Thursday, November 27, 2008

Secrets of the Tim Tam

There's no question about it - Aussie's love their Tim Tams. Check out this cool gallery to see how they're made. What floored me is the massive quantities (we're talking tonnage here folks) of chocolate butter and other sweet stuff that get used every single day in the making! The whole conveyer thing is pretty cool too. 

Monday, November 24, 2008

Boozy poached pears with caramel and meringue

This weekend was cold and wet in the 'Berra. No matter. All the better for staying inside and cooking. Especially cooking with alcohol. Tim walked in after a trip to the hardware store and was just about overcome by the heady fragrance of cinnamon, orange and sweet wine wafting through the entire house. I couldn't get him out of the kitchen after that! 

This dessert was inspired by a very posh version that I saw in a magazine, made of ingredients I've never heard of. This is my version and it worked well. While it's cooking it sort of smells like Christmas and then it looks classy and tastes gorgeous. As with most of what I cook, it's really simple too so don't let the different components put you off.

395g can sweetened condensed milk.

So simple!!! Take the label off the can and pierce two small holes in the top of the tin. Then put the tin in a small pan and fill with water until about 1cm from the top. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a vigorous simmer. Remember to top the pan up with boiling water every so often. Let it simmer for about 3-4 hours and you should get a lovely thick caramel. Let the can cool for a bit, remove the caramel and refridgerate. Mine could have been thicker, but I didn't leave it long enough. 

2 medium sized pears, peeled and cored if you can. Leave the stems on. (you could actually fit two more in the pan and use the same amount of syrup ingredients, but it was just Tim and me and I didn't want to waste so we had leftover syrup instead.)

2 cups water 
1/4 cup caster sugar + 2 tbsp extra
1/2 cup sweet wine (or you could use sherry)
1 cinnamon stick
2 strips of orange peel

Put all the ingredients in a pan, except for 2 tbsp caster sugar. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently. Place the pears in the pan, cover and simmer for about an hour. They should not be mushy! If the pan lid won't fit on the pears without pressing down on the stems, put a large bowl over the top - I actually used the rice-cooker bowl. 

When done, remove the pears, orange peel and cinnamon stick, put in the extra sugar and boil down until it's a little bit thicker. You can add another splash of wine or sherry if you want to. Let it cool a little bit before using. 

1 egg white
1/4 cup almond meal
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp corn flour
1 pinch salt

Put the egg white into a small bowl and beat with an electric mixer until it starts getting stiff. Then slowly add the sugar, corn flour and salt and beat until very stiff. With a wooden spoon, very gently fold in the almond meal. Take your time and don't slap the air out of the egg whites.

On a piece of  baking paper, mark out two circles with pencil. Turn the paper over and onto a baking tray so you can still see the marks. Lightly dust with corn flour - I use a pastry brush. Halve the mixture between the circles and spread until even. Cook for about 15 minutes in a low-ish oven - I used 150ºC fan forced.

To assemble: 
On a plate, put the meringue circle down and top with a small amount of caramel. Place the pear gently on top, and spoon over some of the syrup. Garnish with strips of orange zest. 

If this isn't enough sugar for you or your guests, place a small bowl of the caramel and one of the syrup nearby for people to help themselves.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A cookie a day...

One of my favourite cook books is Nigella Lawson's 'Feast'. It's a beautiful book, jam packed with recipes, stories and great photos. I have a few favourites in this book, and these cookies are now one of them. I made them on Sunday morning and by Sunday night they were gone, except for a few I'd put aside for colleagues. The Cookie Monster had struck! No guesses who that is in our house.  

These are seriously good anyway and despite note being allowed to eat wheat, I had to risk it and try a bite. I'm really glad I did. They're packed with the sweet, yet slightly tart little cranberries, and the smoothness of the white chocolate that makes them feel slightly decadent. Yes, they're sweet, but not something you'd eat every day. Especially if you live with the human equivalent of a locust and there's not much left at the end of the day! 

I think these are a good special occasion cookie, if such a thing exists, and a great option for Christmas if you're over the whole gingerbread thing. (Stay tuned for gingerbread recipe).

Cranberry and white chocolate cookies
From Nigella Lawson's Feast, p 82

140g flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
75g rolled oats
125g soft unsalted butter
75g dark brown sugar
100g caster sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
75g dried cranberries
50g pecans, roughly chopped
140g white chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/ 180ºC

Measure out the flour, baking powder, salt and rolled oats into a bowl. Put the butter and sugars into another bowl and beat together until creamy - this is obviously easier with an electric mixer of some kind, but you just need to put some muscle into it otherwise - then beat in the egg and vanilla.

Beat in the flour, baking powder, salt and oat mixture, and then fold in the cranberries, chopped pecans and chocolate chips or white chocolate, chopped into small dice. Set the bowl of biscuit dough in the fridge for 10-15 minutes.

Roll tablespoons of dough into a ball with your hands, and then place them on a lined or greased baking sheet and squish the dough balls down with a fork. You may need two baking sheets or be prepared to make these in two batches.

Cook for 15 minutes; when ready, the cookies will be tinged a pale gold, but be too soft to lift immediately off the tray, so leave the tray on a cool surface and let them harden for about 5 minutes. Remove with a spatula or whatever to cool fully on a wire rack.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Baked ricotta cheesecake with saffron apricots

At long last, a killer cheesecake recipe that isn't too bad for you and a real joy to make. It's so simple. I don't make cheesecake often and I've been meaning to try this recipe out for ages. It's from an old edition of Delicious and looks divine, tastes better and is gluten free.  No story tonight - just a fabulous recipe.

From Delicious magazine, Issue 54, October 2006, page 116

250g dried apricots
2 tbsp brandy or sweet wine (I used brandy)
1/2 tsp saffron threads
1 1/3 cup (295 g) caster sugar
1 kg low-fat fresh ricotta
1/2 cup lemon curd
1 tsp vanilla extract
grated zest of 1 lemon
40g cornflour
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cinnamon quill
6 cardamom pods, bruised
Icing sugar, to dust

Preheat the oven to 170º C. Grease a 20 cm spring form cake pan.

Combine the apricots in a bowl with the brandy and saffron, then stand for one hour. I stood them at room temp and used a little more brandy.

Meanwhile, place 1/3 cup caster sugar in a food processor with the ricotta, lemon curd (I used bought stuff because I was feeling lazy), vanilla, lemon zest and cornflour, and pulse to combine Add eggs and process until smooth. I actually used a mixer because I don't have a processor and it worked just fine. 

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the top, then tap several times on the bench top to remove any air bubbles. Place in the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes until the top is golden and a skewer inserted into the oven comes out clean. (took closer to an hour for me, so keep an eye on it) Turn off the oven, leave the door slightly ajar, then leave the cheesecake to cool completely. 

Meanwhile, place the remaining 1 cup sugar in a pan with 1 1/4 cups cold water (310ml). Stir over low heat until the sugar dissolves, then add cinnamon, cardamom and apricot mixture. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes.  Transfer the apricots to a bowl, then increase the heat to medium-high and simmer syrup until thickened. (Keep an eye on it, stir regularly and don't let it burn). Pour the syrup over the apricots and cool completely.

Dust the cake with icing sugar, slice and serve with apricots and syrup.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Seaside delights

I know that technically it's only Wednesday, mid-week, and I shouldn't be getting too excited about the weekend which is still two full days away, but for whatever reason it really feels like tomorrow should be Friday which would mean it's practically the weekend. And I can't wait for it. This weekend's going to be busy! In between bouts of helping Tim organise the front yard that has been reduced to a dusty piece of nothing in an attempt to give us a blank canvas to work with, I'm planning a baked ricotta cheesecake and some other tasty treats. I'd really like a weekend at the beach, but oh well.

If you can are looking to get out of Canberra this weekend to enjoy the sun somewhere with water, (let's face it, the Lake BG doesn't count) and if this gorgeous weather holds, try a drive to the South Coast of NSW. Petrol prices have gone down a lot lately, so that's no excuse. If you can, get down as far as Tilba and Cobargo. It's a beautiful stretch of country that they call the Sapphire Coast - with good reason. The water is blue and green and whales travel up and down at various times of the year. Of course, they always surface as I'm blinking, but they do exist I'm told.

Importantly, there's a lot of good food along that drive. Before you get into gourmet territory, you could try a proper bistro lunch at the Narooma Gold Club where they still do roasts and decent portions. The club occupies a piece of land on the edge of a cliff. Below swells the ocean, littered with thousands of lost and un-retrieveable golfballs. The view from the bistro is a million dollar one if I ever saw one. Back in the day when I could eat wheat, I always enjoyed the fisherman's basket. Crisply fried calamari rings, tender pieces of fish, golden chips and other stuff besides. Mmmm... More recently I tried a steak. I was not disappointed.

Further down the coast is Tilba. If you remember the Nescafe ads from a few years ago 'I came to this valley... wound up meeting a man in a shop ... blah blah blah...' that's where it was filmed. It is very picturesque and doesn't seem to change much. Same stores, same red telephone box, same people.  

The cheese factory is still there, at the end of the main road in Central Tilba. You can try a dozen or so different kinds of honey, and some award winning cheeses. I love the trio that you can now buy in the supermarket, and also the smoked cheese. On the way back down the street, try the old fashioned sweet shop. You can find anything in there, not that I've actually looked, but I know I see things in there that I liked as a kid and haven't seen much of since. I opted for some proper mints and some flying saucers which I later realised I can't eat because of the whole wheat thing. Grrrr!

Finally, and one to be savoured, is the hand made fudge at the general store on the corner as you come into Central Tilba. Years ago I got talking to the girl who worked here who told me that it had been made there by the same family for years. I didn't ask this time but it's a good bet it still is. I bought a two-toned confection - chocolate and English toffee I think. I carefully doled out bite-sized pieces for about three days before being unable to control myself and polishing off the lot while Tim was on a bike ride. He he he ...

If you're looking to stay somewhere, try Mumbulla View at Quaama, which is about 10 minutes south of Cobargo. We stayed there a few weeks ago and could not have had a more pleasant and relaxing experience. The place has been completely renovated and the owners are lovely, hospitable people who made the weekend all the better. They even found toys for a friend's toddler. Never seen that in a big hotel before. Whatever you're doing, enjoy and eat well!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cupcakes for a happy day

This weekend just past was really  busy but lots of fun. After another hectic week (not complaining since mine was all of three working days long) we launched into a weekend of cooking, planning, organising and unfortunately, shopping. I really hate shopping. A lot. 

I'm partial to markets, especially food markets and great delis where I can trawl through shelves and cabinets and refrigerators stocked with luscious things I sometimes take home to try. On Saturday I saw a jar of pate d'foi gras (or however you spell it) in a deli in Woden. Amazing! I've never spotted that in Canberra before, but there you go. Now I'm deliberately not going to make a comment on the the whole foi gras thing being cruel to geese because I have no idea what it entails and I've never indulged. This particular pot could be purchased for the bargain price of $149.95. Ouch! 

Interwoven with random acts of housework, visits, shopping and the like, I managed to get in some cooking. It was a largely unsatisfactory weekend on that score. It's bizarre how things you've either made a hundred times before sometimes just don't work, and then difficult things you've never done turn out as if you're a master. On this occasion, both old and new were disasters. It definitely took a toll on my morale.

Determined to have one success to speak of, I turned to an old standard, guaranteed not to fail, favourite of one and all, young and old, and especially Tim. Cupcakes. Cupcakes are little bits of light, pretty frippery, designed to make a person feel happy. I didn't use any particular recipe of note, just a basic vanilla recipe that I turned into orange and poppyseed by using orange juice and zest, and poppy seeds. But I did feel the need to make them look pretty. 

Earlier in the week I bought a packet of Robert Gordon paper baking cups. I think they're pretty good value at $4.95 for 50. They're good quality too - held their shape and colour well and look really lovely. I made up some pale orange and not too buttery icing, and slathered this on generously. To top it al off, I grabbed some lavender flowers from the garden and as you can see, the purple works really well.

The nicest thing is that they really do cheer people up, which is especially necessary on a Monday morning. 

Thursday, November 6, 2008

There's nothing like a Cosmo

There really is nothing like a Cosmo to perk a person up. Just looking at the ruby-coloured liquid with the shiny, jewel-like cherry soaking up the flavour, you can taste the potent nectar before it hits your lips. 

I was trying to explain the attraction of this drink from a woman's point of view to Tim. The colour of a properly made Cosmo is like the colour of a dress you wish you had, or a lipstick you wish they made, or nice lingerie that costs too much to buy. You order a Cosmo, imagining that for just a little while, you'll have something beautiful and sophisticated and it will make you look beautiful and sophisticated, but will also pack a punch and so be totally worth the price, and the calories. I don't recall ever not savouring every single last drop.

Why this mid-week madness? Blame it on being a short-long week. I had a four day weekend, followed by two very busy days at work and another tomorrow before the weekend. There's been a new president elected, a new Melbourne Cup winner, I've achieved things at work and perhaps most importantly, one of the nice guys at work and his wife had a perfect baby boy. All is good and wonderful in my world.

Here's our recipe:

1 1/2 measures/ 6 tsp vodka
1 measure/ 1 1/2 tbsp Cointreau
1 measure/ 1 1/2 tbsp cranberry juice
1/2 measure/ 2 tsp lime juice

Make sure you use decent vodka, cold cranberry to start with and freshly squeezed lime juice (strained) for the best result.

Oh - and as I've been reminded, pour it over ice in a cocktail shaker. Tim likes to more or less massage the cocktail over the ice, but I like it shaken, not stirred. Serve in a martini glass with a cherry. I know I go on about quality ingredients a bit, but it is totally worth investing in decent quality cherries. They're not much more expensive, and they look and taste so much better. Actually, if anyone knows where to find the cocktail cherries with the stalks on in Canberra, please let me know!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Melbourne Cup Day...or whatever...

Here in the ACT, a new public holiday was gazetted by the local government last year, much to the chagrin of cafes and caterers everywhere. It's called 'Family and Community Day' or something of that ilk. The fact that it just so happens to fall on the first Tuesday in November, traditionally Melbourne Cup Day, is merely coincidental...

That aside, what it means is that now you actually have to think about what you're going to have for lunch, rather than wait for the inevitable announcement over the office PA that signals to all that you must now surrender yourself to being herded off by your supervisor to the local club or staff common room for Melbourne Cup lunch/afternoon tea/drinks. These are traditionally disappointing affairs in terms of the food, made only slightly more bearable if you happen to have backed a winner in your own right or gotten lucky with the office sweep. (Or in the case of some people who won't be mentioned, gotten so drunk that you're beyond caring about food, the race or even know why you're huddled with your colleagues around the TV in your boss's office at three in the afternoon).

I have to admit that I'm looking forward to spending this afternoon with friends in their back yard, BBQ on the burn, champagne in hand (the decent stuff), rather than lining up with my colleagues to trawl past the $15 cold buffet that consists almost entirely of pressed chicken and coleslaw, and having to gush about whoever organised  it doing a wonderful job and pretending that the caterers have been generous and done us a good deal, while really feeling ripped off and wondering why we bothered. This little ritual is almost always followed by the act of balancing one's plate while one surrenders one's drinks ticket to a surly bartender who wishes he was at the track rather than dealing with a room full of slightly inebriated desk jockeys, for a glass of $4 a bottle plonk that would otherwise be bound for next month's school leavers heading for their first big binge. 

So really, thank goodness for the public holiday, whatever it's called!

Anyhow, I got thinking about the traditional chicken salad and champagne lunch. Believe it or not, I can't ever recall making chicken salad before. I didn't feel like making one now. So what I did was this instead - rolled chicken thigh fillets served with salad. It's still good. 

4 chicken thigh fillets (I used organic free range and you can taste the difference)
olive oil

For marinade:
4 tbsp honey
1 generous tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp sesame seeds

For stuffing:
4 tbsp fresh ricotta
2 tbsp polenta
2 tbsp fresh basil, finely chopped
2 tbsp roasted pine nuts, roughly chopped
1 tsp fresh or dried parsley, finely chopped
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest

Mix up the marinade and set aside. Pat dry the chicken thighs on some paper towel.

Mix all of the stuffing ingredients together. It doesn't look like much but it will be enough because you're not flattening out the chicken at all. Turn the chicken over and put a couple of tablespoons of the mixture, moulding it into a cylinder shape to fit the length of the thigh. Roll the meat over it - no need to secure or anything.

Oil a small baking dish and place the four fillets in, making sure they fit snugly up against each other. This will keep the filling and the flavour in. Brush the marinade over the chicken. Use the whole lot even if it looks very thick. Cover the dish with foil and bake for about an hour on medium heat. At about 45 minutes in, remove from the over, take the foil off and baste the chicken with the juices forming. Put it back into the oven and let it brown up for about 15 minutes. When it comes out, it should have coloured up beautifully and when you open in up, the meat should be moist and full of flavour. 

I served this with a mixed salad of butter lettuce, thinly sliced radish, tomato, baby capers, boiled egg, some small blobs of ricotta, lemon zest, basil leaves and seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice. It's very fresh and delicious.

Whatever you're doing today, enjoy and here's hoping you back a winner! 

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Whatever happened to Mr Pumpkinhead?

He got made into soup and eaten. That's what!

Actually it's pretty funny because now that he's drying out a little bit, he's starting to look like a less evil, very gummy old man with no teeth on the top. Making soup out of his guts seemed like a fitting end for him. I'm not even that into soup, but smelling the beautiful, organic pumpkin smells as Tim carved the old guy up made me crave for pumpkin soup. Totally simple, easy and complete comfort food without being stodgy. Here's how:

About 6 or so cups of roughly chopped pumpkin
2 red capsicum
1 cup finely sliced leek
1 litre vegetable stock
Juice of 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
2 tbsp sweet paprika
Olive oil
salt & pepper
2-3 springs fresh rosemary
Sour cream to serve

In a hot oven, roast the peppers until black. Wait till they've cooled a bit and pull off the skin. Roughly chop or pull apart. It's all going to get whizzed up anyway so it doesn't need to be neat.

While the peppers are roasting, take the pumpkin, drizzle with olive 
oil and sprinkle with a little salt & pepper, and toss around until it's all coated. Throw a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary on top and roast until they're soft and going brown.

In a large pot, soften the leek in a generous splash of olive oil. Don't brown them - just soften. 
Add the capsicum and pumpkin to the pot, taking out the rosemary stalks. The leaves should have fallen off by now. If not, leave them in an remember to remove before you blend it all up. Add the paprika, pour in the stock and cover. Let this simmer slowly on low for about 20 minutes. Then pour in the lemon juice and let it simmer for another 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it cool slightly. 

When it's cooled a little, pour it in batches into a food processor or blender and whizz the bejesus out of it. Pour it back into the pot and over a low heat, warm it up a bit. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with sour cream, crusty bread and a dry white wine. Delish!