Therapeutic Baking

Illustration of utensilsThe earliest form of baking began with Stone Age farmers who created the first flat bread. It was a porridge made from grain and water, spread thinly on hot stones.

However, it wasn’t until 5000 years ago that the Bronze Age discovered that inverting a pot over hot stones formed a primitive oven.

The Egyptians were the first to experiment with the effects of yeast on bread dough.

During medieval times, a distinction was made between bread and cakes, with additional ingredients such as sugar, vanilla and cocoa being introduced to bakery.

Biscuits are believed to have been developed in the 18th century.

I consider baking, the most therapeutic of all cookery techniques.

However, I remember my first attempts as complete disasters. I must have looked a little like the Stone Age baker.

Unfortunately it is the disasters that quite often turn people off bakery right at the start.

The fact is that the main ingredients used for bakery (flour and butter etc.), are probably the most temperamental and moody raw materials known to mankind.

It pays to be patient and resilient when baking, because the more you learn about the ingredients and technique, the more rewarding your successes will be.

Nut and Fruit Biscuits

  • 250g butter
  • 1 cup caster sugar
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups fruit and nut mix
  • 2 cups self raising flour
  • a dash of vanilla
  1. Pre-heat oven to 180oC.
  2. In a bowl, cream the butter and sugar.
  3. When butter and sugar mix is smooth, add  eggs and combine thoroughly.
  4. Add  fruit and nut mix, self-raising flour and vanilla essence.
  5. Roll spoonfuls of the biscuit mix in cornflakes and place on a greased baking tray.
  6. Bake for approximately 15 minutes. or until light golden.
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A Most Aromatic Spice

Illustration of gingerIn the history of spice, ginger would have to be one of the most famous and aromatic, besides pepper.

Its origins are not completely clear, as it has been mentioned in historical records from many corners of the world. Ginger also grows wild in many countries.

It is highly likely though that it was indigenous to South East Asia and was traded in China, the Middle East and India where it has been used for cooking and medicinal purposes for centuries.

Eventually it found its way into the early English bakeries. Gingerbread was the favourite sweat of Queen Elizabeth I.

The ginger  most people are accustom to is the knobbly shaped root that grows underground from the tropical ginger plant.

The plant is an aromatic perennial that also blooms a spectacular red flower. This is where the term ‘Ginger’ (referring to a person with red hair) originates – a fact not lost on my red headed daughter.

These tuberous roots are referred to as ‘rhizomes’. Rhizomes also include turmeric, galangal and cardamom.

The ginger rhizome has a beige-coloured fibrous flesh covered in a scaly darker coloured skin.

Younger ginger is slightly sweater and tender while the late season ginger is sharper, hotter and more fibrous. However, all ginger is very aromatic.

Due to its shape, the whole ginger root is referred to as a ‘hand’ and the protruding tubes are the ‘fingers’.

Gingered Chicken Kebabs

  • 1 tbsp ginger, grated fresh
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 red chilies, finely chopped
  • 250g natural yoghurt
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin peanut oil
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 2 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
  • 1 tsp turmeric, ground
  • 1 kg chicken breast, 2cm dice
  1. To make the marinade, in a bowl combine the ginger, garlic, yoghurt, peanut oil, lime juice, coriander and turmeric.
  2. Add chicken and marinade for 1 hour.
  3. Thread the pieces of chicken onto bamboo skewers and a cook slowly on a barbeque for about 20 minutes, while basting with the marinade.
  4. Can be served on steamed rice with a fresh tossed salad.

Serves 4.

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Turning a New Leaf

illustration of coriander with chilli and limeSometimes referred to as ‘Chinese parsley’ or ‘cilantro’ – coriander is a native herb of the Middle East and Southern Europe.

However, it has also been popular throughout Asia for thousands of years.

It grows wild in Egypt and the Sudan, and surprisingly can also be found growing wild in English fields.

.Most Australians would recognise coriander as an ingredient regularly used in Thai cuisine.

The pungent tasting fresh green leaves almost look like the leaves of parsley, but with more of a flat and jagged appearance.

The fragrant dried seed is globular and almost round, brown to yellow red, and 4mm in diameter with alternating straight and wavy ridges. The seeds have a mild, distinctive taste similar to a blend of lemon and sage.

The taste of the fresh leaves and dried seeds are so different from each other, that some people may love one, yet loathe the other.

Some recipes, such as Thai curry paste often calls for the use the fresh roots of the coriander plant for its earthy, depth of flavour.

Coriander tastes great with ingredients such as chilli, lime and ginger.

 Zucchini with Garlic and Coriander

  •  500g zucchini
  • 1 ½ tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • salt and pepper
  1. Quarter the zucchini lengthwise, and then cut pieces in half crosswise.
  2. Add zucchini to a medium saucepan of boiling salted water and cook uncovered over high heat for approximately 3 minutes or until just tender, but still firm.
  3. Drain the zucchini well and transfer to a shallow serving platter.
  4. Heat olive oil in saucepan used to cook zucchini, add garlic and cook over low heat for approximately 15 seconds or until light brown.
  5. Add ground coriander and stir over low heat a few seconds to blend.
  6. Then immediately add to zucchini and toss.
  7. Season to taste with salt and cayenne pepper.

Serves 4.

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The Forbidden Fruit

figs 2 640x640Figs have a long and colourful history; the Greeks considered the fruit a symbol of fertility.

It’s said that fig trees grew in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve began wearing aprons of fig leaves after eating forbidden fruit from the Tree Of Knowledge (naughty kids). Well, I don’t know about wearing foliage underpants, but I’ll eat figs any day.

Figs are a flower turned inside out and the seeds are actually the fruit.

They’re generally golf ball sized and pear shaped, with tender skin that varies in colour from green to dark red, purple or black.

The sweet pulpy flesh can be pink or even yellow.

They are one of the only fruits in the world that can begin to ripen and sun dry on the tree. The dried figs are almost twice as sweet as fresh.

When buying figs, look for plump and unblemished fruit with a sweet perfume. Don’t worry if they have started to split and reveal the inner flesh, as this is a sign of ripeness.

They are highly perishable after picking and should be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in wax paper and best eaten within a few days.

They are wonderful in baked cakes, puddings and biscuits.

Sally’s Favourite Figs

I once had coffee with a food and travel writer from Sydney, who told me a great and simple recipe for a fig appetiser.

  • Cut a deep cross into the top of a fresh fig.
  • Push some fresh goats curd cheese into the centre.
  • Hold the fig together with a strip of prosciutto ham wrapped around and secured with a toothpick.
  • Place on a baking tray, drizzle with a little honey and either bake or grill them until the prosciutto starts to sizzle.
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The Comeback Kid

Picture of radishRadish is the comeback kid of the culinary world.

They were very popular in the 1970’s and 80’s, then fell out of fashion for a few decades. Though recently I’ve discovered there is hardly a trendy food magazine or modern salad that doesn’t feature thin slices of this colourful ingredient.

Radish is a peppery flavoured root vegetable, closely related to the mustard plant.

Due to its spicy flavour profile, radish isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I find that people either love or loathe them.

Personally, I’ve always been a big fan, and feel there is nothing more satisfying than growing your own, then eating them fresh from the garden.

They can be found in a variety of colours – usually red, white or black.

Radish also varies in shape, from a familiar small bulbous form to the more exotic elongated-shape found in Asia, such as Daikon.

The immature leaves of some radish varieties can also be eaten in salads.

Asparagus and radish salad with poached egg

  • 12 asparagus spears
  • 20g red cherry radish, finely sliced
  • 30g rocket lettuce
  • 20g roasted capsicum, strips
  • 2 eggs, poached
  • 2 tbsp parmesan cheese, grated
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp vinegar
  • salt & pepper, to taste
  1. In a frypan, Sautee asparagus spears in olive oil.
  2. Place asparagus, radish, rocket and capsicum in a bowl and dress with olive oil, vinegar , salt and pepper..
  3. Place salad on a plate, top with warm poached egg.
  4. Sprinkle on some grated parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

Serves 2.

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Miniature Cabbages

Picture of Brussels SproutsBrussels Sprouts are mostly in season around the autumn months; however they are still pretty abundant during winter.

They are popular in my household, and often finding their way onto our dinner table several times a week.

Brussels Sprouts are basically miniature teardrop shaped cabbages, a bit smaller than a ping pong ball, and made up of tightly packed leaves.

They grow as little brassica buds that sprout along a single stem of a cabbage-like plant.

Admittedly, their flavour is not to everyone’s liking.

In fact, they have long been unpopular with children, who are often sensitive to the earthy (somewhat bitter) flavour. It’s an acquired taste.

Farmers have worked hard to improve the taste of Brussels sprouts through many years of careful cultivation, resulting in a more subtle and less robust flavour.

As with other challenging ingredients, it’s the kitchen preparation that counts.

Brussels sprouts can be boiled, but this can destroy their nutritional qualities.

I personally like them steamed and tossed in a little butter and seasoning. They are also surprisingly delicious when roasted.

The raw outer leaves can be separated and tossed through a dressed salad with bacon and almonds.

Brussels Sprouts are fabulous in a vegetable stir-fry.

Balsamic Roasted Brussels Sprouts

  • 750g Brussels sprouts, cleaned and halved
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  1. Preheat oven to 210oC,
  2. In a bowl, toss Brussels sprout with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper.
  3. Place the Brussels sprouts on a paper lined roasting tray and place in oven. Stir occasionally to achieve even browning.
  4. When roasted, immediately place back into the bowl, add remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, balsamic vinegar and honey, then toss until evenly.
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The Emperor’s Beef

Picture of Wagyu BeefThe first time I saw a piece Wagyu beef steak, my jaw dropped.

There was more fat throughout the steak than meat. However, that’s what makes Wagyu so special.

It originates from Japan – in fact the word ‘Wagyu’ translates to ‘Japanese Cow’.

Cattle were introduced to Japan in the 2nd century to help pull rice cultivation equipment.

In the 16th century, the Emperor directed his military leader ‘the Shogan’, to enforced the rule of law that tightly controlled the importation of Western breeds, to protect the genetic line of Japan’s unique Wagyu cattle.

The Wagyu breeds of today are a direct product of these breeding controls.

There are several breeds of cattle that fall into the Wagyu category, all of which are recognised by intense marbling of fat throughout the meat. This results in the meat being very juicy, flavorsome and tender.

The meat is highly sought after and therefore quite expensive.

It is well documented that Japanese beef farmers used to increase the fat content even more by massaging the live animal’s muscles and adding beer and sake to their feed.

Wagyu beef produced in Japan is the most expensive and is usually branded with the name of its region, such as the world famous ‘Kobe’ beef.

Australia received its first Wagyu genetics in 1991 (from Canada) and through cross-breeding has since become one of the largest Wagyu markets outside of Japan.

I once read that some Margaret River Wagyu cattle have red wine added to their feed. These animals would have to be some of the most pampered in world (except for the humans eating them part of the equation).

I’ve cooked with Wagyu quite a few times, but my absolute favourite dish is ‘Wagyu Carpaccio’.

Wagyu Carpaccio

  • Wrap a fillet of Wagyu Beef tightly in cling wrap to form a firm, and perfectly round cylinder shape
  • Slightly freeze the wrapped fillet so it is firm enough to slice razor thin with a sharp knife or electric slicer
  • Arrange the raw slices a plate and served with salad, parmesan and olive oil.
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Life Is Sweet

illustration of sugarSugar could be described as a pure carbohydrate, used all around the world to sweeten food.

Many people are unaware of how many varieties of sugar are available.

Conventional sugar is mainly obtained from the juice of sugar cane, but can also be made from the sucrose of the sugar beet.

There are alternative sweeteners such as bee’s honey, date sugar, palm sugar and maple sugar (obtained from maple tree sap).

And of course, there are countless sugar substitutes, from the highly artificial ‘Saccharine’ to the natural ‘Stevia’, which also comes from a plant.

There are a few different types of the cane variety of sugar which can be attributed to the level of refinement.

One of the least refined is raw sugar or ‘Demerar’, not to be confused with brown sugar which is basically white sugar soaked in molasses.

The most common and all-purpose sugar is bleached white granulated sugar, but it is too course to be used in some bakery items.

Therefore, it is refined further into the smaller caster sugar crystals. Further grinding of white sugar produces a powder called icing sugar. Icing sugar is used in cake decorating and to sweeten cream, as it dissolves instantly.

One of my favourites for bakery is raw caster sugar, which has a richer flavour than the white caster.

Salted Butterscotch Sauce

When I think of cooking with sugar, I can’t go past the rich and decadent salted butterscotch sauce. It’s incredibly easy to make and can be served with almost any dessert, such as sticky date pudding, deep fried ice-cream or bread and butter pudding.

  • 200ml cream
  • 180g brown sugar
  • 70g butter
  • 15ml vanilla extract
  • pinch salt
  1. Combine the cream, sugar and butter in a saucepan and heat until it starts to boil.
  2. Remove from the heat and whisk until completely emulsified.
  3. At this stage you could add a dash of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt for depth of flavour.
  4. Or, for an interesting twist, stir in a couple of spoons of peanut butter – yum!

Serves 6.

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Whip It Good

whipped cream in bowl yellow with strawberry 640x640Pavlova wouldn’t be half the experience without lashings of whipped cream. And, in the absence of whipped cream an ice-cream sundae would be just… a bowl of ice-cream.

People have been whipping cream in Europe for centuries, and now-days it has found its way into the cuisines of most cultures.

But, whipping cream is not quite as straight forward as you may think, there is some important science involved in the process.

To begin with, pure cream has to contain at least 30% fat or it will be unable to hold air bubbles. To make lower fat creams whip successfully, the manufacturers add thickening agents.

Basically, while whipping cream (by hand or machine) the fat droplets connect into a network that collects and holds the air bubbles being incorporated during the whipping process.

This method is referred as ‘aeration’, and results in a thick, fluffy mixture approximately twice the volume of the original cream.

However, if you continue whipping for too long the fat droplets will stick together and begin forming butter. So don’t whip it too good. This will collapse the mixture, and turn into a yellowish slop of butter and liquid. Trust me, I’ve gotten distracted and made butter quite a few times.

Whipped cream can have flavourings such as sugar and vanilla added, as in ‘Crème Chantilly’, which is delicious.

It can also be folded through a chocolate mousse for enrichment. Whipped cream makes a fantastic accompaniment to scones, pumpkin pie, cakes, waffles or dollop on liqueur coffees

Strawberries Romanoff

  • 250g strawberries, chopped
  • 2 tbsp icing sugar
  • 30ml strawberry liqueur
  • 150ml cream
  • 2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  1. Combine the strawberries, icing sugar and liqueur in a bowl and leave covered in the refrigerator for 1 hour to macerate.
  2. In a bowl, combine the cream, caster sugar and vanilla essence.
  3. Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks.
  4. Fold the macerated berries into the whipped cream, spoon into a glass and serve immediately.

Note: Can be garnished with orange segments and a fresh mint sprig. Crumbled meringue can be added for texture.

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Dodging Bunya Nuts

Illustration of Bunya NutsA few years back, while picnicking at the Bunya Mountains, one of my children was almost hit by a bowling ball sized Bunya cone, which hurtled to Earth faster than the speed of sound.

It exploded into the ground, making a crater before rolling down the hill into our picnic blanket. Good thing my son had just moved away seconds earlier.

Bunya nuts are one of Australia’s greatest indigenous bush foods. They are large almond shaped nuts that grow in tight cones, on giant rainforest pine trees of South-East Queensland – particularly the Bunya Mountains.

The Aboriginal people used to eat them raw, or toasted in the fire and eaten like chestnuts, or even ground up like flour.

Nowadays, chefs have found many other uses for them, such as soups, quiches, pastries, cakes, biscuits and condiments. They easily absorb other flavours.

The biggest problem with the nuts is their hard and fibrous shell. As yet, nobody has come up with an effective method of harvesting and shelling them.

You can find shelled and frozen Bunya nuts at many bush food suppliers around the country – or just wait to dodge one before it clobbers you on the head at a picnic.

Bunya Nut Pesto

This recipe came from an apprentice chef I trained.

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 55g Bunya nuts
  • 55g fresh basil leaves
  • 70g parmesan cheese, grated
  • 125ml extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of salt
  1. Blend  garlic and Bunya nuts to a smooth puree.
  2. Blend in basil leaves and parmesan cheese.
  3. While blending, gradually pour olive oil until the desired consistency is achieved.

Note: You could also add a little melted butter. Use as a sauce for pasta, or spread on crispy Italian bread. Serve the meat and sauce with mashed potato or creamy polenta.

Serves 4.

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