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.

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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.

Apocalyptica1

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.

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.

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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.

It really was a dark and stormy night.

It’s a long time since I was last ejected from a bar.

On reflection, I can’t recall it happening before, but surely I misspent sufficient youth that it must have happened, at least once.

Thursday evening, I definitely got turfed out of Havana Bar. I’d like to be able to tell you it was because my friend, Thor, picked a fight with the barman.  But in reality I was out with Thor’s mum and mums of other children in my daughter’s class. And the cause of our expulsion was that the roof had blown off Havana’s dining room, the restaurant guests were being reseated in the bar and we were out of luck.

hereisthesun-copy (2)           Havana Dining room

Left: Havana in better weather; Right: in the dining room with the offending section of roof (see skylight)

We understood, sympathised even, and, after sitting against the wall of the former worker’s cottage and feeling the force of each gust lift the whole structure up a couple of inches, or so it felt, were perhaps even relieved.

The weather hadn’t seemed that bad when we left home.  Dark?  Yes, Friday was the winter solstice in these parts.  Windy?  Yes, but it’s Wellington.  There’s a reason we have so many wind sculptures. Wet?  Also true, but none of us is made of sugar, and besides, it had taken a good number of emails to get this evening off the ground. We weren’t about to give up because of a bit of damp.  

I had not factored in how sheltered our house is.

We drove into the city around the bays. The rain, like the Zephyrometer, was horizontal,  one of my companions gaily explained how her husband had to stop and move a trampoline off the road to get home.  At traffic lights, the wind played with the car, like a kid blowing at a dead moth on a windowsill.

  zephyrometer

The Zephryometer: a bright orange wind vane.

Back out on the street, the wind was doing that thing where it kind of sucks the air right out of your mouth.  Fresh refuge was a mercifully short walk away. The Southern Cross looked warm and inviting. And it was.

Older Wellingtonians will recall the days when the Cross was a booze barn par excellence.  It was popular with students for the reasons that it was cheap and “relaxed” about age restrictions.  It was the kind of bar where the carpet was squishy and you kept a close eye on the barman to make sure he didn’t short serve your drink. It’s seen some variations since then, none terribly prepossessing.

Never my favourite spot, I haven’t been in there in over 10 years, so the place that greeted me on Thursday came as nothing but a pleasant surprise.  It was clean, warm, spacious yet still cosy.  The fire was going, and in the lounge area guests curled up with mulled wine and hot water bottles. Despite the weather and the size of the bar, it was quite full. The staff immediately found our group a corner in the dining area where we could all sit together.

An inveterate grazer, I was glad to see a range of small plates on the menu. But after last week’s steak debacle, I still had a craving to fill.

The small plates delivered to our table were attractively presented.  The larger meals were nothing fancy to look at. But my steak was indeed rare (they asked twice to check) and the cafe de Paris butter well flavoured and obliged by melting steadily over the course of the meal. No lump of meat sitting in a pool of melted butter as is sadly sometimes served. The salad was generous, fresh and, in blinding contrast to last week’s vinegar bathed travesty, subtly dressed.

The service was relaxed, friendly yet very attentive all without being overbearing, or overfamiliar.

If the place came as a surprise, there was more to come when I checked out the website later on. For me, this is a new high in family friendly.  On weekends between 10am and 2pm you can go for brunch and have your kids entertained by craft tables, toys and face painting.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays they set aside a space for parents and children to relax in the morning, with someone to keep an eye on the kids, and, if you’re still there later in the day, you can even score a free chair massage. For crafty types there’s a knitting circle on Monday nights.  

Why didn’t someone tell me about this earlier?  How could I not have known?

By the time we finished our meals and talked some more, the airport was closed, ferry sailings cancelled, trees were blowing over and we heard that 25,000 homes were without power.   Seemed like time to go home.

It was the worst storm my city has seen in my lifetime.  Roads along Wellington’s southern coast were damaged by 15 meter swells.  200kmh winds were recorded on Mount Kaukau.  The Kaitaki, a 1600 passenger ferry, broke its moorings with 50 staff on board and was eventually brought to anchor in the harbour.

Road Damage

Damage to Coastal Road

But you can’t keep a good thing down. By the next day the folks at Havana, like the rest of the city, were unphased, up and running again.   It would be a shame for something as trivial as a roof to get in the way of such a good place to while away an evening.   I’m just going to have to find another reason to get there soon.

Survivor: The Little Kids’ Party

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They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  They say a lot of things.

We made it, but it was tight, very tight, early 80’s jeans tight.  The kind of tight where eating is ill-advised and sitting down entirely out of the question.

Now anyone who’s had a baby knows that sleep is actually optional and that 5 hours is a veritable sleep in.  Unfortunately nobody told my cough that, so I’m back to hacking like a one woman TB clinic.

Plus I might have been a bit not very nice to my sainted husband sometime (continuously) between about 11pm  Friday and 2:30pm Saturday.  That would be about the same time that I swore never even to think about entering Masterchef, My Kitchen Rules, or any other cooking competition involving time challenges, ever.  (This in case I ever suffer a moment of sufficiently complete self-delusion to think I might be a contender.)

But it’s OK because the birthday girl loved her party and my husband, may he have many good wives, has forgiven me … again.

Was it all as planned?  Not entirely, but perhaps actually better.

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The Strawberry & Sprinkles Toadstool cake turned out fine, but a word to the wise:  if you’re going to bake a pink tinted cake, forget the sprinkles.  Only the blue and green ones show up and then you get these little white dots in the crust, all contributing to the overall impression of rampant bread mould.  The cake fairy ornaments went into hiding, but Lydia was too excited to notice.  I figure no harm, no foul.

We did the chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow flowers, even if the sparkly glitter didn’t quite show up quite as much as I would’ve liked.  I was short on time to make separate chocolate buttercream, so you’ll see I used the leftover from the toadstool instead.

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The cheese and tomato baby toadstool canape worked-ish.  They were a challenge to keep upright.  I should have piped the mayo spots on with a little zip-lock bag rather than dabbing manically with a pointy teaspoon handle, but overall they were still effective. Given free will, do small children eat tomatoes and cheese sticks? Not at all. So it’s probably just as well I canned the little crackers with lady birds made from tomatoes and olives.  The dog did quite well enough as it was.

Tomato and Cheese Toadstools

I also ran out of time to do the cheesey snail pastries and the sausage rolls.  By this I mean I could have done both if I’d used the emergency back up bought frozen sausage rolls and tried making the snails using pre-rolled puff pastry and grated parmesan.  Worse things have happened.  But the yeasty sausage rolls are a bit of a favourite.

They also say that necessity is the mother of invention.  Mostly I find myself thinking that necessity is just a real mother, but sometimes they get it right.  So we had yeasty snail-shaped sausage rolls.

The dough is quick to make and very, very forgiving.  You don’t need to let it rise.  Time having been exceeding short, the snails you see below represent a very rushed first attempt.  I have no doubt that, given an extra 15 minutes they could have been much prettier.  As it was, the results were not too shabby.

Snails before

Snails after uncropped

Now what do you do when you’ve managed to bake the cookies, but run out of time to do the fancy icing?  No worries. You now have a new party activity.  The children (and some of the adults) just loved this.

Make up two or three bowls of runny icing – icing sugar with a little boiling water from the kettle will do just fine.  Put out any leftover cake icing, rifle your pantry for sprinkles, cachous, jelly (jello) crystals and tubes of writing icing, stray candies and put it all out on the bench. Use plates or cold baking trays (cookie sheets) to accommodate the new creations, but remember that a high proportion of cookies will never make it that far.  Once the kids got bored, some of the parents had a go too.  Happy guests, happy Mummy and bonus: I’ve got this week’s tick for my commitment to weekly hands on cooking for the girls.

Little hands at work

Decorated Sugar Cookies

A couple of games of musical statues, afternoon tea and present opening, and it was pretty much over.  Family and very good friends stayed on.  We got take aways, kicked back and caught up.  Once we got all the little ones to bed, I curled up on the sofa in front of TV with the sainted husband, very tired, but good tired, and drifted off to sleep.

Did the kids like it? I’d say so.  Francesca has requested an identical party when she turns nine, so that’s one fan at least.

Lydia turns 5

In case you feel like trying the sausage roll snails, or anything else where you think yeast pastry would do nicely, here’s the recipe.  It has its genesis in a recipe from one of my favourite Russian/former Soviet cookbooks, Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman.

This batch yielded enough dough for about 2 dozen snails and 40 odd more conventional rolls made by taking half a cheese kransky sausgage (c. 5cm or 2″ long and about 1.25cm or 1/2″ thick) and rolling it diagonally across a square of pastry about 5cm/2″ square.

Easy Yeast Dough

Ingredients:

2 1/3c milk

4 tsp sugar

2 tbsp dried yeast

1c (225g or 2 sticks) butter (you can substitute vegetable oil in this dough, but for this I’d stick with the butter)

2 eggs

1 tsp salt

flour, preferably high grade/strong/bread flour between 6 and 8 cups (c. 750g to 1kg or 1 3/4 to 21/4 lb)

1kg or 2lb kransky, choritzo or similar thin smoked sausage

Note: If you prefer a shorter (less bready, richer) pastry, reduce the milk to 1 1/3c and increase the butter/oil to 2c (450g or 2 sticks).

Method:

1. Warm the milk until it is just blood temperature.  If you use the microwave be sure to stir  through before you check the temperature – sometimes you can miss a hot pocket and unwittingly end up milk which is too hot (kills your yeast), or which is hot at the surface, but really not very warm otherwise (yeast might not work very quickly).

2. In a large bowl, whisk the sugar into the milk until dissolved.  Add the yeast.  Just sprinkle over the surface and let it re-hydrate, or, if like me you lack the patience and want to be sure to avoid dry yeasty lumps, whisk it in.  Let it stand until it fluffs up: now you know you are working with live yeast.

3. While the yeast is doing the fluffy thing, warm the butter until it is just melted (or be prepared to wait while it cools).  Beast into the fluffy yeast mix together with the eggs and salt.

4. Once blended, add the flour, starting in 2 cup lots, then after 6 cups have been added, in smaller quantities until you have a soft dough that comes away from the sides.  Start with a wooden spoon.  Once the mixture is getting close to forming a dough, knead by hand.

5. Turn it onto a lightly floured bench and knead briefly.  Use immediately or cover and let it rise for a little. Cut into three or four sections (depending on what you find manageable) and roll out into sheets somewhere between 3 and 5mm (1/8 and 2/8″) thick.

For snails:

6. Trim the bottom edge of the pastry sheet.  Line up kransky sausages about 2cm or 1″ in from the edge, keeping them close so that there is no gap between saugages.  Trim the sides of the pastry sheet in line with each end of the sausage line up. Roll the bottom edge of the dough up over the sausage and then keep rolling the lot until the dough has wrapped around the sausages twice.

7. Trim the top edge of the pastry so that you are left with about 4 to 5cm (1 1/2 to 2″) of unrolled pastry. This will form the body and head of each snail.  Slice the dough cross wise into 2cm or 3/4″ slices.  Fold some of the unrolled pastry back towards the rolled section and pinch on each side to make feelers.  Glaze with an egg yolk beaten with a little water if you like.  Bake at about 195 C or  385 F until golden brown.

For plain sausage rolls (pigs in blankets):

8. Take half a sausage (c. 5cm or 2″ long and about 1.25cm or 1/2″ thick) and roll it diagonally across a square of pastry about the same size as the length (so in this case about 5cm or 2″ square), wrapping the dough around the sausage piece as you go. Glaze and bake as above.

9. This dough can also be used to make pizza pinwheels for school lunches (roll out dough into a rectangle, spread with a layer of tomato paste, sprinkle with cheese and sliced ham or salami, roll up tightly swiss (jelly) roll style and cut into 1.25cm 1/2″ slices.  Arrange on a tray and backe as per 7. above), or to make piroshki – but for that we need a separate post.

24: Guilt, Toadstools and Abject Panic

24

Call Kiefer.  I’ve got a new story line for 24.  This one will promise pace, action, and all the stress you could possibly want.  Did I mention danger?  Just try stepping into my kitchen over the next day or two …   Forget kevlar: Jack Bauer had best wear his favourite pinny.

See, I’ve got the flu.  Well not really.  I had influenza a couple of years back and this is not it. This is, however, quite bad enough thanks. Life has been less than lavish. Bits of my face are there that ought not to be and I’ve been coughing so hard it makes me giddy.  Not in a girlish, happy kind of way.  Everything aches.  The room is too hot, no, too cold, no, too hot…  

Anyway, I’m grumpy.  The timing could hardly be worse.  Lydia turns 5 this weekend. I have already ruined her last week at kindergarten by being unable to show to do Tuesday’s star cookie baking session (to tie in with the children’s Matariki celebrations).

I spent most of the preceding Monday night worrying that I wouldn’t be well enough to perform. And guess what?   I would be, beyond any possible redemption, a really, really bad mother.  I was letting down my Lydia.  Between school and kindy, I’d done four cooking sessions with her big sister.  Lydia would think I didn’t love her as much, she would suffer middle child angst in life-changing proportions.  Yes, one batch of cookies can have that much power.

Well, in the end we figured it wouldn’t hurt for Lydia to delay her school start for one day to allow one last cookie inclusive kindy Tuesday.  Crisis averted.  Temporarily.

But it took until Thursday to be well enough to contemplate a trip out for essential supplies.  Today is Friday and I have exactly 24 hours and 36 minutes to pull a Garden Fairy Princess birthday party from nowhere.  And believe me, these babies do not make themselves.

Let’s bypass the self-recriminations about the stuff I could have made and frozen weeks ago but didn’t because I thought there was plenty of time.  (Grrrrrrrrrrr)  Let’s not even talk about the parents that have not  R.s.v.p.ed to my admittedly late invitations, leaving me with no idea how many dinky little cupcakes and treat bags I need.  (Grrrrrrrrrrissimo)

There is the special request toadstool birthday cake.  I’m cool with that, but apparently this one needs to be rainbow coloured within.  Not in layers you understand.  Just within the one cake. (No, I stand corrected.  That was last week.  Now it is to be pink and strawberry flavoured with multi-coloured sprinkles throughout, and thank goodness for small mercies,  except that now I can’t bake the blasted thing without another shopping trip.)

HL0148COVER_FLAPS2011.pdf

There are to be ladybird crackers, little canape that look like baby toadstools, snail-shaped cheese pastries and butterfly cookies.  Sausage rolls and flower cupcakes, glittery ones.  Then, as the birthday girl is a garden fairy princess, there are the costumes, table decorations, lanterns, streamers, treat bags, all that kind of thing.

And why?

Has Lydia demanded it?  No.  She would like the cake and the butterfly cookies, but like most persons her age, as long as there is a potato chip and some sticky icing in the offing, her needs are met.

There are the pictures she has seen on my Pinterest board.  But who put them there?  I did.

Did Lydia buy and devour the Donna Hay kids edition each year for the last 6 or 7 years?  No, though the girls do like looking at the pictures after Mummy is done.  Does she troll through Martha Stewart on-line looking for cute touches?  No. That would be me.

And would I think less of any parent who ordered in pizza and chips?  No.  Do I look down on parties had at bowling allies and skating rinks?  Certainly not.

So why?  Because in a life where I constantly wish I could do more and better for my children, there is that one special day that is all theirs.  Because cooking is one particular medium through which generations of women have expressed love for their families. And because, as my mate Maryanne Cathro says, one of the best things you can hope to leave your children is a stash of good memories to see them through the sometimes dark days of adulthood.

So, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

Food Revolution Day: The Pizza Date

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well gentle reader, we did it. Kind of.  Well, we tried anyway.

My friend Natasha’s idea was to support Food Revolution Day by gathering our kids and letting them make pizza.  Good hands on stuff.  Food from scratch.  Reconnecting with nature’s bounty and all that. 

If, through these posts, you are getting the idea that my friend is the more grounded of the two of us, you would be right.  It had been a very long day, Natasha suggested that she bring along some good quality ready made pizza bases. We would provide simple toppings. It made good sense.  Very good sense even.

But I had finally got my head around the idea of the kids making pizza dough and a nice mess in the kitchen. It was new for me. If I could do it tonight with the calming influence of guests, then perhaps I, too, could become one of those mothers who look serene as their kids cook the kitchen into a new and unintended decor.  For once, there was real hope for me.   It had to be done for the sake of my children.  And besides, why do something the easy way if you can find a way of making it more difficult?

Now, I have more cookbooks than I care to admit, and many pizza dough recipes among them, but for now, almost all are inaccessible (more on the new bookshelves another time).  Besides, Food Revolution Day is Jamie Oliver’s thing, so it seemed reasonable to give one of his recipes a go.

I’d tell you what it was like, but it seems I can no longer read a recipe accurately.  My proportions were different and I also decided to add fine cornmeal polenta in place of fine ground semolina flour (which I do not keep on hand).

Result?  Absolutely. We may never get around to trying the original.

Use this recipe when you are in the mood for a crisp thin crust with a pleasant cornmeal crunch. It made four fairly large (c. 45 x 30cm  or 18 x 12 inch ovals) and four smaller plumper ones slightly under half the size.  It’s not a dough that is going to take well to too much topping, so go easy with cheese and wet toppings or you’ll be dishing up a soggy grease slick.

We made some with a “white” base: a little olive oil, minced garlic and sea salt.  Very good with some sliced mushrooms, pitted calamata olives and finely sliced onion rings and an ideal choice for anyone who struggles with dairy or saturated fats. Predictably, the kids all opted for the more traditional “red” base, which, according to their preferences, ranged from tomato sauce (of the ketchup variety) to tomato paste.  

rocket fuel

My own preference in this department was to use a little tomato paste and lift it with a dash of Rocket Fuel sauce for sweetness and spice. Not traditional and too spicy for the kids, but it goes nicely with a topping of zucchini, mushrooms or in season, eggplant and a light sprinkling of cheese.  Besides Rocket Fuel is made locally in Petone.  There’s something satisfying about using local products.

What about the children?  Well, the overnight guest lives in a TV free home and was more interested in the Disney Channel.  The rest tended to follow.  Child involvement was not exactly what it could have been. My older two, being perhaps more deprived of hands on experience, still had a pretty good go at kneading and rolling out.  Turns out that little Lydia is a dab hand with a rolling pin. Who knew?

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The kids had no great interest in the toppings and happily left the mums to arrange them.  Well, horse, water, drink. You can only make the opportunities available.  

This lot have all been involved in growing fruit and vegetables, and one was all but born at Moore Wilson. They know what fresh real food looks like.  As for the skills to put it all together? One night does not a revolution make.  So I’m challenging myself to make sure that every week we make at least one meal or dish that the children can get involved in.   

Here’s my version of the pizza dough recipe:

Apologies to American readers.  Next time I make it I’ll try to record the flour measurements by volume also.  In the meantime, here’s a link to a conversion tool that will provide you with approximate equivalents by volume.  I make no representation as to it’s accuracy.

Pizza Dough

1kg or 2 lb 3oz bread flour (a.k.a. strong or high grade flour)*

200g or 7oz fine polenta

1tsp salt

700 to 750ml  or 2 3/4 to 3 cups of lukewarm water

1 tbsp** sugar

4tbsp olive oil

1level tbsp dried yeast

1. Put the flour into a large bowl or heap on a clean working surface.  Jamie Oliver’s recipe said to sift it which would be ideal, but I was in a hurry and didn’t bother.  Stir in the salt and polenta.

2. Measure out the smaller quantity of water.  Be careful it’s not too hot or you’ll kill the yeast.  When the sugar is dissolved, sprinkle on the yeast.  I usually whisk it in to avoid lumps.

3. Set the yeast mixture aside until is starts to fluff up: you’ll know you’re working with live yeast.  Make a well in the flour, pour in the yeast mixture and gradually stir in the surrounding flour. If it looks like it’s going to be dry, add a bit more water.  Mix until it forms a rough dough, then knead on the work surface until smooth and soft. You might notice blisters forming in the surface of the dough.

4. Pop the dough into a lightly oiled bowl about twice the size of your dough.  Cover  with plastic wrap and leave to rise for about an hour or until doubled in size. It could take longer if your kitchen is particularly cold.

5. Set your oven to heat to 220 deg Celsius or 425 Fahrenheit.

6. Knock the dough back, knead briefly then divide into 6 or 12 even pieces depending on what you want to back.  See above for sizes.

7. Roll the dough out to size.  Dough can be about 1/2cm or 2/8″ thick,  I like it a smidge thinner, but take into account what you are going to put on top – more topping needs more crust. You can push it out with your hands or use a rolling pin or clean bottle. Transfer the dough to baking trays lined with non-stick baking paper.  Let them rise for 20 to 30 minutes.

8. Top as desired and bake in batches in a hot oven until your topping is done and the crust is cooked through and golden. Timing will vary depending on topping.

*You can make it with regular all purpose flour.  The result might be slightly different and you might find that it affects the amount of water you need to form the dough.

**Australian readers note that tablespoons are only 15 and not 20ml.