Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Pimp My Blank Canvas Biscuits (cookies)

This is one of those recipes that gets down on it's hands and knees and begs to be pimped. The unadulterated biscuit dough is quite perfect as it is. It's buttery, chewy, rich and sweet - but it's plain, which is fine sometimes, for some people. But who wouldn't want to, just sometimes, revert back to the days when the thought of wallowing in large tubs of mixed lollies was your idea of a successful adult life, and childishly smoosh every kind of sweet into one biscuit? (This is the part where you tell me that you used to dream about this too, and that I am in fact, not strange. Thanks.) What I'm saying is, they can be plain jane simple, sensible biccies, or you can go absolutely OTT with them. And if you're not as mentally unhinged as I, you could even be tasteful and classy and fall somewhere in the middle.

This recipe makes a lot. I make this much so I can cook some right away, then roll the rest of the dough into little logs and freeze for later. Then it's just a matter of thawing, slicing off rounds and cooking them. If you're not into that, just halve the recipe or be prepared to share them with the neighbours. Or double it and gorge on 120 biscuits yourself!

Blank Canvas Biscuits (Makes approx. 60)

250g butter
1 cup caster sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
3 1/2 cups self raising flour
1 1/2 cups whatever mix ins you choose
Preheat oven to 180C. Grease or line biscuit trays with baking paper. Cream the butter, sugars and vanilla together until pale. Add eggs one at a time and beat until combined. Stir in the flour and then bring the dough together with your hands, adding the mix ins at the same time. You can pretty much keep adding more and more mix ins until it just wont take anymore. Load them up!!

Shape the dough into balls with about 1tbs of mixture, or use a cookie scoop (larger melon baller or smaller ice-cream scoop) and place on the trays, allowing room for spreading.
Bake  for 10-12 minutes. Yes they still look pale and raw, but the bottoms should be a little coloured. This is the secret to chewy biscuits. If you like them crispy cook them a few minutes more. Cool on the trays for about 5 minutes, then onto a cooling rack.

Mix in Madness: Try M&Ms, Smarties, macadamia nuts, white chocolate, chocolate chips, boiled lollies, crystallised ginger, pecans, peanuts, sultanas, citrus zest, cinnamon or mixed spices, glace cherries, pistachios, coconut, chunks of fudge, mars bars, chocolate cookies, dried fruit, honeycomb, craisins, mini marshmallows, Maltesers, Skittles, sprinkles, peppermint crisps, mint slice, tim tams, oreos, hundreds and thousands, anything and everything!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Arroz Con Leche (Rice with Milk)

It's like one of those natural built-in instincts the wild creatures succumb to when the cold weather sets in. Some grow thicker fur coats, build up body fat for a long hibernation, stockpile their feed, or migrate miles and miles to a warmer climate. This animal just starts making feverishly fattening, filling, stodgy food - preferably laced with all things cream, butter and spice and that will summon the gods of heavy eyelids and fluffy blankets early on in the evening. It's Autumn now, so learning from the wisdom of mother nature - it must be the time to build up some (more) bodily insulation for Winter.

Now that we've got it all justified, here it is. It's called Arroz Con Leche and I'm told it means "rice with milk". Uh uh, don't run away - I wouldn't dream of suggesting leftover steamed rice with plain old milk! But this - it's Spanish, it's creamy, it's aromatic, it's immoderately moreish, and hopefully it's sounding a little more enticing than 'rice with milk'. Even Google Translate tries to ham it up and tells me it translates as "Rice Pudding".

As with all ancient traditional recipes, there are as many variations of Arroz Con Leche out there as there are abuelas lovingly stirring away at this dessert for their families. Some of those variations are listed below the recipe. So, after much searching and comparing, I've chosen what I think to be the best points from about two dozen recipes and smooshed them all together here. wannabeafoody approved, abuela disapproved.

Probably Improper Arroz Con Leche
(I suggest halving this recipe if you don't have a hoard of people to eat it - it's rich and makes a lot)
Serves 8 - at least

1 cup arborio rice (long grain will work too)
1 cinnamon stick
2 strips of lemon or orange zest (just use a peeler)
2 whole clove or an itty bitty pinch of ground cloves
1/2 vanilla bean
4 cups milk
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 egg yolk
pinch of salt
ground cinnamon and/or grated nutmeg, to serve

Add the rice, cinnamon, zest, cloves and vanilla bean in a large saucepan with the milk and and soak for about an hour. (You can skip this step no problems) Bring to the boil over a medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer on lowest heat setting for around 45 minutes, stirring often.  Add sweetened condensed milk and stir until incorporated. Take off the heat and stir in the egg yolk with the salt. Remove the cloves, cinnamon, zest and vanilla. Sprinkle with the ground cinnamon or nutmeg before serving.

  • Brazilian and Puerto Rican versions use coconut milk in place of regular milk.
  • Long grain rice can be used with good results, however short grain will give a creamier texture.
  • The milk can be substituted with evaporated milk, cream, or water. Remember to adjust the sugar accordingly, and that the total cooking liquids for the rice still amounts to 4 cups (or more, but no less).
  • Raisins or sultanas are often added at the end.
  • Rum or brandy can be stirred in at the end.

    Friday, April 23, 2010

    Crème Brûlée Tart

    This little number haunted my dreams and kept me awake last night, teasing me with it's buttery base, velvet vanilla filling and cracked caramel. I found the recipe right before bed time it just wouldn't leave me. Needless to say, this tart found it's way into the kitchen today. It has all the attributes of a good custard tart - which are ridiculously hard to come by - and a crème brûlée. The recipe was originally created by Michael McCarty of Michael's Santa Monica as an interpretation of the french classic crème brûlée and proved to be one of his most popular desserts. The crisp toffee top that makes a hollow 'crack' when tapped with the back of the spoon, releasing the creamy custard, is the gilding on this lily.

    If you do not have a food processor - don't be put off by the homemade pastry. Cut the butter up into tiny dice and rub it in with your fingertips to keep it as cold as possible. A blow torch is handy to have for the brûlée, but if you don't have one of these, chill the tart thoroughly before putting under a very hot grill for a few seconds. The dough can me made up to a week beforehand and kept in the fridge, and the whole tart made 1 day ahead without caramelising the sugar.

    Crème Brûlée Tart

    1 1/4 cups plain flour
    2 tabs sugar
    1/4 tsp salt
    120g cold butter, cut into 8mm cubes
    3 to 5 tabs ice water

    1/2 vanilla bean (or one bean that has been used already)
    1 1/4 cups cream
    2/3 cup milk
    4 egg yolks
    1 egg
    6 tabs sugar
    pinch of salt

    2 tabs sugar

    To make the pastry:  Combine the flour, sugar, salt and butter in a bowl and rub in the butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs with some larger chunks. Add 3 tabs of the water and stir in. Grab a handful of the mix and squeeze to see if it will hold together. If not, add 1 tab of water at a time until it holds. Roll out gently, and fold over on itself a couple of times to stretch out the butter. Be careful not to overwork or the pasty will be tough. Shape into a ball, wrap in Gladwrap and press into a 5" disk. Chill for 30mins or until firm. Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Roll out the dough into a 13" circle between 2 layers of Gladwrap or baking paper. Peel off one layer of wrap and fit into a 9" removable base tart pan. Peel off second layer of wrap, fold overhanging pastry back inwards to reinforce the sides, and chill again for 30mins. Lightly prick bottom of shell with a fork, line the pastry with foil or baking paper and fill with pie weights or a thin layer of rice. Cook for 25-30 minutes or until edges are light golden. Remove foil and weights and cook a further 10-15 minutes until golden. Reduce oven to 150C/300F. (Keep an eye on it - it transitions from golden to dark very quickly - as mine did.)

    To make the custard: While the pastry is cooking, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add to a heavy based saucepan along with the bean, milk and cream. Heat gently until hot, turn off the heat and steep for 30 minutes. Whisk the yolks, egg, sugar and salt together and add to the cream mixture. Strain and pour into a jug. Put the tart shell, still in its tin, onto a baking tray, and place in the oven. Pour in the custard mix and cook for 30-35 minutes until just set, but still wobbly in the middle. Cool for 30mins and then remove the base and let stand until it reaches room temperature.

    Finishing: Immediately before serving, sprinkle sugar over the tart evenly and using a blowtorch, pass the flame backwards and forwards over the sugar is caramelised and lightly colored. Serve on it's own or with some fresh berries and chantilly cream.

    Monday, April 19, 2010

    Flavoured Butters - Savoury and Sweet


    There you are, staring down at the piece of raw meat on your bench and it's just laying there awaiting it's fate without the decency to even suggest what might be done with it. So many possibilities, but if you've left dinner until the last minute and have no idea what to do with it - give these little gems a go. If you have good quality meat, you'll need little more than some flavoured butter to kick it up a notch. You can trick up some butter ahead of time to have stored in the freezer ready to roll. Savoury butters are fantastic on a roast, steak, chicken, fish, pork, vegetables, sauces and anywhere you would usually use plain butter. Sweet butters are great on cakes, pancakes, toast, fresh homemade bread, muffins and to use in pastries, biscuit doughs etc.

    The method for these is mostly all the same. Soften the butter, blend in the other ingredients with a fork or a mixer, put the butter onto some gladwrap and roll up into a log shape, twisting the ends to keep it tight. Store in the fridge for a few days or the freezer for a month or so. Just slice off medallions into single serves or melt it all down to garnish a whole dish.

    Savoury Butters:
    Roasted Capsicum & Basil Butter - 100g butter, 1 small roasted red capsicum peeled, 1 tbs lemon juice, 1 tbs chopped basil, salt & pepper. Spread on crusty bread or focaccia, melt over a meaty fish or as a vegetable garnish.

    Mai'tre D'Hotel Butter - 100g butter, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/2 tbs lemon juice, 1/2 tbs parsley chopped. This is a classic French butter served with fish, meat and vegetables.

    Caper & Anchovy Butter - 100g butter, 30g anchovies, few capers, dash lemon juice. Be sure to rinse the salt off the anchovies and capers. Use with grilled fish or cold white meat.

    Trick it up some more: try thyme and lemon with fish, sundried tomato and olive on bruschetta, caremelised onion and balsamic or worcestershire and tabasco on steak, or a mixture of your favorite herbs to use on almost anything.

    Sweet Butters:
    Brown Sugar & Cinnamon Butter - 100g butter, 2 tbs brown sugar, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/2 tsp cinnamon. Great for making cinnamon toast, baked apples, brushing over tea cakes or melting over pancakes.

    Ginger & Orange Butter -  100g butter, 1tbs orange juice, 1tsp orange rind, 1tbs crystallised ginger chopped finely. Awesome on fresh bread, scones, fruitcake and used as the butter in a fruit crumble.

    Citron Butter - 100g butter, 1 tbs lemon/lime/orange/grapefruit juice and 1tsp of the juice, add icing sugar to taste. Perfect for pancakes, on top of an orange cake, etc.

    More: Mix butter with ground almonds for making cakes and pastries or cinnamon/nutmeg/allspice for stewed fruit desserts.

    Just think about your flavours and view it as a glorified seasoning. The combinations are infinite, and there isn't much out there that can't be made better with the addition of some creamy butter.

    Saturday, April 17, 2010

    Man Salad


    "Salad is rabbit food", Salad doesn't fill me up", "Do we have to have salad again?", "I need meat for dinner", "Salad is girls food". Sigh. Fear not salad warriors, here's one that will suffice as a cruisy main meal and leave the menfolk feeling free to dig in for seconds worrying not for their reputations as carnivorous beer scullers. The kidlets are even bound to like something about this salad. It's chunky, it's crunchy, it's warm, it's overloaded with flavour, it's made with sage and garlic roasted organic free range chicken for crying out loud - it has to be good.


    The best part? The 'croutons'. These aren't your average dried out fried bread cubes. Torn up crusty bread is added to the chicken roasting tray about 5 minutes before the chicken comes out. The bottom bits soak up the cooking juices, while the tops turn a crispy hue of gold. Gold!



    Man Salad

    1 whole, free range, organic chicken
    4 sage leaves
    2 garlic cloves, crush
    50g butter
    extra butter or duck fat to baste
    Half a cob loaf (or any crusty bread), torn up roughly
    700g sweet potato, peeled, roughly chopped
    80g pine nuts, lightly toasted
    200g baby spinach leaves
    200g cheese (feta/cheddar/whatever you want), cubed or crumbled
    5 free range eggs, hardboiled, halved

    Pat chicken dry inside and out. Push your finger under the skin of the breast from the cavity end making a pocket each side of the breastbone. Stuff in the sage leaves and the butter and crushed garlic. Rub chicken over with butter or fat and season with salt and pepper. Cook in a hot oven (about 190-200c) until juices from the thigh area run clear when pricked.

    Roast the sweet potato at the same time with a little butter and salt and pepper. Just before taking chicken out add the torn up bread to the roasting pan to crisp and colour up. Set aside to cool slightly before tearing up chicken into big masculine chunks. Add all the ingredients in together and toss together.

    Dressings: Either a homemade (or bought will do in a pinch) whole egg mayo manned up with some wholegrain mustard, anchovies, lemon juice etc or a zingy dressing: one part acid like lemon juice/balsamic vinegar/white wine vinegar etc to two parts oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, honey, dijon mustard or whatever.

    Plonk that down on the table at your next BBQ and see what happens. Good luck warriors!

    Monday, April 12, 2010

    Tarted Up Bread and Butter Pudding

    Can you picture your your first dessert memory? The anticipation of that tiny frame of time after being made to eat "just three more mouthfuls" of grey-hued beans, but before being sent off to bed to let the grown ups talk? For me, that short amount of time was all about bread and butter pudding. Even now, the salivary glands kick into gear, the eyes glaze over and I can feel the firm squidginess that was essentially stale bread in custard. Twenty something years on and it's a regular in my own home, for my own family.

    Mum's old recipe was designed to be filling, economical and somewhat healthy. The bread was always (at best) 'day old' from the local bakery which was given away to whoever wanted it. Whatever was leftover from the weeks school and work lunches would be used for pudding. The eggs came from our own free ranging, happy girls (who also ate the day old bread and kitchen scraps). The custard was always made with milk, imitation vanilla essence, and the most exotic ingredient by far was the nutmeg sprinkled over the top. But it was wonderful, and boy, did we eat it by the oversized family-of-sixteen-children-style pyrex casserole dish.

    But times have changed, it's cheap to use heavy cream, real vanilla, rich brioche or spicy fruit toast to tart up this old fashioned classic. God knows it's well worth the extra dollar or so. If you go to the extent of using a whole vanilla bean, after using it in this recipe, put it in a jar of sugar to make vanilla sugar. Replace the sugar (not the bean) as you use it. I'm sure even mother would approve of using a $5 bean to get that kind of longevity out of it! Use the sugar for meringues, hot drinks, biscuits etc.

    So, if you're in the need for a comforting, warming, groan worthy (and who isn't?) dessert - give it a go!


    Tarted Up Bread & Butter Pudding
    Serves 4

    4 cups torn up bread/brioche/fruit toast
    60g butter, melted
    1 cup milk
    4 eggs (free range please!)
    3/4 cup sugar
    1 tsp vanilla extract or seeds from 1 vanilla bean
    1 3/4 cups cream

    Toast bread in a moderate oven until crisp but not coloured. Pour melted butter over the bread and mix up to coat evenly, and transfer to a casserole dish. Whisk up remaining ingredients and pour over the bread. Chill for an hour. Bake at 180c until *just* set - about 50 minutes.

    I usually have mine hot from the oven, drowned in cold milk (old family tradition), but cream or icecream are great choices.

    Tart it up further: infuse the milk with citrus zest or the whole vanilla pod, dip the bread into marmalade or apricot jam, add chocolate chips, sprinkle the top with nutmeg or mixed spice, use donuts in place of the bread... you get the idea.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010

    Easy Peasy Big Breakfast and Hangover Cure

    photo by Romulo Yanes

    Is there anything more warm-fuzzy-feeling inducing than a proper, hot breakfast that invariably incorporates the obligatory eggs and crispy bacon? And a big breakfast is the perfect cure after a big night, no? But unless you're happy to roll out of bed with the birds sporting your Sunday best headache, here is a recipe to get your hangover on the mend before you even hit the turps. When you wake from your medicinal purposes only alcohol induced coma, stumble out of bed, throw it in the oven and, well, you (and any other random people scattered over your lounge room) can thank me when you're able.

    The Obligatory Egg: Cheese & Spinach Strata
    (Nabbed then tweaked from Gourmet 2003)
    Serves 6

    250g frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed, and chopped
    1 large onion, finely chopped
    3 tablespoons butter
    1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or 1/4 tsp freshly grated)
    8 cups torn up bread
    2 cups Gruyère, grated (you could get away with a sharp cheddar)
    1 cup parmesan, finely grated
    2 3/4 cups milk
    9 large eggs
    2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

    Sweat off the onion and butter until soft, season with salt and pepper and the nutmeg. Stir in the spinach and set aside.

    In a baking dish, layer one third of the bread, then a third of the spinach mixture, and one third of the cheese. Repeat this twice.

    Whisk eggs, milk, mustard together and pour over the bread layers. Cover and chill over night or about 8 hours.

    The next morning, stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, (you can take this time for some hair of the dog) and preheat oven to 180c. Bake uncovered until golden and cooked through, around 50 minutes (great time for a shower and to wait for the ceiling to stop spinning). Stand for 5 minutes before serving.


    If you're feeling particularly generous towards the people who will probably drain your drinks fridge tonight, you could try some of these tips for the other components of a big breaky too.

    Crispy bacon - bake in the oven with the strata, on a wire rack over a baking sheet (use rasher bacon so it is crispy and not dry).

    Muffins - either savoury or sweet, muffins freeze well and can be thawed the night before and warmed slightly before serving.

    Fruit Salad - use seasonal fruits and combine the night before.

    Scones - cut out the dough and freeze on the baking trays, ready to go. They cook perfectly straight from the freezer.

    French Toast and other eggy bakes - these are always better made the night before, they'll have a better texture.

    Tuesday, April 6, 2010

    Waste Nothing: Making Stock

    It's rather chilly on the mountain today and rain clouds are looming. Perfect excuse to crack out the woolly socks, the snuggly jumpers and the stock pot. There is nothing like walking into a house that has a soup or stock simmering away on the stove. Walking in from outside, being hit with that homey smell will warm the soul from the nostrils out. But, a stock of course has a myriad of uses aside from making the eyes roll back upon inhalation.

    Any professional kitchen will start the day making various stocks, many left to cook all day or overnight. In French kitchens, stocks are referred to as fonds de cuisine or "the foundations of cooking." Stocks are indispensable when making sauces, soups, risottos etc. By using offcuts of meat and vegetables, bones, seafood and aromatics, a liquid bursting with flavour, aroma, colour and nutritive value is born.

    Stocks are incredibly cheap to prepare and use up kitchen scraps that would normally be thrown out. In this kitchen, I save up all of the carrot tops, onion tops and bottoms, parsley stalks, mushroom stalks, celery leaves, bones from roast dinners, supplement with bones bought from the butcher and pop them all into a bag and freeze it, ready for a day like today. Then its just a matter of throwing it all in a big pot, covering with cold water and simmering gently for as long as possible. The water should be just moving, not bubbling.


    A proper commercial stock would then be checked for clarity, strained, filtered, defatted and probably reduced to a glaze or jelly. In this place it gets no such treatment and it's lucky to survive past the first night of checking to make sure it tastes ok (read gorging on huge chunks of bread dipped in stock). What's left is made into risotto or soup, and even sometimes a small portion makes a run for it to the freezer to be used for gravies and sauces.

    A risotto made from great stock needs little other than a generous amount of butter and good Parmesan grated over the top. A handful of fresh herbs, some fresh sweet corn and a slush of dry white wine will catapult it to a new level again. You just got yourself a top notch meal that costs around $4, and feeds up to 8 people (if those serving sizes on the arborio packet were realistic), or 4 people and a little bit left over in this household.

    Toasting the grains - essential for a good risotto...


    The little bit left over...


    Friday, April 2, 2010

    Three Quarters of a Mile High Cake

    I doubt there is any other cake that is subject to such broad-scoped sacrilege as the humble chocolate cake. Every second cook book has a "Best Ever" or "World's Greatest" recipe, claiming to end the eternal search for a truly great chocolate cake. Have you ever experienced butterflies and an irregular heartbeat thinking you have found the holy grail of the patisserie world, dutifully stocked up on all things buttery, creamy and chocolaty, sat patiently by the oven for the whole 62 minutes it took to work the magic, then waited for the godly offering to cool enough to cut, taken a bite, and had your heart sink through the floor? Or was that just me?

    I wont tell you this is the "World's Best" or make any outrageous claims. But friends, this cake is good. It's very good. It is not a mud cake, it is a proper, cocoa-loaded, moist, sweet, chocolaty morsel of goodness. If you can leave out the 3 layers of cream, the thick lashings of butter and cream laden ganache, and forget about the two cups of sugar... it's not that bad for you. But then again, noone should have to justify eating chocolate cake.


    If you're wondering why this is only 3/4 of a Mile High Cake - I had a minor altercation with the mixer, which resulted in a substantial portion of cake mix being flung from head to toe... literally. Don't despair, the recipe is for the full 4/4, 4 layer cake.

    Mile High Chocolate Cake

    1 cup boiling water
    1 heaping cup cocoa powder
    2 cups sugar
    3 large eggs
    180g butter, at room temperature
    1 cup buttermilk
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    2 cups plain flour
    1 teaspoon bi-carb soda
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1/2 teaspoon salt

    Preheat oven to 180c. Grease and line 4 round cake tins, 2 x 12 hole muffin trays, or one large round 12" cake tin.

    Combine water and cocoa and whisk until smooth. Set aside. In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs and sugar until pale and fluffy, add butter and beat until smooth. Add cocoa mixture, buttermilk, vanilla and sifted dry ingredients. Beat until thickened, about 2 minutes. Cook 50 minutes for large cake, 35 minutes for layer cakes, and 20 minutes for muffins or until cakes spring back when touched.

    If you made the 4 separate cakes, just stack them up with some whipped cream and pour over some ganache. This is one cake that is infinitely better the next day. You won't be disappointed, and it's seriously low effort for the final outcome.