Wednesday 27 February 2013

Lemon yoghurt cake

Whenever I visit friends at their homes, I like to take a cake. To get to my friend Gill's house for a weekend with our mutual friend George, however, I had to fly, so the cake in question had to be something I could pack as carry on. Nothing fussy with frosting or layers. Something that could easily be stowed in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of me. And, most important of all, (for my own standards) it had to taste amazing. Fortunately, I had just the recipe. I've been making lemon yoghurt cake as long as I've known Gill, since we were film students together, and George and I were working part-time in the same café while sharing a house in a leafy pocket of Brisbane. All these years later, much has changed. For a start, none of us live in Queensland anymore. I'm in Sydney, George in Melbourne and Gill... well, she's just bought a little shack on the Great Ocean Road on the Victorian coastline. But I'm still making lemon yoghurt cake and we all still like hanging out.

...which is lucky, because hanging out with Gill these days means getting up early to check the surf, watching her paddle out into that cold dawn water, then waiting patiently for her to come in for breakfast. But it's no hardship posting to be sitting on a beautiful, almost deserted beach watching the sun come up, or your friend catch a wave all the way in to shore, or to be rewarded afterwards with her house speciality - a doorstop of a bacon sandwich, which wouldn't taste nearly as good if you hadn't been up for hours, breathing in all that sea air. It makes you HUNGRY, I tell you. Which is why that lemon yoghurt cake came in handy.

This is absolutely the best kind of everyday cake: sweet and tangy, the colour of sand and sun, light yet sturdy - perfect for carting on a plane or on a picnic, packing in a lunch box or just tucking into when returning ravenous from a day at the beach, sand between your toes and skin sticky with salt water.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Conchiglie with saffron, capers and raisins

There are a million reasons not to invite people over for dinner. Your apartment is too small. You don't have enough time. Or nice enough plates. Money for fancy ingredients. Mastery of complex cooking techniques. It doesn't help that the top-rated shows on television at the moment are ones featuring so-called "home cooks" poaching salmon in temperature-controlled olive oil baths, or constructing edible towers strewn with micro-herbs or native berries. If that's your idea of a good time, then great. For me, having people over is about being together, and it should be easy and fun, generous and relaxed. I love to cook but I want to spend time with my guests, not be stuck in the kitchen all night, then into the early hours of the morning with the washing up. 

So on Saturday I had some friends over. One of them was a vegetarian. I made pasta. Most of the ingredients I already had on hand (except celery, which I purchased for the grand total of 69 cents), which is the beauty of this particular dish by Israeli-born, London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. It's as if he'd came up with it by pulling random grocery items from his fridge and cupboards and throwing them all together. It's a crazy combination of flavours and textures but it works - salty, sweet, crunchy, soft, strident, subtle... It takes no time to make, tastes good hot or cold (one of my favourite parts of having people over are the leftovers the next day) and makes everyone happy. Even those who hate raisins... of my four guests, there were two of these, who both enthusiastically dug in for seconds.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Lumberjack cake

Even if this cake had wood chips in it (it doesn't) I would have made it.  The name alone was enough.  I've long harboured not-so-secret fantasies about living in a cabin in the woods.  Recently, I was lucky enough to realise this dream during a six week writing residency in New Hampshire, working and sleeping in a wooden cabin surrounded by tall trees, falling snow and the brightest of bright stars.  I had a fireplace, a rocking chair and deer grazing outside my windows.  Unlike a lumberjack, however, I had a lunch basket delivered to my door each day, along with clean linen and a ready supply of wood for the fire. Not to mention central heating, running (hot) water and a grand piano.  Not that I'm complaining. My hands were not made for hewing pine, but for tapping on a keyboard and, clearly, making this cake.

So what does a lumberjack put in a cake you might ask, if not wood chips?  Well, pantry staples like dates, flour and sugar for a start.  Little luxuries like a single egg (they're not for wasting), one apple or pear (whichever you might have come by in your travels), and butter (a fair whack of it to be honest, but who ever heard of a vegan lumberjack?).  The wildcard ingredient, the one you really wouldn't expect though, is coconut.  Just half a cup of snowy white flakes, enough to give the cake a bit of added interest, something to contemplate while enjoying a slice with a cup of black coffee after a morning's work in the forest, or on your laptop.  

Wednesday 6 February 2013


In the United States, a Civil War still rages over cornbread. You’re either from the north, and like it sweet, light and cake-like in appearance, or from the south, where you prefer yours savoury, crumbly and (more often than not) served up in a cast-iron skillet.  As an Australian, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I simply made the first recipe I came across, loved it, and haven’t bothered to look for another. This particular cornbread is, in many ways, a fusion of the two styles – the cornmeal grit and minimal sugar favoured by the south, but leavened with flour and baked in a loaf tin to look more like the cake common to the north. 

All I know is that at four in the afternoon, when I'm feeling peckish and standing in the kitchen, paralysed with indecision, trying to decide whether I feel like something sweet or something savoury, this cornbread neatly fulfills both cravings - its subtle sweetness undercut with a chilli kick. It may not please the purists, but it certainly pleases me - whether served up alongside a meaty stew, freshly cut with a dollop of chutney, or simply toasted with butter.