One of the best things about birthdays is celebrating them. I used to work with a great bunch of women – all of a certain age – and birthdays were always celebrated with some style. A cake would be brought in – some rather wonderful creation, wether home made or purchased from a fabulous bakery. Morning tea served with appropriate ceremony: plates and napkins, tea and coffee pots, flowers and candles on the cake. We always made time for this little ritual irrespective of how busy or frantic our day was. And of course there was a present. Great thought would be put into this gift – invariably something somewhat indulgent. All unnecessary but very much appreciated. It marked a sense of occasion.
This year, having moved from Sydney I found myself having no-one to play with on my birthday and no celebratory feasts organised and realised how much I missed the birthday cake, the bestowing of warm wishes and gifts. It doesn’t matter how old you are or even if you don’t (generally) eat cake. The birthday cake is always a treat and a gesture of friendship and love.
So having missed out on cake (and presents) I decided to treat myself and make my own birthday cake: apple and blueberry with ground almonds and a sticky flaked almond topping. It ticks all the boxes – even the (almost) healthy one.
It’s easy to make and is quite a stunning looking cake. Just right for someone’s birthday. Apple blueberry and almond cake
125g butter, softened
125g (1/2 cup) caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs, beaten
100g (3/4 cup) self-raising flour
125g ground almonds
2 apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1 punnet (125g) blueberries
Preheat oven to 180C. Grease the base of a 20cm spring-form cake tin. Beat butter, sugar and vanilla extract until fluffy then gradually beat in eggs, one at a time. Add a little sifted flour if the mixture looks as if it might separate. Lightly fold in remaining flour, milk and half the almonds until combined. Spread into the base of the cake tin. Sprinkle with remaining ground almonds then top with apples and blueberries.
To make topping, put melted butter in a bowl and whisk in eggs, sugar and cinnamon. Pour over cake. Sprinkle with flaked almonds. Bake for about 60 minutes; when ready it should be firm to the touch and a skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean. Cool completely in the tin before turning out. Dust with little icing sugar to serve.
This year we decided to have a Bastille Day* dinner – simply in order to get together with friends and eat French food and drink French wine: an indulgence. What to cook? Something that is suitable for a dinner party but doesn’t require a lot of last minute attention. I decided on a bouillabaisse. Simple, but delicious. And for before and after? I have a recipe for a terrine that is probably as old as my youngest child – pheasant and pickled walnut terrine, courtesy of Two Fat Ladies – which I’ve never properly made, either because I couldn’t find fresh pheasant or pickled walnuts. This time I was able to source both, in fact I had a jar of pickled walnuts in my pantry and a pheasant was readily available from my favourite poultry shop – A.C.Butchery. And for dessert? I’m not a dessert person, I don’t have a sweet tooth; but I always feel that I should make something for guests. I decided on a classic Tarte au citron.
So today has been my prep day. I went to the fish market to purchase fish and seafood for the bouillabaisse; bought ingredients for baking, some cheese and all the other things I needed. Back home I skinned my pheasant and took all the meat off it (they’re tough birds!), chopped up the meat and set it to marinate with red vermouth.
Next I put the fish heads and bones into a pot to make stock and thought I may as well use the pheasant carcass to make a stock. It went into the oven to roast first (in order to make a richer stock). I also decided to make some pickles to go with the terrine. I’d bought some little Dutch carrots, baby turnips and tiny little radishes. A quick pickle which will be ready tomorrow.
Then to the pastry for the tart. I came across an interesting recipe that is probably the easiest and fastest I’ve ever seen (courtesy of David Lebovitz): you place butter, oil, sugar, water and a pinch of salt into a bowl in the oven (210 degrees) and leave in for 15 minutes until the butter has melted and there’s a slight brown foam around the edges. Take the bowl out, add flour and stir. For less than a minute! Its that simple. And then line the flan shell with the pastry and bake it in the oven for 15 minutes. The texture of the pastry is very buttery. It was extremely thin which meant it tended to crack but David provides a neat trick: leave aside a small amount of dough to smooth over the cracks with. Works a treat.
All I have to do tomorrow is make the terrine, bouillabaisse and the rouille, mix the filling for the tart and bake it, et voilá! Dinner is ready. Its going to be a rather early dinner so that we can get through it all – I think I’ve rather over-catered. We won’t be storming the Bastille.
pheasant & pickled walnut terrine with pickled vegetables and freshly made rye bread (courtesy of my husband)
bouillabaisse with rouille on toasted crusty baguette slices
tarte au citron
cheese (a comte and a St Siméon, which is a rich creamy cow’s milk cheese. I’ve been warned that its very, very runny – yum) with dried muscatels, pear and walnuts.
So to all francophiles: bon appetit!
*I have to note that the French do not call it Bastille Day – its an American invention and one which Sidonie Sawyer from the Huffington Post is particularly insistent about. She points out that according to Wikipedia: “Bastille Day is the name given in English-speaking countries to the French National Day, which is celebrated on 14 July each year. In France, it is formally called La Fête nationale: The National Celebration) and commonly Le quatorze Juillet: the fourteenth of July).”
My brother’s partner has a birthday close to mine and my husband’s – 5 days in between each – so this year we celebrated all three together here in Sydney. My brother and his partner live in Auckland and they planned to arrive Friday night (the day after Helen’s birthday). We didn’t want anything high-end – we’re all struggling financially but we all also felt that we’d “been there, done that”, so low key but fun was the plan.
We decided on Berta’s in Sydney and I booked a bar table – always much better fun than the more formal settings – and had a lovely night with great food (Chui Lee Luk, formerly of high end French restaurant Claude’s, was currently cooking there) and fabulous Italian wine.
Next day we met for lunch at Yellow – one of my favourite Bentley Bar places; in fact, the Bentley is one of my all time favourites, dating from way back when it was a tiny place in Surry Hills. Sommelier Nick Hildebrandt who is also Front of House, is warm and friendly and extremely knowledgeable and helpful when wondering what to drink. Deservedly, Nick has been awarded Gourmet Traveller’s Good Food Guide 2015 Sommelier of the Year, while Brent Savage was awarded SMH Good Food Guide’s 2015Chef of the Year. The two are quite a team, but so are their staff, and it’s this aspect – great friendly service – that makes the Bentley bars such good fun. Which brings me back to our lunch at Yellow.
Because it was such a simple affair – really we were only going to have a glass of champagne and a nibble before going on to see a performance at Hays St theatre – we ended up ordering toasted sandwiches. Doesn’t sound very interesting but my smoked brisket pastrami with cheddar and pickled cabbage (Reuben) was the best I’ve ever had – and I’m very fussy about my Reubens. Two of us had these while the other two opted for a pulled pork and chilli mayo sandwich – I can’t remember what else was in them but there were groans of delight at first bite. So what to drink? We had started off with a glass of Roger Coulon – superb. To go with both the pork and the pastrami (very different flavours) we thought perhaps something white but decided to ask the sommelier. I don’t know why people don’t like (or is that they are are scared of?) sommeliers. To me, they are the source of all knowledge: what shall we have with all these different dishes? Our sommelier that day was fantastic – a young guy who works in fashion and moonlights in restaurants to make money. He was great fun: chatty, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable about the wine. He recommended a nebbiolo which was not only the perfect match but absolutely delicious. Could have stayed there and had another bottle.
So, if you’re ever confronted with a wine list where you just don’t know any of the wines – ask the sommelier. He’ll make recommendations. A good sommelier will even give you a taste of the wine he recommends to see if you like it – no pressure. Really. And its such a great way to try new wines.
What to cook for foodies who have eaten everywhere? When we get together with my brother and his partner here in Sydney we generally go out one night and then have a night at our place – cooking, drinking, eating, drinking. A lot of drinking.
Generally we confer on a menu and then all pitch in to cook. Food is most often Asian – Vietnamese or Thai – and always lots of little dishes. It’s a lot of work. I usually begin a few days in advance, making lists, shopping, preparing rubs and marinades and then on the day I’m generally in the kitchen chopping, mixing, etc while everyone else is either sitting reading papers or standing around chatting to me. Its a small kitchen so more than two people gets a bit, well, let’s just say it cramps my style.
This time, celebrating three birthdays we decided that we would do low-key and simple. And just for a change: Indian. My husband is a great South Indian cook, having lived in India for seven years – he make fantastic dishes including lots of vegetarian ones as well as delicious fresh chutneys. One of his most outstanding dishes is a chicken liver curry. Sounds weird but it is to die for. Its very rich and very hot (lots of green chillies) so we don’t have it often (maybe just once a year). For anyone who is a fan of chicken liver this is a must try dish.
For entree I made crab and prawn cakes wrapped in banana leaves with a coriander and mint chutney. M made a coconut and red chilli chutney to go with the curry as well as a vegetable dish with zucchini and carrot cut into matchsticks and then tempered with traditional South Indian spices: mustard seeds, cumin seeds, black gram dhal, asafoetida, split red chillies and curry leaves. To temper: heat a tablespoon of ghee and when hot throw in a tspn of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, the black dhal, half a teaspoon of asafoetida (this is very strong smelling) 2 split red chillies and a handful of fresh curry leaves. When the leaves begin to split and the seeds pop add the raw vegetables and a few tablespoons of water, put a lid on the pan and turn the heat off. The vegetables will steam and absorb all those wonderful flavours. Its quick and easy and incredibly delicious. You can add shredded coconut over the top.
Although none of us are really dessert people it never feels right to me not to make something. But it has to be light and not overly sweet and not complicated. So I thought a coconut panna cotta would be the go – rounding out the flavours of cardamon etc in the previous dishes, I roasted some peaches with cinnamon, cardamon pods, rosewater and a dash of wine. It was the perfect ending to a flavour packed meal. And to top it off: coconut vodka!
My birthday and my husband’s birthday falls just 5 days apart. This is always awkward. Celebrating two birthdays in the one week in style is just overkill, but then who’s birthday get’s the big celebration and who’s ends up with “well lets just stay at home and have some great champagne and good food”? Generally its my birthday (falling first) that we go out for – and not always to high end places, sometimes its just a fabulous lunch somewhere or a causal place like “…” in Newtown – just somewhere that I would like to go to eat. I’m not really into the big flash dinner thing. Perhpas we’ve done too many of them but I’d rather go to those places on the spur of the moment rather than as a planned event. Too much pressure.
The trick to celebrations – birthdays/anniversaries etc – is to make them feel special. One year I took my husband (and daughter) to the Sydney Fish Markets early in the morning. We bought some wonderfullly fresh oysters and had them with a bottle of champagne and some lovely ripe brie and huge juicy strawberries. We sat on the pier – picnic style and watched the boats unloading. And then we all drove home and off to work/school.
Another time, for an anniversary celebration I decided to do something right out of the box: a night time picninc by the water. But I wanted it to be a surprise. So I told my husband I had made a booking for a flash restaurant where the dress was very formal. Meanwhile, Pip and I shopped and cooked and prepared everything and packed the car with picnic rug and chairs and t-lights, plates, linen napkins, glasses, champagne etc. I can’t remember what I made (although one of the dishes was a pigeon and pickled walnut terrine – that took days to source ingredients for, another was individual plum frangipane tarts). Pip and I scurried around getting everything ready and packing the car in a bit of a frenzy before M got home. Secrecy was the key.
And then it was time to get dressed and go. I wore the Akira outfit I had worn for my wedding and M put on his tux. Stylish. And then we got into the car and I drove. M wondered where we were going – he started to recognise some of the landmarks so the next step was to blindfold him. We drove to Neilson Park and Pip and I set up our little picnic spot near the water, lighting all the candles and setting out the food while M sat in the car – no doubt wondering what was going on. We then led him out and only when we were at the spot did we let him see. The look of surprise on his face and pure joy was so worth all the effort we’d gone to. It was, relatively, such a simple thing – a picnic at the beach – but it was so enjoyable – we even danced barefoot on the sand with the waves lapping our feet – that it remains in my memory as one of the best celebrations ever.