Winter Culinary Adventuring

One of the best things about winter is the excuse to try unusual foods. During every other season of the year, there are so many vegetables coming out of the garden, it feels wrong to buy any fruits or vegetables. And as a rule, I only buy local produce, even during the winter, but once in a while it’s fun to splurge.

can of jackfruit

A few weeks ago I bought a can of jackfruit. This tropical tree is related to mulberries and figs, and produces large fruits with stringy flesh. The young fruits (before they ripen and become sweet) are used as a meat substitute, because the texture is somewhat meat-like.

I’ve eaten jackfruit in restaurants, but never cooked with it before, so it seemed like a good winter splurge.

Jackfruit itself has little flavour—its intrigue is in the texture. Most of the jackfruit recipes I found online take advantage of this texture by using it in dishes most commonly made with shredded pork.

After scanning a number of recipes, I decided to make gyro-inspired jackfruit wraps.

flatbreads fresh from the oven

I started by making flatbreads based somewhat loosely on a naan recipe I have.

Then I made a hash of shredded jackfruit, mushrooms and onions, heavily spiced with paprika, smoked paprika, and chipotle. A dash or two of vegetarian Worcestershire sauce gave it a little tang, and a handful of fresh cilantro tipped it towards Asian flavours.

Finally, I made a yogurt and tahini sauce to go with it, generously flavoured with fresh mint.

I’m not sure what cuisine the final Greek/Indian/Southeast Asian wraps would fall into, but they were absolutely delicious. The hot and spicy jackfruit hash was balanced beautifully by the yogurt sauce, and the fresh flatbreads, still warm from the oven were everything a good flatbread should be.

jackfruit has cooking on the stove

It was fun to cook with a new and unusual ingredient, and the results were well worth the effort. I won’t be adding jackfruit to my regular grocery run, as it’s not exactly a local food (the can I bought was imported from Thailand), but I’ll definitely consider it next time I’m looking for a little winter splurge.

Magic Meringue Mushroom Making

I’m not fond of meringues. Somehow I never taste whatever they’re flavoured with—only egg white, a flavour I’ve always found unpleasant.

I do, however, enjoy making meringue mushrooms. This week I had the pleasure of making a large batch of meringue mushrooms without having to eat any of them.

Two of my husband’s PhD students are graduating, and they gave a celebratory seminar today. Naturally I had to make some mushroom-themed treats (to match their research subjects) for the occasion. Sixty mushroom shaped cookies, two dozen Amanita muscaria cupcakes and 50 meringue mushrooms later I dusted off my hands and stepped out of the kitchen.

The cookies and cupcakes are cute, but it’s those meringue mushrooms that excite me. 

meringue mushroom caps in the oven

I love piping the little stems and caps and dusting them with cocoa powder. I love how they look during their long slow cooking in the oven. I love the crisp-hollow sound they make when you pick them off the baking parchment.

But best of all is the process of gluing the caps to the stems with molten chocolate. Each mushroom seems to come to life—short plump ones, tall thin ones, some that bend or sit wonky on their stems. Each is different and has its own character. There’s something magical about it.

meringue mushrooms on cooling rack

I wish I had more excuses to make meringue mushrooms. I wish I liked eating them. But that’s alright—maybe I appreciate the magic of meringue mushroom making more because it is such a rare treat. (Alternatively, alliteration acts as an attraction?)

A Trifle Broken

Last night’s baking was going well until it came time to remove the cake from the pan.

I made a chocolate cake—a wholegrain recipe I’ve made a dozen times. Usually I’d bake it up as cupcakes, but I decided to go all out and make a layer cake instead. I also decided to mix in some frozen raspberries, because there’s still a ton of summer’s bountiful fruit in the freezer.

The recipe calls for greasing and flouring the pans, which I did generously.

Unfortunately, I should have lined the pans with baking paper instead. The raspberries made the cake extra fragile, and both layers broke dramatically when I tried to take them out of the pans.

There went my vision of a beautiful chocolate and raspberry layer cake, filled with black currant jam and covered in a chocolate ganache.

But cake is cake, and it tastes great whether it’s whole or broken into jagged pieces.

Enter the trifle—a dish that was no doubt invented by a hapless baker whose cake had disintegrated upon being turned out of the pan, an hour before the arrival of twenty guests.

I didn’t have the eggs necessary to make the traditional custard for my trifle, so I went with whipped cream, layering cake with cream, the remaining frozen raspberries and the chocolate ganache (which was left over from oreo cookie making last week). 

As it turns out, I didn’t have enough cream to do the trifle justice, so even my trifle wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be.

But let’s face it: chocolate cake + whipped cream + raspberries + chocolate ganache = YUM! No matter what it looks like.

And thankfully, I don’t have twenty guests coming … I get to eat more of it that way. 

Winter Baking

Anytime of year is a good time for baking, as far as I’m concerned. But winter baking is probably my favourite.

Chocolate raspberry cupcakes
Chocolate Raspberry Cupcakes

First, it’s dark out. I can start baking after dinner on a weeknight and not feel like I’m missing out on valuable garden time, because it’s pitch black out.

Second, who doesn’t feel the need for a few extra calories on those cold winter days? We can all justify eating that extra cupcake in order to stay warm.

Third, with the house closed up, the glorious smells of cinnamon, chocolate and butter linger in the house. If you bake on Monday evening, you can still smell those delicious cookies the next morning. You don’t lose those scents out the open windows.

But possibly the best thing about winter baking is the opportunity to revisit the other seasons by using the fruit stored up during the rest of the year. 

apple pie
Apple Pie

Monday night I made chocolate raspberry cupcakes using the last of the raspberries frozen at the height of summer—that fresh taste is so welcome in mid-winter when berry fruits are little more than a memory. 

Last week I made apple pie with apples frozen during autumn. The aroma of fruit and cinnamon evoked those marvellous days of plenty. 

Next week, for the solstice and Matariki, I’ll pull out the frozen currents and make my very favourite winter treat—current pie. Its tart flavour is the taste of summer. It reminds me that the long days of December are only six months away.

So I will bake my way through June, July and August, dreaming of warmer days past and planning for warmer days to come.

currant pie
Care for a slice of currant pie?

Glass Gem Corn

I’ve been growing popcorn for years now, and I’ve always saved seed. I’ve been pleased with the variety I’ve grown—it is so wonderfully flavourful, it turned me from someone who wasn’t a big popcorn fan to a real lover of popcorn.

Unfortunately, over the years, my popcorn has crossbred with my sweet corn, and I got to the point where it wasn’t reliably popping anymore. So at the end of last summer, I figured I’d buy a new packet of seed and start afresh.

Horror of horrors! When I scanned last year’s seed catalogue, popcorn wasn’t in it! What was I going to do if I couldn’t get fresh seed?

Why, plant a different variety of popcorn! Although the catalogue didn’t have the variety I was used to, it did have Glass Gem—a flint corn useful for popping and for cornmeal. 

I’ve planted Painted Mountain corn before—a beautiful flint corn which we turned into excellent cornmeal. I loved growing corn that was as beautiful to look at as it was to eat.

So I wasn’t upset to switch to Glass Gem as my popcorn. The plants grew beautifully, topping out at about 2 metres tall, with up to three cobs on each plant. A fabulous result in my nutrient-poor garden. 

I was itching to harvest them and get a peek at the cobs, so last weekend I harvested the few ears that were drying off already. 

Oh. My. God. It makes Painted Mountain look dull. 

The kernels come in the most unlikely colours, including blue, pink, yellow, white, and green. But even more striking than the colour is the kernels’ translucency. They really do look like highly polished gems. The photo in the seed catalogue did not do the plants justice.

I don’t know how they will do as popcorn—they still need to dry more before we can use them—but even if they don’t pop, they were worth growing, just for their stunning look. And I have no doubt we can grind them up into some excellent confetti-coloured cornmeal if they don’t pop well.

Curious, I Googled Glass Gem, and was surprised to see it’s a modern variety. Its roots can be traced back to a man named Carl Barnes, from Oklahoma, who died in 2016. He began growing traditional flint corn varieties in order to connect with his Cherokee roots. He collected and isolated a wide range of native varieties, and began selecting the most colourful cobs for replanting. Over the years, he ended up with the variety now dubbed Glass Gem.

You can read more about Glass Gem corn here.

The Waiting Game

This time of year can be agonising. Out in the garden, the tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, cucumbers and carrots are all producing beautifully—there’s more food than we know what to do with.

But.

The sweet corn, melons, pears and apples are still sitting there, ever so slowly maturing and ripening. I try not to check them every day—I try to be patient. If I tested one apple on our tiny trees every day, there would be none left by the time they were actually ripe. But it’s hard to be patient while awaiting such seasonal treats. And the worst thing is to NOT check and go out a few days later to find the possums have eaten them all, because they ripened while you weren’t looking.

So I tap that watermelon—does it sound hollow? I check its underside—it’s bright yellow, but I know that no matter what the books say, it doesn’t signal ripeness; it’s been yellow underneath since the fruit was the size of my fist. I peel back the husks on an ear of corn to peek at the kernels—are they plump yet? I bite into an apple, hoping for sweet, not astringent.

After decades of gardening, I’m still impatient for the fleeting pleasures of fresh sweet corn and melons, apple pie and pear tarts. I reckon that’s a good sign—I still get a thrill from the chase, the anticipation.

And one of these days soon … there will be watermelon on the table.

Strawberry Cupcakes

Every now and again, you come across something that is as delicious as it is easy. The other day I wanted to make a cake involving strawberries, because it’s that time of year. I looked at lots of recipes online that involved making a strawberry reduction first, but it seemed like an awful lot of work. I was really looking for simple. 

So, ignoring everything I’d seen online, I modified a basic vanilla cake recipe from the Mennonite Community Cookbook, adding sliced fresh strawberries, and whipped up a quick strawberry icing. I baked the cake as cupcakes, as I often do to keep our portion sizes down (because you know I can’t resist cutting a huge slice of cake …).

The result is exactly what I wanted—an easy cake that highlights fresh strawberry flavour. I’ll definitely be making this one again.

Strawberry Cupcakes

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries, sliced

Cream the butter. Add sugar gradually and beat until fluffy. Add egg yolks and beat until well incorporated. Sift flour, salt and baking powder together in a separate bowl. Add flour mixture alternately with milk and vanilla, beating well after each addition. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites, then fold in the strawberries.

Fill cupcake papers, and bake at 175ºC (350ºF) for 25 minutes. Allow to cool completely on a rack before frosting.* Makes 24.

Strawberry Frosting **

60 g (1/4 cup) butter, softened
1 cup icing (confectioners) sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
3 Tbsp pureed fresh strawberries
Puree strawberries in a blender (I had to puree about a cup and a half of berries in order to have enough volume for the blender to work with—just save the extra puree. There are hundreds of delicious uses for it). Cream the butter. Sift the sugar over the butter and continue to beat. Add vanilla and strawberry puree and beat until well blended. Adjust the icing by adding more sugar or strawberries until it is a spreading consistency. 

* It was a warm day, and I was a little worried my strawberry icing would weep if it sat at room temperature with the cupcakes. Instead of frosting them all, I frosted only what we were going to eat right away, storing the remainder in the fridge, to spread on the cupcakes as we eat them. Alternately, you could store your iced cupcakes in the refrigerator. Mine is currently stuffed full of zucchini and green beans—no room for cake.

** Double this frosting recipe if you want to ice all 24 cupcakes. I put half the cupcakes in the freezer unfrosted, since I haven’t got kids at home to devour them at the moment, so I only made a small batch of frosting.

Black Currant Pie

I have blogged about black currant pie before, but it’s worth doing again. This year’s black currant harvest was overwhelming, not just because it came in the two weeks on either side of Christmas, but also because it was huge. It didn’t help that the red currants also gave a hefty crop at precisely the same time. For two weeks, I felt like all I did was pick and process currants.

Well, and eat them, too.

We use currants in ice cream, crisps, cobblers, fruit salads, and smoothies, but my favourite way to eat them is in pie.

Black currant pie is not for the sour-averse—it is a full-bodied, knock-your-socks-off type flavour. To me it is the flavour of summer. And because it works equally well with frozen berries, I always try to save enough so I can make black currant pie on the winter solstice and dream of long summer days in the chill and dark of winter. 

So revel in the intense flavours of summer and enjoy a slice of black currant pie. You can download a pdf of this recipe here.

Crust:
¾ cup all purpose flour
¾ cup wholemeal flour
¼  tsp salt
60 g butter
60 g Olivani
3-4 Tbsp ice water

Filling:
4-6 cups black currants
½ cup sugar
2 Tbsp flour

Topping:
2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts (or rolled oats)
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
75 g butter, melted

Crust:
Whisk together the flours and salt in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter and Olivani with a pastry knife until the largest chunks of butter are the size of small peas. Sprinkle the ice water over the flour mixture and combine with a fork until evenly moistened. Knead lightly, just until it forms a coherent dough (it will be crumbly). refrigerate while you prepare the filling and  topping.

Filling:
Combine sugar and flour in a small bowl. Mix with stemmed, washed black currants and set aside.

Topping:
Combine the flour, walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Stir in the butter with a fork until evenly moistened and crumbly.

Roll out the crust and place in a 23 cm pie pan. Pour the filling into the pan and sprinkle evenly with the topping. Bake at 200°C for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 170°C and bake another 30 minutes.

Serve with a generous dollop of whipped cream.

Summer Fruits

strawberries and rhubarb

Before our house was even staked out on the ground, we knew where the vegetable garden and berry fruits were going to be planted. We began preparing the garden months before the builders arrived. We took cuttings from berries at the old house, and were planting well-rooted currants and gooseberries as we finalised the design for the house. We tried to avoid mistakes we made at the last house—just one, not two, rows of bushes per bed, to make picking easier, and fewer plants overall. No need to be overwhelmed with fruit.

Last year, we harvested a handful of fruit from the currants, gooseberries, raspberries and boysenberries. The strawberries gushed fruit for the better part of the year. For barely established plants, they did well. 

This year, with most of the plants well established, we’re inundated with berries—so much for not being overwhelmed. The week before Christmas was a frenzy of fruit processing—we froze fresh fruit and fruit puree, made several batches of jam, and ate a whole lot of fruit pie, trifle and fresh berries.

Upon our return from our Christmas trip, there were even more berries ready to pick. We made more jam, preserved more whole fruit, made more pie, and have been eating fruit five times a day. The cupboard is once again packed with jam, and the freezer is stuffed with frozen berries. Thankfully, the currants and gooseberries are nearly done producing, but the raspberries and boysenberries are still going strong. The strawberries are finished with their first heavy crop, but should maintain a level of output we can easily eat for the next few months. I’m thankful the grapes are only in their first year and the blueberries aren’t doing as well as the other berries—not that I don’t want grapes or blueberries, but I’m worried about freezer and cupboard space.

lemon raspberry cake
Lemon raspberry cake

At least the fruit trees are still young—we got a handful of cherries, and will have a few pears, apples, and peaches if we’re lucky, but shouldn’t be overwhelmed.

It’s a lovely problem to have. With the summer vegetables coming on strong, too, there is a real sense of abundance in the house—a great way to start the new year.

Fruits of the Season

strawberries and rhubarb

I made strawberry rhubarb jam last weekend, marking the beginning of the Christmas season. Currants, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, and blueberries are also beginning to colour up.

The peas are filling out so fast it’s hard to keep up with them, and every broccoli plant is sporting a ready-to-eat flower head. Carrots and onions are just hitting picking size, adding crunch and colour to meals.

The cabbages are bulking up, promising to be ready for sauerkraut making on Christmas eve (our ‘traditional’ sauerkraut making day). And the broad beans are all ready to eat, and coming to their glorious end.

In short, the summer cornucopia is filling up and spilling over.

We will host fourteen people for dinner tomorrow, and I hardly have to hit the grocery store to feed everyone. Some alcohol and cheese is all I need to supplement what’s in the garden (need being a loosely applied term here, of course). It’s what I love most about a summertime Christmas—the sense of abundance that accompanies the celebrations.

vegetables from the garden

Of course, the garden’s abundance also means there’s an extra pile of holiday work picking and preserving, weeding and watering all that produce. But there’s something festive about the work when you can hum Christmas carols while you’re at it. The piles of fresh vegetables and summer fruit in the kitchen are the reward for every tired muscle and late-evening preserving session. And thankfully, we’ve got long summer days in which to get all the work done.