Friday, February 26, 2010

Raspberry Trifle: Anything But Trifling

According to the Macquarie dictionary, a trifle is "an article or thing of small value; a matter of slight importance; a trivial or insignificant affair or circumstance." As in, "don't worry, it's just a trifle" or "it was no effort, only a trifle". Well, after making this dessert, I am here to tell you that no dish was ever so poorly named as the "trifle"? It should be called "the stupendous", "the abundance" or possibly even "the time-consuming raving beauty". It is certainly the most awe-inspiring dessert I have ever made. The one thing it wasn't was a "trifle".

Melinda at Melbourne Larder started me thinking about this trifle after she gave it her seal of approval last month in our "We Made It" challenge. Then the planets collided. I had promised to make some dessert for a family get together for Chinese New Year, and the idea of this trifle kept playing on my mind. Sadly I had missed the dark berry season, however raspberries were available and they were (comparatively) inexpensive. They were also the perfect red for Chinese New Year. Decision made. I then substituted Chambord (raspberry liqueur) for the Creme de Mure called for in the recipe.

The biggest issue with this recipe is the time it takes. To make it, you need to resign yourself to the best part of a day spent near the kitchen, the day before you plan to serve it. Not that the recipe is that difficult or time consuming, but there is a lot of setting and resting time in its construction. But it is definitely worth the investment in both berries and time. The only thing I was unhappy with was the sponge which I thought was a bit hard. I suspect that was my own fault. Instead of baking in one large tin, I split the mixture into two round cake tins that were the right size for my bowl. I should have reduced the baking time and I didn't, so my sponge was certainly on the firm side. Oh well, nothing that a bit of cream and liqeuer didn't solve....

As you can see from the picture, the end result is definitely designed for a party. It's a dessert that Melinda describes as a showstopper, and it certainly is. The recipe was the cover of the Gourmet Traveller in Dec/Jan - they obviously felt it was the perfect festive dessert as well.

Just don't call it a trifle.

Dark Berry Trifle adapted from Gourmet Traveller
Serves 20

1.5 kg blackberries or mulberries, plus extra to serve (I used raspberries)
300 gm caster sugar
2 vanilla beans, split and seeds scraped
10 gelatine leaves (titanium strength), softened in cold water for 5 minutes
300 ml pink moscato
1 lemon, juice only
330 ml crème de mûre (I used Chambord)
1.25 kg crème fraîche
150 ml milk, or enough to thin
2 lemons, finely grated rind only
40 gm (¼ cup) pure icing sugar, sifted
8 eggs, at room temperature
250 gm raw caster sugar
250 gm plain flour, sieved
50 gm butter, melted and cooled

For sponge, preheat oven to 175C. Whisk eggs and sugar in an electric mixer until tripled in volume (7 minutes). Fold through flour in batches, fold in butter, pour into a 28cm-square cake tin lined with baking paper. Bake until golden and centre springs back when pressed (20-25 minutes). Cool in tin, turn out, halve sponge horizontally, trim each half to fit a 6 litre-capacity glass bowl, then remove from bowl and set aside, reserving trimmings.

Meanwhile, combine 1kg berries, sugar, 1 vanilla bean and seeds and 1.1 litres water in a large saucepan, simmer over low heat until infused (50 minutes). Strain through a fine sieve (discard solids), transfer 1 litre hot liquid to a bowl (reserve remainder). Squeeze excess water from gelatine, add to bowl, stir to dissolve. Add moscato, lemon juice and 80ml crème de mûre. Strain half into trifle bowl, scatter over 250gm berries and refrigerate until set (2-2½ hours). Chill remaining berry jelly, removing from refrigerator if it starts to set.

Reduce remaining liquid over high heat until syrupy (10-15 minutes), refrigerate until required.

Meanwhile, combine crème fraîche, milk, rind, icing sugar and remaining vanilla seeds in a bowl, adding extra milk if necessary until spreadable. Spread one-third over set jelly, top with a sponge round, fill any gaps with trimmings, drizzle with 125ml crème de mûre. Scatter over remaining berries, pour over remaining jelly (mixture should be starting to set). Refrigerate until set (2-2½ hours). Top with half the remaining crème fraîche mixture, then remaining sponge. Drizzle with remaining crème de mûre, top with remaining crème fraîche mixture. Cover, refrigerate overnight. Serve scattered with extra berries and drizzled with blackberry syrup.

Note You'll need to begin this recipe a day ahead. Crème de mûre is a blackberry liqueur available from good bottle shops. If unavailable, substitute crème de cassis. You can use frozen blackberries for the jelly and the syrup.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reminder: Dandi Giveaway

Just a reminder that my Dandi giveaway finishes at the end of this week. Dandi is offering four of my readers a pack containing the Masterchef Masterclass DVD (yes, a compilation of George's and Gary's best recipes and tips) and a set of beautiful Dandi tea towels. There is no question that cleaning up after a Masterchef-inspired masterpiece will be so much nicer with pretty tea towels.

All you have to do to enter is take a look at the Dandi website and let me know which colour you would prefer in a tea towel: chocolate, duckegg blue or marshmallow pink, or something completely different, and why? You can either leave a comment here with your colour preference or you can email me at . Competition is open to Australian residents only. Winners will be picked for originality. Good luck!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fabulous Crab Cakes In An Ordinary Life

Mostly I am very happy living my (relatively) ordinary life - although even saying that makes me frightened that some horrible fate might befall me tomorrow. Health, education, people to love and people who love me, passions, dreams, hopes, fears, idiocies and indulgences, I'm lucky with all. But today I am feeling extremely inadequate in my ordinary life. And not for the usual reasons like out of control hair or clumsiness. The source of my worries? I never slept with Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds.

Mum gave me "Insatiable: Tales From A Life of Delicious Excess", the memoirs of Gael Greene, the restaurant critic on New York magazine. I expected a gee whiz romp through some of the world's best restaurants with a few recipes and tips on technique thrown in. I have read quite a few books in this genre and they all follow much the same pattern. Except that Greene, who I must admit I had heard of only fleetingly, was also a racy novelist who partook in all the excesses of the 70s and has decided to share them in detail. Just imagine being able to say: "Years later, I would glance at Time magazine and my breath would catch in my throat. There were two men on Time's January 9, 1978, cover and I had been to bed with both of them." Straightfaced. Both of them. Clint and Burt. And this, after her tryst with Elvis is detailed on page 9. I'm not really keen on Elvis or Clint or Burt, but I can only imagine being able to claim having been up close and personal with that trifecta. No wonder she published her memoirs.

Meanwhile, big excitement for me was crab cakes. It just doesn't have quite the same ring does it? I can't even claim it was a cover recipe, let alone the cover of Time. Nor do I envisage publishers will be squabbling over the rights to my memoirs ("She did make those great crab cakes, we must have her book!") So I will go back to reading about the lives of glamourous New Yorkers while I hide from the heat in Sydney and eat another crab cake.

This recipe came from "Bon Appetit" April 2009. It is pretty easy, and makes a very elegant nibble, which can be made a couple of hours in advance. Make these to eat with drinks and you won't need to serve a first course. When I next make them, my only change will be to line the muffin tins with foil so the crab cakes are easier to get out. I'm sure Elvis, Clint and Burt would approve, if you happen to be entertaining them.

Mini Crab Cakes
from Bon Appetit, April 2009

250g cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 large egg
1/4 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon finely grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
4 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, divided
1/4 teaspoon salt
Large pinch of cayenne pepper
180g fresh lump crabmeat, picked over, patted dry, coarsely shredded (I used good quality tinned crab, well drained)
1 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup unsalted butter (approx 60g), melted, plus more for pans
Fresh chives, cut into pieces

Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese in medium bowl until smooth. Add 1/4 cup Parmesan and egg; beat to blend. Beat in sour cream, citrus peels, 4 teaspoons chopped chives, salt, and cayenne pepper. Fold in crabmeat. Cover and chill.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously butter 2 mini muffin pans (or line each hole with foil). Toss panko, 1/2 cup Parmesan, and 2 tablespoons chopped chives in small bowl. Drizzle 1/4 cup melted butter over, tossing with fork until evenly moistened. Press 1 rounded tablespoon panko mixture into bottom of each muffin cup, forming crust. Spoon 1 generous tablespoon crab mixture into each cup. Sprinkle rounded teaspoon of panko mixture over each (some may be left over).

Bake crab cakes until golden on top and set, about 30 minutes. Cool in pans 5 minutes. Run knife around each cake and gently lift out of pan. (Can be made 2 hours ahead. Arrange on baking sheet; let stand at room temperature. Rewarm in 350°F oven 6 to 8 minutes.)
Arrange crab cakes on serving platter; sprinkle with chives.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Black and White Cheesecake Squares and Gratitude Journals

Last year, a friend suggested that I begin keeping a gratitude journal, as a tool to nurture creativity and happiness. The concept is extremely simple, but according to many, it is transformative. Select a blank notebook, and each night, write down five things you are grateful for that day. Because you are writing for your eyes only, you can be as personal as you like. Try not to repeat yourself. This means that the big blessings like partners, children, friends and family are dealt with early on, and forces you to take note and take pleasure in the finer details of your life. So popular has the gratitude journal process become, that there is even a gratitude journal iPhone application, as well as various websites for those who would rather log their joys electronically, than with pen and paper.

I have only just started this process, so it is way too early to report on whether my creativity or happiness has been successfully nurtured however it has made me take note of the tiny moments of happiness that can get overlooked in the dizzy spin of a day around here. Sprinklings of bliss this week have come from:
- the divinely heavy smell of murraya flowers at dusk (orange jessamine to US readers)
- a good book in a long bath
- an excellent parking spot (the joy I get from this should never be underestimated)
- a lamb and onion sandwich created from leftovers
- a walk with a friend
- a helpful soul at the post office (also not to be underestimated)

These chocolate cheesecake squares gave me another moment of bliss a couple of weeks ago, as I watched a friend's daughter orbit around and around the plate until her mother said she could have one. For me, one of the great joys in cooking is watching the pleasure it gives others, especially when it is as pure and obvious as it was on this little girl's face. Definitely a moment of happiness that made me feel grateful .

Black and White Cheesecake Squares
from Martha
Makes 24

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
300g unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
21/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
250g cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup icing sugar

Preheat oven to 160C. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with baking paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on both long sides. Sift flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt into a large bowl. Cream butter and sugar with a mixer until smooth. Add 2 eggs and 2 teaspoons vanilla, and beat until smooth, scraping down sides of bowl. Reduce speed to low; add flour mixture. Increase speed to medium; beat until just incorporated. Reserve 1 cup of dough; cover, and refrigerate. Press remaining dough into bottom of prepared dish. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Bake until base is set and edges are puffed, about 25 minutes. Let cool in dish on a wire rack. Mix cream cheese, confectioners' sugar, and remaining egg and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla in a medium bowl. Spread over cooled base; crumble reserved dough on top. Bake until filling is set, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool in dish on wire rack, then lift out using overhang. Cut into 24 squares. Squares will keep in the fridge for three days.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fish Tacos and How To Achieve Work Life Balance in 7 minutes or less

I have been muttering to myself all morning about a promo for the Martha Stewart show this week. Get ready for it: if you are lucky enough to see the show on Tuesday, you are in for a treat: "Chefs Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert make coq au vin. Plus, how to get work-life balance and adorable Westminster dogs." I'm sure the coq au vin will be great and the dogs will be cute, but really, does anyone believe we can crochet up some work-life balance in the seven minutes between two commercial breaks?

Having done some time in a TV production office, I can tell you that this story came from some bright spark announcing in a production meeting that everyone seems to be talking about work-life balance. From there it would have been a very quick process of sourcing some interview talent (probably someone who has written a book on the subject), and writing up a brief. Today, the interviewee will be wheeled on, deliver their pithy pearls of wisdom and disappear again before a single mother has had time to make a school lunch while dialling in to a conference call. Pretending that this is a topic that can be conquered in seven minutes is not helping anyone, especially not those on the front lines fighting for work-life balance.

To me and my female friends, work-life balance is one of those intractable, thorny subjects. It means different things to different women and even different things to the same woman at different points in her life. It means compromises in the office and at home. It means choices that are hard, whichever way you go. It means second shifts and mother guilt, bruised egos and careers abandoned because balance proved impossible. In fact, I was laughing with a friend this morning about finding work that lets you be at home after school, and any time a kid is sick; that lets you have all school holidays off; that is pretty flexible so you can get to sports carnivals and Christmas concerts; that values your contribution on output not hours in the office. Oh, and we still want creative, fulfilling roles that makes us feel valued. Where are these work-life jobs? Not with Martha Stewart, I would bet. And the secret to finding them or maintaining a work-life balance is not going to be solved with a quick TV how-to. Even with Martha. OK, now that I have that out of my system, onto the tacos........

Whether or not you are struggling with work-life issues, whether you are time-rich or time-poor, these tacos are a fast, easy dinner. When I first saw the title in the current issue of Donna Hay, I imagined some sort of simmer of heavily-spiced fish, in the same way you simmer mince for beef tacos. I was wrong - the fillets of fish are dry-fried briefly in a pan, and then served in a tortilla with a punchy salsa, some coleslaw, pickled onions and avocado. I skipped the chilli marinade on the fish for the kids, and they also avoided the salsa, and the onions. The result was a good dinner for all of us: adults with the spices dialled up; kids opting for a plainer variety. A welcome change that was perfect for a hot night.

This was one of my choices for this month's We Made It challenge focusing at Donna Hay Feb / Mar 2010. If you are tired of under-utilising your cookbooks, feel free to join Melinda at Melbourne Larder and me - just drop us a line.

Fish and Coleslaw Tacos
adapted from Donna Hay Feb / Mar 2010, serves 4

2 tbl olive oil
1 tsp chilli flakes
sea salt
4 snapper fillets (approx 140 g each)
8 tortillas (Donna has a recipe for them in the mag, but that fell into my too-hard basket)
3 tbl mayonnaise
1 tbl white wine vinegar
1 cup finely shredded white cabbage
1 avocado, diced
coriander to garnish

Place mayonnaise and vinegar in a bowl and stir until well-combined. If it is too thick to tip from a spoon, thin it with a little water. Season with salt and pepper. Add cabbage, toss to coat, and place in the fridge.

Combine oil and chilli and salt and brush over fish fillets. (If this is for children, omit the chilli). Heat a non-stick frying pan over high heat. Cook fish fillets for 3 minutes on each side or until cooked through (you can tell it is done when it starts to flake easily). Serve in tortillas with coleslaw, pickled onion (see below), salsa cruda (see below) and avocado.

Salsa cruda:
Combine 250g chopped cherry tomatoes, 1 green onion, 2 tbls lime juice (I used lemon because I forgot to buy limes and it was fine), 2 tbls olive oil, 2 cloves garlic, 1 green chilli and sea salt to taste.

Pickled onion:
Place 2 red onions, 2 tbls white wine vinegar and 1 tbl olive oil and sea salt to taste in a non-metallic bowl. Allow to stand for 10 mins or until onion starts to wilt. Keeps well in the fridge.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Year of the Tiger Cupcakes

As well as Valentine's Day, tomorrow is Chinese New Year and the start of the Year of the Tiger. Don't you think that calls for some tiger cupcakes for the kids? I know I get carried away, but I am so excited by them - don't you love the picture!

The tiger faces are fondant, apart from the M&M eyes, with a chocolate cupcake and chocolate buttercream icing underneath. I can't wait for the reaction tomorrow. To all my readers, hope the Year of The Tiger gives you Luck, Prosperity and Longevity.

Classic Chocolate Buttercream Cupcakes
from 500 Cupcakes by Fergal Connelly
225g unslated butter, softened
225g caster sugar
225g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 tbls cocoa powder
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
100g chopped plain chocolate
2 tbsp double cream
50g unsalted butter, softened
100g icing sugar, sieved

Heat oven to 175C. Place 12 large cupcake papers into a muffin tin. Combine all ingredients in an electric mixer and beat with the whisk attachment for 2-3 minutes. Spoon the batter into cases. Bake for 20 mins. Cool in the tins for 5 mins then remove to a rack to cool completely.

For the icing, combine chocolate cream and butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir gently until combined. Remove from heat and add icing sugar, stirring until the icing is smooth. Spread onto cupcakes.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Salmon, Potato and Bean Salad With Horseradish Pesto

I'm hot. Very hot. Smoking hot. But before you get the wrong idea about me completely, let me reassure you that it's not just me. The kids are hot. The dog is hot. The house is hot. Even the cold water is hot. I'm not joking. Weather wise, February is my least favourite month in Sydney. because it is so stinking hot and humid that to walk anywhere feels like a swim. Picture a city that is completely sweat-soaked, and breathing hard, and you have a good idea of what I see around me.

Poet Les Murray describes this much better than I ever could in "A Retrospect of Humidity":
"the Lycra-bulging surf drips from non-swimmers
miles from shore, and somehow includes soil.
Skins, touching, soak each other. Skin touching
any surface wets that and itself
in a kind of mutual digestion.
Throbbing heads grow lianas of nonsense."
So that's what my head has been full of: lianas of nonsense. Unrelenting rain last week only made matters worse, as the evaporating puddles on the ground have added to the dampness in the air. I know in a couple of weeks, temperatures will subside, the humidity will lift and we will all feel better, but for now, we are all flattened by a steamer.

No surprises then that I am currently drawn to salads. Salads for dinner have been a welcome development in the last few months, made possible because my children have finally moved beyond the "er yuk it's green" stage. (If you listen carefully, you can hear wild cheering from me). I used to find myself picking the finely chopped parsley off pasta in a restaurant because the kids thought green was so contaminating that nothing could be eaten with even a green fleck in it. I slowly eased them into iceberg lettuce ("hey kids, it's just crunchy water"), and from there gradually started expanding the variety of leaves. They don't love it, but they will eat it. The stronger bitter leaves are still a bridge too far, but one they will eat is baby spinach. In case you were wondering, when I first gave them spinach, I didn't tell them it was spinach. I was worried that the word "spinach" would sound kid alarm bells, in a way that the taste would not. I just said it was a "new leaf" for them to try. Worked for me, anyway.

This salad caught my eye in the latest Donna Hay Feb / Mar 2010. It is quick and easy, and with the potatoes, it really is sufficiently filling for dinner. Smoked salmon fillets are available in the supermarket, so your only cooking is the potatoes and beans. The rest can be thrown together. Even the pesto - just use store bought and stir in some horseradish, if making your own seems like torture in this heat. Incidentally, Donna's horseradish pesto was tasty, although I upped the amount of horseradish to give it a bit of extra zing. You won't be surprised to hear that the kids wanted to have theirs without the pesto. No complaints from me: you've gotta walk before you can run.

If you are cooking anything from Donna Hay Feb / Mar 2010 this month, email me or Melinda from Melbourne Larder. We'd love to have you join us on our We Made It challenge.

Salmon and Potato Salad with Horseradish Pesto
adapted from Donna Hay Magazine Feb/Mar 10
serves 4

750g baby potatoes
300g green beans, trimmed
2 x 200g hot smoked salmon fillets
60g baby spinach leaves
Horseradish pesto, recipe below

Boil potatoes until tender (12-15 mins). Remove from water and cool slightly. Boil beans for two mins until tender (you can use the potato water). Drain and cool slightly. Slice potatoes and place in a serving bowl with salmon, beans and spinach leaves. Drizzle with pesto, and some extra olive oil, if you would like to use it. Serve.

Horseradish pesto: (you can use store bought and stir in some horseradish)
2 1/2 cups basil leaves
2 -3 tbls bottled horseradish, depending on taste (not horseradish cream)
2 tbl pine nuts
2 tbl finely grated parmesan
1/4 cup olive oil

To make the pesto, put all ingredients, plus salt and pepper in he bowl of a small food processor and process until smooth.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Angel Food Cake and Caramel Cream

Angel food cake has always held a special fascination for me. Who knows where I first heard of it, maybe on Happy Days or the Brady Bunch, but the thought of "angel food cake" has been rolling around my head for a long time. Even the name conjurs up an image for me of a perfect fluffy white cake, and maybe an American mother behind it wearing a gingham apron. An overactive imagination indeed, but for the longest time, the image was all I had. There is no angel food packet mix available here. You can't buy angel food cake at bakeries. It isn't served in cafes or restaurants. So all I could do was wonder about its look and its taste.

Then last year, I decided the time had come to make an angel food cake and try it for myself. So I scoured my American cookbooks for recipes, and was surprised at how few offerings there were for angel food cake recipes. I suspect the ubiquitous packet mix probably means that most people don't make angel food cake from scratch. However, Martha Stewart came to my rescue
(thanks Martha!) with a recipe that turned this cake into a long term project. The recipe requires twelve egg whites, and without any plan for disposing of a dozen yolks, I couldn't bring myself to make it. Hence the long term project. Since, egg whites freeze beautifully, I started saving them every time I made a sauce or a dessert or anything else thickened with a yolk. Lots of little ziploc bags marked "1 white" or "3 whites" filled my freezer, until I reached the magic number 12.

Then all my planets aligned. Some American friends were coming for afternoon tea, so it was time to defrost the whites and make them a classic American cake. Next issue: there is such a thing as an angel food tin, which is a deep ring tin with a loose bottom. I do not have one, and have no plans to buy one either. But I do have a little old ring tin. Because it was much shallower than the tin envisaged by the recipe, I had enough left over batter for a loaf cake as well. So I got two angel food cakes for the effort of one. And did it live up to my imagination? I would have to say yes. It was sweet and very light and fluffy - you can tell it is a first cousin of a meringue. I served it with a strawberry sauce with raspberries, and a caramel cream suggested by Martha. Because the cake does not have a strong flavour of its own, I would definitely recommend some sort of flavoured sauce or cream if you are making it. Incidentally, this caramel cream is so good, it actaully deserves a post of its own rather than being bolted on here. I will definitely whip it up again and again to serve with almost anything. The slightly bitter notes of caramel give the cream so much more than just a spoonful of sugar or vanilla. As my younger daughter says "scrumptiousdiddlyumptious".

If you are making an angel food cake, here are a few tips gleaned from around the net:
- DO NOT grease your tin - it will affect how high your cake rises
- when Martha says sift the flour five times, or add sugar 1 tbl at a time, trust her. This cake is all about getting as much air into the batter as possible.
- gentle folding is essential. The recipe creates a suspension of flour in the egg white - heavy handedness will destroy it.
- amazingly the cake cools upside down in the tin, and through some bizarre trick, the cake does not fall out.
- you need to ease the cake out very gently. Run a knife around the edges and then slowly nudge it out.

And don't forget about my Masterchef and Dandi giveaway. You have until the end of Feb to enter.

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon plain flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
12 egg whites
1 tablespoon warm water
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 160 degress, with rack in lower third of the oven. Sift together flour and 3/4 cup sugar. Repeat sifting four times.
Beat egg whites and the warm water with a mixer on low speed until foamy. Add salt, cream or tartar, and vanilla, and beat on medium speed until soft peaks form, about 3 minutes. With mixer running, gradually add remaining 3/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Raise speed to high, and beat until peaks are stiff and glossy (but not dry), about 2 minutes more.
Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Sift flour mixture over egg-white mixture in six parts, gently folding in each addition with a rubber spatula. Gently pour batter into a 10-inch tube pan. Run a knife through the batter to release any air bubbles, and smooth with an offset spatula. Bake until cake is golden brown and springs back when touched, 40 to 45 minutes.

Invert pan on a wire rack, and let cake cool about 1 hour. Carefully run a paring knife around side of cake to loosen, then unmold onto the wire rack. Serve with caramel whipped cream, if desired.
Caramel Whipped Cream

Makes about 3 cups
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
Pinch of coarse salt
2 cups whipping cream
Prepare an ice bath; set aside. Cook sugar, water, and salt in saucepan over medium heat, stirring once, until sugar is dissolved. Continue cooking, without stirring, until sugar turns golden amber. Remove pan from heat; slowly pour cream down sides of pan in a slow, steady stream (it will spatter). Return pan to medium heat, and stir with a wooden spoon until combined.

Transfer caramel cream to a mixing bowl set in ice bath; let sit until very cold, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Mixture can be refrigerated overnight. Before serving, whip the caramel cream until stiff peaks form. Use immediately.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fig and Mozzarella Salad

I have written before about why I like Donna Hay recipes. Apart from the delightful photography and styling of her magazines and cookbooks, she earns her place in my kitchen pantheon for the utility of her recipes. If you are time-pressed, but still like to put a "from scratch" dinner on the table every night, Donna's your girl. Her dishes are good-tasting and good-looking, and simple enough that there is usually no possible margin of error. Most of her recipes have only a handful of ingredients, and none of them are ever too difficult to source, even at 6.45pm on a Wednesday night. While other recipe writers might challenge you more, with demanding technique, or wow you with exotic flavour combinations, there are days when a simple Donna salad is unsurpassable.

Like today. I was racing around like a mad thing trying to get 75 things done and it was only 9am. I needed petrol, and as I stood, filling my car, I was listing the day's tasks in my head. After about 20 seconds, I started to panic about how I was going to get everything done. The only option - breathe deeply and just get on with it. So I hopped into the car and headed off to the supermarket. It was only once I was a couple of kilometres away, I realised I hadn't actually paid for my petrol. A new urgent task - return to the petrol station and pay before I was thrown in jail or hunted down by a current affairs program. By the time I got back to the petrol station one of the attendants was busily reviewing the camera tape for my licence plate details. Happy ending. Stolen petrol paid for. No jail. No news crews. Repeat after me "Breathe deeply and do less".
This month's We Made It challenge is focusing on Donna Hay Feb / Mar 10. The We Made It challenge began because Melinda from Melbourne Larder and I both wanted to put our cooking magazines to use, instead of treating them as bedtime reading or coffee table decorations. After mining Gourmet Traveller in December and Delicious in January, we have arrived at Donna in Feb. I must admit that I was expecting a beautiful Valentine's spread in this month's magazine and instead it is all about keeping life easy in summer: 50 Fast Dinners, a feature on an amazing array of tacos and some luscious fruit desserts. But maybe the gods (or Donna) knew what they were sending me: I think this is probably a good time for me to be concentrating on keeping things simple.
This fig salad fits that mantra: figs + buffalo mozzarella + baby rocket. I wound up also adding some crisped pancetta just because it needed using. Donna's dressing was equally simple - just caramelized red wine vinegar. On a crazy busy day, this is a great salad recipe to keep in your back pocket.

Fig and Mozzarella Salad
adapted from Donna Hay Magazine Feb / Mar 2010

6 fresh figs, halved
180g buffalo mozzarella torn into chunks
80g baby rocket leaves
100g pancetta, cooked in a 180C oven until crisp (5 mins)
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/3 cup water
1 tbl caster sugar
2 tbl olive oil

To make the dressing, mix vinegar, water and sugar together in a small saucepan over high heat. Stir to dissolve sugar, then boil until it seems syrupy (2-3 mins). Set aside and allow to cool (pouring it into a cold bowl will speed the process). Arrange figs, mozzarella and rocket in a salad bowl (with pancetta if using). Drizzle with glaze and olive oil.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Chocolate Cherry Slice

When I was growing up, Violet Crumbles and Crunchies were my favourite chocolate bars. Both featured honeycomb and chocolate, and I remember biting them slowly and letting the shards of honeycomb slowly fizz and dissolve with the chocolate in my mouth. Such was my devotion to these honeycomb masterpieces that no other chocolate bar held much appeal at all, and some I even viewed with outright hostility as a complete abomination. Sounds extreme, I know, but children have strong views about this stuff. And by far, my least favourite chocolate bar was the Cherry Ripe, a sludge of cherries and coconut, dipped in dark chocolate. This was the chocolate I always gave away, or threw away. I didn't like the look of it or the taste at all.

But then I grew up. And I fell in love. Twice. Once with my husband and once with chocolates and cherries. Okay, that last bit is a little bit exaggerated, but I do really love chocolate and cherries together now, even in a Cherry Ripe. When I spotted the recipe for this slice in a Martha Stewart Holiday Cookie magazine, all I could think was "Cherry Ripes but better." And it was. I have since made this recipe a couple of times and I need to pass on a warning. This slice is so good it will make you want to keep sneaking tiny little corners, largely because of the intense chocolatey flavour, with a little kick of salt in it. So much so, that I need to give away most of every batch because otherwise I will eat it up. Dried cherries aren't always easy to find here, but sometimes they are available from health food shops. If you can't find them, or they are too pricey, consider substituting dried cranberries.

Chocolate Cherry Crumb Slice
adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes about 20 small squares
1 1/4 cups dried cherries, coarsely chopped
1 1/4 cups unsalted butter, all but 2 tablespoons cut into small pieces
1 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup water
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, lightly toasted
2 cups plus 7 1/2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Vegetable oil cooking spray

Preheat oven to 160C. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan then line with baking paper, allowing a 2-inch overhang. Bring cherries, 2 tablespoons butter, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, and the water to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until almost all liquid has been absorbed, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in 1/4 cup granulated sugar. Let cool, stirring occasionally, until sugar has dissolved.

Whisk together cocoa powder, salt, brown sugar, toasted coconut, and 2 cups flour in a bowl. Blend in remaining butter with a pastry blender or your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse crumbs; press 3 lightly packed cups cocoa mixture into prepared pan. Bake until just set, about 20 minutes.

Put egg and remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment; mix on medium-high speed until pale, about 4 minutes. Fold in cherry mixture and remaining 7 1/2 teaspoons flour; stir in chocolate. Spread mixture evenly over crust; sprinkle with remaining cocoa mixture. Push down on the topping but only very lightly. You want a crumbly texture after baking. Bake until a cake tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack. Run a knife around sides; lift out of pan. Cut into squares. Bars can be stored up to 5 days, either at room temperature or in the fridge. (Keeping it in the fridge gives it a fudgier texture).

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Strawberries Poached in Their Own Juice For Valentine's Day

As I look around the web at all the Valentine's Day offerings, a small part of me feels a little sad, and a little jealous, because this year I won't be celebrating. Just like I didn't celebrate last year and I won't be celebrating next year. In fact the last Valentine's Day I celebrated was in 1988. My darling husband and I were in the very early throes of our romance. That February night, under the weight of boyfriend expectations, he booked a table for two at a quaint restaurant with a good reputation. But it was a soggy Valentine's Day that year. By the end of the afternoon, the rain was bucketing down so heavily that Valentine's Day cards had to be written in waterproof ink. More religious minds were probably thinking about arks. No matter. My love came to collect me and off we drove to dinner.

As you all know, the heavier the rain, the less likely a parking spot. And so it was for us. But eventually we arrived at the restaurant, now both hungry and wet. A waiter ushered us to our table, just beside the door, and with a flourish, gave me a half-dead rose. Apparently this was part of the Valentine's Day "gift for the Ladies". But before I could enjoy the moment, I was hit with a new downpour, and so it continued for the rest of the night. We were seated so close to the door and the rain was so heavy that anyone entering or leaving the restaurant gave us a good spray. Add to that a very ordinary meal and a tragic wandering troubador, and you can understand why my then-boyfriend announced on leaving "We will never do that again." To him, Valentine's Day was a con, and that was the end of it for me. But every year, you can find me looking at the cards and the chocolates a little wistfully, wondering if that first night had gone well, what might be different now.....

Chris at Mele Cotte has sent out her annual call for recipes for Cucina D'Amore, her "kitchen of love" for Valentines Day. So here is a recipe that would be wonderful for romantic souls. Strawberries poached in strawberry sauce - just the thing to feed each other at the end of a candlelit supper. The sauce tastes so intensely of strawberry, that I finally understand the flavour that bottled strawberry sauces are trying to achieve. But instead of tasting synthetic like those bottled sauces, this tastes sweet and intense, with the slightly sour note of the berries stopping it from being too cloying. I made these strawberries originally to be served with a chocolate meringue cake, but they are so delicious they stand up on their own. In fact, the sauce was so lovely, that I kept the leftovers after we finished the strawberries and tipped raspberries into it, and finished it up that way. I will definitely be making this again - you just need to make sure that strawberries are in season, or your Valentine budget will be blown.

Strawberries Poached in Their Own Juice

1 kg strawberries
Zested rind and juice of 1/2 orange and 1/2 lemon
75g caster sugar

Chop 750g strawberries into smallish chunks and place in a large heatproof bowl with the lemon and orange zest and juice. Cover tightly with several layers of plastic wrap - I used three. Place over a large saucepan of simmering water, and leave them to cook for about an hour. At this stage the strawberries should look very pulpy, and they should have lost a lot of their juices. Tip into a sieve and strain, without pressing down on the pulp (you don't want the tiny strawberry seeds).

Tip juices into a deep frying pan, add the caster sugar and stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Slice the strawberries lengthwise in half or thirds depending on how big they are. Add to the juices in the pan, and bring up to a simmer. Remove from heat and cool completely. Store in the fridge. Serve with cream, ice cream, cake or love.

Masterchef and Dandi Giveaway

Is there a better way to kick off the year than with an unexpected gift? I was approached by the people at Dandi, asking if I would be interested in hosting a giveaway for my readers. If you haven't come across them before, Dandi are a Sydney based design house specialising in the design of fabric and tableware. They have an online store, and also sell through leading homeware shops around the country.

Dandi is offering four of my readers a pack containing the Masterchef Masterclass DVD (yes, a compilation of George's and Gary's best recipes and tips) and a set of beautiful Dandi tea towels. In other words, the inspiration to make a mess in the kitchen, plus something lovely to help you clean it up. Now if only George and Gary would come over with the tea towels....

All you have to do to enter is take a look at the Dandi website and let me know which colour you would prefer in a tea towel: chocolate, duckegg blue or marshmallow pink, or something completely different, and why? And while you are there, check out the free downloads for napkin folding - looks to me like a great way to keep the kids occupied next time guests are coming over.

The competition will run until the end of February. You can either leave a comment here with your colour preference or you can email me at . Competition is open to Australian residents only. Winners will be picked for originality. Good luck!

(And, in case you were wondering, I am not being paid or sponsored to run this competition: I just thought it was too nice an offer not to pass on!)