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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Aftermath

Once again, it's been a while. My sincerest apologies to those of you who keep asking when the next well-overdue post is coming! Whilst my intentions are good, there have been some major life upheavals to contend with over the past couple of months which have prevented regular blogging. Things look set to return pretty well to normal over the next few weeks, albeit a new kind of normal courtesy of my new job. Aah, life.

Anyway, this new kind of normal will hopefully include a lot more blogging and a course on how to properly use my camera, so that you all can see the true beauty of some of my kitchen experiments!

And as for today's kitchen experiment, well, it didn't go too badly indeed, as you can see by the photo above. Unfortunately for you, I neglected to take pictures of the 'before' scene so you'll just have to make do with the recipe and trust me that it's good. Real good.

And just for Nic and Sal's benefit: I see no harm at all in adding to this some figs lightly poached in a sugar syrup with a slug of port or dessert wine - go all out!

Warm Almond Cake with Lemon Curd Icecream

adapted from recipe in 'Cocina Nueva - the new Spanish kitchen', by Jane Lawson


200g unsalted butter, softened

1tsp vanilla extract or paste

2tsp finely grated lemon zest

310g icing sugar

4 eggs, separated

125ml milk

400g ground almonds (always better if you can grind them yourself but the bought pre-ground ones are fine)

Preheat oven to 160C, and line and grease a 23cm round springform tin.

Beat the butter, vanilla, zest and 250g of the icing sugar in an electric mixer until pale and creamy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the milk and ground almonds and mix to combine.

Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt and the remaining icing sugar until firm peaks form. Fold a large spoonful of this through the almond cake batter to combine, then carefully fold through the rest. Spoon gently into the tin and smooth the top.

Bake for about 30 minutes, then cover the top of the tin with foil and bake for a further 20-30 minutes or until a skewer tests clean in the centre of the cake. Your finished cake will be quite dark on the outside but should be gorgeously moist and a bit squidgy in the centre. Cool slightly in the tin, then turn out and serve warm, with the lemon curd icecream on the side.

Lemon Curd Icecream

This is ridiculously easy providing you have some decent lemon curd (lucky me having made a huge amount of it last week with all the lemons falling off Mum's tree!). If there are no lemons, or you're feeling time-poor, by all means buy your curd - just don't skimp on the quality, as you will taste it in the finished product. And, obviously, make this a day ahead of baking your cake.

600ml thick cream, chilled

about 350-400ml good lemon curd, chilled

Mix the lemon curd and cream together (adjust the amount of curd to taste - you want something a bit sweeter than you're after as the coldness of the icecream will dull the sugar a bit).

If you have an icecream maker, put the mixture in and churn according to your machine's instructions. Otherwise, pour the mixture into a shallow tray, cover and freeze for a few hours until icy around the edges. Working quickly, transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth. Return to the tray and refreeze. Repeat this step three times, then transfer the mixture to an airtight container covered with a piece of baking paper and a lid.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Good adaptations

I, like many fellow cooks, have a bit of a penchant for adapting recipes to suit my mood, or, perhaps more often, what's in my pantry. In a way it's what cooking's all about - taking various ideas, methods and ingredients and combining them in your personal style to create your own recipes.

Having the confidence to cook this way is truly one of the great joys of the kitchen for me. I can remember just starting to cook as a child, and following every recipe with great concentration, and an emphasis on getting each ingredient and step exactly as its author described. Then, over time, I became a bit more confident and liberal with my food, such that I now know (most of the time, anyway!) what I can substitute or change about a recipe which will make it suit me better.

It's worth adding, however, that this doesn't always work, even if you are experienced - some things don't take kindly to being played with (bread and a lot of baked goods, for example, and confectionery), and others just don't quite turn out the way you'd hoped. I have, needless to say, had some spectacular failures as well as amazing successes!

The two recipes that follow today, though, are great examples of recipe adaptation: the first, a Nigel Slater-inspired meatballs dish; and the second a gorgeous yoghurt cake made a bit special with the use of leftover poached quinces and caramel sauce to turn in into a fabulously sticky upside-down cake.

As promised in a recent post, I've given Nigel Slater's Appetite a bit of a workout and thought I'd share my version of the meatballs recipe from the book. Mr Slater calls for pork mince as the basis for these little delights, and while I only had beef, I thought they were worth a try...good thinking me! Perhaps a little garlicky for my liking, but that could be easily rectified next time, and my scepticism about there not being any breadcrumbs in the mixture proved to be unfounded. The adapted recipe is below.

As for the cake, I've used this recipe for yoghurt cake a few times and it's worked like a dream in every incarnation, including just the plain version with lemon syrup (which is how it appears in Sweet Food, a little Murdoch Books creation from the Chunky Food series). This time, I had some wine-poached quinces in the fridge, along with a little dribble of caramel sauce, so used these to line the base of my tin and poured the cake batter over the top. Bake, turn out, and voila! A sticky Caramel-Quince Upside Down Cake. This kept Chris and I going for dessert (and, I admit, breakfast on a couple of occasions) for about 5 days. And happily it was almost as good on that last day as it was straight out of the oven. No small feat for a cake, and I suspect it had a lot to do with the moistness that the yoghurt adds.

Do try them, either as I've written, or add your own twist and see what you can come up with. As for me, I think my next yoghurt cake will be split and filled with lemon curd; and the meatballs will be made with pork mince and maybe a little ricotta cheese...happy cooking.

Midweek Meatballs
(adapted from the 'really juicy, spicy meatballs' in Appetite, by Nigel Slater)

I loosely based my recipe on the European version described in the book, using the following:

a decent handful of pancetta, sliced into lardons

500g beef mince

2 cloves garlic, crushed

zest of 1 lemon

2 small red chillies, finely chopped

a good pinch of freeze-dried oregano (MUCH better than normal dried herbs, try them if you can find them at your local gourmet store!)

salt and pepper

Mix all ingredients together, trying not to overmix. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to firm the mixture slightly, then roll into small meatballs (about a tablespoon of mixture for each one is good).

Heat a little olive oil in a frypan over medium heat and brown the meatballs on all sides, then turn heat to low and finish cooking through.

Serve your meatballs hot, with any of the following:

  • dropped into a chilli-spiced chicken broth with a few soba noodles and some Asian greens
  • briefly tossed with a jar of tomato-based pasta sauce and perched atop a mound of spaghetti
  • with mash and steamed vegies
  • with tiny pasta shapes or rice (try deglazing your meatballs pan with a touch of white wine and throwing the pasta/rice around in this reduced mixture to coat & flavour), parmesan cheese and steamed broccolini - as per today's photo

Caramel-Quince Upside Down Cake

(adapted from the Yoghurt Cake with Syrup from Murdoch Books' Sweet Food)

8-10 pieces poached quince, drained of any syrup

200ml pre-bought caramel sauce, or you could make it yourself if you're feeling industrious (NOT that nasty fake caramel ice cream topping, please!)

185g softened unsalted butter

250g caster sugar

5 eggs, separated

250g plain Greek-style yoghurt

2tsp grated lemon zest

1/2tsp vanilla extract

280g plain flour

2tsp baking powder

1/2tsp bicarbonate soda

Preheat oven to 180C. Grease and line a 24cm round springform tin.

Spread the caramel over the base of your lined tin, then top with the quince pieces, arranging in neat circles so they present nicely when you turn out your finished cake. Set aside.

Beat butter and sugar until light and creamy. Add egg yolks gradually, beating well to incorporate. Stir in the yoghurt, zest and vanilla. Fold in the flour, baking powder and bicarb.

Whisk egg whites until stiff, then fold into the cake mixture. Spoon carefully into the prepared tin, being careful not to move the quinces too much, and bake for 50 minutes or until a skewer tests clean. Cool in the tin for 15-20 minutes, then turn out onto a serving plate so any sauce/juice runs down the sides of the cake.

Serve warm or at room temperature with double cream.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bright and white

Sometimes, when life appears to be throwing a lot at us, the idea of big, complex food can be a bit much. By big and complex I refer to things which, although fabulous in their own right at other times, might just require more of ourselves than we are able to give in terms of cooking time and eating appreciation - think prep-intensive long-cooked casseroles; many-ingredient marinades and sauces; and fiddly, fancy Asian-style buffets with innumerable different dishes on the table at once. All good, but not what my body craves on a fragile day.

At these times, it's comfort that I seek, and even in my fairly broad culinary scope, comfort food more often than not entails white food. Fluffy mashed potato; saucy and gooey macaroni cheese (something which really deserves an entire future post of its own); eggy spaghetti carbonara; molten-cheese toasted sandwiches; and the above creamy leek and potato soup. Noticed the recurring carbohydrate theme yet?

So although I'm the first to admit that eating like this all the time is not where you want to be heading diet-wise (or cooking-wise if you like a challenge), the occasional day or two of white food can certainly have a calming and restorative effect on your emotional health. And that, really, is something precious.

Leek and Potato Soup

enough for around 4 decent servings

1 medium white onion, halved and thinly sliced

1 large or two small leeks, white parts only, sliced

2 cloves garlic, smashed

5 medium-large potatoes (I used Nadines, but most general-purpose/tending to floury potatoes will do), peeled and diced into about 6 chunks each

1 litre chicken stock (not too salty please, you can always season further at the end of cooking!)

enough cream to make you feel indulgent, not so much that you feel queasy

salt, pepper, parsley

Add a splash of olive oil to a large saucepan over medium-low heat and gently sweat your onion, leek and garlic without colouring until soft (if you find it's catching on the bottom, add the tiniest splash of water to give a bit more steam).

Add the chopped potatoes and increase the heat to medium. Add your stock and bring gently to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes can be squashed with the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and leave to cool a bit.

Blend your soup (I use a hand held stick blender for convenience, but batches in the food processor would also work), adding a touch of water or milk to thin it if necessary. Adjust seasoning to taste, then gently, over low heat, stir in the cream to reach your desired richness (I have, at health-conscious times, made this without any dairy additions and it's been just fine).

Serve in deep bowls with cracked pepper and a scattering of parsley, and maybe some extra-buttery garlic bread if you feel the need.

Will keep covered in the fridge for about 4 days (I find it best on the second day but can't usually wait that long to eat my first bowl!).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Brownies...with Oreos?

I did promise in my last post to enlighten you regarding some purchases I made in Melbourne... Books for Cooks is the sort of store any cookbook lover wishes was right around the corner, particularly if you're a complete junkie like me. So, knowing that they're not just around the corner, it was with remarkable restraint that I left the store with only 4 new titles after a happy hour or so browsing the shelves (I will add here, however, that the restraint I speak of had far more to do with flight baggage limits and budget constraints than good sense).

As the picture demonstrates, my current cooking trend of 'all things chocolate' dominated on the day, although the Nigel Slater and Hugh F-W additions also made it in on the basis that I've had my eye on both books for some time...if you've never read/cooked with a book from either of these UK-based masters, well, where have you been? Both men are brilliant writers and dedicated foodies, and place strong emphasis on the origins and quality of what we eat - issues which are governing more and more of the foods I choose to buy and cook with.

I've gotten off track, though...Nigel and Hugh's books will almost certainly be featured in future posts (when I've had more time to go through them in detail), but today's recipe comes from one of my other 'newies', Lisa Yockelson's Chocolate Chocolate.

I'd like to state for the record that the purchase of this book did cause me some angst due to its 'American-ness'. Now before any US readers get all offended by my statement, let me clarify - I certainly don't dislike Americans or their books as a blanket rule, but being so far away geographically can have its problems when using US published recipes. Not so much because of the different measurement systems (there are charts to help with that if you're unsure), more because a lot of commonly used US-brand-name ingredients are unavailable here, and it's not always straightforward to substitute something if you don't know what the specified ingredient is similar to. And herein lay my problem with Yockelson's book; there are pages (and pages and pages) of meticulously compiled charts and lists at the beginning of the book detailing chocolate-based ingredients, their sale weights and characteristics, but unfortunately most of the ingredients aren't available in Australia (excepting some of the major European brands). You see my dilemma.

Having made my complaint, though, I read on and decided that this was still a book worth owning. The recipes are detailed and there are A LOT of them, covering just about any chocolate-themed baked good you can think of; most recipes have a photo; and when it comes down to it, it's just chocolate - pick a good quality version that you know you like, and it's more than likely to be a reasonable substitute. Oh, and the layout and design, though a bit flowery and flouncy, really suits the writing style and content (sounds simple but so often I come across a cookbook where this is really not the case, so it's worth mentioning the good ones).

So, the recipe.

On close inspection, there were several things I wanted to make, but these Rocky Road Mud Bars won out on the basis of pantry supplies and Chris' insistence that they were the best looking in the picture. And, apart from the Oreo crumb layer on the bottom, which could really be left out altogether next time (it didn't add much in terms of flavour/texture in my opinion, although I'll admit I've never been an Oreos fan), they really are pretty good. And I followed Yockelson's recommendation of chopping up extra nuts, chocolate and marshmallows and scattering these over the top of the mixture about 5 minutes before the end of baking. Definitely a worthy addition.

Rocky Road Mud Bars
from Chocolate Chocolate (Lisa Yockelson)

Chocolate Cookie Layer:
1 stick (125g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to tepid
1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons (way too hard to figure out, I just used one packet) chocolate sandwich cookie crumbs (such as crumbs made from Oreo Cookies)

Mud Brownie Batter:
1 1/4 cups bleached cake flour (plain white flour did the trick for me)
1/4 cup unsweetened alkalised cocoa powder (PLEASE use something good, my preferred brand is Barry Cocoa, but anything reasonable and Dutch will do)
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips (I used 60% buttons, roughly chopped)
2 sticks (250g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to tepid
6 ounces (180g) unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled to tepid (again, 60% buttons)
5 large eggs
2 cups caster sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract (I used paste)
1 cup chopped walnuts (pecans)
1/3 cup miniature marshmallows

Preheat oven t0 325F (about 160C). Grease and line a 10x10inch pan (mine was about 26 x 22cm and made a pretty deep brownie).

Mix the cookie layer: pour the melted butter into the pan. Sprinkle the chocolate cookie crumbs evenly over the melted butter. Press down on the crumbs with the underside of an offset spatula so the crumbs absorb the butter. Bake the cookie layer for 4 minutes, then let stand on a cooling rack for 10 minutes.

Mix the batter: Sift flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt. In a small bowl toss the chocolate chips with 1/2 tsp of the sifted mixture (this will help prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the finished brownies).
Whisk the melted butter and melted chocolate in a medium-sized bowl until smooth. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs for 1 minute to blend, add the sugar and whisk for a further minute or until just incorporated. Blend in the melted butter/chocolate mixture, mixing thoroughly. Blend in the vanilla. Sift the flour mixture over and slowly stir in. Blend in the chocolate chips, walnuts and marshmallows.
Spoon the batter in large dollops onto the cookie crumb layer. Carefully spread the batter over the cookie layer using a flexible spatula.

Bake, cool, refrigerate and cut the sweet: Bake for 40 minutes or until set (don't overbake it, whatever you do - you want it still a bit gooey in the centre when tested with a skewer). Cool completely in the pan. Refrigerate for 1 hour, or until firm enough to cut neatly. With a small sharp knife, cut into quarters, then each quarter into 6 bars. Store in an airtight tin.

Bake and serve within 3 days (although we ate the last of them 6-7 days after baking and they were still ok).

Monday, May 5, 2008

Eating Melbourne

Somehow, somewhere along the line, I got the impression that Melbourne was over-rated and less than great. Maybe it was the 8 or so hours Chris and I spent there a couple of years ago for the purpose of a business meeting and - ostensibly - a bit of sightseeing. The same 8 hours wherein the fair city put on a fine show of its famed bad weather and we got on the homeward flight cold, wet and having seen nothing much except a rain-swept St Kilda and the inside of a peak-hour city tram.

Okay, I admit it. I was hasty in making judgment, and, it now seems, horribly unfair. Melbourne, despite its strange weather patterns (which were again on display this time around), is lovely. And, more importantly to my mind, a food mecca not to be underestimated.

Coming from Perth, which is deemed a 'small and isolated city' (but which is also a great place to call home, make no mistake), I'm always fascinated by the larger cities' ability to offer such a varied and thriving food culture. The sheer number of little boutique-style cafes and shops in these places would simply not be sustainable here due to our lesser population. Hence my excitement at eating my way through such places - the biggest downfall being the number of meals one can realistically cram into a single day, which severely limits my capacity to try everything!

The Tour

Apart from much general discovery, Chris and I spent a relatively fine Saturday morning in the CBD on a dedicated 'Foodies Walking Tour', led by the lovely and exceptionally knowledgeable Allan Campion. Not only is Allan an expert on his foodie information (partly due, I'm sure, to the research he undertakes to co-author the Foodies Guide to Melbourne each year), he also offers many 'hidden extras' about the history of particular businesses and locations as you go along. And although my inclination was to give you a blow-by-blow account of every place we visited on the tour, and what we ate, I think it might be best to tantalise just enough that you might go on the tour yourself, rather than experience it through your computer! So, in no particular order of importance, highlights were:

  • A visit to Maxims Bakery in Chinatown (cnr Little Bourke and Russell St's). Tiny, typically Asian and full to the brim with pastry delights. We tasted the interesting melon cake (which Allan rightly said was probably not something most 'Westerners' would choose, but was great to try) and the egg tarts during the tour, and were compelled to return a couple of days later for a gluttonous feast of curry beef buns, coconut buns, bbq pork puffs and curry puffs. I can happily say everything was great (and it's cheap enough that you can try A LOT of things withough blowing the budget, although the same probably can't be said about your waistline after you do this).

  • A stop at the iconic Grossi Florentino restaurant for a sneak peek at their upstairs Mural Room (complete with brief history of the business from Allan), followed by salt cod fritters and a glass of wine in the downstairs bar. We didn't have time to go back for a meal during our stay, but it will certainly be on the list for next time. A place that serves up handmade pasta with guanciale (pig's cheek, and no, I didn't know what it was until we asked!), cavolo nero and olives is a place I want to eat at...

  • Chocolates and a chat with the chocolatier at Koko Black. There are several stores around Melbourne, and if you live there but haven't visited one before then I would suggest it's high time you did. Classic high-class chocolatey goodness. Nothing else to say.

  • A wander past Quists Coffee, Melbourne's first commercial coffee roasters. They were unfortunately closed the day of our tour, however we went back to try their coffee and were not disappointed. I might add here that appearances can be deceiving - apart from their prominently-situated coffee machine (which is truly a thing of beauty), Quists doesn't look like much from the outside. One tiny macchiato, however, will convince you otherwise.

There were many other fascinating discoveries made during Allan's tour which Chris and I referred back to over the course of our visit, and I sincerely hope that whether you think you are a 'tour person' or not (I have to say that it's not usually my first inclination to go on a tacky guided tour of a city when I go somewhere new), you'll give it a try if you get the chance. It was well worth the time and cost, and something any food-oriented soul should enjoy.

The Restaurant

Oh, what a joy it is to go to a restaurant you've heard so much about and find that not only does it live up to your expectations, it actually exceeds them. On several occasions I've visited much-touted venues only to be let down by one thing or another and gone home a bit perplexed as to the deservedness of their reputations (the most recent that springs to mind is Sydney's Pier, where the service didn't quite match up to the setting/food/prices despite it's long-standing good name).

MoVida, in Melbourne's CBD, impressed on all counts. So much so, in fact, that I almost cry when I think about how far I must travel to visit again. The tapas style of eating is one which appeals a lot, due to its emphasis on eating many different things throughout the meal. Great for those of us who can never decide what to have, although at MoVida I wanted to try almost everything on the menu, which left another problem entirely: be a total glutton and try everything that looks good, or make a concerted effort to choose only the 'best' of the menu??

Ultimately, our party of four went with the recommendation of our fantastic waitress and chose around 3 tapas each, then 5 racion (mid-sized plates) to share. Although we probably could have gotten through another 1-2 dishes between us, our restraint was later rewarded with the ability to fit in dessert - it's always a plus when you don't leave knowing you've eaten so much that you won't be able to sleep that night!

I'd like to be able to tell you that everything we consumed has a matching photograph so you can actually see what was ordered, but, well, we were far too busy devouring it to worry about pictures! And to be honest, any photographs I could have taken would probably only detract from the deliciousness...a crumbed and fried ball of goodness might be about the best thing one can eat, but lets face it, there aren't many ways to make it beautiful on camera. So you'll just have to trust me. And if you really want to see it, their quirky website has a few funny little pics that will whet the appetite.

Highlights: the diminutive Croqueta, crunchy and golden on the outside, silky and mushroomy within; Vieira, jamon y espuma (baked scallop on the half-shell with jamon and potato foam), the potato foam giving a little nod to the molecular gastronomy groupies; the Gambas con pancetta (pastry-wrapped prawns with pork belly and chickpea shoots), possibly my favourite EVER prawn dish; and, surprisingly, an unassuming and simple little number of Espinacas con garbanzos (sauteed spinach with chickpeas and spices), which defied all expectation and was one of the best dishes of the night. The current menu lists these gorgeous treats and more.

Go there. Go there now. Although you will want to book a table - it's not a huge restaurant and reservations need to be made well in advance (it took us 5 weeks 'thinking ahead time' to get our Sunday night booking). And if you don't live in Melbourne, like us, you'd better start thinking about planning a trip. It's that good.

A couple of other things

Try a cheap and cheerful vegetarian lunch at the Trippy Taco if you're near Collingwood, and churros with an array of different dipping chocolates at Chocolateria San Churro (several locations, we patronised the Brunswick St store in Fitzroy more than once). Gills Diner in the city is also good for a casual dinner (despite a rather unfortunate brand of service from our less-than-friendly waitress - all other reports have been favourable, and the food was great).

Still to come in the next post: my newly-acquired cookbooks from a little shopping expedition during our trip, with a recipe full of chocolatey ooziness to delight one and all.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Digg me!

Sorry guys, no pictures today, although I promise a full write-up of our Melbourne trip over the next couple of days (including the Foodies Tour of Melbourne with Allan Campion and our fabulous dinner at MoVida). There's a fair bit of eating and book-shopping to talk about, so I've been writing a lengthy and time-consuming post over the past week to deal with it all!

Just wanted to let everyone know about a little way in which you can help me promote this blog to the world - head over here, sign up to use the Digg site (if you haven't already - it's free and relatively painless) and 'digg' this blog. The idea is that the more diggs your site gets, the more prominently it will be displayed on their site for other users to find, thus increasing visibility to more than just friends and family... hopefully a good way to gain a bit of new readership and encourage my desire to post often.

If you have a spare five minutes, Digg is worth exploring in general. Not everything is great (after all, anyone can add recommended sites, and we all know how many idiots are out there in internet-land), but I have come across several new blogs and websites this way. It's just about sharing the good things, really. :)

Delicious Melbourne stories soon, watch this space.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It doesn't look so pretty...

But I can assure you it tasted great!

It occured to me after looking back over my first few posts that I am yet to give a recipe for anything savoury. And bearing in mind my HUGE pasta addiction (to which Chris will attest and probably groan at, seeing as I try to feed it to him at least twice a week despite his adamant and definitely ridiculous view that it is far tastier eaten only occasionally), what could be better that a gorgeous Sunday-night chicken & mushroom fusilli with bacon, chilli, rocket and basil?

Over the years my relationship with this ubiquitous foodstuff has changed and, I like to think, grown somewhat to reflect my furthered knowledge and experience in the kitchen. I've always loved it in its myriad forms, and been happy to consume it pretty much to the exclusion of all other foods, however I can dimly remember a time in my childhood when the pinnacle of my pasta experiences involved spaghetti with minced meat sauce and pretend parmesan cheese. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but how things change! I now make, buy and consume varying fresh and filled pastas, along with the craziest of dried shapes coated in everything from basic tomato sugo to slow-cooked shredded rabbit with olives, pancetta and tiny onions. Which, unfortunately, has landed me with a slight problem: I am now unable to order pasta off most restaurant menus.

That's right. Call me picky, a snob perhaps, but I have spent so long in my own kitchen playing with pasta that the overcooked, oversauced and underflavoured (or just plain weird) offerings of many a 'cafe' or pub menu simply don't cut it anymore. There are notable exceptions at a few higher-end restaurants in Perth, but for the most part I must venture away from the pasta section on the menu and head instead for the proteins. A tall order for someone who loves the stuff as much as I do!

Anyway, back to Sunday night's chicken and mushroom creation. It's not my best ever, but was more than serviceable as a 'pull everything out of the fridge and chuck it in a pan' dinner for two. I've done my best to remember the main points below...

Chicken & Mushroom Fusilli
enough for 2

200g fusilli pasta
1 small chicken breast (always free range, people!!), diced
1 clove garlic, minced
salt, pepper, oregano for seasoning your chicken
2tbs olive oil
8 button mushrooms, sliced
1 shallot, finely diced
2 rashers bacon, diced
1 chilli, sliced (more if you like it hot)
250ml tomato puree
a big handful of rocket and basil
parmesan cheese

Cook your pasta until al dente, then drain. Meanwhile, heat a large frypan over medium heat. Season your chicken with garlic, salt, pepper and oregano to taste (I just sprinkle the seasonings over chicken in a bowl and mix with my hands). Add the oil to your chicken and mix, then fry until browned all over (doesn't need to be cooked all the way through, you'll finish it off later). Remove from pan and set aside.

Place the pan back on medium heat and add the mushrooms. Cook for a minute or two until they start to brown and have lost most of their 'juice', then add your shallot, bacon and chilli to the pan. Cook until the bacon is browned, then add the tomato puree and a touch of hot water to thin the mixture if you need it. Add your browned chicken back to the pan and cook everything until the chicken is cooked through.

Add your drained pasta and rocket/basil mix to the pan and mix thoroughly. At this stage I like to add a handful of grated parmesan and mix it through, rather than just sprinkle it all on top once it's in the bowl. Season to taste and adjust if necessary.

Serve your pasta in large bowls with more parmesan cheese on top, and enjoy!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sweet treats

Today's delicious post comes about thanks to my brainstorming session earlier in the week regarding possible 'Christmas products' for my business this year. Yes, I agree it is a little early for most of us to be thinking about the festive season, however any additions to my product range need to be thoroughly tested and perfected by about June in order to fit in with production/packaging/distribution timelines for the remainder of the year (it's a long and tedious process the details of which will bore most of you to death, so I shan't go on about the 'un-fun-ness' and lack of spontaneity in developing Christmas products at Easter!).

All of which leads us, in a roundabout way, to caramels.

I suspect that the main reason I have never pursued a career as a chocolatier or master pastry chef may have something to do with the mind-altering effect large quantities of fabulous chocolate, dairy and sugar products have on me. In moderate 'finished product' quantities I have some form of willpower not to eat everything in sight, but put me in a kitchen with a candy thermometer and a few select ingredients and I will taste-test until I make myself sick. Which, though I am slightly ashamed to admit it, is precisely what's been happening with these delicious little salted caramels I tested out a couple of days ago.

After deciding that caramels/toffee could be a great addition to the silly season range, it was straight to my bookshelves for inspiration and recipes. And although I found several ideas which would probably suffice, it occured to me that I am lacking in dedicated candy making books (something which I will shortly be rectifying with the purchase of this book and possibly also this one). So off I went to the great resource of my laptop and its lovely fast broadband speeds - thankyou Chris - and came across the Chocolate Gourmand, aka Brian from San Francisco. Brian's site is a great resource for amateur candymakers, full of delicious sounding recipes and detailed explanations (including step-by-step photos) of how to achieve the right results. The process of candy-making can be quite daunting if you've never attempted anything like it before, so these descriptions and details go a long way to de-mystifying it.

It's Brian's recipe for Classic Cream Caramels I share below, almost word for word, with the small addition of a tiny sprinkling of good sea salt over the top of the finished slab (whoever thought up salted caramels deserves only good things to happen to them). Being a bit of a novice in this area, I was thrilled with my first attempt at his recipe and hope he won't mind me sharing the love. Other things on my list to try soon are his Pecan Maple Caramels and English Toffee.

After making my caramel, I set most of it in a large baking tray lined with silicone paper, but also put a bit into some silicone ice cube trays I bought - they are the perfect shape and size to make individual caramels, however I soon established that my two (36 pieces all up) moulds would be severely inadequate for the quantity of caramel I had made. They are also fiddly to fill and I think on reflection it would be easier (if not so pedantically same-sized) to pour all of it into baking trays and just cut my set slab into individual portions.

I cooked the caramel to about 118-119C before taking it off the heat, which is a bit higher than the normal range specified in the recipe. This is because I knew I wouldn't be dipping the finished pieces into chocolate and wanted it to set hard enough not to run all over the place after being wrapped (not that chocolate-coated caramel is at all bad, it's just that I still haven't managed to get myself the tempering machine of my chocolatier-girl fantasies and can't bear my inadequacy when tempering by hand, or the compound chocolate alternative which would destroy the gorgeous morsels inside its chalky, cheap and nasty coating).

I am undecided about precise wrapping and packaging of these delicious treats, but think maybe the best way to go would be to cut bars of whatever size you prefer and wrap them in waxed/silicone paper before wrapping again in cellophane or boxing. Beware the cut but not wrapped caramel, it will become sticky, oozy and quite unattractive (yet still extremely tasty!) if left out, particularly in humid/damp weather.

Classic Cream Caramel
from The Chocolate Gourmand site

2 cups light corn syrup (for us Australians, liquid glucose is fine - not an exact substitute but pretty close)
4 cups sugar
60g unsalted butter, cubed
4 cups (1l) whipping cream
1 tsp salt
1 tbs vanilla extract (I used vanilla paste)
oil for greasing

Using safflower oil and a paper towel, generously oil a 23x33cm (9x13in) foil-lined baking dish (or do as I did and line your dish with silicone paper, which negates the need for greasing).

Combine the sugar and corn syrup in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently until it comes to a boil. Wash down the sides of the pan several times with water using a pastry brush. Stop stirring and place a candy thermometer in pan (I bought mine for $4.95 at Kitchen Warehouse) and continue to boil over medium-high heat. You are going to boil the sugar syrup mixture until it reaches 151C (305F), which will take about 10 minutes or so.

While you are waiting for the sugar syrup mixture to heat you can heat the cream in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently until simmering. Remove from heat and set aside.

Once the sugar syrup has reached 151C (305F), reduce heat and slowly add the cubed butter. Slowly add the hot cream to the sugar mixture. I usually do this with a small ladle or measuring cup. Keep the mixture boiling while adding the cream, but beware of boil-over if you add the cream too quickly. The boiling mixture will rise rapidly after adding the cream. Let the mixture settle down before adding more cream. The game is to keep it boiling without letting it overflow.

Once the cream has all been added, continue stirring constantly until the mixture reaches 116C (242-243F) for dipping or 117C (246-248F) for wrapping. If you like your caramel harder, you can keep heating it until you get to around 119C (250F). If you like your caramel soft, be careful not to make it too soft. Extra gooey caramel is hard to package or dip. The caramel will usually continue to heat a degree past when you remove it from heat.

Let sit for 5 minutes before my favourite part: stirring in the salt and vanilla. Once you pour in the vanilla and salt, stir just until blended. As you stir the vanilla into the caramel, the vanilla bourbon will boil off and you can inhale the intense vanilla smell.

Pour mixture into prepared baking pan. Cover well and let cool overnight. Once you are ready to dip or wrap, peel the foil off the caramel. Oil a large plastic cutting board and place the caramel slab there. Slice into pieces and wrap or dip.

I typically prefer to make my dipped caramels more gooey than the wrapped caramels, but note that softer caramels are more difficult to work with and dip. Even firm caramels will succumb to gravity and sag after a few minutes. When dipping, slice off only as much as you need from the main block to maintain rectangular shapes.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The early morning collision of the seasons

I love stone fruit.

Every year, despite not being a heat-tolerant kind of girl in general (perhaps something to do with my all-too-easily burnt skin every time I go outside!), I eagerly await the summer arrival of peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums, along with their myriad variations and cross-breeds. Admittedly, I usually get so excited by my first sighting of summer fruit in the stores that I buy up these early arrivals and am inevitably disappointed by their lacklustre taste and texture. One day I may learn my lesson - these imposter fruits must be put on the shelves simply to tease us with their outer beauty...

Nevertheless, the season goes on and the fruit, in most cases, gets better. And although we're pretty well at the tail end of stone fruit for this year, I did pick up some gorgeous plums at my local greengrocer this week.

So what about the collision of the seasons post title for today? Well, summer's been covered above, but with the slightly cooler weather over the past few days it seems my appetite was also whet for a bit of winter warming - thus a breakfast combination of tart and juicy poached plums with soft and comforting porridge was in order. It's probably not the most common of food marriages (stewed apples or rhubarb coming to mind more as fruits to serve with porridge), however if you haven't tried it I can assure you that there's something a bit inexplicably special about the combination.

Not so much a recipe, really, then - more of a general idea/guide: I quarter and stone the fruit, adding a couple of tablespoons of sugar, some vanilla bean paste (or a split whole bean if you have one) and a tiny splash of water. If I'm feeling impatient, they go on the stovetop over a low-medium heat until they collapse (a lid on the pan will quicken things further, but you will end up with a mushier finished product); on a slower-paced day I'll bake them (uncovered at around 170C) instead to retain more of the shape and texture and give a more syrupy, reduced liquid.

As for the porridge part, I will probably horrify some of you by admitting that I always cook my porridge in the microwave! Though a microwave does NOT do appropriate justice to the end result of most dishes - no matter what the manufacturers will tell you in those little 'recipe' books that accompany the machines - I make an exception for porridge as I'm generally in a huge hurry first thing and it's just plain easier without too much of a flavour compromise. I use 1/3 cup oats (normal, not quick-cook), 1/3 cup milk and 1/3 cup water - easy enough for pre-coffee brains! A couple of minutes on high, stir, then another minute or so to get the consistency you like. If you like sugar in yours, add it after the first cooking burst, although personally I prefer honey and stir it through at the end of cooking.

Enjoy your fruity, warming breakfast as is, or be especially indulgent and add a big dollop of thick Greek-style yoghurt...there's something very appealing about the cold creaminess offset against the tart, warm fruit that always wakes me up.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

My favourite cookbook

To say I have an extensive cookbook collection would be an understatement. I'm one of those people who keeps a continuous list of 'books to buy', and as time goes on the list seems to grow ever larger due to the modern day proliferation of great publications (and my lack of funds to purchase all of them at will).

So, in keeping with this blog's title, I thought it appropriate that my first ever post should be about a cookbook. And not just any cookbook - this unassuming and not-so-glamorous number (compared to some of the stunningly beautiful 'coffee table tomes' available) would have to be the number one book on my shelves for sheer user friendliness and all-encompassing content.

A bit of background: the authors of this fabulous book (and several others) are the Melbourne-based husband and wife team of Allan Campion and Michele Curtis. Both are chefs and general food personalities on the Melbourne scene - for more information see *As a small aside, I will be attending one of Allan's 'Foodies Walking Tours' in Melbourne at the end of April. I've been wanting to go to Melbourne and do this tour for ages, so stay tuned for the post-tour write up.* You can purchase Every Day in the Kitchen, along with their other publications, direct from the site, and I believe they sign the copies purchased via this method.

But back to the was first published in 2002 in hardcover with the title 'Campion and Curtis in the Kitchen'. This in fact is the version I own, although I've put up the newer softcover-version photo from their website as this is what you'll need to look for if you want to buy the book now.

Split into 18 chapters, plus an introduction and 'how to use' section, Campion and Curtis cover just about everything the modern Australian cook could hope for. Each chapter starts with a brief insight to the following pages and a general overview of techniques and necessary information for that type of cooking, entitled 'things you need to know about...'. In addition, most of the recipes have their own short introduction which may describe the friend the recipe came from; their particular way of eating or serving it; or just a little anecdote about why they love that dish. This personal touch is, I think, what makes it so appealing to me, as I'm a sucker for food with a story.

Whilst I am a competent cook and usually apply my own approach and style to recipes, this is still a book I find immensely useful and I often refer to it if not for an entire recipe, then for the wealth of variations and general know-how the authors include. Just as importantly, when I do follow the recipes letter for letter, they work without fail every time, and I'm yet to try something out of this book which is bland or uninteresting. High praise from someone who spends much of her working and leisure time poring over cookbooks and food websites!

And now that I've spent all this time expounding on the greatness of Every Day in the Kitchen, it's probably only fair that I share one of my most-used recipes from the book...simply called Coconut Cake, it's something I've played with and baked in many different forms over the past few years. I think my favourite adaptation is to bake the cake as the recipe says, adding the zest and juice of a couple of limes whilst creaming the butter and sugar. This will split the mixture, however it comes back together again when you add the flour later in the recipe. I also don't bother with a springform tin as the recipe states, and use a normal 22cm round tin. Just make sure to grease and line your tin well or the cake won't turn out properly.

The above photo is a version of the Coconut Cake I made for a wedding (apologies to everyone that I don't have one of the inside of the cake!). The couple were after a cake which tasted great and looked pretty without being overdone, so I've iced with a basic buttercream flavoured with lime juice to complement the lime in the cake, and decorated with fresh flowers which matched those carried by the bride. Trav and Jac, hopefully you won't mind the use of your cake photo here!
Coconut Cake
taken from Every Day in the Kitchen
Allan Campion & Michele Curtis
Hardie Grant Books
*this is word-for-word the version in the book, including the brief introduction*

This is a beautiful cake with a dense texture that can easily be sliced and passed around. Try it as your next birthday cake.

270ml coconut milk
100g dessicated coconut
200g soft butter
300g caster sugar
4 medium eggs
250g self-raising flour

Preheat oven to 180C (350F).
Place coconut milk and coconut in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Allow to simmer for 2-3 minutes, then allow to cool.
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one by one, fully incorporating each one before adding the next. Alternatively fold in sifted flour and coconut mixture until well combined. Spoon mixture into greased and lined 22cm (8 1/2 inch) sprinform cake tin.
Bake in preheated oven for 40 minutes.
Test the cake by inserting a skewer. If it comes out clean the cake is ready; if it doesn't, cook it for a further 5 minutes and test again. Allow to cool, dust with icing sugar and serve. Serves 6-8.