Frangipane Frenzy

plum frangipane tart

I don’t often use almonds, because I can’t get them locally grown (they are grown here in NZ, but it’s hard to get hold of them, as demand outstrips supply). Instead, I tend to use locally grown walnuts or hazelnuts when I’m baking.

So when I do splurge on almonds, it’s a real treat.

A few days ago, while I was rummaging around in the freezer for a container of frozen black currants in order to make a pie, I came across some frozen damson plums I’d completely forgotten about. When the fresh plums were given to me mid-summer, there was so much fresh fruit around, I couldn’t possibly use them, so I froze them, dreaming of plum tart.

So instead of black currant pie this week, I opted for a plum tart. The quantity of plums I had was smaller than I would have liked, so I looked for a recipe that would bulk them up a bit. When I came across a recipe for plum frangipane tart, I was hooked. 

I had some ground almonds left over from my last almond splurge, so I whipped up some frangipane and spread it in my tart crust, layering plum halves on top, and sprinkling them with just a tablespoon and a half of brown sugar. 

The resulting tart is a flavour sensation, the sweet almond filling contrasting with the sharp tang of the plums on top. It’s rich and flavourful enough that you should cut it into thin wedges and savour it slowly, but it’s so delicious, you really want to cut a big slab and gobble it down.

I’m doing my best not to inhale the entire tart. And while I’m contemplating when I can justify another piece, I’m scheming. Could I make the same nutty frangipane by substituting walnuts or hazelnuts for the almonds? Of course I could (I’m sure it’s been done, and probably has a name). How would a walnut frangipane with apple slices on top taste? Or hazelnuts with apricots? What nut frangipane would go best with the black and red currants still in the freezer?

The possibilities are tantalising. I’d better finish off this plum tart quickly so I can try something new …

Magic Meringue Mushroom Making

I’m not fond of meringues. Somehow I never taste whatever they’re flavoured with—only egg white, a flavour I’ve always found unpleasant.

I do, however, enjoy making meringue mushrooms. This week I had the pleasure of making a large batch of meringue mushrooms without having to eat any of them.

Two of my husband’s PhD students are graduating, and they gave a celebratory seminar today. Naturally I had to make some mushroom-themed treats (to match their research subjects) for the occasion. Sixty mushroom shaped cookies, two dozen Amanita muscaria cupcakes and 50 meringue mushrooms later I dusted off my hands and stepped out of the kitchen.

The cookies and cupcakes are cute, but it’s those meringue mushrooms that excite me. 

meringue mushroom caps in the oven

I love piping the little stems and caps and dusting them with cocoa powder. I love how they look during their long slow cooking in the oven. I love the crisp-hollow sound they make when you pick them off the baking parchment.

But best of all is the process of gluing the caps to the stems with molten chocolate. Each mushroom seems to come to life—short plump ones, tall thin ones, some that bend or sit wonky on their stems. Each is different and has its own character. There’s something magical about it.

meringue mushrooms on cooling rack

I wish I had more excuses to make meringue mushrooms. I wish I liked eating them. But that’s alright—maybe I appreciate the magic of meringue mushroom making more because it is such a rare treat. (Alternatively, alliteration acts as an attraction?)

A Hobbit Adventure

As a writer of fantasy and adventure novels, it’s important to me to get out and have my own adventures. My adventures provide the inspiration and the gritty details for my characters’ escapades. I especially enjoy true wilderness adventures—the less sign of human impact, the better.

view from Mt Isobel
The view from atop snowy Mount Isobel

Of course, not every adventure can be a wilderness experience. Sometimes you want some fun with a little more luxury.

My husband and I recently spent a lovely weekend in Hanmer Springs. While the town is known for its hot pools, we’re not the hot pool type. What we appreciate about Hanmer Springs is the ability to step out the front door of your holiday home, climb a mountain, and end the hike at the pub a few blocks from the holiday home.

It’s hardly a wilderness experience, especially given that Hanmer Springs is surrounded by pine plantations, rather than native bush, but on a winter weekend during the rainiest month on record, it’s just right.

Our main hike for the weekend was up Mount Isobel. This wasn’t our first winter trip to the peak, but it was the first time we’d followed the ridge from the peak in order to descend via Jollies Pass. The last time we were on Mount Isobel, the wind was so fierce, there was only enough time to race to the top, snap a photo or two, and race back down before we froze. This time was entirely different.

It snowed the previous day, so we hiked through a winter wonderland. Light wind and full sun made it a stunning hike. The snow was an easily hikeable fifteen centimetres deep on the ridge—just enough to ensure our feet and lower legs were thoroughly soaked by the end.

There was nowhere dry to stop for lunch, so we ate in short snatches standing up. That was really the only downside to what was a delightful seven-hour hike.

And when your hike ends in Hanmer village, with beer and good food on offer, and a roaring fire at the holiday home to warm your toes, it’s hard to complain about anything. I think of it as a Hobbit adventure—a bit of fun without skipping second breakfast.

A Trifle Broken

Last night’s baking was going well until it came time to remove the cake from the pan.

I made a chocolate cake—a wholegrain recipe I’ve made a dozen times. Usually I’d bake it up as cupcakes, but I decided to go all out and make a layer cake instead. I also decided to mix in some frozen raspberries, because there’s still a ton of summer’s bountiful fruit in the freezer.

The recipe calls for greasing and flouring the pans, which I did generously.

Unfortunately, I should have lined the pans with baking paper instead. The raspberries made the cake extra fragile, and both layers broke dramatically when I tried to take them out of the pans.

There went my vision of a beautiful chocolate and raspberry layer cake, filled with black currant jam and covered in a chocolate ganache.

But cake is cake, and it tastes great whether it’s whole or broken into jagged pieces.

Enter the trifle—a dish that was no doubt invented by a hapless baker whose cake had disintegrated upon being turned out of the pan, an hour before the arrival of twenty guests.

I didn’t have the eggs necessary to make the traditional custard for my trifle, so I went with whipped cream, layering cake with cream, the remaining frozen raspberries and the chocolate ganache (which was left over from oreo cookie making last week). 

As it turns out, I didn’t have enough cream to do the trifle justice, so even my trifle wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be.

But let’s face it: chocolate cake + whipped cream + raspberries + chocolate ganache = YUM! No matter what it looks like.

And thankfully, I don’t have twenty guests coming … I get to eat more of it that way. 

Rain, Rain, Go Away …

After a rainy week, the flood has only just begun. It’s been hosing down rain for about the past ten hours, and it’s supposed to continue for the next 24. I was out in the rain a short while ago building a bridge so my chickens can get back to their coop across the lake that’s formed in their paddock. The news is full of pictures of flooded streets and swollen muddy rivers.

Excessive baking!

It’s not entirely unusual weather. Last year I spent a whole week with my year 7/8 maths students doing a lesson on isoclines with weather station data after a particularly spectacular rainstorm dumped 200mm on us in 24 hours. 

But just because we’ve experienced it before doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable. It just means we know how to cope, right?

On Saturday, I baked apple/blackcurrant pie and pumpkin cupcakes, filling the house with delicious warm aromas of cinnamon and fruit. On Sunday, I raided my fabric stash to make a sunny patchwork tote bag—not that I need another tote bag, but that’s irrelevant when it’s raining for the zillionth day in a row.

Yesterday, I banged out over 5,000 words on my current novel, bringing me within 10,000 words of typing The End. 

Today … well, today I’m watching that lake in the chook paddock, in case I have to raise the height of the bridge. But when I’m not rescuing my soggy birds, I’m pottering away at my novel, and tending to marketing and all the other unpleasant aspects of writing. I’ve also drunk endless cups of coffee and tea (and it’s not even lunchtime yet…). No doubt I’ll quit early to make a decadent dinner of comfort food, probably eaten by candlelight (because why not take advantage of short days while you can?).

Crazy tote in progress…

And of course after dinner, when it’s still supposed to be raining, I’ll no doubt curl up with one of the books I picked up in the library yesterday.

So it’s not all bad, though I do look forward to the return of the sun someday.

Planning Time

We’ve turned the corner on the seasons—the days are getting longer now, and we’re in the second half of the year. The seed catalogue will be arriving within the next couple of weeks, so now’s the time for garden planning.

As someone obsessed with organising, creating my garden plan each winter is a highlight of the year. It’s the time to take stock of the previous year’s successes and failures and to dream about next year’s abundance.

For me, planning starts with taking inventory of my seed stock. Two large shoe boxes barely manage to contain most of my seeds (the broad beans never fit). Small vegetable seeds are arranged alphabetically. Large-seeded peas and beans get their own shoe box, and are less well organised. 

My inventory is kept on a spreadsheet that I update annually, so I can see at a glance what I’ve got in stock. As I update the inventory, I cross-reference my garden notes, tossing out seeds that had low or no germination the year before. When I find seeds I know I need more of, I make a note on the spreadsheet. When the seed catalogue arrives, I can quickly determine what I need to buy. (Note that this doesn’t actually save me any time in getting my order in—I still page through the entire catalogue, because you never know what new things you’re going to absolutely NEED, based on a pretty photograph and a two-sentence description).

Once I’ve got my seed needs identified, it’s time to plan where all those plants are going to go in the vegetable garden.

Every year I draw a map on a large sheet of paper. The map includes all the vegetable beds plus the greenhouse and any ‘overflow’ space I happen to have that year in perennial beds. I give each bed a grid reference—columns labeled with letters, rows with numbers—so I can refer to them easily when I start mapping out my weekly tasks later in the year.

With last year’s map as a reference, I tentatively write each crop into the beds I want to plant in, careful to rotate crops to avoid pathogen build up. As I plant each crop later on, I’ll mark a date on the map to tell me when it was planted.

By planning ahead, I avoid mistakes like planting sprawling winter squash next to low-growing herbs that will be overrun by the squash. I can also plan for large plants to sprawl into space vacated by early crops, or tall crops to shade cool-loving crops and extend their season.

Equally importantly, by planning in advance, I can control myself when it comes time to actually plant seeds—preventing problems like having to deal with 50 kg of zucchini every day in February. Planning goes a long way toward making each garden year a success.

Pro tip: Garden planning is best done on a really cold, nasty day, with a cup of coffee or glass of wine in hand. 🙂

Matariki Hike–Tiromoana Bush Walkway

Nature pulled out all the stops last weekend for Matariki. All three days of the long weekend were stunners, with temperatures more like mid-autumn than mid-winter.

On Saturday I worked in the garden in a t-shirt, and we had all the doors and windows open for most of the day. On Sunday, with both kids home for the holiday, we headed out for a hike.

Avoiding the snowy mountains and crowded ski fields, we headed to an unlikely spot—the Kate Valley Landfill.

Well, okay, not the landfill itself, but the restoration area next to it on Transwaste land.

Tiromoana Bush Walkway wends through a patchwork of restoration planting, old paddocks, plantation forestry and regenerating bush. An active predator trapping programme has clearly done its job, and the air teems with bellbirds and pīwakawaka.

Access to the beach cuts through a steep valley between limestone cliffs busy with welcome swallows. The beach is narrow and overshadowed by actively crumbling cliffs of limestone and clay—definitely not a place you want to be during a storm, but quite fascinating on the blue-sky day we enjoyed.

The hike was only about three hours long, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the beach, even on a short mid-winter day.

We had relatively low expectations of the hike when we started out, but it ended up being quite a pleasant mid-winter outing. Not very strenuous, but with enough ups and downs to be interesting, and with some intriguing landforms along the coast.

Celebrating Matariki–making new traditions

This year is the first year Matariki is an official holiday here in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s about time. 

Matariki is the Māori New Year celebration. The holiday is named after the Matariki star cluster (also known as the Pleiades), which disappears from our night sky for a time, and reappears in late June, around the winter solstice. 

Matariki is a time to celebrate autumn’s harvest, remember friends and family who have died the previous year, and plan for the new year.

This year, my husband and I will celebrate the harvest with pizza topped with vegetables from the garden, and pie filled with fruit from our berry bushes.

I will remember my grandmother, who passed away in May, just a few days shy of her 97th birthday. Rugs braided by her hands will warm my feet during the chilly days of Matariki.

I will plan for the new year by assessing my seed stock and drawing the 2022-2023 garden map. Although I won’t plan my planting around how the stars of Matariki look when they first appear in the sky, as Māori used to (just as I never planned by Punxsutawney Phil and his Groundhog Day predictions), but I am pleased to note the sky has been crystal clear for the past few days—clear, bright Matariki stars signify an early planting season. Just as a shadowless groundhog used to make me hope for an early spring, bright Matariki stars do the same.

Celebrating Matariki feels natural and right here in Aotearoa. When the children were young, we always celebrated the winter solstice. I made special solstice cakes, decorated to celebrate darkness or welcome the soon-to-be-lengthening days. We’d give the kids little gifts—a flashlight, or some winter-appropriate craft supplies. We made candle holders and dipped beeswax candles. We had a special dinner in the light of the candles we’d made. It wasn’t a huge celebration—just something to mark the season and look forward to during the short, dark winter days.

As the kids grew older, they weren’t interested in candle making or other crafts. We still enjoyed candlelight dinners on the solstice, but most of the other parts of our celebration fell away. Now that Matariki is an official holiday, I expect some of our solstice celebration will make its way into our Matariki celebrations.

Like us, many New Zealanders will be creating new traditions this year, mapping out what Matariki looks like today, mixing traditional Māori celebrations with the myriad cultures that make up modern day New Zealand. I hope as we all move forward with our celebrations, we can resist the commercialisation that has plagued other holidays and remain focused on the deeper meanings behind Matariki and its intimate connection to the land.

Winter Baking

Anytime of year is a good time for baking, as far as I’m concerned. But winter baking is probably my favourite.

Chocolate raspberry cupcakes
Chocolate Raspberry Cupcakes

First, it’s dark out. I can start baking after dinner on a weeknight and not feel like I’m missing out on valuable garden time, because it’s pitch black out.

Second, who doesn’t feel the need for a few extra calories on those cold winter days? We can all justify eating that extra cupcake in order to stay warm.

Third, with the house closed up, the glorious smells of cinnamon, chocolate and butter linger in the house. If you bake on Monday evening, you can still smell those delicious cookies the next morning. You don’t lose those scents out the open windows.

But possibly the best thing about winter baking is the opportunity to revisit the other seasons by using the fruit stored up during the rest of the year. 

apple pie
Apple Pie

Monday night I made chocolate raspberry cupcakes using the last of the raspberries frozen at the height of summer—that fresh taste is so welcome in mid-winter when berry fruits are little more than a memory. 

Last week I made apple pie with apples frozen during autumn. The aroma of fruit and cinnamon evoked those marvellous days of plenty. 

Next week, for the solstice and Matariki, I’ll pull out the frozen currents and make my very favourite winter treat—current pie. Its tart flavour is the taste of summer. It reminds me that the long days of December are only six months away.

So I will bake my way through June, July and August, dreaming of warmer days past and planning for warmer days to come.

currant pie
Care for a slice of currant pie?

Fun Fantasy reads for young and not-so-young adults!

Young Adult fantasy is a popular genre, not just among the teens it’s primarily geared toward. Who can resist a good coming-of-age story or a swashbuckling adventure?

Here are some YA fantasy books from authors you may not have heard of before. They include all sorts of awesome things like dragons, samurai, mermaids and Greek gods. So whatever your tastes, there’s something for YA fantasy lovers here.

The Dragonaxi Challenge by Leslie E. Heath 

The last thing Marella wants to hear is that they’re moving halfway across the ocean during her senior year. But her father’s been posted as Ambassador to Pharlandzi, a rival mermaid kingdom, and no amount of pleading is going to change the inevitable: Marella is leaving her school and all of her friends behind to swim in strange waters.

As an ambassador’s daughter, she’s expected to know all the etiquette, curtsy to the right people and bite her tongue around others. But that tongue of hers has always gotten her in trouble, and now she’s in too deep. She doesn’t know who submitted her name into this challenge, but the one thing she knows? It’s death, or victory, and her father didn’t raise a loser. She’ll come back a dragon-riding warrior, or not at all.

Chain of Loyalty by Amanda Ward 

She must enter the realm of the dead, or lose the one she loves forever.

Grief becomes revenge when Shou vows to kill the kami king. Only one weapon can destroy him, and it is lost in the realm of the dead. Driven by her hope to save the one she loves, Shou goes where even the kami cannot follow.

But the realm changes those that enter it. And a price must be paid, one that Shou’s allies do not want her to accept.

Further betrayal awaits Shou. And a final decision as the prophecy is unveiled. For with the death of the kami king, another must rise to take his place.

The epic conclusion to The Kami Prophecy, a YA series full of action, mythical creatures, and romance, all set in a fantasy world inspired by feudal Japan.

Champion of the Gods by Julie L. Kramer 

The fate of the kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young warrior touched by the gods…which prince will she choose?

Ilia is Gods Touched, a young warrior who has spent her entire life sequestered behind the walls of the temple of the goddess of war. The goddess herself brought her there, leaving her in the care of two other misfits, with only the warning that her visions of the future would put her in the path of the gods. Now, so many years later, that prediction has come true.

Prince Aristo has been raised to be king, but when his parents put together a tournament for the eligible young ladies of the kingdom to fight for his hand and an unlikely enemy appears instead, will Ilia’s help be enough to spite the gods and help Aristo keep his kingdom, or is there something deeper at play?

Ignited by A.M.Deese 

An Eternal Flame.

A Powerful Secret.

The Republic of the Sand Sea is a dangerous land where fire wielders are forced to battle dragons for the entertainment of wealthy families. None are wealthier or more dangerous than the Thirteen.

Water is currency and enemies lurk around every corner. The stakes are high in the games of court and the players are running out of time before everything is…Ignited.

When the first of the Thirteen goes missing, Jura, the only heir, is thrust into a world of political intrigue and assassin’s threats.

In the arena, Ash, a retired Fire Dancer, is determined to reclaim his glory, no matter the unthinkable cost. Might the life of a captured child be the ultimate price?

Beshar, Tenth of the Thirteen, knows that true power comes from knowledge. But is information worth sparking a dangerous new friendship with the First family?

A Drop of Magic by Janna Ruth 

Magic, Demons & High School Drama

All Lucille ever wanted was a perfectly normal high school experience, but her town doesn’t do normal. Not when a few Latin words set her hand on fire, the entire town gets possessed by evil spirits, and the cute guy she’s got her eyes on brings a freaking sword to the battle.

Now Lucille has to make a decision: return to her cushy, and safe, life-style at the boarding school, or face the monsters that hunt her and the magic that lurks inside of her.

A Drop of Magic is the first of this action-packed YA fantasy series with the wit of Buffy, the magic of Charmed, and all the drama of the Vampire Diaries.