Sweet Tart

Food writers and bloggers often talk about cooking phobias – that invisible line in the kitchen that you absolutely will not cross – perhaps it involves using yeast or fish or deep frying. I’m generally pretty fearless in the kitchen. I cook with yeast, I love fish and I don’t mind deep frying (sometimes I do all three – hello fish and chips! – people you can’t say I don’t live life on the edge). But one thing I hate making is pastry. A few years ago I made a pear and almond tart for my mum’s birthday. The frangipane was delicious but the pastry was so dry and tough I should have served dessert with steak knives. Or a saw.

But this long weekend I’m staying in Canberra with family. I’ve got lots of spare time and I really wanted to make dessert. On top of that, for some crazy reason I was totally taken with the idea that my pantry would not be complete until I bought a set of little tart pans. I really don’t need more stuff to cram into my kitchen but I bought them anyway. And besides, it could have been much worse. It could have been a bread maker. Or an Elegant Banana Hanger.

The stars were aligned and there was nothing left to do but conquer shortcrust pastry. So that’s exactly what I did.

Sweet Tart Pastry (recipe from Smitten Kitchen)

This recipe produces a fantastic sweet short crust pastry – it’s buttery, tender and, as Deb notes, it shrinks very little, if at all. Even better, it could not be easier to make and it holds up really well as you’re lining the pastry cases and removing the tarts from the oven. This recipe is ideal for just about any sweet tart. It’s going into my favourites list immediately.

Makes enough pastry for one 23 cm/9 in tart or 10 small tarts.

1 1/2 c plain flour

1/2 c icing sugar

pinch salt

135 g very cold unsalted butter, cubed

1 egg

1. Sift the flour, icing sugar and salt into a food processor and pulse briefly to combine.

2. Add the cold, cubed butter to the food processor and pulse until the butter is roughly cut into the flour. It’s ok if there are still a few large lumps of butter scattered throughout.

3. Add the egg and pulse until it is incorporated into the flour. The mixture will come together in big soft clumps. Remove the mixture from the food processor and place on a lightly floured work surface (your kitchen bench, baking paper or even cling wrap). Gently bring the dough into a ball with your hands. The dough should be quite moist so that it will come together with only a little kneading. Wrap the dough in cling wrap and place in the fridge for at least two hours.

4. When you’re ready to use the dough, place the dough on a floured work surface. Roll out the dough until is about 4 mm thick. Cut the dough into rounds about 12-15 cm in diameter.

5. To line your mini tart pans, gently press a round of dough into the mini tart pan. Remove excess pastry, leaving about 5 mm of overhang. Fold the overhang in and press down gently to make double-thick sides. Pierce the crust with a fork a few times. Place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes.

6. To bake your tart crust, preheat the oven to 190’C/375’F. Butter enough aluminium foil to line your tart pans. Remove the tarts from the freezer and press the buttered side of the foil tightly against each tart shell. Place the tarts in the preheated oven and bake for 8 minutes, or until the tarts and just starting to turn golden. Remove the foil. If the pastry has puffed up, press it down gently with a teaspoon. Bake for a further 2-3 minutes, or until the pastry is an even gold in colour. It should be the colour of a crusty white loaf of bread rather than the colour of burnt caramel.

7. Remove the tarts from the oven and allow to cool before proceeding with your recipe.

Notes

  • If your tart pans are non-stick, there’s no need to butter them before lining them with the pastry. However, if yours aren’t non-stick, line them generously with softened butter.
  • For instructions on how to use this pastry to make a large tart case, Deb’s instructions are great.
  • I filled my tarts with this lemon curd. Lebovitz instructs you to stir the mixture over low heat until it begins to thicken and just bubble. For me, this took about 7 minutes, stirring continuously.
  • I filled my little tarts higher than Lebovitz filled his large one. I spooned a couple of tablespoons of curd in each tart and baked them in a 180’C/350’F oven for 5 minutes. When I took them out of the oven they were just beginning to set at the edges and were still wobbly in the middle.

The (Near) Perfect Banana Cake

You have to let people see what you wrote. It will never be perfect, but perfect is overrated. Perfect is boring. — Tina Fey, Bossypants (2011)

I tend to agree with Tina Fey. What’s the point of carrying on if perfection has been and gone? If you don’t believe that the best is yet to come? But I make an exception for this cake – when it comes to banana cake, I’m stopping here and hoping that I don’t get bored.

The recipe originally comes from Mix & Bake by Belinda Jeffery, a book I would highly recommend. I’ve found Jeffery’s recipes to be pretty much fail proof. They’re unfussy and delicious, but also elegant. Her date scones are some of the best things ever to come out of my oven (credit goes to my sister for uncovering the recipe).

Unfortunately, this banana cake recipe has to be the exception that makes the rule. The first couple of times I made this cake, the finished product was sumptuous. However, getting there drove me to breaking point. Jeffery instructs you to combine mashed bananas, eggs and sugar. You then beat cubed butter into the mixture. This proved to be difficult with a stand mixture and utterly impossible by hand – the butter just wouldn’t cream. Though the finished cake was great, I was determined to find a better method. Next time I used wholly melted butter, which was much easier but the cake was too dense.

Finally, I gave up on Jeffery’s recipe and went back to the traditional way of baking cakes by creaming butter and sugar. And I have to say, this produced the best banana cake I’ve ever made (or even eaten!). The cake is moist but not squidgy (technical term, that) and the flavour is sweet and heady with banana. There list of ingredients is rather paired down – no secret ingredients here – but the finished product is much, much more than the sum of its parts.

(Near) Perfect Banana Cake (adapted from Mix & Bake by Belinda Jeffery)

125 g butter, cubed and softened

1 1/2 c sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

2 large bananas, mashed

100 ml full fat greek yogurt (or buttermilk)

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 1/2 c plain flour

3 tsp baking poder

1/2 tsp baking soda

pinch salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350’F. Butter a 20 cm cake tin with a thick layer of softened butter or line with baking paper (I like to line my pans with butter and then coat with sugar – see here for instructions).

2. Place the butter and sugar in a stand mixer. Beat until pale and creamy. Add the vanilla extract and beat until incorporated.

3. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until well combined. Add the bananas and yogurt and beat until combined.

4. Remove the bowl from the stand mixture (it’s easier to do this last part by hand). In a bowl combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and a pinch of salt. Sift this over the butter mixture and stir gently with a wooden spoon until just combined.

5. Pour the mixture into the lined pan and bake until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean. Jeffery says that the cake takes 30-35 minutes to bake but I find it takes up to 45-50 minutes in my oven.

Notes

  • The top and sides of this cake brown quickly. Usually this results in a hard, dry crust but for some mysterious reason that doesn’t happen here. Instead, the crust is perfectly chewy, especially if you line the pan with sugar.
  • Don’t be put off by the large amount of baking powder in this recipe. The finished product does not have even a hint of that metallic taste sometimes found in scones and other things with lots of baking powder.

Rum Balls

So many of my memories are intertwined with food, such that they can’t be separated: my mum’s poppy seed cake and dinner parties, my dad’s fish and chips on the weekend, a chocolate cherry coconut tart the first time I stayed out at night drinking coffee with friends in high school (there was no actual coffee – not for another seven or so years – but that tart tasted intensely of freedom).

Rum balls also pop up in my childhood memories. I liked them the first time I tried them, a fact that slightly horrified my mother (and led me to believe that I had a lifetime of alcoholism in front of me).

But they’re not the kind of thing I’ve been able to find in Sydney for years. A couple of months ago my housemate baked a big batch of red velvet cakes. We couldn’t get through them fast enough so when they’d become too dry to eat, I looked for a recipe for rum balls. Despite being an Australian classic, recipes are hard to find: it seems they belong in bakeries in sleepy country towns where rock cakes, finger buns and peppermint slices are easy to come by. Nevertheless, I eventually found a recipe here.

It’s at this point you’ll think that I’ve gone completely mad (or had too much to drink?) because the recipe is clearly lacking in rum. As I went to make these the first time, I realised I had only brandy, no rum. I went with it, and I have to say, I’m glad I did. The brandy hints at the heady booziness of a well-soaked fruit cake, while moist chocolate takes centre stage.

Rum (or brandy) balls 

Cake mixture

1 1/2 c cake crumbs (see note below)

1/4 c icing sugar mixture, sifted

1/2 c almond meal

2 tbsp brandy

75 g chocolate, melted (I’ve used both milk and dark)

milk, as required

Icing

1/3 c icing sugar mixture, plus extra for dusting

2 tbsp butter

30 g chocolate, chopped

2 tsp brandy

milk or hot water, if needed

To make the cake mixture

1. In a bowl mix together cake crumbs, icing sugar and ground almonds. Pour in the brandy and stir through.

2. Add the melted chocolate to the cake mixture and stir through. I found that my mixture came together well at this point and was moist enough to hold together. If it is still looking dry, add milk, starting with 1 tbsp and going from there. The mixture should be wet, rather than moist, and should all hang together in one ball.

3. Roll heaped tbsp of mixture into balls and place on a baking tray or plate lined with baking paper. Put in the fridge to set for at least 2 hours.

To make the icing

4. Once the balls have been in the fridge for a couple of hours, start the icing. Melt the butter and chocolate together (I find the microwave is the easiest way to do this). When it is melted, stir to combine.

5. Add the icing sugar and then the brandy. Add just enough hot water or milk to make the icing the thickness of pure cream. Dip the balls into the icing one at a time and return to the same tray. Sift over some more icing sugar (or cocoa powder) and return to the fridge to set for a further two hours before eating.

  • Store in a airtight container in the fridge. Makes approximately two dozen.

Notes

  • I’ve made this cake using red velvet and butter cake crumbs. I imagine a chocolate butter cake would be fine too (amazing even!). Steer clear of anything too moist – a flourless chocolate cake or mud cake, for example.

Caramelised pork banh mi

When I start a post here I like to have a story and a recipe in mind. I want this blog to be a combination journal/recipe book. But today I’m breaking my own rules and bringing you a recipe only. I made caramelised pork banh mi last night and we inhaled it so fast I didn’t even stop to take a photo. So not only is there no story to tell, there’s no photos either. This undoubtedly makes me unfit to be a food blogger but honestly, this recipe is so good it’s worth sharing at the expense of my food blogger credentials. Besides, I do have a photo of a market in Saigon that I visited late last year. Imagine eating banh mi and walking through the market and you won’t miss my (totally amateur) food photography at all.

Caramelised Pork Banh Mi (adapted slightly from Food 52)

This is an unbelievably delicious but light dinner and would make for a perfect week night meal. You do have to start marinating about an hour before you want to eat but once the marinading is done (and the marinade itself comes together really quickly) dinner will be ready in mere minutes.

Serves 2

350 g pork fillet (sometimes sold as pork tenderloin)

3 T fish sauce

1 T honey

1 T sugar

2 T soy sauce

2 gloves garlic, crushed

1 spring onion, sliced

1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

black pepper

sunflower oil

1 carrot, sliced into match sticks

1/4 c water

1/2 c apple cider vinegar

1 T sugar

1 baguette

lettuce

coriander

mayonnaise, if desired

pate, if desired

1. Slice the pork into 0.5 – 1 cm pieces. If your slices are on the thicker side flatten slightly with a rolling pin or bottle.

2. Place all the ingredients from the fish sauce to black pepper in a non-reactive bowl (i.e. don’t use a metal bowl!). Stir to dissolve the sugar and add the pork. Marinate for up to an hour.

3. While the pork is marinating, start the pickled carrots. Combine the water, vinegar, sugar and salt in a non-reactive bowl. Add the carrots and leave in the fridge to pickle.

4. Get everything ready to serve. Cut up the baguette into four. Place letter leaves, sprigs of coriander, mayonnaise and pate on the table.

5. To cook the pork, heat a heavy, non stick saucepan or grill pan over high heat. Add 1 T of oil to the pan and when it is hot add half the pork. Cook until caramelised and then turn over. When the second side is caramelised remove from the pan. Repeat with the other half of the marinated meat. I found it only needed 30 seconds to a minute to cook on each side.

6. When the pork is cooked, place it on the table with the pickled carrots. Let everyone put together their own sandwiches, spreading the baguette with mayonnaise and pate (if desired) and then filling with pork, pickled carrot, lettuce and coriander.

Notes

  • Food 52 uses brown sugar and maple syrup, neither of which I had. I went with white sugar and honey instead. I’d be tempted to stick with honey even if I had maple syrup around. It caramelises just as well but the flavour is milder.
  • This is not the place for an artisan sourdough baguette. You want a loaf that has a crisp but thin crust and is soft, light and fluffy inside.
  • I halved the pickle recipe and we had so much left over it would have been plenty for four. The pickle can be made up to 24 hours in advance.
  • To serve four, up the pork to 500 – 700 g and get a second baguette. There is no need to increase the marinade or pickle quantities.

Coconut muffins

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I still worry about what people think of me. Certainly, I am much, much more comfortable in my own skin than I was five years ago (late teens – early twenties is not a period of my life I’d ever choose to relive but would anyone?). But  still, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to completely forget about what other people think. In many ways, this is a good thing – it bring with it empathy and sensitivity, an awareness of how you affect others. But it also means that I waste so much time worrying about silly little things – whether my fellow commuters will sneer at my choice of book or if my housemates will hate the dinner I’m cooking. It was this dinner worrying that made me realise how ridiculous these stresses are – I liked dinner and that was enough. Besides, my housemates don’t make themselves sick with worry if I don’t like what they make.

This is a long detour on the way to today’s recipe but I promise, we’re almost there. I wasn’t sure whether to post this recipe out of fear they wouldn’t measure up. It’s true, they don’t look quite as lovely (or as big!) as their inspiration over at Smitten Kitchen. But I have to get over this fear sooner or later so here they are. Besides, they made my lunch box all week which has to mean more than a pretty face.

Coconut muffins (adapted slightly from Smitten Kitchen)

It’s true, these cupcakes aren’t the prettiest things around but they are delicious. The scent of the coconut is just divine and they were still moist on the fourth day we were eating them – I think this may be a muffin record.

3/4 c plain flour

1/2 c wholemeal spelt flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 c desiccated coconut

1/3 c macadamia nuts, toasted and roughly chopped

1/2 c virgin coconut oil

1 c greek yogurt

1/3 c caster sugar

1 egg, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 375’F. Line a standard muffin tin with patty cases.

2. Sift both flours and baking powder into a bowl. Add desiccated coconut and macadamia nuts.

3. In a separate bowl stir together coconut oil, yogurt, sugar, the egg and vanilla. It will look like a big, oily mess but it will come together.

4. Add the coconut oil mixture to the flour and mix until just combined. Divide the batter amongst the muffins tins.

5. Place in preheated oven and bake until golden and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 20 mins. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Store in an airtight container if you don’t polish them off on the spot.

Notes

  • Deb’s recipe includes salt. I find adding salt to sweet desserts is a feature of American recipes and most of the time, I love it. But with these muffins it was too much. The second time I made them I left the salt out altogether and much preferred them. If you do add salt, I would recommend table salt rather than something with big flakes, like Maldon.
  • I bought my macadamia nuts already toasted but if yours are raw, here is a handy how to. Don’t leave the nuts out – they really make these muffins!
  • It’s warm here in Sydney right now so my coconut oil was liquified when I went to use it (there’s no need to store it in the fridge!). I didn’t need to heat it but if yours is solid, follow Deb’s instructions to heat just until melted.
  • Does anyone have any must-make coconut oil recipes? I’m such a convert!

Sunday

As promised, my next recipe is for something savory: Sunday ragu. When I started working full time I was so excited about weekends – they were going to be jam packed full of exercise, catching up with friends (cocktails!), movies, going to the beach and barely sitting down. Now that I’m a few weeks in, weekends are not like I envisaged. Don’t get me wrong – I love (love!) weekends but they’re not frantic in the way I expected. Honestly, by the time Friday rolls around, I’m so exhausted I need down time. I can’t hack the frantic. I started declining all invitations for Sunday afternoon until I realised it’s become something of a “thing”. And so now Sunday afternoons are for me, for doing nothing. I find really savouring this time to relax and be alone puts me in the right place to head back to work on Monday. I feel refreshed and excited and that I really used my weekend wisely.

This is a very long winded way of saying that Sunday afternoon is a great time to make ragu. My housemate is from a big Italian family and when she moved in her mum loaded up our freezer with her home made ragu. It’s been perfect for Tuesday nights when you get home late and don’t want to wait for totally average, greasy take away. But last week we ran out of ragu and so I decided to cook some up. I popped it in the slow cooker at about 11 on Sunday morning and spent the rest of the day doing nothing. It’s very hard to take a pretty picture of ragu but I will say it makes for the perfect Sunday night in…

Sunday ragu

Serves 6

1 kg stew beef, diced into 2 cm pieces

olive oil

salt and pepper

1 onion, diced

2 small carrots, peeled and diced

2 sticks of celery, diced

6 large cloves garlic, crushed

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

2 sprigs rosemary

6 sprigs thyme

2 cups red wine

3 tins chopped tomatoes


1. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large pan or pot (something like a Le Creuset). Season the beef with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Make sure the pan isn’t overcrowded. You may need to do this in two batches. Brown the lamb. This will take 5-10 minutes. Remove from the pan and repeat if necessary.

2. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Add another tablespoon of oil, followed by the onion, celery and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened and lightly golden (10-15 minutes).

3. Add the garlic, chilli and herbs and stir for a minute or until fragrant. Add the wine to the pan and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down slightly and allow the wine to burn off for a few minutes. Return the meat to the pan with the tinned tomatoes. Stir to combine and transfer to a slow cooker. Set the slow cooker on low and walk away! I left my ragu simmering for about 8 hours but I imagine it would be good to go at about the 6 hour mark.

4. Just before serving, flake the meat with a fork. Serve ragu over pasta with plenty of parmesan and a green salad on the side. Stash leftovers in the freezer.

Notes

  • There is quite a lot of wine in this recipe. It could easily be replaced with some more tinned tomatoes or beef stock if you’d like to reduce the amount.

Never enough cake

Given that my last post was about cupcakes, it seemed appropriate to follow up with a cupcake recipe. These aren’t quite Sparkle but they’re more than close enough. And they get brownie (!) points for being home made!

One of the things I love about food blogs is the way that great recipes and cookbooks get passed on and shared. But sometimes it means that you see the same recipe (see, eg, this tomato sauce) and the same food writers again and again. So sometimes, it’s really great to see something different. Some of you are probably staring at your computer screens in puzzlement right now because how could a cupcake recipe (and a plain old vanilla cupcake recipe at that) be considered in any way novel? Well, that’s totally true! But the source of the recipe is something a little bit different, so stay with me …

Earlier this year I went to New Zealand with my family and along the way we noticed a cookbook here and there called Ladies, A Plate – Traditional Home Baking by Alexa Johnson (available here). After fretting over whether I really needed another cookbook in my collection, my sister solved my dilemma and bought it for me. And I’m so glad she did!

Ladies, A Plate is utterly charming. It’s has the feel of a Country Women’s Association cookbook (imagine your favourite great aunt stepping into the kitchen with you and talking you through her favourite recipes) but with 21st century design. The book covers traditional NZ baking, going far beyond pavlova and ANZAC biscuits. Recipes include old-fashioned favourites such as health biscuits, Mrs Mackie’s moist and spicy fruit loaf, neenish tarts and, most importantly, cupcakes. Trendy these recipes are not, but they are understated, full of history and love and totally delicious.

Cupcakes (adapted from Ladies, A Plate by Alexa Johnson)

These cakes are the perfect vanilla butter cake in cupcake form. They’re moist without being heavy, fluffy and light but not spongey. The original recipe stated that you would get 24 cakes. I used slightly taller patty cases (but the kind that fit into a standard muffin tin) and got 11. If you use smaller patty cases, start checking for done-ness at 15 minutes.

For the cake:

115 g butter, softened

3/4 c caster sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 1/2 c plain flour

1 tsp baking power

1/2 c milk (I had some cream sitting around so I used half cream and half milk)

1 tsp vanilla essence

For the butter cream icing: 

1 c icing sugar mixture

50 g butter, softened

1 tbsp milk

1/2 tsp vanilla essence

food colouring, if desired

1. Preheat the oven to 350’F/180’C and put patty cases into a 12 hole muffin tin.

2. Cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until pale and fluffy.

3. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. The mixture will appear curdled at first but keep going – the batter will come together.

4. Add the flour and baking powder to the batter in three lots, alternating with the milk. Sift the flour as you add it. Add the vanilla essence and beat until just combined.

5. Spoon the batter into the patty cases, filling them about 3/4 full. Bake in the preheated oven for 18-22 minutes, or until golden and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Leave to cool.

6. While the cakes are cooling make the icing. Combine the sifted icing sugar mixture, butter, milk and vanilla in a bowl and beat until smooth. Add food colouring if desired and then smooth over the cakes in a thick layer. Enjoy!!

Notes:

  • I made this recipe by hand but I imagine it would work just find with a stand or hand mixer. Just be careful not to over mix it.

P.s. I promise the next recipe will be something savory. Xo