Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Roasted almond thumbprints

I hung out with an eight year old on Friday night. I had several half-empty jars of jam in the fridge. We made thumbprints. What's not to like about cooking in which you're required to stick your thumb into a soft mound of dough? What's not to like about filling each little crater with different shades of sweet, sticky jam? What's not to like about something you can make quickly and not have to wait too long to eat? The appeal, really, is universal.

As a rule, the thicker the filling in the thumbprint, the better - the homemade raspberry jam I had was a stunning colour but its runny consistency meant it leaked into the cracks of the cookies, which though delicious, was somewhat less visually enticing. Particuarly successful was lemon curd - a puckering pop of bright, sour sweet against the nutty, buttery base of the cookie. Vegans, if you're feeling hard done by reading this, skip the lemon curd, stick to the jam and check out my friend Elizabeth's recipe for an egg and butter-free version. They're delicious. The ones I made also use nuts - in the form of roasted almonds - which make them slightly more labour-intensive than your basic butter/sugar/flour/egg thumbprint, but I would argue more subtle and satisfying. The cookie tastes of almond rather than sugar, so you're able to appreciate the jam more, and importantly, the combination of the two. Like someone with small thumbs and someone big enough to use an oven. Together, they make one great cookie.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Date and orange spice loaf

There's something incredibly comforting about a loaf cake you slice and slather with butter. Perhaps because they remind me of my childhood. Of picnics with my grandparents. Of thermoses of tea and dinted metal cake tins. Of long socks and Lion's Parks on road trips. This weekend, with the weather rainy and cold, I wanted one. 

This is an incredibly economical recipe, using just one egg, and a relatively modest amount of butter and sugar. All the flavour comes from the dates, their deep caramel sweetness cut with the freshness of orange zest and crunch of pecans. The spices mellow everything out, as does the wholemeal flour, which I threw in in place of half the amount of plain, which seemed right, and it was. This cake keeps amazingly well, and days later, tasted just as good as when it was fresh out of the oven. I could have kept eating and eating it but, showing remarkable restraint, stashed half in the freezer for another rainy day.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Grain salad with golden beetroot, apple and hazelnuts

Last week I lost my appetite. The cause was nothing too dramatic, just your garden variety head cold. But I couldn't get enthused about cooking and pretty well ate nothing but soup from Monday to Friday. As it abated, approaching the weekend, I began to feel like actually eating rather than just sipping from a spoon - food that made me feel like less of an invalid but wasn't too much of an afront to my dulled tastebuds and delicate system. As luck would have it, I happened on a bunch of golden beetroot. 

Granted my excitement threshold was dangerously low due to being stuck at home in bed for a week, but it was a bit like finding the golden ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the (wildly less popular) vegetable version. I'd learned to make this salad last year in Copenhagen where golden beetroot were as prevalent as the red sort we're used to here in Australia, sliced up on our burgers, and staining our clothing pink. The taste and texture are the same, but the colour... the colour! Subtle, where the other is strident. Glowing gradations of gold. 

The beetroot is roasted, then tossed with cooked grains, toasted hazelnuts and diced apple and the lot doused in a slightly sweet, lightly acidic dressing. It's chewy and crisp, crunchy and clean. You can use any sort of grain you like - I used farro - and if you can't get your hands on the golden sort, regular old beetroot would be fine, though your salad will be somewhat more pink. In any case, this feels like fighting food, as if you're getting better, stronger just by eating it, which is, in a sense, the real golden ticket. You can't say that about chocolate.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Chocolate and almond cake

I really didn't intend to post another chocolate recipe this week. I was hoping to share one for a rather lavish lemon meringue cake, which I set out to make for a friend's birthday on Saturday. But it was a disaster. Operator error I think, I can't blame the cake. Fearful of scorching the meringue, I took it out of the oven too early and when I came to assemble it, realised that the centre was gooey and not in a good way. In an uncooked batter, make you feel sick kind of way. I know because I ate a fair bit of it, as I assessed whether this was a salvagable situation. Could I cut out the middle and fill the centre with cream and lemon curd? In the end, I decided against it and at the eleventh hour, chose to start from scratch. I didn't have the nerve for another lemon meringue. I didn't have much time. I needed something fail safe. Something simple, but still special enough for a birthday. Stephanie (Alexander) was my salvation. Her recipe for chocolate almond cake to be precise. That my butter was fridge-hard wasn't a problem as it was melted down with chocolate. It didn't have layers, didn't need frosting. The cooking time wasn't too long. In about an hour, I had a cake. Derived from the French reine de Saba or Queen of Sheba's cake, essentially this is a flourless chocolate cake (and thus gluten free) but with lots less butter than the traditional sort which is far richer and more oozy in texture. This version is bolstered by ground almonds, which means it keeps nicely should there be leftovers and holds its shape packed in a lunchbox. Stephanie says it's easy to make on a whim, or in my case, in a blind panic about having only an hour to make a replacement birthday cake. Both are valid motivations, both result in a cake that's light, not too sweet yet satisfyingly chocolatey. Dust with icing sugar, dollop with cream. Done.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Chocolate raspberry brownie cakes

Chocolate and fruit is a matter of personal preference. I've never been fond of the chocolate-dipped strawberry, which is often upheld as the epitome of deliciousness (albeit by advertisements for shopping centres or luxury hotel chains). Chocolate and orange on the other hand, I've long been a fan of - so much so that once, on a trip to Europe, I visited York out of love not so much of the Brontes but of Terry's Chocolate Orange. I favour the milk variety, though I certainly won't knock back the dark if it's on offer. As a rule, dark chocolate is generally the one to pair with fruit: less sweet, more sophisticated. It works wonderfully with pear, as evidenced in the most crowd-pleasing cake in my repertoire: pear, pistachio and chocolate cake. Another winning combination is with raspberry, where the sour/sweet of the fruit marries beautifully with the deep, dark depths of the chocolate. 

In this hybrid of brownie and cake, a crisp, crackly crust gives way to a fudgey chocolate centre, its richness offset by the tart burst of the berries. It works just as well with frozen fruit as it does with fresh, so you can make them year round. One is the perfect amount to satisfy whatever chocolate cravings you have. If you don't trust yourself to stop there, they freeze well... but I'm sorry to say also taste pretty good frozen. You were warned.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Lime polenta cake

In June this year, I travelled to London. I arrived very early on Sunday morning after two long-haul flights and a middle-of-the-night (or was it day?) stopover in Dubai. I hadn't slept in over 24 hours. I couldn't check into my hotel til the afternoon. To drop my suitcase there, I'd spent a good half an hour wandering aimlessly around Victoria Station, following the vague directions of people who meant well but clearly had no idea. I couldn't get my phone to work. Despite the fact it was techically summer, it was cold, colder than the winter I'd left in Sydney. It started to rain. Putting on my raincoat, I got my hair caught in the zipper. So basically, I was not in a good mood. And then somehow, in my jetlagged, cranky, sodden, sleep-deprived state, I stumbled into this:

At the Yotam Ottolenghi deli in Belgravia, I ordered a flat white and a little lime polenta cake and things suddenly seemed somewhat sunnier, despite the grey gloom outside. In the above photo, you can see my selection tucked away up the back, on the right, just below the glorious pile of pink-tipped meringues. Though they weren't the showiest of the offerings on display, there was something incredibly cheery about their warm citrus glow. This weekend, I had a go at recreating it for a picnic with friends. 

This recipe is not the original Ottolenghi - alas, that's not reproduced anywhere I could find - but it comes from no less reputable a source than Mary Berry, the 80 year old British cake doyenne, and judge of The Great British Bake-Off. I've mucked about a little with the recipe, but only as so far as to swap her preferred glaze for a shimmering sheen of lime-infused frosting sprinkled with pistachios, as that was my memory of that Sunday morning in London. Made with almond meal in place of flour, it's gluten-free, should you need any of those recipes in your repertoire. Or need your mood changed, for whatever reason. Guaranteed to turn grey skies blue.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Granola bars

On Tuesday I travelled to Newcastle, a port town 160km or so north of Sydney. My train left at 7.15am. The friend I was meeting was making me breakfast on arrival at 10am. I didn't want to set the alarm so early to make myself a pre-breakfast breakfast. I didn't want to spoil my actual breakfast with some overpriced, underbaked muffin from Central Station. So I packed a granola bar, for a snack as good as the view.

Sure, I could have bought one, but making them (the day before) had the advantage of using up all the bits and pieces of dried fruit and nuts I had in my pantry. Plus, these taste way better than any that come out of a box. You might say, on reading the recipe, that that's because of the butter and sugar involved, to which I'd say - wouldn't you rather know what you were eating rather than puzzle over some indecipherable chemical on the side of a packet? You might say, don't those mystery ingredients make them last longer? But I'd say the homemade sort freeze beautifully and defrost quickly. Not that you should rush to that storage solution - if you're a regular snacker, these will last at least a week in an airtight container out of the fridge. Provided you don't eat them all at once, as you may well be tempted to do.

You can use whatever combination of fruit and nuts you like. In this batch I tumbled in almonds, pepitas, dried apricots, dates, shredded coconut and raisins. The chunkier ingredients I chopped roughly. Feel free to improvise any way you like. Swap fruit for dark chocolate or cacao nibs, nuts for chia or sesame seeds. Put in peanut/almond butter or leave it out. It's entirely up to you. And that's the best reason of all to give them a go.