Saturday, September 17, 2011

Gift giving dilemma? The answer is BAKING!

I recently joined a good friend in celebrating his birthday. It was not a 'significant' birthday, and just a lovely casual Sunday brunch at a cafe. In the days leading up to the birthday get-together, I pondered the question of what to give? I didn't want to turn up empty handed, of course. The intention is to show the person that you are happy for them, that you think they are special and the friendship you share is important to you, right? How can you communicate that in a gift?

Usually we try to buy something that the person will enjoy or find useful, but very often we end up getting whatever is easiest and honestly, not that much thought is involved.

I personally find men particularly difficult to buy gifts for. But in this instance, it occured to me in a moment of pure inspiration; this guy always loves my cakes. So why not just make him a cake?

And that is exactly what I did. Cooking something can really be the perfect gift. It not only conveys to the person how you feel about them, it shows that you think enough of them to do more than walk into a store and use your credit card. It is something that can be enjoyed and shared.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Cool Yule

Readers from the northern hemisphere of this planet might be slightly confused about the subject of this blog post. Let me explain...

Christmas here in Australia is a summer affair. It comes right in the middle of out summer holidays and the temperature can be between 30 - 40 degrees C depending on which part of the country you're in. So we modify the traditional Christmas fare to be more suitable to the climate. Luscious seafood, and sumptuous salads rule the day. The traditional meats of turkey, pork and ham make appearances but are usually served as cold cuts and barbecuing might be considered a suitable method of cooking, to keep the cooking heat outside the house.

I spent several years living in England and really enjoyed the winter Christmas times. Eating all that winter weather food made specially for a big celebration has an appeal all of it's own, and it's a bright spot to look forward to in the middle of the bleak grey winter. It's also something that we miss out on here in the southern hemisphere.

Celebrating a second Christmas in July is something that has become quite popular in foodie circles. I usually hold mine on the last weekend in July but I spend a good proportion of the prededing year thinking about and testing the recipes intended for my very special menu. It's an opportunity to stretch my culinary muscles, and push my creativity. It's also a chance to just focus on the food rather than all the other stressful things that go with December Christmases like relatives and gift shopping!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The gift of vanilla

I was talking to a foodie friend recently who had been to Paris and taken a cooking class while he was there.
He was generous enough to share with me, a tip he had learned during his class. I was so excited when I heard it, I nearly jumped out of my skin and couldn't wait to try it!
Home made vanilla extract!

The first step is to obtain some vanilla beans. Now, anyone who has ever purchased vanilla by the pod knows how expensive they are. But they tend to be less expensive when purchased in bulk. There are traders on websites like eBay who sell them for round $1 each in quantities of 50 or 100. Seems like a lot of beans, but not when you consider that this method preserves them indefinitely. You can also prepare small quantities in small jars to give as beautiful unique gifts for your foodie friends.
And this is what I did... except I made a huge jar!

Friday, June 17, 2011

THE Dessert

My oven is broken. Yes I know, get it fixed... But I've already had it fixed twice in the past 18 months. So it's time to say goodbye to our faithful oven that has helped us through many dinner parties, family gatherings, experimental recipes and weeknight dinners. After 14 years I'm quite sad to see it go. Many don't really get why the loss of the oven, and the acquisition of the replacement is such a big deal. But for us, the oven is a focal point of our kitchen. Our Kitchen is the heart of our home and therefore, and essential part of life as we know it.

Lacking an oven has forced me to think of other ways to cook when I usually rely on old faithful to bake to perfection for me.

We had a family lunch this weekend and dessert is usually the requested dish for us to bring. After a little bit of popping our heads together, we thought of making Tiramisu. No baking, in fact, no cooking of any kind required, unless you count the brewing of the coffee of course.
I remembered a recipe I'd seen on the SBS programme, 'Italian Food Safari' a while ago and so I sort out the recipe. You can find that recipe that SBS published here.  Although this one has a little cooking, (some hot sugar syrup), it is really an easy enough thing considering the impressiveness of the result.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Queen Of Tarts

Tart tatin is a french classic and once you've tasted it, it's easy to see why. Once you've tried making it you realize that it ticks all the boxes of complexity of flavour and texture while being astonishingly simple and fast to prepare. Tart tatin is also a feast for the eyes when served, looking like a work of patisserie art on the plate.

My husband David likes to perform his party trick of whipping one up from scratch in front of dinner guests in only a few moments, and I have to admit that is is a sight to behold, when presented to the table, to murmurings of delight.
As always, I am compelled to create my own variation on the classic. Right now I am experimenting with making individual tatins of various sizes and with various flavorings. This is my current favorite and the one I want to share with you .

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Sandwich That Wins The Race

My Racing Chicken Sandwiches

This dish began, several years ago while we had a team of people working for us at the spring racing carnival. Since I always like to keep the team well fed, I was looking for a snack that was substantial to be part of a proper luncheon, yet small enough to be held in one hand to eat, assuming the other hand carries a glass of champagne. I couldn't go past the finger sandwich for it's ease and neatness, and chicken is the classic filling.
So after a little bit of experimentation The Racing Chicken Sandwich was born.(or is that hatched?)
This mixture can be whipped up in just a few minutes, and I discovered, can be frozen to be used another day. So I have taken to making batches in advance so that on the day they're required I just spread it on the bread and slice them into fingers. And they are really popular! So much so, I decided it was time to publish the recipe for those who've been seeking it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

It's Pudding Time

Traditions are something that seem to fall by the wayside in our busy modern lives. But I love traditions so much that I actually make up a few of my own. There's the federal election dinner party that my best friend and I alternate hosting, which is great fun, providing it culminates in an actual result by the end of the night. (Hung parliaments tend to result in far too late and too much alcohol evenings)
Then there's my very famous 'Christmas in July' which has achieved such status that it's spoken of with fondness by it's participants, and differentiated in terms like "the one when you did the 'duck in muscat' "or "the one where I are too much pork crackling".
This year I will blog my planned degustation menu and include some of the recipes too.

Mother's day, for some reason, has become my traditional Christmas pudding making weekend. Partly because I need puddings for two Christmas celebrations over the course of the year, but also because it has a tendency to be the perfect weekend weather wise. I can tell you (because I make a point of noticing such things) that mothers day weekend is often the first really chilly weekend leading us into winter. It's also a weekend when my florist husband is at work for most of the time, meaning that the boys and I are home with no other plans on a dreary weekend........ I know only one cure for that kind of weekend; Cooking something that takes a lot of time.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The perfect host cooks a roast

I strongly believe that when you invite people to your home for a meal, you really should choose a menu that allows you to be relaxed and be a present and attentive host to your guests. I always try, as much as possible, to cook and almost totally prepare the food well before the guests arrive.  That way I am actually able to enjoy their company and make it much more fun for them too. Your guests just won't feel comfortable if the host is running in and out of the kitchen, sweating and looking stressed. That is no fun for anyone!

 My tried and true dinner party standard, is a roast.  A good piece of meat, a couple of simple side dishes, and voila! A show stopping dinner that everyone loves.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cracking The Sourdough Mystery

When it comes to bread baking, sourdough is one of those mystical realms that has always fascinated me.  I'd heard talk of wild yeasts and bacteria cavorting.... whispers of 'getting someone to give you a bit of theirs...' (know anyone who has any? Me either.) ...Of feeding the culture regularly with any manner of foodstuffs, but I was never sure exactly what was involved.  The whole world of sourdough baking seemed shrouded in secrecy and enigma.

So I decided to do some reading and discovered some really simple instructions and explanations on this website. So simple, infact, that it inspired me to begin my starter right there and then.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Manna from my backyard

Autumn. Harvest time for the summer crops, and the crops in my vegetable garden that did so well this season were firm and glossy eggplants, and the ever delightful and reliable tomatoes, filled with summer sunshine.

Our vegetable garden is not that big and you don't actually need much room to produce quite an impressive crops. In fact, its possible to get an impressive amount of produce even from plants grown in pots  on a balcony or a courtyard. If you have sun, organic matter rich soil and some water, you will be amazed at what lands in your kitchen.

Along with my usual herbs,we grew: broccoli, green beans, capsicums, chili and garlic. My vegetable patch is not too big, only about 3 x 7 meters, but the yields are sometimes more than we can eat. This year we used a grafted variety of eggplant which means that they have been connected to the stem of a different plant. The result is that the plant receives more nutrients through the superior stem and these yielded at least 6-8 fruit per plant.

We give some away of course but today when I opened the drawer where my tomatoes ripen, I discovered it was FULL. There was no waiting to be done. These babies had to be eaten today. And what is the best way to use up about 3kg of various varieties of tomatoes and 8 eggplants?

Eggplant parmigiana of course!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Bowl Of Comfort

Autumn is here and there are a few reasons I know this. It's March. The humidity has gone. I need an extra blanket on the bed at night. AND..... we all have colds! All four of us are coughing and sneezing.  As soon as the viruses start in our house, I do the only thing that might help; start a big pot of chicken soup.
All the old wives tales and titles like 'Jewish penicillin' may not make chicken soup a magical cure-all, but they do work as expert marketing. It's the first thing many of us crave the minute we get cold or flu symptoms. Whatever its healing properties may or may not be, you can't dispute that a nutritious meal, full of vegetables and protein, thats warm and easy to eat, must have some positive effect.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Slice Of Heaven

Some are born to paint masterpieces or compose symphonies. It's in their blood, encoded on their DNA. Similarly, I think my husband was born knowing how to make pizza. He is Italian and arguably they invented it. It is also said that they invented concrete but that's not what this post is about......

I have tried to make pizza dough a few times, and I have made other yeasty doughs for bread or crumpets with reasonable success, but I relinquish pizza dough to the Department of David (DOD). He just has that thing...a special way with it.

Last year we decided that the addition of a wood fired pizza oven would be a good investment in our hobby of gathering our friends and family around with food and drink and conviviality. And it has proven to be hugely successful.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

By Popular Demand....

Every cook will tell you that there are certain dishes that they always get requests for. Maybe there’s a party or a gathering,and one poses the question ‘what can I bring?'  The answer is invariably the same thing over and over.

My most requested item is my Raspberry & Brandy Chocolate Fudge Brownies.

Which is fine by me because they are very easy to make and I usually have the ingredients on hand in my pantry. It only needs 1 bowl for the preparation and no mixing equipment other than a whisk or a spatula. It's so simple that my children regularly put it together instead of me. Everyone (unless they are those freaky people who don’t like chocolate) loves it. And its flexible ie it can be cut into small pieces as a nibble to have with coffee, or you can serve it as a dessert, and plate it up with cream or ice cream and a fruit coulis.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The way to their heart........

They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but I'm willing to bet that most women would be more than impressed if a man cooked something amazing for them.

Personally, one of the defining moments of my early relationship with my husband, was when David baked a cake for my birthday. It was an espresso buttermilk cake with a warm chocolate sauce poured over it. The cake itself was highly impressive of course. But it was the gesture. The fact that he had made something special and given me something that could not be bought, that really made me pay attention.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Dumpling For All Seasons

Summer pumpkin & lemon thyme gnocchi with summer vegetables
I love gnocchi. I really do. And I miss it during the warmer months. I guess it's not an option I consider because it tends to really be a dish that conjures up visions of a cold grey winter day where I have a ragu cooking away slowly, filling the house with it's delicious aromas, then teaming it with soft unctuous gnocchi, a drizzle if chilli oil and freshly grated parmegiano reggiano at the table as we sit down to dinner, warming and cosy...
It's the epitome of the stodgy, heavy, comfort food we crave when its cold.

But what if there was a way of making it lighter? More summery?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Twist On The Ordinary

One of the little challenges I like to set for myself is to make a meal out of only what I have on hand at the time, in the house or in the garden. Mostly, I have to say, it works out very well because it forces me to be a bit more creative and substitute with what I have lying around. It also results in interesting twists on the ordinary or the traditional which are often better because they are unexpected flavours and sometimes even a change of technique to better suit the season.

Today I've done a variation on the absolute classic crumbed cutlet. Who doesn't love a cutlet?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Signature dishes: What's yours?

I know I'm new to this. Since it's early days I don't want everyone thinking it's all going to be about is my late Nonna in laws' recipes. It won't be. It's just that it's the anniversary of her passing so she is on my mind and I'm a sentimental fool.
We are having a family gathering today so I thought I'd make her signature dish and my all time favorite thing that she cooked. Also,please don't think that all my recipes involve frying. I promise there will be many more that don't. I must be in a frying mood right now...


Ok. I guess it isn't really truly crostoli. But that is what she called it. I've searched for equivalent Italian pastries but have never found anything that is really in the same ballpark as this. The easiest way to describe it, is that it is a sweet deep fried 'ravioli' with a custard centre. If anyone knows another name or a similar recipe I'd love to find out about it.

Other than being an absolutely delectable treat, Nonna's crostoli is, I believe, even more beautiful because it was totally and authentically hers and hers alone

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A tribute to Nonna

One day, back when my husband David and I were still dating, he phoned me from his car. "Where are you off to?" I asked. "I'm on my way to my grandmother's house for dinner" he said. Really? Some kind of mid week family gathering I supposed. But no, it was just him going to his Nonna's for dinner by himself. Wow, I thought. On that basis he probably isn't a serial killer.

My latest key ingredient : RICOTTA

Some people just can't see the point of ricotta cheese. They find it bland, tasteless, or (like my father in law), unforgivably white.

And frankly, all those accusations are true. What they neglect to consider is that ricotta is light, creamy without being too fatty, and the perfect vehicle to carry other flavours to many dishes.

The Virgin Blogger

I think I am realistic. In my line of work, it's hard not to be.

So I am under no illusions that (at least for the moment) anyone other than a few of my closest friends and perhaps the occasional stalker will read what I have to say here.