Enamoured with the kitchen in my new house, I have been making all these really interesting, healthy, beautiful dinners lately. Dishes with slow-revealing, layered flavours and more often than not featuring something really quite beautiful, like a whole cinnamon stick or a poached egg draped lovingly across the top, or Israeli couscous... But despite all this, I've decided to showcase a bit of baking today. It has been too, too long since I've baked. (At least ten days.) We've finally unpacked all our boxes and the bookshelf is upright and laden with goods and so help me I actually found myself looking almost flirtatiously at all my cookbooks leaning across the shelves. Clearly a sign that (a) the 'going mad' process has stepped up a notch, and (b) it was time to connect with some butter.
I bring you two fairly disparite recipes: one for very sober, bran-dense biscuits and the other for flamboyant Italian chocolate puffy meringue things. They both stand together under the broad umbrella of "cookie" and while equally delicious, couldn't be more different in appearance or method.
This recipe is from the wildly successful, and justifiably so, New Zealand cookbook Ladies, A Plate by Alexa Johnston, although my recipe came via the September 2008 issue of Cuisine. Not what they were talking about in the film The September Issue, but beautiful and exciting nonetheless (to me at least.)
These biscuits are calm and unfancy but not in any way boring - they have a gorgeous crisp, snappish texture and are the ideal partner to a cup of tea. They keep well and the syrup used makes them seemingly taste better and better with age. And any recipe that uses this much butter while calling itself "Health biscuits" gets many a bonus point from me.
225g soft butter3/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg2 tablespoons malt or golden syrup (I used maple)
1 cup bran1 cup wholemeal flour (I used plain)
1 cup coconut1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup sultanas (I used currants)1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 small teaspoon baking powderextra white flour
Set oven to 180 C/350 F, line two trays with baking paper.
Cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Add the egg and the syrup. Add all the rest of the ingredients and knead together adding extra white flour till a good stiff-soft biscuity dough is achieved.
Roll out sections of the dough pretty thin and slice into squares or rectangles, transferring to the baking trays with a spatula. They don't spread much so put them close together. The recipe says to prick them with a fork; I totally forgot but I'm sure it helps. Bake for about 20 minutes, no longer, and they should be a lovely deep golden brown and smell heavenly. Cool on a rack and then store in a tin.
The original writer of the recipe suggests that these biscuits be served buttered; I suggest she is a genius.
The next baking adventure was one of a different nature, involving copious amounts of egg whites. And you know, egg whites are so the diva of the cooking world. The Barbra Streisand, the Mariah Carey, the Elizabeth Taylor. Egg whites are difficult to get hold of, and once you've managed to get some face time with them there's still massive room for error. They're all, "I only respond to a copper bowl. If there is any yolk present I'll just refuse to work. Where is my assistant! Also, I want the kitchen repainted to match my eyes, and I will only work by candlelight. By that I mean candles imported from Belgium at great cost to you." And it goes on.
That said, you can get some pretty exciting results from egg whites, once you've coaxed them out of their shell without disturbing the yolk, got them in the correct bowl, used the right utensil, and worked quickly so they don't get huffy and deflate or separate. The following recipe is one such example. I saw it in my gorgeous Scotto family cookbook and was intrigued, and the time seemed right, as after making vanilla ice cream I had egg whites sitting in the fridge waiting to be used.
I kid you not, the quantities I specify below are half what the original recipe asked for.
Brutti Ma Buoni
This is Italian for "ugly but good." I can think of many things that are ugly but good, but these meringue-like, matte-brown, light-as-air puffs are quite lovely in my eyes. So with these standards in mind I'd rather not be coolly appraised by an Italian any time soon. I wonder what their word is for "neither beautiful nor practical?" Or, "could stand to wash the cake batter out of her hair?"
5 egg whites400g icing sugar (or 1/2 pound powdered sugar - this is an American book after all)
1/2 cup good cocoa1/2 cup walnuts or almonds, roughly chopped
Set the oven to 150 C/300 F. Measure out your cocoa and icing sugar. Place the egg whites in a large metal bowl and whisk continuously till foamy. Gradually, slowly, add the icing sugar, whisking till a stiff meringue is formed. I should warn you that my meringue was very thick and shiny by the end but not so stiff that it would stay still; it continued to form ribbons no matter how vigorously I whisked. To elaborate further, it takes quite a bit of shampoo to get meringue out of one's hairline. Fold in the cocoa and nuts, and I added a bit of finely chopped good quality chocolate for good measure.
Line a tray with baking paper and measure out medium sized spoonfuls. Bake for 35 minutes. As I said I wasn't sure if my mix was a total disaster but it worked beautifully so fear not. You can even make it in batches - the mixture that waited round for 35 minutes was in no way inferior. Carefully peel the cooked Brutti ma Buoni off the baking tray and leave to cool before eating.
These are wonderful, definitely worth the jumping through hoops that egg whites make you perform. Light but dense at the same time, crisp on the outside and melting on the inside, and, despite a wince-inducing amount of icing sugar, they're not painfully sweet. Give them a go if you end up with some egg whites - they're a step up on meringues and go well with a dark coffee at the end of the night.
On Saturday night Tim and I went to see Dimmer at bar Bodega. They were beautiful. Even though they started at 11:50pm. At night. According to Wikipedia the erstwhile Straitjacket Fits frontman Shayne Carter is pushing 45, (and looking strangely fabulous still) so there you go. I'm clearly not very rock'n'roll. As I said though it was a wonderful, wonderful gig. Find their albums. But then I look on fishpond.co.nz and all their albums are currently unavailable or discontinued. Good one, fishpond.
Speaking of music, if you suspect that the words "Jack/Meg White have my babies" apply to you, then you may want to check out this preposterously interesting blog, Every Jack White Song. I'm notorious for being late to jump on a bandwagon so I hope, not just for the author's sake but for my own smug-ity, that this becomes huge. It certainly deserves to, anyone who devotes so much time critically analysing Jack White songs should go far, no argument.
Still speaking of music, on Shuffle whilst I type:
Who Says You Can't Dance To Misery? from the album of the same name by NZ rapper Tourettes. I wouldn't even to begin to consider myself a hip hop connoisseur (more of a dabbler) but this guy is massively intriguing and I love what he does.
You Are Not Real from the original cast recording of The Apple Tree. This song has a ridiculously moreish waltzing melody and a delightful, singalong chorus. Did you know that MASH's Alan Alda was in the original cast? However I find the eye-popping revival cast, namely the magnificently eyebrowed Brian D'arcy James, the magnificently moustachioed Marc Kudisch, and the generally magnificent Kristin Chenoweth even more exciting...
Next time: I totally go on business this week, but will endeavour gallantly to get in another blog post before I leave. Because I really have been making some nice, blog-worthy dinners lately...Among other things, I've made lentil salad with poached egg and feta, beetroot risotto with rice and barley, and roasted vegetables with Israeli couscous. That kind of thing.