Eating my way to midnight 2008 — duck, pistachios and stollen

Exhausted from launching The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf and distracted by other matters, I’ve at least managed to spend the last week of the year dining on deliciousness. I hope the same goes for all my readers and correspondents! Here are the highlights of the Christmas week and some reminders of fun articles from 2008.

Shortly before Christmas I found out exactly how a baker sweats, for I was baking the famous German Christmas bread called stollen. It’s about ten years since my last stollen event and I had mislaid my trusty recipe, so I went searching through my shelves and ended up combining the fairly lean ‘old style’ domestic recipe in Horst Scharffenberg’s fantastic Aus Deutschlands Küchen (also available in English as The German Kitchen, I think) with the much, much richer and fruit-laden recipe in Culinaria Germany. The result was a lovely, enriched bread dotted with raisins and peel and with a lovely vein of marzipan (home-made) down its length. I was glad I could still enjoy it after baking ten loaves!

Shortly after Christmas I put the ice-cream churn to good use to create a toasted pistachio gelato, served with sour cherries in syrup. This recipe was based on the southern Italian style of gelato which lacks eggs and, surprisingly, uses cornflour (cornstarch) as a thickener. David Lebovitz has a recipe which was the inspiration for me — he uses a luxurious pistachio paste. I made my own equivalent of the paste by grinding roasted pistachios with sugar. I also added pieces of raw pistachio for even brighter colour and more textural interest.

And then, to round off 2008, I heated up a piece of confit duck (alas, not home-made), sautéed some red capsicum and broccoli with garlic and marjoram, and fried some chips in duck fat! Ohhhh, they were soooo crispy and golden.

If any of this has your tummy rumbling or your imagination racing, here’s a rundown of some of the interesting things (in my humble opinion 😛 ) that you might have missed if you weren’t a regular:

Travel stories from Paris, Singapore and Madrid, Sevilla, Cordoba, Granada and Elvas. Oh dear, that also means I haven’t written up at least two other places!

I delved into a few issues in food and eating, looking at the role of supermarkets, alcohol consumption, being disappointed at weaknesses in the Slow Food movement, frustrated at the misrepresentation of statistics about overweight and obese people, and well and truly sick of mainstream media’s inability to do their job properly (macarons, SBS, food conference).

Macaron adventures, including bad stuff in Melbourne, only marginally better impressions in Sydney, and a reasonable number of delicious ones in Paris. At home, I played with the flavours of violet and mandarin, musk and Christmas.

In other cooking fun, there were chocolate éclairs and a quick-n-easy tarte Tatin, the unusual creation of beetroot and ginger kuih, lots of fun making violet jelly, pear and mascarpone tarts, and my long-standing favourites pastéis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts). I also discovered that you can do an unpretty but tolerably nice sourdough bread in a bread machine, overdosed on baba ghanoush, created a wild rice salad which has become a frequent (and pricey!) feature on my menu, and asked readers to reveal their humble home comfort food.

Thanks to all the readers who dropped by and all the commenters who made this a place for positive, enlightening discussion. I wish you all a delectable, comfortable and stress-free 2009!

If you’re a reader who doesn’t like to comment, feel free to say a quick hello below… it’s always nice to know more about the readers I haven’t heard from yet 🙂 .

Product: Cocoa Farm Shiraz Infused Wine Chocolate Barrels

For the first time I have been offered a free sample of something. You’ll notice one or two other local sites will also be writing about this. Rather than taking the approach of simply offering the product for review, an incentive was added, in the form of a prize for the ‘best’ review. What a great way to ensure that the odds of a negative review are reduced. Such is marketing…

UPDATE: And it’s been drawn to my attention that some people didn’t feel the need to disclose the freebie or incentive. Hmmmm.

The Cocoa Farm brand will be known to some for their colourful packaging and presence in some organic food retail shelves. Cocoa Farm is owned by Farm by Nature, a small Melbourne company. The product received for review was small barrel-shaped chocolates with pieces of currant ‘bathed’ in shiraz. Well, most people know that I’m fairly clear about what I think about food, so here we go…

These chocolates are fairly pleasant, but nothing to rush out for. I don’t know the price point, so can’t comment on their quality:cost relationship. The chocolate is 36% cocoa solids and 11% milk solids, with a strong, very pleasantly fruity aroma from the wine and fruit. The chocolate has a coarse snap, with a very dry texture and it is slow to melt, resulting in a thick pastiness, reminiscent of Cadbury Dairy Milk at best. The few pieces of currant are small, fairly dry pieces with pleasant acidic and fruity notes from the wine.

I guess they would make an okay gift for some audiences. The flavour profile is quite acceptable and many will enjoy it (though I doubt anyone would really say ‘oh, shiraz’ if they hadn’t seen the wrapper), but the texture is poor — no aspiration to much quality evident there.

In the UK, sending product to bloggers seems to have been a successful strategy for Hotel Chocolat. But they haven’t used quid-pro-quo incentives (as far as I know) and, to be frank, their product is light-years better. Although Farm by Nature can be congratulated for being ahead of many companies by thinking of harnessing the power of bloggers, you’d probably want to be careful about the quality of the product you want to promote.

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas… macarons!

It seemed time for a little Christmas spirit, though most of it seems to be passing me by at the moment. On the occasion of a little lunch at my place for friends, I wanted to serve some new flavours of macarons to my faithful tasters.

Christmas flavours? What could I do? Christmas makes me think of fruitcake and Christmas pudding, spices and nuts. I’ve done a macaron filling with inclusions before (the Winter Solstice event) and wasn’t so convinced of its success. Part of the delight of a macaron is the flavour and unobtrusive texture of the filling when married with the light, just slightly crisp shell. Sometimes I’ve seen small nut inclusions which have worked, but nothing else.

I have a jar of Mother’s Fruitmince (one of those strange brands which differs from household to household, if you know what I mean), but I couldn’t see how to successfully build that into a filling without a lot of experimentation. Instead, I went for two options:

1. Christmas spices and citrus
2. A berry summer flavour which would bring back memories of childhood summers (meaning Christmas in Australia!)

Ladies and gentlemen, I present:

Orange and Christmas spice macarons — macarons à l’orange et aux épices de Noël

The gerbets (small ones) feature a white chocolate ganache incorporating some fantastic Seville orange marmelade which has featured previously in my macarons, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. The result: warm woody spice notes and a lingering bitterness from the orange. Very much a Christmas macaron.

Strawberry and musk macarons — macarons fraises musquées

The larger macarons were filled with a mixture of strawberries softened in sugar over low heat and then puréed, combined with white chocolate to make a pseudo-ganache. The final touch, which might make some Australian hearts flutter: a few drops of musk. (Many of us grew up with ‘musk sticks’ as a childhood confectionery item, unfortunately increasingly hard to get now.) This filling was sweet (a little too sweet for some) and really wonderful, even if I do say so myself.

To add to the specialness of these macarons, I used a gel colouring, rather than the often inadequate domestic liquid colours, and on top of them all are beautiful edible sparkles! I need to work on my star shapes though;)

And one tip for those who want to make macarons… do not make macarons when it’s raining or very humid. Macarons absorb moisture very very quickly, so they will start softening as soon as they’re cool or out of their storage container. A simple observation: if condensation forms instantly on a container taken out of the fridge, your macarons are likely to have a short lifespan in best condition (less than a day).

Daring Bakers in stereo: Caramel Cake with Caramelised Butter Icing

This month’s Daring Bakers challenge comes to you in stereo on Syrup&Tang. My Parisian correspondent, Harry, has taken up the Daring Bakers cause and baked his little heart out. Alas, he lacks a blog, so he’s posting here alongside me. What did we make? Caramel Cake with Caramelised Butter Icing.

The name of the cake has been slightly modified to reflect Australian norms (in solidarity with the philosophy of Cathy at Everything Goes With Cream). The cake itself? Well let’s just say that I had contemplated starting this post with “And how f**king sweet do you want it, sir?”. The body of the cake is pleasant, dense but a lovely texture in the mouth. The ‘frosting’ is very, very sweet and if I tell you that I halved the quantity and still had more than enough to create a modest, appropriately iced cake, then you can perhaps take pity on those who made the full amount and now lie in bed in a sugar-induced coma. (And I haven’t even dared mention the caramel sauce and caramels which were suggested accompaniments to the cake!)

Anyway, here you go. As a caramel cake it’s mild, pleasant, inoffensive. There are definitely cakes out there that better express caramel notes, but I might still make this one again. Different icing though.

And now for the account from Harry de Paris: (drumroll!)

Caramel Cake

A Different Way to Fry an Egg

Like a good English novel, I’ve given my Daring Bakers Challenge post an alternative title. Unfortunately I don’t have the flair of, say, Jane Austen, but the moral of the story, I hope, will rival a good George Eliot.

When I first read through the recipe for the caramel cake, it all seemed to me like a bit of a sugarfest. Two cups of sugar here, another cup there, add a stick of butter or two and some cream. Just thinking about that amount glucose was making me hyperactive!

Not being a particularly sweet tooth, the challenge for me was how to make something that wouldn’t make my head spin. I determined to add a slightly more savoury element to the recipe, to counter the sweetness of the sugar syrup. After much umming and ahring, I finally decided to incorporate a small quantity of coffee, into the batter in which I soaked a few cardamom seeds. It then occurred to me that I could take the idea further and try making a kind of marble cake, with a syrupy batter on the one hand, and a more savoury coffee one on the other.

Dutifully I turned on my oven to preheat it to the right temperature. Baking in my gas oven is always a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. The three markings which appear on the temperature dial are 150, 250 and 270°C, with the latter two spaced further apart than the first. Precision is not one of its stronger points.

Now to the batter. One lesson I learned the hard way was that, if you’re as bad at cracking eggs as I am, crack them into a cup before adding them to the mixture, because trying to get egg shells out of the batter is a right pain! My second and third eggs went into a cup while I…oh I forgot: the oven!

After faffing about with my batters and eggs and things, my trusty oven temperature gage told me I had well and truly overheated it to levels usually reached in a potter’s kiln. I opened the door for a couple of minutes to cool it down while I went back to my batter. Enter the eggs. I picked up the cup to mix the eggs into batter, and with one swift and somewhat inelegant move, the cup slipped from my grasp, the contents fell squarely upon the open, but still scorchingly hot oven door and fried instantly. It all happened in slow motion, like a dream sequence in a film. The smell of rapidly cooking egg brought me back to reality, however, and I hastened to clean it up – easier said than done on a burning hot surface.

After that minor disaster, and a few eggs later, the cake and icing more or less made itself. I’d left it the oven a touch too long so it came out a little singed. The marbling effect didn’t work visually, as the coffee wasn’t dark enough, but the taste of the coffee touched the spot. My guests that evening were happy as far as I could tell, and they asked for seconds, which is always a good sign. And the story of the eggs certainly made for an entertaining anecdote.

So… the moral of the story clearly is that one must always keep one’s cups of eggs well away from hot ovens when the door is open. But everybody knows that!

Thanks for reading! HARRY.

Recipe: Shuna Fish Lydon from Eggbeater published on Bay Area Bites.
Challenge: hosted by Dolores of Chronicles in Culinary Curiosity. Co-hosts: Alex of Blondie and Brownie, Jenny of Foray into Food and Natalie of Gluten-a-Go-Go.

France, celebrity chefs and bad diet

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the cliché about how well the French eat. You know, fresh produce markets everywhere, everyone eating good cheese and drinking decent wine. No fatties, no fast food diets, blah blah blah. We read this garbage often in nice comfy middle-class lifestyle rags and see it perpetuated in breathless television travel shows. Reality is, of course, a bit different.

The Guardian has two articles (with interesting links) about the popularity of celebrity chefs in France and the rise of one chef, Cyril Lignac, who is campaigning for better eating in much the same way as Jamie Oliver does in Britain. [1,2]

You see, the French don’t (as a whole) eat fantastic, fresh, healthy, homemade food. They behave rather a lot like Australians, in that they have access to a wide array of restaurants at many budget levels, can buy produce of reasonable quality and like to talk about food, but don’t always cook frequently and are quite fond of large meals and fatty or sweet snacks. Similar, EXCEPT that on the one hand the French have a stronger concept of good food, quality ingredients and more (cakes! cakes! chocolate! cakes!), and on the other hand have much larger numbers of socially disadvantaged or disenfranchised communities who fall entirely outside the much-vaunted food culture.

So yes, the French have great dining culture, marvellous markets (with their own flaws), etc etc. But at the same time, fast food joints are packed out with teenagers, discount supermarkets do high trade in canned and long-life foods, and frozen meals are popular in time-poor or can’t-cook households.

(There are many nuances one could explore here, but I just wanted to draw attention to the articles in The Guardian. I might write more about this in the future.)

Review: Eating Between the Lines, by Rebecca Huntley

Eating Between the Lines has received a bit of media attention since its publication recently. I heard an interview with the author, Rebecca Huntley, on ABC Radio National and found the discussion interesting. I decided I should read the book, and then Neil over at At My Table wrote a great review that increased my interest further. You should read it.

I’ve now worked my way through the book and as you’ll read below, I wasn’t impressed.

Summary review

Eating Between the Lines claims to be “A different kind of food tour” and sociologist Rebecca Huntley certainly takes the readers on a journey. The book is a series of discreet chapters exploring aspects of food culture in Australia. From the subtitle of the book, “Food & Equality in Australia”, you might expect the focus to be on poverty, access to food, and perhaps the ability to cook. In fact, Huntley ranges over these themes and adds a sociopolitical agenda involving gender roles, racism, Slow Food and more. At times, the reader might feel that the author lacks much insight into deeper cultural and historical issues, leaving her argumentation a little popular-conscience rather than achieving insightful examination. Nonetheless, many interesting pieces of information come out of the interviews and stories and the footnotes are interesting. I found Eating Between the Lines very irritating, but it’s well written and designed to hit the right “how terrible” buttons with certain types of readers. Huntley might, however, have cast her net a bit too wide, because there are enough touches of sneering through the book that she might well offend even some of her target audience.

The structure of the book

The introduction paints a picture of inner-urban living with access to many food options in opposition to a decaying suburban environment with limited choice, most of it unhealthy. The author asks “how fair is Australia’s food culture?”. She then ventures into the contrast between a wealth of television chefs cooking fancy food and the supposed realities of eating/cooking in the normal population, using obesity, other writers’ commentary about British food, and some data about purchasing habits to get the ball rolling. Each of the next nine chapters covers an issue that Huntley feels is relevant: poverty and bad eating, child obesity, domestic cooking, men not cooking, single people and food, indigenous food and social disadvantage, ethnic food and racism, local food, ethical/rich-people food trends. Huntley concludes with an honestly ideological position about food, equality, empowerment, access and more.

The author

Rebecca Huntley is a social researcher, director of the Ipsos Mackay Report on social trends, and writes for Vogue Australia.

What is particularly good/interesting/new/special?

Eating Between the Lines serves as a window on food issues in Australia (and the rich world more generally) in the mid-2000s. That’s probably its greatest value. Its timing was good, though might have been even more interesting if written after consumers began to react to the global economic problems (that’s life).

The book is well written and stimulates readers to think, but because the author is quite definitely writing to an (at least loosely) pre-determined agenda, its value isn’t really as an objective assessment of issues unless you read between the lines of Huntley’s own perspective. The footnotes and bibliography are valuable inclusions which will give interested readers more paths to explore.

Huntley interprets “equality” more broadly than some readers might expect (extending it to food choices, urban sprawl driving out local agriculture, and more). This comes as a surprise as the book develops, and at times I really wondered how chapters were meant to relate to the overarching theme and the neighbouring chapters. Certainly, Huntley covers a range of interesting topics and illuminates many issues which are worth attention, sometimes very skillfully, but it’s difficult to work them all into a coherent thesis.

The author makes some interesting points, such as “If Jamie [Oliver] wants to encourage more family meals, why doesn’t he criticise those fathers who won’t shop, cook and clean for their families?”, raising the tricky issue of whether indigenous foods should be part of mainstream Australia’s diet, reminding us that food is about sustenance for many people, and highlighting the gulf between the dietary/cooking habits of the rich/empowered and other parts of the population.

What flaws/problems are there?

This book reeks of “I know what I think and I’ll paint you a picture that shows I’m right”. There are certainly many valuable points made and examples given. But Huntley seems to disrespect some of her subjects, sometimes moments after describing their plight or using their situation to prove a positive point.

On many occasions, Eating Between the Lines presents arguments based on nothing more than uninformed conjecture. There’s little serious data, but lots of social commentary to support more social commentary. Huntley is too comfortable generalising beyond her experience. Even the introduction shows a willingness to poo-poo something that doesn’t suit her: she provides a secondhand quote of London-based Australian reviewer Terry Durack saying “I grew up in a country where good food was available to all at a good price”. Huntley then writes “… I don’t believe we can be confident of the truth of Durack’s claim that good food is available to all Australians at a good price. Not all of us live in a lucky eating country. And the top-class food familiar to critics like Durack is not the kind of food the vast majority of Australians have the time, money or opportunity to enjoy.”

Excuse me for being blunt, but that’s just rank ignorance. If Huntley understood something about relative costs and quality of food historically (and now) between different rich-world countries she would hopefully have been more careful in dismissing Durack’s statement. The vast majority of Australians have had much better access to good, affordable basic produce than most people in many comparable countries for many decades (and Durack was writing about when he grew up). That doesn’t mean the same degree of access across the population (and has to exclude people living in extreme poverty and/or isolation) or that it applies to every type of produce in every place. But Huntley’s rejection of Durack’s slightly-too-broad statement is symptomatic of an impaired openness to different experience or possibilities.

Some readers will quickly tire of the author’s cynical depiction of men as kitchen chauvinists who can’t cook, won’t cook, or get treated with kid gloves when they do manage to step into the kitchen. I don’t for a moment deny that the vast majority of men don’t do much/any domestic cooking. It’s likely that it’s primarily because of established gender roles being perpetuated/enforced by various parties, including the men themselves. But Huntley dwells on men not cooking, or only learning to cook because of necessity, with limited consideration of other factors. I found it offensive personally, and on behalf of those men who do cook as part of their normal domestic roles. Huntley isn’t scared of moments of passing chauvinism about men, gay cooks, women in commercial kitchens, fat people, and more.

I could write much more on the flaws (I’ve bookmarked about 20 examples of particularly irritating stuff), but I think you get the idea. I’ll finish with one vaguely amusing example:

In the chapter called Basic Meals for the Ultra Rich, Huntley simultaneously derides people shopping at farmers’ markets (“Sucker prepared to spend a lot of money on not a lot of food.”) while admitting she’s one of them too. To prove how expensive it is she presents a short shopping list. This includes a bag of organic apples for A$5, half a kilo of organic coffee for $11.50 and two organic lamb shanks for $8. How strange that the coffee is actually cheap, the apples are only a little pricey (assuming it’s a kilo bag), and the lamb shanks are about the same for most Australians paying typical (non-market) silly prices ($3-4) for any shanks. She didn’t even get her “here’s proof” shopping list right. I’m sure many readers could have done better.

Target audience

Oh, this will appeal to all sorts of people riding the food-consciousness wave. Ironically, the ones who’ll probably like it most are the “Bobos” that Huntley describes and sneers so effectively at in the chapter mentioned above (though they might not like it if they make it to that chapter). It’s perhaps worth reading to make you think, but not necessarily because it’ll enlighten you.

As you can imagine, not everyone shares my perspective on this book. In addition to Neil’s review mentioned at the top of the review, you could also consider this and this.

ISBN 978-1-86395-263-7 – Black Inc.

Favourite dishes you don’t serve to guests

I’m reading a recently published book called Eating Between the Lines by Rebecca Huntley (recently written about by Neil at At My Table). It’s an irritating book (about which more in another post sometime soon), but one section about single people’s views of the food they prepare for themselves as not being ‘proper’ cooking is interesting.

Although most of the food I cook is quite definitely suitable for guests, there are one or two dishes which fall into a sort of ‘private comfort’ zone. People I’ve lived with have eaten them, but that’s the burden of the house-share, where all sorts of dubious food is cooked communally — Reis mit Scheiß (rice with shit) as one German housemate described things.

After I’d stopped living with my sister, she admitted some time later that she missed my ‘veg spag sauce’, despite having moaned and teased about it while living together. For me, my ‘veg spag’ is delicious. It’ll go in a cookbook one day. But it needs a bit of marketing spin to make it sound publicly viable.

‘A deliciously simple vegetable sauce for spaghetti, featuring the honest flavours of tomato, carrot and zucchini. Great for a quick, homely meal.’

Put to one side that it doesn’t look very pretty, and that its ‘honest’ flavours can require a little adjustment. This, ladies and gentlemen, is my favouritest simple no-motivation-to-cook accompaniment to pasta:

Duncan’s veg spag sauce

1 clove garlic, chopped finely
pinch dried marjoram
olive oil
250ml tinned tomatoes (unenhanced with gloop or flavours)
some coarsely grated carrot
some coarsely grated zucchini (optional)
salt, pepper and sugar to taste

Sauté the garlic in olive oil, add the marjoram and then the tomatoes. Break down big pieces of tomato and then add remaining vegetables and a little water. Simmer for about 20 mins until it has reduced to a fairly thick sauce. During that time, cook some spaghetti. Serve with grated cheddar or parmesan.

The consistency is thick and not very wet, because of the grated veg. Not pretty. I think it suits spaghetti best, because of it’s texture and the ratio of pasta to sauce in each mouthful.

The sauce must be tasted during cooking because, let’s face it, tinned tomatoes vary radically in tastiness, and carrot can often taste very ‘green’. Don’t be shy about the salt (the acidity of the tomatoes might mislead you), and a very small pinch of sugar can also lift the dish. If the sauce tastes too ‘honest’, you can add cream to improve it. It also tastes great with good black olives (chopped) through it.

I think the ur-sauce is actually something my dad made when I lived at home, involving chopped veg and slices of kabana or salami, but my memory is uncertain. Certainly, a little bacon can perk up the sauce too:)

Okay, so I’ve spilt the beans on a ‘private’ dish that I don’t feel comfortable serving guests or friends. What about you? If you write about it on your own site, please link back here and leave a comment.