Melbourne? Meh

In Australia, you can expect a flurry of cheery greetings ranging anywhere from the stereotypical “G’day mate,” to the more commonplace “Hi, how ya doin’?”

I’ve been here for weeks but the latter still puzzles me. I can’t figure out whether you are supposed to respond with the full “Good thanks, how’re you?” or pretend there’s no question involved, and respond with an equally buoyant “What’s up?” Generally I get a funny look, whichever way I decide to go.

For Britons, Australia lingers in the mind as a former British colony, full of the descendants of Victorian felons, who got shipped halfway across the world for petty robbery. Modern Australia has shaken off its Old World roots, emerging with a whole new mindset, culture and personality of its own. Don’t expect to find a carbon-copy of Milton-on-Keynes here.

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Melbourne is a bustling modern city, with the usual accrouments that all major world urban destinations acquire. Galleries and museums abound. The European sections aren’t really worth your time – but there is an excellent array of Aboriginal and Australian art. The Melbourne Museum also holds a stunning collection of specimens, particularly the whale and dinosaur skeletons, and a preserved giant squid floating eeriely in a vat of formaldehyde.

The gardens are also lush, and well-kept, full of tropical foliage, eucalyptus trees, and at night – possums, possums, and more possums. I can’t help but think of them as a larger Australian equivalent of squirrels nosing around in the dark and crawling up and down the trees.

Melbourne has temperamental weather, so I’ve noted that jackets feature prominently in the local fashions, but the temperature never drops to chilling figures.

It was a shocker when I first arrived to note how expensive Australian goods are in comparison to London. Food prices in particular are very high, although it hasn’t stopped me sampling a variety of Australian food. I’ve enjoyed Tim-Tams, the Aussie cousin of Penguin bars in the UK – my favourites being the double-coating, caramel, and dark chocolate varieties.

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Oddly, traditional English tea-time treats don’t really feature much here, which is a real shame. I do miss the comforts of scones, Victoria sponges, lemon drizzle cake and buttery flapjacks. Browsing through local cookery books, they do pop up quite often so I can only assume they tend to be home-baked rather than sold in the shops. Organic food shops are stocked chock-a-block with imported European goods but they are worth a browse for all the wonderful types of local Australian honey.

The macaron is also extremely popular, and can be seen in most cafes. I admit I have been spoilt by having Laduree and Pierre Herme so close to hand, but the salted caramel macaron I tried in Melbourne was unfortunately very underwhelming, with an artifical sugary flavour. I also tried a Lamington in the museum cafe, which wasn’t anything to write home about.

Asian cuisine dominantes the Melbourne food scene. If you love Chinese/Korean/Japanese/Indonesian/Vietnamese/Thai cuisine, this is a dreamland for you as you will be spolit for choice when it comes to picking restaurants, cafes, bakeries, dessert parlours and bubble tea bars. Western cuisine has an American-slant so you are likely to see muffins and doughnuts in coffee shops, along with iced banana and carrot loaf cakes. There are also streets lined with Italian and Greek eateries. However, don’t expect to see too much in the way of quality French dishes unless you are prepared to pay through the nose for it.

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a home-grown Australian menu, but we did buy and cook a slab of kangaroo meat. It is dark red, and looks tough and man-meatilicious. I did have to sadly conclude that it is not a delicacy I would eat again, although I think fans of dark gamey meat might enjoy it.

Melbourne has many visitor attractions, but most tend to be packed full of schoolchildren on trips. Perhaps this is the jaded Londoner within me talking, but most of it is nothing new. The real gems of Victoria state are not in the city, but out in the National Parks and the bush.

A final note – birds are very aggressive in hawking (haha) for food. They can be found eagerly accosting you everywhere. Beware of them even when you are indoors, as you could inadvertently end up with more than you bargained for on your plate.

Crème au chocolat

Auf wiedersehn, mes amis!

I’m off for several weeks, but have scheduled a couple of blog posts to go up for the duration of my absence. Meanwhile, I leave you with a luscious chocolate cream recipe instead.

Enjoy!

This was actually originally intended to be a chocolate crème pâtissière today but I sometimes have an inability to follow recipes, so it turned out too thick. It’s shiny, and pipes wonderfully out onto the Ottolenghi chocolate tarts as you can see in the photo. I’ve also used it as a tart filling in its own right too, but it works best with a bit of added contrast. I’m guessing it can also be incarnated as a pudding, plopped into some smart ceramic ramekins with a few artful berries or so.

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Crème au chocolat

  • 200g semi-skimmed milk
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 3 tbsp caster sugar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp cornflour
  • 200g dark chocolate, melted
  • 20g soft unsalted butter

Heat the milk in a saucepan until it reaches boiling point. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour together. Add a few spoonfuls of milk to the egg mixture, then slowly pour in the rest of the milk, whisk well as you do this to prevent the egg from scrambling.

Tip the eggy milky mixture back into the saucepan and heat again, whisking constantly, until you bring it to the boil. Heat for another few minutes – you may notice it has started to thicken at this point. Don’t stop whisking or it will get lumps.

Take the pan off the heat, and pour in the dark chocolate. Keep whisking away, until it is smooth and the chocolate has completely incorporated. Finally, add the butter, and keep mixing. The cream will develop a glossy sheen at this point. You can pipe it out while it is still mildly warm as it holds its shape excellently. As with most chocolatey desserts, it only improves with keeping overnight.

Chocolate, Cocoa Nib and Hazelnut Macarons

Yup, it’s macarons on the brain again! C’est parfait!

Once again, I am working from my trusty Ottolenghi recipe – replacing ground almonds with hazelnuts, sprinkling caramelised cocoa nibs on the tops of the macarons, and filling them with rich chocolatey ganache. It might have been spiked slightly with a splash of vodka, but that part was entirely unintentional.

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The hazelnut flavour was present, but subtle. If I were to make these again (and if I didn’t have a bottomless pit of cocoa nibs to get through) I would sprinkle the macarons with chopped hazelnuts, and put a few chopped hazelnuts in with the ganache as well. Also experimented by sprinkling a couple of the macarons with cocoa powder instead of cocoa nibs, and I really liked the simple but pretty effect that produced.

I’ve realised that only one of my baking trays (the cheap Pyrex one with raised sides from Tesco) actually produces successful macarons, the other one (the posh even-heat-conducting from Lakeland) never does. Why is this?

The science behind good macarons still perplexes me, so I guess that this will have to remain a mystery for now. I’ve only ever made macarons using the French meringue method so far, but having come into possession of a sugar thermometer means I may pluck up the courage to try the Italian meringue soon.

Macarons – by Pierre Hermé

My my my, so after reading all about Paris in Laura Florand’s The Chocolate Kiss, I had a desperate hankering for some Parisian patisserie. As the book was clearly inspired by the workings of a certain Pierre Hermé, let’s say I had a pretty good idea of which place I was going to pay a trip to.

Macarons are my personal baking devil. To be fair, I haven’t tried a lot of the more difficult techniques in pastry-making, so perhaps puff pastry would be even more of a nemesis, but I’ve only been really happy with the visual appearance of my macarons on one or two occasions.

Of course, the master of the art gets them down to a swoonworthily symmetrical beauty.

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And in order of macaron love…

  1. Salted caramel – gorgeous texture on biting into it, and rich salty buttery caramel heaven
  2. Hazelnut praline – because I love all praline hazelnut creations beyond rational reasoning
  3. Olive oil and vanilla – which astonishingly, beyond all reasoning – actually works!?
  4. Porcelana chocolate – really good chewy texture, delicious but predictable.
  5. Passionfruit (?) – a seasonal special, I believe. Beautifully flavoured, but a bit soggy
  6. Morello cherry, lemon and tonka bean – again a seasonal special with big flavour but soggy macaron

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If you haven’t got any French patisseries or chocolateries handy to sate your craving, then have a go at making one of these really easy chocolate truffle (or truffe aux chocolat) recipes. You can also try making macarons too, if you want to end up like the crazy beast who tried 10000000 times in a row and failed.

Or just buy them.

And cry a little inside. 

Tartes aux Fruits, je t’aime

Spending my weekend lolling around reading Laura Florand’s The Chocolate Kiss, I started feeling a desperate desire for Parisian patisserie.

Given my geographical location, I have been to Paris many times over the past few years. Yet astonishingly, I have never, not once bought any patisserie in France, ever??

Knowing me, this is a TRAVESTY.

So until I read Laura Florand’s novel – I had been walking past Ladurée and the whole area of St Germain de Pres, sitting in café de thés, glancing at colourful meringues, and not once had it occurred to me that there was a whole world of edible beauty out there to be explored.

If you are heading to Paris any time soon, read The Chocolate Kiss and all will make sense. Unfortunately, I am not going to Paris, so I had to make do with what’s available here.

This is what I did:

  1. Wander around London gormlessly and fruitlessly 
  2. End up in Pierre Hermé and blow a small fortune on macarons
  3. Bake

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Et voila!

We have here a pâté sucrée case filled with mascarpone cream, a profusion of fruit and a dusting of icing sugar on top to finish. I do feel a small pang of guilt at buying so much out-of-season fresh fruit, but fortunately for my carbon footprint, none of them came from too far away – I’m assuming the environs of the Mediterranean are fair game.

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I’m so pleased with how these turned out! They certainly sated my patisserie craving….for a while. I’m guessing the lure of Paris will still continue to pull. Let’s see if I can purchase a proper patisserie cookbook and see where my baking projects go from there!

Coconut Macaroons

I didn’t expect these to be anywhere near as good as they were. Moreishly chewy bites full of flavour – I adapted them from  a combination of Chocolate and Zucchini and Nigella Lawson’s recipes. I hope they will be much appreciated by their other eaters!

Coconut Macaroons

adapted from Chocolate and Zucchini

  • 3 egg whites
  • large pinch of sea salt
  • 160g caster sugar
  • 200g dessicated coconut
  • 50g ground almonds (or increase the dessicated coconut to 250g)
  • dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 180˚C and line a baking tray with baking paper. Lightly whisk the eggs in a bowl, and add the salt, sugar, dessicated coconut and ground almonds. Mix together with a fork until combined, then take out spoonfuls, squeeze together in your hand and press into a flattish biscuit. Place them on the baking tray and bake for 12 minutes until golden. Leave them on the baking tray for 2 minutes, before taking them off and cooling on a cooling rack. When the coconut macaroons are cold, melt the dark chocolate until liquid, and drizzle over the macaroons to form a zig-zag pattern. Wait for the chocolate to set, then tuck in!

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Ottolenghi Chocolate Tarts

I visited Ottolenghi recently, and was hugely tempted by their amazing selection of cakes and pastries singing to me in the window front. Finally I settled with a small piece of rugelach, and a mixed salad box. My heart had a little pang as I handed over what seemed like a lot of money for such a small quantity of food! It was delicious, but at the same time I wondered if I could reproduce it all in my home kitchen without spending such extortionate sums.

Last year, I managed to do this quite successfully with many Hummingbird Bakery products (except that elusive Black Bottom) and with the aid of the Ottolenghi cookbook, it just seemed to make more sense. I’ve been getting very good results from the Ottolenghi cookbook as it is, so I jumped at another excuse to make these decadent chocolate tarts.

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I’ve paired them with Pierre Herme pate sucree, and yes yes yes, they are simply scrumptious.

A half batch of the chocolate filling is enough to fill 9-10 tarts. The recipe suggests beating the egg and sugar together until fluffy, but I think this makes the tart fillings rise dramatically in the oven only to collapse in the middle once they cool down. The second time I tried these tarts I used agave nectar instead of sugar, and beat the egg very gently to incorporate less air. This worked a lot better as the chocolate filling solidified nicely without becoming overly excitable in its baking journey.

The recipe also suggests to dust the tops of the tarts with cocoa powder, but be sparing with this as too much cocoa powder is dry and nasty. I’ve tried piping a swirl of chocolate cream, mascarpone cream, or chantilly cream on the top, and that’s actually worked really well, and looks good.

You need to make sure the tarts aren’t too shallow for the filling. My biggest cookie cutter turns out to still not be big enough, but there is a thermos lid  in the kitchen that works much better at producing bigger circles (thus deeper tarts), and will be in use next time.

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Borough Market and more

I hear from foodie bloggers that Borough Market is more of a tourist destination that food nirvana these days. Whilst there was much to tempt the eye and the other senses, I was certainly fighting my way past the heavy tide of tourists.

Unfortunately, this trip was more under than over-whelming. There was major disappoinment from a promisingly-named kangaroo burger, which lacked any distinctive flavour, basically tasted like a cheap beef burger, and perhaps it really was. Certainly there were many delicious samples of cheese, charcuterie, oils, spreads, turkish delight and chocolates, but so much was over-priced beyond imagination. For instance each portion of baklava commanded £6 apiece. I’ve made a mental note to seek out decent Comté cheese next time I am in France.

Anyway, onwards we headed and in Chinatown we found much more reasonably priced (and tasty) nibbles. Also bubble tea – I love that stuff!

London is one of these places where there is always something bizarre and entertaining happening round the corner. We came across a completely random epic pillow fight taking place in Trafalgar Square. Brilliant! Feathers flying everywhere (including sticking en masse in my hair) we fled via Boris Bikes onwards through to the Royal Parks.

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I’m afraid I made a detour to pop by Ottolenghi – as I wanted to satisfy my curiosity – having never paid a visit to this foodie emporium before. I came out significantly poorer, and slightly disappointed by the offerings, but I’m glad I tried it at least!

To end the day off we curled up with Borough Market bread, pate and Ottolenghi salads, watched Never Let Me Go, which was horribly sad. Finally finished off with super quick baking spree for tomorrow. I’m moving houses soon, and fairy cakes are a great way of using up the contents of the baking cupboard. This particular batch was very girly, but I did another (more manly) lot in yellow fondant icing with melted dark chocolate writing piped on top. Brilliant fun.

Fairy Cakes

  • 2 large eggs (record their weight)
  • the weight of 2 eggs in soft margarine, caster sugar and self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • apricot jam
  • ready-rolled fondant icing
  • edible lustre
  • writing icing
  • wafer daisies

Preheat the oven to 180˚C and line 2 bun tins with fairy cake cases. I get 16-18 cakes.

Whisk the margarine and sugar together until soft and fluffy. Put the eggs into a jug, and break up with a fork. Then gradually dribble the egg into the other bowl, little by little whilst whisking by mad to stop the mixture from separating. Whisk in the vanilla extract.

Dump the flour and baking powder into the bowl, and fold it in gently with a big metal spoon. Using the spoon, place a spoonful of cake mix into each paper case, and pop into the oven for 12- 15 minutes until risen and nicely golden on top. Set out to cool on a cooling rack.

Brush the top of each cake with warmed apricot jam. Roll out the fondant icing onto a surface sprinkled with icing sugar, and cut out circles with the aid of a glass, or cookie cutters. Stick the circles onto the tops of the cakes. Brush with a little edible lustre, pipe on some writing and stick on the wafer daisies.

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Cranberry Amaretti

It’s no secret that I LOVE Ottolenghi’s cookbook. None of his recipes that I’ve tried have gone totally tits up for me.

So here’s another recipe from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. It can also be found on The Guardian. Simply some ground almonds mixed together with egg white, and some lemon zest. The original recipe called for dried cherries, but I didn’t have any of those, so substituted cranberries instead. I think the biscuit would be a wonderful vehicle for candied peel/pistachios/whole almonds/the whole dried fruits and nuts supermarket aisle. But not the cocoa nibs, because let’s face it – I hate them, and nothing will taste nice with cocoa nibs in – ever.

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