Friday, July 29, 2011

The trials of the modern bookseller

While I have great sympathy for my colleagues selling new books who have to compete against the giants of Amazon and Book Depository with its 'free shipping' (which I am certain is factored into the book price), I have never really felt threatened by either. 99% of my stock is used/second-hand and often long out of print, areas in which Book Depository doesn't deal. As a secondhand book dealer, what has most impacted upon my trade, aside from the general economic malaise, is the high Aussie dollar plus the expensive shipping rates from Australia Post which have ensured that overseas orders, once a mainstay of the business, have all but dried up.

I have however been musing on the change in culture and expectations that mega-booksellers like BD and A may create in the book-buying public. This was brought home to me this morning when I received a complaint about a book which the customer said she had expected to be new (it was printed in 2004 so little chance of that I pointed out) that it was too expensive and she could buy it online cheaper (actually not so, its very hard to find), but what really irked me was the statement: "I am not happy at being charged $12 (actually it was $US12, so I received only $11.27) for a book to be sent within Australia when I can get it sent from overseas for free." Now as I explained to said unhappy customer, aside from the fact that this book is not available from any bookseller offering free postage, it was sent in an Australia Post satchel which costs me $11.15. That means that the double wrapping (in foam and brown paper at a cost of around 50c) and time to prepare the book, the invoice, pack the book and take it down to the PO was priced in this instance at 12c. I'll let you do the math shall I? In fact the cost for shipping should have been closer to $US 14, what with the recent Auspost rises and the sudden leap in the AUD , but if said unhappy customers balks at $US12 she's going to be ropable with $US14 isn't she?

This is the thing that most worries me about the current rise of bookbuying on the internet - that the fewer bricks-and-mortar bookshops there are to buy books from (even if they are a Borders), the more readers will be forced online to do business, and the more they will expect to be able to buy dirt cheap books and have them shipped free by all booksellers, not just the McBook Depository, and frankly there is noone in Australia who can compete. I know some booksellers are trying to offer free shipping, but having done the math, I'd have to raise the prices of my books to cover it - either that or close the shop and retreat back to online only selling!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Help my ice-cream won't thicken: Salted Butter Caramel Icecream

Have I mentioned that I love making ice-cream? Ever since picking up an ice-cream maker for $8 at an op shop 2 years ago, I haven't needed much of an excuse to try out a new flavour. Pistachio Praline is a favorite, the tiramisu flavour I created is always a hit, and eggnog icecream goes beautifully with plum pudding at Christmas.

My latest flavour attempt is related to my other new favourite thing to make- caramel. I found a great sounding recipe for Salted Butter Caramel Icecream on guru David Liebovitz's delicious blog. I brought the sugar to a dark amber colour, then added a 1/2 tsp of Murray river salt, salted butter, cream and a cup of milk. 5 egg yolks were incorporated and the mix returned to the heat to thicken to a creamy, luscious brown custard. Adding the custard to a 2nd cup of milk, I popped it into the fridge overnight to chill and then churned it in my icecream maker until the custard thickens into...thickens into....thickens... into.... Wait, I've made icecream many times before, I don't tolerate failure, thicken damn you!

After an hour of churning my custard remained just that, a custard. Deciding I hadn't chilled the bowl enough, I took it over to daughter Hayley's flat where my icecream sandwiched between Dutch stroopwaffels was to be the dessert to a Mexican dinner (mmm pulled chicken on homemade tortillas). Their icecream churn bowl is left in the freezer in case they get the sudden urge to make icecream, so she'll churn it for me. An hour later I get an SMS - "Houston we have a problem...." The custard is still, stubbornly, custard. As a stop-gap measure we put the custard in the freezer and had a semi-frozen dessert - delicious flavours but not ice-cream.

Determined to try again I trolled the internet, checking out messageboards for "Help my icecream won't thicken" for a clue. Everything I read talked about whether the custard was left overnight ( it was) whether the bowl was completely frozen solid (ditto) whether the amount of custard was too much for the churn (no, exactly what was specified), whether the custard was thick enough (yes), only egg yolks used (yup), and found little to enlighten me. So I went back over the steps in my mind and suddenly it hit me: Low-fat milk! We always use low-fat milk and although I had added extra cream as I usually do to compensate, the milk I had accidentally bought was actually no-fat Physical. D'oh.

On Sunday night then I made a whole new batch of custard, using full-cream milk, following every step religiously, chilling both custard and bowl for 24 hours and then on Monday put it to the test. My custard began to do its thing, but at the end of the churning it was still softer than usual. A couple of hours in the freezer produced a lovely final product though:
Having revisited my high school physics I now suspect that the extra salt, while small, probably also had an effect on the final product.

David Leibovitz doesn't mention any problems with the salt and possibly it is the case that my small domestic icecream churn doesn;t have temperatures low enough to counteract what salt there is.

So now I have an excuse to make another batch, except this time without the salt.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Winter's bounty: the Queen Vic market isn't what it used to be.

Mmmm I love the possibilities of planning a lunch in winter: Shall I make a Bouillabaisse-inspired fish pie? a rabbit and mushroom pie? An oxtail pie? Shall I serve it with smashed potatoes or a celeriac mash? What about dessert? A steaming crumble or something a bit more unusual?

At 6 this morning I headed in to the city to the Queen Victoria market in search of rabbit, good seafood, baby vegetables and the makings for a bastardised charcuterie/antipasto plate. The first two were easy - the meat and fish hall at the QV continues to field a host of top quality butchers and fishmongers with an almost overwhelming selection. I really have to know what I want before I get there otherwise one of two things happens: I buy more meat and fish than I need or I buy nothing at all because I can't make up my mind. I've written before about the stall with beautiful cuts of goat, and next time I go I am determined to buy me some 'variety meats' (as the Americans call offal). Two bunnies? Done. Some nice local prawns and scallops? Done. Baby vegetables? Not so much. I wandered the three aisles of fruit and veges and was struck by the blandness of the offerings.  With few exceptions, the fruit and veg were mostly the varieties I could buy at Woolworths, just cheaper: the same apples, oranges, potatoes, beetroot, repeated - stall after stall after stall. The exceptions were a stall offering exotic mushrooms, and a couple of vendors selling things like raddichio, baby cauliflower etc. I was so uninspired. Where were the heirloom beetroot varieties I had heard were now in season? Why was everyone selling Queensland strawberries - big and tasteless? I know I'm showing my age, but I remember when the fruit and veg aisles of the QV outnumbered those selling Australian souvenirs and knock-off bags. When walking the produce aisle was an inspiration to cook. Now I suspect that many of the small growers, and those with more unusual offerings, are off at the inner city farmer's markets, which are on my to-do list. (My opinion on some of the local Farmer's Markets could fill a blog! Lots of jams and biscuits, but very little fresh produce)

Moping home with my small bag of goodies, I opened the shop and popped in to Fred's (the Kallista Biodynamic Market) and wouldn't you know it - right  on my doorstep were tiny jewel-like brussel sprouts and baby fennel to make my Sunday lunch complete. Over at the Kallista market I picked up some of the freshest sourdough I've had in a while, dropped off my knives to be sharpened and enjoyed the gorgeous winter sunshine over a coffee and the paper. Now if I could just get someone to sell rabbit, goat and other (not really so) exotica nearby, I won't have to schlepp into the city whenever the urge to cook them arises!