Friday, August 28, 2009

Preschool slang

Okay, not slang actually used in preschool or by preschoolers, but rather a selection of slang terms I’ve picked up over the last several months of hanging around with Australian preschool parents.

Dob in – tell on or get someone in trouble; international synonyms include grass (UK), squeal or tattle (both US).
Example: “The teacher didn’t see Bruce pull Sheila’s hair, but then Narelle dobbed him in.”

Hoon – one who engages in disruptive or anti-social activity. Used as either a verb or a noun; frequently used in connection with small boys whooping it up on the playground, or teenagers driving too fast.
Example: “There he is, hooning along to the sandpit.”

Spruik(er) – someone who vocally and aggressively solicits business from passersby, akin to a tout (UK) or huckster (US). Can also be used as a verb.
Example: “Why don’t you walk down to the café and spruik our cake stall a bit?”

Tanbark – wood chips used to cover playground surfaces, to provide a softer landing

And my personal favorite:

Feral – same definition as usual, but used as a noun in reference to young children displaying temporary amnesia with regard to personal grooming or table manners.
Example: “When was the last time you combed your hair? You’re turning into a feral since holidays started.”

Illustration: some typically direct Australian signage: found hanging over the saltwater crocodile tank at Sydney Aquarium

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Challenge 3.3

The source Eat This…It’ll Make You Feel Better!

The recipe Marinara Sauce In Australia, Marinara Sauce seems to refer to tomato sauce with assorted kinds of seafood in it; I can’t remember right now if the same is true in other places. Confusingly, Dom DeLuise calls this plain tomato sauce Marinara Sauce, as in “Fisherman’s Wife Sauce”, and says the name comes from the fact that fishermen’s wives would whip up this quick sauce when the fishing boats came into view over the horizon, and have it ready by the time the boats docked. My theory is that, if this is true, it’s because they were also hoping they’d get some fish to throw in at the last minute.

The ingredients
2-4 Tbsp olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced*
1 6 oz can tomato paste or equivalent
2 28 oz/4 400 g can(s) tomatoes**
4 Tbsp sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
10 basil leaves, shredded***
grated cheese

The method In a large, deep frying pan, heat olive oil and sauté garlic briefly, just until fragrant. Add tomato paste, tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes. Bring to the bubbling point and then simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring regularly to make sure it’s not sticking. Just before serving, add basil, pepper and cheese to taste.

The verdict This is a good, basic, fresh-tasting meatless tomato sauce that I think would adapt well to any number of additions, whether fish, fowl, vegetable, or other. The sun-dried tomatoes (apparently Dom’s mother’s idea) provide a bit more complexity than you get in a standard sauce.

* I also added a pinch of dried chili flakes at this stage.
** I misread this, and used half as much canned tomato as the recipe specifies. It was still good.
*** I didn’t have any fresh basil, so I threw a cube of frozen pesto in at the end.
**** I think Dom has a thing about salt, but I added some here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cake stall

My daughter’s school is trying to raise money for a fairly ambitious project. So ambitious that we even had a fundraising meeting to discuss various wild and crazy ideas to generate income--only to fall back, as our first attempt, on possibly the oldest fundraising idea there is: we ran a cake stall. (That’s “bake sale” in Australian.) I don’t think I’d ever participated in one before (which doesn’t seem possible somehow, but there you are). I learned a few lessons from this one; whether or not they translate elsewhere, I leave it to others to confirm until I get a little more cake stall experience.

1. Some people take them very, very seriously. I’m talking professional-level presentation, preprinted ingredients labels, and production in industrial quantities.

2. Everyone likes cupcakes. Age is not a factor.

3. There were a number of sweets that I had not encountered before but which evoked cries of nostalgic delight from older customers. Some, like chocolate crackles, turned out to be familiar but merely masquerading under an Australian name (in this case, chocolate Rice Krispies bars). Others, like honey joys and melting moments, I had to ask about, or look up later.

4. All baking chocolates are not created equal. There’s a reason I lug boxes of Baker's Chocolate squares across oceans, beg for them to be included in care packages, and cuss when they run out. They may not have the cachet of Scharffen Berger or Valrhona, but they provide the necessary chocolate bang for my buck. (Plus, they're originally from my hometown.) As I have discovered, Nestlé’s Melts are not an adequate substitute, especially for the frosting; the melted chocolate seized up into thousands of tiny chocolate flecks throughout the buttercream, as you can see from the picture above. It was still pretty good; just not at all what I had previously produced using the same recipe.

Chocolate-chocolate cake
Adapted from Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, circa 1950
This is a one-bowl recipe, and I’m transcribing the instructions, which include the ingredients, exactly as I wrote them down in my recipe notebook a long, long time ago. I’ve made this cake dozens of times, and my mother has made it hundreds. Multiply ingredients by 1.5 to get enough for a two-layer cake made in 8-inch (20-cm?) pans.

1. Preheat oven to 350F/180C.

2. Grease and flour baking pan(s).

3. In a large bowl, sift together:
- 2¼ cups cake flour*
-1¾ cups sugar
- 1/3 tsp baking powder
- 1¾ tsp baking soda/bicarbonate of soda
- 1 tsp salt

4. Melt and add:
- 2 oz/50 g chocolate**

5. Add:
- 2/3 cup shortening***

6. Pour in a little over half of:
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp vanilla

7. Beat 2 minutes. Then add remaining water and:
- 3 eggs****

8. Beat another 2 minutes. Pour into prepared pans. Bake until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean: start checking layers after 20 minutes.

9. Cool and frost with:

Chocolate buttercream frosting
2 oz/50 g chocolate**
4 oz/100 g butter, softened
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla
16 oz/400 g confectioner’s/icing sugar
¼ cup milk (more or less as needed)

Melt chocolate in a double boiler. Meanwhile, combine butter, salt, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl; add chocolate when ready. Mix in sugar and beat until you have a smooth frosting (I use a hand mixer for this); add milk as necessary to achieve your preferred fluffy or creamy texture.

Makes enough to fill and frost one two-layer cake, or at least two dozen cupcakes.

* If substituting all-purpose/plain flour, use only 2 cups.
** For best results, use a chocolate that you know works well in baking. The Nestle’s Melts I used were advertised as a baking chocolate, but behaved very oddly when used in this cake.
*** You can substitute the same amount of softened butter for this.
**** If multiplying the recipe by 1.5 as suggested, use 5 eggs here.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Small victories


As I mentioned a while back, one of the challenges of living in a new country is that you often have to find out what things are called, and where they are sold, before you can acquire them. This sometimes complicates even the simplest tasks. For example: our front door has been creaking the last few months. A lot. Really loudly. To the point where my sister was making Vincent Price jokes. Every day of her visit.

“You really need to get some WD-40 for that,” she advised just before she left.

“I will, I will,” I said, “as soon as I find out what they call it down here.”

Then the other day, I opened the door so that a visiting Australian friend could depart, and it creaked so loudly that she jumped involuntarily.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I’ve got to do something about that, as soon as I figure out what the Australian equivalent of WD-40 is, and get myself out to Bunnings (a big box store, equivalent to Home Depot/B&Q, not accessible without a car) to get some.”

She looked at me with bemusement. “It’s WD-40 down here too,” she replied. “And I bet you they sell it at Big W.”

(Equivalent to Target. A five-minute walk from my house. Would not require a special rental-car trip!)

Today, after an extended hunt through every possible department (Hardware? House cleaning? Manchester?), I found WD-40 in the “Motoring” department.

And my front door doesn’t squeak anymore.

Life is good.

* NB I didn’t think a shot of a can of WD-40 would be too enthralling, so here, have a picture of a vintage Holden (another thing you could use WD-40 on!) instead.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Challenge 3.2

The source Eat This…It’ll Make You Feel Better! by Dom DeLuise

The recipe When I picked this cookbook for Cookbook Challenge #3, I envisioned myself making lots of hearty, tomato-based sauces and soups to chase away the winter chills. So I’m a little surprised to realize that everything I’ve flagged so far is a dough recipe. This one really intrigued me, because I’d never heard of an Italian version of egg bread that wasn’t a sweet bread. This one is more like challah or brioche.

The ingredients
1 packet yeast*
1 ¼ cups (10 oz/250 ml) warm water
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salad oil**
4½ cups/540 g all-purpose/plain flour
2 eggs
1 egg yolk, beaten with one tsp water
3 Tbsp sesame seeds (optional)

The method Dissolve yeast in ¼ cup of the warm water and let stand for about 5 minutes. Add the remaining water, along with the sugar and oil.

Mix in 3 cups of flour and beat until smooth and elastic.*** Beat in eggs, one at a time, then gradually add the remaining 1½ cups flour. Turn dough out of bowl and knead, adding flour as necessary (if the dough becomes sticky) until the dough is shiny and very pliable (you should also be able to see small bubbles under the surface).

Put the dough in a greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled (about 1 hour). Punch dough down, cover and let rise again (about 45 minutes). Punch down again, and divide into 3 equal portions. Roll each portion into a long sausage. On a prepared baking sheet, braid the three strands. Let rise again (about 45 minutes).**** Brush with egg-yolk mixture, and sprinkle with seeds, if desired.

Bake at 375F/190C for about 45 minutes. When done, the crust should be golden brown, and the loaf should sound hollow when tapped.

* Since they don’t sell yeast in packets here, I used 1 generous teaspoon.
** I used light olive oil.
*** My dough was not smooth and elastic at this stage.
**** I completely overlooked this step. This may be why my braid looks somewhat misshapen.

The verdict I still have no idea if this is authentically Italian, or if Dom’s mother adopted it, but he's right about one thing: it makes fantastic toast, topped with butter and jam.

Monday, August 17, 2009

False advertising

If winter in Canberra is a much milder version of what I expected, winter in Sydney bears no resemblance to anything I’ve ever experienced by that name. We took my sister and niece there for the last weekend of their recent visit and spent the first weekend of August (the antipodean equivalent of February) sitting outside in cafes, admiring local landmarks gleaming in the blazing sunshine, and “wrapping up” (that means putting on a fleece) for a sunset ferry ride across the harbor. We capped off the weekend with a picnic in the Botanical Gardens that was pretty much identical to the last one we had, in December, except this time we had cold roast chicken instead of prawns, and I planned ahead a bit better for my contribution to the feast.

Hotel Kitchen Greek-ish Salad
The ingredients for this salad were pretty much determined by what I could find in the little market next door to where we stayed, and prepare with the minimal equipment on offer--hence the name.

1 medium cucumber
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 medium red onion
1 block feta cheese
1-2 tsp dried oregano
2 T lemon juice
5 T extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Peel the cucumber, quarter lengthwise and chop into chunks. Halve the cherry tomatoes. Peel and slice the onion. Rinse the feta cheese and cut into cubes. Sprinkle oregano evenly over everything; mix lemon juice and olive oil and drizzle over. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Either serve immediately or lug to your destination. Keeps well.

Serves 8-10 as part of a picnic lunch spread.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Winter's end

I keep expecting winter in Canberra to turn into something I'm familiar with--biting cold, howling wind, snow (please?)--and it keeps surprising me. When August began, I couldn't stop thinking about the old adage, "When the days begin to lengthen, then the cold begins to strengthen" and bracing myself for an onslaught of some kind. When one of my friends (originally from balmy Queensland) recently told me that she was all done with winter, I told her I was still waiting for it to start.

The reality is that, instead of my fevered winter imaginings of northern origin, we've had some much-needed rain, some frosty mornings, and some warm, sunny afternoons--sunny enough to encourage preschoolers to take their coats off and flowers to bloom, sometimes where you least expect to see them. I don't know if it's climate change, or just typical. It's pretty different from my expectations, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Challenge 3.1

The source Eat This...It'll Make You Feel Better! by Dom DeLuise

The recipe This is Italian home cooking 101: DIY pasta. Even though I already know how to do this (and maybe you do, too), I selected a recipe for homemade pasta as my first Cookbook Challenge #3 recipe for two reasons:

1. this recipe does not use eggs (unlike my family recipe), therefore suitable for vegans and people allergic to eggs (hellooooo C.!); and

2. it is noticeably less gargantuan than my family recipe, therefore likely to be easier to undertake on a day when I want some fresh pasta but don’t have, say, six hours to spend in the kitchen.

The ingredients
3 cups/360 g semolina flour*
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup/250 ml warm water**

The method Pile the flour either in a very large, shallow bowl, or on a countertop or board suitable for kneading dough. Sprinkle the salt over. Make a well in the center of the pile, and add the olive oil. Mix in gently, using the tips of your fingers and being careful to keep the olive oil from escaping.

Making sure the mixture is still in a pile, with a well in the center, pour in about 2 Tbsp of the water and continue mixing. Pull in flour from the outsides of the pile; continue mixing gently and repeat, adding the water a little at a time. Eventually the dough will start to come together, and you can begin to mix it a little more vigorously. When you can, form into a ball and knead briefly, to make sure the dough is consistent, then put under an inverted bowl and rest for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, knead the dough for 3-5 more minutes, until it is soft and pliable. Form into a ball again, put back under the bowl and rest for another 15 minutes.

When ready to make pasta, cut the ball into thirds or fourths. At this point you can roll it flat for noodles, using a rolling pin or a pasta machine, or you can make whatever macaroni shape takes your fancy. What you see in the picture are what my family calls cecchedette (please excuse (or correct!) wildly approximate spelling; I’ve never seen this word written down), which look exactly like gnocchi made from regular pasta dough instead of potato dough. To make these, roll one-quarter of the dough into a sausage about 1 in/2 cm thick, then cut off chunks about the size of the top of your thumb. Then, using your thumb, roll them over the tines of a fork, or a woven basket, so that they flatten and curl over your thumb with the pattern on the outside.

Allow to dry for one hour before cooking, or freeze.*** When ready to cook, drop into salted, boiling water; they will cook in 2-3 minutes. When they float to the top, they’re ready.

Serves 4 people with leftovers.****

* I used 2 cups plain flour and 1 cup coarse semolina, because I wasn’t sure that was the same thing as semolina flour. I’m still not, but it seems to have worked.
** You may need a little more or a little less, depending on your flour and how dry/humid it is where you are.
*** To freeze, space out pieces of pasta on baking trays and leave in freezer until starting to harden, then put in a freezer bag. If you skip the baking-tray step, you will end up with a huge lump of frozen pasta. I promise.
**** Homemade pasta is much more filling than dried pasta, or at least mine is, probably because it’s never as fine.

The verdict This one is a keeper. It's a great alternative to egg pasta; doesn’t take too long to make, gives you the satisfaction of a fairly involved cooking project, and tastes delicious.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Chain reaction

After 2+ weeks of feeding visitors, I had a lot of leftovers in the fridge, so yesterday I took a break from my latest nightmarish work deadline and had a cooking session to use some of them up. I defrosted some pâte brisée and made another batch of beef stroganoff turnovers; then found myself with some pastry dough still left and no more filling. Not wanting to create yet more leftovers, I borrowed an age-old trick used by generations of British cooks, and made mini jam tarts: circles of dough, poked into tiny baking cups, with dollops of jam in the middle. Then I took the very last scraps, and made cinnamon-sugar pastry rolls (which are just what they sound like). Miss B was absolutely thrilled by this whole project and got involved in every aspect (getting completely covered with dough and flour in the process), and after it was all cooked we had a pastry-themed lunch.

I just wish (so much!) that I had thought to put applesauce in some of the tarts. So much that I might have to make another batch of pastry and start all over again.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What the...?

I think I need to start paying attention to my container garden again.

I’ve been ignoring it, you see, what with it being winter and all. So, no watering, no checking to see how much sun things are getting; to be honest, I haven’t even gotten around to cleaning up the dead stuff from last summer.

Imagine my surprise when I looked out on the balcony earlier this week and noticed something green and growing. Even more amazing: it was the mint. The same mint that I planted twice last summer, and which had never even sprouted.

(Bearing in mind that mint is one of those things that reputedly will take over the entire garden if not contained, because it grows anywhere. I can tell you that its total failure to thrive here made me question my gardening capabilities.)

Apparently it just doesn’t like to be too hot. I guess that’ll teach me to stop taking gardening advice from people in England and the American northeast.

I wonder if any Australians would be willing to advise me whether I’ve left it too long to plant my tulip bulbs?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Prep procrastination

Speaking of philosophical conundrums: if you have a choice in cooking, when would you prefer to do most of the work? At the beginning, or the end, of preparation?

For myself, I generally prefer making things that require most of the work at the beginning, so that when the cooking part is done, the food is essentially ready to be served. Especially when I’m trying to get a meal on the table, I find that having too much to do in the last 10-15 minutes really stresses me out.

I apparently forgot this preference this morning when I decided to make applesauce. I had a pile of apples that had seen better days, but weren’t done for yet, and I figured this was the best way to use them up. But I was also rushing around, trying to get various things done so that I could sit down at the computer and get to work. So, instead of peeling and coring them as I normally would, I convinced myself that I had read somewhere that leaving the peel on enhanced the color of the final product, and that I could remove anything I didn’t want in the mix later by putting it through a food mill.

(Please note: I was making the applesauce in a slow cooker. It was in there for hours. It came out brown. Also: my food mill is in Boston.)

When I came back to finish it off late in the afternoon, I cursed myself for my earlier decision. Then I dirtied three different perforated kitchen tools (a sieve, a frying basket, and a plastic colander) and a whole lot of utensils trying to find something that would allow me to strain through the apple mush but trap the peel, seeds, stems, and other unappetizing bits. That took a while.

On the plus side, the strained mush was much smoother than my usual lumpy applesauce, so I dumped it back in the slow cooker and cooked it down some more. I don’t know if it qualifies as apple butter, but it’s very thick. And pretty tasty.

I still have another 10 apples to use up, so I’m going to make another batch tomorrow. Which presents a further dilemma: now that I’ve cracked a method for straining out the bits, should I use the no-prep method again, or go for the traditional peel and core?

I guess I'll just have to figure out when I have the least amount of time.

Slow cooker applesauce/butter
10 apples, washed and cut into eighths
2-4 Tbsp spiced sugar*
Pinch salt
¼ cup water or other liquid
1 Tbsp lemon juice

Put the first four ingredients in the slow cooker and cook for 4-6 hours on low, until apples have softened completely.

Force apple mush through a food mill or strainer to get rid of all the stuff you don’t want in the finished product. If desired, return strained puree to the slow cooker and cook on low for another hour or so until thickened further. Stir in the lemon juice; taste, and adjust seasonings if desired.

Makes about 2 cups.

* I used sugar seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cardamom. I added more cinnamon and ginger at the end.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Retro cool?

How long does it take for something to go from being perceived as trendy, to becoming dated (and maybe even a little bit cheesy) to becoming retro cool, or even just plain cool again? Does it depend upon the intrinsic qualities of the item, or is the mere passage of time sufficient to invest the desired mystique?

Is twenty years long enough for the cycle?

I hope, over the course of this month, to answer some of these deep philosophical questions…through the medium of the latest round of the Cookbook Challenge.

Because this month’s selection, published at the height of late ‘80s cheesitude, and with the goofy graphic design and recipes from half-forgotten celebrities to prove it, is the late, great ("Not the face!") Dom DeLuise’s Eat This…It’ll Make You Feel Better!

Full disclosure: when this came up as my selection for the month, I seriously considered cheating. I was really hoping for one of the beguiling Australian cookbooks I have bought over the past few months but not yet dipped into properly, or maybe something that would help me produce some hearty winter veggie food. This seemed so…unhip.

But, if I’m going to be absolutely honest, I also have to disclose that I bought this cookbook for myself, when I was starting to focus on cooking, because I was hoping to get hold of some quantified versions of southern Italian classics (as opposed to my mother and grandmother’s method: “Throw this stuff in a pot. No, I don’t know exactly how much. Cook it until it looks done. It’ll be delicious.” Which of course it always is—when they do it). And if you’re looking for hearty, filling, minimally meaty fare, southern Italian cucina povera isn’t a bad place to start.

So, what have you got in your cookbook collection that you’re maybe a little embarrassed to own up to? Wouldn’t you like to take the Cookbook Challenge this month and find out if it’s worth its bookshelf real estate?

A quick refresher on how the Cookbook Challenge works:

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 that total. (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. Did you discover a new favorite? Or is this cookbook just a pretty face with nothing in it you can see yourself cooking?

As for me, I’m going back to the ‘80s, and will report on what I find in the kitchen there. I will not, however, be coming back wearing skinny jeans, an oversized top, and a giant belt, even if everyone else suddenly thinks this is a good idea again. I’ve already been there once, and once was enough.
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