Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bona fide

I have been told by many people that it is not possible to get a decent bagel outside of New York City. Or Montreal.

(Not by the same people. In fact, I would hesitate to put the New-York-bagel people and the Montreal-bagel people in a room with my favorite breakable items and then mention the word “bagel”. I think they’re even worse than the New-England-clam-chowder people and the Manhattan-clam-chowder people.

Not that anything with tomatoes in it can be called “chowder”.

But I digress.)

This takes in a lot of territory, and I haven’t eaten enough bagels in enough places to go that far. I will say that, in my experience, real bagels (as opposed to bread rolls that are just shaped like bagels) are pretty damn difficult to find in either Oxford or Canberra.

Since Nigella Lawson apparently has the same problem in London (she probably doesn’t spend much time in the East End, where there actually are real bagels; I never did either), she has thoughtfully provided a recipe for homemade bagels in HtbaDG, which I have selected for Cookbook Challenge Recipe #4.

NL's DIY Bagels
These quantities are half of the NL recipe. Also, I double-checked Under the High Chair’s bagel recipe for some aspects of the method.

500g/1lb+ strong, plain, or all-purpose flour
1.5tsp salt
3.5g/1tsp yeast
1Tbsp sugar
1.5tsp oil
250ml/10oz very warm water*

2Tbsp sugar for poaching the bagels

Grease a clean bowl and set aside.

Mix the flour, salt, and yeast together in a large bowl. Mix the sugar, oil, and water in a jug. Pour wet into dry and mix with a dough whisk, wooden spoon, or implement of your choice. When dough has cohered sufficiently (it will be very stiff), knead with your hands until you have a smooth, springy dough—this will take about 10 minutes of hard kneading.

Place the dough in oiled bowl, turning to coat with the oil. Cover bowl with clingfilm/plastic wrap and leave to rise for about one hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.

When the dough has risen, punch it down, knead it a little more, then cut up into six equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, and leave to rest for about five minutes. Meanwhile, grease a baking tray**, put a large pot of water on the stove to boil, and turn your oven up as high as it will go.

When the balls have had their rest, take one and poke a hole in the middle of it with your thumbs. Shape as best you can into a smooth, even bagel shape***, then proceed to the next one. When you have formed all of them, cover and leave to rise for another 15 minutes or so.

When the water is boiling, add the sugar (this makes the bagels shiny), and drop three of the bagels into it. Poach for about a minute, turning once. (Mine rose to the top, flipping halfway, during this time, so I didn’t really have to do anything.) Fish out with a slotted spoon and place on the baking tray. Repeat with the second three.

When you’re done poaching, bake the bagels in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until they are light brown, shiny, and puffy.

Makes 6 real bagels.


* I don’t think this was quite enough water, because the dough was very stiff. I plan to increase it by about 25ml/1oz next time.
** Even with greasing, the bagels still stuck. Next time I might try parchment instead.
*** As you can see from the picture, I couldn’t get my bagels very smooth because of how stiff the dough was. So I’ve decided they have character.

Monday, April 27, 2009

ANZAC Day

Today, Monday April 27, is the official holiday commemorating ANZAC Day. The actual date of ANZAC Day is April 25, and it is sort of an Australian version of Memorial Day. But only sort of.

April 25 is significant because it marks the date, in 1915, when Australian and New Zealand troops (ANZAC = Australia New Zealand Army Corps) began their prolonged and costly assault on the beaches of Gallipoli alongside their Allied counterparts. The campaign in this part of the world was an attempt to break the stalemate that was already occurring in the entrenched lines of the Western Front, or at least to divert attention from it with an Allied victory. The initial ANZAC assault was marred by poor planning, which in turn led to flawed execution, at huge cost of life. The casualty rates are gruesomely familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of First World War history: nearly 45,000 Allied troops, of whom 8,700 were Australian.

Gallipoli has assumed iconographic status in the historical memory of Australians. The death tolls of those days in 1915, horrendous as they were, would be surpassed in later years in pivotal battles at the Somme and Amiens, but Gallipoli was the first: Australia’s coming of age in war. And every year, at the same dawn hour when the ANZAC troops began their amphibious attack, Australians gather, in small towns and big cities all over the country, to honor not only their service and sacrifice, but also the contributions of all Australian veterans.

Since I’ve been in Australia, I’ve visited the national Australian War Memorial here in Canberra, and also the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, both of which were originally constructed to honor the dead of the First World War. After having lived in England, I was familiar with the awesome and lasting impact of this war on generation after generation, but it was only in coming here that I have fully grasped the importance of such physical memorials: how Australians in particular, far removed geographically from where their loved ones had died, and with little prospect either of having a body to bury or of travelling to a distant grave, poured the energy of their grief into communal memorials, as a tangible reminder and commemoration of those they had lost.

I don’t think most Americans even know that Memorial Day originally existed to remember the dead of the American Civil War, and any communal celebrations that still take place are more likely to be of the parade variety. For most people, the only thing Memorial Day commemorates now is the first barbecue or weekend away of the summer season. And there’s plenty of that here, too, for ANZAC Day. But I admire a country that, more than 90 years after the fact, makes the time to reflect quietly upon patriotism, soldiering, and sacrifice: for those who were at Gallipoli, all those who have served since, and for every individual, military and civilian alike.

ANZAC Biscuits
These cookies are an Australian icon in their own right. The recipe was devised to create a biscuit that would survive the long journey to Australian troops stationed overseas, arrive intact, and still taste good when the homesick recipient opened his package. You can find commercially produced versions of them in every shop, and the biggest producer, as standard practice, donates a portion of the profits to veterans’ charities. They’re good out of a package—they do indeed keep forever—but, as (nearly) always, they’re better homemade. I haven't made my own (yet!), so I direct you to an online authority instead. For my first attempt, I definitely want the real thing that someone's gran was baking back when.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Totally nuts

Did you know that macadamia nuts are originally from Australia? I didn’t. I’d always associated them with Hawaii, probably because of those jars of Mauna Loa salted macadamias that were often floating around when I was a kid. They were delicious, but pricey, so I didn’t get to eat them very much, even when I got old enough to buy my own nuts. I was pretty pleased when I started looking at nuts in the supermarket down here and saw how reasonably priced they were—for nuts, that is. Then I saw some for sale in an Australian souvenir shop and realized it was because they’re local. This prompted me to do a little more digging (mostly on Wikipedia), and I present here, for your edification and entertainment, some macadamia trivia.

1. Macadamias are the only plant food native to Australia that is grown and exported in commercial quantities.
2. They became popular internationally after Hawaiian farmers began cultivating them in the early twentieth century.
3. There are nine different species, but only two are commercially produced, because the others contain toxins or are otherwise indigestible to humans.
4. Indigenous Australians have been harvesting macadamia nuts for thousands of years, and have developed processes to use all the species.
5. Their European name is in honor of Dr. John MacAdam, a scientist and secretary to the Philosophical Institute of Australia, by his friend, German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller, in 1857.
6. Among their recorded indigenous Australian names are gyndl, jindilli, and boombera.
7. Macadamia nuts are very high in monounsaturated fats, and macadamia oil is a valued ingredient in skincare products for its high concentration of Omega-7 acids.

As far as macadamia nuts are concerned, I have totally gone native. My snack food of choice these days is a salted macadamia-and-cashew combo that is sold under my local supermarket’s in-house brand (ie, cheap!), and I’ve recently switched over to a macadamia-oil-based moisturizer that is making my skin very happy, especially here in super-dry Canberra.

And, since I don’t like odd numbers, I’ll round off with my personal favorite bit of trivia gained from my reading:

8. Chopped macadamia nuts apparently regularly masquerade as crack cocaine in drug stings because they look so similar.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Waste not

Several years ago I had my one and only experience of making cottage pie from scratch. (That’s what you call it when it has beef in; shepherd’s pie, properly, is made from lamb.) I chopped various vegetables; cooked and seasoned the meat; peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes. By the time I had finished, my kitchen was a disaster area. After I had assembled the thing in a baking dish, I looked at the directions, and remembered that after all that, now I was going to have to cook it again, this time in the oven. In the midst of a string of curses, I had a blinding revelation: this was not how you were supposed to do it. Cottage pie must have been invented to use up leftovers—probably from a Sunday roast.

(My apologies if this is old news to you. Growing up in a household of ten people, we were unlikely to have leftovers of any kind. On the rare occasions when we did, we just had them reheated, as opposed to refashioned.)

Following this flash of insight, I became increasingly aware of a subculture of leftover cookery: a whole series of dishes that, upon examination, revealed themselves to have originated, in my estimation, as vehicles for creative use of leftover food. Not just the aforementioned cottage pie and shepherd’s pie, but also chicken pot pie. Fried rice. Pasta al forno. Even some kinds of soup!

I eventually developed what I think of as Roving Lemon’s Leftover Rule of Thumb: If the recipe calls for any major ingredient to be cooked two different ways in a short space of time, then I’m betting that it was originally devised to use up leftovers.

This knowledge has been of great benefit to me since, as I’ve mentioned before, I hate wasting food. Unfortunately I also have a tendency to buy and prepare too much of it, especially when the holidays roll around. This past Easter was no exception; when I was placing my order at the butcher, I momentarily lost my mind and ordered a 2kg pork roast. So, about 4.5lbs of meat. For three people. One of whom is four.

My most recent addition to the list of potential leftover-vehicles is stuffed pasta (which probably extends to stuffed dumplings of all kinds and ethnicities). Since I had a hunk of unallocated pasta dough sitting in my fridge alongside the hunk of cooked roast pork, I decided to combine the two and make…

Serendipity Ravioli
I won’t give you a recipe for pasta dough, since chances are that, if you’re likely to have a leftover hunk of it sitting in your fridge, you already have one. If you don’t, you could buy fresh pasta sheets to make this, or look up a recipe. If you’re really determined to have the one I used, you can always email me (rovinglemon at yahoo dot com).

To make filling:
Cut meat off bone (if necessary) and into large chunks, and throw them into a food processor. (I had at least 500g/1lb of meat, but I forgot to weigh it.) Add two eggs, a couple of handfuls of grated pecorino romano cheese, a sprinkling of salt, and a lot of freshly ground black pepper. (I also threw in a couple of anchovies for a little extra flavor punch, but I wasn’t convinced this was successful. Something like Worcester sauce or balsamic vinegar might work better.) Mix in the food processor until thoroughly combined.

To make ravioli:
Cut strips of pasta about 4cm/1.5in wide and 7.5cm/3in long. Place a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of one side of the strip, and fold the other side over as if closing a book. Press down on all edges to seal, either with your fingers or a fork. (Miss B got in on this part. She had a blast.) Place on a plate to dry out a bit if using right away. If freezing, place in a single layer on a baking sheet and put in freezer for at least 30 minutes, then bag up. (If the ravioli are not at least partially frozen before bagging, they will freeze together in a huge lump—trust me, it's a mistake I have made before!)

To cook ravioli:
Bring a large pot of boiling salted water to a boil. Drop ravioli in one by one; they will sink to the bottom. When they float to the top, they’re done—it will only take a couple of minutes. (You can also do this from frozen; the directions are the same, but the cooking takes a little longer.) Fish them out with a slotted spoon and place in a warm, covered bowl until all have cooked. Serve immediately with sauce of your choice. (I made a very simple garlic-tomato-basil sauce.)

Makes 45-50 ravioli. Estimate about five for each person, as they are quite dense and filling.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pucker up

As you may have gathered from the name of this blog, I am very partial to lemons. The most useful of kitchen staples, they can be used in either sweet or savory foods. They can add a subtle sparkle to the background of almost any dish, or hold their own as the starring flavor. I may not go so far as my friend SC, whom I have witnessed eating whole lemon slices from her drink, peel and all, but short of such demonstrations of unconditional love I am among the lemon’s greatest admirers, and aim always to have some on hand.

Unfortunately, my housemates do not share my adoration of all things lemon. Miss B, despite her love of pickles and salty things, has not (yet) embraced the full spectrum of the sour palate, while DP thinks we’re both nuts and sits firmly in the sweet tooth camp. So when I recently developed a craving for lemon poppyseed cake, I knew I’d have to get creative about finding someone to share it with me, or else end up eating the whole thing myself. I took the advice of another cake-baking friend, and carted it off to my weekly parents’ coffee morning. A genius suggestion—I got enough to satisfy my own cravings, and had the added satisfaction of making a host of other lemon- (or just cake-) lovers happy. There was even enough left to take home for a photo shoot, which I had forgotten to do beforehand. Win-win-win.

(Bonus comment: “Isn’t it unusual for Americans to bake?”)

NL's Mother-in-Law’s Madeira Cake
Aka Cookbook Challenge Recipe #3. This is a variation on the very first recipe in HtbaDG, described as “baking at its simplest and most elegant….[O]ne of those plain cakes you think you can’t see the point of, until you start slicing and eating it.” It is delicious as is (although not quite up to the standard of the Ukrainian Poppyseed Cake in the Moosewood Cookbook), and would also make a great dessert topped with fresh berries and whipped cream.

240g/10oz unsalted butter at room temperature
200g/8oz caster/granulated sugar, plus extra for topping
zest of 1 and juice of 1.5 lemons
3 eggs
210g/8oz self-raising flour*
90g/4oz plain flour
2 Tbsp poppyseeds

Preheat the oven to 170C/350F. Grease a loaf pan and line with baking parchment.

Cream the butter and sugar. Chop the lemon zest very finely and add. Mix the eggs in one at a time, adding a tablespoon of flour each time. Mix in the remainder of the flour, followed by the lemon juice and poppyseeds. Spread in baking pan and sprinkle extra sugar over. Bake for 50-60 minutes; let cool in the tin.

* I didn’t have self-raising flour, so I used all plain flour and added two teaspoons of baking powder.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Line crossing

I’ve seen a few posts recently about how to know when you’ve gone too far as a food blogger. But I personally have decided that you have crossed the line when you start taking pictures of your breakfast. And then post them.

Which I have now done.

Uh-oh.

BUT. Doesn’t it look beautiful? (Or “bee-yoo-ba” as my niece used to say once upon a time, which sounds much more emphatic.) And delicious? And healthy? I eat some variation of this for breakfast most days of the week, and have been for about three years, and I still haven’t gotten tired of it. It’s Greek yogurt, topped with a handful of homemade granola and fruit of some kind (thawed frozen blackberries here). The Greek yogurt is key—it’s got a lot more heft to it than the regular kind, so it fills you up better, and its tangy creaminess, combined with some sweet-tart fruit and a little crunch for contrast, makes for a happy mouth and stomach to start the day.

Try it. I am confident it will improve the quality of your life.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pack rat

This recipe is the best reason I can think of for never getting rid of a cookbook ever.*

I bought How to be a Domestic Goddess more than seven years ago. At the time, I had a job that required me to travel an average of two weeks out of every four, and that was when my cookbook collection (not to say problem) really started. I had just moved back to the US, but was often either in the UK on these trips, or else passing through en route to somewhere else. I started picking up cookbooks here and there, reading them as though they were novels as a way to assuage my homesickness and mitigate night after night of eating alone in restaurants. This was one of the first ones I bought, and for me it exemplifies what Laurie Colwin said about cookbooks: that they are distillations of domestic life at a particular place and time. And very comforting at a time when domesticity of any kind was in short supply.

Even though I’ve pored over this cookbook numerous times over the years, I’m not sure I had ever cooked a single thing from it before this month. But I’ve been wanting to make this recipe ever since the first time I cracked the spine; in fact, as soon as I chose it for the Cookbook Challenge, I thought, “Now I’m finally going to make that bacon and egg pie.”

* In the mental health field, this is known as rationalization—finding post hoc reasons to justify otherwise inexplicable actions.


NL's Boxing Day Egg-and-Bacon Pie
So called because it is NL's preferred Boxing Day supper; obviously you don't have to wait until then to make it. I fiddled with the filling proportions, as the original recipe was practically all bacon and hardly any egg. It was delicious like this, but next time I make it, I might lower the bacon by another 100g and add yet another egg.

Pastry
I used this recipe for Anxiety-Free Piecrust; or substitute your own favorite

Filling
400g/1lb (streaky) bacon, cut into thin strips
1 medium onion, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1 scallion, chopped
2 Tbsp chopped basil**
3 large eggs

Make the pastry ahead of time, so it’s had time to rest by the time you are ready to put the pie together.

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F.

Fry the bacon and onion together, seasoning liberally with pepper. Mix the remaining ingredients together thoroughly and set aside.

Roll out both halves of the pastry dough to fit your pie dish of choice; line the dish with one, and set the other aside. Dump the bacon and onions into the pie shell, then pour over the egg mixture. Cover with the pastry lid, trim both, and fold over and pinch the overhang to seal the pie. Cut steam vents in the top and bake for 30 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack. NL recommends serving it cold or about room temperature, but we ate it hot and it was good that way too.

Serves 6.

** The original recipe called for parsley, but I’m not a big parsley fan and I never have any on hand. I do, however, have three basil plants on my balcony.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Australian Easter


from top: chocolate bilby; Miss B's first take-home cooking project from preschool--decorated Easter biscuits; Easter cupcakes; supermarket shelves stocked with candy; Italian pizza chiene (meat pie); Italian Easter tarrale

Well, I thought having Christmas in the summertime was weird, but having Easter in the autumn is weirder still. Even so, we enjoyed a day full of holiday goodies, Skype chats with family, and warm autumn sunshine. I hope that you and yours have had a Happy Easter, Happy Passover, or just a happy and relaxing weekend.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday lunch

My mother never really got the hang of Vatican II. I suppose it is difficult to adjust your habits when you’ve spent 30+ years of your life believing you’ll go to hell if you eat meat on Fridays. Add a houseful of kids to keep track of, not to mention feed, and you can see why, by the time I arrived on the scene, eight years after the Church Fathers had first gathered, the tradition of meatless Fridays was still going strong, and continued to do so throughout my childhood. And why, as a result, I ate a tuna-fish sandwich for lunch every. single. Friday. of my life, at least until I graduated from high school.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Holiday cooking

What do holidays make you think of?

Holidays make me think of food. (I know, don’t faint from shock or anything.) Lots and lots of food. Giant feasts on the holidays themselves, of course; but also special Italian-American holiday foods, produced ahead of time on a near-industrial scale, by large gatherings of female members of my extended maternal family, for various relatives living within a thirty-mile radius. We’re into the fourth generation now, and still keeping up the traditions that my grandparents brought with them to America. Since I can’t always be there for the main event (for obvious reasons), I’ve started my own overseas operation, doing a vastly reduced version for my own crew (as well as any interested locals who happen along at the right time).

Easter tarrale
This recipe is based upon a traditional Italian Easter sugar-coated treat, and was standardized and considerably modified (and, reportedly, vastly improved) by my grandmother and one of my aunts several decades ago. The master family recipe makes about eight times as much as this mini-recipe that my mother worked out for me for my first overseas Easter, ten years ago. Tarrale (thanks Diana!) is, I think, the correct representation of what my grandmother called them in Calabrian. We generally refer to them as doughnuts in English, I think because the big ones are round and have a hole in the middle, but they're really more like cake-y cookies.

Cookies
300g/12oz butter, at room temperature
500g/20oz sugar
1 dozen eggs (L or XL)
1 1/2 Tbsp vanilla
2 Tbsp lemon flavoring*
1.2kg/3lbs plain/all-purpose flour (more or less)
1 tsp baking powder per cup flour (ie about 4 Tbsp for 3lbs)
1/4 tsp salt per cup flour (ie about 3 tsp for 3lbs)

* I couldn't find lemon flavoring in my tiny local Sainsbury's the first time I made this abroad, so substituted 2 Tbsp lemon zest and 1 Tbsp lemon juice. I found it an improvement and have been doing it ever since.

Preheat the oven to 180C/375F. Line every baking sheet you can get your hands on with parchment paper.

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, vanilla, and lemon and beat until combined.

Add as much of the flour as you need to make a dough stiff enough to work by hand (you will probably have to quit using the mixer and switch to a wooden spoon or paddle before this happens).

When dough is sufficiently stiff, turn out of bowl and knead, continuing to add flour as necessary, until smooth and shiny.

Cut off 1/4 of dough. Wrap remainder with cloth to keep from drying out.

Roll dough by hand into a sort of baguette shape (this is just to make measuring off cookie-sized pieces easier).

Cut off slices off dough about the size of a fat finger; dust with flour and roll into a long, thin tube. Twist and roll this into shapes to suit your fancy; traditional shapes include knots and folding the tube in two, then twisting it around itself. The popular favorite in my family is the carciofia (artichoke); after you role out the tube, you flatten it with your fingers, then make little slashes all along it with a knife, being careful not to cut through completely. Roll this up like a ribbon and set on the flat (uncut) side. It should look roughly like an artichoke. For big ones, use two slices; follow directions as above, then twist tubes around each other and secure the ends to make a doughnut shape.

Repeat with quarter-sections of dough until you have used it all up.

Bake cookies for 15+ minutes, or until lightly browned. You may want to turn the sheets partway through, depending upon your oven.

Sugar coating
1kg/2lbs granulated sugar
4 cups water

Combine sugar and water in pan and stir until sugar is dissolved.

Bring to a boil, then simmer until sugar 'spins a thread'.

Place about a dozen cookies in a very large pot. (A stockpot is ideal for this operation.) Pour over a generous amount of sugar syrup and heat the pan for no about one minute (I do this over a medium electric burner on high heat, since my grandmother's wood-burning stove isn't available; hotter is better).

Turn or toss cookies to ensure they are fully coated in sugar; my mother does this by shaking the pan vigorously, flinging the cookies in the air. I find this results in a lot of breakage, so I use more of a tumble-dryer motion, tilting the pan on the counter at a 45-degree angle and rotating it. (You may need to re-heat the pan once or twice during this process.) Either way, you are looking for the sugar to re-crystallize; it will eventually become white, lumpy, and solid. The more sugar you use, the better, according to my family!

Repeat with all cookies.


Makes approximately 100 (more if you make all small ones, less if you make big ones).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Self knowledge

You know, I aspire to being a domestic goddess. I dream of being serene and unflappable, producing one culinary masterpiece after another, always prepared with a fully stocked (not to mention spotlessly clean and precisely organized) kitchen. But I think I’m going to have to accept that it’s just not going to happen.

Take this weekend. I had already planned my first Cookbook Challenge recipe from How to be a Domestic Goddess: cupcakes, as requested by Miss B. I had checked the ingredients list. I had taken the butter out of the fridge ahead of time to soften. I had even been in the supermarket on Saturday afternoon to pick up a few staples.

And yet, at five-thirty on Saturday evening, when dinner preparations were already in full swing and it was time to frost the cupcakes, I discovered that I had somehow managed to forget to buy icing (confectioners’) sugar. Which we had probably been out of since January, the last time I remember making frosting.

I will spare you the details of the short-lived but hideously unsuccessful (and potentially dangerous) attempt to make frosting using melted caster (granulated) sugar that followed this discovery. Suffice to say that Miss B and I, who clearly have no self-restraint, ate unfrosted cupcakes for dessert on Saturday night. DP, who has more exacting standards, held out until Sunday lunchtime when he could have his cupcake as it should be—dripping with gooey chocolate frosting.

It is worth noting that, even without frosting, these cupcakes are so good that a four-year-old who normally ignores the cake part altogether was eating bits off the paper liner by the end.

Pepsi-Cola Cupcakes*
* Anyone who is familiar with Ms. Lawson knows that she is, albeit reluctantly, the “Coca-Cola cooking queen of Europe”. Anyone who is familiar with me knows that we don’t keep no stinkin’ Coke in my house.

Cupcakes
200g/8oz plain/all-purpose flour
250g/10oz caster/granulated sugar
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda/baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
125ml/5oz buttermilk (or 30g/10z yogurt mixed with 100ml/4oz semi-skimmed milk)**
1 tsp vanilla extract
125g/5oz unsalted butter
2 Tbsp cocoa powder
175ml/7oz Pepsi

Frosting
2 Tbsp butter, softened***
3 Tbsp Pepsi
1 Tbsp cocoa powder
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
225g/9oz icing/confectioners' sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Line a 12-cup cupcake pan.

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Heat the butter, cocoa, and Pepsi on the stove until the butter is melted and stir to combine. Mix the egg, dairy, and vanilla together. Add first the butter mixture, and then the egg mixture, to the dry ingredients and beat to combine. Pour into cupcake pans and bake until a tester comes out clean.****

To make the frosting, mix the Pepsi, cocoa, and vanilla into the butter. Sift or whisk the sugar to get rid of any lumps, then beat into the butter mixture until you have a thick, smooth, but still runny frosting. Spread on the cupcakes. Sprinkle with hundreds and thousands if so inclined.

** I used 30g Greek yogurt and 100ml full milk—worked great.
*** NL specifies melting the butter to make the frosting, but I thought that would make it too runny, so I didn't. As you can see, it's pretty runny as it is.
**** I cooked mine for between 30 and 40 minutes, which seemed like a lot for cupcakes, but they weren't dried out. Quite the opposite, in fact; I still wasn't sure if they were cooked, even after all that time.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Wild things

Sometimes it’s easy to forget the fairly amazing fact that I’m living in Australia. You know, I’m going about my daily business—kid stuff, working on the computer, running errands housework cooking blah blah blah—and after a while the different accents and shop names don’t seem so exotic anymore.

And, after all, they’re not what really makes Australia special for the non-Australian, are they? It’s seeing the local wildlife firsthand that really brings it home. These sightings seem to be coming more frequently lately, as autumn starts to make some inroads and the days get shorter. I mentioned the Festival of Cockatoos, and there have also been increased numbers of king parrots around our complex. And for the last few weeks, we’ve been getting regular visits from a mother and baby brushtail possum after dark; at first, mum was climbing up to our balcony with baby peeking out of her pouch, and now baby clings to mum’s back as they nose around for runoff water from the plants (or in the bowl we've been leaving out for them). They haven’t agreed to pose for any pictures, but they don’t seem particularly shy of humans, particularly since they generally announce their arrival by knocking something over. Best of all, when DP was closing the curtains last night, he saw a kangaroo standing on the grassy median which runs down the boulevard behind our apartment, patiently waiting until a truck passed before bouncing across the westbound lanes and disappearing down a side road.

(Have I mentioned that where we live is about a 10-minute walk, or a one-minute drive, from the busiest part of Canberra’s downtown? Perhaps this is why people say that, in spite of being the nation’s capital, Canberra is really just a big country town.)

Every time it happens, I feel as excited as if I were still Miss B’s age. And it goes without saying that all of these sightings are vastly preferable to close encounters of the eight-legged kind.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fool

I thought briefly about constructing some elaborate blog-related hoax for today, in honor of April Fool’s. Then I remembered that I’m not Jim Halpert and that practical jokes are not my forte.

It’s just as well, because at the moment I seem to be on the receiving end of a practical joke being played by my ISP, where they cut off my service at home, give me a different reason every time I call tech support, make me pay to find out that their equipment is (possibly) at fault, and then force me to wait four days while they ship a replacement (which may or may not fix the problem), instead of letting me walk 10 minutes down the road to pick up a replacement myself.

This reminds me of why I’ve never really liked practical jokes: the person they’re played on rarely considers them amusing. But I have no doubt that my ISP, telecom monopoly though it may be, appreciates the simple joys in life and finds the whole thing side-splittingly hilarious.

So, as usual when life gets to me, I’m distracting myself with cooking. And with all this extra time that I can’t spend, say, doing my job, what better activity to engage in than another round of the Cookbook Challenge?

Regular readers may remember the first round, from December of last year. If you’re new, the rules are simple, and designed for anyone who owns more than one cookbook:

1. Count up the number of cookbooks you have. (Include magazines, clipping binders, electronic folders—whatever you’ve got that you want to explore further.)
2. When you’ve got a total, pick a number between one and, say, 50. (Better yet, if you can, have someone else do it for you, to ensure that it’s really random.)
3. Count through your cookbooks until you get to that number, and pull out the randomly selected cookbook, magazine, folder, etc. (You could also pull names out of a hat if you want to really get serious, but this is quicker.)
4. Commit to cooking at least one new recipe from that resource in the next month. Five, if you want to really challenge yourself.
5. Tell about what you discovered—send me an email, post about it yourself, comment here (I'll report back on what I found). Did you discover a new favorite? Or is this cookbook just a pretty face with nothing in it you can see yourself cooking?

I've already made my selection: Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. Perfect for the coming of autumn to Canberra: more reasons to turn on the oven and whip up something tasty!

So come on: even if you’re not in the throes of computer despair like me, you may be trying to shake off the northern winter doldrums, or looking forward to cooler weather cooking after a hot southern hemisphere summer, or getting ready to host a big event for Easter or Passover. Join in and look for buried treasure in your own recipe library!
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