27 Jul 2014

honey oat biscuits

Fabric from Frangipani Fabrics

Sorry, can’t stop, can’t talk now; I’ve got to finish a library book before it’s overdue, Hillary Clinton’s new memoir ‘Hard Choices’. I’ve had three weeks to plough thru — gasp! — 600 pages of small print. I can’t recall the last time I read such a hefty tome. Did I mention it’s small print?

Before starting her book, I had no real idea about Hillary Clinton’s politics, but the fact that as Secretary of State she became such a powerful woman — and perhaps in 2016, will be even more so — fascinates me. Plus it’s been a real crash course in world politics (though Israel and Palestine still confuse me), even knowing it is through the filter of Clinton’s perspective and potential presidential ambitions.

So if I am to avoid an overdue library fine, I need quick recipes. Like these honey oat biscuits, a sweeter variation on Anzacs, from a book by another woman writing about power. The power, that is, of homemade biscuits, cakes and muffins. Perhaps not in the same league as Hillary’s diplomacy moves on the world stage, but in ‘Bake Eat Love’, Anneka Manning believes that anything is possible — in the kitchen — if you have the right ingredients, utensils, skills, knowledge and confidence.

‘Bake Eat Love’ (which I won from Bizzy Lizzy’s Good Things; thank you Liz!) is an engaging book for someone like me who is (mostly) a competent cake baker, but loves learning why foil-wrapped butter is better, which array of cake tins is essential, and what variety of sugars a well-stocked kitchen should have (and then comparing the list to my own inventory). All those front-of-book sections about pantry essentials and kitchen equipment fascinate me, so ‘Bake Eat Love’ is fabulous.

But if you had little experience or confidence in the kitchen, Anneka is the perfect guide for you. Her book graduates thru lessons in techniques for you to practice and master. I’m sure I’ll improve my cooking techniques by the end of the book.

So let’s start with her honey oat biscuits, with some macadamia nuts thrown in for good measure. Quick to mix together and get in the oven, and not long in there, either. Just long enough to make a cup of tea (peppermint works well with the sweet honey flavours here) and get back to those 600 pages.
Honey oat biscuits
Adapted from Anneka Manning's 'Bake Eat Love'.
  • Preheat oven to 180 and prep a couple of baking trays.
  • In a large bowl, combine 1 cup plain flour, 1/1/2 cups rolled oats, 1 cup shredded coconut, 1/2 cup chopped macadamia nuts (I also used slivered almonds as I was a little short), and 3/4 cups sugar.
  • In a small saucepan, gently melt 150 gms butter with 1/3 cup honey and 1 tbspn water.
  • Once combined, remove from heat and stir in 1 tspn bicarb soda. It will foam up a little.
  • Add this to the dry ingredients, stir till combined.
  • Then roll walnut size balls and place on tray, flattening slightly and leaving a little space around to spread. 
  • Bake for 15 minutes or until nicely golden.
  • Enjoy with a good book.

18 Jul 2014

On grey winter days

Dark when I go to work
Dark when I go home

Relentlessly grey skies
bleak; no sight of the sun
it’s like this til December

Electric blankets, hot water bottle
laundry draped all around the house
I’m dreading the electricity bill

To find the silver lining in the seemingly permanent grey clouds that are dominating these winter skies (sunny days can be counted on one hand), I’m composing haiku to myself. Not proper haiku, I’m sure — I only remember it has three lines — but it’s something to pass the time as I drive home through the mist that hasn’t even got the guts to be Proper Rain. Proper Rain I could handle — ‘it’s good for the garden, we need the rain!’ we would all cheer — but this is just damp grey stuff that gets on your glasses and brings out the snails. Nuisance stuff, miserable stuff.

Everyone — everyone — here says ‘we don’t mind the cold, as long as it’s sunny. It’s when there’s no sun…’. That statement, so commonly offered up, is probably Hobart’s first law of winter. Or a truth universally acknowledged. Hobart’s second law of winter? If it is sunny, it’s probably Monday, when you’re back at work, stuck inside (third law: it cruelly disappears the minute you step outside at lunchtime).

Have you heard of seasonal affective disorder? SAD? We have it in Hobart, by the bucketload. The skies are dreary; you are dreary. It’s hard to muster the enthusiasm for any more demanding than a hot chocolate (that someone else makes for you). The clever/rich people escape to Bali or Queensland to escape it. But chances are, take your tropical trip in August or September, and you’ll come home to a snowy October.

I like extremes in winter weather — an expansive white frost, silent and pretty; noisy, heavy downpours that fill the tanks; snowy icing sugar dusted all over the Mountain. But these grey days, they are no winter wonderland. They are an endurance test. They are a misery.

13 Jul 2014

hugh's onion and silverbeet tart

I find it hard to pick my favourite vegetable, but jostling at the top of a very verdant list (alongside green beans, peas and broccoli) is silverbeet. If only for its determined reliability; it’s pretty much always in the garden. And right now, it’s pretty much the only thing in my garden! So I wanted a special way of cooking it.

Making anything into a pie, tart or quiche — essentially, pairing any produce with pastry — lifts it out of the ordinary. So I could think of no better way of treating those dark crinkly leaves than this tart.

I first made this after watching Hugh Fearnley–W whip it out in about 30 seconds on his River Cottage vegetable series (allow me to digress a moment: I love River Cottage shows, just for the scenery. Sometimes I don’t care for the food, or Hugh. I want to live in that bucolic valley. I want a farmhouse, an Aga, a vegie plot and a rambling country lane just like that. Is it ever unpleasant in that lush, abundant part of the world?).

Of course in real life a tart takes longer than a TV segment to prepare, but making pastry, slowly cooking onions, then assembling layers are pleasurable tasks you don’t mind spending time over.

This tart is also very easy to make; my only hardship has been rolling out pastry in a cold winter kitchen. I resorted to thumping the dough out with my marble rolling pin, using its heft to my advantage. I was worried that such aggression would make for a tough end product (and that my kitchen benchtop might collapse) but this pastry is morishly short no matter what you do to it (including, surprisingly, reheating it in the microwave, which usually spells a floppy death for pastry).

Finally, the flavours are simple. There are times when you want spicy, cheesy, garlicky meals. There are times when you want ‘the lot’. Then there are times when you want merely silky golden ribbons of onion cooked gently with lemon thyme, the iron-y darkness of silverbeet, all coddled in an unassuming eggy custard, and held in a fine pastry. It’s not bland, it’s soothing and homely, and focusses our tastebuds on those few precious ingredients.

Hugh’s onion and silverbeet tart
Adapted from the beet top/chard and ricotta tart in ‘River Cottage Veg Every Day!’. The original recipe specified a 24 cm springform tin, and a baking time of 35 minutes.
First the prep, which you can do ahead of time.
  • First make the pastry: in a food processor, whizz up 125 gms plain white flour, 125 gms plain wholemeal flour, a pinch of salt, 125 gms chilled butter (you can also rub it together with your fingers). With the processor running, dribble in about 75 mls cold milk, more or less, until the dough comes together. Remove from the food processor, knead to bring together again, then wrap in cling film and chill for about 30 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, finely slice two medium onions and chop or crush a couple of garlic cloves. Take your time to cook these down gently in olive oil; you want a lovely golden translucent colour without any crispness. Towards the end, squeeze in the juice from half a lemon and stir thru some fresh lemon thyme.
  • While the onion is cooking, prepare your silverbeet (we can do lots of things at once!). Chop 300 gms of silverbeet, stalks and all, and steam until just done. Remove from heat and squeeze as much moisture out as possible (I have left it draining in a fine sieve overnight).
Now for the assembly.
  • Preheat your oven to 180.
  • Roll out the pastry to a size that will fit a 20 cm springform tin, with the pastry about 4 mm thick.
  • Line the tin with the pastry, leaving any messy or overhanging bits for now. Line with foil and baking weights, and blind bake for 15 minutes.
  • Remove foil and weights, prick base of pastry with a fork, then return to oven and bake for 10–15 minutes, to get a gentle golden colour (you may need to put foil around the edges to protect them from burning).
  • Meanwhile, whisk together 3 large eggs, 150 mls thick cream and 150 mls milk. Have your onion and silverbeet to hand, as well as 100 gms of ricotta.
  • Once the pastry shell is ready, remove from oven and sit on a small baking tray (this makes it easier to put back in the oven once filled). Place the onion on the base, then layer with the silverbeet, blob or crumble in the ricotta, then carefully pour over the egg mixture. You can also trim any messy or overhanging pastry edges at this point if you are so inclined (as you can see, I'm not).
  • Put your tart back in the oven and cook for 30 minutes. Then get impatient, crank up the heat to 200, protect the pastry edges with foil, and bake for another 30 minutes or until the eggy custard is cooked and golden.
  • Remove from oven, allow to stand for a few minutes before unclipping your springform tin and serving.

6 Jul 2014

garden share collective: july

That is the sound of a vegetable garden sleeping. Of not much happening. Because it is winter in Hobart; the days are dark and cold, as is the soil. At this time of the year, I only see my garden on the weekends; after work is out of the question unless I’m carrying a torch! And honestly, I’d rather be inside with the heater and my colourful woolly socks on.
Actively growing in my garden right now are three established silverbeet plants, and the row of ten I planted last month, now about a ‘hand’ high (see pic at very bottom). The newer plants need to be watered about twice a week, because we are not getting much rain on my side of the river; nor have there been heavy dews (STOP PRESS: I drafted this during the week, and while it generally holds true, last night we had a massive 35 mls of heavy rain, and it continues on and off today. Bliss! Tanks, buckets, bird baths and puddles are full and everything washed clean). So out comes my pink watering can (and mid-week, the torch) if I want my little forest of kale to flourish:
The garlic in the growbags continues nicely. I’m taking the healthy condition of the elegantly tapered greenery as a sign of good things happening below the soil.
The most significant recent work has been to dig over the beds. I know there are arguments against digging — damaging soil structure the main one — but I like to do it just once a year, to loosen the ground that has been compacted after the summer growing season and to dig in nutritious goodies. And oh what goodies! Dad provided bags of humid, pinkish mushroom compost; dry and finely pulverised chook manure that somehow smelt sweet and chocolately; ash from their recent burn off; and some sheep manure obviously procured straight from the shearing sheds, as evidenced by the occasional tuft of wool. Surely digging these riches right into the soil is beneficial? Especially when we get so little rain, not enough to drive the nutrients down.
My friend J came over for a couple of hours one Sunday, bringing with him his mattock, various spades and shovels — and most importantly, his all-male muscles. It took him a mere hour to lift the grass from an area about two metres square and turn over the soil. That would have taken me all day! He also made light work of loosening the existing beds as I distributed the manures and compost. J, thank you so much for doing the heavy work (despite the cold air, dear readers, he worked up a sweat) and bringing my new garden bed dreams a step closer to reality! Summer tomatoes and corn, here we come (J has been promised the first tomatoes).
What J uncovered in the new bed — or rather, didn’t uncover — has also cheered me immensely. I was expecting to find a web of roots left from the bay tree we removed recently. I mean, look at what’s in another adjacent bed:


I will be lifting this stuff out for months. How could anything else grow in such a tangle? It certainly explains why some of my peas failed miserably last summer.
In other areas reclaimed from the lawn, I’ve battled with old building fill — loose rubble, large concrete lumps and other rubbish that is not uncommon beneath suburban lawns (according to J, who shocked me with horror tales from other jobs he’s done). But he hit only one large concrete slab, right near the edge of the new plot. Quite manageable! So I’m off to a promising start, and will probably be able to use this bed this summer rather than spend a season rehabilitating it.
Now I just need dad to frame up the new bed and install some raised gangplanks or duckboards between the rows (as dreamt about in a previous Garden Share post), and I’ll be set for spring planting!
But until then, the garden will be a quiet. I’m looking forward to being made envious by the other gardeners in our Garden Share Collective this month — all in much warmer, sunnier, more northern, greener, more productive and colourful places! So join me by clicking on the logo in the column at right to see more green thumbs.

29 Jun 2014

oaty crumble

This was exactly the crumble topping I had been craving: crisp, loose and light in texture. Crumbly! Warm with brown sugar and cinnamon that filled the kitchen with a heady sweetness, but essentially not much more than toasty, crunchy rolled oats. Oats with little nuggets of macadamia and sweet ribbons of shredded coconut. And no flour; barely a skerrick of almond meal.

This crumble is probably a close cousin to toasted muesli or granola — and I’m half tempted to bake it on a cookie tray next time, without the fruit underneath. Because I find myself having a warmed bowl of dessert, with a dollop of thick cream, then going back to the fridge and stealing another spoonful of the oaty mix, cold. Perfect.

Oaty crumble
Adapted from an Anneka Manning recipe for the GI news website. Use your favourite seasonal fruit for this dessert — I’m leaving that up to you; this recipe is about the crumble!
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and prepare enough fruit to almost fill a lightly buttered 6-cup capacity baking dish.
  • Combine ½ cup rolled oats, ½ cup shredded coconut, 1/3 cup of chopped macadamia nuts, ¼ cup light brown sugar, 2 tbsp almond meal, 1 tspn cinnamon and ½ tspn mixed spice.
  • In a separate bowl or jug, combine ¼ cup sunflower or very light olive oil with a generous ½ tspn of vanilla.
  • Dribble the oil mix evenly over the dry ingredients and combine using a fork.
  • Layer this over your fruit. Bake for 35–40 minutes until fruit is cooked and crumble topping nicely crisped. Serve with your favourite dairy product.

20 Jun 2014

the big burn off

Almost 18 months on, and one of the final reminders of the January 2013 bushfires is gone. Fittingy, it has been burnt.

The large pile of fire-damaged trees, shrubs and other vegetation from mum and dad’s garden and orchard stretched across the bottom of my parents’ block. And by large, I mean roughly 45 metres long, 5 high and wide (and 900 cubic metres, dad calculated; the equivalent of 90 big blue tip trucks). The pile was a shape-shifter: it grew longer over those 18 months as progressively more trees were cut down and bushes pulled out by dad, mum, professional tree cutters, me, and even the occasional volunteer group, then ferried down the back in dad’s truck or ride-on mower pulling a trailer; even wheelbarrows. But it also shrank, as branches settled, or large limbs weighted down lighter, leafier masses. But it was always impressive, and became a familiar part of mum and dad’s landscape.

Over time, the pile also accepted non-bushfire stuff: rose prunings, agapanthus that survived the fire but became dominant weeds in the barren aftermath; and even my unwanted bay and apple trees.
Finally the local firies came to take care of the pile — it was always going to be too large for dad to be responsible for; we didn’t want to take any risks. I told my parents I wanted to be there to witness this strange milestone; after all, I had helped them in the months immediately after the fire, clearing their garden. I had warned my manager that if the firies said ‘now!’, I’d be leaving work. You may not be able to understand that, and there is no logic in it beyond wishing to watch this, the end of one of life’s chapters.
So one crisp, clear and fairly still Saturday afternoon, it began. Three firies from the local volunteer brigade and a couple of trucks trundled down the driveway. There is something about fire trucks that brings out the kid in us all (or maybe just me). Look mum, a fire engine — in our driveway! Mum, dad and I, and a couple of neighbours — some hovering near the fenceline, others closer, brandishing a bag of celebratory marshmallows. The joke of course being that you’d need a 20 foot stick for toasting them, so big would the fire be.
What I remember: the intense heat in the cool autumn air, drying my skin. The hypnotic, sparkling orange flames licking the blue sky; the falling ash. The crackle, the roaring whoosh as the flames created their own energy. Mum saying solemnly, I don’t like that sound. The men adopting that wide-legged stance, appraising what was happening; sharing a laugh but also tending the flames with their metal rakes and eagle eyes. One of the firies murmuring approvingly of their controlled work, that’s a beautiful burn. Four little field mice running helter-skelter from the flames, and us all giving a cheer. Boomer Bay is experiencing something of mini-mice plague at the moment, so the only good rodent it would seem is a burnt one. These were the ones that got away.
The embers glowed in the dark, safely, for hours. We have bagged up some of the ash (unfortunately damp from rain and rather like quicksand) and it is sitting in small mounds in my vegie garden, ready to dig in, because I’d read potash is good for the soil.
And dad has begun the pile again, because trees and roses and shrubs continue to be pruned; no longer fire-ravaged, just the normal cycle of a garden’s life. But I don’t think we’ll be letting the pile get quite that big again before the next burn.


15 Jun 2014

blog hop: why i write

Recently I’ve been flapping about, floundering as the winter dark closes in, wondering where my energy and passion and commitment lies. Where’s my creative outlet? My intellectual challenge? Somehow, flopping on the couch after work with the latest Vogue doesn’t quite count. Should I take up drawing, or knitting, or learning Spanish, or learning about — what? Or who?

While I was half-heartedly trying to pin something down, Bec at Think Big Live Wisely invited me to take part in a blog hop on writing, and everything I’d been tossing around crystallised into this:

Where was my commitment to my writing?

(In detail: Wow, I’ve been invited to write about my writing! Someone likes my writing — someone thinks of me as a writer! But — what am I actually writing? How can I write about my writing when I’m not writing? I need to commit to my writing.)

So I took Bec’s invitation as a big nudge to reinvigorate the one way I creatively express and intellectually challenge myself: not through paint or wool or spoken works, but thru pen and paper. I used the blog hop’s questions to return my focus to my writing, on why I write — and then, to start writing again, regularly.

So here goes. Perhaps you’ll find out a little more about me, and not think this too narcissistic.

What am I working on?

Right. Um. This is the question that hit the nail on the head for me. I think by now you get the idea I am not working on … enough. There is Dig In, but there should be more ‘behind the scenes’ writing, every day, that never even appears beneath my spoon-and-trowel header. Practice, as they say, makes perfect, and I’m not practising enough if I want to consider myself a writer.

How does my writing differ from others in its genre?

Perhaps a certain ‘signature’ is that I share my failures. I will never be offered a paid writing gig when I write so often about the cake that burnt, the crumble that didn’t cook, and the cupcakes that exploded. Or the capsicum the snails ate!

But I like doing that, because I think there’s a myth that if you write/blog about food, you must be good at it, all the time. 

I am not a subject expert; I’m a subject explorer. I’m waving the flag for anyone who has a dud day in the kitchen. I’m the honest one admitting it.

Why do I write what I do?

I started to write about sowing kale seeds, sweeping autumn leaves, or simmering pasta sauce to get away from my day job, which is writing and editing for a government department. That work is ‘translating’ — converting legalistic or bureaucratic stuff into plain English stuff that hopefully anyone can understand and follow. Some days I get enormous satisfaction deciphering complex information for people, hoping it may help them.

But as challenging as it is, I can’t play with alliteration or adjectives or patterns in structure or other colourful parts of the English language. I can’t play. So with Dig In, I take off my editor’s hat for a bit, maybe even break the rules, and see where the words take me.

The kind of food I like to cook and eat is ‘from scratch’, made with fresh, seasonal ingredients. And I’m not a fancy cook (I like to bake quite old-fashioned cakes) and as much as possible I want to celebrate wonderful homegrown fruit and vegies in my kitchen — and in my writing. I am lucky to have attracted readers and other bloggers who share my love of real food.

I also like exploring ideas related to this domestic sphere — doing the dishes was a fun one — just to test what I can write about that.

Oh, and I should also add, I write because I can't take photos. As regular Dig In visitors may have noticed, this is a word-focussed blog, not a photo-driven one.

How does my writing process work?

Before I pick up pen and paper, writing starts in my head. While I’m pouring a cake batter into a tin, or weeding the parsley from around the silverbeet, or just going for a walk, I’m working out an angle, composing sentences, playing with words, rearranging phrases. It’s talking to myself, I guess!  (Hey, I do live alone.) In her book ‘Writing down the bones’, Natalie Goldberg said this was an important part of the writing process. She calls it ‘composting’: turning events and words over and over before writing about them. I cannot write immediately about anything, be it a successful pudding or a failed bean crop. I need to compost it first.

But when I pick up my pen and paper, after a few false starts (where my internal editor is stronger than my writer), I can astound myself where the words will go. Even if I have mentally rehearsed it a dozen times over! Sometimes I know how to start a piece but that’s all; soon my hand flies across the page, possessed, faster than my thoughts, which tumble out, the words and phrases surprising me. Where did that come from? When writing is like that, it is magical. Even if I am just writing about toast.

I hope you don't think this was too self-indulgent! Because writing can be a selfish thrill — and writing about one’s writing, even more so. But putting my words out into the blogosphere - it' s taking the internal and making it public, and I’m always touched and happily amazed when someone tells me they’ve enjoyed a post I’ve written (the sense of community from blogging was something I never expected, but I enjoy immensely). So thank you.

Part of this blog hop was to tap other writers on the shoulder to participate. If Bec hadn’t invited me, she would gave been on my list, as she has written some thought-provoking stuff, so please do go to her blog. And someone else beat me to Carla, who at My Yellow Heart has written about her experiences being transplanted from one extreme part of the country to another.
Let me introduce you to:

Sarah at The Garden Deli: Sarah writes thoughtfully about the vegies and flowers in her garden and kitchen. I always come away with something to think about or to try out. And as she is on the other side of the world to me (UK), we often compare the contrast between our seasons!

Rachel at The Food Sage: Rachel is a proper-really-truly food writer — it’s what she does as a living! I’m always interested in the topics Rachel explores in her clear writing style, be it a book review or an insight into the food industry.

Jo at All the BlueDay: Jo is a fellow Tasmanian (actually, I’m a ring-in) writing truthfully and humourously about her family life. I love Jo’s voice; it’s so vivid and sharp. She often makes me laugh — and wish I’d written that.

5 Jun 2014

country style apple cakes

Let’s talk apples, because it is apple season. Or more precisely, let’s bake with apples and then eat the tender, sweet goodness. Because I would much rather eat an apple cake than eat a fresh apple.

I have a small stash of granny smiths in my laundry cupboard at the moment, from dad’s trees. You may think that is a strange place to store apples, until I tell you that it is the coolest part of the house right now; now that it is winter in Hobart and on some days the temperature doesn’t even reach double figures, so the heating is on to stay. Besides, it is nice opening the cupboard door for the peg basket or a new roll of toilet paper and seeing the bright green orbs of appleness, and inhaling their tangy sharpness.

I haven’t yet made a pie, or its rustic, more forgiving cousin, a free-form galette. But I have made an apple bread and butter pudding. Would you ever think to tuck tart slices of granny smith apples into your B&B pudding? I hadn’t either until I tried it at mum’s. I came home and made it myself, with fragrant, sultana-studded slices of panettone (squirreled away into the freezer at Christmas time) and a smear or two of apricot jam. The contrast between rich, squidgy custard and the apple, still a little firm to the bite, and still a little tart, was morish. Good thing I had made a generous dish–full. And while I’ve certainly been creative with B&B puddings in the past, adding lots of jam or liqueur or roasted fruit, I’d never thought to use fresh apples. It’s good to learn a new trick.

But it’s also good to make an old favourite, and this country-style apple cake appears at least once every apple season. I usually make one single round cake, which can be fairly impressive to behold, but this time I wanted to share some with my friend C, so cupcakes it was (plus, wasn’t one of my culinary resolutions this year to use up my stash of cupcake papers?)

Apart from the apple slices on top, the cake itself is fairly plain, just a smidgeon of spice to round out the flavour; barely there. I especially like these when they are warm, with a little curve of vanilla ice cream adorning the partially-submerged apple slices; or perhaps a pillowy spoonful of thick cream. Gosh, why would I want to eat an apple au naturale when it is so enticing in a cake?

Country-style apple cake
Adapted from an undated ‘Successful Baking’ recipe card. The recipe specified a 20 cm round tin; for that option, halve the apple slices instead of quartering them, and bake for about an hour.
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and prep some muffin tins; I made 16.
  • Quarter and core a couple of granny smith apples (leave the skin on).
  • Cream 185 gms soft butter with ½ cup white sugar and ¼ cup light brown sugar for a few minutes.
  • Beat in 1 tspn vanilla, then 2 large eggs.
  • Sift and fold in a heaped ½ tspn mixed spice with 2 cups of SR flour (my recipe scribbles indicate I’ve also made this with 1 ¾ cups white SR and ¼ cup wholemeal SR flour).
  • Stir thru 150 mls milk. While this a fairly firm batter, add a dribble more milk if the batter is too stiff to manoeuvre.
  • Transfer the batter to your muffin or cake tins. Arrange the apple slices so they are standing up, and press in gently.
  • Bake for about 25 minutes for cupcakes or until done.