Tag Archives: Baking

Beer and skittles

“And the bar tender says to Renee Descartes, “Another beer?” And Descartes says, “I think not” and disappears.”
Alfred Bester

Winter bared it’s teeth just a little up here on the weekend and on a chilly, grey Sunday afternoon the idea of a hearty lunch in front of a roaring fire held significant appeal – especially if I didn’t have to provide the hearty lunch. There is a very popular boutique brewhouse just up the valley from our town, which serves good hearty fare and, with the two older teenagers refusing to be seen in public with their parents, that left only the youngest to be lured out with promises of dessert.

Sitting in front of the requisite roaring fire, awaiting our meals and admiring the big, shiny beer vats gave me time to think about the role of ales – because beer is, in fact, one of the oldest known beverages with a documented history that can be traced back to 6000 BC. It became popular in the areas of Europe where it was not really possible to grow wine, but was considered barbaric by the Byzantines. Beer was consumed on a daily basis from ancient times in many cultures and often made up a substantial amount of the daily calorific intake of the poorer proportion of the population. While starting the day with a cleansing ale is somewhat frowned upon these days, in Medieval Europe, breakfast for the upper classes was often a long affair of several courses with ale and wine as the beverage, while the first meal of the day for labourers and peasants often consisted of simply bread and ale. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, beer was more readily able to be mass produced, signaling the move away from artisanal manufacture and the beginnings of the giant multinational brewers common now. However, artisanal brewing is not quite dead, as the popularity of our local brewery can attest – there is obviously an interest in tasting and drinking beers of more complex flavours, especially on a lazy Sunday afternoon!.

From what I have heard about his mis-spent youth, The Husband was fairly preoccupied with beer – particularly in his football playing days, but time moves on, waistlines move out and hair vanishes. These days Himself is a pillar of virtue whose occasional tipple is more likely to be a sophisticated red wine and beer is seen mostly in food dishes around here. Beer, ales and stout give a wonderful richness of flavour to many casseroles and stews and can also be used to make fantastic quick breads. These quick breads don’t use yeast as a raising agent and so are great for a quick loaf. They tend to have a consistency more similar to scones and go brilliantly with any warming winter soup. I used dried tomatoes and cheese in this one, but next time I might try finely chopped rosemary and some pine nuts. You can use cheddar or substitute some parmesan to get the cheesy flavour with less fat. It is important to remove the bread from the pan as soon as you take it out of the oven – otherwise it will get soggy as it cools.


500 gms SR flour
pinch of salt
1 egg, beaten
1 can of beer
1/3 cup sundried tomatoes in oil, chopped
1 cup grated tasty cheddar (I used about 2/3 cup cheddar and 1/3 grated parmesan)

Preheat oven to 180C and grease a loaf pan.
Sift dry ingredients together, add chopped tomatoes and cheese, then stir in liquid ingredients and mix.
The dough will be sticky, but that’s ok as you don’t have to knead it.
Tip into pan and bake for approx. 40 minutes.
Remove from pan immediately and cool on a rack.


Oh – and I lied about the skittles!


Treasured plants – and people!

The foodie binge that is “Tasting Australia” is finished here in Adelaide for another two years. It is an eight day long celebration of all things food-related and anyone who is anyone on the national and international food scene can be seen prowling around our acclaimed Central Market at some time or another throughout the course of the week. During the festival I was very fortunate to be able to meet and spend some time with a much-loved Australian institution – Peter Cundall and his considerably more restrained, but no less committed wife, Tina. Peter is nationally respected for his enthusiasm and passion for gardening, with a particular focus on teaching others how to build and maintain their own vegetable gardens. He has also come to public attention in recent months for his very vocal opposition to the controversial Gunn’s pulp mill, planned for the beautiful Tamar Valley of Tasmania, but is no stranger to political activism having been a past Senate candidate for the Communist Party (1961) and Chairman of the Wilderness Society during the successful battle to prevent the building of the Franklin River Dam. During our conversation he spoke enthusiastically about “The Lost Seed“, a Tasmanian company dedicated to the protection and cultivation of heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables which, in turn, reminded me of seed banks and a remarkable story.

Seed banks are institutions set up to collect and store seeds with the aim of preserving, as much as possible, food crop security and plant biodiversity for future generations. Many plants that were cultivated for generations are no longer considered useful for commercial agriculture and are becoming rare – if not conserved they will be lost forever. Further, a great deal of food crops are now genetically modified and frequently genetically homogenous which could conceivably leave them vulnerable to disease or pest attack. There are many hundreds of seed banks throughout the world, storing countless gene types, but still only representing a fraction of the world’s biodiversity. Of the more notable facilities there is the Svalbard International Seed Vault built into a tunnel in the side of a mountain in Norway and designed to withstand nuclear war and the Millenium Seed Bank Project, co-ordinated by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, whose purpose is to insure against the extinction of plants in the wild and who aim to collect and store seeds 10% of the world’s dryland flora.

In St.Petersburg, Russia, is the Valivov Institute of Plant Industry, one of the earliest seed banks in the world, set up by Nikolai Valivov. During World War II St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) was subjected to a blockage by the German army, which lasted for 872 days. The city was isolated, with disruption to the supplies of food and water causing the deaths of thousands from starvation. The botanists who worked in the facility guarded the seeds – many of them edible – during the siege, with unbelievable diligence. When the blockage was lifted and troops and supplies were able to get into the city several of these men were found, starved to death guarding their charges!

One heirloom plant which is in no way endangered and is currently very much in season is rhubarb. Rhubarb is an ancient plant, having been used medicinally for centuries and mentioned in a Chinese herbal reference believed to have been compiled in 2700 BC. It was not used as food until some time in the 17th century, when sugar became more affordably available to the general populace. While we are all familiar with it’s use in pies and crumbles – often with apples – I was interested in finding other uses for it and turned my thoughts to the humble muffin. I was very pleased with these muffins – they have little fat, the flavours go well together and the odd burst of tartness from the rhubarb is an excellent counterpoint for the sweetness of the sugar. I used white flour, but there is no reason that wholemeal couldn’t be used, just add a little more liquid if the mixture is too stiff and remember – never over mix muffins or they will be tough!


1 1/4 cup caster sugar
1 1/2 cup rhubarb, finely diced
1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
2 1/2 cups SR flour
1/4 cup canola oil
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla paste
1 cup buttermilk
zest and juice of 1 orange

1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 180C.
Combine diced rhubarb with dry ingredients.
In separate bowl, whisk oil, egg, vanilla, buttermilk, orange rind and juice.
Add dry ingredients to liquid and mix with a wooden spoon until JUST combined – about 20 strokes of the spoon.
Spoon into muffin pan.
Sprinkle with sugar/cinnamon mix and bake 15-20 minutes.

Printable recipe RHUBARB MUFFINS.

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.


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.

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.


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!!!


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.
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.

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???


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.