30 Aug 2015

cruelty-free cupcakes

No post last week — I was busy baking and icing for Cupcake Day for the RSPCA. I’ve been involved in charity fundraising before, so I knew the way to people’s wallets is thru their tummies. So whipping up some cakes to help fight animal neglect and cruelty? Too easy. I was in.

One of the loveliest parts of the whole event was that once I emailed my workplace to let them know my plans, three other ladies offered to bake goodies for the cake stall too. Isn’t that wonderful? It really swelled the offerings — actually, at first I was afraid we wouldn’t sell them all!

But we did. People came early in the morning and bought one, two or three cupcakes, they came back at morning tea and just before lunch and then at afternoon tea time. They bought cupcakes for themselves, their co-workers, their children and partners at home. They bought a cupcake and gave extra coins, which was so generous.

We started with easily 150 or more cupcakes (I was so busy setting up and selling I didn’t count, but I know I contributed 66). By the end of the day, I reckon we had only ten left standing. And at $2 a pop (half price from 3pm on to really shift them) we raised over $300 for the RSPCA. Woo!

I love a hustle for a good cause. I donned an cupcake-printed apron over my work dress and the chef’s hat from the RSPCA kit, and accosted people in the corridors: ‘You haven’t bought a cupcake from me yet! Or anyone else from your area — come and buy a cupcake or two!’ I did the big sell at the cake stall: ‘Try these ones — they are amazing! Hasn’t she decorated these so prettily? Tell the others in your corridor to get over here!’ A smile, a silly hat and loads of chocolate-frosted cupcakes and no one is offended.
Cruelty-free cupcakes in the pink striped paper cases; in the first pic, they are the ones on the far right still in the baking tins

So let’s get down to the cakes. I made old favourites, recipes I knew would not let me down on a busy day in the kitchen. My boozy sultana cakes, with fruit soaked in sherry for two weeks in advance. Butter cakes in little loaf tins, which I then sliced in half and filled with strawberry jam and whipped cream to make very pretty versions of a Victoria sponge. And Merle’s lamington recipe with the crack-cocaine of a chocolate frosting, guaranteed to induce the biggest sugar high (and crash). I used a massive six cups of icing sugar on Sunday for all the icing and frostings I made — I don’t want to see that white stuff for a very long time!

As this was for the RSPCA, I wanted to do a vegan cupcake — to be truly cruelty free. But I had a hard time finding something I liked, with not too weirdy ingredients (if you have one, I’d be interested for next year). So in the end I went for a dairy-free one, using olive oil and soy milk; and eggs from mum’s chooks, who are very lucky girls who get feds lots of greens and who can roam as freely as they wish.

When I had one warm from the oven, I was surprised at how light and fluffy it was. As well as being ethical cupcakes, they are also very practical ones: no need to soften butter, which is a big plus when your kitchen is cold or you have to whip up a batch very quickly. Their simplicity and speed would make these a great go-to for any cake stall baker; you could churn out — and sell — dozens of these in no time at all.

The other ladies bought their cakes after I took this photo; the table was groaning; then the crowds descended!
Cruelty-free cupcakes
Use free-range eggs to bake, eat and sell as many of these with an easy conscience. This made — oh, I forget how many this batch made; all I remember is the massive 66 cupcakes I had stacked up in my kitchen at the end of the day! Adapted from a taste.com.au recipe.
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and prep some cupcake tins.
  • Use electric beaters to whisk up ¾ cup soy milk, 2/3 cup light olive oil, 2 large eggs, 1 tspn vanilla, and ¾ cup sugar.
  • Fold in 2 cups SR flour. And that’s it!
  • Ladle into your tins (it’s a very runny batter) and bake for 10-15 minutes until lightly golden and baked thru.
  • Allow to cool before decorating. For these ones I mixed up some icing sugar, lemon juice and pink food colouring then sprinkled with silver cachous. I can’t tell you the quantities — it was late in the day, I had icing-fatigue, and desperately needed some salty vegemite on toast! I just threw stuff in a bowl and mixed until it was a reasonable consistency. 

16 Aug 2015

on new secateurs

Two new, one old faithful. And sunshine!
You know that line about turning into your mother? Well, I think I’m turning into my father. The weekend I hired the gnomes was bitterly cold, but I came home, donned a parka, and pottered about in the shed. I re-arranged my pruning tools and brooms, sorted thru a bucket that had collected bits of junk (old tights, plant tags, very old secateurs, a measuring vial). Then I moved into the vegie patch and pulled some weeds (a lot of nettle, possibly from the sheep poo) and assessed the placement of the gnomes — could I see them from the back door? More importantly, could they see and talk to one another?

Then sense hit me and I decided it was Too Cold To Be Outside. I needed a cup of tea to wrap my frozen hands around, and I went in.

My dad would have happily ignored the weather and continued pottering about in his shed or glasshouse (we like to ‘potter about’ in our family). Tough stuff, he is.

What prompted all this pottering were the new tools I’d bought (along with the gnomes). I can’t resist a hardware store and this was my first visit to the new super-mega-store across the way from me. There’s a smaller branch right next door to my work (I know, I'm very lucky) and I am a loyal and regular customer there, but this new outlet? Mind-blowingly vast. They hand out maps as you go in.

I thought I’d check out the dustpans — aisle 57. Fifty seven! I happily trawled thru towering shelves of things I had never seen before or knew anything about. But there were many men and women crouched down, intently considering one shiny metal thing against another; or standing hands on hips, looking upwards towards suspended other things. This was hardware mecca. It was monstrous, and it was wonderful.

I bought two dustpan-and-brush sets (one for indoor, one for out; both with that rubbery edge which means no dust escapes); bright, grippy pegs for my mother; yellow zucchini and purple pea seeds for dad (in the hope he will get them going and pass some seedlings on to me); and secateurs and a trowel for me.

I did not need new secateurs. Or a trowel. But these were so new! And shiny! And ah, the trowel, so solid in my hand. I hefted it a few times, I turned it and mimed digging. Then I squeezed and compared secateurs. I’d been lured into the garden tool aisle by the bright pink secateurs. The feminist in me says no to pink girl tools; the girly part of me says oooh — pink! To compensate, I bought a second pair which are heavier and a utilitarian dull grey; more your blokey no-nonsense pair, mate.

But ah, I love secateurs; come the warmer days, when I’m outside, I reach for my blunnies, sunhat and secateurs automatically — they’re part of getting dressed for work. I always have a pair in my hand or pocket, just in case something needs a snip or a trim.

So now I have six pairs of secateurs. I know! Much like lipsticks or shoes, one for every occasion, need or mood. Options!

But really, I blame that mega-hardware store. It made me buys dustpans, pegs, seeds, gnomes and two pairs of secateurs in one day.

I won’t be returning for a little while…
Where all the secateurs live

9 Aug 2015

syrupy pear cake

I’ve been meaning to share this pudding with you for weeks, but something else keeps coming along to write about. But I need to hurry, before pear season is well and truly over.
This syrupy, mellow pudding came about after a string of failed attempts at making pear clafoutis. I wanted something where the fruit — beautiful beurre boscs from my father’s trees — were the stars (I refuse to say ‘hero’). More fruit than cake. But the two recipes I tried were complete rubbery disasters. One was even from a beautiful book documenting life in rural France, so I thought I’d be on a winner there! But the custards were thick and somehow solid-but-bendy, just like industrial flooring one might find in kitchens or warehouses to stop your feet from aching. If that rubbery flooring was a creamy yellow colour.
Looked good - tasted rubbery 
I was complaining one afternoon to my mother when the light bulb went off. Another tough clafoutis, I moaned. I want something light, something to show off these delicious pears with their woody patina, something perhaps like an upside-down cake but not too cake-y; something along the lines of that Donna Hay upside-down syrup cake I make with the orange slices …
There was the answer, tucked away in my own file of favourites all along.
So instead of paper-thin orange slices, there are elegantly cored pear wedges (use a melon baller to remove the seeds for perfectly circular shapes). There is a wonderful slosh (or two) of sherry in there, because the rounded mellowness of sherry (excuse the pun) pairs beautifully with pears.  And as with my orange original, the cake-to-syrupy fruit ratio is heavily weighted in the fruit’s favour. This was the light, sticky affair I was dreaming of.
Syrupy pear cake
Adapted from my upside down orange cake

  • Preheat oven to 160 and use a pan about 22-24 cm across that can go on your stovetop and in your oven.
  • First make the pear topping: put 1 cup white sugar plus quarter cup sherry plus quarter cup water in the pan, stir over medium heat till dissolved. Then stir thru 1 tspn speckly vanilla paste, then add pear wedges - enough to cover the bottom. I cut up three or four pears and see how I go; it will depend on the size of your fruit. Cook over a gently bubbling heat for about 10-15 minutes until fruit is softened (though beurre boscs do maintain their shape). Once done, remove from heat.
  • Next the cake: in a bowl, beat 2 eggs, half a cup of sugar and 1/2 tspn vanilla for about 10 minutes until the mix is pale and tripled in size. As I noted in my original recipe, have a stand mixer or very strong biceps.
  • Then sift in 1/2 cup of SR flour, 1/2 cup almond meal, and 75 gms of butter that you’ve melted and cooled slightly (I put it in a small bowl in the preheating oven).
  • Pour this carefully over the pears, then bake for 35-40 minutes. You may need to cover with foil towards the end. Once done, turn out onto a plate or enjoy straight from the tin.

2 Aug 2015

garden share: august

It should be acknowledged that, as a single woman in possession of a home and garden but mediocre upper-body strength, I must often rely on bloke friends, my dad, and occasionally a paid tradesman to help out with ‘the heavy lifting’. The bloke friends are paid in cake, and dad is re-paid in kind (I’d like to think) when I help with the weeding or deadheading or general tidying up when I visit him and mum for a weekend.

But I have recently recruited a whole new group of fellows, eager to help out, providing their cheer for free and even bringing their own tools with them:

It’s still the quiet, cold time of year — I can’t recall a year with more frosts and snow-on-the-mountain — and gardening is still restricted to weekends. So what have we been up to in the garden?

There’s been very little rain, so we’ve been watering the peas, which have happily re-shot since being pecked off by sparrows. The tinsel must be working:

The garlic is growing strong, though we really must weed out the nettles that are popping up everywhere:

Lemons on my original tree are ripening very slowly, but the fruit this year is the largest I’ve ever had, quite possibly because when we got my new tree, the lady at the nursery shamed me into feeding it more regularly. I love how the bright yellow orbs punctuate the bare garden on a gloomy day:

And we’ve harvested my first broccoli! So tender and slim of stem, it made for a modest pasta dinner that night, along with some anaemic, hairy carrots sown a couple of months ago:

Inspired by Bek, we’ve started drawing up planting schemes for spring. There won’t be any real action until the soil and weather warms up around October, but it was a pleasant evening sorting thru my seeds (why did I save so many marigold seeds? How old are those butternut seeds from dad?) and working out where to put things. The plans we’ll run past dad, to see if we’ve got the rotation thing right.

Otherwise, we are enjoying the first hints of spring:

This is much needed colour for this time of year. My ornamental garden is also slumbering, and I do miss seeing the riot of bright colour that comes in spring. Every year I tell myself ‘this is what winter is’, but it’s no less depressing.

So acid-yellow lemons, yolky jonquils, and red gnomes are just the ticket to make me smile until those long-away warmer, brighter days arrive.
My original gnome, well over ten years old, and a little weather-beaten:

19 Jul 2015

cauliflower cheese pie

Cauliflower cheese in a pie? I know, insane! And - insanely good! Delicious, amazing, yummmmm! Why has no one ever thought of this twist on a classic before? Okay, maybe they have, but it's only just turned up on my dinner plate.

And really, this is as easy as ... pie. Cook your cauliflower, moosh it up with some cheese and eggs, and encase it in puffed pastry. Isn't anything better wrapped in pastry? You bet. The crisp flakiness is the perfect contrast to the filling, which is creamy and cheesy but not-too-much.

A good shake of nutmeg adds a cosy flavour for the colder winter months, but if I had fresh chives growing in my garden right now (they are dormant for the winter), then their green speckles and freshness would be another nice take on this pie.

Quite simply, I like this and will definitely make it again. A comforting delicious flavour and so easy to make - who wouldn't?
Cauliflower cheese pie
Mum gave this recipe, and I made her write it out how she made it - not how it appeared in her oven's instruction manual. Now you know where I get my tweaking skills from.
  • Preheat oven to 180. Line a 20x20 baking dish (I used my trusty hand-me-down pyrex) with one sheet of (frozen and thawing) ready-made puff pastry, and have another sheet close by for the top.
  • Steam 300 gms of cauliflower, then give it a mash (I whizzed it in my food processor) and allow to cool. You could also use leftovers.
  • In a mixing bowl, combine the cauliflower with 2 eggs, a good half cup of deli ricotta or cottage cheese, and a good cup of grated cheese (I used a strong tasty cheddar; some parmesan would be good too). Add a dash of grated nutmeg and some S&P.
  • Add to the pie dish and flatten out lightly. Place the second sheet of pastry on top and crimp the edges together as best you can (which means, don't be too fussy). Wash with a little melted butter or beaten egg and sprinkle with black sesame seeds.
  • Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until a light golden brown colour.
  • Enjoy!

12 Jul 2015

it's so cold

Four degrees in my kitchen in the morning. Get in, make breakfast, get out.

It's so cold right now in my kitchen that:
  • my real honey, kept in the pantry, has set rock hard - I can't even scrape a portion off
  • my olive oil, also in the pantry, is thick and cloudy
  • if I take something from the freezer in the morning, and sit it on the bench to thaw out for dinner, chances are it won't have defrosted
  • creaming butter and sugar in a cold stainless steel bowl sets the butter hard again. Last weekend, I had to rest the bowl on a hot water bottle on my lap, and sit in a sunny spot of my living room, to keep the butter soft.
Ah, the joys of cooking in a cold Hobart kitchen!

My back yard and vegie garden, blanketed in a heavy frost

 An icy pyrethrum plant
Frozen broccoli

5 Jul 2015

garden share: july

After a vile and distressing week at work, the very last thing I needed was to inspect my just-about-hibernating vegie garden one Saturday and discover that something had eaten my peas:

That was the last straw, and I will admit that hot pin-pricks of tears came to my eyes. Even nature is against me now? I suspect sparrows, as I am quite heavy-handed with my snail bait (as you can see). So after taking this picture for you (and for dad, to assess if there was any hope of valiant growth, or if should I re-sow), I gave the decapitated pea shoots a good drink of seaweed solution, to encourage them to solider on; threw around more snail bait, in case it was snails; and strung out some sparkly silver Christmas tinsel, to hopefully scare the birds away.
Otherwise, there is not much to report since the last garden update. Just weekend watering if there hasn't been enough rain during the week. I'm not sure if the garlic, carrots, sprouting broccolis, silverbeet and yes peas are growing, or just hanging in there, wishing for warmer sunnier weather, but knowing it's about six months away. I suspect the latter. Just like me.

Nothing to do with the vegie garden: my clivia, finally flowering after who-knows how many years of refusing to. A bit of joy in a winter garden

29 Jun 2015

tomato barley risotto

Cloth from the wonderful Frangipani Fabrics

My love affair with pearl barley continues. I have made my 'Sydney salad' many times, playing around with the vegies and spices. Now I've tried this chewy, filling grain in a different way - in a risotto. Or should that be a barlotto?

It's made exactly the same way as a traditional risotto, but turns out much chunkier and chewier, more earthy than elegant. Pearl barley has guts. This chunky-chewiness is perfect for a hearty winter-in-Hobart lunch.

But I have to admit, what really made this big pot come alive was using tomatoes retrieved from my freezer. The label said 'roast tomatoes with lemon thyme, March 2015' - was it really only three months ago that I was making magic with my home-grown tomatoes? Because magic is what this frozen package was: deep ruby-red wedges and slivers of garlic, freckled with many herb leaves. All swimming in a rosy-oily liquid that I knew would be bursting with the flavours of summer.

And so it was. While the pearl barley in this risotto says winter, the tomatoes and tang of the lemon thyme (and some extra lemon zest) says - sings - of sunshine and summer. This is filling, but not stodgy. I loved it so much that after I took this photo, I ate the risotto (the shredded ribbons of silverbeet were the perfect accompaniment) then licked the plate - I wasn't going to waste any of that flavour.
Tomato barley risotto
Adapted from a Woman's Weekly recipe.
  • In a large heavy casserole pot, sauté in some olive oil one finely chopped onion, some chopped or crushed garlic cloves (to your flavour) and half a red capsicum, finely chopped. Cook until soft but not coloured; I am reminded of reading somewhere that to cook onions like this should take a good ten minutes of patience; any recipe that states any time less is not worth proceeding with!
  • At this stage, the recipe specified also cooking in 1 tbspn finely chopped rosemary. I omitted this because of the herbs in my frozen/roasted tomatoes, but I can envisage that rosemary, lemon thyme or marjoram/oregano would be delicious flavours and would be necessary if you were using tinned tomatoes.
  • Once this is all soft and lovely, add 1 cup pearl barley and stir for a couple of minutes until well coated.
  • Now for the stock and the tomatoes. The recipe specified 5 cups vegie stock, a 400gm tin of chopped tomato, and 1 cup of passata. Because I had my own produce, I used 1 cup of 'roast tomato pan juices' saved from some summer cooking, and almost 1 kilo of my frozen roasted tomatoes, which had a lot of oily juices. I only needed a little slurp of boiling water towards the end of the cooking.
  • So, add your liquid and tomatoes, a good zesting of lemon, and bring to the boil. Then reduce to a gentle glooping simmer and cook until barley is cooked; around 45 minutes. Stir occasionally to check that the barley doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot.
  • Serve with some dark silverbeet for a nice contrast.