Archives for the month of: December, 2011

Christmas truffles with tea

My father finishes most meals in our house in much the same way. If one of us says, “oh, I’m quite full.” He will reply with “You’re not a fool, Harriet.” We respond with a comment about our hilariously witty father and everyone has a chuckle and rolls their eyes. A strange family joke that secretly I hope will continue for many years to come. My father will then turn to my mother and sort of shake his head in disbelief at his empty plate and say, “We do eat well in this house.”

Christmas, for us, is a celebration of not only beautiful food, but the beautiful food we eat all year round. Simple, seasonal ingredients prepared in a relatively straightforward way – never too much of a stretch from what we would eat on a normal weekend.

One of my earliest food memories of Christmas is eating croissants with butter and raspberry jam and freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast. Even for just the four of us we drank our orange juice out of the crystal flutes and the jam was spooned into a little white dish. We set the table with the damask cloth, my sister and I taking great care to not let jam dollop onto it. Normally we were still in our pjs, wrapping paper strewn across the floor and the Mariah Carey Christmas album humming softly in the background.

The day moved slowly from one meal to the next. One year for an entrée we had avocado halves with smoked salmon draped around the dip in the middle. I must have been one of the only children to look forward to Christmas day if only to eat avocado and smoked salmon.

At about 2 o’clock we sit down to lunch: a ham, with orange marmalade glaze; sometimes a beef fillet or a piece of lamb; new seasons potatoes dripping in a minty butter; and a green salad, often with the first cherry tomatoes of the season and crisp, peppery radish. I do love a summer Christmas.

Cake mix in the summer sun

There is dessert: a trifle, or cheesecake, or tiramisu. Or simply raspberries and chopped strawberries left to macerate in icing sugar for a half hour served with citrus-spiked, softly whipped cream.

But the real event, the part that truly welcomes Christmas into our house is the cake. It is an historic event – my mother has been making this cake since 1976. It is an Alison Holst recipe and the book includes other such 70s delights like mock chicken savouries and a scramble eggs with a tin of spaghetti. The pages are brown and slightly faded with grease stains in the top right corners.

Every year my mother tells the story of the year she forgot the raisins. She had meticulously cut the papers to fit the tin, measured all the ingredients and mixed everything together. She placed the cake in the oven only to turn around and find the bowl of raisins sitting on the bench. She pulled the cake out of the oven, scooped the mix out, scraped the gooey batter off the paper and stirred through the raisins. It worked out fine; the cake is a keeper.

As the cake goes in the oven Mum always says, “Go get the brandy.” I like the pop as the cork is pulled out. I like the feel of the glass bottle: it is like beach glass washed smooth by tides. I lift the bottle to my nose and inhale deeply. I like to feel my torso shake and my neck stiffen with the strain of breathing brandy fumes so intensely.

When the cake comes out of the oven we gather around. We meausre a quarter of a cup and pour it on the piping hot cake. The alcohol fizzes and bubbles. We all lean over the cake, inhaling so deeply our nostrils feel singed and we all stand up spluttering and coughing. We lean in for another hit; Mum pours on another slosh of brandy. Mariah Carey continues to fill our house…

two year old, brandy infused fruit mince

We do eat well in this house! Merry Christmas


There are certain foods that I know I will have an affinity for even before I eat them. Sometimes this has little to do with taste, but perhaps colour, or the name. Or the relationships and associations I form between the particular food and a place or person. Like smoked salmon: the vibrant colour, the delicate way it can fold upon itself, like the soft whippings of cream, and whenever I think of smoked salmon I think of my mother in the kitchen of the house where I grew up.

Poached pears are also a food that seem to take on a separate meaning, more than the flavour they impart. Just say it: poached pear. It sounds so utterly luxurious, soft and feminine. The slight exhale as your lips move from poached to pear.

We poached pears on Monday night in leftover Ata Rangi Rosé, vanilla and cinnamon and brown sugar. Peeled pears, cut in half with a small hollow in the middle simmered lightly until a dusky pink. The rosé liquid tasted like a summer mulled wine: the caramel of brown sugar and the spice of cinnamon with the summery perfume of rosé.

To the leftover liquid I added an extra two tablespoons of brown sugar and boiled it down for nearly an hour. It becomes a dark purple colour, almost aubergine, and the spicy rosé flavour is quite pronounced. We used some of this syrup in gin and tonics. It really is quite delicious.

Poached pears make me think of Paris and gilt mirrors and dimmed light. I don’t really know why, but that’s all part of the attraction.

Poached Pears in Rosé

3/4 to a full 750ml bottle of good quality rosé
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla pod (or vanilla essence if you are slightly frugal in a student kitchen…)
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3-4 pears, peeled and halved with the pip bit scooped out

In a large pot place the rosé, water, cinnamon, sugar and vanilla. Bring to a gentle boil. Place the pears in the liquid and simmer for 10-15 minutes. (I added a few strawberries too in the last couple of minutes.) Turn off the heat and leave the pears to sit, until cool, in the liquid. They will continue to cook slightly and to absorb the flavour of the cooking juices.

Serve with warmed custard and a drizzling of the remaining juices, or with chocolate sauce.

I once read that food writing should really be called writing about eating. The food is only one part of what is the overall eating experience. It is the people we are with, the weather, the location, the sense of occasion, or lack thereof. It is our frame of mind; what, in that moment, or evening, or hurried lunch break, do we really crave.

Sometimes the circumstances of a meal are just as delightful or enjoyable, or odd as the food itself. This week I have particularly enjoyed a Thai beef rice salad: chopped tomatoes, cucumber and capsicum, finely sliced green chilli, nutty brown rice and perfectly medium rare steak. However, eating this salad while on a school trip with 70 or so kids at Titahi Bay to learn about beach safety is slightly less kosher.

Would this salad have tasted so fresh and clean, so wholesome and so lightly spiced with chilli heat if I hadn’t been eating it from a plastic container at a plastic table in the sandy and slightly damp Titahi Bay surf lifesaving club? If I hadn’t been wearing jandals, trackpants and an oversized polar fleece jersey of my father’s? The club room was full of damp and sandy children. I overheard a few jokes about SAND-wiches, jam beginning to dribble from their slightly squished cheese rolls.

Fog and drizzle rolled across the beach, almost following the waves, and Mana Island became hazy and blurry in the distance. On the beach the remains of a sand castle building competition were starting to collapse, wet sand creeping out from their carefully constructed forms – survivor island, volcano island, a two-headed sea turtle and an orange road cone covered in sand and twigs.

As I ate my salad and looked out over the water – the colour of slate – I wondered if this salad would have tasted any less delicious on a warm summer evening, perhaps sitting outside wearing a sun dress, drinking a cold beer and the Thai beef brown rice salad served on a lovely platter? Probably not.

Thai Beef Brown Rice Salad
Serves 2-3

2 beef steaks (I used porterhouse)
2 cups of cooked brown rice, warm
1-2 chopped tomatoes
handful diced cucumber
handful diced red capsicum
1 small green chilli sliced very finely
1-2 finely sliced spring onions.

juice of 1 lemon or lime
splash of fish sauce
1 tablespoon of sweet chilli sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
salt and pepper
the remaining meat juices

Cook the steaks for 3 minutes each side. Wrap in tin foil and leave to sit for 10 or so minutes. Place the cooked brown rice and chopped tomato, cucumber, capsicum, spring onions and chilli on a platter.

To make the dressing, mix all the ingredients together, except the meat juices. Leave to rest for several minutes, if not longer, to let the flavours develop.

After the meat has rested, pour the meat juices which have gathered in the tin foil parcel into the dressing. Mix well.

Place the steaks on a board and slice. Arrange the slices of steak on the rice and pour over the dressing.

Great for lunches at the beach or a light meal outdoors in the sun.

I am going to tell a story about rice pilaf, or risotto. I can’t promise it to be very interesting, in fact, I suspect it to be rather dull. A story to sigh and roll your eyes at and think, “Oh dear, Harriet.”

This story started several months ago, in France, during a determined search for the ideal risotto recipe. I wrote down several variations with the intention of trying them all when I returned to New Zealand and had more people to cook for and hopefully in a kitchen where the bench was not the top of my washing machine.

Friday night I pulled from my recipe folder one I had titled, ‘Soubise-French risotto.’ I can’t recall writing this title down and a quick Google search informed me that soubise is, in actual fact, a bechamel based sauce with a puree of cooked onions. I ignored the incorrect title and made it anyway. I chopped many onions, for which I donned a pair of swimming goggles, a couple of garlic cloves and cooked them in glorious amounts of butter. Adding two diced fennel bulbs, then stirring through washed basmati rice. Soon pouring in a considerable slug of white wine and a half litre of stock. The aroma of onions and garlic cooking in butter filled our little kitchen and, I thought, this might work out.

I envisaged a rice dish that was tender to the fork, each grain of rice delicate and well formed. However, the result was neither a pilaf nor a risotto, but more like a mashed potato made of rice. On a cold winter night, perhaps for a lonesome meal for one, a rice mash could be quite lovely, if ever so self-indulgent. But not a dish to serve to guests, and not a dish to show the subtle fresh flavour of fennel.

I spent today thinking how it could have been improved. I believe I have the answers now. (I sometimes worry at the state of my life that a failed rice pilaf is the first thing on my mind.) I won’t bore you with the analysis of such a matter, but rather suggest a delicious way to use up leftover rice mash-risotto-pilaf. I stirred through a beaten egg, molded the mixture into patties and fried them in a little butter until golden brown. I do enjoy a risotto cake, though normally I would add some tinned tuna or salmon, or chopped fresh coriander and sweet chilli sauce to create something akin to Thai fish cakes. All I added for extra seasoning was a little bit, merely a glistening, of lemon vinaigrette after the rice cakes were cooked. The acidity of the citrus cut the richness of the rice cakes and the butter, adding a pleasant tang. A lemon chutney would also have added a hint of a sharper flavour.

I do intend to improve the mistitled recipe, so stay tuned for the next thrilling installment…