Italian tarts

I seem to be slipping into an “Italian” phase at the moment.

This happens to me periodically and has several different triggers.  Sometimes it is  the result of a book that I have read, especially a new Italian cookbook, or a particularly beguiling movie I have recently seen.  It was at it’s worst when I returned home from a trip to Italy and Paris that I took with the Cupcake Queen 18 months ago.  I was totally seduced by Italy and, once I had recovered from the jet-lag and was able to drive without forgetting where I was going, headed straight for a wonderful Italian grocery store in the north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide.  I left laden down with smallgoods, cheese, pasta, mustard fruits and all sorts of bits and pieces in jars, that I had previously only seen in the markets of Florence, and our meals had a distinctly Italian flavour about them for weeks!  We are fortunate to have here in Adelaide some wonderful chefs who come from an Italian tradition and, after I have attended their cooking demonstrations, their influence stays with me, informing my food for days or weeks – depending on how vocal the thankless teenagers become in their requests for “plain” food!  The trigger for this present bout of  what I call “ethnicity envy”  are the current editions of a couple of well known food magazines, who have both published their annual “Italian” issues, prompting in me and the Cupcake Queen  a wave of nostalgia for that memorable trip.   The QC has had especially wistful memories of a small bakery in Rome where she developed a deep and abiding fondness for their jam crostata – with good reason.  Their pastry was perfectly tender with just a hint of lemon, covered with dark berry jam – brilliant!

Now, I’m about to digress a bit here, but hang with me – you’ll see where I’m going very soon.

If you have read my “About Me” page, you will know I feel that my upbringing was marred by cooking that left quite a bit to be desired.  It seems that this remark stirred up some defensive feelings in one or two of my (much older – memories failing?) cousins who insist that I am mistaken.  They pointed out that my Grandmother was quite elderly when we went to live with her and past her culinary prime.  I mentioned this to my mother the other day who raised her eyebrows and agreed with me totally.  Her parents were publicans all their lives and Grandma never cooked unless she absolutely had to – fortunately for her (and her hotel guests) she generally had a cook in her employ, thus averting the need for her to extend herself in the kitchen.   I have some fond memories of some of her food, but the jam tart that so impressed me as a child was made with a commercial pastry mix (Just Add Water!!), not to be compared with the delightful almond and lemon scented pastry of that Roman bakery.

This recipe for Crostata uses the Italian short pastry  – pasta frolla – flavoured with lemon rind, although vanilla can be substituted for the lemon or added to it.  As a beginning point for the pastry I used a recipe from a magazine, tweaking it very minimally.  I used some beautiful OO flour that I had waiting for just the right recipe – and this is it!  We were both very happy with the result – all we needed was Rome to make it perfect.

JAM CROSTATA

180 gms OO flour
60 gms icing sugar
60 gms almond meal
Rind of 1 lemon, finely grated
100 gms unsalted butter
1 egg, plus 1 yolk, lightly beaten

200 gms best quality jam

Grease 24 cm tart pan. Preheat oven to 170C.

Place all pastry ingredients in processor and pulse until JUST coming together. Do not over-work the pastry.
Lightly pat into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Roll pastry out to fit the base of tart pan, approx 5mm thick and cut pastry off cuts into strips.

Cover pastry base with an even layer of jam, right to the edges. Arrange strips on top in a lattice. Brush strips with beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake at 170C for about 30-35 minutes.
Printable recipeJAM CROSTATA.

Cooks and carrots!

The biennial, international food and wine festival, “Tasting Australia”,  is coming up here in Adelaide in a few weeks time. It is a week long “foodie-fest” which also involves some industry events, including the awarding of the Le Cordon Bleu World Food media Awards. This year South Australia’s own Wakefield Press has had three of their publications nominated for the prestigious awards – “The Blue Ribbon Cookbook”, by Liz Harfull has been nominated for Best Hard Cover Recipe Book (under 35 Euro) and Lolo Hobein’s “One Magic Square” and John Barlow’s “Everything But the Squeal” have both been nominated for Best Food Book.  The nominations come from a jury of over 50 international food industry professionals looking at the best the world has to offer in the field of food media and Wakefield Press have every reason to be deeply chuffed for scooping three nominations in such a competitive arena!

To read the rest of the piece that I wrote about these three books you can look at the full article on Boomerang Books Guest blog!

I have previously mentioned my lovely eldest daughter, the Cupcake Queen, in my literary ramblings.  She is in her late teens and can be quite frustratingly faddish and picky with her foods.  One of her pet peeves is fresh coriander.  She seems to be able to sniff it out and repeatedly turns her nose up at it, picking it out of anything and everything or simply flatly refusing to eat it, just like a two year old!  I have put this behaviour down to her contrary teenage stage of life and tend to address it by threatening to strangle her if she complains about her meals which, admittedly, has had no perceivable positive effect to date.  So you can imagine my surprise when I came across an article in the Dining & Wine section of the New York Times entitled “Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault“!

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Let them eat cake!

Maggie Alderson, who writes a regular column in the Good Weekend magazine on Saturdays in “The Age” newspaper, spoke last weekend of how she feels she has deluded herself into believing home-made cakes and baked goods, cheese, butter and home-made smallgoods are actually health foods. She writes that it is delusional and deranged thinking, but she is really not so far off the truth!

One very useful tip that can be taken from Michael Pollan is to never eat anything your great Grandmother doesn’t recognize as food and nothing will drive that point home faster than a quick read of the ingredients list of a packaged, store-bought cake! Depending on the product, these baked goods can have anything up to 20-25 different ingredients in them, including things with very long names that look as though they have come straight out of the science lab – certainly not out of any kitchen my great Grandmother would recognize.. Chemicals are used to tweak texture, flavour, colour and shelf life, often in an effort to imitate the home made product, we then blithely feed these to our families without much thought. However, a basic, homemade cake has only four or five natural ingredients in it – flour, sugar, eggs, butter and/or milk. These cakes are not meant to last for weeks on the shelf. They are meant to be, and in this house usually are, consumed/devoured within a day or two and are made with pure, familiar, whole foods. Of course,excessive consumption of any foods, including homemade, whole food goodies, does not contribute to a healthy diet, but there can be room for treats in a nutritious, well-balanced diet.

One of the justifications often used for the purchase of artificially coloured, flavoured and preserved snacks is a lack of time to bake, but in reality baking can take as little or as much time as you like. It is a skill that can be taught to kids from a relatively early age and using one of the inexpensive mixers, processors or stick blenders freely available, it is often quicker to mix up a cake and stick it in the oven than it is to drive to the shops. It is certainly more satisfying and the end result is far better tasting than anything out of a plastic wrapper.

The following recipe is for one of my late summer favourites – an upside down plum cake. I look forward to our plums every year so that I can make a couple of these and because of the birds, as mentioned in a previous post, you can imagine my disappointment when I thought I had missed out this year.  But, thanks to the folks at Food Connect, I was thrilled to find some beautiful, sweet, juicy blood plums in my last delivery and wasted no time in getting this recipe into the oven.

This is a particularly forgiving recipe and I often substitute, depending what is on hand.  Sometimes I use buttermilk, sometimes light sour cream, other times yoghurt – using sour cream (full or low fat) gives a lovely rich cake.  If you use sour cream or yoghurt you may need to add a little milk to loosen up the batter.  I just love making this with plums, but apples or even bananas would be pretty good too. I serve it with a good dollop of whipped cream, but yoghurt or ice cream would work as well. In fact, when I’m not looking, the husband likes to keep all the options open.
Again, I use the good old Thermomix, but any processor or blender will do.

PLUM UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

2 Tbsp melted butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
4-6 plums, sliced

1 cup SR flour
1/4 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla paste (or natural vanilla essence)
2/3 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 165C. Grease sides of a 20(ish) cm round cake pan.
Coat bottom of cake pan with the melted butter, sprinkle with the brown sugar and arrange plum slices.

Place remaining ingredients into processor and blend until well combined – 30-60 seconds. Spoon batter evenly over plums.
Bake for approx 35 mins, or until skewer comes out clean.
Leave in pan for 5-10 minutes, then invert onto serving plate. Serve warm or cold – anyway you serve it, it is great!


Printable recipe PLUM UPSIDE.

Meet Stanley …

For many years I had lusted after an Aga – the stored heat cooker so popular in middle-class English kitchens.  Living down on the plain made it impossible to ever contemplate one.  It was not really cold enough in the winter to justify having a permanent source of heat quietly throbbing  in a corner of the kitchen and my discovery of the astronomical price tag quickly put paid to any thoughts I may have had about beginning a campaign to break down the husband’s steely resolve.

But I wanted one.

Our eventual decision to move up into the chilly reaches of the Onkaparinga Valley, coupled with the discovery that Aga’s could be bought as reconditioned, second-hand units caused new hope to spring in my covetous little heart and I quickly began shopping around. Even second-hand and slightly shabby, the object of my affection was still priced pretty stiffly and my attention was diverted to the Irish brand of slow combustion cooker, the Stanley. For just a few hundred dollars less than the used Aga, I could purchase a new Stanley which was a deal that I decided could work for me! The long-suffering husband was less than thrilled to discover that my new toy essential cooking appliance would mean major carving up of the cabinetry in the shiny, new kitchen, but eventually he just sighed and signed the cheques.

Stanley is a wood-fired slow combustion cooker and we light him sometime in April every year and he quietly burns until around about October, day and night. He suffuses, not only his corner of the room, but half of the house with a lovely gentle heat that draws people into the kitchen and encourages them to warm their hands, feet or behinds in front of the oven.  Stanley has two ovens – a hot one and a cooler one for slow cooking,  two hot plates on top for boiling, frying etc and a warming plate which is a perfect place for the kettle to sit ready to be called in to action. Having a permanently preheated oven makes it that much easier to quickly mix up a cake or some bread for lunch boxes or afternoon snacks and casseroles and roasts can be prepared in the morning and left in the slow oven to quietly bubble, ready to serve when everyone comes in cold and tired at the end of the day. Either oven is also a perfect place to dry wet shoes and socks – although putting them in the oven and closing the door has proven to be a mistake in the past!

Life with the wood stove is not completely perfect – there is always wood to be brought in, splinters to be removed from fingers (mostly mine) and a minor degree of soot to keep at bay. And all that baking does tend to settle around one’s middle and hips. But, minor inconveniences aside, we love that Stanley makes those crisp, dark mornings easier to face and all through the freezing winter of the Adelaide Hills our kitchen is a cozy, inviting haven with a truly warm heart.

As my thoughts turn, with the turn of the season, to baking, I like to try to vary my output a little. If the decision was left to my offspring, there would be a non-stop stream of chocolate laced goodies flowing from the ovens – not that there is anything at all wrong with chocolate! But sometimes the occasion calls for something savoury rather than sweet. These delicious little bits of buttery wickedness are perfect with a drink and make a change from packaged snacks. They are an old fashioned treat, probably a bit ’70’s, but I like to add some chopped, fresh herbs to freshen them up. I have used rosemary just because I love it, but thyme or oregano would be just as nice. I make these in the Thermomix, but any good food processor will whizz them up very quickly. It is important to keep the dough and your hands as cool as possible and not to over-process the dough. I store opened bags of grated cheese in the freezer and a great cheat if you need to whip up a batch in a hurry is to use this as it will make the dough very cold. If you want to try and reduce the fat a little, you could substitute some of the tasty cheese for grated parmesan – but only use the good stuff, not anything out of a shaker!!!

ROSEMARY CHEESE BITES

100 gms cold butter
100 gms plain flour
1-2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/4 tsp cayenne (more if you are braver than me!)
Speed 5, 15 seconds until resembles breadcrumbs.
Add
100 gms grated tasty cheese
Speed 5, 15-20 seconds until just comes together in ball.
Wrap in plastic wrap and put into fridge for 1 hour.
Roll into small balls, space evenly on tray, press down with fork.
Bake 180C for 15 minutes, until golden.
Printable recipe ROSEMARY CHEESE BITES.

Evolutionary eating

This morning I watched Jamie Oliver’s TED speech on the dietary crisis facing the US (and many other countries, including Australia) today.  I know that there are many who find him a little sanctimonious when he gets onto his hobby-horse and starts banging on about school lunches, but the simple, inescapable fact is that he is right.  Our dietary habits have changed and evolved – and not in a good way – with the result that the next generation will be the first to live a shorter life than their parents, largely because of too much of the wrong kinds of food.  It is deeply shocking to see Jamie stand up in front of a classroom full of kids who can’t identify a fresh tomato or a cauliflower. In another scene, Jamie sits with a sad and confused young mother, surrounded by the food that she feeds her family, and bluntly points out that she is killing her children with it.  Many believe that this is a result of modern living, lack of food education, capitalism, mass communication, the cultural hegemony of big fast food businesses, etc., etc., – but maybe this dietary evolution is a little more organic than that.

Quite coincidentally, just a couple of days ago, I read a report of a study undertaken by two brothers, one an eating behaviouralist and the other a professor of religious studies.  They looked at 52 of the most noted paintings of Christ’s last supper and found that the portion sizes of the meals had increased significantly over the last 1,000 years.  In general, the size of the main courses increased by a whopping 69% and the serves of bread by 23%!!  While this is obviously not a scientific study, these findings tend to indicate that overeating is possibly not the modern phenomenon we think it to be, but a more general trend over hundreds of years.

I find recipes, on the other hand, can very quickly evolve from one thing into quite another – especially in my kitchen.  I had been wondering how to use up the last of my lovely Food Connect pumpkin and came across a tempting recipe for little pumpkin tarts.  Deciding that this was what I wanted to make, I set about checking the pantry for the bits and pieces that I needed and along the way became quite side-tracked.   I ended up with a delicious meal that bore only a passing resemblance to the recipe I first started with, but one that I had tailored to my own personal preferences – I guess that is what they call “recipe development”!

I seriously dislike slicing onions, so the husband bravely volunteered to take on that task and I used my wonderful Thermomix to grate up all the pumpkin which was done in under 1 minute.  I have to be very honest and tell you that I used frozen pastry, just because I was short on time, but any nice short crust pastry recipe will do for this.

PUMPKIN AND CARAMELISED ONION TART

I quantity of short crust pastry
or
2 sheets frozen pastry

3 onions, sliced
50ml olive oil
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

750 gm pumpkin, grated
50 ml olive oil
2 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped
2 eggs
100 gms parmesan, grated

Preheat oven to 190C.

Line a 24cm round fluted tart tin (I used a longish rectangular one) with pastry and blind bake for approx. 10 mins.

Heat olive oil in a heavy based pan, add onions and sprinkle with sugar and balsamic vinegar. Cook on low/med heat, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, for approx. 20 minutes until the onions are soft, sweet and caramelised. Set aside.

In a large pan, heat remaining olive oil, add grated pumpkin and thyme and cook, stirring, over low heat until pumpkin is just cooked.
In a large bowl, beat eggs lightly, then add pumpkin, 3/4 of the onions and 75gms of the parmesan. Fill the pastry with this mixture, sprinkling the top with the remaining onions and parmesan.

Bake at 190C for 25-30 minutes.
Let stand out of the oven for 10 minutes, before slicing and serving.

Connecting with our food

With the theme of food seemingly being at the height of fashion, there are any number of books available on all aspects of the subject, but I found one of the most interesting, entertaining, thought provoking and at times, confronting to be Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivores Dilemma” (Penguin, 2006). In this book Pollan, an American author and journalist, writes of how modern Western cultures (and specifically the US) seem to have become disengaged from the production of our foods, leaving us vulnerable to the seductive techniques of food marketers and the, frequently overblown, hype of food scientists, resulting in our nutritionally compromised modern diets. He writes about his journey following the path of three different food chains resulting in three meals that he then eats – the industrial (a fast-food meal), the pastoral (an organic meal) and what he terms the “Personal” – a meal which he has grown, hunted and killed himself. This book is guaranteed to make you have more than a passing thought about where the food on your plate has come from, how it got to you and whether it was worth it!

Since reading this book I have become, in a small way, a primary producer and, with Pollan’s words echoing in my head, the husband and I put quite a bit of thought into how our first herd of plump and glossy, happy, paddock-fed steers were to end up on someone’s plate. As omnivores at the top of the food chain, I believe that we owe respect for the lives of creatures further down. We were very fortunate in that we were able to get them into the cattle yards and onto the truck very calmly, using bales of hay as inducements, and they had just a very short drive half an hour up the road to abattoirs where they were “processed” the same day. They were not stressed, overcrowded, left in small yards for days at a time or driven long distances and I believe that their meat will be all the better for it.

In an effort to ‘connect’ with even more of our own food, we have just joined with a wonderful organisation new to Adelaide called Food Connect Adelaide . Originating in Brisbane, this organisation is dedicated to connecting consumers with local farmers and encouraging the eating of seasonal, local fruit and vegetables, produced using ecologically sustainable methods. The general public can become subscribers, signing up to receive a box of local, fresh produce delivered to various distribution points weekly. The distribution points are called “City Cousins” and are, in fact, other subscribers who elect to have their homes serve this purpose. This not only reduces delivery costs and greenhouse gas emissions from delivery trucks on large routes, but serves to promote a sense of community as subscribers become acquainted with others in their areas.

I picked up our first box of fruit and veggies yesterday and, as you can see, it was a little ripper, bursting with loads of fresh produce and topped off with a deliciously fragrant bunch of fresh basil! There is more than enough fresh product there and my mind was busy with cooking ideas as I unpacked it into the fridge. The two very good sized zucchini were the first thing that we have eaten from the box, using a delicious recipe for Zucchini and Herb Fritters from my patron saint, Claudia Roden and her book “Arabesque” (Penguin 2005). These are fresh and full of flavour from the added herbs and perfect for a lunch or as a side dish at dinner. Claudia says not to add salt as the feta is quite salty, but I disobeyed her (gasp!) and added just a little.

ZUCCHINI FRITTERS

1 onion, chopped
3 Tbsp olive oil
500 gm zucchini, grated
3 eggs
3 Tbsp plain flour
ground black pepper
pinch of sea salt
2 Tbsp fresh mint, chopped
2 Tbsp fresh dill, chopped
200 gm feta, crumbled
oil for frying

Fry the onions in oil until golden and soft, add zucchini and lightly saute until soft. Cool slightly.
Beat the eggs and flour together until well blended, add pepper, salt, herbs and mix well, then add feta and mix. Add onion and zucchini and mix.
Fry the fritters in small batches in hot oil and drain on paper towels.

These would be delicious served with a yoghurt and cucumber salad or a (mildish so as not to over-power the flavours) chutney.

Wondrous bread

For the longest time I was intimidated by the idea of working with yeast and making bread. It all seemed just that little bit mysterious and laborious to me – working with what is actually a living organism, kneading, proving and ending up with something crusty and desirable seemed slightly complicated and unlikely to be the outcome for me! Of course, one day I watched a friend make some fresh bread rolls for her family and it was immediately obvious that this was a simple and hugely satisfying past-time and one I embraced wholeheartedly – as my hips can now attest. For some years I made all our bread, first by hand and later with the help of my trusty Kenwood Chef mixer and it’s dough hook. Later still, I invested in a bread-making machine, although I still occasionally enjoy working out my parental frustrations on a large pile of dough on the bench. I never really saw myself as any sort of ‘earth-mother’, but I am very greedy and there is really nothing to compare to fresh, warm bread covered in butter – mmm.

A little while ago I came across this wonderful little recipe that is easy and quick enough to send even the most reluctant bread maker out to the kitchen to give it a try. I originally found it somewhere on the internet, but subsequently bought the book called “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day”, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, which has the master recipe and a wealth of variations besides.

If you have ever thought of baking homemade bread then this is the recipe for you and you will soon be turning out beautiful ‘rustic’ loaves, but there are always a few things to remember when baking bread. You should always use “strong flour” or flour labelled “bread flour” as it has a higher gluten content, giving the bread more elasticity enabling it to hold the pockets of CO2 that form. Ordinary cake flour will not give you a proper bread crumb or consistency. Also, the moisture content needed to make the dough will vary depending on humidity, geographical elevation and sometimes just the use of a new batch of flour so you will need to be a little flexible about it. If the dough seems too stiff just add a little more warm water to loosen it up a bit. The longer you store the dough in the fridge, the more of a “sour dough” taste it will acquire. You can pass this on to subsequent batches by saving a little of the old dough to add to the next batch.

Once you have mastered this bread there is no end of ways to vary it by adding cheese, herbs, olives, fruit and spices – whatever! I added chopped walnuts and fresh, chopped rosemary to my last loaf which promptly vanished before the camera was even thought of!

Anybody game enough to give it a try and report back???

SIMPLE CRUSTY BREAD

1 & 1/2 pkt. freeze dried yeast (available in all supermarkets)
1 & 1/2 Tbsp salt
6 & 1/2 cups bakers flour
3 cups warm water (I always need about 1/2 cup extra)

In a large plastic container mix yeast, salt and flour together, then add warm water. If it is too hot to put your finger in, then it is too hot to use and will kill the yeast. Mix dough with a wooden spoon until it is all moistened with no dry bits – dough should be fairly loose. Do not knead it. Cover with lid – NOT airtight – and leave to rise 2-5 hours.
At this point, the dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
When you are ready to bake a loaf just cut off a piece of the dough of the required size. Turn in your hands to lightly stretch the dough, tucking it in on itself underneath to form a ball. Rest the dough for about 45 minutes on a sheet sprinkled with cornmeal.
Preheat oven to 210C and after the dough has rested sprinkle with a little flour and slash diagonally on the top. Put in oven either on the baking sheet or transfer to a preheated pizza stone.
Place a tray in the bottom of the oven and put 1-2 cups of hot water in it. The steam produced by this water will give you a lovely crunchy crust on your loaf.
Bake for 30 minutes or until the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Cool on a rack.