Sunday, June 30, 2013

June wrap-up

June is almost over, and that means it's winter in Canberra now for real. This tree is now completely bare, so I'm glad I got a picture of it early in the month when it was in its full autumn glory. Here are some of the other things we were up to this month:

DP's birthday, which involved a cake disaster of epic proportions - I used a cake stand I'd never used before, and it overbalanced while I was frosting, causing the top layer to fall on the floor. We managed to salvage it, somewhat; it didn't look too good, but it was still an edible finale to DP's traditional birthday dinner of steak au poivre, garlic mashed potatoes, and sauteed greens.

Winter in Canberra is seriously dry, and not just for humans. I noticed that all my wooden utensils were looking dried out, so after some extensive internet searching on various methods, I decided to try walnut oil. My utensils loved it, and so did my hands, plus it's food safe and a little goes a long way. I recommend trying it.

As part of my continuing efforts to waste not, I collected all the stems I had chopped off of several batches of kale and spinach, tossed them with oil, and roasted them as an experiment. The results were promising, but the idea needs more work. Stay tuned.

Miss B's school had a phys. ed. event where all the students rotated around a series of activities placed all around the grounds. This meant lots of extra parents around to help with organizing, and I offered to bring something in to supplement the food we'd be cooking the canteen. I made a batch of oat-fruit bars filled with homemade strawberry-quince jam. (Note quality-control sample at bottom left.)

On one of my canteen days, I also got a special treat - we've had a grandmother visiting in Canberra for several weeks from Canada, and she's been volunteering with us in the canteen as part of spending time with her granddaughter. As a goodbye gift, she brought in a batch of butter tarts, a classic Canadian dessert I've heard lots about but never had the chance to try. They're very rich and delicious - kind of like tiny pecan pies without the pecans.

 DP went on a two-week trip, which always means special treats for Miss B - including one of her favorites for Sunday-morning breakfast: rainbow pancakes.

 Miss B wanted to make a card for her grandmother's birthday, and I decided to join her. (I didn't notice until I posted this picture that I spelled 'Happy' with 3 p's - apparently I got carried away with the rainbow coloring!)

And today DP came home from his trip, laden with gifts for all - including a ceremonial (but real, and very heavy!) kukri that was presented to him as a thank you by the regiment he visited.

How's your June been?

Friday, June 28, 2013

English cuisine

No, this is not an oxymoron, I swear. Really, it’s not.

During the near-decade that we lived in Oxford, one of the questions I was most commonly asked about England by non-English people was, “How’s the food?” Usually accompanied by an anticipatory grimace, prompted by all the stories they’d heard about awful English food, or by memories of crummy meals they’d eaten themselves in tourist-trap London pubs.

My standard answer was not what they expected. I usually responded, “Expensive.”

Oxford is by far the most expensive place I have ever lived, and we spent our whole time there living on essentially one income. (First DP was a student and I worked full-time; then he worked full-time and I worked part-time and looked after Miss B.) Even grocery shopping was pricey, and eating out was an occasional luxury, usually involving a cheap-and-cheerful curry at our favorite Indian or burgers at one of the local pubs.

But once in a blue moon, we’d get the chance for a really nice meal out – visiting parents, work dos, or a splurge we’d saved up for. It was at one of these that I first discovered sticky toffee pudding. From then on, I sought it out whenever I went to a restaurant serving classic English food. It is far and away my favorite example of true English sweet cookery a sucker-punch of moist, rich, toffee-soaked deliciousness. It's the perfect end to a Sunday lunch on a cold winter day.

Sticky toffee pudding
Adapted from
Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey
My main adaptation of this recipe was to halve it, and even this makes for 6 serious servings. The original recipe suggests baking the cake in a muffin tin for ease of serving later; I use my dessert shell pan, which cooks the batter into 6 cakes, each with a bowl-shaped indentation in the top, the better to fill with toffee sauce and ice cream.

1 cup/6 oz/180 g chopped dates
.75 cup/6 oz/180 ml water
.75 tsp/4 g baking soda/bicarbonate of soda (divided)
1 cup/4 oz/120 g all-purpose/plain flour
pinch salt
.5 tsp/3 g baking powder
.75 stick/3 oz/90 g butter, at room temperature
.75 cup/6 oz/180 g firmly packed light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp/5 ml vanilla

Toffee sauce
1 stick/4 oz/120 g butter
1.5 cup/12 oz/360 g firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup/8 oz/240 ml heavy cream
.5 tsp/3 ml vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C and grease baking pan.

Cake Combine dates and water in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and bring just to a boil. Let simmer, uncovered, until all the water is absorbed, 10-15 minutes, and the dates have softened. Remove pan from heat, stir in .5 tsp of the baking soda, set aside for about 15-20 minutes while you get on with the rest of the process.

Sift together flour, salt, remaining baking soda, and baking powder, and set aside. In a medium-large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla. Fold the dates into the batter, followed by the dry ingredients, until just combined.

Divide the cake mixture evenly among the 6 cups, then place pan in the oven. Bake until a tester comes out clean, 15-25 minutes.

Toffee sauce Combine butter and sugar in a medium-large saucepan over medium-low heat, and let them melt together, 5-10 minutes. Add the cream, vanilla, and salt, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the sauce thickens, stirring often, for another 5-10 minutes.

Assembly Spoon 1 large tablespoon of warm sauce into each serving bowl, then place cake bowl on top. Drizzle another 2 tablespoons into each cake bowl and over the sides. Top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and serve warm.

Serves 6 generous portions.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pasta bake

When you’re halfway through a bout of solo parenting (as I currently am), nothing breaks up the monotony like a mum-and-kid playdate. Bonus points if it’s another solo-parenting mum who is also craving social interaction, a change of scene, and some quality adult conversation.

Yesterday Miss B and I met up with our pals LB and Mr W for an afternoon outing to see Despicable Me 2 (even more minions!). When we made the plan, I’d invited them back here afterwards for some playtime and dinner afterwards. Knowing I’d want to be able to concentrate on the conversation, I opted to get most of the prep out of the way before we left for the movies, and made a pasta bake.

Creamy pasta bake
For this concoction, I used a combination of ingredients that I frequently make as a pasta dish, with some adaptations to make it work in baked form (mainly a roux sauce rather than a pan sauce).

1 lb/450 g short pasta of your choice (I used gemelli)
1 Tbsp/.5 oz/15g butter

4 slices bacon, chopped,
1 shallot, peeled and chopped
¼ cup/2 oz/60 ml white wine
1 bunch spinach, washed and roughly chopped

2 Tbsp/1 oz/30 g butter
4 Tbsp/1 oz/30 g flour
¼ cup/2 oz/60 ml white wine
1 cup/8 oz/240 ml stock or similar (I was out, so used the pasta cooking water)
1 cup/8oz/240 ml pouring cream
2 oz/60 g cheddar cheese
pinch cayenne pepper

2-3 handfuls of shredded parmigiano reggiano cheese
2-3 Tbsp of grated pecorino romano cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, then add pasta and cook until just edible and still very al dente (8-10 minutes). Drain, reserving 1-2 cups of the pasta water. Return to the pasta pot (minimizing washing up!) and mix in 1 Tbsp of butter to keep from sticking. Set aside.

While the pasta cooks, you can get on with the mix-ins and sauce.

Mix-ins In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until it begins to brown and crisp, 5-7 minutes. Once you start to see signs of browning, add the shallot and continue to sauté, stirring frequently. When the bacon is looking crisp and the shallots have softened, add the wine and stir briskly to scrape up all the good stuff that will be stuck to the bottom of the skillet. Add the spinach and leave to wilt for another 5-7 minutes, stirring regularly.

Sauce Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, then add flour and stir together with a whisk to make a roux.* When the roux has cooked sufficiently, add wine and continue stirring. Add remaining ingredients in the order listed, stirring frequently to bring everything together. Bring just to boiling point and let simmer for a bit to thicken the sauce up. Make sure the cheese melts and finish off by salting to taste.

Assembly Lightly grease the inside of a casserole dish (I used an oval 2.8-liter which held this amount of food perfectly). Empty skillet of mix-ins into the waiting pasta and mix together, then pour over half the sauce and mix again. Pour the whole mixture into the prepared casserole dish and spread out to even depth. Pour in the rest of the sauce.

This is the point where I covered the dish with foil and put it in the refrigerator for 3 hours. When we got back from the cinema, I cooked it as follows.

Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Remove casserole dish from fridge, but leave covered. When oven is preheated, put in casserole and leave to cook for 30-40 minutes, until beginning to brown and bubble on the edges. At this point, remove foil, add topping cheeses, and return to oven for 10-15 minutes.

Let stand for 10 minutes before serving if possible. Generously served 2 adults and 2 children, with probably another 4 servings left over.

* See here for an in-depth discussion of making roux-based sauces and gravies.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wordless Wednesday

Brindabella Range from the top of Dairy Farmers Hill | National Arboretum Canberra, June 2013

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Apple crumble

Sometimes I feel as though I should rename this blog “Roving Lemon’s Cast-Iron Skillets,” given the number of photos in which one features. But they are so reliable and versatile that I find a reason to use one nearly every day. I don’t even bother assigning them cabinet space anymore – they just live on the stovetop, stacked up in a pile.

For my latest skillet trick, I used one to make Skillet Apple Crumble. Having agreed to host a guest lecturer on a weeknight for DP, I was racing around the kitchen, trying to shoehorn starter and dessert prep in with dinner prep, and have the kitchen looking remotely presentable when company arrived. When I make apple crumble, I usually sauté the apples quickly in butter and cinnamon sugar on the stovetop, before dumping them in a baking dish, piling crumble topping on, and sticking in the oven. It was in the midst of the sauté step that I thought, “Why dirty another dish?” So I added a batch of crumble topping directly to the skillet, and into the oven the whole thing went.

DP is not usually a crumble fan, but after he got back from dropping off our guest, he said, “Hey, that crumble was actually good. I would eat that again.”

I’m not saying it was the skillet. But then again, I’m not saying it wasn’t.

Skillet apple crumble

Apple part
half a can of ginger ale*
a large handful of dried cranberries
4 Granny Smith apples
~ 2 Tbsp/1 oz/30 g butter
~ 2 Tbsp/1 oz/30g cinnamon sugar

Crumble part
½ cup/2 oz/60 g whole wheat flour
½ cup/1.5 oz/45 g rolled oats
½ cup/3 oz/90 g raw sugar
¼ cup/2 oz/60 g butter
2 Tbsp/1 oz/30 g maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Pour the ginger ale into a shallow bowl and add the cranberries. Leave to steep while you get on with everything else.

Peel and core the apples, then chop into chunks. Melt the butter in a medium cast-iron skillet over low-medium heat, and add the apples when the butter starts to bubble. Sauté the apples in the butter until lightly browned, stirring frequently and sprinkling with cinnamon sugar. Remove from the heat and stir in the soaked cranberries until evenly distributed, then spread out the fruit mixture into an even layer in the bottom of the skillet.

While apples are cooking, place crumble topping ingredients in a food processor and blitz to a uniform rubbly consistency. Scatter thickly over fruit, then place the skillet in the oven and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the top is browned.

Serves 6.**

* I used this because I had an open can needing to be used up. You could substitute any kind of juice.
** I served this with pouring cream, which was good. Then I ate leftovers the next day for breakfast with a big dollop of Greek yogurt, and that was so much better.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Saturday digest

Cooking chocolate from Germany - food souvenirs are the best kind

How can it be the beginning of June already? Here’s the roundup of the latest doings round here.

Work/school Term 2 is nearly half over, and Miss B is trucking along happily. (Bouncing along might be more accurate in her case.) The other week she had her first experience of full-blown standardized testing, taking the NAPLAN along with every other Year 3 student in Australia. Her school did their best to make it a non-stressful experience, but I for one am glad it’s two years until the next round. DP, who promised us his workload would ease up somewhat around this time, has been as good as his word and has been sighted at home on the occasional weekday between the hours of 7am and 6pm. I’ve had a fairly quiet week – not one nighttime conference call! – but my To Do list remains chronically overstuffed. I did record a significant milestone earlier this month: my organization’s Twitter account, which I manage, hit 20,000 followers, a little more than four years (and nearly 3,000 tweets!) since we first joined up. So I’m pretty pleased with that.

Recreation The big news is that this week we booked tickets for our trip to North America later this year, which involved sorting out a fairly complicated itinerary and then spending 2.5 hours working through it with a travel agent (after both DP and I crashed the Qantas website trying to do it ourselves). But it all looked right at the end and we should be good to go (fingers crossed). Other than that, Miss B has been having a steady stream of afterschool playdates, and I’ve been plowing through this month’s book club selection: Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, widely hailed as a ‘modern Australian classic.’ The jury is still out on that, but it’s definitely educational for a non-Australian. More to come when I finish, perhaps.

Food Shorter days and colder nights have meant lots of familiar, rib-sticking comfort foods lately: 

  • oatmeal for breakfast at least twice a week (savory oatmeal, that is)
  • the disruptive bolognese sauce continues to prove its worth - and the longer you cook it, the better it gets
  • lemon-mustard chicken remains a reliable workhorse in my recipe rotation; one of the first things I learned to cook on my own, and still going strong
  • I found curly kale at the farmers’ market for the first time in nearly a year! So it’s back to a steady supply of kale salad
  • and an old favorite – Nigella Lawson’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake (known around here as Brownie Cake) - which I was reminded of recently and have made twice in the past two weeks in response to demand (apparently it’s the best thing for morning tea ever)

Weather Cold, grey and wet this weekend; described by a fellow transplant to Canberra as ‘fabulously miserable’.

Miss B’s Quote of the Week During a conversation about jellyfish:

Miss B: So why does it hurt when they sting you?

RL: Well, they must release some kind of chemical when they touch you that makes your skin hurt.

Miss B (obviously finding this explanation similar to another one I had provided recently): Oh, so they’re like the onions of the ocean!

How are your onions?

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