Pigeon soup

Before you leave this page in disgust, wait! I don’t mean the pigeons that congregate around church steeples and high rise building windows. I mean pigeons that have been raised for food, just like other birds such as quail, chicken and duck. A friend of mine has a connection to an Orthodox monastery which grows all its own food on the outskirts of Sydney and she very kindly supplied me with 4 beautiful pigeons from their farm. They come gutted but with their livers and also their heads, which might be a bit disconcerting to novice pigeon eaters.
Pigeons (or squab which are pigeons which haven’t yet fledged) are delicacies in many cuisines. The Chinese love to deep fry them so their skin crackles. They also cook them slowly in a red master stock and serve them cold, chopped up with a side of spicy cucumber salad. If you visit the south west of France you’ll see beautiful little dovecotes called pigeonniers dotted around the countryside and their presence reflects the importance of pigeons in the diet of that part of France. Italy too uses pigeons, braised, roasted or in the recipe below, as a soup.
This pigeon soup recipe comes originally from Marcella Hazan’s book, Marcella’s Kitchen. I’ve made it a number of times and I reckon the proportions of ingredients need amending to make it work as a soup but all the ingredients are the same as the original. The recipe is a very old one from the Veneto region, its name in dialect – sopa coada. While it’s not a difficult dish to make it actually takes quite a lot of cooking time as the birds are braised first, then boned, combined with bread and stock and then baked. It is a very rich dish, full of flavour and one of those things that you should make before the weather gets too warm to enjoy this kind of hearty food. You don’t really need anything else with this soup other than perhaps a leafy green salad to follow, and of course plenty of good red wine.

Pigeon Soup
4 pigeons, heads and necks left on, cut in half lengthways, rinsed and dried
100g butter
50ml olive oil
1 large carrot, very finely diced
2 sticks celery, very finely diced
1 large brown onion, very finely diced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
200ml dry white wine
100 g freshly grated parmesan cheese
8 large slices good Italian bread, cut 1cm thick
2 litres good quality chicken stock

In a large fry pan in which all the pigeons will fit heat 50g of the butter and 50ml of the olive oil on a moderate heat. Slip the pigeons in and brown all over, this will take a few minutes. Remove the pigeons to a plate, leaving the butter and oil behind. Add the onions, celery and carrot and cook slowly for about 10 minutes until they take on a little colour. Return the pigeons to the pan, increase the heat and pour over the wine, letting it bubble for a few minutes. Season with salt and a good amount of black pepper. Cover the pan with a lid or foil and braise the pigeons for about an hour and a half, or until the meat is coming off the bones. You’ll need to turn the pigeons every now and then and you may need to add a little water to stop them from sticking to the pan. I use a heat diffuser to help prevent burning.

Remove the pigeons from the pan. Discard the skin and pull all the meat off the bones, breaking it into small pieces as you go. Set aside the meat and add the vegetables from the pan to it, trying to leave as much of the flavoursome oil/butter mixture behind in the pan. Add the bones to the chicken stock and simmer gently for an hour to try to get as much flavour from them as possible. Strain the stock and set aside.

Add the rest of the butter and oil to the pan that you cooked the pigeons in and fry the bread slices on both sides until golden.

Take a deep casserole dish and butter the base. Lay four of the fried bread slices over the base and then cover with the pigeon meat and vegetables. Sprinkle over half of the parmesan cheese. Add the other four bread slices then pour over the stock. Sprinkle with the remaining parmesan cheese.
Cover the casserole with foil and bake at 150C for 3 hours. The top of the soup should be nicely browned but if not, remove the foil, raise the oven temperature and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Serve the soup directly from the pot into large soup bowls, making sure everyone gets some bread, pigeon meat and stock. You could serve some additional parmesan cheese on the side but I don’t actually think you need it.

Goat’s milk caramel

It seems that in the last couple of years everyone has gone crazy for salted caramel which appears on every restaurant menu in some form or other. Then there’s dulce de leche, the unsalted caramel sauce that is beloved by South Americans. But just a bit further north, the Mexicans make something very similar, but with goat’s milk. This lends the caramel a delicious savoury note which balances the sweetness that can otherwise be a bit cloying if unadulterated. You need to like that goaty tang to enjoy this caramel though and if you don’t, you could just as easily substitute cow’s milk for goat’s in the recipe below.

The recipe is a direct lift from a great little cookbook, Mexican Food at Home, by Thomasina Miers who apparently won the British Masterchef competition some years ago. She went on to create a Mexican restaurant chain in London called Wahaca which is wildly successful and which has introduced the English dining public to real Mexican food.

This caramel is delicious slathered on bread, drizzled over ice-cream or yoghurt, or as a pancake filling, maybe with some banana and toasted walnuts for crunch. You could also sandwich it between little shortbread biscuits or perhaps as an unusual sponge filling. Or you could do as I do and eat spoonfuls of it directly from the jar.

Goat’s Milk Caramel (Cajeta)
1 litre goat’s milk
220g caster sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
good pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 tablespoon dark rum

In a deep heavy bottomed saucepan combine the milk, sugar, salt and vanilla extract and bring to the boil over a medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Mix the bicarbonate of soda with one tablespoon of water.

Take the milk off the heat and stir in the bicarbonate of soda mixture. The milk will bubble up furiously which is why you need a deep saucepan. Once it’s settled down, return the pan to the heat.

Here’s where you need a bit of patience. Over the next hour stir the mixture regularly until it has turned a caramel colour.
Keep cooking the mixture, perhaps turning the heat down a bit so it doesn’t catch on the bottom (or use a heat diffuser under the pan). What you’re looking for is a deep, rich caramel colour and a thicker texture. To test for the right consistency drop a small amount of the mixture into a cup of cold water. If it forms a soft ball rather than disintegrating into the water, it’s ready. You could also use a sugar thermometer and cook the caramel until it reaches 116C.
Take it off the heat and stir in the rum. Spoon into into a 500ml capacity jar, already sterilised if you plan to store it for any time.
The caramel will become thicker once it cools and it becomes hard to drizzle. To remedy that, pop the jar without its lid in a microwave for 20-30 seconds and it’ll become easy to pour.

Broccoli pasta

Were you one of these kids who hated broccoli? I remember secreting it in the pocket of my pyjamas at dinner time, then squashing it under the lounge-room rug. I did quite that a few times, so I hate to think what my parents found when they finally moved house.
Since then though, I’ve learned to love this much maligned vegetable, although my least favourite way of eating it, that is, lightly steamed, seems to be standard in most kitchens. I reckon that broccoli needs a good long stretch in the pan with other complementary ingredients to bring out its flavour and with that in mind I bring you my simple dish of orecchiete with broccoli.

I first ate this in Italy in winter time, using the purple sprouting broccoli that Italians prefer over the green variety that is available all year round in Australian greengrocers. I don’t think it matters which type you use, and in fact you can also substitute cauliflower in this recipe with equally good results.
I made my own pasta for this dish, here's the link to that recipe Handmade pasta. But you could also use dried orecchiete, penne or any other short, stubby pasta.
The most important thing about this dish is that you want the broccoli to be really well-cooked, almost disintegrating, so that it’s able to coat the pasta as a sauce.

Broccoli Pasta
For 4 people
A few glugs of extra virgin olive oil
100g flat pancetta, skin removed and flesh diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
some dried chilli flakes or chopped fresh chilli, to taste
500-600g broccoli, chopped into very small florets and including some of the stem
125ml light chicken stock or water
lots of freshly ground black pepper
400g dried pasta or 500g fresh pasta
Grated pecorino romano to serve

In a heavy based frying pan, heat the oil and add the pancetta and fry on a moderate heat to melt the fat and crisp the pancetta slightly. Add the garlic and chilli and sauté gently for a minute, don’t let it colour. Add the broccoli and fry on a high heat until it turns bright green. Reduce the heat, add the stock or water and let cook half covered with a lid for about 20 minutes, or until the broccoli is well cooked and most of the liquid has evaporated. While the broccoli is cooking bring a large pot of water to the boil, add a tablespoon of salt and add the pasta. Cook it according to the directions (how long obviously depends on whether you’ve got fresh or dried pasta, and its shape). When the pasta is done, raise the heat under the broccoli and add the cooked pasta (don’t forget to reserve some of the pasta cooking water to add to the sauce if it’s too dry). Toss the pasta and sauce around so everything is well combined. Grind over lots of fresh pepper, drizzle with some more extra virgin olive oil and top with some grated pecorino romano.

Three Nut cake with Chocolate Ganache

It’s been a while since I lasted posted, actually I didn’t realise how long until I logged in today to write this one. It’s walnut season, or at least it was a month or so ago, and there are lots of bags of walnuts for sale in the local greengrocers. The thing about nuts is that they don’t keep forever, the oil in them tends to make them go rancid after a few months. You can guard against this by storing your nuts in the fridge, or even the freezer, they keep really well there and don’t require defrosting before you start to cook.
My favourite cakes are those made with a base primarily of nuts rather than flour. This is not because I’m gluten free, god forbid, but just because cakes made with nuts are very moist and stay fresher for a much longer time than those made with flour. Also their flavour is really, um, nutty.

This delicious cake is very easy to put together and the mixture makes enough for around 12-14 serves as it’s quite rich. It’s based on a walnut and almond cake from the River Cafe Cookbook Green which came out a few years ago and is still one of my favourite Italian cookbooks.

Three Nut Cake with Chocolate Ganache
200g walnuts
3 vanilla beans, roughly chopped
380g softened, unsalted butter
380g caster sugar
5 eggs
130g toasted skinned hazelnuts, finely ground
250g almond meal
100g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
125ml Amaretto (an Italian apricot and almond liqueur)

Chocolate Ganache
200g bittersweet chocolate (53% cocoa solids or more), chopped
100g unsalted butter
25ml water
Preheat the oven to 160C non fan-forced. Grease a 26cm springform tin with butter and line the base with baking paper and set aside.

Process the walnuts with the vanilla beans until the walnuts look like the almond meal and the vanilla beans are finely chopped. (In order for this to work, your beans need to be fresh and soft. If they’re hard and brittle they’ll be difficult to process and the nuts may end up as a paste before the beans are fine enough). If you don’t have fresh vanilla beans substitute 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract or the same of vanilla bean paste, adding it when you add the liqueur at the end. Set the walnut and vanilla bean mixture aside.

In a stand mixer beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, around 5 minutes. Add the eggs one by one, beating well after each addition. Add the ground almonds, hazelnuts and walnut/vanilla mixture and beat on a low speed until combined. Don’t overbeat. Now fold in the flour, baking powder and Amaretto with a spatula, mixing until combined but again, don’t overwork the mixture or it could be tough.
DSC00195 2
Bake in the oven for around 75 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin on a rack for 20 minutes, then remove the sides of the tin and let cool completely.

For the chocolate ganache, combine all the ingredients in a small, heavy based saucepan on a low heat. Allow the ingredients to melt and then take the pan off the heat to allow the final bits of chocolate to melt in the residual heat. Allow the ganache to cool for 5 minutes or so, then pour over the cake and spread with a palette knife.



I know every hipster man and his dog is doing a weekend fermentation class these days but I’ve always been interested in that arcane area of the culinary arts. I’ve been making cheese for a few years now, albeit with varying levels of success, also yoghurt and bread, but I’ve never tried my hand at making any fermented vegetables. Because it’s winter now in Australia, things like cabbages and Chinese radishes (daikon) are in season, cheap and abundant, so I figured I’d have a go at making kimchi, the delicious Korean side dish made traditionally from cabbage. It’s easy as anything and because it’s pretty cool at the moment, the fermentation won’t get out of control as can happen if you try fermenting things in very warm temperatures.

Kimchi is synonymous with Korean food and is one of the dishes called banchan that appear when you sit down in any decent Korean restaurant. It goes really well with barbecued meats but it can also form the basis of a yummy fried rice, the recipe for which follows. However first to the kimchi itself.
The only special piece of equipment you need is a wide-mouthed container sufficiently sized to take the vegetables and brine (I used a large square food grade plastic box). It needs to be wide-mouthed because you want to expose as much surface area as possible to the air as this is where the bacteria will come from which will cause the vegetables to ferment. And don’t freak out about the word “bacteria”. The kind of bacteria in fermented vegetables are the same ones that allow you to make sourdough bread, brew beer, or to create cheese from milk. Even tea is fermented. Without these bacteria, we’d have a pretty boring diet.

Most fermented vegetables have as their base a brine, which is just salt and water. The amount of salt in the brine will determine how rapidly fermentation proceeds and the extent to which unwanted bacteria are controlled, although a really salty brine will actually kill the good bacteria too. For this kimchi, a brine based on a ratio of 3 tablespoons of salt to one litre of water seems about right, although you could go as little as 2 1/2 tablespoons but no less.
6 tablespoons salt
2 litres water
1 kilo Chinese cabbage
1/2 daikon radish
2 carrots
1 large onion – finely sliced
1 large bunch of garlic chives or spring onions, chopped into 2cm lengths
8 cloves garlic – finely chopped
a large knob of ginger (50-60g)- grated
3-4 hot fresh chillies – deseeded and sliced
2-3 tablespoons hot chilli powder or to taste

Mix the brine and salt together and stir to dissolve it completely. Chop the cabbage roughly, finely slice the daikon and carrot and cut into slivers. Put these three vegetables into the brine and let them sit overnight.

The next day drain off the brine but reserve it. Put the vegetables into a bowl and add the onion and garlic chives or spring onions. Combine the garlic, ginger and chilli powder in a small bowl and mix a little of the brine to make a slurry. Then combine this with the vegetables, mixing thoroughly.

Put the vegetables into your container pushing down to release any brine. Weight the vegetables down somehow. I used a flat piece of food grade plastic and then filled a couple of containers with water and sat them on top. You can also fill sturdy plastic bags with some of the brine (in case they leak) and use them as weights. You might need to add a little of the reserved brine if the vegetables aren’t already sitting under it.

Check the kimchi each day and poke any errant vegetables back down under the brine. It should be ready in about a week. Once it’s fermented to your taste, put it in a container in the fridge, where it will keep for some weeks, getting riper and more flavoursome.
Kimchi Fried Rice
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons peanut oil
250g fatty minced pork
1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine
2 lap cheong sausages – finely sliced
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 cup kimchi, drained of any excess brine and roughly chopped
1 -2 hot red chillies, finely sliced
3 cups cooked, cold jasmine rice
2 -3 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 spring onions finely sliced, white and green parts kept separate
2 teaspoons sesame oil

In a large wok, heat one tablespoon of the peanut oil and pour in the beaten egg. Turn it round a few times to set the egg then flip it onto a plate and set aside.

Return the wok to the heat, add the remaining peanut oil and fry the pork mince until it starts to colour, then add the rice wine and let evaporate. Add the lap cheong sausage and stir around until the slices start to caramelise around the edges.

Now add the garlic, ginger, the white part of the spring onions and the chilli and fry till becomes fragrant but take care not to burn things. Throw in the kimchi and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring all the time. Add the rice, breaking it up up with your spoon so no lumps remain. Keep stirring so that the rice starts to catch a little on the bottom of the wok. Add the soy sauce, the reserved egg and the green part of the spring onions and combine, then turn off the heat and drizzle over the sesame oil. Eat straight away with a side of kimchi.

A loaf of bread

Does a decent loaf of bread really need to cost $8.00? Ok, I appreciate that a sourdough starter has to be nurtured every day, I know people have to get up early to bake, I realise that there is expertise involved in the rising and shaping of the loaf. But $8.00 for a combination of flour, water and salt?

A friend of mine gave me some of his sourdough starter the other week, after having attended a 6 week course in sourdough bakery in San Francisco. It’d be an understatement to say he is now a convert to the religion which is sourdough bakery. He gave me instructions about feeding the starter every day, which for the first few days I did without fail. Then I forgot about it for a couple of days, then I fed it again. Then I went away for the weekend and it sulked in the fridge. I started to feel that this starter was demanding more of my time than I was prepared to give. And unfortunately he never actually gave a recipe on how to use the starter so I had nowhere to go.

My favourite bread in the world was one that I used to eat in a little town called Velletri, about an hour south west of Rome. It had a few bakeries in town, but the queues always formed outside the one in the lower piazza, near the train station. It made the absolute best pizza bianca, as well as a rustic, chewy bread, cooked quite dark on the outside with lots of holes inside. It wasn’t a sourdough but like many traditional Italian breads it was made using a biga, which is a kind of pre-dough made with a tiny bit of yeast, some water and flour. It’s left to rise for 24 hours and in the process acquires complex flavours which contribute to the final taste and aroma of the bread.

So here’s my attempt to recreate that bread. The recipe is a variation of a country-style bread from Carol Field’s book, The Italian Baker. The biga is the same but I’ve made adjustments to the types of flour and water she recommends. One key thing to know about bread is that the wetter the dough, the more “holey” it will be. It is however quite difficult to handle because even at the final rise, the dough is very soft and sticky. If you prefer a tighter crumb you can reduce the amount of water slightly. Also, I like to bake the bread until the crust is quite dark, as the slight bitterness that results appeals to me. You don’t have to take it that far, but just make sure it’s cooked by tapping the base – it should sound hollow.

And a word about a stand mixer versus hand kneading. I’ve got a stand mixer with a dough hook so I use it, but you can easily make this bread by hand, you just need to mix everything for longer. So for the biga stir everything with a wooden spoon for about 3 -4 minutes and for the bread dough, knead for around 6-7 minutes, till the dough feels sort of elastic. Because this recipe makes a rather wet dough though, don’t be tempted to add more flour to make it easier to handle, as the end result won’t be the same.

¼ teaspoon dried yeast
50ml blood heat water
¾ cup room temperature water
330g plain flour or bread flour

Sprinkle the yeast onto the 50ml warm water and let it sit for 10 minutes until creamy. Put it into a stand mixing bowl, add the remaining water and flour and combine on a low speed for about 2 minutes. Turn it out into a bowl smeared with a little oilve oil, cover with plastic wrap and let stand in a cool room for about 24 hours, or even longer if you like, up to about 72 hours maximum.

Freshly made biga

Freshly made biga

After 24 hours of proving

After 24 hours of proving

See how elastic the biga becomes after just a day

See how elastic the biga becomes after just a day

Keep the biga in the fridge where it will continue to develop flavour over the course of a week. After that it’s probably past its prime. You can also freeze it, just defrost a piece for a few hours before using in your next batch of bread. (This amount of biga will make four large loaves, so use a quarter and divide the rest into three pieces, wrap each in plastic wrap and store in a container in the freezer.)

This bread recipe makes one large loaf but you can double it without any problem. I used whole spelt flour, but you could use just normal wholemeal flour, or go for all plain white flour, it’s up to you – your choices will make your bread unique. You can leave out the burghul if you don’t have any to hand, Italians wouldn’t use it in their bread anyway but I like it because it adds an extra nuttiness.

Pane di Velletri
Scant ¾ teaspoon yeast
25ml blood heat water
1¼ cups room temperature water
50g coarse burghul, soaked for 2 hours in hot water, then drained (optional)
125g biga
125g whole spelt flour
250g plain flour or bread flour
2 teaspoons salt

In a stand mixer bowl place the yeast and the 25 ml of water. Let stand for 10 minutes. Add the remaining 1 1/4 cups water and the biga and with the normal paddle mix until the biga is fairly well broken up and the water is a chalky white. Add the flours, burghul and the salt and change to a dough hook.
You may need to add up to 2 tablespoons of extra flour but the dough will never come away cleanly from the bowl. Mix for 5 minutes on a moderate speed. Finish kneading the dough by hand for a minute or two on a well floured surface – you can add up to 3 tablespoons of flour but again, the dough should still feel sticky and wet.

First Rise
Put the dough in an oiled bowl, cover tightly with gladwrap and leave for 3 hours or until it’s doubled in volume and full of air bubbles. Don’t punch it down.

See all the tiny bubbles covering the surface?

See all the tiny bubbles covering the surface?

Second Rise
Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and gently shape into a large round (or you could make two smaller ones), pulling tight on the surface of the dough to make a taut surface (this will be difficult to do with a wet dough so don’t worry if you can’t get that bit right). Place the loaves rough side up on a floured baking sheet or on some baking paper on a baking sheet. Let it rise for another hour, although it actually won’t rise much.
Thirty minutes before baking preheat the oven to 250C, and if you have a baking stone, put it in the oven to heat or you can use a large cast iron pan, or just a baking sheet. Dimple the tops of the loaves with your fingertips all over gently and let rest for 10-15 minutes.
Just before baking, sprinkle the baking stone or pan with some cornmeal. Gently invert the loaves onto the stone. The bread will look deflated when you put it in but will puff up considerably. Bake for 55-65 minutes and cool on racks. Don’t cut it until it’s fully cooled.
Note: To get a crunchy crust you can put a cake tin in the base of your oven and throw in some ice cubes at the same time as the bread goes in. The steam generated will create a crunchy crust.
And by the way, this loaf of bread cost about $1.20 and would have been even less if I hadn’t elected to use organic spelt flour.


Date, Fig and Banana Cake

My niece Ruby and her family were coming over for the dinner the other night and because we all love Indian food, I made a huge feast. However Ruby has always seemed reluctant to try new things and in the past often ended up raiding the fruit bowl or having a piece of toast instead. With that in mind I got in a few bananas, not a fruit that I particularly enjoy but which kids seem to like. And wouldn’t you know it – Ruby’s grown up and now loves all things spicy and I was left with a pile of bananas rapidly turning black.

Everyone has a recipe for banana cake or bread and I suppose I’m not being especially original giving you my version. But this one is really good. Apart from bananas, it’s full of dates, figs, nuts and seeds and as a result has greater depth of flavour than your average banana cake. It’s very moist by itself but it could also be rather good to slather a slice with butter. I’ve cooked it in a loaf tin so I suppose it should be called a bread or loaf but the texture is really quite cake-like.
Banana, Date and Fig Bread
120g plain flour
65g wholemeal flour
1 tspn bicarbonate of soda
1 tspn cinnamon
½ tspn allspice
½ tspn salt
150g pitted dates, chopped
80g dried figs, chopped
120g walnuts, toasted and chopped
220g caster sugar
2 eggs
125 ml extra virgin olive oil
1 tspn vanilla bean paste or vanilla essence
300g mashed banana (about 3 large bananas)
A handful of pepitas or sunflower seeds (or both)

Preheat the oven to 180C, non fan-forced. Grease a loaf tin (mine was 25cm by 15cm) and line the base with baking paper.

Sift the flours, bicarbonate of soda, spices and salt into a bowl. Add the nuts, figs and dates and toss well to cover them with the flour. (Doing this ensures that they remain suspended in the mix during baking, rather than falling to the bottom of the cake).
Combine the eggs, sugar, olive oil and vanilla bean paste, beating well for a minute so that the mixture is smooth and creamy. Fold in the bananas and don’t worry about any lumps. Now combine the wet and dry mixtures together but don’t over-mix. Pour this into your tin, sprinkle with the seeds and bake in the oven for about 1 hour and 10 minutes. You may need to cover the cake with foil if you think it’s browning too much in the last 20 minutes or so. If a wooden skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, it’s ready.

Cool the tin on a wire rack for about half an hour and then remove the loaf from the tin and let it cool down completely before cutting.

A simple blueberry and walnut cake

Can you remember a time when blueberry muffins weren’t on every cafe counter and take-away coffee shop? Blueberries are native to the United States where there is a long tradition of making blueberry pancakes, preserves and pies. They were introduced to Australia about 12 years ago and we’ve taken to them with gusto. I’m not really sure why blueberry muffins became so popular with customers, although I guess they’re really easy to make and therefore are a quick standby for time-pressed bakers.
The recipe below is not a muffin recipe but a cake. It’s also simple to make but tastes much more interesting than a muffin and keeps better too. You can use frozen blueberries if you don’t have fresh ones and actually I made this cake with a combination of fresh and frozen berries, as you can probably see from the before-bake photo. You could also substitute raspberries, blackberries or mulberries in season.

Blueberry and Walnut Cake
60g walnuts
125g unsalted butter, softened
185 g caster sugar
2 eggs
300g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
pinch salt
200ml sour cream
100ml buttermilk
1 tablespoon lemon juice

100g icing sugar mixture
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or even better, 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste
2 tablespoons water or lemon juice if you prefer a tarter icing

Preheat the oven to 175C (non fan-forced) and grease a 20cm square tin and line the base with baking paper. Toast the walnuts for a few minutes, watching them like a hawk so they don’t burn. Toasting brings out their flavour and also improves their crunch and is worth the extra effort. Let them cool down while you make the cake.

Beat the soft butter with the sugar in a stand mixer until the mixture is pale and creamy, about 5 minutes. Beat in one of the eggs. You’ll notice that it takes a while for the mixture to come back together but that’s normal. Add the next egg and beat well.

Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarb of soda and salt together in one bowl and in another combine the sour cream, buttermilk and lemon juice. With the mixer on slow speed, add half the flour mixture and when it’s nearly incorporated, add half the sour cream mixture. Repeat this process with the remaining flour and sour cream mixtures. Don’t over-mix or the cake crumb won’t be tender.
Scoop the batter into the prepared tin then sprinkle the walnuts and blueberries over the top. Bake the cake for about 60 minutes or until the top is nicely browned and a wooden skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Let the cake cool down completely then make the icing by combining all the ingredients in a small bowl. It’s probably worth sifting the icing sugar mixture just to make sure there are no lumps. Hold back a little of the water or lemon juice, since you may not need it all. You’re looking for a thick drizzling consistency. Drizzle the icing over the cake but don’t cover the whole thing, you want to be able to see some of the blueberries and walnuts as well.
The cake will keep well for two to three days in an airtight container.

Quince Jelly

I was looking through a food magazine the other day and came across a rather odd dessert recipe involving amongst other things an oolong tea custard, caramelised, salted walnuts and quince jelly. It seemed like a strange combination but I felt compelled to try it. The rest of the ingredients for this dish are relatively easy to come by but quince jelly is one of those things that you don’t usually find in supermarkets or even specialty food shops. I guess it’s because it’s a rather old fashioned sort of jam that requires a bit more effort than just boiling up fruit and sugar. So step one in making the dessert was to make the quince jelly.
Quinces, along with pomegranates, seem like fruits plucked out of a Renaissance still life painting. Hard, knobbly, furry, smelling of apples but tasting mouth-puckeringly sour when raw, the fruit becomes deliciously transformed when cooked. The jelly is sweet like all jams and preserves but still smells and tastes of quinces.

Making Quince Jelly
If you have a choice, select quinces with a tinge of green in the skin. This means they’re slightly unripe which signifies that they’ll contain more pectin and will therefore have a better setting ability.

For every kilo of quinces, you’ll need about a litre or more of water, a lemon, and about a kilo (or slightly less) of sugar. When I made this jelly the other day I had about 1.3 kilos of quinces which ended up making about 1 litre of jelly. You’ll also need a jelly bag but if you don’t have such an arcane piece of equipment, a large square of muslin is just fine.
Rub the fur off the skin of the quinces with your hands or a tea towel. Chop the quinces roughly, skin, seeds and all and put in a heavy based pot. Squeeze the lemon and add the juice to the pot, along with the pips and peel. Cover everything with water and bring to the boil. Cook this with the pot lid on for about 2 hours on a low heat, so that it’s simmering.
Toward the end of the cooking time, the quinces and liquid surrounding them will start to turn pink. Remove the lid, increase the heat a bit and cook for a while longer, until the colour starts to intensify, about another half hour or perhaps less. Don’t let too much liquid evaporate though, or you won’t have enough to make the jelly. Turn off the heat and with a stick blender or potato masher, mush up the fruit. It shouldn’t be a puree though, just roughly blended.
Lay the muslin over a colander, underneath which you’ve set a bowl to catch the quince juice. You want to be able to tie up the muslin into a bag so that you can hang it somewhere to drain overnight ‐ I used my laundry tap. Gently ladle the blended quinces into the colander. Tie the four ends of the muslin together and sling this over your tap or whatever set up you’re using, allowing the liquid to drain into the bowl below. Leave this for about 24 hours. Under no circumstances be tempted to squeeze the muslin to extract more juice. If you do, you’ll force tiny bits of quince fibre into the juice and your final jelly will be cloudy – the real beauty of quince jelly is in its jewel‐like clarity.
Once the quinces have drained, discard the pulp from the bag and measure the juice you’ve collected. By the way, the juice may seem a little murky at this stage but have no fear. If you didn’t squeeze the bag, clarity will return once you start cooking the juice with the sugar.

Preheat the oven to 150C. Place your glass jars in the oven to sterilise them and boil their lids. For each 500ml of juice, you’ll need 500g of sugar. Pour the measured sugar onto an oven tray and heat the sugar in the oven, just for five minutes. Meanwhile bring the quince juice to a rolling boil and then add the heated sugar, stirring all the time. Don’t stop stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. At this point the liquid will start to produce some scum on the surface and you need to remove this. If you read my post on making very clear stock https://jenrollinslovesfood.wordpress.com/2014/04/07/my-favourite-new-kitchen-tool/ you will know that a fine mesh skimmer is a fantastic tool to skim stocks and jellies, as the scum is removed while returning the liquid to the pot. If you don’t have one these skimmers, use a large spoon but whatever tool you use you need to be pretty diligent about this if you want a clear jelly. Remove the jars from the oven and set them on a heat proof surface.

Continue to boil the liquid for about half an hour or until it reaches around 105C if you’re using a jam thermometer at which point it should set when cooled. Actually I think I prefer the old fashioned method. Place a little dish in the freezer. When you think the jelly has been boiling long enough (usually when the bubbles get larger and the boiling liquid looks glossy) place a bit of the liquid onto the dish and leave for a few seconds. Push it with your finger. If it remains runny, return the pot to the stove but if it turns into a soft gel that ripples when you push it, then it’s ready.

With a wide mouth funnel, ladle the jelly into the jars. Let it cool a bit then screw on the lids.
Most people like quince jelly on toast, on scones, or on croissants.
Quinces go well with apples so you could use it to jazz up an apple crumble or drizzle on baked apples (if you do this, warm the jelly in a microwave for a few seconds). You could also use it to baste a roast chicken or duck and you could even think about roasting some peeled and cored quinces along with the bird, the sourness of the unsweetened quince cuts through the fattiness of duck especially. I haven’t got around to making that odd dessert I mentioned at the beginning of the post though, when I do I’ll let you know.


Chestnut and Chocolate Cake and other good things

It’s autumn so it’s chestnut season. Well chestnuts might be called nuts but actually they have little in common with them. They’re low in protein and fat, and very high in carbohydrate, which these days might be enough to stop you reading right now. But persevere because chestnuts are a delicious seasonal thing that are worth getting to know.
It's autumn so it's chestnuts season
Chestnut trees are endemic to many parts of Europe including northern and central Italy and France. In both countries they’re also known as “bread trees” since for many impoverished forest communities in previous centuries, chestnuts were dried and turned into flour which formed the basis of their daily bread. (Chestnut flour is valuable from specialist food shops but it need to be really fresh, it goes rancid quickly. It’s best stored in the fridge). Chestnuts have strong connotations with poverty for elderly people from these countries and in fact they fell out of favour for many years in the 20th century once people were able to afford bread made from wheat. Other edible varieties are also found in parts of Asia, in particular China.

If you’ve ever been to Europe in autumn or early winter you’ll have passed by the street vendors who roast their chestnuts over coals until their aroma beckons people from all around. Sold wrapped in a paper cone, they’re hot, sweet and slightly mealy, with smokiness from the coals. But there are many other ways to use chestnuts and here are a few ideas.

Before I begin though, you might like to know how to prepare fresh chestnuts. In Australia these days, chestnuts are marketed as easy peel. However there’s no doubting that the process of peeling them takes time, no matter how they’re labeled. So if you’re not into the Zen art of cooking you might like to skip this section, safe in the knowledge that you can also buy them ready peeled, either vacuum packed in tins or frozen, although needless to say they are more expensive bought this way. The exception to this are Chinese chestnuts which are slightly smaller than European ones but have a very similar flavour and texture. They’re available from most Chinese grocers in the freezer section and make reasonable substitutes for fresh ones in soups and purees.

Chestnuts usually have a rounded and a flat side. With a small sharp knife, cut a slash on the flat side from top to bottom, trying to angle your knife so it slides sideways rather than directly into the nut.
Bring a pan of water to the boil and then simmer the nuts for about 15 minutes, maybe a couple of minutes less if they’re on the small side.
Take the pot off the heat but leave them in the water. With the same sharp knife and your left hand in a protective washing up glove (if you’re right-handed that is) prise off the tough outer shell while the nut is still hot. Hopefully the softer, inner skin will come away with it but sometimes it doesn’t in which case you’ll need to peel it off bit by bit.
The fresher the nut, the easier this whole process is. I have also read that it can be worthwhile soaking the chestnuts in water for an hour before you begin this process. Sometimes, satisfyingly, you’ll get the whole nut in one go, peeled and intact. But it doesn’t matter if they break up since for most recipes appearance is not an issue.
The following delicious cake doesn’t contain fresh chestnuts but instead uses pureed chestnuts which are widely available in tins, both sweetened and unsweetened. For this recipe you’ll need the unsweetened variety. Before starting the cake, put the puree through a potato ricer, or mush it up with a food processor, that way you won’t have to beat the cake too hard when you’re adding the chestnut puree.
Chestnut and Chocolate Cake
280g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
250 g unsweetened chestnut puree
50ml milk
230g softened unsalted butter
200g caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or the seeds from half a vanilla bean
4 whole eggs plus one egg white

Chocolate Ganache
250 g bittersweet or 70% dark chocolate (your choice), chopped
125g butter, cut into pieces
50 ml water

Prepare a 22cm springform pan by first greasing it then lining bottom and sides with baking paper. Preheat the oven to 175C non fan-forced.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and whisk to combine. Combine the milk and chestnut puree in a separate bowl and mix well. In a stand mixer, beat the butter for a few seconds to work it, then add the sugar and vanilla and beat on a moderate speed until it’s light and fluffy, three to four minutes. Add the egg yolks one by one, beating well after each addition. Set the egg whites aside in a large bowl.

Add a third of the flour to the butter mixture on a low speed, then a third of the chestnut mixture. Repeat with the second third of the flour, the second lot of chestnut mixture and then the last bit of flour followed by the remaining chestnut puree.

Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form. Take one third of the egg whites and fold them through the cake mixture to lighten it. Then fold that mixture through the remaining egg whites, using a light hand so as not to deflate the egg whites. A big metal spoon is best for this.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about 1 hour, but you might need up to ten minutes more, until a wooden skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin.
Meanwhile make the chocolate ganache. If you have a microwave, put the chocolate, butter and water into a bowl and use the melt setting to melt everything together. Otherwise set a heatproof bowl with the ganache ingredients over a pot of simmering water and let everything melt. Don’t overheat the ganache.

Once the cake is cold and the ganache has cooled but not set, use it to ice the cake. Don’t be tempted to do this before the cake has completely cooled otherwise you’ll end up with a big melted chocolate mess – trust me, I know. You could serve this cake with a dollop of whipped cream or just have it plain.
The following recipe is a good soup for a chilly day but the flavours do really improve if you make it the day before you want to eat it. Because most of the ingredients are rather sweet when cooked, you might like to add a squeeze of lemon to the final dish. I also love a drizzle of chilli oil with this soup.
Chestnut, Pancetta and Savoy Cabbage Soup
olive oil
150g pancetta, skin removed but kept in one piece, flesh diced finely
1 onion, finely diced
1/2 carrot finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/4 small savoy cabbage, chopped
300 g prepared chestnuts, chopped roughly (from about 450g unpeeled chestnuts)
800ml chicken or vegetable stock
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat enough oil to cover the base of a heavy saucepan. Fry the diced pancetta and its skin gently, letting it colour a bit. Add the onion, carrot and celery and fry for about 10 minutes, allowing it to become a little coloured. Add the garlic and fry for a couple of minutes more, then add the chestnuts and savoy cabbage. Cook for another minute or two then add the stock and simmer until the vegetables and chestnuts are really tender, about 40 minutes.

You can take out the pancetta skin at this stage and discard it, or do as I do and dice it and return it to the pot. Remove about half of the soup and puree the rest with a stick blender. Return the reserved soup to the pot and heat through. This makes a very thick soup. You can dilute it if you like with a bit more stock. Serve it with lots of crusty bread.
Many years ago my husband and his partner and friend Bruno Mazzoni ran Ottima Cucina, a little Italian restaurant in Sydney. Bruno used to make some sweet fried ravioli called calciuni and they were incredibly popular. I haven’t asked Bruno for his version but I think these are pretty close. The little pillows of deep-fried deliciousness are traditionally made with a sweet pastry dough but I figured after all the work I went through to peel the chestnuts, I could use Chinese egg wonton wrappers instead. Serve them dusted with icing sugar and pair them with a sweet dessert wine or an amaretto.

Sweet Ravioli stuffed with Chestnuts
300g pureed, unsweetened chestnuts
50g grated bittersweet or dark chocolate
50g almond meal
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon amaretto
2 tablespoons rum
1 tablespoon chestnut honey, or another rich honey.
2 tablespoons caster sugar
1/3 teaspoon bitter almond essence (optional)
pinch salt
1 packet Chinese egg wonton wrappers
1 egg white, lightly beaten
extra virgin olive oil for deep frying, or you could use an unflavoured oil if you prefer
icing sugar for dusting

Combine all the ingredients except the wrappers, oil and eggwhite, mixing well to combine thoroughly. I find that the flavours improve if you make this mixture the day before but it’s not essential.
Lay out a wrapper and brush with eggwhite. Place a teaspoonful of the chestnut mixture in the centre of the wrapper and cover it with another, making sure that the edges are well sealed and there are no air bubbles. Make a few of these while heating your oil, which needs to get to around 180C.
Put a three or so calciuni in the oil, making sure they’re not crowded. Fry for a minute or so until they’re golden brown, then drain on kitchen paper while you make some more.
Dust them with icing sugar and serve immediately. Don’t let them sit otherwise the bases will get soggy.
Makes about 30 ravioli