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 #1–2020

It’s birthday cake season again! This year, my daughter’s brief for me was a Kura Tawhiti bouldering theme, with ‘maybe a climber and some alpine plants’ done in chocolate and hazelnut flavours.

I think both of us had a vision of a grey boulder or boulders with climber, plants, etc. But as I started in on the cake, the vision changed.

I made one of my favourite devil’s food cake recipes (from Tartine) in a range of round layer sizes. I sliced each layer in half and filled it with my homemade Nutella, stacking the layers in a wonky boulder-like shape. 

Then I stood there and contemplated the decoration. My plan had been to make the standard quick icing I use for decorating, but the amazing rich chocolate cake with decadent Nutella filling really needed something better than quick icing. It needed ganache.

So that’s what it got—chocolate ganache covered with ground hazelnuts to get a more appropriate boulder colour. 

I added chunks of hazelnut praline for a more rocky appearance, and made some alpine plants and a climber from Mexican paste. A few small final touches with a simple sugar and milk icing, and the cake was finished.

It didn’t look anything like I thought it would when I started, but it tasted absolutely divine! No wonder—it contained over 400 grams of chocolate, two cups of hazelnuts, and a gloriously unhealthy quantity of butter and cream. In the end, no one was paying much attention to the look—we were too busy oohing and aahing over the taste.

The Apricots of Wrath

I should have listened to Fate. 

“Don’t can apricots today!” it told me the other day. “You have no sugar in the house.”

But I looked at the vast quantities of quickly ripening apricots in the kitchen and knew they wouldn’t wait.

I drove to the store to pick up sugar.

Back home, I made my sugar syrup, washed and heated my jars, got my canning water to a boil, and prepared seven kilos of apricots.

All was going well until I was packing the fruit into jars. I kept an ear on my canner, making sure it stayed at a boil while I worked. When the bubbling hiss faded and died, I knew the gas bottle was empty. Not now!

I left off my jar filling and raced outside to switch gas bottles.

Back inside, water, jars, and sugar syrup were cooling, but I finished packing the apricots in and poured sugar syrup over them …

Only to find I was about a cup short of syrup. Gah! I quickly made up a small batch to finish off the jars.

Into the canner went the jars, and I heaved a sigh of relief. It took longer than usual to bring it all back to a boil, but I shrugged it off. It’s always that way for a cold-packed fruit. 

Then a few minutes into the boil, the canner started boiling over—orange, chunky, foamy water spilled onto the stove. Darn! A jar had broken. It’s rare, but after 30 years of use, sometimes the bottom of a jar will pop off during canning.

So for 25 minutes, I fought the sticky water boiling over on the stove. When I finally pulled the jars out, they were all coated in slimy chunks of overcooked apricot from the broken jar, and the stove was an gooey mess.

The six remaining jars all sealed, though, which was good. Pity about the stove. Took forever to clean.

Later, once the water had cooled, I tackled the job of emptying broken glass and gunk from the canner. And the first thing I did was drop the remainder of the slippery broken jar onto the floor, where it smashed to pieces.

Then, just to add insult to injury, when I dumped the chunky sticky canning water onto the compost pile, it somehow funnelled through the pile directly onto my foot. 

Cleaning up the mess took almost as long as the rest of the process, and I questioned whether it was worth it, or if I should have simply thrown away a couple of kilos of fruit and called it a day before I started.

Then my daughter pointed out that we had the makings of six fruit desserts there, ready to pull out on a winter evening. She had a point—we’ll enjoy that fruit, and by winter, I’ll have forgotten the frustration of preserving it.

But, still, I keep thinking I could have sat on the porch with a good book instead …

Uplifted Polenta Lasagne, Take 2

A while back I blogged about the Uplifted Polenta Lasagne my husband made. Well, recently I decided to create another version of it based on the ingredients I had available. The result was spectacular and deeply satisfying.

First, make the firm polenta:

1 1/2 cups corn meal (sold as ‘polenta’ here, sold as ‘instant polenta’ in many other places)
5 cups water
1 1/2 tsp salt

Bring salted water to a boil and whisk in the cornmeal. Turn the heat down slightly and whisk for about five minutes, until the polenta thickens. Pour out onto a large, lightly oiled jelly roll pan and spread evenly. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes.

While the polenta is cooling, make the tomato sauce:

2 cloves garlic
2 Tbs olive oil
2 smallish carrots, grated
1 Tbs paprika
1 can chopped tomato (I would have used fresh if I’d had any)
handful fresh basil
salt and pepper to taste

Saute the garlic in oil until fragrant. Drop in carrots and paprika and cook for a minute or two longer. Add tomato, basil, salt and pepper and simmer for 15 minutes.

While the tomato sauce is simmering:

Preheat the oven to 190ºC (375ºF).

Slice a medium-large zucchini into 3 mm thick rounds.

Grate 1 1/2 cups edam cheese.

When all the components are ready, oil a 23×33 cm (9×13-inch) baking pan. Cut polenta into about 24 squares. Layer polenta squares, tomato sauce, and zucchini rounds in sideways ‘stacks’ to fill the pan. Pour over the remaining tomato sauce and top with cheese. Bake for 30 minutes.

Lazy Sunday Baked Oatmeal

I make a cooked breakfast every Sunday. It’s a luxury—a gift I give myself as much as to the family. So it doesn’t feel like a chore to get up early and cook once a week.

At least, most of the time it doesn’t. Once in a while I’m uninspired on a Sunday morning, particularly if I spent Saturday in the kitchen.

Last week was one of those Sundays. I couldn’t be bothered making scones or pancakes or muffins. So I pulled out a recipe my mother gave me years ago. One I don’t recall ever having made, but it was a simple, stir-together baked oatmeal that struck me as just the thing for a Sunday I didn’t feel like cooking. Best of all, the bread oven was still hot from the previous day, so I didn’t even have to use the electric oven. 

I modified the recipe a bit (because I can’t seem to ever make a recipe exactly as it calls for).

here’s my version of baked oatmeal—delicious with a generous dollop of unsweetened yogurt or a splash of milk.

125 g (1/2 cup) melted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
3 cups quick cooking oats
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup raisins

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Pour into a 23 cm (9-inch) square baking pan. Bake at 180ºC (350ºF) for 30-35 minutes. 

Delicious Disaster

Ugly but delicious.

Gooseberries are ripening by the bucketful right now, so when I was planning dessert for a party last Saturday night, I naturally turned to gooseberries for inspiration. 

I made a large batch of gooseberry pie filling and baked up dozens of gooseberry tarts. Unfortunately, the fruit bubbled over, creating a sticky mess that glued the tarts into their pans.

Almost every one broke when I tried to take them out of the pans. One was so crumbled I had to spoon it out …

… right into my mouth. It was a sublime experience. Deliciously sweet and sour with a flaky crust, I thought I’d serve them anyway. I requested a second opinion from my husband and kids, giving them each the most broken tarts. They moaned in pleasure and nodded.

No one at the party mentioned how the tarts looked. I’m not sure they sat on the tray long enough for anyone to examine them—one taste and they vanished.

A delicious baking disaster. I’ll definitely have to do it again.

Gooseberry Pie Filling (enough for two full-size pies)

8 cups fresh gooseberries
4 cups sugar
2 Tbsp corn flour (cornstarch)
enough water to prevent sticking (less than 1/4 cup)

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook 1-2 minutes, until berries soften. Crush berries in the pot with a potato masher. Boil about 5 minutes longer until the mixture begins to thicken. 

The pie filling can be baked in a double or a single crust. If you choose a single crust, top with streusel topping:

2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
5 Tbs (80 g) melted butter
Blend all ingredients with a fork until crumbly.

I baked my tiny tarts for 35 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF). A full pie should take 45 – 60 minutes.

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.