Saturday, February 28, 2015

Recipe: Fresh Fruit Tart

If you don't know that much about Vietnam and its history, it might surprise you to find that it is full of bakeries selling delicious bread, cakes and pastries. However Vietnam was a French colony for around 100 years and it left them with an amazing legacy of baking. It is really no surprise that just about every shopping strip in Australia has a "Saigon Hot Bake" as a legacy of Vietnam war refugees.

During our recent trip to Vietnam we enjoyed plenty of this French influenced baking. From the amazing banh mi sandwiches, to all sorts of cakes and pastries. The Cargo Club where I discovered the delicious crispy pork belly salad also has a fantastic patisserie attached and we found ourselves there nearly every morning.

Everything we had was delicious, but S fell particularly in love with their mango tart. So much so that when it came time for him to request a birthday cake he asked me to recreate it. The Cargo Club version is small individual tarts which were a bit fussy for me, so I make it as one large tart. Mango is excellent on the tart, but you can use any fresh fruit. Most recently I've made it with plums and nectarines and the gorgeous raspberries that are in season right now would be particularly nice.

This is a reasonably complicated recipe and it takes time. You need to allow the pastry to rest, the creme patissiere to cool and assembling it prettily isn't quick. You could shortcut by making the pastry in a food processor, but personally I love hand-making pastry. I find the process of rubbing the butter into the flour and kneading the dough almost like meditating. So basically you will need to allow a couple of hours to make this, although a good chunk of that time is just letting things cool.

However the end result of that work is pretty spectacular looking and even better tasting!

Fresh Fruit Tart
250g plain flour
150g unsalted butter, room temperature cut into cubes
2tbsp cater sugar
1 egg yolk

Creme Patissiere
600ml milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
6 egg yolks
125g caster sugar
60g corn flour

Fresh fruit of your choice

For the pastry case
Combine the flour, butter and caster sugar in a bowl and rub between your fingers till the butter is evenly distributed and the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Mix the egg yolk through and add the water, a tablespoon at a time till the mixture comes together. Kneed the pastry lightly on the bench till it is a smooth ball with no cracks. Shape into a disc, wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for around 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180oC, and grease fluted tart tin* with a loose base. Roll the pastry out between two sheets of baking paper till 2-3mm thick, then carefully line the tin and trim any excess. The pastry is quite soft so if it tears (or you put it in a bit lopsided like I often do) you can use the excess to patch any holes.

Line the pastry case with baking paper and fill with pastry weights. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the baking paper and weights and bake for a further 10 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool in the tin completely.

For the Creme Patissiere
Place 500ml milk and the vanilla pod (I like to scrape a few seeds out and put them in the milk too) in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Meanwhile whisk egg yolks and sugar together. Add the cornflour and remaining 100ml milk to the eggs and continue to whisk until combined.

Pour the hot milk into the egg mixture (remove the vanilla bean, you can use it to make vanilla sugar) and whisk to combine, then return this to a clean saucepan (just give it a quick wipe out with paper towel). Place back on a medium/high heat, whisking continuously. When pastry cream begins to bubble and thicken remove from heat and transfer back to the mixing bowl.  You need to watch it carefully, it will seem very runny for ages then all of a sudden will boil and thicken.

Cover with cling wrap with the wrap touching the creme patissiere to form a seal. Place in fridge and allow to cool (approx 1 hour).

To Assemble
Remove the pastry case from the tart tin and place on your serving dish. Fill with the creme patissiere (if it is completely cold give it a quick stir to loosen it up) and decorate with fresh fruit.

It is best on the day it is made but will keep in the fridge for a couple of days.

*Note: My tart tin is 25cm in diameter and 4cm deep. If you use a smaller tin, you may have excess creme patissiere. My recommendation is to not quite fill your pastry case to the top, leave a little gap to help hold the fruit in place.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: Coles Fruit Hot Cross Buns

Time for hot cross bun review number 2! Continuing on with supermarket stock, I picked up a 6 pack of Coles Fruit Hot Cross Buns.

The buns were a dark brown colour with a nice shiny glaze and are clearly popular as I bought the second last pack. We had them for dessert, lightly heated, just butter for me, butter and strawberry jam for S.

So onto the review...

Let's start with the man's perspective. S thought the texture was better than the Aldi buns, but that the spice and fruit was on par. Another solid 7/10.

For my review, I agree with S, they had a nice light fluffy texture and really juicy fruit. Like the Aldi buns the fruit is limited to raisins, sultanas and currents. But while they smelt really good, on tasting I thought there was something off about the balance of spices with a slight bitter note. For me they weren't quite as good as the Aldi buns, 6/10. 

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of hot cross bun taste off.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Restaurant Review: Yarralumla Turkish Halal Pide House

Fine dining is one of the great pleasures in life. I just adore a plate which comes out beautifully arranged. Eating something as beautiful as it is tasty takes the dining experience to a whole new level.

But not all great food comes in a photographic package. And not all memorable meals involve starched linen tablecloths and silver service. There is a place, and a well deserved place, in life for truly tasty, lip smacking fast food. And it is a place that usually attracts a cult following.

The Yarralumla Turkish Halal Pide House is one of those special places. A tiny shop front, in a small suburban shopping strip where each lunchtime there is a queue out the door and no parking anywhere close. And I'm not exaggerating, every time I've been I've joined the wait well outside the front door, one memorable time it was halfway down the block.

For those who don't live in Canberra, Yarralumla is one of our most expensive suburbs. It is the realm of luxury cars and embassy residences, but at any lunchtime you just need to follow the line of tradies utes and high-vis shirts to find the queue for what is arguably Canberra's best kebabs. They also make fantastic pide and have a further wide ranging menu, although I will admit I've never been able to go past the pide and kebabs.

If you head there at a standard meal time you will find yourself in a queue, but they are organised and it moves fast. Stepping up to the counter you order the salads for your kebab. Stepping to the left you specify meat and sauce. A short wait later (as your kebab is heated to final perfection) you are presented with a truly delicious all in one meal.

It may sound a bit "Soup Nazi" but the system works well. On my most recent visit there were 4 people ahead of me in the queue before we even got in the shop (and who knows how many in the queue in total) but it only took about 15 minutes from when I arrived to when I left, deliciousness in hand.

But onto the kebab. For $10, you get your choice of salad, meat and sauce wrapped in an amazing flat bread, all in a quantity that I have never been able to finish. A couple of people at my office regularly share one, having half each for a good lunch. Another of the guys asks them to do half amount of meat in an attempt to eat it all. My tactic is to eat as much as I can, then just eat the filling, sadly never being quite able to finish the delicious flat bread.

My standard order is chicken with garlic and BBQ sauce. It also contains super fresh salads, I like tomato, tabouleh, lettuce and humus. Other options are lamb, falafel or kabak (zucchini fritters), plus a few extra salad options and heaps of different sauces.

The result is not photogenic. It is not date food, I tend to end up with it all over my face. But what it is, is a delicious, quite healthy and relatively inexpensive meal that will fill you up.

Yarralumla Turkish Halal Pide House
47 Novar Street

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Recipe: Crispy pork belly salad with red curry dressing

Last year, S and I joined some friends for a holiday in Vietnam. It was my second visit and it left me even more in love with it and its stunning food.

We did our best to eat our way around the country, trying as many different things as we possibly could but there was one dish that was so tasty I insisted on returning to have for a second time before we left. Since we returned home I've been working hard to recreate it and I'm finally happy enough with this recipe to share it.

My inspiration was a salad of the same name at the Cargo Club in Hoi An. My version uses ingredients I could easily source in Australia and after much experimentation a dressing that while not the same, provides the same complimentary effect.

This is a fantastic dish for a relaxed meal with friends. You can prepare everything in advance and just do the final assembly when everyone is ready to eat.

Crispy pork belly salad with red curry dressing
Serves 4

500g pork belly, skin on, bones removed
olive oil
sea salt
1 carrot, julliened
1 cucumber, cut in half lengthsize, seeds removed, thinly sliced
½ red capsicum, thinly sliced
100g snowpeas, thinly sliced on the diagonal
150g bean shoots
½ bunch coriander, leaves picked
1 mango, sliced into thick julienne
1/4 iceberg lettuce torn into small pieces
fried shallot (the dried type you get in an Asian grocer)

1/4 cup good quality red curry paste
1/4 cup coconut cream
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 180°C or 160°C fan-forced.

Score pork skin. Rub a few tablespoons of salt in and leave for 20-30 minutes. Wipe the skin dry with paper towel, then rub a little olive oil into the skin. Place pork, skin side down, in a large roasting pan lined with baking paper. Drizzle the meat with some more olive oil and season with a couple of pinches of salt. Bake for 1½ hours.

Turn pork, skin side up. Increase oven temperature to 220°C or 200°C fan. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until skin is crisp. Remove from oven and cover with foil. Rest  for 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, assemble the salad. Toss together the carrot, cucumber, capsicum, snow peas, bean shoots, coriander, mango and lettuce and divide between 4 bowls or plates. Drizzle with the dressing and top with the fried shallot.

Cut the pork into bite sized cubes and divide between the salads. It is easier to cut if you place it skin side down on your board.

For the dressing: heat the red curry paste in a small saucepan until fragrant and starting to split the oil out. Take off the heat, stir in the coconut cream and rice wine vinegar. If it is too spicy for you, you can add more coconut cream. The dressing is great warm but can be made a day ahead and stored in a sealed jar in the fridge

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Aldi Fruit Indulgence Hot Cross Buns

It is Lent! If I was religious, this would be the roughly six week period where I would prepare myself to celebrate the most holy time of year - Easter - through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial.

However I am not at all religious, so I use the start of Lent as a marker for when I can eat hot cross buns. These days they seem to arrive on supermarket shelves within days of Christmas, but in keeping with my overall philosophy that some things need to be enjoyed only at certain times to keep them special, I limit myself to just 6 weeks of fruity, spiced bun goodness.

This year as a selfless act to you my readers, I have decided to taste test and review as many hot cross buns as I can. This will help you identify the very best and give me extra reasons to cram as many as I can in my gob!

And to ensure the reviews are not affected by gender bias, S will be joining me to give the male perspective.

First up: Aldi Fruit Indulgence Hot Cross Buns - 6 pack

It is no secret to say that I'm an Aldi fan. We do the vast majority of our grocery shopping there and because we never read the catalogue I love the excitement of turning the corner into the "random crap" section of the store and finding out what they have this week. Over the years I've bought the most amazing things in that part of Aldi, most recently I got all new gym gear.

But back to the Hot Cross Buns. Let me start by saying if you want these, you need to be there bright and early. Aldi customers (at least at my Aldi) are fans of these and there have been plenty of times when only the fruitless or chocolate versions remain, neither of which I consider to be real hot cross buns.

Let's start with S's thoughts. Pretty good, nice fruit, a bit dense. A smell of cinnamon, nutmeg and burnished oak. 7/10 (I think he might have drifted onto a wine review there)

I'm pretty much in agreement (except for the oak). These hot cross buns have great flavour, good spice, really nice fruit and no peel which I prefer but S would have liked to taste. However the texture is a bit doughy and gluggy. I would definitely be happy to eat them again, which is good because we still have 4 in the fridge! I agree, a solid 7/10.

Do you have a favourite hot cross bun we should taste test?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Recipe: Tomato and Basil Sausage Risotto

Have you seen this hilarious clip comparing cooking risotto by hand vs in a thermomix?

As funny as it is, it does highlight one of the BIG myths about risotto - that you have to keep constantly stirring! A few years ago I went to a great cooking class about risotto where I learned that not only is this unnecessary, it also breaks down the rice so you don't end up with the ideal consistency of fat, plump but individual grains of rice rather than a sort of porridge.

So what do you do instead? Well you do have to stir fairly regularly. Definitely when you add in liquid and every now and then to ensure it doesn't stick, but not all the time. So while it isn't the kind of meal you can leave there to look after by itself - unless you are lucky enough to have a thermomix - you don't to stand there constantly stirring. And yes you can leave it to go to the toilet!

But on to my risotto. I had been thinking of a sausage risotto when we walked into Aldi and saw their new range of gourmet sausages. With a garden full of tomato and basil, the veal, tomato and basil sausages stood out as the perfect base to me. If you don't have access to Aldi, any tomato based sausages would do. I also think it would be good with a spicy Italian sausage.

So give it a go and remember, just stir it enough to keep it from sticking!

Do you know any common food myths that make life that bit harder?

Tomato and basil sausage risotto
Serves 4 generously

Olive oil
1 medium brown onion finely diced
1 tsp chopped garlic
4 veal, tomato and basil sausages, casing removed
1.5 cups arborio rice
1 cup white wine
4-5 cups chicken stock
2 cups chopped ripe tomatoes
1 cup shredded basil
1/2 cup grated parmesan
pepper to taste

Heat the stock in a small saucepan till it is steaming but not boiling.

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan over a medium-high heat and add the onion. When it is softened and lightly golden add the garlic and the sausages and break them up with your spoon into meatballish sized chunks. You want to get some really good colour on those sausages, that is flavour and your last chance before you add liquid.

When they are golden brown, add the rice and stir to coat with the oil and get the rice nice and hot. Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the wine. Give the base a good scrape to get any caramlised bits up. Add the tomatoes and start adding your hot stock, ladle by ladle.

It will take a good 30-40 minutes of low simmering, stirring as you add each ladle of stock and occasionally in between to stop it sticking. The final amount of stock required will depend on how juicy your tomatoes are. You will know it is ready when the rice is plump and doesn't have a chalky texture when you bite a grain, but each grain is still individually distinctive.

Once you reach that point, stir in your basil, parmesan and as much pepper as you like.

Serve with more pepper to taste!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Restaurant Review: Fox and Bow

A few weeks ago a few girlfriends and I gathered for our semi-regular brunch catch-up. I had heard that a new cafe had opened up at the Farrer shops, a very convenient location for all of us so we met there at 10am.

Fox and Bow was buzzing! Only open a couple of weeks the locals and not-so locals alike had discovered this funky new cafe and we initially thought we wouldn't get a seat. However we found ourselves a table and some stools and set ourselves up with a few other people across the access road to the back of the shops on the footpath. It may seem like an odd location but it is pretty close to the cafe and was out of the bright January sun.

Fox and Bow is an order at the counter type place which I do like in groups as it allows everyone to simply order separately without having the issues of split bills. Our orders were quickly taken and drinks arrived quite promptly, however the food did take some time, probably a good 30-45 minutes although I will admit I was too busy catching up with the girls and having a detailed conversation on the pros and cons of top-loader vs front-loader washing machines to watch the time.

That said, we had definitely arrived at the peak, by the time we left at around 12 there were tables free and I think the time taken was a reflection of a new cafe finding its feet and being completely swamped with patrons on a Sunday morning.

But onto the food. Apologies, for not having photos of everything, I haven't trained everyone into the necessities of food blogging photos and it all looked so good they dived right in!

I enjoyed the "Senorita Fox" which was toasted sourdough, smashed avocado, 2 poached eggs, tasmanian smoked salmon, lemon, parsley and grilled haloumi ($18). It was delicious, everything I want in a breakfast. It was a little on the salty side because of the combination of the haloumi and smoked salmon so you definitely didn't need to add any salt but the salad topping added a really lovely fresh note to the dish.

Everyone else at the table also greatly enjoyed their meals which ranged from a corn fritter dish that I can't find on the current online menu, to custom ordered eggs and bacon and a gluten free version of "This is how we roll" Darrel’s smokey bacon, free range egg, house-made bbq relish, hash brown, jack cheese which is normally served on a toasted brioche bun. When this came out my friend was initially very suspicious of the bread as, in her words, it looked way too good for gluten free but she risked it. Later the owner came by to ask what she thought of the bread as he was getting it from a new supplier. In her opinion it is the best gluten free bread she has ever had and is now tracking down the supplier herself.

For drinks, I'm assured the coffee was good and second rounds were ordered (the only downside of counter ordering came here in that we had to go back in to order). I had an "Ohh Darla" Smoothie made of watermelon, pineapple, sorbet and berries topped with sorbet ($6.90). Aside from being spectacular looking this was extremely delicious and very refreshing.

While our food did take some time to come we found the staff easy to grab (even from the other side of the road) and very helpful. The atmosphere was great with a live jazz singer most of the morning and the buzzy happy people enjoying great food on a sunny Sunday morning. The fitout is fun and funky with mismatched furniture, a large group table, and bar seating as well as individual tables. There are lots of opening windows which is great for summer, it might be a little more crowded come winter but I'm sure they will invest in outdoor heating like every other Canberra cafe.

As we left I popped in and bought a cinnamon cronut and caramel donut to take home. The donut was a little on the stale side but the cronut was supremely delicious. They came out of a cabinet of yummy looking treats which make me think it would also be a great place to stop in for morning or afternoon tea.

All in all, we had a lovely morning at Fox and Bow and I'm looking forward to heading back there in the not too distant future.

Fox and Bow
Farrer Shops
Farrer Place, Farrer

Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: The Rosie Effect and The Goldfinch

Long time no blog! Those of you who know me personally know that 2014 was a hum dinger of a difficult year. And not just for me, it seemed like everyone I knew had more than their fair share of challenges. Coping with such a year meant letting a few things go and blogging was just one thing too many. But I’m back, blogging mojo recharged and ready to write.

This year I think Blithe Moments will become a bit more of a lifestyle blog. The odd recipe, a restaurant and movie review or two, maybe even some fashion thoughts. But I thought I would kick off with a couple of book reviews.

One thing I really missed in my crazy year was the opportunity to read for pleasure. So as the year wound down and I found myself with enough time to read fiction, I remembered just how much I love it. As a result I’ve been reading voraciously for the last couple of months and just last week went and got myself a library card for the first time since I was in primary school.

While the library has changed in some respects, with self-service check out and the ability to pre-order your books online, it still has that amazing reverential quietness that is really only found in libraries and the far galleries of museums. It was such a pleasure wandering the shelves seeing if I could find some of the huge number of books I have on my Goodreads to-read shelf.

But back to the reviews. Over summer I read my way through a pile of books. Today I’m picking two at opposite ends of the spectrum, a light comedy and a deep literary work.

First up the comedy - "The Rosie Effect" by Graeme Simsion.

Don Tillman and Rosie Jarman are now married and living in New York. Don has been teaching while Rosie completes her second year at Columbia Medical School. Just as Don is about to announce that Gene, his philandering best friend from Australia, is coming to stay, Rosie drops a bombshell: she’s pregnant.

In true Tillman style, Don instantly becomes an expert on all things obstetric. But in between immersing himself in a new research study on parenting and implementing the Standardised Meal System (pregnancy version), Don’s old weaknesses resurface. And while he strives to get the technicalities right, he gets the emotions all wrong, and risks losing Rosie when she needs him most.

This is the sequel to “The Rosie Project”, the story of the hapless in love (and life) Don Tillman and his quest to find a wife.

If you loved “The Rosie Project” I’d say there is a good chance you will love “The Rosie Effect” (and if you haven’t read “The Rosie Project” you should, it is great). In some ways it doesn't quite have the impact of the first book. You are used to Don’s inability to interpret the world in the way the vast majority of us do and can foresee the chaos that ensues as a result. However it still has laugh out loud moments, places where you cringe as you understand what was happening in a way Don never can and it leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy.

While this book was never going to set the literary world on fire, I really enjoy Graeme Simsion’s writing. The book is well paced (although it does wrap up its conclusion rather rapidly) and it is easy to read. It is high quality chick lit and I would characterise it as the perfect holiday read. Fun, easy to set down and pick up again and will leave you with a smile on your face.

In stark contrast is “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt.

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love - and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph - a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.

What a book! The writing is glorious and the story compelling but oh so dark in contrast with “The Rosie Effect”. This was a book where I wanted to dive into the pages and gather Theo in my arms to stop him from hurting himself. At points I almost wanted to stop reading, Theo’s experiences are so painful they can be debilitating to read, but the gripping story drew me on to a conclusion that was not exactly satisfying, but it was real. Just like life everything doesn't work out in a neat package, things are still messy and unresolved but life continues on anyway.

“The Goldfinch” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, won and was shortlisted for numerous other awards and listed on various best books award and from the opening pages it isn’t hard to see why. This is a serious literary work.

I did feel the last third of the book dragged a little before it picked up for its rather frenetic finish, but overall “The Goldfinch” is an intense, quality read. This is a book for a rainy weekend with no distractions other than big cups of tea.

As different as these books are the thing that they have in common is that at their centre are very real, very human people. They have flaws, they struggle  to fit in as they should but they are ultimately, in their own broken ways, striving for happiness and they genuinely care about the others in their lives. Both books are also written in the first person but in a way that gives you significant insight and the ability to appreciate the situation in a way that the characters themselves cannot.

And as different as they are, I have to say I loved them both.

Have you read The Rosie Effect or The Goldfinch? And what should I be getting out of the library next?