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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Friday, June 30, 2006

His Mother's Oatmeal Cookies

Still with the oats theme. Who can guess who's got a big old bag of horse chaff in their pantry??
I ordered a girly cookbook, "
Culinarytherapy - The Girl's Guide to Food for Every Mood", for a friend and was leafing through it this week. I felt like I hadn't baked anything for ages (patently untrue, but I'm happy to listen to my feelings) so this recipe for oatmeal cookies appealed. I had all the ingredients so I didn't have to step outside the house which, in the current Melbourne winter weather, is a Very Good Thing.

This oatmeal cookie recipe is found in the chapter called "When you're feeding the flame" or Dating Dishes. The story behind the name of these cookies goes thus:

"There's just something about an oatmeal cookie that says 'there, there now, honey, come and sit on my lap and tell Mommy where it hurts'. So go ahead, make a batch of these cookies, and then kiss it and make it all better."

Yeah, ok. Anyway, this mixture is easy to make up, but seemed a bit sloppy. I added more oats just in case. I dolloped blobs of the mixture onto the ungreased baking sheets it specified. And here's the rub: Beware of any recipe that involves ungreased baking sheets. No good can come of it. If you imagined that sentence spoken in a Muppets "Monsterpiece Theatre" voice with thunder in the background followed by wild cackling laughter, then you've got the idea. Every single cookie stuck hard and fast to the sheets and I had to attack them with knives and spatulas. There were many casualties in the fight. I'd like to say I disposed of them, but truth is that many broken bits ended up in my mouth.
So, yes, cookies that had crunchy edges and insides that were so soft they wanted to fall through the bars of the cooling rack. I think the cooking time was way off. In retrospect, 10-12 minutes wasn't enough, and I ended up with raw cookies. I've just come back from putting them back in the oven for another 10 minutes to crisp them up. They didn't have the heft I imagined; they're more of the light and delicate biscuit school. They have a good flavour, but they're very sweet - a bit too much for my taste. That was even with reducing the amounts of brown sugar, white sugar and maple syrup it requested. But with a few tweaks this could be a good recipe. Not sure I'd repeat it though - there are many thousands of oatmeal cookie recipes out there I can try next time.
Read on for the recipe:

Oatmeal Cookies
adapted from 'Culinarytherapy - A Girl's Guide to Food for Every Mood.'

3/4 cup margarine/butter
3/4 firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 granulated sugar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups rolled oats
1 cup flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda (bicarb)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup raisins, nuts and/or chocolate chips.

-Cream the butter, sugars and syrup in a large bowl. Add the egg, 1/4 cup water and vanilla and beat well.
-Add oats, flour, salt, baking soda and cinnamon and stir to combine.
-Stir in the raisins, nuts or chocolate chips.

-Drop the dough by teaspoons onto GREASED baking sheets and bake at 350 (175) for 15-20 minutes. Let cool on wire rack.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Fresh apple muesli

One of my worst bad habits is not eating breakfast. I know I should and I have sincere plans to do it, but every morning I can barely make it out of the house with both shoes on. Sitting down to a good breakfast almost nevery happens; I'll always go for the extra 10 minutes in bed!
When I do grab a few minutes to eat breakfast I'm a bit stuck for ideas. I don't like cereal or sweet foods in the morning- jams, honey, yoghurts....nope, I can't cope with that sugar injection first thing in the day. A muesli bar in the car on the way to work? Aieeee- my teeth hurt at the thought. And it's not enough to fill me up. I usually go for some grainy toast with Vegemite, but even that leaves me unsatisfied. Actually taking the time to eat something seems to actually makes me hungrier, and then I'm scrounging around for something not long after getting to work. Strangely, not eating breakfast doesn't leave me as hungry, but I know I really ought to. No, the situation is unsatisfactory, dammit!
One of the alternatives suggested to me by many books and doctors is a cooked breakfast. Eggs, and tomatoes and spinach and mushrooms and stuff. Hello?? Like, SURE that's going to happen! I'm not standing over a frying pan straight out of bed, when I could be using that time in bed/in the shower/doing my hair/getting to work early! And then coming home to the dirty pans? Tasty idea, but realistically, not going to happen.

Fresh muesli is something I had been unfamiliar with until recently. To me, muesli was just another dry boxed cereal and I didn't like them. It looked like horse feed. But one day in a cafe a friend ordered some fresh museli and it arrived looking all moist and fruity and yoghurty and damn attractive. I kept sneaking bits from his plate. It was explained to me that it was Swiss bircher muesli; from then I was interested. This was something I could eat, but I couldn't go out for breakfast every morning, could I? I never considered making my own. I'd dabbled in making my own granola last year. It was tasty, but really took organisation and time to make, and really isn't as healthy because it uses sugars, syrups and oil.

But a few months ago, at a 2nd hand book stall I found Jill Dupleix's 'New Food'. Her first book (?) published in 1993, it was quite forward thinking and its recipes hold up really well today. Design-wise it's amusing; it's at the real cross-roads between the minimalist design style of the 90s and the overblown, blowsy, gilt-rimmed crockery and overcrowded country-house table photographs of the 80s. I laugh every time I see a photo of some khaki-coloured grapes piled onto a tizzy silver platter. Eugh.
In the breakfast section, Jill includes the fresh muesli recipe of a Swiss friend. It looked dead easy to make and I gave it a go. It was so good that now I make it every other week. It does require a tiny amount of organisation, because you have to soak the oats overnight, but I can just about cope with that. And would you believe it's the only thing I've ever found that actually fills me up in the morning and leaves me feeling full until lunchtime.? Yay! All those slow-release, low GI oats that expand in my stomach I guess. It's not too sweet, so it doesn't offend my tastebuds. I use Jalna fat-free yoghurt, so it's even healthier, and I add a few spoons of cinnamon (hence the pretty unappealing brown colour of the mush in the photo) to go with the apple. The honey instead of refined sugar makes it better for you too.
It's tasty, it's healthy and it's filling. Woo-hoo!

Read on for the recipe:

Fresh apple muesli
from Jill Dupleix 'New Food'

2 cups rolled oats
1 cup water
1/2 cup natural yoghurt
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon wheatgerm
2 tablespoons chopped nuts
1 banana, mashed
1 greem apple, coarsely grated (with skin)
Any fruits or berries you like
*Cinnamon to taste (optional)

-Soak rolled oats overnight in water
-Add yoghurt, honey, wheatgerm, nuts, banana, apple and fruits
-Top with more grated apple and serve
Serves 4

NB - Even though you have to be a millionaire to buy bananas these days, don't be tempted to skip this ingredient. I tried it and it really wasn't very good. So, dig deep and buy that one $2 banana.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Vinegar at The Point??

OK, how poor is this? Sunday afternoon downstairs in the cafe at The Point restaurant by Albert Park Lake. The place is very quiet; very few customers. Despite the cold, grey day, the open fire isn't lit. Strange. My mum and I go up to the counter to place and pay for our orders; she orders a glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. We get back to our tables, and huddle into our overcoats, chatting away. Our wines arrive and my uncle casts a suspicious look at her class:
"What's that?" he enquires
"A Sav Blanc"
"Why is it all cloudy?"
"Hmmm...I think it's the condensation on the glass. It's pretty cold"

"Let me taste" he says, reaching for the glass.

He takes a sniff and then a sip, and his mouth puckers up and his eyes pop out.
"No good?"
"NO!!!! Niki, have a taste!"
Oh great. I get to taste the corked wine, I think. So I take a sniff and whoa, hello vinegar smell! How weird, I think - this wine's really off. So, I take a mouthful as well. And %&@*()#!!!! The liquid IS vinegar!! My mother has been given a glass of refrigerated white wine vinegar.
A bit rashly, she takes the glass for a taste and takes a big mouthful that takes her breath away. We burst out laughing, more in bemusement than anything else.
She takes the glass up to the counter and tells them:
"It seems I've been given a glass of vinegar instead of white wine"
Naturally they look at her as if she has two heads. I might do the same thing in their situation. Maybe they think she's just a difficult customer.
"No, I mean it. It's not wine that's gone vinegary, it actually is a glass of vinegar. Taste it if you don't believe me!"
She was informed that they're not allowed to taste food or wine that is returned with a problem (!) so they declined her offer. But they did pour themselves a glass from the bottle in the fridge and we hear them laughing. Our waiter came to the table with a new glass to confirm that she was not wrong. He set down her new glass of wine and said (direct quote):
"So, ummmmm, yeah. Hope you enjoy that one"

Hmmmm. No apology. No offer of a free glass of wine. Distinct indifference shown by the staff. No supervisor or manager coming up to offer explanations or condolences. In fact, nothing to render this experience anything but extremely poor. It's not like this is some random suburban cafe; this is a highly-regarded establishment. AND they only had 1 other table of customers! Since then, I've been wondering how they managed to actually confuse a bottle of Marlborough Sav Blanc with a bottle of vinegar. If they're storing their vinegar in wine bottles, then why on earth is it not labelled, or at least had the old label scribbled over?? Very, very strange behaviour.

Sadly the experience didn't impove much after that. The food my uncle and I had was quite good, but sadly mum was in for a run of bad luck, with a plate of crumbed fish that was definitely past its prime; a very prominent bitter taste it had. Unpleasant. I mentioned it as our plates were cleared. The perfect apology would have been to offer her the coffee she ordered later free of charge. (incidentally, $3.50 for a coffee??! Sheesh!) Something was definitely amiss that day. Maybe it was a bad day? Maybe someone died? Perhaps. But an experience like the glass of vinegar could be laughed off if a sincere apology was offered, rather than the apathy we experienced. Nowdays you run the risk of some innocent-looking person, just like me, writing of the experience on a personal website, and you just never know how many people will read it and remember it. It's difficult to get away with poor service these days!

Overall, it was an underwhelming experience. In the words of this week's John Lethlean review in The Age Epicure: "Not worth crossing town for". I don't think we'll be returning, which is a real shame, as we've had some very fine meals in the restaurant upstairs over the years. It's not like we're starved for other good restaurant choices in Melbourne....

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Vehemently NOT low fat! Nutella cake

Hehehehe. *Very evil laugh*. From the sublime to the ridiculous. From one extreme to the other. From exuberantly low-fat chocolate fudge cookies to this! I walked into rehearsal with this birthday cake for Belinda, and my friends, who had been lulled into low-fat security by those cookies I've been bringing along recently looked at me with trusting, bright eyes and asked "So, this is low fat too, right?"
HAHAHAHAHA I don't think so, kiddies. This is one mamma of a luxury cake and in no way could be considered low cal. Sorry! It's a flourless chocolate cake containing 6 eggs, a chunk of butter, a block of chocolate, half a bottle of cream, alcohol, and a whole jar of Nutella. Yes, AN ENTIRE JAR OF NUTELLA!! *Swoon*. On the up-side, it doesn't contain any (extra) sugar! AND it's wheat & gluten free. Hehe. This is pure decadent indulgence, and bloody great it is too.

It was probably a bit much for 11.30am eating, to be honest, but I've never seen a cake disappear so fast; even those who hold back from rehearsal break treats (gotta lose weight before we tour Italy!) got stuck into this one. It's a damp, moist, gooey, luxurious delight (the cake, not sex...)
It was a bit of a spontaneous effort, this. See, I'd been out with the choir girls at a fashion fundraising event, and at the end of the night, talk came up about Belinda's birthday the next day. Knowing she's another foodie with her own foodblog I asked what cake she'd made for rehearsal the next morning. (birthday rules, you know. You gotta bring a cake!) However, Belinda is one of the hardest-working people I know and simply hadn't had time to make one, so in my champagne-fuelled benevolence I announced I'd make one for her.
"Mmm, a Niki cake?" she said. Yes people, flattery will get you everywhere!
It was 10.30pm by this stage. We then went out for drinks. Ahem. I got home at ummm....midnight, and then got started. So, if you are looking at my half-peeled hazelnuts and thinking "hey, she didn't get rid of all the skins!", then bugger off! It was 2.00am by that stage and I was so over rubbing nuts with a tea towel. :-) The extra 2 glasses of red wine I had forced upon me while making it might have had an effect too, perhaps? But, I think for a middle-of-the-night, half-drunk decoration effort, it's not so bad. Maybe not one of my greatest decorating triumphs. (but the balding clown candle is a highlight, n'est ce pas?).

Now, most people know this cake from its inclusion in Nigella's Domestic Goddess, but I distinctly remember making it before that book was published, having found the recipe on the internet when searching for a chocolate cake to make for a girly weekend, so I'm quite certain she got the recipe from somewhere else. Therefore I can't feel guilty for including her recipe here.

Added bonus of making this cake: It's pretty damn hard to get every smidge of Nutella out of the jar into the bowl. That stuff is way sticky, so, you know, when you can't get those last bits out it's the absolute perfect excuse to get stuck in with your fingers. Mmm....the cake probably doesn't need that last bit, does it? I'll just have to eat it.Can't let it go to waste! Mmmmm. Nutella fingers...... :-P

Read on for the recipe:

Nutella Cake
Serves 8 (or more like 20!)

for the cake
6 large eggs -- separated
1 pinch salt
125 g soft unsalted butter
1 jar of Nutella (400 g) (Yes, an entire jar.)
1 tablespoon Frangelico, rum or water
100 g finely ground hazelnuts *
120 g dark chocolate, melted

for the icing
100 hazelnuts
125 ml double cream
1 tablespoon Frangelico, rum or water
125 g dark chocolate

Preheat oven to 175 degrees C. (350 F).

Grease a 9-inch (23 cm) springform pan. Line it with parchment or wax paper if you feel safer doing that. I didn't and it was fine.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs whites and salt until stiff but not dry. In a separate bowl, beat the butter and Nutella together, then add Frangelico (or whatever you're using), egg yolks, and ground hazelnuts. Fold in the cooled, melted chocolate, then lighten the mixture with a dollop of egg white, which you can beat in as roughly as you want, before gently folding the rest of them in a third at a time. Pour into the prepared pan and cook for 40 minutes or until the cake's beginning to come away at the sides, then let cool on rack.

Toast the hazelnuts in a dry frying pan until the aroma wafts upward and the nuts are golden brown in parts: keep shaking the pan so they don't burn on one side and stay too pallid on others. If you use unpeeled nuts, transfer them to a kitchen towel, and rub, rub, rub. Most of the skins should come off. Transfer to a plate and let cool. Leave them whole or chop them up, depending on how much skin you actually managed to get off.

In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, add the cream, liquer or water, and chopped chocolate and heat gently. Once the chocolate's melted, take the pan off the heat and cool in the refrigerater for a few minutes, then whisk until it reaches the right consistency to ice just the top of the cake. Unmold the cooled cake carefully. Ice the top with the chocolate icing, and decorate with the hazelnuts.

*You could use ground almonds instead if you can't find ground hazelnuts. I've done it this way before and it's fine, but a little more densely textured.
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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Low fat! Cocoa fudge cookies

Yes, another low-fat winner from the talents of Alice Medrich. I saw this recipe a few weeks ago on Baking Sheet and bookmarked it to try. A low-fat cookie that tastes like a brownie? Hell, yeah! It's worth having a low-fat biscuit recipe up your sleeve anyway, and seeing it was one of Alice Medrich's indicated that it'd be guaranteed not to taste low-fat. Her things rarely do; I'm a big fan, as evidenced by my postings about her fallen souffle cake, chocolate layer cake, souffles and lemon yoghurt cake.
I actually made these about a month ago for mother's day. The present I ordered for mum from Amazon hadn't arrived so I came home late from a concert on the Saturday, whipped up the mixture, stuck it in the fridge and baked them up the next morning to take up to her for breakfast with a cup of tea. I know, warm chocolate biscuits for breakfast is bit over-the-top, but what more decadent way to spend the morning in bed?
I had plans to photograph them for the blog but they all disappeared!! She took some to work, where the girls reckoned they were the best chocolate biscuits they'd ever tasted, couldn't believe they were low-fat, and demanded the recipe. So, in the interests of other people who may be interested, and so I could actually post about them, I whipped up another batch.
Now, Nic notes that this recipe was published in Cooking Light magazine, so from that I'm assuming that it is a low-fat recipe. I've never seen a Cooking Light magazine, but from what I've heard it's about cooking......umm....light, yeah? They have a fantastic texture: a crispy shell encasing soft, almost gooey insides. They're light, and not greasy. Luxurious taste without the luxurious calorie count.
Read on for the recipe:

Cocoa Fudge Cookies
(from Cooking Light, recipe by Alice Medrich)

1 cup plain flour
1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
7 tbsp cocoa powder (unsweetened)
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup dried tart cherries or cranberries (or mini chocolate chips)

Preheat oven to 350F (175C).
Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl.
In a large, microwave-safe bowl, melt the butter in the microwave. Stir in cocoa powder and sugars. Stir in yogurt and vanilla extract. Add flour and mix until just combined. Stir in cherries or mini-chocolate chips, if using.
Drop tablespoonfuls of batter onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Press down slightly to flatten; cookies do not spread a lot.
Bake at 350F/175C for 9-12 minutes or until set and slightly firm at the edges. Allow to cool on the pan for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
Makes 2 dozen.

Note: *Adding mini choc chips and topping with nuts probably ups the fat content a bit, so leave them out if you're concerned about that.
*Refrigerating the mixture overnight made biscuits with a less "perfect" texture and shape. Using the mix immediately seem to produce a better looking and better textured biscuit.

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Recuperation soup

Apologies for a lack of posts. I've been preparing for, and currently recovering from, a stint in hospital. This is the first time in a few days I've made it down the stairs to check emails etc. and I think that's been quite enough activity for the day. Time for another nap!

But before that, here's my latest passion. I think I'm seriously in love with this soup. It's become a bit of an obsession. In the space of 2 weeks I made two batches and took it to work for lunch EVERY DAY, as well as having it for dinner some nights. I think it was a comment I made about chickpeas a few weeks ago, and a suggestion to try some chickpea recipes in Nigella's How To Eat that led me to the discovery of Anna del Conte's recipe for chickpea and pasta soup that Nigella included. But, in commendable lazy-Niki style I disregarded virtually all instructions on how to make it and just went my own way, so I can hardly claim it as Anna del Conte's recipe. However, if my short-cut version is so magnificent I can hardly imagine how good the "real" recipe would taste.

The "real" recipe instructs me to soak chickpeas overnight in a bicarbonate of soda paste, and then to boil them up for a few hours. Hmmm, yeah.....I wanted soup now, not tomorrow, so I used a few tins instead. The "real" recipe instructed me to contain the sprigs of rosemary and garlic inside a trouser sock (ewwww...a new one, I would hope), so you could fish them out afterwards so the rosemary needles wouldn't swim around the soup and turn bitter, but I seriously couldn't be bothered wasting a trouser sock and anyway, I only own black ones, and was not keen to replicate at Bridget Jones-like escapade in the kitchen. So I just chucked in whole garlic cloves and branches of rosemary. I actually quite like the taste of individual rosemary needles swimming around my soup, and sweetly softened garlic cloves are always a good thing.
I can't even remember now what other alterations I made, but I think this soup is a good example of taking a flavour idea and running with it. I managed to restrain myself from adding too many ingredients, as I can often do when faced with a short list of flavours. I always think the flavour won't be strong or punchy enough if there's not many ingredients. This was a problem my father had as well, so evidently it must be genetic.

However, this time I kept to what Nigella/Anna suggested and I was amazed. Who would have thought that a simple soup of stock, chickpeas, garlic, rosemary and tinned tomatoes could be so incredibly mind-blowing? It really is. It's full of flavour, the rosemary gives a great, unusual edge to the flavour and the chickpeas make it filling. However, my favourite part was the fact the noodles, after their lengthy stewing in the liquid turned slippery and silky and perfectly slurpy. Despite my Italian blood, I've never been one for al dente pasta. My Northern Italian grandparents are the same; we all prefer our pasta softer, so this soup catered perfectly to my needs! And sitting here, in my dressing gown, feeling woozy and ready for another nap, it's the type of thing I wish I had waiting for me on the stove.
Read on for the recipe:

Chickpea & pasta soup
Loosely based on Anna del Conte's recipe, found in Nigella's 'How To Eat'

2 tins of chickpeas (or 1 tin plus 1 tin of cannellini beans)
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
8 cloves of garlic, peeled and bruised
400g tinned tomatoes
120 ml olive oil
3 litres of stock (vegetable, chicken, white wine & water or a mix of any of them)
270g small tubular pasta, such as spirals or ditalini
parmesan for grating over
chilli oil and flatleaf parsley, if you like

Empty the chickpeas/beans into a large pot with their liquid. Add 1/2 the olive oil, the garlic cloves and rosemary and cook for a few minutes. Add the tinned tomatoes and the stock/liquid/wine/water.
Once it coems to the boil, add the pasta and cook for about 1 or 1.5 hours, so the flavours really meld and combine. You can add flatleaf parsley near the end, if you want to.
Pour the remainder of the oil over the soup when serving, or instead drizzle chilli oil over each individual bowl. Serve with parmesan cheese.

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