December 22, 2012

Traditions: Merry Christmas

So it's that time of year when everyone starts getting merry, and for kitchen TPB that can mean only one thing - hampers! Having once again decided to spend the festive season abroad, this year it was all about time efficiency and doing things that would keep, and so to get some of the preparations done early I had my first crack at the traditional cake and Christmas pud.

There were some of Nat's beautiful gingerbread cookies,

Dan's fabulous cardamom peanut brittle,

some cheese and black pepper buttons, for that little bit of savoury,

all packaged up for loved ones near and far.

Unfortunately, though, I'll have to leave the deliveries up to my elves, as distant shores are calling and I must bid you adieu. May you have the grandest of Christmases, wherever you may be, enjoyed with much love and laughter in the company of family and good friends. Be safe, be merry, relax and have fun. Thank you for joining me on this year's adventures. I am so grateful for having you here with me, and look forward to sharing all manner of fabulous things with you in 2013.

Miss Emily xx

December 9, 2012

Technical challenge: Pork pies

The humble pork pie is a long-standing British tradition and an ultimate performer when it comes to portable meaty snacks. Traditionally eaten cold they have a distinctive bowing shape, which results from the use of a special, hand-shaped crust. Pacdon Park, a British smallgoods producer operating out of northern Victoria, make some of the finest pork pies going, and when you've got the likes of these close at hand it's pretty easy to pass up on making your own.

Pacdon Park's flagship pork pie

But I was keen to learn about the pastry they use and so the pork pie was penned in as this week's technical challenge, albeit one with a very high benchmark...

The pastry of choice when it comes to making hand-raised pies is a hot water crust, which relies on the combination of lard and boiling water to form a sticky dough that slowly stiffens with time. While perfect for creating something stand-alone and holding those all important porky juices in, there is an art to this this particular pastry, which all comes down to a matter of timing. Start shaping too early while the pastry is still warm, and you have yourself a greasy mess incapable of supporting itself. But start too late and it will be stiff and retractile, refusing to be shaped and tearing at the nearest suggestion.

As it happened, when it's pushing forty degrees celsius outside stiffening isn't really an issue, and working with this recipe from Dan Lepard I found the handling to be far easier than I'd expected.

For the all important filling I spread the love between three great Victorian pork producers - Greenvale meats, Bundarra Berkshires and Pacdon Park - stuck with the traditional seasonings, and threw in a little bit of bacon, just for good measure.

Shaped and then filled it was off to the oven with fingers crossed, and I have to admit I was pretty pleased with what came back.

Despite starting off reasonably squat most managed the characteristic bow, and while some of the tasty juices easily escaped through the oversized vent, the caramelised leak added a nice "homemade" effect.

On the all-important taste test I was again suitably impressed. By using a small amount of butter along with the lard the pastry was not only structurally sound, but had an added and delicate flake. Although the outer layers fell apart somewhat on cutting it had a really lovely texture and was, of course, delicious. The filling was also great, as the apple-brined gammon added both a beautiful pink hue and was wonderfully bright in flavour. As a worker's lunch or handy addition to the charcuterie board the pork pie is a fabulous number to have in one's baking repertoire, and the feeling achieved from making your own hand-shaped pies is immensely satisfying. While they're certainly no match for those Pacdon Park beauties they were a truly delicious start to my journey toward pork pie perfection. Next time I'd add a lot more white pepper and roll sans vent, as I think it would be nice to keep in those juices and forego the addition of jelly, but as a first attempt I'd say that's a winner for technical challenge: round one.

December 2, 2012

Seasonal Regional: The lemons of Yinnar

With Christmas holidays looming large the weekend was scheduled for visiting family and friends, and as I tootled around southern Victoria I discovered that not only is the quaint little hamlet of Yinnar a delightful location for catching up and taking in some much needed country air, it’s also a fabulous place for growing lemons.

It was a glorious and sunny afternoon when I arrived at my friends’ property so we immediately took to the yard. As we wandered around we came across their lemon tree, so heavily laden with fruit it was almost comical (I’d wager the lemon to leaf ratio was at least three to one). The look of envy must have been obvious as my hosts suggested I take some with me and, having naturally obliged, as I journeyed home the following day I had but one thing in mind…

During my last trip to London I came across London Borough of Jam, a delightful little preserving service that produces some of the most exquisite jams and preserves imaginable. While everything I sampled was exceptional it was the lemon vanilla marmalade in particular that took my fancy, and since my reserves have now well and truly dried up, I thought it high time I attempt making my own.

A quick literature search identified a number of methods that seemed popular, and so I took a comparative approach. The first applied a safe and simple technique in which the finely sliced rind was repeatedly blanched before being gently simmered with the sugar and reserved juice.

The second, while equally hands-on required much more time as the whole lemons were boiled until tender before then being sliced and simmered.

Both were suitably delicious and enjoyed their own particular appeal. For those who prefer a strong marmalade the rind of the first had a lot more bite, while the second was more subtle, being much more jam-like in nature.

Personally I prefer the first. The textures were more suited to my tastes and I found it had greater aesthetic appeal, as boiling the pith for the second method produced a white fleck that ran through what was also a darker, more amber hue. That said, the texture and translucency of the boiled lemons was incredible and something that must certainly be experimented with in future.

If you’re not a marmalade fan I doubt either of these will convert you as they both carry that fabulous bitterness so fundamental to any peel-based fruit preserve. But if you enjoy such treats then I highly recommend giving the lemon vanilla variety a go - it’s delicious.

November 25, 2012

Traditions: Stir-up Sunday

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded…”
- the Book of Common Prayer

That’s right, dear friends, a surprise category. How exciting! In an attempt to save possibly the best until last - and absolutely nothing to do with my forgetting to include it in the previous post - I’m kicking the new format off with Traditions. Featuring either my own or long-established customs, this section will focus on and regularly revisit some old favourites by sharing the recipes and stories behind their inception. As the festive season is less than four weeks away it’s the perfect time of year to be enjoying such history-rich treats, and so I thought there no better place to begin our Traditions feature than with the humble Christmas pud.

Bound heavily by religious custom the plum pudding has been associated with Christmas since the early 17th century, but traces even humbler beginnings as far back as 1420’s Victorian England, where it originated as a meat and dried fruit-filled pastry concocted to preserve the excesses of the autumn harvest. Over time the savoury elements were slowly replaced by a more decadent combination of suet, sugar and spices, and by the mid 1800’s the plum pudding had developed into the celebratory Christmas cannon ball that we know today.

Much like the flaming ritual of its sharing, the making of a plum pudding is also heavily steeped in tradition. Beginning theologically on the last weekend before Advent, Stir-up Sunday was adopted by those of a baking faith as the day on which to make their Christmas pudding so that it had time to mature. For many the day was spent in the kitchen with family where, as well as the superstitious adding of trinkets, every child in the household was also given an opportunity to stir the fruit mix and make a wish. The family recipe slowly passed from generation to generation and habit soon became tradition such that, with its unmistakable festive aromas, the pudding is now an essential feature on almost every table come Christmas day.

As a first-time pudding maker, today the reason for these traditions quickly became apparent as deciding where to start when commencing from scratch can be an absolute minefield. Do I boil, or steam? Use a lot of suet, or just a little? And will it be milk or ale, marmalade or treacle, fresh fruit or no? All this to decide, and that’s before I’d even thought about which and what ratios of dried fruits to employ! But you have to start somewhere, and so after consulting numerous ‘best-ever’ and ‘family favourites’ I settled on one most closely resembling that of Granny Jane's, courtesy of the ever-delectable HFW. Naturally a number of personal tweaks and modifications were made, and no doubt there will be many more in years to come, but in the end it was an ale-based, medium level suet recipe that kicked things off.

Plenty of different vine fruits went in. There were almonds and marmalade, glace cherries and peel. And just for a little added extra the breadcrumbs came from a particularly scrumptious honey and whey sourdough.

Working in an Australian summer makes the suet grain difficult to control so I’m not sure that I’ll get exactly the right texture, but after six hours of simmering they all looked as a pudding should look, with a nice springy finish and a beautifully dark hue.

All that’s left now is a few splashes of brandy once they’re cool then it’s off to the fridge to relax until the big day. Godspeed, little puddings!

November 11, 2012

Time for a remix...

Four years ago Team Pretty Bake was conceived; a collaboration of kitchen shenanigans between friends and what for me personally was a means of distraction from a rather unbearable situation. Much has changed since those humble beginnings, and while Miss Rose has moved off to focus on other things, I have tipped the seesaw from those early days of weakness to finding strength and positivity in life moving forward.

It’s been a great opportunity to pursue my passions and engage with friends both old and new, but lately TPB’s had me worried. Although it’s been ticking along nicely it is not the TPB I used to know. It’s lost it’s spark, has become subdued, and that sense of adventure has been measured and found wanting. Hilarious kitchen calamities are naturally less frequent when there’s only one baker involved and finding the right balance amongst it all has, at times, been difficult. My favourite things to bake are also the things I eat least, and while my colleagues at work will more than happily receive the occasional treat there are only so many morning teas they’ll entertain before requesting that the temptations perhaps be a little less frequent.

So there are, of course, a number of valid explanations, but whichever the reason that’s no excuse. Life is a challenge of which we’re in charge, and if it’s not feeling right then we’re the one’s responsible. So it’s time for a change. What was once a means of keeping my mind from other things now needs to be repurposed. In the coming months I’m going to trial a new blog format that I hope will not only provide direction and challenges for me personally, but that will also be of more interest to you, the reader, and a departure from the scrappy postings that have been gracing the site of late. As before, I’ll aim to post at least twice a month, but each topic will now fall into one of the following categories:

Book club
While some girls can’t resist shoes my weakness is cookbooks, and I have a beautiful collection that I don’t use nearly enough. Book club will have me once again heading for the shelves where I’ll be cooking a new recipe or two from that week’s chosen title.

Seasonal regional
Making the most of the beautiful produce on offer from family and my local farmer’s markets, seasonal regional will focus on a key ingredient or producer, treating things simply when they’re at their best or, if I’m lucky, road-tripping out of town to feature some of the wonderful people and places that work tirelessly to keep us city folk fed.

Technical challenge
A big thing behind starting TPB was to get me out of my comfort zone and working to become the ultimate hausfrau. In what should likely be prefaced with “I can’t believe you’ve never…” the technical challenge will be a perpetual virgin territory. Be it a new technique, an ingredient I’ve never worked with or a recipe I’ve never before made, these have to be tasks previously unattempted because they seemed difficult, intimidating or down-right frightening.

Sweet indulgence
Here we throw caution to the wind - it’s time for big, bold and spectacular! Cakes, pastries and all manner of doughy delights, everything is fair game, no matter what the sugar content. Be it a scheduled cheat day or simply the occasional luxury the most important thing is not taking life too seriously. We all deserve a small treat from time to time so forget about the should’s and should not’s, dust off the dessert spoons and prepare to enjoy a little sweet indulgence.

Midweek mayhem
If you’re anything like me, weekdays can be either a win or a fail. On a good night you’ll enjoy a healthy home-cooked meal in an awesome display of efficiency as you juggle work and whatever it is you do after. A bad one and it’s at best an uninteresting omelette, having returned home late to an empty fridge. With midweek mayhem I hope to share some of my favourite or newly discovered go-to meals that are quick and simple to prepare, and which leave you feeling virtuous should your ‘something after’ be of a sporting inclination.

I intend to work though each in turn. No doubt real life will sometimes intervene so I may have to mix it up from time to time, but I’m excited, it’s going to be fun, and I hope you’ll join me for whatever lies ahead. All I need to do now is decide where to start…

November 3, 2012

Young broads...

There's so much to love about spring - the longer days, the blossoms that promise summer fruits and, of course, the veritable bounty of fresh produce suddenly appearing at market stalls. Among those that I look forward to most are asparagus and broad beans, and while I've tried the ever-delicious broadies in almost every guise, I've never in fact eaten them whole.

Young broad beans are something you just don't ever see, and with most of my springtime feasting being sourced from the generous gardens of S&R I can certainly appreciate the unwillingness to sacrifice a crop early when there's the potential for so much more. But as luck would have it, a recent discussion between S&R and their equally green-thumbed neighbours revealed two very important things: (i) they were also growing broad beans this year; and (ii) they don't like them. It was a rotation crop that was destined to be turned over while the plants were still young, and so with a quick 'yes please' and 'thank you' away we went...

Sticking with some time-honoured combinations I made a variation on Stephanie's andalusian broad beans, substituting almonds for breadcrumbs, bacon for ham, and parsley for what herbs were at hand.

After a slow braise in the oven they emerged tender and delicious, and produced an interesting variation on flavour from their older counterparts. A fabulous addition to the accompaniment repertoire they're definitely something worth trying if you manage to track yourself down some young 'uns...

October 28, 2012

It begins...

While I should probably issue a *spoiler alert* I think it's fair to say that when it comes to the TPB festive hamper we've never strayed far from the traditional, so you had to expect there'd be Christmas cakes coming sooner or later. What you may find surprising, however, is that I'd even dare mention such things when it's only October. I, too, find thoughts of Christmas at this time truly horrifying, but with recipes highlighting the importance of how much brandy I need to baste into these babies over the next 8-10 weeks it was certainly time to get cracking.

The fruit soak was started some weeks before, a delectable blend of the usual suspects left to macerate in a wee tipple or two until plump and sufficiently sozzled.

Then, today, it was time to start baking. A simple spiced batter to gently hold all that fruit together was quickly whipped up and the first batch are now ready to begin basting. 

Fingers crossed they're still looking this good come December...