24 Apr 2016

garden ramble: autumn update

 Leaves on my birch trees

Autumn is here, and with it cooler mornings that tease of the dreaded dark months of winter just around the corner; it brings boldly coloured leaves shining through the suburban landscape — all reds and golds and burnished oranges. This autumn has seen (felt?) more blustery winds than usual — decimating those lovely leafy displays — and not much rain at all.

I am starting to despair for my ornamental garden, despite my parents’ reassurances; even with weekly watering (all I have time for), I’ve got some trees and shrubs looking decidedly sickly. Summer’s dry heat may have been too much for them, and sadly, I fear autumn’s continuing dry may finish them off completely.

Leaves off my birch trees

On a productive note, autumn means cleaning up and closing down the vegie garden. It’s a quick job this year, as again, due to summer’s harsh weather, I’ve already gotten rid of most of the crop. Over Easter I pulled up all of the tomatoes and most of the beans, all desiccated and messy in their crisp decay.

New silverbeet

There is very little left. Apart from the fruit trees (which are still very green and leafy), the exuberant passionfruit, and of course the rhubarb and herbs, I have five new silverbeet plants, transplanted from dad’s vegie garden and doing very well. I also have an astounding, sturdy forest of self-sown capsicums. These plants came up from kitchen scraps I’d dug into the vacant beds over last winter! There are massive dark green fruits on them, and I’m impatiently waiting for them to ripen before the winter chill sets in. I’ve even managed to make my dad envious!

Still life with capsicums

My lovely friend A and his strong male muscles came over one weekend to dig over one of the vegie beds, which was particularly compacted. The others I could manage myself, but I’m hopeless at sustained digging in such hard soil; even with a heavier new garden fork (I figured I deserved it) I just don't have much weight or strength to throw behind it. A’s generous help was so very welcome. He broke it up and we then fed it up with some lovely pongy sheep poo dad had delivered for me a few weeks ago (the neighbours must love me), and threw around some gypsum for good measure.
Out with the beans

I’ll now be able to dig in kitchen scraps again to reinvigorate it over the winter months (and maybe get another crop of self-sown capsicums).

Finally, I've planted my garlic. Or rather, T’s garlic — I hadn’t saved any of my own garlic this summer, but froze it all for eating! The gorgeous T generously came to my rescue with a bag of her beautiful fat homegrown alliums. What a joy.

Last of the carrots

Besides the watering that is still needed (let's all pray for rain), now I can settle down with a cup of tea and lots of gardening books to start thinking about next season. After a tip off from Caro, I found Sarah Raven’s ‘The best vegetable plot’. I should read Australian books, but I just adore British books and magazine, and blogs!
And last of the beetroot

Reading books like this make the misery of dry soils and dying plants dissolve for a moment; they allow me to escape into fantasies of lush and abundant and always-green gardens where there’s never an aphid or sparrow or hard patches of soil, just tender leaves, juicy produce, vibrant flowers — and relaxed gardeners. Ah, let me put the kettle on and we can all dream on …
A pristine dahlia

17 Apr 2016

passionfruit polenta pudding

Oh Annabel, I’m sorry…

It’s not you, it’s me; truly — absolutely it was my wrongdoing. You see, I decided to go my own way, tin-wise. Why use a regular round springform tin, when a handsomely fluted bundt is much more impressive?

Well, this mess is why, and it’s not impressive at all. Even with adequate greasing and tin prep, this moist and zesty polenta cake refused to budge, and stayed resolutely in the folds of the bundt tin. Obstinate! I upended it on a plate, and gave the tin many good whacks and thumps and curses. Finally, half came out in big golden chunks, but the rest required forceful prising out with a spoon. I gobbed it into a pudding dish and poured over the deliciously sweet-tangy passionfruit syrup, and called it a day.

Such a shame; it is a beautifully moist pudding — too substantial from the coconut and gritty polenta to be a cake, really. I would make it again, and I would urge you to consider it as well — and to use the proper tin.

Passionfruit polenta pudding
Adapted from Annabel Crabb’s ‘Special delivery’. I’ve given Annabel’s tin details and instructions here — not what I did, nor my disaster recovery efforts! This is best warm: I kept it in the fridge and it set rock hard, so enjoy it once you’ve baked it, or zap it in the microwave to warm up. Actually, it doesn't look too bad now, does it?

  • Preheat oven to 180 and line a 20 cm springform tin.
  • Combine dry ingredients in a bowl: 150 gms almond meal, 100 gms polenta, 50 gms desiccated coconut, and 1 ½ tspns baking powder. That’s right – no flour.
  • Cream 200 gms soft butter with 200 gms sugar and the zest of 2 lemons. Then beat in 3 eggs.
  • Now fold thru, in batches, the dry ingredients. Have a taste at this point — I added a good squeeze of half a lemon to make it even zestier. If you’re going to have lemon, have lemon!
  • Gob into the tin (note: mine was an incredibly stiff batter, so I was mildly anxious as Annabel said to ‘pour’ it in the tin. Mine was not pourable!).
  • Bake for 30 minutes or until just done (another note: even in my bundt tin, it took considerably longer than this, so see what happens for you after 30 minutes).
  • Meanwhile make the syrup: heat the juice of 2 lemons and the pulp from at least 2 passionfruits (depending on size). When this is warm, whisk in 100 gms of icing sugar and simmer gently to thicken.
  • Once your cake is done, and while still warm, prick the cake with a skewer and slowly pour the syrup over. I would say then you can remove the tin, and enjoy your passionfruit polenta pudding. As a whole.

10 Apr 2016

blondie slice

I’m not a big one for anything milk chocolate — but I am a big one for anything fudgy, rich, and morish, and this blondie slice fits that bill precisely.

Just what makes a blondie a blondie is a bit confusing; white chocolate? No chocolate? Depends on who you talk to, what you’ve googled. But really (adopt best blasé voice for this next bit): whatever. No matter what your definition of a blondie is, these little squares are seriously good, with their dense texture and butterscotch flavour.
And about those ‘little squares’? The original recipe suggested cutting your 8 inch blondie into 36 pieces – that’s six by six. Really? How … stingy! I cut the square four by four, and that was petite enough for me.
Finally, this is a very flat blondie — it doesn’t rise much, if at all — so I’ve called it a slice so you don’t get the impression you’ll have a big deep hunk of cake.

But please don’t let any of this deter you from trying these; the caramelly flavour and fudgy texture, punctuated by just the right amount of walnuts, make these blondie slices — whatever you call them and however you cut them — just delicious.

Blondie slice
Adapted from ‘Hand made baking’ by Kamran Siddiqi. I’ve significantly reduced the vanilla; I also omitted white chocolate as I don’t like that either! Such a fusspot when it comes to chocolate…

  • In a medium bowl sitting over a saucepan of simmering water, melt 85 gms butter. Once that’s done, turn the heat off but leave the bowl in place (to use the residual heat), and stir in 1 cup light brown sugar, a scant ¼ tspn salt and ½ tspn vanilla. It may look separated, but don’t worry.
  • Remove bowl from saucepan and stir in 1 large egg, ½ cup wholemeal plain flour and ½ cup white plain flour.
  • Now leave the mixture to cool slightly — use the time to chop enough milk cooking chocolate into ½ cup of chunks of varying size, and get 1/3 cup walnut pieces. Prep your 8 inch brownie tin. Preheat your oven to 180. Do the dishes and clean up the kitchen. Make a pot of tea! I found if the cake batter is cooled slightly, the milk chocolate won’t melt away to nothing — you’ll retain more of the chunks. Having said that, you get a fudgier final result if some does melt on contact with the warm batter. 
  • So after all that, add your milk chocolate and walnut chunks, dollop batter into tin (it’s very stiff – I use a knife to spread it about) and bake for 20-25 minutes — it’s a quickie! You’ll get that nice shiny crinkly ‘brownie’ top. Enjoy! 

3 Apr 2016

on suburban wildlife

Whenever mum and I are having a moan about the garden (which this year, has been often) we invariably end up saying ‘if it’s not one thing, it’s another’.

So let’s start with the ants. Every summer the ants move inside — it’s as if my kitchen is in their path as they travel from the front garden to the back garden; they just make their way across the walls, from west to east.

This year, however, they detoured. Via my honey and vanilla jars.

I’d arrived home from Christmas at my parents’ place, and was unpacking fruit and veg. Oh, there’s an ant, I thought. There’s another. Wait, there’s a whole busy trail of them ... where are they going? I followed them around the sink and over the hot plates and past the oven and into the cupboard and — IN MY HONEY! And golden syrup and vanilla paste and macadamia chocolate goo! Welcome home. I spent the next half hour washing down all the surfaces and jars, and putting everything sweet and sticky into plastic ziploc bags, where they still live months later (thankfully none of the ants actually got into the honey or chocolate goo, which saved me throwing away everything. But still!).

Another time they marched in and made a bee-line (ant-line?) for some egg shells in my otherwise-empty compost bin. Or they trooped into a vase of silverbeet — heading for the water — but ignored the jug of drinking water I had on the opposite side of the sink. Go figure.

Since the heat of summer has abated, I’ve had only the odd ant or two walking around the kitchen, but I work around them, and try not to get too annoyed. Actually, I usually shoot these lone wanderers a withering look: ‘What are you still doing here, by yourself? Don’t you know, everyone else has moved on? Loser.’

But, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. I’ve had lots of little brown grasshoppers around (thankfully they’re staying outside and are not migrating thru the kitchen). I’m not sure what damage they do to a garden, but some of my plants had very small holes in the leaves, and I could spy no caterpillars in the area.

Then again, it may have been the sparrows. I blame them for my failure to grow any peas this year. I’ve never seen such large flocks; again, it’s the dry and they’re desperate for food, but I have come to despise these small birds because they have deprived me of homegrown sugar snaps!

Why don’t the sparrows eat the aphids? Because there’s plenty of those around. A couple of years ago, I decided to put down the pyrethrum and live in harmony with those little green suckers (literally), in the hope they’d attract insect-eating birds. The only things I defend chemically are my climbing roses, but by and large the aphids restrict themselves to the nasturtiums, aquilegias, and birch trees. I’ve seen wattlebirds picking along the birch branches, and while part of me loathes that there are aphids around, another part of me sees the silver lining.

This year I’ve attracted more little birds into the garden than ever before. I’m sure it’s the lower chemical use, the bird baths I maintain, and the extra lion’s plants I’m growing. New Holland honey eaters come noisily in for the sweetness of these orange flowers, swinging from one tall stalk to another (and often breaking them, too). They also enjoyed red nerines! I’ve had young eastern spinebills, with the longest, thinnest beak I’ve seen, slurping out the goodness from tubular flowers and chasing insects in the dense jasmine wines. They were enchanting to watch as they flitted about; once or twice they even did a good impression of a hovering hummingbird!

But the sweetest bird ever to grace my garden — only once; never before and never since — was a spotted pardalote. Look it up: a small, rounded little bird with the most amazing spots and markings (hence the name) I’ve ever seen. She was not at all shy about me standing so close to her and mimicking her call. I slowly extended my arm out to see if she’d come closer and land on my finger. She didn’t, but we stood there chatting and eyeing one another off for quite a few magical, happy moments.

It’s wondrous to attract that kind of wildlife into my suburban garden. Now the weather is cooling, I have some small grevillea plants to add to the garden, to supply more food for more of these feathered visitors. I’ll just put up with the ants and aphids and grasshoppers.

What sort of wildlife do you get in your kitchen and garden; good and bad?

And sorry there are no pictures of the wildlife, especially the pretty birds. My camera and skills aren't that good. And who wants to see a plague of ants? 

20 Mar 2016

tomato-tuna pretend pizza

When I first started making this dough, I was sceptical: this ain’t going to go very far, I thought. I’ll be lucky to have a tomato biscuit. But as I started rolling out this small but elastic round, I got excited: it was the perfect size for a single girl’s pizza!

I love good pizza: thin crisp crust and simple, fresh toppings. Good tomato sauce and in-season, ruby-red tomato slices; basil and a bit of garlic, and some rounds of stretchy mozzarella. Maybe a little chilli every now and then, but essentially, that classic red-white-and-green of the Italian flag makes me very happy.

But most recipes for pizza dough cater for ravenous families of dozens of people (or so it seems). I had trouble downsizing recipes; and really, leftover pizza doesn’t always translate that well. I’m also pretty hopeless at working with yeast. Some times of the year in Hobart, finding a warm spot for the dough to rise is difficult. So, I gave up making pizza.

Then I found this recipe I’d squirreled away for this time of the year when tomatoes are in abundance.

It’s the simplest dough possible, and the lack of yeast means you can knock this up and have it in the oven faster than you can think ‘what can I make for lunch that’s quick and delish and pretty healthy?’.
And I will admit, this made a little more than this single girl can eat all at once; but having pizza (and a green salad) for only two light meals instead of four or five was pretty wonderful. Another time I made it, for lunch for me and mum (dad was at the cricket), I over-rolled and overstretched it and it definitely served two people, but the base was too thin, which made the slices a bit tricky to handle.

Okay let’s face it: this is not a pizza, it’s a tart. Or it's stuff on a flatbread, more probably. But it looks like a pizza, a wonky-shaped homemade one. And yes there’s tuna — something I would never order on a pizza — and no, there’s no sauce or cheese (next time). Okay, it’s not a pizza! But it’s close enough to satisfy those cravings. Those single girl pizza cravings.

Here's one I made for mum and me, using chunks of orange tomatoes. I used my pizza stone this time, but I over-rolled the dough to make it fit that larger size, and then the base was too thin. And using the pizza stone didn't make that much difference to the base's crispness.
Tomato-tuna pretend pizza
Makes enough for one hungry single girl, or two people, or two light meals. Reheats surprisingly well. Adapted from (I think) a Better Homes and Gardens recipe.
  • Preheat oven to 200 and line a small baking tray.
  • In a food processor, whiz up 1/2 cup plain white flour, 1/2 cup plain wholemeal flour, 2 tbspns olive oil and 1/3 cup warm water.
  • Take out this wet sticky mess and on a floured surface, knead to bring together, then roll out to make a wonky kind of shape that would fit your small baking tray (my best pizzas were about 20 cm by just under 30 cms). Go thin, but not too thin.
  • Top with finely sliced spring onions, basil or other herbs, thinly sliced garlic, most-to-all of a 185gm tin of tuna, and thick slices/chunks of fresh ripe tomatoes. Sprinkle with a little salt and lightly drizzle with more oil.
  • Pop in oven and bake for 20-25 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Serve with a few more fresh herbs scattered over the top.

13 Mar 2016

baking favourites

What's new? Not much. I didn’t bake much over the summer, but when I did turn the oven on, I mostly pulled out recipes for long-forgotten favourites: puddings and cakes and bikkies I made with a crush-like frequency months or even years ago, but I haven’t touched since.

Melting moments — with or without that daub of rich goo — were the first things I baked. I'd been craving these magically short little biscuits for weeks, so much so that I bought one at a cafe. A disappointing move — dry and hard; definitely stale (do you ever find the stuff you make is far superior to what’s in the shops?). I wouldn’t be satisfied until I made my own. Once I did, I decided that I really should have a tin of these in the kitchen at all times, like a sweet staple!

But then I moved on … to bread and butter pudding. B&Bs aren’t obvious summer fare, but when there’s rich stone fruit and other sweet stuff growing, it makes sense. I’d cut a handful of rhubarb stalks, and rather than stew it up for brekkie oats, I couldn’t get the idea of pudding out of my mind (probably because a foray into my chest freezer revealed I had about four panettones stashed away). And because ginger pairs well with rhubarb, I soaked the fruity panettone slices in some ginger wine. Such extravagance!

Then one evening I wooed my lovely friends with jammy cheesecake cake. I'd really forgotten how good that is, which its moist plain base and just-rich-enough cheesecake and jam layer. It  made enough for oohs and aahs on the night, and seconds to take home (which V had for breakfast the next day. Cake for breakfast — what a champion!).
And most recently I’ve been indulging myself with those dark fudgy spelt brownies (so much so that I forgot to take a picture this time around). Next on the wishlist is the speckled prettiness of currant-studded shrewsbury biscuits.

As a blogger, I probably should be trying new recipes all the time, so I’m writing about new things for you to read about. But in real life … I’m in the mood for the familiar and cosy, for enjoying those fondly-remembered flavours again (and not worrying if the new recipe will turn out!). However, because these forgotten stars are (shamefully) not on high rotation, it’s not ho-hum (and how could ginger-wine spiked pudding be ho-hum?!).

Like a comforting hug from your mum, or a laugh on a Friday night with friends, these kind of recipes serve a very important purpose in one’s life.

I would love to know: what goodies have you neglected, that perhaps need to be baked again?

6 Mar 2016

summer tabouli

I remember the first time I had tabouli as a young kid. Or rather, I remember standing in my mother’s kitchen with the brown pantry doors open, looking at a box of gritty burghul, and feeling sorry for mum. Because she’s tried something new, this gritty stuff served with loads of raspy parsley, and none of us seemed to like it. Or at least — and you can tell by my choice of words, gritty and raspy — that I didn’t. But I felt bad, that mum had tried to be adventurous and we failed her.

This memory also makes me think of the ingredients and foodstuffs that, in the decades since, have found their way more successfully into our pantries. Olive oil is out of the medicinal cupboard and into the pantry, in many incarnations. Spices and herbs have proliferated and represent many cuisines of the world; there’s more than just Keen’s curry now! There’s more varieties of pasta than you can poke a spaghetti strand at. And there may not be burghul, but there’s couscous and freekah and the now-commonplace quinoa. Who’d have guessed!

But back to tabouli. In theory, it’s a lovely, refreshing idea — and a perfect solution to the abundance of cucumbers coming out of dad’s garden, and my own healthy supply of tomatoes. But something had to be done about the burghul. I remembered a recipe using brown rice, but on warm summer days, brown rice seems too heavy (and takes too long to cook).

So I’ve substituted wholemeal couscous, which takes a mere blink to make, and is soft and definitely not gritty. While it’s softening, you can cut up the green and the red — these are the colour of summer, vibrant green beans and basil, and ruby-rich tomatoes.

I’ve been using spring onions, and great handfuls of baby-tender curly parsley and basil; then lots of juicy, seedy cucumbers from dad. The tomatoes are the pure red of a roma-style mamma mia, or the darker black krim or stripey orange big beryl (I have a girl crush on her this season!). I’ve also been adding lightly steamed green beans (because I have loads of those) and occasionally, some juicy red capsicum for some extra crunch. Then a drizzle of olive oil, a good squeeze of lemon juice; and strangely, never salt – all this homegrown produce tastes so fresh and cool, I don’t need any seasoning.

I got all art-director fancy for the top photo, arranging the tomatoes in a line; but mostly my tabouli is a big jumble, more like this:

28 Feb 2016

pate brisee

Life is better in pastry, don’t you think? Certainly summer vegies like zucchinis and tomatoes are elevated when put on a buttery pastry pedestal. The stars of the season — juicy stone fruit like apricots and plums — shine even brighter when wrapped in oh-so-short pastry.

On my holidays I heaved out my marble slab and rolling pin, and re-discovered my love of pastry; specifically, Martha Stewart’s pate brisee. I had all the time in the world to enjoy the pastry making process; though truthfully, when you employ a food processor to whizz the ingredients together, the hard work doesn’t take much time at all.

Galettes are my thing, rustic and very obviously handmade, and that’s because I can’t roll out a perfect circle to save my life. Despite all my best intentions and concentration, things somehow go a bit wonky and pear-shaped! So galettes offer a rustic excuse for my lack of symmetry.

They also get around the need for blind-baking, as fun as that is (and I have the ceramic beads for it!). I mean, I made these empty shells, but despite fridging as advised, and pricking the bases as advised, the sides still shrank down and the bottoms still puffed up:

So, I’m a galette gal.

The beauty of this pate brisee recipe is that it can be used for savoury or sweet offerings without any modification: it is perfectly neutral (and just plain perfect). For example, I used it to encase mandolin-fine zucchini slices, layered over a bed of zesty spring onions and garlic, for a lovely summer lunch:

I made a very fine apricot version (with brown sugar and a little almond meal on the base to help enrich and soak up juices):

I also filled those mini tarts with fresh raspberries and lemon curd, but the pictures didn’t turn out; trust me, they were bursting with flavour!

And in previous years, I’ve rolled out pate brisee to make beautiful tomato tarts. Must do that again soon!

Pate brisee
From Martha Stewart’s ‘Pies and tarts’. This makes enough for two discs of dough, so two medium sized galettes; it's also easily halved.

Basic version:
  • Place 2 ½ cups plain flour, 1 tspn salt and 1 tspn sugar in a food processor and whizz briefly.
  • Add 220 gms cold butter and process until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs; a few larger lumps of butter are perfectly fine.
  • With the machine running, slowly add enough cold water until it just starts to clump together (Martha advises ¼ to ½ cup water).
  • Dump dough onto a clean bench surface or a large bowl, then use your hands to knead and bring the dough together properly (but don't overwork). Divide into two balls, flatten slightly, wrap in clingfilm, and fridge for at least half an hour (you can also freeze it at this stage).
  • You can then roll it out on a floured surface to make your galettes. The general rule I follow is bake at 180 until the pastry is golden and the filling is cooked. I’ve found this can vary wildly, depending on the filling — anything from 30 to 60 minutes — so start checking after 30 minutes.
Cornmeal version:
For a slightly ‘grittier’ version, which I found worked well for vegetable galettes. Substitute ½ cup of the flour for cornmeal/polenta.

Wholemeal version:
For when you want to be a bit healthier! Substitute ½ cup of the flour for wholemeal plain flour.

Cheddar cheese version:
For when you want failure on your hands. Supreme disappointment; went rock hard; only good for the chooks. Don’t go there.