Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Birthday Calories


Ahhh birthdays. I love making a big deal of other peoples’ but I tend to largely ignore my own. For the last few years, I’ve had to keep celebrations simple because my birthday always seemed to fall right in the middle of my dreaded mid-year deadlines week at college. Unfortunately it’s no different this year, but you only turn 20 once. I’ve been freaking out a little for the last month that my teenage years are over; that it’s the end of an era, so to speak. But while it feels like a chapter may be closing, a new one is most certainly opening. And I’m okay with that, even if it does mean finding a grey hair (!!)

The last year has been quite a roller coaster ride, with highs and lows and everything in between. It feels like I’ve learned a lot about myself – the things I’m capable of and the things I want from life now that my college course is nearing its end – as well new skills that I’ll continue to use years in the future. I’ve crossed things off lists, then replaced them with new things to explore, experience and discover. It’s hard to believe that in less than six months I’ll have a degree and, fingers crossed, a real job…which would be handy, as it’s hard to finance cookbook purchases on a paltry student income! So, I’m excited about the year ahead and the changes it will bring.

In an effort to avoid birthday candles this year, I decided on a semifreddo for dessert rather than a cake. The recipe combines several of my favourite things – chocolate, coffee, figs, hazelnuts… and liqueur! I liked the suggestion of serving it in slices rather than scoops for a more elegant presentation. It was deliciously rich with nice textural contrasts from the crunch of hazelnuts and chewy figs. I especially liked the espresso syrup, which would also be nice on vanilla ice cream, or even drizzled over a chocolate cake. I firmly believe that birthday calories don’t count; mind and metabolism have an unspoken agreement. Though I’d say this is worth blowing the diet for any day.

This is also my entry to the fantastic Frozen Desserts event hosted by Mike's Table. There's still time to get an entry in, I can't wait to see the round up!

I should also mention that I’m leaving for another little holiday in Perth on Friday morning. I must like it there or something! I’ll be back home in early July, but with some luck there may be a post or two written ‘on location’ to document our eating adventures. Hopefully this time I’ll get to visit the two patisseries that were unfortunately closed when I was there in January, try a much-anticipated Little Creatures pale ale, and a repeat performance of those amazing frites!

Chocolate, Fig and Hazelnut Semifreddo
Adapted from Gourmet Traveller
Serves 8

• 2/3 cup espresso
• ½ cup Frangelico liqueur
• ¾ cup caster sugar
• 4 dried figs, halved
• 5 eggs
• 1 ½ cups milk
• 1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
• 220g dark chocolate, finely chopped
• ½ cup pouring cream
• 125g hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

1. Combine espressp, Frangelico and ½ cup caster sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to the boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add figs, then simmer over low heat until figs are soft. Cool, remove figs and refrigerate the syrup. Coarsely chop figs and set aside.
2. Whisk eggs and remaining sugar until pale. Combine milk and vanilla bean and seeds in a small saucepan. Bring just to the boil over high heat, and then pour slowly over egg mixture, whisking continuously until combined. Place bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and whisk until thick. Remove from heat and place over a bowl of iced water to cool.
3. Melt chocolate, cool to room temperature and then whisk into the egg mixture. Set aside.
4. In a separate bowl, whisk cream until soft peaks form, then gently fold into chocolate mixture. Fold through hazelnuts and figs and pour into a greased, baking paper lined loaf pan. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze overnight. Slice with a hot, dry knife and serve drizzled with syrup.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Expert Borrowers

baked macaroni

As much as I like to share brand new, shiny, exciting things here in my little corner of the web, I think its time today to share a family recipe that is quite special to me. It occurred to me that I haven’t done this much at all, save for my Dad’s BBQ potatoes. To be honest, I kind of forget sometimes. They seem so ‘every day’ that I wonder if they are even worthy of a post of their own. But after making one of our favourites last night for dinner, I just couldn’t help but photograph the leftovers.

It’s our take on a traditional Maltese dish Imqarrun fil- Forn or Baked Macaroni, similar to the Italian Timpano, because the Maltese were expert ‘borrowers’ of language and cuisine. Saveur magazine even printed a variation of it, with a flaky pastry lid. My family has been making it seemingly forever; I remember a story that my Grandpa told me from when he was a little boy. Instead of cooking it in their own kitchens they would take it to the local bakery, and for a small fee they could cook it in the wood-fired ovens. The article mentions it as a tradition of ‘communal baking’ going back centuries and I think it sounds just wonderful. Imagine chatting with your friends while someone else cooks your dinner! One unfortunate night while carrying the cooked dish home, my Grandpa’s brother dropped it all over the pavement!

This hearty, filling meal is so simple to put together; just cooked macaroni or rigatoni mixed with bolognaise sauce, a few eggs, some Parmesan, and, if you like, some fresh herbs, salt and pepper. It’s not the quickest weeknight dinner, granted, but it’s one of the easiest I can think of. We usually make a huge stockpot full of bolognaise sauce and freeze it in portions, which makes the assembly of this dish even easier. I haven’t given a recipe for the sauce here, so use your favourite! This is not like your typical baked pasta in that the eggs bind the mixture together to set while baking, rather than remain saucy on the inside. And those crunchy burnt bits on top? My favourite thing about it!

baked macaroni

It works equally well as an entrée or a main meal with a leafy salad and balsamic vinaigrette, and leftovers are good at room temperature for lunch or even a picnic the next day. You can also freeze it in its unbaked state. But please heed my advice about the non-stick baking paper, it makes life (and washing up) so much easier.

Baked Macaroni
Serves 8

• 2 x 500g packets macaroni or rigatoni
• 4 ½ cups pre-prepared bolognaise sauce (use your favourite home-made recipe)
• 5 – 6 large eggs
• ½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
• 2 tablespoons fresh parsley
• Salt and Pepper

1. Grease and line large baking dish with non-stick baking paper. Preheat the oven to 200°C (390°F)
2. Cook macaroni in a large pot of salted boiling water until just before al dente. Drain and return to the pot. Stir in bolognaise sauce, eggs, Parmesan, parsley, salt and pepper and mix with a large spoon until pasta is fully coated.
3. Transfer to the baking dish, pressing mixture into all the corners. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, turning the dish around at about the 40-minute mark. Don’t worry, those crunchy burnt top bits are good! However you can cover it with foil to prevent the top from over-browning.
4. Have a wire cooling rack ready, and remove the pan from the oven. Place the cooling rack upside down on top of the macaroni and invert, being careful because it’s hot. Remove the pan and the baking paper. Place the macaroni back in the oven upside down for 15 – 20 minutes longer to crisp up the bottom.
5. To serve, cut into square pieces with a serrated knife. Serve with a green leafy salad.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Something New


I love the concept of learning something new everyday, whether it’s a new word to add to the vocabulary, or a snippet of information you didn’t know. I’ll admit I’m one of those people who love useless trivia. Did you know there are two million possible sandwich combinations that can be created from a Subway menu, or that fish are in fact susceptible to seasickness? I don’t ever want to stop learning, there are so many subjects that I find fascinating.

But one of the things I like most of all is the feeling that you could learn something every time you step into the kitchen. There are hundreds of different cuisines to explore and a countless amount of ingredients, each with its own flavours and properties. It excites me to go into the kitchen knowing that I’m going to make something new, because you’re never quite sure how it will turn out – in triumph or in tears. I remember the first time I made choux pastry, about two years ago. My profiteroles were sad, flat little mounds rather than gloriously risen puffs. I didn’t know what went wrong, and it took me three attempts (and probably some rather choice language) before I finally got it right. Here is a short list of the things I’ve since learned about making perfect choux...

• This recipe has a considerable amount of water. It’s the water turning to steam in the oven that makes them puff.
• When adding the flour, make sure the butter mixture is boiling rapidly. This ensures that the starch cells in the flour will accept more water and create more steam, and consequently more puff.
• I like to sift the flour before adding it to the mixture. You will need to stir vigorously to prevent lumps forming and incorporate the flour evenly.
• Make sure the oven is at the correct temperature before the puffs go in, and don’t be tempted to open the oven door while they are cooking!
• When they are cooked, prick the puffs with a skewer or cut them open to release the steam, and then return them to the oven for 5 minutes, which prevents them from going soggy.
• Cooked but unfilled choux will keep in an airtight container for 3 days or can be frozen for up to 3 weeks.

Choux pastry is a wonderful base for an incredible variety of sweet and savoury dishes; the choice of what to fill your éclairs or profiteroles with is up to you! Crème pâtissèrie, or pastry cream is one of my favourite things to make so I decided to put my leftover ginger to good use with one of its very best friends, dark chocolate. It gave the cream a nice subtle flavour that I loved. I dipped my profiteroles into melted chocolate, but you could also drizzle it on top. This is also my entry for Hay Hay Its Donna Day #20, brainchild of Barbara from Winos and Foodies, now being looked after by Bron Marshall, and hosted this month by Suzana of Home Gourmets.

Chocolate and Ginger Profiteroles
Adapted from Baking From My Home To Yours by Dorie Greenspan and Gourmet Traveller
Makes about 40 small profiteroles

Chocolate and Ginger Pastry Cream
• 2 cups whole milk
• About 6 strips of fresh ginger, cut with a vegetable peeler
• 4 large egg yolks
• 6 tablespoons sugar
• 3 tablespoons cornflour, sifted
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 7 (200g) ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
• 2 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature

Choux Pastry
• 100g unsalted butter
• 1 cup cold water
• 150g plain flour, sifted
• 4 eggs

• Melted dark chocolate, for dipping

1. To make the dark chocolate cream, bring the milk to a boil, add strips of ginger and infuse for at least 30 minutes. Strain and discard the pieces of ginger.
2. Re-heat the milk. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar, cornflour and salt until thick and well blended. Without stopping whisking, drizzle in about ¼ cup of the hot milk, then add the remainder of the milk in a steady stream. Put the pan over medium heat, and whisking vigorously, bring the mixture to a boil. Keep at a boil, still whisking for 1-2 minutes.
3. Remove the pan from the heat. Whisk in the melted chocolate and let stand for 5 minutes. In the meantime, fill the sink about a quarter full with water and ice cubes. Whisk in the pieces of butter, stirring until they are fully incorporated and the cream is smooth and silky.
4. Put the bowl into the ice filled sink, and stir occasionally until it is thoroughly chilled. Refrigerate with plastic pressed against the surface of the cream to avoid a skin forming.
5. To make the choux pastry, preheat the oven to 220°C (430°F) and line a baking tray with non-stick baking paper. Combine butter and water in a large saucepan and bring to the boil over high heat. Add flour and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until mixture leaves the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat and cool for 10 minutes.
6. Add eggs to the mixture, beating vigorously to combine after each addition before adding the next. To make profiteroles, use either a piping bag or a spoon to make 3cm mounds on the baking tray.
7. Bake for 15 minutes. Prick pastries with a skewer or the tip of a small knife and bake for an additional 5 minutes until golden and dry. Cool profiteroles on a wire rack before filling with chocolate and ginger pastry cream. Dip into melted dark chocolate before serving.


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