Never too old for birthday cake

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 cake
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
50ml milk
125g ground almonds
2 apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1 punnet (125g) blueberries

Topping
125g butter, melted
2 eggs
125g (1/2 cup) caster sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
50g flaked almonds

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.

 

Storming the Bouillabaisse

The Eiffel Tower is illuminated during the traditional Bastille Day fireworks display in Paris July 14, 2013.  REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes (FRANCE - Tags: SOCIETY TRAVEL CITYSCAPE ANNIVERSARY) 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.

Our menu:

  • oysters
  • 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).”

Celebrations

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.

Burns’ supper – a contemporary twist

January 25 is Burns’ Night (the date of Burns’ birth) and tributary suppers are held not just in Scotland but all around the world – wherever there are Scots.  Burns’ Supper was originally started by a group of his friends and acquaintances a few years after his death, to honour his memory.

The menu is iconically traditional with a haggis as the centrepiece.  Burns referred to it as the  ‘great chieftan o’ the puddin’-race’. The  accompaniments to the haggis are neeps and tatties  – turnip and potatoes – served  mashed. Traditionally the haggis is piped in and then addressed – the recitation of a Burns poem called ‘Address to a Haggis’ (go figure).
If there is a large gathering there is an ‘Address to the Lasses’ – which commemorates Burns’ fondness for them.  If a small supper then its usually just the ‘Selkirk Grace’. Essentially its a celebration of plain country food and plan country folk of whom Burns was a champion.

Plain country food in Australia, haggis is not.  Cooking your own haggis is out of the question.  There are a number of butchers scattered around Sydney who make haggis but usually you have to order these in advance or else travel to the ends of the earth (St Mary’s).  Fortunately we found a supplier (Farmer Giles) selling these and other Scottish fare at the Bondi markets.
Hot, hot, hot on Saturday so husband and daughter sent off early to the markets to purchase produce, leaving me to sleep.  Daughter is learning to drive so this was a good opportunity for her to get in some much needed practice hours (otherwise I doubt she would have chosen to embark on that journey).  Unbeknownst to me, having obtained all things necessary at the markets they then went off to the beach for a swim.  I meanwhile sat sweltering in a lounge chair outside reading the digital news.

Haggis is something I absolutely adore.  When we’re in Scotland I take every opportunity to eat it.  Its generally not served at home other than for a Burns’ Supper but many pubs serve it.  I was always on the look out for a pub that had it on its menu.  And while the neeps and tatties might be served in alternative ways, canonically you got a plate with a pile of mashed potatoes, a pile of mashed turnips and a pile of haggis. Not the prettiest looking dish and I constantly wondered why no-one ever did anything different.  But I don’t think the Scots are generally known for their creativity – rather, the word conservative comes to mind.  But I do have to admit that the combination is a very successful one.  However, this being Australia, and me a foodie, I wanted to do something a bit more contemporary and aesthetically pleasing – especially when serving this rather confronting dish to people who had not tried it before (I’m always amazed at people’s reaction to haggis: generally its’yuck!!!!’ with looks of horror and distaste.)

So we searched and found a nice form of presenting this dish:  in a stack with a layer of haggis, a layer of mashed potatoes with spring onion folded thought and then a layer of mashed swedes (nice orange colour) brushed with egg yolk and cooked in the oven and then topped with asparagus tips wrapped in crisp pancetta and served with a whisky cream sauce.

I had one vegetarian guest so I decided that given this dinner centred around a haggis I would have to make a vegetarian haggis for her rather than something entirely different.  I also thought I’d better make a few extra just in case anyone was truly put off by haggis.  The vegetarian version had split peas, barley, chopped onion, garlic, carrot, steel cut oats (which are tiny and coarse) and lots of pepper and freshly ground and toasted allspice.  I was pleased with the end result – it had the same texture and flavour as the haggis (well, almost).  I was also pleased at how much people enjoyed the real thing.  Truly delicious – you just have to not think about what it consists of, but then again, if you don’t mind offal – pate anyone? – then you probably won’t object to haggis.

To start I had champagne and smoked salmon with horseradish and creme fraiche. For entree I made a dish of seared scallops on black pudding discs with a pea and mint puree, drizzled with chilli oil. And for desert, another classical Burns’ supper dish – Cranachan, which is like a trifle with layers of whisky cream, freshly pureed raspberries, toasted oats and flaked almonds and topped with fresh raspberries. Whisky is of course the canonical accompaniament to haggis – it doesn’t go too badly with the desert either – but of course a good red wine is also in order.

So my husband having said grace (see below) and then the address we ate and drank good plain Scottish food and gave Burns not another thought.


Burns’ Selkirk Grace
Some hae meat and cannae eat,
And some can eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit