Sunday, March 30, 2008

Elusive Flower


When I said I was filling a sketchbook with ideas for my vanilla project, I wasn’t joking. I have done a lot of thumbnails! Web design is a completely new area for me; quite different to the print design that I am used to doing, though the design thinking sometimes overlaps between the two areas. I am also trying to learn three new programs! It’s a busy and stressful time, but also very rewarding. Today I’d like to share some more of my research, about vanilla’s long and interesting history.

The vanilla plant is native to Mexico where local tribes, in particular the Totonac people, treated the aromatic spice as a sacred gift from the gods. It is firmly rooted in their ancient legends, where it is believed that the spilt blood of two lovers transformed into the vanilla orchid; its tendrils and vines symbolising their embrace, the flowers a tribute to the slain princess, and the scent finer than incense.

In early times the elusive and short-lived vanilla flowers were pollinated by long-billed hummingbirds and rare bees, meaning that only a few beans grew on each vine. The beans were allowed to fully ripen and split open before harvested.

In about 1500BC, tribes from different regions began trading with each other, exchanging spiritual beliefs and important discoveries such as vanilla and cacao. Similarly, the conquering Spaniards brought the same items back to Europe in the 1500’s, fuelling the new spice trade and igniting the senses of the privileged in society who could afford such exotic luxuries. Europeans came to learn the medicinal properties of vanilla that had been known to the tribes for hundreds of years. It was effective in settling the stomach, treating insect bites, and was a proven aphrodisiac – “the Viagra of the 16th century” – among other varied uses.

The French expanded the use of vanilla in the perfume industry, and were responsible for establishing the first vanilla plantations outside of Mexico, in the Réunion and Mauritius islands. It was there that a 12-year-old slave discovered how to pollinate the flowers by hand and produce a significantly larger yield. Today, Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla, but prices have fluctuated since the 1970s due to environmental and political factors, demand far outstripping the supply, and the increasing use of imitation vanilla.

Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favourite Flavour and Fragrance by Patricia Rain is an amazing resource for all things vanilla. If you’re interested in reading further, I would certainly suggest this book. David Lebovitz also had a very informative post on his blog, here.

A quick word about the cheesecake, I made this for Easter lunch with the family and everyone loved it, though we could only fit in small slices after a big meal. I really loved the cookie-like hazelnut crust. This is the first time I’ve used ricotta in a cheesecake but I was pleasantly surprised by the delicate texture, it was rich but not heavy. The original recipe called for apricot jam, but I substituted my new favourite, a delicious plum, cherry and raspberry jam. The use of a 24cm cake tin means that the cheesecake is quite skinny, but it gave a nice ratio of crust to filling.

Vanilla Spice Cheesecake
Adapted from Australian Women’s Weekly Cheesecakes
Serves 10-12

Hazelnut Crust
• 80g butter, melted
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• ¾ cup plain flour
• ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
• pinch ground nutmeg
• 1/3 cup vanilla-infused caster sugar *
• 1/3 cup hazelnuts, roughly chopped
• ¼ cup jam, warmed

Vanilla Bean Filling
• 1 vanilla bean
• 250g cream cheese, softened
• 500g ricotta cheese
• 2/3 cup vanilla-infused caster sugar *
• 2 tablespoons lemon juice
• 2 eggs

* to make vanilla infused caster sugar, place one vanilla bean (if used before, rinse and thoroughly dry it) into an airtight container with 1 cup of caster sugar. Leave to infuse for at least a week.

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Lightly grease a 24cm springform tin, and line with non-stick baking paper.
2. For the crust, combine the butter, vanilla, flour, spices, sugar and hazelnuts in a medium bowl. Press mixture over the base of the prepared tin. Refrigerate for 20 minutes. Bake for about 20 minutes or until just browned. Spread with jam.
3. Reduce oven temperature to 150°C (300°F)
4. For the vanilla bean filling, split vanilla bean in half lengthways and scrape out the seeds with a small, sharp knife. Meanwhile, beat cream cheese, ricotta, vanilla seeds, half the sugar and juice in a small bowl with an electric mixer until just combined. Transfer to a large bowl.
5. Combine the remaining sugar and eggs in a bowl, beat with an electric mixer for 5 minutes on high speed or until thick and creamy. Fold the egg mixture into the cheese mixture and pour over the prepared base.
6. Bake in a slow oven for about 35 minutes or until firm to touch. Cool cheesecake in oven with door ajar. Refrigerate overnight.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Cool, Crisp


I usually don’t look forward to the change of seasons between summer and autumn. It means no more beautiful mangoes and nectarines, it means pitch darkness when I wake up in the morning, it means that very soon I’ll have perpetually cold hands and feet and probably wind up with the flu, it means that my beautiful city will soon look leafless and sad.

But on the flipside, its an excuse to buy a nice pair of boots, wear my favourite blue coat, watch the sun rise while I drink my morning coffee, and (glee!) have all the beautiful autumn fruits to play with in dishes I’ve been dreaming about for months. Not to mention that my very favourite kind of weather is a cool, crisp morning that warms up into a glorious sunny day; a Sydney autumn specialty.

When I rationalized it like that, I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit excited about the onset of the cooler weather. I was psyched, ready, and then summer held on for dear life, giving us much warmer temperatures than we’d seen when it really was summer! But last week it cooled down literally overnight and I could finally start some great autumn cooking.


And what a way to start! I think this is one of the loveliest desserts I’ve ever made. My sister came home from school just after I had browned the butter with vanilla, and just by the delicious scent that floated through the house she knew there were good things to come. The flavours and textures in this crumble work together so well, and a large scoop of vanilla ice cream when served only intensifies its magnificence. I found that I had at least half the crumble topping left over, but somehow I don’t think any one would mind me making this little charmer again.

Pear Crumble with Vanilla Brown Butter

Adapted from SmittenKitchen
Serves 6-8

Crumble Topping
• 1 ½ cups plain flour
• 1 cup whole almonds with skin

• ¼ cup brown sugar

• ¼ teaspoon salt

• 85g unsalted butter, melted and cooled

• 1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise

• 60g unsalted butter

• ¼ cup brown sugar

• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1 tablespoon plain flour

• 4 firm-ripe pears, peeled and chopped
• 2 tablespoons brandy

1. In a food processor, place flour, almonds, brown sugar, and salt. Pulse until nuts are finely chopped. Add butter and pulse just until blended. Coarsely crumble in a shallow baking pan and chill at least 1 hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F)
3. Scrape the seeds from a vanilla bean into a small saucepan. Add the bean itself and the butter. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally for about 4 minutes, or until butter is browned and fragrant.
4. Stir together the sugars and flour in a large bowl. Add pears and brandy and toss to combine.
5. Discard vanilla pod and toss butter with the pear mixture. Spoon filling into gratin dishes and sprinkle with crumble topping.
6. Put dishes on a shallow baking pan, and bake for 30 minutes. Rotate baking sheet and bake another 10-15 minutes, until topping is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Cool to warm or room temperature on a rack, and serve with ice cream or custard.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Seduce Me


I really love the way that food blogging has pushed me outside my comfort zone to try new things, to challenge myself in the kitchen, and to give certain foods a second chance. I was a pretty fussy child, as I’ve mentioned before. As well as spinach, I didn’t eat eggs, seafood, mushrooms, and I was never a huge fan of eggplant.

My dad always told me that when I was older I’d try these foods again and like them, and I think he was onto something. I still can’t eat plain eggs (hard boiled or poached, bleh!), but I have discovered the wonder of omelettes studded with fresh tomatoes and herbs. I’m still working on the mushrooms and seafood, but as far as eggplant is concerned, I think I’m converted.

Trust Jamie Oliver to seduce me with an absolutely beautiful looking pasta dish. It feels like I’ve been cooking a lot of Jamie's recipes lately, with a couple more planned for the near future. The more of his cookbooks I read, the more I want to spend an afternoon with him, sitting in the pub, drinking good beer and chatting food. He just seems like a cool guy. I also love the way his recipes are written, almost like a casual conversation with a friend, sharing useful advice along with the instructions.

The eggplant in this dish plays a supporting role to the richness of the tomatoes and the creamy mozzarella but its presence is noticeable, enough to add interest and variation to an otherwise quite simple tomato sauce. It also comes together pretty quickly from mostly basic pantry ingredients, making it a nice weeknight meal that can be put together without too much forethought. I think the sauce would also be wonderful in a lasagne. It tastes great with or without the mozzarella, but make sure to use the freshest herbs you can find, it really makes a difference.

Penne with Eggplant, Tomatoes and Mozzarella
Adapted from Jamie’s Dinners by Jamie Oliver
Serves 4 hungry people

• Extra virgin olive oil
• 1 medium eggplant, nice and firm and ripe
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
• ½ onion, peeled and finely chopped
• 2 x 400g cans plum tomatoes
• 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
• ½ cup red wine
• Sea salt & pepper
• 50g salted butter
• 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
• ¼ cup thick cream
• 500g uncooked rigatoni or penne
• ½ cup fresh basil leaves, torn or roughly chopped
• 100g cow’s milk mozzarella
• Parmesan, to serve

1. Remove both ends of the eggplant and slice into 1cm slices. Slice these across and finely dice into 1cm cubes.
2. Heat 4-5 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the eggplant, stirring them around so they are completely coated with oil. Cook for 7-8 minutes on medium heat
3. Add the garlic and onion. When they have a little colour, add the tomatoes, vinegar and wine. Season with salt and pepper. Add the butter and simmer for about 25 minutes. Add the cream and season again if necessary.
4. Cook the pasta according to the packet’s instruction, and then drain it. Return the drained pasta to the cooking pot and stir through the sauce.
5. Just before serving, stir in the mozzarella and basil. Dish up quickly, by the time you start to eat, the mozzarella will have started to melt. Serve with Parmesan cheese.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Head Start

banana bread

When I was a kid I used to love drawing fruit. I honestly cannot count how many fruit bowls I drew, filled with apples, bananas and a bunch of green grapes draped over the edge. It was like almost like a recurring dream, this desire I had to draw fruit. In my high school photography class, I shot and developed nearly a whole roll of black and white film of still life fruit pictures. While I haven’t drawn one in a long while, the sight of a full fruit bowl still makes me happy.

For the last few days there were two bananas starting to look a little bit speckled in my fruit bowl. I immediately resolved to make banana bread, but I had to wait for them to ripen a little more first. It seems amazing to me that such sad and sorry looking bananas can be transformed into such wonderful baked goods. I’d had my eye on this recipe from the delightful blog Orangette for a little while. Molly seems like quite the banana bread aficionado so I just knew it was going to be grand. The plan became even more perfect when I picked up some candied ginger from the shop the other day for another purpose that never came to fruition. Chocolate and Candied Ginger Banana Bread it would be.

The recipe was so easy to put together, with fantastically rewarding results. I loved the tangy sweetness and jewel-like appearance the candied ginger gave. It’s truly a world away from the banana bread I was used to, perhaps also due to the cake-like texture. It would be wonderful with cream or ice cream for dessert, lovely taken on a picnic for lunch, or for a head start on your chocolate consumption, serve this delicious banana bread for Easter Sunday brunch. Don’t feel bad about it, Molly herself now approves of chocolate for breakfast :)

Banana Bread with Chocolate and Ginger
Adapted from Orangette
Makes 8 thick slices

• 1 cup sugar
• 1 egg
• 115g butter, room temperature
• 2 ripe bananas
• 3 tablespoons milk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 ½ cups plain flour
• ½ cup hazelnut meal
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon baking soda
• 1 cup dark chocolate, chopped
• 2 tablespoons candied ginger, finely chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) and line a loaf tin with baking paper.
2. With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and mix well to combine.
3. Peel the bananas, and place in a bowl. Mash with a fork, then mix in the milk and vanilla extract.
4. In another bowl, sift flour, hazelnut meal, baking powder and baking soda. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in three parts, alternating with the banana mixture. Stir by hand until just combined.
5. Stir in the chocolate and ginger until evenly distributed.
6. Transfer the batter into the prepared loaf tin. Bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
7. Cool in the tin for a few minutes and then allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Utterly Gorgeous

vanilla ice cream

At the moment, I’m working on a really interesting and fun project at college. It is still in progress, and I’ve been filling a sketchbook with ideas and thumbnails for a website about vanilla. One of the things I love most about my course is the ability to explore issues that we’re passionate about and food is a definitely recurring theme throughout my portfolio. The first step of any design project is research, and for weeks I immersed myself in anything I could find related to vanilla, from encyclopedias to cookbooks, and I even purchased some Madagascan vanilla beans to sample for myself. I think I’m addicted now, I can never go back!

Vanilla is a part of the orchid family, the largest family of flowering plants in the world. Many species of orchid are epiphytes, which means they grow on other plants, using their stronger structure for support. Epiphytes are common in tropical rainforests, to which vanilla is native. In fact the plant only thrives in tropical regions close to the equator that receive adequate rainfall such as Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar, which are now the three largest vanilla producing countries in the world.

It is the most labour intensive of all food crops, as the flowers have to be pollinated by hand. The harvested beans undergo an extensive curing and drying process that can last up to nine months, and have to be rolled away each evening to prevent theft and possible rotting due to condensation in the cooler air. Combined with factors such as the regions’ susceptibility to typhoons and the western world’s commercial reliance on pure vanilla, fluctuations in price are very common.

Today, over 95% of ‘vanilla’ products contain a synthetic flavouring derived from lignin, a by-product of paper manufacturing. Some artificial vanilla essences contain Tonka beans. They have a similar fragrance to vanilla, however are a source of the chemical Coumarin, which can be toxic and is actually banned in the United States.

In the next few weeks I hope to put my vanilla beans to good use and share some recipes, as well as more of my research and designs as the project progresses. Yesterday I made ice cream for the first time. I don’t have an ice cream maker so I used the freeze-and-mix method, which still produced incredibly smooth and utterly gorgeous ice cream. Ironically, now that summer is officially over, the weather feels more summer-like than ever. Perfect ice cream eating weather, I’d say.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
From Modern Classics 2 by Donna Hay
Makes about 1 litre

• 1 cup milk
• 2 cups single cream
• 1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
• 6 egg yolks
• 2/3 cup caster sugar

1. Place the milk, cream and vanilla (including the bean) in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the mixture is hot but not boiling. Remove from the heat and set aside to infuse for 15 minutes
2. Place the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl and whisk until thick and pale.
3. Remove the vanilla bean from the milk mixture, and slowly pour over the egg yolk mixture. Whisk well to combine.
4. Return the mixture to the pan and stir over low heat until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
5. Set aside to cool. A good way to do this is to fill your sink with a little cold water and a few ice cubes and place the saucepan in there.
6. Either place the custard in an ice-cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions OR place the mixture in a metal bowl or cake tin. Cover and freeze for 1 hour. Beat with an electric hand mixer and return to the freezer. Repeat three times at hourly intervals until the ice cream is thick and smooth.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fruity, Spicy, Sticky

hot cross buns

Around this time of year, you can’t visit the shops without seeing chocolate at every turn. There are eggs, bunnies and the occasional chocolate marsupial everywhere you look! But one of my favourite things about the Easter season is warm, toasted hot cross buns slathered in butter. They’ve been tempting me every time I visit my new favourite coffee place, the Bourke St Bakery in Broadway*, and I decided to have a go at making them myself.

I picked a Donna Hay recipe from her book Modern Classics 2, because I’ve had quite a few successes with her recipes in the past. The procedure was easy enough, even for someone who doesn’t have that much experience cooking with yeast. I followed the recipe pretty closely for my first attempt, but I want to make them once more before Easter and add some dried cranberries along with the sultanas. I only encountered problems when piping the crosses. They were a little bit wonky and crooked, so I could definitely use a little more practice on that front.

hot cross buns

Overall, I was very impressed with the end result. The buns were just as they should be – fruity, spicy, and sticky with sweet glaze and melted butter. They are, of course best eaten warm, preferably straight out of the oven, or toasted under a hot grill. If you’re feeling indulgent, sandwich a scoop of vanilla ice cream between the two halves of the bun.

* Bourke St Bakery in Broadway is located at 130 Broadway, right next to Kinkos where incidentally, as a graphic design student I also spend a lot of time!

Hot Cross Buns
Adapted from Modern Classics 2 by Donna Hay
Makes 12 (at least)

• 3 x 7g sachets active dry yeast
• ½ cup caster sugar
• 1 ½ cups milk, lukewarm
• 4 ¼ cups plain flour, sifted
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 50g butter, melted
• 1 egg
• 1 ½ cups sultanas
• 1/3 cup candied mixed peel

For the crosses
• ½ cup plain flour
• 1/3 cup water

For the glaze
• ½ cup sugar
• ¼ cup water

1. Place the yeast, 2 teaspoons of the sugar and all of the milk in a large bowl. Set aside for 5 minutes, until the mixture starts to foam. This means the yeast is active.
2. Add the flour, mixed spice, cinnamon, vanilla, butter, egg, sultanas, and mixed peel and remaining sugar to the yeast mixture. Use a butterknife to mix until a nice sticky dough forms.
3. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for about 8 minutes, or until it feels elastic.
4. Place in a large oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel and allow to stand in a warm place about 1 hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.
5. Divide the dough into 12 pieces and roll into balls.
6. Line a 23cm (9 inch) square cake tin with non-stick baking paper. Place the dough balls in the tin and cover with a clean tea towel. Allow to stand for 30 minutes in a warm place, until they rise.
7. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Combine the extra flour and water for the crosses. Place in a piping bag or a plastic bag with the corner snipped off and pipe crosses on the buns.
8. Bake for 35 minutes or until browned and springy to the touch.
9. To make the glaze, combine sugar and water in a small saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar is dissolved. Brush the hot cross buns with the warm glaze while the buns are hot. Serve warm, with butter.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Delicate Art


Recently, I’ve realised that life is like a big balancing act; between where you are and where you want to be, between what you have to do and what you want to do, between what you need and what you want etc. It’s often challenging to find this balance with conflicting factors at work. It’s quite unfortunate that life doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but then I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy. You’ve got to take the highs with the lows roller-coaster style, and that leads us right back to the beginning – the delicate art of balance.

And of course we all know the importance of balance for our bodies, it’s something I’ve been trying to work on this year. I have a terrible immune system – I get practically every bug that goes around – and I’ve been trying to strengthen it before winter comes around, by eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables that contain Vitamin C and Carotenoids (but I don’t think carrot cake counts!) Whole grains and nuts contain Vitamin E, so I’ve been making sure to eat my cereal! Foods rich in Omega-3 fats are also very good for your immune system, as is the Zinc found in meat, soy and dairy products. My mum is also interested in how different foods can help the body, so I’ve learned a lot recently about how important it is to eat a variety of good foods with different properties.


I didn’t mean for it to be such a serious post about coleslaw, but this is a prime example of the importance of balance! Too much or little of one ingredient can throw the whole salad off. It took me two attempts to get it right but I’ve found the balance I like. Of course it may be different for you, so I encourage you to try it, and taste as you go along. My favourite part was the sweetness that the apples gave, though you could also use pears or a combination. Roughly chopped walnuts or pecans could also be added to give your coleslaw a nice crunch.

After making this at home, I will never again buy the sloppy, floppy coleslaw they sell at the supermarket. Next time I’ll try making the mayonnaise from scratch, and perhaps adding different kinds of cabbage for colour. I served this with some incredible Maple-Marinated Chicken Pieces, which I will share with you hopefully in the near future.

Adapted from Cook with Jamie by Jamie Oliver
Serves 6 as a side dish

• ¼ cabbage, finely sliced
• 2 carrots, peeled and grated
• ¾ - 1 small red onion, finely chopped
• 2 small pink lady apples, cored, cut into thin matchsticks
• 2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons lemon juice
• ½ cup mayonnaise (good quality store-bought or home made)
• Salt and pepper

1. Combine the chopped vegetables, apples and parsley in a large bowl. Stir to combine.
2. Add the lemon juice, mayonnaise, salt and pepper and stir.
3. Serve as a side with the dish of your choice.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Absolute Favourites

carrot cake

This wondrous cake had quite innocuous beginnings. I found the recipe in a free magazine from Woolworths supermarket called Fresh. The magazine’s design is quite nice, it has some nice simple dinner ideas in each issue, and it has inspired a couple of new flavour combinations for me. It’s something that I pick up if I see it, but I haven’t really cooked a lot from it. I can’t help but think though, that it would be sort of fun to work on a small food-based magazine like this every month!

It was right around my dad’s birthday last year, and he asked me to make a carrot cake. This was the first recipe I found so I decided to run with it, even though on closer inspection I realised that the instruction to actually add the specified grated carrot to the carrot cake mixture was thoughtlessly omitted! I was certainly not expecting magic, but this little beauty took us all by surprise, and dad exclaimed that this is the best cake he’s ever had – quite the compliment! It was wonderfully moist with subtle but intriguing spices. It was also the first time I’d ever tried cream cheese icing which is now one of my absolute favourites.

In the months since then, I’ve made this cake a few times, steadily making improvements with each attempt. This time I was inspired by an abundance of carrots in the fridge, but really, who needs an excuse!

I think I’ve really nailed it this time, and now I’m glad I didn’t rush to share the recipe with you all last September when I made it for Fathers’ Day. I reduced the 1 cup of oil to ¾ cup then added an extra carrot and a teaspoon of vanilla. I also like to double the quantity of cream cheese icing and turn it into a layer cake. It would also be nice with some finely chopped walnuts or cashews, either in the cake or sprinkled with some cinnamon between the layers.

Carrot Cake
Adapted from Fresh Magazine, June 2007
Serves 8-10

• 3 medium sized carrots, peeled and grated
• ¾ cup olive oil
• 1 cup caster sugar
• 3 eggs
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 ½ cups self-raising flour
• ½ teaspoon bicarbonate soda
• 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon ground cloves

Cream Cheese Icing

Note: It’s a good idea to double this mixture if making a layer cake. You’ll have a little leftover, which is nice on toast!

• 250g cream cheese
• 1 cup icing sugar
• 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a 20cm round springform baking tin with baking paper.
2. Beat oil, sugar, eggs and vanilla together in an electric mixer until pale and creamy. Sift flour, bicarb soda and spices over the mixture and mix slowly to combine.
3. Fold in grated carrot with a wooden spoon or spatula
4. Spoon into prepared tin. Bake for 1 hour 10 minutes or until cooked when tested with a skewer. Stand for 5 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely before icing.
5. To make cream cheese icing, combine ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer until smooth.
6. Using a serrated knife, cut the cake in half horizontally. Spread icing in the middle, over the top and sides of the cake. I also sprinkled a little bit of ground cinnamon between the layers of cake.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Something Special

lemon tart

My dad tells a funny story from when I was young. I was sitting in my high chair while they were eating fish and chips for dinner, I stretched out my arm and grabbed a wedge of lemon from the table and proceeded to put it in my mouth, as two-year-olds are wont to do. Imagine my surprise! I screwed up my face and put the lemon down. A few minutes later I decided to give it a second chance, I’m forgiving like that. Another bite, another sour shock, another funny face pulled, but oh no, I hadn’t learnt my lesson quite yet. Can you believe I tried it a third time? It must run in the family, I have an Uncle who will eat a lemon skin and all!

Nowadays I am a real lemon tart girl, second to only one other lovely lady (and she knows who she is!) What does this mean for all the other desserts on the menu? If there’s a lemon meringue pie or a lemon tart, anything chocolate is left for dead, I know what I want without a second thought. I’ve had some good lemon tarts and some bad lemon tarts, but this one? Oh, this one is something special indeed.

Dorie Greenspan calls it The Most Extraordinary French Lemon Cream Tart, and Fanny too had praised the lemon cream recipe by Pierre Hermé. I think the name is completely justified, it was definitely the best lemon tarts I’ve ever eaten. This was also a chance to try a new method of making sweet tart dough (pâte sablée) and it was fantastic. Dorie’s method of freezing the dough means that you do not have to use baking weights. It is a fairly time consuming recipe, but the end result is absolutely worth the effort. Or if you want to do the preparation in advance, the lemon cream and the unbaked tart crust can be frozen for up to 2 months

On a slightly unrelated note, until recently we had a ‘lemonade’ tree in our backyard. I never knew much about it, except that the fruit it produced was much sweeter than normal lemons. It turns out that it is a hybrid between lemon and Meyer lemon trees. The fruit was round and bright, and I used to eat them like oranges. Unfortunately I never got to cook with them! This saddens me, because they would have been absolutely wonderful in tarts, cakes and cookies. Has anyone else heard of them, or better yet, tried them?

Lemon Tart
Recipe from Baking: From My Home To Yours by Dorie Greenspan
Serves 8-10

Note: For this recipe you will need a candy thermometer and a blender or food processor.

For the crust
• 1 ½ cups plain flour
• ½ cup icing sugar
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 125g unsalted butter, very cold, cut into pieces
• 1 egg yolk, lightly whisked

For the lemon cream
• 1 cup sugar
• Grated zest of 3 lemons
• 4 eggs
• ¾ cup lemon juice
• 300g unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces

1. To make the crust, put the flour, icing sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is coarse. Add the egg yolk a little at a time, pulsing after each addition and then processing in 10-second pulses once the whole egg has been added until the dough forms clumps.
2. Turn the dough onto a flat work surface and lightly knead the dough until all dry ingredients are just incorporated.
3. Butter a 22cm (9 inch) fluted removable-bottom tart pan. Press the dough into the pan evenly. Freeze for about an hour.
4. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminium foil and fit it tightly against the crust. Bake for 25 minutes.
5. Carefully remove the foil, and press the dough down gently if it has puffed using the back of a spoon. Return it to the oven for another 8 minutes, or until it is beautifully golden brown.
6. Before you start the lemon cream, have a candy thermometer, a strainer and a blender at hand. Simmer a little water in a saucepan.
7. Put the sugar and lemon zest in a large heatproof bowl. Off the heat, rub the mixture together with your fingers until the sugar is moist, grainy and aromatic. Whisk in the eggs and then the lemon juice.
8. Set the bowl over the pan of water and whisk continuously until it reaches 80°C (180°F). As it gets close to temperature it will start to thicken. This can take up to 10 minutes, so be patient!
9. Remove the cream from the heat and strain it into the blender. Discard any solids. Let the cream stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes, or until it cools to 60°C (140°F)
10. Turn the blender on high, and add the butter a few pieces at a time. Scrape down the sides to incorporate the butter. Keep the machine on for 3-5 minutes once the butter is in to ensure a perfect lemon cream
11. Pour into an air-tight container and refrigerate for at least 4 hours (it will keep in the fridge for up to 4 days). When you are ready to assemble the tart, whisk the cream and spoon it into the tart shell.


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