Monday, January 28, 2008

Daring Bakers - lemon meringue pie

It was another sweet month for the Daring Bakers, with this month's host, Jen from Canadian Baker, putting the classic lemon meringue pie on the menu. Lemon meringue pie has long been a favourite in both my and Adam's families, so I knew this recipe would have to be good to inspire us to substitute it in the future for our own recipe. Although this recipe was not challenging as I have made lemon meringue pie many times before, I enjoyed trying a new version and it had some different steps to my tried-and-true recipe.

The first step was to make the pastry. This was a simple sweet pastry and easy to make. I would normally not consider making pastry on a 30-degree day but, as a group of lemon meringue pie lovers were coming for dinner that night, I had no choice. The pastry consisted of cold butter, plain flour, sugar, salt and ice water, all blended in a food processor, then chilled for at least 20 minutes. This is very similar to the sweet pastry recipes I have, and it all came together nicely. It rolled out easily and made a very nice tart base.

The lemon filling was also easy to make. It differed slightly from my recipe in that it used five egg yolks (but it did make a large pie) and also that the method required the sugar and cornflour to be stirred into two cups of boiling water and then cooked over medium heat until very thick, before the egg yolks, butter and lemon juice were added in separate steps. (My original recipe calls for arrowroot to be blended with cold water and then mixed with sugar, lemon juice, eggs and butter and boiled for one minute). This recipe was similar but was made for a larger volume and each ingredient was mixed in separately. Adding the sugar and cornflour to the boiling water meant the mixture had to be carefully watched, as it thickened very quickly and easily turned lumpy (but nothing a whizz with the bamix couldn't fix). I found the filling mixture was a wonderful thick consistency until I added the lemon juice. It then became quite runny and did not set as much as I thought it would or should. When the pie was cut, the filling oozed out rather than cutting into nice slices. At the time, I wondered whether the metric conversions for this recipe were correct but, having since read quite a few comments from fellow DBers, this is apparently a common problem with this recipe. I would add more cornflour next time I made this pie - it called for 1/2 a cup but perhaps 3/4 cup would be better.

The final step was to make the meringue and the result was a magnificent glossy meringue that piled up very high on the tart. The recipe called for 3/4 cup of sugar but I cut this down to 1/2 cup and it was still a little sweet, so perhaps even a 1/4 cup would be enough. The meringue looked and tasted wonderful and I had plenty of willing kitchen helpers lining up to lick the bowl clean! The recipe said the pie should be browned in the oven for 10-15 minutes but I found mine was almost too brown after five minutes, so luckily I had kept an eye on it and pulled it out in time.

The final result was delicious and met with a loud chorus of approval. The meringue melted in the mouth, the pastry was sweet and light and the only hiccup was the runny filling but all agreed that it tasted wonderful regardless.

Would I make this recipe again? I'm not sure. I would definitely use the pastry recipe again for other tarts. I did enjoy this lemon meringue pie but I'm not sure it was successful enough to woo me away from my original recipe.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cooking heaven

I've been to cooking heaven and it's called The Essential Ingredient. I'm ashamed to admit that a baking aficionado like me, who loves trying new recipes and ingredients and is an avid reader of Gourmet Traveller, whose recipes quite often include an ingredient list marked with an asterisk that says "available from The Essential Ingredient", has never been to this shop. It's been on my list of places to visit for a very long time but I've never done it. This year I'm determined to stop making endless lists of places I want to visit and actually do it.

So I made the effort to visit and I could have spent hours there. Recipes churned through my mind as everywhere I looked I saw jars, bottles and packages of ingredients: preserved lemons; piquillos; anchovies; capers in salt; peppercorns in brine; extra virgin olive oil from around the world; sherry vinegar; verjuice; quince paste; carnaroli rice; harissa; type 00 flour; puy lentils; quinoa; olive tapenade; vanilla beans; saffron threads; chestnut flour; orange blossom water; chestnut puree; jars of milk, white and dark couverture buttons; light and dark muscovado sugar; rich, dark cocoa powder; light and dark demerara sugar; rosewater; cocoa nibs; cornichons in vinegar and slabs of couverture chocolate. There were dozens of glossy cookbooks, a wall of shelves filled with white dinnerware; and a huge range of cooking tools and implements. Oh for a huge budget, unlimited pantry space and a free week to devote to cooking and baking! I could easily have filled the entire car.

But I was forced to restrain myself and came home with just a few "essentials". One small item that made its way into my basket was dried lavender flowers, which I used to flavour some sweet butter biscuits. The lavender flowers impart a gentle flavour to the biscuit, giving them the faint taste of a lazy summer's afternoon. Taking just 15 minutes from the time you pull out the mixing bowl to the time you pop a warm biscuit into your mouth, it is also the sort of biscuit that is perfect to whip up on a lazy summer's afternoon.


125g butter, softened
1 cup caster sugar
1 egg
200g SR flour, sifted
2 tsp dried lavender flowers

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the egg, then gently mix in the sifted flour and lavender flowers, taking care not to overmix. Roll teaspoons of mixture into balls and place on baking paper-lined trays, flattening slightly with your hand. Leave room for spreading. Bake at 180 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until golden. Cool on wire racks.

Monday, January 14, 2008

To market, to market...

I never liked mornings as a teenager. On weekends, I'd surface near lunchtime, when the heat of a hot day had already kicked in, or the clouds on a coolish day had blown up and obscured the early morning sun that had held promise of a fine day.

Now I love early mornings. The sky seems washed clean, brighter and more fresh. All days promise well in the morning, even if they go off track later on. It's a time of quiet, as the city has not yet awoken and launched into the bustle of the day. Busy city laneways, like Degraves St, where you can barely move for the milling throng at lunchtime, are quiet havens. The smell of coffee and freshly baking muffins drifts around the laneway, as you dodge the baker and milkman making the day's deliveries. Many times I've enjoyed an early morning walk or run in brilliant sunshine, only to find it obscured by grey clouds within an hour or two, or the calm peace disturbed by squally winds that blow up later on.

One of my favourite places in Melbourne is the Queen Victoria Market. We're lucky to have such a treasure in Melbourne at all, let alone easily accessible in our CBD. Many's the time I've battled big crowds at the market on a mid-morning Saturday. Now I prefer to go in the early morning, arriving about 6.30am, when there are fewer people around. The market is pleasantly populated, with enough people to make you feel part of a communal activity, but not so crowded that you're dodging overloaded trolleys, big three-wheeled prams and meandering tourists while trying to check out what's fresh and best to buy.

First stop is the deli hall, where a compulsory purchase is the spinach and pinenut dip. Adam and I both adore this dip and it won't last long in our fridge. Other assorted deli items make their way into my little red jeep trolley: olives, pancetta, different types of cheese, Turkish bread, Polish sausages, dolmades, smoked salmon and big blocks of fresh Warrnambool butter. Then it's onto the meat and fish hall, where I'll wander the stalls to see what's on offer. I always stock up on fresh fish and seafood here, as I think the fish from this market is the freshest and cheapest in Melbourne. I often buy red meat and chicken here too but, as I'm blessed with a wonderful local butcher, I don't buy as much here as I could.

Last stop is the fruit and vegetable sheds. There's so much on offer that I spend a lot of time wandering up and down the various sheds before purchasing. Today, there's fire-engine red tomatoes from Murray Bridge that look particularly good. A plump eggplant will make smoky baba ghanoush, while a bunch of crisp asparagus will be delicious blanched and tossed in a salad with blue cheese and walnuts. Mounds of plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots look enticing. There's some leftover eggwhites in my fridge that will make little meringues that can be topped with whipped cream and a chopped assortment of these fruits.

By 7.30, my shopping is all done and it's time for coffee and breakfast and to plan for the rest of the weekend. There seems so many more hours in the day when you're an early riser!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cool treat

The mercury continues to soar to 40 degrees and I can feel the sun burning into my skin the moment I step out of doors. Our relentless summer heatwave continues. Although the kitchen is the last place I want to be, the cooking bug is nagging at me. I feel the urge to bake, to create new dishes and to try out my new cookbooks. But I don't want to turn on the stove or cook heavy, savoury dishes.

What else to turn to in such a situation but my ice-cream maker? I haven't given it a run for some time and this is perfect ice-cream weather. A container of frozen blackberries makes a great basis for ice-cream. Pulverised with caster sugar in a food processor, the rich, deep red berry juice is the colour of good wine as I swirl it into a custard base, made from milk, cream, egg yolks and vanilla extract. A churn in the ice-cream maker and we have a cool treat to enjoy after dinner.

I adapted this recipe from a recipe by Tony Bilson that appeared in the Fare Exchange column in Australian Gourmet Traveller.

Berry ice-cream

200ml milk
600ml cream
4 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
500g berries (I used blackberries, as I love their rich flavour in ice-cream but other berries, such as raspberries, would also be OK)
240g caster sugar

Heat the milk and 200ml cream in a saucepan until hot but not boiling. Beat the egg yolks and 90g caster sugar until thick and pale. Whisk in a little of the hot milk mixture and then pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan. Cook over a low heat until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a wooden spoon. Take off heat, pour into a bowl (strain if necessary) and put into the fridge to cool. Whiz the berries with the remaining caster sugar in a food processor. Strain through a sieve and mix with the custard. Whip the remaining cream until soft peaks form and fold through the berry custard. Pour into an ice-cream machine and churn according to manufacturer's instructions.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Too hot to bake

Melbourne's weather is the butt of many jokes, mostly about its unpredictability. Despite our many long, grey days in winter, Melbourne does do summer with a vengeance and often to excess: days of 40 degrees can be followed by days of barely 20 degrees and cool changes during the middle of hot days can see the temperature quickly plummet.

We're in the middle of a sizzling hot heatwave at the moment. New Year's Eve was 41.1 degrees celsius (106 fahrenheit), making it the hottest day in the hottest year on record in our state. There's been little respite - it was followed by 41.2 on 1 January and it's been high 30s for the past few days.

All of which means I am avoiding the kitchen (which is not such a bad thing after the indulgent excesses of the Christmas season!) The kitchen is a warm and comforting place in winter, with the enticing smells of roasts, casseroles and soups wafting around the house. But in summer, it is a place where no-one wants to be. A quick trip through to grab a cold drink from the fridge, a biscuit to nibble on or some fruit from the fruit bowl and we're out again. It's certainly not a place to linger near a hot stove, or be bothered planning meals or baking cakes.

Thank goodness for light healthy salads that require no cooking, for an outdoor BBQ to sear meat on and for friends with beach houses. The leftover Christmas ham is chopped finely and mixed with corn kernels, spring onions and cheese into a basic batter to make fritters. Juicy pieces of fish and crispy chips are perfect at the beach. Fat porterhouse steaks, spicy kebabs and shaslicks, herby rissoles and flavoured sausages taste all the better for being cooked outdoors, with the added bonus that the kitchen is free from both the cooking smells and the heat.

Glamourous salads accompany the meat: grated carrot mixed with currants, pinenuts, lemon juice and olive oil; the cool simplicity of green apple, celery and mayonnaise; farfalle bows teamed with capsicum, bacon, red onion and a dressing of sweet chilli sauce and whole-egg mayonnaise; little chat potatoes cooked and halved and mixed with sour cream, chives and crispy bacon; couscous flavoured with lemon juice, olive oil, pinenuts, spring onions and currants. It is a time of fresh flavours that can be put together with minimum fuss and no stove.

Soon I will venture back into the kitchen and start trying recipes from the two new cookbooks I received for Christmas. One was Bill Granger's latest, Holiday, which is, as always, full of simple delicious recipes to try. The other book is Secrets of the Red Lantern by Pauline Nguyen, a book that mixes Vietnamese recipes from the Nguyen's Sydney restaurant, Red Lantern, with the tale of their life, starting with their escape from Vietnam and eventual resettlement in Australia. It is a sumptuously designed, hardcover book, with the recipes broken up by stories and gorgeous photos. I love to eat Vietnamese food but have never cooked it much, so I'm looking forward to being guided by this wonderful book.