17 May 2015

on pretty young things

What I want to talk about today is: have you noticed how all the female foodie stars are such pretty young things? Or is it just me (noticing, not young and pretty)?

Whether they're clean living, vegan, sugar free or bone-brothing paleos, they're all young and gorgeous, with super-model-wavy hair, chic Breton stripes and skinny jeans, and glowy perfect skin. Even my mother has noticed: Rachel Khoo is such a cute thing, she declares, mesmerising us as much with her perfectly applied red lippie as her ability to blitz up shortcrust dough. Undeniably, enviably beautiful.

Rachel's not the only one, and their TV shows, blogs or books are filled with as many portraits as them as close-ups of their food. It's not enough to be a great cook, you better look dishy too. At least that's what it seems to me.

Don't get me wrong - none of this is sour grapes. Well, maybe I'm a little conflicted. Like the photos I see in Vogue and other glossy magazines I love to read, of models and celebs, I know there is much magic involved (makeup, botox, photoshop) to produce that perfection - but I still can't help compare myself wistfully to these unattainable images. So when I watch or see these female foodies, there is awe and knowing folded thru with perhaps a little envy (especially if I'm having a bad hair day or I'm dagging about in sloppy trackies after a day in high heels).We're savvy enough to decipher what the message is: that their brand of cooking, eating and living not only infuses them with healthful antioxidants and omega 3s, but mega-doses of loveliness too. So maybe it will do the same for us, too?

They are younger, hipper descendants of Nigella Lawson. Do we all remember when she oozed onto our TV screens with her heady, winking sex appeal (interestingly, she was conspicuously visually absent from her early books)? I used to closely observe her movie star eye makeup and wonder where I could find just that shade of lip gloss (I'm a brunette too, but that, unfortunately, is where all physical similarities end). In comparison, I don't think any of us had girl-crushes on Margaret Fulton or Delia Smith, did we?

Recently I was offered the chance to do some appliance demonstrations at a major homewares store (for various reasons, I declined). After my initial ooooh!, I started wondering how I'd cook, smile and talk at the same time (you try it - it's not as easy as Poh et al make it look). And then, what should I wear? Something safe and low key, because that's how locals roll on the weekend? Or something more me, with my pink lippie, a dress and ballet flats (perhaps there is a little of Ms Khoo in me after all). To manicure, or not to manicure? For a moment, that was the burning question.

In the end, it all came to nought, but... oh the decisions and the possibilities. Hats off, I concluded, to all those glossy gals, from the retro super-glam to the no-makeup-makeup chicks. We want to eat and cook like them; perhaps, just a little bit, we want to live and look and be like them too.

10 May 2015

nigella's chocolate prune cake

Not long ago, Catherine reminded me that I hadn’t made a Nigella recipe for a long time. How could that be? (Easy – too many cake recipes, not enough time.)

I decided to make the recipe that Catherine had, a chocolate cake with rich sour cream, but then I pulled out my copy of ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’ and the pages fell open to the store-cupboard chocolate cake.

I used to make this one regularly, the variation using pureed prunes, because I love prunes, and their squidginess in a chocolate cake is a certain kind of deliciousness (if you google around, you’ll find lots of other variations to Nigella's original recipe — it really is very accommodating ). I’ve also made a boozy version — soaking the prunes in tia maria — but I wanted to share these with my friend C who does not drink. Tipsy or nor, these cakes, perhaps more prune-y than chocolate-y, are as rich as Christmas fruitcake, smooth and fudgy, and a little sticky (so finger licking required).

Catherine, I promise I’ll make the sour cream one soon, but in the meantime, here’s the chocolate prune cake, in all its sweet glory. Mum has been pestering me to post the recipe ever since she had a wodge (I have of course offered to write the recipe out for her), so here it is.

Chocolate prune cake
Adapted from Nigella’s store-cupboard chocolate cake in ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’, so named because the original is made with jam or marmalade – ingredients we probably all have in our pantry. I made 8 mini loaves rather than one 20cm round cake, which the recipe specified.
  • The night before, soak 300 gms pitted prunes in either tea (I use earl grey) or an alcohol such as Kahlua or Tia Maria. This step makes them deliciously plump and soft.
  • On baking day, preheat your oven to 180 and prep your chosen baking tin (see my notes above).
  • If there is any liquid left unabsorbed by the prunes, drain and discard (or in the case of the boozy stuff, drink...). Whiz up to a puree in your food processor.
  • Over a double-boiler set up, gently melt together 125 gms butter, 100 gms dark chocolate, 150 gms sugar (I tend to use half brown/half white) and a pinch of salt until well combined.
  • Remove from heat and stir thru 2 large eggs, the prune puree, then 150 gms SR flour.
  • Dollop into your prepared tins. Be sure to lick the bowl.
  • Bake for 25-30 minutes for small cakes or until done (longer for a single large cake).
  • Cool on wire racks. These are lovely warm, with a dollop of sour cream or natural yoghurt - the zing compliments the fruity richness wonderfully - and just as delicious and squidgy when cool.

3 May 2015

garden share collective: may

With the slide towards winter, the busiest and most productive time for my vegie garden is on the wane.

Two weekends ago, mum and dad came up for a much-needed ‘backyard blitz’. Three pairs of hands made very light work of end-of-season tasks, the two biggest being dismantling the tomato patch (rolling off the netting, pulling up the stakes and the now brown and brittle tomato plants, and giving the bed a quick once over) and pruning back the yellow peach tree.

About six weeks ago, maybe more, I came home from work to find one of the peach tree’s limbs had dramatically split, due to the weight of all the fruit it was bearing. The limb had sort of cleaved, forked, but somehow was not entirely damaged; the fruit continued to grow and ripen. But with most of the fruit now picked or fallen, it was time to cut back the broken branch (to the relief of the sage and chrysanthemums trapped beneath) and many other limbs, too, that knocked and scrapped noisily against the gutter in any winds.
Poor ugly tree
Dad largely did these two jobs, with mum and I catching limbs, picking up tomato debris, and tidying things into the council green waste bins or a pile for dad to come back and take away on his truck. Mum then took to two of my roses with the secateurs and gusto.
All this dramatic cleaning out and pruning – combined with the dramatically reduced lily-pily and the now denuded autumnal birch trees in my driveway – left me feeling a bit exposed for the first few days; like a kid with a too-short haircut. It was so bare, everywhere.
Work in progress. Tea essential
Elsewhere, I’m waiting for the various lines of beans to completely finish, their swollen pods to dry off for next season’s seeds. I’ve already collected a good handful of borlotti beans for this purpose.
The zucchinis are on their last legs – I get a couple of delicately slim fruit every couple of days; enough to make me wistful for their fat summer siblings.

Over the next month, I hope to pull out just about everything, then feed the soil before letting it hibernate. This was new soil put in after dad built the frames lastspring, and  I have been feeding the soil ever since, mostly by digging in kitchen scraps directly, between the plantings. On the weekend, when he was uprooting the tomatoes, Dad said this was doing good – there were a pleasing number of worms about. Which cheered me tremendously, because wormies are a good thing! I’ve organised to get some bags of horse poo from a co-worker who has horses, and I’ll be looking out for bagged-up sheep poos when I drive the country road down to my parents place. Ah, the bliss of being a gardener – getting excited about poo.
I am also collecting marigold seeds for next season
The only things I intend to plant next are some silverbeet, some purple sprouting broccoli (if it’s not too late) and some garlic (if I get around to buying some local organic bulbs).

The biggest and newest addition to chez Dig in is my second lemon tree. Say hello everyone to Lemonicious (Beyonce has a lot to answer for). She is a birthday present from mum and dad, after I have been whinging every since I bought my home (ten years ago) that I wanted a better lemon tree. Last weekend, I enlisted the help (muscles) of my friend A to dig the hole, and together we planted this sturdy, upright young tree (thank you A, you shall get some lemons!). This variety only grows about a metre to a metre and a half tall, which is just perfect for my backyard. I’m already dreaming of the G&Ts in a couple of years’ time – yes, I know you have to let the tree, not the fruit, grow for the first year or two. Gardeners need patience – and a few helping hands - don’t they?

27 Apr 2015

white chocolate coconut cakes


I am a chocolate snob: it’s dark or it’s nothing. So I quite surprised myself when I tore this recipe out of a magazine. There’s coconut in there too — another surprise, because apart from lamingtons, I’m not a huge coconut lover either. Maybe it’s because the magazine’s picture looked like a giant blanc lamington I was tempted.

These cakes (I made cupcakes and mini loaves rather than one large round cake) are a doddle to make: melt the butter and white chocolate, then stir thru the remaining ingredients. As they bake, they fill the kitchen with that intoxicatingly sweet coconut aroma. They are dense and not-too-sweet; you can top them with a white chocolate ganache and sprinkle them with shredded or toasted coconut, but I like them as they are, with a cup of tea, or after dinner served warm with a spoonful or two of stewed fruit. Something sharp like F’s summer greengages or rhubarb really complements the fudginess of the cakes, and a spoonful of tangy frozen yoghurt doesn’t hurt either.

So here’s for overcoming chocolate prejudices and realising that white chocolate cakes are a good thing! Though you still won’t find me eating a block of it …
White chocolate coconut cakes
Adapted from the Woolworths April magazine. I have made this using my mini-loaf tin and cupcakes, so the final quantity varies each time, but the recipe specifies a deep 20cm round cake tin.
  • Preheat oven to 180 and prep your baking tins.
  • In a large saucepan, melt over a gentle heat 220 gms white chocolate, 180 gms butter, and ¾ cup water, stirring til smooth.
  • Remove from heat and stir in 1 scant cup sugar. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
  • Whisk thru 2 large eggs (or 3 small bantam eggs!) and 1 tspn of vanilla (I have also used the speckled vanilla essence, and the vanilla paste).
  • Sift in 1 ½ cups plain flour, ½ cup SR flour, and ½ cup desiccated coconut.
  • Pour or ladle into your chosen baking tins – it’s a pretty runny batter.
  • For cupcakes or small cakes, bake for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean and the cakes shrink away from the sides a little. Rest on a wire rack, then remove from tin and cool, especially if you wish to ice.
  • For the ganache, the recipe specified 440 gms white chocolate and 2/3 cup thickened cream — but I halved this, and still had oodles of ganache left over (keep in fridge and then eat it as is for a decadent treat. Warning: addictive). To make the ganache, combine the two ingredients in a bowl suspended over a gently-simmering saucepan of water and stir until combined. Allow to cool until thick and spreadable.

19 Apr 2015

what's your cookbook?

Yes, I know there's a Vogue book in there. Girl's gotta have a bit of glamour

If you could have a cookbook that was ‘you’, what would it be like? I don’t necessarily mean a book that you write; rather, what collection of recipes would reflect your tastes and desires, your style of cooking and eating, how you shop, harvest, cook, eat and think about food? What would be in it?

I started thinking about this when I was working my way along the cooking shelves of my local library. I’d pick out a book, the colour and words along its spine tempting me, the covers making me want to take it home before I’d even cracked open the pages.

I’m sure you’ve done the same thing in your library or a bookshop; flipped and thought oooh! Look at all these delicious meals! And then had a closer look and thought, in a disappointed fashion, hmmm, maybe not. Too much of this, not enough of that, is what I thought as I put the book on the shelf.

I recalled that most people only make three recipes from a cookbook. When most cookbooks, I think, have around 100 recipes in them, that’s not a good strike rate.

So imagine holding in your hands a cookbook that you’d make everything in it. What would it be like?

Chuck out all the rules. I must admit I’m amused by books that start with a breakfast chapter. Me, I eat the same thing every day: rolled oats, nuts, stewed fruit, soy milk; cold in the summer and warmed through in the cooler months. I’m apparently not alone: someone at work told me that when it comes to brekkie, most of us are creatures of habit; changing your breakfast choice is one of the most difficult things to do (especially before 7am). I cannot fathom making a different breakfast every day, even on the weekends. So no need for a breakfast chapter for me.

I wouldn’t have a soup chapter either. My mother is horrified that I recently confessed I wasn’t a big fan of soup. After years of her freezing little portions just for me, each time she made her own big batches! I like chewing things, and while I do enjoy mum’s soups (I do, mum, really!), I could never be bothered making my own. I tried once, and it was just soggy vegetables floating about in water. But then I reserve the right to be contrary: recently I made tomato soup. But it was pretty thick, so more likely I’ll use it as passata.

So let’s get on with what I would have. Lot’s of chunky, healthy salad recipes: substantial, colourful, nutritious, hearty bowls full of vegies, chickpeas or lentils, nuts, and some leafy green things — but not too much; remember, I like to chew. Salads that are main courses in disguise. Different textures and colours exploding from every gorgeous bowl, all assembled in a flash. I actually have pictures of these kind of meals, torn from magazines and stuck on my fridge, for constant inspiration. So a few pages in a book would be very satisfying.

Next would be a chapter that would inspire my weekend meals. Like things on toast or between two bits of bread, but better than what I do at the moment. I need my weekend lunches to be quick because I’m usually in and out of the garden, but I know I could jazz things up a bit. Something to get me out of my summertime cheese and tomato and basil rut (which is pretty good, but a rut nonethless).

The next savoury section would be dedicated to the oven, because I love my oven. I’m thinking colourful vegie gratins, filling pasta bakes (but not too stodgy), warming risottos, wibbly-wobbly quiches, rustic zucchini-scattered galettes. Like the salads, a good emphasis on good-for-you as well as good-tasting. The sort of dishes you make in the wintertime, on the weekend when you have more time (as opposed to those quick toss-it-all-together bowls in the salad chapter).

Then we have, of course, the cakes and puddings and sweety things. Very old-school, old-fashioned. No chai puddings or avocado-chocolate mousses here, nor fancily decorated three-tiered constructions, no celebration or ‘special occasion’ gateaux.

We’d have plain cake, lemon cake (which I now know you love too!), orange and apple cakes, one or two fail-safe chocolate cakes (because everyone needs a go-to chocolate cake). There’d be a small selection of boozy cakes, because you know I love soaking my sultanas in sherry, or sploshing some tia maria in the brownies. A selection of biscuits made for dunking in a mug of tea. And after-dinner fruit crumbles and bread and butter puddings; homely and comforting, a little bit stick-to-the-ribs. All very CWA and what-granny-used-to-make-on-Sundays. Because they are the kind of recipes I love looking at and that inspire me to get in the kitchen.

So there we are. Some of those recipes I’ve already collected here at Dig In, or I have squirrelled into folders, in my own kind of recipe book. But it would be good to have all my favourite and favoured recipes all in one place. I have no desire to write a cookbook (I’d be scratching to reach that target of 100 recipes), but it’s a fun process once you start plotting.

So do tell me: what would be in your cookbook?

12 Apr 2015

lemon almond cake, lemon sour cream cupcakes

Trust me on this one. I know it doesn't look like much, but trust me...

When I served F this buttercup-yellow lemon and almond cake for afternoon tea, she said lemon cake was her favourite. What serendipity! It’s one of my favourites too (I also have a soft spot for orange cakes, apple cakes, and plain buttery cakes).

A good lemon cake should be zingy and refreshing, with or without icing; it should be equally invigorating on a dull winter’s day or hot summer evening - though it must be said, at this time of year, with darkening days and chilly afternoons, a good lemon cake really shines. It lifts your spirits and your tastebuds. And if the recipes says juice or zest of one lemon, it can’t hurt to give a little extra squeeze or scrape, can it? There is nothing worse than a lemon cake deficient in lemon.

After that, I do not mind if the cake if fluffy as a cloud or dense and pudding like. Both these cakes are on the richer end of the scale, and this lemon-almond cake is definitely more pudding than cake – especially the next day, when the zingy icing has had time to soak in (a transformation like this reminds me of Nigella’s damp chocolate cake, which gets better over time). The word ‘squidgy’ springs to mind!

Cakes made with almond meal (or full-fat sour cream) are usually wonderfully moist. However, the fact I used a lot less meal than the recipe specified — my digital scales blanked on me while measuring the meal, and what I had already weighed out looked like an awful lot anyway — I’m sure is the main reason this heavenly, lemony slab was so good (I've made it since with the reduced quantity and it works every time). 'The best', as F later emailed me; so good that she did not share the piece I gave her to take home with anyone. So best I share the recipe with you.

Lemon almond cake
Adapted from Ross Dobson’s ‘Market Vegetarian’. The original recipe specified gently toasting 250 gms whole blanched almonds before whizzing them to make your own meal. However, I was feeling poorly — the cost of the blanched almonds would have made this a very expensive cake — and I had almond meal in the pantry.
  • Preheat oven to 180 and prep a 20 cm square brownie tin.
  • Cream 200 gms soft butter, 200 gms sugar and the zest of at least two lemons. Maybe a little more! Then beat in 3 eggs.
  • Now fold thru 75 gms plain flour, 1 tspn baking powder, and 175 gms almond meal.
  • Finally, stir thru at least 80 mls lemon juice. Maybe a little more!
  • Spoon the batter into your brownie tin, and bake in the oven for 30–35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean and the cake shrinks away from the sides a little. Rest on a wire rack, then remove from tin and cool a little before icing.
  • For the icing, combine 150 gms icing sugar with 2 tbspns of lemon juice. Yes ... maybe a little more! Pour over the cake. Lovely with a cup of earl grey, and even better the next day. I recommend eating this with a fork.

Lemon sour cream cupcakes
Another favourite lemon cake; Another lovely dense, moist texture. Adapted from AWW ‘Food we love’: I halved the recipe and made cupcakes.
  • Preheat oven to 170 and prep a 12-hole muffin tray.
  • Cream 125gms soft butter, the zest of at least two lemons and 1 cup sugar.
  • Beat in 3 eggs then the juice of one lemon.
  • Sift and fold thru 1 cup plain flour, half a ¼ cup of SR flour, and 90 mls sour cream.
  • Divide into the cupcake and bake for 20–25 minutes or until done.

29 Mar 2015

silver linings

Look what I came home to this week...

Yes, a stonking great big pile of beautifully aromatic woodchips, blocking my driveway. How so?

Recently I had to have a very large tree cut down, in order to avoid a neighbourly dispute. The tree, which my parents identified as a lily-pily, was huge, going upwards to the sky. Taller than my house, dense and dark. Birds roosted in it and chattered away as day drew to a close; it cast cool shadows over the house during the summer. It wasn't a beautiful tree, but it was a tree.

After I was asked to cut it down  - I shan't go into the reasons or the situation, but friends, let me tell you, I cried. For days - every time I left the house for work and passed the tree; every time I came home and passed the tree; every time I thought about it, I would cry. I would go to bed and my thoughts would return to that tree, and I would cry. I didn't plant this tree, but it was a tree, an old tree, a living tree, and I mourned its oncoming demise.

I get very emotionally attached to my plants. I suspect it's because I have no pets or children;  instead I transfer my love and care to the things I grow. Some trees, like the avenue of seven birch trees that my father helped me plant, or my new plum tree, mean infinitely more to me than any possible human (except my parents). The pink zepherine rose bush that my parents bought me a couple of years ago: when half of it got snapped away in some dreadful winds a few months ago, i came inside and heartily cried for its damage. Work might be frustrating, taxes and bills stressful, but the loss of any green thing in my garden will upset me dreadfully.

As quickly as possible, my dad organised G, an arborist who removed or cut back fire-damaged and dangerous trees for dad after the bushfires. I've met G a couple of times, so knowing him made me feel comfortable and reassured that my tree would be in good hands.

So one afternoon, G arrived, and over the course of a couple of hours, reduced the tree by about two-thirds its original height - it's now probably about two metres high, perhaps not even that. It was fascinating watching G work, especially towards the end when he was trying to shape the remaining bare trunks as best as possible. The difference between an arborist and a tree feller he told me, was that an arborist cares about the tree; a tree feller cares about the people. I liked that - I knew that we would meet my neighbours' demands but that my tree's life and health were his first priority; that it would be in good hands and would hopefully reshoot come spring; that these bare stumps may flourish back to life, green and happy.

G would cut down the tall limbs; when safe to do so, I dragged them away and hauled them in two piles on either side of my driveway. He remarked that I was a hard worker, but honestly, would I stand there and just watch someone work? I'm not strong by any means, but I like doing 'yard work' and it made me feel useful.

A few short days later, as promised, G came around while i was at work and reduced the stacks of leafy limbs to this pile of fine leafy woodchip. It was actually very exciting - I mean, what gardener doesn't like mulch? For me, it was the silver lining in the whole affair: I may have had to cut down a tree, but i could use its wood and goodness around my garden. There's a lot of light and warmth coming into the house now - great at this darkening time of year; though we'll see what that means in the hotter months next summer. And I've cleared out all the rubbishy plants that were beneath; I'll keep it clean and bare save for a lot of daffies and jonquils and grape hyacinths that need little attention but are so cheerful.

So, you know what I've been doing lately: shovelling and barrowing the woodchip out of the driveway. My biceps and back are groaning, and there's been copious cups of tea to power me thru. But something good has come from a distressing situation.
Below, the woodchip pile plus the cut down tree at left

22 Mar 2015

what i learnt this summer about growing vegetables

Nectarines from my tree, during the summer months

As summer draws to a close, here is a kind of memo to self for next summer:

Say no to broad beans. You don't really like broad beans that much - so don't plant them. Stick to what you like - and what doesn't get smothered in black aphids.

Don't sow so many seeds. By that, I mean don't sow them so close together in the one row. It just leads to too many plants crowded together, which leads to a lack of ventilation and that powdery mildewy stuff on your peas; and a damn tangle of stalks and leaves that makes it difficult to find the beans. Trust that what you sow will germinate; you don't need to be so 'just in case' here.

Don't plant so many plants. Three zucchini plants will be sufficient (maybe even two) - sufficient and enjoyable, rather than stressful. Three silverbeet plants will be sufficient. Yes, they will be. There is only one of you, remember.

Don't plant a grid of tomatoes. Because it's difficult reaching the one in the centre for maintenance, watering and harvesting. Stick to a square of tomatoes, all around the outside of the bed.

Oh, and you might want to remember applying the above rule to tomatoes as well. Yes you have an abundantly-stocked freezer ready for winter, but maybe ten plants is too many for one person. Stick to the varieties you really enjoyed: black krim, roma-style mamma mia, the apricot-coloured big beryl, and the abbruzese. Four or five may be sufficient.

Don't plant those trimmed off bits of tomato plant. Yes it's cool to think of growing extra plants from little discarded bits. But see above rules - the main plants will be sufficient. Remember, there is only one of you; only so much one can cook and roast and eat and freeze. And look after in the garden.

Repeat the carrots and beetroots. Especially the round little 'paris market' carrots (despite the aphids and ants they attracted) and the sweet orange beetroot. However, even though they looked pretty bordering the edges, don't do this around any beds you plan on netting (that is, the tomatoes).

Don't do corn. Yes it looked wonderful, the tassles and tops swaying in the breeze, but the plants were in the ground for soooooo long and actually produced very little. How many meals did you get - three? Four? Not worth it.

Try climbing beans and peas. Specifically the sweet 'lazy housewife' beans that really are your favourite. Remember, you are getting older - it's getting hard to scramble around amongst the dwarf bush beans. Just make sure your trelllises are wind-proof.

What have you learnt about growing vegies this summer?