Loving Leftovers

We christened the new house last weekend with a celebration party for one of my husband’s students who just finished his PhD. As I suspected (hoped?), visitors gravitated to the kitchen, congregating beside platters of finger food under the warm glow of cafe lights. 

Food-wise, we went Mexican for this party—quesadillas, empanadas, corn chips, guacamole, salsa, bean dip, and biscochitos (anise-flavoured cookies from New Mexico, not Mexico, but …) for dessert. Great finger food and perfect or standing around the kitchen grazing all evening.

As usual, we made enough food for twice as many people as we invited. Now we’re blessed with party leftovers for lunch.

Yesterday I had a generous plate of homemade corn chips smothered in cheesy bean dip, salsa, guacamole and sour cream. Today I’m considering toast with beans and salsa (because we devoured all the chips and guacamole). Tomorrow, who knows what I’ll come up with? Plus, there are extra beans in the freezer for dinner later in the week. All that extra party prep pays off in easy, delicious meals afterwards.

A great excuse for a party!

Enjoying the New Kitchen

Rain pounded on the roof and hissed against the windows. Wind whipped around the porch, tossing deck chairs everywhere. I lay warm in bed, only vaguely registering the weather, grateful once again to be in the new house and not in the shed.

We’re still settling into the house, but we’ve already given the kitchen a workout. Some days, when I step into that room, I wonder what we were thinking—it’s so huge! Then I cook something and appreciate every inch of space.

It’s been hard to get a photo of the foods we’ve baked–they’re eaten so quickly.

We’ve been craving all the baked goods we haven’t been able to make in the past three months. In the first twenty-four hours after moving in, we baked eight loaves of bread, three dozen cookies, and a batch of lemon scones. Over the next four days, we added pizza, Not yo’ mama’s mac and cheese, quiche, apricot tart, chocolate cupcakes, and homemade granola to that list. Moving into our second week in the house, we’ve made Mum’s fluffy buns, bean burgers, oven baked French fries, Irish soda bread, spaghetti with tofu meatballs, and roast vegetables.

Visiting some of our favourite foods after too many months without them has been a delight. It may be time to head to the library for some inspiration now—think what new things we could make in the fabulous new kitchen!

Chocolate Currant Upside Down Cake

Usually I bake a fancy cake for Queen’s Birthday, because any birthday is an excuse for cake. Heck, any day is an excuse for cake. But Her Majesty’s birthday is an excuse for FANCY cake.

This year, however, my cake baking abilities were limited. I made a chocolate blackcurrant upside down cake in the microwave, of course, since we’re still living in the shed. 

It was, perhaps, the ugliest cake I’ve ever made—rivalled only by the red currant upside down cake I made a couple of weeks ago. Something about the currants makes the cake slump in a truly unattractive fashion when flipped.

Good thing Her Majesty was busy this evening and couldn’t make it. We slathered the cake in generous helpings of whipped cream to hide its ugliness.

But there was no hiding the amazing flavour. I’m quite fond of blackcurrant and chocolate together, and the cake featured both flavours perfectly.

Below is the recipe. I’ve made this with frozen red currants as well, and it’s equally good.

Topping:
60 g (1/4 cup) butter
1/2 cup sugar
approx. 1 cup frozen (thawed) black currants

Cake:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wholemeal flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla

Make the topping: Melt butter in a 23 cm (9-in) square microwave-safe baking pan. Sprinkle sugar over the butter and then spread the currants evenly over the butter-sugar mix. Set aside.

Cake: Combine flours, cocoa, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl. Whisk the sugar, eggs, oil, milk and vanilla in another bowl until well mixed. Pour wet ingredients into the dry and stir until just moistened. Pour batter over the topping in the baking pan and bake in the microwave on high for about 7 minutes (the top should still look quite sticky and wet). Turn the cake out onto a plate immediately and leave the pan over top for a few minutes to let all the sticky goodness drip onto the cake. Serve warm with whipped cream.

Microwave Sticky Citrus Cake

I’ve been playing around with microwave cakes since my last cake post, and in particular upside down cakes. The topping soaks into the cake, taking care of any dry bits if the cake is accidentally overcooked. And who can resist upside down cake anyway?

My most recent concoction was a citrus cake. I was aiming for something akin to sticky orange cake, but within the abilities of my pared-down shed life. It didn’t quite get there, but it was pretty darned good nonetheless. I see more of these cakes in our future. Here’s the recipe, if you want to give it a go.

Topping:
60 g (1/4 cup) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 lemon
1 orange

Cake:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup barley flour
1/4 cup fine cornmeal (polenta)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
zest of 1 lemon
zest of 1 orange

Grate lemon and orange rind into a medium bowl and set aside. 

Topping: Peel the remainder of the white pith from the lemon and orange and slice them thinly. Melt butter in a 23 cm (9-in) microwave safe pan. Sprinkle brown sugar over the butter, then arrange citrus slices on top.

Cake: Mix flours, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Whisk brown sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, orange juice and vanilla together with the citrus zest. Combine the wet and dry ingredients and pour over the topping in the pan.

Bake 6 minutes on high in the microwave. Invert the pan immediately onto a plate and allow the pan to sit on top for a few minutes for all the gooey bits to drip onto the cake. 

Cake and Kindness

Not the best or most attractive cake, but satisfying in trying times.

As we settle into shed life, we’re learning how to have our luxuries in spite of our circumstances.

One of the hitherto unexplored sources of comfort we’ve been learning about is microwave cakes.

The first, made by my husband, was good, but terribly dry. Some brandied cherries on top (with extra brandy drizzled over) fixed the dryness problem, and I was encouraged to try again.

An opportunity arose through the kindness of strangers. A few days ago, we passed a box of free quinces along the sidewalk. I picked up a few to bring home.

Sliced and pre-cooked, they contributed to a very nice microwave upside down cake. The gooey quince topping kept the cake moist, and all of us went back for seconds (Decadent? Yeah, but we’re living in a shed. Give us a break).

The recipe I used was largely my own, based loosely on a couple of online recipes and the fact my electric mixer is packed away in a box somewhere, so all the mixing had to be done by hand.

Topping:
60 g (1/4 c) butter
1/2 c brown sugar
1-2 large quince, peeled, cored, sliced and cooked in a small amount of water until soft, but not falling apart

Cake:
1/2 c sugar
125 g (1/2 c) butter
1 egg
1/2 c milk
1 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c wholemeal flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

To make the topping: Place 60 g butter in a microwave-safe 23 cm (9-in) square pan and melt the butter in the microwave. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the butter and lay quince slices on top.

To make the cake batter: Mix flours, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, melt the 125 g of butter and whisk well with the sugar, egg and milk. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Pour the batter over the topping and spread evenly.

Bake in the microwave on high for 6 to 8 minutes, until the cake is firm but still sticky and wet-looking on top. Immediately run a knife around the edges of the cake to loosen it and invert it onto a plate. Let the pan sit on top for a few minutes so all the yummy topping can drip onto the cake. Serve warm.

Shed Cuisine

Fresh vegetables from the garden and some foraged mushrooms add a gourmet feel to even the most basic shed cuisine.

I haven’t done a proper blog post for weeks. Life’s been more than a little weird.

It’s been strange to see everyone posting on social media about all the baking and cooking they’re doing in lockdown and to feel completely separate from that. In normal times, I’m baking all the time, the cupboard never without something delicious and homemade in it. In normal times, I’m often spending two hours preparing even an ordinary weeknight dinner. In normal times, I bake scones or muffins for breakfast every Sunday. In normal times, weekends are for bread baking, jam making, preserving …

But these times are far from normal. Even ignoring Covid-19, we’re living in a shed. I’ll admit, I’ve been moping a little. A camp stove in the back yard is a poor substitute for a full kitchen and bread oven. 

But we also have rigged up the microwave and an electric kettle in the shed. And there’s the grill, too. It took a little time, but now that we’re settled in, creativity is again blossoming.

We’re learning to cook in the microwave—something we’ve never done. Apple crisp, blackcurrant crisp, fudge, frittata, porridge—I realise now we haven’t even begun to explore the possibilities of microwave cooking. It’s not the same as using a conventional oven, of course, but when a conventional oven is unavailable …

We’ve also been making excellent use of the food we preserved before the move—pesto, vegetable soup, apple sauce, pickles, olives, dried tomatoes, dried fruit, frozen fruit … there’s no shortage of excellent ingredients.

And some of the simplest meals are some of the best—potato soup, chilli, lentils and rice, risotto, risi e bisi—none of these requires more than one pot on a camp stove.

Cooking is weather-dependent—rain and wind both make cooking outdoors impossible (or at least really unpleasant)—but that just adds a little extra challenge. Maybe it will inspire a little more creativity.

What I know for certain is that I’ll appreciate the new kitchen even more when the house is finally done. 

Make Marcella Hazan Proud

On Sunday my husband and I decided to make lasagne for dinner—and not just a meal’s worth, but enough to freeze for quick mid-week meals. With the garden full of late-summer vegetables, it was a great choice. We divided the work as we usually do—I would make the pasta and my husband would make the sauce.

Then I remembered I’d already packed up the pasta maker and taken it to the new house. How was I going to roll out the pasta?

I heard Marcella Hazan scoff from her grave. She never used a pasta machine. No good Italian would be caught with one of those.

It was time for me to learn to roll out pasta the ‘right’ way—by hand.

Thankfully, Ms. Hazan includes detailed directions in The Classic Italian Cookbook. With the book open on the benchtop, I began kneading and rolling my dough.

“I expected more swearing,” my husband commented ten minutes later. And there might have been, had I not had experience with pasta dough before. But the instructions were comprehensive and my dough compliant.

It still wasn’t easy—to stretch and coax the dough so thin without ripping it or letting it dry out was a challenge. It was also quite a workout—by the time I’d finished I was sweating and my arms were tired.

But it worked! My pasta sheets weren’t quite as thin as those I make with the pasta machine. And they were ragged oblongs instead of the neat rectangles that emerge from the machine. But they did well in lasagne. The thicker sheets had a nice toothsome quality. 

Marcella would be proud.

Still, I’ll be glad to go back to using the pasta machine in the future. 

Summer Soup 2020

No pandemic hoarding here, just the usual late season batch of Summer Soup. I’ve written about Summer Soup on numerous occasions (2015, 2016, 2018, and twice in 2019). We’ve been making it annually for at least a decade, and it has always been a family affair. In the early years, the children’s vegetable chopping efforts were more symbolic than helpful, but as their skills improved, their input became critical to the relatively rapid production of vast quantities of soup. 

This year, with our upcoming move, the garden output is less than in many years, and there’s so much to do, I wasn’t sure we would have a chance to make Summer Soup. In the end, I did it alone. Starting at 7.30 am, with many interruptions to help move furniture and tools, I began picking and processing vegetables. I pulled the final jars out of the canner shortly before 11 pm.

I listened to music and podcasts while I worked, and I got some brief help from my husband, but it wasn’t the same without the rest of the family there. Neither was the output—13 quarts of soup and 4 quarts of stock. 

I’m not disappointed—thirteen meals plus flavouring for four more will be lovely in the coming weeks and months—but I look forward to getting back to the family production of Summer Soup next year. It’s not just soup; it’s a celebration, and not nearly so much fun alone.

Problem or Inspiration?

The other day I planned on making roast potatoes for dinner. I brought in a colander full of spuds from the garden—more than enough for dinner.

Unfortunately, when I started cutting them I found many of them infected with zebra chip (caused by the bacterium Candidatus Liberibacter solanacearum), which turns the flesh brown. My planned dish of potatoes was looking pretty empty.

I could have gone out for more potatoes, but instead I took advantage of the resources on hand in the kitchen. I added a shallot and a few chopped tomatoes, sprinkled it with salt, pepper and rosemary, and popped it into the oven (at 210ºC for about 40 minutes for anyone interested).

The result was utterly satisfying and arguably better than the plain roast potatoes I’d originally planned. Instead of a problem, the rampant zebra chip became delicious inspiration.

Now, if I can only remember that for all the other problems in life …

Crazy Cake #2–2020

My son, the budding architect, has always challenged my cake decorating skills with his annual birthday cake requests. A star destroyer, the city of Dale, Wellington … his requests tend toward angular, built structures difficult to sculpt in cake and icing. This year he asked for ‘a brick’. Just getting the colour right was going to be a challenge. And then I had to make the brick special in some way.

I thought maybe I’d cover it in lichens and moss (easy to fashion from frosting and Mexican paste). But a photo online caught my attention … I came up with a plan that I thought would tax my confectionery skills more than mere decoration would. A little maths, a little measuring, a little cutting, and …

There’s more to this brick than meets the eye.