Monday, March 24, 2008


Hot Cross Buns and Stove-Top Mochaccino

There are two walkways from different major arterial roads that lead down to my home nested in a valley between somewhat steep ridges. Opposite one of those walkways is house that has its territory marked with deciduous trees - Japanese maples. Their leaves begun to turn a gorgeous russet early last week. While most of the cookery book literature I read celebrates the new beginnings that are associated with Spring and Easter, in the Southern hemisphere, and particularly in New Zealand - practically at the bottom of the world - it is a time of reflection.

I do not recall many religious explanations for the way the world works as a child, but I have a vague recollection of Easter being presented to me as a time of renewal and cleansing. I remember looking out the large aluminium-framed windows of one of my primary school's prefabs to see nature seemingly on the verge of dying. It didn't make sense in my little six-year-old head, then: renewal. The cleansing bit I got - my memory is full of many wet childhood Easter weekends. Beyond that, I couldn't make the association, and so I didn't.

I do not know how the religious signifcance of Easter is reconciled through food in New Zealand. A reconciliation is surely required for all the various denominations of the various religions and faiths to show unity across the globe, is it not? In New Zealand, one does not eat the young Spring lamb, but rather those that are six months older (and more preferable to taste, in my mind). There are no delicate salad greens, but the beginnings of hardy greens. As for fruit, gone are most of the juicy Summer berries, but there is the very short fig season and the entry to three months of feijoa heaven. The figs, at least, can be worked into some Northern representation of the importance of Easter.

As an atheist adult, Easter is mainly a special time of year for those who work a regular week in New Zealand (or for anyone, really), as it is the only public holiday in which a day off work is tacked onto either side of the weekend - heck, even most of Auckland's stores are closed for large chunks of the holidays (some open on the two major days, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and risk paying a fine or being prosecuted for it). Mostly, Easter allows for a relaxing getaway without having to use one's annual leave in order to enjoy the last of the Summer sun. Sometimes, Easter weather is pretty miserable, so having hot cross buns and hot chocolate is a good way to go. (Having said that, this weekend has been rather glorious.)

I'm not bucking my own tradition, though, for it is all I have left to tie me to the Easters of my past. Gone are the all the kids playing together in my cul-de-sac - families do not know/trust each other anymore. Gone is the novelty of the Easter Show (now usually seen as a lame excuse for a temporary amusement park). And with Easter occurring earlier, it seems, gone is the gloomy weather. Despite the change, I still find myself munching on chocolate and fig-filled hot cross buns, drinking homemade mochaccinos (without the steamed milk)...all the while watching The Sopranos.

Hot Cross Buns
(adapted from Nigella Lawson's Feast: Food That Celebrates Life)

See recipe from my post on Hot Cross Buns last year.

I made a few modifications:

I did not use any orange zest, but rather increased the amount of cardamom pods used to steep in the once-boiled milk. I halved the cinnamon and increased both the nutmeg and ginger. Most of the fruit used was dried figs. I substituted one egg for a couple of tablespoons of milk, as necessary to bind the ingredients together. Encased in half of the buns is one square of dark, bitter chocolate.

As you can see, I didn't bother with marking the crosses on the buns except for the indentations made with the back of a butter knife. Store-bought buns always have beautiful looking crosses, but I suspect the firmness is attained by using gelatine, which I prefer not to use except for the odd occasion of making jelly or panna cotta. And while mine are tiny and not heterogeneous in shape, they taste more grown up than the commercially-produced, timidly-spiced buns sold in stores. Further, the combination of fig and chocolate feels more grown up - I could have made these more contemporary, I suppose, by steeping the dried figs in lapsong suchong or earl grey tea and then shaping the balls into squares. Perhaps next year?

I do not profess to be a great drinker of hot chocolate, especially not virginal ones - I prefer it with coffee or a hint of brandy. What I do love is the romantic associations: Winter getaway to a chalet, a buffer to the coldest of polar southerlies beating against windows...However you make it, insist on using the best-quality chocolate you can lay your hands on, for it is the principal ingredient here. The following recipe serves two.

Stove-top Mochaccino
(Adapted from Tessa Kiros' Hot Chocolate in Apples for Jam)

3 rounded tablespoons ground coffee beans
1/2 cup water
2/3 cup chopped 70% cocoa-solid/bittersweet chocolate (Ms. Kiros suggests semisweet)
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup (heavy) cream
1 teaspoon icing/confectioners' sugar
unsweetened cocoa powder or ground cinnamon to dust on top

1) In your coffee vessel, make a pot of coffee. I have a moka pot, and this small quantity of coffee takes almost seven minutes to make, to I suggest getting on with it first.
2) Over medium heat, bring the chocolate and milk to just below boiling point, at first stirring with a wooden spoon to ensure the chocolate fully melts and does not catch on the bottom of the saucepan, then whisk to ensure smoothness.
3) In a bowl, whisk together the cream and icing sugar until thick. Ms. Kiros advises not to make it stiff, but I like it to float like an island, cool and creamy gulps in between hot and dark ones.
4) Pour hot coffee and chocolate into cups, stir together.
5) Gently spoon the cream on top.
6) Sprinkle a small amount of cocoa powder or cinnamon on top, if you wish.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008


Radish-Chive Tea Sandwiches and Sesame Cookies

I have been in a food funk for months now. Normally, I am inspired by what I read as opposed to playing around in the kitchen dreaming up dishes of my own. Sadly, I have been reading cookery books in a half-hearted manner, which is to say that I cast my eyes over the text but am not really absorbing anything. Part of the problem, though, is the produce - the same old fruit and vegetables for the most part, irrespective of their house of sale, whether a large or family-run greengrocer's or supermarket. As for the Auckland farmers' markets, well, there seems to be a lot of pre-made products for sale, presenting more of a food boutique than a celebration of farmers's bounty. I know that I should give it another chance, but I am doing the very depression-inducing thing of comparing what there is now to what was...I do miss the Long Beach and Santa Monica farmers' markets ever so much.

But I am not in Los Angeles anymore, though my heart is. Luckily my angelheart Eric and I will decide on the location of our abode some time this year, which gladdens me greatly. What also gladdens me is that my angelheart Eric knows of my great love for food but hasn't heard me talk about food a lot. This awareness of my condition (I first thought it might be a cyber-related ennui, but this does not alter the fact that I have not really been cooking for myself with any relish lately) has prompted my knight in shining armour to pick up the cause himself, immersing himself in the stack of food magazines that arrive at his door monthly and the food sections of various American newspapers (oh, how I miss the Los Angeles Times' unparalleled food section). Like all his offerings, my angelheart Eric came across something delicious and pure.

I don't typically prepare anything overly complicated, mostly because I easily stress myself out and can work myself up into a tizz over nothing, so the idea of making something simple was not necessarily lost on me. I have, however, found that I have spent much of the end of last year and most this year (almost one-quarter of the way through already!) straying from familiar flavour combinations. With my nose, tastebuds and interest in Middle Eastern, North African and Turkish cookery books, I have been quite content but have not made anything frequently so as to know it well - I understand this will come with time, but for now, when I want something of comfort, in this sea of grand cookery books cast before me there is no liferaft. Essentially, what my angelheart Eric found was a recipe that reminded me why I love food so much.

Radishes on their own are peppery in flavour and crunchy in texture. On a bed of sliced baguette, a compound butter of toasted sesame seeds, sesame oil, fleur de sel, pepper and chives, the peppery-quality of the radishes all but disappears but their crunch remains, making for a simple, tasty and comforting mouthful. If you're in New Zealand, where traditional bakeries are few and far between, get the best baguette available (note: I did not say "afford," for sometimes even the priciest sticks that pass for baguettes are made with a standard bun mixture only shaped to look like a baguette, sadly lacking its characteristic toasted exterior). It is conventional wisdom that tells us to use the best of ingredients at all times, and this is imperative when working with so few ingredients.

Radish-Chive Tea Sandwiches
(from Bon Appétit magazine, April 2008)

Recipe is found on the Bon Appétit website.

This reminds me of a glorious Spring afternoon some ten or eleven years ago, when the magnanimous Marie-France and I took off in her little Renault to the countryside just south of Paris and marched through paddocks before finding one overlooking a goat farm. There we spread out a picnic blanket and ate the freshest produce along with home made goodies, such as pâté. Before then, it had never occurred to me that food could be simple and life-affirming, rich and tasty. The inclusion of sesame seeds and oil, here, only serves to round out the flavours, adding depth that is contrasted with the chives. If only my angelheart Eric could have been here with me to enjoy these elegant and simple slices.

If you're making these, you may as well keep the sesame seeds out and take a step in another direction to make these very simple cookies, which are crumbly, light, and a breeze to make.

Biscuits au Sésame
(Almost faithfully adapted from Kitty Morse and Danielle Mamane's The Scent of Orange Blossoms)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup sesame seeds, toasted with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
1/2 cup icing/confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
2 tablespoons cold water
cinnamon, to sprinkle on top

1) Preheat oven to 180 C/375 F.
2) In one bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder.
3) In another bowl, mix together the vegetable oil, sesame seeds, icing sugar, vanilla extract and orange blossom water.
4) Add the flour mixture in thirds with the cold water in between the additions of flour. The idea is to have coarse crumbs.
5) Make rounded patties in your palms with approximately 2 tablespoons of cookie mixture. Flatten slightly on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
6) Sprinkle cinnamon on top.
7) Bake for 20-22 minutes, until the cookies are light gold in colour.
8) Allow to cook and harden slightly on a wire rack.

If you leave the cookies in the oven for a bit too long, as I have done a couple of times, there is no danger; they just crumble more easily when you bite into them. I enjoy their lightness in texture and depth of flavour. They are perfect with a hot drink of equal ballast, such a strong, dark cup of coffee.

Simple food is never boring, and I have obviously needed this gentle reminder to get back into the swing of things. I will try my best to enjoy what there is on offer here and go that extra mile to understand what is available in New Zealand and when. Finding patterns and rhythms, as I did in Los Angeles, will ensure that I take care of and have pride for what I eat and share with others.

Bon appétit!

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Saturday, March 01, 2008


Weekend Cookbook Challenge # 25 - Nigella Lawson

Many foodies and everyday cooks (those who only cook because one needs to eat) enjoy Nigella Lawson's approach to cooking. She is a great magpie, picking from many cuisines and adapting them to largely unfussy presentations for everyday cooking and great parties. I think that which makes her more successful than most tv cooks and chefs is that she has finely tuned her analytical abilities developed through her work as a literature and restaurant/food critic. As such, she is able to make any ingredient and, by extension, any dish approachable and appealing. Nigella Lawson is the "theme" for this month's Weekend Cookbook Challenge, hosted by Ani at Foodie Chickie.

La Lawson first came to my attention through her television show Nigella Bites. I hadn't heard of her before then, and I managed to catch her quite by accident when I was alone on a rainy night with nothing better to do. In fact, I was thinking of changing the channel, for preparing food was not my "thing" - my angelheart Eric was the cook in our family; I was the barman. Anyway, it didn't take long for me to get hooked. I got caught up in Nigella's energy, the way she talks directly to the camera, drawing her audience in, and by the swift and uncomplicated editing. Nigella Bites and all of Nigella's subsequent shows are contemporary and ride on La Lawson's sass, charm and heady, descriptive powers.

Okay, so it took me a few years to actually get around to trying any of her recipes, but Nigella planted the seed and many a mental note was taken - her encouragement and lack of airs made it all seem so easy. To Nigella, I am grateful for ingredients and foods that I now couldn't imagine my cooking and baking life without - principally sumac and vanilla extract.

Nigella Lawson's books capture her shows' same humour and vivacity, which are not easily translatable to text. What I also enjoy about the texts so much is her detailed explanations of combinations of ingredients, aromas and textures, clipped from other writers and from her own travels and experiences. That she has a great bibliography section at the back of each book is a wonderful bonus, a direction to further one's own culinary curiosities. From La Lawson's recommendations alone, I have found myself purchasing books by Claudia Roden, Beatrice Ojakangas, Elizabeth David, Simon Hopkinson, Patricia Wells and Nigel Slater.

The following recipe is taken from Nigella Lawson's first book, How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food, which I reviewed last year. And while she, too, has adapted this recipe (from Claudia Roden), I find it summarises her approach to food really well. La Lawson extracts all the goodness from every ingredient, and it is no different with the incorporation of chicken fat in this recipe, used to coat the pasta, best enjoyed hot. If you want a quick and tasty lunch, this is the way to go: chicken thighs instead of a roast chicken. The Venetian ghetto is conjured up with the pinenuts and sultanas, necessary ingredients for haroset.

Fettucine with Chicken from the Venetian Ghetto
(Adapted from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food)

2 large chicken thighs, bone in and skin on
extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sultanas, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
fettucine, about 500g/1 lb

1) Cover the chicken thighs with olive oil, salt and pepper and start boiling a pot of water for the pasta.
2) Over a medium-high heat, pan-fry the chicken thighs - skin-side down first. It should take approximately 10-15 minutes for the thighs to be done, depending on their thickness.
3) When done, allow to become cool enough to handle. Ideally, this should be done about the time the pasta is ready to go into a pot of boiling, salted water.
4) Tear the chicken flesh from the bone either with your hands or two forks. Chop up the skin.
5) As the pasta nears completion, add the pinenuts and drained sultanas to the liquidised chicken fat and olive oil in the pan. Heat through over medium-low heat.
6) Drain pasta and immediately pour over the chicken fat, sultanas and pine nuts. Toss thoroughly.
7) Add the shredded chicken and sprinkle over with parsley.

This is incredibly comforting on a blowsy day like today. The inclusion of this recipe in Nigella Lawson's debut book is testament to her ability to create appealing and approachable food, showing off the best of each ingredient. The slickness of the oil-coated pasta is tempered by the sweet, juicy sultanas, the crunch of the toasted pinenuts and the freshness of the parsley. It took Nigella Lawson to teach me how so few ingredients are all it takes to make a good meal every day.

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