Archives for the month of: April, 2012

I went to the market on Sunday. It was one of those clear crisp Autumn days and the market was bustling with people. I bought quince, courgette, green beans, a leek, purple kumara, fuscia pink radishes and palm sized flat mushrooms. I overheard a french couple debating the merits of the leeks they had in their market bag: were they white enough? Oui. No, but pour la soupe, they must be very white. It made me smile.

At home on our kitchen bench was a bag of beautiful, soft, deeply purple figs; two bags of the most fragrant feijoas and five large round and squat sturmer apples. “The best cooking apples,” my mother said, “lip puckeringly, eye wateringly, back molar stingingly sour when eaten raw, but they cook up into sweet apple clouds.” I like that.

I haven’t really wanted to cook recently. Nor have I needed to. I have spent lots of time at home with my family in the past few weeks. When everyone is on holiday home is such a lovely place to be. My mother cooks, I read the recipes, we set the table, pour wine and enjoy a meal together. It is not very often there are four people around our table these days.

A return to my normal schedule left me feeling rather uninspired in the kitchen. All I needed though were some interesting ingredients, something a little out of the ordinary to make me sit up and take notice. I didn’t need to cook anything particularly outstanding, the ingredients would speak for themselves. I simply wanted some time to reacquaint myself with my own kitchen.

On Monday night I made a red and green vegetable soup using the bitter greens from radish and beetroot and spinach from our garden. The beetroot stalks turned the broth a milky mauve colour. It is quite an ugly soup, more of a vegetable stew really, so all is forgiven for being ugly. I imagine it would be great slumped over some brown rice, or even with a poached egg nestled among the strips of wilted greens.

On Tuesday morning I stewed the two sturmer apples and a quince. Quince is a surprisingly solid fruit. The canary yellow and downy skin could fool you into thinking it is soft and delicate. But the skin is tough and inside it is grainy and crisp. It smells almost tropical, like hot fermented fruit. That sweet tropical tang lasts when stewing. And the apples! My mother was right, apple clouds. I left the quince and apples to stew and after fifteen minutes I opened the pot lid to see puffs of pale apple, not unlike the look of crushed ice. Today, I have been snacking on cinnamon and vanilla french toast with thick unsweetened yoghurt and spoonfuls of stewed apples and quince.

On Wednesday afternoon my mother made Fig and Almond Tart: wonderfully crisp and buttery pastry with a sweet almond filling and fig halves, cut side up. The almond filling rose around the figs, holding the juices in their frond-like interior.

Happy Eating everybody!


Fruit bread holds a certain healing power in my mind. It must be heavily spiced and laden with fruit. These sorts of breads, whether buns or loaves, speak of comfort and cups of tea, a sunday afternoon wrapped in a blanket watching movies. A few weeks ago I received two text messages in less than a hour from friends telling me how their days had been improved, or could be improved, with fruit toast. Not even chocolate has the same capacity to bring such homely comfort.

It may seem I have missed my opportunity for spiced fruit bread immediately after Easter when I am sure many of us have eaten our fill of hot cross buns. Though, in saying that, I could live on spiced fruit bread. Every Easter I gorge myself on hot cross buns. I can’t get enough. Cut in half and toasted, slathered with butter and jam. Or heated in the microwave with thin slices of butter already inside the bun so the slightly salted butter melts within the bread. I like the hot cross buns that are so loaded with fruit and candied peel they appear almost undercooked and soggy.

Hot cross buns come and go so quickly, like other autumnal delights – feijoas, quince, radish. When Easter is over I wonder why hot cross buns aren’t available year round, knowing full well that hot cross buns hold such magic only because of their brief appearance. But dried fruit embedded in heavily spiced bread can be eaten any time of year. Think of this raisin bread as a hair of the dog type treatment to get us over Easter, and if you are this way inclined, this bread may keep you going until next year’s buns roll around.

Lois Daish’s raisin bread is from her beautiful book A Good Year. This is a book I have written about before; a book that appears rather plain until you start flicking through and realise you could quite easily make every recipe. It is a book I turn to often, sometimes just to read, because not only are the recipes wonderful, so are the words which describe them.

Daish makes this raisin bread in April which is rather fitting, not only for its Easter connotations but we are also just beginning to get cold here. The leaves are starting to change and the wind has a bite to it. The next time it rains the gutters will flood, the water bursting its dried-leaf banks. It is a nice time of year to make bread.

There is something quite special about making bread, coaxing the dough along, keeping it safe and warm, only then to knead and pummel it, lovingly so, but pummel it nonetheless. Bread making is a soothing process and the home-maker in me revels in it.

There is also something in the taste of home made bread, something quite different to store-bought or bakery bread. The yeast taste is a bit like the malty, hoppy after taste of home brewed ginger beer. The yeast has some weight to it, it seems to anchor all the other flavours of the bread, sort of rounding them out. I imagine yeast to be like the little baker within the bread, kneading and pushing all the actors together, the flour, spices, currants and sultanas, rallying the troups so to speak. I guess that’s the role of yeast in any baking but the flavour of the home baked variety is lovely.

I took two thick slices to eat on my way to work the other day. They barely fit in the toaster but crisped up wonderfully. It was the perfrect start to my day. I thought about texting my friends about my bread, but it was not yet 7am. Even in the name of fruit bread, that might have been too much.

Thank you dear Georgie for the lovely photographs.

Lois Daish’s Raisin Bread
Adapted from A Good Year

The original recipe made two loaves so I halved the quantities but added more spices and more dried fruit. Next time I will add even more, perhaps some candied peel too. Daish made her bread in an electric mixer, using dough hooks and beaters but I do love hand kneading.

2 tablespoons Surebake yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 cup milk
85 grams butter, cut into thin slices
1 egg
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
425 grams high grade white flour
1 to 1.5 cups raisins, currants or sultanas (or a mixture of these)

To Glaze:
1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon sugar

Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in a small bowl and set aside for about 10 minutes. Put the milk in a pot and heat unitl lukewarm. Pour the milk into a large bowl, add the chopped butter. When the butter has almost melted add the egg, sugar, salt, spices and yeast mixture. Whisk to combine. Add about half of the flour and continue to whisk until a smooth batter forms. Add the remaining flour and the dried fruit, mix until just combined then turn onto a lightly floured bench. Knead until smooth. Cover the dough with a damp towel and place somewhere warm to rise for 3 hours, or until doubled in bulk.

Turn the risen dough onto a lightly floured bench and lightly knead. Form dough into an oblong shape and place in a large buttered loaf tin. Cover the loaf tin with the damp cloth and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk. While the dough rises preheat the oven to 220°C. Put the risen loaf in the oven. After 15 minutes, lower the heat to 190°C and bake for a further 25 minutes or until the loaf is deeply browned. (I covered my loaf in tin foil for the last 5 minutes.)

While the bread is baking make the glaze by heating the milk then stir through the sugar until dissolved. Remove the bread from the oven, tip onto a cooling rack and brush on the glaze.

Eat fresh or toasted. This loaf freezes well and can be toasted straight from the freezer.

I think I have mentioned our garden here before, but never in great detail. When we first moved to this flat the back garden was less of a garden and more of a twisted, tangled pile of noxious weeds. We had no idea what was underneath it, and despite the promises of our landlord, we never thought we would find out. But the weeds grew and grew at an alarming rate, perhaps a foot a day during summer. We began to fear they would pull down our already rotting balcony, wrapping their tendrils through its splintered wood until one day when it would collapse beneath us as we hung out our washing. We were worried the neighbours might call the local council complaining of the environmental hazard that lurked, and flourished, I might add, in Thorndon.

Then one day, all the weeds were gone. Just like that, the landlord came. We were not even that worried about the lack of suitable notice. Beneath the mess we discovered a little paved courtyard and four small terraced garden plots. One of the pavers is cracked and the bricks are crooked and chipped, like old teeth. One of the steps near the terrace is ruptured, as if torn in half by an earthquake. But for most of the day it is bathed in sun, perfect for a little garden.

On a beautiful day in early February we set to work tidying, pulling up the snaking roots of the convolvulus with great vigour. We scattered plenty of fertiliser; goodness knows the last time this soil had seen a spade or even sunlight. Francesca, Susan and I planted coriander, oregano, Italian parsley, thyme and mint in our herb terrace. We planted celery and beetroot: possibly a strange combination of vegetables but we had missed the boat on the early summer planting. We added lavender, marigolds, purple pansies and a hydrangea bush for a bit of colour across the terraces.

In the six weeks or so since we planted our garden it has done everything it should. Plants have flowered and grown. The beetroot leaves have deep red veins, the celery is a lovely pale green and the parsley is pratically a bush. We have kept the noxious weeds at bay, turned the soil and reaped the rewards of cooking with our home grown herbs and vegetables. Everything smells fantastic; every time I pick a sprig of thyme or parsley or rosemary I cup my hands, holding the herbs inside and inhale deeply. The sweet, thick fragrance never ceases to make me smile. We grew this!

Our coriander has fared extremely well, perhaps a little too well. It grew with great gusto, more so than we were prepared for. We must have missed the few days when coriander has the slender roots and thin stalks of the sort you find at the market. Ours became woody and tough, the thick branches falling to the ground under their weight. The best way to use it was to make coriander pesto. It is the most brillant green, with light flecks of cashew nut. We have eaten it with pasta and it makes a superb toast spread when paired with goat’s milk feta and tomato.

I’m looking forward to winter planting, and for next spring too. A garden could be just what we need to give us some bearing on Wellington’s mixed up seasons.

It is hard to keep up with Wellington weather. What to wear? What to eat? Should I take a raincoat or sunscreen? What to eat gets me the most. I never know if I should be bunkering down with the comfort foods of winter or holding on to those fresh, clean tastes of summer. Winter vegeatables are appearing at the market alongside the last of the season’s stone fruit. And yesterday I think I got sunburnt. Wellington can be a testing place to live.

But, nonetheless, it was impossible to resist this little pumpkin last week. It fit into the palm of my hand, small and green with a little button top. I wanted to coo and whisper sweet somethings to it. Instead, I roasted it, whole. I cut around the button top, pulled it out like a plug, then scooped out the seeds and pulp. I rubbed olive oil, salt and pepper around its insides. I placed three peeled cloves of garlic and some chopped up feta in the middle and replaced the lid.

In the oven the pumpkin steams and roasts within its skin. The cuteness of the pumpkin seems to disappear; the skin crisps up and weathers slightly. It almost wrinkles as the flesh within begins to pull away from the sides. Then you know it is going to be good. The pumpkin at the top is almost plain, with a hint of sweetness, while at the bottom the flesh is almost soupy. The sharpness of the feta disappears and instead there is a salty, creamy broth.

My mother used to cook pumpkins like this. The trick is lots of garlic, three or four whole cloves per pumpkin. And something salty: strips of bacon curled around the insides of the pumpkin works wonderfully, holding in the very best of the pumpkin flavour.

There is something very pleasing about cooking a whole pumpkin, whether to be carved and shared at the table or to enjoy a little one for yourself. Take great delight in pulling off the stopper and scraping the flesh off the top, as you would a soft boiled egg.

Enjoy no matter the weather; these baby pumpkins are too good to wait for colder days.

Roast Baby Pumpkin with Feta

Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Cut around the top of each pumpkin. You may need a spoon to lever out the top. Use the spoon to scrape out the seeds and all the stringy pulp. Pour in a tablespoon of olive oil and spread around the sides. Add ground salt and pepper and spread evenly.

Peel three cloves of garlic per pumpkin. Place inside the pumpkin along with several cubes of feta, so you can’t see the bottom of the pumpkin. Place the stopper back in its hole. Place in a tin foil lined baking tray. Cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the side of the pumpkin meets no resistance.

For more of a soup add a 1/2 cup of chicken or vegetable stock. Replace feta with bacon or strips of red pepper. Add ground chilli to the salt and pepper for a little bit of a kick.

Most Monday nights we try to do dinner; Ollie and Jason, Francesca and myself, flatmates, sisters, a few strays we have picked up along the way. Sometimes we are four, sometimes eight. Sometimes the meals are elaborate multiple course affairs, where we sit around drinking tea or wine for hours, only to realise it’s nearly midnight and about time we drag ourselves home. Sometimes they are simple, short and sweet. But there is always cheese, wine and fruit paste. And nearly always dessert. They are a great start to our week.

During the past few weeks we have made cannelloni with spinach from our garden, spaghetti bolognaise cooked slowly in Jason’s Le Creuset, roast red onion and kumara, Nigella’s green beans with butter and lemon, we have made gravy and apple cake. We have eaten a lot of cheese.

Last Monday Jason made Strawberry Cloud Cake. It was delightful, cold and light, with little air bubbles that sort of carried the flavour along. Most definitely worth sharing, I told him. It is less of a cake, I think, and more of a pie with a candy floss pink, softly whipped filling. It sat nestled in our freezer while we ate our very wintery, too wintery, beer and beef stew.

The weather has warmed up recently, a late summer hit. Some days are warm and cloud free, barely a ruffle of a breeze. All I want to eat is crisp salads, and melons, and strawberries. I want grilled pineapple with mint sugar. I want fresh tomato and basil salsa.

And then, Jason arrived with his Strawberry Cloud Cake. It is a little bit like frozen ambrosia, slightly sweet, but not overly so. As you put your fork through the dessert it is the texture of marshmellow, maybe a soft moose, and then you hit the biscuit base below. It breaks cleanly into bite sized chunks, each one like a little pink island. The biscuit base holds it all together; it could be too buttery, too savoury perhaps. But then, you realise, this base with the toasty taste of coconut is just what the pie needs to intensify the flavour of the strawberries. It is just what I needed too.

Strawberry Cloud Cake
From Annabel Langbein, Free Range in the City

For the base:

150g plain sweet biscuits (made into fine crumbs)
1/2 cup dessicated coconut
1 1/2 teasspoon cinnamon
100g butter, melted

Line a 26-28cm springform tin with baking paper. Mix base ingredients together and press into tin, along the base and sides. Refrigerate while preparing the filling.

For the filling:

2 egg whites, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 punnet strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place all filling ingredients in a clean dry bowl of an electric beater. Beat on high for 6-8 mins until mixture is very thick and fluffy and the sugar is dissolved. You should not feel any gritty sugar after this time. If you do beat for longer. Spoon over chilled base, smooth top, cover with baking paper and freeze for at least 4 hours. Will keep in an airtight container in the freezer for up to one month.

Serve with raspberry or strawberry compote, or fresh berries.