Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I'm in love - with Nigel Slater's "The Kitchen Diaries"

Yes, I know that Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries has been around for a while. However, I only managed to get my hands on my very own copy this week when inexplicably, there was a copy in the bargain bin of a bookshop in my hometown, where I have travelled for Christmas.

I had heard quite a lot about The Kitchen Diaries from other blogs, including Adam at The Amateur Gourmet, and had been keen to buy it for some time. It seemed the gods were smiling on me for waiting, and I snapped up the sole copy in the bookshop I visited.

Once I got The Kitchen Diaries home, I devoured it from cover to cover. It is really that kind of book - it's Nigel's food journal for one year, complete with mouthwatering recipes. The great thing about his recipes is that, on the whole, they really are the kind of thing that you would make at home. They are no fuss, and use ordinary ingredients that are generally easy to obtain (with the exception of the two or three recipes which use gamebirds like pheasant and partridge, as these are not that easy to come by in Australia and are quite expensive when you can).

Nigel writes in a really relaxed style, just like he's having a conversation with you over the garden fence. He quite openly confesses to his kitchen mistakes and his lazy days where he eats only bread and cold cuts or gets a takeaway. It's the kind of book you can't help but love. He also cooks and presents his dishes in a no fuss, realistic fashion. I particularly adored his cake recipes, all of which I would make, and none of which is extravagant with its ingredients.

Nigel's love of growing his own fruit and vegetables and buying fresh produce shines through the pages. I don't have a garden, but I have been inspired to take more care and attention with buying produce, and hope to apply some of Nigel's tips.

There are photos to accompany a large number of the recipes, and these pictures are so mouth-watering as to make me want to dive straight into the pages and eat them (although alas, I would be bitterly disappointed if I actually tried to do this).

When I get back from holidays, I will be going straight to this book to make one of the many dishes described in it. I am in love with The Kitchen Diaries!

Happy holidays one and all!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Of sunshine and the Land of the Long White Cloud

Aotearoa, rugged individual
Glisten like a pearl
At the bottom of the world
(From Six Months in a Leaky Boat by Split Enz)

This will be the last post for a while, as Cakelaw is taking a Christmas break. First stop is the Sunshine State (although I will be miles from the nearest beach), followed by some time in Aotearoa, land of mountains, lakes, sheep, Split Enz and Daddy Long Legs, among others. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone!

Strawberry vacherin

Our final birthday person for the year at work is Susie, whose birthday falls on 30 December. As with Matt, I did not think it was fair to allow her birthday to pass unnoticed simply because she had the good sense to be born during the holiday season. Of my previous creations, Susie loved my marshmallow Easter bunny (so much that she originally asked for her birthday cake to be a marshmallow Santa!) and the strawberry/sponge/meringue concoction that I previously whipped up for Dawn. However, I wanted to do something different for Susie that reflected her preferences, but which was unique.

I originally envisioned a cake filled with a block of marshmallow, but I couldn't find a recipe for this, and conceptually was too much for me to invent at this time of year. Accordingly, I went back to the strawberries and meringue, and decided to make a gorgeous-looking strawberry vacherin from Delicious - 5 of the Best by Valli Little (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 2006). I had been eyeing up this recipe since I bought the book last Christmas. Although it sounded relatively easy to make in theory, this cake was tricky in practice, primarily because it involves making and assembling three very thin and fragile meringue and almond discs. In addition, the recipe did not give any handy tips and tricks that would have prepared me for potential baking dilemmas.

Despite some close calls, I managed to assemble this cake successfully. If you would like to try it, the recipe (in my own words with hints) is as follows:

175g almond meal (or grind up your own roasted almonds)
5 egg whites
225g sugar
110g melted butter
70g plain flour
300ml whipping cream
150g icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
250g fresh strawberries
1 x 100g Toblerone

I recommend starting this recipe a day ahead so that the meringue discs have time to cool and harden.

Preheat your oven to 120 degrees Celsius. Draw 20cm circles on 3 squares of baking paper, and place circle side down on three small baking trays. Spray each square liberally with cooking spray.

In an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and half of the sugar together until they are stiff. (I thought that it was wrong to add the sugar until the egg whites were stiffened, but weirdly, this works.) Beat through the remaining sugar, then remove the bowl from the mixer, and fold through the almond meal with a spatula. Finally, add the butter and sifted flour to the mixture and stir through gently (so as not to knock the air out) to combine.

Divide the mixture evenly between the circles on each of the three baking trays, and spread out the mixture to an approximate thickness of 1 cm within each circle, so that when they are baked, you will end up with three discs of approximately even size and thickness. This is not as easy as it sounds, because the mixture is quite thick and has a tendency to stick to the spatula.

Bake all three discs in the preheated oven for roughly 50 minutes (mine took about an hour, and I cranked up the temperature to 150 degrees Celsius for the last 5 minutes) until the discs are firm to the touch and off white in colour. Remove the discs from the oven and leave on the trays to cool. (The original recipe says to peel the baking paper off as soon as you remove the discs from the oven, but I found that at this stage, the discs tended to stick to the baking paper and to crack.)

The next day, whip the cream, icing sugar and vanilla until the mixture reaches a thick, spreadable consistency. Break the Toblerone into pieces and melt over a bain marie.

Take the sturdiest meringue disc and put on a serving plate. Spread the disc with half of the melted chocolate and one third of the whipped cream, going right to the edges of the disc with each. Place a second meringue disc (use the weakest or ugliest disc, as it is fully supported and will be in the middle of the cake so no-one will see it!) on top of the cream, and then spread it with the remaining melted chocolate and a further third of the cream. Finally, place the last disc on top of the stack and spread with the remainder of the cream.

To serve, slice the strawberries lengthways into halves/thirds/quarters (whatever takes your fancy) and place upright like soldiers on the top of the cake. Finally, dust the top of the cake with icing sugar - voila! (I forgot the icing sugar, but this cake is so sweet that you really don't need it.)

Although the photo of the slice of cake is not artistically great, it shows the various layers of the cake quite clearly.

This cake was very sweet, but was delicious. I prefer the taste of the cream whipped with icing sugar to cream whipped without it, and the delicate almond meringue and berries were a sensational foil for the cream. This cake is the first one that I have made for a while that was universally enjoyed by the team. For a special occasion, this cake would make a pretty centrepiece treat.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chocolate mud cake

It is Matt's birthday on 29 December, when most people will be on Christmas leave. I think it would be most unfair to miss out someone's birthday cake just because they happen to have a festive season birthday - a bit like only receiving one present for both occasions! Accordingly, I made his cake for work today.

The guys at my work have a general leaning towards chocolate cake, so I decided to make Matt a decidedly masculine, full-bodied chocolate mud cake. It did not disappoint - when Matt sliced into it with a knife for the traditional cutting of the cake, the knife stuck fast about half-way through. For an anxious moment, I thought that I might need King Arthur to get the knife out again, but luckily, this was not the case. I need not have fretted about the end result - this cake not only looked great, but was dense, moist and rich in the centre, just as a mud cake should be. However, it is not for the faint-hearted - one small piece is more than enough, and I am sure that this cake could be a dragon-slayer in its own right!

If you are game enough to take up the challenge, you can make this cake as follows:

250g cubed butter
200g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
1 2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup whisky
1 tablespoon instant coffee powder
1/2 cup boiling water
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1/2 cup self raising flour
1/3 cup cocoa
2 eggs
2 tablespoons whisky (to pour on the hot cake)

Preheat your oven to 160 degrees Celsius and grease and line a 20cm square cake tin.

Dissolve the coffee in the hot water and put into a medium saucepan with the butter, chocolate, sugar and whisky. Melt the mixture over a low heat, stirring constantly, until completely smooth.

Sift the flours and cocoa together. Pour the melted chocolate mixture over the dry ingredients until just combined. Lightly beat the eggs and stir into the cake batter. Place the cake batter into the greased and lined tin, and bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Once the cake is cooked, remove it from the oven, pour over the 2 tablesppons of extra whisky and leave it to cool in the tin for about 20 minutes, before turning onto a wire rack to cool.

You can make a chocolate ganache for decorating the cake by bringing 1/3 cup whipping cream to the boil, then removing from the heat and stirring through 100g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces. Once the ganache has cooled and thickened a little, spread it over the top and sides of the cooled cake, then refrigerate the cake.

This cake was rich but delicious - it was a real hit with die-hard chocolate lovers, and not such a hit with those who weren't.

I am entering this cake in Zorra and Sandra's Best of 2007, because it was the chocolatiest, richest, most decadent cake that I have made this year - and it smells divine! For the roundup, please check here.

best of 2007

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Eagle vs Shark

Jarrod: I'm a loser.

Lily: Doesn't matter.

I went to see Eagle vs Shark for the second time yesterday. I first saw it at the Melbourne Film Festival ages ago, but it has finally hit the cinemas here in Australia (although only on limited release).

Eagle vs Shark is a New Zealand film, and is a quirky romantic comedy with the theme that there is someone for everyone and true love is blind. The quote above comes from the film, and sums it up. The two main protagonists of the film, Jarrod and Lily, lead less than perfect lives, working in boring dead-end jobs and living in circumstances as far removed from Martha Stewart and The Brady Bunch as you can imagine (although probably closer to reality than many of us would care to admit).

Lily is shy and awkward, but very sweet, while Jarrod is a surly boy in a man's body, with the mental age of a thirteen year old. He has a chip on his shoulder because he was bullied at school, and tells "hot ones" and puts down everyone he meets to make himself feel better than them. This chip and Jarrod's pathetic attempt to redress past wrongs which he feels have ruined his life form a major part of the plot of the film.

For some reason, even though Jarrod treats her very badly and is hardly the man of most girls' dreams, Lily falls heavily for Jarrod, and does everything she can to try and make him appreciate her. As the plot progresses, even Lily turns away from Jarrod for a short time before deciding that, despite his very obvious flaws, Jarrod is the man for her (hence the quote at the start of this post).

There is a foodie element coursing through this film. Lily bakes Jarrod a cake decorated with his favourite "animal", an eagle, (which Jarrod later carelessly smashes with his fist) to try and win him over. An animated apple core and a rotten apple join up with each other by way of a ride on a discarded "jandal" (for Aussies, a thong, and for everyone else, a flip flop) across the sea, symbolising the relationship between Lily and Jarrod. (This sounds weird, but it is really rather cute.) Finally, some of the action takes place around the dinner table at the house of Jarrod's sister and brother-in-law, Nancy and Doug, where meat and three veg and salad reign supreme.

If you enjoy slightly off beat comedy, I recommend giving this film a go. (The cinema going crowds on the day did not seem to agree, with a very long line for an Audrey Tatou film and only about ten people in the entire cinema for Eagle vs Shark. They didn't know what a gem they were missing!)

Blog Party #29 - Another Bite of Dessert

Stephanie of Dispensing Happiness is hosting a blog party once again, this time with the theme of Another Bite of Dessert. To attend a blog party, you must make both an item of finger food and a drink that fits with the party theme for that month.

For my dessert, I have chosen cappucino cupcakes, from the May/June 2006 issue of Donna Hay Magazine. Donna calls them short black cupcakes, but with all that frothy frosting on top, they have to be cappucinos from my viewpoint.

To make these little delights, the recipe is as follows:

125g butter, softened and cubed
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/4 cups plain flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder, sifted
2 tablespoons cocoa, sifted
1/2 cup milk
100g melted dark chocolate

For the frosting:

1 cup sugar
1/4 cup tap water
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 tablespoons instant coffee
3 eggwhites

Line a 12 cup muffin tin with cupcake liners (or spray it with cooking spray instead, as I did). Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer, then beat in the eggs. Remove the mixture from the mixer stand, and fold in the flour, baking powder and cocoa with a spoon or spatula. Stir through the milk and chcocolate until combined, then place into the muffin cups and bake for about 15 minutes or until cooked. Cool the cakes in the tin for 5 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool completely.

For the frothy frosting, put the sugar, water, coffee and cream of tartar in a small saucepan and stir over high heat until the mixture boils, then simmer over a low heat for 3 minutes. Beat the eggwhites in a separate bowl to soft peak stage, then while the mixer continues to run, add the sugar syrup and beat until thick and shiny. Top each cake with the frosting applied to resemble cappucino froth. (Note that the frosting doesn't set hard, just like froth.)

For my drink, I have prepared the perfect accompaniment to a cappucino cupcake - a short black coffee in a glass. As this is an adult party and it is Christmas, feel free to add a shot or two of Baileys, whiskey or brandy. Enjoy!

Thanks to Steph for hosting yet another blog party, and check back for the roundup. (Postscript: The roundup is now available here.)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

SHF #38 - The proof is in the pudding - Eve's Pudding

It is Sugar High Friday time once again, and this month, our host is Zorra from Kochtopf. The theme chosen by Zorra is "The proof is in the pudding". As with the old proverb "The proof of the pudding is in the eating", Zorra asks us to make, test and eat a pudding for SHF.

I love pudding, so the challenge of this SHF was what to make when there are so many things to choose from! Eventually, after much soul searching, I chose Jamie Oliver's Orchard Eve's pudding from his latest book, Jamie at Home. The picture of the luscious pink fruit crowned by a golden sponge caught my eye, and as it is summer in the Antipodes, beautiful fruit is in abundance.

The resulting pudding is absolutely gorgeous - as you can see from the photos, the stewed fruit turns a delicate shade of pink, and the sponge cake permeates the fruit throughout the pan to form a lovely, light, fruity dessert. This is not a diet dessert - as the quantity of butter and sugar can attest - but in moderation, it really is a perfect accompaniment to dinner for a lazy summer evening out on the verandah. (Ed's note - Cakelaw does not have a verandah as she lives in an apartment sans balcony, but wouldn't it be grand ...)

What else can I say - make this dish! There is no higher commendation than that.

You will need:

1.5kg apples, pears, peaches and plums
1 tablespoon butter
100g brown sugar
a pinch each of ground ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon
3 bay leaves
200g butter, softened and cubed
200g sugar (I cut this down to about 120g, and it was fine)
4 eggs
200g self-raising flour, sifted

To prepare the fruit - peel and core the apples and pears, and slice them into wedges. (I have a great gadget from the $2 shop that cores and slices in one go and fits neatly into the gadget drawer). Peel and stone the peaches, and slice into 4 pieces (or more if you have large peaches). Halve and stone the plums - the skins should stay on, as these will give a lovely pinkish hue to the stewed fruit. Put the sliced fruit into a large saucepan with the tablespoon of butter, the brown sugar, the bay leaves and the spices, and simmer gently for about 20 minutes or until the fruit is soft.

For the sponge - Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Take the bowl out of the mixer and fold in the flour using a wooden spoon, being careful as always not to overwork the mixture. Drain the stewed fruit, reserving the juices, and spoon half of it into a 20cm round baking dish. Spread the sponge batter on top of the fruit, then top with the remaining fruit. Bake the pudding in the oven for about 40 minutes or until the sponge is cooked.

To serve, spoon the reserved juices from the fruit over the top of the pudding, and if desired, serve with ice cream, cream, custard or yoghurt. Personally, I enjoyed this pudding by itself, allowing me to savour the juicy goodness of the fruit.

Thanks to Zorra for yet another great SHF theme, and stay tuned for the roundup.

Postscript: Zorra has posted the roundup of 72 scrumptious puddings here. Do go and check it out - you are sure to find something to tempt you.

Chocolate Coated Caramelised Nuts

The final item that I made for this year's goodie boxes was chocolate coated caramelised nuts, using instructions from the December 2007-January 2008 edition of Dish.

For my nuts, I selected hazelnuts and brazil nuts (about 150g of each). Roast them in the oven for about 10 minutes, then rub the coarse brown skins off the nuts in a clean linen tea towel.

Next, place the nuts in a heavy based frypan with 4 tablespoons of tap water and 1 1/2 cups of sugar, and stir over a medium heat until the sugar melts then recrystallises to thickly coat the nuts with a crunchy coating. Place the nuts onto a baking paper lined tray to cool, and separate them out so that they don't stick together as they cool

Melt 250g of chocolate over a bain marie or in a microwave (I prefer the bain marie). Once the chocolate has melted, and depending on your squeamishness level, you can:

(a) coat each nut in the melted chocolate using two forks to dip them in; or

(b) dip your right fingertips into the melted chocolate for a right handed person (and vice versa for a left handed person), and using your fingertips, pat a generous amount of melted chocolate into your left palm (or right palm, for a left hander), then pick up each nut and roll between your chocolate coated palm and fingertips until coated.

I learnt technique (b) at the Savour Chocolate & Patisserie School, and it worked better for me than the forks, which tended to be slower and promoted solidification of the chocolate around the tines.

Place each coated nut on a piece o
f baking paper to set, turning occasionally as it sets to avoid chocolate "feet" forming on your nuts (personally, this doesn't bother me, and mine had small feet).

Once the chocolate has set, you may optionally roll the nuts in cocoa before storing them in an airtight container (but not in the fridge).

I had a drama with the first coat of chocolate on my nuts "blooming" (ie the chocolate when set was grey, spotty and matte in colour because it reset with an incorrect crystalline structure due to the chocolate being too hot when the nuts were dipped). After a bit of Internet research on
tempering chocolate, I successfully recoated the nuts.

These nuts tasted rather nice, although I don't think I will do this very often (because with the number of individual nuts involved, it is rather time consuming).

I wrapped my nuts in cellophane tied with ribbon for the goodie boxes, but they would look great on the dinner table in a ramekin, as pictured above.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Chocolate roulade

One of my colleagues, Julien, celebrates his birthday in late December; however, as he finished up on Friday to go on leave for 5 weeks, I decided to bake him his birthday cake this week.

Chocolate is a very popular flavour choice at work, so I made a chocolate roulade for Julien. (It is based on Jamie Oliver's Black Forest Swiss roll from Cook.)

I liked this cake because it combined sweet with sour; the sour cherries balanced out the chocolate and cream, so you were not overwhelmed by sweetness.

For a roulade, it was also surprisingly easy to work with; roulades have a reputation for cracking, and I was dubious about not rolling up the cake while still hot. However, I was ultimately pleasantly surprised by the result, which was relatively crack-free.

My version of the chocolate roulade is as follows:

4 eggs
125g sugar
65g butter
100g plain flour
30g cocoa
400g bottle morello cherries in syrup
2 tablespoons brandy
300ml whipping cream
70g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Grease a Swiss roll pan, line with baking paper and then grease the paper.

Melt the butter in a microwave or on the stove top. Beat the eggs with an electric mixer until they have fluffed up to roughly three times their original volume. Slowly whisk the melted butter into the eggs by hand so as to retain the air in the egg mixture. Sift together the plain flour and cocoa into a small bowl, then using a wooden spoon, fold the flour and cocoa into the egg mixture, again trying to avoid knocking the air out of the mixture.

Spread the cake batter out over the Swiss roll pan, and bake for 15 minutes or until the cake springs back when touched. After removing the cake from the oven, leave it to cool in the pan.

Drain the syrup from the morello cherries, and warm the syrup with the brandy in a small saucepan. Brush over the cooled cake.

Heat one third of the cream in a small saucepan until it almost (but not quite) boils, then remove it from the stove and stir through the chocolate pieces to form a chocolate cream.

Whip the remaining cream with an electric mixer to stiff peak stage.

Leaving the cake on the paper that it was baked in, spread the cake with chocolate cream, leaving a 5cm border around the edges. Top this with the whipped cream. Sprinkle the drained cherries on top of the cream. Using the baking paper as a guide, roll the cake up tightly, removing it from the baking paper as you roll. (Some of the filling may be squeezed out at this stage, so retaining the border around the edges of the cake when filling it is important.) Once the cake has been completely rolled, wrap it in baking paper and refrigerate it until set.

You can sift icing sugar over the cake before serving, but I think this is superfluous, and the cake was fine without it.

If you have a chocolate and fruit lover to bake for, then this is the cake for them. As mentioned above, the balance of the tart fruit against the fattiness of the cream and the sweetness of the chocolate is just devine, and I would make this cake again.

Eat Christmas Cookies - Spiced gingerbread

Susan of Food Blogga is hosting a once-off event to celebrate Christmas - Eat Christmas Cookies! The brief is simple - post about a Christmas cookie.

As part of my Christmas goodie boxes, I made spiced gingerbread prepared as hanging tree decorations, so thought these would be perfect for the Christmas cookie event. They are pictured at the bottom of this post.

These cookies are sooooooo cute and are fairly easy to make. They are fun to decorate (if you have the time!), and taste really good - they are not overwhelmingly spicy, nor are they hard and uninviting to eat, like gingerbread cookies can sometimes be.

The recipe is from one of the books in the Kitchen Classic series, Celebration, and is as follows:

140g softened butter
115g brown sugar
1/4 cup golden syrup
1 egg
2 cups plain flour
3 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

Grease 2 baking trays. Cream the butter and the sugar with an electric mixer, then beat in the syrup and the egg. Fold through the sifted flour, bicarbonate of soda and spices with a wooden spoon to form a biscuit dough. Knead the dough on a floured surface until smooth, divide into two and press into discs, wrap each disc in clingwrap then refrigerate for 25 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Remove the chilled dough from the fridge, and roll each disc of dough on a floured surface to a thickness of 4mm. Cut out shapes from the dough using Christmas cookie cutters. Place the biscuits on cookie sheets for baking, and if you wish to make them into tree decorations, use the small end of a round metal piping tip to cut a hole for ribbon in the top of each biscuit. Bake the biscuits for 10 minutes or until cooked, and cool on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Ice the cooled biscuits with glace icing (icing sugar, a teaspoon of lemon juice, and water) of a colour of your choosing, and decorate with sugar decorations (eg silver cachous, sprinkles). I chose silver and white because I liked the colour scheme. If you have made a hole for tree decorations in each biscuit, cut short lengths of thin fabric or paper ribbon and thread through each hole, and knot at the top to secure. Hang the biscuits on your Christmas tree as edible decorations.

You can see the cookie roundup here - I never knew that there was so many types of cookies!

Easy chicken curry

I have recently added Nigella Lawson's Nigella Express to my burgeoning library of recipe books (yes, I too am a cookbook addict!). There are plenty of great, fast recipes in this book, and you can avoid the fried foods and cream cakes if this is not your thing.

As an example of one of the delicious but healthy recipes in this book, I made Nigella's "Curry in a Hurry" with variations to suit my tastes and what I had on hand. This curry can be made using light coconut milk instead of full fat, and you can easily substitute the chicken thigh fillets for leaner breast meat. It produces a light, delicious curry that can be eaten in smaller serves as a quick snack, or for a main meal.

The recipe is as follows:

1 onion, chopped
45g Thai green curry paste
600g chicken breast fillets, sliced into thin strips
400ml light coconut milk
250ml chicken stock
1 tablespoon fish sauce
600g mixed frozen vegetables

Spray a large frypan with oil. Brown the onion, then add the curry paste. Add the chicken pieces and brown them, then add the coconut milk, the stock, the fish sauce and the frozen vegetables. Simmer for 15 minutes. Serve with steamed or boiled rice, or stir through some udon noodles.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Mini Pie Revolution - Blackberry and Apple Pies

Ann from Redacted Recipes and Karyn from Hot Potato are rebelling against the ubiquity of cupcakes and hosting a Mini Pie Revolution. As the name of the event suggests, Ann and Karyn require participants to bake mini pies of any variety, provided that they meet the size criteria ie baked in mini muffin or muffin size tins, and have a crust or other topping (ie they are pies!!).

I have decided to make mini blackberry and apple pies, based on Bill Granger's recipe for apple and cherry tarts in the
Australian Womens Weekly, December 2006 edition. You can just see the fruit peeking through the crust of one of the pies in the photograph. These pies are luscious and tasty because they are packed with fruit. They are also quite simple to make in muffin tins.

The recipe is as follows:

300g plain flour
80g sifted icing sugar
pinch of salt
160g chilled, cubed butter
1/4 cup iced water
150g blackberries
2 apples, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
1 tablespoon cornflour

55g sugar
1 lightly beaten egg white

Place flour, icing sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the butter and pulse until the dough looks like breadcrumbs. Stream in ice water and process until the dough forms a ball. Place in cling wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Grease 8 cups of a 12 hole muffin tin and line with strips of baking paper protuding from the sides (to act as handles to lift out the baked pies).

Roll out the chilled pastry to a 3mm thickness. Cut out 8 pastry rounds and line the bottom of the muffin tins. Cut another 8 rounds to be lids for the pies and set aside.

In a bowl, mix the fruit, cornflour and sugar together. Spoon the fruit into the uncooked pastry cases, brush the top of each pastry case with egg white, and top each pie with a reserved pastry lid. Crimp the edges of the pies together with a fork, and brush the tops of the pies with egg white.

Bake the pies for 40 minutes or until golden.

Thanks to Ann and Karyn for hosting The Mini Pie Revolution!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Savour Chocolate and Patisserie School

Today I attended a "Variety Day" cooking class at Savour Chocolate & Patisserie School in East Brunswick, Melbourne. The class description promised that we would make "a gateau, a tart and some chocolates". And that, in fact, is what we did. However, the final results were so much more wonderful than that prosaic description would lead you to believe, as I am sure that the photographs accompanying this post can attest.

This class gave me a glimpse of the differences between being a capable home cook (as I believe that I am) and being a professional pastry chef. Equipment, technique, ingredients and presentation are all essential to ensuring that you can achieve a professional looking, delicious product. Although I doubt that the results I will achieve (or even aspire to!) at home will match those of what was produced in the class, I learned a lot, and hope that I will be able to put at least some of the techniques to good use.

On arrival at the class, we were "greeted" ("Hello, here's your apron and recipes and there's your name tag") by our tutor, Paul, an Irishman with a rather acerbic wit. All ten of us were at the mercy of Paul's tongue for the day; however, at least from our perspective, it was all in good fun and kept us entertained throughout what proved to be a very long day.

After being divided into three groups, we had to weigh out all of the ingredients for every recipe before commencing. This subsequently resulted in some chaos, because although everyone had to label which ingredients were theirs so that they could be found later (each group made different quantities due to different mixer sizes), there was still understandably some confusion and mix-ups, resulting in wrong quantities being used on occasion.

We made three complete items - a "gourmet delight" (a very fancy frangipan-like dessert, pictured at the top of this post), a chocolate and vanilla charlotte (pictured in the centre of this post) and some truffles (pictured at the bottom of this post). The chocolates interested me the least because it is not something I want to do myself, and I am not a huge fan of these types of chocolates, even though I am a chocoholic.

The gourmet delight was comprised of a shortcrust pastry base that proved to be rather cantankerous, a scrumptious berry compote and an almond dacquoise (similar to a frangipan). The charlotte consisted of a joconde biscuit base (actually just a very sweet, thin sponge, not unlike that used in chocolate stripe cake) brushed with sugar syrup, a vanilla bavarian cream body and a chocolate mousse topping.

I have tried the completed gourmet delight, and it is delicious. Although it can be frozen for up to 6 months, I am going to share it with a friend this evening, as I believe that baked goods are best when they are fresh. The individual components of the charlotte are certainly delicious, but the completed cake is presently residing in my freezer, awaiting an occasion for me to cut it.

The cute round decals pictured immediately above were made by Paul using special chocolate transfers made from cocoa butter, some chocolate sheets with round cut-outs and white chocolate. Unfortunately, the green one melted slightly on the tram journey home, hence the indentation that you can see. These decals were made as chocolate garnishes for the gourmet delight. Other chocolate garnishes demonstrated by Paul were "black and white cigarettes" (thin chocolate curls made using white and dark chocolate) and bronzed chocolate shards made with metallic cake powders and dark chocolate. These latter garnishes are featured atop the chocolate and vanilla charlotte in the photograph.

We did not make the square and marbled caramels in the photograph immediately above - these were a gift because Paul had an unfortunate encounter with most of our white truffles. The white and dark truffles featured in the photograph were made by filling commercially made truffle shells with vanilla ganache, sealing the hole with more chocolate, then rolling the truffle in melted chocolate between your left palm and right fingertips (for a right-handed person). As you can imagine, the latter was not a pretty process.

I adored this class because of the insights it gave me into making restaurant-standard desserts, and the techniques and ideas that I have acquired (yes Paul, I did learn something!!). I am also pretty chuffed with the final results, all of which were made by a group effort (we each received a whole gourmet delight and a whole charlotte to take home).

Thanks to the Savour Chocolate & Patisserie School for making this class available and to Paul for teaching us and for his entertaining (though cutting!) commentary throughout the class.

Jam drops

Christmas is a time of year that always has me waxing lyrical about the great time that I had at home growing up. (Perhaps I am getting old and pining for the good ol' days??) Making food that was an ever-present factor in my childhood always brings me feelings of comfort and happiness, as a number of my previous posts attest.

In the ongoing vein of old fashioned favourites, I made jam drops (known in the US as thumbprints) for work this week. Basically, these are just buttery cookies with a dob of jam in the middle to add sweetness and make the biscuits look attractive. You can use whatever jam or other spread (eg nutella, lemon curd) takes your fancy.

When my brother and I were young, Mum often made jam drops for the household biscuit tin. We always believed that she liked doing it, and it was only much later that she revealed that her motivation was that it was cheaper to make your own biscuits than to buy them. Regardless of her reasons, we benefitted from her efforts, because I believe that home-made biscuits and cakes taste miles better than the majority of supermarket offerings, and you can avoid all of the nasty preservatives that are essential to promote the shelf life of store-bought biscuits. I also benefitted because I have now been bitten by the baking bug, and I get a special kick out of making things that bring back memories of my childhood. Don't get me wrong - as with life in general, things were never perfect, but they were pretty good, and I have mostly very fond memories of those early years at home.

There are oodles of recipes for jam drops out there, and I am sure that they are all equally good. I don't have Mum's recipe for jam drops, so I used the one from Donna Hay's Modern Classics Book 2. It is as follows:

180g softened butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
2 cups sifted plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
your favourite jam

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius, and line two cookie sheets with baking paper.

Cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer, then add the egg and beat well. Add the flour and baking powder and combine until you have a workable biscuit dough that you can roll into balls. (If it is too sticky to work with, just add more flour a little at a time.)

Roll generous teaspoonfuls of the dough into balls between the palms of your hands and place on the baking sheets, spaced so that the biscuits have a little room to spread as they bake. (You can see from the photo that mine were sometimes a little close. If yours are too, that's OK - they still taste the same, but you will need to slice them apart while still warm from the oven, and the shapes will not be as regular.) Stick your thumb in each ball to make a small well (not too large, otherwise your jam will run out!). Place a small dob of jam in each well, just enough to fill it. Don't overfill the biscuits, otherwise the jam will run everywhere during baking.

Bake for 10 minutes or until golden (mine took a little longer than 10 minutes). Cool the bsicuits on the trays for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. The biscuits will be very soft when they first come out of the oven, but harden slightly as they cool.

These biscuits are great for children because they can easily help to make them, and they are simple and sweet in flavour. I used to love making the wells in the jam drops and filling them with jam, although my overenthusiasm with the size of the holes and the amount of jam often landed me in trouble.

Enjoy! It really is true - the simple things are often the best.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Christmas treats - rum balls and apricot balls

Part of the magic of Christmas for me is the observance of various rituals and traditions. In the uncertainty of everyday life, Christmas acts like an anchor between the past and the present, holding the ship of life steady and bringing some calm amidst the storm.

Every Christmas while I lived at home, Mum made rum balls and apricot balls for Christmas. Now that I have left home and neither she nor my brother care for them, she has stopped making them. However, the great news is that because Mum made them year in, year out, I picked up how to make these treats for myself. This means that I can re-create my own little slice of Christmas tradition every year, and with it, happy memories of Christmases past.

If I was let loose on whole batches of rum balls and apricot balls, I could certainly eat them all - I love them. What's not to love? However, this year's rum balls and apricot balls are destined for my Christmas goodie boxes.

There are probably as many different recipes for rum balls as there are households that make them. My best friend from primary school used to include soggy Weetbix in hers (eww!); some people dip them in chocolate, others coat them with cocoa, dollarettes or coconut; some recipes contain dried fruit, others don't. It all depends on family traditions and personal preference. However, the common elements in all recipes are rum and cocoa.

In this post, I will share my family recipes for rum balls and apricot balls. If you like the sound of them, maybe you will adopt these treats as one of your Christmas traditions!

The recipes are as follows:

Rum balls

1 tin condensed milk (light is OK)
125g crushed plain biscuits (I used Arnotts Milk Arrowroot)
2-3 tablespoons cocoa, sifted
1/2 cup sultanas
2-3 tablespoons rum
1 packet dessicated coconut

Combine all ingredients other than coconut in a large bowl. Add just enough coconut to the mixture until it is firm enough to roll into balls (don't add the whole packet!). Pour more coconut onto a plate. Take teaspoons of the rum ball mixture, roll into balls between your palms, then roll in the coconut until coated and no longer sticky. Repeat with the remaining mixture. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Apricot balls

1 tin condensed milk (light is OK)
1 cup dried apricots, chopped finely
2-3 tablespoons dry sherry
1 packet dessicated coconut

Combine all ingredients other than coconut in a large bowl. Add just enough coconut to the mixture so that it is firm enough to roll into balls. Pour more coconut onto a plate. Take teaspoons of the apricot ball mixture, roll into balls between your palms, then roll in the coconut until coated and no longer sticky. Repeat with the remaining mixture. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

These simple but tasty treats are best made at least a couple of weeks in advance so that the alcohol can permeate them properly. They are delightful served as an after dinner treat, or any time, really!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Nigella's one-pan Christmas cake

I am making home-made Christmas food as presents for my friends and colleagues this year, and have things well underway. I am really enjoying the process of making these gifts, partly because making Christmas treats is steeped in tradition and brings back fond memories, and partly because I am applying my creative energies into making these treats unique.

One of the items that I have made for my Christmas goodie boxes is miniature fruit cakes. The recipe, from the December-January edition of Delicious magazine, is by Nigella Lawson. It was perfect for my purposes because it does not require you to steep the fruit for 6 months before-hand in a veritable vat of alcohol. Instead, Nigella uses the stovetop heat to infuse dried fruits with that lovely, aromatic alcoholic flavour that is essential for fruit cake.

If you forgot to steep your fruit for a home-made Christmas cake this year, never fear - Nigella's great no-fuss, last minute recipe is as follows:

2 1/4 cup sultanas
1 1/3 cup raisins
1 cup currants
(I substituted the currants, raisins and orange and lemon zest for 2 cups of dried mixed fruit)
1/3 cup chopped glace cherries
180g butter (diced)
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
3/4 cup chestnut puree (I used apple puree - I've no idea what difference this made to the flavour, but the end result tasted fine to me)
1/2 cup rum
Juice and zest of 1 orange (see my comment above re the zest)
Zest of 1 lemon
3 beaten eggs
2 cups plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (I didn't have any, so I just added more cinnamon)

Preheat your oven to 150 degrees Celsius, and grease and line a 20cm round cake tin with a double layer of baking paper that pokes at least 5cm above the top edge of the tin.

Combine the dried and glace fruits, zests, butter, sugar, puree, rum and orange juice in a large saucepan. Stir over medium heat until the butter has melted, bring the mixture to a simmer and then simmer for 10 minutes, stirring constantly to ensure that the fruit doesn't burn onto the pan. Remove the fruit from the stove and leave to cool for 30 minutes.

Stir the eggs, flour, baking powder and spices into the fruit until just combined, then pour the batter into the prepared cake tin. Nigella recommends wrapping a strip of brown paper twice the height of the tin around the outside of the tin to keep the cake moist. Place the cake into the oven, and bake for 1 3/4- 2 hours. Leave the cake to cool in the tin.

Because I thought that it would be fun (it was), and because I seem to like creating extra work for myself (it was!), I decided to make miniature fruit cakes in green patty pans for my goodie boxes. These cakes are pictured at the top of this post, and took about 40 minutes to bake. Once cooled, I spread the top of each of these cakes with melted and sieved apricot jam, and topped each one with a round of rolled white ready-made fondant. Finally, with my creative juices really flowing, I used food colouring pens from my excursion to Jane Asher's Sugarcraft shop in London to draw Christmas-themed decals on the top of each cake. (Thanks to Fanny from Foodbeam for her post on the Sugarcraft shop just before my trip to the UK last year - I would never have discovered this little gem without her.)

There was, as to be expected, about half of the batter left over after I had filled 24 patty pans, so I used the rest to make a small, flattish larger cake for myself. That version of the cake is pictured at the bottom of this post, and I baked it for about an hour.

This post is also my entry in the Festive Food Fair, being hosted by Anna of Morsels and Musings. This is a blogging event of global festive food of all types, and will be great fun - thanks for organising this Anna. (Postscript - The Festive Food Fair round up is available here - take a peek at the wonderful festive recipes from around the globe!)

Monday, December 3, 2007

Fig and ginger loaf

I absolutely adore both dried figs and ginger. The former is exotically sweet, while the latter possesses a glorious sweet heat. Both ingredients can be used to enhance the flavour of sweet or savoury dishes, making them incredibly versatile.

While flicking through the October-November 2007 edition of my latest favourite Kiwi find, Dish magazine, I spotted a recipe for Fig and Ginger Loaf among the brunch recipes. I was immediately smitten and knew that I had to make this. How could I refuse, with two of my favourite ingredients combined in one delicious looking cake?

From the photograph above, you can see what a glorious golden cake this is, laden with luscious figs and ginger. This loaf has been my morning tea for work this week, and I will definitely be re-visiting it often. The contrasting sweetnesses of the figs and ginger make this loaf irresistable all by itself; however, the recipe authors suggest that it be served toasted with ricotta and mango. Whichever way you would prefer it, I recommend it highly.

The recipe is as follows:

125ml milk, warmed (I used skim milk)
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
100ml vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons golden syrup
1/3 cup chopped preserved ginger (I used crystallised ginger and it was fine)
3/4 cup chopped dried figs
200g plain flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
150g sugar

Preheat your oven to 125 degrees Celsius. Grease and line a loaf tin (3 cup capacity).

Stir the bicarbonate of soda into the warmed milk until dissolved. Beat the eggs and egg yolk lightly, then whisk into the milk. Add the oil, vanilla, golden syrup and ginger and stir until combined.

Sift the flour, salt, ginger and cinnamon together in a separate bowl, and combine with the sugar. Toss the figs in the flour mixture until fully coated. Add the milk solution to the flour mixture, and mix until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf tin, and bake until cooked through (mine took about 2 hours, while the recipe says 1 1/2 hours). Cool in the tin for around 15 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Enjoy sliced for brunch, morning tea or any time you need a sweet boost!

Simply joyous - cupcakes

I have been baking away furiously for Christmas, but haven't blogged about it just yet.

In the meantime, I have posted this photograph of some very cute cupcakes that I made for work last week. They are simply plain butter cupcakes iced with pretty pink and sunshine yellow glace icing, then decorated with sugar flowers and coloured decorating sugar.

They make me feel happy just looking at them (crumbs and all!), and I hope that you enjoy them as much as I do.