Saturday, April 26, 2008

Even Better

alfajores

I had to fend for myself for a few days, while my family were up the coast on holidays. I missed out on going with them because my deadlines week at college happened to coincide with their already-booked week away. I promised myself that I would eat good home-cooked food, because when you’re busy trying to finish projects and only cooking for yourself, it is tempting to take the easy/lazy option and either order a pizza or subsist on only two-minute noodles. Cooking for one is very different to cooking for four, which I usually do. It felt strange to cook so little! I ended up with leftovers of almost everything, but it was nice to have food in the fridge for lunch the next day.

Luckily, I had a good friend come to stay towards the end of the week, so I didn’t go completely mad in my solitude. We had a variety of food-based adventures, since I seem to navigate Sydney purely via coffee shops, and she’d seen The Bridge already. It was so nice to have someone to share things like this with, because sometimes it seems like all my best friends live far away. I think food always tastes better with the people you like.

zumbo

We took a ferry to Balmain and visited Adriano Zumbo’s famous patisserie; above you can see a tangy and delicious passionfruit tartlet, a salted butter caramel mille-feuille and two varieties of macaron, because we couldn’t help ourselves. We had Sunday brunch at the Bourke St Bakery, or more accurately in the little park opposite (and then went back to try the strawberry vanilla brulée and lemon curd tartlets). On Monday we headed across the road to The Book Kitchen, where the walls are lined with cookbooks. I loved the coffee and the very nice day menu, I can’t wait to go back for lunch one day! For breakfast I had the date and fig pikelets, which were gorgeous, fluffy and studded with hidden surprises. The accompanying poached pear and rhubarb was the perfect match, and just wonderful with the creamy vanilla ricotta. I have it on good authority that their scrambled eggs on sourdough were a winner too.

We also sampled South American ice cream from a place that has recently opened up within walking distance of home, called Patagonia. The dulce de leche ice cream was fantastic, and inspired me to try Alfajores: cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche. I read last November in the(sydney)magazine, about a bakery in Fairfield that does the best Alfajores in Sydney, but it’s closed for renovations at the moment, so I decided to try making my own.

I was slightly concerned by the warnings on the can that it might explode, so I did some research and found that many had success with poking a few holes in the top of the can. The dulce de leche was incredible, I couldn’t help but sneak spoonfuls whenever I went past the kitchen. I’m not sure how traditional my Alfajores are, but I loved them. They reminded me, in a way, of the biscuits in the very first photo I uploaded to Flickr, but with a tastier cookie and creamier filling, these were even better.

Addresses

Adriano Zumbo
296 Darling St, Balmain

Bourke St Bakery
Corner of Bourke St and Devonshire St, Surry Hills and 130 Broadway (next to Kinkos)

The Book Kitchen
255 Devonshire St, Surry Hills

Patagonia (South American Ice Cream)
231 Coogee Bay Road, Coogee and 55 Smart St, Fairfield

Alfajores
Adapted from Australian Gourmet Traveller
Makes about 25 sandwiched cookies

• 100g unsalted butter, cold, coarsely chopped
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 egg + 1 egg yolk
• 1 cup plain flour
• 150g cornflour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder

Dulce De Leche
• 1 can sweetened condensed milk, label removed

1. To make dulce de leche, make a few small holes in the lid of the can with a can opener. Place in a heavy bottomed pot. Fill with water to just under the top of the can. Simmer for 3 – 4 hours, ensuring that there is always enough water to cover the can. Allow to cool in the water, before opening the can and spooning out the contents. It should be light caramel coloured. Allow to cool completely.
2. Process butter and caster sugar in a food processor until pale and creamy. Add egg and egg yolk and pulse to combine.
3. Sift the flour, cornflour and baking powder together and add to food processor. Pulse until just combined, then form dough into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
4. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line an oven tray or two with baking paper.
5. Roll out chilled dough on a lightly floured surface to 5mm thick. Using a 3cm round cookie-cutter, cut rounds and place 5cm apart on the oven tray. Bake for 12-25 minutes, or until lightly golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
6. To assemble, sandwich two biscuits together with 1 teaspoon of dulce de leche in the middle.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Leaf Crunching

plum cake

I love the feeling of an autumn leaf crunching under my new black boots. They are one of my most recent acquisitions and I love them, they’re perfect for keeping my feet warm and dry with the on-and-off rainy/windy weather we’ve been having here in Sydney for weeks. I don’t know if it’s just me (I think I might be cold blooded) but it feels borderline wintery already. I am trying hard to suppress the annual urge to hibernate, or at least, to stay in bed or under the hot shower a few minutes longer than I should.

What I have embraced fully, however is cold weather cooking. If you’re looking for me anytime soon I’ll be in the kitchen kneading pastry, or stirring soup, or with my hands in some warm, soapy washing up water. There are just so many new things I want to try this year; I’ve been bookmarking recipes left, right and centre. The list of things I want to cook is ever-growing, and my most difficult decision all day is what to make for dinner. There are some delicious fruits and vegetables in season at the moment, and so many techniques I’ve never tried my hand at. But I can’t tell you too much right now, you’ll have to wait and see!

I love plums; their deep colour is just gorgeous. They add a certain sexiness to the fruit bowl, I think. I haven’t cooked with them very much in the past, since they would usually just be eaten as is, leaning over the kitchen sink so as to not make puddles of juice all over the floor. However, they are just lovely in so many desserts, and I’ve come to realise the error of my ways. This afternoon I made these adorable little cakes, which were absolutely perfect, still a little warm, with a cup of white tea on a cool, cloudy afternoon.

The original recipe also included a plum semifreddo, which sounded delicious, however I served my cakes with some lightly sweetened whipped cream because I didn’t have enough time (or plums!) to make the semifreddo.

Little Plum and Brown Butter Cakes
Adapted from Australian Gourmet Traveller
Makes about 8 small cakes

• 40g butter, coarsely chopped
• 2 eggs
• 130g caster sugar
• 125g plain flour
• 75g ground hazelnuts
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2-3 plums, cut into 8 pieces, with stones removed
• Whipped cream or plum semifreddo, to serve

1. Preheat oven to 170°C (340°F) and grease a standard cupcake pan.
2. Place butter in a small saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until dark golden. Remove from the heat and cool completely.
3. Combine eggs and sugar in an electric mixer and whisk for 5 minutes or until thick and pale. Add flour and hazelnuts, whisk to combine, and then fold in the cooled butter and vanilla extract.
4. Divide mixture evenly between about 8 holes of the greased cupcake pan. Lightly press two plum quarters into each little cake, skin side up.
5. Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden. Stand in pan for 5 minutes, then turn out and cool on a wire rack. Serve cakes warm or at room temperature with plum semifreddo or whipped cream.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Intrinsically Good

pumpkin

With a history that goes back to 6000BC, soup seems to have always been regarded as an Intrinsically Good Thing. It has been adapted in countless ways to suit different cultures and climates, from hearty warming minestrone, to refreshing cold soups. Soup is healthy, balanced, versatile and comforting, not to mention delicious. Come autumn and winter, for me, there are few things I like more than a steaming bowl of soup, with lots of crusty bread.

As a child though, I seemed to have quite strong opinions about soup. I didn’t even want to be in the same room as my Nanna’s traditional Maltese fish soup. After my mum made pumpkin soup from a can one night (ewww) I wouldn’t touch the stuff again for about twelve years. Even when a pumpkin vine unexpectedly grew out of our compost heap a few years ago, and we ended up with two-dozen or so gorgeous pumpkins, I refused the soup.

Last winter, I spotted Donna Hay’s recipe for Roast Pumpkin Soup in Modern Classics 1. I like pumpkin, that isn’t the problem, but I still had a hard time summoning the courage to try the recipe, so firm was I in my conviction never to let liquefied pumpkin pass my lips again. I made everyone else taste it first, before I’d even picked up my spoon. I’m happy to report though, that the recipe was fantastic. I’ve made it quite a few times since then, with little changes along the way. Actually, I wanted to tell you about it last year but never got to snap a photo. I’ve almost been looking forward to autumn so I could make it again!

I’ve only tried it using butternut pumpkin (squash) however I’m sure it would be equally wonderful with other kinds of sweet pumpkin. The puree can be made in advance and frozen. After that step, the soup comes together very quickly; it’s perfect for an easy meal on a cold night. The maple syrup was an inspired decision, deviating from the honey specified in the original and I truly like it better this way. I’ve tried it with and without the mustard and it’s nice either way, so I’ve specified it here as strictly optional. I’m looking forward to making my own chicken stock soon, and I also hope to try this soup with a combination of butternut and sweet potato.

For my friends in warmer climes who are thinking “soup is so last month”, here are a few recipes you might like to try this spring. I envy you!
- Yoghurt Panna Cotta
- Little Strawberry and Coconut Cakes
- (New and Improved!) Chicken Penne Pesto
- Chunky Chicken and Vegetable Soup

Roast Pumpkin and Maple Soup
Adapted from Modern Classics 1 by Donna Hay
Serves 4, with leftovers

• 2kg butternut or other sweet pumpkin
• Macadamia or Olive Oil
• 2L chicken or vegetable stock
• 3-4 tablespoons maple syrup
• 2 teaspoons Dijon Mustard (optional)
• Salt and Pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F)
2. Chop the pumpkin into 1 inch thick slices, discard the seeds and peel the skin with a potato peeler. Arrange in a baking dish, brush with macadamia or olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 1 hour, or until pumpkin is cooked through. Allow to cool for 15 minutes.
3. In a food processor, place about a third of the roast pumpkin with ½ cup of stock and pulse until smooth. Place the puree into a large pot and repeat twice with the rest of the pumpkin.
4. Add the rest of the stock, the maple syrup and the mustard (if using) to the pot, and bring to the boil slowly on low heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
5. Serve in bowls or mugs with fresh crusty bread.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Vanilla Flecked

creme brulée

I’m now down to the business end of this Vanilla Project. The fun conceptualising part is over, now is the actual production part, made trickier by the fact that I’m still learning Dreamweaver and Flash! The website had to have an environmental aspect to it, and in my early research I learned about the Rainforest Vanilla Conservation Association. The concept of my website then became a shop selling pure vanilla products, from food to perfume, containing real vanilla grown in this way.

Both vanilla and cocoa are species native to the tropical rainforest, therefore they thrive best in their native environment. Vanilla is a vine and therefore requires the support of a tutor tree. It is difficult to grow under artificial conditions in plantation style settings, where the land is cleared and concrete posts are installed for the vines to grow on. Vanilla production is most sustainable under natural shade trees using traditional production methods.

Cocoa has always been a subsistence crop of poor farmers in developing countries. In recent times, farmers have been abandoning the crop for more lucrative agricultural activities. Dwindling supplies have forced worldwide prices to rise. However, cocoa makes an excellent tutor tree for vanilla vines and has the added benefit of providing an additional source of income for the vanilla farmer. If vanilla and cocoa prices stabilize at a level that gives a good return to the farmers, both crops will be an important source of economic incentives to conserve the tropical rainforest.

A one acre vanilla-cocoa plantation is estimated to annually absorb the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions from burning 2,550 gallons of gasoline. For every serving of real vanilla or chocolate ice cream you enjoy, you are removing from the atmosphere the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions from burning the same weight of gasoline.

I had never made crème brulée before this weekend. In fact I had only ever eaten one in my life, at my favourite Patisserie in The Rocks while waiting for a ferry. I fell in love with the way the crunchy toffee topping gave way to the silky vanilla flecked custard below. I recently found a little kitchen blowtorch for an unbelievable price and I had to have it, so this was its official christening. I picked Dorie Greenspan’s recipe because it looked the simplest and didn’t require as many egg yolks as others I have come across. I am accumulating egg whites at an unbelievable rate, at last count there were fifteen in my freezer! I made vanilla crème brulées this time, keeping with the theme of my project, but I’m looking forward to experimenting with different flavours in the near future.

Crème Brulée
Adapted from Baking from My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan
Serves 6

• 1 ¼ cups thick (heavy) cream
• ½ cup whole milk
• 1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
• 3 egg yolks
• 1/3 cup sugar
• About 6 tablespoons light brown sugar

1. Combine milk, cream and vanilla seeds and bean in a small saucepan. Bring just to a boil, then remove from the heat and allow the mixture to infuse for at least 30 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 95°C (200°F). Place six ramekins on a baking tray.
3. When ready to make the custard, reheat the cream mixture and remove the vanilla bean.
4. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a medium bowl until well blended. While still whisking, drizzle in about a quarter of the warm cream mixture. This ensures the eggs won’t curdle. Slowly pour the remainder of the cream and milk and whisk well.
5. Tap the bowl against the bench to remove the bubbles and strain it into the ramekins.
6. Bake the custards for 50-60 minutes or until the centers are set. Allow to cool until they reach room temperature. Cover each with plastic wrap and refrigerate, preferably overnight.
7. Sprinkle each custard with a tablespoon of brown sugar, then caramelise the sugar with a blowtorch until it bubbles and colours. Wait until the bubbles subside before serving.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Birthday Girl

cookies and cream

My sister Beth is one of the most kind-hearted, loving people that I know. It’s often from her that I get my big hugs on a bad day, and she has bestowed upon me more nicknames than I can count. She’s five years younger, but significantly taller than me. I think this is why she thinks she is somehow justified in calling me things like “Schnookie”, though I secretly kind of like it when she calls me Lola or Lulu.

I’m happy to say that we got along reasonably well through our childhoods, though she should get the equivalent of an Oscar for her ‘Annoying Little Sister’ role when I had friends over. It’s most certainly from me that she gets her good taste in music, which comes in handy because she doesn’t tell me to turn the volume down. She does great impersonations, most impressively Stitch from Lilo and Stitch and King Julian from Madagascar. It always makes me giggle when she inserts random movie quotes into conversations.

Every time we set out on a walk together, she proclaims it “an adventure”, and I love sharing the things and places I’ve discovered with her. I don’t think she minds too much, when I take her places like the Lindt Café. She loves to cook and often helps me in the kitchen. It’s nice to be able to teach her things, though it’s even nicer when she actually listens! She’s growing into a wonderful girl, someone to really be proud of. I may not say it as often as I should, but I love you to bits. Happy 15th Birthday Beth!

I know I’ve just posted a cheesecake recipe, but this was the dessert the birthday girl chose, and I couldn’t say no! We have both long been fans of cookies and cream ice cream so it was nice to have it in cheesecake form this time! It was pretty easy to put together, I actually made most of it during the ad breaks in the TV show I was watching. Beth loved it, though I found it just a little too rich. It could, of course also be doubled and made as one large cheesecake, in an 8 inch removable-bottom cake tin.

Cookies and Cream Cheesecake
Adapted from Women’s Weekly Cheesecakes
Makes 5-6 mini cheesecakes

• 250g packet of chocolate cream biscuits (such as Oreos)
• 40g butter, melted
• 1 teaspoon gelatine
• 1 tablespoon water
• 250g cream cheese, softened
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• ¼ cup caster sugar
• 150mL cream
• 90g white chocolate, melted
• Dark chocolate, melted, to serve (optional)

1. Grease and line 5 (or 6) half-cup ramekins with non-stick baking paper.
2. To make the crust, place 8 biscuits from the packet into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until you have fine crumbs. Transfer to a medium bowl and stir in the melted butter until combined. Press evenly into the bases of the ramekins with a teaspoon. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. Chop the remaining biscuits into small chunks.
4. Combine the gelatine and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until gelatine is completely dissolved.
5. With an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese with vanilla and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add cream, white chocolate and gelatine, and mix until combined. Fold in the biscuit pieces.
6. Divide equally between the ramekins. Refrigerate overnight. Serve with melted dark chocolate drizzled over the top if desired.

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