Archives for the month of: March, 2012

 My mother is not much of a sweet dessert person. She enjoys the flavour of ginger, vanilla, lemon, raspberries and blueberries. If my mother has chocolate it is dark and bitter with cocoa. She would be perfectly happy with a strong piece of cheese, a few oat crackers and maybe a handful of grapes or slices of firm pear.

When it comes to cakes, simple is best. Fruits are the stars of these cakes: pears, plums, oranges or apples. They are very rarely big cakes, never the sort with a few centimetres of icing on top. They are of the understated flat variety, like wide discs. Perhaps with a drizzle icing, a shake of icing sugar, or nothing at all.

For my mother’s birthday last week I made Nigel Slater‘s English Apple Cake from his book, The Kitchen Diaries. This is perhaps my most loved cook book. It is simple in its progression through the year. A northern hemisphere year but easily translated. In February there is slow roast lamb with chickpea mash, a treacle tart, a recipe for sausage and black pudding with baked parsnips. In May there are orange and ricotta pancakes, a white bean and tarragon soup and salmon and dill fishcakes. The book is written like a diary, each recipe has an introduction; the inspiration for the recipe, or what occasion it marked. Some entries contain no recipe at all but are titled “A feast of plums” or “An extravagant supper of rare beef, red salad and cheeses.” I love that the word supper describes nearly every dinner dish in the book. Let’s have supper.

The English Apple Cake I made for my mother was perfectly fine. It was light and reasonably moist. The cake itself had the pleasing taste of a simple butter cake while the apples on top were slightly stewed and sweet all of their own accord. But I wanted something a little bit more. There is a reason why most apple cake recipes call for cinnamon, mixed spice, or ginger, or chopped dates, broken walnuts, or rolled oats and brown sugar; apple cakes are better with these flavours.

So I made another cake. The equal parts of butter to sugar to flour is a simple cake base to work with and embellish as you please. Apple and Ginger this time, perfect for a blustery autumn day. The warming smell of ginger and the sweet scent of apples was almost overwhelming. It was maple syrupey and slightly heady with spices. This cake was for our friend Jason on his birthday. We had a wonderful birthday dinner on Monday night: a Pegasus Bay riesling with blue cheese and brie to start, then Ollie and Jason’s famous roast chicken and this little cake for dessert with sloppy whipped cream.

We lit birthday candles, Jason made a wish, and then it was gone. This cake barely touched our plates. My mother (and Mr. Slater) would enjoy it.

Apple and Ginger Cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater

130 grams butter
130 grams brown sugar
2 eggs
130 grams plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon ground ginger, plus 1 teaspoon for apples
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 small knob of fresh ginger, finely grated
2 medium apples, un-peeled & diced
juice of half a lemon
2 tablespoons sugar, brown or white
1/2 cup roughly chopped crystallised ginger

Pre-heat oven to 180°. Line a small, shallow round or square tin of about 24 cm. Cream butter and sugar together until lighter in colour, about 4-5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time. Beat well after each addition. Sieve dry ingredients and stir through the mixture until just combined. Scrap mixture into tin. Set aside.

In a separate bowl toss together diced apples, lemon juice, sugar and the extra ground ginger. Sprinkle apples on top of the cake with the chopped crystallised ginger. Bake for 45-50 minutes until the batter is golden at the edges and the centre is no longer gooey.

Serve warm with thick yoghurt or whipped cream.

My mother always says that if there is a can of tomatoes in the house, there is a meal in the house. I know this to be true. I would now like to add my own little kitchen adage, that maybe my children will remember one day. If there are a few onions in the house, there is a meal in the house.

Take a couple of onions, red or brown, cut in half and thinly slice. Caramelise these in a lot of butter, a grind of salt and pepper, with a diced garlic clove and a half teaspoon of honey. As they start to soften and become translucent move the onions together into a pile in the middle of the pan. Place the lid on, turn the heat down until it is low and soft and the onions will transform into something quite remarkable. This will take a while. They become silky and succulent, a little bit like noodles. They turn almost autumnal in colour.

Cooking with onions can be uncomfortable but eating these onions is something else entirely. They are more texture than taste; upon first bite there is no overwhelming sense of flavour, but then there is the lick of oil and a subtle sweetness. Long strands of al dente spaghetti are perfect with these onions. As you twirl your fork each thread of pasta is tied up with a streak of onion. When you finish your bowl, which you will, your lips glisten.

Pasta is my go-to meal when I cook for myself. It is comforting and quick. These onions stew, maybe nest is a better word, into a thick sauce. To these onions you could add almost anything: hunks of pancetta or other cured meats; mushrooms; small anchovy fillets; the flesh of a roasted aubergine. Or ripe chopped tomatoes cooked until they just begin to soften and lose their shape. Rocket or baby spinach swirled through just before serving so they barely wilt would add a little freshness. A diced pear or chopped dried figs cooked with the onions could add an interesting note. The torn off leaves of thyme and rosemary would lend a fragrant quality. I’m wondering if a slight splash of balsamic vinegar would make this meal taste too much like a jar of onion marmalade, or if a certain acidity would be a welcome addition. What about shredded chicken that was perhaps roasted in a harissa spice rub? Or what about garnishing the onions with lightly toasted walnuts to give the dish a bit of crunch?

I really could go on.

Saturday night and I was feeling like a thick, fudgey, dense chocolate something. Maybe with fruit and nuts, maybe a little like panforte. Instead, I made biscotti, which has been on my to-make list all summer. When, finally, biscotti and I are on the same page, so to speak, summer has well and truly passed. We have been hit by what the weather reporters are calling a “weather bomb.” Power is down and rooves are being ripped off in some parts of the country. Here in Wellington it’s miserable and bleak: driving rain and furious winds.

A piece of biscotti to be enjoyed with a small glass of sherry later on, when it’s dark, and all I can hear are the winds beating the trees and the steady drip of rain in the pipes ouside.

 Chocolate and walnut biscotti
Recipe adapted from here and here

2 cups standard flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
60 grams butter, cubed
3/4 cup sugar, raw or white, I used raw demerara sugar
1/2 cup roughly broken walnut pieces
50 grams roughly chopped dark chocolate, I used Lindt Orange Intense
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla essence

Pre-heat oven to 160°. Stir flour and baking powder together in a large bowl. Use your fingertips to rub in the butter until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir through sugar, walnut pieces and chocolate. If you wish, add a small amount orange zest at this point.
Make a well in the centre and pour in the lightly beaten eggs and the vanilla essence. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms thick dough. (I had to add a dash of milk at this point..)

Place dough on a lightly floured surface and give it a quick knead. Divde dough in two and roll each half into a flat-ish log about 5cm wide. Place on a lined baking tray and bake for 35 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.

Remove from oven and allow to cool completely. Heat oven to 170°. Slice each piece of biscotti diagonally to about 1cm thick. Place slices back on baking tray and into the oven for 10 minutes or until slightly browned but quite crisp to the touch.

Serve with sherry(!) or with espresso coffee, maybe combine the two, espresso with a shot of sherry. Biscotti would also be a good vehicle for delivering vanilla ice cream, or perhaps salted butter caramel ice cream, to your lips.

This recipe is begging to be adapted: swap the walnuts for almonds, or macadamias, increase the quantity. Remove the nut or the chocolate altogether and add a good handful of roughly chopped dried figs instead. Reduce the flour quantity a little and make it up with some cocoa. Experiment with the sugars, perhaps a decent tablespoon of maple syrup or a half cup of brown sugar for something a little bit richer and caramely. Add a citrus hit with chopped candied peel and a smattering of orange zest. Swap half the flour out for a cup of ground almonds to really bring forth the soft almond bitterness.

I have been in a bit of a French funk since the weekend. These happen every so often, where I seem unable to distance myself from my french memories. I remember going to the markets and the market sellers pulling off a plastic bag, maybe wiping their hands on their apron and then saying in a deep, rolling voice, “Dites-moi, mademoiselle!” I remember learning to ski and mountainside chalets and vin chaud. I remember all the horrific mistakes I made while speaking French: the bumbling, awkward conversations where the other person folded their arms and quizzically repeated my butchered French. But then, I most dearly remember the conversations I had with people, who rather than rolling their eyes and sighing, “Les anglaises…” they said, “Ahhh, vous avez un accent…?” like they weren’t quite sure, like I could be from anywhere. I liked those moments the best. I remember wandering the streets of Bordeaux in the early spring heat with no money and no food and no one to share it with but as happy as I ever thought I could be.

I worked at a wedding on the weekend and the groom was french. It was a beautiful wedding and many of the guests were so excited and relieved that I could communicate with them. They were a lively lot, who smoked and drank and danced all night. They ate with enthusiasm, New Zealand lamb or groper, sampled our wines and cheese. And there was never any question over which was the red or the white wine glass, or whose side plate was whose, because eating is what they do so well. It made me miss France and all the wonderful people I met there.

So Tuesday afternoon, I pulled my tome of french cuisine from its shelf and thought une tarte aux pommes would ease my french blues. I put on my faux-french apron and made pâte brisée. The pastry was soft and smooth, enough to make you swoon, really. I peeled and finely sliced apples, arranging them in haphazard rows. Then covered the apples in a liberal dousing of sugar.

Upon cooking, the apples on the bottom stew and release their juices, while the apples on top became golden and slightly firm to the tooth. The texture changes as you bite through the apples and there are beautiful sing-song lifts of tart and sweet. But let’s not forget what holds this dessert together – the pastry. This pastry softly shatters beneath your teeth, but in a good way, like a buttery crumble. It adds another flavour dimension to this dessert; a little bit savoury, a little bit mealy.

Ideally I would be eating a slice of this with un café at the local salon du thé. But, then again, being able to share this tarte aux pommes with the people I care about here, in New Zealand, is just as wonderful, if not more so.

Tarte aux pommes classique

For the pastry:
200grams standard flour
100grams of butter (let the butter come to room temperature for an hour or so before using it)
2 1/2 tablespoons of water

Place the flour in a bowl. Cut the butter into cubes and using your fingertips rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine bread crumbs. Add the water and quickly work the dough together into a ball. It doesn’t have to be totally smooth, just as long as it is not very wet and mushy. If it is add a sprinkle more flour. Let the dough to rest at room temperature for at least a half hour. Roll the pastry on a floured work surface until it is about 4-5mm thick. Grease the tart pan, preferably round, unlike mine, and lay the pastry in the bottom.

For the apples:
5-6 apples suitable for cooking
100 grams sugar
2 tablespoons apricot jam

Pre-heat the oven to 180°. Peel the apples, remove the core and cut into quarters. Slice each quarter finely to create crescent-ish shapes. Lay the slices in rows, one on top of the other. Sprinkle with sugar. Place the tart in the oven and cook until golden brown and the juices bubble ever so slightly at the edges.

Mix the apricot jam with a dash of warm water and brush lightly over the apples once removed from the oven.

Serve warm with crème fraiche or thick yoghurt or vanilla ice cream.