How to make Italian buttercream

A cheese and pineapple echidna, chocolate cornflake cakes, popcorn, fresh fruit skewers, homemade lemonade. And cake. What a kid’s birthday party is all about. Singing happy birthday, blowing out candles, making a wish and eating cake. For Thea’s first birthday I had baked her a baby friendly banana and coconut birthday cake with THE most delicious maple buttercream frosting, a beautiful recipe from rubies and radishes. No grains and no refined sugars for little tummies and their first taste of cake. I was looking forward to baking it again for Pat’s celebratory day. Little did I know, it was going to turn into a lesson on how to make Italian buttercream.

The night before Pat’s party, to be held at a ride on model railway, the banana and coconut component of Pat’s cake was on the bench ready to be iced. With Thea and Pat in bed it was time to start making the best part, the maple buttercream, to ice it. I poured the maple syrup into a saucepan and heated it to 115 degrees. While it was heating I whisked up four eggs. Ok. Now time to add the hot syrup to the eggs, steady stream, all in. And now the butter. Shit. The beautiful billowy whisked eggs turned to soup. Damn it. What had I done wrong. I’d made this icing before. Weird. Maybe the syrup wasn’t hot enough. So I tried again, this time with a different thermometer.

Oh shit. On my second attempt with the new thermometer I forgot to change the settings from Fahrenheit to Celsius. Third attempt. Soup. Ok. Seriously. What is going on. You tube. Fourth attempt. Fifth attempt. I was raging. All those beautiful ingredients. What was I missing. Why wasn’t it working. I’d done it before damn it. Who could I call. What was my plan B. Cross and disheartened I went to bed thinking that I would just whip up some fresh cream in the morning and ice the cake at the party.

Anyone who knows me will know that I don’t give up. I’m stubborn and determined, and like a rumbling dark storm cloud when something isn’t going my way. So without even knowing why, in the morning still in my pajamas with 15 minutes until we had to walk out the door, I abandoned plan B and started my sixth attempt at the icing. Heat the maple syrup, oh wait no I used it all last night. Ok honey. Heat the honey. Whisk the eggs until doubled in size. Honey hits 115. Pour the honey down the side of the bowl with the motor still on high. Now the bit that I didn’t do the night before. I left the mixer going on high for a generous 15 minutes. I even held an ice pack against the side of the bowl during this time (a you tube tip from this lady) to help bring the mixture to room temperature. With the first piece of butter in my hands ready to add to the mixture, there was now no time for a back up plan. Every single one of my eggs was in that basket. My heart sank. The eggs lost some of their volume. Shit shit shit. Oh fuck it. I just kept adding the butter.

Piece by piece I dropped the butter into the bowl and watched, quite astonished after so many agonizing attempts, as the buttercream began to increase in volume again. Wow. I’d done it. I had made honey Italian buttercream. Elated knowing that there would be icing on the cake I grabbed the bowl, a spatula, some Thomas trains and we headed for the party.

Kids parties are a delight to plan. Any party is fun to plan, but especially children’s ones. They’re bright, colourful, imaginative and creative. They make food fun. And it’s always heartwarming to see small people excitedly putting little fistfuls of food into their mouths. I made sure that the spread wasn’t too sugar heavy and surprisingly the children dived into the fruit skewers while the adults scoffed the chocolate cornflake cakes. Pa cooked sausages on the wood fire barbecue while everyone had rides on the sit on locomotives. The cake cut into just the right amount of  slices, and there were even a few comments about how good the icing tasted. I’m sure everyone wondered what all the fuss was about though, and Pat didn’t even want any. Never mind. I’m so happy I didn’t give up. And the icing for Thea’s cake. You guessed it. A maple buttercream. From now on it’s going to be my signature.



How to make Italian buttercream

Maple Italian buttercream

Recipe from rubies and radishes

  • 1/2 cup maple syrup or honey
  • 4 eggs
  • 480g soft butter
  • 3/4 cup cream
  • pinch sea salt
  1. Place the maple syrup in a small saucepan and heat it until it reaches a temperature of 115 degrees C, then immediately remove it from the heat. Use a thermometer to do this. The heating process should take about 5-10 minutes.
  2. While the syrup is heating, crack the eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk on high until the eggs have doubled in volume and turned a pale colour. This will take about 5 minutes. Try to time it so that the eggs and maple are ready at the same time. There is the risk of over whisking the eggs.
  3. With the mixer still running, in a confident slow stream, rest the saucepan on the side of the bowl if you wish and pour the hot syrup down the side of the bowl. Take about 1 minute to do this.
  4. Continue whisking on high for an additional 15 minutes. This allows the egg/syrup mixture to cool to room temperature before the butter is added.
  5. Now, add the butter, one bit at a time, until it’s thoroughly incorporated.***
  6. Finally, slowly add the cream and whip everything until it’s well combined and fluffy.
  7. Ice the cake!

***This is the point where things may turn to soup. If the egg/syrup mixture is too hot when the butter is added, it may turn to liquid. Stop adding the butter and get an ice pack (or several) from the freezer and hold it against the side of the bowl. This is to try to cool the contents down and bring it back to a fluffy mass.
The opposite thing can also happen if the butter added is too cold. Then the icing will become grainy and appear to separate. In this instance, wet a tea towel with hot water and hold it against the side of the bowl to warm the mixture up and “melt’ the butter slightly.

If you enjoyed this recipe you might like my top tips for making Pavlova

No bake mint chocolate cheesecake

I think it’s been about 10 months since I last visited here. Life with two small people is needless to say, very busy. Jam packed really. From the moment Thea comes into my room and grins her morning bed hair grin at me and Pat cries out to join in the fun, it’s non stop action and a little bit of chaos for the next 12 hours. Add work into the equation. A nutrition course. Building a new house. It makes for a full day. But I wouldn’t have my life right now any other way. Yet this post is not about any of those things. The reason for my sudden impetus to write, apart from the fact that I’m craving to put the jumbled sentences swimming in my head in to a meaningful form, is that my sister-in-law Tash, one very cool lady and among many things, a passionate doula, has asked me to share the story of Pat’s birth. And the timing seems just right with the anniversary of that day fast approaching.

Pat’s impending arrival was jigsaw puzzle perfect. I found out I was pregnant two weeks after running my first marathon. Immediately I made a vision board full of round tummies and chubby newborns. My second pregnancy was going to be different. This time I was going to grow the little human inside me for the full 40 weeks. I was going to have a peaceful natural birth and I was going to cradle my newborn son in my arms before the cord was even cut. Wrong. For all my positivity, at a 24 week scan, booked so that Pat’s size could be measured to check that everything was on track, it was discovered that I had the same complication that I experienced with Thea. The flow of blood in the umbilical cord was compromised and he wasn’t getting all the nourishment that he needed.

Hearing the news time slowed down. My cheeks flushed, my heart started racing and a tumultuous feeling settled in my stomach. This can’t be happening. Not again. Not two premmie babies. But with Thea on my lap as testimony of a beautiful outcome, I accepted what I had been told and decided to maintain my optimism.

Fast forward through 12 weeks of ECGs and growth scans, to 36 weeks and five days pregnant and the night before my Caesarian was due to take place. I had been told in answer to my requests to deliver baby later, “No, going over 37 weeks is really not a good idea as the chances of the cord giving up get much higher.” I had also been told no to trying for a natural birth. It was all out of my hands and to be honest knowing that all the monitoring and stress related with having a high risk pregnancy was going to be over was a huge relief. That said, I was sad. Sad for the loss of those final few weeks. Sad for the negativity surrounding my unborn baby which the doctors and nurses insisted on fostering. Sad knowing it just wasn’t my fate to experience a natural birth. I am aware that these things are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but let me tell you, becoming a mother is life changing. And how your child is delivered leaves an indelible mark. One moment you are someone, the next you are a completely different person with feelings so big that they are able to bowl you over.

I spent a sleepless six hours in bed, getting up to go to the loo what seemed like every five minutes. I just couldn’t get comfortable. Couldn’t relax. I wasn’t so much worried about having two children and how logistically it was all going to work, or about how Thea was going to react to having a brother. No. I was anxious in that visiting a hospital three and four times a week to check the progression of your pregnancy because it’s considered high risk really gets into your head. Would baby be ok, healthy, a good size? Or was he going to be tiny and need help? Mark and I finally got up at six o’clock on Thursday June 30th and left the house for the last time as a family of three.

I knew what to expect. Cold room, bright lights, lots of people, numb legs, screen in front of my face, Mark’s cheek pressed close mine. And the birth of a baby. A joyous occasion. But I did not experience joy. I felt sadness. Despair. Powerlessness. I felt defeated. I had written down a few things that I would like to happen at the birth this time around, like to see Pat coming into the world, but not one of my requests was honoured. It was like with Thea but worse, because this time I thought I might have some control over the situation, but really I didn’t. I was a number on a list and my son’s birth was just part of a routine day.

But then the moment came. I heard the words that I ached to hear. It took a while and I really didn’t think that it wasn’t going to happen and had been forewarned it might not. Would you like to hold him? I howled. Wailed. A primal explosion of emotion washed over me as my perfect little boy was placed on my bare chest. He squealed, I soothed. I cupped him in my hands. He was breathtaking. A gorgeous 2.4 kilos, 10 tiny fingers, 10 tiny toes and the gentlest dusting of soft brown hair. Oh all the things that we will do together, all the memories we will make, all the possibilities in the world that lie ahead of you. My boy. We did it. You’re here.

The encounter was far too brief though and we were separated until the next morning. My time in recovery was full of tears and anguish. Mark had gone with Pat to the nursery and I had no way to contact them. My temperature kept dropping and my whole body shivered. Anxiety churned in my stomach. With no idea what was going on, I was beyond stressed. Having experienced Thea’s birth, where I knew that she would be taken away from me, this time round I was full of hope, but equally trepidation. How was my little boy doing.

The next morning full of gusto, my focus entirely on Pat, I lowered my limbs out of bed, renewed my senses under a hot shower and headed straight for the nursery. I was going to cradle my baby boy, feed him, drink him in. Bring him home. He latched straight away, tears pricked my eyes and my heart soared. By 4pm that afternoon, I was allowed to have him in my room and soon discovered that unlike Thea, he was not going to sleep unless held. And that was fine with me. In the clinical setting of the dimly lit hospital room, the two of us dozed and the bad memories of the day before faded. By 1pm on Saturday, Pat Finch Thompson, in a little red onesie, was securely cocooned in his car seat and we were on our way home.

Recollecting Pat’s birth still makes me sad. Wether my experience with Thea marred her brother’s arrival, or the weeks of monitoring before he was born, or simply the fact that we were separated. Above all though, his entrance into the world may not have been what I wanted, but he was safe and cared for and there have been a multitude of joyous times since that day. I often think that the challenging events in life, the most uncomfortable of times, can teach the biggest lessons. From both my pregnancies I have learnt to surrender, yet not without optimism, but perhaps more importantly, that having children is not about me at all. It’s about them.

And the mint choc chip? Having Pat come home straight after having him was so different to my experience with Thea. The way my body changed over the first few weeks of his life really did make me feel like I’d had a baby. My capacity to eat chocolate was unending and I craved mint chocolate more than anything else. Mint slices dipped into hot cups of tea, mint chocolate mousses, mint magnums, mint choc chip ice cream, no bake mint chocolate cheesecake… If I had craved family sized portions of lemon dressed salad when I was pregnant, now it was all about sugar. And so I give you this no bake mint chocolate cheesecake. Enjoy.

No bake mint chocolate cheesecake

Makes about 10 servings. I would give credit but the recipe comes from Ma Lyn’s recipe book in the form of a very old clipping.

Crumb crust

Combine the biscuits and butter in the bowl of a food processor and whizz until fine crumbs are achieved. Press the crumbs into the base of a lined 20cm loose bottomed cake tin and chill until firm.

Filling

  • 1 tbsp powdered gelatin (I used Great Lakes gelatin)
  • 1/4 cup cold water
  • 3/4 cup boiling water
  • 250g cream cheese
  • 1 cup caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla (I used Sunshine vanilla powder)
  • 4 drops real peppermint essence (I used Doterra)
  • 90g dark chocolate, melted
  • 375ml evaporated milk, chilled

Soak gelatin in cold water. Add boiling water and stir until dissolved. Cool.

In a large bowl or stand mixer beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the sugar, vanilla and peppermint essence.

Gradually add the melted chocolate, then the gelatin mixture, then the evaporated milk. Keep mixing/beating at high-speed until the mixture is thick and has doubled in volume. Pour the mixture into prepared tin and chill for at least two hours.

Decorate with chocolate shards or sprinkles and enjoy.

If you liked this recipe then you might like chocolate fork biscuits














Easy upsidedown pineapple cake

Now that during the day we are three, me, a very little and helpless human and an independent, talkative, whirlwind of a toddler, activities to do with the later, to make her feel included and secure with the new family dynamic are more important than ever. And it’s been a beautiful discovery to find that she enjoys cooking. The weighing and the mixing and sometimes even the eating. We’re still working on the eating and it’s sad for me to admit that as a chef I have an extremely tiny, fussy and plain eater. Anyway, she does still enjoy cooking, and this week we made an easy pineapple upside down pineapple cake.

Even before children, I had visions of the kind of activities that I would like to do with them when the time came. Painting, drawing, gluing, sticking and cooking. Of course cooking. Cutting out gingerbread men and decorating them with Smartie buttons, baking fairy cakes and licking all the butter cream icing off first, making chocolate chip cookies and munching them with an ice cold glass of milk. I have very fond memories of routinely preparing rock cakes with one grandma and cupcakes with the other. Spending time together in the kitchen doing a common activity and sharing the pleasure of the final culinary creation.

As a lot of my day is spent holding Pat, feeding him, burping him, carrying him sleeping in a sling (this one’s the bomb), Thea loves it when it’s time for her to have some uninterrupted focus. Don’t get me wrong, she knows what’s what and why I’m investing so much of my time with Pat, but she still craves one on one attention. And cooking seems to be a solution. It’s almost an out of bounds area that she gets to enter into, up on her little stepladder spooning flour into a bowl, haphazardly cracking eggs and pressing buttons on the processor. Yes, it’s messy, especially when there’s cocoa or hundreds and thousands involved, but we both laugh, and surely that counts for more.



This easy pineapple upside down cake is a really great recipe to make with a small person. They can be very hands on with its preparation as there are essentially just two simple steps. Plus the finished product is so pretty and colourful. There is no guarantee however that participating in making the cake will mean that beyond nibbling the edges your little helper will want to eat it… But that’s ok. We had fun. And it means more for everyone else!


Easy upsidedown pineapple cake

Adapted from a recipe in Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson

  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 6 pineapple rings from a tin (reserve juice to thin cake batter)
  • 11 or so glace cherries depending how many your toddler eats
  • 100g flour
  • 100g soft butter
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp bicarbonate soda
  • 1 tsp ground ginger

Pre heat the oven to 200C and butter a 24cm isn cake tin.

(Get your toddler to) sprinkle 2 tbsp of sugar in the bottom of the cake tin and arrange the pineapple slices on top. Fill the gaps with glace cherries.

Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and (get your toddler to) process until a smooth batter is achieved. Thin with a little, maybe 2 tbsp pineapple juice from the tin of pineapple rings.

Pour the batter into the cake tin on top of the pineapple rings and pop the tin into the oven for 30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Remove the cake from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for 5 minutes before sliding a spatula around the outside of the tin. Place a plate on top of the tin and then turn it upsidedown. Easy pineapple upsidedown cake!

Enjoy with cream and a cup of tea. Your toddler may or may not do the same.

Like this easy upside-down pineapple cake recipe? Then you might like almond tart with strawberries

Almond tart with strawberries

I can’t really keep it a secret any longer. If you visit here often you’re going to notice sooner or later anyway, so I’d better come clean. For the last three months I have been living in a house with views that take my breath away daily. With gardens so pretty and scent heavy, I feel like I’m in a fairytale when I walk through them. I’ve fallen asleep to the reassuring sound of breaking waves and woken to magnificent patchwork orange and magenta skies. So this almond tart with strawberries was perfect for a Sunday lunch with friends in such a special place.

You might recall that back in April a tree fell on our house, and as a result we relocated that same night to Ma and Pa’s. Well a very generous friend offered us their home for the months of August, September and October. And so this is where my photos have been taken lately. In the beautiful kitchen of a Palm Beach house with panoramic views of the ocean. Believe me that I am not exaggerating when I say that sometimes I look up from the dishes to catch a glimpse of a whale breaching. That at night I can see Barrenjoey lighthouse intermittently twinkle in the distance. That I am extremely lucky and grateful for the opportunity to have stayed in such a beautiful location.

I think that Thea has enjoyed her stay too. We go the beach daily, sometimes twice, making the most of our temporary seaside location. I put her porridge in a little container, grab a coffee and we go, with obligatory bucket and spade in tow, to have our breakfast on the sand. I don’t know if I would do this if it was our full-time home. There is definitely something to be said for being placed in situations that not only force you to realise how fortunate you are, but also to make the most of your time.

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The spotted gum tree that crashed through our roof has also made realise that our house overlooking the sparkling Pittwater, a five-minute walk to Clareville beach, was a great home. I’m not sure that we fully appreciated that. We were so focused on renovating it and making in to the thing that we wanted it to be, that we never stopped to fully acknowledge how good it was: All those evenings spend sharing food with friends and family on the deck, this one and this one, oh and this one, especially stand out, as well as the dinner parties inside by the fire like this one.

When we do move back to our home (seemingly still light years away as our insurance hasn’t even been settled yet) I’m planning on throwing the biggest dinner party ever. I intend to celebrate where we live. With lots of delicious food. Delicious wine. Flowers. Music. And possibly even bite size versions of this almond tart with strawberries. It really is that good and definitely fitting for a special occasion. Even Thea thinks so.


Almond tart with strawberries

Adapted from a recipe in The River Cafe Cookbook 2

For the pastry

  • 225g plain flour
  • 75g self raising flour
  • 55g icing sugar
  • 100g butter, cold, cut into cubes
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tbsp cold water

For the almond tart filling

  • 265g soft butter
  • 265g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 265g almond meal

To serve

  • 250g strawberries, hulled and halved
  • icing sugar
  • creme fraiche

To make the almond tart pastry, pulse the butter, two flours and icing sugar in a food processor until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the yolk and pulse until mixed in and then with the motor running add the cold water in a steady stream until the pastry comes together. Remove from the processor, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 20 minutes before rolling out (with extra flour) and lining a 28cm diameter, 3.5cm deep loose bottomed fluted tart tin. Pop the lined tin in the fridge for another 20 minutes or so and then bake it in a 180 C oven.

**A note on baking the tart shell. Use baking beans. Seriously. I don’t know why I waited so long to become the owner of these little ceramic balls that have changed the appearance of my pastry shells for the better. I used to bake my tart shells with nothing and the sides would always shrink and the bottom bubble up. Then I got a little less lazy and started using dried kidney beans to keep the base of the tart shell flat. But after a while they began to smell. And just weren’t all that pretty. So one day, when in a kitchen shop looking for some platters, I came across Tala baking beans and my tart shells have been beautifully golden and even specimens ever since.**

For the almond tart filling, using a hand-held or stand mixer, beat the sugar and butter together. When the mixture is pale and fluffy, add the eggs one at a time, followed by the almond meal. Spoon the mix into the baked tart shell and bake for around 40-50 minutes until the filling is set. Don’t be tempted to overfill the shell as the mixture does puff up and will spill over the edge resulting in a messy end result.

Once the almond tart is cooled, decorate with strawberries, lots of icing sugar and enjoy with spoonfuls of creme fraiche.

Like this dessert recipe? Then you might enjoy my two tiered Pavlova

 

Oven baked strawberry French toast

When it comes to strawberries, I’m pretty fussy. I grew up in an area where you could pick your own strawberries. In summer. Not all year round. They tasted like strawberries. Sweet, soft and juicy, oozing fruity nectar with each bite. And they smelt like strawberries too. Fragrant and jammy. Now these berries are ubiquitous, in every shop, during every month of the year and they just don’t taste of my childhood anymore. They just don’t taste like strawberries. Or so the story goes until I found some succulent strawberries at the farmer’s market this week, and with much excitement bought more punnets than I sensibly needed. I ate them with cream, in smoothies, Thea ate some, Mark ate some and there was still some left. So I made this. Oven baked strawberry French toast.




I’ve wanted to try a baked French toast recipe for a while now, thinking that it would make a great communal breakfast centrepiece. And let me tell you. When I invited the girls over to breakfast one day this week. This one did. The roasted seasonal strawberries provided lots of ooos and ahhhs and pauses of appreciation. Plus, it just looked so darn pretty, all yellow and pink, wobbly and crisp all at the same time. Everyone dug in, taking seconds and thirds.

Since becoming a Mama, I reckon breakfast parties are the way to go. For a start instead of the alcohol that you would expect at an evening event, in the morning there’s coffee. Sometimes more essential to a new parent than a glass of wine anyway. Also, babes can come along to breakfast parties, no questions asked, and small people are usually at their best first thing after a night’s sleep. Due to the presence of children, breakfast parties end on time too, as little ones are taken home for naps. A combination of winning factors. And the best thing of all. This oven baked French toast can be made the night before, so all you have to do for the party is put the kettle on.


Oven baked strawberry french toast

Serves 6

Inspired by recipes from Butter baking and Pioneer Woman 

  • 1/2 loaf stale sourdough bread cut into rough cubes the size of large walnuts (about 4-5 cups bread once cut up)
  • 2 punnets strawberries hulled and halved
  • 5 eggs
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup – optional depending on how sweet the fruit you use is. I didn’t need to use it here, but with for example raspberries, it might be a good idea.
  • 2 cups whole milk

For the crumble topping

  • 50g brown sugar
  • 50g plain flour
  • 50g cold butter, cubed
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • pinch sea salt

This is so easy. The night before, put the bread in a baking dish and scatter the strawberries over the top.

Mix the eggs, milk and syrup, if using, together and pour over the bread. Cover and refrigerate.

For the crumble topping, whizz all the ingredients in a food processor until they resemble breadcrumbs and then also store in the fridge overnight.

In the morning, pre heat the oven to 180C. Sprinkle the crumble topping over the bread and cook the oven baked strawberry French toast for about 45 minutes until the crumble topping is browned.

Love seasonal fruit? Then you might like Apricot jam

Home made crumpets in under an hour

I have fond childhood memories of weekend breakfast’s consisting of hot toasted crumpets spread with so much butter and honey that the two would melt and run down through the little holes on the crumpet’s surface and onto the plate below. Let’s be honest. This is the only way to eat toasted crumpets. An occasional treat bought from the supermarket, crumpets are not something that you can easily make at home. Or are they? Seeing a recipe for them in this month’s Gourmet Traveller, I read the list of ingredients. All pantry staples. And the method looked straightforward too. Before I knew it, I’d measured everything out, mixed it all together and crumpet dough was sitting in front of the fire proving. Half an hour later it had doubled in size and I poured mounds of the mixture into a pan and proudly watched as tiny holes formed in the batter. My first batch of home made crumpets.

Ok. So that’s not the whole story. It took me three attempts to perfect my home made crumpets. After my first fail, I considered writing to Gourmet to tell them that their recipe hadn’t worked. But I had kept the batter in the fridge overnight and tried to make the crumpets the next morning. So I reconsidered. Not one to simply give up, I decided to have a second try and this time make the crumpets without leaving the batter chilling overnight, but cook it straight after it had doubled in size. I didn’t have any egg rings though, so although my second batch of crumpets had the signature divots in their surface, they were quite flat and more like drop scones.

With two trials under my belt, on the third go, I even impressed myself with the results. Using buttered egg rings to cook the batter in made a huge a difference and my home made crumpets were tall, fluffy and perfectly dimpled.  I flipped a couple over in the pan to brown the tops and immediately spread them with rather a lot of butter and twirlings of sticky honey. Delicious.

It’s very comforting when someone is able to try something out for you and report back that whatever it was is easy. Straightforward. Uncomplicated. It makes you feel safe and gives you confidence. I am now able to do this and tell you that home made crumpets are easy. That the recipe in the magazine does work. That a non stick pan will make the process a lot easier. That egg rings aren’t vital, but they do make a taller crumpets. That from start to finish, making crumpets will take under and hour. And they freeze beautifully. So go on. Have a go. PS. Thea is under the impression that Vegemite is best on crumpets.

Home made crumpets

Recipe by Sean McConnell from August 2015 edition of Gourmet Traveller

  • 7g dried yeast
  • 30g caster sugar
  • 30ml warm just above blood temperature water
  • 500g plain flour
  • 3 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 50g butter
  • 800ml milk

Combine the yeast, sugar and water in a bowl and leave to stand in a warm place for 15 minutes.

Combine the flour and bicarb in a large bowl.

Melt the butter in a pot with 200ml of the milk. When the butter has melted, add the remaining 600ml of milk and when the time is up, the yeast mixture.

Add the yeast and milk mixture to the flour mixture and stir to combine. Now leave this mixture in a warm place for about 30 minutes or until the batter has doubled in size.

Heat a non stick pan over a medium heat and pour the batter into buttered egg rings inside the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes until holes have appeared and the surface of the crumpet is set.

At this point, the crumpets can be stored for future use, either in the fridge or freezer or toasted right away, smothered in butter and honey and enjoyed.

Gingerbread men

I got a bit carried away. My daughter’s second birthday, a planned quiet family affair, somehow turned into a full blown high tea complete with grandma’s best china. It started with a cake topper. The famed green sheep from the gorgeous children’s book of the same name that I read to Thea every night before bed. I thought it might be nice to make her a cake that she would recognise and diligently sought out my nearest art shop so that I could purchase some fimo to make the little model from (I sentimentally thought that she could keep the lovingly made clay sheep). Simple. The next step was to find a cake recipe. And this is where my imagination got the better of me and I started book marking dozens of pages from an equal number of books. Cheese and olive biscuits, lemon meringue tartlets, double chocolate brownies. And gingerbread men.



I’ve always wanted to make gingerbread men, but haven’t for fear that the process would be too hard. Baking is not a process that I naturally turn to in the kitchen. I prefer to roast and simmer. Having a small person in my life though who has a penchant for all things crunchy and crisp, I’ve been doing more baking lately, preferring her to have homemade treats rather than ones in crinkly bright coloured packets from the supermarket. So with this in mind, I decided it best I set about learning how to make the gingery dough people.

Historically, I’ve never been one to let a recipe’s complexity put me off. As a chalet girl in France preparing dinner for 12 guests every night, my first real cooking job, trying out new recipes was second nature. Individual roasted shallot tart tatins, which I didn’t realise had to be inverted before serving. A cherry clafoutis made with cherries that I never thought to pit. Beignets, which are deep fried choux pastry. Apparently choux pasty is quite hard to master, but I dived in to the recipe head first, overcrowded the deep fryer and got oil all over the kitchen floor. The beignets worked out quite well though. A dodgy lamb curry from an English newspaper than one of my guests left behind, the spice paste made from scratch and the lamb and spices bought with more guesswork than exact translation. Looking back these mistakes makes me cringe. I was so eager to experiment and learn that I broke the golden rule of entertaining. Never try a new recipe out on your guests.

Making these gingerbread men for Thea’s party, I suppose I was breaking that rule again. But my family are used to being experimented upon. Besides, someone has to try my dishes after their first rendition. The spicy molasses coloured men with their happy faces and white outfits turned out really well. There was just the right amount of spice and they had a perfect snap. In fact I was so pleased, that I’ve made a mental note to make a gingerbread advent house for Christmas. So for all my cringing over previous failed efforts, though I would still advise not to try new recipes at dinner parties or on people that you aren’t that familiar with, do have a go at making new things. You never know where the process may lead you.




Gingerbread men

Adapted from a recipe from Bake by Alison Thompson

Makes about 30

  • 100ml water
  • 200g soft brown sugar
  • 180g golden syrup
  • 3 tbsps ground ginger
  • 3 tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 250g butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 550g plain flour

Lemon icing

  • 1 egg white
  • 250g icing sugar
  • juice 1/2 lemon

Place the water, sugar, golden syrup, ginger, cinnamon and cloves in a saucepan and bring to the boil over a medium heat.

Now add the butter one cube at a time and stir until it’s all melted, then add the bicarbonate of soda and make sure everything is well combined.

Pour the mixture into a bowl and allow to cool a little before sifting in the flour and stirring to until dough forms

Wrap the dough in cling wrap and allow to rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours.

When the allocated amount of time is up, preheat the oven to 160C and line three baking trays with baking paper.

Take the dough from the fridge and cut it in half. Roll one half out evenly to a thickness of about  5mm and then being as space efficient as possible, cut gingerbread men from the dough with a gingerbread men cookie cutter. Place the cut out men onto the baking trays.

Bake the men for 20 minutes and then cool on the baking trays.

When the men are cool, ice them with lemon icing and then decide where you’re first bite will be. Head, arms or legs. Thea goes for the head!

To make the icing, whisk the egg white until soft peaks form and then still whisking add the icing sugar one spoonful at a time and then the lemon juice. Pour into a piping bag with a tiny little hole and decorate.

Enjoy this? You might like chocolate fork biscuits.

Brown sugar meringue roulade

The prunes kept staring at me from the shelf in the pantry. I had bought a packet of the sticky, black fruit to make devils on horseback, and decanted the remainder neatly into a glass jar. But every time I went to the shelf for some ingredient or other, the prunes looked on woefully, and the little voice in my head said to me, you have to use them up you know. For what though. The last encounter I had had with the dried fruit was in little, yellow, single serve packets, for breakfast every morning while in hospital waiting to have Thea. Which is rather apt as it was around this time two years ago. So I decided to create a recipe to honour the prunes. I came up with a brown sugar meringue roulade filled with cinnamon stewed prunes and cream.

I’m like the proverbial bull in a shop full of delicate objects when I get an idea in my head. I have to make it come to life. NOW. It’s probably a very annoying attribute for those around me, but at least I can be described as a doer. Without a moment’s hesitation, even though it was 10pm, and half the house had gone to bed, I found the recipe I needed for the fruit and began the stewing process. My mother in law questioned me in disbelief, was I cooking again this late at night. No, just soaking some oats for porridge, I sheepishly lied.

I learned how to a make meringue roulade from a no-nonsense, very practical, very experienced lady named Rosie, whilst attending her information laden cookery course in 2003. A course that, enlightened after working as a chalet girl in France where I realised that cooking was for me, I managed to squeeze into after another attendee dropped out. Fate? I like to think so. During my time with Rosie, I learnt the technique for making an amazing and versatile little salad dressing, since tweaked to become my own. I learnt how to make my first ice cream. Elderflower and gooseberry, the ingredients picked straight from the garden. I learnt how to make puff pasty and croissants. To lay a table. And pop a champagne cork, or not as the case may be.

I also learnt from Rosie about the characteristics that make a really good recipe. It’s thoroughly tested with clear instructions and reliable. And I was told that if you get just one recipe from a cookbook that you use time and time again, then the book was worth the money that you paid for it. This could explain why my cookery book collection is so large. And still growing. Hopefully though, this meringue roulade recipe, personalised with the use of brown sugar to complement the prunes, is one that you will be able to make over and over. Fill it with the fruit of your choice, stewed rhubarb perhaps or fresh raspberries. Replace the whipped cream with Greek yoghurt or even mascarpone. But do try it.


Brown sugar meringue roulade

  • 100g brown sugar
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 150ml egg whites (4-6 whites, it’s always best to measure the whites exactly as eggs can vary in size so much)
  • 1 tbsp icing sugar
  • 2 tsp cornflour
  • few drops white vinegar
  • 400ml cream, whipped
  • cinnamon stewed prunes as per Molly Wizenburg’s recipe

A stand mixer will make life much easier when making meringues, but a hand-held mixer will work as well. You will just be left standing in the one spot for a while.

Begin by whisking the egg whites until soft peaks form. Now add the cater sugar, one spoonful at a time, over about 5-7 minutes. Do not rush. This step ensures that the sugar is well combined with the egg whites.

Now add the brown sugar, a little quicker than the white, one spoonful after the other. Just make sure that each spoonful is visibly incorporated before you add the next.

When all the sugar has been added, turn the whisk off. Add the icing sugar, cornflour and vinegar and then turn the whisk on again for about 10 turns, or until everything is just combined.

Transfer the meringue roulade mix onto a baking paper lined tray (mine was 42cm x 30cm) and spread it out evenly. The mixture does not need to be even, peaks and waves will make the finished roll a little more spectacular.

Bake in an oven preheated to 150 C for 30 minutes, or until the top of the roulade is firm, but the base still slightly soft. Cool in the oven with the door held ajar with a folded tea towel.

When the roulade is cool, which will probably take a few hours, lay a clean tea towel on a work surface. On top of this lay a piece of cling wrap. Now invert the roulade on to the cling wrap. Spread it with cream and decorate with prunes.

To roll up the meringue roulade, use the tea towel to help you fold the edge of the roulade over and then to push it along as you continue rolling. This way you don’t have to handle the delicate, and somewhat sticky meringue, and you can use the tea towel to provide momentum.

Slice as neatly as you are able and maybe garnish with some toasted flaked almonds before devouring.

Love making meringue? You may also like my top Pavlova making tips

 

Strawberry homemade sprinkles

Thea is almost two. Two. The days and weeks went by slowly when she was first born, as we got to know each other and I became accustomed to my new routine as a mama. Then something happened without me noticing. Time sped up and I find myself here today, one month away from her second birthday. I don’t feel like a mum. Somedays I am amazed that the world let me become a mother as I struggle through the everyday, utterly confused as to what my daughter, happy one minute, loudly uncheerful the next, wants. One night she sleeps peacefully for 12 hours straight. The next she wakes at two o’clock, ready to start the day. On Tuesday she loves homemade chicken nuggets. By Thursday, she won’t touch them and wants porridge. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. One thing I hope she really likes though, is the birthday cake that I’m going to make for her. With homemade sprinkles.

I’m not much of a baker. I suppose that’s because I’m not much of a cake eater either. I prefer pate and cheese and dark chocolate. But when I do bake, I usually go all out. Chocolate dipped honeycomb, presented in little handmade boxes and given to people as gifts. A dozen little Christmas puddings, made in September, and lovingly tied in cheesecloth and hung in a wardrobe ready for December (when I lived in England and it’s chilly during those months). A gigantic seven layer black forrest cake constructed for ma’s birthday, that lent slightly to one side. And now I’m attempting to make strawberry flavoured homemade sprinkles for a second birthday cake, staunchly ignoring comments that I could simply buy them from a supermarket for a couple of dollars.

Cooking being about showing love and all that, I want to make Thea a cake from scratch. A creative cake that takes time and effort. A cake that I have to think about and plan in advance. A cake that I can be proud of and say, I made that. I realise that she won’t be aware of my efforts. But I will. And that’s what counts. Because despite on occasion being confused as to how to do the right thing by my daughter, I love her. Unconditionally. Even when she refuses my chicken nuggets, will only eat porridge or wants to get up at two in the morning. Her little face is the best thing in this world.

I don’t know about you, but I love sprinkles. As a kid, my favourite ice lolly was a Fab. A strawberry ice block with a white, milk flavoured cap that was covered in multicoloured sprinkles. To tell you the truth, once I’d nibbles all the sprinkles off, I didn’t much care for the strawberry flavoured ice underneath. Another thing I loved growing up was banana splits. A banana cut in half lengthways and positioned in a glass dish with scoops of ice cream between the two lengths, anointed with whipped cream, wafers and you guessed it. Sprinkles. I will also admit to garnishing. No. Garnish is too polite. Drenching whipped cream sitting a top a hot chocolate with sprinkles, ahem, when I was pregnant. So two years ago. With these stories in mind, it seems only fair that my daughter will enjoy sprinkles too. Pretty, pale pink, strawberry, homemade sprinkles.

Strawberry homemade sprinkles

From a recipe by Stefani Pollack

Begin by grinding the freeze dried strawberries to a fine powder. I did this in a small spice/coffee grinder.

Next simply mix all the ingredients together. This could be done by hand or with the help of a free standing mixer. I chose the later option.

Now transfer the icing sugar mixture into a piping bag. I used a disposable piping bag, which I cut a very small hole in the end of. If using a piping bag with a nozzle, the nozzle should be about 4mm.

Pipe lines of the mixture onto baking paper. They do not have to be perfect lines, but the closer together that you can get them the better. It will make the chopping process easier and mean that you have to use less pieces of baking paper.

Now wait. 24 hours. This will allow the iced lines to completely dry. After the time period has elapsed, take a long knife and cut the lines into little sprinkle size strands.

And that’s it. Homemade sprinkles, that really do taste like strawberries.

Enjoy this. Then why not try your hand at some homemade vanilla ice cream to go with them?

Chicken and chorizo empanadas

Happy that I was organized for an upcoming  job, I was sitting comfortably on the lounge sipping peppermint tea after dinner. Tomorrow I would make the chicken and chorizo empanadas, part of the Mexican street food spread that I was preparing for a party at the weekend. But right now I was in front of a beautifully warm open fire browsing restaurants in Bali for our upcoming holiday. I could hear that outside, the powerful wind had amped up again and that rain was still lashing angrily at the windows. It was an aggressive storm that had caused mass flooding and uprooted trees on every single street over the last two days. From our deck, Thea and I had been watching arborists in fluorescent rain coats all day, brave the elements to remove a fallen gum tree that had ploughed straight through one of our neighbours homes. Nonchalantly believing that we were lucky to have escaped the same fate, I was about to be proved very wrong.

There was no loud crack to fore warn that a tree was about to fall. It just happened. All of a sudden the power went out and in the darkness the only sound that could be heard was crashing. Usually when something falls on our tin roof, it’s noisy and can make your heart pound, fallen debris sounding bigger and more damaging than it really it is. There was no doubt this time though. Whatever had fallen was huge and very destructive. The clattering noise was relentless, and Mark and I held each other bracing for impact from overhead.

It felt like as soon as it had started, the noise stopped. I jumped up, ever so slightly hysterical. THEA. My baby girl was in bed and if I hadn’t been hit by whatever had fallen, did that mean that she had? Mark pulled me close and told me to calm down. That she was fine. It was our chimney stack that had collapsed and that if I went in and got her in the state I was in, I would scare her. I took on board his wise words, breathed deeply and using the light on my phone went to her room. She was sitting up waiting for me. I packed a bag while Mark put out the fire, a hazard that had completely gone over my head as I stuffed nappies, toothbrushes and underwear into a bag. Our neighbours were yelling up at us. Were we ok? I yanked at the front door to let them know we were. It wouldn’t open. I went to the window and pulled back the curtain. All that I could see in front of me through broken glass was a mass of branches and leaves, fractured floorboards and crumpled sheets of roofing. Our whole deck had splintered away from the house.

When firemen arrived to check that our fire was out and to escort us around our home to collect any valuables and emergency items, I pleaded with them to save my Mexican beef stew. A strange last minute grab from a house just rendered unsafe by a falling tree, but that pot of food was not going to go to waste. Onions, carrots, capsicums, celery and garlic had been whizzed up in a food processor first thing that morning and then sweated slowly over a low heat. Tomatoes, bay leaves, cumin, coriander and chilli were added, along with a five kilo hunk of beef, and the pot had simmered undisturbed all day, only occasionally interrupted to be stirred. My neighbours kindly let me store the hefty stainless steel pot in their fridge, as I explained it was for a job at the weekend and despite a tree just having fallen on my house, I was not going to pull out of the work and let anyone down.


Safely installed at Ma and Pa’s a few days later, I resumed preparations for the party. Referring to my list, 100 chicken and chorizo empanadas needed to be made. Unfamiliar with how to go about setting up a production line in Ma’s kitchen, I started by investigating what was in all the cupboards and drawers. Ma looks after things with such care that the majority of her utensils and appliances are older than me. And I love that. Well looked after kitchen equipment with soul. Great grandma, who happened to be visiting at the same time we became homeless, was shocked with the number of pastry pockets that I had to make, but intrigued as to how I would actually go about the process. With Thea being blissfully entertained in the garden by Ma, I began the empanadas. In between sneaking glances through the window of Thea on the swing and chatting about TV detective series with G g Ma, the task was completed in no time. Somehow, despite the odds, I was back on track.




 Chicken and chorizo empanadas

Adapted from a recipe by Paul Hollywood

Ingredients

For the pastry

  • 150g unsalted butter
  • 300g plain flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten

Make the pastry first and allow it to rest in the fridge while you make the filling.

Whizz the butter and flour in a food processor until they resemble fine breadcrumbs.

Add the egg and salt and pulse until the mixture comes together. If it is still and little dry, add water drip by drip.

Tip the pastry out onto a piece of cling wrap, cover and put in the fridge for 30 minutes to rest before rolling out for the chicken and chorizo empanadas.

For the filling

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 1 onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 chorizo
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 50g rasins
  • salt and black pepper

Roast the chicken in the oven for approximately 1.5 hours until cooked. Remove from the oven and allow to cool enough so that you can handle it.

In the meantime, in a food processor, whizz up the onion, garlic and chorizo. Transfer the mixture to a wide pot and cook over a low heat until the onion is translucent and the chorizo is starting to release its red perfumed oil.

Add the raisins and cumin, salt and pepper, cook for a few more minutes to allow all the flavours to mingle and then remove the pot from the heat.

Now pull apart the roast chicken, finely shredding the meat and add it to the chorizo mixture. Save the chicken carcass to make stock.

To assemble the chicken and chorizo empanadas

On a floured surface, roll out the pastry to a thickness of about 3mm.

Using a round pastry cutter, cut circles in the pastry. In the top half of these circles,place teaspoonfuls of the chicken and chorizo filling.

Take another lightly beaten egg, and with a pastry brush, paint egg wash on the top half of the circle where the filing has been placed. Now fold over the empty half of the pastry circle and press the edges together. Seal using the prongs of a fork by pressing them into the pastry all the way around the open edges.

To bake, place the chicken and chorizo empanadas on a baking tray, brush the tops with more egg wash and place in an oven preheated to 180C for about 20 minutes.

Enjoy the chicken and chorizo empanadas while still hot from the oven, with a cold beer!