Monday, December 20, 2010

Turning into the Christmas Grinch

The pork is ordered, the Jersey Bennes are bought, and the pudding is in the fridge. But just in case anyone out there was under the illusion that Everything is Going Jolly Well around here, here's the naked truth.
  • Thanks to the humid weather we've been having in Wellington, plus my lack of common sense in not putting half of them in the fridge, the expensive box of beautiful cherries I bought for Harvey at Moore Wilson last week is starting to Go Off. So tonight I'll have to poach what's left in red wine, which was not what I had wanted to do at all.
  • On Saturday, after my third trip to the shops, I had a meltdown and started shouting about Having to Do It All. Which was not nice, as I know perfectly well that what Harvey would like most in the world is to be able to do what he used to do for Christmas, from buying presents to cooking the dinner.
  • I have long known that Sellotape and me do not mix. Now I've proved very firmly that cellophane and me don't mix either. Besides, it lets you see what's inside, spoiling the fun of opening the present. Next year I'll remember this, I hope.
  • The only advantage of Harvey's illness is that as he can't get up the stairs, I can leave everything up here in a mess. The spare room is currently strewn with the remains of my card-making efforts, ends of wrapping paper, discarded cellophane (see above), the year's store of ribbons and bows (for recycling), assorted half-used sheets of stick-on gift tags left over from last year (some no longer stick and most of the rest are too naff or cutesy to use for anyone), and (hiding somewhere underneath all this) the scissors, the sticky tape and the pen. Oh, and the presents (other than the ones I've already dispatched to friends and rellies).

And once again I have failed to produce anything like the number of delicious, impressive home-made Christmas gifts I had intended to make. Even the hamper for my sister had nothing home-made in it, except the card.  One person - one! - is getting some macaroons. That's it.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Making French macaroons, sort of

Strictly speaking they're macarons, but they're called macaroons in the latest Dish, which has a ridiculously perfect plate of them on the cover. So I bought it, thinking that now was the time to get together with my friend Amy and have a go at making them. She can't eat gluten, and when we went to France together four years ago, we used to buy them and take them back to our hotel for an afternoon snack (though they weren't as good as the ones I had in Melbourne). And I knew they were supposed to be difficult, so I figured two heads and pairs of hands would be better than one. We had a lot of fun.

Raspberry Parisian Macaroons - adapted slightly from Dish 33, December 2010-January 2011

100g free range egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar
2 tbsps caster sugar
1-2 tsps raspberry essence
red food colouring
140g ground almonds
220g icing sugar

Preheat oven to 150C (though as the macaroons have to stand so long before cooking, you can do this later).
Whisk egg whites and cream of tartar to soft peaks in a large bowl, using an electric beater.
Add caster sugar, raspberry essence and a few tiny drops of red food colouring.
(They say the colour will fade during cooking, so you want a deepish pink, but we slightly overdid it with our first batch. Still, the French ones were quite deep pink too.)

In another large bowl, sift the ground almonds and icing sugar together, and add any almonds that haven't gone through the sieve. (Not sure about this - I think it could be best to sieve the almonds first separately, then weigh the sifted ones to get 140g - that way it might be easier to get smoother macaroons. Or better, do as Mrs Cake suggests (see below) and grind the almonds again in the processor with the icing sugar.)

Using a large metal spoon, fold the almonds and icing sugar mix into the egg whites until well combined.
(They say not to worry about losing volume as the mixture should not be too light and airy. But ours didn't rise as much as we thought they would, so we might have overdone this slightly.)

The next step is the tricky one. The recipe says:
Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 1.5cm wide plain piping nozzle. Pipe small rounds, about 3 cm apart,
onto baking trays lined with baking paper.

This might work fine with a proper piping bag, but we didn't have one. We tried using a plastic bag with the corner cut off, but it didn't work very well, and we thought far too much mixture got wasted - it really sticks to the bag. (And how small? About 2 cm across - we made them too big at first.)

So then we just used two teaspoons to make small rounds instead, which was much easier. We certainly didn't get the perfect smoothness of the ones in the picture - but could any home cook get this, I wonder? If anyone's done it, please let me know.

The bottom far left one is really round and pretty smooth...

Drop the trays a couple of times on the bench to get rid of any air bubbles and flatten the macaroons slightly.
(It was fun doing this but we still didn't get rid of all the bubbles.)

Leave for 45-50 minutes until a good skin has formed on top of the macaroons.
(They say "This is an integral part of the recipe. Without this step they will not have the distinctive smooth tops." We did it, but they still weren't smooth. If you haven't put the oven on yet, do it now.)

Bake the trays, one at a time, for 12-14 minutes (in my underpowered oven, 16 was better). Leave for 5 minutes before gently transferring to a cooling rack. (We just transferred the whole sheet of paper to the rack with macaroons still on it, and took them off later - this worked very well.)

What we were most proud of was that they all had the mark of a true macaroon - that distinctive little "foot" around the bottom (though it didn't actually stick out all round the way it did on the Melbourne ones, but never mind, there it was).

What you sandwich them together with depends on how authentic you want to be. Dish suggests butter icing, and gives the recipe (I think there should be an incentive to buy it, since we've made so much use of it, so I'm not going to copy the filling recipe here - you get a free calendar and drinks booklet with this issue too). I've seen a fiendishly long French recipe for a proper creme filling. Or you could have a look at Mrs Cake's blog - her macaron recipe (avert your eyes from her foray into, er, distinctive colouring) is similar but includes some useful extra information, and her filling recipe has an egg and an egg yolk in it - handy, since you'll have some to use up. But it requires a candy thermometer and I haven't got one of those either...

Anyway, our first ever "Parisian macaroons" have gone down really well with me and the people I've offered them to so far. They have a distinctive texture, crunchy, chewy and melting all at once. Next time I think I'll try making vanilla and coffee ones, maybe with some Nutella in the filling.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gingerbread in the house

Friends have begun dropping in for pre-Christmas visits, and we're really enjoying seeing them. But this also means I need to have something good in the tins to offer them.
               The traditional offering is Christmas cake, but I have to confess I've never made one. The boys, of course, would happily devour any kind of cake. Chris loved it, so I was grateful that his mother Marion made a small test cake each year, then gave it to us. We would get a slab of my mother's cake as well. Marion's was beautifully traditional, dark and fruity. Mum had this persistent delusion that sherry was just as good as expensive brandy, and she threw in generous sploshes of it, so hers tended to be paler and rather damp - though it was good heated up a bit, with custard.
         As I've said before, I'm no baker, and bought baking is either really expensive or not very nice. Or else it tastes okay until you read the label and realise it's full of strange numbered substances and nasty cheap butter substitutes, such as palm oil and beef fat.
          So last year I was really pleased with myself for coming up with the idea of gingerbread. I had a great recipe from my New Plynouth friend Beth that I'd never tried. It was perfectly simple and worked beautifully, producing deliciously sticky, spicy, fragrant gingerbread that kept well through the Christmas visiting season. And apart from the ones who couldn't eat anything with flour in, everyone liked it, including Harvey - ginger is one of his favourite flavours. Given a choice between Christmas cake and gingerbread, he'll go for the gingerbread every time.
          I made it again this week. The mixture is, as Beth warned me, extremely wet, but don't let that worry you.  It just takes quite a while to cook. I used two loaf tins this year, giving me deep slices which work well cut in half. On the whole people seem to prefer having two (or more) small pieces than one (or more) big ones, and it's a bit crumbly, so smaller slices are easier to manage. You'll see that mine sank a bit in the middle - I probably took it out of the oven a bit too soon. But it still tasted really good.

Esther's gingerbread
(via Beth - Esther is quiltmaker Esther Woollaston, who has also worked for Ruth Pretty).

280g (2 cups) plain flour
200g (1 cup) brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2-3 dessert spoons of powdered ginger (I used 2 and a half, whcih seems about right)
1/2 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
360g (1 and 1/3 cups) golden syrup
225g butter (roughly diced)
2 eggs
250ml (1 cup) milk

* Preheat oven to 150C. Line a 23 cm square tin or two loaf tins with baking paper (I folded mine double). To get a gingerbread which is less deep, and is very nice cut into square chunks, you can use a rectangular tin instead, or even a roasting dish.
* Sift the flour into a large bowl, together with the brown sugar, baking soda and baking powder, and all the spices. Stir lightly to mix.
* In a small saucepan, melt the butter and golden syrup together.
* Lightly beat the 2 eggs.
* Add the golden syrup and butter mixture to the dry ingredients, followed by the eggs and the milk.
* Combine everything well, using a wire whisk, and pour into prepared tin(s). The mixture will be very wet.

* The original recipe says to bake it for at least 45 minutes for one square tin, and at least an hour for two loaf tins. For the rectangular tin, I give it 40 minutes on bake, then another 15 minutes on fan bake.
* Bake until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. 
* Leave in tin(s) to cool for at least 30 minutes before turning out.
* When completely cool, place in an airtight tin or plastic box.

I like a milkless cup of spiced chai tea with this, but it's good with coffee too.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A fringe of leaves

The first time I ever ate artichokes was in Albania. They're wonderful things, so beautifully shaped, and it feels so decadent eating them - delicately nibbling off the bottom of each leaf until you get to the succulent heart.
       Last week my friend Lesley and I had lunch with Ali at Eastbourne. She's a great gardener and has a magnificent row of artichokes, and she cooked them for lunch.

       You can do them in a pressure cooker for about 20-30 minutes, depending on size and age, or just boil them steadily in a large covered saucepan for 40-50 minutes, until an outer leaf pulls off easily, and when you push a sharp knife or skewer down into the heart, it feels soft
        The small ones early in the season take less time, but Ali says she tends to leave them till they're bigger - the leaves are a bit tougher, but there's more favour, and more heart.  And she always washes them well first, to get rid of any passengers - "finding a cooked earwig on the leaf you're about to eat is not nice".
         The best thing to have with them is garlic butter: melt what looks like a suitable quantity, and add crushed garlic to taste, some black pepper, a squeeze of lemon and a dash of olive oil (not extra virgin) to make it a bit less rich. Mayonnaise is good too.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Christmas pudding time again

As things change, we find we have to keep changing what we do at Christmas. With no family in Wellington, we used to follow a wonderful plan, introduced to us by dear friends. It involved a succession of guests and at least five well-spaced courses, appearing as people came and went according to their other commitments.  Doing it that way meant we could make Christmas dinner last all day. We still do it, but with adaptations.
              Over the years a large roast of pork gave way to two ducks, and then to a fillet of beef. Last year I tried having the beef warm, with salads, instead of having everything hot, though I did hot spuds for Harvey, who unlike me does not enjoy potato salad. It was a fine day, fortunately, and it was much easier for me to manage. But Harvey admitted later that he missed his roast (he used to do the whole main course himself, with assistance from at least one male helper, but now of course it's all up to me).
               So this year there's going to be a radical innovation - early dinner, starting about 4 pm, instead of late lunch. That'll give us time to have a properly leisurely morning, and I won't need to start cooking until after brunch. More of the old crowd will be able to come, after they've done their rounds elsewhere. And I think we'll go back to roast pork, Harvey will be really happy about that.
                A Light Dessert of some kind used to follow, and maybe some cheese before or after. Then we gathered reverently (not) in front of the TV for the Queen's Message. We might skip the Light Dessert this year, but keep the cheese, it will go very well with the great red wine that usually appears.
              The traditional Holly Walk has to happen at some point, to get a spray of holly for the Christmas pudding which follows the Queen's Message (I know better than to mess with this bit, Harvey loves his pudding). It used to be a drunken foray in the dark to the holly bush growing near the Northland tunnel. Now it's a reasonably sober early evening stroll up to the Karori Anglican church grounds and back round the block.                
              After that will come the flaming pudding, always made by me, complete with its holly and brandy sauce.  I make it at least a month in advance, mixing it and letting it stand overnight (this step is essential, as I discovered one year when, a bit pushed for time, I left it out - not good). The next day it steams for four hours.
               The only problem is remembering that it has to steam for another two hours on Christmas Day. After all that wonderful food and drink and company, I'm likely to forget, and one year there was no pudding till 10 at night. Harvey was not amused. Then there was the year I got very slaphappy with the brandy for the brandy sauce - you could almost have lit that too.
               I always use the same recipe. It originally appeared in the Edmonds Cook Book, but disappeared some time in the mid-1980s. I made it last weekend, but if you want to make it now there's still time. It used to be called "Christmas Pudding (Rich)" but in later editions (the one I use now is 1982) the "Rich" has gone. This recipe serves eight people. You need a traditional metal pudding basin with a lid and a large lidded saucepan to steam it in. The slightly odd measure of "125g" was originally 4 ounces.

Edmonds Rich Christmas Pudding
50g plain flour
125g plain white soft breadcrumbs
125g brown sugar
125g grated suet (the kind you buy in the supermarket - it only appears around Christmas now)
125g chopped apple
125g raisins
125g sultanas
125g currants (I put in some dried cranberries this year as part of this measure)
50g whole, unpeeled almonds
25g mixed peel (I often add a bit more)
grated rind of 1 large lemon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 Tbsps brandy

* Put sifted flour, breadcrumbs, sugar and suet into a large mixing basin. Add chopped apples and dried fruit. Add spices and salt. Mix gently.

* Beat the eggs well and add them with the lemon juice. Stir well to mix. (Everyone in the house should have a stir at this point, for good luck in the New Year.)

* Cover the bowl and leave to stand overnight.
* Next day, add brandy, put mixture into a lightly buttered pudding basin, and put on the lid.

* Place enough water in a large saucepan to come halfway up the sides of the pudding basin (test it). Bring the water to a gentle coninuous boil.
* Stand the pudding basin in the water, cover everything with a lid, and steam for 4 hours, making sure the water stays at a gentle boil. You will need to add more boiling water about halfway through to keep the level roughly halfway up the basin.
* Turn off the heat and leave to stand for another hour. Then remove the basin and put it in the fridge until Christmas Day.
* Steam for 2 hours on Christmas Day. Turn out onto a large dish.
* Gently heat about 2 tbsps of brandy, pour over the pudding and light it so it's flaming as you bring it in to serve.
If you want brandy sauce, make a classic buttery white sauce, but with brown sugar, and add brandy to taste. Serve on the side.
         I can't show you the pudding now, of course - it's sitting in its basin and won't appear in all its dark fruity glory until Christmas Day, when I will try to remember to take a photo.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The last of the whitebait

I thought we wouldn't be eating whitebait again this year, but a little while ago a friend brought round - wait for it - a whole pound, over 500 grams. It was amazing whitebait, the biggest I'd ever seen, with a thin stripe down the back. The picture doesn't do it justice, it was still a bit frozen in its packet, I should have taken another one when it had thawed.

What I like is where it came from. He knows a woman farmer who lives in Westland, and she has a creek on her land. She gets a pair of pantihose, sets them in the creek with the top part opened wide, and the whitebait swim in and up the legs. Perfect.
          I was a bit nervous about cooking it after my previous less-than-brilliant efforts, but this time I had help - the farmer sent her own recipe for the batter. For this much whitebait, it was two large eggs, two dessertspoons of flour, and salt. (She said pepper too, but as I explained last time, Harvey doesn't approve of that.) And here - ta-daa! - is the fantastic result - I made three of these.

For the first time in his life, Harvey had more whitebait than he could eat. So the whitebait-bringer and I  finished his off between us.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tarted up for lunch

I had a brilliant time in Tauranga - you can see some pix on Elsewoman - and it's been very busy since I got back. On Wednesday Harvey's brother Bruce and sister-in-law Margaret came up for the day from Methven to see him, so I wanted to make something tasty for lunch. I remembered a very good Harriet Harcourt recipe for potato, brie and onion tart. It's from a book called Mission for Entertaining, a fundraiser for Wellington City Mission, with a great collection of recipes from the capital's top chefs, caterers, restaurateurs, food retailers and food writers.
          A friend gave it to me for Christmas two years ago, and it's proved very useful. It has one excellent feature which is notably lacking in every one of the lavish new celebrity cookbooks I've looked at recently. There are no pictures, but the recipes are clearly printed in black on white, so you can read them easily while you're cooking.
           Now isn't that a novel idea! Without exception, the new books by Jamie, Nigella, Annabel et al. feature coloured or grey type, often in quite a small font size, printed on coloured backgrounds or even over photos, making the recipes difficult and in some cases impossible to read. Obviously the designers don't cook - or at any rate, not from these books. And I won;t be cooking from them either.
             So, to the tart. I cooked the potatoes and the onions the night before, making it very quick to assemble next day. And (forgive me, Harriet) I added a bit of chopped lean bacon on top as well, because I had some and thought it would be good - and it was. This is more substantial than the usual quiche, so it worked very well for hungry people who'd left home about 5 am to get here.

Potato, onion and brie tart (slightly adapted from Harriet Harcourt's recipe - hers serves six, mine serves four)

Two sheets of savoury shortcrust pastry
About six small gourmet potatoes, each cut into 4-6 even chunks depending on size (no need to peel them)
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions (or more small ones) thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 Tbsp grainy mustard
125g round of brie, cut into smallish chunks (I sliced it in half horizontally before cutting it up, and didn't use it all because I had bacon as well)
2 rashers of lean bacon cut into small pieces (optional)
2 large eggs
150 ml creme fraiche
salt and pepper

*Heat oven to 200C and lightly butter a 27 cm flan dish (I use one with a loose bottom)
*Use one sheet of pastry to line the flan dish and the other, cut into strips, to join to the edges and neatly cover the sides of the dish. Put the pastry lined dish into the fridge for 15 minutes. (I used to skip this bit, until I discovered that the pastry then shrank down the sides of the dish and didn't hold the filling properly.)
* Put potatoes in a pan of cold water, bring to the boil and cook for 8-10 minutes until just cooked. Drain and allow to cool slightly.
* Gently heat oil in a non-stick frypan, add onion and cook gently for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add crushed garlic and half the thyme leaves and cook for another 3 minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool slightly.
* Take pastry lined dish out of fridge and spread the mustard over the base.
* Spread the onions over the mustard.

* Scatter over the pieces of potato, then add the pieces of brie and (if using) the bacon.
* Beat together the eggs and creme fraiche, season with salt and pepper, and pour carefully over tart.

* Sprinkle with the rest of the thyme and bake for 25 minutes until golden and set.
* Serve warm with a simple salad.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Spring is sprung

I'm going off to Tauranga (Garden and Art Festival!) for a few days tomorrow. In place of a proper new post, here are some tastes of spring in Wellington.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Aubergine sounds nicer than eggplant

As I think I've said before on this blog, Harvey hates aubergines. But lately there've been gorgeous ones gleaming out at me from the greengrocer. So I managed to organise a little series of something elses for Harvey, and made myself aubergine with tomato and parmesan (parmigiana di melanzane - it took me quite a while to realise that melanzane meant aubergine, not melon) one night and moussaka another.

Both the recipes come, again, from Claudia Roden - the parmigiana from The Food of Italy and the moussaka from her invaluable Book of Middle Eastern Food, the first "foreign" cookbook I fell in love with. This is the revised edition replacement for the first one I owned (which fell to bits), and as you can see it's been well used, though I can't imagine how I managed to tear off the bottom corner.
I won't give quantities because I was making small helpings for myself (even so, using just one large aubergine altogether, each dish lasted me two meals).

Preparing the aubergines
You do this the same way for both dishes, so it made sense for me to do it all in advance.
* Slice the aubergines lengthwise, sprinkle the slices with salt and leave for half an hour to let the bitter juices run out.

* Rinse and drain the slices, dry them, and fry them in hot olive oil, turning them once. Drain on absorbent paper. (Roden says to deep-fry them but I never do that, I just shallow-fried them in a pan until they were starting to turn golden brown, and they were fine.)

For parmigiana
* Make the tomato sauce: Fry garlic in a little olive oil until the aroma rises. Add one can (more for a large dish) of chopped Italian tomatoes, 1 tsp sugar, a little salt and pepper, and a bunch of basil or mint leaves, chopped. Cook vigorously to reduce.
* Arrange the slices of aubergine in an oven-proof dish, cover with the tomato sauce, sprinkle with diced mozzarella and grated parmesan, and bake at 180C for about 30 minutes.

I didn't have mozzarella but I did have cream cheese, so I used that. I had a little good parmesan and added some crumbled blue cheese to it. The result was brilliant: rich, creamy, tasty. The uabergine seems to melt into the tomato and cheese, so you're aware of the flavour but not the texture. Very good reheated, too.

For moussaka
Badly made moussaka was the bane of 70s parties, with lumpy bland mince, potato, and few or no aubergines. This is much nicer.

Prepare the aubergines as for parmigiana. Fry chopped onions in 2 tablespoons olive oil until pale golden.
Meat sauce: Add minced beef or lamb and fry until well browned. Season with salt, pepper and cinnamon or allspice. (A bit of sumac is good too.) Add tinned chopped tomatoes, plus 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, and a little chopped parsley. Stir well, moisten with a little water and simmer for about 15 minutes until the meat is well cooked and the water is absorbed. Allow to cool.
*At this point I do something Roden doesn't mention, but it works really well. I grind the meat sauce in the food processor, making it finer and less lumpy. This makes it taste exactly like the sauce I had in Albania - it's called kime and it's the basis for many different dishes.
White sauce: see my earlier post on bechamel for how to get this right. I used about 2 tablespooons of butter, 2 of flour and 1/2 a pint (300 ml) milk (Roden uses twice as much, and 2 eggs). Season with salt, pepper and a little grated nutmeg. When the sauce has thickened, beat an egg, stir in a little of the sauce, beat again, and pour slowly back into the white sauce, stirring constantly over low heat (don't let it boil).

To bake: Put alternate layers of aubergine slices and meat sauce into a deep baking dish, starting and ending with a layer of aubergines (I just had three layers, a sort of aubergine sandwich with the meat in the middle). Pour over the white sauce and bake, uncovered, at 180C for about 45 minutes. You can sprinkle a little grated parmesan - or cheddar or gruyere - over the top before baking. I did, and it was indeed, as she says, "very rich", but completely delicious.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Getting creative with asparagus

Asparagus time again. It's great to have a treat that's also got to be good for you!
         I got creative with it in the weekend. I had some blue cheese left over from Harvey's launch. (Yes, I know that was a while ago, but it was very good Kapiti blue cheese and it was perfectly fine.) And friends had brought us some walnuts from their tree.

         Harvey was pefectly happy with leftover mince on toast, but I felt like pasta (which he really isn't madly keen on). In my favourite Italian book, Claudia Roden's The Food of Italy, I found a recipe for gorgonzola sauce for spaghetti.

It's extremely simple: melt a little butter, stir in the crumbled cheese, mix well, add a little milk (I put a teaspoon of flour in the milk before adding it), stir well and pour over cooked spaghetti.

Before that, though, I snapped the woody ends of a bunch of skinny asparagus - we like the skinny ones best - and cooked the stalks until they were easy to bite but still crunchy.

While they were cooking, I fished out my ancient nutcracker and got to work on a little pile of walnuts, then finely chopped up the shelled nuts.

Once the spaghetti was cooked, I poured the sauce over it, scattered pieces of asparagus over the top, sprinkled over the chopped walnuts and added a good grinding of black pepper. Magnifico.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The path to creme caramel

Last week I had the luxury of a live-in caregiver for Harvey, the wonderful Marjorie. The idea was for them to get used to each other and what needs to be done while I roamed happily around Wellington. With the willing co-operation of friends booked in to keep me company, it all worked very well, from ....

Petone, and GoBang's rhubarb and custard brioche, to...

Willis St, and Cafe Neo's mini cupcake - I love it when you can have something delicious but small - to...

Porirua, and Pataka's chewy apricot slice...

Brilliant exhibitions at Pataka, go and see them. Two are by women, and "SHEEP - NZ Icons in Art" features lots of work by women too. The one that struck home for me was the "triple portrait", the heads of three raggedy, venerable sheep, all looking haggard and angry, painted in sinister shadings of green and magenta. It's called "The Mothers".

So after all that, I was quite happy to stay home this weekend and do some cooking. For ages I've been yearning after creme caramel, but I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to boiling sugar. So I use a clever microwave version from a really good book Harvey's mother Betty passed on to us in 1989, when she got it as a free gift from Reader's Digest. (She didn't need it because she didn't have a microwave, but her neighbour did. So when Betty gave her one of the ducks Harvey's brother had shot, the neighbour tried to cook it in her fancy new oven. The lead shot exploded, destroying both the duck and the microwave.)

Creme caramel (from Good Housekeeping Microwave Encyclopedia, by Susanna Tee)

For the caramel:
3 tablespoons caster sugar
3 tablespoons water
glass jug
round or oval ceramic dish which holds 750 ml

Mix in a glass jug and microwave on high for 5 minutes until the caramel turns brown. Watch it very carefully - I gave mine 4 minutes, then 30 second bursts and finally 10 seconds. Stop as soon as the sugar begins to darken. Pour the caramel immediately into the bottom of the dish.

For the creme:
450 ml full milk (not trim) in larger glass jug
3 eggs
2 tablespoons caster sugar
natural vanilla essence

Microwave milk on high for 90 seconds, just to warm it.
Lightly beat the eggs with the sugar.
Add the eggs and sugar to the milk and mix in a few drops of vanilla essence. (Or, if you have a vanilla bean, you can heat the seeds with the milk.)
Strain the milk and egg mixture carefully over the caramel.

Cover with two layers of cling film and place in a larger dish which will fit in the microwave.
Using a jug and a funnel, pour boiling water into the larger dish until it comes halfway up the smaller dish.
Microwave for at least 25 minutes until the custard is lightly set. My recipe says to do this on low, but that didn't seem to be hot enough to set the custard, so I used medium low instead.
Leave to stand for 5 minutes. Remove the dish from the water, take off the cling film and leave to stand for 30 minutes.
Refrigerate for 4 to 5 hours until set.

I didn't even try to turn this out, as I'd used an oval dish. I just started eating it straight out of the dish. I could do this because Harvey doesn't like it, so it was mine, all mine. It was a bit too wobbly still, but it tasted and felt exactly as it should, slippery creamy blobs of custard bathed in golden caramel. It should serve four, but I ate half of it yesterday and I'm going to finish it off tonight.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New basil plants for old

From about now I want lots and lots of basil. One plant on a windowsill doesn't quite fit the bill. Here's a wonderful solution from my friend Ali. I'm going to try it as soon as my current basil plant goes woody.

          "For years I tried to grow basil plants outdoors, with little success. Whether I raised my own plants from seed or bought them from the garden centre, they never grew into the big bushy plants you see in the illustrations of Mediterranean cookbooks."
          "So eventually I gave up, and resorted to pots of basil on the kitchen windowsill, courtesy of the local greengrocer. But however well I fed them the plants never produced for more than a few weeks, and I’d be left with a pot of woody stalks, each with a few small leaves."

"Then late last year, as I was about to empty a pot of tired plants into the compost, I decided to put them out in the garden, and see what happened. I chose a sheltered sunny corner, added some compost to the soil, and planted the basil in two rows about 15 cm apart, surrounded by some old bricks to keep out the wind and keep in the heat."
            "The results were spectacular. Within a couple of weeks the plants were shooting up and smothered in big fresh leaves. I soon had enough basil to pick by the handful, just like it says in the recipes! By watering regularly, and pinching out any flower-heads that formed, I managed to keep my basil forest going right through the summer. Such a treat, being able to make regular batches of homegrown pesto! "

"I’ve just bought a new pot of basil for the windowsill, and when the plants have done their dash indoors (and the weather improves!) they too will get a second life out in the veggie garden, just in time for the first tomatoes… "

Friday, October 8, 2010

A feast of poems

Not much cooking is going on around here at the moment, because we're getting organised for Sunday's launch of Harvey's new poetry anthology These I Have Loved: My favourite New Zealand poems, published by Steele Roberts. Beattie's Book Blog today has a really lovely post about it.

To give you a taste of what's inside, I've chosen one poem that just happens to be about food, along with what Harvey writes about why he chose it.

“When I was young a trip to town (Christchurch) by Pop or Mum usually resulted in a packet of butcher’s saveloys. In a regular diet of home-killed mutton, they were a colourful treat. Anne can’t believe that I still like them. Tasteless things, she says. Elizabeth will probably be horrified at my selection of this poem out of her ample array, but like her, for childhood’s sake, I still enjoy my saveloy.”


Elizabeth Smither
Why should one long for something
supposedly composed of sawdust
or sweepings and bulked up with
excessive breadcrumbs? Coloured

like a tart’s lips and typically
when the water in the pot comes to boil
steeping out of her underthings
or worse, looking like a condom?

And yet, sometimes passing the butcher’s
I compose a worthy list: eye fillet
and a nice beef roast (special visitors)
and just casually, like childhood, a saveloy.

For information about Harvey's book, email

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pretty retro: pumpernickel and guacamole

I'm not very good at doing fancy starters. By the time I've come up wth a first course, main course and dessert, I just don't feel like putting a lot of work into something for people to nibble on with a drink when they arrive.
         One good solution is pumpernickel. Apart from its splendid name, it's not too dry, works really well with lots of other flavours, and looks good as well.  Here's a plate I prepared earlier... Cream cheese (in fact I used some boursin I'd made) with tomato and basil, and provolone with tarragon leaves.

I think this photo looks amazingly retro, pure 1950s. It's the colours and the way they contrast. Pumpernickel is very good with smoked salmon, too.
              Another lovely word, and a great thing to start with, is guacamole - avocados are easy to get now. Mine is a made-up recipe. I don't put chile or tomato in it, I love the pale green colour and they spoil it. I make it all in the food processor, but rough fork-mashed is good too. The main thing is to taste it as you go.

Finely chop at least 2 cloves of garlic (we like more) and add:
Flesh of 2 large or 3 smaller ripe avocados (they should be soft but not brown, or at least not TOO brown - you can cut out the dark bits)
Strained juice of 1 large lemon (but you may well want more)
A little olive oil (but you don't want it too sloppy to work as a dip or spread)

Process till smooth, or mash together, taste, add more salt and/or lemon juice if needed. Serve with corn chips or crackers, and black olives are good as well.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Picking up the pieces

I had a tiny taste of the Christchurch earthquake last week. Ironically, it happened because I'd tried to do some earthquake-proofing. My kitchen clock was bought for me by my mother at the vast Farmers' store in Auckland, not long before it closed (I've been trying to find out when - I thought it was 1991). So last week, thinking about earthquakes, I decided I'd better stick on a blob of Bluetack to fasten it more securely to the wall. But I must have done it wrong, because that night the clock suddenly leapt off the wall and crashed to the floor. Its glass was broken, but otherwise it's okay, so maybe I can have it fixed. But on the way down it managed to smash my lovely old china salt box. It's not a family treasure, I bought it years ago in a "collectibles" (junk) shop, but I was very fond of it.

These small breakages made me think how sad it must have been for so many people to lose all their loved, familiar things in the earthquake - not on a par with losing your house and job, I know, but still distressing.   

I've recently worked out a good remedy for when I'm feeling a bit down, as I was after this happened. I take myself off to Martha's Pantry, in an old brick building on the corner of Cuba Street and Karo Drive. It's beautiful, full of flowers and sunshine and white embroidered cloths, and it's quiet - the fabrics soak up sound so that all you're aware of is a quiet murmur of conversation and the gentle tinkle of teacups and spoons. You get your own teapot, in a knitted cosy - they have a good range of teas, plus the usual (good) coffees - and a selection from their vast collection of pretty cups and saucers. And plates, of course - for something to eat from their range of gorgeously retro cakes.  A few times I've had the pleasure of introducing it to friends who've never been there before. They sell things, too - old-fashioned games and toys and lots of pretty flowery stuff. You do see the occasional chap in there, but it's definitely women who love it most - from bright young ones and mothers with kids to, well, mature women of my vintage. Macaroons, butterfly cakes, hot chocolate with the teacup tealight you get late on a winter afternoon... brilliant.