Baking and blooms

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I have had a growing sense over the past few years that I needed to pay more attention to herbs and spices – particularly to the use of flowers – in cooking. I am always drawn to the variegated dunes of spices in the markets, find myself picking rosemary leaves from the bushes by the gate at my grandparents on my way to the door just to smell them and, this past summer, fell in love with culinary bouquets at the farmer’s markets (posies of edible flowers and herbs, yes please!). I think that it may have something to do with my romantic invocation of old English kitchen gardens, medieval spice caravans and poems about herbs for healing. Scents have stories it seems. Not that long ago I did find a little illustrated cookbook of recipes (the best kind) that revolved around incorporating the diverse flavours of ‘herbs de Provence’ into sweet and savoury dishes. I have also used rose petals to dress cakes a few times this last year – but I have had this sense that there was more than could be done. Even though school work takes up most of my creative energy, these ideas have been simmering away, so to speak, on the back burner in my brain.

All that to say, when my friend Lauren presented ‘Lavender’ as a plant and product in our community group a few weeks ago (presentation complete with lavender scones to sample!), I finally made my first move. After a Wholefoods excursion I was ready to start – I experimented with a butter cake recipe from the Vintage Cakes cookbook – a birthday present from my grandmother. The cake book is a delight and the cakes (one loaf and several-many cup cakes) turned out so well for a first try. I added 3 tablespoons to the classic birthday cake recipe and made vanilla butter cream as the frosting. It was very decadent – but such a treat. All in all, I feel my lavender explorations have only just begun – the cake called for ‘cake flour’ which incorporates some corn starch into the mix – something that I am quite unfamiliar with. I think it makes the grain of the cake quite fine – not necessarily my favourite texture. For now I will count this as an excellent first attempt and will keep exploring the exciting world of herbs, spices and flowers in food. I will keep you posted!

Gifts given

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“… What do you have that you did not receive? … ” (1 Corinthians 4:7b)

Not much really! I have been musing about the idea of sacrament, ceremony and celebration recently. Thinking about the way that God made a good world, full of good things that should remind us to turn our gaze to Him in gratitude. About formalising our thanks in ceremony. About expressing and sharing our thanks in celebration.

I have been thinking about creation and Eucharist, about feasting and joy, about thankfulness. About a good world, about bread. About cake and friends to share it with. About delight and welcome. These are the threads I am beginning to trace as I learn God’s word. I am beginning to see the story about a world made in love, about good gifts given. About a King and a feast, about coming home to dinner. About fullness of life, about joy, not fear. Oh, I want to be able to tell that story. I want to tell it with loaves of bread baked in precious new pots. I want to tell it with Funfetti cake topped with butter cream frosting and sprinkles.  I want to tell it slowly and carefully and with great joy.

The psalmist tells us that “He withholds no good thing …” Psalm 84:11 and I know it to be true. Sometimes the gifts are extra special though. This last week I was given a beautiful blue le Creuset pot, heavy with the hope of bread to break and dinners to share. Newly arrived in Vancouver, only few months ago, I had also been given an preloved Kitchenaid mixer and then, last week, the bowl finally arrived. Talk about stuff being sacred – my heart and my kitchen are full! So I baked in thanks. I baked basic-bread and a party-cake. The stuff of life and the stuff of celebration. I think we need both. We need the reminder that our earthy bodies are nourished both by the earth, and by the One who offers us Himself, the true Bread of Life. And once we have remembered, we need to gather and celebrate His Goodness and His abundant welcome.

Piece of cake, anyone?!

Lily’s Apricot Blondies (or the Flour Chronicles : 4)

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The genius behind this suprisingly scrumptious rendition of Bakarella’s recipe is a pint-sized chef with fair skin and hair to match her creation. My baking partner on Monday, Lily, was keen to have a go at making ‘Blondies’ – the sweet but cocoa-less version of Brownies. With her brother ‘off chocolate’ for a year, we had the double challenge of removing both cocoa and chocolate pieces our baking. We decided that we would keep nuts in the recipe – but because, as Lily rightly pointed out, cashews go with everything, we thought we would use them instead of pecans. We figured that perhaps frozen berries might be a pretty change from chocolate chips but, on our way to the frozen section, the dried fruit caught our eyes. After some deliberation Lily made the call; apricots. And so we concocted this sweet, tangy and chewily moorish slice. It was, hands down, a winner. Everyone wanted another slice and, oh yum, another! We thought you might like to try it too! (PS. I also had a go at using up some of my interesting ‘flours’ from earlier in the year, the barley flour made an entrance here and seemed to work well!).

Ingredients:
1 cup barley flour
1 3/4 cup wholemeal flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
150g butter, softened
450g dark brown sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
200g dried apricots
1 1/4 cups chopped cashews

Method:
1. Preheat oven to 175oC.
2. Line a deepish rectangular cake tin (9 x 13 inches or 22 x 29 cm approx.).
3. Chop butter into small pieces and then cream with brown sugar. Once combined, add the eggs in too, one at a time. Beat well after each egg is added – a silky smooth batter should be the result.
4. Add in the vanilla essence and beat again to blend.
5. Sift in the flours, baking powder and salt. Mix gently till incorporated into the butter, sugar and egg.
6. Chop the apricots and cashews roughly and add to the mixture. Use the electric mixer to distribute them evenly through the batter.
7. Move batter to the cake tin, it is very thick so you may need to wet your fingers to smooth in into the corners of the tin so that it is evenly distributed.
8. Bake for 25-30 minutes or till golden and just done when tested with a skewer. It is a brownie style slice so it is best moist rather than overcooked.
9. Allow to cool and then slice into 5 x 6 squares.
10. Try not to eat them all at once!

Streusel cake (gluten and dairy free)

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I thought I would share this rather successful experiment with you. With increasing numbers of friends who avoid/are allergic to gluten and/or dairy, this was my attempt at making a dessert that everyone could enjoy. I began with a blueberry muffin recipe which I joyfully chopped and changed till I had something I thought might work – both in terms of universal-friendliness-of-ingredients and deliciousness. I am sure it could do with a little refining, however, even this ‘first draft’ was a very acceptable dessert contribution. Fingers were licked. I imagine that you could continue to mess around with the different flours used to suit your preferences, I think I was particularly limited by the amount of almond meal I had at home that day! Anyhow, perhaps it will inspire you to do something new with a recipe (I find muffin ones quite forgiving if you don’t change the fat or sugar content too much) – or do some baking for a friend!

Ingredients:
1/2 cup light olive oil (or another light flavoured cooking oil of your choice)
1/2 cup brown sugar – loosely packed
2 eggs
1 1/4 cup almond milk
1 2/3 cup self-raising gluten free flour
1/3 cup desiccated coconut
1/4 cup almond meal
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup frozen blueberries
3/4 cup frozen blackberries

Streusel topping:
1/3-1/2 cup quiona flakes
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons desiccated coconut
1/4 cup chopped almonds
1/3 cup buckwheat groats

Method:
1. Preheat oven to 180oC, line a square cake tin with baking paper.
2. Whisk the oil, sugar, eggs and milk to combine.
3. Stir the dry ingredients through wet mix gently.
4. Pour most of the cake batter into the cake tin, reserving perhaps 1/2 a cup.
5. Stir the frozen berries through the remainder of the batter.
6. Dot the berries over the top of the rest of the cake batter – try to achieve even coverage!
7. Lastly, blend the remaining streusel topping ingredients and sprinkle these over the surface of the cake.
8. Bake for about 40 minutes – check on it to ensure it doesn’t brown too quickly around the edges and protect the top with foil if the centre needs further cooking.
9. Enjoy warm with greek yogurt or a dollop of mascarpone cheese.

Plum Clafoutis

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Reverting back to patterns of childhood, I have been doing the grocery shopping with my mum for the past six months. Moving back into a busy home, we slipped into a rhythm where the shopping became our thing, time together each week. Gradually, as we shopped, weeks passed and the summer stone fruit began to leave the shelves – these Teagan plums were some of the last. I was drawn to their dusty, frosted blue. Beautiful both in themselves and as an ingredient, I felt compelled to cook with them. I had had a general awareness of this very much French dessert but had never eaten or made it. I’ve said before that my recent delight in baked dessert is very much recent, so that probably has something to do with clafouits’ absence from my repertoire! After some Internet research I settled on this one from Honest Fare as a guide to work from. Here follows my suggested variation. Gabi from Honest Fare suggests that you can refrigerate any leftovers, which is helpful to know. However, my suspicion is that there will be no need for concern! The busy, hungry household I mentioned earlier made very swift work of it!

Ingredients:
1 1/4 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
3 eggs
1/3 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup almond meal
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbs vanilla
2-3 tsp lemon zest (to taste!)
1/4-1/2 tsp nutmeg (to taste!)
6 teagan plums
1 cup raspberries
sprinkle of brown sugar

Method:
1. Preheat oven to 175oC.
2. Combine the milk, sugar, eggs, flour, almond meal, salt, vanilla, lemon zest and nutmeg in a tall jug. Use a handheld blender (like a Barmix) to blend the ingredients well (this step could also be done in a bench top blender or by whisking really, really thoroughly!).
3. Pour about 1-2cm of batter into the bottom of a greased baking dish (I used a glass pyrex pie dish). Bake in oven for about 8-10 minutes so that the mixture becomes firm enough to hold the fruit up!
4. Rinse, and chop the plums into quarters, removing the stones. Scatter these, and the raspberries, artfully over the just-cooked-base. Pour the remaining batter over the fruit and return to the oven.
5. Bake for about 45 minutes, longer depending on your oven. The batter will puff up around the plums and turn a golden colour round the edges. Check that it is set through before removing from the oven and serving.
6. Whipped cream, ice cream, custard even greek yoghurt would be perfect served alongside this light fruit dessert. Enjoy!

Eat Street

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We join the stream of cars seeking a place to park. Pangs of anticipation and hunger give way to a dizzying revelation of choice. We realize with some disappointment that that we are not nearly hungry enough! The crowded Hamilton Wharf area is a maze of brightly lit shipping containers transfigured into pint-sized food shops. On a Friday night there is a steady stream of people through the tiny avenues, munching on an eclectic assortment of ‘street’ foods. After an initial reconnaissance we decided on a cheesy German Kranksy, red Seekh kebabs and soft tacos with pulled-beef. The sausage was an early choice – blanketed with bright American style mustard it was warm, salty and satisfying. The lamb mince pieces from the Indian establishment were suffused with the flavours of an impeccably balanced spice blend only improved by the yoghurt dipping sauce. Fingers were licked. The cornmeal tacos were slightly chewy, their silky ribbons of meat toped with a fresh coriander-sprinkled salsa. Letting dinner settle, we wandered through the streets, listening to some of the live music and trying to decide on dessert. Not feeling quite up to the outrageous cabaret delivery of the funnel cakes or the lavish ‘cronuts’ we settled on a simpler indulgence. Enjoying a handmade square of velvety Madagascan vanilla marshmallow – we buy a few more of the pillowy, gelatinous sweets to take home and share later. While the girls stopped by the flower stall, Asher chose a large cup of organic tea on the way out, the mildly sweet Black Lemon infusion was a refreshing conclusion to a night rich in flavours.

Thanks to Jess and Mel, our hosts! It was a lovely adventure experiencing ‘Eat Street’ Market, on Brisbane’s Northshore with you as our guides.

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Holiday Baking Revisited 3/3 – Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat

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A few months ago Asher took me out on a date. Apart from the treat of having time together, he wanted to show me a newly released Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Having already enjoyed his version of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, we were again delighted by his quirky storytelling style. For me especially it was the dessert-like visuals that were a significant part of the attraction. In it’s early 20th Century heyday the hotel itself was styled like a chocolate box and the pastries produced by the lovely Agatha at Mendl’s patisserie almost claim a staring role. We bought a copy of the dvd later and, on watching it again with family, were treated to an ‘extras’ video clip to warm the heart of any baker. Agatha herself demonstrates how to make the signature pastry of the movie – the Courtesan au Chocolat! After receiving some very inspirational baking cookbooks for Christmas and my birthday I was very keen to have a go at baking something beautiful and my brother Jonno obliged by having a birthday, providing me with the perfect excuse to try the recipe out. He isn’t much of a fan of super rich chocolate desserts but loves crème pâtissière so I substituted this SBS crème pâtissière recipe as the filling. I also did a little bit of chocolate piping instead of just using buttercream for the swirls on each puff and used icing flowers rather than the coco beans I did not have at home. Although they took a concerted effort for most of the morning and a few extra hands to make, I loved creating this dainty dessert. It was also lovely that they were very well received by family and friends alike! Thanks to Rachel Sanders from BuzzFeed who wrote out the instructions from the video clip to make it easier to write this method … which I changed a little.

Pastry Ingredients (Choux pastry):
1 cup plain flour
1 cup fresh water
113g butter
4 eggs beaten in a bowl
A pinch of salt
A larger pinch of sugar

Pastry Method:
1. Preheat the oven to 180oC.
2. Bring the water, butter salt and sugar to a boil.
3. Remove from the fire (stove top) and quickly mix in the sifted flour.
4. Return to heat for a few minutes, stirring, and cook until the dough forms a single lump.
5. Allow to cool just enough to keep the eggs from cooking and stir in very gradually with a strong wooden spoon.
6. Cover your tray in parchment and pipe the dough into spoon size dollops. You will need small, medium, and large size pastry balls (large tablespoon, teaspoon and hazelnut size dollops) to make a courtesan.
7. Bake in the oven at (180oC) for about 25-35 minutes. The smaller pastries are best put on a separate tray as they will cook more quickly.
8. Remove from the oven and discreetly make a small piercing in the choux to allow the steam to escape.

Alternate Vanilla Filling (Crème pâtissière):
1 litre milk
250 g white sugar (65g and then 185g)
2 tsp of vanilla been paste (or to taste)
50 g unsalted butter
2 eggs plus 4 egg yolks
120 g cornflour

Filling Method:
1. Combine the milk, 65g of the sugar, the vanilla been paste and butter in a large saucepan. The mixture needs to be heated gently till quite hot and then removed from the heat.
2. While the milk mixture is heating, the rest of the sugar needs to be whisked (or beaten with lovely old fashioned eggbeaters like I got for my birthday, another post to come soon!) through the both the eggs and egg yolks. The mixture will become thicker and pale as it is whisked.
3. A little of the cornflour is added to the egg mixture, which is then beaten again to combine, along with some of the hot milk (the cornflour is more easily incorporated into a cold mixture).
4. The hot milk needs to be returned to the stove top at a medium heat once the egg mixture has been added and whisked through it.
5. The whole custard now needs to be stirred constantly till the whole custard thickens. It will probably take about three minutes for the cornflour and eggs to work their magic on the milk after which you will have a beautiful thick, glossy custard.
6. The custard needs to be cooled in a clean bowl before it can be used in the pastry.

Pastel Icing:
This needs to be made in three different colours and is a simple mixture of icing sugar and milk made up to a ratio of your own choosing – it does however, need to be thick enough to stick to the pastry puffs but runny enough to drizzle artistically down the sides of each puff pleasingly. One day I will meticulously develop a recipe for the perfect ratio of milk to icing sugar and until then I will continue to guess and inevitably make a runny mess up every so often! In the movie the bottom layer is iced with purple, the middle is green and the top is pink – with the smaller balls requiring less icing.

Buttercream Icing:
I chose to make this in a soft yellow, in the movie they seem to use a cream coloured buttercream icing and a pastel blue. Made of icing sugar, butter and a touch of milk I have provided a recipe that the Women’s Weekly use in their cake decorating books but feel free to use this as a start and play with the consistency to suit your needs. The ingredients need to be beaten together before being piped onto the cake.

125g butter
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
2 tablespoons of milk
yellow and/or blue colouring

To Assemble:
1. Firstly, the puffs of pastry need to be filled with crème pâtissière using a piping bag and smallish (0.5-1cm wide) nozzle poked into the ‘cooling vent’ – the hole you cut earlier.
2. Ice the pastry puffs with colours that correspond to the picture and instructions above (… or come up with your own colour scheme).
3. Allow the pastry to set before piping decorations with the yellow butter cream (I also did some chocolate piping – although managing the temperature and runny-ness of the chocolate made this more difficult) … this could also be done after layering with less risk to the pretty filigree piping but more difficulty in maouvering around a constructed pastry.
4. Use the blue buttercream (if desired) to ‘glue’ the pastry puffs on top of each other, largest ball first, followed by the medium and the smallest (we also used kebab stick cut to size to prevent collapsing).
5. Top with a small rosette of buttercream (or chocolate in my case) and either a cocobean (as per the movie) or pretty icing flower.