Friday, 14 June 2013

Lost in Translation: gateau de riz au citron.

The 'Orangerie' guest house wing - once used to grow orange trees to be sent to Versailles.

You know the moment that I'm talking about. That moment, where you are looking for a document or a photograph, and you stumble across an old journal or an old photograph album (does anyone even have photograph albums these days?) and you make the mistake of opening it.

Hours later and you suddenly realise that it's later than you think and you can't even remember what you were looking for in the first place.

I don't believe in living in the past but I do enjoy the occasional stroll down Memory Lane. The catalyst for this particular stroll was a message I received in the middle of last week. Across a gap of 25 years, 2 different hemispheres, and over 17,000kms, a secret admirer let me know that he had been too shy to ask me out when we were in high school and he hoped that this knowledge would, a quarter of a century later, put a smile on my face.

This it certainly did, and also sent me hurrying to get my photograph albums and journals out of the shed.

Let's party like it's 1989 - in a Barbie-pink journal.
During my reminiscences of my high school days, I also rediscovered some photographs from the time I went on my language homestay to France. Digging a little deeper, I came across my journal from that holiday. It was 1989, Easter, and I had received disappointing grades in my report card. To be honest, while I loved languages, French was not my first love (which was, and still is, Latin).

Anyway, when my parents ordered me to France during the school holidays to make some improvements, I chose, from a homestay agency, the most interesting homestay experience that I could find - I went to stay with Monsieur le Vicomte and Madame la Vicomtesse (surname not given for privacy), their daughter, Marie, and their nephews, Thibault and Louis, in a 17th century chateau just outside of Poitiers.

A photo of a postcard- hence the faded quality.

Faded French aristocracy, a crumbling castle with towers and a moat, me in the attic bedroom sighing into my pillow because I had the worst crush on the scion of the house, the sexy and urbane (to my teenage mind, anyway) Vicomte Thibault who had floppy blond hair, wore a tweed jacket and smoked a pipe, and was also nonchalantly right-wing and superior in a way that would probably make me want to punch him if I met him now, but at the time I thought of as sophisticated.

Pining for Thibault - '19, gorgeous, but unfortunately already committed to some elegant blonde'

It's all there in my journal - teenage listlessness, lust, longing, and language learning, often written in green ink because I was trying to be stylish and different. Then again, it is also recorded that I was nerdy enough to give Marie and Louis, both 13 years old at the time, some English lessons - it seems I had started on my future career even then.

Pretentious green ink.
Among the journal entries, I was very surprised to find some food writing - it seems that not only a nascent teacher but a nascent baker/blogger lurked within - an a recipe for rice cake with lemon, written completely in French.

Gateau de riz au Citron
 1 litre de lait
0,500 litre d'eau
100g de riz rond
1/2 citron non traite
50g de beurre
150g de sucre
3 oeufs
1 pincee de sel
50g poudre d'amandes

Lavez le riz dans une passoire, sous l'eau courante. Plongez-le deux minutes dans 0,500 litre d'eau bouillante. Egouttez. Faites bouiller le lait avec le zeste du demi-citron et une pincee de sel. Jetez le riz dans le lait bouillant, remuez jusqu'a l'ebullition et laissez cuire alors a feu tres doux pendant 45 minutes environ. Separez les blancs des jaunes d'oeufs, travaille les jaunes avec le sucre jusqu'a  ce que le melange blanchisse, puis ajoutez le beurre ramoli; versez petit a petit le riz bouillant sur cette preparation en remuant vivement pour ne pas cuire les oeufs. Ajoutez la poudre d'amandes. Montez les blanc d'oeufs en neige ferme, incorporez-les au riz en soulevant la masse. Beurrez une tourtiere, saupoudrez-la de chapelure, versez le melange dedans et faites cuire 45 minutes a four modere 210C (thermostat 7). Laissez refroidir, saupoudrez de sucre en poudre. A deguster, tiede au froid.

Below the recipe, I have written "It was delicious (if it weren't I wouldn't have bothered to write it down)". However, my  recollection of making it is very vague. One spring day during my stay, Madame went out and left me to entertain Marie and Louis who told me that they wanted to make their favourite cake. It must have worked because I wrote down the recipe above which, I must admit, I am now struggling to understand. And don't get me started on the punctuation - I was NOT going to attempt to type accents in.

The original text - which has the accents in all the right places, plus a little illustration...

So the challenge for this weekend was to visit my youthful foodie past and give the 'gateau de riz au citron' a whirl - as much from a need to translate and remember as to cook.

Washing the 'riz rond' under running water. I made a guess and bought arborio rice which is about as 'round' as rice gets.

One litre of milk, a pinch of salt and lemon rind. The recipe called for 'citron non traite' which, after a bit of Internet searching, seemed to be a way of saying 'organic' - so I grabbed a lemon from the tree outside.

The separated egg yolks beaten with sugar and melted butter.

The separated egg whites whisked (by hand because my wand blender has broken) into stiff peaks, or, as they say in French 'en neige ferme'  - 'into firm snow' - which is much more poetic.

Bringing it all together, I think there must have been a step omitted where the cooked rice is strained out of the milk. There was way too much liquid otherwise. So I did just that, before mixing it in and then added the almond meal and the meringue. 

I had no idea, none whatsoever, what 'chapelure' was. Turned out to be 'breadcrumbs'. So I made some, and then buttered and sprinkled the dish which I thought most closely approximated a 'tourtiere'.

Ready for the oven.
It needed a little less time than the stated 45 minutes - I also ended up bringing the oven down 10C.

It probably shouldn't be so dark. Next time, I'll have the oven at 200C.

It was really pretty good. although not super lemony and if I make it again (and I doubt that I will wait 25 years before making it again), I'd either add more lemon or serve it with a lemon syrup. 

I never went back to France after that trip. My family had already emigrated to Australia, and in June that year, when I finished school, I had to join them. Madame la Vicomtesse wrote me a couple of letters and then we fell out of touch,as happened in the days before the Internet.

But in the interests of 'where are they now?' a couple of years ago, I did do a search on them and the castle. 

The gate connected the formal gardens to the wild woodland of the 'parc' and my sketch of it.
Little Louis grew up and joined the Catholic priesthood. He became, interestingly enough, one of the first priests in France to also be a regular blogger on religious matters and had a large following. It is thanks to the fact that I came across his blog that I was able to find out what had happened to everyone else. 

His aunt and uncle, Monsieur and Madame, are still alive, obviously much older now, and the castle rooms are still available to paying guests. His brother, Thibault,  grew up (and hopefully got past his right-wing views!) and was married to an elegant blonde (there were photos on Louis' blog) and Louis conducted the ceremony. Exactly one week after Thibault's wedding, Marie, the restless, gamine teenager and one of the first students that I ever taught English to, was gone - killed in a car crash in the town where she was attending university.

But in a journal, in a photograph, in a slice of warm gateau de riz, the happy memories are all coming back to me. It's April 1989 and we're in a kitchen, in a castle: me, Marie, and Louis. We're cooking, laughing, talking sometimes in French and sometimes in English. I'm food-writing in my journal while I supervise the kids, and it's impossible to know that out of the three of us there on that day, two of us will end up becoming bloggers.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Ultimate Cake Fail

It took me a few hours to get over the nicotine poisoning.

It has taken me longer to get over the humiliation. 6 months to be precise.

I tell you what ... before you read any further, have a look here and here. I just want it acknowledged up front that I wasn’t suddenly overwhelmed by a crazy notion to use tobacco in cooking. Tobacco in cooking is A Thing. A thing that chefs and bartenders do, although fairly unusual. I am not an experimenter in the way of say, William Buckland, – if I cook something, there’s normally a precedent for it. I first came across this recipe for the Richard Corrigan fig tart with tobacco syrup years ago and have been intrigued by the idea of it ever since.

So when the Secret Cake Club announced that the theme for December would be ‘secret ingredients’, I knew instantly what I wanted to do. I would make a chocolate cake and souse it with tobacco syrup, using this recipe which suggests that tobacco syrup goes well with bitter chocolate and stone fruits.

I had a very interesting shopping trip to Devlin’s tobacconists in Subiaco. I’m not a smoker so this is not a shop I would normally ever go into. However, I wanted to do things right. I wanted to get the best ingredients and this meant going to a proper tobacco vendor rather than buying a pouch of cigarette stuffing from the local supermarket.
I have to say that the assistant in Devlin’s was lovely to talk to and so very helpful.

 I told him all about my plans and he told me that he had never heard of tobacco-flavoured syrup before. He let me smell all the different tins and packets of tobacco, asked me if I wanted a particular flavour (it comes in cherry, Irish cream, whiskey… who knew?).

 I told him I wrote a blog and he was good enough to let me snap as many pictures as I wanted.

Because I wanted to put the best cake possible in front of the cake club members, I didn’t skimp on the ingredients. I bought the best tobacco available. $50 for 50g. The most expensive herb I have ever bought. (I will never baulk at the cost of saffron or vanilla beans again!). I was assured that it was pure compacted leaf, that it had very few preservatives in it, that it would give a delicate earthy scent. Plus it looked exactly like a delicious brownie and, to my mind, this boded well (and which goes to show how wrong I can be sometimes...)

Not a brownie. Not at all.

The cake that the syrup was to infuse was a classic Nigella recipe – her quadruple chocolate cake.  It was an easy to follow recipe (although it did take longer to cook that she recommends but that is always the fault of my oven) and it turned out beautifully. 
As it cooled on the rack, I set about making the tobacco syrup. I followed the recipe exactly – made the sugar syrup, took it off the heat, infused it with the crumbled tobacco leaves for 5 minutes – not a moment more – and then strained it.


As the man from Devlin’s had promised, it had a rich earthy scent, something like autumn leaves and bonfires. I liked it. It was different. It was a really good secret ingredient. Clever, clever me!
I tasted it. It reminded me of strong sweet tea. After a few moments, it started to burn in a way that was similar to chilli burn. But I like chilli so no problem, right?


I took my beautiful chocolate cake and skewered it all over. Then I poured the syrup on. While it cooled, I made a cute little star-anise Christmas wreath. Looking back, that was probably my most successful creation of the day.
When the cake was ready, I decided that I’d better sample it. I cut a very thin slice and ate it. It was gorgeously dense with chocolate and syrup. I’d used Valrhona chocolate (again, only the best ingredients for my cake club peeps). Again, there was that burning sensation. This time around, it wasn’t as pleasant.
At this point I decided that it might not be a good idea to spring tobacco on people as a surprise. I thought that I would take the cake along, disclose the ingredient to the Cake Club members, then let them try it or not as they wished. Satisfied with this decision, and tired after a morning’s baking, I went to have a lie down.
When I got up, I wasn’t feeling too good. I was a bit giddy and there was a creeping sense of nausea in my gut. Cake Club was only about an hour off. I know that that one of the things that I hate people to do to me is too cry off an event that I have organised at the last minute, so having committed to go, I was determined to make it.

It was at the point that my nausea became bad enough that I decided that I wasn’t even going to put the cake on the table. I decided to take a bottle of bubbly along to compensate for being cakeless at Cake Club.

When I stopped at the bottle shop to buy the wine, I threw up in the car-park. (Classy, I know.)

I was at Cake Club long enough to tell my story, drink a glass or two of water, and then head home. Shortest. Party. Ever.

I held it together for the journey home. Then I threw up in the garden and again when I got into the house. It was the most pathetic hangover scenario, sitting on the floor of the toilet, slumped against the wall with my cheek against the cool tiles. It took me back to the time of my first ever hangover (Hill Head Sailing Club in Portsmouth and more whisky and drys than is good for any 18 year old).

I slept it off. I needed painkillers for the headache that I had when I woke up.

Things that I have learnt:
·         Always do a trial run of your recipe – especially when you are being a bit avant garde with your ingredients.

·         Do your research. To be fair, none of the recipes that I looked at warned that there would be any effects from the tobacco syrup. I saw one that said “Tobacco is a carcinogen and you can omit it if liked” but then alcohol is also a carcinogen and I am still partial to sherry trifle, coq au vin, and rhum babas.

Things that I want to say:

·         Not to brag, but I normally a really, really good cook. Generally, I don’t poison my dinner guests, and I always send them away from my house full and happy.

·         Tobacco syrup or just tobacco in cooking: might be better handled more professionally but I’d advise caution if you ever encounter it.

·         Please, Secret Cake Club Perth, no life time ban.

·         I am not crazy. I am not crazy. I am not crazy.

Best left to the experts...

Sunday, 9 June 2013

When life gives you lemons, make lemon tart (and chocolate cake!)

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day…” (Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre)

I meant to take a walk today, really I did. I was feeling restless and had a lot of energy to expend plus some rather luridly-purple new running shoes that I wanted to break in. Down, however, came the rain – during the night, into the morning, spoiling my aerobic plans.

Rainy days have a tendency to become baking days. If you have to stay in, you may as well play in the kitchen. As it was, this Sunday, national radio station Triple J were playing their “Hottest 100 songs of the last 20 years” so I had a soundtrack and the chance of some exercise, should I be moved to dance. (Which I was, as it happens, but, luckily for you, gentle reader, there are no photographs of this…)

I waited for a break in the weather and dashed to the supermarket for the necessary butter, eggs, flour, chocolate, sugar. I did get soaked harvesting the lemons from the lemon tree though.

The lemon tree has been very obliging of late and the three lemons that I took did little to thin out the fruit that remained.

My plans were to make two desserts.

First up, a lemon tart because I needed to use up some lemons.

Second, something chocolate-y.  My friend. Duncan, has recently celebrated a significant birthday, and, as he is flying back to Perth (normally he lives in Sydney) this week, I wanted to find the best chocolate offering for his west coast celebrations. I came upon a recipe for the Ottolenghi chocolate fudge cake and thought I’d test it out today (because I don’t want any more cake fails…)

I started with the chocolate cake which is very easy to do.


240g butter, cut into small cubes

265g 52% dark chocolate, chopped (I could only find 55% buttons, but they worked fine)

95g 70% dark chocolate, chopped (Lindt 70% is fine)

290g light muscovado sugar

4 tbsp water

5 eggs, separated

1 tssp salt

Put the butter and chocolate in a mixing bowl. Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Pour the hot sugar syrup over the chocolate and butter to dissolve it.

Add the egg yolks in, one at a time, until combined. Leave to cool to room temperature.

Whisk the egg whites with the salt to a firm (but not dry) meringue.

Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the chocolate mixture. Go slowly! (You want to keep those airbubbles.) Once it is all combined, add the next 1/3. Repeat with the last 1/3.

Into a greased and lined 20cm springform tin, pour 2/3 of the cake mix.

Bake in a 170C oven for 40 minutes until a skewer comes out clean.

Then spread the final 1/3 of chocolate mix over the top. Put the cake back into the oven and let it cook for another 20 – 25 minutes.

Allow to cool completely before releasing from the pan.
Dust all over with good cocoa power (I used Valrhona) before you serve it up.


For the lemon tart…


1 batch of pasta frolla pastry (recipe here)

4 eggs

4 small lemons (juice and zest)

125g castor sugar

125g melted butter

125 ground almonds

100 flaked almonds
creme fraiche to serve

Use the pasta frolla to line a greased 28 cm tart tin. Bake blind for 15 minutes at 170C. Allow to cool for 15 minutes.

Combine the eggs, lemon juice and zest, sugar, and melted butter and whisk until completely blended.

Spread a layer of ground almonds over the tart shell. Pour over the lemon mixture. Sprinkle the flaked almonds over the top. 

Bake in a 180C oven for about 30 minutes, until flaked almonds are brown and a skewer comes out cleanly.

It was a great day's baking. And eventually, I did get my walk. The rain came down hard about 5 minutes after I set out, even my umbrella was little use in such a torrent. I was soaked though.

Coming home to a hot bath and  two type of cake was a good way to finish off a rainy day though.