A few news items

Busy, busy, busy. That’s been the past few months. Some of the activity has been on a new site, some on a few tweaks to Syrup & Tang, and a whole pile of unfoodieness has been keeping me away from food and cookbooks. This must stop! Here’s a small update for the curious.

1. A little while ago I became Commissioning Editor for a new website, I eat I drink I work. Sounds fancy! My role is not to run the site or the business, but to look for writers and bloggers who have something to say. Content includes industry news, commissioned articles, hospitality job classifieds and authorised feeds from featured bloggers. The site launched recently and is currently featuring the feeds of Eating with Jack, At My Table and Where’s the Beef? There have been a few teething problems on the technical side but many have been ironed out in the last day or two (you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to process an RSS feed!). I believe the remaining tweaks will be done over the next few weeks.

There are a few feature articles showing and coming. We aim to have a range of styles and content to keep readers stimulated and/or entertained. At the time of writing, an article about obesity by me has just appeared, with some content that might surprise you. Whatever your interest in food, whether inside or outside the food and hospitality areas, I hope that people find something to stimulate them. Take a look at the site, or if you have suggestions for content, visit the content and submissions page to contact me there.

Part of the philosophy behind the site is to create an interface between different areas of the food and wine world. There will be events for a range of people. We have a number of tasting and educational get-togethers planned (think wine, mushrooms, and more…) and you’ll see more news about them over at I eat I drink I work in due course. If you have feedback about the site, want more information, or have suggestions for events you should contact Cameron Russell (big boss).

2. I’ve recently listed as a ‘featured publisher’ over at a US venture (aiming to be international) called Foodbuzz. You’ll see a button in the sidebar which links to that site.

3. I’ve just added a ‘recent comments’ element to the sidebar of Syrup & Tang (under the category index). This helps readers keep track of bits and pieces which they might have missed. A few other tweaks will be noticed by some regular visitors. (And, as always, if you’ve got suggestions for functionality on this site, I’m interested to hear them.)

4. Stay tuned for chocolate cake, alcohol, carrots, exotic fragrances and some travel news in the next few weeks.

Happy reading wherever you surf!

Plummy goodness: plum and cardamom cake


Before the last juicy plums vanish from the markets and fresh produce displays, buy up and bake a cake! This delightfully fragrant cake is dense and moist, strong with the aroma of plum and cardamom and lifted by tangy pieces of plum.

I’ve adapted a recipe from Canadian pastry chef Regan Daley’s wonderful In the Sweet Kitchen (Artisan, 2001). She called hers Plum and Cardamom Sweet Bread, but I feel it’s more cakey. Enjoy this now, perhaps as relief from the disappointment of cheapo Easter eggs and anodyne commercial hot cross buns.

The original recipe used a larger amount of cardamom, but with fresh cardamom it was very strong and possibly off-putting for some people. I recommend starting with the amount shown below.

This cake isn’t at all tricky and can be made quite quickly — it just takes a while in the oven. It freezes well.


Plum and Cardamom Cake

  Source: adapted from Regan Daley: In the Sweet Kitchen (Artisan, 2001)

Yield: 1 long loaf tin — 32 x 11 x 6.5 cm

180 g unsalted butter
200 g sugar
125 g light brown sugar
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla essence/extract
0.5 tsp (2.5 ml) finely grated orange zest
2 eggs (55-60 g)
250 ml buttermilk
350 g plain flour
1 tsp (5 ml) freshly ground cardamom
0.5 tsp (2.5 ml) salt
1 tsp (5 ml) baking powder
0.5 tsp (2.5 ml) bicarbonate of soda
1 Tbsp (20 ml) plain flour – for coating plums
approx 6 medium sized plums (approx 5 cm diameter) – stoned and chopped into 2 cm cubes


  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease the tin and line the base with baking paper.
  2. Cream the butter and sugars at high speed until light and fluffy.
  3. Add the eggs and beat until combined.
  4. Add the cardamom, vanilla and orange zest.
  5. Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda.
  6. Add the flour mixture and buttermilk in portions, mixing briefly on low speed between each addition until just combined: 1/3 flour, 1/2 buttermilk, 1/3 flour, 1/2 buttermilk, 1/3 flour.
  7. In a bowl, coat the chopped plums with the extra 20 g flour. Gently stir into the mixture by hand.
  8. Pour the cake batter into the prepared tin. Smooth the top.
  9. Bake for 1h15m-1h45m. Use a wooden skewer to check whether the cake is cooked.
  10. Once cooked, allow to cool in the tin on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Remove from the tin carefully as the cake is quite heavy.
  • SERVING NOTE: Absolutely delicious warm, great with coffee when cold.



Put fibre in my coffee? I refuse.

Do you know there’s a wonderful soluble fibre supplement out there which you can add to almost anything? It dissolves completely, ‘taste free, grit free and will never thicken’. I’ve just sat through an hour of regular ad-breaks, telling me how wonderfully useful it is. Let’s put to one side for a moment the issue of GOOD DIET as the best and most sensible source of fibre, because they absolutely blew their chances with me when the first application of this product they suggested was to add it to my coffee. MY COFFEE! If they’d mentioned yoghurt and smoothies first, I might have forgiven them. But not when they put coffee front and centre. Don’t f–k with the coffee! Coffee is not meant to be a nutritional vehicle (except if you add chocolate. As everyone knows, a mocha is almost as good as a decent block of chocolate in the well-rounded-meal stakes). Keep away from the fibre supplement!

Slow bread fast: sourdough meets bread machine


Bread. I like. Warm. Ovenly. Is it true that you get indigestion from eating still-warm bread? I know I do, but I suspect it’s more through overconsumption than mythical powers. Especially when it’s my slow-fermentation loaf. I’ve been using Dan Lepard’s (The Handmade Loaf) slow fermentation, minimal knead method for about two years now and have been a happy chappy for all that time. (I’ll write about the method another time, but if you don’t have the book it is a must-have for enthusiastic crustophiles.) Recently, however, I took the plunge after a 12-year hiatus and started nurturing my own natural leaven (sometimes known as a ‘starter’ or ‘sourdough leaven’). The results have been mindblowingly happy-making. I ate half a loaf in one sitting. Woops.

Although I don’t mind spending eight hours nurturing a slow fermentation bread (it needs brief kneads, then occasional folding in order to achieve good texture and crumb), it does mean that scheduling baking can be difficult. Using a sourdough leaven is even slower. But does it have to be?

I have a fairly fancy (but now five years old) bread machine that allows a reasonable number of adjustments to kneading and proofing (rising) cycles. What, wondered Duncan, would happen if he made a sourdough and maxed out the proofing cycles? Something beautiful.

It was by no means a foregone conclusion that it would be successful, yet at the end of the baking program I had a well risen, slightly pale, fragrant beauty. The top crust had broken open in an unusual way and certainly wouldn’t have won the Miss Loaf 2008 pageant, but the crumb was great. Bread machines aren’t great at giving a good top crust, as the heat just isn’t intense enough, so whilst some crunch and browning flavour is absent, it’s a minor loss for the convenience of creating a relatively low maintenance sourdough.

The loaf took six hours with little attention, which works reasonably for many people coming home from work, say. The bread can be ready by bedtime.

As making a leaven is a separate project, I’m going to assume that you have one already or know how to. If you don’t, I can write about it another time or you can read one of the many good bread books which have appeared in the last two years.



Simple Sourdough

  Source: adapted from The Handmade Loaf (Dan Lepard, 2004; Mitchell Beazley, London)

Yield: 1 small loaf

150 g leaven
375 g bread flour (or use 35% rye flour, 65% bread flour)
235 ml water at room temperature
1.25 tsp salt
1 tsp malt extract (optional)



I placed the quantity of leaven in the machine’s bowl, poured on the water and then added half of the flour. Using the bread machine’s basic cycle, I let it mix these together to form a sloppy dough — just long enough to incorporate the ingredients. I then poured on the remaining flour and the salt and just let it sit for an hour.


The bread machine has an initial warming cycle which I let run for five minutes, then kneading commenced. There were three proofing cycles with a very brief knead at the end of each of the first two. For a sourdough, the final proofing cycle may well be too short (my machine can do a maximum cycle of 99 minutes) — this was ok for a sourdough made with 100% wheat bread flour, but not enough for a wheat/rye loaf. To solve this I terminated the program after the last proofing and started a new program with 45 mins proofing (total 99+45) and then 40 minutes baking.

dough2a.JPG  dough2b.JPG

Bread machines vary a lot, so adjustments to times and volumes might be necessary. The dough tends to be much stickier and less inclined to form a nice ball than a normal dough, so at the start of the final proofing (ie, at the beginning of the 99 mins) I reached into the bowl and gently pulled the dough into the centre in order to distribute the dough fairly evenly. You do have to accept that it won’t end up being perfectly regular. You may also find that the surface of the dough dries a little, as bread machines aren’t airtight.

bread1a.JPG  bread1b.JPG

The unusual cracking of the top crust is due to the drying of the surface and the lack of strong top heat at the beginning of the baking cycle.

Putting it all in writing seems to make it sound like more a hassle than it was. In essence there are four steps:

1. Partial kneading and resting of ingredients for an hour.
2. Brief monitoring of ingredient incorporation when main kneading begins.
3. Neatening of dough before final proofing.
(4.) Manual extension of proofing if necessary

I hope this serves as inspiration for the home bakers out there. The bread shown above was a rye/wheat mix with some malt added for colour and flavour (and the chance to lick a malty spoon).

Food conference: Out of the Frying Pan

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival held its first ‘Out of the Frying Pan’ talkfest last year and has repeated the event in 2008. It’s goal is to bring together industry and media to talk about issues (which can be interpreted in many ways). This sort of thing can be a mixed bag when there are so many not-quite-overlapping points of interest and last year’s was an odd mix of industry discussion and wannabe cookbook writers. This year there seemed to be more media representatives but less industry (chefs, producers, PR people) and though the focus was better, perhaps, the format rather undid it.

‘Global Food Trends’ was the opening session, moderated by prominent food media personage Joanna Savill, with panellists Bénédict Beaugé (www.miam-miam.com), William Sitwell (Editor, Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine), Gabrielle Hamilton (www.prunerestaurant.com), and Oriol Balaguer (stunning Spanish pastry chef, www.oriolbalaguer.com).

After a very long opening by Tourism Minister, Jacinta Allen (welcome to our Fantastic state where everything is Fantastic and especially in Fantastic Melbourne which is Fantastic just like the Fantastic Food and Fantastic producers and oh-my-god-shut-up-already), the panel was asked to start talking about the trends they could see. William Sitwell promptly established that his strongest card seems to be strong, pompous generalisations about anything he doesn’t like, taking cynical sneering to a level beyond Hugh-Grant-character-knobbishness. It started okay (ubiquity of food experiences, London as gastronomic capital of the world (ho, ho), exhausting rise in ethical issues facing consumers), but once he got onto hire-in home chefs, molecular gastronomy, seasonality, dégustation menus, and — watch out — the utter stupidity of bloggers… Tiresome.

Gabrielle Hamilton was a refreshingly grounded voice, honest and clear, but not afraid of stating her (often enjoyable) opinions. It was interesting to hear her concerns about the extreme casualisation of the dining experience in New York, with stemless glassware, placemats and a multitude of small dishes (‘the tasting menu is the chef’s most timid foot forward’) replacing the traditional dining format. And we mustn’t forget the ‘servers who you can’t tell from the customers’ as the staff become ever more casual too. Refreshingly honest about her own cooking too, she freely admitted that the idea of buying high-quality, prepped basic ingredients at a store is attractive to her as a tired working mother.

Bénédict Beaugé talked about the French perspective, where choice is also becoming a problem and people are seeking more comfortable dining options — the drawcard of the traditional.

Finally, one of my food idols, Oriol Balaguer, was asked about the concept of ‘tecnoemoción’, coined or implied by a Spanish journalist Pau Arenós to refer to the artistry-formerly-known-as molecular gastronomy. I’m sure Balaguer gets asked this stuff very frequently, especially as he spent time at El Bulli earlier in his career. Putting the concept to one side for the moment, he mentioned (in Spanish, with interpreter) that there is a growing interest in Spain in traditional products and cuisine, perhaps with an emphasis on higher quality. But there is also an increased incorporation of quality or artisanal produce into processed foods. He also described an increase in ambition in the types and styles of tapas, with new ingredients and techniques. He didn’t seem to have much time for the term tecnoemoción, but it was unclear to me whether this was terminological or conceptual. (The idea is, in essence, that technology can be a vehicle for creating food which evokes emotion/excitement.)

Other snippets from this session: wine can often spoil a dégustation because it interferes with tasting dishes and matching wines to every dish overburdens the senses and disturbs the meal (Beaugé, Balaguer). Farmers around New York are forming supplier consortia to make sourcing a range of ingredients easier for chefs. Chefs aren’t necessarily exploiting this resource (Hamilton). The enduring intellectual animosity towards molecular gastronomy (Sitwell, audience members) is sad. I feel the chefs in this movement lost control of the message so long ago and it’s a pity. (Note: no rants against mol-gastro/tecnoemoción in the comments please unless you’ve actually tried some and thought about it.)

The second session I attended was called ‘Future Food, Future Food Media’, focusing on how industry professionals (chefs, publishers) use the internet to promote themselves or provide a service. Panellists were Luc Dubanchet (www.ominvore.fr), Bénédict Beaugé again, Gilles Choukroun (www.gilleschoukroun.com), and the Spanish-speaking Balaguer. A very mixed range of issues, including monetising content, creating an image, using a site as an interface with visitors, online and offline publishing and more. What was becoming clear, however, was that chefs are not strongly in touch with the internet as a concept or tool, relying on others to act as their agents, protectors, promoters online.

The third session for me was ‘Web 2.0. How to blog and how not to blog’. I was there out of curiosity really, to see who would turn up and to be part of the Melbourne blogging contingent. The panel was Jackie Middleton (eatingwithjack.blogspot.com), Ed Charles (tomatom.com), Simon Johanson (The Age online), and Stephanie Wood (elegantsufficiency.typepad.com). It was a bit unfocused and I don’t think it addressed either part of the title well. The choice of ‘Web 2.0’ was almost guaranteed to scare the uninitiated off. The audience was very thin and included people who weren’t clear about what a blog was, let alone how to do it. Comments by Stephanie Wood riled some members of the audience, in particular the presumption that bloggers (in toto) don’t write well, are ignorant, can spread falsehoods and so much more. Indeed, as a follow-up, she has already posted on her own site, restating even more strongly her position. I’ll let it speak for itself. There are too many points to be teased apart for an intelligent discussion here.

It’s a great pity that so many sessions of strong interest were scheduled in parallel. Almost everyone seemed to agree that they were having to miss two or even three other interesting discussions. I would much rather not have wasted time in the Web 2.0 session (no reflection on the panel really), but it’s that toss up between hope, solidarity and guesswork. I hope others will write about other sessions.

The final session of the day, curiously without any parallel sessions, was ‘The Future of Drinking’. Clearly, many people weren’t so thrilled and left before it began. It was a relaxed and surprisingly interesting affair, looking at products, markets, importation vs local production, drinking habits and licensing issues. I’m glad I stayed for half of it.

Money well spent? No, not really. Although last year felt less diverse, this year’s schedule made it much harder to extract value from what was on offer. A real pity.

UPDATE: Other bloggers are commenting on Tomato, Confessions of a Food Nazi and Deep Dish Dreams.