Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Roses in abundance

No food in sight today. Only roses and not of the rosewater kind either.

I have this ability to get myself into things from time to time. And mostly, when I look back I am dumbfounded as to how. Well, it is a long story, but the short version is that I was sent an SOS by my son's teacher to help (on very short notice) with the flowers for her son's wedding.
Like I said, I get myself into things, so of course without thinking twice I agreed. Little did I know that the flowers involved 1500 roses and 25 vases and a few bouquets and roses tied onto chairs and...

Now, you have to realize that I am far from a professional florist. My day job involves spreadsheets and calculations with very little to offer on the creative front. Orchids, flowers and gardening are all hobbies that takes a back seat most days. The day job pays the bills. Getting my hands dirty is what makes me tick.

So, needless to say, I had tons of fun and loved every minute of it. The most rewarding part of course was arriving at the stunning venue and seeing the final result. The bride and the teacher and all the on-lookers became teary eyed and hugs and kisses followed. They loved it! And, dare I humbly say it, I did too!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Spreading a little joy

The supermarkets and stores are full of Christmas things already. Well, they have been for over a month already, but contrary to other years, they are certainly not filled to the brim. Tiny displays and the odd stack of cookie tins and crackers. Must be the credit crunch!

Try as I may, I still struggle not to get exited about all the tinsel and kitch. Christmas is in the air, summer is finally here and the days have that lingering quality. I adore this time of year and associate the supermarket displays with summer holidays, watermelon feasts next to the pool and cookies.

It was a tradition in our family to bake lots and lots of cookies for the holidays, to be devoured whenever the craving struck (often). We all measured, stirred, creamed and rolled for hours and hours to fill the tins with all sorts of favourites. A holiday production line filled with smiles and laughter. It sounds a little cheesy, I know, but these are some of my happiest memories.

I wanted share a little bit of that joy and decided to bake some shortbread to give to friends. No reason in particular. Or maybe, it was just an excuse to fill the kitchen with the aroma of cookies in the oven. Mmmm, enjoy!

Blue Berry Shortbread Bars
260 g plain cake flour
45 g castor sugar
25 g cornflour
250 g butter (slightly softened)
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
100 g blueberries
Preheat the oven to 160 °C. Lightly grease a small (25x20) baking tin. Place all the ingredients, except the blueberries in a food processor and blend until the mixture forms a soft ball. Press the dough into the baking tray and gently even out with an offset spatula. Prick with a fork and make indentations in the dough, using the back of a wooden spoon. Place a blueberry into each. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until the sides tinge brown. Remove from the oven and slice into bars with a sharp knife while still hot. Leave to cool in the tin for just a short while and then place on a cooling rack.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Picnic in the garden

On Friday my son's playschool came for a picnic in our garden. It all started with an innocent comment from the teacher about her not being sure what to plant in a neglected spot in her garden and me being, well me, rambling on about plants and suggestions for a little too long. She then put two and two together and realised that I like gardening and suggested the picnic to some moms and before I knew it, it was a done deal. The idea was for them to just roam freely for a few hours and to have some fun. A bit of a shuffle on the roster and it also became my son's turn at being the 'baker of the week'. Suddenly I had an excuse to make little hamburgers served alfresco under the trees; I was in my element.

Our garden is a bit bigger than normal (I guess it would pass as a park in most towns and that is me trying very hard not to boast). We are in fact a very lucky family. And it is the ideal place for kids to give free reigns to their imagination. It has a network of pathways, large grass lawns under shade trees and a play area with jungle gyms, a little dolls' house build from local stone and lots of flowers every where. Also, the vegetable garden is overflowing with produce, which gave the stadsjapies (city kids) a chance to see that carrots do not come from bags in Woolworths.

For some reason I thought I might need an incentive to lure them away from the play area into the unfamiliar (read: Needed an excuse to bake). So, I expanded on the idea of an easter egg hunt and baked some cookies, which I iced like little spring flowers. These went into little bags, which were tied with ribbon onto low branches all over the garden.

They were out of the cars in seconds, accompanied by the usual din and as expected, they all went for the play area. But, with a little prodding from E, they soon started the cookie hunt and what fun they had. Their energy was infectious! They returned, red cheeked, about an hour later with their loot, or what was left of it and could not stop chatting, laughing, running.

Lunch followed and then a little tour of the veg garden and the green houses.
After they left, my little boy gave me a huge hug and many, many kisses and just laughed. The perfect ending to a wonderful day!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Daring Bakers do Vol-au-vents

I am seriously late posting this blog. Yes, only about ten days late to reveal my Daring Baker's attempt at making vol-au-vents. Excuses are plenty. Between two orchid shows, a birthday party for my four year old, visitors for three weeks and a trip to Durban even work suffered somewhat. It was one of those months in which I hardly saw my bed and unfortunately also hardly saw my kitchen. Well, I fed the masses that passed through, but had no time to experiment or attempt anything time consuming.

Puff-pastry definitely fall into the 'time-consuming' category and the very thought of all that rolling and resting had my head spinning at first. Eventually I just declared the month a disaster kitchen-wise and decided to wait. So on monday our dear friend from Cal left for home, my little boy E's party has come and gone and the suitcases of dirty clothes were all ironed and back in the cupboard. It was time to tackle the puff-pastry.

Vol-au-vents take me right back to Scotland, where, for a while I was the cook for a family of eight, who lived in a castle. It was summer while I was there and they had many parties and alfresco dinners with friends. And vol-au-vents featured often; they simply loved them. Well, come to think of it, all of them loved food. They could eat breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner and still snack in between. Vol-au-vents were also served as main course for dinner when they just wanted to relax in the library with the children and then I filled them with smoked salmon and bechamel sauce.

This time round, I rather wanted to make something for dessert and decided to stirr a few teaspoons of left-over lemon curd into some delicious full-cream yogurt. So simple, but it worked really well. One of those things I never thought of before opening the fridge, but will now stock for emergency puddings. And as an added bonus, the kids just adored it.

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dobos Torte and another birthday

August is always a busy month around here in the birthday department and who does not enjoy being spoilt on their special day? I of course head for the kitchen when I think of how to best spoil anybody, which means even a bit more baking than usual.

I use to spend hours in the kitchen baking and experimenting with recipes when I was a teenager. I adored the whole process of baking something with many layers or spending hours on decorating something just the way I wanted it. And then for a while, I lost that enthusiasm for baking. I still loved to experiment, but only with savory dishes. Baking became territory untouched. I went as far as claiming that I disliked it totally. Even trivial attempts at baking basic cakes ended in disaster, or a quick dash to the nearest store to buy a replacement.

Luckily, all that changed in the last few years. It was a slow rehab at first. Mediocre attempts to at least pretend that I use my oven for something other than roasting chickens. Slow at first, but not for long. The chemistry that is baking soon gripped me again, compelled me to try something else, new, elaborate. I dusted off a few recipes and shopped online for a few others. And then I stumbled onto foodblogs!

The blogs opened a whole new world and a new way of connecting with my sister who lives so far away and who also loves to spend hours in her kitchen. Suddenly, we could share links and become all giggly with jealousy about where Bakerella shops. We can talk about recipes and forget that we are continents apart, forget about her miserable London weather and my stressful deadlines. We could suddenly feel as though we are standing in the same kitchen, measuring, whisking, baking, tasting!

And of course foodblogs plus obsessive bakers equals Daring Bakers. That was the next logical step. We both want to learn more, bake more and blog more and what better way to achieve this, than to join this clique of bakers. And so, from opposite ends of the globe, we both attempted the Dobos Torte.

Me, I decided to share my attempt with my father-in-law for his birthday. I got a little break, when both my children took a nap on a saturday morning (virtually unheard of in this house) and had two blissfull hours in which to bake the layers of feather-light sponge. Then L took over the baby-sitting duty for a while and I could assemble and decorate. Then it was off to the party with my torte in hand.

It was not the prettiest thing I have ever made but the sounds of approval from the partygoers as they were shoveling forks full of cake, made me a very happy (daring) baker indeed.

The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonfulof Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular DobosTorte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: ExquisiteDesserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague

Nougat presents

In laws and family ties can be a tricky thing, as you may all know too well. My family and its intricate political nuances are no exception. We have our share of sticky, tricky situations of the 'want to pull your hair out' kind often enough.

We are right in the middle of just such a situation again at the moment and as usual, I am the designated negotiator. My untactful self have to once again try and talk to the aggrieved sister-in-law and try to figure out why, oh why she is upset with all of us. Once we know why, we can try to patch the already patchy relationship once again.

Not my favourite thing to do, but sometimes you just got to suck it up for family ties.

I had a little plan up my sleeve though, nougat. Yes, sticky, sweet nougat to smooth out a sticky situation. Sweet, unctuous nougat to do the talking for me. With this mission in mind, I brought out the termometer, sauce pans and food processor. And when all was heated and whisked and mixed into one white cloud of sweet temptation, I knew I would be able to win her over.

The next morning, I wrapped a beautiful slice in waxy paper, tied a bow and dashed off to the reconciliation attempt.

What can I say? Who can resist nougat; it worked like a charm. Not everybody is back on speaking terms yet. But we took the first step and who knows, pretty soon family gatherings might be a happy affair again.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Happy, happy birthday

It was my mom's birthday on tuesday and we joined forces to host a little tea party for her. Just for a few friends to share her special day. I wanted to recreate a touch of french decadence, a really pretty affair. Everything on the menu had to be pretty, girly and rich and lucious. There were macarons, apple-almond tarlets, french fruit tarts and lemon-curd mille feulles. Also little chocolate cup-cakes with rich ganache icing. It all went down a treat and the conversation flowed as did the champagne and tea.
We all need to spoil ourselves from time to time and what better occasion than a birthday! It was worth every bit of effort. Happy birtday mom! May this year bring only joy and love (and lots of it)!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Biscotti, I love you

A foodie friend passed away over the weekend. He cooked at a demo session for charity and on his way home, lost control over his vehicle. He loved Italian food with all his heart and cooked it with such gusto that even the most disinterested of cooks quickly became entised to join in the Italian fun.

Last night I was thinking about all things Italian and what I love about it. What is not to love. And it seems all the magazine editors agree with me. There are no less than three food magazines on the shelves this month with Italian as it main theme and on the cover. Winter food with hearty meat dishes and beautiful photographs of warm bowls of minestrone and butternut ravioli. In this household, few dishes excites the kids as much as simple home-made pasta with a pesto sauce. Except for warm pizza straight from the oven, that is. My little one always insists on kneading his own piece of dough (only he eats it all before the proofing even begins).

But my own favourite has to be biscotti. I love it. The soft-hardness of macadamia and pistachio nuts with just a hint of lemon zest and a few soft chewy sultanas has to be the perfect combination for a biscuit. No choc-chip, mocca-coffee, mint-crisp versions for me.

And as I was reflecting on a friends' life full of Italian feasts and my own blessings, I crawled up under a blanket in front of the fire. I sipped on some sweet port and dunked my biscotti every few sips.

Salut to life and indulgences!