Sunday, December 16, 2007

Queen Ann Christmas Cake

A couple of years back I had the pleasure to work with a lady named Anne, who was as passionate about baking and kitchen craft as I am. But that wasn't the first thing that stood out about Anne - it was her incredible sense of style.

Anne had grown up in a family that worked in the "rag trade". At the same time, she also had acquired a love of the fashions from the 1950s Hollywood golden years. Flattering bodices, A-line skirts - the kind of glamour personified by the like of Grace Kelly, Ginger Rogers and Audrey Hepburn. In much the same way that I spent my lunch times scouring stores for kitchen equipment, Anne spent hers scouring boutique fabric stores for unique prints and imported pieces of cloth.

Anne would take these treasures to her dress maker, along with a video or dvd of a movie she'd seen something in, and ask the dressmaker to replicate it for her. Keep in mind, Anne did not have the figure of any of these screen goddesses - and that was irrelevant. Where the 20-somethings in the office were choosing slimming cuts to accentuate theír already painfully thin frames, Anne embraced flounce. She went for layers. She made sure her voluptuous curves were always clearly outlined - and she looked more of a lady for it.

So you can imagine my horror the day Anne turned up to the office with one of her best outfits (and one of my favourites from her wardrobe) smeared with mud. I asked her what happened, and a flood of tears burst forth as she announced she'd on the street and fallen over! It was absolutely heart breaking to see Anne so humiliated, the way we always are when the pot-holed streets of Sydney conspire to make fools of us. But the indignity was made all the worse by the evidence clearly spattered on her coat, and of course, the inevitable torn tights.

Anne left our project not long after that, but not before she imparted her best ever recipe for fruit cake. I made it for my remaining colleagues the following Christmas, and have forever more dubbed it Queen Anne Christmas Cake, because it is as regal as Anne.

250g each of currants, sultanas and raisins
90g each of dates and pitted prunes
60g each of mixed peel and glace cherries (although I love the cherries so always add more)
60g each of dried apricots and figs
60g blanched almonds
2 tblps each of rum, brandy and sherry
5 eggs
250 g butter
250 g brown sugar
300g plain flour
1tsp each of nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spice
1 tblsp plum jam
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tsp parisienne browning essence
2 tblsp golden syrup
1 tsp glycerine
1 tblsp lemon essence

1. Put all the fruit into a large bowl, making sure you cut any large pieces into quarters (like dates, figs and apricots). Add the rum, brandy and sherry and mix to throughly wet the fruit. Leave to soak for as long as you can - a week at the minimum, but a month is best if you can!

2. On the day that you bake, prepare your tin by double lining the bottom and sides with thick baking paper. The paper should peak an inch and a half above the top of the tin. Then wrap the exterior of the tin with a double layer of newspaper. This is to stop the cake from burning.

3. Pre-heat the oven to 120 degrees celcius.

4. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition.

4. In a separate dish, combine plum jam, vanilla, parisienne essence, golden syrup, glycerine and lemon essence. Mix until combined.

5. Add the jam mixture and the flour to butter mixture. Mix slowly on a low speed to gently combine. Add spices and mix until combined. Do not over mix! Don't eat this mix either, as it's extremely rich!

6. Pour the cake batter over the dried fruit mix and combine it with clean hands. This is much easier than using a spoon, since fruit cake mix is extremely heavy. Once the fruit and batter is combined, pour into the tin, being careful not to flatten the paper lining. Place the cake tin on a cookie tray double lined with newspaper to stop the bottom burning. Fruit cake is notoriously easy to burn!

7. Bake on a low shelf in the oven for 3 to 3 and a half hours. Do not over cook! When you begin to smell the cake, it's close to being cooked. Lightly touch the top - if it's dry, the cake is done. Pierce it was a fine skewer if your not totally sure - the skewer should come out clean.

8. Allow cake to cool in the tin. When you remove it from the tin, leave at least one layer of baking paper on the cake. Wrap it in aluminium foil, then again in Glad Wrap, then store in an airtight container, prefferably in a dark cupboard - it's light that makes the cake go stale. Try to bake this cake about six weeks before you need it so it has time to mature. The older fruit cake is, the better it tastes!
This recipe works really well as cupcakes. I'd recommend the Texas muffin size - as the people you give these fruity cakes too will want more, it's so delicious. Cupcake-sized fruit cake only needs about an hour to cook. And it's less likely to burn - still watch it carefully though. And use your best judgement.

Christmas Cupcakes

What is it about Christmas time that makes everybody so thingy? Or so kooky? Or just plain positional? Firstly, I think it's the fact that Christmas only comes around once a year (and we should all thank the Maker for that!). Because Christmas only comes once a year, we tend to put a whole lot of energy into making it a wonderful, over the top, sensory experience. And when we have an experience like that, we want it to happen over and over again.

And that, I think, is how Christmas traditions are born. We do something once, decide it's really good, and we keep doing it because we like to feel good again and again.

When I was a little kid I loved the excitement of Christmas. My mother did a great job of establishing a set of Christmas traditions that we repeated every year with great joy: setting the tree up exactly one week before Christmas, wrapping up little bundles of edible goodies in coloured celophane and tying them to the tree... and of course, the Christmas lunch, which was always relyably the same every year.

When I became a teenager, my family lost interest in Christmas. And being a virgo - ie a stickler for routine - I picked up the thread where everyone else had left off, and took it upon myself to perpetuate the Christmas experience I loved. And this included the cookery. With my penchant for sweeties, I took over the cookie baking. I'd also make rum balls, white Christmas and coconut ice - anything to feel the festive spirit.

When Mark came into my life a few years ago, we had an opportunity to craft our Christmas experience anew. I was delighted to discover Mark's Christmas fare had never been something he enjoyed eating. So I introduced him to the unbridled pleasure of roast turkey. Last year, we added ham (just a small one) and we loved both these things so much, we have raced out this year and procured both turkey and ham so we can do it all again. As I unpacked both these treasures from my shopping bag and placed them in the freezer today, I had an insight into how Christmas traditions are born.

I was lost in the Christmas wilderness for a few years. My Christmas experiences were not what they had been, and instead were a source of upset and disappointment for me. I am glad that I've found a way back to joy at Christmas with Mark, and our little dog Derek (light of my heart). I took a stand for the Christmas I wanted, and I finally got it. This year, we are in our new home with a fabulous five star gourmet kitchen for me to cook in. I predict this will be our best Christmas to date! I hope your Christmas is as equally wonderful and filled with lots of delicious traditions, fun and joy!

1 jar Robertson's fruit mince (two if you like a very fruity cake)
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup dark rum
1 cup of buttermilk
250g softened butter
2 cups dark brown sugar
4 eggs
3 cups plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp mixed spice
1 tblsp vanilla
1 tsp lemon essence
1 tsp parisian browning essence
1 tsp glycerine
28 glace cherries
A big bag of blanched almonds

1. Preheat your oven to 170 degrees celcius. Line two 12 hole muffin tins with confetta cups of your choice. Red, green, silver or gold are great for the festive season.
2. Pour the fruit mince into a bowl and combine with brandy and rum. Set aside.
3. Cream the butter in the large bowl of your mixer. Add one cup of the brown sugar and continue to mix until sugar begins to dissolve. Add the second cup of brown sugar, and keep mixing until the mixture becomes pale and fluffy.
4. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing for one minute after each addition. For best results, make sure your eggs are at room temperature.
5. Add the flour and baking powder to the butter mixture. Combine gently on low mixer speed while gradually adding the buttermilk.
6. Add the spices, vanilla, lemon essence, parisian browning essence and glycerine. Mix on low speed until all ingredients are combined.
7. Carefully add the fruit mince mixture and continue mixing on low speed until ingredients are well combined.
8. Using your #12 icecream scoop, drop scoopfuls of mixture into each confetta cup. Decorate the top of each cake with a glace cherry in the middle and four blanched almonds stragically placed around it.
9. Bake for 20 minutes, or until cakes are golden brown on top and spring back when lightly touched. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.

I present these cupcakes with no topping - they are a delicious morsel alone. If you felt compelled, you could dust them with icing sugar as an extra finishing touch (however, you'll need to serve them immediately as the cake will turn the sugar sticky if stored). However, they are suitable for topping with Royal icing, which looks very festive if topped with two little balls of red sugar paste and a couple of green leaves. Or you can pipe dark green butter cream onto them and decorate them with silver cachous to make them look like little Christmas trees.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The scoop on scoops

One of the best tips I ever got on cupcake baking was to use an icecream scoop to measure out the mix.

Icecream scoop, I hear you say? One of those anti-freeze jobs that they use at the gelato bar? The kind they use to roll the icecream into a ball before they drop it into a cone or cup?

Absolutely not! Once was a time when the humble icecream scoop was far less technological, and might I say successful. It was a fixed metal scoop with a moveable wire that swooped across the bowl of the scoop with a spring action to eject the icecream from the crevice.

As it turns out, this is the ideal item to measure the perfect amount of cupcake batter into a standard muffin tin. When I heard this, I went out in search of a traditional icecream scoop, and found not one but two different sizes. I bought both, thinking there would indeed be a use for each; all I had to do was think one up.

I got to work with my icecream scoop and found that not only could I get the cupcake batter into the cups a whole lot faster, but they were of a much more regular size. This helped no end in making my cupcakes look significantly more professional, and of course, sellable.

Meanwhile, whilst cooking turkey balls one night, I was overcome by a stroke of brilliance - the little scoop was the perfect size for a meatball. I whipped out the little guy and began scooping the minced meat mixture up, dropping it into a hot fry pan and swirling it about. Lo and behold, I was right! A perfect turkey ball with a professional look to boot.

Suddenly I remembered back to the days when, as a kid, my mother used to make those god-awful Tuesday night horrors - rissoles. Thinking back, it dawned on me that she had been using the icecream scoop for those too. I resurrected rissoles (albeit with delicious fish sauce, shallots and garlic flavour) and put my icecream scoop to work on those too.

But one thing always bugged me about my icecream scoop. While it helped me to get a guaranteed 28 cupcakes out of each double mix, it also left my cakes a little short. I had been covering this with liberal applications of icing. But I got to thinking, if I had found two different sized icecream scoops, could there be more? And if there were more, could there be an icecream scoop that was ever so slightly bigger than mine, which might bring my cupcakes up level with the top of the Confeta paper?

Shopping in Plenty (level 5, Westfield Bondi Junction) one Saturday, I discovered there was. I examined the scoop closely and discovered it was stamped with a number: #12. I raced home to inspect my scoop, and found it had no number stamped on it, other than to say it was 18/8 stainless steel. So I went back to Plenty and measured their scoop: it was 6cm in diameter. At home I measured my scoop: it was 5.5cm across. I was convinced I had found my dream scoop. I bought the infamous #12 and this weekend I have tested it out.

And the verdict? It's too big! It brings the cake up to the top of the Confeta cup alright, but then it keeps on rising! This is absolutely no good - Jennifer Graham of the Crabapple Cupcake Bakery was right when she said domed cupcakes are not what you want. Their domes, while very attractive, leaving absolutely no room to build and shape insteresting icing designs. And the #12 scoop is a monumental dome maker!

Sigh! There are several lessons to be learned here: a scoop in the hand is not worth another one in the shop. AND sometimes the $6.00 Chinese discount scoop is actually the best.

The #12 scoop will be fine when I want to cook muffins with nice high tops that don't need to be decorated. But where delicated decorated cupcakes are concerned, it will just have to stay in the drawer.

Oh - and in case you want to know, the little scoop is a #70. Go figure!

Friday, August 31, 2007

White lies

Back in 1988 I read a book called Chocolate: The Consuming Passion, by Sandra Boynton. It was a great book about one of the things I truly love – chocolate. At the time I used to enjoy the occasional Nestle Milky Bar, so when I read her page on white chocolate, I was a little miffed. She had drawn a square in the middle of the page with a black dotted line around it and said “for the great flavour of white chocolate, cut out and chew!”.
Years later after having produced flop after flop of one white chocolate sort or another, I have finally come to the realisation that white chocolate is nothing more than a tragic pretender to the chocolate throne, and should be renamed out of defference to the greatest sweet treat ever known to man.

The latest white chocolate insult to my baking efforts comes in the form of a white chocolate mudcake. Jennifer Graham has a recipe in her Crabapple Cupcake Bakery book, and since I trust Jennifer implicitly, I decided to give it a go. But I wanted a big cake – not cupcakes – so I mixed up the batter and poured it into a 10 inch round cake tin. Two hours later, I pulled the cake out of the oven, allowed it to cool in the tin then tipped it onto a wire rack and proceed to watch the middle of the cake sink into a buttery white chocolate hole.

No problem! Or so I thought. My plan was the fill the hole with white chocolate ganache, the recipe for which also came from Jennifer Graham. First let it be known that I have NEVER successfully produced a chocolate ganache – white, milk or dark – so I decided to follow the recipe to the letter for a change. It was important, because the cake I was baking was intended for my brother in-law’s birthday the following day. I carefully boiled the pure cream, poured it over the chunks of white chocolate, then carefully pushed the chocolate around to help it melt. Well it never melted totally. That was problem number one. My ganache was filled with white chocolate chunks that could not be smoothed no matter what. Then the oil in the chocolate separated from the rest of the mixture – that was problem number two. Despite this, I poured the ganache onto my white chocolate mud cake and stood back to watch over forty dollars of ingredients turned into what can only be described as a pile of sugary white chunder.

I walked away in disgust and began thinking about how to salvage the situation. I thought back to my wedding cake, which was very nearly ruined by a similar debacle, and I remembered how I’d scraped the unsuccessful icing off it and put it in the bin, thereby saving the day. I decided the same evasive action was required here. So I took my spatula and began to scrape. Thankfully, the exterior of the white chocolate mudcake was crisp enough not to be damaged by this, so wasn’t totally out of luck.

I ended up covering the cake with white butter cream and decorating it with loads of mauve flowers, green leaves and silver balls, and lo and behold, I had something good enough to give as a gift. But sadly, when we cut the cake, we found a substantial part of it wasn’t cooked. If I’d been given that cake, I’d have put it in the bin as soon as the baker left the premises.

Unsuccessful ganache. Unsuccessful mudcake. These aren’t the only casualties of the white chocolate deception. There’s also the white chocolate mousse, which never solidified or held any shape. I’ve even melted white chocolate and dipped fresh strawberries in it, only to watch it slouch off the side and pool on the plate.

White chocolate is an abomination. It’s good for eating and that’s about it. It behaves monstrously in cooking – you add it to a recipe thinking you’ll get the same result as bonafide chocolate, and you end up with a creamy, white (if you’re lucky), blobbing mess, which tastes suspiciously like a great big can of condensed milk.

White chocolate? I say no. I won’t be fooled again. And you shouldn't be either.
Diva Note: I did actually cook eight cupcakes out of leftover Jennifer Graham white chocolate mudcake mix. And they WERE a success. And oddly, the white chocolate ganache scraped off the big cake partially set into a spreadable topping for those little cupcakes. Considering this is what Jennifer intended both recipes for, I can’t really blame her for any of my failures – they were all of my own creation!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rainbow Ratatouile

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We had an odd set up at our place when I was a kid. My dad was a salesman, and his territory was the far reaches of country New South Wales. So he would leave for work on Monday mornings - well before dawn - and come home on Friday nights. Mum had a job as an egg collector on a chicken farm. She mostly worked Saturdays and Sundays, so my sister and I were faced with a unique situation - Mum all week, Dad on weekends.

Dad was not as experienced a cook as Mum so often in her absence, we were confronted by some very er... whacky meals. And tha'ts putting it politely! I remember one meal of scrambled eggs which were hopelssly burnt. We smothered them in tomato sauce and ate them. Another of Dad's favourites was Camp Pie - a remnant of his Army days, and a sure fire way to catch Mad Cow's disease these days, is you ask me (Camp Pie is tinned English beef).

One thing Dad did serve up to us, which he considered povo food, but which we thought was a gastronomical delight, was boiled sausages. That's right - boiled sausages. Not barbecued, not fried - boiled. Dad would boil a pot of sausages, slice them in half, lay one across a piece of fresh white bread. Then he's lay a bunch of Smith's potato chips over the top, garnish it with tomato sauce, then slap another piece of bread on top and voila - boiled sausage sandwich. We loved that meal so much, we'd ask for it - much to his chagrin.

2 tblsp olive oil
1/2 red capsicum
1/2 yellow capsicum (thems bell peppers for y'all in the US of A!)
1 red onion
2 zuchinis
1/2 egg plant
1 can pureed tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste

1. Dice all the vegetables into roughly the same sized pieces. Okay! Precisely the same size if you can - it will help the ratatouile hang together better when it's complete.

2. Heat a large saucepan and add half the olive oil. Then add half the vegetables, stir frying until they begin to turn translucent around the edges. Remove from the saucepan, add the remaining oil then stir fry the remaining vegetables. Return first half to saucepan and reduce heat to a simmer.

3. Pour tomato puree into saucepan and stir to combine with vegetables. Add salt and pepper to taste - a good teaspoon of each is usually enough.

4. Serve with roasted chicken breast fillets, or spooned over freshly cooked pasta with a sprnkling of parmesan cheese. This recipe freezes really well and can be defrosted by heating in the microwave for about three minutes.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Tao Of Cupcakes

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A quiet revolution has been taking place in cafes around the world. It is a revolution that is round, approximately two to three inches high, and comes in multiple colours with a plethora of flavours to make even the most stalwart dieter come skipping with delight.

It is the humble cupcake I am talking about. No longer left solely for kiddies parties, cupcakes are taking the place of fatty friands, mega-muffins and banana bread as the preferred morning snack.

But just what is it about cupcakes that has taken hold of our tastebuds?

I cast my mind back to the parties I attended as a child, and the sweet fare spread across the table that was nothing short of a sugar-fest designed to titillating our tiny tongues and send us home in an insulin haze. My party preferences were always sausage rolls and cocktail frankfurts for savouries, followed by fairy cakes and toffees for sweets. I was also partial to chocolate crackles, but knew full well that ingesting an entire one meant certain sickness – delicious as they were, they were simply too sweet. The one thing on the table that I rarely touched were the cupcakes, and I can’t help but wonder why.

Truth be told, my mother was the queen of cupcakes. The little beauties she produced were of a quality that far exceeded anything I ever saw served by other kid’s mums. Mum’s cupcake recipe was tried and true – written down in hand on a blue-ruled page, stored in a little black ring binder. I don’t know where that recipe came from, but it’s the one I still use today, and frequently see published in women’s and homemaker magazines everywhere. I guess it’s a recipe that simply can’t be improved upon.

But Mum also had a way with the icing that few others could imitate. In those days icing came in two colours – pink and green. And to decorate, Mum chose hundreds & thousands, chocolate sprinkles, or desiccated coconut. And that provided a world of choice for me.

Three years ago, I attempted to start a café cakes business. I set about creating three incredibly original cakes, two of which appear on this site (Mini Chocolate Bar Cakes and Orange Rosettes). But they were involved and hard to produce en masse. After a stinking hot night producing 45 cakes in my kitchen I dumped the idea and got a real job. But two months ago, I got the itch to bake. I envisaged a cupcake, full in vanillary flavour, topped with pure white icing and decorated with a deep purple flower. And so I produced just that. At work the next day, I boasted about these beauties to the lobby café staff, and the next thing I knew, they’d placed an order!

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Within days the people in my building had caught cupcake fever. I kept baking more than I needed, so I sent samples to work with my husband. His colleagues raved about them and suggested he try to sell them to his lobby café (a big ask since he’s not a coffee drinker and had no connection with the manager), and they took them! And then that building caught cupcake fever.

The more I sold, the more I wanted to create. The more I created, the more creative I got. I bought Jennifer Graham’s Crabapple Cupcake Bakery book, and read it cover to cover in one afternoon, then lay awake that night mulling over all the possibilities. I went to my local homeware store, Plenty, and raided their cake decorating section. I begged for the names of their wholesalers – and got them, then I asked the wholesalers to sell to me, and they did.

And the result is a set of cupcakes which I utterly adore baking, and which people around me pay money to eat.

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What is my point here? In the space of two months I’ve refined my cupcakes from a set of okay looking morsels to a commercially viable concern. I’m happy as a pig in poop when I bake. And being able to give everything to someone else to eat makes the experience that much more enjoyable!

All this has made me think you should be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Okay, my original café cakes idea occurred three years ago. But that wish went out to the universe, and when the time was right, the opportunity came back and landed in my lap. Yes I had to take steps to bring my cupcakes into reality, but none of those steps were difficult when fuelled by my passion to create.

What I’m saying is follow your passion. Get in the zone with it. Follow it all the way through, even if it takes years to come to fruition. If that’s what lights you up, I say go for it.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Mini Chocolate Bar Cakes

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There are times in your life when you realise it’s just possible that friends can do as much for you as family can – if not more. I was nineteen years old when I first figured this out. It was my first year out of high school. I’d been working for about eight months as a proof reader in a Braille publishing facility. I still lived at home but I’d bought my first car and I was fast becoming an independent young woman.

My birthday is in September, and up until that point, my school friends and I had been in the habit of going out to restaurants to celebrate. My friends at the time were Tory, Leanne, Lisa and Tracey and sometimes Larrissa, although she came and went from the group. I hung with Tory the most, because we liked going clubbing together. We often took Tracey with us, and we frequently caught up with Lisa, who had moved into the city with another friend Peisha.

But we were all in Penrith the weekend of my nineteenth birthday, and I had been told that I was in for a birthday surprise. I had to dress up for dinner, and I was picked up at sunset by Tory, who stuck blindfold on me as soon as we got into the car. She drove me around in that state for a while and eventually when the car came to a stop, Lisa and Tracey materialised at the door of the car. The three of them helped me out of the car, lead me up some steps, through a door and whipped the blind fold off.

Voila! Staged in the middle of Tracey’s lounge room was the first surprise party I’d ever been thrown in my life. My friends had gone to great lengths to decorate the room and had even cooked a three course meal themselves. Complete with chocolate birthday cake.

I probably wasn’t as appreciative of their efforts at the time – dare I say at nineteen, I wasn’t as emotionally mature or as capable of expressing my gratitude as I am today. But when I think about the good times I’ve had in my life, the memory of that birthday always comes up, and I’m always amazed at the generosity and love that my friends showed me. That birthday was even more important than I realised at the time. We were all about to grow up, find boyfriends, move out of home, and begin going our separate ways. At that point, we only had about a year and a half of good solid friendship left. And in the case of some of the girls at the table that night, when they drifted away, they simply didn’t come back. Leanne is really the only one I still have constant contact with, thanks to email.

It’s true what they say – you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I was really lucky to have those friends. And that birthday – well it was one of my best ever.

190g butter
1 cup sugar
½ cup water
¼ cup Organic Dutch Cocoa
½ tsp bi-carb soda
1.5 cups self raising flour
2 eggs

1. Place the butter, sugar, water, cocoa and bi-carb soda in a roomy saucepan. Stir over a medium heat until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved. Increase the heat slightly and bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Reduce heat and simmer for a full five minutes. Note – watch this mix carefully as the bi-car soda makes it rise right up to the top of the saucepan. When it does, just lift it off the heat until the level lowers again, then continue with the simmering process. Set aside until mixture reaches room temperature.

2. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Pour the chocolate mixture over the top and beat with electric mixer on very low speed to combine.

3. Add the eggs with the mixer running, and continue to beat for two minutes, ensuring all ingredients are combined.

4. Pour batter into rectangular mini-bar cake pans. Fill each hole to about half way for a good sized cake. Bake in a moderate over for approximately 25 minutes, or until the top of the cake springs back when touched. Cool on a wire rack.

Chocolate Butter Cream Icing
70g softened butter
4 cups icing sugar mixture
4 tblsp milk
¼ cup Organic Dutch Cocoa

1. Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer and cream for two minutes.

2. Turn mixer off and add all other ingredients. Combine on low speed until all ingredients are wet, then increase mixture speed to high and continue beating for about three minutes.

3. Smooth onto tops of bar cakes and decorate with chocolate flakes or sprinkles as desired.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Festive Pineapple Ham

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A few years back when I was still single I decided Christmases were better spent with friends. My inaugural Christmas trip away from family was to Cairns to visit an old school friend Peisha. She was actually my first flatmate too, and was very instrumental in teaching me how to be a high stepping Eastern Suburbanite.

I had lost track of Peisha years previously. She had gone off to live in Italy, I’d had a stint in Hong Kong, and it wasn’t until 2002 when I was organising my high school reunion that I finally located her whereabouts. She’d been in Cairns for several years, and while she couldn’t make it to the reunion, we did catch up for lunch and then dinner when she was in transit to and from Italy. At dinner I quite unceremoniously invited myself to Christmas at Peisha’s. It was really rude, when I think about it.

Luckily for me, Peisha was a very welcoming host. She owned a fantastic big old Queenslander which was a complete two bedroom house upstairs and a whole second three bedroom house downstairs. I’d never been to Cairns before, so when I stepped off the plane and out of the airport, I was shocked to discover the heat was intensely overwhelming and the humidity was as thick as a blanket. I tied my long hair up immediately and never wore it down again for the whole visit.

At Peisha’s she offered me the choice of two rooms – a nicely redecorated one upstairs with a fan, or the student room downstairs with air conditioning. I took the one with the air conditioning and was every so pleased later – whenever the heat got too much, I’d retreat to my room and lie spreadeagle on the bed while I recouperated.

It was two days until Christmas so we set about planning a festive feast and headed off to the supermarket to collect all the ingredients. I decided to do my traditional apricot and pine nut stuffed turkey , and Peisha had already bought a leg of ham. Her mum had come down from Ravenshoe and her plan was to glaze the ham with a pineapple glaze that was a favourite with her family (a long line of fabulous cooks). I got up early one Christmas eve and fired up the oven to roast the turkey. The problem was the day was already stinking hot, and turning the oven on just made it worse! Peisha dragged the pedestal fan into the kitchen and pointed it at me, but I continued to perspire until I thought I was going to melt into the kitchen floor.

By the end of the day I had sweated so much on my top lip, little sweat pimples had formed. I popped them all but continued to perspire profusely, which then made the open pores sting like all get out. The turkey had to be roasted for three hours, and man did it smell good but the heat generated by the oven was oppressive. No sooner had we taken the turkey out of the oven, Peisha’s ham had to go in. And it was a beauty! Peisha and her mum had decorated it with cloves, and of course it glistened with the delicious pineapple glaze.

That Christmas in Cairns was quite literally the hottest I’ve ever experienced. It even beat the Penrith heat! But it was a brilliant visit – wild mangoes, cane toads, sea plane rides, snorkelling on the reef, fresh water crocs and indigenous dancing were all memorable features. But the greatest thing about that holiday was hanging out with Peisha. In the years when she was missing, I always looked for her – on the streets of Sydney, in buses, on trains… when ever I caught a glimpse of a Eurasian girl with long dark hair, I checked to see if it was her. So it was brilliant to find Peisha again.

1 leg of ham
1 jar pineapple jam
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, grated
200g glaze cherries
Handful of whole cloves

1. Pre heat the oven to 180 degrees celcius

2. Peel the skin off the leg of ham to expose the thick layer of fat underneath and place in a baking tray lined with baking paper. Score the fat in a criss-cross pattern.

3. Place the pineapple jam, sherry and ginger in a jug and mix. If the glaze seems a little thick, add some water a tablespoon at a time to thin it out. You want it to be pouring consistency.

4. Position half a glace cherry in the middle of each diamond scored into the ham’s fat. Fix it in place with a whole clove.

5. Once the ham is covered with cherries, brush the pineapple glaze on with a pastry brush, ensuring the entire fat area is fully coated.

6. Place the ham in the oven and cook for approximately one hour. Remember – ham is a cured meat, so you’re not actually cooking it here – you’re heating it through and infusing it with the tastes and aromas from the glaze and decorations.

7. Remove the ham from the oven and allow to stand. You can prepare the ham the day before it’s required if you like, and reheat it once it’s been sliced.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Road Test: Sunbeam Mixmaster v Kenwood Patissier

Back in 2003 when I began my most recent baking odyssey, I acquired a Sunbeam Mixmaster – the remake of the classic retro mixer from the fifties. My mother had a Mixmaster which she bought in the seventies, and which I did most of my cake baking with as a teenager (when the obsession truly took hold). She still has that Mixmaster today, although it is significantly worse for wear – the plastic cover over the light is broken and they haven’t made the bulbs for years, so there’s a “live” cavity where the light bulb should be. I can vouch for that because I stuck my finger in there accidentally last year and got a nice shock from it.

I paid quite a lot of money for my Mixmaster and it held pride of place on my kitchen bench for three years. That is until I had it running one Sunday and one of the motors blew up! I discovered that the twin motor “600 watt” power it claimed worked in two ways: 1. to run the beaters; 2. to turn the turntable the bowl sits on. After seeing flames shooting from its rear I carted my not so trusty steed off to the repair shop and was shocked to discover that it would cost half of the original price to get the blasted thing fixed.

So I resorted to using my Sanyo hand mixer for whipping up butter cakes, and made no commitments to greater creations for one or two months.

But my cupcake business stepped up a notch and I found I needed to do a lot of mixing in one day and I didn’t want to be chained to the bench by a machine that needed to be held. I had seen a Red enamel Kitchen Aid rip off at Kmart for $179. I thought I could justify spending that amount of money to stop the gap, so I went trotting up to Kmart only to find that the mixer in question was entirely sold out. I wrestled with the idea of buying a Kitchen Aid, which is what I should have bought instead of the Mixmaster three years ago anyway. But I’m a cheapskate and I find it really hard to fork over $700 for a kitchen appliance.

Finally I decided to buy another Mixmaster, this time in Cobalt Blue, which I would have bought in the first place had I known the choice existed (my original Mixmaster is metallic silver). Staring at the variety of bench top mixers in David Jones I was immediately attracted to the Artic White Kenwood Patissier – also an attempt to copy the classic Kitchen Aid bench top mixer. Priced at $269, I thought it was a steal. At the check out to price came down to $256, and then with a $30 cash back offer, I decided I’d gotten myself a serious deal.

So... I now own two bench top mixers: a Sunbeam Mixmaster (silver) and a Kenwood Patissier (artic white), and as such I’m in a position to extol the virtues of each, and I will do so with the hope of giving you some genuine insight, should you ever be in the market for a bench top mixer too.

Sunbeam Mixmaster - $399 (or thereabouts)

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As I stated earlier, this mixer has twin motors, totalling 600 watts of power. But that’s nothing when you know that one motor runs the beaters and the other runs the turntable. The unit comes with rotary beaters, a set of whisk beaters and a set of dough hooks (I have used these to turn cake batter through kilos of dried fruit for a Christmas cake). It also comes with two stainless steel bowls – a 4L bowl and a 2L bowl. The beauty of this is that you can cream butter and sugar or whisk egg whites in the small bowl and then transfer them to the large bowl (if you need to). The smaller bowl means the ingredients are aerated faster and more effectively. I also like the fact that the bowl turns – the beaters sit to the left in the bowl which allows room on the right for adding ingredients while the motor is running. You can scrape down the sides of the bowl while the motor is running, which I think is very handy.

The flaw in the Sunbeam Mixmaster is the location of the motor vent. It’s right on the face of the machine over the top of the bowl. Quite often when mixing dry ingredients, flour or icing sugar is kicked up from the bowl and it invariably gets caught around the motor vent. Many’s a time I have found myself cleaning dust out of the vent with a cotton ear bud, just for the sake of seeing the machine properly cleaned.

The other drawback is the grooves in the turntable, and the fact that the turntable is attached to the bottom of the stand. If you spill any liquid on the stand, it’s very hard to get the turntable clean. You quite often have to remove it altogether to cleanup anything caught underneath.

Finally, I’ve found that the quality of the spring on the mixer tilt release isn’t consistent. Mine is very hard to push in to tilt the mixer up. My mother’s (she bought a sunshine yellow new model 18months ago) is easy to push, but the spring is short so the beaters don’t actually touch the bottom of the bowl in the down position (whereas mine do) so you quite often get a reservoir of unmixed cake batter which won’t cook properly if you put it in the cake pan and bake it.

Overall, I do love my Mixmaster. But I’m incredibly cheesed off that the motor blew up after three years.

UPDATE: Having put the Mixmaster in for repairs four weeks ago I am sad to report that it is still in the workshop. The parts have been particularly hard to find, with some having to be ordered from overseas. I'm told it will be a further two to three weeks before the repairs can be completed. This is very disappointing.

Kenwood 270W Patissier - $269 (or thereabouts)

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The Kenwood has a motor with 300 watts power, which is quite acceptable since the Mixmaster basically has the same. The body of the machine is quite sleek and without grooves so it’s very easy to clean. It has a speed control lever on the side instead of the twist speed control at the back (which the Mixmaster has). I asked the salesman if he’d heard of the lever breaking off and he said no. But I don’t think he’d admit to that even if they did, right?

The key difference with the Patissier is that the bowl is stationary. The beater – which is paddle shaped – works with “planetary” action (I prefer the term orbital myself, but the manufacturer calls it planetary so lets stick to that). It works by moving around and across the bowl – at no great speed I might add – combining ingredients and gently whipping the mixture.

The motor vent on the Kenwood is on the top of the machine, so there’s absolutely no chance of getting flour or anything stuck in it. The face of the machine is round and featureless, which makes cleaning a real breeze. There is no handle on the top of the unit (the Sunbeam has a rubber coated high handle) so when you tilt it up or down, you just push on its bulk head.

The Patissier comes with the paddle beater, a balloon whisk and a dough hook (which I haven’t used yet). It also has a 4L stainless steel bowl, which fits into a crevice in the base, and has a handle, which makes pouring cake mix into pan extra easy. The bowl crevice is lined with stainless steel, so if you do happen to spill something in it, it’s easy to wipe out.

The drawback with the Patissier is that it can’t whisk a single egg white (whereas this is a no brainer for the Mixmaster). It can’t do it with the paddle beater and it can’t do it with the balloon whisk either (so what’s the point in having one). I began mixing butter cake batter with the paddle beater, and was getting a relatively good result. But it wasn’t as light and fluffy as what I produced on the Mixmaster. So I switched to the balloon whisk, and the result was so gelatinous and fluffy, I really have nothing to compare it with. I can’t help wonder if this was exacerbated by the poor quality butter I used, but I can’t be certain – I will have to try it with different butter to see what happens.

The Patissier DOES excel at whipping icing. I use a lot of butter cream frosting, and I prefer the quick mix approach (everything in the bowl at once, then fire the machine up). The Patissier does a great job at this with the paddle beater. I like this machine a lot, and I’m glad I have it.

UPDATE: I've been using the Patissier consistently for the past four weeks and I'm alarmed to report one of the wires on the whisk attachement has snapped. While it should be easily fixed, the fact that it has broken after only a month of use is a major issue. I'm only mixing cake batter and icing with this attachment - so it's very disappointing so see just how poor a quality the parts are.

Further Update: Kenwood (DeLonghi) sent me a replacement whisk attachment, which was very nice, since it's under warranty. Unfortunately it broke within four days of receiving it!

Final Update: I took the Kenwood Patissier back to David Jones last night, and after some negotiation, they gave me a refund. So that is the end of the Patissier.

But which is best? My final verdict is avoid the Patissier if you are a high-end user of benchtop mixers. It simply can't handle the workload. The Mixmaster is still at the repair shop, but it did a mighty three years of work for me before breaking down, and that says a lot for Sunbeam. I will use the Sunbeam for lighter work when I get it back. I'm going to return the Kenwood Patissier and ask for a refund on the grounds that the attachments are poorly made. The authorised repair dealer (a very unhappy individual, I might say) has advised that the whisk beater costs $55 to replace. And quite frankly, I could go through one of these a week at the rate they keep breaking. If I had to choose between the two, I’d say just get a Kitchen Aid. Every salesperson has told me a Kitchenaid will last for 30 years. So my expectation is high. I'll let you know what happens when I make the purchase!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Banana Cornbread

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The first cat I ever knew was Bill. Sir William Sneddon, to be precise, but Bill to everybody who loved him.

Bill was a completely black cat with yellow jewel-facetted eyes. He arrived in our family when I was about four or five years old, and became a constant source of enjoyment to my sister and I. He was an incredibly tolerant cat - allowing us to mess with him in a way most young cats would never allow.

My sister and I particularly enjoyed dressing Bill up in dolls clothes. We'd put a frock on him, complete with a lacey bonnet, then put him to bed in my sister's dolls craddle. Mostly he'd stay there for a second or two, then bolt, sending my sister and I into peals of laughter as he tried to walk away without tripping on the skirt of the frock, his dignity only just in tact. But there was one occassion when Bill actually thought the craddle was a good option - we have pictures of him occupying that little bed for a nice afternoon kip, blanket and all!

Our back yard was a veritable heaven for a cat. To the left was a lush, thick growth of bamboo, which was home to many a green frog (oh the miserable stories I could tell about those frogs). We also had one or two banana trees, which were perfect for any tree climbing cat. The suculent nature of a banana tree trunk was perfect for digging in cat claws while scrambling halfway up then diving back down to the dirt for a second ascent. Banana trees are generally ratty looking anyway, but with ours shredded by Bill on a daily basis (and later Spider, the stray kitten we adopted), they never failed to look spectacularly cruddy!

I never really appreciated Bill until I was a teenager - right when he was entering his dotage. I would crouch down and lean against the kitchen cupboards and Bill would come and sit on my lap to give me a good smooch. Other times I'd get him going in a never-ending round of loud, expressive MEOWs! He had a voice like no other cat.

Sadly, Bill checked out on us one morning with absolutely no warning. As my dad put it, he simply turned his toes up. We were lucky that Angus had already joined our family, who was really a person in cat form. But Bill was the original number one cat. What a top cat!

1 cup finely ground polenta (yellow corn meal)
1 cup self raising flour
1 tsp bi-carbonate of soda
¼ cup honey
1 egg
1 cup milk
¾ cup soy milk
2-3 very ripe bananas, mashed

1. Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Make sure you mix everything together well – the bi-card soda will leave brown marks throughout the bread if you don’t!
2. Add honey, egg, both milks and stir with a metal spoon until all the ingredients are combined. Don’t over mix! Just make sure all dry ingredients get wet.
3. Add the mashed bananas and mix until lightly combined.
4. Pour batter into a loaf tin lined with baking paper.
5. Cook in a moderate over for 40 minutes or until a skewer pierced through the middle comes out clean.
6. Allow to cool on a wire rack. Serve with genuine maple syrup or for something a little more naughty – go for the Cajun-style cornbread, dipped in hot chocolate fudge sauce!

Note: This batter can be divided into single size muffins - fill the muffin holes to two thirds full for a good sized muffin. Reduce cooking time by about 15 minutes, but again use the skewer to test if muffins are cooked. Also, you can use coarse polenta, but the bread will come out a lot more grainy. I’ve found the finely ground polenta creates a gorgeous, moist loaf which can be sliced up and frozen. Just microwave for 20 seconds then toss in the toaster for a breakfast with a difference.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Glazed Orange Rosettes

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A few years back I took a stab at starting a cake design business. I lay in bed at night thinking about the kind of cakes I would really enjoy eating, whether I bought them from a cake shop, or whether they were sold in a chi-chi city cafe. I settled on three different creations, each one individual sized, and proceeded to work out the recipes for the cakes of my dreams. I invited six of my close friends over for an afternoon tea (a tradition that is seriously underrated, let me tell you!) and greeted them with a table covered in cakes - a pink one, a chocolate one, and an orange one. I watched pure excitement creep over their faces as I gave them free license to try ALL THREE of the cakes. They sat down, plates in hand, and began to sample my work.

I viewed the table with an overly critical eye - one is always more critical of one's own creations than is necessarily within reason, don't you think? Never the less, I announced that I felt the orange cake was incomplete. My friends immediately put one on their plates, sank their splades into the moist orangey-brown cake and deposited bite sized pieces into their mouths. "Oh no!" they proclaimed. "This one is the best!" Stunned, I listened to why - it was simple, flavourful, uncomplicated. It looked appetising, but not overly indulgent. It was a guilt free cake they'd buy without thinking twice. Amazed, I changed my opinion of the orange rosette, declaring it complete!

I've churned this cake out many times ever since, and it never fails to please. Sometimes it's the simple approach that is best!

1 whole navel orange
125g butter
1 cup castor sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 eggs
2 cup self raising flour
1 cup milk
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice

1 cup icing sugar
1 tblsp hot water
extra grated orange zest

1. Place navel orange in saucepan and cover with water. Boil (whole!) for one hour, checking frequently to ensure water level is maintained and turning ocassionally to ensure orange does not burn on one side. Add extra boiling water when necessary.

2. Remove cooked orange from saucepan, slice in half and allow to cool. Process to a paste with stick blender or in a food processor and set aside.

3. Place butter, sugar, vanilla, eggs, flour, milk, cinnamon and mixed spice in large bowl of electric mixer. Beat on low speed until all ingredients are combined, then increase speed to high to cream mixture for seven minutes. Mixture should become pale, creamy and shiny.

4. Reduce mixer speed to low and add orange paste. Mix until combined.

5. Drop tablespoonfuls of mixture into greased six hole rosette tins (Baker's secret make an excellent six hole tray or individual moulds). Ensure holes are filled to just over half full.

6. Bake in preheated oven at 180 degrees Celcius for 35 minutes or until cooked (skewer comes out clean when inserted into middle of cake). Turn out onto wire racks and flip so that rosette sides are facing up. Allow to cool completely.

7. To make glaze, combine icing sugar mixture in a bowl with zest of half a fresh orange. Add one tablespoon of hot water and mix to combine. Glaze should be thin but not too runny. Add a little extra water if necessary to achieve correct consistency.

8. Drop teaspoons of glaze in centre of top of orange rosettes, then push over sides of cakes to create a drip effect. Decorate with extra grated orange zest and allow glaze to set.

Note: this recipe should produce 12 orange rosettes. They are excellent eaten cold, but can also be warmed in the microwave oven for 20 seconds and served as a pudding with King Island Cream (clotted cream) or custard. They will keep in an airtight container for four days.

Wedding Cake

I used the recipe for Traditional Christmas Cake as my wedding cake []! I had to cook three large round fruit cakes to produce my wedding cake, which was a three level high column cake. I actually ended up making six cakes - three that were the right size, and three smaller ones with all the cake mix I had left over.

I aged the cakes for six to eight weeks, and found they were still quite moist regardless. I consultated a lot of cake experts, and despite the cake decorating instructions saying otherwise, I did a few things to the cake which in the end caused more problems than improvements. Namely, I sandwiched the cakes together with marzipan which eventually liquified thanks to the weight and moist of the fruit cake. I also stuck wooden skewers through the cakes to provide them with more stability. The skewers ended up poking through the fondant, which luckily was covered by the flowers all over the top.

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I wanted to use crispy white egg white icing on the exterior of the cake, which was supposed to only be good for two days. So I assembled the cake two days before my wedding, covered it in fondant, which was to provide the base, then I proceeded to cover the fondant with crispy white icing. When I did the practice cake I forgot the vegetable oil, so this time I made sure to put it in, and I was deeply sorry for that. It made the icing off white and also stopped it from drying. It was 38 degrees celcius that day, and I stood and watched the stinking icing run down the sides of the cake and gather in a big lump at the bottom on the cake board.

After complaining to my mother, I decided to take a big chance - I grabbed my spatchula and scraped the failed layer of icing off the cake. Then I put the monstrosity away out of sight.

The next day, my mother arrived and we discussed the situation at length. We mixed up another batch of the crispy white icing, this time leaving the oil out. The result was a pure gleaming white icing, as thick as plaster! We used the first batch on the top of a big slab of sponge, which was to be served as dessert. Once Mum saw how the icing behaved, we mixed up a second batch and got the wedding cake out to start all over again.

I began scraping columns of the icing up the side of the cake while Mum followed behind wipe up drips and tidying up the bottom edge. Within five minutes the job was done and the result was fantastic! I raced to get the silk flowers and quickly arranged them on the top of the cake to produce what I think is one of the most stunning wedding cakes I've ever seen. Even since I made it myself!

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Vanilla Cupcakes

My sister was in the Brownies when she was a kid. She put on her uniform every week and went off somewhere mysterious to me, taking pledges, doing things to win badges... she even went off on a camp (which made me interminably envious because it required she be bought a pair of bedsocks). She made Brownies look like it was fun. As soon as I was old enough, I begged my mother to let me join.

The problem was, my sister's Brownie pack was too big. So they formed a new pack which it was determined would meet in the new hall. Now the new hall wasn't like the old hall - it had been brought to town on the back of a truck and had been plonked down next to the old hall on ugly, exposed brick stilts. It had none of the dignity of the old hall - it was garish and offensive.

To make matters worse, the new pack would have a new Brown Owl. She took forever to turn up, and when she did, she didn't seem to know what she was doing. Her tongue was sharp, her tone snappish; she seemed more than a bit nasty to me. The new pack also had new uniforms - not the delicious chocolate brown like my sister's uniform - the new unforms were baby-poo brown. Combined with the bright yellow tie fixed about the next with a brass pin, I felt our uniforms were more than a little garish - they were downright shameful.

From the get go, my Brownie pack didn't seem to be anything like the romantic vision I had of my sister's pack. I took the initiation ceremony, then wasted no time asking when I could try for my first badge. The Brown Owl was in no hurry to help - or at least, help ME. I was keen on the cooking badge, since I'd started helping Mum at home with baking cakes and cookies and so on. I can't remember how it worked - whether you cooked your cupcakes at the Brownie Hall, or whether you cooked them at home and brought the results in. My Brown Owl let other girls do their badges, but not me. It was a clear cut case of discrimination, as far as I was concerned, and I was not impressed.

I complained to my mother several times about the situation - I don't know if Mum ever spoke to Brown Owl about it, but it didn't take me long to jack up about Brownies. The bodgie hall, the bossy Brown Owl, the dorky uniform, and the distinct sense of being supressed... if I couldn't do my cooking badge, I told my mother, I wanted out. And that, as they say, was the end of Brownies.

125g salt reduced butter
1 cup caster sugar
1 tblsp vanilla
3 large eggs
1.5 cups self raising flour
2/3 cup buttermilk

1. Place the softened butter and sugar in the small bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on low speed to combine then increase speed to just over half way (sixth gear on a Kitchenaid mixer) and continue to beat until butter and sugar becomes pale and creamy.

2. Add the vanilla, eggs, flour and buttermilk. Continue to beat until all ingredients are well combined.

3. Increase mixer speed to high, and beat for three minutes. Mixture will turn from looking quite curdled to very creamy.

4. Scoop icecream scoopfuls of mixture into cupcake papers arranged in cupcake pans. Be careful not to overfill the papers to no more than two thirds full.

5. Cook in a moderate oven (180 degrees celcius) for 20 minutes, or until lightly golden brown on top. Turn out onto wire rack and allow to cool completely before icing. Makes about 16 cupcakes.

Note: A word on cup cake pans - there are now four different types on the Australian market. There's mini, patty (the kind I grew up with), muffin and Texas muffin size. They each have their own size patty paper to line the pans. be sure you use the right size with the right pan. I quite prefer the original patty pan size, but the muffin pans can produce a really nice sized cupcake (approximately 60g). In the end, I think it's a personal choice.