Category Archives: blogging

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 🙂 .

A local writer ignores the local blogging scene?

Over at the SBS Food site there’s an article about blogging called Everyone’s a Critic, published on Oct 7. I’m not sure how you find it if you don’t already know it’s there. The SBS site is slick and has interesting content, including contributions from two familiar names (Ed Charles and Phil Lees). It is also the most ludicrously over-whizbanged thing and I can’t bear visiting it cos it slows my browser down to snail’s pace.

If you happen to find the article (or cleverly click on this link), you’ll find something else strange. Here, on an Australian food website, is an article that appears completely ignorant of the Australian food-blogging scene. It dwells on many of the international names. It features a mildly interesting interview with an Estonian blogger, yet there’s no Australian blogger quoted. Indeed, when I first read it, I was certain SBS must have bought a syndicated overseas piece and not bothered to adapt it — it’s a trick we’re familiar with from our favourite newspapers. But no, the writer is Australian. Pretty poor.

At the end of the article there’s a very weak attempt at adding some local relevance by listing two local blogs — yes, just two –, one of which was last active eight months ago and was hardly prominent during its seven months of actual life (no disrespect to the owner).

It’s also comical that the article’s title (Everyone’s a Critic) bears no relation to the content. The article steers almost completely clear of foodblogging in its often controversial restaurant-review form.

Not sure if this was a case of how-many-markets-can-I-sell-this-to, an editorial flop, or a writer lacking understanding of local relevance. Whatever the reason, it was a bloody slack effort.

Paper Chef: beetroot and ginger kuih with apple purée

I’ve been following the monthly Paper Chef event for quite a while now. You are given four primary ingredients with which to create a dish. After the announcement of the ingredients, you have about a week to present your idea. It’s about the food, not the photography. Some very interesting dishes from entrants all over the world have won. Last month’s winner, Pia of Serendipity, Synchronicity and Saffron, is this month’s host.

This month the ingredients were

  • beetroot
  • ginger
  • rice
  • apple

I loved this selection! All flavours marry well, at least in some forms.

Beetroot is simultaneously lovely and tricky. It’s cell structure means that it doesn’t happily soften like many other vegetables or fruit and nor does it form a smooth paste when blitzed. This meant that texture could be an issue. It can also taste strongly earthy if served plain. Ginger plays well with the earthy notes, helping to bring out some sweetness and complexity. Apple is a friend of both, but combining them in a way which was more than, say, a salad was a welcome challenge. And there was the rice…

I pondered soups, but felt the rice was a problem. I contemplated making a type of mochi (Japanese riceflour balls) filled with the other ingredients. And I thought about stuffing whole roasted beetroots, but felt I was dwelling too much on form over flavour. Finally, I decided to try creating something vaguely similar to the layered Malaysian/Indonesian kuih (some kuih are layered ‘cakes’ of rice and a flavoured paste or agar jelly, but there are many other types as well).

Beetroot and ginger layered kuih with apple purée

Find a slice tray, bread or cake pan with walls at least 4cm high. The total volume required is approx 600ml. I used a loaf pan 17cm long x 10cm wide.

Coconut rice

  • Place 250ml of good coconut milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a gentle boil.
  • Add 125ml of jasmine rice, stir, then simmer very gently for approx 10 mins.
  • When there is just a little liquid still left, cover the saucepan tightly and turn off the heat. Leave for 20 mins.
  • Line your slice tray or pan with foil. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bit crinkly. The foil needs to reach about 5cm up the sides.
  • Make a well-packed even layer of rice in the tray, about 1-1.5cm high.
  • Note that the rice may taste somewhat savoury or just rather plain. The rest of the dish will compensate for that.

Beetroot and ginger jelly

  • Peel one smallish beetroot (about 180gm), then grate. I used a medium ribbon Microplane grater.
  • Trim and then slice approx 2cm of fresh ginger (about 8gm) into 2mm slices.
  • Place in a saucepan with 1 litre of water and 50gm of sugar. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
  • Simmer until tender, approx 20min.
  • Using a slotted spoon, remove the beetroot and ginger to a small bowl. Discard the pieces of ginger.
  • Pour the liquid into a measuring jug. Keep 500ml and discard the rest.
  • Return the 500ml of liquid to the saucepan.
  • Keep the liquid hot, but not boiling, and briskly whisk in 10gm (17ml) of powdered gelatine*.
  • Keep stirring until the crystals have completely dissolved. Add the beetroot and allow the liquid to cool gradually.
  • When the beetroot and liquid starts to thicken, pour over the layer of rice and smooth the surface. The beetroot layer will be about 1cm deep. The liquid may seep into the rice, depending on how thick it is when you pour it on. Though the separation of layers is less pretty (see photos) it makes for interesting colours!
  • Refrigerate until set, approx 2 hours.
  • * The amount of gelatine you need will depend on the brand. I used a product where 10gm powder sets 500ml of water. Note that kuih jellies/set purées would usually use agar or other non-gelatine setting agents. Agar jellies are generally firmer and less elastic. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any agar to hand while making this, and I can’t decide which option would be best texturally. Agar is the better choice if concerned about dietary/religious acceptability.

Apple purée

  • Peel and core two mildly sweet apples suitable for cooking, e.g. Royal Gala or Braeburn. You want an apple with a touch of tartness.
  • Chop into pieces and add to a saucepan with 125ml water and 20ml good coconut milk.
  • Cover and simmer gently until soft. Add extra water if necessary.
  • Take a 1cm lump of crystallised ginger (or preserved stem ginger). Trim off the sugar-coated surfaces. Grate or chop into fine pieces.
  • When the apple is of a mashable consistency, uncover and let any remaining liquid evaporate.
  • Add the chopped ginger and then mash the apple.


  • When the jelly has set, spread the apple purée evenly over the jelly. The layer will be about 0.5cm deep. Chill for an hour.
  • Lift the kuih (in its foil) out of the pan. Place the foil package on a chopping board. Gently pull the foil walls away from the kuih.
  • At this point you can either carefully transfer the kuih from the foil to a serving platter, or (more safely) cut the kuih into 3cm squares and then lift each piece off.


This sweet presents a very different flavour profile from a traditional kuih, so I hope readers won’t mind me using that label for this dish. For one thing, this is less sweet than traditional kuih (which can be quite a sugar-shock for a Northern European palate, at least!). My attempt to offset the sweetness of the rice and beetroot by using a slightly tart, ginger-warm apple purée is also within Western approaches to balancing sweetness with other elements.

Finger numb, eyes rolling, mouth salivating

I’ve spent much of the last week limply scrolling the trackball of my nifty mouse, trying to conquer the number of posts in my feed reader. These are the thrilling things you do when you are, seemingly, the last person in town to have come down with the flu/bronchitis/laryngitis which has been ravishing Melbourne for the last four months.

For the entire week, Google Reader displayed the ominous message “All items (1000+)”. It never changed. I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled, scanning titles frantically until my eyeballs were rotating faster than the trackball. It’s probably a good thing that the Reader doesn’t bother counting higher than one thousand. I would venture a guess that I had over 4000 items waiting to be read. Had I realised that, I might just have blitzed everyone’s words and started afresh. Goddamnit! You people write too much!

Alongside all the foodbloggers from near, far and further are my trusty brainfoods… places like BoingBoing, Freakonomics, ReadWriteWeb, Science-Based Medicine, to name a few.

But you know what? Today, at 23:26, my cramping scroll-finger shivered with joy as the Google Reader showed I had scaled the pile of feedliness. “All items (926)” Sadly, this cannot last without further cramping and maddened eyeball rolling, for those 926 items encompass a mere six days of posts from the various feeds. Six days. People, stop writing so much! 😛

It was lucky I could calm my nerves tonight on a special delivery, courtesy of the J-man of Malvern and, more precisely, the favours of J-man’s jetsetting Mother-V. Late last night I received an SMS: “Make time for me tomorrow. Just ten mins.”

The merchandise was handed over in Bourke Street. A small, nondescript package. Furtive glances. I concealed the tupperware under my jacket and hastened back to the office. I clung my bag tightly to my bosom all the way home. (It was rush-hour, so pretty much the entire train felt like it was clamped tightly to me.)

Air-freighted from Ladurée, Paris. What a way to lift the mood after a week of trackball scrolling and watching bad telly.

Alas, after just 35 mins, Google Reader now shows

The harangued consumer can’t navigate SOLE food, ethical eating and the ‘simplicity’ of cooking

The cauldron of ethical, responsible eating has been bubbling away for a while. Advocates of various issues throw in their own chunk of passion while others try to package this pot au feu in a pastry case, as if consumers could carry it around as a dish of good conscience. The thin broth and pieces of irreconcilable ethical directions make for an impossible dish. A lid of statements about correct lifestyles and how people should comport themselves when it comes to their food life leaves consumers in justifiable trepidation about what lies in this pie. All the while, the pie leaks its broth through the many fissures in the increasingly soggy pastry.

Many concerns about ethical eating and food/cooking knowledge have been receiving attention in the Australian blogosphere and some recent posts revealed both common goals and some tensions between the experiences of a diversity of bloggers and the broader eating population. [Purple Goddess: 1, Stickyfingers: 2, The Gobbler: 5, 6, 7 all contribute opinion, wisdom or personal experience (and the comments on their pieces are interesting too).] [UPDATE 27/07/08, 20:42: links 3&4 were removed as the person in question objected to being referred to in this article. They insisted that my reference to other bloggers here is insulting. That was not and is not my intention. I thought that linking to relevant posts by Australian bloggers would help readers to understand what SOLE is and what many of the issues arising are.]

Issues love advocates and advocates love bold statements. Consumers endure a number of conflicting causes that clamour for their support and most of these use a good dose of punitive rhetoric to make the consumer act.

A slightly exaggerated summary of the SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, ethical) or Ethicurean issues, plus a few more:

  1. Eat organic because anything else is poisoning you and the earth (only the fewest consumers will be enticed to spend considerably more on produce just because it might taste better)
  2. Eat local because anything else is unpatriotic, bad for the environment, economically or socially irresponsible
  3. Eat seasonal produce because anything else is unnatural, environmentally irresponsible, ignorant
  4. Eat Slow because anything else is part of the evil multinational fast-food complex
  5. Eat unprocessed because anything else could make you obese and/or kill you
  6. Eat non-GM because GM might cause you to grow scales, extra limbs or have deformed offspring, or because it’s just a perversion of nature which must be a bad thing
    And we can add to this:

  8. Cook with unprocessed ingredients because anything else means you’re a gormless fool who is either lazy, ignorant, incompetent, irresponsible or stupid.
  9. Don’t buy produce at supermarkets because it means you’re a gormless fool who is either lazy, ignorant, incompetent, irresponsible or stupid.
  10. Don’t eat simple food when dining out because it means you’re a gormless fool who is either lazy, ignorant, incompetent, irresponsible or stupid.

Most normal consumers haven’t a snowflake’s chance in hell of navigating these issues and chastisements successfully. When confronted with too many challenges people stop caring. Issue fatigue. You lose them. Many more intelligent consumers will also be lost if they can see that a cause is not as cut-and-dried as the campaigners choose to claim (GM, local, organic) — a situation often exploited cynically by reactionary opponents of ethical eating.

There has been valuable writing recently of how little it can cost to make great food and how unreasonably restaurants get away with charging a premium for simple dishes (see links in the second para). But what seems simple or absurd to one passionate commentator may be quite the opposite to another, and to the average consumer. It’s easy to forget Jo(e) Eater when writing about one’s passions for a largely likeminded food-enthusiastic people. Let’s remember what many cooks/eaters/diners are like:

Many people cannot cook very well because they:

  • didn’t learn to at home
  • find the combining of ingredients conceptually challenging
  • may be poor at understanding textual instructions
  • were discouraged by better cooks who had no sympathy for them

People may choose not to cook because they:

  • may not enjoy food enough to get beyond a food-as-fuel perspective
  • have little time spare for cooking
  • need to clear their head before preparing food because it isn’t something they find simple
  • may actually prefer to eat out with friends for the feeling of community
  • live alone and don’t find joy in cooking for one
  • prefer to eat food which requires a minimum of effort
  • live in modern shoebox apartments without enough storage space for a range of ingredients or implements
  • hate washing up so much that even takeaway is preferable

Consumers shop largely/exclusively at supermarkets because they:

  • have little choice locally
  • do not have the time (whether objectively or subjectively) to shop at multiple places
  • only have alternative local access to overpriced or poor quality greengrocers or butchers or other suppliers (Hawthorn or Daylesford in Victoria, or many parts of London, and numerous places in North America, spring to mind as occasional examples of this, either now or in the last ten years)
  • find shopping unenjoyable or have enough other chores in their life
  • find the neat, structured supermarket environment easier to deal with (physically, logistically, psychologically)
  • don’t have a freezer large enough to hold bulk purchases from distant suppliers
  • find farmers’ markets overpriced, hypocritical, class-ridden, or impractical

Many people do not convert to local or seasonal because they:

  • have been exposed to largely unseasonal variety for so long and have not grown up with a seasonal mindset
  • have little concept of local food and rapidly realise that ‘local’ can only ever be a partial change, so why bother?
  • perhaps actually know that local isn’t necessarily better for the environment (the ‘food miles’ concept is flawed in many of its basic assumptions about environmental impact, except in the most simplistic scenarios)

Consumers are so bombarded by scaremongering, warnings, confusing marketing and aggressive campaigning that they are lost. They are misled by TV cooks and food media that make out that expensive or fancy ingredients are necessary for the lifestyle self-image. They’re chastised for choosing shortcuts (‘cheats’) or fast food. They face more decisions on every level than is humanly manageable: issues, product choices, status validation.

And, increasingly, there’s the household budget to worry about, as petrol prices and food costs creep upwards. Fear, difficulty and helplessness will challenge the habits of a decade of food-as-status consumerism.

Now look at whether any of this applies to you. I know many people for whom the above would not apply at all, but their numbers are insignificant in comparison to the broader population’s understanding, fears, experiences, preferences or opportunities.

The passionate food world can encourage consumers to cook more, make wiser food and nutrition choices, and think more about what types and sources of food they could prefer. Encourage, not insult. Help, not cajole. (Thankfully this is another strength of many food blogs.) If we forget this, we just add to the noise, pushing Jo(e) Eater down the road of confusion, frustration and further manipulation by vested interests.

Solstice 2008 cake – with a slightly Parisian touch

Phew! I’ve just finished making my Solstice 2008 cake, and not a moment too soon. Sunset is in nine minutes and Another Outspoken Female has demanded that all entries in her baking meme be in by sunset! Of course, it helps if I check my calendar better… I’ve just realised I’m a day early for the deadline. Don’t you just hate it when you bust a gut prematurely?!

I’m not sure if my entry will be regarded as legit. It’s a slightly Parisian take on fruitcake, if you get my drift.

I present to you my Solstice 2008 Spiced Macaron Cake:


The base is a disc of macaron flavoured with clove and nutmeg and dotted with currants (the first time I’ve used such large inclusions in the batter.

On top there are small macarons in two shapes, and two flavours. Some are the same as the base, while others are cinnamon and orange rind.

And sticking this all together is a butter cream with ground almond, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon, mixed glacé peel and rum (I had run out of brandy).


I hope this brings out all the characteristics of a pagan festival cake:) Happy belated Solstice everyone (it was, after all, on the 21st, not today).