Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas: then and now

It’s Christmas Eve in Australia and I really, really wanted to have this posted much earlier in December. But as always, when the holiday season begins, everything happens all in a rush. While one of my jobs ends in November, the other ramps up in December and sees me out on the road delivering gifts to clients for the better part of the month. When I can catch a day off, I am running from appointment to appointing and squeezing in far too many visits to the crowded shopping centres, racing to have coffees and catch ups with friends, spending endless, endless hours in the kitchen baking,  and trying to capture as much of the festive spirit as I can.

But actually, it’s fitting that tonight is the first spare moment I’ve had to sit and process two really good chats I had in the last few weeks for the Retro Cooking Project. Regular readers will know I’ve been chasing down people with memories or traditions that span further than my thirty-odd years on the planet, and the start of Christmas seemed like a good time to investigate what life and food was like. I spoke to Val, who is the mother of one of my very best uni friends and who is in her eighties, and my pop, Bern, who turns 90 next month.

The answer to what life and food was like ‘back in the day’ from both Pop and Val, was that life in December was not as hectic as it is for us today.

Our Christmas menu includes lots of things; roast turkey and some ham, prawns and salads, a Christmas pudding for dessert (and a special ice-cream pudding for me). There are appetisers and biscuits, fruit and lollies to munch on before and after lunch and endless amounts of leftovers. But when Val was growing up in Queensland, Christmas lunch was one meal. It was a big highlight, with roast chicken on the menu - the only day in the entire year that her family had a roast chicken.

For my pop, who grew up in Tasmania in a small town called Myalla, a roast leg of lamb was the centre of the Christmas dinner table. They both talked about the Christmas plum pudding, which was steamed well before Christmas and left to hang until the day. Plum pudding was baked with coins that would bring luck to the people who found them in their slices. Val also told me they had special favours to bake into theirs. ‘They all had their own special meanings,’ she said. ‘Most of them to do with marriage I think.’*

While the meat differed between states, both Pop and Val told me that Christmas when they were kids was much simpler. It was one special family meal without all the fuss and bother. Pop says they would put out their Christmas stockings and in the morning they might have a ha’penny stick (which was a lolly) and sometimes a banana (remember, without the means of transporting produce back in the 20s and 30s, tropical fruit had no way of making it all the way out to small Tasmanian towns).

Later, after the War, Christmases changed. As people got more prosperous, traditions got more elaborate. Pop says that he and my nan wanted to give their kids what they hadn’t had when they were younger (and both of them came from large families where there wasn’t much to go around everyone). But the culture also changed - people were socialising more, having visitors and entertaining. In the 50s the era of the housewife began, and Christmas dishes got more elaborate, the parties much bigger, and went from being one special day to a special season.

Pop said that while things got more elaborate, ‘we never really went overboard - not until we had grandkids of course.’ He talked a lot about the things they did to make it fun; making everyone model the gifts they received (and if you got undies, you modelled them on your head), or everyone sitting down to play with the kids when they got toys. While he was talking about Christmas when my dad was little, lots of these traditions are things that were passed down to us.

I love Christmas. I love the traditions that my parents have passed down to my sister and I, many of which started with their parents. I love the big elaborate dinners and the way I spend hours in the kitchen baking homemade gifts for my family and friends. Traditions are for me, what makes Christmas special.

But I also really like thinking of Christmas as one day. This year, I’ve tried really hard not to use Christmas as an excuse to overindulge all December long. And tomorrow, when we sit down to the massive feast I know we’re going to have, I will think of how lucky we are to have roast chicken whenever we like.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone!

*I looked them up and she was right:
  • Bachelor's Button: If a single man found it, they would be a bachelor for the following year.
  • Spinster's/Old Maid's Thimble: If a single woman found it, they would be single for the following year.
  • A Ring: If a single person found this, it meant you will get married in the following year! It can also mean you will be rich for the following year

Monday, 9 November 2015

Retro anecdote: Modern flour, Madeira cake, and clips around the ear

Here’s a fact for you: there was no such thing as self-raising flour (or self-rising flour as it’s called in the UK). Lots of you probably already know this, but just in case this is news to you, yes, the convenience of  self-raising flour is a modern invention.

Along the same note, today I learned today that self-raising flour can lose its effectiveness over time, especially when it’s stored in the paper bags it comes in from the store. I’ve never noticed this happening before, but owing to the humid Queensland climate and previous problems with moths and weevils, we’ve always kept our flour in plastic canisters stored in the fridge, which would have stopped the flour from absorbing moisture.

When my nan was learning to cook, accurate measurements were super important. Pantries weren’t as well stocked, they lived out of town so ‘heading down the shop’ wasn’t a possibility, and they didn’t have the disposable incomes many of us have now to restock when mistakes were made.

So on the day she was helping her mum make a Madeira cake, when my nan put too much baking powder into the flour mix, she got a clip around the ears and yelled at her for wasting ingredients. She didn’t tell me why they didn’t just dump it all out and forget about it, but they went forward and cooked the cake. 

“And when it came out of the oven,” Nan said, “it was beautiful. Mum didn’t know what to say!”

I dug around in my retro recipe books for a Madeira recipe, and found one in my mum’s copy of The Margaret Fulton Cookbook and  honour of my great grandmother teaching my nanna how to cook, I made this simple Madeira cake.

I’m happy to report that it had no self-raising flour listed, instead it used baking powder with plain flour. Full disclosure though, I think the lack of SR flour made it quite dense and I may have also left it in the oven too long because it was fairly dry as well. It did have a lovely lemony flavour, and if it was lighter, would have been a really nice afternoon tea cake. 

I can’t show you the recipe because the book is still within its copyright period, but if you’re one of the thousands of people who have a copy of The Margaret Fulton Cookbook, you should be able to find this recipe, or you could visit Nigella’s website and make her mother-in-law's Madeira cake (which might be my next one to try because it has both SR and plain flour, and the juice of the lemon where Margaret's only includes the rind in the actual cake). 

I am pretty sure that up in heaven, my great-grandmother is giving me a well-deserved clip around the ears for wasting ingredients. But I promise, I can bring it back (more on that later)! 

Monday, 2 November 2015

Retro reflections: a case of the creepy crawlies

For the squeamish among you, there are no pictures of bugs in this post, but I do mention them! 

I woke in the morning with a big, burning bug bite on my knee. The night before it had been an itchy annoyance, with nothing more to make me think it wasn't just another mozzie bite to add to this week's rather extensive collection. But it throbbed and ached and I felt generally unwell for most of the morning. 'Not a mozzie bite,' I said out loud a few times, with a bit of a panicky feeling in my stomach.

Bugs are generally not something I worry about too much, but on this day, I think the creepy crawlies of the world had conspired to get under my skin.

On my way to bed, I walked through the kitchen and noticed I'd left the packet of rice I used at dinner still on the bench. I picked it up, put a seal on the top and went to put it away in the pantry. In the pantry, there was a trail of funny-coloured dust, and on closer inspection, it was coming out of a bag of pasta... which was full of tiny black bugs.

Vintage Bakelite is pretty, but it these canisters won't keep the critters out

Anything that gets into food or makes a mess in the kitchen bothers me. My Sydney apartment went through a period where I couldn't get the cockroach population under control (a result of a neighbour's untidy flat), and I spent days scrubbing insides of cupboards and all their contents.

It was just one bag of pasta I could see that night, but it set my heart racing and my skin crawling. Instinct was that I needed to throw everything in my pantry out and start again. I was upset that as a food blogger, I could have a less than perfectly clean kitchen. I was on the brink of a full scale cleaning meltdown when I took a deep breath and reached out to an online cooking community and asked for help.

I took a photo of one of the little bugs, asked if anyone could identify it, and if the situation was fatal to the contents of my pantry. Less than five minutes later, twenty people swooped in, identified the bug as a grain weevil and calmed me down. No, the entire contents of my pantry wasn't lost, but I would need to go through everything carefully and then clean it out because weevils lay tiny eggs. No, a small infestation was not a reflection of my cleanliness - it could happen to anyone and they'd likely come into the house inside the pasta.

And then one lady said: "Our grandmothers would have just sifted out the bugs and kept on using anything that wasn't destroyed."

The whole time I was cleaning out the pantry (I lost the pasta, a jar of dried coriander and a container of curry powder to the weevils and a whole lot of stuff like canned goods to long-expired used by dates), I was thinking about the modern world vs. the world my grandmothers grew up in.

Tala canisters & jars which are modern reproductions of vintage ones.
The jars are the best for keeping the critters out

Food is so plentiful, shops are so close by (for most of us), and everything is so cheap now, that we barely even raise an eyebrow at throwing things out. And I'm not just talking about things that have been eaten by critters - we throw so much out of our fridges and pantries, buy more than we can use and are waste-making machines. Whereas our grandparents were sifting bugs out of flour.

The other difference was that, in the middle of the night when my household was sleeping and I was on the brink of cleaning instead of heading to my own bed, there was a community of people online to give me advice. I just had to type a few words into my computer and I was helped.

The writer in me couldn't help but cast a story about my own nanna, late at night when she was young and newly married, in dressing gown and slippers, discovering weevils in her pantry. I wondered what she would have done...

For the practical part of this post, how to avoid weevils in your pantry this summer (much of this advice given to me by Skinnymixers Facebook Group Members)

  • Put items like pasta, flour, rice and grains in the freezer for 24-hours after bringing it home (this will kill any eggs - gross, but on the plus side, they're dead and you'll have no idea you're eating them)
  • Make sure everything in your pantry can be sealed in canisters, jars, Tupperwear or even takeaway containers. Yes, bugs like weevils can crawl in under seals of cheaper containers,  or they can already be in some food from the supermarket, but containers are a good way of isolating infestations and keeping them from getting into other items
  • Put Bay Leaves in your pantry. Bugs hate the smell and it's a natural repellant
  • Spring clean your pantry, getting rid of anything that's past its used by date, making sure that things are still sealed and checking for any bugs, including your herbs and spice. You should also move anything with an upcoming expiry date to the front of your pantry to remind you to use it
  • Keep your flour in sealed containers in your fridge. This has the added bonus of preserving the rising agents in your self-raising flour!

Oh, and as for my bug bite? Definitely not a mozzie bite, but it did heal just as quickly. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Retro research: Suet

I want to talk about something that can be considered kind of revolting. 

When I first sat down with my nan to interview her about some of her food memories, she went straight to the one that made my skin crawl and the back of my throat clench up. It’s the story about how when she was young and lived on a cattle farm, my great nanna used to render the suet from their slaughtered cows into hard lumps ready to cook pies, pudding and cakes with. They didn't waste anything in those days, especially not animal fats. 

Beef suet (picture from Wikimedia Commons)
When was fourteen, I stopped eating all meat and all products containing meat. This didn’t mean I was a vegan, because I still liked milk and cheese, but I refused to eat anything that contained meat products, like hot chips, because I worked at Red Rooster and knew from the boxes that they contained beef tallow. I dropped this stance pretty quickly though when I realised gelatine was a technically a meat product and therefore ice-cream was also out under those rules.

I still, however, 16 years later, do not eat red meat, but I’m not as revolted by the idea of tallows being in things I eat if I don’t think about it too much. But there’s just something about the fact that suet is kidney fat used in puddings that makes my tummy turn. 

Gross or not, it is a big part of vintage cooking, and is still found in a lot of British recipes today. It’s not something I’m really willing to replicate in my recipes, so instead, I’ve done a little research as to why it was used and if modern cooking is lacking because we don’t really use suet any more in Australia.

The first thing I’ve learned in this often gag-inducing voyage of discovery is that it’s really important where the fat comes from for this sort of cooking. Meaning, that if you were trying for a true replication of vintage cooking, going to the butcher and asking for suet might not give you a real result – you’re looking for the fat that comes from around the kidneys rather than muscle fat. I was really interested to learn the kidney fat has less of a taste and smell than muscle fat. But why this is important is the fat from the muscles has a lower melting point than the true suet – and this is the desired result when cooking puddings and pies.

I found a blog, Savouring the Past , while I was doing my research and they know a lot about this, so I’ll borrow a quote from them:

“Suet is grated or picked into small pieces as part of the process of preparing it for cooking. When mixed with other ingredients — let’s say the a batter for a traditional boiled pudding, the particles of suet retain their mass well into the cooking process.  When the melting point of suet is finally reached, the surrounding batter has already begun to set. By the time full baking temperature is reached within the pudding, the suet has melted, leaving a void in the batter.
“Consequently, the use of suet in such dishes as puddings, dumplings, and mince pie results in a spongy texture.  If the lower-melting muscle fat is used in suet’s place, the fat will melt before the batter has a chance to set, resulting in a much heavier final result.
“Not only is suet used for textural purposes, but it is also used to add moisture to the dish without adding a strong meaty flavor that is so common with muscle fat.
If you don't want to deal with rendering fat, there is a packet version of suet mix, which contains flour, available at Coles.* If you're in the UK, you probably don't need me to tell you there's a packet version readily available in your supermarkets – it seems it never really went out of favour in England. 

Tandaco suet mix, available at Coles

For those of you who want to try your hand at vintage or British recipes calling for suet but either can’t find the suet mix at the supermarket or don’t want to use it, my research turned up very few alternatives that provide the same sort of result. NIgella Lawson’s team do say it’s okay to use something like Copha (or Crisco  if you’re in the US), but you should freeze it before using, then grate while frozen and refreeze until  you’re ready to use it. Savoring the Past mentions that while using a vegetable-based shortening will still create a delicious dish, it doesn’t have the same spongy texture dishes get from using a true suet.

Atora brand shredded suet, available only in the UK
When I got away from the process used to render the fat, started looking at alternatives, and reading forum posts from impassioned British expats desperately seeking alternatives to their beloved Atora brand suet, I started to be curious. And that’s the thing about being a foodie for me, there are lots of things that initially might have an ‘ick’ factor, but with research and reflection, I've decided I might be willing to grab a packet of the suet mix from the supermarket and try out some dumplings or a pudding. Maybe. 

I will, however, be drawing the line at going to the butcher and asking for the real, unprocessed stuff.

I hope you liked my first Retro Research post. If this is something you'd like to see more of, make sure you leave me a comment and let me know. 

*Please note, this is not a sponsored post and I am in no way affiliated with Coles, Tandaco or Atora. All opinions, unless otherwise stated, are mine. 

List of websites visited in compiling this post:

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Retro recipe: apple cakes (apple pastries)

For my third Retro Cooking Project recipe, I’m sticking with the cake section of The Esk Valley CWA Cookery Book (it’s taking me a little while to get up the nerve to move into more adventurous territory).

The recipes in this book are a bit of a mystery bag because there are no pictures and no preamble to the instructions whatsoever. It’s very different to modern cookbooks where the photography plays an integral part in how we choose what we want to cook these days. We eat with our eyes, and modern cookbooks have capitalised on this.

So far, the Retro Cooking Project has been a refreshing way of changing the way I look for something to cook. Using The Esk Valley CWA Cookery Book, I’ve read through the instructions from start to finish, convert the measurements, understand every step and know what I have to do before I start, which sadly, isn’t how I usually approach a new recipe.

When I read through the recipe for Apple Cakes from H.D. Green of Longford, I suspected that, like the Coconut Cakes I launched the Retro Cooking Project with, they’d be something different to what we associate the word ‘cake’ with today. There was an instruction to rub the butter and sugar into the flour mix, which, to anyone who cooks, screams pastry rather than cake.

I also had my suspicions the cakes would come out similar to an apple cake my Great Auntie Marge is famous for (in our family). And actually, if I’d realised sooner that I didn’t have to stew the apples first (grated apple goes in this recipe), I probably would have tried to recreate Auntie Marge’s cakes sooner.

These were really easy to make. The only thing that didn’t really go as planned was the pastry was way too wet to roll out in the beginning, it’s a problem easily fixed by adding a tiny bit more flour to the mix.

Apple Cakes
Recipe adapted from The Esk Valley CWA Cookery Book
Makes approximately nine cakes


226 grams plain flour
¼ teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of cream of tartar
½ teaspoon of bicarbonate soda
113 grams butter plus 1 teaspoon for the icing
85 grams sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons milk
1 apple (I used Granny Smiths because I prefer the tartness, but anything that’s in season will work)
1 Lemon
1 cup of icing sugar


Line a cookie sheet with non-stick baking paper, or spray lightly with cooking oil.

Sift the dry ingredients together, and then rub the sugar and butter into the mix with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Beat your egg and then add the milk. Once combined, add gradually to your dry ingredients and mix until a stiff dough forms. If it’s not stiff enough, add a little bit of flour until you can knead lightly without pulling too much dough away on your fingers. Don’t knead too much; just enough to combine.

Grate your apple, then add a squeeze of lemon juice and stir it around so it doesn’t brown. Be sure to keep your lemon because you’ll need the juice and rind for your icing. 

Roll out pastry onto a floured board, and using a round cookie cutter, cut out rounds from your pastry. Place half the rounds onto the baking sheet and top with a teaspoon of apple, then place the second half of the pastry rounds on top. Press down lightly around the edges, then bake in a moderate oven (around 280C) for around 15–20 minutes, or until golden brown. 

When the cakes are cool, make a simple butter icing by combining the icing sugar, reserved 1 teaspoon of butter and the juice from the lemon. If it’s too stiff or too tart with the lemon juice, add some boiling water (just a teaspoon at a time or you’ll make it too runny and need to add more icing sugar) and stir until desired consistency and taste is reached (I prefer a fairly thick icing so it spreads and holds its shape without running everywhere). Grate a little lemon rind into the icing and mix it through, just to add a little colour and flavour to the cake.  

You can eat these as soon as they’re iced, but I’d recommend leaving them overnight so the icing can soften to pastry a little. I wouldn’t recommend leaving them un-iced as there’s not a lot of sugar in the pastry (or any in the apples!) and the icing just balances the tartness out nicely.

Serve with tea, because they go perfectly together.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Retro recipe: scones (and jam and cream)

This entry is about British/Australian scones. Not the triangle American scones, which are a nice pastry in their own right, but have nothing to do with the scone I grew up with in Australia.

From the time I was very small, my nan would take us for a Devonshire tea, which is also known as a cream tea. For us, this meant we were getting scones and jam and cream alongside a cup of lukewarm, milky tea. We always had the warm scones, split in two with raspberry jam (usually homemade if the scones came from Nan’s house), and then a big dollop of freshly whipped cream.

It wasn’t until I went to have a Devonshire tea with a friend a few years ago that I realised anyone would question the order of scone, jam, then cream, but my friend insisted that the cream went before the jam. We had a little argument, then I went home to do some research.

Evidently, I grew up with mis-information, and our way of eating scones was called a Cornish cream tea, and that a proper Devonshire tea was the way my friend ate scones. Either way, we still call it a Devonshire tea at home, and it’s a common morning tea at our place.

I rate scones as an easy recipe, but they’re not without their challenges. For a long time, my Queensland nan was my world’s foremost authority on scones; hers were always huge, light and fluffy and so deliciously moreish that you could never stop at one!

With two nans who made excellent scones, I never really had a reason to think about making them myself. But when I lived in Sydney, I started making them as a way of using up leftover cream, or sour cream, or even buttermilk. I was editing the author Jackie French’s monthly newsletter and she always included recipes. One month, it was a recipe for scones. When I realised how easy they were, I gave it a go. Sometimes they worked out and sometimes they didn’t, but it was never a recipe I could be sure it would taste good enough to serve to visitors.

But when I moved back to Brisbane and my nan bought a new oven that produced dud scones, the morning tea mantle fell to me. At first, I cheated a lot and used my Thermomix to make them, but after a few batches were stodgy and over-mixed, I realised going back to basics would be better for my scones.

There are a few things you should note if you’re going to start baking scones yourself. Firstly, don’t ever over-mix or over-knead them. The success of a scone depends on using a quick, light touch at every stage. Just lightly combine the ingredients and knead with a gentle palm until they’re combined enough to cut out. Don’t worry if they look a bit rough, they’ll sort themselves out as they cook.

Next, bake them in a very hot oven, without leaving gaps between them. Scones should rise into each other and break apart when they’re cooked. I cringe when I see people putting scones into the oven all spaced out and even on a tray because the only way they will rise evenly is if they’re touching. This is perhaps one of the only recipes where your food will cook better if they grow into each other during the cooking process. Think about how scones look if you buy them from Baker’s Delight; a dozen always comes all joined together and uniform in shape. 

Next, when the scones come out of the oven, spread a tea towel open in a bowl and put the hot scones into the bowl with the tea towel covering them. Leave them this way for around 10–15 minutes. The steam is part of the cooking process for scones and will help make sure they break apart (which is the next point).

Last, when you split your scones ready to slather in jam and cream, don’t cut them with a knife.  My nans both say this, the CWA says this and now, I’m saying it. A good scone doesn’t need to be cut with a knife. They should, with a little pressure from your thumbs, break in half. Steaming them on each other in the bowl with the tea towel will help with this.

Okay, advice given, here’s the recipe I use, which is for lemonade scones, the way my Tassie nan made them.


3 cups of self-raising flour
300ml pouring cream
¾ cup of lemonade (if you’re reading this in the US, you’re going to want Sprite or 7-Up rather than your version of lemonade!)

Preheat your oven to 210 degrees Celsius. Don’t even think about putting your scones in until the oven has reached this temperature!!

Sift the flour into a bowl and make a well in the centre.

Stir in the cream and lemonade with a round bladed knife to form a soft, sticky dough. Be careful not to over-mix, but a bit sticky is ok.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface (I like to use a plastic cutting board for easy clean up). Knead gently until smooth, press out into around 3cm thickness and cut out into rounds using either an approximately 6cm round cookie cutter or a glass (if you want to be traditional about it, a glass is how both of my nans did it).

Place the rounds on a baking paper lined oven tray and bake for 10–15 minutes until the scones are lightly browned. 

Once they’re done, pop them in the bowl with the tea towel for 10–15 minutes, and they’ll still be lovely and warm when you serve them.

Make sure you have some lovely jam and whipped cream ready to enjoy on these (or, if you’re like my dad, vegemite and cheese).

Friday, 21 August 2015

Food travels in the USA: Bagelsaurus

On our visit to Forge, one of the girls recommended a bagel store that was making 'the most amazing bagels ever,' in Boston. Decent bagels are hard to find in Australia (or at least where I've lived in Brisbane and Sydney), so I was keen for the early morning trip to Bagelsaurus.

There was a line, a massive line. The store was started when the owner did a weekly pop-up in a sandwich shop, building a massive following for her homemade sea salt bagels with rosemary honey cream cheese before opening her own store (and significantly growing that following). But the line moved really quickly, the service was good and we got our bagels to go (there was no way we'd have found a table inside). They just sell bagels until they sell out, and I bet they rarely end up with stock leftover. 

Because anything other than the occasional poppy seed, or if you're lucky, blueberry bagel, is a novelty at home, the huge menu was daunting. There were poppy seed, plain,and sea salt, but also exciting flavours like pretzel, onion, cinnamon, cheddar garlic and black olive.  

Once I'd made it through the hard decision of choosing a bagel, I then had to work out what sort of cream cheese I wanted (veggie, scallion, honey rosemary), and if I wanted it to add extras like red onion or salmon, or if I wanted a breakfast sandwich with egg and bacon, feta, pickled cabbage and lots of other yummy things. In the end, I settled for a black onion bagel, toasted with scallion cream cheese and smoked salmon. 

It was delicious; the sort of bagel that's crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. But the creamy cheese on the hot bagel made it really messy and not at all photogenic! I've snagged a couple of shots from their Facebook so you can drool a bit,  but definitely take my word for it, this place is worth a visit and worth standing in line! 
Delicious-looking bagel sandwich, snagged from Bagelsaurus' Facebook

Everything bagels - snagged from Bagelsaurus' Facebook