Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A stunner

I'm sure that I've mentioned this before, but one of my biggest reasons for being an avid cook is pure self-gratification. I love being able to imagine something delicious then make it come true. Because I take a very pragmatic/amateur approach to this process, things don't always turn out as planned.However, most of the time it is a most satisfying process and often results in something that makes me a bit proud of myself.

I am a frequent user of frozen fruit, I freeze bananas and buy bags of berries and mango pieces for baking and the occasional bowl of nice cream. When I went to the supermarket recently, I saw bags of frozen black cherries for the first time. Because the local cherry season is so short, any fresh cherries I come across are promptly devoured. I was compelled to buy a bag to try out all the baking recipes that I had only been dreaming about.

The first portion went into a cherry clafoutis, which was delicious but not exceptional or photogenic. Next, I improvised a free-form cherry and pastry cream tartlet with a rough puff pastry base, it was one of the tastiest things I had made in ages but the rustic design resulted in the loss of a lot of the precious cherry juices during baking.

Second draft tartlets
After these efforts, I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted to eat. Juicy, perfumed cherries, creamy custard and buttery pastry, held together with enough structure to give the impression of something quite elegant. I found a recipe that was reasonably close to what I wanted and improvised the rest. I used the pastry recipe (subbing 3Tb of cream for the yolk because I had used all the eggs to make pastry cream) and baking instructions found in the recipe but used my own pastry cream recipe and flavoured it with vanilla and a few drops of almond extract. Partly because I ran out of cherries and partly to add a bit of sharpness and interest, I used a mixture of cherries and raspberries, although either would make a delicious tart. I also didn't precook or add a thickening agent to the fruit, because I like to walk on the wild side sometimes.
The results were everything I ever wanted. The pastry was short and buttery, holding everything together but yielding easily to the fork. The pastry cream smooth, rich and comforting. And the fruit, soft and juicy but not cooked to the point of jamminiess, the two berries contrasting delightfully with each other and the almond in the pastry cream. To serve, I gilded the lily with a spoonful of homemade creme fraiche, which unbelievably made the tart even more delicious. Needless to say, the tart was gone in less than a day.
Cherry and raspberry custard tart
makes one 23cm round tart
pastry and baking method adapted from this recipe
1c flour
110g softened butter
3Tb cream
1Tb sugar
pinch of salt
Pastry cream (1/4 batch of this recipe with 1/2tsp almond extract added)
2c cherries and 3/4c raspberries (frozen fruit can be used without defrosting)
1. Butter a 23cm round removable-bottom fluted tart pan.
2. In a large bowl, use a whisk to combine the flour, sugar and salt. Add the butter and use a pastry cutter or fingertips to incorporate the butter into the dry ingredients. There shouldn't be any bits of butter bigger than a pea. Add the cream and mix with a fork to make a cohesive dough.
3. If it isn't too warm, the dough can be rolled out straight away, otherwise chill for 30min-1 hour before rolling. Use silicon mats or two pieces of baking paper to make things easier. Place the rolled out dough on the tart pan, pressing it down gently. Use a rolling pin to pinch off any overhanging edges. Chill in the fridge for 1 hour.
4. Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius. Spread the pastry cream into the pastry, and sprinkle over berries, trying to get as close to a single layer as possible.
5. Bake for around 45 minutes, a knife inserted into the custard should come out clean with it is done.
6. Cool for at least 30min before cutting and serving.

Hello spring

Spring and autumn are my favourite seasons by far. There is something so fleeting about those times of the year. The temperature rises a little, the spring bulbs flower, and suddenly they are dried up by the summer sun. The sultry skies turn deep and blue, and just as the air takes on the scent of drying leaves, winter rain washes them away.

Today's torrential rain is not quite what one pictures when dreaming of spring, but even before the official start date, the flowers have been out in all their glory.

In addition to taking close to daily pictures of the flowers in the garden, I have become a bit interested in growing my own food. It all started after reading this book by my favourite Asian-American activist-philsopher Grace Lee Boggs. I could relate to and agree with so much of the book, that after I was finished folding down the corners of notable pages, every other page was marked. In this seemingly hopeless and helpless age, it is Ms Lee-Bogg's orderly and reasoned case for what revolution means today that gives people like me the framework in which to envision directions for the future. The book's content also helped explain why I always felt the need to keep some distance from activists and groups who work in a more traditional manner. The new revolution is small in scale but wide in scope and happening in the minds of everyone who realises that the way of the 20th century and of now is an unsustainable and impractical model for the future. Some people will raise their voices, while others will quietly effect positive change in their midst, both are revolutionary and valuable.
On that note, here are the some of the microgreens that are the first harvest of my gardening efforts.
Chia grown in a terracotta plate. 
Wheat, barley, rye and sunflower grown in a plastic tofu container with holes punched in the bottom

Rocket/arugula in a takeout container

Mesculun in an uncycled baklava container
All the seeds, except the chia, were sprouted using the same method:
  • take a container with drainage holes, add about 3cm of damp soil/seedling raising mix/potting mix (I used potting mix), sprinkle over seeds
  • cover with a paper towel and mist with water to keep the towel wet
  • remove towel when the seedlings start to lift it up
  • continue to water with a spray bottle until you want to harvest your greens.
I have also been growing sprouts using the grain and sunflower mix and growing a variety of seedlings; as well as preparing small container vegetable beds and making a rather homejob pallet planter. It is exciting to be pottering about with soil again, I was quite an enthusiastic gardener in high school, before medical school kind fo engulfed it all. I have been wanting to reread Karel Capek's 'The Gardener's Year' too.
I have been baking  consistently too, perhaps a bit less often than usual as work is getting a bit busier. This past weekend, I was involved in a co-ordinated anonymous act of kindness, the New Zealand Ninja Baking Drop.I volunteered to bake something for a nominated person and secretively drop it off on their doorstep or in their letterbox. I made vanilla bean shortbread, raspberry-cheesecake brownies (my recipe, with this brownie base) and blueberry crumble bars.
 Unexpectantly, I was also a recipient of someone else's delicious baking. While I was making my pallet planter, a stranger came up to me and handed me challah bread pudding and chocolate ganache. I have to say, the kindness of a stranger is one way to confirm that the universe wants you to be happy at any given moment.
This post has become a bit long, so I will share a recipe as a separate post. Here's to the anticipation of tulips and cherry blossoms and the scent of freesias in the air.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Simply delicious

The magnolias are magnificent these days
It started raining again yesterday, bringing a string of perfect winter days to a close. Perhaps I am getting maudlin now that the end of winter is approaching but there is something about the sparse, grey aesthetic of winter that I quite like. It makes all colours seem more vibrant and every soft, warm thing more comforting.

Wintertime is when the rich flavours of coffee and chocolate sing, a fact that I especially appreciated when I received the following package late last week from this Pledgeme campaign.

Coffee and chocolate are amazing but not worth enslaving other people.
The dreamy scents of coffee and chocolate inspired me to bake something with these ingredients. As the package arrived in conjunction with a sudden craving for chocolate muffins, I found an interesting chocolate muffin recipe to play around with. This one to be exact, a cornflour 'custard' forming the base of the batter, ensuring light-as-cloud muffins with a tight crumb. It is an entirely different creature to the open-crumbed, moist texture of most muffins and actually reminded me of a mousse or flourless chocolate cake. I modified the recipe by adding some freshly brewed coffee to the batter and sprinkling over raspberries and sliced almonds for textural and flavour accents.

I am a bit torn about whether these should be called muffins at all, their rich texture and complex flavour is on par with a very good chocolate torte, however calling them muffins means that they can be eaten as breakfast. I remain undecided but will call them muffins as per the original recipe.

Chocolate-coffee muffins with raspberries and almonds
makes 16 muffins
adapted from this recipe

50g cornflour
3Tb cocoa
100g soft brown sugar
225mL freshly brewed coffee that has been cooled for about half an hour (I used coffee brewed in a French press)
75g butter
125g dark chocolate
75mL flavourless plant oil (I used coconut)
2tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
125g sugar
125g plain flour
2.5tsp baking powder
2/3c raspberries (I used frozen)
1/2c sliced almonds

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Line a muffin tin with paper liners.
2. Place cornflour, cocoa and brown sugar in a small pot and combine with a whisk. Add coffee and heat over a medium-low flame, stirring continuously. Keep cooking until you have a thick custard.
3. Remove from the heat and add butter, chocolate and oil. Stir until all three are melted and incorporated.
4. Add vanilla and then the eggs one by one, stirring until each is combined into the mixture. Then add the second lot of sugar and stir well.
5. Stir in the flour and baking powder.
6. Spoon batter into the muffin tin, filling each cup about 2/3 full. Sprinkle over raspberries and almonds, then gently shake the muffin tin so that they settle over the batter.
7. Bake for 25 minutes, please note that these muffins are quite delicate straight out of the oven. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to finish cooling.
8. Optional - sift icing sugar over muffins before serving.

I also received this big box of Trade Aid chocolate, still dreaming about what to make with these.

Sunday, 26 July 2015


Green tea latte with shells

I am an idealist and consequently a believer in the redemptive qualities of humanity. However, this is easier in theory than in practice, it is much easier to have faith in a undifferentiated collective called humanity than in the people that inhabit ones day-to-day life. It all sounds quite grand until someone hurts your feelings or leaves you disappointed. Maintaining a promising outlook on humanity is much more difficult in that moment.

I had such an experience recently. It wasn't anything too tumultuous, but nonetheless I was left wondering whether trying to be kind and responsive to the needs of others was worth it. In my world that is a pretty bad mental space. Being decidedly introverted, with the potential to go full hermit at any stage, this kind of thinking threatens to topple the foundations of my rickety philosophy for dealing with people. All the dry, logical arguments about not being reactionary and maintaining my centre were swept into disarray by a wave of cortisol and adrenalin.

As is so often the case, I sought wisdom from the arts. I recently watched 'Taxi' by Jafar Panahi at the film festival and fell in love with Mr Panahi's perspective on everyday life. It was so gentle, bemused, interested, and above all, loving. My friends and I used to say of particularly good and kind people, "He has a good heart," and I could feel that his heart was not only good but gigantic. So, in my temporary and reactionary despondency, I looked to him again. I watched, 'This is not a film,' and despite the uncertainty and claustrophobia that runs through the film, it is the sympathetic interactions with his family, friends, iguana and especially the young man who collects the rubbish that demonstrated his quiet charisma. I finished watching the film a bit more hopeful than when I started, and that is no small feat.

Being part of academia and thinking lots of scientific thoughts has given me a greater appreciation for the power of art. The good stuff can use something as mundane as a streak of paint or a few well chosen words to demonstrate a situation or emotion with more truth than all the facts and figures in the world. After a time of quiet reflection and a good book, thudding hearts are calmed and angry thoughts can be organised. 

Once again, the recipe has become a bit of an afterthought to this post, but it is a nice one to know. I recently opened a package of green tea (matcha) powder and am trying to use it as quickly as possible, knowing that it oxidizes rapidly. One way of using the powder is to make green tea lattes. They are sweet, mellow and not challenging - which is nice sometimes. 

Green tea latte
makes 1 serving

3/4c whole milk (or your choice of other milks)
1tsp sugar
1/2tsp green tea powder

1. Warm up your serving vessel by filling it with boiling water.
2. In a small bowl, combine sugar, tea and 1Tb of hot-but-not boiling water. Stir well to get rid of lumps.
3. Heat the milk in a small saucepan until it is almost simmering. At this point you can use a milk frother if you have one.
4. Pour the boiling water out of the serving vessel. Pour in green tea mixture followed by the milk. Sift a little extra powder over the foam for decoration if you want to.

Monday, 20 July 2015


Pear-buckwheat upside down cake with the fire going in the background

Because it is truly the middle of winter now and perhaps because I have just finished speeding through centuries of Americana by way of Sarah Vowell's wonderful books, Assassination Vacation (about American presidents and their assassins) and The Wordy Shipmates (about the Boston Puritans settlement), I was in the mood for something simple, sweet and homey. 

To borrow from her dark wit, I don't know exactly why reading passages about musty theological quibbles and forlorn assassins had me hankering for crackling fires and the scent of caramelised fruit. There was something comforting about reading about historical figures as if they were real people. Vowell's empathy is as warm as a blanket and thinking about the hopes and dreams, and pettiness and foibles of those who now occupy history books and commemorative plaques brought them alive in a new way. Gaining insight into how the past, in a series of flukes and often silly mistakes, had shaped the present was a bit of a downer, which the cake also helped remedy.

For my own amusement, I decided to make something which reflected my experience of reading the books and also paid tribute to the most appealing attributes of the 'America of yesteryear' that was evoked during my reading. I also had a can of pears in juice that I had been meaning to use for quite some time now, which helped narrow down my choices significantly (although apple would probably be more to theme). Pragmatism in household affairs is undoubtedly a Puritan value.

I found a very simple looking recipe for a buckwheat and pear cake that looked like something that could be made in a rudimentary log cabin kitchen (no electric beater required). I fiddled with the quantities of ingredients to account for the fact that my pears were already sweetened and then turned the whole thing upside down in an homage to American-style upside down cake, the kind with the pineapple rings and electric-red cherries. Wikipedia says buckwheat was a common crop in the northeastern United States in the 18th and 19th century.

Luckily the cake turned out very well on first attempt, the cake was tender and interesting thanks to the buckwheat, the pear/caramel/cinnamon combination was delightful, and the sweetness was just right for a weekday. It is a very well-balanced cake, probably on the modest end of the spectrum of upside down cakes, and although it doesn't contain a lot of butter (tablespoons rather than sticks), it is one of those times when you can tell that the butter has been used well. 

It is very adaptable, with any number of different flour and fruit combinations. A lovely cake to take us through to springtime.

Pear-buckwheat upside down cake
makes one 22cm cake
adapted from The Joy of Cooking

1/2c plain flour
1/2c buckwheat flour (or some other flour of your choosing)
1tsp baking powder
1/4tsp salt
4Tb brown sugar
3Tb butter, cold
1 egg + enough whole milk to make up 1/2c of liquid
1tsp vanilla extract

400g can of tinned pear slices in juice (alternatively 2 large or 3 small pears, peeled/cored/cut into eighths or quarters, respectively)
3Tb butter, melted
5Tb brown sugar
1tsp cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 210 degrees Celsius and line the base of a 22cm round cake tin with baking paper (these days I tear off a large piece of paper and fold it to cover the sides rather than trimming it to fit the base).
2. Arrange the pears on the base of the tin. I made a spiral pattern with my pear slices
3. Combine 3Tb of melted butter, 5Tb brown sugar and cinnamon. Pour this over the pears.
4. In a medium-sized bowl, sift the dry ingredients together. Add the remaining butter and rub into the dry ingredients, using a pastry cutter or fingers. Continue until the mixture looks like sand.
5. Beat the egg, milk and vanilla extract together in a measuring cup. Use the fork to mix this into the flour mixture. It will be quite thick.
6. Take spoonfuls of the dough and drop it on top of the pears. Gently flatten down the dough.
7. Bake for 15-20 minutes, the top should be golden brown and the pears cooked through.
8. Cook the cake in the tin for 10 minutes. Place the serving plate on top of the tin then flip the cake over and serve. Delicious with gently whipped cream or a pour of custard.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Feminism/Gender Equality

Lemon/chamomile/poppy seed muffins with a painting by my Aunt in the background

It's that time of year again, when I willing venture out on cold nights and spend my days in crowded places. When films I actually want to watch are playing at the cinemas. Right on the heels of the Documentary Edge Festival is the New Zealand International Film Festival. I pored over the programme as soon as it was released and managed to carefully select 37 films that I wanted to watch, before painstakingly paring the list down to a more realistic dozen.

I watched the first one of these this evening. She's Beautiful When She's Angry is a documentary that examines the American perspective of the Women's Liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. It was sobering to see the conditions from which the movement began, and inspiring and exhilarating to see how it grew and matured. Some of the activists that were interviewed were already known to me, and I was also introduced to new figures. 

Set to a soundtrack that included many of my favourites such as Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band, the Velvet Underground and Nico, I felt a fuzzy sense of homecoming while watching it. However, towards the close of the documentary I felt inexplicably sad. After seeing the energy and righteous anger of our feminist forebears, it suddenly seemed that the battles we are still having to fight were terribly repetitive and redundant. 

Little glimpses of those moments when I, though I have live with countless privileges of the country I live in and the class that I occupy, have felt the exhausting weight of sexism. Each time I have to choose between Miss/Ms/Mrs, each time a man assumes that I will cook for him, each experience of workplace sexual harassment. Equally, when I see my brother, father or a male friend compromise their sense of self or struggle to live up to someone else's expectations of what it means to be male, another affront inflicted on our freedom.

To me, as it was to the women featured in the documentary, feminism and gender equality are a inseparable part of the civil rights movement - the movement to ensure that all people are treated as citizens and equals. Perhaps even more fundamentally, respect and equal-treatment of all is a basic level of decency that we should all be striving to attain. It is an integral aspect of the revolution. To quote the great mind and heart, and newly minted centenarian Grace Lee Boggs:

"To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/ spiritual leap and become more 'human' human beings. In order to change/ transform the world, they must change/ transform themselves."

Despite the momentary despair, I realise that "freedom is a moving target," (to quote one of the women in the film whose name I can't recall) and that an individual revolution and sense of freedom must be sought individually, simultaneously and in conjunction with freedom for all. It isn't an easy thing to attain but the pursuit of it is something that I support with my whole person. It is something that makes my heart skip a beat.

I didn't start this post with the intention of discussing feminism and the revolution at such length but so it goes. I really wanted to share another simple but interestingly novel recipe. I found the recipe while looking through this beautiful blog. The addition of a chamomile infusion to an otherwise straightforward lemon-poppy seed combination was unique enough for me to get over my baseline aversion to muffins (also known as lacklustre cupcakes) to try the recipe.

The only changes I made were to halve the recipe and glaze the muffins with marmalade rather than lemon curd, adding a tangy-bitter note to the mix. The muffins bake up tender, fragrant and not overly sweet - with chamomile adding a enticing complexity to the familiar scent of lemon. Treats such as these are what drizzly afternoons and hot cups of tea exist for. Although they are best eaten on the day that they are made, they were still very good on day 2 after 15 second burst in the microwave.

Lemon, chamomile and poppy seed muffins with marmalade glaze
makes 8 muffins
adapted slightly from Butter and Brioche

1/2c whole milk
2 chamomile tea bags 
1 1/4c plain flour
2tsp baking powder
1.5Tb poppy seeds
1.5Tb lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1/3c caster sugar
60g butter, melted
1 egg, beaten slightly

2Tb marmalade to glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and line a muffin tray with paper liners.
2. In a small pot, heat the milk until steaming, remove from the heat and add the tea bags. Steep until the mixture is just warm to touch.
3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the sugar and lemon zest with your fingertips until the sugar looks moistened and smells very lemony. Sift in the the flour and baking powder.
4. Add the poppy seeds and combine with a whisk.
5. Add the milk, lemon juice, butter and egg and gently combine, taking care not to overmix.
6. Spoon the batter into the muffin tray and bake for 15-20 minutes. Check for doneness with a toothpick. Note that these muffins do not brown very much.
7. While the muffins are baking, prepare the glaze. Dissolve the marmalade with a tablespoon of boiling water. Strain out any bits of peel using a tea strainer.
8. Glaze muffins with a pastry brush, while they are still warm.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Conversation food

From the top: coconut-almond crisps, aquafaba meringues and cream scones.

One of my favourite types of gatherings are small ones which involve good conversation and things to graze on. I had the pleasure of hosting such an occasion on a rainy Saturday morning a few weekends ago and felt that it was a good enough reason to bring out the 3-tiered tea stand.

After laying down a couple of doilies, the small selection of sweets I had prepared looked rather inviting and I was quite pleased with the overall effect. 

The coconut-almond crisps and the meringues were made using aquafaba, also known as the water from a can of chickpeas. I made them on a whim after reading about aquafaba, mostly because I couldn't believe that chickpea-water+sugar = meringue. They were both the result of experimentation so I don't have recipes for them yet. I highly recommended that you play around with the stuff yourself if you are interested, it's pretty exciting from a food-nerd point of view.

The scones were made using my go-to recipe from Smitten Kitchen. I'm not blessed with the 'light hands' that are required to make good scones, so using cream to ensure tender scones is an ideal technique for me.

My favourite scones are plain ones, split and served with cream and jam, but these scones can be adapted in any number of ways:
-adding 1/2c chopped, dried fruit before adding the cream
-adding 1/2c chopped chocolate
-adding 1/2-1tsp of dried herbs to the dry ingredients
-drizzled with glaze for a more American coffee shop type scone

Below is the recipe as I made it.

Cream scones for tea parties
makes about 16 scones that are 4cm in diameter
very slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

2c plain flour
1Tb baking powder
3Tb sugar
1/4tsp salt
70g butter, cold and diced up
1c cream

I used a 4cm round cutter to form dainty scones

1. Preheat the oven to 210 degrees Celsius and line a baking sheet with baking paper.
2. Sift together the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Add the butter and rub it into the dry ingredients using your fingers or a pastry cutter. You can also do this with a food processor.
3. When the mixture looks like coarse sand with just a few lumps of butter (pea-sized or smaller), add the cream and stir with a fork for about 30 seconds, until a dough is formed. It is okay if there is some floury rubble remaining.
4. Transfer the contents of the bowl onto a flour-dusted surface and knead the dough for about 10-20 seconds until you have a ball of dough. Flatten the dough out with your hands or with a rolling pin so that it is around 3cm thick. 
5. Cut out as many rounds as you can from the sheet of dough. Place these on a baking sheet and baking for about 10 minutes - the tops of the scones should be a light brown.
6. Cool the scones on the sheet for 10 minutes before serving or transferring to a cooling rack.
7. The remaining dough can be rerolled to make more scones, these will not be as light and tender as the first lot.

Serve with whipped cream and jam. Best eaten the day you make them.