Tuesday 30 December 2008

Chestnut, parsnip and orange soup

On the weekend I was over the other side of the river and dropped into Prahran Market because it is the cheapest place that I have found for buying chestnut puree in Melbourne. The reason I needed a tin of puree was that my mum had given me leftover parsnips from the Christmas dinner and yet again I thought of Sophie’s chestnut, parsnip and orange soup.

Although the weather was too warm for such a wintery dish, the soup seemed perfectly festive for this time of year. I also had some of the spiced walnuts leftover from my Christmas salad that seemed jut right as a garnish for the soup.

I didn’t quite follow Sophie’s instructions. She roasted her parsnips before simmering them, but I didn’t fancy turning on the oven in the hot weather. She also used whole cooked chestnuts but I am not sure where to buy these in Melbourne – apart from on street corners and experience has taught me that it is preferable to let someone else peel chestnuts for me. I was a little concerned that the soup would be a bit thin as it cooked, but it did come together to be just the right velvety consistency.

Sophie notes that there is not much that you can do to make the soup unhealthy. But I did use butter instead of olive oil, in the spirit of seasonal indulgence. Then I added more seasoning because I still find chestnut puree a little strangely sweet - I even checked the tin to make sure it wasn't sweetened this time after a comment from Lysy when I last used chestnut puree. Nevertheless, the soup still felt quite healthy and, with a piece of sprouted bread from the market, was a substantial meal.

Health concerns aside, this soup was delicious. The flavours are warm and cosy. It the perfect soup to take a sprinkling of nutty spicy garnish if you do have some spiced walnuts on hand or the time to make some.

Chestnut, parsnip and orange soup
(adapted from Mostly Eating)
Serves 4

1 tbsp butter
1 brown onion, peeled and chopped
4 small/medium parsnips, peeled
½ carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
200g chestnut puree
1 litre vegetable stock
4 tbsp juice from a freshly squeezed orange (about ½ an orange)
Salt or extra stock powder, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

For the topping:
Four tbsp plain yogurt
Zest of half an orange
4 tbsp finely chopped parsley
4 tbsp finely chopped spiced walnuts*

*NB If you don’t have spiced walnuts, you can just add some nutmeg or spices of choice to the yoghurt mixture.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Sauté the onion, parsnips and carrot in for 10-15 minutes over a low heat. They should soften but not brown. Add stock and chestnut puree. Check seasoning. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare topping. Chop parsley and finely grate orange zest. Mix with yoghurt in a small bowl. Finely chop spiced walnuts

When soup has simmered for 20 minutes, check parsnips are cooked. If not, continue to simmer till parsnips are soft. Then puree soup with hand held blender or by other means such as food processor. Add orange juice and black pepper to taste. Thin soup with water or stock if too thick.

To serve, ladle soup into a bowl. Spoon some yoghurt mixture into the bowl and sprinkle with chopped walnuts.

On the stereo:
The BBC Sessions: Belle and Sebastian

Monday 29 December 2008

Christmas, Leftovers and Vegan Mayonnaise

Christmas Day is over for another year. The weather was sunny enough to eat Christmas lunch outside and there was lots of good food to share. But it is some of the quirky moments and observations of the season that I thought I would share here:

- Let there be light: I have already shared the sad news that our Christmas tree lights died after one glorious burst of illumination but we did find some lovely hot spiced cider candles to burn in the dark corner where the tree resides.
- When in doubt turn to the blog: I found a casual mention on an old blog post which inspired a present for E. Another benefit of blogging!
- Christmas television: The year’s best Christmas television was an old British black and white 1952 movie called The Holly and the Ivy. Well spotted by E!
- Random acts of kindness: Who are the kind strangers who left us flowers and Christmas decorations?
- Blog stat spike: I was surprised at how much my blog statistics have risen over the lead-up to Christmas with nut roasts being much sought after. It gladdens me that many other want to make nut roast over the festive season.
- Reported outburst at Christmas mass by 4 year old niece: ‘who is god, I don’t even know what he looks like and where he lives!’
- Bah humbug to our internet provider: we were most displeased to have internet connection problems as we settled into some quiet time after Christmas when we finally had time to surf!
- Favourite new recipe to use up Christmas leftovers: Vegan mayonnaise

Since I have been vegetarian, I have always made a cheese and walnut nut roast for my Christmas dinner. When I was young, Christmas was always followed by days of eating leftover meat. These days I enjoy my leftover nut roast in the days following Christmas. This particular nut roast slices up quite thinly and I love it in a salad sandwich.

On Christmas Eve I bought bread and salad in preparation for leftovers and on a whim decided to make some mayonnaise. I have always thought if I made mayonnaise I would prefer it without egg. This experience has confirmed the hunch. My main challenge was to find a recipe but I just checked the cookbooks where I’d remembered seeing it. My main inspiration came from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.

It was ridiculously easy. The one ingredient I found a little odd was the Chinese sesame oil. While I appreciate that it added flavour, I did wonder if 2 tsp was too much and might try only one tsp next time. My other disclaimer is that it wasn’t quite as smooth as the mayonnaise I have bought from the shops. However it tasted great and was much lighter so I felt able to eat more of it (NB I reduced the amount of oil and I think it could be reduced further).

I’d like to tell you how long this mayonnaise (or vegannaise) keeps but this batch only lasted 2-3 days. I served some with pumpkin, tofu and almond balls (inspired by this recipe) on Christmas Eve, and got quite a few salad sandwiches out of it. My favourite salad sandwich combination was lettuce, tomato, carrot, swiss cheese, nut roast and mayonnaise. In fact, I planned to cook dinner on Boxing Day but was so low in energy that we ended up having these sandwiches and finding them as good as anything I might have cooked. I also enjoyed just eating this mayonnaise on fresh bread with slices of tomato and a grinding of black pepper.

In the past I haven’t used mayonnaise much in salads etc because it always seems a little rich, and we don’t always have it in the house. Now I am curious to try this in a potato salad or a coleslaw. We have even had some warmer weather over the past few days which make me look forward to more salad sandwiches – with vegan mayo!

Vegan Mayonnaise
(adapted from the Enchanted Broccoli Forest and The Vegetarian Lunchbox)

125g firm tofu
2 tbsp cider vinegar
1-2 tsp Chinese sesame oil
1 tsp tahini
½ tsp mustard powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp chilli paste (optional)
¼ cup canola oil

Blend all ingredients in food processor except oil. Drizzle oil into mixture while processor is on.

On the stereo:
Bande à part: Nouvelle Vague

Christmas Pudding – more lessons from a novice

Last year I made the Christmas pudding for my family and posted the recipe and notes here. I think it was my second year making it. This year I made the same pudding again and found my notes very helpful. But I am still feeling quite a novice with much to learn so I am posting some reflections on this year’s pudding and on the further challenges I have faced in my quest to be a domestic goddess.

Firstly I had to contend with Zinc climbing the fly wire door in an effort to get outside and E playing gloomy neofolk music – I am sure these two things aren’t at all related. However, E finds the pudding such a drama that I am sure he would claim it was driving him to play such music. Honestly, the pudding is like another personality living in the house in the weeks up til Christmas!

Soaking the fruit the night before isn’t too difficult but this year I found the liquid seeping through a large crack in the pudding basin. I added a little extra alcohol to compensate when it came to mixing the pudding. Sadly the bowl has had to go, so next year I will need a new one because my other mixing bowls aren’t big enough.

My main problem last year was trying to produce a pudding with the floured crust intact. This year I failed again but felt I got a little closer to success. It was only when I talked to my mum after cooking the pudding that she pointed out that I should be boiling it not steaming it if I cooked it in the cloth. Apparently boiling it helps to make the crust which in turn protects the pudding against water seeping in. I have a fear of immersing the pudding in a large saucepan of boiling water and it becoming watery mush but when I faced my fear this year, it worked fine. The pudding held together and tasted great - a rich, dense and moist mass of fruit.

I even managed to get the flour to stick to the cloth this year by spraying it with water after sieving flour on the cloth. I used rather a lot of flour (a couple of cups I think) which is much more than I observed my mum do when she floured the cloth to wrap the pudding for boiling on Christmas day – so I am not sure if my pudding cloth was too dry or if I was using too much flour.

Once the pudding was cooked I was worried I had to dry the cloth really well and so it hung for a couple of days before I dared to peel the cloth off. But by the time I did the floury crust was very dry and stuck to the cloth. So next year I think I need to heed the instructions in my cookbook which say to take the cloth off after the pudding has hung overnight. But as with last year, I scraped the pudding crumbs off the cloth and used them to make truffles.

The other trial I faced was finding a pudding cloth. I found one in a store midyear and put it away for when I made the pudding. It was nowhere to be found so I tore up another old pillow case. It was only a week or two after making the pudding that we pulled out our Christmas tree decorations and found the pudding cloth stored away with them. Not very smart of me, given I make the pudding before we decorate the tree!

There are many other interesting variations on the Christmas pudding throughout the blogosphere so if you want to see recipes other than mine, here are a few:

Christmas Pudding – Food Glorious Food

Guinness Christmas Pudding – Domestic Goddess in Training

Aunt Mabel’s Christmas Pudding – An Elegant Sufficiency

Tropical Christmas Pudding – Lisa’s Kitchen

Very Low Fat Christmas Pudding – Joanna’s Kitchen

Rum and Craisin Christmas Ice Cream Puddings – Not Quite Nigella

Vintage Christmas Pudding recipes – The Old Foodie

On the stereo:

Heilige Tod: a tribute to Death in June – Various Artists

Sunday 28 December 2008

Festive profiteroles with salad

When I lived in vegetarian student households we would often have a vegetarian Christmas dinner to enjoy before we headed off to our meat-loving families where the turkey and ham ruled supreme.

I still love having this pre-Christmas dinner with E before heading off to a larger family dinner on Christmas day. These days, rather than savouring a vegetarian-friendly ambience, it is about having our own dinner and an opportunity for me to try some fancy dishes. We are also more aware of the summer solstice occurring around this time and so it is more of a seasonal dinner than on Christmas day. A lighter dinner is welcome, given that we face a heavy dinner soon after.

This year we had our dinner on the weekend before Christmas. I decided to adapt Rose Elliot’s gruyere profiteroles with pea sauce. That’s right! Savoury profiteroles. We are quite partial to more traditional sweet profiterole - little balls of choux pastry stuffed with cream or custard and smothered in chocolate sauce. So I liked the novelty of serving cheesy versions for the main course. Rose also suggested serving them as finger food but if I was to do that I would want them smaller than mine were.

Choux pastry seems decadent and rich even though it is not terribly difficult to make. But I was wary enough of it to make sure I was prepared with all ingredients measured before I started. Mine puffed up nicely in the oven but cooled quickly. I changed the cream cheese filling from fennel to red capsicum and garlic. With a little parsley, the colours were quite festive. The sauce I made was probably a little thick but pleasing, nevertheless. It was gloopy and smooth like mushy peas but fresher!

On the side, we had a festive salad, adapted from a Warm Pear Salad with Orange Vinaigrette and Spiced Walnuts in the Café Flora Cookbook. I added roasted pumpkin because I love it and pomegranate arils because they look festive. The walnuts were delicious when roasted with a fascinating blend of spices. When the orange vinaigrette was mixed with walnuts, the salad took on some of these flavours and became quite rich. But it was a fine accompaniment for the profiteroles which were simply flavoured with the cheeses and garlic.

For dessert, I was guided a little by circumstances. This year again, I had pudding crumbs from taking the cloth off the pudding, so I made condensed milk and pudding truffles as I had last year. I also made coconut ice to take down to the family the following day. Originally I planned to make a dessert in addition to these but, when I looked at how much food we already had, I decided that placing these in the centre of a seasonal fruit platter would be ample. I was so full after the main course that this platter was more than enough.

After our dinner we sat by the Christmas tree and watched the Polar Express while we continued to nurse a drink and nibble on the dessert platter. Good food is indeed one of the pleasures of Christmas!

Gruyere Profiteroles with Pea Sauce
(adapted from Rose Elliot’s Vegetarian Cooking)
Serves 4-6

Gruyere Choux Pastry:
50g butter
150ml water
65g plain or strong flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
100g gruyere cheese, grated

Green Pea Sauce:
15g butter
1 shallot, peeled and chopped
50g potato
100g green peas
Small handful of basil leaves, chopped
150ml water (or extra as required)

200g cream cheese
½ red pepper, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Pinch of cayenne pepper

iPreheat oven to 200 C (400 F). Gently heat butter and water in a medium saucepan till butter is melted then bring to the boil. Remove from heat and add flour, beating well with a wooden spoon. Return to heat and continue beating for 1 minute until dough leaves the side of the saucepan. (At this point it says to tip dough into a clean bowl but I forgot and continued in the saucepan). Add eggs half an egg at a time and beat each time till mixture has absorbed egg and is smooth and glossy (it may look a bit curdled when you first add it but will became smoother as you stir it). Stir in ⅔ of the gruyere cheese. Line a baking tray with baking paper and sprinkle with some water (apparently the steam will help the pastry rise). Drop spoonfuls onto tray and sprinkle with the rest of the grated cheese. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown and puffed up. When they come out of the oven, immediately pierce with a knife to let the steam out so they don’t go soggy.

To make pea sauce: Melt butter in a small saucepan and fry shallots and potato for about 10 minutes, covered. Add peas and water. Boil and simmer about 5 minutes. Add basil. Blend with hand held blender or in food processor. Season to taste. Add more water if it is a little thick. Can be made a few days in advance and rewarmed when ready to serve.

To make filling: Mix all ingredients together and set aside till ready to fill cheese profiteroles. Keeps for a few days in the fridge.

To assemble: Cut warm profiteroles in half and spread filling thickly in middle and then replace other half on top. Serve with warm pea sauce.

Pumpkin, Pomegranate and Orange salad with Spiced Walnuts
(adapted from Café Flora Cookbook)
Serves 4 as side

250-350g pumpkin, trimmed and peeled
Drizzle of olive oil
Pinch of salt
2 handfuls of rocket (arugula)
Arils of ¼ pomegranate
½ cup spiced walnuts (see below)
Orange vinaigrette (see below)

Chop pumpkin into small pieces. Place in roasting dish, drizzle with a little olive oil and add a pinch of salt. Toss so it is covered in oil and roast for about 40 minutes at 180 C or until pumpkin is cooked. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Toss pumpkin, rocket, pomegranate arils, spiced walnuts and vinaigrette together in a large bowl and serve.

Spiced Walnuts:
(makes 1 cup)
1 cup walnut halves
1 tbsp olive oil
¼ tsp each of ground cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin
⅛ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp salt (not rock salt)
1 tbsp icing sugar (powdered sugar)

Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). Toss walnuts and oil in a medium sized roasting dish. Add remaining ingredients and toss to coat evenly. Roast in oven for 10-12 minutes until crisp and brown, stirring halfway through. Keep an eye on them as they can burn easily if left too long. Cool before serving.

Orange Vinaigrette:
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tbsp orange zest
2 tbsp fresh orange juice
2 tbsp wine vinegar
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp olive oil

Place all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk together (or shake together in a jar).

LEFTOVERS NOTE: There were plenty of leftovers for the next couple of days. I learnt that choux pastry does not reheat well in a microwave. When we finished the profiteroles the next night (NB I didn’t fill them til just before we ate them), we had plenty of sauce and filling still leftover so I served the sauce with potato pancakes (inspired by Lisa and Ricki) which were ok but not great with it. More successful was using up the cream cheese filling as a spread on toast.

We also have walnuts leftover because I thought the amount made was too much for the salad. I used these to garnish a chestnut, parsnip and orange soup but they would be great as nibbles before dinner or as part of a festive platter. The recipe advises making them a few days in advance so the flavours permeate the nuts.

I also made an Apricot, Pomegranate and Orange Smoothie out of the fruity leftovers.

On the stereo:
Christmas: Low

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Coconut ice is very very nice

Coconut ice with its pink and white layers is the sort of kiddie sweet treats that regularly appeared at the hospital fete and school fundraisers when I was young. It couldn’t be anything other than toothachingly sweet but I did like it best when slightly soft rather than brittle.

Last month I visited my family on the weekend of my nieces’ birthday. As Grace is celiac and her sister Ella loves to eat Grace’s gluten free goodies, I sought a simple GF treat to take down. Browsing through my sweet recipe notebook I found a coconut ice recipe which just seemed a matter of mixing together condensed milk, coconut and icing sugar. What could be simpler?

When I made it, I found that the list of ingredients was straightforward but the muscle-power required to mix them was huge. The recipe I had was a tin of condensed milk, 750g icing sugar (confectionary sugar) and 250g coconut. Pressing the white layer into the tin was so difficult, I was tempted to get Zinc to sleep on it a while. Mixing the pink food dye through the second half was so hard with a spoon I gave up and used my fingers to rub it in (a bit like you rub butter into flour). The layers were so dry that many pieces did not hold together.

I wasn’t happy with this heap of crumbly sweet slice (see photo top right), but nevertheless took it to Geelong where I knew there would be some willing testers. My GF niece loved it but I hadn’t realised it had been one of my mum’s favourite sweets. Everyone said it was great. But by then I had started to search the internet for variations and had found one with half the icing sugar that I wanted to try.

So last weekend I made some on Saturday for our pre-Christmas / Summer Solstice dinner (photo at left) and to take to my family when I went down to help decorate my parents’ Christmas tree. It still took a lot of elbow grease to stir it but the mixture spread like a paste and I could stir in the pink food dye.

It was still quite a chore to cut it up and I took my family as much as I had the energy to cut up before we left (about two thirds of the tray). When we went to clear out the biscuit tin to take it home, I was surprise at just how much had disappeared. E had been a bit worried about taking it in one of his biscuit tins but was very pleased when we brought home a tin full of baked goods: mince tarts, almond biscuits, brandy snaps. In fact I think he might try taking the tin down to my parents’ place more often.

After my experiments I am recommending the second coconut ice recipe which is far more forgiving on the teeth and your stirring arm. It makes a great gift, makes a cheerful addition to a sweet platter and will bring a smile to those with fond childhood memories but beware of taking it into backyards with gargoyles as I hear they are quite partial to a piece of coconut ice!

Now, given Christmas Eve is flying by, I am off to bake my Christmas nut roast, wrap some presents and enjoy a mince tart. I hope you have a Merry Christmas and happy holidays.

Coconut ice
(from Scottish Recipes)

400g tin of condensed milk
340g icing sugar (or confectionary sugar)
340g desiccated coconut
1 tsp vanilla essence
Pink food dye

Stir together the condensed milk, icing sugar, coconut and vanilla essence in a large bowl till well combined. This will take quite some stirring as the mixture gets quite stiff.

Line a swiss roll tin (about 28 x 18cm) with baking paper. Spread about half the mixture into the tin and use the back of a spoon or your hands to smooth it down (I found this easier with my hands). Update: I have remade it twice in 2012 and found it hard to spread into a swiss roll tin and I have even struggled to get it all into a slice tin which is smaller.

Add drops of pink food dye to the remaining half of the mixture and stir in. Again it is tough stirring the stiff mixture. I found I needed about 8-10 drops or ½ - 1 tsp of food dye – more than my inclination but you want a nice pink colour to contrast with the white layer. Spoon over the white layer and spread out and smooth down as before.

Place tray in the fridge to set – overnight is best but you can get away with a few hours. Cut into small squares or bars as desired. I find it very sweet and cut into small squares of about 2cm x 2cm. It will keep in or out of the fridge for at least a week. (Update: Best to keep it in the fridge, especially in hot weather, but good to bring to room temperature to serve.)

Update Sept 2016 - note to self - when running out of icing sugar and have less than specified in recipe, do not just add the same amount of coconut instead of icing sugar as it will make it too dry!

On the stereo: 
The Original Christmas Album: 20 Party Christmas Crackers: Various Artists

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Apricot, Berry and Bran Muffins

After my success with my recent Cherry Banana Muffins, I decided to bake more healthy muffins that took advantage of the bounty of summer fruit on offer at the moment. I found a recipe for Berry Bran Muffins that could be tweaked to appease my desire for some fresh apricots in a muffin.

Actually, quite a bit of tweaking took place to suit our whims. E wanted choc chips as well as berries. I just wanted fruit so I made the first couple of dozen without choc chips and threw a handful in the mixture for the last dozen. I also reduced the sugar in the recipe as we had enjoyed the previous batch so much with minimal sugar. And I included some light sour cream in place of milk.

Unfortunately the shelves overflowing with fresh fruit can be a little deceptive in the supermarket. The raspberries I bought were the best I could find on display and yet I still had to pick through them and discard some mouldy bits. How disappointing at the height of the season! Makes me wish I could get myself organized to go pick my own berries. Just now sure I can manage it this year!

Substandard raspberries aside, these muffins were lovely. We have enjoyed them at home and at work. Although they might linger in the freezer this week while we enjoy a few festive treats, it is good to know there are some healthy snacks at hand for when we need something a little lighter. These muffins are a little tart and seedy from the raspberries and studded with juicy sweet chunks of apricot. Makes me wish it could be summer all year long!

Apricot, Berry and Bran Muffins
(adapted from Family Circle’s The New Muffin Cookbook)
Makes 36 mini muffins

1 cup (70g) processed bran
1 cup (250ml) light sour cream
½ cup (125ml) milk
2 ¼ cups (280g) self raising flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup (90g) honey
60g butter, melted
125g apricots, stoned and diced (3 or 4)
100g raspberries
(handful of choc chips - optional)

Preheat oven to 200 C. Grease your mini muffins pans (or a regular 12 hole muffin pan) or use silicone pans which don’t need greasing.

Place processed bran (I used AllBran), sour cream and milk in a large mixing bowl and set aside for 5 minutes (which gives time to chop the fruit or get the remaining ingredients together.)

Add flour to bran mixture. Mix egg, honey and melted butter in a small bowl or jug and add to bran mixture. Stir until just combined. The mixture will be a little lumpy. Gently fold in berries and apricots (and choc chips if using). Ideally the berries are meant to stay whole but mine fell apart and that was fine.

Spoon into muffin cups. Bake for 20-25 minutes until a skewer comes out cleanly when inserted into the centre of the muffins. Stand for 5 minutes and then turn onto a wire rack to cool.

On the stereo:
Cavalcare La Tigre: Various Artists

Sunday 21 December 2008

Summer Solstice Smoothie Experimentation

I had a pre-Christmas / Summer Solstice Dinner last night with E. I have lots of photos and recipes but not much time. So I thought I would share this morning’s smoothie experimentation.

In the fridge was half a pomegranate and a mostly unused orange which were leftover from the salad we had last night. In the fruit bowl, which is a bounty of summer fruit, I had two apricots which were rather soft. So they all went into the smoothie.

Pomegranates are a wonderful fruit except that they need to be sieved if you want to extract the juice (unless maybe you have a juicer). It came to me in a flash of inspiration that I could use a little sieve which I use as a tea strainer instead of getting out the large sieve. Well, it seemed a good idea at the time, but the tea strainer was so small I had to do it in batches and the juice was all over the bench – and I suspect is all over the top I am wearing but it is black so I don’t need to know! It was a lot of effort for a little juice. Lesson learnt! So maybe back to the large sieve next time.

The smoothie was very nice but quite tart. Not one for those who like them sweet. Although a spoonful of honey, agave or maple syrup might just make it more acceptable to these types. I enjoyed it with Babka vegetable bread, cheese and chutney. I felt I had earned my fine breakfast after all that pomegranate palaver!

Apricot, pomegranate and orange smoothie
Makes 1 glass


Juice of one orange
Juice of half a pomegranate
2 apricots chopped

On the stereo:
Songs for the Young at Heart – Various Artists

Friday 19 December 2008

Scones - plain and simple

Some months ago E and I were doing our grocery shopping on a Sunday and he fancied some donuts. None were to be found. I told him I would bake something instead but I didn’t have a lot of energy and couldn’t remember if I had eggs. The simplest thing I could think of was scones. All I needed was flour, butter and milk.

Scones might not be the first thing that come to everybody’s mind but they are an integral part of my Anglo-Celtic heritage. My mum used to whip up a batch of scones on a weekend. Both my grandmothers would bake them when we were over for afternoon tea. And as child I was taught to bake them in home economics class. When we eat afternoon tea in a cafe, E and I often partake of scones with jam and cream. There is something about scones that feels pleasingly homely and old-fashioned. They requires an apron, so you don’t get floury marks on your clothes, and a clean teatowel to wrap them in. (Apparently wrapping them softens the crust a little but I do it because my mum and grandmothers always did it.)

One of my strongest memories of scones as a child was watching the Goodies episode called Bun Fight at the OK Tearooms when they seek gold in Cornwall but instead find cream, jam and then scones! Indeed, Cornish clotted cream seemed to be part of the scone culture in the UK as they often refer to a clotted cream tea. I hardly dared mention a Devonshire tea when I visited Cornwall despite this being the name I had always used for a cuppa tea with scones and jam and cream. Another curious claim I found was on Baking for Britain, where Anna says the Cornish have their cream on top on their jam but the Devonians put jam on top of the cream. However it was always cream on top in the Devonshire teas I know and love!

However, if you want to venture back into the mists of time, Wikipedia says that it is Scotland where scones originated. The first known mention of scones in print is in 1513 in a translation of the Aeneid by Scots poet Gavin Douglas. FoodReference.com attributes the fashionable ritual of afternoon tea in England to Anna the Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861) who loved her scones.

There are lots of variations (as well as confusion over the name which I have written about before) – those I have most frequently encountered include pumpkin scones, date scones and cheese scones. Even our local bakery franchise now does fancy blueberry and white choc chip scones. But for variety, just have a peek at that amazing scones around the blogosphere.

Apparently the Scots originally cooked their scones in a round shape that was cut into quadrants on a girdle or griddle pan over an open flame. I prefer my scones cut out into small round shapes because this is what I grew up with. We often used a vegemite glass to cut scones out because they were the perfect size (about 5cm diameter I think). I now have a scone cutter but when I can’t find it in a hurry I just grab a glass that looks about the right size, dip it in flour and cut scones with it.

I love the simplicity of scones. Rub a bit of butter into some flour, add a little liquid, press out the dough and cut the scones. And they cook in almost no time at all. But when I started reading recipes I was surprised at the warnings about not to over handle the dough and do not roll out the dough etc etc. I even heard on the radio recently someone recommend you had to mix the scone mixture with a butter knife for best results. Why make hard work of easy baking?

Perhaps I just see scones as easy because I grew up with women around me making it seem like no trouble at all! My mum is the kind of cook who doesn’t get too stressed – baking with seven kids underfoot probably contributed towards this attitude. She often bakes without a recipe which is frustrating when I want to ask how to make something. But it has taught me the importance of experience and intuition in baking. Plus I firmly believe that most baked goods taste best when warm from the oven which gives me confidence in fresh home baked scones.

The day I made them for E in lieu of donuts he was very impressed. Cheaper and fresher than a donut from the supermarket. I also made them recently when my mum and dad visited. I was pleased to get my mum’s approval. And my dad always appreciates a fresh scone. Mum advised that you should only break scones open with your hands rather than cut them with a knife. If you want them looking fluffy this does make a difference. (She also has said that a little extra baking powder helps make them even lighter.)

But I don’t just have one recipe for plain scones. Oh no! There are many recipes but one of the alternative versions is something I have long wanted to try, ever since one of the most memorable morning teas at work last year. One of my colleagues brought in warm scones she had baked that morning as well as generous bowls of jam and cream. They were absolutely delicious. When we quizzed her about them she said they were made with flour, cream and lemonade. So I promptly got her to give me a copy of the recipe, lost it and then had to search for it on the net when I decided to make this version this weekend.

The lemonade version is so good that maybe they were even lighter and fluffier than my flour, butter and milk scones. My only reservation is that I don’t generally have cream and lemonade in the house so, unlike the more traditional recipe, they are not quite so convenient to make.

These recipes make small quantities which is convenient if I am only baking for the two of us. Scones are best fresh – fluffy and steaming hot when you break them in half. We have them with jam and cream but we use so little cream that I don’t bother whipping it. I don’t make my own jam but am lucky enough to get a jar of my mum’s every now and then – the top photo is her strawberry jam (on the lemonade scones). I also sometimes just have butter and jam. You can freeze them and rewarm in the oven but we usually get through a batch in a day or two. I quite like having them the next morning with peanut butter.

So with scones I can easily create a pleasing afternoon tea with a hint of nostalgia. There is no simpler way of feeling like a domestic goddess!

(From Muffins, Scones & Teacakes and the AWW Old Fashioned Favourites)
Makes 6-7

1 cup SR flour
Pinch salt
15g butter
¼ cup milk
¼ cup water

Preheat oven to 220 C. Lightly grease a baking tray.

Place flour and salt in a bowl. Rub in butter with your fingertips (or as you normally would do – pastry cutters, food processor etc) til it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Mix milk and water (set aside a little of the milk for glazing). Add milk and water and mix in gently til it forms a soft and sticky dough.

Turn out dough onto lightly floured surface and knead lightly til smooth. Press dough out to a 2cm thickness. Dip biscuit cutter or glass in flour and cut as many scones as possible from dough. Place scones on a baking tray. Lightly knead off cuts into a ball and press out again and cut more scones. Repeat until all dough is used.

Brush the scones with a little milk. Bake in over for about 12-15 minutes until lightly browned and sound hollow when tap on top. Remove from tray and wrap in a clean teatowel. Eat hot with jam and cream or toppings of your choosing.

Lemonade Scones
(From Exclusively Food)
Makes 6-7 scones

1 cup plus 1 tbsp self-raising flour
1/3 cup cold lemonade
1/3 cup cream
Milk for glazing

Preheat oven to 225 C. Line a baking tray with baking paper.

Sift flour into a large bowl. Combine lemonade and cream in a small bowl. Add lemonade and cream mixture to flour and gently fold ingredients together until just combined (don't over mix). The dough should be fairly soft and sticky.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and briefly knead into a ball. Flatten the dough gently with your hands until it is about 1 inch thick. Dip a scone cutter or glass into some flour and cut out the scones. Lightly knead the off cuts and cut more scones.

Place scones closely together on the tray. Brush a little milk on their tops. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until lightly coloured and cooked.

On the stereo:
A Rush of Blood to the Head: Coldplay

Monday 15 December 2008

Tree, Tarts and Punch

The weatherman said Saturday was the wettest day in Melbourne for a year. The rain never stopped bucketing down. It felt cold – a mere 17 C. A balmy summer’s day in Scotland, we joked. Poor Zinc took a step or two outside, shook a disdainful paw and headed back inside.

When we parked at the florist to buy a Christmas tree, most of the trees were wet and bedraggled. At this time of year, we expect some sunshine in Melbourne. We only wanted a small tree. The saleswoman suggested we would get a smaller one up the road and asked us to drive her with us because the rain was so heavy. It being the ‘season of surrender’ (according to the A2 Magazine of the The Age), we agreed to buy a stand for the tree as well.

Then onto the supermarket where I spied redcurrants. These are quite unusual in our parts. I was tempted but couldn’t think how I would use them. I know they are so sour that I wouldn’t be eating them in their natural state. Bereft of ideas, I put them back o the shelf. It was only later when I bought lemonade for baking scones (coming soon) that I thought I could add some redcurrants to the leftover lemonade to reduce its sweetness. An idea for a festive punch came to mind.

Back home, I did some work on the punch and then we attended to our tree. Firstly we moved the bean bag, where Zinc has taken up sleeping lately, to fit the tree in the corner of the loungeroom. Her favourite thing to do is sit on the stereo and then jump into the bean bag - if you look closely at the tree photos you will see her on the stereo. We dug out our Christmas decorations and checked the string of lights. The new tree stand worked fine and the decorations brought back memories but the lights ceased to shine after working a couple of times (and one photo!).

The tree is is a dark corner and without lights is hard to photograph but I will pass on a tip I got from a friend long ago. Buy Christmas decorations as souvenirs on your travels! Rather than your souvenirs becoming dusty and unnoticed, you taken them out to be admired and talked about once a year. Among our collection is a tartan teddy from Scotland, a wooden manger from Bethleham, a clog from Amsterdam, a Pinocchio from Italy, a Tiki from New Zealand, Santa climbing the Eiffel Tower from Paris, a San Francisco Santa outside one of the Painted Ladies, and a wombat from Australia.

Once the tree was decorated, we sat down with a glass of Spiced Redcurrant and Orange Punch and some mince tarts. With a Christmas album on the stereo, we reminisced as we admired our handiwork.

The mince tarts were from the supermarket. I don’t usually make my own but I often buy them from a nice bakery if I get organized. The best mince tarts I have area always the ones my mum bakes but she doesn’t start her baking til close to Christmas. Something to look forward to!

The punch was my own creation because I couldn’t find a recipe. The tartness of the red currants worked well with the sweetness of lemonade. I was surprised at the chunky seeds and quite glad I had decided to sieve them. Although when I threw a few leftover red currants in a smoothie, the seeds didn't bother me too much.

Making the spiced red currant and orange 'syrup' took a little time but it made a huge improvement to the lemonade. Worth getting the sieve out for! I was pleased to find a chilled drink that felt appropriately festive. It felt like a summer version of mulled wine. (Yes, I see the irony of discovering a fine summer drink on a cold wet day!) The splash of Cointreau at the end also helped reduce the sweetness further and gave a little alcoholic kick but if you choose not to add it, the punch will still taste great.

I am sending this picture of the punch and tarts to Holler who is hosting this month’s No Croutons Required (NCR). This is a vegetarian soup and salad event which Holler and Lisa organise together. But for December, they have decided to have some fun and ask for festive pictures to be sent in rather than recipes.

I have enjoyed participating in NCR this year. It has inspired some most delicious soups and I have had some gratifyingly positive feedback in being voted best dish of the month twice this year. The second of these winning entries was my Laksa in November. So thanks Holler and Lisa and all the lovely people who have voted for me. I raise my glass to you!

Spiced Redcurrant and Orange Punch
Serves 3-4

125g redcurrants
1 orange
Knob of ginger (about 2 tsps)
1 cinnamon stick
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1½ - 2 cups sparkling lemonade*
¼ cup Cointreau or other orange liqueur (optional)
Extra redcurrants to serve

* Alternately use sparkling soda water and add a little sugar to the redcurrant mixture. Or I'd be curious to try substituting ginger ale or champagne.

Remove redcurrant from stalks. Cut orange in half and cut a couple of thin slices of orange. Juice remaining orange halves. Finely grate ginger. Place redcurrant, orange juice and grated ginger in a sieve and use a spoon to press juice into a small saucepan (or just squeeze ginger juice out of ginger with your fingers like I did). Add cinnamon stick and nutmeg to saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 5 minutes. Cool for 2-3 hours. Remove and discard cinnamon stick.

To serve pour approximately 1 part redcurrant mixture to 2 to 3 parts lemonade and 1 part Cointreau (or to taste). Garnish glasses with orange wedges and fresh redcurrants.

On the stereo:
Ultra Lounge Christmas Cocktails: Various Artists

Sunday 14 December 2008

Rice and Beans

Last week I wasn’t feeling terribly inspired about cooking new dishes. It was a week of easy meals like pasta and dahl. Bog standard comfort food. But on Tuesday I decided to try some new Asian dishes to celebrate the warmer weather the forecasters had promised. It was not to be. Nipping out at lunchtime, I found the weather was cool and I just wanted stodgy heaviness rather than spicy lightness.

Fellow bloggers often help pull me out of a hole with great inspiration. In this instance, I was rescued by Sophie’s list of links which included a link to an article on Rice and Beans. I have heard people talk about Rice and Beans like it is a traditional dish. When I searched for it on the internet, I found that Wikipedia had an entry on it. But there is a disclaimer about the entry being about the Americas and that there are versions of this dish all over the world (such as dahl and rice). What I had in mind was beans and vegies tossed through the rice.

One of my recent favourite search engines is FoodBlogSearch and it was here that I found Vegan Yum Yum’s three versions of Rice and Beans: Rainbow Rice and Beans, Tahini Lemon Rice and Beans, and Italian Rice on Beans. All packed full of vegies, flavours and great ideas! Using these recipes I looked in my fridge and devised my own version that meant I didn’t even have to stop off at the supermarket on the way home. What I love about these recipes is that they give scope for lots of interesting versions. The tahini lemon dressing is high on my list of must-trys!

I added less flavouring than Vegan Yum Yum and found that the cheese or nutritional yeast flakes were necessary at the end. E loved it but had to add Tabasco Sauce as per usual. The second night when we had a little less leftover, I served it with some vegetarian sausages and chutney. As main meal or side dish, it was a healthy hearty dish that could be put together easily and quickly.

Italian Rice and Beans
(Inspired by Vegan Yum Yum)
Serves 3-4

1 cup brown rice, uncooked
40g pinenuts
1 dessertspoon of oil from semi-dried tomatoes (or olive oil)
½ red onion, chopped
½ red capsicum, chopped
1 green capsicum, chopped
1½ cups cooked black beans (or 400g tin of beans, drained)
400g tin of corn kernels
Pinch of salt
4 semi-dried tomatoes, chopped
8 kalamata olives, chopped
Juice and zest of ½ medium lemon
Handful of parsley
Black pepper, freshly ground
Parmesan cheese to serve (or cheddar cheese or nutritional yeast flakes)

Cook brown rice as you normally do – I boil it in plenty of water for about 30 minutes. Gently toast pinenuts in a dry frypan and stir frequently.

Meanwhile chop vegies and then fry onions in oil for about 3 minutes or till starting to soften. Add capsicums, beans, corn and salt and fry til just warming up. Turn off heat and keep aside til rice is cooked.

When rice is cooked and drained, return it to a large saucepan (or use frypan with onion mixture if large) and add onion mixture, toasted pinenuts, semi-dried tomatoes, olives, juice and zest of lemon, parsley and black pepper. Serve hot with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

On the stereo:
Against the Modern World: Sol Invictus

Saturday 13 December 2008

Lentil Loaf with Chutney

Last weekend finally felt like Christmas is somewhere nearby. On Saturday I bought and prepared the dried fruit for the pudding before heading off to a local carols service. I then boiled the Christmas pudding on Sunday. I used last year’s pudding recipe and plan to write a bit more about it later.

On Saturday afternoon I made a lentil loaf which came out of the oven as we headed off to the carols and was ready to eat with a little salad when we got home. I thought of the loaf when I had considered taking a picnic to the carols but the uneven weather was not conducive to outdoor eating. The rain held off for most of the event but by the time we drove home, it was on again.

This Red Lentil Loaf comes from Alison Holst’s Meals Without Meat. I have made it at other times and cut it into chunks to take to a picnic and would recommend it. It tastes great hot, warm or cold. The predominant flavour is the peppery flavour of red lentils and the loaf has a comforting softness like mashed vegetables. When very hot it melts under the knife but is a bi firmer once it cools. Indoors, this loaf can be eaten with salads or hot vegetables. If I had some oven chips in the freezer I would have served it with them. A good condiment is also recommended. My salad (tomato, cucumber and mushroom) was plain and the only sauce we had was a bottle of tomato sauce. The loaf needed a more robust accompaniment.

I had intended to make a tomato chutney with cranberries on Saturday but didn’t find the time so finally made it on Sunday while the pudding bubbled away. I found the link to Julie’s recipe on Holler’s blog. I liked it because it had cranberries instead of sultanas. Not only preferable to me, but it seemed to give it a little festive touch. The chutney was very sweet, especially on the first day. I think it was better for sitting a few days so the flavours could settle in. A little more cayenne pepper might be better next time (I only used ¼ tsp but next time might try ½ tsp).

I sometimes think onion gives a funny taste to chutney so I carried out a small experiment. I halved the chutney mixture and simmered one half in a saucepan without onion and I added the onion to the other half while it simmered. I decided that the onion was fine in the chutney and ended up mixing both halves of the mixture together at the end. But what interested me was that the mixture with the onion took about half the time as the mixture without onion to cook to the right consistency. It may have been some small differences between the saucepan and burner sizes but I did wonder if onion actually helps the chutney to gel.

The beauty of leftovers is the chance to try serving dishes different ways. The other benefit of serving a dish over a few days in blogging is the opportunity to take a better photo. Usually I enjoy photographing a meal the first day and not needing to spend time with the camera but occasionally it is nice to have a second chance. In this case, it took me till the third day to get a satisfying photo of the loaf!

Given that Christmas now seems well and truly upon us, I think this looks like a fine dish to serve in the middle of a festive spread. Or, as Holler suggests, a jar of the chutney would make a pleasing gift. If only I could make artistic labels like hers!

Red Lentil Loaf
(from Alison Holst’s Meals Without Meat)
Serves 6-8

1½ cups red lentils
3 cups water
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 onions, chopped
25g butter
2 eggs
2 cups grated cheese
1 cup chopped tomatoes (about 1-2)
3 slices wholemeal bread, processed to crumbs
2 tsp salt
½ tsp curry powder
½ cup chopped parsley

Place lentils, garlic, bayleaf and water in small saucepan. Bring to the boil and simmer gently til water absorbed and lentils tender (about 10-15 minutes).

Meanwhile fry onions in butter til soft (about 3-5 minutes) in a large saucepan. Remove from the heat and add remaining ingredients. When lentils are cooked, drain off any extra water, discard bayleaf and add lentils to onion mixture. Mix well.

Spoon into a greased and lined 23cm square cake tin (my tin of choice) or large loaf tin. Bake uncovered at 180 C for about 45 minutes or until firm in the middle. (I baked mine at 200 for about 40 minutes due to time constraints.) Turn out onto wire rack or serving dish. Cool for 10-20 minutes and cut into slices or wedges. Alternatively you can bake in a casserole dish and serve with a serving spoon rather than unmoulding it.

Tomato Chutney with Cranberries
(Adapted from Peanut Butter and Julie)
Makes about 3-4 cups

5 plump finely chopped vine-ripened tomatoes
½ finely chopped red bell pepper
½ finely chopped red onion
½ cup dried cranberries (mine were sweetened)
½ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup raw sugar
2 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ - ½ teaspoon cayenne

Combine all of the ingredients in a large saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture for about 40 minutes or until thickened (but remember it will thicken more as it cools so not too thick), stirring frequently. Cool the chutney and then pour it into airtight containers.

NOTE: To 'sterilise' my jars I ran them under boiling water and dried them on the dishrack! Two were enough. But we are already through the first jar and about to start the second so I don't think it will last long enough for sterilisation to be a huge issue for us. I've been enjoying it with cheese on toast as well as on the lentil loaf!

On the stereo:
The Cathedral of Tears: Death in June

Thursday 11 December 2008

Gouranga at Gopals

If you walk along busy Swanston St in the heart of Melbourne city, you will come to an unassuming door with a little semi-circular red awning above it saying Gopals. Many will pass right on by without ever noticing it. Some of us will walk up the stairs to the light and airy cafeteria on the first floor for a cheap nourishing vegetarian meal cooked by the Hare Krishnas.

Gopals is more home cooking that haute cuisine. The customers grab a tray and choose their dinner at the counter. The bain marie is filled with mild vegetable curries, thin but tasty lentil soup, koftas, creamy lasagne, rice and samosas. Moving your tray along you will find a choice of healthy salads and cakes. The food makes me think of wholesome 1970s vegetarian cooking. A far cry from the hip bars with modern vegetarian dishes that are either brilliant or try-hard. It has been a constant comfort in a city that thrives on change.

I visited a few times when a student but in more recent times it has become a favourite place for us to find a quick, cheap and healthy meal before we head off to a film. E likes the special of lightly spiced vegies, rice and green salad. I particularly like the broccoli and carrot salad with tahini dressing. It goes with everything: the vegies, the lasagne, the kofta balls or just some bread and other salads.

We were at Gopals last week before heading off to the movies. I’ve taken a few photos during other visits some months ago – of the spiced or sabzi vegetables and the lasagne. But last week I had the kofta (spiced vegetables with a chickpea flour coating and lots of tomato sauce) served with rice, broccoli salad and a bean salad. Unpretentious but satisfying.

It was a while since we had visited. I regret to say that Gopals is changing. On our most recent visit it seemed less of a religious kitchen and more of a commercial business. Gone are the brightly coloured pictures of Krishna on the walls. Apparently you can also see them in the second floor dining room – so I am told although only the first floor dining area is open when we visit. In there the walls have a mystical white on beige pattern and modern art. The staff no longer look like they are Hare Krishnas ducking out from prayer time to serve you. The chairs are a bit softer. The prices have risen slightly.

But it retains some of its cheap and cheerful charm. The prices are still comparatively low and the food remains tasty and just a little foreign. The business card claims they serve ‘pure vegetarian & vegan food cooked with love and devotion’. And you can still sit at the large windows overlooking leafy trees and the bustle of Swanston Street.

After eating well at Gopals we went to see Australia at the cinema. It probably would get the award for the most hyped movie of the year. But we couldn’t resist. Indeed, it is a big bold movie of gorgeous photography and rugged romance. I hope it will open Australian and foreign eyes to the bombing of Darwin during World War II and to some of our Aboriginal heritage including the Stolen Generation.

Nevertheless, I have some reservations about the movie. Using stereotypes such as the noble savage standing on one leg holding a spear make me a little wary of the portray of Aboriginal people. I can’t help but question why this film, which purports to be a great Aussie movie, is about an Australia that is quite foreign and exotic to most Australians. Even more jarring are some elements of the film which seem more American than Australia. Sigh! I recommend you go see it, suspend your disbelief and enjoy it but remember to beware of believing this story to be all fact.

Gopals Vegetarian
1st floor, 139 Swanston Street
Tel: 03 9650 1578
Email: gopals@in.com.au
Mon – Sat: 11.30am – 8.30pm