Experimentation: banana, date and maple syrup loaf

As you may have surmised, I’m being tempted by the ‘sweet poison’ movement. Not totally swayed, but intrigued. Personally, I think that everything in moderation is good. But having said that, I am a total sweet tooth and so, in an attempt not to replicate that in my children and also as an attempt to not develop diabetes, I have been taking active steps to cut down on my processed sugar consumption.

At first, I thought the whole no sugar movement was unfathomable. Nothing sweet ever again? No way. But then I flicked through Sarah Wilson’s ‘I Quit Sugar’ cookbook at my friend’s place and realised that it’s not about eliminating everything sweet from your life, but rather about replacing the high fructose, processed sugars with stuff that… um… is not (processed, that is).

So with that in mind, I share with you my latest creation. Someone else may have designed this recipe elsewhere, but I haven’t seen it. I say this because I recently read an outraged food blogger talking about how their recipes had been ‘stolen’ (posted without credit) by other bloggers. (You’ll notice that I tend to attribute my inspiration and sources, must be the academic coming out). My friend Resa was telling me the other day about a ‘life loaf’, which is basically a type of seedy, fruity, nutty bread filled with lots of good stuff and no bad stuff. I really like the idea of it but, when I looked in my cupboard, realised that I wasn’t in a position to attempt it. However, we did have a big box of medjool dates and some very ripe bananas, so I went from there. Apologies in advance but I can’t post pictures right now, but things should be good shortly…

Banana, date and maple loaf

You will need:

1 overflowing cup of dates, chopped coarsely

1 cup water

90 g butter, margarine or (probably but I haven’t tried it) coconut oil

1/4 cup maple syrup

2 eggs

1 3/4 cups self-raising flour, sifted (as usual, I used gluten-free flour)

2 ripe bananas, mashed

1. Preheat your oven to 180C. Line a loaf tin (I never bother with greasing it, cos I love that baking paper stuff)

2. In a medium saucepan, put dates and water. Cook over low-medium heat, stirring regularly, until they go thick and jam-like. I like to leave it at about the thickness of thick yoghurt (not too runny, but not toooo thick).

3. Stir in the butter. The dates are nice and hot, so it should melt pretty quickly. Stir it well. Let it cool for a little while.

4. Working quickly, add the maple syrup. Then add the eggs and beat them in. If you go too slowly, they’ll start to cook. Not such a big bad deal but if you can make sure that they are spread through the date mix before that happens.

5. Stir in the flour and mashed bananas. The mix should be pretty thick by now, but not so the spoon will stand up in the mix. If it does, add about 1/4 cup of milk, or enough to make the mix like a fairly stiff cake batter. When I post my photos, you should get a sense of how you want it to look.

6. Pour it into the prepared tin and place in oven. Bake for about 60-70 minutes or until it’s lovely and brown. Please note that if you stick a skewer in to test the cake, it won’t come out perfectly clean; this is a pretty dense cake.

7. Eat it! It’s especially nice when it’s hot but if you cut it into fairly small pieces, it’s delicious when cold too.

As an aside, I thought my kids would turn their noses up at this – but they, and our neighbour’s kids, couldn’t get enough of it. I guess it was sweet enough!

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New babies, tricky toddlers, and hungry adults: Yummy scrummy muesli cookies…

A few weeks ago, I was visiting my parents in the ‘country’. I say ‘country’ and not country because they aren’t really anywhere really rural, but rather they live in a small town on the beach – but it’s hours (and hours… and hours, if you ask my kids) of driving away. Because it’s so far away, we only get down there a few times a year (it is hard to deal with seven hours of ‘how many minutes til we are at Nan’s?’ ‘I’m bored/tired/my legs are sore’ or general ‘waaaaaahhhhh’. This means that when we are there, I try to catch up with lots of people – even though I moved out of home over 20 years ago (gulp!), I still have friends in my home town; my siblings also all live nearby. This last visit, I was lucky to meet a brand new baby; he was actually 2 or 3 weeks old, but had been born a few weeks early, so it was near enough to brand new in my estimation. Of course, the Bubaloo doesn’t like me even touching other babies, so I just got to admire from afar, but the new one was delicious anyway. My youngest sister, TK, got a group of our friends with little ones together for a play (toddlers and preschoolers) and chitty chat (mums and dads) over morning tea.

One of the things with brand new babies is that they don’t sleep much – or at least, they don’t sleep much when they are meant to (like in the night) but then sleep lots when you want them awake. So mummies and daddies end up pretty tired, and therefore a pick-me-up is in order. If you’re breastfeeding, like TK, the new mum and I, the challenge is finding something that’s going to do the trick and give you a little energy boost, without being terribly bad for you or the baby. While coke or coffee might help with the energy spurt for mum, the same energy boost isn’t great for baby. I’m not sure about other breastfeeding mums but I have found that, when I’m nursing, I have a ridiculous sweet tooth, even more than at other times. As sugar isn’t really that great for you, I try to find other ways to satisfy the sugar craving without having a ton of the white stuff. That’s where these cookies come in.

This recipe is a true adaptation of one in a Woman’s Weekly cookbook. Many things have been substituted – I’ve included the original ingredients in parentheses in case you prefer that – as I was trying to ensure that it was low sugar, nut free, and that they would use everyday ingredients that I could find in my mum’s pantry. Since we got home, I’ve made them about once a week; they never last very long. As soon as my partner sees them, his eyes light up and he chomps down about six of them without drawing breath. I hope you find them as good as he does!

Yum Scrum Muesli Cookies

You will need:

1 cup rolled oats

1 cup gluten-free plain flour (you can use any sort of flour you have)

1/3 cup caster sugar (the original recipe uses 1 cup)

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 cup sultanas or mixed dried fruit (or dried cranberries)

2/3 cup shredded coconut (I used this in place of most of the sugar)

1/3 cup finely chopped dried apricots

1/2 cup pepitas / pumpkin seeds (or slivered almonds)

125g butter

2 tbsp pure maple syrup (or golden syrup)

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbsp boiling water

1. Preheat oven to 150C. Line oven trays with baking paper.

2. Combine oats, flour, sugar, cinnamon, dried fruit, coconut and pepitas in a large bowl.

3. Melt butter with maple syrup over low heat. In a small cup, combine bicarb soda and boiling water, then add to the butter mix. It will go a little bubbly. Next stir this into the dry ingredients (it should still be warm).

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4. Roll tablespoons of mixture into balls (don’t be too fussy about making them perfect), place on trays about 5 cm apart and flatten slightly with your fingers.

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5. Bake for about 20 minutes. Let cool on trays before you eat them – if you try to eat them while they are warm, they’ll just fall apart in your hands (trust me on this!)

Then let Mr Kookaburra watch you all gobble them up 😉Image

Sunday riches: feasting at Nigina Express

At the moment, I’m preparing a workshop to run with our PhD students on writing. I enjoy writing; that’s part of the reason why I decided to blog about my (culinary) life. Blogging is also a good way to work my writing out – kind of like a writing gym; each sentence is a set, each paragraph a circuit. But I think that writing isn’t just writing: there’s an art and a craft to it. Joanna Penn at the Creative Penn says that this is an important distinction: “Art is subjective, its beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder … but craft is objective. There is a right way and a wrong way to craft” (http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2011/09/05/art-craft-writing/). She further indicates that the craft is functional, while art is about beauty.

If we turn to the kitchen, these same notions apply. Some people cook in a way that is functional; for them, cooking is craft. I fall firmly into this camp; for me, cooking is a type of alchemy, bringing together different elements to make something functional. For other people, cooking is both craft and art. I don’t think cooking cannot incorporate craft, because it’s always functional: at the end of the day, you want it to be something that someone can eat and enjoy. But for this latter group of people, cooking is also art; it’s about creating something beautiful, pleasing to the senses (particularly sight, smell, and taste).

My friend, Regina, is one of these arty cooking people. She prepares beautiful menus, regardless of whether she is making things that are complicated or simple. Given her love for Nigella (Lawson), it’s unsurprising that her is known as ‘Nigina Express’ 😉

Yesterday afternoon, we were lucky enough to head over to Nigina Express for a bit of alfresco feasting (sounds much better than ‘scoffing myself in my friend’s backyard’!). While H paddled in the pool and the Bubaloo grooved to ‘Gangnam Style’ (and can now do the dance, thanks to lovely 10 year old D), I photographed the three family friendly courses: Pigs in Blankets, Chicken with Greek herb sauce, and flourless chocolate cake. The first two are courtesy of Nigella Lawson, and the third is out of Regina’s recipe book!

Pigs in blankets with mustard dipping sauce (they’re also good with tomato sauce)

You will need:

2 sheets defrosted puff pastry

1 egg

16 frankfurters

1. Preheat the oven to 220C. Roll out the sheets of puff pastry to make it a bit thinner, to make one long side. Cut the rectangle into 1/4s, then cut each rectangle in half lengthwise, to give 8 small pastry strips.

2. Beat the egg in a small bowl and paint each pastry section with the egg wash. Sit a frankfurter horizontally on the side of one pastry strip and roll it up until it just seals. Do this with all frankfurters/pastry.

3. Cut each rolled frankfurter into 4 small pieces, squeezing the pastry around the sausage as you go. Place on a lined baking tray. Repeat with the other sheet of pastry.

4. Paint the franks in the egg wash and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.

Mustard dipping sauce: In a bowl, mix together 100g wholegrain mustard, 100g Dijon mustard and 2 tbsp sour cream.

YUM Yum yum…

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Chicken with Greek herb sauce

You will need:

12 chicken thighs

juice of 1 lemon

4 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 200C. Place the chicken thighs (skin side up if they have skin on) in a roasting tin, then pour over the lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and roast for 45 minutes.

Greek herb sauce: 500ml plain Greek yoghurt, 4 large/6 small spring onions, 1 green chilli (deseeded), 1 clove peeled garlic (crushed), 1/2 cucumber (finely diced), 3 tablespoons each of chopped fresh coriander, mint and/or dill, salt and pepper. Put all ingredients together in a bowl and mix to combine. Season to taste.

Serve with baked potatoes

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Flourless chocolate cake

This cake has the most gooey yummy centre; we can’t get enough! Ingredients are in italics.

1. Melt together 250g chocolate and 250g unsalted butter. Cool and set aside.

2. Whisk 6 egg whites until stiff. Set aside.

3. Whisk 6 egg yolks with 3/4 cup castor sugar, 1/4 cup light brown sugar, then add the chocolate mixture. Fold in 1/2 cup almond meal, 3 tbsp flour and 1 tbsp egg white mixture. Fold in remaining egg white mixture.

4. Bake in a 23cm cake pan at 190C for 25-30 minutes, or until the cake is cooked but still has a slight wobble.

At Nigina Express, this cake is served with persian fairy floss – H’s favourite! Try and stop after 1 piece!

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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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