Mortifying muffins and eye-candy neighbours

The beauty of uncooked meringue

The beauty of uncooked meringue.

I love baked goods. I own a lot of cookbooks. I look at baking blogs. I like to try to make something from the pages/posts of these books/blogs. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

A recent baking effort fell into the latter camp. I was determined to make a zucchini loaf and a batch of spinach and ricotta muffins to give my cousin whose husband was recuperating at home from a cycling accident.
After school drop-off I tried to scurry away quickly so I could do my important job-hunting/work-sourcing baking work. I said “no” to a P&C morning tea and “yes” to my own baking extravaganza.
I am not going to bore you with the details of how and why both these recipes went wrong, as I would be guessing anyway. But the outcome was that both the loaf and the muffins just refused to cook on the inside, yet insisted on going dark brown on the outside. My oven, the tanning salon.
“Oh, you can’t give her that,” Mum said helpfully as she peered at the zucchini loaf. Just for fun, I pinged one of the muffins at the kitchen bench and it actually made a pinging sound. I could get away with eating a muffin myself, but I couldn’t actually offer them to anyone else as I’m afraid they fell into my “mild disaster” category of cooking. The zucchini loaf was categorised “major disaster” so, although in conflict over the waste of ingredients, I binned it, because no one was going to want to eat that.
I forced myself to eat a muffin though, just so I could feel the ingredients/time wasn’t totally wasted. I had it with salad for dinner that night. It wasn’t bad, as it wasn’t actually charcoal and at least I could taste the feta and parmesan in it.
I had three egg whites left over from my yolk-filled baked goods. They were sitting in the fridge just waiting to turn into meringues. My grandmother had made them often. They were always a lovely pale milk-coffee colour, crispy on the outside and chewy in the middle. Even though I had eaten them often as a child, I still didn’t know exactly how she did it.  To make meringues, I still had to consult my Commonsense Cookery Book (Metric edition – originally compiled in 1970 by the NSW Public School Cookery Teachers’ Association). I have the 1981 edition – it was my high-school cooking class bible.
Simple but effective.

Simple but effective. Dog-eared and reliable.

I enjoyed beating the egg-whites with mum’s 70s egg-beater. It’s quite the workout. A pinch of salt, more beating, then I poured sugar on to those stiff white peaks and beat again, until I had snow-covered mountains of meringue. After folding in more sugar, I spooned the confection into a piping bag and piped out coils, building up the outer ring to make little meringue nests. They looked like the effort of a beginner potter, Dali-esque clocks melting in the late afternoon sun streaming in my kitchen window. I popped them in the oven for a slow, low suntan.
The fragility of uncooked meringue

The fragility of uncooked meringue “coils”.

Later, when Spider-boy and I got home from school pick-up, mum announced “Ooooh, you should see the eye-candy that’s moved in next door”.
“What? Who? Tell me EVERYTHING!” I demanded.
So turns out the eye-candy that Mum was referring to was one bloke who’s paying rent and another who’s “just visiting” (or so he said). Then the next day we saw two women coming out of the flat, dressed as if they were going to a nightclub, but they each wheeled a pram and accompanying baby. And they have all been there every day for the past week, obviously living in our real neighbour’s two-bedroom flat that she is sub-letting to the two eye-candy families. Cosy.
They have nothing to do with this story, except to say that no way was I popping round next door Desperate Housewives-style with a basket of my mortifying muffins to welcome them to the neighbourhood. Nor would I be delivering them to my cousin. If my street were Wisteria Lane, then my mortifying muffins would be considered a weapon of mass obstruction (to being a good neighbour/to cousin’s husband’s recuperation).
But my meringues were a different story. I tasted one that night, and they weren’t bad. The palest shade of milk-coffee, crispy on the outside and chewy in the middle. Worked a treat with a bit of vanilla ice-cream and blueberries. I had wanted to redeem myself with the meringues. It was a bizarre self-imposed My Kitchen Rules-style showdown where I was the only competitor and there were no attractive celebrity-chef judges. Maybe I could’ve knocked on the eye-candy neighbours door after all and asked them to join me for a bake-off. So all right, maybe I can bake a little, but it is a bit unpredictable. All I will say is that the zuchinni Loaf and the muffin recipes did not come from my Commonsense Cookery Book.
Redemption by meringue. I don't mind the crack - the beauty's in the flaws right?

Redemption by meringue. I don’t mind the cracks – the beauty’s in the flaws, right?

 And my cousin’s husband? He got a box of Lindt chocolates. My baking may be hit and miss, but I am very good at buying chocolate.

I Can’t Believe I Made Butter!

Spiderboy had been run off all eight of his little feet during the September school holidays, so on the last Sunday, when I asked him, “So, shall we go out on the harbour on a ferry, or stay home and make butter from scratch?” it’s really no surprise he wanted to stay home and you know, potentially lick a bowl.

The idea for butter-making came to me while Spiderboy and I were reading his home reader. The story was about two kids who made butter by – wait for it – shaking a jar with cream in it – for a reeeaaally long time.  Great school holiday project, I noted, but who has the time to shake a freakin’ jar for that long. What am I? Amish? There had to be an easier way.

So I googled “Making butter from scratch” and came upon this informative post on Not Quite Nigella, called “Made from scratch: Make your own butter.” NQN’s Lorraine uses an electric mixer, so it takes two minutes to turn cream into butter. It almost seems too simple to be true, but I’ve tried it and it really works. I used a hand-held electric beater and it still only took about two or three minutes. The instructions are all on Not Quite Nigella, but here are my pictures:

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Butter in its younger days, before it had been through the mill.

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Whip It! Whip it good.

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Cellulite waiting to happen.

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Pressing out the buttermilk through a strainer was strangely satisfying.

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I can’t believe it’s butter!

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So proud of my little roly-poly roll of fat. And this butter roll too.

The day before I made butter, Spiderboy and I were in the supermarket. I was lingering in Chilled Dairy exploring my cream options, when a man suddenly appeared next to me. He was holding a pot of double cream. Was he the devil in disguise? “My name’s Kevin.” He extended his hand, so I duly shook it.

“Let me tell you about something really delicious,” Kevin/devil-in-disguise  whispered. “You get a slice of white bread, and you butter it. Then you get some jam. Strawberry. Then you pour cream all over it. It’s delicious. it’s easy. Think about it next time the little fella wants a treat” he said, motioning to my son climbing all over the trolley.

“I’m not trying to pick you up,” Kevin/devil continued. “I just thought you might like to hear a good idea.”  Have I got a sign on my back saying, “Got butter and cream? Talk to me!” I wondered.

The next day Spiderboy was quite excited about the butter project. After I’d done some housework and after we’d made Peppa Pig Cupcakes, I announced, “It’s time to make the butter!

“No, I want to dress up as Superman and jump off my bunk bed.” he announced. Who am I to argue with the vagaries of five-year-old life. Here’s a picture:

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Spider Boy IS Superman.

Now that I had a moment’s pause, I thought I’d better google ” Heart Attack symptoms: women” before I made the butter.  Well, you can never be too careful. I decided to go ahead with my fully-loaded full-fat DIY project, where the main ingredient was fat.

So there I was, whipping double cream, while waiting for Tina Arena to appear on Sunday’s repeat of Dancing with the Stars and tying to negotiate with Spiderboy over what he could watch on You Tube.

“Come on, I’m making the butter, I’m whipping the cream!” I informed Spiderboy, who was now glued to my iPad.

“I’m whipping the butter, do you want to see? Look! Whipping! Cream! It’s nearly butter! LOOK!”

“I’m just playing this game now Mum”.

“OK, but you’re going to miss seeing the cream turn to butter. Look, it’s happening!”

“Muuum, I’m playing this game now.”

“OKAAAAY… but I’m about to do more whipping so if you want to hear your game you’d better go out of the room for a minute…”

A minute later, I said, “Look at the butter I made!”

And then Spiderboy cried. ” I wanted to make the butter! I can’t believe you made butter without me!” he sniffled.

“Darling, I told you I was making the butter. Look, you can pat it with these spoons to squeeze the buttermilk out.”

Spiderboy calmed down and patted the golden butter between two big wooden spoons. Then a big blob fell onto the chair he was standing on. But it was only for three seconds so we picked it up and pretended it never happened.

“This is boring!”  he declared after a bit more patting, and went to watch TV.

My butter was ready, but I just couldn’t eat it. I didn’t have any nice bread. I put my butter away, in the fridge on top of the Lurpak, a really delicious Danish butter. My butter will keep.

The next day I bought a fresh loaf of white sourdough. ” I’m too scared to try the butter, ” I said to Spiderboy. He agreed. And his favourite food is “Vegemite-toast-with-margarine-but-not-the-butter-melted.” (That’s how he asks for toast every single time. It’s endearing. No, really).

But I pushed through my fear and tried my butter anyway. I tasted the tiniest bit on the tip of my pinky. It was smooth, creamy and a little bit bland. The butter, not my pinky. I had added a pinch of salt to the cream before whipping but it probably could’ve done with some more. Then I spread a bit of butter on the bread, and had a few bites.

It was quite nice. I couldn’t quite believe I had made a supermarket staple from scratch, that it was actually a real thing, and edible. But since I had whipped the double cream myself, I could see the butter for what it really was – almost pure fat. And it was strangely off-putting. Even for me.

So I’m back onto the Lurpak. Somehow, I don’t think of the fat when the butter comes out of a tub that I buy in the supermarket. Completely illogical, I know.

Have you ever made anything from scratch? Did it live up to your expectations?

School Cake-stall Baking

I saw some really cute panda-face cupcakes on Housegoeshome,  so I decided to have a go for the recent Federal Election day cake-stall at school, because they were just so cute, and importantly, looked easy enough.

Still, when I was at the supermarket buying my ingredients, I bought a pack of ready-made cupcakes with brightly coloured icing, just in case I got lazy. I could always scrape the icing off and decorate them like pandas, right? But then I remembered we had to list the ingredients. How could I give the P&C a list with preservative numbers on it? So… I baked.

Small, but perfectly formed

Base applied, ready for panda makeover!

Base applied, ready for panda makeover!

Spider Boy and I mixed the dry ingredients, sending flour and cocoa everywhere. We mixed in the eggs, milk and hot water, exactly to the amount specified. But somehow, the mixture seemed too runny. I commented on this to Spider Boy, who said forlornly, “Oh no, it’s going to be another disaster!” dramatic much? Totally my fault.

“It’s all right,” I told him, “we’ll just add some more flour”, realising the powder spillage before might have had something to do with the runny mixture.

It all worked out in the end though – miraculously, the little cakes rose into perfectly formed little chocolate hills.

A face only a mother could love.

Facing facts: a face only a mother could love.

Big mumma

Big mumma

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Mumma and Bubba

To decorate the cupcakes, the recipe called for “white confetti sprinkles” and a “black edible ink pen” for the eyes, but I couldn’t get those things in my little local supermarket so I used a bit of vanilla frosting with a dot of black writing icing that I had in the cupboard.

I also used dessicated coconut instead of “sanding sugar” (whatever that is) to create a furry panda effect. I thought dessicated coconut looked furrier than sugar, and anyway, did we really need the extra sugar on top?  (I know, I’m constantly surprising myself). The original recipe called for 1/3 cup of oil, but being a big fan of butter, I melted some of that instead.

In the end,  the cupcakes were probably the best I’ve ever made. Great chocolately taste, melt-in-the-mouth texture,  perfectly formed.  But because my vanilla frosting contained quite a bit of butter, it did have a slightly yellowish hue, giving my pandas a slightly jaundiced look, but still, they were cute and fluffy enough.

A long way from cupcake disaster indeed.

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Now that’s what I call a six-pack

Click through to the recipe here.  Or to check out other panda-inspired food go to http://theverybesttop10.com/2013/09/13/panda-inspired-foods/

Did you have any Election day baking success?

Nothing Like Nigella. Part 2

Finally: cheesecake success with a strawberry on top

Finally: cheesecake success with a strawberry on top

You might remember my cheesecake disaster from last week: the rubbery, salty garbage-tasting lump with flesh coloured gelatinous globules in it that actually made me dry-retch when I tasted it.

The big pictures and step-by-step instructions in a children’s cookbook borrowed from the library made it look so easyBut my cheesecake didn’t look like the pictures. And I didn’t look happy like the child in the step-by-step instructions. Oh how she mocked me, with her Cath Kidston-style apron and neat blonde plaits, holding her little tray of perfect, heart-shaped cheesecakes.
I tried but spectacularly failed my self-imposed “Cheesecake Challenge” last week. But this week, I’ve done it. I spent more money on ingredients and dedicated Saturday morning to it. After last week’s disaster, I couldn’t blame Spider Boy for showing no interest in helping me with this week’s attempt. Although he did deign to give the cream a bit of a whip with our 1970s egg beater later in the proceedings.
I bashed biscuits, melted butter, and simmered strawberries. And then it was time to face my nemesis: gelatin or gelatine or whatever it calls itself. This time, I decided to work with jelly crystals. Little diamonds of potential gelatinous glop. Since the recipe called for “strawberry gelatin”, I had looked for strawberry jelly crystals, but IGA only had “Strawberry Sundae” flavour.
The recipe hadn’t made it clear whether to dissolve the gelatin in water first, or to just put it straight into the strawberries. So I took a stab in the dark and dissolved the crystals in just over half the amount of water you would normally use to make 500g of jelly. The recipe said simply, 85g gelatin, and later, “add the gelatin” – see, nothing about dissolving it first, or “make up the jelly according to instructions on packet”. Anyway, it worked. Lots more stirring and whisking, and setting in the fridge for hours, but it worked!
I took two little cheesecakes over to Senorita Margarita’s house. “They taste good, but they’re a bit soft.” They’d only set for two hours, and unfortunately were in the car for nearly an hour of driving around before I got them to her.
The next day, after the remaining pink cheesecake hearts had been in the fridge overnight, I told Spider Boy to check them out.  When he saw the cakes were perfectly pink and heart-shaped, he asked if he could put the strawberries on top. Later, when he tried some, he said, “Mmm… delicious… it’s really nice.” But a short time later, he admitted, “Mum… it doesn’t actually taste very good… it tastes a bit sweet… and not very nice.”
Yes, the cheesecake was perfectly pink and heart-shaped. But the problem was, it tasted more like “pink” cheesecake than “strawberry” cheesecake. It tasted pinker than strawberry, pinker than pink. it was musk stick, creaming soda pink. The pink of fairy floss, ballerina tu-tus and sticky pink lip gloss. It was Barbie’s dream kitchen on steroids.
I asked Mum if she wanted to try some. “No thanks. I don’t really like pink food.”
I rang Senorita Margarita. Do you want anymore cheesecakes? “No!” she implored. “I’ve polished off the two you brought over already!” she said, muttering something else related to trying to lose weight, and eating too much, blah blah blah.
The cheesecake failure was probably due to me actually trying to follow the recipe, rather than feeling my way. Maybe it’s better to just know a recipe by heart, knowing by intuition developed from years of just doing it, or watching a loved one making a particular dish. Anything I make that is more complicated than boiling something in water, is the result of my studying a written recipe and dealing with each step as I go, a rather staccato way of cooking, there is no flow. I don’t “feel” my recipes, I think them. and sometimes the way the recipe writer is thinking, and my thinking, is not on the same page, literally. The only reason I persevere with baking (as opposed to just boiling things in water), is because I like to eat baked goods, ok? (or no-bake goods, like cheesecake, as the case may be) Yes, I could just go to a bakery, but I like to work for my treats. (Maybe I should just work for my treats in a gym? You know, actually burn some calories before consuming any more?)
But still, I feel I’ve succeeded in my Cheesecake Challenge. The flavour may have been over-pink, but the texture was good.  This recipe worked, with me NOT following the recipe step-by-step. So maybe I do have some cooking intuition after all.
Thank goodness I can now return that book to the library! And I’m never borrowing it again.
Have you had any memorable cooking disasters?
I should've just bought one of these and been done with it!

I should’ve just bought one of these and been done with it!

Nothing Like Nigella. Part 1

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Success: buttery biscuit base

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Seconds before cheesecake disaster

It should have been so easy. It was a no-bake cake. I had borrowed a cookbook from the children’s library. Five-year-old Spider Boy and I had chosen a strawberry cheesecake recipe to try. From a children’s cookbook.

We followed the instructions to the letter. The recipe called for “I package (85g) strawberry gelatin” (spelt gelatin without the ‘e’ – it was an English cook book). I went to the supermarket and asked for gelatin. “You cook with it” I helpfully informed the man. But they didn’t have strawberry gelatin, so I just bought a pack of “gelatine”  (spelt with the ‘e’) – “clear and unflavoured” it said on the pack. The fresh strawberries in the mix will be enough to flavour it, I reasoned.

Things began smoothly. Spider Boy and I smashed plain Nice biscuits in a zip-lock bag and rolled them with a rolling pin. We melted butter and poured it over the biscuits, then smooshed it together.

My packet of gelatine had five sachets each containing 10g gelatin. I had bought two boxes so poured eight sachets into my simmering strawberries, sugar and water mixture.

The fact that the spoon I used to mix this strawberry mixture stuck to the plate after the glop had cooled down, should have served as a warning of the no-bake disaster that was to follow.

As I poured the rapidly-becoming-rubbery mixture into the whisked cream cheese, and started folding rubbery-strawberry-sauce-with-gelatinous-lumps into the cream cheese, I knew things had gone horribly, horribly wrong. It was at this point I stopped photographing the steps of this recipe. It was like how I imagine half-set lumpy concrete to be. I tasted a bit on the tip of my finger. It felt like rubber, it tasted salty. The texture was a bizarre rubbery, lumpy mess, concrete-coloured peppered with flesh-coloured gelatinous strawberry blobs. It looked like offal, and tasted how garbage on garbage day would taste, but with salt. I had a sinking feeling it had something to do with all those sachets of gelatin – clear, flavourless, undissolved gelatin.

But, optimist that I am, I thought maybe the texture and taste of the mixture would somehow improve after it was spooned carefully into heart-shaped little tins that were already lined with buttery biscuit base. But no, it looked no better. Oh well, I thought, let’s see what happens after they’re “set” in the fridge for a couple of hours, as the recipe dictates.

An hour-and-a-half later, Spider Boy called out to me, “Mum, look at the cakes.”  I went to the open fridge where Spider Boy was crouched by the bottom shelf,  peering and poking at the cakes.

It was a cheesecake disaster.

“It’s a total disaster!” declared Spider Boy.

A vastly different story to the food on Lorraine Elliot’s Not Quite Nigella blog. I’ve marvelled at her recipes, I’ve been impressed by the photographs of the outcomes of said recipes. For example, one spectacular recipe post about Cronuts (a donut-croissant hybrid), stated the degree of difficulty was hard, with six to eight hours of work – I do admire the culinary commitment displayed on Not Quite Nigella, but I could never cook something that took six or eight hours. The results of Elliot’s cooking are impressive, if the photos are anything to go by, and I’m sure she is a lot more like Nigella than “Not quite”. It is the people like me, those who love food, and try to emulate those delectable cookbook photographs with our cooking, but somehow miss the mark, who are not only “Not quite Nigella”, we are “Nothing like Nigella”. In fact, some of us are “Nowhere near Nigella”, as far away from Nigella as it is possible to be. The only culinary thing I have in common with Nigella, is that I love food.

I had so been looking forward to cool creamy strawberry smoothness over a buttery biscuit crumb base. How bitterly, bitterly disappointed I was.

I showed my mum the recipe and she pointed out that when the recipe called for “gelatin”, maybe that actually meant jelly crystals

So now, a week later, armed with a fresh packet of strawberry Aeroplane jelly, I will try again. I will keep you posted.