Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lolly heaven

As a child, we had lollies only on special occasions. There would be pretty glass bowls filled with mixed lollies at our birthday spreads and Santa Claus would usually bring us a bag of lollies at Christmas-time. I always got chocolate bullets, my middle sister always got jaffas and my youngest sister got strawberries and cream. I'm not sure whether we asked for these specific types because we liked them or whether our parents just found it easier to give us the same lollies each year! (I think it must be because we liked them, as chocolate bullets are still my favourite lolly now).

These were the days when 20 cents would buy you a good-sized bag of lollies to munch away on during the afternoon: white chocolate whirls, caramel-filled mates, whizzy rainbow sherbets, raspberries, milk bottles and bananas. We'd linger over the selection, choosing as wide a selection as possible to go into the white paper bag that the shopkeeper would finish off with a slight twist at the top.

If we were ever given - or found on the ground - 50 cents ... well, that was a special treat! It bought you a big fat bag of lollies that could keep you going for a day or two. I loved going to the local shop, where the glass cabinet, conveniently located at the height of a child's eyes, was filled with small cardboard boxes of different lollies, some costing 1 cent each and others 2 cents. Am I showing my age? This was only the 1980s - doesn't feel so long ago to me!

Alas, many corner shops and milk bars have disappeared, put out of business by big open-nearly-all-hours supermarkets and convenience stores. Lollies appear to be one of the five food groups for most children now, rather than a special treat. But the demise of the milk bar has meant there are now some specialist lolly shops that cater to old-fashioned tastes instead: Sweet Port in Port Melbourne, Brighton Chocolates, the Williamstown Chocolate Shop, the Old Village Lolly Shop in Yarraville and the Original Lolly Store in Carlton. And, tucked away in a nondescript shopping strip in Melbourne Rd, Newport, situated among a maternity shop, a pet store, a Thai takeaway and the local vet, is Snowballs Ice Cream & Lollies shop.

This shop is crammed full of every type and sort of lolly you could wish for, especially old-fashioned lollies that are difficult to find: spearmint leaves, chocolate rock, speckles, sour dummies, wine gums, bananas, strawberries and cream, raspberries, chicos, pineapples, jelly babies, snakes, dark and milk chocolate bullets, white raspberry bullets, Newman's dark and milk chocolate ginger, peppermints, Belgian milk and dark chocolate couverture chocolate chips, Wizz Fizz, zombie bars, raspberry licorice straps, blocks of European chocolate, Cocoa Farm wine chocolates, Pink Lady chocolates, licorice all-sorts, striped lolly-pops, boiled lollies, fudge, humbugs, rocky road, coconut roughs and cherry bites. There's also Norgen-Vaaz ice-cream and you can order ice-cream cakes.

Every available surface in this shop is crammed with lollies and sweet treats and I found myself lost in nostalgia as I found many lollies I hadn't seen for years. I also find this shop very useful for sourcing lollies to decorate birthday cakes. Every year, like my mother did for me, I make my children's birthday cakes from the classic Australian Women's Weekly birthday cakes book, which has quite specific requirements in what lollies it uses to decorate and create masterpieces. My local supermarket has an increasingly restricted range - can you believe I couldn't find spearmint leaves there when I looked last week? - and I never have a problem sourcing what I need from Snowballs. It's good to have such a treasure on my doorstep.

Snowballs Ice Creams & Lollies, 320 Melbourne Road, Newport

Monday, April 27, 2009

Daring Bakers challenge - cheesecake centrepiece

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

Although I enjoy eating baked cheesecakes, I’ve never made one before. It’s not that I felt daunted by it; it’s just that I didn’t have a decent recipe. My favourite cheesecake is a simple lemon cheesecake, the recipe given to us by a family friend called Coral. A mixture of condensed milk, whipped cream, cream cheese and lemon juice, it’s as easy to make as it is delicious to eat. It’s also unbaked, with the ingredients combined and then set through refrigeration.

So I looked forward to this month’s challenge, cheesecake centrepiece. Although the recipe was quite basic, our challenge this month was to play with the basic recipe and add our own flavourings to make a unique, showstopper of a dessert. The recipe Jenny used is that of her friend Abbey, who is well known for her fabulous cheesecakes – hence the recipe title!

With all the family coming for a special lunch to celebrate our daughter’s christening, the cheesecake recipe provided the perfect dessert. I flavoured the cheesecake with coffee and Baileys Irish Cream, which was a hit with the eager audience. Although Jenny wanted us to go all out with an impressive topping for the cake, I ended up keeping it simple. I had planned to make some caramelised walnuts to sprinkle over the top but I ran out of time and I was also concerned to not overpower the cheesecake with too many flavours or too much sweetness. In the end, though, the cheesecake was perfectly balanced with the coffee and Baileys flavours; anything else would have made it too rich and sweet.

I really liked the texture of this cheesecake, as did my audience. It was firm and rich but not overpowering or cloyingly sweet. Although very easy to make, it did, however, require quite a time commitment: at least one hour of baking, one hour of cooling in the oven and then overnight refrigeration. It is an impressive dessert, though, and this is one recipe I’ll be adding to my repertoire. But I’ll still be keeping my simple lemon cheesecake recipe for those occasions where I don’t have as much time.

Thanks very much to Jenny for choosing such a great recipe. I apologise for presenting it so plainly; some of the photos of cheesecakes that other Daring Bakers have produced have been absolute masterpieces! But I think the real highlight of this cheesecake was how it tasted, not how it looked.
Here is Jenny's recipe, with my Australian modifications.

Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake

1 packet digestive biscuits (I used McVittie’s but you could also use Marie or Nice, or the original recipe specified graham crackers, although I don’t think we have them in Australia)
125g butter, melted
(The original recipe also called for 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, but I omitted these, as I like a plain crust and thought the sugar would make it unnecessarily sweet)

3 x 250g packets of cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup sugar (I used caster sugar)
3 large eggs
1 cup thickened cream
1-2 tablespoons instant coffee powder
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons Baileys Irish Cream

Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Boil the kettle or a large pot of water (to use in the water bath).

Crush the digestive biscuits and mix with the melted butter. Press into a 20cm springform tin, pressing into both the bottom and up the sides. Wrap the springform tin in alfoil to make it watertight (some recipes specify to just wrap it around the base, but I use a large sheet of alfoil so that it fully encloses the tin. At the very least, you need to make sure the alfoil is higher than the halfway mark of the tin, as otherwise water will seep in when you place the tin in the water bath). Set aside.

Beat the cream cheese and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Make sure to scrape down the bowl in between each egg.

Take one-quarter of the cup of cream and heat (I found in the microwave is best) until hot. Stir in the instant coffee powder until dissolved. Add the cream, coffee cream mix, vanilla extract and Baileys and blend until smooth and creamy.

Pour into the prepared crust and tap the pan a few times to bring all the air bubbles to the surface. Place the springform tin into a large baking dish and pour in boiling water to come about halfway up the sides of the tin.

Bake the cheesecake for 45 to 55 minutes, until it’s almost done. This is hard to judge but you’re looking for the cake to hold together but still jiggle in the centre. It shouldn’t be completely firm at this stage. Close the oven door, turn the heat off, and let the cheesecake rest in the cooling oven for one hour. This lets the cake finish cooking and cool down gently so that it won’t crack on the top. After one hour, remove the cheesecake from the oven and lift carefully out of the water bath and put onto the kitchen bench. Let it finish cooling on the bench and then cover and put in the fridge to chill overnight.

The next day, unmould, serve and enjoy the adulation!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Chocolate to the rescue

There is such a thing as too many recipes. Adam is always lamenting the amount of recipes that I clip from magazines and newspapers and the fact that I have far too many food magazines to fit into our bookshelves. I usually laugh off the criticism, confident that his protestations will be silenced by the next culinary masterpiece I serve up from one of these new recipes.

But when friends asked me to bring dessert to a dinner party last Saturday night, I was confronted with a dilemma. What should I make? It's the culinary equivalent of looking in my wardrobe and wailing that I have nothing to wear. How could I possibly not find a special dessert recipe among my collection?

Well, the short answer is that I didn't know where to start. So, rather than choose a recipe, I started knocking out contenders. Our friends made cheesecake for the last dinner party, so, in the interests of variety, that was struck off the list. It had to be something already prepared and easy to transport, so that ruled out hot puddings and souffles. No cakes, because that is too similar to afternoon tea. Perhaps a tart? That is easily prepared in advance and easy to transport. Of course, chocolate is always a winner for dessert, so now I felt I was getting close. And, at last, there was Jill Dupleix's recipe for bitter chocolate tart with Baileys, a recipe I've long had marked too try. Perfect!

As well as being a sinfully rich finale to a meal, this tart is also a cinch to prepare ahead. Its impressive appearance and taste belie the easiness of the method, which makes it a winner on all counts.

Jill Dupleix's bitter chocolate tart with Baileys

75g butter
75g caster sugar
75g ground almonds
125g plain flour
A pinch of salt
2 tablespoons iced water, or more

300ml thickened (or whipping) cream
200g dark chocolate (70 per cent)
50g butter chopped
2 tablespoons Baileys Irish Cream

For the pastry: whiz the butter, sugar, ground almonds, flour and salt in a food processor until smooth. Add water a spoonful at a time, still whizzing, until the pastry clumps into a ball. Place in the base of a greased 20cm tart tin and gently press the mixture down, working from the centre out, to cover the base and up the sides. Refrigerate for 1 hour. Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Line the tart with non-stick baking paper and weight down with pastry weights. Bake for 15 minutes, remove the weights and paper and bake for a further 5-10 minutes, or until lightly golden. Cool.

For the filling: Heat the cream until just before boiling point. Chop chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl. Add cream, leave for 1 minute, then mix well with a spatula. Add butter and stir until smooth. Stir in Baileys and pour into the tart case. Leave in a level place to cool, then refrigerate for at least three hours before serving.

This serves 8-10 but is very rich, so serve in thin wedges.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Happy Easter!

As soon as I saw the picture of hot cross bun bread on the cover of the April issue of delicious. magazine, I knew I had to make it. I usually make a batch of hot cross buns each year but I was attracted to the idea of something different. This bread is basically a giant hot cross bun, baked in a 20cm round cake tin. It is ridiculously easy to make (as long as you're comfortable working with yeast) and makes a gorgeous dish for Easter. We enjoyed ours for morning tea.

Another treat we enjoyed this Easter was the Farmers' Market at the Collingwood Children's Farm. It's an oft-made comment about the Farm but it is still true: it is hard to believe that this slice of the country is so close to the Melbourne CBD. We arrived early and enjoyed bacon and eggs at the busy Farmers' Cafe, which offers bucolic views over farm paddocks and Yarra River cliff banks. Then it was time to wander through the stalls and take our pick of peak autumn produce; there was a wonderful array to choose from.

Stalks of rich red rhubarb were first into the trolley, followed by a bag of Royal Blue potatoes. I've bought these before and they're wonderful all-rounders. We stopped at the honey stall, whose owners travelled from Kyneton for the market, and came away with a jar of mildly aromatic yellow-box honey, perfect for our toddler son. Pale-green leeks, fat pumpkins, sweet carrots, ripe radishes, leafy bunches of herbs, fresh pears, chestnuts, organic chocolate and Gundowring ice-cream all beckoned. A tin of Persian fetta from the Yarra Valley Dairy and pistachio and white chocolate biscuits from Michel's in Castlemain were indulgent purchases. We bought a bag of Jonogold apples, a sweet, juicy variety that I haven't tried before. Recipes spun through my head as we wandered from stall to stall and it was difficult to restrain myself from buying everything in sight. We are so lucky in Melbourne to have wonderful farmers' markets to give us access to fresh produce and speak to the growers.

After filling our trolley, we wandered among the farm animals, thrilling our toddler son. Heather the cow was being milked and 11 piglets were running around in the sty. It was a wonderful day out and I can't wait to visit again. The next farmers' market at the Collingwood Children's Farm is on 9 May and there's one at the adjacent Abbotsford Convent on 25 April.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

How do you take your coffee? Part II

Melburnians, despite their love of good coffee, are yet to discover the wonders of single origin specialty coffee beans, says coffee hunter Stephen Hurst, from Mercanta the Coffee Hunters.

As I recently wrote, Mr Hurst believes that the future of coffee lies in the "flavour discovery" of single origin specialty coffee beans. He says consumers are used to drinking the industrial blends offered to them but he believes good coffee starts from single estate, or single origin, specialty coffee beans.

Unfortunately, like most good things in life, quality comes at an expense. While not specifying prices, Mr Hurst did acknowledge that single origin estate coffee would be more expensive. When penning my original article, I queried whether people would be willing to pay more for premium coffee, especially when a good coffee depends on so much more than the beans (a decent barista and coffee machine are also necessities).

Now, thanks to the good folk at Melbourne Coffee Merchants (the local offshoot of Mercanta), I have sampled some single origin estate coffee - and it is seriously good!

The coffee was El Guabo from north-eastern Peru. The beans were roasted, but not ground, and, in order to enjoy the coffee at its best, I also received a special filter cup, filter papers and an A4 sheet of instructions on how to correctly prepare filtered coffee.

The roasted beans had an intense, earthy caffeine smell that was quite intoxicating, especially once ground, although the aroma faded once the coffee was poured. It didn't have the same intense caffeine smell as a coffee extracted from a machine. There's no crema with a filtered coffee, so it was the blackest coffee I've ever seen.

The coffee was very smooth on the palate and quite sweet. Drinking this is how I imagine eating silk would be like. It slides sweetly down the throat with no acid aftertaste or puckering on the palate. I kept sipping, craving more, and suddenly the cup was empty. I drank this coffee black and there was no need to add sugar. There was a shortish aftertaste but this coffee improved after each sip and became more mellow.

The next day, I ground the beans and got Adam, who's the expert barista in our house, to make some coffees from the machine. I had a long black and Adam added some sugar but this was a mistake, as it made the coffee too sweet. The taste was softer on the palate than the filtered coffee but it was also not as flavoursome. The second coffee Adam made was a flat white and this was a massive disappointment. The milk did not blend well with the coffee. It tasted sickly and the coffee flavour was masked. The best way to enjoy this coffee is as a long black with no sugar added; this allows the full flavours and characteristics of the bean to shine through.

So I am a convert to this coffee. But what cost would there be to my hip pocket? Well, it turns out to be not as bad as I feared. St Ali sells 250g of the El Guabo coffee for $13.50, as opposed to $11 for 250g of the St Ali espresso blend (which also makes a very nice coffee). For such a small price difference, I would be willing to buy single origin estate coffee beans, as I think the extra flavour sensation is worth it, particularly if, like me, you make and drink a lot of black coffee at home. And I also think I would buy a coffee made from single origin estate beans from a cafe, as long as it was a cafe that took its coffee seriously, had an excellent barista, and the single origin beans were competitively priced against the industrial blend beans.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Cookbook exploitation month

Daniel from Casual Kitchen is holding a "cookbook exploitation" month, where you dig out your most underused and forgotten cookbooks and use them.

"Remember, the 80/20 rule tells us that 80% of your meals likely come from just 20% of your recipes," Daniel writes. "It also tells us that you only really use 20% of your cookbooks - the other 80% of them just sit on your shelf, collecting dust. What does this mean? It means that there's a gold mine of recipes waiting for you in your very own kitchen, in cookbooks you already own. Therefore, the purpose of Cookbook Exploitation Month is to break out one or two of your underused, unloved cookbooks, flip through them and then systematically exploit them for all they're worth."

I think this is a wonderful idea! I have so many cookbooks, all of which I love and have marked up with plenty of "must-try" notes, but many of which I've yet to make. I don't even want to mention the filing cabinet and box full of magazine clippings. (At my mum's suggestion, I even tried to set up a "things I want to make soon" folder, into which I'd put the recipes that I most wanted to try in the next few weeks, but gave up after this folder started bulging apart at the seams. It doesn't work if you cram everything in there!)

So what cookbook shall I exploit this month? I'm ashamed at how many new cookbooks I've acquired recently and that I'm yet to cook from. I could travel - to Spain with Movida by Frank Camorra and Richard Cornish, to France with My French Vue by Shannon Bennett, or to Morocco, India and Syria with Feast Bazaar by Barry Vera. But I think I prefer a more general cookbook, as I might get sick of the one cuisine for the whole month.

Maggie's Kitchen by Maggie Beer or Gordon Ramsay's Cooking For Friends cover a wide range of cuisines and meals. But some of their recipes can be a little tricky, or require special ingredients, and I want to keep things simple this month.

Perhaps I could dig out some old favourites. It's been a long time since I opened The Naked Chef or The Return of the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver, or New Food or Old Food by Jill Dupleix. The Margaret Fulton Cookbook (metricated edition) was my bible when I moved out of home, but I haven't consulted it in years.

It's going to be a tough choice. I hope I can make a decision and get exploiting before the month is up!