Nifty Nigella

Late summer is harvest time for all sorts of crops. Nigella might be the most unusual one I harvested this week.

Nigella sativa goes by many names: nigella, kalonji, black cumin, fennel flower, nutmeg seed, onion seed, and black caraway. Added to this mess of often misleading names is Nigella sativa’s ornamental cousin, Nigella damascena, also known as nigella (or love-in-a-mist). You could be forgiven for being confused.

Culinary nigella is a lovely aromatic seed that looks confusingly like onion seed. Its flavour has been described as oniony or oregano-like. I’m not sure how I would describe it—I suppose onion and oregano come close, but the truth is it has its own warm rich flavour. It is traditionally used in naan and string cheese. It’s also apparently great with lentils and other legumes.

Because we rarely harvest much nigella, we’ve only used it in naan, where it imparts a lovely savoury note to the bread. 

But this year, conditions must have been just right for nigella; it grew luxuriantly. Consequently, I have a huge quantity of seeds, so I expect we’ll be trying it out in all sorts of stews and curries. I’m looking forward to the addition to our spicing options.

Inside-out Cupcakes

I love cupcakes for lunch boxes. They’re just the right size and are an easy to grab and go snack. But if they have icing on them, they make a huge mess in the lunch box. 

I had some cream cheese frosting left over from a cake I made a couple of weeks ago. It needed to be used, so I thought I’d make zucchini cupcakes to put it on. Then I considered the problem of frosting in lunch boxes. What I needed was a way to put icing in the middle of the cupcakes, so it wouldn’t get all over everything else.

I decided to divide the batter into two square pans. Then I stacked the two layers bottom-to-bottom, with the icing between. This left the mostly crumb-free cake tops exposed on top and bottom, and kept the messy icing in the centre. I cut them into handy grab-and-go squares, and voila! We had … what? Inside-out cupcakes? Icing sandwiches? I’m not entirely certain what to call them, but they’re delicious and travel well in lunches without making a big mess.

Crazy Cake Season 2019

I’ve been remiss. Crazy Cake Season is two-thirds over and I haven’t posted a single cake blog!

I admit, it’s because I felt this year’s cakes weren’t as good as previous years. In part, the kids asked for challenging subjects for their cakes: slime moulds (daughter) and a 3-D map of Wellington with all the buildings (son).

I resisted the urge to create a big pile of dog vomit slime mould for my daughter’s cake, and instead created a log covered in slime moulds of various species. Mexican paste worked well for the stalked fruiting bodies, and a little gum arabic glaze made them glisten like the real thing. All in all, it was a successful cake (she was able to identify most of the species, so I got points for biological accuracy, at least), but it wasn’t a cake with a lot of visual appeal for most people.

The Wellington cake was trickier. A map of Wellington? In cake?! I opted for a Wellington-themed cake, instead. Mexican-paste letters created a passable replica of the iconic Hollywood-style Wellington sign. A Mexican paste whale tail rises over the choppy waters of the harbour, and a replica of the Beehive proves you can actually make that building uglier than the original. The map? Well, I did try to create a map of the neighbourhood where my son will soon be living, but my icing wasn’t behaving well (it was a very dry 30 degrees C in the kitchen, and it was variously melting and crusting over), and that bit was quite a disaster. The end result wasn’t something to feast the eyes on.

But in the interests of full disclosure, here they are: this year’s lacklustre cakes. The good news is that they tasted great! The slime mould log was a lemon curd jelly roll that was one of the most flavourful cakes I’ve ever made, and perfect for summer. And the Wellington cake was a reliably delicious spice cake recipe with a beautifully soft texture. So, regardless of their look, they were enjoyed by everyone.

One more cake to go in Crazy Cake Season!

Happy Coincidences = Amazing Results

I wanted to bake brownies the other day. I had my heart set on my usual brownie recipe, with chocolate chips and walnuts added.

But when I went for the cocoa, there was none. Oh no!

But there was a large bar of really nice dark chocolate … I used the chocolate instead.

Then, we were almost out of walnuts. Darn!

I rifled through the cupboards. Plenty of raisins, but that wasn’t what I wanted. Only a few dried cranberries, but that flavour would be nice. I remembered that dried gooseberries tasted a lot like dried cranberries, and we had plenty of those. As I reached for the gooseberries, I noticed a little jar on top of them.

Dried raspberries. When we dried them, I had no idea how I might use the crunchy little nuggets that resulted.

Now I knew exactly what they were for. I tipped the whole jar into the brownie mix, along with a generous quantity of chocolate chips.

The result is the most divine brownie I think I’ve ever made. The high-quality dark chocolate makes the bar decadently rich, and the dried raspberries provide sparkling, intense bursts of fruit flavour that lingers long after the last crumbs are eagerly licked off the plate.

And to think I would have settled for an ordinary walnut brownie …

Lucky thing I was out of cocoa and walnuts!

A Trifle More Christmas Baking

Okay, so I wrote the Christmas Baking blog post a couple of days ago, and then this happened. We picked another mountain of fruit this morning, and it happened to be a bread day. My original plan was to bake a pie, but my husband agitated for a trifle, but without the custard, which he’s not fond of.

So into the baking rotation went a lemon cake. Once it was cool, I sliced it and layered it with fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, black currants and blueberries), raspberry sauce, and a mixture of cream cheese, whipped cream, sugar and vanilla (inspired by this trifle recipe, but I measured nothing, and ignored most of the directions).

Just making it made everyone smile. Eating it … Oh my! I think I have a new favourite Christmas dessert!

Christmas Baking

When I was a kid, my mother would start her Christmas baking just after Thanksgiving. She’d bake dozens of kinds of cookies and freeze them. For weeks before the big day, there would be a big platter of cookies—a few of each of the types she’d made—out for eating. It was a child’s dream. I don’t remember her making anything but cookies for holiday desserts. We certainly didn’t need anything else, with all those cookies available.

Before moving to New Zealand, my holiday baking was similar (though with only one child eating cookies, I didn’t make quite so many as my mother did—she had three young cookie eaters). But it’s changed a lot since then.

Cookies are made with ingredients that store well—flour, butter, sugar, nuts—that’s great for winter baking, when fresh ingredients are hard to come by. But Christmas falls at the height of the summer fruit season here—it’s no wonder the traditional Christmas dessert here is pavlova—a meringue ring filled with fresh fruit (Unfortunately, I’m really not fond of meringue).

At the moment on our property, we are harvesting black currants, red currants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and blueberries. With as much as 10 kilograms of fruit coming in every two days, much of that harvest goes into jam, sauces, chutney, or simply gets frozen for later use. But it would be a shame not to bake with that fruit, in favour of cookies, which I can make any time of the year.

So we’ve been enjoying strawberry shortcake, currant pie, and gooseberry crisp. For breakfast, we’ve been eating waffles smothered in fruit, and muffins studded with fruit. For snacks, and with every meal, we’ve been eating fresh fruit—whatever hasn’t gone into baking or the freezer.

Oh, there are cookies, too (why not?). But it’s the fruit I snitch while walking through the kitchen, and it’s the pie I crave for dessert.

Some day I’ll dispense with the cookies entirely … Maybe I’ll even learn to like pavlova.

Trying New Recipes

Saturday was a bread oven day (see my previous post and video if you don’t know what that entails). As luck would have it, I had just checked out some cookbooks from the local library, and I had a whole bunch of new recipes I wanted to try.

On bread days I usually bake several different things, in order to make use of the ‘free’ oven heat. It can lead to some insanity in the kitchen, as I mix up more than one recipe simultaneously. Usually I stick to things I make regularly, in order to prevent mistakes.

But Saturday I threw caution to the wind and chose three new recipes to make: sticky orange cupcakes, chocolate cardamom cake, and a sort of jam and nut pie bar.

The preparation was frenetic, but I managed to keep all three recipes straight, and the results were pretty good. The orange cupcakes were the perfect consistency—so moist, they’re more nearly pudding than cake, with coarse semolina and ground nuts giving them a wonderful grit. The flavour was good, but simple. I’m already scheming to improve them next time by sweetening with honey instead of sugar, for a more complex flavour.

The chocolate cardamom cake smelled divine. It, unfortunately, went into the freezer without a taste test, but I’m looking forward to eating it and adding another cardamom-flavoured dish to my repertoire. 

The jam and nut pie bars? I had just one bite of them before the rest went into the freezer. I think the jury’s still out on them. They certainly need some work. Both look and taste were marginal, and I suspect it wasn’t a good idea to attempt them on a bread day—a little more care would have gone a long way, at least on look. 

That’s two out of three that I think are keepers—not bad for three new recipes, made up simultaneously. Though, for my own sake, I don’t think I’ll bake three new recipes on a bread day again.