Sunday, May 13, 2012

It's chestnut time

27 years ago, when we first moved up to 'The Hills', having a chestnut tree in your backyard was like money in the bank. For a couple of years the proceeds of chestnut sales to an inner-city Italian grocer and at a roadside stall even paid our council rates. You can still see groves of chestnut trees all over the Dandenong Ranges, and around ANZAC Day convoys of cars still come up to to forage for them, but the advent of huge orchards in North-Eastern Victoria as well as cheap imports eventually drove the price of chestnuts down to a point where the return was outstripped by the tedious (and painful) harvesting. I was never a huge fan of the nut, we made chestnut soup a few times and David likes to roast them and eat them.

 This week I was tempted to revisit chestnuts by a recipe in this week's Epicure for Torta di Castagna e Cioccolato (Chocolate and Chestnut Torte) from the River Cafe Cookbook . Having bought 1 kilo of chestnuts from a roadside stall in Olinda ($10 - not much more than they were 27 years ago) I set  aside a morning to prepare them, and just as well as I had forgotten what a tedious task it is. Following Stephanie's advice in The Cook's Companion I first slit a cross in the chestnuts and then boiled them for 15 minutes. After this I spent an hour peeling off  the outer and inner skins ( periodically replacing the pot back on the heat since as the chestnut cools the inner skin clings on to the nut), ending up with split thumbnails and very sore fingers and around 600gm of meat.

Thankfully the cake itself was easy to prepare. The recipe called for the chestnuts, chocolate and almonds to be coarsely chopped in the food processor which made the resulting cake textured and chunky, with pieces of chocolate through it rather than an overall chocolateyness. The resulting torte was very moist, took about 15 minutes longer to cook at 150 than the recipe indicated and had a complex, nutty flavour to it. The article accompanying the recipe said that the lemon zest was the key, but I felt that it rather dominated the end product. Probably not one that I would rush back to making, but it made a nice addition to the Mother's Day repast.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Win a 3-day pass to the ANZAAB Antiquarian Book Fair

Vintage Cookbooks will have a display at the Australia and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers at the State Library of NSW in Sydney from 10th - 12th November. For the chance to win a free 3-day pass to the event, 'Like' us on Facebook via the link to the right of this page, send your details to and we'll put you in the draw.

Bouchon Lemon Tarts

Back in 2008 during a trip to San Francisco to visit my son, I made a pilgrimage to Yountville in the Napa Valley. It was a pilgrimage because the small town (population 3000) is home to more than its fair share of world-class restaurants, specifically Thomas Keller world-class restaurants. Along with the renowned French Laundry (where I couldn't get a booking), there is also Bouchon bistro (where I had lunch that day)and Ad Hoc (which is on my must-do lists for the next trip). The culinary highlight for the day however was the (also Thomas Keller owned) Bouchon Bakery's Lemon Tart. Not your usual ho-hum bakery fare, this was a velvety classic sabayon with just the right balance of tart and sweet in an unusual pine-nut crust which added a nutty and ever-so slightly savoury note.

I've always been keen to recreate the tart at home and after finding the recipe on Epicurious (extracted from Keller's cookbook Bouchon) I had a crack at it today, and was particularly impressed ( if I say so  myself) with the end result. While the pine-nut crust is expensive to make (I bought my pine nuts in bulk at Costco), the quantities given make a large batch which can be frozen. Processing 300 grams of pine-nuts was made much easier by the Kitchenaid food processor David gave me for my birthday (I dropped so many hints he would have had to have been completely dense not to have got the message!) Although the recipe says to press the pastry into the tin, I found that once chilled it was actually possible to roll between two sheets of baking paper and get a much thinner, crisper and neater result. The sabayon is amazing - quite a lengthy process if, as I did, you don't keep the water in the bottom of your double boiler at a good simmer - but really worth the time standing over the stove. It was light, smooth and almost mousse-like after it had cooled. Great for the lemon tart, but I can see all sorts of flavour variations in the future: lime, blood orange, lemongrass, Pedro Ximinez etc etc. It would also make a great dessert on its own if you can't be bothered with pastry, spoon into a martini glass and serve with a crisp savoiardi biscuit, biscotti, or tuille. Because I didn't have time to set the tarts aside for 1 hour, and also because I don't have a broiler/griller in the Aga, I sprinkled the top with sugar and caramelized it with my Aldi blow torch. Maybe not as neat and professional looking as the Bouchon version, but enough of a standout to add it to my regular repertoire.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A visitor from Canada

Monday was a quiet day in the shop. Close to midday two women came in and I did my usual meet and greet when one said "I've come all the way from Winnipeg Canada to visit you". Turns out Zena was almost the first customer I had when I bought the business from Barbara Fisher back in June 2006. She had accumulated most of the volumes in the Time-Life Good Cook series and wanted to complete the collection with a couple of the hard-to-find ones. I was thrilled to get my first 'big' order from overseas. Zena was in Melbourne visiting friends who tracked down the shop and brought her up for a day trip to the Dandenongs. They had a lovely time browsing and then headed off for the Rhododendron Gardens. Now I can honestly say people come from all over the world to visit my shop!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Flourless Blood Orange & Pomegranate Cakes

Sunday has always been baking day for me, and having the kids come over for afternoon tea today gave me just the excuse for a High Tea. Chocolate Whoopie Pies, chicken and salmon & cream cheese sandwiches, vegetable frittata, my never-fail scones & some mini Flourless Blood Orange & Pomegranate Cakes.
This was an adaptation of several recipes and was inspired by an episode of Masterchef UK.


125 g ground almonds
60g semolina
225gms sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
Zest of 1 and juice of 2 large blood oranges
1 blood orange sliced thinly into rings
5 large eggs
200ml light olive oil
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
1 pomegranate (optional)
Generous pinch saffron
100g clear honey.

Heat the oven to 180 degrees C. Oil the base of one 23cm ring tin or 8 mini bundt tins, or 12-hole muffin tin.

Prepare the syrup and candied orange slices by combining the juice of the 2 oranges with honey, 1 tsp pomegranate molasses and saffron in a small saucepan. When boiling, drop blood orange slices into the syrup, turn heat down and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Set aside while preparing the cake. (optional, add the seeds of one pomegranate to the syrup)

Put the ground almonds into a frying pan and toast over a medium heat, stirring frequently until evenly pale brown. Leave to cool, then mix with semolina, caster sugar and baking powder.

Combine the zest of one blood orange with the eggs, 1 tablespoon of pomegranate molasses and oil. Beat well and then fold into the dry ingredients. The mixture is very liquid. Pour into prepared tin(s) and bake for 35-40 mins ( 1 large tin); 15-20 mins (small tins) or until risen and golden to the touch. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Leaving the cake in the tin, prick all over with a skewer. Remove the orange slices from the syrup and pour the syrup over the warm cake while it is still warm.

When cool, turn the cake onto a serving plate, decorate with the candied orange slices and serve with creme Fraiche or plain Greek yoghurt. Can also be served warm.

Serendipitous Discoveries & History Geeks

In my previous life as a historian my absolute favourite task was research. I loved nothing more than disappearing down the rabbit-holes of libraries or the internet to track down people or events, and these days I continue to get much satisfaction from researching recipes, books & their authors. I recently sold a 1937 set of menus from a guest-house in Marysville (sadly now lost like many others to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires) and in the process of creating a history of them for their buyer spent hours on Trove reading newspaper articles and advertisements and sourcing contemporary photos.

Research like this is always throwing up surprises and serendipitous discoveries worthy of a work of fiction. With the guest house it was the discovery that an earlier proprietress went missing while bushwalking (although some newspaper reports suggested at an 'unsettled mind') and her remains not retrieved until bushfires in 1932 uncovered them. Soon after her estate was settled, her sister, who had taken over the running of the guest house, also died from self-inflicted burns. For me the serendipity here is that it was this particular guest-house whose menus came into my hands, rather than another with a less 'colourful' past. It is, rather fancifully I know, as if this story was waiting for someone like me to unearth it.

Today I had another of those moments while cataloguing a collection of early twentieth century cookbooks I had bought. In the collection is a very early edition of Household Cookery issued by the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy and compiled by Dorothy Giles who was a well-known teacher of cookery in Melbourne. So early is this edition that it was hand-typed and bound with one section bound upside down. While paging through it I noted a typo - the recipe "To Prepare Cake Dripping" called for 8ozs cod fat (rather than cold fat). Finishing that task I moved on to the small mountain of ephemera that has been sitting waiting for cataloguing for months. Amongst them was a gorgeous 1930s booklet for Bakewell flour and dried goods. On page 2 my eye was caught by the wording of the first recipe "To Prepare Cake Dripping" and, you guessed it, one of the ingredients was "8ozs cod fat" . Further checking revealed that yes this recipe was word-for-word the same as that in Household Cookery. So now the question for me is whether this is an uncredited work by Miss Dorothy Giles, who also authored several other advertising booklets, or did the compiler simply nick the cake dripping recipe from Household Cookery? Mmmm the fact that this is so interesting makes me officially a history geek!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Anyone for tea?

Yesterday I had a birthday treat from my eldest - a surprise High Tea (why do I always feel the need to capitalise that?) at "Where a Girl Goes"  in Collingwood. My lovely spouse minded the shop for me, and while it was a dreadful rainy, grey day in the hills, down in East Melbourne where Hayley lives the sky was blue and the sun was warm. The crowds of Essendon and Carlton supporters streaming towards the MCG lent a festive air to the day, even if they deprived me of my usual parking spot.

"Where a Girl Goes" is also an outlet for Cristina Re stationery and true to its name is a real girly indulgent affair with French Provincial decor and everything served in delicate crockery. I had to laugh at the footy supporter who came in and asked if they did takeaway coffee, which they did, but when he left it was with a pink flowery take away cup and I'm sure he was thinking "Got to finish this coffee and dispose of the cup before my mates see me" (Although he was a Carlton supporter, so possibly a metrosexual completely comfortable with it!)

We had a wonderful couple of hours of chat with bottomless cups of tea and a tower of the requisite finger sandwiches and tiny cupcakes and macaron. There is such a revival of High Tea in Melbourne at the moment which brings together lots of recent trends - cupcakes, macaron, tea, anything vintage and retro. I think it's a lovely idea and a great way to spend an afternoon. There is just something 'civilised' about the format, that seems to encourage slowing down, taking some time and enjoying the company of friends. Doing it at home would be even better - it can be quite an expensive excursion. The advantage over a dinner party or lunch is that everything can be done ahead of time and the hostess can be free to enjoy the day. Coincidentally as I write this post I have a customer browsing the shelves who has started a business catering high teas in people's homes, which would be even better for the hostess!

When we stopped off in Singapore on our way back from Europe in April this year, we were treated to the ultimate in High Teas at that bastion of British colonialism, Raffles Hotel in the glorious setting of the Tiffin Room, with requisite palms and slowly revolving fans. A harpist played as white-coated waiters looked after our needs. The tower of sandwiches and cakes was only the beginning as Raffles also has a generous buffet of goodies including yum cha style dumplings and lots of fresh tropical fruit. A truly decadent experience, only improved by a Simgapore Sling!