Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christmas 2008: Shortbread

My mum used to make massive batches of her special shortbread every year for Christmas when I was a kid. Now that we're all grown up, she doesn't do a lot of baking, so if I want shortbread (and I often do), I make them myself.

Shortbread has very few ingredients, so I like to make sure they're good quality...
Natural golden unrefined caster sugar, unsalted Danish butter (a step up from my usual Safeway homebrand butter! - I saw an ad for it in a glossy magazine and succumbed), regular flour and rice flour.

Ooh... I love how the golden caster sugar is more, well, golden than regular caster sugar!

The recipe I use is adapted from a recipe for wholemeal shortbread from an Australian Women's Weekly cookbook, The Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits. Mum always makes them with the line down the middle, like the book suggests, and this, in turn, is how I decorate my shortbread. I like eating them one half at a time, taking small nibbles from one side. I didn't realise until last Saturday, when Duncan pointed it out to me, that they look like big panadols. They taste a lot better though, and with their crumbly texture and sweet buttery flavour, they make me feel better than any panadol ever could.

Special Christmas Shortbread
Adapted from The Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits

250g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup castor sugar
2 1/2 cups plain flour
1/2 cup rice flour

Preheat oven to 170C.

Combine butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer, and beat until pale and fluffy. Add sifted dry ingredients and mix well together to form a firm dough. Turn out on to lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. Roll out to 1cm thickness. Cut out rounds using a 4cm floured cutter. Place on lined oven trays. Mark lightly in half with a knife, being careful not to cut all the way through. Bake for 35 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool on tray.

Makes approximately 35.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Kylie Kwong Drinking Game

Next time there's a Kylie Kwong marathon screening on Lifestyle food, you can play this fun drinking game with your friends. You will need a TV with Foxtel, and lots of alcohol.

Now, every time one of the following events occur, take a sip:

1. Kylie makes her version of a Chinese dish, which involves pouring hot peanut oil over garlic/ginger/shallots/chilli/brown sugar/light soy/Chinese cooking wine.

2. Kylie says the words "garlic, ginger and shallots" or "depth of flavour".

3. Kylie does something odd and the locals look at her like she's really weird.

4. Kylie says "the Chinese" or "we Chinese" as if she's actually Chinese and not just a 5th-generation Australian selling her Asianness to the highest bidder.

5. Kylie changes her faux-Chinese tunic.

6. Kylie tries to pronounce a Chinese word in a super-broad Aussie accent.

7. Kylie tries to talk to someone, and the camera quickly pans away to give the translator time to come in and explain to her what's going on.

8. Kylie backs away while talking to the camera and bumps into someone, without saying sorry or acknowledging them.

9. Kylie barks at someone in English, as if talking louder will make her easier to understand.

10. Kylie barges into someone's kitchen and they nod politely as they taste her Kylie-fied version of their dish.

BONUS: If Kylie eats a char siu pau with chopsticks, you must down your glass.

***Disclaimer: This is a joke. Don't actually play this drinking game. Sarah Cooks does not encourage the consumption of alcohol in excessive quantities. Or eating paus with chopsticks.***

Check out this hilarious blog post about Kylie Kwong at through the Looking Glass. You said it, sister!

Christmas 2008: The Ham Night

To be completely honest, I wasn't planning on having a ham dinner at all - I was never a fan of cold Christmas ham as a kid, and had no idea when we'd find the time to eat it. However, about a month before Christmas, I was up at Rendinas butcher ordering my turkey and remembered that they're famous for their hams, so on a whim of extravagance, I ordered one too. I figured that, surely, in a month's time I'd have figured out what to do with it. Hah!

Well, the day before the pick-up, (2 days before Christmas itself), I still had no idea, and frantically flicked through my cookbooks to decide on a menu for the ham. I have made hot ham before (notably during my How to Eat project, and whilst in London), always getting raw pickled pork or gammon, and boiling it myself - a long and tedious process. Because our hams only come fully cooked in Australia, I knew I could either serve it cold, or apply a glaze, then heat it briefly in the oven. (According to a Donna Hay recipe, a 8kg ham takes only 45 minutes to heat through).

Here is the menu I chose:

A Pre-Christmas Dinner for 4

Baked Ham with Mustard-Muscovado Glaze
Spiced Peaches (Nigella Express)
Mac & Cheese (Tyler's Ultimate)
Smoky Peas

The mustard-muscovado glaze comes from a suggestion in How to Eat, the peaches from Nigella Express, and the mac & cheese from Tyler's Ultimate. Nigella fans will notice she has a similar menu in Nigella Christmas - a ginger-glazed ham accompanied by mac and cheese. I avoided Nigella's recipes because the ham doesn't have the resplendent clove-studded diamond pattern, and Nigella's mac & cheese recipe bizarrely uses evaporated milk instead of a white sauce. I've tried it; it tastes weird. Tyler's mac & cheese, on the other hand, is truly the ultimate version. Classic, and delicious. He serves it with smoky peas and bacon on the side, but I left out the bacon, so as to avoid a culinary tautology.

Naturally wood-smoked organic leg ham; slicing off the rind, diamond-scoring and clove-studding, cooked ham. The smallest leg-ham I could get was a 2kg piece, and it took about 30 minutes to get hot all the way through and brown on the outside.

Mac & cheese!

Peas - cooked with onion, thyme and a little butter.

Nigella's spiced peaches - ludicrously easy to make (just put everything in a pot and simmer), and totally perfect with the ham.

We loved, loved, loved this meal! The ham was incredible, and the accompaniments worked really well. I thought the spiced peaches were fantastic - I'm a huge fan of fruit with meat. Everything was pretty easy to make, and was put together super-quickly. We actually had it on the Tuesday night before Christmas. That's right, (she says, tooting her own horn), I got this whole dinner together after work one night. I got home at 6, and dinner was on the table before 8. *Pauses for applause*. Thank-you, thank-you.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas 2008: Christmas Morning

Merry Christmas everyone! Hope everyone's had a fabulous day. We spent about 4 hours this afternoon cooking, and we had a massive, massive dinner! Now it's quiet - we've eaten our turkey, packed away the leftovers, and cleaned the kitchen. I'm sooo glad to be slumped on the couch with my feet up, and am soo looking forward to the rest of this long weekend.

For breakfast this morning I made a batch of Nigella's Christmas morning muffins, which are full of Christmas spices and glinting red cranberries. I actually baked them last night, at about 2am (as you can imagine, we were busy with gift-wrapping and biscuit baking and whatnot), and re-heated them in the oven this morning for 5 minutes at 180C. We had them, as per Nigella's suggestion, with lashings of unsalted butter and marmalade. Fabulous!

Funky Gloria Jean's Christmas Coffee Mug

In my house, Christmas morning is all about the presents! It's so festive to have a big pile of gifts under the tree, and I love ripping off the wrapping paper. Here's a selection of some awesome gifts I received...
French Champagne; Maggie's Kitchen by Maggie Beer; Venezia by Tessa Kiros, and a freakin' sweet red leather travel document wallet from Kikki K. I'm a very lucky girl.

Happy Holidays! Can't wait to see everyone's Christmas blog posts!

Christmas 2008: Mince Pies

As promised, a quick post on the mince pies we had with our goose dinner. (You also may be wondering what I'm doing blogging on Christmas day - presents are done, and dinner is not for a few good hours. Now it's sweet, sweet sofa time).

I seriously love mince pies, but have been restrained about my mince pie consumption this year. Rather than buying boxes and boxes of pies, and making massive batches of my own, as I usually do, this year I only made a half-batch of Nigella's frangipane mince pies, (my favourite mince pie recipe from my How to Eat project). In How to Eat, Nigella provides a brief guideline, but a full recipe appears in How to be a Domestic Goddess. These consist of almond pastry, a small spoon of fruit mince, topped with almond frangipane and flaked almonds.

A half batch of these babies makes 12 mince pies - making a larger number would simply be irresponsible in my house - and in such small quantities, the pastry is easy enough to make by hand, rather than in the processor. (I'd still recommend freezing the butter cubes and flour/almond meal/sugar first, as Nigella suggests). They only take about 10 minutes to bake, and have a lovely, delicate almond flavour. Gorgeous!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas 2008: Goose

A fixed part of my pre-Christmas repertoire is a roast goose. It's so exotic for us Aussies, and I love the crispy skin, not to mention the amazing roast potatoes you can make with the goosefat. I've made goose stuffed with sauerkraut, with mashed potatoes, and this year I tried it with a mushroom stuffing from my Culinaria Germany book.

A Pre-Christmas Goose Feast for 5

Roast Goose with Baked Apples (How to Eat)
Mushroom Stuffing (Culinaria Germany)
Roast Potatoes
Red Cabbage
Frangipane Mince Pies (How to be a Domestic Goddess)

I ordered my goose from John Cesters' Poultry in Prahran Market - ridiculously expensive, but it's only once a year. Last time, the geese were prepared; the head removed and the neck stored within the cavity, leaving the goose nice, neat-looking, and ready to roast. This year, however, the head and neck were still attached. It wasn't a big deal for me to chop the neck off, but at over $30 a kilo, I'd expect a bit more pre-preparation.

After beheading the goose, I did the usual hot water + fan crispy skin trick, and got on with the accompaniments.

First, the gravy. Fry the neck in a pan, add veggies, marsala, calvados and chicken stock, and simmer...

Mushroom stuffing - sliced mushrooms, bacon, parsley, paprika, pecans, egg, breadcrumbs...

I then stuffed the goose, and shoved it in the oven. While that was going on, I parboiled the potatoes for roast potatoes and finished the gravy. For some reason though, the gravy tasted feral - too sweet and with a weird aftertaste. Too much marsala and celery perhaps? Whatever, I turfed it.

Once the goose is out of the oven, you can roast the potatoes. They do take an hour to cook, but the goose stays scaldingly hot under a tent of foil. I love goosefat roast potatoes, and they're even tastier with freshly rendered goosefat. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Nigella's recipe is the best.

Mmm... crispy...

The other accompaniments, the red cabbage and baked apples, are pretty simple. Just score the apples and bake for 45 minutes, and heat the red cabbage (from a jar) on the stove. Without any gravy, the soft apple and red cabbage provided delicious sauciness.

The meat was tender and flavourful, but I was a bit disconcerted by the amount of feathers (hair?) still stuck in the skin. What's up with that?

More roast potato shots...
So crispy...
So fluffy!

Goose is great to eat, but awkward to carve, as it is so bony. We just hacked it apart roughly, with a knife at first, and with our hands once we gave that up. It's not something my family should be eating in civilised company, hehe.

Oh, and on a side note, that mushroom stuffing was so disappointing! I have no idea why - all the ingredients seemed promising, but combined it just tasted muddy and weird. I'm sticking to plain sauerkraut or mashed potatoes from now on. Apart from that, though, the meal was lovely!

And, a Christmas necessity for me, mince pies for dessert! I made these myself, with a spoon of almond frangipane on top of the fruit mince. More detail to come in an upcoming post.

Merry Christmas everybody! Hope you all have a great day tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas 2008: Marzipan Fruit Cake

I. Love. Fruitcake.

This year, for my Christmas cake, I tried Nigella's marzipan fruit cake from How to be a Domestic Goddess. At first, I was going to make the gorgeously golden fruit cake from Nigella Christmas, but it seemed like that one would be too fruity and not cakey enough. The marzipan fruit cake, on the other hand, seemed sufficiently cakey, and has the added bonus of containing delicious marzipan. Nigella also described it as her favourite fruit cake in the whole world. Sold!

A little bit of pre-preparation is required, but this isn't too strenuous. Just stir the dried pears, sultanas and glace cherries together (the pears and cherries need to be chopped up), pour some white rum over (Bacardi for choice), and let soak overnight. You also have to chop up the marzipan and stick in the freezer overnight.

The next day, you make up the cake mixture, which contains some ground almonds and orange flower water, then stir in the prepared fruits and marzipan.

The batter was very stiff, and as you can see, I wasn't able to get a very smooth surface.

Once it's baked, Nigella instructs you to feed the cake with more rum, then wrap it up in greaseproof paper and foil for about a week. Never having made a proper ye olde fruit cake before, I was a bit nervous that this might dry the cake out or leave it stale and feral. How wrong I was! It stays super-moist.

After seeing Nigella's "dramatically pretty" white iced Christmas cakes in Nigella Christmas, I honestly considered decorating my Christmas cake in the traditional way, marzipan'ed and enrobed in white icing. But then I thought, "Why ruin a perfectly good cake?", and left it plain. I don't know anyone who actually enjoys the white crusty sugar icing they put on fruit cakes - I certainly don't. Urgh.

Here is the cake, after one week's maturing...

When I unveiled the cake, we sat around and had thick slices with tea. At first, I was quite disappointed - it just tasted too sweet, and I didn't enjoy that first slice at all. However, let me tell you, the cake gets better and better with time. We polished off the whole thing in about 4 days. Oops.

It's best enjoyed in tiny little slivers, cut off from the cake whenever you feel like a sweet treat. As I mentioned, the cake is wonderfully moist, and the graininess of the dried pears and marzipan is just magic.

For next time, I'll definitely decrease the sugar content, and grate the marzipan rather than chopping it up, so that it combines more smoothly into the cake batter. I also think fruit cakes look nicer if they're tall and majestic, rather than flat, so next time I'll do it in an 18cm tin, rather than the 20cm tin that Nigella suggests.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Wicked Weekend

A glass of sparkling is my favourite way to start a special evening!

Caboose Restaurant + Bar
4 City Square
Melbourne, VIC 3000
(03) 9663 4448

We went to see Wicked on the weekend (wahoo!), and wanted to grab a nice dinner beforehand. After some quick googling of restaurants close to the Regent Theatre, I decided on Caboose. Caboose is a tiny shoebox of a restaurant in City Square, tucked away under the Martini Bar and between Starbucks and Brunetti. It also happens to be right opposite Krispy Kreme if you wanna grab a sneaky donut between dinner and the show.

Earlier in the day, I made a booking made a booking for 6:30pm. It was a Saturday night, and I assumed I'd need one. When I spoke to the lady on the phone, she told me, "Yeah, no worries, we've only got one other booking. See you guys at 6:30 tonight!" However, when we rocked up, the restaurant was full, and they seemed to have forgotten about our booking. Oops.

Anyway, they were really nice about it, and gave us a glass of sparkling wine each while we sat outside and waited for a table. We only ended up waiting for about 10 minutes, so it wasn't a problem at all. Turnover at Caboose is really fast; I assume most people just rock up instead of booking.

The interior walls are industrial-looking concrete, and I loved the squishy couch-style chairs.

Butter and bread. The bread was good, not great, and I thought it was cute how they stack the butter on top of the bread, echoing the cosy/cramped interior of the restaurant.

Ordinarily we wouldn't be ordering a pasta dish that could be easily made at home, but we saw the spaghetti al aglio e olio ferried around by waiters to other tables, and it just smelled soo good that we couldn't resist.

Spaghetti al aglio e olio, thin pasta tossed with garlic, chilli, basil and spinach - $18.

I prefer my spaghetti al aglio e olio with a more hardcore garlic content, so garlicky you wouldn't dare to speak to anyone for hours afterwards, but it was good nonetheless.

Steak for me. Very rare, please. It came with deliciously salty shoestring fries (I doubt that they are "hand cut", as the menu says), spinach, and a little roasted shallot.
Scotch fillet with hand cut chips and sautéed spinach - $25

Not quite Vlado's, but still very flavourful, and with a delightful crust on the outside.
Mmm... rare...

We were very impressed by Caboose - good food, great prices, nice atmosphere, speedy service. I would definitely come back here. I found the restaurant offered a great mix between special and casual.

Following the show, we swanned into the Martini Bar for some glam cocktails. (As awesome as Wicked is, I wasn't in the mood for the flourescent green cocktails sold in the theatre lobby.)

Sorry, I cannot remember what this was. I know it was fruity and had strawberries in it. $18. Guess I'll just have to make my way back soon to sample some more cocktails to share with you guys...!

Caboose on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas 2008: Weinachts Gebäck - Christmas Cookies

Unfathomably, not everyone loves old-school English Christmas treats, full of dried fruit and beef fat and a heavy dose of spice. (Why, people, why? They're so good!) For these people, Vanillakipferl are the way forward. I've been trying to incorporate more German traditions into my Christmas repertoire this year, and I am mad about these buttery, crumbly biscuits. They're a cross between shortbread and those compulsive Greek almond crescents, but with a finer crumb, and a good dose of vanilla. *Swoon*. They don't seem to be available in shops here, but luckily for all of us, they are ludicrously easy to make, and even easier to eat.

We put ours into a regular old tupperware container, and ate them scarily quickly over the next couple of days, snatching one or (three) out of the container whenever we walked past. However, I think for the echte experience, you should keep them in a special tin, and bring them out to eat with coffee and tea with the family.

The recipe, below, asks for vanilla sugar, AKA vanilla-flavoured icing sugar. Vanilla-flavoured icing sugar seems to be pretty widely available in Germany, but us Aussies would need to improvise. If you happen to have your own stash of vanilla castor sugar then I'd say to use that in the dough, but still add some vanilla extract or the seeds scraped out of a vanilla pod. These biscuits are so good I'm going to stick a vanilla pod into my container of icing sugar, especially for the purpose.

Vanillakipferl (Almond Crescents)
Recipe adapted from Culinaria: Germany

250g flour
200g softened butter
100g ground almonds
75g vanilla sugar (if you don't have vanilla sugar, then castor or icing sugar plus a few drops of vanilla extract should do the trick)
The seeds from 1 vanilla pod (optional)
Vanilla-flavoured icing sugar for sprinkling

Mix together the flour, butter, almonds, vanilla sugar and vanilla seeds with an electric mixer or wooden spoon until smoothly combined. Form into a ball, cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Form the dough into a roll. Cut slices from the roll and shape into small crescents.

Place on a lined baking sheet and bake at 175C for 15 minutes. Dredge the crescents with vanilla icing-sugar while still hot.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Apple Julep @ Toff's - $18

Celebration! Tonight! Celebrate! I always feel too lazy and tired to enjoy going to bars, until I stumble across a place like Toff's. On the very strong recommendation of my brother, in awe of their amazing range of spirits, a small group of us went there to celebrate Su passing all her uni exams! Congratulations to SuSu!!!

The Toff
Second Floor, Curtin House
252 Swanston Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
(03) 9639 8770

The Toff is located in Curtin House on Swanston street, opposite Lounge and above Cookie. I think it's quite new, but don't take my word for it. I don't get out a lot, especially since I started full time work. Who knew that getting up at 6:30 every morning would be abso-frikkin-lutely exhausting?! In fact, most Friday nights see me slumped on the couch in front of a Law and Order: SVU marathon on TV1. Unglamorous, I know, but better to be honest than pretend to be cool.

It was very crowded and warm in there, and after battling the crowds to get our first drinks, we hovered on some barstools near a row of booths and pounced as soon as one became free.

First round: I believe that is a vodka orange, a Pimms & cranberry, and a G&T (in the background). I don't have any bloggable photos of my first drink of the night, a mojito ($18). Apologies for this; the only photos we got, unfortunately, include me pulling stupid faces behind it. Let me assure you the mojito was very good - chock full of fresh half-wedges of lime, brown sugar, fresh mint and heaps of ice. And rum, of course. Yum!

Now, the booths. In the centre of Toff's is a long line of booths, each with leather banquettes and a table. The booths are separated by wire mesh-type windows (think: an opium den but less smokily opulent), and have sliding doors for added privacy. I loved the booths, but being an avid SVU watcher, I was a bit nervous as to what a DNA swab of the leather seats might turn up. Eek.

Onto more pleasant matters: the booths also have service buttons. This is the effortless option, although you will have to provide a credit card for a tab... be careful not to run up a huge bill! Meanwhile, see the gorgeously presented apple julep at the top of this post? Well, it looked beautiful, but tasted like paint stripper to us weaklings. At least we had lots of crunchy apple slices to munch on.

I was delighted to see they had a supper menu. See, responsible drinkers should ensure they eat small meals and keep up their water intake, and... *a million other excuses*... let's just look at the menu!

According to friends of mine, the dinner menu is very good... next time, next time.

Possibly a little small to see, but I knew I'd never remember all the prices off the top of my head.

Sausage rolls with tomato and onion chutney - $11.50

The tastiest sausage rolls ever. I think there was a thin layer of cheese between the puff pastry and the sausage - inspired. I'd totally have a go at making these for a party - I reckon you'd just need to buy some good chipolatas, and wrap them up with good sliced cheese and puff pastry before baking.

Salami pizza with basil, tomato, olives and buffalo mozzarella - $10.50

This pizza was also fabulous, hot and crispy and doughy. Great food, great drinks, fantastic atmosphere. Can't wait to come back!