Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Lightly-cured salmon

This time last year I was in Copenhagen. Freezing in spring, eating my weight in kanelsnurre and trying not to get run over by bicycles. I loved it. One of my favourite memories is of the cooking class I did, where I learned to make many of the things I'd become so infatuated with during my time in Denmark. Scandinavian food is having a moment and it's easy to see why. It's about eating seasonally, sensibly and simply, with a respect for tradition. This lightly-cured salmon is a perfect example. During the Middle Ages, Nordic fishermen would preserve their summer catch by salting and burying fish in the sand above the high tide line. Since then, generations of Scandinavian home cooks have adapted this technique by "burying" salmon in a dry rub of salt, sugar and dill. Some add a splash of alcohol too - acquavit, vodka, even gin. After a couple of days in the fridge, you simply rinse off the rub, slice the fish thinly into orangey-pink ribbons and enjoy. I like it Smørrebrød-style on rye bread spread thickly with labneh and sprinkled with capers and red onion. You could also serve it - as the Scandis do - with boiled potatoes, mayonnaise and some kind of crunchy slaw or pickle. It's slow food that's fast to prepare. The best of both worlds.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Pistachio and orange blossom cake

When I was growing up, there were two birthday cakes in heavy rotation in the family repertoire. Devil's Food was one and orange the other. As a child, I was pre-programmed to love anything chocolate, but orange had the edge in one important way: its colour just made you happy - just the sort of thing to brighten your lunchbox the day after your birthday when the candles had been blown out and all the presents unwrapped. Now I'm an adult, but orange cake for birthdays never gets old. And so I made one for a friend on the weekend.

This a celebration cake that's both simple and luxurious. Two different types of nuts (almonds and pistachios) enrich a sweet, buttery base whose texture contrasts beautifully with a smooth mascapone frosting streaked with zest and fragrant with orange blossom. Because birthdays should be bright. Orange, always.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Caramelised fennel grain bowl

A few weeks ago, I was in the United States. Every place I went, grain bowls were everywhere. I did not want a grain bowl. I was in the United States. I was on holiday. I wanted burgers and doughnuts and pizza and pancakes and pie. And Mexican food. I came home after eating all those things and I wanted a grain bowl. So I made one. Grain bowls are the new salad. As the name suggests, instead of lettuce or greens, they're built around grains: brown rice, quinoa, barley, rye, freekah and, in this case, farro. To this sturdy base, are added all sorts of different flavours and textures - salty, sweet, crunchy, chewy, spicy... You don't really need a recipe, but because I'm a recipe-follower, I found one, and liked it so much I've made it a number of times now. Fennel is a particular favourite of mine. I like it raw as much as I do braised but I'd never had it caramelised before. It turns out it couldn't be easier - just roughly chop the bulb into bite size pieces, tumble them into a skillet with a bit of oil and a sprinkling of sugar and watch them turn from white to deep, delicious coppery-brown. Add this to the cooked farro along with some sharp, salty fetta, chopped, toasted pistachios (for crunch), lemon and mint (for freshness), harissa (for heat) and dates (for sweetness). It's salad that's healthy but hearty, and packed with flavour. Better for you than a burger, and just as good.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Chocolate spice cookies

There's a lot to be said for simple. Margherita pizza. Good-quality vanilla ice-cream. A plain croissant, fresh out of the oven, with a cup of black coffee. Less is more. And then there's Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born, London-based chef du jour whose recipes read like an encyclopedia of ingredients. Crazy combinations in odd quantities that echo cultures but aren't conventional, layering tastes, traditions, techniques... More is more. It shouldn't work at all but it does. Case in point: these chocolate spice cookies. 

On my last visit to Hobart, one of my Tasmanian friends presented me with a jar of homemade cookies (is there any better gift?). She's a brilliant baker, and everything in that jar looked incredible but my eye immediately went to these - dark, mysterious, intriguing... They were plump, polka-dotted, glistening with glaze and garnished with gold. Like no other cookie I'd ever seen. I took my first bite and a million flavours exploded at once - bittersweet chocolate, bright citrus, warm spices... Together, they were spectacular. I immediately went home and researched the recipe because I knew they wouldn't last long. Last week, I made them as gifts for friends who'd cheered me up after a crappy day. There's something about these you feel compelled to share.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Root vegetable tarte tatin

I had a really bad day Friday. The sort where one thing rolls into another and somehow by late afternoon you've managed to lock yourself out of your apartment. Fortunately I have a lovely neighbour, who let me use her phone, and a good friend with a spare set of keys who drove heroically across town in peak hour traffic to my rescue. Fortunately, when I got back into my apartment, this was waiting for me in my fridge.

Tarte tatin is one of my favourite desserts. Root vegetables lend themselves well to this savoury version - sweet potatoes in particular, especially if you can find them in a variety of colours. At my local fruit and veg shop, I was able to get purple and white varieties as well as the familiar orange. Sliced thickly and roasted, along with carrot, parsnip and red onion, they make a gorgeous patchwork of colours, their natural sweetness enhanced by a lick of caramel, offset by chopped herbs and goat cheese and complemented perfectly by a rich, all-butter pastry. 

The kindest thing you can do for yourself when you're feeling low is feed yourself well. And ideally, share that food with someone, like I did Friday night with a good friend who came around to cheer me up. Sitting on the grassy headland at Coogee, watching the sun set and the waves break, drinking red wine from plastic cups and nibbling tarte tatin from an alfoil package, the day ended so much better than it began. And that was enough.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Chocolate rye crumb cake

When I travel these days I'm more drawn to supermarkets than musuems. I could spend hours wandering the aisles, entranced by unfamiliar packaging, exotic ingredients and produce from opposite seasons or different climates. My best souvenirs come from here. I brought back juniper berries from Denmark last year, apricots from Tasmania in January and a few days ago, in Portland, I picked up some cacao nibs. I couldn't wait til I got home to open the packet. An opportunity presented itself to make a cake and I jumped on it. Lately I've been experimenting with different kinds of flours. The wholemeal chocolate chip cookies started it all, but then there was an apple, rye and ginger teacake that left me with extra rye flour for another project. And in the January 2015 issue of Bon Appétit I found it. It called for cacao nibs, something I'd looked for in Sydney without success. I'm sure they're somewhere to be found in the city but with a deadline looming, a suitcase to pack and little point in making a cake just before getting on a plane, I decided to pick some up on my holiday.

Cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been roasted, separated from their husks and broken into little pieces. They taste chocolatey but not sweet. A little fruity, a little nutty, they're like the thinking man or woman's chocolate chip. Here, they add a bittersweet crunch to the crumb topping, a beautiful contrast to the rich, smooth, darkly sophisticated cake beneath. Made with both yoghurt and buttermilk, it's incredibly moist and keeps well for days if you store it in an airtight container. This is good news for anyone with people coming for dinner on a weeknight or a school bake sale to cook for. It was good news for me, just eating a piece outside in the cold with a cup of drip coffee and a view of a snow-covered mountain that came out from behind a screen of cloud as if just for me. And when I make this cake again back on the other side of the world sometime, I'll remember that moment.

Chocolate rye crumb cake
Adapted from a recipe in the January 2015 issue of Bon Appétit

As it contains more essential oils than other flours, rye flour is best stored in the fridge or freezer.

1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup rye flour
1/4 cup flour
3 tablespoons cacao nibs
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt (or 1/8 teaspoon table salt)
1/4 cup unsalted butter, chilled and chopped into pieces

3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup rye flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt (or 1/4 teaspoon table salt)
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup Greek yoghurt

First, make the crumble: whisk sugar, both flours, cacao nibs, cocoa and salt in a medium bowl til blended. Work in butter with your fingers to form large clumps - there should be no dry spots. Cover and chill.

Preheat oven to 350 deg F. Grease a 9 inch springform tin and line the base with baking paper. 

Now to the cake: whisk both flours, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. In another bowl, cream butter and both sugars til light and fluffy (about 5 minutes in a mixer). Mix in eggs, one at a time, then add vanilla and stir til blended (another 2 minutes). Fold in half the dry ingredients, then the buttermilk. Once combined, add the remaining dry ingredients, followed by the yoghurt to make a stiff batter. Scrape into prepared tin and scatter crumble over.

Bake, rotating once, til cake starts to pull away from sides of pan and a tester inserted in the centre comes out clean - about 60-70 minutes. Let cake cool in pan on a wire rack before turning out.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Plum torte

It's been a good summer. Full of ocean walks, harbour swims, stone fruit and of course, cake. And when that cake is made with summer fruit, and eaten outside then it's a win-win-win. Though I've misleadingly pictured apricots above (because how could I not when they're this beautiful?), the cake above left is a plum cake. And a famous one at that. From 1982-89, Marian Burros' recipe was printed each summer in The New York Times. Despite a warning from editors and a final printing of the recipe in large print with a border to encourage clipping, when it didn't appear the following year the newspaper's readers rioted. Ever since, it has been a perennial recipe on its pages. I can see why. A base of pale, buttery cake rises up around dark fruit that transforms in the baking into perfectly sour-sweet pockets of jam. It looks and tastes like something you've picked up at a patisserie when really all you did was potter around in your kitchen for fifteen minutes one morning before heading out for a swim.