Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Graham crackers



In January this year, I did a road trip with a friend down Highway One, on the west coast of the US. The starting point for our trip was San Francisco and before leaving, we stocked up on snacks at the Ferry Plaza Farmers market down at the waterfront. In addition to the many stands outside selling the most amazing fresh produce (and Blue Bottle coffee), there were permanent stores inside just as incredible - cheeses, meats, and bakeries galore... which is how I found myself at Miette, a San Francisco institution, surrounded by delicate pastries, decadent cakes and countless other dazzling sugary treats. My fellow road-tripper Christina, a New Yorker, but frequent visitor to San Fran and Miette, pointed at a downright homely looking cookie - brown, flat, and round. That, she pronounced emphatically. That is what you want. I looked around at the other more obviously enticing choices - pretty pastel macarons, chocolate sablés glittering with salt crystals, elaborate multi-layer cakes - then at Christina's face, which said trust me and I ordered the graham crackers. I'm so glad I did.  


I'd read about graham crackers for years. They were always in American recipes as the biscuit base of a cheesecake, or in children's books as an after school snack. What were they, I wondered? Like a milk arrowroot? A gingernut? A shredded wheatmeal? Or maybe they were savoury, as the name cracker seemed to imply, like a Vita-Wheat or a Salada. (It occurs to me as I write this how oddly-named every country's traditional biscuits/cookies are) It turns out there is no Australian equivalent. 


Graham crackers are basically buttery, honey-flavoured cookies made with wholemeal flour. As noted, they're nothing to look at, but their homeliness is their greatest strength. There's something incredibly comforting about this unassuming cookie. They're warm (honey! brown sugar!) and delicious and easy to make, the sort of everyday cookie you can rely on. You know what else is everyday? The sunset. I saw plenty of those that trip, as I ate my way through that box of graham crackers. And both were spectacular.



Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Freekah pilaf



I'm afraid I haven't got into quinoa. For a number of reasons. One, it seems tricky to cook, two, it's expensive, and then there are those allegations about its appropriation by middle-class white folk depleting the supplies of a staple food in its less white, less middle-class country of origin. So my experiments with alternatives to rice and couscous and pasta have led me in a different direction. First to barley, which I love in this risotto, and now to the fantastically-named freekah. Who else to turn to for a recipe to showcase the wonder of this relatively little-known ancient grain but Yotam Ottolenghi? He's got a new cookbook just out - Plenty More - but this is from the original Plenty. All the usual Ottolenghi suspects are there - fresh herbs, onions, yoghurt, spices, garlic...  coming together in a creation that's cool and sweet, warm and nutty and just wonderful. It's a great side dish to serve with meat (roast lamb would be great), or as part of a vegetarian spread, or just to eat in a bowl on its own, like a risotto or fried rice... but a little left-of-centre. With a name like freekah, how could it be anything but?


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Cocoa hazelnut brownies



Some good friends of mine moved house on Monday. I, by contrast, have not moved very far from my computer in the last month with a seemingly neverending string of deadlines. So to make something for their move, that required me to move only as far as my kitchen, where all the ingredients were waiting for me, I turned to these brownies. The ones I usually make require a bit of forethought, as they contain prunes that need to be soaked for three days, but these cocoa hazelnut numbers take about as long to make as the decision to make them, which you'll see, after your eyes graze over these images (or these, from the original source) is not very long at all.


Most brownies are made by melting butter and dark chocolate, but here, the chocolate is swapped for cocoa. I'd been looking for a recipe to showcase the contents of the catering size bag of Italian Pernigotti cocoa I'd lugged back from Seattle (of all places) last year and this proved perfect. Dense, dark, delicious. Worth moving for. Whatever the distance.


Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Egg salad with pickled celery



There was a time when the thought of egg salad made me screw my face up with disgust. It was soggy, it was smelly, it was the food of retirement homes. Maybe it's because I'm getting older but I prefer to think that my recent change of heart is due to discovering a version that features CRUNCH. 

    
Celery's the sort of thing that you buy for use in a recipe and end up with more left over than you used in the first place. At the risk of sounding like an episode of Portlandia, here is the solution - pickle it! Or at least some of it. If only for an excuse to try something you'd previously disdained. The briny zing of the pickle in combination with the sharpness of mustard and the sweetness of shallot obliterates all memory of that bland pastel mush. With some fresh herbs, on a roll, it really is the prettiest and most delicious sandwich. Egg salad! I'm a convert (with caveats). After all, you have to change your mind to prove you have one.


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Alfajores



I first became aware of dulche de leche a few years ago. It kept popping up on American food blogs - a sweet South American staple which had been appropriated further north as a frosting on cakes, and a flavour of ice-cream. It was paired with bananas in pancakes and muffins, dolloped in thumbprint cookies, oozed out of doughnut holes and molten chocolate desserts, and was purportedly so good, it was eaten straight out of the jar.

The next time I was in the States, I made it my mission to track some down, but I was in Seattle, a town known for many things but not its huge Latino population (or Latino grocery stores).  To cut a long story short, after a great deal of research, I got my hands on two jars (one for me and one for my friend Elizabeth), lugged them all the way back to Australia, only to discover that I could make it myself with nothing more than a tin of condensed milk (readily available in any old supermarket). Well, technically speaking, dulche de leche is made with a few more ingredients, and Smitten Kitchen has a recipe I have no doubt is great if you want to go that route. But just know that the same rich, thick, copper-coloured caramel can be yours with one ingredient, an oven and a bit of time. And once you've got a jar of this stuff, the dessert world is your oyster. It's a quick and easy way to turn something quite standard - like the humble shortbread cookie - into something special.


Alfajores are Argentinian cookies - thick, dark dulche de leche sandwiched between two pale discs of melt-in-your-mouth shortbread. The good news is that the cookies are as easy to make as the caramel. They're lighter than traditional shortbread, a good thing given how rich the filling. I like them with a cup of black coffee to balance the sweetness, but milky coffee drinkers, and drinkers of plain old milk will no doubt revel in the creaminess of that combo. So next time you're in the supermarket, pick up a can of condensed milk. One will yield enough dulche de leche to make these cookies, and leave some leftover for you to experiment with... or just eat straight from the jar. Por qué no?


Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Cherry pie



My friend Amy and I have known each other since we were babies. We grew up with mothers who were excellent cooks, and sandwiches in our lunchboxes made with wholemeal - and often homemade - bread, so naturally our form of rebellion was not so much cigarettes or binge drinking as Sara Lee frozen desserts. Which is why it's so hilarious that I found myself making pie at her place last weekend. And not once but twice - as the first time I mistook the sugar for salt and vice versa, resulting in a dough that would - if my error had not been spotted - have derailed forever our homemade efforts. To be honest, I've always been a little afraid of pie dough. Somehow it always seemed like science, and that's never been a strong suit of mine. To minimise risk, I'd always made it in the food processor and the first batch I made - more play doh than pie dough - I did that way. But when it became clear that a second batch was needed, the food processor was under suds in the sink and the clock was ticking (Amy's four year old, who'd enthusiastically assisted in the mixing of the fruit filling, was expecting THE WORLD'S BEST PIE - no pressure there - before bed) so I hastily threw flour and chilled butter into a bowl, along with some sugar and salt (in the correct proportions) and ice-cold water and did what all the books and blogs tell you to do. Don't handle it too much. Leave big streaks of butter. Don't worry if it seems dry. And you know what? It worked. Pastry that was flaky, beautifully browned and buttery. Though I love cherries, it's not a flavour of pie I'm usually drawn to as they've a tendency to be gloopy. Not this one. We demolished it as soon as it was out of the oven, and not just because there was a four year old up way past her bedtime.


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Strawberry sorbet



Winter in Australia is different to winter in other parts of the world. It means strawberries. It means the occasional day that is not merely mild, but downright warm. With this being my 100th post, it seemed as good a time as any for ice-cream... well, strawberry sorbet to be exact. It's hard to believe that just three ingredients and very little effort (all the heavy-lifting is done by the machinery involved) produces something as spectacular as this. The whole lemon gives a lovely zing to a fruit that in refrigerated (much less frozen) form can often be quite blandly sweet. Instead, with its inclusion, the flavour matches the colour in intensity - scarlet, sticky, sweet.


Have it in a cone, or a bowl, or straight out of its freezer container with a spoon. Have it simple and unadorned or marry it with mascarpone, meringue, rose petals and pomegranate seeds - like Yotam Ottolenghi in this month's Bon Appétit - for a Middle-eastern mess. Have it with kids, with a vegan (no eggs or dairy!), or even a person who doesn't like strawberries (I swear, it may convert them). However you have it, ice-cream is always a celebration. Happy 100th. Thanks for reading.