Barking up the wrong tree: Xmas goodies out of season

Christmas was over a month ago, but I’m still thinking about it. Specifically, I’m thinking about the Xmas baking ingredients that either won’t last another 11 months or that I just want to use up. Dried fruit, that’s you! But also it’s those sticky sweet peppermint candy canes that don’t do anyone’s teeth any favours, and which aren’t that great to begin with.

As way of background, each year, instead of buying stuff, I like to make a range of goodies to give to work colleagues, childcarers, neighbours and friends. It’s really no less expensive but is kid-friendly fun (H likes to help me) and is a bit special (spesh, as some Aussies like to put it ;).

Anyway, one of the things that people always say they like is also one of the easiest: peppermint bark. There are a few variations – but you can really use this idea for anything! It just so happens that I have four candy canes (the big ones) in the cupboard and H has been doing my head in wanting to eat them. I think they are too sticky for 4 year old teeth, so here’s today’s alternative consumption idea.

Peppermint bark(ing up the wrong tree)

You will need:
2 large or 4 small peppermint candy canes, placed in a ziplock bag and smashed into crumbs. This is a hammer job and not part of the kid-friendly fun!

1 x 375g bag white chocolate melts. If you have a smaller bag, just use it. The proportions here are totally variable based on your taste buds.

1. Melt chocolate in a bowl over steaming water.
2. Stir in the peppermint crumbs. Mix to combine well.
3. Spread thinly over a lined baking tray. Place in fridge until set.
4. When it’s set (ie chocolate is hard), break into pieces. The aim is for these not to be uniform but rather haphazard, like bark. Devour! I dare you to stop
after one piece; it’s almost impossible!!!

Some variations:
Try milk or dark chocolate or replace candy canes with nuts or dried fruit (I especially like pistachio and dried cranberries)…

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A bit of patriotic passion(fruit slice)

Everyone loves a long weekend, especially in summer. Parties, bbqs, picnics… Also ubiquitous with summer, at least in my mind, is summer fruit.

Growing up, I remember a meandering banana passionfruit vine on our side fence, near the cubby made of cement sheets, and spending weeks waiting for the little green bundles to turn yellow. When they were ripe, my brother, sisters and I would sit in the backyard peeling them with the aim of keeping the banana shape so we could eat them like – you guessed it – a banana. Also prolific in summer backyards are the lovely round purple passionfruit, which start off smooth and glossy before becoming wrinkly as they get really ripe.

I’m unsure if passionfruit are true summer fruit, as they seem to overlap seasons, but I think they are best when the sun is hot and the mood is lazy. That’s where long weekends come in.

Australia Day was on Saturday and we had a first birthday party on for one of bubaloo’s friends. I wanted to take something, but what?? Ages ago, my mum gave me a recipe for a super simple, super delicious passionfruit slice. She never made it but thought it sounded great (and she was right!).

As an aside, I always thought passionfruit were native to Australia, but they apparently originated from the Americas.

You can use fresh passionfruit, but my recipe uses it tinned – which means you can have the taste of summer days year round.

Easy passionfruit slice

You will need:
1 cup self-raising flour
1 cup dessicated coconut
2/3 cup sugar (castor is best, but raw sugar also works fine)
125 grams butter, melted
1 x 170g tin passionfruit pulp
1 x 395g tin sweetened condensed milk

1. Preheat oven to 180C. Grease and line a rectangular tin (mine is 27cm x 17cm).

2. In a bowl, add flour, coconut and sugar. Stir to combine. Mix in the melted butter. It should look crumbly but moist.

3. Press into the base of the tin, then put into the oven and bake for 15 minutes or until golden. Remove from oven.

4. In a new bowl, mix together passionfruit and condensed milk. Pour over the base and smooth out. Place in oven for 15 minutes or until the top is set.

5. Allow to cool then remove from tin and slice.

That’s all! It’s so easy and always a hit. At the party, two of the grandmothers wanted the recipe and that, for me, truly signifies its deliciousness!

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Winning points with a Chinese-style eggplant dish

In Melbourne at the moment, the Australian Open (tennis) is in full swing and, as it nears the finals, is on television lots. At the same time, it’s pretty hot; today was 37C, so its difficult to find motivation to do much, plus there’s the sunburn factor (i.e. too hot not to get burnt). By the time we got home from work/childcare, it had really heated up and all I wanted to do was watch the tennis with the kids (my 4 year old now tells me he wants to be a tennis player when he grows up!).

But, you know, I had to feed them something. It had to be quick, easy and nutritious. What to do? I toyed with the idea of making a Cambodian-esque dish, given that we were there in November and it was almost as hot as Phnom Penh, but decided that was beyond me today. In the end, I settled for a Chinese eggplant and mince dish that my friend Teresa taught me a few years ago; before then, I’d always imagined that it was hugely complex and would take all day to prepare. Fortunately that’s not the case. I like to think of it as interchangeable with spaghetti bolognese – one of those fail-safe dishes that everyone in the family will eat. As long as you have stuff in the cupboard (once you’ve made it once, you will have enough for many incarnations), it’s really pretty basic. The kids really love it and so does my partner, so its a winner with everyone. While its a pork dish, any mince meat (although not sure about lamb) can be substituted; we had chicken today. Tempeh might also work well too, but I haven’t tried it.

Szechuan-style eggplant and minced pork

You’ll need:

oil (most recipes call for peanut oil, but I use olive or vegetable oil with no problems)

1 medium eggplant (aubergine)

2 cloves garlic, crushed or chopped finely

2 tsp ginger, grated finely

a good handful of mushrooms (shitake if you like them, I just use button or swiss brown)

500g minced pork (or chicken or beef)

a handful of green or snake beans, cut into 3 cm lengths (optional)

1 tsp chilli bean paste or chilli flakes (optional – I don’t generally include this)

250ml chicken or vegetable stock

2 tbsp soy sauce

2 tbsp Shao Xing Chinese cooking wine (or dry sherry)

1/2 tsp sesame oil

1 tsp sugar

pepper and salt, to taste

4-6 spring onions, chopped into 3 cm lengths (depends how much you like them!)

1. Chop eggplant into thin strips, about the size of your little finger and ~3cm long. Place in a colander and salt them liberally. Leave for about 15 minutes.

2. Wash salt from eggplant then pat dry. In a frypan, heat a few tablespoons of oil (you may need to add more, as eggplants are pretty thirsty). When it’s hot, add your eggplant; you may need to do this in two batches in order to cook the eggplant well. Cook it until it’s soft and transparent. Set aside to drain on some paper towel. Discard any oil left in your frypan.

3. Return your frypan to the heat and add a tablespoon or two of oil. Add ginger and garlic and cook until fragrant. Stir in the mushrooms and cook until they are soft, for a minute or two. Next add the mince and, if you are using them, beans and chilli bean paste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mince changes colour and is cooked through.

4. Stir in the stock, soy sauce, Shao Xing wine, sesame oil and eggplants and cook for about 5 minutes or until the flavours have been absorbed by the meat and vegetables. It might still have a watery sauce, which you can thicken by adding 1 tsp cornflour mixed with 2 tbsp water (optional; I never bother to do this). Stir through your spring onions and cook for a further minute or so.

5. Serve with steamed rice.

If you like this sort of thing, don’t hesitate to buy that big bottle of Shao Xing – it lasts for ages and is not expensive. You can get it at most Asian grocers.

I hope you and yours like this dish – if you have a better recipe, I’d love to hear it! Thanks for reading.

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Hey Pesto: worknight dinners, plus a super cake

You know how it goes, you’ve worked all day and by the time you get home, absolutely the last thing you want to do is think about what to have for dinner, let alone actually cook something. At the same time, you need nourishment. Some days like this, I like to whip up a lovely batch of… canned baked beans on toast. Eggs on toast is also a winner.

Other days, like today, I actually find a smidge of motivation and make something. This is usually because I stupidly asked H, my eldest kid (the youngest would only answer ‘eeerrrhhh’ as he can only say three words), what he wants for dinner. Today, he wanted pizza so, since we demystified pizza bases a few days ago, we made our own. This is not a new story and so is not the point of this post. More specifically, he wanted pesto pizza. We ran out of pesto a few days ago and so it was time for a new batch. The beauty of pesto is threefold: 1) it only has 5 ingredients; 2) if you have a food processor, it only takes 5 minutes; and 3) is one of the only green things that my kids happily eat. It’s also fantastically versatile – you can have it on pasta, on pizza, as a dip, in a sandwich, stirred through scrambled eggs to make half a dish of ‘green eggs and ham’… the list goes on. Please comment if you have any great pesto recipes or ideas!

The recipe here was given to me by my sister, so all kudos goes to her, not me.

Twisty Kristy Pesto

You will need:

2 bunches of basil, washed and with leaves removed from the stem (I don’t use the stems or flowers as I find they can add bitterness)

3-4 cloves garlic

125g parmesan, grated (if you have a food processor, this is a 30 second job using the grater attachment). This is basically a small block of parmesan chopped in half.

125g pine nuts. At our local supermarket, they sell pine nuts in bags of 130g; it tastes just fine if you use the whole bag.

1/3 – 1/2 cup olive oil (use the best you have; I like extra virgin)

1. Put all ingredients except the olive oil in the bowl of your food processor. As soon as you turn it on, start drizzling the olive oil in. When all of the ingredients are ground up, it’s ready. Really. It’s that easy! Just make sure it’s not too dry; if there’s not enough oil, it will be hard to stir through your pasta and also will become discoloured if you want to store it.

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This keeps pretty well in the fridge for a week or so. It makes about 1 1/2 to 2 cups worth, which is a fair bit of pesto; at least a couple of dinners worth. You can also do it in a mortar and pestle but (as I recall from my student days) it takes ages this way.

A recommendation from Tricia: Lime and coconut cake

One of my friends sent me an email recommending this recipe. It’s from Taste.com.au – Tricia has made it a few times and it’s both easy to whip up and delicious! I haven’t tried it yet, but think I’ll give it a go on the weekend.

http://www.taste.com.au/recipes/26876/lime+coconut+cake

You will need:

  • 200g (1 1/3 cups) self-raising flour, sifted
  • 155g (3/4 cup) caster sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 65g (1 cup) shredded coconut
  • 150g butter, melted
  • 3 eggs
  • 125ml (1/2 cup) fresh lime juice
  • 1 tbs finely grated lime rind

1. Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and line an 18cm square cake pan, allowing the edges to overhang.

2. Process flour, sugar, baking powder and 50g (2/3 cup) of coconut in a food processor for 20 seconds. Add butter, eggs, lime juice and lime rind. Process until well combined. (Note from Narelle: I suspect that you could easily do this with a cake mixer or with a bowl and wooden spoon; although I have the technology, I usually prefer to make cakes without it and they turn out just fine)

3. Pour into the pan and smooth the surface. Bake for 40 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining coconut and bake for a further 10 minutes or until a skewer inserted into centre comes out clean. Set aside for 5 minutes to cool slightly. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

If you similarly have a great recipe that you’d like to share, please do! We’re all here because we want to learn new ways of making things!

Rule of plum: jam, tart and kitchen disasters

Ever had one of those days where nothing goes quite right? I didn’t actually think I was having one of them until mid-afternoon today… all plum-related.

One of the great things about having fruit trees and vegie patches in your backyard is the produce, right? The only problem is that the birds and possums also think this is awesome. I’m personally quite happy if they take their share and leave some for us: 10% of the yield would be fine. But knowing that the birds are happy to share by pecking into plums and leaving half on the tree, I have been picking the plums at the not-quite-ripe stage and ripening them inside. Yesterday, I went out to do some picking and there were plenty of plums still on the tree, so I thought to leave them until they ripen. Today, nothing. Not one plum, but quite a few seeds on the ground… It seems that the possums are even worse at sharing than the birds… which leads me to

My bubaloo has just started having one nap, for around 2 hours, in the middle of the day. This is great because it means I get lots of time to do stuff with my eldest. The other great thing about the long nap is that it provides an opportunity to make, or at least start to make, something that requires labour. So I thought I’d make a basic plum jam using an familiar recipe. The only problem was, I’d picked the plums when they weren’t quite ripe. I tried a few while preparing the fruit, which were soft, juicy and delicious, and had deliberately thrown in some less ripe plums (for the pectin, you see). At the same time, I had some eggs that needed using as they were past dates, but had passed the floating test, so I decided to make a plum tart at the same time (at this point, I was still under the illusion that there were plenty of plums on the tree, so plenty of recipes to try…). After 2 or so busy hours in the kitchen – popping out to the lounge room to play with H – I ended up with perfectly set sour plum jam and sour plum and blueberry tart. Both still edible but not as I had envisaged. As I’ve made both of these things before, on countless occasions, with success, I’m posting the recipes here – with a caveat: ensure your fruit is ripe!

Simple plum jam

2 kg plums, quartered and with the stones removed

1 litre or 4 cups water

1.3 kg sugar

1/3 cup lemon juice (or juice from about 2 lemons)

In a large saucepan, place plums and water. Place over the heat and simmer for about an hour.

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Once things have been happily bubbling away for an hour, add sugar and lemon juice then simmer until the jam has reached the setting point. This occurs when the jam has thickened and reduced to about 2 litres or 8 cups worth. You can tell by placing some jam on a saucer and putting it into the fridge for a few minutes. When it’s cool, run your finger through the middle of the jam splodge; if the two halves remain separated so that you can see the saucer where your finger went, then it’s ready. If not, simmer for a bit longer, until this setting point is reached.

At the same time as the jam is cooking, you need to prepare (sterilise) your jars. I don’t have anything fancy, so I do it by: washing the jars in hot, soapy water and then rinsing them under hot water. Then I place them into a stockpot full of boiling water and, with the lid on, boil for about 10 minutes. Next I take them out of the stockpot – be careful, as this is when you are likely to get scalded (I was so lucky; my friend was here and she kept Bubaloo and H in another room so I could do this. My biggest fear is not scalding myself but accidentally getting one of them) – and placing them onto a baking tray lined with a clean dry tea towel. I then put this tray into a moderate oven for about 15 minutes or until the jars are well and truly dry.

Once the jars and jam are ready, use a ladle to scoop the jam into the jars. It’s extremely hot (molten), so be careful. I always make a mess doing this, as the photo shows. But once it’s all in the jars, seal while hot – either use a cellulose sheet (Fowlers make them) or your sterilised lids.

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Even though mine has ended up a bit sour, it’s not unpleasant; I think it will go nicely with scones, sponge cake or in a jam slice – the sourness should cut through the sweetness nicely. Less fortunate was the sour plum tart… I like to halve the sugar in these sorts of recipes, and didn’t realise about the sour-factor until later. Oh well, we’ll just have to eat it with icecream (what a sacrifice!).

Stone fruit and berry tart

This recipe is adapted from one by Donna Hay. Years ago, when I was doing my doctorate, one of my student friends and I lived near to each other, and would visit regularly for dinners. One time, her housemate made this using tinned plums. It was so lovely – the juice from the plums made the base deliciously moist.

In the decade or so since, I’ve made it hundreds of times. Recently, I was visiting my family and ended up making this almost daily as a way of using up fruit that was nearly too ripe to use – and also as a compromise morning tea for the kids. You can use any combination of stone fruits and berries or, like my friend’s housemate, tinned fruit. Even with only half the sugar, it keeps until at least the next day (but will it last that long?!).

You’ll need:

125g butter or margarine (butter is best, as it can be crumbly)

1/2 cup castor sugar (the original recipe calls for 1 cup but I find that too sweet)

2 eggs

splash of vanilla essence

1 1/2 cups self-raising flour

2 peaches or equivalent (you need enough to cover the top of the tart)

1/4 cup berries (they can be frozen; raspberries are very yummy)

Preheat oven to 170C. Grease a 20cm square or round baking tray (I find it works best in a smaller dish, which I line with baking paper).

In a bowl, cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs, stirring in well, and vanilla essence. Stir in flour. Combine until mixed.

Spoon into prepared tray. Smooth over the top. Place slices of peach (or other stone fruit; apricot or plum halves, nectarine slices) so that the top is covered. Sprinkle berries over the top of this. If you are using tinned fruit, then drizzle 2 or 3 tbsp of the juice over it too.

Place in the oven and bake for 55-60 minutes, or until brown on top. This is nice hot or cold, as a dessert or as a cake.

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Please note that I probably should have put more fruit on the top; given the sour situation, I’m glad I didn’t. Usually, however, the more fruit, the better! If you do end up with sour fruit, or even if you just feel like it, sifting icing sugar over the top can do wonders.

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