A crunchy salad and a kitchen injury

celery, asparagus, walnut and fetta salad

It’s Heston Blumenthal’s fault that I burnt myself making this salad.

In The Fat Duck Cookbook, under the recipe for ‘Salmon Poached in a Liquorice Gel, with Black Truffle, Asparagus, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Manni Olive Oil’ (totally on my list of things to make and blog about…), Heston notes that asparagus is best cooked in oil, rather than water, because of the hydrophilic – that is to say, water-soluble – nature of the asparagus’s ‘aroma molecules’. So, in short, cooking asparagus in oil retains more flavour than cooking it in water.

I don’t habour any delusions of being able to cook like Heston, but when I read this I figured it was a tip I could easily employ. And it makes sense – when you cook asparagus in water the water does take on a very strong asparagus-y smell. The problem for me was that when I first made this salad, I threw the asparagus in a pan and didn’t realise how hot the oil was. Well, to be fair, I’d been cooking some zucchini fritters in the pan and the oil didn’t seem that hot. But when it splashed out onto my wrist, I realised that it was, in fact, quite hot. If it weren’t for Heston, I would have cooked the asparagus in water and probably just scalded myself…

Injuries aside, the salad was a success and was surprisingly tasty. To be fair, the common element of most things I find ‘surprisingly tasty’ seems to be cheese, which may go some way to explaining why I liked this salad so much… The first time I made it was to use up some sad, floppy celery stalks and a bunch of asparagus that was threatening to go slimy at the tips (hence why I felt the need to add cheese). The second time I bought the ingredients for it specifically, and it was better. It also stays fairly crunchy for a few days, so it was good to take for lunch.

Celery, asparagus, walnut and fetta salad
Serves 4

olive oil
1 bunch of asparagus
2-3 stalks of celery, chopped
handful of walnuts, toasted and chopped roughly
handful of fresh parsley and basil, chopped
splash of white balsamic vinegar, or a squeeze of lemon juice (I understand most people don’t have white balsamic vinegar, but I have a slight obsession with it)
cracked black pepper
about 50g fetta

Snap the woody ends off the asparagus. Chop into 2cm pieces.

Heat some olive oil in a pan that has a lid over medium heat. Heston says 2mm of oil… I just pour a splash in. Add the asparagus and cover the pan with the lid. Cook for about 5 minutes, then drain on a paper towel. Leave to cool.

When the asparagus is completely cool, combine in a bowl with the celery, walnuts and herbs. Add the white balsamic or lemon juice, pepper (however much you want) and a splash of olive oil and toss until combined. Crumble the fetta over the top. Jamie Oliver would tell you to do this ‘from a height’, and I have no idea what the benefit of this could possibly be. But now I always think it whenever I crumble fetta on things. The only benefit I can imagine is that it makes you feel like you’re on a cooking show. Anyway, that’s it, and when you serve the salad you can mix the fetta through a bit more evenly.


Mushrooms!

Well, this is an exciting development:

Mushrooms

It doesn’t look like there’s mush-room in there!

I bought this mushroom growing kit two weeks ago, so it’s pretty exciting to see some mushrooms coming through. I feel an immense sense of achievement, even though I didn’t really do anything – the mushrooms really did all the work. Yesterday morning these mushrooms were tiny, and today, bam!, full-sized, all grown up and ready to be eaten. Apparently mushrooms can double their size in 24 hours. 24 hours! That is crazy. I wonder how big they’ll get if I leave them… I could end up in a situation like this:

I don’t know, they seem like a bunch of fun-guys to me.

Yep. I went there. People wish they were this funny.


Apple crumble cheesecake

Apple crumble cheesecake

This cake is basically the best thing I make. I made it as a birthday present for my boyfriend, back when he was just a friend. It was possibly a turning point in our relationship… His favourite desserts were apple crumble and cheesecake (this cake is now the favourite), so I decided to combine them. To be honest, I expected it to be a novelty dish more than anything, so I was surprised when it turned out really well. The apples cut through the rich creamy-ness of the cream cheese, and with the base and the crumble topping the whole thing is encased by crunchy-ness.

This year he was at Burning Man for his birthday, so I made it before he left. The night before he left, actually, and I didn’t take any pictures of it. Ostensibly, I forgot. In reality, I figured it would give me a good excuse to make it again. He was already disappointed in how little of it he got to eat before he left (BTW, he did manage to get through about a third of it, and I did pack him some to eat for breakfast on way to the airport). My housemate Bec and I were left to eat the rest of the cake, and we were happy when it was gone because it wasn’t hanging over our heads any more. It was like some terrible chore – we knew, each night, that we’d have to eat some… First world problems are the WORST.

In an attempt to curb my depression resulting from not being able to go to Burning Man (read: to try and stop being a sook), I decided that I would make the cheesecake again for when he got back, but this time I’d make it from scratch. Well, scratch-ish because I didn’t make the sour cream, or mill the flour, or grow the apples… But, I did make something that approximates cream cheese and the biscuits for the base. While I think this went some way towards distracting me from not being on a crazy adventure in the desert, I don’t think it’s really necessary. The cake is better with store-bought cream cheese, although admittedly I didn’t make proper cream cheese, which would have probably been better but more work. The biscuits were good, but again, it doesn’t make much difference. The only reason you’d really bother is so you can say you did. I’ve included the recipes anyway, but don’t feel like you need to do this much work.

For the cream cheese: strained yoghurt

Upon some internet investigation, I discovered that a sort of cream cheese could be made by simply draining yoghurt. I wrapped a litre of yoghurt in some canvas and hung it over a bowl for about 12 hours:

Straining yoghurt

Yep, sophisticated. The end result is really just a thick yoghurt. It works fine in the cheesecake, but it’s lighter and not as creamy as cream cheese, and I don’t think it’s quite as good. But you can also use strained yoghurt in dips and as a spread, and turn it into labna if you want to marinate scoops of it in oil and junk.

For the base: digestive biscuits

I thought I’d make graham crackers (who calls a cracker Graham? Was he white? Is that racist?) for the base, just because I have a book with a recipe for them in it, but then I realised that while I’ve seen them used in recipes, I’ve never eaten them – they seem to be one of those American foods that I know about but for some reason has never reached our shores. So instead I decided to find a recipe for digestive biscuits, my biscuit of choice for cheesecake bases. I love digestive biscuits, in no small part because of their humble name. They don’t claim to be anything other than digestible, which one would hope all biscuits are. Good for them I say, you don’t want people to start expecting too much from a biscuit, that’s bound to end in disappointment. I based my recipe loosely on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe for River cottage spelt digestive biscuits. I say loosely because I didn’t have spelt flour or the inclination to source some, and I used half as much butter because I read the recipe incorrectly (I was tired – earlier that day I read ‘Optus’ as ‘Octopus’, making for a very confusing news headline).

But they came out pretty well. See if you can pick which one is homemade:

Digestives

Mine is the one on the right. Don’t feel bad if you got it wrong, I am pretty awesome. Anyway, here’s the recipe:

2 2/3 cup wholemeal flour
2 cups of oat bran
125 g butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
3/4 cup milk

Heat oven to 150°C. Combine flour, oats, butter, sugar, baking powder and salt in a food processor and blend until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add the milk a bit at a time until the mixture comes together. Roll the mixture out between two sheets of baking paper. Cut into large circles, about 8cm in diameter, and place on a tray lined with baking paper. Bake for around 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Apple crumble cheesecake

250g digestive biscuits, homemade or otherwise (or other sweet plain biscuits)
100g unsalted butter, melted
3 granny smith apples
Juice of half a lemon
3/4 cup caster sugar
500g softened cream cheese, or strained yoghurt
2 eggs
250g sour cream
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed firmly
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
60g unsalted butter, chopped
2/3 cup plain flour

Lightly grease a 23cm diameter, round, springform tin, and line the base with baking paper. Sprinkle the base and inside sides with flour. Dust off excess.

Finely crush the biscuits in a food processor. Mix in the melted butter. Spoon mixture into tin and press firmly to cover the base and sides evenly. Refrigerate for at least 10 minutes, or until ready to assemble the cake.

Peel and core apples. Cut roughly into 2cm pieces. Put in a heavy-based frying pan with 1/4 cup of the caster sugar and the lemon juice. Cover and cook on a medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Strain and set aside, allowing to cool slightly.

Mix the cream cheese and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in food processor until light and smooth. Scrape down sides to ensure all is combined evenly. Add eggs and mix until combined. Add sour cream and mix until combined. The mixture will be runny and smooth.

To make the crumble, mix brown sugar, baking powder, and ground ginger in a small bowl. In a large bowl, rub butter into flour with your fingers to form pea-sized pieces that resemble bread crumbs (they don’t need to all be the same size). Add sugar mixture to flour and butter mixture and toss gently with your hands to combine

Preheat oven to 150°C.

Remove the base from the fridge to assemble the cake. Spread apples evenly over the base. Pour cream cheese mixture over the apples. Sprinkle the crumble mixture over the top of the cream cheese – gently so that the crumble doesn’t sink too much into the cheese. Cover the cream cheese evenly to the edges.

Bake the cheesecake for an hour or until set (feels firm, with only a slight wobble when you take it out of the oven). Cool in tin, and refrigerate overnight.


On avocados…

Avocado

Cutting an avocado in half to find the inside like this makes me happy. It’s a small joy in my life.

Here’s a true fact: once, my grandfather accused my mum of not being good at picking avocados, and she swears that since then she’s been cursed to only pick bad ones. I think this is pretty unfair – she taught me how to pick an avocado and I seem to have a pretty good hit rate. So, the lesson is, beware the power of accusing someone of not being good at picking avocados. Not sure if this extends to all fruits, so be careful. It could, however, also be a powerful tool for smiting your enemies. Or, if not smiting, slightly inconveniencing them. I guess you could cope with a lifetime of brown stringy avocados, but really, what kind of a life would that be? Sub-optimal.

Here’s another one: I once made a birthday card for a friend who loved avocados that said ‘Avocado on your birthday’. Get it? Like, ‘Have a card-o on your birthday’. Because it was a birthday card. They didn’t get it, or they didn’t think it was funny, I can’t remember which, but it was probably a combination of both. I would like to point out that I was about 10 years old.

That’s all I have to say about avocados. For now…


Chocolate freckle cupcakes and a rant about competitive baking

chocolate freckle cupcakes

Last year I entered the Ekka baking competition. I didn’t expect to win, but it seemed like a fun thing to do. After months of testing recipes on friends, family, housemates and workmates, I figured my banana bread, pumpkin scones and jam tarts were as good as they were going to get. When the big day arrived, I dropped off my entries and anxiously waited for the results. I still didn’t expect to win, but I secretly hoped I’d be surprised. I wasn’t. But that was ok, I figured, I can’t have done that badly. Perhaps I came fourth? Then I got the feedback in the mail weeks later. It was harsh. Like, unnecessarily harsh. And vague. The feedback for my banana bread said ‘More attention to baking required. Maybe try a different recipe’. Ouch. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that terrible. Everyone who’d tried it seemed to think it was ok. I was disheartened, and decided that competitive baking was clearly not for me.

But then I received the entry forms for this year’s Ekka. For some reason this made me feel all warm and fuzzy, like I was part of a community. And what if these types of competitions died out? That would be sad, right? So I decided I’d enter again, but in the novice category. And I’d only enter one thing – cooking three things the night before entries were due had been a mistake. So I decided on the chocolate bar cake, sent off my entry form, paid the fee and promptly forgot all about it. Unlike last year, when I tested and refined my recipes for months, this year I did nothing by way of preparation. On the weekend before the entries were due I thought I probably should a) find a recipe and b) do a test run. So I did, and it came out looking like a giant turd.

Behold:

chocolate turd cake

Iced, it just looked like a shiny (polished) turd:

iced chocolate turd cake

This was no good.

I couldn’t decide if I should bother entering. At around 10pm on the night before entries were due, I decided I would give it crack. But when I tried to get the cake out of the tin and it left a huge chunk behind, I gave up. Imagine the nasty feedback I’d get about a cake with a hole in it? But the recipe itself was pretty good, so I played with it a bit more and decided it was better in cupcake form with sprinkles. I also decided that competitive baking is stupid and it was probably a good thing if it died out. It’s such an oddly prescriptive form of baking, with all the fun removed. I can never figure out exactly what they want – can I cook any kind of chocolate cake I want or does it have to be a ‘traditional’ one, and what does that even mean? I swear, some of the categories say you need to enter a cake with a ‘good flavour’. WTF does that actually mean? And I don’t really know what a ‘nice crumb’ is, or understand why having a domed or cracked cake or testing it with a skewer is so bad… In short, because I’d failed I felt like I could write off the entire concept of competitive baking. I figure I can make a perfectly acceptable ‘rustic’ looking cake if I need to and I don’t care if it doesn’t meet the high standards of some uppity CWA bitches Ekka judges.

But, I digress. The outcome of this whole adventure was a recipe for nice, light, simple cupcakes. They taste like old school chocolate cakes. There’s nothing new fangled and fancy in them, like, I don’t know, almond meal and real chocolate, which seem to be all the rage in chocolate cakes these days.

Chocolate freckle cupcakes
This recipe is an amalgamation of numerous recipes from the internets.
Makes 18

125 g unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1/4 cup and 1 tbs cocoa powder
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
splash of rum (optional)
cupcake cases

Chocolate icing
Adapted from David Herbert’s The Really Useful Cookbook

50 g unsalted butter
1 cup icing sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1 tbs boiling water
sprinkles

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line a muffin tray with cupcake cases.

Put all the cake ingredients in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until well combined. Pour the batter into the cupcake cases. Bake for about 20-30 minutes, or until a skewer (that’s right, a skewer) stuck into the cake comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and cool completely before icing.

For the icing, put all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until combined. If it’s still a bit thick or not combining properly, add another tablespoon of boiling water.

Ice the cupcakes. Put some sprinkles in a bowl. Press the iced cupcakes in the bowl (one at a time) until the top is completely covered with sprinkles.

Done.

If, like me, you were lucky enough to be given an amazing cupcake holder for your birthday by an awesome friend, you can pop one (or two) of these suckers in it and take it to work with you.

cupcake holder


Cracker, please

Rosemary and olive oil crackers

I made my own crackers the other day. I was was going to a picnic, and I decided that if I made my own stuff I wouldn’t have to go to the shops. It’s kind of reverse laziness because going to the shops and buying crackers would have taken far less time. Still, it was pretty easy and the crackers were just as good as any I’ve ever bought. They’re hardly a main feature anyway; they’re really (if we’re honest) just a vessel for carrying dips and cheese. If cardboard were crunchier you could probably just cut it into squares and sprinkle salt on it and no one would notice. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate a good cracker, I’m just realistic about what their function is… and perhaps I tend to overload them.

These crackers did actually taste nice though, and if you have the time and want to boast to your friends that you made crackers from scratch (don’t tell them it’s easy), they’re worth making. Or if you’re on a tight budget and/or don’t like leaving the house more times in one day than absolutely necessary or interacting with the wider community, these are for you.

As a side note, crackers always make me think of this:

Rosemary and olive oil crackers
Adapted from the book Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It: And Other Cooking Projects by Karen Solomon
Makes about 70 crackers

1 3/4 cups plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt, plus extra to sprinkle on the tops of the crackers
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
1 tbs rosemary leaves, chopped finely
1 egg
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water

Put all ingredients, except water, in a food processor and blend until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Slowly add water, one tablespoon at a time, until the mixture starts to form a ball, like this:

Cracker dough in food processor

Pull the dough out of the food processor and shape it into a ball with your hands. You might want to cover them in a bit of flour first.

Cracker dough

Cut the dough in half and shape into two square-ish pieces, kind of like this:

Cracker dough squares

Wrap each of the pieces in plastic wrap and refrigerate for half an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Take the dough out of the fridge, and, one piece at a time, roll out on a floured surface until thin. I made mine pretty thin, about a couple of millimetres, but you can make them thicker if you want – you’ll just need to bake them for longer. Try to keep the dough relatively square. If you don’t have a rolling pin, I find a wine bottle works just fine, and luckily, there’s always one on hand…

Rolling pin

When you’ve rolled it out, cut it into squares (or whatever shape you want). I used a pizza cutter and the baking paper box to make somewhat uniform crackers. Prick each cracker with a fork a couple of times.

Measuring cracker dough

Carefully transfer the crackers onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper. They can be pretty close together when you bake them.

Crackers on baking tray

Sprinkle each cracker with a little bit of salt and bake for 12 minutes or until golden brown. This can take up to 20 minutes if you have thick crackers. Remove from the oven and let cool on a baking rack. Once they’re completely cool you can store them in an airtight container. Apparently they last up to a week, but mine were eaten in three days.


Pumpkin: it’s not so bad

Thai pumpkin and noodle soup - with an egg

I didn’t like pumpkin until July 2007. I can pinpoint the month and year because that was when delicious. featured a recipe for pumpkin, sage and ricotta lasagne. For some reason I was drawn to it, despite having never wanted to eat pumpkin before. I made it and loved it, probably in no small part because of all the cheese, and I started to think maybe I was wrong about pumpkin; maybe it wasn’t disgusting. So I experimented with other pumpkin recipes. As long as the pumpkin is blended and mixed with other things, I like it. Big chunks of pumpkin still gross me out. They’re so squishy and kind of weirdly stringy… bleh.

Last winter I made pumpkin soup for the first time. My mum thought this was unfair – I’d refused to eat it when I lived at home, so she didn’t get to make it. But she did tell me that you could also put coconut milk or cream and coriander and chilli in it to make a Thai-flavoured pumpkin soup. And finally, three weeks ago when I planned to make pumpkin soup but didn’t want to go to the shops to buy cream and realised I had all the Thai stuff in the house, I decided to give it a try. I was pretty pleased with the results, but I decided it needed noodles. I also thought it would be good with soft boiled eggs and fried shallots. This was inspired by Alice Hart’s recipe for sambal telur in the June 2011 issue of delicious.

This is hardly authentic Thai – to start with, I used a jar of Thai curry paste. Also, I’m pretty sure sambal oelek is Indonesian, the eggs are from a Malaysian recipe, and soba noodles are Japanese… So I’m not quite sure what the best name for it is. It’s kind of a Thai(ish) curry-flavoured pumpkin and noodle soup with an egg. My boyfriend gave me two options for the name: ‘journey to the centre of ecstasy’ (he really likes this soup), or ‘soup egg noodle’. I think I’ll go with the second one, the first one is a lot to live up to.

Soup egg noodle
Serves 4

3 tomatoes
2 tbs vegetable or peanut oil
5 garlic cloves, finely diced
3 cm piece of ginger, finely diced
1 green chilli, chopped (with seeds)
1 brown onion, finely diced
1 tsp chopped coriander roots
1 kaffir lime leaf
1 tsp red curry paste
1 tsp sambal oelek (Indonesian chilli paste – leave this out if you don’t want it to be hot)
1 tsp tamarind paste
800 g Jap pumpkin, cut into chunks, skin removed
1.5 L vegetable stock
juice of half a lemon or juice of one lime
1 tbs brown sugar
2 tbs chopped coriander leaves (and Thai basil leaves if you have some)
270 ml coconut cream
180 g soba noodles
4 eggs
fried shallots, to serve

Cut a shallow cross in the base of the tomatoes (ideally it should just cut the skin). Place the tomatoes in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let them sit for a couple of minutes, then pour out the hot water and replace it with cold water. Leave for a couple of minutes until cool. Carefully peel off the skins and cut the tomatoes into wedges.

Put oil, garlic, ginger, chilli, coriander roots, onion and kaffir lime leaf in a large pot over medium heat. Cook until onion starts to soften. Add curry paste, sambal oelek and tamarind. Stir for a minute, then add the tomatoes, pumpkin and stock. Simmer until pumpkin is really soft – about half an hour.

While the soup is simmering, cook the noodles and eggs. For the noodles, follow the instructions on the packet – usually this just means add them to boiling water for a few minutes then drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside.

To cook the eggs, put them in a small saucepan (that has a lid) and cover them with cold water and bring to the boil. As soon as the water has boiled, cover the pan with the lid and leave it to stand for 6 minutes. Pour out the hot water and fill the pan with cold water. When the eggs are cool enough for you to handle, carefully peel the shells off. Set the eggs aside with the noodles.

Add lemon or lime juice, sugar, coriander leaves and coconut cream to the soup and stir until combined. Remove the soup from the heat and blend until smooth.

To serve, divide noodles into four bowls (you might need to rinse them in cold water again if they’re stuck together). Place an egg on top of the noodles in each bowl, and then pour over the soup. Top with fried shallots.