Inspired Cooking

A few days ago, after a busy day, I couldn’t be bothered to cook. I decided to throw together a quick pasta, so I headed to the garden to pick a few vegetables.

But when I arrived in the garden, the sight of the winter spinach, growing like a weed and thinking about bolting, inspired me.

All that spinach would make an excellent spinach quiche. I even had some feta in the fridge, and there’s nothing better than spinach with feta.

Of course, a quiche is a whole lot more work than pasta …

And it really would need dill, too …

I scoured the weedy parts of the garden for volunteer dill, because my seedlings weren’t ready to pick yet. The weedy dill plants clinched it.

No longer tired, but inspired, I set about cooking. The result was worth the effort (as I knew it would be).

And that’s what I most enjoy about gardening—when the daily grind gets me down and I just want to order takeaways, it provides the inspiration to instead make a glorious meal.

Chilli and Chips

Sometimes, I work long and hard to create a fancy meal. I worry about taste and presentation, and fuss with every detail. Other times, a meal just comes together, and ends up as beautiful in the dish as in the mouth, with very little work.

I made a simple chilli the other day to go with a pair of ripe avocados. There was nothing to the chilli—kidney beans, grated carrot, chopped tomatoes, onion, and a whole lot of herbs and spices. My husband made guacamole and grated some cheddar cheese. While the chilli simmered, I made up my fabulous corn chips (so tasty and so easy to make). 

Suddenly, we had a glorious meal—beautiful colours, textures and flavours—and I felt like I’d hardly worked for it. Nice when it all works out that way.

Too Good Not to Share

A few of the two dozen or so loaves from Saturday.

Saturday was a bread day, so while I headed to the garden in the morning, my husband began making up the dough and getting the fire lit in the oven. As I worked, the familiar scent of wood smoke wafted across the yard. The bread oven smell is different from the smell of the wood burner or a brush fire—from the first wisp of smoke, it declares itself a cooking fire. The smell always gives me a sense of well-being. It tells me that soon there will be a bounty of baked goods, and we will eat well for days on the delicious things we’ll bake.

Bread days are always busy—baking is done on top of the gardening, mowing, and cleaning on the weekend’s to-do list. By mid-day Saturday, I had planted out my peas and hauled a dozen loads of compost to the garden, and the kitchen was full of rising loaves in a variety of shapes and sizes. It was time for me to join the baking. While my husband managed the bread, I chopped vegetables for what would become dinner. 

It was an especially hot oven Saturday. Pitas baked in seconds, kaiser rolls in a handful of minutes, the vegetables came out beautifully caramelised in no time, and focaccia bubbled up quickly and came out sizzling. While the larger loaves baked, I mixed up pound cake and hazelnut biscotti to slip into the oven after the bread was through. 

Dinner was a feast of roast vegetables and salad greens stuffed into fresh pita breads followed by pound cake and biscotti—a celebration of good food after a day of intense work. The only problem with it was there was no one besides us to share it with.

(For those of you who missed it a few years ago, you can check out our kitchen during a bread day in this time lapse video.)

Winter Baking—Anise-scented Fig and Date Swirls

After a week of frosty mornings and gloriously warm sunny days, the weekend has brought us cold, drenching rain. 

So, the only thing for it was to bake!

I stocked up on my homemade granola and made a batch of Mommy’s Magical Crackers, but the fun baking for the day was a batch of fig and date pinwheels. I’ve only made them once before, but loved them. Flavoured with anise and rich in figs, they have a unique taste and texture that improves with age.

These are straight from my favourite cookie cookbook (the book itself is a work of art), The Gourmet Cookie Book. They take more time to make than many cookies, but the results are as attractive as they are delicious—well worth the effort.

1 cup dried figs
1 cup pitted dates
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbs ground anise seeds
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
125 g (1/2 cup) softened butter
125 g (4 oz) cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup raw sugar (optional)

In a food processor or blender, puree figs, dates, water and 2 Tbs sugar. Set aside.

In a bowl, whisk together flour, anise, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In another bowl beat together butter, cream cheese, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, egg yolk and flour mixture and beat until a dough forms. Form dough into a disk and wrap in wax paper. Chill about a hour, until firm enough to handle (I found in my winter-cool house I didn’t need to chill the dough at all).

On a floured surface, roll out dough into a 33 x 25 cm (13 x 10-inch) rectangle about 8 mm (1/3-inch) thick. Gently spread fig and date mixture evenly over the top, leaving a narrow border around the edges. Starting at one long edge, roll the dough into a jelly-roll-like log. Optional: roll log in raw sugar to coat. Wrap in waxed paper and chill 4 hours until firm.

Slice into 8 mm (1/3-inch) rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake about 13 minutes at 180ºC (350ºF) until golden.

Gifts from the freezer

With love, from the freezer.

Our apple trees struggle against the macrocarpa hedge shading them and sucking away nutrients and moisture from the soil. I’m sure many years ago, when a previous owner planted them, they seemed far enough from the hedge, but today, without aggressive pruning, the hedge would engulf the fruit trees. So we rarely get large harvests of apples, and most years we eat them all fresh, long before they go wrinkly with age. 

This past summer was different. We had extra apples after accepting a big box of them from a friend, and then realising our trees held more than we thought. There was no way we were going to use all of the apples before they dried out, nor did I want the kitchen and dining room littered with baskets and bowls of apples for months. I filled the last of our empty canning jars with applesauce and still had more fruit. So I made a large quantity of apple pie filling, cooking the apples just enough to soften them slightly and release some of their juices. Then I froze it in pie-sized quantities. We enjoyed apple pie all through autumn.

We thought we’d finished the apple pie filling off, but the other day, my husband found a container of it on the bottom of the freezer. To find that pie filling on a cold and rainy weekend was a beautiful gift. A gift from our summer selves and from the freezer itself, which hid it until the need was greatest.

So while rain streamed down the window panes, I made a pie, filling the house with the warming smell of baking cinnamon, apple and pastry. We enjoyed the pie warm with whipped cream by the fire on a dreary night—a wintertime decadence to make us forget the damp and cold.

Thank you, freezer, for the wonderful winter gift.

Orange Coconut Scones

Sunday morning breakfasts aren’t always the best planned meals. Sometimes I start baking before I really know what I want to make. Sometimes I decide to make something, only to discover half way through that we’re missing an ingredient.

Both of those happened this morning. I grabbed a recipe for oat scones, not really wanting them, but not having any better ideas. On my way to the flour bin, I passed the fruit bowl, spilling over with oranges. I could make orange oat scones! I grabbed an orange and started considering how the recipe would change with the addition of grated orange peel. By the time my consideration was over, the new recipe bore little resemblance to the one I was technically following.

I was cutting the butter into the flour mixture when I remembered there were no eggs in the house. Well, I’d have to make my scones without an egg. No problem—scones are just biscuits fancied up with egg and sugar anyway. They’d be fine.

They were more than fine.

They were downright delicious.

So next time you think you want to make oat scones, but decide not to at the last minute, and then find you have no eggs in the house, try these lovely, light and tasty orange coconut scones!

1 1/2 cups wholemeal flour
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
3 Tbs sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
110 g (7 Tbs) cold butter
grated rind of 1 orange
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup + 2 Tbs orange juice
1/2 tsp vanilla

Combine the flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the orange rind and coconut. Combine orange juice and vanilla in a measuring cup or small bowl, and then add to the flour mixture. Stir just until moistened (you may need to add a touch more orange juice). Knead briefly to bring the mixture into a ball. Pat the dough out on a floured countertop into a round about 1.5 cm thick (a generous half-inch). Cut into 12 wedges. Place wedges on a greased baking sheet and bake at 210ºC (425ºF) for 13-15 minutes until golden brown.

Inspired Red Currant Cobbler

Sometimes you have an idea that simply works.

We have a large quantity of red currants in the freezer from last summer, so we regularly enjoy red currant desserts. Usually, we make crisp with them, but tonight we wanted something different.

I decided to make a cobbler, but I wanted something different from a plain biscuit on top—something sweeter, and with a bit more flavour to complement the intense sour of the currants.

In a stroke of inspiration, I remembered a biscuit recipe in King Arthur Flour’s Whole Grain Baking book. I’ve never made the recipe, but I’ve often looked at it. It pairs cornmeal and maple syrup, and I was pretty sure those were the perfect flavours to go with red currants.

I was right.

The result was perfectly balanced, cake-like, and absolutely delicious (and would probably be excellent with frozen cranberries, if you don’t have red currants).

Combine in a shallow baking dish:
3/8 cup sugar
3 cups frozen red currants

Set aside while you make the biscuit.

Combine in a medium mixing bowl:
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup wholemeal flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Cut into the dry ingredients until the consistency of coarse crumbs:
80 g (5 Tbsp) cold butter

Combine in a small bowl or measuring cup:
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup maple syrup

Add the liquid to the dry ingredients, mixing until evenly moistened. Pat out the dough into a shape to fit neatly over the fruit in your baking dish. Poke steam vents into the dough. Bake 30-40 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF). 

*Like any baked fruit dessert, this gets quite bubbly. Mine boiled over onto the bottom of the oven—you may want to set the dish on top of a baking sheet to avoid a mess in the oven.