Saturday, March 26, 2011

the particular happiness of eating lemon cake

Apart from new titles from favourite authors, the appeal of a book to you may be in its cover.  Or perhaps a good review finds you searching out a particular title.  Or a recommendation from a friend.

Lately, I’ve noticed a tendency for quirky book titles.  Titles that make you stop and think I wonder what that is about?  Or perhaps, how on earth did they come by that title?  Something unusual enough to make you pick up the book and leaf through it.

I’m thinking…


A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
The Unbearable Lightness of Scones
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Started Early, took my Dog

But I’m totally smitten by the title The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, written by Aimee Bender. 

I wonder what could possibly be sad about a lemon cake?  Nothing that a good slice of it with a dollop of Greek yogurt (oh, a marriage made in heaven!) couldn’t cure, I’m sure.  Which brings me to this lovely, luscious lemon cake.  Given to me by a former work colleague, the recipe is originally from someone known only as Ann and featured in the Waikato Times.  Well Ann, thank you.  I have been making this cake since I got the recipe – I think it’s the only lemon cake that I have made in all those years. 
Words of advice from the Waikato Times “don’t mess with the tried and true”.  In other words, follow the recipe as stated – it is a particularly perfect lemon cake.
Some days, I can’t bear to hear the noise of my cake mixer in the kitchen (I suspect there are much quieter ones out there (Kitchen Aid anyone?), but mine has been around a while, and in the quiet stillness of a Saturday morning with all its anticipation of the weekend ahead, I choose to beat the mixture by hand.  If I had to really cream it, you would find me reaching for the cake mixer but it only requires beating the butter and sugar until well combined.  And, if you find the odd male wandering into the kitchen by chance, then handing them the bowl and wooden spoon for a particular male spin on it makes the job a little easier for you.
As for the book, I’m so intrigued I have placed an advance order for the paperback.  I only hope the book is as good as the lemon cake.  If anyone out there has read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it (but no plot spoilers for me, please!).

lemon cake
Grated rind of 2 medium to large lemons
140g butter, softened, but not melted
3 eggs (size 7 stated but I use what’s on hand)
1 ½ cups caster sugar
¾ cup self-raising flour
¾ cup plain flour
1/3 cup trim milk
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup extra caster sugar
¼ cup lemon juice extra

Pre-heat oven to 190ºC fan-bake.

Lightly grease or spray a 20cm round cake tin and line the bottom with baking paper.

Beat softened butter, caster sugar and rind together by hand in a large bowl with a wooden spoon.  The mixture does not have to be thoroughly creamed, just beaten until very well combined. 

Whisk the eggs together in a bowl, then stir into the mixture.

Sift the self-raising flour and plain flour together and fold in to the mixture.

Blend together the milk and first measure of lemon juice and fold in to combine.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared tin and bake for about 50 minutes until cake is golden and a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.  If the cake is browning too much on top during cooking time, place some tin foil loosely over the top.

While the cake is baking, combine the extra measures of caster sugar and lemon juice.  As soon as the cake is ready and comes out of the oven, pour the extra sugar and lemon juice mixture spoonful by spoonful over the hot cake and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes in the tin.  (You might just want to place a tray or plate under this in case your tin leaks.)

Place on a cake rack to cool completely.

Serve with Greek yogurt or a dollop of cream.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

know your onions

I once had a checkout operator at the local supermarket pick up a red onion from my groceries on the conveyor belt and ask me what it was.  I recovered from that Jamie Oliver moment where I was stunned into silence that someone did not recognize a fairly common vegetable, and told her.  She asked what you would do with it.  After that, I picked her checkout every time.  I truly liked her innocence.  It made going to the supermarket a much more rewarding experience.  She never failed to ask me questions about produce I had bought or comment on how much wine I had in my shopping trolley and was I going to drink it all myself. (I wasn’t!)  Sadly, she is not on the checkouts anymore.  I hope it was an educational experience for her.

What’s been an educational experience for me is watching the onion pickers out here in the produce belt. They spend hours from daybreak to sunset  lifting the onions from the earth. Inside the house you can hear the hypnotic clicking sound as the pickers move slowly down the rows, hand clipping the onion tops off. Sometimes, it’s like an art form. The picked and clipped onions are placed on the earth in groups. Gradually a line forms as they are laid out to dry in the sun (this apparently kills the root system at the bottom of each bulb). And finally, there is row upon row of bagged onions waiting to be collected. It’s a beautiful sight - a photo begging to be taken.

I love ...

oven baked red onions and vegetables
sliced raw red onions with cheese in toasted sandwiches
raw red onions in salads – sweet and juicy, adding colour

I tried making onion marmalade for the first time. It turned out fine - a little sweet for me perhaps, but others liked it. Later I saw a recipe on the BBC website. From the photo, it looked like their onions had held their glorious red colour (perhaps they'd just Photo-shopped it?).  I'll try it sometime and let you know...

This one is adapted from a recipe in Fruits of the Earth by Gloria Nicol.

red onion marmalade

1kg (2lb 4oz) red onions, peeled, quartered and then sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
250ml (17fl oz) red wine vinegar
250ml (17fl oz) balsamic vinegar
750g (1lb 10oz) muscovado sugar (or a dark brown sugar)
2 bay leaves
2 tsp salt
ground black pepper

  1. Heat the oil in a large stainless steel pan or preserving pan.  Add onions and cook gently for about 20 minutes until soft but not browned.
  2. Add all other ingredients and simmer gently for 1-1½ hours until mixture is dark and thick but still juicy, stirring occasionally.
  3. Pour the marmalade into hot, sterilized jars and seal.

I wash the jars in hot soapy water, then rinse. While still wet, I place them in the microwave for 1 minute to sterilize. I pour boiling hot water over the lids and any utensils I will be using to spoon the preserve into the jars. I tend to use a mini ladle for this.

I've been having a hard time posting this blog.  The formatting keeps previewing all wrong.  Now, I don't know if this is me or Blogger.  So, if you're looking at it and it looks kind of funny - I've given up and gone to bed!

Sunday, March 6, 2011


I’ve been neglecting my etcetera.  That’s the part where I diverge from "eat" and think about something else for a change.  So lately I’ve been:


Black Swan

I’m not sure how qualified I am to say anything about Black Swan as I watched about one third of it with my hands over my eyes (thanks to Natalie at The SoHo for the warning!).  Such was the intensity of this film that even when nothing was happening, or going to happen, you just imagined it would.  The soaring, loud music, the claustrophobic tension of scenes, and the stalking, handheld camerawork, added to the suspense.  Then there were the constant reflections in windows and mirrors, creating confusion over what was real and what was imagined, not only for Nina, the main character, but for the audience too.  Did I enjoy it?  No - I was tense throughout and exhausted at the end.  But I very much admired it and was captivated by its cleverness.  It had me on edge throughout and I kept thinking about it long after it was over – always a good sign of an interesting movie. 

The King's Speech

Both Black Swan and The King’s Speech have one thing in common – an outstanding lead actor who is so absorbed and convincing in the role that they take the film to a different level. 

I expected The King’s Speech to be somewhat dry and fusty so I was pleasantly surprised by its humour, its warmth and its humanity.  It was not the great film I expected, but it was nonetheless very good and entertaining. The only jarring point for me was Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Churchill, which to me was overdone and almost comical to watch.


Once the pride and joy of small, suburban garden beds tended mainly by the retired or the elderly, the dahlia is apparently experiencing a revival.  Not before time.

Edinburgh tenement
In my dining room, a small but perfectly formed reminder of my hometown. 

In Scotland, the term 'tenement' lacks the pejorative connotations it carries elsewhere, and refers simply to any block of flats sharing a common central staircase and lacking an elevator, particularly those constructed prior to 1919. Tenements were, and continue to be, inhabited by a wide range of social classes and  income groups. (Definition from Wikipedia.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

a chelsea morning

Sometimes you don’t do things because you think they are going to be difficult.  Let me rephrase that.  Sometimes I don’t do things because I think they are going to be difficult.  Pizza dough once fell into that category.  That is until a work colleague casually claimed she made it from scratch.  I gazed in wonder.  How could that be, I thought, when I really should have been saying how easy is that?  Now, we often have pizza evenings where we break the rule of eating dinner a la table with slabs of pizza on wooden boards in front of the TV.  It’s usually a weekend affair when I can afford the time of letting the dough rise.   

Anyway, I digress.  I am talking about Chelsea buns (sorry to surprise you, moving so rapidly from savoury to sweet).   Truth is I had all but forgotten about Chelsea buns until I saw a few recipes for them last year.  Then I waited for THE moment when I could tackle them.  That moment came one weekend not so long ago but long enough in blog time.  I could digress even more to explain why I have totally lost one week where I did not post a blog.  But I won’t.  I’ve wasted enough time already.  So here it is.

chelsea buns
1 egg
1 cup lukewarm water
3 ½ tsps active dry yeast
1 cup high grade flour
1 tsp sugar

2½ cups high grade flour
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp salt
50g butter, softened
70g butter, melted
2 tsp mixed spice
½ cup sultanas
¼ cup dried cranberries (You don’t have to use these.  I just seem to be having lots of cranberry moments.)

Sugar syrup
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup water
Make this while the buns are cooking in the oven by stirring together over a low heat until the sugar is dissolved. If you want to vary the amount, it's equal amounts of sugar and water.

White icing

1/3 cup icing sugar, sifted
a little milk – about 1 tbsp

For the buns

In a small bowl, beat the first five ingredients until smooth.  Put somewhere warm for 10-15 minutes until the mixture is frothy.  On colder days, I put mine in the hot water cupboard.

Sift flour (that will be 2½ cups), with the ¼ cup of sugar and the salt into the mixing bowl of a cake mixer with a dough hook.  Make a well in the centre and pour in the frothy mix, bringing it all together into a dough.  Add the softened butter at the end.

Attach the dough hook and knead the dough for about five minutes until it is elastic and shiny.  If you are doing this by hand, put dough on a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes until smooth. 

Place dough in a lightly oiled large bowl, cover with cling wrap or a tea towel and leave in a warm place (back to the hot water cupboard!) for 40 minutes.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface.  I used a Teflon mat as I find it is easier to manoeuvre the dough and, as I discovered, it has other uses later.  Press gently with your hands, and then roll out to a rectangle about 30cm wide and 36cm long. 

Mix the melted butter and the 2 tsp mixed spice together.  Using a pastry brush, spread across the entire surface of the dough.  Mix the sultanas and cranberries together and scatter evenly over the dough.  With the Teflon mat, roll up the long edge as tightly as possible. If you’ve been paying attention at the sushi bar, you’ll know how to do this.  Otherwise, you’ll be like me and flounder a bit but the mat certainly makes it easier to roll up.  I’m sorry I did not take a photo of this step – it was an intense moment.

Cut into 3cm thick pieces.  You should get about 12-15 buns.  I don't like them too large.  If you need to, reshape them gently to little round shapes or scrolls.  Place in a greased and lined cake tin or baking dish.  I used two 20cm square cake tins. This is the better looking of the two. I think they look quite cosy in their little tin, don’t you?

Cover and leave for 40 minutes in a warm place.  Preheat oven to 200ºC.

Put the scrolls in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden and dough is well cooked.  Keep a close eye on them.  I just turned my back for a few minutes when they were quite pale and when I looked again I thought they had had an instant spray tan they were that brown.  

Remove from oven and brush with sugar syrup immediately.  Leave to cool in the tin for 5 minutes then turn out onto a cake rack. 


White icing (optional)

Sift icing sugar into a small bowl and add enough milk to make icing into a drizzling consistency.

When buns are cool (if you can wait for them to cool, that is), drizzle with the icing. This is the time to let your inner Jackson Pollock run wild. 

This is easy.  I was surprised how well they turned out.  Don’t forget to factor in that you have to let the dough rise on two occasions so start early. 

I couldn’t imagine having Chelsea buns without the icing – that is my memory of them – but many recipes do show them naked - well, just modestly covered with the sugar syrup.  If you’re like me, the sticky white icing, the cranberries and the sultanas will be the best bits.  In fact, I can think of no reason why you can’t add more…