Sunday, May 31, 2009

Another fabulous weekend

What a super-cool weekend! Unfortunately it's over. Our UK friends Jayne, Darren & Lucie are on their way to Sydney and it's Sunday night which means it's time to iron shirts, polish shoes and decide what to eat this week. (Not that eating has been an issue this weekend. Frankly, I've eaten for the nation and with Fleur and Dave's wedding less than two weeks away, and me wearing satin for the occasion (bridesmaid duty) I could be in trouble! Nothing is so unforgiving as satin.)

This morning we went off to the Bus Depot markets in Kingston and I walked away with free range eggs, spelt bread, finger-puppets for the nephews in England and a plant I can't remember the name of. There's plenty of new stuff there since we last went (probably over a year ago) and quite a nice vibe with live music on the top level. It was busy and lots of fun, but you can feel that winter really is here now so rug up if you're heading down there. 

Anyway, it has been a wonderful weekend full of good food, company and conversation. Inspired and well-fed, I've finally tried using the Flickr mosaic tool for something different. Little Lucie has been the star of the show, and what a great baby she is. Ladybug has been very nice about it all. And now it's back to reality...

1. Chocolate scrolls 2. Lucie helps Nathan with dinner 3. Hand made biscuits 4. Beautiful yarns 5. Hand made pasta 6. Bread 7. Ladybug is over it 8. 'World Wide Knit in Public Day' advertisement in Civic 9. Felt finger puppets 10. Olives 11. Jayne & Lucie shop 12. Chocolate tart 13. Bagels 14. Free range eggs 15. Lucie before her babychino arrived

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sometimes Food

This really has been a 'sometimes food' weekend. As I sit here blogging and ebaying, I've polished off a lunch of leftovers, including half a chocolate twister bread roll, a sliver of chocolate tart and some cold arancini with dip. YUM! 

To put this into context, I spent a lot of yesterday cooking. Tim and I both had the day off to await the arrival of our good friends Darren and Jayne from the UK. Oh, and let's not forget little Lucy who Ladybug just doesn't quite get. We think she thinks Lucy isn't exactly a person like mum and dad are, but more like some weird kind of hairless dog complete with her own cool toys that she doesn't like to share. All at once the new kong isn't cutting it. But I digress...

Besides the usual pre-houseguest cleaning and shopping, I made a whole lot of food for the weekend. Last night we also had the lovely Penny and Nathan over. The following was served: antipasto plate of char grilled artichokes, baked ricotta, baba ganouch and arancini, followed by a pot roast and baked veg. If that wasn't enough food, we had chocolate tart and vanilla ice cream to finish up.. Even the blokes were struggling so I consider it a job well done. 

This was after I'd made chocolate twister bread from Jamie Oliver's 'Return of the Naked Chef' recipe book, for afternoon tea. Another 'sometimes food' that has gone down extremely well. The premise is to take a basic bread dough recipe, roll it out, spread it with butter and then sprinkle chopped up chocolate and nuts. It's then rolled into one big sausage-like roll, and carefully chopped into rounds. These are baked to perfection. The result is heaven. 

I won't go through the basic bread recipe because it's quite long. It's a great recipe all on it's own, and I used spelt as usual too. Here are the ingredients for the chocolate part.

200g soft butter (although I used slightly less)
200g hazelnuts (although I only had 150g almond meal available)
310 g dark chocolate

I put the chocolate and almond meal in the food processor and whazzed it up pretty well. It was just out of sheer laziness but it worked. 

See pages 222-3 and 226 of The Return of the Naked Chef if you want Jamie's instructions.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Morning Tea Alert!!!

Last week was so full-on work wise that I didn't have a lot of time for creativity. Even the prospect of the big staff morning tea on Friday morning didn't raise my interest and I felt a bit underwhelmed by the thought of baking of Thursday night. So, I found myself doing something I rarely do - I reached for a packet of store bought muffin mix. You know the kind - one of those big packs with several varieties of muffin in it. In my defence, I'd bought it months ago, on special, for just such an emergency situation.  Imagine my surprise when I found only one lonely, small packet of plain dry mix left inside the box! No chocolate chips, chocolate batter mix or icing in sight. I turned to Tim, speechless. He had the decency to blush.

I work in one of those offices that has an 'all-staff' do once every month or so, I think. I can't keep up to be honest, and usually just show up to hear the boss say a few words before leaving the obligatory supermarket lamingtons, french onion dip and  cheezles for the I.T. boys and anyone else desperate enough to go there. That sounds a bit snobby I suppose, but really it's just self-preservation. Mostly there isn't anything gluten free and I'm not going to be sick for two days for the sake of networking with people I already know. 

On this occasion it was my branch's turn to provide the nosh. Thankfully we have some excellent cooks among us including an ex-caterer. No pressure at all.  I kept it simple - mini cupcakes and date loaf. The abundance of home-made fare was, for the first time in my history of the office, noted during aforesaid boss's speech. We all felt pretty proud of ourselves. There were several home-made cheese cakes, key lime pie, hot and cold dips, cupcakes, loafs, fresh spring rolls, brownies and more. Altogether a fantastic spread and barely a shop-bought item in sight.

Where does that leave things now, recipe wise? Well yesterday I came up with a recipe for gluten-free, roast vegetable lasagna that I'm quite proud of. But that's a recipe for later this week. Right now I have to get back to erasing any evidence of one of the all-time worst home paint jobs in the history of mankind. I think the previous owner laboured under the mistaken belief that one coat of the cheapest paint they could lay their hands on, in a shade that can only be described as homicidal-pink, applied haphazardly from ceiling to floor (including skirting board!!!) would make a classy feature wall and significantly raise the value of the house. Sigh...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Poached mandarins

Mandarins are in season and boy are they nice at the moment! They're sweet, compact and smell gorgeous. They're also such a convenient fruit - no need for a washing or a knife, no drips or spills even with a juicy one, and each little segment always comes away so beautifully in a bite-sized piece. Altogether a satisfying design.

We've been eating a lot of them au naturale of late, but I thought I'd try something different for dessert and poach them. Now these worked really well and are so simple to make, but I learned two important things in the process:  first, star anise may be small but it packs a punch in the flavour and aroma departments so go easy on it; second, mandarins can be surprisingly delicate creatures. 

My solution is not to use more than one star anise at a time, and not to poach mandarins for longer than about 15-20 minutes, at a gentle simmer only. They can sit in the warm syrup for a while and infuse longer that way. Also handle with care when serving. 

Now about the spice in this - star anise is that little bit edgier and different and lends a whole other dimension to a dish, but I  appreciate that it is an acquired taste. Even the fragrance is quite strong and can be overwhelming. If you're definitely not a star anise fan, cinnamon would go just as well with these flavours. If you don't know, just try it. You may be very pleasantly surprised.

4 whole mandarins, skins off
3/4 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup dry vermouth
1/4 cup orange blossom water*
1 star anise (or one cinnamon stick if you hate star anise)
tiny pinch of saffron threads

In a pan that's big enough to hold four mandarins without cramping them, but not too big, place all of the ingredients except the mandarins. Stir for a minute or two over medium heat to dissolve the sugar. 

When the sugar is dissolved, or mostly so, turn the heat right down, place the mandarins in and pour over enough water to just cover. Very gently simmer for no more than about 20 minutes. The fruit should be soft, but not the mushy consistency of baby food or in danger of falling apart when you lift it out.

Gingerly remove the mandarins and star anise and set aside. (Actually, you can thrown the star anise out unless you want to use it as a decoration and photograph your efforts.) Bring the liquid to a boil and boil it rapidly until it reduces and thickens into a decent syrup. 

Serve mandarins cold or hot with syrup poured over the top, and a dollop of double-cream or scoop of vanilla ice cream. Or on their own if you like.

*You can find orange blossom water at Middle Eastern grocers. There's a good one in Mawson if you're in Canberra. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Double Choc-Cherry Friands

My mum's favourite sweet is friands. I can live with that. As a Mother's Day treat, I came up with this version. 

I'm pretty pleased with how these turned out. They're fragrant, sweet, moist and altogether delectable. They're filled with little surprises in the form of dark chocolate chips and succulent dark cherries. They look good and decadent. Actually, I'm surprised I had anything left to photograph. And on that note, one half of the team was missing, so I definitely DON'T rate my photo on this occasion. But you get the point. It's a friand. 

1/2 cup plain flour 
1/2 cup good quality cocoa
1 1/4 cups icing sugar
1 cup (100g) almond meal
100g dark chocolate, chopped
5 egg whites 
180g butter, melted
425g can pitted cherries, drained and halved
Extra melted butter for greasing tins
1 tsp vanilla essence

Preheat oven to 200ºC. Brush a dozen friand moulds with melted butter.

Sift the flour, icing sugar and cocoa into a large bowl. Stir in the almond meal and chocolate, followed by the cherries. In a different bowl, whisk the eggs until they're frothy. You can do this with a whisk or a fork. Then fold it through the dry ingredients. Next, stir in the vanilla and melted butter until just combined. Be a bit gentle.

Spoon the mix into the moulds. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the friands rise a bit and spring back to the touch. When you pull them out of the oven, let them cool for about five minutes before you try removing them from the moulds. You might need to very gently and gingerly run a knife around the edge of each mould. Serve however you like, warm or cold. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day Morsels

Is Mother's Day another Hallmark special? I don't know and I couldn't be bothered Googling it's origins. Whatever it is, I reckon it's about best of a bunch of thinly veiled commercially motivated occasions. We all have mothers, after all. Mine happens to be the best. She really is. No competition. Actually I often wonder how she stayed sane with five kids and my particular brand of father. She's the best mother-in-law too, according to Tim, whose catch cry whenever there's any sort of family debate is "you're either with Christiana, or you're against her." It's just that simple. Anyhow, I won't rave about my mum any longer. She's great.

Needless to say, it's a special day for a lot of us and a chance to express love and appreciation in whatever form works for you. I choose Oil of Ulan (yes, I know it's Olay now, but when I was a kiddie it was Ulan and will forever be known as Ulan to my mum) and baked goods. It's what I do best.

Mum's not a great sweet-tooth but she loves friands. I got up early this morning and made her favourite kind -  double-chocolate and cherry friands. (Photos and recipe in the next post). Yesterday I also made these little morsels. They're just tiny vanilla cakes, baked in a mini-muffin tin and iced liberally with drippy pink icing and a raspberry lolly. So simple, so pretty, so mum.

Happy Mother's Day!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A very veggie kind of week #2

Well I did say I was craving veg this week. Actually today I had an absolutely beautiful salad for lunch at "As You Like It" which is what I always used to call the Street Theatre cafe, since that's where it is. With colleagues I really like, we dined on a range of tasty treats, washed down with champagne we didn't mean to order. It worked, but I felt a bit fuzzy going back to the office. Thank God for Earl Grey.

Anyway, the current issue of Delicious has an Italian focus. I love Italian food. I grew up with it and I'll enjoy discovering new Italian dishes until the day I die. I saw a recipe for eggplant parmigiana with buffalo mozzarella and thought I'd give it a go. Unfortunately I didn't have quite all of the ingredients and it served 8-10 people which is way too much parmigiana for this household without company present. And even then... So I compromised - slightly changed the herbs, used spelt and cut back the quantities. And this is what I came up with - eggplant parmigiana, suburban style. 

I have to say, even my little carnivore who only eats veg at my insistence, loved this and wasn't impressed when I got to the last piece before he did.

Two large eggplant, washed and cut into 1cm rounds
1 cup spelt flour (or whatever plain flour really)
2 tbsp dried oregano 
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil leaves
2 tbsp chopped fresh sage leaves
2 free range eggs
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 x 400g peeled tomatoes, pureed
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
280g mozzarella, sliced

Put the eggplant in a colander in layers, sprinkle liberally with salt at each layer and let stand for 15 minutes. Rinse well, pat dry with paper towel.

Preheat oven to 190ºC and olive oil a deepish baking dish. 

Place the flour in a shallow dish, together with the chopped herbs, salt and pepper. Stir well. In a second shallow dish, lightly beat the eggs with a tablespoon of water. Dip each slice of eggplant in the flour, shake a bit, then in egg. Place them on lined baking trays in a single layer and sprinkle with garlic. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden and cooked. 

In the oiled baking dish, layer a third of the eggplant. Cover with a third of the tomato, Parmesan and mozzarella. Repeat until it's all used. Bake for 40 minutes or until the top is brown and bubbling. You can start by covering the top with foil and removing it about half an hour in so that it browns last. Serve hot or cold.

Now if you want the original recipe, you'll find it in this month's Delicious on page 88. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A very veggie kind of week

Sometimes you just want, nay - need,  a lot of veg. This is such a week for me, much to the Ladybug's disgust. (She counts on choice tidbits whenever possible). Such is my desire for veg that today I even ordered chicken prahram without the chicken. 

Inspired by the latest issue of Delicious, I thought I'd try something new - schiacciatta as the Italians call it. Broccoli pie for the rest of us. Now you may find yourself asking: 'Why? Why, oh why would anyone put broccoli in a pie?' It's a good question and I can only imagine that at the time it was invented, the inventor was met with as much enthusiasm as I was when I suggested a sort of breakfast pie. (I still don't think it sounds that bad.)

I have to admit if someone sprung this on me as a concept, without visuals, I'd be dubious. Having seen it in the magazine, I was more hopeful. It looked good, and turns out that it is. The flavours are simple and clean, it's easy to make and it works well cold for lunch the next day. In one shot, the pastry has become my favourite pastry recipe ever. I used the leftover to make a killer calzone. Even my favourite carnivore gave it two thumbs up. So from page 127-128 of this month's Delicious, I give you schiacciatta.

3 heads broccoli, trimmed & thinly sliced
6 spring onions, thinly sliced
100g parmesan cheese
1/2 cup (125ml) olive oil, plus 3 tbsp extra
6 anchovy fillets (optional) - but I really recommend this. It adds that little something.
1/2 tsp chilli flakes (optional) - again, just do it!!!

30g fresh yeast or 2 x 7g sachets dried
2tsp sugar
700g plain flour
100ml plain flour (naturally I used spelt flour)
100ml olive oil

For dough, crumple fresh yeast into 3/4 cup (185ml) water and add sugar. Stir until yeast dissolves. (If using dried, mix water with sugar then sprinkle with yeast) Leave it in a warm place for 10-15 minutes until frothy.

Sift flour and 2-3 tsp salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the centre. Pour in yeast mixture, add oil and 3/4 cup (185ml) lukewarm water. Mix well with your hands. If it's too dry, add a little more water or if too wet, more flour.

Knead dough in bowl until soft and elastic - sprinkle with a little flour if too sticky. Roll dough into a ball. Cover with a damp tea towel. Stand in a warm lace for 1 1/2 hours to double in size.

Preheat oven to 190º C. Put broccoli, onion, parmesan, oil, anchovies and chilli and some salt and pepper in a large bowl. Mix well with your hands.

Halve the dough and roll out one piece to the same size as a baking dish about 30cm x 35cm. Brush some extra oil over the dish, then line with dough, using your fingers to stretch it out to cover the base. Spread the broccoli on the dough, leaving a border. 

Roll out the second piece of dough and place on top of the broccoli. Seal edges well by pinching dough - the steam trapped inside will cook the broccoli. Brush top with oil. Bake 1 - 1 1/4 hours until light golden. Rest for at least 30 minutes, then serve warm or cold. 

Just a couple of things: If you really wanted to avoid making the pastry from scratch, you could try puff. But this is just so easy and so delicious that you should give it a go. Second, I brushed the edges with water & stuck the lid on by pressing the edges with a fork and cutting away the excess. No pinching for me. 

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Filled mocha cake

One night last week, something caught my eye on my bookshelf. It was a compilation of recipes clipped mostly from magazines and newspapers, held together in a cut-down manila folder and tied with a piece of string. I found it years ago in my mother's garage, apparently inherited from a late relative. 

I'd never used anything in it before, but could never bear to throw it away. I guess I see it as a sort of time capsule representing the efforts of some distant person, long gone, in their personal culinary journey. I can imagine them sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and scotch-finger biscuit, kids at school, cleaning done. Finally time for leafing through the latest woman's magazine, a real treat, and scissors nearby in case they found anything interesting or that was bound to come in handy.  Presumably, only the most worthy clippings made it into the folder. 

When I think about it, it's not so different from the scrap books of recipes that I keep. And there's the link. But that's where it stops. 

The recipes are fairly ordinary stuff, befitting their era.  There are recipes for salmon mornay quiche,  noodle and sausage casserole and Montana Mom's Dynamite Cheesecake, amongst other horrors that were no doubt considered very sophisticated throughout the 70's and early 80's. 

There are even some handy hints stashed amongst the recipes. For example, Mrs Gladys.S. of Merrylands writes "if you crochet face washers and hand towels around the outside, not only will they look pretty, but they will last twice as long." Or Mrs W of Kranton's pearl of wisdom:"save the plastic egg-shaped containers that pavlova mix comes in. They make excellent gift containers for birthdays or Christmas." Hmm.....

The compiler of this collection must have sent away for a few promotional pamphlets too, like one from the Bingo Custard Powder company or Bourneville Cocoa. It was something on the cocoa pamphlet that grabbed me - a recipe for spiced cheese cake that you're meant to either use a fancy ring tin for or a slab cake tin and cut into diamond shapes. (!)

I decided the filling sounded good, so I'd do something around that. I came up with a mocha-ish cake,  based on the Bourneville cake recipe. I used a sour cream mocha icing and praline coated  walnuts to top it off. I've always thought that coffee and walnuts go together really well. I know the extra sugar in the praline probably isn't necessary, but it's so very good, I recommend going that further step. As usual, I see no problem with swapping the spelt for regular flour. 

I really like this one for a change. It's been ages since I haven't used proper chocolate in the cake, so it's not as sweet as the last few cakes I've made.  The walnuts make up for it and the slightly burnt sugar taste works beautifully. The sugar isn't actually burnt, it just has that deep flavour to it. The cheese filling in the middle is an excellent contrast - light, very slightly tart, and spiced with cinnamon. Tim is certainly happy with the result. He has asked me outright to hide it, lest it disappears overnight. Not a bad endorsement.

125g butter, room temp
3/4 cup soft brown sugar
3 eggs
1 cup spelt, sifted with 2 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp cocoa
2 tbsp coffee powder

250g soft cream cheese (I used Philly 60% less fat)
2 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp milk
1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 cup walnut pieces
1/2 cup caster sugar

Cake: Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the egg, one at a time, mixing in between.  Then add the remaining ingredients and mix until smooth. 

Filling: Blend all the ingredients until smooth.

In a round spring-form cake tin, spoon in half the cake mix and spread over the bottom of the tin. Spread the cheese mixture on top. It doesn't have to be totally even, but be a bit gentle because it's probably best that it doesn't hit the bottom of the tin. The spread the remaining cake on top. Bake for about 1 hour at 180ºC. When it's done, let it cool completely on a wire wrack. 

Walnuts: heat the sugar in a pan, stirring until it becomes liquid. Take it off the heat immediately and working very quickly, mix in the walnuts and then pour or spoon the mixture onto a lined baking tray. Let it cool and harden and then chop into rough bits. Be really, really careful when working with molten sugar. It's the worst kind of burn. I got the tiniest drop in my finger and it hurt. A lot. 

Frosting:  I admit I didn't take down the icing ingredient quantities at the time, but here's what I did: I based it on a very basic butter cream icing recipe, but instead of any water or milk, I used sour cream. I threw probably about 2 cups of pure icing sugar in the mixer and mixed it dry to get rid of the lumps. (I was feeling lazy.) I then threw in about a tablespoon of butter and then about two tablespoons of lite sour cream. Add more icing sugar if it's too runny, or more sour cream if it's not. You'll figure it out. Once you get the consistency right, add a couple of tablespoons of cocoa and one of powdered instant coffee.

Ice the cake and sprinkle the walnuts on top liberally. 

Friday, May 1, 2009

Perfect roses

From time to time I run across non-food related information that I think is worth sharing. This time round, it's information about the florist who did our flowers for the wedding. People keep asking me where I got them. Well, where did I get them? 

Based on recommendations from people I know at the office and otherwise, I tried a few different places to much disappointment with the level of service and cost. I've had too many friends feel disappointed with their bouquet, so I was feeling cautious.

This is where Chellie of CH Floral Designs came into the picture. Chellie was recommended to me by a friend with a super eye for detail, as someone who did beautiful flowers from home at a reasonable cost. With only six weeks to go before the wedding, I was willing to give her a try. 

It went roughly like this: I emailed Chellie with a description and pictures of exactly what I had in mind. She emailed me back promptly, and telephoned for a chat. I was offered an appointment with her. I was feeling pretty confident, and frantically busy, so declined because she seemed to understand exactly what I wanted. She sent me pictures of two slightly different coloured red roses to choose from and bouquets that she'd done of the style I'd requested. We agreed on my bouquet, throw away, button holes for the men and corsages for the mothers and a very reasonable price.  Closer to the day, she phoned to discuss the ribbon on the handle. All good.

On the day, Chellie arrived at my mother's house at the agreed time. I was blown away. The flowers were spectacular. They fulfilled every idea I'd had about them and were what I'd requested down to the last detail. My bouquet lasted so well throughout the night that it didn't look like it had been used. It lasted in a vase for almost two weeks. Tim's button hold dried perfectly over the next few weeks and I will keep it forever.