Tasty, tasty pain.

It’s no secret that I loathe Summer. The heat, the humidity and everything that goes with them conspire to make me utterly miserable. I have a form of Seasonal Affective Disorder but instead of depression from lack of sunlight, I feel sad because there’s too much.

There is one thing that cheers me up (other than air-conditioning) and that is the fantastic spread of fruit and vegetables that Summer brings.

This is fresh from my garden…

Bowl of Pain - freshly picked assortment of chilies

Bowl of Pain – freshly picked assortment of chilies

I am thinking about all the things to make and the anticipation of the burn and resulting endorphin-rush is intoxicating!

Top to bottom, they are Habaneros, Jalapenos, Cayenne (the thin ones on the right) and a variety that was sold as “Thai Chili” at the bottom (mild to hot) – not very helpful, but they are tasty.

Salted Caramel Macadamia Fudge

Salted Caramel Macadamia Fudge

Salted Caramel Macadamia Fudge

I’d like to start by thanking Nigella Lawson for showing me the easiest fudge recipe on earth.  No, really!  It is the simplest recipe I’ve ever seen, and the result is totally awesome.  However, I’m a caramel girl.  If I want to taste chocolate, I’ll eat a bar of Lindt rather than fudge (anyone else with me?), but I made this fudge for Christmas treats one year and they went down very well – kids and adults alike had chocolate mustaches which is always a good sign!

One day, I made a white chocolate version of this fudge and…it was disappointing.  The flavour wasn’t really either chocolate or condensed milk and I melted it back down and added rum essence to one pan and mint to another.  Bingo!  White chocolate can be made to taste like all sorts of things!  And THEN I came across all sorts of posts about turning condensed milk into the fabulous dulce de leche by boiling a can of condensed milk in a large pot of water (Google it – it really works, but be careful not to let the water boil down too much and cool before opening).  What if I could make Dulce de Leche-flavoured fudge?

Fudge in the Pan

Fudge in the Pan

So I did it.  And it worked.  Except it turned out that Dulce de Leche fudge is just caramel fudge by another name!  And, if you’re feeling lazy and can’t buy dulce de leche locally and don’t want to make it, Caramel Top-N-Fill works nearly as well!  Sometimes cheaters do prosper!

So here’s how I made this batch.

Toast your nuts!  I love macadamias but use whatever you like best.  Set aside, and heat 1 (375ml) can of condensed milk (boiled into dulce de leche) in a plain old saucepan (doesn’t need to be a double-boiler) until it is nearly boiling, stirring constantly so it doesn’t stick.  Remove from heat and add an equal weight of white chocolate (the melts will give a softer fudge, a Milky Bar will give a firmer fudge) in small pieces.  Stir until combined.  Add in nuts, if you are using, and turned into a square cake-pan lined with baking paper.  Allow to cool slightly and sprinkle with salt flakes.  Cut into small squares with a sharp knife when cooled and set (overnight is best, but you can pop this into the freezer if you want to).


Vanilla Panna Cotta with Rose-Scented Berries

At the moment, I have terrible hay-fever.  My sinuses are blocked and aching.  My face feels like it’s gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson.  I look in the mirror and expect to see two black eyes staring back at me.  Everything is flowering for Spring, and in Australia that means that the wattles and paperbark trees are in full bloom.  I feel disgusting, sound like a drag queen, and my used handkerchiefs are things of horror.  I try hard to like Spring, but it doesn’t make it easy for me.  No indeed.

What I want is something simple.  Something that is sweet and cool, fragrant and tasty.  Something that my anti-histamine addled brain can make without effort.  Usually I like fruit and custard – it’s something I grew up with and ranks as comfort food for me.  When I was sick and if it were hot, Mum would give me a bowl of chilled canned peaches or pears with some home-made  custard made with good old Bingo! custard powder (now vanished) and a pile of eggs from our chickens.

But I don’t have eggs, the custard powder has vanished into the mists of time (Yes, I know that Foster Clarks still make custard powder.  No, it’s not the same!) and The Husband has finished off the tin of pears I had in the fridge for snacks.  I feel very down and cheer myself up by browsing through my recipe file until I find a recipe that I clipped out years ago for panna cotta.

Panna cotta?

Translated directly from the Italian, it means, simply, cooked cream.  I have cream.  I have gelatine.  I have berries in the freezer.  And, its so simple that even sleep-deprived me can make it without fear of self-immolation.  Houston, we have a GO!


Vanilla panna cotta with rose-scented berries

I used the silicone cupcake molds I bought at Big W about a thousand years ago and this made me think of the rose-water in the berries – a delicious, Turkish Delight-flavoured twist that I sometimes do with berries over ice-cream as an easy Summer dessert.  Sometimes, last minute whims (and laziness – I couldn’t be bothered digging my ramekins out of the cupboard) really are the mother of invention.

You will need;

For the panna cotta;

  • 375ml milk
  • 375ml cream
  • 115g caster sugar
  • Vanilla to taste
  • 2½ teaspoons of powdered gelatine
  • 2 tablespoons of boiling water

Combine milk, cream and sugar in saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved.  Add your vanilla (either the scrapings from a bean or a splash of essence) and warm until steaming hot.  Do not boil.

In a small bowl, mix the gelatine and the boiling water and stir until dissolved and smooth.  Mix into the saucepan and stir until completely blended.

Oil your moulds (this amount will make 12 small or 6 good sized pots) and pour in the mix.  Chill for at least 4 hours.

For the berries;

  • 300g of berries – your choice (fresh or frozen – I used frozen mixed because that’s what was in the freezer)
  • caster sugar to taste
  • rose water (available at most supermakets or deli’s or cake-supply places)

Warm the berries in a saucepan until they start to give up some juice.  Taste and add enough sugar to take off some of the tartness.  Don’t make them too sweet – you need some tang against the panna cotta.  Add a couple of splashes of rose water (start with a small amount – you can aways add more) and stir until the sugar has dissolved.  Chill.

To serve, unmold your panna cotta onto a plate and surround with the berries.  Alternatively, set the panna cotta into a large glass and top with the berries – less fussy and easy to make in advance for parties.

I’m going to make this again, but I might go mango and pistachio, or even saffron and almond.  Perhaps coffee and hazelnut liqueur?  Hmmm.  And for a short moment, I am no longer thinking about my poor nose…


Banana Cake

Banana Cake

Banana Cake

Despite bananas being cultivated in South East Asia for at least five thousand years as well as being known in the Middle East since the 10th century and imported into Europe in limited quantities in the 15th century and into the Americas in the 16th century via Africa (the word “banana” is apparently a Wolof term and we acquired it via the Portuguese) , it seems incredible to me that the earliest recorded instance of banana being used in a baked good in the Western food canon dates to 1933 when flour giant Pillsbury produced a cookbook titled “Balanced Recipes”.

Legend has it that in the Great Depression, grocers were desperate to get rid of over-ripe bananas and sold them off cheap, which lead to housewives contriving all sorts of recipes to use up the nutritious fruit.  The popularisation of baking powder at roughly the same time was a natural lead in to turning bananas into cakes, and the rest is history.  Mind you, although I can find actual copies of the cookbook for sale, I can’t seem to lay my hands on the original recipe – so if anyone out there has it, I’d be ever so grateful if you could post it here.

Anyhow, here is the recipe I’ve always used.  If, like me, you stash your sad bananas in the freezer until inspiration hits, this recipe is perfect!

You will need:

  • 125 grams of butter
  • ¾ cup of caster sugar
  • 1 egg (beaten)
  • 1 tablespoon of vanilla essence
  • 2 VERY ripe bananas (mashed)
  • 1 ½ cups of self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate soda
  • ¼ cup of milk

Cream the butter and sugar until very fluffy.  Add  egg, vanilla and bananas and mix.  Sift the dry ingredients and add to the mix, and add the milk.  Mix until just combined and pour into a greased pan.  Bake at 180C for 30-35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.  A bundt tin is perfect for this recipe but a regular round tin will do just as well.

For the icing, mix the juice of half a lime or a lemon (passionfruit is good too) with 1 cup of icing mixture, adding a teaspoon of hot water at a time until the mixture is smooth and very thick.  Carefully pour over the cake.  Top with grated zest.  Devour!

Tripe in a Wine and Bacon Sauce

With the possible exception of brains, no other offal meat seems to cause as much emotional distress as tripe.  Voted last year as one of the top 10 most hated foods in Britain (and this from the country that gave us haggis!) it is as revered in parts of Italy as it is reviled in the UK.  Mind you, Britain was also voted as having some of the worlds pickiest eaters whereas Italians seem to have a long-standing tradition of nose-to-tail eating that possibly carries over from the hard times the country has endured.

Most people have told me that it’s just the thought of what it is that puts them off.  Why cow stomach (or at least one of them) should be better than sirloin (cow back), rump steak (cow buttock), osso bucco (cow shin), milk (cow juice) or jelly (cow foot!) is a bit of a mystery to me, but my own personal feeling is that it is about 50% ickyness and 50% texture.  I love the taste of liver, but eating it cooked and whole revolts me (although I live in hope), but in pate or liver wurst it’s perfectly fine.  Tripe can be a little rubbery, although people who hate tripe will often devour calamari or octopus with nary a shudder.

Whatever the rationale, I love tripe and I implore you to try it at least once, in one form or another.  I’ve had Chinese versions in spicy chilli and sesame dressing, or slow cooked in soy and then fried crispy.  I’ve had Trippa alla Fiorentina where it is stewed in tomato sauce with a buzz of chilli.  Mum used to make it for me in a simple white sauce with plenty of onions and bacon with a handful of parsley and this is still the default meal I crave when seriously sick.  My version is like my mothers but slightly more adult and a darn sight more garlicky!

Tripe in Wine Sauce

Tripe in Wine Sauce

Take some honeycomb tripe.  It must be honeycomb – the others do not cook as tender (if at all – beware bible or leaf tripe!).  If it is a small one about the size of a swimming cap, it’s probably from a young veal animal and will need less time to cook (and before you start posting angry comments, veal crating is banned in Australia, which is more than I can say for most of the US).  Tripe is generally bleached before it is sold to make it look pretty and will already have been thoroughly washed, but wash it again, just to be sure and wring it out well – it has a lot of moisture.

Chop the tripe into strips and then into bite size pieces.  Put these into a stew pan and just cover with either plain water or chicken stock, and stew until tender – it should be soft and sticky with just a little bit of resistance.  Young tripe may take an hour, and older up to two or three.  Top up with water as required and when it’s nicely tender, turn off the heat.  Don’t rush it – this is slow food!

In another pan, heat a little olive oil and fry a good handful of diced fatty bacon or speck until it begins to brown and the fat renders.  Add in plenty of minced onion and as much garlic as you like, letting it take a little colour in the bacon fat.  Deglaze the pan with a good white wine (something not too sweet, not too dry) and let the wine reduce right down.  Add in the cooked tripe and let it simmer.  Check your seasoning and add salt, pepper and whatever fresh or dry herbs you think best – I like thyme and sometimes I put in the zest of a lemon.

When the tripe has reduced slightly, add in plenty of cream and a big handful of fresh, minced parsley.  If you wish to thicken the mix, do so, and serve piping hot with a fresh baguette and some salted butter.  Spoon up the sticky, unctuous stew and raise a glass of wine to the animal that gave us so much deliciousness.

Boning a chicken

I was thinking that I should probably do some posts that focus on technique – the difference between muddling through something and being shown the tricks and shortcuts is HUGE, and there’s nothing quite like seeing something and having that “Aha!” moment.

However in all honesty, I can’t go past this video by Jacques Pepin.

He makes it look so easy and his explanation is clear and concise.  The fact that he still has his outrageous French accent after living so many years in the US is a bonus, in my opinion!  His explanation of how to bone a wing and make a chicken “lollipop” was one of my original “Aha!” moments.  Wings become something other than fiddly cheap bits better suited to making stock or messy nibbles.

If you’re going to eat meat, then these days I feel that you owe it to the living thing that will be your food to do right by it.  By “right”, I mean that you should waste as little as possible, use all parts of the animal if possible, and aim to do the best you can.  By using a whole chicken you will not only save money by not buying the “easy” fillets but you will gain a little creativity in the roasting department AND take an important step away from the modern concept that there are only certain “worthwhile” or desirable cuts and a lot of rubbish.

Risotto in a slow cooker? Absolutely!

It was cold and overcast and I wanted risotto the way that a lush wants gin, not that I’d know anything about that.  I had the ingredients, but there was one small problem.  I am really very lazy.  And my kitchen doesn’t have a working stove.  Alright, genius – two small problems then!

It occurred to me that I had a perfectly good slow-cooker (that’s a crock-pot if you’re American, I believe) and a small portable gas ring that I bought years ago for Korean BBQ,  so I figured I’d give it a go.

Chorizo & Prawn Risotto

Chorizo & Prawn Risotto

It all started normally enough – I fried the chorizo and onion, removing them to one side when they were done and then I fried the arborio rice in the scented oil.  While I was waiting for this to be done, I poured my stock into a jug and microwaved it until piping hot.  When the rice was at that perfect pearly/translucent stage, I threw the rice, chorizo/onion mix and stock into the slow cooker, chopped and added a couple of leeks that I had lying about, gave it a thorough stir and left it to do its thing while I went off and did mine.

Twenty minutes later I gave it another good stir, added a little more stock, the frozen prawns straight out of the freezer and the English spinach that had been lurking in my crisper, and left it for another 10 minutes.

At this point, it was nearly done but I felt it needed a little more stock, so I gave it another splash, stirred thoroughly, added a tad more salt and turned off the pot and let it sit another 10 minutes to cook in its own heat.  The prawns had cooked, the spinach was nicely wilted but still perky and green, and the rice was soft but with some body.  I guess you’d call this al dente, but I prefer toothsome.  I’m a bit odd about things like that, I guess.

I like my risotto fairly sloppy but The Husband prefers his quite stiff, with the grains somewhat fluffy and fairly distinct.  The above cooking times are a guide and will give you  a fairly sturdy risotto.  Personally, I would have preferred to add more stock, but marriage sometimes requires compromises and this wasn’t a hill I wanted to die on.

Also, I was starving and couldn’t wait any longer, so that was what it got.  Such is life!

Risotto purists and food snobs will probably be clutching at their pearls by this stage, but with a little parmesan sprinkled on top and some wine, this was a damned tasty lunch and I got to play Minecraft rather than standing at the stove and stirring all the while.

Crème Caramel

I love crème caramel.  I adore it.  There’s something about its silken, creamy texture that brings out the worst glutton in me.  I don’t make it very often – usually it’s for celebrations or dinner parties – but only because I’ll eat too much of it.  The recipe that I’m sharing with you today is ridiculously simple and will give you a crème caramel of unsurpassed texture and taste.

Creme Caramel

Creme Caramel

There’s a trick, of course, which happens to be powdered milk.  Strange, but true – the recipe originally came off the back of a powdered milk packet that my mother once bought about forty years ago.  Alas, the original snippet has been lost but the recipe goes on.

The origins of crème caramel seem to be a little murky and despite some digging, I’ve not been able to come up with any really clear answer as to who can claim to have invented this divine dessert.

The Romans certainly had baked custard – the recipes of Apicius list something called a Tyropatinum, which reads;

Tyropatinam: accipies lac, aduersus quod patinam aestimabis, temperabis lac cum melle quasi ad lactantia, oua quinque ad sextarium mittis, si ad heminam, oua tria. in lacte dissolues ita ut unum corpus facias, in Cumana colas et igni lento coques. cum duxerit ad se, piper adspargis et inferes.

Estimate the amount of milk necessary for this dish and sweeten it with honey to taste; to a pint of fluid take 5 eggs; for half a pint dissolve 3 eggs in milk and beat well until it is incorporated thoroughly, strain through a colander into an earthen dish and cook on a slow fire in hot water bath in oven. When congealed sprinkle with pepper and serve. (translation from here)

No sugar in this recipe, of course – sugar was known to the Romans but was a rare and expensive trade item that came from India via the Silk Route – but honey is a perfect replacement.  Indeed, when I went to my Concise Larousse Gastronomic to look up crème caramel, the only recipe I could find was under “honey”.  So much for being a French classic!

From what I’ve been able to glean via the internet, it was the Moors in Spain in the 15th century that brought in sugar and gave them what we now call crème brûlée, which the Spanish call Crema Catalana (‘Catalan Cream’), Crema Cremada (‘Burnt cream’) or Crema de Sant Josep.  At some point, someone had the brilliant idea of putting the caramel inside the baking dish or mold rather than leaving it on top.  The idea moved to France at some point and then to England.  Recipes for crème brûlée appear from the mid 1600’s onwards, but I’ve not been able to find anything for crème caramel.  Probably the most “authentic” version is probably the flan so beloved in most South American countries.

So, here’s my recipe. It’s the powdered milk that allows you to control the moisture content in the crème caramel and it’s what gives this particular recipe a delicate firmness that others lack.

You will need;

  • 1 cup caster sugar (for the caramel)
  • 2 cups powdered milk (avoid reduced-fat or fat-free)
  • 3 cups warm water
  • ½ cup caster sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 or 2 vanilla beans or essence to taste (be generous – I make my own essence and put in a hefty glug)

Preheat your oven to 160ºC and grease a 20cm cake pan (or use individual molds).

Melt the cup of caster sugar in a non-stick pan to golden toffee, pour into cake pan and ensure that it covers the base as evenly as you can manage.  Let cool.

Mix remaining ingredients and pour through sieve into cake pan (the sieve catches any lumps and ensures your mix will be perfectly smooth).

Put your filled cake pan into a water bath and bake for about 90 minutes (turning the pan around at the halfway mark to ensure there are no hotspots).  The crème caramel is ready when the top is firm to finger-touch and there is only the smallest amount of jiggle.  Turn off the oven and carefully remove the pan from the water bath.  Let it cool on the counter and then pop it into the fridge for at least four hours (overnight is best).

To unmold, very gently tease the edges of the crème caramel away from the pan with the tip of one finger until you see caramel sauce welling up from underneath.  If it appears to be sticking, very carefully run a slim knife around the edge to free it.  Place a deep platter upside down over the cake pan and, with one swift sure motion, turn them both over.  The crème caramel will slither onto the plate with a delicious sucking sound and caramel sauce will go everywhere.  Serve plain, in slices.

This, of course, is the basic recipe.  You can, of course, replace one of the cups of warm water with a cup of good coffee, or pour a shot of Frangelico (or other liqueur) over the turned-out crème caramel, or infuse the custard with orange peel and so on.  If your crème caramel has little holes in it like a sponge, the mixture has boiled, so you’ll need to look at your oven temperature carefully and reduce it down.  It won’t ruin the crème caramel but the texture won’t be as nice.


So much for Valentine’s Day!

I had such wonderful plans for this blog for Valentine’s Day – I was going to do one hell of a post, put up one of the best ever recipes for creme caramel and post photos so delicious you’d lick your monitor.  As with all great plans, there were some hiccups.

Our internet (and phones) died for two whole weeks.  I ended up watching far too much daytime TV and I’ve not really recovered.

The creme caramel that I made was tasty but I used a new pan and it didn’t turn out well.  As in, slightly less-than-perfect.  Which is just not acceptable!

And then my stove died (at 49 years old, this is actually good news as far as I’m concerned).  Roll on kitchen renovation at long last!

At this point, I’ve given up on creme caramel.  The stars have not aligned.  Clearly it’s a sign that the world is not yet ready for such amazing texture and deliciousness.

Given my lack of oven-ness, I’m wondering what would be an acceptable substitute to the creme caramel.  What are your thoughts on…say…tripe?

Smacked Cucumber (Pai Huang Gua)

Smacked Cucumbers

Smacked Cucumbers

I first came across this recipe in Fuchsia Dunlop’s excellent book Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province (page 62 – see my bookshelf page for details – I highly recommend this book).  It sounded fun and I like cucumbers in just about anything so I decided to give it a go with two slightly worse-for-wear cucumbers that I had in the crisper.  Despite a rather messy first attempt, this has become a favourite and is especially good when paired with heavy or fatty foods.  Or just with food in general.  But, I digress…

The recipe has you smack the cucumbers with the flat of a cleaver in order to make them soak up the dressing.  The first time I tried this, I read the directions carefully and went SMACK!  This was followed pretty much instantaneously with SQUIRT! as the hapless cucumber ejected seeds and juice at high speed out of both ends at once – spraying both me and the wall opposite.  There was a moments silence as cucumber seeds dripped off my glasses and then I came down with such a fit of the giggles that I had to go and sit down. While I suspect that the condition of the cucumbers was responsible for the mess, these days, I forgo the smacking and just cut the cucumber into chunks instead.  You may wish to live life more of the edge than I.

Ms Dunlop gives two versions for this recipe – one with salted chillies and one with dried chilli flakes and hot oil.  I’ve sort of gone with a hybrid, and indeed – mine seems to be closer to the (probably non-Hunan) versions I’ve been finding in restaurants.  As I’m currently in the middle of a chilli glut, I’ve gone with fresh.  Use what you have handy.

You will need;

  • 1 large or 2 small cucumbers (about 375 grams).  The recipe doesn’t say to peel but I do as my local cucumbers tend to have thick and fairly horrible skins.
  • 2 or 3 chillies – fresh or dried cut as fine as possible (add more if you like the heat – my quantity will give you a mild zing)
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves, very finely minced (use 2 or 3 teaspoons of paste if you like, but fresh gives a better flavour in my opinion)
  • 3 tablespoons clear rice vinegar
  • a teaspoon of sugar
  • a teaspoon of sesame oil

Smack the cucumber (if you’re feeling game) until it splinters and cracks open.  Then chop into bite-size pieces.  Skip the smacking if you’re a cowardly custard.  Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and leave to drain for 30 minutes.

Combine all the ingredients except the cucumber in a small bowl and stir until well combined.  Give the cucumber a quick squeeze, put into the dressing and toss to coat.

Serve alongside anything that needs a bit of tangy freshness.