Saturday, August 29, 2015

Raindrops on roses and red rubber spatulas

People often ask me about my favourite kitchen tools, toys and technologies and I have to confess to not owning many. We live in a small house with a compact kitchen so have to think twice before buying the latest gadget or thingummyjig. No, I don't have a bread maker or an ice cream maker or (heaven forfend) a Thermomix. I don't even have a dishwasher. That said, there are a bunch of kitchen items I use every day and wouldn't want to be without.


Red rubber spatula. I've had this for about thirty years and it shows no signs of giving up. Very handy for squeegeeing the last traces of yoghurt, soup, curry, cookie dough or whatever out of bowls, jugs and saucepans!


Stick blender. Andrew uses this more than I do. He uses it to make his brekkie banana smoothies; I use it for soups and dips.


Slotted spoon. Great when you want to move food from A to B but leave the liquid behind.


Digital scales. I get a weird kick out of measuring ingredients precisely ;-) Andrew brought the scales home one day and I wondered why anyone would bother with battery-operated scales. Then I discovered what fun they were.


Non-stick baking paper. Where has this stuff been all my life?! I used to get frustrated when biscuits and cakes stuck to the containers they were cooked in. This stuff is fantastic. (See also silicon bakeware, below.)


Pyrex jugs. Good for both measuring ingredients and cooking or reheating stuff in the microwave.


Wooden spoon. This one was a freebie from our local fire brigade!


Silicon bakeware. Soooo handy for cooking things like cakes, loaves and muffins without the mixture getting stuck to the sides.


Oh, and last but certainly not least ... our freezer. Full of leftovers stored for nights when there's no time or energy to cook something from scratch.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Pistachio and cranberry shortbread

I made some of these for a morning tea at my workplace today ...

200 g butter
2 heaped tablespoons icing sugar
200 g flour
0.5 cups ground rice or cornflour
0.5 cups  pistachio nuts
0.5 cups dried cranberries

Cream butter and sugar, add other ingredients and mix thoroughly. Turn out onto floured board and knead well. Form the dough into a log and wrap in foil or baking paper, then refrigerate until firm. (You can keep the uncooked dough in the fridge or freezer for a while before cooking it.) Cut into slices with a sharp knife  each piece should be about 0.5 cm to 1 cm thick. Bake at 150 degrees C until a delicate brown.

Makes about two dozen. Store in an airtight container.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Chocolate echidna slice

One of my workmates has a birthday this week and he's a big fan of chocolate hedgehog slice. Most recipes for chocolate hedgehog slice include walnuts, and as I prefer to use local ingredients where possible I tend to replace the walnuts with pecans as it is easier to find Australian pecans than Australian walnuts. So that suggests a name change ... and as we don't have hedgehogs in Australia it makes sense to name the adapted slice after the echidna, which is the nearest thing we have to a hedgehog. (It's not really that similar, though both are shy, spiny mammals that curl into a ball when threatened ...)


I used this recipe but replaced the walnuts with pecans, used desiccated coconut for the 'additional ingredient', and used 200 grams of melted dark chocolate for the icing rather than the three ingredients shown. Hope my colleagues like it!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Délicieux! Four weeks of French delights in Canberra

I'm a big fan of learning, and cooking, and eating, and all things French so a recent offering by the Canberra Institute of Technology was irresistible! Andrew and I just completed a four week evening course on the cooking, language and culture of France. Yummo. The classes were taught by the affable Claude, a French chef and charcutier, and attended by seven Canberra Francophiles (counting us). Each night we made one dish.


Week one: Tarte tatin


Week two: Barramundi en papillote with wild rice


Week three: Mousse à l'orange served in chocolate baskets


Week four: Coq au vin

Delicious! As regular readers of this blog will know, my food presentation can be a bit ... rustic. That is, I tend to concentrate on flavour and nutrition ahead of looks. So this course was eye-opening both in the new recipes and techniques introduced, and its emphasis on making the food look good on the plate. ('Plating up', as all those ghastly cooking shows call it.)

The course also covered bits and pieces of French language and culture, though most of the time was spent on cooking, which seemed to suit everyone. Merci beaucoup to Claude and our intrepid classmates for a very enjoyable learning experience!

This wasn't our first foray into international cooking. Check out the cooking classes we did two years ago in Malaysia, here, and earlier this year in Singapore, here.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Chocolate cheesecake

Thanks to my Mum for sharing this recipe with me. As usual I've tinkered with it, making the base thicker and reducing the amount of sugar ...

Make the base first

200 grams plain, sweet biscuits * [I like to use Malt or Digestive biscuits]
100 grams butter
50 grams brown sugar

Crush the biscuits. Melt the butter and brown sugar together and combine well with the crushed biscuits. Press the mixture onto the bottom of a foil-lined springform pan and chill.

Next, make the cheesy bit

250 grams cream cheese
100 grams caster sugar
100 grams chocolate [milk, dark or white]
2 egg whites
300 ml pouring cream

Soften the cream cheese a little and beat well. Beat in half the sugar. Melt the chocolate over a bowl of hot water or in a microwave. Allow the chocolate to cool slightly, them combine with the cream cheese mixture. Beat the egg whites till stiff, then fold in the remaining caster sugar. Whip the cream, and fold the egg white mixture through carefully using a metal spoon. Combine the chocolate and cream mixtures well, and pile on top of the base. Decorate with extra cream and/or grated chocolate. Refrigerate until ready to eat.

* Terminology clarification: here in Australia, a biscuit is what people in the USA might call a cookie or a cracker. (What someone in the USA would call a biscuit, we would call a scone or a muffin. Confused yet?) Anyway, if you're making this recipe in the USA, graham crackers are probably a good approximation. You may also need a metric to imperial measurement conversion facility.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Leftover brandy ...?

Last week I needed to buy some brandy to make tiramisu and could only find large bottles so had a lot left over. What to do with spare brandy? Make Christmas cakes, of course!

This Christmas cake recipe works best if you start soaking the fruit and nuts in brandy a few months before Christmas so I kicked mine off today. As with many of my recipes I've freelanced a bit, deleting the added sugar (it is already sweet enough with all the fruit) and increasing the quantity of brandy.

Here's what to do now
2 cups of nuts (e.g. walnuts, pecans, hazel nuts, brazil nuts 
 whatever you like), chopped
2.5 cups of dried fruit (e.g. raisins and dates), chopped
0.5 cup of glacé fruit (e.g. cherries, crystallised ginger), chopped
1.5 cups brandy

Put all above ingredients into an airtight Tupperware container or similar. Mix well, seal, and put in a dark 
cupboard. Shake it from time to time.

Then, here's what to do in November or December

1 cup plain flour

4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon mixed spice
1 cup nuts (again, whatever sort you prefer)

Combine the fruit/nut/brandy mixture with the flour, eggs and spice. Spoon into a greased and lined 20 cm baking pan. Flatten surface with the back of a spoon, press the remaining nuts on top, and bake at 150 degrees C for 1 to 1.5 hours. (Test with a skewer.) Cool slightly then turn onto wire rack. When cold, wrap in foil to store until required. Serve thinly sliced.


If you'd prefer to make mini cakes 
 which make delightful edible gifts  muffin-sized ones take about 45 minutes to cook, and this mixture makes about ten to twelve.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Ratatouille

Regular readers of this blog (yes, there are a couple!) may recall that Andrew and I regularly go to dinner at our friends' place. We take the cooking in turns  one week they'll provide the main course and we'll take dessert, then vice versa  so I've become adept at producing portable dishes. Recently our friends acquired an au pair  a can-do German teenager who'll live with them for six months and help with the kids while on a gap year before starting uni. Often I take curries when it's my turn to do the main course, but the au pair is unaccustomed to spicy foods so was a bit overwhelmed last time I cooked! Tomorrow I'll be a little kinder and take ratatouille. Portable and tasty, but not spicy ...

4 tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, large, cubed
1 capsicum red, cubed
1 capsicum, yellow, cubed
1 aubergine [eggplant], cubed
1 tablespoon tomato purée
1 teaspoon thyme, fresh or dried
2 tablespoons basil, fresh
2 cloves garlic, crushed

Score a cross in the base of each tomato and plunge into a bowl of boiling water for 20 seconds. Peel the skin from the tomatoes, and discard skin. Chop tomato flesh into medium dice. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and cook the onion for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the capsicum and cook for 5 more minutes. Transfer onion and capsicum to a plate and set aside. Add the aubergine to the pan and cook for 5 to 6 minutes. Return onion and capsicum to pan, and stir in the tomato purée. Add thyme and tomatoes. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the basil and garlic. Serve warm, with a crusty baguette.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Going cashless

I grew up in a financially dysfunctional family and had to teach myself to save and budget as an adult. One of the key ways I did that was to force myself to use cash rather than credit cards, waiting until I'd saved up for things I wanted. Using cash is a great way to learn discipline around spending. If I looked in my wallet and there wasn't enough money there, I simply couldn't buy whatever I had my eye on. Until recently I continued using cash as a budgeting tool, despite becoming financially secure and no longer living hand-to-mouth.

Cards have become ubiquitous now though. Psychological studies (such as this one) have shown that using cards or vouchers can lead people to spend more than if they're using cash, as paying with cash feels more 'painful' than using a card. By taking a weekly sum from an ATM and forcing myself to live within this (things like groceries, meals out, movies and day to day small expenses all had to come out of the same allocation) I kept to a firm budget and remained conscious of my spending.

About a year ago everything changed. My local organic store - a fabulous place where they sell things like fruit, vegetables, milk, bread, tofu and olive oil – announced that from now on they 'strongly preferred' cards only. It turned out they'd been burgled a couple of times and wanted to go cashless. Not wanting to stop shopping at my favourite place I decided it was time to try going cashless myself. Rather than taking a lump sum out of an ATM each week, I'd pay for almost everything using my debit card. It has been an interesting experience. What have I found?

  • While some businesses welcome and indeed prefer cards, others prefer cash and impose a penalty (a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction) if I use a card
  • Many retail staff assume I don't want a receipt for my transaction. I always track my spending  and this seems even more vital now it is coming straight out of my bank account  so I surprise them by requesting one
  • My bank charges a monthly fee if I have 'too many' transactions, so it's another thing I need to be conscious of
  • I use a debit card (I don't have any credit cards) so whatever I spend comes from my bank account. This means I need to keep a mental note of how much I have in my bank account  ensuring the balance is sufficient that I won't be embarrassed by running out of money, yet not so high that I'm tempted to impulse buy (or at risk from fraudsters).

I should mention that I live in Australia, so people in other countries may have different experiences. It would be interesting to hear how others have tackled going cashless. Do you find you spend more, or spend more recklessly? Is it as easy to budget as when you used cash? Are you, like me, finding that the younger generation (sorry to sound like an old fart) are increasingly hopeless with mental arithmetic and often short-change you in cafes if you do use cash?

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Tiramisu

A sumptuous dessert! Don't forget to make it the day before you plan to eat it ...

500 g mascarpone
250 ml strong espresso
4 egg yolks
300 ml cream, whipped
1 vanilla bean, split
100 ml brandy
50 g sugar
250 g savoiardi [sponge finger] biscuits
cocoa powder and/or grated dark chocolate

Put the mascarpone in a bowl and scrape in vanilla seeds. Mix. Pour coffee and brandy into a shallow dish, add the vanilla bean and stir. Beat egg yolks and sugar together till thick, then whisk together with the mascarpone and cream. Dip half the biscuits in the coffee mixture and place in casserole dish. Spread half the cream mixture over. Repeat previous two layers. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Just before serving, dust with cocoa powder and/or grated chocolate.

This is a BIG mixture so, in a spirit of experimentation, I split it into two portions: I put two-thirds of the mixture into a casserole dish to take to our friends' place for dinner tomorrow night and the remaining third into a freezable container. Not sure how it'll go in the freezer but I'll report back later. Perhaps I just invented tiramisu ice cream ...?

Update: Friday 7 August 2015

The tiramisu ice cream was great! There were a few ice crystals in it, probably because tiramisu has a mixture of watery and creamy components (and of course the ice cream wasn't churned) but we both enjoyed it. Yum.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Brekkie @ U&Co Cafe

U&Co Cafe is a short bike ride from our house and is a cheery place for a weekend breakfast. We've been there several times now. The food is good and the service enthusiastic.

Today, he had:


French toast made with brioche, topped with candied walnuts,
caramelised banana and maple syrup, with a side of bacon

while she had:


Soft baked Spanish eggs, with capsicum and
chorizo, cream and sourdough toast

We're wondering whether French toast has gone out of fashion as it's becoming harder to find on brekkie menus. We will keep searching as it is Andrew's favourite Sunday morning treat ...

U&Co is at Unit 7, Gwydir Square, Kaleen and you can see its menu here.

  Click to add a blog post for U&Co Cafe on Zomato

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Avocado, lime, ginger and pistachio ice cream

It's the middle of winter here in Canberra and we've been having some very chilly days. So, naturally, my thoughts have turned to ice cream! This week I tried adding a new ingredient (pistachios) to an old favourite. It worked well.


Don't be deterred by the idea of avocado ice cream. This is delicious.

1 avocado (or two if they're small)
juice and pulp of 2 fresh limes
125 g glacé ginger, chopped finely
0.5 cup caster sugar
0.5 cup shelled pistachio nuts
1 cup cream

Purée avocado with lime juice and pulp. Fold in ginger, sugar and nuts. Very lightly whip cream. Fold all together. Put in freezer. Take out 15 minutes before serving.

Now, back to thoughts of ice cream ...

When I was growing up in New Zealand there weren't many (chain) fast food outlets in the provincial city where we lived. McDonald's and Pizza Hut only appeared when I was in my late teens (the mid 1980s), though Kentucky Fried Chicken had arrived earlier. Speaking of which, does anyone remember the TV advertisement for KFC featuring two obese kids? That song still invades my brain sometimes.

Anyway. We didn't have many American junk food outlets at that time – probably a good thing – but there were a couple of fabulous ice cream parlours in town. One was called Danish Delight and offered waffle cones with super-creamy ice cream topped with cream and nuts; the other, whose name I've forgotten, had some really interesting flavours. My favourite was called Goody Goody Gum Drops. It looks like it's still available! I guess the nearest thing we have to it in Canberra is the Cold Rock Ice Creamery. I've heard the Frujii Dessert Laboratory in Braddon is good too, though have to admit I haven't been there yet. Maybe when the weather warms up a little ...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Some of the best cookbooks ...

... are the ones put together by amateurs! Recently a friend shared this article with me:

www.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/28/1397363/-The-Decline-of-Church-Cookbooks-and-Civilization

It describes how the sale of collaboratively constructed cookbooks used to be a big fundraiser for community and church groups. One of my favourite and most-used cookbooks, to this day, is a book like this! It was published by the 'New Zealand Every Boy's and Every Girl's Rallies', an organisation I know nothing about, so I'm mystified as to how it came to be in my possession. Anyway, it has been my constant companion for more than thirty years and many of the recipes on this blog have been adapted from recipes in the book. As well as numerous chapters on baking (squares and slices, balls, uncooked fudge, buttered items, large and fruit cakes, biscuits, etc. etc.)  it has sections on preserving, meats, vegetables, sandwich fillings ... there are even small sections on Polynesian and Jewish foods, beverages and bulk cooking (e.g. how to make apple crumble or scrambled eggs for a party of 25). Among the more mainstream recipes there are reminders of leaner times, such as a recipe for a pie filling made from apples, onions and bacon said to 'taste like duck', and one for a coleslaw that 'keeps up to 14 days in fridge'. There are also a handy sections suggesting how to use leftovers and providing household hints. It's probably one of the most-thumbed books in my house. A real treasure. As well as recipes for food, there's the odd item like this:

How to preserve a husband

Be careful in your selection. Do not choose too young. When once selected give your entire thoughts to preparation for domestic use. Some insist on keeping them in a pickle, others are constantly getting them in hot water. This may make them sour, hard, and sometimes bitter. Even poor varieties may be made sweet and tender and good by garnishing them with patience, well sweetened with love and seasoned with kisses. Wrap them in a mantle of charity. Keep warm with a steady fire of domestic devotion and serve with peaches and cream. Thus prepared they will keep for years.

(from page 21, Rally Cook Book (11th printing), 1982, New Zealand)


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Comfort food @ Hudson's of Dickson

I feel like I've been in the wars lately. (That, or I'm being renovated.) There have been a lot of appointments with doctors, dentists, physiotherapists, and the like. Sometimes a big plate of comfort food can be a welcome distraction!

Andrew and I have frequented Hudson's of Dickson since the first week we moved to Canberra, more than 13 years ago. It's a cute little cafe where the staff are friendly and the food is delicious and consistent. My current obsession is their creamy mushrooms on toast:


They're good. Oh, soooooo good!

We can also recommend the pumpkin fritters (picture here) and the Hudson's breakfast. Yum.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Deconstructed samosas

Apparently deconstructed food is 'a thing' now. Dr Google tells me it involves taking a traditional dish and presenting it in its component parts, or all mixed up. Sounds like fun. I've dabbled in it a little already – you can read about my deconstructed pavlova here – and this week branched out into deconstructed samosas.


1 red onion, diced
1 teaspoon curry powder (I used Malaysian curry powder, use whatever you like)
500 grams minced beef
2 large carrots, diced
frozen peas
frozen puff pastry sheets

Following instructions on pastry packet, cut pastry sheet/s into smaller shapes and bake.

Cook the onion in a little olive oil. Add the curry powder and fry till fragrant. Add the mince and carrots, and simmer till meat is cooked through. Add peas and reheat. Add salt, pepper or other seasoning to taste.

Arrange pastry shapes on top of mince mixture on plates. Serve and enjoy.

Note: the quantities shown above will make enough for about four servings. The mince mixture freezes well. For a vego version you could use lentils instead of meat. I might try that next time ...

Home economics classes with Miss Palmer

Back in the 1970s and 1980s New Zealand schools taught gender-differentiated classes in subjects like home economics (i.e. cooking), clothing (i.e. sewing) and woodwork and metalwork. As a mere female I was only allowed to do the cooking and sewing classes, though the sexist restrictions must have loosened up soon after that as my sister, two years younger, did some woodwork and metalwork. For some reason my thoughts turned this week to Miss Palmer, who taught cooking and sewing at one of the intermediate schools I attended.

Miss Palmer was nicknamed 'Beaver' due to her prominent front teeth. (Kids can be cruel.) She was quite strict and one traumatic incident has stayed in my mind for almost forty years. We were asked to bring fresh fruit so we could learn to preserve it in jars. I took rhubarb from my parents' garden. The cooking class went OK, but I had too much rhubarb to fit in the jar so Miss Palmer told me to put the spare cooked fruit in a bowl and come back at lunchtime to eat it. I did so ... finding the room empty ... and then found myself in trouble. I was admonished for entering the room while she wasn't there, and accused of stealing a potato peeler that had gone missing. (Cue dramatic music: a potato peeler!) Of course I hadn't stolen it – someone had probably just chucked it in the rubbish by accident – but I was appalled at the accusation and terrified she'd call my parents. In the end it all blew over. Maybe one of the other teachers reminded her I was an excellent student and probably not given to nicking minor kitchen utensils. Maybe she even found the missing item. Who knows.

Anyway ...! In that class we were taught to make some pretty obscure dishes. I remember making a red cabbage salad, a corn chowder, and chapattis. At the time they seemed very weird. As an adult, though, I'm grateful to have had cooking lessons at all (some kids don't) and feel comfortable making dishes from many different cultures.