what i ate for christmas

Now that Christmas is done and dusted, we can all get back to blogging.  But first,  I need to get back into the habit of knowing what day of the week it is.

So before I do anything that strenuous, and before I got into any such detail of my Christmas creations, I will leave you with a little teasing taster of what’s to come..

Breakfast begun with champagne and toast; I know that you’re thinking toast doesn’t really constitute a fanciful meal. It does when the array includes walnut and date conserve, confit duck, gorgonzola, roasted tomatoes and honeyed ricotta.

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The afternoon meal included a lemon-crusted lamb rack beside a bundle of home-grown new potatoes. These were accompanied by a fresh, zingy salsa verde and pungent olive tapenade. Rounding out the meal with a salad of roast butternut, crunchy spiced almonds and creamy homemade feta and button mushrooms stuffed with blue cheese. Safe to say, we were all in dire need of a nap afterwards.

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The day ended with chocolate-coated strawberries, salted caramel chocolate tart and muffin puddings. All while sipping fresh, minty limoncello cocktails.

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All in all, a fun, relaxed day in the sun, lying by the pool and gorging ourselves on chocolates… all without anyone throwing a plate or any other object at another family member… this year.

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christmas countdown: stollen

The meaning of Christmas varies depending on where you are in the world. I’m not just talking about the way you celebrate it, or what it means to you – spiritually or otherwise. In every corner of the world, Christmas varies on all sensory levels; the way to looks, tastes and sounds, and the way it smells.

In New Zealand, a typical Christmas is a barbeque of sizzling sausages and an ice cold beer in the evening sun. On the flipside, my Christmases in France revolved around roasted goose and mulled wine, Christmas sweaters and staring out the window at the dreary, grey gloom. I know which one I prefer but here is something about a winter Christmas that is leaps and bounds ahead of the antipodes in festivity.

And that is the Christmas smells.

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This year I have found myself craving those warm, comforting smells; cinnamon, cloves, pine needles and ginger. Instead of brewing up a batch of mulled wine – which I didn’t think would go well with the temperature in the mid-twenties, I decided to try my hand at making stollen.

Stollen is a dense, festive bread from Germany, it is full of nuggets of sweetness and all of the flavours, textures and emotions associated with Christmas. Traditionally made with almonds, candied fruit and lemon zest, I decided to mix things up a bit by substituting in cashews, crystalized ginger and dried citrus peel.

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First things first, you need to get your dried fruit nice and drunk. I mixed a cup of raisins and a cup of candied ginger and fruit peel, chopped, with three tablespoons of Pimm’s – or orange juice if you’re not one for baking with booze. You could also use rum but I like the rich, fruity undertones of Pimm’s and use it in cooking often.

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Next up is the yeasty sponge; combine a tablespoon of yeast powder with ¼ cup of warm water, ¾ cup of warm milk, a teaspoon of clover honey and a cup of flour. Mix into a thick paste, cover with cling film and leave the yeast to do its thing. If your house isn’t too warm, then sit the bowl next to a heater for 30 minutes or until the surface of the mixture is speckled with bubbles.

In a separate bowl, whisk one egg and combine with ¼ cup of honey, ½ cup of butter and a pinch of salt. Toast ½ cup of chopped cashew nuts and add to the mixture, along with ½ teaspoon of nutmeg and 2 cups of flour.

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Add the yeast mixture and the boozy fruit and combine into a thick, wet dough. Slowly add another 1 ½ cup of flour until the dough isn’t so sticky. Knead for five minutes of a floured surface.

Once the dough has come together, roll it in a little vegetable oil and leave to rise. What I hate about so many bread recipes is that it always says the dough will double in size; mine never does and it makes me nervous for the end product. Nervous without cause, in fact.

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Divide the dough in half and roll into flat ovals. Brush the surfaces with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. I used granulated sugar, but you could use icing sugar or even a layer of marzipan. Fold the ovals over on themselves and knit the edges together, making sure no air is trapped inside and the seams are tightly secured so they don’t rip open in the oven like one of mine did!

Leave to rise for another 45minutes before baking at 190°C for 25 minutes.

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As soon as you take the loaves out of the oven, baste them again in melted butter and dust with a thick layer of icing sugar which will melt and be absorbed into the breads outer crust. Delicious!

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Serve it hot as it is, or cold next to a steaming cup of coffee. On the rare chance you have anything left past a day or two, smear each side of a thick slice in butter and pan-fry until crisp and golden. A decadent, toasty holiday treat!

ode to the pomegranate

I had never really come across pomegranates before I relocated to Europe and was astounded by everyone’s obsession with them. Round and regal, with skin a strong, matte red, filled with tiny pellets; tart in flavour and vibrant in colour, pomegranate was this week’s pick from the market.

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The form of pomegranate that people are most familiar with is grenadine syrup. Dark pink and sickly sweet, to say the French are obsessed with it is an understatement! A guzzle of syrup topped with anything from water, lemonade or even beer is many people’s idea of a thirst-quenching treat.

Me, I prefer my pomegranates the natural way; popping a handful of the little red raindrops in my mouth – a million little explosions with every crunch. All it takes is a bit of a whack on the shell with the back of a wooden spoon!

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What I have also found interesting about Europe’s love of this interesting fruit, is how much it has been absorbed into architecture – in particularly in the south of Spain.

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The word pomegranate is derived from a bunch of Latin words essentially translating into apple of Granada, and oh, how Granada has taken that name and ran with it!

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Patterns painted on buildings and printed along tiles, buildings and fences topped with crowned bronze orbs – an elegant yet quirky touch to theming an entire region.

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fennel, potato and aubergine anna

After turning my fennel fronds into a fresh and fragrant salad the other day, I had to come up with a way of using the actual bulb… shouldn’t that be the other way around?

What I love about fennel, and similar  vegetables like garlic and leek, is that they jam pack any dish with so much flavour but it’s never too overpowering which makes it perfect for fennel, potato and aubergine anna.

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This receipe is my fancified version of potatoes anna; a light French dish of potatoes baked in butter – similar to a potato bake, but I decided to jazz mine up with some fennel and eggplant.

Begin by thinly slicing some potatoes, I used about six large ones, as well as one eggplant. Salt the eggplant slices and set aside to draw out the moisture and bitterness.

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Roughly chop a bulb of fennel, similar to how you would an onion or leek and evenly spread it along the bottom of a large baking dish.

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Rinse off the eggplant and combine them in a large bowl with the discs of potato. Now is your chance to add any extra flavours – I added the chopped leaves of one sprig of mint and a handful of fresh parsley leaves, along with a good crack of salt and pepper.

Layer this mixture on top of the bed of fennel in as much chaos or order as you see fit, it works better if the discs are all laid flat.

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Now for the pièce-de-résistance; melt ½ a cup of butter (or any combination of butter and olive oil) and drizzle it over top of the heaped vegetables. Place the dish into a hot oven and cook for 30 minutes.

The beauty of this dish is the variation in textures you will end with; a bed of soft and steamy fennel, a layer of crisp potato slices on top of a firm bed of juicy potatoes and soft, creamy eggplant, a smattering of herbs throughout and a rich buttery sauce. The flavours meld together perfectly and the excess butter absorbs the aniseed bite of the fennel and the minty freshness.

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Serve hot on a winter’s night or cold with a fresh salad as a summertime lunch. The flavours are full enough to act as a standalone dish, but subtle enough to work aside fish, chicken or even beef.

spiced, sweet stuffed eggplants

I originally had planned to write a post on eggplant steaks but then I found this recipe and it seemed like a way better idea.

I recently bought myself a copy of Ghillie Başan’s book, Flavours of the Middle East – two-for-one deals always get the better of me – and it is filled with beautiful dishes, vibrant colours and interesting stories. Stuffed eggplants was my first dish, in a long list that I wanted to experiment with. They are a great combination of savoury aubergines, sweet dried fruit and a good kick of subtle spice.

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To begin, I mixed a diced onion with 150grams of minced beef – Ghillie’s recipe uses lamb but I wanted something a little leaner. I also added a tablespoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon each of cumin and nutmeg and a few teaspoons of brown sugar. I also added two tablespoons of dried cranberries for sweetness, two chopped dates for a caramel undertone and two tablespoons of pine nuts for a little crunch. I mixed it all together with half a can of diced tomatoes, a big grind of pepper and a pinch of dried thyme, and set it aside so the flavours could meld together.

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After bathing three partially peel aubergines in salt water for 15 minutes, I gently pan fried them in equal parts oil and butter until the skin was glossy and the flesh changed to a pale shade of yellow.

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I slit each aubergine down the middle lengthways, through as much of the flesh as possible, without puncturing the skin on the other side. With a tremendous balance of delicacy and might, I prised the eggplants open and compactly filled them with the meat mixture.

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I transported my eggplant boats into a bright red oven tray and doused them in the juice of a lemon, a healthy gulp of olive oil, a crack of sugar and a bit of water mixed with a teaspoon of sugar.

I baked at 200°C for 50 minutes – the first 25 minutes with a layer of foil overtop, the rest of the time uncovered. I basted each of them with the juices once I removed the foil just to insure they were nice and moist.

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Perfect hot or cold, this dish doesn’t require any sides or special garnishes – they are delicious (both visually and to the tastebuds) just as they are!

 

fennel frond salad

We are officially in summer here in New Zealand and even though that doesn’t necessarily mean endless sunshine, it does mean that fresh, crisp salads are on my mind more and more.

Whenever I go to the market, I always try and buy something I don’t usually buy, there have been some failed new flavours but if you don’t open yourself up to new possibilities, you could miss the chance of finding a new favourite.

How philosophical.

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Fennel is my flavour of the month, and this week I purchased what is potentially the biggest fennel bulb known to man. Usually when people use fennel, they stick with the bulb and just throw everything else away. What a waste! The stalks can be used just like celery and I used the fronds to make a fragrant salad.

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Begin by slicing a carrot as thinly as possible with a grater or mandolin. Coat them with a whisper of olive oil and roast until cooked through and slightly crunchy.

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Next, remove the fronds from the fennel bulb, you can use it for a range of things, like this salad. I steamed the fronds for a couple of minutes to bring out the aniseed flavour, and it made the kitchen smell like liquorice!

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While the fronds were steaming, I sliced a couple of button mushrooms are doused them in a few teaspoons of the pickling liquid from my radishes.

After drying the fronds, I tossed them through some shredded lettuce. Add the mushrooms and pickling liquid with the frond salad, along with as many rondelles of pickled radish as you like.

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Add a dash of extra virgin olive oil and some fresh mint and parsley leaves, top with the carrot chips and you have yourself a colourful rainbow salad that’s bursting with so many flavours.

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It’s a perfect accompaniment to chicken, fish or red meat, or even by itself with a croute of crusty bread.

in a bit of a pickle: radishes

I have no opening statement for this post, because I have said it all before; I love pickling things. I just love it; I love the colours it creates and I love how it captures the flavours of a season in a jar, extending the life of the ingredients and the memories.

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Pickled radishes are a staple in my kitchen. They are a lovely juxtaposition of sweet and tangy and brighten up any dish they are strewn over top of.

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The process is so simple, and unlike the lemons I pickled a few months ago, the flavour is noticeably different even within an hour.

Slice a bunch of radishes as thinly as you can – either with a grater or a mandolin and pack them as tightly as you can into a glass jar.

Cover them with a tablespoon of sugar, another of salt and a third of olive oil. Top with a glug of apple cider vinegar – enough for all of the radishes to be covered.

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Shake it up and leave it to settle, the colour of the radishes will leach out into the liquid, colouring it a beautiful bright pink which will also be absorbed into the white flesh of the radishes.

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You can even experiment with what you add to the pickling solution. What’s your favourite way of doing it?

salted caramel chocolate brownie tart

Since we are in December now, it’s totally okay to start talking about Christmas, and by that, I mean what we are all planning to eat on Christmas. In my family I am put in charge of the menu each year and the pressure to start planning is applied as early as September.

Even though I like to use Christmas as a time to experiment with new recipes, I know there is a lot riding on everything coming off as a success. Desserts are always the area that make me the most anxious – it’s not as easy to wing it with something that requires a strict set of ingredients, so I decided to do a test run of my planned salted caramel chocolate brownie tart.

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The name of this recipe is a bit of a mouthful, and it’s just as much of a process making it – a chocolate biscuit base, a layer of gooey caramel topped with a rich, dark chocolate brownie and glazed with a layer of even richer chocolate ganache.

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I adapted a recipe from the Akaroa Cooking School and used a sweet pastry base for my test run because I had some I needed to get rid of and wasn’t sure if all of the chocolate was going to be a sensory overload.

While the pastry was blind baking, I heated a can of condensed milk with 75grams of butter and several tablespoons of honey. I also added a teaspoon of sea salt because I love that salty juxtaposition. Once the butter was melted and the condensed milk had morphed several shades darker, I poured it over top of the base and baked for 10 minutes at 170°C. The caramel comes out another shade darker and had thickened nicely.

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While the caramel was cooking I got started on the brownie – 150grams of melted butter, ½ cup of cocoa powder, ¾ cup of sugar combined to a thick paste. I whisked in two eggs and folded through a cup of flour, a pinch of salt and another of baking powder. This makes a rather thick mixture and since I want it to pour evenly over the caramel layer, I might thin it with a bit of water next time.

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I popped it back into the oven for another 20 minutes before leaving it to cool.

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The ganache is simple enough; ½ cup of warm cream and 200grams of dark chocolate poured over the cooled brownie and refrigerated until set.

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This slice of heaven is definitely a chocolate lover’s fantasy, and while the pastry base is a nice touch I think I will be making a chocolate base come Christmas time – in my mind, you can never have too much chocolate!

 

aquafaba meringues (how the internet lied)

I am not one for ‘health foods’ or self-enforced dietary ‘requirements’, I steer clear from trendy health regimes and stick to food that just tastes good. But I recently stumbled across a fad that was just too intriguing to pass by – aquafaba.

I know that it sounds a little like a low-impact form of exercise for senior citizens, but aquafaba is actually the salty, gelatinous brine that chickpeas are stored in. I have often pondered at how to use it; I attempt to be as zero waste as possible and chickpea brine was the one thing that I couldn’t find an appropriate use for. Cue vegan meringues…

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Aquafaba meringues are a great example of why you shouldn’t believe everything that the internet tells you; after scrolling through countless pictures of cute little tarts topped with crisp and egg-free meringue, I thought I was on to a fool proof new dessert. It appears I was wrong.

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First step – drain the liquid off of a can of chickpeas and eat the chickpeas for lunch. Next, whisk the brine until it forms firm peaks, like you would if you were making meringue in an ordinary universe. Surprisingly, it works – and as the liquid plumps up with air bubbles, the salty flavour seemingly evaporates.

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Whisk through ¾ cup of sugar and a pinch of baking soda until the sugar has dissolved and the meringue is nice an firm. Spoon dollops onto a tray of baking paper and bake for 30 minutes at 140°C. Or so they say…

I opened my oven, hoping to see a tray of crunchy white globes. Instead, I was greeted with this:

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A tray of sticky sugar syrup, amber in colour and bubbling at the surface. I don’t know if I hadn’t beaten the aquafaba long enough, or hadn’t added enough sugar. Maybe it can only be used like Italian meringue, or maybe the internet had lied to me. If anyone can help me with my vegan-induced dilemma, I am all ears!

virtual walking tours

Easing back into real life after a holiday is always tough, especially after an extended vacation of endless summer days in a sunny daze. What I find is a healthy alternative to pining for white-sanded beaches while curled up in a ball in a dark room is going on virtual tours of my favourite places on Google Maps.

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Portovenere

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Rugged and rocky beaches, twisting cobble roads and gelato stores on every corner; Portovenere is my favourite hidden Italian gem. It sits on a shagged outcrop, nestled high above the Mediterranean in Northern Italy – just down the road from the picturesque (and tourist-saturated) Cinque Terre. As the coast continues from Riomaggiore, the railway veers into La Spezia, taking the tourists with it, making a cramped bus trip the easiest way of reaching Portovenere. Snack on focaccia and breathe in the warm, salty air – if you’re lucky, you might even see a wedding in the shady piazza.

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Lisbon

Lisbon is a city of great variety; flat coastal promenades and buildings perched on hilltops, wide open plazas and windy little side streets. Essentially there is something for everyone. I love walking along Avenida Ribeira das Naus; watching the ferries crossing the harbour, revelling at the Praça do Comércio and visiting the markets. The best thing about visiting the city on street view is that you avoid all of the throngs of tourists!

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Vienna

One day in Vienna and you are without a doubt that that this city was once the centre of Europe; the opulence and elegance of each buildings’ façade is unlike anything I have ever seen. Even though it’s not as easy to virtually walk about the city as most other places, it is one of the easiest places in the world to just sit and stare at the chalk-white buildings and watch the world go by.