Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Anzac biscuits: the true story

What else could turn up on the blog today but Anzac biscuits? I wrote about them back in April 2011, just a few months after Harvey died, and gave Lois Daish's recipe (below).
        They've stayed firmly in our repertoire of national recipes not only because of their historical associations, but also because they're distinctive, easy to make, and delicious. However, as is often the case, there's a good deal of confusion about their history.
Anzac troops at Gallipoli did get a kind of biscuit as a major part of their appallingly inadequate diet. (To see just how bad it was, have a look at this remarkable 2013 article.) They were sometimes referred to as "the ship's ANZAC biscuit", but they had nothing to do with the ones we know now. They were made in Britain, so by the time they got to Gallipoli they were rock hard and bone dry. 

Aussie soldier Sydney Loch recalled trying to eat them:
“For supper we had nothing more than those tough square biscuits given to us as rations – they were so hard a man could break his teeth on them.  I had three days provisions with me, but was warned that they might have to last for five days.  So I took care not to dip too deeply into my provision bag.  Someone offered me the bottom of a can of tea, which helped to wash those tough biscuits down.”
(Loch, Sydney. To Hell and Back: The banned account of Gallipoli, Sydney, NSW: Harper Collins, 2007, p.89.)

New Zealand army biscuit sometimes turned up with reinforcement drafts, and the first historian of Gallipoli, Major Fred Waite, noted that it was much better: white, easy to eat and pleasant tasting.
            The idea that Gallipoli soldiers were sent Anzac biscuits baked by New Zealand women is a myth, although the Army Museum says there is some evidence that "a rolled oats biscuit was sent to troops on the Western Front, although this was not widespread". 
             Dozens of what came to be called Anzac biscuits were indeed baked here. But instead of being sent overseas, most were "sold and consumed at fetes, galas, parades and other public events at home, to raise funds for the war effort".
              Dr Helen Leach, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Otago, is the recognised authority on the traditional Anzac biscuit (as well as pavlova). In 2014 the Aussies tried to claim that they had found the first published recipe (1921, in the Melbourne Argus). But Helen (I can call her that, as I have the pleasure of knowing her) points out that a remarkably similar recipe for "Anzac Crispies" was published in New Zealand in 1919, in the eighth edition of the St Andrew's Cookery Book. 
               She believes that feelings were running so high after the 1915 Gallipoli landing that Red Cross women on fund-raising stalls back in New Zealand probably changed the name of already existing "rolled oat crispies" to boost sales. I reckon this is by far the most convincing explanation of how the name came about.

Anzac biscuits 
(from A Good Year, Lois Daish, 2005)

170g caster sugar
130g flour
100g rolled oats
60g dessicated coconut
100g butter
3 tablespoons golden syrup
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
4 tablespoons boiling water

- Preheat oven to 160C (on fanbake if you have it) and line two baking trays with baking paper.
- Put sugar, flour, oats a nd coconut into a large bowl and mix well.
- Put butter and golden syrup in a small pot over gentle heat until melted.
- Put baking soda in a cup and pour the boiling water over it. Stir until dissolved and add to melted butter and syrup.
- Pour this hot fluffy mixture into the dry ingredients and stir very thoroughly.
- Use your hand to form the slightly crumbly mixture into a mass. Form balls about the size of a small walnut and place onto the lined trays, leaving enough room for spreading. Press each ball lightly with a fork and put in the oven. (A friend told me to dip the fork in water first so it doesn't stick to the biscuits.)
- After 5 minutes, open the oven and you'll see that the biscuits have flattened and puffed up. Give each tray a gentle bang to deflate the biscuits - you may need to do this again after another minute or two. (Actually, mine didn't seem to puff up, but I did make them too big and I think I was a bit light on the flour, they really spread out.)
- Total baking time about 10 minutes."When ready", says Lois, "the biscuits will be a light chestnut brown and will still feel slightly soft when pressed." 
- Take out of the oven, leave to cool for a minute or two, then transfer to a rack to harden and cool. (I just carefully lift off the whole sheet of baking paper and put that on the rack with the biscuits still on it.)
- Store in an airtight container. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Super Simple Sydney Special

I've got the book group coming here tomorrow night, so today I made an old-fashioned slice, Sydney Special. I have no idea where the name comes from. I got the recipe close to fifty years ago from Chris Else's sister Bridget - she and my sister, Susan, were the bridesmaids at our wedding. It used to be a great stand-by for hungry children. I haven't made it for years, partly because I don't usually have any cornflakes, but there was a small bag of them in the pantry so I thought I'd give it a go. It's so easy, it would be a good thing for kids to make themselves.

Sydney Special
(Bridget Else, now Gill)

1 cup cornflakes
1 cup dessicated coconut
1 cup plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 dessertspoons cocoa
3/4 cup brown sugar
150g melted butter
Your favourite icing - chocolate is good (as long as it's made with real chocolate), but peppermint or coffee would work well too.

Set oven to 180C/170C fan bake.
Mix all dry ingredients together. Add melted butter and mix well.
Press into a sponge roll tin/shallow baking tin lined with baking paper.
Bake for 25-30 minutes.
Near the end of the baking, mix icing - for chocolate, melt squares of Whittaker's Dark Ghana in the microwave  and mix it with enough icing sugar, and a little milk, to give a thick but fluid consistency, ready for spreading.
Take out slice, cool a little and cut into squares or little bars.
Spread some icing on each square and leave to cool and harden before putting away. (This is less messy than icing the whole block before you cut it up, and marginally healthier, as it uses about a third less icing.)

So there you are. I actually made double the quantity so I'd have enough for me, Jonathan and our neighbour Frances, as well as for the book group. I think I slightly over-baked it - it was a bit crunchier than I remembered - but yummy all the same. Why are there three missing in the photo? Because we had to test them, of  course, and Jonathan needed two to be sure they were okay.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Mediterranean medley

 I'm appalled to see how long it is since I've done a new post here. Of course I have been cooking, rather a lot, because my son needs decent dinners more than ever - he's juggling part-time teaching and university.  And I seem to have had more than usual to deal with - the groups I belong to have all sprung into action lately, requiring me to do things (all involving writing), rather than just being supportive. So I've had lots of practice at concocting appealing meals which don't require much effort. 
         Saturday night's dinner worked pretty well. I'm calling it "Mediterranean medley" as a kind of homage to those cringeworthy titles so beloved of 1970s magazine recipes stepping out into the then unknown (to most of us) world of foreign food. It was loosely based on Middle Eastern dishes - Jonathan's really keen on them, and I've loved them ever since I discovered Claudia Roden's Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1972. Here's what I wrote about it in my memoir:
Nancy Spain and Katharine Whitehorn had provided the absolute basics I needed to know, but there was much more to it than that: they were real writers who persuaded me that I could be, like them, a woman writer who cooked properly. In terms of food, Claudia Roden was on another plane altogether. She opened my eyes to a different kind of authenticity, based on intimate knowledge and love of what she was describing. For the first time, I began to understand fully what food, cooking and eating were about.
Only part of what I made on Saturday could be described as authentic, but taken as a whole it worked very well. We had hummus, Greek salad with feta, cucumber, tomato and olives, cucumber with garlic and yoghurt, and pita pockets spread with hummus and garlic mayo (bought) and filled with grilled Angus beef burgers and finely chopped cabbage salad. (Cabbage salad is entirely absent from Claudia Roden's book, but I had a large cabbage and no lettuce, so a bit of invention was called for.)

The hummus I usually make is the most basic kind - and the cheapest (much cheaper than bought hummus, and nicer). I see I've never put the recipe up on the blog, so here it is. Claudia's begins with cooking the chick peas, but thankfully there's no need to do that now - the tinned ones are fine, though you do need to rinse them well.

(Adapted from A New Book of Middle Eastern Food)

1 450g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tsp cumin (optional)
2 large cloves garlic
50-90 ml fresh lemon juice
50 ml olive oil
salt to taste
warm pita bread to serve

Put the garlic in a blender or food processor and process to chop it finely.
Scrape down the bowl and add the chickpeas, cumin, half the lemon juice, half the olive oil and a little salt. Process and taste.
Add more lemon juice, oil and salt until you have the texture and taste you like (it should taste both lemony and a little salty, but not too much so). If it's still a bit thick, you can add a dash of water.
You can serve it with little black olives, a dribble of olive oil or some finely chopped parsley on top.

You can experiment with adding other flavours - ginger, sun-dried tomato - but I really prefer it plain. People often think you need tahina (sesame seed paste)to make hummus, but it's fine (and a good bit cheaper) without it. (Tahina gets a rather rancid taste quite quickly in the fridge, so don't be tempted to save by buying a large amount,as I once did). If you do want to add it, here's a later version of Roden's recipe.

Hummus bi Tahina
From Arabesque, Clauda Roden

1 450g tin of chickpeas
2 lemons, juice of
3 Tbsps tahini
3 garlic cloves
4 Tbsps olive oil

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
2 sprigs parsley, finely chopped

Process the garlic in a blender or food processor until finely chopped.
Drain the chickpeas and rinse well.
Add to the garlic, then add the lemon juice, tahina, garlic, olive oil, and salt.
Process to form a smooth texture.
Taste to check. If it is too thick, or not well flavoured enough, add a little more lemon juice and/or olive oil or salt.
Serve on a flat plate, garnished with a dribble of olive oil, a dusting of paprika and ground cumin (this is usually done in the shape of a cross) and a little parsley.
Serve with warm pita bread for dipping.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Simple home-made Caesar salad dressing and mayonnaise

When I did a Caesar salad post back in 2012, it was very well received.  My cos lettuce crop this year has been a complete failure, but when my lovely neighbour Helen gave me a bag of fresh cos leaves from her garden this week, my first thought was Caesar salad.
         I knew we'd run out of Paul Newman Caesar dressing, so I trotted off with it on my shopping list - and then completely overlooked buying it. I have an excuse - I was distracted by Jonathan's plea for a supermarket steak and kidney pie, which he had a sudden yen for. Only they don't actually make those family pies any more, apparently. Countdown had pale mince ones, and New World had some not-very-appetising steak and cheese ones. But they also had a posh (and much more expensive) version with Angus steak and red onions. In the modern fashion, the label featured a prominent list of what it did NOT contain: no palm oil (good on them), no MSG (surely you wouldn't expect that in a pie anyway?), no preservatives, artificial colouring or flavouring. So we'll give it a go tomorrow night. [PS - it was okay, but not worth buying again.]
         I had no intention of going back out for the dressing, so I decided I'd look up a recipe online, because (thanks to Mr Newman) I've never actually made it before. It was the usual story with a classic creation: ten different recipes, all claiming to be authentic and all featuring a roughly similar list of ingredients, only in differing quantities and combined by different methods.
         They all include grated Parmesan, though some prefer to leave it out of the actual dressing and just toss it with the undressed lettuce first, and most add more Parmesan on top at the end.  (It tastes very much better to get a piece and grate it yourself, rather than using the kind sold already grated, which is really not worth eating. A piece of Parmesan is expensive, but you don't need a lot, and it lasts for a long time in the fridge.)
          After extensive research, I settled for a slightly adapted version of the recipe offered by Serious Eats. To start with, it gives by far the best background, based on Julia Child's childhood memories of Caesar salad and very good sources from the restaurant where it's said to have originated (see my previous post). It has all the basic ingredients, but doesn't contain any harsh vinegar (which, judging by Paul's, I think would be too strong). It uses a stick blender, which I know will work because my friend Ali has given me a brilliant mayonnaise recipe using one (see below). And it brings up the problem I've had with olive oil tasting bitter when you use a blender, and explains how to avoid it. Genius. I'll probably still keep Paul's handy when pressed for time, but now I can do it myself - very satisfying.

Caesar salad dressing
(Serious Eats)
1 egg yolk
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 to 6 anchovies
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 large clove garlic, crushed
¼ cup canola oil
¼ cup virgin olive oil
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine egg yolk, lemon juice, anchovies, Worcestershire sauce, crushed garlic, and 1/4 cup parmesan cheese in the bottom of a cup or beaker that just fits the head of a stick blender. With blender running, slowly drizzle in canola oil* until a smooth emulsion forms. (Or do it all at once - it still seems to thicken nicely.) Transfer mixture to a medium bowl. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in extra virgin olive oil. Season to taste generously with salt and pepper.
* "Just as with a regular mayonnaise, you don't want to use extra-virgin olive oil with an electric blender. It causes the olive oil to break down and turn bitter. Instead, use a neutral oil like canola to begin your emulsion. Then, when it's stable, whisk in the extra-virgin by hand."

Mayonnaise in a moment
Adapted from Ali's version, with a different combination of oils. She says, "This  is Alison Holst's recipe, which we've been using for years (the garlic is our addition).” She points out that you can add your own variations, such as different vinegars, using more or less garlic, or none, or stirring in finely chopped tarragon at the very end. Excellent for potato salad.

1 egg

2/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil - mild flavour works best
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp salt
several grinds of black pepper
Optional: 1-2 garlic cloves, chopped

Place all ingredients except the olive oil in the container of your stick blender and process for 8-10 seconds, moving the blender gently up and down to make sure all the oil is incorporated. Put mayonnaise in a bowl and slowly add the olive oil, whisking it in by hand. OR for a very mild mayonnaise, you can use all canola oil (or another vegetable oil) and omit this last addition.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The perfect fillet - and trifle to follow

For Christmas this year we were house-sitting at Eastbourne. The day started splendidly with breakfast at Ali and David's next door  (it was thanks to her that we had found the house).  Gorgeous fruit salad, Ali's home-made Christmas bread wreath, and mimosas - half orange juice, half bubbly.

I kept my own cooking as simple as possible, because I wasn't in my own kitchen, and the last thing I wanted was too many complications.  It all went very well, especially the beef fillet. I think it was only the fourth or fifth one I've ever dealt with, and up until now I felt I'd always slightly over-cooked it. But this year I got it just right - tender, juicy, nicely "set" slices showing the perfect medium rare shade of raspberry pink.
           The recipe I use comes from my friend Lesley, who has been cooking fillets for years. I thought I'd already posted, but I haven't, so here it is. I tend to do the searing and coating well in advance of the actual roasting. The cooking time does depend on the fillet and the oven, so you'll have to be a bit cautious - I start checking it at 20 minutes and then every few minutes after that. I also let the meat rest for plenty of time, at least an hour. It doesn't need to be piping hot when it's eaten. A 1 kg fillet is enough for 6 to 8 of my moderate-eating  friends (and as there were only five of us this year, Jonathan and I managed to get two more delicious small dinners from it).

Fillet of beef
(Lesley Hill)

1 fillet of beef
enough soft butter or oil to coat fillet lightly
grainy mustard
a few cloves of garlic
red wine for roasting dish

Take the fillet out of the fridge an hour before starting to prepare it.
Heat a large heavy frypan thoroughly.
Smear soft butter, or oil, very lightly all over the fillet.
When the pan is really hot, sear the fillet very quickly all over.
Using the back of a tablespoon, coat it all over with grainy mustard and some crushed garlic.
Put it in on a rack in a roasting dish and cover it lightly with a teatowel.
About two hours before you want to eat, set the oven to 220C.
When it reaches the temperature, put in the fillet and turn the oven down to 200C (fan-forced).

After 20 minutes, use a meat thermometer to check the temperature in the middle.
For me, the perfect temperature for medium rare - still really bright pink, but not bloody - is about 60C. The juices that come out of the hole where the meat thermometer went in will be pink but not bright red.
The finger test is useful too: it should be a little resistant when you press it.
If you want it a little more done, but still a bit pink, 63-65C is about right.
Once it starts getting near the desired temperature, it goes up quite fast, so if it needs just a little more cooking, check every 3 minutes. This year my just-over-1 kg fillet took slightly under 30 minutes.
Rest the fillet for 15 minutes, collecting any juices and adding them to the wine in the pan (see below).
To make some jus (rather than gravy), after you take out the fillet, add a glass of red wine to the dish and put it back for a few minutes to bubble up, then scrape the dish. (If you forget, as I often do, you can do this bit at the end - put the dish on the cooktop to heat the wine instead.)
Once the fillet has rested for 15 minutes, put it on a warm platter and cover it lightly with foil until ready to carve.

Of course I forgot to take a photo. Too bad. You'll just have to take my word for how good those slices looked.
     Here's my friend Lynne's delicious trifle instead, with the trifle recipe from my memoir underneath.

Proper trifle
(From The Colour of Food: A memoir of life, love and dinner, Awa Press, 2014)
In my opinion jelly has no place in a proper trifle, but sherry is essential – I prefer medium to sweet. The trifle sponge needs to be dry and I buy it, as my mother did. Dark berries are the best fruit to use because their colour and sharpness contrast so well with the sponge, custard and cream. My mother used custard powder but real egg custard tastes better. The cornflour in the recipe prevents the custard curdling and makes it slightly thicker, though it’s still thinner and lighter than the ready-made custard alternative.

For the custard (makes about 700 ml):
6 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon cornflour
750 ml standard milk
2–4 tablespoons sugar (depending how sweet you like it)
1 large vanilla pod, split or 2 teaspoons vanilla essence

·     Beat yolks with a fork. Mix cornflour with a little cold milk in a small bowl.
·     Pour milk into a saucepan which can fit well over another pan of water. Add vanilla and sugar. Heat slowly to boiling point, stirring with a wooden spoon.
·     Remove from heat and take out vanilla pod. Pour milk onto yolks, stirring well. Add cornflour mixed with milk and stir well.
·     Return mixture to pan and heat over simmering water, stirring gently, until it thickens and coats the back of a wooden spoon, and there is no taste of cornflour.
·     Pour into a jug and cool thoroughly before using, with a piece of cling-film pressed down onto the surface of the custard to prevent skin forming.

For the trifle:
700 g dark berries, one kind or mixed, fresh or frozen
caster sugar to taste
1 large trifle sponge
6 tablespoons medium sherry
700 ml custard, home-made or bought 
300 ml cream
deep glass serving bowl (preferably with a wide base, so that the sponge at the bottom is a similar width to the other layers - Lynne's was perfect)

·     If using frozen berries, take out ahead of time and defrost before using.
·     Place berries in a wide shallow dish. Sprinkle with enough sugar to achieve desired sweetness. (Slightly tart berries taste better.) Leave for 1 hour.
·     Drain off juice. If there is more than ½ cup juice, reduce carefully over a high heat. Pour it back over berries and cool thoroughly.
·     At least 2 hours ahead of serving, break sponge into rough squares and fit into as even a layer as possible in base of serving bowl. Sprinkle evenly with sherry and leave for 1 hour.
·     Cover with a thick layer of berries and juice, then a thick layer of custard.
·     Cover with cling-film and leave in refrigerator.
·     Take out 30 minutes before serving. Just before serving, whip cream and spread over or around the custard, or serve it on the side (as Lynne did).