Sunshine in a Teacup

I woke up to the sound of rain today. Not an unwelcome sound—the seedlings in the garden will appreciate it. Still, a rainy day inspires a certain amount of decadent self-care to banish the mental chill (even if it is perfectly comfortable indoors). 

My decadence this morning came in the form of pulling out a Sunday teacup for my coffee. 

We bought two of these cups at Driving Creek Railway in the Coromandel a few years ago—a Christmas gift to ourselves, and a real splurge. They’ve become our special occasion coffee mugs—used on Sunday mornings and Christmas Day only. In my mind, they’re associated with relaxation, holiday, and decadence.

So on this rainy morning, with a day of intense work on the next novel ahead of me (and no sunny-day excuses to get me out of it), I thought I needed a little motivation in the form of a special vessel for my coffee. A tiny thing, but it has made my day sunny, despite the rain outside.

Spring Cleanout

The equinox has passed and we’re on the sunny side of the year. The greenhouse is filled with vegetable seedlings. Flowers bloom in the yard. Asparagus spears and artichoke buds are popping up to grace our dinners.

Now is the time to scour the cupboards and freezer for what’s left of last summer’s bounty. It needs to be eaten before this year’s crops start to come in and make us forget.

As usual for us, the frozen peas and corn are long gone. The carrots I froze from last year’s bumper crop have been eaten, too. The currants, peaches and strawberries never stand a chance of making it to September—they are like bright sparks for winter’s darkest days.

As usual, what remains is pumpkin. Baked and frozen when the fresh pumpkins started to rot back in July, frozen pumpkin has become a staple in our springtime cooking as we scramble to finish it off.

Maybe I should plant fewer?

Except it’s the only vegetable left at this time of year. And maybe pumpkin isn’t traditionally considered a springtime vegetable but pumpkin pie, cake, galette, and pancakes are delicious any time of the year.

So bring on the flowers, the sun and the warmth. And bring on the pumpkin! We’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

pumpkin cake glazed with yogurt frosting
Pumpkin cake … best way to eat pumpkin?

OOOOOh my! Chocolate cookies

I dipped into Ottolenghi’s book, Sweet, again the other day. This time I made Chocolate O Cookies. 

All I can say is  OOOOOOh my!

These could possibly be the best chocolate cookies ever. They’re a lot of work, and the recipe only makes 20 cookies, but those 20 cookies are truly divine.

The cookies themselves are a rich chocolate shortbread—alone, they’re worth making. But the piece de resistance is the water ganache filling.

I’d never made a ganache like this before, and I have to say I was dubious at first—mixing chocolate and water is a no-no, right? To make matters worse, the ganache starts with a sugar syrup, which has always been a bit of an Achilles heel for me.

But somehow it worked, and the infusion of cinnamon, chilli and orange gives the ganache a complex richness that lifts it above any other ganache I’ve made.

I’ll definitely be making these again … and again … and again.

Incidentally, I had extra ganache, which I popped into the fridge and slathered on lemon cupcakes later in the week—an excellent bonus!

Here’s the ganache recipe:

1/2 cinnamon stick
shaved peel of 1/2 orange
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
90 ml boiling water
125 g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), roughly chopped
scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod (I used 1/2 tsp vanilla)
1/4 tsp salt
50 g caster sugar
50 g liquid glucose (I used honey)
50 g butter, cut into 2 cm cubes

Place cinnamon, orange peel and chilli flakes in a small bowl and cover with the boiling water. Set aside for 30 minutes. After the water has been infusing for about 20 minutes, prepare the sugar syrup.

Place the chocolate, vanilla seeds and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Place the sugar and glucose in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted. Increase the heat and boil until the caramel turns a light amber colour (this doesn’t work if you use honey—it will already be amber. I boiled to about the soft ball stage), about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the infused water and aromatics. Return the liquid to a boil and then strain over the chocolate and vanilla. Discard the aromatics. Leave for 2-3 minutes until the chocolate has melted. Stir until smooth.

Add the butter, one piece at a time, stirring constantly until it is incorporated and smooth. Refrigerate 30 minutes to firm up.

Butterless Pumpkin Lockdown Cake

iced pumpkin cake

Lockdown grocery shopping is always a bit frustrating. Our local grocery store is calm and safe-feeling. There’s never a line out the door, and social distancing is relatively easy. The problem is the store is small (little choice in brands—you take what you can get), and the prices are high. Under normal circumstances I do my shopping at cheaper, larger stores in the city.

So during lockdown, I buy as few groceries as possible and limit expensive foods like cheese and butter.

Which is why last week’s baking challenge was an iced cake with no butter. 

I based the cake on a whole-grain pumpkin cake recipe from the King Arthur Flour Wholegrain Baking book. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup each of oil and butter, so I simply used a cup of oil instead. I’ve done this before with other cakes when I needed to make a cake for lactose intolerant friends, so I was confident it would work well. It did, and the cake turned out light and moist.

The icing was more of an issue. I wanted a nice thick icing, not a simple glaze. What I really wanted was a cream cheese frosting, but I had no cream cheese. To get the cream cheese frosting flavour, I used yogurt instead. I drained about a third of a cup of yogurt for a couple of hours to thicken it. Then I blended it a spoonful at a time, along with a teaspoon of vanilla, into 2 1/2 cups of icing sugar until I hit the consistency I wanted.

It wasn’t a butter icing—it still had the feel of a glaze more than a frosting—but it spread on thickly, oozing slightly over the edges of the cake and drying to a beautiful glossy sheen. Best of all, it had the lovely cultured tartness of a cream cheese frosting. All in all, a darned good icing on a fabulous cake.

And it didn’t cost me $7.95 for a block of butter. An excellent lockdown experiment!

Cheese sablés

Cheese sables

Move over Cheez-its! Cheese sablés have entered my baking lexicon.

Well over a year ago, I copied a recipe for Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomato Sables from a cookbook I got from the library. Sadly, I don’t know what the cookbook was, or I’d recommend it to you.

I finally got around to making them yesterday. In addition to learning that ‘sables’ are actually ‘sablés’, which is French for sandy (the texture of the mixture before the cheese is added), I discovered that these little savoury biscuits are amazing.

There are so many flavours—all of them distinct and strong—in these glorious things, I can hardly describe them. They’re more work to make than your average cracker, but they are so far beyond the average cracker in flavour, it’s hardly surprising. I made them without the tomatoes, because I had none in the house. Even without tomatoes they were heavenly. Here’s the recipe, sans tomatoes, and with a few modifications based on my experience.

100 g plain flour
75 g wholemeal flour
1/2 tsp salt
good pinch cayenne pepper
good pinch mustard powder
1 tsp caraway seeds
freshly ground black pepper
125 g cold butter, diced
50 g sharp cheddar, finely grated
75 g Parmesan, finely grated
4 tsp sesame seeds
2 tsp nigella (black onion) seeds
1-2 tsp milk

Mix the flours, salt, cayenne, mustard, caraway and a good grind of black pepper in a large bowl. Add the butter and cut with a pastry knife until there are no visible flecks of butter remaining. (The original recipe suggests doing this in a food processor, which would be quicker and easier). Add the grated cheeses and mix until the dough just starts to come together in clumps. Now knead it with your hands until you can bring it together in a smooth ball. This takes some time, as the only ‘liquid’ in the dough is the fat from the butter and cheese. Be patient. It will happen. Shape the dough into a log roughly 5 cm in diameter. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate about 2 hours until firm. 

Preheat the oven to 180ºC (160ºC if using fan bake). Butter two baking sheets.

Mix the sesame seeds and nigella seeds on a tray. Brush the sablé log with the milk and roll in the seeds, pressing them into the dough so they stick. Slice the log into slices 4 mm thick and place 3 cm apart on the baking sheets.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden. Cool on a rack. Fight off the rest of the family who hover around waiting for them to be ready to eat.

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.