the best sticky date pudding?

We made a special trip to Eveleigh markets this weekend to see a demo of butter-making by Pierre Issa of Pepe Saya. Like most city-folk, I’d largely assumed that butter just comes in a packet, and it’s all much the same, but if you try their butter, you’ll be able to taste the difference.

They turn 1L of cream into 400g of butter: a lactic culture is added to the cream, and then the buttermilk is washed out of the resulting mix by hand.

pepe saya at eveleigh markets

As a special thanks-for-visiting, we were given a sample dessert from their other food company – homemade finefoods. (Thanks to Ester for organising this).

This is the sticky date pudding (steamed).

Traditional sticky date pudding

And this is the vanilla pouring custard.

vanilla creme anglais

We opted to heat it up in the microwave (50 seconds on high) – it’s a little tricky to remove from the foil packaging, but it ends up looking just fine. The pouring custard takes a while to start pouring.

sticky date pudding with vanilla creme anglais

Verdict? Amazing. It’s a soft, rich, sweet pudding, beautifully complemented by the Creme Anglaise. If you have the chance to try one of these desserts, make sure you do.

As this was a free sample, I’m not sure of the actual pricing, but I’d say that there will be details available on their site before too long. In the meantime, you can follow pepesaya on twitter.

creating a maze cake with the dragon

the finished cake

When Kel was asked to make a cake for a 21st birthday party with an Alice in Wonderland theme, there was a lot of musing: should a “Mad Hatter” cake be made? Something more abstract? In the end, a maze was suggested.

A quick google image search for maze cake showed that there was no particular cake that looked like a maze: it was generally a big cake with maze icing, or – at best – a maze made out of Graham crackers (a sweet biscuit shaped roughly like a Salada, if you haven’t seen one).

Kel wanted to make a cake that was a maze in itself, though, and set about looking for a maze that was simple enough to suit itself to feeding only 30 people. Sure, you could make a life-size hedge maze out of cake, but no-one holds parties large enough anymore.

She found the base design for the final maze on the wikipedia Maze entry, and then further simplified it.

The maze was planned in Excel and printed out.

planning the cake in excel

Kel provides the rest of the details:

For the cake I baked a 30cm x 40cm rectangle but the same quantities make a 30cm square. I also baked a 20cm square (quantities not included). They need to be baked at least 1 day ahead, or be totally cold before cutting commences.

  • 515g softened butter
  • 760g caster sugar
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons coconut essence
  • 7 eggs
  • 300g desiccated coconut
  • 850g self-raising flour
  • 850mL buttermilk

Preheat oven to 180°C. Lightly grease the tin and line the base with non-stick baking paper. Beat the butter, sugar and coconut essence until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Transfer to large bowl and fold in the combined coconut and sifted flour alternately with spoonfuls of buttermilk.

Spoon the mixture into the tin and smooth the surface. Bake for 1 3/4 hours, test the cake towards the end of the cooking time. A skewer inserted into the centre of the cake should come out clean. Leave the cake in the tin for at least 5 mins before turning out onto a wire rack to cool.

Storage: Keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a week or freeze for 2 months.

Arranging the cake
Cut out the printed maze spreadsheet: place the wall pieces on the cake, and the path pieces on the cake board.

working out how to slice the cake

Fix the spreadsheet pieces to the cake with toothpicks, and cut the cake out.

arranging the pieces

Arrange the pieces on the cake board, then remove the spreadsheet pieces. You might need to stick the pieces of cake together with toothpicks while you’re sticking the pieces together, but keep careful count of the toothpicks so that you remove them all once they’re stuck together.

laying out the cake

Stick it to the board using royal icing (at least one egg white beaten with enough icing sugar to make a thick paste, depending on how much icing you need).

with the walls iced

buttercream icing
For the path I used a buttercream icing, coloured yellow with food colouring:

  • 250g unsalted softened butter
  • 500g icing sugar
  • 1 tablespoons boiling water

Beat the butter with electric beaters until light and fluffy. Gradually add the icing sugar, beating well after each addition. Add the water and beat well. The cake can be frozen for up to 3 months. Defrost in the fridge for a day before using.

The quantities above make enough to cover and fill two 22cm (9 inch) round cake.

creamy vanilla frosting
For icing the rest of the cake I used a creamy vanilla frosting. It is important the directions are followed exactly as when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. It was coloured green with food colouring. I wanted it to be much darker but didn’t want to add too much additional liquid to the icing.

  • 4 1/2 tablespoons (90ml) plain flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 500g unsalted softened butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a medium-size saucepan, whisk the flour into the milk until smooth. Place over medium heat and, stirring constantly, cook until the mixture becomes very thick and begins to bubble, 10-15 mins. Cover with waxed paper placed directly on the surface and cool to room temperature, about 30 mins.

In a large bowl, on the medium high speed of an electric mixer, beat the butter for 3 mins, until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the sugar, beating continuously for 3 mins until fluffy. Add the vanilla and beat well.

Add the cooled milk mixture, and continue to beat on the medium high speed for 5 mins, until very smooth and noticeably whiter in colour. Cover and refrigerate for 15 mins (no less and no longer – set a timer). Use immediately.

Ice the path, then cake “walls”, then the outside edge and top.

icing the cake

Decorate with (bought) icing flowers, silver cachous, Arnott’s Tic Toc biscuits, crushed Arnott’s Granita biscuits for “gravel” path and green colour sugar/edible glitter and yellow colour sugar/edible glitter and a Queen of Hearts playing card.

pantry organised

It’s taken me years to get around to this, but we finally have a pantry whose organisation makes sense to both myself and my wife. And in the end, it was a matter of thinking about what little I know about cooking, and working out how to group everything together so that the most used things are the easiest to reach (rather than stacking everything by “what fits” or “what looks like it goes there”)

I’ve ended up with “oils”, “spreads” (and behind them “cans”), then “sauces”, “kel’s weird baking stuff”, “junk food”, and “pastas and rice”.

How would you split up your pantry if you had six shelves?

toast – a simple pleasure

There’s something about a well-toasted piece of bread: one of life’s simple pleasures. When I was working on recipes for a cooking website, the first one I made (complete with photos) was for Vegemite Toast. Sure, it may seem a simple thing, but in my travels, I’ve seen even such a simple recipe butchered… too much vegemite; the toast destroyed by rough scraping; the toast overcooked, or too dry.

I’m also in favour of finding out how someone likes their toast – it’s a sign of respect to deliver it just so, if time permits. If you’re making breakfast for four people at once, and the toast is just a side-dish to the main event, that’s one thing, but if you’re trying to cheer up an ill friend, then it’s the little things that matter.

For me, I would err on the side of too light – the bread should be crisp, and preferably have changed colour, but I’d rather have the bread still have some of its original character than have a solid, near-burned piece. But that’s just me.

After years of wrestling with an old toaster, I now have a new one: it has a cancel button on it – not an eject button, but a cancel button, and a defrost setting. It makes a whirring sound when you turn it on, so you know that it’s actually started to heat up. I still haven’t figured out quite how long to give it, or why it doesn’t seem to toast the bread evenly, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

The strangest toaster I ever used was one that my grandmother owned. It would cook two pieces of toast at once, but there were no slots at the top. Instead, it was shaped like a capital A, and the bread would sit on either side of the A, with the heating element in the centre. (Something like this old hotpoint toaster). The trouble was, it would make soggy toast: the bread would change colour, but the inside wasn’t crisp. An odd experience. More on Old Toasters.

How do you make your toast?

honey mustard chicken

I’d volunteered to cook dinner tonight, but had no idea what to cook.

First-time reader Cass left a comment on an old post about cooking with chicken, and I thought “why not”?

Behold, honey mustard chicken. Two brown onions, a generous amount of garlic, small amount of olive oil. About half a kilo of chicken, two teaspoons of seeded mustard, and three teaspoons of honey, and maybe 100ml of sour cream.

Pink Peppercorns

We had friends stay with us last weekend, and so kel prepared a recipe – slow cooked beef – that called for pink peppercorns. In fact, we couldn’t find them for sale in the supermarket, so we settled for a tin of Green peppercorns. I’d never heard of either before.

You’ve probably never thought about pepper very much – I know I haven’t.

A lot of Australian cooking never involves a pepper grinder – it stays on the shelf (if there’s even one in the house). If pepper is ever added to anything, it’s the ground variety that is cautiously added from a pepper shaker. Growing up, we had salt and pepper shakers on the table: the salt was often used (though even as kids we were discouraged from adding too much of it), but the pepper was a bit too hot, so we left it alone.

As it turns out, pepper loses a lot of its flavour very soon after it’s ground, so if you want to use pepper in cooking, you should grind it straight away.

My main encounter with freshly ground pepper was (predictably) in cafes – with their giant pepper grinders. A waitress offering "Cracked Pepper?" lends some theatre to ordering a meal. Some cafes seem to be in competition to see who can have the largest pepper grinder: they can grow to over half a metre in size!

When my interest in cooking expanded, I started to buy pepper from the supermarket. The more your cooking hobby expands, the more likely you are to be sent on a massive quest to find apparently simple ingredients. The pink peppercorns definitely fit this category: innocent sounding, but hard to find.

When you buy a supermarket pepper grinder (Masterfoods, for instance, sells pepper in a spice jar, with a grinder attachment on the top), after a lifetime of thinking that pepper exists in powder form, you finally get to see actual peppercorns. They live inside a clear jar – not an opaque grinder – waiting for the grinding blades to slice them up. When the supermarket sells out of black peppercorns, you might find yourself buying the (nearly identical) "peppercorn medley": most of the peppercorns are black, and there are a few flecks of Green and Pink within the little jar.

This, it seems, is the closest it’s possible to get to Pink Peppercorns in a supermarket. Extending my search to the web, though, I found Pink Peppercorns for sale amongst White, Green, and Black peppercorns.

It seems that white, green, and black peppercorns are all from the same plant: the plant has berries, and depending on how you treat them, they end up in different forms. Black and green are the berries, dried in different ways. White peppercorns also differ in that their outer husk has been removed – it seems like a lot of effort for something that is sold so cheaply!

The only exception to this list? Pink peppercorns: they’re actually form a completely different plant. From what I’ve read, they have a much milder flavour, that’s easily overpowered, so putting them in with other peppercorns tends to drown them out.

my approach to cooking

I tend to improvise when I cook. As much as I’d like to find a good recipe, and just follow it, I really struggle to find something that I’m keen enough to try, and so I often end up trying to think through what ingredients would "go together", and to figure out some method of cooking.

Watching Iron Chef has helped me think about cooking in terms of combinations of textures: though I don’t try and make things that are quiee as outlandish as they make on the show, it’s good to think about what is possible.

The dish shown was an example of something I put together with no recipe. I bought some fish on the way home (about 200g each, following the CSIRO guidelines), and then tried to improvise from there.

I started off heating some olive oil in a frying pan, then adding two finely chopped large brown onions with some garlic, a little bit of ginger, until the onions were soft. It’s worth pointing out at this early stage that you don’t need the stove to be at maximum heat at this point: having the stove on a low or a high heat can make a big difference: if only someone had told me this during my early attempts at stir-fry cooking!

I threw in some bean sprouts as well, to add a bit of flavour to them – I find that I don’t like them much when they’re raw.

With the onions fairly soft, I rinsed a can of white beans (after draining whatever scary liquid was in the can), heated that through, and then put the whole frying pan worth of food into another bowl.

Why? I realised that the other vegetables were more crunchy, and so they’d need more cooking time than I’d allowed for them. I cut up some green beans, and finely sliced some red capsicum and some mushrooms, and cooked them until they seemed to have lost their crunchiness.

With the vegetables under way, I figured it was time to cook the fish. The pieces each consisted of a thicker piece, and a thin piece. I thought I’d try out tumeric to give the fish (ling) some flavour, so I tried on the thin pieces, knowing that they’d cook faster, and if the whole thing was a disaster, I could just eat that, and give whatever I could make pleasant to kel.

I tested a little bit, though, and it seemed fine, so I applied the tumeric to the big pieces of fish too, and left them in the pan to cook (kel doesn’t like fish to be undercooked, so I was watching carefully while the heat from the pan travelled up through the fish).

With the fish almost cooked, I put the onions and other vegetables back in the pan to heat through, and then it was time to serve everything up.

Somehow, it tasted quite good. Why “eye of sauron”? I thought it looked like a lidless eye, and kel is a bit Lord of the Rings fan.

What thought process do you go through when you cook (or am I the only one who makes it up as he goes?)

lamb with watermelon salad

It’s been a while since I’ve cooked something worthy of photographing, but last night’s dinner made the grade.

I spotted a recipe in this month’s Delicious magazine that just sounded odd. Lamb with watermelon salad. How does that work, I thought, and so last night I made it. It’s like a greek salad, but instead of lettuce and onion, you have mint and watermelon. The olive oil / lemon that is the dressing does something to cancel out the sweetness of the watermelon, and it works very well.