May 18, 2009

Birthday dinner with a fiery Skippy and a tart most extraordinary…

Our latest baking adventures commenced this week with Miss Rose agreeing to accompany me on an evening performing my new favourite pastime, cupping (Miss Rose and Miss Emily simultaneously cupping; oh, how the mind boggles!). The occasion of Fair Trade fortnight prompted the delightful folks at Padre to host a cupping evening focussed on Fair Trade from a coffee roasters perspective. We were suitably educated, regaled with curious accounts of salivary afflictions, and of course guided through a delicious array of Fair Trade single origins. You may be pleased to hear that my descriptively na├»ve palate of "delicious", "ngyacky" (a visual description whereby one places the tongue on the roof of ones mouth and then drops the jaw in a verbal-click-generating motion while simultaneously scrunching the nose ever so slightly, kind of like a cat trying to eat something sticky – and yes, I probably could have just said "astringent", but that wouldn't be nearly as amusing now would it?) and "not as delicious as that one", has now evolved to include "toffee", "chaff" and "summer meadow" (only kidding, I'm not that much of a wanker).

Miss Rose mid-cup

The evening was as wonderful as expected, and the perfect opportunity to taste many a good coffee in a friendly and encouraging environment with the additional bonus of especially tasty falafel. For the charming folks at Padre – be still my erratically palpitating heart!


But now to this weekend's baking endeavours and what better an excuse for a kitchen-bound occasion than the belated celebrations of the day of birth of a certain Dr Menzies? Before you go getting all angsty that B got singled out for some special TPB attention (although he is perfectly entitled to maintain this presumption), I must point out that not only has he endured lengthy international travel amid panicky swine-flu pandemonium for the privilege, but is also preparing to sacrifice his sanity for a number of days to play host to Team Pretty Bake on our European sojourn in a few weeks time.

Dinner was planned, and I will come to that in due course, however we needed a little more than a simple main and dessert to fulfil our baking desires. We therefore decided to sate a few niggling cravings that had begun to amass; with our fuel for the day thus taking the form of good-old sausage rolls and chocolate cake.

Homemade sausage rolls are of course quite subject to personal taste. While I have referred you to a nice straightforward recipe, I must confess that we still managed to make a number of adjustments, namely the inclusion of minced pork in addition to sausage meat, the replacement of tomato sauce with homemade tomato relish, and the addition of grated apple and fresh breadcrumbs. Of course, once personal tastes are factored in there's really not a lot to sausage rolls. Construct your delicious meaty mixture. Wrap it in pastry. Bake it. Eat it…

Homemade sausage rolls… with TPB tomato relish, naturally

Chocolate cake, on the other hand, takes a little more explaining. You see, this wasn't just any ordinary chocolate cake, but rather the classic American Ding Dong. Miss Rose ventured here just recently for a certain Small celebratory occasion and was simply delighted with the results. The discovery that this was perhaps the most cakey chocolate cake in existence necessitated a second opinion, and who am I to shy from such monumental responsibilities?

Now, the deal with the Ding Dong (aka Devil's food cake) is this:

A fundamental member of the American family of confectionery treats, the Ding Dong has a rather sordid history filled with fierce battles for marketing supremacy. The infamous 1987 Ring Ding vs. Ding Dong great cake conflict was resolved using the compromisingly homophonic King Don, which is now joined in the mega-enterprise that is the American sweetie snack by a multitude of variations, including Hostess cakes and Devil Dogs. The apparent difference between a Ding Dong and a Devil Dog is the resemblance to a hockey puck and hot dog, respectively, however the essential features of all these processed delights is the combination of chocolate cake with a marshmallow/cream filling. The Devil aspect comes from the belief that the aforementioned Ding Dong is the counterpart to that other famed American classic, the Angel Food Cake. So named for its white colour and airy lightness, the angel cake was popularised following the invention of the hand-crank egg beater in the early 19th century. Most notably however, is that this brief introduction into the history of traditional American baked goods provides the opportunity to use both ding dong and hand-crank in the same suggestive sentence.

What stands the Ding Dong apart from other classic chocolate cakes is two-fold. First is the preferential employment of cocoa over the more typically used chocolate. Second - and please excuse my going all science-geek on you for a moment - is the differentiation based on the use of more sodium bicarbonate which raises the pH level in the batter, resulting in the characteristic deeper, darker mahogany colouration.

What I like about the Ding Dong is that it is quick and simple to prepare, primarily uses coffee as the wetting agent, is both dense and moist while sufficiently airy to avoid any kind of 'mud' classification, is structurally impressive making it easy to handle, and adheres to the Team Pretty Bake mantra: "if it is cake, it must be spectacular". After all, why make a single layer cake when you can do this?

The Ding Dong

For dinner we thought it only appropriate to restore Dr Menzies to his Australian roots, preparing for him a red Thai kangaroo curry with coconut rice. A treat for B, this was also our first foray into homemade curry pastes. Admittedly you'll need a bit of time, your mucous membranes may suffer a little so a well ventilated work space is highly advisable, and I most certainly recommend some form of whirry- bladey- choppey-type appliance, but it is so worth it. Exceptionally delicious, our red Thai (and possibly red) kangaroo curry was well received and provided an excellent opportunity for the much-loved photo montage…

Curry construction

Red Thai kangaroo curry with coconut rice

In our discussions over how to round out the evening we had been comparing the virtues of a classic birthday cake with those of an elegant dessert more suitably reflective of our impeccable skills when Miss Rose had an epiphany for the ultimate creation. And so it is with great pleasure that I give you…

Team Pretty Bake's Ultimate Lemon Meringue Pie

We have stumbled on some rather spectacular treats during our time together in the kitchen, and during what I presume to be a moment of quite introspection, it occurred to Miss Rose that if we were to combine our most extraordinary French lemon cream tart with Italian meringue, it may just be possible to create the greatest lemon meringue pie ever to have existed. And the simple fact of the matter is that we most probably have. A sweet crumbly pastry filled with whipped lemon cream and meringue, both so luscious and silken that the only discernable difference between the two layers was the sudden smack of intense lemony deliciousness. My friends, I suspect that we could achieve world domination with this baby (although we may just keep it to ourselves), and if you are ever needing to woo, this is your guaranteed answer to success. Knees will weaken and hearts will be sent aflutter as the eyes of those who experience the greatness well with tears of absolute unrivalled joy.

As is often the way with Team Pretty Bake, we completed the night with both a classic birthday cake AND an over-indulgent extravagance, and B was most impressed by a birthday meal where the dessert course was larger than the main.

Oh sweet mother of god…

And on that particularly pleasurable note I will bid ourselves bon voyage as we prepare to experience an unforetold number of European delights. There is a certain impending anniversary that I just cannot bear to be here for, so I thought it only wise to make the long-overdue journey to visit my sister, with a few intercontinental stops along the way. Fortunately Miss Rose was easily convinced to accompany me on my first overseas escapade, so I will be in experienced, if not slightly insane hands. We promise to have fun, stay safe, experience much, consume plenty and regale you with tales of our adventures on our return. Until then, may everyone's fridge one day look like this:

Bon voyage TPB!

May 4, 2009

Autumn leaves...

I miss you most of all, my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
Eva Cassidy – Autumn Leaves
I know it's been a while, but what with the lads of Crue and Padre combining for an irresistible coffee degustation; and Misters O'Doherty, Moran and Kitson gracing our shores with their comedic presence, our ever-dwindling spare time opportunities have been otherwise engaged. Add to that some crazy vocational scheduling and imperative workly deadlines and you'll find that, to be perfectly frank, we of Team Pretty Bake have been feeling a wee bit exhausted of late. But this moment of culinary fatigue has now passed, and a beautiful Sunday was once again well spent, so at long last we can finally bring you a return to the kitchen happenings of Sunday Baking with Team Pretty Bake.

As the change in seasons brings crisp mornings and beautiful cool but sunny days, we thought it only appropriate that the theme for our latest gastronomic adventure be all things autumnal. A few stalwarts were decided upon, and as the quinces poached slowly in the corner, we turned our focus to the quintessential autumn classic, the chestnut.

Now, quips about hairy nuts aside, our intended creation was Patrizia's castagnaccio from the oft resourced Stephanie. An Italian classic, castagnaccio is one of these curious not-quite-sweet, not-quite-savoury cakes which is eaten either with antipasto and an aperitif, or as dessert, depending on your particular persuasion.

Following the sagely advice of our predecessors that non-rancid chestnut flour is difficult to come by (and not to mention also happens to be ludicrously expensive), we followed the more traditional method of using whole chestnuts. Although I have no basis for comparison, I suspect that this approach is thoroughly worth it, but I must advise that these little dears are quite a bit of work. Shelling freshly simmered chestnuts is somewhat therapeutic, for perhaps the first nut or two. After that you begin to loose all feeling in your fingers, the complete removal of the inner hairiness seems tedious and impossible, and while some satisfaction is experienced on finally attaining the required weight, a kitchen minion would have been thoroughly appreciated.

But with our freshly peeled chestnuts finally at the ready we set about constructing our castagnaccio. The chestnuts were first boiled down to a paste - following a mesmerising transformation from the appearance of a festering pot of simmering brains to a silky paste with oyster-mauve hues which looked perfectly edible - and then combined with some honey and walnuts, topped with pine nuts and rosemary and finally baked to produce this…

Patrizia's Castagnaccio

A densely moist cake with heavenly aromas, the castagnaccio was surprisingly delicious. To my mind it is definitely savoury as it was simply killer drizzled with olive oil and topped with salty cured meats and olives. Undeniably different, I can thoroughly recommend attempting a castagnaccio, particularly if you can find someone else to peel your nuts.


We followed our chestnut feature with one of my favourite autumn treats, rhubarb. Rather than the usual and near impassable crumble affair, we opted for a minor variation in the form of little rhubarb meringue pies. Brown sugar pastry filled with vanilla-flecked stewed rhubarb and topped with Italian meringue – what more can I say but, yum!

Rhubarb – it goes in tarts

Sadly the excuse to invest in a TPB blow torch did not come to fruition this time around, but we did discover our new favourite type of meringue (dare I say the Italians do it best?), and the brown sugar pastry not only had an exceptional hold but was particularly delicious.


As I alluded to earlier, the final piece to our autumnly trio was Stephanie's quince and browned butter tart. Quinces are somewhat perplexing, if not romantically mysterious. What you start with can be considered golden and voluptuous, but these knobbly, pubescence-covered fruit are astringent and thoroughly inedible raw. What happens though when you take the time to poach them in light sugar syrup (and please do take the time) is quite delightful. As the flesh transforms through pale pink to glorious deep amber and their sublime perfume pervades the kitchen, you'll wonder why you never bothered with quinces before. Of course, poached quinces are simply fabulous, but spread over shortcrust pastry and filled with browned butter custard, well, that's just heavenly.

Quince and Browned Butter Tart

It was nice to be back, to spend time with a dear friend doing something I thoroughly enjoy. And I like this time of year; not only for the fabulous produce being harvested, but the opportunity the cooler weather provides to snuggle up indoors and do all manner of slow cooking until the house is filled with the heady aroma of deliciousness. At least in these new times that is something to look forward to, and I hope you enjoy sharing it with us.

Until next time, dear friends…