Thursday, July 29, 2010

A weekend of family and baking

I had one of those weekends where I just couldn't stop baking.  Maybe it's because I'd been away from home all week and needed to re-connect with my kitchen.  Or perhaps it's because we had people coming to stay and I just love looking after houseguests.

Pear and cinnamon cake - courtesy of a Weight Watchers recipe.  Trust me - it tasted every bit as delicious as it looks!

My sister has a cupcake fetish and I just love making them too - seeing as she was one of the guests staying over I figured it was a nice excuse to bake some.  My latest creation: mocha "bunny" cakes.  I used a cheap packet mix (buttercake) and added espresso, also adding coffee to the buttercream.  The ears are simply marshmallows cut in half.  The flavours worked really well; the cake wasn't sweet at all - almost bitter with the espresso - the buttercream is super sweet but also balanced out by the coffee.  Sis took most of them home; my brother and his girlfriend (who also stayed) took the remaining two. 

The morning after the night before.  With two guests left (my brother and his girlfriend), I thought it was a perfect occasion to cook up some fluffy pancakes from my "Cookery the Australian Way" book - still my favourite, and first ever, cookbook. 

I had some smoked salmon in the fridge (not unusual!) and felt like someting savoury, so topped my pancake with salmon, light sour cream, dill and lots of cracked pepper.  So simple but delicious.

My brother's girlfriend, A, made the suggestion to have chocolate pancakes.  I happened to have some dark chocolate in the cupboard - which was roughly chopped and mixed into some of the batter - the chocolate melted as the pancakes cooked and oozed out when they were cut into.  I didn't try any myself but everyone assured me they were tasty.  How could you go wrong with melted chocolate, really?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Billy Kwong

I had wanted to dine at Kylie Kwong's restaurant in Surry Hills ever since I chanced across an episode of her Simply Magic series some years ago.  I was blown away by her passion and love of Chinese food and culture, and shortly afterwards I ate my first Shanghai dumpling - beginning a love affair of my own with Chinese cooking.  And I've since had the pleasure to meet several friends who have lived in China, all of them only too happy to educate my palate.

The guiding philosophy behind Billy Kwong restaurant is:  "to leave as small and light an environmental footprint as possible, to give back to the community whenever and wherever we can, and to think globally and act locally".  Ahhh - be still my beating heart.

Under the red moody glow of a huge Chinese silk lantern in the small dining area, we ordered Sung Choi Bao, Kylie's signature Crispy Skin duck, fried rice, steamed Chinese greens - and the night's special, yabbies with thinly sliced vegetables and a chilli sauce.

The Sung Choi Bao was earthy and delicious, and served with a magnificent chilli sambal - which I put aside to have with the main course - it was also fantastic drizzled over the rice.  The yabbies came served in half shells, the meat pulled out first by our forks, until we got more confident and lost our manners - poking indexes in and pulling the meat free, shoving it in our mouths and licking the juice from our fingers.  But the highlight for me was the duck.  The portions were very generous - it may have been almost the whole bird - the skin not only crispy but also disintegrated  and gave way upon biting into it, and the meat so succulent and juicy it was hard not to race back to the plate for more.  The sauce it was swimming in was perfect - robust and sweet, with orange segments and cinnamon quills scattered about.  And the fragrance, incredible. 

Billy Kwong's does not accept bookings so we were left to chance getting a table - as it turned out we had to share a large table with another couple, who were enjoying a vegetarian degustation.  I did feel a little sorry for them, sharing with us ravenous duck-loving Melburnians- who made a disgraceful mess of our side of the table, adding to the general ambiance with our meat aromas, slurping and vocalising our delight at each mouthful.  We felt so comfortable there and were surrounded by many fellow food lovers who also didn't bother too much about table manners.  It was very refreshing - not only in terms of the food, but also the overall atmosphere - it felt good to be eating there on so many levels.

The evening was topped off by a simple dessert of poached pears with an almond praline and yogurt sauce.  It cleaned the palate well and was a perfect full stop behind succinct sentences of spice, sweet, crunch, salt, sour and succulence.  I couldn't resist purchasing a signed copy of Kylie's book "It Tastes Better" -  my husband joked that maybe their signature duck dish recipe would be in there and we shared a laugh.  Until I opened the book to discover that, yes - the duck dish was indeed included in the book.  Generous as her servings, Kylie Kwong is also willing to share recipes which some other high profile chefs would - justifiably - rather keep to themselves.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bavarian Bier, B and B's, and Blasts from the past

This week hubby T and I took a trip to Sydney, "just because".  Both of us had flagged things we wanted to do well in advance.  He had spent many happy childhood summers on the sunny northern beaches with his family at his grandmother's home and wanted to take a trip down memory lane - we also caught up with his father one evening, who was in town on business.  I on the other hand wanted to - you guessed it - go restauranting. 

I used to work in a job that required me to travel frequently to Sydney for up to a week at a time, and got to be very familiar - thanks to an enthusiastic foodie colleague - with some of the good food in and around the CBD.  This being my first trip there in over a year (and the first trip that wasn't work-related for 10 years or more), I was keen to do the tourist thing and actually relax and enjoy the sights.  No taxis.  No rushing between offices or hotels.  No stress.

We flew in around dinnertime on Monday evening, with the option to head up to my husband's family flat on the north shore, but instead decided to grab some cheap accommodation in town, dump our luggage, and enjoy a meal at Lowenbrau in The Rocks.  I have a thing for saurkraut and sausage - and strangely, lederhosen - so this really hit the spot.  Similarly, T is a pork belly lover and I refuse to cook it as it stinks out the house, so he got his fix too.  All mopped up with warm pretzels and washed down with crisp bavarian beer by the 1/2 litre, we also enjoyed a naughty dessert of beer battered fried apple fritters dusted with cinnamon and sugar, which was so mouthwateringly good.

As luck would have it, I stumbled across the Australian Heritage Hotel in the Rocks while surfing the net earlier.  $69 per night "B and B", queen sized beds and clean and comfortable rooms (shared bathrooms).  I was dubious, but curious, and I'm so glad we gave it a go because it was fantastic.  The pub downstairs closed around 11pm so we weren't bothered by noise, no lining up to use one of the bathrooms/loos, there was even a shared living room area with games, tv and ... a tray with a carafe of port.  The next morning a nice lady buzzed around the living room as we munched on toast, cereal, juice and tea - making sure we had everything we needed and even offering to hold our luggage for the day.  Considering hotel accommodation in The Rocks generally starts at $250+ (for a basic room) - this was incredible value.

The next day we made our way via ferry and bus to T's family flat, where we again left our luggage and went exploring.  Lunch at the "Collaroy pie shop" - chicken avocado and brie pie! - before a walk around the beaches and then a bus trip up to "Summer Bay" (Palm Beach).  Beautiful beaches and scenery but we deemed it would be better to go back in the summertime, when the place really comes alive.  We enjoyed dinner back at Manly at the Bavarian Bier restaurant near the ferry terminal - again, T ordered pork belly, and I, sausage and saurkraut - pricier than Lowenbrau but the food was a step up.  Although the atmosphere at Lowenbrau is what makes it fun - where else can you be serenaded by a trio of brass instrument playing, german singing, lederhosen wearing gents as you enjoy your 'wurst (except maybe the Cuckoo)?

Speaking of which, I'll be at the Cuckoo this Saturday, enjoying a quirky Christmas in July with my sister, brother, and assorted friends and partners.  Three bavarian restaurants in less than a week (not including a breakfast on the run at the Vic Market last week) - I think I'll need to detox this week to give my liver - not to mention my lower intestine - a break.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Catering Experiment #1: Dinner Party Degustation

As an experiment, my friend J and I agreed to cater a dinner party for 14 guests, as a favour to J's local church.  The dinner party was actioned off and a small budget set for the purchase of ingredients. 

The challenge:  to provide a relaxed, restaurant-like atmosphere to the guests, serving quality home made food using local, fresh and in-season ingredients. 

We spent weeks fine-tuning our seating plan and menu, then finalised the list of ingredients and spent the afternoon before the party at the Queen Vic Market sourcing the best quality fruit, veg, meat and seafood.  This also allowed us to save money and choose the best looking produce.

Setting the table was the fun part.  J had the brilliant idea of making a flower setting for the centrepiece - I'm not a big flower person so couldn't really see the vision, but I'm glad I trusted her judgement as it turned out amazingly well.  I think J even surprised herself!

We then set the "placemats" (embossed paper squares), napkins (tied with vine-leaf ribbon), candles (tealights in espresso glasses) and cutlery, and voila!

Light some candles, add a couple of floor lamps, and the atmosphere is set...

The guests started arriving, and promptly tucked into french brie, drizzled with truffle infused honey (donated from my pantry) and roasted walnuts.

This was followed up by smoked marinated trout, and smoked salmon on toasts and mini frittatas, with dill and cream.

These were demolished quickly - J and I may have scoffed a few before sending them out of the kitchen.  The final canape we served was fried prawn wontons with a sweet and sour dipping sauce.  The prawns were simply marinaded in a little soy and sesame oil, before wrapping the wonton and deep frying.  Easy!

The guests were then seated, and we served up fresh bread using our respective breadmakers (multigrain and plain white), and a pear and parsnip soup.  I don't have a picture of the soup, but the bowls all came back clean so I think that's a good sign.  One of the guests asked for the recipe, which is simple:  Combine 2 peeled/chopped and roasted pears with 3 peeled & chopped parsnips in a pot, along with 1.5 litres chicken stock.  Cook, then add 1/4 cup sherry and 1 cup cream, puree in a food processor until smooth.  For the diet conscious, substitute the cream with light sour cream or skim milk.

Main course was free form curried chicken and mushroom pies.

And for the finale - dessert was a choice of sticky date pudding with salted toffee sauce, or chocolate tart with raspberry coulis:

From the clean plates, outrageous conversation and laughter, and reluctance of the guests to leave (we were still cleaning up at midnight), the night was a huge success.  

Saturday, July 10, 2010


The dilemma I find myself in when expecting city friends for a weekend brunch, is whether to bake something lovely, or take a stroll through our picturesque town to one of the excellent cafes.

It's usually brunch, as most of our friends now arrive with young children and a hundred assorted baby bags full of nappies, snacks, toys, wipes, blankets and spare items of clothing.  The mother part of the equations come with man-sized (breastfeeding) appetites, and both parents are usually hungry for some adult conversation and a chance to sit back and let someone else take care of them for little while, as they enjoy the serenity of our home in the hills. 

Considering the weather (windy, damp and very very cold) I decided to make up a last minute brunch from the limited contents of my fridge, pantry and garden.  The staples I had to work with were: raspberries (fridge), lots of lemons given by a neighbour (pantry), and leeks (garden).  Creamy potato and leek soup with some crusty bread, followed by light and fluffy lemon cupcakes topped with lemon buttercream and raspberries was served to our appreciative guests.  We sent them home with a takeaway container with some of the leftover cupcakes, to be enjoyed on the trek back to Fitzroy.

Lemon cupcakes with buttercream and raspberries:

Ingredients (cake):

2 & 1/2 cups SR flour
1 cup caster sugar
finely grated rind and juice from one or two lemons (depends on "lemony" you want them!)
1 & 1/2 cups buttermilk (or regular milk with some lemon juice mixed in)
1/3 cup of rice bran oil
1 egg


Prehead oven to 180C (I heated my fan-forced oven to 160 and it worked fine), line a 12 cup muffin pan with papers or grease lightly.  Mix together dry ingredients including rind, then separately whisk together the wet ingredients.  Add wet to dry, stir until it just comes together (too much mixing will result in rock hard cakes - you have been warned!)  Spoon into pan and bake for 20-25 mins until cooked.

Cool cakes on a wire rack, then make the buttercream.  I don't have a specific recipe for this; the best way is to beat up some room temperature unsalted butter (about 200 grams) using a mixmaster (any excuse to use my new Kitchenaid), add some lemon juice or whatever else you want to flavour it with - you could use jam, crushed berries, or other fruit juices - about two tablespoons worth of lemon juice will give it a nice tangy flavour.  Once it pales, gradually add in the icing sugar - it could be anywhere between one to three cups, depending on the flavour and consistency you need.  I like to keep it quite firm (more icing sugar) so it retains its shape when being piped on to the cupcakes. 


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hommus and pitta on a Saturday night

In today's Good Weekend mag (page 28) there was a recipe for pitta, so I started putting together the dough to prove and thought about what might be good to accompany it.  I had a little bit of tahini and a can of chickpeas in the pantry, so the obvious answer to that would be hommus. 

Paired perfectly with a cranberry cocktail ...

... and my hunky, frypan-wielding husband.

We ate the finished product straight out of the pan, dipped in the creamy hommus.

Easy hommus:

In the bowl of a food processor, put some chopped chilli, two cloves of garlic, 2 tbsp water, 2 tbsp tahini, 3 tbsp olive oil - and pulse until well blended.  Add a drained tin of chickpeas and a few big pinches of fresh chopped parsley and blend again until smooth and creamy.  Add juice of one lemon and salt to taste. Serve with pitta bread.