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.