Lemony Currant and Rosemary Cake

I can’t come home from the library without at least one cookbook. This week’s gem was Snacking Cakes by Yossey Arefi. The general premise of the book is cakes you can whip up with a whisk and one bowl. How could I resist?

There are 50 recipes in this book, and they’re not all just the same recipe with one ingredient changed. Along with standards like pineapple upside down cake and several different chocolate cakes, there are some intriguing and unusual ones.

My first foray into the book was Lemony Currant and Rosemary Cake. There are four teaspoons of chopped fresh rosemary in the cake (along with the obvious lemon and currants), and the top is sprinkled with sugar and coarse salt. The result is a delightful sweet/savoury combination that invites me to snitch a bit every time I walk through the kitchen.

I’d invest serious time in making a cake that tastes this good, and yet this cake mixed up in just a few minutes. The return on investment is huge!

I can’t wait to try some of the other cakes—Salty Caramel Peanut Butter, Oatmeal Chocolate Chip, Powdered Donut, Buttered Walnut, Grapefruit White Chocolate, and Coconut Lime Cake all sound fabulous. The speed at which these cake can be made, I could make a different one every day after work! 

Never mind dinner—I’ll just have cake 🙂

Bundt Cake!

I have a kitchen full of bakeware—muffin tins, mini-muffin tins, individual mini tart pans, specialised slice pans, a set of tiered cake pans, square tins, round tins, heart-shaped cake tins … the list goes on and on.

But until two weeks ago, I did not own a Bundt pan.

This icon of 1970s baking somehow never ended up in my kitchen. Every time I came across a recipe calling for a Bundt pan, I just used two loaf pans. And of course that worked just fine.

But I still wanted a whimsical, circular tube pan.

For a while, I did have an angel food cake pan—a beaten-up old aluminium one that tended to leak out of the removable bottom, due to a ding it suffered at some point. That pan vanished in a clean out some time ago. Last I used it was for my daughter’s birthday 12 years ago, when she asked for a ‘flower’ cake—I stuck a vase of fresh flowers in the middle, which she thought was pretty. (She was only 6 then, and hadn’t yet learned to ask for crazy impossible things like octopus cakes, or alpine vegetation cakes). 

My first Bundt cake ever, made last weekend, was a chocolate coconut pound cake. I was intrigued with how glossy the cake appeared—a product of the brand-new non-stick interior, no doubt. 

I normally wouldn’t ice pound cake, but the Bundt shape begs for it. The result looked a bit like an iced turd. But it was every bit as delicious as the same cake baked in loaf pans.

I’m tickled with my new Bundt pan, and looking forward to more delicious iced turds. 🙂

Glass Gem Corn

I’ve been growing popcorn for years now, and I’ve always saved seed. I’ve been pleased with the variety I’ve grown—it is so wonderfully flavourful, it turned me from someone who wasn’t a big popcorn fan to a real lover of popcorn.

Unfortunately, over the years, my popcorn has crossbred with my sweet corn, and I got to the point where it wasn’t reliably popping anymore. So at the end of last summer, I figured I’d buy a new packet of seed and start afresh.

Horror of horrors! When I scanned last year’s seed catalogue, popcorn wasn’t in it! What was I going to do if I couldn’t get fresh seed?

Why, plant a different variety of popcorn! Although the catalogue didn’t have the variety I was used to, it did have Glass Gem—a flint corn useful for popping and for cornmeal. 

I’ve planted Painted Mountain corn before—a beautiful flint corn which we turned into excellent cornmeal. I loved growing corn that was as beautiful to look at as it was to eat.

So I wasn’t upset to switch to Glass Gem as my popcorn. The plants grew beautifully, topping out at about 2 metres tall, with up to three cobs on each plant. A fabulous result in my nutrient-poor garden. 

I was itching to harvest them and get a peek at the cobs, so last weekend I harvested the few ears that were drying off already. 

Oh. My. God. It makes Painted Mountain look dull. 

The kernels come in the most unlikely colours, including blue, pink, yellow, white, and green. But even more striking than the colour is the kernels’ translucency. They really do look like highly polished gems. The photo in the seed catalogue did not do the plants justice.

I don’t know how they will do as popcorn—they still need to dry more before we can use them—but even if they don’t pop, they were worth growing, just for their stunning look. And I have no doubt we can grind them up into some excellent confetti-coloured cornmeal if they don’t pop well.

Curious, I Googled Glass Gem, and was surprised to see it’s a modern variety. Its roots can be traced back to a man named Carl Barnes, from Oklahoma, who died in 2016. He began growing traditional flint corn varieties in order to connect with his Cherokee roots. He collected and isolated a wide range of native varieties, and began selecting the most colourful cobs for replanting. Over the years, he ended up with the variety now dubbed Glass Gem.

You can read more about Glass Gem corn here.

Come to the Dark Side … we have cookies

With our switch back to standard time last weekend, we’ve most definitely entered the darker half of the year. My husband and I took our first evening walk in full dark yesterday, and we can expect months more of the same.

fig and date cookies

Part of me mourns the loss of hot sun and long days. I certainly feel the dwindling abundance of the summer garden as plants die off. But I also enjoy the darkness.

Summer is bright, noisy and frenetic. Everything is in motion. I’m in motion. Long days mean more tasks on the to-do list—an expectation to ‘make hay while the sun shines’. Summer gardening can start as early as 6 am and continue past 9 pm. It feels wrong to lay about in bed when the sun pops up at 5 am, and who wants to go to bed at 10pm, before it’s even dark?

The bonus of all that work is abundant fruits and vegetables, weed-free gardens, clean gutters, tidy lawns …

But it gets exhausting after a while.

About the time we go off Daylight Savings Time, my body has had enough. That extra hour we gain isn’t enough to make up for the post-summer exhaustion, and I find myself going to bed by 9 pm, happy that it’s dark long before then.

In addition to the extra sleep, I appreciate the calm of night. A walk in the dark is an entirely different experience than a walk during daylight hours. The chatter of sparrows and starlings is absent. Magpies are silent. Neighbourhood dogs are indoors instead of barking at passersby. Quieter sounds come to the fore—the zit-zit of katydids, or the trill of a frog. A lone sheep maa-ing in a distant paddock. The gurgle of the local water race. There is peace in the darkness that is difficult to find during the day.

In the morning, I feed the chickens in the dark. They are groggy and slow—instead of racing toward me as soon as I enter the paddock, they wander my way, muttering their greetings. 

Although there are too many streetlights near our new house that obscure the fainter stars, I still take time every morning to greet the night sky—moon, planets and constellations.

I am comfortable in the dark—it is a soft velvet cloak wrapped around my shoulders.

And when I choose to come inside in the dark of longer nights, there is the warmth of the light. The smell of cooking. The rows of pumpkins stashed on top of the cupboards. Summer’s bounty stored up for winter.

During the dark half of the year, I have extra time to spend on baking—I can make fiddly cookies, cakes with cooked frostings, fancy decorated cupcakes. I have more time for sewing, spinning, and other crafts. I can sit and read a book without feeling guilty about wasting daylight.

So while there is some sadness to the end of summer, there is also joy in the darkness. And there’s the knowledge that summer will return and I will miss the books and baking of the dark side.

Weird and Wonderful Ugni

One of the most interesting autumn fruits we grow is Ugni molinae—known as ugniberry, Chilean guava, strawberry myrtle, New Zealand cranberry, and Tazziberry. The plant is native to Chile and Argentina and is little grown outside of South America. 

The pretty little bush is sometimes grown as an ornamental here, the fruit being mostly ignored. That’s a shame, because ugniberry is such an interesting fruit. 

The small aromatic pink/red berries have a tough outer skin and a seedy interior. I think the flavour is reminiscent of vanilla custard, but others have likened it to bubble gum, cotton candy, or a combination of strawberry, pineapple and apple. Regardless of how you try to describe it, their taste is unique and delicious. 

Until recently, we had never cooked with ugniberries—we’d always eaten them fresh. In fact, few ever even made it into the house—we’d just grab handfuls to eat while we were out in the garden.

This year, however, we’ve been trying to expand our use of ugniberries. Two weeks ago I made ugniberry scones for Sunday breakfast. I made an ordinary oat-based scone with a touch of vanilla and threw in a couple of handfuls of fresh berries. The resulting scones were lovely.

Earlier this week, my husband picked several cups of ugniberries and combined them with a quince, a few tiny apples and a bit of sugar, cooking them into a thick rose-coloured sauce with a flavour/texture combination that made me think of figs crossed with cranberries. 

I used his ugniberry sauce in a filled bar cookie laced with lemon peel. The result was so delicious that by the time I thought to take a photo of them for this blog, they were nearly gone. 

I can see why people might not like ugniberry—with tough skin and lots of tiny seeds, the texture could be off-putting—but I’ve grown more and more fond of the little fruits, and I look forward to coming up with more delicious baked goods that feature them.

Late Summer Garden

March first is considered the start of autumn here in New Zealand. As far as the garden is concerned, it’s still late summer. It’s been a cool, wet February, which has delayed crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. The extra moisture has meant bigger watermelons, though they’re ripening slowly. Sweet corn is coming on, and we’ve had some lovely meals of it, along with the first of the melons. I’ve harvested the potatoes, dry beans, and most of the soy. The pumpkins are looking gorgeous, and I’m sure we’ll have more than we can eat this winter. 

Overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the garden this year. Plants are showing nutrient deficiency, for sure, but they’ve done remarkably well, considering where I started two years ago. It’s clear my applications of manure and compost are having a positive effect. And it’s just as clear it will take quite a few years to build this soil up to full productivity. 

I thought I’d treat you to a selection of images from around the garden on a beautiful crisp early autumn day. It may not be as productive as I’d like, but it’s still glorious.

The Waiting Game

This time of year can be agonising. Out in the garden, the tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, cucumbers and carrots are all producing beautifully—there’s more food than we know what to do with.

But.

The sweet corn, melons, pears and apples are still sitting there, ever so slowly maturing and ripening. I try not to check them every day—I try to be patient. If I tested one apple on our tiny trees every day, there would be none left by the time they were actually ripe. But it’s hard to be patient while awaiting such seasonal treats. And the worst thing is to NOT check and go out a few days later to find the possums have eaten them all, because they ripened while you weren’t looking.

So I tap that watermelon—does it sound hollow? I check its underside—it’s bright yellow, but I know that no matter what the books say, it doesn’t signal ripeness; it’s been yellow underneath since the fruit was the size of my fist. I peel back the husks on an ear of corn to peek at the kernels—are they plump yet? I bite into an apple, hoping for sweet, not astringent.

After decades of gardening, I’m still impatient for the fleeting pleasures of fresh sweet corn and melons, apple pie and pear tarts. I reckon that’s a good sign—I still get a thrill from the chase, the anticipation.

And one of these days soon … there will be watermelon on the table.

Strawberry Cupcakes

Every now and again, you come across something that is as delicious as it is easy. The other day I wanted to make a cake involving strawberries, because it’s that time of year. I looked at lots of recipes online that involved making a strawberry reduction first, but it seemed like an awful lot of work. I was really looking for simple. 

So, ignoring everything I’d seen online, I modified a basic vanilla cake recipe from the Mennonite Community Cookbook, adding sliced fresh strawberries, and whipped up a quick strawberry icing. I baked the cake as cupcakes, as I often do to keep our portion sizes down (because you know I can’t resist cutting a huge slice of cake …).

The result is exactly what I wanted—an easy cake that highlights fresh strawberry flavour. I’ll definitely be making this one again.

Strawberry Cupcakes

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries, sliced

Cream the butter. Add sugar gradually and beat until fluffy. Add egg yolks and beat until well incorporated. Sift flour, salt and baking powder together in a separate bowl. Add flour mixture alternately with milk and vanilla, beating well after each addition. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites, then fold in the strawberries.

Fill cupcake papers, and bake at 175ºC (350ºF) for 25 minutes. Allow to cool completely on a rack before frosting.* Makes 24.

Strawberry Frosting **

60 g (1/4 cup) butter, softened
1 cup icing (confectioners) sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
3 Tbsp pureed fresh strawberries
Puree strawberries in a blender (I had to puree about a cup and a half of berries in order to have enough volume for the blender to work with—just save the extra puree. There are hundreds of delicious uses for it). Cream the butter. Sift the sugar over the butter and continue to beat. Add vanilla and strawberry puree and beat until well blended. Adjust the icing by adding more sugar or strawberries until it is a spreading consistency. 

* It was a warm day, and I was a little worried my strawberry icing would weep if it sat at room temperature with the cupcakes. Instead of frosting them all, I frosted only what we were going to eat right away, storing the remainder in the fridge, to spread on the cupcakes as we eat them. Alternately, you could store your iced cupcakes in the refrigerator. Mine is currently stuffed full of zucchini and green beans—no room for cake.

** Double this frosting recipe if you want to ice all 24 cupcakes. I put half the cupcakes in the freezer unfrosted, since I haven’t got kids at home to devour them at the moment, so I only made a small batch of frosting.

Black Currant Pie

I have blogged about black currant pie before, but it’s worth doing again. This year’s black currant harvest was overwhelming, not just because it came in the two weeks on either side of Christmas, but also because it was huge. It didn’t help that the red currants also gave a hefty crop at precisely the same time. For two weeks, I felt like all I did was pick and process currants.

Well, and eat them, too.

We use currants in ice cream, crisps, cobblers, fruit salads, and smoothies, but my favourite way to eat them is in pie.

Black currant pie is not for the sour-averse—it is a full-bodied, knock-your-socks-off type flavour. To me it is the flavour of summer. And because it works equally well with frozen berries, I always try to save enough so I can make black currant pie on the winter solstice and dream of long summer days in the chill and dark of winter. 

So revel in the intense flavours of summer and enjoy a slice of black currant pie. You can download a pdf of this recipe here.

Crust:
¾ cup all purpose flour
¾ cup wholemeal flour
¼  tsp salt
60 g butter
60 g Olivani
3-4 Tbsp ice water

Filling:
4-6 cups black currants
½ cup sugar
2 Tbsp flour

Topping:
2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts (or rolled oats)
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
75 g butter, melted

Crust:
Whisk together the flours and salt in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter and Olivani with a pastry knife until the largest chunks of butter are the size of small peas. Sprinkle the ice water over the flour mixture and combine with a fork until evenly moistened. Knead lightly, just until it forms a coherent dough (it will be crumbly). refrigerate while you prepare the filling and  topping.

Filling:
Combine sugar and flour in a small bowl. Mix with stemmed, washed black currants and set aside.

Topping:
Combine the flour, walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Stir in the butter with a fork until evenly moistened and crumbly.

Roll out the crust and place in a 23 cm pie pan. Pour the filling into the pan and sprinkle evenly with the topping. Bake at 200°C for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 170°C and bake another 30 minutes.

Serve with a generous dollop of whipped cream.

Summer Fruits

strawberries and rhubarb

Before our house was even staked out on the ground, we knew where the vegetable garden and berry fruits were going to be planted. We began preparing the garden months before the builders arrived. We took cuttings from berries at the old house, and were planting well-rooted currants and gooseberries as we finalised the design for the house. We tried to avoid mistakes we made at the last house—just one, not two, rows of bushes per bed, to make picking easier, and fewer plants overall. No need to be overwhelmed with fruit.

Last year, we harvested a handful of fruit from the currants, gooseberries, raspberries and boysenberries. The strawberries gushed fruit for the better part of the year. For barely established plants, they did well. 

This year, with most of the plants well established, we’re inundated with berries—so much for not being overwhelmed. The week before Christmas was a frenzy of fruit processing—we froze fresh fruit and fruit puree, made several batches of jam, and ate a whole lot of fruit pie, trifle and fresh berries.

Upon our return from our Christmas trip, there were even more berries ready to pick. We made more jam, preserved more whole fruit, made more pie, and have been eating fruit five times a day. The cupboard is once again packed with jam, and the freezer is stuffed with frozen berries. Thankfully, the currants and gooseberries are nearly done producing, but the raspberries and boysenberries are still going strong. The strawberries are finished with their first heavy crop, but should maintain a level of output we can easily eat for the next few months. I’m thankful the grapes are only in their first year and the blueberries aren’t doing as well as the other berries—not that I don’t want grapes or blueberries, but I’m worried about freezer and cupboard space.

lemon raspberry cake
Lemon raspberry cake

At least the fruit trees are still young—we got a handful of cherries, and will have a few pears, apples, and peaches if we’re lucky, but shouldn’t be overwhelmed.

It’s a lovely problem to have. With the summer vegetables coming on strong, too, there is a real sense of abundance in the house—a great way to start the new year.