Monday, October 24, 2011

Mexican Wedding Biscuits

When the Spanish explorers found the Americas they also found many different new foods that, when brought back to Europe, revolutionised the way food was being cooked. Tomatoes, corn and avocados are just some of the foods brought back from the New World to Europe.

At the same time some European recipes have found their way to the New World. The recipe for these nutty shortbread cookies has arabic origins which passed into culinary tradition in Europe, thanks to the Moors. The recipe was then adapted in Mexico to include pecan nuts, which are native to the Americas. Pecans grow on trees and are acorn-shaped. They have a similar taste to walnuts, and in fact the name they were originally given by the Spanish – nogales – translates as “walnut tree”. These delicious cookies are saved for special occasions, like weddings or even Christmas.

250g butter, softened
½ cup caster sugar
2 tsps vanilla extract
2 tsps water
2 cups plain flour
1 cup finely chopped pecans
½ cup pure icing sugar

1. Combine the butter, sugar, vanilla and water in the small bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on high until the mixture is pale in colour and the sugar has dissolved.
2. Sift the flour into the bowl then add the chopped pecans. Mix on low speed until the ingredients combine to form a dough. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic cling film and refrigerate it for 30 minutes.
3. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Line two baking trays with baking paper and set aside.
4. Remove the dough from the fridge and roll tablespoonfuls of it into balls about 3cm wide. Flatten each ball slightly and position on the baking trays about 5cm apart.
5. Bake both trays in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cookies are very light brown on top. Cool on the trays for 5 minutes, then use an egg lifter to transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.
6. Dust the cookies with a thick layer of sugar and serve.

Makes about 20 cookies.

Friday, October 07, 2011


When I was 12 years old both my parents were workers. My sister and I would arrive home from high school, and we would have three or four hours alone in the house before Mum and Dad arrived home. My parents weren't the kind of people to wait on their kids hand and foot. Instead, there were jobs to do, and woe be tide the child who did not do them. There were three key jobs - washing up the breakfast dishes in the afternoon, cooking the dinner and drying up the dishes after dinner.

My sister and I would take turns week on week for each job (although I must say I got out of drying up the dinner dishes for as much of my teenage years as I possibly could). We worked it so that we cooked the dinner for a week one week, and swapped to do the breakfast dishes the following week. This provision of dinner for my family from the tender of 12 is where I really learned my chops as a cook. And there is one meal I cooked every week without fail - spaghetti bolonese.

In the 1980s we had this recipe down pat. Our version of this time honoured classic included cream and thinly sliced champignons (from a tin). It was the most requested birthday dinner in our household (followed by Black Forest Cherry Cake).

In 1989 I dined a fair bit at No Names in Darlinghurst, where I found their bolognese sauce was quite a lot less meaty than mine, and far more saucey. A drunken afternoon with friends at the home of third generation Australian Italian guy changed my bolognese recipe substantially. He built a sauce from the tomato up, adding the meat much later and finely grinding it all up. I have been cooking my bolognese sauce like this ever since, with red wine as one of the key ingredients.

Until last week.

I have been researching stories for a kids international cook book, and I went looking for the origins of bolognese. Never mind that it's never served with spaghetti - there were other revelations to be garnered from my research. Firstly, bolonese sauce originates from Bologna dating back to the fifth century! When you eat bolognese you are dining from the plates of the ancients. Secondly, carrot and celery are compulsory bolognese ingredients. And here is why...

Soffritto is the base of bolognese. Equal amounts of carrot, onion and celery are brunoised (chopped very finely) and cooked in a good amount of olive oil for a half an hour. It becomes soft, caramelised and develops a flavour that is quite meaty. This becomes the base of bolognese sauce, which need not have beef in it if the soffritto is right. But since the ancient Bolognese were meat lovers, go ahead and include the ground beef!

We have cooked our revised bolognese sauce recipe several times over the past week or so and it has been a minor revelation for us. We've replaced the wine component with white wiine, which has changed the flavour substantially. We are humbled by the age of this recipe and will honour the ancients by always basing it on soffritto.

1 medium carrot
1 medium onion
1 or 2 celery sticks
2 cloved of garlic, crushed
2 tblsp good quality olive oil

1. Finely dice the carrot, onion and celery to the exact same size. You want to "brunoise" them - which is the French name for this dicing technique.
2. Heat the olive oil in a pot and add the carrot, onion, celery and garlic. Sautee on high for one minute, then reduce the heat to medium-low.
3. Cook the soffrito for 15-30 minutes, stiring occassionally to ensure all ingredients are cooked evenly.
4. Use the soffrito as the base for your bolognese sauce.

Just for the record, here is my bolognese recipe:

1 quantity of sofritto as above
1 tsp dried parsley
1 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
800g tinned tomato puree
200g tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine
300g beef mince
2 dried bay leaves

1. Combine the sofritto with the parsley, basil, salt, pepper, cinamon, tomato puree, tomato paste and white wine. Stir over a medium heat until combined, then bring to the boil.
2. Add the beef and stir until it's well coated with the sauce. Simmer for two minutes.
3. Take the pot off the stove and use the stick blender to finely puree all the ingredients. This is the secret step for parents who want to hide the vegetables in this dish from their kids!
4. Place the pot back on the stove. Add the bay leaves and taste. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.
5. Place a lid over the pot and cook on low for 15 minutes (or while you prepare your pasta).
6. Serve with pasta of your choice and freshly grated parmesan. Serves four!