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What to Do With the Urge to Cook

I cook an evening meal for my family every night and eighty per cent of the time I enjoy the process more than I enjoy the meal. I’m a good cook, (she says with eyes modestly downcast), but as with most cooks, I tend to lose interest in the product of my labour by the time it’s placed on the table. I think this is related to saturation of the senses during the cooking process and, more prosaically, nibbling as you cook.

This lack of interest in the finished dish is no bad thing as I, like most middle-aged people, have to keep a weather eye on unwanted weight gain. Yes, terribly dreary, but this is how it is. And given this state of affairs – enjoying cooking but not the weight gain associated with eating all that I make – what can I do? I cannot force-feed my family or harass passers-by to come inside and eat cakes and jellies. So I decided to harness my cooking urges and, through a simple online arrangement and the generosity of my friends, raise funds for the UNHCR, United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

For my inaugural big bake, Let Us Eat Crumbs, I made Banana Cupcakes, Strawberry Summer Cake and Muscovado Peanut biscuits. We drank English Breakfast tea, watched the French romantic comedy Populaire and ate cakes and biscuits and my wonderful guests made such generous donations we raised enough money for 700 blankets for refugee families from Syria. I’ll be doing this again in the Autumn.

Banana Cupcakes with Honey Cinnamon Frosting

A delicious recipe from Martha Stewart. The icing is particularly good.

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1 and 1/2 cups plain flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (bicarb of soda for Australians)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 and a 1/2 cups mashed bananas (about 4 ripe bananas)
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees or 180 C. Line a standard 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Make a well in center of flour mixture. In well, mix together butter, mashed bananas, eggs, and vanilla. Stir to incorporate flour mixture (do not overmix). Dividing evenly, spoon batter into muffin cups. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of a cupcake comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pan; cool completely on a wire rack. Spread tops with Honey-Cinnamon Frosting.

Honey Cinnamon Icing

1 and 1/4 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon honey
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat icing sugar, unsalted butter, honey, and ground cinnamon until smooth, 4 to 5 minutes.

Strawberry Summer Cake

This recipe is from the fantastic cooking blog Smitten Kitchen, one of my favourite food blogs

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I followed the recipe on Smitten Kitchen exactly as it’s presented and wouldn’t tinker with it except to say make the cake with the best strawberries you can get your hands on. Dull, woody strawbs just won’t cut it.

Muscovado and Peanut Biscuits

These biscuits are from Dan Lepard’s wonderful book Short and Sweet, a book I had to have after cooking several of his recipes I found elsewhere. These biscuits, or cookies as he calls them, are strange little creatures, neither one thing nor the other. I was tempted to leave out the lemon and cocoa as it didn’t feel right, but then I stayed true to my basic cooking rule, which is First Time – cook it the way they say to cook it. Next Time – make adjustments if necessary. Invariably I fiddle at the edges of most recipes, which is the fun part of cooking, I think. But you can go too far with recipe fiddling and strike disaster, so exercise restraint and don’t gaily tossing everything out.

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75g unsalted butter, softened
50g crunchy peanut butter
225g muscovado or dark molasses sugar
1 good tbsp black treacle or molasses – (I left this out – Pip)
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg
200g plain flour
1 tbsp cocoa
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
175g salted peanuts

In a large mixing bowl, beat together the butter, peanut butter, sugar, treacle and lemon until smooth. Add the egg and beat in really well. Add the flour, cocoa and soda, mix until the soft dough is smooth, then stir in the peanuts.

Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan-assisted)/350F/gas mark 4 and line a baking tray with foil or nonstick paper. Place round, teaspoon-sized balls of the dough on to the tray, spaced 5cm apart, and bake for 12-14 minutes, until puffed. Remove the tray from the oven and leave for five minutes to set slightly, then use a spatula to move the cookies to a wire rack or cold plate to cool.

Peanut Christmas ornaments

Peanut Christmas ornaments

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There’s Nothing to Eat

zucchini muffin

The lament of lack of food by the First World teen can be deciphered as ‘there is nothing easy, convenient, tasty yet carb free, in this fridge’.  Well, now there is, or there can be, if you put together a batch of these corn and zucchini wholemeal muffins.

Teach the young ‘un to make them and then stand back while they forget how to do it and return to their former cries of hunger. Then point them at a banana.

Zucchini and Corn Muffins  

INGREDIENTS

1 cup self-raising flour

1 cup wholemeal self-raising flour

1 medium zucchini, grated

1/2 cup corn kernels

1/3 cup fresh basil, chopped

1/3 cup Parmesan, grated

1 cup cheddar cheese, grated

1 cup milk

1/4 cup olive oil

2 eggs

METHOD

Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F).

Line a 12 hole muffin tin with paper cases.

In a large bowl place the flour, zucchini, sweetcorn, basil, parmesan and cheddar cheese and mix to combine making a well in the center.

In a small jug place the milk, oil and eggs and whisk to combine.  Pour the wet ingredients into the well of the dry and mix until just combined.

Fill the paper cases evenly, sprinkle a little more cheese on top if so inclined and bake for 20-25 minutes or until cooked. Test with skewer if uncertain.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before turning them out on a wire rack to cool completely.

zucchini.preview

 

‘The’ Sicilian Apple Cake

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I’ve been blogging for 7 years, primarily about books and writing, but I always loved to slip in the occasional food post. I nicked this post on the Sicilian Apple Cake from my other website because it deserves to be here in this dedicated food environment.

I have to say that in all the traffic to my writer website over the years, nothing … absolutely nothing, has generated as much traffic as this recipe. I’ve no idea why, except maybe the world knows a good cake recipe when it sees one

The cake, full of apple and raisins, also has the distinctive Mediterranean combination of citrus, vanilla and cinnamon and is so good it should be cooked every day and offered up to the apple spirits.

I first ate it in Lucia’s Cafe at Adelaide’s Central Markets, discovered what it was called and scuttled home to research the recipe. I found it on the local South Australian ABC website and reproduce it here for your cooking and eating pleasure.

120 gms butter, melted
50 gms toasted walnuts, ground
1 kg granny smith apples
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 large eggs
250 grams sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
150 gms plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
100 mls milk
120 gms raisins
100 gms pine nuts, toasted
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 170c.

Using 20g of butter from the total quantity, generously grease a 24cm cake tin then sprinkle with the ground walnuts, set aside.
Peel and core the apples then cut them into slices. Toss the apples with the zest and juice of the lemon and set aside.
Whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla together until pale and creamy then add the melted butter, flour, baking powder and milk, whisk till smooth and creamy.

Pour one third of the batter into the prepared cake tin then top with one third of apple, raisins and pine nuts. Repeat with remaining ingredients then finish with layer of apples then sprinkle the combined sugar and cinnamon over the top.

Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour or till the apple is cooked.

Don’t be too strict about the timing. It all hangs on the particular personality of your oven. Some are fast, others slow. Last time I cooked the cake I was in a rush and whipped it out of the oven exactly after an hour to find it undercooked. I served it up with a fairly runny centre but told everyone it was custard and they all said how unusual and how delicious!

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The Right Crunch

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I made a batch of biscotti, the Italian twice baked biscuit, once that was so hard one could gnaw and suck them, like a baby with a rusk, for an awfully long time before getting anything like a satisfying crunchy mouthful. The unyielding nature of these biscotti was my fault. Too long in the oven, I’m afraid.

And I’ve also made butter biscuits so soft and crumbly that I needed a spoon to get them into my mouth. Yep, not long enough in the oven.

And then, like Goldilocks with her third bowl of porridge, I found Dan Lepard’s Blueberry Choc Chip Cookies. As I placed balls of the mixture on the baking trays I was plagued with doubt and suspected the cooked biscuit would have a sludgy interior encased in a thin skin of crunch. Now interior sludge is not a bad thing, particularly in a chocolate pudding, but I wanted a crunchy biscuit all the way through and, by golly, I got it.

This is a great recipe and one can fiddle with the add-ons too. I used dried cranberries instead of blueberries and dark chocolate for the bits. And the use of wholemeal flour gives one a sense of healthiness which may be a little too seductive, but never mind, they’re delicious.

(Almond Essence Alert – Dan specifies Almond Extract. I have only Almond Essence in my pantry. They are not the same. As the essence can be overpowering if too much is used I cut back to half a tsp.)

This Dan Lepard recipe is from The Guardian.

Wholemeal flour can sometimes give a slight bitter aftertaste, but combining it with almond extract, brown sugar and oats masks this and creates a rich background flavour to stud with chocolate and dried fruit. The oil reduces the need for too much butter, while making the cookies a little more chewy.

100g unsalted butter, softened
25ml sunflower oil
175g brown sugar
1 medium egg
1 tsp almond extract
200g wholemeal flour
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
¼ tsp salt
150g dried blueberries or sour cherries
100g-150g chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
75g rolled oats

Beat the butter, oil and sugar until smooth, then mix in the egg and almond extract. Add the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt, beat in well, then stir in the dried fruit, chocolate chips and oats.

Pinch off pieces of the dough, squeeze these into balls 2-3cm in diameter and flatten them slightly as you place them on a tray lined with nonstick baking paper. They don’t spread too much, so just leave about 3cm between each cookie.

Heat the oven to 170C (150C fan-assisted)/335F/gas mark 3 and bake for about 15 minutes, until just beginning to brown at the edges.

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Almond Biscuits

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These almond biscuits are easy to make and even easier to eat. I think this is a Greek recipe but it was given to me by an Italian relative. You have to have access to lots and lots of almond meal, which is not cheap. But not far from where I live are the Willunga almond orchards and while pottering in the district recently I just happened upon bags of almond meal at an outrageously good price. Immediately I thought of these biscuits. And then I made them. And then gave them away. But I’ll make them again one day.

You need three cups of almond meal, which is actually 300 grams, which doesn’t sound like much but it is. Mix a cup of castor sugar in to the almond meal and add a few drops of almond essence.

Lightly beat three eggwhites and mix into the almond/sugar mixture until you have a firm dough. Roll out into small sausage shapes, no bigger than your thumb, roll in flaked almonds and bake for 15 minutes until lightly browned. Let them cool on the trays.

Vincent Van Gogh, Almond Tree in Bloom, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent Van Gogh, Almond Tree in Bloom, 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Then you eat some, accompanied by an espresso, and hide the rest.

A Storied Plum Cake

Plumcake

A good orchardist knows the plum varieties in their orchard, but somewhere between the orchardist and the shop the name of the plum simply becomes ‘Plums $6.99’. I love any sort of plum and I love their names too but because I rely on the shop for identification I can never be sure I know what I’m talking about. What is a Mariposa at the shop up the hill is often a Satsuma at the shop down the hill.

The plums I used for this cake have a red, sweet flesh and could have been Mariposa, Elephant Heart, Dorrigo Blood or something else, but they were definitely blood plums. I’m sure you could use sweet yellow fleshed plums too but a splash of bloody red on a cake is always a good look.

I found the recipe to this cake on the Smitten Kitchen blog where you can read about the cake’s pedigree.  Smitten Kitchen recommends Italian Prune Plums which are also known as Empress Plums but I’ve never seen them here, unless they are cunningly disguised as a Damson or Sugarplum.

1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking powder

Large pinch of salt

1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar plus 1 to 2 tablespoon (depending on sweetness of plums)

1/2 cup (115 grams or 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

2 large eggs

12 smallish purple Italian purple plums, halved and pitted

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon or tablespoon ground cinnamon

Heat oven to 350°F, (or 180C). Sift or whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In a larger bowl, cream butter and 1 cup sugar together with an electric mixer until fluffy and light in colour. Add the eggs, one at a time and scraping down the bowl, then the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined.

Spoon batter into an ungreased 9-inch springform pan, but if you’re worried, you can always lightly coat it first with butter or a nonstick spray, and smooth the top. (I also put a circle of baking paper on the base … just to head off disappointing breakages) 

Arrange the plums, (I squashed mine down into the batter a bit), skin side up, all over the batter, covering it. Sprinkle the top with lemon juice, then cinnamon, then remaining sugar.

Bake until cake is golden and a toothpick inserted into a centre part of the cake comes out free of batter (but of course not plum juice), about 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on rack.

(Really good as a next-day breakfast Italian style)