Otaru pt 1 – daytime wanderings (mostly food)

Pretty sure I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I have a bit of a soft spot for small towns. Not sure how I’d go living in one for a long time, but they sure are lovely places to visit. One of my most favourite places in Japan was a small rural town: Otaru is located somewhere west of Sapporo, in Hokkaido, and we visited on February 8th.

Otaru is only about half an hour from Sapporo by train. Things like this amaze me because sometimes it takes over half an hour to get from one part of Brisbane to another by train – on one train line, travelling through the same city!

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because figs are the best

For various reasons, I haven’t baked much in the latter half of this year (not as much compared to last year and earlier this year, anyway). It helps to have people to bake for, and also the time for it.

It was a colleague / work friend’s birthday on Monday, so I thought I’d bake something on Sunday and bring it in to work. I really didn’t feel like trying out a new recipe, so I thought about my tried and trusted recipes, and of course I stopped at fig cake. I don’t think I know anyone who likes dried figs as much as I do, so I kind of think of this as something I bake for myself as much as for anyone else. This is my sort of comfort food (well, I probably have a lot of other “sorts” of comfort food…)

Anyway, I brought the little cakes in to work (I’d baked them in a muffin tray, rather than as one big cake – long story – not really; I’ll explain below), and people really liked them. I had a couple of people asking for the recipe, so I figured I might as well post it here (“for posterity”, as a friend would say).  Continue reading

happiness in the form of cake and cold mornings

I am absolutely loving this cold weather we’re having right now. It’s pretty much right in the middle of winter, so it’s perfect. I was really getting worried that we wouldn’t get a proper winter at all this year, but – ta da! – here it is.

To clarify, “cold” here is about 4-6 degrees Celsius overnight. (I’m not too sure what the daytime maximum has been because I actually don’t check the weather reports much, and I’m inside all day, anyway.) This morning was perfect: beautiful blue sky streaked with wispy clouds, no/minimal wind, and the air fogging up in front of me with every breath… If I could’ve taken the morning off work just to sit in the sunshine and read a book, or just do some cloud-gazing while sipping a cup of coffee, I think that would’ve been a morning well-spent.

But I had an important delivery to make.

Yesterday, two colleagues of mine were just having a bit of playful banter (nothing unusual). I happened to be in the vicinity, so was brought into it, and got asked to bring in food for one of them, “for tomorrow”, which was today. This went back and forth for a bit, then evolved into bringing cake in, and we were all deflecting the responsibility, and the result was inconclusive (two of us had finished for the day and were on our way out).

On my way home, I thought about it some more, Googled some recipes, and found a simple one for sticky date pudding. I’d settled on sticky date pudding for two reasons: (1) I knew I had plenty of dates at home, and (2) GI said she’d never had sticky date pudding before.

Once I was at home, I was actually a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. It was already a bit late by the time I finished dinner… I needed to sleep earlier… No one was really expecting me to act on this request for cake… But I thought about it some more and, in the time it took to clean up the kitchen a bit while watching MasterChef, I’d made up my mind: this pud was getting baked tonight!

I might post the recipe, but this is not about the recipe or the baking process. There are two things I want to remember from this:

One: As Marco Pierre White (who’s been a guest mentor on MasterChef this week) says: “A good cook cooks for others”. I think the cooking experience is more enjoyable and more purposeful when cooking for a particular friend or family member. Whether the end product turns out better…? Well, I suppose it’s been proven true time and again.

Two: This is something I learnt from a friend (I credit it to her, anyway), and was probably the main reason why I decided to just go ahead and make this impromptu cake. I think that it’s kind of somewhere between that mantra of “being as nice as you can, to as many people as you can, in as many ways as you can” and the one about living with no regrets. Basically, I asked myself if I would regret attempting to make this cake more than I would regret missing this opportunity to do something nice for someone who’s been absolutely delightful to work with. (Side note: there’s no real special occasion for this, hence “impromptu cake”.)

Well, the answer was obvious and, despite getting to bed later than I should have, and having a bit of a restless night’s sleep (my subconscious always worries a lot about whether people will like my creations; also, it was a tad chilly last night), I do not regret my decision in the least. Not because she said it was delicious or because another colleague said it’s probably the best cake I’ve ever brought in to work – well, ok, partly for those reasons… but mostly because of how almost-childishly-happy she was when she discovered that I’d actually gone ahead and made the sticky date pudding just for her.

in the oven

Judging by the number of Mother’s Day posts circulating around WordPress recently (not to mention all the tributes on FB), I’m guessing that everyone knows it was Mother’s Day on Sunday. Don’t worry, this is not another M-Day post – not really, anyway. My mum is someone who’s not big on receiving gifts. She’s always told me that if I want to get her something for a special occasion, get something edible. I reckon I’ve kind of adopted her gift philosophy because I also agree that, as a general rule, the best gifts are edible (and delicious!). I also love receiving books as gifts but, like my mum, I’m not overly fussed about receiving material gifts.

On the week-end, I thought I’d go all out and bake two different treats for Mum. I’ve developed a love of baking in recent months (at times it’s a positively magical experience), and she’s liked what I’ve made so far (or so she says). The plan was one sweet and one savoury.

First up was carrot cake. I’ve made this before, and Mum really liked it, so it was a no-brainer. Plus we have lots of carrots. The recipe I used came courtesy of Julie Goodwin, Australia’s original MasterChef. I really like simple, straight-forward recipes that aren’t overloaded with too many ingredients, so when I found this one, I knew I’d like it. I didn’t even modify it …much.

Well, my mum doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth – she still likes sweet treats, but she’s pretty strict on the “in moderation” part (she is probably the reason why I’ve never had to have a filling) – so I actually omitted the syrup (also I didn’t have any syrup). The recipe calls for just half a teaspoon of cinnamon, which is not a problem at all, but since I also had some nutmeg and allspice (and they worked pretty well in another cake I made last year), I added half a teaspoon of each of these as well. Also, pecans work just as well as walnuts with carrot cake. (Love pecans!)

After getting the carrot cake in the oven, and then cleaning up, eating some lunch, and having a bit of a break (it does have to bake for 60-70 minutes, after all), I decided to make some cheese scones. Ever since this recipe from Jane’s Patisserie popped up on my Reader (there’s a reason why I’m a loyal subscriber!) I knew I’d have to give ’em a try. Again, it’s another reasonably simple recipe with not too many steps, so it was right up my alley.

Full disclosure, there were two things I changed on this one. First, I can’t really eat spicy food (my mum’s a bit better with hot food but, come on, I wanted to eat these too!) so I swapped the cayenne pepper for smokey paprika, which I think worked ok but was a bit too subtle for me. I also used random pizza cheese instead of the stated cheddar because I’d forgotten to buy some… It still tasted pretty good, and the texture of the actual scone was spot-on, but I will be remaking these this Friday, and I’ll go source some decent cheddar before then. I’m also considering mixing in some garlic (perhaps roasted or just minced) just because I like garlic.

Update 15/05/15: Cheese scones batch #2!

Update 15/05/15: Cheese scones batch #2!

extemporaneous baking

Usually when new students or scientists start at the pharmacy, and we have to train them to do compounding, we explain it in terms of cooking or, more specifically, baking: “Compounding is like baking a cake – you just need to measure out the ingredients and mix them together in the right order”. I suppose the only difference is that we never have to put our compounded products in an oven.

Other than the process itself, there are other similarities. For example, it helps to be familiar with what your final product should look like, and what sort of consistency it should be. Accurate measurements are also important, and you should know which ingredients will and won’t mix with each other. Working cleanly is also good, but mess is inevitable. And the list continues…

I’m perfectly aware of these similarities, but for some reason unknown to me, I cannot bake nearly as well as I compound. When I compound, I have no trouble with measurements or mixing or any of that; I will follow each step exactly. When it comes to baking, however, no matter how much I mentally reinforce the importance of following the recipe in front of me, I always, without fail, end up adjusting one thing or another. Usually it’s because I want to make a slightly larger or slightly smaller quantity, but just cannot be bothered to accurately recalculate the measurements (“ain’t nobody got time for that,” as certain colleagues would say…)

Perhaps I can blame an aversion to maths… No, I can’t really do that – don’t dislike math enough.

Chocolate cookies - half with glace cherries, half with pecans

Chocolate cookies – half with glace cherries, half with pecans

I suppose I also like adding other things that aren’t in the recipe. The other week, I made cookies, and decided I would add cocoa powder to the recipe so that they’d be chocolate. I was kind of combining two different recipes, and “guestimating” the quantities – kind of like taking an average of the two recipes. Fortunately for me, I tend to have weird luck with baking, and it still turned out fine. I reckon they were a bit “cakey” (I prefer my cookies a bit crunchier) but everyone at work liked them (about 35 cookies finished in one day between only about 10 people).

This last week, I made a rich chocolate cake (again, adjusting the quantities in a previous recipe so that it’d be more chocolatey) and it miraculously worked out too. I was worried it wasn’t going to cook through properly (too much butter, according to Mum) but when the recipient cut it open, it looked fine. It was pretty frickin’ rich, though – I took a bite and could almost feel my heart slowing down (too much butter and chocolate, I suppose – if there is such a thing).

Chocolate cake (sorry, the lighting wasn't great when I eventually remembered to take a photo...)

Chocolate hazelnut cake (sorry, the lighting wasn’t great when I eventually remembered to take a photo…)

Another theory I have for why I can’t follow a recipe, is that I’ve never seen my mum following a recipe when she bakes or cooks. Well, I suppose it’s all in her head, with a foundation of many years of experience, so it’s probably not true that she doesn’t follow a recipe – it’s just that it’s not written down in plain sight, so there’s the illusion of just adding ingredients instinctively. How good would it be to get to that stage…

Well, I actually feel like maybe my luck is eventually going to run out on this. Perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead? Honestly, though, I do feel kind of fatigued from all of this recent baking. It’s really rewarding to see people enjoying the final product, but it takes time and energy, and for some reason I tend to sleep rather restlessly after a night of baking (probably subconsciously worrying about whether people will like what I made).

Of course, there’s no doubt that I’ll bake again one day (in the near-ish future) but I’m going to take a break for a bit. Don’t want this to become a case of “too much of a good thing becoming a bad thing”.

the baking of the cake

So… I’ve been asked to post the recipe for the Frangelico cake that featured in the last post. I think I didn’t include it in that post originally because I’d just taken a recipe that I found off Google. But I suppose I kind of tweaked it enough to be able to kind of post it as kind of an original recipe. (I only just realised, as I was proofreading this, that I wrote “kind of” so many times in that one sentence… Totally wasn’t intentional.)

The original recipe was sourced from All Recipes Australia, courtesy of someone called “kate” who apparently also lives in Queensland. Thanks “kate” (you’ll probably never read this, but thanks all the same).

I suppose another reason I couldn’t be bothered posting the recipe before was that a lot of my measurements weren’t very exact… so there’ll be a lot of approximations in the recipe below…

  1. Preheat oven to 160C. Grease cake tin with some butter, and dust with a bit of flour (I actually used almond meal instead of flour here because, well, I just have a ridiculous surplus of almond meal…)
  2. Measure out ~100g dark chocolate and ~100g butter, and melt these together in a small bowl in the microwave (in ~10 second bursts)
  3. Whisk 3 eggs (medium-sized) in a large bowl, and then mix in (just under) 1/3 cup of caster sugar, 1/3 cup of plain flour, 1 cup almond meal, and 1/3 cup of Frangelico (but, yes, I did put in a little bit of extra Frangelico, and then a bit of extra almond meal)
  4. Stir in 2-ish tablespoons of chia seeds, and then transfer cake mix to baking tin
  5. Bake for ~30 minutes or until skewer comes out clean

I also made a simple cream cheese frosting to spread on top of the cake. This basically just involved beating together 250g of cream cheese, 1/3 cup of icing sugar, some hazelnut syrup and, yes, more Frangelico (I’m not an alcoholic, I swear – it was just a splash).

The cake turned out kind of fudge-y, which is perfectly fine. I added the chia seeds on a whim in an attempt to make the cake remotely healthy-ish (almonds are good too, right? Vitamin E and whatnot). At the very least, I didn’t expect it to affect the actual taste very much. Fortuitously, this addition seems to have added a nice bit of texture to the cake. Maybe next time I’ll try it with chopped hazelnuts or something, or make it with a different liqueur and add fruit. Maybe Chambord…?

Well, I hadn’t given too much thought to the end product when I was making it; I just hoped it would be an edible and reasonably tastey cake. Mission accomplished, I suppose, if I do say so myself. Also, my sister liked it, which was the whole point of the exercise, anyway.

Frangelico cake