Monday, June 27, 2011

Lemon Loveliness

I am a big lover of tea at any time of the year, but winter is definitely my preferred season for settling down to a proper cup of tea, made with good quality leaves in a china teapot and enjoyed somewhere cosy. And the perfect accompaniment to a pot of tea, is of course, cake!

Although I don't bake cakes very often - or even eat them much for that matter-  I was inspired by a basket of beautiful looking lemons at the Addison Road Organic Market on the weekend. When I bought them I had planned to use them in a lemony, Greek style baked chicken dish, but as I wandered around the market, the delectable smell of Chai from the Chai seller made me think of tea. And the tea made me think of cake, particularly the delicious aromatic lemony tea cake that I remember from my childhood. So the chicken plan went out the window and I decided that today, baking would be in order.

My very favourite type of lemon cake is made with fresh lemons and beautiful thick natural yoghurt. The yoghurt and the lemon gives the cake a beautiful tangy character and stops it from being cloyingly sweet. I chose to make small individual cakes instead of one large one, but make whatever form takes your fancy. The amount of cooking required will of course depend on the size of the cakes - my 12 cupcakes took around 25 minutes to cook at 180C. A large cake may take up to 45minutes - just keep an eye on it and test it as you go.

After icing them, I decided to give my lemon cakes a touch of the middle east and a splash of vivid colour, by adding some finely chopped pistachio nuts. You could also top them with finely grated lemon or lime rind or almonds as an alternative. These cakes are very easy to make - even for a non cake maker like me. Just mix and bake. Using the yoghurt and vegetable oil instead of butter gives the crumb a super moist texture, which is lovely. These gorgeous cakes are so delicious, you may not even bother to wait for the kettle to boil before tucking in!

Little Lemon & Yoghurt Cakes
with pistachios

You will need: 1&3/4 cups sugar, 2 eggs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 3 Teaspoons lemon juice, grated rind of 2 lemons, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract,  3/4 cup vegetable oil, 1 cup full cream natural yoghurt, 2 cups self raising flour.

For the topping: 300g finely chopped pistachio nuts, 3 cups icing sugar, juice of 1 lemon

Method:  Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and line cake tin or prepare patty pans (whatever you are using) Combine the sugar, salt, flour and lemon rind in a large bowl.

In a second bowl, combine the eggs, 3 teaspoons lemon juice, vegetable oil and yoghurt. Mix well.

Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture gradually, mixing as you go until it forms a cake batter. If it is too dry when you have used all the liquid, add a small abount of warm water until it reaches the right consistency.

Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin/patty pans. Bake for between 20- 40 minutes, deoending on the size of the tin you are using. The cake should not colour too much and remain quite pale. It is cooked when it springs back in the centre.

One cooked, transfer the cake/s to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely before icing them.

To make the icing - mix together the icing sugar and small amounts of lemon juice to make a reasonably thick mixture that still allows you to spread it with a knife or spatula. Ice the cakes and then top with the chopped pistachios.

Makes 1 large cake or 12 cupcakes.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Rugging up...Cosying down

Brew me a cup for a winter's night.
For the wind howls loud and the furies fight;
Spice it with love and stir it with care,
And I'll toast our bright eyes,
my sweetheart fair.
~Minna Thomas Antrim

The winter weather has brought us wild and wooly conditions here in the past week or so - not great for getting out into the garden, which I have been dying to do since we got back from overseas. I have a whole lot of winter plants to get in the ground that sadly remain sitting in pots at the back door, waiting for a break in the wind and the rain so I can go out and plant them. But where my attempts to get out in the garden have failed so far, the weather could not be more perfect for heading to the warm kitchen and creating some comfort food.

Combine the comfort food weather with a lazy long weekend and some new French cookware, and you have the inspiration for today's recipe, a slow roasted shoulder of pork, flavoured with the delicious warming aromatics of juniper berries and fennel seed. Add succulent caramelised eschallots with baby potatoes, carrots and delicious in season Buerre Bosc pears and you have a beautiful winter dish full of warmth and flavour. The pears make a lovely change from the classic pork and apple combo. As well as tasting amazing, they also look beautiful too.

Since returning from our honeymoon, I had been dying to try out our new Le Creuset French oven - a gorgeous wedding gift that I felt needed to be christened sooner rather than later. This comforting pork dish fitted the bill perfectly. You will notice that the cooking time for this recipe is long - 2hours 15mins to cook with 15 minutes resting time for the meat. Definitely not something you would attempt to whip up after rushing in from work one night! It is however, worth the time and in actual fact takes very little effort. A great weekend dish that you can pretty much set and forget, while you curl up on the couch with a glass of wine and a good book, as the house fills with the delectable aroma of the dish.

I have used pork shoulder (with the skin on) for this recipe - I love this cut of pork, which is full of flavour and is less likely to dry out than the much more expensive pork loin. I've noticed that pork loin seems to be favoured by cook books and magazines because it looks good when it is carved, but in my opinion, pork shoulder runs rings around it's admittedly prettier counterpart. It's all about flavour for me, so pork shoulder wins the day every time.

3/4 of the way through the cooking process
note my beautiful new red Le Creuset French oven!

When we were in Paris a few weeks ago, I noticed the French penchant for cooking peas with lettuce (sometimes they add a little lardons or cubes of speck/bacon too) Peas are amongst my favourite vegetables, and cooking them with lettuce and a little butter really brings out the sweetness of the peas. The crunch of the lettuce, the sweetness of the peas and the lushness that a touch of butter gives, makes this my new favourite accompaniment to any kind of cooked protein. - Beef, lamb, chicken, fish, all kinds of game and of course pork.

If you are thinking "Cooked lettuce?...Ewwwwww!" Trust me when I say that it is delicious. If you give this a try, I promise you will be a convert. My preferred lettuce to use is baby Cos, if you can get it. You need lettuce that has some structure and crunch - don't attempt this with soft lettuce varieties - you need something that will not totally wilt to nothing when you apply a little heat to it.

I chose to make a gravy out of the pan juices from today's dish (directions below) but if you really can't be bothered, then just drizzle the pan juices over the top. The flavours of the juniper and fennel combined with the pork, eschallots and pears are a knockout - aromatic and warm and delicious and the perfect comforting winter fare. Enjoy!

Slow cooked fennel and juniper baked pork
with caramelised eschallots, Buerre Bosc Pears
and French style peas

You will need:
For the pork: 1.5kg peice of pork shoulder with the skin on, 12 peeled whole eschallots, 12 baby potatoes (you could also use Kipfler potatoes or just cut larger potatoes into smallish peices - either way, leave the skins on), 3 Buerre Bosc pears, 12 dutch carrots (or use baby carrots of any variety), 1 teaspoon juniper berries, a couple of pinches of cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, 2 cloves finely chopped garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tablespoon blood plum vinegar (if you don't have this, raspberry or pomegranate vinegar would be a good substitute), salt and pepper.

**If you want to make a proper gravy like I did (instead of just drizzling the pan juices over the finished dish), you will also need: 1 heaped tablespoon plain flour and about 2 - 3 cups chicken stock.

For the French style peas
2 cups peas, 3/4 cup finely sliced cos lettuce (or any firm style lettuce), 1 tablespoon salted butter, salt and pepper to taste.

Method: First, pat the pork dry with paper towels and then score the skin quite deeply crossways. (You can also tie the meat up with kitchen string at this stage if you wish - it will help the meat hold it's shape)

Now, make the marinade - Place the juniper berries and fennel seeds in a mortar and pestle and pound until finely crushed. Combine this spice mixture with the olive oil, vinegar, cayenne pepper, garlic and a generous seasoning of salt and pepper. Rub generously over the pork and allow to marinate for at least an hour (overnight is even better if you have the time)

Wash and scrub the carrots and potatoes (you do not need to peel them - leave the skins on for more flavour) Preheat the oven to 180C. In a heavy pan (cast iron is ideal, but any heavy casserole dish will be fine) drizzle a little olive oil, then add the pork and eschallots. Cover with a lid and cook for 1 hour, basting the pork once or twice during this time.

After 1 hour, add the potatoes, baste the pork again with the pan juices and cook for another 30 minutes with the lid on. As the eschallots cook and caramelise, they will become very soft and delicate - take care when handling them so that they do not break up too much. Turning them with a large spoon is a good idea.

Remove the cores of the pears and cut them into quarters. Add the pears and the carrots to the pot and cook for another 45minutes, basting a few times during this last stage of cooking.

Remove the pork from the pan, cover with foil and allow it to rest for about 15 minutes before serving. Once rested, carve into slices and serve with the vegetables. Drizzle the pan juices over the top or serve with gravy.

If you are making gravy: Remove all of the vegetables from the pan, leaving all of the juices on the bottom. Put the pan on the top of the stove on a medium heat and sprinkle over the flour. Using a whisk, combine the flour well with the pan juices. The aim here is to ensure that the flour is cooked well before adding the stock - otherwise your gravy will just taste of raw flour. Gradually add the chicken stock, whisking all the time to ensure that there are no lumps. I always use a whisk for this task - never a wooden spoon - as I find using a whisk gives perfect velvety gravy every time. Simmer until thickened and serve with the pork and vegetables.

Method for French style peas: Cook the peas in water or stock until tender. Drain the peas. Melt the butter in a pan and toss the peas and lettuce together for a minute or so until the lettuce wilts slightly (you want the lettuce to retain some crunch, so don't overcook it) Season and serve.