September 28, 2013

Traditions: Vanilla slice

Growing up in regional Victoria, as a child my weekends were usually spent out at dad's, and while in the warmer months we'd be outside enjoying some kind of adventure, when a dreary day kept us indoors we'd simply retreat to the kitchen and cook up a storm of our own.

Anything and everything was fair game, and while I don't recall as much as I probably should, I'd say those years were what sowed the seed of passions to come. Of those that do come back I remember dad's love of the humble ham and pickle sandwich (or was it mortadella?), the "how-tall-can-you-make-it" hamburger challenge, the sinus-cleansing dangers of a well made bèarnaise, and that Australian country bakery classic, the vanilla slice. A far cry from the delicate French millefeuille, the iconic Aussie 'snot block' is a gaudy, rubbery slab that probably counts more towards confection than a baked good.

With dad, they were sheets of ready-rolled pastry filled with a cornflour-thickened egg custard, and slathered in a sharp and tangy passionfruit icing (a little like this). Collapsing the golden pillows of pastry was particularly good fun, but the greatest excitement was always reserved for the delicious treat we knew was to come.

Today with dad gone I have to make do with my own decisions, so my vanilla slice is now prepared using homemade puff, a crème patissière lightened with thickly whipped fresh cream (recipe courtesy Alistair Wise of Sweet Envy) and, as I'm unable to resist the appeal of a family favourite, finished with a slick of passionfruit on top.

It's not built to last, and you certainly won't be using your hands. You'll make a mess. A big, sweet, glorious sticky mess as you enjoy each and every crispy, custardy mouthful. 

It's the way every good childhood memory should be.

September 15, 2013

Book club: English Bread & Yeast Cookery

When it comes to fantasy dinner party guest lists Elizabeth David is right up there on mine. A tremendously influential cookery writer of the 20th century, she brought the flavours of the Mediterranean into the homes of middle-class Britain, and inspired a generation of everyday cooks to transform their family's eating habits by simply doing better with whatever they had. As a modern-day reader the pleasure you get from devouring her works is two-fold. Not only do you learn the history and finer details of the subject at hand, but her passion and emphasis on food being one of life's greatest pleasures is truly infectious.

Because her volume on English Bread and Yeast Cookery is filled with an absolute plethora of great British classics selecting which recipe to try can be decidedly difficult, and so the two recipes I eventually settled on for today's baking were chosen for reasons that were entirely frivolous. The first came out of curiosity as I was keen to try her recipe for rice bread, which, despite being blatantly self-explanatory, for me contained the rather unusual ingredient of whole rice. 

One of the things I like about old recipes is that they always give you a good dose of perspective. Rice bread wasn't designed to be adventurous or different, it simply came about because rice was cheaper, and often more available than flour, and it produced a moist loaf that kept well, which is important if you can only afford to fire up the oven once a week. For me they are also a nice reminder to use your brain as many will, rather than give detailed instructions, simply direct you to make things "in the usual way".

The dough itself was reasonably straightforward and while the loaf that resulted was indeed moist, it was also extraordinarily bland.

It did have a nice crunch when toasted, and I imagine would have been the perfect filler for when rations were scarce, but as someone free to live in more comfortable times I was certainly grateful to be topping it with some far more adventurous flavours.

The second, shooting cake, I selected purely for its name. An interesting cross between scones, cake and soda bread it was light yet rich, and the perfect afternoon accompaniment to a strong cup of tea. 

But despite its classic pairings and truly excellent name, what I enjoyed most about this cake was the idea of being tucked away in a country house kitchen in the remote wilds of the Scottish Highlands, baking fortifying snacks for the company as they gathered the hounds and sallied forth on their daily hunt.

Tally ho!

September 7, 2013

Technical challenge: Kouign Amann

Kouign Amann (butter cake) is a traditional pastry speciality of the Brittany region in north-western France. Originating in the town of Douarnenez around 1860, this rich laminated pastry is prepared much like a croissant dough, with the exception that sugar is sprinkled on each layer as it is folded. As it bakes the sugar then melds with the butter, creating a sweet and sticky caramel lacquer. Not only does this make the kitchen smell like absolute heaven, but results in a pastry that is delicate and soft on the inside, crunchy and flaky on the outside, and devilishly irresistible.

As a first-time baker of these tasty delights I found Kouign Amann easy to make, and while I'm yet to master the art of shaping, the rustic nature of these little beauties was thankfully very forgiving. I left my dough overnight to mature the flavour, and although the effect of the alternating butter and sugar lamination was positively gorgeous, I did find that it pays to work quickly as the sugar really softens on account of the moistness of the dough. As the recipe suggests do un-mould your pastries as soon as temperature permits, and if you're using pastry rings I'd recommend steering clear of any lightweight baking paper, otherwise you'll be leaving all of those beautifully caramelised bottoms behind. Most importantly, however, and what you absolutely must MUST do, is make them. 

Being just six ingredients in: yeast, flour, water, salt, butter and sugar; the key is in devoting a lot of love and attention, but indulge in a Kouign Amann just-warm from the oven and I promise you'll struggle to be anything but utterly besotted. 

Please, enjoy.