Tuesday, 24 December 2013
Last week, I flew halfway around the world to make a cake with my friend Linus. Linus is four and the son of my extremely talented and very dear friend Dorka, who I was at film school with in Brisbane what seems both a long time ago and just yesterday. She and Linus and his dad Kevin now live in New Orleans, which is a long way from Sydney, which means I can't see them as much as I'd like to. This is the case with so many of my good friends who are scattered all over. Many of them have kids now and it's hard not to be more a part of their lives, to be there for things like birthdays and growth spurts and school concerts. So when I do get to hang out with them, I like to bake. It gives us something to do together, a way to get to know each other, and something for us both to remember. I know every time I make this cake, I'll think of Linus, and hopefully when he (and his mum or dad) make it again, he'll think of me.
Linus is American, of Hungarian-Chinese heritage. I'm Australian, of Scottish-Irish stock. We came together in New Orleans, a Southern US city with distinctly French Creole influences. So naturally, we made a Polish cake. It's a melting pot this city, what can I tell you? Only about streets lined with grand timber houses and long-limbed, leafy trees, thunderstorms that go on all day (and all night), catfish po'boys in bars in back streets, slow-moving streetcars, the bottom of a bag of beignets filled with (I swear) about a pound of powdered sugar, fork lightening on the Mississippi, and, of course, jazz - on street corners, in bars, in the very rhythms of this place...
But back to Linus' cake. That's what I'm going to call it anyway. Just like its namesake, it's a keeper. Lightly sweetened with honey (and very little additional sugar), its flavour is rich and deep, its top crunchy with almonds and its exterior deliciously sticky. If you can't make it with a friend, at least share it with some... or be warned: you may eat the whole thing yourself.
Wednesday, 18 December 2013
Last weekend was kind of busy. I had an apartment to clean, a bag to pack, a scene breakdown to write and Christmas cookies to bake for my neighbours. Fortunately, the latter, at least, was no big deal. I'd made the dough weeks ago, rolled them into logs and stashed them in the freezer so all I had to do on the day was slice and bake. Which meant I had just enough time to test for quality control with a cup of tea (and take a photo). Intensely chocolatey from the double hit of Dutch cocoa and 70% chocolate, these are appropriately luxurious for the season of excess. Though I didn't have enough time to try it out, I reckon they'd be brilliant baked a little larger as the "bread" in an ice-cream sandwich with some softened, good-quality vanilla ice-cream. Another weekend. When I return to summer. And Sydney. See you soon.
Wednesday, 11 December 2013
In Australia, the closest we get to anything white at this time of year is pavlova, a show-stopper dessert made with egg whites and sugar, served cold in place of pudding on Christmas Day. Topped with cream and summer fruit it's perfect for our stinking hot late December weather and curious custom of eating smack bang in the middle (ie: the hottest part) of the day. Meringues are like pavlova's little sister(s). Sweet, snowy and swirly with the same crunchy exterior and pillowy, marshmallow-like interior, they're great anytime, anywhere and for almost anyone - an easy solution to dinner party dessert dilemmas if you have gluten or dairy-intolerant guests.
Meringues are good all by themselves of course, but better still topped with complementary tastes and textures: soft cream, tangy yoghurt, fresh fruit, crunchy nuts... really, you can dress them up any way you like. My favourite is with a dollop of cream, some lemon or lime curd and a sprinkling of chopped pistachios.
Happy Christmas. Happy holidays. Happy summer. Winter. Wednesday. Whenever. Just happy.
Wednesday, 4 December 2013
When I was a student, I had a part-time job as a nanny looking after three brothers ranging in age from 4-10. It involved picking them up from three different schools, driving them back home, and most importantly of all, making them afternoon tea. No matter how much they argued in the car (ranging from quite a bit to a lot), on their choice of after-school snack there was always total agreement: pikelets. Light, fluffy and happily eaten or cold, pikelets are a particularly Australian childhood treat. They're an excellent vehicle for jam and cream or butter and honey, and have a miraculous silencing effect on hungry children who stop shouting/fighting/breaking things long enough to focus all their attention on eating as many as possible. The ones I used to make for the boys I looked after were the traditional kind - white flour, sugar, egg and milk soured with a bit of vinegar or lemon juice. These, from a recipe by Bill Granger, are a healthier twist on the original and ressemble more pancakes than pikelets. And so perfect for breakfast. Especially with homemade salted maple butter.
Who knew making butter was so easy? Not me, til I happened across this recipe and was inspired to throw some leftover cream, a dash of maple syrup and a pinch of salt in my Kitchen Aid mixer. Ten minutes later I had glossy, rich home (if not exactly hand) churned butter.
My former charges are grown up now. A few years ago we caught up and I made them pikelets. Some things never get old.
Wednesday, 27 November 2013
This weekend, I was in Brisbane celebrating Christmas with my family. It's still November, I'm aware, but this year I'm not going to be in Australia on the day itself so we needed to rearrange the schedule a bit. Though the date may not have been quite right, everything else felt like holidays in my hometown: heat, humidity and thunderstorms, check, watching cricket with my dad, check, unwrapping presents, check, nice dinner out with friends, check, amazing breakfast in with others, check, cooking in my parents' kitchen, check. The latter is probably one of my favourite parts of coming home. Though I dearly love my kitchen in Sydney, it's small verging on tiny, so it's somewhat novel for me to have space to spread out. Not that I needed it really for this cake, which I made on Saturday. You see, Australia was doing particularly well in the First Test, and I didn't want to divert my attention for too long from the screen. So this cake fit the bill. In more ways than one. Not only was it extremely straight-forward (you can make it in a saucepan!) but it has marmalade as a key ingredient. And my mum happens to make incredible marmalade (with cumquats from her tree) and always has a ready supply. So here it is, the non-Christmas cake I made over my non-Christmas Christmas. So easy to make, it's an excellent everyday cake but the sweet, tart citrus kick of the marmalade makes it just that little bit special. A tangy zing in a deep, dark, densely chocolatey loaf. I'd like to dedicate it to Mitchell Johnson, another ex-Queenslander who had a good weekend in his home state. Thanks to this cake, I didn't miss one of his wickets.
Wednesday, 20 November 2013
It all began innocently enough. I asked my friend Susan, who was down visiting for the weekend, to pick something for me to cook her from the long list of recipes I'd bookmarked to try. She sat there listening patiently, unexpressive, maybe even a little bored, as I reeled off about six or seven things before her eyes widened and she sat up a little straighter in her chair. "That one." I looked back at my list for clarification. "Crack pie?"
Where to start? Maybe with a warning. Do NOT make this pie unless you have six or seven people coming over to eat it. Maybe eight. Because once you start, I'm not kidding, you will not stop. You will not be able to eat without examining the sticky beauty of every forkful and quietly mouthing "oh my god". You will not be able to put said forkful in your mouth without reaching for another. You will not be able to rest until... It. Is. All. Gone.
This genius recipe comes from Christina Tosi, the maverick baker behind Momofuku Milk Bar in New York. She makes ice-cream from cereal milk, cake from candy bars and gives as much careful consideration to the naming of her creations as she does their development. When I was there, a couple of years ago, I sampled one of her compost cookies - a crazy composite of oats, potato chips, chocolate, butterscotch, pretzels and coffee, that defies description... in the best possible way. Tosi clearly specialises in highly-addictive sweets that are near impossible to pin down in taste. The best Susan and I could come up with for the crack pie was that it was like a cross between an Anzac biscuit and the coveted corner piece in a tray of caramel slice - chewy, gooey, caramelised, and... dangerous.
Given my proclivity for sweet stuff, it's kind of amazing it took me so long to make this. The reason was the recipe called for just one tablespoon of non-fat milk powder and my local supermarket only sold the stuff in 1 kilo packets. I sent Susan back to Brisbane with a ziplock bag filled with white powder which looks suspicious enough without having to explain to an airport security screener it's for crack pie. Six pies worth to be exact. Obviously, I still have quite a bit left. To say the least. So if you want some, come on by, I'll be your dealer.
Wednesday, 13 November 2013
There's a fine art to making a good sandwich. I speak with some authority having spent countless hours as a student behind the counters of delis buttering baguettes, carving up camembert and doing everything I could to avoid the meat slicer... which meant making sandwiches. You start with good bread, that's a given. Next you need something spreadable - whether butter, mayonnaise, mustard or chutney - to stop it drying out, a protein - like egg, or cheese or meat - for substance, a bit of greenery for virtue (and colour) and then lastly, ideally, you need crunch. Texture is that certain je ne sais quoi that elevates the ordinary sandwich into the realm of the extraordinary. It's the little extra touch that just shows you care, and caring about what you prepare yourself to eat always - always! - makes it taste better. Especially when you make the crunch in question yourself.
These bread and butter pickles are brilliant on a corned beef sandwich, a salad roll, or - better still - a burger. Jarred up, they make excellent presents, and keeping aside at least one for yourself will ensure that any sandwich you make is nothing short of spectacular. And don't we all deserve spectacular? Especially for lunch.
Wednesday, 6 November 2013
A while ago, I bought some pomegranate molasses. It was so long ago I'm now no longer able to remember what I bought it for but it had been languishing lonely in my cupboard for some time, so when I happened across this Karen Martini recipe in the Sydney Morning Herald, I knew I had to make it. But not just because of the pomegranate molasses. The list of ingredients sounded intoxicating - orange, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coffee, sesame seeds, dates... all the flavours of the Middle-East combined in a cake.
Dark, dense and deliciously sticky, this is a Middle-Eastern take on the traditional date loaf (if you want a recipe for that, go no further than Elizabeth's). The pomegranate molasses shellacked glossily on top gives a tart kick that balances the sweetness of the cake, blends beautifully with the spices, nuts and fruit within, and adds a touch of glamour and mystery to what would otherwise be a pretty plain looking loaf. If you don't have any pomegranate molasses in your cupboard, head to your nearest Middle-Eastern food store and pick up a bottle. Or two. Once this is in your repertoire, you'll need them.
Wednesday, 30 October 2013
This cake is by no means complex but it does involve a few bowls and benefits from being made in a stand mixer - unless of course you enjoy the dead arm you get from manually beating egg whites. There are certainly other more straight-forward recipes out there but I venture they wouldn't have the wonderful lightness of this one. A lightness that comes from separating and aerating the eggs, the extra light olive oil, small amount of flour, and modest quantity of frosting, which is used to stunning effect to separate the two layers. The resulting cake resembles nothing like the dense, dumpy loaf slices you see suffocated in plastic wrap in bad cafes worldwide, but is sleek, sophisticated and utterly scrumptious. Here's to open minds.
Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Truly one of the most incredible things I've seen in all my life was the sight of running salmon. I was on a road trip with my cousin in the north-west corner of the United States, and we pulled over by a river and sat transfixed watching these huge pink fish swimming furiously upstream, hurling themselves out of the water, and up waterfalls to spawn in the waters they themselves hatched in. You might think I'm about to confide that I've not eaten salmon since witnessing this great spectacle of nature but as you can see from the above photograph, that is clearly not the case. Mostly, I find fish a bit boring, even bland. But salmon is the one fish I can get enthusiastic about eating. Unlike its white-fleshed counterparts, it has a buttery richess, a sturdy form, and - not insignificantly in my appreciation of it - a glorious colour.
Wednesday, 16 October 2013
There is nothing remotely sophisticated about cream cheese. It's kind of the sweet equivalent of mashed potato - white, soft, malleable... and oh so good. Though it comes in bricks, it's more like mortar. Bagels wouldn't be the same without it. The frosting made with it is the very reason carrot cake exists. And then there's cheesecake. Which is all very well on its own, but swirled into a brownie and strewn with chocolate chips to form a hybrid kind of sweet squidgy square is, well, definitely not sophisticated, but who cares? Sophisticated can't be tucked into the corner of a lunchbox, eaten straight from the freezer or carted to a picnic in its tin.
Life's too short for sophisticated. But long enough that you can indulge in something this rich occasionally. You can serve these warm, or at room temperature, but for the cleanest slices, refridgerate the pan til nicely chilled then use a knife dipped in hot water to cut through. If making a whole tray of these worries you - know that they freeze well... but also know they taste good straight from the freezer. Consider this a warning.
Wednesday, 9 October 2013
Food is my favourite way to remember people. This week it's my grandmother's birthday. My father's mother Irene was a huge figure in my life growing up. For good reason. She was glamorous, she was indulgent (as all good grandmothers are meant to be), and she was a wonderful cook. As a kid, I spent most Saturday nights at her house, which, as a bonus, meant I was often there on Sunday for her morning tea, a weekly spread attended by her immediate family - her brother and his wife, her sister and her husband - as well as my grandfather. And frequently, my brother and I. By necessity, it was a big table and each week it was laden with delicious food and steaming cups of tea. My grandmother was famous for her fruitcake, but I used to like helping put bits of gherkin or corn relish atop cheese on Jatz crackers, and fancied myself quite talented at arranging them pleasingly on any one of her many decorative platters. The real golden age of morning tea however, was before my time. A time before cholesterol (and the more beige era of oat bran and polyunsaturated oil). My dad remembers fondly the treats his mother routinely turned out when he was a boy: homemade Monte Carlo biscuits, pineapple meringue pies (she was a Queenslander, after all) and these, his favourite: honey cakes.
These predate cupcakes, and muffins, and other such airy, modern tea-time fare. They're nicely dense, which is these days, a rather unexpected texture in a baked good. And the honey imparts a lovely flavour and a beautiful fragrance to both cake and icing. As it's my Dad's birthday this month too, I thought I'd make these to remember my grandmother, and celebrate my dad. I love them both. And take my tea exactly as they did and do: weak, black, no sugar. The legacy of morning tea lives on, just a little further south.
Wednesday, 2 October 2013
My mother used to bribe us with food. Neither my brother or I had much interest in learning the piano but we had boundless enthusiasm for the treats we'd get for afternoon tea at the deli cafe next door to the music school where our lessons were held. I'm pretty sure it was there I first had halva, the dense, sweet and crumbly Middle-eastern confection made from sesame seeds. It was halva that came to mind when I tasted this cake, relatively new to my repertoire. I've made it three times now, in quick succession. I'd never used tahini before in anything sweet and it was a revelation. Though this cake looks complicated, it's easily one of the more simple I've ever made in both ingredients and technique. It's excellent with tea or coffee, sophisticated enough for a dinner party, humble enough for morning tea, enjoyed equally by kids and adults, and the sort of thing that if you make once, you're sure to make again and again. It's chewy and moist, sweet and sesame-y and entirely dairy-free.
Eventually we gave up the piano. My grandfather was disappointed. He thought it a good skill to have for parties. To date I have not attended a gathering where piano playing was called for but every day I'm grateful to my mum for teaching me to cook. No matter the age, or the social occasion, cake is perennially popular.
Wednesday, 25 September 2013
A week or so ago I was in Anglesea, in Victoria, on the Great Ocean Road. Hanging out with two of my oldest, dearest friends. Walking on the beach. Watching Pride and Prejudice on the couch in front of the heater. Drinking on the terrace of a pub overlooking the sea. And eating ricotta hotcakes. It was a pretty great weekend. Especially because the sun was out when rain was predicted. And because my friends had all this amazing stuff going on in their lives that merited celebration. It called for a memorable breakfast.
A lot of recipes out there for ricotta hotcakes use a hefty amount of cheese. I prefer this version, which is less dense, lightly sweet, and brilliant for when you have a little ricotta to use up. It's basically a pancake mixture - egg, flour, sugar, milk - but with a small amount of ricotta crumbled in so that each hotcake is studded with airy little clumps of white. Perfect for celebrations, feeding friends, or just because it's the weekend.
Wednesday, 18 September 2013
Strawberries are a summer fruit, synonymous with Christmas and hot weather and pavlova. So why markets are blanketed in plump red berries now at the tail end of winter/beginning of spring, I'm not sure. I should probably be worried but instead I snapped up a punnet for a pocketful of loose change and made cake. Naturally.
Until recently, I was quite sniffy about strawberries, seeing them as somehow inferior to their more rarified relatives like raspberries, blackberries, mulberries... I liked them fine but found their taste by comparison a little... well, bland. But then I learned something that changed my bad attitude about strawberries forever. It's likely you already know this but I'll share it with you anyway. Are you ready? Here it is. Don't eat them cold. That's it. Out of the fridge, at room temperature, their flavour is fully experienced and it's every bit as distinctive and delicious as those other berries that cost twice or three times the price. But don't eat too many or you won't have enough for this cake.
Rich and buttery, with a ribbon of red running through it and a crunchy, crumbly topping, this is the best kind of morning coffee cake or afternoon tea cake. You could make it with any kind of berry probably but there's something particularly sweet about strawberries, whatever the weather, whatever the season.
Wednesday, 11 September 2013
I love a good nationally televised event. The sort of thing that's an excuse to have people over for an informal meal - to eat, to drink, to shout at the screen. The Ashes have come and gone, and while I count the sleeps til next year's World Cup, I'll make do with what's on offer and last Saturday here in Australia, that was the federal election... which really in the end, was all about this pasta. It was simple, delicious and - unlike Australian politics last weekend - completely surprising.
Surprising because of how few ingredients the recipe called for and how unexpected their combination. Nuts are par for the course in pasta (pesto being case in point), but nuts with sultanas is more commonly trail mix than main course. And dried oregano, while standard in Italian cooking, isn't an obvious pairing with either of those two. But together, somehow, they work. The nuts are crunchy, the garlic fragrant and the sultanas like little bursts of sweetness perfectly complementing the salty bite of the parmesan.
A note to all of you sultana/raisin-phobes out there - I served this to one of your kind Saturday night (after first giving them the option of a different sauce, which they bravely declined) and they not only had seconds but went searching for extra sultanas at the bottom of the serving dish! What did I tell you? Surprising!
Wednesday, 4 September 2013
It's been a year. 52 weeks, 52 recipes since I started a blog called Alice Bakes a Cake with a post on... apple pie. It seems appropriate then, for more than one reason, to mark the occasion with cake. And not just any cake but the most over the top in my repertoire, the fabulously-named Coco the burlesque wonder cake.
The name befits a more blousy floral adornment but I couldn't resist the bright yellow of the wattle that's all over Sydney at the moment and plucked a couple of branches from a neighbourhood tree to bring home, where it promptly shed little yellow polka dots all over my apartment. But I digress. This cake is, like all other recipes I've posted here over the last year, so easy to make - a pile-all-ingredients-in-the-food-processor kind of affair. It's basically a chocolate cake, with a rich, decadent chocolate frosting. But there's nothing basic about its taste. The magic ingredient is golden syrup, which gives Coco a lovely can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it point of difference from your standard chocolate cake. Along with the sour cream - also a feature of both frosting and cake - it gives a nice tangy intensity to the sweetness. A complexity of flavour in a cake that couldn't be more simple.
Huge thanks to everyone who's eaten things I've cooked for the blog over this last year (I couldn't get through all those cakes and pies single-handedly), as well as to those who've read it, commented on it, and most of all, made things from it. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. The biggest pieces of cake go to my good friends Elizabeth, who inspired and encouraged me to start a blog, and to Tammy, whose IT help and photography favours have been so appreciated. Like any good speech, I'll keep this short. It's time to tuck in.
Wednesday, 28 August 2013
This week, I've been craving summer fruit. Or more specifically, baked summer fruit, topped with nutty, buttery crumble and liberally dolloped with Greek yoghurt. I discovered Nigel Slater's recipe for baked peaches through my friend Elizabeth's blog The Backyard Lemon Tree earlier this year and was reminded of it recently when the same recipe was published on Smitten Kitchen at the height of northern hemisphere summer. With stone fruit out of my reach for a good few months yet, I needed a way to satisfy my craving for a juicy, crunchy, throw-together fruit dessert... at the tail end of Sydney winter. Apples and pears I love but I wanted something a bit more punchy in both colour and taste... and found it in rhubarb.
I really wasn't prepared for how good this turned out to be. I'm not saying it's better than the Nigel Slater peaches - that would be blasphemy - but put it this way, in summer, when I've got stone fruit coming out my ears (so to speak) I'll likely be craving this: rhubarb, tossed in sugar and orange zest, baked til it slumps into a sweet, tart ruby red tangle, and covered in a blanket of crisp, caramelised oats. As with its summer counterpart I like it best with a spoonful of plain yoghurt, not out of any sense of restraint, but because the smooth sharpness of the yoghurt beautifully complements the crunch of the crumble and the sweet juiciness of the fruit. And, as an added bonus, it justifies eating any leftovers (in the unlikely event there are any) for breakfast.
Wednesday, 21 August 2013
Let's get things straight. I am not one of those people who twist themselves into knots making absolutely everything from scratch. I'm much happier spending my time making one or two impressive things for guests and then supplementing with store-bought stuff. I'll make a curry and buy roti, I'll make a pie and buy the ice-cream... Crackers fall into the category of things I'd usually buy but when it's this easy, I make an exception.
Flatbread is not so much bread as it is one enormous cracker. And in this case, a crisp, flaky, herb-infused cracker, sprinkled with salt and studded with fat sprigs of rosemary. The time it spends in the oven - barely 10 minutes - is by far the longest part of the cooking process. The dough is assembled in about as much time as it takes to throw the few ingredients together, and rolling it out is similarly speedy as you're not trying to conform to a particular shape - the more rustic the better. I like to put it out whole and let people break off pieces to suit their particular grazing needs. Somehow it feels very friendly, as you're really sharing food... I suppose the very definition of breaking bread. Just make sure you break off enough. As quickly as it's made, it disappears just as fast.
Wednesday, 14 August 2013
Winter has been downright summery in Sydney this year. If I hadn't been to the Blue Mountains (for a holiday in June) or Melbourne (for work last week), I doubt my scarf would have seen any action at all. As I type this, it's sunny and 25 degrees outside. That's Celcius for any of you northern hemisphere folk, which translates as 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Really, the only sign of the season so far has been the cold I came down with over the weekend, the hordes of people in football jerseys on buses I've been on, and my craving for lemon delicious.
Lemon delicious - or lemon pudding - is a dessert my mother used to make regularly when I was growing up. Comprised of pantry, fridge and fruit bowl staples, it came together quickly, looked after itself in the oven while we were having dinner, and was ready to eat before it was time to do the washing up. A self-saucing pudding, it's baked in a deep-sided dish set within another shallower dish filled with warm water, a technique that produces a golden, sponge-like top, and a pale yellow custardy sauce below.
Sweet and tart in equal measures, with custard and cake in perfect proportion, this is an intensely satisfying winter dessert (even if the winter in question is a little wanting). And there's enough citrus (and therefore Vitamin C) involved to allow you to overlook the significant dairy component and convince yourself that eating it is actively helping you get over your cold. The name says it all. How could you resist?