O Toothsome Titbits!

Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge

Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge

A recent spurt of inventiveness led me to carry out a couple of baking experiments that by some miracle came out out nicely. To be truthful I can’t really credit a capacity for creativity when in actuality it was more a matter of laziness – I simply couldn’t be bothered browsing through recipes and making trips back to the supermarket, when on both occasions I was passing the supermarket on the way home from work.

For this first one I had a basic recollection of a fudge recipe, and so knew what I needed and what I had at home. And while making it I decided to improvise a little, and the result – Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge.  Here’s the recipe:

Salted Chocolate Pistachio Fudge

1 cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped
250g dark cooking chocolate
250g dark chocolate melts
395g can sweetened condensed milk
65g butter
Malden sea salt flakes

Melt the chocolate, condensed milk and butter in a small saucepan over a low heat, stirring until completely smooth and combined. Add the pistachios, and then sea salt to taste (I used about 1 scant tablespoon).

Pour the mixture into a 20cm square cake tin lined with foil and smooth it out as best you can. Work quickly as it stops being spreadable pretty quickly as it cools. Refrigerate until set. Cut into 1″ squares.

The basic fudge recipe comes from an old Christmas Recipes book put out by Family Circle, and even without the salt is a sure hit. But be warned, it is so rich you can’t eat more than one square at a time (I know this for certain, I’ve tried!).

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These sweet and sticky beauties I came up with from scratch as I wandered around the supermarket looking for inspiration. I call them Caramel Ginger Pods. My Mum once made a recipe that used Arnott’s Gingernut Biscuits as a ready made casing for some sort of lime and cream cheese filling. I was taken by the simplicity of the concept but quite unhelpfully, Mum had no recollection of it whatsoever.

I knew, though, that you had to heat the biscuits in the oven, sitting in a round-base patty tin, to soften them. But for how long, and at what temperature, I knew not. But I thought I’d give it a go anyway. I wanted to do a gooey caramel filling instead of cream cheese, and thought immediately of Nestlé’s Top ‘n’ Fill Caramel. I took inspiration from a recipe on the back of the can, which combined the caramel with white chocolate melts.

(The appearance here in this blog post of two related products that sit side by side on the supermarket shelf – Sweetened Condensed Milk, and Top ‘n’ Fill – is purely coincidental!)

Back at home I had a vague inkling that I might in fact have had a recipe somewhere that used the Gingernut technique for its base. My memory served me well and I found the recipe in a little Women’s Weekly /CSR recipe book called Cakes, Biscuits and Slices. The amazing thing is the recipe was called Caramel Meringue Pies! The difference was that it required Butternut Snap Biscuits, and used Top ‘n’ Fill on its own as the filling. Plus I wasn’t doing a meringue topping.  So I now had the oven temperature and time, and the rest is history. Here’s my recipe:

Caramel Ginger Pods

250g packet Gingernut Biscuits
380g can Top ‘n’ Fill Caramel
1 cup white chocolate melts
1 tube white chocolate writing fudge (alternatively use melted white chocolate and a piping bag)

Preheat oven to 160C. Place one biscuit in each hole of a 12-hole round-based patty pan and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the biscuits feel soft. Immediately on removing the biscuits from the oven, press each one down into the patty pan hole to make them into a concave shape, and allow to cool.

Meanwhile melt the Top ‘n’ Fill and white chocolate in a small saucepan and stir until smooth. Spoon the filling into each cooled biscuit cup and refrigerate until cool. To finish off put a squiggle of the writing fudge on top of each.

Tip #1: I found the Gingernuts had a tendency to try to revert to their flattened shape when I pressed them down with a spoon. A much more effective measure turned out to be pressing them down with the large marble mortar from my mortar and pestle, which exactly matched the size of the biscuits. Be quite firm.

Tip #2: Butternut cookies could work as well for the bases.

Tip #3: You could try substituting caramelised Sweetened Condensed Milk for Top ‘n’ Fill if you can’t find it, but there’s obviously a little more work involved in boiling the can of condensed milk to caramelise it.

Tip # 4: Like the fudge, they are rich and sweeeeet!

Now finally, a word about the title of this post. Toothsome is an old-fashioned word you don’t hear much these days, but which I had always thought described a figure with prominent teeth, as in the minion below that I recently made out of sugarpaste. In fact it is an adjective to describe something delectable or appealing in appearance. You live and learn…

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As Australian as the Capital of Monaco?

Monte Carlo biscuits

An Australian favourite

January 26th is Australia Day, and although I made this homemade  version of a classic Australian treat a couple of weeks ago, I thought it fitting to blog about them on the Australia Day long weekend. These are homemade Monte Carlo biscuits. (We generally call cookies biscuits in Australia, although chocolate chip cookies are never anything but cookies!).

Monte Carlos are a classic cream biscuit manufactured by another Australian icon, Arnott’s Biscuits. Arnott’s have been producing Monte Carlos since 1926, and for some reason they took their name from the city of Monte Carlo. Almost everyone loves Monte Carlos. Dare I say, with tongue in cheek, it is positively un-Australian NOT to like Monte Carlos.

There are a great many recipes to be found online for homemade Monte Carlos, but I made mine from a recipe in Anneka Manning’s Mastering the Art of Baking, where for obvious legal reasons they had to be called Monte Creams. I’m not sure why those legal reasons don’t apply to all the recipes on the internet… The homemade versions are lighter and more buttery than the commercial biscuit, but that is what makes them so delectable. And they are extremely easy and quite quick to make.

I found this fabulous old bit of film reel on YouTube which shows biscuits in production at an Arnott’s factory in 1951. Monte Carlos make an appearance towards the end. I am fairly sure that the crackers shown at the beginning are SAO biscuits (never a big favourite of mine), and those described (and shown) in the middle sound like Iced Vovos (never say no to a Vovo). I think I also saw Delta Creams (always the ones people choose last. Don’t know why – they’re kind of like Oreos). You can’t help but feel admiration for the women packing the SAOs who know by memory and instinct how many to pick up in one go to make a full packet.

My absolute favourite Australian biscuit, also manufactured by Arnott’s, is the Tim Tam. I do have a recipe for homemade Tim Tams but have not yet braved what looks like a messy process, to see how they turn out.

Le Rouge et le Noire

Le rouge et le noire

Tartelette

In my family we have fallen into a pattern of always having Christmas at my sister’s house, and it traditionally befalls me to bring an additional dessert. Additional because it has also become a tradition that my sister makes Nigella’s Eton Mess for dessert (her husband takes care of the lunch itself).

In choosing what to make, I wanted something simple and not too sweet, to complement the gooey, creamy and very sweet multiplicity of ingredients in the Eton Mess. I headed to the supermarket with a particular recipe in mind, but my plan was completely but willingly derailed by the vista of berries available in the fruit section. I have no idea why, but Perth has undergone something of an insurgence of berries in the past 12 or so months.

It used to be the case that for about 5 minutes during Summer one could buy, in Perth, a limited variety of berries (and cherries), primarily blueberries and occasionally raspberries. These could be had at mortgage-your-house and sell-your-children prices. It seems like there has been a relaxing of import laws or attitudes to imported fruits, because the first big change was the appearance of U.S. cherries outside of our own season. Hooray. Then blueberries from New Zealand started appearing on the shelves, for what seems like a much longer season, and at more affordable prices. Cherries used to be around $20 (Australian) per kilo, sometimes higher, and blueberries were about $8 per 125g. Try to picture just how very few blueberries there are in 125g.

But wait, there’s more! The whole point of this berry specific monologue is that I was almost forced to genuflect in front of the berry display when I saw not just the usual strawberries and blueberries, but raspberries, blackberries, and redcurrants too. REDCURRANTS! I have never in my life seen redcurrants for sale in Perth. And these were not even imported.

Every pastry book I own seems to include a recipe for Summer Berry Tartlets and whenever I have come to those pages I have always looked wistfully and with yearning at those artfully arranged little cairns of berries, that always seem to include redcurrants. And thus I would sigh with resignation that I should probably never be able to recreate them as pictured. Well now my wish has been granted! In a way…

Tartlettes en rouge et  noir

Tartlettes en rouge et noir

The tartlets pictured here are my own creation and not Summer Berry Tarts. I am calling them Tartelettes en rouge et noir, for two reasons. The first is obviously because of the colour combinations. The second is that the idea of red and black made me think of Stendhal’s seminal novel Le Rouge et le Noire (often translated as The Red and the Black). I first read this novel while on a long visit to my sister in Los Angeles, and loved it (the book, that is, but also L.A).

Stendhal

By Creator:Johan Olaf Sodermark (1790-1848) ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I like to think, though, that this choice goes beyond the superficial coincidence of the title. The Red and the Black is the story of a young man from the provinces, Julien Sorel, whose romantic illusions about city life and society see him trying to raise himself up from his humble beginnings on the basis of his talents and his willingness for hard work. Being myself a country girl who quickly saw that small town life was never going to be sufficiently fulfilling, I feel I can relate. And like Julien, I found that reality did not exactly match my romantic illusions, and very often has become overwhelming. Unlike Julien, thankfully, I have not ended up committing and being tried for a crime of passion, but like him I have struggled to make sense of life and I join Stendhal in questioning the existence of truth when every human being directs their own actions according to their interpretation of the actions of others.

My very first post in this blog was the story of how I had fluttered in many ways and flown in none. All such flutterings had been attempted with requisite talent and hard work, but generally came to nothing once my romantic allusions did not stand up to comparison with reality. I have stated that I think my efforts in baking have broken this mould and am starting to fly. If ever I needed proof of that, the success of these tartlets has shown me it is so.

Now to the tartlets themselves. I made the shortcrust pastry with the only plain flour I had in the house – Khorasan flour – which resulted in a surprisingly gentle but beautifully crumbly shortcrust pastry. So here is my recipe:

Tartelettes en rouge et noir

PASTRY
185g plain/all-purpose flour (I used Khorasan flour)
55g caster sugar
2tsp water

ALMOND FILLING
60g butter, softened
75g light brown sugar
1 egg
1 tbsp plain flour
80g ground almonds

FRUIT TOPPING
One punnet each of blueberries, blackberries and redcurrants
Apricot Jam (for glazing)

FOR THE PASTRY
Process the flour, sugar and butter in a food processor until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. (Alternatively chop the butter coarsely and rub into sifted flour and sugar with your fingertips). Add the egg yolk and as much of the water as is needed to only just hold the dough together when you pinch a bit of it between two fingers.

Tip the crumbly pastry mix onto a pastry mat or lightly floured surface, and press the mix together until it holds in one big mass. Then briefly knead the dough gently for no more than about 20 seconds, until smooth. Don’t worry if there are splits at the edges, you don’t want a stretchy bread-like pastry – crumbly is the goal.

Roll the pastry out between sheets of baking paper and a thickness of about 3mm (1/8 inch) and cut out 12 x 8cm (3 1/4 inch) circles with a round cutter. If you cannot get 12 out of the pastry after the first roll, gather up the offcuts and press it back into a ball without kneading it, and re-roll to cut out the remaining rounds.

Grease a 12 hole muffin pan and ease the pastry rounds into each hole. They should come up the sides to about 1/3 of the hole. Prick the base of each pastry case thoroughly to let out the air bubbles that get trapped as you put them in the holes.

Refrigerate the cases for 30 minutes before baking them in the oven at 200℃/400℉ for about ten minutes. The cases should come out of the oven BEFORE they start to brown. Keep the oven on while you make the filling as the tartlets will be baked further once filled.

TIPS:

  • Use an oven thermometer to get the temperature right – don’t trust your oven’s thermostat!
  • Sit your muffin tray on a baking sheet to stop your pastry cases from coming out browner on the outside than on the inside. The baking tray acts as a diffuser of the oven’s direct heat.

FOR THE ALMOND FILLING
Beat the butter, sugar and egg together in a small bowl until well combined and smooth. Then mix in the flour and ground almonds. Spoon the mixture into the baked pastry cases and bake for a further 10-15 minutes at 200℃/400℉, or until the edges of the pastry start to turn lightly brown.

FOR THE FRUIT TOPPING
Allow to cool completely before  glazing with melted apricot jam and then arranging the fruit on top. Glaze the fruit also for a glistening shine.

Enjoy!

The True Meaning of PDF

Merry Berries

Merry Berries

Never mind Portable Document Format, I’m talking about Purely Decorative Food!

Christmas  this year has, for me, been characterised by a great deal of fun had baking. But not everything I made had to be eaten, although much of it was. These little Santas were incredibly easy to do and they looked great. The idea came from the Coles Magazine app, and consists of little more than mixing 125g of cream cheese with 2 tablespoons of icing sugar, and piping on the heads, pompoms, and buttons. Larger strawberries could have accommodated beards as well. Some chocolate ganache I had on hand was added to the mixture to pipe the eyes. Simple, effective, and they tasted darn good too!

Santa's little helpers

Santa’s little helpers

Another decorative project I indulged in was this Meringue Tree which became the centrepiece of our table at Christmas Day lunch.

Meringue Tree

Meringue Tree

This was actually a nifty little kit put out by Coles (a gratuitous plug, I know, but look – I live near a Coles Supermarket so I’ll probably never mention Woolworths  in my blog, other than right now). Everything was included, except the little figurines which I plucked from my snowy village tableau, which I couldn’t be bothered putting out this year because, ironically, the day I did my decorations was too hot. (Curse these Antipodean opposites!)

Halfway there

Halfway there

It even included the gold lustre dust, the paper cone and the white chocolate melts to stick the meringues on with. The lidded plastic trays that the large meringues sat in will be usefully re-purposed for other baking projects. Note the taint of OCD which made me position each meringue with its swirl pointing in the same direction. It also caused me great angst to find that the meringues were not proportioned to exactly fit in offset concentric circles around the cone.

Meringue parts

Meringue parts

Last year I took advantage of a similar kit (from the same supermarket chain) to make a Gingerbread house, but as far as my OCD was concerned, that was like a red flag to a bull – sooooo untidy! This, at least, was acceptably neat.

Then of course there was my Christmas plaque from a previous post. Here’s a quick visual reminder.

Sugar paste Christmas plaque

Sugar paste Christmas plaque

But my pièce de résistance was the Christmas cake. I used the same recipe for the fruit cake as I did for the mini Christmas cakes.

Christmas Cake

Christmas Cake

I followed the recipe and instructions for the spiky Royal Icing given by Mary Berry in a Great British Bake Off Christmas Masterclass. As amazing as it looked, there were two hard lessons learnt (unintended pun alert!): the quantity of icing was rather excessive for the size of cake it was intended for; and it sets like plaster. It took considerable muscle power to crack that shell when I served it up for extended family at a Boxing Day morning tea, and was the cause of great mirth as a result. But even so it tasted good.

All in all, a very satisfying Christmas. Probably the first such Christmas in years.

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Finished mini cakes

Christmas mini cakes

These delectable little treats are what I made for our office Christmas party. I made 36 of them, one for each member of staff attending the party, plus two spares in case of in-car damage. As gorgeous as they (sort of) look, and as clichéd as it sounds, there were copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears that went into their production. (For any colleagues of mine who are reading this, I assure you none of these bodily fluids actually went into the cakes themselves.)

The Agony Part 1 – Blood
I was lucky enough to have my Mother staying with me while making these cakes, and not being so lucky as to have a dishwasher, I had to do many, many dishes, repeatedly, and so was grateful to have Mum there to dry them up. Until… she dropped a kitchen knife, point downwards, onto her foot. And it was one of those devilishly sharp, Japanese-made Global knives, which struck her rather too obligingly at the base of her big toe. Needless to say I had to dust off my recently renewed First Aid skills, not to mention my First Aid kit. As we Aussies of a certain generation like to say, her foot bled like a stuck pig and I had a hard time keeping my curious but recalcitrant Ragdoll kitten away from the blood all over the floor, while trying to apply pressure. Thankfully we avoided a Sunday spent in an A & E waiting room.

The Agony Part 2 – Sweat
It took me the better part of two days to get these cakes finished (including multiple changes of plan after unplanned disasters, and many rest breaks for aching joints), and both days coincided with a sudden weather change in Perth from Winter to Summer. Yes, I know there’s meant to be a season in between, but as most Perth-ites (Perthians?) know, we were gypped out of having Spring this year by the weather gods. It suddenly changed from nippy mornings and daytime rain to baking temperatures and extreme humidity. So I did my best not to sweat my way through that adventure, but have to admit to quite a bit of mopping of brow.

The Agony Part 3 – Tears
At the close of the first day, having baked quite literally for hours on end, and having laboriously plugged mini fruit cake holes with marzipan, I did a test run of covering a mini cake with sugarpaste, and found I could not live  with the lumpy imperfection of it. I was quite deflated, and looking around my kitchen and dining room, both of which were covered in dirty dishes and gazillions of mini cakes, I began rehearsing semi-plausible reasons to give to my boss as to why I could not deliver on the promised offer of Christmas cakes for all the staff at the party.

E.g. my Mum accidentally severed her foot, my kitten drank human blood and we had to arrange a midnight vampire slaying, the Maylands gun shop was out of silver bullets and I had to fashion a crude furnace to melt down the family silver … you get the picture. But seriously, you need a really hot fire to melt those candelabras. Anyway, I had a little cry, as you do, and decided to tell the truth and then face about three months of eating mini fruit cakes for morning tea at work – risky, because the alcohol levels were pretty high in those little suckers!

Come morning I had resolved to salvage the situation by trying a different approach to the icing. If rolled sugarpaste wasn’t going to cut it, I would try using Royal icing made to look like custard/sauce dolloped on top of the faux Christmas puddings. A quick experiment looked hopeful but my packaging plans were ill-formed and I needed a Plan B. So I dragged my poor, foot sore and perforated Mum out to Coventry Village for more icing sugar, with hopes of spotting a Plan B, (and my Secret Santa gift). I found both. In the picture you can see that each cake is sitting in a striped ice cream cup. Perfect!

It was five in the afternoon by the time I had finished icing the cakes and cutting out squillions of Holly leaves. Yes, squillions. This picture proves it.

Drying holly leaves

Drying holly leaves

And that wasn’t all of them. Two per cake meant I needed 72 of those little bleeders! With mother despatched on the evening train back to Bunbury, I started on the Holly berries. Three per cake = 108 BERRIES! By the time I had stuck everything on, glazed the berries with a homemade glaze that DID NOT WORK (thank you VERY much to the person who posted a hopeless recipe for homemade confectioner’s glaze on the internet), and had cut out 36 pieces of cellophane which I had to tape over each cake, it was midnight and no amount of homemade glaze could stick my eyelids open. The ribbons were destined to wait until morning.

In the morning I spent about 45 seconds trying to tie a silver ribbon onto a round ice cream cup, before said ribbon became a new kitten toy, and there the agony came to an end.

The Ecstasy – finally!

The only thing that made it vaguely worthwhile –  although I can truthfully say I will NEVER make a lot of anything EVER again – was the site of all those little Christmas pudding cakes sitting lined up in a wicker basket, coupled with the knowledge that they were appreciated by those colleagues who received them.

Merry Christmas to everyone at CLD – you are a great bunch.

Christmas cake

Ah, the joy of it!

Coolbaroo Balls

Coolbaroo Balls

Coolbaroo balls

Two wonderful things happened to me recently: In November I attended a presentation at which was present the amazing Mrs Helena Clarke, who is over 90 years old and was an Aboriginal rights activist and freedom fighter in the 1950s; and this week I went on an Indigenous Cultural Experience in the Stirling Ranges, where I met 6 Noongar elders and was filled with both sadness and hope.

Back at work after the tour, I made these little treats (I suppose they could be classed petits fours), and have named them Coolbaroo Balls in honour of Mrs Clarke’s iconic Coolbaroo Club, and the efforts she and the Coolbaroo League made to reconcile Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people. This was at a time in the 1950s when racism in Australia was more deplorable than you can imagine. Coolbaroo is a Yamatji word which means “magpie” and with the combination of black and white, it seems a fitting moniker for these little delights. I must acknowledge fellow blogger, Fadanista, who suggested the name, which I prefer to my original idea – Reconciliation Balls. Please, no jokes about eating Magpie Balls…

I was absolutely taken by the spirit and fire of Helena Clarke, and likewise that of the elders I met this week. Several times now I have seen a particular photograph of her as a young woman, and I can’t help but feel awed by the idea of the courage, conviction, and actions of the stunning and slender young woman she was back then. I do not have permission to include the photograph in this blog, but it is reproduced in both of the links above  for the Club and League. The former is a link to a PDF of the catalogue for the City of Perth’s Coolbaroo Club  exhibition in 2010.

This year, at age 91, Helena Clarke was the recipient of the John Curtin medal for her work as a civil rights activist and freedom fighter.

Coolbaroo Balls

250g Chocolate cake (shop bought cake is fine)
100g Dark cooking chocolate
30g Butter
1 tablespoon Cream
1 tablespoon Port (I used Graylyn’s White Port – it’s divine)
Dessicated coconut

In a medium sized bowl, break up the chocolate cake into crumbs, sprinkle the port over, and mix.

In a heatproof bowl sitting on a small saucepan of simmering water, melt together the chocolate, butter and cream, and mix until completely combined and smooth.

Add the chocolate mixture to the cake crumbs and mix to thoroughly combine. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes or until the mixture can hold together without being too sticky.

Form into balls by taking about a heaped teaspoon of the mixture and rolling it between your palms, and then roll each ball in dessicated coconut to coat. Place each ball in a paper confectionary case and place in the fridge on a tray to firm. You may need to put the mixture back into the fridge while making the balls, if the mixture becomes sticky again.

For a fun variation:

Make the balls slightly larger and firm them up on a foil lined tray in the fridge before inserting cake pop sticks, coating in melted chocolate, and then sprinkling with the coconut.

Again the Cousin’s Whistle

Brownie Bomb Cake Pops

Recently there was a gathering of the clans at my house. When I say clans, I guess I really mean clan in the singular, for although the party consisted of my sister and I and some of our cousins, collectively we only represented two families within one clan – our two fathers were brothers.

From talking to friends I get the impression that we are an unusual bunch, that is in the sense that as cousins we catch up on a regular basis. Tallying up the total children from both fathers, which includes a second marriage in one case, we consist of 11 girls and two boys. Taking away those  that live on the other side of the nation, the one who lives on the other side of the world, the very special one who has since sadly departed, and various others who lead very busy lives, clan gatherings typically consist of a core group of five or six faithfuls and sundry partners. Mostly girls.

I love these gatherings. We are like one family of sisters, so similar and yet so different, so perfectly comfortable with each other, so genuinely interested in each other, and so inextricably bound by pride in our family name. I, for one, would not give up the name for the world.

We cousins have fallen into a comfortable pattern of meeting up every few months on a rotational basis as to who will host. This time it was my turn to again blow the cousin’s whistle and call my kin to gather. Okay that’s not what Browning meant by this lovely turn of phrase, but it suits my topic beautifully and I’m going to run with it.

Thanks to the current State government dragging its heels on fulfilling a pre-election promise to rid my suburb of an increasing mosquito problem, I decided that an evening soirée in the courtyard at the back of my house was not an appealing option. I decided instead to indulge my OCD, of the baking variety, and host an afternoon tea.

This was my menu:

  • Cheese and herb scones
  • Salted caramel macarons
  • Brownie bomb cake pops
  • Cheese straws
  • Mystery Parcels

A note on Mystery Parcels: The initial intention there was to make small  vol-au-vents with a mushroom and chicken filling. I didn’t have the time to have a stab at making the puff pastry by hand, so I decided to use the frozen ready made sheets I had in the freezer. But disaster struck when I let the sheets defrost for too long and as I now know, the pastry becomes completely unmanageable when fully defrosted. I did not know this at the time (whimper). I could at least salvage enough out of it to make the cheese straws, but not the vol-au-vents.

Cheese Straws & Mystery Parcels.

Cheese Straws & Mystery Parcels.

And so, with one and a half hours to go until guests arrived, and still needing to tidy the house, clean the toilet, mow the back lawn, shower, dress and set the table, I dashed down to my local Coles supermarket for ready made vol-au-vent cases. And there were none. By the time I had got home with a new packet of frozen puff pastry sheets, I had lost the will to live and was ready to cut satanic symbols out of the pastry instead of wind-wafty circles. The idea of vol-au-vents did, at this juncture, get wafted away on the wind, and it became time to improvise. I threw some grated cheese and smoky BBQ sauce (the squeezy bottle variety) into the chicken and mushroom mixture, and spooned blobs of it onto pastry rectangles that I then crudely bundled up into little packages and dubbed them Mystery Parcels. And it is indeed a mystery to me how they became the highlight of the whole spread!

Personally I found the Brownie Bomb Cake Pops were my favourite. They were easy, a little bit boozy (containing Tawny Port in the absence of any Brandy), looked great, and gave the opportunity to use up some of the myriad paper cases sitting in my cupboard that are hopeless for cupcakes (they really are just a pretty face). The white bits are chocolate pearls, available from the supermarket. The recipe came from the a fabulous little book published by the Australian Women’s Weekly, called Cute Cake Pops.

Brownie Bomb Cake Pops

Brownie Bomb Cake Pops

A final note on the origin of this post’s title. It is a quote from Robert Browning’s poem, Andrea del Sarto, which is about the eponymous Renaissance artist, who happens also to be a favourite of mine. The poem is too long to include in this post, but the complete text can be read here. The quote comes from the final line of the poem:

Again the cousin’s whistle! Go, my love.

Browning/del Sarto

Robert Browning & Andrea del Sarto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Mulberry vodka

Mulberry vodka

Why do we go round the mulberry bush? And why do we do it on a cold and frosty morning? These questions, and many more, came up for me as I started to think about writing this post about a batch of mulberry vodka I have made. More about the vodka shortly, but what about that perplexing nursery rhyme?

A quick but comprehensive survey of colleagues in the office (actual sample size = 2) showed that I was alone in thinking that the final line of each verse is, “on a cold and frosty morning” and not, “so early in the morning.” Further research (on the internet) seemed to favour the latter, along with regular mention of an (unconfirmed) theory that the rhyme originated in Wakefield Women’s Prison in the UK. Coincidentally, I have been vindicated in my memory of the line on Wakefield Council‘s own website, where the lyric is listed as “on a cold and frosty morning.” The subsequent verses of the nursery rhyme deal primarily with daily life and domestic chores.

Singing about going ’round and ’round a mulberry bush, for no obvious reason, is an eerily appropriate representation of the most problematic symptom of OCD that I must bear with – singing , circular motion, and lack of obvious purpose for both. I have snippets of songs, or sometimes parts of phrases, that, under influence of anxiety, cycle over and over in my head. Not when when I am concentrating in a focussed manner on a task, like when reading, writing, watching something, or in conversation, but at most other times.

There are two great burdens to bear with this affliction. The first is that it is has never been as easy to treat as  other, less intrusive OCD symptoms, and it therefore almost drives me crazy when at its worst, and the other is the preconceptions people hold about OCD. Treatment for OCD usually involves Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (ERP), during which a therapist helps you to defuse each behaviour, so to speak, by first determining the overarching anxiety associated with it. Therein lies my problem. In therapy I have never been able to get to the bottom of the anxiety that has triggered this repetition. Without this base understanding, it is an almost fruitless task trying to apply ERP to this particular behaviour.

The second problem, misconceptions about OCD, is exemplified by the following additional coincidence in this story. While searching for answers to the nursery rhyme question above, I came across an attempt at humour on Cracked.com which quips that this particular children’s song may be a “jaunty” list of symptoms for an OCD sufferer. I could let that go, except that the accompanying stock image of someone washing their hands is captioned “This is the way we wash our hands, until they bleed, until they bleed…”

Having lived next door to an elderly woman whose OCD and fear of germs kept her a virtual prisoner in her own apartment, and whose wealthy adult children had relinquished all responsibility for her welfare, I can say this: it is not a joke to scrub your arms and legs raw, as she did; to be paralysed with fear that anyone may enter your home against your will, bringing their contamination, as she was; to have health authorities bring a locksmith to allow the police and paramedics to enter your home and forcibly remove you to a hospital, as happened to her; or to have your apartment, damaged by your constant running of water, and infested with vermin and mildew, declared unfit for human habitation by authorities, as hers was.

Ultimately my point is this: leaving aside the fact that OCD is not a joking matter, it is a much more varied problem than just being afraid of germs, or lining up objects on a table. I do not have a germ phobia. I am not a neat freak. I am not beset by fears that I have not locked my front door. And because of this, the response I most commonly get from people hearing that I have OCD, is the following exclamation, heavily tinged with doubt: “Oh really?”. I don’t seem to fit their perception of an OCD sufferer, so I must not really have it.

Frustratingly, I have the same problem with ADHD. To most people who know me, I seem to be the calmest person on Earth, so how can I possibly have ADHD? Well, let me set the record straight right now.

  • Many compulsions in a sufferer of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder involve mental rituals, not overt behaviours.
  • Adult ADHD has two subtypes – Inattentive (ADHD-I) and Hyperactive/Impulsive (ADHD-H). Inattentive symptoms generally manifest cognitively, not behaviourally, and most adult sufferers develop coping or compensatory mechanisms to manage or hide them.

The lesson to be learned is that just because you can’t see it yourself, does not mean that it is not just as intrusive or destructive for the sufferer, or that it is not there at all. Even as I write this post, I am struggling to keep the mulberry bush song from waylaying my efforts.

Small mulberry tree

Bill Nicholls [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Enough of my rant, now for some vodka.

One of the great delights at my workplace (a university campus) is that a small-ish mulberry tree grows not 100m from the front entrance to our building. I am not certain, but I think it is of the species Morus Nigra, or Black English Mulberry, and it looks a lot like the one in the photo above, only slightly larger. We have just reached the end of its prolific fruiting season and I took full advantage of the opportunity throughout the season to enjoy these delectable fruits. Apart from eating them fresh off the tree, I made Mulberry Crumble Cakes, Mulberry Bakewell Tart, and the batch of Mulberry Vodka pictured at the top of this post.

This voluminous jar lurks at the back of a shelf in my pantry and every time I see it I dutifully turn it on its head, (or back the right way up, whichever is next), and it is due for the great taste test in three weeks time. Yes, folks, it’s going to be a VERY MERRY Christmas this year!

Moroccan Serpent Cake

Moroccan Serpent Cake

Moroccan Serpent Cake

There is a Moroccan proverb that goes thus: “Little by little, the camel goes into the couscous.” What does this mean? Answers, please, on a postcard to …

It is not my place to irreverently interpret the sayings of a country whose cuisine lies near the top of my favourites of all world cuisines. Nor can I provide any feasible link between that proverb and this post about my Moroccan Serpent Cake. I was simply searching the Net for a food related proverb from Morocco, and was quite tickled by this one. It put me immediately in mind of my favourite comedy series of all time, the BBC’s radio comedy of 1964-1968, Round the Horne. This is exactly the sort of line that would have been spoken by the hilarious Hugh Paddick, or the devastatingly funny Kenneth Williams, in one of their (racially stereotyped) sketches involving Arabic characters. Invariably they would come in with something like “Greetings Effendi, and may your concubines be as plentiful as the grains of sand in the desert.” In one classic sketch they are Egyptian camel traders who, after making a sale of a camel, offer change in goats, which is politely refused because the buyer (an English archaeologist called Professor Mollusc) does not want to weigh down his pockets…

Anyway, I digress. I do indeed love the cuisine of Morocco, and as unappetising as my serpent cake may look, it was truly delicious, and well worth the effort of handling filo pastry. The centre of the roll is filled with a deliciously sweet almond and orange water paste, and much though I dislike the taste of marzipan, this sweet treat could almost convert me.

The Arabic name for this dish is M’hanncha, which I have seen variously translated as Snake Cake, or Serpent Cake. Somehow Serpent Cake seems to hold more allure. Coincidentally,  the above mentioned Professor Mollusc, whose story is narrated by his widow Lady Counterblast, comes to a grisly anguine end in an Egyptian excavation, where he is found dead, with “an asp, clasped, in his grasp.”  Not surprising, since his specialty area was “tombs defiled.”

“Look! There’s someone lurking outside the tent. A strange, lumpy figure in a camel hair coat.”
“Who is it?”
“A camel.”

Why don’t we have sketch comedy on radio anymore? Round the Horne was and still is one of the funniest British comedy productions ever.

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

Slumped cheese

A wheel of ripening Phlump

This is a picture of a cheese I have dubbed “Phlump“.

“That’s a cheese?” I hear you exclaim. Yes. In fact, that is meant to be a tomme cheese, believe it or not, but it developed a bad case of sideways slump. Hmm, I wonder if there is a cheese equivalent of Brewer’s Droop? (Google it…).

This is my second attempt at making a cheese other than fresh cheeses like cream cheese and labne, and the first resulted in a rubberised slab of feta. This time everything went rather well during the curd forming stage, but I think it was my pressing that let me down. I’m guessing that my curds had not released enough whey to hold a solid shape. And my home made tomme mold (don’t ask!) was too tall and cylindrical. OK, since you asked, I got out my hacksaw and took the base off a one litre cylindrical food storage container, and used the sawn-off base as a follower for pressing the cheese down inside it with weights on top of the follower (2 small dumb-bell weights precariously balanced on top of a can of cat food – unopened of course). The entirely frustrating thing is that on all of the Australian online cheesemaking supplies sites I’ve found, no one seems to stock tomme moulds with followers! I’m going to have to get something from the US.

Ladelling out the curds from the whey

Ladelling out the curds from the whey

This gravitational anomaly occurred during the first three hours of affinage (the ageing stage), but I am going to persist in letting it ripen for the full three months and see what results I get. The guiding book I am using says that if you like the taste of your mistakes, then remember what you did because you’ve invented a new cheese! So it seems I may become the creator of the first wheel of Phlump. I’m using two fantastic books in my cheese adventures: Mary Karlin’s Artisan Cheese Making at Home, and Sasha Davies’ and David Bleckman’s The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice. It was Mary Karlin who gave the above advice.

After removing the (perfectly normal) mould this morning that had grown on the outside I noticed with the glee the brown patches that are starting to appear, which are (apparently) also perfectly normal. The hardest part is patiently waiting for three months before I can taste it. I wonder who at the office will be willing to try it too?

This is what a tomme should look like!

What a real tomme should look like

By Véronique PAGNIER (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And for your delectation, here is the source of my title: