Wednesday, 26 June 2013


The most-eaten vegetable in the world, according to a question on a trivia quiz I answered incorrectly on the weekend, is... the onion (I guessed potato). When you think about it, it makes sense. They're cheap, plentiful, available year-round and lend an amazing depth of flavour to so many different foods. They taste great caramelised, pickled, roasted, fried or raw, in soups and stir-fries, curries and casseroles, tacos and pastas and... tarts. Not sweet tarts, though onions themselves are wonderfully sweet. Which is why they're so perfect in the savoury kind. There's the traditional French onion tart of course, but in that the flavour of the onion is diluted with cream as well as cheese, and the rich, buttery pastry, built up around the sides of the dish as well as forming its base is, quite literally, a bit too much of a good thing. This simple, pizza-style Provençal tart is more my speed - a single layer of thin, flaky pastry (that you don't have to blind-bake), slathered with sweet golden onion and sprinkled with a salty punch of anchovies and olives. It's the kind of meal that works just as well in summer as a light lunch outside with a glass of white wine (though this is more the life of characters in French movies I've seen than my own) as it does in winter when you need something warm and comforting (that you can eat sitting on the couch under a blanket with the heater on - more familiar to me, especially right now). Onions! Of course.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Chocolate prune brownies

There are a lot of brownie recipes out there. So if I'm going to post about something gooey, and chocolatey and square, it ought to be worth your while. And let me tell you, this is. It's not just any old brownie recipe, but one from a favourite place of mine in Sydney, the Bourke Street Bakery. There are a number of them now, but the original bakery café, on leafy Bourke Street, Surry Hills, is on my route to the office I've been writing at lately. Sometimes I stop in for a coffee and exercise all my self-restraint to not order something else to go with it.

And then, after all that, I come home and bake something from their cookbook. This week it was somewhat justified as I was going to the Sydney Film Festival with friends. There's not much time in between sessions, and limited dining options in the immediate vicinity other than popcorn, so indoor picnic supplies are called for. A brought-from-home sandwich or thermos of soup are all very well and good, but afterwards, what you need to power you into the next film, is an intense hit of chocolate. One that's easy to pack in your bag and eat with your fingers in the darkness of a cinema. 

Brownies are the perfect portable dessert - at a festival or a friend's house, on a road trip or a picnic... or as far afield as your own kitchen, transported all the way from the tin to your hand (then your mouth). What sets these brownies apart from all others - other than the sour cream, which imparts a smooth richness - are the prunes. Shiny, sweet and silky, and impossibly soft and moist from three days of soaking, they're a perfect match with dark chocolate, adding an unexpected, exquisite, sophisticated texture to the familiar dense, squidgy square.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Passionfruit fairy cakes

In addition to being an architect and an excellent road trip companion, my dad does linocuts. A couple of Christmases ago, I asked him to make me a bookplate. It didn't turn up under the tree that year (largely because I vetoed his original concept of an image in my likeness - who wants to open up a book and see their own face staring back at them?) but this May, Australia Post delivered a lovely surprise to my letterbox.

Though I've lived in Sydney for quite a while now, I'm sentimental about my Queensland roots, so this depiction of the Glasshouse Mountains (along with the pineapple, an icon of the Sunshine State) was perfect. Ever since I received it, it's pulled me like a magnet. And so last week I headed north. To a place of green hills of timber and tin, high SPF sunscreen and... tropical fruit. I arrived to find my parents' front fence laden with passionfruit.

I could have made a pavlova but it felt all wrong to be eating that in front of a roaring fire, a bit like what northern hemisphere people feel about Christmas in summer. I could have made curd, but I'm still swimming in jars of lime from my baking adventure of a few weeks ago. So, with a morning tea organised for the Queen's Birthday public holiday, and my friends with small kids coming over, I made fairy cakes. Unusually, this recipe calls for you to strain the distinctive seeds from the passionfruit pulp, leaving only the sweet, bright orange juice to flavour both the cake and its frosting. This results in a beautifully smooth batter, a particularly perfect crumb and a glossy, glowing top. The flavour of the fruit is right there, in every bite. Modest, but unmistakable, just like the Glasshouses, and my home state.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Baked ricotta with chilli and marjoram

I'm in awe of people who grow things. From farmers to backyard gardeners to kids and their school projects with egg cartons and potting mix... whatever your scale or skill level, it's utterly impressive to take a tiny seed and nuture it til it's something substantial for you to eat or admire. For now, I live in a big city, in a small apartment so soil - that vital ingredient in plant growth - is hard to come by. Or at least it was until recently. A couple of months ago, I got a window box. Three window boxes to be exact, spanning the length of my living room windows. They're north-facing, so are bathed in glorious sunlight all day long - perfect for growing herbs. 

When it came time to decide which ones to plant I had to think about what I mostly commonly cook with. Rosemary was a given, especially with winter roasts in mind. Ditto thyme. Flat-leaf parsley for pastas. Sage because it's so amazing with pumpkin. And marjoram... for something I love to make (and eat) regularly that's as effortless as it is impressive and versatile.

Ricotta is so good in sweet, delicate things - breakfast hotcakes, Sardinian ricotta cake... but if you swap the sugar for salt... and pepper, oregano, and chilli... and bake it in the oven for just a short while, just about as long as it takes to reach out the window, pluck some marjoram, wash it, strip its leaves, chop them up and cover them in olive oil, it transforms into a robust, savoury showstopper. One to smear on a cracker and graze on with a glass of wine, crumble over pasta (maybe with some slow-roasted tomatoes), or cut in thick wedges for a sandwich made with the leftovers from last night's roast (whether meat or veg). It's early days for me and my herbs. Wish us luck. We're going to need it - it's more accurate to say I'm green at gardening than possessed of a green thumb. We'll see how I go - any tips gratefully received - but this recipe is an excellent incentive for success.