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 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. 

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?

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.