Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Birthday Frenzy


There are certain times of the year that seem to be a birthday frenzy among my friends, most notably mid June, and late August. My own birthday falls in mid June, with no less than six other birthdays in the three days before and after my own. It is always very social and fun with lots of parties to attend.

This August, it occurred to me that I’ve never actually given a home cooked food gift to my friends. And with so many gifts to give, I thought a few nice batches of cookies would be appreciated by these sweet-toothed birthday girls (and boy!) Some cookies even travelled express post to Melbourne and Perth! I hope they survived the journey intact!

The recipe was adapted from a cookbook I have spoken about before. I used candied lemon peel for a beautiful subtle citrus flavour. The cookies had a really nice crumb and flavour, and were super easy to make. The slice and bake method gives them a nice mostly uniform shape, and an interesting cross section. I can’t wait to try this recipe base with other flavourings in the near future. The book suggests orange and poppyseed, and also pecan and cinnamon, both of which sound delicious!

Slice and Bake Cookies
Makes 40-48 cookies

• 250g butter, softened
• 1 ¼ cups icing sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2 cups plain flour
• ½ cup rice flour
• ⅓ cup cornflour
• 2 tablespoons milk

Candied Lemon Peel
• 1 cup water
• ¾ cup sugar
• Finely grated rind of 1 lemon

1. To make candied lemon peel, place water and sugar in a saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add lemon rind and increase the heat, boiling for 8-10 minutes until the rind is glossy and transparent. Strain the mixture, setting aside the syrup.
2. Beat butter, sifted icing sugar and vanilla extract with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Stir in sifted flours in two batches, the lemon rind, milk and 1 tablespoon of the lemon syrup.
3. Divide mixture in half. Knead each half on a lightly floured surface until smooth, then roll each half into 25cm logs. Wrap each log in baking paper and refrigerate for about 1 hour, until firm.
4. Preheat oven to 160°C (320°F). Line oven trays with baking paper.
5. Cut the logs into 1cm slices and place them about 3cm apart on oven trays. Bake for about 20 minutes and cool on wire racks.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Cold Blooded

sticky date pudding

Let me start by saying, Australian winter is incredibly mild, so I feel silly complaining about the cold. But the truth is, I really do feel the cold. If the temperature is below about 23°C, I can tell, and I need to go and find a jacket. It’s not unusual for me to be wearing a light cardigan in the middle of summer, I must be cold blooded or something.

I spend most of winter looking at the strappy tops and bright colours in my wardrobe and pining for warmer weather. But there are some things that I have loved about winter in Sydney lately, that make these months bearable… maybe even special.

- Chai tea lattes from the coffee shop around the corner from college
- My bright blue coat, and favourite white scarf – definitely my winter fashion essentials.
- Slipping back into bed for a few minutes (if time permits) after a hot shower in the morning
- Hearty, warming and filling meals like shepherds pie, lasagne or minestrone
- Watching the three State of Origin games with my dad
- The fireplace in our lounge room. It gives the room such a great atmosphere as well as an intense warmth.
- Wonderful winter days that start off with crisp mornings, that mature into glorious, sunny and nearly warm by lunchtime, just in time for a brisk walk before my next class begins.
- I am not a fan of it being dark when I wake up in the mornings but I take a certain satisfaction out of seeing the sun just-risen in the east as I drink my coffee in the kitchen.

Another thing I actually look forward to about winter is pudding, and in particular, Sticky Date. I am slightly ashamed to admit that my first sticky date pudding was a frozen one from Sara Lee but, either it was really good for a mass-manufactured dessert or I was too young to know better! When winter came around this year, I knew I had to try and make my own. And it looks like JenJen from Milk and Cookies feels the same as I do, although there is no way I would be able to choose a last meal without some careful deliberation!

I am completely in love with Kate Zuckerman’s book The Sweet Life. Her instructions are so clear and concise it is almost impossible to go wrong. So many recipes have caught my eye, it was a struggle to decide which one to try first. The addition of coffee to the date cake was interesting, and added a little zing perfectly offset by the complex but not overpowering taste of the spices. I used treacle in the toffee sauce, because I didn’t quite have enough golden syrup. It gave the sauce a deep colour and almost smoky taste. I could eat it by the spoonful!

Sticky Date Pudding
Adapted from The Sweet Life by Kate Zuckerman
Serves 10-12

• 1 cup pitted dates
• 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier (I would use brandy next time)
• 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
• 170g butter, at room temperature
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 4 eggs
• 1 ¾ cups plain flour
• ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
• ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

Toffee Sauce
• 55g butter
• ½ cup brown sugar
• ¼ cup sugar
• ¼ cup treacle (I will use golden syrup next time)
• ½ cup heavy cream
• 2 tablespoons brandy

1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F) and line a rectangular baking pan with baking paper.
2. In a small bowl, combine dates, brandy and espresso powder. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the dates and allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes to cool. Transfer the date mixture to a food processor and puree until smooth.
3. In a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar until very light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, mixing after each.
4. In another bowl, sift the flour, spices and salt. Add half of the dry ingredients to the butter and mix on low speed.
5. Add the baking soda to the date mixture and stir with a wooden spoon. Add this to the cake batter and mix on low speed until thoroughly combined. Add remaining dry ingredients.
6. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl with a spatula and mix for another 30 seconds.
7. Pour into prepared cake pan and even out the top with a spatula. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow the cake to cool for at least 40 minutes before removing from the baking pan.
8. To make sauce, combine butter, brown sugar, white sugar, treacle and 1 tablespoon of water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 2 minutes and remove from the heat and let cool until it is just warm.
9. Add the cream 2 tablespoons at a time, whisking after each addition, then whisk in brandy.
10. Remove from the heat and serve warm, with a piece of warm date cake.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Playing Favourites

It is almost impossible for me to name my favourite song, or favourite movie, or even favourite colour, let alone my favourite food. My favourites evolve and change, depending on my mood and other factors. In the middle of winter, my favourite food is not going to be ice cream, even though in summer I can’t get enough. Or maybe I’m indecisive; I am a Gemini after all. I have trouble locking in and committing to one favourite. I’d rather keep my options open.

Why is it easier to pick a favourite of something you don’t know much about, yet impossible once you learn and experience more, and start to become more familiar with? But, I think there are a few things that stand the test of time, like songs you don’t get tired of. Are they automatically elevated to favourite status because of their staying power?

Biscotti is a little like that for me, as one of those favourites that I can’t get tired of. The small, crunchy, nutty biscuits are just perfect with a strong coffee for afternoon tea. Just nibbling away evokes thoughts of Italy, somewhere I would love to travel to one day.

Biscotti don’t last long in my house, we all love them, and they are so addictive, you can’t just stop at one. Lucky this recipe is so easy to make! It is a versatile recipe too, with endless variations possible. Donna Hay even suggests replacing the almonds with ½ cup roasted, skinned hazelnuts and 40g chopped chocolate for a hazelnut and chocolate chip biscotti. Sounds delicious!

Vanilla & almond biscotti
Recipe from Donna Hay Modern Classics 2
Makes about 40

• 2 cups plain flour
• 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
• ¾ cup sugar
• ¾ cup almonds
• 3 eggs
• 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 160°C (320°F).
2. Sift the flour and baking powder together in a bowl. Add sugar and almonds and stir together. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix well to form a dough. Divide the dough in two.
3. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead each piece until smooth. Shape into logs and flatten slightly.
4. Place the logs on a baking tray lined with baking paper and bake for 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool completely. If not completely cool, it will be crumbly when you slice it.
5. Cut the logs into 5mm thick slices with a serrated knife and place on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the biscotti are crisp. Store in an airtight container and serve with espresso or liqueur.


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