Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Marmalade cake

Some tastes you grow into. When you’re little, you want sweet, plain and simple. With toast you want jam. Specifically, you want strawberry – something straight-forward and sugary: reasonable, red, familiar. Then you graduate to something a little more sophisticated, a gateway fruit, maybe a raspberry. You come to like that slight sharpness with the sweet, and from there you start contemplating that most grown-up of grown-up spreads: marmalade. You never would have entertained the idea of chunks of tart chopped-up orange on your toast some years ago, but now, that citrussy sour-sweet is somehow what you crave each morning. How did that happen?

Though strictly speaking, cake is not for breakfast, this particular one is actually kind of perfect as the first meal of the day - soft and golden as the sunrise, its bittersweet bite as good a wake up as a cup of coffee.

Come to think of it, cake for breakfast is kind of a childhood fantasy, so maybe you aren’t as grown-up as you thought after all. Phew.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

My grandmother's fruit cake

December and January are - in Australia anyway - associated with one cake. Though it's often called Christmas cake, fruit cake straddles the summer. For me it's evocative of catching up with rellies in between present shopping and menu planning in the lead up to the 25th, and of morning teas in rest areas on road trips in the new year. It goes as well with bone china, as it does with tea from a thermos. My grandmother Irene, who I've talked about here before, many times, was famous for her fruitcake. When she died, my mother took up the tradition, and now, this year, it falls to me. In mum's cooking files, I found my grandmother's original handwritten recipe. Curiously, it listed only the ingredients, and no mention of method, but after a little internet research I was able to take a stab at how they combined. The key point of difference in any fruit cake, it seems, is whether or not the fruit is boiled. From what I gather, the boiling is a shortcut to allow you to make the cake the day you want to eat it, speeding the softening of the dried fruit. My grandmother did not believe in short cuts, so I elected to take the long road and soak the fruit the night before. Really, this took no time at all and required nothing more than a bit of measuring out. The next day, it was just a matter of combining the plumped, boozy fruit with the remaining ingredients to form a rich, robust batter, pouring it into a tin and baking it for three hours in a slow (low) oven. Though I didn't have either of my senior fruit cake advisers on hand, I did have the help of my dad's 16 year old neighbour William, a keen baker with 2nd and 3rd place wins in the fruit cake division of the Brookfield Show behind him. On the lookout for a prospective 1st place recipe, he offered his services and I gratefully accepted. I'm pleased to report it was a win for both of us, the cake pulled from the oven as good as I remembered my grandmother's and my mother's: deep brown, moist, and fragrant with citrus, dried fruit and the memory of those who'd made it before me.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Pomegranate molasses butter cake

My friends bought a house. After years of slogging through the Sydney real estate wilderness, ruining their weekends inspecting overpriced, dark, dilapidated terraces and missing out at auctions, they ended up in the perfect place: not in Sydney.... but close enough to commute. Instead of aircraft overhead they have hang-gliders drifting silently down from an impossibly green escarpment up above, instead of staring at their neighbours, they now look at the ocean, and instead of abandoned shopping trolleys on the streets of their neighbourhood, there are swings rigged from trees (mostly with views). There's a lot to celebrate. A cake was called for. 

I came across this recipe just recently via the New York Times Cooking app on my iPad (which I highly recommend for its free access to the newspaper's entire database of recipes as well as handy videos on technique). I loved the simplicity of it - a basic butter cake kicked up a notch by a glamorous (yet inexpensive) ingredient - pomegranate molasses. This dark, sticky syrup is incorporated into every part of the cake - the batter, the frosting and even into the caramelising of the nuts on top - itdistinctive sweet/tart zing offsetting the buttery richness. A lovely diversion from the expected, and all the better for it.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Mum's orange cake

A few weeks ago, my mum died. There's so much to say but I just don't have the words right now so I'll stick to talking about cakes, which seems appropriate here in this space - specifically this cake, which is the first one my mother taught me to make. It's the one that was routinely requested for birthdays in my family, the one most often packed in school lunchboxes. In a time before food processors, she showed me how to cream butter and sugar with the natural warmth of my hand. She taught me how to separate eggs, how to beat yolks in, one at a time so as not to curdle the mixture. How to gently fold in flour, to beat egg whites into stiff peaks and use them to aerate a batter. From her I learned how to grease a tin, to butter comprehensively and dust with flour. She taught me to use a skewer to test whether a cake was ready to come out of the oven, to trust my nose to know when to check. In many ways, I'm a naturally anxious person - I routinely fret about things that need not be fretted about - but the one part of my life that I'm truly confident - where I do not fret - is in baking. And that's because of her

This recipe is one I photocopied and packed when I moved out of home. Mum must have ripped it out of a magazine at my grandparents' place I imagine (it was never her style to buy something so frivolous but she couldn't resist reading one if it was lying around, especially the recipe section). From the date at the bottom of the page I know it's from two months after I was born, so effectively, she's been making it all my life. There are several recipes on the page but Mum has annotated this one with an asterisk and in her amazingly consistent handwriting, which now brings me to tears, she declares it excellent. And so do I.

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.