Sunday, December 26, 2004

I made - Christmas hampers

This year for gifts to bf's mum, uncle and dad I made little Christmas hampers instead of buying gifts. It was an opportunity to try two festive recipes that had interested me for some time: Donna Hay's Gingerbread Shortbread and a christmas spice cake I had seen on the Domestic Goddess.

The shortbread recipe, to say the least, had me screaming and swearing in the kitchen, "Stupid Donna Hay!" I don't know what I did wrong but after rolling out the cookie dough in between the baking paper and cutting out the cookies, they were so limp that it was impossible to remove them onto the baking sheet. I thought I'd chill the dough to make it firmer and easier to work with, but to no avail. I ended up scraping the dough back into the bowl and adding another 3/4 cup of flour. Thankfully this produced a more pliable cookie dough. Perhaps any cookie cookers reading this can suggest what may have gone wrong - was it my technique, or the recipe (as I'm hoping)?

110 g butter
1/3 cup caster sugar
1 cup plain flour
1/4 cup rice flour
2 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp mixed spice
1 egg

A food processor bowl was loaded with the dry ingredients and butter then processed until a fine crumb obtained. Subsequently egg was added and the mixture worked into a soft dough that was rolled out to 0.5 mm thick between two sheets of baking paper. Cookie cutting was attempted but the dough was far too soft. Consequently, it was scraped back into the bowl and 3/4 cup flour added to form a firmer dough. Re-rolling to 0.5 mm followed by cookie cutting gave approximately 9 stars and 3 gingerbread men.

I iced the cookies with lemon icing made from icing sugar and lemon juice. The cookies looked quite cute and rustic. Tasted ok, but they were a little on the floury side.

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The spice cakes, on the other hand, were fantastic. I was a bit concerned at a cake recipe that did not use any egg yolks, butter or oil of any kind. But the substitution of butter with applesauce, a common technique in low fat baking I hear, was quite successful. I put some extra spices in, because I like 'em spicy, and the result were cute little bars of Blueberry Spice Cake.

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The texture of these cakes was different from a conventional full-fat cake but this was ok. It was slightly chewy and did tend to dry out quickly but the blueberries made sure that enough moistness was present. This was my first time using a silicone baking mould and I'm pleased to report that this was quite successful. Though next time I will put the very floppy mould on top of a baking tray before putting the batter in as it was a small acrobatic feat getting the fully laden and wobbling mould onto the chopping board, to slide it onto the baking tray, to put into the oven.

I individually wrapped them in cellophane with festive ribbons. What a task! Thankfully there were only 16 bars. The ribbon tying and curling nearly drove me insane - next time I will use gold twist ties instead.

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The hampers looked quite nice - little gingerbread men, stars, cake bars and chocolates all covered in shiny cellophane. Bf remarked on how beautifully spicy they smelled as I carried them down the apartment stairs.

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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Restaurant Review - Courgette

Location: Marcus Clarke St, Canberra
Date: 5 Dec, 2004

Dearest, darling and best-beloved bf is turning 30 on Monday. Alas, he will be away in Sydney attending a training course so all celebrations of this momentous milestone must be conducted this a-weekend. He organises so much for me, so it was up to me to create something special for Saturday night. Our favourite pizza in Canberra is from Pizza Arte (to be reviewed soon) and I planned to get some pizza, some sparkling apple juice and having a nice little romantic picnic by the lakeside as the sun set.

Apparently the wrong decision; he qualified, “When I said low-key, I didn’t mean low-brow!” Oh. A new restaurant choice was needed. We had succesful dined at the Charcoal Restaurant (a place whose menu hadn’t changed since the mid-80’s and where you can still order Avocado with Vinaigrette as a starter) so elected to try the revolving restaurant up in Telstra Tower. Yes, I know these places are not known to have the best food – something about not having a fixed geospatial position whilst eating is always unnerving – I imagined numerous tossed salads flung up into the air and falling far from the bowl because of the revolution.

Alas, this was booked out for a corporate Christmas function so our dreams of an 80’s dinner celebration were dashed.

The proprietors of the frou-frou restaurant Aubergine had recently opened up a new venture, Courgette. I often joke that one day they will also open up bistro-style or budget versions of these elegant joints called Eggplant and Zucchini; maybe even an Indian incarnation: Brinjal. I was half expecting this place to be booked out or full as well. It was just becoming that kind night and I was getting grumpy from low-blood sugar, but thankfully it wasn’t. We turned up at the restaurant and a cheery maître’d showed us to a table for two in the Boardroom. The restaurant proper was full, so they had converted their function room into additional dining space. Although not as intimate as the dining room, this was a bright, white and open space built for good acoustics, it was pleasant enough.

The menu was absolutely delightful and I was gasping inwardly to myself at their possible treats available. Some of the entrées were lamb’s brains, a rabbit loin with leg confit and duck confit. I chose a roasted deboned quail with mixed mushroom risotto and quail egg. I think eating deboned quail topped with a single fried quail's egg is the height of indulgence and such a luxury. Dearest, darling and best-beloved bf ordered the special entrée – sautéed prawns and pork belly. Have I mentioned to pork belly is my favourite meat? More of that to come in other posts.

I’m not much of a wine fan as I usually can’t drink a lot before I stop tasting the food. Also, I’ve drunk so many foul-tasting wines which were claimed by others, usually the host of the dinner, to be absolutely mah-vell-us that now I’m totally confused as to what a “good wine” is. I’m slowly beginning my wine re-education with bf and I’m pleased that I can actually trust my tastebuds and nose when it comes to wine too. I will mention wine in this post because this was an occasion where the pairing up of food and drink was memorable for me.

We started with a Seppelt sparkling shiraz – a sparkling wine made from red Shiraz grapes. Kinda like fizzy Ribena but alcoholic, not as sweet and a lot more classy (that last word is to be read with a high nasal über-ocker 'Strine accent). Meanwhile, a delightful pre-dinner amuse had arrived: smoked salmon and dill on a blini. Delicious, tantalising and perfect to whet our appetites. Bread rolls were next and these were the cutest little brown balls you had ever seen. Each one was a smooth matte ovoid with three little tufty peaks each like the curl on Popeye’s baby Swee’Pea’s head.

The table next to us had just finished their dessert and feeling a little jolly and talkative from the wine. My surreptitious eavesdropping informed me that it was an Italian-Australian daughter having her parents and her fiancé/boyfriend/live-in lover for dinner. It was also plainly clear that although her parents were of high breeding, this characteristic had definitely not been passed down to the offspring. She had also chosen a similarly disposed boyfriend as he loudly declared and compared the McCafé offerings in Tugerranong with the coffee and petit-fours served here at Courgette. “Yeah, the new McCafé’s rool noice too,” he squawked.

At any rate, we felt vastly superior as we sipped on our sparkling shiraz, nibbled on our bread rolls and ate our entrées. My deboned quail was absolutely delicious – moist, crisp and full of flavour. The mushroom risotto was creamy, earthy and redolent with field mushrooms. Totally scrumptious. This beautiful assemblage was crowned with a single fried quail’s egg. Now that’s what I call luxury. You must think I’m so naïve being impressed by this, but anything to eat requiring fiddly painstaking work and last-minute assembling always gets me going. Bf’s sautéed prawns with pork belly were sublime. The large sea-fresh prawns were juicy, crisp on one side but succulent on the other. The pork belly had melting tenderness and was not the least bit greasy – a perfect marriage of lean meat and fat.

Thankfully, the table alongside us had vacated and we were free to enjoy the rest of our evening sans crap-chat. We had chosen appropriate wines to match our mains: the sommelier recommended a Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc for myself and a Grenache Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot for bf. I can’t recall more details (how useless, I know) but I’ll endeavour to find out if we revisit this place soon.

The choices of mains were a little less stellar compared to the entrées; we were initially tempted to order five entrées instead. However, I settled on a prawn crusted salmon with mushroom velouté and poached oysters whilst bf chose a seared fillet of cod with potato gnocchi, tomato compote and Eden Bay mussels.

At this point a loud female voice could be heard from the table located in the wine cellar, another special-event type room. A rousing discussion on the pronunciation of “gnocchi” soon followed to our amusement. Everyone knows it’s nyeeo-kee.

I was a bit worried about choosing the prawn crusted salmon as visions of a salmon fillet lined with paper-thin slices of prawn and then grilled came to mind. I wasn’t sure what the prawns would actually be adding in that case; I’m not really one for gimmicky food. The poached oysters also sounded a little odd – although I love oysters I only really like them fresh or steamed with ginger and garlic. But the waiter assured me that it was a minced prawn crust and that the thick fillet would be sautéed on only one side. I was not disappointed. I love deep-fried crunchy prawns and this was perfect. After enviously sampling a third of one of bf’s entrée of sautéed prawns I was now pleased to have a bit of prawn all to my own. The poached oysters were also delicious – a nice counterpoint to the prawns and the mushroom velouté. Again, the earthiness of the mushrooms complemented the rich and powerful protein greyness of the oysters.

Bf’s cod was conceptually a total contrast to my dish. Whereas mine was all about careful composition, delicate balancing – akin to a parade of haute couture with impossibly high hats and uncomfortable shoes – his dish had a casual, fun, get-out-of-bed looking gorgeous with bed-hair aesthetic about it. The cod was silkily flaking on the fork and the crisp skin salty and oceany. The nyeeo-kee were four cute little dumplings dotted in the tomato compote. We had also ordered a side of Paris mash with our mains and I thought that this would be mashed potato with truffle oil or something exotic. But it was just a very creamy mashed potato. It arrived extruded into a deep concave shape and at first I thought that it was some sort of crispy snack or wrapper à la San Choi Bau style. Bf laughed at my food gaffe, again poking fun at me whenever an opportunity arose.

Now thoroughly replete, we sat back and enjoyed the rest of our wine while contemplating dessert. It was that type of time where you think, “I’m so full, almost to bursting point. But I still want to eat because I like the taste.” This is how people get fat, or bulimic, I think. The thought did cross my mind that I could just quickly chew and taste the food and then spit it out thus avoiding absorbing any calories. Sometimes I worry myself.

We had made it clear to the waiter that dessert was still to be ordered and as we contemplated what breathing exercises to do in order to alleviate our slight discomfort and make room for dessert, an in-between course refresher of grapefruit sorbet arrived to our delight. It’s the little touches that make the meal so special.

We debated on getting a mango tarte tatin with ginger and lime ice-cream, poached peach on sticky meringue with fresh raspberries and crème chibouse or blood orange parfait. The poached peach and parfait won out in the end, mainly because bf wanted to find out what a “chibouse” was. Perhaps some sort of creamy custard dancing with a wiggling bottom to Ricky Martin?

My blood orange parfait was rich and citrusy. The orange countered the creaminess well and the sweet and fruity sauce was delicious. Bf was having difficulty with his dessert; it was proving too unwieldly to cut his poached peach with a fork and knife. So he attempted to eat his poached peach all in one mouthful. I was glad the McCafé crowd at the former table had left, because here I was feeling all culturally superior over them and there was bf trying to stuff a whole dripping peach into his mouth. The crème chibouse felt like a thick crème anglaise to me, but I’m sure there was more to it. I blame the wine as by now I was feeling pleasantly drowsy and extremely satisfied.

We ordered coffees and I also thought I’d experiment with a Calvados. I’d heard about this apple liquer from various sources before and was keen to see what this was all about. I imagined that it would be similar to an apple-flavoured port. Since this was a special occasion I elected to try the most expensive 32-year old Calvados at $25 for 80 ml. I figured that I should try the best if I wanted to truly know what Calvados was all about.

I hated it. But finished it nonetheless as I’d just paid $25 for 80 ml of alcohol and if I didn’t like the taste, I was at least going to get the intoxicant effect of it. I kept thinking that $25 would have bought me three litres of 80% ethanol from work. I found it an extremely harsh liquer: not smooth at all. If ever I had drunk anything akin to the proverbial “firewater” this was it. There were hints of oakiness and the barest glimmer of an apple fragrance. This was definitely a drink to be taken with copious amounts of soft-membrane and tastebud destroying cigar smoke. I didn’t like at all. Oh well, chalk one up to experience.

Aside from the Calvados incident, which was entirely my fault, this dinner was altogether superb. The food and wine were beautiful, the service excellent whilst being friendly and not too formal.

Entrées: $17.50
Mains: $28.50
Desserts: $14