Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Cake in a Hurry

Well I've been slack on the Christmas cooking this year. Organisation, Planning and I have parted ways and I am now on catch up duty. Although in reality apathy may win. As long as I cook one or two baked goods I can delude myself into believing that I have done my Christmas duty. So a cake and some shortbread may be about it for this year.

Once upon a time I was very good. I would soak the fruit for my Christmas cake for a month prior to cooking. I would make multiple cakes to give to family. I would decorate and feed each cake with religious devotion. Now I'd rather spend that extra time ensconced on my couch with an episode or two of trash TV. I think that's what they call maturing.

20yrs later I still use the same recipe, only my timeline has shortened considerably. The good old Grand Marnier Fruit Cake from Best Recipes from The Weekly (1991). Is there a household in Australia that doesn't own a copy of a Woman's Weekly Cookbook? They must be few and far between. This rich cake has served my family well. Whilst I often change the fruit content, using simply what I have on hand in the pantry, the essence is the same each year. And in those 20 years I haven't had a single failure.
(Even found a picture of my very first Christmas Cake)

The recipe does suggest soaking your fruit for 10 days, but I have soaked it as little as overnight (or two nights this year) and it is still moist and rich. In fact the longer it sits after cooking the richer it becomes. The only difference is perhaps in colour. The longer the fruit soak the darker the cake seems to turn out. The smell and sound of Grand Marnier as it hits the hot cakes is divine, and really it's not Christmas until the house is infused with that rich, heady scent.

The last few years I have made multiple tiny cakes, which I wrap and store in the freezer to be defrosted throughout the year. Whilst I love the look of the bigger cakes, they can be harder to store.

The fruit mix can suit your taste and budget. It works out at roughly 2kg of dried fruit. I have made it using everything from the recipe below to dried mangoes, peaches and pears. Somehow the addition of the Grand Marnier makes it all work.

20mins preparation
10 days soaking
3-31/2 hrs cooking for one large cake
45-50mins for 6 small cakes
(My little tins and bell tin, which also makes a fantastic alien head cake for kids)
Deep cake tin (20-23cm round cake tin)

500gm sultanas
250gm mixed peel
125gm raisins
125gm dates
125gm prunes
125gm glace apricots (or dried apricots)
125gm glace pineapple
125gm dried cranberries
60gm blanched slivered almonds
60gm walnut pieces
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
½ cup Grand Marnier
½ cup castor sugar
½ cup orange juice
250gm butter
½ cup brown sugar
5 eggs
2 cups plain flour

Day 1
  1. Chop larger fruit (eg dates) into the size of the sultanas.
  2. Place all fruit, zest, and nuts in a large bowl.
  3. Spread castor sugar evenly over the bottom of a heavy based pan. Cook on medium heat until sugar begins to melt and caramelise.
  4. Remove from heat and add orange juice. Be very careful as it will spit and bubble.
  5. Return to the heat and stir until all the toffee pieces have dissolved.
  6. Do not boil or you will lose too much liquid.
  7. Remove from heat and add Grand Marnier. Allow to cool.
  8. Add cooled Grand Marnier liquid to the fruit and mix thoroughly.
  9. Place mixture in a large sealable jar or container.
  10. Mix fruit mixture well for each of the next 10 days.

Day 11 (or day 3 if slack like me)
  1. Preheat oven to 150C
  2. Cream butter and brown sugar until soft and well combined.
  3. Add eggs one at a time. Make sure each egg is well combined before adding the next. If mixture doesn't combine don't fret. When mixed with the flour and fruit mix, it will come together. It makes little difference to the final product.
  4. And the fun begins. Use your hands to ensure a thorough mix. Pour butter, sugar and egg mix into the fruit and mix well with your hands.
  5. Once evenly combined add the sifted flour.
  6. Line a deep 20x23cm round cake tin with 3 thicknesses of baking paper. Ensure that paper comes about 5 cm above the rim of the tin.
  7. Spread mixture evenly into tin.
  8. Bake for 3-31/2hrs.
  9. Remove cake from oven. Put some shallow holes in the top of the cake with a skewer.
  10. Pour 2-3tablespoons of Grand Marnier over hot cake. It seems a lot but the cake will soak it up. Do not stand over cake as fumes will make your eyes water.
  11. Cover cakes with aluminium foil and leave to cool.
  12. When cool remove from tin and discard foil. Leave the baking paper on the cake.
  13. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and store in a cool dark place or the freezer.

This cake will keep for a year.
Merry Christmas
Michelle :)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wholemeal Spelt Pasta

Well it's been a while since my last post. Between a broken router and crappy health, this poor old blog has been sadly neglected. But I'm back baby. And hopefully back on a more regular basis, if this pesky life business stops getting in the way.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to win a Baccarat Pasta Maker on the lovely Phuoc's fantastic blog, Phuoc'n Delicious. Check out her recipe for Black Sesame Dumplings, heaven and fructose friendly. I ate my body weight in the various dumplings on offer in Vietnam, and it's great that I can now feed my addiction in the comfort of my own home.  Or Com ga Hoi An, a delicious way to prepare the humble chook, and a favourite from our own time in Hoi An. Excuse me whilst I wipe off my Homeresque drooling. For those of you living in Sydney, she also has a series of great restaurant reviews. Her photography alone, makes me want to organise a weekend away to Sydney to sample the various culinary delights.

As many of you know wheat is no longer my friend and I have been searching high and low for a decent pasta replacement. GF is simply not cutting it for me. It is fickle, disintegrates if you boil it for 0.2 of a nanosecond past the recommended time, and does the same if reheated the next day. It is also ridiculously expensive. Ugh. I'm not sure why I bother. Spelt, however, is an obvious choice, with new research suggesting it may be okay for many with fructose malabsorption (FM). I love the strong flavour of spelt, especially the whole meal version. It makes delicious sourdough and even really lovely scones. It has an earthy nutty flavour and really once you have a tasty piece of spelt sourdough, traditional white bread seems the epitome of bland.

Making your own pasta is quite relaxing. Like bread making, I think I love the hands on approach it requires. You can feel and see the change in the dough throughout the process. And whilst there may have been a few expletives offered up during the process (in particular where I somehow managed to drop the handle from the pasta maker on my toe) it was really enjoyable. Even my youngest got in on the act. And frankly, if a 13-year-old boy is willing to put down his ipod and help out, you know it's good fun. I haven't made pasta for quite a few years after my last pasta maker succumbed to the long years of humidity in Darwin. So in many respects I felt like I was a pasta making virgin once more.

This recipe is a bit of a combination of a few recipes. Technique I have taken from Phuoc's great post on pasta making. Given that spelt has some quirks I have used a spelt specific recipe. I used a wholemeal spelt flour, simply because that is what I had on hand. But a white spelt would give a more traditional, smoother, pasta texture.

The wholemeal spelt it is quite filling (I often think of it as a 'meaty' flour) compared to regular white 00 flour. The following recipe was posited as a 2 person serve, but I found that it was more suited to 4 regular or 3 generous serves.

With practice the time required to roll and cut the dough would decrease, but the time suggested is for a first time pasta maker.

30mins dough preparation, including 20mins resting.
30mins rolling and cutting dough.
3-5mins cooking to al dente.

Pasta Maker
3 plastic coat hangers

2 cups wholemeal spelt flour
3 eggs at room temperature
splash of olive oil
pinch salt

1. Place flour and salt on a wooden in a pile and create a little well in the centre.
2. Beat eggs and olive oil together, and pour into the well.
3. Slowly mix ingredients together with your fingers until you form a rough ball.
4. Knead dough for about 5mins on a floured surface, until a smooth ball is formed.
(Okay so it's not perfectly smooth with the wholemeal spelt but you get the idea. Think of it as rustic.)
5. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 mins.
6. Cut the dough into 3 pieces. Keep one piece out to work on and re-wrap and refrigerate the pieces not in use. Wholemeal spelt dries out very quickly and you don't want it sitting on the bench turning to stone whilst you work on your other piece.
7. Flatten the piece of dough with your fingers and dust lightly on both sides with flour.
8. Follow Phuoc's excellent instructions on how to use your pasta maker. 
9. Hang you pasta on plastic coat hangers to dry a little.
10. Cook in plenty of salted boiling water for about 5mins, or until al dente. 
11. Serve with the topping of your choice.
(Left over bolognese sauce with cheese and fresh oregano leaves)

Tip 1: Either sprinkle the machine with flour or lightly dust the pasta each pass through. This makes the dough pass through much more smoothly.
Tip 2: Wholemeal spelt does not like the thinner settings of the pasta maker. I tell you this to save you hours of tears and sailoresque swearing. Anything below about the 4-5 mark and it fell apart. Having made pasta using regular 00 wheat flour in the past I have never had this problem before. I put it down to the rough nature of the flour. Having said that, using the 4-5mark it was still only about 1mm thick when fully cooked.
Tip 3: A second pair of hands is really handy when it comes to cutting the dough sheets into either fettuccine or spaghetti. I am all for using child labour in the form of your offspring to help.

The texture and taste of the final product are fantastic and it 'feels' like you are eating proper pasta. It is also cheap as chips to make. If you are avoiding wheat for FM and not Coeliac disease, I highly recommend making your own spelt pasta. 

Michelle :)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Semi-dried Tomatoes

Well Melbourne has tuned on her glory once again today. Pouring rain, grey skies, dogs that wont go outside to pee because they are scared of the big mean sky water. It's supposed to be Spring but I'm starting to think Melbourne may have some memory issues, or is easily distracted by bright shiny objects. Yesterday 35C, hot and humid. Today 18C, rain and a very soggy backyard. On a day like today you need to be reminded that it is Spring. And, these Semi-dried Tomatoes are perfect to jog your memory. Look at that top picture, bright shiny, fresh oregano from my garden and glorious red juicy tomatoes from my grocer. What more could you want.

I think I love this recipe mostly for it's simplicity. Five minutes of preparation, then sit back and let the oven do the rest. The smell that flows through the house with the slow roasting is amazing. And afterwards you are left with deliciously rich and irresistible semidried tomatoes. They go with everything. On top of some perfectly squishy poached eggs, spinach and sourdough. In a quick pasta with fresh basil and crispy panchetta. On top of a pizza for an extra flavour burst. On an antipasto platter. The options are only limited by your imagination.
(Labneh, semi-dried tomatoes, spelt sourdough, butterbean dip, roasted capsicums, marinated fetta, spinach from my garden, prosciutto and Hungarian salami.)

The final quantity of tomatoes usually only lasts about a week in our house as no one can resist them. The preserving oil can also be used as quick salad dressing as it absorbed all the flavours from the tomatoes and herbs.

5mins preparation
4+hrs cooking

1 1/2 kilo tomatoes
1 bunch fresh oregano
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1-2 teaspoons dried chilli flakes (depends on your personal heat tolerance)
1 tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
Salt and Pepper
Extra Virgin Olive Oil to drizzle
Good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil to cover 

Set oven to 140C

One of the keys to making soft semi-dried tomatoes, instead of the tougher variety often found in delis, is to remove the skin prior to cooking.
To remove tomato skins:
1. Bring a pot of water to the boil on the stove.
2. Score base of each tomato with a small cross.
3. Submerge each tomato in the boiling water for 30seconds then remove with a slotted spoon.
4. You'll notice the skin has started to lift at the edges of the cross.
5. Skins will now simply pull off.
To prepare tomatoes for roasting:
1. Line a large biscuit tray (I luckily have one that came with 90cm Smeg. it's perfect for recipes like this) or 2-3 trays with baking paper.
2. Cut tomatoes in half and lay on tray.
3. Sprinkle garlic, chilli and oregano leaves evenly over the halved tomatoes.
4. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
5. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Place tray in oven and allow to slow bake over minimum 4hrs. You may need longer depending on the size of your tomatoes and quirks of your oven.
7. Tomatoes should be substantially reduced in size, sticky and soft, but still hold their shape.
8. Put cooled tomatoes gently in a sterilized glass jar.
9. Cover well with olive oil. 
10. Use within 1 - 2 weeks.

Michelle :)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Spiced Pepitas (Pumpkin Seeds)

I am one of those annoying people who hates waste. I like to try and use up every last scrap of whatever I am cooking. Admittedly, my "it can go into the compost" line is used frequently, but every now and then I have an epiphany/moment of madness where I find another way to use up scraps.  One of my favourites was conceived whilst making a batch of pumpkin soup.

There is always a tonne of waste after chopping up a whole pumpkin for soup. Whilst, the skins generally, end up in the compost I decided that I would make the most of the seeds. I love pepitas/pumpkin seeds. I add them in everything from salads to my muesli bars. I also love them spiced up and used as nibbles with a glass of wine, or two.
This is a super simple recipe and, if you use your reclaimed pumpkin seeds, super cheap. The quicker way is to simply use a packet of pepitas from the supermarket, and they do work well. But my weird brain finds it rather satisfying to use what would otherwise be seen as scraps for the worms.

20 mins prep for fresh pepitas, 5mins if using a packet.
5mins cooking

Fry pan

Pumpkin seeds from whole pumpkin (or packet of pepitas)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (as good a quality as you can afford as you want to taste the flavour)
2-3 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 teaspoon chilli flakes or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder (smoked paprika also works well)
1 tablespoon salt flakes

*Alter quantities depending on the amount of seeds you collect.

1. Collect seeds from pumpkin.
2. Give a quick wash to remove remaining flesh.
3. Spread out on a clean tea towel to dry.

4. Mix olive oil, rosemary, chilli and salt flakes in a small bowl. Set aside
5. In a small fry pan dry roast seeds until they begin to turn golden.
6. Remove from heat and toss hot seeds in spiced oil.
7. Best served warm.
Very morish and a great alternative to beer nuts. The same mix also works well with macadamia nuts.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Easy Chocolate Mousse

Procrastination paid off yesterday.  Between contemplating my navel, and testing and retesting, that I can indeed touch my tongue to my nose, I stumbled upon a super easy chocolate mousse recipe.  I knew my decision to plonk myself on the couch rather than attend to my To Do List, was the right thing to do.

Flicking through channels I happened to land on an episode of Nigella Lawson's, Nigella Express series, just at the point she mentioned Instant Chocolate Mousse.  I'm pretty sure a beam of sunlight feel on the television and a choir of angels started singing at this same moment.  Oh so easy.  Oh so quick.  Minimal fuss. Few steps.  Perfect for a lazy sit down cook.

I jotted down the ingredients and excitedly rushed to my local supermarket.  Half an hour later six perfect little chocolate mousse portions were chilling in my fridge.  I like to think that they are almost a health food as I used Zymil's lactose-free, gluten-free, 40% less fat cream in the mix.  Surely the smooth, rich, chocolatey goodness is, if nothing else, good for the soul.

Makes 4-6 portions depending on your tea cups, and how much mixture you 'sample' during preparation.

Prep 10mins
Chilling time

Heavy-based saucepan
4-6 tea cups

150gm Mini Marshmallows (or large marshmallows diced)
50gm Butter/ butter substitute.
250gm 85% Lindt dark chocolate, chopped
60ml hot water
300ml (1 container) Zymil lactose-free cream
1teaspoon vanilla essence

1. Combine marshmallows, chocolate, butter and water in heavy-based saucepan.
2. Melt slowly over low heat.
3. When all ingredients are melted and combined, remove from heat.
4. Whip cream and vanilla essence until it forms soft peaks. (Zymil's cream will not thicken as much as standard cream, but this had little to no effect on the finished mousse).
5. Gradually fold cream into chocolate mixture, until well combined.
6. Pour into tea cups and chill.

The mousse is ready to eat in as little half an hour.  Perfect comfort food.  So good, that I may have had the last tea cup for breakfast this morning.

Michelle :)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Apricot Chicken: 80s Flashback.

If you were a child during the 80s in Australia, you've most likely eaten apricot chicken.  Every mother had her version of the this simple, yet tasty treat.  My own mother made a version with a simple three ingredients: chicken, apricot nectar and French onion soup mix.  My husband tells me that my mother-in-law went all out and used a total of four ingredients. Whoa, that's crazy talk. And now I have continued the tradition for my own children.

There's something comforting about the food from my childhood. Simply and tasty fare. Though hardly adventurous by today's standards.  Even now, I have hardly changed my mothers simple recipe.  Why mess with perfection? Given that my children frequently request this for dinner, it would seem that the recipe is still quite tasty.

Must admit I feel like I should have some Culture Club or Adam Ant playing as I cook this.  Given how Melbourne seems to have forgotten it's supposed to be Spring, I may just just grab out my old leg warmers and pull my t-shirt off one shoulder. 

Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma chameleon........(link)

Serves 4

10mins prep
30mins cooking

Heavy based pot.

1 tablespoon olive oil
4 chicken Marylands (you can use breasts, but using chicken on the bone gives a much better flavour).
850ml apricot nectar
1 packet dried French onion soup
1 teaspoon minced chilli
2 teaspoons minced garlic (or 2 fresh cloves crushed)
1/4 bunch coriander roughly chopped

Optional: 1 tablespoon corn flour 

1. Separate the leg from the thigh on the chicken Marylands. Remove excess fat and skin.
2. Heat oil in pot and fry chicken pieces until golden.
3. Sprinkle French onion soup mix over browned chicken pieces.
4. Add apricot nectar, chilli and garlic. Depending on the size of the Marylands, you may need to add some water to ensure chicken pieces are covered.
5. Bring sauce to the boil, then reduce to a simmer.
6. Put lid on pot.
7. After 20mins take lid off and allow sauce to reduce and thicken.
8. If chicken is cooked but the sauce is still too runny use corn flour. Mix corn flour with a little cold water to make a runny paste.  Slowly add the cornflour mix whilst stirring.  Sauce will thicken quickly.
9. Add coriander just prior to serving.
10. Serve with boiled rice.

  • Add 2/3 cup chopped dried apricots.  
  • Add a bunch of baby spinach.  
  • We are an onion-free family thanks to my food intolerances, but I have it on good authority that a diced onion cooked with the browning chicken pieces, is also a tasty addition.
Enjoy this little slice of 80s culinary delight.



Friday, October 21, 2011

Cheats Potato Pizza

A few months back I was faced with a common problem. Needing to make a meal for the family but having little in the fridge or pantry, as it was the day before my usual weekly shop.  When you have teenage boys with endless stomachs food simply doesn't stay in the house long.  Even when you think you have enough food stored in the house to survive a surprise zombie apocalypse, the teenage boy phenomenon highlights your poor preparedness with regard to survival provisions.

After hunting through the pantry, fridge and freezer I managed to scrape together enough basic ingredients to create what I call my Cheats Potato Pizza.  Luckily, whilst fresh produce was in short supply, I always have jars of various antipasto staples like pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and chargrilled red capsicum, and my spice and sauce cupboard is full to overflowing.  These items provide a lot of flavour for very little volume.  Even the olive oil the vegetables are stored in provides flavour when drizzled over the top of dishes.
I also grow my own herbs in pots in the small spot of sun in my backyard.  Which means I always have them on hand.  Well, except for when my two greats danes run off with a pot or decide they should pee on them. But other than that, I always have fresh herbs on hand.  Nothing compares to the flavour of fresh herbs, and I use them almost everyday.  Growing your own also makes economic sense, given that one bunch can be between three and four dollars at the supermarket.  My $2.95 pot of oregano has provided me with fresh leaves for over three years now.  Now that's value for money.

After discovering a few potatoes in the back of the pantry and a couple of sheets of puff pastry under some frozen bread, I was set.  The beauty of this recipe is that from a few basic bits and pieces, and whatever you have on hand, you can have a really tasty meal.  Simply change the toppings to what you have lurking around in your fridge.

Makes 3 pizzas.

20mins prep
30mins cooking

Pizza trays.  The one in the photo is great, I have four.  The holes on the base ensure a nice and crispy pizza every time. Alternatively, use a normal baking tray, then for the last 5mins slip the pizza off the tray directly onto oven racks.  Works a treat to crisp up the bottom.
3 sheets puff pastry
4 fist sized potatoes (approx. 800gm)
3 tablespoons basil pesto
4 sun-dried tomatoes
2 roasted red capsicums
2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
1 tablespoon chopped capers
1/2 cup goat or sheep cheese
250gm shredded mozzarella
Pinch chilli flakes
Salt & pepper

Balsamic vinegar & rocket leaves to serve.

1. Preheat oven to 200C
2. Wash potatoes, leave skin on.
3. Poke potatoes all over with a fork to prevent explosions.
4. Place a sheet of paper towel on a plate. Put potatoes on top and cover with another sheet of paper towel.  
5. Microwave on high for 4mins, or until potatoes are cooked.  Cooking time varies depending on size and type of potatoes.  I generally start with 4mins and then do 2min bursts until they are cooked.
6. Cut potatoes into slices, about 5mm thick. 
7. Score a 2cm boarder around each slice of pastry. Do not cut completely through. This allows edges to puff up nicely.  Poke holes in the centre portion with a fork to prevent rising.
8. Spread pesto evenly over each pastry sheet.
9. Top with sliced potatoes.
10. Sprinkle potatoes with tomatoes, capsicum, capers, chilli, herbs and cheeses.
11. Season with salt and pepper.
12. Cook for 30mins, or until crust is golden and flaky and cheese slightly browned.
13. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and top with rocket leaves.

The great thing about this recipe is that you can use any bits and pieces you have left lying around.  

Michelle :)