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.

peanut butter and jelly

It’s been some time coming, but I’ve finally had another attempt at making truffles. Since my coconut and lime truffles worked so well, and got such good feedback from my colleagues, I’ve been meaning to make more truffles, experimenting with ingredients and flavour combinations. I like making truffles because you can play around with different flavours, but mostly because it’s generally easier and requires fewer ingredients than baking a cake (which I also enjoy, but sometimes just don’t have the time or energy for).

Another big bonus is that it’s easier to adjust quantities/proportions as you prepare the truffle mix, whereas baking tends to require very (or at least reasonably) accurate measurements. If you’ve read my previous posts on baking, or if I’ve told you of my baking adventures before, you’ll know that I’m not great with precise measurements and sticking to recipes…

Anyway, I can’t remember when the inspiration hit me, but I believe it was while talking to a colleague about the gloriousness of peanut butter. I reckon PB is great as it is, on toast or bread, but I especially like it with jam. From there, I started thinking about how I could recreate the flavours of a good PB&J sandwich in a truffle form, and the following recipe was born:

Ingredients:

  • ~170-180mL (thickened) cream
  • 4 tbsp smooth peanut butter (I guess you could use crunchy PB but I was worried about the peanuts going soft/weird while being cooked in the cream …but that could just be me being paranoid)
  • ~240g dark chocolate (melting chips, or a cut-up block)
  • 1 small tin/jar of some sort of fruit-flavoured hard candy, crushed with a mortar & pestle to get little granules of candy (I reckon it works best if you get it to just bigger than raw sugar granule size)

I think the process for all truffles is basically the same, so once you’ve mastered one, you’ll probably find it easy enough to adapt for other flavours. In this case, I just put the cream and PB into a saucepan to heat slowly, stirring until the PB melted and incorporated into the cream. Once it looked like it was just about to come to a simmer, I took it off the heat and added the chocolate, stirring until it all melted.

At this point, I contemplated adding choc chips (like the ones you use for baking cookies) to give an internal crunch element to kind of resemble the texture of crunchy PB, but I didn’t really have that many, so I left them out. Besides, I figured that the candy coating would give enough of a crunch.

After leaving the truffle mix in the fridge to cool overnight, I cut it up (because too lazy to use a melon baller and scoop out individual ones), and rolled it in the candy crumbs/powder.

I’m really bad at remembering to take photos of food, so of course I don’t have a photo, but I reckon they looked pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. The candy I used was red/pink, so just imagine little cubes of dark chocolate covered in little pink jewels. It gets a bit of a reaction. I will say, however, that if the candy powder is too fine, it kind of melts when applied to the truffles, and then it becomes quite sticky (although people said it was worth the stickiness).

When I did my taste-test at home, I was actually a bit apprehensive. It worked, but the flavour wasn’t as amazing as the coconut and lime truffles (sorry I keep mentioning those, but I feel like I set too high a benchmark when I made them). But you do get the nice combination of salty, creamy peanut butter and sugary fruit (or should that be “fruity sugar”?) so I was satisfied. What I really judge a recipe’s success on, however, is the reaction I get from others, particularly if anyone asks for the recipe because it means they liked it enough to want to make it themselves. On this criteria, I’m very pleased (and relieved) to say that these PB&J truffles passed 🙂

coconut + lime + dark chocolate

I reckon the best thing about baking is being able to create something delicious, and then share that with family/friends, and just watching them enjoy it. It’s really something special, hey?

Well, after work on Sunday, I could not be stuffed baking anything, so I decided to just make truffles. No special occasion, but I’ve just been compulsively buying dark chocolate to kind of give myself an excuse to use it. I was also inspired by this post on Jane’s Patisserie, and wanted to experiement around with some flavours.

Also, apparently you can get the same satisfaction from sharing home-made truffles as you get from sharing a home-baked cake. I took my truffles in to work with me today, and everyone loved them, so I thought maybe it was worth sharing the recipe here (especially since I also got a few recipe requests)

Truffles are amazingly easy to make, which makes me like them even more. I’d previously made a chocolate cake with lime and coconut, so I figured the same thing should work in truffle form (not sure if it still counts as an experiment then, but oh well…)

As well as being easy to make, there were only four ingredients:

  • ~165mL coconut cream (I just happened to have a small tin in the pantry that was exactly this amount. I weighed it in the tin to be ~200g, which, yes, is kind of a meaningless value since I didn’t weigh the empty tin)
  • ~365g dark chocolate (I’ve put the “approximately” tilde on this one because I ate a bit of the chocolate before it went in. You’ve got to check for quality, right?)
  • ~2 tsp Gin Gin & Dry lime powder (I assume lime zest would work fine as well)
  • enough dessicated coconut to coat truffles

All I did was heat the cream with the lime powder on a low heat until it was just about to boil. Then I took it off the heat, and added the chocolate, stirring until it all melted. It was then a simple case of pouring it into a lined container, and waiting for it to set (I left it overnight). Once set, because I was too lazy to scoop them out individually, I just cut them into squares, and kind of rolled them into ball-like shapes while coating them in dessicated coconut.

Here’s a photo (but it’s not very good because I took the good ones to work, and completely forgot to take a photo, so these are the few random pieces I kept at home)

Coconut and lime truffles (well, you get the general idea...)

Coconut and lime truffles (well, you get the general idea…)

I’m not a truffle expert (yet) but I assume you can just adjust the cream/chocolate ratio depending on whether you prefer the truffles softer/harder. The ratio I used seemed to give a satisfyingly rich truffle.

read vs write

I had a bit of a random thought the other day about reading and writing. I feel like I’ve written a post about this before, but I can’t seem to find it (not that I looked very hard), so please excuse me if you’ve heard this all before. (*Tangent Alert* It’s kind of like when you’ve told a story so many times to so many different people that you forget who you have and haven’t told, and then you kind of have to decide whether or not you want to go ahead and risk re-telling a story that people have already heard before. I know a few people who do this quite a bit, but they’re such fun to talk to, I usually don’t mind, or I’ll just subtly hint that that story sounds familiar…)

I had a conversation with a friend quite some time ago about the relationship between the love of reading and the love of writing. This particular friend loves to read, and reads a lot. I’m pretty much the same. However, she does not like to write, whereas I clearly love to write (I’d assume most people who write blogs like writing too). At the time, I remember thinking this was a bit odd, but I kind of just accepted it because, you know, “each to their own” and whatnot.

In recent weeks, while discovering new food blogs, and watching cooking shows like “MasterChef” and “Everyday Gourmet” and a variety of foodie shows on SBS, I had a thought that maybe the reading/writing relationship could be analogous to the eating/cooking relationship. Eating and reading both feed the soul. Cooking and writing can be such rewarding experiences that enrich the lives of those who undertake these tasks.

If someone likes to eat, and they’ve had delicious meals prepared for them all their life, I’d think it’d be reasonable for them to be inspired to learn to cook and create tastey dishes of their own. Likewise, if someone likes to read, it would not be out of place for them to be inspired to write – right?

I also reckon that people who love to write would also love reading; just as people who love to cook would certainly love to eat. I’ve never met someone who disproves this, but feel free to be the first. So much of cooking is tasting the components of the dish as you prepare it, ensuring everything is balanced, and the flavours are right. So much of writing is re-reading and editing your sentences so that the text flows as it’s intended. It’s hard for me to imagine someone who loves to write but detests reading (it makes me shudder just to think that anyone might detest reading at all, irrespective of their feelings toward writing).

The more I thought about this, the more I realised that the analogy could be expanded to include so many other things. For example, most human beings like music of some variety, but not everyone has an inclination toward singing or playing musical instruments. We can appreciate music (which also feeds the soul, by the way) without having an urge to sing or pick up a guitar or take up piano lessons. However, I don’t think it’s possible for a musician to not like listening to music. The analogy works, right? And it can probably be applied to most performing arts, and art art like paintings and sketches and whatnot.

Perhaps what determines whether you like both the process and the end-product, or whether you appreciate the end-product with minimal interest in the process – perhaps what it all boils down to is inspiration. It just depends on whether or not you reach that magical level of inspiration, where you’re moved to take action. (Sometimes I feel like I’m pretty easily inspired, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it also means there are a lot of things that I want to do.) I could hypothesise that it might also come down to natural talent or affinity, but things like writing, cooking, drawing, etc can all be practised and perfected over time (although generally people seem to prefer doing things that they’re naturally good at).

One last thing – I think reading makes one’s writing better, and writing can improve one’s appreciation of reading. Likewise, eating can help improve one’s cooking, and cooking is likely to enhance the eating experience. Each pair works synergistically.

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”.