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.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Beetroot relish

One of my earliest cooking memories is helping my grandmother with morning tea. Technically, what I was delegated to do was not so much cooking as arranging pieces of cheese on Jatz crackers and topping them with gherkin or corn relish. This savoury selection was only part of a lavish feast my grandmother Irene laid out every Sunday for her immediate family. In addition to my grandfather Cec, there would be my (great) auntie Ursula and uncle Ed, and my grandmother's brother Kev and his wife Joan. Sometimes one or more of their children would pop in. With their children. And occasionally my parents, who would be picking my brother and I up from an overnight stay. There were many chairs around the table and the table itself was always groaning with food. My grandmother was renowned for her fruitcake and that was always at the centre of this spread, but on any given Sunday there could also be scones or pikelets, maybe something else sweet too but the Jatz and cheese were a mainstay. So I took my responsibility seriously. 

When it came to entertaining, my grandmother knew her stuff. Cheese and crackers is a winning combination, but made just that bit more special with a little something extra. So when I made this beetroot relish last week and served it up to a friend with some cheddar and crackers, it reminded me of her. In truth, I'm not sure she would have entirely approved, what with beetroot's propensity to stain, but she couldn't argue with the taste: sweet and lightly spicy, perfect with the creamy sharpness of the cheese, and the salty crunch of the cracker. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Rhubarb, honey and lemon cake

Everyday cake is not so much cake to be eaten seven days a week, but one that can be made in a pinch with pantry staples. If you have unexpected visitors or a sweet itch that needs to be scratched. Or feel like making a cake, but not going to the shops. This is that cake.

Butter, honey, flour, milk, and eggs are things most of us have on hand at any time. Most fruit bowls will contain a lemon. Rhubarb, I'll concede, isn't a regular in anyone's shopping basket but any fruit will do, though the more tart types - like raspberries - will balance out the sweetness of the honey... as does a dollop of Greek yoghurt.

The honey (in place of sugar) gives the finished cake a beautiful burnished gold exterior, and the rhubarb a pretty pop of pink. Every day should be this good.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Smoked fish smørrebrød

Mostly for lunch I eat leftovers. But for the weeks in which I'm not doing a lot of cooking, I  rely on a loaf of sliced rye in the freezer. In Copenhagen last year, I fell in love with smørrebrød - traditional Danish open-face sandwiches on dark rye bread. Every deli or bakery, café or restaurant sold some variation of this lunch-time staple. You can make a smørrebrød out of anything, but a typically Scandinavian topping will include something pickled or smoked. Probably the favourite smørrebrød of my stay came from a deli near the Botanical Gardens (Aamanns, if anyone is visiting) which featured a thick slab of blue cheese (as long and wide as the rye it perched on) sprinkled with hazelnuts and pickled sultanas, something I've since tried to recreate at home with limited success. This smoked fish topping, however, has been much more successful. Probably because it contains only a handful of ingredients - smoked fish, red onion, dill, lemon juice and sour cream - and comes together in minutes by mashing everything together with a fork. Its cold, salty creaminess contrasts nicely with the crispness of the toasted rye, which ably supports a nice thick trowelling of topping. Any leftover topping works well as an emergency pasta sauce, as I recently discovered after coming home late from a long day. Just wind through cooked pasta on the stovetop for one minute, just long enough to heat through.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Ginger cake with lemon and pistachio icing

Ginger is a flavour I've only recently come to appreciate in baking. Perhaps because in childhood it was associated most strongly with gingerbread, which in turn was associated most strongly with Hansel and Gretel, who were punished for nibbling on a house made of it by being almost cooked alive by a witch.

This isn't a gingerbread though - it's lighter, and more light-hearted than that, containing as it does, a whacking big amount of golden syrup and a rich, buttery frosting. This is cake, make no mistake -  sticky and squidgy, sweet and indulgent... There's something quite wonderful about the fusion of adult flavours (ginger, lemon, cloves, pistachios) with those of childhood (golden syrup, icing sugar, cinnamon). A bit like having your cake and eating it too. With no fear of witches.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake

The New York Times had a pretty bad week. I am not here to defend peas in guacamole, but their cooking section generally, which is right more often than it is wrong. For a few months now, I've had bookmarked Melissa Clark's recipe for St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, for the name alone. Apparently, the original dates back to the 1930s, when a baker miscalculated the quantity of butter in a coffee cake. Rather than throw it out, he carved it up, sold it by the square and Missouri was never the same again. 

It's a mashup of two very different cakes: an elegant, yeasted bottom layer - as refined and establishment as a twinset and pearls - and an over the top, brassy, bottle blonde bombshell up above. Unlikely friends but they complement each other beautifully, coming together in a single cake that is, as advertised, gooey and buttery... oozy and sweet and utterly moreish. The edges are particularly good - chewy and crisp. Grab a corner if you can.