Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

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.

Same Name, Different Drink

saucepan of chai simmering on the stove

If I find myself at a cafe in the afternoon (usually for a meeting), I try to avoid coffee, since the caffeine interferes with my sleep. Instead, I’ll often order a chai latte. At a cafe, that usually means an instant beverage—spice powder or syrup mixed into steamed milk.

I enjoy the occasional chai latte. But it bears little resemblance to the real thing.

I was introduced to chai by a friend who grew up in India. He taught me how to make chai by steeping black tea and whole spies i simmering milk. The process is definitely not instant, and it requires a close eye to prevent the milk from burning.

That ‘slow’ chai, made on a winter evening in a kitchen full of friends was always more than a drink. It was a gift—of time, knowledge, memories, and love. No instant chai will ever be able to deliver the same.

I seldom make chai at home, but a few weeks ago on a cold dreary afternoon, I felt the need for more than a cup of tea. I made myself a chai instead, and enjoyed a drink that not only satisfied my desire for a cuppa, but also wrapped me in friendship and warm memories.

No cafe chai could come close.

Cake is My Love Language

I invited a friend over for dinner last week, and she mentioned her birthday was the day before our dinner date.

Cookbooks and coffee spread out on a table
Cake planning over coffee

Oh shit! I forgot! was my first reaction. But before I could kick myself for once again forgetting a friend’s birthday, I thought I’ll make her a cake!

I immediately started scheming—trying to pair flavours I thought she’d like with what I could realistically create in the middle of winter (no fresh berries!).

Pretty soon I found myself surrounded by cookbooks, making a grocery list, and wondering if I could roll an oil cake like a jelly roll (the answer, by the way, is no … that’s another story …).

I snapped a photo and sent it to her, laughing at my geeky cake-baking nature.

A while later she texted back, saying how touched she was by the photo.

My first reaction was It’s just a cake.

But then it dawned on me—it wasn’t just a cake. Cake is my love language. I may completely forget your birthday and your anniversary, I will never be able to say the right thing when a loved one dies or you tell me you’re pregnant, and I will laugh at your memes on social media but not even click ‘like’. But if I like you and you give me even half an excuse, I’ll make a cake for you—all the ‘likes’, right words, and birthday wishes baked right in.

It’s no wonder I get giddy when my kids’ and husband’s birthdays come around. It’s no wonder I plan a month ahead and go over the top on their birthday cakes. I think nothing of making a fancy cake when one of the kids comes home for the weekend. And those ‘ordinary’ cakes? Well, of course I make them nearly every week.

So please don’t be offended if I seem to ignore your Facebook posts. Don’t think I don’t care if I forget to ask about your kids. Forgive me if I forget important dates. Just … have some cake.

My First Book

handmade book--Rainy Day Thing

I was going through a box of old stuff the other day, and I ran across my very first ‘book’—Rainy Day Thing—a how-to about paper snowflake making.

I remember creating this book, back in 1979 in the weekly gifted class my school district bussed me to. I remember folding the snowflakes to use as examples in the book. I remember the smell of the rubber cement I used to glue them on the pages. I remember the excitement of making a real cover, and having my About the Author page laminated (Laminated! Can you believe that? This was back in the days when very few schools had laminators—we were still using mimeograph machines and chalkboards.) I even remember posing for the author photo in the school library.

I don’t remember writing my author bio, however, and 42 years later, I’m amused at what I wrote: Robinne Weiss likes to draw, play kickball, read and play baseball and play basket ball. She is 9 years old. She has a sister and a brother.

First of all, the grammar is shocking—no huge surprise there. My 9-year-old students are at least as bad. But writing isn’t on the list. (And basketball is? I don’t even remember playing basketball at that age.)

I know that I published my first poem at age nine, and at age ten I recited my poetry on the children’s television programme, Christopher’s Magic Cocoon. 

I know that somewhere in those years, I wrote a poem for my dentist, and he hung it on the wall in the waiting room (much to my later embarrassment). 

I know that I took a creative writing class in high school, and a poetry class at university. In my junior year of university, I wrote a children’s picture book (long gone, now), and published a few more poems in literary journals that no longer exist.

Author page from Rainy Day Thing

While in Peace Corps, I poured out poems, and even published a few, printed out at the Peace Corps office in Panama city and posted to magazines on my weekly trips to town. I started writing a novel (never finished).

As a Masters student in entomology, I answered essay questions in verse (I’m sure my professors thought I was nuts), and wrote regular articles for the PSU Entomology teacher newsletter, Bug Bits.

After graduation, as a professional heritage interpreter, I wrote articles for trade magazines and local newspapers (one even won an award). I wrote curriculum materials for teachers and other interpreters. I started writing another novel.

I’ve never not written.

But if you’d asked me if I was a writer, I would have said no until a few years ago. And when I did decide to close down my interpretation business to write, the decision was fraught with emotion, because even though I wanted to give writing a go, I wasn’t a writer

I’m about to release my 11th book (not counting Rainy Day Thing). My writing has improved a great deal since 1979, and my covers are no longer made of wallpaper-covered cardboard. I no longer list baseball and basketball in my author bio.

But after decades of denial, I admit I’m a writer. And I’ve been one for a very long time.

Oh, and yes, I still remember how to make a paper snowflake. Maybe I’ll write a book about it someday. 

Brownies from Heaven

I dove into Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Sweet again the other day, making a recipe for tahini and halva brownies.

tahini and halva brownies

The recipe defines decadence, involving 250 grams of butter, 250 grams of 70% cocoa chocolate plus additional cocoa powder, 200 grams of halva and 80 grams of tahini. It’s not something you make on the spur of the moment with whatever’s in the pantry—it takes planning. But I’ve been eyeing that recipe for months now, dreaming of that combination of chocolate and sesame flavours that I doubt I would have ever thought to combine.

The result was beautiful to look at, with swirls of glossy blonde tahini on a deep chocolate base.

They smelled divine in the oven, and it took immense willpower not to cut them before they cooled.

And the taste? It was everything you could want from a brownie, and then a little more. The texture was moist and gooey, studded with delightful chunks of dry, flaky halva. And the chocolate flavour was so rich, it was practically a candy bar. Definitely a brownie to savour in small quantities … but one that invites gorging.

I predict that a year from now, the tahini and halva brownie page in my copy of the book Sweet will be spotted with butter and chocolate, like all good recipes are.

Sun’s Return

It’s only a few weeks past the solstice. Nights are below freezing, and the worst of winter is still to come. In shady spots the frost lingers all day.

Spinach seedlings in the greenhouse
Spinach seedlings in the greenhouse

But plants are already responding to the increase in sunlight. There is a haze of new green growth in the chickens’ winter-bare paddock, daffodils are poking their shoots out of the flower beds, and the grass will soon need to be mown.

In the greenhouse, the lettuce and spinach seedlings that have been sitting there unchanging for weeks have finally begun growing again. The broccoli in the winter garden has begun thinking about heading up (at least until yesterday when the chickens got in there and stripped the leaves).

I too have responded to the sun. I’ve drawn my garden map for the upcoming season. I’ve assessed my seed needs in preparation for the arrival of the new year’s seed catalogue. I’ve nearly completed incorporating manure into the entire vegetable garden.

The weeks will go quickly. Before I know it, it will be time to start seeds, mark out garden beds and spread compost. Now is the time I should be buckling down to complete winter tasks—sewing, organising, cleaning … But like the plants stretching out their tentative leaves, I can’t help but respond to the sun, reaching for spring and looking forward to the new season to come.

Winter Baking

Pumpkin cakeWinter is a great time to try out new things in the kitchen. Weeks of cold, rainy weather always make me want to bake.

Last weekend I tried out two new things.

The first was a recipe for baked donuts. I was keen to try them, because I love donuts, but hardly ever make them because of the hassle of frying them. The idea of making up dough the night before, and then baking up fresh donuts for Sunday breakfast was tempting.

Unfortunately, the recipe didn’t work particularly well for me. I followed it to the letter, since it was new to me, but I did worry about the fact it had you mix the yeast into the flour, rather than proofing it first. The yeast never got off to the start it should have, and the dough didn’t rise as much as I would have liked. The resulting donuts were somewhat leaden. I also think the baking temperature of the donuts was too low—the recipe yielded a fully baked but anaemic-looking donut, barely browned at all. A hotter oven would produce an attractively brown crust with a moist interior. 

With a few tweaks to the recipe, I think there’s potential for a delicious (and dangerously easy) donut recipe there. I have no choice but to try again. 

The second new recipe I made over the weekend was a cream cheese frosting so simple, I had to give it a go. A block of cream cheese and three tablespoons of maple syrup, beaten until fluffy and spreadable.

The result is barely sweet, and beautifully flavoured. It’s denser than a standard cream cheese frosting full of confectioner’s sugar, but the density doesn’t bother me in the least—the texture is smooth and silky—delightful in the mouth. I used it to frost a pumpkin spice cake, and the flavours were perfect complements to one another. It’s definitely a recipe I’ll make again.

Saturday’s weather forecast is for snow. I’m already considering what I’ll experiment with in the kitchen.

Lemon Nutella Tarts

“It’s what a neenish tart wants to be when it grows up.”

lemon nutella tart

That was my husband’s assessment of the little tarts I made last week. They’re worth a try. If you make the Nutella and the lemon curd ahead of time, they’re quick to whip out.

You’ll need:

1 recipe homemade Nutella
1 recipe lemon curd (see below)
1 recipe pie dough (enough for a double crust; my recipe is below)
Dark chocolate for decorating

Lemon curd

2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2 Tbs butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 tsp vanilla

Whisk together the eggs, sugar and lemon zest in a saucepan. Add the lemon juice and butter. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the butter is melted. Continue to cook, still whisking, until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla, pour into a jar or covered crock, and refrigerate.

Pie dough

1 1/4 cups wholemeal flour
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp salt
125 g cold butter
125 g Olivani
5 – 8 Tbs ice water

Whisk together the flours and salt. Cut the butter and Olivani into the flour mixture until the largest pieces are the size of peas. Sprinkle the water over the mixture and combine with a fork until evenly moist. Knead in the bowl just enough to form the dough into a cohesive ball. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour before rolling out.

To assemble the tarts:

Roll out pie dough quite thin. Cut into 10 cm rounds with a cookie or biscuit cutter. Line cupcake tins with the rounds of dough. Blind bake for 20 minutes at 200ºC (400ºF). (If you don’t want your dough to slump while baking, fill each tart with pie weights for the first 15 minutes of baking, then remove them for the final 5 minutes.)

Remove the tarts from the tins and, while they are still hot, press a teaspoon or so of Nutella into the bottom of each one. The heat from the crust will soften the Nutella and help it spread across the bottom nicely. 

When fully cool, fill the tarts with lemon curd. Melt a small quantity of dark chocolate and pipe chocolate squiggles onto the top.

These tarts should be kept refrigerated, if they last long enough to make it to the refrigerator.

A Warm Winter Solstice

The winter solstice passed this week, cold and rainy. It was also the anniversary of moving into our new house. It was truly a delight not to endure the run-up to the solstice in an unheated, uninsulated shed. To have a warm, dry place to eat and sleep; to have electricity and plumbing—what a luxury!

8 am with the sun barely rising …

Indeed, I still sort of feel I’m living in someone else’s house. Until a year ago, my husband and I had never owned a house less than a hundred years old. Then suddenly we had square corners and level floors. We had double glazing and insulation. We had doors that opened and closed properly, walls without fifty coats of paint, and not a speck of rot anywhere.

It was a bit of a shock.

And now I wonder if I’m going soft. I don’t wake up to a freezing house and have to light the fire. I don’t worry that the roof will leak every time it rains. I don’t have to venture to the attic to empty and re-set the rat traps. I don’t wake wondering if today is the day the water heater, septic system, or well pump is going to die.

Sometimes I miss the character of an old house—a house that is old enough to have a life of its own, a house that tells stories. Sometimes I feel guilty—a new house is such an unnecessary luxury.

But truth is, modern life is pretty good, especially in the cold, rainy days around the winter solstice. So for the moment, I’ll simply be thankful for all those luxuries that make the dark days brighter.

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Photo: Eric Weiss

It’s not often you witness outright thuggery in nature. Predators hunt prey—they have to, because otherwise they starve. Predation is never pretty, but it is what it is. 

Sitting at my desk, procrastinating … er … writing this morning, I saw brutality, pure and simple. 

A pair of magpies was chasing a starling. They caught it and brought it to the ground. Standing over it, they pecked at its eyes. At first, I thought they were trying to kill and eat it. But after a few minutes, they got bored. The starling managed to fly off. The magpies followed, caught it and brought it back, only to repeat the eye pecking routine. Three times while I watched, they allowed the starling to escape, then brought it back to peck at it. Always at the eyes.

Eventually, they bored of the sport. They wandered away from the hapless starling to forage in the lawn nearby. After a few minutes, starling and magpies flew off in opposite directions.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Australian magpies have a reputation as aggressive, intelligent birds that like to play. They brazenly steal food from the chickens, fighting right back when a chicken lunges at them. And I’ve watched as gangs of juvenile magpies have tormented my cat, swooping low over him as a team, trying to get a peck in while he swats at them. And I’ve been on the receiving end of magpie parents defending their nests with noisy dives at my head.

In general, magpies eat invertebrates—they were originally introduced to New Zealand to help control crop pests. Research on their effects on native birds indicates they only rarely kill other birds, and their aggressive pursuit of larger predators like harriers may even provide some protection to smaller birds.

Still, I can’t help thinking magpies are the bullies of the playground. They’re fine as long as you’re not their target. Fascinating for me as an armchair naturalist, but I’m thankful I’m not a small songbird.

Crunchy Granola Bars

I’ve been tinkering for years with granola bar recipes, and have never come up with one that is crunchy and robust enough to take on a long hike.

granola bar

But I may have just managed it …

Starting with a recipe that was supposed to be a soft bar, I did a fair bit of tweaking and have ended up with a beautifully crunchy and robust bar full of yummy oats, nuts and seeds. 

Give them a try, and let me know how they work for you!

50 g hazelnuts
50 g cashews, roughly chopped
200 g old fashioned rolled oats
40 g pumpkin seeds
40 g sunflower seeds
15 g sesame seeds
50 g dates, chopped
100 g butter
100 g brown sugar
75 g golden syrup
grated zest of 1 orange
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Grease a 23 x 33 cm baking pan and line with baking paper.

Spread cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds in a shallow baking tray. Place hazelnuts in a separate tray. Toast both in the oven for about 10 minutes until the nuts are lightly browned. Rub the skins off the hazelnuts and roughly chop. Transfer all the nuts and seeds to a bowl.

While the nuts are toasting, grind 80 g of the oats in a food processor until they become a coarse meal. Add all the oats to the nut mixture and stir to combine.

Place the butter, golden syrup, sugar and orange zest into a small saucepan and stir gently over medium heat until the butter is melted. Stir in the cinnamon and salt, and then pour over the nut mixture. Mix well, and then press evenly into the prepared baking tray.

Bake about 35 minutes, until the bars are a dark golden colour. Allow to cool for about 20 minutes, and then cut into bars while still slightly warm. Allow to cool completely before removing them from the pan.

* I used golden syrup in this recipe because I had some left over from another recipe that called for it. Next time, I’ll try it with honey, because I rarely have golden syrup on hand, and honey tastes better.