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Muffins Revisited

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It’s been years since I’ve eaten a muffin. I used to like the regular sized ones made with apple or blueberry. On the rare occasions I baked, I would make lemon and buttermilk muffins with a crunchy sugar topping and I even remember making the now defunct bran and sultana muffins. (This was in the days when bran muffins competed with carrot cake in cafes that also sold wholemeal quiche.) But somewhere along the line muffins were given the Big Mac treatment, mutating into super-sized muffin/cakes overloaded with chocolate chips, or with savoury fillings that properly belong in a quiche. 

Ngaire's Muffins

Ngaire with Muffins

I’m happy the monster muffin fad has abated, ‘though why it has been replaced by the trend for tasteless over-dressed cup cakes is anyone’s guess. Anyway, the reason I’m writing about muffins is that I whipped up a batch today, using a recipe given to me by a friend who we visited over summer. Ngaire has a bach in the bay next to ours in the Marlborough Sounds. She invited us over for lunch and with coffee she served some light-as-a-feather retro-sized, retro-styled muffins. They were golden brown, warm and homely and they made me wonder why they had ever fallen from favour.  I got out my notepad and pestered  her for the recipe which turned out to be an amalgam of essential kiwi baking: banana cake + carrot cake + sultana muffin. She gave me her recipe from memory, having more or less made it up, and she generously told me how she achieves a light texture to all her baking. Regardless of what the recipe says, she always separates the eggs, whips the whites and folds them in at the end.

Ngaire’s Muffins

3/4 cup sultanas

1 cup plain flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon allspice

pinch salt

2 eggs separated

2 tablespoons runny honey

1/2 cup neutral oil (eg rice bran or sunflower)

1 banana, mashed

1 cup grated carrot

Preheat oven to 180°C fan bake. Grease a medium-sized 12 muffin tray.

Soak sultanas in boiling water for 10 minutes then drain and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl sift flour, baking powder, bicarb of soda, cinnamon, allspice and salt.

In a smaller bowl, lightly beat egg yolks, honey and oil. Add to dry ingredients and fold together without over-mixing. Fold in mashed banana and grated carrot. Whip egg whites to stiff peaks and gently fold through mixture. Spoon dollops of mixture into muffin tins and bake for 20 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out cleanly. Leave in tin until cool enough to handle. Cool muffins on rack. Split and serve with butter.

Each year as Christmas approaches I wonder why we do this to ourselves: why ramp up the stress levels by trying to meet the massive expectations of the season? As if work deadlines, Christmas shopping and holiday plans weren’t enough to create a perfect storm of activity, I find myself throwing out casual invitations like confetti, energised by the idea of all those end-of-year catchups and then panicking at the thought of spending more time in the kitchen.

T5cover This year, I’ve been saved by a clever collection of recipes published by Wellington food writer and former restaurateur Margôt de Cotesworth, a woman who clearly loves entertaining. Her book Take 5 and Cook: The Dinner Book is guided by the principle that stylish dishes can be created with the minimum of effort and just five ingredients. This isn’t a new idea but Margôt manages to reduce each recipe to the basics without losing the integrity of the dish. She is also a master of taste, using simple combinations to provide maximum flavour without the addition of a myriad herbs and spices. Lamb kebabs are qiuite simply marinated in ouzo, lemon zest, olive oil and oregano, then chargrilled and served with a sprinklng of salt. Pedantic readers will have counted six ingredients but salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil are the only allowable extras in this entire collection of 120 seasonal recipes.

Some are Margôt’s own family favourites. Her brother’s crisp apple tart and her mother’s fish chowder can be whipped up in a jiffy for a family meal. Others are classics and some are café staples. There are recipes for European favourites – ricotta gnocchi, tartiflette and gazpacho – and while they are certainly pared down to the bare essentials, dishes such as Not a Paella and Nearly a Tiramisu are close enough for my purposes.

I’ve tested several dishes and while I always find it hard to follow a recipe I’ve mostly resisted the urge to throw in extra ingredients. I can recommend the Anchovy and Almond Sauce as an excellent accompaniment to fish or venison and I’ve enjoyed serving Pineapple with White Balsamic Dressing, but the dish that’s saved my sanity on three occasions already is Margôt’s quick-to-whip-up-but-deliciously-decadent Chocolate Silk Tart. Like all the recipes in her book the five ingredients must be top quality. I use a dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao and I’ve found it best to use caster sugar because it melts faster. Quantities fit a loose-base 22 cm tart tin.

Margôt's Chocolate Silk Tart

Margôt’s Chocolate Silk Tart

 

Chocolate Silk Tart

2 cups biscuit crumbs

185g butter

150g dark chocolate

½ cup sugar

3 eggs

Stir the biscuit crumbs into 60g of melted butter. Press into a well-buttered dish and chill. Melt the chocolate, sugar and remaining 125g butter, stirring over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Cool.

Beat the eggs and gradually pour in the chocolate mixture. continue beating until well combined. Pour into the crust and chill.

Serve with whipped cream, if you like.

Take 5 and Cook – The Dinner Book, Margôt de Cotesworth. RRP $49.90 at selected book and food stores and online

Nespresso Wellington

It had to happen. Wellington, the coffee capital, has a Nespresso Boutique. The Lambton Quay store opened last week with all the glitz and glam of an upmarket cocktail bar. Dean Barker and entourage, John Key and entourage, chef celebs, local artists and personalities gave the photographers plenty to snap about while the rest of us – fuelled on coffee martinis, champagne and canapés – chattered about what this new concept might bring to the capital.

Wellington's Nespresso Bar

Wellington’s Nespresso Bar

We Wellingtonians are insufferably snobby and parochial about coffee. American import Starbucks has failed to make headway in a city that boasts numerous hip cafés and artisan roasters so what do we make of the Swiss company’s chances?

For the benefit of people like me, who until last week thought Nespresso was an upmarket coffee shop frequented by George Clooney, here’s a brief rundown of the concept that has expanded across 50 countries.

Firstly the boutiques are not cafés although they do have bars where consumers can taste before they buy from a range of single shot coffee capsules designed to fit Nespresso branded machines. Machines, capsules and associated products are sold from the store-boutiques that also serve as collection points for the spent aluminium capsules which are recycled off shore. There are 270 boutiques worldwide (NZ now has 2) but most of the action occurs online through local sites that are accessed when consumers join the Nespresso Club.

This means that unlike Starbucks, Nespresso isn’t competing for the café customer – it’s targeting the home and office market. That’s me: a free lancer working from home with a twice-a-day habit. My own machine is a Rocket and I’m completely wedded to the ritual of grinding, tamping and pulling the levers to make my morning coffee, but if I wasn’t into all that, I’d be seriously tempted to buy a Nespresso.

The Nespresso espresso

The Nespresso espresso

I rate the coffee  ‘very good’. I might even give it an ‘excellent’ but I’ve only tried 2 of the 21 varieties (which are somewhat pretentiously called grands crus). The sealed aluminium capsules keep the ground coffee super fresh and the extraction system is as effective as it is fascinating. Drop a capsule in the top and the machine does the rest, delivering an espresso with an excellent crema. I like the frothing attachment too: pour in the milk and it uses magnetic technology to stretch the milk to silky perfection. It’s impossible to make a bad coffee. So yes, even a pretentious Wellington coffee snob like myself would be tempted – but not convinced. The machines themselves are relatively inexpensive ($380 for a smart one made by deLonghi) but factor in the capsule cost (.97 – $1.13) and I’d have to curtail my habit.

My verdict: if you appreciate good coffee and cost’s not a factor then join the club, but please, please do save up the empties and take them back to the boutique. All kudos to Nespresso for the effort it has put into recycling but the system is only ever as good as the people who use it.

Footnote: Artist Taika Waitit’s artwork suggests a more creative use for the empties.

Nespresso artwork by Taika Waititi

Nespresso artwork by Taika Waititi

 

Lewis Road Creamery Milk

Thanks to Lewis Road Creamery I am awash with milk. I received my sample bottles on Tuesday and I’ve been guzzling it ever since. I’m a huge fan of this company’s cultured butter so I knew its milk would be good – it has a clean, fresh creamy taste that somehow seems better than standard milk – the question is why? What does this artisan company do that’s different?

Milks & Creams Family Shot (1)

Firstly, Lewis Road milk is organic. I do think that makes a difference – Zany Zeus’ organic milk also tastes great.

Lewis Road milk comes from grass-grazing cows that haven’t been fed any waste  products from the palm oil industry. The arguments against this are mostly to do with environmental issues, but that aside – and I don’t know if affects the taste of the milk – I do think it’s wrong to feed cows dusty-looking stuff that comes from the fruit of a tropical palm tree. Cows are meant to eat grass.

Lewis Road produces 100% jersey milk. Jersey milk has a high percentage of milk fat so it does taste creamier.  Milk from standard brands is not separated by breed – it’s a mixture of milks. Currently about 80% of the national herd is either holstein-fresian (the black and white ones) or holstein-fresian/jersey cross. Jersey cows (small and brown) account for only 12%. Jerseys produce milk with higher percentages of milk fat but holstein-fresians beat them on volume – hence the work that has gone into creating the crossbreed which appears to be a good compromise for farmers who are paid on the total quantity of milk solids.

Lewis Road milk claims to be more natural and less processed. In particular it makes a deal out of not adding permeate to its milk. This is where it gets a bit controversial and quite tricky because permeate is a natural component of milk. It is essentially lactose and water and it’s a byproduct of ultra filtration. Large dairy companies like Fonterra use this process to remove proteins which are then used in high-protein, higher-value products. The permeate, which is also separated off, is then added back in various amounts, allowing the final protein levels of the milk to be standardised, thus overcoming any seasonal variability. You can’t really call permeate an additive because it was in the milk in the first place but it is a bit sneaky because the way it’s re-introduced enables factories to adjust, or water down, the milk to the lower end of the minimum allowable protein content. In short, big companies like Fonterra are using all the technology at their disposal to extract the best value out of every litre of milk. You can’t blame the farmer-owned co-operative for doing the best by its farmers and there’s certainly nothing wrong with its milk but the permeate practice is a bit of an eye-opener for those of us who imagined milk was not quite so highly processed. Lewis Road milk is processed too: it’s pasteurised and mostly homogenised; the fat levels are adjusted according to type and the calcium-enriched product must have either been added to or adjusted in some way. It is not milk straight out of the cow, but the processing is minimal and Lewis Road milk does taste like milk used to taste. In this, I’m sure my taste buds are influenced by the charmingly retro (recyclable) bottles. The company’s artisan values are wrapped up in some very smart packaging.

Finally, Lewis Road organic cream: it’s fantastic. I’m sure this is the ‘jersey effect’ – jersey milk being naturally richer – but it’s also because the milk fat levels have been kept higher than the minimum standard of 35%. Lewis Road cream is 39% and its double cream is 48%. Yes, double cream. This is a first for New Zealand. The UK has single (18% min), whipping (35% min) and double (48%) but we have only ever had one type of pouring cream. I had always assumed it was equivalent to double but I was wrong about that. In this leading dairy country of ours, the cream has only ever been as rich as UK whipping cream. I find this just as astounding as the fact our big dairy companies have failed to provide us with cultured butter. It’s all very well to be producing products for export (Fonterra and Westland both make cultured butter for customers offshore) but we haven’t been well served at home. Thank goodness for artisan producers like Lewis Road Creamery. Now we have flavoursome butter, good tasting milk and deliciously rich double cream.

Lewis Road Creamery’s milk and cream products are  available in Auckland and have just been spotted at Moore Wilson in Wellington. Organic Jersey Milk 750ml RRP $3.10. Organic Jersey Cream 300ml RRP $3.99. Double Cream 300ml RRP $4.49

Better Butter Biscuits

A couple of days ago a box of butter arrived on my doorstep from my dairy farmer in-laws Cathy and Jamie Tait-Jamieson. Cathy and Jamie have a micro dairy factory on their farm where they produce Biofarm yoghurt with milk from their own cows. They are also one of a number of organic farmers whose cream goes into the making of Organic Times butter.

_1TJ6587 The delivery of several kilos of the stuff was a not too subtle reminder that I had promised to come up with a recipe to promote said butter.  I love butter, and I particularly like this butter – it’s organic, fresh tasting, creamy and not too heavily salted. I will happily put it in everything I cook but my brief was to provide a single recipe in which butter was the hero ingredient.

I considered beurre blanc and then butterscotch but finally settled on shortbread. In it’s simplest form, shortbread is 3 parts flour, 2 parts butter and 1 part sugar. There are variations – substituting a bit of rice flour makes the biscuit crisper, cornflour gives it a softer melting texture, and then you can add, chocolate chips, vanilla, lemon, whatever – but a good shortbread biscuit is entirely dependent on the quality of the butter. It’s the difference between shop bought and homemade. So I spent this weekend baking and came up with the following recipe which delivers a melt-in-the mouth biscuit with just enough orange zest to add interest without taking attention away from the butter.

Orange Butter Biscuits

Orange Butter Biscuits

Orange Butter Biscuits

I’ve used unsalted butter and added a small amount of salt to the recipe. This might seem to defeat the purpose but some butters are more salty than others and this way gives more control.

175g good unsalted butter, softened but not melted

85g caster sugar

fine zest of one orange (a microplane gives the best result)

200g plain flour

50g cornflour

¼ teaspoon salt

caster sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 150°C

Line 1 large or 2 small baking trays with baking paper.

Beat butter and sugar together until smooth and creamy. Beat in orange zest. Sift together plain flour, cornflour and salt. Add to butter mixture and combine gently using hands. Form into a disc shape and roll out to 1 cm thickness. Use a cookie cutter to cut out circles or other shapes. Place on baking sheet, prick with a fork and chill in refrigerator for 15-20 minutes before baking (this helps them keep their shape). Bake in preheated oven for 25-30 minutes until lightly coloured. Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before sprinkling with caster sugar. Transfer to a rack. When cold store in an airtight tin.

Makes 24 if using a 5cm diameter cutter

It seems disloyal to rave about Aussie craft beers from my home in the beer capital of New Zealand but full credit to the brewers from across the ditch who swept in to Wellington last week with a swag of top brews from the Australian International Beer Awards (AIBA).

They were here to take part in the Brewers Guild of New Zealand International Beer Awards and the Beervana festival, and they matched Logan Brown restaurant course-for-course at a wonderful lunch and tasting session co-hosted by the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and Cryer Malt. I’m not sure how I slipped into this event since I’ve only ever made two batches of beer in my life (and these were hop-doctored IPA’s based on off-the-shelf brew kits). I put it down to my enthusiasm for craft beer and the people who make it.  I really like spending time with brewers – they’re smart, good fun and they don’t take themselves too seriously.

A Generous Tasting of Aussie Craft Beers

A Generous Tasting of Aussie Craft Beers

Brewers are also very collegial. It was a lively event with lots of mutual admiration and none of the tiresome trans-Tasman rivalry that accompanies so many other Aus/NZ events. Still, I was interested to know how the two countries compared. The objective view, from NZ malt king David Cryer, is that while craft brewing took off much earlier in New Zealand, Australia has more than caught up.

My own experience last year in Melbourne was that whenever I asked for a craft beer in a café or bar I was presented with a standard brew from Little Creatures, which was rather like finding nothing more interesting than Monteiths. The  Australian brewers I met at the Logan Brown lunch told me that situation, which was largely due to trade arrangements with the big breweries, is changing rapidly. They say boutique brewers are now well represented in bars and on ‘wine lists’, particularly in cities like Melbourne. And so they should be. Like wine, a well considered beer match adds an extra dimension to a dining experience.

And that brings me to lunch. Shaun Clouston and Steve Logan have been matching beer with their menus for some time now, and it shows. I won’t taunt you with a blow by blow description of the Logan Brown lunch  – just two of my favourite courses:

entreephotoFirst up, Logan Brown’s buttery paua ravioli (left of photo) was matched with this year’s Champion Australian Beer, Alpha Pale Ale from the Matilda Bay Brewing Company. Its full malt flavour was perfect with the rich beurre blanc sauce and the citrusy hops perfectly aligned with the lime and coriander flavourings. The paua got a little lost but the rest was so good that I can’t say I missed it.

The  tuatua fritter (right of photo) was partnered with  Bridge Road Brewers  India Saison  (a collaboration with Norway’s Nøngne Ø brewery and an AIBA gold award winner) Shellfish loves hops and this is a bright hoppy beer, with the same hint of citrus that sits so well with orange and fennel. pie photo

Mid-menu, I fell upon Shaun’s wild boar and muttonbird pie. It was the best thing I’ve eaten in ages and was made even better with a double match – a dark barley wine from Bootleg Brewery and a malty red ale from Holgate Brewhouse. Interestingly, the latter was one of three beers on this menu brewed in collaboration with the previously mentioned brewery in Norway. Australia and Norway? Intriguing. I should have asked.

RISphotoSome of these beers were available for tasting at Beervana, one that wasn’t was an off-menu bottle I was lucky to try at the end of the Logan Brown lunch. It was one of only 250 bottles produced and it was brought to our table by the man who brewed it: Simon Walkenhorst of Hargreaves Hill Brewing Company, in the Yarra Valley. The original brewery was burnt to the ground in Victoria’s 2009 bush fires; a new, better brewery was built six months later and it has continued to produce some of Australia’s best handcrafted beers.  The big black bottle we opened was the Russian Imperial Stout, 2012. It won a gold at the AIBA that year and my lunch notes describe it as deeply delicious. It was all chocolate and coffee, roasted malt, smooth as velvet and made to be aged, just like a wine from the Yarra.

I have my dog to thank for my growing interest in foraging. Every day when we go for our walk, he sniffs out doggy smells while I fossick in the verges looking for edible weeds. Some of the leaves, flowers and young seeds pods I find are nibbled en route, some are rejected (I can’t see why you’d bother eating gorse flowers) and the rest end up in salads and sitrfrys.

9781877505164 The foraging trend is growing apace. I’ve written two features this year with foraging chefs Anthony North and Bill Manson (both for NZ Life & Leisure) and I’ve recently received a review copy of the latest book on the subject, A Forager’s  Treasury by Wairarapa-based writer and researcher Johanna Knox. It joins four similar books on my bookshelf and it’s easily the best for my purposes.

Having said that, it is sadly let-down by poor presentation – cheap paper, messy layout, no index and  insufficient illustrations  – and that really is a shame because the content is excellent. It’s informative, well-researched,  insightful and full of inspiring ways to use wild plants.

The first half of the book is dedicated to identification and general information on foraging. Common poisonous plants such as hemlock are listed (but not illustrated) in the introductory section and this is followed by a large section on edible ‘treasures’.  These plants are divided into families (alliums, legumes, etc), which is a useful way of looking at things, assuming some knowledge of plants. Knox provides excellent information on each one – how to find them, what they taste like and what to do with them –  but the few line drawings included aren’t sufficient to inspire confidence in a new forager. When it comes to identification there really is no substitute for photographs.

The second half of the book investigates the many ways in which you might use foraged plants: medicinal and cosmetic but most of all edible. I would buy the book for this part alone with its handy tips and collection of inspiring but sensible ways to eat weeds.

I say ‘sensible’ because I’ve seen some frankly weird recipes in similar books on wild food, recipes that come across as desperate attempts to find a use for a foraged ingredient just because it is foraged. Knox, on the other hand, comes across as a good cook with a well-tuned sense of what goes with what and an understanding that every ingredient must earn its place. Often that place is in a salad, a dip or a sandwich and there are plenty of ideas for these.

There are also some good basic recipes that come with loads of variations. I’m keen to follow her suggestions for infused syrups and herbal teas, and I’m intrigued by the idea of making pannacotta with cream that’s been infused with scented pelargonium leaves or wild jasmine.

I particularly like the section on wild salads because it not only lists all the likely candidates but divides them up according to texture and flavour. Some plants are mustardy, some are bitter or sour, and some may be crunchy while others are soft. It’s all useful information when it comes to creating a well-balanced salad.

And when it comes to salads, I love the idea of tossing lemony-flavoured oxalis leaves through a creamy potato salad. I don’t even have to walk the dog to find this common weed, my garden is full of it.  I’m also well stocked with onion weed and thanks to this book I’m actually looking forward to the spring flush when I’ll have plenty of flowers to deep-fry in tempura batter.

A Forager’s Treasury,  Johanna Knox. Allen & Unwin RRP $36.99

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