Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Shouting at 30

It's my 30th birthday on Sunday. Unfortunately, the fact that I'm going to be in Canada by then is not enough to get out of doing the customary morning tea shout, so I had to do it in advance.

It took me quite a while to decide what I wanted to make: since I quite often bring in a plate of something for no good reason, I had to go a little further for a birthday shout. In the end I chose ginger crunchies (p40), nut toffee (p221) and sponge roll (p69): three recipes that didn't seem too complicated, because I don't have much time to spare this week. I was wrong there: my uncomplicated baking turned into a major mission!

I started by making the ginger crunchies on Monday night. I'd been looking forward to trying these - I'm sure I've had them before, because as soon as I read the recipe I had a very clear picture of what they should look and taste like. They were a piece of ease to make. You just cream the butter and sugar, add the dry ingredients and some chopped ginger, then roll balls of the mixture in cornflakes. Press with a fork and bake.

Lauren had dropped in by the time I took them out of the oven. We tested one each and pronounced them quite edible. They were a bit dry, but I actually liked them a lot. They have custard powder in them, which gives them a quite distinct flavour.

On Tuesday night I came home with the intention of making the nut toffee and sponge roll. I decided to start with the toffee, thinking "that sounds like it won't take long". It seemed pretty simple: heat sugar, cream and butter (real health food, this!) until the sugar has dissolved, then boil until it reaches 'soft crack' stage, stir through nuts and pour into a dish.

So I put the sugar, cream and butter in a pot, and stirred it over what I considered to be a fairly low heat, but it started to boil before the sugar had dissolved. I turned it right down but it kept boiling. There wasn't much I could do, so I thought, "oh, well. It'll just have to be a bit sugary" and let it boil.

I was carefully checking the mixture every few minutes, waiting for the 'soft crack' stage. It hadn't got past 'firm ball' when the mixture started looking decidedly weird - sort of curdled and crusty around the edges. The recipe stated quite clearly that the mixture shouldn't be stirred during the boiling stage, but the notes at the beginning of the chapter said that toffee could be stirred occasionally to stop it from burning. I decided to give it a try.

Big mistake. Actually, I suspect the mixture was already ruined, but once I'd stirred it, it was clearly unusable. I decided to cut my losses before I wasted the nuts as well, scooped the mess off into a dish on the bench, cleaned the pot and started again.

This time I was determined to get the sugar to melt before I started boiling the mixture. I set the element at the lowest temperature and stood stirring continuously as it said in the recipe. This continued for a good 45 minutes - I kid you not - and the sugar still wasn't dissolved. A couple of times I experimented with the second lowest setting, but turned it down again whenever it showed signs of getting too hot.

Finally, I got sick of the whole thing. the sugar clearly wasn't going to dissolve at the low setting, but if I increased it, I was likely to get a twin to the solid sugary mass sitting on the other side of the sink. I came up with a theory: what if I heated it really hot, really fast? That might dissolve the sugar as well as beginning the boiling process. I tried it.

It didn't dissolve the sugar. It did start to brown and bubble around the edges, and a few brown bubbles poked through in the middle. Most of the mixture stayed a kind of sickly pale yellow. I started to smell burnt sugar, and turned it down. Assuming the mix was also ruined, I figured I could hardly make it worse, so I stirred it.

Unbelievably, doing the one thing that was specifically forbidden in the recipe resulted in a (comparatively) smooth-looking, pleasant brown mixture. I tried some, burning my finger and tongue in the process. Well, it didn't taste burnt! I shrugged, stirred through the nuts and poured it into the tin that had been waiting for about 2 hours.

After all that, I was feeling far too demoralised to start making my first ever sponge roll. I poured a glass of wine and sat down for a while. Only the recollection of Mum's assertion that "sponge roll is easy" got me up off the couch again.

The recipe looked quite straightforward. Then again, so did the toffee! I took a deep breath and had a go. I started by beating three eggs with a pinch of salt. Add sugar and vanilla, and beat it until thick. So far, so good.Then I had to fold in the dry ingredients, and the melted butter. 

I carefully folded these in with a slotted spoon, as recommended by the Edmonds book - I've found this works well in other recipes, but I wasn't too happy with the resulting mixture. I'd double-sifted the flour and baking powder, but the mixture was still lumpy. And the egg mixture didn't seem to be as thoroughly beaten as I'd thought. I didn't want to overmix, but I got it to a reasonable standard and poured it into the dish.

Eight minutes later, I took it out of the oven: disaster. It had risen in parts of the centre, but bits in the corners seemed to be mostly just cooked egg. Sigh.. remove from dish and dump on top of my aborted toffee mixture. Wash dish; start again.

With my last three eggs, I had another go. I thought maybe the beaten eggs had lost some of their air while I prepared the dry ingredients and butter, so this time I had everything ready to add. I beat the eggs for much longer this time, and folded carefully, using a rubber scraper this time. I still had a lumpy mixture, but this time I worried less about overmixing, and concentrated on getting the ingredients properly mixed through.

I got it in the oven and set about whipping the cream. As usual, I underwhipped it slightly, a habit of mine since a certain overwhipping incident at a cooking class. By the time that was done, it was time to take this sponge out.

It could have been the twin of the first one - or at least a close relative. It wasn't quite as bad, but it wasn't great. There were still patches that looked eggy instead of spongy. But I had no choice: I had run out of eggs. I had to biff it or run with it, so I decided to see how it looked when it was rolled up. I turned it out onto a sugared towel, trimmed off the edges, spread the sponge with lemon curd and whipped cream, and rolled it up. Actually, it didn't look bad at all. I rolled it in the towel and put it in the fridge overnight.

Next I turned my attention to the now-cold toffee. I'd marked it in squares when I first poured it in, so now I was able to tip it out and beak it into neat squares like a block of chocolate. Some of them shattered, of course, spreading minute pieces of sugary toffee all over my clean kitchen floor, but I was past caring.

They looked good, but how did they taste? Not bad at all! Not nearly as sugary as I'd anticipated, and there was no burnt-sugar taste in the piece I tried. It was tooth-breakingly hard, but I was quite pleased that all that work had produced something at least edible. I placed the toffee on a tray with the ginger crunchies and set it aside for the morning.

In the morning, the sponge roll wasn't looking that good. The sponge had soaked up most of the cream overnight - probably because I hadn't whipped it enough - and was looking a bit gooey. Oh well. I sliced it up, put it on the tray with the rest and took it in to work.

I presented my offerings with warnings along the lines of "not my best effort", (actually, I put a lot of effort into it - it's just not the best result!) "careful, those are hard on your teeth", and, more tellingly, "It didn't come out very well, but it took me all evening to make, so you'll bloody well eat it!" Perhaps it was this last admonition that led to the almost universal approval of what I'd made.

Astonishingly, the sponge roll was the most popular, deemed delicious by just about everyone. Even I have to admit that, while it didn't taste like a sponge roll should, it was actually very nice. I think it was really the cream, sugar and lemon curd we could taste; the fact that these flavours were wrapped in a soggy sponge apparently went unnoticed.

The toffee was also popular. Since I'd cut it in reasonably small pieces, there was more than enough to go around, but it had all disappeared by the end of the day. I have to put my hand up to devouring quite a few pieces myself: I'm still amazed at how good it was, considering how close I'd come to giving up on it and throwing it out.

The ginger crunchies were the only dish on the tray that I was entirely happy with. They'd been easy to make, tasted good and came out exactly how I intended them to. It's quite funny that, while everyone liked them, they did not receive nearly as much attention as the two far more disastrous dishes.

I've actually got a whole chapter of sponges to do: this was my first attempt. I hope I get the hang of it soon, or I'll be wasting a lot of eggs! I was already aware that sweet making was not my forte, but since last night I'm really not looking forward to the other toffee recipes in the sweets chapter. (If anyone knows the trick to getting sugar to dissolve before it boils, let me know. I'm thinking it might help to use caster sugar) As for the ginger crunchies, they're very easy and very nice. Go ahead and try them. By all means try the other two as well, just remember they're not as easy as they look!

Monday, June 28, 2010

On reaching 100

I wouldn't think anyone other than myself has been keeping track, but if you were, you'd know that the hokey pokey I made the other night was in fact the 100th recipe I have completed since beginning this challenge. So that's 100 down, 476 to go.

I've certainly had ups and downs with the various recipes I've tried: some have been marvellous; others could have been marvellous if I'd done them correctly; and then there were one or two that I really wouldn't recommend.

So I decided to do a 'top 10' list. It was pretty difficult to select only 10 of all the recipes I've liked, but here's my final list:


This one was my absolute favourite of all the recipes I've tried so far. Lovely and warming, with a rich bacony flavour and a slightly spicy undertone, it's everything I love in a soup. Make sure you get good quality bacon bones - the ones I got for my pumpkin soup weren't nearly as good.

I was so delighted when I came across this version of the standard fruit crumble. I'd be the first to admit that the lovely black boy peaches I made mine with had a lot to do with the success of the dish. But the breadcrumb-based crumble was also lovely, and the crumble layer in the middle soaked up the juice and made the pudding more thick and filling. Yum.

I'd always been a bit ho-hum about ginger crunch. That was because I'd only had the bought version, which while tasty enough, is nothing wonderful. I was quite surprised at how much I liked my homemade version: a lovely crispy base with just enough icing to make it sweet and gingery, but not overpowering. Love it.

I love salmon; I love mayonnaise; and I love mustard. Why wouldn't I love a dish of grilled salmon with a sauce made from mayonnaise, mustard and dill? It's so easy to make that you could hardly even call it cooking. It's true that adding a high-fat sauce to a nice nutritious fillet of salmon is not the healthiest thing to do, but man, does it taste good!

My ideal summer dish,this salad is a meal in itself. The flavours are wonderful, and, with the addition of bacon and egg for protein, it's filling enough that you don't need to eat anything else with it. Well, I didn't, but then again, I have a fairly small appetite.

I couldn't believe how tasty this dish was, especially considering it was so easy to make. I've never been much into tinned fish, but this is a really nice way to use a can of salmon. Since I usually have pastry in the freezer, and a tin of salmon in the cupboard, this will be a good one for those "what on earth can I cook tonight?" moments.

If you want to turn a chocolate cake (or in my case, cupcake) into something truly decadent, try adding this icing. It's richer, smoother, and far less sickly than a sugar-based icing. Of course, it's more expensive to make, and very bad for you - so keep this one in reserve for a special occasion.

I wasn't expecting anything exceptional from this recipe. I thought it would be nice enough, but not very exciting. So I was quite surprised at the beautifully moist, but surprisingly light, cake I ended up with. I'll be making this one again.

I used to hate mushrooms. It's only in the past couple of years that I've started eating them, so I enjoy experimenting with different recipes. Stuffed mushrooms are so quick, easy, and above all, tasty. They're also an ideal 'cooking for one' dish, so I can see myself making them quite often.

I've only made two jams so far, but this one was so easy to make that it deserves a mention. The recipe presented no problems at all, even for an inexperienced jam-maker like myself. It makes a very nice tangy jam: quite a unique flavour actually. If you can get your hands on some cape gooseberries, I'd recommend turning at least some of them into jam.


For the recipes I didn't like, I only did a 'bottom 5'. In contrast to the top 10 list, I had trouble finding even 5 recipes that were bad enough to be included. Often, when something hasn't turned out right, it's been entirely my own fault. But there were a few where I would blame the recipe:

This was by far the worst recipe I have tried. It really just tasted like raw onion and undercooked rice stirred through straight tomato paste. It was quite inedible, and I ended up throwing almost all of it out.

Definitely the strangest thing I have eaten in a long time. Supposedly a quiche, this recipe was based on an Edmonds pancake and pikelet mix - the main ingredients thereof being flour, sugar and raising agents. The result? A bacon, cheese and egg flavoured cake. Weird is the only word I have to describe this. I made it through about half the 'quiche' before throwing the rest out.

I'm sure I followed the recipe for oaty apple loaf correctly, but there was so much liquid that, despite my cooking it for much longer than instructed, the loaf never cooked through and came out a soggy, inedible mess.

I have to hold myself partially responsible for the failure of this dish. The duck I used was much smaller than the one specified in the recipe, and you'd think that would mean that less cooking time would be required. Well, I ended up cooking my much smaller duck for almost the same length of time as the recipe specified for a large one, and it still wasn't cooked through! It's a mystery why, though. I'm sure it's possible to get good results from this recipe, it's just that I'm so traumatised from my first attempt that I'm not willing to give it another go.

I was quite excited about making my own tortillas from scratch. On the surface, they sound quite easy to make, but believe me, they're a lot of work! I'm happy enough to put in a bit of effort for a good result, but after all that kneading, rolling (and rolling..and rolling) and cooking, the tortillas were not that good. They went all soggy in my enchiladas, ruining an otherwise good dish. I think it'd take a lot of practice to get this right. This isn't really a terrible recipe, but you'd be far better off to just get a packet of tortillas at the supermarket.

So that's the best and worst of my first 100 recipes. It'll be interesting to see what crops up in the next 100!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Budget challenge food diary - week 2

Monday 21/06/10
Breakfast: porridge with yoghurt and blueberries
Morning tea: 2 hokey pokey biscuits
I also had a very large chunk of another cheesecake that appeared in the office. I would have preferred a smaller piece, but Roger did the cutting. (Yes Rog, I am trying to get you in trouble: Hi Andrea!)
Lunch: leftover rice from last night and some more chicken creole from the freezer, the eating of which was somewhat delayed since I was full of cheesecake. I didn't manage to eat my banana.
Dinner: chilli con carne with a tortilla from the freezer

Tuesday 22/06/10
Breakfast: porridge with yoghurt and blueberries
Morning tea: 2 hokey pokey biscuits
Lunch: chilli con carne (Wow.. the chilli got quite a lot stronger overnight!); 1 tortilla; 1 banana
Dinner: a couple of potatoes, zapped in the microwave and topped with chilli con carne, (you'd think I'd be sick of the stuff, but I'm not!) grated cheese and yoghurt.

Wednesday 23/06/10
Breakfast: porridge with yoghurt and blueberries
Morning tea: 2 hokey pokey biscuits
Lunch: pumpkin soup from the freezer; banana

Dinner: conscious that I have been a bit remiss with the veges for the past few days, I put a bit of the leftover chilli con carne in the frying pan, and stirred in some chopped carrot, frozen peas, and the few spoonfuls of defrosted pumpkin soup that wouldn't fit in my lunch container. I topped this mixture with mashed potato and a little grated cheese, and stuck it in the oven for a bit. The resulting 'mishmash pie' was very filling and quite different in taste from the chilli con carne I started with.

Thursday 24/06/10
Breakfast: porridge with yoghurt and blueberries
Morning tea: 2 hokey pokey biscuits
Lunch: Leftover 'mishmash pie'; 1 apple
Snack: 2 hokey pokey biscuits
Dinner: Curried sausages with rice; veges from freezer; carrot.

 Friday 25/06/10
Breakfast: porridge with yoghurt and blueberries
Morning tea: 2 hokey pokey biscuits
Lunch: leftover curried sausages and rice; 1 apple
Dinner: Leftover curried sausages and vegetables (I know: twice in one day? But it really doesn't bother me as long as what I'm eating is tasty enough)

I used up the last of my first batch of yoghurt this morning. Luckily, a few weeks ago I bought a packet of yoghurt mix when it was on special - they're always handy to have in the cupboard. I find I don't get the best results with my Easiyo in the winter though - I guess the cold creeps in. So when I'm using it in the winter, I make sure I don't set the Easiyo on the cold stainless-steel bench, and I wrap it in an old towel for extra insulation. It seems to improve the result.

Saturday 26/06/10
Breakfast: porridge with yoghurt and blueberries
Morning tea: 2 hokey pokey biscuits

Now satisfied that I had (just) enough rolled oats to get me through, I took my remaining $2.20 to the supermarket and got myself a bottle of milk. Yay for Milo!

Lunch: 2 cheese and curried sausage toastie pies
Snack: hokey pokey popcorn
Dinner: I should have been a bit more imaginative, but I wasn't very hungry after the popcorn, so just took the easiest option and ate the last of the curried sausages.

Sunday 27/06/10
Breakfast: porridge with yoghurt and blueberries (see: didn't I tell you I have this every day?)
Morning tea: 2 hokey pokey biscuits
Lunch: 2 cheese toasties with tomato chutney
Dinner: chicken creole from the freezer; rice.

And there you have it: 2 weeks - $25. I couldn't do it all the time, of course, or my cupboards would be totally bare after a while. But it was useful to redirect some funds towards getting all those little bits and pieces for Canada.

What's more, I still have some chicken creole, chilli con carne and pumpkin soup in the freezer - enough to see me through a  few more meals this week, anyway!

And I had fun doing it. It wasn't at all difficult. I didn't really eat differently than I usually do; the pattern of making a dish and eating leftovers for a day or two, then putting the rest in the freezer, is pretty much standard for me. It was just a matter of picking out some cheaper recipes, particularly those which I wouldn't need to buy many ingredients for. I keep my pantry fairly well-stocked, so there were several recipes for which I didn't need to buy anything at all! The part I found the trickiest was remembering not to casually buy food while I was out and about at malls and similar. It's so easy to think "oh, I'll just get something here" even when there's food waiting for you at home.

I should confess that I did actually do my grocery shopping for the coming week this morning, BUT (and this is important) I have not used any of it, nor will I until tomorrow. So it's not cheating! It was just more convenient to get it done today - and I wanted to take advantage of some of this week's specials.

So now you know it can be done, why not set your own challenge? It's a chance to exercise your organisational skills and use a little of that famed Kiwi ingenuity. Naturally, you have to fit the challenge to your own situation:
  • think about what you already have in the cupboard/fridge/freezer, and how you could work with it
  • find some recipes based on cheaper ingredients like canned fish or mince
  • set a time frame - try one week if two is too long.
  • set a challenging (but realistic) budget. Mine was a bit under 1/4 of what I'd usually spend in a fortnight, but I was taking it to extremes!
  • shop around for the best prices
  • don't forget the basics when you're doing your shopping (for me, this was fruit and yoghurt. I had everything else already)
Have a go! It's only for a week or two. It's not hard: you just need to plan in advance, be prepared to improvise if necessary, and resist the habit of buying lunch or droppping in to the supermarket. Then you'll have a little extra cash to spend elsewhere - which is always useful!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Variation on a Kiwi classic

After spending most of my Saturday diligently cleaning, I sat down late this afternoon to watch a DVD. Of course, the thing about watching DVDs is that it makes you want something to nibble on while you're watching. Here was my opportunity to make the proper hokey pokey (p220) I'd been thinking about since the disappointingly bland result of my hokey pokey biscuits earlier in the week.

I really wasn't sure I could sit and eat a whole batch of hokey pokey. After the first mouthful or two you tend to start tasting the baking soda - and then you can't eat much more after that.

Luckily I had another plan up my sleeve. When I was younger, I quite often used to make hokey pokey popcorn to a recipe I learnt at a Guide camp. I don't have that recipe now, but it's not exactly rocket science to make it with the Edmonds hokey pokey recipe - you just sir the popcorn through before it sets.

I'd had a little bag of popcorn sitting in my cupboard for ages. I can't remember the last time my popcorn popper had seen the light of day, but I got it out today and put it to good use. I popped about 11/2 tablespoons of popcorn to stir through my half-recipe of hokey pokey.

Hokey pokey is pretty easy to make. The only problem I have is that it always sets before I can get it into the dish - not a problem with the popcorn version! You start by melting together sugar (substituting caster again) and golden syrup. Make sure you use a a pot big enough to add all the popcorn in later. When the sugar has dissolved, you turn up the heat and let it boil a little. The recipe says two minutes, but keep an eye on it in case it starts burning.

After it's boiled for two minutes or thereabouts, take it off the heat and add baking soda. I like to sift mine, so I don't get any lumps in the finished hokey pokey. After you've added the baking powder, you have to work fast, which is why I have no photos of the next part of the process!

Stir the baking soda in very quickly and immediately add the popcorn (if you're not going the popcorn route, this is where you'd be desperately trying to get it into a tin before it set) and stir it through. It's still going to set very fast, so the popcorn pieces tend to be a bit unevenly coated - some will have lots on and some will have almost none.

Spread the popcorn out as much as possible on a tray so it doesn't set in big lumps stuck to the pan. The remaining mix will be rock-hard in the pot by now - a jug of boiling water will dissolve it off.

So now I had my snack ready, I sat down and turned on the DVD. In true movie-watching fashion, I scoffed most of it before the previews were finished. Never mind, it's tricky to hear the movie over the noise of your own crunching anyway!

If you're going to make hokey pokey, I recommend adding the popcorn. It makes it far less sickly and you don't taste the baking soda. Or, if you're planning on making popcorn, try it with hokey pokey. It's much more interesting than plain butter or salt!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Give curry powder a chance

After several days of variations on the chilli con carne theme, I decided it was time for a change. I put the remaining chilli in the freezer and took out my sausages. I've found only two recipes in the Edmonds book which use sausages as an ingredient, so it would perhaps have been nice to use some slightly better quality sausages than the cheap pre-cooked ones I got with my $25. Then again, curried sausages (p125) proved to be an excellent way to make a tasty meal out of cheap sausages.

I hadn't really been looking forward to making this dish, because I've always been a bit wary of recipes that have curry powder as their main flavouring. I've got nothing against curry powder when used sparingly, and/or in conjunction with other flavours, but every now and then you get a dish that just tastes like a mouthful of curry powder.
And that's not a good thing at all.

I was worried that my curried sausages were going to be like that. Luckily, they weren't. You start by frying the sausages, (and "keep looking while you're cooking" so you don't set fire to the kitchen) then you set them aside and fry up some onion. Stir in the curry powder, and some flour, then gradually add beef stock, stirring until thick. I actually added a bit more stock than it said in the recipe - there just didn't seem to be enough sauce to go with the sausages.

 Meanwhile, I'd chopped up the sausages. The recipe said to do this at the end, (after heating them through again in the sauce) but I didn't see any point in that - it'd be messy, and the sausages would take longer to heat through if you added them whole.

When the sauce had thickened, I stirred through the sausages, along with a generous spoonful of my homemade tomato chutney. You remember me saying, when I made the chutney, that I found it too sweet? Well, it just so happens that the sweetness worked beautifully with the curry powder.

Served with some rice and veges, my curried sausages made a very pleasant meal. They may not be interesting or exotic, but they do taste good. When you consider it's a meal based on a $3.87 packet of sausages, I reckon it's pretty awesome. I suspect that the chutney you use has a major impact on the end product - I'd recommend using something sweet and fruity like I did.

So if, like me, you've been side-stepping curry powder for the past few years, give it another try. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Familiar territory

On Monday morning I dragged some mince out of the freezer to defrost so I could make chilli con carne (p148). It's not, strictly speaking, a recipe I've made before, but it's fairly similar to the way I usually cook mince.

You start by cooking onions and garlic with chopped green pepper. Green pepper: that's something I missed when I was writing my shopping list. Luckily I happened to have a random can of diced capsicum sitting in my cupboard, so I figured I could use that instead. Since it wasn't raw and crunchy, I decided not to add it in with the onions but to put it in later.


When the onions were cooked, I added the mince and browned it. After that you add the chilli powder, oregano, a heap of tomato paste and some water. I assume the water is there to dilute the tomato paste - interestingly, there are no tomatoes in this recipe. Anyway, all this went into the frying pan, along with the canned capsicum, and I boldly added a handful of jalapenos from a jar I had in the fridge.

At this point you have to  let it simmer for half an hour, to let the chilli reduce and thicken. After that, you add the kidney beans, and after another 10 minutes cooking, your chilli con carne is ready. I grabbed a tortilla bread out of the freezer, zapped it in the microwave, and ate it with my chilli.


I'm pretty happy with this recipe. As I've said, I often cook mince in a similar way - except that I usually use a can of tomatoes instead of just tomato paste and water. It's cheaper, and you can always add a dollop of tomato paste for a bit of extra flavour. That said, I think this recipe has a richer, fuller tomato flavour than my usual version. If you can taste it under the chilli, that is - adding those jalapenos certainly gave my chilli con carne an extra kick!

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