Monday, March 30, 2009

Honey, why does the kitchen smell like a brewery?

The moment I laid eyes on the recipe called "Whisky-soaked dark chocolate bundt cake" on my new favourite food blog, Orangette, I knew I had to make it. The combination of whisky, chocolate and coffee was a siren call to my soul. I have a million chocolate cake recipes and a good number of those also include the combination of chocolate and coffee. But to find a recipe that combines the seductiveness of dark chocolate, the gentle jolt from caffeine and a sly nudge and wink from the alcohol ... well, it was begging to be baked.

But what's this? A cup of whisky? This was a serious, grown-up cake, not like the namby-pamby versions I've made before, with a tablespoon or two of alcohol to give a gentle kick in the aftertaste.

So I baked it. And we loved it. (In fact, the toddlers from my mothers' group would have cheerfully polished off slices if we let them!)

The smell of whisky permeated the kitchen when I was mixing the cake; the alcoholic fumes smelt stronger as the cake baked, making the house smell like a brewery. I was surprised at just how intense the whisky smell was but perhaps that's because I used Jack Daniels, which was all we had in the cupboard. Molly from Orangette suggests that you use something that you like to drink on its own, as the alcoholic flavour is the focus of the cake. I don't think I would attempt to drink Jack Daniels straight, but it nevertheless baked into a flavoursome cake. It is best to bake the cake the day before you plan to eat it, as the intense alcohol flavour softens and mellows, producing a dense, fudgy cake that doesn't punch you in the face with its intensity.

As an aside, how gloriously sexy are Bundt tins? They are the little black dress of the cake world, making even the plainest butter cake look impossibly glamorous. Although Bundt tins are more suited to a rich, intense coffee or walnut cake than a butter cake, the fluted ridges and gentle curves from a Bundt tin make cakes look extra special, far more than if they're baked in a round, or even a ring, tin.

Here is Molly's recipe, which she adapted from The New York Times, and which I've "Australianised".

Whisky-soaked dark chocolate bundt cake
(adapted from Orangette)

250g (8 oz) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pan
2 cups plain flour, plus more for the pan
150g (5 oz) bitter dark chocolate
¼ cup instant coffee powder
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup bourbon, rye, or other whisky, plus more for sprinkling
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
Icing sugar, for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 170°C. Grease and flour a 10-cup-capacity Bundt pan (or two 8- or 9-inch loaf pans).

Melt the chocolate (either in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, or in the microwave oven) and let cool.

Put instant coffee and cocoa powders in a 2-cup (or larger) glass measuring cup. Add enough boiling water to come up to the 1 cup measuring line. Stir until the powders dissolve. Add the whisky and salt. Let cool.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter until fluffy and pale. Add the sugar slowly, and beat until well combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract, baking powder and melted chocolate, scraping down the sides of the bowl as you go.

With the mixer on low speed, beat in a third of the whisky mixture. When liquid is absorbed, beat in 1 cup flour. Repeat additions, ending with the whisky mixture. It may seem like there is too much liquid, but don’t worry; it’s okay. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and smooth the top. Bake about 1 hour and 10 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean (loaf tins will take less time; start checking them after about 55 minutes).

Transfer the cake, still in its pan, to a rack. Unmould after 15 minutes and sprinkle the warm cake with more whisky. The easiest way to do this is to pour some whisky into a spoon and shake it over the cake.

Cool completely before serving, garnished with icing sugar, if you like.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Daring Bakers challenge: Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna

With spring just launched in the northern hemisphere, and autumn descending in the southern hemisphere, the March challenge is a rich dish that should be suitable fare for Daring Bakers around the world, regardless of the season.

After being a Daring Baker for nearly 12 months, I was excited to be invited by Mary from Beans and Caviar and Enza of Io da Grande to be a co-host for this challenge, which has global input as we live in three continents: Mary in Canada, Enza in Italy and me in Australia.

The recipe we chose for this month is Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (published by William Morrow and Company Inc., 1992). Lasagne is a dish that has successfully transcended borders and is today made around the world, albeit with many variations from the Italian original. Even within Italy, there are many variations and each region has its own lasagne tradition. But, as Lynne explains in her introduction to the recipe – and Enza, as our Italian expert for this dish, also agrees - the dish should always be a “vivid expression of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of cooking. Mere films of béchamel sauce and meat ragu coat the sheerest spinach pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dusts each layer. There is nothing more; no ricotta, no piling on of meats, vegetables or cheese; little tomato, and no hot spice. Baking performs the final marriage of flavours. The results are splendid.”

Before detailing the recipes, I would like to say a huge "thank-you" to Mary and Enza, particularly Mary for her guidance and willingness to experiment with alternatives (eg gluten-free or sweet lasagne) and Enza for her Italian expertise, and both for their diligence and patience in answering the many questions on the Daring Bakers forum. I would also like to thank Lynne for granting us permission to use her recipe.

Our requirement was that Daring Bakers should hand-make their own pasta, which was the main challenge for the month. Although we included Lynne's recipes for béchamel sauce and a meat ragu, participants were free to choose their own recipes, particularly if they had dietary requirements or didn’t eat meat.

To make the lasagna sheets, which were flavoured with spinach, plain flour was mounded onto a bench, with a well in the centre. I put the eggs and finely chopped spinach into this well and slowly mixed the ingredients to a rough, messy dough. I found it too dry, however, and needed to add about half a cup of water to make it malleable and kneadable. Lynne noted that the dough should "feel alive under your hands" as you kneaded it. Initially, my dough felt pretty lifeless and I worried that the water had altered the dough's properties but I kept kneading and it eventually felt correct.

Lynne included helpful, detailed notes about how to hand-roll the pasta but I confess that I didn’t follow them that closely. I used a long, thin, wooden rolling pin but I didn't turn the dough in precise quarter-turns as Lynne specified - I just kept turning it as needed to make sure it was rolling out evenly. The main specification was that the lasagna sheet should be so thin that you could clearly see your hand through it. Co-host Enza, our Italian expert for this dish, said that transparency is a crucial element of lasagna pasta, which is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

I rolled my pasta as thin as I could but I was pressed for time and probably wasn’t as fastidious about it as I should have been. My squares were rough-cut and didn’t have neat edges but, after cooking, I cut them to fit the dish, with no discernible side-effects. Rather than drying the pasta, I used it fresh and cooked it about 15 minutes after I made it.

Lynne’s recipe for country ragu looked divine but also very time-consuming. It involved hand-mincing your own meat and I just didn’t have the time to do this. So I used Stephanie Alexander’s bolognaise sauce from The Cook’s Companion and was extremely happy with the result. (I’ve recently revamped my bolognaise sauce method to ensure that the sauce cooks for at least an hour, preferably longer, as I’ve found long, slow cooking yields a deep, rich texture that belies the easiness of the preparation). I also used my own béchamel sauce recipe, which seems to be a universal one, as both Stephanie’s and Lynne’s versions were practically identical

As I finally put the lasagna into the oven to finish cooking, I breathed a sigh of relief and sat down for a rest. As much as I love lasagna, it is a time-consuming dish to put together (about 15 minutes on the béchamel; about 20 minutes to put together the meat sauce, although it needs to be watched while it cooks for an hour; about 30 minutes or so to prepare the lasagna sheets, not including resting time; and then 40 minutes in the oven to cook the assembled lasagna) and I decided that it would be easier in future to continue using commercial dry lasagna sheets because of the time-saving and the convenience.

But then we tasted the finished product and I changed my mind! This was a special dish. The lasagna sheets had a depth of flavour and texture not apparent in commercial dry pasta. Despite my haphazard rolling and cutting, the pasta was a success. It wasn’t too heavy or gluggy. The spinach gave the final dish an extra flavour dimension, which paired beautifully with the rich, sweet meat sauce. Adam, who has sampled many a fine lasagna in his time, declared it the best lasagna I’d ever made: “this is four-and-a-half stars [out of five] and possibly even five,” he said. I agree and I think I’ll make this dish again, although I’ll make sure I put aside an afternoon to do it.

I've included below the recipes that I used for this lasagne; Lynne's entire recipe, plus some gluten-free alternatives, is on the Beans and Caviar blog.

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)

(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (see Beans and Caviar for Lynne's recipe; I've included my meat bolognese sauce recipe below)
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (see Beans and Caviar for Lynne's recipe; I've included my recipe below)
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano


Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the centre is hot.
Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

My note: I found that my lasagne was quite solid but I think that's because I used a different meat sauce. I also didn't cover the top with foil, as I quite like a golden-brown crispy top on my lasagne.

Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)
(from Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table)

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:

A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the centre and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the centre of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the centre of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

Bolognese sauce
From The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander

1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
400g minced beef (or veal)
100g pancetta or smoked streaky bacon, chopped
2 teaspoons plain flour
1/2 cup dry white wine
freshly ground black pepper
freshy grated nutmeg
2 cups veal or chicken stock, or tomato juice
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or 1 x 400g can peeled tomatoes in juice, pureed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 large sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
Saute onion, celery and garlic in oil in a large saucepan until softened. Add minced meat and pancetta and fry until meat breaks up into small lumps. Sprinkle in flour, then stir well. Add wine, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Mix well, then increase heat and boil to evaporate liquid. Add stock, tomatoes, tomato paste and herbs. Reduce heat again and simmer for 1 hour, stirring from time to time. Taste for seasoning.

Bechamel sauce
(This is my recipe but is virtually identical to Stephanie Alexander's and Lynne Rossetto Kasper's recipes)

60g butter
60g plain flour
600ml milk
white pepper
freshly grated nutmeg

Heat milk to scalding point and set aside. Melt butter in a saucepan and stir in flour. Cook, stirring, until you have a smooth golden paste. Gradually work in the hot milk and stir until the sauce thickens and is very smooth. Continue stirring until the sauce boils, then cook for a further 10 minutes on a very gentle heat. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Da Grande. We have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The best-ever recipes

The Observer Food Monthly recently celebrated the joy of the recipe by compiling a list of favourite and cherished recipes. As editor Nigel Slater observed, recipes "are there to whet our appetite, inspire the regular cook, spread the word of something we want others to know about, to instil confidence in the inexperienced, to remind the reader of a forgotten and much-loved dish, and to preserve the classic dishes in an instantly recognisable form."

Inspired by Nigel, my favourite food writer Jill Dupleix started compiling her own list on her Sydney Morning Herald blog: "I love recipes. I love reading them, cooking from them, and writing them. Every time I cook from a new recipe, I can tell so much about the person who put it together - how much they know, how much they care, whether they are trying to be helpful, or clever." she wrote.

"Some recipes are mystifying in their simplicity, others in their complexity. And I know I am not alone in hating recipes that list as ingredients other recipes, with a note to ‘see page 25’ for something you can’t proceed without making from scratch."

I found it a hugely difficult task to compile my own list. There's many meals I cook that I don't use a recipe for, such as roast chicken (or beef or lamb), spaghetti bolognaise, lasagna, or a basic risotto. Or the dishes made from recipes that my grandmother and mother have handed down to me: beef casserole with parsley dumplings, chocolate pudding, golden syrup dumplings, shortbread, Christmas fruit mince tarts.

Although it was difficult, it was also an interesting task to consider what makes a recipe cross over from the "must try" pile to become part of the treasured repertoire of repeats. Is it that the pairing of the ingredients made my tastebuds swoon? Is it that the elegance of the final product belies the simplicity of the technique?

Jill offered a clue: "The very best recipes are those that leave you with something, that introduce you to a new little tip or technique or ingredient that you can use time and time again."

When I put together my list, it was no surprise that my favourite cooks, Jill Dupleix, Bill Granger and Donna Hay, dominated. I love the simplicity and freshness of their cooking and many of their recipes do instantly enter my repertoire.

Here's my initial list, in alphabetical order. There would be so many more but these are the ones that spring to mind.

Abruzzo lentil soup (Jill Dupleix) - on the menu at least once a week in winter
Beef stroganoff with buttered noodles (Bill Granger) - this replaced by previous favourite by Margaret Fulton - the addition of Dijon mustard gives it an extra flavour boost
Buttermilk pancakes (Stephanie Alexander) - the only recipe to use for Shrove Tuesday (or a special breakfast)
Caramel salmon (Bill Granger) - on the menu at least once a week
Chicken bastilla (adapted from a Jill Dupleix recipe) - great dinner party stand-by, especially served with a Moroccan carrot salad
Corn chowder (Beverley Sutherland Smith) - rich and thick, this is a perfect winter soup
Italian walnut and coffee cake (from Gourmet Traveller) - an excellent cake to serve for afternoon tea or dessert
Garlic beef with spiced couscous (Donna Hay) - a great weeknight meal
Lemon cake (Beverley Sutherland Smith) - I've been making this one since I first discovered it in Epicure about 15 years ago. Light and moist, this has a sugary lemon syrup poured over the top
Lemon cake (Donna Hay magazine, issue 5, published 2002) - when I want a tangy, buttery cake, this is the one I go for, as it's topped off with lemon butter icing
Lemon delicious (Stephanie Alexander) - Adam would eat this every day if he could!
Meatloaf (adapted from a Jill Dupleix recipe) - great comfort food in winter
One-pot chocolate cake (Allan Campion and Michele Curtis) - the latest addition to my repertoire - this recipe was worth the price of the cookbook alone!
Parmesan-crusted chicken (Donna Hay) - perfect weeknight meal
Perfect scrambled eggs (Bill Granger) - no more needs to be said - these are simply the best
Salt and five-spice chicken (Donna Hay) - addictively salty and on the table in 20 minutes
Soy chicken with pickled ginger soba noodles (Delicious magazine, June 2005) - a really light, healthy delicious meal
The ultimate chocolate chip cookie (from a Nestle advertisement) The name is justified, with the addition of a secret ingredient that means no-one can ever stop at just one
Tortellini with tuna and peas (adapted from a Jill Dupleix recipe) - perfect weeknight meal that I've adapted and refined over the years. Can be put together in 12 minutes - the time it takes the tortellini to cook

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the aftermath of the bushfires

Today I had a chicken salad sandwich for lunch. It was the simplest sandwich imaginable - some chicken loaf and salad vegetables squashed between two slices of fresh white bread - but it was significant, because this sandwich came from a shop in Kinglake.

Kinglake and Marysville were two of the towns hardest hit by the horrific bushfires of Black Saturday, 7 February that swept across large parts of Victoria. Kinglake suffered widespread property losses and at least 45 people were killed by the inferno that raged through. Roads into the area were only re-opened two weeks ago and, since then, people have been urged to visit these towns to help support local businesses (but to also show respect for the locals who have suffered such a terrible tragedy).

We did not initially plan to visit Kinglake, as I felt uneasy about intruding into a town where the grief is still so raw. But Adam and his friend Michael undertook a gruelling bike ride from Newport to St Andrews and, when Michael's wife Angela and I arrived with the children for an early lunch, we decided it would be better to spend our money supporting Kinglake.

Images of burnt-out homes and charred forest were broadcast and published everywhere in the aftermath of Black Saturday but it is still far more confronting to witness the devastation in real life. St Andrews is less than 10km from Kinglake but the scenery was from another world. A narrow road twists around the hills, offering sweeping views over the nearby valleys. I've never travelled this road before and imagine that it would have offered heart-stoppingly beautiful views. Now, however, it looks like Armageddon, with the hills covered in rows of thin black trees that look like stubble protruding up from a giant head. The road signs are dazzlingly shiny and new and bright white fence posts steer motorists away from the unstable edges of the road. A couple of the old road signs, melted and jagged, stand testament to the intense heat.

Kinglake itself was surprisingly busy, with many motorcyclists and cyclists thronging in the main street. The bakery was extremely busy and we stopped at another cafe, which reopened today for the first time since the fires. The sandwiches were simple fare but we were glad to have them and the volunteer staff were pleased to have customers to serve. We sat outside to eat and pondered the unpredictability of bushfires: just a few metres across the street was the burnt-out petrol station, now a pile of twisted metal and grey rubble.

Rather than going back to St Andrews, we headed out of Kinglake, through Kinglake West and into Whittlesea. The devastation continued along this road. Solid homes have been reduced to small piles of ashes, rubble, blackened bricks and twisted corrugated iron. Amid the scorched earth and black trees are paddocks of green grass, which looks shockingly bright amidst the barrenness. Many of the trees still have their leaves, which are an almost autumnal shade of red-brown, until up close you can see that they are crackly-dry.

The scars of 7 February will take a long time to heal - if they ever do fully heal - but one of the best things to happen in the aftermath of the fires was the way the community rallied to help towns such as Kinglake and Marysville. I hope we will continue to help them as they rebuild.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Look what the postman brought

A pleasant surprise awaited me when I went to the letterbox today: the latest issue of Delicious magazine. I wasn't expecting any of my food magazine subscriptions to arrive until next week but I'm definitely not going to complain about an early arrival.

I find nothing more relaxing and inspiring than flicking through the latest issue of a food magazine, particularly if the seasons are turning. These glossy magazines are called food porn for a reason and nothing must disturb my hit. The phone is off, the children are asleep, the house is quiet, my cafe latte is hot and fresh from the coffee machine ... and so I can sit and plan new menus for hours.

I read food magazines as if they're novels, carefully reading each recipe and its ingredients, noting whether I've got everything in the cupboard or need to add items to the shopping list. As I read, I run through the recipe steps in my head and decide whether the recipe is going to be a cinch to pull together or whether it will require time and effort. Some recipes are put into the "easy weeknight meal" category, while others are put aside for special occasions or for when I feel like baking on a rainy day.

So autumn is here and fresh salads and cold desserts are giving way to steaming bowls of soup or stew and luscious hot puddings. Much as I love warm weather, I don't find summer an inspiring season for cooking or baking. All I feel like eating in summer is a crisp salad, thrown together with a minimum of fuss, or a juicy peach or fresh raspberries for dessert. The cooler weather is so much more conducive to spending time in the kitchen. And there's plenty of dishes from the latest Delicious magazine that are already on my list to try, including a gorgeous-looking hot cross tea cake, a warm mushroom tart and blue cheese and pecan scones. I can't wait to get back into the kitchen.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A sweet pleasure

One of the best ways to learn about fruit and vegetables is to grow your own. Each season, I enjoy choosing what to grow, nurturing the seedlings and eagerly anticipating when the first crop will be ready for picking and tasting. There's something so satisfying about wandering out to the vegetable patch and being able to pluck some parsley for a garnish, snip off a few lettuce leaves to make a fresh salad, or using your own passionfruit to flavour a sponge.

Growing your own also allows you to enjoy fresh produce at the height of its season, which is one of life's great pleasures. I'd love to be able to eat my favourite fruit and vegetables year-round but most of the enjoyment comes from the fact that the joy of fresh, seasonal produce is so fleeting. The range of produce stocked in supermarkets could fool you into thinking that there's no such thing as seasons anymore, although the watery, joyless taste of out-of-season or imported produce will convince you that it's best to wait until the local season is underway. Understanding and working with the seasons is a good lesson for life in general; I don't think I would enjoy raspberries quite so much if I could eat them every day.

As children, my sisters and I were allowed to choose something to grow ourselves. I always chose sweetcorn and radishes. I loved watching the corn climb against the trellis and the little ears of corn swell into plump cobs. And I loved pulling out clumps of bright red radishes, washing them under the tap and then eating them, although I also loved the little radish flowers that mum made to garnish our salads.

Our little herb and vegetable garden has suffered terribly during this summer's scorching weather. But thankfully my local greengrocer has a great range of fabulous fresh fruit and vegetables and this has come to our rescue. Even though I'm no longer growing my own sweetcorn, it remains one of my favourite things to eat: I can't think of anything more delicious than a cob of sweet and juicy corn, freshly picked, lightly cooked and smothered in melting butter.

Home-grown corn is the best you can have, as sweetcorn begins to deteriorate from the moment it's picked. But my local greengrocer has a good fresh range and it's an acceptable substitute. I've always eaten my corn fairly simply - either lightly boiled and smothered in butter, in a rich corn chowder soup, or perhaps mixed with bacon to make simple fritters. But now, thanks to Molly from Orangette., I've discovered a wonderful, sublimely simple way to enjoy corn and I've been cooking it non-stop since I first tasted it.

Molly has been blogging at Orangette for quite a few years now (and actually has just released a book) but I've only just discovered her wonderful blog, which is very inspiring and impressive in both her descriptions and photos of food. Molly featured this burnt butter corn recipe in 2007, which is based on a recipe from The New York Times. It's barely a recipe, however, but more of an idea: corns kernels, freshly shaved from a cob, are cooked in nutty melted butter with some lemon thyme and salt, and then scattered with fresh parsley. The corn is sweet and nutty and the herbs and salt add an extra dimension of flavour. I've adapted this recipe to Australian tastes.

Brown Buttered Corn

Adapted from a recipe featured on Orangette, 17 September 2007

3 cobs of corn, shucked
3 tablespoons butter, preferably unsalted
4 sprigs thyme, preferably lemon thyme
Finely chopped parsley, for serving

Stand each corn cob vertically on a chopping board and run a large knife down to remove the kernels (or use a shallow wooden or plastic bowl, as the kernels are likely to spray all over the bench, and this will help contain them). Use the back of the knife to scrape the bare cob and release the juices. Set kernels and juices aside.

Melt the butter in a frypan over medium heat. Add the thyme sprigs and cook, stirring frequently, under the butter turns a deep amber shade and smells nutty. Add the kernels, juices and a large pinch of salt and stir well. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for about five minutes, or until the corn is tender. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs, season to taste with salt, scatter over parsley and serve.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How do you take your coffee?

The coffee revolution has not yet begun, according to international coffee expert Stephen Hurst.

Mr Hurst, the founder of specialty coffee company Mercanta The Coffee Hunters, says the future for coffee lies in developing a premium market and highlighting the characteristics of different coffee beans in a way similar to wine.

Even water has been marketed in terms of different flavour characteristics and a premium water market has emerged, he said.

"It's amazing that coffee has not been differentiated in a premium way yet," Mr Hurst told a gathering of coffee lovers at Melbourne caffeine temple St Ali.

"The future will be in flavour discovery: single estate and single varietals of coffee beans."

Despite Melbourne's strong coffee culture, he said coffee lovers often remained uninformed on the origins of the coffee served and how it was selected by suppliers. And the concept of single estate, or single origin specialty coffee, rather than industrial blends, is also new to Australia, he said.

Mr Hurst said the existence of futures markets for coffee has "commoditised" the product and there is a false assumption that coffee is "generic", as if every bag from a single origin or country somehow tastes the same. He said good coffee needed to start from a good basis and that was with the green beans.

"The quality of the coffee is in the beans. Everyone has their own idea of what a specialty coffee is but if you roast good beans well and serve it well, that's specialty coffee," he said.

Mr Hurst founded his company Mercanta The Coffee Hunters in 1996 and supplies fine coffees to specialty coffee roasters around the world. He is also involved with the Cup of Excellence, a competition that selects the very best coffee produced in a particular country each year.

Contrary to popular business wisdom, Mr Hurst believes that the customer is not king when it comes to choosing the best coffee.

"Customers don't have the tools to make a good choice." he said.

"They ask for coffee that they've read about or heard about. There's a lot of things about coffee that are not understood. The baristas should be advising clients what to buy."

Mr Hurst said that fine quality coffee does cost more and acknowledged that it would be difficult to sell more expensive coffee, especially given the current economic climate.

This, to me, was one of the most interesting points of the night and got me thinking about our relationship with coffee: why do we drink it? For some people, it's because of addiction and they need a caffeine hit to start the day. For others, drinking coffee is a social thing to do, a pleasant way to pass the time or something to do while conducting a meeting or catching up with friends. Others enjoy going to new cafes and sampling different coffees.

We're fortunate in Melbourne because we have a strong coffee and cafe culture. In general, Melburnians are quite knowledgeable about coffee and we're fortunate that it's not hard to find excellent coffee. People are quite particular about their favourite type, whether it's a skinny latte or a macchiato, and more dedicated caffeine fiends have favourite cafes, and even favourite baristas.

But coffee is also a drink that's often consumed on the go, in take-away cups, or slurped down in a hurry before catching a train or rushing to the next meeting. It's not always savoured in the same way a glass of fine wine might be.

Is there a market in Melbourne for more expensive coffee? Would the average punter, despite our good coffee knowledge, be able to discern the difference between their usual flat white and one that's made with a single origin coffee bean? If you can get a good cup of coffee for $3, are you likely to pay $6 or $8 for a coffee that uses so-called superior beans?

I love my coffee, and I've learnt a lot about it through studying a barista course and reviewing for the Melbourne Coffee Guide. But I'm not sure that I would be persuaded to pay double the price for a coffee made with single origin beans - and definitely not for every cup of coffee I consume. I haven't yet tasted any coffee made from these specialty beans, and I may change my mind once I do so - perhaps it really is obviously superior to the blends currently offered. I agree that you often pay a price for a premium product but do we want to be drinking premium beans every time we grab a coffee? It's like drinking Grange at every meal.

There's also so much more that goes into a coffee than just the beans - the machine, the temperature, the milk and especially the barista can all make a difference. In fact, the barista's talent is the biggest variable of them all and even the best green beans in the world will not save a poor barista from making bad coffee.

Still, anything that increases our knowledge, and our choices, about coffee is a good thing, so it will be interesting to see how the concept of single origin beans slots into the current market.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Farewell to summer

I bought popsicle moulds at my sister's Tupperware party. It seemed like an odd purchase, since I can't think when I ever had a hankering to make popsicles, but these moulds were a cheery, egg-yolk yellow with orange bottoms and a bright green popsicle stick. They looked happy and fun, even if I wasn't sure that I was going to use them. They also reminded me of my childhood, as mum had a similar set, except hers were a boring plain white plastic (Tupperware has really sexed up its colours since the 1970s!)

Rather than just admiring the pretty colours of the moulds, I thought I should use them before summer's long, hot, ice-cream-friendly days disappeared for the year. There's still some dangerously hot conditions forecast for the next few days (and here's praying that there's no repeat of the truly horrendous Black Saturday of 7 February) but there's also an autumnal tone to the days, a slight chill in the morning and a mellowing at dusk, and it won't be long before I'm longing for hot puddings instead of freshly made ice-cream.

So, to celebrate the end of the season, I bought a punnet of raspberries and pureed them. I pushed the puree through a strainer to get rid of the seeds and swirled the puree prettily through a mixture of natural yoghurt and caster sugar. I spooned this mixture into the moulds, put them in the freezer and only a few hours later had an icy treat ready to go. For a spur-of-the-moment indulgence, frozen yoghurt hits the spot: ice-cream requires you to pre-freeze the ice-cream maker's bowl and make and chill an eggy custard to form the base.

The sour tang of the natural yoghurt balanced nicely with the slightly tart raspberries, and these two strong flavours were united and softened by a little addition of caster sugar. You could use a number of combinations of pureed fruit to make a similar popsicle; you could even make two types - say raspberry and mango - to make lovely striped popsicles.

I'm reluctant to give precise measurements for these popsicles, as I just used what was in the fridge and mixed it together. I had a 250ml tub of yoghurt, a 125g punnet of raspberries and I added about 50g of caster sugar. You could use more or less of any ingredient to suit your own tastes and size of popsicle moulds. I think this mixture would also successfully freeze in a metal container and could then be scooped out into bowls or cones.