Cauliflower Power

head of cauliflower

A while back, I was searching online for something new to do with cauliflower for dinner. I found plenty of recipes, and nearly every one of them went on and on about how few carbs or calories cauliflower has.

Some of the photos looked delicious, and I’m sure most of the recipes are. But I was so turned off by the low calorie/low carb drumbeat, I lost my appetite.

I love cauliflower. But I love it for its sweet, nutty flavour. I love it for its crunch and the way it breaks into pretty little florets. I love it for its ability to grow year-round here and provide fresh, local produce even in the depths of winter. 

I don’t love it for its lack of carbs and low calorie count. Eating it for those reasons diminishes its value, reduces it to the sum of what it lacks. Here in Aotearoa, you might say it reduces its mana—its spiritual power or strength.

That’s no way to treat food.

I grow vegetables and purchase foods on the basis of what they are, not what they aren’t. Flavour, texture, nutrient content, protein content, and yes, those wonderful starches as well. Even colour is important. My family eats a glorious mix of richly flavoured and textured foods that nourish and satisfy. We celebrate what we eat, because food is what gives us life.

Maybe I’m prejudiced against the relentless messages telling us we must count calories and watch our weight. Raising an anorexic child will do that to you. But my discomfort runs deeper than that, because the focus on calories and carbs speaks to a real disconnect between people and the plants that sustain them. And I can’t help but think that disconnect exacerbates the growing incidence of obesity in modern society.

Counting calories and carbs reduces food to fuel—pump it in, make sure you don’t overfill the tank.

But food is part of our social network, our cultural history, our daily routines. It’s a way to show love and to care for one another. It is part of who we are as humans. And when we acknowledge that, we find ourselves not wolfing down some prepackaged insta-meal while scrolling on our phones, but taking time to make a meal and share it with others. We find ourselves gravitating to foods that make us feel good—foods that nourish our emotions as well as our bodies. We find ourselves reaching back to our ancestors for foods that define who we are.

And we forget about carbs and calories and learn instead to love food for what it provides, not what it withholds.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Beautiful Gingerbread

Sometimes you just have to take the time to make something beautiful, even if it is destined to be chewed up and swallowed.

fancy gingerbread cookies

I made gingerbread cookies out of Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Sweet last week. The gingerbread itself is nothing out of the ordinary, but the recipe calls for stamping the cookies and topping them with a boozy glaze.

I have a couple of wooden pasta stamps that were perfect for the job. The resulting cookies, brushed with a brandy-laced glaze, were as lovely as they tasted. The extra work was minimal, and the final product looks far fancier than it deserves to. 

In fact, I like the technique, and am thinking it would make pretty speculaas, too. I might even try an extra-fancy batch of homemade Oreos, stamped and glazed before sandwiching.

And of course, because I easily go overboard in my excitement, I’m also now wondering if I could carve my own little cookie stamps. Maybe bees or dragonflies, or a little dragon to go along with my books …

Lemon Coconut Pancakes

Earlier this week, my husband made a curry for dinner which took a small quantity of coconut milk. The remainder of the can of coconut milk sat in the fridge all week.

So this morning I made an experimental breakfast to use up the coconut milk—lemon coconut pancakes. They turned out pretty good—fluffy and light, and quite different from ordinary pancakes. They were good with maple syrup, and even better with gooseberry jam.

Here’s the recipe if you want to try them yourself:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup barley flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
grated rind of 1 lemon
1 cup coconut milk
3 Tbs melted butter
1/4-1/2 cup water

Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, lemon rind, coconut milk, melted butter and 1/4 cup water.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet. Mix just until all the flour is moistened. If the batter is too thick, add more water.

Cook by the spoonful on a greased skillet, flipping when the top of the pancakes become bubbly, until both sides are golden brown.