17 Aug 2014

boozy brownies

B has told me that some of my posts make her laugh out loud, which often surprises me. I may occasionally aim for witty, but I never think of myself as a funny writer. Not intentionally anyway.

To me, the writing below (excuse the pun) takes the cake; it cracks me up every time I follow this recipe. It's an advertisement by an American sugar company. First I was seduced by the picture of the brownies, but then by the hilarious copy (read it in your best Southern 'girlfriend' voice). I really have to share it with you verbatim - this will make you laugh out loud!

Cocoa brownies to heal a heart broken by a man who promises it wasn't you, it was him, and by him he means a girl named Stacey Lee

Come on - you have to make these now, right?

Count the years you dated. If it exceeds 5, double the recipe. Oven, 350. 8 inch pan, greased. In a bowl: 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted. Not margerine, butter. Diet starts tomorrow. 1 cup all natural Sugar in the Raw. You can sub 1/2 cup zero calorie Stevia Extract in the Raw with 1/2 cup Sugar in the Raw but a time like this calls for the good ol' stuff. Mix, then add 1/2 cup flour. It's ok, today calls for carbs. 1 tspn of baking powder. Wonder what it does? Don't. Just add it. 3 eggs, yolks and all, 1 tspn of vanilla extract, 1/3 cup dutch cocoa powder, 1 cup chopped walnuts. Now stir it up, throw it in the oven for 20, and cry till you hear the timer. Let them cool for 10, then devour that pan of chocolatey goodness, girlfriend. Uh, we mean friend.

Now that makes me laugh.

Boozy brownies
Adapted (translated) from a Stevia ad.
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and prep a brownie tin.
  • In a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, melt 125 gms butter with 1/2 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup of dark brown sugar and 1 tspn vanilla.
  • If you wish to, stir thru a good 1/4 cup of Tia Maria or Frangelico; I'm going to try Stone's Ginger Wine next. I find the alcoholic versions end up fudgier, and go down a treat with your workmates at morning tea.
  • Remove from heat and stir in 3 eggs, then 1/2 cup plain flour, 1 tspn baking powder, 1/3 cup cocoa powder (I use normal Cadbury's Bourneville, not dutch), and 1 cup walnut pieces.
  • Transfer to brownie tin and bake 20-25 minutes until the edges start to come away and feels just firm; as with any brownie, you want it to be still moist.
  • Enjoy, broken heart or not.

9 Aug 2014

almond crisp biscuits

I have started and scratched out and started again and faltered and wondered what exactly I should focus on when telling you about these biscuits. So many possibilities! So I’m going to tell you everything.
  • They are easy to make. One bowl, four main ingredients, and only ten minutes in the oven: simplicity itself. I’m usually dubious about those minimalist-ingredient recipes, but if you also hold those prejudices, cast them aside and get out your mixing bowl.
  • They look like perfect, mass-produced store-bought biscuits, with their flawlessly round shape and little crinkles and cracks. And I am ashamed to admit this thrills me! Even mum said in a delighted tone, ‘they look like ones out of a packet!’.
  • They are short and crisp (as the name promises), as light as air and leaving that weirdly enjoyable puckery feeling in your mouth (which begs for a cup of tea). They are also nicely plain in their flavour — neither sweet nor almondy, just plain — which means it’s all about that terrifically short texture (and perfectly round shape).
I would also like to declare that these are a fitting showcase for my new-found loyalty to good quality foil-wrapped butter. Until recently, home-brand paper-wrapped butter was fine by me (I know; I can see you shuddering and shaking your head. Please do not judge me). But reading my new ‘Bake Eat Love’ book, I decided to switch to foil-wrapped butter, because Annekka advised the opaque foil kept butter better, safe from fridge odours (Anneka also advises against using the microwave to soften butter, but I disagree. She obviously doesn’t cook in my kitchen during the winter time, where some days I think it’s colder outside the fridge than in!)

Anyway, I digress. I don’t think my butter is plagued by the problem of fridge smells (I don’t think my fridge is either), but I thought I’d give her advice a go.

Standing at the supermarket chiller section, this meant choosing a non-home-brand butter (therefore a twice-the-price butter). Which one to buy was made easier once I spotted a Tasmanian brand; I’m trying to buy local where I can, though local in this case means the north of the state and almost 300 kilometres away.

But I digress, again. I was astounded by the superior creamy quality of this butter. Whether that’s because it was foil-wrapped or Tassie-made I can’t say, but I now realise that not all butter is created equal, and I have been using this for all my baking ever since. Including these old-school almond crisps.

No matter what I have said so far about these biscuits (and butter), maybe it should just be: try them yourself!

Almond crisp biscuits
Adapted from the Australia Women’s Weekly 'Food We Love'. Makes about 15.
  • Preheat oven to 200 and prep a couple of baking trays.
  • Cream 125 gms soft (foil-wrapped, Tassie-made) butter with ¼ cup vanilla sugar for a good few minutes until it’s light in colour and very creamy.
  • Fold thru 1 cup SR flour and ¼ cup almond meal.
  • Roll small tablespoons into balls, flatten slightly and place on baking trays. Sprinkle each with a few almond slivers or flakes and press in gently.
  • Bake for ten minutes, remove from oven and stand on trays for a few minutes before transferring to racks to cool.

3 Aug 2014

garden share collective: august

Can I just say: August? Already?!

Saturday morning phone call from my father, a few weekends ago; something like this:

Out of bed yet? What are you up to today? Well, go for a run over to Bunnings — they’re holding a plum tree for you; I said you’d pick it up this weekend.

That’s how we got Plum, a promising damson variety. She is now sturdily in place, where the apple tree once was — removed, you may recall, by dad, after I decided the coddling moths, wasps and birds that attacked the apples were all too frustrating. Dad and I determined that plums were largely insect-free; and I had visions of those blue-ish fruit in upside-down cakes and jammy puddings and stewed rich dollops on my breakfast oats.

Plum is the first tree I have ever planted myself. Oh, I have planted shrubs and annuals and bulbs and cuttings — but a tree, a whole tree? Nope.

Dad may have located and secured Plum for me but I realised, during the Saturdayafternoon phone call with him, followign Plum's purchase, that he was not making his usual ‘I’ll be up in a couple of days’ noises. No, he was telling me how wide and deep to dig the hole, not to use fertiliser or I’d burn the roots, and to level the tree in the ground about ten centimetres below the graft. It dawned on me that he was telling me how to do it myself.

It was a bit of a shock; I consider dad the tree expert in the family. But also because it made me realise how much I rely on my dad’s knowledge and experience and I will admit it, his strength. It shames me that I am pretty hopeless at digging and, as much as gardening is an enjoyable physical contrast to my desk-bound day-job, I am pretty weak when it comes to the hard-core stuff. I shan’t betray my father’s age – nor my own, for that matter – but my father, a few decades older than me, is far stronger than me. Therefore digging the hole for Plum was the part I feared the most. Everything else (graft, fertiliser, roots) was spelt out on the swing tag for me to double and triple check. The digging – I was on my own.

Or not, as it turned out. When dad had removed the apple tree, he’d dug over and loosened the soil, so all I really had to do was shovel it out and pile up to one side so I could position Plum. Which was just as well, because it was a rainy day, and Plum and I both needed to get this done quickly before we were saturated. Backfill, a little seasol for transplant shock, and later, some plastic guards when I saw the blackbirds scratching about, threatening to expose her roots (my god, the blackbirds are ferocious in their campaign to dig over every single one of my garden beds).

But it was with quiet pleasure that I downed tools, stood back, and thought: I planted you. There you are, the first tree I have planted all by myself. Now grow!


Plum has been the only gardening chore of significance done in the past month. Low-key maintenance like watering and weeding the kale and silverbeet and passionfruit — which is surviving the frosts; one week, the neighbourhood copped about four or five biggish white-outs; that’s a lot all in a row. Until this week, we'd been getting one good heavy day of rain once every week or fortnight; but this past week has seen dangerous winds and heavy, soaking rains most days and nights. Ten, 12, 14 mls. Great, but - dare I say it - it could actually stop now. The tanks are full, the ground is saturated, and I'm going crazy not being able to get outside and do some exercise! Ah, we're never happy, are we.

So mostly, I am thoroughly enjoying the extra time for reading a mountain of library books — everything from Hillary’s memoirs, spy thrillers (I love a good spook story), English flower books (though I’m really just looking at the pictures and making mental notes to buy ageratum for my flowers beds) and lots of English homes magazines, full of colourful pictures of summer gardens. I’m getting plenty of ideas for refurbishing my newly re-built outdoor area; my mind is awash with wicker chairs and ikat cushions and long benches and pots of glorious colour and warmer, sunnier weather.

And of course reading about other gardeners in the garden share collective, who are not dormant over the wintertime. So join me by clicking on the logo in the column at right to see more green thumbs.

27 Jul 2014

honey oat biscuits

Fabric from Frangipani Fabrics

Sorry, can’t stop, can’t talk now; I’ve got to finish a library book before it’s overdue, Hillary Clinton’s new memoir ‘Hard Choices’. I’ve had three weeks to plough thru — gasp! — 600 pages of small print. I can’t recall the last time I read such a hefty tome. Did I mention it’s small print?

Before starting her book, I had no real idea about Hillary Clinton’s politics, but the fact that as Secretary of State she became such a powerful woman — and perhaps in 2016, will be even more so — fascinates me. Plus it’s been a real crash course in world politics (though Israel and Palestine still confuse me), even knowing it is through the filter of Clinton’s perspective and potential presidential ambitions.

So if I am to avoid an overdue library fine, I need quick recipes. Like these honey oat biscuits, a sweeter variation on Anzacs, from a book by another woman writing about power. The power, that is, of homemade biscuits, cakes and muffins. Perhaps not in the same league as Hillary’s diplomacy moves on the world stage, but in ‘Bake Eat Love’, Anneka Manning believes that anything is possible — in the kitchen — if you have the right ingredients, utensils, skills, knowledge and confidence.

‘Bake Eat Love’ (which I won from Bizzy Lizzy’s Good Things; thank you Liz!) is an engaging book for someone like me who is (mostly) a competent cake baker, but loves learning why foil-wrapped butter is better, which array of cake tins is essential, and what variety of sugars a well-stocked kitchen should have (and then comparing the list to my own inventory). All those front-of-book sections about pantry essentials and kitchen equipment fascinate me, so ‘Bake Eat Love’ is fabulous.

But if you had little experience or confidence in the kitchen, Anneka is the perfect guide for you. Her book graduates thru lessons in techniques for you to practice and master. I’m sure I’ll improve my cooking techniques by the end of the book.

So let’s start with her honey oat biscuits, with some macadamia nuts thrown in for good measure. Quick to mix together and get in the oven, and not long in there, either. Just long enough to make a cup of tea (peppermint works well with the sweet honey flavours here) and get back to those 600 pages.
Honey oat biscuits
Adapted from Anneka Manning's 'Bake Eat Love'.
  • Preheat oven to 180 and prep a couple of baking trays.
  • In a large bowl, combine 1 cup plain flour, 1/1/2 cups rolled oats, 1 cup shredded coconut, 1/2 cup chopped macadamia nuts (I also used slivered almonds as I was a little short), and 3/4 cups sugar.
  • In a small saucepan, gently melt 150 gms butter with 1/3 cup honey and 1 tbspn water.
  • Once combined, remove from heat and stir in 1 tspn bicarb soda. It will foam up a little.
  • Add this to the dry ingredients, stir till combined.
  • Then roll walnut size balls and place on tray, flattening slightly and leaving a little space around to spread. 
  • Bake for 15 minutes or until nicely golden.
  • Enjoy with a good book.

18 Jul 2014

On grey winter days

Dark when I go to work
Dark when I go home

Relentlessly grey skies
bleak; no sight of the sun
it’s like this til December

Electric blankets, hot water bottle
laundry draped all around the house
I’m dreading the electricity bill

To find the silver lining in the seemingly permanent grey clouds that are dominating these winter skies (sunny days can be counted on one hand), I’m composing haiku to myself. Not proper haiku, I’m sure — I only remember it has three lines — but it’s something to pass the time as I drive home through the mist that hasn’t even got the guts to be Proper Rain. Proper Rain I could handle — ‘it’s good for the garden, we need the rain!’ we would all cheer — but this is just damp grey stuff that gets on your glasses and brings out the snails. Nuisance stuff, miserable stuff.

Everyone — everyone — here says ‘we don’t mind the cold, as long as it’s sunny. It’s when there’s no sun…’. That statement, so commonly offered up, is probably Hobart’s first law of winter. Or a truth universally acknowledged. Hobart’s second law of winter? If it is sunny, it’s probably Monday, when you’re back at work, stuck inside (third law: it cruelly disappears the minute you step outside at lunchtime).

Have you heard of seasonal affective disorder? SAD? We have it in Hobart, by the bucketload. The skies are dreary; you are dreary. It’s hard to muster the enthusiasm for any more demanding than a hot chocolate (that someone else makes for you). The clever/rich people escape to Bali or Queensland to escape it. But chances are, take your tropical trip in August or September, and you’ll come home to a snowy October.

I like extremes in winter weather — an expansive white frost, silent and pretty; noisy, heavy downpours that fill the tanks; snowy icing sugar dusted all over the Mountain. But these grey days, they are no winter wonderland. They are an endurance test. They are a misery.

13 Jul 2014

hugh's onion and silverbeet tart

I find it hard to pick my favourite vegetable, but jostling at the top of a very verdant list (alongside green beans, peas and broccoli) is silverbeet. If only for its determined reliability; it’s pretty much always in the garden. And right now, it’s pretty much the only thing in my garden! So I wanted a special way of cooking it.

Making anything into a pie, tart or quiche — essentially, pairing any produce with pastry — lifts it out of the ordinary. So I could think of no better way of treating those dark crinkly leaves than this tart.

I first made this after watching Hugh Fearnley–W whip it out in about 30 seconds on his River Cottage vegetable series (allow me to digress a moment: I love River Cottage shows, just for the scenery. Sometimes I don’t care for the food, or Hugh. I want to live in that bucolic valley. I want a farmhouse, an Aga, a vegie plot and a rambling country lane just like that. Is it ever unpleasant in that lush, abundant part of the world?).

Of course in real life a tart takes longer than a TV segment to prepare, but making pastry, slowly cooking onions, then assembling layers are pleasurable tasks you don’t mind spending time over.

This tart is also very easy to make; my only hardship has been rolling out pastry in a cold winter kitchen. I resorted to thumping the dough out with my marble rolling pin, using its heft to my advantage. I was worried that such aggression would make for a tough end product (and that my kitchen benchtop might collapse) but this pastry is morishly short no matter what you do to it (including, surprisingly, reheating it in the microwave, which usually spells a floppy death for pastry).

Finally, the flavours are simple. There are times when you want spicy, cheesy, garlicky meals. There are times when you want ‘the lot’. Then there are times when you want merely silky golden ribbons of onion cooked gently with lemon thyme, the iron-y darkness of silverbeet, all coddled in an unassuming eggy custard, and held in a fine pastry. It’s not bland, it’s soothing and homely, and focusses our tastebuds on those few precious ingredients.

Hugh’s onion and silverbeet tart
Adapted from the beet top/chard and ricotta tart in ‘River Cottage Veg Every Day!’. The original recipe specified a 24 cm springform tin, and a baking time of 35 minutes.
First the prep, which you can do ahead of time.
  • First make the pastry: in a food processor, whizz up 125 gms plain white flour, 125 gms plain wholemeal flour, a pinch of salt, 125 gms chilled butter (you can also rub it together with your fingers). With the processor running, dribble in about 75 mls cold milk, more or less, until the dough comes together. Remove from the food processor, knead to bring together again, then wrap in cling film and chill for about 30 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, finely slice two medium onions and chop or crush a couple of garlic cloves. Take your time to cook these down gently in olive oil; you want a lovely golden translucent colour without any crispness. Towards the end, squeeze in the juice from half a lemon and stir thru some fresh lemon thyme.
  • While the onion is cooking, prepare your silverbeet (we can do lots of things at once!). Chop 300 gms of silverbeet, stalks and all, and steam until just done. Remove from heat and squeeze as much moisture out as possible (I have left it draining in a fine sieve overnight).
Now for the assembly.
  • Preheat your oven to 180.
  • Roll out the pastry to a size that will fit a 20 cm springform tin, with the pastry about 4 mm thick.
  • Line the tin with the pastry, leaving any messy or overhanging bits for now. Line with foil and baking weights, and blind bake for 15 minutes.
  • Remove foil and weights, prick base of pastry with a fork, then return to oven and bake for 10–15 minutes, to get a gentle golden colour (you may need to put foil around the edges to protect them from burning).
  • Meanwhile, whisk together 3 large eggs, 150 mls thick cream and 150 mls milk. Have your onion and silverbeet to hand, as well as 100 gms of ricotta.
  • Once the pastry shell is ready, remove from oven and sit on a small baking tray (this makes it easier to put back in the oven once filled). Place the onion on the base, then layer with the silverbeet, blob or crumble in the ricotta, then carefully pour over the egg mixture. You can also trim any messy or overhanging pastry edges at this point if you are so inclined (as you can see, I'm not).
  • Put your tart back in the oven and cook for 30 minutes. Then get impatient, crank up the heat to 200, protect the pastry edges with foil, and bake for another 30 minutes or until the eggy custard is cooked and golden.
  • Remove from oven, allow to stand for a few minutes before unclipping your springform tin and serving.

6 Jul 2014

garden share collective: july

That is the sound of a vegetable garden sleeping. Of not much happening. Because it is winter in Hobart; the days are dark and cold, as is the soil. At this time of the year, I only see my garden on the weekends; after work is out of the question unless I’m carrying a torch! And honestly, I’d rather be inside with the heater and my colourful woolly socks on.
Actively growing in my garden right now are three established silverbeet plants, and the row of ten I planted last month, now about a ‘hand’ high (see pic at very bottom). The newer plants need to be watered about twice a week, because we are not getting much rain on my side of the river; nor have there been heavy dews (STOP PRESS: I drafted this during the week, and while it generally holds true, last night we had a massive 35 mls of heavy rain, and it continues on and off today. Bliss! Tanks, buckets, bird baths and puddles are full and everything washed clean). So out comes my pink watering can (and mid-week, the torch) if I want my little forest of kale to flourish:
The garlic in the growbags continues nicely. I’m taking the healthy condition of the elegantly tapered greenery as a sign of good things happening below the soil.
The most significant recent work has been to dig over the beds. I know there are arguments against digging — damaging soil structure the main one — but I like to do it just once a year, to loosen the ground that has been compacted after the summer growing season and to dig in nutritious goodies. And oh what goodies! Dad provided bags of humid, pinkish mushroom compost; dry and finely pulverised chook manure that somehow smelt sweet and chocolately; ash from their recent burn off; and some sheep manure obviously procured straight from the shearing sheds, as evidenced by the occasional tuft of wool. Surely digging these riches right into the soil is beneficial? Especially when we get so little rain, not enough to drive the nutrients down.
My friend J came over for a couple of hours one Sunday, bringing with him his mattock, various spades and shovels — and most importantly, his all-male muscles. It took him a mere hour to lift the grass from an area about two metres square and turn over the soil. That would have taken me all day! He also made light work of loosening the existing beds as I distributed the manures and compost. J, thank you so much for doing the heavy work (despite the cold air, dear readers, he worked up a sweat) and bringing my new garden bed dreams a step closer to reality! Summer tomatoes and corn, here we come (J has been promised the first tomatoes).
What J uncovered in the new bed — or rather, didn’t uncover — has also cheered me immensely. I was expecting to find a web of roots left from the bay tree we removed recently. I mean, look at what’s in another adjacent bed:


I will be lifting this stuff out for months. How could anything else grow in such a tangle? It certainly explains why some of my peas failed miserably last summer.
In other areas reclaimed from the lawn, I’ve battled with old building fill — loose rubble, large concrete lumps and other rubbish that is not uncommon beneath suburban lawns (according to J, who shocked me with horror tales from other jobs he’s done). But he hit only one large concrete slab, right near the edge of the new plot. Quite manageable! So I’m off to a promising start, and will probably be able to use this bed this summer rather than spend a season rehabilitating it.
Now I just need dad to frame up the new bed and install some raised gangplanks or duckboards between the rows (as dreamt about in a previous Garden Share post), and I’ll be set for spring planting!
But until then, the garden will be a quiet. I’m looking forward to being made envious by the other gardeners in our Garden Share Collective this month — all in much warmer, sunnier, more northern, greener, more productive and colourful places! So join me by clicking on the logo in the column at right to see more green thumbs.

29 Jun 2014

oaty crumble

This was exactly the crumble topping I had been craving: crisp, loose and light in texture. Crumbly! Warm with brown sugar and cinnamon that filled the kitchen with a heady sweetness, but essentially not much more than toasty, crunchy rolled oats. Oats with little nuggets of macadamia and sweet ribbons of shredded coconut. And no flour; barely a skerrick of almond meal.

This crumble is probably a close cousin to toasted muesli or granola — and I’m half tempted to bake it on a cookie tray next time, without the fruit underneath. Because I find myself having a warmed bowl of dessert, with a dollop of thick cream, then going back to the fridge and stealing another spoonful of the oaty mix, cold. Perfect.

Oaty crumble
Adapted from an Anneka Manning recipe for the GI news website. Use your favourite seasonal fruit for this dessert — I’m leaving that up to you; this recipe is about the crumble!
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and prepare enough fruit to almost fill a lightly buttered 6-cup capacity baking dish.
  • Combine ½ cup rolled oats, ½ cup shredded coconut, 1/3 cup of chopped macadamia nuts, ¼ cup light brown sugar, 2 tbsp almond meal, 1 tspn cinnamon and ½ tspn mixed spice.
  • In a separate bowl or jug, combine ¼ cup sunflower or very light olive oil with a generous ½ tspn of vanilla.
  • Dribble the oil mix evenly over the dry ingredients and combine using a fork.
  • Layer this over your fruit. Bake for 35–40 minutes until fruit is cooked and crumble topping nicely crisped. Serve with your favourite dairy product.