Monday, 12 November 2012

Lurking in the background

I have a new profile picture! What do you think?
I know, I know, – it’s a bit romance-novel-y. I like it though – it keeps the elements of the original William Morris Strawberry Thief design and gives you a glimpse of the person behind the name. Just a glimpse, mind you. People who know me in real life will know that it’s me, and those who don’t won’t be able to stalk me, or come to my place of work and harass me for dissing their restaurant, or demand my autograph...
When I began this blog, anonymity was really, really important to me. It still is in many ways.  I do like to keep my personal life, work-life, and hobbies in nice separate compartments most of the time. So what has changed?
First, I had no idea when I started on my blogging adventures that there was a whole West Australian  community of bloggers, cooks, chefs, restaurateurs, and others in the F&B industry, out there and that I would eventually be meeting Real People. This time last year, I was having a few nervous moments about heading out to my first food-blogger Tweet-up. A year on, I feel that I have found a little place for myself within Perth foodie circles and made some very good friends therein. It’s a nice place to be, not a huge or important place – very peripheral (in this particular universe, I am quite the minor planet…) - but I enjoy it, and, of course, in these circles, people know my real name, who I am and what I do, and a fair bit about my life. This means that absolute anonymity isn't really necessary anymore.
Second, I am finding it increasingly difficult to stop elements of my life creeping into my food posts and my Twitter stream, and I find myself wondering if I should even try to stop it. Sometimes, I’d like to get on here and write about my work, or my children, or my other interests. I don’t just eat, bake and write. There’s a lot more to me than that, and I’d like to share some of it (or at least the parts that don’t smack too much of an existential crisis or a mid-life crisis or both…)
Of late, my personal life has been taking a few interesting twists and turns. There have been a lot of changes  and these have brought about those champagne moments where I fizz up and bubble over, or those other moments that make me want to starfish on my bed in a shiraz-induced stupor. By writing about some of these things, I feel that the blog will get more ‘flesh on its bones’ and be a better read for those who visit regularly. You'll be pleased to know that I plan for more of the champagne than the shiraz when it comes to personal-sharing.
So I'm going to see what happens if I diversify a little while still keeping things mainly about food, still enjoying the writing, and still finding a use for all the pictures that I take.
I hope you will stick around to see how the blog grows.

Friday, 2 November 2012

A different kind of writing (not about food)

My day job is all about language (I work in second-language education), and my my main hobbies are all about language (I read, I compose verse, I write this blog). I want to be a writer when I grow up. Hey, it could still happen!

Every November for the last 4 years, I have participated in National Novel Writing Month (known to its fans as NaNoWriMo) and this November is no different. I have begun my second novel and I have to get said novel to 50,000 words by midnight on November 30.

This is means that if you see any food-blogging from me, I am probably procrastinating. Similarly, you will see my Twitter-stream becomes more about plot and description and word-counts than about food unless, of course, I am rewarding my writing efforts with chocolate, cake, wine, and cocktails.

For my fellow food-bloggers who are also doing NaNoWriMo, the very best of luck! For everyone else - please bear with me. I'll be back to (comparative) normality in December. 

Cheers to all the writers!

Dark chocolate, pistachio and pear cake

I love it when my Urbanlocavore box arrives each month. Not only is it just a little bit like Christmas (a boxful of comestible goodies!) but there is also the challenge of combining the various ingredients to create something that you may never had made had those ingredients not just landed (metaphorically) in your lap.

This month's box yielded many delicious surprises and among them were a bar of Bahen and Co chocolate plus a packet of WA pistachios.

So, chocolate is not normally difficult to find uses for, and as you can see from the image below, my primary use of chocolate is one of instant gratification. It rarely makes it as far as the cooking stage.

It's a different story with unexpected ingredients such as the pistachios. Yes, I could just eat them, but there were a fair few and I wanted to make the most of that gorgeous pistachio flavour and texture.

At times like this, I turn to the Internet, and this time, the recipe that popped up was this beauty from Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine. 

I followed the recipe exactly. This meant having to duck out to the shops for extra dark chocolate - my little bar of Bahen beauty was only 75g and there was no way I was going to be able to source another 275g of that particular brand at such short notice. (Next time, I'll be going Bahen all the way, believe me). This means that the cake that you see pictured has a mostly-Bahen ganache and Lindt 70% for the rest.

I definitely recommend this cake. Some chocolate cakes are too sweet and too rich. The dark chocolate in this recipe means that you can enjoy the intense smokiness of the chocolate flavours without finding it cloying. The pistachios bring a lightness and the pear provides the moisture. Everything is in balance to make a very grown-up cake. 

It's easy to prepare too. The prep time was exactly the 20 minutes that the recipe promised. Watch out for the cooking time, though.I found that with my oven, I needed 1.5 hours rather than the recommended 45 minutes. I'm pretty sure, however, that that's just my oven.

You'll see from the pictures that my cake was cooked in a heart-shaped tin. Just so you know, this was down to expediency (i.e. it was the only tin I could find) rather than a sense of romance. I'd actually made it to be the centrepiece and dessert in belated birthday celebrations for myself (yes, I recently gained another year...)

The cooled cake on a plate.

A very simple ganache made with chocolate and cream
Happy belated birthday to me!

I had an alfresco dinner-party on a warm Spring evening and I finished off the feast with this cake and coffee. There was enough of it to serve 12 and give some to guests to take home.

And despite the fact that I think it is grown-up cake, the children loved it too.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Moveable feast: Wheelbarrow herb garden

 Abandoned toy wheelbarrow

I live next door to a Community Centre. 

On Saturday mornings, there is a Toy Library that operates from out the back of the community centre which is very nice for those that use it but not for me because on the first morning of the weekend that I get to sleep in, I can clearly hear the cars arriving, car-doors slamming, kids screaming, kids crying, parents placating, parents shouting. I guess it shows how far removed I am from the world of babyhood and early childhood these days that I am now so intolerant of these disturbances. I'm sure that, once upon a year, I was one of those parents.

Anyway, yesterday, finally, being nextdoor to the Toy Library worked out in my favour.

They must have been having a clearout, because there on the verge outside the community centre was a toy wheelbarrow. I could see at once why they had discarded it - the front end had broken away leaving a jagged plastic edge, not great for any kiddies to come into contact with. For me, however, it was the perfect opportunity to put together a little project that I've had in mind for a while.

I love cooking with herbs and think that every garden should have a herb garden. However, I am often time-poor and neglectful of my watering and fertilising duties. Not to mention that I have lost many a past herb gardens to the fierce West Australian summer weather. 

The little wheelbarrow solved both those problems in one. Not only was it small and therefore able to be easily maintained, but being a wheelbarrow, it could be moved to a shadier spot of the garden anytime the sunshine became too much for the plants to handle.

And it was so easy to do!

First I bashed some drainage holes in the base of the wheelbarrow with a screwdriver. (No finesse at all, just bashed at it and hoped not to hurt myself in the process.)

 Enough holes to allow for drainage

Then I filled it up to just below the rim with some standard potting mix. I watered the whole thing to make it damp.

Herb selection

I had chosen a number of herbs to go in plus a couple of chili plants for height and for the hell of it. I positioned the herbs in the wheelbarrow (this time with finesse - I wanted a nice effect of height and  colour, something aesthetically pleasing). There were three pots of basil (because I cook a fair few Italian style dishes), some coriander, garlic chives, Italian flat leaf parsly and oregano. 

The oregano was chosen especially because it will spread and eventually hide the broken edge of the wheelbarrow.

I loosened the roots as I took the herbs out of their pots so that they would take hold better when I put them in the soil.Then I topped up the potting mix and gave everything another spray with the hose.

After this, I pushed the wheelbarrow into the sunshine and left it to stand. It was nice and light and easy to move around.

I can't wait to see how my herb garden grows and will keep you up to date with all the action.

Total cost to me (if you are interested in these sorts of things) - $77 for the potting mix and herbs.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

In Italy, In Singapore

“Italian restaurant here,” says the cab driver.

“Okay,” I reply, fumbling with the unfamiliar currency, trying to pay him while checking the GPS on my phone.

I leave the airconditioned cab and stand in the street. Seconds later, my glasses have fogged up, the sweat is pouring down my forehead and stinging my eyes. I cross over to the restaurant and check out the signage. “Pasta Brava” is what I read.

I’m in the wrong place. I told the cab driver that I needed to go to the Italian restaurant on Craig Road and he has brought me to an Italian restaurant on Craig Road but this is not where I need to be. Surely there can’t be two Italian restaurants on the same street?

I decide to walk a little further up the street, consulting my GPS while trying not to trip over the uneven paving outside the run-down shop-houses. Two minutes later, I see it. The relief of being in the right place is second only to the relief of being able to step out of the humidity and into the cool, dim, cellar-like interior of In Italy.

Proem (feel free to skip)
My very first job was as a teacher in Singapore. I was young and inexperienced but enthusiastic. For two and a half years, I worked in a government school in the Novena district and devoted myself to my students. And at the end of that time, I finished my contract and returned to Australia, hoping that ‘my kids’ would be okay, that they would grow into amazing people and do well for themselves, that they would find careers they loved, that they would travel and see the world. It’s hard though, to really envision a future for someone when they are only 14 years old. As an educator, all you can do is hope that you have done your bit well.

When I left Singapore, there was no social media of any kind. People were using email but mainly for work. Letter-writing was on the way out. So it was that I lost contact with most of my former students until, about 2 years ago, a sudden surge of Facebook interest put me back in contact with them again.

The last time that I saw Felix he was a cheeky little kid with a big grin and spiky hair who wore the standard blue-and-white school uniform you can see in schools all over Singapore.  Now he is Chef Felix, the grin is still cheeky, the hair still spiky (although more modish stripes shaved into the sides) and the uniform is his chef’s gear with his name embroidered upon it.

He has organised for me to be seated at the counter and booked me in under my former name – when I was a teacher I was “Mrs Paterson”, a name I no longer use but that is how my Singapore kids know me – and I am so thrilled to see him that I can hardly concentrate on the menu. 

 A table for "Mrs Paterson"

I put myself in his hands, telling him that I want to try what he believes are his best dishes. He advises the stracciatella with sweet and sour stewed eggplant caponata, then the signature dish which is the squid ink linguine. For dessert he promises me that he will do ‘something special, not on the menu’. 

I relax and take in my surroundings; a wall of wine bottles before me, a loaded dish of Roma tomatoes to the side. I didn’t photograph the bicycles which were on the ceiling, but there were bicycles on the ceiling. I have a glass of prosecco placed in front of me, a basket of beer-bread and salsa verde, a dish of shaved reggiano. 

It’s Friday lunchtime and the place fills up quickly. I hear local accents mixed in with English, American, and Italian. Felix later tells me that the restaurant draws Italian ex-pats who come for a taste of home-cooking. There are certain dishes that can be immediately identified  as origjnating from Liguria, from Firenze, from Milano. Felix knows because he travels regularly to Italy to do training in regional cuisine.

The stracciatella arrives. It is settled between the caponata and the seasoned tomatoes, warm, separating into strands as I twist my fork in.  It is very, very mellow with the caponata providing the necessary zing and bite while the tomatoes are fresh and flavoursome.

Felix pauses to show me another dish he has made – a huge crostino, all golden and fragrant, served with prosciutto. It looks amazing and I wish I were dining with more people so I could have some. Felix takes pity on me and gives me a sample of the prosciutto – I don’t usually rave about prosciutto but this one has been truffled and that makes all the difference. 

The truffles that are used at In Italy, in fact most of their key produce, arrive weekly, freighted from Italy. I joke with Felix that he needs to source from Western Australia, it is closer after all, but he tells me that In Italy they are all about authenticity, especially where truffles and cheeses are concerned.

As I finish the prosciutto, the linguine arrives, with a whiff of the ocean and of garlic. The restaurant is packed by now, by Felix comes past when he can to give me information. He prepares the linguine in a base of lobster bisque, the squid ink goes into the pasta rather than the sauce because it’s more elegant (who wants black teeth, especially when you have to go back to the office?).

Each forkful is dense and spicy. The chili provides just the right amount of burn on the lips to keep me happy. The prawns are sweet and juicy. It is all so very, very good but what makes me happiest is know that Felix made it all.

Time for a coffee! Time for two. The brand is Illy and it is the best coffee that I have had since arriving as the choice thus far has been between Nescafe Instant or the ubiquitous Starbucks which occurs practically every 500m along Orchard Road. 

Dessert is just beautiful. The chocolate fondant sits on raspberry puree, and is flanked by two macarons. The macarons are Felix’s signature dessert – the shell is squid ink, the filling triple sec butter-cream. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but you’d be wrong – the squid ink imparts colour and saltiness but there is no fishiness to it all all. The buttercream adds the sweetness and citrus complement. I know enough Italian to understand that ‘fondant’ should be ‘melting’ and when I push my spoon in, it does exactly that – there is a warm chocolate flow across the plate. 

Things are starting to become quiet again. No such thing as an early Friday knock-off in Singapore – the corporate types must return to the office. The lunch-time service finishes so Felix can join me at the bar and we chat about his career and his travels and his passion for creating good and interesting food.

He summons a waiter who puts a dish of sorbeto in front of me.

“Guess what flavour this is?” he challenges.

It is orange, a little on the dense and floury side, not super sweet. My first thought is persimmon, but perhaps that is too obvious.

“Pumpkin?” I hazard.

It’s actually prickly pear. Felix has seen the bushes, growing wild on the roadsides in Italy and has harvested the fruit to come up with this intriguing dessert. Of all the things that I tried while at In Italy, this was the one that impressed me the most. It was very different and I’m guessing that it will be a while before I eat prickly pear again.

Another gesture to the waiter, another speciality.

“We make our own limoncello,” says Felix, as the shot glass is set before me. They use organic lemons and distill it in-house only to avoid the use of preservatives. I tell him that I would buy it by the bottle if I could and I imagine it poured over ice-cream. 

We are joined by Felix’s boss, Mario Caramella, whom I had been introduced to earlier in the afternoon. I tell him I have recently been in Sydney, staying in Pyrmont, and he tells me about restaurants that he has set up, one in The Star complex. I like his old world courtesy and business cards are exchanged in case he should ever find himself in Perth. I like more that he is a good boss and mentor to Felix, who speaks of their association with contentment and of his working conditions with satisfaction.

It’s time to go and one of the waiters snaps a photo of me and Felix which I plan to keep next to my old school photos from 1997 and 1998. I give him a hug, urge him not to work too hard (although I now know from everything he has said that his work ethic is tremendous and makes huge demands on his time and energy) and I promise to come back again when I can. Perhaps I get a bit teary when I step outside or maybe that’s just perspiration in my eyes again.

I throw myself into another airconditioned cab and take stock.

So, “Mrs Paterson”, what was it that you said you wanted?

I wanted to my students to be okay. Tick.

I wanted them to grow into amazing people and do well for themselves. Tick.

I wanted them to find careers they loved. Tick.

I wanted them to travel and see the world. Tick.

Anyone who has ever been involved in education knows that, for the most part, your satisfaction comes through the achievements of others. I am not the only educator involved in food-blogging, and there are several people out there who will know exactly what I mean when I say that you make investments in people often not knowing when or if you will get a return. I could even get a bit biblical and talk about ‘casting bread upon the waters’ which stays neatly with the food theme.

In Italy, in Singapore, I got that return upon my investment.

No teacher could really ask for more.

Thank you, Felix.

I'm really proud of you, Chef! :D

Monday, 3 September 2012

Product review: Littlesweet Brownies

Dark Belgian Chocolate - hoorah!
I have never had to go looking for Littlesweet Baking’s brownies – they have always come to me.
The first time, a dear friend brought some to my house for morning tea. “Try these,” she said, pushing a boxful of sweet brown deliciousness across the table, “They’re amazing.”
They were, and it was as a result of this that I decided to back a sure winner by putting some dollars into Littlesweet’s crowdfunding project.
Then through the magic of Twitter, I made a suggestion that Littlesweet Baking and the guys at the awesome Urbanlocavore company really needed to talk to each other. My second batch of Littlesweet brownies came to me in an Urbanlocavore box a couple of months later.
And a week or so ago, when Littlesweet asked, “Who wants to try our brownie mix?” the answer was a resounding, “Me! Me!” and sure enough, a packet of brownie mix appeared on my doorstep soon after.
Of course, the difference this time was that I was going to have to do the mixing and baking myself.
Luckily, this is as straightforward a recipe as anyone could wish for. A couple of eggs and a 75g wedge of butter are all that you need to pull from your fridge to make these brownies happen. You can add vanilla extract as well, if you like, and that is what I did.
On-hand ingredients make this a very easy recipe.

The instructions are on the back of the label (mine got a bit smudged with butter)...
As soon as you add the wet ingredients to the dry, the mixture darkens to a brown so deep it verges on black. I hadn’t noticed that there were chocolate chips but these surfaced as I stirred. The smell was glorious and it was all I could do not to eat the mix straight from the bowl. (Well, maybe I just had a tiny taste – to make sure that I was doing it right...)

I had put my square cake tin into use for another project, so I greased and lined a circular pan, reasoning that no one that I know has ever turned down brownies on the basis of shape.
Round brownies! I'm such a maverick...
Then it was into the oven for about 40 minutes. There is always a critical stage with brownies – they should never be cooked through the middle, nor can they be too raw – ‘just set with the potential for gooeyness’ is what I was aiming for and 40 minutes worked for me.
"Just-set" goodness.
We were having guests over for afternoon tea, so I sliced my brownie cake into wedges. Every single piece was eaten.  Yes, they tasted just as I remembered, even though they had been produced in my kitchen rather than Littlesweet’s. Next time, I would definitely consider adding nuts or cranberries or coffee essence to the mix, just to personalise the brownies to my taste (or my guests’). I could also imagine these warm with icecream, or chocolate syrup, or caramel sauce. I think I’d better stop there before I get all excited.
I put my money into Littlesweet's Pozible fund because I honestly believe that they will ‘deliver the goods’ in every sense. The one time that I tried to buy Littlesweet products when I was out at Perth Upmarket, I got there too late and almost everything had sold out.  The trajectory of this Fremantle-based business (I love the fact that they are true locals!) seems to know no limits and I am enjoying waiting to see what happens to them next.
And whatever happens next, I hope it involves more brownies for me!
***I received the packet of brownie mix with Littlesweet Baking's compliments. However, I have not been asked to write this product review by Littlesweet Baking. I do have some interest in the company, having donated to their Pozible crowd-funding project in the past – as described above***

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Kitchen Drama: the Gingerbread Theatre

Achievements should be celebrated - on that, I think, we can all agree. When you are only just 11 years old and you have been through a long and trying process to reach a particular goal, and you have succeeded, then the celebration should be all the bigger.

My younger son had recently received the long-awaited letter telling him that he had been successful in gaining a place in the high school course of his dreams. Since the beginning of the year, he had been required to participate in workshops and auditions, write essays, do a major test and at long last we had written proof that his hard work and persistance had not been in vain. He had been selected for a place in a Gifted and Talented Drama Programme.

This is why we decided on a tea-party and this is why I decided to attempt gingerbread once again.

If you know me, you will know that I go down the gingerbread route once a year, and once only for good reason. I usually over-task myself with a project on a mighty scale and everyone has to live with the angst and the frustration as I make it happen. My previous edifices have been houses, churches and the very memorable TARDIS.

This time, in keeping with the drama theme, I decided I was going to make a theatre - a little gingerbread theatre which would be simple and low-key and fun to do. I would be a happy baker and a happy mother and everyone around me would be happy too.

It didn't happen this way.

The first thing I was determined to do was to find a gingerbread recipe that was not too heavy. In previous years, I have had tried recipes that use SR flour and baking soda - the dough has risen too much and softens too easily after building and the walls come tumbling down. This time I found this recipe from the ABC and it worked really well. I actually halved the quantity of baking soda and rolled the dough very thinly. This gave me more 'well-behaved' gingerbread for my construction. I used the other quantities exactly and it gave me enough gingerbread for the whole theatre plus enough left-over for emergencies (and in the end, I needed it!)

Warm gingerbread dough

My plan. I am the first to admit that I am no architect.
I based my measurements on an A4 piece of paper. The idea was to make a base and on the base place a back wall and a proscenium. The proscenium would be set back slightly to allow an stage apron at the front. The back wall would have a scene drawn on marzipan. There would be 'red velvet' curtains and flats made to look like trees and bushes. I was aiming for a scene out of Macbeth as my son had had to recite a soliloquy from Macbeth for his final audition.

The base and back wall pieces.

Proscenium and supports.
 I had got up early in the morning (about 6.30am) and so by about 9am, I was ready to build. All the sections were baked and cooled. I had my 'cement' ready. Before I had always used royal icing to stick the gingerbread sections together, but my experience with the Danish wedding cake had shown me that chocolate was an easier way to go. It is also less messy if you pop your chocolate pieces into a disposable piping bag and melt the chocolate in the microwave.

Chocolate 'cement'

Building the base
While I was waiting for the base to set, I got into the fun part. I rolled a very thin sheet of marzipan and stuck it to the back wall section using melted raspberry jam. Then I got busy with melted chocolate, edible sparkles and edible ink...

It's a blasted heath or Birnham Wood or something of which Shakespare would have approved.
This was then affixed to the base.

It took a lot of chocolate and a lot of propping up but eventually it was standing.
Then it was time to put the rest of it together. The proscenium was propped up with little triangles of gingerbread. I made the curtains out of pre-coloured red fondant. I also made a playbill with my son's name on it as well as the Masks of Comedy and Tragedy to decorate the front of the stage. This was ironic as a kitchen tragedy was only hours away...

It's either one or the other in this house.
I couldn't believe it! I was finished. A mere 7 hours and it was all done. Everyone was summoned to admire my work and the boys were cautioned 'not to touch' several times.

Lead on, MacDuff!

The view from above.

 So I washed up and tidied the kitchen and washed all the chocolate and sparkles off my hands. Then it was time for a cup of tea and an afternoon nap.

While I was sleeping, my older son decided to get up close to the proscenium. Up close as in touching it until it came away from the base. He is 15, has autism and his impulse control is usually better. He was fascinated by the theatre though and I guess that it was too much for him to resist. He loves cooking and cookbooks and food. Most of the time I involve him in any cooking that I do - perhaps I would have been wise to let him help?

There were tears - his and mine. I had no excuse except exhaustion and the disappointment of seeing my day's work literally in pieces.

The ruins
I tried to fix it with extra chocolate and hold it up with satay sticks but it had been weakened where it had snapped and there was nothing for it but to rebuilt the whole proscenium section. This included remaking the curtains which had also been crushed and snapped. I couldn't face anymore baking and put the renovations on hold until Sunday morning.

Proscenium Mark II - it was moved forward where the foundation was stronger.

 So, up early on Sunday morning (another 6.30am start!) and I did it all again. I was so glad to have kept the extra dough in the fridge - at least that was one thing that I didn't have to make again. New proscenium, new curtains, more melted chocolate. All of this knowing that by 3pm that same afternoon, the whole structure was going to be ripped to pieces and eaten anyway.

But the most important thing is a happy child, right?

11 year old and his special theatre

The next stage I want to see is a real one - with 11 year old on it.
Later that day, in front of friends, having been congratulated on his success and wished all the best for a happy high school experience, 11 year old brought down the house, literally.

And just in case you were wondering, yes, it tasted great! Especially the back wall with the marzipan and raspberry jam - that was a great combo. I know because even when we'd given gingerbread to our guests to take away and eaten some ourselves, we still had enough to last us for a week.

And that's enough about gingerbread for this year. Unless I can be tempted to create something else at Christmas - you never know...