Archive for the ‘dessert’ Category

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Something borrowed

November 5, 2012

As any visitor here will know, the sharing of food is one of the great joys of my life – but I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about the whys and wherefores of actually sharing recipes and ideas for dishes. It seems self-evident that folks who read – and write – cookery blogs have a natural, internalised desire to share knowledge and ideas about cooking, so it has always stunned me when people talk about having “secret” recipes.

Secrecy over recipes and the fierce withholding of kitchen expertise plays a central role in the film Toast, the dramatisation of Nigel Slater’s memoir of the same title (I’m assuming the same events occur in the book) . From Slater’s Wikipedia page:

[Slater] used food to compete with his stepmother – the former cleaning lady – for his father’s attention. Their biggest battle was over lemon meringue pie – his father’s favourite. His stepmother refused to divulge her recipe, so Slater resorted to subterfuge in order to turn out his own version. “I’d count the egg-shells in the bin, to see how many eggs she’d used and write them down. I’d come in at different times, when I knew she was making it. I’d just catch her when she was doing some meringue, building up that recipe slowly over a matter of months, if not years.”

Whatever the truth of Slater’s step-mum’s kitchen caper might have been, his portrayal of her represents a figure some people know well. I wonder if this kind of woman – always a woman in the stories I’ve heard – is still around, or is she only a figure of bygone eras, when a woman’s power in society was so limited that she felt she had to wield it in this manner?

Or am I inventing this Fifties Femme?

My own mother couldn’t give a damn about who had her recipes, but then she was never a particularly passionate cook to begin with. Unlike a friend’s aunt, who staunchly refused for decades to share the recipe for her legendary melting moments. Eventually, suffering a brief attack of magnanimity, Aunty Mean deigned to offer the recipe to her niece, a brilliant cook – but only on the proviso that she promised never to share it with her mother!  Rather takes the cake (boom-tish) for sibling rivalry, don’t you think? My loyal friend politely declined the offer, managing not to add, “It’s only a fucking biscuit!”

The holding of recipe cards close to the chest in this way speaks of all kinds of things that have, obviously, nothing to do with the biscuit. It implies that cooking is a contest, that the only value in making beautiful food for others is in your power to impress them, and indeed that one’s esteem in the eyes of others is so fragile that refusal to share something as trivial as a recipe will actually help maintain that esteem. When of course it just does the opposite – paints you as desperate rather than skilled, mean-spirited rather than generous. In fact the whole concept of generosity is completely absent in this kind of syndrome. As well, when all recipes spring from other recipes, it seems somehow dishonourable to suggest that my recipe alone is original, and therefore so much more valuable than yours. It also smacks of a lack of confidence about the bounty of creativity – this recipe is so precious because there will never be others to take its place. I’ve known writers like this in my time, who obsessively, vigilantly – and in vain – inspect the work of others for similarities to theirs. What such people seem not to understand is that this fearful obsessing over other people’s wells of creativity means that their own will always be in danger of drying up completely.

Anyhoo, I’m happy to say that among my friends and family, recipes and food ideas fly back and forth and round and about with complete abandon. Take the unbelievably good lemon curd fool we ate at the Empress’s palace last week, which I then immediately pinched for our dinner guests on Saturday night. It’s one of the easiest, quickest and yet most swooningly striking desserts you’ll ever try. Bizarrely, I had never made lemon curd until that day but now I know how easy and how very fine it is – my favourite meld of citrussy tartness and sweetness –  I’m going to find many other desserty avenues for it.

Which brings me to another part of the pleasure of sharing recipes; one leads to another, which then morphs into another which gives birth to another and another, in a rich cycle of generosity, abundance and plenty. And as soon as I “invent” – or am given! – a suitably delicious new incarnation of this luxurious dessert I’m inviting the Empress over to eat it.

Lemon curd fool

  1. Make a lemon curd – I used the recipe in Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, but there are thousands about – and let it cool, then chill (I made ours the day before).
  2. Whip some cream into stiff peaks – from memory I used 300ml pouring cream for a curd of 1.5 times Stephanie’s quantity.
  3. Mix the two together – that’s it! Simplicity itself.

We served ours in small glasses with a sploosh of passionfruit pulp on top of each one. The Empress had a wafer of home-made biscotti sticking out of hers. I can imagine all kinds of lovely toppings and additions –  crumbled pistachios maybe, or a little finely chopped mint?

Love to hear your tales of recipes shared or protected. Do people still refuse to share recipes? Or, as women have actually begun to take part in the world beyond the kitchen, has such desperate recipe-protection become a thing of the past? And I wonder if the syndrome has arisen among men as they begin to take up more space in the kitchen? Or am I looking at this whole thing from the wrong point of view? Is there any virtue in keeping “secret recipes” that I’m overlooking?

And if you have a favourite use for lemon curd, do share ……

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Gin + tonic + cake: what’s not to love?

October 24, 2011

You may remember that in the past couple of years, the Empress and I have had the onerous duty of judging the annual Allen & Unwin Staff Bakeoff  (I recall waxing lyrical about it here and here).  Well, this year I can report that the duty was even more onerous, because the Empress was struck down by a bout of near pneumonia and was unable to drag herself from her sick bed even for cake, which is, I think I can say, unprecedented. (I suspect the only thing that would have got her off her deathbed that day would have been the world’s best bit of bacon, but even that would have been a struggle.)

So in my last year as judge, it was a tricky task. I was aided by the fact that some of the most dedicated contenders were out of the country or not competing this year for other reasons, so my task was slightly easier. But that still made fifteen tiny pieces of cake, biscuit and savoury tart I had to eat!

The winner this year, by a hair’s breadth, was Kate Justelius-Wright with this gorgeous and original Gin & Tonic Cake. As you will know, I have more a salty-fat-tooth than a sweet one, so this was a very subjective judgement (which may prompt A&U competitors to quite reasonably ask what the hell I was doing there anyway!) – but this cake is exactly my cup of tea: a thick syrupy slab of citrussy goodness. It is not too sweet, has the deliciously bitter & chewy shred of lemon on top – and let’s face it, any cake with gin in it cannot be a bad thing.

Kate has kindly supplied the recipe*, which comes from Julie Le Clerk’s Favourite Cakes. Judging by the deliciousness of this one, you sweet-toothed cake lovers might want this baby on your Christmas lists … I plan to give this a shot quite soon, possibly employing the one-for-the-cake, one-for-the-cook G&T methodology. The photo here is of Kate’s cake. I think you should all go make it and report back to us here. And for my next post I shall be returning to my spiritual home in the savoury world.

* Note, added May 4 2012: I’m afraid I have been feeling a bit worried about this post, given that the recipe is not mine or Kate’s, and I’m not sure whether the reproduction I had here is word for word or an adaptation. So, to be on the safe side of courtesy and ethics I’m removing it and suggesting that you buy or borrow Julie’s book for the original. Sorry to disappoint those hoping for the recipe. The book looks wonderful though so I am sure it will be worth the cover price!

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Taking the cake: A&U bakeoff revisited

October 8, 2010

 

One table, fifteen plates, two notebooks and great deal of salivating. That’s what greeted the Empress and me as we stepped into the hallowed halls of Allen & Unwin‘s Sydney offices the other week.

Long-term visitors to this blog will recall that last year Steph and I had the same honour – judging the A&U staff bake-off. We love A&U, not only because they publish the Empress’s book as well as my own, but because frankly they are the most enthusiastic cake-baking publishing house we know of. We believe if more publishers paid this level of attention to their morning teas the world would be a better place, and not just because the proceeds go to such worthy causes such as the Indigenous Literacy Project.

But back to the judging. The Empress and I must admit to some relief on seeing this year’s table carrying only 15 entries this year, because last year’s tasting of 27 cakes, biscuits, slices, quiches and pies took about a year to work off.

The bakeoff went all wild-card this year because neither of last year’s butter-and-sugar-fingered winners competed this time. One is overseas (or that’s what they told us).

The other, serial winner Anthony Bryant, has clearly become so much of a threat that shortly before the contest he met with a mysterious “accident”, resulting in a broken leg and the inability to nip around the kitchen to make his customary dozen or so outstanding entries. Poor man couldn’t even make it up the stairs to the bakeoff morning tea. I told you they were serious. (Anthony, give us a call. I know someone who for a modest fee can help you out with some ‘protection’ next year.)

Once again, the judging was taken extremely seriously. By the Empress anyway, who is quite experienced in these matters (she actually does food judging, for real!) and goes so far as to wear no perfume so as not to interfere with her senses, and sips only water as she makes her way studiously around the table.

I, on the other hand, was doused in perfume (Chanel, darling, if you must know) and slurped coffee the whole time. See how we complement each other?

The Empress and I made our way through the blind tasting in four categories this time, separately keeping our scores out of 10 each for presentation and texture, and out of 20 for flavour.

This year we also added an optional extra point for X-factorness and general pizazz. Once again, our scores were remarkably similar, varying only by a point each time.


And the winners were…

General: Susan Suhood’s delicately balanced and stunningly presented lemon tart (top).

Chocolate: Andy Palmer’s tiramisu – rich, exquisitely layered, and artfully balanced with the surprise element of delicious lumps of hard chocolate throughout (pic 2).

Savoury: Fiona Wilson’s perfectly textured and beautifully sharp & crumbly cheese biscuits (pic 3).

Slices, biscuits, friands & muffins: Kate Calhau’s rich, velvety berry & almond muffins (right).

So, thanks to all bakers and Jo and Fiona from A&U for having us back, and for showering the Empress and me with a copy each of this most brilliant and divine gift (more on this perfect book later!).

Lastly, congratulations to the winners – from left below, the Empress with Fiona, Andy, Kate and Susan. Till next year!


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Sweet eats: the Empress returns

October 15, 2009

stephprofiterolesI think it’s clear by now that if you want to delve into desserts, howtoshuckanoysterland is not your first port of call (if you’re a salt freak, on the other hand, come on down!) .

Lucky for you then, sugar, that we have the Empress and her culinary meanderings around this city to bring some sweetness and light to this salty little land we call home.

Steph’s last two columns for the SMH have been a sweet tooth’s heaven: first, she told you where a girl can find a profiterole to fiterole (! sorry bout that, chief)  and second, this week’s column, on banana desserts.

stephbananaYes, really. Apparently banana desserts are good.

Cooked banana being one of the rare things I find quite repulsive, I’m not one to comment – but She Who Must Be Au Fait says these things are good, so I’m prepared to change my mind.

Check out the yellow peril here.

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The platters that matter…

October 13, 2009

4candlesMenu for a 40th birthday lunch

My absence here over the past week has, till now, been almost entirely food-related. Well, celebration-related anyway – and in my family that means food. My sister’s 40th birthday on the weekend involved a bunch of us staying in houses on the coast just south of Sydney, and a few others popping down for the day. The main event was a birthday lunch for 25.

All our old family favourites (both human and culinary!) came to the table – a table groaning with platters of lovely food, it must be said, and as the last stayer at the coastal house I am the beneficiary of my sister’s generosity, still chomping my way through the leftovers.

Sadly I was too busy on the day to take pictures, which is a shame cos it looked beautiful. But nevertheless thought I’d share the menu with you here in case you ever need some stalwart standouts to cook for a crowd – everything on this menu is low-stress, almost all of it can be made ahead of time, every dish can be served warm or at room temperature, the platters set down a long table create an impression of great, colourful generosity and luscious diversity, and with a couple of vegetarians and one coeliac among our guests, this menu makes everyone happy. I’ll gradually add these recipes to the blog down the track – right now I’m still in culinary recovery – but let me know if any strike you as desperately urgent to have now.

  • Oysters – of course! – freshly shucked, with a squeeze of lemon
  • Rare rump of roast beef, according to Stephanie Alexander’s instructions
  • Poached whole salmon (with a horseradish cream for both this and the beef)
  • Zaatar chicken – from the fab Ottolenghi lads
  • Green beans braised in olive oil, garlic, tomato & dill
  • Roast carrot salad with mint & balsamic
  • Citrus couscous salad
  • Fennel, feta, tarragon & pomegranate salad – another Ottolenghi fave
  • Chickpea, roasted red pepper & marinated feta salad (all from jars & cans, but it looks and tastes fab)
  • Lentil, sundried tomato, parsley and Balsamic salad (ditto)
  • Crisp roast potatoes with minted creme fraiche dressing
  • Dessert, made by sweeter cooks than me, was an incredibly good chocolate and coffee birthday cake (Alice, we’ll have the recipe for that, please?) and the Manna from Heaven chocolate crunch made by Miss Jane; this is a lusciously dastardly version of the old fave hedgehog cake, updated into an utterly irresistible  death-by-chocolate experience.

Lunch went on for hours, the birthday girl looked a million bucks, the speeches were lovely, the wine flowed and the love goes on. Thanks Lou and J&B for a great weekend.

And thanks for the leftovers…

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A Woman of Style, Substance & Hedgehog Slice

August 19, 2009

hedgehogI have just heard tonight that Mrs Spain, one of my mother’s dearest friends, died this week. My mum died 15 years ago, and I haven’t kept properly in touch with her friends … so it came as a great shock to hear that Marie, who was without question the most glamorous woman in my parents’  country Catholic family circle, was in her seventies (I realise I have always pictured her as still resolutely, elegantly 47), and had had Alzheimer’s for some time, and in the past week apparently decided her time was up, and refused food and drink, and faded away with her daughters by her side.

Marie Spain was quite a woman, let me tell you.

When were small, our family of seven would turn up to Mass late, every week, with each one of us kids looking as if we’d been torn through a bush backwards – hair fuzzed, clothes misbuttoned, faces unsuccessfully tissue-swabbed, still squirming and tearfully or viciously swatting at one another over some outrage committed in the Kombi on the way to church. Once they got us into the pew, I think our exhausted parents simply closed their eyes with relief at the hour of enforced silence to come (somehow the presence of God, incense and altar boys, combined with an icy parental stare when necessary, momentarily stilled the Beelzebubs within).

But though we were always late, there was invariably one family who arrived later – but oh, so gratifyingly so. Each week, with a regal air I am certain they never knew they had, would enter a procession of Spains, all nine or twelve or sixty of them (they had multitudes of kids, plus various extraneous extended family members of all generations in constant residence, I seem to recall…) and take up their series of pews down near the front.

The differences between my family and the Spains were many and various (mostly to do with sporting prowess and wide smiles and great warmth and good looks on their part, vs wan, lankhaired, spottiness and physical clumsiness on ours) but by far the most enthralling of these differences was that the Spains – all of them, but none more than Marie – always dressed like a million bucks.

I don’t think they had a million bucks,  but Marie was one of those women of our mum’s generation who could sew. I mean really sew, not the apologetic crookedly-pinned, wonkily hemmed A-line skirts we would labour over under Mum’s bored, lacklustre supervision and the Singer threaded too tight. Marie’s stuff was serious art: the kind of French-seamed, gorgeously satiny lined, perfectly fitted stuff we would all pay thousands for these days if we could afford it, which we never will, because that kind of skill and eye for beauty is priceless.

So Marie arriving at Mass was something akin to Audrey Hepburn taking a stroll down the aisle of Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Cooma North, every Sunday. I’m talking elaborate hats, and, when called for, minxy black mantillas. I’m talking gorgeously tailored suits in sumptuous fabrics, gleaming, unscuffed shoes and matching bags, fashionably barbaric jewellery. This was the seventies: Marie wore fur, and tartan pantsuits, and slinky boots, and in one glorious phase the Spains would come to church each week accompanied by a new movie-star mother, in a fabulously funky wig: platinum bouffant one week, redhead flapper the next.

We would gaze along the pews past our mother, past all the other perfectly presentable women like the ones we girls would grow up to be, and who paled (and still do) into the faded green baize carpet in comparison to Marie Spain. If she  happened to be hovering in her grotto on the wall above Marie that week, the boring old Virgin in her chipped blue plaster sack, with her downcast eyes and her lank defeated hair, simply never stood a chance.

Marie and her husband Brian – a tall, strong-boned, confident, handsome tennis champ with warmth to burn – made a dashing couple. Their arrival at Mass was as if a pair of birds of paradise landed on the church steps every week, with a brood of chicks-in-training-plumage  stepping along behind.

I’m told that the priest there now, a young chap, never knew Marie. It’s kind of unthinkable to me, that her funeral might be presided over by someone who never witnessed this Sunday spectacular. Not his fault, obviously. But just in case he happens to read food blogs, this is for him: Marie was a woman of a steady, powerful gaze; slender shoulders; a firm handshake; perfect lipstick (red, I think); excellent Twiggy-style haircuts; bold earrings; immaculate tailoring; a husky, throaty, flirtatious laugh; a complete absence of bullshit; a conception of love and family (and god, I reckon, for that matter) that surpassed all boundaries of blood or duty, to embrace anyone having a moment of loneliness or need; a woman of boundless love, enormous verve, enormous fun.

When our father got sick and died at 53, Marie and Brian were there, instantly and at all times for my mother, and for us. When our mother got sick a few years later, Marie and Brian were there, instantly, by her side, full of love and outrage. When Brian, super-fit and indestructible, suddenly became ill himself and died devastatingly young, my family was shaken to the core for all the lovely Spains. It was impossible that he had gone, and still feels like that. They were a team.

So tonight I feel the same all over again about Marie herself, though I haven’t seen her for decades. I simply cannot get my head around her being old, being gone.

There is one more thing about her.

Every year on my father’s birthday, Marie would show up at our house with a small plateful of her famous chocolate hedgehog slice. This stuff is legendary. And in her typically stylish fashion, Marie’s slice made an entrance – a few perfect squares, artful on a white plate, or wrapped in some elegant paper – and on this day, once a year, the package was always strictly for Dad, and Dad alone. The hedgehog slice would go straight into the fridge, in its special wrapping, until he got home from work. We kids were never allowed to even sniff it, though we stared longingly, with the fridge door held open, and I guess now and again we must have been given enough of a tiniest taste for me to have developed the Pavlovian drool that still starts up whenever I think of it.

I think it took a woman with a hundred kids and every demand under the sun upon her to understand something about the specialness of the biscuit equivalent of A Room of One’s Own – how she managed it every year I don’t know. But the hedgehog cake was Dad’s birthday treat, delivered by Marie every year without fanfare, without fail, and savoured every time.

So Vale Marie: fashion icon, generous soul, deeply  loved woman with exactly the right overabundance of style and substance. I proffer this recipe for hedgehog slice, which cannot possibly measure up to hers, but all the same, I offer it in her honour and memory, with love.

Hedgehog Slice

  • 250g plain sweet biscuits (e.g. milk arrowroot)
  • 3/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
  • 125g butter
  • 125g sugar
  • 2 level tbsp cocoa
  • 2 tbsp coconut
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 200g good quality dark chocolate

Crush biscuits, leaving some lumps, add nuts.

Combine butter, sugar, cocoa, coconut and vanilla in a saucepan and cook for 2 minutes.

Cool slightly and add egg, then add to biscuit & nut mixture.

Melt chocolate and stir thoroughly into mixture.

Refrigerate until set, about an hour. 

Cut into squares, reserving five or six to take on a small plate to your friend on his birthday.

* This recipe, while pretty good, nowhere near approaches Marie Spain’s hedgehog slice. If I ever get my hands on the original recipe, I will most definitely post it here.

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Say cheese (cake)

August 12, 2009

This week the Empress’s Good Living column discusses the only dessert apart from chocolate that I am officially in love with – cheesecake:

stephcheesecakeThink cheesecake and most of us have an image of the high American baked versions, rich with cream cheese, eggs and sugar. Sometimes known as Lindy’s cheesecake, after a now-defunct New York restaurant, it rests on a buttery base of crushed biscuits, flavoured with citrus rind and often topped with fruit compote. Even though there are more cheesecake recipes from the US than anywhere else, other cultures have their own versions using other cream cheeses.

To follow her investigations of the best three cheesecakes in Sydders, check out her column here.