Archive for the ‘generosity’ Category

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Sweet success: A&U annual bakeoff

July 25, 2009

cakesallThis week the Empress and I found ourselves bestowed with the extraordinary honour of judging the Allen & Unwin staff club’s Annual Bakeoff.

We arrived at Cake HQ to find a staggering twenty-seven entries awaiting consumption – from cakes and tarts to flans, shortcakes, cheesecakes, friands, cupcakes, meringues, quiches, biscuits, strudels… in three categories –  Savoury, Chocolate and General.

The task was almost overwhelming, but like the truly professional gutses we are – and despite the growing threat of sliding into diabetic coma – the Empress and I made our way through the blind tasting, separately keeping our scores out of 10 each for presentation and texture, and out of 20 for flavour.

stephjudgingWorking diligently through the morning with valiant A&U staffers slicing off slenderer and slenderer slivers – and fending off contestants desperate for their morning tea outside the door – the Empress and I were gratified to discover, when comparing scores, that for each category we had picked the same winner, and our scores were within one point of each other’s.

The standard, it must be said, was exceptional. It’s our first year of judging, but the bakeoff has been an A&U fixture for some time apparently, and competition is fierce. The winning entries were within one point of each other on the scale, and then from the three we had to choose one overall 2009 Bakeoff Champion.

And the winners were …

cakewinnersBy a whisker, the three winners were:

Savoury – Lou Blue’s Quiche Lorraine with  Pancetta

Chocolate – Anthony Bryant’s Triple Chocolate Praline Tart

General – Catherine Milne’s Clementine & Almond Syrup Cake with Chocolate Ganache

The overall champion, by the slenderest sliver of a hair’s breadth, was Catherine’s clementine cake. (And it turns out this was something of an upset win – apparently for the past several years Anthony, who also entered an incredible chocolate and cherry cake and a divine rhubarb and amaretti tart,  has been the unstoppable reigning champ. Next year’s bakeoff should be very interesting as he attempts to wrest the crown back!)

clementinecakeOnce the presentations were made and the hordes descended on the entries for morning tea, the Empress and I prised a few recipes out of the contestants, some of which happily are available online.

Turns out that Catherine’s unbelievably moist and complex clementine cake is an Ottolenghi recipe, and can be found here; and Anthony’s incredible praline tart (the silkiest, most satiny smooth filling ever) is from Gourmet Traveller a couple of months ago and is available here.

choctart

All in all, it was an astonishing display of skill, nerve and flair. The Empress and I have begged to return and offer our greedy evaluative skills for the A&U staff club’s Great Curry Contest – can’t wait!

Oh, and in case you think all this gustatory grandeur might be a little decadent, it also has a higher purpose: everyone who joined the morning tea festivities gave a donation to Sydney PEN, and every one of the many A&U staff club activities for 2009 raises some moola which will go to Sydney PEN at the end of the year.

Hey, I sense the opportunity for a Sydney PEN fundraising challenge! Any other Sydney publishers willing to take on the A&U master chefs in a publishing industry bakeoff? Let me know – Steph & I are more than willing to go the extra mile and extend our judging skills across the land!

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Disdain, rebellion & pork in milk: how Elizabeth David changed my life

July 2, 2009

elizabethdavidbookThis week’s Guardian has a nice little piece about the spiteful annotations made by Elizabeth David on other people’s cookbooks. Irresistible, no?

I have an abiding love of Elizabeth David which is only tangentially to do with her cookbooks. The first time I ever heard of her was when I went to my university art teacher’s house for lunch, where his spiky, intelligent and beautiful wife cooked something rustic, garlicky, slow-cooked and to me, delicious in an unearthly way. I had never eaten food like it.

It seemed to me that day, sitting in that rambling country house full of Norman Lindsay paintings and art books and warm-toned, casually handled antiques, talking of art and books and garden-grown food and life, that this smell, this dish, this way of eating was somehow a portal into an entirely new creative life, a simpler-but-richer way of living than I had ever known existed, or aspired to. I was right, I think.

It’s not that my own upbringing was lacking in creativity – quite the opposite; I had a talented father who made half the furniture in the house as well as beautiful, ethereal costumes for school plays and other things, and a florist mother who routinely created beauty in small ways around our house (I have written about them here) – it’s just that food was never really a part of that creativity. Food, for my beleaguered mother, was a matter of filling up seven hungry stomachs every day in the most efficient and responsible way possible before escaping out into her beloved garden. The cooking got done out of love, but I don’t think she really ever enjoyed it. And who on earth could blame her?

But the food I ate at my painting & drawing teacher’s house that lunch time, I intuited, was somehow to do with art, not separate from it. It seemed to draw the very art from the walls, and the garden and the furniture and the conversation of that day, into one living whole. In an unspoken and completely unpretentious way, it seemed to somehow feed not only the physical but the artistic selves of these people.

I think the dish my teacher’s wife (who later became a friend too) cooked that day was Maiale Al Latte, or pork cooked in milk – I remember it because I found the idea of cooking meat milk completely astounding – and when I asked about it, the elegant chef said it was “just an old Elizabeth David thing”. I feigned familiarity with this person. Ah, I said, and nodded. And noted the words Elizabeth David, Elizabeth David, in my head.

A short time later, in a local op shop, I came across my first copy of Elizabeth David’s little Penguin paperback, A Book of Mediterranean Food. It was destiny. I took the book home and began cooking boeuf en daube a la nicoise and soupe au pistou for my uni flatmates, and began to fall in love with cooking.

I still have this book (that’s it, above) even though the pages have fallen out and the cover is ragged. I bought a new hardback version a few years ago, but I can’t let go of this one for sentimental reasons. Even though I only ever cooked a few things from it, and never have properly read David’s musings and impressions, this book seems deeply emblematic to me, in the way objects can represent those moments one has, as a young person, when you find a way of becoming your real self – that person you want to be. I treasure it still for that reason.

I know there are plenty of Elizabeth David fetishists out there, and I suppose I am one of them.

I absolutely loved, for example, that brilliant television biopic screened here last year, Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes, not because it was an accurate portrayal – which those who know their stuff about her tell me it absolutely wasn’t, omitting any mention of her elite Tory childhood and patrician ways, for example – but because it was a film about the creative struggle, and about abundance in the midst of postwar miserliness, and saying yes to personal freedom in spite of society’s disapproval. And the price paid for all those things.

(As an aside, any writer who’s ever done a bookshop or library reading to an audience of four, two of whom are asleep and one of whom berates one for using, on page seventy-two, the word ‘squashed’ when they themselves would have chosen ‘crunched’, should clasp to their bosom the scene in this film when cookery writer ED goes to address a Women’s Insitute meeting. Priceless).

Anyway, back to the Guardian piece: apparently her archive of personal papers shows that Elizabeth was a right snidey-pants about other people’s cookbooks and recipes (and even the illustrator of her own books), keeping notes on their faults.

There’s a light dusting of yellow stickies with general comments to set the tone: “p166 This is NOT a tian [a Provencal mixed-vegetable gratin]”; “This is a useless book”; and “Chocolate in the Renaissance?” There are comments that should be engraved on every modern food writer’s heart: “Why say crispy when crisp is more expressive?”

Then, suddenly, you find yourself deep in sedition and heresy. Inside a copy of The Cooking of Italy (1969) by an American journalist Waverley Root: “Waverley Root is a pitiful phoney.”

On the legendary 1969 French book Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point, regarded by a generation of chefs as the bible of modern cuisine: “This is a really awful book.”

In a carbon copy of a private letter dated October 1983: “I have to tell you that really I never did care very much for the John Minton illustrations for my books. They are so cluttered and messy. They embarrass me now as much as they did in 1950.”

On a copy of Full and Plenty, a mercifully forgotten volume by Maura Laverty: “The kind of pretentious rubbish that has brought French cooking into disrepute as a snob’s preserve.”

Perhaps she was a vindictive snob, but who cares? These are personal papers, not published remarks (until now!). Or perhaps she was right. Regardless, I’ll always be grateful for whatever spirit of rebellion or snobbery (along with, doubtless, the Tory money) sent her from England to the Continent, into and out of her miserable affairs and her drinking and her stroke. And I’ll be grateful too, for what many have seen as her unforgivable disdain for the lives of ordinary Britons, because a generation and a lot of geography later, it was that same rebellion and disdain that made an everlasting difference to my very ordinary life.

So tell me, did you ever have a small but transformative culinary moment like mine? And which was the cookbook that changed your life?

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Best kitchen-warming gift in the world

June 7, 2009

Last night we christened our finished new kitchen with dinner for eight [plus four kids, who spent the evening rushing between playing Abba records on the turntable in the studio and bashing away on musical instruments in the spare room, which is still piled almost to the ceiling – literally – with crap, outdoor furniture, washing machine etc. Two of them spent several hours perched precariously atop piles of junk, sitting in a washing basket playing the xylophone and maraccas while Senor made very sure their parents didn’t see.

dicky garlic1dicky garlicAnyway – our friend Ricardo, the Lunging Latino, showed up with the most beautiful present. This is one of the first bulbs of his home-grown organic garlic, grown in a pot in Balmain. It’s too beautiful, almost, to use. But of course we will. I’m going to save one of the little cloves to try to grow some myself.

Thankyou Dicky! And while we’re on the topic, can someone tell me the best way to store garlic? In the fridge or out? Read the rest of this entry ?

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A party piece

June 1, 2009

In honour of the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in some time – Gatz, the amazing reading / performance of The Great Gatsby, which I saw at the Sydney Opera House last night – I thought I’d revisit that beloved book here.

Gatz photo by Chris BeirensThe show is hard to describe, but anything that keeps one riveted for seven hours, with only two 15-minute and one 1-hour break, is a feat of wonder. It’s a stunning reading of the entire book by one spectacularly talented chap, Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, along with a supporting cast of 12 including the elusively beautiful Jim Fletcher as Gatsby (pictured). And it’s also got another wordless story running along beneath it, of the futile melancholy of office life – but that is another story. The originality and wit of the direction makes this an inventive, gloriously playful, surprising and – when it should be – desperately sad production.

There will be many who can describe Gatz better than I, so check out the reviews, like this one here. All I can say is a huge thank you to my friend Bec for taking me. It was a wonder. And one of the best things was its reminding me how beautiful is the writing in The Great Gatsby, so here is some for you. Surely no party since this was written has ever lived up to one of Gatsby’s wondrous soirees.  

There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In the blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On weekends his Rolls Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York – every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough coloured lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oevre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.

And when we came out, the sails of the Opera House were all lit up like a strange blue underwater garden. Seemed so apt, somehow, and made our night.

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Ladies, bring a plate

May 30, 2009

Delicious plattersYesterday I was invited to speak at a literary lunch fundraiser, which took place in a large boat shed overlooking a beautiful bit of the harbour, full of very nice women who all seemed to be uber-professionals (radiologists, MCA guides, painters, doctors, etc) and at the same time very warm and generous people.

They also made the food – or at least a small band of great cooks from among their ranks did – for the 130 gals in attendance. And even before those women were thanked I could tell, looking at the buffet table, that this food came from good home cooks rather than profit-making caterers – it’s the generosity, people. Quality ingredients, bounteous servings and good taste: perfect rare roast beef, succulent chicken marbella, mounds of silky smoked salmon & capers, gorgeous salads, good bread and real butter. 

I love a bring-a-plate* function myself, and I love that everyone has a signature dish or two. The Empress, for example, is duty-bound to lug a huge bowl of her incredible baba ganoush pretty much wherever she goes (I believe her secret is to smoke the aubergine first … mmmm). My own chart-toppers are a roasted carrot & mint salad, and a braised green bean, tomato & dill number for which I can never find the recipe and thus have to phone my sisters whenever I need it.

So I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. Here’s the simplest carrot salad in the world, and always beloved by all. Read the rest of this entry ?