This website is an odd mix of my interests as a writer, entomologist, naturalist, gardener, and educator. You’ll find blog posts about rural New Zealand life, links to my books, and some of my favourite recipes. Feel free to explore, drop me a line, and sign up for my e-mail list.
My son, the budding architect, has always challenged my cake decorating skills with his annual birthday cake requests. A star destroyer, the city of Dale, Wellington … his requests tend toward angular, built structures difficult to sculpt in cake and icing. This year he asked for ‘a brick’. Just getting the colour right was going to be a challenge. And then I had to make the brick special in some way.
I thought maybe I’d cover it in lichens and moss (easy to fashion from frosting and Mexican paste). But a photo online caught my attention … I came up with a plan that I thought would tax my confectionery skills more than mere decoration would. A little maths, a little measuring, a little cutting, and …
There’s more to this brick than meets the eye.
I think both of us had a vision of a grey boulder or boulders with climber, plants, etc. But as I started in on the cake, the vision changed.
I made one of my favourite devil’s food cake recipes (from Tartine) in a range of round layer sizes. I sliced each layer in half and filled it with my homemade Nutella, stacking the layers in a wonky boulder-like shape.
Then I stood there and contemplated the decoration. My plan had been to make the standard quick icing I use for decorating, but the amazing rich chocolate cake with decadent Nutella filling really needed something better than quick icing. It needed ganache.
I added chunks of hazelnut praline for a more rocky appearance, and made some alpine plants and a climber from Mexican paste. A few small final touches with a simple sugar and milk icing, and the cake was finished.
It didn’t look anything like I thought it would when I started, but it tasted absolutely divine! No wonder—it contained over 400 grams of chocolate, two cups of hazelnuts, and a gloriously unhealthy quantity of butter and cream. In the end, no one was paying much attention to the look—we were too busy oohing and aahing over the taste.
“Don’t can apricots today!” it told me the other day. “You have no sugar in the house.”
But I looked at the vast quantities of quickly ripening apricots in the kitchen and knew they wouldn’t wait.
I drove to the store to pick up sugar.
Back home, I made my sugar syrup, washed and heated my jars, got my canning water to a boil, and prepared seven kilos of apricots.
All was going well until I was packing the fruit into jars. I kept an ear on my canner, making sure it stayed at a boil while I worked. When the bubbling hiss faded and died, I knew the gas bottle was empty. Not now!
I left off my jar filling and raced outside to switch gas bottles.
Back inside, water, jars, and sugar syrup were cooling, but I finished packing the apricots in and poured sugar syrup over them …
Only to find I was about a cup short of syrup. Gah! I quickly made up a small batch to finish off the jars.
Into the canner went the jars, and I heaved a sigh of relief. It took longer than usual to bring it all back to a boil, but I shrugged it off. It’s always that way for a cold-packed fruit.
Then a few minutes into the boil, the canner started boiling over—orange, chunky, foamy water spilled onto the stove. Darn! A jar had broken. It’s rare, but after 30 years of use, sometimes the bottom of a jar will pop off during canning.
So for 25 minutes, I fought the sticky water boiling over on the stove. When I finally pulled the jars out, they were all coated in slimy chunks of overcooked apricot from the broken jar, and the stove was an gooey mess.
The six remaining jars all sealed, though, which was good. Pity about the stove. Took forever to clean.
Later, once the water had cooled, I tackled the job of emptying broken glass and gunk from the canner. And the first thing I did was drop the remainder of the slippery broken jar onto the floor, where it smashed to pieces.
Then, just to add insult to injury, when I dumped the chunky sticky canning water onto the compost pile, it somehow funnelled through the pile directly onto my foot.
Cleaning up the mess took almost as long as the rest of the process, and I questioned whether it was worth it, or if I should have simply thrown away a couple of kilos of fruit and called it a day before I started.
Then my daughter pointed out that we had the makings of six fruit desserts there, ready to pull out on a winter evening. She had a point—we’ll enjoy that fruit, and by winter, I’ll have forgotten the frustration of preserving it.
But, still, I keep thinking I could have sat on the porch with a good book instead …
The Canterbury tree wētā (Hemideina femorata) is endemic to the lowland forests of Canterbury. Like other tree wētā, it is a sizeable insect and an opportunist when it comes to food, eating mostly leaves, but taking advantage of the protein in other insects it encounters.
Here in rural Canterbury, it’s rare to find tree wētā. Old timers talk about how you used to see wētā every time you trimmed the hedge, but in 15 years of trimming, I have seen no wētā. I’ve even put wētā houses (like bird houses, but designed to appeal to wētā) in the hedge, but have never found anything but spiders in them.
Though I’ve never seen a study of their population changes, anecdotal evidence indicates Canterbury tree wētā numbers have dwindled with the intensification of agriculture and the increased use of chemical pesticides.
I have been fortunate to raise quite a few wētā in captivity, and in doing so, I’ve become familiar with the insects’ strong smell. This smell has been their downfall when faced with introduced mammalian predators—strong enough for even a human’s nose to perceive, it acts as a beacon to hungry rats, and stoats.
But it’s not just in my insect tanks I’ve smelled tree wētā. With some regularity in the early morning I can smell them in the hedge when I pass on my way to feed the chooks.
We humans have a poor sense of smell, as mammals go. We rely much more heavily on our sense of sight for identifying things. So for years now, I’ve doubted my nose, because I’ve never seen a wētā on the property or anywhere nearby.
But not long ago, on an evening walk with my husband, we found an adult tree wētā dead on the road.
Yes! I knew my nose couldn’t be deceiving me, though I was never confident enough to declare their presence based on smell alone. Now I am. I may not have seen them in my hedge, but if there are wētā being hit on the road a hundred metres from my house, I am willing to believe my wētā-scented hedge harbours them too.
A while back, I mentioned the Nutella I’d made, and noted it wasn’t quite right, so I’d have to try again.
Well, the most recent attempt, modified based on the shortcomings of the last batch, was a winner. I increased the hazelnuts and decreased the chocolate, so the nut flavour was more dominant, and I used a dark chocolate with a lower cocoa content, which prevented the spread from setting up like a rock when cool.
Here’s the recipe:
1 1/4 cups hazelnuts
175 g dark chocolate (50% cocoa solids)
2 Tbs vegetable oil
3 Tbs confectioner’s sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla
Spread hazelnuts on a tray and roast approximately 10 minutes at 180ºC until fragrant. Rub off the skins and allow to cool.
Chop the chocolate and melt over simmering water. Allow to cool.
Grind the nuts in a food processor until they form a paste. Blend in the oil, sugar, salt and vanilla. Add the chocolate and blend until smooth and well-mixed.
The mixture will be quite runny, but will set as it cools.
Of course, I’ll almost certainly tweak this recipe more. Just a touch less sugar and a touch less salt next time, perhaps. And I still haven’t achieved the silky smoothness of commercial Nutella—no matter how long I grind the hazelnuts, they still lend a gritty texture to the spread. It would be a whole lot of work, but I might try using a mortar and pestle on the nuts next time, to work on the texture issue …
You see, there’s always a good excuse to make more Nutella.
Don’t forget to make a sand dragon for my competition … Have fun, be creative, and send me a photo (and even better, send me a story about your dragon).
Contest rules here.
So I covered all my bases and planted a full complement of garlic at the old house and at the new house.
Last week I harvested the garlic from both properties. As I expected, the garlic at the new house grew poorly in the clay and rock, but it did grow and is perfectly acceptable. The garlic at the old house had a spectacular growing year—nearly every head is large and plump.
So, knowing we struggle to finish off a normal year’s garlic harvest before it sprouts and gets nasty, I made an effort to preserve a few heads. Well, thirty-two heads, to be exact.
First, I filled the dehydrator with thinly sliced garlic and dried 20 heads. I’ve dried garlic before, and we appreciate the ease of tossing a few flakes into the mortar and pestle and grinding them up. Twenty heads of garlic dries down to less than a pint jar full of flakes—uninspiring until you think about how concentrated the garlic flavour is in that jar!
Then I tried something new—I pickled 12 heads. According to the recipe I used, the cloves can be used just like fresh garlic, and when you finish off a jar, the pickling liquid makes a great flavoured vinegar for things like salad dressings. They’re quite pretty in their little jars, and I look forward to trying them long about August when the fresh garlic is sprouting. Again, twelve heads looks like nothing when peeled and packed into jars, but with 32 heads preserved and another three dozen hanging braided in the kitchen, I still have a whole bunch to give away.
So if you’re looking for vampires, go somewhere else. They’ll be staying far away from my house for a long time.