22 Nov 2015

garden ramble: on garlic and pansies

Two very exciting things have happened in the garden this week.

First, I pulled my garlic. I don’t think I’m supposed to yet, if you go by the ‘shortest day/longest day’ rule of planting and pulling, but when I saw Jane’s lovely harvest, I was stirred to action. I’d already been investigating: rubbing the dirt from around the bulbs every now and then, to peek at their progress. But with the stalks drying and in some cases rotting off, I decided it was time to harvest.

And — wow! Best garlic harvest ever, easily. Big fat healthy heads, smelling fresh and garlicky and wonderful. I’d pulled the ones I grew in a polystyrene box (as an experiment — container vs ground) a couple of weeks ago; they were only as big as a large marble and none segmented into cloves. However they smell and taste pungent, delicious.

So I’m hanging these undercover for a few days to dry out a little, but then I’ll separate the cloves and freeze them, as I saw Tino suggest on a recent Gardening Australia. Our summers can be haphazard, and I’m always worried they’ll either rot or start shooting. With this abundance, I don’t want to risk it.

The other great thing to happen this week was I took delivery of a car-boot full of pansy plants. Don’t they look so happy?

I work practically next door to my local council’s offices, so most lunchtimes I walk or ride my bike past their beautiful flower beds. I’ve emailed council before to say how much I enjoy seeing these pretty displays (I’ve also emailed them when the plovers are nesting in the little park near home, to please not mow the birds and eggs over, but that’s another story).

This time I said, rather cheekily, I’d love some of the pansies when they’re dug out for the next display. Does your council change its flower beds regularly, and seemingly when the colours and plants are at their best? It seems a shame for them to be discarded, so maybe I could re-house them.

To my delight, Council was happy for me to take some plants, and we spoke about probable dates; I made sure I had a big box and plastic sheets in the car. So when they called — we’re digging today, come over in a couple of hours! — I was ready.

The three gardeners were so friendly and helpful, digging and carrying the plants over to my car (I was in my office clothes, not gardening gear). Eight all up; it’s all I could fit. We looked for small plants that would transplant best, and they noticed my preference for purple and white faces, so I picked out a rusty red one too. As much as getting free plants, it was lovely to meet the gardeners who make these colourful displays happen; we talked about watering systems and weeds and mulches.


That evening, I planted the pansies into my garden beds (which are not as rich and moist as council’s). The gardeners advised cutting off the flowers, to help them settle in, and while I know that is best, I couldn’t bear to. They had so much colour still! So if they last only a couple of weeks before they get straggly and poorly, hopefully their roots will settle in and I’ll be give them a big chop — and they’ll come back next season. Many of the plants had fat promising seed heads on them, too, so maybe I’ll get new plants from those.

So thank you council, you’ve made me very happy. And the gardeners said that going in next were zinnias, and I love zinnias … so I’ll be in touch.

15 Nov 2015

garden ramble: november

I’m warding off a cold at the moment, so my ability to think creatively is being obstructed by many snotty hankies! So instead of words, I share with you some pictures from my vegie and ornamental gardens, taken one lovely mild evening. Lots of cheering colour from the flowers, but not much happening with the veg. I’m waiting impatiently for seeds to poke thru — they are very tardy — and I’m mounting increasing defences against the sparrows and blackbirds who scruff out zinnia seedlings or snip off tender new pea shoots.

See you next week with hopefully more words.
Above, under the nectarine tree; below, mesh to keep the birds from my carrots and beetroot

 Above, nemophilias ... and a smudge on my camera lens; below, girly dahlias

 Above, tatty dianthus; below, is that little bug on my new dahlias a friendly one?

 Above, cloud of blue and white nigellas; below, the pea, bean and lettuce bed netted against the birds

 Above, the passionfruit progress; below, plums!

 Above, a Queen Anne's lace with more of those bugs; below, a perfect Pierre du Ronsard

 Above, the climbing rose with all its buds; below, one of my favourite flowers, sweet williams

 Above, tomato progress; below, final nigellas

8 Nov 2015

lemon syrup cake

I have professed before my love of plain cakes, and I really think that if I did write a cookbook, it would be all about plain cakes. Because there are so many possibilities. Is it made with butter, natural yoghurt, sour cream or olive oil? Flours or almond meal or polenta? A hint of vanilla or a hint of lemon? A light as air sponge or a denser wodge that is almost pudding? See, I class all of these as plain cake.
A plain cake should be able to stand on its own two feet, shine by itself in a quiet, unassuming way. Equally, it should be star enough to play supporting role to say a good scoop of rich berries or dollop of stewed fruit.
This syrup cake started out as a plain cake, made with just enough lemon zest to brighten it up. It included a modest amount of semolina — have you ever baked with semolina before? I’ve used polenta, with very pleasing results, but not semolina (I’m not even entirely sure what semolina is…). It made the fine crust of this cake slightly crunchy, in a very good way.
I thought this cake was pretty good as it was, without the syrup and candied lemon slices that were next in the recipe. In fact, I was loathe to make them in case they ruined a perfectly serviceable plain cake! Even tasting the syrup I thought — if such a thing is possible — that it was too lemony, too acid.
But then I cut a test slice (okay, second test slice — the first was to see what the truly naked cake tasted like), dribbled over some of the syrup, and was wowed. This is one of those occasions when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because plain cake (with nice crunchy edges) plus syrupy sauce equals amazing.
It wasn’t just me who thought that: I took a still-oven-warm slice to my lovely friend A, who I was sure was in need of sustenance; and gave another slice to the just-as-lovely V, with instructions to zap it in the microwave for a few minutes, as this is a cake best served slightly warm. Both were effusive in their praise (not of me, of the cake). V hit it on the head perfectly when she said it was just the right amount of tartness and sweetness. She also said it sent her to ‘lemony deliciousness heaven’, which is possibly an even better way of describing this cake. So maybe it’s not quite a plain cake afterall.
On another note, I’m sharing with you some pictures of my sage, which is growing spectacularly well at the moment, and makes for a wonderful vase in the kitchen. Nothing to do with the lemon cake, it just made its way into the picture.
Lemon syrup cake
Adapted from taste.com.au. I used my deep fluted bundt tin rather than the specified deep 20cm round tin. Cooking time still took the same!
  • Preheat oven to 180 and prep your chosen baking tin.
  • Cream together 125 gms soft butter, the zest of 2 or 3 lemons, and 1 scant cup of sugar.
  • Add 2 eggs.
  • Fold in 2/3 cup semolina, 1 1/2 cups SR flour, 1/2 cup natural or greek yoghurt, plus the juice of half a lemon.
  • Blob into pan and bake for 45 minutes or so until done.
  • Meanwhile, make the syrup. Place 1 scant cup sugar, 1/2 cup lemon juice and 1/2 cup water in small saucepan and gently dissolve the sugar. Then add some very fine slices of lemon; enough to ring around your cake as you can see in my first photo (I needed two small lemons). Increase the heat to bring to boil and boil carefully until syrup thickens. Apparently 'without stirring', but I couldn't resist a prod. This took me a good 15 minutes.
  • Allow cake to cool a little before turning out. Then while it is still warm, pour some of the syrup over, reserving some. Arrange your lemon slices prettily and serve each slice with a good slosh more of the sticky syrup and a good blob of the yoghurt you used for baking. As before, I think this is best enjoyed warm.

25 Oct 2015

coffee-choc self-saucing pudding

Despite recent posts, I am not a big drinker. No, really! A nice chilly G&T at the end of a hot day in summer is very refreshing, and a glass or two of bubbles when I stay at my parents, or on a night out if I’m not driving, is de-lovely. But truly, that’s about it.

But, boozy cooking? Ooh yeah. Now we’re talking. My first thought when making a risotto is, white wine or vermouth in this? If it’s Spanish flavoured with smoky paprika, I’ll reach for the sherry. Sherry is such an ‘old ladies drink’ — you’d never catch me sipping it — but a slurp in that risotto or in a pear dessert (or just stewed pears) is divine. And while they aren’t called upon as much, there’s always a bottle of ginger wine and brandy in the cupboard, just in case. I love the depth and mellowness of flavour that a judicious slosh of all these liquors can add to a dish.

Of course, anything chocolate-y, like a brownie, begs for a little booze: maybe some Frangelico or Tia Maria, depending on my mood. It brings out the best in chocolate and makes a fudgy dessert even more decadent. So even though this pudding already has chocolate and coffee in it, I added a good measure of Tia Maria. It seems to deepen and enrich those dark flavours. It makes it a bit more grown up.

Coffee-choc self-saucing pudding
Adapted from a Donna Hay magazine, date unknown. This makes a very modest size dessert — it lasted only three days with me, so for a family, I wouldn’t expect you’d get seconds. After a day or two, the coffee flavour will become even more intense (if it lasts that long).
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and butter a medium sized baking dish.
  • In a small measuring jug or bowl, melt 35 gms butter. Then add ½ cup milk, 1 egg, 1 tspn vanilla and 1/3 cup Tia Maria. Mix well.
  • In a medium bowl, combine ½ cup plain flour, 1 ½ tspn baking powder, 1 tbspn instant coffee, 1 tbspn cocoa, ¼ cup almond meal and ¼ cup brown sugar.
  • To these dry ingredients add the liquid, and stir to combine. Pour into your baking dish.
  • In a small saucepan, heat ½ cup brown sugar, 1 ½ tbspns cocoa, 1 cup water and a slosh of Tia Maria (probably about 1 tbspn). Stir and gently bring to the boil, then remove from heat.
  • Pour gently over the back of a large spoon onto your pudding (does that make sense?).
  • Bake for about 35 minutes until firm but with still a bit of give; if you insert a knife you should see two even layers: a jelly-thick sauce layer on the bottom and the cake layer on top.
  • Serve warm with a dusting of snowy icing sugar, and a blob of melting ice cream or cream. It’s also surprisingly good fridge-cold.

18 Oct 2015

garden ramble: planned and planted

So, we’re underway. The past few weeks of preparation have given way to a solid Saturday of digging, sowing, planting, watering, labelling and mulching.

I began by creating some wobbly raised planks within the garden beds, so I could get to the produce without compacting the soil too much. This meant I had to divide my planned rows in two, so I re-drew their position once again by laying dowels out on the bare beds.
Then I got down to the real work, prepping the rows (except the carrots) with a handful of blood and bone and something else dad gave me; labelling the rows (after scrubbing away the pencilled names from last season); and then, sowing.

I remembered my vow last year not to cram in too many seeds in the one row — to have faith that they would germinate and grow, and that I didn’t need to double up ‘just in case’. It was very hard to be so restrained.

Snow peas, snap peas and lazy housewife beans went in last year’s tomato bed (shown above with the big patch of purple violas I can't bear to pull out), which also has a row of garlic on one border and the new mixed lettuce on another.

Golden beetroot, normal purple beetroot and round paris carrots, and another sneaky row of lazy housewifes went in the other bed. This is my largest bed, and it already has a border of spring onions (yet to surface), the resident rhubarb and about-to-flower pyrethrum, and a herb border of lemon thymes, oregano and purple sage, and now also ... the tomatoes.

So, only five this year, about half of last year’s crop. Hopefully more realistic for my needs (although there is nothing wrong with a glut of tomatoes). Dad grew our favourite heirloom varieties from seed, and I got two black krims (if I only ever ate one tomato variety for the rest of my life, I would happily eat black krims), a mamma mia, periforme abruzzese, and big beryl. What names! And what fruit, to come.

I had a minor mishap: one of the black krims did not transplant very well and looked very, very poorly. Very. I planted it the way dad instructed me to, and even though it was a warm day, by the cool of evening, all were standing proud and ready, except this one. And it was a black krim! I was beside myself; after a long, physical day in the garden (and probably too ginny a gin and tonic), I sat down and bawled my eyes out. I get so upset when my plants die. I tried to put it in perspective — it’s only a plant, for goodness sake! — and mum jollied me out of my funk when I told her about it later. Oh, she agreed, it’s only a plant! It hasn’t got a heart and a soul! I laughed and said, nor a face or parents!

Luckily, mum and dad decided to come up the next day, so dad brought a replacement (another black krim!). Dad got down on his hands and knees to inspect the failing specimen while I bleated excuses — I did everything you told me to! All the others are standing up! I didn’t hurt it, honestly! — and without sentiment, dad flicked it out of the soil and said look, the base is rotted off, nothing you did; just one of those things. I felt rather deflated by that, for some reason. And rather amazed by dad’s lack of emotion. Yup, I guess it is only a tomato plant.
Fancy lettuce
Amongst the plants already in residence, the silverbeet is doing well, some of the sprouting broccolis are just about finished while others are just kicking into action (they overhead me say I was going to pull them out and give them to mum’s chooks!), and my purple podded peas have grown peas! All the fruit trees have got little green fruit on them, and the new lemon tree has many flower buds. The passionfruit are surviving all the frost and heat that mother nature throws at them, and putting out hopeful new tendrils. And there are still blank rows, ready for later plantings of more peas and beans and carrots and beetroot, and space for two zucchini plants from dad (black and yellow).

So we’re off for the new season. It’s exciting to start, once again.

Looks like the country, doesn't it?
My lemony banksia rose is the best it's ever been, tumbling down to form a beautiful backdrop to the garden

11 Oct 2015

berry cream cheese butter cake

Here is a recipe to get back in the groove after you just haven’t felt like baking or eating cake for quite a while (not really since the great RSPCA Cupcake Day icing sugar overdose). It’s a beautifully pale batter, whipped into a silky smooth cloud. It’s especially delightful before you add the flour — and this is what I love about baking, the process and alchemy that happens when ingredients come together; how solids like butter blend with grainy sugar and rich eggs to form such a seamless, soufflĂ©-like confection; how the soft dry flour transforms the texture all over again.

But wait, there’s another ingredient in here that makes this batter so dream-like. Cream cheese. Yes, there’s a block of cream cheese in there plus a block of butter. Just feel the fear and do it anyway. It sounds like a lot and it is a lot — but you do end up with two amazing cakes (one for now, one for the freezer), so it’s all spread out …

This time I used tangy-sweet raspberries that mum delivered from her freezer; a juicy hit from last summer. The smell of the baking raspberries in the house on a warm evening was so lovely! I’ve also made this with big rich loganberries, and the recipe specified blueberries; while I’m big fan of tweaking recipes, I can’t imagine any fruit in this cake besides the flavour-bombs of berries.

I love batter shots
Berry cream cheese butter cake
I’ve had a printout of this recipe for years, unattributed; a search of the internet reveals many blogs and sites with it, so I’m still uncertain where I got it from. What annoys me is that every recipe lists the ingredients not in the order they’re used — isn’t it basic recipe writing 101 to follow that convention?
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and prep a 20 cm brownie tin and a loaf tin (I used a large one but should have used my ‘normal’ one. I’ve also used a brownie tin plus a cupcake tray).
  • In a large mixing bowl (a freestanding mixer is best, because this is a big mixture requiring some muscle), cream together 250 gms soft butter with a scant 1 ½ cups sugar and 1 tspn vanilla paste.
  • Add 250 gms soft cream cheese, in chunks; followed by 3 large eggs and 1/3 cup milk.
  • At this stage, do dip your finger in and taste the creamy wonderfulness. It’s almost a shame to add the flour to this silky cloud, but do: 1/3 cup SR flour, sifted then folded in with a spoon (lick those beaters, they’ve done their job).
  • Now fold through 200 gms of fresh or frozen berries of your choice. The chilly bliss-bombs will make the delightful batter seize up, but don’t worry.
  • Divide between your chosen baking tins, then bake for 50 minutes (less if you’re doing cupcakes) or until done. You may need to cover with foil for the last 10 minutes or so.
  • Enjoy while warm; you may wish to freeze one of the cakes for another time.

4 Oct 2015

garden ramble: on soil and working in the garden

I’m so enjoying the time I spend in my garden right now — so I thought you might too. Here’s another ramble around my garden, with some photos taken after a lovely couple of days of good rain. Everything looks so fresh.
Last weekend, I was in the garden all day, both days. Saturday was vegie/backyard day, and Sunday was front garden day. Splitting the work and weekend this way helps me focus and achieve the tasks for each garden most effectively, and enjoyably. Lately, my life is all about lists, so why should the garden be any different? I had one for each day, each garden, and it was immensely satisfying to keep them near my thermos of tea, to consult and cross off with each reviving cuppa.
To be thoroughly engaged and absorbed in garden work is very calming. At first, I’m ruminating over work and the week gone by, or the TV show mum and I are addicted to, or a book or magazine I’ve been reading. My brain is still a bit hyper from the stimulation and go-go-go of the work week, so I’m churning things around in my brain; around, and around and around.

But soon I need to get practical and I focus solely on the machinations of the task in front of me. How many rows of peas can I really fit into this bed? I know, I’ll get some tomato stakes and dowel to lay on the ground to work it out. What do I have in the garage to beef up this poor dry soil? Half — no, a whole! — bag of mushroom compost, a bag and a half of vegie mix; anything else? Should I buy more sheep poo? Is that now good enough to plant in?

I stand up and stretch out my back after this digging and planting of new phlox seedlings, and I think: I like doing this. I like thinking about this, and I like doing this.
Except of course, it’s not always easy. I had to ask my (male) neighbour to start my mower, because I couldn’t get it going without wrenching my shoulder. Last summer’s tomato bed was so compacted I could barely get the tines of my garden fork in — no matter how much I stood my whole weight on the fork and bounced up and down. Sometimes it’s the garden that is hard; sometimes it’s my own physical limitations that frustrate me.

I’m obsessing about the quality of my soil right now. I think I have the vegie garden sorted, but I need to take action in my front garden. I read how a gardener dumps a thick layer of organic matter over his garden every autumn and spring, and how that has gradually improved the soil quality. So, with my meagre resources, I’m top dressing and enriching my dry, poorly front garden; it will be an ongoing goal (obsession).
Mum and I are huge fans of British magazines (I’m a fan of magazines, fullstop). I spied this one on the newsagent shelves recently, and was seduced by the images of conservatories, rambling roses and high summer colour. A beautiful escape as we desperately claw towards the warmer weather down here. Oh, you lucky English gardeners!