Keeping your knives sharp

One of my greatest fears when someone asks me to cook with them is the prospect of blunt knives in their kitchen. I hate being asked to finely slice an onion or trim a piece of meat with a large dull-edged kitchen knife. Ugh. I believe I’ve once successfully nagged a friend into getting some decently sharp knives.

I grew up with my parents using regularly sharpened carbon steel knives. That’s a metal that rusts at the drop of a hat, but can be worked to a beautifully sharp edge. When I left home I bought some of the (at the time) popular Wiltshire Stay Sharp knives that had a scabbard in which you store the knife. As you removed the knife from the scabbard, a small sharpening groove would do a modest job of maintaining the edge of the knife. Nothing particularly impressive, but I wanted to believe my knives would be sharp.

Once you get to the point where you can own a few serious knives, the problem is how to keep them sharp. Few people really use the honing steel (that rod thing with a handle), and if they do, I think they generally believe it is truly sharpening their knife. The main purpose of a steel is to maintain the sharpness of a blade by evening out minor flaws in the edge that develop with use. A steel cannot rescue a blunt knife, or prevent the eventual blunting of a sharp knife.

After a while, any knife and becomes rough or just dull. Either way, this increases the risks of slipping when cutting and then injuring yourself. A knife needs to be sharp.

Sharpening can be done by hand on a whetstone, but is best left to the avid home-handymen cos it is, in my opinion, a total pain in the arse. There are handheld metal-bladed or ceramic-wheeled sharpeners which can do a moderately decent job if you faithfully sharpen the knives regularly.You could go the route of an electric sharpener, too, though these have had the reputation of stripping the metal off knives without a respectable result. And then there’s professional sharpening services, once provided by roaming “cutlers” and now usually available through cookware stores or culinary bookshops.

You’d think professional sharpening would be a sure bet, wouldn’t you? If you find a good service, stick to it! In my case the first choice I made, ten years ago, was London and American Stores in Melbourne, where my brand new knives were returned to me with radically changed bevels (blade angles) and coarse grinding marks. I like a fairly acute angle on my blades (because I prefer blades that smoothly thin into the cutting edge) and didn’t appreciate it being changed radically. (Note that I have no idea whether that store still uses the same sharpening service.) Understandably, I later used other services that did a much better job.

Professional knife sharpening costs money. I think the current price is typically $7-10 (please correct me if it has gone up) per knife. That quickly adds up if you are serious about maintaining your knives, even once a year!

I’ve been a bad boy about getting my knives sharpened during 2011 and when Kitchenware Direct kindly offered to let me review something, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to try out an oft-disparaged kitchen gadget. I had read some reviews online which were at least moderately enthusiastic about some models of electric knife sharpener, so I took the plunge.

I decided to take my least loved knife, a Füri utility knife, and submit it to the Machine, a Shun Kai Electric Knife Sharpener. Given that the knife had a very rough, hacked up blade, it was a pretty good choice. It took about 12 passes of the blade through the grinding wheels, but the outcome (unfortunately blurry picture below) was a respectably sharp, smooth edge, although with a modified bevel. Over the past few weeks I’ve gradually had the courage to sharpen the rest of my knives, finishing with my Global chef’s knife.

It would seem that using an electric sharpener is in some cases a viable compromise between the blunt-knived kitchen and the $$-draining regular professional sharpening. An important note is that blades that become thicker towards the handle, or have a handle that is the height of the blade, cannot be sharpened for their full length because the end closest to the handle can’t be pulled through the sharpening slot in the machine (see image below). This would cause longterm issues for usability of the knife, with the final 1-2cm becoming useless.

I’ve noticed that the knives don’t hold their edge for as long (that is, they feel less sharp more quickly), but this seems less of an issue if you have the tool to resharpen the knives waiting in your kitchen cupboard. I would guess it does mean that the knives will wear down more quickly, but I’m not sure how much of an issue that is in this short-term-perspective world. On the other hand, if you want your knives to last forty years, like my parents’ ones, then hand- or professional sharpening might be the better choice. Maybe I’ll get back to you in ten years’ time and tell you how my home-electric-sharpened knives are going.

This was a simple no-nonsense sharpener, but there are also fancier ones by some manufacturers, with multiple slots for different steps in the sharpening process (a bit like some of the handheld ceramic wheel models).

Whatever you do, remember that only sharp knives are good knives.

OMG I can still make macarons!

Ten months after I last donned my patissier gear and squeezed out a few hundred macarons, I returned to the piping bags for a brief baking blitz.

The six months in 2010 spent making macarons during almost every spare moment was exciting, stimulating and backbreaking. It took a month to get rid of the aches from all that piping!

Most people who turn a passion into a business find the enjoyment wanes massively. Thankfully this didn’t happen for me – the creative expression outweighed the burden of production, but I was approaching complete exhaustion by the end of those six months. Unable to transition rapidly from small-scale to medium-scale production, hanging up the piping bags was the only viable outcome, but I hadn’t anticipated a baking hiatus of ten months even for personal consumption.

Most of 2011 has been incredibly busy for other reasons (and in fact there’s been much less exciting cooking this year in general for me), so macarons just didn’t get a look-in until my co-eater Mittens’s cousin announced it was time for a baby shower.

Resuscitating my macaronic neurons was a lot slower than I thought it would be, and it took easily twice as long as it should have to make a small batch. I felt a bit like a pudgy former Olympian reentering the pool! Much to my relief, everything did come together smoothly, including two of my favourite ganaches, known as DARCY and DAVID: vanilla and cocoa nib, and dark chocolate and raspberry. Yum.

My back hurt for two weeks.

I still love macarons, though they haven’t had much of a mention this year… And of course my baking passion doesn’t stop there. Here’s a derivative of Belinda Jeffery’s one-pan mocha cake (from her fantastic book Mix & Bake), reworked with cinnamon dark chocolate ganache and rose geranium flowers (edible). Beautiful.

Pierre Hermé’s book on macarons is now in English

I know many people come to Syrup & Tang because of macarons, so…

The most impressive book on macarons is now in English! Pierre Hermé’s 2008 French book “Macaron” is out this month in English, published by Grub Street as “Macarons”. It’s not available from all booksellers yet, but you can try these links:*

BookDepository(UK)

BookDepository(US)

Fishpond:AU

Amazon:US

Amazon:UK

Amazon:CA

Amazon:FR

Amazon:DE

Amazon:JP

A little more info is available in the announcement on my book review site The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf, and you can also read the original review of the French version on the site here.

* These links help to support Syrup & Tang.

Vanilla slices – glorious, perhaps mundane, quite mysterious

I’ve been thinking a lot about the good old vanilla slice recently. It’s one of those standard, humble Australian bakery items that qualifies as “good old” for its longevity and as “humble” because of its modest level of finesse. But there are mysteries in all this (and questions for readers at the end).

A little journey

I grew up eating vanilla slices as my preferred after-school snack, albeit constrained somewhat by the disappointing options opposite my high school. I could choose between the milkbar’s revolting, rubbery Four’n’Twenty vanilla slices (truly deserving of the colloquial name “snot block”), or the hot bread shop’s Greekified version, filled with a semi-translucent lightly lemony paste. Whenever possible, I’d find my way to the Ferguson Plarre bakery, as their vanilla slices were the childhood paragon of gooeyness.

What has brought me to this little discourse was a rare daytrip to the countryside: Woodend, a small town an hour’s drive from Melbourne, has somehow become famous for its vanilla slices. Two bakeries vie for attention. The smaller of the two, Woodend Bakery Café, supplied a not-quite-fresh slice (the pastry was too close to cardboard, despite its very promising appearance) with a creamy sweet custard and clear vanilla notes. A bit tall (perhaps aspiring to life as a millefeuille), it was a greater-than-usual challenge to eat this vanilla slice gracefully (perhaps a mutually incompatible concept anyway).


The second bakery, Bourkies Bakehouse, offers tray upon tray of slices, some with icing flavoured with passionfruit or raspberry. These were fresh (the turnover is enormous), with a custard of similar characteristics to their competitor and stodgy pastry, but of slightly more jaw-friendly dimensions.

While I preferred the texture and dimensions of the latter vanilla slice, both co-eater Mittens and I found the custard of the former slightly tastier. It was a very close call, though, and likely to change depending on freshness and minor variations in formulation. The review on the apparently now dormant Vanilla Slice Blog was scathing of the Bourkie’s slice and praising of the Woodend Bakery Café, but on our visit the differences simply weren’t that marked.

Back home in Melbourne, we tried my childhood favourite from a Ferguson Plarre outlet. This a no-nonsense affair: (1) thick, stiff but airy custard, (2) moderately thick, unimpressive pale pastry, (3) moderately thick, sticky icing. Texturally, I think the custard is great (for a vanilla slice) – my preference is definitely for custards that are less creamy than those in Woodend. The flavour, however, was that of cream and just the faintest hint of vanilla. I like eating them, but on closer inspection, there’s not a lot that’s truly impressive. Somehow, it just all comes together to be something innocuously pleasant. Maybe life just has to be that way sometimes!

This article was originally going to include some baking in my kitchen, but I got sidetracked by some interesting observations, started by the fact that the Wikipedia entry for Millefeuilles dumps a whole pile of things together rather clumsily and imprecisely. (For a beautiful homemade millefeuille, see Sarah’s post.)

So where are the vanilla slices at home?

Although most of the people I know take the vanilla slice for granted as an Australian great, most are unaware that it not only has other names around Australia, but actually occurs in some form in other countries. I’m not talking about the French millefeuille, the distinctly classier relative, nor the Australian “French vanilla slice” which is more of a nod to the millefeuille, sometimes a mix of layers of custard and whipped cream, perhaps with coffee icing. I read once that New Zealanders and USAmericans call vanilla slices “napoleons”, but internet searches favour either clumsy millefeuilles or a layered slice of cake, custard and puff pastry under that name. Sometimes there’s even jam involved! It seems that “custard slice” or “custard square” might be a much closer relative of our target.

The state of Victoria seems to be disproportionately represented in online searches for vanilla slices. Even taking into account other names (it seems (some) Queenslanders prefer “custard square”), Victoria seems to be in the lead. There’s some bias because of the annual competition in the Victorian town of Ouyen.

Of further interest, there are remarkably few recipes for vanilla slices in common older Australian cookbooks, which makes me wonder if the popularity is less national than regional. Cooking queen Margaret Fulton, for instance, has no recipe in her main book or encyclopedia. Some Australian Women’s Weekly books do feature a recipe. The recent NSW Country Women’s Association Cookbook doesn’t. It’s not unusual for there to be no common recipes for baked goods that were only produced commercially, but it does make it harder to trace the history of the thing!

The majority of (more recent) recipes combine custard powder with milk or cream and egg. Most overseas recipes seem to omit cream. (You also have to ignore the “blinged up” recipes that have aspirations to be a millefeuille, so leave the recipes of Bill Granger and Maggie Beer and countless others out of the equation.)

And what should a vanilla slice be?

For me, the prototype of a vanilla slice is a square about 7cm (?2.5″) wide and about 4cm (?1.5″) high, with soft (not runny) white icing. The stiff custard is not a rich crème pâtissière and has a slightly aerated character (see pics). It is not lightened with whipped cream. The pastry is never particularly crisp (alas).

For my elderly neighbours, the size they remember from their childhood (the 1950s) is as above, as is the icing, but they remember the custard as being very pale and not as rich (perhaps a lean milk custard set with flour or gelatine?)

And my mother remembers a firm, pale yellow custard in Sydney’s vanilla slices. Her opinion of vanilla slices in Brisbane in the late 1960s is not flattering: “… the custard was nasty in that it was thick and solid but didn’t taste right for a custard and seemed to be mostly cornflour. In retrospect, maybe they used a lot of water rather than all milk to make the filling.”

Neither my neighbours or my mother can find a recipe from the time, so vanilla slices might well have been the preserve of the commercial baker. (I can find an English recipe for “vanilla slices” from the 1950s, which features white icing on top, and consisting of three rectangular layers of puff pastry, sandwiching two modest layers of both jam and either whipped cream or “confectioner’s custard”.)

I think the culinary world needs clarity, so tell me, dear readers (especially Gen X and older), did you grow up with the Victorian-style vanilla slice in your neck of the woods. Or was there something with a heavier custard? What was it called? And how long ago? Or was there nothing? And what about overseasy people?

My apologies in advance for any rumbling stomachs these questions may cause.

Eating your politics (or prejudices)

I first tried Max Brenner when it was just a shop in Paddington in Sydney. After that visit, I was surprised to discover that the chocolates I had bought were made in Israel. The presence of Israeli companies in Australia isn’t strong, and often obscured (the Australian Max Brenner website makes almost no mention of the Israeli connection)

In the following years, the company has expanded into a hot chocolate empire (although a chocolatier, in Australia the brand is known mainly as a place to have hot chocolate, and is extraordinarily popular for its overpriced chocolate foods, often with underripe strawberries). Extraooooordinarily popular, seemingly with a broad cross-section of consumers here.

Until, that is, you walk down the street past a Chocolateria San Churros (another overrated hot chocolate place, this time with disappointing sweet churros) and notice a different mix of consumers – many Indonesians and faces from across the Middle East, for instance, alongside the range of consumers you also see over at Max Brenner. At first I was just puzzled at the different faces, then the light went on. No surprise that the Muslim population (amongst others) might choose to avoid Max Brenner for political/social reasons.

Examples of this sort of consumer behaviour lie well below the radar for most Australians, quite simply because there a few examples of that sort of home-grown or home-sustained political/social polarisation. Sure, Melbourne’s Lebanese population is, I’m led to believe, quite clearly divided between north and east in their choice of shops, and perhaps the Croatians and Serbians refuse to enter each other’s shops too, but those are deep-rooted historical divisions.

I can only think of two locally nurtured discriminations, now quite old: (1) When I was a kid, I’m sure that my parents would have strongly discouraged me from frequenting, say, a South African shop (if such a thing had existed in Melbourne) because of their views on apartheid. (2) Severe antipathy between Catholics and Protestants in Australia lasting until the mid-20th Century presumably affected where people shopped/ate (as it did their employment, leisure and marriage options – here’s an interesting radio documentary).

This article was prompted by some news of anti-Israel political action in front of Max Brenner stores, and the contrary action of a former prime minister to deliberately have a hot chocolate there. I wonder what other examples readers know of where political or social beliefs (not basic broad racism, or a real religious requirement – kosher/halal/etc) specifically affect the shopping or dining habits of sections of the Australian population?

What about in other diverse communities?

Please AVOID political, religious or prejudiced OPINION here. I’m seeking objective commentary about how such opinions in communities shape people’s shopping/dining behaviour.

Mint ice-cream, and ice-cream machines

Have you ever met one of those people who looks ascance at you when you suggest having an ice-cream in winter? “But it’s 8 degrees and raining!” they exclaim. So bloody what? Ice-cream is can be the stuff that dreams are made of, so of courrrrrrrrrrse you should eat it all year round.

When I first visited Germany it was mid-winter and verrrrrrry blllloody ccccolllld. Didn’t stop me buying a Cornetto, but! (The shop owner almost did, as I learned abruptly that customers d o  n o t get to open the ice-cream cabinet for themselves.)

So here we are at the winter solstice (in the southern hemisphere). As I haven’t tried enough recipes from the ice-cream book I reviewed a few months back (Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide), and because KitchenwareDirect were nice enough to send me a new ice-cream maker to try out when they saw that I’d lost the paddle for my old one, I decided to do a flavour that straddles ideas of cold and wishes for warmer weather: mint.

Mint in any dessert can range from sophisticated and warming to sickeningly sweet and cloying. Anybody who pairs milk chocolate with mint, for instance, probably deserves very painful punishment, especially if the mint is communicated through little flavoured pieces of candy in the chocolate. Blurk. Ick. Pfahhg.

A dark chocolate is the way to go, but I don’t think you need to prefer the darkest on the spectrum – a good dark chocolate in the 50-70% range is appropriate for most applications. If you use fresh or dried mint, things get especially interesting and complex. One of the most surprising macaron flavours I did last year for Café Liaison used dried peppermint in a dark chocolate ganache. In the ice-cream here, I used fresh common mint straight from the garden.

The machine I’m now using (on the left) is a Cuisinart Ice Cream, Yoghurt & Sorbet Maker, 2-litre capacity. It’s stylish stainless steel looks aren’t quite matched by performance, as I found a full 2-litre batch didn’t freeze well enough on a warm autumn day, but it did well for a 1-litre batch in winter. (And let’s face it, probably all ice-cream maker ice-cream still kicks store-bought ice-cream out of the water!)

The mint ice-cream from the abovementioned book combines a fairly standard French-style egg custard with some sprigs of mint. The mint steeps in the cooling custard for an extended period, after which the mint is squeezed and the custard strained, the cream added, and the mixture churned. The authors’ recipe for 800ml of ice-cream used four 10cm sprigs. I upped that to five and it could possibly have been taken further.

The Cuisinart uses a rotating frozen bowl with a fixed paddle, rather than a rotating paddle inserted in a frozen bowl (as in my older Krups model, also pictured). The Cuisinart design – now quite common in ice-cream machines – seems to make for a noisier experience. I wouldn’t have wanted to be stuck in the kitchen while it churned a full mixture! Alas, the quite clever paddle (you can see it directing the flow in, out and up) is an absolute bugger when it’s time to decant the ice-cream into a container – too much surface area picking up the fresh ice-cream as you withdraw the paddle from the container, and many angled and bumpy surfaces to try to get that ice-cream off. I also found that it didn’t scrape the sides and base effectively enough while churning, leaving a 2mm layer of hard-frozen butterfat and custard (and no hard spatula is supplied to scrape it off).


The outcome was a smooth, wonderfully delicate mint ice-cream, lacking any giveaway green tinge. I had intended serving it with a chocolate sauce, but it would have been overpowering. A dusting of powdered cocoa might have done the job instead!

The next mint escapade will be with peppermint (once I’ve grown some!).

Notes about choosing an ice-cream maker: how well a machine performs is impossible to tell just by looking at it. I strongly recommend reading reviews or asking among your friends – even fancy, expensive models with their own compressor aren’t always reliable. As long as you don’t expect to make ice-cream without forethought, the common and fairly affordable machines with bowls that need to be frozen for 24 hours before making the ice-cream are a good way to go, but I do recommend making less-than-maximum sized batches in order to reduce unhappy sloppies. It’s also advisable to chill the mixture in the fridge for many hours beforehand.

In the case of the Cuisinart, the customer reviews at KitchenwareDirect are strongly positive (aside from the machine noise), but I am less positive – it does the job, but could be better. Both my now-paddleless Krups model (GVS2: highly rated on Amazon Germany) and my Mum’s 1985 Phillip’s machine (still going strong) are more effective at cleaning the sides and slightly quieter, but as Krups appliances are no longer readily available in Australia… Sniff.

My thanks to Brad at KitchenwareDirect for providing me with a new ice-cream machine.

Corsica: not the easiest foodie destination

Five days in Corsica, surrounded by the azure waters of the Mediterranean, dwarfed by mountains and cliffs, eating myself full with sausage and cheese. That was the plan. The food part of it didn’t quite come together.

A common problem for holiday-destination islands (and many warm, sunny coastal areas, of course) is the tacky tourist-oriented commerce that easily overwhelms the towns and villages where tourists stay. Although Corsica isn’t the Costa Brava or the more blighted areas of the Algarve, the coastal towns clearly live off the waves of sun-seeking tourists from April to September. The culinary outcome isn’t good.

Searching eGullet for tips about food in Corsica wasn’t encouraging (it barely seems to be on the map for most eGullet members, so there wasn’t a lot to go on in the way of tips) and, unsurprisingly, Corsican cuisine is mostly about the “rustic” end of the spectrum – cheese, sausage, stews, etc. That’s more my direction of interest anyway, so I didn’t feel deterred… I just learned the names of many traditional dishes and ingredients so I could recognise them on menus.

Disappointment came, however, in the effect of masses of sun-tourists on how much real local food was easily available. In the northwest of the island there was some pitching at tourists interested in cuisine typique corse, though easily overshadowed by pizza and pasta, but as soon as we headed across the island to the southeast (lots of resorts and beaches), pizza, pizza, pizza and pasta was almost all that was left.

Starting in the north, our first lunch involved a large salad with the local fresh ewe’s/goat’s milk brocciu (similar to a smooth ricotta or Portuguese queijo fresco) and pieces of figatellu, a smoked pork and liver sausage. Dinner was civolle pienu – onions stuffed with… brocciu and prizuttu (like prosciutto), roasted, then a dish of roasted Corsican lamb (overcooked). Breakfast was a lemony cheesecake called fiadone, made with… brocciu.

We headed through the centre of the island, stopping in the major crossroad town of Corte for lunch. A central square in the old town featured numerous restaurants squarely aimed at tourists. It was a little disheartening, and despite many promoting Corsican “menus”, many of these were little more than salads (see above), omelettes with brocciu and mint, or dollops of brocciu in otherwise broadly French dishes. We were lucky to choose a restaurant with a passable “assiette Corse” or Corsican cheese and charcuterie plate. A great find, because it delivered four tasty local types of sausage (lonzu, coppa, prizuttu and one more), a terrine and a tomme-like cheese, plus a lovely fig jam. Whether any of these really displayed a Corsican “signature” flavour, however, was hard to divine. A boar stew with gnocchi was also delicious.


By the time we reached the southeast and were looking for dinner, we sensed disappointments ahead. The simple promotional slogan of cuisine typique corse was almost gone. Menus claiming Corsican dishes offered, again, salads or some pasta dishes with hints of Corsica but little more. Grilled meats and fish, or ravioli stuffed with brocciu and silverbeet are traditional dishes, but where were the various prepared meats, the boar, the stews, the chickpeas, anything using any other local cheese? Even the fancier restaurants, claiming again to be in Corsican style, displayed menus of modern French cuisine with little remarkably local input other than chestnuts and locally sourced fish and meat. For most tourists, the closest they’ll come to a diverse range of Corsican foods is the recipe postcards on sale everywhere, or the sausage stands in the supermarkets.

No doubt, the story would have been very different if we had been able to spend more time in the north and in small inland towns or villages, or visit local producers. As can be seen from these two excellent articles (Corsica Isula, NYT), there’s more to Corsica than can be readily discovered by tourists without local recommendations, staying just a few days. As a starting point, it might be easier to try this excellent book, Recipes from Corsica by Rolli Lucarotti! (BookDepository, Fishpond)

It must be said that the physical beauty of Corsica is enough to recommend the place in a flash, food or no food. I’ve written a bit more about Corsica on Duncan’s Miscellany.