Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My chocolate cake quest continues

I cannot resist a chocolate cake recipe. Just when I think it is not possible to add yet another one to my burgeoning files - there must be at least 100 chocolate cake recipes already there - along comes a new one.

My latest cake recipe comes from New Zealand food writer and author Annabel Langbein. My friend John, a secret foodie at heart, has discovered Annabel through her series screening on ABC 1, and he kindly sent me a link to her website, thinking I would enjoy it. And I have. Annabel has travelled extensively and written 10 cookbooks, one of which, Assemble - Sensational Food Made Simple, won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for "Best in the World for Easy Recipes".

Annabel also features recipes on her website, one of which is for "Magic Chocolate Cake and Chocolate Ganache". This is a brilliant cake, which can be made either as one large cake, two medium cakes, or 10 small ones. It has a reasonably long list of ingredients but you throw them into a food processor, whiz for 30 seconds, pour into a cake tin and then bake, making it possibly one of the easiest cakes ever to make. As Annabel notes in her recipe introduction, "If you have never made a cake before, let this be your first. It is so simple and the results are satisfyingly impressive."

The secret ingredient in this mix is 100g grated carrot (or pumpkin), which adds a lovely moistness to the cooked texture. It also has mixed spice, cinnamon, golden syrup and espresso coffee, which sounds like a lot of flavours to pack into one cake but it really works, adding a lovely spicy undertone to the chocolate notes. I encourage you to head over to Annabel's website to check out this cake recipe, as well as the other recipes and features.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Slice of heaven

My family's first stop at the Royal Melbourne Show is always at the Country Women's Association stand for Devonshire tea. Textbook perfect scones, baked fresh that morning by one of the CWA's army of talented bakers, accompanied by a small pot of thick cream and some strawberry jam, is one of life's wonderful little indulgences.

This year, I explored the sale stall at the back of the room, with knitted tea cosies, printed tea towels and recipe books all jumbled together. When I picked up The A to Z of Cooked and Uncooked Slices, I knew this was one purchase I had to make. It was impossible to resist seventy pages of good old-fashioned slices, most made with plain ingredients found in any self-respecting country larder, and designed to feed hungry mouths in search of a sweet treat, whether hard-working farmers or children after school.

Chocolate, caramel, apricots, cherries, ginger, walnuts, coconut, coffee, dates, hazelnuts, lemon and passionfruit are just some of the stars of this book. The beauty of slices, particularly old-fashioned ones, is that they turn simple ingredients into something special with a minimum of fuss and effort.

It was difficult to choose which slice to bake first but I narrowed down my list to those with ingredients I already had in my larder: cherry nut slice and coffee streusel slice. I love the short no-nonsense tone of the recipes, which assumes a large degree of knowledge by the cook (but one that was perfectly in tune with the times - any self-respecting home cook would have known this information). These slices are suitable for a morning tea at home or they can be dressed up and taken out for company - in my case, these slices went perfectly with coffee during half-time at a friend's AFL Grand Final party.

Cherry nut slice
Recipe from Isobel Green, Member of Honour, CWA Victoria branch

1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup icing sugar
125g butter

Rub butter into flour and sugar and knead well. Press into 18cm x 28cm greased tin.

Combine 2 eggs and 1/2 cup sugar into a bowl and beat well. Add 1 cup coconut, 30g chopped walnuts or pecan nuts and 30g chopped glace cherries. Add 1/2 cup sifted self-raising flour and mix well. Pour over prepared base and bake in a moderate oven (160 to 180 degrees, not fan-forced) for 25-30 minutes. Ice with pale pink icing (made with 2 cups icing sugar mixed with enough boiling water to be spreadable) and sprinkle with chopped walnuts,

Monday, September 20, 2010

Spring bounty

The weather has been wintry but our gardens know that spring is here, with buds and blossom shooting out from trees and spring vegetables appearing in the markets.

On a visit to the Victoria Market, I was rugged up in a winter coat and scarf to keep the icy wind at bay, but my trolley was full of spring freshness: sweet corn, asparagus, leeks, baby potatoes, peas, pineapple, strawberries and melons. Normally I rush around the market, my mind racing with ideas, and buy far too much produce that I won't have the time to prepare, or the crowds to devour.

But this time I was restrained and concentrated just on dinner, which had all the freshness of spring, even if the gale outside my kitchen window was suggesting a thick soup or stew would be more appropriate. From the meat hall, I found a perfect little spring lamb roast, with a macadamia and sun-dried tomato stuffing, for $12. It roasted in the oven while I steamed baby potatoes and tossed them with some Warrnambool butter and home-grown parsley. The final touch was some lightly steamed asparagus and dinner was served - minimum effort and maximum flavour.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Morning sun blazes at night at Nosh's third wine dinner

A boutique Mornington Peninsula vineyard, Morning Sun, was the star of Nosh @ Newport's third wine dinner. The award-winning cool climate wines are produced from two vineyards, located 1km apart, at Main Ridge. The vines are planted on elevated slopes facing the morning sun, which creates a long and even ripening period each day with no direct exposure to harsh afternoon sunlight. The main varieties produced are pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot grigio.

At the age of 70, Mario Toniolo fulfilled a childhood fantasy when he began the winery in 1995 and he can still be found pottering around the vineyard most days.

The wine dinner began with a wild mushroom soup shot with sherry and goat's cheese croute, paired with a 2009 semillon. The intensely flavoured soup, full of wild forest fungal notes, was nicely balanced by the crisp floral and citrus bouquet of the wine.

It was followed by another dish packed full of flavours: crab with celeriac and asparagus remoulade on potato spring onion pancake with hazelnut oil. The 2008 chardonnay matched to this dish was robust enough to stand up to these strong flavours and not be overwhelmed by them.

The next dish was a blend of sweet and savoury: a confit duck leg with red quinoa salad, cranberry, brazil nuts and onion jam. The salad was light and fresh but packed full of flavour, aided by fresh parsley and coriander, with the nuts adding a delightful crunch. The matched wine was, naturally, a pinot noir; a classic pairing.

Palates were given a break with a sharp and cleansing green tea, vodka and lime granita, before moving onto another main course: beef cheek bourguignon with cauliflower puree and celery watercress salad. The beef cheeks were so tender they flaked at the touch of a fork. A rich, robust shiraz, made with grapes sourced from Heathcote, was a match made in heaven.

A farmhouse clothbound cheddar from West Country England was paired with the same shiraz, which worked equally well.

The final dish was an unusual, and not entirely successful, dessert of caramel pumpkin pannacotta with ginger and chilli. It paired well with a botrytis from Plunkett but the strong ginger and chilli notes meant this dish would work better as a finale to an Asian-inspired meal.

Morning Sun is one of the lesser-known Mornington Peninsula vineyards but it is well worth seeking out to try some of its impressive wines.

For more information about Nosh's wine dinners, contact Nosh on 9391 6404.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New York coffee break: Ground Support

Shopping and sight-seeing around SoHo can be a serious and time-consuming business, so a decent coffee stop is very welcome. And Ground Support in West Broadway is just the ticket.

Light, airy and open, Ground Support was once an art galley and funky artwork still adorns its walls. It attracts a mixed crowd of locals and tourists, who cram inside at rough wooden tables, or spill outside into the adjoining courtyard.

A smooth cafe latte is strong and nutty, or there's single-origin Chemex drip coffee or cold-brew iced coffee. Sandwiches are artfully wrapped in brown paper tied with string and are big enough to share between two.

Ground Support
399 West Broadway (Spring St)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

New York coffee break: 88 Orchard

While waiting for our tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, we stumbled across 88 Orchard, a little cafe on the corner of Orchard and Broome Streets in the Lower East Side. Once one of the most miserable areas in New York, its tenements crowded with recently arrived migrants, this little pocket is now gentrified, with cafes and expensive clothing stores occupying the ground floors of renovated tenement buildings with beautifully artistic and decorative wrought-iron balconies and fire stairs. It's difficult to reconcile this pretty area, its streets crowded with expensively dressed locals and tourists, with the misery experienced by some of the migrants who moved here in the 1800s. (If you are visiting New York, I highly recommend a visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum - one of the highlights of our trip).

88 Orchard is a two-storey cafe, with the serving area and counter on the ground floor and more tables available downstairs, which was fully occupied by people tapping away on laptops on our visit.

The coffee is served in coloured mugs that are more like tea-cups than coffee cups. Our cafe lattes had a chocolatey aroma and the milk was creamy. The sandwiches and salads looked enticing but we didn't have time to eat before our tour. This is a good little cafe to pass the time while waiting to visit the museum.

88 Orchard Cafe
88 Orchard St (at Broome St)
Lower East Side

Thursday, May 27, 2010

New York coffee break: Iris Cafe

Iris Cafe is a perfect little neighbourhood cafe. Situated in a pretty corner of Brooklyn Heights, with tree-lined streets of beautiful old brownstones, Iris's little shopfront windows almost blend into the surroundings.
Although the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is just behind this residential pocket, it is a quiet area and the traffic noise is just a low buzz in the background.

Inside, the French-accented decor is perfectly suited to the pressed metal ceiling and exposed mellow brick walls. Gilt frames hold blackboards featuring the menu, while the subtle yet pretty burgundy-brown striped laminate on the tables proves that practicality doesn't have to be ugly. Artworks includes artisan black-and-white photos of busy hands, kneading bread and holding grapes or quiche.

The simple menu focuses on breakfast and lunch dishes. Maple granola is crunchy and sweet, while the egg salad baguette is stylishly wrapped in brown paper tied with string. The salad is fresh, with plenty of egg mixed with tangy mayonnaise and lettuce. A highlight is the sticky cinnamon bun: soft bread loaded with plenty of cinnamon flavour but it is not tooth-achingly sweet.

Cafe lattes are served in huge cups almost the size of soup bowls. Thankfully, the lattes are made with double shots, so there is a good taste of strong espresso, which is not overwhelmed by the milk.

Iris Cafe is a perfect little neighbourhood cafe. Another homely touch is added by the "Please place your dishes here" sign in the corner (where patrons dutifully deposit their dirty crockery). If I could replicate one New York cafe in its entirety back home in Melbourne, it is this one. If you're planning on walking the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, allow an extra hour and come here first for breakfast or lunch. You won't be sorry.

Iris Cafe
20 Columbia Place (Joralemon St)
Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn

Monday, May 24, 2010

New York review: Bubby's

Honest home-style cooking might not sound like the best enticement for a cafe but Bubby's proves there is a market for food that combines the best of home cooking with a chef's flair.

Brunch is the main attraction at Bubby's in Tribeca (there is also an outlet in DUMBO, Brooklyn). With just 100 seats, chef Ron Silver says Bubby's still manages to serve brunch to more than 1400 people each weekend, whether they are locals, celebrities or tourists.

The menu's focus is on American cookery from every region. Ron Silver says he has collected recipes over the years, many of which are family heirlooms handed down for generations. "My goal has been to create, with a few changes, home cooking the way I remember it from my childhood," he writes in his Bubby's Brunch Cookbook.

The breakfast menu includes Bubby's famous sour cream pancakes, wild Maine blueberry pancakes, egg dishes using free-range eggs from Shady Maple Farm, Anson Mills whole hominy organic Carolina grits and homefries.

We opt for two plates of Bubby's Breakfast: two eggs, homefries or grits, bacon and toast. The servings are huge, with four pieces of toast, but the food is well-cooked and delicious. The grits are satisfying smooth while the homefries are tasty and crispy. It is an excellent way to start the day and it's easy to see why Bubby's has been embraced by locals since it opened in 1990.

Best of all, you can buy Bubby's Brunch Cookbook or Bubby's Homemade Pies on your way out and recreated your own little piece of Bubby's at home.

Bubby's, 120 Hudson St, Tribeca
Tue-Sun open 24 hours (Sat and Sun brunch 9am-4pm)
Mon open until midnight

Friday, May 21, 2010

New York coffee break: Maialino

If you want glamour with your coffee, Maialino is the place to go. Located inside the Gramercy Park Hotel, opposite the fenced, pretty and private Gramercy Park (only people residing around the park have a key), Maialino is a Roman-style trattoria that is winning plaudits for its food.

The long angular space, which opens off the hotel's lobby, has bay windows overlooking the park. There is an elegant bar, with rustic wooden tables and weathered floorboards, while things are a little more upmarket in the back section, where the tables are covered in cloths. The separate stations for bread, salumi, cheese and dessert are buzzing with busy waiters.

Although more known for its food, Maialino takes its coffee seriously. There is a pour-over drip bar set-up in the morning, while espressos and cafe lattes are served all day. Late on a Thursday afternoon, the bar area is filled with suits drinking wine, and the back restaurant section is almost full.

While we wait for coffee, a waitress brings us a complementary basket of grissini, olive rolls and sourdough bread, along with a bowl of fruity olive oil. The cafe lattes, served in large mugs, arrive shortly afterwards. Adorned with a perfect rosetta, the lattes are creamy but have a strong and chocolatey afterkick of caffeine.

Maialino is definitely worth a visit if you're in the area; next time we'll allow more time and make sure we stay for food as well.

Gramercy Park Hotel
2 Lexington Ave, New York

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Absolute Bagels - an absolute must in New York

Although bagels were invented in Europe, they are synonymous with New York and it's worth seeking out some local examples while visiting.

While many bagels are just baked, New York bagels are boiled first, then baked, and they come in many varieties: plain, poppy seed, sesame seed, cinnamon and blueberry are just some of the versions on offer.

Debate over where to get the best bagels in New York is fierce and H&H Bagels on the Upper West Side is usually named as one of the contenders. We did visit H&H and got a cinnamon bagel to munch on as we headed to Joe's for a coffee and then to Central Park. The downside at H&H for us was that their bagels are served unfilled (all the better to go with the feast of goodies available from Zabar's across the road), but we wanted ours ready to go.

Absolute Bagels at 2708 Broadway (between 107th and 108th Streets) on the Upper West Side was recommended to us. A short subway ride from our Midtown hotel got us there at 9.30am, where we found all nine tables packed, along with a queue and a regular stream of take-away customers. Fortunately service is quick and turn-over is high and we snagged a table before we even had a chance to order our bagels. I chose the quintessential New York bagel: a lox smear (cream cheese mixed with smoked salmon), while Adam opted for bacon and cheese.

The bagels have great vertical height and are evenly balanced between the bagel layer and the smear, which is a misleading name - this was a huge hunk of smooth cream cheese, mixed with very finely chopped smoked salmon. The bagels have a crispy surface but are soft and chewy inside and a delight to eat. Adam enjoys his bacon and cheese bagel, but I found the orange-coloured small dices of cheese off-putting.

Service is brisk, bordering on curt, and it pays to know what you are after before you get in the queue, but the dumb questions from bagel novices such as ourselves were answered patiently and our bagels were ready in double-quick time. The internet is littered with reviews naming Absolute Bagels as the best bagels in New York. We didn't try any others to compare but we were completely satisfied and this will be one of the first visits on our next trip.

Absolute Bagels
2708 Broadway (between 107th and 108th Streets)
Upper West Side

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New York coffee break: Think Coffee

Think Coffee is a cafe that many university students would love to have as their local. Open from 7am to 11.30pm weekdays (from 8am on weekends), Think's three outlets offer so much more than good coffee made from Fair Trade organic coffee that is roasted in Brooklyn. Wine and beer, cheese platters, a good range of teas, baked goods (including muffins, cookies, brownies, pies and cakes), and a menu featuring sandwiches, salads and soups are all part of Think's package. Events, including art exhibitions and bands, are also held, while barista classes are offered at the Think Lab.

Think's outlet at 248 Mercer Street in Greenwich Village is large and packed with students from nearby NYU, many who are busy tapping away on laptops. Others are enjoying a glass of wine at the marble bar area or a coffee while they discuss homework. French club music is playing and the lighting is low, even at 5pm.

The barista is slow to make the coffee but he is very careful and precise in his brewing and our cafe lattes are sweet and nutty, with a thick, creamy texture and crema. The atmosphere here is as much an attraction as the coffee and you may find yourself lingering much longer than you planned.

Think Coffee
248 Mercer Street (West Fourth Street), Greenwich Village
1 Bleecker Street (the Bowery), NoHo
123 Fourth Avenue (East 12th Street), Greenwich Village

Monday, May 17, 2010

New York institution: Katz's Deli

Some places become famous and then turn into overpriced tourist traps. Listed in guidebooks, they still pack in the tourists but locals shun them.

Katz's Deli, which has been operating since 1888, is famous and touristy (especially since it was the venue for Meg Ryan's famous scene in When Harry Met Sally - the table where the scene was filmed is marked with a sign) but there's also a large number of locals who visit here too.

When you arrive, you are given a little ticket that you need to hang onto, as you'll need to show it to the cashier when you exit. You can line up at the long cafeteria-style bench, where up to 10 men are kept busy slicing and chopping meat and preparing sandwiches, or you can sit at a table and get wait-service. The room is vast and the decor is minimal: stark white lighting, plain laminated tables and walls adorned with photos of celebrities who have eaten here over the years.

We sat at the wait-service tables and were very quickly served with a complimentary plate of pickled dills and cucumbers. Adam opted for the half-sandwich (pastrami) and soup (split pea), while I chose the Reuben.

The split pea soup arrives quickly. It's a huge bowl - a meal in itself - and is impressively thick and full of flavour. Katz's boasts that its sandwiches are "the largest and best you'll ever try ... we dare you to finish one." It's no idle boast: even a half-serve of the famous pastrami sandwich is almost too much. Two thick slices of fresh rye bread are kept apart by a 10cm stack of thick, juicy pastrami slices. The Reuben is even bigger, piled with corned beef, melted Swiss cheese and sauerkraut.

This is not the world's greatest food but it does not aim to be. It is well-cooked and well-made deli food and it is a New York experience. We enjoyed our meal and it was great fun to eat at a place we felt we knew because of its reputation (and its film cameo). Of course the serving sizes are totally over the top but that is part of the deal and you can always get your leftovers packed into a doggie bag (although I think they taste best when eaten fresh at Katz's). It's definitely worth placing Katz's on your "to do" list.

Katz's Deli
205 East Houston St

Sunday, May 16, 2010

New York coffee break: La Colombe Torrefaction

Coffee is unashamedly the focus in the streamlined and minimalist La Colombe Torrefaction store in SoHo. There's no merchandise and little branding - just slick walls that point customers towards the coffee counter. As owners Todd Carmichael and Jean-Philippe Iberti point out on their website: "[We have] an unapologetic devotion to tradition not trend - a place where taste always trumps novelty."

La Colombe Torrefaction is a coffee roasting company based in Philadelphia, with a focus on medium and dark roasts. There are two outlets in New York: one in Lafayette St, SoHo, and the other in Church St, TriBeCa.

In the SoHo store, there are a few seats along one wall but most of the traffic is for take-away. A lot of customers were opting for a coffee that seemed a strange concoction to our eyes: a tall plastic glass filled with black coffee that is topped up with milk and lots of sugar sachets by the customer. We opted for cafe lattes, which were well-made and creamy, although the coffee was surprisingly light for a medium-to-dark roast and is perhaps more suited to an espresso than a milk-based coffee. This area of SoHo seemed a little quieter to us than the areas between West Broadway and Broadway streets, but it is worth seeking out this little shop, especially if you are in the area visiting Balthazar's or the MOMA Design Shop.

La Colombe Torrefaction
270 Lafayette Street (Prince Street), SoHo

Friday, May 14, 2010

New York breakfast: Clinton St Baking Company

In a city of 8 million people, queues at peak times are not unexpected. But at mid-morning mid-week? This is normally a quiet time where diners can be almost guaranteed a table the minute they walk in.

At 10.30am on Wednesday, it was almost impossible to get in the door of Clinton St Baking Company for the amount of people milling around waiting for a table. A waitress quickly took our name and told us there would be a 30-minute wait. This suited as, we could visit Cafe Pedlar for coffee (situated in the same street at no 17) or the nearby Thompson Park, which apparently featured in Die Hard 2.

When we returned for our table, the crowd had not lessened and hopefuls were still putting their names down for a table. Clinton St Baking Company does not take reservations for brunch, and seats just 32, so this is the only way to get a table. I can't imagine what the queues are like on weekends!

If you do queue, don't despair as the wait is definitely worth it. Clinton St Baking Company has won a slew of awards and recognition, including "Best breakfast or brunch" by Time Out NY and "Best Pancakes" by New York Magazine, as well as being nominated for "Top 10 brunches" by the New York Observer.

The inside of the cafe is light and airy, with sunlight streaming in from the large windows looking streetside. It is busy and the place is buzzing with satisfied diners. Waitstaff whisk past with plate after plate loaded with meals and turnover is quick. As enticing as the brunch/breakfast menu sounded - buttermilk biscuit sandwich, truffle fried eggs and asparagus, southern breakfast or Spanish scramble, anyone? - pancakes was always going to be our choice.

But first up, to get us in the mood, was a decadently rich classic extra thick chocolate milkshake, made with ice-cream from The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory.

It was a short wait for our plate of heaven: three pancakes drizzled with Wild Maine blueberries or banana and walnuts, with a dish of warm maple syrup butter on the side. The pancakes, almost the size of the serving plate, are paradoxically fluffy yet substantial: the texture is delicately light but it will be a very hungry diner who will be able to finish all three. The thick warm maple syrup butter has a dulce du leche flavour and is just as good being dipped into as it is drizzled over the pancakes.

So popular are the pancakes that they're on the menu all day - dinner is also served here. The cake display cabinet and dessert menu is also loaded with treasures that we unfortunately did not have the appetite to sample: an impressive-looking black and white layer cake, blueberry cheesecake, sour cherry lattice pie and classic hot fudge sundae.

In good news for New York visitors like me, who can't pop down for a regular fix of the best pancakes I've ever tasted, Clinton St Baking Company is scheduled to publish its own cookbook in November 2010.

Clinton St Baking Company
4 Clinton St (between East Houston and Stanton Streets)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

New York coffee break: Cafe Pedlar

For most of its history, the Lower East Side has been a poor, working-class neighbourhood, providing the first home in the United States for generations of immigrants.

But in the past 10 years, the Lower East Side, like many inner-urban areas of major cities around the world, has undergone gentrification. And with gentrification comes coffee.

Cafe Pedlar's Manhattan outpost is in Clinton St, which is sandwiched between Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. Clinton St itself is well-known for its dining establishments (including Clinton St Baking Co, famous for its pancakes). The street (which is easily reached by catching the F subway line to East Broadway) has a nice neighbourhood feel to it and there's an eclectic mix of shops. The street hasn't been taken over entirely by stylish cafes: little neighbourhood shops, such as a dry-cleaner, a newsagent and a hairdresser (advertising for braiders with experience) still fulfill the needs of local residents.

Cafe Pedlar has a very Melbourne feel. It is long and narrow, with exposed brick walls, but it's not dark, as light streams in from the large front windows. Shelves holding bottles of wine speak of its other life as a wine bar.

The cafe uses coffee beans from Stumptown (an independent coffee roaster and retailer based in Portland, Oregon) and all drinks are made with double shots - which is just as well, as the cups are twice the size of a standard Australian cup.

Intricate double rosettas on the cafe lattes make a pretty touch. The latte is quite milky but there is a strong, dark cocoa undertone that rounds out the creamy milk nicely.

Danishes, rolls, pretzels, tarts, muffins, cookies and cakes feature on the simple pastry-based menu. This is a great neighbourhood cafe, perfect for locals, but well worth a visit if you're in the area.

Cafe Pedlar
17 Clinton St (East Houston St), Lower East Side
210 Court St (Warren St), Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The perfect neighbourhood bakery

You can smell Levain Bakery before you see it. The unmistakable odour of fresh yeast and hot-out-of-the-oven cookies wafts up from the underground bakery and out into the street.

Located in one of the Upper West Side's many leafy streets, Levain is an artisanal bakery that opened 15 years ago. Its French-style sign at the 167 West 74th Street site is understated but the delicious smells mean you won't miss the subterranean bakery. The bulk of the shop is given over to the kitchen, and you can perch at the little counter and watch the bread and cookies being made.

Levain Bakery is best known for its divine six-ounce (approximately 200g) cookies but it offers a full range of bakery goods, including bread - sourdough loaves and rolls, ciabatta, wholemeal walnut raisin rolls and olive bread - pizza slices, muffins and cakes (sour cream coffee cake on our first visit).

Pizza slices ($7.75) make a fabulous late morning breakfast. We chose the caramelised onion with parmesan reggiano. The crispy, flat bread base was generously layered with sweet dark onions and melted drops of parmesan. The staff thoughtfully cut it into four pieces for us and we ate it in raptures on the park bench outside the bakery.

A sweet treat was next and we chose a sourdough brioche stuffed with Vahlrona chocolate ($3). The dense and chewy texture of the brioche perfectly offset the richness of the dark chocolate. It is served either hot or cold - we chose it cold but next time I would try it warmed.

While the breakfast was delicious and I was keen to return to sample more goods, the real reason for our visit was the Levain Bakery cookies ($4), which are justifiably celebrated. They come in four varieties: chocolate chip walnut, dark chocolate chocolate chip, dark chocolate peanut butter chip and oatmeal raisin. Each cookie is at least an inch thick and about four inches in diameter. The biscuits are decadent - each chewy mouthful delivers a chunk of chocolate and walnut, or a nutty undertaste to the rich chocolate. The double chocolate version was extremely rich and we definitely could not devour it in one sitting. In fact, the cookies were perfect for all-day nibbling - a piece here and a piece there were often enough to satisfy any sugar cravings.

Unfortunately, but understandably, Levain Bakery does not publish its recipes but many people have tried to come up with their own version, which is available on the bakery website (http://www.levainbakery.com/)

While in New York, we tried to visit as many new places as possible. But we returned several times to Levain Bakery for its cookies. I only wish I could have brought lots home with me!

Levain Bakery
167 West 74th Street, Upper West Side
Mon-Sat 8am-7pm, Sun 9am-7pm
There is also a Hamptons outlet, open seasonally - see
www.levainbakery.com for more details

Monday, May 10, 2010

New York coffee break: Joe's

Mention the words "New York" and "coffee chain" in the same sentence and serious coffee drinkers will shudder, expecting weak, watery drinks or, worse, coffee disguised with sugary syrups.

But Joe's, a boutique coffee chain of five stores, is different. This is a company that treats coffee seriously. First, the beans are sourced from Ecco Caffe, an artisan coffee roasting company based in California. Second, coffee classes, including espresso fundamentals, milk steaming techniques and a cupping series, are offered at Joe's University (13th Street, Waverly Place and Columbus Ave stores). Private classes and home visits are also available.

Joe's opened as Joe the Art of Coffee in 2003 but renamed itself to plain Joe last year. It also opened its fifth store, on the Upper West Side, "bringing serious coffee to an underserved neighborhood", according to the New York Times, which nominated Joe's as one of its 10 outstanding coffee bars that "not only produce extraordinary coffee at the highest standards, but also do so with consistency day after day."

The Upper West Side store is at 514 Columbus Ave (West 85th Street).

It is small but has a great vibe and makes good use of the limited space available - a tiny office alcove is hidden behind one of the blackboards behind the counter, reached by a small pull-up ladder. About a dozen people can be seated at the tiny tables, just big enough for a laptop and a coffee cup. There's also two park benches out the front that adds some extra seating - best on warm days only. Central Park is also nearby if, like us, you find Joe's is filled to capacity when you visit.

Coffee is made with a house blend or single origin blends are available. The house blend makes an excellent cafe latte - a nutty aroma gives way to a smooth and creamy drink that slips down effortlessly. Despite the coffees being larger than Australia - the smallest one is served in a 12oz cup - there is still a strong caffeine taste and the espresso is not overwhelmed by too much milk.

Our second visit to Joe's was at 11am on Sunday and we had to join a queue stretching out the door. Parents with prams, babies and dogs dominated the park benches out the front and there was barely room to move inside, which was crammed with joggers from nearby Central Park fuelling up after a run. But the baristas worked overtime and, despite there being at least 10 people ahead of us, we waited only 10 minutes for our coffee, which was just as excellent as our first cup.

Another Joe's outlet is in the Graybar Passage of the Grand Central Terminal (89 East 42nd Street). It is a tiny little shop that serves take-away only, but the quality across Joe's stores is consistent and our coffee from this store also hit the spot.

Joe's can be found at five locations:
514 Columbus Avenue (West 85th Street), Upper West Side
89 East 42nd Street (Grand Central Terminal)
141 Waverly Place (Sixth Avenue), Greenwich Village
9 East 13th Street (University Place), Greenwich Village
405 West 23rd Street (Ninth Avenue), Chelsea
See joetheartofcoffee.com for more information.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Where to eat? Our first night in New York

On a cold and wet Monday, Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village is looking far from the appealing, vibrant area that was described to us. Students mill around neon-lit entrances to pubs that reek of stale beer. Minetta Tavern, our planned destination, looks closed but the door opens to reveal a venue too crowded to fit us in anyway.

But, a few doors up MacDougal Street, we find Hummus Place. It's small and dimly lit but it looks inviting: the "Zagat Rated" sticker and only one empty table seal the deal.

It is tiny inside: barely three metres wide and a kitchen area that is almost the same size as the dining room mean that this place truly fits the cliche of "shoebox-sized". It seats about 24 people, with two-person tables dominating. The simple decor - just a few coloured platters on the wall - mean there is little distraction from the excellent food.

As the name suggests, this is a specialist venue. Of the eight entrees (mains), four are hummus-based. But don't be put off - this is hummus like you've never had before. It is gloriously thick, with a rich, complex layering of flavours that puts supermarket versions to shame. It is served with a basket of puffy, home-baked pita bread that will be replenished as often as you need. Hummus masabacha ($6.95) is plain hummus, topped with whole chickpeas and a dusting of paprika. Other hummus dishes come topped with whole fava beans and a boiled egg, tahini or sauteed mushrooms and onions. The unadorned version allows the pure flavours to shine through, but the caramelised mushrooms and onions add an extra layer that offsets the richness of the creamy hummus.

Before you get to hummus though, be sure to sample some of the five appetisers (entrees) on offer. Labane ($3.95) - a dish of strained yoghurt cheese with za'atar and olive oil - is a dish that sounds simple - perhaps even off-putting to some - on paper. But the description does not do it justice: the texture is similar to that of thick, whipped cream without the heaviness, and there is an underlying flavour reminiscent of spring in its fresh lightness. This sublime dish is perfect in every way and it is impossible to stop at just one scoop.

The roasted eggplant ($3.95), topped with tahini and lemon dressing, is also worth trying: the eggplant melts in the mouth, while the tahini topping adds a subtle smokiness.

Another specialty of Hummus Place is the shakshuka ($7.95), a rich stew of tomatoes, roasted capsicum, onions and eggplants topped with two fried (organic) eggs. This is a hearty and satisfying dish, yet it doesn't leave you feeling heavy or full afterwards.

There is a dinner special served Sunday to Thursday, with two appetisers, two entrees and a bottle of house wine (from Israel) for $39.95, which is a great way to sample the menu.

A place that is essentially a one-dish show might not sound lucrative but Hummus Place is now a mini-empire with five venues. But small can be good: this is a place that has its eye firmly on its product and has perfected it to the finest degree.

Hummus Place
99 MacDougal St (Bleecker St)
West Village
Also at four other locations: see
www.hummusplace.com for more details.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Good coffee in New York - does it exist?

Our mission: could two caffeine addicts, spoiled for choice in their home city of Melbourne, find a decent cup of joe in New York?

Friends warned us to prepare ourselves for a week of disappointment and deprivation, saying that drip or percolated coffee abounded. Although I generally deplore travellers who want to eat food just like they have at home, coffee is different. In Melbourne, we take excellent coffee for granted and I find it difficult to get my daily hit from weak, milky pretenders.

But a few weeks before our departure, the New York Times came to the rescue, featuring an article by Oliver Strand on “New York is finally taking its coffee seriously”. “New York used to be a second-string city when it came to coffee. No longer,” Strand wrote. “Over the last two years, more than 40 new cafes and coffee bars have joined a small, dedicated group of establishments where coffee making is treated like an art, or at least a high form of craft.”

The article listed the 40 best coffee places around Manhattan and Brooklyn and this list became our bible for the next week. Some days we planned our itinerary around coffee shops we wanted to visit but generally we found it useful to refer to when we were already in a neighbourhood and needed a caffeine hit.

On our first morning in New York, thirty-six hours after we left Melbourne and with only weak, tepid aeroplane coffee to sustain us in that time, we set out to blast away the jetlag with some good coffee. Our destination was Culture Espresso Bar in West 38th St, the closest cafe to our hotel that had been rated by the New York Times as “one of the few serious coffee bars in Midtown.

As noted recently by both the New York Times and The Age, Australian baristas are teaching New Yorkers about great coffee. Culture Espresso Bar is part of what the New York Times dubbed the “Australian coffee diaspora”, as one owner is Australian, as is Ross the barista who made our coffees. Overhearing our order for two cafe lattes, he asked, in an accent as broad as our own despite his 10 years in New York, whether we wanted our lattes served in glasses.

As he expertly made our coffees, we asked Ross about his experiences with coffee in New York and he laughed but conceded that things were getting better, especially as the US has easy access to some of the world's greatest coffee beans.

Culture Espresso opened in mid-2009 and has proven to be an oasis in Midtown, which locals deplore as an area deprived of decent food or coffee places. It uses beans from Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea and Four Barrel Coffee. An espresso is $2.50, and a latte is $4.

Our lattes look good, with textbook-perfect latte art on top. The aroma is nutty and the first sip transports us to coffee heaven: dark cocoa undertones to the creamy milk and a good hit of caffeine (as all drinks are made here with double espresso shots). This was a seriously good coffee that would easily rank highly in Melbourne.

The decor here is funky and the most is made of a small space. With just 22 seats, it can be difficult to snag one of the small tables (on our three separate visits, the cafe was always busy), although there are worse seats in the world than one here at the window bar overlooking a busy street in the heart of Manhattan. Purple-patterned wallpaper, a sparkly chandelier and modern artwork add to the ambiance.

Breakfast staples of granola, muesli and eggs are supplemented by more exotic dishes such as a Tuscan breakfast platter, and sweet-tooths will be satisfied by jumbo muffins, cookies and croissants. Sandwiches predominate on the lunch menu.

Culture Espresso Bar is a cafe that easily ranks highly on its own merits. But in an area of Manhattan that is lacking in decent coffee places, it is even more of a beacon.

Culture Espresso Bar
72 West 38th St (Sixth Avenue), Midtown
Monday-Friday 7am-7pm
Sat-Sun 8am-4pm
(212) 302 0200

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Coffee break: Eclipse

Don’t be fooled by the Collins Street address: the entrance to Eclipse is in Flinders Lane, hidden away at the back of the refurbished Intercontinental Hotel.

Red-brick walls hide a nightclub-like interior, its darkness illuminated by spotlights on the walls. The serving area and Synesso machine dominate the small interior, with a few wooden tables, including two communal tables, and a glass cabinet of pastries the only other furniture of note. There's also plenty more tables outside for those who can't cram inside, and table service is offered.

Queues are long at peak times but the city-cool-chic staff are quick and gracious under pressure. Although most customers take away, the pastries and a lunch menu that has expanded considerably since Eclipse opened, offer a reason to stay in.

But the focus is on the excellent coffee. An aromatic espresso, a rich brew with unsweetened cocoa and woody notes, is a powerful drink, while a toasty, nutty cafe latte is equally masterful: a balanced blend of chocolaty coffee with creamy milk that slips down very easily. Rotating single-origin beans on offer might include a chocolaty Brazilian blend that teases the palate with a brief burst of flavour.

A relative newcomer to the CBD coffee scene, Eclipse is already overshadowing nearby rivals and promises to be a stayer.

7A/495 Collins St (enter off Flinders Lane), Melbourne

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fast and tasty muffins

Some people don't believe me when I tell them I find it faster and easier to bake than I do to buy a cake or biscuits. Because I have a well-stocked pantry, I can mix up flour, eggs, butter and sugar into a tasty cake as quickly as if I loaded two children into the car, drove to the supermarket, agonised over the multitude of choices in the biscuit aisle and then queued to pay.

Of course, there are always times when convenience will win out, but a recipe such as for these tasty muffins shows that baking can be just as quick and easy. There's also the added bonus of minimising preservatives and additives and, to me, home-made always tastes better.

Not only are these muffins, which come from Allan Campion and Michele Curtis's excellent In The Kitchen cookbook, very quick to whip up, they are also toddler-friendly: it's easy for little hands to mix together, although you might find a few of the white chocolate bits make it into little mouths rather than the finished product!

Raspberry and white chocolate muffins
Recipe from In The Kitchen by Allan Campion and Michele Curtis

200g self-raising flour
150g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon, chopped
60g melted butter
125ml milk
1 egg
100g raspberries
95g white chocolate chips
Icing sugar to serve

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Line a muffin pan with paper cases.*

Mix the flour, caster sugar and lemon zest together. Beat the butter, milk and egg together in a separate bowl. Mix the dry and wet mixes together to form a smooth batter, then fold through the raspberries and chocolate.

Divide the mix into the muffin cases and bake for 20 minutes, or until risen and golden brown. Allow to cool, then dust with icing sugar to serve.

* Note: the recipe says this makes 10 muffins, but I found it made 18 small-sized (not Texas) muffins.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The ultimate comfort food

Baked custard might be an old-fashioned dessert but it is a dish that deserves to be made more often. It is the ultimate comfort food: its silky-smooth texture makes it deceptively easy to eat half of the dish before you realise how much you've eaten, but it also has an easy elegance to it that is more than the sum of its simple parts of cream, milk, eggs and sugar.

Thankfully, Donna Hay has resurrected this lovely dessert in the latest issue of her magazine. There's a step-by-step guide to making basic baked custard, plus twists to the base recipe using spices, chocolate, rice and brioche for a modern take.

I had forgotten how much I loved this dessert until I made it recently. Surprisingly, my toddler was not overly enthused by the custard, but Adam and I quickly polished off the dish before we realised how quickly we'd eaten it! Not to worry - this is a dish that doesn't keep and tastes best warm from the oven. Its comforting texture will enfold you like a cosy doona and it is a dessert to enjoy on cold nights.

Baked custard
From Donna Hay Magazine, issue 50

500ml single (pouring) cream
250ml milk
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs and 3 egg yolks, extra
110g caster (superfine) sugar

Preheat oven to 150 degrees Celsius (300 degrees Fahrenheit). Place the cream, milk, vanilla bean and seeds in a saucepan over high heat until the mixture just comes to the boil. Remove from heat and set aside.

Place the eggs, extra yolks and sugar in a bowl and whisk until well combined. Gradually add the hot cream mixture to the egg mixture, whisking well to combine.

Strain custard into a 1.5 litre capacity (6 cups) ovenproof dish.

Place dish in a water bath* and bake for 1 hour 25 minutes or until just set.

Remove from the water bath and allow to stand for 15 minutes before serving. Serves 4-6.

* To make a water bath, place the custard dish into a deep-sided baking dish and pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the custard dish.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Coffee break: 65 Degrees

The north-eastern end of Exhibition St is an unlikely home for a world champion barista. It's a quiet area, away from the main CBD shopping strips, but that hasn't stopped 65 Degrees becoming a big hit with those in the know. There's a steady crowd of loyal regulars lining up for take-aways - even three businessmen, who were in Melbourne for just six hours, were thrilled by the tip-off that led them there. "We'll definitely be back!" they chorused as they left.

Con Haralambopoulos, one of three brothers behind the cafe, has an impressive list of coffee titles to his name, including world espresso champion and world latte art champion. The brothers previously ran 7 Grams in Richmond, but closed that to start this new venture. The obsessive attention to coffee detail even extends to the name: 65 degrees Celsius is the correct temperature for milk when making coffee.

The narrow but light-filled interior has tall tables and stools at the front and smaller tables at the back. The best seats are those by the leadlight full-length windows that overlook Exhibition St. This end of the street is quite pretty, lined with trees, and with less traffic than other, busier streets in the CBD (there were even some carparks available out the front on the morning that I visited).

A substantial breakfast and lunch menu is chalked on a blackboard at the front of the cafe and the glass display case is full of sweet and savoury treats. But the focus is on coffee, made here with beans from Gridlock, and Con's impressive coffee skills. Warm cocoa notes dominate in a smooth and silky short black that is a delight to sip. The cafĂ© latte is simply stunning: there’s a hint of toasted nuts but no flavour predominates in the smooth, balanced brew that slips down without effort. I am in raptures as I drink it: this is, quite simply, the best cafe latte I've ever had in my life!

The only drawback to 65 Degrees is that it is at the opposite end of town to my office, so I can't visit as often as I would like. If you love coffee, do yourself a favour and get to 65 Degrees as soon as you can: it's a must-visit destination.

65 Degrees
309 Exhibition St, Melbourne
Mon-Fri 6.30am-4pm

Friday, April 16, 2010

Hot pies

Subscribing to food magazines makes me realise how quickly the months slip away. I feel like I've just opened an issue and a new one is already on the doorstep. Donna Hay Magazine's 50th birthday issue has just arrived, and it has a magnificent chocolate layer cake on the front cover that is begging to be made.

I haven't missed an issue of Donna Hay Magazine since I first subscribed to it and I find inspiration in every issue. To make sure I get the most out of my food magazines, I file them according to season (so I put all the autumn issues together). Each year, when the season changes, I take out that season's past issues and flick through them to see what I've made in the past that I enjoyed, or to get some new recipes to try.

Tonight's dinner came from my random flickings. I rediscovered this easy but tasty pie dish that I had first made in 2008 and marked as "definitely make again". It is such an easy dish to make but it is very impressive, whether you serve it as a weeknight dish for the family or dress it up for dinner with friends. The Dijon mustard is the hidden secret here, adding piquancy to the pie filling. I made two large pies, as specified by the recipe, some smaller pies for the children, and had some filling left over that I piled into ramekins and topped with leftover pastry scraps to make a lid. The pies are easy to reheat as leftovers.

Easy chicken, leek and mushroom pie
From Donna Hay Magazine, issue 38 (April/May 2008)

1 Tb olive oil
50g butter
1 leek, sliced
200g button mushrooms, chopped
2 x 200g chicken breast fillets, trimmed and chopped
sea salt and cracked black pepper
2 tsp Dijon mustard
6 sheets store-bought butter puff pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan over high heat, add the butter, leek and mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes. Add the chicken and cook for 2-3 minutes until sealed and lightly browned. Add salt, pepper and mustard and mix to combine.

Cut 4 x 14cm rounds from 2 sheets of pastry and 4 x 16cm rounds from remaining sheets. Place 14cm rounds on baking trays lined with baking paper, top with chicken mixture and brush edges with egg. Top with remaining pastry, press edges to seal and brush with egg. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden. Serve with steamed green beans or a simple salad.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Preparing for an Easter feast

My latest issue of delicious magazine has arrived and I've already bookmarked lots of recipes to try. My favourite spread is the Easter baking
feature by editor Kylie Walker. White chocolate truffle cake, Easter biscuits, braided fruit loaf, orange drops, chocolate coconut Easter cakes - I want to try them all!

The hot cross muffins particularly attracted me. I like the idea of an alternative to hot cross buns, which, while fun to make and delicious to eat, are reasonably labour-intensive. These looked easy to make and I had all the ingredients in my larder, so I decided to try out a batch in preparation for Easter. This recipe gets the thumbs-up: easy to make and even easier to eat! The aromatic muffins are a cute twist on tradition and, if you leave off the cross, they are also yummy enough to whip up year-round

Hot cross muffins
From delicious magazine, April 2010

135g dried cranberries
1 cup (150g) currants
2 1/2 cups (375g) self-raising flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
2/3 cup (165ml) sunflower oil
1 cup (250ml) buttermilk
2 eggs
200g caster sugar, plus extra 2 Tbs
80g icing sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Grease a 12-hold muffin tray and line with paper cases.

Soak dried fruit in just enough boiling water to cover for 10 minutes. Drain well, then pat dry with a paper towel.

Sift the flour, soda and spices into a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, buttermilk, eggs and sugar until combined. Add to the dry ingredients and stir to combine. Gently stir in the fruit. Divide the mixture among muffin cases, then bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly browned and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Meanwhile, place the extra 2 Tbs sugar in a pan with 2 Tbs water and simmer over a low heat, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Brush the glaze over the muffins.
Sift icing sugar into a bowl. Add lemon juice and just enough hot water to make a thick, pipable icing. Use a piping bag, or drizzle from a spoon, to draw a cross on each muffin, then serve.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A cure for most ills

When you enjoy baking as much as I do, baking for others can sometimes be more stressful than people expect. Friends and family are surprised if I stress about what cake to bake or dish to cook. "But you're a good cook," friends say. "You have heaps of recipes to choose from."

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. Too many recipes, too much choice, too much pressure to come up with the perfect dish for the occasion. A simple slice is easy to make but will it have the 'wow' factor? Should I risk making a new cake that I haven't tried before? Biscuits are a nice treat but will they seem too small and boring?

Of course, all this pressure is self-imposed. Most people are impressed simply by the fact that someone has gone to the trouble of baking something homemade for them. The cook may bewail the fact that the corner of the cake broke when it came out of the tin, that the icing didn't set properly, or that the finished product doesn't look picture-perfect, but I guarantee that most of the recipients won't even notice.

If you want to impress people, I find that a homemade chocolate cake is always a winner. A chocolate cake can be dressed up or down, adorned with simple butter icing or a rich ganache, filled with whipped cream, or left plain. Morning tea, afternoon tea, dessert, birthdays - chocolate cake suits all occasions.

This chocolate cake, from Allan Campion and Michelle Curtis's excellent In The Kitchen, is a recent addition to my repertoire but an instant hit and one I've made several times since. I made this cake recently for the regular Friday morning tea at my work. Although I normally serve it plain at home, usually dusted with a mixture of icing sugar and cocoa, this time I dressed it up with a chocolate ganache. It is a rich fudgy cake that is guaranteed to impress - there were definitely no seconds when I served this one!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Artisan bread - Dench's Bakery

I've long wanted to visit Dench's Bakery in North Carlton, especially as my friend John continually regales me with tales of this wonderful bakery, its enticing aroma of freshly baked bread, and the wide variety of breads available.

Dench's has an impressive website, filled with some of the most stunning, evocative shots I've ever seen. Ciabatta, baguette, focaccia, schwarzbrot, panini, beer, farmhouse, spelt, brioche, raisin, potato and walnut, apricot and honey are just some of the loaves available from its store in Scotchmans St, North Fitzroy. There is also a cafe, which serves breakfast and lunch and baked treats such as pastries, cakes, tarts and biscuits, and Genovese coffee.

My friend John recently discovered that Dench's also sells bread at the Queen Victoria Market and he brought me in a loaf of grain bread as a present. Although the loaf sat in my bag under my desk for the day, every now and then I would catch a smell of fresh bread, which made my mouth water. I couldn't wait to get home and try some!

Made from wholemeal flour, the grain bread also contains sunflower kernels, linseed and sesame seeds. It is soft and chewy, with the seeds giving it body and depth. This bread elevated my simple sandwich of ham, cheese and lettuce to another level, making it truly special. I can't wait to try more loaves in the range.

Dench's Bakery, 109 Scotchmer St, North Fitzroy

Monday, March 8, 2010

The milkman returns

I didn't grow up in the city, so the milkman delivering milk early in the morning was never part of my life experience. Growing up in the country, all of my neighbours were dairy farmers, so we bought billies of fresh milk from them. It wasn't until I moved to Melbourne as an adult that I began to drink what I called "shop milk" from a carton.

Now, with two rapidly growing children, we consume a large amount of milk, as well as bread, butter, cheese and orange juice. Many times I've had to load the children in the car or pram to duck out and buy some milk and bread to replenish supplies. And supplies always seem to dwindle or run out just when we are busiest and have no time to go to the shops!

So I was thrilled when my friend Trudi told me about Aussie Farmers Direct, a free home delivery service offering fresh products that are 100 per cent Australian owned and produced. AFD has a My Milkman, My Green Grocer and My Butcher, meaning that most of your fresh produce needs can be met.

The AFD website says that it cuts out the middle man, ensuring that the produce comes directly from farmers and is delivered straight to the customer's door. Orders are taken online, making it a fast and easy service to use.

The AFD milkman delivers to my area on Mondays and Thursdays and my first order arrived this morning. Packed in a soft esky bag (provided free of charge), my milk, bread and orange juice were fresh and cold. We didn't hear the milkman but the order was on our doorstep when we checked at 7am.

I'm very excited to discover this service. Not only is it saving me time in rushing out to buy a few essentials, but I'm always happy to support Aussie farmers.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Coffee break: Coffee Hit, Doncaster

Shopped-out fashionistas will find a caffeine hit here that’s a cut above the usual shopping-centre offerings. This is a cafe that takes coffee seriously: as well as grinding and roasting its own beans, Coffee Hit sells beans, utensils and books, and the Australian Barista Champion 2009 runner-up is on staff.

Situated in a light-filled atrium near upmarket grocery stores, Coffee Hit has a classy fitout of dark timber furniture, with space for prams or shopping bags. There’s sandwiches and cakes for sale but the high-standard coffee is the main deal. A very short espresso has an intense, spicy aroma that fills the mouth but fades quickly. The initial tobacco aroma of a long black fades into a mellow, slightly earthy taste that doesn’t linger, while a latte, full of caramel and nuts, is an easy-sipping palate pleaser. Just as pleased are the outer-suburban shoppers who now have a caffeine indulgence to equal their inner-city counterparts.

Coffee Hit
Shop G217, Westfield Shoppingtown
619 Doncaster Road, Doncaster

Monday, February 22, 2010

Rich iced birthday cake

I'm an absolute sucker for magazines that feature Christmas feasts. It doesn't matter how many recipe features I have with Christmas dishes (and I already have my own extensive collection of family favourites that I usually make each year), if I see a new magazine with an enticing spread, I buy it.

I admit that the December issue of Notebook magazine was one such purchase. I am a big fan of Notebook magazine, which seems to be one of the few women's magazines that addresses women who might want to read something more substantial than celebrity gossip and sealed sex sections. There's always lots of inspirational reading, with articles on finance, personal improvement, spiritual wellbeing and work-life balance interspersed with fashion and cooking spreads.

One of the dishes that caught my eye in the December issue was the rich iced mud cake with boozy berries. I didn't have time to make it at Christmas (nor did we really need extra cakes!) but I bookmarked it and decided it was the perfect cake to make for Adam's birthday.

It's always a risk to make a new cake for a special occasion, in case it doesn't work, but the method was easy and the combination of chocolate, coffee, Marsala and mascarpone was tempting. It's a big cake, suitable to serve at least 12 people, so it's an excellent occasion cake. The original method called for the cake to be made in two loaf tins but I made it in one big square cake tin and just had to adjust the cooking time accordingly.

The end result was enthusiastically received by both the birthday boy and the family members who attended the birthday feast. The cake is moist and dense, with the subtle coffee and Marsala flavours blending harmoniously with the chocolate. A mixture of mascarpone, whipped cream, Marsala and icing sugar sandwiches the cake together. The alcohol softens the rich mascarpone and ensures that this cake, while rich, is not overpowering and will not leave you feeling like you've overindulged.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

We made it - paella

Paella is one of my favourite dishes. It is a very traditional dish and there are many versions. Frank Camorra from Movida says that a paella is an outdoor dish, cooked over a bed of coals, and it is customary in Spain for men, rather than women, to make paella. His version, in his superb Movida cookbook, includes white rabbit, mussels, king prawns, periwinkles, squid and firm-fleshed fish. It is a reasonably complicated and time-consuming dish.

But there is also a place for an easier version of paella. Although purists may scoff, and argue that this is not a traditional paella but more of a tomato and rice-based dish, it is still a way to enjoy the flavours of paella on a busy weeknight. And so it was that the first dish I made from this month's Donna Hay Magazine in the We Made It challenge was the chicken, prawn and tomato paella dish.

It was extremely easy to make and absolutely delicious. Next time I would add some chorizo for some extra flavour and spice. I'm sure this moves the dish even further away from traditional paella. But, call it what you will, I urge you to make this dish: it is wonderful!

Chicken, prawn and tomato paella
Recipe from Donna Hay magazine, issue 49, Feb/Mar 2010

1 1/2 Tb olive oil
1 x 200g chicken breast fillet, trimmed and chopped
200g green (raw) prawns, peeled, tails intact
1 small brown onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
3/4 cup (150g) medium-grain rice
1 x 400g can diced tomatoes
1 1/4 cups (310ml) chicken stock
flat-leaf parsley leaves and lemon wedges, to serve

Heat 1 Tb of the oil in a medium non-stick frying pan over high heat. Add the chicken and prawns and cook for 4-5 minutes or until golden and cooked through. Set aside and keep warm.

Add the remaining oil to the pan with the onion, garlic, chilli and paprika and cook for 2 minutes or until softened. Add the rice, tomato and stock, reduce heat to low and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Cook for 20-25 minutes or until the rice is cooked. Stir through the chicken and prawns and cook for a further 1 minute. Top with parsley and serve with lemon wedges. Serves 2.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

We made it - Donna Hay magazine under the spotlight

Donna Hay is one of my original cooking inspirations. I loved her stylish and simple cooking that first appeared in Marie Claire magazine in the 1990s. Easy-to-obtain ingredients, simple techniques and delicious food stylishly presented on white plates - it all added up to restaurant-style food that could be cooked and presented by home cooks.

I have all Donna's early cookbooks - Dining, Cooking, Food Fast, Flavours - and I was one of the first 50 subscribers when she launched her magazine (I know this because I received an Alessi cheese grater, which was offered to the first 50 people to subscribe). I've never missed an issue and regularly refer back to the old issues to make tried-and-tested favourites, or to get new inspiration. The photography is excellent: not only are the dishes beautifully presented and photographed but many of the features tell a story - perhaps an autumn picnic in the country or a summer beach holiday - and this adds to the overall charm - you can just imagine yourself undertaking such glamourous holidays and effortlessly producing culinary masterpieces to wow your family and friends.

The latest issue - Feb/March 2010, issue 49 "summer" - is the choice for this month's "We Made It" challenge, where Suzie from Munch+Nibble and I select a food magazine and try to cook from it as much as we can. There is lots of inspiration this month - salads, fruit desserts, tomato dishes, a Fast 50 feature with speedy dinner ideas for weeknights and a lovely tropical island feast photographed in the Cook Islands. I'm looking forward to trying out many of the dishes!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

We made it: roast lamb

My friend John believes that there's nothing a cup of tea can't fix. I feel the same way about roasts. There's something so soothing and satisfying about a good roast, especially for Sunday lunch or dinner. It's one of the easiest meals to put together - throw your meat and vegetables into the oven to roast, cook some carrots and greens separately, and you have a wonderful meal with a minimum of effort.

So you might think that a recipe for a roast is not necessary - and normally I would agree. But the Dec/Jan issue of delicious magazine included an intriguing recipe for shortcut roast lamb with watercress and hazelnut salad and I had to try it. It wasn't just the idea of a salad with a roast that attracted me (although it's the perfect way to enjoy a roast in summer) - the actual salad attracted me first, and the roast was a useful addition.

I urge you to try this recipe, even if you don't normally make roast. The salad is absolutely delicious on its own but it partners so well with the lamb - the soft cheese, toasted nuts and Dijon and balsamic dressing seem to pick up and highlight the crispiness of the lamb.

This recipe is another one in the "We Made It" challenge that Suzie from Munch+Nibble and I are conducting, where we aim to actually use our food magazines rather than just bookmarking them.

Shortcrust roast lamb with watercress and hazelnut salad

Recipe from December 2009/January 2010 delicious magazine

1 ficelle (half-baguette), thinly sliced
1 1/2 Tbs olive oil, plus extra to rub
1.5kg easy-carve leg of lamb
1 red onion, cut into thin wedges
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 Tb balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup (80ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch watercress, sprigs picked
150g soft goat's cheese, crumbled (I used marinated fetta and it was an excellent substitute)
75g hazelnuts, lightly toasted

Preheat oven to 170 degrees. Brush bread with oil, then bake for 15-20 minutes until crisp and golden. Remove and cool.

Increase oven to 190. Rub lamb with extra olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Roast lamb for 45 minutes, then add the onion to the pan and roast for a further 15 minutes. Remove lamb from the oven, cover loosely with foil and leave to rest for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk mustard with vinegar, then gradually whisk in the oil to make a dressing, and season with salt and pepper.

Place the watercress in a bowl and toss with half the dressing. Add the roast onion, croutons, cheese and nuts and toss together.

Carve the lamb, then divide among the plates. Serve with salad and remaining dressing on side.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

We made it: buttermilk chicken

There's something incredibly tempting and moreish about fried chicken. We know it's not healthy for us, but a crispy fried chicken, lightly spiced, is a thing of beauty. But it should be home-made and as light and drained of fat as you can make it (and not resembling the chicken served up from corporate food chains).

Jill Dupleix's buttermilk fried chicken in the Dec/Jan issue of delicious magazine caught my eye for this reason. Her feature was about simple summer food, good for a picnic, and this dish looked just the ticket to be the next dish in the "We Made It" challenge that Suzie from Munch+Nibble and I are running in a quest to actually use our food magazines, rather than just bookmarking them. Suzie had also made this dish and raved about it, so I took the plunge and made it as well.

The end result was mixed. The buttermilk does tenderise the chicken and the baking does dry it out so that the fried crust is not too fatty. But perhaps I skimped on the spices a little (not wanting to scare the children) and Adam and I both found the end result a little bland. Next time I would add more spice - I think it perhaps loses some sizzle in the frying process.

Jill Dupleix's buttermilk fried chicken

Recipe from December 2009/January 2010 issue of delicious

4 chicken marylands
1 cup (250ml) buttermilk
1 3/4 cups (265g) plain flour
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
Sunflower oil, to shallow-fry

Cut the chicken marylands through the joint to separate the drumsticks and the thighs.

Wash the chicken pieces, then dry well with paper towel. Toss in buttermilk, cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees and line a baking tray with baking paper.

Place the flour, cayenne, paprika, cumin and 1 tsp salt into a plastic bag (or zip-lock bag). Add drained chicken, 2 pieces at a time, shaking well to coat in the spice mixture. Remove and shake off any excess, then repeat with remaining chicken pieces until all coated.

Heat 1 cm oil in a large heavy-based fry-pan over medium-high heat to 180 degrees (a cube of bread will turn golden in 30 seconds when the oil is hot enough). Cook the chicken pieces, in batches of 4, for 4-5 minutes until well-browned. Turn and cook on the other side for 1 minute, until golden, then transfer chicken to the baking tray. Bake for 15 minutes or until cooked through, then remove and allow to cool. Serve at room temperature.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

We made it: homemade crumpets with raspberries and lemon

There is something quintessentially English about crumpets. To me, they evoke images of lazy breakfasts in summer, taken at a little table on the terrace overlooking sweeping gardens brimming with the colours and scents of masses of flowers.

Of course, the supermarket variety aren't that glamorous and I'm more likely to eat them in winter slathered with melted butter and honey.

But Jamie Oliver's recipe for homemade cinnamon and lemon crumpets with raspberries and honey in the Dec/Jan issue of delicious magazine sounded heavenly and perfect for a summery morning, especially with berries from our recent berry picking expedition in the Otways.

I've made Bill Granger's homemade crumpets before, which are absolutely divine but a little fiddly, requiring a long proving time for the yeast to activate (not the thing you can whip up for a hungry tummy after a sleep in). The beauty of this Jamie Oliver version is that the yeast requires only 10 minutes and the crumpets can be cooked. The drawback is that they take up to 25 minutes to cook, so you might want to have several fry-pans on the go at once or you will be spending a long time at the stove while everyone else is tucking in! Aside from this minor qualification, these crumpets were delicious - heavier and more bun-like than the supermarket variety but more hearty and delicious because of that - and the honeyed ricotta and raspberries are a perfect combination - all the flavours of summer packed into one small dish.

This recipe is part of the "We Made It" challenge that Suzie from Munch+Nibble and I are giving ourselves: the challenge is to actually use our food magazines rather than just bookmarking them.

Jamie Oliver's homemade cinnamon and lemon crumpets with raspberries and honey

Recipe from December 2009/January 2010 issue of delicious

250g fresh ricotta
Zest of 1 lemon
2 Tbs honey, plus extra to drizzle
3 large handfuls fresh raspberries
Sunflower oil, to grease


500g strong (baker's) flour
1 tsp caster sugar
7g sachet dried instant yeast
A pinch of bicarb soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Place all the crumpet ingredients into a food processor with 2 tsp of salt. Pour in 600ml tepid water. The water needs to be warm enough to activate the yeast but not so hot that it kills it. Blitz all the crumpet ingredients together until you've got a loose batter. Leave to stand for 10 minutes to let the yeast develop. The mixture should be quite wet, just about dropping consistency.

While the yeast develops, make the topping by putting the ricotta, lemon zest and honey into a bowl and beating together until light and fluffy. Place half of the raspberries into another little bowl and mash up with a fork. Fold the mashed raspberries into the ricotta - don't be tempted to over-mix it, as you're looking for a beautiful pink rippled effect.

You may need to cook the crumpets in batches. First, grease the inside of metal crumpet rings (I used egg rings) with some sunflower oil. Place a non-stick fry-pan on medium heat, and put the rings into the pan. When it's nice and hot, spoon some mixture into each ring, to about 1cm deep. Turn the heat to low and leave for 15 minutes to cook through. Check the pan is not getting too hot and burning the bottom of the crumpets. After about 15 minutes - once the bubbles on top have formed into crumpet-like dimples - turn them over, using tongs to lift away the rings. Cook for another 5-10 minutes, until cooked right through.

Serve the crumpets with a generous spoonful of ricotta, an extra drizzle of honey and some lovely raspberries.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Coffee break: Seven Seeds

Melburnians are truly spoilt for choice when it comes to coffee. Baristas take pride in their product and the use of freshly roasted beans, whether secret house blends or single-origin beans, is expected. New places, some in little more than shopfronts, open all the time and it becomes a game to see who knows the newest, secret venue that caffeine fiends are chatting about.

One venue that has received widespread coverage for its excellent coffee, and is no longer a secret, is Seven Seeds in Carlton. It's been on my list to visit for quite a while now and I was pleased to finally make it there. Seven Seeds gets my vote for the best coffee in Melbourne right now. I'm not the first person to nominate them for this honour, and I certainly won't be the last, as the baristas there are churning out a quality brew.

Seven Seeds is inside a converted old warehouse, situated off the main drag in nondescript Berkeley St, Carlton - but still close to Queen Victoria Market and Melbourne University - and surrounded by other old warehouses and new high-rise apartments. Inside, the atmosphere is industrial chic. The high ceilings and large interior lend an air of spaciousness and there is certainly plenty of room to fit in a pram for caffeine addicts with littlies in tow (the only downside is that most of the tables are high, with stools, so toddlers may need to stay strapped in the pram).

A Synesso machine takes pride of place in the spacious serving area. There is an extensive coffee menu, with different blends noted, and a basic breakfast and lunch menu.

Coffee of the day when we visited was 'black cult'. It is syrupy and thick in the mouth, with spicy fruit building to a rich chocolate finish. It is a smooth and mellow coffee that rewards sipping. Adam's cafe latte, decorated with a textbook-perfect rosetta, is smooth and creamy and he votes it as one of the best lattes he's ever had.

It was a rushed visit but we vow to return as soon as we can to try more of the excellent coffee here. This is a venue that takes pride in its coffee, from the sourcing of beans to the serving of the finished product. If you live in the area - lucky you! If you don't - make the visit; Seven Seeds is definitely worth it.

Seven Seeds, 114 Berkeley St, Carlton
Monday-Saturday 7am-5pm, Sunday (and public holidays) 8am-4pm