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 taste.com.au 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.