for one, love to support Victoria's small producers. Many of the stall-holders had travelled long distances from rural Victoria to be at the market and I think we should do all we can to support them. The taste of a fresh apple from a small orchard cannot be compared with the supermarket specimens that spend far too much time in a coolroom.

Williamstown Farmers' Market, Nelson Place, Williamstown (Melway 56 D9).
Second Sunday of each month, 8am to 1pm.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Review: Donna Hay chocolate cookies

Packet mixes of cakes and biscuits are not often a feature in my trolley. I prefer home-made treats where possible, mostly for taste reasons but also because I know exactly what's going into the final product and there's no hidden preservatives or chemicals.

But I admit to a twinge of curiosity when Donna Hay recently launched her own brand of cupcake and cookie mixes. I'm a huge Donna fan and have all her cookbooks. I couldn't imagine her putting her name and brand to any product that wasn't of the highest quality.

Last week, when visiting Andrew's Choice in Yarraville, which is so much more than a butcher's shop and stocks a great range of deli items, my son Daniel found a box of Donna Hay chocolate chunk cookie mix, conveniently placed at exactly his eye level. He was entranced by the enticing picture on the front of the box and no doubt thought he could open the box and find the biscuits inside, waiting to be devoured by a hungry toddler.

So, in the interests of research, the cookie mix came home with us and we baked the biscuits. Making biscuits is not a hugely time-consuming exercise at the best of times, but mixing up the biscuits was so fast that the 12-minute cooking time felt like an eternity. We provided 80g of soft butter and a melted egg, and the box provided the cookie mix and a generous bag of dark chocolate buttons.

The raw dough tasted as good as anything else I've made and the final product was delicious - one of the best chocolate chip cookies I've eaten. In fact, it tasted exactly like the Donna Hay chocolate cookies that I make from her cookbooks. Checking the ingredients list, I discovered that the mix contains wheat flour, brown sugar, natural vanilla flavour and raising agents 450 and 500. There are no added artificial colours or preservatives.

The verdict? This product gets a huge thumbs-up. Most people would not be able to pick that the biscuits originate from a box and it certainly does save time in the kitchen. The only slight downside is the price: on the Donna Hay website, they are listed at $14.95 (although currently on special at a more reasonable $8.95). I know choc bits and other baking goods have recently increased in price but $15 seems quite steep for a box of biscuits - I don't think it would cost that much to make a batch from scratch.

But that is a minor quibble - chocolate chip cookies are a treat, rather than an everyday indulgence anyway. As Donna says on the box, these biscuits is "as good as baking from scratch, only foolproof." I'll definitely use this product again.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Baking with toddlers

Being surrounded by fresh food and a busy kitchen from a young age is surely one of the key ingredients to becoming a cook. If you see cooking being done on a regular basis, see how easy it can be to transform simple ingredients into delicious meals, and learn that food comes from pots and pans rather than cardboard boxes or tin foil containers, that will surely teach you more about how to eat well (in season, in moderation etc) than heavy-handed nanny state messages about X food bad, Y food good.

I come from a family of excellent home cooks but I don't remember the message ever being rammed down my throat that I must learn to cook and like it. Cooking was a life skill that you acquired, along with other skills necessary to function in life, and it was a bonus that I enjoyed it. Cookbooks were in the house, recipes were clipped from magazines and we were encouraged to try our hand in the kitchen, no matter how much of a mess we made or how many mistakes happened. There's nothing wrong with making mistakes in the kitchen, as long as you learn from them. You'll only forget to grease a cake tin once; the resulting mess, and disappointment, as you try to scrape out a cake glued to the tin will stay with you and ensure you don't forget again.

My son Daniel is almost three-and-a-half and he loves helping in the kitchen. Measuring, mixing and scraping (and, of course, tasting!) are all things he can easily do to help and he gets a real buzz out of seeing how a runny mixture can be transformed into a delicious cake or biscuits (although he's not so keen on the wait involved!)

This week we decided to make "gingie men" (gingerbread biscuits). I've got dozens of recipes but this dough is easy to mix up and there's no need for it to relax in the fridge, so this is a simple recipe for rainy days or when the demand for biscuits needs to be met quickly! It's based on a recipe from Notebook magazine. You can ice your biscuits or decorate them with currants to make them fancy, but I don't usually bother.

"Gingie men"

125g butter, softened
100g brown sugar
125ml golden syrup
1 egg yolk
375g plain flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 ground cloves

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Line two oven trays with baking paper. Use an electric mixer to beat the butter, sugar and golden syrup together until pale and creamy. Add the egg yolk and beat until just combined. Add the sifted flour and spices and use a wooden spoon to stir the mixture until it's just combined. Tip out onto a lightly floured bench and use your hands to knead the dough until smooth.

Divide the dough into two portions. Put one portion aside and roll out the other portion to about 5mm thick. Cut into shapes using biscuit cutters and bake for 10-12 minutes or until lightly golden. Transfer from trays to a wire rack and cool.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On the cusp

The season is starting to turn. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the days are lengthening. Work days don't start and end in inky blackness, with daylight glimpsed through office windows but gone before you get home to enjoy it.

There is a hint of warmth in the breeze and the sun is starting to get some spirit into its rays. Bulbs are popping up in the garden, with splashes of purple and yellow enlivening the grey winter soil. Soon my kitchen will be full of spring greens and lighter, simpler meals will be on the menu. I'm especially looking forward to the arrival of asparagus.

In the meantime, the nights are still cold. The unpredictable Melbourne weather means that a warm spring-like day will be followed by one of rain and biting wind, so warming, soothing soups and stews are still welcome at this time of year. While they are a heavy meal, stews are simple to make and most require only copious amounts of time, bubbling away on the stove, or cooking gently in the oven, to turn them into a meal to warm you up from the inside.

So there's still time to make some stews before putting away the stockpot. I have quite a collection of favourites but I'm always finding new recipes to add to my repertoire.

One of my favourite non-food magazines is Notebook magazine. It has an excellent food section each month but it also has very interesting, thought-provoking articles that go beyond the usual fluff about celebrities, make-overs or diets, and give you pause to reflect on relevant issues affecting us, whether it's the environment, managing finances or reading about strong, intelligent women.

The June issue featured a delicious-looking French lamb and cannelini bean casserole with rosemary dumplings. Just the title was enough to catch my interest and it was certainly worth making. The dumplings are cooked at the end, without a lid, and get a pleasant crispy crunch to them. I've adjusted the liquids from the original recipe, as I prefer my stews quite thick, and this one had a thin sauce. If you make only one more stew this winter, make this one.

French lamb and cannelini bean casserole with rosemary dumplings
Adapted from a recipe in Notebook magazine, June 2009 issue

1 tablespoon olive oil
500g lamb shoulder, cut into 3cm pieces
12 baby pickling onions, peeled
2 carrots, peeled, thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced
1/2 cup (125ml) white wine
1 cup (250ml) beef stock
1 bouquet garni
1 rosemary stalk
400g can cannelini beans, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 cups self-raising flour
30g butter
2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary
3/4 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees. Heat half the oil in a large, flameproof casserole pan over high heat. Cook the lamb in batches until brown all over, then transfer to a bowl.

Add the remaining oil to the pan over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until the onions are golden brown. Add the lamb, wine, beef stock, bouquet garni and rosemary. Remove from heat and bake in preheated oven, covered, for 1 1/2 hours, or until lamb is tender. Add the cannelini beans and stir to combine. Increase the oven temperature to 200 degrees.

Meanwhile, to make the dumplings, place the flour in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Use your fingertips to run the butter into the flour. Add the rosemary and stir to combine. Add the milk and use a round-bladed knife to stir until mixture just comes together.

Remove the casserole from the oven. Spoon tablespoons of dumpling mixture over the top. Bake in oven, uncovered, for 15 minutes or until dumplings are golden brown and cooked through. Serve with steamed green beans.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Magazine month

I eagerly anticipate the publication of new food magazines each month. Our small market in Australia is quite spoiled for choice, with several excellent local food magazines to choose from, with a wide range of recipes and wonderful photography. The Internet has also made it easy to access recipes from food magazines and writers around the world and my bulging shoebox file is testament to the fact that you can never have too many recipes!

Too often, though, I find myself eagerly marking up a new issue with recipes to try and then never finding the time to make my choices before the next issue arrives. So I recently made a concerted effort with Gourmet Traveller's June issue, which featured a decadent triple chocolate praline tart on the front cover (sadly, one recipe I haven't yet made from the list).

Flicking through, I found myself marking recipe after recipe to try: white bean veloute, chocolate sour cherry cake, braised lamb neck moussaka and tarka dal, from the "Fare Exchange" section (which features readers' requests for recipes from restaurants around the country). The "quick meals" section yielded scotch fillet with mash and rosemary butter, prawns with tomato, preserved lemon and couscous, char-grilled chicken with warm cabbage and celeriac salad (tick, tick and tick - all to be made again). There was a whole feature on pumpkin dishes (the pumpkin with speck and apple was particularly delicious with smoky cheese kranskys) and the "Nice as Pie" article featured both sweet and savoury pies. The brisket and Cheddar pie with sour cream pastry might have taken nearly a whole day to make but it was the best damn pie I've ever eaten in my life and worth every second of the preparation time. To top it all off, there were seven of the richest, decadent chocolate recipes I've ever seen and all will be made in the next few months.

Not only were all the dishes that I made from this issue worthy of a repeat, there was also a satisfying feeling to finally making good use of an issue, rather than just reading it and filing it away for future drooling sessions.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Nibbles: Carman's Muesli Bites

Hot on the heels of the recently released Carman's Rounds, Carman's has now released Muesli Bites, snack-sized little muesli bars that contain less than 100 calories per serve.

Available in fruit muesli or apricot muesli, the bites are GM-free and contain no preservatives. Unlike the Rounds, which had a biscuit-like texture and are marketed as a breakfast replacement, these Bites taste just like Carman's muesli. They are not too sweet and are a reasonably filling snack. The small size makes them easy to tuck into handbags or backpacks.

Carman's is an Australian-owned company, with the factory based in Melbourne, and no preservatives, genetically modified ingredients or artificial colours or flavours are used in their products.

Carman's Muesli Bites are available from all major supermarkets.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Nosh @ Newport: wine degustation dinner

A tiny kitchen is no limit to the imagination of great chefs. This was proved at the inaugural Nosh @ Newport wine dinner where chef David Azzopardi sent out seven tasting plates matched to wines from Red Hill Estate on the Mornington Peninsula.

Nosh is primarily a daytime cafe, serving excellent coffee and food to cafe-starved locals, who have flocked there since it opened in 2007. It's particularly popular with local mums and bubs because of its relaxed ambiance and healthy children's menu that offers no fried food.

Nosh now opens on Friday nights, where Azzopardi, who has cooked upstairs at the Stokehouse and at Ezard's, is given more of a chance to strut his dining stuff. The inaugural wine dinner was also a chance for him to display his talent. Forty people gathered at Nosh to eat Azzopardi's food and hear Red Hill Estate winemaker Michael Kyberd discuss the wines.

Dinner started with a glass of blanc de blancs, a dry aperitif wine, matched with a chestnut soup drizzled with truffle oil. Despite the soup's rich flavouring, it was quite a light broth and this married well with the dry wine, as there was no strong contrast between the two to produce disharmony on the palate.

Next were half-shelled scallops on baba ghanoush with parsley, pine nut and preserved lemon salad, matched with a pinot grigio. The wine was sweet at first sip but then dry, with no aftertaste. It was balanced perfectly by the smoky ghanoush and juicy scallops.

A glass of buttery, full-bodied chardonnay was paired with ocean trout on sauteed kipflers, cherry tomatoes, broad beans and lemon butter sauce. This was a strong dish but the flavours of both food and wine were of equal intensity. The lemon butter sauce highlighted citrus notes in the chardonnay.

Then it was time to move onto reds. In a classic pairing, confit duck leg with marinated beetroot and watercress was matched with pinot noir. The pinot's ripe cherry taste subtly counterbalanced the saltiness of the duck. If the trout and chardonnay were examples of flavours that bridge each other, this match was an example of flavours that complement each other.

A pink grapefruit granita was served as a palate cleanser before the next dish, which was voted by the audience as the dish of the night. Beef braised in black vinegar with coconut rice, broccolini, hot and sour salad and crispy garlic was an amazing dish in its own right but even more so when paired with a full-bodied shiraz. The tender melt fell apart at the touch of a fork and the coconut rice was sublime. The shiraz stood up well to these strong flavours and its slight sweetness was balanced by the savoury dish.

A very runny, salty soft brie, from Locheilan Kaarimba, was matched with botrytis semillon. On paper, it might sound like a strange combination, but the saltiness of the cheese was well balanced by the sweet, sultana-like wine.

The final pairing of the night was liqueur muscat, made with grapes from Rutherglen, matched with a rich chocolate fondant with orange semifreddo and honeycomb. Winemaker Michael Kyberd explained that, when matching desserts, the wine needs to be sweeter than the dessert or the wine's flavours will disappear. This dish was a good example of that.

Judging by the happy patrons spilling out onto the street, Nosh @ Newport's inaugural wine dinner was a success and many are eagerly looking forward to the next one.