Gevulde Speculaas

I recently purchased the book Sweet, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh (because the book was always checked out of our local library when I went for it). Like Ottolenghi’s other cookbooks, Sweet is a celebration of flavours, and unapologetic about excess.

My first foray into making some of the glorious recipes in the book was gevulde speculaas—stuffed speculaas.

Speculaas is a staple cookie in my household—richly spiced, quick to make, and delicious any time of year. Ottolenghi’s gevulde speculaas recipe, however, is speculaas for special occasions.

His spice mix includes cinnamon, aniseed, white pepper, ginger, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves. These are incorporated into a soft dough that is wrapped around an almond paste filling flavoured with lemon and candied citrus peel.

The cookies are baked as a log and cut into slices when cool. Each bite is a spectacular flavour explosion. Unlike traditional crisp speculaas, these stuffed speculaas are soft and moist. They’re the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea, and look amazing too.

They are a lot of work to mix up, but they partly make up for it by being baked as a log, so there’s no individual cutting or shaping of cookies to do. They’re definitely celebration cookies, not everyday ones, but I’m certain I’ll be pulling the recipe out again.

Crazy Cake Season 2021: Cake #3

After my daughter’s octopus cake, the remainder of Crazy Cake Season has been less than crazy. My son’s cake was a bit of a do-it-yourself kit, and consisted of plain cupcakes and a tub of frosting posted to him, since he was back at university for his birthday. 

Cake number three, for my husband, was a small affair, since it’s only the two of us at home now. I don’t think I’ve ever made a cake this small—it seemed hardly worth the effort when I pulled the single 18 cm round out of the oven. 

He had asked for ‘fruity chocolate’ cake this year. So I made a chocolate madeira cake, filled with lemon curd and a lovely whipped cream and yogurt filling. I topped it with chocolate ganache, more whipped cream and yogurt filling, and fresh strawberries.

The cake was a new recipe for me, inspired by a slice of commercial cake I ate at a dinner party a few weeks ago. The commercial cake was delicious, with an intriguing texture—quite different from the usual bland froth of commercial cakes. A little research on the bakery’s website revealed it to be madeira cake, so I’ve set myself a goal to try making madeira cakes. My first try was a bit dry—something to work on—but with the fillings and fruit, the total package was delicious. 

I was particularly taken with the whipped cream filling, which came from CookingLight, and was easy to make:

1/2 cup cream
1/3 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 tsp vanilla (I increased this to 1/2 tsp)

Whip the cream and sugar together until stiff peaks form. Add the yogurt and vanilla and beat until smooth.

I had extra strawberries and was munching on them as I assembled the cake. In the process I discovered that the filling makes an amazing fruit dip. Worth making some extra, just for dipping strawberries into.

A Squirrelly Weekend

Dried vegetables don’t look nice, but they’re great for backpacking.

I had a very squirrelly weekend last week. It wasn’t full of bushy-tailed, nut-eating rodents (they don’t live in New Zealand); I was the squirrel in my weekend. Squirrelling away food for later.

Thursday, I addressed an overabundance of zucchini by making zucchini bread. I tucked three loaves into the freezer to eat in the coming weeks.

On Friday, I used more of that zucchini, along with lots of other vegetables from the garden to make a vat of pasta sauce. Some of the sauce was eaten for Friday’s dinner, but most went into the freezer to eat in the coming months.

On Saturday, I shelled dry beans from the garden. Once they’ve fully dried, I’ll pack them in jars to be made into chilli and refried beans over winter.

Later that day, I made six meals worth of veggie burgers to squirrel away alongside the pasta sauce in the freezer.

All weekend, I had the dehydrator running, drying fruit and vegetables for tramping (backpacking) trips over the next year.

On Sunday, I picked, processed and froze the year’s harvest of soy beans.

My husband got into the act, too. He made two large pizzas, two-thirds of which we froze for future meals.

The garden is beginning to empty and the freezer is filling up. It’s a good feeling, in spite of the work involved. Like a squirrel, I’ll be able to curl up in my nest through the winter, nibbling on the food I’ve stored up.

When Everything is a Gift

My stunted yellow corn.

I never expected much from this year’s vegetable garden. The soil test revealed a virtually sterile substrate, nutrient-free, stripped by decades of conventional agriculture and then scraped by the developer’s bulldozers. It will take years to improve the soil to the levels of my old garden. In the first year, I figured I’d be lucky to coax a few meals out of the garden.

There’s no question the vegetables I planted are suffering. The plants are half the size they should be, and many are yellow and senescing early for lack of nutrients.

But the compost, manure, and other organic fertiliser I’ve incorporated into the soil have done some good. We have plenty of onions, cucumbers, carrots, herbs and green beans. We are overwhelmed with zucchini. The soy beans and dry beans will all give harvests. Pumpkins swell on their vines. We’ve even eaten a few melons.

Every fruit feels like a gift.

I could be dismayed at the state of the garden—corn only waist high, tomatoes ripening at golf ball size, potatoes decimated by disease … but I know what the plants are up against. I know how hard they’re working to produce anything. I admire their effort and determination.

So, in spite of how pathetic the garden is, I am pleased. I feel blessed at every meal, and I look forward to an even better year next year.

2021 Crazy Cake Day #1

Many years ago, I tried to make vegetarian rolled fondant. It was a complete disaster.

So when my daughter asked for an octopus cake for her birthday, I first wondered if I could manage to do it in buttercream frosting. I quickly decided that, no, it was really only going to work in fondant. So …

I spent a couple of hours on Tuesday scouring the city for the ingredients. They were easier to find this time—vegetarianism has become more commonplace, so gelatine substitutes are now available in some mainstream grocery stores. I took it as a good sign. My fondant would work this time.

I baked the cake (chocolate), and made the filling (peanut butter), and on Wednesday sculpted the octopus’s body. After a night in the refrigerator, the cake was ready to cover in fondant. Thursday morning I got to work.

The first batch of fondant was marginal at best. It had little elasticity, and I had to roll it out in pieces, rather than one big sheet to cover the whole cake. No worries. I managed, and the result was only a little bit lumpier than I’d hoped.

But I’d used nearly all my fondant, and I still had eight legs to make.

So, I made another batch. This one would be better, of course, because it was the second try. And it seemed to be going better for a few minutes. But by the time it was finished, it was clear this batch had even less elasticity than the first. 

At least I didn’t have to roll it out thin. It worked fine for the legs, as long as I worked slowly and didn’t try to curl the legs too much.

It took quite a long time to smooth all that lousy fondant into what looked like one continuous animal, but eventually I managed. Then I had a fabulous time painting it, watching the octopus colouration take shape.

It took a bit of trial and error to work out how to make zillions of suckers—thinned fondant piped into balls, partly dried, and then shaped before allowing them to harden. Then it took ages to place them all. I finished up just as my husband was putting dinner on the table. 

It was a heck of a lot of work for one cake.

But the final octopus looks like it could swim away any moment. And more importantly, I think my daughter is truly impressed—a rare feat.

Aromatic Memories

Smells have amazing powers. They can conjure spirits.

I was chopping parsley and mint the other day to put in dinner and, as the combined smell wafted from the cutting board, I though of Rhian Jones.

I shared a house with Rhian and five other women during my last year at university. Yellow House, as we called the brightly painted Edwardian edifice, was a good place to live. Though all seven of us had different majors and different personalities, we shared a desire to make the place feel like home.

We all enjoyed cooking, and regularly shared food. Rhian made tabbouleh that sang with flavour. “Granny’s” tabbouleh, because the recipe came from her grandmother. I still have that recipe.

I haven’t thought about Rhian for years, but the mix of herbs under my knife the other day drew her into my kitchen. I heard her infectious snorting laughter, remembered her vast collection of colourful bras, and tasted her granny’s tabbouleh shared among us on hot summer days.

I don’t know what became of any of my housemates from that year, but it was lovely to have Rhian laughing in my kitchen thirty years later. I hope wherever she is, she’s still making tabbouleh.

Inspirational Flavours

I was surfing the internet last week for something different to do with lentils and found a recipe for an intriguing lentil stew topped with roast broccolini and lemon on Bon Apetit’s website (Marinated Lentils with Lemony Broccolini and Feta).

I didn’t have broccolini, but I did have an overabundance of zucchini (surprise, surprise … It’s January; of course I have too many zucchini).

I was intrigued by the idea of roasting lemon, so I substituted zucchini and spring onions for the broccolini in the recipe, vaguely took inspiration from the herbs and spices in the lentils, and ran with it.

The result was delicious and refreshingly different from my normal lentils. The roast lemon was good—sour, bitter, and slightly caramelised. It enhanced the lightness of the vegetables and was quite pretty, too. And the spicy, tangy lentils were a nice complement to the vegetables. I can envision the dish working well with many different vegetables—eggplant, green beans, even beetroot—a great way to highlight an individual vegetable against the richness of lentils.

It’s gotten me thinking about other places I might include roast lemon slices—in mixed roast vegetables over couscous, in a lemon/butter sauce over pumpkin ravioli, floating atop a bowl of vegetable soup … there are lots of intriguing options. I love when a recipe inspires new ways to prepare old ingredients.

Ugliest Cake Ever

Yesterday was a bad baking day, for sure. In the afternoon, I tried to make meringue with aquafaba, which we’ve done before with great success. Not so on this attempt. After nearly 40 minutes of beating, my meringue mixture was still nowhere close to being stiff enough. I tipped it into the compost pile.

Later, I made chocolate cupcakes using a tried-and-true recipe. What could go wrong? First, I was out of cupcake papers. No problem—I greased and floured two cake tins instead. The layers looked gorgeous coming out of the oven.

But fifteen minutes later when I tipped them out of their pans, they stuck. By the time I got them out, one layer had the entire bottom ripped off, and the other was in a dozen chunks. 

I should have broken up the rest of the cake and made a trifle out of it—it would have been an excellent trifle! But the whole inspiration for making cake was to make frosting for it from a half-block of cream cheese that had been sitting in the fridge for ages unused.

So I glued the layers together with generous slatherings of tart apricot jam from last year’s bumper apricot harvest, then topped it with my cream cheese frosting, which wasn’t enough to cover a whole cake, of course, since I only had half a block of cream cheese (would have been plenty for cupcakes…).

The result was …

“A remarkable recovery,” in my daughter’s words.

And I suppose it was, considering the crumbled mess I started with. Still, this is a cake to eat quickly and with closed eyes.

It is delicious, though. Especially with all that apricot jam glue holding it together.

Navettes Sucrées—Sugar Shuttles

I tried a new cookie today–Navettes Sucrées–from The Gourmet Cookie Book. I’ve recommended this book before and it’s worth doing again—not only are the recipes great, but the interior book design is an absolute delight.

Sugar shuttles apparently appeared in Gourmet Magazine in 1951, but the recipe originated in France, and has clearly been around for a very long time. I’d wager the original makers of sugar shuttles would have been surprised to find them in a high-end cooking magazine.

The ingredients are simple, and most are the sort of things that would have been available to subsistence farmers in pre-industrial times—flour, butter, eggs. The scant sugar—once a luxury—is mostly on the outside of the cookie, making them seem sweeter than they really are. 

The method also speaks of antiquity. The ingredients are placed together in a bowl and kneaded by hand to create a dough. Only the refrigeration step in the modern recipe is out of place, and for this very stiff dough it’s hardly necessary.

And of course, the name refers to the shape of loom shuttles—no doubt a common object to homesteaders of the past.

The resulting cookie is as basic and satisfying as the recipe itself—simple flavours with a little sparkly bling from the sugar crust. One can imagine eating them in some remote cottage in the French Alps three hundred years ago.

Here’s the recipe:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar (+ extra for coating)
1/4 tsp salt
60 g (1/4 cup) soft butter
2 eggs, separated
1 tsp vanilla

Sift the flour, sugar and salt into a bowl. Add the butter, 2 egg yolks, and vanilla. Knead until the dough is well blended. Refrigerate 2 hours. Divide the dough into pieces the size of a small walnut and shape each piece into an oblong about 5 cm (2 in) long and 1 cm (1/2 inch) wide. Dip each in lightly beaten egg white and roll in granulated sugar. Bake on a buttered baking sheet at 175ºC (350ºF) for 8 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove immediately from the pans and cool on a rack. Makes 20.

Happiness is a Kitchen Full of Baked Goods

The weekend was crazy-busy with garden work. Saturday, I worked from 7 am to 6 pm weeding, mulching, digging post holes. Sunday’s schedule was similar, but I stopped around 3 pm because the final job on the list was planting out lettuce seedlings, and the weather (hot and with severe gales) was sure to kill them all. Besides, I could barely move—back, arms, hands and feet all hurt from the punishing work. All I wanted to do was collapse.

Except that I wanted to collapse with baked goods in hand.

So instead of sitting down, I baked. Apricot tart for dessert, and a double batch of Irish coffee crunchies (from The Gourmet Cookie Book) for lunches. Baking made me forget my tired body for a couple of hours. As I pulled the last of the cookies from the oven, I was on a roll. I started in on chopping vegetables for dinner. While dinner cooked I filled the cookies with icing and finished cleaning the kitchen, so that by the time dinner came out of the oven, the cookie jar was filled, the tart was waiting to be cut, and all the dishes were washed.

I could barely sit upright long enough to eat dinner.

But every time I’ve been in the kitchen since then, I’ve looked at those baked goods and smiled. Okay, and maybe I’ve snitched a cookie too, but don’t tell anyone. 

Happiness is definitely a full cookie jar.