Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Eight years

Oxford, Oxford, Boston, Boston, Boston, Canberra, Kansas City, Oudtshoorn, Canberra again....Wishing a very happy birthday to one of the best-travelled eight-year-olds on the planet (and always good company, no matter where we are): the mighty Miss B. May the year to come bring you lots of Australian (and aquatic!) adventures.

Friday, July 27, 2012

TUK slices

In the US, we call them “bar cookies”; in the UK, they are “tray bakes”. Here in Australia, anything you can mix up, spread in your standard square or rectangular pan, and stick in the oven for 30-40 minutes is known as “slice”. (As in, “That looks yummy, I’ll have a slice!”) And at the moment, it’s my default baking option, because pretty much the only baking implement I have in the TUK is a 9” x 13” (23 cm x 33 cm?) metal pan that I bought myself, rationalizing it as follows:
  1. You can never have too many baking/roasting pans.
  2. If I go more than two weeks without baking, bad things will happen.
It has turned out to be very useful, both in expanding my TUK possibilities and in preserving my mental serenity during transition. It gets used on a near-daily basis for savory as well as sweet cooking, and it has prompted me to expand my definition of what in my standard baking repertoire can be re-cast as a ‘slice’. I’ve already used it for congo bars, yogurt cake, and flapjack, along with the fridge cake I posted the other day. Now I’m trawling my own archives to see what else I can repurpose. I’m thinking these would all be good options:

- oat-fruit bars (ok, technically these are already a slice, I just haven’t made them in a long time)

What else? Recommendations? The only stipulation is that it must be able to be sliced neatly and eaten out of hand - suitable for coffee mornings, knitting groups, and playdates.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Cheering up the flat with some local colo(u)r - Canberra Farmers' Market proteas, July 2012

Monday, July 23, 2012

Conference calls

Working for an international organization means that most of the people I work with are not in the same time zone as I am – no matter what time zone that happens to be. Since this is true for all of us, we are used to doing most of our work via email and other electronic communication. Sometimes, though, there’s no substitute for having an actual conversation. And since booking a meeting room, or just crossing paths at the water cooler, isn’t an option, we schedule conference calls. I average a couple a month, ratcheting up to at least one every week when we’re coming up to a project deadline or a conference.

I kind of hated being in Missouri for most work-related things, mainly because I felt like I woke up every morning running behind all the Australasians and Europeans who’d already put in most or all of a working day, even though I got up at 6am. But for conference calls it was excellent; I rarely ever had to schedule one outside of normal business hours, and if I did, it usually meant 6am, when I was already up anyway. (Still in pjs and not necessarily coherent, but upright.)

Now I’m in Australia and (other than the New Zealanders) pretty much the first one up, organizationally speaking. This has some significant perks, including getting virtually no emails on Mondays. However, when it comes to conference calls, it means that by the time most of the northern hemisphere is online, I’m thinking about wrapping up work for the day, if not going to bed. And a conference call at 9pm can really mess up plans for a relaxing evening of flopping on the couch with your spouse and watching reruns of Lewis so you can geek-spot Oxford locales. There aren’t many alternatives, though, when you’ve got people phoning in from three continents and you want to make sure it’s not anyone’s middle of the night.

The other day I had a one-on-one conference call with my project manager who’s based in Germany; since it was just the two of us, he offered to come in a bit early so that we could complete the call before dinnertime in Canberra. We did manage that; but only just: I hung up at 6:15, about 15 minutes before we usually eat dinner, with not a shred of prep done. Luckily, just in case, I had planned a dinner based around leftovers, fancied up with one of my favorite standby ingredients: frozen puff pastry.  

Savory puff pies
This isn’t so much a recipe as an opportunistic scavenge; I had a good-sized piece each of leftover chicken and steak in the fridge, neither of which was big enough to feed 3 of us but each of which was more than enough for one, if you get my drift. So here’s what I did:  
  1. Turned on the oven to preheat at 200C/400F. 
  2. Took 2 sheets of puff pastry out of the freezer to thaw.  
  3. Chopped and sautéed about a dozen good-sized mushrooms in butter, seasoning with salt & pepper as I stirred.  
  4. Chopped up chicken and steak into bite-sized pieces and put in separate medium-sized mixing bowls.  
  5. Divided cooked mushrooms between these bowls.  
  6. Added a healthy dollop of Greek yogurt to each bowl, then stirred to combine everything.  
  7. Lined a large baking tray with parchment, and placed one now-thawed pastry sheet on parchment. 
  8. Piled chicken filling on one-half of one pastry sheet; folded sheet over, then crimped around the sides with a fork. 
  9. Placed other thawed sheet on baking tray, and repeated step 8 with steak filling. 
  10. Pierced pastry parcels with a fork, and brushed with beaten egg for a shiny crust (optional).  
  11. Placed in oven and cooked for 20-30 minutes or until pastry was golden and the kitchen smelled like dinner.  
  12. While puff pies were cooking, prepped and cooked vegetables to serve alongside. (I used green beans, as you can see.  
I got 2 approximately 4”x 8” (10 cm x 20 cm) loaded puff pies out of this, plenty for the 3 of us, plus some for leftovers. DP felt that the steak puff was improved by the addition of a large chunk of blue cheese, so I’ll remember that for next time. And no, I didn't get dinner on the table in 15 minutes; more like 35, which was good enough for me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Children's movies

Miss B is on winter break from school – two weeks off in the middle of July between the second and third terms of the Australian school year. We’ve been alternating between lazing around the house (designated as “koala” days) and energizing ourselves to undertake vacation-suitable activities (“kangaroo” days). The other day we went to a matinee of Brave, which Miss B was moderately excited about seeing and I was about equal parts excitement and trepidation. Excitement because I still get excited about going to the movies, and this one was two firsts: the first time Miss B and I had seen a movie in a theater alone together, and the first Pixar film with a female protagonist. Trepidation because the reviews I’d read were mixed, and I dreaded another typical princess movie, with a few ignorant Scottish stereotypes thrown in for good measure.

As it turned out, my reaction to the movie was much stronger and more positive than I could have anticipated. Yes, it has its flaws, but they couldn’t change the fact that at the core of the story was a strong, intelligent and yes, brave female character who grew and changed throughout the course of the movie and didn’t sit around waiting for some prince to come along and sort things out. The scene at the tournament of the clans, where Merida takes matters into her own hands and demonstrates her archery skills, brought tears to my eyes. But what made them spill over was the fact that, in stark contrast to almost every other children’s movie I’ve ever seen, Merida’s mother is not only alive and well, but also plays a strong and positive role in her daughter’s life. Their relationship challenges – which, stripped of their fairy-tale hyperbole, are pretty typical of any healthy mother-daughter bond during adolescence are central to the story. One commentator I read described it as a “mother-daughter love story”, and, as a daughter and a mother, seeing that onscreen in a children’s movie actually moved me to tears.

Miss B, on the other hand, continues to be bemused by how much time I spend weeping during children’s movies. (This was almost as bad as Up.) She enjoyed it, but her enthusiasm was tempered by being scared out of her wits by the bears. (Luckily we didn’t opt to see it in 3-D – she spent half the movie clinging to me like a leech as it was.)

And I bet you’re wondering how this all ties in to a recipe? Well – school vacations beget lots of hanging around with children – your own and other people’s. And, since school-age children are apparently always hungry, especially for sweet things, I’ve been experimenting with child-friendly desserts that I can concoct in my temporary, understocked kitchen (TUK). My latest trick involved making a batch of Mistake Cookie dough, rolling it into logs, and chucking it in the fridge until I needed it. Before I used it up, I had made two batches of sandwich cookies – one filled with chocolate ganache and one with raspberry jam – as well as a classic fridge cake.

Fridge cake
adapted from several recipes
Are these popular in the US? I had never encountered one until I lived in England, where they seem to be a fixture of childhood. Turns out the same goes for Australia. I was drawn to making this when I had promised to bring a dessert and the only time I could make it was 24 hours before the event; since it needs to chill in the fridge, it’s a great do-ahead dessert, and the minimal equipment required is perfect for the TUK.
210 g/7 oz dark chocolate
30 g/1 oz maple syrup
120 g/4 oz butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
5 g/1 tsp vanilla
210 g/7 oz Mistake Cookies (or other crumbly cookies of your choice)
60 g/2 oz coconut

Line a loaf tin with foil or baking parchment and set aside.

In a double boiler, melt chocolate, maple syrup, and butter together over medium-low heat, stirring regularly. When melted, set aside to cool slightly, then mix in the egg and vanilla.

Coarsely chop cookies and place in a medium-sized bowl, then sprinkle coconut over. Pour over chocolate mixture and fold together gently, then spread in prepared tin. Place in the fridge to chill for at least 4 hours to set, or for longer if need be.

When ready to serve, remove from fridge and turn cake out onto a board. Peel off foil or paper and slice. Serve just as is, or with some form of cream if you want to fancy it up. 

Have plenty of wipes or damp paper towels on hand for cleaning up chocolate-coated children and adults following consumption.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fast food

It’s been a month since we arrived in Canberra. Re-entry has been kind of surreal, because in many ways we have been able to more or less pick up where we left off 2.5 years ago. DP is back working with many of the same people, Miss B is back at the same school with kids she remembers from her preschool year, and I’ve returned to my familiar routines of doing errands on foot and swinging through Supabarn several days a week ago so I don’t have to lug home too much heavy stuff at once. But of course we haven’t actually been here, and so we have various things to do to get ourselves re-settled. Top priority on this list is finding a long-term place to live. We’re in short-term furnished accommodation at the moment, until our stuff arrives from the US. Since we were told to expect transport of household goods to take 2-3 months, we’ve got some time to look around and see what’s available. Which has turned out to be a good thing.

House hunting in Canberra is an adventure. You find a house you are interested in renting, usually on a real estate website. The ad tells you to call or email to register interest, so you do. About 50% of the time you get no response to your expression of interest, so you learn quickly to keep checking the website to spot when the property is open for inspection. (Since you cannot apply to rent the property without proving you have done an in-person inspection, this is a critical part of the process. You cannot, however, request an inspection time that suits your schedule. Oh no. Don't be silly.) At some point, an inspection time will be posted, which generally runs for 15 minutes. If you are lucky, this will be scheduled for a Saturday. However, it is just as likely to be, say, from 1:35 to 1:50 on a Friday afternoon, as was the case with a house I looked at last week. This means, unless you have a flexible work schedule, as I do, that you are out of luck. Once you have inspected the house (often with 10-15 other people or groups who are also interested), you give your name to the estate agent who is monitoring the inspection as proof you were there, take an application form for each adult planning to reside in the house, and depart. If you want the house, it behooves you to complete your application and send it in as soon as possible, before all the other people who also want it get in ahead of you. Each application, including filling in, scanning, and rounding up supporting documentation, is a good hour’s worth of work, and each agency uses a different form.

We missed out on all this excitement the last time we lived in Canberra, because we sub-let an apartment from one of DP’s colleagues. I had no idea how lucky we were.
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