Here We Go Again: On Letting Go and Sugar Cookies

At work

No, it’s not the earthquakes.  And certainly nothing to do with ABBA.

It’s birthday time in the Fagan household. Again. And, in fact, from now through until some time in September.

Francesca has just turned 9.  I am left wandering and wondering.  Where did my little baby go? Will the next 9 years go just as quickly?  Will she still need me then?

But no time for existential crises, because the birthday party is on Saturday.

(Or could it be that the purpose of children’s birthday parties is really to distract mothers from the grief of watching their children progress along the inexorable journey to independence and their own impending redundancy?  OK, maybe not, but I’m glad of it just the same.)

Francesca would like a garden fairy party just like the one her 5 year old sister had.

If you find this at all odd, let me tell you, right here and right now, how glad I am that my little girl still wants to be a little girl, and how vast my relief that the influence of all the tweenie garbage we try hard but still fail to avoid has been negligible.  Ditto the influence of some of her more worldly friends.  Let me tell you how good it feels when she still likes to climb up on my knee for a cuddle, or gives me her hand to hold as we walk along the road together, both literally and figuratively.

So go the fairies.  Long may they last.

If you’ve been with me from the beginning (not quite two months ago), you may remember my 24 hour crisis before Lydia’s birthday. For a reminder, please read here for the crisis, or here for the aftermath.

This time I have a full three days to go.  Left to my own devices, I would almost certainly find a way to fall behind into the exact same 24 hour crisis. I always do. But, Gentle Reader, with you as my conscience, I might just manage the sensible approach this time around.

So I started this afternoon with the item I always mean to make, but seldom get around to: cut sugar cookies.

When I was a toddler my great grandmother used to make these all the time.  She would bring out her green-rimmed enamel bowl (which I still have) and a wooden spoon.  She sat in the corner of her kitchen on a stool made out of an old fruit crate with a neatly sewn cloth cover (move over Eames, we call it refugee chic).  With the bowl on her lap she would get to work creaming the butter and sugar.

My babushka’s lap was the perfect height for me.  I loved watching that mixture grow fluffier just beneath my nose.  She would even let me taste a little. Then came my favourite part, watching the eggs going in, one at a time:  the crack of the shell, the egg slopping around the bowl, separating the butter and sugar into ever increasing layers, until at last the orange of the yolk was assimilated and the two became one.

When Francesca was very small I made a batch of little doggie cookies for her party. They were white with black spots and a red collar, just like our own Brutus, the world’s friendliest dog.

Brutus

The next time I went to make them, Brutus had lost a leg after trying to make friends with a car in a 70km zone.  In addition to the fiddly icing job, there was really no choice but to go around and snap the hind legs off all the little mini-Bruti. It was a matter of solidarity. I think my husband got the off-cuts. One trusts similar arrangement did not apply at the vets.

I just managed a batch for Lydia’s party, but ran out of time to ice them. It made for a great impromptu party activity, so much so that this time cookie icing is a planned activity.  I’ve stocked up on all kinds of sprinkles and writing icing, and a big polka dot oil cloth for the kitchen table.  I’m even looking forward to it myself.

In life there are recipes you come across and then keep going back to.  Like the stereotypical adulterer, you stray once in a while, but at the end of the day, you always go home.

By the time I became a young wife, my great grandmother’s recipe was long gone, but a random honeymoon purchase while visiting my husband’s family in the US provided a very serviceable replacement.  Same smell, same taste, same texture. The dough is well behaved, you won’t need to roll out between sheets of baking paper. I still like them best slightly burnt at the edges.  And I still haven’t found a recipe to beat it.

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This book is out of print.  New copies are advertised on Amazon at ridiculous prices, but a reasonably priced second hand copy would make a worthwhile addition to the collection of a baker with an interest in Americana.

As these cookies are both very popular and keep very well, I have doubled it. My version follows. If you have a stand mixer, this is a good time to use it.

Sugar Cookies Just Like Babushka’s

A recipe with notes for the uninitiated.

  • 225g (2 sticks) butter
  • 2c sugar regular, or for a more refined result, castor
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2-3 tsp vanilla extract or essence
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 1/2 c plain flour

1. Warm the butter until it is well softened but not melted.  Beat until light in colour, then add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy.

2. Add the eggs one at at time, beating after each egg until it is completely assimilated.  Add the salt and vanilla and beat them in.

3. Beat in the flour and work until you have a soft homogeneous dough.

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4. You have likely observed that this dough is so soft that it is unworkable.  Don’t worry, 1/2 an hour in the fridge is about to fix that.  First tip the dough out onto a board, divide into four even sections.  Flatten each section, wrap in glad wrap and pop in the fridge for anywhere between 30 minutes and two days.

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I emphasis this flattening part.  It is important because:

  • Your dough chills more quickly and more evenly.
  • Anyone who has ever gone up against a cold ball of dough armed only with a stubborn nature and a rolling pin can tell you this will make the rolling a whole lot easier.
  • Finally, if you are going to leave the dough in the fridge for longer than 30 minutes, you may need to let it warm up a little bit before you try to roll it (you want the dough firm, not rock hard).  This also goes more quickly and more evenly if you’ve made a disc.

5. When you are ready to roll, preheat your oven to 160 C or about 320 F.  Unless you have completely lost your mind, line your cookie sheets with non-stick baking paper.

6. Roll the dough.  You want to do this using the bare minimum of flour you need to stop the dough from sticking.  This is because the extra flour works its way into the dough and will dull the flavour and texture. Since you are working from nice flat discs, this will be easy. Dust your rolling surface lightly.  It should look something like this:

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You can add more as you go along if necessary. Rub a little flour over the rolling pin too.

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Roll in gentle increments.  Rotate dough 90 deg every few strokes, sprinkling a little more flour if it looks like it’s thinking of sticking.  Stop when it’s about 5mm or 3/16th” thick.  And yes, of course you can roll between layers of baking paper or cling wrap if you really want to, you just don’t have to.

7. Time to cut out.  This goes much more easily if the dough doesn’t stick to the cutter. Shapes with very tight angles or narrow sections are the enemy.  But regardless the shape of your cutter, dipping it in flour regularly will help.

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The other thing you can do in the war against adding too much flour is to reduce the number of times you re roll your dough scraps. Some people just throw them out, but I can’t countenance the waste.

Take care how you position each cut and you can cut down the amount of scrap and re-rolling a lot. Some shapes also make it easier.  Hearts and Christmas trees are good shapes for cutting efficiency.  Stars and shapes which are irregular or have a protruding outline, not so much.  I can see that this shoe cutter shaped cutter is going to be another good one – there’s not going to be much waste except for the gap between sole and heel and for the border around the edge of the dough..

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8.  Lay the shapes out on your baking tray well spaced in an even pattern.  This is not just because of my disturbing love of order.  It does actually help them to bake more evenly.  If you can, bake just one shape per tray. If you can’t, at least try to keep to cookies of similar size and shape.  Smaller cookies tend to brown more quickly than the big ones (yes, even when the dough is all the same thickness).  Likewise little bits around edges (things like bunny tails) will brown more quickly than plain shapes like circles.  Keeping like with like will save you a lot of uneven baking.

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9. Was a time I used to throw the first tray into the oven as soon as I could and let it get started as I frantically rolled out the next one.  And I still do if I’m in my usual last minute flap.  Be warned.  These cookies have a high sugar content.  They will look raw for so long, all of a sudden they are ready and then a moment later they are burned.  So take the pressure off yourself and get as many trays as you can ready first so that you won’t be distracted.

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10.  At this point I would like to mention my cookie sheets.  A few years ago I needed a couple of extras, and bought a couple of these Chicago Metallic trays from Moore Wilson. Since then I only use the old ones in emergency (don’t ask).

A set of 5 works well (three in the oven and two at hand), particularly when I’m doing a lot of yeast baking (it needs to rise on the sheet), or when there’s a lot of cookie baking going on.

They are relatively heavy making for more even cooking.  The rim means that baking around the edge of the sheets doesn’t catch as quickly as it otherwise might.  You can use them for jobs like roasting vegetables for big family dinners or salads. The other bonus is that you can stack them up on top of each other when bench space is at a premium.  See above.

When I’m not looking, the Sainted Husband has been known to use them to cook bacon. This has not improved the non-stick properties of the trays.  Luckily for all concerned I use the non-stick parchment anyway.  (The Sainted Husband points out that he has seen the error of his ways and no longer subjects my cookie sheets to these horrors.)

11. Bake for about 10 minutes or as long as it takes to get a pale golden cookie.  You may need to rotate your trays part way through. If your oven has hot spots you are about to find out exactly where they are.

I usually put in three trays at once. Once the top one is done, I move the lower two trays up, turning them as I go, and pop a fresh tray in the bottom rack.  Works as well as anything.  If they come out a bit over done, try and get them off the tray and on to a cooling rack as soon as you can.  They do keep cooking on the trays.

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I don’t think I turned this tray.  Cookie front right is pallid, cookie left back is overdone. Cookies in columns 2 to 4 of rows 4 and five, and in columns 1 and 2 of rows 2 to 4 look about right (columns counted left to right, rows front to back).

12.  I used to re-roll as I went,taking the scraps from my current lot and adding them to the next lot of fresh dough.  Not surprisingly my first couple of lots would be the best and by the time I got to the end, it wasn’t looking so good.  Now I put aside all the scraps as I go and re roll them together once all the first time dough has been used. I think the dough holds up much better this way.

13.  When the cookies first come out of the oven they might be quite soft.  Give them a few minutes to set, then transfer to a cooling rack.  When they are quite cool, put them into an airtight container until you are ready to eat or ice.  I like them better without any icing, but three people in my household say otherwise.

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I think these matriyoshka shapes could make good mummies come Halloween. And if I ever see more of these high rise cooling racks I’ll buy them.  Another bench space saver during baking seasons.

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Explaining the mystery of the unicorn: this is what happens when you get called away to something else.  They taste really good, but the guests won’t be seeing any.  Should we start a petition to stop the slaughter now?

14. According to the original, this recipe should make about 8 dozen cookies.  Clearly it depends on the size of the cookie.  I find it easier to think that each quarter portion should about fill a tray, and to count on about 1 1/2 trays worth out of the re-rolled scraps.

This time around the recipe yielded:

  • 16 crowns
  • 9 unicorns
  • 16 shoes
  • 12 flowers  (to form bottom half of sandwiched biscuit)
  • 12 flowers with holes cut out (to form top half of sandwich)
  • 13 small mushrooms
  • 4 teapots
  • 7 cupcakes
  • 5 medium sized matriyoshka (babushka) dolls
  • 8 little matriyoshkas

102 or 8.5 dozen cookies – one of the few recipes ever known to stipulate anything resembling an accurate yield.  Respect.

Hopefully this should be enough to keep a dozen kiddies and assorted adults out of trouble for a while.

This One Goes Out to the One I Love…

Veronica’s Sister’s Lemon Curd Cake

Just a quick post this time.

It’s a long time since I posted an actual recipe, and my old friend Jennifer Duval-Smith would like this one, so here goes.  The photos will have to come later.

When last together, Jennifer and I were Law students, and thus by definition living in a state of continual stress, REM were in their heyday and everyone was wearing Ray Bans.

Facebook and blogging have brought us together again. It’s almost as though we’ve been growing older together all this time. If nothing else ever comes out of this blog, it will have been worth it.

So Jennifer, this recipe is for you.  Enough goo, down to business.

The proportions below are for a double batch and work perfectly in a 25 or 26cm (10″) springform.  The cake is very quick to bake.  The curd is a bit fiddlier and you can spend a while stirring.  In emergency I have been known to fall back on a jar of Barker’s Lemon Curd.  Their passionfruit curd is also good with meringues and cream for a quick but impressive high tea plate.

The Cake

  • 175g or 6oz butter
  • 225g or 8oz sugar
  • 2 tbsp hot milk
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 2c flour
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • sugar, to sprinkle
  • sliced almonds

1. Grease the springform and set your oven to preheat to 150 C (300 F).

2. Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, beat in the hot milk and then the eggs, one at at time.

3. Sift in the flour and baking powder and fold in to form a uniform batter.

4. Spoon the batter into the pan and smooth out the top.  Sprinkle with sugar and nuts and bake for about 45 minutes until the cake is golden brown and a pick comes out clean.  Stop as you go to savour the smell of the nuts and sugar. Mmmmm.

5. Let it cool in the tin for 5 or 10 minutes, then pop the sides of the springform, free the cake and let it cool off on a rack.

6. When the cake has cooled, cut it in half using a bread knife.  Spread generously with lemon curd (see recipe below) and sandwich back together.

Good to go.  Keeps well in an airtight tin. Looks good on a footed plate.  Yummy.

Lemon Curd

This recipe will yield enough curd for two or three 26cm (10″) cakes.  Just as well, because I usually have to bake two at once anyway.  Left overs are great with fresh sconces and cream.

  • 50g or 2oz butter
  • 3/4c sugar
  • 1c lemon juice
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp lemon zest

1. Put a bowl over a pan of boiling water (over but not touching the water). Add the butter and melt.  Stir in the sugar and lemon juice and stir until the sugar has dissolved.  Remove from heat.

2. Beat in the eggs and lemon zest.  Return to the heat.  Keep stirring until the mixture starts to thicken.

3. Pour into sterilised jars (about 2 cups or 1/2 a litres worth).  Refrigerate.

Wellington Safe Once More

Chow, Restaurant 88, Tequila Joe’s, Duke Carvell’s Emporium

Just got home from a night out with the girls, or suppose I should say women: my sister-in-law Kathryn, mutual friend and fellow Food Night devotee Stacey, and the baby of the group, my 32 year old sister Victoria.

The hex seems to have passed. No earthquakes, no fire alarms and no storms.  Roofs, roads and infrastructure unharmed.  We weren’t asked to leave anywhere, though not everyone was letting us in, claiming, as they did, to be closing or out of tables.

Stacey had suggested we start with cocktails and so, like the innocent little fluffy white lambs we are, our tails waggling behind us, we arranged to meet her at Chow for two for one cocktails.

To those many who are enamoured with Chow’s famous Rosebuds, I have but two words: Hazelnut Sours. And another two: Seriously good.

For those who don’t do nuts, my sympathies and the last two words: Pomegranate Cosmopolitans.  

I wish I had taken pictures for you, but sorry, too busy drinking.

Next stop was popular Vietnamese Restaurant 88.  The surroundings were stylish, the service was polite and friendly, if lacking somewhat in confidence.

We started with a range of appetisers: sugar cane prawns, beautifully light pork & prawn dumplings, the ubiquitous fresh spring rolls, coconut battered calamari and, finally, sticky rice fritters with “Saucy Lemongrass Chicken”.  I found the texture of the rice fritters appealing, but the chicken neither particularly lemongrassy nor particularly saucy, in all a bit of a disappointment.

There was an odd confusion surrounding our intention to share, the fact that we had five starters for four of us, and, finally, a question as to whether the five plates would fit on the table (which they did without difficulty, and would have done even if two of our dishes had not been served on the same platter).

When the starters eventually arrived, they were tasty enough, but my overall impression was that the food was perhaps dulled down for western tastes.

Of the two main course dishes that appealed to us, the pithily named “Saigon Banana Leaf Wrapped Grilled Chilli Spiced Fish” was out for the night, so we made for Havana Bar and the promise of tapas. 

On the way, we happened in on relative newcomer Tequila Joe’s.

Tequila Joe’s strength may turn out to be it’s size. It’s small. The kind of small that makes it easier to create atmosphere without losing authenticity.

If the bar is small, the kitchen spaces are tiny.  Think food-truck tiny.  But if our chips and dips where anything to go by, size is not getting in anyone’s way.

The chili con queso held its own. The chips were warm, fresh, crisp and delicious. The guacamole possibly the best I’ve ever had, though it pains me to say it, including my own.  Can’t wait to try the fish tacos.

There was more fun on the drinks front.  These may come to you in a jam jar, which I’m guessing is next best to a real mason jar, those being comparatively costly in these parts. It’s a cute little nod to Americana, although my I suspect our Pennsylvania-born Kate may have been wondering just a little where the rest of the trailer park fixings had gone.  What went into the jars and glasses was good too.  I would have had another Caipirinha had it not been for the earlier drinks of the evening and an abiding desire to get home on my own feet.

The music was well suited to our generation with Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, not all American, but contributing 70s grunt to the American atmosphere nevertheless.

It’s been a long time, I could have been in a little bar state-side, I’m just not sure which one. With it’s clean lines, part of the bar speaks of fresh American sophistication, the paintings hint at a more stylised Mexican influence, and the rest makes me want to park my hog (OK, I had a red tricycle once) out the front.

I’m not sure these three elements are quite speaking to each other yet.  Perhaps in time. Perhaps they don’t need to.  Perhaps this is the feel of the modern Californian bar. In any case, even with the a couple of licence plates on the wall, this is not another one of those Happy-Days-wanna-be, nostalgia-flogging American/Texan/Country themed bars.  And amen to that.

After the Tequila Joe’s experience, we wandered along to Havana, but the restaurant was closed and the bar was packed, Olive and El Matador were also shut and Ombra didn’t have table space for four.  This was our good luck as we eventually wound up with a cosy spot at Duke Carvell’s Emporium on Swan Lane.

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Cleverly decorated to give the impression of having been there forever, Duke Carvell’s is one of those places you can go and sit, talk, eat, drink, people watch, listen to music and even play a game of scrabble (not that you would necessarily want to, but the set is there if you do).

Warm focaccia filled any remaining gaps.  I’m glad I didn’t ask for my usual trim hot chocolate, because the creamy, chocolatey, but not too sweet chocolate they served me made for a perfect dessert with a neat frangelico on the side.

And so, gentle reader, off to bed.  Tomorrow is the last day of the school holidays, and I know two little girls who will want to make the most of it.

On Shaky Ground

It’s been nearly a fortnight since my last post.  

For the most part, the silence has been for good reasons. But the days of shake, rattle and roll leading up to and following Sunday’s M 6.5 quake, have left even this earthquake hardened Wellingtonian shaken and wondering if 80 litres of stored water will see us through if it gets really serious.

The last post marked the beginning of the school holidays. Since then:-

I’ve been asked to leave another restaurant, this time because of a fire alarm. I’m developing a complex.  One might have thought that the sight of all those firemen would have provided some compensation for the inconvenience, but sadly no.

We’ve had friends around for that civil German institution, Kaffee und Kuchen.

Encouraged by the success of the honey and goats cheese profiteroles we made at Food Night the other week, I’d decided to confront my nemesis, choux pastry, once again in the hope of producing a tray of light, crisp-cased, cream filled, Belgian chocolate-smothered eclairs.  Who doesn’t want to wolf one of those with a cup of coffee of a cold, bleak Sunday afternoon?

Until now, pate a choux and I have rubbed along OK, but the results were never quite right. Instead of persevering with tweaks to the recipe that has always got me 95% of the way, I made a last minute and deeply regrettable decision to try a different one, the recipe Francesca brought home from her afternoon at Le Cordon Bleu, no less.  

They rose promisingly at first.  Then half way through, they just stopped.  I was left with hard, thumb shaped stubbs of dough. Simply put, there was no Wind in my Windbeutel.

Thankfully, long time friends Kristina and Jeremy are understanding folk.  My mother, whose mantra is “always make ahead” knew better than to say anything as we watched the scene unfold (or not) with horror.  My father gave me a hard time as always, but, just as predictably, seemed happy to do his share of damage to my newly re-fashioned cream and chocolate topped pastry fingers.  They still tasted OK, but you all know how little comfort that can be.

In the circumstances, I hope you will forgive the absence of photographic record. Admitting to one’s mistakes is one thing, being confronted by pictorial evidence quite another.

More on Kaffee und Kuchen another time, perhaps even with Kristina’s delicious Black Forest Cherry cake recipe.

I owe thanks to Vladimir Petkov for introducing me to Finnish band Apocalytpica. As a woman whose musical tastes often lean towards the young-angry-male end of the spectrum, I often hear a riff on the car radio and wonder how it would sound on my cello. Now I know.

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Unlike Perttu Kivilaakso, I have no immediate plans to perform clad only in leather trousers, my hair thrashing wildly. Leather trou don’t come in my size, and if I play with my hair out, some almost always gets caught between fingers and fingerboard, making for very painful position shifts and unwanted distraction from the purity of artistic expression.

Frankly I don’t know how Pertuu and his mates do it, but I bet they wear pony tails when nobody’s looking.

Here is a link to some of their early material, a cover of Metallica’s, Nothing Else Matters. Avoid it if you take either your metal or your strings too seriously, but it put a smile on my face.  String players my also be amused by their master class satire Cello Lesson # 1.

Continuing on a Nordic theme, Small Acts’ Jennifer Duval-Smith, also shared this very enjoyable clip. Three Swedish fishermen sing Seal’s, Kiss from a Rose.  Perhaps not my favourite Seal number, this one still goes a long way to prove my theory that good things happening around kitchen tables.  If I’d had these boys when I was running the local Russian Orthodox choir, things would have been very, very different.

We had a couple of nights of sleepovers, then took off for a few days holiday with my parents.

We stayed here:

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The Mountain House, Stratford, with the Summit of Mt Taranaki 

Visited places like this:

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Lighthouse, Cape Egmount

Did stuff like this:

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And of course, this:

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Last Saturday we got home relieved to find that nothing had moved in Friday’s earthquake. Since Sunday it’s been a different story.

We were on the road when the M6.5 hit and didn’t feel a thing, which was a mercy because our elder two girls, especially Francesca who was just old enough to understand what happened in Christchurch and Japan, were already anxious enough.

The trip home involved chucking together a shopping list for the emergency supplies we should have got around to laying in but never quite had, finding an open supermarket, avoiding both motorway and tunnels, checking in on my sister (there were power cuts in her neighbourhood), calming the children and preparing ourselves in case the glass in our conservatory kitchen had met the same fate as many windows downtown.

Well, we were pretty damn lucky.  Not much damage at all. But doesn’t perspective change quickly.

Getting rid of our old rusty barbecue in the Residents’ Association annual large rubbish collection (an excellent service for which our ever-loving City Council has naturally withdrawn support) had seemed like good housekeeping.  We were de-cluttering, I thought smugly.

Now I just think that if we lose the mains gas and electricity, we’ll have no alternative means of heating food or water.

There is an old plug in phone.  In the attic. Somewhere.  We think.  Along with a pile of old quilts and blankets.

I bought a torch-radio that runs on a dynamo after the second and calamitous Christchurch quake.  That was thought to be in the garden shed, along with spare loo paper, tarpaulins, spades and the firewood.  Said torch is now resident on the hall table. We are are possessed of multiple tins and packets, all of which I hope we will never need.

The choice of cinema for the obligatory school holiday movie trip became a matter of which building was most recently constructed and closer to home in an emergency.  In the end Tuesday’s three family outing was postponed to a time when I can go into a public building without wondering how close the nearest exit is and what is likely to fall on my children and my car on the way out.

There was, however, no reason for the children to miss their cookie baking and sausage making classes at Moore Wilson on Wednesday.  The diminishing severity of aftershocks boosted our confidence, besides it is unthinkable to me that anything really bad could happen to you at Moore Wilson.

For years there’s been talk about Wellington, nestled as it is where the great Australian and Pacific plates meet, being overdue for The Big One.  Here, I thought, perhaps a silver lining?  Had we got it out of the way? A relatively big quake, with relatively little damage. Perhaps in the same way one might have hoped that the massively traumatic Christchurch earthquake would have been enough ruin for one generation to behold.

No, says the New Zealand Herald, because the quake wasn’t triggered by the Wellington fault line and when that one goes, we can expect an M8.5. Not much point keeping the china and lamps on the floor, because when that one comes there are going to be bigger things to worry about.

Well I’m not moving any time soon. Apparently the Wellington Fault last did it’s thing between 200 and 450 years ago.  It’s a 500 to 1000 year event. I’m 44 and I’ll take my chances.

And besides, the Herald is an Auckland paper.

Food Night: Because One Thing Always, Always Leads to Another

Natasha and Victoria

Let’s blame it on good friend and partner in crime Natasha.  She put me up to it.

I was organising our monthly craft night, when Natasha dropped one of her typical, quiet, by-the-by bombshells. “If you want to do something similar with food,” she said, “I would be keen”.

There are plenty who know of my fondness for food and cooking.  A quick look at my figure and a guinea pig could work it out. But fewer know about my mania for organisation. Natasha is one of them. So, if you think about it, it was downright irresponsible. Roughly the equivalent of telling a convicted arsonist that someone should build some bonfires for Guy Fawkes Night or taking a kleptomaniac shopping in a coat with deep pockets.  You didn’t make them do it, but you knew darn well what would happen.

Over the years, I’ve met others who share my obsessions.  Take my former lecturer and friend Margaret. (The black and white images and salsa picture are hers).  Margaret and I shared some adventures years ago when she was researching and I studying at the same German university.  I already had a cookbook problem, but Margaret made me feel it was OK.  She suggested new titles, pointed out the possibilities for posting books home cheaply via the Bundespostsack.  We cooked together.  We ate out.  She facilitated.  Or perhaps we were simply co-dependent.

I met Stacey when she started seeing an old university friend about 15 years ago. We hit it off immediately. Something about the way she followed me out to the kitchen where we talked about this and that and family.  I knew she was one of us when she showed up at the annual New Year’s Eve party with a great slab of Kikorangi blue and Falswater crackers.  Over the years there have been countless dinners, birthdays and  holiday celebrations, one helping the other with the cooking. Often my favourite part of the evening is in the kitchen with Stacey, working amiably side by side on the menu of the day.

My sister Victoria is 12 years my junior.  We’re very different people, but at the end of the day, fruit of the same tree.  She may not take it to the same lengths (yet), but she’s been bitten by the same bug.  How many people do you know who will walk from one end of the CBD to the other just to find the better sushi place for lunch?

As for Natasha, she and I bonded over countless lunches, morning teas, piroshki making sessions and other fundraisers for the local Russian Orthodox parish.  If you’re going to put on a ball with a 5 course supper for 110 in a hall with one domestic stove and an indifferent water heater, you want Natasha with you from the planning through to the bitter end. She is a voice of reason, yet where others will reach straight for the too hard basket, Natasha never discounts a concept until we’ve worked through the possibilities.  In a world full of naysayers, this is a rare quality in a friend, and a brilliant one in a fellow foodie.

These women form the hard core of Food Night.

DSCN4340 (2)

Top: Natasha and Victoria with the Paella,  Above: Later at the table Stacey and Victoria

It was not as easy to arrive at a formula for Food Night as it was for Craft Night. Craft Night cohesion comes simply from togetherness.  If you don’t feel like making anything you can just hang out for the conversation.  It really doesn’t matter.

Run your foodie group without more planning and you run the risk of it turning into one of those pot luck dinners where there are 7 pasta salads, 2 rice salads and a garlic bread. You might not starve, but without some co-ordination, you’re unlikely to come away with a transcendent experience.

For now we’re doing it this way:

  • We meet once a month at one of our houses to cook and eat a meal together.
  • We have a theme for each month.  This can be a particular cuisine, ingredient, course, festival – whatever you are all interested in.  This month our theme was tapas.  The last time it was Vietnamese food.
  • You agree a menu for the night –  say everyone picks a dish. The host buys the ingredients for the meal and we split the bill.  Then only one person needs to go shopping and you avoid ending up with 4 bunches of coriander and 3 bottles of fish sauce.
  • As an optional activity to provide some inspiration (OK, so it’s an excuse), we meet for a meal earlier in the month, sharing all the dishes and thus tasting as much as we can. Dinner didn’t work for us, but we have adapted remarkably well to being ladies who lunch.

It’s a real treat to have friends from different compartments of your life together at once. Being with people who share your interest is plain liberating, then there’s another kind of familiarity that comes with doing, rather than just talking together.

We’ve started to talk about other things we might do under the Food Night umbrella as time goes on, for example a weekend away or a dinner for our closest family and friends. Who knows where this adventure will take us.

Our last tapas inspired food night menu: above left, seafood paella – not a tapas dish, but we wanted to give it another go anyway; above centre, potato and baby spinach tortilla; above right, the salsa to go with our cerviche (not pictured); below left, choux puffs with a goats cheese filling and drizzled with honey; below right, garbanzo beans (chic peas) with choritzo.

Move Over Julia

Julia Child at Le Cordon Bleu

Above: Julia Child at Le Cordon Bleu in 1950.  As a child I watched her on Saturday afternoons with my grandmother.

You always want your children to have it better than you did.

By and large life has been pretty good to me, but like everyone else, I entertain the odd fantasy about what I would do if I won the lottery and found myself free to hop off the path that got me here, free to do something quite different.

In my mid teens, there was the odd, fleeting fantasy of becoming a concert cellist.  I prepared myself for this by not practising. This is like training for a marathon without so much as the odd long walk. Some might manage it. I, patently, was not among them.

I traveled in my gap year, sometimes picturing my future as a lone wolf journalist, always moving from trouble spot to trouble spot, dodging bullets to get my story, my luggage battered and my trusty camera my only constant companion. Apart from the fact that I never so much as kept a diary and took very few photographs, it was a thoroughly sound career plan.

Later, under pressure at university, I would dream of fleeing to Berlin and some tree-hugging commune in a run down Kreuzberg tenement.  Making a living didn’t come into it.  The moral high-ground would keep us warm.

Like many others, I worked my way through university in the hospitality industry and enjoyed it very much.  If I didn’t make it through Law, I would throw myself on the mercy of the executive chef of the hotel I worked at and beg for an apprenticeship in his kitchen. But I kept passing those exams.

When a stock market crash meant jobs were scarce, I mentioned my culinary plan B to my mother, who pulled a positively astounding 180 degree move and went from “Be a florist if you want to, but get your degree first.” to “We didn’t put you through university so you could work over a hot stove.” in under 60 seconds.

I have long since reconciled myself to being an amateur, very amateur, cellist, dodging bullets has lost it’s appeal, and frankly, Berlin hasn’t had quite the same cachet since the Wall came down. But the cooking thing has never left me.

Le Cordon Bleu, alma mater of the inimitable Julia Child, beckoned more than once, but Paris and London were far away from home and everything that held me here.  Then last year, they went and opened one right here in Wellington.  For all that it is right under my nose, to a mother of three with a mortgage, it might as well be on the moon.

I never thought one of mine would make it to Le Cordon Bleu before I did.  Certainly not before the age of nine, and especially not Francesca, as a toddler, possibly the most food resistant child in recent times.

Setting aside the intervening increase in appetite, it appears that disinterest in eating is not the same thing as disinterest in cooking.  Ever since Francesca could stand on a chair to see the bench, she has been a keen observer of culinary processes.

Cooking shows have also played their part.  Imagine my delight as my two eldest score every meal out of ten, with constructive criticism on presentation. Apparently I am not alone.  Good friend and partner in crime Natasha’s girls do the same thing.

In case you are thinking that I have spawned some kind of anorexic culinary savant, I should explain.

Natasha’s eldest and mine are of an age and have played together since they were very little.  Francesca was very fortunate in that when her friend got to go to a Petit Cordon Bleu class for her birthday, Francesca was invited to go too.

Classes are held in Le Cordon Bleu’s splendidly equipped kitchens.  A class of eight was taught by chef de cuisine Paul Dicken, aided by assistants who took care of the dangerous tasks: sharp knife work (splitting vanilla pods), deep frying and the like.

The three hour course was packed with content.  The children made hokey pokey  ice cream from start to finish including preparation of the custard base.  They cut pasta, crumbed fish, made pommes William and tuiles.

Back at home, I was struggling with some pasta of my own.  Francesca bobbed into the kitchen proudly bearing the fruits of her labours. “I’ve been using one of those this afternoon too, Mama” she said, eyeing up my very underutilised Imperia.  I was using mine to roll my dough, before slicing my tagliatelle by hand.  “Chef says you need to let the sheets dry a little before you cut them” my earnest little friend told me, helpfully.

imperia-pasta

We had guests coming around for dinner and I was out of time to chat, but the next day she spent the better part of an hour giving dear old Mama a blow by blow account of what they had done, how, why and using what equipment.  She had clearly engaged with the class content.  She was interested and spoke about her experience with quiet confidence.

Would I send her again?  Yes.  It’s costly, so not too often. But in terms of what she’s likely to get out of it, worth it.

The winter holidays are coming up in a couple of weeks, so to keep the momentum going, I’ve signed Francesca and Lydia up for an on-line holiday programme on kids cooking website It’s My Turn to Cook Tonight. We have a couple of house guests and maybe another one or two besides, so I’m preparing to give my kitchen over to the ten and unders for a couple of days.  No idea what the programme will be like, but if nothing else, it should be a good lesson in the use of information technology. There’s nothing to lose. The course is free and if we don’t like it, we can just switch the laptop off and find something else to do.

Not by Bread Alone: Schubert and Cheese Scones

Shirley Verrett

A quick review of my posts and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is another food blog.  And I suppose it is.

A Life Lived Lavishly is about leading a full life, but this is not the same as a life of being full or being chained to a stove. So why so much food talk?

Is it that between cooking and blogging, I don’t get time for much else?  It’s more than that.

Is it that all this blogging coincides with the beginning of the family birthday cycle, Matariki and the Winter Solstice?  That’s part of it.

To me, time with family and good friends is the foundation of a truly lavish life. Show me the time or culture where sharing food has not been a fundamental of social interaction, and I’ll show you a sad and messed up people.

Preparing food involves working with colour and texture, it gives us permission to play like so many preschoolers enjoying finger-painting. Cooking can satisfy our creative side. But so can many other things.  Check out my friend Jennifer’s blog and her 100 day painting project on Small Acts.

And then it’s winter, time to turn inside.  The warmth of hearth and stove draw us close. The nurturers among us like to dispense comfort in the form of warm food and drink.

Take Friday afternoon.  It was really cold and wet when the kids were coming home from school, so as soon as the baby was finished nursing, I got a batch of cheese scones into the oven and the hot chocolate underway. I’m no domestic goddess.  I don’t often bake, but soon my parental leave will be over and I won’t be home waiting for them any more.  I wanted to be able to make my children a simple after school treat while I still could, to play at being the mother I wish I could be all the time

But food is not the answer to everything. That Friday also brought some bad news.  Nothing I won’t get over, but a disappointment nevertheless. You can’t cure everything with a cheese scone, not even a really good one.

Which brings me around to another of the great pleasures and comforts in life.  Music.

Don’t ask me what kind I like. It’s not about genre. It’s something I can’t define.  Some music connects with you in ways nothing else does.  It’s the reason for sacred music, the reason that boys make girls compilations, the reason that some music makes you laugh, some makes you cry, and some just makes you want to dance.  And it’s very, very subjective.

I thought that now and then I might share a link to music that speaks to me.  See if it speaks to you too.  If you don’t like this one, don’t give up on me.  The next one might be quite different.

Friday I caught the tail end of 1998 movie The Governess. Whether or not the film is your cup of tea, I was reminded that the soundtrack included a particularly poignant Schubert Lied, the kind of music that sometimes makes me feel that was born out of my own time.  I can’t find the Ofra Haza recording of Ständchen from the movie, but this Shirley Verrett recording from 1965 should see you right.

In case Schubert is not your thing, here’s the recipe for the cheese scones:

Proper Cheese Scones

Not all cheese scones are created equal.

You may have come across one of those tragic specimens so often touted in supermarkets. You will know it when you meet it.  It is made on the same bulk dough as the rest of the scones and is therefore oddly sweet tasting, it contains very little butter, too much raising agent (giving it a nasty aftertaste and unpleasant mouth feel), it is dry and the only cheese involved will be on top of the wannabe scone.

That we allow this to go on, that we allow our culinary traditions to be so flagrantly dishonoured, verges on a national scandal.  The boys and girls at the EU have the right idea with the TSG scheme.

TSG-Logo

The Traditional Speciality Guaranteed Logo

This recipe is for a real cheese scone, the kind you can serve your mother-in-law in confidence.

The key to a good cheese scone is generosity.  Cheese scones are not meant to be a health food.   If you want to strip out the hard cheese and the butter, I strongly suggest, no, I beg you, find something else to bake instead.

  • 4c plain (all purpose) flour
  • 4 level tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • a generous grinding of black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper or hot chili powder, optional
  • 1/4 tsp dry mustard powder, optional
  • 100g (3 1/2oz) of butter, softened but not melted
  • sharp cheddar (or a combination of edam, tasty cheddar and parmesan) about 150 to 200g (5 1/2  to 7 oz) or 3 to 4 cups grated
  • enough milk to bring together a soft very moist dough, about 1 1/2 cups

1. Preheat your oven to 220 C or 430 F. Line a baking sheet (cookie tray) with non-stick baking paper.

2. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, cayenne and mustard powder into a large mixing bowl.  This step is important as it helps to incorporate air into the dough.  The higher you hold your sieve the better.

3. Using only your finger tips (you don’t want to overwork the flour), rub the butter into the flour mixture.  Keep your hands high and let the mixture fall back into the bowl (more of the air thing).

4. Stir in the cheese(s).  Now add enough milk to give you a very soft dough. Bring the dough together using a wooden spoon then working briskly with your hands (again, not overworking the dough).  Aim for a dough that is wet as possible, whilst still allowing you to handle it with well floured hands. If your dough is too dry, your scones will be dry too.

5. Tip the dough out onto a well floured bench or board.  Pat it into a rectangle about 5cm or 2″ deep.  A rolling pin is unnecessary.  If you push out the dough too thin, you’re scones won’t rise well. Think a couple of grades better than cheese flavoured hardtack.

6. Cut the dough into square or rectangular scones.  They can pretty much be as big or small as you like them. Arrange on the baking tray with a good inch between them.  Brush them with milk if you care for a more glazed look, but consider first whether they will last long enough to warrant the additional labour.  You can also sprinkle a little more cheese on the tops, but if you’ve put enough cheese into the dough this step is pretty much redundant.

7. Bake near the top of your oven until golden brown on top (about 12 to 20 minutes). They should be slightly crusty with a steaming centre.  For maximum enjoyment eat while still hot, split and with butter melting into each half.

Now that’s a cheese scone.